A Life in Music

Spending my teenage years in the 80s, you'd think that I'd be able to associate with all those programmes on telly that remind us of how the 80s was filled with great music. Unfortunately they have quite the opposite effect. I spent most of the 80s getting annoyed at most music that got into the charts and at the lack of airplay the sort of music I liked had. So this trawl through my mental record collection will probably bring happy recollections to very few people, but there you go!

Early Doors


As is common my early exposure to music was whatever our parents had. We're talking about back in the days of records here, though they also had some cassettes lying about. We had a big record player in the living room which was more like a piece of furniture than a music player. It was wooden, with a big wooden lid, and started off with four spindly legs but one must have broken because it ended up on the floor.

Most of our records were LPs, played at 33rpm, but we had a few 45rpm singles. Rod Stewart was in there, and we had some KTel albums of "music by" where they would release an artist's greatest hits but sung by someone else. We had an Elvis one called "Smash Hits Presley Style" and a Simon and Garfunkel one too. So I got to know these great songs by listening to some fairly inferior versions. We had the Beatles' Rubber Soul, though I don't remember playing it much.

we even had some old 78rpm records. They were singles, but nearly as big as albums, and quite thick and brittle. I remember my mum had Heartbreak Hotel on a 78.

Perhaps strangely to the Spotify generation we also had some comedy records. We had one called "We Are Most Amused" and a few Billy Connolly records, which got a lot of play time.

The one that got played the most though, was Abba's Greatest Hits Volume 2. I enjoyed this so much that even into my High School days I would tell people that my favourite music was heavy metal, but my favourite group was Abba.


High School Hop


Around the time I went from primary to high school I was friends with a few people in the street. I'd alienated most of them by refusing to go out and play when Blue Peter was on. In my defence this was before the days of video recorders and if you missed something that was it. Other the other hand... everything else. Anyway I hung about with my friend Gary quite a lot. He introduced me to the Bible Club and he also introduced me to some new music.

This was at the start of the 80s and there was a lot of great rock music around. One album that really captured my attention was 2112 by Rush. It was loud and energetic, but it was also atmospheric and complex. I went out and bought the cassette of the album with my pocket money. I think this might have been the only album I ever bought on cassette.

Over the next few years I listened to a lot of music, and one Christmas my mum got me a second hand music centre, with radio, casette and record player. More Rush albums were bought along with AC/DC, Dio, Pink Floyd and various others. In these days you didn't get to hear any album tracks on the telly or radio so an album purchase was usually based on one single, and was a bit of a hit or miss affair if you didn't know the band well.

I could also tape off the radio, so many Friday nights were spent listening to Tommy Vance on the Friday Rock Show, finger hovering over the record button to see if I could tape anything good. I remember listening to his yearly Best Ever show, voted on by the listeners, and was pleased that 2112 came 2nd several times. Stairway to Heaven always came first, it was sort of a tradition. 2112 also became a favourite in our tent when I went on our school activity week to Iona. David, Gary (not that one) and I slept in a tent out in a field while the 8 girls who also came along got rooms in the farmhouse. The boys loved 2112 while the girls mostly played Chris de Burgh (not Lady in Red, mostly one called Ship to Shore).


On the Move


The 80s were also the real boom for personal audio. Before this you'd walk about with your tape player or boom box and everyone got to hear your music. Then Sony came out with a tape player that only played through headphones. Now you could listen on the bus or train without disturbing anyone, apart form the "tss tss tss" from leaky headphones. I had a couple of players, and they were especially well used once I started going to university. I stayed at home and commuted via train, so had a lot of walking and train riding to fill up with songs.

My tastes didn't change too much, I tend to like what I like and not change, but I did discover more artists. Pat Benatar had some great stuff and Magnum had some really good melodic rock. Rush continued to be my favourite, though I was held off from buying Grace Under Pressure in 1984 as my friend David said they had turned into posers. I didn't know quite what that meant, imagining that the album had become some New Romantic nonsense, but it turned out he'd just seen the album cover and they looked particularly bad on the rear side.

Many Rush fans didn't like the mid 80s period actually, as Rush experimented with synths and brought in more influences from the likes of the Police. I was entirely happy with the new stuff, even Grace Under Pressure which turned out to be great.


