This is the story of how a Beatles-obsessed boy can go from a Hertfordshire bedroom to the heart of nineties London, form a band, and survive the decade that spawned Madchester, Grunge and Britpop . . .
Combining elements of music and literary memoirs such as Bad Vibes and The Importance of Music to Girls – along with the more analytical Revolution in the Head and 31 Songs – the book chronicles the author’s journey from early pop dreams, to the high-stakes gamble of moving to London, becoming a signed artist, and releasing a record that Brian Wilson liked. Along the way we learn about the peculiar musical relationship between Suede and Led Zeppelin, Manic Street Preachers and the Waterboys, and how to play ‘Black Dog’ properly.
With a timeline that runs from the assassination of John Lennon in 1980 to Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, MEMORY SONGS combines autobiography with homage: meditations on major recording artists, all of whom had a direct or indirect influence on the nineties pop scene. Woven into this are explorations of some of the author’s best-loved ‘memory songs’. More than just a memoir, the book aims to deliver an accessible, passionate analysis of the music that informed a crucial moment in British cultural history.
THE TWO Bs
‘You Only Live Twice’: Growing up in a satellite town, with John Barry and the Beatles
On the morning of 9th December 1980, I was in the Hertfordshire back bedroom I shared with my twin brother, getting ready for another school day; and listening, as usual, to Revolver by the Beatles. At some time after 8am, my mother ran upstairs crying, ‘ John Lennon’s been shot! John Lennon’s been shot!’ She was wearing a yellow crimplene dressing gown and waving a piece of burnt toast. She was also actually crying. In the kitchen, where she had been making breakfast, the news had just been broadcast on the radio. Mum’s announcement was so horrifying and unexpected that I set off for school in a state of shocked excitement, not knowing if the gates would be locked, the country in national mourning.
I was 12 years old. Despite having owned the album for a few months, I knew little about the individuals who wrote the songs on Revolver. John was the leader; that was about it. Yet it had been long enough to side with the general consensus that the Beatles were The Best Band In The World.
I say ‘owned’, but in fact I had borrowed the record from my father’s house (my parents were in the process of getting divorced; I spent the week at my mother’s and the weekends at my father’s). One Sunday at dad’s, during the handover, I asked if I could listen to Revolver, the only pop album in his otherwise entirely classical collection. It was in there by accident. At my parents’ wedding reception in 1966, someone had pointed out that the Brahms playing on the Dansette was perhaps a little, well . . . fucking boring. A guest had been sent to buy a pop record – any pop record – and had returned with Revolver. I often marvel at the serendipity of this. What if they’d picked up an Engelbert Humperdink LP rather than one of the greatest albums of the 20th century? It’s a bit like going into a bookshop looking for a novel and randomly choosing Ulysses.
I had always been curious about the four austere faces on the cover. They recalled the American Presidents on Mount Rushmore. The sleeve seemed to be trying to communicate an air of importance, yet a second element of the design – a collage of the group mucking about and throwing camp shapes – deliberately undermined this. The cover stood out among the countless Rhine scenes and Alfred Brendel portraits (the pianist glowering Satanically in his thick-rimmed spectacles, yet always looking strangely like Roy Hudd).
Dad didn’t care for pop – it was the enemy of ‘serious’ music – but, for some reason, that afternoon he allowed me to play Revolver. As the first bars of ‘Taxman’ emerged from the speakers, something unusual happened. At the gaunt chop of the guitarist’s bluesy chord, a peculiar feeling arose in my stomach. The only equivalent experience was when the local marching band had trooped around the market square of the town. Each thud of the bass drum had delivered a delicious blow to the solar plexus.
This, however, was subtly different. I knew somehow that the blues was linked to sex, and to a 12-year-old boy this was of urgent interest. I didn’t fully understand what was I was hearing, but knew I wanted to hear more. As the record progressed it became increasingly puzzling. Why did it have ‘Indian restaurant’ music on it? Why were there so many different musical styles? I recognized the laborious ‘Yellow Submarine’ from school, but the next track, ‘She Said She Said’, mentioned death over a tumult of distorted guitars. There were inexplicable developments in the songs: the funny chord in ‘I Want to Tell You’ sounded like the wrong notes were being played; as if someone had made a mistake and hadn’t bothered to correct it.
