Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 9 /
In 'Ten Songs that Made Me Love...', Ben Howarth writes of his favourite songs by singer-songwriter and ex-Hefner front man, Darren Hayman
Darren Hayman formed Hefner in 1996 (joined by three other songwriters of note – Antony Harding, John Morrison and Jack Hayter), and has also played in two synth-based groups, The French (with John Morrison again) and the short-lived Stereo Morphonium. He formed a bluegrass band in 2005, and was also the bass player with Rotifer for one album in 2011. He has recorded/produced a number of records, including the fourth album by his friends the Wave Pictures, and has also made videos for a number of bands.
Hefner were famous for their work-rate. They released four albums and a compilation in four years, and in between, a series of EPs and non-album singles. Hayman has kept that up in his solo career – rarely do six months go by without something new to listen to. Recent years has seen Hayman test the boundaries of what it means to be a songwriter on a small label – following an album of rustic folk-blues about the Essex Countryside with a precisely crafted set of instrumentals themed around open-air swimming pools; recording an album of piano ballads at the same time as he completes an epic twenty-track exploration of the 17th century witch trials.
The ten songs listed below represent are an excellent introduction to his music, but are by no means the whole story. Already, I'm asking myself what kind of a fool leaves out 'Out Of Season', 'Perfect Homes', 'Drive Too Fast' or 'Super Swimming Stadium'. Oh well...
1. Hefner – 'A Hymn for the Things We Didn't Do' (From 'The Hefner Heart EP', 1999)
Like, I imagine, many readers of Pennyblackmusic, my first experiences of music outside of the charts came when I started listening to John Peel. As a teenager, I'd listened to his programmes every so often for several years, but only became a regular in 1999 when I was fifteen. I'd seen in 'The Radio Times' that he would be counting down his Festive 50 over a week's worth of Christmas shows, and I decided to tape record the whole thing.
Hefner had a prolific 1999. As well as their acclaimed second album 'The Fidelity Wars', they released a number of EPs and recorded a bizarre Peel session of gospel covers. They had more songs in the listener's top 50 than any other band.
My favourite was the song that charted lowest. This wasn't on the album, which I bought very soon afterwards, and I think that made me like it even more (instead, it came out on a Spanish label). I'd never heard anything quite like Hefner. The recording seemed so sparse, almost like a demo. "How had they managed to get on the radio sounding like that?", I thought. The vocals were raw and untutored, the lyrics were matter-of-fact. I'd recently become a fan of Pavement, but the fact that the words were obviously the first thing that had popped into his head always slightly spoiled them. Hayman sounded like a real person, singing about things he'd actually done.
2. Hefner – 'Good Fruit' (From 'We Love the City', 2000)
For a period of between six to twelve months, Hefner were "Britain's biggest small band," They released records as prolifically as the Smiths (indeed, they started 2000 with an 'odds and sods' compilation of B-sides and radio sessions, obviously modelled on 'Hatful of Hollow'). It was by googling 'Hefner' that I found Pennyblackmusic, and – aged 16 – my review of their new single 'Good Fruit' was the first article I wrote for the site.
The clumsiness that I liked so much about their earlier work had gone. This one is in-tune, has backing vocals and there is even a horn section. Briefly, I even imagined Hefner might get in the charts and be on 'Top Of The Pops'.
3. The French – 'The Stars, the Moon, The Sun and the Clouds'(From 'Local Information', 2003)
Hefner's early magic faded quite quickly. Hayman realised that he could only write so many songs about awkward early 20s romance, fuelled by drink and cigarettes, and looked for a new direction. I think he also felt wrongly pigeonholed into a 'twee' indie scene dominated by Belle and Sebastian.