CD Tastic


With university there was also the introduction of the compact disc, and while the first machines were really expensive there were soon a few systems at a reasonable price a poor student like me could afford. I had a grant for my fees and living expenses (young people, this is when the government looked after kids in education) and was recompensed for my train expenses in a big chunk in my third term, so that went on a CD player midi system from Philips.

Queen's Greatest Hits was my first CD purchase, and it still plays great, despite the worries about CDs wearing out after a decade. Rush's Power Windows was the next, and this spent a long time in my CD player. Rush had gone from long epic songs in the 70s to tighter, but equally intricate, and shorter songs in the 80s, along with the aforementioned synths. Power Windows was them at their height as far as I was concerned, and remained my favourite album until 2012.

I wasn't too much influenced by other people's choices but one that did stick was a friend at University, Gavin, who loved Peter Gabriel. I listened to a lot of his stuff and his 3rd and 4th albums in particular had some really great, often quirky songs on them, before he broke really big with that Sledgehammer video and his So album.




I married Claire in 1997, and we moved into a house in Houston. The big CD system was getting a bit tired, and after perusing the hifi magazines for a while I went for a Pioneer mini system to replace it. This has a CD player, radio and amplifier in one box, and a separate tape player box. It has two tiny speakers and a big subwoofer, and a wee control panel that sits separate from the main boxes. It put out a great sound and has lasted until the present day, though the tape player component has gone up the loft and I rarely use it for playing CDs now. It mostly gets music or film sound streamed via the telly.

As with lots of areas in marriage, music is a compromise. Thankfully we have a fairly large overlap, but if I want to listen to Kate Bush, Pink Floyd or most Rush, I'm on my own. We are both happy with a bit of Def Leppard, Travis or Franz Ferdinand though.

After Rush's Test for Echo album in 1996, the drummer had a heartbreaking few years where he lost his daughter and his wife. He went off on his motorbike and travelled all over America. There was no talk of the band continuing and it looked possible that we'd heard the last of their music.


Dead Ends


However 6 years later Neil was back and keen to play. Rush put together an exciting, raw, heavy and heartfelt album called Vapor Trails, portraying the terrible loss, and his slow climb back to humanity, even finding some hope in life going on. After fearing there was no more Rush, this album was a great present, and the raw energy of it is portrayed on the cover.

The music industry was coming to grips with digital technology, and trying various formats. There were several high definition CD standards that didn't really take off, and there was a recordable optical disc, called minidisc, which was smaller than a CD, so made for very convenient players. I managed to get a huge discount on one and recorded a number of albums in near-perfect quality onto little discs. However it mainly played host to Vapor Trails, which got a listen just about every day for a year on my way to work.

However, neat as they were, minidiscs didn't last long. They were quickly replaced by MP3 players as we entered the age where physical media were no longer required. Amazingly, CDs seem to have lasted well, and I still get a lot of albums on CD, which are immediately ripped onto the computer and never touched again.


Spinny Wheel


There now came a series of music players designed to hold songs in their internal memory. The iPod was the archetype, but as expensive as all other Apple stuff, so I didn't get one of those. I started with a tiny player I got free with some purchase, which only had enough memory to hold about one album. But it was an introduction.

I then got a bigger machine, a Rio Karma. It had a 20GB hard disk inside, so could hold most of my songs. It was a great wee machine with good quality sound and even had a feature that would merge one song into the next one by overlapping them. It was an odd design, with various buttons, a nubbin joystick and a wheel on the corner. Despite being a great machine, it wasn't built too well. The wheel stopped working first, so I had to scroll through lists with the joystick. Then the on/off button failed, and I had to use its automatic method of turning on when the headphone plug was inserted. Then the screen went and I had to remember how many clicks down I had to go for each menu option, but it was obviously time for a change.

On the music front Rush came out with Snakes and Arrows, which was lovingly produced and as complex as ever. However I found some of it slightly plodding, and it was overall slightly disappointing. Muse had come out with their Black Holes and Revelations album and this blew away just about everything else at the time, with at least 5 real stormers on the one album. Was I about to change my favourite band?


Meditate on This


The Rio didn't last too long, and the next machine was another hard disk based one, the Creative Zen. It was a bit better built and lasted slightly longer, though not by a huge amount.

