The Head Like a Hole at the Heart of It All (Desert Island Disqks)

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In a surprisingly-provoked new thread, here is a little preamble to a series of blog posts I had been preparing about how important music is to me and my work, even though I do not consider myself to be either a musician or a sound artist.

I have heard it quoted that music is the greatest art form, and I concur. I do make music myself (with machines), and listening to music is one of the most important cultural pleasures in my life, but I am more of a consumer than a producer. That doesn’t bother me, but being without music would traumatise me far more than being without any of the visual arts (such as my own), although I would be hard pushed to choose between music and literature, both in their broadest senses.

A short while ago, I had the idea to publish a series of blog posts on my Richard Bolam at 50 blog, loosely based upon the format of BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Disks. I chose the blog as a medium, rather than a podcast, because it allows me to write about each track, and mention a lot of other music (thereby cheating the limit) and embedding multiple copyright violations via YouTube, conveniently absolving myself of that particular downward spiral of legal entanglements.

One of the reasons why I find this idea so attractive is that most people can be relied upon to express strong opinions about music, and I am no exception. It is true to say that some people genuinely do not like music, or at least do not have any strong opinions about it, but that’s their problem.

Anyway, I must admit to a little voyeuristic pleasure recently, watching friends (via social media) squirming in horror, having found an unsolicited U2 album on their iPods.

As part of the launch for the new Apple iPhone 6 on the 10th of September 2014, the computer giant sneakily pushed a pre-authorised purchase of the new U2 album onto everyone’s iTunes account as some sort of promotional gift.

I like U2. Or at least, I think I like U2. The last album I bought was “Achtung Baby” (1991), so maybe I don’t like them anymore but either way, I did not feel as violated as many, although I was similarly bemused.

We all know that bands no longer make any money from record sales, and it’s live shows where they can still prise a few quid out of fans, so in the post-iTunes world it’s no real loss to give an album away as a promotion. Consequently, it’s a grotesquely cynical marketing ploy to get fans to the gigs, not the “sacrament” claimed by Bono.

And the name of the album? “Songs of Innocence”. Bless.

In a moment of perverse glee, I downloaded the album, posted a trollish comment on Facebook to provoke a reaction from my scandalised friends, and listened to the album.


Anyway, it turns out that rather than being offended by the disingenuous commercialism, or Bono’s holier-than-thou preaching, or those stupid fucking glasses his stylist makes him wear all the time, what offends me most about the new album is its blandness. It’s like listening to paint dry in a room of a neighbour’s house whose previous owners once played a U2 album in it. It’s so plain as to be almost not there at all.

A rather more subtle irony than the title of the latest U2 album is the last album that I bought by Nine Inch Nails. As always, I came that party a bit late, but for a while I couldn’t get enough of Trent Reznor’s highly competent techno-punk. However, “The Fragile” (1999) did not really live up to its name. By this time, Reznor had developed a rather robust and recognisable shtick which comprised of something very loud, followed by something very quiet, followed by a creaky piano interlude and then repeat, with lyrics that are mostly composed from a phrase-bank of plaintive contemplations about looking inside oneself, there being a hole or an empty space or something black, where something once was, or never was, or could never be, and there being no prospect of anything ever being there, or having been there, or none of the above, not only never but forever (repeat).

Another cultural event that I am preparing a metaphorical sacrificial Hindenberg for is the release of the first Aphex Twin album for 13(?) years. Similarly to my time with U2 and NIN, (and I suspect like a lot of other people) I gorged on Aphex Twin in the early 2000s but was stranded on a separate, but similarly shallow beach by my last three purchases: “Selected Ambient Works Vol 2” (1994), “26 Mixes of Cash” (2003) and “Druqks” (2001), all of which are monumentally dull. I can only blame my own stupidity for wasting my money on “26 Mixes For Cash”. The clue is in the title.

The new album is called “Syro” and has the usual nonsensical track names, this time accompanied by a complete equipment list (and a box of Kleenex). It is going to be available in a rather handsome-looking package designed by Sheffield’s own Ian Anderson, founder of the now-defunkt The Designer’s Republic.

These days, I must confess to a certain suspicion when it comes to special edition packages, having had my fingers burnt by Radiohead, David Bowie & Faith No More amongst others. However, not all deluxe editions are either disappointing or expensive. Crass showed just what could be achieved to elevate a collection of musical tracks into a cultural event, and they were not even deluxe editions.

Anyway, interestingly enough (to me at least) is that all the artists mentioned here will probably make it to my Top Ten (plus), and what I have said for a long time is that “At The Heart Of It All” by NIN / Aphex Twin is what I look like on the inside. It is an astonishingly perfect work of savage beauty.

Just like me.

I may or may not buy the album, but I genuinely hope that “Syro” doesn’t disappoint because, even with the heavily promoted special edition packaging, these days it’s got to be all about the music.

Blue Monday? No. I mean yes. Well, yes and no (receiving the gift of sound and vision).


Blue Monday – New Order (1983) – sleeve design by Peter Saville

If you are not familiar with the word synaesthesia, wikipedia defines it thus:

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, from the ancient Greek σύν [syn], “together”, and αἴσθησις [aisthēsis], “sensation”) is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.”

Well, I am a synesthete, and in me it manifests itself as associating colours with words and concepts, and also strongly associating visual images with music and sound. It’s no accident I ended up making music videos.

Anyway, according to some rather laboured logic, January 20th is officially “Blue Monday”, again defined by wikepedia:

Blue Monday is a name given to a date in January stated, as part of a publicity campaign by Sky Travel, to be the most depressing day of the year. However, the whole concept is considered pseudoscience, with its formula derided by scientists as nonsense.

