|Posted by powerpopclassics on August 8, 2016 at 6:05 PM|
I wrote the basic tune of “Almost Gone” in Columbia, Missouri back in 1983. My inspiration was hearing “Someday Man” by The Monkees one random day, and noticing that its initial chord changes and the changes in “Here Comes My Girl” by Tom Petty were practically the same. Very consciously, I sat down with my guitar and attempted to find a way to use a similar chord structure to create a new song for The Trend. What I came up with was fast, loud, catchy…and lyrically terrible. The title was “She Don’t Like the Shirts I Wear.” It was scribbled out, hastily recorded onto a TDK cassette, and today, is very likely located in one of several trash bags full of tapes slowly melting away in the attic over my garage.
A few months after making that tape, I had a less-than-pleasant conversation with a very pretty Mizzou girl who was upset with me. Things deteriorated to that point that she eventually blurted out, “You don’t own this world of mine.” She was absolutely correct. Her words stung me because I deserved to hear them. After about a week of reflecting on that conversation, among other thoughts, it hit me that “You Don’t Own This World of Mine” needed to replace "She Don't Like the Shirts I Wear" as the hook of my newest song. Such a drastic title change also required me to come up with an entirely new set of lyrics. Since I was the one to whom those words were directed, the theme of the song had to be written from the other person's point of view.
It was not a song that developed easily. While the tune was always the same, the lyrics took many rewrites over a period of years, all under the shortened title "This World of Mine." Eventually, in 1992, I recorded a demo of it, as a punk influenced, up-tempo power pop song, at Jon Sousan's Ambience Studio in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Unfortunately, just a few days after I completed the recording, I wanted to change it around, but could not afford to. I was broke, and too ashamed to send it anywhere. So I gave up on the song and concentrated on projects that were much easier to put together.
Then, last summer, I found (and immediately bought) an original Colgems vinyl copy of "Someday Man" by The Monkees in a very cool used record store in Seaside, Florida. Because I was on vacation, I had time to think about just how much I loved that song, and I laughed to myself about my failed attempt to write a different melody using a similar chord structure. And then that melody came back to me, but slower. Instead of blasting through the phrase "You don't own this world of mine," it was a slower, more reflective thought, which became "You used to own this world of mine." And it stayed in my head. And stayed. And stayed. It needed some form of closure at the end of the chorus, but not complete closure. The lyrics “I’m almost gone” came from another forgotten song called “And the Time Ticks On” that had only two good lines in it. I used them both.
It all fell together when Abigail came home from Ole Miss this past spring to see Marie in the high school musical. While we were all sitting around talking, Marie broke into a Voca Bella song composed by Leadbelly, “Bring a Little Water, Silvy,” which Abigail also knew. They sang it together, and sounded great. Then they held out the last note. I was knocked out. I asked them to hold that note as an "ah" again. And then again. That’s when it hit me. Abigail and Marie needed to be the primary voices behind a wall of backing vocals in “Almost Gone,” layered very much like 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” or Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.”
As the song became less punky, the countermelody became more important. With an electric piano supporting the song, I tried out styles of several of my favorite keyboardists. After playing the initial riff as much like Benmont Tench as possible, I felt that the bulk of the song should be very conservative, like Richard Carpenter. Then I thought to myself, “You know, Richard Carpenter would put an oboe in this song.” So, I had no choice but to score an oboe part. The idea of an oboe caused me to also dig out my vinyl copy of “Life in a Northern Town” by the Dream Academy and study it. The ‘80’s timbre of the Dream Academy’s production made me want to add a sustained low synthesizer to the normal bass guitar at the bottom of everything. So, in my mind, the instrumentation was set: Electric piano, acoustic guitar, bass, drums, synthesizer doubling the bass, and a zillion layers of backing vocals.
At this point, it was time to play the song for my longtime co-producer, Don Smith. Immediately, Don came up with a number of suggestions in order to create space within the song. Several unneeded vocal repeats were deleted at Don’s suggestion. Instead of those repeats, effective pauses replaced them. Don also believed that I needed to be less worried about whether the song would “fit” into any particular concept, and that its length should not be pre-determined. Finally, and very importantly, Don practically demanded that I play the acoustic guitar rhythm part a little lazy, almost grunge-like.
