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Check His Track Records: We Determine The Best Running Music!
****Contains Mild Spoilers Of The Film Six Day Run**** JR Moores , June 4th, 2013 06:00

In a completely scientific experiment, JR Moores undertakes six runs in six days with a different soundtrack each day to work out which is the most advantageous for the pursuit of the jog...

I’ve never really understood running. Running to catch a train makes sense, as does running to escape the clutches of a masked psychopath. But as a sport, running lacks that distracting, motivational obligation to hit, catch or kick a ball. Running lacks the novelty of being able to go quite far, quite fast on a non-motorised vehicle (cycling). It lacks the quasi-religious sense of being aerobically and spiritually baptised (swimming). And it lacks the invigorating titillation of utilising one’s basic navigational skills (orienteering). Even with the vanilla objective of knocking a few seconds off a previous lap time, it’s a tedious enterprise and no eloquently-crafted Haruki Murakami tract on the subject can persuade me otherwise.

I do, however, adore music. When cycling, I pretend I’m Ralf from Kraftwerk. If I even set eyes on a basketball, I start singing Public Enemy’s ‘He Got Game’ to myself. Every time I’ve swam, I’ve thought of that erotic Chris Isaak video. If there is anything, therefore, that is capable of converting me to the altar of running, it is music.

The new record by prolific Finnish art-rockers Circle is the soundtrack to a documentary about the Self-Transcendence Six Day Run. Competitors run for six days and six nights around a one-mile loop in a park in Queens, New York. They run with minimal sleep, sometimes only two or three hours a day. In one of its final scenes (spoiler alert!), regular champion Asprihanal Aalto nonchalantly plucks flesh and toenails from his bruised, bloody and flaking feet.

Without jumping madly into that deep end, to discover a way to make running less leg-draggingly dreary and to unequivocally, scientifically determine the greatest musical accompaniment to the act of running, I decide to complete six runs in six days, listening to a different album each time.

Rather than jetting off to Queens, my running takes place in the City of York, England, on the Knavesmire. It was here, in 1739, that the highwayman Dick Turpin was hanged, having failed to out-run the authorities.

Day One: Circle - Six Day Run soundtrack

Circle kick straight in with mid-tempo motorik momentum. I hit and maintain a steady pace. Just before the three minute mark an extra guitar line appears, very suave and noir-ish. I’m strong and speedy, brimming with stamina and optimism. This could actually be fun. By track two I’ve broken a sweat. This one’s more uneven and my pace fluctuates accordingly. The drums are cymbal-heavy, the guitar awkwardly minimalist. My left knee starts to notice the abnormal intensity of its work. Nevertheless, every time the wobbly kosmische effects rise to surface I’m given a temporary energy boost. As if aware that I’m starting to feel the burn, the subsequent semi-industrial avant-clash aurally mirrors my pain. Both knees are hurting now. My head feels swollen and warm.

The fourth number is a faster cousin to the album’s opener. I try to match its quicker pace but in truth I’m slowing down. Can I even manage a Six Song Run let alone a Six Day Run? The repetitive rhythm, cleansing splashes of distortion, and space-rockin’ synth compressions do their best to partially mute the screams from my legs: “Stop! Stop, you fool! What’s wrong with purposeful strolling?” On a kamikaze mission to scupper my momentum, a bug flies into my panting mouth. I’m spitting and running, running and spitting. A low point, but hardly Circle’s fault.

Next, the band hastens to another level of punk-rocking velocity, like Minutemen covering Hawkwind. It gives me a second wind. I’m rocketing through the universe at warp factor seven. After four minutes of this, I’m chuffing knackered and there’s still another track to go. As Samuel Beckett wrote after competing in Paris’ Thirteenth Annual Existentialist Triathlon: “I can’t run on. I’ll run on.” Circle decelerate slightly for the closer, but its chugging propulsion can’t alleviate my fatigue. I’m struggling to overtake a couple of dog-walking pensioners. Eventually the tempo slows, the instruments start to fade out. Then it’s over. I return to blessed motionless.

Pros: Persuasive, propelling Neu-esque grooves.
Cons: Frantic penultimate number may cause the premature over-exertion of amateur plonkers.

