The 20 Guitarists List

Lists can be such a pain in the arse sometimes… and yet I’m seemingly addicted to making them. Take the whittling down – this one has taken an AGE to get together since seeing Jim over at Music Enthusiast’s some time ago now along with that of Aphoristic Album Reviews‘ slightly shorter list, especially when combined with my procrastination.

Then there’s the ordering – how do you get around that? Simple – this list isn’t in any order what so ever.

What about the title – well this isn’t a ‘Greatest’ list, there’s no way I’d ever attempt to claim that, so the less snappy title for this is actually ’20 Guitarists That I’ve Dug for Years and Will Always Tune In For’. Which is what it is, it’s 20 of my favourite players – not always the most technically proficient or even considered as a virtuoso types but those that nonetheless make the music I enjoy consistently great through their playing. That would make an even less snappy title though.

As is always the way there are plenty that don’t make the list but continually skirt the outside like non-ticket holders hanging around an outdoor show’s fence trying to grab a sonic snatch of their favourite song. Players like Mike Campbell inject a gorgeous sound into some of my favourite songs while the fluidity and wash of sound from the likes of The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel and his pal Kurt Vile are happy mainstays in my ears lately and if I could make this longer they’d be on the long list for sure as would Wilco’s Nels Cline or even Joe Perry or John McLaughlin… you get the point. But I needed to pick an arbitrary number and stick to it or this would never leave the notebook where I make these lists let alone spend the wrist power typing this thing up….

So, with that in mind, let’s get going so that I can think about that ‘Drummers list thing’:

Nils Lofgren

A list has to start somewhere even one that’s not in any particular order. So I’ll start off with sideman extraordinaire, a warm and extremely talented dude: Nils Lofgren.

Nils came to attention as a teenage prodigy having played on Neil Young’s After the Goldrush at just 17 and while the emergence of punk and the shift in musical tastes may have put pay to his burgeoning solo stab at stardom, he continued to put out high quality albums before joining Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for the ‘Born In The USA’ tour. He’s worked with the Boss solidly since the E Street Band’s reunion (as well as the Greatest Hits reunion of sorts) as well as regular stints in Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse and continuing to record and tour as a solo player.

He’s a ridiculously gifted player – capable of pulling out searing leads and picking out tender acoustic work, whether he’s setting fire to other people’s songs (see his reading Springsteen’s ‘Youngstown’) or his own.

He caught my attention as a solo artist when I heard the acoustic take on ‘Black Books’ on the Sopranos way back in 2000, I could hear his solo on that (from about two and a half minutes thru to the end) daily and still love it.

Mike McCready

Mike McCready may not be on a lot of lists but the dude should get more credit for sure… he toned down his theatrics and finger-tapping to bring a blues-influenced tone and ability to the Seattle scene in a subtle but important way that no other ‘grunge’ band did.

Often referred to as Pearl Jam’s ‘secret weapon’, McCready had just begun moving away from the 80’s metal sound having gotten into Stevie Ray Vaughan just as the band got going and it’s his beautiful tone and leads that set Pearl Jam apart for me and got my ear immediately.

His songwriting contributions to the group are always worth tuning in for as his ability to take another member’s song ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and take it to a whole new level with his guitar work while live he absolutely let’s rip whether it’s absolutely rinsing the arse off ‘Even Flow’ or tearing through a perfect take on ‘Eruption’ into ‘Yellow Ledbetter’.

David Gilmour

So I have this memory… must be before my teens, before I got a CD player even so I’d put that to when I was 11… it gets foggy in the timeline.. anyway this much is concrete: I’d got one of those old midi-systems of the 80’s, you know a black plastic Aiwa thing with a twin tape deck and radio and turntable up top all in one block as opposed to the hi-fi separates of old (which, fittingly, I’m now back to). At some point I decided to get the turntable working – even buying a new cartridge for £1.50 – that’s how vividly I remember it, if only they were that cheap now.

Once I’d got it working – fuck knows why I’d done so or what I tested it on – my Dad used the opportunity to blow the dust off a couple of LPs to get me to listen to – Led Zeppelin’s IV (don’t worry, we’ll get to Jimmy) and The Dark Side of the Moon. Hearing that and David Gilmour’s guitar work was pretty mind blowing. Then, a few years later, I heard ‘Comfortably Numb’ and that second solo… fuck, I still have to stop what I’m doing and listen to it intently – what Gilmour can do with just a subtle bend. Floyd a heavy mainstay in my ears ever since.

Gilmour’s playing elevated Pink Floyd and drove their direction after the departure of Syd Barrett as much as Waters’ songwriting – without Gilmour’s playing the Pink Floyd sound we now all know wouldn’t exist. His own songs may veer toward the floatier stuff (see ‘If’ or ‘Fat old Sun’) but his playing is transportive – hugely melodic and often sprawling solos with perfect tone that I can never can get enough off.

Mark Knopfler

Imagine the brass balls on Mark Knopfler; laying down your band’s first album full of guitar-hero moves at a time that punk was ascendant and adored by the music press, and then laying down its last at a time when alt-rock and grunge was taking over. A foolish move that would’ve failed spectacularly but for one thing: Knopfler’s unassuming and quiet confidence in his guitar playing prowess.

Surely everyone by now knows ‘Sultans of Swing’ – that solo and that tone are unmistakeable and no matter how good that street performer you’ve seen doing it on YouTube is, nobody can play it in the same way and with the same feel. I read that Knopfler arrived at the famous tone by mistake – his pickup getting stuck between settings -but there’s no getting away from his sheer skill as both a songwriter and player. That tone changed in later Dire Straits records – probably as he switched to using PRS and Les Pauls as much as his red Strat – and evolved into a much warmer, enveloping tone that I could just bathe in.

I grew up with those first four Dire Straits records on heavy rotation and I’ll still pick em up and play em regularly now (Love Over Gold is easily their finest) but then I’ll also just as happily put on one of his solo records because while – some nine studio albums in – they’re no-longer as ‘all gold’ as they used to be, through those Dire Straits albums, the soundtracks, the side bands, guest spots on Bob Dylan albums and solo records the common thread is a guitar tone and fluidity that’s always worth tuning in for.

Eddie Van Halen

Oh man… Eddie Van Halen is surely on so many of these lists it’s insane. I’m not a Van Halen fan by any stretch (I’d stick my flag in the Van Hagar camp, mind, as I can’t stand ‘Diamond’ Dave) but Eddie’s playing is something else… as I’ve said before, a real ‘light the touch paper and stand back’ player who could dazzle like no other.

VH’s brand of riff-heavy stuff isn’t my cup of coffee but EVH’s playing… what he could do in terms of harmonics, building textures and then pulling out a solo with so many ‘how the fuck?’ moments stood both his band and him apart and always worth listening to especially later when it became more song-oriented than blowing open a bag of tricks and would never fail to through in a staggering solo even if the song was less than stellar (see ‘Humans Being’ below). That I’m writing about the dude in past-tense now still seems shit.

Bruce Springsteen

Given how Springsteen seems permanently associated with his butterscotch telecaster, his first album didn’t hint at a solid guitar player at the helm. But while he may well have been signed as a thesaurus-swallowing ‘new Dylan’ acoustic singer / songwriter, but before Clive Davis signed him to Columbia, Bruce Springsteen had been honing his guitar chops for years with hours upon hours of daily practice and playing “loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound” in Steel Mill. Since the emergence of those chops on record – ‘Kitty’s Back’ kicking in on The Wild The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle – Springsteen’s guitar playing has been at the centre of some of his best songs. Which seems like an idea for another Springsteen post…

He might not be the most technically proficient of players but he’s all about soul and feel and his guitar lines on songs like ‘Born To Run’ are as iconic as the guitar on that album’s cover. Whether he’s picking out an acoustic melody line on ‘Blood Brothers’, chiming teak-like tone on his later ‘other band work’ or those gorgeous twangy lines of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ or pretty much all of the guitar work’s bite and crunch throughout Darkness of the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s guitar work always gives his songs – and live performances – the edge.

