We have a room at the front of our house which we call The Office. It is home to several pieces of musical paraphernalia (amps, music stands, and a trumpet which no-one knows how to play). There are several shelves of books (a lot of fiction, several weighty academic tomes covering the gamut from classical mythology to how-to guides). There is a desk and a scanner/printer.
And no work ever happens there. The room is kind of a joke.
In addition to the above inventory, there are three towering IKEA units (they could be the GNEDBY or the BILLY for the benefit of you Deadpool fans) housing almost all of our CDs. Normally I cast a glance over them and think I should really get them sold (they’re all on the hard drive now), but today I stopped and thought seriously:
When was the last time I bought any new music?
I’ll qualify this a little. I don’t just mean any new music. For example, I downloaded the WWE wrestler Bobby Roode’s entrance music, ‘Glorious Domination’, just the other week. Don’t look at me like that, the song makes stepping out of the shower wreathed in steam EPIC.
In the last few months I’ve downloaded all sorts of odds and sods, usually for spurious reasons and impulse buys.
I mean when was the last time I felt compelled – because of something on the radio or TV, or because of a recommendation – to go out and buy an album by a contemporary artist? A full album, mind you, not just a single. I’ll even disallow new albums by artists whose back catalogue I already own: I’m not talking about completing a collection, I’m talking about breaking new ground.
The answer did not come quickly.
We all know the cliché about losing touch with music as we get older. A cursory Google search of several websites points to a study by Skynet & Ebert which says the nadir of our ability to appreciate new music arrives at the comparatively low age of 33.
As I look in the rear-view mirror, 33 is four years back down the road for me. If the study holds true, then my music taste must by now have calcified.
The last new album I bought was Royal Blood’s eponymous debut. That came out in August 2014, when I was 34, so with my birthday being in July I beat the trend of being trendy by a single month. That’s not even remotely true, however, when you consider I bought their singles ‘Out of the Black’ and ‘Little Monster’ earlier that year (on my friend Suave Soave’s recommendation) and was keenly awaiting the album’s release.
So my last truly new music purchase came in the last year that the metrics and analytics say I was in any way part of the zeitgeist.
That can’t be right, can it? I’m much cooler than that according to every shred of self-image I hold dear.
The last album I bought before that was ‘Good News for People Who Love Bad News’ by Modest Mouse. I bought that in 2014 too, but it was released in 2004. In 2004 I was 24, and that was incidentally the last year I bought a lot of new music, so as per the study I’m going back to safe ground.
In fact, casting my mind back to 2014, the only reason I bought ‘Good News . . .’ was because Modest Mouse were recommended to me in the early 2000s by my friends Monsieur Blanc and Youzanne, and I had never got round to checking them out. So in 2014, I was already realising that there was no new music out there for me.
How did this happen? Music used to be so important to me.
About half of the CDs in the aforementioned IKEA towers belong to my wife. I still remember the very first night we met in 2008, flicking through her collection looking for something to listen to and openly stating to her that I subscribed to the High Fidelity maxim: “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.”
I remember being delighted that her collection was eclectic enough to encompass The Rat Pack comfortably alongside Muse. She was able to defend her ownership of albums by Ronan Keating and Bryan Adams. In the early days of our courtship we both traded on our music snobbery: we went back and forth on Thelonious Monk, Gogol Bordello, Melody Gardot, The Airborne Toxic Event; we dabbled in John Butler Trio and early Kings of Leon. I introduced her to Hayseed Dixie, she taught me that ABBA were actually really, really good.
Go back a few years before that and Suave Soave and I had Thursday Night Drinking Club, which was really just the pair of us flicking through music channels like we were a better-spoken version of Beavis and Butthead while getting very drunk. The many, many debates in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh, usually after a gig, attempting to assassinate your friend’s taste in tunes. Youzanne and I passing notes in an old call centre job, our lists of ‘Chill Out’ songs or ‘Getting Ready For A Night Out’ tunes. Or there were the countless battles for jukebox supremacy in the Liar Bar at Dundee University Students Association, the attempt to dilute or cancel out Madonna with Metallica or The Jackson 5.
And the mixtapes and mix CDs. So many chances to try to impress your friends or turn them on to something you loved. And there was a skill to it. High Fidelity had the truth of that too. Monsieur Blanc made me a sublime CD called ‘Attack of the Short Songs (Because You Can do Anything in Two Minutes or Less)’. Big Soutar made a great double CD called ‘Songs to Wear Black To’. I even cherished a tape my friend Judge Hardie made for me which was basically just his favourite tracks from Tom Waits’ albums 1973-1980; that cassette was literally life-changing.
