My mum and dad were Greek, but growing up in Birmingham in the 1970s, I needed something else to tell me what I was and, more to the point, what I could be. While my parents were in our shop helping meet the fish and chip needs of the nearby streets, Top of the Pops came to my aid. When I grew up I wanted to be like Paul McCartney in the Mull of Kintyre video, married to a groovy soulmate, hosting fire-lit singalongs in our bucolic idyll. The romantic idealism of the Korgis’ If I Had You and Darts’ Duke of Earl presented me with possible futures that I never relinquished.
However, other songs reminded me that my chances of achieving that sort of happiness were virtually zero. The Specials’ Rat Race and the Members’ Solitary Confinement told me that even if I avoided the dole queue, the alternative might be worse. My brother Aki told me why Roxanne had a red light on, and even though he and his mates talked about sex and money like they were good things, having to do the former for the latter sounded like another terrifying thing that adults sometimes had to do. By 13, my dream of finding a decent job and a Linda to my Paul (or, if it really came to it, a Sting to my Roxanne) was hanging by a thread. Abba were constantly writing songs about how shit it was to be married, or the cold war. Sometimes you couldn’t tell which was which.
Pop music had so thoroughly prepared me to discover that my militant sappiness had been an infantile fantasy that I entered adulthood in a state of terror. But a pessimist can never be disappointed. By preparing me for disaster, pop did me a massive favour. “The willow turns his back on inclement weather,” McCartney sang on With a Little Luck. “And if he can do it / We can do it.” It’s not always been easy, but in moments of doubt, I still try to be a bit more Paul. It worked for me in 1978 and it works now.
I can remember everything about the night in October 1980 when Adam and the Ants appeared on Top of the Pops “doing a thing”, as presenter Tommy Vance put it, “called Dog Eat Dog”: where I was sitting, the way the light fell in the room, the sense of my nine-year-old world turning upside down. It was my Bowie doing Starman, my Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, my Sex Pistols v Bill Grundy: it was a life-changing moment. They were my first musical crush, and like a lot of first crushes, I fell hard and I’m not sure I ever really got over it.
Forty years on, I still like bands who wear makeup or who suggest they believe that ridicule is nothing to be scared of. I love music that boasts swaggering self-belief and weirdness, and eccentricity that’s unforced to the point of making you feel slightly uncomfortable; whenever I see a band with two drummers, my ears prick up. And I love artists who tell you things about a world beyond music, because that’s what Adam Ant did.
He wouldn’t stop talking about Joe Orton and the pop artist Allen Jones in interviews. If you flipped their singles over, you were usually confronted with a song about sadomasochism: Whip in My Valise, Beat My Guest, Red Scab. Of course, I didn’t have a clue what any of those songs meant then, but I knew something was up: they suggested that there was a wider, stranger world out there, completely outside of my experience that sounded exciting, scary and enticing. I still think that’s one of the greatest things pop music can do.
As a child I used to scream “RED RAIN!” from the back of my parents’ car, which in previous centuries might have been seen as a dire prophecy and had me thrown down the nearest well. But in 1987, it was merely evidence of a three-year-old being really into side one, track one of Peter Gabriel’s So. The extortionate price of pre-recorded cassettes combined with the time and money vortex of three children meant my parents only seemed to have four tapes for the car, namely Gabriel, Steve Winwood, New Order and the Cure. Later, with a child’s limited earning power and Lego not buying itself, my own collection was similarly meagre. Out of necessity, these tiny libraries were constantly revisited, to the point where I know the position of every snare on Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, knowledge that has become worse than useless.
I wouldn’t have had music to listen to unless I hit repeat, and this formative type of listening has arguably shaped my adult behaviour. At the time of writing I have 134,727 unread emails in my inbox, most of them press releases shilling music from every corner of the globe. One of the chief impediments to me listening to it all, and something I have to actively fight against every day, is a natural tendency to musical monomania. My brain seems wired to obsess over a single song for days at a time, and perhaps this neural pathway was first trodden in those constant repeat plays as a child. Despite the endless choice of the streaming era, I’m still drawn to one thing hammering over and over, like Red Rain on the side of a car window.
