When You Wish Upon A Star

I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be packing. I’ll try to keep it short.

So there we were, my new wife and me, drifting along with the rest of the slow but steadily moving traffic. The sun was shining and all was good in the world. The first day of our honeymoon. Our whole married life ahead of us. What ups and downs would that life bring? What sort of couple would we be? We had no idea.

Although we both had licences, I had almost no actual driving experience, so for this holiday, driving a hire car on the wrong side of the road, we nominated Elaine the designated driver. This suited me fine, as it made me by default the designated car stereo operator, a task which, to this day, I find much more interesting than driving, to Elaine’s distress when I try to do both at once. We’d brought a few cassettes with us, mainly bands we both liked: so lots of New Model Army, Sisters of Mercy and the Mission. But these all seemed a bit too gloomy, a bit too doomy, a bit too ‘alternative Yorkshire’ to soundtrack a sun-kissed cruise along the highways of Orlando. We needed something more American FM radio rock, for which our choice of tapes was limited. Why I didn’t tune into an FM radio rock station, I don’t really know. It doesn’t really matter. It just means that we drove towards the huge, six-lane-straddling Magic Kingdom sign to the sound of America’s Least Wanted by Ugly Kid Joe. Not exactly the Mickey Mouse March.

What sort of couple goes to Disney World for their honeymoon? Don’t answer that. We might not have realised it when we decided on the destination, or booked the holiday, or as we flew over, or checked into our motel. But I think we got an inkling of the sort of couple we were, the sort of couple I hope we still are, as we approached that enormous, pastel-coloured sign. Before we’d even reached the park, we looked at each other, and said, “We’ve got to come here again. When we’ve got children.”

A promise like that’s easy to make, but much harder to keep. First of all you’ve got to get children, which took more effort and heartache than we’d have liked. It took a while, and a few false starts, before we and various specialists worked out what the problem was. But once we did, we entered a period of what might be called ‘Pringles fertility’. Not, I must confess, because of any resemblance between my anatomy and Mr Pringle’s iconic tube, but rather because, as they say, once we’d popped, we couldn’t stop. Four children later, we agreed enough was enough, and I was duly dispatched to another specialist, to counteract the unequivocal success of the previous specialists. So far so good. We’ve got the kids. Let’s go to Disney World!

If only it were that simple. But those kids will insist on eating. And wearing clothes and shoes, which they grow out of instantly, necessitating the purchase of more clothes and shoes which they will also grow out of instantly. And having Birthdays and Christmases, and a few odd treats in the months in between. Not to mention their almost pathological demand for sleeping in their own beds (in bedrooms no less!) provided by the Bank of Mum & Dad (Mortgage Department). I’m not going to lie. We’ve made ends meet. We’ve managed. And along the way we’ve scrimped and saved, and made a few sacrifices, and eventually we’ve got to the point where we can deliver on our promise.

We’d always kept it secret from the children at the heart of our promise. Partly to avoid letting them down if it turned out we couldn’t deliver after all, but mainly so we could surprise them the way we did on Christmas morning. After all the presents had been opened and the wrapping paper cleared away, we pulled the old “oh look, Santa’s left one in the other room” routine. It was a gigantic box, and when the kids tore off the wrapping paper and opened it up, out floated a ‘Merry Christmas’ helium balloon. The other end of the balloon’s string was tied round the wrist of a small Mickey Mouse doll. And under Mickey was this letter:

You can imagine the pandemonium, once they’d read it and worked out where the Magic Kingdom was. There was much screaming, and jumping, and hugging, and smiling. And we’ve been on a countdown ever since.

A countdown which is almost at zero. T minus three days and counting. On Wednesday we’ll drive back towards that huge sign, unless they’ve replaced it with a newer one, in a bigger and fuller car than last time. I might even be driving, in which case Elaine will be on stereo duty. We won’t have any cassettes, although we’ll have a variety of iPods between us all, but we’ll probably just put the radio on this time. And when we get there, we’ll know we’ve finally kept our promise, our dream’s come true, nearly seventeen years later.

We’re that sort of couple.


The Player

I’ve been listening to music for as long as I can remember. At first I was just hearing whatever happened to be playing: on the car radio, or my dad’s music centre, or the radio in the kitchen. But I must have shown an interest, because for a fairly early birthday – perhaps my seventh? – I was given a record player of my own. My first, but far from my last.

It was a small, bright red plastic box, made by Fidelity, and shaped liked an executive briefcase complete with its own carrying handle. There was a hidden compartment underneath which held the power cable and plug. The top – the lid, I suppose – lifted off to reveal the turntable and needle arm. In fact the lid had to be completely removed to play anything larger than a 45, as 33s and 78s stuck out over the edge of the player. And to start with, 33s, and a few old 78s, were all I had. My first record, which came on the same birthday (they thought of everything, my folks) was an album called Stewpot’s Pop Party, which consisted of various glam-rock hits of the early 70s interspersed with DJ Ed “Stewpot” Stewart orchestrating children’s party games. I think it was probably the low-tech Nintendo Wii of it’s day, in that it allowed parents to delegate responsibility for entertaining their kids to a piece of technology while they got on with something else. Not that I remember ever using it that way. To me it was just the first record I owned, so of course I played it constantly.

