52% intelligent. 9% modest. More monkey than bear.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

and if you have five seconds to spare....

I've been thinking about the way that a single song can radically change the way you look at the world... well, or at least the way that you listen to the world. I've been looking back across my own life and trying to think about the songs that had the biggest impact upon me and upon the things that I listen to.

And so here they are, the 5 (ish) songs that changed my life:

> "The Riddle" - Nik Kershaw

The year is 1984, and I am ten years old. Whilst it would not be accurate to say that this was the first piece of music that really grabbed my attention (that honour has to go to 1980s "Kings of the Wild Frontier" by Adam and the Ants, especially the song "Jolly Roger"), Nik Kershaw was certainly the first artist that I truly loved. I have my friend Will from down the road to thank for this one. I first met Will when he was brought into my class a few weeks after term had started and we were both 5 years old. His family had just moved into the village, and my first sight of him was when he was hiding behind his mother as he was introduced to the rest of class one red. He lived a little down the road from me, and we were firm friends, spending almost every day of every school holiday together. We lived in a village, so we didn't really get up to anything more than roaming through the fields, riding our bikes and playing "Bard's Tale", "Jet Set Willie" and "Graham Gooch Cricket" on the Commodore 64.. but they were happy days in those seemingly endless summers. I have an older brother, but he has never really been all that interested in music. Will, on the other hand, had an older brother and an older sister, and crucially both had some interest in music and had some records. I remember very clearly that we would much about in front of the turntable listening to things like "One Night in Bankok" and the Spitting Image records, until one day he popped on some Nik Kershaw. "The Riddle" has actually held up pretty well, and as well as the title track, has singles like "Wideboy" and "Don Quixote". I bought the album on cassette, and before long also picked up "Human Racing" too. I even went as far as writing to Jimmy Saville to see if he could fix it for me and for Will to meet our hero. It never happened, but my interest in music was up and running.

> "Run to the Hills" / "The Number of the Beast" - Iron Maiden

Nik Kershaw awakened my interest in music, and before long I was taping the chart show off the radio and asking for tapes for my birthday (one bumper year I was given both "Scoundrel Days" by Aha and "Silk and Steel" by Five Star. Happy days!). I even developed a pre-pubescent crush on a "You Came" era Kim Wilde. All fairly harmless stuff, but my music taste hadn't really taken shape yet. All that was to change when I went up to a new school in 1987, aged thirteen, and was suddenly surrounded by much older boys with much more sophisticated taste in music. I must have been receptive, because I distinctly remember buying a Bob Marley cassette from the local branch of WHSmith and feeling a touch disappointed with what I had because in my head I had managed to confuse him with Bob Dylan. A terrible error, I'm sure you'll agree, but at least one that shows that my musical horizons were starting to expand beyond the top 40. On a similar visit into town, I picked up another cassette simply because I liked the cover: a brightly coloured cartoon-style drawing of a long-haired Zombie and the devil. It was "Number of the Beast" by Iron Maiden. I don't recall knowing anything about the band before I made the purchase, and that first listen must have been something of a shock as "Invaders" and Bruce Dickinson's foghorn screech filled my study. I was in love and my music tastes changed instantly. Out went the top 40, and along with much of the rest of Iron Maiden's back catalogue, including the newly released "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son", in came "...And Justice for All" by Metallica, "Open Up and Say Ahhhh!" by Poison, "Permanent Vacation" by Aerosmith and -- my first ever CD purchase -- a double album called "Protect the Innocent", featuring songs by the likes of Steppenwolf, Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and, best of all, "Ace of Spades" by Motorhead. In due course, I was listening to Whitesnake, Slaughter, Thunder, Little Angels, Stevie Salas Colourcode, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cult, Faith No More, ZZ Top, Guns N'Roses, Def Leppard, Queensryche, Bon Jovi and all sorts of wonderful stuff. In retrospect, a lot of that was rubbish, but actually a lot of it still stands up today and it all had a huge impact on my taste in music. I don't listen to all that much "metal" today, but I am still drawn to driving guitar music. Another direct consequence of picking up that Iron Maiden album is that I started to attend gigs. My first was the Cult at Wembley Arena (if you look really closely, you can see me in the "Sweet Soul Sister" video that they filmed there), but soon I was off seeing bands like Thunder, Little Angels, Electric Boys, Def Leppard and even to the Monsters of Rock festival to see Skid Row, Slayer, The Almighty and Iron Maiden. Nik Kershaw got me started, but Iron Maiden took me to the next level.

