I’ve recently been watching some of the wonderful Ted talks, specifically about music.
In one of these conductor and educator Michael Tilson Thomas describes a situation where he was visiting an elderly relative in a care home. While they were sitting in the lounge area another resident entered and shakily walked towards the piano using a walker. He then started tapping out some notes and Michael heard him say something like, “Me…boy…symphony….Beethoven”
Fortunately Michael recognised from the few notes what it was he was trying to play. He approached and asked if this was what he was thinking of then played a short extract of Beethoven. The words came pouring out of the elderly man as he excitedly said, “Yes, yes I was a little boy. The Symphony. Isaac Stern, the concerto, I heard it.”
Michael explained that this one event made him ponder how, even though this man’s faculties were fading, this piece of music still meant so much to him and clearly connected him with a memory of his youth.
This got me thinking about what I might call Musical DNA: the pieces of music that make up our own lives and help create our musical tastes that live on long after the time the music was first heard.
I’m not talking about our favourite Top Ten. I don’t have time for the idea of what is ‘the best music ever’ or why the Beatles are more important than whoever. Those intellectual appraisals have little value. What do interest me are those experiences of hearing some music that might have opened our ears to other similar forms or helped us establish ways of listening. They need not be our favourite pieces of music but they are ones which for a variety of reasons become embedded in our core – our Musical DNA.
I decided I would try to write about a selection of experiences that created my own Musical DNA. If any of you readers are interested you might like to share some of your own experiences using the link at the end. If I get enough I'll publish them as Musical DNA Part 2.
So here goes:
I was nearly 10 years old when I first saw the Beatles on TV. I was sitting watching an early evening news and entertainment show with my parents when they introduced this new group from Liverpool.
The Beatles were singing (probably miming) their first single, Love Me Do. I ran into the next room where my older brother George was doing his homework and excitedly shouted words to the effect, “You must come and see. A group on television.”
Years later it occurred to me that pop songs of that era were generally quite short. Love Me Do is only 2 minutes 20 seconds long. So, my question was: why, at the age of 10, was I so moved, in the first 30 seconds of this simple pop song to run next door to tell someone about this new sound I was hearing? Now I realise that the opening stanza, played on a harmonica, was probably the first time I had ever heard an element of the blues, and certainly the first time it had entered my “Musical DNA”.
Over the next year or so I, like most other young people, became transfixed by the prolific output of the Beatles and the other guitar bands of the time.
One day my brother was on his way home from school on the train and found a plastic carrier bag left on the luggage rack. In it were two early Bob Dylan albums: The Times they are a-Changin’ and Another Side of Bob Dylan. He brought them home but we didn’t have a record player but a nearby neighbour did and he borrowed their Dansette.
[Note from brother: It may seem strange these days, but I did what was correct and went to our local police station to report the “lost property” I had found on the train. Amazingly, a few days later a man in his twenties made the 15-mile journey from Liverpool to collect the LPs (“long-players”) as they were known in those days. He was so impressed that I liked Bob Dylan’s “folk music” that he leant them to me for another fortnight and then made the 15-mile trip again to collect them.]
We had a reel-to-reel Grundig tape recorder which we used to record Top of the Pops and Alan Freeman’s radio show Pick of the Pops. We recorded both albums – the only full albums we had and I remember listening to these over and over again. What captivated me was Dylan’s stream of consciousness and surrealism. He opened me up to the wonderful ambiguity and lyricism that can exist in songs. And I was only about 10 years old.
The main music of my early adolescence was soul music. In the nearby village of Halton a dance was held in the church hall every Friday night where often a local band would play. What I remember is pretty good versions of Wilson Picket, Otis Reading and lots more. In particular I loved Otis Redding and his seminal album Almost Blue.
Two weeks after his death Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay was released and became an international hit.
