That takes me back …
Still now, when I hear the familiar opening chorus of Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things” I’m back on the cliff tops of the Welsh Island where, on my Sony Walkman, I first listened to a mix tape made for me by my friend Lizzie.
I can smell the sea air and feel the prickle of dried grass on my legs, cramped from hours of sitting in the same position with my eyes glued to a telescope staring at puffins. For me, Bowie = puffins as well as late nights spent cooking and eating with good friends in my first experience of liberty and self-identity.
I still have that cassette although I no longer have the means to play it. The playlist includes songs that have become firm and life-long favourites and others, particularly of the 80s electronica variety, that with their over-bearing, repetitive doof-doof 80’s beat that permeated every Stock, Aitken & Waterman track irritated the hell out of me.
If you’re old enough to remember cassettes you’ll know, skipping a track on a Walkman is no easy task.
Social memory and music
Like many musical memories, my memory of the island is a social memory.
The soundtracks to periods of your life are not necessarily songs you like, but they are forever welded to that time, place and to the people who shared that experience with you. Emotional memories are often strongest for these formative years when you are experiencing many things for the first time and learning to become independent.
Before I began consciously to excavate my own stories, I thought my memory was appalling. I could recall very little of my childhood or of teenage years. I was particularly bothered by my apparent lack of any musical memory.
Music is a pivotal cultural and generational touchstone—something that ages, unites and defines us as belonging to one generation, one tribe, or another. When you are missing that point of reference, you miss those connections.
At least, I felt I did.
When others compared first albums purchased and classic episodes from Top of the Pops, I pulled at the fragile strands of my memory of music and came up with zero.
Challenging my memory with music
It was my partner who made me question my “bad memory” story.
Music was a huge part of her teenage sense of style and identity. When she talked about her own memories of music in the 80s, I had a sudden flash of my own memory—standing in the corner of my south London primary school playground, a concrete wasteland where kids ran feral amongst painted snakes and chalk-drawn hopscotch, being peppered with music trivia questions by two other girls. I knew none of the answers and felt my shame reverberate around the playground.
We didn’t watch Top of the Pops or listen to the Top Ten in my home. The only radio stations that my parents played were BBC Radio 3 or Radio 4. Pure classical or pure politics. I didn’t own a radio of my own and I wasn’t allowed to touch the record player. I couldn’t be trusted not to scratch the vinyl.
My non-classical musical influences and interests were restricted to what was sanctioned by my parents.
Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel from my mother, and Dire Straits from my dad. I didn’t know much, but I knew enough to know that none of these were acceptable answers to the playground question “What’s your favourite band?”.
If I wanted to listen to a record of my choice, I had to ask my parents. If I wanted to dance to it, which I did, I had to be careful not to bounce too high and cause the needle to jump, or it would be switched off and replaced by Sibelius or Brahms. There were only two records I requested repeatedly—The Butterfly Ball, and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Only Dylan passed my endless repeat play requests, and then only when my mother was home.
A third album, Jacqueline du Pré’s cello pieces, bought for me by my parents when I was learning to play the cello, I listened to only when my mother insisted. Then, I would sulk at the back of the sofa, bored. Oh! And I quite liked Carnival of the Animals, and Peter and the Wolf. But again, not cool.
Whose memory is it?
As a teenager, when most kids start to explore their own identity, their likes and dislikes, I was still firmly buttoned into the identity I’d been given.
Music has always been a measure by which my mother judges other people’s worth. If they don’t listen to classical music, they as a sample of humanity, are found lacking. This no doubt contributed to the intensity with which I limited my own musical exploration for so long.
What’d long been a quietly unacknowledged shame story in my head, once told, become a reasonable and unremarkable explanation for my lack of early musical memory. It’s not that I didn’t remember the music I liked, it was simply that, in a pre-digital age, I didn’t have the means to discover the music I liked and was actively discouraged from exploring the usual avenues of self-expression for kids of that age.
When I left home, music quickly became an important part of my life and a tool through which I began to explore my own identity, my likes and dislikes, for the first time. With the encouragement of new friends, I became a voracious musical consumer—everything from Dave Brubeck to David Bowie. Friends gave me bootleg cassettes of Queen, Ocean Color Scene and Spandau Ballet. I did the same for them—offering musical nuggets of joy as tokens of my friendship.
And so now, those memories of shared music, cooking, laughter with friends of this new world—my world—are even more precious.
Making new music memories
My love of exploring new music has never abated.
While I cannot share the conventional teenage music story of my generation, I have uncovered a music evolution story of my own. I’ve even retained a deep affection for some of my parents’ musical choices.
Unlocking my own memory was not just a matter of remembering specific details and moments, it was as much about accepting that my memory existed. Music and memory are now tightly linked in my mind.
But I’m still a bit meh about 80s music.
Unlock your own memory with music
How about you?
- What’s the soundtrack to your formative years?
- What tracks take you back to good and bad moments in your life?
- How do these songs make you feel when you hear them now?
Let me know in the comments.
If you’d like to unearth your own memories, musical and otherwise, sign up for The Memory Mine to explore your memory in detail.