Their third album, 'We Love the City', had much to admire. Hayman's songs are more fully-realised, and the music is far more ambitious. But in becoming 'better', Hefner became more like everybody else. More people bought 'We Love the City', but I suspect it wasn't listened to as often. Hayman now says it is his favourite Hefner album, but at the time – rather than spend two years promoting it – he quickly moved on to a fourth album, the homemade, ramshackle 'Dead Media'. Largely synth-based, it sold poorly and can largely be blamed for the band breaking up. John Peel still loyally plugged 'Dead Media', but I doubt I played it more than twice (though Hayman has since reissued it, and I realised that – underneath the synths – some songs were better than I credited at the time).
After Hefner's demise in early 2002, Too Pure kept Hayman on and requested a solo album. Instead, he holed up in an office with Hefner's bassist John Morrison and made an album entirely programmed on vintage synths. After 'Dead Media' sold so badly, you wonder if they could possibly believe anyone would buy it?
In fact, where 'Dead Media' sounded like a band dabbling with equipment they didn't really know how to use, The French's 'Local Information' is careful and precise. Hayman's songwriting knack is back – where 'Dead Media' often sounded a bit lazy, each song here is rich in unexpected imagery. The melodies buzz. But, in a world eagerly waiting the next Whites Stripes album, it received next to no promotion. I think at the time I always assumed The French was a side-project, and the next real Hefner album would be round the corner.
I only realised what I'd missed when I interviewed Hayman a few years later. When he said 'Local Information' was his best album, I went back and bought one of the few remaining copies. The album, though impressively ambitious, is spoiled a bit by its uniformity. The songs are good – but you can't help wondering how much better they would have sounded on guitar and piano. But I like this one because of its throwback to an earlier Hefner song. Where he had once screamed “How can she love me if she doesn't love the cinema that I love?”, a knowingly ridiculous question, now he asks something more realistic - “If you don't like dogs, then how I can like you?” He was growing up.
4. Darren Hayman – 'Little Democracies'(From 'Cortinaland', 2005)
With John Morrison deciding that life in an unsuccessful band wasn't for him, Hayman did what Too Pure had wanted him to do all along, and made a solo album. By then, though, his relationship with the label had broken down and been subject to legal action (Hayman won the case). After two years without releasing anything, Hayman re-appeared with another small-scale release on a Spanish label.
Those Hefner fans who'd not moved on were delighted to find that Hayman was still 'wasting' his best songs on these smallscale releases. 'Little Democracies' is beautiful – bubbling synths over a freeform melody, and quite unlike anything else he's ever written. The song begins with a couple meeting on the South Bank in May 1997, as New Labour celebrate their thumping election win, and then tracks the relationship souring as the nation's trust in Blair does the same.
5. Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee – 'Sly And The Family Stone' (From 'Hayman, Watkins, Trout and Lee', 2008)
Hayman formed a bluegrass band in 2005. Initially, you wouldn't call it a side project, more a hobby. They did play a few gigs – but the idea of actually recording any songs didn't come until much later, and after David Tattersall (songwriter and master guitarist with the Wave Pictures) and fiddle player Dan Mayfield had joined (they didn't bother to change the name of the group). Mayfield is an almost ever-present member of Hayman's solo band, while Watkins and Tattersall are both frequent collaborators.
So, this song is as much about David Tattersall's exquisite guitar solo as it is about Hayman's jaunty melody. But in the chorus that comes after that solo, Hayman's voice soars and – when I first heard this album – it was hard not to be delighted that he was letting himself go a bit.
He'd made no secret that he now found the early, heart-on-sleeve and emphatically out-of-tune Hefner records embarrassing. It wasn't that he was no longer taking risks – but they were calculated ones. He was happy to risk his existing fans not liking his records, but not to risk looking like an amateur.
The HWT&L album, and this song in particular, was a sign of Hayman rediscovering what had perhaps been missing in The French – the reckless joy of playing music for the hell of it. Carefully programming all those synths must have been fun, in a way, but it's not the kind of fun that naturally comes across to listeners.
That doesn't mean he went back to singing out of tune – but after this, he found the right balance between songwriting as an artistic project, and music as entertainment. A decade since his first official album release, he was about to make the best music of his career. While no-one would seriously suggest the HWT&L material as Hayman's most sophisticated work, it does introduce us to the cast of collaborators that would help him make a run of excellent albums over the coming years. And it's also a good record to listen to over the washing up or while doing the dusting.
