When you heard it. Was it on the radio? Or in the middle of a mix tape? An album? A CD? Did you buy it yourself or borrow it from a friend? After you heard it, did you go out and get yourself a guitar or eyeliner or a preacher’s hat? Did you stick a safety pin in your ear and wear a dog collar to school the next day?
Did you even know what was happening to you?
I’m talking about your Before & After Song: a song or album that defined your musical tastes from the first moment you heard it – something that most definitely wasn’t your parents’ music. As if: this was my life before song X and this was my life after, forever altered.
I had so much fun putting this blog post together. I contacted a bunch of people – flesh & blood friends, Twitter friends, my brother – and asked them for their B&A songs (It would’ve been MORE fun if I could have collected everyone’s answers in person over cocktails, but hey). Then as I was typing up their fantastic, thoughtful responses, I listened to everything on Spotify. The playlist went something like this:
Beastie Boys, Adrian Belew, Blondie, David Bowie, The Cars, Fleetwood Mac, The Jam, Led Zeppelin, Pulp, Lou Reed, R.E.M., RUN-DMC, The Slits, James Taylor & U2.
You can listen to it here:
Now read on for their replies and for those moments when a song can change your life…
Matthew Dunn, author of the Spycatcher novels, former spy, way cool
The first album I ever bought, in 1980 when I was age eleven, was David Bowie’s newly released Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Though Bowie had been a super star in the early seventies, I knew little about him but by chance found a two-page spread on him in a discarded newspaper. His character fascinated me. So, I bought the above album, though remember feeling a little nervous before pressing play on my cheap cassette player. The opening track – “It’s No Game (Part 1)” – with its discordant heavy guitar riffs, Japanese female vocals, and Bowie’s primal scream voice, immediately hooked me. In Bowie, I’d found a very unusual and talented artist, and Scary Monsters was not only the album that defined my subsequent musical tastes but also remains one of my all time favorite collections of tracks.
Meredith Spidel, writer, Mom of the Year, funny & honest as hell
I find it hard to pin down one song, but “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac always spoke to me. I remembered reading Stevie Nicks interviewed once. She said that the song didn’t start to make complete sense to her until she turned 27, and wouldn’t you know? When I hit 27, it was like I GOT IT. All of a sudden, I would put the song on and it was like it was explaining me. Does that sound crazy? Probably, oh well!
Scott Murphy, writer, adventurer, musical omnivore
Wow…so many. But I’ll have to go with Led Zeppelin. The first time I heard the opening chords of “Good Times, Bad Times” I was hooked by their power. And then my musical bonanza really began…
Oh…and The Cars…mustn’t forget The Cars…
Tania Willis, artist, illustrator, kick-ass mom
Like most musically inclined British kids in the 80’s, all my self-identification took place from 10-12 at night with a radio under the covers, listening to John Peel. I lived in the countryside in a dull county in the Midlands. I didn’t like the music that my female friends at school liked, so I felt like a bit of a loner. The only place I felt I had some community was listening to John Peel. After my girl-crush on Siouxsie Sioux, Blondie, etc I listened to other girl bands like The Raincoats, Kleenex, X-Ray Specs, Mo-Dettes, etc. I was looking for females to identify with, so when The Slits came along with their home-made DIY sound, attitude, lyrics, music, words etc. I loved them. They were everything I’d waited for. Along with their Notting Hill reggae connections, I followed them devotedly through to their incarnations as New Age Steppers.
We were so lucky to live through this era. I wish my daughter could see how easy it was to be a creative & strong female without needing to compromise yourself sexually to sell music (this is a regular conversation amongst my female friends now). My husband & I were even considering piecing together old documentary footage to show our daughter the great female role models of the 80’s
Steve Beck, musician, writer, conduit to the best music videos ever
It was easy to find a common ground in music with my parents while growing up. The top artists at the time were Paul McCartney, Elton John, Paul Simon, David Bowie and more. Eventually I started seeking out my own music and trading tapes with friends. On the tail-end of one of these cassettes was Lou Reed’s “Wild Child” and although I didn’t know who the artist was at the time, it changed my perception of music. Here was someone whose lyrics were blunt, forthright, and undisguised and his voice cracked when he attempted to sing. This has guided my musical journey ever since.
Jennifer Parks, groovin’ mom, fellow Texan in Hong Kong, born in ‘76
woman of mystery
It’s so hard to answer! I had a few moments of mimicking my older brother and sister’s tastes – erasure, Duran Duran, Thompson Twins, etc.
