Someone Else’s Playlist
It turns out twelve hours is a long time in mix tape years. I was in a coach being driven down to Heathrow when I worked that out. He was the driver, I was just an admin bod sent down to meet some new students, so it was my job to suck up his handpicked greasy munchie box of Wombats and Fratellis. It was also the day I ate more fast food than I'd ever believed was possible, but we'll get to that.
Things got off to a rocky start the moment he handed me the CD. FESTIVAL ANTHEMS, it read. 60 CLASSIC HITS FROM ALL THE BASIC BITCH BANDS YOU WOULD HAPPILY LEAVE TO DIE ON A ROADSIDE. That's the message I took from it anyway. The cover art was all these silhouetted hands, grasping at their phones and bottles of piss.
3 discs. 170 miles. Traffic jams. Pit stops. Me and a man I'd just met, getting acquainted over twelve hours of lad rock. All my energy sloshed away itching silently and impotently to press eject.
In no time, Scouting for Girls were clanging from the speakers while I slumped at the window. In some other country this could be a proper montage, with sun-dappled vistas and rolling plains, a proper road movie where we all blossom and learn new things about ourselves. But this is England so you’ll know there was nothing to soundtrack but perpendicular grey for miles – and, strangely, every so often, a perfect cube of compacted snow, so unsoiled it was almost sculptural.
“What is with that?” the driver would say each time one of these cubes zoomed into view. His tone was borderline angry. “Tell me why does it happen?”
I smiled weakly, my stomach lurching from all the meathead choruses and radio-friendly carping. That’s when he lowered his eyes, and gave me the good news: if we stopped off at every service station on our route we could accumulate some serious loyalty points. Just for implying we had thirty-six potential customers ready to disembark from our vehicle we could rack up credit like gold coins on Mario. The coach was empty for now, but who were they to know that?
“Last time, I had four Zingerburgers in a row.” He jabbed at the volume button. “Let's see if we can beat that.”
Galvanised, we slipped into new versions of ourselves as the coach sped up, a motorway Bonnie and Clyde, squealing to a halt at every Welcome Break, filling out paperwork as our hearts thumped, praying not to hear the words “Sorry, you’ve used all your points for today . . . ”
But everything was just as he'd said. Acres of Walkers grab bags, Wispa Golds as far as the eye could see, my jaw crashing to the ground when I realised I could trade in my visitor receipt for £8 at Costa. After our third raid, I stared out at the carpark around me, sank my teeth into a microwaved mushroom toastie that tasted ten times better than it had any right to – even with Sex On Fire blasting out around me.
With one eye on the CCTV, the driver appeared again, and inspected my spoils, now oozing butter into my palms. “That looks alright,” he shrugged, from beneath a stack of boxes dark with grease.
“This is the best day ever –” I blurted out. Then, not wanting to appear sentimental, added “– for freebies.” Better not lay it on so thick, there were still several service stations to get to.
After more complimentary flat whites and miniature donuts than I could count, I was floating somewhere outside of myself, impervious to the bedlam from the speakers. Happy Mondays, Hard-Fi, and all the half-acquaintances of every Gallagher washed over me as I grinned like a suckling pig, drunk on stadium euphoria.
The lad rock had gone to my head. I could hear myself reminiscing over a Libertines gig in New Brighton circa 2004, my voice dripping with awe, as though it had been a mystical experience. Of course, it had been the same as any Libertines gig, with half the members AWOL and the other half trussed up like characters from a biscuit tin. I was gone. I was a whisker away from slapping my thigh to Razorlight. The driver told me the Kooks were the greatest band alive and I didn’t breathe a word.
This was in the honeymoon period; before I’d given him the wrong terminal number at Heathrow, before I’d seen what he did to the popcorn chicken.
And then the caffeine wore off and the opening bars of Keane did not, after all, mark some glorious ascent back onto the M67. The spell was broken and I knew I must fling myself from the coach the second we landed back into the city. There was a gig happening, somewhere, any gig, there would be some band playing somewhere and whatever it was I would have to go to it and cleanse my palate. My conscience would take more work. I dabbed, helplessly, with one of the lemon wipes spilling from the glove compartment.
2018. A version of this text appeared on Getintothis.