Those compilations would always struggle to steer a path between the pomp and the piss, but without them I’d never have heard The Slits version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ or ‘A Great Drinker’ by The Wonderstuff or ‘The King of Carrot Flowers, pt 1’ by Neutral Milk Hotel. These and dozens more brought me unexpected delight and earned many replays at different times in my life. I know for a fact my wife still has early mixes I made her.
But what I miss most about new music is the excitement. I look now at someone like the late John Peel or the inimitable Neil Kurkani and I wonder how they maintain their enthusiasm. I remember first hitting upon The White Stripes with ‘De Stijl’ in 2000 and The Hives the same year with ‘Veni Vidi Vicious’ and becoming obsessed with every new release from both (the early 2000s were a good time for bands with ‘The’ in the name: The Subways, The Polyphonic Spree, The Datsuns, The Young Knives, The Strokes, The Libertines . . .)
Go back a little further, and I still recall coming home from an Our Price record shop in 1997 having spent my birthday money on Beck’s ‘Odelay’, Foo Fighters ‘The Colour and The Shape’ and Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ and literally listening to nothing else on rotation for months.
It’s not that the music was inherently, demonstrably better in my youth. I remember my Dad hearing me listening to Nirvana in the early 1990s and calling it “fucking suicide music” (which, given the events of 1994, was an astonishingly prescient review). He clearly didn’t see the musical merits of my favourite music versus his. Music wasn’t suddenly better around the time I entered young manhood.
If we were talking about musical worthiness we could sit and dissect how John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham was the greatest rock drummer of all time*. Or how Freddie Mercury’s five octave range and classical training will likely never be bettered**. Or how it is unlikely modern artists will have the freedom of a David Bowie or a Prince to do whatever they hell they want musically. Considering those examples, we’d never need to discuss the music of my own personal era. All of those artists pre-date my peak buying years by quite a bit.
What I’m missing is the ability to get excited about a new album like the personal classics I listed above. I’m sure there are teenagers and young adults now who get just as excited about Paloma Faith or Maroon 5 or Beyoncé’s new releases as I used to get about my favourites. Those are the albums that become ingrained in our recollection of a time. They become the trite ‘soundtrack of our lives’.
Some part of me has atrophied and died. I don’t feel the music any more.
Roughly 1400 words into this, I’ve decided to write a little love letter to certain albums. These are not my Desert Island Discs or my all-time favourites; they’re probably not even the best albums in my whole collection, but they are albums that have affected me. Back from the technicolour days, the all-or-nothing days – before I became a lifeless, blackened husk inside – these are albums without which my life would have been somewhat drab. The choices, in the spirit of High Fidelity, are autobiographical.
Graceland by Paul Simon
The era: miscellaneous 1980s/1990s.
This album has come and gone from various lists of mine over the years. The very first music I ever owned of my own was actually a vinyl 7” single of ‘Karma Chameleon’ by Culture Club, and the first album was almost certainly a cassette copy of Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’, so this was an album owned by my parents. My memory of summer holidays revolve around static caravan holidays with my grandparents and daytrips with my parents, almost always to Girvan or Millport, and there was a rotation of cassettes always on play in the car to and from those breaks.
As I’ve grown older I’ve learned all about the backstory of this album. I know Paul Simon ignored a boycott set in place by the U.N. during Apartheid, I know he caught a lot of flak for what modern sensibilities call cultural appropriation of traditional black music, the mbaqanga sound, the backwards bass riff on ‘You Can Call Me Al’.
I know Paul Simon’s least favourite line on the whole album is: “And my traveling companions/Are ghosts and empty sockets/I’m looking at ghosts and empties”. I get obsessed sometimes.
At six or seven years old, all I knew was this was the first LP to which I knew every lyric of every song, even the parts sung by Ladysmith Black Mambazo mbube style. It fulfils Great Album criteria by having a tone-setting opening track, ‘The Boy in the Bubble’, and has at least one hit even casual fans know in ‘You Can Call Me Al’. But for me it’s just such a listenable album. It’s timeless, it’s catchy, and it is my introduction to sing-a-longs in the car and the power of music to bring people together.
