Sarah Hall, OK Computer by Radiohead (1997)
Music is a great recalling device. Some songs take you back to particular experiences, periods of life, or even a single seismic event. But I’m not very good at retreating into memories: relived narratives, grand romantic nostalgias, past times, they seem to collapse when I try. I prefer an optimistic, sensual now. Does that make me some kind of presentist? Maybe. One of the bands I like best has this exact effect – an amplification of the moment, so the feeling when listening is a kind of enhancement of life in real time, rather than past references.
I’ve been listening to Radiohead for more than 20 years. I picked up on them around the time of The Bends in 1995, when it seemed every amateur band was trying to do a cover of High and Dry. While I was studying at St Andrews in Scotland I worked in a bar, the West Port Hotel, then famous for unusual food (pickled octopus baguettes), high-grade coffee, art exhibitions, live music, free-pouring of spirits, local and international punters – lots of them on the creative writing and philosophy courses or at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. Kate (KT) Tunstall and Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) both played at the West Port regularly in former incarnations, so I should say any cover versions were remarkably good.
When OK Computer was released in 1997, I’d saved up enough money from the bar work to visit a friend from my writing course in New York. I was listening to Let Down as the plane descended over Manhattan and I got my first, stupefied look at the city. I listened to No Surprises while getting tattooed in Fun City Tattoo on St Mark’s, by the extraordinary and terrifying artist Jonathan Shaw.
Perhaps such experiences would have been awesome anyway, but the album is so layered, imaginative, spatial and strange that, like the city, it is its own dreamworld. Like a great short-story collection, the songs have continuity but are atomised, experimental, synthetic and orchestral, soulful, frightening, intelligent, and deeply moving. The band is a brilliant combination of talented musicians, but Thom Yorke has a voice with timbre somewhere between the angel of death and a flaming, impervious martyr on a pyre. There’s something very intimate and connecting about his vocals, so they seem to inhabit the mind. It’s the combination of dynamic tone and the abstract, poetic, meaningful lyrics – a quality of inner narrative, the voice of your thoughts.
The album, the city, the experiences, all came together and would go on to help create one of my novels, The Electric Michelangelo. It should be an album of concrete, locational reference. But it isn’t. Every time I listen to OK Computer it feels unburdened, freely transportive. I’m not reliving that time in my 20s or remembering skyscrapers at sunset, the frightening needle. Last time I listened to it I was driving through flat, dun-coloured Norfolk farmland, which became no less cinematic, no less exceptional or atmospheric than New York City under the effect of the music. I don’t know how exactly, but the album always does what it did then: enhance current experiences, intoxicate anew.
Sarah Hall is a novelist and short-story writer. Her latest novel, Burntcoat, will be released in November.
Sandeep Parmar, Scarlet’s Walk by Tori Amos (2002)
At 7am on September 11, 2001, I was awoken by a phone call from my father that was mostly incoherent panic. I was in Los Angeles, three hours behind New York City, and I was sleeping in the bed of a man I would not go on to marry. Planes; something else; come home. To Ventura, a sleepy suburb an hour north of Los Angeles, where I’d lived most of my life. That morning, the freeways in downtown were unusually empty. Cars stopped at traffic lights with their windows rolled down. Our radios blared talk. The days that followed were the start of wall-to-wall news coverage, a mainstay in the 21st century. About a week later, regular TV programming resumed.
I had been a Tori Amos fan since first hearing the track Winter from her 1992 album Little Earthquakes on a Sony Walkman radio, hiding out in a closet while my parents argued. But when Amos covered Tom Waits’s wistful song Time on The Late Show with David Letterman, a week after 9/11, omitting the lines about boys splashing into the streets, I knew that the country I’d grown up in – as a British citizen with a lowly green card and a Californian twang – was forever changed.
And that day changed us all: how we felt about being American and what being an American meant. We singled out the “sleeper” enemy within, and, for the first time in my living memory, we did it in a way that was racially identifiable. By the time I moved back to England in 2002, privileged to travel freely across the world, America became another lost homeland in a familial thread of immigrant losses from India’s Partition onwards.