Stevie Ray Vaughan

You know how sometimes you can hear something and, for reasons unknown, it’s just the wrong time, wrong place for you to get into it? Like your receptors are tuned in to the wrong frequency or something? Happened to me with Stevie Ray Vaughan: I’d heard about the dude being a guitar player of excellence, bought The Essential and just… it didn’t click there and then. BUT a few years later, holy fuck did it click. Can’t remember when but I was sitting chowing down a burger and I heard ‘Empty Arms’ and I just saw there not chewing for four minutes, how had I not paid that cd any attention… I picked that Essential album up as soon as I got home and I’ve been getting as much SRV as possible since. That monster tone and skill; sit up, shut up, pay attention and pick your mouth up off the floor.

Jimmy Page

I mean, fuck: Jimmy Page… do you even need to explain? I remember hearing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in that same sitting as Dark Side of the Moon as being revelatory… John Bonham sitting around for the best part o five minutes and as soon as he begins to get going Jimmy switches to solo mode and unleashes and absolute fucking beast. He’s gotta be the master of dynamics – ‘Ramble On’ is a benchmark – and can swing from great acoustic rhythms to monstrous riffs and scorching solos, not just on the same album but often on the same song.

Jeff Beck

And it’s hi-ho silver lining, and away you go now baby…

How Jeff Beck ever released that is beyond me but I’m sure he gets plenty fed up with it now… as Jim over at Music Enthusiast pointed out – it’s impossible to think of a rock player ‘that’s dabbled in so many genres’. Whatever genre he goes for though, one thing that’s constant is that Jeff Beck is an astoundingly great guitar player.

Prince

Back when I was starting to pay attention more to music the radio was doing a massive disservice to Prince – wasn’t helped by the whole T-A-F-K-A-P / Squiggle thing, sure – and my only real exposure was to songs like ‘Kiss’, ‘Gold’ or ‘1999’ ‘Little Red Corvette’. I mean good songs all (except for ‘Kiss’) but nothing that made me go ‘holy fuck that guy can play’ and not just because using language like that would get my mouth washed out with soap. BUT, man when I heard Purple Rain…. sure it’s his most guitar-heavy album but holy fuck that guy can play! Rock balladry can be a mixed bag but the solo on ‘Purple Rain’ is easily the benchmark by which all others are judged and can’t hit.

I’m not a huge Prince fan – not all his music blows my mind but when he strapped on his guitar it was because he knew not only could he break out in the middle of a song and play the arse off of it, but he could integrate it into a song like few others even when it’s not the strongest thing in the mix. His playing was not only versatile and inventive in style but he could go from from 0-100 in seconds flat – take how he turned the usual circle-jerk Rock n Roll Hall of Fame jam of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and blew it into the stratosphere with no rehearsal!

Johnny Greenwood

Imagine trying to wreck a song and having your guitar’s ‘eh-eh. eh-eh’ stuttering sabotage attempt sounding so good it not only makes the mix but makes the song? That’d be Johnny Greenwood and ‘Creep’. A hugely talented player – equally adept at picking up the bass, piano, viola or drums – it’s Greenwood’s versatility and skill that’s helped push Radiohead from their early days skirting the very edges of Britpop to pushing the definition of alt.rock with OK Computer and then pushing further still with each subsequent album with Greenwood always weaving something brilliant around a song’s parts.

Peter Green

No discredit to Lindsey Buckingham, he’s a fine player for sure, but for me Fleetwood Mac and their ultimate guitar sound is the glorious Peter Green and Danny Kirwan era. Green, specifically (or ‘The Green God’ as he was briefly referred to having replaced Clapton in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers) had something special, from creating and tearing through blues-based tunes like ‘Oh Well (Part One)’ to those gorgeous instrumentals like ‘Albatross’, I can listen to *that* Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green’s playing until the cows come home.

J Mascis

There are some artists and bands that I’ll be jumping on that ‘pre-order’ link the second a new album is announced and Dinosaur Jr and Mascis’ own solo work is top of that pile and it’s all down to J Mascis’ guitar playing. Having burst onto that noise-rock scene with Dinosaur Jr’s take on ‘ear-bleeding country music’ with melodies buried in fuzz-tone up to their arse, Dinosaur Jr’s sound shifted slightly as they signed to a major in time to capitalise (well, to a limited extent) on the praise being heaped on them by the era’s alt-rock champions.

Mascis’ playing has continued to evolve and swing from epic riffs to soft melodic tunes but all with one thing in common: it’s only ever a matter of time before Mascis detonates them with a scorcher of a solo, and I’ll never get tired of that.

Chuck Berry

I can’t lay any claim to being schooled on rock and blues history from a young age, I was born in 1980 – most music on the radio while my hearing was developing was tosh. My first exposure to a Chuck Berry riff was probably the same as so many others of my generation – “Chuck, Chuck! It’s MarvinYour cousinMarvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well, listen to THIS!”

But then you go back and hear the original and find out what Chuck was doing with Chess… man, it was like finding the skeleton of the missing link. I’ll put on a comp his first ten years and hear the blueprints for everything I dig now right there: he took the soul and tone of blues licks, sped em up and strapped em to the burgeoning rock n roll sound and seemingly invented rock guitar. More than being able to come up with a wicked lick, Chuck’s songs and lyrics can be fucking spot on too and the fact that live he’d play with pick-up bands and still bring the heat… there’s a reason he’s the legend he is.

Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore rubbing shoulders with Chuck Berry… such is the joy of these lists. What Thurston (in combination with Lee Ranaldo) bought to the front with their playing is a pretty unique sound that I dig on so many levels – experimentation with tunings, prepared and altered guitars, jams that cascade into feedback before pulling back the threads into the melody and thrash-like strumming to build hypnotic rhythms. This isn’t guitar playing of the ‘guitar hero’ style but it never pretends to be either. Standing up front with Thurston’s stack next to me probably cost me a percentage of hearing in my right ear but I’d give it again.

George Harrison

Yes, I know, George didn’t play the solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, but he did write the damned thing and write and play on those gorgeous tunes like ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Not to mention his multitude of contributions to the Fab Four’s songs and a plethora of amazing solo tunes too. Deceptively uncluttered in it’s beauty and always hitting the sweet spot in tone.

Stuart Braithwaite / Barry Burns (Mogwai)

It wouldn’t be my list if there wasn’t a nod to post-rock in here somewhere and the guitar work of Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns has always been what sets Mogwai apart for me in a genre that’s stuffed with great players.

Perhaps down to their influences in early genre pioneers like Slint or Kevin Shields’ My Bloody Valentine, developed a sound of their own built on towering, repeating riffs that were deceptively simple while weaving intricate melodies to build this massive sonic space that they could either explode and pick up again or find a hidden gear somewhere and blow your speakers out.

As the band have evolved to incorporate an increasing away of sounds and influences over their 25 years the guitar work has remained the powerful heart.

Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)

Bringing guitar-hero moves and freakouts into alt. rock style with Built to Spill, Doug Martsch creates these brilliantly arranged guitar-centric songs that I just fucking lap up – there’s always something new I discover on repeating listens from those odd timing signature changes, odd structures and mid-song breakdowns that dissolve into unashamed guitar heroics before bouncing back in. And he does it all with the same guitar he’s used for the last couple of decades (a Fender Super Strat with wiring modded to a single pick-up for those that are curious) and without any theatrics – Built To Spill went from being indie-rock down the middle with their first couple of albums to Martsch’s inspired move to bring jam-band style workouts into the genre and made it seem an effortless combination, becoming one of indie-rock’s essential guitarists in the process.

