I genuinely intended for this column to be a more cheerful place in 2022, but Omicron had other ideas. “Happy Covid Christmas number two,” as my youngest brother wrote in my Christmas card.
I’ve received a lot of advice over the past six months, but the best was throwaway and wholly unpretentious (and came courtesy of my esteemed colleague Rachel Cunliffe): you can’t feel sad while dancing to Pulp’s “Common People”. Well, lately I have followed her counsel with such vigour as to require a high-impact sports bra.
It held me up through the news that my grandparents, whom I have not seen for two years, would remain safely ensconced up north, rather than travel to London for Christmas. And then after my eldest brother discovered, on Christmas Eve, that there’s only so long you can avoid coronavirus for when you spend every night in the pub.
High on my playlist of songs you can’t feel sad to – a compilation I arrogantly view as some kind of public service – is David Bowie’s “Heroes”, which would be my answer to “What’s your theme tune?” in the NS Q&A. It would also be my first-dance song, if only I could find someone to marry – and a cut that isn’t six minutes long.
Then there’s Beck’s “Nicotine & Gravy”, which is oozing and unctuous and weird, and to which my body moves unbidden. Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” reminds me that there have been perfect days, and will be again. Public Access TV’s “End of an Era” has the kind of Back to the Future prom vibes with which “Johnny B Goode” fills dancefloors at weddings.
The Darkness’s “Friday Night” is perhaps an unlikely entry, but they were one of my very first gigs, at London’s Alexandra Palace, and now my 12-year-old brother listens to nothing else; their riffs link generations of Baileys. That night at Ally Pally, Justin Hawkins flew in on a pair of giant inflatable boobs, and at one point I could have sworn he winked at me (he almost certainly didn’t); I lived on this trick of my mind for weeks. I once watched an interview in which he said he learned to play guitar so people would sleep with him; I never mastered barre chords, and perhaps that’s where I’ve been going wrong.
Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak was one of a handful of albums my family painstakingly transferred from CD to tape in the Nineties, simultaneously pressing play and record and then scurrying from the room, so we could listen to it in the car on the long drive up to Scotland each summer. The opening bars of “Running Back” make me think of driving in that romantic, full-of-possibility way that’s far removed from the reality of car sickness and cramped limbs and stale McDonald’s air.
Also held in high enough regard to make the hard-won transition to tape was Cornershop’s When I Was Born for the 7th Time – an album it is genuinely impossible not to smile to (as no doubt my father did as his small children sang “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow” in the back seat). If you want to feel lightly, blissfully stoned without the use of any actual substances, I recommend “Good Shit”.
The Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” reminds me of Reading Festival, two-thousand-and-something, when we played it from a phone propped in a mug, and I kissed a girl for the first time, and one of our group “befriended” a boy who wore a rug around his waist – and nothing else. Also taking me back to those muddy, Kate Moss Topshop days is the Libertines’ “What Katie Did”. At Reading 2010, a friend and I danced through their entire set with such abandon that a wary circle formed around us.
These aren’t aggressively upbeat songs that try to distract from sadness with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”-type lyrics. Rather, they seem to say, “Yes, and…”; to acknowledge that joy is a profound sense of gratitude made possible by having known pain. They propel me onwards and promise that there are happier days ahead, just out of sight. I like to imagine them as a soundtrack, selected for me by a film-maker who knows where my character is heading, and that it will be good.
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance