Thicke as thieves? Photo: David Buchan/Getty Images
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Tracey Thorn: Your songs are like your children – you have to wave them off into the world

Copyright law encourages artists to feel they're in control of what they've made. But in reality, a song is a different thing once it leaves its creator.

There’s been much talk these past couple of weeks about ownership of songs, sparked by the disputed ruling that has left Pharrell Williams liable to the tune of $7.3m over similarities between his “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”. Many interesting and well-informed pieces have been written about this already and I’m not going to add to the conversation, except to say that I was as surprised as anyone else by the outcome. But it set me off thinking about the difference between the legal concept of ownership and a more nebulous, emotional feeling about whether or not songs belong to us.

Copyright law ensures that we writers earn money from our songs, and establishes our rights over the material we have composed. So don’t get me wrong – I benefit from it and am grateful for it. And yet, in some strange way, the idea of owning a song doesn’t always feel true.

Once you have written it and recorded it, and especially if it has then gone on to be a hit, a song slips out of your grasp. Played all day long on the radio – half-heard by people who are doing other things, or taken to heart by some who find that it tells the story of their life and speaks all the words they cannot say – a hit song “belongs” not to the writer, but to the listener. You wave your songs off into the world like children, hoping for the best for all of them. A hit is the child who becomes a star, soaring out of your orbit and control, swaggering about with a new identity all of its own. Sending cheques home.

This is how I feel about the Everything But the Girl song “Missing”, and it might explain why in some ways I’m less protective of it than its fans. It took the music a long time to reach its final, successful incarnation, a meandering journey in which it assumed various forms along the way, leaving me uncertain which version is the real one. And the lyrics were written at home in a scruffy notebook and tell a fictional story that never felt quite real to me, but did to so many who heard it.

I think it was Jerry Dammers who once said that you don’t ever really finish songs, you just abandon them to the public. “Missing” was found on the doorstep by millions of people who adopted and cared for it. One of those was a singer called Newtion Matthews, who sang the song on BBC1’s The Voice, weekend before last.

He spoke of how much it had meant to him, describing “a time when I was down and out and I had lost my way . . . a tough time – I was a young guy and I didn’t have anywhere to live”. And then he funked it up, in a brassy Mark Ronson-type style, taking the song somewhere new and different. Losing the melancholy, he replaced it with a kind of urgency and defiance, perhaps summoning up the feelings that had got him out of that dark place. To me, it all seemed entirely justifiable, and so I was puzzled by people who rushed to tell me on Twitter that he’d murdered it, or been disrespectful. But maybe that’s because – to come back to the point I made at the beginning – those fans feel like they own the song more than I do.

Anyway, poor Newtion got voted off and sent home, proving to me again (this is the third time I’ve seen the song in a contest – it popped up on the Italian X Factor, and before then in a previous series of The Voice) that “Missing” is not an obvious choice. It’s a hard song to sing. Not, I hasten to add, because of the vocal range (there is none to speak of) but the vocal tone, which may, after all, be essential to its success, however much you vary the arrangement.

In my favourite ever review (quoted in Bedsit Disco Queen) the journalist James Hunter described my singing of the song as being “full of her radical mid-range rationality”, but that quality is no use at all in a singing contest, where what is needed is an opportunity to impress, with high notes, ad libs, bells and whistles. “You made that song your own” is the great compliment from the judges. Funny how hard that is for a singer, when it’s what every listener does.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.