I was touched last week by artist (and former musician) Bill Drummond’s memory tape for Lauren Laverne’s 6Music show (here for the original; and here for The Spill’s post on it), both in terms of what he said about the decline in the role and significance of recorded music as a result, partly, of over-commercialisation; and about his own experience of fading memory. This led him to construct a playlist of ten songs drawn from the top 20 in the week he turned 13 (i.e. at the point of becoming the teenager for whom recorded music had most impact and indeed, at whom it was largely aimed).
As a veteran pop-picker myself, and lifelong constructor of mix tapes, CDs and playlists, I was intrigued and of course proceeded immediately to dig up the top ten for my 13th birthday, via the Official Chart‘s website. Sad to report that, in the fourth week of September 1976, there really was not a lot going on in the charts. Abba was (still) no. 1, with Dancing Queen; and, frankly, I’m struggling to get very much at all out of the top 20: there’s one, possibly two, songs in the top ten that I wouldn’t mind hearing again; barely even that from 11-20. Outside the top 20, there’s a few songs which raise a fair bit of interest now (Lou Rawls, James Brown), even if unlikely then to have provided much in the way of teenage kicks, but it’s only really when we get down to No. 43, up from No. 46 this week, would my 13-year-old self have sat up: Eddie and the Hot Rods’ ‘Live at the Marquee’ EP (a record, in its picture sleeve, that I still have: they were one of my favourite bands). Otherwise, this was a chart which was the antithesis of the energy and the drive of Eddie and the Hot Rods: dominated by dross, comedy records and novelty acts, unchallenging disco hits and, simply, a welter of soporific, bland tunes; unobjectionable fare put out as the UK recovered from that summer’s sweltering heatwave and drought – the charts were ripe for the musical revolution that they were about to get. Or did they?
There was, of course, an awful lot happening on the music scene at that precise point – just that it wasn’t yet troubling those in charge of the sales tallies: The Damned’s New Rose wouldn’t be released for another month although, in the very week I turned 13, the 100 Club held its ‘Punk Special‘. I knew all about punk at that point, from the pages of the Melody Maker that my Mum presciently ensured was delivered to the house every week (until such times as the language got a bit too coarse to take), though I was a couple of years too young (and probably far too provincial) to be at the 100 Club that night. (BTW, my mum managed to undermine my fervour for the punk rebellion in one swoop, declaring of ‘New Rose’ when I proudly took it home from Quicksilver Records in Reading that she loved it. But then, why wouldn’t she: it’s a cracking song, as Tim Sommer highlights in the link above, with a spirit and a vitality that still resonates forty years on owing not least to Nick Lowe’s knock-out production job.)
Though, interestingly, things weren’t a lot better, chart-wise, precisely one, two, and three years later, either. Punk did change a lot of things for the better at least for some people, and perhaps only for a short while, but it’s a mistake to think that punk was as revolutionary as all that, since an awful lot of the same old dross simply survived it. I would actually struggle to pick more than a couple of songs that I’d want to hear from any of these subsequent top tens even while punk was in its pomp – a testimony, no doubt, to the sorts of people who run the record industry. And, indeed, the reinstatement of the old guard once punk and what had by then become badged as ‘new wave’ had burned itself out on the fripperies of the new romantics was largely what sent me running in an entirely different direction musically by the mid-1980s (inspired largely firstly by King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System, which I would have seen on The Tube; and then by the African stars on Tam Tam pour l’Ethiopie, part of Two-Tone’s restitution of the black voice to musicians doing things to raise money for starving children in Africa, after which point I was gone).
So, no 13th birthday chart playlist for me: sorry, Bill. This was the week (and, perhaps, the mini-period) that lets down the idea that we can have a decent musical conversation based on our memories of the music that accompanied us precisely as we started our most exciting, and troubling, years.
And yet Drummond’s essential belief in the power and the art of the three minute record to have a hold on us and to trigger cultural and individual change (and, years later, to spark our memories) is too good to let go just like that. Here, instead of a ten-song playlist from the top 20 of late September 1976, is one song from each of the top tens that accompanied me from 13 to 23: right through my teenage years and taking me right up to the start of my finals year at uni:
1. 1976: Rod Stewart – The Killing of Georgie
2. 1977: The Rods (ha!) – Do Anything You Wanna Do
3. 1978: Siouxsie and the Banshees – Hong Kong Garden
4. 1979: The Crusaders – Street Life
5. 1980: Stevie Wonder – Masterblaster (Jammin’)
6. 1981: Soft Cell – Tainted Love
7. 1982: The Message – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
8. 1983: UB40 – Red Red Wine
9. 1984: Sister Sledge – Lost In Music
10. 1985: Midge Ure – If I Was
They’re not a collection of the greatest songs (I actually only own
five six of them, and I had to remind myself of what ‘If I Was’ sounded like – something that is likely to be increasingly the case in the years that follow. Indeed, having checked, the first year in which I can recall, off the top of my head and from the list on the screen in front of me, less than half the top ten on my birthday is as depressingly early as 1987, although I continue to be able to recognise at least one top ten song, in that version by that artist, at least until 2002 (my point of No Chart Consciousness: now there’s an idea for a post…)).
Further, there’s not a lot of rebel message in that list, and in some (other) respects I’m clearly a prisoner of the format I’ve selected. However, I think they do form a reasonably cohesive, and interesting, selection which is enough at least to get people talking about the power of music in the way that Drummond intends. And, maybe, helping in some way to keep alive recorded music’s role as creative and inspiring force.