Jack Rose

I came to Jack Rose’s music by pure chance and too late. Hearing Rose’s guitar pieces was like being hypnotised and I’m still gobbling up as much of it as I can.

He took the experiments and sound of players like John Fahey as his base and created these brilliant acoustic pieces on 6 and 12 strings that took that finger-picking style, blended it with dissonance and Eastern elements that just blew my mind and opened me up to a whole new genre and way of playing that I’ll often get lost in.

Thurston Moore was a big fan – when Rose died of a heart attack in 2009 at 38 years old, Moore recorded and released an album 12 String Mediations for Jack Rose as a tribute.

Jimi Hendrix

I mean, come on, it’s a no-brainer, right? If Chuck Berry invented modern rock guitar then Jimi, literally, set fire to it and kicked it into a whole new game.

And, should those videos not load and the list is preferred in digestible Spotify-flavoured chunks:

Wave after wave after wave… Five from The Cure

The Cure have been around a while now… their debut dropped a few days over 42 years ago now.. after forming about twenty miles from where I’m currently sat.

They’ve come a fair old way since the late seventies in West Crawley and undergone the prerequisite lineup changes and issues that come with a band of that vintage, knocking out 13 albums (though nothing for over 12 years), notching up 30 million plus sales of those and being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019 (and if you haven’t seen Smith’s deadpan response to a very excitable reporter you ought to be popping over to YouTube).

Still often tagged with the ‘goth’ label, their impressive back catalogue swings across a lot of different styles – while you’d be fair for lumping albums like Seventeen Seconds or Faith in the genre, you’d be hard pushed to say the same of songs like ‘The Love Cats’ or ‘The Caterpillar’ in there as they took their manager’s advice to explore different sounds instead of splitting up.

My interest in The Cure is nowhere near as devoted as many of their fans’. I like a good chunk of their stuff but I’m also unfamiliar with vast tracts of it. For me, they’ve made two albums that I think are unimpeachable – Disintegration and Wish – and a shit load of great songs.

So, here are five of my current favourites to get you over that mid-week hump.

All Cats Are Grey

The band’s early goth/post-punk period doesn’t feature much in the listening list for me but there’s something about ‘All Cats Are Grey’ that I always enjoy.

Pictures of You

Disintegration is easily one of the greatest albums The Cure, or anyone else, has made. ‘Pictures of You’ was written after a fire at Smith’s home had him find his wallet – complete with pictures of his wife – while going through the remains.

Plainsong

Is it cheating to have two songs from the same album? I don’t care: Disintegration is brilliant and ‘Plainsong’ is just the perfect album starter.

Bloodflowers

Apparently, Bloodflowers the album was the final instalment of a trilogy that included Pornography and Disintegration. If I’m being cynical I’d say perhaps it was more of an effort from Smith to prop up interest and sales after the reception to Wild Mood Swings wasn’t too favourable. It’s nowhere near as strong as the other members of the ‘trilogy’ but I always enjoy the title track.

From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea

On any day it’s a toss-up between Wish and Disintegration for my favourite Cure album. Wish is just such a strong album and so much more guitar-driven than its predecessor and leans into the alternative-rock sound with real style. ‘Friday I’m in Love’ and even ‘A Letter to Elise’ might be the hits that everyone knows but ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ is the album’s centrepiece.

With all the clarity of dream – revisiting On Every Street

“Success I adore. It means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles. But I detest fame. It interferes with what you do and has no redeeming features at all.”

Background:

As has been pointed out many a time before and no doubt will be whenever they are written about or discussed, Dire Straits were a great band at the wrong time. A four-piece routed in the classic-rock style emerging from London’s pub-rock scene at a time when punk was holding sway here in the UK, epitomised by John Lydon’s ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt.

Yet one of the reasons Dire Straits are still written about and no doubt will be for some time to come was that they did find success thanks to Mark Knopfler’s fluid, finger-picking guitar style and ability to come up with something as catchy as ‘Sultans of Swing’ on their first outing. ‘Sultans of Swing’ managed to break the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic and their first album, Dire Straits – produced by Steve Winwood’s older brother Muff and released in 1978 – was a similar success.

Less than ten years later, in September 1988 with five albums behind them and after an 18-month tour of 247 sold-out stadium and arena shows, Knopfler – who had taken control of the band completely by the time of 1980’s Making Movies (a move helped along byJimmy Iovine taking him to watch a Springsteen session where everybody called Bruce ‘Boss’) in a move which had seen the departure of his brother David and original drummer Pick Withers – dissolved the band.

All the numbers and constant attention had lost meaning for the band, especially Knopfler who would tell Rolling Stone “”A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.”‘

It was, in hindsight, a pretty appropriate place to call it a day – having risen from an unlikely breakthrough to the millions of sales achieved by Brothers In Arms. Those first five albums are stuffed with great tunes and I’ll happily put any one of them at any time – especially Love Over Gold which is by far and away their finest work even if Brothers In Arms became the monster in terms of sales. And yet they had one more in them..

On Every Street

After Dire Straits we dissolved in ’88,  Mark Knopfler recorded a soundtrack for Last Exit To Brooklyn and formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-leaning group who released Missing… Presumed Having a Good Time in 1990. It felt like, free of the expectation and incumbent attention given to anything Dire Straits, Knopfler was having, well a good time.

Then, in early 1991, the band – well, bass plater John Illsley, Knopfler and manager Ed Bicknell – met for lunch and decided to reconvene Dire Straits. Just like that, apparently. Personally, I can’t help but feel there was a little more to it than that because the resultant On Every Streets now – having spent more time of it late than I have for years after picking up a copy on cassette for a quid – feels like an album of two halves, a split-personality of an album that not only suffers from the CD bloat that was rife during that era (especially ironic given Brothers In Arms the first album to sell a million copies on that format was a much more concise effort) but also feels like it suffers from a lack of interest  from Knopfler himself across several tracks.

The time of release for On Every Street was as inauspicious as their debut only this time even the band members would admit that, following the album’s tour, “whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.” 1991 was also the year of ALT ROCK in deserved big letters – Nevermind, Ten, Badmotorfinger were breaking grunge out of Seattle and U2 had discovered irony and wrap around sunglasses in time for Achtung Baby! It didn’t feel like the time for a new Dire Straits record (any more than, really, 1994 would feel like time for a new Pink Floyd album) but, now, free of the judgement of the time, On Every Street has a lot of good stuff on it. It’s just that, sandwiched between are some real duff moments.

If you look at it almost as an ‘every-other-track’ album, On Every Street carries its weight. I’m starting to wonder if the conversation at that lunch in 1991 was more along of the lines of a record label pointing out that one more album was due and that if Knopfler wanted to keep major-label backing for his solo work, these new songs needed to go out under the Dire Straits name one last time. Or perhaps I’m being cynical – there’s no such statement or quote to attest to this but I can’t shake the feeling that those tracks which feel like Knopfler isn’t giving it his most on are the most ‘Twisting By The Pool’ / ‘Walk of Life’ style blatant attempts at appeasing the expectation of a ‘Dire Straits hit song’. The guiltiest? ‘Heavy Fuel’ and ‘My Parties’. I mean, take just those two off and you’re down to a stronger album already, right?

But, back to the every-other-track / cd bloat theory that’s hiding a stronger album theory.

‘Calling Elvis’ isn’t a bad song, it’s pretty good and Knopfler’s guitar work is understated but lets loose in a way that’s still delicious all these years later. The album’s title track follows and ‘On Every Street’ is a gorgeous tune – subject matter that calls back to ‘Private Investigations’ and a guitar solo that takes over three minutes in that I can listen to daily and still love.

