10 Records You Cannot Live Without

I was asked, in 2011, to write a response to the above question for the recently rejuvenated UK fanzine, Adverse Affect. It was finally published early in 2019. The original can be ordered via Fourth Dimension Records: https://fourthdimensionrecords.bigcartel.com/product/adverse-effect-magazine-2018

It is a meaningless proposition. It always has been a meaningless proposition. Yet you love the question. You let it spill voluptuously across the table where you compare notes with your friends, but at the back of your mind you always find yourself thinking – what will the answer be tomorrow? Will you become a traitor to the songs that slip off the list? Are you sure?

Note also that the chart is always full. There are no gaps. There is never any anticipation that you may yet be struck by something new. The work is always complete. All of the music has been played. Why wait for death?

The proposition begins to make more sense with a little alteration to the tense. Name the records you could not have lived without. This, at least, acknowledges the temporality that underpins the exercise, and, by extension, the relationship with music.

Then we have to consider the term record. What is it exactly that deals the emotional punch; the full recording in all its packaged beauty? (New Order’s Movement, Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits with the hotel mirror portrait and those exotic travelogue details in the sleeve notes, Ariel; an obscure Cure rarity on green flexi-vinyl taped to the front of a UK Flexipop magazine), a single song – just somehow perfectly contained yet effortlessly exceeding itself? (John Coltrane’s Spiritual, Arvo Part’s Summa) Or even just the opening bars? (Lou Reed’s Berlin, Will Sergeant’s Themes for Grind, Velvet Underground’s Venus in Furs). Surely you must also allow for live music. The very style of entrance on to the stage carries currency for me. So few seem to remember this importance – the distance between the stage and the pit. Contemporary music seems repelled by the idea of holding artists at a distance, why? And what about the slow seeping into one’s soul of an artists body of work over a longer period of time (I love Nico more deeply with the passing years, so much so it occasionally feels like remembering a lost lover. I love the way that early Smiths records exude more and more the black reek of moorland as they sit further and further into English cultural history. (Why did no-one ever pick up on The Smiths being a key heading throughout Emlyn Williams’s Beyond Belief?).

Hard as I try I cannot differentiate the music from the life, the emblematic reference with the initial impact. If the music has truly formed me, or transformed me, I cannot conceive of it in its own terms. It is bound like a double helix into the fabric of my own identity.

We are dealing with sensory input filtered through memory that has caused an emotional transportation in one of two ways; epiphany or reverie – sudden or sustained. When the question about favourite records arises in company it tends to be the reverie that occupies the discussion, with each voice articulating and embellishing the contexts and life events enswathed by the music. The idea of an epiphany doesn’t translate so well, perhaps because it is an intensely personal and private process of enlightenment – one that suggests the prior existence of ignorance (which, of course, seldom translates well into discussion) Its also of interest to note that when epiphanies are solicited and reported they tend to be one-off events – like you’re only allowed one. This strikes me as grotesquely unfair. How do you choose? Why should you choose?

The five senses are nothing in themselves. They report the immediate in order to guide the body safely through the moment at hand. What is critical is how the immediate is greeted in the mind and moved into memory and relational context.

A sound heard is merely a sound. But a sound that seems to pierce you and fix you to a 2am walk in snowfall some 30 years ago has become a very powerful sound. I cannot conceive of my life without that sound. I cannot conceive of my life without that night. Did the night give the sound significance? Would the night remain so powerful had that sound not have been known?