My local town of Runcorn had a dance hall called the La Scala Ballroom. I’d been there a couple of times as a pre-teen for a Saturday afternoon children’s bop but all I can remember is being transfixed by the pinpoint reflections from the giant revolving disco ball and running round mindlessly with young friends trying to keep up with the rays of light, making ourselves breathless and dizzy. Wasn’t this what you were supposed to do in a dance venue?
Not too many years later I pretended I was older than I was and managed to get past the doorman for a Saturday night dance with some other underage friends.
um by Booker T & The MG’s.
“And tonight for this evening’s prize album I want to know what is the difference between the Bar-Kays and the Mar-Keys. Like a shot I took off through the dancers towards DJ Dave to breathlessly explain, in the way that only nerdish soul boys can, that the Bar-Kays were the original Stax label session band, a number of whom died in a plane crash with Otis Redding, while the Mar-Keys was a name given to Booker T and the MG’s when a wind section was added. I won the album.
For several years at Christmas our family of four had a tradition that on Boxing Day we would visit the Davidsons, a couple who lived eight miles away in the village of Helsby. As well as cold turkey salad there would be the traditional “family entertainment” on TV with all its Christmassy glitz and glitter. But this year I had made a special request. The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour was premiering on television and more than anything else I wanted to watch it uninterrupted.
When we arrived at the Davidsons’ the old order was shaken by the presence of two other friends of theirs: a clipped-voiced, self-opinionated Scotsman and his timid wife (who had clearly been verbally battered into submission over the years).
The appointed time came for me to sink wordlessly into worshipping my heroes deliver their latest masterpiece but this bloody man just wouldn’t shut up! All the way through he snorted with derision before proclaiming, “Of course they didn’t write those songs themselves. They’re just a bunch of uneducated Liverpudlian scallies.”
But through the blizzard of self righteous opinion from this ignorant man one song was stamped on my brain: I Am the Walrus. It embodied my love of “wonky” rhythms, surrealistic imagery and tantalising vocal samples that have held a special appeal to this day.
I remember the booth vividly – no bigger than a telephone kiosk and walls covered with white painted hardboard which I think was some sort of approximation of sound proofing but which I suspect was no more than it appeared, hardboard with holes drilled in it. I sat on the floor and while the album played I read all the liner notes and lyrics in the gatefold cover, plus there was a review from New Musical Express inside the plastic cover, which included the description, ‘Electronic water music.’ I’d never heard anything like it before. I was blown away, not by any particular track, but by the whole album, its sheer complexity and eclecticism.
It was a couple of years before a record player arrived in our household permanently. This new arrival was not just a record player but a ‘stereogram’, a long teak-veneered cabinet on legs with Dynatronic multi-stacking record player plus radio.
In truth, my parents weren’t really that interested in listening to music and, for my mother, its arrival was merely another step towards middle-class respectability. She didn’t need or want it to play music. Its very existence was all the comfort that she required and she decorated it with a large bowl of flowers that sat on top of it all the time, but which I had to remove and place on the floor in order to use it.
At school a few of us had informally set up what we called the Blues Club which was an excuse for us to borrow the school record player at lunchtime. I think the first couple of meetings we actually did play blues music but before long different people started bringing in more current music which was part of the emerging blues-rock scene including records by Fleetwood Mac, Cream and then off at a tangent with The Deviants and Strictly Personal by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Strictly Personal by Capt. Beefheart became the first album I bought myself. At home one day I was lying on the lounge carpet with my friend Bill listening to it when my mother stormed in complaining that it was dangerous to put the vase of flowers on the floor in case someone knocked it over – though she was the only person moving in the room. When we were unmoved by her cajoling she added, “And why are you listening to this druggy music?” We both looked at her shocked. How did she know?
Despite the title “Blues” many of the bands weren’t blues at all but more what was termed at the time “progressive”. I watched in amazement as keyboard showman Keith Emerson with his band The Nice stuck daggers in his keyboard during his epic version of America. A foretaste of the overblown performances a few years later with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and probably the dawn of what came to be known as Prog Rock.
