To bastardise a Trainspotting quote: take the worst quality mp3 you’ve ever heard, multiply it by a thousand and you’re still nowhere near it.
Of all the cultural aspects of a 1970s or 1980s childhood I have to patiently explain to the younger generation – and believe me, the list is long – perhaps the most challenging is medium-wave radio, or as it’s generally termed nowadays, AM (amplitude modulation). The notion of having to enjoy music via such a lo-fi format – and I’m not talking “cool” lo-fi – is as baffling to anyone born after 1995 as the concept of missing your favourite television programme. It is also, unlike mixtapes and visiting the video rental shop, not something looked back on with fondness even by those who experienced it. In fact, having to suffer AM radio at all seems to have been largely forgotten.
Until about 1990, most popular music radio stations in the UK were flung out to the public on AM. Consequently, almost every pop song I heard until I was 16 first reached my ears sounding like someone had wrapped the speakers in a 12 tog duvet. I’m sure this is why I’ve never been remotely moved to debate the sound quality of an mp3, because next to AM radio, listening to even the most compressed of streaming services is like having Nick Drake perform a private concert while Vashti Bunyan gives you a foot massage. But despite its crapness, AM radio had two slightly dubious advantages.
One: when you eventually managed to buy that single you’d heard for weeks on Radio 1, it sounded much more awesome than you’d anticipated, even if your hi-fi was the cheapest Saisho model in the Dixons catalogue. It’s a little remarked-upon fact that after the superior FM (frequency modulation) took over the airwaves in the 90s, your records, cassettes and CDs ceased to sound dramatically better than the versions you’d heard on the wireless, and I’m pretty sure this is one of the reasons music’s physical sales began to decline.
Two: the ridiculously muffled sound rendered many of the songs’ words indecipherable, thus giving birth to the great Twisted Lyric game.
Oh, consider the fun we had! Scratchy radios around the country burbled out the hits of the era, and we wandered around haplessly singing the completely wrong lyrics to everything. BBC Radio 1 DJ Bruno Brookes dedicated an entire, nightly, ten-minute feature to the concept, and even had a weekly Twisted Lyric chart. Let us pause briefly to remind ourselves of some corkers:
⁃ The title line in Billy Idol’s Eyes Without A Face sounded like “how’s about a date”
⁃ The Pointer Sisters’ Jump featured the rather saucy line “if you wanna feel my kisses in the night, dear” – but in my school playground we were definitely singing “if you wannit mate, I’ll give you ’til the 19th”
⁃ “You can feel it all over” from Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke inexplicably became “Mick and Phyllis were lovers”
⁃ Lipps Inc. kicked off their classic Funky Town with the line “gotta make a move to atomic rice pudding”
⁃ In the chorus of Whitney’s How Will I Know, she confusingly told her confidante “I’m asking you ‘cos you know about bee stings”
⁃ The grand double champion was Mr Mister’s 1985 smash Broken Wings, on which not only did the verse feature the line “Baby, I don’t understand why we can’t just hop along into each other’s pants”, but the chorus – “Take these broken wings” – was an absolute dead ringer for “Jake has broken wind”.
But these days, the fun is all over. Download or stream any of the above (playlist below), and the woefully pristine sound quality will reveal the perfectly annunciated, infinitely more boring real lyrics. However, all is not lost. I’m happy to report that some twisters do stand the test of time, and there are even some new entries from beyond the AM radio era. Here are some of my personal favourites:
⁃ Robert Plant continues to open the final section of Stairway To Heaven by telling us “and there’s a wino down the road”
⁃ Desmond Dekker is certainly singing “me Israelites” on his 1969 hit, but I can’t hear anything other than “me ears are alight”
⁃ Olivia Newton-John, making one of her rare technological predictions, sings “I took you to an internet restaurant” halfway through the first verse of Physical
⁃ As pointed out by Lauren Laverne, rapper Ivy distinguishes her guest appearance on Tricky’s 2015 track Beijing To Berlin with the line “knock knock knock on me Chalfonts”, in an unlikely nod to the clutch of Buckinghamshire villages
⁃ Seek out the closing track on Eurythmics’ 1983 album Touch, and hear Annie Lennox sing “Paint a rumour… pass the colours, Fred”
⁃ Bryan Ferry wraps up the final verse of his John Lennon tribute Jealous Guy by singing “I was swallowing my pen”
⁃ Three-time Mercury nominees Everything Everything claim that the lyrics of their debut single Suffragette Suffragette are “cos you’re gonna sit on the fence when I’m gone”, but I’m almost certain they’re really singing “who’s a-gonna sit on your face when I’m gone”.
