1 Underworld – And I Will Kiss
2 AU – Get Alive
3 Passion Pit – I’ll Be Alright
4 Django Django – Default
5 Shearwater – Animal Life
6 A Place To Bury Strangers – I Lost You
7 Blanck Mass – Sundowner (excerpt)
8 Tomas Barfod feat Nina Kinert – November Skies
9 Phantogram – Don’t Move
10 Saint Etienne – Over The Border
11 Beach House – Myth
12 Songs For Walter – Tougher Than A Soldier’s Boots
13 Dark Dark Dark – The Last Time I Saw Joe
14 Sharon Van Etten – Leonard
15 Spiritualized – Hey Jane
16 Blanck Mass & London Symphony Orchestra – Sundowner
1 School Of Seven Bells – When You Sing
2 Matthew Dear – Her Fantasy
3 Blur – The Puritan
4 Liars – Brats
5 Django Django – Waveforms
6 Lower Dens – Brains
7 Lost In the Trees – Neither Here Nor There
8 Brasstronaut – Bounce
9 Shearwater – You As You Were
10 Rozi Plain – See My Boat
11 Other Lives – For 12
12 The Maccabees – Pelican
13 Japandroids – The House That Heaven Built
14 The 2 Bears – Church
15 Elbow – First Steps
16 Underworld – Caliban’s Dream
‘What comes after this / Momentary bliss?’
It took me a long time to acknowledge it, but Twitter had its uses. With about a year to go before the London 2012 Olympics began, their official Twitter channel advertised for volunteers to take part in the various ceremonies for the Olympics and Paralympics. Nat and I, after a bit of umm-ing and ahh-ing, decided to give it a go, and after a couple of auditions at 3 Mills studio in Bow, we both got our places, to our enormous surprise. Nat was to be a ‘dancer’, and I was to be involved in ‘movement’. What did it all mean?
We would both find out as our rehearsals got under way in May. Nat would be dancing along to various hits of the ’60s in a tribute to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, while I would get tasked with various heavy-lifting jobs to help convert the ‘green and pleasant land’ meadow scene into the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution.
And that would be done to the backing of a specially-commissioned piece by Underworld, called ‘And I Will Kiss’. As an Underworld fan of some 15 years, it was another reason to be dead excited about what we were working on. Over the course of the summer, from 3 Mills to the windy surrounds of the disused Ford plant in Dagenham (converted into a rehearsal space), to the magnificent surroundings of the Olympic Stadium itself, ‘And I Will Kiss’, or one of its percussion sessions, formed a constant backdrop.
And given that it got played to a billion people on July 27, 2012, ‘And I Will Kiss’ feels surprisingly personal to me, perhaps the most personal track across all 16 years I’ve been doing these soundtracks. For one thing, it’s the only song that I actually make a guest appearance on. That’s me, and a couple of hundred others, making ‘HAAAH!’ noises, from 41 seconds in – we were asked if any of us wanted to stay behind after one of the rehearsals to do some recording, and so a load of us did, with Underworld’s Rick Smith shielding his microphone from the driving rain (another constant backdrop of the summer). Another rarely-commented on thing about the track, particularly given that it was used to back the retelling of history, is that it also makes references to Underworld’s own history too – the upward-scaling sirens which are lifted directly from 1993’s ‘Rez’, and the ‘chiming bells’ synths at the start of the memorial section of the track, taken straight from 2002 single ‘Two Months Off’.
But most of all, it’s the clattering finale that brings back the nicest memories – of those moments when we were facing the crowd on stage, job sort-of done; the one moment of our piece of the ceremony when we could stop thinking too hard and really take in the atmosphere and appreciate what we were a part of. And also, without wishing to sound too corny, the song also is a tribute to the friendships made along the way, of the camaraderie formed while sitting in the big top at Dagenham, and at the numerous post-rehearsal drinks shared at the Cow, the pub on the edge of the Olympic Park in the Westfield shopping centre. It was an incredible time, and the 17 minutes of ‘And I Will Kiss’ is included here first up as one of many tributes to it.
One of the other great things that Underworld contributed to the opening ceremony – aside from the phenomenal ‘Caliban’s Dream’, which I’ll write about in my next blog – was provide a fantastic selection of British music to back everything else that was going on. And many of those choices were a sort of vindication of what I might call ‘my’ music – the use of David Holmes’ ‘I Heard Wonders’ on the torch relay section (as mentioned in my 2008 blog), and the brilliant use of Fuck Buttons at various points of the ceremony. Perhaps the best selection of all was Smith’s decision to repurpose ‘Sundowner’, a drone track by Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin Power under the name Blanck Mass, as a stunning orchestral piece to bring in the Union flag. After completing our own section of the ceremony during rehearsals, we would often hear it as we were walking past the stadium on the outside. During a quiet moment to myself a couple of hours before the ceremony begun, I listened to the original ‘Sundowner’, seeing it in a whole new light. Both versions are included here – an excerpt of the original serving as a mid-album breather, and the reworked orchestral version at the end, breathlessly proposed as ‘a new national anthem’ by a particularly excitable YouTube commenter. It shows how any music can be embraced by the masses if the correct context is set for it. It almost – almost – gives me hope for humankind.
