I turn forty before this month is out. Perhaps it should feel more significant, more auspicious than previous anniversaries, but I am viewing the prospect only with as much anticipation as any birthday I’ve had in recent years — which is to say that there’s no better excuse to have a drink with my friends and dinner with my family, contemplate the passage of another year and generally feel thankful I’m still alive.
Naturally though, I am aware that such a landmark year should be observed with some form of celebratory retrospection and to this end, for several weeks on and off, I have quietly assembled a list of forty songs that I feel have some significance in my life to date. I can’t take the credit for this idea — I was inspired by a recent blog by John Robb, who incredibly, turned 50 this year and listed his Fifty. Given my propensity for terrifying verbiage, in direct contrast to Mr Robb’s soulfully witty brevity, I thought it best to do my list ten years early and spare you several thousand words. Be assured I will not assemble another list like this one when I rack up my own half century — I’ll just add ten more songs on to this one and save us all a great deal of time and trouble. None of us are getting any younger after all, you know.
As for compiling my list, well, there are certain criteria. Most of those listed are fave raves from fave bands — but not all. I think when choosing the songs that define your life the biographical context requires one to go beyond the confines of such petty considerations as a pure and simple enjoyment of the music. Also, in order not to clog things up with vast amounts of Beatles, Cardiacs, Jethro Tull and any other bands I tend to be rabidly into, no band gets more than one song — which in some ways complicates my decision-making process enormously! But hey, enough already — let’s start with my favourite ever. Go!
• The Beatles: I Am The Walrus.
It wouldn’t require interrogation at gunpoint for me to volunteer this as my favourite song of all time. It was one of Lennon’s favourites too by his old band, containing ‘enough little biddies going to keep you interested even a hundred years later.’ What biddies indeed. Ringo’s confident, hard-hitting drums lay down an ideal, snappy sound to ground Lennon’s wonderful vocal delivery, which catches him on his most nasally sardonic and irreverent — no wonder the BBC felt moved to ban the song due to the inclusion of the word ‘knickers’. In Lennon’s hands the relentless Jabberwocky of the lyrics come off as the most effortlessly sharp, funny and cool thing in rock history since a-wop-bop-aloo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom. Equally stunning is George Martin’s backing score, with a witty horn countermelody, the Mike Sammes Singers whoooooooo!-ing their way through and a scintillating string arrangement — by turns oozy-woozy, then strident, playful and menacing. The badly-tuned radio station playing out a half-heard performance of King Lear lends an esoteric swirl to the confection and as the song ends, the key changes rising and rising in deliberate, seemingly endless fashion, I can’t but help feeling the whole thing is not so much fading away as moving elsewhere, to bring its snidey, companionable joy to another person in need of a smile. You, maybe?
…and so to the rest, in no particular order:
• The Beach Boys: Feel Flows.
I first heard this in a record shop and it impressed me so much I was prepared to incur the potentially supercilious wrath of the chap behind the counter and ask what it was. To be fair, I don’t remember him snorting with Jack Black-style derision, but instead his answer surprised me. ‘Feel Flows’ is a million miles removed from ‘Little Deuce Coupe’-style perkiness of the ‘classic’ Beach Boys era, and is even further out in the cosmos than ‘Good Vibrations.‘ Hell, this wasn’t even written by Brian Wilson, but he was so enamoured of his brother Carl’s song that he constructed this delicate, shining, devotional and mysterious arrangement. It wraps itself around you with mildly minimalist repetition and some backwards echo, all-enveloping, like a pretty blanket of sunshine.
• Fun Boy Three: Our Lips Are Sealed.
From 1983, quite simply one of the best pieces of pop music ever written in my opinion. Terry Hall wrote it with Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos, who in turn recorded a version, but with nowhere near as much drama, buildup, invention and sheer cool as here. I love the breathy vocal harmonies, the ‘bongs’ all the way through, the congas and cello…it’s just a brilliantly executed song that encapsulates the good things about the Eighties. There was worthwhile stuff there if you looked — and listened — hard enough.
• The Graham Bond Organization: I Want You.
A highlight of my time performing live in a band was having some sexagenerian chap telling me I reminded him of Graham Bond! I like to think the similarity extended beyond being a portly, very hairy individual. Unlike me, Bond was gifted like a god; his hirsute, sweaty onstage persona at odds with organ licks that were swift, smart and downright sexy. He frequently played an equally exciting blast on alto sax any time occasion demanded, with his free hand — yes, at the same time — and his fag-raddled transatlantic-DJ-via-Romford croon is ace! But let’s not overlook the sidemen: they’re only bloody Ginger Baker on drums, Jack Bruce on bass and Dick Heckstall-Smith on tenor sax. Between them, the GBO grind out this deceptively simple, endearingly sleazy song of obsessive desire, with a creeping organ riff and a confident, stonking drum-and-brass strut. It lasts less than two minutes and it cooks. There’s no doubt in my mind that these boys were one of the hottest tickets in London in those pre-Psyched mid-Sixties. At their height they played a gruelling string of dates at legendary venues such as Klook’s Kleek and the Marquee, often taking two in one day. Their story ends suddenly: the GBO split in 1966 due to a lack of interest from most major labels — apparently due in part to the lack of a legitimate pinup in the band to market. Baker and Bruce lured Clapton away from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to form Cream, and Heckstall-Smith co-founded Colosseum. Sadly, Bond himself got increasingly into the wrong combination of booze, drugs and the occult, allegedly believing himself at one point to be Aleister Crowley’s son. After making a series of albums of sporadic brilliance, he met a terrible, tragic end under a Tube carriage at Finsbury Park in 1974.