Hearing the genuine lyrics? Overrated. May those heroically mumbling singers continue to be gloriously misunderstood.
Every book I write begins with a playlist. Not to listen to while I write, but – using the technical term – to get the right vibe. Each song doesn’t have to be historically appropriate, it just has to contain something that informs the writing I’m about to do. Naturally I add to, and subtract from, the list as I go.
Since my first novel The Alternative Hero was written, creating playlists has become a somewhat easier task. Now I can make lists that are six hours long without having to leave my seat. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is moot; there was a commitment level to which one had to subscribe in the old days, ripping music off CDs, sometimes recording off vinyl, downloading bits and pieces. Recipients of my Felix Romsey’s Back To Mine mix”tape” may have noticed a few of these methods creeping in (a necessity: Spotify doesn’t have everything!) but in general I can’t deny that streaming has sped and smoothed the process. Here, then, in (almost) full, is the music that inspired Felix Romsey’s Afterparty. And before anyone says anything: yes, I’m happy to say that many of these artists are alive and well.
Enjoy this and please share with as many people as you like.
Having just written my novel about the afterlife, I wrote in The Guardian about ten others I discovered…
So my third novel Felix Romsey’s Afterparty was officially launched last night at the very wonderful Mario’s Cafe in London’s famous Kentish Town. Many thanks to all who came down, especially to my awesome readers Damian Samuels, Jan Hewitt, Nick Coates, Guy Whittaker and of course our MC Michael Ogden.
I might have finished with a song or two…
The book is now out and can be bought from:
Thanks to Nick Coates for the pic.
We’re late. We land on time, but travelling around with a team of eight dudes and twenty pieces of luggage means you’re hardly the nimblest of movers, especially through customs. From hitting the tarmac to us emerging from the terminal into snowy Russia it’s well over two hours, but hey, at least we’ve nothing important to do. Like appearing on a late-night TV show watched regularly by 100 million people.
Oh yes. The good people at Вечерний Ургант (Evening Urgant), Russia’s answer to Kimmel/Fallon/Colbert etc, have invited us to rock up and blast through “Looking Too Closely” as the end credits roll, but with each anxious phonecall to our liaison Almira they’re probably beginning to wish they hadn’t bothered. A one-hour delay becomes 90 minutes, becomes two hours, becomes two and a half. It’s rush hour, and Moscow is one hell of a big place. As a Londoner and as someone who has visited Tokyo, I have respect for very big cities. I eye the little blue dot on Google Maps, simultaneously marvelling and seething at quite how slowly it’s moving, even when our fur-hatted driver manages to floor it along a relatively empty road for a few moments. Almira receives another frantic call. Due to lack of time, can we cut down to one drummer? I glance at our second drummer Nicky and we glumly nod our consent. Guy our bassist grins at me, as only he can grin. “The rest of us can decide which drummer we use, right?”
In the end, the magic of urgency comes to our rescue. We pile into the TV studio – a BBC-type affair with a slightly disappointing lack of things to laugh at – hurl our instruments at the stage and before we know it, I’m pretty much clicking my sticks in our singer Fin’s general direction and we’re live. “This is a song about somebody else,” Fin sings, to the populations of Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Vladivostok and – in all likelihood – Minsk and Bishkek. To supermarket shelf-stackers in Smolensk, primary-school teachers in Rostov, Arctic fishermen in Arkhangelsk, nuclear scientists in Kol’skaya and goatheaders outside Irkutsk tuning in live from their yurt. Four minutes later we’re done, and we’re thirsty, and it’s a Thursday night, and we’re in goddam Moscow.
They say Moscow’s a city where you can get anything you want. Well, whenever I appear on television, I have this bizarre craving afterwards for a caviar-covered hamburger with a gold-leaf bun. Another of our Russian liaisons, Vitaly, knows just the place. We’re whisked across central Moscow to his friend’s restaurant Burger Heroes, and duly plied with ice-cold beer and strange Russian takes on the great American meaty snack. Nigel our monitor man has his topped with cherries, Chris our guitarist chooses smoked onions and chocolate, Guy goes for, um, bacon and cheese, while tour manager Simon and myself get our laughing gear around the curious gold’n’caviar combo which rolls in halfway between an opulent dessert and a gaudy Fabergé bauble. We demolish all the food and beer in sight, poke our heads round the corner at a freezing Red Square, and then our first day in Moscow is finally declared over.
