Musical words…. A Top Ten Music Book List

Alrighty, lets see about combing the two usual focuses of this blog into one post –  music and books, books about music.

A good book about music or musicians isn’t as common as you’d think. There are shit loads of duffers out there – poorly researched and badly written fluff pieces. Some musicians who you’d expect a really good book out of tend to spend more time talking about their model railway collection than about the making of After The Gold Rush and some make it a little too obvious that they have an ulterior motive in a book release other than just a memoir – Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, for example.

But, there are some bloody belters out there and there’s a reason that a good chunk of my library is given over to a ‘music’ section. I’m sticking close to this blog’s wheelhouse here, obviously, but honourable mentions should go to The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross and Peter Doggett’s There’s a Riot Going on: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60s Counter-culture.

In no particular order, then, are my ten favourite music biogs / auto-biogs / books etc…

Pearl Jam – Twenty

Put out as part of the celebrations surrounding the band’s twentieth anniversary – the clue is in the title – which included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, CD, live album, two-day festival and short tour… Pearl Jam Twenty is a year-by-year oral history of the band’s career. Stuffed to the bindings with imagery and photos, this is as intimate and candid as you’ll get for Pearl Jam, notoriously shy of publicity and exceedingly unlikely to offer anything resembling an official biography. There’s a wealth of humour and details in here given the format and it’s fuelled many a post on this blog and every time I open it up to refresh my memory I end up absorbed again.

Keith Richards – Life

Did you know Mick Jagger started an autobiography? Sometime in the 80’s – presumably during the lull in Stones activity, he got quite far with his book but promptly forgot about it – when he was later approached by a publisher he could neither remember writing it or let it be published. Somehow, Keith Richards remembered even more and not only finished but published his autobiography, Life. Could have been something to do with the publisher giving an advance of $7m based on a short extract, but Life is an essential read for even a minor Stones fan like me. Yes there’s the thrills and vicarious spirit of rock ‘n’ roll excess – but it’s his honesty and unflinching and everlasting love for music that really comes across, you understand how he became known as the human riff. Worth following up with the Netflix doc on Keith too if you’re in the mood.

Mark Yarm – Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge

This book is, frankly, immense. In its scope, its telling and impact. Just reading it you can feel how much work and love has gone into this telling of the Seattle music scene – from its origins to its current status. The highs (both natural and chemical) and lows – some of which are pretty fucking dark and were a real discovery for me – are all covered in a forthright manner that manages to remain factual and detailed while also a clearly affectionate chronicle, sometimes gossipy, often hilarious and regularly revealing. It can’t be easy to build a narrative from so many and often conflicting memories (The Melvins’ Buzz Osborne comes across as a bit of a contrary prick) but Yarm has created what can only be described as the Bible of the scene here.

Bob Dylan – Chronicles Vol. One

“I’d been on an eighteen month tour with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. It would be my last. I had no connection to any kind of inspiration. Whatever was there to begin with had all vanished and shrunk. Tom was at the top of his game and I was at the bottom of mine.”

Wait, what? Nobody was expecting it, but Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One appeared like a revelatory bolt from the blue in 2004 after he got ‘carried away’ writing linear notes for planned reissues of Bob DylanNew Morning and Oh Mercy. The memoir – apparently the first of three (who know when) – is a detailed and candid insight into Dylan’s life, thinking and writing at the time of those three albums. The dejection and lack of direction he felt for his career while on tour with Petty is pre- Oh Mercy which, it turns out, came about thanks to Bono, an obscure singer with a little-known Irish band called U2* who, for some reason, Dylan showed the songs he’d started putting together and, while old Bob thought about burning them, suggested he call Daniel Lanois instead…

There’s a lot to discover in these three ‘vignettes’ considering the brevity of the periods covered and it’s a vital read for any Dylan fan. For a less personal and fuller Dylan read, Howard Sounes’ Down The Highway does a comprehensive and enjoyable job of telling Dylan’s story while keeping clear of the myth(s).

Speaking of stripping away the myth..

Peter Guralnick – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of AND Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley 

This isn’t a double-header, I’m not sneaking two books into one slot, both deserve a spot on this list but as you just can’t read one and not the other I’ll cover both in one go. I bought these books a long time before I got to reading them. I’m not a big fan of Elvis, I can quite quickly name a Top Ten but I don’t go deep with the King. These books do and I’d mark them as essential.

Last Train to Memphis does a magnificent job in detailing – and I mean detailing – the rise of Elvis Presley right up to the point where he’s shipped out to Germany in 1958. Where he’s from, who he was as a person, his love for music, getting started, this book is rich in detail and interview and a real eye-opener. Guralnick finds the truth behind what has become a much retold and embellished story that’s become so familiar that the truth of a poor young truck driver who loved nothing above his mother and music and came out of nowhere to become the biggest thing the world had seen is far too often forgotten. Take, as an example, the words of Marion Keisker, the secretary at Sun records who recognised something special in the polite teenager’s voice, words on the enigma surrounding Elvis: “He was like a mirror in a way: whatever you were looking for, you were going to find in him. It was not in him to say anything malicious. He had all the intricacy of the very simple.”

