In the interests of clearing my conscience, there’s something I’ve been meaning to say to my old music teacher at school. So in true Simon Mayo confession stylie…
Back when the considerable draw of extra-curricular time spent with a Yamaha SY-22 synthesizer and Cubase software on the school’s Atari ST was far more appealing than studying, I took music as part of my GCSEs. The qualification of the day was largely course work, with music appreciation, sight reading and a little improvisation thrown in for good measure.
My teacher, Mr. Moss, was an affable fellow, rather eccentric and very traditional, once describing the music of Rondò Veneziano as “Vivaldi gone wrong”. While he was a wizard on the piano and knew his way round the Yamaha DX-7 like it was part of his exoskeleton, he (like all good teachers of the day) had only a limited grasp of everyday technological inventions such as video recorders. Or, in this case, the humble hi-fi.
As part of the music appreciation segment of the course, we had to study a set of tracks from Paul Simon’s Graceland album. I don’t know if it was a random selection made by the school, or if the syllabus demanded it, but that was our remit.
Being a typically rowdy bunch, the master power to the synths bolted onto the desks was routinely switched off in an effort to reduce any distraction from idle fingertips attempting to play Axel F instead of listening to the CD-slash-tape-to-tape hi-fi contraption in the classroom. Our job, as ever, was to critique and discuss Simon’s musical prowess, presumably to prove to somebody else at exam time that we could regurgitate such directed information. In stark contrast to the school’s desire to improve its rank in the results league table, we wanted to create a cacophony of brass, string, woodwind and drum noises from the wonder machines in front of us. And play Axel F of course.
The modus operandi of Mr. Moss was to start a track and pause it at select intervals to demonstrate a point, or attempt to engage us in something approaching cognitive discussion. Every now and then, he’d amble over to the piano, stare out of the window into the middle distance and play along to emphasise a phrase in the song or draw attention to Simon’s intricate use of counterpoint harmony.
While I now have a fondness for the most minute details from the album, this segment of the lesson wasn’t what one could call altogether stimulating. So, after a few such lessons, we figured something had to be done to improve our lot.
It so happened that one of the boys in the class, David Jarvis, had exactly the same model hi-fi at home. And it had a remote. So in hushed tones, a plan was hatched for him to sneak it into class the following week.
The day of the music lesson arrived; a lovely summer’s day with the breeze nudging the blinds against the heads of the people on the back row. We were all much more placid that day which, to an observant teacher, should have been cause for concern. Not so for Mr. Moss, who cued up a track, pressed play and turned to address us. David gradually lowered the volume to zero.
From our vantage point we could see the little red light blinking away on the hi-fi as it received commands from beneath David’s table. But Mr. Moss presumed technology had failed him and that something was up with the unit. He spun to the machine, fumbled with it, eventually noticed the volume was down and turned it back up. Took a few steps towards the piano and it faded out again.
He returned to face his nemesis, scratched his head and turned it back up again, rewound it a bit and crossed the room, whereby the music stuttered on and off every few seconds as David repeatedly hit pause/play/pause/play in a delightfully syncopated rhythm. Had our teacher not been so enraged, he might have been pleased that some of the tuition had sunk in.
Clearly baffled, he took purposeful strides toward the machine and it dutifully stopped misbehaving, as if the threat to its very existence compelled it to adopt self-preservation. He regarded it with considerable disdain, the embodiment of his belief that all things with microprocessors were inherently untrustworthy and would bring about the end of civilisation if given half a chance.
The Mexican stand-off continued until he seemed satisfied the technology was well and truly tamed. As he resumed his position at the piano and started to play along, Paul Simon turned into a smurf, singing at x2 speed. Losing his rag with the technology, Mr. Moss marched over to the machine and thwacked it. The radio came on, courtesy of David’s hidden infra-red magic wand.
By this time, our sniggering was almost as uncontrollable as poor Mr. Moss thought the machine was. He was muttering about ‘stupid’ this and ‘ridiculous’ that as, time after time, the hi-fi defied him. Eventually, just as we had hoped, he abandoned the gremlins in the device and we got to play with the synths instead for the remainder of the lesson.
Looking back, it’s amazing how such a simple device as a remote control could brighten up twenty-five minds and cloud one. And, although not the instigator of the prank, I was complicit in its execution, remaining tight-lipped while thoroughly enjoying the spectacle of man vs seemingly wayward machine. I now know this was wrong.
And so, Mr. Moss, on behalf of the entirety of my class, I feel I must apologise for compounding your distrust of all things of an electrical nature. I sincerely hope it did not sully your relationship with your toaster. Please forgive us.