I have had to veto ‘Best Of’ albums or compilations. Among the cassettes from this period were several mixes my Uncle Malcolm made – the best of early David Bowie, Rod Stewart and Thin Lizzy – and we had a compilation I swear was called ‘Soft Metal (It Ain’t Heavy)’ which introduced me to Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Shot In The Dark’, Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ and Starship’s ‘We Built This City’.
Nevermind by Nirvana
The era: early adolescence.
Sadly, this is a choice that is so predictable it marks me out as the worst kind of musical tourist. Every Nirvana puritan and diehard fan will tell you ‘In Utero’ is the better album. The real fanatic fans will tell you ‘Bleach’ is the truest representation of the band (despite the complete absence of Dave Grohl’s power-drumming).
But I don’t care. I really don’t. This album was my gateway drug to a world of music and represented my first stab at forming an identity of my own (because, lest we forget, it’s not what you are like that matters). I wore flannel shirts and ripped jeans, I wore the smiley face t-shirt that the youth of today seem to think is a fashion brand, and I began to learn to play guitar.
Besides, the argument of the so-called hardcore fans is a reductive one. ‘Nevermind’ was produced to within an inch of its life, but that made the tunes accessible, radio-friendly and played up the catchy hooks that came straight out of Cobain’s love of The Beatles. If you listen to their live stuff – ‘Muddy Banks of the Wishkah’ is feral – the tunes are still there, just swamped in feedback.
The album is drowning in hits, although for me my favourite tune has always been ‘Lounge Act’: that opening bass line gets me every time and it crystallises the band’s quiet/loud/quiet format.
Kurt Cobain was a tremendous songwriter of opaque lyrics and riffs that grab the ear, Krist Novoselic played deceptively funky bass and Dave Grohl provided a Top 40 drum sound. The argument – in the case of ‘In Utero’ – that the better album is the more challenging one just makes no sense to me.
There are many, but Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ and Counting Crows ‘August and Everything After’ are both writ large over my memories of this time. Especially the former, that seemed to be everywhere. There was also an EP that came with the 1995 game Comix Zone which featured ‘enhanced’ versions of the game soundtrack by a band called Roadkill. It was grunge-lite, but I swear it’s still one of my favourite guilty pleasures to this day. I’d put ‘10,000 Knives’ and ‘Seen It For Days’ in a blind taste-test against grunge hits of the day, I swear.
OK Computer by Radiohead
The era: late adolescence.
To completely contradict my final point about ‘Nevermind’, the argument that Radiohead’s less challenging album is the better one makes no sense to me.
Everyone I know seems to prefer ‘The Bends’, and that is a great album. But ‘OK Computer’ was a paradigm shift. Preferring ‘The Bends’ seems to me like saying you prefer the warm glow of candles over an electric bulb: the former is comforting and comfortable, but it’s not great to read by.
From the opener ‘Paranoid Android’ (with its four movements, it’s the best long single since Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’) the album was full of stuff I wasn’t used to in my music. In the UK we were coming to the end of the Britpop years, full of laddishness and faux-nationalism and regional accents. Radiohead brought us slogans, advertising, weird songs about aliens. Britpop had been called the new wave of the New Wave: the closest thing to ‘OK Computer’ was that 1970s throwback, Prog Rock.
With the benefit of hindsight, ‘OK Computer’ was the first ‘grown up’ album I enjoyed. It was the first album that I couldn’t easily pigeonhole into the usual, faithful brackets of ‘songs about girls’ or ‘songs about angst’ and so on.
Aside from the aforementioned Foo Fighters and Beck efforts, 1997 was a good year for albums. The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ (which hasn’t aged well), The Prodigy’s terrifying ‘The Fat of the Land’, Blur and Portishead’s eponymous albums, Daft Punk’s ‘Homework’, The Chemical Brothers ‘Dig Your Own Hole’, ‘In It For The Money’ by Supergrass and ‘Word Gets Around’ by Stereophonics. I remember really disliking Green Day’s ‘Nimrod’ and Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now’ was the death knell of Britpop as surely as ‘OK Computer’ was.
Mule Variations by Tom Waits
The era: my early twenties.
I could write a whole entry about Tom Waits. Just one big fanboy gush analysing every one of his studio albums, deifying him the way other music fans apotheosise The Thin White Duke or The Purple One.
