18 May 2009

17: Today at Last

Recorded December 2001, Smallwood Studios, Redditch, Worcs
Performers Pete Green (lead vocal, keyboard), Rob Harris (guitar, backing vocal), Paul Roach (guitar), Richard Banner (bass), Chris Green (drums)
Producer Mat Webster
Released Bearos40 compilation cd album September 2003; Effortless cd album January 2004

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This song is the final track on Effortless.

This song came out of a very low time.

It's kind of about taking the best from a really rubbish situation.

By the late 1990s I wasn't working in crap temp jobs any more: I had a job as an editor with a publishing company. It was better in some ways but worse in others. For the first time ever I had work that was stimulating and creative, where I could actually use some of my abilities, but a lot of things about the company were wrong and made me ill with stress. At one point they were giving me grief about my magazine being late; the reason it was late was that the designer, who was a freelance, couldn't get in to the office because the company hadn't paid him and he couldn't afford to put petrol in his car. When my dad died the company told me one of the two weeks I was away had to come out of my holidays (even despite my contract making provision for extended leave). "We don't want to set an example!" the human resources manager told me. "We can't have everyone thinking they can have two weeks off when one of their relatives dies!"

You get the idea. These are specimen charges. I'm not even exaggerating.

I was living on Gladys Road (there's a curious pattern whereby clusters of streets in Bearwood and Smethwick are named after old ladies) and I used to walk up to Bearwood Road to catch the 82 bus. The 82 pushed its way through Cape Hill and along the Dudley Road, and past the road up the side of City Hospital where The Regulars' favourite practice studio Arcadeia was located, then stopped at the bottom of Newhall Hill, which was only five or ten minutes' walk from the Jewellery Quarter, where I worked.

But that walk up to Bearwood Road was a grim experience, a perennially spirit-crushing start to the day. Especially in winter. There are few things as miserable as leaving your house to go to a stressful job in the winter when it's still dark outside. And for some reason, for about a year, I nearly puked my guts up every morning as soon as I left the house (I was drinking too much but not every single night, so it was no hangover). And that walk became a sort of emblem of all that was rubbish in my life.

This song was the sound of those darkest mornings.

This song was my defiance of those darkest mornings.

This song was my love song to my friends. There aren't enough love songs to friends. Maybe some people can limp through life without really having any intense or enduring friendships. But I can't.

The Regulars were at the centre of a big group of friends. Stu, Rich, Rob and Paul all knew each other before they were in the band: I can't remember the exact details but some of them were at Warley College together, and the Group, as some of us called it, extended to a lot of other people from around Warley and Oldbury who'd known each other at least since sixth form. There was a regular thing of going to the Dog on Tuesday nights, and just about every Friday there'd be a flurry of phone calls and emails to establish whereabouts in town we were all going that night. Saturdays and Sundays were similar and we'd often all end up back at someone's house after the pub. The Flapper & Firkin and Sputnik could be nice; the Trocadero, the Green Room and Snobs were pretty horrible, but with the right people it doesn't quite matter sometimes, and these were the right people. It's not that these friendships were really intense for me, but friendships don't always need to be. The easy company of the Group was a lovely and life-affirming thing and I genuinely loved all of those people.

When the band split up it all became difficult and complicated and fragmented. There were unspoken tensions and I started to part ways with the Group. People seemed less ready to include me in whatever was going on and I was increasingly looking elsewhere for company; it's unclear which of these was cause and which effect, but it became chronic. "You've hardly been out," said Stu, who remained as central to the Group after leaving The Regulars as he'd been before the band existed.

