I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” Robert Swipe on Facebook. I’m not sure what I did to merit the honor of an invitation to be friends, but I’m very glad he took a chance on me. He has a cutting sense of humor and a way of drawing in his followers to discussion threads by asking some very cool and offbeat questions.
Robert is a very gifted musician who encompasses many different styles throughout his music. His latest offering, an album of songs titled “The Most Beautiful Man In The World,” crosses many genres and brings me to the obvious question, “Who are your influences?”
I managed to ask a few more questions beyond the typical (and obvious) “influential” ones. Robert has graciously provided us with some very candid and insightful answers. Take a few moments to get to know this artist and treat yourself to his latest compilation of deftly woven and music-driven tales.
Missparker: Mania has a decidedly 80s vibe/feel to it, with a bit of Beatles change-up thrown in for good measure. Can you share your influences for this song?
Robert Swipe: It’s an absolute pleasure to be here Sandy, and thank you for that wonderful build up. This one just came to me while I was doing the washing up and thinking about what a contemporary version of Beatlemania might be like–as you do! The tune for the chorus and the words came to me pretty much as one–which is a very pleasant rarity–so any influence is probably buried very deep in the psyche. But yes, I wanted it to be quite “Beatley” and I’d started listening a lot to T-Rex and realized how much of a Beatles influence there had been on Marc. I used my incredibly cheap (and bad) Rickenbacker copy on this one, hoping it would sound like George on A Hard Day’s Night but, as usual, I got more of a Paul Weller/Jam sound from it. So there’s an odd mix of 60s, 70s and 8os in the guitars. The verses I wanted to sound like sort of 80s post-punk/Rockabilly, so I’m pleased you picked up on that! This was one of the first songs written for the album, so I hadn’t that clear an idea of how the whole album would sound. But initially I’d wanted a sort of grungey, glammy, garage band sound…anything beginning with G, basically, would be an influence.
Lyrically, I was thinking of poor Amy Winehouse, who I guess was a victim of a very modern form of mania. I think her haunted figure was captured quite well on this. I think the Beatles were under a massive amount of pressure during the height of their “mania,” and they coped with it in very similar ways to Amy. But, I guess, crucially they had one another, whereas she was on her own. So for me, it was an interesting idea to look at how someone similarly talented as the Beatles could undergo a similar experience that was the context for such joyful and upbeat music in the 60s, but that ended so sourly and sadly for Amy. Where they were able to channel all that weird energy that surrounded them, she was ultimately destroyed by it. So I guess I wanted to examine how things have changed and how people similarly driven to be creative and make beautiful things could be treated so differently by such similar forces. And to do so in an upbeat, “Beatley” tune, gave it quite an effective dark irony, hopefully.
Missparker: Love the jangly guitars and overall feel on Deborah. Is that someone special?
Robert Swipe: Thank you! Yes, it’s very specifically about Deborah Harry. It’s probably the most autobiographical song I’ve written, actually. Many moons ago, when I was a teenager, Ms. Harry was not only the current but arguably *the* ultimate pop pin up. So this song is a fairly subtle account of that most intimate of relationships between idol and worshipper! I had propped my mattress up on a wardrobe or something, aping a friend of mine who had a mezzanine bed–hence the “elevated bed.” So, about 4 or 5 inches above my head was a massive poster of Deborah with which I had a brief but torrid teenage affair! There’s also a gentle foreshadowing of the theme of the ephemeral nature, not just of pop stardom but of existence itself that’s elaborated upon a bit more seriously in the next song–I like the idea of the poster aging in the same way we do, so she’s “all torn and creased” in poster and human form.
A strange footnote: the song ends with some “Frere Jacques” style singing in the round and the phrase “see her falling down” popped into my head as I was, I thought, just roughing out the end section. “I’ll do that properly with the real words later…” I thought. But it slowly dawned on me that I’d seen Deborah performing in London in the 90s. She was wearing the most colossal high-heeled shoes and at one point she evidently lost her balance and toppled over! So obviously my subconscious mind is a far better songwriter than I am! I had to keep it in after that, but what a great illustration of the way the creative part of us is often buried very deep inside us, and who on earth knows how and why it bubbles to the surface as it does?
Missparker: The track from the album title, The Most Beautiful Man in the World is a stunning, heartfelt tune. It begins as an ambient song and morphs slowly and deliberately into a beautifully orchestrated song. Can you give us some insight on the origins of this tune?