Strangely enough although I enjoyed the festival, I can't now remember a single song that any of the bands played.
However, the festival also had a theme tune - a psychedelic rework of an old gospel song Amazing Grace which was played at the start and end of each day, plus whenever there were delays in bands setups which happened regularly in the early festivals.
A psychedelic folk instrumental, Banjo by Kaleidoscope was also regularly played to whenever the audience was flagging. Once it had been played a couple of times we got used to it and I remember hundreds of people bouncing around joyously to this trippy little ditty.
I hated school and only later discovered that this might in part have been due to the fact that I was undiagnosed dyslexic. I found my escape route: Art College. At that time there were two options. You could study at school to A-level standard and then do a one-year Art Foundation Course before setting off for a degree course. Or you could leave school at 16 and do a two-year Foundation Course. I was out of school like a rocket at 16 to Northwich College of Art.
The main part of my foundation course was an advanced course in taking psychedelics and listening to lots of music including Ska, Jazz and Soft Machine. This put a new complexion on my festival going which I pursued with enthusiasm.
Everything was running late and in the early hours of the morning Dr John, the Night Tripper, took to the stage with the strangest looking band I had ever seen.
His slow-moving rhythms from the bayou had the audience gently rocking back and forth. At one point Dr John said, “If you think Dr John is trying to hypnotise you, you’re right”. I looked around and everyone seemed to have been caught in a trance.
In the morning I awoke covered in engine oil that had leaked out of the lorry’s sump. I spotted some Hell’s Angels tramping about in the mud, happy as pigs in shit. That was the lowest part of the festival.
A few hours later I hooked up with some friends, dropped some LSD, and spent the day floating around as the bright sunshine dried the muddy ground so it felt like we were walking on marshmallow. I only found out years later that David Bowie was on. Not sure how I missed him, but I do remember crying with joy as Melanie sang Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma.
Family and Traffic were perfect performing the best of British psychedelia. And Jose Feliciano – on stage at midnight in the pitch dark, lit up by a single spotlight moved us to tears.
But the big discovery of the weekend for me was a band I had never heard of: The Grateful Dead. At one point during the concert I said to my brother that I was going to go to the toilets. I started walking through the crowd, got hooked in the music and simply turned round and came back. About half an hour later I again said to my brother that I was going to the toilet. He said, ‘Haven’t you just been?”
But they had a slightly country tone which was not favoured by the British audience, so after an hour or so people started booing. They wanted the return of the less subtle Mungo Jerry.
And when Mungo Jerry eventually came on stage everyone was ready. After an afternoon of boozing they had empty cans at the ready to bang along in time to the music so we could barely hear it.
A couple of years later I took a change of direction, leaving the Fine Art course I had started in London and going to study drama in Birmingham. There I met and became enchanted with a girl from the year above me called Jo. She was decidedly upper class and had a cut-glass accent that fitted in perfectly with the few Noel Coward plays that were staged at the college. One day she perfectly illustrated to me the difference between upper and middle class sensibilities.
As a child I was always told off for saying “What?” when I didn’t hear what someone had said. “Don’t say ‘What’,” I was told, “say ‘Pardon’.”
One time I said “Pardon?” to Jo. She spat back at me in impeccably enunciated English: “Howard, when you can’t hear what someone is saying, don’t say, ‘Pardon me for not hearing you’. Say, ‘What the fuck are you trying to say? Speak more clearly!’”
I immediately saw the difference between the ingratiating, apologetic middle-class mindset and the confident, “We run the world” view of the upper classes.
Jo also introduced me to classical music. I remember one evening after being lulled into a warm fuzzy place by a couple of bottles of Hirondelle red that she played me Brahms’s Violin Concerto. I heard the orchestra playing a theme and then “the guitarist” (though in this case of course it was a violinist) took centre stage and played their solo. I instantly got it and this became my passport to enjoying all sorts of classical music. Same music, different instruments.
