This is the first, of hopefully many, guest posts by Mr Gnoe. As a listology addict he compiled a Black Swan Green Soundtrack for us!
In a book about a teenager situated after 1960, music has to play an important role. Music is a big part of youth culture and David Mitchell does a superb job of sketching the life of a young teenager in the eary 80s (I know, I’ve been there ;))
There is a lot of ‘boyish’ music, like Madness, Elvis Costello, Adam Ant and the Specials. Music a boy wouldn’t have to be embarrassed about to like in front of his friends. But secretly Jason likes some ‘softer’ songs as well, like ‘Heaven’ by Talking Heads and John Lennon’s #9 Dream (not coincidentally Mitchell’s second book is called number9dream).
Music plays a big part throughout the book, but Mitchell really goes wild in one of the last, hilarious chapters ‘Disco’ (or should I say one of the last stories, since every chapter reads like a story on its own). This reads completely natural because events occur while the music is playing and you can imagine the characters remembering exactly who did what during which song, years after. And if you know and love these songs, like Gnoe and me, it’s a feast to read :)
All the songs in the book together form a nice soundtrack. In the 80s I would’ve made a Black Swan Green compilation cassette but now it’s a playlist for my iPod. Here’s what’s on it!
Don’t You Want Me – Human League (1982)
The first chapter ‘January Man’ starts with the phone ringing in the office of Jason’s father. From his sister julia’s room ‘Don’t You Want Me’ is thumping out dead loud and kicks off the book.
The Man with the Child in His Eyes – Kate Bush (1978)
Songbird – Fleetwood Mac (1977)
Julia is playing these two melancholic songs in her room, telling us (the readers) she’s not as tough as she pretends to be and not as lucky as Jason thinks she is.
Virginia Plain – Roxy Music (1972)
Jason secretly plays Julia’s Roxy Music LP in her room (“Julia’d go ape!“). At first I thought I had spotted a goof, because Virginia Plain was Roxy Music’s debut single but was not included on their debut LP. Wikipedia tells me it was rereleased in 1977 to promote their Greatest Hits album, so this must be the LP in Julia’s collection.
Heaven – Talking Heads (1979)
Jason is seriously impressed by Julia’s boyfriend Ewan’s new car and his taste in music.
An incredible song filled the car from four hidden speakers. ‘”Heaven”,’ Ewan told me, breezy but proud. ‘Talking Heads. David Byrne’s a genius.’ I just nodded, still taking it all in.
Mr Blue Sky – Electric Light Orchestra (1977)
Feeling good, Jason lays down on his bed and listens to ‘Mr Blue Sky’ five or six times in a row.
Hungry Like The Wolf – Duran Duran (1982)
One Step Beyond – Madness (1979)
One In Ten – UB40 (1981)
Jason is away with his dad on a business trip. Going around town he hears music: Madness in a cafetaria, UB40 in the hotel at night.
Some girls share the earphones of a Sony Walkman and sing ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’. The Walkman was first produced in 1979 in Japan.
The Lion Sleeps Tonight – Tight fit (1982)
Some girls are singing ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ in the back of the bus. This is originally a South African song, first recorded in 1939 but probably much older. The version you couldn’t not have heard in 1982 in England or in the Netherlands was the version of Tight Fit. It reached no.1 in both countries even though it was recorded with session singers and not the models playbacking the song Boney M-style.
Words (Between The Lines Of Age) – Neil Young 1972)
Jason watches Top Of The Pops and listens to a cassette tape Julia has made for him from Ewan’s LP’s. The first song is Words (Between The Lines Of Age). “Neil Young sings like a barn but his music’s brill.”
Oliver’s Army – Elvis Costello & The Attractions (1979)
Ghost Town – Specials (1981)
Waterloo – Abba (1974)
Get Off Of My Cloud – Flying Pickets (1982)
The Goose Fair is in town, and walking around the fairground Jason picks up music from different directions. He especially likes that ace song ‘Olive’s Salami’ by Elvis Costello. Another song he notices goes ‘Hey! (HEY!) You! (YOU!) Get Off Of My Cloud!’, coming from the Flying Teacups. It doesn’t say in the book wich version of the song is being played (the original is of course Rolling Stones, 1967) but I like to think it’s the a-capella version by Flying Pickets from 1982.
The grand finale of the book. Jason, who was not really a loser, but far from popular has suddenly earned the respect of his class mates (No spoiler – I won’t reveal here why). This happened just in time, because at the end of the year there’s the Black Swan Green Grand Christmas Village Hall Disco!
Inside the village hall proper, a few kids were already dancing to ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’. Most of the boys drifted to one side, too cool to dance. Most of the girls drifted to the other, too cool to dance too. Discos’re tricky. You look a total wally if you dance too early but after one crucial song tips the disco over, you look a sad saddo if you don’t.
Video Killed The Radio Star – Buggles (1979)
Friggin’ in the Riggin’ by the Sex Pistols came on and the Upton Punks pogoed up the front. Oswald Wyre’s older brother Steve head-butted the wall, so Philip Phelps’s dad drove him to Worcestor Hospital in case he fell into a coma.
Friggin’ in the Riggin’ – Sex Pistols (1979)
But it got some of the boys dancing (sort of) so next the DJ put on ‘Prince Charming’ by Adam and the Ants. ‘Prince Charming’ has this special dance that Adam Ant does in this video. You all line up and make an X with your wrists in the air as you pace along to the music. But everyone wanted to be Adam Ant, who does it one step ahead of his pack, so the line got faster and faster up and down the village hall till kids were virtually sprinting.
