Sunday, 31 August 2008

Songwriting 101; Lesson One. How to write song lyrics, penguin style.

Jack - People often ask us how we write our lyrics. Well, not that often, but they’re obviously curious, so why wait for them to ask, right? Instead of a direct question, after someone listens to one of our tunes we may get a comment like:

“Were you high when you wrote this?”

“You must have been really drunk when you wrote this.”

“What were you guys on when you wrote this?”

Disagrees - What foolishness.

Jack – Hmm. Well, alchohol and drugs may work for some people, but our songs are usually written under the influence of tea, hunger, and a semi-invisible penguin. Not everybody can have the assistance of a penguin, however.

Disagrees – That’s not quite accurate, Jack. In the spirit of self-promotion, I have decided to conduct some songwriting masterclasses, to help any would be songwriters out there produce quality work that might meet my exacting standards. Lesson one is lyric writing.

Jack – Ten tips for successful lyric writing?

Disagrees – I think not. Perhaps eleven.

Jack – So here it is: lesson 1 in our “Songwriting 101” series. Your comments, and any additional thoughts or suggestions, will be appreciated.

Disagrees – Pah!

1. Say something!

“You singers are spineless, as you sing your senseless songs to the mindless. Your general subject, love, is minimal (it’s sex for profit).” Public Enemy: “Caught, Can We Get A Witness?”

When you start to write lyrics, unless you have a specific thing to say, the mind quickly starts to boggle at all the things you can say. It is therefore best to start of with something in specific you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a story, or a protest song; it can be a feeling or an observation.

Our first album is entitled “We’ve Got A Point To Make But We’re Not Quite Sure What It Is”. You do not necessarily have to say anything coherent, but some sort of message is helpful.

Example: “Che Guevara t-shirt; what the f**k is that all about?”

2. Have a hook

“The revolution will not be televised” (Gil Scott Heron) – listen here

Taylor Mali’s "How To Write A Political Poem" is a good read on the subject of having a ‘hook’

3. Poetry

Some people say that lyric writing is like writing a poem. Think of some of your favourite songs, and imagine if you read the lyrics written out as a poem. Often the resulting poem is not very good. Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”, for example. Song lyrics can be memorable and singable without being good poetry.

On the other hand, turning a poem into lyrics can be successful, for example the verses of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”, which are based on a poem called “Fun”, by one Wyn Cooper.

4. The David Bowie Approach

“Tactful Cactus, by a Window

Surveys the Prairie of your room.

Mobile spins, to its collision.

Clara puts her head between her paws.

Open shops, down the west side

Will all the Cacti find a home?

But the key, to the city

Is in the sun that pins the branches to the sky

Woah oh oh.”

David Bowie- “Eight Line Poem”

There’s some story about David Bowie cutting out random lyrics and rearranging them to create his songs. Here is David Bowie writing a song using a different method.

5. Rhyme

“I’m gonna be, yours in a simple rhyme”- Van Halen – “In A Simple Rhyme”

“All the tired horses in the sun, how’m I gonna get any riding done.” – Bob Dylan – “All the Tired Horses”

“I’ve got a bike, you can ride it if you like

It’s got a basket a bell that rings and things to make it look good

I’d give it to you if I could

but I borrowed it.” – Syd Barrett – “Bike”

Sometimes obvious rhymes are the best. It is also possible to construct a song around rhymes that while in themselves ‘obvious’ are a little bit of a stretch in context, which can give your song an interesting vibe.

Example: “Didn’t feel too popular, I bought myself binoculars”

The Bye Byes’ song “Binoculars”

Also have a listen to Arlo Guthrie's "Motorcycle (Significance of the Pickle) Song".

"I don't want a pickle

Just wanna ride on my motorcycle

And I don't want a tickle

Just wanna ride on my motorcycle

And I don't wanna die

Just wann ride on my motorcy...cle."

