Volkswagen Golfs are not, to my knowledge, fitted with studio quality audio systems, and while acoustics engineers can no doubt work miracles in their fine tuning of the frequency response of car interiors, battling the incessant drone of rubber on tarmac—and have you realised just how loud it is, these days, as a BMW X5 roars past?—and the interrelated breathing of door panels and dashboards, I wasn't hearing the whole thing. I didn't realise it at the time, or rather that I simply forgot, as I sat back and let the new music surround me and wash over me. And "wash" is not so far from the truth. I was driving down The Great North Road and having a really rather lovely time of it.
Spinning in the dashboard was an album by an artist whose works to me are largely unknown listening, an artist long of British applause, at once steeped in mystery yet revered as she flounced around in front of a camera with Vaseline smeared on the lens. A pop artist. Good heavens, have I taken leave of my senses? I wouldn't have taken this route at all if it weren't for a remarkable diversion of tradition on the part of the German online music magazine, laut.de, and its myriad internet radio stations; specifically one specialising in progressive rock, that one finds more likely to bring to the listener Gong, or Can, or King Crimson, Barclay James Harvest, Gryphon, Brand X, Caravan, Curved Air and so on. There's a lot of Canterbury sound in there, too, which is no bad thing, but it's perhaps a reflection of when I have time to tune in.
Why was my radio station playing pop? It's not mutually exclusive; it depends on one's definition of popular, and indeed, progressive. Forward looking. Inventive. Experimental. Constantly developing and changing. ELP, now so sadly reduced to P, weren't known for filling a concert with just their latest numbers, rather, the dozen classic pieces audiences wanted to hear. Rush, still very much a trio but sadly winding down, and who had a mission to change as much as possible from album to album, found itself forever cast in the prog mould of swords and sorcery, even in the later years of soaring synthesiser leads and Top Man jackets with the sleeves rolled up. Prog doesn't overly concern itself with "She loves you yeah yeah yeah", even if those particular writers went on to thoroughly sow the seeds of progressivism . . . and here I was with a pop artist in my hands.
I had 130 miles to drive down the east coast, and it had been many years since I'd undertaken a similar journey. I had happy memories of that occasion too, when I reeled off the 200 miles to York in the company of Pat Metheny on Radio 2. My Windcheetah trike was stowed alongside me, and I was on my way to the York Cycle Show for the very first time. Today I was making another bicycle related trip, with an altogether smaller objective.
It wasn't really a pop album at all. There was no standard approach here, no verse-verse-chorus-verse, no solo, not even a chiming DX7; no frenetic repetitive drum beat, no-one behind the microphone, all hair, gyrating with half her clothes missing…and certainly no studenty guys all short-back-and-sides and a leather tie, coaxing swooping sounds from an old Oberheim, and definitely no glitter-caped raconteurs encouraging the wheezing and swelling bellow of a church organ. Nothing like that at all: just piano—simple but choice piano—some string bass, some gentle guitar and drums here and there…and that huge vocal range: bluesy at one end; a mellowing shrill whistle at the other. If the music had been any more relaxing I might have stopped in a lay-by and gone to sleep.
The radio station, on the day, had played only the title track from the album, before moving on to something more traditional, and yet I was captivated. The interplay between a deeply sonorous, professorial voice and the singing. The drumming was a shoulder and hip–wriggling shuffle to end all shuffles. And of all the subjects, it seemed to be a song about wintertime! I knew that the artist had come out of hiding, as it were, of late and I presumed that this was the New Work, the triumphant return to form. And so it happened that the next day I ordered an album by none other than Kate Bush, and not knowing quite what to expect. I'd bought many albums before on the strength of just one song, Thunder's Behind Closed Doors and Van Halen's Balance being two of the earliest instances I can remember; more recently, Le Orme's La Via Della Seta took its name from its last song, and I bought Ze Słowem Beignę Do Ceibe, by SBB, purely on hearing "Przed Premierą": one advantage of the internet-based radio being, listeners' patience notwithstanding, unlimited scope to play anything longer than three-oh-five. In the test of time, neither Thunder nor Van Halen really stuck with me in the way that others did; less of the rock and more of the prog, perhaps.
I shuffled around on the car seat and tapped along on the steering wheel, making the best of an otherwise miserable day; the rain couldn't decide whether to be drizzle or proper, and eventually I tired of turning the windscreen wipers on and off, and left them on. I didn't care much for the automatic setting that seemed to kick in only once the screen was speckled so much that it became hard to see through.
An hour or so later I was still listening to the gentle tides of piano, having surfaced occasionally for lyrics about city streets and melting snowmen, and hearing a guest singer who was none other than Elton John! I'm not the world's foremost fan of dear Mr John, though I quite enjoyed his cover with RuPaul of Don't Go Breaking My Heart, yet here he sounded deep and serious and thoughtful. Who knew? Before very long, and probably when I was well on my way towards Alnwick, I started to recognise certain phrases: a piano chord here, a vocal phrase there. Not only had I listened to the whole album, I was now on lap two. I was still en route, and not wanting to spoil the experience, for I'm no stranger to overlistening to new music – as was someone at university who was so mad for Kula Shaker's Hey Dude that he played it over and over and over, ad dementia!! – so I opted for some equally mellow Classic FM.
With rain and more rain, and a mild diversion to the monotony thanks to a broken down van on possibly the narrowest section of the A1, I arrived in Morpeth. The sun actually came out. The objective was Christmas present-picking-up, for a little boy who has yet to learn to ride a bicycle. In. Chat for a few minutes. Out. No sooner said than done I was on the road, retracing my steps northwards. I put some music on again.
I well remember the tinniness of music played in a car. It sounded like Tony Colton's mixing desk in 1970. You might hear a pin drop but any frequency below that seemed to disappear. When Max Power magazine came to prominence twenty-five years later, suddenly every Vauxhall Nova seemed to sport a bootful of shiny aluminium heatsinks and at least two honking great speakers. If you were older, or richer, or both, you took the back seats out and turned your car into a laboratory experiment with the sole objective measured in decibels by people wearing white coats, or possibly white tracksuits, with additional visual evidence from banks of equalisers with dancing LEDs. What a lot of nonsense. If you were classy, though, you pulled apart your dashboard and doors and installed components with labels like "Celestion" and "Fostex", and the thickest speaker cable this side of a BBC Outside Broadcast van. But twenty years of aerodynamic research has pared down the wind noise to an amazing degree, while the tyre makers have decided wider is better and wider is louder so louder is better, but the boffins in the anechoic chambers have been left to their own devices. Now the cockpit of your Golf is so luxuriously appointed and rattle-free that all you can hear are rampant bass frequencies.
None of this even crossed my mind as I stopped for a sandwich at a car park, home to myriad up-and-down-the-country lunch stops from years gone by. Coldstream wasn't part of my itinerary, actually. After a diversion before Berwick that, on paper as I learned afterwards, was far shorter than I imagined, I decided to be clever and short cut cross-country, but my GPS was for recording where I went, not where I was going, and even less for button-pressing while on the move; my big road atlas was spreadeagled on the passenger seat but there was nowhere to stop to read it. The not entirely unexpected result was that I found myself going south and west from Berwick instead of north and west. It's called an adventure. The day was still young, at any rate, and I wasn't in a hurry. I chewed slowly on peanut butter and strolled absently around the tarmac. Come on now, just 50 miles to go.
Back home, finally, away from the miasma of motorways and surburbia, was the chance to invoke some hi-fi.
I closed my eyes and listened for a time, and Kate's voice soared in the quiet. "I am sky, and here…"
cryoclastic flow . . .