Early this December, one of my oldest and dearest friends, Glenn Williams, tagged me for the Seven-Day Music Challenge on Facebook. It’s one of those silly games where you have to post seven songs in seven days and say a little about what they mean to you. After I posted the second, I realized that I wasn’t simply posting songs I liked for fun–I was subconsciously describing my life through music. So I thought I would take the idea and run with it in this blog, expanding the original seven songs to twenty-five in order to flesh out my musical autobiography. I have also edited the original Facebook posts slightly to add a little more insight into the songs and my relationship with them.
These songs are not listed in order of preference or in chronological release order but in order of the time they were pivotal in my life. I should also note that these are not necessarily my favorite songs (though many of them are) but songs that tell the story of my life through music’s incredible capacity to join time, place and sensibility into the powerful emotional packages that affect many of us so deeply and profoundly.
1) Freddie and the Dreamers: “I’m Telling You Now” (1963)
I was three years old, so the story goes, and standing in front of a flickering black-and-white TV screen when Freddie Garrity comes on to sing this song. As soon as he started to do his goofy dance routine, I began to imitate him, leaping around my parent’s living room with complete abandon. Mum thought it was hysterical, so I banished her from the room, only to see her face peer around the door a few moments later. A star, albeit a reluctant one, was born.
2) The Who: “I’m A Boy” (1966)
The first forty-five I ever bought with my own money. What attracted my six-year-old mind to this song I am not sure, but it was probably its quirkiness. The storyline was strange, the music subtle yet heavy, the arrangement complex (I love the instrumental bridge with its eerie vocal harmonies even now)–there was so much packed into that 3 minutes. My poor Mum probably had a heart attack when she heard the lyrics, but she was always so cool about letting me listen to what I wanted.
3) Mott the Hoople: “All the Young Dudes” (1972)
Fast forward six years to 1972, and like most kids of my age, I was into Glam–T.Rex, Bowie, Alice Cooper and these guys. The first time I heard this was under the covers of my bed on an old transistor radio. Radio One was always a step behind, so in the evenings we tuned into the much cooler Radio Luxembourg–208 International–whose powerful signal crossed the North Sea into Britain and whose English and American DJs were like gods bringing us manna from heaven. And this was some of that manna: Bowie’s non sequitur hipster lyrics served up by Ian Hunter in a Cockney (rather than a faux American) accent, with Mick Ralphs’ soaring guitar intro and Verden Allen’s majestic organ. Still gives me goosebumps.
4) Lindisfarne: “Lady Eleanor” (1971/2)
One of the great things about being a teenager in the 70s was being exposed to the huge variety of musical genres that existed on the pop charts. This song, which became a hit the second time around in 1972, was a great example of that: an atmospheric, folk-inspired, mandolin-driven song with lyrics inspired by Edgar Allen Poe that somehow was able to co-exist alongside the Glam rock and innocuous pop of the day on Top of the Pops. Lindisfarne were a great feel-good band that never really made it beyond the shores of Great Britain, but the late Alan Hull’s songwriting deserves to live on.
5) Don McLean: “American Pie” (1971)
This is one of those songs that has been overplayed to the point that we no longer hear it. Which is too bad, because it really is a work of genius. It’s an incredible song, with such a singable melody, a barbed hook for a a chorus and a deep yet accessible lyric–a masterpiece of songwriting. I remember hearing the song on the radio one summer day when my family was going somewhere and being in awe. That day, I vowed I would learn to play the guitar, and a few years later, I learned the song and it became a staple in my solo show. Like the song or not, I can personally testify to its power. It saved many a show for me.
6) The Sensational Alex Harvey Band: “Give My Compliments to the Chef” (1975)
I’ve sung the SAHB’s praises elsewhere in these pages, and talked about the effect this song’s double-time section had on a live audience. This performance, from the Old Grey Whistle Test, shows them at their peak on a show that was, in itself, incredibly important to the development of rock music in Britain during the 70s (though if you wanted to see it, you had to talk your mum and dad into sharing the telly late on a Tuesday night–not an easy task for a teenage kid with parents who hated rock). Alex is his typical self in this: snarling and crooning, mangling words, playing with phrasing and changing lyrics with abandon. Zal and Chris, as ever, egg him on every step of the way, while the McKenna brothers do their best to stop anarchy from breaking out all over.
7) Ralph Vaughan Williams: “A Serenade to Music” (1938) and 8) Sir Edward Elgar: “Nimrod” from The Enigma Variations (1899)
If you’re a musician or a music fan, you never forget your music teachers. At Whitehall Infants’ School, there was Miss Ward, who introduced me to the xylophone, the recorder, and the delights of Grieg, Saints-Saens, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. Then, at the City of Leicester Boys, there was Chris Golding, who hated rock and roll, conducted me in the school choir in Leicester Cathedral and introduced me to these pieces of music. There is something so English about these works, so unashamedly romantic and folky, that they instantly transport me across the Atlantic whenever I hear them.
9) Genesis: “Follow You, Follow Me” (1978)
I was a massive Genesis fan during the 70s, so I had to put one of their songs here. But, truthfully, this song is not one of my favorites of theirs. So why include it? Simply, it’s one of those songs that evoke time and place so perfectly for me that I can’t look back at my life without hearing it. When it came out, I had just left high school and was waiting to go off to Uni–one of those rare and glorious moments in your life when you have all the freedom of adulthood without any of the responsibilities. Most weekends that summer, I enjoyed some of that delicious freedom on Friday nights at Leicester University, where I would meet up with friends, drink some Newcastle Brown and dance to it. It almost goes without saying that there was also a beautiful girl with long blonde hair who danced to it as well. I never knew her name or plucked up the courage to ask her out, but she, and that perfect summer, live on for me in this song.
10) Ian Dury: “Wake Up and Make Love With Me” (1977)
A few months later, and I’m now at Loughborough University. New Boots and Panties!! is on my dorm room turntable (and everyone else’s). And this song kicks it all off: Norman Watt-Roy and Charlie Charles lay down the most funky, sexual groove ever, tighter than a gnat’s arse, while Ian intones lyrics that are funny and crude and perfect for all us horny freshmen and women. At some point in every party I went to that year, the lights would go out, this would come on the stereo and we would all begin dancing in hopes of pulling someone for a “proper wriggle/In the naughty naked nude.” Sadly, it never happened. At least, not to me.
11) The Police: “Can’t Stand Losing You” (1978/79) and 12) The Jam: “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” (1978)
My freshman year at Loughborough was nothing short of amazing. The University music scene was incredibly vibrant, and I was lucky enough to land a gig as a singer in The Big Jobs, a really eclectic band that was in pretty heavy demand on campus. Meanwhile, Punk/New Wave had reached its zenith, and these two bands played our new Student Union.
The Police, improbably enough, appeared as the support to the poor unfortunate Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias, whom they completely blew off the stage even after tripping the hall’s decibel meter–not once, but twice–and disabling the PA, creating a couple of five-minute breaks in their set.
A few months later, The Jam ripped the place apart, encoring with this song while a mass brawl took place in front of the stage (I had safely stationed myself toward the back to make myself inconspicuous to the punk crowd that probably would have beaten me up when they saw my long hair and unsafety-pinned clothes).
These shows, and many like them, gave us all hope that maybe, with a little luck and a lot of DIY work ethic, it could happen to us. Sadly, it never did. At least, not to me.
What songs define you? Leave a comment here, and I’ll feature it in an upcoming Thoughts from the Guv’nor.