The recording process for this song was unlike anything I have ever done before. Because Abigail and Marie were going to record with me, I asked Ben to play the synthesizer part. He reluctantly agreed. As my vintage ‘80’s Roland MC-500 ran a click track, I yelled out the notes to Ben. He played them into the MC-500, which captured everything. We did this at home, with my plan being to use the click from the MC-500 as the guide at the studio, which meant that the synthesizer part was already synchronized to it. Ben’s part would already be in the can before we even arrived at the studio. As I explained this to Ben, he rolled his eyes and reminded me that he was doing this as a favor to me, and to hurry up because I was disturbing a basketball game he was watching on TV.
I finished my scribbles on the oboe score, and decided that it was time to find the perfect player for the upcoming session. With the help of Beth Luscombe, who has played viola on two of my previous recordings, I tracked down Shelly Sublett, an oboist for the Memphis Symphony. She graciously agreed to play, so I immediately went to work entering the score into the computer program to make it look like real sheet music!
On May 26, 2016, with Ben’s synthesizer part securely in my Roland MC-500, Abigail, Marie and I, along with Don Smith, Robert Hall, and Shelly Sublett entered Music + Arts Studios in Memphis, ready to get to work. The brilliant Dawn Hopkins engineered our two days of recording. After Dawn transferred the click and Ben’s synthesizer part from my Roland to the multi-track, the girls, in unison, sang a minute of “ah” on nine different pitches, with 10 overdubs per pitch. (On two of the lower pitches, I joined them, until Dawn advised me that they sounded better without me!) As they continued to “ah” for hours, they staggered their breathing on each take. Dawn meticulously then edited out each breath. The multiple tracks of each pitch were mixed together so that the volume of each note could be controlled by a separate fader on the mixing board. We did it this way because a couple of years ago, Dennis Nail sent me a documentary on 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love,” that explained how 10cc “played” the mixing board to finalize the backing vocal parts. That ‘70’s technology seemed perfect for this song, and hearing Dawn’s layering of my daughter’s voices was a true highlight of my life.
Of course, as with every single recording I have made in Memphis, Don Smith served double duty, playing bass and co-producing with me. And my good friend Robert Hall provided the perfect drum part. Direct and simple, yet tasteful. Shelly’s oboe is exquisite, tugging at the heart on each entrance. She played it perfectly during her first take, yet she felt that a change of reed could bring about a more haunting sound. So we did it again, and she was happier. We used her second take, even though she recorded two more.
The mix is Dawn’s, even though I “played” the notes of the backing vocal, raising and lowering my girls’ layered voices according to the changed chords in the song. Don manually handled the echo throughout the song. All three of us were managing the volumes as the song played on. No automation. Live mixing, just like in the late ‘70’s. It was a true joy to control my daughters’ vocals, while Dawn, right next to me, was bringing out “just enough” of Ben’s synthesizer part to make the bottom end have a little “wow” in it.
Even though I wanted to spread the word about this track from the moment we finished mixing it at the end of May, I have patiently waited until now, as it is included on International Pop Overthrow Volume 19. The promo copies of the new IPO are now out. I just received my own copy, and I must thank David Bash for once again including me in the impressive line-up he has assembled! The iTunes single should be available a week from tomorrow. I am truly excited about this release, more for the credits of the backing vocalists and the synthesizer player than I am for myself!
John T. McMullan
August 8, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on February 1, 2016 at 4:00 PM|
I started law school at Ole Miss in the fall of 1985 after having graduated from The University of Missouri the previous spring. I felt confident about my survival as a law student, and knew that a legal education would help me in a variety of ways in the future. In the back of my mind, though, I was conflicted, and feared that I might be prematurely giving up on my true dream, life as a power pop musician. Some well-meaning, but nay-saying friends advised me against this law school thing, pointing out that I was setting into motion a "fall-back" plan that would inevitably lead to something other than songwriting and record production. In an attempt to prove them wrong, I vowed that every single day my first responsibility was to capture any decent melody that flowed my way, regardless of how difficult doing so might be. Nobody else I knew was attacking law school this way.