Of course, a 17-minute track and loads of other Olympic music means less space for everything else, and the standard of tracks making the cut had to be exceptionally high. The last song to be cut from the longlist was Grizzly Bear’s stunning ‘Half Gate’ – which would have walked on to pretty much any of the other years. Of the 32 songs that did make it, only four of them post-dated the opening ceremony. And much of the music that remains bring back more personal memories of the summer – I played AU’s barmy ‘Get Alive’ before my first rehearsal and on the big day itself, Passion Pit’s ‘I’ll Be Alright’ brings back memories of lying on the lawn at Eton Manor during the final dress rehearsals waiting for our call to head to the stadium, Phantogram’s ‘Don’t Move’ reminds me of the bleak post-industrial surrounds of Dagenham during the earlier rehearsals, and Tomas Barfod’s ‘November Skies’ was the backing to a stroll round an absolutely buzzing Olympic Park during the Games itself following a trip to watch one of the handball games.
In fact there’s very little here that doesn’t remind me of that time. But let’s go through the other stuff. Django Django released their brilliant debut album right at the start of 2012, the nearest we have these days to the Beta Band (there was a family connection between the two bands so that’s probably understandable). A Place To Bury Strangers’ noise-rock recalled early Jesus & Mary Chain, and ended with a series of preposterous explosions. As I argued when I first started this blog, way more songs should end this way. More sedate was the anthemic ‘Animal Life’ by Austin band Shearwater.
Saint Etienne have been writing songs about London for the entirity of their two-decade existence, and offered to write an Olympic anthem (which would have been brilliant, obviously). So it’s surprising that when they made a well-timed comeback from a seven-year hiatus, that their album wouldn’t be about London at all, but about music itself. ‘Over The Border’ is Words And Music’s mood-setting opening track – the spoken-word verses divide opinion, but Sarah Cracknell just about gets away with it in my opinion, and all is forgiven anyway by the time that stunning chorus comes in. It’s followed by Beach House’s shimmering ‘Myth’, what would have been the year’s most beautifully moving song had it not been released in the same year as ‘Caliban’s Dream’.
The end section of disc one begins with two of the songs that came out later in the year – ‘Tougher Than A Soldier’s Boots’ by Songs For Walter, which is apparently a riposte to the Westboro Baptist Church but it sounds way too nice to be that, and Dark Dark Dark’s ‘The Last Time I Saw Joe’, a reminder of driving through New England with Nat on our US holiday in the autumn.
Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Leonard’ (named in tribute to Leonard Cohen apparently) was a recommendation by good friend Dan, who reviewed its parent album Tramp for Drowned In Sound and explained the beauty of the track better than I ever could. At the back end of 2011, Dan and I (along with Neil, who I’d better mention as he reads this blog a lot) saw Spiritualized debut an entire album’s worth of material at the Royal Albert Hall. That album saw the light of day in 2012, with its lead-off track ‘Hey Jane’ the searing highlight, seemingly breaking down into chaos halfway through before starting again and building to a rousing climax. Conveniently it segues perfectly into the orchestral ‘Sundowner’, giving disc one a fitting finale.
The year 2012 didn’t just consist of a few weeks during the summer. It was a memorable year for other reasons, too, with a number of trips north to Liverpool and Manchester – my first proper visits to either city, with a Liverpool trip taking in our good friends Stephen and Helen’s wedding. Six-and-a-half years working in White City ended with my company’s decision to up sticks to Ealing (with the last few weeks of the year taken up by Nat and I attempting to follow suit), and there was a long, long overdue return to America to visit friends and take Nat to a few of my old haunts.
Disc two kicks off with an omnipresent song through the early part of the year – and if ‘When You Sing’ sounds familiar in composition, that’s because it’s an almost total rip-off (chords, beats, length of song, even position on the album) – of the mighty ‘Soon’ by the soon-to-return My Bloody Valentine. But I’ll forgive School Of Seven Bells because it still sounds wonderful in its own right. Band member Benjamin Curtis became seriously ill at the start of this year – here’s hoping he makes a full recovery from what sounds a nasty disease.