• The Who: Bell Boy.
Taken from the 1973 Quadrophenia album and used in the patchy 1979 film of the same name; Phil Daniels is the worst actor of his generation and I’ll take on all comers to prove me wrong. That said, the moment it accompanies in the film is rather amusing: the scene where our ‘hero’ finds the Ace Face Mod (played atrociously by Sting) he worshipped down in Brighton ‘in those crazy days…back in ‘63’ reduced to being a bell boy at the Grand Hotel. Live on stage, the song was obviously a showcase for Keith Moon and his comedy gor-bleedin’-blimey Cockney voice. The cocky riff that fanfares his spoken passages is one of my favourites of all time by any band. I think about it every time I take a train down to Brighton and the happy times I often have while I’m there, seeing good friends over a drink or two.
• The Wildhearts: Dangerlust.
I first heard this song while on holiday with my family down near Romney Marshes, Kent, in 1995 at the not-so-tender age of 23. I had got over the teenage reluctance to accompany my parents abroad; instead I viewed a week away from everyone else as a perfect opportunity to do exactly my kind of nothing. The Wildhearts defined the glorious sunshine and sea of that summer. I’d have this played at my funeral: their brand of Beatlesque harmonies over bludgeoning guitar riffage is so luminous and cocksure, particularly in the magnificent chorus. The ending is a little overwrought with its agonised guitar solo, and the descending riff that reminds me, unkindly, of The Phantom Of The Opera, but it works as a sort of comedown from the rest of the song. Ginger is a songwriting genius; a chap who has assured facility with melodies and harmony, while still making it rock as hard as nails and completely wonderful when heard on pub jukeboxes. Also, mind that this song is a B-side and you can appreciate how high his standards are.
• Lipps Inc: Funkytown.
I must have been about seven when this came out. Star Wars was my religion, my drug of choice. Like many boys then — before home video was a domestic essential — I had to find my fix anywhere I could. Consequently I learned a hard lesson in commercial cash-in con-artistry, as inferior copies of the Star Wars format abounded on TV and in the cinema, each vying for my attention. Battlestar Galactica was one such lacklustre example, having less style, and no (class A) substance. What it had going in its favour were similarly funky spaceships to Star Wars and impressive baddies in the form of the silver-clad Cylon centurions. They had a single wandering red eye in the dark recesses of their helmeted heads and their robotically musical voices were created using a Vocoder. The Vocoded sound in Galactica seemed like the future to me, but in truth the effect was favoured by many Disco songs at the time — including ‘Funkytown’. In my seven-year-old, space-opera-addled head I imagined the six-eyed, two-mouthed dancing girls from Battlestar Galactica singing the verses and the Cylons joining in with the ‘Won’t you take me to…?’ refrains on the fade-out — and in the absence of the Cantina Band from Star Wars, that was good enough for me.
• Benjamin Britten: Fugue from The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra.
Benjamin Britten was one of the outstanding, prolific and casually brilliant composers of his generation. His relatively short life straddled a significant sea change in composition in the 20th Century: sometimes Britten rode with the prevailing tide — other times, he was the tide. Cheerful, charming cadence, apocalyptic dissonance, choral mastery and chordal confliction, traditional courtesy and brutal modernism — Mr Britten knew it all. The Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra was written, as the title makes plain, to delineate the roles of each section of the orchestra and uses a popular tune by Henry Purcell as a basis from which to fly away; the 250th anniversary of Purcell’s death occurred the same year and Britten had plenty of respect for the old guard. The fugue itself is essentially a tag-team relay race in sound — a melody played initially on a fleet-footed flute, which is soon picked up by the rest of the woodwind who promptly run off with it. They run into the string section who take it off their hands and hand it over to a witty harp player who toys with it before being overtaken by a triumphant brass section. They in turn run slap-BANG into the percussion section who consume the orchestra in a rhythmic bombard from which fire eventually rises the phoenix of Purcell’s original melody, now somehow working in happy concord with the zippy, electric whirl of Britten’s infernally fiendish fugue. The finale of the piece represents one of the most exciting moments in Classical music for me — the sort of thing I’d play to someone sceptical of its power.
• Groundhogs: Soldier.
