I Wish I Could Sing by George Bongo Joe Coleman
I am a music writer and radio broadcaster, so my travels are punctuated by record shop visits. Montreal is one of the finest cities for record shopping. I picked up this odd, amazing, remarkable album by Bongo Joe Coleman – a character who made his own kit from oil drums – at a now-defunct store on the outskirts of the city. On a pilgrimage there, I knocked on what looked like someone’s front door – pushchair and children’s shoes in the porch – expecting to be in the wrong place. Greeted by someone holding a beer, we were invited into a wood-panelled back room that smelled like dust and discovery, the walls plastered with posters and stacks of tapes on the windowsill and under the record bins. I left with a stack of gems, including this.
This Is Love by PJ Harvey
For me, driving music is a genre in itself. It is no small thing to get a driving licence as a teenager – the world expands instantly and exponentially by the new possibilities offered by a borrowed car. I grew up between Manchester and the Peak District and would blaze over the moors in my mum’s Ford Fiesta with the music turned up as loud as it would go, high on my new freedom. Most of all, I loved driving Snake Pass at night, riding the road fast and alone as the asphalt coursed beneath me, and the soundtrack to those teenage drives was PJ Harvey’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. I would sing along at the top of my voice, arriving home hoarse and aglow with all the new experiences that were hurtling towards me.
Summertime by Vybz Kartel
Shots of pure pleasure can come from serendipitous collisions of sound. At St Paul’s carnival in Bristol in 2018, we were moving between sound systems in school playgrounds, front gardens, city squares and street corners playing dub, dancehall, soca, and reggae. On a run of terraces off the main carnival route, one household had set up their massive telly outside to show the England v Sweden World Cup game, while the people next door blasted out dancehall hits by Vybz Kartel, Spice, and Popcaan on a mushy PA. When England’s second goal was scored, the dancers roared and the footie chants fused with the dancehall in a perfect soundclash, as we danced and cheered on the pavement clutching warm cans of Red Stripe under a hot afternoon sun.
Peg by Steely Dan
For my 30th birthday I saved up to go to Japan – and on the actual day I sang Peg by Steely Dan six times in a row in a karaoke booth in Osaka because we couldn’t work out how to change the song. I went to gigs and trawled record shops, but my memories from that trip are overwhelmingly visual: I remember feeling that my eyes were saturated in colour. Moments of wonder came in glorious hues: a small temple in a fairytale garden of emerald green moss; the intense vermilion of the Fushimi-Inari-Taisha shinto shrine gates; the candy-pink boiler suits of service workers on the bullet train and the reflective red enamel of a bento box containing baby squid, curled ferns and tofu in gold-painted shells.
All Along The Watchtower by Träd, Gräs Och Stenar
When my partner and I first got together, he was living in a boring town in Sweden. I would get the cheapest, early-morning Ryanair flight to visit, and on the weekend we would get the train to Stockholm. My favourite shop there, An Ideal for Living, has a shopfront full of 1960s homewares and a basement full of records, with a special box in the corner of rare LPs. It included the first album by Träd, Gräs Och Stenar, a Swedish psych band I adore. I could not afford it, but their tripped-out cover of All Along The Watchtower still takes me back to those weekends where we were newly in love, strolling around the city, sitting on benches eating cardamom buns and drinking strong Swedish filter coffee, as the pale-gold glow of Nordic sunlight bounced off the icy water that surrounds the city’s islands.
Albatross by Fleetwood Mac
Two years ago, I toured around the UK with musician Beatrice Dillon and artist Keith Harrison, a sound technician called Alan Burgess, a duo called Copper Sounds and my friend and co-producer Al Cameron. Beatrice and Keith had devised Ecstatic Material – a performance and artwork played on a soundsystem built from industrial crates. The upturned speakers were filled with salt, cream of tartar, and pink goo, which moved and splashed and formed patterns when activated with Beatrice’s music. Every night after the show we would stay late in these chilly venues – a Digbeth warehouse space; a tiny art gallery in Bradford; a cold storage unit in Salford – to empty the goo and powder from the speakers and clean them up ready for the next night’s show. We developed a ritual: crack a beer, dole out mops, blue roll and the Henry vacuum cleaner we had put on the rider, and yell for Alan to cue up Albatross on the PA.
Oxygene, Pt 4 by Jean-Michel Jarre
Until recently, I lived mostly alone in Southend-on-Sea. For a few years I hired a desk in an office in a Methodist church down the coast in Leigh-on-Sea, and so my daily commute was a cycle along the coast. I would ride past the amusement arcades – New York New York, Electric Avenue, Monte Carlo and The Sunspot – just as they were opening and switching on the games. For years, all the claw machines in the front, where you could win fake Elsa dolls, stuffed unicorns and plush Angry Birds, would play a lo-fi version of Oxygene Pt 4 by Jean-Michel Jarre. Hearing it takes me back to those hazy morning commutes along the estuary, pedalling against the wind to the sound of 100 machines playing the same song.
Rama Rama by Alice Coltrane
Alice Coltrane is one of my favourite musicians. Years ago, before I knew much about her, I found myself in New York during an extravagant press trip whose purpose was to hard-sell lame wifi speakers. So, I went on a long walk through the city, to clear my head and try to get hold of one of her books that was not available in the UK. I thought I was making a pilgrimage to a branch of her ashram, and found what I thought was the place. They had the text – a hard-bound volume of spiritual prose with florid gold-embossed titling – but I later found out the place had nothing to do with Alice’s ashram. Hers was in California! I have no idea where I went, nor why they had a copy of that text, but it will be forever locked to a few hours carved out for myself on the streets of New York.
Tonada De Luna Llena by Simón Díaz
Last year I travelled to Caracas in Venezuela to teach, and my students all recommended this track. Caracas is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and I wasn’t allowed to walk around the city, so only really saw it from a car window – where I remember gazing up at its bold concrete architecture dripping with tropical plants, bright macaws soaring between skyscrapers. I couldn’t go out at night because of security restrictions, so would take lists of Venezuelan music from my students back to my hotel room and look them up online. Tonada De Luna Llena is one I can never play just once – it is raw and intimate, impossibly tender – a song about the moon, milking cows, and the plains, which transports me to being alone in that hotel room with little to do except listen to music and watch the pink evening sky turn to night over the city.
Someone Will Remember us in Another Time by Laura Cannell
The first time I ever sang (and enjoyed it) was with the musician Laura Cannell, at an English Heritage site called Mistley Towers, a midpoint we found between our homes. Mistley is on the estuary of the River Stour in north Essex and the towers are now all that remains of a grandiose and unconventional Georgian church designed by Robert Adam in 1776. A politician called Richard Rigby later attempted to turn the town into a spa retreat, and although he failed, a painted swan fountain and these two porticoed towers remain. To get inside you borrow the key from the hotel and restaurant down the road, and let yourself in. There’s not much to see, just small square rooms and some stonework, but the acoustics mean that singing a note – any note – will gather in a cumulus of resonant sound above your head. I remember that chilly, wondrous moment every time I hear Laura’s music.
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