The degree to which Last Train to Memphis manages to deliver the real Elvis Presley makes Careless Love all the more affecting. Once again – the demise of Elvis’ career and the man himself are too often mistold and the stock of parody: fat Elvis dying on the throne trying to take a dump surrounded by hamburgers and tv sets….

Careless Love gets underway with Elvis’ time in the army in ’58 and chronicles the gradual unravelling of the dream that had burnt so bright in Last Train To Memphis and details in disturbing detail the complex playing-out of Elvis’s relationship with his plotting, money-grabbing and manipulative manager, Colonel Tom Parker. The lying Dutchman’s desperate attempts to stop Elvis returning to the road after his comeback special (he’d have less control of him on the road), his continual pushing of terrible movie after terrible movie, the appalling contract and commission he took which fuelled his greed…. it wasn’t drugs that did for Elvis if you ask me. Written with a grace and affection for its subject, Careless Love is the real deal, a true insight into the end of one of the biggest and misunderstood figures of the 20th century.

While neither made me run out and buy anything beyond the couple of compilations that sit on my shelves, both of these books changed how I thought about Elvis.

Oddly, looking back as I write this, it’s not an Elvis song that comes to mind here:

George Harrison – I, Me, Mine

My love for this book isn’t so much down to what’s revealed or any ‘shocking truths’ – this aren’t necessary really. Though apparently John Lennon was pissed off (it came out a few months before he was murdered) and claimed to be hurt as the book doesn’t refer to Lennon as being a musical influence. What I love is the warmth and feel of I, Me, Mine. My version is that which was published in 2002, not long after Harrison had passed, with a new forward from his wife Olivia.  The autobiography itself isn’t essentially long or detailed but it’s everything else about this book I love – the bounty of photos and the song lyrics- copies of handwritten lyrics included – with details on the writing of each: “‘What is Life’ was written for Billy Preston in 1969. I wrote it very quickly, fifteen minutes or half an hour maybe…. it seemed too difficult to go in there and say ‘Hey I wrote this catch pop sing; while Billy was playing his funky stuff. I did it myself later on All Things Must Pass.”

 

Aerosmith – Walk This Way

My first taste of musical bios is a pretty extreme one. I bought this when it came out (first edition hardback still sitting on my shelves looking rather well read) and I was really starting to get into Aerosmith. Written by Stephen Davis and the band, Walk This Way was the first official telling of the Aerosmith story, from the band members’ origins and the formation of the group through to its early rise and debauchery to its drug-fuelled collapse and nadir before being reborn via sobriety in the mid-80s – much is given over to this process and the resentment Tyler felt at the time, Perry being involved in the intervention while still using etc and the troubles that nearly caused another break up prior to Nine Lives.

Since publication three of members have written their own memoirs (oddly I’ve only read Steven Tyler’s) and have suggested that Walk This Way is perhaps a little… sanitised and glosses over a few things. Odd considering just how shocking some of what this covers …

Mark Blake – Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd

I mentioned this one recently and I still believe it deserves a place in my Top 10. While there’s never likely to be as complete and comprehensive a Pink Floyd autobiography as desired – Nick Mason’s Inside Out comes close but is obviously his own story – as a) Gilmour and Waters don’t really get on and b) Syd Barrett and Richard Wright are no longer with us… Pigs Might Fly is a thoroughly detailed and researched ‘as close as you’ll ever get’.

Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

Of course this is bloody well going to be on here. This is pretty much top of the list and sets a new benchmark for how autobiographies should be written. I wasn’t expecting this one to be written so well or so candidly. In my original review for this, which was extensive so I won’t go overboard here, I said: It is an absolute blast to read. Written completely solo and without the assistance of a ghost-writer, the voice is clearly that of Bruce – at times cuttingly honest, at others poetic and then written as though delivering a sermon from the stage on the LIFE SAVING POWERS OF ROCK AND ROLL!!! (yes, the caps-lock button is Bruce’s friend). Contained within its five hundred or so pages is the story of how a young man from a poor, working class family in the town of Freehold, New Jersey, fell in love with music, got a guitar, learned how to make it talk, refined his craft and cracked the code. It’s fascinating and joyous stuff.

 

*If there isn’t a tribute band called ‘Not You Too’ then I’ll bloody well start one.

Blog Tour: Johnny Ruin by Dan Dalton

From the PR: “If a tree falls in a forest and Jon Bon Jovi is with you when it happens, is it still a figment of your imagination?

Depression can be hell.

Heartbroken and lonely, the narrator has made an attempt on his own life. Whether he meant to or not he can’t say. But now he’s stuck in his own head, and time is running out.

To save himself, he embarks on a journey across an imagined America, one haunted by his doomed relationship and the memory of a road trip that ended in tragedy. Help arrives in the guise of Jon Bon Jovi, rock star and childhood hero. An unlikely spirit guide, perhaps, but he’s going to give it a shot…”

There’s a review quote that’s on the PR flyer for this book that ponders who, if you find yourself in a dark wood in your life, you’d want to lead you out: “Virgil or Jon Bon Jovi?” To be fair, ‘these days’ I’d say JBJ. Not, as this book is keen to point out from the get go, Jon Bon Jovi of ‘Livin On A Prayer’ or even today’s grey-haired purveyor of faff, specifically the JBJ of ’94 vintage who “circa Cross Road had the shorter hair, the Henley shirt, the Lennon sunglasses. Gone was the poodle perm, the floor-length leather coat. 1994 Jon Bon Jovi was the coolest man I’d ever seen. This is that Jon Bon Jovi. The same one who’s urinating off the top of the tree trunk, his stream of hot piss narrowly missing me.”

