WHAT MUSIC ARE YOU INTO? by Mark Raison

What type of music are you into? On the face of it a simple enough question but the answer is inevitably more complicated.

Back when I hit my teenage years in the early to mid 80s it was easier. We had clear lines of demarcation: mod, punk, psychobilly, goth, heavy metal, soul, new romantic, etc. The lines were so clear, the battle dress immediately evident, the question rarely needed to be asked. You could see the answer. Today, with the noticeable absence of defined “tribes”, a common response is “oh, I like a bit of everything” which, when you get down to it, really means most people aren’t passionate about any of it. Music is there in the background, stuck on in the car, added to an iTunes account. For me though, it’s dead centre of my existence. It’s an obsession, definitely. An addiction, most likely. It occupies nearly every spare moment I have. Outside of the drab, dead-end, un-music related job that gets in the way for 41 hours a week, it’s music, music, music: not as a creator, but as a consumer.

It’s partly hereditary. My mum took a casual interest in the pop charts but my dad was hooked on modern jazz, on be-bop, after his parents took him shopping as a kid in Hounslow and he came home with the Sonny Stitt Quartet album Personal Appearance in 1957 51JfN7hhUQLbecause something about the sleeve – a sharp looking Stitt fixing a slightly menacing stare into middle distance with his sax poised near his lips – connected with him. My mum hates jazz. That she married a man who could, and still does, merrily listen to the most out-there, way-out jazz he can find every waking hour is one of those mysteries of young romance. Dad’s attempts at playing Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra in the family home – to this day – are futile attempts which only last long enough for mum to cotton on and make him put his headphones on. As kids, me and my sister would scream, “Daaaad, they’re just making this up as they go along!” To which he’d answer, “And what’s wrong with that?” Of course, in the way we all become our parents, I now drink real ale and recently bought a 1969 album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which is the epitome of making stuff up as four men run around a recording studio crashing, bashing, blowing and plucking as many disparate instruments as they could lay their hands on. And what’s wrong with that?

the-jam-absolute-beginners-polydorMy Sonny Stitt moment, the record that everything leads back to is the Jam’s single “Absolute Beginners”. Purchased from WH Smith’s in Uxbridge, Saturday afternoon, October 1981, a couple of hours after they’d performed both sides of the record on Swop Swap on BBC1. I wouldn’t claim it’s a brilliant record, it’s not even one of the Jam’s best, but although I’d bought a few records already this was when it became serious. I’m fairly confident I can trace a line from almost everything I’ve bought or enjoyed since back to that record. That’s one of the fascinating and rewarding things about music: how one song leads to another and how the tree grows branches and twigs.

The Jam gave me an initial interest in all things “Mod”. I was twelve years old and via them there were new off-shoots to gradually explore: the obvious 60’s Mod-related groups; well known 60’s hitmakers; no-hit beat combos; US psychedelia and garage punk; UK pop-pysch; the catalogues of Motown/Stax/Atlantic; northern soul; rhythm and blues; blues; jazz; gospel; folk; as well as punk, new wave and small independent guitar-totting bands. That’s building on a strong foundation. And for every artist thrown up in this haul it begs the question, who were they influenced by and who subsequently carried the flame?

Quite how I was ever going to discover all this music, frustratingly out of reach, was a big problem. It still is, but the internet andcvr_morrison-hotel-original-album_front_1200 the ability to hear almost anything immediately is a blessing. After leaving school I started work around the corner from the big HMV by Bond Street tube. Most days I’d go in there and marvel at the records and buy as much as I could. Flicking through the albums, if I wanted to know what The Doors’ Morrison Hotel or James Brown’s Live At The Apollo sounded like, I’d have to buy them. There was no other way. I remember thinking if I could have one wish it would be to have every record in the shop. In some ways the internet has provided that. Mum soon spotted me coming home regularly with something new. “You should be saving, not wasting all your money on records”. Wasting? I resorted to stuffing them inside my coat when entering the house and quickly making a dash to my bedroom to unload the loot. One advantage of paying for music is it encourages repeated listens. Clicking around the internet today if a song doesn’t connect within the first 20 seconds it’s missed its chance. That’s a terrible thing really, especially as the more immediate a song is, the less longevity I find it has. It’s revealed its hand too quickly.

Songs and records were practically one and the same thing then. Although less the case now it’s still my preferred way to experience music: in the format they were made for. To root around a record shop or market stall and travel back on the tube – in the same way I did with “Absolute Beginners” – with albums or singles in a carrier bag is a massive buzz. There’s no real need to buy things without hearing them anymore but I still enjoy that leap into the unknown, that anticipation, that ritual of carefully removing it from the sleeve, of the smell, of the pop and crackle of old records. What’s this going to sound like? There’s a name of a previous owner neatly written on the cover or record label. What was their story? They must’ve loved this when they took it to that party in 1966 or 1976 or 1986.

Old records have a history. Each copy has had a life of its own, quite separate from any life of those involved in its creation may have had. Of all the records in my collection, it’s the obscure R&B records that contain the most magic. Made by individuals I know nothing about. I could look them up these days, do a bit of research. Sometimes I do but mostly I like the mystery. Pulling a few randomly off the shelf now: “Rudy’s Monkey” by Rudy and the Reno Bops; “Hey L. Roy” by L. Roy Baimes; “When Things Get A Little Better” by Oscar Boyd; “Son-In-Law” by Louise Brown; “Who’s Over Yonder” by the Garden State Choir. Who were these people that made these 45s 50-60 years ago for small American labels? Doubtful many of the people responsible are here now but they’ve left something for us to discover. They’ve made their mark. Achieved something. Make a record and you live forever.

Each day is a fresh search to discover something brilliant I’ve not heard before and as time marches on there’s that acceptance I’m never going to be able to capture it all. Ain’t that fantastic? If I only liked mod or punk or country or soul, I’d have had this licked long ago. There’s plenty of okay stuff out there but it’s the big what-if-I’d-never-heard-this-in-my-life fish that’s I’m always looking to catch. And what are those songs? I’ve been trying to bobbyDthink if there’s a common thread between all my favourite records. They’ve got to have soul, I guess. By that I mean truth. They’ve got to be believable. In Bob Dylan’s MusiCare’s Person of The Year acceptance speech last week he quoted Sam Cooke as saying “Voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” That’s the key. It’s only possible to have a true emotional connection if one believes what they’re being told. Three chords, or more, and the truth.

When Gram Parsons recounts the death of his bride-to-be in “$1000 Wedding”, I believe him. When Jerry Butler, after one more heartache, moans he’s “Giving Up On Love”, I believe him. When the Action sing about crying all night and the sun feeling cold in “Since I Lost My Baby”, I believe them. When Howlin’ Wolf growls knowingly about little girls understanding in “Back Door Man”, I believe him. When Big Daddy Rogers insists he’s got a lot of meat and is hard to beat in “I’m A Big Man”, I believe him. When The Byrds “Feel A Whole Lot Better” when you’re gone, I believe them. When Manic Street Preachers fire a barely decipherable assault throughout “Motown Junk” I don’t quite know what they’re saying but I believe they mean it. When Bob Dylan, Mavis Staples, Curtis Mayfield, Chuck D sing, I believe them.

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So, tell me, what music are you into?

Mark Raison blogs at Monkey Picks. You can find his blog here

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