By Chris Bourke
THE TREADMILL TAPES: Confessions of a Compulsive Pop Picker, by David McGill (Silver Owl, $34.95).
This music-obsessed memoir is like a teenager’s cluttered bedroom. All that detritus horrifies the parents, but to its inhabitant it’s their life on display. Paekakariki-based journalist and historian David McGill has been keeping a diary for decades, detailing all the music he’s been listening to since radio’s Lever Hit Parade gave New Zealand its weekly 30-minute dose of pop.
Pop songs have their way of invading your head and staying there – the term for the affliction is “earworm” – and McGill has a more lethal dose than most sufferers. Here, he shares the soundtrack of his life – with gusto.
Every chapter ends with its own contemporary Top 20 (#1 for the 1950s: ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’; for 1973-75: ‘Smoke on the Water’; for the 1990s: ‘Anchor Me’), and the book concludes with two dozen lists of personal Top 20s from friends and relatives. The two most prominent list makers are Max Cryer, who has ‘Send in the Clowns’ lead his diverse 20, and Carmen, for whom ‘Begin the Beguine’ is toppermost of the poppermost.
If that doesn’t satisfy the inner trainspotter, 12 other appendices list favourite instrumentals, novelty songs, silly lyrics, and songs to avoid, and quoted through the text are lyrics that quickly become earworms. This is a pity, for two reasons.
1. McGill’s life is pure gold for a memoirist, and he has the skill to maximise the potential of his anecdotes. Rockin’ his valve radio in 1950s Matata is Danny Kaye, Patti Page and Burl Ives. Or at least they would be, if his father didn’t flick it off whenever he entered the room.
By the time rock’n’roll arrives, McGill may be Presleyfied, but he is doing time as a 14 year old studying for the priesthood at the Holy Name Seminary in Christchurch. Bad timing.
The potential priest gives way to puberty, and he’s off to training college, where there are five girls to every boy and the most interesting of them wear long black jerseys over black tights. Unfortunately they listen to jazz.
He abandons teaching for journalism, and in the early 1960s becomes a junior feature writer on Monte Holcroft’s Listener. The mandarins in the editorial meetings are as frustrating as the anti-pop radio programmers in “Broadcasting”.
In 1967, leaving ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ on his Collaro record-player, he heads to London, hoping to catch it while it’s still Swinging.
His timing is good, though he encountered Ravi Shankar and the Maharishi back in Wellington long before the Beatles did. For the TV Times he interviews the monosyllabic Rolling Stones and the even more uncooperative Pat Phoenix (Coro’s Elsie Tanner) and Joan Collins.
For five years he becomes a dedicated follower of fashion (purple caftans, cork-soled platform boots) and concerts (the Stones in Hyde Park, Jimi Hendrix at Ronnie Scott’s, days before his death).
Understandably, returning to Wellington in the mid 1970s, the colour threatens to drain from his life. But music, and Van Morrison in particular, gets him through …
2. Music lists can be fascinating and informative, as long as there is some point to them. A list of someone’s top 20 Beatles’ songs is not going to add much to enjoyment or understanding. But listing, say, 20 Beatles’ songs that depend on Ringo for their success would take you back to the vinyl. The 20 best songs to start a road tape, or finish one, could turn State Highway One into Route 66. Here is a list of list books:
1. Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island (1979)
2. The Book of Rock Lists (1980)
3. The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989)
4. Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe (1991)
5. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties (1994)
6. 31 Songs (2003)
Music and memoirs go together like Proust and smelly biscuits, but in The Treadmill Tapes the stories are often drowned out by the jukebox playing through the wall. Here’s another list, of great music memoirs not written by Bob Dylan:
1. Owning Up, George Melly (1965)
2. Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star, Ian Hunter (1974)
3. Lost in Music, Giles Smith (1995)
4. Sex and Thugs and Rock’n’Roll, Billy Thorpe (1997)
5. Bit of a Blur, Alex James (2007)
McGill has an endearing attachment to the Skoda of sound-reproduction formats, the unlovable cassette tape. He has hundreds of them, dating back to his OE when he recorded hit songs off the BBC, and he listens to them on a boom-box while exercising on a treadmill. As his journalism career shifts to writing commissioned histories and novels, the diaries of the music he’s listening to sweep his life story aside. The compilation tapes become characters, all lovingly named (Sony EF90, Scotch CX90, Maxell Super Fine Epilaxial XLIIS90).
His tastes are shaped by commercial radio rather than music critics, so there is a refreshing lack of music snobbery. Whereas his father hated pop music, McGill’s daughter Kate keeps him contemporary (while his touching loyalty to Van Morrison remains strong). His all-time “most beautiful song” – which gets Appendix XVIII all to itself – is Bjork’s ‘Prayer of the Heart’.
In recent years McGill has published himself; he needs an editor, but mainstream publishers neglect editing so often that for reviewers it has become a stuck record. The Treadmill Tapes is barmy but charming. It’s like a long evening with a manic musical friend who rarely finishes a sentence because there’s always another, better record to put on. I know people like that. I enjoy their company at the Van Morrison Society luncheons, held annually in a nearby phone booth.