As a kid I quickly became fascinated by music. It was initially pop songs from the charts – The Rubettes, Slade, Abba – and then as a teenager my tastes morphed more into the ‘Rock’ genre – Rainbow, Whitesnake, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Rush. I guess you could say I was a rocker, as were most of my mates. We conformed.
But then, in my late teens, I started to discover music for myself, my music, largely uninfluenced by my peers. I remember hearing U2 on late night radio around 1980 and being blown away by what I heard. It was way before the War album, even pre-October, perhaps just after Boy had been released, and the track I heard was ‘I will Follow’.
That moment changed me. The music was like nothing I had heard before; it was loud, energetic and rebellious, with lyrics to match, lyrics that seemed to have been written just for me.
And for a short period of time, between 1980-1982, U2 became my band. Of course they went on to become one of the biggest bands in the world and my particular hero, Bono, became the biggest dickhead in the world. I no longer buy U2 albums (nor listen much to what Bono has to say), but I still listen to those older songs because they’re in my DNA, an integral part of who I was.
When my mum and dad dropped me off in my student digs in Forest Road, Colchester in September 1983, I knew no-one. I was shitting myself, but under my arm I had two pieces of vinyl – U2 Boy and U2 October – and that made me pretty much invincible. As a northern lad trying to make it down south, I was that ‘Stranger in a Strangeland’ that Bono sang about … “Stranger, stranger in a strangeland, you looked at me like I was the one who should run”.
There are countless other examples of songs and albums that did for me in the same way. I used U2 as an example but I could have also talked longingly about experiences formed around Julian Cope, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin or Oasis songs.
As I grew and developed, my music came with, it became part of me, part of my fabric. It wasn’t a cloak I wore on occasions, it was part of who I was, always, like DNA. I am who I am because I listened to ‘An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart’ on repeat throughout the night for several weeks in the winter of ’83. The way I reacted to that experience formed the person I became – it influenced my moods, my character, how I interacted with others.
‘I will Follow’ isn’t a great song in its abstract form. It’s not particularly clever, nor is it even very original. It’s just another 3 1/2 minute guitar song like all the others, but to me it’s the song+memories+emotions. And that’s why I can never recommend that song to anyone else, because it’s not just the song I experience when I hear it, it’s the whole package, and that’s not what’s on offer.
The blissfulness we all experience through music is much more than just the song we hear, it’s an evocation of an entire chapter of our lives, and therefore by extension it’s as unique as is our own fingerprint.
The almost 40 year old ‘An Cat Dubh/Into The Heart’ still stops me in my tracks even now. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to cry, particularly the transition from An Cat Dubh to Into the Heart – I can’t put it into words how I feel at 1min 40s into Into The Heart when Bono cries those melancholy words ‘Into the heart, into the heart of a child, I can go back, I can stay a while‘ whilst The Edge’s guitar gently weeps over the top, before swirling round the back and straight through the middle of those aching lyrics mourning the loss of childhood (my God, just typing that makes me weepy).
It’s special to me because I remember the very real fear I had of leaving home for the first time. I remember being genuinely scared of being alone, of having to grow up, not having the faintest clue what my future would look like. That song evokes that time, but if I play it to anyone else it’s just a song that draws a rather awkward, blank stare. I’m trying to share a 3-dimensional experience through 2-dimensional soundwaves.
And for similar reasons, it’s also utter folly to try to like other people’s music. Ed Sheeran is popular in these modern times and I’ve tried ever so hard to like him so I can stay in the game, stay relevant, but I think he’s just a bit shit. I find his music soulless and banal, sorry Ed, it’s not personal.
The truth is, Ed writes for a different audience, for people that are still growing, still forming themselves. He writes for students being dropped off by their parents in September 2019, not 1983, students who are also shit scared of what the future holds, students who are carrying (albeit in digital form) Ed Sheeran songs to comfort them to sleep in the wee small hours.
And so modern day kids will grow up loving Ed or Jay Z in pretty much the same way as I loved U2 and Julian Cope, and that’s OK, it’s not a competition and there should be no league table. We shouldn’t try and sell our music to others because it’s not the music that’s on offer, it’s something much greater, something less tangible, something non-transferable.
Shakespeare said ‘Let music be the food of love’, but I say let musical-experiences be the food of the soul. Your soul. Music is an object, but music plus memory becomes a lifetime and the two should never be conflated.
No one song beats any other song. ‘My’ music wasn’t the best, but it was, and still is, ‘mine’. My music became part of my stories and my stories became my life. In the same way, their music will always be theirs and your music will always be yours.
So sing your Ed Sheeran song, sing it for you and rejoice, but for the love of God turn that dreary racket down, I can’t hear myself think.