It’s fair to say that I was pretty intense during my first year at university. And my second. But particularly that first year, which started with a 6-week bombardment of Marxist cultural theory designed, seemingly, to make anyone who thought they’d picked a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course drop out (and the drop out rate was massive). Those of us who ‘got it’ found it incredibly profound, swore allegiance against capitalism and never to take jobs in media sales (which felt like the only employability option open to us, other than teaching other people Marxist cultural theory).
I bought a Sony Minidisc Walkman for £250 within about a fortnight and discovered the computer room and internet access, reasoning that if I spent 15 evenings in there talking crap on the NME.com chatroom and listening to music and splurging my thoughts onto various music forums that I’d save maybe £20 each time by not going to the pub, and thus be better off. But I ended up drinking during the day instead, so that failed.
There were a lot of late night walks around campus and across the town, headphones on, soundtracked by Minidisc compilations. “You Just Have To be Who You Are” from Idlewild’s debut mini-album, Captain, pummelled me at insane, tinnitus volume on many of them, Roddy Woomble’s closing screams of “And what is important? / And nothing is important!” feeling like the most profound thing ever to a stranded 19-year-old, used to being a big fish in a small pond and now cast onto a huge desert.
Idlewild felt back then as if they’d learnt the same things as us, seen the truth we felt we were seeing, and exploded in incandescent rage, 1000-mile-an-hour songs desperate to spill semiotics and Althusser and Marshall McLuhan through Nirvana-shaped scar tissue. I think I’d read that they’d formed at university and quit their studies. Because, I assumed, they’d been made aware of a fissure into something pointless and true that society was conspiring to ignore. Or so it seemed to me. I listened to “Annihilate Now!” and “I Am A Message” and “A Film For The Future” and “When I Argue I See Shapes” and identified. I’d never been one for overtly heavy, aggressive music particularly, grunge hadn’t spoken to me at all, but this did. Roddy seemed to sing from those first steps into adulthood when you realise that actually, you don’t have a place set at the table, you don’t have a slot to fit in, and that’s precisely where I felt I was.
By 2000 I was, perhaps, a little calmer. Or at least intense in different directions. Idlewild’s second album, 100 Broken Windows, seemed similarly to have calmed a little, but not too much. More mature, but not too mature. They could still barely play, or so it seemed to me compared to the likes of Miles Davis, who I was discovering concurrently; Bob Fairfoull a faintly brutal, bludgeoning bassist, completely sans sophistication, but utterly right for what Idlewild’s music demanded, a determined, relentless momentum beneath the pseudo-profundity of Roddy’s layered vocals and Rod Jones’ lashing, buzzing, thrumming guitar. If Fairfoull had been a more sophisticated musician, Idlewild wouldn’t have worked. Later in their career, Fairfoull left, and was replaced by a more technically proficient musician, and I didn’t give a damn for Idlewild. We saw them live circa 2007, and left early, bored by over-long, duelling guitar solos wrought from listening to too many Neil Young albums. It was a very different experience to gigs circa 2000 or 2003, when Roddy would roll around the floor, screaming and hollering, invisible unless you were in the front row.
I don’t know what these songs are about particularly, with their references to Gertrude Stein and Hugh Miller and talk of maps and pageants and graves. All I know is that the nonsense repetition (“pretend it works a while / it’s transmitted live”) and lonesome violin coda of “Idea Track”, and the humming keyboard riff through “These Wooden Ideas”, and the urgent backing vocals of “Roseability”, and the plangent acceptance of “The Bronze Medal”, and the nostalgic, realist romance of “Let Me Sleep (Next To The Mirror)” seemed to mean a lot to me at the death of my adolescence. And when I put this record on again now, they still do.