The sound of summer: Independent writers remember their backseat tunes
Before the age of the 100-song playlist, holidaying children were at the mercy of their parents' car's cassette-player. We asked seven Independent writers to remember the tracks of their backseat tears
Dad's mix tape, various artists
For most of our lives my sister and I have played the same game in the back seat of our parents' car. It's rare now that we four find ourselves travelling together but when we do, it is as if the past twentysomething years have never happened. My mother will dole out provisions from the World of Mints (her name) in the door compartment – soft mints, butter mints, humbugs; your mint smorgasbord. And my father will put on his driving mix tape. Polly and I will wait for his favourite song – "Only a Dream in Rio" by James Taylor – to come on and we will hold our breath and place whispered bets on whether he will do his finger-pointing dance on the set of six descending notes that comes four minutes in. There is no need to place bets. He does it every single time.
This is still the song I think of when I think of going on holiday – the soundtrack of the two-hour drive up to the Lake District every summer, of tours around Oregon and tailbacks in the Cotswolds. We listened to albums, too. Graceland, of course. We wore out the ribbon on a Best of The Kinks cassette from the bargain bin at Woolworths.
It was the mix tape, though, that made journeys speed by – so gloriously odd you could never tire of it. You might think that Toto's "Africa", The Pretenders and Monteverdi's Beatus Vir is an odd mix. That Steeleye Span, "Baker Street", a Palestrina mass and Randy Newman should never be heard in the same room, let alone on the same A-side. But you have probably never met Peter Jones. That tape was travel magic – the becalming tones of Don McLean's "Starry Starry Night" and John Lennon's "Jealous Guy", an ADHD swerve into a choral requiem, building up to the 1971 version of "Without You" by Harry Nilsson. If there is a better musical moment for releasing the tension of a Sunday-night traffic jam on the M6 than the falsetto key change on "I can't liiiive", I have yet to find it.
When I first went to university, a new friend who knew a lot about music, or at least wore his DJ cans at all times, flipped through my CDs. "It must be so great," he said with a sneer, "to have absolutely no taste in music." At the time I was crushed, now I'm proud. I have inherited my father's eclectic taste and capacity to listen to eight musical styles in as many minutes. As I get older, I realise that his driving anthems are the songs I love the most. One day I hope I'll pass them on to my own children – wrong lyrics and all.
Rock Follies, The Little Ladies
Back in 1977, the Marsdens' holiday sounds were supplied by a small mono cassette player balanced on the ridge between the driver and passenger seats.
Two records were played on that machine more than any other, and I associate them so closely with back-seat motorway travel that when I hear them now I can almost taste the travel-sickness tablets. Now largely forgotten, they were released under the name Rock Follies, which was also the title of the Bafta-winning TV series the songs came from. I was never allowed to see it but the lyrics are embedded in my brain like times tables.
The show was about a three-piece female rock band called The Little Ladies who were trying to make it in a business dominated by exploitative managers and promoters. By all accounts it was ahead of its time, not only in its use of original music (written by Roxy Music's Andy Mackay) but also its portrayal of the abuse of male power, with lyrical references to sex, drug-taking and anti-royalism. Unaware of the dark undercurrent of the songs, I'd sing along loudly in the car.
"The gramophone producers, the golden disc seducers," my six-year-old self trilled. "The managers and bankers, the publishers and wankers." Not as jolly as "we're all going on a summer holiday", sure, but definitely more educational.
Abbey Road, The Beatles
I remember sticking on my parents' grubby tape of Abbey Road one afternoon as a teenager and having an extended déjà vu – 47 minutes, 23 seconds long, to be precise. Every song seemed to twang a chord of childhood. It was slightly eerie.
Abbey Road was a staple of many car journeys when I was little. My parents were big Beatles fans, and we listened to the full back catalogue in the car, but my brother and I had our favourites: his was Let It Be, mine Abbey Road. Driving to the coast of Pembrokeshire or North Wales for camping or caravanning holidays, we'd sing along on the back seat.
The Beatles' 11th album is a natural one for a kid to like – "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and "Octopus's Garden" are, essentially, children's songs. My best friend Carys shared my love of the latter enough that we actually fabricated an underwater set and sea-life costumes, and performed a play based on it at school. With a dance, and everything.
Now I have the CD – and MP3 – of Abbey Road, and can skip Ringo's novelty abomination. But it remains my favourite Beatles album. I've half-emptied dance floors at parties by insisting we listen to the whole of the side-two medley, cite it as evidence of George Harrison's genius, and have ended many a compilation CD with "The End" (try it – it's perfect). My dad, of course, is delighted.
