Albums of my Years – 1987

The oddest thing about the entry for this year is that as 1987 was welcomed by the world I, having been born in October, was a few months past my sixth birthday so I’m sitting here knocking words into shape about the year in which I was the same age as my son is now.

Given how precious little I can now remember from that time, I’ll admit I’m a bit saddened at the prospect that all of these memories I hold dear with him, he may not. But it may just be that my own memory is shit – I can’t remember what was said in a meeting last week let alone what happened in 1987.

It also means that I know he’s absorbing music in much the same way I would have done but is probably exposed to a lot more variety as he enjoys listening to both music played in my car and on the radio in my wife’s – who listens to a much more contemporary station. Which would explain why he knows what ‘Bad Guy’ by Billie Eilish sounds like and can ask Alexa for something called Dance Monkey, amongst others…. when he’s not using it to set fart timers.

That he’s referenced the orange tub of turd in charge of America and the shaggy-headed fucktard* currently residing at 10 Downing Street makes me think that by ’87 I was probably paying attention to the news and the world beyond He-Man and Thundercats. Shit, just by typing those words I’ve opened a floodgate of memories which give me hope. Still, at the time, those big songs on the radio that might have been perverting my young brain included the future-meme that was Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ and Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. In fact I do have a distinct memory of being in the car with my Dad at one point this year as Ms Houston was being interviewed by Steve Wright on BBC Radio One (how’s that for a flasback) – I remember this as my Dad found it amusing and frustrating in equal measure how she would add ‘you know?’ to every other sentence.

1987 must have been a mega year for hairspray manufacturers. Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ topped the US charts and was the year’s biggest selling single, Def Leppard (what’s got nine arms and sucks?) released Hysteria – apparently the longest rock album ever on a single LP at just over an hour – and Axl Rose welcomed everyone to the jungle with a weird shimmy dance as Appetite for Destruction dropped in July ’87. It would go on to become the best selling debut of all time, having shifted something daft like 30 million copies. That’s a lot of Mr Brownstone. It’s a safe wager that all these poodle-perms and teased-dos were assisted in their rise by MTV – MTV Europe launched in ’87 too, the first video played was Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ the animation of which was probably already out of date.

Still there were a lot of great records released in 1987 too, many of which fall right into this blog’s arena and my collection. Not counting Bruce Willis’ The Return of Bruno for very obvious reasons.

Hüsker Dü released their final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories and broke up following the tour to support it, which I’m sure cheesed of Warner Bros. as it was only their second album for the label. Prince returned to form with Sign o’ the Times and Sonic Youth delivered the near-perfect Sister in June, weighing in at very healthy ten tracks that shifted their experimentation further from their no-wave origins and closer to traditional song-structures.

Sonic Youth’s SST label-mates, and another big name in my record shelves, Dinosaur Jr released their unimpeachable You’re Living All Over Me in 1987 and fellow Massachusettsians(?) and one of Boston’s finist, The Pixies released their first – the mini-lp Come On Pilgrim – which I always say in the style of John Wayne.

Meanwhile Boston’s Bad Boys decided ’87 was the time to kick-off their comeback proper. Fresh from rehab (though opener ‘Hearts Done Time’ was crafted by Perry and Desmond Child while Steven Tyler was still ‘in’) and feeling a lust for life and health, Aerosmith shifted direction a little – a glossier sound thanks to the production of Bruce Fairbairn and, at the suggestion of  A&R man John Kalodner, written with outside songwriters such as Desmond Child, Jim Vallance and Holly Knight. All names that would be associated with the likes of Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, Tina Turner and a certain flavour of 80’s American ROCK. Still, with sales in the millions, a volley of hit singles and videos that reintroduced to the group to the charts and introduced them to a whole new audience, the formula clearly worked. For my money, though, it’s the lesser of their ‘comeback’ albums and the best songs are the least ‘buffed’:

The Go-Betweens released their fifth album, Tallulah, in ’87 and Midnight Oil’s Diesel and Dust arrived in  August of the same year – often cited as the best Australian album and home to ‘Beds Are Burning’ which did Top Ten / Twenty business around the globe. R.E.M released Document in this year, it was their last for I.R.S and their first with producer Scott Litt – with whom they’d work with through to New Adventures In Hi-Fi. George Harrison released Cloud Nine in 1987 – while it followed a five year hiatus it would actually be the last of his studio albums released in his lifetime, we miss you George. Massively well-received it also give him a Number One single:

Having been declared a spent force creatively in 1985, Pink Floyd proved it was anything but having gotten rid of its “dog in the manger”.  Having begun work on the next band album in November ’86, David Gilmour put together the musicians he wanted involved and wisely took the call from Richard Wright’s wife when it came to the keyboards. While both Nick Mason and Wright were a little too rusty following both an extensive lay-off and years of Waters’ bullying respectively to play much on the album, the presence of both on the album gave the now Gilmour-led project the stamp of credibility it needed as legal battling and bitching between the Floyd and Waters camp continued throughout – at one point the band relocated to L.A for recording both as part of the arrangement to allow producer Bob Ezrin time with his family (Ezrin chose working on a new Gilmour-led Pink Floyd album vs Waters’s solo record based on his memories of The Wall sessions with Roger) and so that the time delay would reduce calls from solicitors. While A Momentary Lapse of Reason is far from a great Pink Floyd album, it’s pretty fucking good and has plenty of songs on it that stand up to repeated listens and the recent remixes for The Later Years shows just that.

Meanwhile the tour to support it began before the album was released.  Roger Waters threatened to sue promoters if they used the Pink Floyd name, which many decided to say ‘fuck you’ to – helping some shift 60,000 tickets within hours of release. Gilmour and Mason funded the start-up costs themselves and the tour became the year’s most successful – beating box office records everywhere it went. Which probably helped Mason buy back the Ferrari 250GTO he’d had to sell to raise funds. I seem to recall reading that it grossed more than the next two best-selling tours of the year combined.

But… it’s not my featured album of 1987. I mean Bruce Springsteen also released an album this year – one of his finest; Tunnel of Love. Yet I’ve already waxed lyrical on that and rules are rules. So, let’s talk about…

The Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me

““How can the Replacements be the best band of the 80s when I’ve never even heard of them?” Jon Bon Jovi

That’s easy, Jon. Pull up a chair, tuck back your hair and open your ears a mo… The Replacements were the band that should have been, but never were. Their own worst enemies, they were a band that, across the course of the decade, punched out six albums that charted Westerberg’s development into a songwriter par-excellence, stuffed to gills with gems and killer hooks that saw them develop from their start in Minneapolis’ punk scene to making one-last gasp at the stardom that forever eluded them before falling apart as the nineties started.

Own worst enemies you say? That’s right, Jon Bongiovi – their history was no Bed of Roses. For all their  great tunes, they couldn’t quite seem to let go of the punk / silly stuff. So for every ‘I Will Dare’ or ‘Unsatisfied’ there would be a ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’ or ‘Lay It Down Clown’ that, while delighting their already devoted fanbase when wheeled out live, wouldn’t give them the consistently ‘great / solid’ album that would transfer to mainstream sales. They’d also handicap their success with their on-and-off stage behaviour and ramshackle live performances that often ended with songs being abandoned half-way through after a flubbed line or riff. Whether they really didn’t care or wanted to look like they didn’t care…. “I don’t know”.

I came to The Replacements far too late – not that it’s ever too late to discover a band, but they’d long since ceased to be when I got into them and even Paul Westerberg had stopped releasing albums proper when I finally decided to check out the band that I’d read about and seen cited as important and influential seemingly everywhere.

Pleased to Meet Me was released in 1987. You probably didn’t hear it, JBJ, because you were giving love a bad name around the world. It’s the band’s fifth album – and their first and only album as a trio after founding member Bob Stinson left / was asked to gtfo in ’86. I’ve read somewhere that, in fact, his departure is a stain on Westerberg’s character: having completed court-mandated rehab less than a month earlier, a clean and sober Stinson was told to ‘either take a drink, motherfucker, or get off my stage.’ Stinson died in 1995 of organ failure after years of drug and alcohol abuse.

This was also their second major-label album and, likely, one for which Sire were starting to wonder if they’d ever take it seriously enough to give them a product that would break the band in the way Westerberg’s songs deserved.