"I've been out loads!" I retorted, trying too hard to stress the point that I was building friendships and a life outside our circle. Partly this was my weekends in Sheffield, but I was spending a lot of time down the pub after work with my friend Ian (who is sort of in the Sneaker Pimps), and nights with my two closest friends. The three of us had a crazily intense, drunken intimacy of shared disaffection with work and Birmingham and shared love for the Delgados, Bis and Belle & Sebastian. We would start in the pub after work, and our evenings were a miasma of pop music, vodka, pretty plastic bracelets, glitter on our faces and talk, talk, talk for hours, taking comfort in the commonality of our troubles, determined to remain sparkly through the valley of death and Snobs, and to defend each other with love as the playlist stretched to infinity.

It was kind of about taking the best from a really rubbish situation.

This song commemorated these friendships: both the straightforward companionship and good times I enjoyed in the Group and the furious, incandescent devotion of my two closest friends.

Perhaps the greatest of all the nights of sparkliness with my two closest friends was in November 2002, a couple of months after The Regulars split up. I had a cheap digital camera in my bag and snapped some dark, blurry images. One of these ended up on the front of the Effortless cd. It was perhaps the most pertinent creative decision I've ever made, or at least the closest I've brought art and life.

My two closest friends, incidentally, knew who the girl with the extraordinary legs was when I mentioned her once. The girl who waited for the same 82 bus as me every day and stood next to me in Snobs when the DJ played 'Lie Down and Fight'. They called her Dances On Her Own Girl because... well.

This song has three verses and, as the lyric sheet shows, they correspond to three distinct moments: Saturday morning, Sunday night and Monday morning. Work casts a lengthening shadow over the weekend but friends keep the light alive. Even as the wage slavery resumes on the Monday morning, the knowledge that the narrator's friends will be there again that night, or at the weekend, is enough to get them through.

"Time means this intimacy might disperse" is one of the best-sounding lines I've ever written. My favourite poet Louis MacNeice said if he were forced to choose between sense and sound, he'd have a slight preference for sound. I chose 'might' ahead of 'will' or 'could' to continue the alliteration of the 'm' sound, but the narrator knows it's inevitable: this intimacy will disperse. (The narrator was right, although the experience might have made him more determined that it shouldn't end that way again.)

So the passing of time looms off camera as a potential counterblast to the triumph of love over work (and there's a sentence I never thought I'd write). But the greatest act of resistance to the passing of time is not, in fact, Oil of Ulay: it is to ignore it. And – as banal as it sounds – to live in the present as far as possible. That's how the song ends up anyway.

(It's kind of a shame that standard English doesn't have a plural for the second person pronoun in the way that some dialects have 'y'all' or 'yous' or 'you lot' and French has, um, can't remember, sorry. It's a shame because the 'you' in the third verse of 'Today at Last' is a plural – it's addressing all my friends – and it would have been good to have been able to make that clear, because the 'you' in love songs is usually a singular. When I wrote another love song to my friends in 2008, 'Where The Music Still Plays', I went as far as saying "and you all know", just to make it as clear as I could.)

This song is dead simple musically. There are only three chords in the whole thing, and it's a very basic chorus-verse-chorus-verse structure, although the chorus has no lead vocal to begin with. Perhaps it's the final leg of that journey I talked about earlier, from writing over-complicated music to writing pop songs. With 'Today at Last' I wrote the chords, the melody and – first of all – the main guitar riff in the verse. And then the rest of the band added bits around this dead simple outline, which perhaps make it appeal to people who find three-chord pop songs too simple for their sophisticated musical taste. Even some of these bits that they added are dead simple – like the way, starting from the second verse, Paul (that's Paul in the picture, just there) plays a chord as if it's going to ring out for two bars only to suddenly chop it off (listen at 1:13) – but add texture and variation and keep it interesting.

Then there's the instrumental section at the end, which I think is pretty wonderful. At 3:49 the sparse drums and guitar, easing off for breath before the big finish, always reminded me of early New Order. A little later the big, sky-wide chords made me think of Galaxie 500, and the final stretch of two guitars thrashing away into the blue would always put me in the mind of some early Wedding Present. The jabbing guitar rhythm that comes in at 4:27 got me dancing every time when we played it live: I would jump to one side and push the mic stand the other way, and on the next beat jump to the other side and pull the mic stand back across me the opposite way, and back and again, and back and again, on every beat, with the strange energy that filled me only on stage and nowhere else, giving vent to all those demons, ultimately costing the band the fee we should have had for playing the Custard Factory at the Bearos Records second birthday gig in September 2000 because the mic stand was knackered by the time I'd finished with it.

