A friend of mine describes the frustrations of not retaining a degree of control over his creative output:
Watching a documentary about the making of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, I was amused by Al Jardine’s tale of suggesting they record the song ‘Sloop John B’. Brian Wilson wasn’t too keen, but Jardine showed him some chord changes and tried to persuade him it would be great. He then went back to work, and the next he heard was the finished track.
“I was really pissed not to be invited to the recording session, but I guess in the end I was pleased that the idea flew,“ said Jardine, ruefully.
I wish I shared his insouciance. Whenever an idea of mine is approved and selected for production, only to be hi-jacked by others who change it and deliver the finished thing without involving me at all, I die a little. I know these are professional people who are good at their job, and are only interested in getting good work out into the light of day. And I know that I am not as good as I think I am at art direction, let alone knowing anything about today’s technical skills, but so what?
Our current CD is extremely good at people – one of the best I’ve known. He constantly praises and flatters us all, never taking credit for others’ work and delighting in the growth and achievements of the team. But he gets excited about good new work, and zooms off with it, overseeing every detail, all the way. Which includes tweaking the script, changing the jokes, adding new bits, etc.
And the finished result? I haven’t seen the latest one yet – I’m going to withhold this until I do – but I expect it will be excellent, loved by the client, and feathers in caps all round. So what am I fretting about? I guess it’s frustration about losing control and especially about not being kept in the loop as things progress.
I think what’s missing is a stage, or stages, in the production process where I – and others in a similar position – can be kept in the picture. That’s all – no-one has to take any notice of my suggestions or anything, just let me feel part of it. And defend my original idea where necessary.
Of course, if it all turns out like Pet Sounds then I won’t complain too much.
Do you recognise this scenario? I certainly do. The only thing I’d take issue with is my friend’s assertion that the people who change creative work are ‘are only interested in getting good work out into the light of day’. Maybe that’s what’s happening. Or maybe there are other forces at work. As HG Wells said, ‘No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.’ This is especially true in advertising agencies when people spot a good idea. They want to alter it – ever so slightly – so that they can then claim a tiny bit of ownership for themselves. When you have everyone in an agency – not to mention everyone in the client’s office – itching to add their fingerprint to a piece of creative work, the result is very often the proverbial dog’s dinner.
Younger readers, this is Bernard Manning.
It’s 1992. I’m a young, fresh-faced freelance copywriter which, amazingly, I still am. I had picked up a few little jobs from a London advertising agency that specialised in film work. That is, they made press ads for when Hollywood films were about to get a video release. I had a lot of fun coming up with ads that were appropriate to the film being advertised, reasoning that this was a key element of my job, but the agency generally rejected my work in favour of a pack shot with the headline ‘OUT NOW ON VIDEO’.
But today my job is a bit different. I am to direct the comedian Bernard Manning in the recording of two radio scripts I’d written. They were to publicise the release of his own video, charmingly titled ‘Banging With Manning’ and allegedly a ‘hilarious’ spoof of sex education videos.
Manning. He was much bigger back then.
I arrive at the Manchester recording studio with the agency’s account lady at the same time as he rolls up in an enormous Cadillac bearing the number plate 1 LAF. No doubt you were supposed to read that 1 as an I in case you were left thinking the plate alluded to the number of actual jokes in one of Bernard’s comedy routines.
The passenger door opens and Bernard, not the lithest comedian on the circuit, grips various parts of the car to leverage himself out of his seat. He waddles across the car park and introductions are made.
“See the boxing last night?” He’s addressing me, correctly assuming that the posh young account lady wouldn’t care one iota about boxing. Neither do I, but I say I missed it while making a face that I hope conveys the idea that this was an unavoidable oversight on my part.
We walk to the studio. “I don’t mind black blokes punching shit out of each other,” he continues, “but I don’t like it when they beat white fellas.”
I don’t have a face ready for a remark like this, much less a suitable vocal response. The account lady and I look at each other. This is going to be interesting.
And it is, and not only in the way I’d been expecting. No sooner does he settle down in the recording studio, still angry about a white boxer being beaten by a black one, than my colleague gets a call from the agency back in London. Apparently the body that oversees the suitability of broadcast advertising has belatedly taken objection to an element of the script. “Which script?” I ask.
“Both of them,” she says.
“What it is about them they don’t like?”
She hesitates. “The word ‘banging’.” The name of the product, in other words.
I glance at Bernard in the booth. Although I can’t hear anything, he seems to be asking the recording engineer questions about the equipment. What’s there to explain? Like all such rooms there’s only a microphone and a pair of headphones, and surely he’s familiar with the former.
“You’re going to have to rewrite the scripts,” says the account manager, “and quickly.”
I look for a place to, er, bash something out while the situation is explained to Manning. He’s not happy. He’s decided that blame for the episode should be laid at London’s door. “Fucking London,” he yells at everyone. “Fucking London idiots,” he adds, getting a bit more specific.
