A couple of months ago, I realised that even though I love music, my range is embarrassingly limited. I’ve never knowingly listened to a Bruce Springsteen album all the way through, or a Velvet Underground, or a Leonard Cohen, or even a Bob Dylan. And as with other things recently, I’ve been getting that nagging feeling that life runs out eventually and I want to colour in some of the pictures before it’s too late.
I’m not sure how these huge omissions happened. Music was with me all the time as a teenager but then I got involved in other things, and it got buried under marriage, work, and raising children and goats. I forgot who I was in so many ways.
When I was young, it was all about being the same as everyone else. I listened to Pink Floyd, Focus, Cat Stephens, and The Moody Blues, and loved them. But I couldn’t admit to my friends that I also loved the quirky wit, spectacular timing and fabulous orchestration of Frank Sinatra. And years later when the children developed their own musical interests, they were decidedly prescriptive about what we could listen to.
Now I want to know what I like.
So, I’ve started out on a project to broaden my knowledge and as usual I’ve turned to a list for support. I looked at several but opted in the end for Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Music Albums. It offered just what I was looking for, which was a wide range of styles and lots of different artists. I could get into many arguments about the order of the list, the omissions and inclusions but to do so is to miss the point. There are more than 37 million songs on iTunes and that’s a fraction of those available in the world. Where would I start without a bit of guidance?
I began with Number 1 and so far have listened through to Number 10. I’m fully intending to get to Number 100. My initial look at the list was enough to identify it as being what I wanted but then I instantly forgot what was on it apart from the first and last (OK Computer by Radiohead, and Dare by the Human League). So an added bonus is that each step is a surprise. When I’m ready for the next one, I email my son, who looks it up for me. And as he’s knowledgeable about music it’s fun to chat with him about what I discover. It’s a semi-shared treat.
So far it’s done exactly what I’d hoped for. It’s challenged my prejudices and filled in some gaps. I struggled a bit with Radiohead. They sounded dark and dystopian. But I persevered and after a few days I realised that I was humming something unfamiliar. It was one of the more challenging tracks and somehow it had got under my skin and infiltrated my brain. In his book, 31 Songs, Nick Hornby writes about ‘courting a new song’. And that’s just how it feels. There’s an initial wariness and then sometimes I fall in love unexpectedly and can’t get the new song out of my head. It becomes what he describes as a ‘narcotic need’ to hear it again and again. But it’s a harmless need, and as he says, it’s ‘one that’s easily satisfied.’
Since then I’ve given time to U2, Nirvana, Michael Jackson, Oasis, and Madonna. I won’t burden you with all the details, other than to say that I’ve fallen in love with a few songs but liked U2 least. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Dark Side of the Moon, Sergeant Pepper and Revolver but as I know them all inside out and back to front they were too much within my comfort zone to give me what I want right now.
When Henry told me that Number 9 was Appetite for Destruction by Guns ‘n Roses I sighed and wondered why I would put myself through listening to something that is so clearly outside my taste. But that’s where I was wrong. At first it sounded awful but gradually the miraculous process happened. I was making the bed and found I was humming one of their tracks complete with swear words and brief stops for a head bang.
I never know what’s going to come up next: soul…reggae…country…rock…grunge…folk…rap… It’s addictive. Every time I find a new song to love, I can’t believe there will be another one but there always is. And as with books, places, films and people, it’s not always the ones I expect to like, who worm their way into my heart. That’s one of the things that makes it so rewarding.