How I wrote ‘JCB’ by Nizlopi’s Luke Concannon
We learn all about the effortless birth of the quirky, million-selling No 1 single about Luke’s digger-driving dad ‘Bruce Lee’
Nizlopi were an English folk and alternative duo formed in Royal Leamington Spa by Luke Concannon on vocals and acoustic guitar and John Parker playing double bass while beatboxing or singing backing vocals. In early 2004, they released their debut album Half These Songs Are About You and the lead single Fine Story, but it was the unusual JCB (also known as JCB Song), released at the tail end of that year, that would propel them into mainstream consciousness and top the singles charts in both the UK and Ireland. It would’ve been a Christmas No 1 had it not been for The X Factor singer Shayne Ward.
JCB would go onto sell more than one million records. Here’s the story of its creation, told by Luke himself…
“John Parker and I first started writing songs when we were 13. We decided quite early on that we’d split everything [songwriting credits] down the middle, fifty-fifty, and I’m glad we did it. I think he said certain bands did that and it creates a nice feeling of democracy. Although maybe I did sit down and write the chords, the words and the melody for JCB on my own, there are other songs where John might’ve practiced for four hours in the morning then written a riff, and then I might spend an hour writing lyrics over it, but then I’ve written the song. So it’s just better to say, ‘We’re in this equally so let’s split it equally.’
“It was around 2001 when we started writing the songs for Half These Songs Are About You, and JCB probably would’ve been in the spring of 2002. I’d moved back in with my parents so that I could afford to write and spend all that time on an album! I was 21 years old, I was writing in my room, and I had that riff going with an unusual chord shape – I’m almost 40 years old now and I’m only just learning music theory, but I think it’s a Dmaj9. Back then I had a Martin 000M, I was writing in the way that I tend to write – it would’ve been something romantic about the sort of relationship I was in – and I was like, ‘I don’t want to write about that again.’
“My dad’s a folk musician, an Irish bagpiper, martial artist and he’s an interesting guy, so I went downstairs and said, ‘What should I write about Dad? I’m stuck.’ And he said, ‘You’re the songwriter and you’re asking me? I dunno… diggers?’ He used to drive them and his dad’s business was digging roads and building foundations, so diggers were an archetypal thing in our life – it’s an Irish family thing. So it was like a little ‘ping’ went off in my head, I went upstairs and the song literally just came out – no editing, really. I reckon it was probably within an hour or something…”
“Then there was the eureka moment: ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to have a little garage rap at the end!’ I’d been a youth worker doing music with kids in a pretty rough youth centre in South London and they were all into UK garage back then, so if we could ever get them making music they would stand around in a circle and do a bit of a cypher. I was hearing that stuff a lot, so that’s why something like, ‘I’m Luke I’m five and my dad’s Bruce Lee / drives me around in his JCB,’ is quite garage and it’s also a bit folk.
“It was clear at live gigs that people loved it. If people can laugh, that’s such a great beginning. It’s a true story so there was something fresh about it. Also, it goes to double-time, which has an effect on people – they start clapping, or whatever – so that’s another reason why we knew it was going to have an impact. We were working with people in the industry, like Warner-Chappell publishing, who said all we needed was a single that catches and that JCB was probably going to be the one.
“We commissioned the video in 2005, which we put on our website, and at the time there was no YouTube, so it was really the first time that people could send each other an email saying, ‘Check out this video,’ with a link to the site. We didn’t really have any competition. So everyone sent it around and then by the time we released the single, a lot of people were already showing it to their kids at night. They say it’s all about preparation, and if you’ve laid the fire well you just have to light it!”