Episode 14: Dancing in the City

Our takes

The Inspiration: Dancing In The City by Marshall Hain

by Jennie Trueman

On a pub crawl last November, 2016, I met Chris (Frosty1973) who on hearing I am in the (mighty) Manchester SHE choir, asked if I would like to have a go at vocals on the next Frozen Veg project.  The creative concept of which excited me with the chance to sing, apparently because Sam wasn’t keen on his own vocals. Despite playing piano, bit of guitar and a fair bit of penny whistle prior to my early twenties the choir had been my only musical outlet really for twenty years, so I enthusiastically agreed.

I had sent Chris Dancing in the City, the Marshall Hain 1978 pop classic, that my dad had introduced me to on an album he bought in Wooley’s, suggesting its use for a new musical something.  During a torpor and crawling out of my skin with boredom and fever from a debilitating cold that frustrated me over nearly two weeks last Christmas I penned a few lines to feel productive and take my mind off.

Jennie Trueman

I am a total novice crafting songs, so the initial lines I sent to Chris were flowery and long-winded, “grand antiquated buildings overlooking neon streets” or something, and an ill conceived, “bald heads between bare legs”.  Such bumbling was in my vague attempt at cynically observing drunk Manchester townies from the perspective of an unwilling but enduring participant.

Much to my surprise, I think a day or two later, Chris gets back with an almost entire song arrangement! He also presents ideas to hack my wildly poetic ramblings into a better song construct, thankfully.  With much to work on but excited and delighted so far, it made an otherwise miserable Christmas, good.

It was a while before I got to Chris’s to work together when the arrangement had progressed a fair bit including his friend’s electric guitar and double base contributions. He’d continuously feedback any changes/progress throughout. We then threw in more harmonies and experimented pursuing various ideas and instruments. The melody stayed solid while I hoped Chris’s harmonium would add a wistful connection to a place far removed from a city centre night on the town.

Bearing in mind there’s always potential for change and difficulty with lots of instruments that things get lost in the mix. However, I’d never played a Theremin, and so I was that kid in a toy shop discovering Chris had one, which after a bit of a play, sky rockets above the crescendo.  I was also thrilled and encouraged to use a little from a larger, more oriental piano piece from a previous life, to create the calm towards the song’s end.

More discussion, little arguing over magnified subtleties in sound, but the hours whoosh by imperceptibly and the entire thing had suddenly been a work in progress for a couple of months.

Meanwhile Sam (theparsnip) who I had never met, was also apparently beavering away on his own dance/trance version of the song, but was struggling to get the lyrics to fit.  So we all arranged to meet.  After a few beers Sam played a quick blast of the different melody, and with the lyrics, a mic and another beer put in front of me, I sang words to fit the track as it played. I don’t know how much chopping and changing Sam did to create the final but the forced brevity in this impromptu recording changed the original lyrical focus from wishing to be elsewhere on a night out, to embracing fun on the town regardless, and really works married with Sam’s upbeat dance/trance-scape.  On closer reading, it could also depict someone weighing up the decision to take something drug related.  Purely accidental.

“High Time

Getting out of here [it]

Last chance

Listen to your fears”

Life is full of surprises and there have been many in this process.  After a long hidden hope for one reason or another, it has also been an emotionally and mentally cathartic, revelatory experience to finally get creative musically again. A joy I doubt would have happened as amazingly if at all without Chris and Sam.  Thanks to you both for your openness, knowhow, persistence, patience, the pleasure involved in working with and getting to know you, and the opportunity itself. I can’t wait for future collaborations.  Just wish my dad was still around to hear them.

The Lyrics

Grand buildings
Neon looking on
fast fun for everyone
bare legs,  bald heads and heeled feet
gathering momentum in the crowded city streets
And it’s high time
for getting out of here
and its only the second time
you’ve listened to your fears
Prancing/glancing round the city
Gangs of guys and girls
Pretend, you really want to
Have fun tonight
The same shirts are worn by
The beer fueled and the brave
They’ll try it on ‘til dawn
Til Kebab meat trays are thrown
Time out for everyone….
And it’s all fading
The rain has washed away
The stains on the pavement
that stood in your way. (that stood there yesterday)
Turn round for home…

Frosty 1973’s take

I met Jennie on a pub crawl with friends.  It’s rare to meet someone with such  varied musical tastes so when she said she was part of the Manchester She Choir I spied the opportunity for  a Frozen Veg collaboration.  A drink or six later she’d agreed to supply some lyrics and provide some vocals.  After a few lyrical additions and adjustments (see above) I came up with the chords for the verse and chorus in one evening.

