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  The Making of 'Answer Ballads'

Introduction

1. Mrs Jones' Song
2. Maggie's Song
3. Daniel's Song
4. Roxanne's Song
5. Pearl's Song
6. Billy-Joe's Song
7. Marie's Song
8. Bobby's Song
9. Lucille's Song
10. Mrs Avery's Song/Sylvia's Song
11. Dino's Song
12. Jolene's Song
13. Final
 
 

In spring 2012 (see footnote 1), I embarked on making an album of 'answer songs': in which hitherto silent characters from other people's songs are given voice. This blog is an account of the songs that I picked, and of how I went about writing and recording my 'answers'.

Welcome to this blog on the subject of my album “Answer Ballads”. I intend to discuss here the writing, recording and production process, which I am hoping may be interesting to those of you who have never been involved in the making of an album - maybe even to some who have. I will try and include some resources to make this story more interesting - in particular some demos and rough mixes which I hope will cast light on the evolutionary process that record-making is in the modern era. I also will include a few clips of video and some photos. But let’s start with the idea behind the whole thing.


There are several interpretations of what the term 'answer song' can mean. When I mention it to people, the first example that springs to mind is usually 'Sweet Home Alabama'. This is a song recorded by Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1974, in response to Neil Young's 'Southern Man'. They were angry at what they perceived as Young's hostile stereotyping of southern values, and mounted a plucky defence of their home state (and incidentally, scored a massive hit). In more recent years (2), hip-hop provided an abundance of 'retaliation' tunes, with insults (and bullets) being traded coast to coast.

But neither of these is the type of answer song I'm interested in here. Lynyrd Skynyrd were responding to Neil Young- to the writer of the song, as a real person. What takes my fancy (personally) is the idea of a fictional character, created within a song, then being recreated in a second song and answering back. Hence, the notional dialogue is between the characters, not between the writers. There are very few actual instances of such songs.



For example- 'Judy's Turn To Cry' (1963) is close: it is written as a continuation of 'It's My Party (And I'll Cry If I Want To)' (3) but rather than a response, it is a sequel, narrated by the same character. A better example (4) might be Julie & Gordon's follow up to the 'Jilted John' hit single, entitled 'Gordon's Not A Moron' .

Anyway, examples of 'answer songs' (by my definition) certainly exist. But, as far as Señor Google could inform me, no one had actually made a whole album of such 'answers'. (5). So that's what I decided to do. I started, as I start everything, by making a list of rules.

1. The song to be answered must be written in the second person, allowing my protagonist to answer in the same mode. Thus I tried to avoid Paul McCartney-style 'story' songs, ('Rocky Racoon' etc) whereby I would simply be continuing an existing plot. Careful readers/listeners will notice that I break or bend this rule on several occasions.

2. The song to be answered must involve a named protagonist, whether that name appears in the title (eg 'Roxanne' or 'Mrs Jones') or only within the song itself (eg Dino, in 'The Boys Are Back In Town' or Billy-Joe in 'Don't Take Your Guns To Town').

3. I made a decision NOT to research any of the songs in order to find out if they were 'really' about an actual person or situation. Thus my 'answers' are based purely on my memory of these songs and on my reaction to them.

4. Similarly, I avoided tunes in which I already knew who the protagonist 'really' was (eg Eleanor Roosevelt in 'Mrs Robinson' , or John Lennon's mother in 'Julia'). I wanted to react only to the lyric, not to extraneous knowledge about the song's subject.

5. Rather than 'what happened next' scenarios, these 'answer songs' would be psychological portraits. This is simply a matter of personal taste.

So there are the rules. Now how about picking some songs ? After much debate, and starting from a list of 30 possibilities, I ended up with a short list of 15, knowing that 2 or 3 would probably not work out (6). This was my list:

Roxanne- from ‘Roxanne’ by The Police
Jolene - from ‘Jolene’ by Dolly Parton
Bobby- from ‘Me & Bobby McGee’ by Kris Kristofferson
Maggie- from ‘Maggie May’ by Rod Stewart
Daniel- from ‘Daniel’ by Elton John
Lucille - from ‘Lucille’ by Kenny Rogers
Pearl - from ‘Pearl’s A Singer)’ by Elkie Brookes
Mrs Jones- from ‘Me & Mrs Jones’ by Billy Paul
Sylvia- from ‘Sylvia’s Mother’ by Dr Hook
Mrs Avery - from ‘Sylvia's Mother’ by Dr Hook
Marie - from ‘Memphis, Tennessee)’ by Chuck Berry
Dino - from ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ by Thin Lizzy
Billy Joe - from ‘Don't Take Your Guns To Town’ by Johnny Cash
Lili Marleen - from ‘Lili Marleen’ by Marlene Dietrich
Marie-Claire - from Where Do You Go To, My Lovely?’ by Peter Sarstedt

This list was the blueprint for the album. Another early decision was that I should have a different performer for each character - almost so I was ‘casting’ the album like a show. With a bit of luck, the people I enlisted for singing duties could also act as my co-writers. One thing I realised quite quickly was that there would inevitably be a gender imbalance on the record; most songs with a person’s name in the title are songs written by men, about women. Hence most of my songs would be sung by women, replying to men. In fact it was a struggle to find many songs with men’s names in them at all. Using ‘Dino’ (the owner of the Bar & Grill in ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’) - who is only mentioned once, and then tangentially, in the song - was a slightly desperate stroke. But there again, an idea that gives free rein to the imagination.

It took me several months to finish writing the lyrics - mostly spent quite pleasurably in the pub, listening to songs on the jukebox and quietly tapping ideas into my phone. Then next came the hardest part, as with any idea - showing it to someone else.

FOOTNOTES

1 Inspired by watching a DVD of 'Rosencrantz & Guidenstern Are Dead' by Tom Stoppard

2 ie the 1990's

3 Actually sung by the same singer (Lesley Gore) , though using different writers

4 I mean better as an example, certainly not as a song

5 Somewhat surprisingly- you'd think the the country music genre, in particular, would be fertile ground for such an idea

6 In fact I ended up with 13 songs, the last two on this list didn’t make it