Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Watty blinks, and looks around:

Oh. OK, so I have to put stuff in here again, now? Hm. I've been pondering this - I don't honestly think that you've missed much over the past few weeks, but if I think of anything, I'll let you know.

So, I turned 40, I survived. I feel the same (but did I expect to feel differently?), and life goes on. Several people have been very kind about my Top 40, which makes it all a bit more worthwhile than it already was. Yes, of course I thought of some more - but then, that's kind of the point.... Part of the festivities involved a new digital camera for yours truly - coming soon: illustrated blog entries. Well, maybe. And another part of the festivities included a gliding lesson. I shall definitely be doing that again... Details to follow, assuming I get my act together.

Friday, October 18, 2002


Mahler: Symphony no.2 'Resurrection'. I have, I feel, shown great forbearance through all of this. I have wanted to write this one since I started, but I knew it ought to be left until last. It is two of my most powerful musical memories - in fact, it's probably my two most powerful memories of all. Now, I know it's possible to get overly pretentious about music such as this ( see here for details), so I'll try to remain calm but convincing. And let's get the other bit out of the way, too - I love much of the rest of Mahler's work, too - but this isn't about the power and majesty of the 8th, or the strange resonances of the 7th, or - but I said I wouldn't do this...

One of the conditions for Zoë accompanying me to those early Proms was that there had to be one with singing in it. Lots of big, choral singing. So I searched the Proms list for something - no 'Carmina Burana' that year - and settled on a Mahler symphony, because if there's one thing we all know about Mahler, it's the singing. And it was Abbado and the Berlin Phil, so it would be impressively played, too. Now, at this point in my life I knew only the bit of Mahler that everyone knows - the 'Death in Venice' bit from the 5th. (and, I discovered later, the Castrol GTX music, but I didn't know that at the time). So I did worry a little that a 90 minute symphony by someone with a reputation for being loud and intense might be a bit much for either of us. But there was going to be singing. We were sitting in the gallery, which can be a little disconcerting; you feel a long way up, and falling out on to the heads of the promenaders seems a real possibility. The hall was packed, and there was a definite edge to the atmosphere wahich I hadn't noticed at previous Proms. The hush before it began seemed somehow deeper, and there was an audible intake of breath as the baton was raised. The instant I heard the opening phrases - the big first chord, the menacing pulses of the low strings, barely audible, building to that first colossal explosion of melody - I knew this was going to be alright - more than alright. I sat there, barely moving for the first four movements, drinking in this music; it seemed inconcievable that I could have lived this long without it. My only concern was that there seemed to be very little singing as yet, and I wondered how Zoë was coping. I daren't look round, because if she was bored, or worse, asleep, it would have destroyed the magic. And then, as the fifth movement surged and flowed on, it happened. If you don't know this work, as I didn't at the time, you can have no concept of the impression the entrance of the choir makes. Everything gradually dies away; the last post is sounded, offstage, and the tumult of the orchestra is finally silenced. Then, seemingly from everywhere and nowhere at once, this faint breath can be heard. Only after several moments does it become apparent that this is the whole, massed, choir - the control is magnificent, rising slowly but steadily in volume, until the hall is filled with 'Aufersteh'n!' Then the whole orchestra and the soloists join in, and it is as if the whole world is singing to you. The ovation at the end was ecstatic, although I was still too caught up in this sound world to even take it in properly. We left the hall, and had walked most of the way back to the car before I felt able to speak. I tentatively asked Zoë what she thought, fearing that I might have subjected her to an hour and a half of torture:

"Wasn't that magnificent?"

I know that few people will have the opportunity to be introduced to this aweinspiring music in that fashion, but I really do recommend it. Of course, I had to own a copy, and of course, I had to listen to it as often as possible until I felt I knew it - I can hum, or whistle, great chunks of it now, much to people's bemusement. And I knew I had to see it performed again. The opportunity presented itself in 1999 - Sir Simon Rattle, and the Vienna Phil - this is going to be even better, I thought, as I planned to spend the whole day queueing if necessary. That summer proved to be a traumatic one, as Zoë's mum died suddenly whilst visiting us, and I don't think I had even begun to recover from the shock by the time I took my day off work to sit on the pavement in Kensington Gore. I did have high expectations of the evening, but I wasn't really prepared for the emotional power of it all. The whole symphony is predicated upon the idea of resurrection; of life going on, even renewing in the face of tragedy, and that evening, the whole performance seemed to be directed only at me. There were several moments where the hairs on the back of my neck really did stand up, and several more when I felt close to tears. Which, of course were finally produced by that choral entrance; joyful, defiant and overpowering.

I have never experienced anything like it, and I don't suppose I ever will again. There really was only ever going to be one final entry in this list.

