Brothers in Arms

1985. What were you doing in 1985? I was a year out of school, a year into an electronics apprenticeship, and a year out of my depth. I was working in a factory and wondering how the fuck I’d managed to find myself doing something for which I had neither skill nor notion. In truth, as much as I wanted to go to university, I just hadn’t wanted to stay at school for another year to secure my place. I’d applied a year earlier but failed my maths and so didn’t get in.

I applied for the job on a whim and got it just before Christmas 1983. I’d no real idea what it meant to work or how my life would be changed. I’d been used to prospectuses telling me how wide my choices would be, how wide my horizons would become and then at the job interview them telling me how my future would depend on the interests of the business. I should have run away then. I didn’t. A year and a bit later I was sitting in windowless room with a soldering iron, some schematics and no real clue why either of them were important.

I worked Monday to Friday but the weekends were mine. I would get on the bus or sometimes borrow my dad’s car and go up to Edinburgh and visit the shops. I didn’t really do much shopping. I never really returned home with much of anything. I would go into John Menzies and HMV on Princes Street for magazines or records. There was a music shop just down from the King’s Theatre off Tollcross where I would go and ogle the instruments. I liked to have lunch in the cafe between the Lyceum Theatre and the Usher Hall. I had a season ticket for the Lyceum that year and once a month or so, on a Wednesday night, I would go and see each new production the theatre had in rep. There was a Liz Lochhead translation but maybe not production of a Moliere play. I think it was Tartuffe that year. I also saw Sandra Dickinson and Peter Davidson in Barefoot in the Park which I remember really enjoying, mostly I think because she appeared on stage at one point in her bra. I was young. I was smitten. Please don’t judge me.

1985 was the year Dire Straits released Brothers in Arms. Dad’s car didn’t have a cassette player. It didn’t even have a radio. Lada’s didn’t, not in those days. What we did in the absence of a cassette player was install my cousin in the backseat. He had a travel radio cassette player which he would put on his knees and we’d listen to it. When we ran out of tapes or the player ran out of batteries we’d sing. We could do a reasonable three or four part harmony version of Fat Bottomed Girls. Of course that meant that we had to have a band. Another story for another day.

I bought the vinyl version of Brothers in Arms and played it on my new hi-fi which had a record deck, twin cassettes, a graphic equaliser and an amplifier. It didn’t have a CD player because that would have been another £200 and I couldn’t afford that. I would buy some albums on vinyl and others as cassettes depending on whether Iiked the artwork on the sleeve. I had every Sky album bar the first one on vinyl, including Cadmium and The Great Balloon Race when they were just getting a bit weird. There were bloody vocals on The Great Balloon Race. What were they thinking?

So, Brothers in Arms. Douglas Adams went all music journo about Mark Knopfler and I didn’t really get it. Guitarists have always been over-promoted. Bassists and drummers do all the hard work and lead guitarists and singers just have to turn up and put the flashy stuff over the top. Wankers.

I listened to the album today for the first time in a quarter of a century and to be honest, it doesn’t really stand up any more. I quite like the lyrics in Money for Nothing but Brothers in Arms as a track is overworked and a bit histrionic. The rest is really just padding. In spite of that, I was carried back 35 years to the sights, smells and sounds of 1985. I can smell the solder in the technician’s room and I remember what that new hi-fi smelled like when I pulled it out of its box for the first time. In a bag, up in the attic, there are Iron Maiden tour t-shirts from Powerslave and Live after Death and if I had a head for heights I would go and dig them out. I have even managed to briefly conjure up that feeling of uselessness I used to have whenever I was around a girl I liked. That wasn’t weird at all.

It’s the same distance in time between now and 1985 as there was between 1985 and 1950. That really needs some serious thinking about. I’m not sure there was much conception of such a thing as popular culture in 1950. Music sales depended on sheet music. Mass communication was via print or radio. International travel was more likely to be by boat than by air. Very little that we take for granted now was common or even possible then. And in 1985 we still had phone boxes and coal mines, two things whose importance at the time I’m not sure I could explain now to someone born since then.

You get this in lieu of a birthday post. I was too busy enjoying myself yesterday to write. Thanks to everyone who took the time to send me a message. I had a lovely day.

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Desert Island Discs

What’s the soundtrack of your life?

At school it was metal like Iron Maiden and AC/DC. There was quite a lot of hell invoked for a religious boy. It was probably part of the appeal for some of the people but not for me because first of all I didn’t really notice the lyrics so much, not when the guitar sounds and rhythms were far more exciting. Secondly, if you’ve hung around Christian people much, you soon realise that hell gets a lot more attention than heaven does. So, Hell’s Bells is my first track.

Afterwards, Leo introduced me to Talking Heads, especially Stop Making Sense. There is something that will always feel comforting about sitting in the near dark listening to that album over a pair of warmed headphones. Other people’s heads can be very warming.

