Supertramp – Breakfast in America
I was seven or eight when my dad gave me a red, off-brand Walkman with the dimensions of a house brick, acquired with the coupons that petrol stations used to hand out when you filled up the tank. To accompany the gift, he copied some of his burgeoning CD collection onto cassettes using the prized stack of HiFi separates that stood in the living room.
My favourite tape had MJ’s Thriller on one side and Supertramp’s Breakfast in America on the reverse. Each evening, in a shared back bedroom in Stoke-on-Trent, laying on the top bunk, I’d drift to sleep listening to Roger Hodgson et al’s electronic harmonies and multi-layered synths. I'd wake in the small hours tangled in the headphone cord, a detached sponge earpad absconding across the pillow.
Pixies – Doolittle
I’ve worked some truly monotonous jobs, where the only gesture of clemency was permission to play music to quicken the passage of a shift. It was on Saturday afternoons in a cramped office in Newcastle-under-Lyme, manually inputting the data from British Gas customer questionnaires into a computer, that a school friend introduced me to two albums that would become lifelong favourites. The first was The Boy with the Arab Strap by Belle & Sebastian, and the second was Doolittle by Pixies (although, for years I incorrectly prefixed their name with a definitive article, The Pixies).
So much of the music I love can be traced back to the distorted angst and sideways poetry of Doolittle. Fifteen years after my introduction to Pixies, when I moved to the US in 2012, I was thrilled to discover that it is virtually impossible to drink in a dive bar without hearing Debaser or Wave of Mutilation emanate from the juke box at some point during the evening – Doolittle is my soundtrack to drinking PBR and bourbon in a neon-lit bar.
Elastica – Elastica
This album returns me to a period in my adolescence when I was going to gigs most weeks, often at the expense of GCSE and A-level coursework. Back then, The Potteries felt like a hinterland, squeezed between the orbits of larger cities. Manchester and Birmingham, Sheffield and Nottingham: these cities had the critical mass to allow for convincing reinvention after the industries that once defined them had atrophied. Their cultural relevance and converted warehouse apartments cast a long shadow over S-O-T’s six towns.
One benefit, however, of occupying a geographical crossroads, straddling the M6 and A50, was that our location offered bands a convenient stop-off as their tours transitioned from the Midlands to the North. Between The Wheatsheaf, The Stage, Trentham Gardens, Keele Uni, Victoria Hall, The Regent, and a bunch of others, we were surprisingly blessed with a plethora of great venues, most of which, mercifully for me, had lenient door policies.
Of all the bands I remember seeing in the late 90s (Oasis, The Bluetones, Supergrass, Skunk Anansie, Radiohead, Faithless, The Boo Radleys, Super Furries, The Manics) – it was Elastica that really excited me. They performed a warm-up gig at The Stage before embarking on the ’97 festival season and it was electric. Their self-titled debut album, packed with short, punchy tracks, captures the swagger and carefree indulgence that defined those years.
Jimmy Buffett – Songs You Know by Heart
During the university summer holidays of 2001, I collected together the wages I’d earned from my term time job at the Pizza Hut on Oxford Road and spent ten weeks backpacking from Bangkok to Bali. It was my first serious tilt at travelling and, while I wandered a well-trodden path clustered with backpacker bars serving banana pancakes and showing pirated Hollywood blockbusters every afternoon, at the time, the experience felt as novel and unique as any exploration into the unknown.
On Koh Tao, a small island off the east coast of Thailand, I gained my scuba diving accreditation with a class of fellow backpackers completing their own unique and novel exploration of Southeast Asia. One of whom was Brad, a six foot seven Canadian, ten years my senior, who introduced me to Jimmy Buffett. For a week, after a day of diving, we’d toss around the frisbee on the beach, drink the local beer and listen to Buffett.
The late American poet, James Wright has a poem in which he describes the experience of lounging in a sun-laden hammock amidst a beautiful pastoral scene, watching cattle slowly walk into the distance, before concluding: I have wasted my life. It’s the same hedonistic nihilism and luxurious slippage of time that Buffett captures. While not an entire lifetime, it was easy to waste a few months that summer.
The Darkness – Permission to Land
As the spring of 2003 turned to summer, I’d already dropped out of my PhD having spent six months researching the osmotic properties of fish spinal cords before realising I was in over my head. I’d left Manchester, moved back into my parent’s house in Staffordshire and was working behind the bar of the local pub. For the first time, I was directionless – all the certainty of the future had unravelled.
Glastonbury came as a welcome distraction. Ten thirty on Friday morning, emerging from our tents at the back of Hitchin’s Hill with bruising hangovers, Steve (housemate of three years) urged us to venture through the drizzle to the Pyramid stage for the opening act of the festival. We witnessed a riot of hair, lycra jumpsuits and unbound charisma. Justin Hawkins’ call and response, “Give me a D; give me an Arkness; who brings you rock before breakfast?”