Thursday, October 17, 2002


Penguin Café Orchestra. So, as I get closer to the end, I notice that there are common threads and themes coming together with these; I thought they were random, but maybe they're not, really. And here we start with libraries again - Inverness library this time. It didn't exactly have the widest selection of music, and I used to look through it, wondering if I would like some of the stuff I didn't know. After a while, it occurred to me that it wouldn't cost me anything to find out about some of this odd-sounding stuff, and I chose the one with the surrealist painting of penguins on the cover. And I'll be honest, I didn't really listen to it properly at first - I think I thought it was tedious and repetitive - but I didn't mind having it on in the background, and I made a tape of it for playing in the car, so I must have liked it a bit. Then, after we moved to Perth in 1988, we finally invested in a new-fangled CD player. One of the problems of the new technology was the lack of anything to listen to on it - for a long time we owned one Peter Gabriel CD, which was a bit limiting, really. I can't be prevented from buying music, though, and I scoured the record shops (Oh, OK; record shop) of Perth for bargains. So, one day there was this PCO CD at bargain price, and I snapped it up before I remembered that I didn't really know if I liked them or not. But I had made a wise choice; this was very accessible, and beautifully recorded, and I loved it. I loved it so much that I got out the old tapes and listened properly to them, too. And I discovered that I loved tham too. It wasn't tedious and repetitive, it was glorious and had much hidden depth - music from all over the world mixed together by someone who knew what he was doing, and played by people who were having a ball doing it.

So, in 1990, working mostly in Glasgow, I decided that we should try to go to a few Mayfest events (in researching this, I discover, to my horror, that Mayfest no longer exists. What is the world coming to?) - and joy of joys, here was a rare live PCO performance in the City Hall. I hoped it would be a bit of fun; I wasn't prepared for such a joyous evening. Live, this music took on a life of its own, entrancing all who heard it, even those who plainly had been dragged along by an enthusiastic partner. There was a university music class sat in the row behind me, complete with tutor, who were all raving about it at the interval, and never before had I been in an audience which quite so neatly encompassed all ages and types. What even the live recordings on 'When in Rome' hadn't captured was Simon Jeffes' effortless dry English humour - between numbers, he would deliver some laconic aside or other, which would invariably have the Glaswegian audience falling out of their seats. My clearest memory is of his opening remark; he swung the stand mike round to address us, and smacked himself squarely on the forehead with it:


I saw them once more in concert, at the Festival Hall in the mid - nineties; by then, I owned most of their recorded output, and would foist them on anyone passing - few people got it (but advertising agencies certainly did; PCO music is everywhere...) at first, but I like to think I planted a few seeds along the way. And then, one day in late 1997, I had one of those 'blood draining from the face' moments. I opened my newspaper to see an obituary for Simon Jeffes staring back at me. I had to sit down, and I don't remember before or since being so upset by the death of someone I didn't know. I hadn't even been aware he was ill, and he had so much music left to make, I know it. I was even sufficiently moved to write a tribute to him, and send it to his company. I have no idea if they ever got it, but it felt like something I had to do. Since then, I have filled most of the gaps in my collection, bought videotapes and visited websites; I have this idea that there really should be a proper musical tribute, with perhaps a concert version of the orchestrated pieces used in 'Still Life at the Penguin Café'; there's no point in hoping to hear them play again, since Jeffes was the PCO, but I have my memories, and they are as strong as any other two of the 40 here. Except, perhaps, for the last one...

Wednesday, October 16, 2002


Tubeway Army. There are several of these memories which relate to what I have, half-jokingly, referred to as 'rites of passage' - this is the only one which actally felt like one at the time. I have written about this incident elsewhere, but there's a little more flesh to go on the bones here.

The period after the Higher exams in my 5th year was a very strange one indeed; there were next to no classes to go to, and the majority of my time was taken up with putting on a play. Well, two plays. That story has already been told, but the striking things I remember about it were slightly downplayed. It was a time of great upheaval in musical tastes - we all changed opinions as often as we changed our socks, and there seemed to be so much stuff around that it was hard to keep track. Then I heard this synthesiser-driven thing on the radio: 'Are 'Friends' Electric?' It appealed to me instantly, and I had the feeling that this was the next thing for us all to move on to. And I was completely wrong. Everyone I knew hated it, it seemed. But I was unafraid - for the first time consciously in my life, I stood up for what I liked, and didn't go with the flow. Now it's not much to be proud of, really, but it felt like I was becoming my own person; and, what's more, I recognised it at the time. On the day it was released, I did what I had only dreamed about until then - I skipped out of school at lunchtime, got on a bus and went into town. I bought my treasured single, and hurried back to school. I seem to remember making it with only a few minutes to spare; but that may be over-egging the pudding somewhat; no-one was really paying attention at the time. In any event, on it went to the record player in the Drama Theatre - the 'Buzzcocks' one - and I felt for the first time in my life like a proper grown-up. I'd like to tell you there was a certain satisfaction in having everyone come round to my way of thinking, but in truth part of me actually wanted this record to be my little secret passion. Of course, it turned out to be the biggest-selling record of the year; but that just proves how ahead of the game I was...