It’s odd, being in the same place as an international news event. I was in Hollywood one year at Oscar time, and the helicopter taking aerial shots of the red carpet was the same helicopter I could hear buzzing around outside our apartment window. Today, waking up in the hotel and flicking the TV to BBC World, the concerned-looking Moscow correspondent stands a couple of hundred yards from where I’d stood last night, just outside the Kremlin, feeling the same cold and trudging the same snow. So far on this trip no one’s mentioned the “escalating diplomatic crisis” between the UK and Russia. Downstairs in the lobby, I try it out on Vitaly. He shrugs amiably, muttering that he might have seen something “on page eight or nine of the newspaper.”
He’s inadvertently summed it up perfectly: no one cares. We’re here to play music. We receive nothing but warmth from the people on this trip, and nowhere does this feel more tangible than at the shows we play. First up is Moscow’s Arbat Hall, a generously proportioned ballroom with a disco ceiling and a thumping festival stage. We’ve never played a show in Russia before, and ticket reports have been sketchy. Who will show up? One hundred, two hundred people? The doors open at 8pm and six hundred very cold people stream into the room. We hit the stage, and the reaction is volcanic: the product of ten years spent not visiting a country, but putting out albums which increase the anticipation in the meantime. The audience sing along with every word. Smiles are everywhere. One fan holds aloft a white Fink T-shirt for practically the whole show. Another has a banner on which they’ve painted “The world needs more Finks.” Have you any idea how great that feels? Trust me: it feels very great.
But after the warmth must come the coldth. From this hot two-hour gig we head to the freezing but wonderfully named Leningradsky Station for the night train to St Petersburg. Depth of temperature aside, and with the benefit of writing this in my cosy kitchen in Hackney, the night train experience is actually rather short on anecdote. The train departs and arrives on time, the cabins are clean and warm, the carriage is quiet, the guard isn’t a chain-smoking alcoholic nutter, and if the train does possess a packed bar where dangerous amounts of vodka are being merrily knocked back, we don’t find it. A perfectly sensible way for us to get about, then, but at the risk of tempting fate for our next visit, I could handle a touch more of the crazy.
St Petersburg I’ve visited before as a tourist, and for those who haven’t, it’s definitely all it’s cracked up to be: a beautifully designed festival of lavish churches, vast palaces and evocative plains of frozen river. It’s closer to the vibe of Helsinki or Copenhagen than Moscow or Kiev, and the venue for our show, fittingly, is the kind of well-worn indie rock theatre we’re used to playing in places like Antwerp and Leipzig, with the added bonus of a smoking section like a movie crack den. Our promoter Sergey is one of those heroes who’s managed to carve himself our a career in an uncertain, developing musical territory, and we take to him immediately, not least because of the kick-ass stage team he’s managed to assemble. He has also, for our dressing room, purchased the strongest mustard in the history of mustard, and some incredibly weird but delicious soft meringues with an apricot filling that, conveniently for me, almost everyone else in our touring party thinks are horrible.
The St Petersburg show is another stirring experience: over five hundred brilliantly attentive and appreciative punters abandon their warm apartments for a cold trip to see a band they’ve never seen play before, and we feel like newly-crowned kings, again. In a café around the corner before the show, Fin, Chris and myself meet two girls and a guy who’ve come all the way from the Urals, in Central Russia, to see us. That’s two thousand kilometres. Another friend of ours, Ariel, has come from Kiev, and she also saw us last night in Moscow. These things hit you, hard, in an endlessly pleasant and humbling way. We blast through the show, nail a vodka, and reluctantly pack up. I can safely say that all eight of us wish the trip were longer, perhaps took in a couple more cities, and we long for a return trip, if we’re lucky. But for now, Fink’s debut mission to Russia has been a freezing but gloriously warm success.
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For all his adult life, my dad has kept a diary. The entries are brief, but it’s a diary nonetheless: the key ingredients of his day, presented without analysis or reflection, consistently, for the last sixty-odd years. Sometimes instalments can be as simple as: “Went to work, had meetings, lost at squash”, but they’ve been enough to settle family debates about, say, how long we lived in a certain house, or which year we went on that sailing holiday. As the spaces are necessarily uniform in size, the entries are no more detailed or expressive when events of a (you’d hope) greater significance occurred: the day I was born, for example, is recorded along the lines of: “Went to work, had meetings, lost at squash, wife gave birth to son.”
There’s something beautiful about a diary. Reading someone’s thoughts from years ago can be almost spooky, like a time machine. Some diarists don’t ever return to their old journals, while some do, with mixed feelings. Miles Hunt of The Wonder Stuff, a diarist prodigious enough to publish three volumes of his own, tells me a recurring realisation is “how little I appear to have learned in life” – but then, any fan of his songs will know he’s always been a sharp self-critic.