My parents, who had been talking over one wonderful song after another, decided it was home time. I asked to hear one more tune. A brass fanfare blared from the speakers; then a space of a few seconds, leaving the listener suspended in anticipation. A Beatle began singing (I wasn’t sure which one): he was alone; he took a ride; he didn’t know what he would find there. Curiouser and curiouser. There was something new in the mix: romantic melancholy, a yearning sadness. The verse flowed into the bridge – a descending bassline – the figure that, many years later, Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker, would observe ‘has represented sorrow (in music) for at least a thousand years’. The sequence ended in an explosive release on almost only one note:
Got to get you into my life!
That was enough.
The car was waiting. I didn’t hear the last song, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (probably a blessing; that would have completely blown my mind). I wanted to seize Revolver, confiscate it for further investigation. Perhaps it would be useful, a road map for the perilous teenage years ahead. My father agreed to let me take the record, and, in doing so, passed me into the hands of the enemy.
Dear supporters, just wanted to say a huge thank you to you all for getting Memory Songs over the finish line. It's now 101% funded. I'll be posting here with updates on the progress of the book, and when you can expect to hold a finished copy in your hand. In the meantime, in way of celebration, here's Marc Bolan in a wide-lapelled pink satin blazer and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt singing 'Get It On'.…
Dear all, Happy New Year and thank you for your continued support. Memory Songs has passed the halfway mark now, and we're going for the big push to get it fully funded. Please do keep sharing, spreading the word, and if you fancy pledging again (soon be time to think about presents for Christmas 2017 . . .) feel free! In the meantime, here's a Jimmy Page story that didn't make it into the book. Stop…
Fast forward. A long way forward. David Bowie Is at the V & A, the first survey of a pop star’s work ever held at the museum. On display were guitars, posters, set-models, costumes, album sleeves, handwritten lyrics – all manner of curios and relics from the great man’s personal archive. In among the tat and ephemera there was even Bowie’s coke spoon.
Attendance was healthy. In fact, it was so…
Although Joe was the chief inspiration in the Clash, the tune that recalls the first summer in London is one of Mick Jones’, ‘Train In Vain’. It is the slightest of songs, bolstered only by handclaps, harmonica, a shiver of tape-echo delay, and a shaker that arrives towards the end, to add some jalapeno heat. It’s all about feel; Topper Headon’s drum introduction sits perfectly, is neither too fast…
At some point in 1994-5, I began to suspect the best writer of his generation, or at least the only one interested in the truth, was in fact Jarvis Cocker. The song that convinced me was ‘Sorted For E’s & Wizz’. Its buoyant, acoustic-driven tempo, pleasantly suggestive of floating on MDMA, punctuated by a series of dramatic accents, forms the backcloth to Cocker’s story of disillusion down at the…
At the end of 1992 the most exciting band in the world was Manic Street Preachers. When they made their debut on Top of the Pops earlier that year, the singer’s bare chest was smeared with lipstick, spelling the words ‘You Love Us’, the title of the song they were playing. It was a deliberate provocation to a studio audience they had correctly surmised would hate them. Large sections of the rock press…
The first James Bond film I remember watching on television was You Only Live Twice, on a Sunday evening in 1977. Sitting on scatter cushions, wearing loud pajamas, a melting choc-ice in hand, I recall those two hours as an episode of dissipation; an almost total sensual immersion. Not just because of the obviously risqué content, but the surface elements: the music, the set design, and, especially…
Over the next few weeks I'll be posting a series of extracts from the book (and also stuff that didn't make the cut) under the title Do You Remember the First Time? Named after the Pulp classic, these posts will contain fragments of writing about that revelatory moment when a new song or artist arrives in one's life . . . please feel free to share, and let me know about the first time you heard one…
Dear contributors, thank you for your continued support, nearly 50 of you now, and every pledge much appreciated! If there is a Beatles/Bowie/Bryan Ferry lover of literary non-fiction in your life, or just someone who likes a sharply-written music memoir, please let them know about MEMORY SONGS! And we'll get the book to its next milestone . . . Best wishes, JC
Dear all, thank you for your continued support. We're at 10%! Please keep spreading the word!
Very best wishes,
These people are helping to fund Memory Songs.