Examining Contemporary Concepts in the Musicology of Production
Focussing on the Song ‘Mr Writer’ by Stereophonics.
This report will discuss the sociological, musical and production aspects of the song ‘Mr Writer’, written by Kelly Jones and performed by his band the Stereophonics. The song was released on the 2001 album ‘Just Enough Education to Perform’ under the label V2 Records. The song reached the number five slot on the United Kingdom singles chart, and the album peaked at the number one spot. By examining the band for their historical roots, influences and writing style it is possible to draw conclusion to the meaning of the song, and to see what significance it has in modern society.
“You hang names on your wall, Then you shoot them all. Are you so lonely?, You don't even know me, But you'd like to stone me. Mr Writer, why don't you tell it like it is?, Why don't you tell it like it really is?, Before you go on home. I used to treat you right, Give you my time, But when I turned my back on you, Then you do what you do. You've just enough education to perform.”
From the small mining town of Cwmaman in Wales, about 45 minutes north of Cardiff, the three founding members of Stereophonics grew up within doors of each other. Frontman Kelly Jones, Bassist Richard Jones (no relation) and Drummer Stuart Cable formed as a band in 1993, and shortly got signed to the newly formed V2 Records. They are well known in the United Kingdom and have recently made a name for themselves in the United States. In 2001 they released their third studio album, ‘Just Enough Education to Perform’. The album was produced by the partnership of Marshall Bird and Steve Bush, otherwise known simply as ‘Bird and Bush’. It contained the well known song ‘Have a Nice Day’ and the band’s cover of the Michael d'Abo song ‘Handbags and Gladrags’, as well as ‘Mr Writer’, a critical song written in reaction to a journalist’s comments after being around the band. Although this would appear to be the primary meaning of the song, it is also fundamental in defining problems in modern culture, where famed people find themselves being shadowed by constant criticism from journalists and the mass media.
(l-r) Kelly Jones, Stuart Cable, Richard Jones
The single quickly became a target for critics, unaware of who the track was really aimed towards. The band received bitter criticism over the song, most notably from The NME. “Stereophonics, if you must, we have got a letters page - the price of a stamp compares quite favourably with recording costs.” Four years on and The NME were still making evident that they were unforgiving of the band. “Kelly Jones has made it eminently apparent for time immemorial that he has no respect for the music press. The irony is that anyone who can satisfactorily cremate a Stereophonics record without coming across as a cantankerous Mister Writer is deserving of anyone’s respect.” In response to the question “Is there anything about your career you regret?” Jones replied “Every journalist thought Mr Writer was about them. It took me 10 minutes to write and 10 years to explain.”
According to Deeina Weinstein, “Protest songs can be classified on several dimensions.” ‘Mr Writer’ is an example of a “reaction song”, written about “a specific instance of abuse of power.” whereby the journalist that Jones writes about is the abuser of power.
The Stereophonics appear to be a difficult subject for a lot of journalists, even before the release of ‘Mr Writer’. “Their one song, played over and over across three albums now, is getting wearing, the initially raspy charm of Jones' sandpaper voice resembling fingernails down a blackboard.” They seem to have left journalists bewildered by their success, and yet it is indisputable – how many other mainstream bands are still going strong after 17 years? According to Rob Fitzpatrick of The Guardian, the Stereophonics “were already one of history's worst bands before they wrote their petty whingefest, Mr Writer.” However, the author fails to explain what drew him to this conclusion.
Perhaps then, the Stereophonics would be better left to speak for themselves. In an interview in 2008, Jones was asked what he would put the band’s success down to. His response was simple: “Wanting to change and never repeating an album. All in all, Stereophonics sound like Stereophonics, whether you love us or you hate us. We never jumped on any bandwagon.” This attitude has followed the band throughout their career. Through their extensive discography the band have touched on Britpop, Rock and Roll, Soul, Blues and Folk Rock, Acoustic and even Electronic in more recent years. For this reason the band have never integrated into any specific subculture commonly found in modern society, many of which are built upon a musical genre; some of the most distinctive subcultures being emo, goth, indie, scene, rocker, skater, and punk. In a sense the band have created their own subculture of music, which is appealing to a wide demographic.
" If you know what people are about and you can write about it then people are going to react "
Their first album, ‘Word Gets Around’, is a portrait of the band’s roots and an observation of modern life. This gives the band the feel of a local band; some journalists have referred to their music as “Pub Rock”. Perhaps this is what makes the band different; talking about real life issues that everyone can relate to. “We know what people are about. We still go to the pub, we still go on trains and buses. I've always thought that if you know what people are about and you can write about it then people are going to react.”
Mr Writer is certainly a song that people would react to, and although music critics were quick to downgrade the song – and in fact the album and everything else that the band had built up over the past seven years – the song was a big hit with the public, falling just four places short of the number one spot.