One random day in the spring of 1987, I met some Ole Miss classmates at The Gin. We had a late lunch, followed by a drink or two. As we dispersed, I wandered across the parking lot and found myself in The Hoka, a legendary gathering spot for students, authors, authors-to-be, and general hangers-on. The Hoka was like no other place on earth. They showed movies of all kinds in the back, served cheesecake, salads and sandwiches in the front, and provided the perfect setting for most of the great conversations that took place in Mississippi during the ‘80’s. Best of all, The Hoka had an old console piano near the screen door entrance.
The first time the urge struck me to play the piano at The Hoka was around Halloween of 1985. I am not exactly sure why, but I sat down and played all of side one and part of side two of Elton’s GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD album to a roomful of late night cheesecake patrons. After I finished my set, the guy in charge, a guy that most people called “Ronzo,” came over to me and said, "I was going to make you stop, but you didn't sound too terrible. As long as you don't suck, you can play." Over the next year and a half, I probably gave 10 or so impromptu “concerts” on The Hoka’s piano. My song selection usually consisted of Beatle covers, a bit of old Elton, a little Billy Joel, and, on one rare occasion, Steely Dan. Ronzo eventually recognized me well enough to once greet me with "Hey, Piano Man. The bench is empty.”
By that random spring afternoon in 1987, I was comfortable sitting down at The Hoka to test out some of my own instrumental piano songs that were soft and melancholy, in the vein of Liz Story and George Winston. I was lost within the slow melodies, when suddenly my concentration was broken by a sweaty, older gentleman who steadied himself by grabbing my shoulder. He appeared to be falling, but he landed beside me on the piano bench, facing away from the piano. Obviously drunk, he interrupted me, demanding to know if any of my songs had lyrics. Being knocked out of my zone so suddenly, I scowled, "Lyrics aren’t hooks. Only the SOUND of each word matters when it comes to lyrics. The words just need to match the motion of the melody."
My retort sobered up my overweight benchmate and stabbed him right in the heart. He gathered himself, sat up straight, and loudly announced, "My good man, there is nothing on this earth that matches a well-told story or a vivid poem. A set of song lyrics should, just as vividly, impart such a story." I nodded politely, hoping to get rid of my new fan. Finally, while still playing chords, I asked him if he was some kind of author. He said that indeed he was, and that his next book was coming out later in the year. Further, he said that every person at his table was a published author. All of his friends had stories to tell, and they each wrote about their experiences and the people and things they encountered. Unimpressed, I kept playing and promised him that I would next do a song with words. He got up, patted me on the shoulder, loosened his tie, and staggered back to his table.
As I meandered through my new age piano solo, my mind ran down the entire catalog of songs recorded several years earlier by my band, The Trend. I immediately realized that my power pop lyrics were going to be too bubblegum, too trite and teenie to impress a table of authors. So, instead of playing anything from The Trend’s album, I hacked my way through a song I had co-written with a girl at Mizzou. I knew my tune well, and at least I wasn’t ashamed of HER lyrics. My performance had to have been generally bad, but the table of bookworms applauded. As I got up to leave The Hoka, the intoxicated and soon-to-again-be-published author croaked, "Not a bad story, my good man. Remember, write what you live." Ronzo nodded, and I made my way through the screen door, toward my apartment to rethink my approach to song lyrics forever.
During the next month or so, there were dry runs on the guitar, as chord changes were interrupted by an inner voice whispering, “Every single word matters.” Why couldn’t I just dash out a quick melody with quick words, and then replace the words with something better? Still nothing. Humming, which had always been my favorite way to develop a riff or a verse, seemed futile now that any new song’s message had to be as important as the melody. This self-imposed change in writing technique really knocked me out for a time. Melodies simply stopped coming.
And then suddenly my day job took over my world. It was, once again, time for finals. Finals! That word makes me nervous even now. To me, the word “finals” meant the three week period leading up to that barrage of single exams in each law school class that determined our grades, our status as students, our futures. Based on the constant attention music had gotten from me that spring, I needed to cram. And I did. Everything else stopped. In other words, even I knew to leave my guitar alone during finals.
