The Furze Family Variety Hour

I’ve been working on the soundtrack for a two-hander that Bridget Boyle is making for Debase  “The Furze Family Variety Hour” (By Bridget Boyle, Co-devised by Bridget Boyle, Leon Cain & Helen Cassidy with Liz Skitch) . It opens next week

Leon Cain in The Furze Family Variety Hour

Leon Cain in The Furze Family Variety Hour

There was a development on the project last year (2013) at La Mama in Melbourne, for which I provided some edited grabs of pre-recorded music in the knowledge that the show was likely to require energetic music for transitions. I pulled instrumental sections from Laique’s first album (with permission) as well as bits of Squirrel Nut Zippers – the pieces ranged from moody to frantic,  but importantly they were ‘period’ sounding. Loosely, that meant the instrumentation was a bit quirky,  drawing on Gypsy Jazz & Swing revival, throaty brass, jazz violin, lots of ukuleles,  banjo and clanky percussion. Earlier this year another development expanded the show to include three original songs,two by Tyrone and Lesley,  plus on entirely new one, written to order.

As the show took shape, its needs for transition music, sound effects, and ‘music under’ some comic set-pieces became clearer. Bridget suggested several songs I’d already co-written: among them Sidekick (Megarrity/Vincent) a celebration of the off-sider from Tyrone and Lesley’s first album, which seemed to align with the show’s exploration of the comic duo.


The last development involved one character playing a sweet song, which is subsequently sabotaged by the other character with fart noises. New music was needed for this.  For this I suggested You May As Well Smile (Green/Megarrity) a sweet, optimistic old-time style number. I wrote a new set of lyrics called ‘You May as Well Fart’, and suggested these two songs might do the trick: a good song drafted into the service of the comic relationship. I was concerned about using a song I loved so much in such a way – but this very attachment I think will raise the stakes in terms of the comedy – I also sought the permission of my co-writer Kellee Green, whose sons (both under 10) thought it was funny – the perfect litmus test for a fart joke.

I’d been writing songs for Tyrone and Lesley’s third album with Sam Vincent – quite a few of these came from a rich seam I was working as a lyricist of ‘songs about music’, or the act of playing it, so it seemed a natural extension of this to write a duet called ‘Duo’. This as-yet unwritten number would be the opening of the show, Bridget wanted it brassy and muppet-show style. Knowingly showbiz.

Writing DUO

I had a jaunty little piece of uke music without a home, and this piece helped shape the rhythm of the lyrics as I wrote them, even before the melody came along. I was pretty certain I wanted the partners of the duet to trade verses, maybe harmonise in the bridge, and then reprise and interweave their parts in the conclusion. I’m not ordinarily this calculated in creating a song – but this was a pretty compelling lyrical and musical puzzle to be working with. As usual I generated way too many lyrics, then cut them down to a workable few.

Leon Cain and Helen Cassidy in The Furze Family Variety Hour

Leon Cain and Helen Cassidy in The Furze Family Variety Hour

I did a demo of them, tracking both sung parts over my ukulele backing, and it was possible to glimpse potential through the utter sonic mess it became. I sent the lyrics (now in a table with two columns to map the parts and where they might sit) to Sam, whose ability with a tune well surpasses mine. He invented the second vocal melody (which was much more carefully shaped in terms of harmony and phrasing) and composed the bridge melody in a rough home demo.

Making Music Under

Having read the script, made my own initial music breakdown (a list of sound and music cues as they appear in the script) which was later clarified by Bridget’s own version,  it was clear there were sequences that needed ‘music-under’. I don’t know if that’s the correct term or not, but (for example) a sequence in a restaurant where comedy transpires needs music that will be diegetic (that is,  seem to come from within the fiction of the scene) as well as useful in setting mood, and rhythmic or structured enough to lend shape to a work-in progress.

Leon Cain and Helen Cassidy in The Furze Family Variety Hour

Leon Cain and Helen Cassidy in The Furze Family Variety Hour

There were various cues here in the script and the breakdowns: ‘picnic’ ‘dinner-date’ ‘new-age’ ‘romantic’. Just like you might use a stock photo for a quickie website, this is getting close to Production (or ‘library’) Music. Here music is grouped into genres, moods or dramatic purposes for quick indexation and use as signposts and shortcuts to meaning when combined with action or vision.

Therefore, if we care to notice (and we usually don’t) this kind of music knows its own purpose – it is generic and composed to fit a bill (perhaps literally $$)  and we’re all OK with that: composer, artist, producer and audience. It’s meant to be used and re- used

But you can have fun with it, and create music that has its own life as well as a (symbiotic or parasitic) relationship with staged action. I’m thinking of UK composer Alan Hawkshaw whose playful compositions have been used in TV themes and TV commercials  

The show needed Lion Taming Music,  for a scene that was as yet unwritten. That’s a tricky brief for a chap with lots of stringed instruments and a $300 keyboard. Here’s what I came up with.

Since the sixties, bossa nova has equated with a kind of tacky sophistication. Think ‘elevator music’. Such a pity that Jobim’s glorious compositions end up as cliches and narrative shortcuts. Anyway, for the restaurant (or maybe the picnic) scene,  I’ve had fun writing of banal bossa. It’s muzak. But it’s muzak made with love and joy – channeled through my own quirks,  hopefully it has its own dodgy personality, and will become part of the fabric of the show. I’ve made half a dozen pieces like this, and used excerpts from other recordings of Laique/Megarrity/Vincent songs for linking music. Here’s Sam Vincent and I working on one of these pieces. 

In the script,  I can now see an opening sequence where one of the performers enters with the ‘soundtrack’ to the show,  frantically offering to the technician an LP record, then a cassette,  then a CD. It’s clear the performers in the Furze Family Variety Hour have inherited a vestigial soundtrack,  compiled over many years,  that they’re going to have to work with: to make the best of. The Vaudeville drummer has left his stool.

Somewhere in the fiction of this performance,  a composer works in the background with a ‘work-experience’ music ensemble which leaves in the  inadequacies and rough edges, creating a bright patchwork of music for a show that has the same ramshackle vibe. Well, that’s the effect I’m going for.

Come see “The Furze Family Variety Hour”

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