Category Archives: Shelf Life

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

LYRICS // The Tokyoite (2007)

Living in Tokyo for almost five years was a major and transformative period in my life. The city inspired me in so many ways and, perhaps bizarrely for a place that is considered so impenetrable for most non-Japanese people, opened many doors for me that I’d never dreamt I would one day walk through. Naturally, it ended up as the subject for a song.

The Western pop canon is littered with songs about London (‘London Calling‘), Paris (‘I Love Paris‘), New York (‘New York, New York‘) or LA (‘Under The Bridge‘). However, there are very few well known songs about Tokyo.

A cursory search of the internet turns up a few such odes and being someone who lived as an insider (yet always still being ‘a foreigner’), it is fascinating to see the perspective that Western artists have had of Tokyo. It seems to broadly fit into two camps – those who view it from afar as part of the ‘mysterious East’ and those artists who have passed through on some world tour or other and been bowled over by the entire ‘fish out of water’ sensations that they experienced. Many male writers seem to have focused on some groupie fling that they obviously had, where the woman in question seemed other-worldly and unattainable, other than for a fleeting moment, and she symbolises the city for them.

Heavy metal was happy to take up the ‘mysterious’ angle. W.A.S.P. in ‘Tokyo’s On Fire‘ spoke of ‘Big mondo fun, the land of the rising sun, A monster rising in my eyes’ going for obvious imagery and Godzilla shtick, while Saxon ‘had a dream about the mighty Shogun…Faded visions of the Samurai’ in ‘Walking Through Tokyo‘. At the end of the song ‘the Geisha gives on dying pleasure’ too, so they get the girl as well as the mystic past. In ‘Woman From Tokyo‘, Deep Purple got hooked on that which got Saxon. The singer ‘Talk(s) about her like a Queen, Dancing in an Eastern Dream’.

Bryan Ferry’s ‘Tokyo Joe‘ was bitten by the same bug – ‘My girl friday she no square, she like Lotus blossom in her hair…Geisha girl show you she adore you, Two oriental eyes implore you’. Judging by the rest of the song, if he made it out there at all, it doesn’t look like he got much further than Roppongi. The Bee Gees might not have even made it out of the hotel in their ‘Tokyo Nights‘ – ‘Well she took me away by saving life, I was down in the rising sun…Well I came for the moment and stayed till the end.’

Female artists have been just as overawed, even by Tokyo women, but of course in different ways to the boy rockers. In ‘Tokyo Girl‘, Ace Of Base (a band I could never have imagined ever finding a reason to write about when I began this blog, although the same comment could equally apply for Saxon) thought their subject ‘had got the moves to rule the world, that cute inscrutability’ which went on to rhyme ‘Tokyo Girl, you’re a mystery’. Gwen Stefani was ‘fascinated by the Japanese fashion scene’ and ‘just an American girl in the Tokyo streets’ in ‘Harajuku Girls‘. Although it’s not clear that she had a fling herself, Donna Summer in ‘Tokyo‘ ‘met this stranger there, so…was feeling somewhat scared…but all the ladies there were nice, the gentlemen politely out of line’.

Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn managed to resist the temptations that seemed to sway the other male writers that passed though, but was still pretty freaked out by the place, particularly after witnessing a car being pulled from a river. Stefani might have captured the flavour of Harajuku pretty well, but Cockburn got the urban sprawl feeling, mentioning ‘Pachinko jingle and space torpedo beams, Comic book violence and escaping steam’. He put ‘Tokyo‘ out in 1979, so he would have had a taste of things before the extravagances of the Bubble era. Elvis Costello barely mentions anything to do with Japan in ‘Tokyo Storm Warning‘. He could have been in a Tokyo hotel in the first verse, but then wanders off to talk about dead Italian tourists and the ‘Costa Del Malvinas’.

I might not have had a musical career comparable to any of the above artists, but I probably got to know Japan’s capital rather better.

To me, the city that ended up feeling more like home than any other place I’ve lived (Brighton aside) was a very finely tuned machine that functioned so well and smoothly largely because its residents consented so willingly to the part they played in the whole picture – a form of ‘consensual citizenship’ missing from most Western cities. I’ve tried to convey a sense of that in this song.

The first verse ticks off some of the sights of the cityscape. The second one refers to the devotion that many workers (mostly male) have to their companies, particularly the globe straddling electronics giants like Sony and Toshiba. After the destruction of the city during the Second World War, it was the army-like discipline of these workers that provided the workforce that enabled Japan’s ‘economic miracle’ during the 80’s and 90’s. ‘Salaryman‘ is equivalent to ‘breadwinner’ in English, but is obviously more gender specific.

Even in the less prestigious jobs, many people at least give the impression of being dedicated to their work. When McDonalds opened their first branches in Japan, new staff apparently proudly talked about how they were ‘working for an American company’, and thus perhaps looked a little more internationalised than the generation of their more inward looking parents. Hostess bars appear to the outsider to be little more than gaudy, neon clad brothels, when most of them are actually rather different. Although sexual activity may be part of them, they are more like a modern equivalent of the old geisha tea houses, where beautiful young women are essentially on hand to flatter visiting male luminaries and the like. Many of Japan’s businessmen are more conversationally open with the ‘hostesses’ they visit than their own wives, as many of them feel unable to talk about the strains of work at home.

The fourth verse refers to the blend of deeply traditional and hyper modern that one finds in Tokyo. Japanese houses are still measured in terms of the number of tatami mats that can be fitted on the floor. On the street, one can find an ancient looking wooden shrine with a deep attention to aesthetics right next to some vast concrete tower block with all the wires on the outside.

