Monday, February 09, 2009

Memories Can't Wait: School

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

This week's subject: School

'Great Things' - Echobelly (Paul)

I was not cool at school.

I was very clearly a nerdy boy who did his homework on time, rarely went out beyond the weekly trip to Youth Club, and certainly didn't spend his evenings and weekends drinking cider in the park. Unsurprisingly, my musical taste was somewhat detached from the mainstream, and I spent many years listening to a selection of albums in Queen's back catalogue (this at a time when their output had tailed off on account of Freddie Mercury's death).

However, by the time I took my GCSEs the mid-90s was upon us, and my musical tastes were at least catching up with the times, and I started to listen to bands whose members were all amongst the living.

Now I realise that this is supposed to be about music which reminds us of "school" but for me, the soundtrack to my life is very much focused around my time at Sixth Form College. It was there, rather than at school, where life-long friendships were cemented over discussions about music, film and getting served in the pub. Similarly, nights spent in rooms swigging beer bought with no questions asked from the off licence and listening to music became an integral part of my social life.

To that end, a small number of tracks instantly take me back to those days: a time uncluttered by mortgages and the credit-crunch, when my football team wasn't a complete disaster and life was a generally happy place.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that my musical taste remains heavily influenced by the guitar-based music (largely better known as Britpop) which played non-stop on my Walkman throughout that period.

For me, the track that takes me back to those days more than any other is 'Great Things' by Echobelly.

It may be a bit on the twee side, but as someone who saw the world at their feet, I wanted to do great things (and the lead singer, but that's another story), and that song, with its bouncy upbeat tune and positive aspirational lyrics spurred me onwards through my A-levels to university and the life that has so far followed.

'From Out Of Nowhere' - Faith No More (Swiss Toni)

When I was 16 years old and these things seemed important, my friends and I used to have a psych-up song. I'm not really sure how it started, but it became a kind of good luck anthem for us in the summer of 1990 as we sat our GCSEs. Before we headed down to the school gymnasium for each exam, we would put 'From Out Of Nowhere' by Faith No More on as loud as we dared, as though this frantic keyboard-driven funk metal would somehow fill our heads with all the knowledge that we had steadfastly failed to absorb throughout the rest of the academic year.

It was foolproof, and had an almost perfect success rate ... but it did fail me once: one afternoon, with the end of our examination purgatory clearly in sight, we were listening to the song as usual before gathering our pencil cases and candidate numbers together and heading down to the gym for our Biology paper. Lost in the music, I leant back and rested my head against the windowsill. Almost immediately, I felt a sharp, stinging pain against the back of my skull and leapt to my feet wondering what the hell had happened. A glance back at the windowsill revealed the culprit: one of the largest wasps I had ever seen, and one that clearly hadn't taken too kindly to being used as a headrest, was shuffling accusingly on the windowledge.

My retribution was swift; I raised the enormous biology textbook I had been revising from, and I slammed it down with all my might. The wasp was obliterated. Annihilated. Atomised. I rubbed my head and I played the psych-up song again to try and get myself back into the zone, and then we all headed down to the gym.

I got my worst GCSE grade in that exam.

I rather suspect that this was due more to my lack of ability in the subject than it was attributable to either the wasp or to Faith No More, but I can't listen to that song without ruefully rubbing the back of my head.

(It should be noted that I nearly wrote about dancing on the playing fields to Phil Collins era Genesis, but after covering Dire Straits last week, I figured that a return to ropey heavy metal would be far less damaging to my credibility).

'Stay' - Shakespeare's Sister (Skif)

Let me tell you about Joanna. She was a piece of work – seven different kinds of bitch, in a bag. No, let’s not give her top billing. Let me tell you about Vanessa; a troubled soul, not exactly popular, a bit of a misfit.

It is 1992. We’re at school, somewhere in south-east Hampshire. It’s a drama lesson, and we’ve been asked to prepare something, in small groups. I can’t recall what I did, nor with whom, but I imagine it wasn’t exactly 'Henry V', whatever ensemble the cast.

Early on in the ramshackle showcase, Vanessa and chums got up to do their piece, an interpretive work performed silently with the cassingle of ‘Stay’ playing out of the portable in the corner of the room. Keen as people were to take the piss out of anything Vanessa did (and it was clearly mostly her work) there was some giggling at the earnestness of the performance. I may have been caught up in the initial giggles, but I tended to back the underdog so I would have righted myself soonish, I’d like to think. Earnest or not, work had been put into it, and not a little thought.

