I have been thinking about this posting for a while, in the way that, in the past, you would make up compilation cassettes (or, these days, ipod playlists) for your girlfriend. It is based on the fact that there are some songs or pieces of music that if I hear I will stop dead and listen. In those minutes I am swept away from wherever I am into a really nostalgic place which is rather timeless but generally looks back. They say that the sense of smell is the sense which most stimulates memories, but of course hearing can also do that and in fact given all the music around us you are more likely to hear a random piece of music as you turn on the car radio or walk past a shop or it comes on when you are in a bar, probably more often that you see, smell or taste something reminiscent.
I have tried to identify if there is a particular type of music which does this for me and I think there are some characteristics. The notes have to be long and either soaring or lingering. The theme of lyrics is usually about lost opportunities and are generally very wistful. While thinking about this posting I realised that if I had written it a few years ago I would have included a lot more songs and pieces of music. I think that, without realising, whilst I may not have a positive view of my future I have shaken off some characteristics that I had probably from my mid-teens to my mid-thirties. Throughout the period I had an immense amount of regret about many of the choices I had made in my life, especially in terms of relationships with women which I did not follow up or messed up right at the start, and, to a lesser extent regret about not having the courage to go and see places.
Obviously those regrets often combined with me imagining what it would have been like to have gone to some of these places with the woman in question. I always had a particular vision of picnicing by one of those long avenues of trees in the sunny French countryside, surrounded by green meadows and the sounds of birds with the woman I love and then hurrying back to the farmhouse where we are staying and scrambling into a huge brass framed bed to watch the thunderstorm outside. I am very stereotypically sentimental in these things. Of course I have learned that it is not always a good idea to go on holiday with a partner. I read this in 'The Guardian' in 2003 and the same day booked a holiday with my girlfriend of the time which ended in an utter fiasco as the article had predicted. I suppose dreams often do not feature practical concerns and yet we are willing to pursue them over what common sense might suggest.
Anyway, in that twenty years or so, I regretted so much of my past and had utter fear of the future. Nowadays I think weariness has taken over and the regrets have been worn down like marks on a rock over time, and I still fear the future but am just too tired these days to panic about it. So, in that phase many tunes pricked me to remembrance of mistakes I had made. Sometimes, as with so many people, it was because they were playing when the incidents were going on, they were to coin a phrase, 'the soundtrack to my life'. These days they have lost the power to stimulate nostalgia. That does not mean I no longer like the songs or music, but they do send me off spiralling into that cupboard of wistfulness in my mind.
Ones that have lost the power are ‘First Picture of You’ by the Lotus Eaters (1983) an explicitly wistful song about Summer days. 'Vienna' by Ultravox (1980), in fact a load of things by them, 'Passing Strangers' (1980), 'Visions in Blue' (1983), 'Lament' (1984) and 'Dancing with Tears in My Eyes' (1984) which has lost a lot of strength for me since we are no longer under threat of nuclear destruction. Ultravox, I feel intentionally tapped into that wistful sense especially with a kind of central-European film noir ethic too. The songs remain good and different from a lot of pop music of the time. Maybe I have shaken off that kind of art studenty ethic, maybe I should revisit the songs one of the wonders of YouTube is you cannot only hear the music again but see the videos you remember too.
'Golden Brown' by The Stranglers (1982) is another to have lost force, maybe through over hearing it. Other songs that have lost the impact include 'Real Gone Kid' by Deacon Blue (1988) which was tied to the time when I was living away from home and college halls for the first time and the 'never now' lyric I always misheard as 'living out' and the reference to 'all the old 45s' chimed in with the (unpaid) radio DJing I was doing at the time and the station had loads of old vinyl singles. Similary 'Everybody Hurts' by R.E.M. (1992) was out at a time when I was failing my course (from Spring 1993 onwards) and my future looked even more uncertain than usual (I moved into a room which was so narrow that I could touch both side walls simultaneously), but now just seems over the top in terms of sentimentality. 'In Dreams' by Roy Orbison (1963) was influential on me at the time I heard it in the movie 'Blue Velvet' (1986) and then Orbison's death in 1988. It is a very wistful song about lost love and again it seemed to fit with how my relationships went, but as time has passed I have become discontent with some of the lyrics notably 'the candy-coloured clown they call the Sandman tiptoes to my room every night' though it is probably still the only ballard that I know all the lyrics to by heart; similarly the movement through three octaves in Orbison's rendition of the song makes it impossible to sing along.
Other songs that had a strength on me in their time but lost it as life moved on include 'Never Let Her Slip Away' by Andrew Gold (1978) and ones from my really young years, notably 'My Sweet Lord' by George Harrison (1970/1), 'Yellow River' by Tony Christie (1970), 'Proud Mary' either the Creedence Clearwater Revival version (1969) or more likely the Ike & Tina Turner cover (1971). I suppose I was absorbing these off the radio in my youth even before I was very conscious of pop music and no doubt they take me back to those more innocent times, but more with a warm nostalgia rather than the goose-bump kind the other songs I refer to here do.