I have only just become aware there is an actual mathematical formula to calculate which is blue monday, although it never occurred to me that this concept was even considered pseudoscience, never mind anything more. I just thought it was a media-invented conceit on which to hang some “and finally” story.

However, speaking as a synesthete, monday really is blue, tuesday is a kind of nondescript, transparent grey, wednesday is grass green, thursday is terracotta brown, friday is black (really), saturday is red and sunday is orange. Maybe this explains why I never really got the hang of tuesdays.

Anyway, I remember the first time New Order’s “Blue Monday” was played on John Peel’s radio show and it spoke to me in a way that I have experienced only rarely. There is something about that track that is so strangely and perfectly realised that it still occupies a truly seminal and nostalgic place in my musical education. I never get bored of it.

Even now it sounds fresh.

Having already been somehow fundamentally changed by the experience of listening to this record, it never occurred to me that the sleeve would also be an experience. I could hardly believe it. To me, the sleeve looked exactly how the music sounded, a deep, oily black punctuated sparsely by hard and warm, primary and secondary colours. OMFG. It’s a synesthete’s wet dream.

I may have written about this before, I know I’ve talked about it a lot, but I’m not a nostalgic person. I hated the 1970s and I remember late childhood and early adolescence as a time of endless frustration. Not because my sister or I were denied anything reasonable (our parents were very liberal with us), but because youth itself was a frustration to me. Having no money and having to go to school were major obstacles to my ambitions.

These days I am not so frustrated, and I am beginning to appreciate my state education more, although the most valuable lessons for me were later on, out in the real world. But that’s another story.

One thing I do miss about the days before the internet, or I should say the days before the world-wide-web, is the enigma of music and musicians. The Human League were only a few years older than me and lived no more than 15 miles away from where I grew up, but they might as well have been on Mars. They were entirely unavailable to me, except through their recordings.

Back in the day, I was a bit of a nerd when it came to electronic music, and a lot of bands used to publish a list of instruments used on the record sleeve. New Order provided no information whatsoever, which was simultaneously frustrating and fascinating.

I don’t miss vinyl but I do miss the mystery and fetish of record buying. By the time I bought it, “Blue Monday” no longer had a perforated sleeve, but this was only a disappointment at the time. In the end even less is even more.

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“You look like I feel” Richard Bolam, 199x

For a synesthete (or at least this synesthete), in those days electronic music was like taking drugs. That phased clicking sound on Sparks’ “Number 1 Song in Heaven”, or that vast, lazy hand-clap on the Human League’s “Zero as a Limit”, or that vocal ah sound on “Blue Monday”. These never fail to satisfy and I can still hear them and see them in my mind’s eye.

In my later years, although I have learned to live with it, my greatest disappointment is that I am not a musician, although I do make music. I am able to make music thanks to various technology corporations including Korg, Behringer and Yamaha, but not so much thanks to Bösendorfer, Stradivarius or Fender.

Even so I can’t complain. I have many blessings, including synesthesia. Despite the fact that I can’t sing like David Bowie, and I can’t compose like Arvo Part, and I can’t perform that beautifully discordant virtuosity of Three Trapped Tigers, at least I can hear it, feel it and sometimes even see it.

I never liked Happy Mondays. My mondays will always be blue. But in the good way.

Hard Shoulder and The Soft Machine

Broken down on the road to nowhere, getting nowhere fast.
I’ll take the high road, you take the low road, I’ll get nowhere last.
Richard Bolam, 199-something

I would recommend a retrospective to anyone. Not just artists, everyone. A review of your work and life so far. I also recommend that you do it yourself, not just in the punk DIY sense, but because you can choose to leave out details that are of no interest to anyone, and events that you would rather not revisit.

Disingenuous maybe, but there’s plenty I read in “William Burroughs: El Hombre Invisible”, the biography by Barry Miles (1992), that I would rather not have known. As I recall one TV critic wrote about Magnus Magnusson’s series revealing the truth behind certain popular myths, “turning charming legend into boring fact” [citation needed].

I think it’s quite common for artists to quickly leave things behind and move onto their next project. Here is a CD of musc I made in 2000 under one of my many alter-egos, Hard Shoulder. It’s called “Take That and Shove It” after that seminal boy-band offering “Take That and Party” (1992) and is a milestone from my nihilistic period. Listening to it now, I still really like two of the tracks and would like to re-record them. For completeness I’ve published all four on Soundcloud and there is a PDF of the catalogue entry for it here. This touches on a time in my life I would rather not repeat, and there are details and events that will be forever suppressed. Writer Anthony Burgess (1917 – 1993) was infamous for getting details about his life incorrect in his two-volume autobiography [citation needed]. He claimed that it was more “accurate” to relate those events as he remembered them, not necessarily as they happened.

This 2008 Guardian article still refers to “A Clockwork Orange” (Stanley Kubrik, 1971) as still being banned but I’ve seen it several times on terrestrial TV in recent years and I bought the book years before that. I couldn’t believe my glassies, maybe it was written by some starry old veck.

The truth is overrated, memory is unreliable and some things are better left behind. The CD pictured here is no longer readable and I had to retrieve the music from an old archive. However, something inside required me to scan the actual CD, not just any CD. I’m happy to play fast and loose with some things, but not everything.

“For a creative writer possession of the “truth” is less important than emotional sincerity.” George Orwell (1903 – 1950)