When Alan Warner’s debut novel, Morvern Callar, was published one of the most striking features was its ‘soundtrack’. If you haven’t read it (and you really should) part of the plot was that the central character of Morvern immerses herself in her dead boyfriend’s music as her story unfolds, listening to his mix tapes, and her own, on the Walkman he left her.
Artists referenced include Salif Keita, This Mortal Coil, The Ink Spots, The Cocteau Twins and, more than anyone else, Can and Holger Czukay. ‘He’, as the boyfriend is referred to in the book, knew his music and it didn’t take much of a leap to realise this was Warner on the page.
At the time, some critics accused Warner of setting out his influences too obviously, showing off his admittedly impressive and eclectic record collection. While I do have some sympathy with this view, I could forgive it due to the quality of music referenced, and, as exactly the sort of person who made mix tapes every week to play, (and let’s face it, show off) in work, I can appreciate the importance they can have in people’s lives, both those who make them, and those who may inherit them. They say “I love this music, and if you’re the person I think you are, you will too”. Such recommendations, whether implicit or explicit, are one of the key ways that a relationship with music develops.
What was clear was that Warner is a music obsessive, not simply a fan. As such, it makes perfect sense that he has written one in the series of the 33⅓ books; which are essentially a series of long essays where people write about albums which mean a lot to them, and why. Previous highlights have included Scott Plagenhoef on Belle and Sebastian’s If You’re Feeling Sinister, Gina Arnold on Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, Joe Pernice on The Smith’s Meat is Murder, Michelangelo Matos on Prince’s Sign Of The Times and Eliot Wilder on DJ Shadow’s Entroducing… . The most successful in the series are the ones which move away from the album in question to talk about the writer’s relationship with music, and the importance it plays in their lives.
This is what makes Warner’s entry into the series such a triumph. The book is ostensibly about German Krautrock legends Can’s Tago Mago, their 1971 double album which came to mean a lot to the burgeoning Warner, and remains important to him to this day. But what will resonate with every reader, or at least those who share his obsession, is the way he details how a relationship with music unfolds; how we discover it, and it in turn how it comes to shape us culturally, morally and philosophically. It could be argued that the 33⅓ series is little more than an exercise in recording this on an individual basis, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Warner is quite specific in his details and, as any music obsessive knows, specifics and details are everything.
Starting with his formative years in Oban, Warner describes how he feasted on whatever music he could get his hands on in a small Argyllshire town in those days. That is the other key aspect to the book; that it is recounting a time when, for most people not living in a city, there was the radio, a newsagents which sold some chart music (John Menzies is fondly remembered) and, if you were really lucky, there would be a small record store, which probably sold other things as well. It’s a story I’m more than a little familiar with, even though Warner is slightly my elder, as there are echoes of how my own lifelong relationship with music began.
My early influences were soundtrack albums, (usually with “music composed by John Williams”), The Beatles, Beach Boys, Sky and Jesus Christ, Superstar cassettes which would be played over and over in the family car. There was a Muppet’s cassette which is where I first heard songs by Billy Joel, Randy Newman and The Marx Brothers, who I then in turn begged to get cassettes of, all before I was the age of seven. There were the music collections of friends’ hipper families, and I can vividly remember one father sitting down two 10-year-old boys and explaining to them that Bob Dylan had only ever recorded one bad song, and then preceded to play it to us. Funny thing is, I can’t remember what it was. Other family members also have an influence, in my case mainly babysitting big cousins, who would play their Zeppelin and Jethro Tull albums while I was stuck in the corner, silently ingesting these new and intriguing sounds.
As Warner suggests, at this time (mid-late ’70s) heavy metal/rock was the true folk music of most Scottish towns, and this introduction to the heavy stuff at a young age would lead to my dabbling in the more melodic side of rock, such as ELO and Jim Steinman/Meat Loaf, before finding my own heavy metal heroes in the shape of Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Rainbow and AC/DC in the 7″ bargain bins of the local Woolworth’s, paid for with money that was meant for sweets or comics. These formative musical relationships are powerful, and this is where the chain reaction of musical taste, and so much more, begins.
But this isn’t about me, it’s Alan Warner’s story, and as well as setting out his own formative experiences, he goes on to explain the importance of the weekly inkies in his musical education; publications like the NME, Sounds, and the Melody Maker, devoured on a weekly basis as readers tried to keep up new bands and old. All of the above really were the only ways music was to be shared and discovered at this time (TV’s TOTP and Old Grey Whistle Test aside), and there is an unrepentant nostalgia for a pre-internet time in the book, one where you had to work hard to find anything about the bands you loved. Warner is not saying one is better than the other, he is simply setting out how it was for him. This is what makes Tago Mago (the book) so entrancing, because, no matter when this relationship begins, don’t we all spend our lives trying to recapture those first strong feelings? Subsequent interactions seem shadows or pale imitations of how we felt when we heard our favourite music for the first time, and before we became that most depressing yet unavoidable of states; ‘knowing’.
I really can’t recommend Warner’s Tago Mago highly enough. I’ve never read anything by Warner that isn’t artful and considered, a mix between the analytical and passionate, but that has never been better demonstrated than in this short book. You may not want to go out and get a copy of Can’s album (personally, I prefer Ege Bamyasi), but that’s not what he is setting out to do. This is His story, one which is both personal and universal, or at least common to the sort of people whose relationships with music, and other art forms, can be as important as their relationships to people – basically, the sort of person who buys the 33⅓ books, or visits Scots Whay Hae!.
If you aren’t aware of Can’s work, here they are with the epic ‘Halleluwah’ from Tago Mago: