Getting out from under the covers – Gerald Griggs

The Naughty Corner Ukulele Band of which I am one third, play a mixture of original material and covers. To put this balance in perspective for my main point that follows, of the two CDs we have now recorded, 13 tracks are original songs and 10 are covers. As the one who normally puts the draft set list together, the dilemma continues to be how many original songs should we put in our set list when we play live?

Received wisdom from many musicians seems to be that we would do well to do only covers for street busking, weddings and high profile gigs. The logic appears to follow the line that you give the public what they want to make them happy…and that’s not your own material. So when is the right time for it exactly? Tucked away on a CD for a special audience that might somehow appreciate you more?

While I understand the bigger picture point I don’t think I’ve swallowed the argument. If we believe in the songs we write and record then we have to believe they are good enough else why bring them out in to the light? Do people really believe that passers by will suddenly stop putting money in the case because they don’t recognise the song? Our experiences with The Naughty Corner Ukulele Band do not suggest this is true.

The same has been true of recent gigs though wisdom perhaps shows you shouldn’t give them too many original songs in one go in some contexts. In a busy pub who were clearly up for a sing song, personal reflective pieces on childhood nostalgia did raise a knowing smile but they seem to perk up somewhat when they could sing Sweet Caroline back to us at the top of their voices! I guess as with all performances it’s about judging the moment but not I would say at the complete sacrifice of original material. On other other occasions we had people singing and dancing to our own stuff so I know it’s possible even for a uke band.

To finish this brief piece I had an interesting experience recently when we played a wedding and I was asked if I’d discuss the set list with the happy couple to be. They had been listening to our YouTube videos over breakfast that week and wanted to share their thoughts on our efforts. They had gone through every video and noted down which ones they would like us to play if we could (no pressure or expectation) and to my delight, many of these were our original songs! There was something of a raised eyebrow when I took this information back to my other band members, Kevin and David, especially when they highlighted that some of the topics covered were perhaps less than appropriate for a wedding – misery and break ups being cases in point. But encouraged by the comments of the bride and groom we sang songs of break up and loss to them and their wedding party and they loved it!.

As far as we are aware, the happy couple are still together and listening to our first CD that we gave them as a wedding present.

Gerald Griggs
The Naughty Corner Ukulele Band

5 Responses to Getting out from under the covers – Gerald Griggs

  1. Harry Parker 31st July 2017 at 7:49 am #

    “If we believe in the songs we write and record then we have to believe they are good enough else why bring them out in to the light?”

    You have a dilemma Gerald. It’s hard enough for one person, faced with a conflict or incongruency between two opposing desires and courses of action – when it’s three people, that’s hard.
    According to cognitive dissonance theory, there is a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions (i.e., beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.

    So do you go for an act that has a wide ‘catch-all’ appeal and slip in your own creations in the hope they’ll eventually become so popular you can drop the covers?
    OR
    Do you drop the covers, play your own stuff and find out if they’re gonna become popular?
    Choice 1, you’re casting a wide net to catch some followers
    Choice 2, you’re baiting the hook, waiting for ‘bites’ and putting them in the keep net.
    Biscuithead and the Biscuitbadgers, I think are all original now and VERY popular.
    I’d say go for it but that’s a conversation you guys have to have.

    • nick cody 31st July 2017 at 8:06 am #

      Playing exclusively original material is definitely not playing it safe, but personally I wouldn’t have it any other way. I recently played a solo gig in Japan with all original material which means there’s nowhere to hide behind familiarity!

    • Gerald Griggs 31st July 2017 at 9:48 am #

      Thanks for your comments Harry.

      The three of us are definitely on a journey, both individually and collectively. The point to develop here from your reference point of cognitive dissonance is that of the relative importance of the cognitions. We have clearly moved to a place where we are not wedded to believing that covers have more relative power but they perhaps have more cultural capital in some contexts…as original songs would in other contexts ( I’ve always preferred to theorise with Bourdieu than Festinger – it’s the sociologist in me).

      To elaborate from my article, Sweet Caroline had more cultural capital in that pub than any other song we had in our set list , whether cover or original for a particular reason. Move that song to a OUS stage and it has none. The inverse would be true of a well crafted original song in those environments. Thus from this viewpoint it’s evaluating the selection of each track, whether cover or original.

      Where I think we are now is that even with covers, it’s understanding what they offer us. We choose Mrs Robinson sometimes because we think we sound good together when we sing it. We choose You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile from Annie because we’ve developed an interesting arrangement from a musical song which is different and makes the audience think about what we’ve done. We chose Folsom Prison Blues sometimes because we play it as if you could ‘here the train a coming’ and it’s unlike anything else we play at present. These points are also best understood when there are a number of covers we have deselected from our set because their purpose is no longer clear.

      This process of selection and deselection I believe is vital but perhaps a weakness in some ukulele clubs and spin off groups. Where is the quality control? Without speaking for him, I believe this is source of a shared frustration that Nick (Cody) has too.

      While we are on the topic of quality control, my pet hate has become lifting song sheets without transposing them to the key of the people in your group. The worst uke performances I’ve heard are a result of this, yet there appears a resistance to change or question a song once someone has put onto a sheet, especially if it’s from another club/book! I guess it depends on what you/we are all in for which is another article I’d suggest.

      To conclude, where we as a band will ultimately stand or fall is gauging the relative capital of each of our choices and if our songwriting and performance is up to the mark for the audiences in question.

      • Harry Parker 31st July 2017 at 3:02 pm #

        That’s what you call a considered response Gerald!

        That tells me that in your blog, you’ve asked a rhetorical question. You seem to know where you’re going, you just haven’t completely planned the route.

        Hope to see you on the way and meet for a pint at the end.

  2. Jon Rissik 31st July 2017 at 1:10 pm #

    I think you have summed up the dilemma very neatly. There is a balance to be struck. Personally I try to squeeze in one cover for every two original songs. I also try to make sure that the cover isn’t super-obvious, or even better, is an interpretation of a cover in a slightly different style to the original. That way I am offering up something that an audience knows but doing it in a way that gives me some musical satisfaction as I feel I have added a layer of creativity. Covers and originals might be uneasy bed-fellows, but they can exist together under the right circumstances.

Leave a Reply