When I was eight years old, like all Mormon children, I was interviewed by my local Church leader (the Bishop) to determine my worthiness to be baptised. Eight years old is the age of accountability in Mormonism. There is no infant baptism because they don’t believe in original sin…men are punished for their own sins, not those of their fathers. The act of baptism involves entering a small pool, called a font, with an adult male (usually your father) with both of you dressed completely in white. Once in the water the following prayer is recited, calling you by your full name, “…having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen”. At that point the person who is being baptised is immersed, completely, beneath the water and then brought back.
This is all highly symbolic. The white clothing representing purity and innocence. Falling under the water is the death of the sinful man, emerging from the water represents rebirth and a washing away of all sin. At that moment the person who has been baptised is spotless before God. If they were to die at that exact moment then they would enter into Heaven as a perfect individual, completely free from sin.
That was what happened to me on July 19th, 1981. Two days after my eighth birthday. My dad performed the baptism. It was a big moment for my family.
Just a few months later, in November of 1981 I would be baptised again.
Up to this moment my interest in music had centred, entirely, around my parent’s record collection. The Small Faces, The Kinks, early The Who, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Chris Farlowe, The Byrds, Traffic, Yes, Cream, Cat Stevens…cool cats. In many ways that music would influence much of my own musical interests for years to come. The indie bands I discovered from 1988 onwards would all have had similar record collections to my parents, the Britpop gang would certainly have nodded approvingly as they thumbed through them.
But it wasn’t my music.
It was gifted to me…but I didn’t own it, hadn’t discovered it for myself.
Then I heard “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League on the radio and, in an instant, I had found something that was all mine. It was dramatic, it told a story, it was alien, there were no guitars. I fell for it. Fell for it hard. Fell for it completely. Here was something that sounded, to my eight year old ears, completely modern.
This was a baptism.
I was born again.
Washed free from the choices and decisions of my parents.
I stood, spotless and pure, before the Gods of pop music and repented of my sin…the cardinal sin of the music fan…to allow myself to go along with the sound of the crowd (ahem). I didn’t know that I had sinned, I thought that I had been doing the right thing. I thought that listening to the things that other people had listened to, that other people loved, that other people told me I should like just as they did, was the way of things. I didn’t know that there was other music…but now I did.
I didn’t have to beg and plead with my parents for a copy, they understood what was going on when I asked for it and so it became the first single I owned. It wasn’t the first single I bought (that wouldn’t happen until about four years later…”Al Capone” by Prince Buster if you are interested) but it was the first record in the house that was mine.
I think it must be difficult for people younger than me to hear “Don’t You Want Me” and to hear anything other than a wedding reception floor filler. They love it, of course they do, it’s a genuine pop music classic, but I don’t think they hear it like I heard it in the winter of 1981. It sounded so…futuristic, modern, urgent and important. I didn’t know that at the time, or at least I couldn’t have articulated that then, I can barely articulate it now with my limited vocabulary. But it was a life changing moment, the record that marked the starting point of a love affair with pop music and pop culture that continues to today, almost exactly four decades later.
That same year Depeche Mode released “Just Can’t Get Enough” which would also become a hugely influential track and announce their arrival as one of the most exciting pop groups in the country. I must have heard it too, but it didn’t hit the same way as “Don’t You Want Me”. It was also the year that Soft Cell became stars thanks, in part, to their cover of Gloria Jones’ “Tainted Love”. Another dark, dramatic, futuristic, electro pop hit. Something was happening in British music. While lots of people like to talk about how revolutionary punk was, it had everything to do with attitude and politics and very little to do with the music itself. Lots and lots of boys with guitars, jumping up and down and behaving badly. Hadn’t we seen, and heard, it all before? It was more interesting than the chin stroking prog rock, sure, but it wasn’t what you would call a great leap forward. These big selling, chart topping, electro-popping, hits signalled something genuinely revolutionary…maybe evolutionary, as pop became something new.
Things didn’t register with me until three years later when I heard something else by Depeche Mode on the radio. By this point I was eleven and music still took second place to things like…playing with Action Man, hide and seek, football in the park and running around a lot. I was a kid. That, in 1984, was what kids did. “People are People” I heard at my friend Gary’s house. He had a record player in his bedroom. My memory wants to convince me that it only played seven inch singles…but that can’t be right, can it? He had “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which we listened to a lot and then one day he had “People are People”. Quite why an eleven year old child was doing with this very peculiar record is anyone’s guess, but he did and we listened to it over and over. It made us feel a bit…naughty? It wasn’t the sort of silly pop nonsense of “Green Door”, we couldn’t do our Shakey dance to it. This was something entirely different. We liked it..but we didn’t know if we should or what our parents would make of it.
Isn’t that what great pop music should be?
