When Words Fail – Music Speaks. The Influence of Music on My Life.

Music has played a huge role in my life and I’m sure this must be the case for most people. Music is like scent: a song played on the radio can evoke memories of a time long past or of a person who is no longer here. I only have to hear The Who and I can remember my brother playing it at full blast in his bedroom.  I hear ‘Billy don’t be a Hero’ by the Nottingham band, Paper Lace and I am back in Infant 2 with Mrs Bradshaw, eagerly lining up so that she will put the record on just one more time. I hear Saint-Saëns’s Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux and I am in Sissie Smith’s ballet studio en pointe and just then one bar of Rio by Duran Duran and I’m back in love with Simon le Bon circa 1982. Music can bring back the emotional pain of a failed relationship or return us to the happiest years of our life.

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As a child, I grew up with very young parents. My parents always believed in the saying, ‘Buy the car you can afford and the house that you can’t.’ We grew up in a 1930s house in a very quiet area of Nottingham called Nuthall. My parents spent most of their money on doing up the house and so from a very early age, we were used to making our own entertainment.

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My Dad had a HMV stereogram in the front room. Every Sunday, after one of my Mum’s spectacular roast dinners, we would listen to some of his records. Music was hugely important to my parents. My Dad loved to educate himself about classical music. He had subscribed to a classical music record collection and as he played the records, he would tell me about the composer and his music. Sometimes, we would do a music quiz, where you had to guess the name of the composer. I can remember him playing me Handel’s Messiah, Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood from Peer Gynt, and Bach’s Harpsicord concertos. I really loved the latter and for many years wished I could have my own harpsichord, although I had to make do with the piano.

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My favourite classical music was always something to do with ballet. From a very early age, ballet was a huge part of my life. I was a scholar at the Royal Academy of Dancing. I remember my parents buying me a Tchaikovsky ballet collection with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty on it. I would dance to this for hours; imagining myself as Margot Fonteyn. I also loved Rachmaninov’s piano concertos and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Rhapsody in Blue is a mix of classical and jazz music. My Dad used to get me to listen to the different parts and levels of orchestration and see if I could recognise each instrument. This was one of my favourite games to play. If I listen to the music now, I find myself doing it without even thinking.

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I learnt to play the piano and read music from an early age as it was good training for my ballet. My Mother found us a very illustrious teacher named Frederick Parnell. Mr Parnell and his wife were incredibly gifted musically and I think his wife played the accordion. Sadly I took his talent for granted, as I more fascinated that he could dunk a digestive biscuit in his coffee at least four times, without it melting into the hot liquid.

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My Dad must have believed that having good taste in music meant that you could appreciate all genres from classical to pop. We listened to pop music a great deal as well as music from the fifties and sixties that my Dad had grown up with. I loved listening to Simon and Garfunkel and I still do. Their beautiful voices and harmonies with a kind of folk rock sound, also incorporated many elements of other music styles such as Latin and Gospel. They made political statements in such songs as Richard Cory and Silent Night / 7 O’clock News, in which they sampled the news bulletin from CNN. My brother convinced me when I was very small, that our dad was Paul Simon. His evidence was a coat that Paul Simon wore on the Bridge Over Troubled Water album from 1970. My dad also had the same coat, so it had to be true. I adore Bridge over Troubled Water. It begins quietly and then builds to a huge crescendo, much like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, almost like an anthem that you would sing at the Last Night of the Proms or in a tiny school assembly hall. I love all of Paul Simon’s solo work and as my dad often says,

‘Paul Simon couldn’t write a bad song even if he tried.’

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My Dad also introduced me to musicals. He was a huge fan of Alan Jay Lerner and Lionel Bart. I can remember the first time that My Fair Lady came onto the television with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. I was attracted to the musical by its Cecil Beaton designed décor and costumes. As I have become older, I really can appreciate the clever lyrics of Lerner especially in such songs as I’ve Grown Accustomed to her Face or Why Can’t the English? It also has some of the most beautiful melodies every written. I have since seen the musical in London with Martine McCutcheon and Jonathan Pryce, but it was nowhere near as glamorous. In fact, just writing this now, makes me want to watch the film all over again.

