#7songs: What seven songs define your life?

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If you had to pick seven songs over seven days, what would they be?

Music is a language all its own. One I can’t speak, one I can’t describe. But one I can listen to endlessly. Music is a world all its own. One we can step into whenever we want, and go wherever we want. Music is all of us.

So boiling down my love of music to just seven songs this past week or so has been a git. My friends Tony Jackson and Tim Scott were each so kind as to nominate me for this ‘challenge’. It’s nigh on impossible for me. I could easily pick 70 songs that meant something to me from each year of my life.

But a lot of whittling went on… so here’s the first five of my seven:

#7songs (Volume I): King Tubby – Parade Dub
Extolled upon at inordinate length here.

#7songs (Volume II): Beastie Boys – Stand Together
Extolled upon at inordinate length here.

#7songs (Volume III): Madness – One Step Beyond

The nuttiest of sounds. The best possible gateway band to welcome children into the ultimate house of fun that is the world of music. That’s how it was for me…

Madness are the first band I ever got into. And also the first band of whom I ever owned a single of my own, as someone very kindly bought me a 7" of their then-current single Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day) for my ninth birthday. Not their best song, but not an embarrassing entry into the world of music ownership, either. But my entry point was a tiny bit earlier, through making a third-hand taped copy of my friend’s tape of his sister’s tape of Complete Madness.

Madness’ best songs are immortal, endlessly entertaining, endlessly – for want of a better word – nutty. And significantly more musically sophisticated and complex than they have any need to be. I had no idea until reading Daniel Rachel’s fascinating book Isle of Noises that each of the seven members of Madness is an accomplished songwriter in his own right. And as with the Beatles (see Volume V, a wee bit below), Madness were also geniuses at the fiendishly difficult art of the very short song. Take One Step Beyond

#7songs (Volume IV): Iron Maiden – Phantom of the Opera

Even if you are an Iron Maiden hater, it is likely – if you were around in the UK in the 1980s – that you’ve heard this one.

Not only is Phantom of the Opera my favourite Iron Maiden song by many miles, but – thinking about it – it must also be the first one I ever heard. Bizarrely, the opening section soundtracked a 1980s Lucozade advert featuring the ’80s athlete Daley Thompson.

I had no idea at the time that it was Maiden, though. It came as a major surprise to hear “that song off the Lucozade advert” kicking in right at the end of Maiden’s Live After Death album (taped from my old school friend Aaron and first listened to on the long walk back from his house one day post-school in 1987).

There are plenty of heavier and plenty of more metal bands than Maiden. But Iron Maiden just plain are the best heavy metal band. What really sets Iron Maiden apart for me is their fundamental spirit. They will always go the extra mile, they will never short-change their fans, they will always look life right in the eye.

Phantom of the Opera embodies everything that is great about them. Yes, to the non-fan it is patently daft. A 7 ½ minute punk(ish)/ prog(ish)/ metal (definitely!)/Thin Lizzy(ish) song about the Phantom of the Opera? Well, why the bally heck not? It is delivered with the utmost conviction. That conviction is really the essence of Iron Maiden. It is what has driven them on for 40 years. Every version of Phantom of the Opera (that I’ve heard) is superb. My favourite by far is the studio version with early singer Paul Di’Anno from their debut album. The lengthy instrumental section in the middle – building gradually to my favourite dual guitar harmony riff – never fails to lift my spirits when I most need it. But the energy and sense of conviction that is the essence of Maiden is best captured in this live version from Ullevi, Sweden in 2005 (by which point Maiden had been going for a meagre 30 years). It can be boiled down to the start of the instrumental section, where Bruce addresses the national TV audience of Sweden thusly (and rather swearfully): “We are IRON FUCKING MAIDEN.” Quite. That is Maiden. To the core.

#7songs (Volume V): Beatles – Ticket to Ride

There’s no reason why The Beatles shouldn’t be everyone’s favourite group. I must have first come across Ticket to Ride (from the brilliant Help! album) through a clip of the skislope scene from the (frankly not very good) Help! film on some late-70s or early-80s children’s TV programme. The Beatles pack more invention and more explosive, exuberant joie de vivre into any of their early singles than almost any band before or since could manage in seven lifetimes.

Ticket to Ride somehow manages to be an ecstatically joyous song about heartbreak (and is alleged to have significantly more eyebrow-raising, blush-inducing meanings not very subtly hidden in its lyrics, too – at least if you go with John Lennon’s explanation). It would also never have occurred to me when I was wee, but I was fascinated to see that John Lennon considered Ticket to Ride something of a proto-heavy metal song.* I can see his point. Indeed, none other than Lemmy of Motorhead fame worships The Beatles as the band. In his memoir White Line Fever, Lemmy sets the record straight.

“I was lucky enough to see them play the Cavern club in Liverpool, back at the beginning. They were really fun, eating cheese rolls while singing and they used to tell a lot of jokes. The Beatles were hard men, too. Brian Epstein cleaned them up for mass consumption, but they were anything but sissies. They were from Liverpool, which is like Hamburg or Norfolk, Virginia – a hard, sea-farin’ town, all these dockers and sailors around all the time that’d beat the piss out of you if you so much as winked at them. The Rolling Stones were the mummy’s boys – they were college students from the outskirts of London. They went to London to starve, but it was by choice, to give themselves some sort of aura of disrespectability. The Beatles were the gear.”

Final two songs in this run of #7songs coming next weekend (Saturday 12 December 2015)… but in the unlikely event you want to know what the last two were in the meantime, they’re already out there in Twitterland!

Update 1 (Saturday 5 December 2015): #7songs – 7″ single edition!

I am absolutely delighted to report that the great Alistair Cockroft has raided his collection of 7″ singles to tweet a picture of not one but two of the records mentioned here. And that Madness Tomorrow’s (Just Another Day) single is the very same edition I had – so great to see that art again. My thanks to Alistair for allowing me to include this picture here. He also shares these very pleasing words, attesting to the eternal appeal of Madness to kids: “still have a few of my madness 7"ers and kids already love night boat to Cairo :-)”

Footnotes

* Here’s a great passage from Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head book, on just how metal the Beatles were being here (at least for 1965):

“Yet
there was more to the record than unusual emotional depth. As sheer
sound, Ticket to Ride is extraordinary for its time. – massive with
chiming electric guitars, weighty rhythm, and rumbling floor tom-toms.
Among the first attempts to convey on record the impact achievable live
by an amplified group, it was later recalled by Lennon as ‘one of the
earliest heavy metal records.’”

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