Tuesday, October 15, 2002


Aaron Copland. Well, everyone knows 'Fanfare for the Common Man', and the Hoedown from 'Rodeo', and so on - and I came at him via ELP, as already mentioned. But in addition to all that, I have a specifc memory of Copland music, and of the Albert Hall and the Proms, so this might be a good place to wax a little lyrical on the whole Henry Wood thing...

Like many people, I suspect, for years I equated the BBC Proms with the Last Night; all that flag waving and rabble-rousing. I don't know when it finally got through to me that there was a lot more to it than that; but I know that for a long time I harboured a desire to go and Prom. And I can't explain why it took so long for me to get round to it - even after we moved to the southeast, I somehow never quite managed it. But eventually - in about 1996, I got my act together sufficiently to buy some tickets, and go and sit down at some. And that in itself is a wonderful experience; the hall, while not the most acoustically perfect venue, is incredibly atmospheric, and the presence of the promenaders seems to both change the normal audience dynamic greatly for the better, and to inspire the performers. But sitting in the stalls, I wasn't getting even half the picture. The next year, I thought I'd go and queue up - do it properly, and see what all the fuss is about. And it's everything they say it is, and more. I can't really adequately explain the joy of the Promenading experience; the cameraderie of the queue, the anticipation of the trek down all those stairs; the emergence into that vast arena from below; the mad desire to leap up on the stage and declaim something; the shuffling for position; the ritual audience declarations; the sheer sense of fun. And then on top of all that, you get world-class music for pennies - the grumbling at this year's price hike to £4 was mostly good-humoured; we're seeing some of the best performances in the world for £4...

And every time I've Prommed, I've discovered something new and wonderful. Sometimes it might be a performance which makes me hear a favourite piece of music in a new way; it might be a piece I'd previously thought impenetrable; it might be a soloist about to become a superstar. And sometimes it's a combinaton of things which shifts the whole experience onto a higher plane. Prom 33 in the 2000 season is the best example. A late night Prom - in itself, a wonderful experience, like a sort of musical midnight feast - featuring the music of Aaron Copland; but not a single piece I was already familiar with. The London Sinfonietta, under Oliver Knussen; a wonderful atmosphere, and the centrepiece was the Clarinet Concerto, played by the award-winning youg clarinettist Michael Collins. I enjoyed the other pieces that evening, but I was transported by the concerto. In that one evening, it went from being something I had never heard before to one of my favourite pieces of all time. I naturally went and bought a copy of it - the Benny Goodman performance, with Copland conducting - but whenever I hear it, I am transported to the Albert Hall on a warm summers evening, and I once again hear my musical horizons being flung open.

Monday, October 14, 2002


Blow Monkeys. Never underestimate the power of music. For instance, the very name 'Blow Monkeys' is able to make me feel slightly queasy, and the song 'Doesn't Have to be This Way' can actually induce a full-blown hangover. Not because I object to the music particularly; in fact, it's quite a lot of fun in a mid-eighties, politically-influenced Scottish pop music kind of way, but because it reminds me of Falkirk.

One of the side-effects of thrashing round the byways of northern Scotland flogging books was that I worked for a company which made an effort at having proper Christmas parties; everyone was encouraged to bring partners to some high-class venue like the Park Hotel in Falkirk, and party the night away. Now, I am not by anyone's standards a party-the-night-away kind of guy, but in the right circumstances, and the right company, I may dip my toe in the water... So, we had this Christmas party, and most of us 'field based' people were staying overnight, so there was very little thought given to being careful or not enjoying ourselves too much. Indeed, I'm pretty sure that there was a level of debauchery beyond the normal end-of-year blowout. There was some interpretive dance - probably unintentional; there was goings-on in the lifts; there was about 15 people in our room at one point; I have a feeling that we actually drank the bar dry. And there was a song. The song which everyone had to join in with. The song which got replayed a dozen times, just in case anyone had missed it. The song which had the good fortune to have a loud 'Hey!' in the chorus. You're ahead of me here, I can tell.

When they wouldn't play it any more, a gigantic conga formed in the reception area, and we (oh, yes, me too...) staggered around for what felt like hours, yelling: "Hey! What did I hear you say?". We must have gone to bed at some point, because I remember waking up with an appalling hangover. No problem normally - just take it nice and easy the next day. Except we had to drive back to Inverness. It took all day; it was certainly the slowest I ever did that journey, and contained a ridiculous number of stops along the way. And every now and then, this song kept popping into my head, and with every 'Hey!', I had to pull over again...

