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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
Final

 
 

In spring 2012, 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'.

Original Song:
"Roxanne"
Composed: Sting
Released: 1978
Peformed by: The Police

"Roxanne, you don't have to wear that dress tonight
Walk the streets for money
You don't care if it's wrong or if it's right"

Answer Song:
"Roxanne's Song"
Composed: Rotheray/Williams
Released: 2013
Performed by: Kathryn Williams & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"Remember when you told me
You wanted to talk, not to touch
Well, all the men who sold or bought me
Never asked me for so much
When I invited you to court me
I didn't mean you to judge"

WRITING THE SONG

I quite liked 'Roxanne' when it first came out. That guitar, those drums, and, of course, that voice- that voice, that now feels as familiar as Andrex, but at the time felt novel, vulnerable, arresting. Yes, I quite liked it. But I never loved it. And the more I heard it, the less I loved it. It took me a while to realise why. Why? It was the words.

Let me say straight off- I don't mind songs with dumb words. 'A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom' is rock 'n roll lyric writing at its dumb, beautiful, peak; never to be improved upon. And I adored - absolutely adored- the inspired dumbness of The Ramones, the best 'dumb in a smart way' band of all time. They were like a smart guy in a dumb suit. Unfortunately , Mr Gordon Sumner, or 'Sting', always strikes me as being rather the other way around.

So I didn't like the words. I didn't like what the guy in the song was saying. But let me immediately give Sting respect, as I would any writer, by not assuming that The Voice in the song is in fact his own voice. (see footnote 1).

There are few little irritating things in this lyric. She puts out the 'red light'. But she also 'walks the streets for money'. Do people really do both? Surely it's one or the other. Also- she 'doesn't care if it's wrong or if it's right'. The immorality lies not just in her actions but within her, herself- for only He- The Voice- has any moral compass in this song. And then - 'you don't have to wear that dress tonight' - why is he trying to tell her what to wear? But most telling of all, for me, is 'loved ya since I knew ya, I wouldn't talk down to ya'. Gee, thanks. Yes- that's the nub- she's meant to be GRATEFUL for not being patronised. Which is, in itself, pretty darn patronising. So that's what I don't like about the attitude of The Voice in this song. It's smug, superior, and patronising (and I know those 3 words mean pretty much the same thing, but I like using adjectives in sets of 3) - yet it is, infuriatingly, dressed up as being loving and respectful. Almost pious, in fact. Like a slightly suspect missionary who specialises in 'fallen women'.

Keeping the missionary idea in mind, I decided that religion would be the dominant metaphor of my song- including the use of the word 'church' to mean 'vagina'- which I'm pretty sure I have come across somewhere before, though I can't seem to track it down.

One thing I have learned from writing these 'answer songs' is that it's much easier to write an answer to a song that you don't like. I tried for quite a while to write an answer to 'Lola' by The Kinks, but found the song so good-natured and self-deprecating that it was impossible to get a handle on it. Thus 'Roxanne' was easy for me- the main thing was to avoid falling into an overly-political feminist rant. I tried to avoid this by imagining Roxanne as an independent businesswoman, a natural Tory perhaps, who dislikes being told what to do or what to wear.

My analysis of 'Roxanne' has been somewhat overlong, in that there were many rather general things I wanted to say, things that in fact apply to all the songs to be discussed here. If the following question occurs to you: "look, yer man Sting wrote that song 35 years ago on the back of a fag packet and it earned him a gazillion woolongs (2), plus it's miles better than anything you've done, and if now you're sat there chuntering on about it, doesn't that make you a sad twat?" then I can only admit that the answer is, emphatically, "yes".

RECORDING THE SONG

kath
Kathryn Williams

I sent Kathryn Williams the words for three or four songs, and ‘Roxanne’s Song’ was the one she immediately picked out. A day or two later she sent me a demo, of just herself and an acoustic guitar. Here’s how it sounded:

I liked the way this came over, I felt it had a slightly sinister, menacing air. I was hoping to preserve this feeling on the final version.When we all met up at the studio, none of the band had heard the song. Here is a film clip of me and Kath running through the song together in the studio kitchen:

This was the only song on the album for which I used a click track. A click track is just a metronomic sound played through the headphones to keep the band locked in time. In this case the click track was a bass drum sample. This is how the song sounded with us all playing along to the click:

After a few listens, I decided I really liked the sound of the click track, and opted to leave it in the final version. We added a few bits and bobs - Lisa Knapp overdubbed some violin, for instance, but mostly the track was left just as it was. Unfortunately the ‘O Superman’- style backing vocals - sung by Kath, Lisa and Jim Causley - got slightly lost in the finished version. This is how it ended up:

FOOTNOTES

1 Let me explain. When someone writes a column in The Daily Telegraph and it says 'Opinion' at the top in big red letters, we can always assume the column reflects his own view of the world. On the other hand, when an actor embarks on a monologue, we would never assume the character's worldview to be that of the playwright. Pop songs, however, dwell in a mysterious hinterland between the never and the always. You can't really assume anything, so you have to guess. When Joe Strummer sings that he wants a riot, you kind of feel that he really does. When Randy Newman tells you he hates short people, you kind of feel he doesn't. When Simon Le Bon sings , "shake up the picture the lizard mixture" you shoot the dog and hang yourself from the nearest tree. So, what I'm saying is, maybe The Voice in Roxanne is just a character's voice- maybe not.

2 A fictional currency of dubious value- see 'Cowboy Bebop' - preferably the TV series rather than the movie