Then there's the swirly noise that fades in at the start of the track; I'm afraid I can't tell you for the life of me how we got that sound. It was the middle of December 2001 and what turned out to be our final recording session, back at Smallwood Studios in Redditch with Mat Webster. Before we trundled back up to Birmingham in Rob's Fiat Panda doing 30mph all the way because the swirly, freezing fog had reduced visibility to practically zero, it was quite easy to lose track of what other people were doing, because Smallwood was a Proper Studio, with different rooms and everything – a kitchen, a little room with a telly and a Playstation (or whatever it was in 2001), and a games room with a pool table and a dartboard. The dartboard only had one dart and the pool table, similarly, the same number of balls as Hitler, but it's easy to get distracted in a studio when you're not actually needed to do your bit, so I'm not sure about the swirly noise.

But I can tell you that Mat used a cheaty digital autotune effect on my vocals in this song, because of the big intervals in the melody: it steps down an octave or something at the end of the second line in each verse ("today at least the daylight's" – big step down – "known"), which made it tricky to get exactly the right note every time – although, rarely among Regulars recordings, it's a vocal performance that I'd be pretty happy with today. I can tell you that we added the cheesy chimes (which begin at 2:27 and run right through the chorus after that one) because it was nearly Christmas and we were feeling giddy and probably had too much Jack Daniel's. I can tell you these two days were the best studio time we ever spent, and 'Pop Box 9:30' and 'Try' came out sounding great as well. And I can tell you that the guitars on this song sound bloody fantastic turned up loud.

This song gave me a sort of fulfilment because it commemorated those important friendships I talked about earlier, because it felt like a huge act of defiance in itself against the dark arsenal of circumstance and economics that seemed to be trained against me and my friends, and also because it achieved a sort of mini ambition which I'd set myself as a songwriter. At one point, maybe about 1999, 2000 sort of time, I remember wanting to write Regulars versions of a short, ultra-melodic popsong like 'She Loves You' and a longer, longing popsong with an instrumental chorus like 'Superstar' by Superstar (who were a great band in the moments when they didn't sound like Queen). And I remember thinking later, after we'd written these songs, that 'Pop Box 9:30' was the Regulars version of 'She Loves You' and 'Today at Last' the Regulars version of 'Superstar'.

This song commemorated those friendships, but in the end, when I compiled Effortless, it also seemed to commemorate a complex reciprocal pleasure that existed between me and the small but devoted group of pretty people who loved The Regulars. This comprised the pleasure they took in our songs, and the joy that I took, in turn, from their enjoyment.

Though it didn't end well, and it often felt like a thankless, fruitless, slogging piss in the wind, being in The Regulars was one of the greatest and most thrilling things I've ever done. So this post goes out with love and thanks to Richard Banner, Stu Fletcher, Chris Green, Rob Harris, Shelley Merchant, Paul Roach and Sarah Spilsbury. I'll be in touch soon about that pint, Rich.

Being in The Regulars also opened the way to the incredible popthrills I've enjoyed since, playing solo and with The Pete Green Corporate Juggernaut, and will continue to enjoy. I've made a lot more great friends along the way. And now it feels rewarding at last too, because a few more people are listening.

This song seems a pretty apt closing chapter.

Lyric sheet (pdf)
A brief account of the recording from the Regulars website
The 82 bus route on Youtube – part 1
The 82 bus route on Youtube – part 2
An excellent Google Map with the 82 bus route and important locations
'Birmingham' by Louis MacNeice
Tasty fanzine's review of Effortless, with a good bit about 'Today at Last'