Help! I’m a Middle-Aged Music Addict
Updated: Feb 3
In a new coming of age memoir Dan Synge explains how a generation has been unable to shake off their pop past
I confess. I’m a man in my fifties with a habit I just cannot seem to shake off.
It started innocently enough, around the time I swapped thick, flannelled shorts for itchy grey Terylene trousers, manifesting itself in a number of strange and exotic ways: the poster of leather-clad rock queen Suzi Quatro torn from my sister’s copy of Jackie magazine; the collection of 45 rpm discs stacked up against my new Japanese-made portable record player; gawping at ABBA singing Waterloo in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest on the family television set; pretending to be members of Slade with my schoolfriend Simon; cutting out and painting a Beatles Hofner violin bass fashioned from old wine boxes with my mate from next door and, later, stealing his sister’s dinner money in order to help finance the purchase of a Beatles LP from the local record shop.
Years later I was seduced by the nascent punk and new wave scene catching Joy Division at the back room of a pub and forming a band with some like-minded school mates. No one remembers The BBC4 today, but we’ll never forget playing in the middle of a spooky cave or the horror of watching some mental neo-Nazi skinheads throw beer glasses at us mid performance.
Today, casting my eyes around my home office I spy at least two six string solid-bodied electric guitars hanging from the wall, as if I’m at the entrance of a Denmark Street music shop. A recently bought bass guitar rests against the bookshelf and above the coat rack by the door is a portable Korg analogue synth in its original box plus several electric keyboards and drum machines that would have once been at the cutting edge of music technology. Rows of vinyl albums still occupy a dusty corner on the floor and there’s at least one shelf of rock lit and music biogs plus some as yet unused tickets for forthcoming shows on the mantlepiece – Franz Ferdinand, First Aid Kit, The Divine Comedy and Spiritualized, as you ask.
Next to the very computer I’m writing this on is a very random collection of CDs (yes CDs, popularly in use in the 1980’s) and resting on the floor below are a decent enough pair of audio speakers through which I can hear my favourite new artists on Spotify and YouTube. Strangely, I’ve been as excited about new releases by The Surfing Magazines and Wet Leg as I was when I first heard Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division as a teenager.
And if I was to check my Twitter feed right now (and of course I’m trying desperately hard not to!), I would be almost guaranteed to be treated to a photo of Debbie Harry taken by Mick Rock or Jill Furmanovsky around the year 1978. I might also be reminded of the fact that Dexy’s Midnight Runners released the single Geno on this very day back in 1980. Well, that’s digital algorithms for you. YouTube, meanwhile, invites me to watch re-touched and re-colourised videos of long-forgotten TV performances, and in a couple of clicks, I can watch Bowie in a black boilersuit and exquisitely held cigarette performing Boys Keep Singing on The Kenny Everett TV Show. Otherwise, there’s a guy with a nice-looking Fender Jaguar to show me how to play the riff from Spellbound by Siouxsie and The Banshees. It’s not exactly the zeitgeist, is it?
Last Christmas, I got through the eight-hour Beatles-a-thon Get Back on Disney Plus and enjoyed every single second watching Paul McCartney attempt to re-energise the frankly ailing Fab Four at Apple HQ, Savile Row. The recent three-part docu series on French rock and roll legend Jonny Hallyday was compulsive viewing too and this rock wild man’s life story went down like a carafe of Pernod in one late-night sitting. I’m currently in the middle of Gimme Danger, a warts-and-all telling of the rise and fall of Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Tell me that’s going to be just another boring rock doc!
I’ve also been inviting as many friends as possible to one of my own band’s gigs at a tiny West London venue. We're a guitar synth pop outfit that has being going on/off since 1987. I am certain however that most of these invitees won’t attend. They have better things to do with their lives: gardening, shopping, watching football, helping their kids with their GSCE’s or maybe they’re just clocking up a few extra miles on their Peloton.
Soon, like that sad slacker fantasist Dewey Finn from the film School of Rock, I’ll be lugging my Gibson SG guitar and 60-Watt combo amplifier along to the airless, subterranean venue to unravel its many leads and pedal effects – I’d rather be sitting on the garden terrace with a chilled glass of Viognier.
I reflect sometimes, on the kind of things I could have achieved in my life so far and can’t help noticing that many of my peers have already enjoyed long and successful careers in management, finance or other more solid and respected professions. Others still hold senior positions in publishing and academia or can boast leading consumer and lifestyle brands as clients. I, meanwhile, am sending my latest digital release – one which of course I’m convinced will be an international hit – to a twentysomething influencer in Mexico in the hope of getting it onto a big-hitting Spotify playlist. If I’m lucky I will be paid £5 for this in around two years from now.
Such is life for today’s songwriter and multi-instrumentalist playing the tiresome ‘long game’ of pop stardom. To be honest, I wish I had moved on earnestly to other things by now; opera, golf, bird watching or perhaps even steam train fancying, like that old rock lothario Rod Stewart. Anything to stop my miss-spent past from repeating itself like a needle stuck on the grooves of an old 12-inch single.
