The tune don't have to be clever,
So as I reported previously, I ended up being a surprise guest on In Lieu of Fun (ILOF) last weekend, a daily live webcast born from the isolation enforced by the pandemic dedicated primarily to the law, politics, current events and occasionally randomness like corvids, cicadas, and the Scots language. Note that I say "surprise" guest, not "mystery" guest, a recurring feature on Sundays in which the guest is not announced ahead of time, but sometimes hinted at in order to provoke people into trying to guess (the nature of the mystery guest and the obligation of the host to keep their identity under wraps was actually a source of controversy yesterday). No I was a *surprise* guest, not only to the audience and even the other hosts but most notably myself. Having sufficiently piqued the interest of one of the hosts because of my knowledge of the Walker Arts Sculpture garden, I was invited to appear on screen (or "raptured in" as the local lingo goes) under what can quite rightly be described as false pretenses. One of the features of the platform being used by ILOF is that not only does it allow audience members to post questions in a Q&A section (as well as chat randomly in a section that became known as the Greek Chorus… more on that later), but it also allows the moderator to invite people on screen… ostensibly to ask their question “in person” but it also serves as way for hosts and audience to engage in a little onscreen chin wagging and friendly razzing.
So I had posed a question that was aimed at sort of general discussion topics that typically happen on “Just Us Saturdays” where there is no outside guest invited on, it’s just the hosts shooting the breeze and planning the show, occasionally bringing members of the Greek Chorus on to talk about whatever is going on in the world or a topic of personal interest. So naturally when I got the invite to come on screen, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I sat there, on screen, patiently waiting my chance to speak (being “Aliced” as we call it after one member of the Greek chorus who suffered particularly from the tendency to leave those who have been raptured on screen waiting in silence for an in ordinate amount of time) I did see a message in the chat from the host scroll by to the effect that “he has know idea why he is here” — which was my first hint that something was up. As it turned out, Ben Wittes, one of our illustrious hosts, was spontaneously instituting a new feature where he would “randomly” bring in a member of the Greek Chorus to “interview” them. Thus a discussion ensued about my background as pertained to the Walker Arts Sculpture garden and, as it turned out to some (unexpected and unnecessary) controversy, the nature of my music project “Ducks With Pants” which I self describe as a “fake” band, but newly minted host Scott Shapiro was incredulous that Ben would call as such.
As often happens when one is a songwriter, I was also tasked to write a song — in this case a theme song for ILOF (and based on how I came through, I unintentionally initiated a “homework” aspect to this new feature of the show). They weren’t being particularly serious, but I decided to take on the project and once I had been raptured out so they could bring on some of the other folks from the audience for a more regular question session (and therefore not being subjected to a similar level of interrogation, I’ll note), I started to work on my assignment based on some of the “requirements” I’d been given. I had the lyrics of the first verse basically done before the show had even ended. I continued working on the piece for the rest of the afternoon and was more or less finished by sun down local time — with some minor tweaks to go.
While often times suggestions about songs to write get quietly sent to mental circular file almost immediately, this project piqued my interest. I was gifted with a useful harmonic progression to use as a jumping off point based on host Kate Klonick’s suggestion of the Cheers theme song (I’d asked for genre… but close enough... also I did not know that song actually had multiple verses). More important I felt there was a rich vein of potential material to mine based on all the lore this small but dedicated online community had generated during its evolution. It is rare that one gets occasion to use a phrase like “murder hornets” or “saber tooth anchovies” or “baby cannon” much less all three in the same song (or, as it turns out the same verse of a song). This is sort of catnip for my particular predilections as a songwriter for unique and perhaps somewhat difficult to sing phrases.
And you know, sometimes things are just sort of clicking along and you want to keep going. I was actually a little suspicion of the 3rd verse considering how quickly it came (I am reminded of Doctor Who writer Russell T. Davis describing about how he’d come up with an idea and then spend several subsequent hours trying to convince himself that it worked). One of the aspects of songwriting is that you end up setting up little problems for yourself, the solutions to which take you in a direction you may not have originally intended, but is irresistible and feels inevitable in retrospect. It’s kind of a dopamine hit when it happens and that spurs you on — kind of like figuring out the answer in a crossword puzzle. For instance, incorporating the word “rapture” felt like a worthy goal given its distinctiveness and frequent use in the show, and that immediately leads to looking for rhymes as placing a word at the end of line is a good way to emphasize it, and being at the end of a line means you may want to incorporate it into whatever rhyming scheme you’re using. And that brought me to the word “gather” as a near rhyme. I was already also thinking a mention of the Greek chorus should be in the chorus, and given this was to be a theme song played at the beginning of the show, calling on the Greek chorus to gather seemed, well, the obvious thing to do.
