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My Soundtrack: Ian Rankin

The author of the Inspector Rebus books on writing to music, and living inside his own head.

Author of the Inspector Rebus books, Ian Rankin, runs us through the songs that have defined his life, from lyrical gems to what makes him nostalgic.

All words below by Ian Rankin.

The Song That Makes Me Cry

Ph. D “I Won’t Let You Down”, 1982
“It was in the charts the year my girlfriend and I went to France to pick grapes and have a good time, and she’s now my wife. It brings a tear to my eye in a good way, cos I’m remembering two young people not knowing what life was going to throw at them, not knowing they were going to get married, have kids, that one of them would become a successful novelist. I’d just left university, and it was a weird time cos I didn’t know what to do with my life. It takes me back to that summer and reminds me of what a mixed up kid I was.”

The Song That Reminds Me of School

Supertramp “School”, 1974
“It’s kind of about education not being the be-all end-all. At school, I lived inside my head a lot. I was trying to do comics, I was drawing cartoons, I was writing song lyrics for non-existent bands – my band was called the Amoebas, and the lead singer was called Ian Kaput, and that was me – and I’d write all their lyrics, I’d plan their world tours. I was doing what all writers do – I was creating a world where I got to play God. And I heard this when I was 15, 16, and thought, yeah, there’s more to school than getting a pass. There’s making friendships for life and trying to hang on to that creativity, using your imagination, and don’t let the adult world beat it out of you.”

The Song I Write To

Tangerine Dream “Ricochet Pts 1 & 2”, 1975
“I play music all the time when I’m writing, but I can’t have anything with lyrics. Otherwise I’d be listening to the lyrics, I wouldn’t be getting on with my own work. And the music I choose creates a kind of bubble. I play it quite softly, it’s just shutting out the outside world or the real world so I can be in this fantasy world. ‘Ricochet’ is a 40-minute, single piece of music. In the early days I thought, I’m gonna write a car chase, I’d better put some fast music on, and I would put on Jesus and Mary Chain’s first album. But I didn’t need it. Imagination was doing that stuff for me, I didn’t need the music to do that for me.”

The Song With the Greatest Lyrics

The Kinks “Lola”, 1970
“When you’re a kid you go, fantastic pop song, really catchy. Then you suddenly go, wait a minute, what are these lyrics about? And there’s a shift. It’s a brilliant short story that could make a film, it could make a piece for the stage. It’s a narrative, and it’s all about sex and identity and relationships. It’s a song about a transsexual, and a guy being OK with it, after a brief shock. He thinks he’s dancing with the most beautiful woman and she turns out to be a man. That’s a great twist at the end, like a great story.”

The Song That Changed My Life

Van Morrison “Snow in San Anselmo”, 1973
“My wife and I were living in London, and we didn’t much like it. I was working at a hi-fi magazine, reviewing hi-fi equipment, and I had started to have panic attacks. I went to the doctor and he said to get away for a while. So I went to the hi-fi mag and said I’ve got to take a bit of time off, and I grabbed a stash of cassettes to take with me to play on my Walkman, and I jumped on a train and ended up in a little seaside town called Scarborough in Yorkshire, out of season, so it was completely empty. And I would walk up and down the beach listening to Van Morrison. And I thought, I’ve got to make some big changes in my life, I can’t keep having these panic attacks, I don’t like living in London, what the hell am I doing? I’d had one book published, but I wasn’t making any money. I got back from that little break and had a conversation with [my wife] and we decided we had to get out of London, and we would go and live in France with almost no money, but hey ho, we could do it, and I would become a full time writer.”

The Song That Reminds Me of Growing Up

Hawkwind “Silver Machine”, 1972
“I was at a holiday camp, Butlins, with my family on the west coast of Scotland, and I had enough money for a couple of singles. I think I bought ‘School’s Out’, Alice Cooper, and ‘Silver Machine’. It takes me back to 12 years old and that change from primary school to secondary school, and suddenly there was this huge kind of shift. We were starting to go into our teens and get interested in things that teenagers do. It was sci-fi, it was spacey, and then when you found out about [dancer] Stacia and her large breasts, that was another part of your learning process as a teen. I loved the sound of it, really basic synthesisers and swoosh noises. I grew up in a coal mining village in central Scotland and here was another world. It was a whole other world.”

The Song That Best Sums Up Rebus

The Who “Substitute”, 1966
“Rebus is a big music fan, and I do that partly because it’s a shorthand way of introducing you to his world and who he is. So you can tell a bit about his social class, his age, from his musical taste. You can tell he’s not a party animal, he’s a bit of a loner, he’s sitting with a whiskey and a cigarette in his apartment, listening to Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison, stuff like that. But he’s a generation older than me and he would have been a fan of the Mod-era Who, cos he thought of himself as a bit of a rebel at school. It’s a cynical song and it’s a very worldly song, and I think the energy of it would appeal to Rebus. He’d be bouncing around the bedroom he shared with his brother. They’d have a Dansette record player, and they’d have the single on and they’d be jumping up and down to it.”