A time and a place and how music takes me there

by Rick Johansen

What is it that reminds me where I was and what I was doing many years ago? It’s usually music. My memory bank resembles a sieve these days, with entire decades, never mind years, missing. I recall nothing of my primary school days, only fragments of junior school and not much more of senior school. I still have memories of people, some, many, no longer with us, but that’s pretty well it. Yet when I hear a piece of music, I can be transported back in time and see myself and remember where I was.

It’s something to do with the way my brain is wired. According to a very interesting piece I read and didn’t fully understand, this is how it works: “When we listen to music, it activates multiple areas of the brain, including those responsible for processing sound, emotion, and memory.” Yes, that will be it. So, in a rare instance of me sitting down with a pen and some paper, I thought about times gone by and it worked. I thought about certain times and places and the music came back to me. In my mind’s eye, I was back in the moment.

Soon, there was quite a long list of songs and I thought, what fun would it be to write a blog about how music triggers the brain to remember times and places – well, fun for me, anyway.  I’ve tried to put it in some kind of chronological order, too, at least in terms of decades. Do you remember any of these songs and do songs take you back to another place, or is it just me?


I’m in the front room of our house in Briz, which for the uninitiated is the Brislington area of Bristol. It’s a large-ish terraced house and apart from a coal fire and a portable electric fire there is no heating, so it’s cold. It feels like quite a large room because of its bay windows and because except for the furniture and a record player, and some vinyl records, there’s nothing else in it.

I must have loved this record in the early to mid 1960s and my mum will have bought it for me. I played it to death although as a child I had to make up some of the lyrics due to Mick Jagger’s odd American accent; odd since he came from Dartford. At the time, it may have been the only record I owned and I kept it proudly alongside my dad’s jazz records, which as he was so rarely there I never once heard.

I remember the record label which was Decca and bright orange. I haven’t liked the song for most of my life, but that was then and this is now. Who’d have thought some 59 years later I’d have bought a brand new Rolling Stones album, which is absolutely brilliant. So much for my grandad who loathed Mick Jagger and said this pop music would never last.


This was actually released in the 1950s by Bristol’s own Russ Conway, born Trevor Herbert Stanford, a brilliant self-taught piano player. This takes me to Upper Sandhurst Road in Briz where my auntie and uncle lived, two streets away from my grandparents who lived on Sandown Road. (Many of the roads around there had Sand in the name.)

I was a teenager before I worked out – no one told me – that they were my auntie and uncle in name only. Apparently, it was a thing to call family friends auntie and uncle. I think my mum knew her from work or something.

Anyway, they had a record player with a drop spindle which meant that singles, 7″ vinyl records, could be loaded above the turntable and once the stylus had finished playing one record another would flop down and play it automatically.  Who says we didn’t have technology in the 1960s?

My auntie loaded the device with singles, which frustrated me no end because all I wanted was Russ Conway. Whenever I hear it, I am back in auntie’s tiny but stuffed front room listening to Sidesaddle. But here, live at the Wheeltappers and Shunters Club (one for the teenagers), here he is.


It’s 1967 and I’m in our cramped living room with my mum. It’s a small, cramped room with a tiny black and white television and a massive – and I mean massive – radio in the corner. It’s cold and dark and it’s the middle of the afternoon and we’re listening to said radio because a new Beatles single is about to released.

In the 1960s, the release of new Beatles music was a major event. They were the biggest music group in the world and it is hard to overstate their entirely deserved popularity. As my friend, the legendary drummer Joe Vitale, once told me, “Without The Beatles, none of us would be here“, here being backstage in the London Albert Hall after a great show by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

I still remember the sheer excitement a very small boy felt at new Beatles music. Then it started.

