Memory Songs

By James Cook

A personal journey into the music that shaped the 90s


‘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.

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