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.
I’ve always enjoyed compiling music. In the old days it was recording from vinyl onto cassette tapes, or recording songs from the radio where you had to try and stop the recording just after the song ended, but before Tony Blackburn or Simon Bates spoke and spoiled everything.
I used to compile tapes for friends (for friends read girls). They took ages to compile, each track carefully chosen, sometimes with accompanying lyrics handwritten out of sheer love and desire. I would sometimes have to post the tapes in the mail in the hope she would receive, listen and come running.
It never really worked but it was immense fun. These days it’s much easier with Spotify, Apple Music or any other streaming service where 30-million tracks are just a click away, in high fidelity, with no DJ interruptions. And so it is that old fashioned, analogue compilations have now given way to digital playlists.
I tend to build playlists these days principally for me rather than for girls, but it’s still a great way to gather together certain genres, or composers, or songs from a particular decade, songs for dinner parties, songs for house parties, songs for flying, songs to run along to, songs to cook with, songs to sing along to.
The options are endless, but my most recent playlist has undoubtedly been the most fun to compile, and I wanted share this with you because it’s something you might want to try. Mine’s called ‘Andy’s life playlist’, but you might want to give yours a different name.
Here’s how it works:
- You must add a song to the playlist if, and only if, it was a significant thing for you, at some stage of your life. It might be something you fell in love with, obsessed over, or just something that is so significantly memorable that it transports you back to a very specific place/time/age. Terry Jacks – Seasons In The Sun was the first 45/single I ever bought from Casa Disco. I was 9yrs old and I fell in love with music. I was on the way to becoming me. So that’s in.
- It MIGHT be a song you didn’t particularly like, but which is so strongly associated with a specific life event that it has to go in. When our first child was born, I remember returning to the car bleary eyed and emotionally punch drunk, turning on the radio when ‘Sleeping Satellites’ by Tasmin Archer came on the radio. That song will forever be associated with my wife and our son, and whenever I hear it I am immediately transported back to Milton Keynes Hospital Car Park in the autumn of 1992. So that’s in too.
- You MUST NOT exclude a song because you now find it cheesy, facile, simplistic or juvenile. This is just your 2017 self filtering and tainting your thinking. You loved that song back then when (and because) you were pure, you were untainted by other opinions, politics, self awareness and snobbiness. You just reacted biologically to the words, the beat, the harmonies, the chord changes. It affected the real you, it was you. I remember singing with a hairbrush into my bedroom mirror miming and dancing to ‘I Can Do It’ by The Rubettes. I was Alan Williams, I even had similar hair. So that has to be in, whether I like it or not.
- You CANNOT add a song that you like now, but didn’t like at the time, just to try and make yourself look cool. Stop playing these games. Just because you should have liked The Jam doesn’t mean ‘Going Underground’ should be on the playlist.
- Certain songs evoke memories of life events like nothing else can, and that’s what you’re trying to capture here. On the first anniversary of my dad’s untimely death, I remember I felt miserable all day. I was working in London and can recall coming home on the train that evening. It was a hot summer’s evening as I stared out of the window feeling bluesy when ‘Warning Signs’ started to play through my headphones. And when Chris Martin said “... and the truth is, I miss you, yeah the truth is, I miss you … so“, I started to cry, and I cried all the way to my car. But I felt happy, I felt connected to Dad somehow. You could be forgiven for not hearing that ‘so’ at the end of that line, but I don’t, and I never will. I don’t understand how all this stuff works but it’s very powerful, and that song evokes memories of my Dad and specifically his loss, like nothing else ever can. I often cry when I hear it now, and whilst Chris probably wrote it about Gwyneth, or some other lover, to me it’s it’s about Dad. It’s between me and him. That’s the kind of stuff that has to go in.
- And it doesn’t have to just be old stuff, you CAN add new songs to the playlist. If a song affects you in 2017, it’s just as much a part of your life playlist as the song that affected you in 1973. You might discover a song from ’73 that you hear for the first time in 2017, so that’s fine to go in too, but you CANNOT add a ’73 song you didn’t ever like or have no connection to, but you now wish you had (see point 4 above) – that’s one for your fake public playlist.
Just remember, this playlist is designed to be a musical portfolio for your life, not for anyone else’s. Build it for you. You won’t be able to do it in one go, just keep it running in the background and add to it whenever and wherever you remember a song. There’s no limit, it can be as short or as long as you like.
Also, please note that your playlist must never be shared. Once you know you might share you will start to filter, and it will no longer be your pure playlist, but rather a modified playlist you’d like others to think was yours. This is very important. I have some right shit on mine, stuff I’ll never admit to in public, but it’s part of me, no one will ever know, it’s my little secret, it’s my life playlist.
And finally, but just as importantly, you must edit the title and append a number to each song title, e.g, ‘Seasons in the sun’ becomes ‘9_Seasons In the Sun’, ‘Hold me now’ becomes ’18_Hold me now’, ‘Linger’ becomes ’28_Linger”, and so on. This number is the age you were (or as close as you can approximate) when you connected with the song.
And this is the special bit. When you now play your playlist where the songs are ordered alphabetically, you now get to listen to the soundtrack of your life.
