Albums of my years – 1994

I want you to go in that bag and find my wallet. Which one is it? It’s the one that says…. Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. 1994, the year of Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption and Natural Born Killers. It’s the year that Jim Carey rubber-faced and over-acted on cinema screens in not one,  not two but 3 hits of his schtick: The MaskAce Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber and Hugh Grant stammered his way into Andie MacDowell’s delicates in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In music it was the year that Lisa Loeb implored us to ‘Stay’ because she missed us, Whigfield was preparing for ‘Saturday Night’ (dee dee nah nah), All-4-One swore about something, Boyz II Men announced they’d make love to us, we were all Maria Carey wanted for Christmas and Big Mountain assured us they loved our way, baby.

It was a big year for Aerosmith – they released their Geffen-era hits album Big Ones having headlined the Saturday night at Woodstock 94 – according to Tyler it “rained like a cow pissing on a flat rock” during their set, opened their own Mama Kin Music Hall in Boston, seen singles ‘Crazy’ and ‘Deuces are Wild’ still manage to do the business in a music scene already rapidly changed since their recent reemergence and become the first major band to premier a new song on the Internet; the Get A Grip cast-off ‘Head First’ was downloaded for free by 10,000 CompuServe (remember them?) subscribers in 8 days.

This side of the Atlantic, the ball-ache of Oasis vs Blur (neither, thanks) was underway with the rise of Britpop as Parklife and Definitely Maybe began being milked for songs to fill the airways. Albarn figured he, and Britpop, were there to kill off grunge. The conceited prick that he was, told NME in 1993 that “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge. People should smarten up a bit, be a bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies, stooped, greasy hair… It irritates me.” Yeah, because Blur,  Oasis and Britpop was all about looking smart and not lolling about the place like twats:

 

In ‘grunge’, though, things went very dark in ’94. On March 3rd, Kurt Cobain overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne in Rome and slipped into a coma. A few weeks later, back in the US, police confiscated four guns and twenty-five boxes of ammo from his house after Courtney Love dialled 911 fearing he was suicidal. An intervention on the 25th March saw Kurt agreeing to enter rehab – he checked in to the  Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles on March 30, 1994. The next evening he went outside for a cigarette, scaled the six-foot-high fence, hailed a cab and flew back to Seattle, sitting near to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Duff McKagan. While he was spotted in various places throughout Seattle over the next couple of days, nobody could pin down his whereabouts – Love hired Tom Grant, a private investigator, on April 3rd to find Cobain. On April 8th, 1994 an electrician called Gary Smith (who had been hired to install a security system) found Kurt Cobain’s body on the floor of the musician’s home – Smith thought Cobain was asleep until he saw the shotgun pointing at his chin. Kurt Donald Cobain was 27 when he c omitted suicide. His daughter hadn’t yet reached her second birthday. Cobain had, an autopsy would reveal, taken his life on April 5th, his blood contained a high concentration of heroin and traces of diazepam.

I think it’s fair to say that while the ‘grunge’ scene was already marked by some pretty horrific incidents – Andrew Woods’ death in ’90 and the brutal rape and murder of The Gits’ Mia Zapata to name but two – Cobain’s suicide marked a real tangible shift. It’s become a sort of time-marker for the scene in a way with everything after being viewed in relation to it. Even with amidst the phenomenon the Seattle scene had become, the members of the musical community were still close and Cobain’s suicide was a blow to all.

Hole’s Live Through This was released a week after Cobain’s death. I guess in ’94 it was a lot harder to stop wheels that were already in motion because, just saying, you’d kinda think you might wanna not release an album with such a title a week after your husband put a shotgun in their mouth… Heroin is a cunt of a drug; shortly after the release of the album and just ahead of a scheduled tour to promote it, on June 16th, Hole’s bass player Kristen Pfaff was found dead in her apartment following a heroin overdose.