Not only that but ‘Fade to Black’ has a lovely hushed, noir-like low-key vibe with Knoplfer dropping licks aplenty and an organ part that recalls Making Movies in a way. But to get to it you have to skip ‘When It Comes To You’ – a song that’s not the worst on the album but doesn’t really offer much and jars when listened to in flow. Skip over ‘The Bug’ (you only need to hear it once) and you’re back to the gold (as in Love Over) territory again with another stately, brooding and gorgeously played ‘You and Your Friend’. To me it plays like a wonderful hybrid of ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ and ‘Brothers in Arms’ in style and it’s easily a highpoint:

Skip the next track – the easy, low-hanging fruit lyrics of ‘Heavy Fuel’ (“When my ugly big car won’t a-climb this hill, I’ll write a suicide note on a hundred dollar bill”), and move straight on to ‘Iron Hand’, easily one of Knopfler’s finest. From this point, save for ‘My Parties’ which feels like b-side ‘Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts’, the album remains pretty decent.

That’s the thing that links all the ‘meh’ tracks here whether it’s ‘The Bug’, ‘Heavy Fuel’ or ‘My Parties’ – they all feel like the actual b-sides that were released with the album’s singles. When they were recently made available on Spotify I  was keen to hear but then ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Millionaire Blues’ are actually pretty interchangeable with ‘The Bug’ and ‘Heavy Fuel’, even Knopfler’s vocals sound as uncommitted. Which makes me think not only are these tunes that MK could toss off in his sleep but that were it not for CD runtimes and presumed label pressure, they too would’ve been trimmed off.

Back to the good stuff – ‘Ticket To Heaven’ has a much lighter, folkier and almost Celtic touch with a few strings added on and Knopfler’s in great voice (it’s a good signpost for his solo work on The Ragpicker’s Dream). ‘Planet of New Orleans’ is back to the noir-vibe of ‘Fade To Black’ but with extra guitar atmosphere and sax while ‘How Long’ is as obvious a light-hearted and folk-leaning Mark Knopfler solo song as it’s possible to be and serves as a fitting sign-off on the last Dire Straits album while remaining optimistic and hinting at what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing – where it’s really good On Every Street works brilliantly. For a long time Dire Straits had ceased to be the ‘band’ it started out as and had become a vehicle for Knopfler’s song writing with John Illsley along to pluck the bass. At this point Knopfer was leaning to a much different style to that which had proven the biggest ‘hits’ for Dire Straits but there was – and still is – a huge amount of great tunes to be found. Who knows – had On Every Street been allowed to focus on that element, without the filler and the negative reviews it drew as a result, maybe he’d still be releasing albums under the band name rather than his own.

As it was, the album drew lukewarm reviews at best though through a heavy tour schedule (300 shows in two years which were documented on the patch OnThe Night live album) and promotion still shifted 10 million. Knopfler’s second marriage fell apart, the tour was stressful and overblown and reminded all of what caused the first end back in ’88. Thus it was that, in 1992, Knopfler said ‘goodnight’ to 40,000 people in Spain for the last time as Dire Strait’s frontman and stepped into a solo career that has been producing solid solo albums and soundtracks since  ’96. The band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 – there was no reunion and Knopfler didn’t attend, with John Illsley stating “I’ll assure you it’s a personal thing. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Oh, here’s On Every Street, don’t forget to skip a few:

 

 

 

I been starin’, I been starin’ into space.. Five from Dinosaur Jr

Formed in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1984, Dinosaur Jr are one of my favourite bands. Originally setting out to create ‘ear-bleeding country’ music, the band, propelled by J Mascis’ guitar playing, went from being one early proponents of fuzz-laden noise rock to being a massive influence on alt. rock, grunge and countless other players and bands going from indie labels to major and back again via line-up changes and reunions.

It’d be an unenviable task to try and pin point their sound – they’ve shifted quite far from their raucous debut Dinousaur (the band would add the ‘Jr’ shortly after to avoid litigation from) especially as bass player Lou Barlow initially handled most of the vocals – but one thing that’s been consistent across their work is the guitar playing of J Mascis who’s up there in my list of top ten guitar players.

With that in mind, here are five great Dinosaur Jr songs – not ‘the best of’ or even ‘essential’, just five cracking Dinosaur Jr tunes to get your teeth into on a Sunday evening.

Freak Scene

Their first ‘hit’ in the UK when released on Blast First in ’88 and a great example of the early sound of the original trio of Mascis, Barlow and drummer Murph.

Out There

Mascis signed to Sire records in 1989 but Barlow was out of the band by the time of their major label debut Green Mind. ‘Out There’ comes from Where You Been and was a pretty good hit (by Dino standards).

Nothin’s Goin On

Come Hand It Over, Dinosaur Jr’s final of four major-label albums, J Mascis was the only ‘original’ member left. The label, realising by now the band was never going to be another Nirvana, barely even promoted or distributed the album which is a shame because of the band’s ’90’s majors era’ Hand It Over is my favourite.  After the album’s release and tour, Mascis would retire the band’s name and release a couple of solo albums under the J Mascis & The Fog moniker.

All I Came To Do

In 2005 the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr reformed for a series of live shows and, in 2007, a new album Beyond appeared. A powerful album filled to the brim of great tunes and Mascis’ dazzling guitar work.

Said The People

Oddly, the reunion has held. The lineup has now produced more albums than during their first tenure with another expected this year. Their second back-together album Farm was even stronger and highlighted J’s slower-burners more prominently, ‘Said The People’ is a real favourite of mine.

Messages keeps gettin’ clearer, radio’s on and I’m movin’ ’round my place: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 3

“Much of Born In The USA was recorded live with the full band in three weeks. Then I took a break, recorded Nebraska and didn’t return to my rock album ’til later… Then brain freeze settled in.”

To read Springsteen’s biography Born To Run you’d almost believe that the writing and recording of the songs that made up Born In The USA was a relatively succinct period divided up into a couple of sessions and that the only songs that exist from the time graced the two albums it bore: Nebraska and Born In The USA.

Both Tracks, studio logs and his own Songs book tell a different story though. Between Bruce’s sitting down with “some books, a few scattered guitar picks, and a harmonica rack jostled with the crumbs of the afternoon’s lunch” and, importantly, a Paul Schrader script for a film called ‘Born In The USA’ and penning a song that he initially title ‘Vietman’ and the song hitting the airwaves were several years and a LOT of songs.

Following the decision not to release ‘Murder Incorporated’, and despite the idea of keeping studio costs down, Bruce headed back to New York’s The Hit Factory with The E Street Band from May – June of 1983, though without Van Zandt for the most part.

These final sessions were the end of an era, not realised let alone acknowledged at the time. Aside from the missing Van Zandt’s input, the last sessions for Born In The USA would be the last time Springsteen entered the studio with the full band for a long time to come and would be the last time in which songs would be written and then worked up and arranged with the band until 2020’s Letter To You. It’s also the point at which Springsteen’s prolific period of song writing began to slow and the security around the vault would tighten.

From May through June of ’83, though, Bruce and the band worked on more songs to add to the pile as Springsteen searched for the right sound and feel to make it an album. In fact, it looked like this was it and recording went straight into mixing in July and a possible track listing was born:

Side One:

Born In The USA

Cynthia

None But The Brave

Drop On Down And Cover Me

Shut Out The Light

Johnny Bye Bye

Side Two:

Sugarland

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

My Hometown

Glory Days

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

This album doesn’t ring as cohesive as ‘Murder Incorporated’ ever did. Some of the songs come from the earliest sessions, some from Springsteen’s LA recordings and FIVE new songs from the May-June sessions all of which, as they were mastered, would either go on to serve as b-sides or  appear on Tracks. However, songs like ‘Cynthia’ and ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’ (she still needed a shooter) aren’t his strongest from this period – Janey the better of the two – and their inclusion here, to me, is indicative that he was doubting the more direct, ‘pop’ leaning of the other material as they harken back more to his work of the previous decade than anything else from this period.\

The lack of cohesion was apparent to all and this version of the album was shelved. The mix and feel of Springsteen’s LA cuts jarring too much with the rest of the cuts. It was back to the studio, again, for another period of writing and recording from the end of ’83 into early ’84. However, it was at this point that ‘brain freeze’ kicked in and work ground to a halt.

