One of the oft-commented-upon pleasures of listening to an iPod is the sheer randomness of the experience, and the appealing contrasts and similarities this sometimes generates. I’ve had my iPod since 2005, and have particularly enjoyed using it since I ditched the crummy Apple earbuds that were supplied with the unit (which leak plenty of noise and never seemed capable of staying in my ears) and replaced them with a more credible pair of Sony in-ear headphones. The unit itself has only been dropped once or twice, and thanks to its rubber case it’s never been damaged. But one problem is that with several years of feverish ripping of my CD collection the iPod’s 30GB hard disk is just about full, with around 7000 tracks jostling for space on the ever-filling drive.
The plus side of having a full iPod is that you can spend many, many commuting hours listening to your music collection without hearing the same song twice, unless you want to. Sometimes it plays tracks you’ve not heard before too, songs you downloaded and didn’t get around to listening to at the time. I enjoy that aspect of discovery, knowing that if I don’t listen to it right away I’ll still hear it one day down the line on random play, even if it happens to be years later. But when the randomiser throws up songs in a similar vein it’s nice to imagine that the hard disk random play feature actually ‘knows’ your preferences and caters to them.
Recently on the long morning journey to Essex the iPod’s random function threw up a pair of like-minded tracks in sequence and it put me in mind of a bygone radio listening experience in New Zealand. I was never a massive radio fan in my youth – in fact I didn’t acquire a proper radio until I was 16. (If you call a stereo made by Hitachi a ‘proper stereo’ – I think they were better known for power tools at the time). Even then I didn’t listen to the radio much, partly because of the incessant adverts, but mainly because the music on offer didn’t match my tastes. Specifically, I was mad keen on the Beatles and Bowie. I spent my ‘A’ Bursary on a complete boxed set of The Beatles’ albums in 1991 and never looked back. As a student this predilection for decades-old music was probably quite a social liability, and I certainly found little I liked on the oh-so-hip bFM student station.
To hear the music of the 60s beat explosion on New Zealand radio in the late 80s and early 90s one generally had to rely on the soporific Classic Hits station or the testosterone-fuelled black t-shirt wearing Radio Hauraki. This was a less than ideal listening conundrum. Classic Hits was cuddly, inoffensive and deeply unhip; Hauraki had moronic bogan tendencies and a slightly obsessive fixation on Led Zeppelin. (Not for nothing is Hauraki’s catch-phrase still the amusingly un-ironic ‘Classic Rock That Rocks’).
Still, Hauraki was the only option if I wanted to hear something loud-ish and rocky. If I timed it right I could avoid the daft DJs and jump straight into the station’s favourite song, The Who’s eight and a half minute rock extravaganza Won’t Get Fooled Again from 1971’s Who’s Next. While I loved the impact and virtuosity of Won’t Get Fooled Again, it wasn’t my favourite Who song, or even my favourite song on the album. This honour was bestowed on the opening track of Side A: the punchy and innovative Baba O’Riley, which was the first track that popped up in my iPod’s inadvertent homage to Radio Hauraki.
I’ve always been a sucker for crisp synth sounds, and Baba O’Riley deploys the space-age sounds of early 70s keyboard technology to create a feverishly metronomic propulsive urge throughout the track. Indeed Pete Townshend’s Lowrey organ work, transferred to backing tapes for live performances, placed The Who in an odd position by shifting the band’s timekeeping role from drummer Keith Moon to a backing tape, because The Who didn’t use a keyboardist on stage: they had to play in time with the tape or the whole performance turned to custard.
Witness this top performance from Chicago in December 1975: Roger Daltrey issues his thrilling stentorian roar and engages in his signature mic-twirling feats; John Entwistle bends his nimble fingers to the intricate bass parts, and Pete Townshend careens about the stage as the track reaches its crescendo. But the usually manic Keith Moon is relatively subdued and restrained, wearing heavy headphones to keep pace with the backing tape. Also notable is the whirling Gypsy bridge section, performed by violinist Dave Arbus in the album version, but here as in nearly all live versions performed by a harmonica-wielding Daltrey to lively effect.
As an aside, this track also brings back fond memories of the wonderful scene in TV series Freaks And Geeks, in which Lindsay gets offside with future boyfriend Nick by referring to the track as ‘Teenage Wasteland’. It’s a reasonable mistake to make though, because the title of the track is not mentioned in the lyrics. As Wikipedia points out, ‘the song's title pays homage to Townshend's guru Meher Baba and influential minimalist composer Terry Riley’.
The second instalment in iPod Hauraki land was the effortless artistry of a legendary live rock performance by Lou Reed and a remarkable band in New York in December 1973. Appearing on Reed’s Rock ‘N Roll Animal LP, the former Velvet Underground track Sweet Jane is paired with a ludicrously talented introduction to build another lengthy workout, topping seven minutes and 48 seconds. (See my paean to long songs for others of its ilk).
Aside from the tremendous band performance with its fiery yet note-perfect guitar solos, the main reason I love this track is that a casual listener could be flicking through radio stations and come upon this track without knowing its provenance, and could quite easily get at least three minutes into the performance - the length of many complete pop songs - while simultaneously being blown away by the quality of the performance and being completely unaware of the name of the song or who was performing it. Here’s the album version of the live recording, featuring stills from concert performances.
Rock ‘n roll, man! Rock ‘n roll is here to stay. Particularly on my iPod, it seems.