Nirvana’s Unplugged album, recorded in November ’93 and released in November in 1994 arrived after plans for a double album called Verse Chorus Verse which would compile the bands live performances on one disc and the full unplugged set on the second, fell through in August (compiling it was too emotionally draining for the surviving Nirvana members). It’s widely held as one of the best unplugged sets released and marked a touching final Nirvana release.

So what was released in 1994? Well, to put it succinctly; a fucking lot.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse released  Sleeps With Angels, the title track written about the death of Kurt – who’d quoted Young in his suicide note, while REM released their much-maligned Monster which was dedicated to River Phoenix with the track ‘Let Me In’ a tribute to Kurt. Monster is a great album let down, in my opinion, by poor mixing – I always thought that a good chunk of the songs felt buried in a mix that, it turned out, producer Scott Litt also regretted after burying the vocals low in the mix and under distortion in an effort to keep up with the ‘grunge’ sound of the time. Thankfully last year’s 25th Anniversary reissue featured Litt’s remix of the album and gave it the sound it should have had in 1994:

Weezer was introduced to the world in 1994 with their self-titled debut (which would become known as the Blue album) which still stands as one of their finest collections – ‘Undone’, ‘Say It Ain’t So’, ‘Only In Dreams’, ‘My Name Is Jonas’, ‘Buddy Holly’…. all on here. While Rivers and co went Blue, The Stone Temple Pilots went Purple with their second album – also a great slab of the alternative-flavoured good stuff that’s stuffed with some of their finest too:

It’s weird to think but 1994 also saw the debut of Jimmy Eat World with their self-titled debut. I’ve a lot of time for early JEW and their first album is worth a listen for the curious but it’s still early days. In terms of debut albums in 1994 it’d be hard to beat Portishead’s Dummy. Popularising trip-hop, winning the 1995 Mercury Music Prize and just gobbling up acclaim, it’s an album that’s pretty much unlike anything else released that year and I think even they have yet to top it.

Voodoo Lounge was definitely not The Rolling Stones’ debut – a pretty decent Stones album (I have a huge amount of time for ‘Thru and Thru’) it’s their 20th and, not to be considered ‘out of touch’ with the musical zeitgeist, they announced the Voodoo Lounge Tour by arriving on JFK’s presidential yacht… meanwhile Pink Floyd released what would be their final studio album, one of my own favourites, The Division Bell. Pink Floyd’s last album didn’t go down as well as it should have at the time but I think it’s aged very well and stands as a much stronger farewell than A Momentary Lapse of Reason and a million times stronger than The Final Cut would have been.

Demonstrating just how much the musical world had shifted since both the Stones and Floyd released their previous albums, both were massively outsold by an independent release from a punk-rock band from California – not that one. The Offspring’s Smash, released on Epitaph, became the best selling independent record of all time with more than 11 million shifted to date – don’t worry, Gilmour and Mick & Keith cleared up BIG time when it came to tours behind The Division Bell and Voodoo Lounge.

Oddly enough, as a lot of older artists found themselves a little out of touch in ’94, Johnny Cash chose this as the year to prove he was still very much a force to be reckoned with. With major labels deciding the sun had set on Cash’s career, he was offered a contract with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Produced by Rubin, and recorded in the producer’s living room and Cash’s own cabin, American Recordings was a stripped-back collection of well-chosen covers and originals that became one of the year’s and Cash’s finest albums and usher in a decade of commercial and critical acclaim for the Man in Black.

Fittingly, Nine Inch Nails also released their second album The Downward Spiral in 1994 featuring ‘March of the Pigs’, ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’ which Cash would go on to cover in 2002. Oh, and Rick Rubin would wave his magic wand again in 1994, producing Tom Petty’s superb Wildflowers – the long-awaited reissue of which with a second-disc’s worth of extra material looks a lot closer now.

Still with me? Pretty strong list so far, right? Well what about the Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, also released in 1994? ‘Cornflake Girl’, ‘Pretty Good Year’, ‘God’? No? … or Green Day’s Dookie which arrived at the start of ’94 and went on to shift 20 million copies on the back of songs like ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Longview’.Weight – the Rollins Band’s fourth album which hit hard with ‘Liar’ and Mark Lanegan released his finest album, his second, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost AND Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released the phenomenal Let Love In in 1994 too.

