Albums and What They Mean to Me #3

Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam stirred memories of discovering The Beatles’ 67-70, aka the Blue Album, for they share the same colourful joyfulness. As an intellectual type, most of my most interesting experiences have been internal, as my various discoveries have brought new visions of life. The period when I discovered The Beatles was perhaps the most important transitory period in my life. In my second year of high school I had not had a good time; some of my friendships had ended, and those with future friends had not yet ‘set’. School was little better; I lacked the confidence to hang about with the ‘cool guys’ in my class, and despaired of the immaturity and stupidity of those I was lumped in with. The schoolwork itself had been fairly boring; nothing struck me the way that future things did, whether Educating Rita or trigonometry and calculus.

For my own entertainment I was in a rut. I had read innumerable books about Nazis and WWII (biographies of Goebbels, Goering and Heydrich; the Battle of Berlin) and the Lord of the Rings, but I never got into the Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, and the non-Stephen King horrors I tried were bland and simple, even to my juvenile taste: stuff like The Slugs by Shaun Hutson. Musically I was still in my greaser period, but needing to progress (an urge I had not then fully comprehended) I had wound up in a dead-end listening to the heaviest stuff possible (Obituary, Brutal Truth), while the newer metal coming out was really boring (The Almighty). Something had to change.

Several things seemed to come about at the same time. Towards the end of S2 (I think – this is almost 20 years later!) I stopped going to the Boys Brigade and went instead to Scouts, prompted by some friends, Stuart and Kenneth (never “Ken” or “Kenny”). We had agreed to give each other’s group a go; for a time I went to both; then I dropped BBs altogether, as the games were less fun, Scouts had no Bible stuff, and the Scout leader seemed much better. I also at this time got to know Darren, who was in a number of my S2 classes once they were streamed. I’d never really known anyone who had a living mental interior like I had before him – someone who wrote lists of his favourite things, who was a devoted and passionate fan of things like I was, who read, who when I talked with him was so bright and quick on the uptake, and very funny with it. Initially, though, I was slightly uncertain, as his evident enthusiasms were entirely different form mine. I was never into sci-fi, or Douglas Adams, and he seemed only to know Queen musically.

As soon as we entered S3 things seemed to cohere into a distinct pattern. I was in the same class as Darren in numerous subjects so we spent much class time together. We were in the same Physics class as Bill, another Scout. My friendships with Stuart and Kenneth had also become extremely strong, too, because we had attended the Scout summer camp and had an amazing time. (And Darren, perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, soon joined Scouts too).

So I was forming a group of friends that I was finally happy with. Academically I was happier, as I no longer had subjects like Technical or Music or Modern Studies for which I had no interest. The classes were more mature, from better backgrounds (I don’t mean financially – some absolute wankers had dads who were skippers or oil bigwigs), and more willing to engage with ideas etc. I was exposed to and, more importantly, open to new influences.

I then used to go to second-hand record sales in the lounge of a local hotel, held every month or so. There I had found The Clash, an album by the ferocious Discharge, a Sex Pistols bootleg rarity: I was massive on punk at the time. But when I went there (in October 93 I think) I saw 67-70,the Blue Album by The Beatles. I’d heard some of it before – a friend’s older brother had it – and rather liked it, so I spent 5 quid from my babysitting money on it. (More than I’d usually spend – The Clash was only 2 pounds! – but it was a double album).

It was an absolute revelation. An utter revolution in the head. Nothing, musically was ever the same again. Suddenly the sounds I heard were technicolour, three-dimensional; every feeling, every emotion, could be articulated, not just metal’s angst, anger and depression. Imagination was harnessed to create astonishing, vivid sound-pictures. Not only that: the spirit and camaraderie I had found at Scouts (especially at summer camp – previously my friends and I had always argued and insulted each other to form a pecking order) were there too.

A good album will have periods where different songs are your favourite, as they unveil their secrets over time. First it was the incredible “Strawberry Fields Forever”, its vivid colours leaping at me through the speakers – the purple Mellotron, the mellow, slowed-brass tones, the cinematic dissolve of the zither, the surging mahogany of the cellos. Then the infinite coda-choruses of “Hey Jude”, suggestive of humanity singing and swaying as one, in heart-felt harmony. Then the tender, cheering consolation of “Here Comes The Sun”. Then the remarkable – no the jaw-dropping! – linguistic deconstruction of “I Am The Walrus”, with its orchestration winding ornately around the room like acid-trip flowers climbing the walls. Then “Penny Lane” and its thrilling exuberance and illustrative instrumentation. Then “Don’t Let Me Down”, at first seemingly a little depressing in comparison, revealed its warmth and tenderness and vulnerability. “Come Together”; “Get Back”; “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”; hey, the unforgettable “A Day In The Life”, with Ringo’s unsurpassable drumming, Lennon’s magnificent singing in the bridge and the space-age mind-fuck of the enormous orchestral crescendo – the magnificence of The Beatles, their imagination, feeling and virtuosity (who else could do “I Am The Walrus” and “Revolution”?) impressed me like nothing before or since.

