My friend Mitch rings up. ‘Guess what my album of the year is?’ He is trying to fool me into suggesting Donald Fagen’s Morph the Cat, for Mitch and I are both Steely Danoraks of long standing. But I know he was a little disappointed by the album, and he knows I wasn’t. I can’t give him the satisfaction. ‘Don’t know,’ I say. ‘What is your album of the year?’ ‘The Lily Allen album.’ I am dumbfounded. Mitch is staring down the barrel of 50. Lily Allen could be his daughter or, at the very least, the louche older girlfriend of one of his sons. Which, of course, is the explanation. Lily Allen is what his teenage sons are listening to, and, in a reverse of ancient custom, father is rifling through his sons’ record collections and, to his surprise, rather liking what he hears.
How much more complicated can things get? When I was growing up fathers were distant, rather furious creatures who would no more rifle through your record collection than go to work naked. In their spare time they did the gardening and wore appalling baggy sweaters that spoke of a life lived without recourse to rock ’n’ roll. Now, of course, fathers (which is to say people like me and Mitch) are the people who find it hardest to live without rock ’n’ roll: we buy the most music, think we can still dance, pay ridiculous amounts to go and see our favourite acts play live (on the not unreasonable grounds that they will soon be dead). And our poor children ingest pop music with their mother’s milk, barely able to walk or talk before they know how to put on a CD. My two (aged seven and four) have nagged me for certain songs so relentlessly that I burned them a 20-track CD of their favourites, which they now play incessantly. ‘Why on earth did you do it?’ asked my girlfriend the other day, as we wondered idly about running away and joining a circus. ‘To stop them asking for an iPod for Christmas’ was my reply, and there’s no argument against that.
Mitch’s boys, though, have already moved beyond the stage of rifling through his Neil Young albums and passing lofty judgments on them. With one of them at university and the other doing ‘A’ levels, everyone is old and sensible enough to listen to their own thing and just about respect other people’s choices. They also live in a relatively large house, so even AC/DC can be tolerated if doors are shut and walls are properly insulated. And with his sons buying albums, Mitch is suddenly liberated from the concern, which affects all music-loving parents possessed of a conscience, that we are wasting money when we buy yet more CDs. Now it’s his sons who are wasting their money, and Mitch has access to all this new music, essentially for free. True, he is probably paying for it in the end, but that’s not his problem. Indeed, if he is particularly unscrupulous, he can probably make them feel guilty about it, which is so much more fun that feeling guilty about it yourself. The only downside is that one day soon his boys will move out, taking their record collections with them. I can hear the sob in his voice as he contemplates this monstrous turn of events.
Whereas I, of course, have it all to come. At the moment the small ones live quite happily with what I put on, whether it’s noisy and full of guitars or just a load of grumbly old folk songs. Indeed, my album of the year is probably theirs too: Christy Moore’s Burning Times, the best album in the long career of Ireland’s grumbliest old folk singer. (‘He’s calm and he’s musical,’ says my daughter, seven.) They also hear things that, I must admit, I don’t. There’s a track on Paul McCartney’s pre-divorce album, Chaos and Creation in the Backyard, called ‘English Tea’, and so simply, pleasingly tuneful is it that the children play it to their friends, all of whom love it immediately. If it had been released in 1965 or 1978, it would have been number one around the world. Now it’s not even a single, possibly because adults wouldn’t necessarily hear it — at least, not until the children have heard it and pointed it out to them. Mitch says I should enjoy all this while it lasts. Soon, he says, my children will be wanting their own music, and some of it will be music I don’t like. They might even want…my god, no …Lily Allen.
Hmm, that grass needs cutting. Where’s my baggy sweater?