But then there was also the debut from Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary pretty much defined the second-wave of emo and is an absolute classic. ‘Lightning Crashes’ and ‘I Alone’ helped push Live’s Throwing Copper on to massive figures and Built To Spill got the car with their second album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love – already a leap forward their next, in 1997, would be a real genre-definer.

That’s a pretty fucking strong list of albums for a year. But 1994 also heralded Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star – the Butch Vig and band helmed album included ‘Bull In The Heather’, ‘Starfield Road’ and ‘Winner’s Blues’ – and Dinosaur Jr’s Without A Sound is another 1994 album- easily one of their best with ‘Feel The Pain’, ‘I Don’t Think So’ and ‘Get Out of This’ coming to mind as standouts. If you’re not familiar with them how about this:

Yup; Soundgarden’s genre-defining Superunknown was released in 1994 too! I mean… it’s just the best thing they ever did. It’s such a varied and accomplished slab of the great stuff…

The Cranberries released No Need to Argue in 1994 and ‘Zombie’ got stuck in everybody’s head, in their heeaaad…. Elliott Smith released his debut solo album, Roman Candle and The Black Crowes released their sublime third album, Amorica. After scrapping an album (Tall – the sessions for which can and should be checked out on 2006’s Lost Crowes), The Black Crowes re-recorded the material with a different producer but then shot themselves in the foot by releasing what could arguably be one of their greatest albums with a cover that many retailers wouldn’t touch thanks to the clock-springs poking over the top of the US-flag thong.

Oh and Pearl Jam released what I still consider their finest – Vitalogy. But I can’t consider that as a featured album as I’ve already covered that one here. However, as close a call as it would be, for me there’s only one album that stands head and shoulders above the pack for 1994:

Jeff Buckley – Grace

I could talk for pages about Grace. I discovered this album at some point in the late 90’s – one of those cases of reading about it often enough to be inclined to check it out. I remember reading about how Buckley had both the voice of Plant and the guitar sound of Page and remember putting it on and being blown away.

Initially met with poor sales, Grace‘s popularity and reputation seems to have grown with each passing year, with Buckley’s own myth – the son of Tim Buckley whom he met only once (at 8 years old), possessor of an amazing talent who made only one album before his early death….  thing is, with myths the reality is often disappointing. Grace, however, is fucking amazing.

So here are just five things I love about Grace:

1) Mojo Pin

I’m not going to say every track is a reason to love this album. Though that could easily happen.

Mojo Pin is the best kind of opener. An absolute belter of a song that manages to contain every element you’ll find on the album itself: psychedelic leanings giving way to Zeplin-esque blues and hard rock propelled by a surging guitar; lyrics that hint at the spiritual, a love lost; rising and crashing melody and, of course – that voice.

2) The Sound

The Legacy Edition of Grace comes with a Making Of.. DVD. It suggests Jeff was hard to pin down musically and could be compulsive, over-flowing with ideas as he was. When making Grace they had to have three different band set-ups available at any time in order to accommodate his ideas. Not the smoothest of productions by any account and yet the final sound is amazing.

I don’t know enough to say it’s down to the recording equipment, the sound engineer or the production – all I know is that the richness of sound is beautiful and is probably down to Andy Wallace who produced, engineered and mixed the album (adding to a CV that included mixing duty for Sonic Youth’s Dirty,  Nirvana’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, L7…).You can hear every element, perfectly balanced. The plectrum on the strings, the slip of a hand on a neck, you get the sound of real music being played – nothing artificial about it. A warm, enveloping sound.

3) Track 6, 02:18- 03:08

These points are all interlinked it seems for the element that adds to the richness of that sound is the band that Jeff built around himself. Signed as a solo artist – the Live At Sin-e album highlights several points that inform Grace as well as realise that here’s a guy with songs that would really benefit from a band – Jeff didn’t always manage to reign it all in to a concise, well-formed song. Early versions of tracks that would make Grace meander more – both on Live at Sin-e and last year’s RSD release In Transition –  and he pushes his voice a little too much, not yet there with his most unique instrument.

