Island Listens

 

Here in dear old Blighty, home of the brash, outrageous and “free”, we have a radio show where people of note (scientists, poets, politicians, celebrities, singers etc etc etc) discuss their lives, loves and achievements with the host while, at the same time, selecting 8 pieces of music that they would take with them to a desert island.  At the end of the show only one piece of music can be selected from the list, they are given the complete works of Shakespeare as well as the Bible…they can choose another book and a luxury item.

It’s an institution.

Sunday mornings.

Radio 4.

A podcast is available…you should give it a listen.

Here then are my desert island discs.

“Age of Consent” by New Order

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When Ian Curtis died it would have been the easiest thing in the world for the remaining members of Joy Division to recruit another singer and carry on or to simply disband, fade away and maybe, one day, grow fat on past glories.  That, I think, is what most people expected…but they didn’t do either of those things, they did something much more spectacular.

They grieved the passing of their friend and then they set about creating something new from the destruction that his suicide had left behind.  Something new…New Order.  A new band and yet the same band.  Stephen, Bernard and Peter joined by Gillian…Bernard took to the mic with a broken, gentle, plaintive, honest voice and it felt and sounded just right.

There are so many things I love about this song…the drums on the intro…the bass (oh Hooky) but most of all it’s Bernard singing, chanting, intoning…”I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you”.  It makes me think about people I’ve lost…those who have slipped away in time and distance, those who have passed and those who I have hurt, repelled and insulted (a bigger list than I would like it to have be).

The best “pal” (not friend…my dad is my only, my best and my truest friend) I ever had was Chris…he was everything I wasn’t; good at sport, popular with the laydeez, artistic, just an all round “cool” chap.  Quite often during our final year at school we wouldn’t be in class, we would be in the art department hunched over my fishtail parka with Chris painting a mod target on the back, or heading for the local shop to buy a fudge donut and a pint of milk, or in the common room watching “Vic Reeves Big Night Out” or “Quadrophenia”.  At the weekend we would head into Edinburgh to The Egg…a too cool for school club at the Wee Red Bar.  Suited and booted we had decided that we were Ace Faces and not just two spotty Herberts from Fife.  The truth is that we were just two teenage boys in charity shop suits who none of the really cool kids even noticed…certainly none of the girls.

I loved Chris and then slowly and for reasons I still don’t really understand…he was gone.  We lost each other.  Life, work, girls and other stuff just started to press us further and further apart.  He lives somewhere in Austria now.  I found him on Facebook a while ago and we exchanged one or two messages but it was awkward and forced.  He wasn’t dead but he was gone.

“I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you, I’ve lost you”.

That all sounds terribly maudlin but “Age of Consent” is also the song most likely to put a smile on my face, set my toes a-tapping and maybe, just maybe, see me dancing…not in public obviously, nobody needs to see that.

“Geno” by Dexys Midnight Runners

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My love for this song is tied, forever, to my love for my dad.

Let me explain.

When I was a young man, a very young man my dad and I went second hand record shopping together.  In a dusty corner of the store my dad found a copy of “Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’, Funky Butt…Live” by Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band.  It’s a rare record by a unique figure in British popular culture.  Geno was an American GI who stayed after his tour of duty and became THE British soul act of the early 1960’s…mainly because he was one of the only authentic soul singers on the live circuit.  Young mods loved him…my dad was a young mod and he loved him.

My dad didn’t get that record that day.

I wanted “Speak and Spell” by Depeche Mode.  My dad loved me more than Geno and I loved myself more than anything or anyone else so I won.  I have few regrets in life but that decision on that day haunts me.  I’m not even close to exaggerating.

Fast forward a few months and my dad has come home with another record…a compilation of choice cuts by Dexys Midnight Runners.  The first track was called “Geno” and it was a life changing experience when I heard it for the first time…a crowd are chanting “Geno, Geno, Geno, Geno” and then a voice, a voice like no other voice and a tale of a young man, the lowest head in the crowd that night, and his desire for something more than school, books and his small towns depressing anti-future.

That one moment was the start of a lifelong love affair.

The lead singer of Dexys Midnight Runners was Kevin Rowland and, make no bones about it, he is one of the few people in popular music to justify the title of “artist”.  No argument.  No other way of looking at it.  The man is an artist.  An authentic, honest and broken, unbreakable artist.

So thanks to an unusual combination of my dads desperate desire to instill a love of music into my bones, my selfishness, an American GI and a bona fide Artist we have a song in this list that speaks of the energy and passion of youth, the passing of the torch from one generation to the next and, most importantly, is the best gift my dad has ever given me.

“Into My Arms” by Nick Cave

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As I write this the full horror of Valentines Day looms large on the horizon.

“Love” is in the air.