The bridge (‘From the top of the mountain, to the waters of the ocean’) is a reference to the scale of the city, which feels like it stretches from Mount Fuji far off in the distance right down to Tokyo Bay. There is actually a significant amount of countryside between Fuji and the outer limits of the city’s edges, but it remains a totemic presence over the skyline on a clear day, visible from many of Tokyo’s higher vantage points. Fuji makes for a calming and commanding sight beyond the visual clutter of the cityscape.

‘Commuters pouring in through arteries’ is about the complex network of train lines, jam packed to fill even the smallest bit of breathing space in the early morning, that all feed into the centre of the city. To me, those office workers were the blood that kept the heart beating and the train lines the veins that delivered them. ‘Robots bow’, even in cartoon form on train station ticket machines, as automated apologies to an imaginary inconvenience. The volume of advertising is so much higher than anywhere else I’ve been, and all they seem to depict beautiful people and perfect lives – a kind of futuristic Asian version of 50’s picket fence America – thus ‘pretty faces tease’.

‘Lose myself in my headphone world’ – across the city, it seems like most people have a set of headphones in their ears. On those cramped trains, personal space is at a premium, so immersing oneself in an iPod or similar gadget is a way of creating distance between yourself and the person breathing down your neck.

‘Hold my breath for the quake thunder’ – having once been devastated by earthquake and living in region with the highest amount of seismic activity on the planet, it is very common to hear talk of ‘the next Big One’ – the next quake that will destroy the city yet again. Living with earthquakes does take quite some getting used to, but seeing that the Japanese don’t tend to panic during one, you learn to live with it after a while.

I’ve not written a great deal of ballads in my time, but it seemed to me that Tokyo was deserving of one. The song appeared on the Shelf Life album ‘Best Before End’ and can be heard on our MySpace page and purchased from Shelf Life - Best Before End - The Tokyoite.

The Tokyoite

On bullet trains and in pod hotels
The neon lights and elevator bells
Skyscraper high and in parallel
This machine and it’s heart beat on

Salaryman as foot soldier
Corporate beasts with a great hunger
It made me feel a little older
This machine and it’s heart beat on

I call it home – and it’s so alive
I’ll store it away – in my archive of times

In hostess bars and hamburger chains
A rat race graft where no-one abstains
Business symphonies to loss and gain
This machine and it’s heart beat on

In public baths and on tatami floors
Wooden shrines and concrete eyesores
I made my chances, how about yours?
This machine and it’s heart beat on

I call it home – and it’s so alive
I’ll store it away – in my archive of times

From the top of the mountain
To the waters of the ocean
A monument in superlative
The pinnacle of these islands

Commuters pouring in through arteries
Robots bow and pretty faces tease
‘Thanks for your custom, come again please’
This machine and it’s heart beat on

Lose myself in my headphone world
A soundtrack for this city absurd
And hold my breath for the quake thunder
This machine and it’s heart beat on

I call it home – and it’s so alive
I’ll store it away – in my archive of times

From the top of the mountain
To the waters of the ocean
A monument in superlative
The pinnacle of these islands

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Filed under 2007, Lyrics, Shelf Life

LYRICS // She’s Coming Home (2007)

The best way to get from the heart of Tokyo to the main international airport is by the Narita Express, the smooth-as-glass train that glides through the concrete cityscape to break into the open countryside and paddy fields of Chiba prefecture, where Narita Airport is set. I made several journeys to and from Narita on this train, and although it is a slightly more expensive ride than the other options for getting there, it is by far the most comfortable and allows time and space for a nice doze before arrival.

One such journey on the Narita Express was to meet my sweetheart when she returned from a business trip to Hong Kong. I arrived in ample time, bouquet in hand, only to get a message on my phone that her flight was going to be delayed by several hours. There was nothing for it but to camp out in the cavernous expanse of the airport and wait it out. I helped myself to a good Thai meal and killed an hour feeding coins into a massage chair I came across. After a while of wandering and vainly glancing up at the arrivals board for a glimmer of news, lines of verse started coming to me.

When Shelf Life started writing the material for our debut album (‘Best Before End’), I turned to my notebooks for salvageable scraps that could make their way into songs. What had originally been written as a waiting poem turned out to be the basis for this song.

After many years of trying to be clever and wordy in my songwriting, I made a conscious decision to try and go for something simple and direct. Given the story above, they are fairly self explanatory. There is a little nod to The Beatles (unsurprisingly) in it, inverting the Sgt. Pepper ballad of a daughter running away from ‘She’s Leaving Home’ to…

The song itself was often used to open our shows with and is a positive-looking, rolling Stonesy blast. It can be heard on our MySpace page and purchased from Shelf Life - Best Before End - She's Coming Home.

She’s Coming Home

I speed through rice fields
And bamboo clusters
This is how it feels
Waiting for her return

The train moves smoothly
Like water down glass
I drift and slumber
And dream of lucky stars

Departure lounge blues
Held up on the arrival board
If you could be in my shoes
Sweet landing such reward

It’s a new feeling
I never had before
From floor to ceiling
What I was waiting for

Yes, she’s coming home
I’ve been living alone
For so many years
At last I’m in the zone

Departure lounge blues
Held up on the arrival board
If you could be in my shoes
Sweet landing such reward

Hong Kong’s only
A few hours away
She’s coming home
It’s gonna be a better day

Hong Kong’s only
A few hours away
She’s coming home
It’s gonna be a better day

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Filed under 2007, Lyrics, Shelf Life