Johnny Ruin has an original premise. Depressed and broken following the end of a relationship and some pretty horrific events that are gradually revealed as the book progresses, the narrator has taken a hefty wallop of pills and alcohol and has five ‘days’ to fix himself via a journey through his mind with, yes, Jon Bon Jovi as his guide / companion.

What starts as a funny and original idea with handling a quarter-life crisis via a trip through your own consciousness with one of New Jersey’s most famous soon grows into a more powerful and moving novel that gets pretty dark as the narrator desperately tries to ‘fix’ his mind even as his worst enemy – himself, of course – works to undermine his efforts.

There’s a stream of consciousness element to the writing which suits the idea that we’re travelling through the narrator’s mind, with key memories and thoughts punched up as billboards. Punchy and witty, the story gets pretty raw as we learn it’s not just a rough breakup that the narrator is struggling to move past as Johnny Ruin becomes a compelling and provoking story about loss, guilt and, of course, depression – there’s also plenty of music references and wit in the mix to keep it zipping along and ensure you’re rooting for the narrator too as he realises what a colossal arsehole he’s been at times. Let’s hope he gets a chance to make another go at it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Johnny Ruin – it’s a quick read but one that’s definitely worth picking up. Thanks to Anne Cater for my copy and asking me to take part in this Blog Tour.

 

Then and Now: Stereophonics

Then: A Thousand Trees

This is going back a bit…. August 1997, in fact. I remember hearing this tune on the legendary John Peel’s radio show as he was championing up -and-coming bands. Next chance I got I was in Richard’s Records – now long long gone – picking up the CD single in the days when they came with another 3 tunes on them and were worth collecting in their own right (but that’s another blog, surely).

For those unfamiliar with the Sterophonics, Jim, then they were three young Welsh lads, freshly signed to Richard Branson’s new V2 label, pushing out short, urgent songs with lyrics detailing gritty small-town life. Take this, their third single, which “was about rumours spreading around a very small town and somebody’s reputation being basically burned to the ground. It was a football coach who did some very untowards stuff with younger kids. He had his name celebrated in wrought iron outside the football pitch.”

While “it was basically about rumours in a very small environment crushing someone’s reputation” this, like most songs off their debut Word Gets Around were rooted in something real and were a little vital as a result.

Second album Performance and Cocktails contained more than a little of the same spark that infused their debut but started to slow things down too and signs of the ‘meat and potatoes’ rock were already sneaking in (‘Just Looking’). I caught them at Wembley Stadium in ’99 when they were one of the acts opening for Aerosmith and can confirm that then, at least, they could cut it live too.

Then I guess they got caught up in it all… the songs lost their focus, started to move toward acoustic, a cover of ‘Handbags and Gladrags’ took off… they began churning out what I’ve already referred to as ‘meat and potatoes’ – uninspired but does the job, I guess – music. I seem to remember seeing pictures of singer Kelly Jones stumbling bleary eyed out of bars with Ron Wood.. taking the stage at Isle of Wight festival in a white suit with ironed-flat hair.. the three-piece’s numbers swelled to five and then they fired their Keith Moon-style drummer, Stuart Cable. In keeping with tragic tradition Cable would be found dead in 2010 having drunk himself into a stupor and choked on his own vomit*.

I tuned out after their third album as they no longer appealed to my tastes. Several albums of by-the-numbers later..

Now: Fly Like an Eagle

I read an interview with Keith Richards around the same time as I was discovering the Stereophonics. In reply to a critique of then-new album Bridges to Babylon he pointed out that “the Stones aren’t here to break new ground, we’re here to be the Rolling  Stones.”

There’s something to be said for that, of course.

Some twenty plus years after their debut, the Stereophonics are still going. I wouldn’t say strong but they are still going. Hearing this on the radio last night, the DJ pointed out that the band is still working, still writing and are “still the Stereophonics” in that they haven’t stopped doing as they’ve always done, have never said “we’re going for  a disco sound on this one” or tried a concept album… They’re enjoying something of a renaissance as a result of the fact that a) they’ve been around so long and b) guitar-music is picking up place on the radio again.

But then, to keep doing something mediocre too… the reason nobody needs the Rolling Stones to break new ground is because they built a back catalogue of fucking belters. You can’t apply the same logic to all.

Every other year there’s a new Stereophonics album and every other year there’s the same ‘amazing new single’ and attempt at a little punch from them then everything sounds the same. There’s no real sentiment to it. I mean: “Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be alright, Hey hey, my my, everything’s gonna be just fine.” Ta, Kelly, I’d not caught up on my horoscope today.

If you like that, I guess, there’s nothing wrong with it but I find ‘Fly Like an Eagle’ symptomatic of all they’ve been doing lately – solid enough but uninspired and too often meandering instead of getting in and out.

I’m not going to be spending any time looking back at what I’ve missed on the strength of this one. Word Gets Around, however is always worth a listen.

