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

35: Riding the Iron Tiger (UdS)



This song – featured in the Grand Union Orchestra’s new show Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire in November – is about Mr Yamamoto, who works on the production-line of a Japanese car-factory, known as the Iron Tiger. However, his story is a universal one, repeated the world over: the job is relentless, and takes over your whole existence, wages are low and living conditions inhuman – circumstances faced particularly by migrant workers everywhere.

The words are by the incomparable David Bradford, writer of so many lyrics for my songs, and express an amazing range of moods, from the savagery of the Iron Tiger to the gentle delicacy of the cherry blossom, that form the two pillars of Mr Yamamoto’s life. The story may be a sad one, but the music is enlivened by several touches of humour and a great deal of raw energy.

The form is quite simple – a verse, an interlude and a chorus repeated three times. Here are the lyrics for the first section, as Mr Yamamoto begins his day’s work:

lyrics-1The foreman’s whistle launches a raucous ‘industrial samba’, characterising the relentless pace and clatter of factory machinery. The jagged phrase played by the steel pan and strings towards the beginning recurs throughout the song – it’s actually a kind of Japanese haiku (the poetic form where a line of 5 syllables is followed by one of 7 and completed by another of 5); it’s also an example of a tone-row, using all 12 notes of the chromatic scale! Note also the insistent  dotted crotchet-quaver rhythm that continues throughout:


This settles down into a deliberately crude and commonplace groove with parallel chords which forms the basis of the verses. The melody (sung here by Ros Davies – see note below) is likewise basic, modal and mechanical:


The verses are followed each time by an elegiac, lyrical interlude describing the mood of an exhausted and dispirited Mr Yamamoto as he traipses back and forth between his lodgings and the factory. The first and third time it occurs it is brutally interrupted; the complete version – which is the second of the three interludes – is given below in Example 4.

The key of the verses is an unequivocal A sharp (or B flat) minor, while the romantic, chromatic harmony of the interludes is basically D major. The tonality of the chorus on the other hand is ambiguous and never settles; it’s also sung in thirds (or sixths), and full of diminished (or augmented) intervals. Listen also for the figures from the introduction punctuating the vocal lines:


Here are the lyrics for the second section:

lyrics-2The same dissonant, rhythmically uneven figure played by steel pan (!) and strings that began the song has taken us into the second verse, with Mr Yamamoto finishing his day’s work. Then, on his way back home, he takes time out to linger by the cherry blossom; here is the full interlude, which is also characterised by sustained string harmonies:


However, his respite is short-lived, as the Iron Tiger pushes its way even his dreams, which are shattered at the end of the second chorus by a ‘heavy metal’ (another of the many musical puns!) guitar solo (by Gerry Hunt – see note below) in the starkly contrasting key of A minor.

At the end of the solo, the link (Ex 1) takes us back again to a third verse; Mr Yamamoto’s reverie by the cherry blossom is brutally interrupted by the Iron Tiger; the final chorus strengthens his resolution, and he decides that enough is enough…



Mr Yamamoto at last finds peace; the music slows and a reflective coda follows – a kind of lament, featuring wonderful flugelhorn playing by Shanti Paul Jayasinha, over musical material developed from the interlude sections: 




Both Gerry Hunt and Ros Davies were founder-members of Grand Union, from the first Strange Migration tour of 1983, and are still main-stays of its current work.

Gerry is an extraordinary multi-instrumentatist, and without him it’s unlikely we could have produced the work we have; virtually every track in this blog has a contribution from him! He is most prominently heard on guitar, both in solos, and in adding grace and subtlety as well as drive to the rhythm section (see Post 4 and Post 22). He also tops and tails the saxophone section on soprano, sopranino or baritone, with occasional clarinet; he can turn his hand to violin or viola; and he is a rock solid and dependable bass-player.

Ros’s versatility is equally important to the company – not just through contributing her useful combination of trombone (as in Post 3) and flute/piccolo (Post 21) to the ensemble. She is willing to take on any performing role (especially, as here, singing); and even more invaluable is her infectious energy in leading, directing and generally encouraging and enthusing participants of all ages – she is also an experienced, dedicated and resourceful teacher – in our manifold education and participatory projects.


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