In this, the first part of an occasional blog series, I’m listing some of my favourite songs and sharing a few of my thoughts about them, as well as some memories. These are tracks that, over the years, I’ve formed emotional attachments to, rather than simply come to love as good records (though they’re certainly those too). They’re songs I play to take me back to certain times and places. If you catch me cueing up a few of these tracks, chances are I’m trying to time travel – to capture old feelings, to feel the rush of a life lived, and to shed a few happy tears while I snuggle into my musical comfort blanket.
“Is there room for two in that blanket?” I hear you ask. Of course not – music appreciation is subjective, silly! – but you’re welcome to sit with me while I reminisce. You can even have a listen to the records if you like – well, most of them – thanks to the handy YouTube links I’ve included. Just click the coloured headings. Many of the links go to unofficial uploads, so you risk going to Hell and frying like an egg for all eternity. Still, that’s a small price to pay.
Ready? Then here we go: 11 songs that make up the first record in a set of compilation albums I’m calling This One’s For Me.
I was too young to appreciate the original wave of punk when it hit. I first heard the Sex Pistols around 1984, through my then best friend, David, who was fond of scrawling ‘Anarchy In The UK’ on his pencil case (and other such places that matter when you’re 14). He never spelt it right, though, so to the unaware it looked like he was a big fan of British archery.
Lonely Boy isn’t the Pistols proper but, truth told, as much as I loved Never Mind The Bollocks, I was even more enamoured with the post-Rotten tracks. Listening now to songs such as Silly Thing and No One Is Innocent, I can hear very obvious echoes of stuff I’d go on to discover in my 20s - that whole pub-rock-meets-punk thing that The Boys did so well. And Steve Jones is still my favourite Sex Pistol.
As for David, well, sadly, he died in a cycling accident when he was 21. Listening to The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, I often think of him. It was a copy of his vinyl album that graced my cassette player as a young teenager.
I don’t often have friends round to my house – they do so clutter it up – but in the spring of the space year 2000 I broke with tradition and spent a wonderfully boozy afternoon in the company of a young man called Rich Warren (who, incidentally, went on to form the splendid Jesse James), playing records and putting the world to rights. It was something I’d not done for far too long, and I felt like I was 18 again. When he left, I wanted to preserve my mood, so I stuck on Not Alone by Bernard Butler – and burst into tears.
That intro, with its Spectorish swell and joyous explosion of strings, is magical – a moment of catharsis every time I hear it – but the entire song is a release. “I won’t need to show you my heart, ‘cos all I need in my hands is an electric guitar.” This song didn’t come out until I was 28, but it reminds me of my teenage years. I hadn’t got a clue what I was doing, but I had my record collection and I knew that it’d look after me.
I was raised on Elvis, so he’s in my DNA, though I didn’t start collecting his music until I was in my early 30s. Groundbreaking ’50s Elvis is the one that gets the most critical plaudits, and of course I love those recordings. My passion, though, is for late ’60s and early ’70s Elvis – a period after the film soundtracks but before Vegas had worn him down.
Any Day Now is a Burt Bacharach tune from the 1969 album From Elvis In Memphis, and it reminds me of my first visit to the city in 2004 – chiefly because I used it on the soundtrack to my holiday video, where it ran over the closing credits (I’m such a wannabe, I know). Ever since, I’ve heard the lyrics in a slightly different light. The song is about letting go of a lover after they’ve met someone new. So I like to pretend that I never left Tennessee; it left me.
“It’s a mystery how we keep on seeing it through… we just do.” Ginger Wildheart, the writer of The Monkey Zoo, once described it as “a very cynical look at life, death, sex and love”, which it is, but the melody and arrangement make it sound like an uplifting, ethereal dream. As a cynical idealist, I find that perfect, making for an incredibly raw experience.
The song has some very specific memories attached to it, too – of places (Blackwing studios, where I first heard it), events (the band’s debut gig, at the Scala in 2000) and, most of all, friends, some of whom have since passed away, having been taken at young ages by disease, accident or suicide. The verse about death, in particular, breaks my heart. Its last line – “now it’s too damn late to say I love you” – takes my breath away.
Yeah, I know that A Christmas Gift For You is the Christmas album – the one the cool kids dig – but, to counter that, I first heard Baby Please Come Home in the film Gremlins, and I think it’s better than anything else on the Phil Spector LP by a long chalk (I never see it acknowledged that there’s some pretty twee stuff on there).
I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I enjoy the traditional aspects, but another year is at an end, and endings demand reflection and goodbyes. For me, this song encapsulates that swing between joy and sorrow. There are pretty lights on the tree, but my melancholy makes me more of an observer of the season than a participant.
My second favourite Christmas record is I’ll Be Home For Christmas, a fireside slowy that Elvis recorded in 1957 (though it was originally recorded by Bing Crosby). I like to imagine Mr P heading round to Darlene’s place. Two birds, one stone.