You say, “Yes”, I say, “No”You say, “Stop” and I say, “Go, go, go”Oh, no!
You say, “Goodbye” and I say, “Hello, hello, hello”I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye”, I say, “Hello, hello, hello”I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye”, I say, “Hello”
It was incredible. As with most Beatles songs, I had never heard anything like it. Smitten, though I was, I never owned the song until 1973 when I bought the ‘Blue Album’, a collection of their music from 1967-1970. Buying records was a no no because we didn’t have the money and the only Beatles records I owned came at Christmas. I put that right when I got a part time job at Boots the Chemist, bought up some of their records and – deep shame, this bit – stole the vinyl album of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It’s the summer of 1972 and T. Rex are massive. You are either dead hard and love Slade or a bit of a wuss and you love T. Rex. I was a wuss. I am at Briz (Brislington) School, a large secondary school not far from home and on the outskirts of Bristol and it’s the sports day. Many of my friends had discovered girls and were actually going out with them, impressing the rest of us with tales, possibly tall tales, of their escapades. I liked music and football, although some girls did look nice, especially on sports day.
My friends and I happened to find ourselves by the sand pit was the girls’ long jump was going on. We listened to a small transistor radio when Telegram Sam came on. I already had the record but it was still blindingly good, even if Marc Bolan was essentially using the same riff on all his songs at the time. Then she bounded down the runway. I don’t know if I was in love but in one second in time I had a memory that would last forever. X, as I shall call her, had legs that went on forever, long, brown hair and so beautiful. I would marry her. Except that I knew she was way out of my league and, crucially, older than me. To this day, I’ve never spoken to her.
I’ve tried to set the memory aside because an elderly man dreaming about a schoolgirl is not a good look, or even a good thought, come to think of it. But to be fair, it’s a non-erotic memory; just a kind of awakening.
I remember nothing else about sports days, other than hating it because I was so average at everything, but I remember the girls’ long jump and Telegram Sam far too well.
It’s the summer of 1971 or 1972 and I am on holiday in West Bay, Dorset. Four young lads, still at school, camping in a tent next to a caravan in which my mum and paternal grandparents are staying. I have always loved West Bay with its picturesque harbour, the cliffs rolling off to the east towards Weymouth, the sandy beach and the hamburger take aways, on which I existed on every time I went there.
In the evening, there was a fairground across the river from the caravan site where everyone, especially younger people, went. And being a fun fair, the music belted out loud and not particularly clear.
I am in a dodgem, operated by scruffy blokes with greasy slicked back hair who are obliged to have a cigarette hanging from their bottom lip. I am not very good at driving dodgems and I’m being pounded by those who are, but it’s the music I can hear. It’s every night; actually, it’s probably every half an hour:
Everybody’s doing a brand new dance now(Come on, baby, do the loco-motion)I know you’ll get to like it if you give it a chance now(Come on, baby, do the loco-motion)
You can hear it everywhere in this small harbour town, slightly wonky, demented and coming and going like a dodgy medium or long wave radio signal (another one for the teenagers) but it never goes away until the lights are switched off late at night, or more likely around 10.00 pm, which will have been late for us.
West Bay for me will always be Little Eva.

It’s August 1975 and old pal Nick and I are in Canada, more specifically Gondola Point, Rothesay, Saint John, New Brunswick where my dad, Anthony Johansen lives with his partner. We are in the living room, overlooking a spectacular scene, at the heart of which is the formidable Kennebecasis River. It must be a rest day because we are loafing around listening to my dad’s albums which include George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass triple album (more about that later) and specifically for this memory Barnstorm, Joe Walsh’s greatest album (by light years).

Anyway, we’re listening to this album and suddenly my dad says something like, “That’s morse code“. He’s been a sailor all his life so I guess his brain is wired (second time I’ve used this phrase in this blog, I know) to pick this stuff out. We move the needle back on the track and he grabs a pen and paper. “R E G I I T E R  A N D  VOTE‘ he writes. He mishears one dot or dash – I don’t know the difference – because it’s REGISTER AND VOTE. It’s the year after Republican Gerald Ford has taken over from the disgraced president Richard Nixon following Watergate. The following year, Democrat Jimmy Carter defeats Ford, so maybe Walsh’s morse code got through to some people?