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I always loved the musical Oliver! as it was undoubtedly Lionel Bart’s best and most successful musical. My parents had the soundtrack to The Sound of Music and I listened to it many times with Julie Andrews in the role of Maria. As a young woman, my mother bore an uncanny resemblance to Julie. I was once in our local Co-op supermarket and someone asked for my Mother’s autograph, believing her to be Miss Andrews. My Mother thought it was hilarious. As if Julie Andrews, the Hollywood star would be buying a sliced loaf and a tin of baked beans in a tiny village outside of Nottingham!

My Mum was very much into pop music. I caught her in the back room singing into a hairbrush a few times. It was to be expected really, as she wasn’t much more than a teenager when my brother and I were born. Most of my earliest television memories are of watching Top of the Pops with her. She always listened to David Bowie and when she played his Young Americans album it seemed to be such a departure from his usual sound and appeared to be embracing the Studio 54 culture of the disco sound. If I hear the title track now, I can recall singing along to it in the back room in the seventies with my Mum wearing a green polo neck jumper with long gold chains around her neck. My Mum also loved David Essex, who became my first crush. She also introduced me to Elton John, Diana Ross and Rod Stewart.

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As I became a little older, my Dad introduced my brother and I to The Beatles and The Beach Boys. I must have been about ten when my brother received the Blue Beatles Greatest Hits compilation album for Christmas. That Christmas, we listened to the songs from the late sixties. My Dad would educate us about George Martin, a classically trained musician and arranger, who became The Beatles’ producer and many consider him to be the fifth Beatle. George Martin had encouraged the Beatles to orchestrate their music and to add additional instruments apart from mere guitars and drums. For example; Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby make use of a string quartet. He also made use of brass, woodwind and even the harpsichord and steam organ, as well as using experimental sounds produced from tape loops, vari-speed and editing. My Dad would once more encourage my brother and I to spot the instrument. We also became expert at saying which Lennon and McCartney songs had been written by Paul and which by John.

My education of The Beach Boys took a lot longer to sink in. I liked some of the early sounds of The Beach Boys, but I failed to understand how someone who had written so many seemingly fickle songs about surfing, could be classed as a musical genius. Now, one of my favourite songs is God Only Knows. When I saw Brian Wilson perform Pet Sounds recently, I finally understood why he was such a genius. The performance was pure magic. even though Brian Wilson is not really ‘all there’ anymore and has to be led on and off stage.

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As childhood began to fade and give way to the teenage years, I found myself moving away from what my parents liked. Like my Mum, I was a huge lover of Pop Music. The early eighties with its flamboyant new romantic era, meant that I had no end of bands to pledge my allegiance to. I became a huge Duranie: a lover of Duran Duran. Even now if I hear Rio it can take me back to the era of frilly shirts and knickerbockers. I also loved Wham and Nick Heyward. I remained faithful to George Michael over the years and his solo albums are amongst my favourite albums of all time.

My brother was a couple of years older than me and I was also heavily influenced by his music taste during his teenage years. He loved The Small Faces, The Who, and The Smiths. I saw the rock opera, Tommy with him one evening; it enabled a shared sibling bond. For a while, he would play The Byrds song, Turn, Turn, Turn. When he died five years ago, I heard it on the radio a few days after his death. I found it quite healing and it seemed almost profound in its message, and highly apt, that there is a time and a season for everything including life and death.

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I’ve been influenced in my musical taste from the early records my father played me right through to the influences of people I met at University, relationships I have had and friends I have met over the past thirty odd years.  I still like to keep informed about the latest music, but I must admit that much of it is no longer to my taste. My husband and I are pleased that vinyl has now returned and many acknowledge that it is still the best way to listen to music. Over the past few years, we’ve bought many vinyl albums to replace our cd and digital collection.

Now the baton of musical influence has been passed onto my daughter, who loves to doctor our playlists so she can listen to Taylor Swift or Little Mix.  I wonder if she’ll be reminiscing with her grandchildren about them one day? You never know. For as my Grandad once told me, there was a time when the music of Bing Crosby was considered offensive!

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