I have been hard at work on my thesis, and I have been walking into the office each morning to do so, and both these activities have been made incomparably more enjoyable through my taking of an iPod into work with me.
I love my iPod. My iPod provides a caring, nurturing environment for 5,299 songs, and I like most of them. But some rise ahead of the rest and are destined for eternal favour: these are the songs I love. There is a playlist on my iPod that is 18 tracks long, as that is the maximum number that can be accommodated on one audio CD: these are my very favourite tunes. Now, there are large numbers of songs that could almost have gone on this CD, so I had to make a few rules. First of all, there would not be more than one song per artist. U2 have written some amazing stuff over the years: nevertheless, they are permitted just the one song. Secondly, the songs had to have some association in my head with some aspect of my life. It wasn’t enough that I ‘liked how it sounded’: I had to have a frame of reference in which to place it.
As I type this, I am well aware that I probably need to make ‘The Ultimate Starlingford CD Ever…2!’, but that can wait. Here is the original tracklisting, the top 18…
Battle Without Honor Or Humanity (Tomoyasu Hotei): You might not know what it’s called or who it’s by, but you almost certainly know it: this is the kick-ass guitar riff that made us take The Bride, in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’, seriously. Cunningly, this was the music used in all the TV trailers for the film. I heard it and was swayed, and even though the film, when I eventually saw it, turned out to be something of a disappointment, I could forgive it – because of the music. Even today, if I need to psyche myself up for something – even something as mundane and academic as starting a new PhD chapter or trying to finish a presentation with a deadline looming – this is the music that gets me going. Hear it now in boxing gyms throughout the land.
Houses of the Holy (Led Zeppelin): Led Zeppelin are one of those bands that you can’t imagine a world without. Some rhapsodise about ‘Stairway to Heaven’; others about ‘Kashmir’: but for me this is the greatest Zeppelin track. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case, but nevertheless, despite my great love for almost everything Zep ever did, this is my favourite. It comes from the double album ‘Physical Graffitti’, which must count as one of the greatest musical triumphs of the last 50 years: a beautiful album, filled through with musical genius and musicianship, with not a weak track on it. I like it because of the marvellous marriage of utterly brilliant musical showmanship with lyrics that insinuate their way into your subconscious like an anaconda hunting through waterlilies. A masterpiece.
Amazing Grace (Live) (Tree 63): For me, Amazing Grace remains the best hymn ever written. The lyrics are profound (and profoundly beautiful), while the music – as this version demonstrates – has proven almost infinitely malleable over the years. This hymn, more than any other I can think of, has not dated: that chord sequence is so perfect that it doesn’t matter how you play it, it is always going to sound sublime. Tree 63’s version, though it could have been better if they’d actully sung all the verses as opposed to just repeating their favourite ones (because the lyrical structure of the song is one of the best things about it: lyrically, as well as musically, it demonstrates a wonderful progression), is still the best demonstration I know for the idea that Christian songs, and Christian worship, can be a vibrant thing, unfettered by tradition, incantation, or other deathly associations.
Carry On Wayward Son (Kansas): The most recent song on the list (at least as far as my awareness of it goes), this song is irretrievably associated with one of my favourite TV shows: Supernatural. It represents pure escapist entertainment, carried there in a dark and grumbling ’67 Chevy Impala, and you know just by listening to it that everybody involved in recording it was having an absolute blast.
Give A Little Bit (Goo Goo Dolls): Although this is a cover of a Supertramp original, I much prefer this version. Rhythmically it’s much tighter, and the production values are much higher, while John Rzeznik injects a vein of soulful desperation into those lyrics that Rodger Hodgson can’t quite match. I became aware of it during TV ads for donations towards the relief efforts for victims of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. It still sends shivers up my spine.
The Circle (Ocean Colour Scene): There are some groups that define your adolescence without you quite being aware of it at the time. Ocean Colour Scene was one of these, and though others might point to better-known of their tracks, this will will always remain my favourite. Just listen to that straightforward backbeat, the doppler-shifting backing vocals, and on top, that gorgeous, wailing guitar…
Darling Pretty (Mark Knopfler): I have a huge amount of time for ugly musicians. Mark Knopfler, along with Dave Gilmour, Eric Clapton, Freddie Mercury and Peter Gabriel, was never going to be able to convince anyone even to give him the time of day on the strength of his looks alone. He had to get their attention in some other way. Look out for ugly musicians, because they are likely to be very, very good at what they do. I am a big fan of Dire Straits (how could you possibly not like Sultans of Swing, Romeo & Juliet, Brothers in Arms, Single-Handed Sailor?), but this for me is the quintessential Knopfler track – and, indeed, the quintessential Starlingford song. I first discovered it as I was starting the scenic work on the layout, and now it has become bound up with those happy hours spent in the attic, doing something I really enjoyed to achieve an effect I really like. Happy days.
Gimme Shelter (The Rolling Stones): Quentin Tarantino may – may – be the best director in Hollywood for constructing soundtracks, but Martin Scorsese is his equal, and most days I wouldn’t like to settle it one way or the other. This is the song that really introduced me to the Stones, and I have Scorsese to thank. Goodfellas, Casino and most recently The Departed all use this song. And they use it to devastating effect. It’s a raw piece of anti-establishment rock culture (listen out for soloist Merry Clayton’s voice cracking under the strain) and it’s just downright potent.
