Everyone has their own personal musical odyssey, their own journey through the rich landscape of sound. To an extent the journey mirrors and charts our progression and development as people. As in life, within the musical realm we all have our guilty pleasures, and those little dalliances that we instinctively know are bad for us but relish anyway. Some songs or artists are a part of your life for the briefest time, a one-night stand when compared to others with whom you form deep, lasting relationships. To paraphrase a Less Than Jake lyric, the music we listen to is the soundtrack of our lives.
Welcome to my personal musical odyssey.
One of my earliest memories is listening to the Beatles on an old 8-track cartridge on the way to the seaside in my dad’s Volkswagen Beatle. Yep, I’m that old. It was a compilation of their earliest hits, I wanna hold your hand, Can’t buy me love, etc. A perfect introduction to the world of pop. Those things were called 8-track cartridges because they could only physically hold 8 tracks, for a total playing time of about 20 minutes. What a pain in the ass it must have been to be a music lover in the late seventies.
I first became musically aware, in that I began to recognize what I liked and what I didn’t, and started to seek out certain kinds of music around the time I hit puberty in the mid-1980’s. This was probably my most ‘open’ spell when I was still trying to discover what genre I actually liked. I was receptive to everything from Five Star and Madonna to Public Enemy and Anthrax, though was always drawn to the rockier side of things.
One of the first bands I developed a fixation with was Dire Straits. I still remember the TV commercial for Brothers in Arms, showing clips of the Money for Nothing video featuring Mark Knopfler’s famous glowing sweat band. It was enough to make me buy the album. I liked it so much I saved up my pocket money and over the coming months bought Alchemy Live and Love Over Gold as well. Great albums. I always meant to get Making Movies, I thought about it every time I went into a record shop, but it had a shit cover. Those things were important then.
Take Marillion, in their early days the packaging on their albums was so cool, all colourful gate-fold sleeves with lots of hidden pictorial messages. I later discovered they were all designed by the same artist, Mark Wilkinson. Another good example is the Iron Maiden records of the late-seventies and eighties, which were all designed by Derek Riggs. I can’t imagine Maiden being quite as successful is their records came in plain white sleeves.
During my teens I consumed pop music and spent every spare penny I had on vinyl and tapes. Tapes, or cassettes, were all the rage for a while. Sometimes bands put bonus songs on them to entice you into buying them. Cassette singles, or ‘cassingles’ (groan) were a complete waste of time. But even these were a better idea than the copy-proof cassettes you were encouraged to buy. They were more expensive than normal cassettes, and you couldn’t make copies of them. Needless to say the whole concept was an unmitigated disaster. Like most people, what music I couldn’t buy for myself I would either steal from shops or tape off someone else, which was the eighties equivalent to file-sharing. I even watched Top of the Pops and listened to the Radio 1 chart show religiously hoping to discover new avenues to explore.
My first folly into full-fledged fandom was Simple Minds, who released a great album in 1986 called once Upon a Time and had a song on the soundtrack of the supercool Brat Pack movie The Breakfast Club. Me, a few mates at school, and an older cousin who I thought of as some kind of music guru, all declared ourselves fans. I think I was the only one who actually went so far as to join their fan club. It was quite a good deal; you got a regular magazine, some badges, a poster, and some other useless shit. If you joined a fan club these days you’d probably just get an email every couple of months.
Simple Minds at Cardiff Arms Park, summer 1989, was my first live concert. It was a very special time in my life. I was just about to leave school, it was the end of a decade, my future was a blank canvass, and I thought the world was my oyster. The concert was one of the rare events in life that actually lived up to expectation. The Minds, as the cool people called them, were fantastic, even if the set list was dominated by songs from the rather patchy Street Fighting Years album. Also on the bill that day were the Silencers (who, as the opening act, were technically the first band I ever saw live) and Texas, fronted by a very temperamental Charlene Spitteri who kept threatening to go home unless people stopped throwing bottles at her.
At this stage in their career Simple Minds were pure, fist-pumping stadium rock, just what a teenager needs in his life. I loved the passion and the energy. I also became a huge Alarm fan. Their music and lyrics held added poignancy for me, with many of their songs being about Wales. The artist I felt most affinity with, however, was Bruce Springsteen.
I was vaguely aware of the Born in the USA hype in 1984 / 85, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later when Live 1975 – 85 and Tunnel of Love came out that I caught the Boss bug. Somehow, my obsession with the Boss became intertwined with my blossoming fondness for travelling. If you are going to be a Boss fan you have to go and see him play live, so between 1992 and 2003 I saw him 5 times in 4 different countries. Philadelphia, USA; Milan, Italy; Rotterdam, Holland; and London and Manchester, England. Every gig was an emotional, intense experience. At his best, the Boss is one of the best performers the world has ever seen. I cried at the San Siro when he sang ‘Follow that Dream.’ I was going through some massive changes in my life and that song just struck a chord in me. I listened, and I did follow my dream.
For me, there were always tests involved when I travel to see the Boss. It is never plain-sailing. In 1999 I travelled to Philadelphia to see Springsteen play ‘at home.’ My girlfriend and I had tickets for two shows, but one was cancelled because of Hurricane Floyd. What a bitch. Even that wasn’t as bad as the Rotterdam adventure, where I got robbed by three big black guys then strip searched on my way home when my coach got pulled by French border police with guns.
Note to self: Never attempt to travel from Cardiff to Rotterdam by coach again. Life is just too short.
What happened next: A Musical Odyssey part 2