To shuffle music between eras, it pays to get help
Dad, can you please turn the volume up?” We were doing the violin class run on a bitterly cold, dark afternoon. The car was skittering down roads that were icy, slippery, treacherous, and I didn’t hear her the first time. “Dad,” cried the now irritated voice of my daughter, 13, from the seat behind, “please turn the volume up!” The FM channel, Helmi Radio, was on and the song playing was Boney M’s Rasputin. The commute to the violin class from our home in a traffic-sparse and tiny Finnish city takes approximately 7 minutes even in winter, when it’s dark and snowed under all the time, and Rasputin would probably be the only song she would hear on her way there. That wasn’t the point though. It was a song released in 1978 and, very curiously, popular songs from that era, decades before she was born, make up the soft spot in her musical tastes. At another time, I had heard her wistfully say to her mother that she wished she had been born in the 1970s because then she could have danced to her favourite songs of the 1980s on radio.
One of my gigs is to write First Beat every week and, as the postscript below this column says, it’s supposed be on “what’s new and groovy in the world of music”. To find music that appropriately fits that label, I have to scour indie music from a variety of sources: podcasts; online music companies such as Bandcamp; YouTube channels; and indie websites. It is so easy for musicians today to publish their music (and so difficult to make a success of it) that navigating the sheer volume of new music that spews out can be daunting. It can also be overwhelming, the relentless search for something new and good can leave you yearning sometimes for old, long-time favourites, or, even, tunes that were once sickeningly ubiquitous on the radio. Boney M’s Rasputin was one of those earworms back from the mid-1970s.
I’m lucky. For my occasional fix of those three- or four-decade-old tunes, I merely have to ask (politely) for my younger child’s playlist. Last week, she was listening to Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time (released 1983); Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and The Police’s Every Breath You Take (both these songs also released in 1983); Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (1984); and British synth-pop band Dead Or Alive’s You Spin Me Right Round (Like A Record), also from the mid-1980s. Her playlists are from a time warp. Yes, there is also the occasional Vampire Weekend, The Black Keys, and often some Amy Winehouse, but for the most, it’s 1980s stuff, long forgotten, very often underrated, but always a way for me to slip into nostalgia.
I find other ways to fall back into a deeper nostalgia trip. A few days before Christmas, a music blog posted a long-forgotten holiday season mix tape that Paul McCartney had made for his bandmates back in 1965. That was still a good year for The Beatles. Creative differences and ego clashes hadn’t surfaced; and John had not yet met Yoko. Titled Unforgettable, McCartney’s mix tape for his mates begins with his own funny-voiced introduction and Nat King Cole’s 1951 song of the same name. Recorded with two Brenell tape recorders, the mix tape is like the prehistoric ancestor of a podcast on which McCartney announces and plays Someone Ain’t Right by Peter & Gordon, a British pop duo that followed The Beatles’ invasion of America; I Get Around by the Beach Boys; Heatwave by Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas; and “a blast from the past” by the King—Elvis Presley’s Don’t Be Cruel, which was recorded in 1956. But the mischievous pièce de résistance of the tape is Down Home Girl, a blues song sung by the Rolling Stones, then the arch rivals of The Beatles (who happen to have outlived them), whom McCartney introduces as a group that “was once popular in the 1960s”!
Sometimes, mining the past for music is like shunning social media for a day or weaning oneself off the mobile phone for a few hours and reading a book made of paper. Every now and then, I try and play music that is only in physical format and, say, at least 20 years old. Sometimes, when guests are over, I let them choose from my CDs, vinyls, and even cassettes collected over the years, but with a rule such as, “You can’t play anything that came out after 1995”, or “only albums that were recorded in mono”, and so on. Yes, you’re absolutely right. I’m not a very sought-after host. At other times, I compile playlists to spin when people are over and insidiously hide old songs in between the new. Ever tried mixing up Bon Iver with some Jeff Buckley? Or a contemporary doom metal band such as Pallbearer with some Iron Butterfly or Steppenwolf? Or slipped in some Joni Mitchell after people have heard and swooned over Courtney Barnett? It can be fun.
But then the life of a music columnist demands that I keep my head in the present as well. New music has to be sifted through and sometimes that requires help. To cope with times like those, I often turn again to the family. My elder daughter, 23, has tastes in music that are more rooted in the present than the past. “What did you think of Run The Jewels 3?” she will ask, and I will scurry to get a listen. My introduction to several new bands has come from her. Oh, and this year’s albums by SZA and St Vincent, both of which featured on my 10 best albums list here last week, guess whose playlist I got them off? Yes, I do get by with a little help from the girls.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan