Category Archives: Lyrics

LYRICS // Endgame (2007)

Back in 2004 and with the London march against the invasion of Iraq still fresh in my mind, I made an approach to UK music organisation Peace Not War (PNW), to offer them a track for their then pending ‘Volume Two’ of pro-peace/anti-war music. Upon informing one of the founders of the project that I was living in Japan, he asked me if I could help them to get their CDs some exposure over there.

Although I was based in Tokyo at the time, I’d spent most of my free time travelling around the country and had no contacts in either the Japanese music industry or peace movement. Reluctant to even consider the idea at first, so daunting a task did it seem, I shelved the idea for some time. 

The Control K tune that I offered never did end up on one of their CDs, but I did get rather more deeply involved with them instead. His request ultimately seemed too good an opportunity for combining two of my interests (music and peace) and building a new network in my adopted country to turn down. A few months later, I got started on what was to become Peace Not War Japan (PNWJ), an organisation that has continued following my departure from the country.

By the time that the first PNWJ CD was released, I already had my own band (Shelf Life), who performed covers of rock ‘n’ roll standards in a local bar. When rumour filtered through the PNW network that London was thinking of producing a Volume Three, I went to the band and suggested that we should write a song for it – one that we could really pour our efforts into and make too good for them to turn down. My songwriting partner Cheryo and I set ourselves the task of writing a new ‘peace anthem’.

In many of my previous sets of lyrics, I’d tended to take the Dylanesque route of using obscure imagery to conjure up word pictures. If this new song was going to have a chance of sticking in peoples’ minds, I was going to have to keep things simpler this time around. I kept my eyes open for scraps of lines that could fit in, or be adapted, to a simple and effective anthemic song for peace. We were aiming along the lines of ‘Hey Jude‘ or ‘We Are The World‘ (very popular in Japan) in terms of hooks and build.

The opening line was borrowed from Atticus Finch (or Harper Lee, to be more precise) in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird‘, one of fiction’s great lawyers. The next line, added myself, was on the same theme and encourages looking at a situation from another person’s perspective. One of the benefits to an independent, unaffiliated third party attempting to resolve a conflict between two sides (as, for example, Norway has tried to do with different factions in the Sri Lankan civil war) is that they can bring an approach that takes both points of view into account. War and conflict is almost never one-sided. The song asks listeners to think about things from the other side too.

As I became more involved with the Japanese peace movement, I met many interesting and sometimes extremely brave people that in my line as an English Teacher in suburban Tokyo I would never have had an opportunity to do. One such person, whom this song was mostly inspired by, was a young Iraqi engineer that I went to see speak and later shared a meal with. I’d never met somebody from that devastated and desperate country before and was eager to hear his story, particularly when the Western media so dehumanises the inhabitants of Iraq.

His was a tale that was tough to swallow, yet also deeply inspiring and gave me a little more faith in the human spirit to overcome the worst possible things that can be thrown at it. According to him, life under Saddam wasn’t great but it did have its positive aspects too. Criticism of Hussein was a strict no-go, but if you came from a poor background (as he did), you were entitled to a free University education and Iraq’s universities were considered to be amongst the best in the Middle East. He got himself an engineering degree. Then, the invasion of 2003 came and like all young Iraqi men, he got the call-up to fight (not an option he could refuse).

During the early days of the occupation/insurgency (delete according to perspective), he went through all manner of horrors – the deaths of many of his friends and family, kidnap and capture by jihadists, imprisonment by US forces, and the destruction of most of his town. It would seem natural for someone who went through such things to be filled with hatred for the causes of such things and initially he was. However, something happened that put him on a different path.

When some Japanese journalists were captured in Iraq by ‘al-Qaeda’, he was held captive with them. The female journalist he was with encouraged him to look the situation from other perspectives and to think more about peace than revenge, an approach he took on board. Such can be the power of words and talking things through. This story inspired the second verse of the song.

In the chorus, the line ‘I am what I am…’ was borrowed from the Ubuntu free operating system, whose name comes from the Zulu aphorism which articulates a basic respect and compassion for others. The operating system aims to ‘underpin the concept of an open society’, which seemed like a suitable sentiment for the song and also sat quite comfortably with Gandhi‘s famous line about ‘an eye for an eye’ in this song.

The other chorus lines of ‘we are the ones…’ was picked up from New Internationalist magazine, in a special issue on positive stories from the Majority World. It’s a line I’ve seen used much more widely in recent times too. The verse about the ‘silence of our friends’ was adapted from a quote by that other famous peacemaker, Martin Luther King.


To seek ‘peace of mind’ is, I believe, inherent in most people. However, it is our fears and suspicions that lead us to build walls around us rather than bridges between us. These only serve to enforce differences between people rather than encouraging a search for similarities.

‘Peace Not War: Volume Three’ didn’t happen in the end, and PNW themselves seem to be largely inactive these days. Never mind, the potential of being on that album prompted me to write the song that I am probably most proud of. 

In the spirit of the song, when the band perform it live we usually invite members of the audience or other bands that we play with to come on stage and join in with the chorus. We also made a promo video to go with it too, my first one, where an audience does the same thing. The video was certainly a lot of fun to make, although it did give me a bit of an idea of the amount of time that people who do this kind of thing for a living have to spend waiting around! The video can be seen at the top of this posting.


The song, titled ‘Endgame’ in reference to the games that world powers play with peoples lives in their war-making, ended up as the final track on our first CD release ‘Best Before End’. It is available for download through Shelf Life - Best Before End - Endgame, as a single track or as part of the album. 

Peace out.

 

Endgame

You’ll never know a man,
Until you step into his shoes.
Won’t see what’s goin’ on,
Unless you look through another’s eyes.

A friend of mine,
Told me of soldiers on his streets.
Home and family gone,
Yet he learned not to hate.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
An eye for an eye,
Will make the whole world blind – so blind.

We all seek,
Yet rarely find our peace of mind.
We’re still building walls,
We should be building bridges instead.

In the end,
It’s not the words of our enemies,
We remember,
But the silence of our friends.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
We are the ones,
That we’ve been waiting for – so long.

I am what I am,
Because of who we all are.
We are the ones,
That we’ve been waiting for – so long.

(You’ll never know)
(Without standing in his shoes)
(You’ll never see)
(Better look through another’s eyes)

(Yes, he told me)
(‘Bout the soldiers on his streets)
(His family was gone)
(He turned his hate around)

(All looking for)
(That little peace of mind)
(Newer, higher walls)
(But a bridge brings us together)

(It’s not the words)
(Of our enemies that last)
(But the silence)
(Of our friends, so shout it loud)

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LYRICS // Second Hand Sunshine (2007)

‘Second Hand Sunshine’, a title that popped up one day in search of a song, was written as a global warming song. It’s not a subject that seems to have been tackled a great deal yet by songwriters, so it seemed like a good opportunity to get one in early.

Many of the lyrics had been hanging around in various forms for years, as scraps that hadn’t yet found the right song to end up in. I was glad to finally give them a home. The first verse starts with, of all things, a reference to the infamous Conservative politician Enoch Powell, who was sacked from the government front bench in 1968 for his notoriously inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood‘ speech that raged against rising levels of immigration to the UK.

Naturally, I am fundamentally opposed to such views and see the world in an entirely different light. However, he did utter one truism (at another time) that stuck with me:


All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.
Understanding this helps to not place ultimate faith in political leaders as the ones that will provide the solutions to our world’s problems. While they may play a part, they will ultimately fail in what they are trying to do – even when with the best of intentions – because that is ‘the nature of politics’.

The opening of the song therefore is a plea for collective action against the status quo of the continuing pollution of our earth, rather than waiting for the people in power to make the changes needed.

The ‘same old juice’ of the second verse refers to the developed (and now developing) world’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels, with ‘lizards’ being the dinosaurs that turned into automobile juice from millennia underground.

While the use of these fuels may well have led to the rapid development of many nations and so have been a measure of human and economic progress in many ways, our ongoing dependence on them is leading to vicious resource wars, destruction of eco-systems and economic fragility. Ropes can also be used to good and bad ends, for rescuing somebody or hanging them, and is given here as a metaphor for fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, we are living through very interesting times as well as dangerous ones. Largely powered by the internet as an element of the digital revolution, the early 21st Century is a period of unprecedented technological progress.