The loudest guffaws, and critical barbs, came from Joanna’s group, our villain for this piece believing herself to be an acerbic Kenneth Tynan all of a sudden. This brought glares from our teacher, a young pedagogue brought in to cover the long-term illness of the popular incumbent.

Sensing an opportunity though, ‘Miss’ called up Joanna’s group next and they proceeded to run through an a cappella version of an upbeat pop tune of the day, I want to say Kylie, with an accompanying dance routine that appeared as ill-prepared as a posthumous Oscar winner’s thank you speech.

Those involved in the mess kept bursting out into laughter, believing themselves hilarious. They were soon cut short, and found themselves on the end of a wonderfully sustained, steam-eared, Buddy Rich-esque "and as for you.../and another thing..."-type rant from our angry educationalist telling them essentially that while Vanessa’s piece was beautiful, theirs had dropped out the bubo-ridden anus of a dirty dog.

Joanna was a picture. Face like a smacked, well, face; mouth like a tiddlywink target; cheeks like a three-bar fire left on overnight. Considering this young lady once punched me square in the mooey in a CDT lesson, you can understand me basking in reflected vengeance.

... and that’s why there will always be a place in my heart for Marcella Detroit, for that one out of Bananarama who married Dave Stewart and, of course, for Vanessa’s quiet dignity in the face of supercilious bitchity.

'Chico's Groove' - The Chemical Brothers (Pete)

If I'm brutally honest, I was never really into music until I returned the UK at the age of 15, having spent the best part of the early 90s in the musical wilderness of Austria. I'm sure I could drag some (best) long forgotten Euro-pap hit out of the past which might remind me of my time at school there, however any mention of the "hits" from that era would scar your ears for the rest of your life.

I returned to London in 1994 to the start of Britpop, and initially it was this that certainly ruled the roost. However, a year later I started college and added a Saturday job to my life, so had a bit of cash to fund gigs and additions to my miniscule record collection. With a couple of thousand students, Richmond College (alma mater to Jamie T and ... ummm ... Crispin Kula Shaker) seemed huge compared to my previous school and inevitably there were new friends to prise open some new musical doors ever-so-slowly.

Some nameless person (but probably my mate Em) recommended Exit Planet Dust and I was hooked. It's etched itself into my memory like so many albums I bought around that time, probably because a limited disposable income meant I listened to my new purchases over and over again; nevertheless the combination of electronica and beats still sounds fresh to my ears.

I had a good time at college (bar my second year A-level results), but no one particular moment really stands out. I'd like to be able to say that this was because it was a two year blur of 'Skins'-like alcohol and drugs-induced madness, but the truth is that it just seemed to pass by unremarkably. Yet I still have fond memories of numerous lunchtimes spent on the concrete football pitch at Heatham House just up the road from the college, when, frankly, I should have spent more time in the library. There were around 12 of us who played there regularly; some skilful, some less so, all students, apart from Ginger Pete, who was in mid-30s, wasn't a college student, and just turned up one day, bottle of beer in hand and started playing.

If in the highly unlikely event that a film of my life is made, my college years would be neatly covered by the wistful euphoria of The Chemical Brothers' 'Chico's Groove' playing over the montage of images that this song brings to mind more than any other: Kez's bright orange Holland shirt, Samir smashing one in with his left foot, Damon (so-called because of his uncanny resemblance to Damon Hill) winding up to another lightning-fast yet pointless run down the wing, me almost scoring the best goal of all time (flicking a ball over my head with my heel whilst running and volleying narrowly wide), some unlucky sod kicking the ball onto the roof of the nearby Royal Mail sorting office. Happy days indeed.

'Theresa's Sound World' - Sonic Youth (Ben)

I was stuck in a strange dichotomy when I was a teenager.

My friends at home lived and breathed music. It was something far more important than background noise - it was something to read about, enthuse about, argue about. Everyone bought CDs most weekends, everyone wore sloganned T-shirts with pride, everyone was in a band or wanted to be in a band. It was through evenings and weekends spent sat by stereos in bedrooms ripe with that distinctive, musty teenage boy aroma that I was introduced to Nirvana, Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine, as well as a whole host of dodgy metal bands that grunge mercifully killed off.

And yet at school, 15 miles away, music hardly even seemed to be a topic for conversation, let alone something to obsess about. I knew of one guy in my year who had a precocious fondness for Orange Juice, and another a year or two above me who, when The Wedding Present released a new 7" single every month for the whole of 1992, bought the lot. A third, who knew I liked Smashing Pumpkins, approached me in the Sixth Form Centre one day and sang the chorus to 'Bullet With Butterfly Wings' in my face. But these were isolated cases, isolated incidents.