Oh what a night. Saturday 20 March 1976. What a very special time for me. As I remember, what a night. I think I’ll leave it at that, other than the fact that this was on the pub jukebox in Weston Super Mare all evening. There are a few more songs that remind me of … er … special times, but for reasons of good taste, I won’t be including them in this blog.



I was an admirer, but not a fan, of Whitney, until this song came along. I absolutely loved it, still do, actually, including the video where she looks so beautiful and, more importantly, happy. So, where am I, and when? The answer is Bude, Cornwall.

My friend’s grandparents lived in a tiny house on Lansdown Road and went with another friend for a week’s break at the height of a couple of summers. We played golf, tennis, bowls (where I embarrassed us all by scattering the balls from the game next to us),  gawped at scantily clad women on the beach and fed the jukebox in various pubs. Always in the summer of 1987 Whitney’s song was the most popular. And now, when I think of Bude and even go there, I always think if those summers, my friend’s long deceased grandparents, our other friend who, I discovered recently died from Huntingdon’s, and Whitney.


In 1986 or 1987, I met a girl I liked a lot when on holiday in Corfu. The only problems were that a) she lived in Wood Green in London and b) she didn’t fancy me as much as I fancied her. I managed to persuade her to let me come and stay with her for a weekend, one that started to go wrong (in my eyes) when she sent me off to the spare room on my first night (Friday). On the Saturday, it was obvious that anything we had in common in Greece we didn’t have in common in London so we had a miserable night in a crap pub on the Saturday before I went home.

We said goodbye forever early Sunday morning and I walked, heavy-legged, to the railway station for the long ride home, stopping only, as you do, in the local corner shop to buy a few cans of Carlsberg Special Brew to dull the pain. It certainly didn’t do that and I became all emotional and tearful.

What the hell, I thought. In for a penny, in for a pound and I went to the first pub I saw which was absolutely dead, apart from a couple of old blokes wearing caps and loud piped music belting out. I ordered my pint, feeling very sorry for myself, and on came Cindy Lauper’s True Colours. I never thought what the lyrics were really about – I’m still not sure – but in my state of semi-drunken self-pity, I felt that girl had shown her true colours and that she hadn’t been nice to me. What utter bollocks, I now know. She just didn’t fancy me. Maybe I knew that all along?


It’s 1988 now and I’m with somebody I used to know. She lives just off the sprawling Bettws estate in Newport and I get the train every weekend to stay with her. I think I am in love and, looking back, trying to convince myself that She’s The One.

Later that year, she moves to Bristol, we marry, I soon realise it’s all been a terrible mistake, she beats the shit out of me and I have to leave her in the house I owned outright in order to protect my physical and mental health.

But now, I’ve decided I’m in love and we go to the pub on Monnow Way which one might describe as “rough“. The atmosphere crackled with aggression and hostility and I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. Then, the jukebox burst out with this Bee Gees classic, all about a man who has lost the love of his life to another man. Looking back, I only wish I had, too.

I still love the song – my ex took a lot from me, but never this song – and I’ll always be on Monnow Way when I hear it.


I was in Corfu in 1989 with someone who tampered with my sun tan lotion and made sure I got badly sunburned. We had flown there with soon to be defunct Paramount Airways (on an MD83, for the anoraks) and after barely six months of marriage, I knew this wasn’t going to last.

We went out a fair bit, but only in the resort, Kassiopi. On a number of days we went to the Edelweiss Bar, situated just off Jackson Square (a typical Greek name, I am sure you will agree). It was a pretty crap bar, set far too far from the main road, but the bloke who ran it was quite sweet. He played music by way of a video and it was on repeat all day. There were three songs I remember in particular, which I always associate with this ‘difficult’ week.

