I grew up on Barrow Island, in Barrow-in-Furness. I was born in 1970 and so had a 1970’s Northern Industrial town type childhood. We didn’t have any money, my Dad was a plumber, my mum was a housewife: the house didn’t exactly overflow with entertainment, in fact for any modern-day child in the developed world the 1970s would have been an unimaginable prison house of boredom and isolation. I read books and comics, played in the backstreet, rode my bike around, invented stories, and, of course, speculated widely about the future I would grow up into. Time moved at a glacial pace, the world was barren, bereft of objects and even though I knew no other world I still felt that emptiness, that lack, the imagination alone was not enough to fill it, to transform it. Imagination might mask it for a while perhaps, but eventually it faltered and the world in all its dreary, Spartan enormity crashed in, setting you a-throb with boredom, almost panicked by it. I sat at the centre of all this, I suppose: a child, not unhappy but aware of all the levels on which I was oppressed and suppressed, still growing, my body struggling for mastery of certain basic acts, language and the social world still far beyond my grasp, subject to all the kinds of painful early shocks and buffets of being among other people. Unformed, but, still, aware of my unformedness. I understood that I was a child, and I understood other things too, I understood that we were working class and at the bottom of a three-tier system, I understood that we lived in a small town in the North and that not everyone’s life was like ours, even within that town. I understood that we were socially, economically, geographically and temporally located. I understood these things in abstract ways I couldn’t quite name or visualize, huge, invisible force fields, akin probably to those crystalline rings on which the planets were supposed to sit in a pre-Copernican universe, whose overlapping and interlocking determined the ambit of my existence, where and what I was.
Sensory, sensual stimulation was thin on the ground in that town, at that time, for people in our situation, though I am of course prepared to concede that it was much the same for everyone. Interminable stretches of waiting for the few bright spots in the week, the seemingly eternal Saturday afternoons waiting for World of Sport or Grandstand to finish and the cartoons to start or Doctor Who to begin: the magic of Saturday night, staying up late to watch the Hammer Double bill and then the great yawning chasm of Sunday, more time in the backstreet, or the Docks or on the swings, or if the weather was too bad, playing with a few toys and staring again at the same old comics. The situation was made worse in our house by the fact that my Mum and Dad were saving money to move to the outskirts of town, out of Barrow Island: they wanted a house with a garden (we moved in 1981, they still live in the same place). We weren’t keeping up with the Joneses and so we had a black and white TV for years, lino on the floor, no radio that I can remember, no record player, or rather we did have one, but it was hardly used: it was for us, the kids, but we had very few records.
This wasn’t true of one of my friends, however, who lived just up the road. In his house they had both a colour TV and a few years later, miraculously a video-player, as well as a stereo with four wall-mounted speakers. My friend was called Stuart and Stuart’s older brother, probably about fourteen at the time, when we were nine or ten years old, had started buying records. The distinction between Mods and Rockers still existed to some extent in my backward town at that time. He defined himself as a rocker, was a fan of Status Quo and Nazareth, had shoulder length hair, a cut off denim jacket and a precocious wispy moustache to prove it. He also owned a copy of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
On Saturday night Stuart’s parents went out to the local Labour club and we had the house to ourselves. Ritually, we turned down the lights in the living room and put The Wall on. The Wall had several advantages and levels of appeal over listening to Quo or Nazareth or the Ram Jam Band, but most immediately because it was cinematically rich and complex, filled with studio tricks and techniques, narrative, literary, dark and frightening, suffused with the cruelty of all the institutions we probably felt we were already suffering under to some small degree, school, the family, or were due to suffer under, work, the State, relationships, the adult world. From the moment it started, with the sheer bombast of “In the Flesh?” resolving into the sound of a dive-bombing Stukka and the cry of a new-born child we were transfixed. Here was an enormous multiform richness that promised to both fill the world and deepen it. TV was small and cold and linear but the stereo effects and the phasing back and forth between the speakers, the found sounds, snatches of dialogue, the different characters, the Operatic pomp, the cryptic lyrics and symbolism, the references to things we could only guess at, the sheer beauty of some songs and the desolation of others seemed not just to come at us from another world, but overtake and overwhelm our own world. The speakers were above the bevelled, smoke glass sliding doors that separated the dining room and living room and there was no limit on the volume we could play the record at, sitting in the semi-dark, silently sunk, rapt, in all its mysteries. If we’d been five years older we might well have abjured it, been punks, but we were children still, waiting to go onto Comprehensive School and had nowhere else to go, no nightlife, no peer group as such, no attitude toward anything, no stance. We needed to be entertained more than anything, but not in a frivolous way, we wanted access to all the dimensions of experience that were still beyond us, we wanted something as inexhaustible as our desire to grow, something as varied, fulsome and dense as our own worlds were monotonous and bare. And so we listened to it again and again, in a kind of stupefied amazement, luxuriating in its pyrotechnics, aghast at its scale and drama. This is what music promised us and gave us in a way that no other forms seemed capable of, a multivalent wealth of detail, a shared, concentrated rapture, relief. Outwardly you might be hedged, circumscribed, caged by class, geography, discourse, experience, connections, but that there was a world within the world, an always open door through which you could slip and on the other side, somehow, all these constraints melted away.
I haven’t heard that album actually since I was a child, or early teens at least. Probably the last time I heard it was when I went to see the film, sometime back in the early eighties. I got self-conscious about what was and wasn’t fashionable for people who wanted to be seen as, to feel themselves to be, smart. You know how it is.
Nonetheless, if you were to play it to me today, I’d know every word.