As a child, my musical taste (actually, that makes my cultural taste in general) was heavily influenced by my older sister. She has a few years on me, which is why when she was a tall teenager for her age and I was a puny 12-year-old, she maintained an undisputed monopoly on the rights to both the television channel we watched and the family record player.
This was at a time when the citizens of the UK had a choice of just three TV channels. And, even more unlikely, dear reader, you had to get up from your chair to press a button on the box itself to ‘turn around’. The remote control was an unimaginable leap into science fiction for most people. Not for my sister, mind you. The remote for my sister was me.
A youth from the 70s
This meant that for most of the 1970s I was on a regular TV diet of Top of the Pops (good), Screen test and Blue Peter (variable), and The white horses (not good – not good at all; although it was preceded by that other French TV chapter during the school holidays The flashing bladewho made things right.)
It also meant I was a (not entirely reluctant) expert on 1970s musical delights like The Carpenters, T-Rex, Sweet, Mudd, The Bay City Rollers, Diana Ross, David Cassidy, and Demis Roussos. (Showaddywaddy, I admit now, I found it myself.)
I don’t blame her. I have a lot of affection for most of these artists, and my sister’s mostly benign influence at least means I can claim I was an Abba fan about 20 years before society considered such things acceptable. Albeit a secret Abba fan for a long time.
For most of my teenage years, I got my music thirdhand. It meant my taste was conservative (little c – not Jerusalem and Land of hope and glory), but it made life a lot easier. And by the way, I didn’t know any better – see Showaddywaddy above.
Go on a journey of discovery
However, there came a time when I had to leave on my own; my sister went to college. And with that, she unknowingly opened Pandora’s box.
My friends, of course, liked ‘real’ music; and I infected myself. Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Stranglers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley all became more and more familiar to my uneducated ear.
Then I came across Lou Reed’s Transformerabout 10 years after it was released.
And I was transfixed. From the shocking beginning of the LP, Meanup to and including the lingering last number Good night ladieshere was a piece of work that, to 16-year-old me, just hung together with mesmerizing perfection.
(As a side note, and looking back from this distant and oh so very different future, I now realize that one of the essential components in what was a life-changing experience was the fact that I was listening to this new music on vinyl.
I just couldn’t have loved it half as much if I could have skipped the record on a whim and without thinking. It’s a much, much better experience listening to the album as a whole. Even now, 40 years later, when one song ends, I sing the opening line of the next. As much as I appreciate and enjoy streaming and digital music, for me it has taken away one of the greatest joys of listening to an album as a whole.)
Side one has what are rightly considered to be Reed’s big hitters. The sublime (if overplayed now) Perfect day is followed two tracks later by Walk on the Wildside – the classic song that drew me to the album in the first place.
However, it’s side two that I really love: the languid, seedy numbers flow from one to the next in a steamy New York nightclub atmosphere, superbly produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson. There isn’t a track I don’t like, but Satellite of love, Phone conversation in New Yorkand Good night ladies have a special place in my heart.
However, what made it extra special for the musically naive teen was that I had found it Transformer on my own. No sibling input required. And it opened up a whole world of music I hadn’t appreciated before, starting with The Velvet Underground, but continuing through David Bowie, The Doors, Van Morrison and the like, leading me all the way to the questionable taste in music I hold today. Without it, I hate to think what I would subject myself and my family to.
And then, in a rare phone conversation (in suburban London) with my sister about a week after I bought the album – and thus about 50 plays on the record – as I excitedly told her about my new find, she revealed that she had stumbled upon it almost exactly at the same time as her friends.
Well, that might be – but it wouldn’t wash with me: Transformer was mine – and it changed my musical outlook forever.
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