Great, Britain

Play the song here!

You led the largest ever empire
And though the times have changed since then
In so many ways your lasting legacy lives on
It casts a giant shadow even bigger than Big Ben

The Bard still treads all the world’s stages
We thrill to Christie’s mysteries
By your tales from Scrooge to Harry Potter we’re entranced
Among the very best world round, near everyone agrees

Bloody brilliant
For all the things you’ve written
I must say, “Bravo”
You’re so great, Britain

Yes, Hollywood is known for movies
And Broadway musicals win fame
Nothing’s more American than good old rock and roll
But Brits in these endeavors roundly beat us at our game

The Oscars always love the British
Lloyd Webber shows play on and on
From Adele to Zeppelin, countless first-rate music stars
And then there’s Chaplin, Hitchcock, Python, Beatles and James Bond

Awfully awesome
You bug, but I’ve been bitten
With success august
You’re just great, Britain

A populace one snip our size
Have you a genius gene?
Is something in the water?
It’s not likely the cuisine

For all our pride, compared to you
Our record’s rather poor
Would we do better to declare
Dependency once more?

From Newton to the web, et cetera
The world is changed for all you do
And, just think, if we consider all the British Isles
Then you would claim James Joyce and Shaw and Wilde and U2

We shan’t forget our auld acquaintance
The one we raise our glasses to
Though politically your days of dominance are past
Still, culturally the sun shines bright and never sets on you

Darling dearest
It’s you with whom I’m smitten
You give such delight
You’re quite great, Britain


The Challenge

Edric Haleen, a regular participant in the SpinTunes songwriting contest, occasionally spearheads a “Songwriting Cycle” in which a group of songwriters create challenges that are randomly distributed to each other. In this way, an album’s worth of songs would be created, with a complete cycle of challenges given and received. Non-competitive, just for fun. I enjoyed being a part of Songwriting Cycle #1 and regretted missing the deadline to get involved in Songwriting Cycle #2. Having judged SpinTunes #5 this past Summer and had a chunk of time off of writing, I was glad to participate in Songwriting Cycle #3.

This time, Edric had everyone pose two challenges, and we could all pick which one we’d do. When the challenges were randomly assigned on October 26, 2012, I received Kevin Savino-Riker’s challenges: either (1) write a song inspired by another country you’ve visited (not a country in which you’ve ever resided), or (2) write a song inspired by another country you’ve never visited (again, not a country in which you’ve ever resided). I chose the second.

The Concept

In a way, this song may exist because of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Though we had three weeks to write, I was really busy at first and didn’t get to sit down to any real work on the song until four days before it was due. Before that, I casually pondered what I might do and trusted (and hoped) that incubation would help get the job done.

At first, I thought I might write about Taosim and China, but along the way I remembered some thoughts I’ve had for years, about how many British music acts I like, and more generally about how the British Isles often seem over-represented in lists of great achievers in many areas.

Well, the Olympics this year, of course, were in London. Though I didn’t watch much of them, I did see the opening ceremonies, which highlighted British achievements. After the Olympics were over, I was interested in the medal statistics, seeing how the “big winners” were really not so big when you adjust for national population, GDP or team size instead of looking simply at the absolute number of medals won. Some apparently “lesser” nations actually were revealed to be among the most capable.

Somehow I think all this was in the back of my mind leading me to ponder praising Britain in a similar way.

The Lyrics

Much of the writing just flowed, including the basic notion behind the title as an opportunity for a congratulatory lyric. The choruses quickly took shape, based around the rhyme words for Britain, the adjectives preceding “great” being rhymed with the words at the end of the prior line, and those words themselves being alliterative with the words in the first two lines.

Most of the challenge with the rest of the lyrics had to do with editing. I didn’t want this to turn into a gigantic list song, and that could have been all too likely when you consider the breadth and depth of British achievement. But I did need to get across something of that range, and in a way that would make an obvious impression.

The arts seemed a good focus, since the names would be more recognizable than those in lots of other areas, and then it became a matter of choosing iconic examples. I went especially with a few who are literally in the record books, and beyond that was helped out by the happy realization that I could suggest a lot from A to Z with Adele and Led Zeppelin. The “Newton to the web” line at least makes a nod to the enormous contributions that lie beyond the arts.

Narrating clearly from a U.S. standpoint seemed a good opportunity to stress the point of the song rather than just giving anonymous and monotonous praise. One thing I particularly like is the ambivalence in the middle of the song from the second verse through the bridge. We revolt against England, gain independence, and in many ways come to dominate the world, and yet there are the Brits, aging gracefully past political domination and still being great at so many things, including areas that seem iconic for the U.S.

That second chorus really exemplifies the tension. “Awfully” has the double meaning of “very” and “badly” and stands in contrast right next to “awesome.” Another double meaning for “just” as both “very” and “merely.” Britain “bugs” in the sense that we can be bothered through our jealousy, but we’re also bitten by the bug so that we can’t help but appreciate. Then in the bridge we can’t help throwing in a dig on British cuisine (stereotypically thought not to be very good) amidst the inferiority complex.

I’m also pleased with a couple of references. The Bard line plays on Shakespeare’s famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue, while the line before the last chorus gives a twist to the notion that the sun never sets on the British Empire.

The Music

Musically, I often like to write pastiche and enjoy trying it in all sorts of styles. I also sometimes like to play with interpolations of and variations on other composers’ themes. Both of these things can tend to be a disservice for me in terms of my showing in a contest like SpinTunes, where they can smack of a lack of originality. In this non-competitive cycle, and given the nature of the challenge, it felt right to do a traditional British Isles folk song and riff on some known tunes.

The verses were mainly inspired by Danny Boy and, because my influences are what they are, the various “Letter Home” songs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Song and Dance, and also Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins. The Auld Lang Syne interpolation in the final verse wasn’t planned ahead but, instead, a happy accident that fit with what had already been put in place.

The choruses were mainly inspired by Country Gardens and Rule, Brittania!. The latter also appears explicitly, first somewhat hidden as the English horn’s harmony beneath the uilleann pipes playing (essentially) the chorus melody, and later in full view at the close of the song.

I purposely kept the arrangement simple. Maybe that’s because I only left myself a few days to do all the work. Maybe because it works for the song. Maybe I chose to write a song that would work well with simple arrangement because I only had so much time. In any case, the sparse arrangement and old-fashioned piano sound are meant to suggest a pub performance of a traditional song.


You can check out the Songwriting Cycle songs at the Happiness Board, or at BandCamp, and you can get directly to Great, Britain at Bandcamp — but you can listen and download for free from BandCamp right from the player at the top of this post.

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