Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Man With The Child In His Ears

-- or, How to Completely Squander a Rare Day Off.

Gah, it's a tough life being hardcore. But like most tubthumping militants, my irascible, zero-tolerance exterior conceals a heart as soft as a Munchmallow on a cushion in a petting zoo. A sentimental streak wider than a mile. Oh, sure, Hugh Hughes's art-Bambi act may make me boke my own eyes up faster than you can say "How are you feeling today, Otmar Bauer?" (please don't click on that, please don't), but I only need to see half a dozen frames of the wedding sequence at the end of The Muppets Take Manhattan to be reduced to hopeless tears faster than a gay Squonk in an onion-processing factory. So here, to counterbalance some of my hardline excesses of late in these pages, is a little mixtape that I fear will be all but drowned out by the sound of my heart-strings being given a full-on Steve Vai workout as it unfolds.

This all started a couple of weeks ago when I passed part of a boring train journey listening on my iPod to Nik Kershaw's second album The Riddle, from 1984. Kershaw's an incredibly underrated pop writer -- listening back now it's amazing that he was ever bracketed with such Ready Brek-bland contemporaries as Howard Jones and Paul Young, and I still find his first three albums repay more careful listening than I dare say most people afforded them at the time. The best-known track from his debut album Human Racing, "Wouldn't It Be Good", also still sounds remarkably fine, and was, I think, really, the first (more-or-less) grown-up pop record I was ever really excited by. I'd been interested in pop music before that but what grabbed me by the scruff of my young ears tended to be novelty records, or at least records with an element of novelty about them: kids' tv-friendly songs by Adam & the Ants, say, or Madness, or Shakin' Stevens (eek), or Tight Fit (double eek), that sort of thing.

So I started thinking about the ways in which musical taste, as a part of one's individual identity, is formed; how it is that one comes to like what one likes, and what influences the formation of those likes and dislikes. As a child -- more so perhaps in those days -- you're rather passively soaking stuff up: records you're given, music your parents might be listening to, things that get played on the radio or shown on the tv. I loved music from a very early age, but it wasn't until I was about 10 that I guess I started discriminating in any way between music that seemed rewarding and other music that didn't; started to pick out of that influx of sounds the music I want to buy, so I could listen to it when I wanted to.

That seems to me to make the music that impacts on one's life before that age fascinating. Despite a fair bit of downsizing in recent years I still have comfortably 1000 CDs around the place and 70,000 tracks in iTunes and so it's fascinating (in a wholly self-indulgent way) to think back to a time when I had a little tape recorder and just three or four tapes of my own; when I had half a dozen vinyl LPs but wasn't allowed to operate my parents' turntable without supervision; when I'd sit and listen to music radio for hours on end hoping that a particular song would come on that I liked but didn't know the name of -- and what anyway would I do if I did know it's name? There was a newsagent down the road that sold ex-jukebox singles at 79p a pop, but stuff only turned up there months after it had been in the charts. Eventually, of course, like most 80s kids, pocket money would start going on blank tapes, so that as well as listening to the radio you'd be taping it too, hoping to time hitting the pause button (and, later, sliding the faders) so as to just miss the first utterances of the DJ at the end of the song. I amassed hours and hours of this stuff and have spent a good part of my adult life -- good in both senses, actually -- trying to track down rare and largely forgotten songs that I taped and loved as a kid but had only on homemade cassettes that eventually were lost or got chewed.

Well, look, I won't blah on about all this, but it occurred to me anyway that I'd be interested to compile a little mixtape of the music that was most important to me between the ages of about three and about ten, when Nik Kershaw took my ears to the next level. Obviously this playlist is compiled with adult sensibilities at least partly in mind -- there's no joy to be had now with a lot of the novelty songs and tv themes and so on that I adored at the time. Most of what's here I still find on some level interesting or appealing as music, though inevitably a big component in that appreciation is nostalgia: there is a sentimental aura around most of these songs that elevates them in my mind, and which is unlikely to be there in most cases for most users of this blog. I guess readers of a similar age may enjoy hearing a few tracks they'd forgotten about. Even so this is a more than usually self-indulgent day at Thompson's: I've enjoyed myself, but I also feel like I've eaten an entire packet of biscuits. But then, where there are biscuits, and while biscuits are for eating, what's the truly vivacious alterantive?

