Time Travel

So yeah, yesterday I heard a re-mix on Grimmy’s Radio 1 show of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” by an outfit called Just Us. It is a good solid example of a decent enough re-mix of a great record and, as such, a form of recontextualization – my current research area-of-interest.  I wanted to listen to it again, so I went to the R1 website and scrolled through the appropriately named Listen Again feature.  As I was doing so, I overshot the track and stumbled on an offering featured later in the breakfast show playlist by Christine and the Queens called “Saint Claude”, which I found instantly engaging.  There were aspects of her imaginatively fantastical vocal delivery which were, to my ears, clearly influenced by something I’d heard years ago, but who was it?  A trace of a particular sonic landscape started to unveil itself in my head, replete with weird glossolalia vocals and a dreamily jangly accompaniment.  Was it the Cocteau Twins?  We have “Heaven and Las Vegas” on CD at home, which is a splendid album, but I was thinking of something else…a similar sound, but a little less refined. I called up Spotify and starting having a scroll through some of their early work and “boom” I was to all intents and purposes in a time-warp.

Now then, I teach people about music; I write and produce music and I listen to music whenever I can.  As such you’d have thought that music’s capacity for significant emotional connection and interactivity would be something with which I am more than familiar.  Sure, something will come on the radio and I’ll maybe get the ‘tingle’, the ‘chill’.  I’ve known myself to experience a surge of empathy when I connect with the vivid viewpoint of the country balladeer, or I might well marvel when I hear the genius in the composition, performance and production on, say, a Quincy Jones record.  As someone who once tried to make it in a (bloody good) rock band, I, to a certain extent, resonate with AC/DC’s “Long Way to the Top” and “Highway to Hell”. I might well-up a little when Jeff Buckley groans Cohen’s cold and broken “Hallelujah” or when Joan Baez bleeds out Dylan’s “Forever Young”, or when Lou Read warmly shares his needle and his “Perfect Day”.  Today, however, I got utterly ‘owned’ by another staggering property of music, namely its capacity for actual time-travel. 

So yeah, “boom”, I was 13 again.

The album was “Treasure” from 1984 and I have not heard it once in nearly 30 years.  I’d all but totally forgotten about the fact that back then whilst away at school I’d pretty much played it to death.  It was essentially my comfort blanket.  In an instant I was being olfactorily hypnotized by the joss stick smouldering in the corner of one of the 6th form shared study bedrooms to which I had been sympathetically invited, fighting back the tears, marvelling at the vast provocative posters of U2, Simple Minds, The Cure, and The Cocteau Twins which completely covered one half of the walls and ceiling, and Motorhead, Megadeth, AC/DC and Metallica covering the other half; the two genre-opposed occupants of said room telling me I just needed to “hang in there”, and that it would get better.  I could genuinely smell the incense from 30 years ago.

Then, I was sat on my own by the river on the far side of the lower fields with a copied cassette on an imitation Walkman, the ‘wow and flutter’ and the hiss of the piss-poor transport mechanism, not helped by batteries which should have been expelled weeks ago, somehow enhancing the other-worldliness of the sound. 

Then, I was in my room, head between the cranked Amstrad midi HiFi and its groovy detachable speakers – the futuristic brushed aluminium system from our kitchen at home which I’d coveted for so long, and that my dad had lovingly let me have.  I could smell the stale mixture of sweat, rugby mud and floor polish in the changing rooms across the corridor, the piss and bleach in the bogs, the cheese toasties burning in the boarding house kitchen mingled with way-out-of-date milk, and I could feel exactly the same feelings: alone, desperately alone, scared of whether it would be me or Richard Hanley who would be the kid nominated for running the gauntlet in the dormitories that night, pummelled by other terrified kids with pillowcases full of CCF boots, savagely jeered on by the older boys.  I was remembering Hanley’s muffled screams coming from the notorious ‘dorm 5’ the previous evening, so perhaps it was my turn tonight, that’d be fair, right?  Us two new boys at the upper school were treated a little harsher than those who’d been at the preparatory school.

Then, I was panicking that I might not get my head together enough to get my French prep finished so that I could avoid the brutal cane of the half blind French master, ‘Onions’, who had a nasty habit of getting you in the small of the back or the top of your legs, rather than on the arse which could be protected by beer towels the more compassionate 6th formers would steal for us from the local pubs.  He used to smoke fags in the classroom, too; I was smelling the stale, smouldering Gauloises in his ashtray while he was whipping me.

Then, I was thinking about whether I’d ever be cool enough to get a girlfriend; maybe I should get a tattoo or a piercing; maybe I could (or should) be this, or that, or the other. 

Then, I was bitterly homesick, counting the minutes until half-term, until I could jump on that warm train and trundle home along the South Wales coast, to where I’d get a good feed, a cuddle and a listening ear from my mummy and my daddy, but knowing that it would never be quite the same at home again, but not really knowing why.

There was something deeply and spiritually soothing about that album.  Perhaps it was that dreamy soundscape with its wonderful chord sequences full of hope and possibility; maybe the strange, almost alien-like sound of Elizabeth Fraser’s swooping and totally unintelligible multi-layered vocals beckoning me into a trance of tranquility and wonder in some other universe a little nearer home where I could just escape, float, detach, heal.

For nigh-on 30 years those feelings have laid dormant, occasionally stirred by well-intentioned counselling sessions, but this album took me straight through that wormhole in a way no therapist ever could.  How is it that I can forget where I put my phone and sunglasses within the space of an hour, but I can remember nearly every nuance of “Treasure” from 259,200 hours ago?  That music stuff, it’s pretty powerful gear!

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