9 January 2012

Songs That Saved My Life

Music has always been part of my life, from my childhood and my teenage years in a post-punk band (with Steven Ansell, a proper musician in Blood Red Shoes now) to my undergraduate days co-founding Manchester independent label Valentine Records and my recent DJ-ing at If Reagan Played Disco: Sounds from the Counter-Culture 1979-1990 in Brighton with the legendary Thomas Brain. It proved vital in forming my identity: pop lyrics and liner notes introduced me to queer counter-culture, the Spanish Civil War, the Situationist International, the films of Werner Herzog and François Truffaut and plenty more, but their style and sound always inspired me above all else. So here is a selection of favourites, and what they mean to me.

(Click on the titles for YouTube links.)

CAN: Future Days
My father and my uncle made me love music. Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and anecdotes about Jimi Hendrix’s gig at The Star in Croydon are still central to any long trip with my dad, but it was his younger brother Robin who really awakened my passion for sound. ‘Robbo’ was a bright boy who suffered life-changing brain injuries in a car accident, aged eight – for all he lost, his passion for music survived, and as a child I marvelled at his phenomenal collection of instruments and knowledge of music.

The last time I saw Robbo, in December 2008, he was very ill – conversation was difficult until we realised our shared love of Krautrock, especially Amon Düül II, Faust and Can. He died a few months later, and when I spoke at his funeral, I talked of my childhood hours listening to him sing at the harmonium in my grandmother’s garage. I repeated my speech at a tribute night for him at his local folk music club, and told my father and my grandmother how much I wished he was still with us, telling me that the German stuff was much better than anything he heard now, as if I needed the slightest persuasion.

THE SMITHS: Sheila Take a Bow

As a teenager suffering from depression, wrestling with my gender besides everything else, I took much (perhaps too much) solace in The Smiths. I could pick almost anything – the first fifty seconds of Miserable Lie do more for me than most bands’ entire back catalogue – but Sheila Take a Bow wins for its sleeve, which introduced me to Candy Darling and consequently numerous trans icons, and for its lyrical gender play, which helped me realise, slowly, that I could be myself.

NEW ORDER: Ceremony
I had an unhealthy(is there any other kind?) obsession with Joy Division as a school pupil and a sixth former, although my relationship with them radically changed in the time between taking my GCSEs and going to college. Loathing everything about my secondary school, my favourite was the impossibly bleak Twenty-four hours, but in the long summer of 1998, I found something completely new in Joy Division’s music, in the unlikeliest place. Ceremony was, I think, the last song Ian Curtis wrote – recorded after his suicide by New Order as they nervously began again, it’s desolate yet consoling, desperate yet uplifting, distant yet comforting, all at once, and more than anything made by Joy Division, gave me hope.

STEVE REICH: Violin Phase
At sixth form college in Horsham, I was fortunate enough to be taught music in AS Level Performing Arts by Paul Whitty, who later became co-director of the Sonic Arts Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University. He choose to teach us about minimalism as “we can make music without knowing how to play anything”, and so it was that piano genius Will West and I created pieces such as Naked Morrissey from chairs and bits of wood. Years later, Will and I took friends to see [ROUT], Paul’s ensemble. They detested it. We didn’t, and it’s testament to Paul’s influence that Reich’s Violin Phase remains my favourite piece of music.

THE POP GROUP: We Are All Prostitutes
An intoxicating mixture of punk, funk, dub and seemingly everything else, with lyrics that made The Clash’s look positively conservative, We Are All Prostitutes was not the record that made me want to form a band, but it was the record that made me want to form a band that took in minimalism, post-punk, African rhythms, left-wing and queer politics and other idea that came to me. In my undergraduate haze, Zinoviev Letter (!) never climbed above the weight of its own ambition, but anything I made wouldn’t have touched this anyway.

JAYNE COUNTY: Are You Man Enough to be a Woman
An icon from the same Warholian milieu as Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, this remains the boldest track about transsexual life that I know – and the title of County’s autobiography, my favourite of the genre. Her turn in Rosa von Praunheim’s riotous cult musical City of Lost Souls is wonderful too.

PERFORMANCE: Surrender

I never got a band off the ground in Manchester, but Joe Stretch, Joe Cross, Laura and Billie Marsden did. Performance were by far the best thing in town in 2003 (and by far the best thing to come out of Manchester since The Smiths): they should have been huge, but it never quite worked out. Their early shows at Valentine Records nights were utterly thrilling, visually and sonically, and Love Life – a dissection of sexual desire equally emotive and intellectual – remains a favourite. The closest they came to a hit, Surrender is one of the Noughties’ best kept secrets.

CHICKS ON SPEED: Glamour Girl

Leaving Manchester, I lost my passion for music for a few years, until my friend Clare Armiger showed me a world of electronic artists – µ-Ziq, Venetian Snares, Cursor Miner and others – that I might never have heard otherwise. Chicks On Speed became my favourite, because with the adventurous sounds came political activism, humour and dazzling femme fashion. Naïvely, I’d believed those who’d said these were mutually exclusive. I’ve never had more fun in being proved wrong.

AUTECHRE: Flutter
Another discovery that revived my interest in sound, Autechre once said that “with the amount of technology available now, there is no excuse for any band to sound like any other band”, a mantra that should be told to all musicians (alongside hearing Half Man Half Biscuit’s Bad Review to stop them taking themselves too seriously). So here’s Flutter, programmed with idiosyncratic rhythms to circumvent the Criminal Justice Act which outlawed ‘repetitive beats’, effectively banning raves: I find so much political music trite, or unbearably worthy, especially when performed by one person with a guitar, but Autechre managed to build their protest into their form, creating a brilliant political piece without a slogan in sight.

TELEX: Moskow Diskow
An If Reagan Played Disco staple, this underground dance classic is my favourite song by Telex – a brilliant Belgian synthpop band with an irreverent sense of humour. Their absurd Eurovision 1980 entry, a deadpan critique of the contest (entitled Eurovision) with which they aimed to finish last, is one of my favourite cultural moments.