My Musical Past… Revisited

I went to see Stuart Maconie this week, talking about his recent radio show where he charts the history of Britain, as viewed through the 50 or so records that were hits at the time.

They’re not the best 50 records he’s ever heard, but he resisted the request to do a history of pop music itself, as he quite sensibly said, it’s already been done to death. Instead he played songs such as ‘Y Viva Espania’ by Sylvia, not because it was a great record, but because it was a hit at the time when us Brits abandoned Blackpool for Benidorm, and the package holiday was king. Or he would play ‘Part of the Union’ by the Strawbs, to represent a time when industrial unrest was at its height in the UK.

In light of this, I thought I’d do a little bit of nostalgic reminiscing of my own. I’ve picked 8 tunes which, while they may not feature in my Desert Island Discs, nevertheless sum up and time and a very specific place for me.

Aphex Twin: Polynomial C (1992)

This for me transports me to Record Collector in the early nineties. I was browsing in there and I heard this track. I didn’t know what it was, didn’t know if I really liked it, but knew it was something I should listen to. I did the ‘what’s this?’ thing with Barry, and bought the CD. From the moment I played the ‘Classics’ CD that it came from I knew I’d found something that I would spend a lot of time listening to, and something that would shape my future listening habits. Richard James is the man behind the Aphex Twin, and the Guardian called him ‘the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music’. Hard to disagree with that, and just about anyone involved in this field quotes him as a major influence. It took a few plays of the CD to attune my ears I must admit. At the time I was a big Prince fan, and tearing myself away from his tortured vocals and blistering guitar solos wasn’t an easy task. Electronic/dance music has moved on, but this was where it began.

Monkees: A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You (1967)

When I was eight years old, I knew about the Beatles because my uncle liked them, and I’d seen the Rolling Stones on Crackerjack, but they paled into insignificance in the presence of the Monkees. This was the first single I ever bought, from Valances in Leeds, and I wore it out, together with its double A-side track, The Girl That I Knew Somewhere. The appeal of the Monkees was that they were available in my living room on a weekly basis via the TV. They had ‘wacky’ adventures, lived together in their beach house, and played catchy music twice every in show. Without realising it, the Monkees TV show invented to pop video. It’s fascinating now to discover what was going on behind the scenes of the show, and how they actors somehow managed to wrestle control of the music out of the hands of the producers. Their new-found musical independence was their commercial downfall though, and within a couple of years it was all over. The end of the TV show meant no mass exposure, and self-made albums became self-indulgent and sold fewer and fewer copies. Still, this piece of pop excellence was from the period just before they sacked the session musicians and did it themselves. Whatever they felt about it, for me their version of this Neil Diamond song represents a high point of uncomplicated 60s pop.

Liz Phair: Take a Look (2003)

Virgin Records on Fargate is the place for this one, in 2003. I was always a hopeless victim of the listening post. Give me half an hour and a selection of new CDs to listen to and I usually ended up buying something. So it was with Liz Phair’s eponymous fourth album. This was from a somewhat odd album in her cannon it turned out. The record company didn’t like it, and sent her back to work with the production team known as The Matrix, who had been responsible for Avril Lavigne, Brittney and Hilary Duff. Suitably polished and sanitized, the album now contained a sprinkling of hits, but she was roundly condemned for selling out and abandoning her ground-breaking earlier style of music. You can’t win can you? Wallowing in critical acclaim but no commercial success is no way to make a living in music, and why shouldn’t she have a few hits? Nevertheless, her output since has been less than well received, which is a real shame. As for the Virgin Megastore, it became Zavvi in 2007 after a management buy-out, but there was no saving the sinking ship that was high street CD shops. Within 18 months it was in receivership. Which on a personal note I found very annoying as I had some store vouchers that they refused to honour. Bastards.

David Mead: Girl on the Roof (2003)

The Saturday Jonathan Ross show introduced me to many an artist, via the producer Andy Davis, and David Mead remains the best of them. This song and the album it came from played endlessly in my house. Almost everyone I played it to also bought a copy, such was the quality of David’s song writing and performing. David Mead was one of several artists given exposure through this show, and represents parable of how making a living from music became very difficult over the last decade. He started out as an artist with a record deal, with tours sponsored by his label,but 10 years later was only able to make an album through the sponsorship of PledgeMusic. This direct to fan music platform involves musicians reaching out to their fanbase who in turn put up the money for the next album, and is the only way some artists can get their music recorded these days. Even established artist such as Rufus Wainwright, who you might think had some are using this site to raise money for forthcoming projects.

