Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Biography of a Song - "Dinosaur Sam"

Spintunes Round #3. Things are heating up. They are hottening. Temperaturafying. Terrifrying. This week, we had to set our metaphorical bras on fire and write a song protesting something. Actually, the challenge referred to it as a 'protest song' but sold it more as a persuasive piece, where we were supposed to win our audience over on something we believed strongly.

The Challenge

I had some ideas in the beginning that I discarded pretty quickly - "everybody should learn to drive a stick shift" would've been fun, but the words protest song just kept niggling at me; I needed to go sociopolitical, or else the song wouldn't stand a chance in the competition.  I could resort to my go-to topic and write a "God doesn't exist" song, but... I already wrote that song once, all the way back in Spintunes 1, Round 2.  I thought I could write a good '99%' song, but the title of the challenge referenced the Occupy movement, and that effectively made it "already taken" in my mind.  But I was getting closer to my target, at least.

So I kept thinking.  I wanted to tackle gay marriage, and I thought about legalized marijuana, but thought better of them both for fear that the topics would be thoroughly covered by other competitors and I didn't want to oversaturate the pool of entries.  In the end, I failed to find one solid idea that inspired me to crank out a worthy song; I was just left with all these disappointments floating on the surface of a general sense of dissatisfaction with our government, and that's when it resolved for me.

The thing I believed strongly is that the people in charge are out of touch with the society over which they preside, and that's fucking everything up.

The Song

I blew most of my week just arriving at that conclusion, but I knew the song was going to come out quickly once the idea fell into place.  I first put pen to paper on Saturday afternoon, and something happened that never happens to me: the first verse just came out in one flowing sentence, and it was done.  It appears in the song exactly as first written, the only exception being that I padded the length of the first line so it better matched the rest of the verse.  While doing so, I took the opportunity to identify the employer as a man to reinforce the gender roles at play in that first verse.

Anyway, that first verse gave me my hook and a rough draft for the whole song was finished Saturday night.  I put it away until the morning to let the ideas marinate in my subconscious, and managed to bang out the final draft by mid morning on Sunday.

The Music

This was a challenge I'd been waiting for.  Not the content of the challenge, mind you, but the fact that it didn't force my hand musically like it did in the previous round.  I regretted not being able to do a full rock n' roll arrangement in Round #1 and I had to wait until now to get that out of my system.

I started out noodling away on the guitar and found something pretty fun and interesting, but it reminded me, again, of my Spintunes 1 Round #2 song, so I eventually abandoned that for use in a future unrelated project.  Once the cadence of my lyrics began to emerge, however, I realized that I had an old riff written years ago that I never finished that would be just perfect here.  I had a nice funky jam in E that didn't have a very complicated progression at all, but contained some really fun flourishes.

The thing I'm most proud of is the main riff, in which I figured out how to play some choice harmonics interspersed with -- and sometimes, simultaneously with -- the fretted chords of the progression.  It's really fun to play that riff.  So fun, in fact, that I decided not to strip it down during the verses against my better judgment.  Somehow, it managed not to be too distracting during vocals, which I attribute solely to dumb luck.

This is the first time since Spintunes 1 that I've played a full drum kit in a song, and it's something I sorely missed.  Unfortunately, I moved since those days, into an apartment complex where I'm a little more sensitive to the truth that drummers make terrible neighbors.  I played very tentatively on this track, and stopped recording well before I had a take I was truly satisfied with, because I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible before I used up the available good will and patience of my cohabitants.

This is also my first foray into recording a properly mic'd drum kit.  Before this christmas my only recourse was to throw a dynamic mic in my bass drum's sound hole and place my vocal condenser on a stand somewhere south of my left butt-cheek.  It was okay, but not really something any serious musician would call adequate.  I now have a full 7-channel setup to play with, but this essentially quadruples the amount of audio engineering I have to perform in order to get a drum track recorded.  There are many many variables at play, and it's going to take a lot of time and experimentation before I'll call myself confident in my ability.  But damn if it isn't fun as hell.

As funk rock demands, I hung up my trusty acoustic bass and brought out a recently-acquired hand-me-down electric.  I stuck to my typical formula here: structured and layered bass part for the verses and meandering solo for the chorus.  The only truly 'written' part was for the verse; everything else was just winging it.  Definitely happy with the results.

The Lyrics

I wrote three verses as self-contained vignettes, each dealing with a specific sociopolitical topic: first was gender-based wage inequality; my earlier ideas on gay marriage and legalization of marijuana made their reappearances here, bolstered by the subtexts of church-state separation and the privatized prison system, respectively.  I strung the first two verses into a narrative, and had I more time, I'd have tried to do so with all three, but the third verse is already longer than the first two without adding any thematic connections, and since it's separated from the first two by the first chorus, I felt that it was alright to let it stand on its own.

