A lot of rubbish has been written about music over the years, which is not surprising – it is a very difficult thing to write well about. Conveying the emotions that music can produce is a task probably beyond the reach of even the English language. This can make listening to music one loves a lonely business. Often, having been enraptured by some new CD, I’ve manically called friends and urged them, with varying levels of inarticulacy, to share the experience: ‘You’ve got to hear this song! It’s like, so, um, amazing . . . it’s got this singer . . . there’s this astonishing drum solo . . .’ The attempt always ends in failure, the phone receiver pressed against the speaker, my friend’s non-committal response usually a reluctant ‘Um, sounds great.’ This is why it is so rare – and so heart-warming – to read a book like Giles Smith’s Lost in Music, which conveys what it means to live and love pop music with such warmth and accuracy.
Giles Smith is probably best known for his always-amusing sporting column in The Times. Lost in Music is not about sport but it is similarly suffused with his trademark self-deprecation and humour. There are many music books, most for the specialist or the enthusiast: Lost in Music succeeds because it is for everyone. It taps that familiar male obsessiveness that makes Nick Hornby’s books so successful. It has the same humanity as that of a good novel.
Lost in Music will ring bells with anyone who has fallen for a catchy melody. While some of Smith’s tics seem inexplicable even to me – searching music shops for records that don’t exist, for example – most of what he says is so recognizable that it’s like watching my own reflection in a slanted mirror. He lies to his friends about his first record purchase (the long-forgotten A Windmill in Amsterdam and not, as he will tell you, the Beatles), buys an album because he liked the single, thinks he’s a ‘pretty nifty’ dancer in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Music, away from the gigs and the lights and the television cameras, is intensely personal. Writing a whole book about it is to expose the inside of one’s brain to public examination, which is why I always think of Giles Smith simply as Giles.
Giles may be a successful writer and a journalist, but he wears his achievements lightly. Reading Lost in Music is like standing in the pub and listening to a particularly well-executed anecdote. His story is a familiar one: first school, then university, then the search for a job. He is disarming about the details, describing his struggle with Hodgkin’s disease and an always complicated relationship with his father. All this is told through the prism of the music he was listening to or playing at the time. It highlights how memories have a funny way of reappearing whenever we hear a long-forgotten song.
Lost in Music is also about pursuing a dream. Lots of people over the decades have fantasized about being a pop star, and Giles is no exception. Today’s popular television competitions – Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, Stars in Their Eyes – mine the appeal of this dream, where ordinary people become celebrities. A lot of pretentious nonsense is written about the attraction of pop celebrity but, writing about Sting – lead singer of the Police, still popular worldwide after thirty years – Giles puts it rather more clearly:
I really fancied Sting’s job. Great pay: the best pay. Superb hours, too . . . Not that I wanted to make records that sounded like his, but I was certainly on for the lifestyle. Concerts, fans. Pop music. Pop stardom.
Having failed to master the guitar, Giles reluctantly turned to the piano, though regretting the ‘restricted ability to strike poses of a rock ’n roll nature while playing it’. One thing led to another: Giles travelled on, and frequently fell off, the frustrating path towards pop stardom. Relic, Plod, Pony, the Orphans of Babylon, the Cleaners from Venus: these were all failed bands with appalling names of which Giles was a member, all bands that snuffed it before they learned to breathe.
The book is also full of hilarious and touching anecdotes, each reflecting his self-deprecating personality. One of the reasons I like him so much is that he devotes an entire chapter of Lost in Music to one of pop history’s most maligned creatures, Nik Kershaw. For those who were not watching Top of the Pops in the Eighties, Nik Kershaw was a star whose flash barely reached the pan. His breakthrough hit was released in 1984; he was on the Live Aid concert bill with Bob Geldof and Paul McCartney in 1985; his career was finished by 1986. He was though, briefly, one of the biggest celebrities in Britain. Giles knew Kershaw better than most, having met him in Colchester on three or four drunken occasions. Each encounter ran something like this:
Giles: Nice gig tonight, Nick.
Nick: Oh, er, thanks.
Giles: Well, er, see you next time.
Nick: Sure, yeah, see you, then.
Note the more conventional ‘c’ in ‘Nick’. Giles knew Nik when he was Nick, before he was famous. Giles was delighted to have known Kershaw when he was only a local celebrity. When Nik appeared in a white boiler suit on Top of the Pops, surrounded by cooing teenage girls, he watched with the loyalty of a football fan, or with the fear of a mother watching her child play the recorder in public for the first time. Most watching Kershaw worshipped him in that first televised performance; Giles could tell he was terrified.
I have never knowingly listened to a Kershaw record, but I have my own Kershaw moment. My semi-detached house is next door to the childhood home of Andrew Ridgeley, once famous for being half of the Eighties pop duo Wham! It was his misfortune that the other half was the now world-famous George Michael. George Michael seemed to do everything in Wham! – sing, dance, do that wrist-clapping thing – while Ridgeley slouched around and mimed guitar. Ridgeley later became my favourite, for obvious reasons, but I only ever met his parents. Mr and Mrs Ridgeley invited my family to tea when we moved in. Unfortunately, neither my parents nor I then knew who Ridgeley or Wham! or even George Michael were. This meant an uncomfortable moment when, inevitably, the time came to parade their son’s framed golden discs. We were never asked to tea again.
Taste in music is an endlessly divisive thing: in some circles, declaring one song better than another is simply asking for a punch-up (at least). Giles recognizes that musical preferences are person-specific, time-specific, place-specific: there is no universal rule. When he says that he has never listened to the musical ‘legend’ David Bowie, he explains it is because ‘he was liked by someone at school whom I didn’t like very much’. That’s all, no existential critique, no objection on grounds of fashion, no reference to the music itself.
Giles will never persuade me to like the soppier bits of Stevie Wonder; but I like the way he admits that ‘it would [not] be much of an exaggeration to say that . . . most of my feelings were Stevie Wonder’s idea’. We learn a great deal about a person from their musical experiences. Anyone, you might say, could write their own version of Lost in Music: but few have done so as agreeably as Giles Smith.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 24 © Donald Winchester 2009
About the contributor
Donald Winchester has written for Sp!ked, Vision and Vice. Half-American, half-British, he works in publishing and now spends much of his free time dancing in his room to folk rock and electro-pop music.