214 – The Three Day Musical Challenge (Day Three)

Day 21: A Song You Swear’s Written For You
The Beatles – Eleanor Rigby
My mum was never a true Beatles fan, the kind who bought their albums and pored over them in a drug-addled search for greater meaning. She liked them during their early years; she hit her teens at the end of the fifties and if she’d had her way she would have been one of those young girls pressed against the railings screaming at John, Paul, George and Ringo in stock footage from ‘the good old days’.

While there are certainly a lot of experimental album-only Beatles songs she never knew back then – and probably still doesn’t know today – this is one of those break-out classics everyone knows, no matter how early or late they come to Beatlemania.

I learned to play it at primary school as one of a number of other Beatles tracks for . . . well, I forget why we learned to play and sing them; it was probably for a musical show of some description. Even at the time I thought Nowhere Man or Fool on the Hill summed me up pretty well,  though my opinions were no doubt influenced by other kids pointing at me saying “Ha ha, you’re a nowhere man!” or “‘Nobody wants to know him’ – that’s you!”

Sob.

Over the years Nowhere Man’s come to sound optimistic to me: the lyrics beseech the titular chap to emerge from his shell and embrace the world. Eleanor Rigby on the other hand is a song about desperation. There’s no solution to the characters’ loneliness and no hope for them; if anything it makes them sound like a plague troubling other people’s happiness. All the lonely people, where do they all belong? It’s not like you can sweep them under the rug and be done with them.

The lyric ‘writing a sermon that no one will hear’ obviously strikes a chord with me, not least because of the abysmal viewing figures for the first and I assume the second and third parts of this feature. Eleanor Rigby is a bleak song that helped remove the band away from their screaming teenaged hordes. I’d never say the Beatles were one of my favourite bands, but this certainly ranks among my favourite songs.

Day 22: A Guilty Pleasure Song

The phrase ‘guilty pleasures’ – especially when used in reference to pop culture – gets my goat. In my mind it’s almost an oxymoron – how can a thing be pleasurable if you feel guilty for indulging in it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been invented by some marketing genius as a way to sell chocolate: every pleasure’s naughtier when it’s a guilty pleasure.

As such, I don’t have a song that’s a guilty pleasure. I’m proud of my taste in music; I’m proud of its diversity, and I certainly don’t feel guilty when singing along to some pop hit I happen to like – although perhaps I should on those occasions, because my singing voice is dreadful.

Day 23: A Song No One Suspects You Like
Don Felder – Galaxy High

Nobody I know – NOBODY – has such a well-rounded picture of me they’d be surprised if I told them I liked this or that song. Unless I lied; unless I said “Hey, this Coldplay track is really something” or started air-jamming to Aerosmith.

So when I reveal I like certain eighties cartoon themes it’s hardly surprising – doesn’t everyone raised in the eighties like them?

I genuinely like this song for a number of very specific reasons:

I love the vocoded voice. Until Daft Punk killed singing like robots I was a massive fan of vocoded voices and talkboxes – something I put down to being exposed to Sparky’s Magic Piano at a young and impressionable age.

I love the tonal shift in the lyrics, the way they go – without missing a beat – from describing two typical teenagers to ‘two kids will be chosen from Earth’. I love it, I LOVE it. I mean, I know it’s just letting the audience know what the show’s about but it’s so blunt about it. Imagine you’re watching a movie about two high school kids – the jock and the dork – and ten minutes into it a shadow falls over the school and and an alien loudhaler intones: “TWO WILL BE CHOSEN.” Close up on the kids’ faces, then cut – and they’re in space heading to their new school. It’s all there in that one line! It’s fantastic.

I love the contrast between the two halves of the song. The first half is sung in a fairly monotonous fashion, keeping mainly to one chord. The second half escalates up the scale with every single chord; it’s like, “Here’s all this mundane shit happening on Earth; man, we’re in space! Oh God, we’re going to school in space! The jock’s uncool and the dork’s popular!” It’s a brilliant piece of musical storytelling from back when most other contemporary cartoon themes were either trying to sell toy lines by repeating the title a bunch of times or going for catchy rock motifs. As much as I like those old Shuki Levy themes – and I bloody well do – I like this one just as much – if not a little more.

Day 24: A Song You Played/Want To Play At Your Wedding
Erasure – Always

We didn’t have this song played at our wedding – there wasn’t room for any songs to be played in the court room – so we don’t have a magical ‘our song’ as perhaps we should. I paid attention to the first song we heard on the car radio back from the courthouse and it was, somewhat unfortunately, Beat It by Michael Jackson; obviously that would make a terrible wedding song.

Though my wife strongly disagrees with me on this I’ve decided our song should be Always by Erasure. Why? Because in the weeks that bookended our wedding we both played a shit-ton of the Flash game Robot Unicorn Attack.

I think it’s quite a romantic song, as it happens.

Day 25: A Song For Your Funeral
Brian Eno – An Ending (Ascent)

When my grandmother died, as soon as I heard – as soon as I knew even, as before my mother told me I knew from the look on her face what had happened. – I ran upstairs to my room and put this on my stereo. I don’t know how many times I listened to it. I don’t know how long I sat there as its quiet melancholy washed over me.

It’s been used many times since then, not by me but in advertisements for children’s charities and horror films; to juxtapose the evils of the world with frail and silver hope. It has, perhaps, been overused, to the point where it’s a mainstream track: a cliché.

