Writer / The Quietus Co-Founder & Editor
Writing about memory and music ought to be a very different process to considering a list of favourite songs. The latter is a simpler task, a sifting through accumulated years of listening in search of pleasure, no doubt a wary eye on the perception of those who might be looking at the list. Memory, though, is more complicated. To examine it properly, in full, we have to look at our memories as a giant chaotic ball, a sunlike sphere boiling with fragments of emotion, vision, smell, touch and sight that exist within our minds but also far beyond it. Memory is not dissimilar to faith, for they both require trust and the guidance of others. I have an absolutely shocking memory, sometimes able to feel my brain sending out hopeful tendrils in a search for what I did last Tuesday night. There are long periods of my life of which I have no recollection, events that friends will relay to me as if reciting a badly-written scene from a theatre production but leave me utterly baffled. Optimistically, I like to discount stress, depression and thirst and put this down to a sensibility that is keen to always move forward to the future and make the most of that, rather than become mired in reliving the past. Indeed, that’s the crux – music and memory are such interesting partners, and why memory tracks ought to be different to favourites, separated from the death grip of nostalgia. Memory songs might transport us back in time, but they should not leave us with a sense that the past was a better place to be. Therefore I’ve chosen songs or pieces of music that I hope might always have a power of recall that has far more to do with uncanny reaches into the core of who I am than considerations of taste.
And Can It Be (Huddersfield Choral Society)
Brought up in a Methodist family, religious songs are in the core of my being and have shaped my musical enthusiasms ever since. It was a tricky choice between this and Thine Be The Glory, a belter exceeding all belters, but TBTG isn’t a Wesleyan hymn so this will do. The pacing of this piece of music is something that the majority of all contemporary Christian praise has alas forgotten in its collapse into the sort of sentimentality that blights Saturday night telly pop programmes. It builds and builds and truly there is no greater pleasure than singing “my chains fell off, my heart was free” with a proper pipe organ blasting underneath. I’ve chosen the Huddersfield Choral Society version as it takes me right back to earliest memories of a Halifax church hall thick with the smell of stewed tea, old hymnbooks and dusty 70s chairs looking out at the distant moors rising above the dead chimneys of the Calder Valley. All of the music I’ve chosen could have been written by Charles Wesley.
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
Much of the music I write about and love these days rises spectral from the English landscape, from Richard Skelton to Laura Cannell, Shirley Collins, Kemper Norton, Daniel Patrick Quinn, Cyclobe and on and on. The Lark Ascending was a well-worn tape in the car stereo during holidays that were never spent abroad but acquired through Methodist blags in the British Isles. Hearing it now once more lifts my eyes above the edge of the window of an Astra to see the high tops of Devon, the baked bean lights of the M62, the indistinct line of the Malvern Hills or the churches and water towers of North Norfolk gliding slowly by. It will always make the landscapes of these islands exotic and beautiful to me, no matter the mendacious deeds of the fools who govern it but must not be allowed to take psychic control.
When I was very small and full of cold or fever or enduring the first attacks of what in teenage and adult life would become depression my mum would come and sit by the bed and speak in tongues to me. With the strange words and vocalisations and her cold hand on my wet and overheating forehead, the world outside my bedroom would vanish and a comfort would descend I know not from where. It’s only very recently that I’ve discovered something that sounded like that quiet voice of my mum speaking or singing words beyond her comprehension, via some links to Gaelic psalms on Twitter. In them I am taken back to that odd intangible peace.
The Entire Discography Of Leonard Cohen
As I wrote in my Quietus obituary for Leonard Cohen he was clearly ready to go but many of us were not. Yet however devastated I felt on Friday 11th November when I learned of his passing, subsequent days have not been so hard. Gradually getting to know Leonard Cohen’s music over the years was a blood transfusion and no other artist has changed my life like he has. For the sake of the playlist I’ll have to pick Suzanne as it was the first track on the Songs Of Leonard Cohen cassette that was my drip. Len lives on.
Art Garfunkel – Bright Eyes
Watership Down is the film that introduced the idea of a hazy, animist English landscape to an entire generation. Though Bright Eyes might equally be a love song listening to it still summons that black rabbit with its pointed ears and fire red eyes taking improbable leaps through the mist beneath pylons. It instantly ensured that the natural world would never be twee for me, and that I will always love a rabbit pie.
The KLF – America What Time Is Love (Not available on Spotify)
The first piece of vinyl I ever bought. A preposterous, glorious tune, a letter to America that bombastic partner to Leonard Cohen’s Democracy. This reminds me of early forays into London as a teenager, returning to the Home Counties clutching precious records in HMV bags and jumping straight a shower to clean away the black snot and dirt of the capital. My one Golden Ager moment in life came when bemoaning that we didn’t have pop groups who would make records like this anymore to my younger flatmates. They pooh poohed me, saying that The KLF were a fringe, cult group. I had to point out that in the year they machine-gunned the BRIT Awards they were the biggest selling band on the planet. Everything pop music should and still can be.
Shakespears Sister – Stay
Combined with the scene in A View To A Kill when Grace Jones pumps the railway trolley carrying a bomb, this song was a profound early-90s sexual awakening. Kink and the upsetting of gender power dynamics to the top of the charts!
Enya – Cursum Perficio
It has been a great source of joy that in recent years Enya has been rescued from derision as a weird cod-New Age flippertyjibbet sat in a castle on the other side of the valley from Bono, with the likes of Chris Carter from Throbbing Gristle and Carter Tutti Void emerging as fans. I built many Airfix kits accidentally spannered on Humbrol listening to a cassette of Watermark on repeat and, like a Spitfire propeller jammed with too much glue, it stuck to me forever. My love of Enya is not ironic. Together with her collaborators Roma and Nicky Ryan she’s made deeply weird pop, and in the process inventing a Celtic version of Afro-Futurism.
The Cure – Plainsong
The Cure’s album Disintegration came into my life at the same time as death. There was the loss of my granny, a fierce, loving, intelligent, at times belligerent working class woman of Essex who imparted to me a determination never to let anyone tell me what I could or couldn’t be. She died suddenly of an aneurysm, perhaps a blessing of an exit for her but a reeling shock to my family. Around the same time my great aunt was slowly losing her sense of self to dementia. I went to visit her in her care home and we had one of the last lucid conversations before she died. I still recall driving away with her words turning over in my mind. “I don’t like it here. I want to be with Jesus”. Not long afterwards the fog cleared and she was at peace.
Coil – A Cold Cell
My in memoriam, the song that I want at my funeral. A reminder that how we are thought of once we are gone depends on the grace with which we treat the world while we still breathe.