But, my big break came with hip hop – Run DMC’s Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.
I still love those albums.
Iain Williamson, film & media teacher, Arsenal fan (!), father
My parents both had little interest in music so very little influence from them as I rejected Cliff Richard (my Mum’s fav) when I was about two.
In terms of defining albums, Eat to the Beat by Blondie was the first album I ever bought and “Atomic” by Blondie, the first single. However, Setting Sons by The Jam was the first album to have a really profound impact on me politically and socially.
RenZelen, sci-fi writer, reviewer, Pearl Jam/Jack White comrade-in-arms
I will have to go with Bowie, as he was a game-changer for a generation. He’d been around for quite a while before Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars of course, but not really registering on my rock radar. I remember watching Top of The Pops as a kid in the ’70s like everybody did. It usually featured the pop and glam rock bands that infested the charts at the time and, as I was born and raised in the Midlands, the birthplace of Heavy Metal, I heard plenty of heavy rock music around me. But this particular time on Top of the Pops a strange creature appeared wearing a one piece, multi-coloured jumpsuit and red patent boots. I remember the white nail polish that we noticed as he cheekily draped a languid arm over the shoulders of his guitarist Mick Ronson (a brilliant guitarist I may add) and who could miss the bright orange hair which looked like he’d had an electric shock? Best of all he was singing about a “Starman” and for a kid obsessed with science-fiction – what could be better?!
No-one had written songs about aliens and we’d certainly not seen anything like Bowie before! Ziggy was the first album I saved up my pocket money to buy and as for all the following albums, each one was different, as was his persona.
Michael Daley, screenwriter, dog rescuer, The Professor
James Taylor’s “The Secret of Life”. Really all of his music. Before that, music was just something on the radio in the background. Now it’s something I can glean advice on life from – or inspire a story… maybe even made me a writer…
Kate Farr, editor of Sassy Mama HK, blogger, expat extraordinaire
Being a British child of the 80’s (ok, ’79, but right at the very end!), my teen years were spent wholeheartedly embracing Britpop. “Blur or Oasis?” may have been the quickest way of identifying your musical tribe in ’95, but my heart was won by a tall, bespectacled, slightly morose wordsmith from Sheffield… the wonderful Jarvis Cocker.
I was – and am to this day – a huge fan of Pulp, and their 1994 breakthrough album His n’ Hers was on heavy rotation in my room in the mid-nineties. “Babies” is a beautifully-crafted exploration of teen angst, lust and heartbreak, and has a wonderfully catchy guitar hook to boot. A top tune that fills me with nostalgia and makes me want to don my purple DMs every time I hear it.
Robert Stephens, accountant, my oldest brother (he’s single, ladies…)
& he doesn’t tweet
It was the summer of ’82. I had my musical awakening working at a record store in San Antonio, where there was so much new music. We had a big import section filled with British punk and avant garde bands like King Crimson and Roxy Music. New Order was coming out of the ashes of Joy Division, Bowie had released Scary Monsters; it all completely turned my musical tastes on my ear. Before that I listened to classic rock. The one song I remember from this time was Adrian Belew’s “The Lone Rhinoceros”, about being alone in this zoo. There were some great lines in it – the lyrics and the guitar work were perfect.
Adrian worked with Bowie & Robert Fripp, and they in turn worked with Brian Eno. A group of musicians doing new, interesting work.
And then there’s me
We didn’t have cable TV when it first came out in the early/mid ‘80s, but I used to babysit for a family that did. After the little kids were asleep, I’d sit transfixed by MTV – my window in to the world of New Wave bands and their exotic videos: Duran Duran, INXS, Talk Talk, Blancmange, ABC, etc. The tectonic plates were shifting.
Then about a year later, Robert came home from college with two albums that changed my life forever: R.E.M.’s Reckoning and U2’s October. The second full-length LPs from each band. Their music sounded like nothing I’d heard before, there were no reference points – it was exciting and different and truly alternative to me. The tune that always reminds me of this time is R.E.M.’s “So. Central Rain,” which funnily enough did not have an accompanying video on MTV’s heavy rotation. I had to make up my own moving images about the band and its message: “These rivers of suggestion are driving me away…”
It was cosmically appropriate that when I first saw R.E.M. in concert (on the Life’s Rich Pageant tour in Austin), I was with Robert and our sister.