I’m often asked when writing songs which comes first, the music or the lyrics. Sometimes it’s neither…sometimes it’s the phone call.
It was in August last year that I got a call from my old friend Les Moir. When I say old, I mean a friend of nearly 40 years.
On Tour 1981, Les Moir top left, Mal front right with a manic smile!
When I left university in 1981 I went to live in London. As I saw my dreams of singer songwriter stardom disappear into a world full of punks I found myself trying to keep body and soul together by playing covers in wine bars and nightclubs around the city. This was before the days of email and mobiles so I’m not sure exactly how Les made contact, but somehow I got a message that there was vacancy for a piano player to join a backing band being put together to play for touring American Gospel artists and so began a lifelong friendship.
That autumn and winter was fun but hard. It was a particularly cold winter and I was unprepared for travelling in the back of a Ford Transit where the heating didn’t always work. Les’ parents were in charge of the Salvation Army building on Oxford Street London, and occasionally we would stay there if it got too late to get back to our flats. They also ran the second hand clothing department which provided clothing for those in need and boy were we in need! That jacket they gave me got me through a number of cold, session musician winters.
When I returned to Wales I divided my time between music and broadcasting. Les became a record producer, then a record company executive before running his own record label. Over the years we’ve worked on various projects and always tried to meet up when the miles permitted.
Nearly 40 years on Les and Mal still regularly meet up for a chat!
When Les rang last summer it was with a strange request. The previous year Les had been responsible for putting together the ‘UK Blessing’ project. With churches in lockdown and the statistics of people losing their lives in the pandemic reaching truly terrifying numbers a number of British Gospel artists and choirs got together remotely and recorded a song and video called the UK Blessing. The video currently stands at having had over 5 million views.
Les had been approached to produce a record and video for the Queen’s Jubilee in June 2022, would I like to be involved.
Now if I’m honest I wasn’t sure if I was the man for the job, which might seem strange for a musician whose career stretches from Fireman Sam to Elton John. What should it sound like, what would it say and if we got it wrong would we be sent to the Tower (Actually we were… but more of that later).
Luckily, we had 2 starting points for the anthem.
Les had been commissioned by an organisation called Hope Together. In 2016 they had worked with the Bible Society to produce a book to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. ‘The Servant Queen and the King She Serves’ told the story in words and pictures of the Queen’s life and particularly her journey of faith. It is thought to be the only book for which the Queen had written the foreword. (That book has sold over 1.3 million copies) They had been working on a number of projects to celebrate the Queens Platinum Jubilee and wanted a song that schools, and churches could sing on Jubilee weekend.
They wanted their celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee to mark her years of service and to inspire a new generation to rise up and serve as well. So we had our title ‘Rise Up and Serve’.
Then Les told me that he already had something to work with. Les had been speaking to a couple of writers and wanted us to work as a team. Now they do say a camel is a horse designed by a committee and again I wondered if there were lots of different layers that the song would have to go through. Would we end up with a thoroughbred or a dromedary?
I think Les could tell I had some concerns, but he soon told me who the other collaborators were to put my mind at ease.
Mal , Graham Kendrick, Les Moir at the Tower of London.
The first name Les mentioned was Graham Kendrick. Graham has been called the finest Hymn Writer of his generation, the Charles Wesley of the digital age. You might not know Graham but you or your children would have probably sung one of his hymns in school. On a personal level this upped the ante for me. Graham is a serious writer who values the theology as much as the rhymes. He had been one of those Gospel artists Les and I had backed on those tours in the 1980s. I’d better be good.
The Rend Collective filming in the USA whilst on Tour.
Then Les mentioned the Rend Collective. The Collective are a young gospel band from Ireland who I had heard of, but never heard. As soon as I put the phone down I searched for them online. They had over 341,000 subscribers on YouTube, and one of their songs had been viewed 22 million times. OK…I thought!!!
Les said he would send me what he had and wanted me think where it would go next. My phone went ping and there was an audio file. The Rend boys were on tour but had found some time to write a verse in 6/8 time. The only way they could record it was on a mobile phone, and that was what I had.
The verse was lilting and Celtic which was good, but I knew it needed a singalong type chorus. As usual when I’m not sure where a song should go I went for a run along Swansea Bay. I had the Rend boys idea in my head and started running. By the time I got back I was sweaty, but I had a melody. I managed to find my phone to record it quickly before going to the shower and then into my studio.
Over the coming weeks various drafts of lyrics were tried and eventually everyone was happy.
Filming the video at The Tower.
Then came the recording. With a summer deadline looming and a pandemic still locking life down most of the first recordings were done in various studio and homes around the commonwealth.
Gospel artists Darlene Zschech recorded and filmed herself in Australia.
Brian Doerksen in the forests of Canada.
David Grant, Carrie’s husband, recorded in a little London Studio
The orchestra together as lockdown ended to film in All Souls Langham Place.
Conducted by Welshman Michael Andrews
I wanted to make sure Wales was strongly represented so managed to involve the Morriston Orpheus who we filmed at the Calon Lan Centre.
Finally a number of groups, singers and choirs were called to the Tower of London to film early one Spring morning.
The deep, deep voice of Muyiwa
The Sweet, Sweet Sounds of New Wine
Thankfully we all left with our heads still attached to our bodies.
Contributions from Mumbai to Morriston.
The video is now online. In this divided nation of ours people have all sorts of political views, but I think we can all agree that the Queen has dedicated her life to that vow she made 70 years ago. Now more than ever we all need to ‘Rise Up and Serve’ those in our community who desperately need all of our help.