I'll append a few drivelly notes to the tracklisting for those who want to weep-a-long-a-Thompson's.

Track listing:

1. Mantovani & his Orchestra: 'Theme from Moulin Rouge'

This is the first tune I ever really remember knowing, aside I suppose from nursery rhymes and suchlike. My mother had a powder compact which played this tune when you turned a little key; I imagine it was a souvenir from my parents' honeymoon in Paris in 1972. After the age of six or seven I didn't hear this tune again until I was in my mid-twenties -- you can imagine the Proustian carnage that ensued.

2. The Seekers: 'The Ox-Driving Song'

The Seekers were probably the first group I became aware of, slightly earlier even than the Beatles. Their signature tune 'Morningtown Ride' would be the Desert Island Discs choice, but there are a number of Seekers songs that are, for me, vividly alive with the incidents and qualities of my five- and six-year-old life, including this uncharacteristically bracing number.

3. John Eyre: 'When A Knight Won His Spurs'

One of those songs that you know intimately as an infant and then never really think about as an adult -- though I think Martin Simpson performs it occasionally. Even as a very young child there was a nostalgic quality to this song -- and not just the lyrics, I think -- that I found heartbreaking. At the risk of sounding preposterous, I'm sure I was always aware, even at that age, of living in the midst of loss, of time and people and stories passing; aware too of the need to find some fixity to counterbalance that otherwise unbearable flow of loss. Religious faith of the kind that's gently advertised in this song was never it for me, not then and not now: but I had a deep apprehension of the need to love people, fiercely and unstintingly; and the need to make things, with the hands and the body and the imagination. The same need expressed two ways. I was always aware too, I think, of how much I identified with the picture of childhood vulnerability and bravery that this song beautifully, concisely gives us: "No charger have I and no sword by my side / Yet still to adventure and battle I ride." ...Ah, twenty-two songs to go and already I'm a fucking mess.

4. Maggie Henderson / Fred Harris / Peter Gosling: 'Ragtime'
5. Toni Arthur: 'Jonathan's Zoo'

I was enthralled by tv as a kid; I'm convinced that pretty much everything I think now about art and entertainment (and rant on about here in such supposedly high-falutin terms) I knew, at some level, by the time I was seven -- learnt it from masters: Oliver Postgate, Brian Cant, Johnny Ball, Tony Hart, Derek Griffiths, Bob Godfrey, Maggie Henderson, Bernard Cribbins, Johnny Morris, Sarah Long. There are so many kids' tv-related songs I could have put in this mix -- I'm still not sure how I feel about omitting Freddie Phillips's amazing music for the Trumptonshire trilogy, especially the justly renowned Camberwick Green musical box; and the intensely redolent theme to Cosgrove Hall's Cockleshell Bay-- but in the end I went with these two.

Maggie Henderson and Fred Harris's Ragtime was always a joy, and its theme tune -- neither melodically or lyrically the most complex song in the hit parade but none the worse for that -- has probably popped up in my head every year since its last BBC transmission in the late 70s, like an oddly welcome ringtone going off. Incidentally, I've had the great pleasure of working with Maggie since, on King Pelican last year and now on Pinter's Landscape in Bath next February: and as a result of getting to know and adore her I am now the inordinately proud owner -- or, I think I should say, host -- of Mr Curry, one of the best-loved wooden spoon characters from the original series. What an honour!

I was a great fan too of the wonderfully warm and playful and sexy Toni Arthur, one of the presenters most closely and fondly associated with both Play School and Play Away; I had completely forgotten this song, "Jonathan's Zoo", but found an mp3 of it, downloaded it out of curiosity, and on playing it, was astonished by the clarity with which it all flowed back to me: I'd have sworn beforehand that I'd never heard it, but somehow, I knew every word.

