As we pedal along each day we often listen to podcasts. Firstly, I must say that they are great for long distance touring (see other post- Entertainment on long rides), as long as the road conditions permit, of course.
I like to use my time wisely, given that some recent research found that we have about 4500 days in our lives to do something meaningful for our souls, deducting time from our life expectancy for sleep, slumber, work and commuting. This trip is certainly something meaningful for me, but I like supplementing it with learning, mental discovery or something simply interesting, funny or downright daft.
One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to a lot recently is Desert Island Discs. It’s a British Institution in its 76th year. BBC 4 has collated hundreds of these glimpses into people’s lives. The basic premise is that someone famous is required to choose 8 pieces of music that punctuate their lives in someway, or that they just like. These choices are the only tracks that they can listen to once stranded on an imaginary desert island. They are also allowed one book, and a luxury. At the end of each interview they reveal these along with the one track they would save if the music collection were washed away to sea. It’s a bit cheesy and maybe a bit silly, but the interviews certainly provide a glimpse into the lives of people that I have grown up seeing and hearing, but knew little about. Normally they are chosen in some sort of order, normally chronological. So I thought that in this blog post, I would give it a go. I am not famous, but I hoped, and later confirmed, that this process would be valuable on a personal level. Perhaps this should just be kept to myself, but those who know me would understand that I find it difficult not to play music to people, and also find it difficult to talk about my life.
It has certainly been a cathartic process. Perhaps a little bit self-indulgent. But perhaps a little bit necessary, whilst my head is clear of life’s regular pressures and stresses.
PART 1 – Growing up
The interviewer always gives a rather enriched introduction about the person choosing the music at the beginning of each broadcast. It seems a bit vain to do it of myself, but here goes.
(In the third person) Born in the summer of ’79 in Bristol, South West England to Anne Gillian and Martin Nigel Steven. Matthew James is the eldest of two boys. A teacher by trade on a career break to cycle around the planet. He thinks it’s something that just needs to be done in order to live the rest of his life fully, without regret or wondering ‘What if?’
My earliest memories are of playing in the long and thin back garden of our house in Court Road, Frampton Cotterell with my mate and next-door neighbour Tim. Racing Raleigh Roller bicycles from the top of the garden down to the bottom, making jumps from wooden planks. Eating rhubarb, sleeping on the washing machine and near to the vacuum cleaner (the vibrations helped me fall asleep), falling down steps and walking into lamp-posts on more than one occasion, and being played this song on the nights when I couldn’t sleep (this is still a problem).
1. The Tokens – The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Click any of the song titles in this post to listen.
Maybe this was an early sign that I would live in Africa in my adult life, after a twisted turn of events in my conformist lifestyle lead to newfound freedom and discovery.
As a kid, I would often be dressed-up in my Sunday best for a trip to the church. But on many other occasions in the fluorescent get-up of the ‘Culture Clubs’ lead singer, Boy George. Or did I dress myself up?
2. Culture Club – Karma Chameleon
Music has always been a big part of my life. Ever since my first cassette tape- ‘NOW 4- That’s What I Call Music’, or maybe I claimed ownership of it from my parents. There are some true classics on that compilation. Perhaps this early love for music lead me to perform as a soprano in my early teens in two operas at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Singing alongside Placido Domingo and Kiri Te Kanawa, in front of the likes of Princess Diana. I was also a pretty bad house, dance, trance & funk DJ in later life (see future Part 2 of this blog if I ever get around to it.)
During my primary school education at Frampton Cotterell C of E, I found myself in singing competitions. I can’t believe I chose to enter these. I was stage-shy for sure. I still get nervous thinking about when I performed Rod Stewarts ‘Sailing’. To this day I still cannot listen to that song at ease. I am sure that this is partly because I think I came 4th out of 5 in the competition. I actually dislike that song now, but I do like one of Rod’s other songs, though not for whom the song is supposedly about:
In the late ‘80’s my family moved a few miles away from Court Road to a nice looking house in Rectory Road, which was on a dead-end street. It was here that with my younger brother Chris, we became daredevil bikers, treetop dwellers, escape artists, boy scouts and more unsavory things. Our new next-door neighbors, twins Tommy & Liam were our partners in crime during seemingly endless long-dry summers, and sudden sad, sheltered winters.
My next track is from Michael Jacksons ‘Bad’ Album. The evocative:
Social injustice and struggles bundled up into a pop song and driven into a malleable mind. Crikey. Actually the album stands out in my memory as the soundtrack to rainy weekend mornings in Dad’s car by a football pitch. Dad was a referee and refs have to get to the ground very early for a pitch inspection. Often these outings were pointless early morning journeys due to waterlogged or frozen surfaces, but fun and exciting as well. I love football and enjoyed going places with Dad as an adventure. However, when the match was on, after hearing 22 grown men calling your Dad a W*nker, one might have started believing it.
In the early ‘90’s my parents’ marriage was breaking down. In a desperate attempt to save it, Dad made one more promise. A promise of a new beginning in Watford, north of London. The mother of my life-long friend Rhianna (aka Buddy) played this next song a lot and it summed things up for me at that time. Not necessarily the message, but certainly the mood.