I was still playing it (the record player, not Stewpot’s awful party LP) when I was eleven; I remember playing Adam & the Ants singles on it. Around this time it was joined by a small mono cassette recorder, the kind used to save programs from a ZX81 – which was its primary intended purpose. But soon it was playing tapes I saved up for and bought from Woolworths: Yazoo, Malcolm McLaren and of course Adam & the Ants. A little later my record player must have suffered some forgotten mishap, because by the time I was playing Alarm and Tracey Ullman singles they weren’t on the little red Fidelity, but on a much older, and very much bigger model given to me by my grandad when he bought himself a new one. This one had an autochanger so I could stack singles up and create rudimentary playlists. All the fun of the late 50s, in the early 80s!

But I didn’t use it for long, because for Christmas when I was thirteen, I got my first Actual Stereo. It was an Amstrad, with a radio, tape deck and a record player that, marvellously, slid out on a motorised platform from the bottom of the unit. You haven’t experienced 1983 until you’ve listened to Paul Young’s No Parlez playing on a wobbling, electrified drawer. It lasted a few years before the motor packed in. The record player still worked, you just had to slide the drawer in and out by hand. Not quite so slick. I should have learned from this experience, but I didn’t, because a few years later the lure of a CD player drew me to another Amstrad. This time it was a portable stereo with detachable speakers, twin tape decks and of course the CD player on top, so I could listen to Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s slightly underwhelming second album in glorious pin-sharp clarity. It didn’t have a record player, but that was a sacrifice I was prepared to make in embracing the digital age. Being an Amstrad, within a couple of years both tape decks had broken down, and a couple of years later the CD player started getting picky about which discs it would or wouldn’t play, but by then I was hooked on my ever-growing stack of CDs.

Which led to my 21st birthday present. A Pioneer CD player, a Denon tape deck and a pair of Tannoy speakers. Together with an old, very large, but still perfectly functional amplifier given to me by a family friend, I had a set of hi-fi separates to blast out Metallica, Nirvana and Guns ‘n’ Roses. One of the advantages of separates, apart from the sound quality, is that when one breaks down, you can replace it without throwing away the rest. And of course, none of them ever have.

I’m still using that hi-fi today, in a Trigger’s broom sort of way, nearly twenty years later. I’m listening to it now. Of course, when we got married the massive amplifier had to go, to be replaced by a smaller and less obtrusive model. But otherwise it stayed the same – until relatively recently. This latest change was the biggest yet. Bigger than the move from gramophone to stereo, bigger than the switch from records to CDs, bigger than the replacement of unreliable units with quality components. The change from CD player to computer, and cassette to iPod, was huge, not because it affected the way the music sounds (plenty would argue that it does, but if you’ve spent the 80s listening to Amstrad stereos you’re immune to such trivial differences), but because it altered the way I listen to music.

Suddenly my entire collection was available instantly, apart from the few old records I’d still not got round to replacing digitally (sorry, Stewpot), with songs I’d not heard for years popping up on shuffle. Best of all, using a few interlinked smart playlists, I’ve now got a constantly refreshing mix of new music and older stuff. It’s like having my own personal radio station, and it’s quite wonderful. Every time I fire up the computer, or pop in the earphones, I’m back on my old bedroom floor, with my bright red record player. Every day’s a Pop Party.

There Wasn’t Any Pain

Sometimes my wife surprises me. I mean, I should say, she often surprises me, obviously, in a nice way, of course (I’ll stop digging now), but every now and then she’ll buy me a little present. Something she knows I’ll like, but wouldn’t necessarily think to buy myself. Often this little present is something useful, like a new shirt or a pack of socks. And sometimes this little present is a CD. She’s bought me a few over the years, and she knows me so well that most of them have become firm favourites. Is this because of the intrinsic quality of the music itself, or how well it matches up with my own tastes, or because it’s such a lovely and thoughtful gift from someone I love? It’s probably a mix of all three, and that’s fine for me. It’s definitely not the case that buying it for me is a handy way of getting a CD she wants to hear and some Brownie points at the same time, in a perfect kind of having-your-cake-and-eating-it scenario. Definitely not. (I’ll stop digging now.)

One day, in the spring of 1996, Elaine came home with just such a little present. It was a happy time for us. We’d been married for two years, and were settling into the house we’d moved into the previous summer. We’d spent our first married year living in a flat in North London, and while the flat was nice enough (and we’d invested a lot of time and effort getting it that way) our situation wasn’t so good. We were in London because that’s where I worked, so Elaine got a job locally. She’d left the Royal Navy when we got married, and wanted to continue her career in some way. Unfortunately, and ludicrously, the NHS didn’t recognise her qualifications as a Naval paramedic. So rather than working for the ambulance service or in some other medical capacity using her skills and experience, she ended up as a receptionist in a medical centre in Willesden. Whose duties, as far as I could tell, seemed to consist almost entirely of being verbally and occasionally physically abused by the patients. She’d given up a job she loved and ended up with one she hated, and it’s fair to say it made her pretty miserable. But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Because just a few months after we were married, and we’d finished renovating and decorating our flat (it felt like the day after we’d cleaned the last paintbrush), my employer announced that our London office was to close, and that all staff had to relocate to Nottingham or be made redundant. For most of my colleagues this was bad news, although I think most of them got a decent enough pay-off and moved on into other jobs in the capital. For us, though, it was a lifeline: a chance to move back to our old home-town, all expenses paid, and with a guaranteed safe job for me at the other end. It was a chance to reboot our young marriage, and start Married Life 2.0 – back home! In a house! With a garden! We moved the following summer, Elaine enrolled as a trainee staff nurse (understandably not wanting to go through paramedic training a second time), and life was good. We were settled. We even bought a cat.

