|Dave James: A Songwriter's Story
Music has taken me around the world – won me short-term fame through New Faces – given me a share in a manager with cult-band XTC and taken me on the road with the sublime Debbie Harry & Blondie – put me inside Abbey Road studios – and seen me writing, playing, recording, releasing, performing, collaborating songs for 40 years. And occasionally – though not occasionally enough for my liking – selling my songs and albums. And as I find to my surprise that I near my 60th birthday, I find I still get a buzz from writing, playing, recording, releasing, performing, collaborating and, yes, selling songs and albums.
There is part of me that says 'if I can do it, so can you'. But. It takes grit, patience, never-ending supplies of diligence, self-belief, and some creativity and a bit of talent. It may be a gift, but one that, in my experience at least, has required unbounded maintenance, care and feeding. But if I can do it, you can too. My story might ring a few bells and even give you some smiles of recognition, and should explain why at my tender age I still look forward to gigging some of the better venues where I live.
I first emerged, with some reluctance according to my mother, in Freedom Fields Hospital in Plymouth, first child to a doubtless proud Edna and Arthur. Today only Arthur survives, but I’m delighted to say with that pride firmly intact. Dad was a coachbuilder ‘on the buses’ and my mum - one of thirteen children, not uncommon then – had worked in the hospital kitchen. Our circumstances were typical of those at that time in Plymouth, a naval town whose largest employer was the Devonport Dockyard. We were not poor as such, but struggled to live week-to-week on the meagre wages paid in those grim post-war years. We counted ourselves most fortunate to have a regular income, and although what few luxuries to be had were strictly rationed, we somehow managed.
We lived in a three-roomed flat in Admiralty Street, Stonehouse, a then poor part of the town, next to the Royal Marine barracks and opposite the main gates of Millbay Docks, which in those days was a commercial port for goods and cargo. As a child I was immune to the pressures of rent, rationing, or bills, so playing in the cobbled streets and hanging around the pub for the loose change the ships crews would sometimes throw us kids was great fun and the loose change the inebriated crewman threw us would be invested in sweets we would buy from the cornershop where sweets were sold by the quarter pound from large glass jars displayed in the window to tempt local children into parting with their good fortune.
No time for misty-eyed memories, those magical times are gone now thanks to changing tastes and commercial pressures. This rich, simple, atmospheric time was surely the birth of my creative seed and would fuel my need to express myself through music and lyrics in the future. The red-funnelled ferry from Torpoint to Cremyl. The fish market at the Barbican where my grandmother lived. Events such as the Sutton Harbour Regatta, where I won swimming medal, and the inevitable rain in August when our beloved Whiteleggs fair would visit Plymouth. The Salvation Army playing “for those in peril on the sea” on summer Sunday nights on the harbour side. The Citadel commemorative memorial on the Plymouth Hoe; Plymouth at this time was just starting to recover from the hammering it had taken from German bombs in the second world war. As a strategic naval port Plymouth was a popular target for the German Luftwaffe; wave after wave of bombers would be sent over at night and many families lost relatives to the incessant air raids. My father bore witness to this, losing several members of his own family and numerous relatives on my mother’s side – and many neighbours and friends, because of our proximity to the docks.
Although things were tough financially my dad was most creative with our leisure time, from all year round swimming in the sea from Plymouth Hoe to country walks in Mount Edgecombe Park collecting fir combs and deer spotting, and trailing across nearby Dartmoor. Dad was a keen sportsman and accomplished football player, pursued by several local teams for his goal-scoring prowess. Mum was Mum, at home keeping us all fed and watered in her own way, making ends meet the best she could with the money dad brought home. Our diet was simple but nourishing and a credit to Mum’s inventive culinary skills.
Then in the mid-fifties the child’s idyll came to an end when dad was made redundant from the bus depot. With the Dockyard on the wane, the only work to be found was in a distant northern town called Swindon; at least, to we Plymouthians, anywhere beyond Bristol was ‘up north’: we thought Swindon was somewhere near Manchester. Dad went ahead alone for a while and then we followed once he had secured accommodation for Mum, my younger sister and me. Dad arrived in Swindon with just one week’s wages in his pocket and so our struggle continued - but he had work. The accommodation was shared rooms with an old lady called Miss Samson who ran a hairdressing salon from the same premises in Broad Street. The location of the rooms was very useful for Dad as is was very near his work as a coachbuilder at the Railway Works. Just as the Devonport Dockyard had been the largest employer in Plymouth, the GWR was to Swindon. It was a daunting sight when the hooter sounded for the end of the shift, to see wave upon wave of men on bicycles heading home to all parts of Swindon passing along Corporation Street past the end of our road. Exactly as the Dockyard hooter had prefaced a wave of humanity back in Stonehouse.
