God and the editor willing, next month’s column will be the 100th ‘Olden but golden’.
God and the editor willing, next month’s column will be the 100th ‘Olden but golden’. For those who write in The Spectator every week, this would doubtless seem small beer. For a monthly column it feels like a landmark and one I sometimes doubted I would reach. And of course I may not…. As any journalist will tell you, every piece you write has the potential to be your last.
‘Olden but golden’ began in October 2001, and I was pleased as Punch to be allowed to do it. Pop music has been a big part of my life since 1963, when I was eight and first discovered the Beatles. So when I got the go-ahead to write a column about golden oldies in The Spectator, a magazine I had admired and read regularly for the previous 25 years, it was one of the proudest moments of my professional life.
Then the terror set in. Would I be able to fill it every month? Would anyone want to read it? How do you actually write about music?
As Liz, the Spectator’s saintly arts editor, has on occasion tartly pointed out, one of my ways round the last problem was sometimes barely to mention music at all. And there have certainly been points in my life, mostly during attacks of depression, when music has stopped working for me. What once sounded absolutely wonderful suddenly became an oppressive, nerve-jangling noise. You know you are on the mend, in my experience, when you suddenly find yourself craving the sane geniality of Haydn.
Discovering Haydn has been one of the many joys of writing this column. Writing about music once a month has made me listen more broadly. I had a brief period in the early Eighties when I listened to some classical music but it was a time marked by a good deal of unhappiness and, when things got better, I returned joyfully to pop and rock. But in recent years, classical music has once again become a major part of my listening and concert going. The other great discovery has been jazz. I thought I intensely disliked jazz until I actually took the trouble to listen to it, working from accessible big band swing to the more adventurous bebop and what came afterwards. I’ve also discovered a great fondness for pre-rock’n’roll popular music, for Thirties dance bands and sentimental crooners.
If this column has a philosophy it is Duke Ellington’s wise assertion that there are only two sorts of music: ‘good music — and the other kind’. The only rule is to listen with open ears and a responsive mind and heart and don’t give a fig about the tyrannies of fashion or good taste. It is quite possible to enjoy Vera Lynn and Johnny Rotten, Van Morrison and Ludwig van Beethoven.
The way we experience recorded music has also changed for many since this column began. One early piece was devoted to the then spanking-new wonders of the iPod. Since then I have owned two of them, and they both broke down in short order as I almost always manage to put the hex on electronic equipment. But with so much music available gratis on the internet — the free music-streaming service Spotify is cause for perennial wonder and delight — old-fashioned record shops have been disastrously hit. Independent retailers have been going down like ninepins, the big Zavvi chain (formerly Virgin) has closed and, though HMV continues to prosper, the space it gives to CDs seems smaller each time I visit. With the online mail-order service Amazon offering such a vast selection of music, such generous discounts and such speedy delivery, what’s the point of struggling to the shops when you can get it cheaper by staying at home?
But back to next month’s 100th column. Early in the life of ‘Olden but golden’ I asked readers to submit lists of their top ten albums of all time — Tim Rice was one of those who responded — and they all made fascinating reading. I would like to repeat the exercise — with a few changes. Last time everyone stuck to rock and pop, while compilation albums and greatest hits collections were excluded. This time anything goes. Pop, classical, jazz, folk, world music, light music, stage musicals — whatever you like. Albums featuring a variety of artists are acceptable, so too are classic singles, and best-of collections by a single performer or group. You can even include one particularly beloved box set (anything of four CDs or more) and each choice should be accompanied by between ten and 20 words explaining why you have chosen it. Please email your lists to firstname.lastname@example.org and there will be a small prize for those contributing the Top Tens published next month. Until then, Keep on truckin’…
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.