The End. From the banality of X Factor to the beauty of Amy Winehouse.

After writing about 69 memories of music that I’ve either loved or helped to shape me as a person, the year 2000 and the release of Lost Souls by Doves is an apt place to end. Why, especially as a ton of amazing music has been released since? Maybe being made redundant three times from music shops I was managing gave me a long-lasting musical downer post MVC, Music Zone and Fopp? Nope, that sucked, especially losing my job on Christmas Eve at MVC, but I got over all three quickly.

Around the late ‘90s I rediscovered a passion for local (Dorset) bands. Inspired by impassioned promoters Solid Air I frequented many local gigs, becoming friends with many promoters, gig-goers and band members. From 2006 I’d end up running my own music promotion business, resigned to losing money along the way I realised very quickly that most of the music I was enjoying locally was better than the majority of crap that was finding its way into the slowly evaporating singles chart. Way too much of that crap had achieved sales and chart success on the back of the growing popularity of TV talent shows. I hated them intensely.

Popstars, Pop Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, Fame Academy, The Voice, X Factor and a bulging bunch of failures you’ve probably never heard of like Rock Rivals have hugely contributed to not just the lowering of standards and expectations, literally discouraging ground-breaking creativity, but also by force-feeding that banal dross into our TV screens these singers and songs are what kids now aspire to be. Dull. Monotonous. Manufactured. And it makes me want to puke. I see these programmes as nothing more than money-makers for their inventors and as vehicles to enhance or extend the celebrity status of the show’s ‘judges’. Fuck that.

When I was working for Fopp in the mid 2000s there was a ‘charity single’ released by Simon Cowell’s X Factor. At the time a usual CD single would cost £1.99 or £2.99, rarely more. This X Factor ‘charity single’ – a lacklustre piece of dross with a shitty remix as a B-side cost £3.99. Now, big up Simon Cowell for making so much money for a worthwhile cause, right? But in very, very small letters on the back of the CD it read something like: £1 from sales of this single will go to the charity. So £1 to the charity and £2.99 to Cowell, because he needs it. To me, this typifies Cowell’s ideology. He’s in it for the money. The music is not even secondary, it’s a means to wealth.

I see the huge advancements in technology and the impact they have had on recorded music as a double-edged sword. To have an infinite amount of music available at your fingertips is clearly incredible, but not if it’s free. Having seen the energy, skill and commitment it takes to make amazing music, how can it be right for it to be free, or at best for the artist, a pittance? Why music, which has taken weeks or months of time and talent to perfect and not a painting, book or a meal at a restaurant, and why should streaming sites earn such a huge amount of money from music that others have created? Bands who have already achieved a level of success can obviously make money from live performances, merch and other endorsements, but the vast majority of bands who are just starting out or haven’t appeared on a shitty TV talent show? Yeah… here’s our music we’ve spent months creating. Take it. Money? Nah, it’s yours.

Now that all sounds a bit negative, which it is. Give me music before free downloads and fucking X Factor stuck their knives in any day. But, amazing, creative bands and artists exist as much as ever, it’s just they don’t appear on TV any more. Post 2000 I’ve loved Weller, Graham Coxon, The Bees, Belle & Sebastian, Richard Hawley, Radiohead, Mercury Rev, Flaming Lips, Doves, Fleet Foxes, Kate Tempest and Kings Of Leon before they cashed in and became vacuous. But one artist stands out a mile. Amy Winehouse. When we received Back To Black in Fopp and I’d read the reviews of this amazing new soul singer, I was cautious and heavily reluctant to believe the hype. But instantly I could hear this was the real deal. Everything about it screamed of a brilliant and undoubted talent. For an authentic soul artist in 2006 the perfect vintage production was great to hear, but more than that it was the quality of the songs and her incredible voice that blew me away. Her loss is truly tragic.

Seeing Neil Young perform at the Hop Farm Festival and Brian Wilson at the Opera House were gigs I’ll never forget, as are some amazing times promoting, watching, and hanging out with local bands. Music remains a constant love, but now more than ever I find myself looking back rather than forward. Writing Melody Calls has brought back so many incredible memories, not just of the music but the people associated with those times. I feel blessed to have lived a life so entrenched in and indebted to the skill, passion and sheer genius of so many artists.

Thank you all and thank you for reading.

Nina Simone – ‘Here Comes The Sun’

I came back to Bournemouth from the south of France via a month in Paris in late ’93. I had just split from my girlfriend and I was a bit lost and a lot unemployed. Looking back, streaming tears on a crowded train back from Paris whilst listening to Neil Young’s Birds seems like a faintly masochistic thing to do:

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over.”

Compared to the young, relatively shy, pale man who existed in early ‘90, the years I spent travelling and working abroad had changed me. I was more confident. I was happy with who I was. I had a raging suntan and a Brad from Neighbours kind of look. I’d like to think that look disappeared quickly but it probably hung around longer than the suntan.

So, what next? After an eventful few months of meeting some old friends and making some new, and playing some extremely good golf, I got a job. With MVC. The Music and Video Club, and I’d work for them for the next eleven years. Aged 27 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I had retail experience and a passion for music, so a job in a music and entertainment shop? Yeah, I might enjoy that. Enjoy it I did. Well, most of it thanks to the dozens of nerds, musos and funsters I’d get to meet and befriend. MVC took me to Bournemouth, Poole, Penzance, Fareham and Weymouth. I worked with many lovely and a few not so lovely folk, and my musical enlightenment was about to go up a few gears.

I have a strong memory at MVC, after just a few days in the job somebody stuck on a Nina Simone CD. I heard her incredible version of Here Comes The Sun and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard it before, though I soon realised there were endless other amazing songs, albums and artists I’d not heard and that would be a never-ending joy of the job. But Nina Simone stands out. It is a rare thing, hearing a Beatles song that’s better than the original, but here was one that managed that with its sheer, overwhelming beauty.