6. Pun and Cliché

“Holly wants to go to California. Holly would, if only Holly could.” – Funkadelic

“Evil will prevail” – The Flaming Lips

“Cos she thinks she’s so…phisticated.” – Public Enemy

Play around with words and meanings, words that sound the same, and split words into component parts, etc. Taking a clichéd expression and changing it is a popular hook-making technique, second only in popularity to simply taking a common expression or figure of speech and leaving it as it is, but possibly taking it more literally than normal, or giving it an obvious double meaning- AC/DC commonly do this, e.g. “Givin’ the Dog A Bone”, or “Shake A Leg”, or “Let me put my love into you”.

7. Imagery

Use powerful imagery:

“And maybe Marlon Brando

Will be there by the fire,

We'll sit and talk of Hollywood,

and the good things there for hire

And the Astrodome

And the first Teepee

Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and Me”

Neil Young – “Pocahontas”

“Some people seem to stare, like I’m Don King’s hair” – Plastic Dave – “DragonsLair”

8. References

The above are also pop-culture references; another example is Public Enemy’s hook-

“Party for your right to fight”, which cleverly turns around the Beastie Boys’ “Fight for your right to party” to give it a whole different meaning. Our song “I have to say I love you in a solo”, is partly inspired by Jim Croce, who wrote “I have to say I love you in a song”

Our rap, “A Mind To Disagree”, is packed full of references. Here are some examples from that piece:

“Silly rabbit, your habits don’t fit in my habitat, the fit survive, I’m fitter, that is that.”

This is a reference both to Darwin’s theory of evolution and to a breakfast cereal commercial featuring a silly rabbit, via Flava Flav’s line in “Caught, Can We Get A Witness” where he says “I see your tape recorder and I grab it; No you can’t have it back, you silly rabbit”, which also makes this a rapping reference;

“I’m a rhyming wizard, unleashing lyrical blizzards, you’re not in Kansas anymore and you’re freezing to your gizzards”, is obviously a Wizard of Oz reference.

“It’s most icy not Mos Eisley but it’s still a wretched hive of scum and villainy”

refers to a line in Star Wars spoken by Obi Wan Kenobi;

“…not gonna be an alien space ship, we’ve only got one planet so lets not waste it”

Is self-referential, referring to another song of ours, “Space Cadet”

This kind of referencing is most appropriate in rap songs. It can also be used to subtly remind people of any kind of “beef” you may have with another rapper.

9. Psychadelic

Listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Bold As Love”. He clearly has something to say, but he says it using very flowery language.

10. Bridge – take it to another level

The bridge of the song, immediately preceding a mind-blowing solo, is a good place to ramp up your lyrical efforts and expand into new territory.

A good example of this is in the Crash Test Dummies’ song “When I Go Out With Artists”. The singer has been pondering this topic, but when he gets to the bridge something else occurs to him:

“What if the artists ran the TV?

All the ads would be for fine scotch whisky;

Glennfiddich, Glenlivet, the whole single malt


The bridge can also be a cool refreshing place where you can expand before returning to the main drive of the song with renewed energy and vigour. You can use it with or without a key change. We use bridges in our songs “Haggis the Wondercow”, “Uncle Sam”, and “Facemelter of the Old Country” for this kind of effect.

11. Make It Up As You Go Along (MIUAYGA)

“Well I put down my bush

And I took off my pants and felt… free.

The breeze blowing up… me.

And up the canyon…

Far as I could see”

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band - “The Dust Blows Forward and the Dust Blows Back.”

This song is almost like a poem, and in between many of the phrases you here a clicking sound, which makes me wonder whether this song wasn’t written in one go using the MIUAYGA method and turning the tape-recorder off and on. Our song “Pharaoh” was also written using the MIUAYGA method, and many of our best lyrics are written on the fly to fill in a space or fit to the music. Also known as improvisation, but that sounds lazy.


Jack - So, now you know how to write better lyrics. Go and write a song. Good luck!

Disagrees - No. We’ve only covered lyrics today. They are not yet ready to write an entire song.

Jack – Right. If you want to listen to any of our songs mentioned here, try one of the links on the right of the page. For more songwriting tricks and tips, don’t forget to check back frequently, as Disagrees will be casting more pearls before you in due course.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Expanding into foreign markets: The Penguin translated into other languages.

