Nick Hornby

31 songs that changed my life

In a new collection of essays writer Nick Hornby reveals the 31 songs that have provided a soundtrack to his life. So we asked 31 music fans, including authors, musicians and artists what song is guaranteed to make their spine tingle

Kirsty de Garis
Sunday January 19, 2003
The Observer

1. J.G. Ballard - Novelist
The Teddy Bears' Picnic by Jimmy Kennedy
When I was a young child in Shanghai, during the Thirties, I was given a gramophone and that one record. I loathed it until I was about 50. Now I could listen to it forever. The song holds all the mystery and magic of childhood, and I can't get enough of it!

2. Paul Morley - rock journalist
Being Boiled by the Human League
I remember hearing 'Being Boiled' by the Human League about a quarter of a century ago - a mix up of glam Sheffield steel, Dali melt, Fausty distortion, Meek DIY sound effects, dinky Kraftwerk electronics and the deadest of pans (it advocated a ban on the cruel abuse of silk worms) and Johnny Rotten dismissed the group as 'trendy hippies'. I felt that this was the sound of the future, and hoped that by, say, the year 2003, songs like this were filling the charts. In some ways that prediction might be coming true.

3. Joseph O'connor - novelist
Big Brother Theme Music by Oakenfold and Grey
I'd prefer if I actually liked the song that had the deepest effect on me because, objectively, I can't stand it. But Big Brother began on the night my son was born, and somehow the tune got mixed up in my consciousness with the happiness of becoming a father. I really wish this bit of my soundtrack was by Elvis Costello or Bessie Smith. But when I hear those grimly portentous synthesiser chords, I can't help but feel an ache of helpless love.

4. Gurinder Chadha - director, Bend it like Beckham
Gangsters by The Special AKA
I saw the Specials on the first two tone tour and they and their music blew me away. It was a time when second-generation Asian and black kids were not putting up with what their parents had, but at the same time the NF and BNP were rising steadily and this idea of black and white singing together drawing from old ska sounds, reggae and punk was liberating as a soundtrack to my political awakenings at that time.

5. Jonathan Wilkes - star of The Rocky Horror Show
Angels by Robbie Williams
My most memorable song is also my favourite song and is by my best mate. My memory of it is the feeling I got standing backstage and watching 125,000 people singing back to him; it just sent shivers down my spine. Every time I see him on tour and he sings it the reaction is always amazing.

6. Mark Wallinger - artist
Madame George by Van Morrison
The sense of desire and loss expressed in this song is so sad because it dares one to try to hear it again as if for the first time. It describes our exile from our past. Radical, allusive, heartbreaking, and the ultimate three-chord trick.

7. Neil Spencer - writer
What's So Good About Goodbye? by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
When Bob Dylan dubbed Smokey Robinson 'America's greatest living poet' he was only half fooling. Robinson's lyrical dexterity equalled that of a previous generation's maestros such as Cole Porter, and framed romance in less knowing, more idealistic terms. The Beatles, Stones and Costello were among many who covered and took inspiration from songs like this heart-acher and its dazzling falsetto vocals.

8. Jean Pierre - cashier at Tower Records, Piccadilly Circus
Imagine by John Lennon
I know it's a cliché, but I love this song simply for Lennon's vision of the world: What he thought the world should be like. As soon as I heard it, it had an enormous effect on me. It's one I never tire of listening to. And I listen to music absolutely all day!

9. Geoff Travis - founder of Rough Trade
This Charming Man by The Smiths
I was fortunate enough to be in the studio when this track was recorded. It's one of the most sublime songs. A great thing about it is there is a stop in the record: I love that. It shows supreme confidence to have silence in the middle of a song, and it increases the drama of the track. This song slides down your sensibilities. And the first line is a wonderful Oscar Wilde moment.

10. Toby Litt - novelist
Whispering Pines by The Band
Sitting in a tiny white Lancia, surrounded by fog, in the car park at Calais, having just missed our ferry, 18 hours after setting out from the South of France, at least four very-near-death incidents behind us, my best friend, J, put on 'Whispering Pines' by The Band.

11. Jamie Byng - publisher, Canongate Books
We People (Who are Darker then Blue) by Curtis Mayfield
Depends when and where, but a record that never fails to knock me sideways physically and emotionally is this one. Recorded live in 1970 this combines sublime vocals, searching lyrics and many melodic moods. Same could be said of Stevie Wonder's 'As'. Both anthems. Two geniuses.

