Got My Mind Made Up I Got My Finger On The Button

I missed the 25th anniversary of In It For The Money, the Supergrass album, earlier this year — apparently, it was in April, now that I’ve thought about it enough to go check — but even just thinking about its release and where my life was at at the time has had me thinking over the last few days.

In April 1997, I was speeding towards the end of my BA course in art school, and filled with no small amount of panic about the fact. I had no real idea what I was going to do next — I’m sure that I must have already interviewed about continuing into a Masters degree by that point, but I almost certainly wouldn’t have known that I’d gotten in — and, equally, no real idea about what I was truly working towards with the final exhibition that was going to make up the majority of my final grade. That spring, I was in mild panic the entire time.

I was, however, still a music fan and someone who obsessively went to record stores every week to check out the new releases and see what was happening. I remember being into the first couple of singles from In It For The Money, and convinced with the confidence of someone who genuinely knows no better that the full album would be integral to getting my work done in a timely, successful manner. So, I bought it.

I can still remember the sheer panic I felt when going to the bank immediately afterwards and realizing that I’d accidentally spent the last of my money on the album, and wouldn’t be able to buy food as a result. I am, thankfully, far more financially solvent today, but I’ll never ever forget what that felt like; the sense of regret, of panic, and of suddenly being aware of the value of things. Or, more accurately, the lack of value of other things.

In It For The Money, ironically, didn’t even come close to living up to those first two singles. I should’ve bought some groceries instead.

And The Drop Beat Sounds Like This

I’ve been thinking about mixtapes, recently. Not in the sense that the term is currently used — I’m not about to drop my debut and reveal previously unknown skill on the mic, I’m sad to say — nor, really, in the same nostalgic sense that many have about choosing the perfect tracks and putting them in the right order, so as to convince your target audience of your desired message; instead, I’ve been thinking about the actual, physical act of making those tapes in the first place. The sitting down and building the mix, song by song, hitting record on each and every track.

(Not every mixtape had some deep message behind it, of course; I can remember making tapes for myself and others that had no meaning deeper than these songs are cool, maybe you’ll like them too and that was more than enough. Of course, plenty of that tapes I made did have ulterior motives, because that was the language we all shared and spoke, even if it was an entirely unstated agreement between us all at the time.)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the actual act of making the tapes. The fact that I’d choose the songs — taking great care to sequence them right, listening to the start of each potential new track to convince myself that it fit — with great care, and then hit the pause button to start recording in time for the song to start. I’ve been thinking about how all of this was live, which meant that any mistake — a skip in the record, the CD jumping, whatever — was part of the tape itself, and how that didn’t feel as scary then as it somehow does now, in an age of making playlists digitally with everything clean and controlled. 

There was an element of… chaos, perhaps…? An element of surrender to the process, acceptance that messiness and imperfection was part of the plan, that was central to making a mixtape back in the day. A lack of control but a comfort with that, too. I need to get my head back to that space again, I think. Sometimes a record skips; it can still sound like music.

Cheap Holidays In

Having recently watched — and, seemingly unlike many critics, really enjoyed — Danny Boyle’s Pistol, the TV adaptation of Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir of the origins of the band, I’ve been thinking about the Sex Pistols reunion of the 1990s, and what it meant at the time.

I can’t remember if the band got back together for just a couple of gigs or a full-blown tour, but I remember that whatever it was, it went under the umbrella title of Filthy Lucre as a way of deflecting and embracing the obvious criticism that it was all being done for the money.

It was, of course — me and some friends pooled our dwindling resources to buy tickets to give to my best friend at the time, who was a massive Pistols fan, and I can remember feeling at once impressed and terrified by how expensive those tickets were; this was all of the Pistols selling out by getting back together, but ensuring that they were selling their credibility for as much of your money as possible. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated,” indeed.