It was while we were living in this idyllic world that Elaine bought the best CD she’s ever given me. And so I’ll forever associate Relish by Joan Osborne with those warm spring days, and that general feeling that all is good. That happiness. It has almost nothing to do with the content of the album itself, which despite its predominantly warm and open Americana sound is full of oblique references to the downside of life. The hit song everyone knows from the album, and possibly the reason Elaine bought it for me, One Of Us, is not at all typical. Its almost saccharine sweetness sets it apart from the edge and depth of the rest of the songs. I can imagine there were quite a few people who were disappointed that the album wasn’t full of the same throwaway pop-rock fluff, but for me it was close to perfect. Elaine had found an album that hit a sweet spot I didn’t even know I had. I loved it, and thankfully (and surprisingly for one of my favourite albums!) so did she.

It remains one of my favourites, partly because of its content: almost all of its songs would be the highlight of almost any other album, it sounds like my textbook definition of what American rock music should sound like, and of course there’s Joan Osborne’s amazing voice. But equally importantly, because of the way it came into my life, and why, and when. I’m happy whenever I hear it. It’s probably just that simple. One day Elaine might buy me another CD (or download, or direct brain implant, or whatever we’re doing then) that’s even better. But I don’t think she ever could. I mean, she could, I just don’t think it’s possible. You know what I mean. I’ll stop digging now.

Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 3:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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Sometimes I Walk Sideways To Avoid You

You learn a lot at school. I don’t mean differential equations, or iambic pentameters, or the key battles of World War One, although of course you do learn those things, or at least I did. All that academic stuff is only half the story. It’s the half that gets all the attention because it can be formalised and structured, tested and measured. The other half is intangible, and pretty much unteachable, but it’s no less important. None of us have a certificate to prove it, but we all leave school a bit wiser than when we started. We all learn a few life lessons.

This hidden curriculum is delivered in an ad-hoc way, chaotically and inconsistently, by unqualified teachers who aren’t even aware of what they’re doing. The lessons evolve and emerge naturally, organically, without the use of blackboards, exercise books or end-of-term exams. The syllabus is threaded through the very fibre of the school. It’s in the corridors and the dining-hall queue, in the changing rooms and on the playing fields. It’s in the gaps between lessons, and in the games played at break-time. It’s in the friendships, the enmities, the cliques, the bullying. It’s even in the classroom, especially when the teacher’s back is turned. It’s everywhere, always, and we absorb it without a thought.

I absorbed one such lesson in the fifth form, which my kids would now call year 11. I was 15 and we were all focused on our O-levels, to the extent that any group of 15-year-old boys is focused on anything they’re supposed to be. This being a boarding school, one of the most exciting aspects of the fifth form was that it was when we stopped spending our evenings in a common room and our nights in a dormitory, and instead moved into study bedrooms. In the sixth form, we would get our own rooms, but for now most of us were sharing, two to a room plus a day-boy who needed a desk but not a bed. And so I found myself sharing a room with Jason, and with Andrew who was around during the day but went home at night. They were both great friends and we all got on very well. Most of the time.

I suppose it’s almost impossible for any group to spend thirty-odd weeks of a year living together without a few niggles. We had plenty, all resolved as quickly as they appeared, and soon forgotten. All except one. This was a slow burner. It built up gradually, over weeks and months, and I’ve never forgotten it. It was simultaneously trivial and profound. It was, in its own small way, what you might call a Formative Experience.

One of the great things about the change in accommodation from the fourth to the fifth form was that we no longer did our homework (or prep, as we called it) in a common room overseen by one of the sixth-form prefects, but in our study bedrooms, behind closed doors. Apart from the greater opportunity to chat or read comics when we were supposed to be practising trigonometry or reading Shakespeare, this meant we could listen to music during prep time! Only very quietly, of course, so as not to attract the attention of whichever teacher (or Master, as we called them) happened to be prowling the corridors. But nevertheless, we could brighten up the hours of French literature and chemical equations with a bit of background music.

Now, there wasn’t much overlap between Jason’s record collection and mine, but our tastes were fairly compatible, and of course we were good friends, so in a spirit of civilised harmony we agreed to take turns choosing what got played. I was happy enough listening to David Bowie and Kiss, and I dare say Jason was equally comfortable with the Alarm and Depeche Mode. But there was one album of his which at first bored me, but which eventually, through repetition, started to induce a kind of teeth-grinding rage in me which was entirely at odds with the soporific content of the music itself. As far as he was concerned, it was perfect prep background music, because besides being one of his absolute favourites of the time, it was also very quiet. Well, I wouldn’t describe it as quiet. I’d say it was dull, slow, mannered, bland, and unrelentingly turgid. As far as I was concerned, its quietness was probably its only redeeming feature. The less of it I heard, the better.

