I have a lot of favourite songs. Some songs are my favourite because they remind me of certain times, places, and people. Others are my favourites because, over time, they’ve sunk under my skin and revealed themselves to be glittering caverns of unfathomable wonder.
Some songs, though, are my favourite songs because, the first time I heard them, I was stunned. Jaw hitting the floor, shaking my head in awe, stunned. Floored, like Brian Wilson, who claims that the first time he heard Be My Baby by The Ronettes, he fell over.
Some songs tend to lose their lustre after a few thousand listens. Not these. For me, they were incredible on the first listen, and they remain favourites because they have never lost their power to stun.
Carly Simon – You’re So Vain
I’m sure most people can’t remember life before this song. I’m sure many others think it’s overplayed, overrated, and far too clever for its own good. But I can distinctly remember life before this song, and I can distinctly remember the first time I heard it.
I was about 16. There was me, my mum, my brother, and my sister. We were driving back from London, and mum had a two disc compilation album of singer songwriters. It was probably the only CD she had that was guaranteed to please all of us; a reliable mix of the familiar, and the unknown-but-likely-to-be-alright.
Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain was on it. It was the first time I’d ever heard it, and wow. Everything about it was, and is, amazing. The way the song builds into swaggering life – rather like its subject matter entering a party – the piano, the vocals, the bridge, the chorus – that clever, clever chorus.
But I don’t think it was until the keening guitar solo that I actually expressed my amazement, which led mum to ask – “have you never heard this before?” – for she’d heard it far too many times. But seeing how affected I was, she let me play it at least two more times on that return journey.
There are now many songs which, despite being widely acknowledged classics, have simply been heard far too many times. They’re still good songs, and I still like them a lot, but they’ll never have the same impact. Being able to remember having heard You’re So Vain for the first time means that I will always remember what it’s like to hear canonical music with fresh ears. It’s a very good feeling.
That songwriter CD also featured Billy Joel’s Piano Man, which is honestly much better than most people seem to think.
Prince – Take Me With U
I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I heard this for the first time, but I will never forget the way it made me feel. The introduction, with its cascading drums, commanding bass and descending synth arpeggios, let’s you know, right from the start, that this song is important. But rather than giving way to the powerhouse powerballad I might initially have expected, the tension instead gives way to a pleasantly driving beat, sweet uplifting strings, and a genuinely lovely duet between Prince and Apollonia. For as long as this song is playing, life feels fantastic. Eventually, every song on the Purple Rain album would make me feel just as good. Now I can’t live without it.
Charles Mingus – Haitan Fight Song
This is one of those songs from which you can feel the heat rising. It starts with a solo bass which, in itself, is evocative of scorching nights, of moths swarming round naked lightbulbs, of cigars igniting as they’re inhaled, and of high-stakes card games in the sweltering back rooms of midnight bars. From this bass line, which once heard is never forgotten, the song builds and builds and builds, until it becomes one of the most exciting pieces of music ever recorded, by one of the most mercurial bands that ever was. Like with Prince, the exact first listen is hard to remember, but the feelings are impossible to forget.
Grateful Dead – Dark Star
I’m now such a Grateful Dead fan that I’m able to recognise the relative merits of different versions of Dark Star. Though I’ve since heard the canonical 1971-02-18 Capitol Theatre version, with its Wharf Rat segue and subsequent Beautiful Jam, the 1969 Live Dead version remains my favourite. Not only was it the first version I heard of this transcendent jam, it was also the first song I ever heard by Grateful Dead, who would soon become a beloved band for life. For Halloween 2014, I dressed as the shamanistic leader of a post-apocalyptic Deadhead love cult. It was the first outward sign of a long-simmering inner obsession that all started with my first listen to Dark Star.
The performance itself is magnificent. It sounds like the band are channelling some kind of serene benevolent force, which is emanating from their amp stacks in the form of an ethereal swirling essence; a green spirit locked in a love embrace with a muted rainbow presence. The first time I heard it, I was reading The Great Gatsby, also for the first time. I must have started the book and the album at exactly the first time, because to this day, whenever I hear Dark Star, I picture in my mind Nick Carraway, gazing across the water at the distant incandescence of Gatsby’s heaving soiree.
In recent years, I’ve played this version of Dark Star as my girlfriend and I travelled into the hills at night, in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. Right from the start, the song has been a perfect soundtrack for – and evocation of – distant celestial wonder, and the sort of nights you never want to forget.
Animal Collective – Grass
The first time I heard this song was the first time I saw Animal Collective live. Now, when you see Animal Collective live, one of three things happens. Either you shrug and you get on with life, or you conclude that they were the worst band you’ve ever seen. The latter is most unfortunate, because it means that whenever you meet an Animal Collective fan, you take great delight in telling them just how wrong they are. This ruins more evenings than you might think, for there are rather a lot of Animal Collective fans. You see, the third type of inaugural live Animal Collective experience involves the kindling of a joyous and undying bonfire in the ribcage, a realisation of the incredible potential of live music to induce the sort of feelings that make life worth living. Such people are fond of saying that you never forget your first Animal Collective show, and it’s true.
Leeds Festival 2006. Looking at the poster now, I’m amazed by the sheer quality of the line-up. You might disagree, violently. But if you were born in Britain in the late 80s, and if you started reading the NME circa 2001, I can guarantee that said poster will, at the very least, bring you within sighing distance of feeling pole-axed by nostalgia.
But in 2006, I found myself at a loss on Friday night. It was a choice between Pearl Jam (no thanks), Maximo Park (zzzzzzz), Sick of it All (bleurrrrgh), Niteversions (an even more boring version of Soulwax?!), and Animal Collective.
At that point, I’d heard precisely three Animal Collective songs, each of which was demented in its own unique way. College was sweet but nauseating; Slippi was somewhat terrifying; and We Tigers sounded quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before. If only out of curiosity, to find out just how the hell they’d manage to replicate such songs live, I decided to go and see Animal Collective…
…and all of a sudden, life changed for the better, forever.
Hearing their songs for the first time, they sounded like a nocturnal woodland illuminated by a firework display. In the multicoloured explosions that disturbed the darkness I saw, fleetingly, that the forest was teeming with life. I wasn’t aware of having been searching for anything, but in seeing Animal Collective for the first time, I apparently found exactly what I was looking for.
I cannot quite remember them having played Grass that night, but they almost certainly did. My first listen proper, then, came when I bought Feels within hours of returning from the festival. That music could be so joyous, so chaotic, so infectious, so moving, so effusive, so colourful – it was nothing short of a revelation. In terms of heights reached and ground covered, they did more in three minutes than I thought was possible in an album’s worth of music.
Animal Collective songs are like freeing fireflies trapped in a jar and watching them soar into the night sky. They communicate, in their own elegant yet chaotic way, exactly the sort of things that cannot be communicated by words alone.
The 2006 Leeds Festival was a life changing weekend for many reasons, and many of those reasons are songs. But no song, before or since, managed to upturn the tables in my mind quite like Grass.
That it still floors me, thousands of listens later, is incredible.