I sometimes try to convince myself that music is irrelevant, that it’s just a collection of sounds and is inconsequential and insignificant. I never succeed of course. In fact, music is for me, as for most people, an extraordinary experience that can lift you out of a depression, plunge you into one, or create a sense of elation akin to a drug high or even sex. There is no getting away from its power to affect the emotions..
So I decided to try and quantify and explain the pleasure I get from music, and this set me off on a train of thought about how I come to like the music I like and what influenced my eclectic tastes.
I am as musical as a brick. Fact. This lack of musical ability has been inherited: there is a fair smattering of professionals; doctors, lawyers and the like amongst my relatives, but no musicians! So I remain a consumer, not a creator of music.
My earliest recollections of being aware of music was when I was about eight or nine years old – I know I must have been aware of music much earlier than that but I just can’t remember – and my Mother was listening to the radio and there was some classical music playing. I had no idea who the composer was but I remember insisting it was Mozart, the only composer I knew of. It wasn’t Mozart and I remember throwing a typically childish tantrum when I was told I was wrong!
I do remember the first record I bought though. It was my ninth birthday. It was December 1966 and I was living in Toronto, Canada. My Mother and step-father bought me a Dansette record player as my main present and, with the money sent by my Grandmother from England, I bought a Beatles LP, Beatles in Chains – a slightly S&M sounding name I know! I wasn’t aware of the Beatles phenomenon at all but annoyed the hell out of my parents playing this record over and over. But here I’m leading you up a blind alley. I never became a massive Beatles fan like many of my generation – maybe I was a bit too young to appreciate them at that time.
The next major influence on my musical tastes didn’t come until I was about thirteen and back in England. My best friend, Ian McDonald, had two older brothers, one of whom was at university, and they were into Heavy Rock, Prog Rock; King Crimson and Pink Floyd big time. They had the run of the attic in their Victorian house in Oxford, where I was living at that time, and I would spend hours there having my eardrums permanently damaged, no doubt, by King Crimson’s 21st Century Schitzoid Man and Zep’s Whole Lotta Love blasting out at high volume. I was also introduced to Pink Floyd. I was enthralled by their long, spacey instrumentals and when I went to a late-night showing of the movie Pink Floyd Live in Pompeii, I was addicted!
I didn’t get the chance to see Floyd live until 1977 when they appeared in London on the Animals tour. That was one hell of an experience; ten thousand people lost in a haze of spacey riffs and reefer fumes getting off on the music. I have always loved anything slightly SF and my love of Floyd’s music led me a while later to find Hawkwind, the ultimate SF/Space Rock band. Tracks like Warriors on the Edge of Time, Sonic Attack and The 10th Second of Forever are burned into my memory like a blow from Vador’s light sabre! I have never lost my need to have a fix of Zep, Sabbath, Deep Purple or Hawkwind even to this day.
From then on, I am almost embarrassed to say that I tended to follow the herd as far as music is concerned. Throughout the seventies, I got well into the Glam Rock thing, particularly Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. Remember him? He’s still around and still touring. I’ve seen him a few times and he can still tug at those nostalgia strings from the seventies. I did, though – and don’t to this day understand why – let the whole Punk movement pass me by.
Into the 80s and I got very caught up in the New Romantic movement – Duran Duran, etc. and then in the 90s, the Indie bands; Snow Patrol, Franz Ferdinand, and many others as I try to capture my lost youth maybe?
But there is something else I want to share with you. It may seem from what I have said up till now, that I have tended to stay faithful to the music of my youth like a comfortable cardigan that you can’t bare to throw away. In fact, a few years ago, something happened that changed all my musical perceptions. A friend of mine happened to lend me a tape of guitar music by a guy I’d never heard of: Robert Johnson (seriously, I hadn’t!). I remember taking it from him with a shrug when he said I would love it. In fact, I forgot about it for a couple of days until he phoned me and asked what I’d thought of it. I remember mumbling guiltily something about it being ‘ok’ and that evening, made the effort to play it.
Blown away? I was gone! I hadn’t felt this close to any music since I first heard Floyd and Zep as a boy. Sure, I’d heard of The Blues. I knew that Led Zep were influenced by it. I’d heard Clapton, Cream and the like and had some stuff of theirs. What I had never heard before was raw Blues, original Blues, Blues born from the Delta sung by people who had lived their songs. It cut through me like a knife; chills. I was awed and enthralled by what I was hearing.
Now if you think I am going overboard in describing these feelings to you, I can assure I am not. Unless you have had this feeling yourself, you can have no idea what I mean. I do know I got straight on to my friend – it was late, I remember – and told him how I had felt. “I’ve got some other stuff too, if you’re interested?”
Robert Johnson was followed by the likes of Blind Lemmon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Lonnie Johnson … I could go on!
I think my discovery of The Blues was probably the single most momentous change in my musical tastes and appreciation. I have spent a fortune collecting music and books on the subject and devoured them all voraciously. My initial focus on the early Blues masters has extended widely over the last few years. I can quite happily listen to Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong – I am getting well into Jazz too lately.
But I still prefer to go back to these early recordings of the great Bluesmen. The pared-to-the-bone lyrics, the raw guitar that seems to echo their words. I can see these men now, sitting outside a bar or store in a dusty town somewhere in the deep south, lost in their music. Or sitting on a wooden stool up on a tiny stage in a smoky bar. I’m listening to Robert Johnson now as I write this. He’s singing about a ‘Hard-hearted woman.’ He should know: these Bluesmen wrote songs that were the autobiographies of their lives.
So there you have it. I have a wide collection of music to satisfy my eclectic tastes, even stuff my kids like to listen to!
Is music irrelevant? I think you know the answer to that.