As a child, my musical tastes (actually, make that my cultural tastes in general) were heavily influenced by my elder sister. She has a couple of years on me and, therefore, when she was a tall-for-her-age teenager and I a puny 12-year-old, she retained the undisputed monopoly on 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 the choice of just three TV channels. And, even more improbably, dear reader, you had to get off your chair to push a button on the box itself to ‘turn over’. The remote control was, for most people, an unimaginable leap into science fiction. Not for my sister, mind you. The remote control for my sister was me.
A 70s childhood
This meant that, for most of the 70s, I was fed 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 school-holiday French TV staple The Flashing Blade, which made up for things.)
It meant, too, that I was a (not altogether unwilling) expert in such 70s musical delights as The Carpenters, T-Rex, Sweet, Mudd, The Bay City Rollers, Diana Ross, David Cassidy, and Demis Roussos. (Showaddywaddy, I’ll admit now, I found on my own.)
I don’t hold it against her. I retain much affection for most of these artists, and at least my sister’s mostly benign influence means I can claim to have been an Abba fan about 20 years before society deemed such things acceptable. Albeit a secret Abba fan for a long while.
Through most of my teenage years, then, I had my music provided to me third hand. It meant my tastes were conservative (small c - not Jerusalem and Land Of Hope And Glory), but it made life a whole lot easier. And, anyway, I didn’t know any better – see Showaddywaddy, above.
Setting out on the voyage of discovery
There came a time, though, when I had to branch out on my own; my sister went away to university. And in doing so, unwittingly, she opened Pandora’s box.
My friends, of course, were into ‘proper’ music; and I got myself infected. Pink Floyd, The Clash, The Stranglers, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley all became increasingly familiar to my untutored ear.
Then I stumbled upon Lou Reed’s Transformer, around 10 years after it was released.
And I was transfixed. From the shocking start of the LP, Vicious, through to the drawling final track Goodnight Ladies, here was a piece of work that, for the 16-year-old me, just hung together with a mesmerising perfection.
(As a side note, and looking back from this distant and oh so very different future, I now realise that one of the vital components in what was a life-changing experience was the fact that I was listening to this new-found music on vinyl.
I could simply never have loved it half as much if I had been able to skip around the record on a whim and without thought. It’s a far, far better experience to listen to the album as a whole piece. Even now, 40 years later, when one track finishes I’m singing the opening line to the next. Much as I appreciate and enjoy streaming and digital music, for me it has removed one of the great pleasures of listening to an album as a whole.)
Side one has what are regarded, rightly, as Reed’s big hitters. The sublime (if now overplayed) Perfect Day is followed two tracks later by Walk On The Wildside - the classic track that attracted me to the album in the first place.
It’s side two I really love, though: the languid, louche tracks flow from one to the other in a steamy New York nightclub atmosphere superbly produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson. There isn’t a track that I don’t like, but Satellite of Love, New York Telephone Conversation, and Goodnight Ladies hold a special place in my heart.
What made it extra special for the musically naive teenage me, though, was that I had found Transformer on my own. No sibling input required. And it opened up a whole world of music that I hadn’t previously appreciated, starting with The Velvet Underground, but going on through David Bowie, The Doors, Van Morrison and the like, leading me all the way through to the dubious musical taste that I hold today. Without it, I hate to think what I’d be subjecting myself and my family to.
And then, in a rare (suburban London) telephone conversation with my sister a week or so after I had bought the album – and so around 50 plays of the record in – as I was excitedly telling her of my new find, she revealed that she had stumbled upon it with her friends at almost exactly the same time.
Well, that’s as maybe - but it wouldn’t wash with me: Transformer was mine - and it changed my musical outlook for ever.
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