Perhaps the main things this series of ten-listen tracks has taught me is that firstly that there is no secret formula to popular music, or its success. Though there may be elements of homogenisation, there is no infinitely repeated ‘production line’ as Adorno et al imagined. Certainly, even if there is, then it is by no means an exact science. Thus the X Factor ‘stars’, given weeks of televised limelight, more often than not fail to shine, whereas Rebecca Black, coming from obscurity with an absolutely catastrophic song can capture the imagination of millions. In short, pop music, at its best, can be an unconscious art form which attaches itself to parts of your psyche without stopping to ask for conscious approval; what others may call ‘guilty pleasure songs’. I don’t believe you should ever feel guilty for liking a pop song. That is what they are for.
The other thing is that the instances of pop suddenly arresting you, stopping you in your tracks and becoming synecdoche for a moment/a feeling/a place etc are actually not all that uncommon. As I have been compiling this list of pop songs that have, at one time or another, become stuck in my head, I have realised that there have been scores of them; songs which are intense flashes of meaning one moment, then leave, but remain emblazoned into memory. Though I have only gotten around to writing a few, I have a back catalogue of dozens to get through.
But as that squelching synth announces itself for the second time, I think that the phenomenon of a song independently lodging itself into a time/place twice is distinctly more rare. This song has. For I remember it from youth. Maybe it is the first song I ever really formed such an attachment with. I think I must have had it on cassette, though I don’t associate it necessarily with that format (as I do with the ubiquitous cassettes of youth: the Lion King soundtrack, the music from Local Hero, Bat Out of Hell 2: Back into Hell by Meatloaf, and Bob Marley’s Natty Dread. All of these I associate fundamentally with the format, but King of Rock and Roll, I don’t).
But as with all of the above childhood soundtracks (save Local Hero, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who has ever been to a Toon game), The King of Rock and Roll had sort of evaporated into that distant hinterland of memory; never quite accessible or present, never fully remembered, but never forgotten. It’s like the sort of taste that you can’t quite work out, a memory that isn’t specific; or maybe a conglomerate memory made up of a compilation of numerous repeated quotidian moments. With the King of Rock and Roll, I get an image of going up Snow’s Green Road in Shotley Bridge in the car; not from any specific time, just from repeated times. Just like with the song ‘3 o’clock road block’ off Natty Dread reminds me of a small fish that was spray painted on a wall just after Winlaton Mill that my dad, my brother and I would drive past on the way to NUFC games, just because we repeatedly listened to that tape on the way to the game, and we would always look out for the ‘colourful fish’. Anyway, that incredible low-pitched, slap-back reverb voice has signalled the end of play two. This might be my favourite ten-time experience yet!
But those more generic memories are an aside to a more pointed, and less pleasant (at the time) memory which I associate with the King of Rock and Roll. I must have been eight years old. Me and my best friend had crossed the county barriers and, instead of going to the local junior school (in County Durham), we had gone to the first school in Northumberland. We were the first pioneers in a great line of diasporic exiles from the land of the Prince Bishops to the salubrious and prestigious schools of Hexham and Corbridge!
Anyway; I’m eight – class four of Corbridge C of E First School. Our class project is to write to a famous person – I think about something like an oil spill or something like that. Most everyone else had picked boring or inane people; Ed the Duck, Yvette Feilding and the Blue Peter team, etc etc. I was at an age when I didn’t really have a conception of what a ‘famous person’ was particularly, and I thought Ed the Duck was a bell end, so I was really lost as to who to address my plaintive letter about oily seabirds to. I had actually (possibly inspired by this letter-writing assignment) just written to Gavin Peacock (former NUFC striker extraordinaire) asking him to come to the school and tell the teachers to let us play on the field in the winter. He’d responded with a signed card (he didn’t come to the school though), and I thought it might be pushing my luck to send another letter to him!
So I didn’t know who to pick, so I picked Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout. I think my choice was heavily influenced by my dad, but the idea grew on me. He was from County Durham. King of Rock and Roll was a mint song. He would, I thought, definitely reply. I came to school that day with a spring in my step. I had the perfect ‘celebrity’ to send my letter to, I had his address, everything.
In the class, the teacher went around each little soul, commanding them to reveal their chosen celeb. Attention fell upon me. “Paddy MacAloon” I ventured.
