55 years in 55 songs

Screen Shot 2018-12-16 at 22.17.29I can’t remember which movie it was, but I was talking to good friend David Jennings in Vancouver about how no matter how disorganized we may be in other areas there are some things we like to keep ordered- like our music collection.; – and he told me of the film where one geek explains to his awe-struck friend, how his music collection was organized not alphabetically, or geographically or by sub-genre- but autobiographically.   I have to confess being quite impressed by this. So as I reach my 55th I’ll take up an idea I got from good friend Andrew Smith which he did for his 50th, and choose 55 records that mark the soundtrack of my life. Some of them only gaining significance for me years after their release.

These are not arranged in the order they were released, but in the order in which they intersected with my life. They are not necessarily my 55 favourites, nor the 55 best in my opinion, (although I like them all). They are simply the tracks that have, sometimes for quite obscure reasons, drawn the contours of my life these past 55 years.

There are of course notable omissions: No Beatles or Stones or Dylan (though one of his songs does appear), there is probably a clear bias to Celtic bands and singers; and, with only 2 exceptions, I tried to stick to one song per artist. And if I could have found anything from  Harvey and the Wallbangers circa 1985 that would definitely have made it.  There is also hardly anything from the past 15 years- possibly demonstrating that my taste for the new has diminished with age, but also due to the fact that in this context it takes time to earn significance.

All are available via Spotify- I’d share the link to my playlist if I knew how!    Here goes:

The School Years

  1. Sweet Talkin’ Woman:             ELO

My first single. As a kid growing up in a family of orchestral fans, ELO provided the natural bridge. I could have chosen half a dozen tracks from this album which won the first ever Brit Awards Album of the Year.

  1. Sultans of Swing:             Dire Straits

In the era of punk and new wave I was much more attracted to Knopfler’s virtuoso guitar and became a fan overnight

  1. Oliver’s Army             Elvis Costello

The first pop song I learned to play by ear; blattered it out on the church hall piano after youth group

  1. (Don’t fear) the Reaper             Blue Oyster Cult

Was played in the dorm incessantly at youth camp and the riff stayed with me for years

  1. One rule for you             After the Fire

I remember the excitement in our youth group in hearing of a Christian band trying to make it in the mainstream. The song sounds dated now, but it brings back great memories

  1. The Logical Song             Supertramp

The sax and the vocal sound effects captured me. A great album- the only one Gwen and I owned in common when we got married!

  1. Since you’ve been gone             Rainbow

That opening riff. Never a massive heavy rock fan- but these guys could bang out a tune

  1. All out of love             Air Supply

At the other end of the scale, my schoolfriend who was into acoustic and ballads introduced this to me and it has grown on me more each year

  1. Down Under             Men at Work

A unique sound – love the flute, and saddened by the bizarre court case that led to the demise of the band member concerned. The song is maybe a cliché now if you’re an Aussie- but what a classic!

  1. Enola Gay                  OMD

Probably preferred “Souvenir” but this was the first song I danced to at my school formal (sorry if the mental images are distressing).

  1. Theme from ‘Harry’s Game’  Clannad

I think this is the only musician on the list who we’ve had the privilege of hosting in our home. A truly unique voice- and the Irish lament that was such a perfect vehicle for Maire’s voice and that made them famous.

The Uni Years

  1. Loch Lomond (Live)     Runrig

Saw them a few times while at Uni in Stirling when they were on the rise. Feel-good Galllc Rock. Would love to have been at this year’s farewell concert at Stirling Castle.

  1. Hymn for the Children Barclay James Harvest

There’s always a college room mate who plays stuff from a band you had never heard of. One of mine was into BJH. The tunes stayed with me until I eventually picked up one of their albums for myself about 20 years later in the States

  1. Why worry?      Dire Straits

One of the two repeat artists on the list: I could have chosen anything from Brothers in Arms, but picked this for its simplicity and sheer chill-out factor.

  1. You can call me Al        Paul Simon

Again I could have picked anything from this album, but YCCMA always stood out for its weird lyrics, and interplay of brass, flute and apparently a bass riff that is almost impossible to play. Plus that video with Chevy Chase!

The Early Work Years

  1. You’re the Voice         John Farnham

In 1987 I site-managed the Crosslinks Music Festival in Liverpool (with only a few disasters – like lying in my site caravan listening to the radio presenter saying they were still waiting for one of their guests to show up and talk about the festival- and remembering I was meant to pick him up) Anyway, positively, the moment I knew it was all coming together was when the mainstage was erected and the sound team were testing their levels, and Farnham’s anthem blasted out across a sunny Aintree racecourse

  1. My Baby just cares for me      Nina Simone

Great song, rag piano, and even better animated video.  Watch it!

