The fat blue line

The fat blue line? Oh, this thing…

This is one of those happy desperate accidents. Like John Lennon said about life, that’s it’s something that happens while we’re making other plans, this was not part of the plan for electronic babysitter.

There wasn’t much of a plan. I don’t do that so often and it always ends up disappointing. Did you ever hear the story of the composer Paganini, waking up from a fevered dream in which the devil was playing the violin beautifully and stunningly at the foot of his bed and trying to write down and recreate the devil’s performance? He was never happy, what he managed never came close to the incredible music of his dream.

I’m not an expert musician – I’m a vaguely competent, non-specific, jack of all trades musician. I wish I had the amazing musical ability of Chris, as well as his combination of dedication, hard work, natural talent and that almost ethereal, otherworldly gift he has been blessed with and has nurtured and developed. I wish I had Liam’s natural ear for perfection and his combination of artistic, scientific and abstract thought process that instantly elevates any idea into a glorious cosmos to behold. They both also have perfect pitch.

What I do have is a gift for writing. I’m a good songwriter. I’m a very good lyricist. What I do is try my best to give the lyrics and melodies a fitting musical background and accompaniment and make further attempts to deliver the message with visuals; cheap, affordable visuals. And when I say cheap, I mean free, as far as is possible.

So, electronic babysitter. This song was originally written in the very early days of transporter, before transporter was even called transporter. Did I say that name enough? It was after Becoming X but before the writing for Splinter and I now see it almost as a continuation of what Liam wanted from the actual song Becoming X, which I think we achieved. The inspiration for babysitter came from an article my then editor gave me when I was a journalist in Birmingham to follow up for our news pages – I was the news reporter then. The article was perhaps one of the earliest pieces to express a concern bordering on disdain for the emerging technology that was supposed to grant children with special educational needs greater access to mainstream education and how this was inevitably going to cause huge problems as parents of children without SEN used the same technology to skirt what was deemed their parental responsibilities in helping with homework and supporting the learning process. Somehow, the article laid the blame squarely at the feet of the technology. Sound familiar in this 21st Century technobubble echo chamber?

As I was working on the first songs for the EPs, babysitter kept infiltrating my consciousness, tapping me on the back and tugging at my sleeve for attention. So I thought ‘why fight it’, plugged in the old Yamaha RY30 drum machine and knocked up a quick demo. Melodically and lyrically, I didn’t change a thing, which I hope is a testament to a good set of lyrics and a quality tune, although I may just have been in a rush.

But the actual appearance of technology in the lyric is confined to the opening line – electronic babysitter, less to blame. After that, it’s a wholesale indictment of the human condition in relation to technology. They say ‘a bad workman blames his tools’. And there you have it.

All over the world, the internet, social media, cellphones, tablets (you see how I skilfully avoided any mention of those that thing that dropped on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and resulted in his laws of gravity?), games consoles, laptops, home computers and whatever else I cannot think of here are being blamed for their negative impact on society, interpersonal relationships, increased outrage, self-righteous point-scoring, fatuous vanity, consumer materialism – you name it.

I don’t think it takes even a minute’s consideration to see what a massive abdication of responsibility and refusal to address the real issues at the heart of the sorry state of our global society. And that’s why the lyrics weren’t changed or updated if you like. If we could translate the words of the Etruscan poets, what we would find them saying in regard to human behaviour and human society would fit exactly with our current civilisation. Nothing has changed very much ever since the Agricultural Revolution kicked our egalitarian ways to the kerb. The thoughts of Marcus Aurelius, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the novels of Tolstoy, of Victor Hugo, George Orwell, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – this list could go on and on but you get the drift – everything stands up to this day and we find ourselves there, a constant, unchanging, unevolving mindset of greed, exploitation and complaint, on the whole.

The premise for the accompanying promo film, as I said earlier, came along accidentally while I was trying to put something together visually to launch EP2. I was going back to the North of England to visit Amy G (Mrs Picks to you!) and my brother and his family and I had my heart set on driving out before dawn one morning while I was there to shoot some footage in and around the chemical plants of Teesside, the Port Clarence of the famed ‘transporter’ bridge and Seal Sands, where my father, my brother and myself all worked at one time or another, although for me it was just a couple of summer jobs while I was at college.

I had done this once before, driven round it and it genuinely looks like an alien landscape as the sun slowly comes up amid all the huge strange buildings, towers and chimney stacks and the endless coloured lights. This is the area that, allegedly, inspired the set designs for Ridley Scott’s original Bladerunner movie – a local lad, he went to the same foundation art college as Liam.

Sadly, either my memory was idealised or the roads have since been closed off. And we didn’t go before dawn, we went around sunset, me, my niece Megan and my nephew Sam driving. And we couldn’t get close and drive past shooting film. We did manage to stop close and I climbed a few places where perhaps I wasn’t allowed but it was easier than when I tried to shoot something at Canary Wharf (which I did in spite of the hefty security people and the police because I believe I can do whatever I like in the country of my birth as regards so called trespassing on ‘elite-owned, private’ land – it’s London, you don’t own part of a city, no matter if you paid for it. I refuse that utterly).

So I managed to get something close to what I wanted eventually and we were heading back home when we stopped in a car park in the middle of nowhere – a cigarette stop for me in fact. And I caught sight of a funny blue LCD thing going on, took out my phone and began filming, more out of despair at not being able to get what I truly wanted, and when I drew really close in, it suddenly seemed somehow, magically, to appear as everything I would need to do electronic babysitter. I hadn’t in fact even considered what song I was filming for up until that point.

On the train home, first from Birmingham International to Euston and then on the Eurostar, I just turned the video on and filmed out of the window and then on my first week back at work, I filmed from the front of the metro carriage and the escalators, a good excuse to leave the bicycle at home for a change. Then I started putting it together. I was happy for almost a week just with the blue light but was told it ‘would be’ cool when I threw some more footage in. So I started cutting up the train and metro journeys. And still I was told it ‘would be’ great when I added some more stuff. So I threw in some little personal ‘Easter Eggs’ if you like: the moon for the old transporter artwork, the face in the coastal shot for trips we used to make as children in Northumberland and a strange face referencing a film that inspired some Becoming X-era bits and bobs along the way.

Then I added the lyrics in a kind of news ticker style and passed it over to Julien. And that’s when the premise landed. He ‘scuffed’ up the footage, ageing it like an old video cassette and change the lyrical style to something way better than what I had attempted. And there it was – done, dusted and gone.

Maybe we should have included a pay-off line at the end. We didn’t, so we won’t, but if we had it would read: ‘Jesus Christ, a god to millions, got one thing very right. We didn’t know what we were doing. His mistake was believing we should be forgiven.’

So…

“Picture yourself as an anthropologist from a not too distant future, hoping to piece together what happened to this last great civilisation, the lost civilisation born of and buried by the great technological revolution. You find this solitary VHS cassette while picking over the debris of a city in what used to be Northern Europe and manage to find a way to play it. From the images, the lyrics and the music, you hope to arrive at some understanding of how such great potential was abused and exploited all the way to dust. What could you learn?”

Thanks for your attention.

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