I discovered The Grateful Dead at university. I would work through the night on a Thursday writing an essay due at 10:00am on a Friday morning with American Beauty playing quietly on a cassette radio so as not to disturb my flatmates. I had the room at the end of a corridor on the upper storey of our student house. Darren downstairs would either be sleeping the sleep of the dead or awake himself. The room next to mine was empty, I think. I would keep myself going by stopping every hour to light a menthol More and wait for the sun to come up before I headed in to town to hand the essay in. They weren’t good essays.

I bought two CDs before I ever bought a CD player. One was the soundtrack to Ally McBeal because… Well, I don’t really remember why except perhaps I really fancied her. The other was First of a Million Kisses. I mentioned this to Eddi Reader on Twitter once and she was kind enough to Tweet me back. She said that they’d explicitly intended it to be released on vinyl. I think she said that anyway. I was so astonished to have her reply to me at all that I may be misremembering what she’s said. Perfect is still one of my absolutely favourite songs.

I bought a CD of Kind of Blue not long after I moved in with Jane. I listened to it first one night over headphones like I did with Stop Making Sense in Leo’s bedroom 15 years before. It was late evening, dark outside and I was sitting at the dining table while my partner was watching television with her sister. I think my life changed because nothing else sounded the same after that. Nearly everything sounded too simple and not quite good enough. Thrust was all the right kind of funky though.

In order to find something interesting enough, I started to dig through J S Bach because that’s what you do. Once you’ve done the whole Toccata and Fugue in D Minor thing and got that out of your system, pretty quickly you fall into the Matthew Passion and you will never, ever climb out. You could be quite happy there for ever as well as long as someone tosses Thomas Tallis’ 40 part motet Spem in Alium in there after you.

I heard the Tallis Scholars sing that in Beverley Minster one night and I don’t think I have ever quite recovered. The moment all forty voices come in together hit me like an old girlfriend’s slap. The choristers were all around us hidden in galleries and spaces above our heads. If nobody tells you what to expect, if nobody’s there to nudge you and say, “Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it… NOW!” then you’re going to leave a changed person.

That’s a little out of sequence. It should have come after Perfect. 

My friend Alison threw parties in Oxford where as part of the evening’s entertainment she would sing Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park with piano accompaniment by Ian. Some of the best fun I have ever had.

Last track is My Baby Just Cares For Me. Nina Simone’s song was what we played as we left the Registrar’s Office when Anne and I got married. It wasn’t strictly true that I didn’t care about cars and races but compared to Anne, even McLaren in their pomp were as mud to be scraped from the bottom of an icky, sticky shoe.

That’s nine but I’m having Nina Simone as my luxury only to play that one song and Anne’s Night’s Masque trilogy as my book. Another cheat because they are three single volumes but I’m getting a special single volume binding just for these cheating purposes. If that’s not allowed then I’ll have Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy so I can live with those characters for as long as I’m on the island.

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The Problem With Creativity

This is not a post about work. I repeat: this is absolutely not a post about work. In my day job I do have books to sell about creativity and of course they are all brilliant and you should buy them them when I tell you to because then you would be brilliant and insightful too. And that was quite a long sentence. It got away from me a little and that’s what I want to talk about. I’ll come back to it.

I used to draw a lot when I was a child. An awful lot. My grandfather was an artist and my mother was an artist and there were always paper and pencils and crayons and paints in the house. Whenever I didn’t have a book in my hand, I had a sketchpad and a pencil. From quite an early age I had a very definite idea about the lines I wanted to see on the paper. They were precise and they flowed just so. I wasn’t really bothered about representing anything in particular but I did want the lines themselves to work on the page.

Later, when I took up music I could hear my own tunes in my head and they were interesting and complex. They had strange intervals between the notes and the key shifts made things fizz just a little. I sang and played a guitar and bass and much later took up saxophone too. I’ve even plinked a few keys on a piano from time to time to no good effect, sadly.

That’s the thing. Nothing has been to much effect. I have a surfeit of ambition over ability. I’ve always been like this. The line never worked out on paper in the way I saw it in my head. The curve just wasn’t ever quite elegant enough. The shapes turned out ill-proportioned and just wrong. My fingers wouldn’t do what they needed to do with the pencil. It was frustrating.

Nor could I ever sing the melodies which rang out so clearly in my imagination. They came out more like some old hymn tune. That much shouldn’t be a surprise given my upbringing but it’s always been a disappointment. In this case, it’s as if the muscle memory generated by years of singing Abide With Me completely overwhelmed the most interesting tunes which still want an outlet from the sweary confines of my head.

And at last we come to the point. I try to craft the things which appear on these pages as carefully as I can. I throw away much more than I publish. Sometimes that’s because it’s just another empty rant about politics. The bitterness and disappointment evident in the previous post is still very real for me. At other times, it’s been one more In’t Running Great! post and it is but saying so again and again isn’t necessarily interesting.  Sometimes, most of the time in fact, it’s just been a good idea poorly executed like one of the drawings from when I was ten or twelve or that tune which popped into my head in the shower last night but sounded wrong when I tried singing it later. The problem with creativity isn’t necessarily having the idea, it’s executing it to any great or lasting effect.

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