It is possible that some of the solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems can be found through technological innovations which enable us to better harness more natural sources of energy – such as solar power. Those who remain stuck in the older ways of thinking will be left behind, clinging on to outmoded means and watching slack-jawed as they are rapidly surpassed. This is the general thrust of the third verse.

The fourth verse alludes to the amount of information that is already available on the internet, which can point to different means of reducing ones personal carbon footprint or developing a more sustainable lifestyle. It’s out there at our fingertips, but so many choose to ignore it.

The song itself appeared on the first Shelf Life album, ‘Best Before End’, and can be previewed or purchased as part of the whole album on Shelf Life - Best Before End - Second Hand Sunshine (Live).

Second Hand Sunshine

All our leaders in the end are claimed
By Old Man Blood River
Won’t somebody turn the heat down?
It’s an arrow too much for our quiver

We’re still fixing up on the same old juice
The lizards died to give
A rope is a lifeline or it’s a noose
The reptile way’s too aggressive

Brave new ideas drop from your skies,
Like burned-out satellites.
You’ll fall to your knees watching people pass by,
And they follow their days with their nights.

Slip the URL into your browser.
You’ll find an answer on the other side.
If the decision makes you drowsier,
There’s no excuse to run away and hide.

Gimme some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Power me up
And I’m on my way

Give us some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Plug us in
And we’ll be on our way

All our leaders in the end are claimed
By Old Man Blood River
Won’t somebody turn the heat down?
It’s an arrow too much for our quiver

We’re still fixing up on the same old juice
The lizards died to give
A rope is a lifeline or it’s a noose
The reptile way’s too aggressive

Brave new ideas drop from your skies,
Like burned-out satellites.
You’ll fall to your knees watching people pass by,
And they follow their days with their nights.

Slip the URL into your browser.
You’ll find an answer on the other side.
If the decision makes you drowsier,
There’s no excuse to run away and hide.

Gimme some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Power me up
And I’m on my way

Give us some of that
Second Hand Sunshine
Plug us in
And we’ll be on our way

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LYRICS // Ghosts (2007)

I was born in Brighton, a seaside town on the South coast of England. Despite this beginning and several later visits to then-still-resident grandparents, I grew up getting to know an entirely different place – Cardiff, the city I got my schooling in.


As soon as the opportunity presented itself, in the form of a college place, I found my way back to Brighton – delighted to get out of Wales and having a fixed idea in my head of Brighton as some kind of escapist oasis amidst all the mundanity of the rest of Britain.


It was there that I wiled away my twenties. I somehow made it through my University years and racked up over a decade back in the place of my birth, wading through loves and losses, rock ‘n’ roll bands that came and went, and all manner of limits explored. It’s the kind of place that people escape to from wherever is getting them down in their part of the country and then reinvent themselves as something new. It can also become a certain kind of trap – a great place to explore an idea but rarely to make a success of it.


After about 15 years of trying, my musical ambitions reached their zenith when The Zamora had their moment in the national spotlight. To my surprise, just as the band’s star was in ascent, I was rather unceremoniously booted out of the line-up.


I had to come to terms with the fact that the future I’d spent years carving out for myself had been taken out of my hands. Given that I wasn’t really going anywhere career-wise either and with an ultimately disastrous relationship topping off my seaside downfall, my time in my ‘home town’ drew to a natural end.

Although it took a while to come to the decision, I ultimately decided that I wasn’t going to wallow in misery but would do something about it instead – as big and radical a challenge as I could give myself – and throw myself into somewhere as crazy and far away as Tokyo to see what happened.

By the time I left Brighton, I was seeing ghosts of my former past all over the city. Ex-flames with new beaus, those I’d once rocked with, workplaces I’d had to put up with in the absence of something better, on every street corner. This song began as an expression of that feeling and was originally written in the present tense – the place that was haunting me. The melody came naturally with the words – a kind of melancholy waltz-y feel – and has changed little since being written.