I’ve tried many times to keep a diary. But even one as simple as my father’s requires discipline: those few quiet moments at the end of each day when you’re neither stressed-out, drunk nor putting your child back to bed for the tenth time. Being a talkative sort of chap I find it hard to summarise my day in just a sentence, so usually I attempt the long-form version, where I try to explain all my gadding about in entertaining prose. This is fun – for about four days (usually January 1st – 4th). Then I miss a day. Then another. Nothing makes the heart sink like having to write those brain-thumpingly dull words, “It’s been a few days since my last entry… lots to catch up on!” Ugh. Shoot me now.
Because, let’s be honest, there usually isn’t an awful lot to write about. One of the ironies of diary-keeping is that during the really interesting times, we’re probably too busy or tired to record them properly. And yet, the great diarists have always carved out a moment to do so. Alan Clark, whose diaries(regardless of one’s opinion of his politics or personality) are fascinating and hilarious, records in meticulous detail the hectic days leading up to Thatcher’s downfall, when he must have been dashing about, gossiping and backstabbing with the rest. The answer is obvious: some sort of reward is needed. Clark must have known they’d be published eventually; on dull days, the thought that he was effectively writing a hire-purchase autobiography must have spurred him on. But other, less mercenary rewards exist. Some people find diaries help to order their thoughts, make sense of tough events, even to make decisions. The sound artist Scanner, a scarily consistent diarist (“500 words a day in a hardbound Moleskine diary since the age of 12, always in fountain pen, never a day missed even when I’m on a plane to Australia”), tells me “writing them is a step towards releasing the ‘stuff’ from the day,” adding firmly, “I’ve no intention of ever sharing them with anyone else.”
Admirable. So why can’t I do it, then? The only time I’ve successfully kept a diary was when I lived in Copenhagen for a few months in 2000, and that was because I was a) bored and b) miserable, and on balance I’d prefer not being bored and miserable to keeping a diary. The truth is: although I consider myself more disciplined and less superficial than these current times, I’m really just as fickle, attention-seeking and in need of instant gratification as anyone, and if I write anything more involved than a shopping list it’s always with the faintest feeling that one day someone else might read it, and no one’s going to want to read my diaries unless I become enormously famous, and even then it’d be years before anyone would be arsed to publish them. Oh… if only there was some kind of invention that let us record daily activities and thoughts for the public at large to view instantly.
Yup – I’m going there. In its own frivolous and slightly annoying way, I’ve actually been keeping a diary (*checks date I joined Twitter*) since February 2009. I know all that stuff about mainstream social media being old hat, and the evil empires owning all my personal information, and I’m not ecstatic about it either, but social media can be a diary too, and quite a good one. Entries can be a little oblique, for sure, but there’s a certain poetry to posts like: “Tube strike = muppets on the bus” and “Strange discovery of the day: I enjoy painting skirting boards.” Delving back, I can tell I was happy in November 2011 (“German yoghurts are awesome”) and that I was angry in April 2016 (“Piss off you Brexit twats with your Obama hashtag bullshit”). It doesn’t possess quite the user-friendly immediacy of my dad’s, but with a little detective work you can tell I was in Holland on April 28, 2013 (“Just discovered that The BFG is called De GVRhere”), that I was on tour in Italy on January 28, 2015 (“I’ve been stood next to a petrol station for the last 2 hours with nothing but a 2000 year old aqueduct to look at”) and, should it be debated, I can pinpoint that 2010 is the year we held a big outdoor birthday party (“You know you’ve grown up when there’s a bouncy castle in the garden… and you’ve hired it”). Oh, there’s laughter (“My follower count goes up and down like a horny Yorkshire terrier at a ladies’ coffee morning”), there’s TMI (“Coffee always makes me want to do number 2s”), and, predictably, there’s much futile musical observation (“One day I’m going to pay a musicologist to calculate the exact distance between Neil Diamond and Richard Hawley”). All in all a fascinating experience, and every bit as entertaining as the “genuine” diary I once managed, which is mostly me complaining about having to get up at 3am to deliver Danish newspapers.
Just wait. It won’t be long until entire books are compiled from people’s tweets. Actually, this has happened already: bookseller Simon Key’s We’re Asleep Dad is based entirely on his parenting posts, and very funny it is too, but I’m hoping for A Year In The Tweets Of Boring Roadie or – if a publisher can handle the swear-count – The Collected Tweets Of John Niven. As a social document, they’ll be studying it in the year 2300 as we now study Samuel Pepys, you mark my words.
Conversations can continue on Twitter @timwthornton