At first I lived in a house full of drama students. I lived on the ground floor in a large room with a bay window looking out on the jungle that was once a garden. One Friday night I was listening to John Peel on the radio and he played several new tracks of an artist I had not heard of before called Bob Marley and his first album Natty Dread.
Next morning I caught a bus into the centre of Birmingham to buy Natty Dread. By 11am I was back home. I put my stereo speakers by the bay window and opened them up. I played the whole album at high volume with the intention that, “Everyone must hear this!”
Years later my friend Glenn, who lived in the flat above me with his girlfriend, recollected they were just getting up when I turned it on. At first he said, their reaction was, “Oh, what’s Howard up to now?”
By the second track he was running downstairs to find out what I was playing. I think that album had a similar effect on a lot of white Brits.
After a couple of years I moved two doors away to a house shared by a group of Brummie friends, each with our own rundown flats. Dave, who lived below me, wrote songs, as I did. We used to play our songs to each other. He introduced me to The Clash and Elvis Costello and both these songs immediately take me back to the crumbling house we shared.
I never really got into the Punk scene because I was a drama student and we were way too interested in our smart appearance to join the scruffy punks.
Dave started training as a fireman and was in week five of his basic training with, I seem to remember, just one week to go before he had completed his course. They were assigned an exercise of putting out a forest fire. A fire was lit in the middle of a field and they had to run their hoses across the field as quickly as possible to dowse the flames. By the time Dave got to the fire he could barely see or breathe, not because of the smoke but because he suffered from extreme hay fever. That was the end of his prospects as a fireman.
But with one door closing another one opened.
Dave decided to put more effort into the band he had formed with a few mates. Just before I left Birmingham Dave played me a new song on acoustic guitar. It had a bit of a reggae lilt and I can remember saying, “It’s a nice song Dave, but not much melody.”
Within a year Mirror in the Bathroom was a major hit for his band The Beat.
After a brief period as a rather poor actor (poor in acting ability and also financially) I eventually found my way into TV and video production. During much of the 80’s while I now know that there was some fantastic music being produced, very little captured my imagination and I spent much of my time filling in my collection from the 70's with the ridiculously prolific output of Zappa and The Grateful Dead
I used to have an old Roberts radio sitting in the bathroom which I would turn on as I was getting showered and ready for the new day. One Monday morning in the late 80’s the dial must have got knocked and it came on with some very interesting banging music. I remember thinking that this was a bit upbeat for a Monday morning. Only later did I realise it was catering for those who were still going strong from the weekend.
Some time later a friend Chris invited us to his 40th birthday celebration in a Soho restaurant after which he said, "Here, take this" and led us to the nightclub Heaven. My mind was opened to a new musical scene and suddenly I was no longer interested in rock music.
One day I heard the track Tears by Frankie Knuckles and Robert Owen. Something attracted me to the synthesiser sound of the keyboards. Up till this point, in the main music came from identifiable instruments. It was a guitar with a wha-wha peddle or a fuzz box. Listening to this hammering keyboard I imagined that the percussion was like hitting a radiator with a spanner, while the resonance was similar to that of a grand piano.
I realised at that point that music had reached a new period of inventiveness, based on the creation of new sounds. I became missionary-spirited, playing this new music to unappreciative contemporaries, some of whom condemned it as computerised nonsense. “No, you’re missing the point. Listen to the soul.”
I walked through the door of “dance music” and discovered an ever-evolving genre of music.
There are certain musical artists who you can recognise instantly by the first couple of notes: BB King, Mark Knopfler, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and James Brown are good examples. In Labrynth, when the first notes of a current favourite track came on you felt a surge of joy spread through the club as everyone leapt to their feet to dance. This was one of them.
