Books and Music at the Heart of Independent Publishing

Join us for an evening of music, performance, celebrating the narrative in minature, with this month’s theme Short Stories. Booker-Prize winning DBC Pierre will read from his debut collection of short fictions and philosophical vignettes, PETIT MAL; Betty Trask winner Emma Jane Unsworth will share with us a new tale or two; bestselling author John Niven will read from his new novel STRAIGHT WHITE MALE; debut author Brian Kimberling will read from SNAPPER, which is both a short story cycle and fully formed novel; IMPAC and Whitbread Prize shortlisted novelist and short story writer Peter Hobbs will also read; and Caught By The River poet-in-residence Will Burns, previews some previously unheard short stories.

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Short Stories_2 Sept 2013

Faber Social is proud to be running this event in association with Small Wonder: The Short Story Festival in Charleston, Lewes which takes place from Wed 25 – Sun 29 September 2013. The full programme listing is here.

Last Tuesday, after a busy week of shows in Paris and London – including a unique performance of Song Reader with an All-Star Cast* at the Barbican – Beck visited us at our Bloomsbury Square headquarters and spent some time in the Faber archive. While only perhaps 10% of the full archive iceberg is ‘active’ within the building here, we were still able to pull out some literary sparklers for him to admire. Looking at and touching (one quality your kindle will never replicate) these volumes of ee cummings, Robert Lowell, Hughes and Auden, and listening to our archivist tell stories about the Faber ‘Book Committee’ meetings in the mid-20th century (the sherry lady making her rounds at 11am etc), I was struck by how genuinely interested, even seduced, Beck was by these stories of literary discovery and misadventure. It’s heartening to think a Californian popstar in the foothills of his 40s knows and cares about publishers like Faber. And it reminded me how important it is we continue to carry our history with us – in our acquiring, our design, our principles and our publishing vision. Most importantly it reminded me we must continue to innovate.

Innovation is, of course, a word long associated with Beck, and the central reason for his first visit to these shores in five years — the ambitious recital of Song Reader — reminded us of his sui generis place in the firmament of a handful of popstars who brought some colour, energy, class and mischief-making to what now looks like a homogenised mid-90s pop scene. The most inspiring thing about participating in the Song Reader project (and participation is the correct term because by its very nature, Song Reader demands dialogue, interaction, collaboration) at the Barbican/Faber Social show was meeting the artists and hearing their genuine enthusiasm for Beck’s concept. Somehow an arty concept (release an album in illustrated sheet music book form, which can only therefore be ‘heard’ if ‘played’) was transformed into a passionate gathering of disparate musicians visibly animated and inspired by Beck’s songwriting gifts. Johnny Pictish, who as a crucial member of Fife’s Fence Collective, is no stranger to cross-genre collaboration and the rip it up post-folk aesthetic, offers his perspective on the Song Reader experience here.

I was lucky enough, either side of The Last Waltz style performance at the Barbican, to see Beck play three unplugged shows in Paris, Cambridge and London with a pick-up band. Here’s the set-list from the final show at the Union Chapel when he was joined by Bobby Gillespie for versions of You Win Again and Dead Flowers by The Stones.  Opening with the spectral classic that is Golden Age, these 90 minute gigs were memorable for their intimacy, spontaneity and sense of fun. I was reminded of certain famous Prince aftershows, when we catch a glimpse of the man behind the artist. And Beck, like Prince it seems, turns out to be a very funny dude indeed, as a final song mash-up of Sissy Neck with Billie Jean and Get It On by T-Rex illustrated. By the time he played this final gig the set-list had changed to include three of the songs from Song Reader, an album Beck never intends to record, but clearly has huge affection for. Whether it ever exists in physical or digital form by the artist himself seems an irrelevance, even though some of these songs are perhaps among the very strongest in Beck’s catalogue. Song Reader seems destined to leave a legacy in its wake, and a signed copy now sits in our archive files in between Auster and Berryman.

*Cast included Franz Ferdinand, Jarvis Cocker, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Johnny Pictish, The Guillemots, James Yorkston, The Mighty Boosh, The Staves

Take a look at the Faber Social on Pinterest.

UC1

I can’t read sheet music.  Cannot do it. Never even attempted to learn – not properly, at least.  I don’t know the difference between quavers, breves or minim’s; clefs, staffs and crotchets are just meaningless shapes.  Music theory wasn’t taught at my school, none of my friends or immediate family showed any interest in learning scales or notation and the final nail in the coffin came on my 21st birthday.

