The one thing that people who sneer at mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop will never understand – mainly because the vast majority of mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop is criminally abysmal at everything but separating young people from their money – is that it is about the most potent force known to man and woman: young love. And in amongst the utterly synthetic crud are songs that, sometimes intentionally but more often not, cross that magic barrier into high and joyous art.
And those of us who usually sneer at mass-appeal, commercialised, manufactured pop don’t tend to notice that we’ve met such a thing until it has gone from the airwaves long enough for us to listen to it as something other than an ear-devouring annoyance.
I remember ‘My Favourite Waste of Time’, and Owen Paul, from the summer of 1986. It was the perfect prefab summer song, instantly bringing to mind Hawaiian shirts and beach barbecues, buoyant, effervescent, light as the most uncollapsed souffle and coming with a pre-guaranteed refrain that could have held up twenty tons of concrete. I was conditioned to hate it.
I was in love that year, for the first time in a long time, and to my amazement she loved me too. But she was going away for three weeks in the height of summer, to Canada, to stay with her brother and sister-in-law. I missed her like crazy, life was put in suspension, and in that absence and my intense need was sewn the seed of things that, many years after, would break us apart, mere weeks before what would have been our tenth anniversary.
Owen Paul was the soundtrack of that summer. No matter how much I didn’t listen to the radio any more, I couldn’t escape them, not least on Top of the Pops, which I wouldn’t leave for many more years yet.
When they got back, her fourteen year old daughter wanted to catch up on the music she’d missed. I remember her genuine puzzlement at the inherent contradiction in the song. How can she be his favourite and be a waste of time?
I couldn’t explain it, but I instinctively understood, and even in the midst of hating the song, the writer in me loved the fantastic conception, or maybe I was just listening more intently than I was kidding myself I did. Because he’s having a rush, and maybe he’s kidding himself a little bit too, but he’s young and free and the summer is time that doesn’t matter. Nothing need be done, no responsibilities need be undertaken, school’s out but University’s not here yet, like the summer I had in 1973, the very last time that nothing really mattered. Everything he does, everywhere he goes, is a waste of time because he has nothing but time and it’s the most fun thing ever and she’s the very best waste of it, because her being with him is the way that he gets forty-eight hours out of every day, and maybe he’s not really kidding himself at all, because anything that you enjoy this much is no waste, no waste at all.
And who knows, maybe the girl isn’t going to be a waste of time at all?
But to think that implies that there is a future ahead, when the guy is happily ignoring everything but today, and that’s what this song really captures, a great and glorious and permanent now. It’s about all the things that pass too soon, and I don’t mean 1986 and the woman I missed too much, I mean that time in your life when if it comes good for you, you can live without thought and consequence, and the little ducks line up for you all in a row and if there ever is an end, it is in memories that will warm you forever. Life is nothing but time that’s yours to waste, on nothing but living, and she’s the one who is the best way of wasting it.
Owen Paul, singing irrepressibly, like he can’t contain the fun he’s having, didn’t just record a big hit, didn’t just record a summer anthem to rival those legendary lost Beach Boys classics, didn’t just define his career in three minutes, he tapped into something immortal, and I hear it and yearn for it every time I hear this.
Sun, summer, love, pop. When you get it right, there’s no joy sweeter.