Instrumental Illness

“If music be the food of love, you must be terrible in bed.” – Naughty Shakespeare.

What’s the first album you ever bought? Mine was Jamiroquai – A Funk Odyssey. Pretty cool eh? Well it’s not true, that’s just what I tell people was the first album I ever bought. The real, embarrassing answer I’ll save until the end. Brace yourself, it’s bad.

I refuse, however, to concede that I have bad taste in music. I don’t think anyone would admit that about themselves. It’s admitting that we’re not as cool as we think, like a forty-year-old who snaps out of their middle-aged fugue long enough to realise they’re wearing a ‘Bazinga’ t-shirt and crocs.

Naturally I went through the obligatory shared hallucination that groups like S Club 7 were good (no that’s not my first album, it’s worse than that), and came out of the other side realising that popular opinion was only a useful guide if sustained. Aside from that, the only barometer you have is obviously just what you like, whether genre, or artists you admire intellectually. I’ve certainly followed artists that I like up to and beyond the point that I can still enjoy them. One of my favourite musicians, John Frusciante (former guitarist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) had an incredible run of solo albums, but he seemed to be on a mission to alienate every single person that could ever enjoy his output, leading to this:

Christ it’s bad.

But we all have artists who we will continue to follow no matter what they do. Just look at Neil Young’s dreadful synth-pop album from the 80s (it’s real), Bowie’s jungle album, or everything Ed Sheeran’s ever done. We latch onto the artists themselves, not just the output. Annoyingly, image and personality seem to have a big impact on our enjoyment of music, which just makes Ed Sheeran’s popularity even more confusing.

To me, the only thing more annoying than the question ‘what sort of music do you like?’ is the response ‘a bit of everything.’ I’ve been guilty of saying both, but if someone really gets the same enjoyment out of Chopin’s nocturnes or John Cage’s 4’33″ that they do from listening to Slayer or DJ Otzi, then their brain must be an entirely smooth blob, meeting all experiences with no emotion, only a blank stare and a bland, monotone murmur that they witnessed an event. Having taste is as much about what you don’t like as what you do. Imagine looking through a friend’s music library to see if you have any common favourites, and seeing the entirety of all music. They may as well have nothing. Those people are eating rice for every meal. Their favourite programme is the test card. Their favourite Pokémon is Ditto.

I definitely think you can tell more about a person by asking what music they don’t like. I’m not big on negativity, but if I meet anyone that tells me they hate Bruno Mars, I’ll pat them on the back and invite them round for dinner and compliments. Conversely, if someone tells me they don’t like The Beatles, I have to question whether they’re being deliberately obtuse in an attempt to feign discernment, or if I’ve accidentally hallucinated a piece of talking furniture.

I mean, each to their own etc.

To get lofty for a moment, there is something incredible to me about music. If we were living back in the days of the classical elements of the Ancient Greeks, who considered everything to be made up of fire, water, earth and air, there’s something elemental about music in my opinion that earns it a place among that bullshit list. It feels essential, all-pervading. Almost as though some songs exist as Platonic ideals that were plucked from another plane. Not created, but discovered alongside mathematical constants and scientific formulae, waiting to be channelled through some willing genius. It hits harder than the written word (this blog aside), and you don’t need any prior knowledge to appreciate it. Certain songs just swell in your chest, and change your thoughts. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Bridge Over Troubled Water does that for me. As does Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah, Five Years by Bowie, No Children by The Mountain Goats, Today with Your Wife by Jonathan Coulton.

And of course, the song that started it all, Witch Doctor by The Cartoons. That’s right. The first album I ever bought was ‘Toonage’ by the Danish novelty band The Cartoons, who wore weird plastic hairpieces and dressed in sort of colourful zoot suits. Awful.

But I learned my lesson, turned my self around and discovered The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album. No more weird hair and stupid colourful clothes for me thanks.

Next time on the bandwagon, I condemn, at length, anyone who’s ever said the phrase ‘cool beans’.