The middle eight section was improvised around the chords in the rest of the song.  As is often the case I have no clear idea what I played and I’d struggle to recreate it.  This created a challenge for an old friend I asked to play some bass and guitar.  Fish plays, sings and writes for Stoke-on-Trent’s popular blues heroes, Dirk Digglers Blues Revue. He added some fine bass and guitar which I fear I’ve buried a bit in the final mix.

Fish with Dirk Diggler’s Blue Revue

The final, and unexpected piece of collaboration on this track came when another friend Mike Jones messaged me saying he’d been inspired to record a guitar solo over the end section. I sent him a recording of the track and he sent me his recording by email.  Mike works closely with folk rock legends, Merry Hell (formerly The Tansads) and I’ve often heard him play his own nice intricate acoustic compositions but this is, as far as I know, the first time he’s committed any of his playing to hard drive.  I hope to do a more involved collaboration with Mike in the future.

Mike Jones

Fish had already recorded a nice growly low-pitched solo and Mike’s was in a higher register and I thought the two might complement each other.  In the end I panned one to the left and one to the right.  I know that Mike’s could probably do with being a little higher in the mix but I spent a long time getting frustrated with the mixing process and the version you hear in this episode is just how the song sounded when I had to let go of it for the benefit of my own mental health!

Mixing was definitely the main issue I had with this episode.  When Jennie came round to do some recording we came up with lots of parts that sounded great on their own but together there were lots of parts that didn’t sit comfortably within the mix and didn’t make the final version.

Whilst Jennie’s backing vocals worked well I had great difficulty recording my voice in a way that sat nicely with the rest of the instrumentation.  This was partly due to the key of the song, but mainly due to frequency ranges of the rest of the instrumentation.  I only fully realised this when I went back to some of the initial demos of the track which just featured Fender Rhodes and Piano.  I think this is always more difficult when you’re writing/recording without having properly worked out and finalised parts before emabarking on the recording process. In a band scenario many of the issues associated with arrangement are filtered out in rehearsals prior to recording.

The ‘dance’ section at the beginning arose from a feeling that the style of the song didn’t have too much to do with the subject matter and I imagined adding something which sounded like dance music emanating from a club on a night out.  I was hoping to achieve something like the effect on Bjork’s song More To Life but I think it falls well short of that.

It’s difficult for me to view the end result objectively.  There were many forks in the road where the recording of the song could have taken a different direction stylistically.  At times potential influences included Dennis Wilson, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Goldfrapp, Scott Walker and Steve Hackett. In the end I didn’t really follow any of those paths and to me, for the moment, the final mix sounds a bit cluttered and flat.  That may change after giving it a bit of space but I’d like to revisit this track at some point in the future and do something with a bit more space and a bit more emotional impact.

After finishing this version I went back to my original musical sketches and I think there’s anothere song trying to escape and there may even be scope for including some of Jennie’s initial lyrics.  I’d like to thank everyone involved this time for and promise I’ll keep this a bit simpler, and the process a bit shorter next time.

The Parsnip’s Take

(Narration over slow motion tracking shot backdrop of Manchester nightlife…)
“Like a creative fungus Frosty 1973 extends tendrils into the nightlife of the city. Probing, surveying and knitting strands of cultural biodiversity. Extending myriad hyphae with uninhibited, undirected, unfocused, unrelenting and deeply relaxed enthusiasm. Generating a musical mycelium comprising like-minded individuals and uncharted geniuses all of whom don’t quite know what’s going on. Thus the latest, long-awaited(?), episode is a textbook example of the formidably-fecund Frost approach to life and leisure.”

The genesis of this episode was a year-long inability to knock out anything suitable based on the intended choice of tune. In my case, a bad case of work-life imbalance coupled with creative block. In the case of Sir Chris, a bad case of Sweet Shop Syndrome – accretion of a surfeit of ideas with concomitant inability to decide which one to use. To break free from the stall, I moved on to the idea Jennie had provided. I always treat my own vocals with an appropriate lack of respect so the concept of Jennie providing some proper vocals was a winner. Creating fresh lyrics wouldn’t have been a problem but we thought the idea of attacking the same song from different angles reflected the core concept of the Frozen Veg Project so everything looked well set with Chris’s pruning of Jennie’s original idea as the template.

