Sunday, August 26, 2007

Music and Me

Java's thought provoking post "on music appreciation", got me thinking about music, why it plays such an important role in one chap's life and why another fellow may not care for it in the slightest. I suppose that's the general idea of a thought provoking post, one that makes a person think, otherwise it would have just been a post.

Music has played a key role in my life for as long as I can remember. Like many kids born into Sri Lankan families I, and my brothers, grew up with music playing continually.

Go round to my parents' place now and I will guarantee you will find music on in the background. Usually something jazzy or a bit funky, but there are frequent occasions when you find my Dad listening to something wholly innappropriate for a man of his now maturer years. The market trader in Singapore who sold him a copy of The Pussycat Dolls latest album was a nasty and merciless person but, to my kids, it is great to have the coolest Grandfather in town.

He gave me my love of all things drum related (except guitarists) and that is something I will be eternally grateful for. I can remember him trying to teach me how to play Santana songs on the Bongos when I was about 5 or 6. Even now, in his 70's, he still does an occasional gig in a trendy wine bar. One of these places that plays Latin music and has a percussionist as well. So, if you are in a trendy wine bar in Richmond and see a oldish looking Sri Lankan playing Conga and Bongos, it's probably him. Just tell him I'll see him on Sunday.

I remember being in a band when I was about 10. Me and my best friend Greg Walker playing to Beatles songs. He was a great air guitar player and I was the Ringo of our outfit. My kit was custom built and looked like an odd collection of Sri Lankan hand drums, remarkably similar to the ones at the top of the stairs. That is, the stairs in my house, not Greg's. He was English and it would have been a strange thing if his parents had a collection of Sri Lankan drums. Not quite as strange as the way all the Eastern European windscreen washer women in London seem to have disappeared, but strange nevertheless.

We never actually gigged, I think the public weren't ready for us. In fact we only ever played in my bedroom, apart from the one time we practiced at Greg's house. I remember it well as, when we came downstairs, Greg's older sister asked who was playing the drums. I admitted the crime, fully expecting a reprimand for disrupting her viewing of Magpie on TV, as she must have been at least 14 then. She told me that I was very good and should consider drumming as a career. I took her advice very seriously as she was so much older and more knowledgable than me, and she had breasts, proper ones. If I ever meet her again I will proudly tell her all about my drumming "career". She will then apologise for making a casual remark that had such an impact on my life, when she actually thought that I sounded like an idiot child banging a hand drum as loud as I could. Then she will ask me to stop staring at her breasts.

When I got my first ever radio I felt as if I had grown up. I was probably about 7 or 8 and it was a tiny portable one bought from Boots in Richmond. Up until then I had played with toys, but music entered my life and I became a real man. This was the era of medium wave, pirate radio and DJs like Tony Blackburn and Noel Edmonds. Dark times indeed. Beards, flares and lots of denim were compulsory then, as was Old Spice or the great smell of Brut. The men looked a bit ropey too.

Then I progressed to my first tape recorder. One of those all in one types that recorded via a built in microphone, with a row of 5 or 6 buttons set like a piano keyboard and a carrying handle. You can still buy them today but I think you have to be a school music teacher or an old person. I suspect the iPod has had a small impact on its sales figures.

Every Sunday evening I would be found sitting in my bedroom listening to the top 40 on Radio 1 and recording the good songs by microphone from the radio to my tape player. Then I'd spend the rest of the week listening to my tape until I could add new songs to it on the following Sunday. You know when you've got water in your ears and a car drives past with music playing very softly. Well that's the sort of sound quality I enjoyed, and enjoy it I did. It was probably marginally better than the quality of today's mp3s.

I vividly recall Tony Blackburn playing Planet Earth by "Durran Durran" as he pronounced it. (or was it "hungry like the wolf"?) At the end of the song he had to apologise for not saying the band's name correctly because so many people had rung in to complain. "Of course I did know the correct name it was just a slip of the tongue". Even at that tender age I knew he was lying.

The next step up was when I got my first radio cassette recorder, made by Binatone, that giant of the hi fi world. For the first time in my life I could record from the radio without all the hiss and crackle caused by background noise. I could talk and make noise in my room when I was recording. I became a huge fan of Blondie and had my bedroom walls covered in posters of Debbie Harry. These posters were instrumental in helping me through those "troubled" teenage years. If I ever were to meet Debbie Harry, even though she is about 97 now, I would be embarrassed, shifty and probably very aroused. We went through so much together. I was always touched by her presence.

After the Binatone I moved on to a number of different stereos. Of course most of them are scattered around my parents' house these days. In one of the bedrooms that used to be my brother's there is the Dixons' own brand ghetto blaster that kept me going for a while. In a different corner of a different room is a different one that used to be my other brother's. ( different brother too). Somewhere else in the house are some of our records. Singles, albums and 12 inch's (I'm not sure where the apostrophe should go on that one). The Debbie Harry posters are long gone but the marks left by the Blu Tack are still there. As are the memories. I think it's Blu Tack anyway.

I felt old the other day when I had to explain to my kids what a record is. They had stumbled across my old copy of "A Merry Jingle" by the Greedies, a punky version of "we wish you a merry christmas" combined with "Jingle Bells" done by Thin Lizzy together with Paul Cook and Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols. My covers band was learning it as our concession to the pressure of having to do a Christmas song, we just couldn't face Wizard or Slade or Greg Lake and this was vaguely enjoyable to play. The Greedies were originally called The Greedy Bastards but that was considered too risque a name to get them airplay. They were rough rock 'n' roll times in the eighties you know.

