How I wrote ‘Place Your Hands’ by Reef’s Gary Stringer
The West Country rock band’s frontman tells us how their energetic, singalong single took shape and took off
Formed in 1993, Reef charged their way through the Britrock era with a potent mixture of youthful enthusiasm, a bluesy rock backbone and the soulful vocals of frontman Gary Stringer. Their first two albums, Replenish and Glow, have both aged remarkably well, highlighting the solid songwriting that underpins much of Reef’s work and why they provided such a welcome antidote to many of their Beatles-obsessed peers.
Glow topped the charts in 1997 thanks to a massive helping hand from its lead single, Place Your Hands. It’s the perfect example of what made Reef such an exciting proposition; a memorable blend of energy, ‘singalong-ability’ and riffage that demands audience participation. Such was the song’s popularity that it became a regular fixture on the television show TFI Friday (reworked for the “It’s Your Letters” section).
Frontman Gary Stringer recalls how the band wrote this classic track…
“Replenish, our debut record, had done well. We had a couple of singles from that album that went in the Top 25 and we’d released another standalone Top 40 single called Weird. We’d started jamming and working out songs for the follow-up album, which became Glow. We worked with a friend of ours, Clive Martin, for the debut record but then the record company introduced us to a fellow called George Drakoulias, who we met on a West Coast tour of America probably around 1995.
“George agreed to come over to London to Abbey Road to start working on some songs for that follow-up record. Jack had a bassline for Place Your Hands, the same bassline that is the on the song now. I think he had a sixties Fender and he’s got this bassline and I started singing a melody over the top of it – totally different to the melody that you hear on the record today. It was quite gentle with a gentle vocal. I was singing, ‘Oh take me down to the water, you will see my coloured dreams. We go walking down by the water…’ so that’s where the bassline and the chords in the main came from. We went away to Real World Studios to carry on writing after the session at Abbey Road and it was there that Kenwyn [House] came up with the guitar riff for the song. It was so great it made me look at the vocal again. I went back to the drawing board and came out with the melody that you hear now.
“Around that time we were actually on tour and my grandfather passed away. So we pulled the tour bus in to Dursley in Gloucestershire, which is where they were from. We pulled in for the night and I went to see my family. I came away and started thinking about the lyrics for Place Your Hands. When I hear the song I feel very uplifted. I’m really proud of the song and the lyric makes me feel happy, but really it’s reaching out for love.
“IT’S GOT A LIFE OF ITS OWN. IT’S EVEN GOT ITS OWN TWITTER PAGE”
“‘Place your hands on my hope, run your fingers through my soul, the way that I feel right now, oh lord it may go.’ That verse is basically the overview of the song really, it’s reaching out at a time of sadness and you come away feeling happy, so I was really pleased with how it ended up. George helped us with the arrangement and suggested the idea for the bridge, which is quite unusual actually to have that verse/ chorus and then go to that bridge. It’s quite an unusual arrangement really but it was only really then when you could see how excited Muff Winwood and George Drakoulias were getting about it that you realised that it might be the song that could take us up to a new level.
“It’s been a big hit for us, it’s got a life of its own. It’s even got its own Twitter page, a guy monitors the sales week on week and he has done for years. So it’s a song that is bigger than us and it just seems to reach out. Radio 1 play it, Radio 6 play it, the rock stations play it and the pop stations play it. Not many months go by that I don’t get a message through social media saying that it came on a PA in Thailand, or Australia or South America. It seems to have a really big effect on people and lift them. Knowing you’ve been involved in a song like that is really special.
“I don’t really want to know why it was so popular. I don’t think about music in that way. When I write I try not to psychoanalyse it in anyway or second guess it. I like to write and either use stuff or throw it away. That’s not to say, it’s totally knee-jerk. I like to follow my emotions with songs and see where they lead. So I approach music in an open-minded way and just see what happens, not writing stuff off until you’ve worked out what it is. Like anyone else you talk to, I’m sure there’s 50% of songs that you write that never get heard, but I think it’s good to keep being creative and keep producing songs.
“It’s incredible to realise that you threw a dart and it hit the bullseye. Just in the way that it has connected to people, that’s really special. It’s happened with other songs but Place Your Hands is definitely the bullseye, it’s the one that most people know and it gives you a reference point for your career. I love it, it makes you feel great. A lot of songwriters say they get fed up of playing certain songs and I can genuinely say that I don’t. I absolutely love the song and feel really proud of it. Even if I do an acoustic gig now, I’ll just play the simple chords and enjoy putting the song across in that way. A lot of the best songs, if you can play them on an acoustic and sing them, that usually helps. I feel super happy with Place Your Hands and I’m stoked with it.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Reef feature on the Britrock Must Be Destroyed Tour, which kicks off in Manchester on 4 May. Tickets are available now via britrock.seetickets.com