Sunday, October 13, 2002


They Might Be Giants. I have hinted along the way about the various jobs I did which I wasn't very good at. Mostly they involved driving around Scotland trying to persuade people who I'd rather not have had amy dealings with to buy first books, and latterly chocolates from me. I am not a natural salesman - indeed, I remain staggered to this day that I achieved any kind of success in either job - in both environments, I managed to get myself promoted to do something I hated less, and ultimately in my current incarnation, to a job I actually quite enjoy (and, I flatter myself, am actually quite good at). And along the way there was an awful lot of driving. I thrashed a successon of Astra estates up and down the A roads of northern Scotland; I spent more time than was good for me driving the notorious A9 at night (at one time, my kindly employer decided that team meetings were to be held in the evenings - yes we had team meetings; yes they're as bad as they sound - my team met in Perth, I lived outside Inverness. I used to get home around 2am, and get up for work at 6 the next morning.) I graduated to a lovely Ford Orion Ghia, which I flung around corners too fast for a year or so, then I was out of work for a while (the company collapsed. I don't think it was my fault.), and when I took up selling (technically, I was a 'Marketing Promoter', but it was selling) chocolates, I had a 'burgundy' ( = brown) Escort estate. With a radio cassette player - hey, 1989, folks - no CDs yet...

So I lived in Perth now, but the team meetings had moved to Rickmansworth. By the time I move south, of course, I'm expected to go to meetings in Edinburgh, but we'll let that pass. My journey plan was constructed by someone who had never been further north than Watford, so included all sorts of eccentricities; including one day a fortnight driving all the way to Stranraer in the morning, doing about £15 worth of business, driving to Dumfries in the afternoon, doing around £25 worth of business, then going home. A round trip of some 300 or so miles for virtually no purpose at all, except to subject me to hours of inane pop radio. Eventually I crack, and start buying cassette tapes to keep me sane. And I accidentally bought a TMBG tape - I might have intended to buy something else, but the selection in Stranraer was extremely limited, if you didn't like Daniel O'Donnell. Fortunately, these two guys operate on exactly the same insane level as the more subconscious parts of my brain, and they have a bucketload of great tunes. Profoundly silly at first hearing, these songs start to stick little barbs in your brain, until you are quite capable of saying things like 'If I were a carpenter I'd /
Hammer on my piglet, I'd /
Collect the seven dollars and I'd /
Buy a big prosthetic forehead /
And wear it on my real head'
and finding some meaning in them. The two TMBG tapes I own are forever associated with that long, dreary in places, drive to the edge of Scotland every second Tuesday - surprisingly, I am still fond of the songs. Which just goes to prove that the devil certainly doesn't have all the best tunes...


Elvis Costello. Way back then, when I started this exercise, I thought more of these would turn out to be like the Joni Mitchell one; lists of passing memories. Well, this one will be, because when it came down to it, I couldn't single out one particular moment. So here, in rough chronological order, are the Costello moments:
  • Get Happy! - sitting on the stairs at 31 King St, marvelling at the number of tracks on one side of vinyl.

  • Bouncing around my parents' living room, trying to figure out the words to 'Oliver's Army'

  • Pills and Soap - heard it first in my parents' car, wondering if they were hearing this vitriol...

  • Driving my van along Auchmill Road, being overpowered by 'Tokyo Storm Warning'

  • Hearing 'Good Year for the Roses' in Inverness - what on earth is this?

  • 'Spike' - another Perth Library record - I listened to this on the way to every interview that summer when I was out of work.

  • 'Mighty Like a Rose' - trekking the back roads home to Tring, yelling along to 'The Other Side of Summer'

  • 'Jacksons, Monk and Rowe' - do you know, I think this string quartet thing might work...

  • Buying 'The Juliet Letters', and playing it obsessively for a month - this string quartet thing definitely does work, and remains my favourite Costello album. Finding out that I'm not the only person who feels this way. Quoting bits of lyric from it at odd times; being stared at.

In fact, although I am selective about which bits I listen to, Elvis Costello is as much the soundtrack to my life as Joni Mitchell is - the fact that I seem to like the bits that most people pass by just makes him all the more of a personal favourite - sometimes I think that he writes stuff purely for my enjoyment. I can't imagine a time when I didn't know the words to 'New Amsterdam' or was able to stop myself singing 'my aim is true' whenever I meet someone called Alison (I don't ususally sing it out loud, thankfully) - it's sobering how someone you're never likely to meet can take over parts of your life in such subtle ways. But I'm glad it's him, and I've never been disappointed by him.