Matthew Dear follows, with the otherworldly dance of ‘Her Fantasy’ featuring the most wonderfully disconnected vocals, and then it’s the return of an old favourite. Blur had been playing the festival circuit for a few years back as their original four-piece, but aside from a single Record Store Day release, there looked no imminent prospect of significant new music. So what a nice surprise when their double-A side single turned out to be so good – and a perfect release to keep everyone happy. The Britpoppers loved the lovelorn ‘Under The Westway’, while the flipside ‘The Puritan’ was one for those like me who preferred the scuzzier, more experimental Blur. Another indie institution comes straight after – though Liars never went away. You could pretty much set your watch by Liars album releases – every two years, without fail, over the past decade – but what you couldn’t guarantee was what genre they’d be pushing each time. And although WIXIW was another trademark left-turn – this time into dark ambient sounds – the most playful song, ‘Brats’, was pulsing indie-dance. Django Django get their second song straight after with ‘Waveforms’, laden with tricksy harmonies.
As ‘Waveforms’ collapses to a standstill, Lower Dens pick up the baton with an absolutely sublime piece of krautrock in ‘Brains’, which Tom Ravenscroft was pimping once a week on his radio show. Then the mood shifts as ‘Neither Here Nor There’s complex time signatures usher in sombre strings and lyrics about suicide, the theme of Lost In The Trees’ impressive (and seemingly barely-heard) album A Church That Suits Our Needs. It’s followed by the equally lush but more straightforward composition of ‘Bounce’ by Vancouver’s horrendously-named Brasstronaut, another discovery through Tom Ravenscroft’s programme.
Ravenscroft himself was getting more confident as a presenter, indisputably on his own terms rather than through any family connection, and the music he played was getting increasingly more impressive too. Two such tracks were Rozi Plain’s playful ‘See My Boat’ – initially through an equally good remix, until I discovered the original and its brilliant mid-song climax – and the year-old ‘For 12’ by Other Lives, a winter’s tale that sounds like a direct cross between spaghetti western and Radiohead’s classic ‘How To Disappear Completely’.
Tucked in amongst them all was Shearwater’s surgingly-beautiful ‘You As You Were’ – there wasn’t a better song to drive to released all year. Though guitar music didn’t feature too much in my playlists all year, Shearwater showed it still had its place, along with the surprisingly-good Maccabees single ‘Pelican’ and the joyous punk of Japandroids, who produced the shout-along anthem of the year in ‘The House That Heaven Built’.
But at the compilation’s conclusion, we return to the event that defined the year. The 2 Bears’ ‘Church’ was no Olympic anthem, but the album it came from was released in the first couple of weeks of 2012 and summed up much of the optimism that I had as it started, and it became a big favourite as the summer went on. And following on from Elbow’s ‘First Steps’, heard everywhere as the BBC’s specially-commissioned song for their own Olympic coverage, we end how we started, with Underworld. Like pretty much everyone else, the first time I heard ‘Caliban’s Dream’ was watching it on TV; the torch-lighting part of the opening ceremony was an extraordinarily well-kept secret, and the after-party that Nat and I attended was already well underway. It was a beautiful moment, the crowning glory of Danny Boyle’s vision, and while they were at it, it redefined Underworld as a band – I’ve never heard the ‘lager, lager, lager’ line thrown at them since. It’s also the one song that’s ever made cry just a little – hearing it the night after the ceremony, on the rush-released official soundtrack – was an emotional release after a rewarding but extremely exhausting three months where I, like thousands of others, were balancing rehearsals at the weekend with a full-time job and had barely a chance to stop and take stock. That leitmotif – used in ‘And I Will Kiss’, now reprised featuring a children’s choir – sort of came to represent us as volunteers, and it’s been brilliantly used in videos I’ve seen since made by some of the volunteers, which have been a wonderful souvenir of the day, and of the summer. And when 2012 came to a close, there really was no other song to play on New Year’s Eve.
Interestingly – maybe surprisingly to some – I’ve barely played it since the end of last year. In fact, only played my DVD of the ceremony for the first time a couple of weeks ago, in research for this blog… I kind of feel like it’s too perfect a memory for it to be disturbed too often.
And that’s kind of the job that my soundtracks have done over the past 16 years – compartmentalise songs and the memories that go with it, keep a record and move on. It’s been nice to dust down those memories over the past year though – it’s healthy to do so once in a while – but there’s no point looking back too much when there’s so much more to discover in the here and now. It’s in that spirit that I’ll present the Soundtrack To 2013 later this week. Until then, thanks for popping by over the year – I’ve had a few thousand hits to the site from all over the world, far more than I ever expected. I know the memories have been personal but the music hasn’t, so I hope you’ve found something to enjoy along the way.