Some music and songs have retained the strength to kick me into reverie and those are the ones I discuss here. I will start with the music before moving on to pop songs.
O Mio Babbino Caro - from 'Gianni Scicchi' by Giacomo Puccini (1919)
Now, the first time I heard this piece of opera ('Gianni Scicchi' is the third in Puccini's 'Il Trittico' triology of one-act operas; Puccini lived 1858-1924) was on the soundtrack to the movie 'A Room With A View' (1985 - directed by James Ivory) which in itself, being set in late Victorian/Edwardian Italy and England, aspires back to a kind of golden era. The electric trams of Florence mentioned in the original novel by E.M. Foster written in 1908 and set contemporaneously, are removed from the movie to move it back a decade or to emphasise that element. There are lots of luscious rural landscapes and the story is a pleasant romance with some memorable scenes such as the kiss in the middle of the Tuscan cornfield. The movie divides critics sharply but for a romance it is popular with men, including myself.
Given the setting and the style, it is thus unsurprising that they used Italian opera on the soundtrack and this extract 'O Mio Babbino Caro' (Oh, My Dearest Papa') was already often played as a separate piece. Like most people I like to hear the most dramatic bits of operas rather than being able to sit through the whole thing; this is one reason why 'Nessun Dorma' extracted from Puccini's opera 'Turandot' (1924) was such a success when Luciano Pavarotti released it as a single in 1994. Puccini's work seems well suited for extracting pieces for this soundbite generation. The piece used for 'A Room With A View' has the soaring vocals and music that one expects of a passionate opera piece, reinforced for me with dreams of sweeping an Edwardian lady to kiss her boldly in an Italian field. This I guess then is one of the lingering tunes from my youth when I fantasised about the romances that I hoped I would have (and I have now missed the opportunity to have).
'Gnossienne No. 1' by Erik Satie (1893)
Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a French composer and pianist who came up with what he felt was a new form of music, hence his creation of the term 'Gnossienne'. These are very soulful tunes, serious in tone, though occasionally with cheerful elements. Whereas the last piece reminds me of warm Italian fields this one conjures up rainy French streets going back to a flat with the one you love and looking out over the grey city. They are often used for theme tunes and I first heard this as the theme to a science programme called 'Connections' (1978) presented by James Burke. In those days there was no logging on and finding a free copy of the tune to listen to as you can do now. (I think all of the music I list here you can access freely via the internet, I keep finding access whenever I search for them). I had to sit in front of my television with an audio cassette recorder larger than a brick and record it. Fortunately they used it again for an episode of 'Poirot' in 2003, 'Five Little Pigs' and I was able to pause the credits and finally find out the name of the piece and the composer. That story is about investigating a crime that occurred 14 years earlier and the music again, for me, sums up looking back in time and at possibilities that never came true.
'Concierto de Aranjuez' by Joaquín Rodrigo (1939)
You may have noticed that my tastes in classical music are pretty mainstream and I make no apology for that. They are pieces I enjoy and as this posting outlines, ones which definitely touch me. This guitar concerto was another one that I had heard and loved long before I knew what it was. Then some time in the 1990s I saw a documentary on Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-99) a blind Spanish composer.
My love of this tune was deepened when I heard him explain that it was written following the death of his child during birth and in the music he is morning that child's loss and begging God to spare the life of his wife, Victoria. Until recent times death in childbirth was a common reason for women dying. There is a real strength in this music as commentators note as the guitar goes against the strength of the rest of the orchestra and that strength really taps into you.For this reason, ironically it is now often performed on brass instruments (see the movie 'Brassed Off' (1996) for an example). It conjures up for me sweeping Spanish hill sides in a golden early evening light. This piece takes you through despair into triumph. This is an orchestral piece that holds my interest right throughout.
'Carmina Burana' by Carl Orff (1937)
'Carmina Burana' is the first of a 'triptych' of music (the others being 'Catulli Carmina' and 'Trionfo di Afrodite') and is based on twenty-four medieval poems collected in the book Carmina Burana which come from from Benediktbeuren in southern Bavaria. The poems are secular but the chanted singing makes them sound monastical, though the poems themselves have what is termed 'racy' content rather than religious references. In fact the full (Latin) title of the music refers to them as being sung 'with magical images'. Carl Orff (1895-1982) has been accused of collaboration with the Nazi party though he also knew members of the German Resistance to the Nazis. Possibly he just tried to survive in the circumstances in Germany of the 1930s-40s.
What is certain is that at the time the music was produced there was a strong interest in Germany about German or Teutonic medieval culture. The 'O Fortuna' section of 'Carmina Burana' became incredibly well known at least in the UK when it was used to advertise Old Spice aftershave in the 1970s. The very thundering dramatic music played against images of men surfing on huge waves. It is very stirring music that fits the image of medieval armies going into battle that clearly appeal today even as they, unfortunately, appealed in Nazi Germany. These days with less coverage in the popular media you can listen to the music and feel both stirred and almost as if you are part of some secret ritual to invigorate, no doubt tendencies that appealed to the advertisers.
