Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Songwriting: My Bonnie Highland Lass

The sun has set, let's have a wet
It's time to raise a glass
To Annie of the ruby lips
My bonnie highland lass
My mood is dim and melancholy
This in turn will pass
As I ponder on the wonder
Of my bonnie highland lass

My bonnie highland lassie
Has left and gone way
I fear that all the bright lights
Have led her all astray
Her hair so black and raven
Her choc'late eyes so brown
Here I'll make a haven
For her coming from the town

The sun has set, the day is wet
As I stare into the grave
Of my bonnie highland lassie
The love I couldn't save
No more I'll pipe to please her
It's time to say a mass
My only goal to save the soul
Of my bonnie highland lass


This tune was written literally as fast as I could write it down, maybe two minutes for the lyrics and five minutes for the music. I share space at work with Anne Cowan, who was hired by former Crabtree owner Margaret McLean many years ago as part of an outreach program with the London Mental Health unit. Annie was an English teacher before being hit with schizophrenia, and works about 6 hours per week, when she remembers to show up. She is also a poet, having written 7 volumes of poetry (although she refuses to publish them).

Anyway, Annie and I chat about philosophy, science, literature, beer, music, and whatever topics amuse us. Her latest complaint was that I had never written a song for her. I agreed to write one on the spot. She wanted a Scottish song, with all the correct elements. Her hair, she said was raven black, not grey, and her lips were ruby. She wanted the song melancholy, and we needed to put bagpipes and the word 'bonnie' in it. I came up with My Bonnie Highland Lass. When she objected that she was a lowlands girl, I overruled her - not romantic! You're a highland girl now. Plus I decided to kill her off in the end, which she thought was appropriate. I had been contemplating putting Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" to music, so the starting point of the lyric was easy, and the rest just flowed.

The tune was a mish mash of Loch Lomond, Coming Through the Rye, and The Northen Lights of Old Aberdeen, hopefully fused into something unique. I stole an idea from Chris De Burgh's "I'm Coming Home" off the Spanish Train album to help me get through the chorus. Working out the chords was the laborious part - I'm still not very good at finding the right chord to put behind a melody to convey the sound I want. The last consideration was I wanted this to be able to be played on a recorder (or any pipe) so I had to constrain the melody to make it fit into one octave. Anyway, it was fun to write.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Album Review: News of the World

I recently picked up News of the World, by Queen. This was my favourite Queen album when I was a teenager, and listening to it reminded me of why - it is the heaviest Queen album. This is a drawback to others, but I like it when Queen kicks back and kicks ass. It may help when evaluating the album to realize that this was Queen's reaction to the punk movement and their criticism of lavish excess of bands like Queen, Led Zeppelin and Yes.

The Good:

From a technical standpoint, this is the best Queen has ever been. It features their cleanest production and their tightest playing - they have never sounded so good. Brian May found a unique guitar sound that he never duplicated on any other album. In fact, this is a Brian May album - I have no idea what Freddie was doing when this was written/recorded. We Will Rock You crunches, We Are the Champions soars, Sheer Heart Attack is like a buzzsaw in your ear outpunking the punk movement, John Deacon steps out on electric piano on the gorgeous Spread Your Wings, and Queen's harmonies are finally released on the epic It's Late. It all finishes with your ears bleeding, and then the perfectly appropriate My Melancholy Blues finishes the album. One can just picture Freddie sitting at a piano in some empty ballroon with spilled champagne glasses and soild table cloths as he rings down the curtain. Oh, did I mention the guitar just crunches?

The Bad:

Where is Freddie? Fans of Day at the Races/Night at the Opera silly stuff will not find any Seaside Rendezvous, Millionaire Waltz, Somebody to Love or Love of My Life. Champions is solid, Melancholy Blues is lovely, but the only other tune he wrote is the bizarre Get Down Make Love, which could safely have been left off the album. Half the songs are sung by Taylor or May. The album is front loaded - after the four hit songs, you have to sit through very mediocre songwriting until album end. Queen stripped down their harmonies so much that they are only in evidence on two songs. You expect more from Queen than just a solid rock album.

The Interesting:

It's Late is the first in a series of songs that Brian uses to explore his crumbling marriage, culminating in Love Token on his Back to the Light Album. Freddie's chord progressions on My Melancholy Blues get taken to a new level on the next album with the superior Don't Stop Me Now.

The Bottom Line:

I like this album - it rocks (I'm a May fan). Clare finds it a bit boring (she's a Mercury fan). Borrow it from her and decide for yourself.