As ever money was tight, but after a short while in those restricted lodgings we were offered one of the new council houses built with funds from the GLC at Walcot council estate. I can quite clearly remember Mum and I getting the bus out to Walcot and arriving in Frobisher Drive, where the tarmac had yet to be laid, and walking to our new home carrying our pots, pans and various other implements to Spenser Close. There we settled and after a few years the family grew with the addition of my brother, Dad continued to keep us all fed with various jobs as he continued to work hard to better himself and his brood.
Music was always part of our lives, initially from the radio, but then without a doubt from Dad’s love and constant playing of the top musicals of the time - West Side Story, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel. In between the top artists of the time such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Pat Boone and Mario Lanza would prove to be a rich source of memory for the future. My young brain took on the feel and the magic of those music and lyric creations, and to this day I try to replicate their genius in my own quirky way. I firmly believe that these creative influences were responsible for a musician songwriter and friend Andy Partridge jokingly referring to me some years later as Mr Melody. Those early show tunes gave me a love for lyrics matched with seamlessly strong melodies.
After a while in Swindon I missed those carefree times of Plymouth and so as a young teenager I took to running away from home to recapture those magical times. Sadly, despite on one occasion formally registering and attending a Plymouth school, I was made to return to Swindon and my parents, as I was too young to live without any parental supervision. On the occasion I did leave home officially it was to work at Butlins as a dishwasher. When I was 15 yrs 3 months I decided I wanted to see a bit of the world and so joined the Army, initially as a trainee driver radio operator, but soon as a PT Instructor making full use of my interest in sport. The Army was always just a job to me and although I enjoyed the camaraderie and did well, I was always driven to somehow make music – although not being able to play an instrument was a real hindrance to my plans! So during a posting to the Middle East I bought a cheap guitar, a copy of ‘How To Play Guitar’ by Dan Morgan, and set about trying to learn the instrument in the considerable time we had on our hands. Fortunately there was another soldier in my unit who could play a bit so I picked his brains and the both of us developed our playing with the help of the teach-yourself book.
When I found myself on leave from the Army I would go to a famed coffee shop called Bunjies Coffee Shop in Litchfield Street London at the back of Leicester Square. There on a Wednesday you could see the heroes of the time – such as Donovan and Al Stewart - get up from the floor to play. The house rule was an obligatory 3 songs to deter ego trippers and chancers who only knew one song. An artist who went by the name of Hratch hosted the whole night. All the music was original and the style of playing was one I adopted and use to this day, predominately rhythmic strumming of chords, as opposed to picking individual strings that was more traditional with the folk music of that time. The atmosphere of these nights was truly magical and you had to get there early if you wanted to get in at all.
Then another penny dropped. Or rather, a bomb. When The Beatles first arrived I stubbornly resisted the urge to follow the madness that surrounded them; to me they seemed just another of the succession of passing fads very commonplace in the sixties, following trad jazz, R&B, teen pop, novelty songs and ballads. Then came the day I went to see “A Hard Days Night” – and returned 3 times, then buying the soundtrack as my first ever album purchase, joining the rest of the world in enjoying their light hearted, earthy, catchy, topical song creations.
The ability to encapsulate thought-provoking lyric with catchy melodies was their benchmark and was to be a great yardstick for me with my own music in the future. What made them so accessible to the man in the street was the lack of falseness surrounding them. The American artists of the time were hyped to death making them appear like demigods. The Beatles let the music do the talking and the chemistry they had with alchemist George Martin turned them from raw talent to the geniuses they quickly became. In addition to my love of the Beatles overall sound I found I had a similar feel for vocals as Paul McCartney and this was something I would unwittingly employ throughout my career. But with marginally less success. Not that I’m bitter, you understand.