Thanks to the increasing security on sessions and the vault the fruit of these last periods of writing and recording are harder to identify. But Springsteen suggests, in ‘Born To Run’ again, that these would have included ‘Bobby Jean’ and ‘No Surrender’ and, er, ‘Refrigerator Blues’, ‘Swoop Man’ and ‘Ida Rose (No One Knows) were also written write before then end of the album’s writing and recording period.

Recognising that Springsteen was at an impasse with his album – and, presumably, with the record label chomping away at his ear – Jon Landau stepped in. He did two things. First, he compiled what he thought were the best of the songs recorded into an eleven-song track list:

Side One:

Born In The USA

I’m Goin’ Down

Cover Me

My Hometown

Bobby Jean

Side Two

My Love Will Not Let You Down

Follow That Dream

Glory Days

Protection

Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart

I’m On Fire

I don’t dig this track list anymore than that created in July of ’83. The songs here are still missing something but it seemed to do the job of giving his charge a charge, if you will. For Springsteen, armed with his newly- recorded songs, then “circled back to my original group of songs. There I found a naturalism and aliveness that couldn’t be argued with. They weren’t exactly what I’d been looking for, but they were what I had.”

They weren’t exactly what I was looking for…. but they were what he had. To me, this suggests a sense of weariness perhaps. Realisation, maybe, that whatever it was he was looking for wasn’t going to be found and he needed to get something, anything, out? Even if it meant it wasn’t as realised to him as, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town was? It’s a sensation that’s gotten across in the album’s first single:

‘Dancing in the Dark’ came from a now-famous moment when Springsteen was told the album needed a ‘hit’ single to get it on fire on the radio. Tired and weary after what was three years plus of writing and recording for the album and having already stockpiled more songs for Disc Three of Tracks to be one of the strongest, Bruce told Landau that if he wanted it so much, he should it himself.  Springsteen refers to the song as being “about my own alienation, fatigue and desire to get from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head…” It was the last song recorded for the album in February 1984.

Born In The USA changed Springsteen’s career. It pushed him from arenas to stadiums, muscle-bound and posing for the big screen projections to the cheap seats with hit after hit released from it. I’ve covered the album itself in more detail as part of my ‘Least To Most’ Springsteen series so won’t reiterate that which I’ve already covered. It may well have been his biggest but it’s far from my favourite and, with hindsight, Springsteen himself has certainly cooled toward it – it’s grab bag feel still apparent. But it did the job.

Following it would never be easy especially when you take into account the album’s arduous gestation period. Tunnel of Love, a far superior album, was a much more subdued affair and it would be another decade or two before Springsteen was comfortable finding his ‘rock’ voice again. The hesitancy and labouring over songs would also be borne out on the much-maligned Human Touch and his second-guessing over releasing albums would permeate through the next decade as there’s another rumoured album that sits abandoned in his vaults.

Perhaps it, like the wealth of songs recorded during Born In The USA‘s sessions, will see light on the in-the-works Tracks 2 project. Of those songs recorded and cut from the album we know of ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Shut Out The Light’, ‘Johnny Bye-Bye’, ‘Stand On It’, ‘Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart’, ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)’, My Love Will Not Let You Down’, the brilliant ‘Wages of Sin’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Frankie’, ‘Cynthia’, ‘Lion’s Den’, ‘Car Wash’, ‘TV Movie’, ‘Brothers Under The Bridges (’83)’, Man At The Top’, Rockaway the Days’, ‘County Fair’ and ‘None But The Brave’. That’s 20 songs, for those who are counting.

But… those that haven’t been officially released?

Here’s the list, just as indication that there’s a HUGE amount still in the vault. Each of these, in some way, went into the making of the final album and it shows just how much Springsteen put into the sessions even if he never found what he was looking for:

PROTECTION

THE KLANSMAN

SEVEN TEARS

FUGITIVE’S DREAM

ONE LOVE

BETTY JEAN

UNSATISFIED HEART

LITTLE GIRL (LIKE YOU)

DELIVERY MAN

FOLLOW THAT DREAM

SUGARLAND

DON’T BACK DOWN

JAMES LINCOLN DEAR

RICHFIELD WHISTLE

YOUR LOVE IS ALL AROUND ME

STOP THE WAR

BABY I’M SO COLD

BELLS OF SAN SALVADOR

ON THE PROWL

NEBRASKA – E STREET BAND VERSION

ATLANTIC CITY – E STREET BAND VERSION

MANSION ON THE HILL – E STREET BAND VERSION

JOHNNY 99 – E STREET BAND VERSION

HIGHWAY PATROLMAN – E STREET BAND VERSION

USED CARS – E STREET BAND VERSION

OPEN ALL NIGHT – E STREET BAND VERSION

REASON TO BELIEVE – E STREET BAND VERSION

LOSIN’ KIND

FADE TO BLACK

ROBERT FORD

WILLIAM DAVIS

GUN IN EVERY HOME

COMMON GROUND (STAY HUNGRY)

TRUE LOVE IS HARD TO COME BY

I DON’T CARE

THE MONEY WE DIDN’T MAKE

JOHNNY GO DOWN

BODY AND SOUL

SAVIN’ UP

OUT OF WORK

LOVE’S ON THE LINE

CLUB SOUL CITY

HOLD ON (TO WHAT YOU GOT)

WORKIN’ ON IT

GONE, GONE, GONE / SEEDS

KING’S HIGHWAY

JUST AROUND THE CORNER TO THE LIGHT OF DAY

INVITATION TO YOUR PARTY

BAD BOY

GLORY OF LOVE

SHUT DOWN

100 MILES FROM JACKSON

ROLL AWAY THE STONE

SWOOP MAN

UNDER THE BIG SKY

REFRIGERATOR BLUES

IDA ROSE (NO ONE KNOWS)

NOW AND FOREVER / SUMMER ON SIGNAL HILL

That’s an additional 58 songs in varying forms of completion, mastering and circulation. With those already released and the 12 that made up Born In The USA‘s final track list and that gives us…. 90 songs.  With the suggestion – that kicked off this series – from Max Weinberg that nearly 80 were recorded with the band… it’s likely that a few of these were either not recorded or never went beyond Bruce, a guitar and a basic recording.

With less songs written for Tunnel of Love – only an additional eleven on top of the album – and subsequent albums, Born In The USA was the end of Springsteen’s most prolific period of song writing, it even looks to have knackered him out for writing for some time to come. It – along with the missing album from the 90’s – represents one of the few remaining rich seams of  work that have yet to tapped. Those efforts that didn’t make his later-career albums were cherry-picked for the hotchpotch High Hopes and they weren’t anything like as strong as those that made up The Promise or The Ties That Bind collections. So, here’s hoping we get to hear from both these periods soon because there are some fucking BELTERS awaiting mastering and release in this treasure trove:

 

Unsatisfied hearts and murder, incorporated: the ‘other’ Born In The USAs – Part 2

“Halfway though recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure…. the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back today, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today.”

In the summer of 1982, following the decision to release Nebraska as it was, Steve Van Zandt had visited Bruce in a New York City hotel room to discuss his role their creative partnership. Bruce, though, didn’t feel they were in a “partnership” and steered his ship his way, it’s how it had to be to work the way it did. Van Zandt wanted a more collaborative deal and greater involvement. It couldn’t be. So he bid farewell to E Street. Though a formal announcement wouldn’t be made until May 1984 and he’d grace the linear notes of Born In The USA, Van Zandt’s input from this point forward would be minimal.

