There are just some songs which stick in your head and in your heart. Sometimes it is simple nostalgia (as I’ve said about my youthful infatuation with hair metal), but sometimes – who knows why? – a song just clicks with something going on your life. This is something utterly magical, and something I don’t really think happens, or certainly not to such a strong extent, with other art forms. I’ve never looked at Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist: No 1, 1950 and thought, “Holy shit, that reminds me of when I was doing an IT postgrad.” Or rather, it does – but entirely without the piquancy and vividity of a musical association. I still remember the song playing during my first youth club disco kiss (“Eternal Flame” by The Bangles – not too bad), the one going through my head when my daughter was born, and so on. But then there are songs which just feel richly symbolic to me, which seem to mean or allude to something…
So then here are some songs which just MEAN something to me, for whatever reason.
1. The Smiths, “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”
I had this particular adolescent period I find unusually memorable but find to hard to convey why. Maybe it happens to everyone, but there was a time when everything was keenly felt and rich with poetry. Yeah, I was in love. It hit me like a megaton bomb, radically affecting every part of my life. It was at this time that my writing took off – I had done some furtive scribbling previously, but during this love-lorn year it exploded, and I wrote ceaselessly. Fortunately by this time I had massively broadened my musical taste via The Beatles and the nascent Britpop scene, so the sense of new music suited my feeling of delicate tender exposure. This song is by no means The Smiths’ best, but there’s just something about it – the drama and urgency of the introduction, the restrained (by Morrissey’s standards) vocal but that breathlessness passion, the tight structure, the simple but effective solo (Marr is remarkably lacking in ego for being such an amazingly talented guitar player, more into serving the song than wanky pyrotechnics). In my occasional synaesthetic moments, I get strong vibes of purple and grey off this song – a pinkish purple, not a blueberry/Ribena shade. It constantly brings me back to those mooncalf days of insomnia in warm summer nights, discovering DH Lawrence and EM Forster, long walks through nearby countryside (I used to leave about 9pm and get back about 3 or 4am), and the constant tantalising sense of possible rapture. Aaaah, being fifteen.
2. Sex Pistols, “Submission”
There was something about the Sex Pistols that just resonated with me. It wasn’t just Rotten’s outraged nasal sneer, or Jones’ powerful riffing, or the gleeful pissing on so many national monuments. The Sex Pistols just sounded like the late 1970s to me. I have no idea why this association should exist, given that I was born in 1979, and I don’t think I’d ever seen any of the (now many) documentaries which use punk as an aural signifier of UK political/economic decline, when I first got into the Pistols. The association was so strong that I used to wander round parts of town which seemed similarly “seventies” – there was a closed factory near the centre which strongly gave off that vibe, for me at least. It’s weird because I was only about 13 at the time and so didn’t really know about the Winter of Discontent or the IMF bailout etc. But somehow this vibe communicated itself to me…
This song was written at the instigation of Malcolm McLaren who wanted the band to write a song about “submission” and bondage. Rotten both took the piss and showed his wit saying “How about a submarine mission?” The song is really more about the submission (in the dissolution of the self sense, rather than naff S/M wank fantasies) to the mother-ocean-goddess figure of male archetype. This, funnily enough, didn’t strike me at the time: the song then suggested to me something about someone not wanting to work offshore (which in those days meant fishing, not oil – I come from a long line of mariners) but giving in and winding up in that backbreaking industry. Kind of like Kes and the kid ending up working down t’pit. (Those were the days when industry meant the destruction of potential and talent, rather than being venerated for economic generation). Though that impression has declined as I veer to the other reading of the song, it’s one of those examples where a song creates all these emotions, atmospheres and impressions on me.
3. XTC, “Ball and Chain”
One of the happiest times in my life was in the latter half of my first year in China. Teaching was fun (and easy), the students were lovely, I had some good friends, no bills to worry about, and my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife) was going great. Ah, happy days! And this was when I got into XTC, through their several mentions in the inestimable Bad Wisdom, the greatest novel ever written. My god, but listening to that song brings back such vivid memories! Just chilling out in my teacher apartment, drinking a not-really-earned G&T with the Bombay Sapphire I bought in Nanjing. (The local supermarket only sold Gordons). Spending 10 hours playing pool on my days off (I got REALLY good that year). Visiting Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi for the first time. Inviting all my chums round for a big dinner and introducing them to the shower scene from Porkies. The huge party I threw for my girlfriend on her birthday (the kind of party where language no longer mattered, all that existed was hilarity and goodwill and epic drunkenness). Starting to discover the Chinese internet and blogging scene. My sweet, kind, optimistic, industrious, students. Good times.
