Who, when entering middle age, does not cast a melancholic glance backwards? The years when we were growing to adulthood stretched through time. A year at school an eternity, the long hot summers, the holidays that seemed to last so long.
Hindsight frees us of the pain of teenage years. The pain of self-doubt, the mystery of the opposite sex or the same. The difficulties in understanding the unwritten rules of engagement.
A thread ran through my younger self and still does. Music. My music. A track can evoke a memory as clearly as a photograph. A song can be of a place, a time even a feeling from another part of your own personal history.
I grew up in a medium sized non-descript town in the east midlands of England. I fell out of schooling and made the leap to London. Music was with me, in my soul. Music made me.
In the late 1970s, music was on the radio. If you liked a song you bought the single or the album if you were particularly flush with money. The 1980s was more of the same, with MTV.
My parents, despite having had the opportunity to see both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones live, remained the definition of conservatives. Music was a babble in the background. Their record collection consisted of special officers from catalogue collections. Cover versions and box sets of classical concerts.
Maybe my obsession with music grew from rebellion.
The first album was the soundtrack to Grease. A cover version. I was not deterred. I became a fan of the Kids from Fame. I bought the albums, learned the words, and knew all the characters inside out. I had no conception of how wonderfully camp the show was. I thought Leroy a tough streetwise dude. In spandex.
In the background was my extended family’s relationship to Madness. Most of my family were north London Irish. Their links to Camden Town saw Cathal Joseph Smyth become Chas Smash of Madness. The classic opening of One Step Beyond is his. My aunt would tell amazing stories of being chased down the street by screaming school girls when Madness were one of the biggest bands in the country. Our House their anthem.
I had nothing to do with the glamour of pop. I was too young, too far away and too uncool. By several miles. I listened to Complete Madness on cassette under my duvet over and over again. To this day, I still know every word. I have wonderful dance sessions with my young children to those stone-bonker classics.
I spent a lot of time under my duvet. Headphones, although basic, were essential. I wasn’t allowed to stay up late, to read or otherwise, so I lurked under my duvet with my lamp. Whilst there, I discovered Stephen King novels. This came with my purchase of an OMD collection. Enola Gay means The Shining to me. Both scare me senseless.
Those were the days of the slow dance at the end of the school disco. The pain of the utter embarrassment of the beflared spotted youth. Despite being an only child discovering music and books alone, society would often insist that I engage with my peers in social settings. The slow dance. Lady in Red. The slow dance anthem. A cold sweat rises simply writing those words.
Social engagement had its advantages of course. Word of mouth. In those days before social media and mobile phones, the cool kids took their knowledge from each other and disseminated to their classmates. Later it would be the New Musical Express, Sounds and Melody Maker. Every Thursday without fail.
And so I discovered the alternative. How easier to be cool than knowing about this secret music? I was average at football, and moderate at everything else, so I needed a tribe. And indie music was it. The Smiths. The Jam. The Clash. I was a little behind the pace, getting into said bands in their twilight periods or after they had gone to the great band heaven in the sky.
My time was the late eighties, early nineties. I had a Ford Cortina, had left Catholic school after an unfortunate unauthorised dancing incident led to my suspension, and had started at college in another town. My life was my own. The Pixies at Reading Festival, Sonic Youth t-shirts, and the Manchester sound. The Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays and the lesser versions. I wore the flares with pride, the hair, the attitude. Such was my success, my father declined to speak to me anymore. He still struggles.
My time at college finished, my life changed. And so I made the leap. Some stayed where they were. I went to London. With Billy Bragg.
I still love music. Classical, jazz and folk these days. The music of my youth though – that shaped my soul.