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.