There was one person in my year, though, who I didn't really know and hadn't ever really considered potential friend material - until, that is, he came into school one day early in 1993 in triumphant possession of a copy of 'Puss'/'Oh, The Guilt', Nirvana's split single with The Jesus Lizard. (He would be off school for a couple of days when Kurt Cobain shot himself just over a year later.)

From that point on, although a real friendship never struck up, I started looking to Steve for guidance, and one Non-Uniform Day (the exciting Friday climax of the annual Charities' Week) I got what turned out to be the best recommendation I've ever had. As my friends from home would no doubt have done, he had taken the opportunity to wear a T-shirt advertising one of his favourite bands: a picture of a candle, hazy and indistinct, and the words "Sonic Youth" and "Daydream Nation".

I'd heard of Sonic Youth, and naively went up to him to ask if they were anything like Nirvana (that being a touchstone I knew we had in common). "Yeah, kind of", he said, "I'll make you a tape if you like". The tape he made wasn't of Daydream Nation itself - that particular delight awaited me a couple of years later - but their most recent album, Dirty.

It was, from start to finish, a revelation. I remember going on a family holiday to Cornwall that summer - which meant a seven hour drive each way - and listening to little else on my Walkman. Of all the songs on the album, once I'd got to grips with the stunning 'Drunken Butterfly', 'Theresa's Sound World' was the one which filled me with the greatest sense of wonder; I marvelled at the way it transformed itself from a somnambulent lullaby into a thrashing, raging crescendo of noise, and then repeated the trick once more to even more awesome effect.

And that was that - I was a confirmed fan. I may not be able to remember much about some of the subjects and some of the teachers, but I won't forget how I learned that particular lesson.

'Girls And Boys' - Blur (drmigs)

School covers a huge period of my life, hence to choose just one song to represent my school days is like saying that the winning song in the Eurovision Song contest is representative of European music (walk away from it drmigs, walk away ...). So this is more a post about how I found my dancing feet, which was an event that happened at school. I say school, more specifically the Sixth Form Ball.

The idea that the event called the Sixth Form Ball was anything nearing a ball is farcical. We didn't have a three course meal followed by some witty and inspiring speeches and then a band or two to which we could strut our pre-matriculationary stuff. This was a far less glorious affair. The Sixth Form Ents Committee would perform a perfunctory trawl of all the hotels in Coventry, and settle on the same cheap and cheerful hotel we went to every year - the one that didn't seem to ask any questions about serving alcohol to 16-year-olds. And tickets were leaked to the good teenagers of Coventry, to increase the likelihood of violence - I mean, to boost profits for the leaving day kitty. I should state here that only 50% of my Sixth Form Balls ended with a bouncer liberally head-butting people who decided to solve the complex issues of teenage relationships through the medium of glassing each other.

And so it was, that with a sense of precaution and excitement, we'd set off to this event in the finest collection of second-hand dinner jackets that the charity shops of Coventry had to offer. OK, I admit that this is a slight misinterpretation of the facts - I did buy a particularly tasteful waistcoat from Topman one year that was brand new. It had autumnal fruit on it - classy.

So, we arrived at the Ball, and the sum total of the entertainment was a DJ who was usually a perfect complement to the surrounding environment. Yes, our Ball was a disco in formal clothing. But we knew nothing else, and we were accepting, nay enthusiastic. The first hour and a half was spent in our secure small groups, with some serious shoe inspection to be done when you went to the bar. Eventually, the girls would start to populate the dancefloor, lured by the DJ playing the cheese card. And then came the awkward bit; the bit when the girls wanted the boys to dance. The bit when the cheesy music was still playing, and you wanted the flattery of a girl to invite you onto the dancefloor, but you really didn't want to go on the dancefloor. Really, really didn't want go on the dancefloor, and be expected to deal with that challenge of how to find the acceptable equilibrium between the pubescent forces of confidence, hormones and coordination, all the while trying to cling on to that 4/4 rhythm.

I should explain here, that I still share some of the sentiments that Stephen Fry expresses in his 'Bored of the Dance' podgram (from 13 minutes 27 seconds onward). I don't mind a ceilidh, there's rules, and as I will go on to describe, I like to dance on my own; but being expected to interact with people at a disco is a demand too far for me, a task that I find neither attractive nor appealing. So maybe it wasn't just an artefact of my age that lead to my awkwardness. Although there did seem to be more people sharing my predicament then, than do now. Hey ho.