'Montagues and Capulets' or 'The Dance of the Knights' by Sergei Prokofiev (1936)
This is similarly a heavy, pounding piece written in the 1930s, this time for the other side of the political spectrum, the Soviet Union. It is the music for Act I Scene 2 of Sergei Prokofiev's ballet written for the Kirov Ballet Company based in Leningrad in 1936, though it was not performed in the city until 1940; the first performance was in Brno in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The piece lives up to its titles, bringing to mind the entrance of two powerful families or a procession of armoured knights. In recent times it is often associated in television programmes with images of large machinery and structures. Like 'Carmina Burana' it gives you the urge to stamp around and declare something without caring what people think. It is ominous but also empowering to listen to. This is a piece that I think like 'Carmina Burana' was over used in the popular media in the 1970s and 1980s and benefits from being heard less often and in contexts in which you can enjoy it for the strength of the music more than for the weight it adds to the images you are being shown.
Now I turn from modern classical music to more popular brands of music most of it of the last thirty years.
'The Persuaders Theme' by John Barry (1971)
John Barry (born 1933) is renowned for writing movie themes notably for many of the James Bond films. 'The Persuaders' was a television series run in the UK first in 1971. It featured Hollywood star Tony Curtis and British actor (at the time soon to be James Bond) Roger Moore. Watching it now it seems terribly camp, tongue-in-cheek and with lazy acting from Curtis and Moore who generally get acted off the screen by that week's guest stars, often quite leading British actors. However, at the time, it was seen as glamourous and exciting being about two millionaires: Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair solving various mysteries in locations like the Riviera as well as Britain.
When writing about boring Sundays I forgot to mention that this was one of the highlights of Sunday viewing in the UK and you would hurry home to ensure you did not miss it. Given the low quality of the stories and acting, you can see how little we had to go on for Sunday viewing.
The most excellent element of this series was the opening credits and in particular Barry's theme. The images showed dossiers of the two men's lives from their childhood to the present day with an insistent theme of a piano and strings in the background. It summed up excitement but also the combination of the imagery and the skill of Barry also that nostalgic sense of a past gone through, efforts made to reach today's success. There are loads of recordings of it on YouTube, I recommend you taking out 2 minutes to go and listen. I was fortunate to hear a band play this tune in 1987. Even across the crowded bar and down a floor to the stage, it really cut through the noise and chilled me.
Theme tune to 'The Water Margin' by Masaro Sato (1973)
I am going to devote a whole posting to the importance of the TV series 'The Water Margin' in my youth. However, in the meantime I have to say that there is something incredibly stirring about the theme tune. It starts like something from James Bond movie, really building up the excitement to a crescendo, while Burt Kwouk intoned the information about the series. The opening theme is just musical and is followed up by a sung version at the end which we could never understand, there were also two versions of that, I believe sung in Japanese, as, though the series is set in China (and was the first outside filming done in the country since 1949) it was produced by Nippon Television of Japan. The singing emphasises the sense of struggle against oppression which seemed very relevant at the time of the Thatcher regime in Britain when the programme was shown in the UK. This theme even today makes me feel as if I should run out and start a revolution, very potent. You can hear it and see the credits on You Tube:
Theme tune to 'Teachers': extract from 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' by Belle and Sebastian (1998)
'Teachers' was a series which ran for four series on Channel 4 from 2001 to 2004. It was a kind of comedy drama set in a school in Bristol and starred Andrew Lincoln. The series lost its way by the third series, but the first series is truly engaging. It is humorous, but why I think it really got to me was that it portrayed relationships between adults whether as colleagues, friends or lovers in a way that I found realistic. This seems ironic given the surreal elements in the programme, but that was probably what made it so striking and the increased reliance on the humour and the surreal getting out of balance with that more serious aspect is why it began to fade. The series was renowned for using pop music of the time by trendy British groups like Feeder, Coldplay, The Dandy Warhols, The Dandys (a different group), Shed Seven, Reef, The Supernaturals and The Longpigs. This gave it a contemporary flavour and helped it move along briskly. It was the theme tune, the instrumental section from 'The Boy With The Arab Strap' by Belle and Sebastian which used to really hit into sentimental part of me. I suppose because for me it encapsulates a positivity in the face of daily challenges.
When I was living in one room above a chipshop doing numerous part-time jobs here was a programme saying to me that people of my age could have a solid job and relationships plus fun too (including sex and alcohol) all things that were missing from my life at the time. So, to some degree this is one of those tunes tied to a time, but I think its upbeat but mature nature is why it stays with me. Not that I can say I have ever heard the tune on the radio (at 5 minutes 14 seconds for the whole thing it is probably too long for most stations usual playlists).
'The Unforgettable Fire' by U2 (1984)
This song is both important for the time and place in my life when it was current (I had just started Sixth Form College which should have been a great time to be young and free, but of course I screwed all that up) and because it really plugs into that sense of missed opportunities that characterises so many of the tunes and songs that haunt my life. I totally misunderstood the song, which is about victims of atomic bombings, something controversial at the height of the Cold War in 1984. Of course, I always assumed that the 'unforgettable fire' was love, being the foolish romantic I am. I thought this reached Number 1 in the UK, apparently it was only 6, but it certainly was played a great deal. The lyrics and in particular the music with a really strong string element (not overly common in pop songs) make it incredibly stirring.