When I first met my wife Tara, she was on an end-of-term break from university and living locally to me. Her university, though, was in Edinburgh, a whopping 420 miles away. The first time I visited her in Scotland she loaded me up with tapes for the journey home, one of which was Redd Kross’s 1990 album Third Eye. Bubblegum Factory, the fifth track on that record, reminds me of driving out of Edinburgh, feeling as if everything was right with the world.
“Take me on a tour of a bubblegum factory / I want to see where love is made / Take me on a tour of a bubblegum factory / I want to hear those records play.” There’s nothing too fancy about this song; it’s simple, direct and fun – just a lovely, three-minute slice of sun-drenched power pop that rekindles the heady feelings of a blossoming attraction.
Incidentally, I drove home without stopping (two-minute refuel aside). Eight hours behind the wheel without a break – really silly. Don’t do it, kids!
From back when Wilco were a leading light in straight-up Americana, rather than the experimental troupe they’ve become, Box Full Of Letters is a foot-stompingly good, effortlessly cool track that makes me want to drink beer and reminisce about old times, old places and old friends.
It’s obviously a break-up song, and I love its evocative lyrics. “I got a lot of your records in a separate stack.” The way that frontman Jeff Tweedy pronounces ‘records’, in that oh-so-American way (‘reck-uds’), makes me go misty-eyed over memories of flicking through album covers in my bedroom as a teen. I’ve no idea why the pronunciation does this to me, but I’m glad it does. I’ve always loved songs that reference musical iconography and other artists or songs, and that effect is undoubtedly at play here.
My overriding memory of this song dates back to the late ’80s, when I was sat at a wedding reception feeling a bit sorry for myself, only to find my mood captured perfectly by this record. Why do DJs play stuff like this at weddings? “You cheat and you lie to impress any guy that you fancy…” What could be more perfect to soundtrack the legal union of two blissfully happy people?
Like a few of Mr Ocean’s records from the ’70s, Love Really Hurts Without You is in thrall to classic Motown, a timelessly danceable sound that thrills with the ache of yearning. The song’s hooks for me are rooted in that bittersweet sense of longing: the comfort in being sad. Every time I hear it, I experience its sweet paradox and I’m back at that wedding reception. I once tried to track down a version on CD that matches the warm, bassy sound of my 7″ vinyl copy, but I had to give up because one didn’t appear to exist.
The first time I heard this song, from the album PM, I was two weeks into experiencing the world without antidepressants, which I’d been taking for two and a half years. Without the pills, my emotions were firing again. On one hand, it was terrifying – I felt very raw and was crying at everything and nothing. On the other, it was liberating – I could feel music again for the first time in ages.
A Thousand Sides Of Vinyl straddled both my terror and liberation. Its aching melody sounded so open – it felt like someone asking me how I was, and I just wanted to collapse into its shoulder – while the lyrics reminded me how much music had meant to me before first depression and then medication had taken much of that meaning away. “It’s like they lied in all the pages of the books that you have read, and in the grooves of a thousand sides of vinyl.” As a deconstruction of romantic fiction, the song is elegant and, paradoxically, romantic. And it still melts me.
Driven by a dirty Neil Young guitar sound, Younger Face tells the story of “another five-and-dime, local would-be legend”, a musician on his way down who ought to get the heck outta Dodge because his time has clearly passed. On the surface, it can be read as sincere advice, but some of the lines, and particularly the way Dan spits out the lyric, tell me that it’s actually a sarcastic swipe at the kind of ‘music-press mentality’ that relegates musicians like himself to a footnote once it’s been decided that they’re old hat.
I’ve always found this to be an intensely emotional song – the way the guitars thunder along, there’s a barely suppressed rage to it – and the older I get, the stronger I feel it. “And if you’re gonna bore us to death with those worn-out war stories, at least have the decency to buy us all another round.” I’ve long said that Dan’s old band, the Georgia Satellites, changed my life. That sounds a bit dramatic, but they did have a huge effect on me when I discovered them, a scary 28 years ago. They remain one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, and Younger Face is me looking back to the ’80s and wondering where the last three decades went.
Speaking of younger faces… Still Fighting It is a song that Ben Folds wrote for his son when his son was a toddler. He’s looking at his boy and thinking back to his own childhood, as well as forward to a time when father and son will be able to sit and share a beer.
Ben has a knack for capturing something heartfelt and real in his lyrics, which his melodies always sell perfectly. Here it’s the ache of the chorus: “Everybody knows it hurts to grow up, and everybody does / So weird to be back here.” The circle of life seems to have just struck him. And then there’s the uphill slog: “The years go on and we’re still fighting it.” The acknowledgement, so often unspoken, that adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – that it can be damned hard – breaks my heart.
And on that note, the record comes to an end, the needle skates to the centre and the playing arm lifts with a clunk. Thanks for listening – to it and to me. I hope we get to do the same again soon.