Putting together a playlist is a less serious, or let’s say a less weighty process than making a compilation tape. A compilation tape is nearly always made for a particular person and hidden in the songs are messages and allusions to experiences that you might have or might wish to share. It’s an articulation of the things you can’t express.
Thankfully, a playlist doesn’t involve the same soul searching. Without digital technology, it would be a mammoth task. With a playing time of 16+ hours and an unknown audience, it is impossible to be so esoteric. The tracks aren't in any order, and apart from a short 'road trip' section, there are no themes. I tried to segue songs with similar tempos and keys. Sometimes there may be a jump from fast to slow to shake things up a bit, but hit "Shuffle" on your Spotify app and you'll get these in a random order anyway. Below are a few of the songs from the playlist and why I included them
Rock Island Line - Lonnie Donegan
My earliest musical memories were of skiffle. In the mid-fifties, I wasn't yet old enough to appreciate the music. Still, I got to know of it because of my uncles who were in a skiffle group like many young people at the time. By 1960 Skiffle had faded and had been mostly eclipsed by rock and roll. The ‘King of Skiffle’ Lonnie Donegan was still around getting hits, and Rock Island line had become a classic song. It would have an enormous influence on John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Page, Hank Marvin, and Roger Daltrey, to name just a few.
I enjoy skiffle partly because of its nostalgic appeal but mostly because it is so manic. Listening to Rock Island Line always makes me smile. Perhaps it’s because of the songs' wildness. Still, skiffle tunes rarely seem to be about love. They are far more comfortable covering subjects like mountain passes (Cumberland Gap), engineering projects (Grand Coulee Dam) and railway lines as in Rock Island Line. The BBC made an excellent documentary about Rock Island Line called ‘The Song That made Britain Rock’ which is certainly worth a look.
Strawberry Fields - The Beatles
Strawberry Fields came out in February 1967 as a double A-side with Penny Lane. It's a massive musical stride from Rock Island Line's jangling simplicity to the dreamy, otherworldliness of Strawberry Fields, but it only took ten years. Like some critics, when Strawberry Fields first came out, I thought it sounded too strange. I was confused by the song and preferred the altogether more conventional Penny Lane (but then I was only 13 at the time).
John Lennon had written the psychedelic Tomorrow Never Knows which had ended the Revolver album a year before. A Day in the Life and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds were both on the Beatles next album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. They typically have the same disassociated song structures, key, time changes, and backward playing tapes as Strawberry Fields. Although groundbreaking, much psychedelic music seems to look back and like Strawberry Fields carries a childhood nostalgia.
No Woman, No Cry - Bob Marley
Musically, my 1970s started and ended with prog rock, probably after sitting through too many twenty-minute drum solos from Neil Young, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell. Although I enjoyed punk, I was just a bit too old for it, but I loved post-punk stuff. Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Graham Parker, The Stranglers were tremendous and are featured quite strongly on the playlist. In the 60s and 70s, I listened to a bit of ska and rocksteady and liked the more relaxed reggae sound, which became more widely known by the middle of the decade.
I first heard Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry in the mid-seventies. I still get a tingle up my spine when I hear the first few organ bars come drifting in through what seems (and on the live version, almost certainly was) a haze of blue ganja smoke. And then, after almost too long an intro that is actually perfect, Bob Marley gets it together enough saunter up to the mic and sing the first line. If you didn’t know before, you’re now in some pretty laid-back territory. The other great thing? There's a beautiful seven minutes of it.
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis - Tom Waits
Tom Waits recorded this song for the album Blue Valentine in 1978. I didn't know anything about him until hearing him on Mike Reed's (the DJ, not the late EastEnder) Pop Quiz. Although he is considered one of America's top ten contemporary songwriters, many people I’ve tried to turn on to Tom Waits find his voice off-putting. Director, Terry Gillian, a big fan, said Waits ‘’Writes songs for the angels and sings them in the voice of Beelzebub’’.
Like many of Tom Waits’ songs, it focuses on a blue-collar character living in a less than fortunate part of society. This bittersweet song is a story about a letter from a prostitute to her former boyfriend telling him about her she’s become a reformed person with a happy new life. In the song, she refers back to her life with Charlie, and you can tell she misses him. The song's start can be quite jarring and almost comical, sung in that deep, gravelly voice Waits' voice ''Charlie I'm pregnant, living on Ninth Street. Right above a dirty book store on Euclid Avenue’’.
China Girl - David Bowie
I spent most of the 1980s listening to the same type of music, particularly Tom Waits, that I’d listened to in the 1970s. I didn’t mind the New Romantics and the Synth bands, and I enjoyed the Ska revival. I thought The Smiths were good. I started listening to Bowie again at the beginning of the decade when he released Ashes to Ashes, and I started listening to stuff from his 'thin white duke' period. Bowie's album Let's Dance was getting many plays, and this was the second single off it.
In a bar I used to go to in the early 1980s there was a screen on the wall (it couldn’t have been any wider than what today would be a portable TV screen) hooked up to their stereo. Pop videos had begun to replace the radio star by then. Although they had been commonly used to promote music for some time, it was around this time that they started to develop into something more than just promo material. I remember the bar's version was the banned one and had caused quite a stir because of its supposedly ‘parodying female Asian stereotypes’ and the nudity in the video.
LDN - Lily Allen
When I was a 16-year-old, I'd buy the New Musical Express and read it from cover-to-cover avidly. On working days, I spent my lunch hours' flipping through album sleeves in music shops to escape from the monotony of working in a shop. This is what most of my friends did, and it seemed that all young men were obsessed with music at that time. Today music plays a significant part in my life. Still, like many other people of my age, I no longer keep up with what’s new, and to me, Lily Allen's LDN from 2006 is pretty ‘out there’.
I’ve always gone for the lyrics, and I like them mixed in with South American rhythms, ska, reggae, and hip hop. When you first hear LDN, you hear a bouncy, cheerful song. Lily is going around London on her bike (there’s a hint that it’s not going to be all roses because we hear ''the filth took away my licence"). Then there's a couple in the next line who she tells us are ‘a pimp and a crack whore’. Under the upbeat melody is a grimmer version of London.
Please listen to the playlist as I’m sure that there will be plenty of stuff on there that you’d like.
Also, I would be very interested to hear what you have to say about the songs and I’d love to hear your comments. Please let me know if there are any glaring exclusions or anything that I shouldn’t have wasted your time on!