Today's world of music is one of instant gratification and infinite choice. My iTunes holds just about every song that I have ever owned. It holds every drum part I have ever recorded, every song I have played on. I can synchronise this with any one of the iPods floating around my house quicker than you can press ctrl + alt+ delete and shut down everything in Task Manager. I can make playlists in about 30 seconds and keep them for 30 years. I can burn cds and I can plug my iPod into my electronic drum kit at home and play along to any song I want. It's all good.

But somewhere in my garage is a huge box full of my old records. I don't even have a record player at home now but I can't see myself ever parting with them. They are more than just music. They have a feel to them. They have sleeves and liner notes and scratches and blemishes. They have a track order that can't be moved around. They are memories.

And now my life revolves around music. I play it, I listen to it continually and I discover new music all the time. I rediscover old music a lot too, and I ponder over questions like "when will we reach a time when every chord progression possible will have been written?" I don't ponder over things like that for very long as I'm a drummer, so I tend to ponder on chord progressions for spells of nanoseconds at a time and then I carry on hitting things.

The most amazing aspect of music to me is how a song can instantly bring back memories. I can hear the opening few notes of guitar and drums from Song 2 by Blur and I immediately think of one of the funniest moments in my "gigging career", when Paul, our guitarist, totally forgot the chords to play. We had to start the song 3 times before he remembered it and that song now haunts him and torments him and chases him down streets like the belly in the Reebok advert.

Or Voulez Vous by Abba, which takes me back to a time when I was about 12 and on holiday in Sri Lanka. We seemed to spend a lot of time sitting in the front room of a large Colombo house playing Carrom and listening to that album. I can remember every word perfectly:

"Voulez vooooooouus, a ha,
durr durr durr durr durr dur
durr dur durr durr durr dur
Nothing stronger, no regrets"

It takes me straight back to that house and those games of Carrom. I will defend Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and the red haired ugly one to the hilt. People mock me for my love of Abba but I don't care. They wrote wonderful pop songs, sang incredible harmonies and sold more cars than Volvo, but we all know that. Anyone who can listen to "One of us" without shedding a tear over the turmoil and heartbreak caused by a billion dollar divorce and years of touring the world playing music to adoring fans, all of whom want to sleep with you, is a cruel heartless cad in my book.

Play me the opening bass riff to "Circus games" by the Skids and I am transported to my friend's bedroom in Surrey. We used to sit there listening to records while our Sri Lankan parents partied downstairs. Our's is one of those few friendships that was forced by parents and yet survived. There is some obscure law that says that whenever kids are forced to be friends because their parents say so, they must hate each other, but we escaped. At least that is the case in England, I think Sri Lankan law is different as so many children of parents who are friends there seem to end up as long term friends.

I could go on, and I will. It's my blog.

There is a rather magical guitar solo in "Wishlist" by Pearl Jam that instantly transports me to poolside at the Transasia. I was lying there last year just chilling, soaking up the rays and the atmosphere in general. The backdrop of Colombo noise. You know, that sound of horns and engines, just general street stuff, but it's a soundtrack that I never hear in London. There was a stillness and an air of tranquility from Beira Lake behind. Yes, yes, yes. I know it is / was full of crap and that's why it glows (or did glow) dayglo green, but I still like it. As this guitar break came up in the song I really thought that life doesn't get much better than this. The stunning blonde Russian prostitute sunbathing nearby had nothing whatsoever to do with my enjoyment of the moment. I can be stuck in traffic on the A4 on a grey, wet and cold Monday morning and I just have to hear that guitar break and I'm back there. Sadly, the blonde isn't, it's invariably some fat bloke in a Ford Escort from Feltham.

After my first gig with a new band I don't think I'll ever hear "I predict a riot" without fondly remembering the high spirited blonde. She went mad for this song and got up on the dancefloor, her enthusiasm was infectious and her look was wicked. There were bouncing breasts everywhere and the bassist and I couldn't stop ogling her, but bassists are like that.

Then there's "Help me make it through the night". I'm sure there must be so many of my generation with Sri Lankan parents who know this song. It instantly gives me vivid recollections of parties full of Uncles and Aunties having a great time. My Mother and Father dancing and Uncle A and Aunty A dancing. Sadly Uncle A is no longer with us, but the memories are. Like the time my Dad started a fight with a German tourist at the Supper Club in Colombo. Luckily for him, me and my brothers were there to split it up or the old man would have got a pasting.

The details are for another time but the general story involves a young male German tourist, a 50 something Sri Lankan father who had drunk rather a lot of Black Label and a pretty young English girl who was part of our party and the object of the German's affections. Feel free to take that basic information and make it into a story or wait for me to tell you the correct one. I'll give you a clue by saying that we all ended up as best friends, despite my Dad starting a fight with him in the toilets.

So here endeth the blog entry, more or less. Music always has been, I hope always will be, a thread running through my life.

And groove is definitely in the heart.


Jack Point said...

Abba are a great band. The outstanding features of their music are the quality of the invention (about the best in the business) and the excellent song-craft.

They also have a very distinct sound quality that is all their own - an Abba song is instantly recognisable as such, even if you've never heard it before, by thier own distinct stamp, which is another hallmark of great music.

Indyana said...

Abba brings back memeories of my brothers in bell bottoms and sporting long,shaggy hair.And they are also hubby's favourite band,and blondie was another! Is it the age group or aomething?

Theena said...

"Music always has been, I hope always will be, a thread running through my life"

Amen. Well said.