This song is typically upbeat XTC (they surely are the most Beatley band of the 80s) with a typically XTC under-cutting-the-happiness lyrics, though actually on the subject of urban “regeneration” rather than bemoaning marriage or relationships. The album English Settlement was much played by me at that period – though, again typically for XTC, it is uneven, in this instance having a classic side 1 and “meh” side 2. (I think only their masterpiece Skylarking is consistently strong – though I realise this is a bit of a circular argument). Still, with songs like “Senses Working Overtime” and “Jason And The Argonauts”, who’s complaining?
4. Sade, “Smooth Operator”
Though an eighties child, being born in 1979 means that while I was exposed to the pop culture of the day, I missed out on the meaning or context of most of it. (My sister was the true eighties child, the one who was a Duran Duran, Wham!, Michael Jackson, Five Star fan). There are some songs though which just connect me to that decade, and this is one. Although I obviously never went to a wine bar then (the idea of even going to a bar and ordering wine was miles off my radar until I was over 30), this song just makes me think of 1980s wine bars and the pseudo-sophistication, the kind of thing absolutely slaughtered in American Psycho, the tasteful jazz, the absurd way that the upper-middle classes disguise getting pished with notions of taste and discrimination etc! Not that I think this is a bad song: on the contrary, I am a big fan of Diamond Life. It’s just so evocative of a particular time and place, one that is now rather despised for its gaucheness. The same dynamic occurs in cultural as in one’s own life: so easy to despise what you once were, even though it made you what you are now.
5. Bjork, “Venus As A Boy”
What was it Garth from Wayne’s World said about “Dream Woman”? “She makes me feel funny, like when we had to climb the rope in gym class.” The first time I saw Bjork was on – The Late Show? Later With Jools Holland? Something Friday night BBC2 anyway. I just remember feeling… enthralled yet mystified. This is when she had those cute ringlets (as in the video here) and whooo, I just felt something I’d never felt for a woman I’d seen on TV before. This was when “sexy” women were presented as dolly birds, the time of Benny Hill and The Two Ronnies and ludicrous nonsense like that. The idea that women could be creative and cool and sexy and funny and smart was new to me. Stupid of me, but it’s true. Anybody who tells you about how feminists want everything and it’s not fair and poor men boo-hoo-hoo – slap them.
Bjork’s delicious melismatic singing, the sheer joy in her face, the understated sensuality of the music…whoa. Really takes me back. You remember how Friday nights used to be absolutely fucking awesome for TV? (Sorry, this is for Brits). Both BBC2 and Channel 4 had terrific shows, from Red Dwarf to The Word to Whose Line Is It Anyway? to Naked City to Later to Passengers to Crapston Villas to Jam.
6. Happy Mondays, “Step On”
This one isn’t such a personal connection, but a cultural/national one. I was in Sanlitun one night with my good lady wife, and in whatever bar we were in, “Step On” came on. I really like the song and started semi-drunkenly grooving along with it (that’s the only kind of grooving I do, I’m afraid). This piqued her interest, and I wanted to explain the whats and whys and wherefores of the song. But, really, how can you hope to do that to someone Chinese? How can you explain “rave” culture, the late 80s ecstasy explosion, the remaking of Ibiza into some kind of sun-kissed drug haven (though long since, of course, degenerated into a tourist ripoff attended by the UK’s Darrens and Sharons), the conversion of the football casual hardcases into beaming euphoric whistle-blowing goons, and the “Summer of Love II”? (Most Western musical revolutions, it seems to me, are drug-led and the rave thing seems to be about the last organic bottom-up pop culture boom – just as hippy was led by acid, mods and punk by speed and folkrock, to some extent, by grass). You can’t, of course. So I probably just mumbled something about it being a cool song.