Traditionally, I’m cool on the idea of selling out in general: there’s usually more behind the situation than anyone else sees, and sometimes you simply have to do whatever to keep the lights on. The very idea of “selling out” feels as if it comes from people who’ve never truly worried about money, overvaluing a concept of artistic freedom they’ve made up in their minds. With the Pistols, though…

I remember there being legitimate anger at the band for doing it, for tarnishing their reputations in that kind of way. It reminds me of much of the objections to Pistol, for that matter — this notion that the Sex Pistols are somehow sacrosanct and should be deified for their role in the punk scene, instead of treated like real people. How dare they get back together, and reveal themselves as imperfect? Why couldn’t they just allow the legend that had built around them to remain unsullied?

Except that was the point, maybe even as much as the money. I remember the friend telling me, after the gig, that it was fun but also disappointing, because they could play their instruments and it felt like a regular concert. It was the final true punk move they could make: making their most devoted fans face up to the fact that they’d been jobbing musicians all along, instead of antichrists here to change the world.

And The Tenderness I Feel

My latest obsession may be a book I bought roughly a quarter of a century ago, and what my memory has done to it. It’s not the book itself — The Mystery Play, a hardcover graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Jon J. Muth that has pretty much faded from institutional memory, arguably for good reason — that’s important here, I hasten to add, but specifically the actual physical copy I bought of it, all those years ago.

(I just went and looked it up; this was all closer to 30 years back. The book came out in 1994. I’m old, now.)

I was a student at the time, and one who didn’t have a lot of money. New hardcover books weren’t something I bought on a regular basis if ever, but I was a massive Morrison fan, so the prospect of an all-new Morrison book — and painted by Muth, whose work I’d loved for years! — proved irresistible. I plunked down my money on the counter and took away the shrink wrapped copy from the local comic shop excitedly.

I remember going almost immediately to a local coffee shop, where I opened the shrink wrap nervously but excitedly, and discovered that the dustcover had one small, clean cut across the front, as if someone had sliced it open with a razor blade. I knew, on some level, that it must have been a printing defect, because the book had been shrink wrapped, but still; the cut fascinated me. Even as I read through the book, I’d pause periodically and close the book, running my finger over the cut as if it had a deeper meaning.

Remembering the book for the first time in literally decades the other week, I realized that I couldn’t recall anything about the plot of The Mystery Play, or what Muth’s art for the book looked like, but I could (and did) remember everything about that cut: the size, the placement on the dustcover, my need to repeatedly look at it, study it. My relationship with that book is, somehow, actually a relationship with that cut.

What that says about me, I don’t know nor care to find out.

It’s Brilliant, Anyway

Every July 4, I remember my first Independence Day as an American citizen, and the way in which circumstances and my bosses at the time had conspired to make sure that, not only would I actually be working that day, but that I’d lose one of my regular days off that week in addition for reasons to arcane to articulate beyond, simply, “it came down to them or me, and they chose them.”

I remember the stinging feeling at the time, the sense of injustice that I felt with such clarity and sublimated anger, about the fact that I was finally a fully-fledged, naturalized and the whole shebang, citizen of the United States of America, and yet here I was being forced to work on the biggest damn holiday of the year that wasn’t Christmas or Thanksgiving — even though, back then, I didn’t really get Thanksgiving on any emotional level. (I still don’t, not really; I’m pretty convinced it’s something you need to have grown up with in order to fully appreciate, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Looking back at it today, I feel… embarrassed, perhaps…? about the whole thing, and how self-righteous I was in my upset. How naive I was, too, in being surprised that a decision had been made to put me to work instead of others sacrificing their own time off, and how self-centered it was to think that my first July 4th as an American citizen meant anything to anyone that wasn’t me. It’s something I go back to in my head periodically, as a reminder to keep myself in check and try to keep a sense of perspective about whatever’s happening to me: do you really want this to happen again? and so on.

I didn’t realize it at the time, and wouldn’t for a few years, but thinking about it now, being forced to work on a day you want to spend as a vacation, and being reminded that your bosses are your bosses and not your friends feels like a central part of the American experience, sadly. It was, if nothing else, unfortunately fitting.

Happy Independence Day.

