I get struck every so often by the thought that without that particular musical experience maybe I wouldn’t have made that left turn into balladry - perhaps I might have decided otherwise - perchance I might have got into drum n’ bass instead of picking up an acoustic guitar and trying to get people to clap at me in public while I sang at them about ex-girlfriends and imaginary slights. Sometimes it’s when I think about that Bob Dylan lyric someone pasted up on the sixth form common room notice board, obviously it happens whenever I hear a Neil Young song on the radio, definitely when Rory Gallagher’s Irish Tour movie makes it on to the late night schedule, occasionally even when I’m moved to slot that Uriah Heep compilation into the car stereo on long car journeys.
It was probably Shev’s mention of the song he wrote for Amnesty International at last week’s Songwriter’s Night that prompted me to revisit probably the most influential album I remember from my teen years – the pair of sets of performances that seeded the idea that you could take things somewhere else. Nothing that my parents owned did the trick – I didn’t grow up listening to their Joni and Beatles albums (that came later) since they simply didn’t have any, although a bunch of singles by the likes of Elvis, Cliff and Bill Haley bequeathed by friends and neighbours must have sown some seeds. The compilation that put me on my path to a glittering career of general audience indifference woven inextricably with occasional personal triumphs were those provided by The Secret Policeman’s Balls of 1979 and 1981.
I was convinced that the performances I remember so fondly were of one year, but research tells me otherwise, nevertheless they seeped into my impressionable sponge of a teenaged mind and sat there, waiting for their moment(s) to spring forth in inspiration. That Pete Townsend could strip down Won’t Get Fooled Again, drag classical guitarist John Williams into the mix and spit out a particularly, seemingly ad-libbed and venomous “Do ya?!” is, pleasingly, as grainy on Youtube as it is in my memory. I didn't know you could just call up people with no prior relationship with your material and just get them to come along and do something like that (and one day, all of our memories will be in black and white). Similarly, that the brittle chopped chords of The Police’s Roxanne could be broken down into a chorus pedalled melancholy reflection was a revelation. I didn’t know you were allowed to leave out the bass and drums and do that. Although it was pretty much a solo effort anyway, I Don’t Like Mondays gained a whole lot more from being stripped of its orchestral cladding and Tom Robinson’s Glad To Be Gay made me think that if you had an acoustic guitar it meant that you really were a protest singer. If only I’d thought to write that down at the time.
Aside from those, the most affecting performance in the film and on the album came from the most unlikely source. These days Phil Collins is slighted principally as the all-overpowering eighties behemoth that ate Genesis but back then he was an unlikely piano player who’d tentatively released a solo album (after the other two, Rutherford and Banks, had already dipped their toes in the stream) and made his first solo live performance at the ball performing a couple of songs from Face Value, one of which was a tremendously moving character-driven ballad on which he got a former member of Jean-Luc Ponty’s band to accompany him on the banjo.
It all sinks in.