High & Dry (Jamie Cullum): Allow me, please, to try and pre-empt the inevitable horrified criticism that this choice is bound to provoke. I know Radiohead’s is the definitive version; I know Jamie Cullum is a high-placed contender for the title of ‘most annoying little tit on the face of the planet’. I don’t disagree. But what I invite you to consider is the musicianship of this live jazz version. Radiohead’s original, for all its many and undoubted strengths, is constrained, musically: there’s not a whole lot of room to manoeuvre inside that closed chord sequence. What Cullum’s version does, and does brilliantly, is open the whole song out: there are vistas of interpretation available here that Radiohead either couldn’t or wouldn’t access. Besides, you know that in this version the double bass player is having the time of his life…
Superstition (Stevie Wonder): This is as consummate an example as I can think of for musical harmony. That clavinet riff. That dancing hi-hat. Those trumpets. Forget getting rapped on the patella with a wee hammer – if this doesn’t make your foot tap, you may have problems that are more serious than you realise. I don’t often get my funk on, but when I do, this is usually what gets me started.
Sylvia (Focus): I have an aunt who, when I was about 10 or 11, took great delight in reaching in at this formative moment and programming my musical tastes in ways that I still have not managed to discard. She was living in Cardiff at the time, and every few months or so a cassette (remember them?) would arrive with a new mix of songs. Occasionally it would be a whole album – this was how I first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and Jeff Wayne’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ – but more often it would be a collection of songs I’d never heard by people I’d never heard of. ‘Sylvia’ by Focus was one of these. I listened to it until the tape wore out, lying on my bed, reading Doctor Who novels and falling in love with science fiction.
King for a Day (Jamiroquai): When I started writing Ghost Among Thieves eight years ago I did so at night on a ship working its way up through Central America. There wasn’t much reading material to be had, but I had managed to secure a copy of Stephen King’s The Stand. I read it, and I imagined the plague burning across the face of the globe, and I knew that my second novel was going to be about Biological Warfare. Later, at the end of my undergraduate degree, I wrote my thesis on biological warfare in The Stand, and I listened again to this song. Should a biological apocalypse ever strike humanity, this is unquestionably the soundtrack to that event. It’s just so unbelievably sinister. And yet cool, as well.
Democracy (Leonard Cohen): Some songs succeed despite the music. A lot of Leonard Cohen’s fall into this category. ‘Hallelujah’, for all that it is achingly beautiful, is not all that well orchestrated in Cohen’s version: for me, the definitive rendition is Jeff Buckley’s. ‘Democracy’, however, works. Cohen’s voice, the voice of a poet, deepened and roughened by ‘100,000 cigarettes’, laid over that wonderful drumming, singing about America in terms at once vastly symbolic and entrenched in the realities and mundanities of everyday life. I remember listening to this song at high volume, in the front room, while my Dad drummed along to it and I stood amazed.
Where The Streets Have No Name (U2): When I was a teenager (‘the acne of perfection’) I attended a church youth club led by a very good and wise man called Phil Moore. Phil, who at the time was also my school French teacher (though he has subsequently gone on to be pastor of a church in France), had very definite ideas on what constituted good music – opinions well justifiable, as Phil remains one of the most talented musicians I have ever met. He had a theory, though, that as far as I know remains unendorsed by any church denomination whatsoever: he reckoned that ‘the music of the spheres’, the song that would be playing as we entered the pearly gates, would be this one. Only time will tell if he is right, but I like to think that he is.
Karma Police (Radiohead): A long, long time ago I took piano lessons. Eventually it became apparent that while the piano and I might remain on affable terms, me and piano teachers might never get on, and so they stopped. Which was a shame, as there is something inherently logical and satisfying about a keyboard’s layout: you can see where the next note’s supposed to come from. Which is why I spent several hours one day, sitting at my Mum’s piano (did I mention that she’s a piano teacher?) with a personal CD player (remember them?), playing and pausing and rewinding this track, learning the chords. Today it remains the only piece of music I can sit down and play at piano even halfway competently. Someday I will learn ‘Pyramid Song’.
The Things We Do For Love (10cc): My Dad once returned home with 10cc’s greatest hits. Again, it was a cassette, this time for the car, but before it migrated there it had to be drummed to in the front room, where my Dad had his kit. My Dad had his favourite tracks, my brother his, but this was mine. I loved the close harmonies of the backing vocals, and the images, though melancholy, seemed well-drawn. But what ultimately wins this a place was the fact that the lyrics entered my mind almost subconsciously. I am notoriously bad with lyrics: for me, the first verse of the National Anthem, never mind any of the others, goes “Nur nur nur nuuuur, nur nur”, so to be able to remember this song is surely significant.
Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together) (Queen): There are many, many brilliant Queen songs. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is consistantly voted the best single of all time, and ‘Queen Greatest Hits 1’ sold so many copies that Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman once hypothesized that all cassettes, if left for a sufficiently long time in a car, eventually transform into it. But for me this is the most beautiful song they ever recorded. Haunting, bereft and full of an empty magnificence, with its defiant crescendos and heartbroke diminuendos, it is probably my favourite sad song.
The Long Day Is Over (Norah Jones): Taken from Norah Jones’s first (and best) album, which I bought the day I got my A-Level results, this song reminds me irresistibly of Trinidad. Before I joined Logos II I spent 6 weeks on Trinidad, doing the PST (Pre-Ship Training). Every night, as the crickets whispered and chirruped in the darkness and the camp bonfire sent sparks whirling up into the sky, we would play this song. This, for me, is the sound that concludes a day well spent.