12. Steve Sutherland - editorial director, NME
Mr Tambourine Man by The Byrds
I heard this on a transistor radio in 1965. I was nine. Even today when I hear the opening chords chime I'm instantly transported back to that place and I can see the sunlight pouring through the window. It sounded - and still sounds - like the language of handsome, golden gods. I didn't understand a word of it, and I still don't, but I knew that it meant there was another life out there beyond my parents' understanding, a luxurious, lawless life of glamorous freedom, and I knew I wanted a part of it. I still do.

13. Norman Jay - DJ
Living For the City by Stevie Wonder
I love the story this song tells about a small-town black kid in America, moving to the city, and all the trials and tribulations that go with it. I bought the single after hearing it on the radio. It's a truly harrowing tale, unforgettable, that is just as relevant today as it was in the early Seventies.

14. Barney Hoskyns - editorial director
That's the Way Love Turned Out For Me by James Carr
James Carr's soul ballad is one I return to again and again. I think he was the greatest soul singer of them all. The song is about harrowing loss, a deep resignation to suffering, and he uses wonderful metaphors throughout, about doors closing. It seems to work as a companion for one, when in a blue funk, pain and gloom. I can listen to this song and relive that perfect expression of hopelessness.

15. Ian Rankin - crime writer
Midnight Rambler by The Rolling Stones
I have chosen this from my favourite Rolling Stones album: I'm obsessed with them, and have used many titles of their songs as titles for my short stories and novels. 'Midnight Rambler' was the first time I'd ever heard a rock group sing about a serial killer - it's about the Boston Strangler. It was the end of the Sixties, and when The Beatles were singing 'All you Need is Love', The Stones, who were a good, liberal, rock group, were a bit more realistic.

16. Carlos Acosta - dancer
Te Doy Una Canción (I give you a song) by Silvio Rodríguez
It's a very romantic song that I grew up with in Cuba. Every time I hear it it reminds me of those years when I was a student in Pinar del Rio with a group of composers, musicians and painters, living together and playing football. Just guitar and voice, a very simple song. The language is great. He's a symbol in Latin America but it's all the memories that come with that song.

17. Trevor Beattie - chairman TBWA Advertising
I've Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding
This is the sound of every heart that's ever been broken. Sung by the greatest soul voice the world has ever heard. Otis puts more naked emotion into the words 'I've been...' than Will Young could expend in a thousand lifetimes. And don't be fooled by the title. The man sings 'I've been loving you too long... to stop now.' And one day I'll use this song to change my life forever.

18. Jeremy Vine - journalist and broadcaster
Lipstick Vogue by Elvis Costello
I love it because it harnesses musical, lyrical and emotional power: 'You wanna throw me away, well I'm not broken...' The drumming is stratospheric. The album (This Year's Model) managed to take all the anger of punk but channel it through music that still sounds fresh today, and Elvis staked his claim to be the most important British songwriter since Lennon/McCartney. Amazing.

19. Johnny Marr - Smiths guitarist
Gimme Shelter by The Rolling Stones
This song is pretty much perfection. It's a beautiful mix of rhythm, sex and street poetry, with some of the coolest guitar ever caught on tape. Born of attitude, spirit and magic. Electric Voodoo.

20. Wayne Hemingway- designer
Sunshine by Roy Ayres
It makes me happy, it makes me think of sunshine, families, nice things. I first heard it when I went to see Roy Ayres live at Blackpool Mecca. I'd just passed my driving test and although the M56 to Blackpool was officially closed because of snow, I was determined to get there. It was amazing when we arrived because there were about 30 people in a venue meant for 2,500.

21. Paul Croughton - MTV VJ
Jump by Van Halen
Of course, I tried to think of a timeless track that people with imported Japanese jeans would nod sagely and agree with, but tragically I can't escape this one song. When I was 15 I stood at the back of Wembley Arena while 12,000 sheep dressed in tight denim and tassled leather - myself and all my mates included - leapt a foot up in the air everytime David Lee Roth screamed the word 'Jump'.

22. David Holmes - DJ and soundtrack composer
'Til I Die by The Beach Boys
Because it sums up what's going on inside the mind of a genius holed up in his bed for two years - complete despair, loneliness and frustration.This song should be at Brian Wilson's funeral. The sparseness and beauty in the instrumentation is stunning!

23. Maggie O'farrell - author
I Want You by Elvis Costello
I first heard this in a café. I was in love with a man I couldn't have and was sitting there wondering what to do about it when it started playing. It's beautifully dark and discordant, with the repeating refrain of the title. I went straight out to buy it.