A pungent, darkly funky piece of rock from 1970. I wasn’t quite born then, but it seems to conjure up a complete picture in music of how I think those uncertain, early years of the Seventies seemed — a pungent, darkly funky bit of the decade if ever there was one. The theme of war, and the futility of war, as a wise man once put it, pervades the whole album Thank Christ For The Bomb and this song, filtered through the viewpoint of a WWI Tommy, voices the same sense of disenfranchisement many young people doubtless felt in the present about the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. The laid-back drum groove oddly underlines yet contrasts with the taut, spare guitar lines and creates an effective, hip, sombre atmosphere. Many power trios of the time (and ever since) have fallen foul of a mistaken notion: that a perceived deficit of personnel must compensate by all playing hard and loud simultaneously. The Groundhogs never fell into this trap, keeping the instrumental interplay intelligent, intensely interlocking.
• ELP: Karn Evil 9 — First Impression, Part 2.
OK, this really not only takes the biscuit, but the whole tin. Pink wafers, to be precise. Keith Emerson said in an early 90s interview — with rare, self-deprecating accuracy and insight — how he viewed the ELP sound of 20 years previously as ‘tacky, aggressive…almost distorted’ and THIS IS EXACTLY what he was driving at. Imagine a circus organ being shagged by a jazz drummer while a choirboy whose voice hasn’t quite broken yet lists his wildest sexual fantasies over the noise…and words suddenly seem pitifully inadequate. What’s crap about it? It’s manic, self-important, self-indulgent, bombastic, overexcited, overproduced and it doesn’t know how to end, so they put all the endings on one after the other. What’s to like about it? Well, it’s manic, self-important, self-indulgent, bombastic, overexcited, overproduced and it doesn’t know how to end, so they put all the endings on one after the other! Furthermore, I love the barroom piano that comes in on the final verse. I think the keyboard that swoops up at the end an octave to finish on a final note doesn’t quite get there though. Oh, by the way, this is excerpted from a piece that runs for a side and a half of their album, Brain Salad Surgery (1973). Dashingly brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Crushingly awful, awful, awful!
• Lene Lovich: Lucky Number.
I was not quite eight when Lene Lovich burst onto the scene back in ’79 with Lucky Number, but I knew even then that I loved her. Apart from her eyeliner framing those bright, crazy eyes, the expressive hand gestures and plaited pigtails — oh boy! — there was a stark, modern groove going on in the song, all palm-muted guitar chops, trashcan percussion and a skirling jazz organ pad. It was as cool as your eldest brother’s mates. That cool. It’s aged charmingly into a perfect pop classic, with the instantly memorable and daft ah-OO-eh-OO hook and Lovich’s tremulous, Germanic vocal styling. I even had a poster of her taken from Look-In on my cupboard door!
• Skyclad: The Wickedest Man In The World.
Fantasy role-playing games were the main hobby of my friends and I as teenagers. As I edged into my twenties, more pressing things such as college, drinking and my girlfriend vied for attention. I put away childish things but I retained a love for the arcane and fantastical, even enjoying a brief flirtation with witchcraft during my time at College. Inevitably, I found my way to the more pagan-inflected end of Heavy Metal, and Skyclad were definitely that. I managed to quote this song in my degree thesis (which also quoted extensively from Star Wars and even a bit of Doctor Who). This got me the lowest pass mark of anything I have ever put my name to in the name of Eng. Lit, ever. A great song, by the way! Full marks awarded here for the inclusion of a portative pipe organ solo at the start, over the relentless riffing. It has a sort of Hibernian anthemic quality in the choruses and guitars you can warm your hands on!
• Jethro Tull: Baker Street Muse.
Jethro Tull fight for pole position with The Beatles and Cardiacs as possibly my favourite band of all time. Baker Street Muse is an epic, 16-minute-long track from Minstrel In The Gallery (1975). I believe it’s about a) the people and places Ian Anderson could see at all hours from the window of the mews — geddit? — flat off Baker St where he lived at the time, b) IA’s pursuit of a young lady he was courting (eventually his wife) and c) his clear disillusionment with the other chaps in the band, who were more interested in the delights of Monte Carlo - where the album was being recorded – than knuckling down to the job in hand. The music that accompanies this considerable conceptual collation wends its way across the minutes through pastoral pianism, terse rock, acoustic reverie, pseudo-reggae and the sonic equivalent of the kitchen sink: a string quartet. Ahh, the Seventies! The instrumental sequence leading up to and including the song section called ‘Pig-Me and the Whore’ is one of my favourite bits of music ever, in Tull or anywhere else! This song, and many others by Tull formed the soundtrack to blissful teenage evenings indoors, when I could cheerfully blank out my incipient lack of success with girls with a giddy brew of rock music, Coca-Cola and Warhammer miniature painting. No overheads, no major concerns. Happy days.
• Gentle Giant: The Runaway.
Had a hit single in the Sixties as Simon Dupree And The Big Sound before going majorly Prog in the Seventies along with the name change. I really, really wish I’d written this myself: it sets the standard of excellence I struggle for when I try to write my own things. So many good bits in it — Ray Shulman’s bassline does some great things everywhere, the recorders, that marimba solo, lovely analogue synths, John Weathers’ effortlessly crisp and ever-so-slightly funky drumming…it’s all grand! From In A Glass House (1973).
• Men Without Hats: The Safety Dance.