  • Ride On Time by Black Box
  • Buffalo Stance by Neneh Cherry
  • Rush Hour by Jane Wiedlin

I wasn’t much bothered by Ms Cherry and loathed Black Box because she liked it. Ms Wiedlin’s Rush Hour was, and remains, a pretty well perfect pop record. I’ve not stayed in Kassiopi since 1989, not because of bad memories but because once you’ve seen it, there’s no point in going back.

PS I love Jane Wiedlin. Still.


In the late 1980s, I found myself elected to one of the executive committees of the civil service union CPSA, now PCS. This meant regular meetings to the union’s HQ at Clapham Junction. At the close of business each day, and sometimes during lunch, we would decant to the Windsor Castle pub where I once met the entertainer Kenny Lynch and walked past the boxer Frank Bruno, who incredibly didn’t recognise me.

I wasn’t particularly au faix with the pop charts in those days at the time – I know far less now – and was introduced to this song. Now, when I hear it, I am enjoying a pint or six in the Windsor Castle with some of the best people I have ever had the privilege to know and who achieved far more for union members in a couple of hours than the current mob led by Mark Serwotka would manage in a lifetime.


I was sent all over the place by the union to help run courses and speak at meetings. In the late eighties I made a trip to Yorkshire and addressed members in Dewsbury, Huddersfield and somewhere else around there and took with me to pass the time my Sony Walkman, a kind of prehistoric iPod which played music cassettes. I had a rather nice compilation album although I can remember only the one track, which was this one.

I already had some Toto vinyl but this song sealed the deal with the band for me and I will forever associate it with trips on the rattler in Yorkshire.


At the turn of the decade, I left somebody I used to know to be with someone I already knew well and am still with today, somehow.

That was a messy old time in my life, as my marriage unravelled, I lost my house and quit all my union jobs. But love saved the day, our secret love, that is.


It’s 1st July 1990 and we are at our friends’ house in Shirehampton to watch England’s World Cup Quarter Final in Italia 90 against Cameroon. It’s a roller coaster ride, finally won in extra time by Gary Lineker with his second penalty of the game.

At the end of the game, the BBC plays one of it’s brilliant montages to the tune of a song I don’t know and I don’t find out what it is. Incredibly, the song remains with me, even if I don’t know what the words mean (they are sung in one of the many Senegalese languages) and I always wanted to get hold of it.

One day I wrote to the BBC and, amazingly, they still had a record of it, told me what it was and I bought it. It sounded even better than I remembered it and I was soon back in Shire.


It’s 1991 and my partner and I are visiting friends in London. They take us to a glorious pub in Walthamstow where we have a fantastic, boozy afternoon and where this absolute belter was played on what was one of the great jukeboxes ever. It’s a bright and shiny autumnal afternoon, all crunchy twigs and mulchy leaves. Unforgettable.


Speaking of my Sony Walkman, I took it on holiday in June 1992. My partner and I had booked a Thomson Square Deal holiday which was basically Thomson’s way of getting rid of unsold holidays at the last minute. You would book to travel to a certain airport and the resort would be announced once you landed. In our case, we didn’t even know which island we would be staying on. We flew to Skiathos but we could be staying anywhere there, or in Alonissos or Skopelos. We ended up in Skopelos for one of the great holidays of our lives, being dropped off at an apartment at the very top of Skopelos Town. Luckily, we were much fitter than we are today.

We visited numerous beaches on the island and many were just amazing. They were also naturist beaches and because I had a better body in those days, I joined in the fun (as did my partner). And as we roasted gently under the Northern Sporadean sun, I listened to my music.

I had acquired many music cassettes by now and ended up taking about seven with me, maybe around 70 songs. This compares with the 17000 I took to Formentera this year on my portable telephone, something that didn’t exist in the early 90s. Among them was my favourite Billy Joel’s album, The Best of Billy Joel (a variation on an old Alan Partridge joke, where he was asked what his favourite Beatles album was). Among some absolute belters, the Joel song that always stands out in his repertoire is Allentown, which is all about desindustrialisation and how it affects people. And I listened to it everywhere from sun bed, bus and on the balcony of our apartment.

