So after completing the ‘Tomorrow Trilogy’ (quadrilogy? though really only parts 2, 3 and 4 are a true trilogy; I think of 1 as an overture), I… made some more.
I had songs left over, and feelings I wanted to explore. They turned out to fall into two ‘double albums’ of 20 songs. The first one, ‘Movies/Stars’ is a sequel of sorts to… Playlist Zero, ‘Go Forth’. The second, ‘Machines/Ghosts’ is much more directly a companion to Tomorrow.
This one is very early. It’s a collection of songs I really like, but which challenge my thinking in certain ways. Chronologically, it fits between the first ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Radiant Energy’; there’s a note of positive energy in it which changed my approach to the subsequent playlists. There is an underlying theme (several, which emerged quite accidentally, and which I find interesting; the subconscious really can be a lot more creative than the conscious).
It’s about the history of a certain kind of ‘transcendental’ thinking and experience in the post-World War 2 scientific community; the community which formed the bones of what became later known as the ‘New Age’ movement. And which is a subject that really needs an entire blog for itself. It’s a playlist I created to encourage myself to explore the subject without fear; because it’s a topic that has been shrouded in secrecy and often lends itself to conspiracy theories, and yet, when you look at the reality of what happened, you find the opposite of fear.
Compared to almost all of the other playlists I’ve ever made – which have taken days to weeks or even months of patient whittling and honing – this one was assembled in ‘white heat’, within the space of a few hours; and yet I find myself constantly surprised – startled, even – by how well the songs flow together to form a whole that I certainly did not plan.
Although I didn’t plan it consciously, the set of 20 songs in this list break down naturally into two ‘discs’; one set in the past, one in the future; and each of those breaks into two ‘sides’ of five songs with a distinct theme or feeling. The four acts are:
Act 1: Man On The Rocks (courage)
Act 2: We Are Not Alone (faith)
Act 3: Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (grace)
Act 4: Light In Your Eyes (love)
The ‘trigger’ for this playlist was one song: Enya’s ‘Echoes In Rain’.
This one is about dreams, so it follows from both ‘Tomorrow’ and ‘Go Forth’. More specifically, it’s about both personal visionary experiences and hope for a better world; and the realisation that the world itself is a kind of dream, and perhaps there are states of existence that are more real.
I didn’t limit myself to the 1980s for this so many of the songs are personal favourites of mine .
The trigger track was Donovan’s ‘Little Church’ – but in an odd way, ‘Movieland’ was the second trigger that anchored it and provided the name and theme. One song about low-fi authenticity, another about celebration of fakeness; yet both seemed to have a kind of resonant innocence that complemented each other.
Having made ‘Movies’, I felt immediately that it was incomplete (for one thing, it was ten songs and I needed a matching album). The matching theme that Movies required seemed to be the harshness of the ‘real world’, as well as the desire for some kind of real (as opposed to merely interior) transcendent experience.
The trigger, I think, was ‘Down To Earth’; but also, though it doesn’t appear on the track itself, FM’s ‘Love Bomb’ (as it’s not available on Youtube, I substituted ‘Cosmic Blue’).
On this list, I wanted a lot of very recent songs by 1980s and 1990s artists with a sort of rigorous honesty; as well as some of the 1980s songs I’d shortlisted but couldn’t use for ‘Now They Are Dreams’.
Karen Carpenter’s last song ‘Now’ was a song that seemed to call to me during the last stages of assembly; I was initially reluctant to include it but now I feel it works extremely well, both as a response to ‘Calling Occupants’ and as a link between the two eras in the music.
After completing ‘Stars’ and revising ‘Now They Are Dreams’ I felt ‘Tomorrow’ calling to me again. There were far too many songs from the cybernetic 1980s I’d shortlisted and couldn’t use; a sort of ‘in-universe playlist’ seemed a logical next step.
Robert Broberg’s ‘I Wanna Be A Machine’ was the initial trigger but I was very pleased to finally find a home for The Quarks ‘Mechanical’ in all its six-minute glory, as well as Mainframe’s ‘Radio’. The songs here are all slower, reflective; almost all of them were early candidates for ‘an 80s cyberpunk playlist’ but I just couldn’t get them to work in the more rigid template of Tomorrow. Here, finally, I think they do.
And of course, like ‘Movies’ before it, ‘Machines’ felt like it needed a partner, and what else could it be but nuclear fears? I still had an entire truckload of those.
Donovan was the trigger again – this time, his devastating ‘Split Wood Not Atoms’ from 1980’s Neutronica. It took a little juggling to get the rest; I was very happy to use ‘Heatwave’ and ‘Fallout’, which I’ve covered before on this blog, but some of the others were happy accidents: The Kitchens ‘I Am An A-Bomb’ haunted my childhood – as did, I’m also convinced, The Skeletons’ 1979 cover of Peter, Paul and Mary’s ‘Very Last Day’. Zingari’s ‘Everybody’s Waiting’ might not seem like a nuclear ballad until you check the lyrics: ‘Some guys in the mortuary, but not a word was said; they’re not waiting, they’re all dead’. And while I loved Ultravox’s ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’, I was sure it wouldn’t fit the demented diner-rock tone here until, one song away from completion, I plugged it in, and it just worked.
These four ‘mini-albums’ – Movies/Stars, Machines/Ghosts – echo and complement each other in odd ways that I don’t fully understand. I feel ‘I Come And Stand At Every Door’ matches and links back to ‘Little Church’, closing the circle; other things about ‘Ghosts’ echo ‘Movies’ in reverse – ‘Everybody’s Waiting’ matches ‘Movieland’, for example.
I certainly made a lot of decisions, these aren’t just random tracks; but the decisions aren’t always conscious. I just know some songs ‘feel right’ or ‘fit’ – and others don’t. Like jigsaw pieces that are too fast, or too slow, too angry, too saccharine, etc Discovering the actual mechanics of why they fit come much later. For example, a major theme of the ‘Ghosts’ tracks is that to earn their place they had to have a certain nervous energy; neither aggression nor despair nor resignation nor futility nor irony at the no-win calculus of thermonuclear war – and there were a lot of those – but a kind of hopeful and yet desperate anger with absolutely nothing left on the table. (This is very different from the ‘Radiant Energy’ tracks where they needed a warm and yet synthetic and melodic and yet plaintively detuned vibration). And it’s interesting to look at afterwards and ask: why does a this-shaped piece of emotional energy fit, and that other one doesn’t? And placed together, do they make a pattern which is wider than the thought I started with?
(For ‘Ghosts’ the answer is simply: I just needed songs that lived up to Donovan’s relentless opening hook: ‘If I had only three more minutes’. That’s the elevator pitch. That’s the energy that powered the early 80s antinuclear movement: ‘we don’t have any time left, we have to stop this NOW or we die’. This feeling dominated a decade but it’s gone now, a forgotten time capsule; but a new generation is now stumbling back into that nuclear fear, with no sense that we lived through it before. So trying to capture that in a bottle, explain for the kids how it used to feel.
For ‘Machines’, it was more deliberate: ‘two lovers – the protagonists at the end of ‘Solid State Revolution’ – have separated but are still searching for each other’. So: songs about technology but mediated by romantic longing. (Fortunately not a theme hard to find in pop music.) A calm chilliness; emotional numbness; awakening critique of the systems that have caused our isolation; it needed alternating male and female voices, because it’s a duet; etc).