‘Mule Variations’ came along for me when the only Tom Waits music I knew was his old ‘70s and ‘80s piano and tenor saxophone blues and jazz***. I had missed all of the lunacy of his late output from the mid ‘80s onwards, knew nothing of ‘Swordfishtrombones’ or ‘Bone Machine’.
‘Mule Variations’ opens with what sounds like a man trying to extract sounds from sheet metal with a blacksmith’s hammer before a guitar riff like a buzzsaw kicks in, then this weird hunched voice starts telling me he’s “big in Japan, hey boy, I’m big in Japan”. Gone was the bibulous voice that launched a thousand bar-room metaphors, no trace of that deep, wrenched-out wounded howl. This voice was sly, came from the side of the mouth. I was hooked.
Not to say that there wasn’t howling. ‘Filipino Box Spring Hog’ howls plenty, but the howl is again on the guitar. In ‘Come On Up To The House’ (one of my all-time favourite songs by anyone, ever) Tom himself howls like a gospel preacher convincingly enough to make you find religion. Never had I heard such a transformation in a musician, and I doubt I could have loved it more. It felt, to me, like Tom Waits had been stranded in the desert and come back after forty days and nights like some kind of musical revenant.
I was living in my first flat on Benvie Road in Dundee and had been subjecting everyone I knew to endless replays for ‘Small Change’ and ‘Nighthawks At The Diner’. Even I was getting jaded to the sounds of ‘Bad Liver and a Broken Heart’ or ‘Warm Beer and Cold Women’ and even our drunken anthem, ‘Martha’. This was Tom Waits playing with the toys of the bands I usually liked. This was the same maudlin guy sobered up and pissed off.
I was trying to convince myself that I liked ‘Kid A’ by my beloved Radiohead, but I didn’t. Definitely ‘De Stijl’ on heavy rotation, Linkin Park’s ‘Hybrid Theory’ and so, so much ‘Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia’ by The Dandy Warhols. It was an odd year for me, musically, as I was listening to older music and a lot of ‘Best Ofs’.
Reading back over the picks here, I realise my choices were a bit pedestrian and popular. What can I say? The heart wants what the heart wants. After finishing this, I will undoubtedly realise some glaring omissions: these lists are like arguments, you always remember a zinger when it’s too late to use it. I’m already thinking of ‘Amok’ by Atoms for Peace, ‘El Camino’ by The Black Keys and ‘Begin To Hope’ by Regina Spektor . . . these all have more street cred, surely? I love all three of those albums, but they haven’t straddled my life like the giants before them.
I would be interested in what anyone else’s autobiographical list looked like. And – if I’m honest – I’d love to see someone assassinate my choices. I still remember the best putdown I ever had in an argument after watching my friends, The Atomic Dogs, play a barnstorming set in Bannerman’s in Edinburgh. I was trying to force my love of The Pixies on a fellow Nirvana fan. I just could not fathom how he could love the same band as me and not also love one of their biggest influences.
It went down like this, and I’ll end it here.
Me: How can you claim to love Nirvana, but not love The Pixies? ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is what happens when Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’ hits a dive bar and has sex with ‘Debaser’!
My Opponent: I can fancy a girl and still think her mum’s a dog, mate.
I Don’t Know How To Do Footnotes, So:
*There are a dozen easy examples, but my personal favourite is ‘Black Dog’ where the guitar and bass move on the pre-chorus to a 9/8 time signature while Bonham marshals the chaos in good old 4/4 (honourable mention to ‘Kashmir’ where Jimmy Page’s 3/4 time and Bonham’s 4/4 only meet on the 12th beat or so). Also, apologies to Dave Grohl, your drum work on Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘No-one Knows’ is superlative.
**I have read somewhere that Mike Patton from Faith No More has a wider vocal range of 6 octaves, and Axl Rose can go from an F1 to a B flat 6 (which is just a few semitones under 6 octaves, I think?), but whose back catalogue would you honestly rather listen to? And did Axl or Mike ever do this?
***As mentioned above, I got turned on to Tom by a mixtape from my friend, Judge Hardie. That was Tom’s skid row, drunken bum persona years, as much a construct as Ziggy Stardust and, for me, much more relatable. Those songs alone will always resonate to me, as I first heard them on what we used to call a ghetto blaster, living in an illegal squat above a fishmongers on Castle Street in Dundee. I was 19 years old, flat broke, occasionally shoplifting to eat and having the time of my life waiting for my second year of university to begin. I romanticised my life so much, how could songs about being a soused down-and-out not speak directly to me?