In my defense, I’ve always had a thing for cellos, so I was always going to be a sucker for this song. But R.E.M.’s “At My Most Beautiful” came into my life (via the Up album, I guess) at a time when I was that sad boy whose girlfriend was overseas studying and receiving homemade tapes filled with overly emotional music all of which had deep emotional meaning that wasn’t exactly hidden to anyone with ears, and so, of course it went on one of those tapes, probably between something from Big Star’s Third album and, God knows, an Oasis b-side or whatever else I was listening to at the time.
That’s not the reason I’m bringing this song to light, however. No, for that, you have to jump forward a few months and the girlfriend is back in town and we’ve split up, and “At My Most Beautiful” is about to be released as a single. I’m lying on my bed, reading the NME or the Melody Maker review of the single and it’s as cutting and cruel as the song deserves (Really, this is a horribly sentimental, rather dull song at heart, lovely cello moment aside) and in the review, there’s a line along the lines of “This song is so bad, the only people who’ll find any value in it are sad boys lying in their bedrooms making up mix tapes for girlfriends who are overseas” or the like. Something that literally described me.
I read that line and blushed, embarrassed at being so predictable, so obvious, and thought to myself, “I can never tell anyone about this. Ever.”
Apparently, more than a decade later, I’m a little bit better at laughing at myself.
R.E.M.’s Monster came out on the day that I was moving from Greenock back to Aberdeen for the second year of my art school career; I was going to be living in a house in the middle of the countryside, and so I made a point of getting up early before I even packed up for the four hour drive between hometowns to buy the album, and spent the entire drive wishing that I could play the album in the car and hear all of those great songs that were almost definitely as good and catchy as the lead-off single “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”.
(Almost twenty years later, I still think that “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” is a great single; it’s ridiculously catchy and sounds just off enough that you can’t help but pay attention when you hear it. I remember hearing it for the first time, back when I was a massive R.E.M. fan and couldn’t quite believe that they were really doing a “rock” record again after Out of Time and Automatic For The People, and thinking “That wasn’t what I was expecting, but I definitely want to hear a lot more!”)
When I arrived and unpacked the car in Aberdeen, the first thing I did was plug in my CD player and eagerly put the new album on, excited to listen to the whole thing as I tried to make this new house into somewhere I could imagine spending the next nine months. With each successive track, I got more and more worried about the… saminess, I guess, the aural sludge that felt like it bogged down the album, the lack of focus and even more worrying, the lack of tunes. This wasn’t what I had wanted, and felt like it was a bad omen for how the year ahead and the new place were going to turn out (Spoiler: It may have been, considering). But when “Star 69” came on, I stopped what I was doing and just listened, and then hit repeat, and listened to it again, and again.
I’m not sure what it was about this song that stood out so much: The riff? The echoed vocals? The way that the song seems to almost take a breath before the guitar solo? Maybe all of that, and more, but this wasn’t like the rest of the album, and gave me an idea that, okay, maybe my musical heroes of the time had let me down, but they weren’t entirely out of ideas just yet. The myth of the musical comeback was born in me with this song, I think.
Like many white people of a particular generation, Out of Time by R.E.M. was a particularly important album for me, and I can remember the mix of disappointment and frustration that accompanied the release of “Drive,” the first single from the follow-up album, Automatic For The People. Almost willfully downbeat and anti-radioplay-friendly, “Drive” wasn’t the comeback song that the eighteen year old me I was at the time hoping for, and I remember forcing myself to listen to it over and over again, convinced that it would have hidden charms that I was too dumb to fully comprehend immediately, and I just had to find them. I’d sit there with the song on repeat, the first CD I’d ever bought for myself (I’d just received my first CD player for my birthday, as I remember), listening to it over and over and thinking “Come on, song, make sense for me, please,” with the most enjoyment I could wring out of it being the three-note coda at the very end of the song that always made me sing along in my head “Arr, Eee, Emmm….”
(Somewhat ironically, I like it a lot more now than I did then, in part because it makes me think of the album as a whole now, and it works much better in that context. So maybe that was all I needed; the rest of Automatic For The People. Belated thanks, R.E.M.!)
Another song that was playing during a particularly surreal split with a girlfriend. Cut to – what, 1997, maybe 1998? Whatever year that the second album by Ben Folds Five (Whatever And Ever Amen) came out – and I’m in bed with my girlfriend as we watched The Chart Show, the Saturday morning chart show that soundtracked so many beginnings of weekends back then. Somehow, this song (which both of us liked, and found ourselves looking forward to, I remember) brought up the fact that we weren’t really going anywhere as a couple, and that maybe we should call it a day. Sticking with the apathetic tone of the song’s lyrics, the split at that point was surprisingly amiable and agreeable, some kind of “Hey, so this is what we’re doing, I guess? Okay, I suppose that’s okay” from both of us that, hours later, we were telling friends with a tone of “Did we actually have that conversation?” somewhere mixed in.
Within a week, everything had become drama and tears and shouting, of course. Maybe the calming qualities of Ben Folds should’ve been deployed in all of our conversations for some time afterwards, as a matter of safety and sanity-preservation.
