Happy People is the title track to my fifth album. It’s the opening track so it has a job to do. It needs to set the scene in terms of musical tone and introduce us to the sound world we’re going to spend the best part of an hour listening to and introduce us to the story.
Happy People is loosely a concept album. It doesn’t have named characters or any voice acting or things like that, but there is a narrative arc and it starts here. The verses are the inner monologue of the protagonist. He has realised that the world in which he lives is not the utopia the powers that be claim it is. The government insists everyone should be happy, docile and obedient, but he no longer wants to obey.
Prisons float in your eyes
Lies on your tongue
Let the public decide
On drips to make them grin
Don’t you want to be happy for a while?
Pull another tooth out
Fixing up your smile
It’s a place where the people are metaphorically and literally drugged up and unable to see the world as it is. They only care about the superficial and the empty. Think Brave New World or Stand on Zanzibar.
The choruses on the other hand are the government instructions on how to be an obedient happy person:
Happy people don’t pull faces
Happy people smile and wave
They ask after your family
They never say a thing that hurts
In the middle section our protagonist has finally escaped. He pays for a new identity, ‘the man I paid stitches me a face,’ and he is free.
Happy People was written in one sitting for February Album Writing Month (FAWM) in about 2012. I’ve been participating in FAWM for about nine years, whih means that every February I try (and invariably fail) to compose 14 new songs, or 14.5 if it’s a leap-year.
My method for this song and the second on the album Name on a File was to set up a click track at an essentially random tempo, plug in a guitar and start improvising. Whatever turned up, warts and all, had to be the song. This is why both tracks have choruses of slightly different lengths – I could have changed that later but I liked the variety.
I then added layers on top of that guitar, including very hastily written lyrics, until I had finished songs. Both of the opening tracks were written in an hour, at least in first draft demo format.
Here’s the original demo for Happy People:
Redrafting and Recording
When it came time to start work on the album I dusted off the demo and sent it over to Jordan Brown for his thoughts. Here are the bullet points he came back with for improving the song:
- Verse – might be too low
- Chorus – guitars sound too much like Megadeth. I mean the riffing has something ’92 thrash to them. Not that it’s a bad thing but it is a bit limiting texture wise
- Maybe the guitar interlude between ch1 and vs2 brings the song to anti-climatic apex. I would use the same phrase but in a very understated way. That would make the second opening more powerful.
- IMHO the half spoken section after the instrumental interlude is too low – we’re talking a good minor third.
- During the extended outro I would double the length of the buildup (the section with the toms) layering voices as if it was a canon. Probably samples from TV shows too. I would then lose the chorus where the guitars back down because it spoils the crescendo which climaxes with the guitar melody.
- Not a huge fan of the vocal adlibs it the coda. The second part of the melody could be stronger (the descending contour spoils the big anthemic ending nature of it)
This was really useful feedback – some of which I ignored – that lead to some pretty significant changes. For a start, the verse are now a minor third higher and the chorus guitars are a lot less metal. The outro and final chorus have changed pretty much as Jordan suggested. I didn’t go with his idea of changing the key in the middle section though, as I liked what we had originally.
This also marked the first time since uni I’ve had someone make technical suggestions to improve my songs. I liked it. It’s funny, I often think of myself as having quite an ego, but I’m not sure if that’s true. Before I have the feedback I assume I won’t like it, than the feedback turns up and I realise it’s useful stuff.
When it came to recording, this was done first at Amersham Music Studios for the drums, and then at Jordan’s place over a a humid summer where we couldn’t get the guitars to stay in tune. It also involved me singing the lead vocal when very ill. I’m surprised it sounds as good as it did. My memories of singing it are rather hazy and for some reason involve visions of David Elephant (my evil record label boss) stroking a cat and laughing maniacally.
So that’s Happy People, the first song from my latest album. Next up, Name in a File.