Friday, October 11, 2002


Fun Boy Three. I hadn't thought about this for years, I suppose, until I started to trawl my memories for this project. I guess this is not an uncommon tale - a lot of people must go through this particular rite of passage; I wonder if everyone has quite such a conscience-pricking song to go with it.

One of the apparent benefits of doing a four year honours course was that we got invited to go on Linguistic Weekends - well, to be strictly accurate, a Linguistics weekend, held at the Shap Wells Hotel in early 1983. The idea was to spend the weekend hiking in the lake district, discussing linguistics, and generally socialising with like-minded students from several other universities. As may be imagined, rather more hiking and beerdrinking went on than anything else (although I do remember a heated discussion about whether the '-man' in 'chairman' was semantically redundant) and a splendid time was had by all. Except that I had something else on my mind at the same time. Those who know me will know that Zoë and I have been together for what must seem like forever to those looking in; even in 1983 we were a pretty longstanding couple. Just before we left for this weekend, we shared a slightly alarmed phone call to discuss the faint outside chance that she might be pregnant. Now, I can look back and laugh now (actually, I'm not sure I can...) but it was a massively scary thing then. I was suddenly faced with the possibility (remote thought I was assured it was) of having to become a fully-fledged grownup. And shortly after that, a parent. I did the right thing, and refused to panic. Much. Needless to say, there was a lot of thinking going on that weekend, and eventually, once we hit the bar, slightly more drinking than was actually required just to be sociable. The next morning we were to set off bright and early to climb something or other, and I was surprised to be mostly hangover-free, although there was a certain fuzziness, and something lurking which I wasn't quite able to think about. Still, cold crisp air and a long walk should sort that out...

We piled into various cars, and set off. The radio was turned on, and out of it came 'Tunnel of Love'. I caught the words, which I probably hadn't listened to properly before now:
"a room with a view and a kid on the way/

Hope you make it to the church on time"

I remembered what I wasn't thinking about...

The PS is that, of course it was a false alarm, and yes, I did grow up quite a bit that weekend

Thursday, October 10, 2002


Kirsty MacColl. Even now, it's still hard to believe she's gone. Probably because she would spend long stretches of time out of the public eye anyway, I still expect to hear something about her from time to time. The first time I encountered Kirsty was in Belgium, oddly. Tracy Ullman's version of 'They Don't Know' was ubiquitous, even in Begium, in 1983, and we kept hearing it during our holiday. I had a feeling that it wasn't an original song, but was surprised to find that it was also recent, and written by the woman who wrote 'There's a Guy works down the Chipshop swears he's Elvis' I decided to enquire further - the daughter of Ewan MacColl surely had some interesting things to say. Then there was a cover of a Billy Bragg song ('A New England'), which really sparked my interest, since one of the few decorative features in our spartan flat had been a huge Billy Bragg poster.

Every now and then there would be a new song, or a sighting - she was the musical interlude on the early French and Saunders shows, and she more than held her own through 'Fairytale of New York'. But nothing prepared me for 'Kite' Her clever tales of whimsy and wordplay grew overnight into something much, much more substantial. Kite is simply magnificent from beginning to end, from the double whammy of 'Innocence' and 'Free World' through to the songs written with Johnny Marr; every one a gem. How it manged not to be a global colossus of an album is truly beyond me. And after that, she was always there - magical songs like 'My Affair' and 'Walking down Madison' mingled with intriguing covers and odd influences. She took long breaks and always seemed to be between recording contracts, so that new music was always sporadic at best. But I enjoyed what I had heard of 'Tropical Brainstorm', and had made a note several times that I really ought to buy it one day, when it happened.

My habit when I come home, if there is a TV on, is to call up teletext, and check the news headlines. One evening I did this to be greeted with the headline 'Singer dies in boating accident' Anyone I know? I wondered, and pulled the page up. Rarely have I had the physical sensation of the blood draining from my face and my knees going weak, but I did then. As I say, I still don't believe she's gone, and I still expect to hear some new music from her any day now. But what we've been left is a magnificent body of work in anyone's language, and one day I'll get myself down to Soho Square and sit there for a while, thinking of Innocence and the Free World...

Wednesday, October 09, 2002


Everything But The Girl. That first flat. It's not something I remember being particularly fixated on; I stayed in halls rather longer than most people because I was quite comfortable there, but I was going to have to move out at some point, and find somewhere I could call my own student flat. And that turned out to be 15 Raeburn Place, above L'Aquila Bianca chipshop. It was a perfectly good flat, but of course having three blokes living in it, one of whom never came out of his room, meant that it was never going to be the height of sophistcated living. Still, we had our moments, and I do have many happy memories of that final year - and some very hazy ones of those final weeks. But this was the height of my 'rediscovering music' phase, and all sorts of things appeared on my red plastic record player (oh, we were poor in those days; we had to make our own entertainment). Some things I heard on the radio, and investigated further; some things I had recommended to me; and some things I bought or borrowed on a whim. Some of it was worthwhile, some of it was rubbish, and some of it was the Human League.

