Time for a new series, this one involving actual writing and inspired by two of my favourite music boys. Scott, whose Wack Beats ruminations on music and film are frequently more entertaining than the subject matter, has been working on a list he’s calling The Forty Artists That Shaped Me. While I don’t have as many as forty (that I love, sure, but that changed my life?), I really liked the idea… and then Steve pointed out that I never followed up on his Ten Albums To Tell Someone Who You Are.
So here’s my compromise: ten artists that shaped me, and quite possibly the albums they did it with.
Those of my kind are usually able to point to one artist, one song, one incident, which changed them from somebody who likes music to somebody who likes music, you know, obsesses over every lyric, collects the bootlegs and the ticket stubs, chases bands across the country and can born their friends rigid with a not-always-appropriate reference for every occasion. For me, that song was “Country Feedback” and that band were REM.
Let me set the scene: in 1998 I was studying for my Standard Grades and sleeping on the sofa in the front room at my dad’s old flat; dividing my waking hours between past papers and episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, and investigating the piles of shiny, alphabetised CDs in the black lacquer cabinet by my makeshift bed. It’s easiest to describe my dad’s tastes as “eclectic”, and although he has his favourites he’s usually happy to give anything a listen: unfortunately this means that he came back from Las Vegas a few weeks ago singing the praises of The Fucking Killers, but in the late 90s I was happy to discover several artists who would later go on to become staples of my music collection. The hi-fi was conveniently positioned by the sofa and he had a pair of those huge, cushioned headphones that make you feel like a DJ; and once he’d gone to bed I’d often hit the “play” button and let Leonard Cohen or somebody sing me to sleep.
He’s a “song” man rather than an “album” man, my dad, and one of the favourites which always cropped up on those mixtapes of his I’ve written about before was “Losing My Religion” from REM’s Out Of Time album (a song that would later become a harmonised karaoke standard for myself and my brother as well as convincing him to buy a mandolin, but I digress). I’d run my finger over the smooth, even spines of the discs and select study music based on a vague familiarity with the names and contents within. I smiled along to “Radio Song” with its KRS-One rap intro, and to “Shiny Happy People”, but the sheer depth and melancholy beauty of “Country Feedback” floored me. I hadn’t yet realised that music didn’t just soundtrack or entertain, but that it could swell up inside you and bring involuntary tears.
REM were the first band I “collected” the way I used to collect badges or trolls. As I started to grow my own music collection, I wanted every album. I spent my holiday money on special editions of Dead Letter Office and Document that I found in a shopping centre in Malaga, and my first boyfriend bought me Life’s Rich Pageant for my eighteenth birthday. I wore out my cassette tape copy of my favourite album, the hugely underrated Life’s Rich Pageant, and replaced it for £3 from Fopp on Byres Road the day I found out that I had aced my Highers and, by extension, had a place at law school. I spent the rest of the summer listening to the album on an ancient tape deck at my Grandad’s, memorising every word.
As the years have passed I’ve moved away from listening to their albums regularly (a quick check shows I currently have 76 of their songs in my iTunes library) but it hardly seems to matter. I’ve seen them live three times now, the most recently being at last summer’s T in the Park, and every time I see Michael Stipe in his makeup or Peter Buck’s solid presence my heart skips like it did when I was a teenager and I remember why it was that for years I breathlessly called them my favourite band. The post-Bill Berry material might not excite me as much as the scratchy, mumbled lyrics of their early records, but the albums are there to be revisited whenever I need them.
And here’s a spectacular live version of the song that started it all.