'Sly and the Family Stone' is – like many of my favourite Hayman songs from this part of his career – about settling down and coupling up, but this is more tongue in cheek than 'The Stars...' with Hayman singing about a partner that supports him financially. I have no idea about the title. Hayman has often written songs in thematic groups (the Hefner hymns; astronauts; witches) and this is one of a number named after other bands (joining 'China Crisis', 'The Wu Tang Clan' and 'Fine Young Cannonballs').
6. Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern – 'Elizabeth Duke' (From 'Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern', 2007)
This is where the attempt to list my favourite Hayman songs chronologically falls down. In recent years, Hayman has had so many projects on the go that release schedules bear little resemblance to when things were recorded. For his second full solo album, Hayman named an official backing band, 'The Secondary Modern'. Most of the HWT&L members turn up at some point, and – while this album actually came out almost a year before the bluegrass material was released – in the narrative, I believe it comes later.
Overshadowed by the better-reviewed, conceptual albums that followed it, this record has become the 'lost' Darren Hayman album, buried at the bottom of his Bandcamp page and not available on CD or vinyl. At the time though, it seemed to represent a "return to the Hefner sound." That's true to an extent – there are a few songs with that familiar telecaster shuffle. But 'Elizabeth Duke' is a folk-pop gem with plucked ukes, bubbling synths and a lovely fiddle part. Hefner never sounded anything remotely like it.
I've never understood why Hayman doesn't play this song live. It's possibly his most affecting lyric – a touching love song featuring the small details other songwriters miss (“I bought you a ring from Elizabeth Duke... It was raining in June when I got married to you... we knocked the dining room through to the lounge, we remortgaged the flat... I'll make you proud, but I'm scared I'm wearing you out”.)
If a decade earlier, Hayman was writing songs for people in their early 20s stumbling through disastrous one-night stands and messy rejections, he was now writing songs for people edging uncertainly into middle-age. But what is often missed is that you didn't have to be doing these things to like the songs – as it happens, I am about to get married, but when I heard and loved this song for the first time, I was far too young and the thought hadn't even crossed my mind. But I liked the song anyway, and I still do. (I can't be the only one, as – no sooner had I finished writing this article – but a new EP of covers dropped onto my mat. Which song of Hayman's did seventies legend John Howard choose to cover? This one, of course.)
7. Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern – 'High Rise Towers in Medium Sized Towns'
Now, we reach the point where Hayman decides that, if only the hardcore fan base are going to buy the records, he may as well try any mad idea that comes into his head. And we get a concept album about a post-war 'new town', Harlow in Essex.
Many of the songs on this record are straightforward love songs set in a small town – but it's telling that the song I come back to is this one: an analysis of why the well meaning post-war planners, who ripped people out of London and plonked them in suburban tower blocks, failed to build the new communities they dreamed of. This is also an excellent example of Hayman's sound – part folk, part electro, part indie, part bluegrass.
8. Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament – 'The Violence' (From 'The Violence', 2012)
Hayman eventually did a trilogy of albums themed around Essex. 'Essex Arms' took the action into the countryside (making for his best overall album, though I've ended up not choosing any songs from it for my top ten), and then 'The Violence' stayed in the countryside, but went back several hundred years to the time of the English civil war. Amidst the battles, English communities were engaged in a vicious persecution of unmarried women, convinced that they were witches.
The range and scope of this record is startling. Amidst the anger, sorrow and confusion there is room for one of Hayman's loveliest songs ('Henrietta Maria', written as Charles I's paean to his Queen, whose Catholicism was one of the triggers of the conflict), but it is the opening title track that stands out.
For anyone who stopped the clock when Hayman was riding the Festive 50 wave in 1999, they simply would not believe this was the same songwriter. The song begins with a graphic description of a hanging, and then tells of those desperately trying to escape the madness and misery of war and the Witch Trials. In fact, the song is partly autobiographical – Hayman capturing his own fears after being randomly mugged and assaulted after a live show in Nottingham. A delicate arrangement demonstrates just how excellent an arranger Hayman has become. Not a note is wasted.