It’s also clear that Jeff needed a full band to truly capture and develop his ideas. One of those musicians bought in, toward the end, was guitarist Michael Tighe. Tighe bought something else to the mix – the song ‘So Real’. Buckley would add a chorus and a few lyrical changes and the song was so strong it pushed off Buckley’s own Forget Her from the final album. From that, between 02:18 and 03:08 is pure chainsaw-guitar magic wrapped up with a near-whispered “I love you, but I’m afraid to love you.”

4) Covers

Not the head shot that graced the cover, but the choice of covers here – that Buckley felt sufficiently strong about to include over his some of his over originals.

The now-famous take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is easily the definitive version of a much-covered song. A perfect tune to showcase Buckley’s vocal prowess, it’s flawless. Enough has been written about it that I can’t / shouldn’t go into it too much here – but I will say that just when I think I’m bored of it, I’ll here it again and hear something new in his reading of it and suddenly it’s perfect again.

‘Lilac Wine’ is transformed from a cocktail-lounge song into a near mystical experience that just-about manages to keep a lid on Jeff’s voice. Then there’s a take on Britten’s hymn ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, which, in Buckley’s hands, is more of a lullaby.

Jeff’s takes on each of these songs does what any good cover should – transform it into something new.

Even the choice of these songs is notable. This was 1994. The post-Nevermind alternative music scene still on the rise and yet here are tunes plucked from Nina Simone’s repertoire and a hymn first heard in 1504.

Of course, the over, more practical reason for the inclusion of three covers is that Buckley didn’t yet have enough material of his own that was up to inclusion. Though his song writing was moving forward (those tunes written by Buckley alone include’ Last Goodbye’) it wasn’t there yet and, sadly, we’d never get the chance to discover why because….

5) A One-Off

One of those elements that makes Grace so special is frustrating and tragic in equal measure; it’s all we really have in terms of a fully-realised document of his talent.

On the evening of May 29th, 1997, Jeff Buckley went for a swim in the Mississippi. Fully clothed, wearing his boots and singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. He’d been swimming in the channel before. The roadie who was with had stayed on shore, moved a guitar out of the way from a passing tugboat’s wake, looked back out to the water to find Buckley had vanished. It would be five days before his body was found. His death, at the age of 30, was ruled as an accidental drowning.

The album he was working on at the time would never reach fruition. A compilation of those songs he was working on for it would be released a few days shy of a year after his death. Critically well-received, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk showcased a new leaning for Jeff, tighter, harder and at times darker, the songs gathered across the two discs showed a marked evolution in his song writing. It’s a tantalising glimpse, a painful “what if?” that no amount of reissues or vault-digging can ever answer.

As such Grace remains the only final, definitive recording by Jeff Buckley. A true one-off.

Albums of my Years – 1990

Ah 1990 – the start of the decade to which this blog returns so often in its internet-powered DeLorean.

At the start of 1990 a platform on which many of the decade’s biggest names would appear over the coming years kicked off in January; MTV Unplugged aired for the first time in January, featuring Squeeze.

Billy Idol took a spill on his motorbike in February, breaking a fair few of his bones. It meant that the major role Oliver Stone had in mind for him in ‘The Doors’ was reduced to a bit part and, in a very curious twist of fate, the role of T-1000 in the upcoming ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ had to be recast entirely having originally been written for him. That would have been a very different film.

On March 16th, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend Xana La Fuente. Having struggled with a drug addiction for some time previous, he’d overdosed on heroin. He was placed on life support in hospital, however the haemorrhage aneurysm he’d suffered meant that he’d lost all brain function. After friends and loved ones had said their farewells to one of the Seattle music scene’s beloved and promising figures, his life support was switched off and he passed on March 19th. Mother Love Bone’s debut album Apple would be released in July.

