Monday, 6 July 2009

The Wurlitzer Brainbox.

In a tent, in a field, in a county called Kent on a night like last night, a group called British Sea Power cranked into one of their most powerful and emotive songs while I watched and listened. "Remember Me" is a delicate, concise and powerful precis of the mortality of man, the cellular cycle, the passing of half a lifetime and the very human yearning to be remembered after death: I know the song well.

So well, in fact, that even as the song was being performed a separate parallel soundtrack started to play from within my head. I was 'hearing' the recorded, released version of the song in perfect sync with the live performance going on in front of me. Every nuance of the CD I have at home was unraveled and laid open for comparison to the new rendition coming out of the Hop Farm Festival speakers. Whenever the live version offered something new or different, the 'hard-wired' version in my head seemed to rewind and restart in less than a second, returning as an updated temporary memory. A 'Remember Me V 0.2', or something.

It struck me that there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of songs that are so deeply etched into my brain in this way that every nuance, every layer, chord, intonation, note and breath can be recalled seemingly without a second's delay. It's like having a massive, super-quick iTunes programme inside the brain.

Some years ago on a long journey across Europe, myself and four friends 'sang' the whole 11 minute version of Bowie's 'Station To Station' in the back of a car. As I intimated the train noises from the intro, the music played perfectly and precisely in my head. The other parts, played by my fellow travellers, were similarly picture-perfect. We were all 'hearing' the same recording - without it being there. This is more than just recollection: it is total recall.

We all have this capacity to store such information, do we not? Is that not where the age-old debate over the merit or otherwise of a live performance sounding 'just like the record' comes from?

Yet how many novels, chapters or even paragraphs do you remember from your favourite books? Sure, we can all quote the odd line. But can you quote the first couple pages of the last novel you read? Similarly, how many of your favourite paintings can you describe perfectly? I love Van Gogh's sunflowers... but ask me to tell you how many blooms are in his vase, even, and I would have to make a total guess. I can completely recall the Simpson's theme music, even as I write this, but more than a couple of lines of dialogue? No chance. But ask me to sing Helen Reddy's 'Angie Baby' to you - a song that I probably haven't heard for at least a decade - and I'll roll it out like I wrote the thing myself two minutes ago. Backing vocals, music, percussion... the lot).

Which makes me wonder. When we listen to new music, how much of it is retained on first listen? How long does it take to store a whole song and how permanently and fully are they archived in our heads? And when we play a song that we know very well, are we simultaneously topping up the memory banks? Or is there, as I often feel, really no point in playing it? It's so hard-wired into the brain that it can be played for free, any time?

Internal jukebox now playing: The Music Goes Round My Head by The Easybeats.

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