Monday, 22 February 2010

Music saves my mortal soul

No 1. Queen

My first Queen album was, as I suspect it was for many people, Greatest Hits I, which I listened to in my bedroom in the house where I grew up. My earliest memories of Queen take me back to that bedroom and that time so potently. I was in the grip of my Alice in Wonderland phase and was trying to draw Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (as I think you'll find it's actually called, fact fans) chess pieces on my wall. Sorry, mum and dad... That bedroom was where I learnt to love music. I remember the day XFM started broadcasting as a pirate station... Melody Maker, my Bible, had told me about it... I had to stand in the middle of the room holding the aerial in the air to hear it, and I think my leaps in the air with delight at hearing the music I loved on the radio probably resulted in interference, but it still sounded perfect to me.

I bought News of the World on cassette with my first ever wage, which I earned doing a paper round. I bought a copy of Emily of New Moon by LM Montgomery, her of Anne of Green Gables fame, with that same payslip. Ten pounds went further in those days. (Yes, I know, that's a great story grandma.) I remember listening to Get Down, Make Love on my walkman in the damp and silent early mornings, Freddie's voice whispering into my ears the only thing I could hear. I went from house to house delivering papers, being appalled and embarrassed by the lyrics, and I was hooked. I remember getting Sheer Heart Attack on vinyl and feeling thrilled that Freddie and I wore the same nail varnish. I listened to The Lap of the Gods (part II, especially) again and again, feeling mesmerised by it and not being sure why.

And of course, as all Queen fans (at least the ones old enough) do, I remember the dreadful, dreadful that that Freddie came on the news and announced that he was dying. My brother and I cried in each others' arms, and two days later, on the morning of my 14th birthday, I was woken up by the news on my radio alarm that he was dead. My paper round took three times as long as it ever had that morning as I read every paper and cried all over it. Fortunately, no-one complained about the sogginess of the pages.

Queen are still my favourite band, and the one thing guaranteed to make me smile when I'm glum.

2. The Smiths

My brother got into the Smiths before I did, and I spent a couple of months thinking Morrissey was weird and hating them before the scales fell from my eyes and I became a life-long devotee. It was Sheila Take a Bow that did it. Throw your homework onto the fire - go out and find the one you love. Who can resist that? The label that the Smiths and Morrissey have as being maudlin and depressing is one I have never really understood. To me, they opened up a whole new world... a world that was romantic, witty, dramatic... a world that let me wallow in the overflowing river of my teenage angst, yes, but which also let me bite my thumb at my enemy and devote my heart to another and stand up for animal rights all in one go.

I was the classic Smiths obsessive. My friend and I spent months upon months playing a game of ever-increasing precision where we would take lines from Morrissey or Smiths songs and test the other on which song they came from. We started with whole lines from well known songs - "15 minutes with you, I wouldn't say no" (reel around the fountain, the Smiths eponymous first album) - and soon progressed onto a couple of words from a rare b-side - 'you don't agree' (Jack the Ripper, Morrissey b-side)... and always, we would get it right.

Morrissey was the first gig I went to. My brother was in the scrum to catch his shirt, and he let me have a piece of the bit he had managed to rip off for himself. It was red gauze. I pinned it to my wall and kissed it goodnight. Oh, Morrissey. Are you really sure you Will Never Marry? I think Meat is Murder too. We could Reel Around the Fountain together, and clap our hands at Margaret on the Guillotine. There is a Light (in my heart for you, Morrissey!) and it Never Goes Out.

3. Nine Inch Nails

Nine Inch Nails were only my favourite band for a little while, but it was a very intense love affair. I'm guessing I must have had my first actual kiss and my first actual disappointment, and I was ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY rather than romantic and fey and whimsical. I still listened to the Smiths on my up days, but mainly, it was all about Trent Reznor. I went to a Nine Inch Nails gig at Brixton Academy on my own and stood at the front screaming the words and believing that Trent could see inside my soul (which was black, obviously - while my head was like a hole).

I still listen to Nine Inch Nails now. I know I'm probably too old for that kind of nonsense, but nothing beats stomping around town listened to NIN and imagining my enemies crushed beneath my boots. Mwah ha ha ha.

4. Madonna

I know, that's a bit of a leap, right? I'm guessing not many people put Madonna and NIN next to each other, but there was a bit of a messy period at uni where I had a new favourite band every week, or so it seems (honourable mentions must go to Verve, as they were still much more poetically known back then, The Manic Street Preachers, who I loved so heartily for a while that I got a tattoo a bit like Richey's but a lot, lot worse (now covered up, thankfully), the Tindersticks, the Divine Comedy and Suede) and trying to catalogue them all is far too onerous a task. Madonna, on the other hand, has been something of a constant presence in my life ever since my ears started appreciating music. Of course, during my NIN days I probably would rather have died than admitted it, but I have always been entranced by Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone.

I remember some endless, rage-filled, stifling drive with my mum, dad and brother when I was a nipper and hearing Open Your Heart, my favourite early Madonna track, on the radio, and it seeming to make everything better. It's a very appropriately named song that, because it does open my heart. It makes me want to leap on top of things and scream with jubilation, the opening drumbeats and the 'look out!'. She was always in the news and everyone had an opinion about her, and she always held me in her thrall.

Skip forward probably 20 years and Confessions on a Dancefloor, which is the most perfect record ever made, was released. I bought it in Tescos at the weekly shop the day it came out and started listening to it in the car on the way home and knew my life would never be the same again now that this new piece of music had come into it. I don't think a week has gone by since without me listening to it at least once. It makes me laugh and cry and smile and feel triumphant and humble all at once. It's the best show I've ever seen in my life, and if anyone ever dares insult Madonna to my face, I will thump them.

5. Prince

Now, don't get me wrong. Prince has released A LOT of rubbish. I know this. But you could fill a day listening to amazing Prince tunes and never listen to the same song twice. Approx. I wrote a (dreadful, angsty) novel when I was 15 and couldn't decide whether to name it 'Late Night, Maudlin Street' after a Morrissey song or 'The Beautiful Ones' after a Prince song. I think Morrissey won in the end, but it was a close run battle.

(*NB - I read the oddest thing the ever day, which is weirdly appropriate given the above. Apparently Stephen Street (Smiths/Moz producer, for those who don't know) is a massive Prince fan, and the drums from Late Night, Maudlin Street are sampled from the bizarrely brilliant House Quake, one of Prince's sillier tunes (shut up, already... damn!). Can this be true? I long for it to be so!*)

Prince is a proper pop star. He's mad and weird and wrote songs with names like If I Was Your Girlfriend, which messed up my innocent little 14 year old brain. He thought he was god, and I think he might be right... think about it, it's the only thing that really makes sense. How else can one man write songs like that, sing like that, play all the instruments in the world like that, dance like that, look like that? Nothing else would be fair!

More to come another day, perhaps.

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