Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Remembrance of Things Past: John Peel, Mark E. Smith & Gordon Strachan
When I was 13, I used to listen to John Peel while I did my homework. The sound of his voice is one of the snatches of memory that I recall from those nights, a hazy decade ago, like the smell of the wooden desk or the burning light of the desk lamp when I glanced up. I would listen to Radio One incessantly at that age, even forcing myself through the boorish Chris Moyles in my desire to become acquainted with the music which populated the charts. I would stop and start my tape deck, trying to capture my favourite songs, or at least the ones I thought the pretty girls at school would be eagerly discussing the next day.
It goes without saying that by the time John Peel got on air, late in the evening, different rules applied. The girls at school would not be discussing anything that John Peel played, and nothing on his playlist would make it onto the charts at the end of the week. What he played was utterly foreign to my ears, accustomed to either the Beatles and Byrds of my parents or the Britpop of my peers. Some of it would confuse or bore me, some I would adore, but the most frustrating fact, for me, was that he seemed to play things once and once only. I was used to the rapid repetition of daytime Radio One to help me create my mix tapes. With Peel, by the time I felt the pangs of love I was already too late, the songs were gone. With the internet still in its infancy, tracking down music as wantonly obscure as Peel’s seemed like an impossibility to me. Somehow though, two different songs managed to sear themselves onto my memory, although I had no idea of their authors, or indeed even their exact titles. All I knew was that one was about, but certainly not by, a band called ‘The Fall’, and the other was about a footballer named Gordon Strachan.
I was reunited with the song about The Fall a few years ago. It’s by Jeffrey Lewis and it’s called, helpfully, ‘The Legend of ‘The Fall’. The irony, of course, of always remembering a song about Mark E. Smith and his coterie, but never being able to find it, was that in the meantime I spent a lot of time listening to their music, by way of a proxy. The song had been my first introduction to the eponymous band, and the lyrics had been bewitching. “He had a dream rock’n’roll could be given a new brain / Something raw and uncompromising and smart and strange.” Indeed, even Peel himself was name-checked; “John Peel said they were his favourite band because they’re always different but always the same.” The Fall proved to be everything the song promised, but it is Jeffrey Lewis himself who I now adore, after I reencountered him late at night on MTV2’s now sadly defunct ‘120 Minutes’, singing ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’. That was in 2005, some six years after I had first heard him on Peel, and it was in my subsequent acquisition of his back catalogue that I rediscovered ‘The Legend of ‘The Fall’ and could finally identify its creator.
The second of the two songs John Peel left me took much longer to find me again, but I stumbled across it earlier today and it was that which prompted this torrent of memories. It is a song called ‘Strachan’ by a band called ‘The Hitchers’. It would be a shame if you let the fact that it’s a song about a footballer put you off it, because it’s glorious. Punctuated by raging shoegaze guitars, it does admittedly spend much time describing the wee Scotsman’s role in a mid-nineties Leeds United side, but it is told through a framework of domestic minutiae which will be familiar to football fans and neglected partners alike. She asks “What’s that you’re watching?” He retorts, “A program about art.” Listening to it now it still sounds as exhilarating as it did then, and although The Hitchers seem to have disappeared without a trace, the sound they introduced me to still echoes through the bands listed on my computer’s hard drive.
Which brings me, finally, to Heraclitus and to wondering whether any of us are the same person we were ten years ago. I don’t consider myself to have much in common with that boy, sat over his homework at age 13. We have staggeringly different views of the world, and while we certainly share some memories I have no doubt lost almost as many as I have gained. Our tastes in art would certainly seem to be absurdly divergent. I mean, that kid was into Oasis. Yet for some reason I still get the same pleasure listening to ‘Strachan’ or Jeffrey Lewis now as I did ten years ago when I first heard them. Was I drawn to them then because of some germ of my future tastes, or do I listen to Lewis now because of a seed that song planted in my head, without me even knowing the singer’s name? Perhaps there is simply an illusion caused by my brain filtering out all those thousands of songs I’ve heard and forgotten to create a false sense of continuity, but I can’t shake the feeling that I am stepping into the same stream of consciousness twice.
It’s all John Peel’s fault.