*which you can’t dust for.

I wake up in the morning, just glad my boots are on: Bruce Springsteen – Western Stars

I read a line this morning that said “Springsteen sounds like an episode of Home Improvement if it was a song” and it’s thrown me off somewhat… I came here to work on a couple of the Bruce posts that are in the works and now all I can hear is Tim Allen going “uuuuuuuuAH?”

I will persevere though and talk about The Boss, specifically about his first new album in seven years, Western Stars.

I’ll be honest – at first I was nervous, apprehensive. Springsteen had been talking about his new ‘solo’ album* before he began his Broadway residency and the idea of an album that had been long-laboured over as with Human Touch made me wonder if it was ever going to see the light of day. Throw in producer Ron Aniello** and lack of E Street band…

I was wrong. Very fucking wrong. Western Stars is Springsteen’s strongest in a long time. Where it sits in terms of my Least to Most is still tbc but the songs on here are far and away some of his best story tunes to date.

Now a lot was said in the run up to the album’s launch, and still is being said, about the sound. How this album is supposed to be influenced by the southern-California  pop sound of the 70’s championed by Burt Bacharach or Glenn Campbell…. I don’t know a lot about that because, well; frankly it’s not something I’m all that familiar with. It is a different sound to what you might expect from Springsteen – there’s no snarling guitar or stomp on here. But… at the same time….. it’s not. Some of Springsteen’s later career highlights such as ‘Paradise’, ‘The Last Carnival’ or ‘The Devil’s Arcade’ found Bruce moving into more contemplative tunes with strings vs screaming guitars and the sounds on Working on a Dream had already hinted at a taste for the lush.

It was only a matter of time before he ditched the rock and tried the orchestra and there’s also a progression in his ‘solo’ album sounds, from Nebraska to Ghost of Tom Joad to Devils and Dust there were increasing embellishments on the sound from the initial ‘one man, a guitar and a four-track’ approach. Here we have the ‘solo’ album that is, in fact, one man, a producer, multiple guest musicians, former band members and several orchestras…

Yet it takes a little getting used to, this approach. Exactly one and two-thirds of a song, in fact. Opener ‘Hitch Hikin’ isn’t a success. From a lyrical point of view we’re good, it’s standard Bruce travelling-tune fare complete with reference to a ‘souped-up ’72’. Yet for a song with little weight to it, the production is way over the top – I’m looking at you Aniello – with strings and slobbered over it as though building to some cinematic climax that simply isn’t there. It’s jarring.

‘Wayfarer’ suffers a similar fate, at first. Lyrically we’re fine – love the line “Some folks are inspired sitting by the fire, slippers tucked under the bed, but when I go to sleep I can’t count sheep for the white lines in my head” – but the orchestral accompaniment here sounds as fake and appropriate as the tits on ‘Baywatch’. It doesn’t work. Until 02:30 that is. Bruce pushes his voice a little too hard and, instead of collapsing, everything comes together behind him – horns, strings and melody complete and, suddenly, it’s working together in a, yes, Burt Bacharach soundtrack style.

From here on in it gets good. Really good. Where this album works so very well is when the strings and music is minimal – used more as a graceful backdrop to what are some of Springsteen’s finest character and story songs with gentle sweeps of string and lap steel to move between verses and time as on the title track:

The tex-mex flavour of ‘Sleepy Joe’s Cafe’ lifts the pace a little while there’s a cadence to Bruce’s lyrical delivery that almost brings to mind the upbeat numbers on The River. Lead ‘singles’*** ‘Tuscon Train’ and ‘Hello Sunshine’ differ the least from Springsteen’s songwriting and sound – hell, one of them is a bloody ‘train’ song complete with steam train sounds at the end – but are nonetheless strong tunes.

The real highlights for me, though are songs like ‘Drive Fast (the Stuntman)’ – a deceptively simple gentle guitar strum and piano accompany the first lines before the orchestra joins gently to rise and fall with the story in gorgeous surges and rolling out like the soundtrack to a gritty short film****.  When the instrumental passages and orchestral accompaniment blend with – rather than being the focus – Springsteen’s lyrics and initial melody as they does with so many songs on here, Western Stars is a triumph.

Western Stars has met with near unanimous acclaim including critics that usually scoff at Springsteen and with good reason. It manages to be both a move in a different direction and familiar at the same time. The sheer strength of Springsteen’s songwriting on this album means that his songs are both immediate and reveal more on each listen as the sounds unfold beneath them – sounds which, while initially unexpected, suddenly make sense and you end up wondering why he hadn’t tried this earlier.

Whether we get to hear any of these live is another question – there’s no tour for Western Stars – after performing twelve million shows on Broadway the man’s entitled to a break I guess. Plus there’s now talk of a new E Street Band album being written and worked on at the end of the year. Then there’s the Tracks 2 and second Seeger Sessions album and….

We’ll see…

*only live releases have been credited to anything other than ‘Bruce Springsteen’

**case in point: High Hopes and Wrecking Ball are among Springsteen’s low points in terms of production and sound IMHO

***does anybody really do singles anymore?

****one of which is apparently due in autumn.

Albums of my Years – 1982

I actually have a memory from 1982 – and it can really only be 1982 or 83 -but it’s not music related. I can’t claim that I was sitting under a piano and singing Beatles songs in my second year on this planet.