Robert Swipe: Thank you, Sandy. My producer Doug Chay and I are very proud of this one. I think it’s the key song, really, which is why we decided to make it the title track. This is another one that I was very lucky with, really. I’d been thinking a lot about Marc Bolan and he’d been featuring very prominently in a lot of the Facebook posts I was seeing at the time; and, one or more of these might even have described him as “the most beautiful man in the world.” So I’d had that title in mind as something I could use, and the idea of Marc having survived the crash and living into old age just popped into my head one day when I was walking across the village green. It was, happily for me, accompanied by the tune once more.
So, it wasn’t so much written, as it fell out of the sky and into my grateful lap. Those are the nicest songs. Keith Richards describes that moment when they arrive as “incoming…” I think that describes it perfectly. This one really owes a huge debt to Douglas who somehow managed to carve a beautifully elegant likeness of Marc from the tangled mess of tracks I sent him. We were both also thinking a lot about Tony Visconti and his early work with both Marc and David Bowie, and I think this song is the fullest example of that. With masters like that, the apprentices can’t really go wrong.
Missparker: Speaking of Marc Bolan, Revolution brings me back in time (in a great way) to T.Rex…so, they have been a major influence in your music?
Robert Swipe: It’s really strange but before this project I would have called myself a T-Rex fan, and yet I realize now that I thought of them as being pretty much a singles band. It’s only really as part of this project that I’ve more fully explored Marc Bolan and his work. Even now, I think I only really managed to get up to about 1974, so incredibly prolific were they back in the 1960s–they were weighing in with a couple of albums a year, each with 13 or so tracks, barely any filler…astonishing to us now, in an era when people can spend several years producing…not much! So, to answer your question, no, probably not until now! This song is, as most fans of Marc will tell you, heavily indebted to a song called Beltane Walk. In fact, it’s a direct steal! But I figured, Marc was cool enough about his own songs to steal the lick from The Walk by Jimmy McCracklin for his song, so I can keep that fine tradition going a little longer and give it another spin on the karmic wheel.
With the very early T-Rex music, much as I love it, I must say that culturally it feels very far removed from my own musical roots. I got seriously into music at the tail end of the punk era and that was a very different scene! I have an aunt who used to go to watch the early Tyrannosaurus Rex and I have visions of a lot of people like her sitting cross-legged on the floor nodding into their Afghan coats. So, the key for my understanding the early, underground T-Rex music was really how much it owed to the music Marc grew up listening to which was, by the sounds of it, very early American rock ‘n’ roll, with which I myself was also more comfortable and familiar with. So, my fascination, I guess, is how Marc made something so ethereal, strangely beautiful and, I would say, very English out of such earthy US sounds. So Hot Rod Mama, the first track on the first LP, sounds in places like it was recorded at Sun Studios,but it’s a cosmos away from all that, too.
Missparker: Having lived in Georgia for a time around the turn of the 21st century, I have to say I’m amused/intrigued by the title of Georgia Peach. Have you ever been there and what prompted the title to the song?
Robert Swipe: (Laughs) Sadly not. I have some wonderful Facebook friends from Georgia, though and they’re always telling me how lovely it is. One day, hopefully, I’ll get to find out for myself. No, I was actually thinking about Little Richard, who I believe was referred to as the Georgia Peach. This song started out as an outright Bay City Rollers number that was going to be called ‘ILUVULUVMELUV’ (or similarly archaic spellings!), but Doug initially felt it was a little *too* Rollersesque, even though he’s a massive fan. So, I tried slowing it down and doing it more like Brian Wilson did California Girls, but it still wasn’t really right, so we left it on the shelf for a bit. At some point, bizarrely, I think I was doing the washing up again (you can see where the ley lines are in our house….near the kitchen sink), and I started thinking about the Ronettes and, at about the same time, Little Richard. I may even have been wondering if he was still alive! And for whatever unfathomable reason, I started singing ‘ILUVULUVMELUV’ the way Ronnie Spector would have, only I had to change the tune a bit to make it sound right for her. Then, I thought, “I have to get a tribute to Little Richard in here too, he’s brilliant,” and so, the Georgia Peach image came to me and that was the song complete.
I suppose what I was grasping for was to convey in musical style just how central an artist Little Richard was to a whole strand of theatrical and transgressive pop. He wore makeup, looked like he could be a drag artist, but could bawl like the furies and was, along with another favorite of mine, Jerry Lee Lewis, just the real deal as an artist and a person. I suppose if you think about it, you can’t imagine artists like Bowie and Prince doing what they did without Little Richard Penniman having broken the hard ground up a bit for them first. And I guess it’s my celebration of him still being here and guiding our way when so many others who’ve lit the path for us have now gone.
