The first CD I bought in my life was in 1998. January 1998 to be more precise. It was ‘Maestra Vida (Primera Parte)’ by the Panamanian salsa musician Rubén Blades and I purchased it at the now defunct Tower Records shop in Piccadilly Circus, London’s West End. Before that I had been given CDs by my wife, but I had never had the pleasure to walk into a music store and come out holding a record bought with my own money. I chose to make that shopping trip then because my son was about to be born and I had always identified myself very strongly with one of the tracks in the record, ‘El Nacimiento de Ramiro’ (‘Ramiro’s Birth’).
The reason why I am recalling this memento is that in an era defined by downloads and digital music I am one of those few souls around who are still in love with CDs, cassettes and vinyl records. I am not a Luddite, no, if you have a look at the right-hand section on my blog you’ll see a website called Trama Virtual that showcases new and up-and-coming Brazilian music. That’s where I first heard ‘Cansei de Ser Sexy ’ a few years ago before they went on to achieve world fame. And I spend quite a lot of time listening to internet radio stations, downloading tracks from various websites (as long as they’re free) and doing compilations based on the music I come across on the web.
However I am still fond of music that comes with the seal of a record label and original cover artwork. Digital downloads might give customers easy and instant access to music, but they fail to provide the listener with the treasures that you can only acquire in a record shop. Like for instance, lyrics.
The words to a song are like a rite of passage. They draw you in and invite you to be part of its brother- or sisterhood, or both combined. They are the initial step to possessing a song, caressing it and taking it to bed with you. How many times have we woken up in the middle of the night with a tune wandering aimlessly in our heads, lost in the corridors of our brains, how many times have we smiled later on at the recollection of that moment? And lest I forget, lyrics are also the source of much speculation, especially when performers refuse to explain their meaning (and quite rightly so, I would add, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ anyone?)
Sometimes when we finally get to read the lyrics, after years of listening to the record (an experience not alien to Cuban music fans as I will explain later) we realise how meaningless and ordinary some of them can be. And of course, some refrains from famous songs have been endorsed by politicians on various occasions, only to bring them shame and embarrassment after a close reading of the words. ‘Born in the USA’ and Ronald Reagan spring to mind.
Yet, despite these minuses I still prefer ready-made tapes, CDs and vinyl records (admittedly I have not bought much of the latter lately) to digital downloads. The pleasure of unwrapping the CD, for instance, playing it for the first time and exposing yourself to the Killer Opening Song is unmatched by any other experience. And what of the lyrics? I still remember the day when I got that Ruben Blades’ album and sat on a Picadilly Line tube carriage, placed the record inside my CD player and put my headphones on. I opened the booklet (ah, booklets!) and scanned the lyrics until I got to the track I wanted. The same happened the first time I heard ‘Gorillaz’, Damon Albarn’s alter ego band. I was still commuting to West Hampstead in those days and I remember being on the tube, peeling the CD covering film off and putting the record on my Discman. The first chords of ‘Re-hash’ kicked in and the funky, sultry music enveloped me in a sweet blend of blithe, je-ne-sais-pas-qoui mood. It has remained one of my favourite Killer Opening Songs ever.
There’s another reason why I favour CDs, tapes and vinyl over digital downloads. And that is related to history and my being Cuban. When I was growing up in the 80s it was hard to get hold of pop and rock music. The government had a silly hard line against music sung in English and we, youngsters, were left to bear the brunt of this policy. So, most of the records we acquired in those days were out of date by a few years, but we did not complain. Cassettes were hard to come by so the majority of my music collection was handed-down tapes exchanged endlessly in networks that sprung up almost as spontaneously as they folded. It was through one of these unofficial channels that I struck up a friendship with one of my classmates, Duhamel Núñez Jiménez in year 10 at the Saúl Delgado College. He and I had similar tastes in music; consequently it was not strange to either of us that we ended sharing a lot of tunes together. Thus, in year 11 we both went for it and decided to record all Pink Floyd albums that we could find available. It was a huge task in the Havana of 1987 as at the times blank tapes were priced between 5 and 10 Cuban pesos. Ready-made tapes, that is, cassettes that were recorded from albums were worth up to 15 Cuban pesos, depending on the artist. Neither of us had a penny (or a quilo prieto, rather) and pocket money was not a concept we were familiar with. Still, we persisted and by the summer of ’88 we had almost all albums released by this British band in our hands. The only ones missing were the collectors’ items, obscure records like ‘Picnic’, one side Floyd, one side Deep Purple. All in all, both Duhamel and I could declare our mission to be over.
Out of all the records we got hold of, put on tapes and shared, too, there was one that stood out from the word go. It was ‘Wish You Were Here’, Pink Floyd’s 1975 album dedicated to their former colleague Syd Barrett. There was such a delicacy and vigour at the same time running through the entire record that it made the listener sit up and pay attention to both music and lyrics. And what lyrics! I will never forget a summer afternoon in 1988 in Havana and me sitting in the park across from my college reading the hand-written words to all the songs. I was good at English so the lyrics did not pose any difficulty to me. Saying that, though, it was only when I relocated to London that I found out what the phrase ‘Gravy Train’ meant (‘Have a Cigar’, track 3). That was one of the reasons why I grew to love ‘Wish You Were Here’ so much and why after all these years I play it only occasionally, like photos in a forgotten album that one only gets out every now and then when nostalgia makes its presence known.
Duhamel and I went our separate ways when I started Uni in the autumn of 1989. I still popped by his house once in a while but he decided to pursue a career in graphic design (he was a superb painter and illustrator!) and my visits grew more scarce.
So, it is to the memory of that friendship and to my love for CDs, vinyl records and cassettes that Killer Opening Songs dedicates this week's introductory track, 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' (Parts 1-5). It is the first tune of the album ‘Wish You Were Here’ and it was recently performed at the Royal Festival Hall by none other than David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s guitarist. It also boasts one of the most thoughtful and vivid lyrics ever (Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun/Shine on you crazy diamond/Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky/Shine on you crazy diamond). I’m not too sure whether the saxophonist that comes on stage at the end of the song in the clip below is Dick Parry, who played in the original record. So, if you can clarify this matter for me, it would be great.
Apologies to all for the long and verbose intro, I just felt that I had to explain very clearly why this Killer Opening Song has such a special place in my heart. Enjoy.