Day Two: LCD Soundsystem - 45:33

With Circle, I pushed myself too hard, too soon. On Day Two, lifting my heavy feet with such weak legs is like operating a concrete puppet with liquorice string. James Murphy eases me in with smooth, disparaging soul-funk: “Shame on you,” he whispers. The emergence of an instrumental version of ‘Someone Great’ gets me singing the lyrics in my head. “Someone great is gone”? Something great, more like, namely my right leg. An invisible gremlin is sadistically clawing and biting at the tendons. The pain centres round my knee and shoots all the way up to the hip. This cannot be categorized as running. It barely qualifies as a hobbled jog. Despite this, the album works well. It should do because it was specially commissioned by Nike as a workout soundtrack. Its repetitive groove and subtle, liquid transformations keep me both focussed and entertained. It suits my limped shuffle but I can also imagine a real athlete training to it - though at times it does seem to leap forward in time to the hedonistic Olympics after-party disco.

After twenty minutes, with the bass pounding beneath choppy keys ‘n’ strings, my leg pain eases miraculously. Murphy’s deep, distorted vocals impart abstract encouragement. His baritone android is complemented by Terra Deva’s seductive Donna Summer-isms. I don’t want to let either of them down. A jovial trumpet briefly cascades into surprisingly motivational free jazz loopiness. As I warm down to the sparkly ambient outro section, the vicious pain in my leg has vanished altogether. I thought James Murphy was good at his job, but I didn’t know he had healing powers.

Pros: Nice flow, with seamless transitions between sections.
Cons: Temptation to run to the nearest indie/dance club and order a round of filthy Jägerbombs.

Day Three: A-Trak - Running Man

Revitalised by Mr Murphy’s magic, I proceed with another Nike commission. Unfortunately, A-Trak’s Running Man fails where LCD Soundsystem triumphed. Twelve years Murphy’s junior, the young turntablist’s mix is too hyperactively jittery to achieve and sustain a steady pace. Kid Cudi’s rapping is more irritating than stimulating: “I’m running on the thin line / And it’s my time, homie / CATCH UP!” I’d welcome the opportunity to catch him up and slap him in his smug, taunting face but he’s not here. He’s lounging in some plush studio, smokin’, drinkin’ and layin’ down rhymes, the lazy git. Later on, the repeated samples of “Go! Go! Go! Go!” sound nagging, not inspiring. My pain is being accentuated, not alleviated, my focus hindered, not heightened. Every time a drum pattern fades, I’m fooled into thinking that the session is winding down, before the next unwelcome beat kicks in. Having said that, every ten minutes or so A-Trak relaxes into a section of cyclical no-frills instrumental house music. This is when I’m fastest and least distracted. The relatively mellow, silky 80s vibe that surfaces around the half hour mark is agreeably soothing. After enduring several false endings the album/track finally finishes and I yank out my earphones in relief.

Pros: Occasional moments of straightforward, unfussy instrumentation.
Cons: Everything else.

Day Four: Vangelis - Chariots of Fire Soundtrack

Returning to soundtracks, I plump for Vangelis’ classic movie score. Tattooed onto the cultural consciousness, any attempt to resist the emotional force of that famous opening theme would be utterly futile. A thousand Grandstand specials, Sky Sports adverts, Eddie Izzard Comic Relief documentaries and sports-themed comedy sketches bubble away in the back of my mind. I feel like I should be running fast but in slow-motion, instead of just running quite slowly. Apart from the odd overly placid synth section and requisitely poignant orchestral movement, the remainder of the album is virtually as rousing as its celebrated opener. During the Celtic-tinged ‘Eric’s Theme’ I realise that for the first time in a week I am no longer gawping gormlessly at my own feet slapping away on the dull ground but gazing upwards at the majestically vast, fluffy clouds that dangle calmly in the vivid blue sky. I don’t know if it’s the power of Vangelis’ music or the delirium of exhaustion, but I feel a sudden sentimental attachment to the planet and its environment. I’m becoming one with nature. A bird flies past my right shoulder. Although I’d have preferred a more elegant or symbolic species than the common pigeon, I feel a brief fraternal affinity to my winged companion. He nips off for a worm. I’m overwhelmed by the fragility of mortality and the precious gift of existence. The indescribable pleasure of being alive at this very moment cannot be spoiled by a blemish as trivial as a niggling and gammy right leg. I am suspended in the present, hurtling forward, as always, into the unknown future, while simultaneously, inseparably shackled to the past and to every human being, modern, ancient or caveman, who ever embarked on a bit of a jog. A choral rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ fades in over Vangelis’ new-age keyboards. I’m welling up. Okay, the patchy twenty-minute final track proves a fairly gruelling slog, but still, Vangelis: you inspirational genius. I’ve never even seen the film.

