Spotlight on SSG – May 2011

Hello to all!

Even though he lives in England, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Alan twice in the past five years. And he’s truly one of the nicest people you could ever spend time with.

As you may have read in the latest newsletter, Alan has fairly recently taken up teaching guitar pretty much full time. He also performs fairly regularly, not only as a soloist, but also as part of the Essex Guitar Orchestra and just lately with the Essential Sounds Big Band. If you’d like to learn more about him, not to mention listen to some of his exquisite classical guitar playing, check out his website.

This month we’re shining the Sunday Songwriters’ Group spotlight on Alan Green and his song, “Sold Out.”

Alan’s also been kind enough to answer a few questions for this blog and I think you’ll find his answers both thoughtful and enlightening!

GN: How did you first get started on playing guitar? And what brought you to Guitar Noise way back when?

Alan: I was growing up in the 1970s and we all wanted to be pop stars. Music on TV then meant must-watch shows like Top Of The Pops on a Thursday, and we had bands like Slade, Sweet and T-Rex, and solo legends such as David Bowie. Times were good. I didn’t rate myself as a singer (and still don’t) and it seemed that the TV cameras always closed in on the guitarist during the middle eight. Just before my fourteenth birthday, I noticed the local music shop had an inexpensive guitar in the front window; and the rest is history.

I came across Guitar Noise following a link to an article here from another guitar site. The other site was in the midst of a flame war and wasn’t doing it for me. GN seemed like a nice little community, didn’t take itself too seriously, and the Chief gave me his prettiest daughter as a concubine.

GN: Many of the Guitar Noise folks know you through your classical music, but you truly have a wide range of styles, as exemplified by the many performing groups you are a part of. Can you tell us a bit about your musical (and guitar) influences and what is involved to be able to play almost any kind of musical style?

Alan: Influences. An old girlfriend got me into Queen and I bought any number of songbooks to work out what Brian May was doing. It wasn’t until the Live Killers album that his methods became a little bit clearer when I learned he was using two single echo units on the solo to “Brighton Rock.” I actually came up with a little tribute to Brian a few years back, which I called “Blackpool Rock;” it’s still growing.

In 1978, my Dad and I used to watch the Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2 on a Tuesday night. It started at 11:25, so we’d get home from wherever we’d been and drink tea whilst mumbling Bob Harris introduced the great and the good of the day. That was how I got into Rush, he showed some footage for “Closer To The Heart” late one night. I have every CD they’ve made, every concert DVD and I’ve seen them four times. Alex Lifeson is God. See Rush play live if you don’t believe.

I remember one Saturday morning, listening to Ed “Stewpot” Stewart present Junior Choice on BBC Radio 1. He played Mason Williams’ great instrumental, “Classical Gas.” That really was the tune, the moment in fact, that turned me on to Classical Guitar, and that tune now forms part of my solo concert setlist.

What’s required to play a broad range of styles? I’m going to quote the great Radio Caroline (and then Radio 1) DJ Alan “Fluff” Freeman on this one: “Listen to as much music as you can. Any style. It’s all music.” What that gives you is a feel for how to present in a particular style without sinking into pastiche, and when you see a piece of music with the instructions “Val Halen style tremolo” you know what’s expected of you (the guy next to me on that occasion had the instruction “Face-melting solo.” Nuff said.)

GN: Have you always worked on songwriting since taking up the guitar or is that an interest that developed independently?

Alan: What I realised early on is that bands like The Beatles and the Stones wrote their own stuff; and they were good. Bands who used songwriters (the likes of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who wrote for lots of acts in the 1970s, or the bubblegum slush of Stock, Aitken and Waterman later) were doomed to early mediocrity and nobody bought more than one or two of their songs. I wanted to be a star. I wanted to be famous. I wanted it all.

GN: You’ve worked on SSG assignments since the very first year it was created. Do you have any favorite songs (of yours or by others) that have sprung out of the Sunday Songwriters’ Group?

Alan: Oh, yes. “One By One,” your collaboration with Nick is the most incredible song that’s come out of the SSG; it still says something meaningful all these years down the line, and it’s timeless. My favourite that I’ve written? “Point of Exit” was seriously enjoyable, but “Sure As Hell” is my personal high point.

GN: We’re featuring your terrific song “Sold Out” (I believe from Year 7 of the SSG) as our “Spotlight on SSG” in May. Since many of the Guitar Noise community know you primarily as a classical guitarist, can you shed a bit of light on how you came up with such a great punk song? What was the writing process involved?

Alan: Punk – and I’m talking about proper punk, not the bugglegum pop-punk slush that trundles off the conveyor belts and hit factories these days – landed when I was seventeen. We were all looking for deliverance. The awful Labour government had imposed tax rates of 75% on anyone earning a decent wage, oil prices were rising, inflation was skyrocketing, unemployment was going up (and any Economics student will tell you that inflation and unemployment do not go up and down together) and the country was in a mess (this was 1977 by the way, not 2010 although it was being repeated then). So, we were all angry and people were writing songs about how we felt. Suddenly, The Damned had an album in the shops, Adam And The Ants went soft and started having chart success with singles, and Polly Styrene (who remembers X-Ray Spex?) had her teeth fixed on the royalties advance. Revolution on demand! So many bands, all of whom said they were rebelling against the system, succumbed to major label contracts for big money; and we never heard of most of them again. The Clash stayed true to the principles of punk; Joe Strummer publicly promised Clash fans they’d never pay more than £5 for a Clash album (I saw them play for free at the first Rock Against Racism rally in London) but most punk bands sold out to the system they said they’d rebelled against. Vic and I exchanged notes about the 1976 article “Here’s three chords, now form a band” thing which I attributed to the NME and he attributed originally to the “Sniffin’ Glue” fanzine, at the time SSG7 asked us to write something punky, so I was thinking about that time and the words just fell into place from there. I think it took me about thirty minutes to write the words, the guitar part is three chords, the bass is roots and fifths, and the drums are samples from my collection cos I can’t play drums.

GN: Over the past couple of years you’ve stepped up your gutiar teaching to the point where it’s pretty much all you do. Are you enjoying it? Do any of your students write their own songs? And how do you manage to find time to write songs between teaching and performing?

Alan: One of my students has written some stuff for his GCSE exam at school this summer, but it’s an instrumental. Most of my students are aged eleven and under and haven’t got the writing bug yet. I enjoy the teaching work hugely, although between that and my performance work it doesn’t leave much time for writing. Every now and then I put a few lines on hold to rehearse for an upcoming concert, and then the moment’s gone. I’ll be back.

GN: Is there any advice you’d like to give someone who’s still trying to make the leap into songwriting?

Alan: Watch the TV news. Read a lot. Keep an open mind. Have a pencil and a notebook near you all the time. Have something to say, and make sure you say it – clearly. Don’t force things to rhyme, and don’t “call a spade a shovel” (that’s a quote from Tom Sharpe’s book “Riotous Assembly” or the other one he wrote about the South African Police btw – both are hilarious, superbly politically incorrect and a “must read”). Most importantly, be realistic; you’re not going to come up with the next Stairway to Heaven from scratch in twenty minutes over breakfast, you’re going to go through nine or ten versions of a song before you come up with something half decent and then you’ll want to change something. And, finally, don’t make up stories about the Chief giving you his prettiest daughter as a concubine.