"Genres like grime and K-pop pass by virtually un-noticed when you’re busy revisiting Nancy & Lee or arguing the case for Neat, Neat, Neat being the best punk single ever"
The puzzling thing about my predicament is the seemingly everlasting appeal of this damned music. Why can’t it just f-f-f-fade away? When rock and roll first exploded into the consciousness back in the 1950’s it was an exclusively teenage obsession; a silly, visceral fad that the adults or the ‘squares’ believed would quickly go the way of Hula-Hoops or the conical bra. Now it’s been fully absorbed into the mainstream and is less a show of rebellion and youthfulness, more a of a lazy cultural comfort blanket for a generation of late baby boomers and early Generation X’ers born roughly between 1960 and 1985. I can assure you that popular music genres like grime and K-pop pass by virtually un-noticed when you’re busy revisiting Nancy & Lee or arguing in the pub the case for Neat, Neat, Neat being the best punk single ever recorded.
Pop music may have been replaced by online gaming and social media in the affections of the young, but you wouldn’t know if you were to find yourself in a 200,000-capacity field in Somerset one late June afternoon. Placed roughly between The Chelsea Flower Show and Wimbledon during the English summer season, Glastonbury began in 1970 for a few hippies who paid £1 to pitch up in a meadow to watch Tyrannosaurus Rex and Steamhammer (no, I’ve never heard of them either). Today it’s an almost compulsory rites of passage for the young, often with us parents tagging along, with deluxe on-site glamping and multi-platinum artists such as Adele, Jay-Z and Taylor Swift now getting in on the act.
And if you think rock audiences are getting younger, have you seen the number of greying or bald-headed punters who congregate regularly at our favourite music temples The Roundhouse, Brixton Academy and the 100 Club?
Terrible rock cliches – and not just in terms of boring guitar solos – are also a bit of a problem nowadays. Remember the tired, absurd theatricals of Kiss and Marilyn Manson or Guns N’ Roses in their heyday with all that ridiculous cartoon posturing so brilliantly parodied by the Rob Reiner movie This Is Spinal Tap. When I was an impressionable ten-year-old watching Top of The Pops in the 1970s, the gleaming Stratocasters, towering Marshall stacks and androgynous long hair were all part of the appeal but over time the look and sound of rock has become no more than a well-worn trope for the purposes of advertising, fashion and marketing. As Johnny Rotten famously said at the end of the Sex Pistols’s ill-fated 1978 tour of the US: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Having myself been born in the 1960s – shortly after the release of the Beatles first LP as it happens – my younger self didn’t fully appreciate the seismic cultural changes of decade in which I arrived. This has led me and people of my age or background to assume there has always been some missed cultural moment which had to be recompensed somehow, whether that was Swinging London, Woodstock or the Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall, Manchester. And wasn’t everybody at that seminal 1976 gig? Without it there would be no Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Factory Records, The Smiths, ‘Madchester’ or even what we know today as indie music.
To the die-hard fan (and I admit I’m not one of those), such times, places or events take on an almost religious ‘I was there when…’ quality to them. So instead of the feeding of the five thousand, we cling onto the tale of a puppyish Elvis Presley improvising That’s Alright Mama in the Sun Records Memphis studio or Nirvana let loose on The Word forty years later. And, as if to rival Moses’s parting of the red sea, might I suggest Radiohead’s 1997 set at the Main Stage, Glastonbury or Bowie in full clown make-up putting his arm camply around guitarist Mick Ronson during that game-changing Top of The Pops rendition of Starman? Well, Bowie certainly knew a thing or two about the power of the image.
So, let’s assume that we’ve all had some quasi-religious conversion to pop music in our recent or distant lives. So what? Isn’t it about time we broke out of the spell and rid ourselves finally of this obsession? Having myself suffered decades of being trapped in its merciless clutches, I think it must be worth a try.
The encouraging news is that after a pretty good run of 60 years or more, rock and pop music is now witnessing its very own endgame. The slow death of live music, negligible income streams for new artists, the decline of the band unit and the increasing attraction of other forms of art and entertainment among younger audiences are just a few reasons why it simply cannot last much longer. I see a bright future where I can sell the guitar collection, ditch my half-written pop masterpieces and actually get on with living the rest of my life.
But first I need to crack on with my new music memoir You Really Got A Hold On Me; a personal, cathartic and often humorous examination of the continuing hold that popular music has had on myself and, it would seem, others of my generation. It’s not simply another lurid tale of rock debauchery and failed pop stardom (although I can fill these chapters in easily enough), nor is it just a nostalgic foray into a lost 1970’s childhood, or the hedonistic 1980’s which is now as long ago as the Second World War was when we were getting into Adam and the Ants and The Smiths. I want to fully explore and understand, by revisiting pivotal moments in my life, why pop music, and all the ephemeral yet highly compelling stuff that goes along with it, still has me in its grip all these years later. And, who knows, maybe it will go some way to answer the question why I still get goosebumps all over whenever I hear that opening guitar riff to Ride A White Swan.
You Really Got A Hold On Me by Dan Synge is out soon.