Songwriting is often an exorcism in itself. Once I wrote the song, I felt a little better about things, that was that. I didn’t really expect to see it ending up recorded and released on an album, least of all produced in Japan. However, when it came to writing the material for ‘Best Before End‘, this was a natural to pull out of the bag.

Of course, by the time it was exhumed, the feelings had changed and the ghosts I’d spoken of belonged to another very distant world. I’d also become more reflective about Brighton and what I’d actually gained from my time there, so the song was adapted slightly with a change of tense suggesting that my haunting was over and I’d learned from the experience.

Telling the above tale explains most of the song, but there is just a little more imagery in it that might require some background.

Woody Allen, when asked why all his films were set in Manhattan, once commented something along the lines that as the whole world was there, it provided all the inspiration he needed to make movies. Unwilling to leave the town for many years for related reasons – my whole world was there – I felt the same about Brighton at one time. In time however, my perspective on it changed and I realised that there was a whole world outside of my seaside shelter. Woody Allen now also makes films in locations other than Manhattan – a natural progression, I feel.

All India Radio‘ came to me from Salman Rushdie‘s Booker-winning novel ‘Midnight’s Children‘, one of my favourite works of fiction. Along with many of the other characters in the book, Saleem Sinai (the protagonist) is born with a certain set of special powers. All children that are born on or after the stroke of midnight on the moment that India is declared independent from British rule are endowed with certain powers and the closer they were born to the striking of the clock, the stronger their powers. Saleem is born as the clock hits 12:00, so his unique abilities are that much more pronounced.

Each gift that the children have been endowed with is unique to them, with the protagonist’s being a telepathic ability. As this develops and as he ages throughout the novel, this ability becomes very useful to the rest of the children, who convene in great conferences in Saleem’s head. Rushdie had his character comparing the feeling of all these competing voices in one space to All India Radio, the nation’s radio broadcaster and home to the hundreds of languages contained within the country.

Prior to the point of my departure from Brighton, I found myself juggling a profusion of multiple identities drawn from the various activities I’d engaged in during my time there – rock singer, teacher, student, manager, unemployed, hedonist, shop assistant, lover, loser, volunteer, bus driver, the list goes on. All these different voices, different versions of myself vying for attention, began to drown each other out, leading to a feeling of like listening to All India Radio.

The song was recorded and released by Shelf Life, staying as a slow-paced and reflective tune. At the time of writing, it doesn’t appear on the band’s MySpace page but is available for purchase from Shelf Life - Best Before End - Ghosts.

Ghosts



That city’s streets,
And all its heartbeats,
Got me wherever I turned.

The riffs and the pages,
The loves through the ages,
Hit me like children and burned.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,
And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

There was a time,
When that place was mine,
Like Woody Allen’s Manhattan.

Now it’s just a shell,
A lingering smell,
I’d done all I could have done.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,
And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

Voices went round in my head.
Games once played out, now dead.
It felt like All India Radio.

Bodies piled up on the floor.
Couldn’t take it no more,
It felt like All India Radio.

But when I stopped to think for a minute,
Of how much I had grown,

And used the eyes in the back of my head,
To look at what that city’d shown – me.

I laid dem all to rest.
Yeah, I laid dem all to rest.

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LYRICS // Games (2007)

Reading Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation‘ a number of years ago, I was quite struck to find out that many of the smells of American fast food are actually manufactured in large plants off the New Jersey Turnpike and then added to the food during processing. As I was going through a difficult relationship at the time, I occurred to me that that which might smell sweet wasn’t actually all it appeared to be. The first line of this song came from that and hung around in a notepad, awaiting a song to fill it out.

Shortly before I left Britain for Japan, I once again became distracted by a dalliance with someone that I misconstrued to have greater meaning. I was dropped cryptic notes with quotes from Montesquieu and Anais Nin, that set my heart a-racing for a moment. Luckily, I managed to see it for the game that it was after a while and set on my merry way, bound for Tokyo, but not before I put my feelings to verse. The Turnpike Rose seemed to fit for this situation too.