Wordplay was front and center for this song.  My rhyme scheme borrowed heavily from hip-hop's playbook, with extensive use of slant rhymes and internal rhyme.  My formula loosely follows an 'A' family of internal rhymes for the first half of the verse which then shifts to a 'B' family of internal rhymes in the second half.  The Chorus is sort of a dense shuffling of the above, with at least four unique slant rhymes in use at once.  Also in the chorus is an instance of my favorite little wordplay trick, where I create "virtual words" that don't actually exist where you hear them.  In this case, the virtual word was an identity rhyme to 'Dinosaur':

You're a Dinosaur, Sam
Your ideology needs to die
No sore winners in my promised land

In Closing

All in all, I think this is one of the better songs I've written for Spintunes, particularly for its 'standalone' factor - it doesn't come off as something that I wrote for a contest, it just sounds like a straight ahead song that I'd have written for the hell of it.  Given more time I'd maybe throw in a bridge or embellish it with a guitar solo, but as is, I'm VERY happy with the results of two days' work.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Biography of a Song - "The 12th Man"

Hi diddly ho, neighbor!

The time has come to dust the ol' blog off and write another song bio for my latest Spintunes adventure.  For those not keeping track, this is the sixth iteration of the contest, and my third time competing as an official entrant.  We're currently in Round #2, and my song is in the running amongst a field of very tough competitors.  And Edric*.

The Challenge

"Song Fight" - both an apt description of the challenge and a friendly allusion to another online songwriting contest that features a fair number of crossover contestants (and at least one judge) with Spintunes, we were instructed to write a fight song for our favorite sports team.  There were leniencies in place in case any of us weren't sports enthusiasts, but I had no need to take advantage of them; as I originally hail from upstate New York, I inherited a bleeding heart fandom for that most tragic of NFL franchises, the Buffalo Bills.

Let me get something out in the open:  We suck.  We know it.  But we once did something amazing that no other team has done before or since.  And we, the rabid fans known as 'Bills Backers', will always be there for our boys.  Always, goddammit.  And no way in hell am I going to remark on team failures or conspicuously-absent Tiffany & Co.-designed trophies in our trophy case in any fight song I pen for them.  With that in mind:

The Song...

 ...was always going to be a victory march, not a redemption story.  It's an optimistic rally of a song that matches the unsinkable spirit and never-give-up attitude of the Bills fans and epitomized by players like Don Beebe, who ran the entire length of the field to strip the ball out of a showboating Dallas Cowboy's hands mere inches before he'd have scored a massive gap-widening touchdown in the Cowboys' and Bills' second Super Bowl battle... and who needed a special protective cap outside his helmet because he suffered too many concussions due to his relentless style of play.  I dedicate this song to Don.

The Music

There's not much to say about this one, due to the lack of instrumentation.  Sonically, it's something of a bastard child of "God Bless America" and "Colonel Bogey March" (the Bridge on the River Kwai rendition, naturally); I knew immediately that I wasn't going to be able to address this challenge adequately by using my standard rock n' roll band instruments -- least of all my acoustic guitar -- so I stripped it down to something appropriate for a crowd of rowdy tailgaters - shouting, singing, and whistling.  Then I added in a dash of snare drum, because fuck you if you don't like a snare drum.

Before I had any lyrics down, I knew I wanted the song to be one long crescendo, building up to a crowd singing in a round.  I never intended to do any vocal or whistling harmonies, but when I got around to tracking it just sorta happened by accident, like usual.

The Lyrics

I went back and forth about how many "inside references" I should make while writing this.  I considered telling the (fictional) story of bringing a Lombardi Trophy back to Ralph Wilson Stadium, and also thought about dropping Buffalo-related local references, but they felt a little contrived, like I was trying to prove to the listener that this wasn't just a generic "Go (insert team name here)!" song and that I was a True Fan who knows True Bills Facts.  Ultimately I decided that if I just sang about us, the honesty of it would peek through.

That said, there are a few carefully-selected phrases I chose to include.  The it's fandemonium! prelude was the catch-phrase of long-time Voice of the Bills, radio announcer Van Miller.  I refer to the Bills Backers by name, and also call us "Football's Greatest Fans" in the song, as we were called by head coach Marv Levy during my first time watching a home game live.  This theme carries into the key phrase and title of the song:

A football lineup consists of eleven players on the field.  It's been said that the fans of a team contribute so much energy to the game that it's like having a 12th man in the lineup.  In 1992 the Bills expressed their gratitude by inducting The 12th Man to their Wall of Fame, where the names of other Bills greats' were placed overlooking the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The song's final lyrics are a tip o' the cap to Marv Levy, who wrote his own fight song for the Bills in the mid-nineties.  I am a Levy-era fan, after all.  The line, with victory in sight we'll yell with all our might was graciously borrowed from his song.

In Closing

I didn't realize it until after I was done and had something on paper that I was proud of, but this was one of the most fun challenges that I've faced in a Spintunes thus far.  As a lifelong member of this worldwide extended family, it was an honor for me to write this song to the Bills and their fans everywhere.

* - inside joke**
** - and that's not to say that Edric Haleen isn't a very tough competitor; he's a SUPREMELY tough competitor.  And yes, this is a footnote to another footnote.  I do that.