The free spirited nature of the show has never been matched for me. Its replacement on a Saturday morning is as unlistenable as it is bland and patronising. Whatever you think of Jonathan Ross, his sacking by the BBC was a disgrace. He’d done nothing they hadn’t encouraged him to do. It was a pre-recorded show for goodness sake, and not one of the audience who heard it live on the Saturday evening when it went out (myself included) complained. No-one. The complaints came after the Mail on Sunday had, over a week later run an article on it. ‘Disgusted’ listeners, who’d never heard it in the first place, were given a chance to make their minds up to be outraged via the Mail website. Totally fabricated and a shameful capitulation by the BBC, who have never really recovered their ability to produce edgy, innovative radio shows.

Unthanks: Taking on Men (2012)

This is a track that takes me to the Crucible, on a Sunday night in 2013, during DocFest; our very own, world-renowned film festival. For the first time last year I had a ticket for the whole festival, and began to realise what an incredible event this has become since it began in 1994. I discovered folk-group, The Unthanks when I was asked to review their CD for Exposed. The album was the soundtrack to a documentary about ship-building, and The Unthanks were at DocFest to play along with the film. The album is an evocative, atmospheric set of tracks, which still works without the accompanying film images. Events such as DocFest are a real boost to the city and its image in the wider world. I was astonished that by striking up a conversation in a bar, I found myself talking to film industry professionals from Belgium, London and South Africa. Long may this event continue.

Sparks: This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us (1974)

This was my Top of the Pops moment. Watching TOTP was a weekly ritual for us kids of the seventies that today’s youth cannot appreciate. It was all we had. A single appearance on TOTP meant your records would sell in the thousands, even millions. The entire music buying audience coming together for half an hour every week was accepted as just the way things were. We now have so much choice of how and when to access music that there is no longer any collective spirit to liking a band. I can clearly remember resisting the music of David Bowie because a lad I didn’t like was into him. If I’d admitted liking Bowie, I’d have had to join his ‘gang’, and that was not going to happen. I was in my early teens when this came on, and I remember that this was the one everyone talked about next day at school. The fact that Ron and Russell were brothers seemed to make it even odder. Ron with his exaggerated, poker-faced keyboard-playing and toothbrush (ie Hitler) moustache, and Russ dancing in his crazy neck scarf. They never really matched the commercial appeal of this brief moment in their career, but they weren’t too bothered. They have made another couple of dozen albums since this, all interesting, if not necessarily all that good.

The Cars: It’s All I Can Do (1979)

I loved The Cars, and in particular the guitar playing of Elliot Easton. It’s probably the track I played more than any other in 1979 as I tried to learn how to play the guitar solo without ever really managing it. I had another go today and still have to miss out every other note to get through it. In those days I had to pick up the needle and drop it back on the LP; no chance of scrolling back on the media player. It was an art form in itself to find music on the grooves of a record. Listening to this I’m back in my student house on Clarkehouse Road, staying in on a Saturday night as I’d got no money. This was a US hit single, but I don’t think it was ever more than an album track in the UK. Over the years I’ve tried, and generally failed, to learn lots of guitar solos by playing along with the records, but this is one that I still love to have a go at. In the end, even if you master it, you realise that you’ll never be as good as them, because they thought it up from scratch, but it doesn’t stop me trying!

Hall and Oates: She’s Gone (1976)

This was a pivotal track for me. Daryl Hall and John Oates were in their seventies ‘Blue-Eyed Soul’ period. Let’s pretend that the dross they released in the eighties never happened. This track sums up the joys of the Old Grey Whistle Test. It was the only show on TV where you could hear non-chart music. Several unknown artist were given exposure on BBC2 that they couldn’t get anywhere else. In a fortuitous coming together of events I saw them on the show, saw that they were about to play Leeds Town Hall, and within a few weeks I was in the audience watching them play. Hardly well attended at all, but they’d had no hits at that time and were virtually unknown. They had to work at the long slow process of building a fan base, selling singles and albums and slogging away for years. I lost patience with them as the eighties progressed, but this era produced some faultless music, that sounds fresh and dynamic even today, unlike their later efforts, which have not aged well at all. The Whistle Test lived on into the eighties, and is still head and shoulders above any TV music show for introducing new talent.

So there you have it. Let me know if any of your musical memories are sparked off by any of these, or if you have a particular ‘time and place’ track.

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