The Sound of Being Human by Jude Rogers

Word, Issue 1

I’ve been a fan of Jude Roger’s writing for ages having followed her from music mags Q and Mojo to the much-missed The Word, where in all of which she was one of the few female voices. She’s also written for the Guardian and freelances, and has a substack column Stop, Look, Listen, which I subscribe to.

Last year, she published a book of memoir based around twelve songs that were milestones in her life, combining it with an exploration, be it historical, scientific or cultural, of how music makes us feel, especially how it helps us in times of grief, and the power of music to tell a story.

However, before we get to the dozen tracks (plus a secret one), styled as sides one and two of an album following her life and career chronologically, Rogers tell us about the last time she saw her father. They lived in South Wales and it was January 1984; he was going into hospital for a back and hip operation. They were saying goodbye for now.

And then he says the thing that has stayed with me for the rest of my life: ‘Let me know who gets to number one.’

Such a sad beginning to the book for he wasn’t to return home, and though the memories of her father pervade the entire text, as she says, it’s not just a book about him, or her, it’s also about how music shaped her, and by extension, us, and particularly melody and rhythm.

Track 1 is Super Trouper by ABBA, which brings back happy memories of it on the radio playing at her Gran’s which, apart from dissecting the unhappy lyrics and band dynamics many years later, leads her to consider foetal memory of music. (I maintain that playing Elvis to my daughter when she was in my tum, meant that Lilo & Stitch was bound to become her fave Disney film.)

Track 2 is one for her dad, ‘the last song that was truly ours.’ It’s Only You, but not the Yazoo original, but the Flying Pickets acapella version, which was number one just before Christmas that year, with the guys in the group all dressed up, with the snowman singing ‘Ba-da-da-da, ba-da-da-da.’

Watching that performance feels like a hilarious, surreal exorcism. When I hear the song next, I think, perhaps this is what I’ll see. An old, sad memory will be spat out of my VHS-vintage brain and be replaced by a vision of a gaggle of men in a TV studio in bad fancy dress.

What makes it more poignant is that the Flying Pickets were ‘jobbing, singing actors from South Wales’. She explains how she only has to hear the ‘Ba-da-da-da, ba-da-da-da.’ even now to become emotional. Rogers goes on to talk to a couple of academics about it, and Professor Loveday admits indulging her emotions when she hears her father’s favourite music too, making it a positive, comforting thing.

We move on through her teenage years with Neneh Cherry through to Kraftwerk, then onto Side 2, into her working life, falling in love, becoming a journalist, and how she loves Shirley & Dolly Collins’ song ‘Gilderoy’, having got into folk music and having met Shirley. At twenty-nine, as she describes how to she was trying to make a name for herself, to stand out in her field. This leads to a discussion about the rise of social media and how it has affected the music press:

Suddenly everyone could write about music, tag the writer as they were doing it, use their words as weapons if they wished.

This is partly why criticism has lost its teeth. In the late 2000s, the idea of the journalist as a gatekeeper to new music and information about musicians was being finally, comprehensively dismantled. Fans were gaining more agency […] then musicians started writing on social media directly…

Her Track 10 – April 5th by Talk Talk, leads to a fascinating discussion of ‘why we grieve when musicians die’. She’d been asked to talk about Talk Talk’s main songwriter and lead singer Mark Hollis who had died.

The news that changed the rules for dead pop stars came early on a January morning in 2016. It came on the eleventh, as luck would have it for me, on the thirty-second anniversary of my father’s death. I’d approached the anniversary confidently that year, with a new sense of positivity. It helped that my little boy was nearly two, no longer so helpless and vulnerable, and neither was I.

That, of course, was the death of David Bowie – and we all grieved. His music was a touchstone for so many – whenever we discovered him, in whichever of his personae. I’d loved Ziggy and Rock’n’roll Suicide in particular as a teen (after I outgrew my beloved David Cassidy), but I really got into him properly in the late 1980s – whenever it was that they started remastering the CDs. I remember having a long conversation shortly after he died, with my hairdresser, J – he put Blackstar on the turntable while he cut my hair! You could talk to almost anyone about Bowie, (similarly Alan Rickman who died a few days later).

I really enjoy hybrid memoirs like The Sound of Being Human, books that combine memoir and anecdote with riffing on a consistent theme throughout. Jude Rogers’ book is a simply lovely read, beautifully written, it’s moving and soul-baring, a real tribute to her dad. It does have lighter moments too, and I enjoyed thinking about the psychology of music, and, of course, mentally picking my own set of tracks, which I’d defy anyone reading this book not to do!

Don’t just take my word for it, Liz reviewed The Sound of Being Human for Shiny – read her review here.

Source: Own copy. White Rabbit hardback, 293 pages. Now in paperback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link. (Free UK P&P)

11 thoughts on “The Sound of Being Human by Jude Rogers

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She writes so well and blends all the parts together perfectly. I didn’t know all the tracks she chose, or other bands and artists she mentions – you don’t have to, but you understand where she’s coming from in discussing them.

  1. Calmgrove says:

    So many of these titles strike a chord (pun unintended!) but apart from a general feel of the period they featured in they don’t attach themselves to any particular event for me; but this is a wonderful way to compose a memoir, through significant music tracks.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m from the previous musical generation too, of course, but her writing is so good, it doesn’t matter which track she’s referring to in the memoir part – and then exploring in a more psychological framework. My own tracks would include It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It) on Top of the Pops for the memory of my Mum doing her Mick Jagger impersonation, which showed a hidden side of her!

  2. Liz Dexter says:

    A lovely review! I really enjoyed working on this book and in fact Jude was my first transcription client back when she worked for Word, so I had the pleasure of seeing quite a lot of interviews I’d worked on in my subscription copies.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thanks Liz. I remember when you reviewed it you said you’d worked on the book. I’ve long loved her writing. I still miss The Word.

Leave a Reply