Nevertheless, Alchemy Live by Dire Straits was a regular background hum while we worked, simply because Jason liked it so much. And rather than explain to Jason how irritating I was beginning to find it, after hearing the same interminably extended but utterly lifeless songs so many times over – rather than take the sensible and reasonable route, I opted instead for the 15-year-old idiot’s solution. I decided to retaliate.

As much as Alchemy bothered me, I knew I had an album of my own which annoyed him even more. I could endure Dire Straits, I just enjoyed it less each time. But Jason made no secret of the fact that one of my favourite records – the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy – was, to him, unlistenable. And so it became my weapon of choice in my ludicrous, undeclared war of attrition. I never played it at prep time – you couldn’t play it quietly, it would just sound like a fly was trapped in the speaker. No, I simply played it at every other possible opportunity, as loud as I could get away with, and let the distortion, the feedback, the wall of noise do its job.

It didn’t take long. One afternoon, Jason snapped. He’d had enough. I’d put on Psychocandy, of course, and he’d put up with the first song, as well he might in my adolescent view: I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy the gentle strains of Just Like Honey, lightly dusted with a sprinkling of fractured reverb like icing sugar on a particularly tasty Christmas cake? But it only took a few seconds of The Living End, with its waves of searing electric noise, like an angle grinder slicing through a paving slab bolted to your skull, to send him over the edge. He got up, shouted “Will you turn that BLOODY thing OFF!” and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Leaving me alone with the angle grinder and the paving slab. It didn’t seem so much fun any more. What had I been thinking? Deliberately annoying my friend to make some kind of obtuse point? I regretted it immediately.

When he came back, I apologised, and promised that from now on I’d only play Psychocandy when he wasn’t around. Then I did what I finally realised I should have done in the first place, which was to tell him how fed up I was of hearing Dire Straits, and in return he promised only to play them when I wasn’t around. And there we left it, friendship restored. From that day to this I’ve never listened to Alchemy again, and I can’t imagine Jason has bought many Jesus and Mary Chain records.

Not many. But my birthday falls near the end of the summer term, and while we weren’t in the habit of buying each other birthday presents, that year Jason did buy me one. Perhaps it was more of a goodbye gift, as he was leaving school after we finished our O-levels, while I was staying on for the sixth form. But I think there was something else in it. Its meaning wasn’t lost on me when I opened it to find a 12″ single: Just Like Honey by the Jesus and Mary Chain. For once in my teenage life I was actually speechless. I looked at him, and he looked at me, and my lesson was complete. Jason was the smaller boy, but he was the bigger man.

They Always Play Love Songs When You’re Far Away

I’m sobbing uncontrollably, inconsolably. I’m sitting on the settee and I’m clinging on to two things as if my life depended on it. One of the things is a small cuddly hedgehog. The other is my mum. It’s breaking her heart to see me like this, and she’s trying to comfort me. Reassuring me. Holding me. But it’s not helping. The hedgehog isn’t helping and my mum isn’t helping. I can’t be helped. I’ve never felt like this before and I don’t think I’ll ever feel better again. I’m eighteen years old, and, without wanting to be too melodramatic about it, the love of my life is gone.

She’s not gone forever. I know exactly when she’ll be back. It’s just such an impossibly long time away. Three months stretch out before me like eternity. Three months without her. Three months alone. How will I face it? How will I cope? How will I survive?

I shouldn’t feel this way. I’m used to separation. I’ve had seven years at boarding school and, since I met my girlfriend last summer, two terms away at university. But this is different. Previously it’s always been me going away, and never for more than a few weeks at a time. There’s always been something new, something to do, new faces and places to get used to. There’s always been plenty of distraction therapy to help ease the pain. But this time, she’s been taken away from me. I stood on the platform and waved her goodbye. The world around me is exactly the same. But she’s not in it.

Before she left, she gave me two little presents. One was the small cuddly hedgehog. Hedgehogs are “our” animal, ever since she curled herself round my arm one evening last summer, and I told her she reminded me of a hedgehog I once picked up that curled itself round my finger. This one is grey and furry, and it has a message stitched onto its fat, pink, fluffy tummy. The message says “You’re the best!” That’s so her. I know she loves me, but she’s not one for saying so. Or even buying soft toys that say so. The hedgehog says “You’re the best!”, but I know what it means.

She gave me the hedgehog as we stood on the platform with tears in our eyes. Neither of us could speak, but we didn’t need to. I kissed her and she got on the train. We waved her goodbye, her mum, her dad, her sister and me, and her train trundled away. We drove home in silence, or at least, if anyone spoke, I wasn’t listening. I was gripping that hedgehog like grim death and trying to keep myself under control. It worked until they dropped me off, and I came into the house, and I looked at my mum, and I said “I love her, mum.” And I broke down.

So here I am, crying, wailing, clinging on to my hedgehog and my mum, and they’re not helping, they can’t help, because they’re not her. Time passes. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. Eventually there are no more tears, and I just feel empty. Numb. Mum makes me a cup of tea, the great cure-all, and I take it up to my room. And there, I open the second little present. The one she told me not to open until after she’d gone.

It’s a mix-tape. Of course it is. She’s picked a bunch of songs to tell me how she feels, to say the things she can’t. I lay on my bed with my headphones on and take it all in. There are a lot of separation songs and I have to read between the lines, because they tend to be “I’m sorry that we’re splitting up” type songs, like Separate Lives by Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin, or I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton, rather than the admittedly more limited “I love you, but I’m going to Portsmouth do my basic training as a Navy medic and I’ll be back in a few months” genre. So I choose to ignore Dolly telling me “we both know I’m not what you need,” and focus on the sentiments instead. The pain of separation, and beneath that, the certainty, the absolute rock-solid conviction of true love.

