Wednesday, 4 March 2009

These are the songs of our lives

Never mind “the food of love”, if music is anything, it’s a measurement of time and memory.

The time was about 1971. The Beatles had barely stopped beetling but the Stones were still rolling. Hendrix and Joplin were dueting in the great concert hall in the sky, while Jim Morrison remained temporarily more Earthbound.

And I had a record token to spend.

It was just after the grand December conjunction of birthday and Christmas: I had reached the grand old age of eight, and the token was from an uncle.

My mother took me and my sister shopping to nearby Putney. Now somewhere along the lines, I’d heard of this thing called ‘pop’, but couldn’t have told you anything about it. Just that it was trendy.

And I wanted some.

My mother had other ideas. So we came home with a 78 each of Pinky and Perky singing such gems as I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus.

Those pesky, pink puppet pigs certainly weren't ‘pop’. They weren’t trendy either. And I suffered such indignity and annoyance at having to their squealings purchased with my record token – as though I genuinely couldn't wait to get home and slap the disc on the turntable.

It would be another couple of years before I was able to spend my own money on what I wanted – and then it was David Cassidy.

As the years plodded along, I discovered Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, which, as described yesterday, became a seminal album in my personal canon.

Another seminal musical moment occurred at Christmas in 1975, when Bohemian Rhapsody first entered my consciousness at the school disco. You could hardly dance to it, but you could stand in the middle of the floor, gaping like a loon in a moment of unexpected discovery.

That lasted too – indeed, when Freddie died, I locked myself in my pokey bedsit, clamped the headphones on and blasted my mind with every Queen recording I possessed, while getting slowly sloshed on cheap Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignan.

My tastes – if ‘taste’ can be applied to such a matter – were usually on the lightest side. For once I can thank my mother for not allowing something – no tartan trim was permitted anywhere during my thankfully short-lived adoration of the Bay City Rollers. Kenny came and went almost overnight – staying around just long enough for me to join the fan club.

As the 1970s wore on, I was introduced to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds – first heard over headphones on a friend’s record player – while an hormonal addiction to Starsky and Hutch produced the inevitable support for David Soul’s warbling career.

By the time punk screamed into the room, I was submerged in ‘O’ level music studies, discovering Beethoven. My mother was thrilled – it made buying presents so easy (and needless to say, so respectable).

In fact, although she’s asked for a list of present ideas for years, she avoided buying anything that could possibly pass for ‘pop’ until the late 1980s, when I received Billy Joel’s Storm Front one gift season.

But I’m rushing ahead. The 1980s changed my musical interests somewhat, with Ultravox, OMD and Kraftwerk adding a very different flavour – and one that persists. Indeed, after years of hoping, Midge and the boys have finally announced a reunion tour – and my ticket is booked for a Friday night in late April at the Hammersmith Odeon (or Apollo or something) to see Ultravox in concert. Finally, I shall hear Vienna live.

I’ve kept on trying new things down the years – more dance and electronic stuff, plus Britpop, Oasis and Pulp in particular.

But when the late ’90s saw the start of the ’70s revival, it was with some surprise that I realised that I knew all the words of Abba songs. And I hadn’t even been a fan at the time!

Then, on the cusp of my 40th birthday, nostalgia kicked even harder.

A whole stack of singles that hadn’t been played in years were awaiting a cull. But as the chucking-out neared, I decided to give them all one last play – for old time’s sake.

In the end, not one single single departed that stack for the bin. They were too good – and they brought back so many memories.

Memories of times and places. Listening to something called a ‘solid state’ radio on Sunday evenings as BBC1 played the new top 40.

Dancing at the Conservative club’s disco for members’ teenage offspring, and at school discos and even in the brief period in 1981/2 when I went clubbing in Leicester.

Coming home hours late from school one winter’s night in the late ’70s, when the snow had cut off our Pennine town and I’d had to trudge through drifts to get back – only to stand, looking like the Abominable Snowman, at the front door, and demanding of my mother the time: it was a Thursday, Top of the Pops was scheduled and David Soul was in the charts. That was the only thing that mattered.

At the weekends, my mother would listen to Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart on Radio 1 while she made breakfast in the kitchen – the songs I’d heard then formed part of this picture. The folksy sound of the Seekers, the New Seekers and Peter, Paul and Mary are familiar old friends.

And iTunes is download heaven – all those odd songs and tracks that are musical blasts form the past, now sitting in assorted playlists, reeking of a time that feels as though it could almost have been last week.

The theme tunes from children’s TV programmes feature in those musical memories too: White Horses, The Flashing Blade, Belle and Sebastian and a French serialised version of Robinson Crusoe that was nearly as long as the eponymous hero’s adventure, but which featured a wonderfully evocative (and short) theme.

Stuff I’d never really liked at the time, from David Bowie to David Essex and way beyond, suddenly cast pictures in my mind’s eye. Times and places and, emotions and faces, cast in the bronze glow of memory.

It’s not even as though the periods that all this music reminds me of were the best times of my life. But that doesn’t reduce the power of what happens when I hear these songs.

Back in the ’70s, my mother used to comment that none of the hits of the day would be remembered in 30 years. She was wrong. And whether they’re critically good or bad, they’re part of our lives, and they’ll go on being played and heard and remembered as long as we live and breathe.

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