I think Springsteen is perhaps more sensitive to feedback than he’d let on. Look at the mixed response that Human Touch and Lucky Town garnered – it meant he ended up ditching a complete album’s worth of material in the 90’s in favour of getting the band back together for a Greatest Hits, as though to remind the public of what they loved about him in the first place. The reaction to Nebraska surprised Springsteen. This quiet set of songs, so far from the sound of The River, was oft-cited as one of the year’s best albums by critics and, while many Springsteen fans were surprised by it, the positive feedback to what was essentially a series of demos meant Bruce paused in his push to Born In The USA‘s thumping beats.

After the release of Nebraska and his ‘Jersey Shore Bar Tour’, and best man duties at Van Zandt’s wedding, Bruce took off west. In search of sun and escaping the Jersey Devil over winter? Maybe. But as ’83 arrived, Bruce was already busy. Through winter he’d worked at ‘Thrill Hill Recording’ – his home studio in his Hollywood Hills studio (though in ’83 this wasn’t the ‘bourgeois house in the Hollywood hills’ bought ‘with a trunkload of hundred thousand dollar bills’) – with yet another album’s worth of material emerging. Only these weren’t of the ‘Glory Days’ ilk, these songs were closer to Nebraska in theme and approach.

Sandwiched oddly appropriately between the recently released ‘classic’ concerts and 2019’s Western Stars in my iTunes is a Springsteen bootleg called Unsatisfied Heart. These dozen songs of surprisingly good quality for something so desperately unofficial, all come from those sessions at Thrill Hill Recording over the winter of 82-83. There’s a longer, better take of ‘Johnny Bye Bye’ and ‘Shut Out The Light’ with ‘County Fair’ making its earliest appearance, but the rest… remain the stuff of vaults and bootlegs (and, perhaps, a Tracks 2, now we know that such a project is in development) and I’m very glad to have these in any form. Why? Well, some of these are among his most compelling to date, even 40 years on.

Take ‘The Klansman’ as an example: never performed live and only one take circulating but while the music is richer than the material on Nebraska (drum beats and synths appearing) the lyrics are pretty heavy “I was ten years old when my Pa said, “Son, some day you will see, when you grow to wear the robes like your brother and me”:

Songs like the two above along with tracks like ‘Richfield Whistle’ – a real hefty story song in the vein of some of The River‘s ‘down on their luck’ character songs – or ‘Sugarland’ are both lost for now in terms of official releases but represented a different tact for Bruce. These are more fleshed out in sounds and found him leaning more toward drum beats and synth sounds that he’d later take further, albeit after Born In The USA had died down and the E Street Band had been parked. It’s a shame but, as is often the way, Bruce was exploring every possible avenue on the road to his next album and was still in the midst of a prolific song writing period.

‘Follow That Dream’, though, seemed to stick out for Bruce and would appear on a few tentative album track lists. Springsteen took Elvis’ 1962 song, changed up the lyrics and rearranged the pacing, slowing it right down:

Having decided that a follow up to Nebraska wasn’t in the works just yet, Springsteen instead returned to the East coast with the idea of combining the work previously recorded with the E Street Band and the best of his Thrill Hill sessions and releasing an album called Murder Incorporated:

  1. Born In The USA
  2. Murder Incorporated
  3. Downbound Train
  4. My Love Will Not Let You Down
  5. Glory Days
  6. This Hard Land
  7. Johnny Bye Bye
  8. Frankie
  9. I’m Going Down
  10. Working On The Highway
  11. I’m On Fire

It’s a stellar track list and he even went so far as to list ‘Sugarland’, ‘Follow That Dream’, ‘Don’t Back Down’, ‘One Love’ and ‘Little Girl (Like You)’ as probable b-sides. Whether or not tracks like the already pretty great ‘Don’t Back Down’ from the Thrill Hill sessions would’ve been re-recorded with the full band… we’ll never know but Murder Incorporated would’ve made one hell of an album. Let’s face it, ‘Born In The USA’ aside, any album with ‘Murder Incorporated’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘This Hard Land’, ‘Downbound Train’ and ‘I’m On Fire’ on is gonna be a knockout.

Hell, for my money, it would’ve been a more consistent and less ‘grab bag’ album and I’d have rated it a lot higher than I do Born In The USA. Not feeling me? Try it:

See? It fucking kicks.

Instead, though, Bruce decided the timing wasn’t right and – despite the original plan behind getting a four-track to reduce studio time and cost – went for some more studio sessions instead, returning to New York’s Hit Factory in May 1983. Given that Steven Van Zandt – at that point known as ‘Miami Steve’ – was busy working on his second solo album – it would be the band’s first without him and their first sessions in nearly a year.

You’d think they were nearly there but a lot more songs, doubt and writer’s block lay ahead while a good couple of album’s worth of songs lay behind.

 

Out by the gas fires of the refinery – The ‘Other’ Born In The USAs, Part One

In January 1982, just a few months after the final show of  The River Tour, recording sessions for Bruce Springsteen’s next album got under way.

These sessions fell right in the midst of Bruce’s most creative and prolific period. Just look at the sheer bounty of songs that were recorded and cut from Darkness… and The River. Each of those albums has received the lavish archival treatment with a load of previously unreleased gems seeing daylight for the first time – on top of those already released on Tracks!

Born In The U.S.A was no exception – according to Max Weinberg nearly 80 songs were recorded over the course of the entire. Springsteen and co-producer Chuck Plotkin have cited 70 but it’s likely that the Mighty Max Weinberg is counting those ten songs which made up Nebraska – as it’s almost impossible to separate the writing periods for the songs that made up the two albums’ sessions.

Yet while there’s a clamouring for it, it’s unlikely that Born In The USA will ever receive the same treatment as its predecessors. Springsteen has, with the distance of time, grown less effusive in his praise for it – “‘Born in the U.S.A’ more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence” – and Tunnel of Love was a determined move away from the sound and scope of Born In The USA with subsequent albums shying further away from it’s naked, world-conquering ambition.

Either way you look at it, there were several versions of ‘an album’ that were ready to go before we got the Born In The USA we know today. So let’s take a look at ’em.

The story of how Nebraska, Springsteen’s out-of-left-field lofi masterpiece came to be has, by now, been well told. But let’s recap. Tired of spending time and money working songs up on the studio, Bruce got his hands on a 4-track recorder. How much money? Well, in the promotion for Letter To You he pointed out that “learning how to record, we spent all the money we had. At the end of The River album I had $20,000 in the bank.” Well known dodgy deals with former managers aside, considering the success of Born To Run, The Darkness and its tours…. something needed to change. Avoiding studio costs, he laid down some tunes on 3rd January 1982 and then took them to the E Street Band to get loud / flesh out / give some soul. Yet something wasn’t right. The songs didn’t suit the band sound. As Bruce states in ‘Songs’: “I went into the studio, brought in the band, rerecorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse.”

So, after walking around with it in his back pocket (so the story goes), Steven Van Zandt gave The Boss the nudge he needed and those songs were released as they were, mastered from the cassette to vinyl, as Nebraska.

The decision to release ten songs from his January tape was made in May 1982. Nebraska features ten songs. The January tape had – depending on whose account you take as gospel – 15 or 17 songs on it. Not all of the ‘Electric Nebraska’ sessions made things ‘worse’. For of those initial January 1982 tape, songs including ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Working On The Highway’ ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Pink Cadillac’ and a song then called ‘Down, Down, Down’ (to become ‘I’m Goin’ Down’) came about.

