Today, at the age of 43, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where my love of music really started. My earliest memories of music date right back to my pre-school days. I lived with my mum at my grandparents house, until she married when I was in my teens. I dimly remember sitting on my mum’s lap, or lying on the floor playing with whatever my current favourite toy was, whilst she listened to selections from her stock of vinyl on my grandparents ancient Argosy record player. The Argosy unit was an absolute beast, the size and shape of a desk, standing on four metallic legs up against the wall in my grandparents lounge. I’ve tried without success to find a photo of it, or at least of a player of the same model. This is the closest thing I could find:
Imagine a radio tuner with a series of dials on top of the unit at the right hand end, the stereo speakers replaced with a large mono speaker on the right hand side and the turntable area taking up the space where the records are being stored in this photo, and you’re not far off. (The wallpaper at my grandparent’s gaff wasn’t nearly as ghastly as that featured in the photo, btw. Just in case you were wondering.)
My mum had been quite a music fan Back In The Day. Like so many women her age, when she was younger she had been mildly obsessed with The Beatles, the Bay City Rollers and the more clean-cut pop star poster-boys of the 60s. She actually has fond memories of seeing The Beatles once, when they actually came to town in their early days and played a venue that became one of the local cinemas (now long since closed). She was faintly suspicious of the flower power counter culture of the mid to late 60s however (I know, sometimes it’s hard to believe we are related, right? 😉 ), and tired of The Beatles around the time of Rubber Soul, graduating instead to singer-songwriter pop – Elkie Brooks and Neil Diamond were big favourites – and then to disco, which was what she was really into when I was old enough to realise and remember what I heard her playing at home.
There came a time when my mum realised that I was enjoying some of what she was playing. I don’t know when it happened, or what those records had been, but when I started displaying an interest, my mum started picking up some of those storybook records where favourite childhood characters enjoyed adventures interspersed with songs. Some live longer in the memory than others: I dimly remember a record that featured children’s nursery rhymes that had been tied loosely into a plot with a TV celebrity of the time cast in the lead role; I also remember Around The World with Sooty quite well, although even back then I remember being disappointed that Sooty had (a) been voiced – he never said a word on the TV show – and (b) sounded like a four year-old boy, which wasn’t how I had imagined him at all. Sweep stole the show, as always. Particular favourites, though, included Noddy’s Magic Holiday (surprisingly adult and weird; seriously, the end of side 1 gave me the heebie jeebies at the time and it’s still hardly kids fare when I hear excerpts from it now – probably why I enjoyed it so much in the first place!), Scooby Doo and the Snowmen Mystery (which got a great deal of play despite taking some slight liberties with the franchise) and Rupert and the Fire bird (wherein the titular bear had all manner of fun with his mates, a recalcitrant pet dragon and aforementioned fire bird).
However, I think the first record I got seriously obsessed with was Contour records Stories From Black Beauty. The record essentially consisted of eight chapters from Anna Sewell’s much-loved book, narrated by actress Judy Bowker, who played Vicky in the TV series The Adventures of Black Beauty. Bowker narrated the stories from the POV of Black Beauty, and her skill as an actress and Denis King’s frankly still astounding music – who doesn’t know and love the theme tune? I know I still do – made for a very involving listen. I suppose you could say it was my first concept album ;-). It was probably intended for older children than I was at the time, and some of it was pretty heavy stuff for a five year old. I distinctly remember being completely freaked out by the second and third stories (A Stormy Night and The Fire), which ladled on the peril with no regard for childhood frailty. In fact, The Fire – possessed of a spiralling urgency and with a gruesome pay-off towards the end, where you hear trapped horses burning to death in the fire – actually made me cry the first time I heard it (I always did have a soft spot for the beasties). It’s still powerfully emotive for me now. My fondness for these album-length stories probably explains a great deal about why I ultimately gravitated towards progressive rock and its tendency to make conceptual records.
That’s only one side of the story, though. My mum and I had got into the habit of sitting and watching Top Of The Pops together, which led to me picking up on all kinds of things. Abba were a huge favourite for us both, and now I was old enough to be trusted to put records on myself, I think I played mum’s Abba records even more than she did. My mum owned a few dozen albums, but had cases full of old 45s, and as my curiosity about music developed, I raided the boxes of singles regularly. I came to value a good, solid single: three or four minutes of concentrated energy and storytelling, often possessed of powerful melodic hooks that would stick in my head and stubbornly refuse to leave. I loved wallowing in my album-length stories, but I also found myself whistling or humming these memorable shorter songs to myself. And it was at this point in my musical education that 1978 arrived, and with it my true musical awakening, courtesy of the Kate Bush incident. I never looked back.
So where am I going with all this? It’s really just to make the point that whilst I identify more with rock, metal and electronica these days, I cut my teeth – like most people – on pop music; pop music featured in the singles chart, no less. It strikes me that a lot of people who identify as rock fans look down on pop music as somehow inherently less authentic or worthwhile, which is a real shame; let’s remember that the name “pop” is a contraction of “popular”, which actually says nothing about the medium, only about the number of people listening to it. As members of various rock bands have been heard to observe – especially in the sphere of progressive rock, where longer, more musically complex material is more commonplace – it’s probably harder to write a solid four minute pop song than some complicated twenty minute musical edifice, as brevity and melody become increasingly important. As a rock fan, and later a fan of metal and progressive rock, I found the dismissive attitude fellow fans had towards pop music puzzling, and ultimately infuriating. This was especially true when I happened across pop musicians who were especially good at crafting shorter, more immediate songs that were nevertheless full of drama and emotion. I learnt quickly that quite often, as soon as you mentioned a pop acts name, some prospective listeners would simply shut down and want nothing to do with their material, purely because, well, it was “just” pop music.