Or there was the use of the word “nippily” — Virginia Heffernan’s immortal description of the “dog shirts” Ben Wittes frequently wears which features large photo quality images of dogs, the eyes of which end up aligning on the wearer’s chest approximately where one naturally expect to see the anatomical feature to which this term alludes. I honestly hadn’t thought to use it originally —it actually comes out of struggling with using the phrase “cheese night is totally a regular thing” which alludes to the fact that to date that there has only been one actual “cheese night” but Scott Shapiro has decided to insist that this is — and has been — a tradition on the show (hopefully Scott does not feel bad about not being name checked directly like the other hosts, but maybe the emphasis I gave this notion makes up for that). This line felt like a good “capper” for a verse. It’s got a nice drollness to it compared to blowing things up in verse one, which allows us to not build up too much before we get to our climax in verse three. This of course once again obligated me to find a rhyme (of sorts) given the pattern the previous verse had set up.
At the same time the dog shirt line had landed in the place this corresponding rhyming word would be. Ostensibly the structure of the song is an introduction to the uninitiated (as if there was any hope of understanding all the in group jokes), so having hinted at some of the unique features of the show in the previous verse, it was time to start introducing the hosts, starting with a line about Kate (ladies first I guess, I don't know), and then one about Ben — and naturally we have to mention his dog shirts as they are a frequent point of discussion. I was however greatly dissastlisied with the more obvious options for rhymes with “thing” in this context — the closest I came was that Ben was the “dog shirt king” — not terribly satisfying as an option as it’s not like anyone has ever called him that or anything like it (in retrospect I guess there was a possibility of saying he has a dog shirt “kink” though that’s still not very good for similar reasons, but at least it’s funny). Given I’d already been doing a lot of oblique and slanted rhymes and seeing the word “anchovies,” with a somewhat similar cadence was in the corresponding place in the previous verse… why not “nippily?” This choice also affords one the chance to be a bit silly in performance because one can approach saying it with a comic level of incredulity or what have you (this is the sort of thing Tom Lehrer would do to great effect). So while people might think “hey, he’s really stretching to kind a word to rhyme with nippily” (which is actually funny in of itself and I won’t work too hard disabuse people of the notion) it was the exact opposite, even if in retrospect it feels like it couldn’t have been anything else.
It is also good lesson on working on comic timing. A line that comes to mind is from the film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” — where after all these machinations while Roger is handcuffed to detective Eddie Valiant (such as Eddie having to pretend to be washing dishes while Roger is submerged in the sink as the weasels search his apartment) once Eddie is afforded the opportunity to saw off the handcuffs with a hacksaw, Roger nonchalantly slips out of them. Eddie then furiously demands of Roger if he could have gotten out the handcuffs the whole time to which Roger replies the he could only do it “when it was funny!” Certain lines only feel right when they’re placed at a particular point or with a certain level of contrast. While the line “Kate has encounters with animals” feels a bit understated (though it is a succinct summary of the various adventures Ms. Klonick has had with sea turtles, cormorants, baby squirrels, and even helping to birth and then resurrect a lamb over the course of the show… usually off screen… usually) the fact it is a bit anodyne makes the following bit about Ben’s “nippily” dog shirts funnier when it follows immediately afterwards. Likewise, I felt like a good climax to the song was “drink every time someone says ‘norms!’” (a traditional shout out in the chat because of the frequent invocation of the word in our discussions and also a subtle nod to the chord progression I was cribbing from). Hopefully it also encourages anyone who hasn’t already started joining in to do so by shouting “norms!” (not even requiring them to sing should they be feeling self conscious about that) as a sort of Pavlovian response for television viewers of a certain age — making the whole thing that much bigger and as result, funnier. So naturally it had to go at the end of the last verse.
(FYI, I do regret not working in the word “puppet” in honor of Kate's Lisa Page brown bag puppet and Ben’s Robert Mueller puppet. While stringing it together with all the plosives in verse two’s penultimate line would have been fun and while I do subscribe to the Tom Lehrer folk song school of songwriting — it don't matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line — sometimes you do end up having to kill your darlings… or at least quietly neglect them… for the sake of clarity.)
