Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


July 9, 2013

6-7-13 Down The Hall

Sometimes some snatch of some long-forgotten song echoes down the corridor of your memory just to hang out and recall some scene you were once part of; it doesn’t get in the way or interrupt whatever you’re doing, you just think, “Oh yep, I remember that, there and them…”
This sensation is commonplace. Frank Zappa called records ‘electronic folk-music’, though the music stored in corners of our own folk-memory feels unique even when it’s the soundtrack to crowd-scenes.
Example: I had a little epiphany one night driving home from the Red Star package depot – early hours of the morning, deadline grit under my eyelids, the road dipping through Birmingham’s underpasses; a relatively short journey that always felt like that long scene in Tarkovski’s ‘Solaris’.
I’d flicked the radio to BBC3, hoping for something calming, hoping to avoid cheery DJ banter, poptastic selections, country music or the kind of easy-listening orchestrations of chart hits that peppered the dead hours to honour contractual agreements with the Musicians’ Union… and I should say: good luck to them, skilled musicians all, but blimey, I wished they’d take that opportunity to rip it up a bit.
As I emerged on the roller-coaster on Great Charles St. before plunging into the next tunnel, I realised that I was watching the passing rectilinear concrete architecture to the sound of a string quartet. Until that moment I’d always thought that The Quartet was the preserve of purists, a form of musical equation in which the initial statements were investigated and passed around. Scholars didn’t so much listen to them as give credit for the working-out.
I couldn’t even say what particular piece or players I was listening to. In my frazzled home-run for bed and oblivion. On empty urban roads, my mind was wide open to this perfectly ordered exercise in logical closure. Me, completely unqualified, listening to a string quartet and enjoying it! I felt like I’d sneaked into a room where adults were gathered.
I struck lucky when I went out the next day looking for cassettes of quartets to try out. In the local WHSmith I found, of all things, Janacek’s two quartets – angular, edgy pieces, and a bit thrilling with my new ears on. Fate was obviously on my side because a couple of days later in town I picked up a tape with Ravel on on side, Debussy on the other. Again I felt like I was listening to a musical trapeze act – nowhere to hide in a quartet. A couple of bars into the second movement of the Ravel I was in some kind of Monet dream – the light in there!
I listen to quartets now and on one hand it’s the closest I get to a crossword audio-book [The Amadeus Quartet play: “After school, her spell at the menagerie is cut short(7)”], on the other I’m on the road emerging from a deserted night-time underpass off the Aston Expressway
From the sublime to an undulating bass-line that always catches me out when it occurs to me, every damn time. It’s only when I reach the top of its roller-coaster that I remember it’s there to deliver me into the execrable “Up-Town Girl” by Billy Joel. Happily I’ve found that if I can punch to Pause button and switch to Joe Jackson’s ‘Steppin’ Out’ the spud-faced suburban romantic with the knack for a phrase and and memorable riff reliably rescues me from the good-time schlockwave.
Back in ’77 – the 20th century, I have to remind myself – I had a desk in Royds Advertising’s studio, Room 23, in an atmosphere of cigarette smoke and solvents and the peppy pump of BRMB’s news, weather, traffic updates and Pop Classics, Chart Toppers and after this break: New Releases.
The studio’s business rep and turboschmoozer Peter favoured louche suits, raffish ties and shoulder-length blond hair artfully borderline dishevelled. Geoff the studio wrangler arrived on his Moto Guzzi and used an aluminium flight-case for a briefcase. His biker’s luxuriant Vive Zapata! moustache was a tribal thing. At home in Cheltenham he painted abstract landscapes, fascinated, he said, by the classic English Country House regard for symmetries.
The two of them could have been the final casting-choice for a UK remake of Easy Rider. I’d have liked to have stuffed them with peyote and send them off on Geoff’s bike on a journey to find out whether in their Dharma Bum personae Peter’s inner Pirate would put aarr’s on his urbane “Ah!” and whether John Betjeman would step out of Geoff’s feral dreams.
Anyway, the production masterstroke in Down The Hall is that piping riff. Lower the gangplank; nostalgia is coming aboard. As so often with pop tunes, the words are less important than the feel. The lyric is a 3-minute folk-tale.
You were expecting exegesis? Nope, this is just how these soundtracks to our days work. I found the track on YouTube, played it a couple of times as you do, gave those old memories a bit of an airing and then you move on.

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