6. Gunter Kallmann Choir: 'Windmills of your Mind'
7. Frank Sinatra: 'Over and Over (The World We Knew)'

I don't know but I would imagine it's fairly common that most young kids are fascinated, as I was, by their parents' record collection. In my case, although my dad had a pretty large assortment of vinyl, I became fixated -- almost erotically -- on a very small number of albums, because most of his collection was classical, and quite heavy classical stuff at that; I didn't mind classical music but I wanted it in pop shapes, in four-minute packages, and not much of his stuff lent itself to such treatment. So there was this small section of maybe half a dozen easy listening albums, and it was those that I played and grew to know so deeply that, having reacquired them as mp3s in the last couple of years, to hear them is almost spooky.

What's also striking, if not remotely surprising I suppose, is how I was attracted above all to the melancholy and the disturbing. What's happening to make a seven-year-old obsess about 'Windmills Of Your Mind', that uncommonly bleak portrait of post-breakup mental distress? It's given an incongruously perky treatment here by the Gunter Kallmann Choir (singers of the recently retro-popular 'Daydream'), whose album Somewhere My Love also included covers of such eminently bittersweet confections as Mary Hopkin's 'Goodbye' and Petula Clark's peculiarly disconsoling 'Happy Heart': but I certainly don't think I mistook it for anything other than a terrifying glimpse into adult turmoil. And then there was Frank Sinatra, crooning such darkly regretful or furiously cynical numbers as 'That's Life' and, here, 'Over and Over', an odd blend of the sombre and the melodramatic. For someone who was mostly otherwise listening to 'The Laughing Policeman' and the soundtrack to Dumbo -- I mean me, not my dad -- it's a curious tone to be enthralled by. But I think the pull of adult darkness and sexuality was always very strong for me and these songs were fascinating, immense.

8. Terry Scott: 'My Brother'
9. Keith Michell: 'Captain Beaky and his Band'
10. Shelby Lynne: 'Someone's Waiting for You'
11. Gene Cotton: 'Me and the Elephant'
12. Leroy Anderson: 'Forgotten Dreams'

When I was seven I was given my own little cassette recorder, and these songs were on the first few tapes I had. One early cassette was the now almost legendary compilation of children's songs, All Aboard, which practically everyone born in the early 70s seems to have owned. Terry Scott's 'My Brother' -- without the dreary sound effects that have been layered over the version here -- was on that, as well as on a more contemporary-minded cassette tie-in to the radio programme Junior Choice, which was being hosted at that time by Ed Stewart. That same cassette had 'Captain Beaky' and Gene Cotton's luxuriantly maudlin 'Me and the Elephant' on it, as well as the Toni Arthur track above. I've more or less reassembled both All Aboard and Junior Choice Favourite Requests over the past few years, from mp3s picked up here and there, but a couple of Junior Choice tracks continue to elude me. It's good to have something to think about, eh.

I should warn you, if you're reading ahead of listening, that 'Someone's Waiting for You' may well be the saddest song in the world ever, making Don MacLean's 'Vincent' and Purcell's 'When I Am Laid in Earth' sound like, respectively, this and this. It's taken from the soundtrack to Disney's The Rescuers, a film I've never seen and I don't suppose I ever will. (There aren't many Disney films I like very much and I can't imagine The Rescuers would be one of them.) I used to rather dislike this song as a kid, finding it a bit soppy and saccharine compared with the more robust songs that flanked it on my Disney compilation tape, one of which was the satisfyingly raucous 'Everybody Wants to be a Cat' from The Aristocats. Nowadays, I know it's soppy and saccharine, a tearjerker-by-numbers, but there's something magnificently efficient about it that I wholeheartedly love. I mean seriously, without reservation. If I ever get round to doing that 'at the piano' cabaret show in Edinburgh that I've been secretly fantasizing about -- not least because, if he ever got to hear of it, Ben Watson would surely simultaneously puke and shit himself to death, which would make me laugh very heartily and protractedly and with quite enormous pleasure -- I will offer the world my version of 'Someone's Waiting for You'. It will be a little bit slower and a little bit sadder and it will never, ever end.