At every Scout camp, at every time ‘we’ gathered, I took my tape of the Blue album, and played it. The others were soon as captivated by it. We now had our soundtrack. Consequently, when I think of this time, I think of the Scout things we did – and since all my friends were Scouts we had a ravenous appetite for every Scout activity. I remember cycling in the woods in autumn, starting with the late dawn, finishing tired but exalted with the setting sun. I remember the camps, singing along to “Hey Jude” with four of us squeezed into one hike tent. I remember cycling over the nearby hills  during the Xmas holidays with Stuart, the trees, shrubs and vegetation glistening with chill frost. I remember visiting our Venture Scout leader’s being-decorated flat and espying, thrillingly, vinyl copies of Rarities and Revolver.

Rarely, over the long field of your life, can you point to a period and say that it was one that changed you decidedly for the better. This was one.

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Albums and What They Mean to Me #1

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11 thoughts on “Albums and What They Mean to Me #3

  1. Scouts, Boys Brigade. and the Beatles.

    Mike, you have no shame!

    I bloody hate the Beatles since they dominated my teeenage musicscape for far too long. Believe it or not, but I can recall hearing the Beatles and the Animals very first singles on a crystal set when in NZ before I was a teenager. Soon after that I graduated to a transister.

    And while we are being painfully autographical, I attended 13 primary schools and some 11 high schools, and still failed to complete the final year. Not that that had any negative effect on my 12 years as a professional uni student.

    Let me be very clear about my gypsy schooling. I did no psychic damage whatsoever, and I still managed to get chucked out of my last two schools for a snotty attitude to authority and long hair. The quality of our teenage years (friends who I still see on a regular basis) would have been even bettter, if we had early access to lots of pot, but that was to take a couple more years.

    My confreres and I grew up on Soul music (Otis, Sam and Dave etc) and Blues (Paul Butterfield and John Mayall) plus all the early Dylan.

    In an attempt to complete the final year of high school I ran into this bunch of layabouts in the playground before their first single which preceded the Pistols and the Clash.

    It is old age which is a hard gig. Being a teenager was heaven. Music, fashionable clothes and haircuts, drugs, alcohol and motor bikes. And yes, even some sex.

  2. Yes, Scouts and Boys Brigade. I wasn’t cool…

    That’s a lot of institutions!! I can see that the Saints clearly were suited for your disposition. That is still such a stunning song.

    I can see that The Beatles would have cast an enormously long shadow, but for me they were entirely fresh and new: apart from inevitable school-songs like “Yesterday”. I hope I’ve captured some of the excitement I felt at that time: it really was phenomenal.

  3. Marvellous post there Mike, though admittedly I’m biased! That second year was indeed a strange transitory one, with the excitement of new friendships, new experiences and our progression in terms of widening interests and life experiences (though girls remained frustratingly unattainable).

    I was thinking about this the other day oddly enough, it was your good self who really kickstarted my musical interests with a home-copied tape of The Blue Album (which had a few tantalising Sex Pistols tracks left on at the end from a previous recording, sadly discoveries like these are another thing that digital music has killed off). From the best-of it was a short hop to the albums themselves with The White Album and Revolver being the soundtrack to prelim exams and the panicked feelings that accompanied them (though in the case of the Pistols, perhaps not the best idea to start with The Great Rock & Roll Swindle), the solo work of George Harrison (“Mike, I’ve decided to learn the sitar”), to Pink Floyd and the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie by way of the Velvet Underground, and so forth. Happy days.

    Incidentally, I had started off at Scouts as a follow-on from Cubs but quickly tired of it, it was ‘the collective’ that drew me back. Just as well, as that group and the tutelage of the legends who were (are!) Brucie and Ken had a huge influence.

    There seemed a very pleasing sense of things coming full circle when a favourite from The Blue Album (‘Something’) was the first dance at your wedding…

  4. I’m not sure I’d call The Smiths “mournful” – they have such an emotional range. This Charming Man, Girlfriend In A Coma, The Queen Is Dead, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, London, Half A Person… all different. Mozzer’s wit is biting rather than self-indulgent, no?

  5. A fair point – I was thinking of specific songs which have that mournful feel (his solo work in particular, most of Southpaw Grammar in particular) or which resonate in that awkward, painful way unique to adolescence.

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