Friday, August 17, 2012

Candy Strypers -- "Dance On" (2010)

Here it comes, a surprise
For to light up their eyes
They're on fire

This is the third in a series of 2 or 3 lines posts that features songs by the Candy Strypers, a pop group from Manchester, England.

The Candy Strypers consist of Paul Hughes on lead and backing vocals, Paul Hughes on guitar, Paul Hughes on keyboards, and Paul Hughes on drums.  (The producer of the Candy Strypers' recordings is Paul Hughes, by the way, and Paul Hughes writes the music and lyrics for their songs.)

In his one and only live appearance to date, Paul performed "Hymn the Girl" solo.  With only his acoustic guitar and his own voice, Paul did a nice job with that song.

I don't think Paul could do "Dance On" justice if he performed it solo with just an acoustic guitar.  Maybe it's not entirely necessary to have a horn section introduce the song, but it's a very nice touch.  (OK, it's a faux horn section -- remember, Paul does everything by himself, and the horns at the beginning of "Dance On" are generated with a synthesizer.)  And the multilayered vocal harmonies in the chorus of "Dance On" couldn't be replicated on a stage unless Paul brought a few of his mates in to sing backup.

Before we discuss "Dance On," let's learn a little more about Paul -- including that one live appearance, which took place at a famous pop music shrine.

2 or 3 lines:  Paul, you sent me a Youtube video of yourself performing "Hymn the Girl" live.  Do you appear live regularly?

Paul Hughes:  I played my first and only gig -- just me and an acoustic guitar -- at the Cavern Club in Liverpool as part of the International Pop Overthrow Festival in May of this year.  My wife accompanied me on the day she was due to give birth to our first child.  Luckily he stayed put until a couple of days afterwards!

(The Cavern Club in Liverpool -- which was located in a cellar space that had been used as an air-raid shelter during World War II -- opened in 1957.  The Beatles performed there a total of 292 times between February 1961 and August 1963, and the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Kinks, Who, Queen, and Elton John also performed there.  The old club shut down in 1973 as the result of subway construction, but was rebuilt in 1984, and is a popular live-music venue and tourist attraction today.)

The Beatles (before Ringo) at the Cavern Club
2 or 3 lines:  I would think that a lot of your songs would be very difficult to recreate live with just your voice and an acoustic guitar.  Is that why it took you so long to do a live appearance?

Paul:  I've never felt the desire to play live -- partly because of nerves, partly because I'm a control freak over constructing the songs in the first place, and partly because I've never had a band to do them justice.

2 or 3 lines:  I can't think of a more fitting spot for a Beatles fan like yourself to make your debut than the Cavern Club.  And I think you did a very nice job with "Hymn the Girl" -- it's well-suited to a very simple arrangement. 

Paul:  I wouldn't say I'm desperate to do it again in the near future, but I did manage to enjoy playing at the Cavern.

2 or 3 lines:  I'm sure you were happy that your wife was able to attend the gig, but it must have been a little disconcerting to know that she might go into labor right in the middle of one of your songs.  Tell us a little about your family.

Paul:  Cassandra and I are two years married.  Evan, who's close to three months old, is our first child.

Paul Hughes with his son Evan
2 or 3 lines:  Is Cassandra a musician?  

Paul:  She's a big music fan, but she doesn't play.

2 or 3 lines:  Did you ever use music to woo her?  Maybe write a song about her?

Paul:  Mix CDs were proffered during courtship.

(Isn't that a marvelous line?  I smile every time I read it.)

2 or 3 lines:  What does Cassandra think about your music?  Hopefully she doesn't complain that you devote too much time to writing and recording your songs, and not enough time to doing chores -- like  changing Evan's diapers.

Paul:  I think she likes my songs.  I occasionally find her absent-mindedly humming one of my tunes.  And she's pretty supportive -- if anything she thinks I don't spend enough time on my music.

Cassandra and Paul in New York City
2 or 3 lines:  Paul, do you see the glass as half empty or half full when it comes to your music?  On the one hand, you're not making money with your music.  On the other hand, you have created a very credible body of work out of nothing more than your own skill and creativity, and you have a number of fans and admirers -- that must be very satisfying to you.  Do you view yourself as successful?

Paul:  Success for me is people taking the time to download the songs -- that someone would like them enough to do that kind of blows my mind!  Obviously I like my songs, but I guess I never took for granted that other people would.  Anything else, including getting paid would be a bonus.  

2 or 3 lines:  Would that be the ultimate dream-come-true situation for you?  To be able to give up your job with the National Health Service and make a living with your music?  

Paul:  Obviously I would be a very happy man if I could wake up every day and have music be my career, but the world is so saturated with others making music.  And with the old major-label record industry model going the way of the dinosaurs, it's pretty unlikely that I can make a good living doing this.  Anyway, I do it for the love of it.  I feel compelled to do it.
"Dance On" -- one of Paul's best and most fully-realized songs -- is based on a true story.

Between September 1940 and May 1941, the German Luftwaffe attacked London 71 times.  More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged in "The Blitz."  About 30,000 Londoners died, and 50,000 more were injured in the bombing raids.

A strict blackout was imposed, and the majority of the population had no interest in moving around  after dark.  But many of the beautiful people of London took Ecclesiastes 8:15 to heart: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and be merry."

The Café de Paris in London
One of the places they ate, drank, and were very merry indeed was the Café de Paris, a sumptuous Soho nightspot where "the men all seemed extraordinarily handsome and the young women so very beautiful" (according to one regular).

The Café de Paris was 20 feet below street level, but that didn't protect its patrons on the night of March 8, 1941.  Two German bombs found their way down a ventilation shaft and exploded right in front of the club's bandstand.