The last song on the tape is Sign Your Name by Terence Trent D’Arby. It’s the song that starts me crying all over again, but it’s a different feeling this time. I know she loves me, and I know we’ll always be together, even when we’re apart. When he sings “time, I’m sure, will bring disappointments in so many things,” I know it’s true, and even though at my young age I can’t imagine what those disappointments will be, I know we’ll get through them. Everyone around us, in the weeks leading up to her going away, has been saying things like, “if they survive this, they’ll survive anything,” and they’re right. We’ll survive this, together.

Say Ey Up, Wave Sithee

I caught the performing bug at a young age. I can’t remember my first on-stage turn but it must have been in a primary school nativity play or something similar. Whatever it was, I presumably enjoyed it, because throughout my school life, I volunteered every time there was an opportunity to stand on a stage and project. Drama, debating societies, public speaking contests, even singing in the school choir – I didn’t mind what it was; if it involved an attentive audience I was up for it. Quite what attracted the adolescent me to the stage, I’m not sure. I could retrospectively speculate something about finding comfort in the formal structure of the performing arts that was missing from natural social situations, but I’d just be projecting adult issues onto my teenage self, unfairly. I had a great time at school, and plenty of friends. I think I enjoyed treading the boards for a much simpler reason: the joy, and the buzz, of making people laugh.

Like every young performer, I coveted stardom. But the modest stardom I craved – the chance to take a lead role in one of the many plays we put on – always eluded me. As far as the teachers directing our school plays were concerned, I was strictly a character actor: light relief, a bit of fun, but never the leading man. In particular, as the years went by I found myself specialising in variations of the same role, which I took to describing as “thick northerner.” If a production featured a jocular, hapless or confused character who had, or at least could be played with, a vaguely northern accent, the part was mine.

I was a teenage Jack Duckworth.

The only exception was our version of Twelve Angry Men, which required us all to have a crack at American accents, in a serious, character-driven drama. At last! A chance to show my range extended beyond “thick northerner”. All the way to “southern redneck.” Typecast? Me?

This radical dramatic departure was an exception in another way too, in that Twelve Angry Men kept the whole cast on stage for its entire length. Otherwise, my comic turns were supporting roles: usually more than bit parts, but still spending much of the performance milling around backstage or in the wings, watching and waiting to go on. In one play, when I was about 14, I had one of those roles that was pivotal to the plot whilst remaining almost entirely absent from the stage. The play was Worm’s Eye View and my character was Mr Bounty (I think), a hen-pecked husband who left home in the first scene to seek his fortune, and only returned in the explosive finale to reassert his authority by throwing one of his wife’s lodgers through a window. I don’t know what the lodger had done to deserve such treatment, and I didn’t even know then: I never watched what happened in the play between my two appearances. I could pretend that this was some sort of method-actor-ish technique for remaining in character – if Mr Bounty didn’t know what was happening in his absence, then neither could I – but the truth was simpler. I had something better to do. I had a Walkman.

It wasn’t a proper Sony Walkman, of course, but that didn’t matter. It played cassettes, and so it was a portal into another world. While the rest of the cast and crew busied themselves with whatever was going on in Mr Bounty’s house, I put on my spindly, foam-covered headphones and blasted my ears with the latest pop hits. Well, maybe not quite the latest. This being a team activity, there were several other people who’d had the same idea as me. They’d bought their own Walkmen (Sony or otherwise) and with them, their own stacks of tapes, so swapping was the order of the day. I borrowed a tape from one of the lads in the stage crew on the strength of the few songs on it I already knew and liked: Tainted Love, Bedsitter and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye. I listened to it every night that week, and by the time the curtain fell on our final show, Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret was one of my favourite albums.

One of the girls in the make-up team couldn’t understand why I would want to listen to something as ancient as a three-year-old album by a band who’d already split up. But this was an album both absolutely of its time – it’s one of the archetypal examples of early-80s pop – and timeless. Soft Cell, by accident or design, epitomised the synth-duo, and established the formula that’s been repeated so often, because it works so well: expressionless bloke provides robotic backing, soulful singer provides human depth. The electronic bleeps and bloops only emphasised the emotions on the record: longing, despair, frustration, boredom, regret, and plenty of seedy, illicit lust. At the time, I couldn’t identify many of these emotions, never mind understand them, but I could feel they were there.

And so, while I should have been getting into character as a 1940s patriarch, or at the very least doing my homework, I was transporting myself to a world I could only glimpse and barely comprehend. But it sounded great. And it still does. As time went by and I grew older and supposedly wiser, I came to understand what these songs were really about, and every realisation only added to my appreciation of this amazing album. It’s a searing examination of some painful emotions, as well as an evocative time capsule from its own time and place. But every time I hear it I’m transported to the backstage of my early teens, killing time while the others got on with the play without me. I’m glad I was never the star. I’d have missed out on so much.