And, oh, God, Leroy Anderson's 'Forgotten Dreams'. Well this is a tune I got to know from a tape by session flautist Adrian Brett -- the pound-shop James Galway, if James Galway weren't already the pound-shop James Galway; and, again, though I knew it very well as a seven-year-old, I became fond of it -- deeply, lachrymosely fond -- only as an adult. Weird that it should transport me, in such a welter of affection, back to a time when the same piece made me want to kick my cassette recorder across the room. When we started making Longwave, my 2006 show with Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood, one of the tasks we were trying to set ourselves was to use this tune, and a number of other equally hackneyed and sentimental old chestnuts, without any trace of irony or undercutting; although that remained a thread in the piece, 'Forgotten Dreams' was only briefly heard, in the version by Eddie Calvert. Probably for the best, don't you think.

13. Ruby: 'Bart'
14. Gordon Langford: 'A Walk in the Black Forest'

In the old days, kids -- you won't believe this, but -- tv programmes often didn't fit together very well. Moreover, BBC2 sometimes wouldn't start until the afternoon, or would wake up in the morning and then have a little siesta later on. You might spend quite long periods gazing at cards that said "the next programme will follow shortly". These 'junctions', as I believe they're known in the trade, were particularly common between programming for schools, where a circle of disappearing dots or lines would count down the last minute before the programme started, presumably partly to assist classroom teachers in an era where VCRs still weren't entirely commonplace.

The music that was played over junctions, or during test card periods or protracted opportunities to enjoy 'Pages from Ceefax' &c., was often more captivating than the programmes themselves; some tracks would recur quite frequently, so that they became as familiar to their audience as chart hits. As an eight- or nine-year-old, one of my favourite pieces of music in the world was a chugging guitar-based instrumental that featured a chord sequence and a riff in its chorus that snagged on the brain and would go round and round for whole days. I never forgot it and even in my teens I was trying to track it down: in those pre-internet times it was practically impossible to find out what a piece of music was unless you had some prior knowledge to navigate by. (It was trying to find this particular track that led to me buying Santana's Caravanserai as a teenager -- not a very good guess, but a good record to know anyway.) Eventually, maybe five years ago, almost inevitably, I finally found it on the web, on YouTube. It can be almost guaranteed that, if a tune stuck in your head when you were eight, it stuck in other people's heads too. A couple of years ago, I finally managed to get a copy of the track in question -- 'Bart' by the pretty obscure US rock band Ruby -- on CD. I still think it sounds great. And if you want to know what it sounded like over a Schools TV junction: well, here you go. Knock yourself out.

Another common feature of those televisual downtimes in the late 70s especially was a notable (and, to me, delightful) preponderance of analogue synth music: not the sober soundscapes of Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre, but the jaunty, ineffably kitsch stylings of the likes of Harry Breuer and Claude Denjean. Music created on synthesizers still sounded incredibly novel, even alien, to my young self; I remember having a blank Pye C60 labelled 'SPACE MUSIC' on which I'd record these fantastically exciting Moogish delicacies direct from the tv through the condenser mic on my portable tape recorder. (Later I impetuously used the same tape to record some more earthbound orchestral testcard music and can still remember the feelings of self-recrimination as I was forced to modify the title of the cassette to read 'SPACE MUSIC (and ordinary)'. Anyway: I've no idea whether Gordon Langford's ARP synth rendering of the easy-listening classic 'A Walk in the Black Forest' was ever used to accompany a Ceefax travel report or "Look & Read follows shortly" card, but it's perfectly typical of the kind of stuff that ended up on my SPACE MUSIC tape, and even in its present-day quaintness it still sounds oddly futuristic to these ears.

15. Pointer Sisters: 'Pinball Number Count'

There were three regular number-based animations on Sesame Street, all of which would normally be featured in an hour-long episode: the amiable Baker series, culminating each time in an ecstatic moment of patisserie slapstick; the slightly terrifying late 60s electric-jazz spies series, bombarding bewildered kids with a near-overload of trippy visuals and a tricky time signature doodled all over by vocals from Grace Slick (who of course would later favour us with the truly atrocious 'We Built This City' et al); and, perhaps most fondly remembered at this distance, the pinball series. Astonishing to think that the slinky, funky music for these was provided by the Pointer Sisters, who went on to record some great 80s singles such as 'Jump (For My Love)' and the sublime 'Automatic'. (I used to know a terrific bit of gossip about one of the Pointer Sisters and a large consignment of cocaine, but I can no longer remember enough of the details to be able to relate it. I'll check and get back to you.)