In other ethnic origins music is regarded as an everyday activity that goes without profession. In his book ‘This is Your Brain on Music’, Daniel Levitin tells the story of an anthropologist that travelled to the south-eastern nation of Lesotho:
“The Sotho consider singing an ordinary, everyday activity performed by everyone, not an activity reserved for a special few. Singing and dancing were a natural activity in everybody’s lives, seamlessly integrated and involving everyone.”
These traditions were also true of the Western world just under a century ago, when before the inventions of radio and television; families would entertain themselves by playing music and singing. Today’s culture is very different, where people are able to listen to the music of others via the introduction of recorded mediums such as vinyl and compact disks, analogue tape and MP3’s. This new generation of music culture also carried with it the so-called ‘celebrity culture’ of the modern day.
Members of the creative industries constantly find themselves under scrutiny from people in the media, and this has opened up a war between the two industries; most notably between musicians and journalists. Music is the ideal way of retaliating towards the media, as the Stereophonics proved with ‘Mr Writer’. In more recent songs there are also references to the media, such as in Lady GaGa’s 2009 hit, ‘Paparazzi’. The artist comments that the song illustrates the “whoring and death and the demise of the celebrity”.
In the last decade there has been a rise in the number of bands that have been recording and producing their own material, giving more bands the opening to build a successful career out of selling their music. Kelly Jones is known for his honest approach to song writing, but in interviews it would also appear that the frontman is honest in his outlook on modern music, commenting on “all these two song albums that are kicking about at the moment, and bands that are more concerned for a big career than a big heart and soul." This is a good indication of what the Stereophonics are about. When ‘Mr Writer’ was released, it was clear that the media would be bitter in response, but it is worth considering why the song experienced so much success. Perhaps the public are tired of hearing what the journalists have to say, and so maybe even in this song with its somewhat monotonous style, it is nice to hear a band finally having the courage to hit back at the media. “We do something right for the people on the street. The people at the cool magazines don't understand why people like us”.
" He'd tell me if I was average, and he'd tell me if I was great.”
From interviews with Kelly Jones it is easy to see why he regards ‘heart and soul’ as the most important aspect of his music. Jones’ father was a well known professional soul singer in Wales back in the 1980s. He clearly shows a lot of respect towards his upbringing, and talks about how his father helped him during his early days. “He was a great dad. He was pretty honest, really: he'd tell me if I was average, and he'd tell me if I was great.”
The musical elements and production style of ‘Mr Writer’ do well in portraying the same message as the lyrics in the song. The song is written in the key of A-flat major, and uses the simple time signature, 4/4. Despite the major key, the song is relatively downbeat, at approximately 72bpm. The instrumentation matches the blend between Rock and Roll and Acoustic that the band were conveying at the time, with a steel string acoustic guitar for the rhythm, and Les Paul electric guitar for the melody. A classic rock kit and electric precision bass give the track a slow and steady pace with a nice groove. There is also a bright-sounding grand piano in the instrumental section. The chordal structure for the song is very repetitive, although this is most likely a deliberate act of the musician, matching the lyrics in the song, portraying the deflated life of a journalist.
The production style of the song is relatively simple, as were the Stereophonics’ two previous albums, which were also produced by Bird and Bush. In an interview with Sound on Sound, the two producers commented: “With a band like Stereophonics, you can't be arsing around with it too much. However, they know a good-sounding record, and they weren't going to be happy with just 'a live performance'.” Many of the band’s material has an eventual live sound, but by recording the instruments individually they knew that they could make better separation between the sound sources, resulting in a brighter, punchier sounding overall track. In regard to recording demos for the band’s songs, Bush commented, "We ended up having demos which were the freshest, vibiest, truest recordings of the tracks. It can be a real problem for everyone when you're faced with having to make more hi-fi versions of songs when you already have fantastic performances.” Many fans would regard Stereophonics as a ‘live band’, so in capturing this essence the producers chose to use the better musical takes, opposed to the better sonic takes.
‘Mr Writer’ has two interesting features; the electric guitar and the vocal melodies. The structure and sound of the electric guitar has an extraordinary sound, achieved by using a wah-wah pedal, slight distortion and some flange. The vocal part is a single clean track with barely any effects and no harmonies, and due to a good production and mix, it stands out above the rest of the track. The lyrics are clear and in-your-face, which was essential as they are the key part of the track. They are sung with very little variation until the last chorus in the song, where Jones screams out the words with plea. The vocal melodies on the track do not harmonise with the lead vocal, but are instead used as a pose to using string instruments such as a violin or viola. They have a very distinctive sound, and flow well with the rest of the track. The use of a vocal opposed to an instrument makes the song sound a lot more personal, as vocals are better in portraying emotion.
In terms of the song’s significance, ‘Mr Writer’ helps to define the media in modern society, and points out the problems in the conflict between the media and the creative industries. It is interesting to note that although the song was only written about one journalist, the song received negative reviews from all over the press, adding somewhat of an irony to the entire song. There will always be criticism in the music industry, and people will always have varied opinions. It is just worth considering the small nation of Lesotho, as a reminder of what music means to the individual.
Musicians will always find something to write about, but without them the journalists would be just about lost for words…
Luke Robinson © 2011
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