Myself and my editor James have both worked in bars from time to time and we have both run into the problem of what music to play in the background whilst our customers are eating and drinking. To begin with, this music must be neutral. Ideally, it will con you into thinking that it is rocky and stylish whilst being at heart totally inoffensive. It must also try to bridge the gap between being melodic and having a reliably throbbing bass. Most importantly of all, however, the lyrics have to be meaningless. The customers will be wrapped head-to-toe in the music, they will be aware of it, but they certainly won’t be listening to it. They will be talking to their friends, or monitoring the aimless meandering of a football around a screen, and they will not wish to be distracted from this by anything that is unnecessarily thought-provoking.
“The Red Hot Chili Peppers tick all of these boxes,” James will maintain firmly.
He’s right, I think. The songs are melodic, the bass throbs, the music sounds rocky but not dangerous, and the lyrics are a sweetly worthless, throwaway nonsense.
A while ago, James was employed in a student bar where the Red Hot Chilis were as constant as the electricity. Their music is indeed highly flexible in its application. Exactly the same songs will suit sleepy afternoons around the pool table and that exhilarating late-night crush when all of the draught beer and beer glasses run out and a wall of imploring faces surrounds the bar. James and I both agree, incidentally, that a bar’s music should be played at maximum volume half an hour before closing time. If the customers are unable to talk because they cannot be heard over the music, then all that remains for them is to drink up.
The trouble was that James was being gradually poisoned. He was working in the bar every day, between two pm and midnight, and the same eighteen songs by the Red Hot Chilis were on repeat during this entire time. The voice of Anthony Kiedis, the group’s singer and rapper, was soon more familiar to James than that of a conjoined twin brother. Kiedis was pounding incessantly on James’ brain until he had sunk in through every available crack and dyed its tissue through-and-through with his voice and personality. You would have needed to be superhuman to withstand this unending bombardment and poor James was only a shrimp.
One day our mutual friend Tori came to this student bar and she ordered a Famous Grouse and grapefruit juice. James was aghast.
Tori laughed at him. “It really works, I promise you. It just hits the spot like nothing else.”
James glanced about and then lowered his voice. “You’re upsetting Anthony,” he hissed.
“Anthony?” Tori assumed that this must be the bar manager or a co-worker. Indeed she didn’t know that an Anthony was the lead singer of the Red Hot Chilis, whose “Californication” was inevitably issuing from the overhead speakers.
“He sounds upset,” James said fearfully. “Listen!”
Tori realised that they were listening to the music.
“Um, this song sounds the same to me,” she ventured finally. “The same as it usually does.”
James shook his head. “No, he sounds really furious. I’ve never heard him this mad before.”
Next the bar had discontinued the Southern Comfort, a habitually poor seller, and replaced it with a liqueur called Drambuie. The Drambuie did not sell too well either and so it was put on special offer with its price halved. Subsequently, a trickle had been sold.
James understood from the music that Anthony was infuriated by how this particular, somehow objectionable drink was at last shifting units.
It was on this night that I was walking home from my own bar and I came across James standing stranded in the Meadows. He looked very excited.
“Are you okay, man?” I asked. I wanted to go home to bed and I was worried that I would have to lengthen my night by another hour in order to escort James to a mental hospital.
“Antony’s following me,” he gibbered. “Just now I could hear his footsteps on the path behind me. As precise as horse clops.”
“Where?” I peered across the darkness of the fields. There was only a light wind slinking around furtively over the grass.
“He’s watching us from behind that bush… That shrub… He’s standing behind it.”
There did appear to be some kind of scrawny figure hovering in the shadows, but this fact was not currently a helpful one to me. I didn’t bother looking again. “There’s nobody there. Walk with me – I’ll come back with you to your flat.”
Early the next morning, I went to James’ workplace and told the cleaner who let me in that I had been sent to service the glasswasher. Once behind the bar, I uprooted most of the sound system by its wires and snipped its circuitry into microscopic pieces. This gave James some relief for a couple of weeks and the last time that I saw him he was no longer babbling on about Anthony Kiedis.
My own bar is a part of the ensuing redevelopments at Leith Docks. It has huge sea-facing windows that crouch down by the waterline and look out over sheets of strangely and almost hauntingly blank water. There is always just this dirty grey, rocking monotonously and with no whitecaps or truanting ripples. Scott, the manager of our bar, is very enthusiastic about teamwork. It makes the dream work, as he will proclaim. He had recently concocted a plan that was intended to make “the team” gel together even more claustrophobically. He would replace the current menu of bar music with a playlist that contained each of our favourite songs.
When I was asked to donate a song, I refused.
Scott wore a face of deep concern. “Biggy, our team is meant to be like a family. Just as you share your favourite music with your family, you should feel free to share it with us.”
I didn’t like Scott. I had been once standing behind him at a party and I had heard him joke that his job was “to pretend to be friends with stupid people in order to manipulate them into doing stuff for me.” But there were one or two flaws with his musical stratagem.
