By Chris Blunkell
Is a night out drinking in Faversham worth a five mile walk home to Throwley in all kinds of weather? As a late teenager painter and songwriter Chris Blunkell obviously thought so, and recently he found himself revisiting those long, late night journeys.
In February 2020, at-swim records released Private View, an LP by my band of 20 years Waspjuice. After a successful launch, however, the country was locked down, and that appeared to be that. So, with time on my hands and pretty much confined to the house, I got to work on a new collection of recordings.
Typically, I would record each tune as a simple voice and acoustic guitar affair. I would then email what I had to my collaborator Brian Barnett, who would add more guitar and harmony vocals before returning it for further revision. And back and forth it would go. Five or six songs came to fruition at the same point in this way, and I started to spot themes and a guiding aesthetic that had been hidden to me previously.
These songs, I realised, default to shades of pedestrian, and notable are my crude attempts at orchestral arrangements. Something in me has always loved ‘big’ pop – Bacharach, Dusty in Memphis. This, despite the fact that as I was coming of musical age such fully-realised music wasn’t really on my cultural radar. On the one hand, my parents – like those of many other lower-middle kids at the time – gestured towards an appetite for popular music rather than pursuing it with any real gusto. On the other, the ascetic imperative of punk, in the ascendant at that time, didn’t find too much use for swooning strings. I hadn’t heard enough, I didn’t have the breadth of experience, to nurture my love. So punk rock and a scorched earth it was.
Later, talking as an adult with friends who had also ventured into making music, I came to realise that some had quite different experiences – parents with extensive jazz collections, for example, and ‘proper’ stereos. For them, music was not from a different world, it was simply part of how they lived. Punk gave them something to add to their existing experience, which they did without a second thought. They could love it without making a bonfire of the rest. It’s a social class thing, but nuanced.
But what of class and the making, rather than consumption, of music? In The Uses of Literacy (1957), Richard Hoggart decries what he sees as the pernicious effects on working class culture of, amongst other things, the commercialisation of art including music. Vera Lynn, he speculates, “has a sound idea of the elements she must stress to acquire her characteristic effect” in order to carry the feeling that her listeners want. This is not to say the she has no investment in the world she sings about, suggests Hoggart – indeed, he says: “she sings…in a way a factory-girl hears herself singing in her head”. For all of that, The White Cliffs of Dover came out of New York’s Tin Pan Alley courtesy of Walter Kent (a former scholar at the Juilliard School of Music) and lyricist Nat Burton, who was either unaware that bluebirds are not indigenous to the UK, or indifferent to that fact. If I read Hoggart correctly, he sees the resulting artefacts as paradoxes – wilfully manipulative efforts that chime sincerely with the emotional lives of their intended consumers. They may not satisfy the punk insistence on ‘authenticity’, but who can possible argue that these are not successful? The White Cliffs of Dover was a huge commercial success, but more importantly occupies a special place in the British psyche, wrapped up as it is with the dream of liberation from threat of national subjugation. There is a universal potency in lyrics about love, loss, transgression and redemption, sung intimately whilst held tight by the emotional score of the orchestra. But it has to be done right.
The pub kicks out, and I fall into a brisk striding rhythm: before long a drum or percussion pattern suggests itself, then a vocal melody. I pass farmland to my left, and catch the friendly stink of cattle. A quirky guitar part and loping bassline find me. A series of bends in the road to negotiate with no pavement; alertness required. Bus stop, Post Office, intro, verse, verse. A stand of larches to my right – one muddy foot in front of the other in 4/4 time. Chorus, with a harmony vocal. A touch more reverb on the snare. A low fence, and horses. Chorus, middle eight. And here come the strings. At Leaveland Corner I turn off past the concrete clad houses and down the wooded hill where, in winter, the snow can bank up way over your head. I can see the lights of the house now in front of me. Full tilt into the enormous final chorus, and home. The next morning I remember nothing of the song I have made, except – importantly – a delicious ache as familiar in Leeds as it is in Tin Pan Alley.
If they sound like anything at all, then, these new songs echo those that delivered me home to Throwley through snow and rain. And yes, it was worth it.
New Waspjuice songs here: www.atswimlabel.bandcamp.com Chris Blunkell formed musical ensemble Waspjuice in 2002 with Brian Barnett. Since then, Waspjuice has welcomed numerous members and guests.
Chris is also a prolific painter working in Faversham. His work is owned by collectors in the UK, continental Europe, the United States, Africa, the Caribbean and the far East. www.chrisblunkell.com