October 1983. My father, for some perverse reason, chose to book a week’s holiday by the coast during Autumn half-term. We had a couple of days of overcast weather and the constant sound of my older brother dragging his heels in boredom, before the weather turned evil. It was the first time I ever saw snow settle on sand dunes — seriously. Meanwhile, something was making fast work of me inside and as the week wore on I came down with flu. Proper flu. I was sick nine times in one day — I counted, given little else to do. Mindful of the expense my father had gone to securing the bungalow, I stoically insisted we stick out the full week. I’m not sure why I did that now, to be honest. ‘The Safety Dance’ was a sleeper hit, being released in the US a good year or so earlier than when it charted over here. It was as if the transatlantic delay was engineered on purpose to save my life as I lay in nauseous delirium in my holiday bedroom, the curtains drawn round the clock and my only distractions being Lucozade, my sister’s copy of Smash Hits (cover star: Jimmy The Hoover), paper, pencils and Radio 1. The best song on the radio all week. It sounds medieval in a way to my ears now. I’m sure the accompanying video for the song helped sell this idea, but imagine my delight when I ended up chatting online one time a few years ago to one of the chaps in the band, who glibly informed me that ‘The Safety Dance’ was based on an instrumental by medieval composer Guillaume de Machaut. I hauled him up on this as I understood Machaut only wrote one instrumental in his lifetime…and he delighted me with a series of intelligent replies back and forth on medieval music! I think he was glad to chat about something other than synth-pop. Anyway, I can sort of hear what he means…
• Stephen Stills: Bound To Fall.
In 1972, Stephen Stills’ immense supergroup Manassas produced their eponymous debut double album that I’d wager is a veritable ‘White Album’ for the Seventies — encompassing a wide range of styles including soul, funk, pop, rock, country and bluegrass. Stills, whose genius was peaking at this time, penned the lion’s share of the songs himself, and brilliantly so, but my favourite song on Manassas is ‘Bound To Fall’, a cover of a song brought to the group by fellow bandmember Chris Hillman. Hillman had recorded an atrociously misarranged instrumental version while in his previous band, The Byrds. Stills’ pared down, brisk guitar-picking take on it makes light work of the song’s tricky time changes and metre to create a skittish, exquisite miniature, not two minutes long, reflecting on the sometimes self-defeating uncertainties of life. He makes it his own.
• Pink Floyd: Arnold Layne.
Syd Barrett’s glorious 1967 version of Pink Floyd descend from the skies upon the record-buying public with their debut single: a song about a thieving transvestite who used to run riot in Cambridge. Barrett wrote practically everything for the band at this point and neither his successor Dave Gilmour nor Floyd mainman Roger Waters, marvellous as they are, never had the sardonic, psychedelic smile Syd managed to write into every bar! What a confident, likeable and instantly catchy number to start a career on — one of the greatest ever.
• The Nice: Azrael Revisited.
Put simply, The Nice are the version of ELP it’s ok to admit to liking. I love this tune with disproportionate zeal, as it seems to end up on nearly every playlist I’ve ever put together since I first heard it during happy days spent at Sixth Form College. What’s so good about it? The piano intro with the tick-tocks, the chippy, effective bass line, Lee Jackson’s endearingly awful singing, the wonderfully jazzy, smug-sounding piano breakdown and re-build-up in the middle, that guiro that comes in near the end, the 'shooby-doo-wah, shoo-dooby-wah’s… it just goes on and on. Was there ever a perkier tune about Death?
• Led Zeppelin: Gallows Pole.
From their third album (1970). My favourite song by Led Zep is a ‘trad. arr.’ rather than a true Zep original, but no-one else could bang this out. How electrified, amplified instruments evoke the arcane, recondite world of cruel injustice described in the lyrics escapes me, but it works. I particularly love the way John Bonham’s drums hold back as long as they can and then kick in with the banjo (!) — also, Jimmy Page’s fuzz lead guitar sound at the end is lovely, not to mention John Paul Jones’ relentless, descending bass line that carries the song away, Bonham brilliantly adding in ghost beats on the snare drum as it goes.
• Transglobal Underground: Shimmer.
In 1998, I was working in a record shop, and felt pretty coooool. I visited Amsterdam in the Spring — a long weekend adventure which cemented a taste for smoking hash. For a while it was all really groovy, man. The paranoia and panic attacks that required me to moderate and ultimately swear off the gear were in the future and I spent virtually every day of the Summer of ’98 in some form of genial, dope-induced haze. My mate Dave was a regular, smiling purveyor of appropriate soundtracks during this mind-journey and helped foster my not-so-well-known liking for certain types of dance music. Welcome to the most tasteful, danceable and gently hippified of genres — namely, global fusion — I was never a drum’n’bass-head or acid techno freak! ‘Shimmer’’s brisk groove turned me onto the slinky vocals of Arabo-Belgian chanteuse Natacha Atlas, plus I rather like the bit where it stops for an irregular, discordant bar and restarts again, if you hear what I mean. ‘Shimmer’ showed me that dance music didn’t have to be aggressive, chavvy or annoyingly in-your-face, but instead be loving, benevolent and groovesome. Suitably inspired, I went ahead and recorded a version of this song using samples of Maria Callas, which one day I will screw up the courage to play to the world.
