If you read this blog then chances are you love music. Music has inspired me throughout my life: in fact according to my mum, when I was a toddler I pointed my chubby little baby finger at the family record player and spoke my very first word: “ec-cord!” I’ve listened to a lot of records since then. And cassette tapes. And CDs. And MP3s. And Spotify streams. I’ve been to hundreds of gigs, sat through recording sessions, manned the merch stalls and dreamed of being a pop star too. But I always failed completely to learn any musical instrument or write any songs; I’ve learned the hard way that it’s best to leave that to the professionals. So here then are my Top 10 favourite tracks by a few of those talented people. Each one is a song that instils a sense of awe and wonder in me, and a delight that gives me goosebumps and pleasure like only music can. I hope you like them.
One day, not so long ago in the late 1970s, I was sitting in the family room listening to my Beatles records when my mum came home with a new LP. One look at the cover and I was intrigued: what in Earth is that? The record was Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygène and it was to change my life. I’d never heard anything like it before; it left me awed, amazed, and above all breathless. Where did those sounds come from? Those beautiful, eerie, alien noises that ebbed and flowed and didn’t even have a singer on it! I think I played that record all evening until I was sent to bed. I got up early the next day and raced downstairs: yep, still there, I hadn’t dreamt it. This was the future and I knew then that Rock and Roll was dead: we’d evolved something better.
2. Kraftwerk — Neon Lights
When I started high school I met this eccentrically dressed kid in my class who said to me: “It’s more fun to compute.” How right he was. We both signed-up for the school’s new computer club, with its ageing Commodore PET and shiny new ZX81. “I program my home computer,” said Stuart. I looked at him quizzically. “You have one of these at home?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Come round for tea and I’ll show you.” As we sat in his room waiting for a game to load, he put on some records and I had my second electro-shock moment. This was the first time I’d heard O.M.D., David Bowie, Gary Numan and Kraftwerk. Mein Gott! there were those goosebumps again. Fick Mich! what incredible music. Although Computer World quickly became (and remains) my favourite Kraftwerk album, Neon Lights from 1978’s The Man-Machine album is my favourite Kraftwerk track. There’s something so seductive about it: dreamy and eternal, I find this testament to technology wonderfully uplifting and comforting. Incredible really, for a song about street lighting.
3. The Human League — Dreams Of Leaving
The truth is, before The Human League everything else was just tuning up. That’s what I heard anyway. Choosing a Human League song for this Top 10 was really hard: Darkness, Open Your Heart, Being Boiled, countless others… but there’s one song that always thrills and disturbs me in equal measures: Dreams Of Leaving. It wasn’t a single, doesn’t have a chorus, pre-dates the girls and hasn’t been played live since 1980. Dreams Of Leaving is like an anti-Day In The Life; its 3-part structure has a beginning, middle and end that combine to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. The drudgery and stress of the salaryman has never been more succinctly expressed in a song, with notions of alienation, despair and paranoia and ending with an uncertain future and forced optimism: this is a very goth Human League! But Dreams Of Leaving features some of the best synth sequences the League have ever done I reckon, the indignity of labour all rolled into one song. And when that bass line kicks in at 3:47 you know they mean business.
4. Black — It’s Not You Lady Jane
Turn up the volume now please. More, turn it up more. Louder! LOUDER! If you only know Black for their jazz-pop chart-friendly singles then 1987’s It’s Not You Lady Jane might come as a bit of a shock to you. It’s so unlike the rest of their songs that it didn’t even make it onto the album proper: you had the buy the then new CD format to get it as a bonus track. But what a stunning, powerful track it was! It’s Not You Lady Jane is one of the first electro-industrial songs, with its relentless pounding synth loops, frantic beats, and lyrics dripping with vehemence. This is a song for all you spurned lovers looking for payback — how could they do that to you after all you’d given them?? When Colin Vearncombe sneers “Get out of my face!” you get the feeling that punk is alive and well and learning how to program sequencers. Play it loud and get it out your system my friend, just in case s/he doesn’t hear you.