Nina’s voice is more than enough. But her tender piano, the brushes, strings and perfect percussion make this a sensory joy that radiates happiness. Those first few months at MVC were exciting times. Working in a record shop (okay, a CD, DVD and games shop) was, for a music nerd, a great place to be. But more than the music it would be the friends I’d make that would have a huge impact on my life. The travels had ended, but another ride had just begun.

Neil Young – ‘MTV Unplugged’

In March ’93 I returned to France with Keycamp, this time to Fréjus on the Côte d’Azur, to a smaller, more relaxed site than Vias Plage with more opportunity and need to speak French, which nearly thirty years later I’m still learning. In June that year Neil Young released his MTV Unplugged live album, and that was my beautiful summer earworm. Why I bought that and not Harvest or other ‘70s classic albums I assume was because I’d seen the MTV show in February, but regardless, I devoured its lavish simplicity.

Neil Young’s voice makes me shiver in a very, very good way. It’s totally unique like an about to crack falsetto. But it never does. It strains, sounds pained and gushes with emotion like the sound of tears singing. My senses die for it, as opposed to the low growl of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave who I’ve never been able to enjoy. My loss. On his MTV Unplugged album his voice is front and centre. Every song is performed in its purest form, with the likes of Mr Soul and Like A Hurricane and in particular Transformer Man almost unrecognisable from the original.

Performing songs from ‘67’s Mr Soul to tracks from Harvest Moon released in ’92 this was my second phase of discovery into Neil Young, following the previous year’s obsession with After The Goldrush. Listening to the album I had little idea about the origin of almost all these songs, so was listening with fresh and eager ears. There’s little on the album I didn’t love, but some songs hit me particularly hard. Mr Soul got me with simple guitar, harmonica and: I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter / I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her.” Such gorgeous torture.

Pocahontas and Stringman are both stunning through their musical restraint, leaving the anguish in Neil’s voice to heighten the intensity. The emotion increases on Like A Hurricane, performed on a pump organ the song just brought tears…

“You are like a hurricane
There’s calm in your eye
And I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feelin’ stays
I wanna love you but I’m gettin’ blown away.”

Unrelenting, The Needle And The Damage Done and Helpless both keep the mood beautifully low, until the spirits lift and love, hope and happiness shine towards the set’s end. The harmonies on Transformer Man are angelic, matched on the adoring and sentimental homage to an Unknown Legend. I’d play that song to death, just to hear Neil sing: “I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.” Featuring Neil’s half sister Astrid on backing vocals and Nils Lofgren on autoharp, guitars and accordion, the band’s tone throughout is impeccable, his songs shone, and that summer my love for Neil Young just intensified. His down was just divine.

Neil Young – ‘After The Goldrush’

Returning from the States I had most definitely caught a dose of wanderlust. I had no money, so working abroad was my only option. Mi amigo Simon was a Thomson rep, but whilst he was a natural entertainer I was a relative introvert. But I could dabble in French and I knew how to be nice to people, so a job as a rep for Keycamp in France was for me. Those six months turned out to be more fun than should really be allowed, sharing a campsite on Vias Plage with dozens of other reps and hundreds of friendly punters. But best of all I discovered three of my all time favourite albums.

Whilst it was through a girlfriend that I found these albums, I can look and listen back with no attached emotion. We had two seasons in the sun, a winter in Dublin and a month or so in Paris and I can very happily say, thank you for the music. Before we met I spent a few months working hard and partying harder. The most listened to album by far was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. We loved it and did the socks on cocks thing, because. But then peak season hit, and as the sun was at full strength with it came the start of a near thirty-year love affair with Neil Young. I heard After The Goldrush.

Neil Young has one of those voices. And yes, I loved it. Give me sentiment, give me sincerity, give me honesty and most of all hit my emotions with as much ferocity and ruthlessness as your words and music can muster. With After The Goldrush Neil Young delivered that with beautiful, unmerciful aplomb. Vocally, anguish reigns. That high-pitched, pained and tortured inflection adds huge weight to an album of angst, protest, social comment and fragile, tender love.

Tell Me Why is a great opener, but when the title track starts you know you’re going to be in deep. With Neil Young it’s all about the feel, and instantly it felt like an album to devour, with enough lyrical obscurity to provoke the imagination. But, as was my leaning, the more sombre and sorrowful the song, the more I loved it. There I was, partying my ass of in France and totally obsessing over something so beautifully, incredibly down.

“Someone should call him
And see if he can come out
Try to lose the down that he’s found
But only love can break your heart
Try to be sure right from the start
Yes, only love can break your heart
What if your world should fall apart?”

– Only Love Can Break Your Heart

“Everybody’s going out and having fun
I’m just a fool for staying home and having none
I can’t get over how she set me free
Oh, lonesome me”

– Oh Lonesome Me,

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over”

– Birds

With Neil Young living in Topanga Canyon, the nearby Laurel Canyon vibe is everywhere, with an instrumental sparsity bringing the lyrics to the fore. An 18-year old Nils Lofgren was brought in to add guitar and piano, adding magic with little experience but perfect musical smarts, and as with most of Neil Young’s classic early ‘70s work everything feels so loose, so musically free and easy. It’s only Young’s trademark lead guitar that shows signs of strain, no more so than in his castigation of Southern racism and slavery’s disgusting legacy in Southern Man.

If there’s a more sublime and perfectly pained sound than Neil Young’s voice and guitar, I’m yet to hear it, and if there’s a more beautiful album than After The Goldrush, I’m yet to hear that too.