London, N7
26/01/2014  •  1515 words

Listening to: Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits

What role does music play in your life?

Music is hugely important to me. What follows is my Desert Island Discs account of the role of music in my life, with the soundtrack of eight songs or pieces of music that have become significant for one reason or another.

I only realised fairly recently how important music is to me. I spent years feeling a little sheepish about my musical taste, I think because I was self-conscious about what was socially acceptable to listen to. I’ve never seen music as a marker of identity in the way that many people do – especially teenagers, it seems. I was afraid of people projecting their ready-made identity markers onto me on the grounds of what I did or did not listen to in the privacy of my own bedroom. I didn’t want to feel misrepresented.

Two pairs of anecdotes were epoch-making for me, the first pair in one-on-one conversation and the other in a crowd

One lunchtime when I was at school, I got talking to a guy in my year-group. Smalltalk turned into an inquisition about the music I listened to, the first album I bought, the last album I bought, and so on. Apparently the answers were hilarious but I did’t understand why. So I became rather vague about music, indulging my appetite for it as a primarily private affair.

There came a point in life where I stopped caring anything about such stupid things (and people, for that matter). So when as part of an icebreaker at an event in my first week at university I was asked for my name and favourite song, I was happy to answer.

1. The Only Living Boy in New York by Simon & Garfunkel

During my school days, I helped to organise several charity events. The first big one of these was a Teachers’ Pop Idol – it was very in at the time. We needed to play some music as people were coming in before the show started, and given that I was going to be working on the sound desk it was assumed that I’d pop a CD in to get some background noise behind the chatter. I forget what my choice had been, but it was somehow anathema a classmate of mine who seemed to think it would bring the whole event into disrepute. He insisted on an alternative and provided 9PM (Till I Come) by ATB, which he insisted on playing on a loop instead of whatever it was I had brought along. I didn’t argue at the time but resolved never to repeat that experience.

Close to a decade later, I found myself in a similar situation of being partly responsible for for the sound desk at an event, this time outdoors and with speakers that could be heard a remarkable distance away. I wanted to draw up the playlist partly because I thought I’d do a reasonable job of it, but mainly because I wanted to beat that old classmate of mine. It’s petty and crass, I know, but I wanted to win. He’ll never know, but I feel the score was settled and I came out on top when all was said and done.

For the volume and quantity of bass resonating through the ground and echoing off the buildings that day, my stand-out song was the 1997 party classic that holds the record for being the number 2 single in the charts with the greatest ever deficit in sales compared to the number 1 (Elton John’s Candle in the Wind 1997).

2. Sunchyme – Sash! Rmx-Edit by Dario G

On the theme of sound desks for one last song: I fell in love with this one while giving technical support to a college production of the musical Our House. The plot was pretty poor and the performances were mixed. The music was great, though, and gave me an appreciation for the richness of ska. More to the point, it was all-round great fun. This was probably the most enjoyable thing I did while I was meant to be studying (total procrastination from dissertation-writing). I had no fixed responsibility and access to a comms headset of which I took full advantage. The highlight of every performance was this number, not long after the interval.

3. Wings of a Dove by Madness

I’ve always enjoyed a bit of classical music. I’m no aficionado but I’m open to taking the best of what every era has to offer, not just our own. I wake up to Classic FM on a morning and I’m often listening to classical pieces when I’m going to bed.

I like the familiar. It takes extra effort to listen to unfamiliar music and, since I use Spotify playlists to organise my music, an active decision to adopt a new track as a regular. I tend to listen to new things over and over until they are familiar. If I’m still fond of them, they’ll become part of the repertoire.

Classical music is harder to adopt in this way. The tracks tend to be longer and the style usually expects that it’ll have your attention implicitly rather than seeking to seize it from you like rock does. So while I won’t ever plumb the depths of subtlety and complexity in classical music, I can be fairly sure that what I like must be really quite good.

Beethoven is the greatest of the composers, and his final symphony is the greatest of his works. It has a grandness of vision that is unrivalled among the music I have heard; one of the towering achievements of human history. If I had eight discs to take to a desert island, I’d ask for this one eight times just in case seven copies were damaged.

4. Symphony No. 9 in D minor by Ludwig van Beethoven

I like big songs. Anthems. Stadium-fillers. Choral masterpieces. Song with driving bass. Power ballads. Whatever. But it has to be good on its own terms as well as being big and full of power.

So, a track each from two groups with the most consistently excellent greatest hits albums in modern times: Abba and Queen.

Neither group enjoyed critical acclamation but both experienced significant success and popularity. They became masters of their art, layering hook upon hook by combining sophisticated studio techniques with a flair for the catchy. Slice an Abba song at any point and you’ll land on a neat little hook. Chop into a Queen song and you’ll land on a unique phrase that’s crafted just for that space. It’s precision-made music, made to be easily digestible to the masses.

Both groups have gained much more respect in the years since their respective heydays, and rightly so. Being this cheesy and overproduced took remarkable skill and effort. They are works of art of the highest craftsmanship and I very much enjoy listening to them as a result.

5. Take a Chance on Me by Abba

6. Somebody to Love by Queen

The final episode of the second series of The West Wing is the best television programme I’ve seen. The storytelling is fantastic. The acting is surprisingly good. The production is top quality. And the not-a-cliffhanger is a landmark in keeping audiences keen over the season break.

What marks this episode out for me, though, is the use of a single song, over five minutes long, played for its duration leading up to the end of the closing credits. It works brilliantly well, allowing the dialogue to thin out and the drama of a pathetic fallacy thunderstorm to dominate the scene. If you’ve enjoyed the two series leading up to this point and you like the characters, you can’t help but be captivated by these few minutes.

The song itself is fantastic, deserving to be heard on its own merits without a soaking-wet Josiah Bartlett dripping across the screen in competition for your concentration.

7. Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits

No list of top tunes could be complete without a good solid hymn. Next to all the doctrinal stuff about how sinners are saved, the greatest gift of the Reformation has been congregational singing. The hymns and songs of the last few hundred years have helped people to understand and articulate elements of the faith in a way they weren’t previously able to. The richness of the lyrics of old classics and newcomers alike is a testament to the wisdom of God and creativity of his people over the ages. So too the medium of music itself – one of the aspects of the new creation that the Bible attests to persistently and unequivocally is that there will be a lot of singing and music-making. Count me in.

There are great lyrics out there. There are some fantastic tunes. The best congregational songs and hymns combine both. Very many do – a cause of quite some gratitude. First among them, though, I think must be this old Irish poem translated to English and set to verse for the medieval folk tune Slane.

8. Be Thou My Vision by Eleanor Hull after Dallán Forgaill and Mary Byrne