Ken "Snakehips" Johnson
The bandleader that night was Ken Johnson -- a West Indian native whose suave dance moves had earned him the nickname "Snakehips."  The blast separated Johnson's head from his body, and many others suffered equally gruesome injuries.  At least 34 guests, band members, and club employees were killed.

Some of the survivors refused to let the bombing spoil their evening, limping off to other clubs and cabarets.  You can view those people as being narcissists who were completely devoid of empathy, or you can admire them for refusing to buckle under to Hitler's campaign of terror.  (Stiff upper lip, and all that.)

After the bombs hit
Click here to read the newspaper account of the Café de Paris bombing that inspired Paul Hughes to write "Dance On."  

"Dance On" is perhaps the most impressive example of Paul's considerable songwriting talent, and it's a very skillfully executed recording as well -- particularly when you remember that Paul not only plays all the instruments and sings all the vocal parts, but records, edits, and mixes everything on his home computer.

As noted above, "Dance On" begins with what appears to be an introduction by a horn section -- which is actually Paul on a synthesizer.  It's rather somber, in contrast to the music that accompanies the verses and choruses.  

In the first verse of "Dance On," the beautiful young people of London are depicted in the bars and cafes of London's stylish West End, where the dance music drowns out the warning sirens and exploding bombs. 
Run through the dark streets they're lethal to roam
Far from their parents all sheltered at home
As the explosions flare, o'er Leicester Square
Fear from the skies as the warning it blares
Down in the cafe forgetting their cares
The verses of "Dance On" have an unusual five-line structure.  Most pop songs will have verses with four lines.  Notice also the interesting rhyme scheme of those five lines: AABBB.  (The third line has an internal rhyme as well.)  

The word "dancing" is repeated several times in the chorus, and the swirly, overlapping vocal parts of the chorus create the feel of a couple dancing.  Paul Hughes is a Beach Boys fan, and the chorus has a very Beach Boys-esque sound -- which is somewhat incongruous, since the words are about stylish young Londoners during World War II, not the surfers or hot rodders or California girls who are featured in most Beach Boys songs.
And they're dancing, 
There's a hundred people dancing,
While the city burns they're dancing,
There's a hundred people dancing
The second verse alludes to King George VI, the British monarch during World War II, who stubbornly remained in London during the Blitz.  The King and his wife, Queen Elizabeth, narrowly avoided serious injury or death when bombs exploded in a courtyard at Buckingham Palace on September 13, 1940.

Churchill and the King and Queen at
bomb-damaged Buckingham Palace
The third line -- the one with the internal rhyme -- takes a quick peek into the future, noting that the children of those young Londoners who survived the Blitz will come of age during the "swinging London" of the sixties. 
Meanwhile the King won't be moved from his throne, 
Stands with his people their bravery well known
Oh their children will sing, London will swing
Back in that basement they'd lose all their airs
Down in the cafe the Kingdom is theirs
The dramatic high point of the song takes place at the end of the bridge.  The beautiful people have become accustomed to long, boring days and "nights all aglow" not only with the bright lights of the clubs, but also with the widespread fires caused by the German bombing.  Suddenly, there's a shocking surprise in the form of the bombs that somehow made their way down into the subterranean Café de Paris.  The bombs explode and "light up their eyes" -- and they are quite literally "on fire."
And it's hard for to see where tomorrow they'll be
With the days, oh so slow, and the nights all aglow
And it's hard for to see where tomorrow they'll be
Here it comes, a surprise, for to light up their eyes
They're on fire

The bridge appears to replicate the five-line structure of the verses, but the last line is cut in half.  Immediately following that truncated line is an electric guitar solo, which is of a very different character than the music that preceded it -- it's distorted and edgy, signaling quite clearly that something has changed radically.  And it's a very impressive solo, by the way -- well-conceived and expertly performed, but not showy for the sake of being showy.

After that guitar, there's a return to the more innocent musical style of the rest of the song.  A brief transitional passage that features a high trumpet figure reminiscent of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour-era music bridges the gap between the guitar solo and the final chorus.

"Dance On" packs a lot into 3:38.  It's an impressive work, and really deserves to be the subject of a music video that tells this story visually as well as lyrically. 

Many of the songs that Paul Hughes has written are charming and enjoyable -- "sunny power pop from a rainy city," as Paul describes them.  But some of those songs are like a gourmet dish full of delicious and intriguing ingredients, but whose flavors haven't completely melded.  There's much to like about those songs, but the whole is not quite as great as the sum of the parts.  You can't help but think that Paul could make them even better with a little more time and effort.

By contrast, "Dance On" is a truly finished product.  Paul fully understands what makes classic pop music so appealing, and he has borrowed liberally from the masters of that art form (as did Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson and all the masters of it who preceded him).  But it also has plenty of original touches and is beautifully nuanced.  

I look forward to seeing where Paul Hughes goes musically over the next few years.  "Dance On" and his other songs provide clear proof that he has considerable talent, but I have a feeling that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg.  

I'd love to see what Paul could do if he had all the resources that pop superstars have -- genius producers, first-rate studio musicians and back-up singers, and all the benefits of a professional recording studio.  Paul doesn't need any of those things to make wonderful recordings.  But I think he deserves the opportunity to collaborate with other talented people who can help him reach his full potential.

I hope that the three posts I've written about the Candy Strypers make it clear how much I admire Paul and the music he has created.  If my efforts result in even a few people becoming fans of Paul Hughes, I would be very pleased.  I know I'm tossing a rather small rock into a very large ocean when I write about a musician like Paul, and I don't expect the ripples that I create to travel very far.  But every little bit helps.

At long last, here's "Dance On."  Enjoy!

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