Two months later, still aimless and with no better ideas, I’d ditched the job at The Coopers Arms and headed to Auckland on a working holiday visa where I landed at New Zealand’s biggest brewery, Lion. A few weeks behind me, Steve, equally full of post-graduation malaise, made his way to the Southern Hemisphere and we found ourselves living together again, sharing a room in a huge colonial house at the base of Mt Eden.
Working during the week and exploring the North Island on weekends, we established a routine that involved Steve hiring a car on a Friday afternoon and collecting me from the back of the brewery, where we’d load the boot with enough booze from the heavily discounted staff shop that the suspension would develop a notable sag. We’d take off for Taupo/Rotorua/Mt Maunganui/The Coromandel, etc, with all the operatic drama and soaring guitar solos of Permission to Land pulsing on the stereo.
Various Artists – Ska Madness: 20 Reggae Classics Which Inspired The Two Tone Revolution
Much of my twenties was spent in a car. During the day, I worked as a pharmaceutical rep, visiting hospitals in Manchester and London. My evenings were spent driving to comedy clubs around the country to perform stand-up. I also spent an above average amount of time in supermarkets – everyday I’d buy dozens of prepacked sandwiches and assorted crisps for lunchtime meetings at GP surgeries. As I hung around the aisles of an Asda or Tesco, I routinely browsed the shelves containing the discounted CDs, often selecting a few on a whim as a way of occupying the time as I drove from one commitment to the next. Usually, they were terrible, but occasionally I came across a gem, and this was the greatest find of them all. As the sleeve note describes, this is a collection of original reggae tracks that went on to be covered by the Two-Tone bands of the ‘70s.
It's a joyous record which insists you tap out its rhythms on the steering wheel and engage in driver’s seat microdancing. I vividly remember returning from Canvey Island to my flat in Willesden after an afternoon explaining the marginal benefits of my drug over the competition to a group of distracted and disinterested clinicians. I was listening to Guy Lombardo tell me to enjoy myself because it was later than I thought – a few weeks later, I’d given my notice and gambled on something new.
First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
I left London a few days after the Olympic closing ceremony, pusillanimously slipping out of a relationship that had become more platonic than romantic. As the exhilaration waned from the city, I resigned from my job in the pharmaceutical industry, handed back the laptop, company car, expense account, etc. And, having loaded almost everything I owned into my sister’s loft, I moved to America with a single suitcase and a handful of books.
I’d started writing poems a few years earlier and it had become an increasingly serious pastime. With a couple of publications to my name, I applied to creative writing master’s programs. Two months later, while having a glass of wine on the Southbank, my phone flashed with a +1 (315) number. I was offered a three-year scholarship on Syracuse’s MFA – a moment that changed my life.
Syracuse is in Upstate New York, a few hours east of Niagara Falls and a short journey from the Canadian border. Its northerly latitude and proximity to the Great Lakes, where storms hover and gather moisture, results in apocalyptic winters, with temperatures routinely diving to -20 degrees centigrade and three feet of snow falling a single night. That December, a pal in Manchester sent me a copy of Piccadilly Records’ end of year review. I’d never heard of First Aid Kit but their sophomore record was selected as the second-best album of the year, and I was immediately hooked.
I would walk to class through the soft white streets, the frozen air burning my lungs, indulging in the freedom of grad school. My days were filled by conversations about poems with people smarter than me and reading in backrooms of hipster-staffed coffee shops and new romances that went nowhere. The Lion’s Roar contained all the desolate Americana and snow and Scandinavian sorrow to be the perfect soundtrack for that winter.
Women in Music Pt. III – Haim
The most contemporary album on my list, this was the record of my pandemic. 2020 started wonderfully; Amanda and I attended a friend’s wedding in Raipur, India in the January, followed by a belated three-week honeymoon to Japan during February and March. Concerned that we’d front-loaded the year with our holidays and would have little respite for the remaining nine months, we landed back in Edinburgh the morning lockdown began, 23rd March.
WIMPIII arrived a few months later, just as a glorious hot summer began. I spent much of those long days, ripe with blistering sunshine, sat in the front yard of our little rented colony house in Leith. Barbeque smoking, countless cold bottles of Corona (to keep things ironic), an extension cord feeding down from the bedroom window to power the laptop on which I was writing my PhD thesis (one I’d actually go on to complete).
Against the news of surging infection rates and government incompetence, I got huge pleasure from this album. When I declared to Amanda that it was a perfect record, she replied, “Obviously, why do you think it’s been given an acronym? Average albums don’t get acronyms.”
Tim is from Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Edinburgh. He has a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, which explored the representation of mental illness in Confessional poetry. A long time ago, he was CityLife Northwest Comedian of the Year. His poems have recently appeared in The Poetry Review, The London Magazine, The Rialto and Bath Magg, and his pamphlet, Lake Effect, is published by Tapsalteerie. He cultivates the Spotify playlist, American Hour. More info: timcraven.co.uk