Guy Garvey on Elbow’s BBC Olympic anthem, First Steps

The singer talks to RT about writing for an orchestra, remembering Rentaghost and crying in front of the athletics

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“You can use just the drums. When schedules come up, or statistics: sssschum da-da da-da-DUM. Some of the string flourishes mimic different athletic activities, so there’s one that goes der diddle-iddle diddle-iddle YA! We imagined a pole bending and flicking somebody… that two-tiered motion. One of them goes doodle-iddle DIDDLE-IDDLE daaah. Somebody high-jumping backwards.”

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Guy Garvey is, with appropriate hand gestures, singing me bits of Elbow’s new song First Steps, a choral/orchestral piece commissioned by the BBC to soundtrack their coverage of London 2012. You’ve heard it: that rousing but hummable tune underneath the Olympics trailer, swooping and rising and sounding like Elbow as CGI athletes dive and run.

Elbow have already unofficially soundtracked an Olympics, of course. Their deliberately anthemic 2008 single One Day like This came out just before the Beijing games and was all over the BBC coverage. So did the Beeb say: we’ll have another one like that, please?

“The company that the BBC got in to do music and graphics asked us what we would do if we were given the job. I said, ‘I assume you’re asking because of One Day like This.’ And they said, ‘Yeah.'”

What the BBC got wasn’t an offcut from the new Elbow LP – work on which is ongoing – or a spare song from Garvey and co’s bottom drawer with a string section slapped on. Wittingly or not, the Corporation had found a band who’d been waiting for this call for years and knew precisely what was required.

“I said it wouldn’t be an Elbow song as such,” Garvey recalls of that first meeting. “It wouldn’t have my voice on it. It would be a choir and an orchestra. Trumpet fanfare at the front. Rousing, gladiatorial drums. Pistol-shot moments. Finish line moments. Winning themes and losing themes. I said all the parts would work with each other, over each other, without each other, so you could use them for all the different aspects of the coverage.”

This impressively detailed pitch got Elbow the gig immediately, so they set about composing their intricate opus – six and a half minutes in the full recorded version, performed by all 90 members of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the specially assembled, 40-strong NovaVox Choir.

Elbow were not, however, hunched over pianos, chewing pencils and scribbling on manuscript paper. Garvey can’t read music. “We drummed on our legs and I sang all the different instrument parts. Sang them to the girls who play the strings. That’s how I’ve always written string arrangements for Elbow. Then Nick Ingham, the arranger, went away and scored it.

“For the next few weeks, I’d phone Nick and say, ‘I have an idea for some string flourishes.’ And I’d sing him the melody or play him the piano down the phone. If you can think of a melody, you can write for an orchestra.”

Elbow’s lack of classical training didn’t mean First Steps was created without classical influences. “I listened to Vaughan Williams. Benjamin Britten. Copland. Grieg,” says Garvey. “A lot of Italian stuff. A bit of Joe Green.”

Who?

“Giuseppe Verdi… plus all the BBC sports themes. I know every note of Ski Sunday. I know every note of Grandstand. They’re f***ing ace when you’re a kid, those rousing sports themes, so the opportunity to write one – amazing.”

Even before you were in a band, were you watching telly and listening to the music and thinking about what would work?

“Sure. My sister Becky could play the theme to the news on a recorder with her nose. And we all used to sing along to every theme tune on the telly. I’m very good at remembering them. If you named a programme from the 70s, I could sing you the theme tune.”

Um… Rentaghost.

“‘If your dee dee dee dee dee dee, just call Rentaghost! Hear the Phantom of the Opera sing some f***in’ scary tune, woooooo!’ Or was that my own version?”

Well, the melody was impeccable. So is this a one-off foray into writing to order, or could Elbow become composers for hire?

“We’d love to do a soundtrack. It’s dead healthy for the band to do something outside our usual remit. It’d be great if the Olympic thing led to a really cool British filmmaker saying, ‘Do you want to do something together?’ I’d love to do something with Mike Leigh. He doesn’t use a lot of music, no. He should.”

Garvey has an easy confidence, a Manc swagger tempered by a sunny, sometimes sentimental optimism that leaves him unconcerned with what rock bands should or shouldn’t do. Plenty would fret and moan if one of their songs became as ubiquitous as One Day like This did, and would hate being tagged as writers of “anthems”.

Elbow’s singer doesn’t mind being seen that way, partly because writing anthems “is not all we do” but also because Garvey’s view of One Day like This chimes with his description of First Steps. It was a specific job, done well. “We were like, should we write something big and bright and shiny that’s unapologetically happy? Yeah, we should do that. It’s a treat how much that song gets used at people’s weddings, on sporting events. It’s turned up in some crazy places. You know how you’re never further than five feet from a rat in London? Switch the television on, you’ll hear that song within the hour.”

One Day swelling in the background as someone renovates a house on Channel 4 is, fortunately, not the pinnacle. “One of the girls who plays strings with us, today she’s in a school teaching kids how to play One Day like This. It’s made it onto music curriculums! And it’s bought us all a house each. So we’re all happy.”

