Last year I wrote and recorded the original music for Williams Coles’s independent film ‘Rebel Rossa’, which concerns the life of Williams’s great-grandfather, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
I’d been to a bar in Beverly Hills, on the invitation of a writer friend of mine, to meet with Williams Coles’s cousin: John Whelpley, a writer himself – episodes of Trapper John, M.D. and Beverly Hills 91210 among other things. John wanted copies of my book signed for a couple of his friends and what seemed to be a number of Irish guys who work behind the bar where we met, one of whom, who was working there that night, had a handshake like shutting your hand in a door.
At the bar, John talked about a recent visit he had made to Dublin for the occasion of the centenary of his and Williams’s great-grandfather Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in August 1915, which he described as more or less the catapult from which members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood launched the Easter Rising eight months later, with the protagonists – pall-bearers most of them – pretty much plotting the Easter Rising over the lid of O’Donovan Rossa’s coffin. Patrick Pearse’s graveside oration at the funeral has gone down as one of the most important speeches in 20th Century Irish history.
John put me in touch with Williams, with a view to doing the music for his cousin’s film, which traces the journey – both literal – from Brooklyn to County Cork and Dublin – and figurative – prompted by a picture of ‘O’Dynamite Rossa’ which had been made into a fridge magnet – which Williams and his brother, Rossa, undertook to discover their great-grandfather’s life story.
I got on well with Williams, and visited him at his rather squeezed and low-ceilinged brownstone in Williamsburg, to go though the footage he had assembled. I supplied five cues for the film, which I’ve called: ‘The Dark Cow Leaves the Moor’, ‘The Croppy Pikes March’, ‘The Age of the World’, ‘Black Kilkenny Marble’, ‘The Chillingham Hornpipe’ and what I suppose you’d call the ‘title’ song – ‘The Fools, The Fools, The Fools’.
For ‘The Fools, The Fools, The Fools’, my remit was to write a song based on Pearse’s oration at O’Donovan Rossa’s burial. For the lyrics, I went a bit further than that, drawing in such things as the chronicles of medieval Irish history known as the ‘Annals of the Four Masters’, W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘Easter, 1916’, parts of O’Donovan Rossa’s autobiography and newspaper articles concerning people like, for instance, Father Eoghan O’Growney, a founder of the Gaelic League. Somewhere, I came across a limerick about a badger digging a hole somewhere and coming out in Norway.
For the music, I revisited the melody of ‘Lovely Joan’, which is a sort of interlude in Ralph Vaughan Williams’s ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’. The interlude is itself based on a traditional song about a young woman outwitting her oversexed attacker and stealing his horse. I had a thing about Ralph Vaughan Williams since hearing ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ (which I experienced a few years ago at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester Cathedral, which had been the location of its first performance in 1910). It was Terry Woods from the Pogues who had got all excited at identifying the ‘Lovely Joan’ tune when I’d been listening to ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’ on tour, oh, years ago.
Live at Leeds
I sent a mix to Williams. He wanted some ‘heavy’ guitar. I had inherited a Telecaster copy from the Pogues and so lit into that, loud, at home, setting the sound up to enable me to pretend I could hear the echo of the refectory at Leeds University where the Who recorded ‘Live at Leeds’ and pretending to be Pete Townshend. While I’m thinking about it, it became a joke that no tour the Pogues ever did in the UK could start without playing Leeds Refectory first. Terry Woods once took a wrong step at the top of the aluminium flight of stairs from the stage. He cradled his cittern in his arms all the way down to the bottom. The poor guy hobbled through the rest of the tour.
For the other cues in the film, I wanted to have a go at something like Blur’s contribution to the ‘Trainspotting’ soundtrack – ‘Sing’. I always loved the vertical musical rhythmic stuff, since seeing Art Blakey in concert in – Hamburg, I think, when the Pogues were on tour, oh, years ago, and laughing out loud as Blakey’s entire band, with the exception of the soloist, slammed, without compromise, the downbeat, for what seemed minutes on end. The Pogues had a bash at replicating this on ‘Battle March Medley’ from ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’, the instrumental Terry Woods wrote and which was our intro music for a while. ‘The Dark Cow Leaves The Moor’ is my homage to Blur, in a way, or at least to ‘Sing’.
Bagpipes Made Out of a Sheep
For one of the other cues – ‘The Chillingham Hornpipe’ – well, a few years ago I became preoccupied by an instrumental by the Hungarian group, Muzsikás (whom the Pogues met at the Vienna Folk Festival in 1985, where, afterwards, in the bar, we all had a go on the bagpipes they had – an emptied out sheep, the legs as drones and a chanter in place of its nose, the sheep sewn up and filled with air – but none of us could get anything that resembled even a bleat out of it). The instrumental I became obsessed about is called ‘Legényes from Kalotaszeg’. It’s on Muzsikás’s album Blues from Transylvania. I wrote to Mihály Sipos and Dániel Hamar from the band, to ask what the chords were. Weeks later, I got an email from them to say they didn’t work that way and had no idea, so I had a go at figuring the chords out myself. The chords to ‘The Chillingham Hornpipe’ are as close as I’m going to get to the chords of ‘Legényes from Kalotaszeg’, but they’re not right, but right enough to lay a hornpipe over the top of them. I came across the word ‘Chillingham’ in O’Donovan Rossa’s autobiography of his time in Chatham Prison (likely the prison hulk, the HMS Canada). Chillingham was the term for the prison graveyard in Victorian prisoners’ vernacular.
