There's an episode of the TV adaptation of PG Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster that opens with the "mentally negligible" Bertie Wooster, played by Hugh Laurie, sitting at the piano and tackling the song "Puttin' On The Ritz". Having never heard it before and only having the sheet music to hand, he becomes horribly stuck on the tricky vocal rhythm in the chorus. "This Irving Berlin fellow seems to have come a bit of a cropper here, Jeeves," he says. "Too many words, not enough notes." The chorus of "Puttin' On The Ritz" is now so familiar to us that Wooster's rigidly English and woefully inaccurate interpretation sounds hilarious, but if Jeeves hadn't been around to advise him which syllables to accent, Bertie may have continued to play it that way for years to come, the song taking on a bizarre life of its own.
I've spent the last week tackling a few songs from Song Reader, the new album by Beck Hansen that's published on Thursday by Faber in sheet music format only (see picture, inset), and wondering whether Beck would find my attempts as laughable as Wooster's. The idea of playing a pop song from sheet music without already knowing what that song should sound like is one that has largely disappeared, in an era saturated with recorded sound. These days a curious musician hears a song, becomes consumed with an urge to learn it, gets hold of the sheet music and uses their knowledge of the recording and the dots in front of them to negotiate their way towards their own version.
But sheet music doesn't necessarily communicate the feel of a song; for example, if you'd never heard the original, your version of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" could quite easily become a chirpy singalong that lacks the brooding intensity of the Joy Division recording. Particularly if you decided to play it on the banjo.
Beck, it turns out, isn't particularly bothered about liberties being taken with the 20 compositions within Song Reader. He has written about his desire to "open up the music", that we shouldn't "feel beholden to what's notated"; we're at liberty to change the instrumentation, the notes, the speed, whatever we like (not that Beck could do anything about it in any case). But the musician in me feels a compulsion to do it right, to approximate the way Beck might have imagined that song sounding. So I decided to pick one tune and set myself the challenge of trying to do that. Which is laughable, really – he's a successful American songwriter steeped in the folk and blues tradition, I'm a bloke from Dunstable who grew up listening to The Wombles. But hey, I'll give it a go. Song Reader is beautifully packaged, each song contained within its own fold-out sheet and accompanied by illustrations that recall the exquisitely ornate design of song sheets from the early 20th century. As an exercise in nostalgia it's perfectly executed, evoking a time when sheet music was the predominant disseminator of pop, when unique interpretations of the latest hits were performed across the world by amateurs. The songs themselves are also evocative of a bygone era. In the preface Beck recalls the challenge of writing "playable songs" that have "a quality that allows others to inhabit them and make them their own"; this results in songs that are brief and straightforward, from the bluesy "Rough On Rats" to the mournfully patriotic "America, Here's My Boy". In the end I chose a quirky little song called "Just Noise" that has Beach Boys-like chord progressions and a tasty key change vaguely reminiscent of "We've Only Just Begun" by The Carpenters.
As I recorded the piano part on my computer and reflected on the other stuff that I might add on top, from jangling sleigh bells to gently shifting violin lines, it occurred to me that this project, which could be thought of as Beck's kooky nostalgia trip, is, in a way, pretty timely. With recording technology as cheap as chips and with countless ways of making our efforts heard, from YouTube to Soundcloud and beyond, you can envisage dozens of versions of Song Reader tunes being uploaded in the run-up to Christmas, picking up thousands of views as people check out the interpretations of others and post their effusive praise or damning critique underneath.
The digital revolution has also managed to keep the traditional sheet music business thriving, as people search through pages of educated guesses for an authoritative source of tabs, chords and lyrics – such as sheetmusicdirect.com. "We've got a blossoming digital sheet music service," says Tom Farncombe, Managing Editor of Music Sales, Europe's biggest sheet music publisher, "but we still sell a lot of pop music in folios. I think we've sold the best part of 130,000 Adele books; Coldplay still sells very well, huge numbers of people learned to play the guitar with our Oasis books. And I wouldn't even like to guess how many Beatles books we've sold over the years."
Learning to play a song can be an intense process and recording "Just Noise" obviously established a deeper connection between me and the song than if I'd heard it as track 14 on a 20-track album. I've listened to it hundreds of times, worked out a pleasingly symmetrical bass line for it and sat for two hours stitching together vocal takes that weren't too awful – all with the aim of producing something that might do Beck's tune some kind of justice. But, as he himself points out, his opinion doesn't really matter; he's merely raising the question of "what a song is supposed to do and how its purpose has altered". Conceptually speaking, "Just Noise" was far more beautiful when it was a piece of paper with untold possibilities. Now it's just an mp3. But the way it came about somehow makes it more than just noise.
Watch Rhodri tackle Beck: youtube.com/watch?v=WgZRrjmzWUw