Now, the response that met this name is certainly coloured by my eight-year-old perception. It would be a good five years later, in an altercation with the rotund PE teacher of celebrated infamy among Corbridge alumni of the mid-90s, that I would realise that teacher’s are not the omniscient super beings I had imagined, they are quite often as full of shit at the pupils.
“Paddy who?” came my teacher’s overly exasperated reply. “I’ve never heard of him”. Now I should point out that she was German, and about 6 foot tall, and she had a booming voice that I had made my life goal to not be on the wrong end of. So to have my choice of celebrity derided, and to be shouted at, AND to have my favourite song ridiculed in such a manner was almost unbearable.
This next bit is a bit hazy – probably because I was so upset – but I think I was made to sit on the carpet (the ‘naughty carpet’) whilst the rest of the class wrote the addresses on their envelopes. I sat fuming and mortified cross-legged on the rough orange/yellow nylon spines of the weft. Eventually, the teacher handed me a discarded name on a piece of paper; a reject from one of the more fastidious pupils; a hand me down celebrity deemed surplus to requirement. I was to address Paddy McAloon’s letter to this famous nobody.
The person was Prince Fucking Charles.
I got a reply from Prince Charles. A huge letter with faux-fountain pen handwriting and a pack of information about one of his charities. That was deemed a successful response by the teacher – success being measured in the weight of letter received in reply. It was one of the heaviest in the class, usurped only by the girl who wrote to Blue Peter and received a gold Blue Peter badge in return. Bitch.
But I resented my bounty from Prince jug-lugs. I didn’t want a letter from him. I wanted recognition for my celebrity; Paddy McAloon. Maybe it was because I was an ‘outsider’; a Durham boy in Northumberland (parochial I know, but when you’re eight, and going to a school that is absolutely exclusively white, these distinctions matter), maybe that my dad had suggested the name in first place, and that its rejection served as a vicarious slight upon him as well. Either way I was humiliated by that letter from Prince Charles. The fact that he (‘he’; like he actually did anything towards sending that letter; they probably have hundreds of them pre-packed and ready to ship out to any twat who sends them a letter) sent such a copious reply only served to rub salt in the wound.
So, this moment made me forget Paddy McAloon, made me forget Prefab Sprout, made me forget The King of Rock and Roll, and in time they faded to this backwater of memory; never gone, but never really recalled.
But then, about six months ago, I saw this video by the rubber bandits in which they dance to a snippet of a song that rang a bell. I admit I couldn’t place it at first, but a quick check through the comments reminded me it was ‘Life of Surprises’ by Prefab Sprout. Immediately I found it on youtube and was blow away. It was sophisticated but immediate, intelligent but somehow hedonistic. The lyrics were great, but delivered with the abandon of a brilliant melody. I listened to this song a lot over the next few days.
Then I was looking through some of my records, and found a signed copy of ‘From Langley Park to Memphis’ that Paddy McAloon must have given my dad (not for suggesting him as a potential recipient of an eight year old’s letter about oil spillages… I don’t think!). Track one. King of Rock and Roll.
Now for those of you reading this who know the song, but haven’t listened to it for a while – who, like me, had a vague recollection of it; remembered, but not quite – you will probably remember the line “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”, and that it was a fairly innocuous, but pretty pleasing pop song, and little else. Well, coupled to the vignette above, this is all I had left of the song really in my mind. I put it on, and was instantly taken aback by the opening line: “all my lazy teenage boasts are now high-precision ghosts and they’re coming round the track around to haunt me.” I actually had to stop the record for a moment to process that lyrics for a moment, before listening to the song over and over and over for about half an hour (I have very little to do these days!)
I’m not sure why, but at that precise moment, that lyric arrested my attention and really affected me. At the time mentioned above, I had no idea that this lyric was there – and even if I did (I did know a lot of lyrics to a lot of songs back then (I still do). For example, I knew all the words to ‘when I’m cleaning windows’, almost all of the London Boys eponymous debut album, and all of the lyrics in every song on Natty Dread. I couldn’t claim to understand many of them – many of the Bob Marley ones were learnt phonetically, such as ‘a patta yuff, but a youd ya nuff, we’re gonna chuck to jah music, we’re chucking’ – not quite!) I wouldn’t have gleaned any significant meaning from them.
But on this re-listen; this re-placing, this re-signification, this opening line really hit me.