For my money Pleased To Meet Me is as close as they’d get to perfect. The songs on their next, Don’t Tell A Soul were still good albeit written looking for an ‘anthem’,  but it was two years away – during which it would become clear it wasn’t really going to happen – and would be killed by poor production.

Pleased To Meet Me was produced by Jim Dickinson – I’ve no doubt chosen as he produced Big Star’s Thrid and it Paul Westerberg would “never travel far, without a little Big Star.”

It’s their best-sounding album thanks to the production choice. It’s big, punchy and strong where it needs to be but still remains rough enough round the edges to keep its charm and the band’s sense of humour and ethos intact. Rolling Stone called it “an album alive with the crackle of conflicting emotions and kamikaze rock & roll fire.”

It’s got great Replacements songs all over it, from ‘Alex Chilton’ to ‘The Ledge’ for which a video was made but quickly banned by MTV as it dealt with suicide. They didn’t really do videos in general so it wasn’t a shocker. No flying across the crowd in a harness or looking wistfully out of the windows of a jet liner for them, Jon. Their only real video to this point was a black-and-white video that didn’t even  show the band, just a loudspeaker vibrating to the music. No wonder you hadn’t heard of em.

And while they weren’t quite ready to play it straight, the token ‘silly’ track ‘I Don’t Know’ comes across more as a bluesy, jam feeling workshop that’s more self-mocking than it is juvenile: ‘one foot in the door, the other one in the gutter’, ‘Do we give it up? (I don’t know)….. Can I borrow your hairspray?’ Yeah, I know, Jon, they used hairspray too, but when they sang ‘why don’t you get a haircut, sister?’ at Paul it didn’t make the news. Meanwhile the saxophone featured would also drip over into next track ‘Nightclub Jitters’ which continued Hootenanny‘s genre experiments with aplomb.

Oh, and speaking of horns, it’s also got the final recording run at ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, easily one of their best tunes – I love the one-liner “Jesus rides beside me, he never buys any smokes” – all nagging riff and catchy beat, albeit without the earlier version’s ’till it’s over’:

But I jumped ahead to the final track there, sorry. ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ is preceded by another Westerberg classic, one that he once called the first good song he’d written. It’s a simple love song about a couple who never got to meet (something which Westerberg’s solo songs would come back to a few times over the years to come) – a man keeps seeing a woman up in the skyway “wonderin’ if we’ll meet out in the street” only, when he finally sees her out in the street – where he usually catches his ride, he’s in the skyway: “there wasn’t a damn thing I could do or say.” It’s simple, yet perfect. Yes, Jon, it’s fucking streets away from ‘Never Say Goodbye’, ok? Don’t even try…

Allmusic’s summary of this one sums it up: it was the last time the band “could still shoot for the stars and seem like their scrappy selves and, in many ways, it was the last true Replacements album”. Pleased To Meet Me is my favourite Replacements album. As I worked my way back through their catalogue after getting Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was it’s the album that I’d play through the most, so it’s only fitting that it sits here as my choice of 1987’s releases.

On to 1988… and no, New Jersey isn’t there, Jon. No laying your hands on this list.

*definitely not his words

Albums of my years – 1984

Ah. Little behind here. Having just completed another rotation round the sun I realise I’ve now got approx 48 weeks to cover another 36 posts after this…. better get cracking then and crank these out with a little more regularity.

1984… I do have some memories; a walk to playgroup, some toys coming out of the murky mists of memory…. but I remember nothing of Once Upon A Time In America or The Terminator, Ghostbusters or even This is Spinal Tap. It would be many a year until I’d discover the year’s cinematic entries and how there is none, none more black.

While I’m pretty sure I would’ve seen or heard the news at some point that year, I can’t say I had any idea what it mean Elton John got married in February ’84… to a woman named Renate Blauel – though I’m sure it must’ve received plenty of press in the UK. Chrissie Hynde also got married in 1984, to Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr, they’d divorce in 1990, 2 years after Elton John.