The Penguin Disagrees is an internationally minded band: We have previously written songs including German (Dr. Monzook), Spanish (Che Guevara T-Shirt), and several other languages, and of course, we speak to the world with the international language of music. I'm in Shanghai, China, at the moment and I take every opportunity to distribute our music to people of many different nationalities.

Our musical influences also include songs written in several foreign languages, be it the Swedish psychadelic rock of Dungen, or the Beatles-like Portuguese stylings of Brazil's "Os Mutantes", to name but a small sample.

Recently I have been investigating Chinese rock music, and become something of a fan of Cui Jian (崔健)Hei Bao - Black Panther (黑豹) and Tang Chao - Tang Dynasty (唐朝). You can look them up at this useful Chinese rock music resource. If you need a fix now, have a look at this video by Hei Bao, or listen to these famous songs by Cui Jian: Nothing To My Name (一无所有), and A Piece of Red Cloth (一块红布).

As an international rock band, we have occasionally released limited edition cds, such as a "US edition" (see picture), but if we are to expand into foreign markets, we at least need a Japanese edition with bonus tracks. In the meantime I decided to translate our name into several languages so when the time comes we will be ready. Disagrees was skeptical, but I think he was just trying to live up to his reputation.

German: 'Der Pinguin Stimmt Nicht Zu'
or 'Der Pinguin ist Anderer Meinung'

Chinese: 企鹅不同意 (qi'e bu tongyi)

El Pingüino Discrepa

Le Pingouin Est En Désaccord

Japanese: ペンギンは合わない

Portuguese: O Pinguim Discorda

Russian: пингвин противоречит

Swedish: Pingvinet Ogillar

If you have any corrections or translations for other languages, please let us know. I was just using nciku and babel fish

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), Bruce Lee style.

"Some tea, Mr. Braithwaite?"

"We need emotional content" said Disagrees to me the other day. "What?" I said. "It's like a finger, pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger..." he said, hitting me with his flipper, "or you will miss all that heavenly glory".

Disagrees has evidently been watching this Bruce Lee scene recently. "Jack," he said "We want to be rock-stars. Yet you are working on SEO, or in other words, spamming". "For the moment", I replied, but he cut me off- "Let us utilize the skills you are learning" he said, with a cunning look in his eye.

You see, nobody is going to be searching for the Penguin Disagrees who doesn't already know about us. But a fascinating blog full of interesting stories and links will bring us fans. Let us therefore operate according to the methods of Bruce Lee and Kurt Vonnegut.
The whole SEO thing is decidedly un-rock and roll, but Disagrees is frustrated with his lack of internet fame. I mentioned this to Alex, and he said that for this reason we should write songs with popular search engine keywords in them: "The Penguin Paris Hilton Nude Video Hot Sex Barbados Insurance Song". This is one of several projects we are currently considering.

The opening scenes of "Enter the Dragon" when taken together, are possibly my favourite opening scenes in the history of cinema. Incidentally, the part with the finger is reminiscent of certain zen koans, or sayings.

Speaking of Zen koans, this is my favourite:
"Does a dog have buddha nature?"

Here are some 'Broken Koans'

Pokey the penguin is probably the favourite source of Zen for Alex and me.

Disagrees wants to remind you that this blog is therfore only the finger pointing away to the moon- do not concentrate on the finger and miss all that heavenly glory.

Friday, 29 August 2008

"What's This All About, Officer?"; Brief History And List of Internet Resources.

Who are we?

Disagrees is a semi-fictitious Penguin. As claimed in his autobiographical work: "A Mind To Disagree", he stems from Antarctica. The origin of Disagrees' name is uncertain, he himself has only ever gone so far as to say "They name us after third person verbs here in the big freeze" (ibid.) It is possible that this is a self-styling, or a nickname given to him by friends or acquaintances (it is not clear whether he has any close friends) based on his apparent inclination to gratuitously disagree with things.

Disagrees the Penguin shot to semi-fame in the summer of 2006 when a band named
"The Penguin Disagrees" was set up by two Oxford students, Alex and Jack. The two had already come together to create their seminal work "Che Guevara T-Shirt", a call to arms against what they saw as insidious influences (read, every single person playing Tenacious D followed by Maroon 5), and lack of standards/innovative content at the "open mike nights" happening around the city. Initially part of the bands raison d'etre was to confuse people at said open mike nights, and attempt to shake semi-listeners out of their complacency.

