Uneasy listening blues
WHAT goes through your mind as you ponder whether to buy a particular book, go to a particular movie or buy a particular music album? These are choices that press upon us: time and money being limited, very few of us can afford to read, watch or listen to everything that may please.
Obviously, published reviews and recommendations from friends influence our aesthetic choices. And they can be useful in the negative as much as in the positive: I tend to find I enjoy any movie derided by the film critics at The Sydney Morning Herald or, for that matter, The Weekend Australian .
Let me stress, these are personal preferences and we should not even attempt to build an objective scaffold around them. What is interesting, however, is to ponder our own criteria for aesthetic choices and how they overlap, or fail to overlap, with other people’s.
Thinking about a book purchase or a night at the cineplex furnishes a leisurely version of aesthetic criteria in action. But there is a vertiginous version, in which every choice is a matter of life or death and must be made with lightning speed: I mean the process of manipulating the radio dial while driving the car.
I leave home about 9am and while I am driving to work, from outer northern Sydney, there are effectively two choices available to me on the radio: Bob Rogers on 2CH and Ron E. Sparks on WSFM, both playing a mix of greatest hits and golden memories. ( There, he’s blurted it out: he enjoys listening to pop music in the car, not Radio National or Ulysses read aloud by Gabriel Byrne.)
Rogers is a Sydney radio veteran who is finally starting to sound like the 82-year-old he is. But never mind. It’s all about the music and Rogers plays an appealing mix of ‘‘ greatest memories and easy listening hits’’ ( the 2CH formula) from the 1950s to the ’ 70s, with occasional forays into the ’ 80s.
Sparks at WSFM (‘‘ good times and great classic hits’’) owns a valuable piece of broadcasting property, the ‘‘ Classic 9 at 9’’. That’s right, nine songs from the one year, back-to-back, with no advertisements and just a light commentary from Sparks, including a few pertinent details about the year in question.
How good is that? The answer is: very, but only up to a point.
The Classic 9 can come from any year between 1960 and 1989. One of the most important and rigid rules in this particular version of aesthetic roulette is that there is no year later than 1979 that yields a classic Classic 9. ( Don’t ask me why the greatest period of popular music known to humanity coincides exactly with the start of one decade and the close of the next, because I don’t know.) This means that at the end of the 9am bulletin, as soon as the newsreader announces what Sparks’s year will be, the driver’s finger needs to be hovering near the dial — OK, it’s not a dial, but you know what I mean — to make a potential rapid exit.
Now, if Sparks’s classic year is, say, 1973, there are rarely any further issues, for it is virtually impossible to put together a Classic 9 from 1973 that is not dripping with quality for its entire duration. ( Again, don’t ask me why, but I’m positive it has nothing to do with the fact I was 18 in 1973.)
Sure, while Sparks is rolling out the hits from 1973, Rogers might drop his needle on to Layla , or The 59th Street Bridge Song ( Feelin’ Groovy) , or Georgie Girl, or Peace Train, or Little Bitty Tear or even Listen to the Music . You will miss it, and this will be a great pity ( though it’s more likely you will miss Volare or Que Sera, Sera , which will be less of a pity).
But meanwhile you will be listening to a lineup such as: You’re So Vain ; Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door; Bad, Bad Leroy Brown , Rocky Mountain High , Stuck in the Middle with You ; Smoke on the Water , It Never Rains in Southern California , Killing Me Softly with His Song and Angie . This means guaranteed bliss, all the way from the upper north shore to the Harbour Bridge.
But what if the Classic 9 is from a less rolledgold year than 1973 or even strays into the ’ 80s? Then you are in the aesthetic equivalent of speed chess, having to make rapid-fire decisions that could mean big wins ( you decide, slightly reluctantly, to bail on Rhiannon and score Poke Salad Annie ) or big losses ( you decide to ditch Crocodile Rock and find yourself listening to Everybody Wants to Rule the World ).
Here, too, there are some rules that come in handy. For example, the opening chords of anything by John Farnham, Phil Collins or Bette Midler are a sure cue to change radio stations: there is little chance of finding anything worse elsewhere. Contrariwise, you can sink back into the driver’s seat and relax as soon as you hear Charlie Watts hit that cow bell at the beginning of Honky Tonk Women, the opening chords of All Along the Watchtower , the start of It’s a Long Way to the Top or Little Red Corvette or anything of that order. Sure, there is a chance you may be missing something just as good on the other station, but you won’t be missing anything better because there is no such thing.
Then there is the opposite predicament: a song that is, well, easy enough listening, but just on the cusp of where there is likely to be something more appealing on the other station. Good examples of songs in this category would be Starry, Starry Night , Theme from Fame or anything by Joe Cocker.
A further level of reflection afforded by this process is the difference between one’s preferences today and at the time this fine music was recorded. Back in the ’ 70s, I regarded AC/ DC as music for numbskulls and Cat Stevens as music for girls, but now I love them both. On the other hand, I was proved 100 per cent right about the Sex Pistols being a novelty group and David Bowie being a hopeless wanker.
Nevertheless, music in the car is high-stakes poker and, as my left hand hovers over the relevant buttons while my right manages the steering, I sometimes find myself surprised at my own choices or frozen with sheer indecision. On such occasions, I am inclined to conclude that, while I may know a lot about art, I don’t know what I like.
rearview@ theaustralian. com. au