Cards.  Chocolates.  Flowers.  Romantic city breaks.  Candlelit meals.

All this and more is yours from any one of a number of daily deal promotions websites.

The sad thing about this is that true love isn’t about any of that gubbins.

True love is about something else.

True love is about knowing that somebody else is more important than you.

True love is about being willing to put someone else first.

True love is free from self and full of other.

I could go on but you get the general idea.

At every supermarket checkout in every Western capitalist country in the world right now you can buy a compilation album of the greatest love songs of all time…ridiculous.

Ridiculous.

There is no need for a compilation of love songs.

There is only one love song.

That song is “Into My Arms” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.  It is full of love…a love that is free from chocolates, flowers, teddy bears and lingerie…it is full of yearning, desire, passion and, most importantly, it is utterly selfless.  It is a song that breaks your heart only after it has stopped your heart and then pieces it back together all within a single syllable.

“It Can Be Done” by The Redskins

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Once upon a time things were quite, quite different.

I had a full head of hair and was, improbable as it may sound, considered to be quite cool…whatever that may mean.

During the heady days of Britpop I was a bit of a face…and what a face I had…certainly here in the tiny Burgh of Edin.  I was the singer in a band (I say singer but that really is stretching things unless by singer you mean “man mincing around on the stage of an empty venue hitting notes only dogs and the deaf could enjoy”) and I was a regular fixture at certain clubs and venues around the city.

I saw all of the big hitters of that now much derided scene live in concert and met more than a few of the major players…my mostest favouritest band of the time were Gene.  Wrongly billed as a sort of Smiths lite by certain music press onanists they were, in fact, the best live act of the 1990’s.  Frontman Martin Rossiter was a brilliant mixture of high camp and street toughs, lead guitarist Steve Mason was filled to the brim with Steve Marriottisms and the rhythm section were tighter than me on a night out.

Somehow I managed to wangle, mangle, my way into the life of the band…I followed them around a bit and eventually they took pity on me and I started to get backstage passes and invites to go bowling with Martin.  There was a heady whiff of fame and stale beer in those backstage dressing rooms at glamorous venues like the Cockpit in Leeds and the Leadmill in Sheffield…a man could lose himself in the concoction. Lose himself I tells you.

Sitting backstage in Sheffield I was introduced to another friend of Martins…a sweet and tender hooligan of a geezer.  Funny, warm and well dressed he was very much my type of person.  His name, gloriously, was Trotsky.  A magnificent blend of skinhead chic and raging Leftist politics…I fell in love almost immediately. Soon we were friends and now, many years and many more tragedies later, it is our friendship that has lasted.

Trotsky is one of the few people I feel comfortable in calling “good”.

He introduced me to a band that he loves and immediately I fell in love with them too.

The Redskins.

They were everything that Trotsky was…skinheads, Leftists, charming and funny.  A band who understood that having something to say only matters if you can say it well.  A beautiful mix of soul, punk, funk and indie this was a band who demanded your attention…which is strange because they didn’t get it from many people.  One album…scratch that, one PERFECT album and a clutch of singles and they were gone.  It hardly seems fair…a band that well dressed should really have set the charts on fire and forged a career that stretched over decades winning new converts every day.

So…because of their role in converting me to the skinhead scene, for their part in my political education and for the fact that every time I listen to them I am side by side with one of lifes most beautiful creatures I give you The Redskins and “It Can Be Done”

“Now My Heart is Full” by Morrissey

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Oh, it could have been any song, from any album and from any point in His career.

It’s a (dial-a…) cliche to pick a track from “Vauxhall and I” because it is the album that everyone hails as his finest…I don’t, I think all albums are created equal in the World of Morrissey.  Today, this day, I have chosen this song for reasons that will be (all too) familiar to oh so many of those boxroom rebels, of all ages and all developmental stages, who still cannot escape the hold that He has over us…and, if we are being honest, we wouldn’t even if we could.

Morrissey arrives at a particular point in your life, if you are lucky, and he rescues you from the false feeling that you are, somehow, on a planet of so many lives alone.  You have friends that you will hold on to, you have family (you may even be the end of that line) but you still feel so desperately alone.

Grotesque and lonely.

Grotesquely lonely.

Then he arrives, trudging, slowly, over the wet sand of your rainy day in Bognor life and says…you are not alone.

The clouds part.

The rain stops.

The voices in your head quiet.

Saved.

Safe.

Rescued.

Resuscitated.

I was in my first year of university.

My parents had secured me “digs” with Edna and Danny (un)Stables.

I slept, ate, read and dreamt in their attic bedroom.