But now, instead of people using a record you made independently, you’ve done the official BBC theme. You’re working…

“…for the man?” Garvey joins in, as smilingly unruffled as ever. “I’ve worked with the BBC for seven years on 6 Music! I love the BBC. I’m a huge supporter of it. It moves too slowly. It’s a clunky old institution. You change the theme tune to The Archers and people commit mass suicide. But its weight and its importance can’t be trivialised. I’m glad there’s lots of other people who think like that. Like whatever genius stopped Murdoch getting hold of BSkyB with that slow, incremental hacking scandal – fantastic. Working for the BBC is something I’m incredibly proud of.”

And the Olympics?

“It’s ace!”

A lot of people are cynical about it.

“British people are cynical full stop, aren’t they? Every time the Glastonbury headliners are announced, everybody goes, ‘Oh, that’s not real Glastonbury. It’s going to be a disaster.’ And it’s always awesome. Who can not get excited about seeing the fastest man or woman on Earth? The man who can jump the highest on Earth. They’re super-people. I’m really, really proud that people are going to be winning medals to our tunes.”

It’s in London, though…

“It could be in Manchester. That is the only problem, it could have been in Manchester… no, no. It’s too big for Manchester. It’d swallow Manchester whole.”

Once he’d sung all the individual parts to the orchestra, Garvey took a back seat vocally. But he’s also Elbow’s lyricist and, while it’s not easy to hear what the NovaVox Choir are singing, they’re Garvey’s words.

“The lyrics are intentionally not that clear, because I wanted the feel of the voices without it being too much of a solid statement. I wanted to use them as instruments. I still wanted a theme, though. I didn’t want gobbledygook.

“And our bass player’s daughter, Martha, started walking. He videoed it on his phone and sent it to everybody. It’s a beautiful moment. She walks toward the camera, gets hold of Pete, and his voice does something I’ve never heard it do in 22 years. He was so over the moon. And you hear her say, ‘Daddy.’ It’s a f***ing heartbreaker. I thought that was the very thing I was looking for. A very human experience with people putting their faith and hope into another human being – willing them to do something physical. So, the song talks about being a part of the person that you’re looking at… ‘We’re in your blood, we’re in your eyes. The will to fly is in your eyes.’ It’s something Martha will be really proud of when she grows up.”

Sometimes, though, people can’t do what others are willing them to do, or what they want to do themselves. You mentioned a losers’ theme?

“Yes. So much of the thrill and the drama of the Olympics is the fact that you can win or lose. And the images that really get people are either the joyous climax of winning or the absolute, wrenching heartbreak of losing. So, we decided from the off that the losers’ theme would be as strong as the winner’s theme — and that they would work hand in hand to form a big crescendo, which they do. It’s… mathematically brilliant.”

Presumably Garvey will be keenly tuning in to the Olympics on the BBC, to see whether they’ve followed his suggestion that the losers’ theme would work well under a reflective daily round-up, while the trumpet fanfare is perfect for punchy idents. Will he stay for the sport?

“Somebody said the other day that as you approach 40 you get more right-wing. I don’t agree with that at all. If anything I’m getting further and further left. But another thing that came up in that conversation is, bizarrely, you get more into athletics as you get older. I’m finding that is the case for me.

“My friend Bryan, his dad died before Bryan did. Bryan’s dead as well. Bryan is The Seldom Seen Kid. Bryan’s dad was very dry – funny, but an austere kind of guy. Yet he used to cry at athletics. The endeavour moved him to tears, which Bryan found hilarious. One day I got a text off Bryan after his dad had died, saying: ‘Chip off the old block.’ He used to do that, Bryan. He’d drop you a leading text so you’d give him a ring. So I was racking me brain and I thought, he’s crying at the athletics. It was when the Commonwealth Games were in Manchester. So I text back: ‘Crying at the athletics?’ and he puts, ‘Bingo.’

“So now of course, I think about Bryan now that he’s died and whenever the athletics are on I get a little bit weepy. It’s passed on.”

I suppose some people approach middle age and realise once and for all that their own sporting dreams – the ones they had as kids – will never come true, so they fall back on watching it on the telly. Any tales of near-greatness lurking in your past?

“I couldn’t climb the rope. I couldn’t kick the ball straight. I was kicked out of the rugby trials for tripping somebody up. I wasn’t bad at badminton because you didn’t actually get touched by anyone. I don’t want to present a Howard Hughesian image of myself, but the kids who tended to touch me at school used to do it very hard.

“But this is what happened. Sports day comes around. Got a very keen games teacher, which is a f***ing nightmare for somebody like me. ‘You’ve got to do a couple of events at least.’ So I say, ‘Well, I’m not running.’ I chose ones where you throw things: javelin, shot put, discus. Absolutely rotten at all three. I was a whippet at that point, I was lighter than the discus.

“Me mates were laughing at how pathetic I was, and I was playing to the crowd. Pretending I was an Olympian, really serious look on my face, winding myself up for the big discus throw. Completely by accident, I smashed the school record. Held it for a decade. One fluke throw.

“It’s kind of a metaphor for my entire life and career actually, that discus throw. Lucky bastard.”

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Photo: Jon Super