> "Half a Person" - The Smiths

The first album that I had on the stereo after my parents had dropped me off at University for the first time in 1992 was "Southern Harmony and Musical Companion" by the Black Crowes. I no longer had Iron Maiden posters on my wall, but I did have a massive one of "Teethgrinder" by Therapy and was still happily lost in a world of guitars and screeching vocalists. A mere six months later there had been a shift in my musical taste so seismic that I spent an entire afternoon scouring a record fair at the NEC in search of an (elusive) copy of "Hatful of Hollow" by the Smiths. The Smiths! I hated The Smiths with a passion when they were actually still together as a band. It wasn't that I had heard them, exactly, it's more that I had decided that I hated everything that they stood for and I hated the kind of person who liked them. It's a stupid reason to reject a band, of course, but it was exactly the same reason that I had rejected bands like the Stone Roses, The Cure and the Happy Mondays. Ah, the folly of youth. In the case of The Smiths, I think that I simply wasn't ready for them, and that by the time I was a gauche nineteen year old wondering why I was unable to make any kind of meaningful connection with girls, I was suddenly right in Morrissey's constituency. A friend lent me a taped copy of the "Both Sides" compilation album, and although I was sceptical, I gave it a listen in my room in my halls of residence one afternoon. Nothing jumped out at me until I heard this song, when suddenly something clicked in my head. I listened to the song again. And again. And again. Suddenly it was like I had found the key, and I listened to the whole album again with new ears. Like millions of teenagers before me, and no doubt like millions of teenagers yet to come, I discovered a voice that seemed to be speaking to me directly, articulating all those feelings of alienation and loneliness so eloquently. I fell in love with Morrissey. An appreciation of quite how much Johnny Marr brought to The Smiths was to elude me for many years, but for now it was all about the lyrics. Oh, such wonderful, articulate, playful lyrics. I wanted more. It might seem hard to believe now, but at that time it was actually quite hard to find Smiths records in the shops as Warners had not yet re-released the back-catalogue. It was quite a task to hunt out some of those CDs, and yet somehow the search made the music all the much more precious. Maybe that's the reason that "Hatful of Hollow" remains to this day my favourite album of all. The solo work grabbed my attention soon too, and I moved from "Bona Drag" through to "Your Arsenal", "Viva Hate", "Beethoven Was Deaf" and even the terrible "Kill Uncle". I was a man possessed; a man obsessed. I listened to Morrissey almost to the exclusion of everything else, although my new love of The Smiths proved to be a doorway to widening my perceptions away from rock and into indie: Blur, The Auteurs, Belly, Suede.... all found their way into my record collection. Hell, I even began to discover previously dismissed bands like the Cure, The Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. Radiohead weren't far behind, and looking back, I can see that this was the moment where my tastes began to take a real shape: rock music gave me an enduring love of driving drums and guitars, but The Smiths opened my eyes to a different kind of music and a different form of expression. It doesn't take a genius to see why I love bands like Interpol, does it? Ah, but Morrissey, Morrissey, Morrissey....because he spoke to me so eloquently at that formative time in my life, he will always be precious to me. And all because "Half A Person" caught my attention just enough to warrant another listen.

> "The Seventh Seal" - Scott Walker / "Daddy Sang Bass" - Johnny Cash

Whilst at University, I fell in with a mature student on my course. Well, I say "mature", but he was only 25 years old, so not really mature at all, but to my 18 year old eyes, he certainly seemed it. Mark was from Barrow, and as well as having an interest in Early Modern European History, he also had an extremely well developed musical radar and an extensive vinyl collection. We became pretty good friends, and in our third year, we shared a flat on campus and a radio show on the student station. Our show was on a Sunday evening, and we would usually alternate records. I would play something like "She is Suffering" by Manic Street Preachers, and Mark would instantly dismiss it as "Welsh heavy metal" and would insist that I played one of his records... it might be something like "The Man Who Sold the World" by Bowie, or it might be some obscure album of wurlitzer classics by an old bloke with a terrible toupee. I loved it, and I loved the music that he introduced me too. Foremost amongst the bands that I must credit Mark for turning me onto are the twin titans of Scott Walker and Johnny Cash. Mark pretty much insisted that I listen to them both, and I will forever be in his debt. Oh goodness. Having spent much of my adolescence listening to the likes of W.Axl Rose, Steven Tyler and James Hetfield, listening to Scott Walker's honeyed baritone was always going to be something of an eye-opener. What really got the hooks in though was a realisation that he wasn't just some MOR style easy listening singer, but that he was singing songs of love and death and wasted lives like some kind of latter day philosopher. Ah, genius. As with "Half a Person", it was Walker's Bergman inspired "The Seventh Seal" that provided me with the key, and once that strange song filled with apocalyptic visions of a knight playing chess with Death had crept under my skin, my way was cleared for the rest of Walker's material. Johnny Cash was perhaps easier, as somehow I was familiar with his voice and with his songs without even really knowing.