A recording get-together to tackle my tune was arranged. Pre-recording beers were scheduled to get over the obligatory nerves on both sides and to try to build some rapid rapport. A couple of cheeky ones turned into a few more then it was recording time.
I’d prepared a backing track with basic chords devoid of the EDM faffing about that my version had already grown into. The lyrics were displayed. I explained my idea of the vocal melody to accompany the track…and then the magic happened.

Sandbar, Manchester

It’s an fascinating experience to watch a genius in action. Jennie proceeded to ignore any instructions about the melody, miss out words and phrases from the lyrics and invent new ones on the spot. The output was pure gold. Beer-infused, I enjoyed adopting a faux-exasperated stereotypical band diva attitude while Sir Chris went for more supplies and fired out more innovative electronic tendrils on his phone. The session was a two-take wonder. Magic happens quickly. The background road noise was incessant. We were finished before we knew it. I then played the emerging proper mix to Jennie and at that point she knew what we were aiming for. We could have recorded more with a different slant but I knew we had some magic in the can. A decamp for more beers and more banter ensued then I left the young’uns to it.

Onto the mixing. This was my first real exploration of what Reason can do with audio and I was blown away. The vocals from the pretty ropey “recording studio” environment were musical magic bathed in traffic noise and the timing didn’t fit the spaced out timing of the emerging EDM track. A touch of noise gating tidied up the traffic noise, manual volume level correction balanced the vocal sections, dragging the transients around sorted out the timing and a tasteful touch of smoothing resulted in a professional sounding vocal take. Very powerful.

(Probably an idea to listen to the track while reading the next bit)

Musically, it is filtertastic – generating movement with filter sweeps all over the place. The kick drum appears as a click at the start with all the bottom removed to provide the beat without spoiling the introduction of the thump after the first verse. Delay with a whole host of feedback is used everywhere to glue the sound together and smooth the unsmooth. Vocals are bathed in diffuse echo to sit nicely cushioned in the mix.

The pad with deep phaser provides the background. It just does it’s own wishy washy thing while the rest of the track gets on with ‘doing the song’. The lead phrase repeats against changing background chords which I always like. The filter/resonance variance makes different bits of it stand out at different times to avoid it being samey.
Duplicate tracks are used to tailor the echoes by sending only the intended vocal snippets to the delay effect, e.g. “your fears…your fears…etc”. Got to keep your echoes under tight control.

Chord-wise, this is a minor key. I don’t do happy. I love the contrast of the beauty of the vocal delivery with the melancholy/wistful/mildly cynical musical arrangement and meaning of the words.

Mixing and mastering was a bit of a nightmare. Mixing was usually fine but the mastering stage invariably put an unintended emphasis on parts of the mix. I went through endless mixing to mastering loops to eventually arrive at the final mix. I still think it’s a bit bass-heavy but it’s good enough. Mixing/mastering for me is always a bit of a black art. Any changes now are as likely to head in the wrong direction as the right one. The usual quality checks of listening to the mix in the car, in the ‘studio’, on mp3 players and other speakers reckon this mix is the best so far so that will do. Early mixes had the kick drum sounding like a click so this one at least has some punch.

For me, the star of the track is Jennie’s vocal performance. I particularly love the breathy delivery of “all so faded” and especially “the rain has washed away”. I couldn’t allow those phrases to appear only once so I used them again in the last part of the track. We didn’t record the vocals for the last part. I changed the pitch using Reason and was pleased that the radically different melody sounded so natural.

Ultimately, this has been an exercise in what can be achieved when you’ve got someone who can really sing. Thanks Jennie.

The creative process used in the production of this track can be boiled down to the following steps:

  • Create music and lyrics.
  • Meet for cheeky sherbets x lots in local hostelry. Once beer infused…
  • Decamp to unsuitably noisy ‘studio’ environment.
  • Ignore melodic instructions.
  • Partially ignore/reinvent lyrics on the fly.
  • Capture vocal performance in a single take.
  • Decamp, correct, refine, release.

One response to “Episode 14: Dancing in the City”

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