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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the days when records came to us in dreams

Richard Williams' piece about the anniversary of Subterranean Homesick Blues got me thinking back to the first time I heard it. In those days the Light Programme hardly played any records. Thanks to the BBC's agreements with the Musicians Union, they were only allowed a handful. Most of their output was light orchestral. A pop record, any pop record, coming on the radio was exciting. If it was a record like "Subterranean Homesick Blues", which seemed to have no precedent, that was doubly the case.

I think I remember hearing it first on the TV. I dimly remember a minute of it was played on "Juke Box Jury", probably over shots of students and shorthand typists uncertainly trying to tap their foot along to the beat. It literally sent shivers up my spine. I had a presentiment that when I finally got to hear this record properly it would thrill me beyond measure.

I knew that I might not hear it again for weeks and if I did it would come without warning. I might turn on the radio just as it was finishing, which would be like arriving at the youth club dance to find the girl you fancied laughing at somebody else's jokes. Furthermore, when it actually came out you might not be able to afford to buy it and you'd have to hope somebody would bring their copy to school and you would be able to persuade the music teacher to let you use the gramophone at lunchtime.

In the gap between hearing something and being able to hear it again in those days a strange and rather beautiful feeling blossomed. You re-ran the memory of your hearing the record in your head and tried to uncover further details of it, as if you were the witness to a crime, going over your recollections again and again trying to come up with another line or a sound you had forgotten.

This meant that music came to you as if in a dream. This is interesting because that's often the way a song first occurs to the musician. Before it's something they play it's something they hear in their head. The dream analogy applies particularly well to "Subterranean Homesick Blues", a performance that still sounds today as if it's tumbling forth faster than the recording machine can handle it and that if it hadn't managed to capture it on that occasion the moment would have been lost to memory entirely, much the way most dreams are.