• The Cleaners From Venus: Illya Kuryakin Looked At Me.
The Cleaners From Venus were the unsung heroes of pop in the Eighties, comprising Giles Smith (now a respected journalist and writer) on keyboards and the indefatigably talented ‘Essex Lennon’, Mr Martin Newell on guitar and vocals. Newell remains a dauntless force of creativity to this day, encompassing poetry, comedy, broadcasting, writing, performing and gardening. Lots of gardening. This song, pulled from the Cleaners’ clutch of effortlessly shiny tunes, uses a trip to London that the boy Newell took in 1966 from East Anglia — briefly locking eyes with David McCallum himself in Leicester Square — as a springboard for a veritable Sixties fantasia. I like songs that namecheck a lot, and this one really is a beginner’s guide to who and what was hip in Swinging London, wrapped up in a nice walking bassline, some ‘posh chords’ in the verses and a vigorous sample of John Lennon (’good night to yez all, and God bless yez!’) that Apple have never seen fit to take action over, which is justly nice of them.
• Levellers: Men-an-Tol.
Something of a guilty pleasure these days, the Levellers, as their oh-so-very-right-on lyrics and general vagrantish crustiness has aged in these more savvy and cynical times…but I remember a time as a student (when else?) when they seemed relevant and bang on the money. They always had good tunes to boot! This is my favourite Levs song…now when I hear it, I can hear the Appalachian-style songs popularised by Pentangle, for example, suggesting a reassuringly unbroken folk-rock lineage. As a student, I was inspired to visit the Men-an-tol down in Zennor, Cornwall after hearing this song: a day that will live in my memory as the closest my feisty girlfriend of the time got to dishing out physical violence — all because I’d dragged her along, on foot, on a crazy wild-goose-chase across the moors to find a prehistoric megalith that turned out to be the size and shape of a car tyre! The photographs lied, man, they lied to us!
• The Monkees: Pleasant Valley Sunday.
Put simply, a classy song by Carole King and Jerry Goffin and the chaps do a great job on the vocals. It’s almost an Americanised answer to something Ray Davies would write Tor the Kinks on the subject of synthesised suburban sameness — if Ray could be considered a question?! Anyway, it’s really not bad for a manufactured boy band! The ending in a tidal wave of feedbacking echo could be a compositional cop-out, but it’s effective nonetheless.
• Cream: White Room.
It would be almost impossible for a chap with my pretensions of impeccable classic rock credentials to leave Cream off this list. I must confess that were this list compiled five years ago, they would never have figured on it, so late in life did I finally ‘get’ the world’s first rock supergroup. I have the time I spent in a Blues covers band to thank for my tardy, but heartfelt appreciation — a heady time it was while it lasted, when I embarked on a crash course in the British Blues Boom of the early/mid-Sixties and discovered the wonderfully grubby, horny world of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, The Graham Bond Organization and the band that emerged from within both of them: Cream. ‘White Room’ possibly represents the most stately, elegantly stoned moment in the Cream canon — a beguiling mixture of blue-eyed funky groove with a mild splash of time-signature tricksiness topped off with a tasteful bit of psychedelic rock riff bludgeon. In short, a neatly packaged account of where everything was at in the late Sixties.
• Steeleye Span: Thomas The Rhymer.
Pizza toppings, opera, makeup, sex toys…the maxim ‘less is more’ holds true for so many things in life. ‘Thomas The Rhymer’ is a noteworthy exception to the rule. There are two versions: the seven-minute album cut and a short, snappy single half the length that omits the slow bits. The original is far superior for leaving the longeurs intact, affording Maddy Prior a chance to really stretch out vocally and allowing the piece to breathe, conferring a hazy, atmospheric sense of weight and drama — and quite simply, it rocks. From Now We Are Six (1974), which was produced by Ian Anderson, all you Tull fans…
• Genesis: The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway/Fly On A Windshield/Broadway Melody Of 1974.
OK, I’m cheating slightly by listing three songs here, but they’re linked in a manner I find indivisible. Progressive rock was my particular bag during the latter years at Secondary School. The late Eighties: little from that decade seemed anywhere near as interesting. I had started with Jethro Tull, Hawkwind and Pink Floyd — but the band that really sorted the men out from the boys was Genesis. Specifically, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis — they blended the Hammond-driven onslaught of classic 70s Prog with pastoral, intricate and often delicate passages in a way that evoked the same sense of mysticism found in British classical music. My friends and I could argue over the merits of albums such as Selling England By The Pound or Trespass but one thing we all agreed on was that The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was the Gabriel-era band’s magnum opus: a double album telling the story of a New York City punk who enters a surreal parallel world in a bid to rescue his lost brother — with suitably weird consequences. The monolithic double album with the cool black-and-white cover intimidated us before we had even heard a note. How marvellous to report, then, that upon first hearing it — bought for a friend as an eighteenth birthday present and played at that evening’s party — the opening triptych of songs created an instantly accessible, atmospheric and esoteric soundtrack to the proceedings. Tony Banks’ keyboard playing on the album must rank as some of the most varied and interesting work he’s ever recorded, particularly his wonderfully creepy Mellotron choir. The album, along with the others recorded during Gabriel’s tenure in the group, has infused into my happiest memories of Sixth Form schooldays. Genesis continue to remind me of sweeter, more innocent times when my friends and I were on the cusp of adulthood, full of unqualified, untempered optimism with the world and everything it offered.