So I have no memory of either hearing music or music news from 1982 such as that about the bloke from Birmingham , who’d already bitten the head off a dove in ’81, doing the same to a bat in January 1982. Of course he claimed he thought it was rubber but you’ve got to be fairly off your tits not to be able to tell the difference between a squeaky toy and a live mammal. 1982 wasn’t his year as he’d be arrested a couple of weeks later for taking a leak on something called The Alamo…

At the same BB King decided he didn’t need his record collection and donated the lot – some 7000 rare blues records. I suppose it saved money on IKEA Kallax units.

In March, Billy Joel came off his motorcycle and dinged himself up pretty good – he’d spend more than a month in hospital undergoing physio on his hand which must’ve gone well judging by the quality of The Nylon Curtain…

I don’t really care for Black Sabbath or Ozzy but he seems to have been dominated music headlines in ’82. His guitarist Randy Rhodes was killed when the plane he was in crashed after buzzing Osbourne’s tour bus. A few months later Ozzy would get married and, presumably, start bellowing “Sharon!”

Pink Floyd released the movie version of Waters’ diatribe The Wall which mixed the egos of Waters and director Alan Parker to mixed results.

My favourite bit of music trivia from 1982 though is the point at which, fearing poor ticket sales for a tour in support of Combat Rock, Joe Strummer was convinced to “disappear” – his manager suggested Strummer ‘vanish’ and stay in Texas for a couple of weeks. Instead, Strummer genuinely disappeared for a couple of months – choosing  to run the Paris marathon (he claimed his training consisted of drinking 10 pints of beer the night before) and “dick around” in France. The Clash were falling apart with tension – Topper Headon would be fired in ’82 thanks to his cocaine addiction – and Strummer would later say he regretted his vanishing act. Though he would later run the London marathon without any training too.

In 1982 it was goodnight from ABBA, Bad Company, The Blues Brothers (this was the year John Belushi died), The Jam and Blondie (until 1997 that is). Meanwhile American Music Club, A-Ha, James, Public Enemy, The Smiths, Swans and They Might Be Giants all formed in 1982.

So what dropped album wise in ’82? I’ve already mentioned a couple – The Clash dropped their best-selling album Combat Rock in July – it features their biggest singles too in ‘Rock the Casbah’ and the Stranger Things favourite ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ and the formidable ‘Know Your Rights’:

There were quite a few albums from artists that feature within this blog’s orbit in 1982 including the first Sonic Youth album and the debut EPs from both R.E.M and the Replacements – though neither could really, honestly, be called the band’s best work. Split Enz dropped Time and Tide in  April of ’82 and The Cure released Pornography shortly after. George Thorogood & The Destroyers released their fifth album, Bad to the Bone which continues to thrill me a considerable amount more than Thriller (also released in ’82) ever did. B-b-b-b-b-b-b-bad:

The year also saw the previously mentioned Nylon Curtain by Billy Joel which features one of my favourite tunes by the piano chap, ‘Goodnight Saigon’.

Kate Bush dropped her least commercial album, The Dreaming, which was full of highlights and served as the perfect bridge to The Hounds of Love… Prince released the extremely commercial and massive-selling 1999 while Neil Young pushed out Trans which was so noncommercial in its orientation that it was one of the albums used by his label Geffen in their lawsuit against him for producing wilfully unrepresentative and noncommercial material. Oh, and Aerosmith released the appropriately named Rock In A Hard Place. Well, I say ‘Aerosmith’… even Joey Kramer doesn’t consider it a proper entry in the band’s catalogue – “it’s just me, Steven, and Tom — with a fill-in guitar player.” It’s not entirely without merit – ‘Bolivian Ragamuffin’ has a real groove to get stuck on and both ‘Jailbait’ and ‘Lighting Strikes’ are decent tunes (the latter featuring Brad Whitford on guitar, presumably recording his rhythm parts on his walk to the door) but were I to tackle Aerosmith on a Least to Most… this would be the least.

Now in terms of albums that do feature high on my personal favourites list… Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Long After Dark which features ‘Straight into Darkness’, ‘ A Change of Heart’ and ‘You Got Lucky’.

And then there’s Nebraska. Once of Springsteen’s finest albums, his first ‘solo’ album and his most stark in terms of subject and sound…. it really, really should be the featured album on this list…. but I’ve written about it exhaustively as part of the Springsteen Least to Most series and rules are rules. So… it looks like a second entry on the list for one band:

Dire Straits – Love Over Gold

It’s fitting really. For a while I questioned whether this should be the choice for this year but there’s a number of factors that mean Knopfler and co’s fourth album sits here for ’82; It’s an album I heard a huge amount of in my youth and growing up thanks to my Dad’s penchant for the band. So much so that down to the fact that his record had a skip on the “I’ve seen desperation explode into flames and I don’t wanna see it again” in ‘Telegraph Road’* that I got so used to that I still expect the skip when listening on CD or online.