Missparker: Again, we have a song with a woman’s name as a title. Nancy is a heartfelt track about promises made and (presumably) love lost. Is this from personal experience? Where do you find the inspiration to write such deeply meaningful and personal songs?
Robert Swipe: Again, this is another vignette of the downside of fame and I had in mind Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. It sort of rounds off a suite of songs that look somewhat askance at the whole business of fame and celebrity. We’ve had songs about Amy, Deborah, Marc, and Little Richard, so it felt right to string them together when we were sequencing them. The only way I felt I could write about two ultimately quite tragic figures was through the kind of style that Bryan Ferry perfected around the time of Avalon. I felt that sort of clash between the quite stylized performance and the quite gritty subject matter might be interesting and I’m really pleased that you felt some real emotion came through it all. I think I’m quite detached as a writer, but I sing and play with quite a lot of emotion, so I’m never sure which aspect comes through most fully. I’m pleased it’s the emotion in this case. They were a sad pair, I think. Both in their own ways lived to be famous–at least, that’s the impression I got. And having got it, it killed them. Very sad.
Missparker: I love the 90s shoegaze feel of Twenty5. The bass is pronounced and a wonderful foundation for this song. Do you feel that the shoegaze era was a particularly influential era to some of your music?
Robert Swipe: I kind of missed out on the shoegaze thing, really. I can hear stuff from that period now and it sounds a lot better than I remember it being at the time. Are you thinking of bands like Ride and Lush?
Missparker: Yes, and Catherine Wheel, and so on…
Robert Swipe: I feel more akin as a writer to bands like Blur, who began probably on the fringes of shoegaze and I felt gave themselves a bit more room to spread out artistically, rather than being part of a short-lived movement. I’m not trying to do down the bands in that era, but I personally was zoning out a bit on contemporary music at that time, just a time of life thing where you start exploring earlier music a bit more as you have a bit of a “seen that, done that” feeling about contemporary music. What you start realizing is that it’s always cyclical and that everything always comes around again. So I might start telling people “there’s always been a shoegaze element to my music…” very soon!
I think I had Led Zep more in mind on this one. I had a drum loop that sounded like the kind of thing John Bonham might have played and just started riffing around that. The lyric concerns an imaginary South American girl who sits in her room getting drunk and stoned imagining she’ll set the world on fire then die before she’s twenty-five. There are worse ways to live, I guess. I’m sure she wouldn’t be the first person to take the lyrics to All the Young Dudes a tad too literally. But that’s been a real discovery–South America. Some very cool and lovely people down there who really know their rock and pop and what’s more they know how to treat a female impersonator (that last bit’s from Monty Python, if anyone else is old enough to remember them).
Missparker: I do (laughs)! I love the orchestration of The World Will End. That brings me to the question…do you work with other musicians, or are the tracks solely laid down by you alone? If it’s a sole venture, I’m very curious to find out how you would take your music out on the road, if given the opportunity?
Robert Swipe: Sadly, I’m completely solo in terms of the playing, at the moment. Working with Doug, though was a big change and a completely beneficial one, so hopefully I can keep expanding and maybe one day end up with a real band…who knows? This one really was radically reshaped by Doug and showed me why it is so great to have a producer. It started out very much aping the song Five Years musically, as well as lyrically. But, Doug stripped it down completely to just the weird vibe part and a drum loop, and after scratching my head for a bit, I suddenly saw a new way of doing it.
My inspiration for the remake was very much Strawberry Fields Forever, with maybe a bit of Blue Jay Way in there, too. Again, there’s a clash between the subject matter and the style that hopefully opens things up in an interesting way. Again, I threw tons of parts at Doug, but he did a really great job as surrogate George Martin on this one, just letting each idea have its moment in the sun and making it a much richer and structured piece than it would have been if I’d been left to my own devices. But yes, I’d really love to put together a band and a show. I think between this album and Glam! there’s the makings of a really good rock show. Anyone out there play the bass….?
Missparker: Hot Gossip and Beautiful Lie seem to give us intimate glimpses into your soul. Does songwriting provide a sort of catharsis for any major events that may be occurring in your life?