9. Darren Hayman and Litoral – 'Shh...' (From 'January Songs', 2011)
On Hefner's first album, there is a song called 'The Librarian', about an awkward and fumbling attempt to woo a female Librarian. By 2011, the librarians were doomed – victims of public spending cuts. Hayman finds himself retreating to the library as one of the few places to avoid 'all the chaos, all the noise, the unfairness they call choice'.
This was one of Hayman's 'January Songs' – each written and recorded in a single day in January 2011. With Hayman's music increasingly conceptual, he had got into the habit of endlessly reworking and revising words, arrangements and ideas. The precision of 'The Violence' wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
But 'January Songs' was an exercise in finding an antidote – going with your first impulse, working quickly, accepting what you have. Doubtless, Hayman would like to revise many of the songs, but that wasn't the point. The experience of having a new song posted each day made you listen carefully. Songs that might have been lost amidst a normal album merited full attention and repeat plays. It made me appreciate the process of making music in a way I never had before. For this song, Hayman recorded the basic track and then sent it by email to Spain, where a beautiful accompaniment was added. It is as good as any song he has ever released.
If you've never heard Darren Hayman, I would recommend 'January Songs' as your first port of call. It has a bit of everything he does well and – despite never being intended as an album – has an ebb and flow to it that works remarkably well.
10. Darren Hayman – 'Wembley Eiffel Tower' ('Wembley Eiffel Tower', 2014)
Pop music was never meant to be art. Art was something you had to wear a suit for, and sit in silent reverence. Pop music was something to be danced to and, sometimes, to scream to. Pop music had fans.
I'm glad pop music became art. The primitive rock 'n' roll of the 1950s would be a historical footnote now, were it not the birth of something much greater. But, it is right that pop music never totally lost the concept of fandom. It is what separates it from classical music – we are not just passive observers of someone else's excellence.
It is a complicated thing. I don't want bands to take me for granted, but if they just churn out what they assume I will like, I probably won't actually like it. I want to scream when I hear bands say, “we just do what we do and if anyone else likes it, that's a bonus”. But I also want to scream at bands who would stop if the money ran out.
I like the fact that my favourite artform doesn't need Arts Council grants to survive. It means enough to ordinary people to survive on its own. But it annoys me that conceptual visual artists qualify for Arts Council grants, while songwriters have to hold down second jobs to pay the bills. Yet I think the need to persuade someone else to pay for your work is a good discipline that leads to better songs.
In an age when every piece of recorded music is available at a click of a button, it is easy to get overwhelmed. 'Fandom' is an antidote. A way to give context to your listening. A way to help you choose.
And, if you choose the right people, a way to avoid being stuck in a rut. So, when Darren Hayman announces the release of a single-track album designed as a tribute to the failed attempt to build a second Eiffel Tower in Wembley, I automatically ordered a copy.
This despite Hayman's description - “Through selection of modules, including use of a clock divider and pattern generator, the modular synthesizer was configured then set free to select the notes played – there was no human intervention in the selection of notes. Through the vagaries of the tape mechanism and the random voltages of the synthesizer, new rhythms and arrangements were captured with each pass.”
If anyone else had written that about a new record, I would automatically have written it off. But I've come to trust Hayman's judgement. I don't need to always 'like' his songs – because my status as a fan of his music means I'm as interested in the songs the didn't work as the songs that did.
These 45 minutes of eerie bleeps, drones and sirens are oddly compelling. They haven't suddenly made me want to explore other takes on ambient synth music, but I'm glad I bought it. I'm glad I never stopped buying Darren Hayman albums. I'm glad he's kept making them. I'm glad that the sort of person who records an album of bluegrass music around the kitchen table with his mates is also the sort of person who wants to release 45 minute ambient drone recordings. I'm sure these ten songs won't be the end of the story.