“It’s just gone noon, half-past monsoon on the banks of the river Nile.”
As the wind sweeps across the deck of the Beni Suif and my laptop looks set to wind down in an electrical storm, the opening lines of “Night Boat to Cairo” by Madness bounce out of my headphones.
“Here comes the boat only half-afloat, oarsman grins a toothless smile.”
The music I’d chosen to listen to onboard my Nile river cruise seemed eerily appropriate. But then I’m always doing that, trying to create the soundtrack to my travels.
This whole thing started in 2007, when we were zooming down the tarmac at Heathrow, and the Andrew Bird album I’d been listening to all summer, Armchair Apocrypha, sounded like the perfect thing to ease my head into the sky. The air stewardess hadn’t noticed that I’d defied her instructions to turn off all electrical devices, and my iPod being switched on hadn’t caused a power failure. With my head pushed back into the seat, we were launched into the sky, and that’s when it clicked that the song was called “Fiery Crash” and was about a plane going down. Don’t ask me why, but it’s been my take-off song ever since, and I can’t help but think of that particular take-off on the rare occasions I hear it now.
A great travel song doesn’t have to be about imminent catastrophe, though. One of the most perfect musical choices I ever made was in California zig-zagging up the Pacific Coast Highway, not listening to the Beach Boys as you may expect – that would have been too obvious. No, with “Zigzag Wanderer” by Captain Beefheart on the rental car’s CD changer, it was the perfect visual accompaniment which flashes back into my mind every time I play the album.
There are so many others whose sound, whenever I hear them, have particular images from my travels lodged in my mind. All the African music I bought and then played on my African safari, for example. And it’s definitely a two-way thing, gluing the past and present – memory and reality – together with sound and vision. There’s even a Playlist in my iTunes called California, which is full of Beefheart tunes, and which I mentally transfer onto other scenery when I wish it was California.
Of course, there is a considerable amount of control-freakery and maybe even narrow-mindedness involved with creating your own soundtracks to your travels. Before portable stereos, we’d have had little choice but to absorb each place’s own natural ambience. And I’m almost certain we’d get a better feel for the places we visit if our ears weren’t filled with our own preconception of what it should sound like. But in many ways, it’s just like creating your own album art, only way more immersive.