My monomaniacal streak first revealed itself through an infant obsession with Mr Blobby. I aspired to be Mr Blobby’s wife, bear his blobby children and live in our pink and yellow house; I watched my Blobby VHS endlessly and still experience a nostalgic pang when I think about holding the pink cassingle of his 1993 classic, Mr Blobby. A few years later, my obsessive tendencies met their match in the Spice Girls. It’s true that their turbocharged merchandising invented a generation of consumers, though I wasn’t allowed most of what they sold. In a more profound sense, this band that you could live (wallpaper), eat (crisps, lollies), smell like (Impulse body spray – which I bought until they stopped making it) stoked an all-encompassing form of fandom. Plus, their five distinct personalities encouraged identification: I claimed their crushes as my own, bought jersey baby doll dresses from Tammy Girl and wound my hair into twisty little buns. I wrote to them; I knew they would understand me if I met them.
As I moved on from the Spice Girls, my single-minded fandom found new vessels. At one point, I had more than 300 pictures of Fame Academy-winner Alex Parks on my walls. Budding online fan forums helped me forensically seek out items of clothing that she owned. I took a lot of pictures of Tegan and Sara to the hairdressers. When I discovered the Libertines, I bought a red soldier jacket, drew their tattoos on my arms before school and taught myself how to play their songs on guitar. I was disappointed when I made my first pilgrimage to Camden and found it to be more piss and incense than the Disneyland I was expecting. I suspect my mum developed powerful ocular muscles from the eye-rolling that greeted every new body-and-soul makeover.
I should have grown out of this, but I never have. While it’s grown less conspicuous, I’m still periodically gripped by the desperate feeling that a particular musician not only amplifies how I feel inside, but suggests a better version of myself that I could become. I could trace every tentatively bold move or out-of-character fashion decision I’ve made in adulthood back to a female musician that’s inspired it. Fortunately my job means I can mask some of this in professional interest, but the subtext of every question I pose to an artist I admire remains: how are you so cool? How can I be you?
Hannah J Davies
There was once a town in the London suburbs with more guitar shops than pubs: three to be precise. I did not like visiting any of these shops when I was a child, with the old man permanently in the corner playing Stairway to Heaven on a Les Paul guitar he was absolutely not going to buy, and more old men behind the counter. It wasn’t until I saw an 18-year-old Canadian girl in a tank top, school tie and box-fresh Converse, singing about the Sk8er Boi she had ditched before his rapid ascent to fame, that I felt like rock music could be pop music: that it could be glib yet emotional, shiny yet melodramatically dark, like my permanently black nails.
It would be simplistic to describe Avril Lavigne as a gateway drug, but she was an important touchstone – to cheap crucifixes; to writing screechy choruses about people who definitely did not like me back; to my first guitar (a cherry red Gibson SG, played extremely poorly) and to realising that I didn’t have to choose between listening to Britney Spears or Elliott Smith. It’s no surprise that some of the most interesting alternative artists of the moment, Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy, have described Lavigne as a major inspiration, or that Billie Eilish captioned her selfie with Lavigne with the words “thank you for making me what I am” and that Princess Nokia rapped her name on GOAT. To so many girls, she was totally punk, and totally gr8.
The first time I saw Billy Bragg was 27 October 1984. It was a Saturday night at the Victoria Palace theatre in London, and it was the first time I had seen a show that didn’t seem as though everything was preplanned and choreographed. It was a show that was light on its feet, with Bragg living and playing in the moment. It made 15-year-old me want to see him again. Which I did. And again and again.
Every Billy Bragg show was different, and I came to understand that what happens on a stage need not be a presentation of the same thing every night, that variation is a greater friend to excitement than predictability. I realised venues make a difference, crowds make a difference and that the more you see someone, the more you get out of each show – so long as they reward that devotion by being different each night.
I still feel that way. This weekend I’ll be seeing the Hold Steady three more times, and I wouldn’t be doing so if I didn’t know each night would offer varying pleasures. It’s why I see Springsteen as often as I can. It’s also why I don’t feel the same need to see most machine-tooled arena productions again and again, no matter how much I love the band. Seeing Billy Bragg as a kid showed me the long relationship is more exciting than the quick fling.
• How has your childhood love of pop shaped you as an adult? Tell us in the comments.
• Broken Greek: A Story of Chip Shops and Pop Songs by Pete Paphides is published by Quercus (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.