24. Suzi Quatro - singer
Half Heaven, Half Heartache by Gene Pitney
I was 11 or 12 and visiting my extremely rich girlfriend's house for a sleepover. I ended up in her basement kissing her older brother for seven hours - nothing else, honest, just kissing - and in the background, over and over again on repeat, was... yes, you guessed it , Gene Pitney. Years later I met Gene at a TV show, told him the story and his reply was: 'You wouldn't believe how many times I've heard that story.

25. Michael Morris - co-director Artangel
Lust for Life by Iggy Pop
1977 was my first year out of school. Two contrasting tracks cut that year have never lost their impact. 'Lust for Life' straddled the Atlantic ocean and the worlds of glam, punk and metal whilst Holger Czukay's 'Persian Love' heralded what must have been the first use of sampling (an unidentified Arabic voice picked up on short-wave radio) in a world-music crossover that was 25 years ahead of its time.

26. Julie Burchill - columnist
Free by Ultra Nate
I cannot hear the opening notes without starting to snivel. Both personally and politically it says it all for me. A few years ago it was used in a Wall's ice-cream jingle at cinemas and even then it made me blub.

27. Alain De Botton - writer
Reading, Writing and Arithmetic by The Sundays
This transports me back to the early Nineties, when I left university and was having a terrible time romantically and professionally - getting rejected all around; and spending a lot of time in cafés in the sadder parts of London. The Sundays captured the spirit of those days for me: a particular kind of English pessimistic sensibility I'm drawn to.

28. Sean O'hagan - journalist
Take Me (Just As I Am) by Lynn Collins and the JBs
I was torn between 'I See A Darkness' by Bonny Prince Billy because it could make a dead man cry, then I remembered To Be A Lover by George Faith and Lee Scratch Perry because it could make a dead man dance, then I remembered Take Me (Just As I Am) by Lynn Collins and the JBs because it could make a dead man come. Enough said.

29. Vicki Blue - ex-bass player of the Runaways, filmmaker
48 Crash by Suzi Quatro
I must have been 13 or 14 and was at the record store when I saw a b&w cover of a chick wearing a leather motorcycle jacket. I bought the album, ran home, slammed the needle down on '48 Crash' and haven't been right ever since. Fast forward 30 years - I am now directing a film on the life of glam babe Suzi Quatro titled Naked Under Leather.

30. Benjamin Pell - aka Benji the Binman
Never Ever by All Saints (Nicole and Natalie Appleton, Melanie Blatt and Shaznay Lewis)
The record I liked so much, I decided to get the artists to sue me six months later.

31. Kitty Empire - Observer pop critic
You Trip Me Up by The Jesus And Mary Chain
Underneath The Jesus & Mary Chain's heroic feedback lurked a perfect pop song. And the intoxicated, lovesick words seemed so resonant that I had some of them tattooed on my back as a teenager. They're covered over now, but the shivers remain.

Nick Hornby's 31 songs

1. Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road
2. Teenage Fanclub - Your Love is the Place That I Come From
3. Nelly Furtado - I'm Like a Bird
4. Led Zeppelin - Heartbreaker
5. Rufus Wainwright - One Man Guy
6. Santana - Samba Pa Ti
7. Rod Stewart - Mama Been on My Mind
8. Bob Dylan - Can You Please Crawl Out of Your Window?
9. The Beatles - Rain
10. Ani DiFranco - You Had Time
11. Aimee Mann - I've Had It
12. Paul Westerberg - Born For Me
13. Suicide - Frankie Teardrop
14. Teenage Fanclub - Ain't That Enough
15. J. Geils Band - First I Look at the Purse
16. Ben Folds Five - Smoke
17. Badly Drawn Boy - A Minor Incident
18. The Bible - Glorybound
19. Van Morrison -Caravan
20. Butch Hancock & Marce LaCouture - So I'll Run
21. Gregory Isaacs - Puff the Magic Dragon
22. Ian Dury & the Blockheads - Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3
23. Richard and Linda Thompson - The Calvary Cross
24. Jackson Brownee - Late For the Sky
25. Mark Mulcahy - Hey Self-Defeater
26. The Velvelettes - Needle in a Haystack
27. O.V. Wright - Let's Straighten it Out
28. Royksopp - Royksopp's Night Out
29. The Avalanches - Frontier Psychiatrist
30. Soulwax - No Fun/Push It
31. Patti Smith Group - Pissing in a River