I suppose a lot of men would remember the make, model and precise performance spec of the first turntable in their lives. What I recall is the warmth of the walnut veneer finish, the heft of the metal platter, the reluctant pause before it consented to spin, and the snap, crackle and pop as the stylus settled in the groove and bobbed across the disc. I remember the chilly ache in my inner ear from the primitive signal of the headphones after hours of continuous listening, often in the dark, suspecting that it couldn’t be good for my aural health but feeling always that it had been worth it all the same. And I remember how odd it was that I had never, not once, seen either my mother or my father use it. Perhaps the system had been bought as a concession to children entering their teens, an acknowledgment that by the mid-to-late seventies the transistor in the back room – the dial forever oscillating between Radio 3 and 4 – would no longer do.
Like many record players of the time it sat mounted on a cabinet that housed the vinyl I’d never be able to renounce, whatever advantage any subsequent format was to deliver. There was nothing high end about the arrangement, and certainly nothing unusual. It was probably one of several that sat snug to a wood-chip papered wall in the living room of any number of semis along our street in suburban north west London. But our unit I remember as a portal, Narnian in its capacity to transport once the sticky latch had popped open and yielded its modest hoard; the disorderly ranks of thin spines, 12 inches tall, which were to have such a profound and lasting effect on my young life.
Now that my three and a half year-old son is cocking an ear to what I have playing at any given moment, I find myself thinking of that turntable and cabinet once again. As a parent I’m aware that I’m musical gatekeeper to Leo for the time being and, while he’s with me at least, the de facto early years curator of his nascent tastes. That’s some responsibility, and one I’m not sure I want. I’m happy to support him financially, house him and clothe him, wash him, feed him, read to him, right his wrongs and comfort him, but as for the formation of his cultural curiousity and outlook, I think I’d rather farm that task back out to him at the earliest available opportunity.
I’m a single father without recourse to live TV – largely out of choice – so radio has risen to the challenge; filling the vacuum that television abhors and proving itself to be the steadfast companion I always knew it to be. And in common with many contemporary stay-at-home dads and their offspring, it’s 6Music that soundtracks the midweek lunches and the Sunday morning breakfasts, punctuating the days we share. It’s also a fair barometer of my musical microclimate; a comfort in the day with its babbling brook of the familiar plus whatever’s on the playlist of new releases, and an adventure once Leo’s in bed as my one criteria for enjoyment is met hour upon hour – that I discover something I’d never heard before.
If there’s a downside to this staple diet it’s being made aware of every one else’s reactions to what I’m listening to, and more particularly their children’s. It’s a treat to hear my son yell ‘KINKS!’ whenever he hears them for the simple reason that I love the Kinks, too. And I’m no bloodless curmudgeon; how else would any parent react to the sound of their three year-old son singing along to Bowie’s Starman but to sing along with him? Though I’m every bit as delighted to hear him pick up on something from my left field like Kendrick Lamar’s Alright – the first rap I’ve been introduced to by a toddler. Now I just have to remember to play him the radio edit, not the version liberally peppered with expletives I downloaded the other day.
But the clamour of daytime parents informing the nation via social media that their little ones are being blown away by a Field Music session is sounding more narcissistic by the day. It’s a bonus if Leo likes what I’m singing along to. I’m still listening for one, and if he gets anything at all from hearing me burst my lungs to the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon then that’s all to the good. I won’t be following the advice of a friend who suggested singing the Smiths to him instead of the nursery stuff because when you’re three, some of that nursery stuff isn’t actually that bad. We forget that. What’s the rush?
This is recreation taken a little too literally; fashioning them after our own image. And to what end – reassurance? If I need a mirror I’ll use the one in the bathroom. No reassurance there. It’s understandable to a degree; how else are we going to clothe a child who can’t yet brush it’s own teeth unsupervised, never mind select and don appropriate attire, but according to our own taste? But it’s beginning to look like something approaching illness when we’re taking our children to 80s disco mornings – as advertised in a local pub with space to hire – or even, as I’m hearing more and more often, to a parent and toddler rave. By all means let’s let our kids know just how fresh the Tom Tom Club were back in the day – there’s a winning childlike whimsy to their best stuff. But if there was one thing we ever did purely for ourselves, to satisfy our own hedonistic impulses and nothing else, and that wasn’t to be shared with our progeny, it was surely raving and the particular kind of love that it engendered for one or two sunlit years as the eighties smiled into the nineties. Twenty-seven years on it feels more like dragging your child along to a Saturday afternoon engagement with a historical re-enactment society. Besides, raving responsibly isn’t raving.
I reserve the right to wallow on occasion in the gloop of my nostalgia – we all need a nice hot bath once in a while – but I won’t insist my son joins me. The word nostalgia, lest we forget, once gave name to a sickness, as denoted by its original Greek meaning – a painful longing relieved only by returning home. He’s a mini-him, not a mini-me, and I find I do a fairly decent job of bearing that in mind. And I’ll endeavour always to nurture his capacity to surprise in all things, be it his first gig, his choice of partner or his vocation.
By the age of six I was becoming my own gatekeeper, if only by default. There was no steady drip-feed of musical milk from my parents – only the occasional burst of Val Doonican when the mood took my mother or the drift of classics in the evenings from the back room where my father sat. Instead I feasted on the modest assortment of vinyl – perhaps sixty albums in all – left in the cabinet of curiosities by a brother and sister who’d left for university. Now I see that for the gift it was. Neil Young’s voice, which I first heard on Tell Me Why, the opener on his 1970 album. After The Goldrush, was the start of everything. Even at the age of six, the naked vulnerability in his voice resonated with me; it’s fragility and melancholy, the way it wavered close to breaking point under the weight of his solitude – perhaps I was a lonely child myself, but it spoke of a world beyond the end of our street and one I was hungry for.
The inconvenient truth is that we’re still only really dealing with one kind of music here and that’s the stuff we like. Whatever your proclivities that’s likely to be covered by the post-fifties boom – pop. As broad a tent as that is we still might pause for a moment to consider what we might be denying them, at a time when the sum of mankind’s musical endeavours to date is instantly accessible. That’s an opportunity which in itself requires an imaginative response from the listener, if they’re not to become lost. If raving taught us anything, the importance of remaining well hydrated aside, it was not to be puritanical. Let’s let them find what little room for rebellion might be left.
I can at least be Leo’s compass, until he starts to draw his own map. Other than that, the best any parent can do is to present their child with the menu, and not to stand over them while they make their choices. The most significant discoveries I made were those that were left lying around for me like clues – the game was afoot. So I’ll maintain the soundtrack for now and we’ll stick with 6. And in time, when he’s figured out how to use the turnable – and the CD player, and the MP3 player – he’ll see he’s surrounded by suggestions. Stacks and stacks of them.