It will come as little surprise to realise that between January and May of 1982, Bruce had managed to put together two albums worth of material. He toyed with putting them both out as a double album – the acoustic Nebraska songs would make up one half, with the other ‘electric’ side made up of both reworked songs from the January tape and newer songs written since:

Side One Side Two
BORN IN THE U.S.A. WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
MURDER INCORPORATED DARLINGTON COUNTY
DOWNBOUND TRAIN FRANKIE
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (a.k.a. I’m Goin’ Down) I’M ON FIRE
GLORY DAYS THIS HARD LAND
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN

Just look at that track list. As early as May 1982 Springsteen was ready to go with two albums. This first ‘what could have been’ Born In The USA already has seven of the twelve songs that would make the final album. But look at those others…. ‘This Hard Land’ is a stone-cold Springsteen classic, Max Wienberg’s favourite from the sessions and one that wouldn’t see the light until it was re-recorded 1995’s Greatest Hits. The original ’82 version is just as fine.

‘Murder Incorporated’ would have to wait with ‘This Hard Land’ until 1995’s Greatest Hits with ‘Frankie’ and ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ – both of which are absolute gems – a little longer for 1998’s Tracks for their day in the sun. Until then they were assigned to the vault as Springsteen continued working on the album, which wasn’t immediate.

Instead, the decision to release Nebraska ‘as is’ in 1982 effectively put a hold on recording sessions. Recording would have to wait as Springsteen oversaw the final preparations for Nebraska and would spend the summer on his ‘1982 Jersey Shore Bar Tour’ – making guest appearances throughout New Jersey. Given that Nebraska featured very little fanfare and wasn’t accompanied by a tour, the break in writing and recording may have been down to another factor: Steve Van Zandt was no longer a member of The E Street Band.

Springsteen would resume work on his next album in April 1983 but there would be a few more versions of Born In The U.S.A to go through before he was done.

Tracks: Camouflage

“And then a big marine, a giant with a pair of friendly eyes
Appeared there at my shoulder and said ‘Wait!’
When he came in close beside me he said ‘Don’t worry, son, I’m here’
‘If Charlie wants to tangle now they’ll have two to dodge'”

After a brief back and forth in a comment section with CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead and ahead of a post on war (what is it good for?) I felt the need to dust off my Tracks format  wherein I spotlight a particular song that stands out in my mental jukebox and sits amongst my favourites – I feel a Spotify playlist coming on…

Stan Ridgway’s ‘Camouflage’ was taken from his 1986 album The Big Heat. It was a hit over here in the UK (hitting number 4 in the chart – I’ve still got a cassette of the Top 40 from some point in the year and it’s on there alongside things like Robert Palmer’s ‘I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On’ and Gwen Guthrie’s ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’ as a slab of my childhood in the back seat of my parent’s car on family drives) but didn’t chart in Ridgway’s native US where he’d previously found success in Wall of Voodoo.

Sung from the pov of a young, inexperience Private First Class cut off from his patrol in ‘the jungle war of ’65’ and finding himself surrounded… until ‘that big marine named Camouflage’ saves him…  Sure, it’s over-the-top and not exactly realistic, but it’s a cracker in my book:

This song cuts on a personal level. When I was a kid growing up my Dad’s best friend Charlie was a regular presence in our lives. He’d been a ‘weekend soldier’ in the TA and, with my Dad, part of an RAF volunteer service called the ROC. This was one of his favourites, I guess the Vietnam story appealed to him, and so it became lodged in my mind and the connection between the song and him makes it a bit of an emotional one too: he was killed while riding his motorbike in 1992 when a lorry hit him.

Aside from that emotional connection – my father can’t listen to it anymore – I really dig the tune and can see why it was a favourite. The story is like something from Catch 22, the sound has that 80’s New Wave / Alternative vibe and Ridgway’s delivery, like some strange film noir narrative, is unique.

Yes and I had a little time to kill…. a Tom Petty twenty

Tom Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida in 1950. When he was ten years old his uncle, who was working on the movie,  invited him onto the set of the Elvis Presley flick ‘Follow That Dream’ to watch the shoot. Petty was awestruck and became an instant fan, trading his slingshot for a stack of Elvis 45s. Less than 4 years later Petty knew he wanted to be in a band when he saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show, per Wikipedia: “The minute I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show—and it’s true of thousands of guys—there was the way out.”

For Petty, that band was The Epics which would evolve into Mudcrutch – a band which included Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. When Mudcrutch split Petty looked at a solo career but still felt the need for a band so, essentially he and Mike Campbell, co-opted  Benmont Tench’s new band and formed The Heartbreakers. Their first album would drop in 1976, Damn The Torpedoes would catapult them to multi-platinum status three years later and they continued to shift a shit load of records and rake up the hits as the years went on until the mid 90s where they slipped from the mainstream though would continue to shift massively respectable numbers, prove a great live act and retain a dedicated following and critical appeal.

It felt like the shine had worn off Petty’s songwriting around the time of The Last DJ (even if it did get him a spot on ‘The Simpsons’) and solo album Highway Companion. There’s some good stuff there, of course, but the consistency and freshness had waned. Perhaps Petty felt it too as he reformed Mudcrutch and the band released it’s first album in 2008 (a second followed in 2016)- the same year that Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers performed at the Superbowl’s half time show. Tellingly, none of the songs they played were from after 1989.

Then, with the release of 2010’s Mojo and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye a few years later, it felt like The Heartbreakers had found a second (or fourth? I’ve lost count) wind – changing up their sound and approach to embrace a much more bluesy sound that unlocked a new gear and they sounded fresh and invigorated on record again for the first time in decades. Then, in the early hours of October 2nd 2017, Tom Petty was found unconscious at his home in Santa Monica, California. He’d suffered a cardiac arrest and wasn’t breathing. There were, as always in this shitty media world in which we’re forced to live, rumours about his state almost immediately. But he was resuscitated and taken to hospital where, at 8:40pm, Tom Petty died. He was 66. During his recording career he released 13 studio albums with The Heatbreakers, 3 ‘solo’ albums and 2 albums with Mudcrutch, and 2 albums with The Travelling Wilburys, selling more than 80 million records worldwide.

I’d been into Tom Petty’s music for some time – his cds were on heavy rotation and the great compilation Anthology: Through The Years was often in my car. The news of his death really surprised me and took me some time before I could listen to his music again. My ongoing Albums of My Years series has set me back into his collection.

So, with that in mind, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite Tom Petty songs. I’m counting both ‘solo’ and Hearbreakers albums together but nothing Mudcrutch as I’ve spent no time with those albums (and precious little with Mojo and Hyptnotic Eye).

This list isn’t necessarily order-specific or concrete as I may discover more as I listen to those Mudcrutch albums or spend more time with Hypnotic Eye.  But, right now….

Even The Losers – Damn The Torpedos was the album that changed it all for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers but this standout for me was only released as a single in Australia despite how fucking good it is. Love the line “Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof.”

Wildflowers – Petty’s first album for Warner Bros. and first with Rick Rubin is an absolute gem. Essentially a Heartbreakers album – only Stan Lynch was missing but he’d be out of the group shortly and future Heartbreaker Steve Ferrone sat on the drum stool – and one of their finest.

The Waiting – come on, you know this song is gold.

Angel Dream (No. 4) – After Wildflowers, Petty and The Heartbreakers teamed up with Rick Rubin again for the soundtrack album Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”. I don’t know how this ended up as a soundtrack album (for a pretty ‘meh’ film’ but it’s a great Heartbreakers album – with some tracks from Wildlflowers sessions being developed, a looseness and charm that makes for some great tunes. If it wasn’t for the ‘soundtrack’ association and the repeat / variation of a few tunes as a result – this could’ve really changed the bands fortunes for the 90s.

Room at the Top – By the time Rick Rubin and The Heartbreakers got to work together on a Heartbreakers album ‘proper’, Petty was in the midst of a divorce and Echo feels more like a solo album given its subject matter. But it’s a bloody good disc that’s oft overlooked – including by me. This is just a beauty and, of all of his songs, it’s this one that I find hard to listen to in light of his passing.