And then there was the odd occasion when I saw a name in the music press. (I should pause here to mourn the decline of the weekly UK music press, but of course I sentimentalise it - not everything was better when I was 20, and there's no way that volume of newsprint expended on mostly ephemeral music was ever going to be sustainable.) At any rate, Everything But The Girl was one of those names which, once I saw it, I just had to know more about. There was no way it was going to be bad music with a name like that. Then I discovered that one half of the group shared - and still does share - my surname: this was a certainty. I'm sure I heard 'Each and Every One' before I rushed out and bought the album, but even had I hated it, I think I'd still have gone ahead. Fortunately, this was music which was easy to love, and I didn't resist. Cool, jazz-tinged, and quite strikingly unlike anything else around at the time, it was like a breath of fresh air after all the noise I had surrounded myself with for so long. It also stands up to the passage of time rather better than most of the music of 1984, and is guaranteed to make me misty-eyed at the memory of Edinburgh, and Raeburn Place. I'm delighted that Ben and Tracey carried on doing what they wanted to do for all this time, and somehow the global success of 'Missing' seemed just reward for all that pleasurable music which reached me at just the time when I was ready for it.

Tuesday, October 08, 2002


The Smiths. So, when I came out of my all-consuming heavy metal phase, there was this band. Everyone was ranting on about them and how they were going to change the world, but I couldn't see it. I remember making some sarcastic, cynical remark about "Oh, Manchester, so much to answer for" in 'Suffer Little Children' - but I was doing that 'not really understanding' thing again, and I should have learned by now. The music was everywhere in '84, and into '85, and some of it must have started to get through. At some point I borrowed a copy of the first album, and properly listened to it. I suddenly realised that here was someone of my generation able to write powerful, almost poetic lyrics in an English idiom - something which seemed, despite the punk outburst, to have died off around the time the Kinks stopped having hits. Add to that quite wonderful musicianship, and I was suddenly hooked, just like everyone else.

I don't pretend that these songs spoke particularly to me, or on behalf of me or my generation, but they resonante with me like almost no others. They bring back memories of that most uncertain period in my life, when I had left University and was watching everyone else get on with their lives while I wavered and failed to decide about anything, finally ending up in a job I wasn't particularly good at. I was prone then, and am prone now, to singing 'Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want' at times of stress (you have to hear it, it doesn't work written down), and several others, including 'That Joke Isn't Funny Any More' or 'How Soon is Now' at appropriate moments - their words spring fully into my mind when required, always the sign of a great lyric. And I picked up Douglas Coupland's 'Girlfriend in a Coma' because of the Smiths title, and found it stuffed with those same wondrous verbal tags - certainly the only novel I've ever re-read in order to find all the Smiths references. Sometimes I don't feel a particular child of my generation, but I listen to the Smiths and I realise I could be a child of no other.


Altered Images. I can't believe I have to admit to this. I'm not exactly embarrassed, but claiming to be young really isn't going to excuse all of it. Ah, well, those were altogether more innocent times. For each of the years I was at university, I had my summer van driving to keep me solvent; except (for some reason) for the summer of 1981. I have no idea why I was unemployed that summer, laziness was almost certainly part of the deal, though. I wasn't entirely idle, however - at least, I don't think I was... I do remember clearly redecorating the hallway and stairs in my parents' house. Now, I remember doing the whole thing myself, which is unlikely - it's more likely that I did a lot of the cleaning and painting and my father and I did the actual wallpapering. But no matter - what I remember is those few days of hard work, with my radio pemanently tuned to 'Wonderful Radio 1'. And I kept hearing, over and over, a nagging tune called 'Happy Birthday'. I hummed and whistled along, enjoying the jolliness and general amiability of the whole thing, and then I saw them - her - on Top of the Pops...

I finally understood what was meant by 'schoolboy crush'. The object of my crush was no older than I was, already clearly a major pop star (so that's another career choice closed off, then) and, well, just Clare. I'd like to tell you that I got over her very quickly, and chalked up schoolboy crushes to experience, but, well - have you seen Gregory's Girl? And I heard her on the radio only a few weeks ago, and there was still a spark there - unless that was indigestion...

