As a child of the sixties – the nineteen sixties, not the eighteen sixties; don’t be fooled by recent photographs of this white bearded grandpa – I took for granted the seemingly unstoppable wave of wonderful, adventurous music that swamped us on a regular basis. This period extended well into the seventies, into what we now think of as the golden age of the album.
Take a look at the shelves of your local bookstore and you’ll notice the growing volume of books devoted to aspects of this era (Hello David Hepworth!). And if we disagree on the merits of individual records, I think we’re probably still in broad agreement that this was an extraordinary time.
When Prefab Sprout started – in nineteen seventy one – long before we were in a position to make records, I would fill cassettes with my weird and not so wonderful songs. And by manipulating a loudspeaker and the cassette input, I’d make weird atonal sounds that were inspired by the music that surrounded me.
Crucially, this not only included the stuff I’d heard on the radio but things I’d only read about. (Karlheinz Stockhausen may have appeared on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, but he wasn’t on Top Of The Pops. . . . or if he was, it must have been on a lost edition, or one of those episodes redacted for non-musical reasons.) My point being that anyone of a certain age in the early seventies who harboured vague musical ambitions was perfectly positioned to benefit from this blizzard of music.
And if, in the pre-Internet era, we couldn’t always easily find, or afford, a lot of the music we read about, we had plenty of time for imagining how it might sound. Strangely, in this way it is possible to become inspired by music you have not actually heard. This is a thought that still pleases me.
What has any of this to do with Piccadilly Records’ decision to make I Trawl The Megahertz their reissue of the year?
I wrote the album buoyed up on the adventurous spirit I had absorbed during my childhood when music seemed mysterious, and new, and full of possibilities. I might have revered Bolan and Bowie but I had noticed the strange, often vocal-less, sounds coming from the radio’s late night schedules. I like to think I’ve always had broad musical tastes, so it wasn’t a matter of trying to be hip for its own sake. I was just immensely curious and happily non-judgemental about whatever it was I was hearing.
What was that? You might ask.
Records by Tangerine Dream or Pink Floyd or Faust, and wayward characters such as Syd Barrett or Kevin Ayers, who rarely found an outlet on daytime radio, but who fed the imaginations of thousands of listeners, and aspiring songwriters, via John Peel and his colleagues.
Am I getting around to saying that Megahertz is in some way a progressive rock record?
Well, not exactly. But it does owe something to the spirit of those times. Back in the day, progressive music was largely a response to developments pioneered by – among others – the Beatles. The spirit of adventure contained in a Strawberry Fields, or a Good Vibrations, is a wonderful thing to behold if you are interested in making records. You can tell yourself that you too might, one day, “extend the form”. And, circa nineteen seventy, I reckon a lot of people in bands had absorbed A Day In The Life, and the medley on side two of Abbey Road, and “extending the form” was – for better, and very often worse – all the rage. The progressive tendency! How often would we hear it said of a keyboard player, “He’s classically trained”? (Translation: The chorus may never arrive, will this solo do?)
If you harbour any ambitions in pop music today, you might just keep them to yourself. You don’t want to end up being laughed at on a future BBC 4 documentary. And it’s true: pop music might not take a lot of extending, before it buckles under its own weight. But – against doctor’s advice – I still tend to think fondly of those young musicians who tried to do something different when I was a teenager and looking to find my own songwriting voice. They inspired me. Foxes’ heads and wardrobes were just part of the deal.
I wrote Megahertz in nineteen ninety nine. I was forty two. Old enough to be cautious about “extending the form” or appearing pretentious. But deep down I’m still on the side of impetuous youth and its mad ambitions because I grew up in a time when bands really imagined they might make musical worlds the listener could get lost in. It’s a gloriously naive idea. (It’s a very Prog Rock idea!) But, occasionally, some artists achieve it.
Megahertz was a conscious attempt to make one of those records. I thought I might be on to something. The audio equivalent of a movie, perhaps. I’m not entirely sure that I managed it but I’m greatly touched that anyone should think it’s an album worth revisiting twenty years later. If you haven’t heard it, it’s not Swoon. It’s not Steve McQueen. It’s not Jordan: The Comeback. I trust it has much in common with these albums, but I’m quietly proud that it’s different. Vive la difference!
Paddy McAloon, October 2019.