• The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band: Trouser Press.
When we weren’t taking ourselves ever-so-seriously with the likes of Genesis, me and my chums in Sixth Form would amuse ourselves with Monty Python. We’d even record ourselves performing the best-known routines, frequently allowing a combination of memory lapse and freewheeling improvisation to take the comedy in unforeseen directions — or so we thought at the time, anyway. I’m sure many of these recordings have not withstood the test of time and cynicism, but I remember them fondly. We needn’t have bothered in many ways, as the Bonzos had done it all already. They always seemed like a musical scion to the Python scene, as it were, and we would frequently intersperse their brand of knockabout comedy among our own efforts on tape. We viewed Viv Stanshall as an eccentric, estranged elder brother, a companionable arm around our collective shoulders as we ploughed through our A-Levels and imitated his multifarious voices all day long. ‘Trouser Press’ is exemplary, features a solo performed by Roger Ruskin-Spear on the eponymous hotel room device and a wonderfully fruity bit of Viv’s Radio 4-speak at the end. It’s a groove!
• David Bowie: Hang Onto Yourself.
From, if you didn’t know (and I’m sure you do) The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (1972). At the age of 14, I was interested in music, but lacking sufficient pocket money to buy records. I spent hours recording albums I borrowed off my student sister. In this fashion, Bowie was the first musician I ever got seriously into — and my loyalty was based on stuff like this, from a great, great album; a marvellous proper bloody rock’n’roll song!
• Guillaume de Machaut: Kyrie from the Messe de Notre-Dame.
In medieval music terms, Machaut is The Guv’nor. In a time when composers remained anonymous and cheerfully so it would seem, Guillaume de Machaut can lay claim to writing one of the earliest polyphonic choral settings of the Mass. Don’t underestimate this achievement: in rock terms it’s like arguing over who invented the concept album and in religious terms, the Mass setting was the high water mark of musical expression at the time. Machaut brought innovation, intricacy, intelligence and intensity to his music that few have matched today. I have an obsessive fascination with Machaut’s Mass, owning about 20 separate recordings of it. Every reading is different and fascinating.
• Cardiacs: A Little Man And A House.
Words fail to describe the sensation of transcendent majesty that composer Tim Smith evokes with the world he has created in Cardiacs. This song, an elegy to the daily grind of work, of every crappy job you and I have ever been in, is not only a companionable crutch, but in its final refrain of “that’s the way we all go” something of a valediction. As I type this, Tim Smith rests in a care home, stricken by a fell combination of a stroke and heart attack that has left him powerless to move and capable of only limited communication. I wish him a speedy turnaround of this situation. I suspect that Tim’s greatest work is yet to come, fermenting in the long still hours he spends every day. What musical adventures.
• Deep Purple: Flight Of The Rat.
Wow, 1970. What a spectacularly hirsute year that was. I wasn’t quite conceived in this most heavy of years but how profoundly the music must have oscillated in my embryonic ether, so deep is the love I have for music of this time. Certain years in rock music seem to crystallise a certain kind of musical outlook and 1970, as Ian Anderson said of his own group’s output, was definitely the Year Of The Riff. Groundhogs, Free, Tull, Edgar Broughton Band, Gentle Giant, Taste, Heep…stanky, grimy slabs of hairy sound abounded from all these guys and many more. For some bands, the riffage was a brief detour from their trademark sound. For others, it was the missing link in their musical evolution. So it was in 1970 that Deep Purple, after three albums in as many years spent furzling around trying to find a direction, finally ‘got it’. New recruits Ian Gillan and Roger Glover, fresh from their previous band together, debuted on Purple’s breakout album, In Rock and their arrival was intrinsically linked to the new sound — a fast, flick-knife collection of hip songs with flip lyrics and grandstanding performances from all band members. I could have chosen any of the songs on In Rock, but ‘Flight Of The Rat’ seems to have it all: Gillan’s committed vocals, Jon Lord’s ace, overdriven organ, fleet, chippy drumming from Ian Paice, Glover’s solid, dextrous bass and Richie Blackmore’s don’t-give-a-toss guitar onslaught, complete with a funky wah-wah breakdown halfway through that gives the lie to his later, outrageous eschewal of the ‘shoeshine music’ that informed Purple’s mid-Seventies period with David Coverdale. This is the sound of a group firing on all five barrels.
• Egg: You Are All Princes.
