My music upbringing (and being conflicted about John Peel)
Saturday 23 Aug
I would listen to Radio Luxembourg and Caroline under the pillow at boarding school, then in 1970 The Sounds of the Seventies was broadcast on BBC Radio 1 (AM) for just an hour at 6 pm, Mondays to Thursdays and I’d catch it during the holidays. A year later, it moved to a two hour slot (on FM) starting at 10 pm with Mike Harding, Alan Black, Pete Drummond, Anne Nightingale, Bob Harris and John Peel. I loved that show. George Martin’s opening fanfare Theme One always surged a frisson of excitement through me. There’s a Pete Drummond trailer for nostalgics at: http://www.radiorewind.co.uk/sounds/track_76_drummond_sounds_trail.mp3
I loved Peel and Nightingale particularly back then and could not believe my ears listening to Peel on YouTube this morning talking about the seventies as being a desert of music until his Road to Damascus moment discovering a Ramones album and then punk. He was so contemptuous and dismissive about Genesis as A-level music and all ‘prog rock’– his venom took my breath away. (Though I confess to falling asleep at a Genesis concert at Brighton Dome, circa 1971). I was a huge Peel fan, but realise that I’d stopped listening to him as much in 73 when I went to university.
I was further stunned when I saw an edited reel of John Peel’s Favourite Top 15 Records of 1975: Peter Skellern, Hold on to Love; Laurel and Hardie, The trial of the Lonesome Pine; Mike Oldfield, In dulci jubilo; Joan Armatrading, Back to the Night; 10cc. I’m not in love; Bob Seargant, First starring role; Peter Frampton, Show me the way; Bob Marley, No woman no cry; Joan Armatrading, Dry Land; John Lennon, Imagine; Rod Stewart, Sailing; Roy Harper, When an Old Cricketer leaves the Crease; Jack the Lad, Gentleman Soldier; Millie Jackson; Loving Arms, Be Bop Deluxe, Maid in Heaven. A mind-boggling soggy bag of leftovers with a couple of tasty morsels hidden amongst them.
Music I was listening to in 1975 included some ‘prog rock’ that has lasted:
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here; Tangerine Dream, Rubycon; Brian Eno, Another Green World; Brian Eno, Discreet Music; Magma, Live/Hhaï; Can, Landed. And from 1974: Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway; King Crimson, Red; King Crimson, Starless and Bible Black; Todd Rundgren, Utopia; and the record played on my deck more than any other, Robert Wyatt, Rock Bottom).
I was also listening to other genres, like Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert and John Surman & Co’s S.O.S. (an amazing BBC Jazz in Britain recording from January 1975 concert which I had taped on my old reel to reel, now available on CD). I was discovering jazz, thanks to my neighbour a Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon fan, but much of 1975 jazz I came to like, I would only get to hear a few years later, like Oliver Lake, Stanley Clarke, Eberhard Weber, Michael Mantler.
In 1975 I was also discovering medieval music and contemporary classical thanks to the wonderful music department run by Peter Dickenson who introduced us to contemporary composers. Those who visited included Steve Reich, ( I recall a very long and bewitching concert of clapping), Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, George Crumb, Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Peter Maxwell Davies, we didn’t realise how lucky we were. I got into Charles Ives (Dickenson began a Charles Ives choir) while still listening to Can, Roxy Music, Hendrix and Zeppelin.
World Music had to wait until 1980 and my discovery of Bristol’s amazing record library. My favourite was probably, ‘Pygmy music’ (ocm07854440 Musiques de l’Afrique traditionnelle; Recorded Central African Republic). And now I love African Music and have worked with the Okapi Guitar Band.
The library also introduced me to one of my all-time favourites, Carla Bley.
I think appreciating music, that is getting the most out of it, requires attention and bodywork, not just using the ears but the whole body, including the urge to dance. Music is important, found in all cultures and I disagree with the cognitive psychologist and linguistic, Stephen Pinker, that:
‘Compared with language, vision, social reasoning, and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged. Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.’ Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997.
Making music predates agriculture and perhaps language. Recently, sophisticated sounding flutes, made by Neanderthals from animal bones in what is now Europe, have been dated as 53,000 years old. Music fires up not only the outer layers of the auditory, but also the visual cortex, and goes much deeper into the limbic system, heart of our emotions.
Geoffrey Miller suggests from a Darwinian position that musical ability demonstrates fitness to a potential mate, like a powerful song or huge muscles. I doubt this is true, we don’t know how music evolved.