No Jacket Required, Phil Collins
Of course it begins with drums: dum-thwack. Dum-thwack. Duhdum-thwack, dum-dum-thwack. Then comes synth brass, synth bass, synth keys, synth guitars. Finally, Phil Collins's voice: "Su-Sussudio, Oh-oh!".
"Sussudio" and the nine songs that followed will forever be the sound of the A303, the road that carries Home Counties holidaymakers to the West Country, past Stonehenge and at least five Little Chefs. For several summers in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the route my family took to Dorset, Devon or Cornwall. The soundtrack for such journeys was most often No Jacket Required.
Collins's biggest-selling LP is a quintessential artefact of its decade: a Grammy winner in 1986, tracks were used in Miami Vice, it was praised in American Psycho. Side one ends with an extended sax solo. Collins performed "Doesn't Anybody Stay Together Anymore" at a birthday party for Prince Charles, months before he split from Princess Diana.
Many tracks reward my nostalgia. "Only You Know and I Know" has a key change at 1:59 that still makes me want to punch the air when I listen to it 25 years later.
The album ends with a slow one, "Take Me Home": appropriate, since it was often the last song we listened to pulling into our driveway, my brother and I half-asleep in the back, Phil's clattering drums fading to nothing.
Automatic for the People, REM
As a family undeterred by poor weather, our summer holidays consisted of old tents, soggy dogs and lots of walking. Often, my twin sister and I were roused at 5am, crammed into a car with sleeping bags, waterproofs and sensible shoes, and driven to some rainy part of Britain, on the promise of a mid-morning stop at a Little Chef.
REM's 1992 album Automatic for the People was our soundtrack. I remember drifting in and out of sleep to Michael Stipe's mumbling melodies, furiously agreeing with the lyrics to "Everybody Hurts" whenever I felt hard done by ("No Chloë, you can't have any more sweets…") and deliberating over whether I'd be allowed to go "night swimming" at a nearby lido.
Despite the album's gloomy themes, it brings back fond memories. When I catch a chorus of it now I'm transported to those long, drizzly car journeys, next to my sister, two wet dogs stretched out across our laps, juice cartons and apple cores perched precariously, gazing out of windows decorated with doggy nose prints.
Never one to pander to our childish requests ("But I REALLY want to listen to the Spice Girls") I suspect my mum relished being the family's designated DJ, for once able to dictate what our young ears heard.
The Jazz Singer, Neil Diamond
The 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer, a vehicle for soft-rock superstar Neil Diamond, is an unremarkable film. Critic Roger Ebert described his performance as "offensively narcissistic". However, Diamond's soundtrack was another matter and this is where my family comes in. Some have madeleine cakes, some snow sleds, my family had Diamond taking it to the mid-tempo bridge on "Coming to America", the soundtrack's barnstorming opening salvo, a tale of immigrants travelling far in search of the American dream and all that jazz.
Our journey was more mundane. Each summer in the late Eighties and early Nineties, my parents, my three siblings and I would pack into my dad's car, crank up The Jazz Singer and drive from Dublin to rural Tipperary to stay at my uncle's farm.
In later years the tape deck was swapped for a CD changer and Diamond got left behind. A dark period in my teens followed when my dad installed a Celine Dion CD in his car. It killed me, one shriek at a time.
But The Jazz Singer stayed with us, a familiar, familial touchstone. Some time later when Diamond came to Dublin for an arena gig we joked that we should book six seats arranged in car formation. It's an idea Ticketmaster could take up: the "family car nostalgia ticket bundle".
Hello Children Everywhere, various artists
When I was younger most holidays were spent in Perth, visiting my Australian mother's family. My brothers and I loved it there.
My father had left his native Ulster many years before, but still wanted us to see Ireland. To our young minds it was uninspiring compared to the Technicolor riches of Down Under. We were underwhelmed when, one summer when I was eight, it was proposed that we would drive to Kinsale in west Cork.
For the 12-hour trip from our home in Berkshire, my parents turned to the tape deck for entertainment. Dad had brought a double cassette called Hello Children Everywhere, a compilation of old standards and nursery rhymes taken from a 1950s BBC radio programme.
We sang along to everything from "Home on the Range" by Gene Autry to "(How Much Is) That Doggy in the Window"; Doris Day's "Black Hills of Dakota" to "You're a Pink Toothbrush". Along with bickering, it became the musical backdrop to our little Irish trip.
Before writing this, I reminded my father of the tape. He phoned later to tell me that he'd found the dusty copy and had played the tape. "Music is the shorthand of emotion," Leo Tolstoy said. He must have been right. Otherwise how else could you explain an old man, sitting alone in his kitchen, getting misty-eyed to "The Runaway Train"?
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