Making Plans For The Holidays

I was reminded, via a random tweet recently, about a Christmas tradition from my childhood that I’d entirely forgotten about, and which feels as if it recasts the Christmases I’d experienced then, compared with how I remember them today.

Back in the day, my family would know that the holiday season was officially underway by the fact that the Christmas Radio Times and TV Times had been released; as the names almost suggest, both magazines were filled with television listings for the next week or so for different channels. (You can tell this is back in the day; all the BBC listings were in the Radio Times, which mixed BBC TV and radio listings, while the TV Times was filled with upcoming listings for ITV and Channel 4; other networks didn’t even exist at the time, so we didn’t have to worry about those.)

When those listings magazines were released, they were attacked by my family, or at least the three kids; we’d go through them, day-by-day, and mark down the shows we wanted to see. The three of us would use different colored highlighter pens to differentiate what was a me show, versus one of my sisters’, and vice versa. Anything that more than one of us wanted to watch, as far as I can remember, would be claimed by whoever went through the magazine first. (Almost certainly me, as the youngest.)

What’s surprising about this, for me, is how important the television was for the season. I’m not exaggerating this, even though I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t really remember this until someone tweeted a picture of this year’s Radio Times; the arrival of these listing magazines really did feel like a signifier that the holidays were now, properly, underway. Knowing what I was going to be watching, and when, somehow, meant that the Christmas period was in a shape that I understood and could plan for.

It’s not really the same, scrolling through Netflix and HBO Max these days. Maybe if someone made a listings magazine to help…

Hello Doctor, My Old Friend

By accident, I’ve fallen back into watching Doctor Who regularly for the first time since… fuck, three years? Four? I dropped out a few episodes into the first season featuring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor due to a combination of circumstances — this was the period just after leaving my ex-wife, after all; my attention was elsewhere — and, to be blunt, not really enjoying the show that much anymore, due to what seemed to be a general downtrend in writing. Subsequent attempts to catch up were plagued with that feeling continuing; maybe it’s because I was such a fan of the Steven Moffat era, or perhaps my head was just in a different place, but Doctor Who didn’t feel like a show for me anymore.

Nonetheless, I have fallen back into the rhythm of watching weekly, thanks to (a) it being available to stream without additional cost for the first time that I can remember, and (b) being curious enough to try out the “all season is telling one large story, also, it’s only six episodes this year” experiment. I’m not sure if the show has improved significantly since the last season that I temporarily dropped into, only to dip back out of, but something has changed to keep me tuning back in, week after week. (It’s still not a great show, but there’s enough to keep me watching.)

What’s been particularly surprising about this whole thing is how… happy I am to be into the show again; it’s as if I’ve reconnected with an old friend, if that doesn’t sound too ridiculous. It’s surprisingly pleasing to be watching Doctor Who again, to be excited at the prospects of seeing a new episode every weekend, again. A fandom reborn turns out to be a very good thing indeed, as it turns out. It almost makes me want to check out other old favorites again, just in case.

I Remember When, I Remember When

There’s a meme that makes regular reappearances on social media, in which people use metaphor and reference to explain how old they are; “I’m [Insert Generational Marker] years old,” they’d say, and everyone else who shares that particular experience reads it and goes, oh, remember [Generational Marker]? I remember that, they’re just like me, I’m not alone. I mention this not to shame anyone taking part in whatever incarnation of this meme they might have seen, but because I found myself accidentally thinking in terms of that meme earlier today, upon realizing I lived through a moment in pop culture history we’ll likely never see again. You see, dear reader, I can remember when Star Wars was not only uncool, but considered a dead franchise left in the past.

To be a late teen in the early 1990s was quite a thing, especially in the UK; there was grunge, or whatever the British echo of that proved to be (People listening to Nirvana records, basically), and then there was Britpop, the musical movement that seemingly encompassed everything around it. For a certain generation of teen nerd, however, there was also the experience of finding fast friendship with other people who were Star Wars fans, and this being both a novelty and a sign that you’d found your people, or something close to it.