As a sixth former I started a sort of jazz/rock band and we used to cover 'Pinball Number Count': though, not knowing how it was officially referred to, we informally entitled it 'Dozen Matter', in an early example of the dazzling pun-play for which I am now known and, er, patchily tolerated.

16. Vladimir Cosma: 'David's Song'
17. Gordon Giltrap: 'Heartsong' (edit)

It wasn't only kids' tv that penetrated my consciousness. These two tracks were television themes that, again, by dint partly I suppose of their weekly repetition, became embedded in my musical world, and which I enjoyed tracking down again as an adult.

'David's Song' was the theme tune to a dramatization of Kidnapped -- a Sunday afternoon slot, if I remember correctly; the music is by Vladimir Cosma, who went on to be better known as the composer of the famous (and matchlessly French) 'Promenade Sentimentale' from the film Diva, still frequently pronounced one of the best movies ever made, though exclusively by undergraduates who have only ever seen eleven films. Oleaginous Spanish guitarist Juan Martin had a very minor hit with 'David's Song' and it was later co-opted into the nerve-wracking world of Christian pop, papered over with scary evangelical lyrics. Almost needless to say, I find Declan Galbraith's recording of this version pretty much intolerably moving and unspeakably beautiful: it has had me crying in the street and the supermarket on two separate occasions. Curse the iPod. Death to Christian pop. Had I ever got my shit together to participate in Unlimited's lovely Mixtape project, this is the song I'd have used.

'Heartsong' was of course the theme to the Cliff Michelmore era of the BBC's Holiday programme, back in the day when you could get away with putting nude boobies in title sequences, with electrifying consequences for the nation's family teatimes. I still think this is a great track, propelled by Simon Phillips's marvellous drumming; the launch into the keyboard solo is still one of the most joyous moments I know in 70s music. As an eight-year-old I longed to be able to play piano with such fluency. Eventually I could. It was hollow, I tell you. Hollow.

18. Renaissance: 'Northern Lights'

The radio was often on at home, especially in the mornings before school. A pleasant chap called Roger Bennett hosted a breakfast show on Radio Bristol and I could make you a whole other playlist of songs that I associate with that show and that time. I won't because you'd hate it. Randy Edelman's 'Uptown Uptempo Woman' alternated with Randy Vanwarmer's 'Just When I Needed You Most' in the coveted 'Randy of the Day' spot. (No, that's not quite right.) Anne Murray's 'You Needed Me' seemed to be played every morning, as in fact did every song ever subsequently covered by Boyzone and/or Westlife. I think Louis Walsh must have been a Roger Bennett fan. There was Sad Cafe's 'Every Day Hurts' and Supertramp's 'It's Raining Again' and Andrew Gold's 'Never Let Her Slip Away'. Later there would be Tom Robinson's 'War Baby' and Chris de Burgh's 'Ship to Shore' and Mike Oldfield's 'To France'. Truthfully, I think I learned a lot from these songs.

And I learned especially from this song by Renaissance and a slightly similar one, the still-astounding 'I'll Find My Way Home' by Jon & Vangelis: similar only in one respect, perhaps, but a key quality all the same: they built by stacking, by piling up layers of vocals. It's a rudimentary but effective technique and if you go back over the work I've made, there are often sequences that, one way or another, employ it. If I've ever made you cry in a show, it's almost certainly because when I was eight I heard 'Northern Lights' and 'I'll Find My Way Home'. Like, seriously.

19. Wendy Carlos: 'Scarlatti: Sonata in G major, L.209'

More 'SPACE MUSIC', I suppose, but this reached my ears slightly later. As a toddler I had spent hours sitting with my dad in front of his old four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and he'd record me speaking, tracing my development between the ages of about two-and-a-half and five. My preparation for becoming a professional pain-in-the-ass refusenik started here: the idea, especially early on, was that he would recite nursery rhymes to which I was supposed to supply the rhyme words: but mostly, I was a blighter about it, and much of what was recorded for posterity would go a bit like this:

Dad: "Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you...?"

Long pause.

Me: "No."

