There's one thing that connects almost all of the prolific people I know, and it's that they all apply, many of them not even knowing it, Strummer’s Law to their lives.
Stummer's Law is named after the late and great Joe Strummer of The Clash, and it's as simple as this "No Input, No Output." What he meant was that without a constant flow of inspiration into one's life, ideas soon run out, leave it for too long and you are likely to burn out.
Whenever I talk with some of the sharpest and most prolific writers, composers, producers and engineers we often talk about the latest music we are listening to, or movies or TV shows we've seen, or books we are reading or have read. Stephen Gallagher, composer and the music editor on films like District 9, Lord of the Rings and King Kong, is a good friend and whenever we speak with one another our sign off is a book recommendation. We've been doing it for several years now, and I know we both find it hugely valuable because those books will challenge and inspire us.
Another musical great George Duke once said: "Originality is overrated." He's right, we like to think that our ideas are original but in most cases they rarely are. Now heading to my mid-fifties, I'm often listening to new music and thinking that's the chord structure from X or the melody from Y or the production style of Z.
A recent example take the track 'Girlfriend' by Christine and The Queens, the minute I heard that I thought Scritti Politti, perhaps you thought that too? Let me be clear; I don't think it's a rip-off, it's likely they've never heard of Scritti Politti, but there are elements of the Scritti DNA running through the electric piano, chord structure and beat. It's a great track, and perhaps I love it because it reminds me so much of Scritti? I'd be interested to hear if anyone else hears it too?
We see case after case, many of them spurious IMHO, of people getting sued for using chords from other songs on top tracks. Some get settled reasonably, and other ones end up in lawsuits, but this is always likely to happen as much of anyone's work is inspired by music, movies, books, poems, quotes and other creative elements. There’s nothing new in this, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, commonly known as the “New World Symphony.” is understood to have been inspired by his time spent in the American Deep South and his hearing the spiritual songs. Some suggest you can hear ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ in the first movement.
One could argue reasonably that the Strummer quote inspired this article, it did.
Let me tell you how that happened. I was listening to The Film Programme on Radio 4 when out running a few days ago and Director Jim Jarmusch was being interviewed, and he mentioned the Joe Strummer quote. It stuck with me, and so here we are now.
So an encouragement, get out the studio more, take time to read, watch good TV, I've just finished Season 3 of Stranger Things. It is utterly brilliant, and for someone who has watched many of the movies it makes references to, it's also fun seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jurassic Park which both inspire scenes.
Read books, all sorts of books. I don't mean 'How To Be A Great Songwriter' type books, but classics. Join a book club or find those you know who read a lot and ask them for recommendations. Inspiration comes from the most unlikely sources. I recently finished 'Becoming' by Michelle Obama and that is filled with inspiring ideas. If books seem too long then read magazines like TIME or newspapers. There's inspiration everywhere if you have 'ears to hear.'
And of course, listen to music. When I fire up TIDAL I let it suggest what I should listen to some days. I've been served the most extreme Grime and conversely opera, but I subscribe to the maxim there are only two types of music, good and bad - limiting our taste to genres reduces our ability to learn.
In summary, if you are feeling your output is not as it should be it's likely that your input is down and if it’s at zero then it won't be long before you run out of ideas and after an extended period you’ll burn out.
No Input, No Output.
RIP Joe Strummer... a true inspiration!