The Muso Emerges
When I left the Army in the early seventies I took with me a lifelong interest in fitness, a sense of discipline, a strong work ethic, and a sense of duty. I was soon to be joined by a wife and one child to provide for. Alongside the obligatory day job I pursued a paying music career, modelling myself on the likes of Paul Simon and Don McLean - again, strong on lyrics and melody together: me, my guitar and a driving urge to perform. I did the local pubs and clubs, singing cover songs like everyone did then, and at one stage did a tour of Sweden for 2 months playing English venues in and around Stockholm alongside an artist called Don Partridge. My contemporaries reading this may remember he had reputably been a busker in London and had made several hit records, one of which was a song called “Rosie” that made the charts in the UK. To further sharpen my musical prowess and to learn more about performing, in my ambition and self-belief I dragged my family up to Newcastle to enable me to work the northern clubs - at that time a very buoyant music scene.
Oh dear. How can you meet so many nice people and feel totally unwelcome? I got work around the clubs but the material I was playing then was way ahead of what was common in those clubs, where they preferred C&W or pure pop, and so on occasion I would get paid off between the two sets: this was a practice of getting rid of the artist after the first set if the concert chairman did not like you. Apart from being soul-destroying this meant you didn’t get paid the full amount and the fees were not generous enough for you to be able to afford to halve them. So too often I left with no profit whatsoever from a journey of many miles. Even in the kinder venues where you didn’t get paid off you invariably left to the sound of your own footsteps. I began to feel this was a reflection on my ability, but realistically it was a true mismatch of time and place: I was a singer/songwriter, they wanted cowboys or pop stars. That taught me two things: know what you’re good at and target venues that cater for it; and stagecraft. You had to work the crowd hard to get a reaction, even in the better venues, and it was the best schooling for how to work up on a stage. Not that I felt that positive about the experience at the time.
After a few months of this I decided to head back down south to better opportunities for work, housing and life in general. We headed to Camberley where my widowed mother in law lived as she had agreed to put us all up until we could find suitable family accommodation. I homed in on Swindon where I knew the turf, the housing list there was much shorter, and I could get work with my music to complement my income, as my wife was by now pregnant with our second child.
From Clubs to Pubs
I eventually got a day job and we settled in Swindon. The pub live scene at that time was still embryonic and so ripe for someone to explore who was willing to go prospecting for gigs. This I did and soon developed a following in the Rodbourne Arms and the Post House, the two most successful venues back then. I got bolder about my own material and would leaven sets with original songs as well as the inevitable Paul Simon and Don MacLean covers. It was still considered unforgivable as an unknown to sing your own stuff, as it was assumed the general public only wanted songs they were familiar with. However, thanks to the wave of artists shown the value of original material by The Beatles, and then The Stones and The Who, I was busy and building a good reputation as a dependable pro popular local act; I guess they forgave me my self-indulgence when I introduced my own material, and it found favour with them more often than not.
As luck would have it, my originality paid off quicker than I had dared hope, and from an unusual source: a new phenomenon trailed in Swindon called community cable TV. EMI had a technical base in Swindon, and put one of their up-and-coming executives Richard Dunn in to develop a brand new technology called Swindon Viewpoint. This experience was probably viewed by dozens rather than hundreds of Swindonians, but it gave me a free TV grounding which was fortuitously about to prove invaluable.
It was at this time I was fortunate enough to appear on the original version of “New Faces”: the X Factor of my day, and a challenge to Hughie Green’s rather more mainstream talent show Opportunity Knocks. The New Faces format was very simple: six acts would have been selected by regional auditions, then competed to be judged and in some cases snapped up by the waiting music/entertainment industry.
In my youthful exuberance and rock-solid confidence I decided to buck the trend of choosing a cover song and risk singing my own original song – still a bit of a risk, but I felt at least it would demonstrate to the music industry that I was not just another also-ran but an artist who could write his own material. The song I sang was called Wheels Go Round. So even back then I guess I saw myself as much a songwriter as a performer. My appearance went well, gaining very favourable comments from the panel, but I was beaten by a medallion-wearing predictive who went on to certain obscurity, as was his desert for lacking in both creativity or originality. Not that I’m bitter, you understand. (I think the act who went on to win the All-Winner’s Final of that series was one Jim Davidson. I wondered whatever became of him?)
