Home > cultural commentary > The sounds of childhood?

The sounds of childhood?

This rumination comes out of a late-night TV programme I saw on heavy metal recently. A point made by several musicians in heavy metal bands was that they grew up in industrial cities where the sounds of steel mills, power hammers and other industrial machinery was never far away and formed a soundtrack to their childhood. One also commented that there might have been a flower power movement, but his childhood was surrounded by weeds and his motivations in playing music were (a) not to spend 30 years working in a steel mill and (b) to express his reaction to his environment.
I didn’t grow up in an industrial town: my parents lived in a small semi-detached suburban house and actually it was never obvious where people worked, because most of the work locally was in anonymous office blocks. Nor were there many people on the streets; I could walk 2 miles to the shops in the daytime and see no other pedestrians. That’s not to say there wasn’t trouble. There were nascent gangs and I built up a collection of flick knives I found in gutters and by the roadside. But by and large the trouble was in specific locations and at specific times. My experience was that we lived in a social and cultural black hole, where if you wanted anything interesting to happen you had to find a way to make it happen yourself.
But that’s a digression. In the house, my parents played light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) and ‘light’ music – UK readers might remember BBC Radio 2 in the old says, ‘Sing Something Simple’ and suchlike. That’s the stuff.
However, the soundtrack of my childhood was based more on a mainline train track that ran about half a mile from the house, and downhill from us so the sound carried at night. I remember the rhythm of trains passing over the points, the staccato drumrolls of the compressors that ran the trains’ airbrakes, and the unearthly metallic wailing and screeching of the bogeys as they took a long curve in the track.
And I wonder how much that influenced music choices in later adolescence and adulthood: obscure electronic music (Pierre Henri, Morton Subotnick, parts of Stockhausen, the Louis/Bebe Barron electronic music score to Forbidden Planet where you can hear the ring modulators frying…). And then more industrial music – Rammstein, Combichrist, and most recently Angelspit.
I wouldn’t want to overplay this. I actually listen to a wide range of stuff – examples include Bach, Ginastera (which I discovered because the prog rock band ELP borrowed a segment of a piano concerto for one of their tracks), Cab Calloway, world music (admittedly with a big dose of djembe drumming…). But somewhere underneath all of this I can still hear those trains at 2am, the sounds echoing over an otherwise silent suburban housing estate.

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