A confession. The words below are from something that I’ve been working on for the last few months. Another project which might, or might not ever see the light of day – I’m far from certain. It either works as a slice of music-related fiction, or reads as self-indulgent crap. I might post more of it (if response is positive), re-write it, or scrap the project in its entirety. Words about music. Ah… yes.
It’s sometime around the mid 1990’s, and a woman – let’s call her Kate – enters a telephone booth. It’s raining; that London brand drizzle, bevelled and humdrum, and because Kate is feeling dispassionate or disengaged with the task in hand, she checks her watch, then dials the pre-arranged number, knowing (as she feeds coin into slot) that the tape machine at the other end will flatten her enunciation even further, yet unmoved that her words are to be captured for posterity, or by the number of grey-skinned shadows she knows are clustered around such recording equipment, their attentions beholden to the message she’s about to deposit.
Two rings, a beep, then a connection. No Leave your message after the tone; only a silence she’s been commissioned to decorate. Kate takes in the booth’s grimy windows, the prostitute calling cards tacked above the phone, the lazy thrum of traffic on the road outside, and as she begins to speak – a line plucked out of context from Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaarder’s philosophy crib sheet novel – her voice maintains that grace of indifference; we can leave Kate here, repeating her single phrase down this phone-line to where-ever, and pan out above the latticework of streets to where the ribbons of cloud sweep low-slung and moody across the vista as if oversized standards of a far-off cavalry.
Not that the above ever happened. Well, it did, but not the way I tell it. The Kate is Kate Radley, once Spiritualized keyboardist and former consort of band centrepiece Jason Pierce. The (abridged) Sophie’s World quotation is ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ (they yell), ‘we are floating in space!’ – a phrase both enigmatic and enticing, should that be your bag. And the down-the-line recording of Radley mouthing these words with all the panache of a medicated tannoy announcer at Birmingham New Street station is both the point of entry into song and album of the same name, and one of the most important moments in the history of popular music.
Okay – this may not be the most important moment, you understand. That’ll be the trumpets on Scott Walker’s ‘Mathilde’. Or that party where John Cale first bumped into Lou Reed. ‘Kiss Me’ by Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy. Hendrix moving to London. The Spiral Scratch EP. Mick Derrick from semi-forgotten ’90’s Leicester noiseniks Prolapse, dismantling the ceiling mid-song in a grotty subterranean venue somewhere off Chancery Lane. The point being that it isn’t a challenge to arrive at some virtuous and intrinsic yet cheap and arbitrary musical reference point with which to underpin this theory or that. And because Dedicated, Spiritualized’s record label, were subsumed into Big & Evil Corporate Record Company Inc, the subsequent re-release included over a minute’s worth of out-takes from Kate repeating Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space over and over, just in case the message was a little confusing the first time around – it’s a peek behind the curtains that detracts, not enhances, and as such disqualifies this moment from notions of importance.
Except, if hunting around for that singular element to explain the relationship between listener and recorded sound – a relationship so integral to who we are and why we do what we do that it can’t help but bleed across all that other ephemera that comes with being human – then Kate Radley mumbling into the handset of a telephone functions as snug a metaphor as anything else I’d care to mention. You see, something shifted upon first listen. Perhaps I wasn’t even aware of it at the time, but the view out of the window was no longer quite the same.
This is a tale about pop music. A tale about running away (I think). About shirking responsibility. Hiding in the bushes. A ghost story without the ghosts, the cadences sculpted by compulsion as much as serendipity.
It’s by no means an uncommon story. Neither is it extraordinary (at least beyond the confines of this particular living room); I’ve never appeared on Top Of The Pops, miming bass behind Chrissie Hynde. I’m not Lulu, nor David Byrne – indeed, any encounter I’ve had with those who propagate pop are fleeting, and indistinct. I’m also far from certain what pop music actually is, let alone feel comfortable with all that genre politik loitering behind the urge to categorise; I’ve a firm grip upon how I interpret such nomenclature, yet doubt this aligns with any concept you’d care to wield.
Instead, a proposition. Or at least a confession of understanding. That life exists to be filtered through or refracted by the music we’ve listened to since we were scruffy urchins with scuffed knees and picked noses. Neither science, philosophy nor theology would concur with this view – but then again, neither science, philosophy nor theology have released albums as crisp or as satisfying as Dare, Pale Green Ghosts, or anything by Mott The Hoople, and I know who I’d rather trust.
To live is to soundtrack. To coexist (as well as to cohabit) with your format of choice (me – I’ve been waving the flag for vinyl for longer than my bank manager cares to remember… but let’s not get sidetracked with how our hit is delivered). Pop music defines who we are because pop music not only sits entwined to the past but also confides its indentured status to the present. A three-way, a ménage à troi, the living, the breathing, the loving mere transience without the solidity afforded by headphones and stereo speakers.
I’ve met people because of records. Of more importance, I’ve met girls because of records – some even stamped with jukebox provenance for a name, which can’t help but add that extra level of frisson. The ashtray and the notebooks and the bunch of lilies wilting sedate in their vase; I wrestle passages onto the paper to watch them coalesce, or fade away into little more than white noise – yet the ignominy and those dirty smudges cause affront only amidst the silence (and even then the essence of record will stalk the house, prowling around the corners all keen-eyed and lascivious).
I am a boy. Who listens to music. This is my story…
… or if not mine, then at least a tale hanging half-way to empathy.