The Anno Domini Rag – the story of a song
One of my favourite tracks on Playing For Time is ‘The Anno Domini Rag’. When I arrived in southern Italy last autumn to record some of the tracks for the new album, it was one of the songs that produced the most memorable session in the Maurizio Sarnicola’s Goldmine Studio.
This week I posted a video for the song, showing my friends Domenico de Marco (drums), Giovanni Crescenzi (bass), Hartmut Saam (accordion) and Fortunata Monzo (vocals) playing and singing along with me, each of them locked down in different parts of Italy.
I’m happy to say that the video has been very popular on Facebook. Several people have told me that it has cheered them up at a gloomy time. Someone said it made them feel like dancing.
Like many songs and stories, it took shape in an unexpected way, with different ideas and influences coming together and bumping against one another somewhere in the empty wastes of my cranium.
The basic idea behind the song was simply to celebrate life – to present it as a dance. Many of my songs, and those of others, take a slightly mournful view of the passing of time. I wanted to produce just one song that countered that view.
So if it was a dance, it needed a beat and a style. I wanted something old-fashioned and swinging, and thought at that moment of Tom Lehrer’s funny and irreverent ‘‘The Vatican Rag‘ – I love songs where the lyrics and melody are pulling in different direction (Randy Newman is the master of this technique).
A bit of Lehreresque gallows humour has found its way into the lyrics of ‘The Anno Domini Rag’:
‘It starts with a “Whaaah!”
And ends with an “Uuurgh!”
As you do the shuffle and sag.
We’re in this thing together
It’s the Anno Domini Rag.’
Although the tune for ‘The Vatican Rag’ was itself lifted from ‘The Spaghetti Rag’, I decided not to continue the musical chain by borrowing from it in turn – it doesn’t suit the guitar (at least not the way I play it). Then I remembered Merle Travis’s great ‘Guitar Rag’ – here’s an amazing performance by Thom Bresch and Tommy Emmanuel – which gave me the rhythm and vibe for the song.
I’ve had the chorus in my head for two or three years but none of the verses I tried quite worked. In my WORK IN PROGRESS file, there are no less than five completely different ‘AD Rag’ songs, some with quite funny lyrics and passable melodies.
I cracked it last year, or so I thought. The fifth version had even been performed a few times with a reasonably good reaction.
I flew out to Italy where, near the village of Policastro Bussentino, I stayed with my friends Hartmut Saam and Susanne Franz. It had been the idea of Hartmut, a mind-bogglingly talented accordionist, for me to record my new album in southern Italy.
Two days before we went into the studio, we sat on his balcony, overlooking a valley which led down to the sea, and I played him the songs for the album.
All went well until we got to the ‘The Anno Domini Rag’. He listened to it thoughtfully. Then he said he liked it – but there was just one problem.
It wasn’t one song, but two.
Immediately, I knew Hartmut was right. It was a brilliant – but devastating – reading of the song. The verse was clever enough and musically tricksy, but playing it, I always felt a sense of relief when I got to the chorus. That’s never a good sign.
It was too complicated. One of the best of Irving Berlin’s Nine Rules For Writing Popular Songs is the eighth rule:
‘Your song must be perfectly simple. Simplicity is achieved only after much hard work, but you must attain it.’
I returned to my flat and worked overnight on a simpler verses with a tune that was not far from that of the chorus. And that was what we ended up with.
In the studio the next day I met the musicians gathered by the brilliant guitarist – and organiser – Giovanni Rago.
What a great line-up it was. In addition to Hartmut and Giovanni, there was Domenico de Marco on drums, Gianni Crescenzi on bass guitar – both superb musicians – and, adding a touch of class and warmth to the vocals, the brilliant singer Fortunata Monzo was there on our last day in the studio.
Behind the desk at Maurizio Sarnicola’s Goldmine Studios was Mario Perazzo, a quiet, authoritative figure with a sure sense of what worked musically and what wasn’t quite right.
‘The Anno Domini Rag’ was the most enjoyable of all the tracks to record and was finished at 12.30 at night on our second day in the studio. Listening to Hartmut’s solo make me smile every time I hear it.
Back in England, it was time for to the other hero of the story of ‘The Anno Domini Rag’.
David Booth took the tracks from Italy and, with a combination of musical and technical flair, produced a perfect mix.
Listening to the song now, and looking at the video made by my talented son Xan, I feel absurdly blessed at having been able to work with these generous and talented people.
‘So, with a whoop and a holler and a hallelujah,
Let’s dance to the music of time…’