End Of Part I
5. David Bowie — Five Years
Time for a mid-list apotheosis. You’ve got five years, give or take. Bowie is a man whose songs have come up again and again over the course of this Top 10 Tracks feature. The synthpoperati revere him and it’s with good reason: he’s one of the finest songwriters and performers England has ever produced, and directly influenced pretty much all the synth bands that came out of 1980s Britain. Everyone has their personal favourite Bowie song and this is mine: Five Years. Its understated fade-in heralds Bowie’s best ever album. After several pretty good albums, The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars takes Bowie to his peak: it’s faultless and magnificent. Five Years tells of an Earth doomed to destruction and the aftermath of that knowledge; it’s like a complete sci-fi disaster movie rolled in to a four-and-a-half minute pop song. Each verse is an observational vignette, the signer walking through the city as the inhabitants face up to the stark realisation that they’re not going to live forever after all. Some lines are a bit clunky but starting the album with Five Years was a master-stroke, a stark but sentimental statement that sets the scene for the doomed life of Ziggy Stardust, rock star.
6. The Associates — Breakfast
Billy MacKenzie is my favourite singer. He’s irreplaceable. I’ve chosen Breakfast from Perhaps, 1985’s “ghost train of an album.” Plagued by set-backs and expensive re-workings, Perhaps was not the commercial success Warners had hoped for but it’s the record that introduced me to Billy and I still think it’s his best album. With producers including Martin Rushent and Martyn Ware, the credentials were there to give Perhaps a synthpop-based sound. But Billy’s voice always transcended whatever music accompanied him, and this is most apparent on orchestral synthpop ballad Breakfast. I’ve still no idea what he’s singing about here (a lover’s betrayal?) but that’s not the point: it’s how Billy sings it that matters. It soothes and seduces you, lulls you with lush strings and one of Billy’s most impressive performances ever.
7. Mary Coughlan — Red Ribbon
Back in my student days in Edinburgh, I knew this singer who introduced me to a bunch of new music I still enjoy to this day: Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie, Nitzer Ebb, and Irish jazz-folk singer Mary Coughlan. Coughlan had just released her second album Under The Influence; I’d never really listened to jazz or blues before and was surprised how much I liked it.With songs about prostitution, religious oppression, vices and addictions Mary tackles some serious subjects in a contemporary way. My favourite Mary Coughlan song is the lighter Red Ribbon from her 1990 album Uncertain Pleasures. Written by Mark Nevin from Fairground Attraction, Red Ribbon is a playful lament about what-might-have-been and how a song can remind you of past lovers, especially the ones you still carry a torch for. This song gets me every time.
8. The Divine Comedy — Going Downhill Fast
So this is a song about riding a bike down a hill. Not particularly inspirational you might think, but listen closely: this two-and-a-half-minute chamber-pop song can give you more of a jolt than any drug, can lift you up more than any self-help book, can raise your spirits more than any feel-good movie. Going Downhill Fast perfectly encapsulates the sharp wit and life-affirming theme of the Promenade album. What can be more thrilling than lifting your legs up and racing down a hill on your bike, danger be damned since “four times in five we forget we’re alive and neglect to remind ourselves.” It’s a joyous song from Neil Hannon’s best album I reckon. There’s even a Barber’s Quartet in this one: what more could you want?
9. The Beautiful South — I’m Your No. 1 Fan
Along with Frazier Chorus, The Beautiful South were one of the few 90s bands whose lyrics were always sharp and witty. Their album 0898 Beautiful South is full of clever, funny, bittersweet lines and packed with memorable pop songs from start to finish. I’m Your No.1 Fan is one of them, an endearing love song and homage but with darker undertones… it is The Beautiful South after all. Heaton and Corrigan take turns to describe their warts ‘n’ all background before an obsessive (but honest) declaration of love and devotion: “Amongst the false applause and deafening cheers, I’m your No.1 fan.” One for the stalkers then.
10. Kylie Minogue — Light Years
My last song is Light Years by Kylie, the perfect song for any disco-geek to depart with. Tucked away at the end of the album of the same name, Light Years is a finely-tuned slice of Moroderesque Hi-NRG disco music, with intergalactic tendencies and a pre-packed sci-fi concept. The lyrics are simple but charming (“Rocketing to Outer Space in orbit, take us to the pop stars on the moon“) and Ms. Minogue has never sounded so reassuring. I love the countdown intro, the phasing effects from 2:56, the helpful user instructions and credit-roll ending with those soothing synths and farewell message. It’s a fitting end and start to any journey, a disco requiem and shining hope for the future.
In memory of Fergus Cooney, 1969 — 2010.