As a young teenager, I wasn’t musically discerning or cool. In the late 1980s it seemed people chose their thing from a variety of big personalities, distinctive voices and sounds – synth, metal, hip-hop. But I didn’t. In a few years raves would be pushing out into the countryside, venues in Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle becoming more accessible. But, mostly, live music in the Lake District meant hearing old giffers singing in the pub, fiddles, folk. I’d not long emerged from the village disco scene hosted in church halls, with sneaky boozing, fights to get the sound levels up and snogs if you escaped parental monitoring.
Then, quite randomly, Dad decided to take me to a concert, in London, at the Royal Albert Hall. This was 1987. I was 13. Recently, Dad had been travelling to concerts with an old school friend, Pete. Pete, it turned out, had grown up with a musician called Ricky Clapton. The information didn’t quite register.
I have few surrounding memories of the event, like getting to the venue. But I remember the girth of the Albert Hall, darkness, signature blues chords, and a huge leonine roar from the crowd. Then, a bluish spotlight on the stage, and a man my dad’s age in it, sharp-jacketed, a two-tone guitar. Things got extremely loud, well over village disco decibels. I even complained to Dad (the irony). Fans obviously understood Eric Clapton’s skills, but I witnessed a new phenomenon.
To contextualise: I was having really dull flute lessons at school – the tunes involved were not, in any way, “White Room”. Here on stage was an instrument from the underworld, attached to someone who seemed possessed by it: fierce, seductive. About half an hour in, “Ricky” dedicated “Wonderful Tonight” to Pete and his new wife. That blew my mind. It seemed impossible we were connected, this idol and us. About an hour in, Mark Knopfler came on stage – also spotlit out of darkness – to another huge, and this time surprised roar. A lot of power-guitaring went on, and I confess I wasn’t 100 per cent interested every moment. It didn’t make me a rock convert. But the experience, the noise and force, the electrifying atmosphere hooked me on live music. I’ve been to a lot of gigs since, always hoping for that first feeling of stupefaction.
A few years ago, I was reminded of this night. I found out Mark Knopfler had written a song inspired by one of my novels. My editor, who is now involved in the music industry, told me this quite casually. I couldn’t explain why I suddenly put my hands over my ears. Because it was impossible. Because I felt 13, connected to the mains, and totally mind-blown again.
The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special