  1. The Power of Love         Huey Lewis & the News

One of those pub quiz questions about three songs of the same title being in the charts. But for me, there was only ever one. Kind of spoiled by its association with the Back to the Future movie, since Lewis and the lads are a great band, and since I’m an extremely rare concert-goer, they get the nod ‘cos I actually did see this one live and the video link is from the same tour with the same brass section.

The Early Gwen Years

  1. Bright Blue Rose         Mary Black

Everpresent in the Gwen& Monty repertoire. I’ve had it requested in some strange places (most recently the foyer of a private hospital where I was messing about on the grand piano). Written by the great Jimmy McCarthy, if I could have found his version on Spotify, I would have chosen it, but Mary does a decent job

  1. Wonderchild          Jimmy McCarthy

But I had to include something from Jimmy, just because so many of his songs have moved us. I think of an upstairs room in Capel Street, Dublin, and this one is a good representation of his work

  1. Wonderful Life        Black

Haunting melody from an under-rated artist. Lyrics beautiful in irony. I’ve often hummed it around the house changing the first letter of the second word to W.

  1. Little Town           Cliff Richard

Requested it (and arranged it) for a few carol services over the years. The middle section, the brass! That is all!

  1. Letter From America           The Proclaimers

Could have been anything from the magisterial Sunshine on Leith but this is the one that got them noticed. Unintelligible Celtic accents, powerful harmonies, emigration theme, Highland place names… Perfect. I later heard them perform this in Vancouver the night after the Canuck’s epic Stanley Cup final. Great couple of days.

  1. N17             The Saw Doctors

The archetypal “fun band” paying homage to a beautiful road in the West of Ireland I travelled many times with PCI and CUI

  1. Twist in my Sobriety     Tanita Tikaram

Any song that pulls off an oboe riff as the dominant motif deserves a place in any list. When it first came out, this song grabbed my attention and never let go. Superb first line, something of a personal motto for me, borrowed from author Maya Angelou.

  1. Love letters           Alison Moyet

One of the songs I would give my right arm to accompany on the piano- although that might be a bit counter-productive. Perfect balance of Moyet’s bluesy voice, an old classic, and raw piano; although Jools Holland fills it out a bit and adds the sax in this clip

  1. Hard to say I’m Sorry           Chicago

Another of the few I heard live- the pick of the bunch from a band that featured prominently on my car sound system along the roads of Ireland in the 80s; and possibly the first live concert I went to with Gwen.

  1. Mandolin Rain           Bruce Hornsby & The Range

Also on that car repertoire. Would love to have heard these guys. Always a sucker for a strong piano line. Love the plaintiveness of this one.

The Vancouver Years

  1. California Dreaming            The Mamas & The Papas

I Remember it’s poignant performance in the movie Stella; and the Californians singing it at the International Evening at Regent; and catching it on MTV once and being gobsmacked by the outfits; and singing it at the piano bar on a ship in the Arctic. We do a good counterpoint in our own carpool karaoke.

  1. What a Good Boy             Barenaked Ladies

I was introduced to this Canadian band while in Vancouver and their ‘Best Of’ was one of my most-played albums, but it is this live version of a lesser-known ballad that I love, and it is a perfect example of Steven Page’s vocal skills.

  1. A Whiter Shade of Pale Procol Harum

One of my increasingly small repertoire on the piano. Also played it on numerous occasions with my own words- most memorably at my Vancouver farewell party.

  1. Trouble in the Fields          Maura O’Connell

The Woman’s Heart compilations hit a real chord with us, but for me this is the track that stood out from both albums. It’s an American folk song but Maura O’Connell does a great job with Nanci Griffiths’s original (the video features them both duetting it)   A song of the land that is as appropriate to the West of Ireland as the mid-West of America

The Trainee Ministry Years

  1. Full Force Gale      Van Morrison

He had to feature- and this gets chosen because it was the processional music for my licensing into the Presbyterian Church in 1995

  1. Wind of change        Scorpions

Gwen discounts any song with whistling, but there is so much else in this song, not least how it marked the era of perestroika. Introduced to me by a member of my first youth group.

  1. The Island        Paul Brady

If I had to choose one song about the sad history of our island, it would be this. We first performed it at a concert in that first church and it has had many outings since, not least in our “N Ireland talk” for visiting American students

  1. Walking on Sunshine        Katrina & the Waves

Everyone’s gotta have a feel good summer song. One that immediately lifts the spirits. That’s all it needs to do and it does it well!

The Early Ministry Years

  1. The Whole of the Moon The Waterboys

The use of the vocal line as just another instrument in the greater whole; the poetic contrasts in the lyrics- well constructed and foot-tappingly joyous.