5. Ralph McTell – Streets of London
So we upped and left my home town Bristol. We left our childhood friends and headed to a very different part of the country. I began a new primary school in the final few terms of the final year before ‘Big School’. This meant that I had no real groups of friends as a support network to carry with me into the wilds of the modern day jungle that is senior school. Already an introvert, I turned in on myself even more. Confused and scared about the sadness at home and the arguments echoing around our new fancy, but hollow house. The Tree-House and the woods in our amazing garden certainly gave my brother and I some joy and my bicycle became an outlet from what was going on inside. The end was nigh, and that seemed fine by me, as I knew my mum would be happier.
At around this time I remember doing a silly little thing, calling a girlfriend on the phone, singing and playing on my keyboard a song to her. She and my brother probably still believe I had written it for her. Actually it was a badly adapted version of ‘Yesterday once more’ by the Carpenters. I can’t bring myself to link their songs here, nor can I link many of Neil Diamond’s songs. There are too many cheesy classics to choose only one, but many of the songs from these artists were ingrained in my head as my brother and I, for some reason, would often watch the VHS of the ‘The Carpenter’s story’ and ‘The Jazz Singer’. No idea why, but anytime I hear their songs it whisks me back to a hazy and sometimes tear-filled time. I guess they were fitting of the soppy time we were having, time interspersed with WWF Wrestle-Mania and the live re-creating of it, often on my suffering brother.
The next track that I would want with me on a desert island is an odd one. Though certainly not from one of the Operas I performed in, it is a selection from an album of songs, which hark of drama and power. From the first Grown-Up show we saw in the West End Theatres, it also reminds me of the day we crashed our canal boat when we holidaying with Rhianna and her family, into another boat. The fuming owner of the other boat came charging at our parents and was screaming at them. We hunkered down next to a Getto-blaster and in very uncool fashion listened to and read all of the lyrics to all of Andrew Lloyd Webbers songs from The Phantom of the Opera.
6. All I Ask of You, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber- as performed by Crawford and Brightman
I then remember a trip to Disneyland in Florida around the time of the world cup in the USA. Every kids dream for sure, but when we returned home, the harsh reality of my Dad’s broken promises hit us all and my Mum had had enough.
We moved again to a new house with my Mum. She had a new love in her life, Phil, who has now been by her side longer than my father was. The house was next to the Grand Union Canal in Croxley Green. A house she still owns, but none of us have lived in for over a decade. Here began my years of grunge, vodka, girls, Stella Artois, and Football, though not always in that order. I player-managed a football team of my own age category, as part of the large club Nascot Wood Rangers. I remember the clubs Christmas party. It must have had 12 teams or so, it was big event. I remember once again being cajoled into singing. This time by a mate, Stuart, who chose a song he loved, but I didn't know at the time. Big mistake. It was ‘Should I stay or should I go?’ by the Clash. Not one of my favorites. But Stuart also introduced me to Therapy?, Green Day and Nirvana, just at the best, or maybe the worst time.
It was a pivotal time in my life, looking back. I could have gone off-the-rails with many of the familiar aspects of my comfortable known world crumbling down around me. But this music was like medicine for me. Thrashing and screaming in my mind whilst being able to behave however I wanted on late nights out, without my Mum’s knowledge (up until now anyway), in a band (terrible and failed).
So it really has been impossible for me to pick one track to represent this time in my life. So I’ve gone for three from the same genre. Still love them.
7 c) Lithium – Nirvana
In the end, I just wasn’t cool/angry enough, so I decided to focus on other things, namely getting through school with the best qualifications I could manage. I’m glad I did, even if now I teach only my second-best subject for a living.
During these final years of school, I had a car and all the freedom that it brings. I also had girlfriend. I could have picked Babybirds’ – ‘Your Gorgeous’ for my last track, but it’s just too plastic. These were indeed happy times, but my
un-coolness was confirmed by the type of car I drove, a silver-gold VW polo coupe, and the type of music I listened to almost permanently in it- The Beatles. The Fab Four became a large part of my audible life and have remained as such. So for my last song I’m going to pick one of my top 3 from them. It’s impossible to chose my very favorite, but this one always seems to follow me around, and events in my life enhance it’s meaning.
That’s my selection for the first 17 or so years of my life. Maybe I’ll get around to doing another one of these posts about my adult life.
Going back to the actual format of the Desert Island Disc programme, castaways get to choose a luxury to have on the island with them. The luxury is a simple choice for me, a bicycle. It wouldn’t be the first sandy island i'd take my beloved bicycles to.
And the track that I would save if they were being washed away by the sea? In My Life, by The Beatles, for sure.
Other noteworthy mentions - Nick Drake, Skunk Anansie, Jungle and trance music in general. French house and all things funky.
Can you help?
Castaways are entitled to a book. Often people choose one they love, but I think it should be a book I haven’t read. What’s the point in taking one already read? Any suggestions?
What are your Desert Island discs? I would love to hear them.