I was particularly disappointed because I had engaged the services of a manager, Ian Reid, who was a local nightclub owner and budding impresario with several local acts under his wing (all of whom are still friends today, I’m delighted to say). The benefit of this sort of show was it was a way of short-circuiting the endless drudge of trawling around the record/publishing companies endeavouring to get support for your creative works and that holy grail: the elusive record deal. So Ian’s job was to represent me and pick up on the huge interest I fancied I would surely generate from such exposure on national prime-time TV. Of course record companies do not pursue second-place talent show acts, so it was back to sending out endless tapes to bored record company/publishing company employees who would not recognise potential talent if it jumped up and bit them on the arse. Not that I’m bitter, you understand.
Because Ian Reid was the owner of the Affair, a busy and popular nightclub in the centre of Swindon, he and his business partner Dennis Detheridge (one-time Melody Maker journalist and long time friend of Denny Lane, by then a member of McCartney’s Wings) was in a good position to put local and up-and-coming national punk and new wave bands on. They were also on the look-out for a local Swindon band, and having worked with Andy Partridge of XTC fame a couple of times when they supported me on the local cable television channel, I felt they could do with the exposure. I was always slightly in awe of Andy he was such a brilliant musician and whenever we wrote together he was always very generous with his support for my ability and cultivated the most out of me. And to his credit, he still does to this day.
On The Road
With the aid of Dennis’s contacts and Ian’s drive the band XTC were born. The band toured extensively and in time generated interest from several major record labels. On these gruelling development tours I would be pleased to be in involved as in turn bouncer/bodyguard/roadie and general lackey. I enjoyed this time with the band, as it was so exciting, with the music business in total chaos with the arrival of punk and new wave.
The highlight of this period for me was when I was asked with less than a few hours notice to write a song dedicated to the band for their official signing to Virgin records at the Affair night club. A daunting task, but well worth the praise I got from Richard Branson and Simon Draper for the composition I performed unplugged on the night. That was the night I realised I was a true songwriter.
Other highlights from this period were touring with the now legendry Blondie, including visits to some of the top recording studios with the band as they made their hit records and of course a visit to the famous Abbey Road studios where I eventually cut my own first record “Calculated Risk” .The visits to these studios were truly inspirational and were to influence the building of not only the community studio for the people of Swindon but with the building of my own recording facility that I still use today.
The Birth of Redbrick
Having become disillusioned with my own progress in selling myself as a songwriter and recording artist to the big labels who dominated the scene by then, I became involved with other musicians and projects. I formed an independent record label and studio with the support of local Arts Officer Terry Court, who was my boss at Thamesdown Community Arts, part of the local borough council.
Redbrick Records was formed as an offshoot of Redbrick Studios back in the late 70’s. This meant with typical timing I was an acoustic singer/songwriter turning 30 at the height of punk and new wave. The studio was built in the basement of Swindon’s Town Hall (now a world renowned contemporary dance studio), for the town’s borough council. The name Redbrick derives from the vast quantities of red building bricks borrowed and used by volunteers from the local technical college in customising the basement for use as a studio.
My role was to get the best out of this community project and beg or borrow equipment to develop it. With carpet samples stuck to the walls of the playing room for sound proofing, a small army of dedicated volunteers and equipment loaned indefinitely by recent Virgin Records signing local band XTC (Making Plans for Nigel, Senses Working Overtime) Swindon had its very own demo studio.
Many bands of all different musical styles went on to use the facility, either for demos or making their own limited edition singles at virtually no cost to themselves. This included many demo sessions by our sponsors, local heroes and cult band XTC (who are currently releasing re-mastered demos made at Redbrick Studio at that time under the title of “Fuzzy Warbles” - visit www.ape.uk.net). With such a wealth of undiscovered talent using the studio I decided to record a cross-section of the various styles as a showcase of local talent. The resulting EP featuring four Swindon bands, “Swindon This Is Swindon” was released, and thus was Redbrick Records commercially born. This involvement was a great distraction from my own music career, but did help my understanding of creative production and I found working with the varied selection of other musicians most enjoyable.