When it came to writing a set of new songs for the Shelf Life album, as usual I trawled back through my archive of lyrical scraps to see if there was anything salvageable there. There seemed to be some useable lines and couplets here, so I took them as the bones and fleshed it out with a little more new stuff. The lines about the chameleon referred to my state at the time in Tokyo of having a variety of different personas that I used for different situations (teacher, rock singer, charity founder, Brit, etc) and that when one displays a variety of different guises, others often don’t know (or can’t tell) who the real person lurking underneath is.

The song was written to be a relatively simple one with an easy-to-follow chorus, and performed as a rather punky thrash. When it was recorded, a strong synthesiser element was added in the production, taking it away a little from its Pistols-inspired roots and making it quite poppy.

Lyrically, the song is about the games that boys and girls play in the early or pre-dating phase that can often end up to be just that – a game. The song can be heard on the band’s MySpace page and purchased from Shelf Life - Best Before End - Games.


Games

That scent, like a rose,
From the New Jersey Turnpike.
No-one else knows,
The smile on her face that she looked like.

Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.
Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.

My guises like clothes,
Changed for the moment or season.
No-one else knows,
What truths are in the chameleon.

Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.
Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.

Montesquieu and Anais Nin,
Knocked my door and came right in.
They asked first if I was able,
And left messages on my table.

We dallied a while and spent some time,
It helped us get through the summer.
No distant rainbows broke,
She moved on to play with another.

Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.
Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.

Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.
Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.

That scent, like a rose,
From the New Jersey Turnpike.
No-one else knows,
The smile on her face that she looked like.

My guises like clothes,
Changed for the moment or season.
No-one else knows,
What truths are in the chameleon.

Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.
Maybe, I didn’t want to name names,
Maybe, we stopped playing games.

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LYRICS // Vonnegut’s Blues (2006)

An early attempt at a political song with Shelf Life and our first original song written together.

‘Vonnegut’s Blues’ was written as a (loosely disguised) diatribe about the Bush administration, inspired by a piece written by the late American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was still alive when the song was written. The original article that prompted the song was discovered on Common Dreams, where the writer bemoaned the state of his country under Bush Junior. What got him through such times was music – always having good tunes to take away the pain – and that was the one thing that couldn’t be taken away from him. A sentiment I couldn’t help but agree with.


…’No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.’…

The opening lines check Rumsfeld, ‘him at the top’ would be Junior himself and ‘Number Two’ bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain Mr Cheney. The chorus takes on the idea of peak oil and implores the audience to speak out about the parlous state of the future. The song was an attempt to write something quite simple and direct, lyrically speaking, instead of cloaking the message in elusive imagery.

I seemed to have had the opening lines knocking around my head for years and finally found a song that they’d fit. Long after it had been written and performed a number of times, I found myself one day singing along to an old Dylan tune. To my embarrassment, I found that I’d almost exactly lifted them straight from ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall‘ (‘…the executioner’s face is always well hidden…’)!

Should Dylan and Vonnegut therefore be listed as co-writers (pretty cool names to share your writing credits with at least)? Let’s just say that they provided some useful ‘inspiration’ for the song!


The song itself can be heard on our MySpace page, and purchased from Shelf Life - Best Before End - Vonnegut's Blues. Vonnegut’s book ‘A Man Without A Country‘ is also a fine read.


Vonnegut’s Blues

The executioner’s kept hidden
He cuts from the bottom and the middle

No matter how bad it gets
We’ll have music

No matter where they take us
We’ll still have our songs

We’re on a flatout week
Until the oil supply peaks
The future’s looking bleak
So it’s your turn to speak

Him at the top is an accident
Dad and friends put him there for revenge

No matter how bad it gets
We’ll have music

No matter where they take us
We’ll still have our songs

We’re on a flatout week
Until the oil supply peaks
The future’s looking bleak
So it’s your turn to speak

Number Two is watching me and you
There’s not a great deal he’ll let us do

No matter how bad it get
We’ll have music

No matter where they take us
We’ll still have our songs

We’re on a flatout week
Until the oil supply peaks
The future’s looking bleak
So it’s your turn to speak

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Filed under 2006, Lyrics, Shelf Life