As part of my debating whether to go with this album for 1982 I listened to it in full, again, and realised that I didn’t need to be questioning it – it’s not only a bloody strong album but it’s one that resonates with me on so many levels and is part of what formed my tastes moving forward. ‘Private Investigations’ was one of the first things I set about learning on guitar and will still go to from time to time – especially if I pick up the old ‘classical’ guitar out of the garage. Combined with ‘Telegraph Road’ it makes for a faultless Side A:

Love Over Gold is, to me, the final ‘classsic’ Dire Straits album. There’s still a very quintessentially English element about it and it’s sound and writing are less direct and radio-ready than the Brothers In Arms era that would follow. It’s the final of those early albums before ‘Money for Nothing’ threw them into bigger venues and TV sets around the world and the scale that would lead to Knopfler walking away began to build.

The music and sound benefits from the addition of Alan Clarke on keyboards – wider and more intricate sounds that mark a natural and real development on that of Making Movies – just listen to the interplay between the two on ‘Love Over Gold’:

The sheer power and length of the two songs that make up Side A do mean that trio on Side B are often overlooked, much as the album itself – sitting between Making Movies and Brothers In Arms – can be. But the title track,  ‘Industrial Disease’ and ‘It Never Rains’ are far from filler.

As much as I understand Knoplfer’s reasons for not attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and his disinterest in reforming – I do wish that this era of the band (before it became about headbands and filling the largest venues) could get the revisit and attention it deserves.

*Side note/ pub quiz / music trivia point: Jon Bon Jovi, of all people, is also a Dire Straits fan – he was working at his cousin’s record studio (The Power Plant) when Making Movies – and has admitted to ripping off ‘Telegraph Road’ with ‘Dry County‘.

 

Oh, by the way, which one’s Pink?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks lost in a very comfortable and enjoyable Pink Floyd trip.

It all started with an article in an actual printed music magazine that I bought for the first time in more years than I can count. Well written, the article in ‘Uncut’ detailed the years between Syd Barrett’s departure and the commencement of Dark Side of the Moon. How, in just four years they went from being Barrett’s backing band on songs like ‘Bike’ – via the addition of Gilmour – to writing what is arguably* one of the greatest albums of all time.

From there I needed more. So a quick search punt about on eBay and two quid later (yup, bargain) Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd was in my hands for what would become a deep dive into the story and music of those five chaps from Cambridge**.

A good music biog is a hard thing to achieve***; for every Crosstown Traffic there’s at least five Scuse Me While I Kiss the Skys. Especially with a band so reticent to deal with the press during their peak as Pink Floyd were. Pigs Might Fly, falls firmly into the former camp. While not as painstakingly researched and deep as, say, Peter Guralnick’s Last Train To Memphis it documents in insightful detail how The Pink Floyd Experience (though there will always be debate on where and when the name formed) came together around the creative nucleus of Syd Barrett – enforcing my opinion that, at the time, it was really Barrett and Friends, the shocking and painful disintegration of the poor guy, Gilmour’s arrival, Waters’ gradual take over and journey up his own arse and efforts to shoot his own band in the kneecaps before Gilmour pulled it free and moved it forward for a final two albums.

There’s plenty in Pigs Might Fly to enjoy. While it eases up and speeds up as success takes hold – there’s no real detail on song creation etc beyond DSOTM – there’s plenty in terms of the crumbling relationships within the band. That the book takes a very neutral stance means it manages to point more effectively to just what a skid mark Waters became. Despite his later claims that none of the band came out of that period well, it’s abundantly clear that Gilmour, Mason and the revived Wright did an awful lot better than he did. It did make me chuckle that the late Barrett’s neighbour recalled a time in the late 80’s when Syd was heard shouting “Fucking Roger Waters! I’ll fucking kill him!”

Another highlight was the discovery of how the band dealt with a negative review for the album which was their then biggest step forward and into the realms of ‘new’ Floyd, Meddle – which Melody Maker’s Michael Watts (a long-time fan) described as ‘Muddle’ and featuring ‘vocals that verged on the drippy and instrumental workouts that are decidedly old hat’. When Watt’s took delivery of a parcel at his office a month later a he assumed it was a Christmas gift from some record company’s PR dept. Instead he found a bright red hardwood box with a lid held in place with a little catch. When he flipped the catch he jumped back as a spring-loaded boxing glove shot out, just missing his face. It was a Christmas gift from Pink Floyd.

While Pigs Might Fly now sits amongst the other music biogs in my library, I thought it worth running down my Top Ten Pink Floyd albums. I’m not up to doing another Least to Most series so I’ll make this a monster post and go for it now. This is in order and, as per all on here, is my own opinion rather than arguing it’s definitive.

More

The band’s first album without any involvement from Syd Barret and their first soundtrack album, More is a slight listen but one that’s still worth digging out. Somewhat scattershot in style – from their heaviest , Zep-like recordings to pastoral folk and abstract instrumentals, More contains a few nods of the directions the band would later take. Most important, though, is Gilmour coming out of his shell – free’d from this previous requirements to ape Syd’s parts, this is the first time he’s really let loose and ‘The Nile Song’ shows the way out of songs like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ and toward the Gilmour / Waters collabs that would later prove so powerful.