In April a promising band from Aberdeen, Washington got together with a producer called Butch Vig in between tour stops to record a few tracks for their second album. Nirvana were still signed to Sub Pop but were already looking to make changes. After recording a few tracks with Vig, Cobain and Noveselic weren’t thrilled with either their label or drummer. Very soon Chad Channing would leave Nirvana and demos from the session in Madison would be landing on the desks of keen major labels. Melvins front man (and general knob head) Buzz Osborne introduced Nirvana to Dave Grohl – probably because he wanted his own drummer back as Dale Crover had been sitting-in as the band toured with Sonic Youth. By the end of 1990 Nirvana had a new drummer in Dave Grohl and were signed to DGC Records following the advise of Kim Gordon and Soundgarden manager Susan Silver (hence; “forever in debt to your priceless advice”). They’d give Butch Vig a call again in 1991…

In August, the Alpine Valley Music Theatre welcomed all-star encore jam session with Stevie Ray Vaughan and members of Eric Clapton’s touring entourage. As there is only one road in and out of the venue, the band took a helicopter on to Midway International Airport. However, having taken off in foggy conditions with limited visibility, the helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill. Pilot Jeff Brown, agent Bobby Brooks, SRV’s bodyguard Nigel Brown,tour manager Colin Smythe and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all killed. Vaughan was just 35.

Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard, devastated by the loss of Wood, had spent his time following Wood’s death writing significantly harder-edged songs. He got together with another guitarist for a couple of jams and it was Mike McCready who suggested Stone give his former band mate Jeff Ament a call to get involved with the music they were putting together. The then-trio put together a five-song tape to use in recruiting both a drummer and singer. They sent the tape to Jack Irons, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, to see if he’d be interested in getting behind the drums for the new band. Irons had just formed a new band called Eleven and passed but, at their request, said he’d share the tape with any singers he knew that might be suitable. He knew a dude called Eddie Vedder….  Vedder listened to the tape before heading out for a surf where inspiration struck: he  then recorded the vocals to three of the songs (“Alive”, “Once”, and “Footsteps”) as part of what became known as the Momma-Son trilogy. He sent the tape back and within a week Vedder was part of the band. Mookie Blaylock – as the band was then called – played their first gig at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22nd 1990.

Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who had been roommates with Andrew Wood, started writing a few songs in tribute to his friend as he headed out on tour in Europe a few days after his passing. As the music was outside of Soundgarden’s wheelhouse, he approached Ament and Gossard with the idea of recording the two songs and putting out a single. Rounding out the lineup with Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Temple of the Dog was formed and the idea of a single was put aside for an EP which became an album recorded in 15 days. It was the first album to which Eddie Vedder would contribute – during the recording of ‘Hunger Strike’, Cornell was having difficulty putting the vocal parts in place during a practice so Vedder (having just flown up from San Diego to ‘audition’ for Ament and Gossard) stepped up and, according to Cornell; “sang half of that song not even knowing that I’d wanted the part to be there and he sang it exactly the way I was thinking about doing it, just instinctively.”

Along with Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog, 7 Year Bitch, Blind Melon, Tool, Tortoise, Truly and The Verve all formed in 1990.

So what about album releases in 1990? Buffalo Tom’s second album Birdbrain, again with J Mascis assisting in production, dropped in ’90 as did Jane’s Addiction’s second album, Ritual de lo Habitual, both of which stocked with great tunes though only one contained a track about shoplifting that would be played to death despite it being one of the album’s weakest songs.

Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan also released his debut solo album in 1990 – The Winding Sheet marked a real move away from the sound of Screaming Tress and, while not his finest, is well worth a listen. There was also a debut from The Breeders – a band started by Pixies bass player Kim Deal as a response to her growing lack of fulfilment in that band. Pod was made for a tiny budget and recorded in something daft like ten days but went down a storm, with Kurt Cobain often citing it as amongst his favourite albums.

Meanwhile, in a genre that seemed a thousand miles away a band that would later come to curse the advent of the Seattle Sound*, The Black Crowes released their storming blues-rock, hard-southern-rock first album Shake Your Money Maker. Not gonna lie; I like this one a lot, it’s an unabashed blast of the good stuff from start to finish that always goes down well.

