Monday, February 01, 2016

The Boy From Down The Hill

 During my last visit to old Blighty (shamefully, it was way back in 1994) I passed by a butcher's shop while walking down Scunthorpe High Street, and did a bit of a double take at the headless pig carcass hanging right there in the shop window. Of course, while growing up there, such a vision would have been an innocuous part of the local scenery, with nary an eyelid batted. But, I suppose I'd been over in the US long enough at that point to find it noteworthy, jarring even. Well, it's not a sight commonly seen in your local hyper-sanitized Publix supermarket is it?

Arriving back at my folks' house later that afternoon (at the bottom of the hill, natch), I scribbled down the words, "Headless pig in a window telling me I'm home; it doesn't matter where I go, this is where I'm from", with a view to building a song around them later on. I know, I know - they're daft lyrics, and a headless pig isn't likely to be telling anyone much of anything - but what's a little dramatic license between friends?  

Tellingly, I could never make use of the phrase in a way that I liked. I tried a couple of different melodic approaches and chord progressions over the next couple of years, but wasn't thrilled with any of them, so I gave up on it and let it languish in the old lyric notebook.

Fast forward some 18 years or so, and I had this little folkish guitar riff in search of a lyric, and as I usually do, I set about leafing through the aforementioned notebook of scribbled lyric fragments for inspiration. When I saw the old "headless pig" snippet, I gave it a whirl, and to my pleasant surprise, after a little nip and tuck, it dropped in there quite nicely. The rest of the song came together quite quickly after that, as if making up for lost time.

I sent Ed an acoustic guitar and vocals recording of the resulting song for him to play with, assuming that its future lie in jangly folk-rocker land. Silly me. Ed turned it on its pig-less head, returning my song with ghostly, plinking piano parts, ominous-sounding drums and all manner of clanking percussion tracks that sounded downright medieval to me. I loved it.

From there, the song winged its way over to Swindon where XTC guitar maestro Dave Gregory had his way with it, sending us a slew of swooping backwards guitar phrases that gave the song the psychedelic nudge it needed to render it almost unrecognizable from the vision I originally had for it.

Then, it was up to Massachusetts where the fab Dave Mattacks breathed further life into it with his own swinging drums and percussion tracks. Like Ed, I'd been knocked out (still am, actually) when I'd heard the two Daves together on XTC's swoon-worthy Nonsuch album, and the fact that we had them both together again on one of our songs, no less, made Ed and I giggle like little schoolgirls. Not that it takes much...

Yes, this one has been around the block, as they say. I do love that aspect of collaborating with others, though. For better or worse, you end up with something that never would have happened with any one ingredient missing. It's just a thrilling adventure to me. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you're on board with musicians of the calibre of Woltil, Gregory and Mattacks. Even if they do sound a bit like a law firm, I'm a lucky boy indeed.

Funnily enough, this song's title harks back to my schooldays back in the 70s. I had a mate who lived in a nice detached house at the top of the hill up from where I lived. I resided in a dodgier area of terraced council houses at the bottom of the hill, and if his dad answered the phone whenever I'd call his house, I could often hear him say as he passed the phone, "It's for you... it's the boy from down the hill".

I'm not sure if his words were a variation on the classic "wrong side of the tracks" idiom, or whether he was just speaking geographically, but for the sake of the song, I'm going with the former. Besides, it hints deliciously at the great British tradition of class warfare and the mutual mistrust that can lurk therein which makes for a more interesting song. Either way though, I felt drawn to the phrase at first hearing and I hung on to it in hopes that I'd be able to make use of it someday. True to form, it only took me 40 years.

Scunthorpe footage courtesy of Steve Bird, and Capertain.
Still photos by Bob (The Boy From Up The Hill) Hinchcliffe