Why playlists are getting me through anxious times

New technologies are helping us reach out to one another in these troubled times. And what doesn’t make the list is just as important as what does

For many of a certain age, their teenage years were largely spent in their bedrooms – “a world where I can go and tell my secrets to”, as the Beach Boys sang on In My Room, but also where you’d sit patiently taping songs off the radio. Then with these recordings – a clunkily captured pick of the hits from the Top 40 first, then later the best of that week’s John Peel shows – you’d have made a compilation cassette tape; this you’d swap with a friend who shared the initiate’s understanding of the other rooms – cathedrals! catacombs! – that this music could unlock.

Now I find myself sitting in a room, still making compilations: playlists on Spotify, dipping into the seemingly endless reservoir of music there. Seemingly endless, but then where’s Don Covay’s It’s in the Wind when you really feel the need for it? I could go on, but right now the question for the latest compilation I’m making, which will be called We Can Make It! Vol 2, is whether to make the 15th and final track I Am Sitting in a Room, Alvin Lucier’s 1969 masterpiece.

Lucier is an experimental composer, and I Am Sitting in a Room is a single track that lasts 18 minutes and 26 seconds (at least, it does on the version on Spotify to which I’m listening). It features a man (Lucier?) reciting a phrase that begins: “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice … ”

This recording is played back into the room, and Lucier records it again, and then records that recording, and so on and on. Eighteen minutes in, all is distortion.

Unfortunately, it falls foul of the criteria I’ve established to select the 15 tracks for We Can Make It! Vol 2, the second of a series of playlists begun just before the UK went into lockdown and everyone found themselves spending more time indoors. The intention running through last Sunday’s effort – snappily titled We Can Make It! Vol 1 – was to speak to the particular moment in which we find ourselves: through songs to cheer up, or comfort and perhaps in due course console close friends and family – parents with small children, parents with teenagers, my own teenager temporarily stranded on the other side of the world with no easy way of getting home, her grandparents, and a few more.

The first track on Vol 1 is Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Strange Things Happening Every Day. When I was a teenager, the way initiates would learn more about the sounds they heard on shows such as Peel’s was through the music press (for me, Melody Maker in the late 80s mattered most). But now I can find most everything I might want to know from Wikipedia, which argues something I’d never heard: in 1945, Strange Things Happening Every Day became “the first gospel record to cross over and become a hit on the ‘race records’ chart … and has been cited as an important precursor of rock and roll”.

If Strange Things Happening Every Day qualified to kick things off but I Am Sitting in a Room was too far a stretch, what else made the list? Because of the age range, and because I pictured this as something that households would come to cherish every Sunday morning in the months ahead, Vol 1 wasn’t quite as cool as my teenage self might have expected. There was one tune I contemplated, but ultimately discarded, from those Melody Maker-reading years: Mudhoney’s Touch Me I’m Sick. Partly for reasons of taste but principally because not everyone will appreciate the great (no, the greatest) Seattle band blasting on a Sabbath morn.

Instead, following Sister Rosetta, Randy Newman’s You’ve Got a Friend in Me from the soundtrack to Toy Story. One Curtis Mayfield number: It Was Love That We Needed. The unbearably poignant Hello in There by John Prine:

So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, ‘Hello in there, hello’

Because strange things are happening, by Monday night, this track perhaps didn’t work: no one should be walking down the street close enough to eyeball a stranger any more. But as the weeks stretch ahead – and what a good call it was to rebuff a friend’s request for a running playlist, given the new constraints on exercise – there’ll be plenty of scope.

Vol 2 is now finished and ready for me to share this Sunday with those close to me – another instance of the way in which new technologies are helping us at least reach out to one another now. Vol 3 is in the works already: perhaps a little more obvious, but the Neville Brothers’ version of Sitting in Limbo is a winner, Moondog’s Do Your Thing is a self-help song that serves the role of any Joe Wicks video, and who else knows about RB Graves’s Home to Stay?

As for the George Jones number (released in 1971, the year I was born) that gives this playlist series its title: give it a Google yourself.


Caspar Llewellyn Smith

The GuardianTramp

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