Composition and arranging techniques from Grand Union Orchestra composer/director Tony Haynes

27: I Live in the City (UdS)

In the early 1970s an East London school teacher, Chris Searle, was sacked for publishing a book of poems written by his students. After two years, following agitation and a remarkable school strike by his pupils themselves – and the surprising intervention of Margaret Thatcher – he was reinstated. The book, Stepney Words, became something of a classic, expressing the feelings and experience of young people living in the East End at that time. A similar anthology, The World in a Classroom, was published in 1977, and the poems – many of them written collectively – reflect the voices of school children from many different cultural backgrounds in cities across the world.

When the Grand Union Orchestra was formed to produce an event commissioned by the GLC to celebrate its Year Against Racism in 1984, I came across this book: it seemed appropriate to use some poems from it as lyrics for songs. The show was called The Song of Many Tongues, it became the Orchestra’s first touring show, and its first recording. One of the numbers from it was this one, I Live in the City.

Nearly 30 years on, when the Hackney Empire Theatre asked Grand Union to come up with an event as part of the new national Family Arts Festival, it immediately sprang to mind, so we adopted it as the theme song for the show. Listening to it again, it seems as fresh as ever, and the words could not be a simpler or more innocent expression of life in the East End today.

The basic feel is a combination of soca, samba and Latin-American rhythms, and the melodies and harmonies are very straightforward – to match the character of the lyrics; it’s also in 4-bar phrases and 16-bar sections. The most striking features are the alternation between keys a major third apart – mainly E and C, but also A flat a couple of times – and the 3/4 bar that occurs from time to time as a kind of punctuation mark.

The introduction – which also serves as a coda – is based on the second eight bars of the chorus, but over a G pedal:


The rhythm section sets up the basic feel (the bass guitar pattern is virtually unchanged throughout), followed by the first verse. The main structure of verse-chorus is repeated three times, with brass figures, riffs and vocal harmonies gradually added at each repetition. What in musical terms serves as the ‘verse’ paradoxically always has the same words:


On the other hand, the ‘chorus’ has different words each time!


Third time around, the last line “filling everyone with shining light” forces the melody upwards and a key change to D flat, introducing a brass ensemble which follows the harmonic sequence of the verses (Ex 2):


The material of the verses and choruses (harmonies, bass-line, backing riffs etc) are then repeated for a tenor saxophone solo – on this recording played by the teenage Courtney Pine, probably making his recording début! At the end of the second chorus, with the modulation to D flat, the brass ensemble comes back (Ex 4), but without the rhythm section. This time it is not repeated, but continues into a similar passage in the ‘home key’ of E major; the rhythm section comes back in the second time around:


Since this is effectively a version of the verse, the chorus (using the second set of lyrics) naturally follows, fleshed out with big brass chords. The coda begins with a repeated two-bar sequence for the tenor sax and the lead singer to improvise over. (The singer here is another GUO musician who went on to fame and fortune – Gail Anne Dorsey, first with a solo career in her own right, and latterly as David Bowie’s bass-player, a role she also filled with distinction in the Grand Union Orchestra.) A build-up of riffs and a crescendo to a final statement of “the working woman and the working man” concludes the song:


The Hackney Empire show featuring this song is called Music Untamed. For the curious, here is another delightful number featured in the show – also from The Song of Many Tongues – which has a similar child-like simplicity about it, with a lovely steel pan solo from GUO veteran Ken Johnson:

Music Untamed is part of a project in collaboration with French and Portuguese companies supported by the EUROPEAN CULTURAL FOUNDATION and the EUROPEAN UNION CULTURE FUND


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