As a birthday gift, my then-girlfriend had arranged a one-to-one consultation with a ‘professional musician’.  He was one of her chiropractor dad’s patients, and I got the feeling that he’d been prepped to veer me off rock’n’roll’s path:

“If you want a career in music, mate, you’re gonna have to learn to read music.  You’ll never amount to anything in this business if you don’t.”

Pfffft.  Turns out the guy made saccharine muzak for elevators, and schmaltzy electric piano instrumentals of radio pop hits for budget supermarkets.  Whereas, I’m a lean, mean three-chord machine – hardly gonna follow his advice.  To express my distaste I dumped the girlfriend a few months later.  I mean, that was a pretty shite 21st birthday present, eh?  A deep fried Mars Bar would have been better than that.  I’m guessing her dad was quite pleased, mind.

Over the past 10 years i’ve somehow managed to make a living performing my own songs, playing in friend’s bands, putting on wee festivals, and self-releasing our collective output on vinyl and CD.  In all that time, i’ve never had to rely on sheet music – mainly because I only ever play my own material.  I’m proud to say there are only four covers in my current repertoire, and they rarely get performed live as they are more miserable than my own ones.

At the beginning of 2013 I received an email asking if i’d like to take part in a live performance of Beck’s album of sheet music, Song Reader.  Gulp.  I was a wee bit apprehensive.  I said “YES YES, GOD YES” straight away, of course – it’s Beck, after all.  Such a huge influence.  He’s been pretty much the one constant character of cool throughout my entire consciousness of music. I’ve bought every album since Mellow Gold, tracked down all his early out-of-print releases, and, bizarrely enough, was given Song Reader as a gift last Christmas, by my girlfriend (a different girlfriend – much better at giving presents, this one).

The Song Reader show was to take place in the prestigious Barbican Centre in London on July 4th 2013, with a bevvy of different singer-songwriters and bands providing the voice for each of the 20 songs in the book – including Joan As Policewoman, Beth Orton, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Franz Ferdinand, Jarvis Cocker, The Mighty Boosh, James Yorkston, and Beck himself.  The organisers had assembled an incredible 10 piece house band – featuring Ed Harcourt, David Coulter, Roger Eno, members of Polar Bear and The Invisible among others – whose task it was to bring each song to life.  With only two days of rehearsal before the gig itself, it was a mammoth task.

I’d been given the task of arranging and performing his song ‘The Wolf Is On The Hill’ – but obviously had no official recorded version to compare it to.  I had the sheet music, with the chord diagrams and the unreadable notation … but how was I going to work out the melody?  Was I going to have to send a copy to the schmaltzy muzak guy, and beg him to gently hum it down the phone for me?

You’ll never amount to anything in this business …you’ll never amount to anything, y’bastard … oooooh me fooookin’ back …”

Thankfully I didn’t have to call him.  The internet exists now, with a ton of fan versions of each song uploaded to YouTube, SoundCloud etc.  That’s what makes this project all the more relevant to today’s audience – for those of us who cannot read music, Song Reader opens up a new world of interpretation.  By actively encouraging fans to engage with the structure of the song and share it with one another, it heralds a new era in folk music.

Although the format and the overall look of the Song Reader book itself is steeped in the history of pre-recorded music, its application couldn’t be more appropriate in the current climate of multi-media platforms and social-networking sites.  Where some are experiencing the music directly from the page, others are discovering these songs via interpretations online.  There are recordings that have been intricately worked on, produced in studios or with home recording equipment; and others that have been captured at live shows by audience members with video phones, uploaded to the web without the performer’s knowledge.  In the absence of any official Beck recording, each of these versions are as definitive as the next.

I was spoiled for choice.  There were versions of the song in different keys, different time signatures, different arrangements – and each of these informed the melody I adopted for my own.  ‘The Wolf Is On The Hill’ is in the key of G on the sheet music, but i’ve gripped it by the nads, and squealed it up to C for my rendition; there were a few tricky chord changes which i got rid of and replaced with some white-noise; the ending seemed a bit abrupt, so I extended the final chorus.  I dug out my 8-track machine, put my acoustic guitar through a distortion pedal, and recorded a quick demo of the song in my caravan home, up on the Hebridean Isle of Eigg.  Hey presto, my take on the song screeches in at 3 minutes and 19 seconds long. Boom.