Dad: [unperturbed] "Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the...?"

Long pause.

Me: "No."

This format was abruptly ceased when at the age of four I offered a satirical rewrite:

Dad: "Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes, sir, yes, sir...?"

Me: "Big fat fool."

Anyway, the point is, after a while I was allowed to play with the four-track recorder myself, learning to thread the thick tape into the spools and make my own recordings. (Yes, some do still exist, and yes, maybe one day I'll show you some. Unless you send me money. NOW.) At the same time I inherited a half-dozen tapes onto which my dad had recorded other stuff -- more Sinatra, lots of Bach; but also a couple of albums by the great Wendy Carlos. I was really captivated by her Moog renderings of classical pieces by Bach and Handel and Monteverdi and so on, and when they were (expensively) reissued on CD a while back I collected everything I could get my hands on. I still think they're great recordings, great reimaginings of these composers' work. I find them thrilling, the electricity that pulses through them, the meticulousness and sensitivity with which they are crafted, which rather belies the immense difficulty of working with analogue synthesizers at that time -- or at any time, really.

20. Peter Skellern: 'Life'

As an only child, and a brainy kid, by the time I was eight or nine I felt like most of the interesting relationships and friendships I had in my life were with adults. I'd go round to play at other kids' houses and mostly really want to hang out with the grown-ups. Friends of my parents had a record collection that I felt very drawn to, and I loved one record in particular, of which I soon bought my own copy (on my first ever sortie into an HMV store, in Broadmead): Happy Endings by Peter Skellern.

Happy Endings had been a six-part tv series (that I didn't see), a set of half-hour musical playlets, and this album collated the songs from it. Peter Skellern was another immaculate stacker of vocals -- the quality of his voice meant he could create huge swathes of harmonies without any sense of density or stodginess -- and an impeccably tasteful writer and arranger of songs. Through him, and albums such as Astaire and Still Magic, I gained my entry into the songwriting worlds of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Hoagy Carmichael, and through that into becoming a budding (and, eventually, not un-decent) jazz pianist in my teens. I suppose in a way being a teenage Peter Skellern fanatic was one of the first clear signals I ever had that I was not, in the end, going to turn out to be quite like the other boys.

I still think 'Life' is a nicely made song. I played it on the piano at a school concert, aged 10. I bet it was awful, but perhaps it wasn't quite as awful as almost everything else on the bill, and I remember the rapturous ovation still, with a little shameful tingle.

21. John Williams: 'Over the Moon'

From the soundtrack to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, of course. I hardly think it's necessary to say anything about this one: just a wonderful lesson, perhaps my first lesson -- I think E.T. might have been the first live action film I saw in a cinema -- in the extension that can be made to the emotional ambit of a constructed event by its underscoring. And if you'd asked me when I was nine I'd have said the exact same thing.

22. The Fraggles: 'Our Melody'

I was a little too old for Fraggle Rock when it came out: I remember buying the soundtrack album in W.H. Smiths at the age of nine-and-a-half and feeling acutely embarrassed; I had a (slightly older) friend who was already into Motorhead, for example. But I was already profoundly attached to the universe of Jim Henson and, to a small extent, I guess I already had a somewhat analytical relationship with his work -- by which I mean, I wasn't so much watching the programmes as watching what he was doing with them and why that task might matter. The songs on the Fraggle Rock album were patchy: some were great, some were not: but I felt OK about that because it was clear to me that something bigger was going on: that the album, and the series, weren't necessarily for me but they were somehow about me, they were concerned with me, me as a representative of all of us. This song, 'Our Melody', exemplifies all the strengths and frailties of the Fraggles, and in liking and disliking it in roughly equal measure now, as I pretty much did back then too, I still love what Fraggle Rock is for, and what it's signalling, and I love that puppetry can be a legitimate way of wanting that, and a terrific way of holding it open for children and adults to access together on an equal footing.