Pros: Arouses a deranged sense of triumphant valour and an irrepressible sense of genetic kinship to all things.
Cons: Last song goes on a bit.

Day Five: Tom Twyker, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil - Run Lola Run Soundtrack

I’ve never seen Run Lola Run either. I’ve watched the trailer. It seems to involve plenty of running. The commercial album is significantly longer than the other discs on my six day menu, so I jettison some of the remix versions to create a playlist with a comparable running time (no pun intended). This is purely for accurate, contrastable assessment purposes and not because the idea of a non-stop 75-minute workout terrifies me. Having been blessed with warm, dry weather earlier in the week, Albion’s volatile climate has turned against me, the wind has become sharp and chilly, the clouds grey with occasional showers. I resist the urge to don a bright red wig and skimpy low-cut vest and step out into the cold. Fortunately, Lola’s soundtrack is an intense onslaught of pumping ‘90s techno that barely lets up. The beats stay forcefully, relentlessly up-tempo. The accompanying stabbing synths, shrapnel formed of angle-ground electro shards and sporadic weird screaming samples pan wildly from ear to ear. Actress Franka Potente recites cod-philosophic lines about how she doesn’t believe in pain, trouble or silence, about never giving up, doing the right thing, and running, running, running, running... Cheesy industrial guitar riffs batter me like sheet metal across each side of the head. The whispered spoken word vocals and unashamedly vivacious rave keyboards of ‘Supermarket’ are as if Faithless are weaning themselves off ecstasy pills with raspberry Lucozade. Even the more organic tracks - the holistic tribal percussion of ‘Casino’ and Susie van der Meer’s cello-heavy trip-hop ditty ‘Somebody Has To Pay’ - have a compulsive, forward-thrusting momentum. For the duration, I’m constantly urged to push further, faster and harder. The session flies by and I’m left wondering if I could have managed the full 75 minutes after all.

Pros: Unremitting, adrenaline-pumping, heart-pounding, techno vigour.
Cons: Potential risk of cardiac arrest.

Day Six: Bruce Springsteen - Born To Run

Granted, it isn’t about running in the strict sense of moving quickly by foot. For Springsteen, running means clasping your darlin’ round her waist, placing her firmly but lovingly in the passenger seat of a convertible Cadillac, checking the reflection of your exposed chest hair in the rear-view mirror and speeding off into the sunset. Yet clearly The Boss has never suffered the tubby, pot-bellied body of the compulsive driver. He must follow some kind of severe exercise regime because, even at 63, he’s as buff as any photoshopped CK pants model.

The opening piano riff of ‘Thunder Road’ penetrates my ears like a key into the ignition, my engine roars into gear, the wheels spin, I turn up the dashboard radio and burn rubber towards the promised land, spraying dust over the American Dream and winding down my metaphorical side window to let the imaginary New Jersey breeze flow through my headbanded hair. Every blast of the Big Man’s sax, every tale of triumph over adversity or the glory to be found in failure, and every bellowing Brucie “WOAH-WOAH” is a potent shove from behind. When the title track screams “THE HIGHWAY’S JAMMED WITH BROKEN HEROES ON A LAST CHANCE POWER DRIVE” I practically transform from motorcar to aeroplane (like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and fly off over the trees.

But ‘Born To Run’ is followed by the slower, ploddier ‘She’s The One’, which in turn is followed by the dark and ominous drug-deal narrative ‘Meeting Across The River’ with its solemn sense of impending doom. To make matters worse, my left knee is suffering from a fresh twinge I haven’t noticed before. It lines the front of my kneecap, top to bottom, like a razor trying to slice its way out and split my leg in two. Spurred on by the rivalry, the complaints in my other knee and both ankles grow louder. I try to pick up pace during the rowdier sections of epic closer ‘Jungleland’. When its nine and a half minutes are finally up, I collapse onto the damp grass, resembling one of Springsteen’s “skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.”

Pros: Every note of bombastic stadium rock.
Cons: Ballads.

By the end of my six days, I haven’t experienced any life-changing revelation that’ll have me entering the next local marathon. However, if I do get the sudden urge to go running again, I’ve found some recordings I know will get me through. It’s been confirmed that albums I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy at home can contain hidden delights, only unlocked by putting myself in a different situation and environment. The next time I’m writing a negative review, I might have to run along to the record just in case. But for now, I’m resting. To paraphrase Ringo Starr, “I’ve got blisters in my trainers!” Next week: six great albums to eat Kettle Chips to.

Six Day Run by Circle is out now on Ektro Records

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