There was no escape. Once the call went out, seven people who, under ordinary circumstances, kept a respectful if not healthy distance from one another, would be required to submit themselves to the exquisite agony and confined space that is the family car. Truth be told, it wasn’t so much a car as it was a van. That’s how it goes with larger-than-average families. For most of my childhood, we had a Toyota ‘Dante Inferno’ that came with a sign above the sliding door that read, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’. Each of us had an assigned seat.
There were lots of things to dislike about a family car trip. Cramming parents and children into a metal box is not a natural state of being. To be squashed up against a sibling is an invitation to conflict. Suffice to say, that car saw more than its fair share of bickering, petty arguments, seatbelt pulling and pinching over the years. We kids were often almost as bad.
But more challenging than being lumped together for an extended period of time was the fact of music. At the best of times, music is a tricky business. Back before everyone was permanently head-phoned (so to speak) and listening to the music of their choice, families had to select and listen to the same music.
When it comes to communal listening, there are several approaches. There’s the autocrat, who determines what music everyone else will be listening to. However, to be the autocrat, you either need to be driving the car (because the act of driving comes with a range of other special powers such as determining when windows are open and whether or not you’ll drive through or past your preferred fast food vendor) or in close proximity to the stereo. Basically, it means you have to be an adult.
There’s the ‘take turns’ model. To be honest, this requires a good deal of bravery. By giving everyone in the car their shot, you may well get a burst of something from the ‘Baby Shark’ extended Universe. Granted, not everything chosen by a member of your family would be drawn from that particular hellscape, but it was a real risk. Kids, little kids especially, have a tendency to latch onto something and flog it to death until you begin to question why it is that God cursed you with ears. To this day, I know the lyrics to a lot of tunes from the Sesame Street songbook.
Autocrats are one thing, and there’s a certain perilous democracy inherent in the ‘take turns’ model, but best practice is also the most difficult to pull off. I speak, of consensus. Getting seven people to agree on anything is an achievement worthy of a prize. Spirited debates were almost always guaranteed to descend into conflict.
Service stations used to stock emergency cassettes. The range was confined to the world’s greatest musical artists – The Little River Band, Queen and Chad Morgan (in no particular order). These were available to either break deadlocks where consensus proved elusive or, alternatively, provide relief from the Wiggles. I don’t recall my parents ever resorting to Chad Morgan, although they may well have threatened it. For a consensus, there was one cassette and one band that brought us together. That band was ‘The Beatles’ and the album ‘The Beatles Ballads’.
It may have come with a magazine. The cassette appeared in the mid-eighties and featured a strangely stylised drawing of the band on the front cover. It was, apparently, considered as the cover for the ‘White’ album but was rejected in favour of, well, almost nothing. Unlike the ‘Red’ or ‘Blue’ albums, the song selection seemed largely random, plucking tunes from various points of the Beatles’ career, then presenting them in an order that may well have been drawn from a hat.
The collection kicks off with ‘Yesterday’, a song that might safely be described as ‘well-known’. It’s followed by ‘Norwegian Wood’ and then, somewhat puzzlingly, ‘Do You Want to Know a Secret?’ ‘All My Loving’ sat next to ‘Hey Jude’. In retrospect, it was jarring, but at the time, I didn’t know any better. The songs were, of course, mesmerising. It was impossible not be struck by how incredible this music was. It set a standard. It was no accident that in primary school, I drew a picture of Paul McCartney on my exercise book.
That tape remained a fixture on the dashboard of our Toyota ‘Dante Inferno’ right up until the sun got hold of it and it really became a fixture after it fused with the plastic.
Two weeks ago, I had a birthday. And on that day, The Beatles released a new song, ‘Now and Then’. It would probably be quite at home on side B of ‘The Beatles Ballads’. I know there’s some computer magic involved and it’s not the same as something recorded on the floor of Abbey Road, but it’s wonderful to hear those people and that voice again.
Even now, there’s still fierce competition for the control of the stereo, but I’ll slip on ‘Now and Then’ when the kids aren’t looking. And even if it feels like a long and winding road and those in the back seat are imploring me to let it be, I will smile and think of ‘The Beatles Ballads’.