I can’t remember how I did on those exams, but I do remember the mental freedom that hit me once finals were over. That rush hit me as I walked from the law school building to my parking spot at the old train depot. As I started my car, I felt euphoric. I felt creative. I felt like the guy that used to write power pop songs for The Trend. Heck, I even felt like just listening to some music that I truly loved! I really needed to hear some Fools Face, an incredible band with whom we had played a few Kansas City and Jefferson City dates four years before, in 1983.
As I jammed PUBLIC PLACES by Fools Face into my car’s Alpine cassette player, a much younger version of my right hand twisted that volume knob as far as it would go. Driving around Oxford, it hit me that I was singing along with an album that I knew incredibly well, but that nobody else in Mississippi had ever heard. Then, “To Be Someone” came on. This was certainly a Fools Face classic, one that I had heard a million times. This time, though, BECAUSE EVERY WORD MATTERED, I heard something in it I had never caught before. I heard the tone of the story being told. I heard desperation, tempered with humor. I heard defiance, coupled with a dash of longing. This time, instead of picturing my friends victoriously playing this song to a packed house at The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri, I pictured Jim Wirt, alone with his guitar, singing a skeletal version of the song into a tape recorder.
After numerous repeated listens, I landed back at my apartment, ready to tackle my guitar. I played the “G” chord that starts “To Be Someone” over and over. Just kept doing it, all the while thinking that Jim Wirt had written what he had lived when he wrote that one. Out of the blue, instead of modulating to the “D” chord the way Wirt did with “To Be Someone,” I changed chords in a completely different rhythm, and got back to the “G” early. I played that chord change for many minutes, probably thirty. Then, I opened my mouth and it just spilled out. “Well I learned a whole lot about life in law school.” I repeated that for a while. Soon, I hummed out the rest of the verse. Within minutes, I was scribbling at a frantic pace, following the advice of the author at The Hoka, and the example of Jim Wirt of Fools Face. I simply wrote what I was living, my experiences, and the people I was encountering. It just flowed. There was no work involved in it at all.
With a rough of my song now on tape, I folded up the only copy of its lyrics, and headed straight to The Hoka. While a part of me was hoping to catch up with my classmates and celebrate the end of the semester, a bigger part of me was hoping to track down that table of authors, especially the chubby one that almost fell on me. I really wanted to play my new creation for them. Unfortunately, that night, nobody I knew was at The Hoka. My classmates had started at The Gin, and had moved on to a celebration at Syd & Harry’s. So, I caught up with them, and, I think, ended up driving several of them home.
Fourteen years later, in a Memphis studio, I played the song for my friends, Don Smith, Jack Holder, Robert Hall, Dawn Hopkins and Mike Lawler. I asked them to attempt a run through, just to see how it sounded. They agreed. As I wrote out the chords, Dawn snickered at the lyric sheet. And then we played. It clicked. After a couple of false starts, we caught it on 24 tracks of analog reel. Half a year, and 32 radio stations later, the American Bar Assocation wrote about me in its magazine. My lyrics to “Law School” were actually quoted in a Law Review article about “The Philosophy of Lawyering!” In law libraries forever. Weird.
The author that challenged me to tell a good story? I never saw him again. But if I do, or even see a picture that can help me identify him, I will make the effort to personally thank him. I will buy him the beverage of his choosing. Unfortunately, I will not be able to do so at The Gin. Like The Hoka, it is gone, found now only in the mists of a collective memory. And me? These days, I am a lawyer practically all of the time, and a real musician only a few days per year. But if I could just play that piano at The Hoka one more time...
John T. McMullan
January 31, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on January 7, 2016 at 5:55 PM|
I wrote the B-side of The Trend’s one and only vinyl single in a burst of creativity during that magical summer of 1979. The chord based riff was the key to the song, and it was a true gift when my Lotus acoustic and I stumbled upon it. I mean, how could a riff of mine resemble both The Monkees and The B-52’s? Somehow, without sounding TOO much like either one of those acts, it did.
The lyrics were simple and direct, with no thought put into any sort of message that might be conveyed. The pushiness of the riff carried the song anyway. At 15 years old, I had practically nothing to say based on experience, so I imagined a fictional female protagonist to “admire.” In the context of the times, the song was lyrically my version of “She’s So Selfish” by The Knack, with its original title, “She’s Not Nice.” After quickly scratching out the lyrics and chords, I recorded it and immediately set it aside. As important as music was to me, I had other issues on my mind. I was turning 16 years old the next day, and I wanted a license and a car!
