My Jazz Chord Theory of Creativity

I found myself with a free afternoon yesterday, not something that happens often these days as any spare time I have tends to be dedicated to writing, but I’m in a lull on one project and stuck on another, and so I found myself plugging my guitar into a pedal board and amp, and I started thrashing out a few chords.

Inspired by its inclusion on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY soundtrack, I thought I’d have a go at learning David Bowie’s splendid MOONAGE DAYDREAM and was surprised by how simple it was: lots of nice major/minor chords, a very easy riff and a straightforward melody.

And it got me thinking about a half-baked music analogy I have about creativity. When rock bands start out they begin with the simple stuff: twelve-bar blues, major chords dropping to minors, and a cool hook. Stuff that’s basic, but highly effective, hitting people right in the feels…

Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy and making people feel totes emosh since the dawn of time.

But as an artist progresses in their career, they understandably want to try something more complex and challenging, and, if you’re a guitarist, this means that sooner or later your favourite band will start using complex jazz chords…

Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.
Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy jazz, but in quite small doses. It just doesn’t engage me emotionally in the way that a big, stupid rock song does. Just as I prefer Bowie’s early stuff, I suspect that it’s songs like STARMAN and LIFE ON MARS that are paying the mortgage at chez Bowie, rather than anything he’s recorded in the last twenty years. It’s also why the musically straightforward 1970s-era Pink Floyd continue to sell more than the jazz odyssey stylings of their early Syd Barrett stuff or, say, Captain Beefheart…

Of course, this theory is full of holes: if anything, the Beatles’ songs became more straightforward as they progressed, Kate Bush’s stuff was always complex musically (though her early albums are arguably more tuneful), and it probably doesn’t apply to classical or opera, though Beethoven’s Fifth (Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuum!) is as rock n roll as classical gets.

But you get the idea: the simple stuff works. It will always have a greater reach, audience-wise, than the introverted, “clever” stuff.

And here comes the big, clanging, G-major analogy that I’ll be trying to apply to my writing: I won’t be putting too many jazz chords into my stories. I might think I’m being clever by killing the hero on page 35, or starting in the middle of my story and working backwards via flashforwards, but some poor producer has to pitch that idea to raise money, and nine out of ten of them will always go for the simple sell.

That’s not to dismiss “simple” as “easy”: keeping a story truthful, engaging and emotional is hard enough as it is. So why make life more difficult for yourself?

And so my creative aim in life is to hit the same simple and moving peak as Bowie who has Mick Ronson open a song with a big, fat D-major chord as he cries, “I’m an alligator!” There’s no greater achievement in art…

 

 

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Robot Overlords screening at the Greenwich Book Festival – Sunday May 24th – now with added James Tarpey!

STOP PRESS!

Come and see a screening of ROBOT OVERLORDS this Sunday 24th May at 2.30pm!

As part of the Greenwich Book Festival, I’ll introduce the event with a ‘From script to screen’ presentation, followed by a screening of the film. I’m pretty sure this will be your only chance to see the film before the DVD release later this year, so do please come along!

STOP STOP PRESS!

I’m also delighted to announce that I’ll be joined by James Tarpey, one of the film’s stars! We’ll have posters to sign and give away to those who buy a copy of the ROBOT OVERLORDS novelisation.

Tickets are just £6 – click here for details!

The film is rated 12A, so children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult.

Robot Overlords: From Script to Screen, plus a screening of the film.

Starts 2.30 pm – Presentation: 45 minutes (approx.), film running time: 90 minutes – should all be done by 5.30!

Old Royal Naval College

Queen Anne Building

Lecture Theatre 080

SE10 9LS London

The Robot Overlords will be invading Bradford next Saturday, 16th May…

Well, maybe not the whole occupying force… Okay, it’s just me.

As part of the Bradford Literature Festival I’ll be in conversation with awesome steampunk author David Barnett. We’ll be talking about how the film came about, and how it evolved into the novelisation. We’re hoping to be able to show some cool clips, concept art and behind-the-scenes stuff… it all depends on the availability of projectors and speakers and stuff… if not, I’ll have to do it via the medium of speaking and gesticulating. Don’t worry: I’m trained.

Click here for tickets. We’re on at 1-2pm at the gorgeous Waterstones at the Wool Exchange…

Gaze upon its beauty...
Gaze upon its beauty…

… a store I have very fond memories of as it’s where I first met Neil Gaiman. It was back in 1996 and I had dragged my poor wife halfway across the country to see what was then the only IMAX screen in the country at the National Media Museum to watch SPECIAL EFFECTS: ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, a kind-of visual effects IMAX sampler complete with a colossal Star Destroyer and King Kong falling off the Empire State Building. Hey, it was before the internet took off and you had to travel to see the geeky stuff back then.

By complete coincidence Neil Gaiman happened to be in town signing copies of NEVERWHERE.  I was kicking myself as I had a first edition of GOOD OMENS at home signed by Terry Pratchett and I wished I had brought it with me. Neil asked what Terry had written. “Burn this book,” I told him. So he scribbled a little retort on a Post-It note for me. I stuck it in the book where it still resides now…

IMG_2817

In a couple of years I was working for Headline Publishing and selling Neil’s books into the trade and I got to meet him a few more times (he would greet me with a smile and the words, “Ah, the fanboy.”) and, more importantly, I got to read a proof of AMERICAN GODS before most of the reading public, and I would evangelise to booksellers about it until they caved and ordered a dumpbin.

So, yes, happy memories… I hope you can join us and maybe we can make some new happy memories of our own.