I find myself lost in thought whenever I hear this song and swept back through my life. I used to put it on as the first piece of music I played when I moved to a new house and would sit and listen to it right to the end. In particular given that I thought it was about love it always made me reflect on what I had done wrong in that field. In 1984 I had made a couple of mistakes in that area, but was on the brink of making far more foolish and serious ones. Perhaps if I had stopped myself wallowing in romanticism and got on with more romance it would have been better. Even 24 years on this song is still both powerful and moving, distinctive even in U2's catalogue let alone more widely in pop music.
‘Dakota’ by The Stereophonics (2005)
This is often viewed as the best song to come from The Stereophonics. It stayed at Number 1 for one week. The song itself is set up for nostalgia. The lyrics are about 'thinking back' to a lover: 'You made me feel like the one' and references to Summer. As such it stirred up in me a late burst of that sentiment about all the potential relationships that had never happened for me (I will have to go into this at some time but to summarise throughout my life I have usually run away when a woman has asked me out even if I have spent weeks dreaming of being with her). The subdued singing with an air of tension running underneath it which comes out not as anger at the end but almost pleading, obviously taps into such feelings. Again it reminds me of the adult life that somehow I missed out on. Ironically it was playing when I was packing to move to a new life in a different town, so maybe it could have come to represent a positive change in my life, but I doubt in fact I will ever have one of those, so it remains wedded to the 'what ifs?' of my own life. This one, maybe because it is comparatively new, still has the power to send me back into all that reflection about my mistakes, my lack of courage and all that those things have denied me.
‘Feels Like Heaven’ by Fiction Factory (1984)
This one is a hangover from my love affair with wistful music of the mid-1980s and my attachment to this one endures when that for tracks such as the Lotus Eaters one and many things by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Ultravox have been shaken from my nostalgia triggering senses. For some reason I hear this song still played a great deal on the radio. I think it is Kevin Patterson's vocal range from the deep intense at the start to the soaring notes towards the end. The lyrics too plug into that place of thoughts of discovering a mutual affection and it changing your life, though with the unease of getting it wrong, but a price worth paying, though usually I was too scared to pay it. Fiction Factory were effectively a one-hit wonder in the UK, this single got to number 6 in the charts, but what a one hit to have if people are still playing it 24 years later. A rather spooky, gothic video in white colouring is visible on YouTube.
'Fade to Grey' by Visage (1981)
This one was there back in the teenage years prompting me to think about relationship possibilities and even 27 years later (!) it pricks me that way. Partly it is the music itself: that kind of electronic pattern fading into the distance and the references to standing in the rain of an English summer and then the lyrics being repeated in French by a sultry female voice. To me, this song promised bittersweet relationships with exciting, artistic European women (usually Dutch or German rather than French) as I travelled around Europe by train making use of the Inter-Rail tickets that were appearing at the time.
In fact I did encounter such women especially when I was living in West Germany but of course I am appalling at foreign languages and lacked the confidence to talk to British women let alone these seemingly far more sophisticated foreign ones who were intimidating in that they seemed so perfect looking attractive and being so intelligent and into so many interesting things. Marion of Leverkusen, in particular always comes to mind, no doubt a 40-year old doctor by now. Even the title 'Fade to Grey' seems to sum up that disappearance of ephemeral opportunities and all that they represent. With the reference to standing on a platform with a suitcase, it seemed to me to indicate a British man having to leave the Frenchwoman to both of their regrets. Sometime in the late 1980s when the Cold War was ending I saw a one-off drama about a young British man falling in love with a Hungarian woman and having to return home, but in the closing seconds he stops the car and runs back to her whatever the consequences. That kind of sentiment is still, so far unshakeably, contained in this song.
Another reason this song stays in my mind was that in 1988 I found a shop cassette that had Visage's two albums: 'Visage' on one side and 'The Anvil' clearly thrown from a car, it still worked perfectly and so I seemed fated just at that time (about four months before I left for Germany) to have the song in my collection, though thinking back if it was some kind of sign, as I noted above, I pretty much took no heed of it.
'Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover' by Sophie B. Hawkins (1992)
Sophie B. Hawkins looked like the kind of woman I thought it would be great to go out with. In 1992 I was moving to Oxford where I imagined one could find lon- haired women in white poet's shirts and long black jackets strolling through fields as Sophie appeared on her record covers. She is the same age as me too. It reached Number 14 in the UK and Number 5 in her home country, the USA.
Despite her US background the song has quite a lot of UK references such as using the word 'bloke' for man; though 'shucks' betrays the US background. What appealed to me about this song was there was a sense (one that I certainly did not have at the time) that you might meet a woman who would come chasing you, wanting you to be their lover, rather than the other way round. Of course, reflecting now I can see that I had experienced that with Fahrana, Liz, the other Liz and Anneli, at least, if not a couple of others, though, unfortunately, I had been oblivious to that at the time. It is ironic that what I was seeking had actually occurred to me. About three years later, another Helen was even more proactive, very much in line with the flavour of this song. I have no idea if any of those women sung along to this song, but to some degree I behaved to them like the man does in this. The mix of passion and a desire to care for the one she wants to be the lover of is very alluring.
