The Music That Changed Your Life

As part of one of them there internet memes, my friend Hester suggested I talk about (among other things) “The Music That Changed Your Life”. So here goes.

There really is nothing like the electric thrill of new music, is there? “The full-head tingle” to steal a marvellous phrase from a man I never met. I’m just going to ramble at length here, and see where I wind up.

The first pop song I remember being a fan of was this one.

Shakin’ Stevens “This Ole House”. I’d just turned 4, and if memory serves, the first time I heard it was when it got played at my birthday party. I loved it. Either way, it turned me into a Shakin’ Stevens fan for about the next 5 years. My parents must have been pig sick of the fact that I basically listened to the same two Shaky albums, a Boney M greatest hits album, and Now That’s What I Call Music volume 3, and not a lot else, in steady rotation between the ages of 4 and 10.

And then for my 11th birthday, presumably in a bid to confine my repetitive music listening habits to my bedroom, they bought me a “ghetto blaster”. Or at least a tape and radio cassette deck. And so naturally, I started to do my part to kill music, by taping songs off the radio. I still vaguely remember the track list of the first album I taped off the radio, in that heady fortnight after acquiring my new music playing device. This was the first track on it, and, as I recall, eventually featured a further three times in that 90 minutes of music.

Yeah. I was 11.

Let’s skip through my teenage years a bit. There was a fair amount of Pet Shop Boys and U2.

And then, in November of 1991, Freddie Mercury died. This isn’t terribly relevant, although I did buy the two Best of Queen CDs that got released to capitalise on his death at some point in early ‘92. What was relevant is it meant that this song was not Christmas number one, like it should have been.

Ah, the KLF. It’d be hard to overstate the impact that they, and particularly Bill Drummond have had on my thinking over the years. Drummond’s love of, and relationship to, Art, his willingness to consider it a very very broad church indeed, his willingness to look for merit in things other would dismiss and his attempts to involve others in art have definitely influenced my own views. And plus, there’s a pretty direct line from this track to The Alabama 3, who inform me are my third-most-listened-to act.

Spin on again to the summer of 1994. 17 years old. My friend Lydia’s parents went away for the three or four weeks during the school holidays, and for those few weeks, there was a crowd of us who would pop round in the afternoons and evenings, whenever we had nothing else to do, indulging in those teenager pastimes of strong cider and cheap weed. And, obviously, there was music. A lot of Levellers and PWEI and similar crusty type stuff that I’m still very fond of. And I was sitting there in her back garden as the sun went down, slightly buzzed, and someone put this song on.

“The full-head tingle.” I cannot explain it other than to say that I love this band with a pure, holy, teenage love that has never yet wavered. This track, “Eye Of The Average” throws me back to the sheer bloody magic of summer nights with friends in that period of your youth when you are definitely going to be different and special, and definitely going to set the world on it’s ear.

And we’ll spin on again. University. NIN, Tori Amos, Sisters of Mercy, Dead Can Dance, sundry predictable goth stuff. I’m still listening to them.

Age 21, though, I picked up a few albums that I have been listening to in heavy rotation for the last ten years. All of them gave that visceral response that I really hadn’t had since I was 17.

The first is by Alan Moore – “The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels”. If I could play you the opening track, “The Hair of The Snake That Bit Me”, I would. But it isn’t on YouTube, or myspace. So instead, if you pop along here, you can listen to Alan Moore talking about Art, from one of his later CDs.

The second is Nick Cave’s “Murder Ballads”.

I’ll skip going on about Cave. You’re probably all familiar with his work. He’s one of my favourite songwriters. I worked back from Murder Ballads to his earlier, more challenging stuff. I love it all.

And the third was Tom Waits, “Mule Variations”. This song, “Come On Up To The House” burned itself into my brain the very first time I heard it. More than any other artist, he’s got a staggering hit rate for doing that to me. In fact, here’s a more recent one that had exactly the same effect, just because.

As writers, all three of them are lodged in my head in different ways, and I have a very hard time articulating how and why. Let’s just say I can find wisdom of a sort in each of their work, a connection to a broader mythology born of the everyday. Wow, that sounds pretentious, even by my standards. Look, I could talk for hours about each of them, and I’m conscious that this is approaching a thousands words already, and there are other bands I want to mention. Just leave it at the fact that those three have a massive impact on my tastes and my thinking.

But y’know, this is meant to be “music that changed my life”. I think there’s a case to be made for most of the above. But the others? Well, I am a huge fan of The Alabama 3, The Dresden Dolls, Jason Webley, Johnny Cash, John Lee Hooker, The Fall, Firewater, Flipron, Flogging Molly, Miles Davis and countless others. And like any art I enjoy, of course they’ve changed my thinking. But I think it’s the ones above that reflect a growing love of music through my youth, and really reflect music that changed the way I think about the world, and explain most about the music I allow to change my life these days.

Still, I’m looking forward to the next time I encounter a new band that gives me that feeling….