Like Walker, he was another incredible vocalist, but this time I had to get past my stupid prejudices about country music to listen with open ears. Mark and I watched Cash performing at Glastonbury in 1994 on the telly in our flat, and from there Mark played me several albums of his early material - and this was really before his latter day work with Rick Rubin was really returning Cash from the wilderness, and when he was just on the cusp of returning from the wilderness of the terminally uncool. Mark didn't care about any of that: he just loved Cash as an artist and he passed that love onto me. Never mind "Hurt", I fell in love with Cash over "Daddy Sang Bass", an entirely silly song that he did with the Carter family. Walker and Cash: two absolute titans. It's not that they particularly led me onto other bands, more that they were both a complete, totally satisfying meal by themselves. Thank you Mark. Thank you.

> "Dylan in the Movies" / "Fox in the Snow" - Belle & Sebastian

You might have thought that my experiences with The Smiths would have warned me against being too vehemently opposed to a band that I had never listened to... but no. Without ever really hearing them, I was absolutely dead set on the opinion that Belle & Sebastian were everything I hated about music. Fey, weedy indie wastrels. My opinion of them seemed to be confirmed when I saw them playing their much heralded first appearance on Top of the Pops with "Legal Man". As an avid reader of the NME, I knew that this was a big thing, as previously the band had refused to appear. Curious, I checked them out: they were an absolute, tuneless shambles. Opinion confirmed..... and then I went to visit Justin, a friend of mine who lived in London - perhaps as late as 1998 or 1999. As we sat drinking wine, my friend popped an album on. Initially it was just background music, but after a while it started to creep under my skin and I had to ask him what it was. It was, of course, Belle & Sebastian. I looked at the album cover, "If You're Feeling Sinister", with amazement. Yet again, my stupid prejudices had to be discarded in the face of the evidence being presented to my own ears. I bought the album and I absolutely adore the album. It's one of my favourites still. Yes, they're fey, and yes, they sometimes sound a bit lightweight.... but they stuck a chord with me in a completely unexpected way and I couldn't get enough of them. Alright, I was already listening to piles of indie by this point, but much of it was still at the harder end of the spectrum. Belle & Sebastian opened my ears to a more folky sound and opened the door to people like Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens and the like.... Mind you, I still haven't got any time for Lightspeed Champion. Fey, yes. Tosser? Definitely. Perhaps he'll be my favourite artist ever in a couple of years time. Justin ditched me as a friend years ago, and in 20 years of friendship, if this is his only legacy, then perhaps it wasn't all a total waste of time....


And that's it. Five songs that each had a massive impact on my music taste. If I had to pick one of them though, it would have to be "Half a Person". I listened to it this morning on my way into work, and even now it tugs at something inside me.... brilliant song.

Music's brilliant, innit?

What music shaped you?



  • At 11:32 pm, Blogger She Likes It Loud said…

    The "gateway" drugs...er em songs? Hmmm...I know The Cars seduced me from my older bro's classic rock into the world of The Clash, Ramones, Smiths, U2, etc. as a wee kitten growing up in suburban Detroit. "Ceremony" (New Order) was why I played bass. Stone Roses were mouth agape pivotal when I really needed 'em. "Made of Stone". Radiohead's "The Bends". The Zombies' "Hung Up On A Dream" - it's one of the most beautiful pieces that will ever grace your orifices.

  • At 6:56 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    mmmm. scott WALKER. assuming you know about "scott walker - 30 century man" the brill doco about the Godlike Genius...