Of course, it had controversy at the time as it comes over as a lesbian song with the singer putting herself in the 'male' role of 'bloke' and 'hero', but, as Sophie has noted in interviews, the song also appealed to men. In fact, it ran into more trouble in parts of the USA for having the word 'damn' so prominent in it. Overall, it is an anthem for anyone who feels that there is someone they cannot believe is not their lover, knowing in their heart that they could be so wonderful together. Of course, we can often be mistaken, but that does not dent your certainty that this relationship should be; that it should overcome all obstacles to exist. Thus, for me, it has shifted from the sense of regret that I had missed opportunities to one of feeling I should be clear and active in seeking a relationship with someone I love. Sophie's work is always jammed full of lyrics but this has a great chorus to shout out too.
'The Dark End of the Street' performed by The Commitments (1991)
'The Dark End of the Street' was written in 1967 and performed first by James Carr. It has been covered numerous times by people such as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Elvis Costello, Deacon Blue amongst others. My favourite version came from the artists performing as the band in the movie 'The Commitments' (1991) on the soundtrack released that year. I listened to the album again and again. This song is about poor people, it is about getting away from the views of family, hiding your affection in public and meeting secretly with the one you love. It seemed to fit so well with the Irish setting of the movie which I suppose fits with what one of the characters says about the Irish being very similar in standing to the Blacks of the USA and so associating with soul music in the same way. Fortunately I have never had to conceal my relationships, but again this was a very wistful sentiment with real passion too, that the couple were risking so much to be together and Andrew Strong's rendition of it really touches the heart. How such a large man, young as he was at the time (16) could sound like a very experienced soul singer I have no idea, but he does and it is a really touching song. The rest of the album is excellent too, but this track really does stand out.
‘Song to the Siren’ by This Mortal Coil (1984)
I was going to come to this one later, but given that I have mentioned my time in West Germany in 1989 it now seems appropriate as this was where and when I first heard it. It was echoing around the corridor of a block of flats where I lived. The sonorous singing of Elizabeth Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins) really suited that setting. I tracked down the single by luck on my return to the UK. Again it has all the elements of a wistful, hair prickling song. The words are almost chanted with music which seems to follow rather than lead them, probably not unusual given the Cocteau Twins' vocal-music approach.
The lyrics are about dreams and very much have the sea imagery (the Sirens in Greek myths were female monsters who would lure sailors to their death by their beautiful singing) leading to 'let me enfold you'. So there is speculation there on the chance of a romance: 'Did I dream you dreamed about me?' the singer asks. So this one for the beauty of the music and vocals and for the sentiments about the chance of romance again still haunts me to this day. I must say I was far less impressed by the rest of This Mortal Coil's work.
‘My Immortal’ and 'Bring Me to Life' by Evanescence (2003)
Now, these are two very different songs and deserve separate treatment, but as they came from the same band in the same year there is probably good reason to bracket them together. I still think Evanescence is one of the best Goth bands around. There is something about the mixture of good lyrics avoiding cliches and use of music styles spanning across the whole spectrum of what could be considered Gothic that makes the difference. In style they look like a score of other Goth bands but their quality, I feel, is why they were able to crossover into mainstream sales when others have failed to do so.
'My Immortal' is probably one of the most discomforting, bittersweet songs you will ever hear. It is a real requiem for a lost love who really haunts the singer's life. These are core Gothic themes presented with a real strength by Amy Lee's singing and again music which follows and supports rather than drowns important lyrics. I have not felt emotions laid so bear with any other song. This one differs from the others listed here as it is almost a future nostalgia song for me, something I hope there will be someone to play at my funeral and that I may one day have a love this intense that it would be suitable to play for her, though of course hoping I would not witness her death. This song not only pricks up the hairs, it really digs into your heart and knocks you back with the strength of the feelings it is communicating.
'Bring Me to Life', maybe should have preceded my comments on 'My Immortal'. This a real rock song and as in many Goth tracks counterpoints the female and male vocal parts. This song heartens me because it is about someone who can shake you from the mundane and literally wake you up to a new life one that is shared with them and in that it is exciting. I guess this is the updating of my desire to find the ideal woman to travel the world with, to go to the coolest Goth clubs with, to really discover life with. This song both taps into that sentiment and empowers me for three minutes or so to go out and find that kind of existence.
'Who Knew?' by Pink (2006)
This is the second newest song in this list and enters a very strong field. Again it is wistful and sad. I have increasingly been impressed by Pink's work which straddles so many types of pop music and in herself she remains distinctive and challenging. Despite her name she actually does more to challenge the pink obsession which is plaguing so much of the young women of our society. She can be playful and mischievous and yet at the foundation she seems to know that life can be fragile and complicated. This song with 'Uh huh, that's right' shows that even tough girls (she threatens to 'stand up and punch them out' anyone who would have questioned the relationship) can get their hearts broken. She mourns the loss of a relationship which seems touching and which it suggests she went into whole-heartedly, but it also challenges the man.