Atom Heart Mother

While More pointed at any number of directions, it would be a while before Floyd followed them up. Umagumma doesn’t rank here because it’s two strong tracks are set amongst a quagmire of misfires. Atom Heart Mother, though, is a strong slab of music that, while there are still a couple of duds (‘Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast’) is more consistent in quality and was the band’s first Number 1 album. The suite itself – mired by recording and production setbacks – is a 23 minute bombast (which Stanley Kubrick asked, and received a ‘no’, to use in A Clockwork Orange) that’s followed by some great early gems like Waters’ ‘If’ and Gilmour’s ‘Fat Old Sun’.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

The first of two Gilmour-led Floyd albums is the weaker of the two but still a strong album. Having made the decision to push ahead with a Waters-less Pink Floyd was one thing, the legal battles and arguments that followed meant recording A Momentary Lapse of Reason a dogged process. Bringing in co-writers was no longer new for a Pink Floyd album and Gilmour used all the help he could with lyrics. But Gilmour was keen to avoid too many lyrics, telling the press that the last albums by the Waters-led Floyd had lost focus on music over words. He was also determinedly avoiding the use of a ‘concept’, Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason is an odd beast as a result and is more of a collection of songs as a result – much like an album by most other bands so why it became a big deal is beyond me – and while some (‘Learning to Fly’ and ‘A New Machine’) sound rooted to 1987 – the distinctive Pink Floyd feel is still there in the mix and songs like ‘Sorrow’ punch in the Floyd’s old weight division.

Unfortunately, the pressure of carrying all the responsibility for Pink Floyd on his shoulders would push Gilmour deeper into use of cocaine and it would be some time before he could shake the weight.

The Wall

One of Pink Floyd’s best known and biggest selling albums doesn’t make the Top Five. The Wall is one of those albums that I always think is great but then – having revisited it so much again recently – realised that my version of The Wall is only five songs long and two of those are ‘Comfortably Numb’ because I always have to play that twice. The others – ‘Mother’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)’ and ‘Hey You’ are of such strength as to be outright classics. Thing is though, 4 out of 26 tracks is not a good ratio but these really are gold, proof that even when strained to the point of breaking the Gilmour / Waters partnership was one of songwriting’s finest.

The rest, though… for fuck sake, Roger, have a word with yourself before thinking we need to be tortured. Drop any of them on in isolation and tell me if ‘The Trial’ or ‘Vera’ have any place in the list of great Pink Floyd songs. That Roger demanded – and received – such control over The Wall as part of the agreement to drop legal actions shows just how much his project / vanity this album really is. It took Bob Ezrin to navigate it away from being Rogers’ rant and life story into something as near to generic as it became but The Wall and Waters’ determined dominance over sessions and direction that was the tolling of the bell for the band as it was (recording sessions saw Richard Wright booted out).

Obscured by Clouds

This is one of those gems of an album that is so often overlooked as to be criminal. Recorded in quick sessions against a ticking clock as the band were both on tour and in the midst of working up DSTOTM – working under pressure and without the time to indulge proved benefical: Obscured by Clouds contains some great tunes. The instrumentals – benefiting from the great leaps the band were making – contain touches of the album that would follow while songs like ‘Free Four’ and the brilliant ‘Wot’s… Uh the Deal?’ are classics. Yes, there are some songs best skipped but the ratio of solid to tosh puts this higher than The Wall in my listening rota.

Meddle

Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air… Before Meddle, Pink Floyd were – as Nick Mason would later put it – in danger of being bored to death with their existing material. The direction their psychedelic roots had pointed on was hitting something of a dead end and they were reaching for a new sound. That new, now ‘classic’ Pink Floyd sound arrived on Meddle.  A trio of three cracking little tunes (best forget ‘Seamus’ to be honest) sandwiched between the bass-driven corker that is ‘One of These Days’ and the absolute epic ‘Echoes’ with Gilmour and Wright’s vocals blending perfectly. Meddle – and Echoes – is majestic, airy and introduces that sense of overworldliness that would be the benchmark of the classic Floyd sound. Oh, and it’s stuffed full of weird, dark sounds that punctuate it all – it’s the precursor to all that would follow and it’s sodding brilliant. “Give us a ‘ping’ Richard!”

Animals

I’ll be honest – it took me a long time to dig Animals. It didn’t hook me as much as the rest of the Top Five for some time but when it did…. oh boy. ‘Punk Floyd’ as one reviewer at the time put it, Animals is the bridge between the anger that was boiling up in some of Wish You Were Here‘s songs and the self-indulgent ranting of The Wall only clearly still with full band involvement and enjoyment. The music is stronger and rewards with each listen. Gilmour’s guitar work is amongst his finest and Waters’ lyrics are as on-point as they’d ever be:

“And after a while, you can work on points for style
Like the club tie, and the firm handshake
A certain look in the eye and an easy smile
You have to be trusted by the people that you lie to
So that when they turn their backs on you,
You’ll get the chance to put the knife in”

The Division Bell

The last studio album proper from Pink Floyd is one of their finest and much underrated. The Division Bell – recorded free of the legal stress and pressure of A Momentary Lapse.. is closer to the classic Floyd sound since anything pre-Animals, perhaps in part as some of Richard Wright’s vintage organs and instruments were hauled out from storage for use and, more likely, as the music was born out of long improvised jam sessions between the then three members of the band. With the exception of ‘Take it Back’ (tellingly the only song with music written with outside assist) there’s not a duff track on here.