Monday, October 07, 2002


Rush. So there had to be some fallout from all that noisy, hairy stuff that I immersed myself in when I first went to Edinburgh, and it turned out to be this lot. Something about them appealed to me straight away. Well, lets be honest, intelligent lyrics, clever musicianship, staggeringly good drumming and proper use of things like science fiction were always going to ring a few bells with me. I was intrigued by name checks for the likes of Ayn Rand - interestingly, using her name seemed to provoke critics into knee-jerk accusations of extreme right wing activities something which the merest effort of research would have debunked - and enthralled by a band which, having hit on a winning formula, would tend to do something entirely different next time around. There was a time when I owned all their records, even the frankly hatstand collaboroation with Max Webster. And eventually my enthusiasm faded to normal levels, and then to almost nothing. But I own some of their music on CD, and occasionally look in in their websites to see what's going on; and if some of their music no longer has the power to thrill like it did, some of it still speaks to me.

So when I remember Rush I remember Edinburgh, and up to a point vice versa; certain songs bring back very specific memories. The thing I remember most vividly, however, is my very first arena concert. Scotland had precisely no large scale indoor venues in the ealy eighties, so someone had the brilliant idea of using the Ingliston Showground Exhibition Hall. Without being unkind, it was a vast cowshed with a temporary stage at one end. The view was strictly limited, and the acoustics appalling. But it was still one of the best concerts I'd ever seen - partly due to the anticipation, and partly due to the genuine quality of these three guys. There's not much from that time that I remember with great affection, and hardly anything I'd actually spend money on now, but I make an exception for Rush.

Friday, October 04, 2002


Buzzcocks. There has to be a punk moment, and this is it. I could have picked almost anything from this time, but there's a story attached to this. We didn't really do punk properly in Aberdeen. We were a bit too far out of the loop. I mean, we had the expected furore when the Sex Pistols were banned from playing in Aberdeen, but I'm not even sure there was a serious suggestion that they were coming. There were Clash and Damned albums in the Year Area, and the odd safety pin - in lapels, mind, not in faces. We did enjoy the supposed anarchy and rebellion, but I think we were a bit half-hearted about it really. And we got it all several weeks after the fact, too - the latest new band were established chart artists by the time we actually got to hear any of the music - everything moved so fast in 1977 - ans I think that a little of the thrill was absorbed by that. And I can make no real claims to being a punk in any meaningful way; I liked the music I heard, but I didn't own any of it.

The only way I could hear it, other than the occasional radio play, was good old fashioned seven inch singles. In later years, there was a record player in the Year Area - I wonder whose it was? We queued up to put on our singles during lunchbreak particularly, and some of my fond memories are of almost entirely forgotten singles - Flying Lizards, Lemon Kittens, Spizz Energi, Regents (anyone remember "Seventeen"?) The other place where records might be played was in the dressing room of the Drama Theatre - there was a lot of free time between Highers and the end of term, and we were trying to put on a couple of plays to the accompaniment of various loud pieces of music, including, from somewhere, the Buzzcocks single 'What Do I Get?' Now, not particularly controversial (not compared to 'Orgasm Addict', anyway), it wasn't even particularly new - someone presumably had brought it in in a job lot of things to listen to. The other side, however, was charmingly, and challengingly entitled 'Oh Shit'. No-one dared put it on (hey, we weren't that rebellious) until one day, yours truly, bored or forgetful, or something, flipped it over and the room emptied. There was a first year drama class going on in the theatre, and apparently they could hear it all perfectly... I think it was my only act of teenage rebellion, and I can't even be certain that I meant it. Pass the pipe and slippers....


The Verve. 1997 is significant for one reason above all others - the arrival of son no.1. It's also the last year in which I took a close interest in what you might call contemporary popular music. I have no idea if the two events are linked; I suspect that there is a connection, but in truth I haven't really heard much since then which has managed to attract my attention, so perhaps it's indicative of a drop in quality, or I am simply getting a bit old for all this pop music lark. Either way, there seemed to be a glut of quality, grown up music that year - Radiohead, Oasis, Prodigy and so on, and I was still buying lots of it.
So why this lot, and not any of the others? 'Urban Hymns' is certainly not the best of the albums I bought that year, and I scarcely listen to it now, but it has a special place in my memory. Or, to be more accurate, one song does.

The weeks leading up to the birth of your first child are extraordinary; exciting and scary at the same time, they are also the last time for a long time that you will be able to simply be a couple. There are images from those weeks which are much stronger than other times before the boys were born, including the weekly visits to ante-natal class. Ante-natal is like a proper rite of passage. You trot along to the hospital where it will all happen and get shown all sorts of scary things, in the company of several complete strangers, whose only connection to you is their equally advanced state of pregnancy. There's some stuff with tennis balls, and lots of earnest discussion; a blatant plug for a particular brand of formula milk, and a tour of the delivery suite - among other things. We made a point of making sure we went every week; me getting home from work early, and driving down there in a series of practice runs. The first evening, we were parking the car when 'The Drugs Don't work' came on the radio. Not the kind of thing you need to hear right now, I commented. We laughed. The next week, the same thing happened: it came on at almost exactly the same point in the journey. Two weeks later, we heard it again, on the way down Deacon's Hill this time. It became, not through conscious choice, our ante-natal song. After Cameron was born, and I was making my way home, head spinning at the magnitude of the whole thing, I turned on the radio, and there it was again. I had to own it after that - and fortunately, it's a fine song. We also have the version of Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' which the BBC did as a trailer for something as a much more appropriate birth memory, but I'll never forget the Verve.