Straight Into Darkness – Balls to the wall classic for me. “I remember Bruce Springsteen saying something about the song at a time when I felt like that album was kind of lost on people,” Petty said. “That meant a lot.”

It’ll All Work Out – The band’s last album before Petty went solo and they shifted gears again is a weird one and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) is probably better known for ‘Jammin Me’ but I love this chilled out, delicate song – a type for which Petty had a real knack for.

Southern Accents – I love this song, no two ways about it. Southern Accents feels like an album of two halves, with original ‘concept’ songs mixed with class A hits but this, one of the ‘concepts’ is gorgeous. I love the lyric and delivery of ” For just a minute there I was dreaming,for just a minute it was all so real, for just a minute she was standing there, with me.”

Something Big – I’m a sucker for a ‘story’ song even if it is as deceptively dark as this one. Scratch that: ESPECIALLY if it’s as deceptively dark as this one.

Hope You Never – Another great from the She’s The One soundtrack, really dig the way this one builds and the beat.

Rebels – Another of Southern Accents‘ ‘concept’ songs and while the keyboards are very of the time it’s so well written it doesn’t hurt it none. The keyboards may be due to the fact that Petty was so high that he got so angry over arrangements he punched a wall and broke his left hand (causing pretty severe nerve damage). I guess it served as a wake up call as he called up Jimmy Iovine and asked him to come help finish the song and several others from this then-troubled ‘concept’ album.

You Wreck Me – a harder hitter from Wildflowers that just kicks. Even if Petty did feel it was a throwback: “I thought, ‘Man, this sounds just like the Heartbreakers about 1980’ – that style [that tells you] exactly who that is. So I got into it, to do a nostalgic song – ‘All right, we’ll go as far back as high school.”

Runnin’ Down A Dream – Petty’s first ‘solo’ album was a relaxed recording that featured all but one Heartbreaker (Stan Lynch again) and Petty’s friends George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne – who also co-produced and wrote seven of Full Moon Fever‘s songs with Petty. For such a low-key album, Full Moon Fever went bonkers: hits like ‘Free Fallin’ and ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and their MTV staple vids helped it sell millions of copies and become Petty’s commercial peak. Of the 5 singles released from it, this is still my favourite.

Alright For Now – while this little Petty ditty is, oddly, my favourite on the whole album. I guess it’s the ‘for now’…. sometimes, most, that’s enough.

The Wild One, Forever – even on their first album The Heartbreakers showed they have a real knack for this not-quite-a-ballad slow blazer, yearning sorta thing.

American Girl – there’s no way of getting around it, the band’s first ‘hit’ is a classic.

Something Good Coming – The sole selection on here from Mojo, there’s something captivating about the vibe of this one for me.

Saving Grace – for his last solo album, Tom Petty worked again with Jeff Lynne and Mike Campbell, though no other Heartbreakers appear on Highway Companion. It’s not a bad album but lacks the consistency of his previous two. This is one of the highlights.

Waiting For Tonight – Oddly, this was recorded with the Heartbreakers during the a break from the Full Moon Fever sessions and put away until 1995’s Playback box set (which was one of the first things I got hold of when getting into Petty which is strange considering it’s a 6cd box set). Apparently it’s The Bangles on background vocals… why this was overlooked – it’s all hook much like ‘The Waiting’, it’s stuffed with great lyrics and is catchier than one of those contagious things…. were it not for Spotify having the ‘Nobody’s Children’ disc from Playback I think it would remain missed by many.

Don’t Come Around Here No More – Another gear and game change for Petty and the Heartbreakers. Stolen from Stevie Nicks who, having felt that Petty nailed the vocals, declined to use it on the album she was working on with Jimmy Iovine. The title is, according to Dave Stewart, a phrase he heard Nicks shout at Joe Walsh with whom she was throwing out of her house after a long drink and drug-fuelled party. The video for this put the band into MTV heavy rotation and all that came with that but…. it’s a great moment when the gears shift around the four minute mark.

 

 

Continuing…

WordPress has conveniently pointed out that Saturday was the 8th Anniversary of my first post on this blog.

For that post I looked at a couple of things beginning with Z. I’m not about to go through the whole alphabet – William over at a1000mistakes has done that and I don’t think I could to the same – so let’s carry on going backwards instead and go for the 18th  (8 back from 26) letter of the alphabet: R

R is for Radiohead, R.E.M, The Replacements and Rollings Stones all of whom feature to varying degrees of heavy in my record collection as well as on this blog. It’s also for Rogue Wave and Rilo Kiley who formed part of that early-2000s alt/indie revival that I so enjoyed and occupy a good few spaces on the shelves alongside other ‘R’ artists Damien Rice and some Chili Peppers of the Red Hot variety (I also caught these guys live back in 2001), The Raconteurs, Refused, Rage Against the Machine and one of my favourite singers ever, Otis Redding.. so I’ve put together a quick ‘R’ playlist featuring a couple of my favourites from the above. Sticking to no more than two per artist proved tricky for some but the trickiest bit was trying to get it to flow when the only thing some of these have in common is the letter R. This proved impossible so this is in purely alphabetical:

It’s also for Rainbow – not as in the kids TV show with Geoffrey, Bungle, George and Zippy but as in the band Ritchie Blackmore formed after Deep Purple’s shift in sound didn’t agree with him and is perhaps suitably best known for the belter ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ which features singer Graham Bonnet and one of rock’s ultimate drummers, Cozy Powell. It seems like I must’ve heard a thousand times as a kid and still enjoy, so:

R is also for Rearviewmirror, one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs and any opportunity to put a little Pearl Jam in a post is a welcome one*:

Also neatly slotting under this one is Romania, which is almost a blog unto itself but as we’re covering R it seems like an opportunity for a roundup. As mentioned in the Out of Europe series (which I need to get back to know those cock weasels pulled the trigger), it’s a country to which I owe so much and have a huge amount of love for despite its contradictions. I’ve been trying to keep my ear in for Romanian music and I’ve got an ongoing playlist on Spotify which I’ll also embed below, should you be so inclined.

 

I’ve also been able to up my game since starting this blog in terms of finding and reading more fiction from Romanian authors, so much so that I can even share five recommended Romanian reads with you:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu: this one slots into my Top Ten of all time

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian: also very much worth checking out is his Journal 1935-1944 which is a real eye-opener in terms of Romania’s treatment of the Jews during WW2 and will make you think differently about the next author too.

Youth Without Youth – Mircea Eliade: the shelves in our library here have many a story by Eliade on them in both English and Romanian,  there’s a plethora of short novellas and volumes of short stories as Eliade (as much of a dick as he was to his friend) was a prolific writer and his work is often surreal and deals with a lot of spiritual stuff. This is my favourite and a full length novel that was adapted into a film by Francis Ford Coppola in 2007.

Forest of the Hanged – Liviu Rebreanu: I’ve read very few WW1 novels and this is a great one which really takes off and develops into an exploration on the themes of identity, faith and, of course, how ordinary people change in the face of the extraordinary.

The Book of Mirrors –  EO Chirovici: a much more recent (2017) effort that caused a real stir as this was Chirovici’s first novel written in English and was grabbed by publishers in 23 countries in 2015, landing him a likely seven-figure sum just in publishing deals way ahead of its actual publication. It’s also very very good.

Since the start of the new millennium, Romania has also been experiencing something of a revival in terms of it’s film industry, with some really great films picking up acclaim and awards throughout the world. I’m nowhere near as up to speed with these as I’d like to be but, if you’re looking for a good film and fancy seeing what Romania has to offer in this arena you’d do well to check out these.

I think that’s R covered.

*Gigaton review coming just as soon as I can express my thoughts coherently.