Meanwhile in 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ topped the charts, despite it being banned on the BBC here, and began to infect American radio too and ‘The Power of Love’ would infest the charts before the year was out. Mick Fleetwood, presumably having snorted most of his money up his nose, declared bankruptcy in ’84. In October – just as I was gearing up to blow out a cake with four candles (one of the greatest comedy sketches ever) – a special report on Ethioipia’s famine was aired on the BBC. Bob Geldof was watching and was inspired to start up Band Aid and would put out “Do They Know It’s Christmas”,  within two months, it quickly became the fastest- selling single of all time in the UK despite it’s monstrous errors and condescension (it’s heart was in the right place). It would be respun three times over the coming decades and also be the basis for 1985’s Live Aid concerts.

In February of 1984 , Joe Perry and Brad Whitford attended an Aerosmith concert – oddly enough at Boston’s Orpheum Theatre. Perry had left the band in ’79 and Whitford in ’81. Their own solo careers having failed to ignite and Aerosmith itself in a downward spiral, the two would rejoin a few months later and the band would tentatively begin the process toward its comeback… though they’d have to stop a few bad habits first.

It wasn’t a good year for Rick Allen – well, it may have been a good year but New Year’s Eve was a bit shit: he lost control of his car, spun, hit a wall and was thrown from the vehicle, severing his left arm and giving rise to the joke ‘what’s got nine arms and sucks?’ The biggest bit of news, though, was likely the killing of Marvin Gaye at his father’s hand – with the unlicensed Smith & Wesson.38 special calibre pistol his son had given him for Christmas the previous year. It’s a really surreal and shocking story that’s worth reading up on.

Bands that called it a day included Jefferson Starship, Split Enz, King Crimson, Rainbow and Kansas. It was also fair well to Deep Wound, a hardcore band who’s members Lou Barlow and J Mascis would promptly form Dinosaur Jr – who joined Big Audio Dynamite, Bruce Hornsby & The Range, Live, Living Colour and one of the first ‘grunge’ bands Green River – which featured future Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam and Mudhoney members-  in forming in 1984.

Van Halen kicked the year’s releases off in grand style with 1984 – easily the only time in which I can tolerate David Lee Roth for anything over 30 seconds. Bon Jovi released their self-titled debut with a cover photo which I’m sure still haunts all involved. David Gilmour dropped his second solo album About Face in 1984. I’ve heard it… it’s not going to be featured but if you’re curious what Mr Gilmour was up to after The Final Cut when he wasn’t shopping for snazzy blazers…

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s second album Couldn’t Stand The Weather is a cracking collection as is Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, also released this year. Metallica dropped their Ride The Lightning which featured the phenomenal ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ in 1984 and R.E.M dropped their stellar second album Reckoning:

Bryan Adams released Reckless in 1984 – it was the album that sent him into the massive sales category (for a while, at least). The album that contained ‘Summer of ’69’, ‘Run To You’, ‘Heaven’ and three further singles would go on to shift over 12 million  copies – one of which was the first CD I’d own some seven years later, given to me as either a birthday or Christmas present with a CD player in 1991 (I think it was ’91).

In researching this I also discovered that that little band from Ireland, U2, also released another album in 1984. Weird, I guess they must have saved up some money from their day jobs and booked some time in a little studio somewhere. They called it The Unforgettable Fire which I’d wager is a bit weird as I’d bet everyone has forgotten it. Nobody will have forgotten 1984’s big release – Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA arrived in June and has since sold more than 30 million copies. It spawned SEVEN top ten singles and heralded the start of Bossmania. It would be a strong contender for featured album but I’ve already written on it here and am currently working up a series of posts around it so it’s disqualified.

The Replacements’ Let It Be arrived in 1984 and I do love that album. I mean – ‘I Will Dare’, ‘Androgynous’, ‘Unsatisfied’ and ‘Answering Machine’ on one album?! But then I don’t really dig the daft stuff on here and anything with a Kiss cover on it isn’t going to sit at the top of my list…

So that really only leaves:

Prince and the Revolution – Purple Rain

Of those albums released in 1984 that aren’t Born In The USA, this is the one I’ve listened to most frequently and consistently. It’s impossible to remember the first time you’re aware of Purple Rain – the title song is one of those songs that’s seeming embedded in everyone’s memory from birth. You probably hear it a lot less than you think but because it’s so well known it seems one of the most played tunes ever, like certain Beatles and Stones songs… it’s a classic.