I sent Ed and David an MP3 of the demo, and arrived at the rehearsal studio in London, my body and brain still stewing in a soupy Glastonbury-hangover to end all hangovers.  By comparison, the house band were looking calm, collected and amply hydrated. It must have been pretty weird for them to see a short, chubby, beardy dude lunging over an acoustic guitar, and sweating profusely.  They got the gist of the song instantly though, and we played it through four or five times.  After 45 minutes we were done, dusted and ready for a plate of vinegary chips.

For the show itself, I brought my pal Rozi Plain along – partly to help with some wolf-howling backing vocals, but mostly to help with morale and to moderate my alcohol intake.  We had a quick dress rehearsal of the song, with the full band, during the afternoon – and before we knew it, it was showtime.  I realised about five minutes before I was due on stage that I was still wearing jeans caked with Glastonbury mud.  I scoured the room to see if there was anyone within spitting distance that had the same waist size as me.

There wasn’t.  Dirty trousers it is, then.  Oh shit, we’re being called on stage.

I was wearing a gold lamé jacket, and decided that I would perform the guitar freak-out section on my knees – thus distracting the distinguished Barbican audience from my sullied legs.  It worked a treat.  We extended the outro to the song, so it morphed into a ragged, distorted ear-screaming work-out, which came to a dramatic scissor-kicking, mud-flicking climax.  Ooooft!  It was great fun, and over all too soon.

We were ushered off stage to make way for the next act, and collapsed through the backstage doors.  I took off my sweat-soaked lamé jacket, and looked for the nearest bottle of brown booze.  My pal James rushed over – “that wiz braw!” – and the stubble-mustachioed fella out of the Mighty Boosh gave us a raised eyebrow of approval.  Success!

The rest of the night was a blur.  Orton scored some tickets, so we could all watch the rest of the show from the auditorium, and witness spellbinding performances from Yorkston, The Irrepressibles, Sam Amidon, Connan Mockasin, Simon Armitage, The Boosh, John Cooper Clarke, Beck and everyone else.  At the end of the night we were all summoned to the stage to take a huddled bow together, before retreating backstage to drink away our insecurities.  Was far too intimidated to talk to Beck, but chatted for a good while to Julian Barratt, who was simply delighted to meet us.

An amazing event to be a part of – thank you Beck, and thank you Faber.

the pictish trail xx

Listen to The Pictish Trail’s rendition of The Wolf is on the Hill on soundcloud.

Kick the slanket, fling the flicker
telly’s bile makes you bitter
paper, scissors, pens and glitter
we’re making our own entertainment.

Don’t become a connoisseur
of crappy culture’s drip-fed bleurgh
rip out, rip out that catheter
we’re making our own entertainment.

Bedroom DJs, microbloggers
stars of YouTube, Etsy floggers
here’s to all the CAN-be-bothereds
we’re making our own entertainment.

Don’t buy an album, learn to play it!
Creative juice: uncork then spray it
“I’m an ARTIST.” Go on. Say it!
We’re making our own entertainment

We’re making our own entertainment
like our parents claimed they did
it’s a dangerous arrangement
but we’re letting loose our ids.

Burn your box and kill the old ways
pimp your soul by spending whole days
in immersive complex role plays
we’re making our own entertainment.

Make beauty from your strife and pain
your artsy output’s not in vain
you’ll never buy a gift again
I made you this.
We’re making our own entertainment

Keep it sketchy, rough, unplanned
I think the punks would understand:
Here’s three chords, now form a band
we’re making our own entertainment.

Pierce the cling film? Fuck off Fred!
I’m gonna hunt a deer instead
then serve it up with home made bread
we’re making our own entertainment.

We’re making our own entertainment
we’re baking our way out of stress
we’re making our own entertainment
we’re knitting back to happiness.

Think leisure time, think interactive
tailor it, it’s nothing drastic
one part truth, one sticky-back plastic
we’re making our own entertainment.

Join a choir, learn the flute
paint likenesses of nudes and fruit
come on, let’s take the scenic route
we’re making our own entertainment.

© Luke Wright.

Written for and performed at Beck’s Song Reader gig at The Barbican, 4 July 2013.

Mondeo Man by Luke Wright is out now. Luke Wright’s new show, Essex Lion, hits Edinburgh Festival from 1 August, and is previewing at national venues before then. Full dates and ticket details are here.