Maybe it’s that the world is so fucked up right now and seemingly teetering on the brink of nuclear war (Donald Trump’s preference to being impeached), but I’ve been spending a lot of time wrapped in a warm, comforting blanket of nostalgia recently.
It all started when I heard Madonna’s ‘Borderline’ on the radio, which instantly triggered a memory of a school coach trip to Wales in 1986. Midway through the four hour journey from Watford to Criccieth, a girl I fancied suddenly reached over my seat, placed her Walkman headphones over my head, and pressed ‘play’, saying: “This is what you do to me.”
As the spools whirred into life, the following lyric was funneled into my ears: “You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline”.
We were 11-years-old. I was instantly confused.
Was pushing someone’s love over the borderline a good thing, like, say, nudging a football over the line during a goalmouth scramble in the final seconds of a crucial cup tie? Or was it a bad thing, like, maybe, pushing a stranger over the railings of a 10th-floor balcony to their death? I never really did understand the significance of the moment. But with my facial expression portraying total bafflement, like someone listening to a crackly broadcast from a numbers station, I decided to nod my head sagely as though I totally ‘got it’.
This made me think about other songs that have the power to spark vivid, often comforting, memories – but which I’ve never added to any playlist, ever. Probably with good reason.
For instance, in the same year as my coach trip to Wales, I became so obsessed with ITV’s theme tune to their Mexico ’86 World Cup coverage (‘Aztec Gold’) that I actually bought the 7-inch single. Today, that would be like adding the theme tune from Tipping Point or Jackpot247 to my Spotify playlist. But at the time, I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard – even if it did sound like it was being pumped through a ZX Spectrum. It’s a tune that reminds me of playing football in the garden for hours on end, where wayward balls would occasionally fly over the fence and destroy our neighbour’s cloche. I always remember our other neighbour, Charles, once saying to my mum: “When I come home and hear that ball being kicked around in the garden, I know everything’s all right.”
When you also consider that I spent much of 1986 listening to Five Star’s Silk & Steel album, the Rocky IV soundtrack, Huey Lewis and the News’s ‘Stuck with You’, and Billy Ocean’s ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’ (the music video for the latter was the first thing we ever taped on our brand new VHS video recorder) it’s clear that my musical compass was yet to settle. But that’s no reason to erase this music from my history.
The following year, I listened repeatedly to Whitesnake’s ‘Here I Go Again’, where I perfected the art of looking at myself in the bedroom mirror while walking on the spot, like some kind of human game glitch (I was actually practicing walking along the lonely street of dreams). What my younger self didn’t know at the time is that the shattered dreams of my future would be less a lonely street and more reminiscent of a photographic project of abandoned buildings, capturing jaded grandeur, flaking paint, crumbling grand staircases, parquet floors buried beneath years of detritus, and an overwhelming sadness that the passage of time can turn bright, beautiful ambition to dust.
It’s weird to think that, a little over two years later, I would be listening to The Cure’s Disintegration and New Order’s Technique albums. In fact, a mere four years after the bizarre music tastes of 1986, I was listening to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures while doing work experience at my local library. That album will always remind me of flirting with the idea of pursuing a career as a librarian, when I was seduced by the Dewey System and convinced that my calling in life was to work with kind, bookish ladies in knitwear. (Incidentally, Seduced by the Dewey System is a terrible album title.)
Going back as far as 1983-1984 also brings up some forgotten tracks with strong memories. In ’83 I remember retreating inside from a blistering summer’s day to listen to Billy Joel’s ‘The Longest Time’ over and over and over again. I had the same love for ‘The Theme from Hill Street Blues’, Elton John’s ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’, Giorgio Moroder and Phil Oakey’s ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, and Phil Collins’ ‘Against All Odds’, all of which my parents owned on 7-inch vinyl. (The cover sleeve of the latter single made me feel things.) There aren’t any big life events attached to these particular songs, it’s simply the memory of the joy of listening to them.
When I think about 1992, I think about The Manic Street Preachers’ ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ and ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which seemed to be the only two songs available on the video jukebox in the pub I frequented at the time. It was my first real experience of drinking – so while copious amounts of Southern Comfort has largely robbed me of the detail of those nights spent vomiting on friends, the soundtrack to those times, for me, will always be these two songs.
Several years later, in 2007, I was in Cyprus filming a cookery programme and found myself obsessively listening to ‘Nobody Does it Better’ by Carly Simon. I was about three stone heavier at the time and had decided to take up running in an effort to drop some weight. I used to jog along the Larnaca seafront in the heat of the afternoon, with my lungs feeling like they were being seared from the inside and my head swimming with questions, like: “what exactly is a ‘love light’?” For some reason this was my running song of choice, which I listened to on loop for approximately half an hour every day.
In the evenings, I would then shovel down vast platefuls of food from the hotel’s international buffet, completely nullifying the physical exercise I’d undertaken earlier in the day. So when Carly Simon sings “nobody does it better”, I will forever take the “it” to mean “overeating”. But what a fucking song!
Right, I’m going to stop dribbling on now.
OK, one more…
Every track on Kings of Leon’s Youth & Young Manhood will always remind me of getting together with my wife, but it’s The Thrills’ ‘Just Travelling Through’ (from their So Much for the City album) that reminds me of driving home after telling my wife that I loved her for the first time. It destroys me every time I listen to it.
So this is my warts and all, ridiculously uncool playlist. If I’ve pressed all the correct buttons, it’s a collaborative Spotify playlist that you can contribute to. But be as honest as you can with the forgotten songs that mean something to you. After all, no one’s trying to impress here.