When asked the “Beatles” question, the cool kids always answer Lennon because he was the anti-establishment one, the protestor, the rebel … oh and of course he was the genius. And his legendary status was further underlined, as so often happens, with his untimely demise in New York in 1980.
In 1980, Lennon was elevated even further, from the ranks of rebellious young man, to martyr, becoming even more of an icon, a James Dean, a JFK – where were you when Lennon got shot?
Meanwhile Paul, George and Ringo – John’s support band, faded even further into the background.
As a kid growing up I loved The Beatles, initially it was the records my parents played, but as I reached adolescence I started to make my own choices, and it was Paul’s songs I (unwittingly) gravitated towards. This was long before John’s death.
Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let It Be -> McCartney
Strawberry Fields, Lucy in the Sky, Revolution -> Lennon
Six great songs, six true, timeless classics – three make you want to cry, three make you want to rebel. As a kid I really was a lover, not a fighter.
When I was a teenager Macca went on to form Wings, whilst John did his Yoko sit-ins writing solo stuff. Macca wrote pop songs and toured big stadiums, John stayed in bed and smoked dope. Paul was in love, John was angry.
The ‘Lennonites’ despised Wings more than they despised McCartney, for everything it stood for. And don’t get them started on Linda. Admittedly Macca did himself no favours post Wings with his poppy collaborations and frog chorusses, but I do think much of the Wings material was just as brilliant as much of The Beatles stuff. Much of the Wings material probably was Beatles stuff, but repackaged under the less cool brand of McCartney, yet it barely saw the light of day and certainly seems to have been left behind, consigned to the annals of history.
One track that stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it, was ‘Dear Friend’, the closing track on the album ‘Wildlife’ which was recorded in 1971. I didn’t get to hear it until around 1978 when my brother brought the record home, but ‘Dear Friend’ had me on first hearing. I was only 13 yrs old and yet I was mesmerised by the simplistic beauty of this haunting song. I rarely listened to lyrics then, but ‘Dear Friend’ sounded really, really sad, beautifully sad.
“Dear friend, throw the wine,
I’m in love with a friend of mine.”
I was 13, I thought I knew what love was, but of course I didn’t. I did however know what unrequited love felt like, and this song was painting a picture for me, packaging it up and presenting back to me exactly what unrequited love felt like in musical form. It was perfect, and it made me want to cry in that nice way only beautiful songs can.
Years on, I now know this song was about Lennon, about Paul and John’s fractious relationship. It was Paul’s attempt at reconciliation and it remains as beautiful and poignant today as it did back then, over 35 years ago. Emotional lightweight? I think not.
I never was one of the cool kids, I shied away from rebellion, and I never ‘got’ John. Hey Jude is (in my opinion) one of the greatest songs ever written but Dear Friend isn’t far behind.
“Music was my first love,
and it will be my last,
music of the future,
and music of the past.
To live without my music,
would be impossible to do,
in this world of trouble,
my music pulls me through”
Those are the opening lines to John Miles epic song, simply titled “Music” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_d4QY7UusFw. I was about 12 when I fell in love with that song. I had it on a cassette tape which I played on a portable cassette recorder which looked a bit like the one on the right. I taped it off the radio, probably Radio 1, yes that’s right kids, we used to listen to Radio 1 too, when it was full of perverts as it turns out. Anyway, that cassette thing was a right ballache to handle. Finding the start of a song if it was in the middle of the tape was an art in itself, you then had to rewind if you wanted to hear it again, but rewind I did, over and over and over and over.
This was one of my earliest memories of my obsessive personality. I remember I had the cassette recorder on the floor by the settee. I watched, mesmerised as the left tape reel got fatter and the right tape reel got thinner as the song progressed. After a while I could rewind first attempt to within 2 seconds of the start of that song. I was that good at tape rewinding that if it had been an Olympic event I would have been in the 1978 Montreal Olympics representing the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire in the Junior, nay, maybe even Adult, Tape Rewinding competition, gold medal nailed on. Sadly it wasn’t a recognised event and still isn’t to this day and another of my talents lays undiscovered, tumbleweed blowing over it’s rocky, unkempt grave in the land of make believe and what might have been.
Anyway, I digress. This blog isn’t about my tape rewinding abilities, it’s about music. That song by John Miles was one of my first obsessions, and there were many more to follow, and indeed some before. But, and this is the important point, there are two kinds of music.
Aged just 9 – Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes hit the charts. I wanted to be in The Rubettes. I didn’t care much for the Bay City Rollers, you could shove them up your arse as far as I was concerned, and in fact many people did, allegedly, but for me it was The Rubettes and I wanted to be the lead singer, Alan Williams – check out this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3X7PvU6qYEA, he’s the guy in front, and the photo on the left is me (Flamboro Caravan Park circa 1973/74), I was already cultivating the hair, not a bad likeness, you would have to agree.