I think that is important as it is saying that it is not right for young men to trample all over young women. She accepts that they might not have sustained the relationship and 'I wish I could still call you friend' so there is a realism about her, but still that does not make you immune to love. She seems to be haunted by the relationship even three years on, and not so much because it ended, but because of the throwaway approach the man adopted to her when she was investing so much. This song is sad and affecting, but it also makes you angry too. As I have noted before (young) men seriously need to grow up if our society is going to have any hope of survival. This song shows the impact of male immaturity on one woman but it is a story that is replicated right across our society. With time, this song may have less impact on me, but for now, I find its maturity and its message has a strong impact.
‘Look Away’ by Big Country (1986) and ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ by Thin Lizzy (1972)
Now it might seem strange to put these two together, a Scottish rock band of the 1980s and an Irish one of the 1970s and 1980s, but partly it is because they are both strong songs that seem to cover a similar theme, or so I envisaged. 'Look Away' was Big Country's biggest hit, reaching number 7 in the charts though many of their songs are still played pretty regularly today. They are often bracketed with Simple Minds as a kind of strong voiced, strong music bands of the mid-1980s pumping out anthems and spirited pop songs. 'Whiskey in the Jar' reached number 6 in the charts. It was a cover of a traditional Irish song and the story in it seems to be set sometime in the early 19th century. A version had already been released in 1967 by The Dubliners and Smokie, The Pogues, U2, Metallica and Pulp have all done versions, none of which I must confess I have heard, but I doubt they could match the suitability of Phil Lynott's voice.
Both songs are about a man being hunted down and imprisoned and all that means for the relationship with a woman. In 'Whiskey in the Jar' it is a confessed robber who is lamenting his situation in prison whereas in 'Look Away' we know he killed a man but never intended it and we imagine it might be in a cause of conscience. In addition, in the former 'sleeping in Molly's chamber' is a pleasure whereas in the latter she 'lay with me when there was nowhere safe to go' and they lament that they never found the sun. I suppose that I always wanted to die for a cause and could envisage myself battling against some injustice escaping across the hills of Scotland or Ireland. This is sentimentality combining not only a wish for love as with so many of these songs, but a wish to count and to do something noble or at least daring. Probably a common sentiment for so many of us stuck in mundane lives. The forcefulness of both tunes is also a reason why they stir the spirit as I noted with 'Bring Me To Life'. It is different to the soaring melancholic tunes, but for me carries a similar force.
‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles (1977)
Now, this is a song which fascinated me. There are not many pop hits featuring haunted hotels or ghosts at all (I can only think of 'Uninvited' which I commented on recently and 'Under Your Thumb' by Godley & Creme (1983) about a haunted train). However, I think why this song has stuck in this list rather than being relegated is because of the guitar music in it. That really adds an atmosphere especially the jangling bits at the start which really conjure up this image of a hotel appearing in the darkness ahead. Maybe this song does not fit in this category alongside all the others that really tap into particular sentiments that I have, but it is hear because the physical effect parts of the music have.
'I Believe in Father Christmas' by Greg Lake (1975) and 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' by Band Aid (1985)
Again in part Lake's song probably stays with me as it was around in my youth. Probably too because Christmas is an influential time for thoughts about the future. However, both of these two songs, even with age, stand out among all the Christmas schmaltz. They are realistic, they put all our celebrations in a context that partly what we are celebrating is that we are alive and well enough to enjoy Christmas and it is about those things rather than anything glitzy. I suppose both songs are anti-sentimental and so why they wake me up when I hear them is because they strongly push against that nostalgia and naturally that can give you that shiver as much as stirring up thoughts of lost opportunities.The arrangements also helped to bring this home. The deep tones of the singers on each, the use of an adaptation of the 'Lieutenant Kije Suite' by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev to give that 'sleigh ride' feel to the end of Lake's song and the line 'thank God it's them instead of you' from Bono, all make these two strong songs. Both songs, being against the commercialism and complacency of Christmas, especially the Band Aid one, are hard on our consciences but I believe that is why they endure. Certainly last Christmas they were featured a great deal: Lake's reached Number 2 and Band Aid's Number 1 for many weeks.
‘White Lines (Don't, Don't Do It)’ by Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel (1983)
Now, we have moved a long way from the senses of lost opportunities and wistfulness, but in a very different way this song hits home and dominates my consciousness just as much as these others do. There are soaring lyrics, a wonderful crescendo and break, plus lyrics you can really get with, it is not impossible to rap along with this, unlike with many contemporary rap songs. It was a one-hit wonder effectively and yet it really endures. The music in itself pricks you even before you start engaging with the anti-cocaine lyrics. One of the best tunes to dance to in a disco that I have ever heard. (Probably with Colonel Abrams 'Trapped' (1985) in second place: now we are talking old school).
