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Sunday, 15 June 2008

Written in granite: Napoleon Symphony



I was probably about 15 or 16 when I started reading "literature" rather than just books. I had read a few pieces of literature before then without knowing it, plus a few things which are borderline, depending how snobbish one [sic] chooses to be about these things, e.g. are the Sherlock Holmes stories literature or mere "genre fiction"? I mean, when they were written detective fiction didn't really exist as a genre, did it? Nobody calls Bleak House a genre novel even though that has a detective and mysteries galore. My reading was always fairly haphazard, still is. However there are a couple of novels that I certainly read when I was 15-16 and which were high on concept in a way which now seems to be affecting my own work in terms of the way I approach lyrics. One of these, of course, is Joyce's Ulysses, the greatest of all "day in the life" works of art and one of the longest shadows cast over literature in the 20th century. I've got an idea for a future piece on "day in the life" works which is brewing for a subsequent piece so we'll perhaps look at that in more depth then. The other high-concept book which has for some reason stuck in my mind, and fed directly into the writing of a song for the Granite Shore album, is Anthony Burgess' The Napoleon Symphony which I read around the same time. I can't remember whether I'd read any of Burgess' other novels at that point. I think I had probably read A Clockwork Orange which is in many ways his attempt at a Joycean novel (although it can be argued that most of Burgess' work fits into that category), or if not I certainly read it soon afterwards, and I'm also pretty confident that I'd read Earthly Powers which would at the time have been a pretty recent novel. Personally I think it's also his greatest work, at least of the half a dozen or so I've read. Indeed I've read it at least three times and enjoyed it immensely on each occasion. Tellingly it is, in many ways, the least Joycean. It's a rollicking good story, although full of Burgess' customary fireworks. The Napoleon Symphony is not his finest book, not by a long chalk, and it's certainly not in the same league as something like Ulysses, indeed I remember finding it a little dull whereas although the first time I read Joyce's masterpiece I found it bewildering, infuriating and often baffling, it was never, ever dull. However I loved the concept of NS. It's a fictionalised account of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte in four parts the respective structures of which are based upon those of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3. The nice touch here is that this symphony, now best-known as Eroica, was originally dedicated to Bonaparte, although the composer was so furious and disillusioned when his hero proclaimed himself Emperor that he changed the dedication to "Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo" ("Heroic symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man", suggesting that the great German composer's hero was dead to him).

A couple of years ago I had the vaguest glimmering of an idea for a lyric. Originally I thought it was going to be about a woman who had "come down in the world" and was alone because her husband was in prison. At some point, for reasons I can no longer recall (might've been something to do with a "Napoleon of crime"...) I decided that her name was either Josephine or that she was known as "the Empress". At some point I also made the discovery that Saint Helen is the patron saint of, amongst other things, difficult marriages, divorces and... empresses! From such acorns to songs grow. Obviously Napoleon died on the island of St Helena so connections were emerging. Even a very early attempt at a lyric set the story in the town of St Helens in northern England, although in the final version this is merely alluded to as a "northern rugby town". However, as often happens, the lyric didn't initially work out. I made various attempts to write that story but it wasn't the right one. So I set it aside and worked on other things. Even so, the underlying concept was starting to map itself out in my unconscious: it'd be a story which would be loosely structured around key moments in the life of the late French Emperor. A few other little correspondences asserted themselves and were noted down for later use. For instance if St Helena = St Helens I needed something similar for Elba, and the British town with the closest name I could think of was the Welsh one of Ebbw Vale.

Other ideas that I amassed included that of a reference to ABBA's breakthrough, Eurovision-winning hit Waterloo, which in some ways does something very similar, using the titular battle as a metaphor. ABBA's early lyrics tend to be very hit or miss, either they're wonderful or dreadful, Waterloo is one of the wonderful ones, with several fantastic lines. A particular favourite of mine has always been "the history book on the shelf/It's almost repeating itself" but I was unable to work that into things. But by this point I had some definite structural ideas and I'd also done some research and had drawn up a list of facts about Napoleon on which I could draw.

Then towards the end of 2007 I hit upon a different idea for the apparent main story. This one focussed not on "the Empress" but on a different character. Initially my idea was that he was a formerly famous rock star who'd fallen on hard times but felt he was on the verge of a big comeback. So I tried to write that but again it didn't quite work out, I couldn't quite get everything to tie up. Then I thought that maybe he was an actor rather than a rock star... This made some bits that'd previously been messy work really well but on the other hand it spoilt a few others that had previously been good. So in the end I decided that I'd leave it up to the listener to work out who he was. My own feeling is that he's perhaps someone from the seventies, a time when there was lots of crosstalk between rock music and the theatre, with people like Bowie, Alice Cooper, etc. "playing characters" (and, of course, plenty of singing actors)... You make your own minds up about that. Like Burgess' novel, the song is in four parts, although mine is out of sequence. The way I see it is this: Verse 1: St Helena (St Helens); Verse 2: The glory years, the Revolution, First Consul ("first [mixing] console", I love a bad pun...!); Middle section: Elba (Ebbw Vale) and Verse 3: Waterloo. However the structure is fairly loose, in the end it's a bit more like the way Joyce hangs Ulysses broadly on the framework of The Odyssey than a mere updating of the story as a "modern adaptation" or something. So there's a reference to the "100 days" (though they become "just one hundred nights" in the song) in the middle of verse 1 and there are other things out of sequence. However another way of looking at the sequencing of events is that it's a kind of internal monologue (back to Ulysses here, then...) and the character is recollecting events... Again, the idea here was to leave at least a certain amount open to interpretation.

I then started working in some of the ideas I'd noted down. For instance it became clear to me that the "Elba = Ebbw Vale" correspondence worked beautifully because, aside from the sonority of the names, and with the greatest respect to the people of that locality, it also represents "the provinces". The line is "exiled to Ebbw Vale, before the juggler..." and it's both a reference to Napoleon's brief period of imprisonment upon the island of Elba and an indication that our modern protagonist finds himself having fallen a long way from headlining in the West End (or playing stadium gigs), he no longer even merits a place on the bill above a juggling act! OK, and yes, that did lead me naturally on to the next line about "reduced to dealings with a lower class of smuggler", suggesting a commensurate scaling back of the quality, if not the quantity, of the gentleman in question's recreational pharmaceutical activities...

I don't want to spoil people's fun by dissecting it all – hopefully there are people out there who'll get at least some pleasure out of finding all the clues, allusions and references... and even if not I had enormous fun putting them all in there. I don't think I'm giving too much away in saying that the last line is crucial – I often have the final line of a song months before I have much else. This one is a hefty allusion to the aforementioned ABBA song, although I do hope I won't be getting calls from Swedish lawyers. It took a lot of work to get this to gel, I knew that I wanted the last line to be that "in quite a similar way" but it needed to make sense. I hope it does, to at least some extent, as it's the key to the whole thing, the fact that, although I didn't get to say it, that history book on that Swedish (Ikea, no doubt) shelf really is almost repeating itself.

I've scattered one or two visual clues across this page, they're all relevant although some are central whereas others are kippers of a somewhat crimson hue. Nevertheless, they do all make at least an appearance of some kind in the song. I hope that a few of you will have at least some fun with this.


Download an early version of Greasepaint and grapeshot by The Granite Shore in MP3 format here. The lyrics are available on the Greasepaint and grapeshot page of the Granite Shore website.


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