Learning lyrics the Chas Maguire way

One of the joys of working with The Missing Persians is that I get to do a lot more singing in the band than others where I just concentrate on playing the bass guitar. I’ve always been willing to step up to the mic for a bit of backing vocals (I tend to default to a third above the melody) but this has always been a bit of an “added extra” rather than the main event.

The Missing Persians, however, require a bit more concentration as many of the songs call for three part harmonies. This is good fun when they go right, but does have a tendency to highlight any inaccuracies on my part! Infact, backing vocals are largely a case of watching the singer and making the same kind of noises they do, and I find the actual lyrics are not quite as important as singing the same words as the main vocalist – if they start singing the wrong chorus hardly anyone is going to notice as long as you are all singing the same thing.

My usual method for learning lyrics (certainly when it’s more than just joining in on the chorus) used to be relying on lyric sheets in front of me, until the words just sort of get absorbed into the memory accidentally. Trouble is, this method can take rather a long time because if the lyrics are there, you’ll read ’em rather than learning ’em!

I recently had to learn lead vocals for a cover of Sweet Gene Vincent by Ian Dury and the Blockheads. If you don’t know the song it has a fair number of words in it, and there’s a bit of twisting and turning. There are two similar sections where the vocal is very prominent and Ian spits the words out fast and furious:

“White face, black shirt, white socks, black shoes – black hair, white strat, bled white, dyed black”

“Black gloves, white frost, black crepe, white lead – white sheet, black knight, jet black, dead white”

As you might imagine, it’s easy to end up singing about white hair and black frost or even making up nonsensical words while you stumble over your own teeth…

First off I tried simply singing along to the song repeatedly to learn them, but as soon as I tried it in rehearsals with the band (without Mr Dury accompanying me) I found I was still floundering. I’d sometimes completely lose my place and have to “nah nah nah” until something I could get a grip on came back to me. So I did a couple of gigs with the lyrics just on the floor next to me, but that just meant I was looking at the ground between each line, whether I knew the next words or not!

One thing I had noticed from telephone conversations (stay with me) was if someone called for my girlfriend and I wrote down a message, 9 times out of 10 I remembered the message without finding the bit of paper, so I wondered if the act of writing the words down actually helped the memory (it turns out there’s quite a lot of research on the subject suggesting that it does just that).

So I wrote down the lyrics from memory, using a pen and piece of paper (as opposed to typing into a Word doc) then looked up the lyrics again online to fill in the blanks. Turns out I remembered most of them, with just a couple of words wrong. I then wrote them out from memory once again without any problems.

For the next couple of days I sang the lyrics to myself whenever I had a moment (sitting in traffic for example) and was able to remember them much more easily. Even better, when I got to rehearsal the words were just there in my mind without searching for them or getting panicky.

On Saturday I’ll find out how I do in the gig (no cheat sheet, no safety net!) when the Missing Persians play at the Florence Park Community Centre in Oxford (shameless plug for public gig!)

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