Scene from video for Box of Tricks - politician addressing audience

Songstories #23: Box of Tricks (cover)

This is my cover version of a song by my friends Fiona Thom and John Farrell, of Ms Fi and the Lost Head Band. (It starts very quietly!)

I’ve loved the song Box of Tricks since the first time I heard it. The soaring chorus of I fooled them all is one thing, the elusive lyrics another. There’s an old man in the street performing magic tricks to children, but what is he really up to? Is there more to it? It’s not made clear, so your imagination runs. It suggests political manipulation among other things.

Ms Fi – Fiona Thom – is the guitarist in the Heaven Sent, an old friend of mine and a great songwriter. She wrote this song to a tune by John Farrell, her bassist friend.

Box of tricks

There, close by your street, sits the old man, biding his time.
There, whittling wood, making his plans, puppets and masks.
See; see how it starts something so small and barely observed.
He smiles, closes his box, he’s packed them away, the tools of his crime.

Soon, they gather round, the boys and girls, drawn to the scene.
There, hatching his plans, sits the old man, right in their midst.
Drawn, drawn to the flame, not wanting to move, unable to flee.
He smiles, watching their awe, spinning his web, biding his time.

I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.

Slowly, one after one, watch them all fall under his spell.
Worlds shine in their eyes, tales full of fire, passion and deeds.
Now, now it’s begun; wonder and thoughts surge in their minds.
He smiles opens his box, let’s them all fly, for now it is time.

I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.
I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.

There, close by your street, sits the old man, biding his time.
There, whittling wood, making his plans, puppets and masks.
See; see how it starts something so small and barely observed.
He smiles, closes his box, he’s packed them away, the tools of his crime.

I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.
I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.
I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.
I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.
I fooled them all, I fooled them all, and I’ll fool them all once again.
.

(John Farrell and Fiona Thom)

What would Scott have done?

Fi’s version is in strict waltz time, 3/4, quite nimble, fast and light on its feet. I started off by imagining how Scott Walker might have arranged the song in his 1960s period. In my imagination that put it into 6/8 timing, and everything else proceeded from there. I recorded a basic track around 2014 (I think), adding some strings. My vocal range wasn’t enough to do it the way I really wanted, with the first verse sung in a lower octave than the rest, so I spoke it. I then started building up some backing vocals, wandering away from Scott Walker territory into David Bowie. Then, as often happens, I left it and would re-open the file every few months and shy away from developing it any further. I’m pretty sure it was the opening, spoken bit that put me off, it just sounded false. I also wondered how Fi and John would feel about me driving a Walker/Bowie tank through their light-footed song. The result was that nothing got done for years. I have lots of tracks like that.

Getting things finished

Recently I’ve decided to be more resolute about finishing things, even if they’re not perfect, and I decided to finish this.

I dispensed with the spoken part and just sang it gently and quietly. To add a slightly sinister tone I recorded the same part whispered close to the mic. I’d done this before on my song Fingerpuppet, one of my favourite recordings of mine. (I first heard it done on John Cale’s Antarctica Starts Here.) I edited the backing vocals to make them tighter and added some more.

The wobbles

When I thought it was almost presentable I took a mix  to Gerry Callaghan, who gave me some good suggestions. For example, a lot of my backing vocal and harmonies had vibrato on them, often inadvertently. He showed me how when a lead vocal with vibrato is overlaid on a harmony with vibrato there’s often a clash of ‘wobbliness’. He also encouraged me to mix the backing choirs more prominently – I’d been a bit embarrassed about them and hidden them back in the mix. After my session with Gerry I went home and re-recorded all the backing vocals – about ten tracks – consciously avoiding vibrato. He also got me to use different effects on my voice for different sections of the song – hardly any reverb and delay for the first section, bringing it more upfront and intimate, then long delays for the ‘soaring’ section.

The Lost Head Band say yes!

I mixed it and remixed it. A ridiculous 46 tracks! Never again!

Screenshot from Reaper file for Box of Tricks
Screenshot from Reaper file for Box of Tricks
Screenshot from Reaper file for Box of Tricks
Screenshot from Reaper file for Box of Tricks

When I thought I could do no more, I sent a version to Fi and John and the response, to my relief, was positive.

The video

I then thought a video might be more interesting for a long song than just a still picture. But I didn’t want to look ridiculous miming to a mega-production song in my office. So I raided the Prelinger Archives of vintage footage and found some American anticommunist propaganda films. It was surprisingly easy to stitch them together alongside the sections of the song. The song took four years to record, the video about 90 minutes! I toyed with the idea of more topical images – Nigel Farage came to mind – but dismissed the idea of tying it to anything 2018.

So that’s Box of Tricks. I got to sing a song I love, mix something more ambitious than anything I’ve tried on my own songs, and finish it. I hope you like it.  The new album by Ms Fi and the Lost Head Band is coming out soon – I’ve heard it and it’s great! Watch out for it on their Facebook page.

 

Front of In Another Life
Album cover In Another Life

As part of the Heaven Sent, Ms Fi made a huge contribution to the album In Another Life  – why not sample it free?

 

 

 

1 thought on “Songstories #23: Box of Tricks (cover)

  1. Somehow, I find it weird that “The Man who Sold the World” didn’t make either of your top Bowie lists, when this track sounds like it could be an out-take from that recording. Vocally, as you mention, it’s more than a little Bowie-esque of that period. Thematically, it could easily fit right alongside “Saviour Machine” and “The Supermen”. Obviously, that’s Fiona/cowriter’s impact, rather than yours directly, but still… I Like – Oi’ll give it foive…

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