  1. Keeping the Dream Alive     Freiheit

One of the candidates for “our song”. It’s what we try to do. It’s appearance an the ubiquitous 90s Christmas Album gave it a bit of a revival and we always seemed to reach this track just as we finished the post-Christmas Party washing up and sat down by the embers of the dying fire in the small hours of December. Also featured as the soundtrack for one of my Christmas photo-montages for Gwen

  1. Don’t Explain       Mary Black

Mary Black makes her second appearance. This time with her version of Billie Holiday’s heart-wrenching plea of an unloved woman. Chose this version because of the plaintive sax line and characteristic guitar (Declan Sinnott, I imagine). Gwen sang this as a support for Maire Brennan circa 2000.

  1. Your Song           Elton John

Couldn’t believe this was first released in 1970; so I missed it first time round, but Moulin Rouge reintroduced it to me and I performed it for Gwen’s 40th birthday (complete with photographs) at a church talent evening

  1. Alone          Heart

She’s never sung it, but if there ever was another talent night we were involved in I would try to get Gwen to sing this. She’s got the lungs and the passion for it and I think she could still pull it off.

  1. Over the Rainbow    Eva Cassidy

When I first heard this I thought “What is this about?” but what I imagined to be a twee lyric somehow was animated by the phenomenal vocal undulations and contrapuntal guitar of the tragic Cassidy. When I realized she was playing as well as singing, it’s place in my top 50 was guaranteed.

  1. Don’t Marry Her       The Beautiful South

Paul Heaton is one of the cleverest lyricists I’ve come across. I could have gone for numerous Housemartins tracks but think TBS took his writing a bit further. I’m glad there’s a clean version of this song – the explicit version was totally unnecessary but it brings back hilarious memories of a parishioner who lent me the uncensored album having never listened closely to the lyrics, and the embarrassment that followed.

The Mid-ministry Years

  1. Glory of Love         Peter Cetera

I guess this is a double appearance, if you count Chicago. The only time I’ve had a request played on the radio. On one of my long night drives home, around 2006, knowing Gwen was waiting at home I phoned in on a whim and this was the first song I thought of. She has actually referred to me as her knight in shining armour, so who am I to disagree.

  1. God of the Moon and Stars        Kees Kraayenoord

Introduced to this while leading a team to Ukraine in 2008 and it has been my Go To video at the end of an evangelistic service on many occasions since.   For some reason the Spotify version is nowhere near as good as this youtube ones with the stronger piano line.

  1. Tiger in the Night           Katie Melua

The pick from a beautiful album that I thought was the only thing stolen when we were broken into in 2009, only for a friend to own up several years later to having borrowed it. Getting it back was like being reunited with an old friend.

  1. Blue Moon         Showaddywaddy

13 May 2012. Man City 3 QPR 2;   Agueroooo

  1. Northwest Passage      Stan Rogers

Probably one of the surprises in the pack. On Sabbatical in BC in 2013 there was just one CD left lying in the car we were graciously lent for the months we were there. So we got introduced to Canadian trad folk singer Stan Rogers. I love this one for the unusual backing vocals and for the tale it tells of Arctic exploration: something that always fascinated me. The video intersperses the song with some documentary and commentary about Rogers and his music.

The Student Ministry Years

  1. The Living Years          Mike & the Mechanics

Always loved this song with its syncopated keyboard, anthemic chorus and theme of intergenerational angst. Remember playing it a lot when my father passed away in late 2013- though thankfully without too much of the regret of the lyricist.

  1. Fairytale of New York      The Pogues & Kirsty McCall

Not much needs to be said about this that hasn’t already been said: It’s in here purely because Gwen and I raised a few eyebrows by singing it at my first student conference talent night.

  1. Make you feel my love        Adele

And I sing this one to Gwen at the second conference. Dylan fans will think its blasphemy, but on this occasion I think Adele’s voice is better suited to his lyrics

  1. Walking in Memphis          Marc Cohen

A good song which makes it onto the list because of one of those rare quirks of fate. One summer afternoon in 2015 I found myself hearing this song coming out of a nearby building while I was – yes – walking in Memphis.

  1. Dreams The Cranberries

Another one of those quirks. I was always gripped by Dolores O’Riordan’s distinctive voice and it was understandable that when she tragically died in 2018 the Cranberries would get some airplay, but in one day I found myself in a café in Belfast, a shopping mall in Dublin and a student bar in Cork and this song was playing when I walked into all three. Throughout the island radio stations recognized this song as one of the best aspects of her legacy

  1. Viva La Vida        Coldplay

I’m probably not alone in my generation in that the music that impacted us dates from 20 years and further back. But these guys aren’t too bad! Thoughtful, melodic, and memories of Gwen sight-reading it with a pop-up choir during the Belfast Culture night in 2018.

  1. I’ll find my way home          Jon & Vangelis

A song from our teens but in the last 5 years we have done so many miles around Ireland and Europe this is often sung at the start of many a return journey





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