So, there I was in that circle of hell that is the school disco. I knew inevitably that I'd have to get onto the dancefloor, or else I'd be dragged up against my will when the dancefloor was finally full and throbbing. My salvation came from the DJ who having gone through cheese, saccharine, and soft rock had finally stumbled on indie. I can't remember what the first couple of tracks were in the indie section, but I finally took to the floor when 'Girls And Boys' by Blur came on. I'd kinda wanted to hit the floor for a song or so, as it seemed like an acceptable window of opportunity. But for whatever reason, this got me onto the floor. And there I was, with the expressed responsibility to ignore everyone else, move to the music and stare at my feet. Here was a style, the dance of the self-conscious indie kid, that I could not only do, but enjoyed doing. I finally found my dancing feet, albeit only for one genre.

What made it sweeter was that those who'd been at their most fluent during the East 17 and 'Grease Mega Mix' sections of the playlist were suddenly lost. What flamboyant and confident gestures could they do to:

"Girls who are boys / Who like boys to be girls / Who do boys like they're girls / Who do girls like they're boys / Always should be someone you really love"

I just bounced about a bit, stared at my feet a bit, got lost in the music, and finally found some dancefloor freedom. Much like I do now if I ever hit the dancefloor. This 'Girls And Boys' moment, is just one of the many reasons I'm grateful for the collective works of Damon Albarn and Blur. Although, I can't state clearly enough that I don't turn to 'Girls And Boys', or Blur, to remind me of my schooldays. If your schooldays really were the best days of your life, I'd really be in a sorry state today...

'The Hymn For The Cigarettes' - Hefner (Ian)

"No one called, no one wrote, no one even phoned / So no one knew that I was with her on my own"

Oh, please – I wish. When you say "school" I think "undergrad" (five glorious, worry-free years clutched firmly and warmly to the bosom of the university), not high school or grad school, and that was nothing if not years spent belatedly growing up after avoiding the whole relationships thing earlier in life (in my defence: I was an idiot). Whatever else 'The Hymn For The Cigarettes' and by extension Hefner/Darren Hayman was, it was definitely written from the perspective of a functioning if dysfunctional adult who had been around the track enough to develop more interesting problems than unrequited crushes.

"How can she love me, if she doesn't even love the cinema that I love? / What does she feel if she doesn't have the feeling that I have in my fingers, lord! / This joy I have could lift this ceiling from its rafters, but I'm not laughing!"

Getting together isn't the hard part, it's figuring out what you want and what they want (and god forbid you ever have a conversation about that) ... wait, school? How is this about school? Well shit, guys, I have to admit that just as the older and wiser always advised us, it's not classes or papers or grades that stick with me from school. It's the social life, the dating, the drinking, the tangled webs. It's also a certain heedless and unconscious self-importance we all walked around with, so that all of a sudden it's not just important that you like each other and get along; she has to like the films that you like or else why bother? I don't necessarily think it's an aspect of human nature for us to spend our adolescences running around going ME ME ME ME ME all the time without even noticing it, but we're certainly socialized to do so, and to have that phase stretch out into our early and mid-twenties for those of us lucky enough to be able to afford higher education.

Somewhere in there I got a philosophy degree or two (one of the better things I've ever done for myself), and they served me well, but in my mind school is always 4am, sitting at my clunky old PC, playing FreeCell and listening to songs very much like 'The Hymn For The Cigarettes' and atomizing the evening's romantic success or failure, trying to figure out just what exactly I was doing. I identify with Hayman more now than I ever did then for two reasons: first, that I'm more battle-scarred if no less hopeful than I was then, and second that I can hear more clearly the way Hayman stood in relation to the character he played in Hefner that I do to my undergrad self – affectionate towards but unsentimental about what a doofus/prick/self-saboteur/kid that guy could be.

It's pointless to resent or be embarrassed by the person you used to be (if nothing else, isn't a relief to consider that you're now a better, or at least more together, person?) and the only other option is a kind of bemused kindness to the sins and inadequacies we display when growing up. To quote the great Cary Tennis, "as long as you're breaking hearts and not kneecaps you are morally and ethically in the ballpark". Hayman always wrote about his own petty cruelties and failures of understanding with the kind of attitude that made it clear he'd grown enough to recognize them, although he wasn't arrogant enough to think he'd never repeat them. We are schooled, and we learn, but do we ever graduate?

* * * * *

Thanks to Paul, Swiss Toni, Skif, Pete, drmigs and Ian for their contributions this week.

The next subject, in a fortnight's time, is a friend.


Post a Comment

<< Home