I am fairly certain that the first time that I sat and listened to Purple Rain front to back it was on wax; I distinctly remember a break between ‘Darling Nikki’ and ‘When Doves Cry’.

A soundtrack to a film I’ve still not seen, Purple Rain was Prince’s sixth album and was such a push forward in the makeup of tunes and production values and really put the little purple fella on the map – 1999 was big and went Top Ten but Purple Rain hit the top spot, cleared more than 25 million sales to date and still appears in Best Album lists the world over. With due cause – from the opening explosion and powerhouse performance of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ to the climax and ‘bring the house down’ final, and title, track ‘Purple Rain’ there’s not a duff moment on it…. well ‘Computer Blue’ ain’t great.

It was ages before I realised ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ is one of his preaching songs – the ‘de-elevator’ is the Devil and even the opening ‘the afterlife’ spiel just get washed away in the exuberance of the song and his performance and Princes two guitar solos… what a way to kick off an album:

Then pushing straight into ‘Take Me With You’… yes it sounds today very much 1984 with it’s synths and breathless urgency but it’s the good 1984. And what about ‘Darling Nikki’?! Come on… when did you hear a song this good about that?

Apparently even this song – with it’s ‘masturbating to a magazine’ – has some of Prince’s religious preaching in; there’s some reverse vocals in there at the end that, if played the right way point out the little guy was doing alright because he knew ‘that the Lord is coming soon’. I’ve heard – and seen – the Foo Fighters covering this and in anyone else’s hands (Grohl’s included) it doesn’t work. Nobody could perform like Prince.

Prince was a one-off. Sure there were some duff moments in his catalogue but it’s extremely hard (I’d say there’s not one example) to point out a great artist who hasn’t realised a turd of a song or five. His passing has left a big hole in the musical soundscape both in terms of his output and his enigma. Though it does mean I can now embed videos of this tracks here and find him on Spotify. Purple Rain remains, for me, his greatest album and it’s the one that shot him into the stratosphere. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of those essential albums for any collection. To quote Stereogum: … Purple Rain is “Prince’s grand pop exclamation, a near-perfect marriage of worldview and sonic construction….. No one has made a record like this, before or since.”

Tired but wiser for the time… Five From: The Black Crowes

This blog has, somewhat sporadically at times I’ll admit, been in service now for close to seven and a half years.

In that time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes three times and only one of those was accompanied with an actual song. Shocking considering I really dig this band. I should say ‘dug’ really because despite reuniting in 2006, after a five year hiatus, to critical acclaim the band are listed as ‘were an American rock band’…  With a turbulent history and many a lineup change, in 2015 guitarist Rich Robinson issued a statement: “I love my brother and respect his talent, but his present demand that I must give up my equal share of the band and that our drummer for 28 years and original partner, Steve Gorman, relinquish 100 percent of his share, reducing him to a salaried employee, is not something I could agree to.”

Looked like curtains…. until now. 30 years on from their debut it looks like a reunion is on the cards with show posters for 2020 announcing that Shake Your Money Maker will be played in its entirety “plus all the hits”.

For me this is great news – whether it’s the lure of moolah or simply having settled differences, it’s good to think that the band are a going concern again. They were one of the first bands I saw live – supporting Aerosmith while they (the Crowes) toured their fifth album By Your Side at Wembley Stadium- and they were fucking awesome live. Singer Chris Robinson played the festival out behind my house this summer, on a weekend afternoon…. I heard part of it as I walked past and hearing ‘Remedy’ played as a tag on an another song as part of an 8 song set in a tent in a field in Kent….. the band needed to get back together.

So, here are five from The Black Crowes that I really enjoy and hope feature on future setlists:

Thick N’ Thin

Man… Shake Your Money Maker is a slab of great from start to finish. ‘Hard To Handle’ got em on MTV but ‘She Talks To Angels’, ‘Jealous Again’, ‘Twice as Hard’… this guys were here to blow the bloody roof off with riffs and bluesy swagger to spare. ‘Thick N’ Thin’ is the shortest track on the album and is just a real fun blast.