Allentown will always be Skopelos to me.


Pretty sure my mum died 24 years ago tomorrow (31.10.99) and I had to arrange the funeral, my stepdad being too unwell with Parkinsons and the beginnings of dementia. I don’t remember too much about the funeral, apart from the fact that hardly anyone was there and certainly not any of her Dutch relatives. Immediately, they became as dead in my eyes as my mum was. But I digress. No room for bitterness towards those bastards! They’re all dead, too, now.

I chose the music and somewhat self-indulgently chose songs I liked and not anything she liked. My somewhat unromantic reasoning was that she was dead and wouldn’t have a clue what I had chosen anyway.

The outro music, as the coffin went to the oven was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s latter day song Someday Soon. My mum had a hard life and even when it finally got better, her health went to rat shit. Then she died. Graham Nash’s words convinced me this was the song for her exit:

Someday soon you will get to be your bestAnd someday soon you will finally get some restKeep holding on to the love that came your wayAnd someday soon shadows will fall away

The song as the coffin came in to the near single figure number of mourners was ‘Til I Die by The Beach Boys, a version created by the engineer Steve Desper who played the entire track twice, but the first half was just the backing music. The lyrics are just incredible, all about being humble and how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, even though there is no grand scheme because there is no creator. Sorry if you do God. That’s how I feel. And if there is a God, I’ve got a few questions to ask him about how he made my mum, and millions of others, suffer like hell, before he sends me Straight To Hell.

So, this is how mum’s funeral started:

I’m a cork on the oceanFloating over the raging seaHow deep is the ocean?How deep is the ocean?I lost my wayHey, hey, hey
I’m a rock in a landslideRolling over the mountainsideHow deep is the valley?How deep is the valley?It kills my soulHey, hey, hey
I’m a leaf on a windy dayPretty soon I’ll be blown awayHow long will the wind blow?How long will the wind blow?(Until I die)Until I die
These things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I dieThese things I’ll be until I die
When we flew to Saint John in New Brunswick for an unforgettable holiday with my dad in 1975, I remember being incredibly impressed with his record collection. As well as the jazz music he loved, he had some more modern music, too, including George Harrison’s brilliant 1970 triple album All Things Must Pass. As well as playing Joe Walsh’s Barnstorm (see Great Bohemoth above),  my dad played us this record too.
Fast forward to May 2009 and I am about to leave his home in Ottawa after attending a memorable 80th birthday party. To be honest, I am just looking forward to getting on with the journey and getting the niceties, the hugs and kisses, out of the way. It’s a nighttime departure, a proper red eye, landing mid morning at London Heathrow. I am packed and ready to go. Dad is in the living room at the front of the house playing All Things Must Pass, the very same pressing I heard in Saint John some 34 years on. And the track I remember is What Is Life, part of which goes like this:
What I feel, I can’t sayBut my love is there for you any time of day
George was writing about a different kind of relationship, I know, but my dad and I often had a distant relationship, literally and geographically, occasionally fraught and complicated but this week we were dad and son, at last. Now I was leaving him to go home but the next time we would cement that relationship. Things would get even better. But they didn’t. That was the last time I ever saw him. The next time I went to Ottawa would be for his funeral in 2011.
All Things Must Pass. Ain’t that the truth? And when I hear tracks from the album – any track really – it’s our connector. I am with him in 1975 and 2009 and all points in between.
Well, there might be more, but I could be flogging a dead horse if I do this again. I’m not surprised about music often being the soundtrack of my life, nor that it takes me to places I might otherwise have forgotten.
Writing 4525 words about anything is a considerable effort but I can imagine the effort required for reading it must be even greater. Either way, I hope you have enjoyed the read and maybe prompted your music memory to do something similar.

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