Check the guy's rock records
Now Playing: The Fall
A reader called Charles asked me to fess up about my musical influences - you know, the story titles that are actually records, the little in-jokes in the narrative that seem like a terribly good idea at the time, rather less so five years later. The fact is, though, I do listen to a great deal of music - mountains of it, quite honestly. Very few jobs allow you to sit in a room all day and listen to music, as loud as you wish - writing's one of them, if you have the inclination. I suppose being a master brain surgeon might be another. I know writers need absolute silence, but I'm emphatically not one of them. I can work in silence - and I often do, when it's going well - but as often as not I work to music. What I can't tolerate is listening to someone else's music...
I listen to a lot of stuff - I'm still an avid record buyer; a fully-paid up member of the "fifty quid bloke" demographic. We're the ones who buy five or six records at a time, forking out for CDs that we've read about in Mojo, or that we used to have on vinyl. I fill up Ikea CD racks at a frightening rate. I've never downloaded anything - I've got to own the artefact. I'm still secretly in love with vinyl album sleeves. I read Q religiously until abandoning it a few years ago, when I felt it was trying too hard to be a lad mag. I switched to Mojo and Uncut and read them intermittently; these days I'm more likely to pick up a copy of The Word, a very good magazine indeed. What do I actually listen to, though?
Well, that depends to a large degree on what kind of mood I'm in. I've never really stopped listening to certain kinds of music; I just add more to my collection and dip in and out of it as and when I feel like it. Like many a spotty youth, the first records I bought were all prog-rock albums. I started buying records when I was 16, and I think my very first purchase was Genesis's Three Sides Live. Or it may have been Yes's Close to the Edge - you get the idea. If it had a gatefold sleeve, it was OK in my book. Strange to think, really, that some of this stuff was almost contemporary back then - no more ancient, say, than Oasis's first couple of albums. It was only ten years since Genesis had recorded Foxtrot. I wasn't really into punk, and although I listened to Tommy Vance on radio 1 every friday night, I didn't much care for heavy metal. But Tommy would play the occasional Hawkwind track, so that was OK. My mates were into much the same stuff as me - the only difference being that Ieuan liked reggae, and Dave, Alan and Ieuan liked The Damned and The Stranglers. I did, sort of, but not enough to buy the records. I think I was actually a bit threatened by it. Punk was a big, gob-smeared hobnail Doc Martin threatening to crunch down on the idyllic, fog-enshrouded Roger Dean landscapes of my imagination.
The one thing I remember is that none of us were really into the contemporary chart music of the early 80s - we couldn't give a stuff about the New Romantics and all that bollocks. Ieuan liked Toyah and Blondie, Nige liked XTC, but that was about it.
The prog thing lasted until about 1985. By then I was into King Crimson - difficult, spiky prog - and someone at school suggested I'd like the Talking Heads. So I listened to some TH tapes and was smitten, totally and utterly. By the time I went to university at the end of that year, I was massively into Talking Heads. I'd even gone on a bus to Newport to see the Stop Making Sense film. Not having a record player with me, I bought Fear of Music on tape in my first week at Uni. That's a great album - still is. I really must get it on CD one of these days. I kind of lost interest in Talking Heads after the Making Movies album, but I never stopped liking them.
I bought another tape in my first week at Uni - more or less an impulse purchase. A song had been going through my head for weeks, after I heard it on the radio during a camping trip. It was that remix (I don't know who did it) of Michael Jackson's Billy Jean and Steely Dan's Do it Again, the one where they segue together. I couldn't get Do it Again out of my brain, so I decided to chance my arm on an SD album. I knew nothing about SD, other than they were American. Apart from Talking Heads, I didn't like much American rock music, which I tended to assume was all stuff like Foreigner, Boston etc - urgh. Then I happened to read a remark in the paper about them being "one of the few interesting 70s American rock acts" or something, and my mind was made up. I bought a double casette which had Can't Buy a Thrill on one side (their first album) and - bizarrely - Aja, their penultimate one, on the other side. Stylistically, they're light-years apart. But I liked them both. Really liked them, in fact. By Christmas I'd bought Pretzel Logic, The Royal Scam and Donald Fagen's first solo album - The Nightfly. Listening to those SD albums was astonishing. The Caves of Altamira, Don't Take Me Alive - I can't get enough of those songs. I still play SD regularly - they're one of the constants in my record collection, a band I return to again and again, finding new depths. I don't believe I've dropped any SD references in the books, though - Paul di Fillippo seems to have that gig more or less covered, judging by some of his story titles. The title of this blog, incidentally, is a Donald Fagen song - it's on Kamakiriad, his second solo album.
Towards the end of my university days, I hooked up with some goth types, and - apart from ridiculing my taste in laidback, jazz-inflected soft rock (one of them had a record player, so she'd kindly tape my SD albums onto casette for me) they introduced me to the gothier, doomier, more melancholy side of rock. I'd already discovered this great band called The Chameleons (I heard them on the Janice Long show) and that was OK by the goths, even though the Chams weren't exactly goth as it was known and understood. But my flatmate Ian had a great record collection and he got me listening to all sorts of good stuff, including Echo and The Bunnymen, Jene Loves Jezebel, The Skeletal Family, Sisters of Mercy - basically, anything mid-80s and with big hair, echo-laden guitars and singers who had very deep voices. That kind of stuff kept me going for a few more years. SD weren't making records, Talking Heads were in stasis, so it was a good time to broaden my tastes. By the time I left Newcastle and moved to Scotland to begin my PhD studies, bands like the House of Love were getting a lot of attention on the John Peel show. I liked all that stuff, and started cultivating the indie-rock fan's standard issue wardrobe of black jeans and black jumper.
The most significant musical discovery I made after moving to Scotland was The Fall. OK, The Fall weren't exactly obscure - they'd been on the Tube, I'd heard them on John Peel etc. But it had always sounded like an appalling, repetitive, shouty racket. On a whim, though, I bought a cheap copy of The Frenz Experiment, The Fall's seminal album from 1988, and within a few plays - or maybe within one play - I was hooked, a fully-paid-up member of the church of Mark E Smith. The Fall's output was already vast - the band had been going for ten years already, and were (and have remained) massively prolific, so it wasn't a case of going out and buying all their records. But I did buy every subsequent one, and went back and filled in the gaps when I got a CD player. I still love The Fall. In many respects my initial assessment was valid - they are an appalling, repetitive, shouty racket - but there's gold there, if you've got the patience to sift for it. I've dropped Fall refs into things, but I've noticed that the only ones I tend to get called on are the prog ones. I think it probably says something about the SF reading demographic - and me, for that matter.
I'll leave it there for now, but as we're still only up to about 1990, there's a lot to go. Thanks for tolerating this blatant self-indulgence...
Posted by voxish
at 9:43 PM MEST
Updated: Saturday, 8 September 2007 10:36 PM MEST