The Pictish Trail: Beck Song Reader Live
July 16, 2013 | by Faber Social
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.