The Undercover Soundtrack – Cally Phillips

for logo‘Without the music there would have been no creativity’

Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to open a secret channel to understand a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s guest is screenwriter, playwright and novelist Cally Phillips @i_ebookreview

Soundtrack by Michael Jackson, Shaggy, The Beatles, Harry Belafonte, The Muppets, Nat King Cole, David Rovics, Sam Cooke, John K and Fred Ebb, Joel Grey, Liza Minnelli, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters

All my life I have made up words to songs. As a student I used to entertain my companions on the way to and from the pub by making up ‘different’ lyrics to pop songs and musicals.  It was just something I did.  I heard music as a soundtrack in my head all the time and used the melody to write my own version of songs.  I had a love of musical theatre and sort of wished that the world could be like that, people breaking out into song in the oddest places without any provocation. Strangely, I never thought about a career as a lyricist (I didn’t know you could). When I ‘became’ a writer for a job in my late 20s I chose screenwriting because I needed to earn a living. But life takes you on all kinds of unexpected paths and sometimes all the creativity inside you just hits that perfect moment. I’m lucky. For me the moment lasted the best part of 10 years. And changed my life.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2003 I started working with an advocacy group for adults labelled with learning disability who wanted to learn drama. I had no experience of ‘learning disability’ but plenty of experience of practical drama. It was challenging to begin with. Most of the group couldn’t read or write, some couldn’t or didn’t even speak. However, an amazing thing happened. Music unlocked the door.

One member of the group who never spoke beyond ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Happy’ just came alive when we started to use music. He revealed a talent for singing as well as a keen memory of 50s and 60s music. Consequently I started using music to bind together our flexible scripts. I found that by changing the lyrics of familiar pop songs to suit the story we managed to create dramas that the cast could engage with and which entertained an audience.

In 2004 we did a comedy musical version of Hamlet (called Piglet!) which included ‘ghosty’ pigs doing a song and dance version of Michael Jackson’s Thriller  (song starts 04:40) and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me alongside my adaptation of a well-known classic with one word changed! ‘Piglet, do you want to know a secret. This was followed up by devised musical plays around the theme of Fairtrade – Go Bananas which featured Day-oh and Wake up and Smell the Coffee which featured, among other songs You’re the cream in my coffee and a play on recycling using the title of a David Rovics song The End of the Age of Oil and built around that song.  Performed at the Scottish Parliament, we opened the event with our ‘star’ singer (the man who didn’t speak, remember) singing Amazing Grace accapella. That was a high point of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Our most ambitious project was performed in 2008.  Aiken Drum’s Recycled Musical was our first full musical. For the uninitiated, Aiken Drum is a traditional Scots tale which deals with how people view ‘outsiders’.  It was a really political piece in many ways. We set it in a sort of fictional Industrial Revolution town called Trade Town. All the songs were adapted from pop songs. For example I adapted the lyrics of Wonderful World  (song starts 0:38) –

‘Don’t know much about industry,

Don’t know much about commodities,

Don’t know much about stocks and shares…’

and my favourite line

Don’t know why you want to work for money, I don’t think consumerism’s funny.’

And we also butchered Cabaret’s classic Money Makes the World go round

‘When you haven’t any shoes on your feet and your coat’s thin as paper and you look thirty pounds underweight

My advice is get a job, get a mortgage, pay with credit, have all the luxuries you need

Cause money makes the world go around…’

We also nicked a concept from Godspell (watch this it’s awesome by about 2.20mins) engaging in a competitive sing off with Accentuate the Positive with You cannae shove yer granny aff a bus.

Week with No Labels, A - Cally PhillipsHaving moved 200 miles north I no longer work with the group, but I have taken our experiences from that time and published them as a novel, A Week with No Labels, which includes all the ‘dramas’ I’ve mentioned and a few more besides. It includes many of the ‘created/adapted’ lyrics. Described by Julia Jones as ‘perhaps the most significant book I’ve read on my Kindle this year’, it is a tribute to my time with this amazing bunch of people who changed the course of my life and changed me irrevocably as well. Without the music there would have been no creativity. Without ABC there would have been no novel.

On the way to writing A Week with No Labels I have learned that music and creativity is for everyone. And that life can be a musical. One shouldn’t take it too seriously, one shouldn’t strive for perfection because what’s most important in life is to live and love and be creative together. The song which was always in my mind while I penned A Week With No Labels and remains there whenever I think about it is You’ve got a friend. Sung by my friend, Larry. Among other things he taught me that in our real life musicals the voice is less important than the heart. So maybe music is about more than just words.

Cally Phillips has worked as a screenwriter and playwright for 20 years and is now focussed on fiction writing. Committed to a life of creativity, she publishes advocacy work through Guerrilla Midgie Press and other writing through HoAmPresst Publishing. She writes in silence but still makes up songs, sometimes to extant tunes, sometimes recycling other melodies. Only the dogs get to hear these masterpieces.  She is currently director of the Edinburgh eBook Festival and reviews for Reading Between the Lines Collective. She is also a member of the Authors Electric Writers Collective. A Week With no Labels is available in ebook format for Kindle and epub and as a paperback.Her website is here. Find her on  Facebook and Twitter @i_ebookreview  

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  1. #1 by Catherine Czerkawska on February 27, 2013 - 7:16 pm

    A wonderfully inspiring and thought provoking post – thanks Cally and thanks to Roz too!

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 27, 2013 - 8:11 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Catherine! Cally’s post really took the musical journey to new places. I’m sure it will inspire a lot of us.

  2. #3 by callyphillips on February 28, 2013 - 9:10 am

    Reblogged this on Cally Phillips and commented:
    I might have saved myself the effort of writing a post to go with the link and simply reblogged it. So here it is…

  3. #4 by philipparees on February 28, 2013 - 10:37 am

    This has to be a ‘must buy’. What a marvellous fortuitous experience with very profound implications in so many directions…not merely music as deep therapy, but musical life and impromptu song as way to go, everyday. Time I tried it! Thank you to both of you.

    • #5 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on February 28, 2013 - 11:59 am

      Hi Philippa! Glad to have introduced you to another singular writer. I’m beginning to feel we need an Undercover Soundtrack book club…

  4. #6 by Sierra Dawn on February 28, 2013 - 11:43 pm

    This is so amazing! I would love to see one of those performances… Is there any chance any of them were recorded?

    This all shows how deeply music affects us – it’s part of what makes us human, and everyone can benefit from it.

  5. #7 by callyphillips on March 1, 2013 - 8:42 am

    Hi,Thanks for the comments folks. Philippa, I hope you enjoy it. Happy to chat about it (ad nasueum) And Sierra – all the performances (well, nearly all) over a 10 year period were recorded (and much more besides) The only issue of course is letting the public see them. Though the performances were public performances and the group signed disclosures for ‘educational and promotional purposes’ there are minefields in actually putting stuff out there (eg on youtube) because of all the ‘vulnerable adult’ stuff. From my point of view I like people to see what we did, but you’ll appreciate that it also lays good friends of mine open to ridicule and rudeness from ignorant people, and that’s something I can’t expose them to. It was hard enough to ‘fictionalise’ it and put it in a novel. I don’t know what the resolution to that is, so any ideas are welcomed on that basis. I’m planning putting together another fictional work on the Boalian drama games that we played in workshops too… the beyond performance stuff. Maybe later this year, maybe not till next year. So many projects on the go.

  1. ‘Music and creativity is for everyone – and life can be a musical’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Cally Phillips | Nail Your Novel

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