For a lot of the 90’s I was flying around the world working on film/video productions but I always carried with me several cassette tapes recorded from London pirate radio stations. DJ’s sending out “shouts” to listeners in Bethnal Green often seemed incongruous on my headphones in Cairo, Singapore or Thailand. Most of these tapes have long since been lost but this is one I saved and which I think captures the spirit of this period with the DJ announcing the meeting points for the various illegal raves taking place that evening. I gave this the title, Getting Ready Music because I recorded it just as we were getting ready to set off for another evening at Labrynth.
Around ’97 I spent two months filming in Saudi Arabia. I had often heard people talk about spending time in the Middle East and how once back at the camp or complex where Europeans were housed there was very little sense of restrictions.
We, on the other hand, were travelling around the country staying in hotels. For two months I didn’t exchange a single word with a female. Sometimes when we went into restaurants I could hear the sound of female voices behind a screen in the family section but that was the limit of my connection with the opposite sex.
As the job came to an end I called my wife and asked her to book a cheap and cheerful package holiday for us anywhere in Europe. We decided to go to Ibiza where our friend Rachel had recently relocated with her daughters.
We arrived in a hotel somewhere near Playa den Bossa in the early hours of the morning. The room was plain but that was fine. When we woke up Berri told me we had a free breakfast as part of the deal so made our way downstairs looking for the breakfast room.
What we found was a massive canteen with a couple of hundred Brits eating platefuls of bacon and eggs. This wasn’t my idea of a romantic Mediterranean holiday!
Fortunately a German friend of ours, on hearing that we were headed for Ibiza, had written a small Post-it note that simply read: ‘Salinas beach. Sa Trinxa bar. DJ Jonathan. Man with Spanish guitar sells drugs’.
When we arrived everything was in place.
This was the first time I had heard Jonathan playing the decks and over the next few hours had my first introduction to the Balearic vibe and the idea of “an eclectic musical journey”. We went back there every day during our holiday.
The following track epitomises that first visit to Ibiza. For years after I kept looking for this wonderful tune called Sandy Verona. It never occurred to me that there was no sand in Verona in mainland Italy. Then eventually I found it. The title was actually Sangue de Beirona which means “Blood of Beirona”, Beirona being an area in the Cape Verde islands.
Although I can distinctly remember listening to Jonathan’s music and thinking, “I’d love to do that” I didn’t suddenly become a DJ. I was pretty busy with TV work, latterly making documentaries about film and music.
Around the turn of the century reality TV came along. It suddenly and unexpectedly wiped out my TV career. I started working with Mac computers and set up a small repair company. After a couple of months I was contemplating the way forward. I was making a living but was now spending most of my time sorting out problematic computers and their owners. I was used to being creative. I thought of writing a book, but that was a very solitary affair.
One night I was at a party. I was engaged in conversation with a friend when behind me I heard a very excited voice saying, “Hey, I was round at a mate’s house the other night and he’s got this new gadget that you can plug into a computer and use it to digitally mix audio tracks”.
I didn’t join in the conversation but went into town the next day to buy one of these new devices.
After a couple of weeks of digitising my by now extensive dance music collection, I approached my local north London pub where a large upstairs room had recently been refurbished. I was trying to be so cool as I spoke to the landlord who I knew.
“You probably don’t know but I’ve been ‘mixing it up’ for years.” In retrospect I am surprised he didn’t laugh at my attempt at being “street” but instead he went with it, launching a four-year period of playing every Friday night and learning some of the basics of DJing. Sometimes the chilled Balearic tone was abandoned and I will never forget one night when people were dancing on the tables and someone shouted, “Rewind!” as a Damian Marley track came to an end - and so I did.
Ten years later I finally arrived in Ibiza to live and now spend much of the summer playing at beach bars and restaurants and taking people on my own musical journeys.
If you have stayed with this so far, I would be really interested to hear some of your tales of Musical DNA. My plan is to post some of the best ones on my next Diary of a DJ blog. But first you have to send them to me.
Email me at email@example.com