Remedy

Second album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion upped the blues and soul at the same time… new guitarist Marc Ford and keyboard player Eddie Harsch rounding out the sound as it leaned in a more bluesy, mature direction… and topped the charts too.

Wiser Time

The one with the pubes… I really liked Amorica. Rolling Stones’ review (pilfered from Wikipedia)  sums it up nicely “”The Crowes haven’t ceased their cocky pillaging of the universal jukebox – echoes of the Stones and Led Zep abound.” I love ‘Wiser Time’… from the opening riff and hook to the breakdown that starts about minute three, takes in some guitar soloing, some soulful keys and then a real ripper of another guitar lead…

Kickin’ My Heart Around

By Your Side was the first Black Crowes album I bought. While not as consistent or rich as Southern Harmony… or Amorica it’s a step up from Three Snakes And One Charm (which seemed like, in reaction to the disgust at that album’s pubes – which meant some stores refused to stock it – they made the same album again without the tunes). It’s closer to Shake Your Money Maker and is still worth a listen.

She Talks To Angels

Speaking of the debut… here’s another standout from that, taking a breather from the blues rock attack and proving they could handle a ballad just as well.

I haven’t spent much time with the two albums the band put out between their 2006 reunion and 2013 return to hiatus – and demise… perhaps now is as good a time as any.

Current Spins

Been a while since I shunted some of my current spins up on here. It’s not all been research for the Boss piece or Albums of my Years series after all. So here follows a few of those things that have been getting spun on either the iPod or record deck of late….

Sam Fender – The Borders

Trying to keep up with new stuff and not sound like the stereotypical Dad who only listens to music released a decade or so prior… the new Sam Fender album (which essentially collates the seven (yep seven) singles this guy has already released with a few album-tracks but is a solid listen as latest single ‘The Borders’ demonstrates – makes me think of The War on Drugs if Adam Granduciel hailed from Newcastle way, complete with an E Street Band sounding sax addition.

Led Zeppelin – Dazed and Confused

I mean, seriously, do you have to ask? I’m deep into the Ken Burns docu-series ‘Vietnam’ at the moment and this track popped up. I then discovered that, somehow, Led Zeppelin  was missing from my CD collection. Quickly fixed by getting the recent 180gsm reissue. Faultless album, stonking tune.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Pride and Joy

SRV has been getting a LOT of play in my car lately. The miles just fly by, man, interspersed with the occasional “holy fuck” of amazement.

Explosions in the Sky – Day One

I love EITS. They’re one of those bands with a discography in which I can find no fault. To celebrate their 20th anniversary they re-issued their first album and The Rescue with a couple of beautiful packages and both have been getting a lot of spin time.

Damien Jurado – Lincoln

This year’s In The Shape of a Storm from Damien Jurado is an arresting listen. He’s stripped off all the production and concepts of his last few albums and gone back to little more than an acoustic guitar and his voice for an album that’s so intimate it almost feels like a conversation. I’ve always loved this side of Damien’s work – take I Had Not Intentions – and this album is one of my favourites of the year.

May Your Kindness Remain – Courtney Marie Andrews

I know next to nothing about this artist. She came up after one of those ‘Fans Also Like’ journeys on Spotify but I really dig what I’ve heard so far, including this one – strong vocals and that guitar tone that starts to lurk and push through at the two minute mark…. more please.

 

C’mon Stevie! Talk to em!

I don’t normally give much attention to this thing of ‘react’ videos… the whole thing of YouTube ‘stars’ making money from giving it some mouth on their camera leaves me cold and dubious about the state of civilisation in general and I can’t help but feel they’re not all that genuine.

That being said, somehow I stumbled on this and it makes me laugh each time. This dude seems genuine and – like anyone with their head screwed on right – is astounded by SRV, as proven in his later videos where he hunts for more and references back to Stevie as the greatest.

“My guy Stevie look like he got diarrhoea right here…”

I also checked out ‘No Life Shaq’ reacting to Eddie Van Halen which is worth it if only for the phrase “that guitar was innocent as shit three minutes ago!”

I don’t think my reaction to Stevie Ray Vaughan was quite as dramatic, it mainly just consisted of saying “Holy Fuck” a lot, but then I do that most times I listen to SRV.

Should you want to view the video featured above without commentary:

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.

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.