Orangeboy, my debut novel for young adults, is published this week. Following in Stephen King’s footsteps, it was written to musical accompaniment, mostly the radio, switching between stations, depending on what room I was in. My own tastes are pretty eclectic. There’s the nostalgia for the 80’s music I grew up with. (Only one close friend will truly understand the joy I felt when Haircut 100’s ‘Favourite Shirts’ turned up on BBC Radio London last week.) There’s 90s drum ‘n’ bass, the soundtrack to my move from Sussex to London. There’s the soundtracks to Studio Ghibli films, music that binds me and my daughter together. And then there’s Bruce Springsteen. Lord of all.
Music evokes memories; it ties you to people. When I wanted Marlon, Orangeboy’s hero to feel connected to his dead father, I knew that music was the key. I also wanted something tangible. It’s not just his dad’s musical taste that Marlon inherits, it’s the physical vinyl that his father played. His old fingerprints may still be there.
But music wriggled its way in through other places, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. Here’s a taster of the tunes shuffling through Marlon’s brain.
Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’
A real fairground song, this one. It has everything you need – a singalong chorus, Vincent Price rapping and a handy chance for some fore-shadowing. It’s also responsible for generations of unfortunate party dance moves.
Maynard Ferguson’s jazzy ‘Theme from ‘Star Trek’’
Marlon is named after Marlon Brando, the actor who plays Superman’s dad in the unbeatable (in my eyes) 1978 film. Marlon’s own dad is a sci fi geek. I reckoned he’d blast out funky versions of space themes just to see his family’s eyes roll.
Earth Wind and Fire’s ‘Faces’
Digital music – a joy to transport, rubbish to look at. Earth Wind and Fire were kings of spectacular stage shows, famous for emerging from a spaceship and their drum kit flipping upside down. Marlon inherited his dad’s Every Earth Wind and Fire vinyl collection. He knows every track on every record. Each album cover is a trigger to a hundred stories and this cover is – well – full of faces. They all pass before Marlon’s eyes as he’s locked in a police cell.
Billy Paul’s version of ‘Let ‘Em In’
2016 has become famous as a musician slayer. Billy Paul, like Maurice White, the supremo behind Earth Wind and Fire, died this year. Billy Paul transformed Paul McCartney’s easy-listening pop song into an anthem for black America. It even samples Martin Luther King. ‘Let ‘Em In’ pops up on Marlon’s shuffle at a time when the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is the last thing he wants to hear.
Jackie Wilson’s ‘I Get the Sweetest Feeling’
What you really need when you’re being chased through an east London shopping mall is one of Jackie Wilson’s most romantic love tunes. Shopping malls, fairs, even restaurants often have these strange playlists. Tunes that make you cringe mixed with the occasional one that tugs out a memory. Marlon’s dad showed him the video to this one when Marlon was little. A couple are dancing and for a few minutes, one small room is full of joy and love. It flashes through Marlon’s head as he’s dodging between racks of cheap leggings.
Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110th Street’
Tish, Marlon’s best mate, calls this his ‘slitty wrist’ song. It’s not a cheerful listen though is perfect for people like me who sat wide-eyed in front of American police dramas in the 70s. Though, I came to it via Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Jackie Brown’. Much of music education came via Tarantino. Sadly, he is yet to feature Springsteen.
The Jackson 5 ‘I Want You Back’
Oh, baby, give me one more chance… More joy. I feel like I’ve known this tune forever, but even now, when the intro starts, up goes the volume and I’m grinning. Many characters in Orangeboy need one more chance. Not all of them get it. But this song is for a happy moment, one that everyone knows can never last.