'20th Century Boy' by T-Rex (1973)
Despite the age of this record I only caught it when it was revived in the early 1990s as result of an advertisement for jeans which starred Brad Pitt and came out in 1991. It is in sharp contrast to many of the songs in that though wistful it is for me about happy times rather than missed opportunities, it takes me back to a (very short) time when I was living life to the full. The strength of the guitar riffs in this song just drag you in and carry you away. It is an excellent song to drive to and is really energising all round. I thoroughly enjoy hearing it. For me, it always conjures up an image of a well-built woman (who looked and dressed like an opera singer) in blue silk full-length dress with a white lining, amply showing her cleavage, standing on a window sill in a small bar in Green College in Oxford shaking her head back and forth to this tune (which was re-released on the back of the television advertisements) as everyone in the small room danced madly to it. This was sometime late in 1992 or early 1993. I was training to be a school teacher and failing, but the nights in that college bar just took me out of time and I could be mad and happy in those few hours and forget about the rest of the world. This time takes me back to the few occasions in my life when I feel I have actually not missed the opportunity to do something that made me happy.
'Love is a Stranger' - The Eurythmics (1982)
There are loads of great tracks by The Eurythmics straddling a range of different types of pop music. They were challenging, notably with 'Sweet Dreams' (1983) and their whole album '1984' (1984), but this song is the one that snatches attention. Again the music soars, this time to tie in with the sound of a car speeding by you (as in the lyric 'love is a stranger in an open car it tempts you in and drives you far away') and Annie Lennox's voice is almost cajoling, brutal when it reaches 'it touches and it teases as you stumble in the debris'. Of all their singles, with this one, they announced a new style of music seemingly sharp and technical and very suited to an image of the 1980s as we were to experience it: with harshness and yet a cold elegance. Again, this is a song you find yourself hearing above other noise, and again it is not one which jabs at me with memories of what might have been, but rather because it thrusts quite hard feelings and views at you about love as 'a dangerous drug' which is 'savage and cruel and shines like destruction': very harshly poetic.
'Just Another Day (Without You)' by John Secada (1992)
This was pretty much a one-hit-wonder though I know he had had success performing with other artists. This is certainly one of those songs that can rise about the hubbub in a crowded room or a car. I think it is because he communicates the agony of being separated from the one you love so effectively. He really seems like he was going through the mill when singing this. There are hints that it might not be final, but it is just at that moment when she is slipping away from him and he is willing to do anything to keep her around. The music is forceful in a way which was different from the power ballards of the time and the most potent part comes when it goes acapella at the end really showing off Secada's voice. There are versions in both English and Spanish. Unfortunately I know insufficient Spanish to compare what the lyrics say in each language. The wistfulness here is different, it is more active, more a rage against the unfairness of the world that denies you happiness. Perhaps this is why it still affects me when I have become immune to those songs that used to bite hard on me and I still find it a very moving song. If you are going to have one solo hit, then you want it to be as good as this.
'Romeo and Juliet' by The Killers (2007)
This song was first recorded in 1980 by Dire Straits and has been covered by a range of different artists since, though all of them, bar The Indigo Girls (who did it in 1992), are unknown to me. I was rather against Dire Straits in my youth. In their pre-Brothers-in-Arms manifestation they had been what is now termed 'Dad rock' and my father liked both 'Sultans of Swing' and 'Twisting by the Pool'. He liked their references to every day life, the delight of getting away on a cheap Spanish holiday and the guitarist 'with the day time job'. Then, of course, with 'Brothers in Arms' in 1985, they became so pretentious it was painful. I avoided their album but apparently an older friend of mine said that eight people living either side of him at university all had the album and one evening played it simultaneously. Now, Dire Straits are not bad, they are rather bland and safe. I like the concept of 'Romeo and Juliet' which like a lot of their early stuff aims to be about ordinary people, in this case teenagers whose relationship seems to have ended but the man (boy) wants it to continue and serenades the woman. It references that other working class reworking of the Shakespeare play, 'West Side Story' (play 1957; movie 1961).
Anyway, recently I heard the version by The Killers, who are a band I find difficult to place, but I suppose they are rock with a bit harder edge than Dire Straits ever had and so it works perfectly for this song, sounding rough and realistic, almost like something you might hear someone singing on the street (when I lived in East London groups of 3-4 girls used to collect on street corners near my flat and sing stuff from the charts acapella, it was a bit weird, rather like that musical episode from 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but pleasant). This version of the song really punched me and I felt captured what the lyrics are supposed to be saying. Well worth a listen for really hitting at your emotions.
'Sour Times' by Portishead (1994)
Following on with another single which is on the bitter side of bittersweet and like 'Love is a Stranger' is quite harsh, almost brutal and certainly challenging and thus stirring for the listener, well certainly when it is me, is 'Sour Times'. The clanging, plinky piano and the shivering percussion really draw your attention and then it proceeds at a measured pace though a heart-rending song. The whole album 'Dummy' had at once a contemporary feel (this was at the height of Britpop of course) but also referenced mid-1960s stylings, something reinforced by the video ('To Kill a Dead Man' a short movie made to accompany the album) which accompanied this tune and featured a wife of a gangster who fakes his own assassination. The song again likens love to something like a narcotic, promoting an addiction. It is also a lament for a lost love one that may not have been kind but one from which the singer cannot shake herself. Thus, having similar sentiments to 'My Immortal' above. The whole album is filled with touching songs of a melancholic nature and it is too long since I revisited it.
