Life on Mars - David Bowie Beckwithshaw Village Hall 1972. It's the last year of primary school. I get invited to a party by a girl in my class. She's sharing it with her brother, who's one year older than us and at an all-boys' school. That means there will be 3 boys there for every girl. Brilliant. I'm wearing my favourite dress. It’s black with a white collar and a large-scale print of scarlet cherries. It's a little bit BIBA, though I haven't visited BIBA quite yet, so I only know this retrospectively. I dance with three boys: Jonathan, Simon and Leslie, all from the boys' school. Leslie is my favourite. He's also the coolest boy in the room. He's wearing Wrangler jeans, a Wrangler denim jacket and a purple and white flowery shirt. We dance to 'Life on Mars' by David Bowie. The whole grown-up world I've always imagined is breaking into being in the course of this one song. He asks me to walk outside with him, though we've no idea what to do when we get there. At the end of the night we swap addresses. For the next three years he writes to me, mostly about how great Mott the Hoople is and how crap Donny Osmond is. We plan to meet up, go swimming maybe, but we never do. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v--IqqusnNQ
Walk on the Wild Side - Lou Reed
It’s 1973 and, along with my big brother, I’m listening non-stop to two singles from RCA Records. One is ‘The Jean Genie’ by David Bowie and the other came out at the end of the previous year, but I still can’t get enough of it - ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ by Lou Reed.
I’m fascinated by it. I can't get over the oddness of the laconic delivery coupled with the unashamedly poppy chorus. The characters in the song – Holly, Candy, Jackie, Little Joe, Sugar Plum Fairy – come and go bewilderingly quickly in a litany of decadence and transgression: ‘shaved her legs and then he was a she’. It's all hustling, Valium and speed. I'm not sure what it all means but I'd really like to know.
Lou Reed's dead now and whilst he may not have been the world’s nicest guy (someone once said ‘there are those who like Lou Reed and those who have met him’), he is without doubt rock’s greatest storyteller. You have to forget the whole smack and black nails and Warhol carnival sometimes. He was a spectacular lyrical poet who could conjure up a whole world of sin in a single song - and make it a hit. I can think of no other song that spoke to me so enticingly of the future, right there on the cusp of adolescence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KaWSOlASWc
Heat Treatment - Graham Parker & the Rumour The awkward years between glam rock and punk rock coincide with my own awkward years and the musical pickings are thin. Everything's drowning in prog’s topographic oceans and the only counterpoint seems to be the gritty white soul and R’n’B coming out of Britain and America both: Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes Stateside and Dr Feelgood and Graham Parker & the Rumour over here. Graham Parker & The Rumour are my personal flames in the dark. They kindly play Bradford St George’s Hall on my 15th birthday in March ’77 - and again in October of the same year. I notice changes in the crowd from the spring gig to the autumn one. By October some have spikier hair and are wearing badges from the Stiff Records tour – ‘I’m here with Wreckless Eric’; 'I’m not speaking to Elvis Costello’. The band are wonderful, but the signs are already there - punk’s brutal eclipse is about to overshadow them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UluKwi9uBY
Pretty Vacant - Sex Pistols Looking back, I can see how incredibly lucky my generation was to have punk rock right there in front of us as we hit our mid-teens. I still see its influence everywhere – in music, graphics and fashion, publishing, art and on the internet; in the anyone-can-do-it attitude; the year zero morality; the take-no-prisoners subversion; the cut-ups; the deconstruction; the perpetual reinvention, the refusal to please. The end of punk, which many outsiders mistook for punk itself, was admittedly awful: Oi; Crazy Color hair; the rise of bands like Crass and all those hideous anarcho-hippies. Somehow the very worst boiled-down stereotypes endured once all the wit and mod-influenced sharpness had left the scene. But the first couple of years were just amazing. We felt to be really part of something. You saw another punk? You started a conversation. I don’t even think Pretty Vacant is the best Pistols track and the Pistols weren’t my favourite punk band either, or even my 2nd favourite, but, in the summer of ’77, when they performed this song on ‘Top of the Pops’, it was one of those moments. The crest of a wave. Punk was about to head seriously overground, but just for that moment it was still ours, within reach, with all its subversive, gleeful and unbelievably exciting power. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6GDdKrQ8EI
Land - Patti Smith Patti Smith’s debut, ‘Horses’, comes out in 1975, but I don’t really get into it till 1978. One of my brother’s friends - one who goes on to write for the NME - brings it to the house. I’m not sure I even understand it at first. It sounds so different from anything I’ve ever heard, but I keep going back for more until I get it - or most of it at any rate. Even now, all these years and many thousands of millions of listens later, I still find it mysterious. Patti very quickly becomes one of my personal icons – possibly even the greatest. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, except that she seems to offer a completely different set of possibilities for being female. She’s poetic and wild and arty and androgynous and beautiful and cool and all those things and more. Above all, though, she’s completely unapologetic and that, I think, was the biggest deal. Then, at the heart of the album, this incredible song. This really is the music that made me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWGk2R2gHEU
New Dawn Fades - Joy Division 1979. ‘Unknown Pleasures’ is released. ‘Closer’, Joy Division’s second album, follows in 1980. Both albums change my world and coincide with a period of deep melancholy. Of course, in your teens, you feel everything so strongly, because you’re feeling it as a properly independent being for the first time. And it’s not all joy, fun, discovery, lust and excitement either; the huge pressure of being fully sentient can feel very dark and sad at times. Nothing seemed to express that bleak beauty with more urgency for me then than these two albums. I'd wait ‘till everyone had gone to bed and then stretch out on the cold tiles in the back room of our house, playing one of these two albums alongside Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle' before going to bed. My first serious love affair had just come to an end and the melancholy I felt was overwhelming. Meeting that feeling head-on in music was my way through it.
Bird in Hand - Lee Perry Age 19, I start a whole new love affair with reggae (there was a boy involved too…). Punk branched off into lots of little capillaries, from psychobilly to two-tone and electro. Somehow all the energy at its centre just seemed to fizzle out. I needed something new and big enough to follow it all on with - and here it was. The David Rodigan Show on Capital Radio quickly replaced The John Peel Show on Radio One for late-night listening and a whole new world of brilliance opened up with it – Studio One and Treasure Isle; The Heptones, The Wailers, Culture, The Congos, U-Roy and I-Roy, Big Youth, Mikey Smith, Augustus Pablo, Dennis Brown and Horace Andy. One name was more compelling though than any of the others though: Lee Perry. He’s a strange and compelling genius. I’m quickly hooked and in it for the long term. Along with Patti Smith and William Blake, Lee Perry goes on to form part of the great artistic trinity of my life - my spiritual reference points. Amazing, looking back now, to think that by the age of 19 all of that was already in place.