Consequently, although I’ve met and got to know a lot of interesting people because of rock/metal/prog/electronica, practically none of my friends have shared my continuing interest in Good Solid Pop Music. Sure, some pop music is lobotomised nonsense – rarely, even that lobotomised nonsense is entertaining and memorable – but that’s always been the case. For every Kate Bush, there is a Nicki Minaj. But the reverse is also true: for every Nicki Minaj, there is a Kate Bush; someone who can produce powerfully involving and moving music that fits neatly inside a four-minute space. Which – finally! Jeez, does he go on or what? – brings me to my final offering in this series.
I’m always evangelising about new music, and how there continues to be the most amazing music being made these days. More than ever before, in fact, I would insist: it’s just that unless you go actively searching for it, you’re unlikely to hear a lot of it. The demise of Top Of The Pops and the cookie-cutter format of commercial radio has essentially removed the regular exposure that new musicians used to enjoy, so unless you go online and search for something new, people are at the mercy of an ever-decreasing number of tastemakers and musical gatekeepers who will necessarily not be aware of everything new that’s coming down the turnpike. This state of affairs, and the music industry’s discovery that nostalgia sells, is largely responsible for the mind-set that there are no “next big thing” artists. It’s pure nonsense: there are plenty of artists out there more than capable of delivering future classics and making a name for themselves; they’re just not being given a chance to do so. Which is why it’s a particular joy for me when I discover new music – and I mean new new music, as opposed to music by a veteran act that I’ve only just got around to checking out properly.
In that spirit, I want to end this series of blogs by mentioning the most recent new musicians whose music I’ve fallen in love with. They are Electra and Miranda Kilbey-Jansson, collectively known as Say Lou Lou. You might be thinking, “Hey… Kilbey. That name sounds familiar”, and well you might, for they are the daughters of Steve Kilbey of Australian-based rock band The Church and his ex-partner Karin Jansson. I suppose their heritage alone would have eventually made me curious enough to want to check out Say Lou Lou’s music, but as it happened, I got to hear them for the first time without even realising who I was listening to.
Say Lou Lou had actually already been active for nearly two years before it happened. It was April 2015, and I was idly flicking through some playlists on YouTube. When I’m sitting at my computer working on various things, sometimes I like to cue up a playlist or two – I do it with Spotify too, but have come to especially enjoy playing random playlists on YouTube. I can set the playlist running, and then if I hear something interesting, I can nip across to the YouTube window and find out which artist I’m listening to, see any accompanying visuals, and perhaps conduct a further search to see what else they’ve done. So there I was, merrily listening away to some random playlist – I can’t even remember whose it was or the general purpose of it now; I think it may have been tagged as “dreampop” and I was on a Cocteau Twins kick and happened across it, I’m not sure – when this twinkly little song started. I remember thinking, “Aw, that’s lovely”, and then tuning out again… only to do a mental double take when this monster chorus leapt out of my PC speakers.
One of the things I especially like in a good pop song is a killer chorus. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about: a chorus that you really do only have to hear once before it lodges in your cerebellum and absolutely refuses to be evicted. This was one such chorus, and I immediately had to pop across to my YouTube window and see what was going on. It was Say Lou Lou, with their song Nothing But A Heartbeat.
I was struck by several things all at once. The chorus was wonderful; I really liked the way their voices worked together; I loved the lyrics; and… hey, what the hell’s going on in this crazy video? Nothing But A Heartbeat is a four-minute song; Say Lou Lou’s extravagant, surreal video stretches this out to over eight minutes as the song tails off and pauses to allow the video to act as a feature film and carry the narrative for the remainder of the time. It’s a thing of beauty; the sort of video that convinces you that the band that made it have bigger ideas than banging out a few singles. After one viewing I felt completely won over: this was music with heart and ideas, and a band that I felt sure could hold my interest over the course of an album. I’d had the aperitif, and now I wanted the main course ;-).
The rest I’m sure you could guess. I bought a copy of their album, Lucid Dreaming, and fell hopelessly in love with it. It’s a beautiful, dreamlike record (for once, I felt the “dreampop” label was merited) with echoes of the Cocteau Twins (if you close your eyes, Say Lou Lou’s Wilder Than The Wind could almost be a Cocteaus number; it has that same surrealistic feel and wealth of raw emotion that typifies the Cocteaus best work), married to sleek, modern pop that lends the whole thing a timeless, unhurried feel that is both exhilarating and dreamy by turns. I’ve played the album to death; it was that greatest of pleasures, a surprise hit that actually relegated long-awaited albums by other artists to the sidelines.
Say Lou Lou are currently making their follow-up. I seriously cannot wait to see what they’re cooking up. If it’s even half as good as their debut, it’ll be essential listening here at Hippy Towers. Check ‘em out (the Say Lou Lou website can be found here); if you’re open to the idea of pop music being emotionally powerful then you won’t be disappointed.
In the meantime, if anyone tells you that there are no great new artists out there making music, do yourself a favour and disregard them utterly. There’s so much gold out there, you wouldn’t believe it. Go exploring; listen to anything, listen to everything – you never know what you will find.