Guest Post: Liberties Press Author TONY CLAYTON - LEA on 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die)

Our first author blogger: Tony Clayton-Lea!
I can’t speak for anyone else who occasionally writes books as part of their work (as opposed to writing books full-time), but when I come up with an idea I can’t say in all honesty that it’s the most original in the world. What I’ve tried to do in my past three books is to localise the general theme, to make it relevant to Ireland and to Irish readers. If someone from outside the country likes the end result (and the received wisdom is that some do) then that’s obviously a bonus.

My most recent book is 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die); as titles go, it’s pretty much of the ‘what-it-says-on the-tin’ variety. There doesn’t appear to be any subtext to the title (none that I can detect, anyway), there certainly isn’t any subterfuge (not my thing, frankly), and there definitely wasn’t any notion on my part to make any more or profound a statement with the book than the following: here’s 101 Irish records that, in my opinion, I really think you should listen to before you go deaf, or lose interest, or are in too much pain or under too much stress to care. In short, it’s a long list of suggested/recommended music to cop an ear to before you, you know, die. That’s it. Simple as.

Of course, I knew full well that my selection would annoy people, inasmuch as what I decided to have in the list as what I chose to leave out would generate either nods of approval or shudders of disdain. People, I’d imagined, would either say something along the lines of the following: “nice selection, Tony – begobs, you really know your stuff” or “you’re a knobhead, Clayton-Lea, for leaving out Rollerskate Skinny…”

As a by-product, that’s what these list-type books do: they generate debate, they make people think about the music they’d have included if they themselves had written a similarly themed book. Truthfully, whatever the reaction is, I’m cool with it. 101 Irish Records… is my sixth book, and as someone who critiques music and musicians (and, yes, I’m quite sure some of the latter can’t abide that…) for a living, I’m open to being criticised for my own work. I don’t necessarily welcome it with open arms, but by writing a book and thrusting it out into the public arena I’m putting my head over the parapet. If someone wishes to kick me in the teeth, I understand and accept that.

So far, 101 Irish Records… has been written about and reviewed in various newspapers, magazines, websites and blogs (although not, curiously enough, in Hot Press – just saying…), and the one thing that has received more comment than anything else is my criteria for selection - and by extension, my criteria for exclusion.

I’d love to tell you why, for example, I included a Cathal Coughlan album but not a Fatima Mansions one, or why I included two Divine Comedy albums, or three U2 records, or why I didn’t include a Frank & Walters album… Equally, I’d love to tell you why over half the records chosen were from 2000 onwards, or why there are so few from the 1960s. I’d love to tell you, like I say, but I can’t. Not won’t – just can’t.

In my selection of the 101 records written about in the book, there was no agenda, no strategy, no game plan. I stated this in the Introduction; the book consists of a selection of music chosen solely because I happen to love it. I didn’t care to compile the selection based on back catalogues, historical importance, cultural significance or anything else for that matter. I didn’t want to make a statement beyond the following words: “Here is a big bunch of records that you really should hear – they’re good, they’re great, they’re brilliant, I love them, and, you know, maybe you will, too, when you hear them - if you haven’t already.”

Despite this, you get some people that reviewed the book (and, by the way, thanks to those who took the time to read and digest it, rather than those journos that cut and pasted their ‘reviews’ from the press release) who seemed to want – or need - more of a reason than just “because I love the music.”

Well, sorry to disappoint, but there is no reason. Yet here’s the thing: already I’m thinking that if I were to magically rewrite the book again (unlikely!) I’d make changes. One thing I’d do for certain is to apply the one act/one record rule (which would take one away from Divine Comedy and Van Morrison, and two away from U2).

You can’t, of course, please all of the people all of the time – although I’m sure I could have pleased most if not all of the naysayers if I’d written instead a 501 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die book. Yet by doing something as all-encompassing as that I’d have included a lot of records that I thought were just okay rather than felt really passionate about. I’d be writing about music in a ‘I-have-to-include-this-because-someone-will-be-annoyed-if-I-don’t’ fashion, rather than writing from the heart.
What on earth would be the point in doing that? Just to suit somebody else’s ideas of what the book should be like? Thanks all the same, but nah… Is the book flawed because of this? Probably, but to my mind that’d be an honourable flaw.

But does the book – now I come to think of it, a book that is the most personal to me and, for what’s it worth, the one book out of the six I’ve written that was undertaken more for love than money - come from the right place? The place that is genuinely honest, and dictated by nothing other than admiration for the music and the people who made it? Yes, I think it does. 

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Tony Clayton-Lea is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes primarily on popular culture for The Irish Times. Chairman of the Meteor Choice Music Prize judging panel, he has also written, among other books, a biography of Elvis Costello and (co-written) a history of Irish rock music.