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August 8, 2018

Jon McGregor's Playlist for His Novel "The Reservoir Tapes"

The Reservoir Tapes

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Jon McGregor's novel-in-stories The Reservoir Tapes is innovatively written and unsettling in the best of ways.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"[A] remarkable collection of linked short stories... McGregor demonstrates an extraordinary ability to create complex, multidimensional characters in only a few spare sentences. He is also a master of mood, investing his stories with an air of the ominous while proving also to be a superb stylist... Irresistibly readable, the book is, in sum, a memorable celebration of literary fiction."

In his own words, here is Jon McGregor's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Reservoir Tapes:

Each Spring, in the village where my story collection, 'The Reservoir Tapes' (and the novel that preceded it, 'Reservoir 13'), is set, the village hall plays host to a dance in aid of charity. Although it’s popular with the area's teenagers, the dance is attended by all ages; the DJ always has a difficult balancing act keeping everyone happy and the dance floor full. This year, Mike Jackson has been allowed into the booth for the first time, and after an hour or so of generic hits from the 80s and 90s he decides to get the dancing started by playing:

The violins, the dungarees, the shoutalonga-chorus: all the ingredients are there for instant recognition, and the type of dancing which doesn't really require dancing at all but more of a whirling around with arms in the air. Mike has chosen well. The dance floor fills, with the older Jackson brothers leading the way, pint glasses held steady. As the chorus repeats to fade, Mike cues up:

More violins, for continuity, and another shouty chorus to join in with, although no-one really knows the words. A couple of the Jackson brothers slope off towards the bar. Mike notices that most of the teenagers are still standing around at the edge of the hall, watching him sceptically. He reaches for the segue he’s been planning for a while:

A song that the older folk recognise, from the John Denver version, in a form that will bring the younger ones on to the dancefloor and pave the way for the bolder choices he’s got lined up. Mike is feeling pretty pleased with himself at this point. He looks up. The teenagers haven’t moved. What is wrong with them? Do they not recognise the power of the off-beat? He was lining up Parliament’s ‘Everything is on the One’ to emphasise the musicological point, but the dancefloor is starting to empty so he skips that and goes straight ahead to:

And the dancefloor fills once more. He slightly resents the popularity of this song, and the fact that it works as music your granny can dance to; but his job this evening is literally to play music for people’s grannies to dance to. And there is no disputing the pure pop polish of the track. And here come Irene and Winnie from behind the bar, coaxed out by the two Hunter girls. Irene is quite the mover, it becomes clear. Mike makes an easy switch to:

This is the ‘Come on Eileen’ of the noughties, Mike thinks, as he watches everyone waving their arms in the air again. There is still nobody really dancing, but they’re all out on the dancefloor and enjoying themselves, so he supposes he should count this as a success. This isn’t the sort of DJ he wants to be, but it’s a start. He notices his brother, Will, dancing with that new teacher from the school. She seems to be enjoying herself. Everyone does. He wonders if he can get away with some real hip-hop.

Some of the older folk needed a break anyway. Irene and Winnie are back serving behind the bar, and just about everyone of legal drinking age heads that way, leaving space for the younger teenagers to have a go at what they imagine might be called body popping. It doesn’t go well, but at least they’re trying. Mike is just lining up ‘Forgot about Dre’ by Dr Dre when Clive comes over to the booth, shaking his head. Mike can’t quite hear what he’s saying, but the phrase “appropriate language” stands out. Clive is on the Committee, so Mike puts Dre back in the box.

If they’ve heard it on the BBC, they’ll let him play it. Everyone knows this song as the introductory theme to the Test Match Special cricket commentary, and although no-one is quite dancing to it there’s still a general movement in the direction of the dancefloor, and some cheering. They all love the idea of cricket, even if the village team hasn’t won a match in half a generation.

Trying to get back to some music he can respect, Mike starts with this one. Even if they don’t know much about Atlantic Records-era soul music, they’ll know this from watching the Blues Brothers. His hunch is good, and they’re all off again; arms in the air, singing the chorus into each other’s faces, laughing at each other’s dancing. This might not be the pure DJing of the clubs in Manchester and Leeds, but there’s a strange satisfaction in getting this group of people – people who don’t pay much attention music, and might not have been planning to dance – careering around and laughing.

Because they probably only know the Dusty Springfield version, and Mike wants them to know about Aretha’s better, up-tempo version. He’s really got them moving now. The drinking has probably helped. He works through a sequence of northern soul classics – Edwin Starr, Jackie Wilson, The Vibrations – before his brother, Gordon, heads over to the booth and lets it be known that “it’s time for a few slow ones.”

And suddenly it’s like a school disco out there. The married couples are first, arms around each other’s waists, swaying from side to side. Then a few of the teenagers, shoved forward from the side of the room by their friends, glowing bright red. Then a few unexpected pairings: Will and the new teacher, Cathy Harris with a man from Cardwell that no-one recognises, even Clive and Irene for a turn or two. Mike plays it safe with some more slow numbers in the same vein – Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass – and then brings things right back to where he started with the broken-toothed beauty of Shane MacGowan:

Clive turns the lights on, Irene rolls down the shutters on the bar, and the doors are flung open to the dark evening. In the car park someone is shouting. Clive is already sweeping the floor. Mike watches the room empty. His brother, Gordon, is the only one who turns to thank him as he leaves, giving him a thumbs up before hurrying out after someone. Mike is happy with the way things have gone. He’s thinking something sentimental about the way music brings people together – about the way this community is made up of people who don’t always have much in common beyond living in the same place and relying on each other, but that the right piece of polished pop music can bridge the gaps between them – when Clive comes marching towards him and tells him to turn that racket down because he can’t hear himself think.

Jon McGregor and The Reservoir Tapes links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Irish Times review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for This Isn't the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You

also at Largehearted Boy:

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