  • At 4:22 pm, Blogger Rol said…

    Could you get Jet Set Willy on the Commodore? I thought it was a Spectrum only game.

    I'm glad I'm not the only one who went through a Smiths epiphany, from hating to loving. I feel less alone now.

  • At 4:50 pm, Blogger swisslet said…

    rol - maybe it was manic miner?

  • At 4:54 pm, Blogger swisslet said…

    any anyway, he had the commodore, and we had first a spectrum 64 and then an Amstrad CPC6128, so maybe we played it round mine along with Sourcery and Chuckie Egg.

  • At 8:58 pm, Blogger Cat said…

    I remember being completely in love with U2 when I was in my very early teens. Boy, October, The Unforgettable Fire and the like. October as a song still stands out as a favourite, and would transport me right back to that time. I loathe all their later stuff, right enough, but still.

    I discovered The Smiths a bit earlier than you, and they definitely went on to shape my musical tastes to an extent for the years to come, and still do. Around that time I fully embraced the Scottish scene, as well as The Wonderstuff and The Icicle Works - what happened to them?

    The bands who were the soundtrack to my years at university feature less on my stereo on a regular basis now, but I look back on them with affection - Teenage Fanclub, Ned's Atomic Dustbin, Carter, Gene and so on. Happy days.

    I think you and I have many similarities (I told my students today to listen out for that Interpol song on the advert - they were more interested in the allegedly hunky actor in it - as an example of when music can make a campaign appeal to a diverse audience, and I have seen Belle and Sebastian live many times) but I do beg to differ on Lightspeed Champion! I'm currently loving Laura Marling, and Ida Maria, who I think also fit the fey tag, but delightfully so.

    Oh, and if you'll have me, I'd love to do Earworms again. At the moment, it's Mysterious Girl (brought to me by my second year class, analysing how the media can make or break a sleb) and that new Keane song. Which is something I never thought I'd admit to.

  • At 9:00 pm, Blogger Cat said…

    PS. I had a Spectrum too. Again, happy days. Someone sent me a link to play the games on the PC, but it's lacking something without the noise of their loading from a cassette tape!

  • At 9:22 pm, Blogger swisslet said…

    Oh, but I like Ida Maria. I can't stand Lightspeed Champion simply because - having seen him live - he seemed to me trying just too hard to be both:

    a) artsy. like foals

    b) morrissey

    I can't comment on a) except that I think all that lot look like twats, but as for b)..... well, he seems to be missing the talent and wit that morrissey has in abundance. Lyrics along the lines of "you looked at my funnily and now I'm going to kill myself" (I paraphrase) cut no ice with me. Awful. Sorry.

    Gene, however, I adore, and was listening to "Libertine" only this week. A great lost band, IMO.

    You're right though, I do think we have quite substantially overlapping tastes, and I should probably check out Laura Marling, eh? Me? I'm currently rediscovering stuff buried on my ipod like A-Ha's last album... which is brilliant, by the way.


  • At 2:59 am, Blogger Del said…

    Ah, yes. Hating The Smiths. In fact, I hated a lot of 80's indie, mainly because when I was growing up in the era of 90's Britpop, the music press was full of moaning old folks beating down the current scene in favour of Morrissey, Cope, McCullogh, etc. I have since altered my perception...

    Records that changed my life? The whole of Sgt Pepper (with the exception of Within You Without You, which was too far out for my 10 year old brain) set me off really. It's now my least favourite late period Beatles album, as I listened to it to death as a kid.

    The KLF's 'Last Train To Trancentral' is the first record I can remember dancing to with girls. Even though it's very much a boy's record. I love that band. Situationist art pranksters that could write great dance music.

    Blur's 'End Of A Century' woke me up in 1994. That was Year Zero for me really. My friend played it to me on his walkman on our paper round, and I bought Parklife on cassette the very next day.

    Goldie's 'Inner City Life' rewired my brain, seduced me into drum n bass, and broadened my whole outlook on the world. From that I got into house, hip hop, rnb, soul, jazz, etc. Before that it was all white bread indie rock.

    Spiritualized's Ladies And Gentlemen LP and specifically 'I Think I'm In Love' was the record I played and namedropped at Uni to appear cool. I also lost my virginity to it. So that's that.

    Foals are great. Artsy, yes, but one of the best live bands in the country at the moment. Lightspeed I like, but in small doses.


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