The first was that he was carrying around a list of exceptions and prohibitions in his head that, were it ever written down, would be bigger than the Domesday Book. Our choices could not be nu metal because this would alienate some customers. They could not be “inappropriate.” Even if they were appropriate, the lyrics could not be in a foreign language because some especially sensitive customers might worry that they were inappropriate. They could not contain a political message or express an allegiance with a sports team, both of which were inappropriate. And they probably could not be classical either. I would have selected some music from Bach or Haydn but this would have undoubtedly jarred against the supposedly delicate sensibilities of our customers.
The best way to deal with Scott was to turn his own maddening language back on him. “Suggesting a song would be inappropriate,” I told him. He immediately looked conscientious. “I listen to music when I am relaxing at home, at the end of the day, with a glass of whisky in my hand. To overlay the same music over my workplace would make my workplace the same as my home. It would make the disgusting instant tea that we drink here the same as my expensive whisky. It would erode any distinction between the public and the private.”
To my horror Scott was beaming at me. “This is your home Biggy and yes, you should treat us as your family…”
“I refuse!” I growled. “I’m not donating a song!”
“Biggy, this is unacceptable,” Scott suddenly looked tired and bored and he spoke as though he had dropped from poetry into prose. “You have to decide, Biggy. Are you one of us or are you not? Are you part of this family or do you want to go and work somewhere else? I’m serious, Biggy. Either you can choose a song or you are out the door.”
“You cannot be fired from your family,” I spluttered. “This is against everything in Nature!”
Nonetheless, I picked a song. I went for Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”
“It’s my favourite song,” I insisted, nodding my head forcefully. In truth, it is a song that I enjoy listening to.
But Scott was still pressing on and still unrelenting. “Biggy, Maggie has gone for a song that she danced to at her wedding over forty years ago. Sadie has picked one that was played at her mother’s funeral. We require a big song – a song that was there in the air at one of your life’s big events – a song that would be on your lips if you were run over by a car tomorrow and dying in the street…”
“Like Mercutio,” I reasoned. “‘Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man’? I always thought that was Shakespeare’s single worst joke but maybe Mercutio was recalling the words of a Tudor pop song?”
Scott nodded in incomprehension. “Hey listen,” he then erupted eagerly, “have you ever heard of that radio show Desert Island Discs? You have to select one record that would be with you forever on a desert island. And this song has to be a treasure-box of memories – a song that encapsulates everything important about your life – and is “Like a Virgin” really, honestly, that song for you?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Maggie and Sadie both scared me. How could Maggie thieve the music from her wedding night and impose it over this dreary workplace? Why did Sadie want to hum along to her mother being cremated every seventy minutes (which is roughly how often the song would appear in the playlist)? Why were they corralling these most momentous aspects of their lives into Scott’s tinpot? It was like putting all of your soul into sucking your boss’ cock for a promotion or for some preferential treatment or for whatever it was that they thought they were getting in return. These two were sheer ghouls – worse than the animals that rob from graveyards.
Anyway, “Like a Virgin” was slipped into the dispiriting soundtrack and it periodically appeared like a lone sunbeam to brighten up the bar. A week later, however, Scott had confronted me angrily behind one of the tills.
“It isn’t your favourite song at all!” he raged. “I got in contact with your ex-girlfriend Renata on Facebook. She replied me today saying that you had never listened to that song when you were together!”
I was literally speechless.
Scott squared up to me. “You tell me your favourite song right now or you leave – for good!”
I stood for a moment as panicked as though the whole of the universe was falling on top of me. Then I relaxed and smiled. I have learned that in moments of crisis all you need to do is smile. You will feel the consequent simulation of warmth and happiness calmly flood the front of your mind and then the crisis will tumble on the floor around you in loose pieces, like discarded polystyrene packaging. “So here’s the thing,” I confided amiably in Scott. “I just don’t have a favourite song.”
“Untrue!” Scott was shaking almost tearfully and he took pints of breath to steady himself. “Everybody has a favourite song!”
“Not me, I’m afraid. Nothing has ever stuck.”
But Scott still lived mentally in a world of regimented working-class life, from some estate where everybody had the same murky concrete flat with the same floorspace and the same layout. In his system, everybody had a favourite song – a song that would be played on their wedding night – one that would be their number in the work-party karaoke. And to not have a favourite song would be like being a paedophile or somebody who had placed themselves outside of society and human sympathy. It was only natural that I would have a favourite song and it was despicable that I was pretending to deny it. Who you were was accessed by locating these handy labels such as your favourite song and if this information was unavailable, then there was only a sinister non-person left.
Fortunately, soon after my conversation with Scott, a chance mishap befell the bar’s sound system. A man had come to service the glasswasher early in the morning and a hammer had accidentally flown out of his hand and into the switchboard that controlled the music settings. Or at least this is the story that the cleaners told – it looked to me like a whole bucket of hammers had accidentally hit the switchboard. Our customers had to thereafter content themselves with the sing-song of their own chatter.