I bought “Vauxhall and I” from Stereo One and rushed home with it.  There, in that narrow room, all alone and far away from the friends and family who stopped me feeling like there wasn’t any real point in anything I needed rescuing all over again.  I placed the slab of black vinyl onto the turntable, lifted the needle and waited for Him to do what he had done so many, many times before…

He did but this time it was even more powerful.

“Tell all of my friends…I don’t have too many, just some raincoated lovers puny brother”

And then a procession of friends from another time and another place…Dallow, Spicer, Pinky and Cubitt.

Tbey beckoned me to rush to danger and I wound up nowhere.

The gang.

The gang.

This barely makes any sense to you now.

It hardly makes any to me…now.

But at the time, oh, it was the only thing that made sense.

I was so alone.

I was so unhappy…I expressed depression.

My heart was empty and then…my heart was full.

I don’t have the words to explain, so I won’t even try to.

Bless you Morrissey.

“Now My Heart is Full”

“Al Capone” by Prince Buster

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A quick glance at this post or this one will reveal my mild obsession with British youth subcultures and style.

The skinhead, despite the many negative representations of the group in the media (not always unjustified), is the look that means most to me.  It is defiantly British, a glorious mash-up (yo kids) of original Mod and Jamaican style to create a hard, sharp look that celebrates pride in your appearance.  Functional and utilitarian for sure but with more than a hint of the dandy.

My first exposure to skinhead culture came from my dad.

We were in the record section of John Menzies on the High Street in Kirkcaldy and my dad spied a 7″ single in a bargain bin.

My dad said that we were getting it.

He seemed really happy about finding it.

I wasn’t interested…it wasn’t Depeche Mode or Erasure.

When we got home we put it straight onto the record player…there was the hiss and the crackle of the needle on the vinyl and then, well then there was something that I had never heard before.

Tires screeched.

Bullets rattled.

A crash.

A bang.

A voice…”Al Capone guns don’t h’argue”.

Piano and brass and “chick-a…hig-ee”.

“My name is Capone”.

This was ska.

This was Prince Buster and “Al Capone”.

I was captivated.  I made my dad play it again.  Then again.  Then we played the b-side…so smooth, my foot stamped, my hands clapped…”ONE STEP BEYOND”.

From that moment on no matter what else happened in my life musically…the obsessions with Morrissey, the flirting with rock-a-billy, the Britpop years…always, always, lurking in the background was ska.

For Tomorrow by Blur

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And so the story begins…again.

“For Tomorrow” is not just the start of Blur mkII…it is the start of a revolution.

“Popscene” and Suede’s “The Drowners” may have been the moment that the idea, the notion, the dream of a new English pop began to form in the minds of boys and girls, and girls and boys, like me up and down the UK but “For Tomorrow” was the sound of the starting pistol being fired.

The race was on.

That such a beautiful, romantic and none more English song should be the one to topple the statues of American rawk and skawk and roll of grunge seems ludicrous…it is the musical equivalent of Walter the softy duffing up Dennis the Menace.

This isn’t just fanciful thinking on my part, look at the cover art.  Spitfires in beautiful English skies, ready to defend the very best of British!

Can I just point out to any Guardian journalists who may have stumbled upon this that I am not suggesting that “For Tomorrow” is responsible for Brexit.  It was responsible for something much less divisive and toxic…a resurgence in British popular music, of British culture and of an entire generation of young kids feeling like there was something more, more sub, sub, substantial in life than the dole queue or the nihilism of Nirvana.

Not bad going for a single.

“Ooo Baby Baby” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

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In 1965 my dad was enrolled in building school in Edinburgh, learning his trade as a joiner.

He had left the rather genteel surrounds of Longstone which, in his childhood, had been a village and had been thrust into the rather less genteel environs of Broomhouse a housing estate that then was a place where violence was common.  On his first day at 2 Broomhouse Bank he had watched a fight break out in the street and had received some sage advice from his father; “You better learn to look after yourself.”

It was advice he took.

Survival of the fittest.

One day at building school one of his friends arrived with an album tucked under his arm.

“Going to a Go-Go” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

After their day hammering, sawing and other joinery that I don’t understand they listened to the album.

It was a life changing moment for my dad.

It thrust him from the drab, black and white world of Scottish working class sixties anti-culture and into the dizzy world of Mod culture, the sound of Black America, sharp dressing, civil rights, scooters and clean living under difficult circumstances.

ABC argue that when Smokey sings they hear violins…not me, I hear the whole orchestra.

When I was growing up my parents rarely played music that people who don’t really understand Mod culture play…there was no Beatles, no Stones, the occasional blast of The Who or Small Faces and more frequent appearances from The Kinks but more often it was the sounds of soul that filled our home.

This album was the starting point of that.

I have settled on “Ooo Baby Baby” because…well, just listen.