Amos’ 2002 album Scarlet’s Walk is an imagined post-9/11 journey from California (“the Ventura”, colloquial for the 101 Freeway, appears in A Sorta Fairytale) to the East Coast. The album narrates an American landscape riddled with suppressed voices, seedy flirtations, crisis and injustice. Its female figure of Scarlet traces a lost America, a nation that would turn on itself, pointing madly at people like me and my brown family. (Our neighbours asked why we didn’t plant an American flag in our front lawn.)
Amos’ compassion and revulsion for what America had become or more likely had always been – a land celebrating immigrants alongside a foundational violence against otherness – spoke to me deeply. The daughter of a Methodist minister, Amos is also part Cherokee: her song Wampum Prayer points to the genocide of Native peoples underpinning an ideological project by the founding fathers to rival all nations. I Can’t See New York and Pancake address the World Trade Center attacks directly while balancing individual vulnerability with historical hypocrisies.
The album’s closing track, Gold Dust, is an elegy for lost innocence.
I was in NYC three days before the attacks and a boy I didn’t really like invited me to tour the twin towers with him. I refused. I did not know then its fated significance as a vantage point over the previous century, nor could I have imagined the loss of so many lives to come at home and in the misguided War on Terror. The album’s closing track, Gold Dust, is an elegy for lost innocence, orchestra and vocals dipping to a whisper over the base of Amos’ signature Bosendorfer piano. Her album is a reminder of mourning. Not for the many who died, but for a country to which no one – myself included – can ever return.
Sandeep Parmar is a poet and critic.
Neil Gaiman, Diamond Dogs by David Bowie (1974)
Diamond Dogs is my favourite David Bowie album, which means it’s more or less (take a little Lou Reed, give a little Elvis Costello) my favourite album.
Which is odd, because it’s not the best David Bowie album. It’s definitely not the most iconic. It didn’t change anything for ever in the way that other Bowie albums changed the face of music. It exists at the cigarette-stub- end of Bowie’s Ziggy haircut, as a resting place for songs from a dead musical based on 1984, and a pencil sketch of an ambitious science-fiction project that never happened. I had discovered Bowie in 1972. I was just 12 years old, a scholarship boy in a minor prep school in Sussex, obsessed by science fiction and fantasy and horror, with no music that spoke to me directly. And then I heard the song Space Oddity on the radio, and I got the same buzz from Bowie that I did from science fiction. A friend had Hunky Dory, and I listened to it. My cousin Adam had The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
I was already a 13-year-old fan when Diamond Dogs came out. I would sit and draw Bowie’s face with the Aladdin Sane lightning bolt. I put the Diamond Dogs cover poster up on the inside of my bedroom door.
Diamond Dogs is not a coherent story, but I’m not sure I wanted a coherent story. The inner sleeve’s photographs of a broken city, as if seen in a damaged kaleidoscope, aren’t coherent either, but they paint a place. And the world of Diamond Dogs is a place.
My love of Diamond Dogs is not about the songs, or the story, or even the fragments of science fiction that glisten through the album. Orwell’s 1984 is there, obviously, but it seemed littered with so much more than that: mutant eyes and crying lizards, all in a rotting city that had once been New York. It’s not even the juxtaposition of delicious images, produced (I learned a year later) by Burroughsian cut-ups and randomness.
No, it’s my favourite album because it was mine – in a way no other Bowie album had been, or would be again. I had spent a year or more listening to the albums recorded in the distant past, when I was young: everything from the Deram David Bowie album to Ziggy Stardust. I loved them all, but they had existed before I found them.
Diamond Dogs came out in January 1974. It was the best album because of ear candy like Rebel Rebel; because it contained complex lyrics on Sweet Thing and Candidate that made me feel like I was being shown a 12-hour drama through a letterbox slot; because the opening monologue pronounces the album unashamed science fiction; because it sent me to the school library aged 13 to borrow 1984, back then only a decade away; because the track listing on the cassette was all jumbled for reasons of time, so that story, whatever it was, and that sequence was what I first encountered and responded to, built up in my head, which meant that it would be another 32 years until I realised I could reorder the track listing on my computer and listen to Diamond Dogs in a way that felt right to me.
It fed the part of me that made things up.
It’s not that Diamond Dogs made me a science-fiction writer. (I didn’t really grow up to be a science-fiction writer.) But it fed the part of me that made things up, that fell for dystopias and mutants, for rotting skyscrapers and rats the size of cats, shaped the inside of my 13- year-old head and made me who I am.
So it’s my favourite.
