In early 1977, the single “When I Need You” by Leo Sayer spent three weeks at the top of the British charts. The song might now suggest a hacked-out bit of easy listening, full of pop doggerel (“When I need you, I hold out my hands and I’m with you / And all that I so want to give you, it’s only a heartbeat away”). But to a young Pete Paphides, it “was a wholly metaphysical entity, allowed to soak thoroughly into the way I saw the world”. He was seven when the song became an inescapable feature of everyday life, and it somehow captured how he felt about his mother, Victoria.
She was born and raised in the suburbs of Athens; his father, Chrystakis, hailed from a Greek-Cypriot village called Saint Ermolaos. The couple had come to Birmingham on the advice of a British soldier who had told them his brother-in-law could get Chrystakis a job at the huge Longbridge car factory, but this came to nothing, and they soon fell into the business of running a fish and chip shop. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent partition scotched any ideas of returning home, and they settled in the south of the city with their two sons.
For their younger child – named Panayiotakis, duly shortened to Takis, before he insisted his friends and teachers called him Peter – life was spent in two very different cultural spaces. This seems to have contributed to “When I Need You” taking on such emotional weight. Along with his lisp, it also contributed to his decision to stop talking to anyone apart from his mother, father and brother – what a child psychologist would call selective mutism. “A trip switch had activated itself in my head,” he writes, “and it was best for me not to talk.”
His silence lasted for almost four years, and forms the initial part of his story. It introduces the reader to the quiet, sensitive child whose experiences are often recounted as first-person social history. In its portraits of Paphides and his parents, the book often brilliantly evokes the web of etiquette, slights and prejudice that immigrants have to negotiate, as well as the ambivalent kind of bond with a home country that meant his father eventually refused to visit Cyprus, because leaving again would be impossible to bear. These themes run alongside recollections of growing up in a country whose tedium, frustrations and small excitements now seem almost exotic.
But the book’s greatest asset is its abundance of material about musicians and songs, and the way that they guided its author through experiences that would have been impossible to navigate alone. Paphides has made a career out of music writing, and his skills in that field have long been clear. But here, he does something much more singular, describing the deep impact music can have on a particular sort of child, long before they are aware of the codes of cool that dictate what one should and shouldn’t like. By way of setting out his stall, he asks: “Do you sometimes feel like the music you’re hearing is explaining your life to you?” I am almost the exact same age as the author, and I instantly recognised just about all his examples of how three-minute hits seemed to speak dizzying existential truths, as well as his sketches of the people responsible for such magic.
One of the book’s touchstones is the work of Abba, whose peak run of singles were full of a pathos that the author projected on to his life, and which spoke not just to Paphides, but his father: the band’s 1976 hit “Money, Money, Money”, he says, suggested “an immigrant lament. It was ‘If I Were a Rich Man’ repurposed for a post-fairytale world.” As Paphides became aware of the group’s real life split from two couples to four individuals, the music’s drama was only heightened. “In the Venn diagram of life and art,” he remembers, “the overlapping space seemed to be growing with every record.” As he recounts, this reached its peak with their last British hit, “The Day Before You Came”, a song so bleak that it did not even have a chorus.
Some of the music he heard sounded simply frightening, as happened with the icy couple of hits that began the career of the Police, one a story of suicide (“neither of them painted a picture of adulthood that I wanted any part of”). Others, by contrast, pulled off the trick of reflecting his inner life back at him, and thereby providing comfort. “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners may have become a wedding-disco staple but in 1982, Paphides heard “the desperate quest for some sort of encounter that might circumvent the awkwardness of courtship”, placed at the heart of a song that instilled “a sense of yearning for something that was still ongoing; making us nostalgic for the present”. Having read those words, I played the record for the first time in years, and heard that quality.
Not everything hits home so acutely. The text sometimes digresses into stuff – about football, mostly – that takes it too far away from its strengths. His parents recede from view as the book progresses, which presumably reflects the growing independence of youth, but deprives the book of an obvious narrative arc. But whenever weaknesses emerge, the text quickly moves into another mixture of memory and musical appreciation that reaffirms a set of truths. Human existence is often extremely difficult. The options available when it all gets too much include two polar opposites. One is the silence Paphides adopted when he was three. The other is the glorious noise that then eased him back into the world.
• Broken Greek is published by Quercus (RRP £20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.