Saturday, October 20, 2012

Is there a better song about an inanimate object than A Thing Well Made?

Don McGlashan wrote some great songs for the Mutton Birds but the best one is "A Thing Well Made". It's about a man who runs a sporting goods store. He's not getting on well with his wife. He opens his shop early so that men can come in on their way to work and "daydream around the rods and reels". He shows off a gun to a customer. "Look at the way this gun fills the crook of your arm. To make a thing like that you'd need to know what you were about."

Then what? The music gets more insistent, which invites us to wonder if he's taken the gun to the top of a water tower and done something terrible. There's nothing in the song that actually says so. That's one of the things I like about songs. They go in one ear and out the other. But then they come back long afterwards.

The Mutton Birds reformed earlier this year to play a tour of New Zealand wineries. I can't imagine anything much better than that. They're playing at the Shepherd's Bush Empire next Saturday. Here they are doing "A Thing Well Made" a few years back.


  1. Great song. It was inspired by New Zealand's worst massacre at Aramoana ( Gives me chills very time I hear it.

  2. Sublime songwriter. Check out 'Dominion Road'. Should have been much bigger than they were.

  3. I rushed out to buy the CD after hearing you play 'Dominion Road' on your GLR show. Still one of my favourite songs. Often wondered if there was a factual reference to 'A Thing Well Made'.

  4. What Mhairi said. It was written from the point of view of the Christchurch gun salesman who supplied the Aramoana killer.

    McGlashan is brilliant at this sort of thing. "Toy Factory Fire" is narrated from the perspective of an American executive whose factory burns down. It was based on a real toy factory fire in Thailand in which nearly 200 were killed.

  5. Don McGlashan was also one half (latterly one third) of The Front Lawn, a sort of music/theatre/comedy act. I saw them two years running in Edinburgh in the late 80s and, more than twenty years later, they remain one of the best things I have ever seen, or ever will see.

  6. Ray's Automatic Weapon by Drive-By Truckers is on similar lines, inspired by a true story (though not, I think, an actual shooting):

  7. My wife Marjorie and I were transfixed by this song and many more by the Mutton Birds when we stumbled upon them in Vancouver around 1994. There's no bass in "A Thing Well Made". And that euphonium motif is so achingly beautiful it just breaks your heart.

    Nearly 20 years later, this February, Marjorie was diagnosed with a brain tumour and (as you do) decided to finally make an album. While she was in the MRI machine she wrote a song about the tumour ("Hole In My Head") and just before her surgery she said she wanted Don to play his euphonium on it. He heard about this and, bless him, did his usual exquisite work on it and made us very happy people!

    You can hear the song here. It's brilliant, but then she is my wife!