Wednesday, October 02, 2002


Queen. Ah, my first proper obsession. 1975 - I was 13: perfect timing. I don't remember the first time I heard it, but suddenly it was everywhere. It was the only topic of conversation in the classroom: "Have you heard it? Did they play it all the way through? How do you think they do that bit in the middle? Have you bought it yet?" It hardly needs saying that we've never heard anything like Bohemian Rhapsody. I sort of knew Queen before - I think my friend Neil may have had one of their early albums - but I wasn't prepared for this. It seemed that everyone owned a copy of the single, but I already knew that I was an album buyer, and I waited for the album.

And I think I wore it out. I really did get obsessive about it. We forget, now, the glorious feast for the senses that a proper vinyl album was - the static crackle of the inner sleeve; the smell of the freshly cut card, and the black stuff itself. And then the sounds - warm and very quickly crackly; I do miss it sometimes. And when I think about vinyl albums, 'A Night at the Opera' is right up there - I played it, and learned it, and doodled it on my schoolbooks, and generally bored my friends to tears with it, and I bought the next album, and the previous one, and...

Then it stopped. The obsession passed as suddenly as it had started. But I think everyone should have temporary passions; they make life much more interesting.

Tuesday, October 01, 2002


Shostakovich: Symphony no. 4. Just to prove the random nature of these, here's one so recent it barely counts as a memory at all. Regular readers will remember the review I wrote of this, and the prize won as a result. Well, the dust has settled on this now, and there was no hesitation at all - it went straight in to the list. Unlike many of these memories, which depend on a piece of recorded music to take me back to a place and time, this is a very specific memory of an individual performance which still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I knew next to nothing of Shostakovich 4 before I went to the Prom - as I said, I went to hear the Prokofiev Piano Concerto - and while I was sure that such a renowned orchestra and conductor - Kirov, under Valery Gergiev - weren't going to let me down, I did wonder whether such a long piece which I didn't know might not be hard work to concentrate on in such an environment. Of course I needn't have worried. It started powerful and riveting, and just got better and better; the time flew by, and the flow and control of the orchestra were stunning. The second movement really caught my attention, especially the sinister, rythmic ending, and I thought I was ready for whatever the third was going to throw at me. Of course, I didn't really know what the third movement involved, and I was nowhere near prepared for the sheer force and violence of the ending. Or rather, the first ending. For, as the cacophony ebbed away, the strings were gently throbbing - indeed, gently sobbing, and a solo celeste plaintively called out in the darkness, fading until all was silent. Gergiev stood. We all stood. Not a sound was made. Slowly, slowly, the baton was lowered. Still not a sound. Gergiev bowed his head but the audience was still spellbound. The silence - which I had estimated at 20 seconds or so was, in fact, 31 seconds. I don't expect ever to have such an intense experience in a concert hall again - although I can always hope.

I bought the symphony on CD as soon as I could, and I do already love the music, but nothing can come close to the magic of that performance.


Saxon. Oh, I wish it wasn't them, really. Although, having said that it could have been a lot worse. They were - still are, it seems - a decent, hard working bunch of lads from Yorkshire who liked their music loud. Bloody loud. And early 1980, this was the next new thing - the (ahem) New Wave of British Heavy Metal. I thought it might be a passing phase, something which captured my interest for a few months like everything else I had liked up to then, but this one stuck. Maye it says something about me at the time - leaving home, fending for myself in the big city, being forced to grow up - I seemed to take refuge in a kind of music which, while viscerally enjoyable, was a long way from the more thoughtful stuff I used to like. It's a long way even from the recent punk and new wave music which could be just as noisy and obstreperous. For some time afterwards, I pretended to myself that this phase hadn't really happened, and recently some of it has become fashionable in a kind of post-modern, ironic sort of way. And of course, as with any genre of popular music, there are those for whom it has never been away.

So why Saxon, particularly? Because they were the first. The first band I grabbed at when my friends started liking this stuff - pretty much at random, I think; and the first band I ever saw in concert. So they have to be here. And I remember the noise and the mayhem, the heat and the sweat; and I remember thinking I had never experienced anything like this, and I wanted more. Like I say, visceral. And, no - I'm not really embarassed, it's just who I was back then. I might even go and listen to some - for old times' sake...