I don’t think I particularly made any lazy teenage boasts personally, I wasn’t particularly avaricious in hopes for my future. I did, when I was in a band at the age of sixteen, think I was going to be a famous musician, but then doesn’t everyone? I sent of a mix-tape (embarrassingly anachronistic even then) of demos of the band to Virgin records, and was more amazed than upset when I got a generic letter back saying ‘…at this time, we don’t think…’ etc. I even kept the letter, imagining it would make quite a funny inlay for the first album.
I wasn’t particularly interested in the music industry at all; I didn’t know anything about it, and it is this childish naivety that both spared me from ever actually being in danger of being sucked into that world, and makes me smile about that childish desire now. I would never concern myself with the logistics of ‘being signed’ (a concept I had no idea about the actualities of – if I’m honest, I still don’t), I was just lazily assured that it would happen. Instead I would imagine what I would do when I was signed. Not even the ostentatious trappings of celebrity and money, but just how I would feel when I ‘was signed’.
Now, I don’t play music outside my house. I don’t like playing live. I’m quite happy about that really, though the thought of being in a band – not for the purposes of attempting to ‘make it’, just for the pleasure of making music – does ‘haunt me’ to a certain extent. Maybe I was at a particular peak in this feeling of wanting to be in a band at the time of listening to this tune, and so this lyric hit me. Maybe the prescience of the lyric for the band themselves is what is so arresting – the idea of being the king or rock and roll, even ironically, in the fleeting world of pop success; from Langley Park to Memphis to Shotley Bridge. At least you got the Memphis part.
I should probably say something of the song itself, as I am on listen eight already. I love it. That much is certain. But I love it in a way that is somehow more than any of the other ten-time songs I have done so far. Yes, it has that ‘pop sensibility’ – a horrid, vacuous phrase used by Paul Gambaccini and his ilk, but what else am I to call it? – it makes all the right moves, all the right sounds, verse, chorus, verse bridge etc etc, it has the hook that so captivated me as a youth – the ‘hot dog, jumping frog’ lyric.
But it has so much being hinted at underneath its surface. It is a profoundly sad sort of euphoria that emerges from the bed of pop sounds. This is obviously deliberate; the forlorn figure of the lyrics dancing on his own, bothered by a past that has failed to come to fruition, a derisory female counterpart laughing. Perhaps a resignation that the dizzy heights strived for will never be achieved. This is a sentiment that I find resounding emotional meaning – even solace – in.
I want to write a very long piece about a musician I used to play gigs with in the aforementioned band. He was a solo guitarist/singer called Mark Shilcock. He worked in Ikea. He sang really incredible songs, not about regret, but about a resignation that this is all there is, and that that is OK. I didn’t ‘get it’ at the time; how could I? I was on the cusp of stardom. Now I totally get it.
I get a similar feeling from this song. It is a gorgeous mix of melancholy and celebration.
It’s actually quite a ‘noisy’ track. I don’t mean it’s too loud or that it is too cluttered or anything. I mean there are a lot of sounds going on. The synths of course. Then the moans of guitar noise (I think) that follow the first breathy female vocal melody – and what a melody; it there was an auditory encyclopaedia with an entry for ‘pop hook’; this would be the example! There’s an off-beat sort of ‘bip bip bip’ – sounds like a voice – chugging away in the verses too. A jet engine rocketing above us brings in the pre-chorus, then a bizarre vocal (does it say ‘a hot dog’) brings in the chorus actual.
The soundscape is very dense. But unlike other heavily-produced pop tracks, there is strangely a feeling of vast space; space enough to let yourself in and explore. Maybe it’s the strangeness of that chorus line. As a lad, it was just something mildly funny; it reminded me a bit of Reeves and Mortimer – Big Night Out was a massive awakening for me in realising the potential of surreal humour – in my child’s mind, “hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque” (I didn’t know what the last word meant, but it sounded great) might have been something ‘the man with the stick’ might have had drawn on his paper helmet.
But now, it’s still enigmatic. I have no idea really what the song is about, and this chorus line takes on a baffling hue. Is the deflated protagonist of the song making light of his defeat, and of his own position as the ‘king’, by resorting to nonsense words? I don’t know. I think I could listen to this song a hundred times, and still be none the wiser.
So this has been one of the shortest ten-time sessions. I have really only scratched the surface. Because this song has been stuck in my head for two only vaguely related reasons twice. It has become attached to more than one point remembrance; it is happy and sad, being told off and being safe in the car with my family, boastful and resentful, a moment of profound pop reasoning, and a one-hit wonder.
I love this song.
And because I didn’t use listen 9 to just listen through the song, I’m going to now.