Writing radio scripts isn’t easy. To be honest, I don’t find any writing easy. Those who come up with headlines like OUT NOW ON VIDEO probably do, but I don’t. And although I’m not what you might call precious, I do find a desk and a chair and a bit of peace and quiet help the creative process. Not an enraged shouty comedian stomping about, a product I’m not allowed to mention by name and less than 45 minutes to write and record a couple of 20-second radio commercials.
It gets worse. Once we’re in a position to get something down on tape, it becomes clear that Bernard is as unfamiliar with reading aloud as he is with basic recording equipment. He stumbles over every line, strays from the script, adds pointless pauses and PUTS the emphasis ON all the wrong words. The agency didn’t bring an actual radio producer, someone skilled in the diplomatic art of getting the best work out of the ‘talent’, and all the engineer says after each take is “was that OK?” So it’s down to me to explain to an increasingly impatient Bernard that he needs to read a bit faster, or a bit clearer, or with less yelling, and please can you wait until the microphone’s turned off before saying fucking London wankers.
Luckily, the studio – situated in a largely residential area just outside Manchester, as I recall – doesn’t have any other jobs lined up so we’re allowed to overrun. A couple of hours later we’ve got frayed nerves but two commercials that even the most puritanical member of the radio clearance committee won’t have a problem with.
Recently I was clearing the loft and came across a whole bunch of my old radio ads on C30 cassettes, including the two with Manning. I ordered a bit of kit called the Tonor cassette tape to MP3 convertor, and stuck the least-crap ones on my website. Grit your teeth and have a listen. 5th and 6th ones down.
Those pesky leaflets.
That difficult third ad.
That absolute killer fourth ad.
The unexpected flood of work.
The need for a fresh pair of eyes.
The sudden absence of your best writer.
The party last night that probably explains it.
The part of the brief that nobody wants to do.
The direct response TV ad that you just want to get out the door.
The fifth attempt to get a campaign approved.
The realisation that the client needs a new tone of voice.
The dull series of CRM emails that might actually generate most income for the client.
The radio ads that no one seems able to crack as who listens to radio anyway.
The salesman’s leave behind and someone who know WTF one of those is.
The need for a back-up idea ‘just in case’.
Whatever the reason, if you need a seasoned copywriter to help out for anything from a morning to a couple of weeks, give me a call. I’m on 078 87 87 58 59.
That’s 078 87 87 58 59.
See? Told you I did radio.
Every week or so I open my spam folder and marvel at the illiterate, preposterous and often quite mystifying attempts to separate me from my money.
Here are just a few from today, selected more or less at random:
I come from a background of direct mail so I know a bit about how a marketing campaign needs only a tiny hit rate to pay for the entire enterprise.
But in direct mail, lots of skill and and money went into trying to make sure wastage was kept to a minimum. In contrast, the stuff that ends up in my spam folder seems to suggest precisely zero effort was expended on targeting, and somehow even less on messaging.
So it got me wondering what the sender’s name and subject line of a successful spam email might look like.
Have a go in the comments section. It doesn’t really matter what you’re selling. You could choose one of the above or anything from your own spam folder. The aim is solely to use your powers of persuasion and familiarity with the English language to get the reader to think that it’s a bona-fide email and click on the link. (Don’t actually include a link, we’ll have to pretend that one is there.)
Winners will be notified by email. (‘Yes, [name]! YOU have WON the spam competishun!!!!‘) Perhaps not. Perhaps I’ll just come back to this post a few weeks from now and choose one. Assuming there’s more than one to choose from.
Anyway, off you go. Your time starts NOW.
Two Jewish guys are walking along 5th Avenue in New York. As they pass St Patrick’s Cathedral, one of them spots a sign on the steps outside.
‘Come on in! Convert to Catholicism and get $500!’ it reads.
‘Would you look at that,’ says Abby.
‘I know!’ says Dan. ‘Guys must be desperate.’
Weeks later the two meet up again.
‘Hey, Dan,’ says Abby. ‘Remember that sign outside St Patrick’s?’
‘Sure, I remember. What of it?’
‘After I left you, I went back and took a look inside.’
‘You did?’ says Dan. ‘What happened?’
‘Well, I got talking with the priest and decided to convert. I’m now a Catholic,’ says Abby.
‘Wow,’ says Dan. ‘Did you get the $500?’
Abby says ‘Jeez, you people are all the same!’
It’s almost two weeks since the death of David Bowie and, if I wanted to, I could still quite easily well up. His songs touched my heart, my head and frequently – if embarrassingly – my legs. When I tried to dance to them, I mean.
Coincidentally, he was also the only artist I could confidently pull off at karaoke parties. He never mentioned this to anyone, of course.