Here is a little game to play in an idle moment. The game reveals how each sense is recalled in memory in a different way. Consider the sense of touch. Think about touch. You went for pain didn’t you? We have a dulled approximation of touch in memory. We imagine the physical recoil from pain and remember the sensation in such a way that doesn’t accord us further discomfort. In trying to recall more pleasurable touch, it seems we have to sit still and try and somehow amplify the memory. Consider taste. You can almost grab it in your mind, but it keeps turning visual. You know that coriander leaves seem to send flavour up through the roof of your mouth into your nose, but you keep getting drawn to the colour. It doesn’t take much of a look around the bookshops to see how important the visual is to cuisine. Consider smell. No mistake that this is where poetry is born. Scent is a ghost. Like taste you think you can recall it until you come to pinning the detail. Suddenly you are off on a reverie of times, places, faces and cherished moments. Considering the visual in terms of smell heightens the sensitivity; blood, a rose, excrement. And the effect continues beyond natural elements; the belly of a theatre – plush seats and golden alabaster, building sites in summer, lampposts after rain. Do you know these smells? Can you ever hope to comprehend them without locating yourself somewhere in your own memory, there in the company of that smell: involved, implicated, a part of it?

Now, in the same vein consider music. Music is slightly different, though it is not, in my opinion, a haunting, as contemporary fashion would have us consider. You can recall it exactly –albeit in individual fragments with insufficient concentration to replay the whole piece in memory – its arrangement, its tempo, its structure. In and of itself, it is nothing more than objective recall. For music to have impact you need to be in its presence. After the connection has been made and the music, in whatever form it takes, has deepened or changed your identity, it is the occasion rather than the music against which you report.

And so if the opening bars of Cohen’s Master Song cause my eyes to fill up it is because it places me on the floor of a freshly painted, freshly furnished room at the end of a period of self-destructive chaos somewhere in my teens. Everything was broken. Everything was spent, and still, I was nowhere. The song came as salve. It taught me the measure of consolation and the value of quiet space.

If Part’s Summa leaves me speechless and stands before my life like a perfect saint, it is because something in me at the time of exposure so craved and needed the articulation of eternity. Something in me craved to be shown that concentration and the studied contemplation of details could reveal divine patterns that would evade rational thought and touch the heart like thunder.

And, conversely, if Edinburgh’s Haymarket – a dreary district at best – still gives me a pleasurable shiver of nostalgia its because Basin St used to be there; a tiny room upstairs of a dismal pub. And Lowlife played there to a handful of family, girlfriends and Grangemouth neds. And I could put a face to Permanent Sleep, Side to Side. And the face, so unexpectedly, was that of a grinning scaffolder out on the make, loaded on Furstenberg, riding his voice like a chariot on clouds of reverb and the sheet rain of guitar. The sheer shock of the spectacle settled in and became the most beautiful thing. The most beautiful thing. Craig Lorenston is dead. Basin St was bulldozed long ago to make way for Scottish government commercial partnership administration cells. The memory is everything. Its the only thing remaining.

There are objective appreciations and subjective responses. There is the moment at hand and the long reverb trails of time. Some epiphanies and reveries are caught in aspic and in recollection we polish them. Others continue to dazzle and bemuse and demand further inquiry, an approach from another angle, reconsideration and a moment of study. The relationship with music and memory over time invites us to reinforce our projected identity, or overthrow it entirely.

I cannot give you ten. But I am happy to undermine this whole exercise and give you only one. It is the only recording to survive any form of examination I place myself under as I look eternally for clues as to what I have come from, what I am doing, and should I continue to do it. Side 2 of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music: being the 3 treatments of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major: Fullness of Wind, French Catalogues, Brutal Ardour. Objectively, it is a sensitive deconstruction of a prosaic structure that attains a profound balance of elements and a taut narrative string, whilst shedding every vestige of formality with each bar. Subjectively, it pinpoints a dislocated melancholy, a profound distance from the commonplace, and an intoxicatingly secretive yearning – each of which I have come over this past 30 years to accept as long standing and immovable aspects of my own emotional palette.

The sum of the epiphanies is what I am. The reveries are what occur when my increasingly infrequent stabs of lyricism infect me in company. I cannot give you ten records. Life is not a list. Life is not a chart. I give you this instead, and an invitation to consider epiphany and reverie and the transmutation of