Robert Swipe: It’s odd, I do see myself as a very detached writer–a novelist, rather than a diarist, to use literary equivalents. There are a few autobiographical things in there, but they tend to just be used as accurate detail, the way a novelist might consult a notebook if they wanted to convey something vividly. But ultimately, I see my songs as imaginative explorations, rather than soul-baring autobiography. So, with Hot Gossip, the bit about the glockenspiel is something we did in a music lesson at school, performing a very ramshackle version of Revolution #9–quite! The black walls belonged to a friend of mine. I don’t, sadly, own a swastika garter myself, but there’s always time I suppose! There are oblique parallels with Pandora in the song, and the way I’ve chosen to present the music in a very glam and gender-bending style, I guess.
It probably is tough for people who know me to see all that as the charade I know it is, so I suppose they might be represented by the outraged parents in the song. I’m an orphan now, so a lot of my musings about my relationships with my parents probably comes out in these narratives, but it’s not something I consciously try to write about. I guess it’s the same in terms of the lyrics. You aim to paint a convincing portrait of the person or ideas that you’re trying to give voice to in the song–so I guess one should take it as a high compliment when people mistake what you’re doing for autobiography. But, to say all that makes it sound rather cold and calculating and I certainly don’t feel that way about my work; I am completely transported when I play and sing–well, when it is going well–and I put so much passion and emotion into the music and the writing. But, I think I express my inner being through the whole piece rather than just lyrically, if that makes sense?
Missparker: It does. I have to admit that I thought Glitterball (by its name) would be a disco-based track. Thankfully, it’s not. What does the glitter ball stand for metaphorically in this song?
Robert Swipe: (Laughs) What’s wrong with disco? But seriously, this is very much a composite song that started out in different form quite a few years ago, so it’s quite hard to pin down exact meanings. I guess with the glitter ball I was just thinking of that very late 70s, Debbie Harry singing Heart of Glass at Studio 54 sort of pop glamour. It’s something that has always been very alluring to me, I suppose, in part because it’s gone and is out of my reach now. Nothing is more alluring than what you can’t have. So, it’s the idea of someone being absolutely themselves in one brief glorious transcendent moment.
That’s contrasted with the quite desperate figure that’s painted in the verses; someone who’s very lost spiritually in a very dark and unforgiving world. That seemed to make a lot of emotional sense to me, and I hoped it would speak to other people’s feelings about the way the world is right now. I had in mind a very beautiful North African woman cast into a very dark and gothic Europe. But strangely, when I listen now, I have somewhere like Los Angeles in mind when I picture it all. Go figure. I also liked the way Marc Bolan would take very materialistic or rock ‘n’ roll imagery, and couple them with spiritual or esoteric concepts like Metal Guru, Cosmic Dancer. I figured it might be fun to explore that a bit more bluntly. So, the character in this song is looking for God in back street sex, etc. As you can see, I’m no Marc Bolan!
Missparker: The Spirit of Rock and Roll is a moody song. It also clocks in as the longest on this album. And, I love that you end the song with several declarations of love. What was the inspiration for this song? What do you mean by having the spirit of rock and roll?
Robert Swipe: Well, I think the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll is something I’ve noticed a lot across our Facebook groups and friends. People–some of my age group, some older, some younger–who were pretty much knocked for six when David Bowie died. I guess a lot of us have found out quite graphically, through the loss, how much someone like him and what he did when he was alive meant to us. So, I started wondering if that would be a good platform to try and build up a small community of people who’d all been inspired by that brave, questing, experimental music and visual style and to try and force myself to live up as much as I could to what I thought people who liked such music might expect from new music nowadays. As I was recording, I kept wondering whether it was still possible to use that style of music to do “big things” like bring people together and change the world. So, I suppose this album is my attempt to test the promises that 60s and 70s music made to me–and so many of us–and to see if new songs could ever achieve some of the cultural power pop songs once had.
One of the most exciting things for me from the Facebook groups was that there were a lot of young people who had sought that very music out and were experiencing it with the same force it once had for us. So, I guess this song is the most explicit example of that experiment–to see if you could write something as anthemic and generation-defining as, say, All the Young Dudes and whether it could have anything like the same meaning such a song might once have had for its audience. I can imagine precisely how ridiculous and over-reaching that sounds to everyone reading this, but I was genuinely curious! And, following on from that, I did definitely want to send out a message of love directly to the people I describe above–to say thank you for being there as an audience for me. It’s the first time I’ve been even remotely aware that I had one–and to suggest that, even if it’s only for the duration of this song, we can live out some of those old glories. And, of course, it had to be slightly tongue-in-cheek, otherwise everyone out there would think I really meant it!
Thank you, Sandy, for asking such interesting and thought-provoking questions. I hope I haven’t bored you too horribly with my rambling responses!
It was absolutely my pleasure, and not boring, at all.
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