This song was still in its early stages and had not yet been unleashed on the unsuspecting public when the band name was dreamed up in Alex's room in the Old Quad of
Brasenose College one balmy June day. A noun and third person verb was required, and fate threw Alex, Jack, and Disagrees the Penguin together, in an unlikely creative collaboration the likes of which the world had never seen. The song "Pharaoh" was written almost immediately after the name was decided upon. In the lyrics of this dreamlike, semi-baroque bluesy reggae improvisation, The Penguin is placed in Egypt, around the time of Moses and the Exodus, as an economic advisor to the Pharaoh with a lavish benefits package, and the Penguin's penchant for disagreement is blamed for influencing the Pharaoh's decision not to agree to Moses' demands. This self referential myth-making was to become an important part of the bands style, and reflects the penchant for tall tales and self-aggrandisment of Disagrees himself.

Jack, Alex, and Disagrees continue to make their music, and stay true to their roots. They aren't gigging at present, however, owing to geographical issues, but have several ideas for concept albums in the works. Disagrees is chafing at the bit, though, and as he is on principle opposed to any form of complacency, he has decided to start an aggressive internet marketing campaign.

Why a blog?

The Penguin Disagrees is plastered all over the internet in a way that should by now have made them some sort of 'internet phenomenon', and yet the band, and Disagrees himself, are not yet famous. "Nay" says Disagrees "Fame does not tempt us- but we would like those theoretical listeners and semi-listeners who we know would appreciate us to have the opportunity to hear our music before they die. I am opposed to the present situation". Disagrees therefore wanted a blog or two to let people know about the band, its members, what they like, what they do, and so on, as well as, of course, being able to vent his opinions, which are often not in agreement with those of other people.


Jack is conducting field-work in China, looking for a new sound. Alex is in Oxford, furthering his musical ambitions in a multitude of fields. Disagrees is semi-invisible, and is somewhat vague about his location; some say Disagrees only exists in those moments when Alex and Jack are creating a new song together, but Disagrees, predictably, strongly disagrees. "That's bollocks", he fumes. But today, in this modern world, "where" can also mean "where on the internet?". As the band, more than Disagrees himself, are spattered all over the internet, here is:

A List of Important, Canonical, Resources
compiled by the penguin 'Disagrees'.

Our entire current official catalogue is available
here, at Indmill.
so far we have made enough money for Jack and Alex to buy a king size chocolate bar each. Disagrees is saving his cut for something bigger.

It is also here, at Amiestreet.
Feel free to download the whole lot.

Last FM has a page for The Penguin Disagrees.
This is supposed to make money somehow, but Jack can't figure out how to use it.

Several of our songs have been reviewed at Redfizz, and you can also download them for free.
There are some funny reviews on here.

Our Myspace is, of course, where it all started, and Disagrees plans to restore this page to its former glory in due course. This is still the first port of call for all Myspace friend requests and so forth.

What would Disagrees' plan for Internet phenomenonness be without viral videos? Well, music videos at any rate?
Here is our video for the song 'Space Cadet'
Here is our video for the song 'La Forma De La Luna'

Hold on a second, I thought you said "spattered all over the internet"? This is barely a sprinkling of what I was expecting!
Well, we are also at a couple of other sites:

In an early attempt to make piles of cash to roll around in like Uncle Scrooge in Ducktales, we made our music available for sale at the WeMusicStore
Feel free to buy it, but we'd rather you got our official canon from Indmill of Amiestreet.

If you want to podcast us, look at our site on the Podsafe Music Network

This Mevio site has some of our stuff on it.
I'm not sure what it does- it may also be to do with podcasting. If you do decide to listen to our music here, be warned- "Explicit Lyrics and Outrageous Basslines!!"

Here we are at Channel 4

Meefo have our song
"Che Guevara T-Shirt". I have no recollection of this site.

If you have a band and you want to promote your music, maybe you can try some of these sites yourself. But Disagrees would rather you just became a fan of his band.