This period eventually ended when my job with the local council did not allow me to give the project the time it needed to continue. Having recently gone through a divorce, and beset by continual frustration at the music industry, I decided to give up music and change career totally. My then wife and I decided to go into the licence trade; this we did for some 7 years and although we really enjoyed it and made a great success of it, I did miss those creative moments. In addition we both missed the ordinary life you are denied when you run a pub. So we left the pub business and it was back to doing gigs; although I was a little rusty I still found I enjoyed the process, and having completed my first album Calculated Risk I started to write and perform my own material a lot more, and found audiences were much more interested in hearing original material than they had been before. I guess audiences by then had matured as their musical tastes diversified.
Like most musos chasing their dreams, I did various jobs after leaving the pub trade, but always leaving enough time for my music. Building a home studio to professional standard, I wrote, performed, recorded, engineered and released my second album, which for convenience was a cassette album “This Way Up”. Shortly after this a pair of musician friends who I had been aware of for several years, who were part of a local scene, Michael Shipway and Steve Smith hinted that with their experience and know-how they could make my songs a bit more commercially dynamic with some good production and so they took a selection of my songs and together we made my first CD album “A Songwriters Offering”. The difference between the quality of this album and my previous solo efforts was astounding and so set the benchmark for all future production. I subsequently went on to make my second CD album Free Love with Mike on his own and am currently in the process of completing my 3rd CD album with working title of Willing and Able, still using the magic fairy-dust of Mike Shipway in final production.
I have never considered myself to be especially good or talented, but I do enjoy and am very keen to get what I do right and to have a go. I firmly believe we all have the right to have our material respected and given a chance to showcase it. There is more music than ever being produced now, and the UK has a very exciting, world-class music scene. The advent of technology has brought professional quality and techniques to the young bedroom musician, enabling them to produce release-quality material all on their own. This does mean that younger budding musicians can rely on studio techniques rather than musicianship. But despite this technological revolution the need for well-crafted songwriting has never been more important, and good original material will always survive any technological advancements.
As for me, I enjoyed the relative success of my last album Free Love, and heard my single Fat Content featured heavily on BBC Radio 2 ‘s Terry Wogan breakfast show, under my pseudonym Dee Dee Jay (an attempt to differentiate my more commercial material for a younger audience.) A succession of other songs written by me were recorded by other artists, languishing as yet unreleased - particularly Please Don’t Laugh At Me, which was given to a good new singer, recorded by those stalwart reggae producers Sly and Robbie, promised by two labels as a can’t-fail summer hit, but somehow fell foul of label lethargy and politics, and never got released. Not that I’m bitter you understand! But it did show me that having everything apparently in your favour (good song, good singer, famed producers, good timing) still might not give you the success you seek. This is the real frustration of the music business today: it is so unbearably difficult to get even good material released.
I now feel the desire to continue my musical output under my own name again, since I am writing songs that are more personal and more representative of who I have become today. My goal now is to build a fan-base on my own website and to satisfy that fan-base on a regular basis with full production records and unplugged albums from my live work as original material continues to become available. The new album “Willing and Able” is again a joint production effort with my resident guru Michael Shipway and the new single Willing & Able show good promise if current feedback is to be believed. Both are very radio-friendly and have a contemporary feel.
All we need now is informed support from the media and the music industry, which will help buoy up our unsponsored efforts. The need for industry and media support is essential to our activities as we do not have the freedom or finance to buy a presence on the radio or media like other record companies can do. Both Mike and I have full-time day jobs and neither of us is in a position to give them up until we achieve commercial success. This should be easier than ever given the formulaic nature of modern pop music, and that sales of 3500 albums can get you a chart position (The Beatles had to routinely sell a million to hold on to their top slot!)
So we will continue to make music as we are both consumed by the dream of one day getting it right – especially after so many near-misses. In addition to the current album I intend to release a series of unplugged albums to showcase existing and new songs available as we go for other artists to audition. These albums will consist of guitar/vocal, and on the odd occasion minimal rhythm to help sustain the chosen beat for the song in question. All these new albums will be available to purchase from this website, so if you prefer the stripped-back style of production for late-night listening or similar then these albums will be perfect for your needs.
I hope you are able to enjoy the music we produce and maybe between us we can develop a mutually beneficial fan-base from past and future music listeners. One thing is for sure it is a realistic alternative to X Factor. Not that I’m bitter you understand!