From one perspective this song a series of in group jokes, but there is a certain logic to the overall arrangement as to how the elements are introduced and there are a number of other things I did that I’m quite happy with from a musical perspective. I quite enjoyed turning the phrase “we’re not allowed to have fun” (given it’s the tag line of the show, could the chorus be anything else?) into a big belting anthem — which was another case of serendipity. As I was writing the chorus, not only did I not really want to keep aping the Cheers theme song’s chords because I wasn’t interested in writing a parody, but also they didn’t feel like they worked, so this is where things really diverged from the template (I also subsequently altered a chord in the verse as a sort of anticipation as to what was coming in the chorus). I started playing around with other options, starting with an inversion of the chord sequence of my template song’s chorus, which resulted in a progression that was obviously going to be familiar and accessible to the audience (only like a billion songs use it) — it also wanted to be big and anthemic. Based on Kate threatening to accost me online in dead of night if the song was still stuck in her head, I believe I have created a successful earworm. Another thing I did like is how the Cheers theme bopped back and forth between minor and major in its chorus in the build up to the end, which itself is an inversion of the chords they open with (in my song I just repeat my opening sequence without change). But here I chose slightly different chords and moreover, because my harmonic rhythm was not quite as fast, I felt this necessitated some variation on the third iteration of the change which allowed me to sneak in some modulation — and I thought this was rather appropriate for the rapturing line. Finally, while it was born out of my own lack of enthusiasm for the options I was coming up with for rhyming purposes, the fact I ended up varying the chorus each time on the “in lieu of fun” line actually has an “in universe” rationale in that this also a part of the shows patter — the outro is always improvised based on the content of the show.
(BTW There is also what I refer to as a “secret bridge” — a section I toyed with but ultimately didn’t include because the recording was already pretty lengthy that spoke to the origins if the show)
I then started recorded a simple demo — just acoustic guitar, a main vocal track, some backing vocals and some last minute electric guitar strums for the final chorus. Kind of by accident it was at a slower tempo than I’d normally play it. I actually had to go back and re-record the opening bars because I realized the bars that I had just done single long strums for were a single bar, but that morphed into multiple bars when I was trying adhere to the tyranny of the click track. But it had an interesting effect and the guitar track was “close enough for government work” so I went with it, in part for my own purposes as an exercise in comping vocal tracks. I posted it Thursday night… worrying perhaps it’d get lost in the ether amongst Twitter’s noise and maybe I was getting it out too late… but once folks discovered it and Ben Wittes did his own post singing its praises (without all my caveats about the recording’s demo qualities) there was an immediate bump up in listens on SoundCloud and Twitter notifications. As you can see there were listeners from all over the country giving this strange little ditty a spin, reflecting the geographic diversity of this audience — and this is just the top 50 cities (I will remain from ranting at length about the lack of an API to get this data).
As it happened, because the scheduled guest for Friday was running late and they needed to fill time, I was invited onto the show to play my new song live, which is something I haven’t been doing much of during our pandemic times (playing to a computer screen kinda sucks). Fortunately it was enough in my brain pan I didn’t need to rely on notes too much and it wasn’t the usual disaster that typically befalls the maiden voyage of a new song. So don’t tell anyone, but despite the fact I was a bit out of it from having woken up at 4 in the morning for no particular reason, I had fun. My only regret is I had to spend too much effort focusing on playing and couldn’t see any of the feedback in the Greek chorus section.
As I wrap up, I’ve also been contemplating how this has also been an interesting experience in how one can grow one’s audience organically simply by being part of a community and not looking at it as an opportunity to evangelize one’s work, but being aware that it can happen if people start taking an interest in you personally (I did push myself a bit to get the demo done in order to “strike while the iron is hot”… even if this ends up rewarding and reinforcing Ben’s scheme to Shanghai audience members and give them assignments). Feeling a bit poorly as I have been during our recent unpleasantness, I didn’t take the opportunity when presented to be part of some of the earlier (and less ambush-like) “get to know the audience” sessions they’d done on the webcast, but I made no secret of the fact that I did music (what with a guitar hanging off the side of a bookcase easily visible in the background whenever I’d be raptured in for a question). And while I was logging in to the webcast as E.G. Phillips, I made sure that my Twitter avatar for @duckswithpants was being used so the connection could easily be made from my posts there… which it was and it led to the sort of interactions and questions one might expect (there’s a method to this madness with this whole “fake” band thing… there’s a separate post to be written about all that). But in general I mainly just let myself be part of this group and enjoy it for what it was… asking questions that I thought were relevant and of interest — and getting a chance to interact with various luminaries of the Twittersphere and cable news in the process — as well as participating in the lively and friendly banter that rapidly scrolls past during the course of the show. I guess I was also being a bit shy about the whole thing, and a little circumspect for reasons I may someday be able to explain, even though I’ve been performing and promoting myself for years now. In the meantime let's just say this is the sort of experience that a lot of people making the rounds at various music conferences or hitting you up on SoundCloud when you post a track are trying to bottle and sell.
In any case the enthusiasm for the song has been tremendous, and it’s nice to have people enjoying something I've created, especially folks I feel a bond with having shared these various experiences, even if remotely, as we've been sequestered away. That I got a few more Spotify and Twitter followers has been a nice bonus, but I would have done it anyway regardless.
Take a listen to “ILOF Theme (We’re Not Allowed To Have Fun)” in all its glory and see the lyrics (and chords!) below.
The extended musings of a songwriter.