Another Ruby-related memory: In Barcelona in… what, 1996, I guess? A school trip, and through some unlikely magic, we’re there at the same time as Ruby doing a European tour. One of our number was related to Ruby’s management, and a couple of phone calls later, we’re on the guest-list and we wander across town, no idea where we’re going to try and find the venue in time. The show was short but wonderful, as crunchy and grumpy as this song might suggest, and we triumphantly march backstage when it’s done, only to find that the band are already on the bus and on their way to wherever they’re staying that night. Not knowing what else to do, complimentary champagne was stolen and we wandered back through the city, lost and not caring if we’d find the hotel we were staying at that night, feeling young and invincible.
(“Tiny Meat” was another single where the remix was better than the original version. I actually really like the original still – That’s it up there – but much prefer this remix by Mark Walk, the band’s regular producer, just because it sounds as if he did it just to mess with the levels of whatever you were using to play it back. Dig the distortion!)
Ruby were the Garbage that no-one ever remembers, a band that deserved better than the lack of success they enjoyed and one that feels particularly evocative to me for a few reasons/memories. After enjoying their debut single – That’d be this one, “Paraffin” – I was given their first album by a friend and promptly never got around to listening to it until a girlfriend/not girlfriend came to visit and decided that she had to hear what all the fuss was about. It was an October weekend, and we were sitting in my bedroom in the apartment I was staying in at the time, half-listening to this album and talking about our future when it became very obvious that we didn’t have one; I remember, still, the feeling of sadness and both of us trying not to say the obvious thing we were both thinking about, while simultaneously thinking “This album is much better than I would’ve thought.”
For weeks after, I wanted to listen to the album again, but couldn’t quite do it, convinced that there was some bad juju involved, that it was filled with bad magic because the first time I’d heard it was during a break-up of sorts.
(One of the reasons why I’d loved the “Paraffin” single so much was this remix of the song by Red Snapper, which was much jazzier, and just plain lovely. This is the reason that I wish Ruby had been given the success Garbage enjoyed, so things like this would’ve found a much wider audience:)
“Black Steel” wasn’t the first Tricky track that I’d heard, nor the first Public Enemy cover, but it was the first of both that made me, on first listen, pretty much jump up from my chair and wonder what the fuck was I listening to, and make me wish I could rewind the live TV in front of me (Oh, TiVo, if only you’d existed twenty years earlier). I was entranced, astounded and decided that I would buy the album as soon as I had the chance, which would have to be after the weekend I was going to spend at a friend’s parents as part of a… birthday party, I think? Maybe I’m mixing up reasons and events in my brain. Nevertheless, on one incomplete hearing, “Black Steel” stayed playing in my brain for the three hours or so it took me to get to said friend’s parents’ house, a continual loop of my memory’s version of the song with me knowing that it was completely lacking the… what, the synthetic passion of the arrangement, the detached disdain of the vocals, the way it felt different from everything else I was listening to at the time? All of that, perhaps.
I got to the friends’, and asked if anyone else knew the song or listened to Tricky and was given the kind of response you’d expect from the Britpop-centric crowd we were that day (which is to say, “Tricky who? Isn’t he one of those Trip-Hop people?”). For the next two days, in amongst real life, the riff played in my head at low volume. I bought the album soon after, and realized that I didn’t even like the song that much in comparison with everything else on there.
A surreally strong musical memory was hearing a Radio 1 DJ go from “Supernatural Giver” by proto-Britpop band Kinky Machine (If nothing else, their single covers were Menswear’s aesthetic about three years early, right down to an identical font) to T-Rex’s “Children of the Revolution” as if they were one song, just letting “Giver” end and the chug-chug of “Children” start as if it was some weird, awesome coda to the last song. I can remember really clearly sitting at the desk in my bedroom, trying to study for some upcoming exam and being… distracted wasn’t the word; I couldn’t concentrate on work at that moment because there was something about the obvious connection between the new song and the old song, the way they sounded related, the way that the T-Rex song didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before (Maybe I’d heard “Get It On” before this, but I’m not sure, to be honest) and I thought “I need to listen to more glam rock. This is what pop music should sound like.”
It wasn’t the power of one song or the other. It was the power of the moment where the two crossed over, if that makes sense.
“Right Here Right Now” was the exclusive soundtrack to my grieving process for my dead grandmother. I say it like that, quasi-sarcastically, out of defensiveness for the subject and everything around it, but this song was genuinely one of the few things that gave me some break from the confusion and sadness that I fell into after my father’s mother died in… 1991, I guess it must have been? Again with the missing the point of the lyrics – This is, after all, a relatively optimistic if painfully sincere and worthy song – but there was something about it that matched the fragile feeling I was wearing at the time, as much as that embarrasses the post-hipster me I am now to admit. It wasn’t even a single or anything at the time in the UK; I’d hear it so much because it was big in the US, and I wasn’t sleeping and so saw a lot of the imported America’s Top 10 chart shows that’d play at 2:30 in the morning. But there was something about this song, insomnia and sadness that fit together too well at the time for me.
(I also liked other Jesus Jones songs, for my sins, but we might get to that later.)
There’s a moment in everyone’s life, if they’re doing it right and being lucky, when someone unexpected will come along and go “That thing you’re into that you didn’t think anyone else was, and you were totally alone? I like it too” and change everything. Not just whatever the topic of that particular lonely obsession might’ve been, but the idea that someone will understand and get whatever you’re into, and you just have to find them. “Cannonball” by the Breeders was that thing for me, and the person who said “Have you heard this song by this American band…?” in such a you-probably-haven’t-it’s-weird-never-mind tone of voice was that person who, without knowing it, told me it was okay to not be into everything everyone I knew at school was.