Thicke as thieves? Photo: David Buchan/Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Matt Forde
Show Hide image

Matt Forde: “Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are indistinguishable on Brexit”

The Dave host and former Labour adviser on why comedy is so much better than politics.

Matt Forde gave up his Labour Party membership after Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership victory, according to Wikipedia, because he is a “committed Blairite”. Presented with that information two years later, the host of Dave’s satirical chat show Unspun, and former Labour adviser, says the description isn’t entirely accurate. “I left politics because I wanted to concentrate on my comedy career full-time. I’d always done both; I did my first gig when I was 16 and carried on doing them during my early activism. I guess when I was working for MPs and Labour, I didn’t have as much time and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate. I also felt that the direction Labour was going in wasn’t for me. I don’t write my own Wikipedia page, in any case.” 

Forde’s admiration for Tony Blair, though, radiates off him. The ex-Prime Minister appeared as a guest on Unspun last year. Pressed on Blair’s legacy, Forde insists that it encompasses “far more than people care to admit” beyond the Iraq War. “I think a lot of people on the hard left would equate Blairism to Iraq and I really struggle with that," he says. "Millions of people voted for New Labour and millions of people still reflect on that period of politics in a positive way.

"Social justice was still at the core of New Labour. It was about tackling inequality and using the state to do that. But it was also about being pro-business, pro-Europe and having a pragmatic view of the world.” That Labour won three general elections on Blair’s watch, Forde suggests, is considered by some factions of the party to be an inconvenient truth.

The Nottingham-born comic believes Labour’s broad church represents a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the party’s lurch to the left has resulted in its biggest increase in the share of the vote by a party leader since Clement Attlee in 1945; on the other, the success is only relative, as it still hasn’t been enough to get back into government. For all the talk of renewed unity under Corbyn’s bright banner of socialism, Forde says there remains a distinct disunity regarding the party’s position on Brexit. “The thing is, on Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May are pretty much indistinguishable from each other," he says. "They will allow it to happen and deny us access to the single market. Brexit is the single biggest threat to our economy and society and I don’t feel like the scale of that issue is being reflected by the two major parties. It feels like those of us who do care about it and can see what a car crash it’s going to be are stood screaming behind a piece of soundproof glass.”

In fairness, the idea of a Labour split along European faultlines is not one that started with Corbyn. Aside from not being in government, what makes the current Labour squabbling different? Forde smirks. “I know there’s a view that Blair sort of hijacked Labour and rubbed a lot of noses in the dirt. The difference between that era and this one is that people like Corbyn and John McDonnell were actually allowed to rebel. They weren’t threatened with deselection for having a different opinion. The leadership and culture of the party at that time understood the broad church. At the end of the day, it was better to have a hard left MP in Islington than to deselect him and not have one at all. The idea that some Corbyn supporters would rather that a Blairite MP lost their seat is baffling.”

The Labour MP Chuka Umunna recently tabled an amendment on the Queen’s Speech calling for the UK to stay in the single market post-Brexit. Some shadow ministers decided to join him in defying the whip. Was Umunna right to table the amendment? “Yes, I think so,” says Forde. “We don’t have plurality right now. We’re too binary in Labour. There’s an idea that you’re either with us or against us. That’s not just immature, but deeply disrespectful to some very valuable assets in the party.” 

Arguing against Corbyn in the context of Europe does seem a bit of a moot point – “it shouldn’t” Forde objects – but it does. Whatever Corbyn’s perceived failings on Brexit are, he has mobilised a formidable youth wing and campaigned with immeasurably more verve than the current Prime Minister. Forde nods. “The Maybot did herself no favours, sure. He’s a natural campaigner and he deserves credit for that. Look, Corbyn is a nice guy. He’s affable; you can talk football with him. But as for the culture around him, that isn’t always the case.” 

Is Corbynism a cult? Forde sighs. “The problem with investing so emotionally in an individual is that all of your politics end up being processed through them. You suspend critical thought. You think that if this person represents what you believe, then they can never do anything wrong.” 

Corbyn, though, won’t be Labour leader forever. “Tell that to his supporters,” jokes Forde. What happens post-Corbynism? Who should be in the frame to take over? “I guess that depends on whether he does actually become  Prime Minister, which to be fair is a distinct possibility now. If he does, you might see the party want to stick with that far-left tract, but then what happens to the rest of us? You’ve already seen Paul Mason [the journalist and Corbyn supporter] telling centrists that if they want a pro-European centrist party then they should leave Labour. That’s horrendous.” 

Forde’s frustration with the Brexit imbroglio is forthright. It’s something that clearly troubles him and overarches his comedy. So, would he ever go back into politics himself? “I doubt it. Comedy is so much better. Politics is exhausting and for a lot of the time a thankless task that ages people at a rate that no other industry does.” At 68, incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn is entitled to retire. 

Matt Forde performs A Show Hastily Rewritten In Light Of Recent Events - Again! at Pleasance Forth at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from 2-27 August.

 

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.