Neil Gaiman is an author and screenwriter.
Ben Okri, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959)
There are some rare albums that seem to lift from their physical condition and become part of the decor and mood of a life. They seem not to be music any more but one of the things that shape you, like the home you grew up in, or your earliest toys, the fragrance of your mother’s hair, or the street where you first fell in love. Though music eminently has this capacity, it is often the case that even the greatest music draws attention to itself as music. Very rarely does it become an invisible fact of a life, woven into it like clouds in the sky, or trees along a road.
Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue first made itself real in my life on a rainy morning in Lagos, in the ’70s, when for the first time I was alone in the house. I was around 17 and the emptiness of the house brought me to something resembling an existential decision. I had to decide what I wanted to do with my life. All that morning while it rained, I had been thinking. And while I had been thinking, Kind of Blue had been playing on the turntable.
The music passed into thought, then into the sonic space in which my decision played out in ways unknown to me. That is to say, the music passed into the silence of the mind. My decision, which cannot be elaborated here, has led, through the turns and revelations of life, to where I am now, and where I will be tomorrow. That day there was Miles and Mozart and the rain and the smells and muted sounds of the ghetto where we had temporarily found ourselves, and my father’s living room, with its invisible shrine; and throughout the room, throughout the house, there was the substantiality of his absence.
In some way it is always playing somewhere inside me.
Kind of Blue has gone on playing a similar role in my life. Now it is so imprinted on my being that I don’t need to listen to it to hear it. In some way it is always playing somewhere inside me, in a constant spirit loop, which is the result of such a saturation of listening.
It is said, among the many strange things claimed for this album, that rather than being an urban paean, a dithyramb for the lost souls that need soothing, rather than being this tender lament, this heartfelt cool breeze on the hot skins of those who walked the narrow paths of the cities, it was really a Proustian moment of memory. Better to say it was a Milesian recollection of a moment when he was back in the South and heard music floating over the houses late in the night. That’s the story at the plangent heart of the music.
The album, released in my birth year, was based on modality. It was created on little rehearsal and with the band having only the sketchiest notion of what they were to play. They had just hints of melodic lines on which to improvise. There were five tracks in all, recorded on two separate dates with about a month intervening. The result was what is considered one of the greatest albums ever recorded. Its influence transcends music.
I listened to it at the beginning of my writing life and it was one of the pieces of music I listened to all through writing The Famished Road. It helped keep me sane through the long, lonely nights and wild flights of imagination, always bringing me back home.
Now I listen to the silence while I write, because all the music I need is playing in me, in a spiritual, kind of blue way.
Ben Okri is a novelist and poet.
Emily Berry, To Bring You My Love by P J Harvey (1995)
I first saw P J Harvey performing in 1996 at the LA2 in central London, a venue that is now a ghost of polluted air hovering above a building site on Charing Cross Road. As I remember it she was wearing a bright-yellow jumpsuit and made that outfit live up to its name by springing about all over the stage like a cricket who had taken on the form of a divine woman. Sometime before that I’d bought a second-hand copy of To Bring You My Love on CD; it had a luxurious matt inlay sleeve depicting Harvey drowning like Ophelia in the Millais painting. Her songs were so furious and bereft they immediately reached inside me and coloured all my loneliest parts red. Caught between deserts and floods, her music seemed not only to understand life’s emergency but to be powered by it.
I turned 15 in 1996, and a teenager is in need of a war cry even if they don’t know yet what their particular war will be. I had begun to suspect that heartbreak was in some ways a permanent condition, and if it was, how much better if that agony could be made gorgeous and baroque. For a long time I thought the lyric about cursing God in the title song was invoking the “coastguard above”, which seems fitting for an album that speaks to your most shipwrecked feelings; though if the god in To Bring You My Love is a coastguard, he’s an unusually sadistic one, with little concern for whether his charges are waving or drowning. The American poet Mary Ruefle declared that a poem “is supposed to be preparing me for my death”; I’d say the same is true of songs, and P J Harvey’s are among the very best at it.
All those evenings spent listening toTo Bring You My Love in my bedroom took me to the edge of something, and this must be how it gave me – as the kids say these days – so much life.
Emily Berry is a poet.
This is an edited extract from Long Players: Writers On The Albums That Shaped Them, edited by Tom Gatti, Bloomsbury, September 28, $34.99.