I can remember talking to people and making reference to things in The Empire Strikes Back and some people just not getting it; they hadn’t watched the movies as kids, or if they had, they hadn’t rewatched them and read the comics and the novels, and the details had simply left them, replaced by more important things necessary to ahead in life. This was the culture back then, and it’s one that I miss — when Star Wars was a niche interest (at best) and not a lifestyle supported by multiple industries dedicated to ensuring that Content Is Always Available No Matter What.

I know that, today, Star Wars is in a strange holding pattern outside of a handful of television shows, but still — there are those TV shows, and the comics, the novels, the toys, and the inevitable movies still to come. Even if there isn’t a new movie every year, it’s not something that will ever fully go away ever again, and I find myself sad about that. Sometimes, it’s good to let these things just be nostalgia again, at least for awhile.

Home Taping is Making Music

When I think about the various signposts that made me into the music fan I am today, I always gloss over the importance of my local library growing up, for some reason. I’m not entirely sure why, given just how central that place probably was for some of my more outré choices of listening; while it didn’t play the same kind of role that certain friends did in shaping my musical identity — I can still think about people specifically recommending or lending me particular albums or CDs or tapes, and how big that felt in the immediate aftermath, even if that particular band isn’t a cornerstone of what I listen to — it was, nonetheless, an introduction to all kinds of things that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered, and a cheap way to explore some of my stranger curiosities when it came to sounds and tunes.

I was helped, greatly, by the fact that the local library’s music collection was seemingly curated by someone with extremely eclectic taste. To this day, I can remember being a nervous teenager leafing through the bins of vinyl — all in protective plastic sleeves, because of course — and just stunned by the number of things I’d never heard of, and didn’t know what to make of. I remember, years after the fact, in the mid-90s when the Divine Comedy broke through to the mainstream, realizing that somehow my local library had the obscure early albums all along, and I’d never stopped to check them out. (Literally.) The same with all of the many jazz albums they had that I, in my youth, flipped through with an internal jazz, ugh, only to wish years later that I’d had the common sense and good luck to listen to and get my little teenaged mind blown.

Nonetheless, the library was responsible for my love of Jellyfish, of Randy Newman, of the Guys and Dolls soundtrack, of discovering Jeff Lynne and ELO through the War of the Worlds double album; I listened to so many movie soundtracks, and developed a strange appreciation for orchestral scores. I’d take all of these albums home, obsessively listen to them. In their own way, they paved the way for some of the odder things I love now, even if I didn’t recognize that at the time.

Remember Remember

Fireworks Night in the UK was always supposed to be a thing, but I struggle to remember any from my childhood that ever came close to living up to the hype. Sure, we all know the rhyme about “Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November,” but I genuinely can’t think of any Fifths of November that were worth remembering.

One of the problems is the time of year. Let me tell you something about the beginning of November in Scotland, at least when I was a kid: they were wet and cold, and the very opposite of the conditions that would be optimum for starting a bonfire, or hanging around outside to watch fireworks. Many were the Bonfire Nights that I gamely went outside hoping for the best, and just stood there, shivering and damp, wondering if things were ever going to get exciting or even worth being outside in the first place. (Spoilers: they didn’t.)

I couldn’t tell you if every Fifth of November failed for me because I have no real interest or excitement surrounding fireworks, or if I have no real interest or excitement surround fireworks because every Fifth of November failed for me; it’s a snake eating its own tail made of disappointment and a frustrated belief that, for real you guys, isn’t this meant to be fun? It’s something that’s followed me to the U.S., though, where Bonfire Night isn’t really a thing — the Fifth of November here is mostly a day for V for Vendetta fetishists, from what I can tell — but the Fourth of July is, and I can (un)happily report that, even in the summer, there’s not that much to see that’s worth standing around with your neck craned in case some explosions are more colorful than others.

All of this, I know, marks me as some terrible killjoy, but the reality of the situation is… I am. Stay inside, and watch something good on television, instead. Catch up on Doom Patrol; this season’s been really something.