Prince Charming – Adam & The Ants (1981)
Next was ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)’ by Fun Boy Three. It’s undanceable to, unless you’re Squelch. Maybe Squelch heard a secret rhythm nobody else heard.
Robin South called out, ‘Squelch, yer spazzer!’
Squelch didn’t even notice nobody else was dancing.
Secrets affect you more than you’d think. You lie to keep them hidden. You steer away from them. You worry someone’ll discover yours and tell the world. You think you are in charge of the secret, but isn’t the secret using you? S’pose lunatics mould their doctors, more than doctors mould their lunatics?
The Fun Boy Three – The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum) (1981)
In the bogs was Gary Drake.
Once I’d’ve frozen, but not after a day like today.
‘All right?’ Gary Drake said. Once he’d’ve sneered a comment about me not being able to find my dick. But suddenly I’m popular enough for Gary Drake to give an ‘All right’?
December cold streamed in through the window.
The boredest tilt of my head told Gary Drake, Yeah.
Cigarette buds bobbed in the yellow river of steaming piss.
‘Do The Locomotion’ got all the girls doing this choo-choo dance in a snaky line.
The Loco-Motion – Little Eva (1965)
Then there was ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ that’s got a sort of rowing-boat dance to it. It’s not a dance for boys.
Oops Upside Your Head – The Gap Band (1979)
‘House of Fun’ by Madness is, though. ‘House of Fun’ is about buying condoms, but the BBC didn’t ban it soon enough ‘cause the BBC only spot secret meanings after the dimmest duh-brain in Duffershire’s got it. Squelch did his electrocuted dance that more kids copied to take the piss at first but actually it worked (There’s a Squelch in all great inventors).
House of Fun – Madness (1982)
Then ‘Once In A Lifetime’ by Talking Heads came on. That was the crucial song that made it more bonzoish not to dance than to dance, so me and Dean and Floyd did.
Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads (1981)
The DJ switched the strobelight on. Only for short bursts, ‘cause the strobes make your brain blow up. Dancing’s like walking down a busy high street or milions of other things. You’re absolutly fine as long as you don’t think about it. During the strobe storm, through a stormy night forest of necks and arms, I saw Holly Deblin. Holly Deblin’s got a sort of Indian goddess dance, swaying but sort of flicking her hands. Holly Deblin might‘ve seen me through her stormy night forest, ‘cause she might‘ve smiled. (Might isn’t as good as did but it’s miles better than didn’t.) Next was ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer.
I Feel Love – Donna Summer (1977)
John Tookey showed off this new New York craze called breakdancing but went spinning out of control into a group of girls who toppled like skittles. He had to be rescued by his mates from stabbing female heels. During Brian Ferry’s ‘Jealous Guy’ Lee Briggs got off with Angela Bullock. They snogged in the corner and Duncan Priest stood right by them and did this imitaion of a cow giving birth. But the laughs were envious too. Angela Bullock wears black bras.
Brian Ferry – Jealous Guy (1981)
Then, during ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’ by Spandau Ballet, Alastair Nurton got off with Tracey Impney, this giant Goth from Brotheridge Green.
To Cut A Long Story Short – Spandau Ballet (1980)
Gary Numan and Tubeway Army’s ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’ came on and Colin Pole and Mark Bradbury did this glazed-robot dance. ‘This song is ace!’ Dean yelled in my ear. ‘It’s so futuristic. Gary Numan’s got a friend named “Five”! Is that brill or what?’
Are ‘Friends’ Electric? – Tubeway Army (1979)
Dancing’s a brain the dancers’re only cells of. Dancers think they‘re in charge but they’re obeying ancient orders. ‘Three Times A Lady’ [clip skipped] cleared the floor ‘cept for boyfriends and girlfriends who smootched, enjoying being looked at, and snoggers who just snogged and forgot they were being looked at. Second choices were going for the third choices now. Paul White got off with Lucy Sneads. Next on was ‘Come on Eileen’ by Dexys Midnight Runners. A disco’s a zoo too. Some of the animals’re wilder than they are by day, some funnier, some posier, some shyer, some sexier. Holly Deblin’d obviously gone home.
Come on Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners (1982)
‘I thought you’d gone home.’
An EXIT light glowed alian-green in the dark.
‘I thought you‘d gone home.’
The disco vibrated the plywood floor. Behind the stage there’s this narrow back room stacked with stacks of chairs. It’s got a sort of big shelf too, ten foot up and wide as the back room. The table tennis table-tops’re kept up there and I know where the ladder’s hidden.
‘No, I was just dancing with Dean Moran.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Holly Deblin did this funny jealous voice. ‘What’s Dean Moran got that I haven’t? Is he a good kisser?’
‘Moran? That’s revolting!’
‘Revolting’ was the last word I ever spoke as someone who’d never kissed a girl.
During my second ever kiss Holly Deblin’s tongue visited my mouth, like a shy vole. You’d think that’d be disgustingville too but it’s wet and secret and mine wanted to visit her back so I let it. That kiss ended because I forgot to breath. ‘This song’, I was actually panting. ‘that’s on right now. Sort of hippyish, but it’s beautiful.’
Words like ‘beautiful’ you can’t use with boys you can with girls.
‘”#9 Dream”. John Lennon. Walls and Bridges LP, 1974.’
‘If that’s supposed to impress me it really does.’
#9 Dream – John Lennon (1974)
Holly Deblin gripped my slightly big ears in her fingers and thumbs and steered my mouth to hers. Our third kiss lasted the whole of ‘Planet Earth’ by Duran Duran. Holly Deblin guided my hand to were it could feel her fourteen-year-old heart beating against its palm.
Planet Earth – Duran Duran (1981)
I guess now you all want to read Black Swan Green?
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