He was by far my favourite musician. Those who know my near-obsession with Frank Zappa will question this. Whatever. They’re different, is all I can say. They’re both my favourites, and they’re both my favourites by a long way. Go figure.
One similarity, though, and an aspect of Bowie that no appreciation of him that I’ve read has mentioned, is that, like Zappa, Bowie really loved music.
No shit, Sherlock? Well, maybe. But for me the appeal of Bowie’s music is just as great when he’s not singing as when he is.
Like Zappa, he gave his musicians room to create, to let rip or to exploit a melody’s potential. He forced them into musical places they wouldn’t normally have considered. He experimented with unusual sounds and non-standard instruments. And he frequently explored music that required a modicum of patience and concentration before it bestowed its rewards.
I’m thinking of how long it’ll take to find examples of all this in his 27-strong album catalogue, when I realise that I could probably find them all in just one. Maybe even in the album I happen to be listening to right now, Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Let’s have a go, shall we?
The opening vocals of the opening track, It’s No Game (Pt 1), aren’t sung by Bowie. They’re not even sung in English. When he does start singing, it sounds more like a painful attempt to bring up his own spleen. Robert Fripp’s guitar is appropriately angry and discordant. It ends with Bowie actually bawling at Fripp to ‘Shut up!’ Can you imagine a Coldplay album starting like this?
Track 2, Up The Hill Backwards, starts in what sounds to me like 7/4 time, again with Fripp on guitar, before settling down into a stomping 4/4 arrangement. Bowie’s knocked-back, almost chanted vocals share the stage with at least two other singers. At about 2:10 the listener is hauled back into 7/4 time for Fripp to return with more of his crashing guitar work. But this isn’t the middle eight. It just signals the end of the vocals. For the rest of the song we’re treated to a minute-long guitar workout, accompanied by Dennis Davis’ thunderous drumming. The singer whose album we’ve bought isn’t singing, but we’re still listening. Do you ever get this sort of thing on an Adele album?
The album’s title track is more like a straightforward rock song, but that’s straightforward in a Bowie way. There are weird clangings, staccato electronic dog barks in a descending scale, Fripp’s snarling guitar and, again, an extended section at the end of the song (some 30% of its duration) in which the only vocals are an anthemic la-la-la-ing. The whole thing sounds very much like…no one.
But, oh dear. The rest of the tracks unfortunately do little to lend weight to my thesis. Bugger. Perhaps this whole exercise has been a mistake. Maybe I should have chosen Low. However, Ashes to Ashes does include a glorious vocal technique that I can’t imagine any other artist even thinking of doing. From 2:44, Bowie repeats his own lines in a flat monotone, like a bored church congregation responding to the vicar. It’s a world away from the girly chorus you’d expect. Best of all, this structure compels Bowie to sing the last line, a rock ‘n’ roll exclamation, in a similar style. So at 2:57 we hear his lifeless response ‘Woe-oo-woe’. Did Elton John ever try anything so audacious? Jackson? Madonna? Presley? The album throws up other examples of Bowie’s vocals being anything but run of the mill. Check out the slowed down/speeded up split vocals from 2:39 in Scream Like a Baby, for example.
Better still, take Scary Monsters off your Spotify Music Centre and play Aladdin Sane instead. The title track. That piano solo. If you want audacious, this takes the biscuit. Dissonant, seemingly random yet coherent and, to me, utterly majestic. How did it happen? Here’s the pianist, Mike Garson, talking about the day it was recorded back in January 1973. “I played a blues solo and David said: ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for.’ Then I played a little Latin solo. ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for. ’ Then he said to me: ‘You told me about playing on the avant-garde scene in New York. Why don’t you try something like that?’ I said: ‘Are you serious?’ He said: ‘Absolutely.’ That whole solo was one shot, one take – boom, that was it. But it came about because he got it out of me.”
And here’s Bowie himself, talking to Angus MacKinnon in a 1980 edition of NME. “To digress completely for a moment – I still adopt the view that music itself carries its own message, instrumentally I mean. Lyrics are not needed because music does have an implicit message of its own; it makes its case very pointedly. If that were not the case, then classical music would not have succeeded to the extent that it did in implying and carrying some definite point of view, some attitude which presumably can’t be expressed with words…
… the lyrics taken on their own are nothing without the secondary sub-text of what the musical arrangement has to say, which is so important in a piece of popular music. It makes me very angry … when people concentrate only on the lyrics because that’s to imply there is no message stated in the music itself, which wipes out hundreds of years of classical music. Ridiculous.”
So, yes. Bowie was clowns and make-up and androgyny and all that reinventing himself malarkey. But he was also a staggeringly creative musician with a Gestalt vision of what a song should be – music and lyrics coming together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This must be my longest post ever. Thanks for reading if you kept with it. Thanks anyway, even if you didn’t.