I took my driver's test immediately after school in my father’s shiny Pontiac, and passed it. As I drove Dad back home from the license bureau I flat out asked him if there was going to be a car waiting there. Dryly, he said, “No, there will not.” Within a few minutes we arrived at home and I pulled in. Sure enough, there was no extra car on our driveway. Or on any other driveway up and down our street. Hmmm.
Didn't I remember hearing hints from my mother that I might need to save my lifeguarding money to buy a car stereo after my birthday? Didn't she imply that I was going to be put to work as a regular taxi service for my sister? Maybe I was reading too much into supper table talk. I was definitely not expecting a NEW car, of course. I just hoped for something I could drive, something that would be mine.
Time began to drag. I ran to the grocery store for Mom in her car, and hoped that a car for me would be waiting on me when I got back. Once again, nope. The late afternoon was taking forever! I passed some minutes by playing the cassette of yesterday’s song. It still sounded good to me, but it certainly was not a car. Disappointed and restless, I decided to work out a harmony vocal for the tune by using a second tape recorder for a primitive overdub. Working on the song helped me deal with my dashed expectations.
Then, as I finished singing the harmony vocal that I would later record for real, I made peace with the potential horror of being carless at school. With that song under my belt, I was fine, and didn’t need a car to make me happy. However, at the exact moment that I totally gave up on getting a car for my birthday, my car pulled up! I had forgotten, or had never known, that my grandparents were driving up from Jonesboro, Arkansas to have a birthday dinner at our house. Usually, we traveled to them, and had birthday dinners on Sundays. This was a weekday. Regardless, I can still hear my sister ask my mother as she peered out a window, "Why did Mama T. and Papa come in separate cars?"
Oh yeah! Presuming that I was not getting their Cadillac, I instantly pictured myself cruising around in my grandfather's '69 Mercury Montego. I really loved that car, and Papa did too. I had never once considered that he would give it to me. It was sleek, with great curves. Its only draw back? The AM radio had not been working recently. My mother was right. It was going to take a large percentage of my summer earnings to overhaul the music situation in Papa’s Mercury.
There would be no waiting, no ceremony to present the car. I bolted outside and yelled several times, "Can I keep it?" Papa smiled and nodded, shut the car off, and handed me the keys. Beaming, I turned and saw that Dad was behind me, holding something in his hands. As I looked a little closer, I could see that he was carrying a screwdriver and two maroon Missouri license plates. Obviously, the Arkansas tags were coming off. Dad took care of the plates while Papa advised me of some of the Mercury's quirks. I don't think I listened. I was just feeling ready for the freedom that this very car could provide. It was shaping up to be one of the best days of my life.
Mom demanded a picture. As Papa and Dad moved out of the way, I noticed the rear Missouri plate that Dad had just attached. SHF 650. That was a cool looking license number. I looked at it again, and for some inexplicable reason I saw SHF and said out loud, "She's Hi-Fi." Yes. “She’s Hi-Fi” sure sounded good, even if it did not have a clear meaning. While leaning against my car, waiting for my mother to snap a picture, I decided that "She's Not Nice" had a new title.
Almost two years would pass before The Trend recorded “She’s Hi-Fi” at Kennett Sound Studios. Between 1979 and the summer of 1981, we played it at a Band Dance, a Back-To-School Bash, into the school’s cassette recorder in the high school bandroom, and at our Senior Prom. Four times. Then, on the day that it was recorded, we spent all but a few minutes of our allotted studio time on the A-side, “Lucky Day.” I was the one who felt “Lucky Day” was, by far, the stronger song, and I had no problem lobbying to divide the time between the songs unevenly.
When we finally got around to “She’s Hi-Fi” in the studio, there was no time for anything other than rolling the analog tape and tracking it. We had to knock it out live. We had once chance to prove ourselves. Amazingly, we did. And while it is rough, the recording captured an honest and raw quality that caught the fancy of some unknown college radio DJ at KCOU several months later. They played it. A lot. “Lucky Day,” the A-side, received no such attention. It was played exactly once on the radio in Columbia.