23. Sky: 'Watching the Aeroplanes'

Another record which my parents' friends had was Sky 2, the then almost ubiquitous double album by the fusion group led (uncomfortably, it always seemed to me, even then) by the guitarist John Williams. I'd seen them do 'Toccata', their Bach-spoiling single, on tv in 1981 or so and was pretty impressed by it. I find it completely impossible now to know whether Sky 2 is a perfectly OK album or a pile of crap; certainly there is musicianship, of one kind or another, and I suppose I just don't find that sort of competence as exciting now as I did then: but I guess I was still learning what competence meant, and how I might be able to develop my own competence as a maker of things. Whatever: I still think the build on this relentlessly onward-trudging track is brilliantly judged and pretty exciting. Turn it up loud and pretend you're nine, that's my advice. I think I may actually have pretended to be an aeroplane to this track: though not lately -- but who knows, it might help.

24. Rob Fisher: 'Theme from Datarama'

A little curio to nearly end on. Around 1982, I guess it must have been, the local independent radio station, Radio West, started broadcasting a show called Datarama, the focus of which was the upsurge in home computer ownership; the Sinclair ZX Spectrum had been released that year and there was a massive audience for coverage. What distinguished Datarama -- this seems almost impossible to believe now, but it's true -- was that the last ten minutes of every episode were given over to transmitting software. I suppose it's possible that those readers who are younger than some of the posters on my bedroom walls may not know this: at this time, software for your home computer was mostly released on cassette tape. You would connect a tape player to your computer and play the software cassette, which would load over the course of a few minutes. It sounded like this -- and that's the sound that Datarama would broadcast, the idea being that you'd tape the show off the radio and then be able to load the software they'd transmitted.

As a keen Spectrum user I taped Datarama every week, mostly for these free programs (not that they were ever any good), and as a result I got very familiar with the theme music. It took me years -- not trying all the time, I must admit -- to track this music down: I assumed it was library music and I spent a lot of time trying to find it in that kind of context. Then, one day, a few months ago, I casually Googled 'Datarama' to see if any new information might have surfaced, and suddenly there was a web page specifically dedicated to the theme tune -- it turned out to have been written especially for the show by Rob Fisher, later of Climie Fisher; the site had been made partly as a tribute to Fisher, who died in 1999.

It's a neat little track, absolutely of its era, and it's here partly as an emblem of the way in which the web now preserves so much that would previously have been not merely ephemeral but literally impossible to trace. What this does to our relationship with our childhood selves, I don't know. I don't know which is better, more productive: the retention or the loss. I know that the pleasure and sometimes the emotional intensity of re-discovering something, after a long period of having it only in the memory, is huge. I will always remember the end of the eight-year quest to track down the music used in Complicite's The Street of Crocodiles -- when I got that CD home and hit play, it was one of the most emotionally flooring moments of my life. I'm now at a point where there's very little left on my wishlist -- almost everything (at least everything musical) I could possibly wish to recover from my childhood is here now, in front of me, a click or two away. I wonder where I am. I wonder where I am. Know what I mean? ...Not sure I know what I mean, actually.

25. Nik Kershaw: 'Wouldn't It Be Good?'

And this, then, is where we came in. The beginning of something else. I never bought 'Wouldn't It Be Good' as a single: by the time I'd come round to thinking I really wanted a copy of it, it had turned up on Now That's What I Call Music Vol. 2. (Volume 77 is to be released next month, which is another way of saying, I am very, very old.) Compilation albums may have been among the first nails in the coffin of the 7" single and the pop charts as a whole; but it was because of being excited by Nik Kershaw and Matt Bianco that I bought Now 2, and because I bought Now 2 that I heard David Bowie and The Smiths for the first time -- and for that matter, 'Breakin' Down' by Julia & Co., one of the greatest dance tracks ever: and suddenly, it was as if my bedroom had a skylight in the ceiling that had never been there before.

...Well, as ever, that turned in to more of a marathon than I intended. What a way to spend a day. I hope the self-indulgence is excusable just this once. You never know, I dare say a post like this might accidentally do all kinds of things. Maybe.


Karl James - The Dialogue Project said...

Oh my good God. Thank you. I feel like you've unfolded your heart and I've seen inside your childhood. And mine. You gorgeous soppy man you. And I clicked on the that video. The first one. The man being sick and eating it. Bless you for that too. K x

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Joe Luna said...

shit man, now you've got me re-visiting the whole of "The Riddle"...best. tree. ever.