Wanting to be in The Rubettes was me wanting an image. Yes I liked their music but I liked the look, I was a genuine fan of the band. When I hear Sugar Baby Love now, I don’t just hear a 3 minute bubble gum pop song, I’m back in my bedroom in Roehampton Rise. I vividly remember dancing to that song. I remember where I was standing, I remember where my bed was at the time, bed was on the right, I was facing the door which was slightly ajar, window was to my left, wardrobe behind me. I don’t recall the song, I recall the experience.
But there’s a world of difference in Sugar Baby Love by The Rubettes and Music by John Miles. I would argue we all have a Rubettes in us. Everyone of you will remember a similar feeling whether it be The Osmonds, Bay City Rollers, Bowie or Justin Bieber, we all have our childhood infatuations. It’s the whole package we fall for – the sound, the look, the image, the impression, peer pressure, music in this context is almost incidental. I love Sugar Baby Love because it brings back great memories, not because it’s a great song. It is a 3 minute pop song.
Music, by John Miles on the other hand, was musically special to me. When John sings the first line of that rousing chorus “music was my first love” the hair on the back of my neck stands on end, and when the strings kick in, I want to cry, it’s so beautiful. I never knew what John Miles looked like, I never saw him on Top of the Pops, I never saw him on TV, nor ever read about him in magazines, talked about him to friends even. This wasn’t an image thing like The Rubettes were, this was really serious. I found the song one night listening to Radio Luxemburg. The Rubettes was all about image, this was about something else. Listening to a good song hurts in the same way as love hurts.
Fast forward 20 years and the Cranberries released Linger. 1993, I was driving a silver coloured Vauxhall Astra on the V3 in Milton Keynes, heading south, it was a sunny day, it had just been raining and the roads were still shiny, Linger came on the radio. I had to pull over and stop the car. I was on my way to work but I took a detour into town and bought the CD single. That night I stayed up the whole night and must have played Linger over a 100 times. It hurt I loved it so much. Everytime I played it I wanted to cry. I felt like I had lead in my stomach. I felt sad but I couldn’t stop playing it. It was so beautiful, but it hurt, like unrequited love.
A couple of years later, Tracy Thorn from Everything But The Girl, collaborated with Massive Attack on Protection. Unfckingbelievable. http://youtu.be/Epgo8ixX6Wo. Nearly 8 minutes long (original version) and still woefully short. I can get lost in that song in the same way I imagine a Buddhist gets lost in meditation. It takes me places I couldn’t ever go otherwise. “I stand in front of you, take the force of the blow, Protection”. I think I know what Tracy was trying to say, but I also have a hundred other ideas what it could mean, to me. I like to listen to this song alone because I like to dance to it. I don’t dance well. It’s ugly, but it feels just right. I do a kind of wobble from foot to foot and occasionally flail my arms. I become part of the music, part of the experience. Six minutes into that song, the lyrics stop and we just hear this rhythmic, transcendental, melodic passage that repeats to fade – guitar, bass, piano. And everytime the bass pulses, I pulse too.
Lloyd Cole wrote ‘A Long Way Down’ in 1990. It’s still one of my favourite songs of all time and I often play it to unsuspecting friends, often late into the night after a lot of drink has been consumed. I pick my victims carefully, I assess if they are ready yet for The Lloyd Experience and like Savile in a dressing room I go for it. Incidentally, if my wife is still awake this is the point she leaves, sharpish. I play the song with remote control in hand and pause at key points. “Listen to those lyrics!” I scream. “Walking with the devil’s fine, just don’t call, looking for sympathy” see what Lloyd did there? Rolling Stones Sympathy for the Devil, geddit????” “It’s about drugs don’t you see?” And on and on I go. Ironically, the line “And when it’s 4am and baby you can’t sleep, ‘cos your bloods still pumping at cocaine speed” is lost on me, substitute the word ‘cocaine’ for ‘booze’ and I’m rumbled. Quite often my friends just look at me pityingly and tell me it’s OK, everything is fine but they’re tired and really need to go to bed.
What I have learned is that these songs – Music, Protection, Long Way Down – they aren’t meant to be shared. Music isn’t like that. Whatever it is in Protection that makes me want to dance, whatever it is in Linger that makes me want to cry, whatever it is in Long Way Down that makes me want to write a novel, I don’t think I will ever be able to extract that ‘thing’, bottle it, point at it and label it. Nor will I ever be able to share it.
We are all unique and music fits us uniquely in the same way that books do. Catcher In The Rye rocked my world when I was 23. Perfume by Patrick Susskind was the most original book I had ever read. World According to Garp made me cry. Stan Barstow’s trilogy made me want to return home to Yorkshire. And for years I became frustrated if people didn’t also ‘get’ my books.
I now know it doesn’t work this way, and we should all be thankful for that, as the world would be a much duller place if we could all take a prescribed pill and be happy. Life, and it’s rich tapestry of experiences and emotions, present themselves when they’re ready. You almost always have to work at them, we certainly can’t ever force them. And that’s why I must stop trying to persuade people to listen to my music and read my books. It’s arrogant, self centred and pointless and can only ever end in tears, usually mine.
We have to find these things out for ourselves.
But before I go, just have a listen to this little beauty. Just listen to them lyrics. Call me, we must go for a drink sometime. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6VEZtlCJsA