Strangely rock music seemed to be taking a dive in terms of quantity, but the few groups still around were coming out with music that was better than ever in my uneducated opinion. Muse were consistently producing great albums, Foo Fighters were coming out with some classics, and a trio from Ayrshire called Biffy Clyro graduated (or dumbed down for the old fans) from their prog-rock experimental stuff to more accessible stuff, and really made it big with Only Revolutions, which they followed up with a great double album called Opposites.


Click Click


We then entered the modern period. The iPod was almost totally replaced by the iPhone and MP3 players became few and far between. Sansa are the only reasonably large company making them and I bought one of their tiny players. It has 8GB solid state memory inside, but also takes a card, so was easy to upgrade with 32GB which carried all my songs. This is a great wee player which fits inside that little mini pocket you get in jeans, and I've been using it for a good few years now, though more for podcasts than music recently.

On the album front, 2012 hit and Rush came out with Clockwork Angels. Not just a bit of a return to form, it was an amazing, energetic, celebratory album that tells a sort of steampunk story loosely based on Voltaire's Candide, about a boy living in a controlled environment, brought up to believe that everything was as it was for the best, but who ran away and had great and dangerous adventures before settling down and mulling over his life. It was to be the final Rush album. Neil retired from touring with joint pain, then a while later got cancer and died in 2020. But what a swansong! For me their best album, and recorded when the three of them were close on 60.

I've been to see Rush 3 times. Once in the early 90s for their Roll the Bones tour, once in 2004 with a pregnant Claire, for their 30th anniversary tour, and then in 2013 for Clockwork Angels, which they played almost in its entirety in a middle set of three, between some of their 80s stuff and the all-time classics at the end. Claire and an 8 year old Cate came with me. It was Cate's first concert, a mammoth three and a half hours long and well past her usual bedtime, so it was a bit overwhelming. But she impressed a couple of fans in front of us when they asked her what her favourites were, and also impressed a fellow football dad, who had just got into them a couple of years ago and was playing Rush in the car on the way to training. "Is that Rush? I've been to see them live."


New Beginnings

So my favourite band are retired, rock music is non-existent in the charts, but there are still signs of life. Muse, Foo Fighters and Biffy Clyro are going strong, a duo called Royal Blood have released a couple of great albums, and Twin Atlantic, another Scottish band, have also had some good stuff.

But then something weird happened.

I was browsing YouTube one day, watching a few music videos, and finished one of the Muse songs. YouTube does this thing where it serves up something similar as a next video, and in this case it was some kids playing Muse's Resistance. They were very young (about 9-14) but did a really good job, and the drummer was amazing. This piqued my interest and I found some more covers they had done, plus a music video for a song they'd written themselves, called XXI Century Blood. It blew me away. These were 3 teenage sisters from Mexico, and they'd managed to write and record an excellent rock song about our reliance on technology and blindness to the real world. Somehow they'd also managed to make it into a Black Mirror style music video. They didn't have a record contract, just internet fans, and an album.

I've been burned before buying an album on the strength of one song, but I listened to a clip of each song on the album on Amazon and they really did sound good. I paid, downloaded and put them on the car's memory stick. Unusually, Claire and Cate both loved the album, and we were now fans of The Warning, a 3-sister band from Monterrey with no record deal who no one has ever heard of.

The first album was great, and a second album was imminent. This was more daring than the first. It was to be a concept album, telling the story of a girl's obsession with her love, which then turned to stalking, kidnap and murder, followed by a descent into madness, split personalities and suicide. Just to build up the stakes they were going to release the 13 songs in 4 chapters, a couple of weeks apart. Now usually when a band record 13 songs on an album they put the best ones at the start and the filler at the end, so as each chapter was released I was waiting for the also-rans. There were none. This album was a complete triumph from start to finish, not a bad song on it. Apart from Clockwork Angels this was my album of the decade, and yet The Warning have yet to even get a mention in the English-speaking music press.

The girls had a tour of North America planned for 2020, and a date in London arranged by thier fans. It all had to be put off for COVID, which was a real blow. But they finally signed up to a record label, they've recorded their third album and we're just waiting to see how they can progress from brilliant.


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David Meiklejohn