Spiral Scratch

There was a time when, if you wanted to hear the number one song, you had four options. 1. You could watch BBC1 at 7.25 on a Thursday night, when it would be the last thing on Top Of The Pops. 2. You could listen to Radio 1 at 6.55 on a Sunday night, when it would be the last thing on the Top 40 countdown. 3. You could leave Radio 1 on for an hour or two until Simon Bates or Dave Lee Travis inevitably got round to playing it again. Or 4. You could go out and buy the single for yourself. Imagine that! Buying an actual plastic record from an actual shop. Tell that to the kids these days and they won’t believe you.

The first time I found myself frustrated by options 1 to 3, and decided to shell out my own pocket money on option 4, it was the school summer holidays and I’d just turned nine. There was a song at number one that I just had to own for myself. How could I not? It had everything. A bombastic introduction, a hook-filled chorus, a few clap-along-bits, and a video (as seen regularly on Swap Shop) featuring a man playing the piano in his pyjamas. If there was a record more precisely engineered to appeal to the nine-year-old me, I was yet to hear it. And so I went into town with my mum one Friday to buy the single. I know it was a Friday because that was the day the market was in town. Imagine that! Buying a record from a market stall. Tell that to the kids these days and they won’t believe you.

Thus I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats became the first single I ever bought. Not the first single I owned (that honour being shared amongst the stack of Beatles singles my dad gave me), or the first record I bought (which was the Sgt Pepper film soundtrack album), but the first individual 7″ single I went out and bought for myself because I’d heard it on the radio, seen it on the telly, and decided I wanted my own copy. A few months later I bought another, then another, and the floodgates opened.

I learned to budget. I learned not to waste money on records I didn’t really like, but to save up for the ones I really did. I learned that albums were generally better value than singles, if you could save up long enough for them. Conversely, I learned that compilation albums (as advertised on telly with appalling titles like “Close Encounters of the Hit Kind” and “Raiders of the Pop Charts”) were terrible value, the few genuine hits on each being padded out with unheard-of tracks which varied in quality from mediocre to dismal. But most of all, I learned the simple joy of coming home with a new piece of vinyl, playing it over and over again, playing the b-side and being pleasantly surprised (Adam & the Ants) or not (Tracey Ullman), and adding to my small but ever-growing record collection. The collection’s larger now, and comprised of magnetic pulses on a computer hard drive rather than plastic discs, but it’s still the same collection, and its still growing.

I’m glad that I Don’t Like Mondays was my first single. Not because it wasn’t an embarrassing novelty song like Captain Beaky or Shaddap You Face or There’s No-One Quite Like Grandma. Not because it acquired a kind of significance when it was performed on Live Aid, or because of the awful true story it was based on that I read in my folks’ Daily Mirror that summer in 1979. No, I’m glad because it’s simply a great song. It stands up to this day, and every time I’ve heard it in the last thirty-odd years I’ve found myself singing along.

The only problem is that the version I have now, from a Boomtown Rats greatest hits CD, repeats the first verse before the final chorus, adding unnecessary embellishment and breaking up the perfect structure of the original single. I’m glad I have thousands of tracks on my computer, available to play instantly, in crystal clarity, at the push of a button, but I miss that simpler, shorter, original version, like I miss coming home on the bus with a new single. Sometimes, less is more. Tell that to the kids these days and they won’t believe you.

And When You Wake, I’m Awake

I’ve never been a good sleeper. I’ve always had too much running through my head to be able to switch off properly and unwind. This has usually meant hours spent lying in the dark, trying in vain to will myself to sleep, getting ever more frustrated, resisting looking at the clock, until exhaustion finally takes over. Sometimes dawn arrives first, and the birdsong is like a taunt, like nature laughing at my failure to do something as simple as sleep. As I’ve got older, I’m glad to say, the problem has started to fix itself. Whether I have less to worry about, or I’ve learned to live with whatever it is I worry about, or I’m just a lot more tired than I used to be, sleep comes easier these days. I still have sleepless nights, but they’re fewer and further between. Thank goodness.

For a time, in my twenties, I had a different variation of the problem. I’d have relatively little trouble nodding off at night, but I’d wake at the crack of dawn or earlier, fully refreshed and utterly unable to go back to sleep. Occasionally this brought a fantastic opportunity, like the time I crept out of our holiday villa in Greece and down to the beach, all alone, to watch the sun rise over the sea. But more often than not, it would herald a few hours of quiet boredom before my wife and the rest of the world woke up. Even this was not such a problem by the late nineties, by which time we had the Internet. I dread to think how many hours of rudimentary, dial-up, pay-per-minute web browsing I clocked up in those early morning sessions. But in the mid-nineties, before I added a modem to our Gateway 2000 Multimedia PC (the key features of which were a CD-ROM drive and a pair of tinny speakers), even that wasn’t an option. But the PC still provided a non-wife-waking timesink with games like Theme Park, Lemmings and Railroad Tycoon.

The thing these games had in common besides the relatively quiet and calm play (essential for non-wife-waking) was that they had terrible music. Railroad Tycoon in particular, which I played for hours, featured a synthesised 1920s piano rag on an endless loop that seemed custom designed to induce rage in the listener. The solution, of course, was to turn the game’s music off and put a CD on instead. Multimedia indeed! And being the mid-nineties, the CDs I was listening to included a fair bit of Britpop, some alternative rock and the odd Prince album (Emancipation being the oddest of the lot). But the album I played the most around that time, certainly the one I always associate with those quiet early mornings, was Life Is Sweet by Maria McKee.

