Memory Playlist

By Frank Cottrell-Boyce


For a few years now my Dad has had dementia. It began by attacking his muscle memory – how to get up out of a chair, how to steer yourself through a room – rather than anything intellectual or emotional. A tall, gangly fellow with a big stride, he was transformed into a crouched, shuffling marionette, always reaching out for supports that weren’t there. Just before Christmas he caught an infection which took away the last of his mobility and stranded him – physically at least – in bed. Mentally he’s flying around through space and time. This can be unnerving. He always knows who I am and always asks polite and precise questions about my kids. Always knows what’s happening in the Premiership. The foreground is always clear and correct. But the background comes and go like theatre backdrops. One moment we are apparently sitting by an imaginary boating lake improbably situated on Scotland Road. The next we are stuck on the rails at Huyton Station. We are quite often locked inside St. Anthony’s Church or inexplicably, we’re in Lille Flandres (I used to live in Lille. He came to see us once). He struggles to make sense of this and most of all he struggles to be happy. I’m amazed by how much creativity he puts into finding happiness. How he makes connections and draws conclusions.
One thing he always did was book tickets ahead for himself and my Mum to go the Liverpool Philharmonic. A whole year’s tickets neatly filed away. Given that he didn’t know where he was I decided to make a play list for each concert he was going to miss and play it to him. Often enough he thinks he went out to the Phil and didn’t waste the ticket (his main source of anxiety). He has forgotten so much – including how to walk – but never once, not one single time, has he got the name of a tune wrong. A few bars in he will shout “Brigg Fair” or “Claire de Lune”. It’s really brought home to me. how deeply rooted musical memories are, the power that music has to underpin and maybe excavate neglected pathways through the burning forest of synapses.
Spending time with him has also given me an overwhelming sense that in the end we are not in control of our own memories. That what we put in there will sometimes vanish, sometimes rise. The only control ou have is to put as much good stuff in there as possible. That’s maybe the only piece of wisdom I can pass on to my kids. Just fill your head with as much good stuff as possible.

So here’s a play list inspired by my dad.
When I thought about my own great musical memories, the things I hope don’t disappear, it’s not the concerts or the records that are precious to me, but the singalongs I had in the car with my own chlldren, on the endless Summer drives to Ireland or Scotland. Or in Church – especially at a great feast like Easter – when every Easter of your life seems pulled into a single moment, as though they were all beads on a single thread of song. I love particularly the songs – like Galway Races – that were hard to memorise so that the singer was showing off a feat of memory as well as musical ability. One singer surging forth, the others joining in the odd phrase that they did remember but mostly just awe-struck by the singer. Then there are the tv theme tunes that come freighted with nostalgia for the grown-ups.

Bob Andy – Feeling Soul
Theme from The Flashing Blade TV series
Grandaddy – Gonna Walk to the Top of the Mountain (Not available online)
Althea and Donna – Uptown Top Ranking (lthe greatest single of all time)
Frank Ifield – Abdul Abulu Amir
Dolly Parton – Jolene
Dixie Chicks – There’s Your Trouble
he Proclaimers – 500 Miles

Then there are the quieter more intimate minor key wee small hours car pool karaokes I had with individual teenagers who’d been stranded in town or at a party somewhere.

Ojalá – Silvio Rodrigues
Gillian Welch – Elvis Presley Blues
Leonard Cohen – Famous Blue Rain Coat
Never Swat A Fly – Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave
(not available on Spotify) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGCEMq-eZe4

Then the hymns.

Aretha Franklin – Amazing Grace
Alison Krauss – Be Thou My Vision
(Not Available on Spotify) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AKPwYAa6F-o

And finally the music I listened to alone on my way to collect someone from the station or a party and it’s just me. Silk Road is in here because I wrote a book (Unforgotten Coat) whose theme was “Xanadu is hidden away somewhere in the heart of Bootle” – and this song really gets to that. I love the Max Richter recompositions because they seem to catch a favourite phrase and keep it still, near you, but always fresh. The same goes for the Shaker Loops. The sheer energy of the John Adams piece feels like you’re being blasted by the Holy Spirit. And I Will Kiss because Richard Smith is one of my favourite human beings and his genius and warmth and energy are all over this.

Robinson Crusoe suite. Gian Piero Reverberi (from the TV series)
Hannah Peel – Silk Road
Vivaldi’s Spring Recomposed by Max Richter
John Adams – Shaker Loops
Henry Girls – Watching the Detective
John Adams – For With God Nothing Shall Be Impossible
Underworld – And I Will Kiss

Back to Memory playlist