First off – I should probably say that I don’t actually listen to music as background filler while I’m writing. I’m either really into lyrics (which is confusing; listening to words while trying to think up different words)– or, if it’s rock or choral, I’m looking for power and adrenaline – or transcendental beauty and dissonance; neither of which make for great background music! I always write really early in the morning (5.30 or 6am) when there are no distractions. The moment I get any stimulation (a conversation, music or news), I’m stuffed; completely unable to concentrate on the task at hand.
That said – I do use music like a time capsule. If I know I’m going to be writing about an era – I’ll pick out songs that really have the power to take you to that place. This gets the memories going, so that when I get up the next morning to write, I’m already in 1994 (or whatever). As the book is about the random nature of showbiz success, coupled with betrayal and it’s discovery – all of these tracks got me into the correct zone.
Lady Grinning Soul. Bowie (Aladdin Sane 1973)
I had to have at least one Bowie song – and could easily have picked ten others instead. In my book, the two central characters are Bowie obsessed – as was half of Britain in the 70’s and early 80’s. Taken from Aladdin Sane, this track is probably the zenith for me; the perfect balance of Bowie’s vulnerability and Mike Garson’s astonishing piano playing.
I interviewed him in the late 80’s – and his ability to slip in and out of his rockstar persona really intrigued me; it was like something that he could just switch on and off. We walked around for a bit afterwards and he was really normal – and then he got to the front of the Venue – saw a load of fans – and just flicked the switch. Everything I’ve read about him seems to confirm that he invented the whole ‘Ziggy’ persona as a coping mechanism. I love the idea of artists having a distinct work mode. The following day I spent with Barry Manilow; equally enjoyable – but very different…
I Don’t Believe in You: Talk Talk (The Colour of Spring 1996)
Great time capsule back to the 80’s. The whole of the album (the Colour of Spring) is fantastically atmospheric – and I think it’s an 80’s rarity in that the production really stands up now; it doesn’t sound dated at all. I also like the whole Talk Talk story – how Mark Hollis, having swept in on the tail-end of New Romanticism, grew to feel that pop success was sucking the life out of him – and eventually refused to look into a camera lens; and you can hear where that introspection took him in the subsequent Talk Talk albums. I like people who bite the hand that feeds.
Baby Yamamoto – World of Leather (St Mark’s Place 1994)
This is shameless, I know; but actually it really did get me into the right headspace for parts of the book. It obviously catapults me back to recording it in 1993 – which in itself was useful. Part of the book concerns the act of songwriting – which is all about brevity and trying to convey an idea pithily with no fat on it. It was ironic, listening to my own songwriting efforts in the expectation that it would inspire a few thousand words for the book…
God On My Side – World Party (Goodbye Jumbo 1990)
I went through a massive World Party period, which lasted over 10 years. I think Karl Wallinger is a fabulously under-rated lyricist. I went to see him play a couple of years ago. It was his come-back after 10 years away, during which he’d had a brain aneurysm. I couldn’t believe that the Albert Hall was only 60% full. It seemed hugely unjust for a man of his talents; but I guess that’s the point. Drive-By Shouting is all about the random nature of success. It’s like a rock’n’roll Sliding Doors. Turn left out of the lift and your life goes in an entirely different direction than if you’d turned right.
I also think this is a great lyric – and sums up that envy that us Godless have for true believers. It would be incredibly comforting to think that there’s something bigger than ourselves. Can’t manage it though.
Sigourney Weaver: John Grant (Queen of Denmark 2010)
I listen to this when I want to cheer myself up. It’s the antithesis of a great lyric – but is so self-consciously deliberate that I love it. It’s the songwriting equivalent of disruptive strokes on a painting; crude daubings on an otherwise conventional landscape; literally designed to stop you in your tracks. In an era when everything sounds comfortably similar, it really jars. It’s wrongness makes it impossible to ignore; which is quite a feat these days.