Don’t you just hate it when you have an epiphany? They’re so inconvenient.
If you’re a UK resident above a certain age, you can’t fail to be aware of John Peel and his legacy as probably the most important DJ and champion of new music this country has produced. When he passed away seven years ago it felt like the nation had to stop to take in the news, which is why he’s currently trending on Twitter, not just in the UK but worldwide. Mention Peel’s name and it won’t be long before people start talking about their favourite obscure bands or the rituals of music, compiling mix tapes or listening to pirate radio under the bedcovers.
But that’s my epiphany. I don’t have stories like that.
Sure, I listened to radio in bed, but it was the late night phone-in on a local commercial station. I like music, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not a fan. I never played records backwards to listen to hidden messages. I never sneaked into a rock club to have my mind blown by some crazed frontman. I can’t remember what albums most of my favourite songs appear on. I’ve been to some great gigs, but giving my cash to U2, REM and the Foo Fighters isn’t exactly supporting obscure acts.
I guess I’m just not proactive enough, which probably won’t surprise anyone. The music I like seems to find me somehow, either through a soundtrack or a throwaway comment on a message board or an interesting article on a blog somewhere. I hate the concept of The X-Factor, it being human bear-baiting in the service of turning art into a throwaway commodity, but I’m not exactly fighting the power. I downloaded Rage Against The Machine a couple of Christmases ago, but that was ever so slightly hypocritical of me.
Reading this back, I sound almost guilt-ridden – I’m not. Music is a big concept, and we all take different things from it. I like music that tells a story, and in that sense I’m more interested in lyrics than chord progressions. I’ve blogged about why Thunder Road is my favourite song, and it’s mainly about the story, the evocative imagery, the links to a mythic American landscape. My favourite poem is my favourite poem simply because the Waterboys turned it into a song. I gained a new appreciation for ‘Jerusalem’ because Billy Bragg emphasised its radical roots, while Grandaddy’s The Group Who Couldn’t Say pretty much nails the stagnation of 21st century cubicle dwelling.
For me, music is a soundtrack, a tapestry, a way of enhancing and weaving a story. (I’m also a Christian, and so music has an important role to play as worship – a significant chunk of the Bible is, after all, made up of songs, and while I’ve just said how I’m more of a lyrics man, there’s a part of me that wishes we could hear the original music that David played when he confidently walked through the valley of death, when he felt abandoned by God. I guess that’s another example of music helping us to express something that often feels, well, inexpressible.)
And yet doesn’t that speak of the importance of discovering new music, new ways of expressing life? That’s where I think I’m missing out. I mean, just because I love Terry Pratchett’s books, doesn’t mean I’d ignore Neil Gaiman, yet I’m content to have that limiting attitude when it comes to music. It feels wrong, and all the fond memories of Peel that are appearing across the internet are just reminding me of my musical poverty. Maybe I should take the hint.
So I guess this becomes a question – what’s your favourite obscure song? And, perhaps as importantly, where did you first hear it?