'Florica's Lament' composed by Richard Holmes (1987)
I just wish I knew who sung this song. It is sung in Romanian by a woman and that is all I know, if you could tell me who she is I would be delighted to know. The only place this track ever appeared was on a vinyl EP of the soundtrack to the British TV series 'The Fortunes of War' (1987) based on a series of six novels by Olivia Manning published in 1960: the first half the so-called Balkan Trilogy: 'The Great Fortune', 'The Spoilt City' and 'Friends And Heroes' and the second half, the Levant Trilogy: 'The Danger Tree', 'The Battle Lost And Won' and 'The Sum Of Things'. They are semi-autobiographical about an English teacher and his wife in Romania and Egypt before and during the Second World War. The lead roles were taken by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (married to each other 1989-95) leading lights of British television, film and theatre at the time. The tune has really soaring vocals though I have absolutely no idea what the woman is singing about, it is clear that it is a lament and with all that that implies, she communicates the emotion very successfully. Not only is this a painfully beautiful song in its own right, at the time I, of course (as you will know if you have read this far) quite envisaged ending up in a job teaching in Eastern Europe (the Cold War was clearly ending and new opportunities were opening up there as they had not done since the 1930s) and, of course, I could see myself going there with some wonderful woman.
Actually, it might have happened or something similar as I met this wonderfully big-hearted woman called Liz while living in Germany in 1989 and she was on her way to work in a hospital for disabled children in Hungary. She and I hit it off almost immediately and apparently she wanted to sleep with me, but being me I missed all the signals until I was told later by her friends. The last I had heard she had met a Hungarian, married him and was having a child. (When I met her the only word of Magyar she knew was 'no' and subsequently I joked she must have either learnt the word for 'yes' or forgotten 'no', not a good joke I know). This was some time in 1990/1 and I do wonder where she is now. Probably not another alternative for me, but it did not stop me wondering when I heard this tune.
'Feeling Good' sung by Nina Simone (1980)
This song was written in 1964 by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for a stage musical 'The Roar of the Greasepaint—the Smell of the Crowd' and it has been covered by numerous artists starting with Cy Grant in 1964. I was surprised to find that Nina Simone (1933-2003) did not come to it until 1980 and I guess that is because I always viewed Simone in a kind of mid-20th century jazz singer setting and it has that feel to it. Simone's most successful records in my adult years, notably, 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' (1958 but only really successful in 1987) and 'Ain't Got No/I Got' seem almost like blues influenced songs, though more upbeat. I think also in my mind she is also associated with the civil rights movement through songs like 'Mississippi Goddam' (1964) and 'Strange Fruit' (1965). In contrast, 'Young, Gifted and Black' (1970) seems archetypally a 1970s song. The difficulty in putting Simone's music into an era, though, I think shows its strength. Certainly since the late 1980s she has not gone out of public consciousness because her music is so often on movie soundtracks and Wikipedia lists 13 movies 1998-2009 which have used her music; I guess she is possibly more widely known now that at the height of her career. Her music is also regularly used in advertisements and this is how I really first encountered 'Feeling Good'.
Simone suffered from bipolar disorder (sometimes characterised as manic/depressive) and later schizophrenia. This seems apparent from her songs some of which combine low and high elements, just as her perfomances could. 'Feeling Good' is strong because of this and I think speaks to the listener who might be going through doubts of their own. It starts quietly, with Simone with her wonderfully rich voice naming the elements of nature that 'know how I feel'. You get led in thinking it is going to be a melancholic song and then the shift comes and it is almost like a stage musical crescendo building up to 'and I'm feeling good!'. It turns into such an assertive song: 'It's a new dawn/ It's a new day/ It's a new life/ For me/ And I'm feeling good.' It is about taking pleasure in simple things and reminds me of 'Ain't Got No/I Got' which is about having a healthy body and that in itself being a reward. That is a jauntier song and lacks the dramatics of 'Feeling Good' which as a result prickles me in the way all the music here does, whenever I might hear it. I first really encountered this song when living in that room in which I could touch the opposite walls simultaneously and working in a low-paid job. However, I had two simple escapes, one was to snuggle in my room and write fiction and the other was to go out and cycle through rural Oxfordshire. This song certainly seemed appropriate to the latter. It is short song and to the point, but packs a really mighty punch in what it delivers.
'La Mer' by Charles Trenet (1946)
Now this song has had a posting all of its own from me, so there is probably no need to repeat it, just to say that it always conjures up thoughts of lovely days cycling along the coast in northern France and the potential that seemed once to exist for sharing such days with someone I loved. Saying that, given the difficulty of just getting to Belgium for a break, I think such a thing will never be more solid than a fantasy dreamt while listening to this incredibly, intentionally wistful song.