For me, as a fan of Maria McKee and her rootsy cowpunk country rock, Life Is Sweet came as a surprise. For anyone who’s knowledge of her begins and ends with the schmaltzy Hollywood ballad Show Me Heaven, it must be positively shocking. It plumbs the depths of emotion, leaving no stone unturned and unafraid to explore whatever is found beneath, however murky or disturbing: obsessive love, madness, disfigurement, childhood despair and adult regret. As surprising as the lyrical content is the music, dominated by a searing lead guitar played by Maria herself. I read later that she had been looking for years for a guitarist to play these songs, this way, before eventually realising she was the player. The album is a masterpiece of personal, primal rock, nothing like anything she’d done before and a creative peak she has never reached since.

Now, personal primal rock, masterpiece or otherwise, might seem an odd choice to be played at low volume whilst messing about with virtual train sets at ridiculous times of the morning. But there’s an amazing thread of positivity running through these songs that simply chimed with me. It’s the sound of someone coming to terms with these feelings, accepting and even celebrating them. And it ends with the title track, a song of hope for the lonely, the outcast, the unwanted and unloved. As it leads into its coda, Afterlife, it rounds off the perfect soundtrack to those long dark nights, and long bright mornings of the soul. Life is sweet, bittersweet, and the days keep rolling along.

Published in: on February 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm  Comments (3)  
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We Don’t Need No Education

It’s the spring of 1984 and I’m thirteen years old. I’m sitting at the back of a dimly-lit, high-ceilinged, and vaguely musty-smelling geography classroom next to my friend Ashley. We always sit at the back because neither of us has the slightest interest in artesian wells, river formation, or the native populations of South America. Later in the year we’ll choose our O-level options, and we’ll take great delight in dropping geography, cursing ourselves with a lifelong inability to answer the blue questions in Trivial Pursuit. But that’s a freedom yet to come. For now, we’re trapped in a geography lesson, trying to ignore Mr Collins prattling on about rocks, or soil, or population densities, or whatever on Earth today’s lesson is. We’ve got more important things to discuss, because Ashley has news of a fantastic Special Offer.

The Special Offer is genius in its simplicity, and its route-one approach to a thirteen-year-old boy’s interests (or at least, to these particular thirteen-year-old boys’ interests). Simply stuff your face with as many bags of Walkers crisps as you can manage (or Wotsits, or Quavers, I forget), cut out and send in ten tokens (or a dozen, or twenty-five, I forget), and receive in return the chart single of your choice! Free! As if we need an incentive to eat crisps.

I think Ashley must eat more crisps than I do, or perhaps he’s roped in a few ringers from his family to help him eat them, because he hits his target ages before I do, and soon he’s the proud owner of The Cure’s hit The Caterpillar. By the time I collect enough tokens to send for my copy of Searchin’ by Hazell Dean, he’s nearly got enough for his next single. He orders it just in time to beat the closing date, leaving him 2-1 up in the free records stakes (it was never a contest, but it still feels like I’ve lost), and in possession of what turns out to be one of the records of the year.

It’s the summer of 1984 and I’m very nearly fourteen years old. I’m sitting at the back of a bright, airy music classroom next to Ashley. The school has a policy of teaching music to everyone to the end of the third year, and this set is for those of us who aren’t learning a musical instrument, for whom music theory is a pointless, abstract irrelevance. None of us will take the subject to O-level, and Mr Edwards knows he’s fighting a losing battle over triads, tonics and treble clefs. So he’s thrown in the towel and turned the lesson into forty minutes per week of “music appreciation”. This is much more up our street. We don’t want to read music, but we already appreciate it.

Sadly for us, his intention is to broaden our horizons and encourage us to appreciate, if not quite enjoy, the music he loves. This seems to consist mainly of George Gershwin compositions, which he plays to us on the classroom’s record player before attempting to lead an intelligent discussion of what we’ve heard. To sweeten the deal, the last ten minutes of each lesson are devoted to a piece of music of our choosing. Each week he nominates a pupil to bring one of their own records or cassettes to the next lesson. And this week it’s Ashley’s turn. He steps up to the front of the class and slips his single from its plain black paper sleeve. He puts the needle on the record and the room is filled with a familiar, throbbing bass line. Glances of recognition and delight are exchanged between everyone in the room, except Mr Edwards, who looks perturbed. He might not be familiar with this record but he’s not stupid. He can sense the way this is going, and he’s trying to figure out the best way to escape the trap with his dignity and authority intact.

He braves it out for three whole minutes. Three minutes of stifled giggles, shifty looks and Ashley feigning innocence, as if this was the natural, obvious thing to play following extracts from Porgy & Bess. They may be the longest three minutes of his teaching career, and they come to an end when the song breaks down and pauses before restarting with a triumphant, climactic “huurrgghh!” followed by waves of whooshing, cascading noise. At which point Mr Edwards has heard more than enough. He lifts the needle, not with a scratch like there always is in comedies when someone stops a record, but gently and carefully. He puts the disc back in its sleeve and holds it out in front of him. He looks round the classroom, at all of us, and calmly speaks his judgement.

