As part of our music-themed month on the blog, we’ve been asking our authors to talk us through four songs that have in some way shaped their writing. Lee Rourke’s selections are as innovative and forward-thinking as his novels, taking in political hip-hop, Madchester goofiness, uncompromising post-punk and minimal rock ‘n roll.
Public Enemy, ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ (Def Jam)
‘I’ll never get over how good this track is and the influence it had on me when I first heard it as young teenager in Manchester. I’d never heard anything quite like it before: that screeching, repetitive, looping sample from The J.B’s ‘The Grunt’ for a start, and that instantly recognisable beat taken from James Brown’s ‘The Funky Drummer’ (the blueprint for all Hip Hop), the BPM upped a few notches because PE thought Hip Hop before them to be too slow. It tore into me, like a deranged siren calling me in, and I was immediately hooked. I quickly realised that it was its own discordance which woke me up, the fact that it didn’t sound perfect, things seemed purposely broken (Chuck D’s political lyrics echo this premise). It helped me to realise that such studied imperfections reached a place beyond there mere perfect. It was too important for perfection. I remember a group of us went to see Public Enemy when they played the Apollo in Manchester I think around 1988 – we were all in baggy clothes (we were all young Haçienda freaks) and stood out like a sore thumb, but it didn’t matter. It was a wild gig: I had my baseball cap stolen by some kid from Moss Side, gangs were fighting before and after the gig, people were pissing everywhere because they couldn’t get to the toilets. Public Enemy themselves seemed like they had just landed from the planet Zog. It was electrifying. ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ still gives me goosebumps when I listen to it today.
Happy Mondays, ‘Tart Tart’ (Factory)
This was recorded in 1986. It makes me brim with Mancunian pride these days: when the rest of the country was still growing wild hair, wearing shoulder pads, and jumping around to Kajagoogoo and Culture Club this is what was happening in Manchester, and it couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to popular culture at that time if it tried. Something that resonates deeply with me. I remember my cousin mentioning them one day at some family function (his sister, Karen, one third of Central Station Design designed the cover art for all of the Monday’s records), he was a lot cooler than me and I was right on it. I remember going to Eastern Bloc Records in Manchester and buying their first album Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic Face Carnt Smile (White Out). The deliberate misspelling of ‘Can’t’ into the Manc ‘Carnt’ sent shivers of both two-fingered pride and horror through me. It was just before the whole ‘Madchester’ scene exploded and I remember feeling very cool clutching my record on the bus back home. Just like Anthony H Wilson, I truly believe Shaun Ryder to be one of the greatest lyricists ever. Pure instinct, but he also knew how to intertextualise, weaving in other songs and snippets of lyrics to create a poetic montage of influence I would argue fosters a strange kind of art: Postmodern without the ‘knowing’ nod and wink to the listener – which would otherwise destroy it.
The Fall, ‘Repetition’ (Secret Records)
The Fall aren’t my favourite band and Mark E Smith still annoys me from time to time – but all can be forgiven (even the fact that he’s one of the bitterest of Bitter Blues) because the man is a complete and utter genius. This track sums up everything that I think art is, and should be. ‘We dig repetition,’ wails Mark E Smith, ‘repetition, repetition, repetition’ like his life depends on it. The Fall, named after Camus’ novella, seem to understand, like the best artists and theorists, the power of repetition in everything, echoing our daily lives. It took me a long, long time to begin to appreciate The Fall, I had friends who were obsessed with them from the very beginning, and I was also friends at university with possibly the most obsessed Mark E Smith fan I’ve ever encountered, but it didn’t really take me until I was in my mid-thirties to fully understand them. I group The Fall in with the writers I was reading at that time, who helped to shape the writer I am today: Bergson, Blanchot, Heidegger, and Robbe-Grillet – all of them awkward buggers, which is quite fitting really.
Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, ‘Roadrunner’ (Rhino)
‘Roadrunner’ is my all-time favourite song, I think. I based a whole novel on this song. Here’s what I said at the time about it for Book Notes in 2010 (There’s nothing else I can say): ‘It’s a song about what it means to be young behind the wheel of a car: a perfect machine that you can drive through the city at night ‘going faster miles an hour’, ‘past the Stop ‘n’ Shop/ with the radio on.’ For Richman, the song was his paean to Route 128 just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. So much so he re-recorded many versions (there are at least ten versions), constantly updating the lyrics. Throughout all of these versions of the same song he name-checks many of the sights along and around Route 128: Boston harbour, the Prudential Tower, Deer island and the Mass Pike, et cetera – a constant list of things passing him by as he drives along the road without much direction, just listening to the radio waiting for nothing in particular. For me there is a real tension in the song, like something bad is going to happen, like he is going to crash, or suffer some other catastrophe. In spite of this, I think the lyrics read like some sort of abstract never-ending poem:’
‘I’m in love with Massachusetts / And the neon when it’s cold outside / And the highway when it’s late at night / Got the radio on / I’m like the roadrunner / Alright I’m in love with modern moonlight / 128 when it’s dark outside / I’m in love with Massachusetts / I’m in love with the radio on / It helps me from being alone late at night / It helps me from being lonely late at night / I don’t feel so bad now in the car / Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on / Like the roadrunner / That’s right.’
Words by Lee Rourke
Vulgar Things is out now.
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