Tracks of my tears: an internal jukebox selection

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1. I grew up in a home where the King was revered. In the ’70s I couldn’t get excited about big ballads, curious concept albums and woeful film scores. The Sun recordings, however, had a raw, personal, intensity to which I responded immediately. Before I was a teen, I had Elvis’ intonations and Scotty’s licks hardwired deep inside. They are balm in times of trouble.

2. No band will ever mean as much to me as The Clash. From the April 1977 release of their first album, it was rarely off my turntable for long. Punk took up where the raucous, uninhibited rock n’ roll of pre-army Elvis left off (as had much else beside of which I was then unaware). My friend John West and I used to sit around wondering whether the ‘second Clash album’ could possibly approach such heights of greatness. It didn’t. But London Calling, released in mid-December 1979, was the band’s masterpiece. Lyrically and musically the range of its 19 tracks is epic.

Rock n’ roll, reggae, disco and jazz delivered potent homilies about revolution, evolution, love, angst and apocalypse. I quote its lines – to myself at least – almost daily.

Lost In The Supermarket is not the best track on the album, but it is the one that I hold dearest. My girlfriend at the time told me that is was ‘about me’. It isn’t, it is about, and is sung by Mick Jones. Nonetheless, its account of alienation in the face of consumerism spoke to me. It was a wall in Bradford, not a hedge in the suburbs over which I never could see, but the outlook was the same. I returned to inspect the wall years later and was surprised to find that it scarcely reached my chest. Large retail premises bewilder me yet.

3. I discovered Detroit in my mid-teens from several sleeveless junk shop ‘Motown Gold’ compilations. Their condition was woeful, but I loved them immediately, scratches and all. I still expect the Velvelette’s Needle In A Haystack to stick in its groove just after the middle eight and the Four Top’s Bernadette sounds wrong without a static crackle over the opening bars.

I didn’t know much about the musicians behind Berry Gordy’s Hitsville until I saw the film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, the studio-backing-band’s biopic. To my surprise, tambourine player, Jack Ashford is lavishly featured. Who could call themselves a musician whose instrument is so beloved by Salvationists and primary school teachers, I wondered? Then I saw him play. Of course, he was Motown’s tambourine player – a rhythmic genius whose shimmering beats define recordings of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s songs at least as much as Jameson and Babbitt’s bass.

Ashford is never better than on Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ – from Motown’s counter-cultural period. I am not a pacifist, but any conflict that can’t answer Starr’s repeated question isn’t worth a drop of blood. And anybody who isn’t propelled to shake their booty by War’s insistent groove is surely already acquainted with the undertaker?

4. It is a dependable rule of thumb in popular music that when meanings are obscure or metaphors in play – then sex or drugs are the subjects. Elvis’ interest in ‘playing house’ had nothing to do with washing dishes; David Bowie even provided an explanatory follow-up song for any who imagined that Major Tom’s odyssey was anywhere but inner space.

There also been some magnificent unabashed paeans to the joys of enhanced reality – Lou Reed is among my favourite ever songwriters.

Articulating aspects of life alongside someone for whom drugs have ceased to be recreational, however, is a significantly rarer trope. That Elizabeth Cook manages to be funny, insightful and poignant all at once, as well as wrapping her words up in a tune that dependably reduces me to tears, makes this song great. Its finest quality, however, is the way that it retains a capacity to shock despite being largely comprised of matter-of-fact phrases that could be heard in any home.

I have never had a sister, but Cook’s theme is all too familiar. Her words are a reminder of the joy in even the most troubled lives, and that sharing has the power to dissipate pain. I would incorporate their study into the English curriculum.

5. Elvis Costello once explained to an interviewer his reticence about publishing lyrics on album covers (and I am paraphrasing from very distant memory here). “People often come up to me and say: I really like this or that line from a song. When they repeat it back to me, however, it is clear that they have completely misheard or misunderstood me. But fans’ versions of my words are generally much better than my originals – and who would want to deny listeners such quality material”?

He expresses a truth about the way we consume songs that present a collage of ideas without necessarily having a clear narrative thread. I’m usually caught first by a melody and then I slowly start to pull out phrases that have some kind of resonance as I sing along in my head. I can listen to and love a song for years without considering its words as a single entity. Sometimes when I do, an old friend delivers an unexpected treat.

So it was with Coffee + TV from my favourite Blur album by far. It hooked me from my first listen, but its meaning unraveled only slowly. When finally I did sit down and read the words, it was a surprise to find that – of course – it deals with being overwhelmed with commercial stimuli and the search for a wholesome alternative. Thirty five years on, and it turns out that I am still Lost In The Supermarket.

Hammer & Tongs video is a treat, too.