Later that day, or maybe the next, our friend Graham puts his flair for cartoonish art to perfect use. He mocks up a t-shirt in the rapidly emerging style of the summer, but its slogan isn’t FRANKIE SAY RELAX DON’T DO IT or FRANKIE SAY WAR HIDE YOURSELF or FRANKIE SAY ARM THE UNEMPLOYED. And for the rest of my life, whenever I hear the Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood – and I’ll hear it hundreds of times – I’ll think of Graham’s t-shirt immortalising the time Ashley played it in our music lesson, the words that followed, and the gales of laughter that followed the words. MR EDWARDS SAY THIS RECORD HAS NO MUSICAL QUALITIES WHATSOEVER.

Labelled With Love

This morning I drove past an old church hall in town. I don’t often take that route, but whenever I do it brings back a very specific memory. It’s the story of one of the best gifts my Dad ever gave me. But before we get to the church hall and the fantastic gift, we need to go back a little further.

The story starts when my Mum, for reasons that I still don’t really understand, took me and my sister to see the not-particularly-aimed-at-kids film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This film was based on Beatles songs as performed by its stars, a multi-talented cast including such 70s luminaries as the Bee Gees, Alice Cooper and Frankie Howerd. By most accounts the film is a travesty and an insult to the music it set out to celebrate. On this I have no opinion; having only seen it once in 1978 my memories are partial and impressionistic, like fragments of a dream. And at eight years old I was in no position to critically assess either the film itself or its respect for the cultural legacy it sought to exploit. What I do remember is leaving the cinema with a head full of amazing new tunes. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I’d discovered the Beatles.

My memories of that time might be hazy and incomplete, but I know for a fact that I was smitten with the songs I’d heard, because I have physical, empirical proof in a box in the loft. Woolworths were selling the film’s soundtrack double album for £7.49, a figure imprinted in my mind over the months I spent saving up for it. I don’t know how many sweets, comics, stick-on tattoos, Star Wars figures, Matchbox cars and Airfix kits I went without in pursuit of this holy grail, or how long it took me, but eventually I amassed enough pocket money to hand over in return for The Most Expensive Thing I’d Ever Bought. I rushed home to play it on Dad’s music centre, and set about providing a running commentary for him while he hung wallpaper in the hall. “This is a good one – you’ll like this,” I told him, forgetting that these were versions of songs he’d been playing since before I was born. He didn’t let on, but I think he might have been secretly pleased that my emerging tastes were so in tune with his own (much as I was thirty years later when my daughter’s love of Little Boots led her to Yazoo and the Human League). It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that I’d been listening to his records for years. Which brings us to the church hall and the gift.

From time to time my Cub Scout pack would organise bring-&-buy sales in the local church hall to raise money for the Blue Peter appeal of the day. As a Cub I was obliged to help man (boy?) the stalls, which meant that Mum and Dad were obliged to be there too, helping out and of course bringing-&-buying. My recollections of these events are dominated by the setting up and clearing away of trestle tables, and the consumption of vast quantities of watery orange squash, rather than specific details of anything brought-or-bought – with one exception. Or rather, a stack of ten small plastic exceptions.

My Dad had found these ten discs and thought of me. I have no idea how much he paid for them – I didn’t ask – and it can’t have been much, unless jumble sale prices spiked in the Winter of Discontent, but over the years I’ve come to think of them as priceless. He handed them over to me with no fuss: “Here you go – you’ll like these,” and I accepted them with the same casual indifference and a degree of bafflement. Why had my Dad bought me this pile of old records? But, of course, they weren’t any old records. They were old Beatles records.

Specifically, they were: the Twist & Shout EP, I Want To Hold Your Hand, Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby, Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, the Magical Mystery Tour double EP, Get Back and the Ballad of John and Yoko, as well as two Plastic Ono Band singles: Give Peace A Chance and Cold Turkey. None of them had sleeves, and they all had a few scratches. But they all played well enough on my little red portable record player, and when they did, I understood why my Dad had given them to me. I still had the poster from my Sgt. Pepper film soundtrack album on the wall over my bed, but these 45s were the Real Thing.

They intrigued and confused me in equal measure. I played them over and over, learning them and trying to make sense of them. While one was playing I studied the labels and grooves of the others for clues. I played them to my friends and canvassed opinions. What was that weird bit at the end of Strawberry Fields? (My theory: record factory pressing error). Was there any significance to the whole apple on both sides of some singles, while others had half an apple on one side? (Later realisation: to distinguish double-A-sided singles from A- and B-sides). Why did some have bigger holes in the middle? (Answer: so they could be played in jukeboxes). And why was John Lennon so scared of turkey – didn’t he like Christmas?

Most of all, how could all these wildly different songs of such amazing quality have come from the same people? Some of these records seemed to have nothing in common with each other but the name on the label. In retrospect, learning how much of a stir the Beatles caused in the 60s as they evolved from pop-picking mop-tops to psychedelic experimentalists, it’s no wonder I was confused when my introduction to the band was an abridged version of the whole journey. But I can’t imagine a better introduction, and it started me on my own journey, and my own record collection.

Later on I discovered the Beatles albums, gradually and in the wrong order. That’s another story. Later still I bought them all, also gradually, also in the wrong order. That’s another story too. I prefer this story. This is the story of how my Dad gave me the most amazing gift. A pile of ten scratched, second-hand, seven-inch records bought at a church hall bring-&-buy sale. The gift of music.