Saturday, 16 November 2013

More Than This

For the past three months, I have been trying to write a post about the experience of hearing 'More than This' by Roxy Music at my local cooperative supermarket. 

Of course, I should have gone to see Bryan Ferry sing this song live in Edinburgh this month. I last saw him in concert in Berlin about ten years ago. It was an unlikely venue, a multi purpose sports arena called Max-Schmelling Halle, named after a heavyweight champion boxer of the 1930s.  The building was about as far away from the glamourous image of Roxy Music as I could imagine. Still, as we the faithful audience looked on, bathed in an unforgiving light more suitable for a snooker match than a concert, a woman standing behind me, who had seen him sing 20 year before was so moved she was in tears.

Brian Eno, who was in Roxy music with Bryan Ferry, later concerned himself with creating music that would be suitable to a particular place. His ‘Music for Airports’ for example plays homage to the architecture of Cologne Airport and the experience of flying as an existential experience. Ambient music was then created to enhance our experience of such places.

It is a shame then, conversely, when music that we care about or feel emotionally attached to becomes a backdrop to a totally mundane or inappropriate setting.

But what if those mundane places, supermarkets and shops, rose to the occasion of the music played there? Perhaps my experience of hearing a song by Roxy Music in my local supermarket would have been a bit more like this:


I lift my basket onto the checkout counter of my local supermarket, Scotmid. A man 15 years or so my junior scans the beer, kitchen roll, kid’s breakfast cereal and milk. Then just as our brief but insignificant transaction is about to come to an end, the opening bars kick in of a song I recognise. But could it really be that song? So often these days I hear the opening bars of something I recognise only for it to turn into an unrecognisable cover, a sample or stolen riff. But now those seconds seem to last an eternity. Is it or isn’t it that song? The checkout guy is about to ask me to pay.

But it is Bryan Ferry’s swooning voice singing “More than this” and unfortunately it is interfering with my ability to complete this transaction.

A minute ago I was just going down the aisles filling up my basket with the necessities of sustenance but now I feel myself being transported into Bryan Ferry’s anguish. Suddenly things that felt tangible a few minutes a go, the fabric of the walls, the strip lighting across the ceiling, have lost their substance, and worryingly Ferry doesn’t seem to know where things are headed:

“It was fun for a while, there was no way of knowing, like a dream in the night, who can say where we’re going”

Like tins of tomatoes on a supermarket shelf, we seem to be balanced on a precipice, our fate no longer in our hands.

I try to concentrate on what the checkout guy is saying but other thoughts start creeping in.  Like -Who knows when our expiry date will creep us on us? Could it be today, or tomorrow? And what about our sell by dates come to think of it?

Then comes a brighter note, a philosophical shift palpable at Scotmid as Ferry continues:

“No care in the world, maybe I am learning, why the sea on the tide has no way of turning”

So, are we to believe that we are just one of many stacked on the shelves of life? People seem to bear their trolleys down the aisles with a new sense of purpose, as if they are treading a meditation maze, turning tins like prayer wheels. As they near the checkout they appear to emit a glow of inner knowledge.

Now feeling quite fragile, I fumble for my debit card and make eye contact with the now somewhat impatient checkout guy.

But Ferry is unrelenting. In less than the four minutes it has taken for the song to play out, the whole shop, customers, staff, fixture and fittings have bent to Ferry’s will. We are all borne upon a rollercoaster ride of his emotions.

“More than this -you know there’s nothing
More than this – tell me one thing”

Suddenly life feels cheap, or rather reasonably priced, depending how you look at it at Scotmid, our local Coop.

I swipe my card, and at least one of us is looking into the void.



Up until a month ago there used a rostrum of about ten people who worked the tills at Scotmid, until they were replaced with 6 self-service machines. I held out on the machines for a long as I could. I had enjoyed finding out, for example, that an Italian student working there was trying to learn German. I would exchange a few words in German with him each visit. Or the rather strange checkout lady, who would lean forward and tell me things about the other staff or customers in a conspiratorial way, but I could never understand what it was that she was saying but nodded anyway. As I spend most of my morning at home working on my translations I valued these interactions. But apparently the impatient customers of Tollcross, Edinburgh, didn’t. 

Today, as I slipped into the section for self-service, the machine went on strike at my first purchase, a bottle of wine. I had to wait next to my machine like a naughty schoolgirl, and almost gave up and joined the queue for the two remaining humans. The problem is that every time you buy alcohol you have to get a member of staff to verify you are over the age limit for alcohol. As the young man who came to my assistance swiped his card over the screen I must admit I felt quite humiliated when out of the options he chose the rather insulting:

Clearly over 25

This was almost as humiliating as when I tried to pay with my debit card and it broadcast at a volume the whole shop and most of Tollcross could hear:

‘Your card has been declined’

What nobody heard, of course, was the assistant explaining that this machine was having a problem reading cards at that time.


  1. Your best blog yet! The power of music even when it becomes 'muzak' is a subject close to my heart....

  2. Thank you Joe. You, more than most, know the power that music can have on others!