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A holiday bonus: thanks to a three-week break in the Mediterranean, I have become expertly acquainted with today’s music scene. Nowhere keeps you better apprised of current musical fashion than the Mediterranean beach bar. It doesn’t do quiet, unless it’s remote, in which case it probably also doesn’t do iced cappuccinos, brought to your comfy deckchair by a groovy person.
Beach bars blast you with sound, in the giddy pretence that last night has not yet morphed into morning. There is a shrill imperative at work, paying little regard to the demographics of the scene. You will submit to this music, whoever you are: it is the music of the moment, to be consumed and enjoyed at all costs. Surrender to the rhythm. It is stronger than you.
So there I was, in a holiday resort in central Greece, at 11 in the morning, listening to a percussive barrage of sound that could be heard in Turkey. I was particularly taken by a song which I subsequently found out was called “Paso (The Nini Anthem)”, in which a young woman expresses her wish to “party”, at the evident expense of her education. “Monday: party! Tuesday: party! Wednesday: party!” And then to the chorus, of sorts. “I’m coming in late, maybe at five, maybe at six. Look at me, Ma, I’m dressed like a bitch.”
(I have investigated further the phenomenon known as “Nini”: it is, according to Sak Noel, the Catalan DJ behind “Paso”, a Spanish word to describe “a young, rebel and global generation only interested in Party, no job, no study, only Party.” The song dates from last year, but still retains some traction.)
This is exactly what southern Europe needs to lift itself out of its economic woes, I almost told Sophia, the waitress who supplied the first iced cappuccino of the day, but I stopped short, not wanting to sound like an overheated German banker.
By midday, I had listened to “Paso” about half a dozen times, and was anxious to stop the party, which had in all honesty barely taken off in my section of beach. Bewilderingly, the volume was suddenly turned up.
I remonstrated with Sophia. Could the sound possibly be turned down a notch, I asked with the tentativeness of one who never thought he would utter those words. “It’s time to increase the beat,” she said, winningly. But had she looked around, I asked, pointing to a flotilla of gently bobbing old ladies in the shallows. The party was not happening. It was not going to happen. Any nice old bouzouki songs in the house?
She smiled, and all but formed a capital “L” with her thumb and forefinger. The aural artillery continued its assault. I turned British: we shall fight them on the beaches. I approached Sophia again. Look, I said, it was the middle of the afternoon. What about something more soothing? Had she ever heard of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, I asked rhetorically? No.
We reached a compromise. She put on a chill-out compilation, although not with the best of grace. This was music for the early hours, she said pointedly, when the need to party subsided. But what if, in the 40-degree heat of this torpid afternoon, the need to party was utterly dormant? There was no logic at work here. We were playing by beach bar rules. I relaxed to some mellow, spacey sounds.
Then came a melody I instantly recognised: it was a sample from Bill Withers’ great and much-covered 1971 single “Ain’t No Sunshine”. The vocal kicked in, and I kicked off. It was time for another confrontational coffee order with Sophia.
I’m not saying there hasn’t been any improvement, I said. These sounds are all very well. It sounds gentle, age-appropriate. They couldn’t cause offence. But have you listened to these lyrics? How can this be classed as a chill-out song? “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” It’s about loss, absence, loneliness, devastation! “It’s not warm when she’s away.” Not warm doesn’t mean chilled out! It means wracked with sadness, broken-hearted.
And when, after the first verse, torn-to-pieces Bill sings “I know” 26 times before concluding, “I ought to leave the young thing alone,” it is one of the most emotionally brutal dissections of the conflict between heart and mind that popular culture has ever produced. How can you relax to this? You may as well play the duet from Tristan und Isolde. That’s what this beach bar needs, I told Sophia. Wagner.
I realised I sounded like an overheated German banker.
Music does as music wills. There is no such thing as the perfect context. The beach bar is a fantasy: the never-ending party that claws us away from study, jobs, reflections on a lapsed economy. It symbolises the will to keep going, in an endlessly recurring cycle of high-energy movement and chilled-out solemnity. It is an adolescent view of the world, of course, but that’s what happens when the grown-ups foul up. We party harder, and longer, deep into the day, so that the day of reckoning never arrives.
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