Many years later, in the April 18, 2005 issue of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, "She's Hi-Fi" was praised in a review of the YELLOW PILLS: PREFILL compilation, which licensed the track for reissue.
Almost thirty five years after its release, I am still convinced that, technically, the melody to “Lucky Day” is the better of the two. Yet, a radio guy who played cool records on a cool station was drawn to the other side. Thankfully, because my grandfather gave me his car, and because my Dad took care of getting Missouri plates at exactly the time that he did, The Trend had a song on the B-side that made it worthwhile to flip the vinyl over.
John T. McMullan
January 7, 2016
|Posted by powerpopclassics on July 6, 2015 at 9:45 PM|
I composed the original version of "Florida Girl" in 1981, right around the time I graduated from high school. The first melody was deliberately simple, in the vein of "She's The One" by The Ramones and several early Beach Boys songs. The lyrics, also simple, were inspired by a girl from Florida that I liked very much, Sybil Lombillo.
While it became clear the following year that Sybil and I were never going to be an item, the song she inspired lived on. It continued its unlikely existence through two vastly different versions by The Trend. Our Ramones-ish first arrangement was catchy, but it did not make the cut for our 1982 album sessions. Later, in 1985, we recorded a "country punk" version as a demo, but that experiment failed to produce anything special, in spite of some great playing by the band. Nothing career-wise came of "Florida Girl" or any of that year's other demos. The Trend's members soon went on to real life, and I forgot about the song.
Fast forward almost thirty years.
One very normal day last year, I was working at my office, listening to my iTunes library on the "random" setting. The demo of "Florida Girl" came on, preceded by "The Rain, The Park and Other Things" by The Cowsills, and followed by "Intuition" by John Lennon. Suddenly, and obviously because of The Cowsills and John Lennon, it dawned on me that my old song had really never been completed, writing-wise. It needed to bounce. It needed a better melody. I dictated a quick note into my phone on February 21, 2014 to that effect. (I only know that date because my phone dated the memo.)
At the piano a few days later, I roughed out a bouncy version of the song with new melodic verses along with the hook and the tune of the middle 8 from the original. I determined that it needed an introduction that modulated, sort of like "The Things We Did For Love" by 10cc, and intended to arrange the intro right then. But I got interrupted by my real job and did not follow through.
Then, earlier this year, I bought a classical album by pianist Susan Merdinger. The first time I played Susan's album I was jolted by her brilliant recording of Brahms' "Rhapsody in G Minor." The chord changes were VERY familiar, and I immediately recalled my mother playing this piece many times in my childhood. It also struck me that the opening of the Brahms sounded like something Brian Wilson might have constructed for PET SOUNDS, especially with Brahms' frequent use of bass notes that were not the root of the chord.
Once again, "Florida Girl" came to mind. This Brahms modulation was exactly the kind of introduction my old song needed. I tracked down the classical sheet music, played it passably, and, sure enough, it turned out to be a perfect fit. To truly transform and complete the song, I reconstructed it one final time, and scored a string arrangement for it that had Brahms overtones. I also scored a vocal round to punctuate the “beachy” sound of the song. My good friend Don Smith promptly flipped the background vocals upside down, made them less busy, and put the “Rundgren-ish” slides in as a perfect finishing touch.
So, a mere thirty-four years after first scratching it out, I am finally ready to present "Florida Girl" as an iTunes single, and as a track on David Bash’s new power pop compilation, INTERNATIONAL POP OVERTHROW, VOL. 18. It was recorded in two sessions this past June at Music + Arts Studios and Ardent in Memphis, co-produced by Don Smith and me. Dawn Hopkins engineered. Robert Hall played drums. The string section was Beth Luscombe, Jessie Munson, Wenyih Yu and Jonathan Kirkscey. Van Duren joined Don and me for the backing vocals. I sang, played several different keyboards, and played guitar. The spirit of the late Jack Holder seemed to be present throughout the proceedings. And the new lyrics? They basically have nothing to do with the original song. The new lyrics were inspired by Michelle, Abigail and Marie, my modern-day Carillon Beach girls.
Finally, in a really cool twist, it blows my mind that a song I started writing at the time of my high school graduation was completed and is being released right after my oldest daughter’s graduation from high school.
John T. McMullan
July 6, 2015