Another pungent progressive number, this time from the cusp of 1969-70, by a trio hailing from the so-called ‘Canterbury Scene’ shared by Soft Machine, National Health and Caravan. Egg were short-lived and only three in number and album output, but they were formidable, comprising gentlemen who would perhaps be defined by what came after their stint as Egg: Mont Campbell on vocals and bass, who remains to this day a scholar of music, Clive Brooks, a drummer of mathematical facility with a hard-hitting style sufficient to win him the stool in Groundhogs several years later, and most famously Dave Stewart, later of National Health, his work with Barbara Gaskin and various other eminent groups. Their skills combine to murderously delightful effect on this song, a mere b-side of their debut single, featuring some cocky, strutting rhythm and time changes from Brooks, a demented, off-key, utterly magical harpsichord and Hammond part from Stewart and an epic, beguiling croon and tight bass from Campbell. It’s an entire concept album distilled into three and three-quarter minutes.
• Béla Bartók: Allegretto from Piano Suite.
Some of the earliest music I ever recall hearing would have been my sister practising her piano, playing pieces from the grade books of the Associated Board Of The Royal Schools Of Music. They were usually short, crisp pieces, written specially for children by eminent composers such as W.A. Mozart, Dmitri Kabalevsky, Henk Badings and Béla Bartók. I can’t be certain if Bartók’s Piano Suite itself was one of the pieces in these books, but upon hearing this music in my early twenties I was instantly transported back to cosy evenings in winter, gazing up at the moon in rapt three-year-old astonishment through the dining room window, listening to my sister at the piano.
• John Williams: The Asteroid Field from The Empire Strikes Back.
Like so many exponents on this list, I could have chosen a dozen pieces from the Star Wars saga to represent my love for the films and particularly John Williams’ dazzling score. Nearly every character has a memorable, hummable tune to accompany them and the music often plays with multiple themes and tonal variations to ecstatic effect. It’s an interesting thing to note, then, given Williams’ well-known love of leitmotif that this piece features a main theme that recurs nowhere else in Star Wars. It’s essentially a scherzo for Millennium Falcon and planetoids — a swift, dashing hummingbird humdinger of a melody that accompanies the exciting action onscreen shot for shot before moving ultimately and without effort into The Empire Strikes Back’s sweeping ‘Love Theme’. It’s not all about spaceships, laser swords and explosions in Star Wars, you know. Well, not in decent Star Wars at any rate. Discuss.
• Black Sabbath: After Forever.
Nothing wrong with this one at all, no sir. Some weird phased synthi-noise (is it just a cymbal being smashed? What on earth is it?) gives way to a crunching uptempo bit of classic Sabs riffage courtesy of ‘Tombstone’ Tony Iommi himself, kicked along by Bill Ward’s curt drum fills and topped — well, bottomed — off with a Geezer Butler bassline that nods to the one on The Beatles’ ‘Paperback Writer’, of all things. Ozzy Osbourne declaims the lyrics in suitably sardonic fashion, a frontman at the top of his game. Ironically, the song is a warning about the danger to one’s immortal soul should you not find God — a lyrical stance that runs throughout all of Sabbath’s most notorious years and yet one the music press failed to notice. They were too busy looking at the crucifixes (upright for the most part) to even listen to the words — it may have made sense if they had. As Ozzy once remarked, “the nearest we ever got to Black Magic was a box of chocolates.”
• Fugazi: Smallpox Champion.
I had a friend called Wayne when I was at University. Wayne was an outspoken skinhead who used his hands most dramatically in conversation and was fiercely proud of his Northern roots. He was instantly easy to get along with and put me onto pretty much the entire American punk/hardcore scene of the late Eighties/early Nineties. Over a course of weeks, I fell under the spell of NoMeansNo, Dead Kennedys, Gorilla Biscuits, Black Flag, Nirvana and many, many others. Fugazi had a spacious, almost jazzy take on the punk groove and a penchant for anthemic choruses. The lyrics of this song are uncomfortable and inconclusive, dealing with the suspicion that infected blankets are given to the people of starving nations to speed their demise and enable takeover. As a student, this was exactly the kind of ambiguous content I looked for in a song, but melodically, the instrumentation is structured, incisive and brilliant. Put simply, this is my favourite song to play on bass guitar. Not difficult, nor flashy — just a groove to lock into and play forever. Sadly, Wayne and I parted company as time and different considerations wore on at College. Sometimes I wonder where he is.
• Hawkwind: Damnation Alley.
Based on the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny, although I strongly suspect that Robert Calvert’s drew concurrent inspiration was the film adaptation, which was released the same year as Hawkwind’s epic song. Calvert had a taste for Zelazny’s Pan-paperback-type sci-fantasy worlds, not to mention those of sometime Hawkwind collaborator Michael Moorcock — and it wouldn’t be the last time he set Zelazny’s witty, noirish books to Hawkwind’s music: check out the superb ‘Jack Of Shadows’ on the follow-up album, PXR5. Anyway, none of this was relevant to me when I first heard it courtesy of my schoolfriend Tony, way back when we were fifteen and preoccupied with girls, GCSEs and Warhammer: to me, it was the ideal soundtrack to accompany a Judge Dredd graphic novel. Greatness is built using a sparse set of ingredients on this song; Brock’s standard busking riff and chord changes are reminiscent of Fifties boogie, Paul Rudolph’s bass too, but all is rendered brave-new-worldly by Calvert’s waspish, proto-punk vocal delivery and some beautiful, understated synth backing. The central section where the song breaks down to a grave meditative organ melody coupled with Simon King’s snappy, driving drum breaks is so simple, almost slight, yet totally effective. Another good example of a song that, at over nine minutes, is exactly the length it should be.
• Van der Graaf: The Sphinx In The Face.
For such an obvious, card-carrying Prog-head, I confess I came to the music of Peter Hammill and his endlessly recombining variations of Van der Graaf Generator very late on indeed. This year, in fact. Sure, I had a VdGG compilation CD bought several years earlier, but I remember how little impression it had on me at the time. I fear I was seeking something more overtly riffy and bludgeoning. More fool me: what I missed out on was the sheer devotional, pseudo-religious intensity of Hammill’s world and it took me a few more years of listening around before I had the aural and emotional equipment to grok in fullness. I have my friend JCC to thank for putting me back onto these guys at a time when it seemed right. I can identify with Hammill’s DIY ethic of home recording/engineering which produces startling results for at least one of us (clue: not me) and his lyrical preoccupations are becoming increasingly simpatico. On ‘The Sphinx In The Face’ we find Hammill, not quite 30, but painfully aware of his dwindling youth, declaiming the conflict that faces everyone as they go into their fourth decade: a cyclical, almost hypnotic series of sparkling chord changes recur over a lyric of contradictions (So here! So gone! So young! So old — such a drag to be told etc) that chimed as much for me facing the Big Four-Oh as it did for Hammill of ten years younger. Ironic for Hammill that as 2011 saw VdGG release their latest album, they stand alone from their Seventies rock peers for defying the ageing process: their latest album is neither nostalgic, nor conceding to old age or sensitivity. Only the photo of the band betrays the generation of the Generator. They make as much racket, as much awe with as much energy and brilliance as ever.
• Praetorius: Bransles des villages performed by The New London Consort, dir. Philip Pickett.
There have been many recordings of the collection Terpsichore, originally published in 1612 by the Lutheran composer Praetorius, but Pickett’s is up there with the very best. Love that hurdy-gurdy — once it starts it holds the note for the remaining minutes of the tune and the way everything harmonises round it… wow! So elegant, so refined, yet so joyous. In 1991 I was mid-way through a disastrous, ill-conceived stint training as a broker for Lloyd’s Of London. It was while visiting some friends in Norwich who were into their second term at University that I experienced an ‘epiphanic moment’ and worked out the Rest Of My Life. Everything that happened in Norwich on that trip, and every subsequent trip over the Spring of ’91 took on a significance that informs my life to this very day. Philip Pickett’s album of Terpsichore was purchased in East Anglia’s Fine City that weekend. It remains even now a direct conduit to the jollity, warmth and promise of those heady days spent discussing the future with like-minded friends over a drink. It very nearly wasn’t so — upon initial purchase, the salesperson accidentally inserted a CD of music by Benjamin Britten inside the case. I had to return to the shop hours later to exchange the mistaken disc, but not before I had the seed sown in my head to check out the work of East Anglia’s most famous composing son. See — even the mistakes at this time took on new life.
• Booker T & The MGs: Green Onions.
Let’s end on a masterpiece. It’s flawless, funky, sexy-cool and I’d view you with suspicion if you didn’t like it, frankly. It’s also got more than a slinky whiff of intent about it too, which is never a bad thing. Hey, I didn’t invite you back just for a cup of coffee, you know!
Right, that’s that. I’ll go now. Until next time — which will be November at this rate: you’ve had quite enough from me for another month!
Many things on Blu-Ray, a format new to me:
Withnail & I (Bruce Robinson, 1986)
Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)
The Alien tetralogy of films. (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1979, 1986, 1992, 1997) I hate the term ‘quadrilogy’, it’s redundant and ignorant.
The Star Wars saga. (George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1999, 2002, 2005)
Almost too much detail for the eye to take in on some of those!
Also, George Harrison: Living In The Material World: Martin Scorsese’s brand-new, epic documentary on The Quiet Beatle, a three-and-a-half-hour marathon that whizzes by like that. Featuring insightful and refreshingly off-guard interviews with McCartney and Starr — perhaps mutually appreciative of Scorsese’s attention — plus lesser-heard key players in the life of George: Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr are especially welcome. Also Eric Clapton being a well-meaning dick. Endless, and endlessly intriguing.
Doctor Who: Day Of The Daleks (BBC, 1972)
Steptoe And Son series 4, 5, 6 (BBC, 1972-74)
Blake’s 7: series 4 (BBC, 1981)
Hancock's Half Hour: the complete episodes (BBC, 1956-61)
North Sea Radio Orchestra (North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2007)
Michael Praetorius: Michaelisvesper (Knabenchor Hannover, 2009)
Skin (Peter Hammill, 1985)
Wasa Wasa (Edgar Broughton Band, 1969)
Sing Brother Sing (Edgar Broughton Band, 1970)
Edgar Broughton Band (Edgar Broughton Band, 1971)
In Side Out (Edgar Broughton Band, 1972)