In which The Author goes to see live music again
We’ve all heard of the Great American Songbook. It’s the canonical fare of popular music, the product of some of the greatest lyricists and composers of the 20th Century: the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and his musical partners, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Sammy Cahn, and a host of others. It provided the musical accompaniment for a collective consciousness, from the dawn of the talking pictures to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. Almost every singer, at some point in their musical career, has dipped a toe into this timeless repertoire (even though some will strenuously deny it!) Recently, some British musicians of the highest calibre, like George Michael, Rod Stewart and Sting have explored this rich seam of creativity. It’s the music to our lives, the inalienable sound of America in all its mercurial manifestations.
There’s a similar canon which seems to be today’s proving ground for bands and musicians in South Wales. I call it the Great Valleys Songbook. For week after week, in a pub not far from my house, I’ve seen a different bunch of 40-somethings churn out note-for-note cover versions of ‘I Fought The Law’, ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ (the Thin Lizzy version), ‘Summer of 69’, and a couple of dozen more Radio 2 playlist fixtures. The more adventurous bands try to keep a finger on the pulse of pop music, occasionally throwing in the odd song by the Kaiser Chiefs or Snow Patrol. It’s always the same Snow Patrol song, mind you – just in case there’s anyone in the pub who isn’t familiar with anything but their best-known hit and starts to panic when they find themselves in uncharted territory. I live in constant fear of the day when the guitarist (for it is nearly always a guitarist who commands the microphone) announces, ‘Here’s a song you may not know.’ I predict a riot, all right!
Admittedly we’ve moved on in some regards. It’s been a while since the hoary old warhorses ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Smoke on the Water’ got an airing. I’m sure they still turn up in the set list now and again. I’m probably on the way home by the time they do.
Tonight, having heard the same songs as the last time I was in the pub, but in a different order, I couldn’t help wondering whether the landlady issues a ‘tip sheet’ to aspiring bands. They are allowed to pick any twenty songs from the available repertoire to make up their set, like choosing from a strictly limited karaoke menu. Woe betide any band who tries to introduce anything new, obscure, or (heaven forbid) self-composed into their set! That’s a sure-fire way to get themselves paid off after the first half, and probably banned from the pub forever.
The Great Valleys Songbook is nothing less than the bible for pub bands in South Wales. Anyone departing from the Authorized Version risks swift excommunication – or worse still, consignment to the cabaret circuit. True, there are many classic songs out there, which we never tire of hearing. That’s what jukeboxes are for. Would it really hurt the audience if – just for once – the band experimented with the structure of a song, or introduced a variation on the basic theme, or arranged a tune in a slightly different style?
And let’s be perfectly honest, while some of the musicians seem to have grown into the songs they crank out every week, sometimes it’s just plain embarrassing. A bunch of balding, paunchy 40-somethings playing ‘Hotel California’ for the hundredth time is bad enough. When the same group of guys bounce their way into ‘Teenage Kicks’, it isn’t a pretty sight. You really don’t want to think of them getting their jollies over the schoolgirl down the street. You feel like phoning Social Services instead …