I also seem to recall reading that at some point, with the road behind them, Gilmour approached Waters with the idea of his taking part on what he, rightly, believed would be the final Pink Floyd album. Waters’ response is the inspiration for the line in ‘Lost for Words’:

Wish You Were Here

Ok, look at that track list: ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ in all it’s spectacular parts, ‘Have A Cigar’, ‘Wish You Were Here’… perfection. I’m not a huge fan of ‘Welcome to the Machine’ but I’ll take it over a thousand other songs any day. Much has been said of the appearance of Syd Barrett – shaven of eyebrows and hair and overweight – and none can agree if it really was while ‘Shine On..’ was being recorded.

Apparently Gilmour didn’t sing the vocals on ‘Have a Cigar’ because he couldn’t get on the same page as Waters’ anger at the music business…. the start of many a disagreement… so Roy Harper gladly volunteered. He told Roger at the time he’d take a lifetime season ticket to Lords which, despite his prompting, he never received. At one point years later he suggested that, based on the album’s success, he’d settle for (I think) £30k. He never got it, Roger was long gone up his own rectum by then.

The Dark Side of the Moon

It would be impossible for this to not be at number one. It would be impossible to sum this up sufficiently in a short manner too. This album has never failed to hold me and move me since I first heard it so many years ago.

Their most accessible concept – no anger or political ranting. It’s about the fears, worries and process of life. The band are at their peak in terms of songwriting and playing. Every decision made in terms of the sounds, the mix, the samples, even the fucking cover… is absolutely spot on. From Wright switching from the use of organ live to piano for the recording of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’, to Gilmour winning out on having the voice recordings lower in the mix (Roger Waters took it upon himself to interview as many people as he could find and record their answers to a series of questions such as ‘when were you last violent?’ – the McCartney’s were recording in the same studio but their forced attempts at ‘funny’ answers failed to make the cut) and the choice of those voices. From the heartbeat that starts and ends the album to the beautiful interplay of lyrics about suddenly finding yourself ‘one day to closer to death’ and war ‘forward he cried, from the rear, and the front rank died’ to the dark, decidedly British, humour that keeps it on the right side up – I fucking love this album.

 

*In that you could try and say it isn’t but you’d have no leg to stand on.

**Well, three of them anyway – Nick Mason and Rick Wright being from Birmingham and Essex respectively but you get the idea.

***Upcoming blog on my preferred music biogs / reads

Blog Tour: A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

From the PR: “When Liv, Ellen and Håkon, along with their partners and children, arrive in Rome to celebrate their father’s seventieth birthday, a quiet earthquake occurs: their parents have decided to divorce.

Shocked and disbelieving, the siblings try to come to terms with their parents’ decision as it echoes through the homes they have built for
themselves, and forces them to reconstruct the shared narrative of their childhood and family history.

A bittersweet novel of regret, relationships and rare psychological insights, A Modern Family encourages us to look at the people closest to
us a little more carefully, and ultimately reveals that it’s never too late for change…”

This post is late. A lesson in writing down passwords before you change computers, not a reflection on my enjoyment of this novel.

A literary exploration of family and personal relationships in a style and narrative that brings to mind Jonathan Franzen’s mighty The Corrections, with a unique and charming Norwegian flavour, Helga Flatland’s A Modern Family is a real accomplishment of a novel.

Unassuming and quietly powerful, Flatand’s prose is very much of the to-be-savoured type, a real delight. Take the opening paragraph as an example: “The Alpine peaks resemble shark’s teeth, jutting upwards through the dense layer of cloud that enshrouds Central Europe as if the creature’s jaws are eternally prepared to clamp down. The mountaintops force the wind in various directions, pulling at the plane from all angles, and we’re so small here, all in a row, the backs of heads in front of me shuddering in unison.”

Praise too should go to Rosie Hedger for her translation work here and capturing the poetry in Flatland’s prose.

There’s a real power in this poetry, though, as A Modern Family tackles some heavy subject matter – our own sense of identity in a relationship, the importance of family and connection, the nature and importance of commitment  and how we cope when our perspective of the world is changed by means outside of our own control.

On a personal level, I was nearing the end of my teens when my parents divorced and, even when viewed some two decades on,  I found a real sense of truth in Liv’s narratives as she struggles to find her place in a world where the reliable and fixed is no longer – has everything to this point been a lie?

As the eldest of my siblings, I also very much appreciated the split-narrative approach employed by Helga Flatland – extremely effective in highlighting both the complexities of family relationships and just how easy it is to get lost in your own point of view own a matter given how one event can be seen and felt in several different ways. And, of course, the warm humour that runs throughout.

Yet I’m pretty sure that you don’t need to have any personal frame of reference to appreciate A Modern Family – Helga Flatland’s novel is a compelling and nuanced peek into modern family life and drama that manages to focus on some important questions without ever feeling like it’s trying to push an agenda. A snapshot that could be of any family – much like Ibsen’s doll house, the clue is very much in the indefinite article – this novel serves as a peak at a modern family tackling some universal dilemmas and is most definitely worth a read or two.

My thanks, and apologies for lateness, to Karen at Orenda for my copy of A Modern Family and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this BlogTour.