Jem Finer of the Pogues: a millennium in music

What makes a piece of music timeless?

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What makes a piece of music timeless? As a founding member of the Pogues, Jem Finer was responsible for co-writing a lasting Christmas anthem, the rousing and rancorous “Fairytale of New York”, in which Shane MacGowan and the late Kirsty MacColl trade barbs of love and fury beneath the city skyline.

As a solo artist, Finer is also the brain behind Longplayer, a piece of music that is about as close to timelessness as it is possible to get. It began playing 15 years ago, at the dawn of the millennium, and will continue until the end of the year 2999, when it will reset and begin again.

I met Finer at a warehouse in London’s Docklands by the mouth of the River Lea where Longplayer is currently based. His words were punctuated by the beautiful, pealing chimes that rose from the painstakingly arranged Tibetan singing bowls that perform the piece. The sequencing is driven by a bank of Apple computers, each element composed and programmed by Finer.

Looking back on his unusual career, he said: “Longplayer is where everything comes together.” Born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1955, Finer moved to Knutsford, near Manchester, in 1966. He was an avid music fan as a teenager, especially loving “the rough stuff, rock’n’roll and soul”, though he was made to feel he “had no aptitude at all” and quit learning the guitar, assuming that he “couldn’t play music”.

After an abortive attempt to study accountancy, he went to “Keele University as a student and ended up studying computer science”. He recalled an inspiring lecture given by Brian Eno, entitled “something like ‘Guerilla Warfare and Its Relationship to Popular Music’”, which focused on avoiding conventional approaches to composition by “using systems to create something new”. Later, in London, Finer discovered the punk scene.

“Suddenly there was this idea that you didn’t have to be very good at all. It was liberating. That changed everything and I started to play music,” he said.

He ended up sharing a flat with Shane MacGowan. “He’d always play the Dubliners [the band] when he came in late at night. One day he said he wanted to play these songs like punk. I thought this was a really good idea.” The view of the Pogues as boozy figureheads for stormy Anglo-Irish relations is somewhat misplaced, Finer said. “The band’s always been totally misunderstood,” he insisted, maintaining that it had myriad influences other than Irish folk: “Rockabilly, country, the Velvet Underground . . . We were all making it up on instruments we couldn’t play.”

After mainstream success, the Pogues began to dissolve as the millennium approached. Finer had maintained an interest in “sound as material” and while on a tour bus in 1994 he noticed: “Nothing seemed to exist beyond the year 2000 other than the next World Cup.” He hit upon the idea to “create a 1,000-year-long piece of music”.

Although there is no rush to catch Longplayer – the project will outlive us all – the installation in the Docklands has been abetted by an app that is a “totally independent, self-contained performance” of the piece, albeit one that is precisely in time with all other performances.

As the ambient harmonics continued to hover around us, Finer ended our conversation by mentioning a memory from childhood, perhaps the true origin of Longplayer: “I remember looking through a telescope with my dad, him pointing at a star and saying, ‘That light has taken millions of years to get here.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this is weird.’ Then I began to try to fathom what that actually meant.”

This article appears in the 14 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy