How I learned to Walk on the Wild Side

As a teenager, I was obsessed by music. I still am.  In 2013, anyone with a laptop and a wifi connection has access to virtually every piece of music ever recorded. Over twenty years ago, things were very different. My magpie mind was grabbed by many things, through random chance, and moments which shaped my musical imagination and changed the direction of my life. Here are just a few of those moments:

Hearing ‘Epic‘ by Faith No More in a car on the way back from a Christian conference called ‘Spring Harvest’. This was the first time I was absolutely blown away by rock music, pressed back in the black vinyl car seat by the power of the “You want it all but you can’t have it” chorus. Shortly after this, I realised that organised religion wasn’t for me, but rock ‘n’ roll was definitely the way forward.

Seeing a band called the Cramps on a music programme on BBC 2 called ‘SNUB TV’.  I was only thirteen, but they had a crazy looking man in makeup and PVC trousers, and a very glamourous woman playing the guitar. They were funny (ha! ha!) and also very strange, and had a song called ‘You’ve got good taste’. Later that year, a new music teacher started at our school. He was called John Gill. One of the first things he told us was that the Cramps were one of his favourite bands and lent me a tape of an album called ‘Off the Bone’. I started to learn to play the guitar. I sung their version of ‘Fever’ in front of the whole school, and it became my anthem, despite taunts from school bullies (who never dared to stand up and sing themselves!)

When I started at university, a shy young man in my lectures had “Thee Cramps” inked onto his army surplus bag. I commented on this excitedly, and we started talking. A friendship developed, forged over passionate discussions about music. Then we fell in love. We’re still arguing about music, eighteen years later.

I’m not sure when I first heard the John Peel show, late at night on Radio 1. There was too much music to absorb in one go, and it was great to lie in bed, imagining a glamorous life of record shops, gigs and late nights. Like many people, I taped as many shows as I could. One of the songs I listened to over and over again on my Tandy personal stereo was ‘Spellbound‘ by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I plugged myself into that personal stereo in the back seat of the car for every long journey with my parents, staring out of the window and drifting into day-dreams that fired my writer’s imagination.

Home taping was my lifeline.

Home taping was my lifeline.

It was the era of home taping. If you wanted a new album, you’d ask the small collection of school friends who were into music and you’d give someone a C90 cassette. Probably one that already had something taped on it. You could tape over something as much as you liked. And you’d eventually get a hissy recording of the album back. One of the best things would be that the person making the tape would often fill up any blank bits at the end of the tape with something else – which led to more wonderful music discoveries.

CDs were a luxury, and even though I had a record player, I reserved it for playing my second-hand collection from jumble sales and car boot sales. That was another way my musical tastes were growing, from old Motown classics (‘Respect’/’Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ by Otis Reading from a Sunday morning boot-sale browse with my grandparents), psychedelic masterpieces (‘Disraeli Gears’ by Cream when I helped out at a school jumble sale), to electro (a worn-out Tubeway Army record from a flea market in Allenton).

The cover of Transformer

The cover of Transformer

I only bought new cassette albums when I had money from my birthday or after Christmas. I must have been given a Boots voucher for my birthday. In those days, Boots used to sell music and had quite a good selection of tapes. I browsed the racks of tapes and selected ‘Transformer‘ by Lou Reed. ‘Walk on the Wildside’ was famous, and the bassline had recently been sampled by hip hop band A Tribe Called Quest for ‘Can I kick it?’ I wasn’t sure if I’d even heard of the Velvet Underground at the age of fifteen. But it stood out because it looked different – the polarised picture of a face in stark black and white, the eyes so black, they looked like they were ringed in heavy eye-liner, turned away from a microphone, and a guitar which looked like it had been drawn on at the bottom. I’m pretty sure that the other tape I bought at the same time was the greatest hits of tragic jazz singer Billie Holliday. I listened to both tapes over and over again on a family holiday to France. In some ways, they went together perfectly.

The songs on ‘Transformer’ were different from anything I’d ever heard before. They told stories, in different voices. They sounded like they were being played at the end of a long night in a smoke-filled room, sung by a guy whose voice was at breaking point, who’d seen things I could never imagine, knocking back whisky. I was in Year 10, at secondary school in a small East Midlands city. I knew nothing then about debauched night clubs, transvestites (apart from my grandfather’s amateur drag-act, but that’s another story!) or pretentious artists (apart from Seymour Wright, my intellectual nemesis). I’d seen Andy Warhol’s soup tins, but I was yet to work out all the threads that pulled all these things together. All I knew was that I longed to experience this sophisticated, jaded grown-up world one day soon. I was too innocent to understand the lyrics properly yet, but I wanted to be part of that rock ‘n’ roll world. Every album I discovered; every music magazine I devoured from cover to cover brought me closer.

The Velvet Underground, Glastonbury 1993

The Velvet Underground, Glastonbury 1993

And just over a year later, as a reward for working hard on my GCSEs, I went to Glastonbury. Just me and two friends. It was a wonderful gesture of trust from my parents. Over those five baking-hot days in 1993, I experienced so many magical musical moments that my brain was overloaded for months and I couldn’t stop talking about it. I was hooked for life. One of the first bands I got to see was the Velvet Underground. We hadn’t worked out that the best way to get to the front of the crowd is to sneak down the side, and there were no big screens, so we stood at the back of the Pyramid Stage field, looking at a miniscule Lou Reed. I finally felt like I was part of the excitement.

It was a shock on Sunday, to discover that Lou Reed had died. He was still experimenting (I wasn’t too sure about his collaboration with Metallica, but I applauded his intentions). Lou Reed influenced and shaped music as we know it. He helped to define the image of “cool”, and then ignored it. He was one of the musical voices that shaped my mind, telling stories that were thousands of miles away from my own experience but still spoke to me.

Music has always inspired my writing. Lyrics jump out at me and make stories form in my head, the intensity of feeling in a song connects me with the emotions of my characters. Watching a band live can take me on an internal journey sparks the idea for a novel. I can’t help it, any more than I can help breathing.

Here’s writer Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Lou Reed from the Guardian. It seems that he was inspired in a similar way.

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