I was half-listening to one of the million or so podcasts in my feed the other day, and whoever it was on whatever it was mentioned something about “12 songs to tell your life story”. Or did they? Is that vague enough for you? Anyway, my immediate thought was Desert Island Discs, which we’ve covered before. And then I thought, no, 12 songs to tell your life story is a different list, isn’t it? Not necessarily eternal favourites or can’t-live-without, but songs that are kind of kilometre markers on the way from there to here.
And of course, getting to my age means that 12 is an entirely inadequate number. Or maybe not. Maybe, after a certain point, everything is rinse and repeat. Here is a link to the playlist on Apple Music — apart from the Jonathan Richman song, which is not available. Domage! So here it is on the YouTube:
- I Feel Fine — The Beatles. This late 1964 single is one of my first musical memories, so I’m assuming there must have been a copy in the house at some point, bought around the same time as Beatles for Sale, and long-gone by the time I adopted all the Beatles records. My memory dates not from 1964, or even the year after, but from the time I was at infants (?) school and going home for lunch. Going home for lunch, everybody. Remember that? When school lunchtime was long enough to go home, eat, watch something on the TV, and go back again? Anyway, a single frozen moment of me, shortly after crossing the Luton Road with the lollypop man, and on my way up Allenby Avenue with the guitar riff in my head.
- Mr Blue Sky – ELO. Not sure I’m doing the chronology justice here, but certainly this song belongs in the late 1970s and is here to commemorate my first proper gig, as opposed to going to a local venue to watch a local band. My sister took me to Wembley Arena to watch ELO, big spaceship on the stage, terrible sound, rattling chandeliers etc.
- American Girl – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. From around the same time. I’ve blogged about that period of time when I was first obsessed with The Beatles and other 60s acts, and my peers at school were mostly scorched earth punk rockers. Lot of peer pressure on me to prove I was not as closed-minded as I appeared. Tom Petty came along at this moment: definitely not punk, but also definitely not the “dinosaur rock” that was being blown away by the Year Zero punk rockers. Sigh.
- Precious Angel – Bob Dylan. I was getting seriously into Dylan at about the time he “went gospel” and became a born-again Christian. I remember my Bejam cold room chats with my open-minded friend Martin, who said that Slow Train Coming was quite good. And I was dead-set against it, whilst all the time secretly loving “Precious Angel”.
- The Ties That Bind — Bruce Springsteen. The River was my 18th birthday present, and I was gone before the month was out. The opening track, the chime of those guitars, and I can smell the sleeve of the album, indelibly associated with that awful December: glandular fever, the death of Lennon, and me leaving home after the last massive blow up by my mother. Christ.
- That’s Entertainment – The Jam. Sound Affects came out towards the end of 1980, and by the time I found a cheap copy of this single, I had left home/school and moved down to Kent to live with my sister for a bit. I was stony broke all the time, but I think I found this in a charity shop (already!). I loved this song, and it still delivers a powerful memory of walking the back streets of Herne Bay.
- Come on Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners. A year or so later and I have moved back to Bedfordshire, living with still another sister, starting my first job. 28th June 1982. A month later, my first pay packet, of course I’m straight in the record shops. Too-Rye-Ay was released on 22 July 1982. And we’re back! Money in pocket, not even touching the sides of my bank account.
- Deeper than the Holler – Randy Travis. How did country music enter my life? I was still working in Luton and living in Milton Keynes. A colleague gave me a tape. On one side, Randy Travis’ album Old 8×10, on the other Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars Cadillacs etc etc. I think the Judds were on there too, but they didn’t take. Nothing at all took until one night my girlfriend, best friend and I all got drunk on whisky and put the tape on. Amazing, and a million miles from what passed for rock music in the 1980s. I was forever converted, and although Randy Travis faded into obscurity, addiction, and was eventually picked up wandering naked down a Nashville street, this song still hits me.
- It’s You – Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Another stalwart of the Town and Country Club and the Mean Fiddler (see below), Jonathan Richman always came closest to the way I wanted to sound. Nine times, I think I’ve seen him live, most of them a joy in one way or another. This particular song, from his 1986 album It’s Time For… is such a lovely sound. I complain constantly about 80s music (again, see below), but the sound of his records was perfect. Acoustic guitar, brushed drums, a little bit of surf lead, no big reverbs, no synths, no drum machines.
- Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way)? – Maria McKee. The 80s is the decade that taste forgot when it comes to rock music. From the acceptable folk-soul of Dexys to Maria McKee’s debut solo album in 1989 lies a wilderness of thin synths and blatty drums. Look, I know loads of people love that shit, but I cannot stand it and I won’t have it in the house. I’ll even go so far as to say that I cannot listen to Springsteen’s Born in the USA album these because of the production values. I bought my first proper HiFi towards the end of the decade, adding a CD player a year or so later, and this record was the opening track of the first CD I ever bought. A little while later, I saw Maria McKee performing at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town, and it remains – probably – the best gig I’ve ever seen. An incredible voice, so loud, so HUGE, that no recording equipment could hope to capture its reality. This record is okay, but McKee in person was something else.
- Lone Star State of Mind – Nanci Griffith. I went to visit John Harvey in Nottingham some time in the late 80s. It’s all coming to a head around now. I’d been in a five year relationship that was ending. My once best friend was just off the scene forever (we’ve talked about this before), and I was at a loose end, still working in the job I’d started in June 1982, but ready to make a move. I ended up falling in love in (and with) Nottingham and applying to the University, where I started the first of my three degrees. And from that first visit, a memory of this song, the opening track of the album of the same name. More great music from the 80s that isn’t rock and isn’t horrible.
- Roll of the Dice – Bruce Springsteen. From that odd little period when Bruce had got sick of the bullshit of certain members of the E Street Band, and had sacked them and gone off to work with some LA Session musicians. And from the pair of unregarded early 90s albums that resulted, comes this, a heavy rock/soul number that is perhaps trying a little too hard, but which stays with me because it was in my headphones when I got a bit low and a bit homesick when I was at the University of Illinois for a couple of months. I learned a lot about myself back then. I’m walking around the U of I campus, I’m lonely and a bit depressed, and I’m about to head back to the UK and start my second year, meet the woman I’d go on to marry, and attempt to brainwash my kids into loving the same music as me. It worked with one of them… and maybe half-worked with the other.