Shouldn’t a truly great pop song make you feel a bit uncomfortable about playing it to your parents? Either because you think they will just hate it and make some derisory comment about how things were better in their day or about how it isn’t “real” music, or because you just know that, like a sex scene in a film, it’s a bit naughty and everyone is just going to look at the floor until it finishes?
Maybe it’s just me.
This time I didn’t ask for the single, I asked for the whole album and so, on Christmas Day, 1984, I took possession of my first album…”Some Great Reward”. I still didn’t have a record player of my own so I had to listen to it in the sitting room on my dad's one. If you know the album, you know what’s coming.
In our little council house on Craigmount Avenue in Kirkcaldy, after Christmas dinner and after watching something like “The Sound of Music”, I was allowed to play my new record. “Something to Do” brought the comments about “real” music, “Lie to Me” caused a bit of awkward shifting around in seats, “People are People” saw some foot tapping, “It Doesn’t Matter” was called “miserable” and I felt really uncomfortable about the bits when they were singing about kissing, “Stories of Old” had more talk of kissing and bodies moving which made everyone just sit staring at the floor, “Somebody” brought a hushed silence and I could tell my parents thought it was beautiful…
It had all gone pretty much as one would expect for a situation like this.
Two generations trying to understand one another…the older showing patience and tolerance, the younger feeling awkward and not understanding why.
And then it happened.
“Master and Servant”.
The funny falsetto “It’s a lot…it’s a lot…”
Then the pounding beat had everyone nodding their heads and tapping their toes.
“You treat me like a dog…get me down on my knees…”
I wanted to die.
I was eleven.
I had no idea what was going on.
But I knew something wasn’t right.
Something just “felt” uncomfortable.
“I think I’m going to go up to my room now.” I said just as the line about “…as bed as in life” dropped.
To my parents eternal credit they didn’t whip the record off the turntable or make a scene. But I didn’t listen to “Some Great Reward” again until I was a teenager and had my own record player and a pair of headphones.
Just before I turned thirteen Erasure released “Oh L’amour”. It reached number 85 in the charts so goodness knows how I heard of them or it, that information is lost in the mist of time. But I did hear it and the romance of it, the swish and swoop of Andy Bell’s vocal, the beat and the drama…all drew me in. The album it was from, “Wonderland”, was my birthday present that year. Like “Oh, L’amour” it failed to trouble the upper reaches of the charts but I loved it.
I spent hours in my bedroom dancing in front of the mirror to things like “Reunion”…yes, with a hairbrush microphone. White t-shirt, Levis and square toed Doctor Marten shoes, like a little Jimmy Somerville clone. Erasure became vital. They were the perfect pop group. I still adore them today. They were one of the first bands I ever saw in concert, along with the likes of The Communards and Bronski Beat, were my introduction to gay rights and they were entirely responsible for my rejecting the homophobic teaching of my Church. I heard Andy Bell singing about love and longing, I saw the joy on his face as he performed, I laughed at his high camp theatrics and I knew that there was nothing “wrong” with him. I knew he was exactly who he said he was, that he was exactly what he said he was. I loved him. I love him.
These bands and these records were the (un)Holy Trinity who were responsible for showing me the glory and the wonder of electronic music. Over the years I strayed from the path, I fell for the line about “real” music. I allowed certain bands and certain movements to give me an identity. I was sincere in my love for them…Heaven knows where I would have been without some of them, but it wouldn’t be anywhere good. I still love those bands. But the music that first hit me, the songs that mean the most to me, are the ones from those moments when I was searching for something to love, something to belong to me, something I could claim.
Human League, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Eurythmics, The Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat, Communards, Yazoo, Japan, OMD, ABC, Duran Duran…they were the first. Over the past few years, maybe even decades, I have discarded them, packed them away in a box in the furthest corner of my mind. Fortunately they never occupied a space in my mind, they were always in my heart and so, as I have slowly stepped away from certain voices and spaces, I have heard them calling…a whisper from the heart…and I have returned to them. They never left me, I left them.
Praise be, they have forgiven me.
What is exciting about reconnecting with these bands from so long ago is that they are directly responsible for my connecting with new bands and new musical forms. That is what music should do. It should inspire you, move you forward and bestow upon you a desire for more. Music that repeats, music that says the same thing in the same way, can be diverting but it can never be art or modern…it can only ever be artificial and retro.
And so from the past I now find Joon, Glüme, Moth Effect, Lines of Flight, Amongst the Pigeons, Fused, Desire, Anna Meredith, Hannah Peel, Saccades, Dlina Volny, Toby Wiltshire, R. Seiliog, Plantronic, Ditsea Yella, Shelter Calm, Glass Candy, Perturbator, Parralox, Nostalgia Deathstar…do I need to go on?
I am approaching half a century on this planet…I feel fortunate that the things that first excited me about music are inspiring new passions, new loves and new experiences in music. Here's to the past. Here's to the future. Here's to retro-futurism.