The cue called ‘The Age of the World’ (another reference to ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’, in which the medieval scribes, if that’s what they were, helpfully began each entry in the annals with the actual age of the world) took inspiration from the melody that goes along with a song called ‘The Unfortunate Rake’, as I heard it sung by A. L. Lloyd on a Smithsonian Folkways’ podcast. ‘The Unfortunate Rake’ gave rise to such songs as ‘St James’s Hospital’ and ‘The Streets of Laredo’ and maybe inspired ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. I’ve performed ‘The Streets of Laredo’ to the tune of ‘The Unfortunate Rake’. It works. It’s a song about death from syphilis. Don’t get many of those kinds of songs nowadays.
Where can you hear these cues? Well, if you watch the film, obviously, but I’ll be putting them up on soundcloud in a day or two.
For the film, too, Williams Cole wanted to use a song I’d released a few years ago, called ‘Hey Ho’. I’d recorded it with John King at his studio. John King was half of the Dustbrothers and produced Beck’s Odelay and the Beastie Boys’s Paul’s Boutique. I’m thoroughly proud of ‘Hey Ho’. (I even got a Facebook message from Steve Lillywhite to say how proud he was too, which chuffed me no end.) It’s a love song, full of loss, regret, nostalgia, those things I love to dwell on, with lyrics that pull bits from Shelley and Brecht and Shakespeare (I can’t help it). The ‘pumice island’ is from Ode to the West Wind (the artwork for ‘Hey Ho’, by Vhoop, who did the cover for Cranky George’s Fat Lot of Good, features the wind bending a poplar and loosening its leaves). ‘You could never let a man get over you’ is a re-working of a line from ‘Barbara Song’ from The Threepenny Opera. The words for the chorus are from, well, both Act II, scene iii of King Lear, during the storm scene, and from the very end of Twelfth Night, as the Clown wraps up the play. I get the Shakespeare thing from my dad. My dad was a Shakespearean actor, amateurly, but of such power that a family story has Robert Powell (Jesus of Nazareth and The Thirty-Nine Steps) coming away from one of my dad’s performances inspirited with the desire to become an actor himself.
I released ‘Hey Ho’ in 2011, I think, so it’s been around for a bit. The intro features me whistling. I had a job at a building site while I was earning money to buy my first electric guitar, sweeping empty rooms in a block of flats under construction near Bolton. The reverberation time decay curve was a good one in the empty flats. I kept myself company, whistling Duane Allman guitar solos (‘Statesboro Blues’ and ‘One Way Out’ from their album Live at the Fillmore East – except, I lost the double LP or something and ended up buying the Deluxe Edition on CD, which, I think, contains different versions of a couple of the songs because the Duane Allman solos I thought I knew don’t tally with the way I whistle them). I knew, by heart too, Clapton’s solo on ‘Crossroads’ from the Cream’s Farewell Concert at the Albert Hall. I took the whistling thing to another sweeping job I had at Slade Art School, when the Pogues were just starting out, but by that time I’d ventured into Rodgers and Hart’s ‘My Funny Valentine’ and Peter DeRose’s ‘Deep Purple’. The halls and studios and galleries at the Slade, at that time in the morning, before the students came in, were peaceful and light though filled with all manner of bonkers shit, like twisted plastic bags glued to canvases and painted over, whole frames filled with of partridge feathers, bent wire which resolved into a face as you walked round it and sideboards sawn in half and fastened back together wrong. Elsewhere, there was a room with the place for the model – a stool some distance from the rather dirty wall – screened off from the easel by a lattice of cotton thread: something to do with the curvature of the retina and the plane of the canvas.
The whistling melody in ‘Hey Ho’ came from listening to an album I bought a while ago called Klezmer Music by a band with the name of Brave Old World. I liked the pattern of the introduction of one of the songs on the record – ‘Chernobyl’ – so I sort of made another one like it, but rising, to fall again, which, to me, was satisfying. The rest of the harmonic structure of ‘Hey Ho’ came from – well, I always liked a tune whose notes are separated by just a step. In this case, I enjoyed the sort of stepping-down nature of the verses, and especially the semitone distance of the first line and a half. Talking about Richard Rodgers again – the chords for the chorus came – a bit anyway – from the ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’ ballet interlude in Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes. I love those chords, in this case, from C to D to E, which is pretty much lifted from ‘Slaughter on Tenth Avenue’, though I wouldn’t know what key the original is in. That chord progression sounds so insupportably positive.
Crepuscule with Nellie
I use the word ‘crepuscule’ in the song. In popular music, I’ve only ever heard it – seen it, really – used in ‘Crepuscule With Nellie’, a Thelonious Monk melody (to which my wife and I danced on our first night as girl- and boy-friend). Crepuscule means ‘twilight’, from the Latin for twilight. My song also has the word ‘megrims’ in it, from the Greek for ‘half a brain’.
Through the whole song are two notes played by a cello (Vanessa Freebairn-Smith) and violin (Neel Hammond). Hard to play, just one note each, with no movement, no articulation. I swear I remember Vanessa grimacing at me through the window from the live room and then shaking out her hand when the take was done. My heart was set on putting motionless cello and violin in the background, just two notes. I loved the sense of stillness and heat and tension that element provoked in me, in Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Summer (The First Time)’ which reached number 9 in England in 1973 and has apparently been voted the all-time greatest ‘summer’ song in England.