Former MP Alan Johnson reveals the musical soundtrack to his life
From The Beatles to Bowie, former MP Alan Johnson reveals the musical soundtrack to his life
- Former MP Alan Johnson spent 11 years in the Cabinet and didn’t touch his guitar
- In his latter years, he has become well known as a memoirist, with this his fourth
- He writes about his love of music and the Beatles, David Bowie and Elvis Costello
A few years ago I sat next to Bill Nighy at a boring awards lunch and we chatted happily.
Did we talk about his job, or my job? No, we talked for an hour about soul and funk music of the late Seventies.
Nighy is somewhere between a fan and a fanatic of this music. I knew less but was willing to learn, and the following day I went out and bought a heap of CDs on his recommendation. That hour in his company was very well spent.
Alan Johnson has gained a new reputation as a memoirist in his latter years and his latest book has revealed the musical tracks that provided a background to his life – including his political career
For just a few of us, then, addiction to pop music isn’t something that stops with the end of youth. It moderates somewhat, because we all have lives to live and not as much time to listen as we used to.
But it never quite leaves you, and all those predictions by cultured friends and relatives that we’ll ‘graduate’ to proper classical music never quite come to pass.
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Alan Johnson, I’m glad to say, is one of us. The former Labour cabinet minister, the best leader of the party it never had, has gained a new reputation as a memoirist in his latter years, and this is the fourth volume so far.
Unlike the first three, which followed an essentially chronological pattern of his life and times, this one is subtitled ‘A Music Memoir’. His life provides the skeleton of the book’s structure, for sure, but the meat is the music he loved and played, and even wrote and recorded.
For Johnson, possibly unusually for a politician, really wanted to be Paul McCartney. Born in 1950, he was seven when he discovered how good Elvis Presley was.
The MP He was 22 when David Bowie released Ziggy Stardust (pictured), and 27 when his greatest musical hero Elvis Costello released his first album
He was 13 when the Beatles broke. He was 22 when David Bowie released Ziggy Stardust, and 27 when his greatest musical hero Elvis Costello released his first album. (Imperial Bedroom, Costello’s seventh, is his favourite, and mine, too.)
And through it all he played guitar and wrote songs. When his son was born he was, as fashion then dictated, excluded from the birth, so he went downstairs and wrote a song for him with his guitar.
When he next went upstairs with a cup of tea for his wife, the midwife said to him, ‘Now, haven’t you got more useful things to be doing rather than plonking on that guitar, Mr Johnson?’ As Johnson writes, ‘Some people have no sense of priorities.’
Readers of Johnson’s previous volumes will know what a lovely writer he is: funny, modest, unsentimental and utterly without self-pity. It’s been a hard life but a good one, and a lot of that has to do with what Denis Healey always referred to as ‘hinterland’.
His life provides the skeleton of the book’s structure, for sure, but the meat is the music he loved and played, and even wrote and recorded. For Johnson, possibly unusually for a politician, really wanted to be Paul McCartney (pictured with the Beatles in 1963
Listening in 1971 to Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You, Johnson ‘felt more uxorious, more optimistic for my family’s future and more convinced than ever that music was as critical to my life as the air in my lungs and the blood in my veins.’ Try imagining Jeremy Corbyn writing a sentence like that.
Each chapter covers a year in Johnson’s life, from 1957 to 1982. Each carries a song title. So 1963 is All My Loving, 1966 is Summer In The City, 1970 is After The Gold Rush, 1974 is Band On The Run.
As music critics go, Johnson isn’t especially wise or perspicacious about the songs, but that’s not the point. What count are the warmth, wit and honesty that make this such a satisfying read, whether you’re interested in music or not.
In his book, Johnson says: ‘In the 11 years I spent as a government minister, I never picked up my guitar once. As soon as the electorate dispensed with our services in 2010, I went to a music shop not far from Parliament and bought a Yamaha acoustic six-string’
And reading it, I have to admit, I did find myself wondering, not for the first time, why Johnson never stood for his party’s leadership.
It’s a terrible shame, but only for us, not necessarily for him.
‘In the 11 years I spent as a government minister, I never picked up my guitar once. As soon as the electorate dispensed with our services in 2010, I went to a music shop not far from Parliament and bought a Yamaha acoustic six-string. I began to play again, the fingertips on my left hand gradually becoming callused as they reacquainted themselves with the strings and frets.’
Sounds like just the kind of man I’d like to sit next to at a boring awards lunch.
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