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. In this second post in our ‘4 Tracks’ series, Philip Hoare writes of a youth hewn by music, and the elemental nature of song.
David Bowie, ‘Heroes’ (RCA)
‘I come from an age of heroic, serious music, for heroic, serious people. When every nuance signified, and the type face on an album cover could change your life. Growing up in a provincial suburb in the seventies, when almost nothing was available, I got my alternative education from Bowie. For a crucial period in his life, and mine, from 1973 to 1980, I become locked into the world as he saw it: glamorous, dystopian, subversive, gender-challenging. To me, his ‘Heroes’ came as a culmination in that process, one which shaped me. It was only the latest part of a long sequence of his work – it seems insufficient to merely call it ‘music’ – which overturned my life. Like him, I wished I could swim like dolphins could swim. I still do.
Benjamin Britten, ‘Sea Interludes’ from Peter Grimes (Decca)
And like all suburban children gone to the bad, I identified with outcasts. A more recent discovery has been Benjamin Britten, the gay pacifist who was disowned by his country, yet who wrote the music which defined it for the mid-century. Britten channelled the sea throughout his work, personified in its own outcasts, from Peter Grimes to Billy Budd. Their lives entwined with the sea, itself a symbol of Britten’s own attempt to escape, as well as of sensual longing. I saw the semi-staged Billy Budd at the Proms in 2013, an experience which to me was as emotionally monumental as seeing Bowie as the Thin White Duke on his Station to Station tour in 1976.
That longing between worlds induces something in spite of its reality. The sea has become my other reality; it seems to course through all my work, in the same way that I enter it every day. (At four am this morning, under a full blue moon). Music, like the water, doesn’t really exist. One is something in the air, conducted between us, the other is only a liquid gas, caught between land and sky. Both invite our investment, our dreams.
Joy Division, ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Factory)
Artists like Bowie and Britten transcend their fragile, flawed selves, to create something greater than them. Ian Curtis, whom I saw perform with Joy Division many times – often carried off stage, having danced himself into an epileptic fit – actually seemed to enter an altered state before our eyes. ‘Love Will Tear Us Part’ is the perfect pop song, but it too is an illusion, and is one of the darkest celebrations of attachment, and detachment. Its anthemic power – which of course subverts the notion of an anthem in the same way William Blake’s words undermine ‘Jerusalem’ – was also evoked for me a decade later by Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Being Boring’.
Pet Shop Boys, ‘Being Boring’ (Parlophone)
No modern song has made me ache so. Neil Tennant’s lyrics seemed to write my life: an entire autobiography in a few lines. They evoke that yearning for unattainable glamour; the life you might have led.
I never listen to music when I write. Thanks to the perpetual ringing in my ear – as if it were constantly pressed to a seashell, the legacy of my first career, in indie music – working for Virgin Records and Rough Trade in the early 1980s, and managing bands such as the Pale Fountains and Max – I can no longer listen with purity or comfort. As the Buzzcocks would say, noise annoys. Because of that, a snatch of a lost song stays with me for days, powerfully, in the way any chord or lyric can launch you into memory, perhaps even the memory of something you never experienced. It is the ultimate fantasy, and the final delusion. (No wonder the sense of sound is the last to leave us). It stops and starts me thinking, taking me down the same kind of hole that a search engine does. And because of that, sometimes I get confused between what’s real or make-believe, to quote Bryan Ferry. The other day I walked past the radio and heard a voice which I thought was mine. It was Bowie, talking from 1976. A ghost of myself. When you are young, there is nothing more important than music. That’s another reason why I never listen to it nowadays.’
Words by Philip Hoare
Leviathan is out now.
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