For all that – and despite all the times I’ve joked about songs to be played at my funeral – Atmosphere by Russ Abbot’s always been a favoured suggestion – this is the song that should be be played at my funeral. It’s funereal, yes, but it’s uplifting without being jaunty. It’s a sweet song, a sad song, and above all, a hopeful song. It is, I think, what everyone needs to hear when a loved one dies.

Day 26: A Song That Reminds You Of Spring
Claude Debussy – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

There seems to be a significant dearth of springtime music about. Maybe spring doesn’t need music; it has birdsong and bee-buzz, and a cacophony of sneezes as hayfever sweeps its dusty baton in conduct.

But softly whirling harps and lonesome woodwinds – this is as close to springtime as music gets. It’s clearly what Debussy had in mind when he wrote this piece: the soft, misty awakening of flora and fauna alike. I was going to refer to it as a ‘tone poem ode to nature’ until Wikipedia in its infinite wisdom tutted at me – there’s not enough ‘musical literalism’ in it, apparently. All the same, even though it doesn’t tell any specific story it’s all too easy to be swept away by the majesty of the piece, as if lulled to sleep warmly by the titular afternoon..

Day 27: A Song That Reminds You Of Summer
Sasha & Junkie XL – Breezer

The jingle-jangle sound of summer!

I had jangly guitars; I fucking hate them. My hatred came out of spending too much time with people who thought jangly guitars were the be-all and end-all of music. That fucking Brit pop sound and the laziness of it all bothered me to the point of madness. You don’t need precision man, you don’t need talent. All you need is an off-key Mancunian accent and a jangly fucking guitar.

This is the song that redeems steely, jangly, scratch-at-your-nerves guitars for me. Unlike a lot of Sasha’s music – which is ethereal, swirling and wistful – Breezer is a buoyant summer anthem almost cheesy in its cheer. It’s an end of the pier postcard; a saucy wink to get the audience’s hands in the air. It’s an unashamedly upbeat sunshine and sea breeze track. I generally prefer my music to be a little more thoughtful but this song’s too infectious not to dance to. It’s jingle-jangle and mad for it, but in the best possible way.

Day 28: A Song That Reminds You Of Fall/Autumn
The Tuneless Primary School Choir – Autumn Days

Primary school hymns – the kind I sang as a child – have an unmistakable mechanical nature to them. They’re designed as filler, little more than punctuation for the school day; they’re not sung to any standard, nor is the piano accompaniament supposed to be inspirational or indeed musical. The piano’s there as metronome to keep in time children who’d otherwise wander all over the tempo.

As well as being a dubious classic of the primary school assembly Autumn Days is also a contemporary hymn remarking upon the wonders of the natural world – jeweled grass, the silk inside a chestnut shell – alongside such marvels of the modern age as jet planes and football teams. The cynic in me says these lines were added to give schoolkids something to focus on rather than shuffling their shoes or pretending to read their Come and Praise song book while it’s upside down; certainly my school chums were always overly boisterous when singing about ‘a win for my home team’.

I’d hope – but am not sure – that this kind of primary school indictrination has fallen out of favour in the twenty-first century – and it was indoctrination. From September to December, every Wednesday we’d sing our thanks to God for every wonder Autumn brought, and all year round we’d trump out other children’s hymns with lines like ‘God knows everyone and God knows me’ and ‘Sing Hosanna to the king of kings’. At least Autumn Days – which grounded religious miracles in erstwhile mundane situations like tieing shoe laces or frying bacon – was relatable to us kids; never was it explained to us what ‘Hoseanna’ actually meant.

Though I’m an atheist now and the indoctrination didn’t quite do what it set out to, I still think of this song when Autumnal gold brushes the trees, and for that at least I’m thankful.

Day 29: A Song That Reminds You Of Winter
Barry Rose/Pro Arte Orchestra – The First Noel

“And now, Master Harker, now that the wolves are running, perhaps you could do something to stop their bite?”

This was the theme tune to the BBC adaptation of The Box of Delights – and what a magnificent theme it is. The full version – as found on the CD A Classic Christmas – is as dark as Christmas carols come. The opening is wavering, uncertain – scared, even: a music box harp tinkling while strings like theremins underscore it. A few bars later the instruments fall into a major chord and it’s like coming in from a cold land haunted by wolves to the warmth and safety of a crackling fireplace. It’s a story unto itself – and God knows I love stories.

It’s also a reminder of every Christmas I’ve ever had; when The Box of Delights originally aired it set the tone for all my Christmases to come. Its unnerving opening casts the listener back to a time when the deep midwinter was eternal darkness lit only by a the festival at its centre. It’s reminiscent of primitive peoples huddling together for warmth and celebrating in cheer so strong it pushes back the darkness, if only for a night.

Day 30: A Favorite Tom Petty Song
Who?

No, seriously; I’ve heard of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers but I couldn’t pick him – or his music – out of a crowd and I hate that whoever compiled this stupid list expects me to know the artists they particularly favour. I even tried finding a song of his I knew well enough it deserved mention on this list: the theme from The Wire, I thought. Turns out that was originally played by Tom Waits.

So no, I can’t complete the thirty day music challenge due to somebody changing the fucking rules to accommodate their own ego. I mean, my choices are supposed to reflect my own musical tastes, right – they’re supposed to represent my character. Every other question in the challenge asks me about songs I personally associate with moments of my life, and then you throw in some act I don’t know purely because it amuses you to do so? You go to hell, challenge maker. You go to hell and you think about what you’ve done.

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