Speaking of that scene which would become so dominant in the next couple of years, Alice in Chains got a jump start and released Facelift, their first album, in 1990. I mean, just take a look at some of the tracks on it – ‘We Die Young’, ‘Man in the Box’, ‘Sea of Sorrow’… ‘Bleed the Freak’, ‘Love, Hate, Love’…… it’s an absolute benchmark of an album that should be included in all kinds of lists and still is. It was the first ‘grunge’ album to go reach Gold status (in September ’91) though its sales would soon be eclipsed by other bands of that scene, Facelift remains a great album.

Across the Atlantic, another debut was released in 1990; the first and only album from The La’s; The La’s. The recording, release and end of the band’s career is a hell of story that’s worth it’s own post alone one day but their sole album remains a classic some thirty years on and I still remember feeling gobsmacked standing in the crowd at Wembley Arena in 2000 as Eddie Vedder started pontificating on it from the stage before breaking into a cover of ‘Timeless Melody’:

Not just a year of great first albums, 1990 saw the final album from The Replacements, All Shook Down – a great group of tunes that Paul Westerberg had originally intended to be for a solo album before his management persuaded him otherwise – more on that can be found here.

Having completed work on The Breeders’ Pod in England- Kim Deal headed back to the US and joined the rest of the band in LA as Pixies recorded their third album – Bossanova, released in August of 1990.  An absolute classic, Bossanova is a great album and contains a wealth of great tunes like ‘Velouria’, ‘Dig for Fire’, ‘Allison’ and is a regular in my car to this day.

Again, it’s an all-time favourite of mine but it was released in a year that was already beginning to feature some of those albums I’d mark as such, especially…

Sonic Youth – Goo

At some point in my 20s I’d reconnected with a friend I’d worked with before who had then gotten a job in a record shop (well, cds). He was in a band and I gravitated toward the scene, we’d all hang out, get small and absorb music and go to band practice etc…

At some point I needed a new place to live and ended up moving into this guy’s flat for a while. It was above a bakery which meant that it was like an oven in the summer and, at night, often impossible to sleep because the threshing machine beneath my room would kick off and clatter into the early hours…. heady days. It was there I discovered Sonic Youth and Goo. I still distinctly remember sitting there as my friend queued up ‘Tunic (song for Karen)’ for the first time. I may have been a little… baked, I can’t recall for sure but what I do remember is being hypnotised by it and very quickly becoming obsessed with it.

Released in June 1990, Goo is Sonic Youth’s sixth album and their first for DGC. In an attempt to test the humour of their new label they gave the album the working title ‘Blowjob?’ – I doubt there’d be so many t-shirts featuring its iconic album art (created by Raymond Pettibon) if they’d pushed too hard on that.

Aside from my own love of the band, Goo is apparently responsible for Placebo. Brian Molko has said that ‘Kool Thing’ was the first Sonic Youth song he heard and, were it not for Sonic Youth, he wouldn’t have started his own band. ‘Kool Thing’ is a delicious piss-take of a song; Kim Gordon had interviewed LL Cool J the previous year for ‘Spin’ magazine, she was a big fan but found his lack of interest in anything other than himself and his grossly misogynistic views appalling. ‘Kool Thing’ is both a send up of his attitude (Chuck D providing the seemingly disinterested responses) and her left-wing politics.

The exposure of ‘Kool Thing’ and a lot of press helped Goo shift a massive amount of records for Sonic Youth – by December it had shifted 200,000 units, much more than their new label had hoped for – and, as their most accessible (even to date I think this still holds) garnered a huge amount of positive press. Rolling Stone’s review got it pretty spot on in, if a little daft in its phrasing, referring to it as a “brilliant, extended essay in refined primitivism that deftly reconciles rock’s structural conventions with the band’s twin passions for violent tonal elasticity and garage-punk holocaust”.

1990 was the perfect time for Goo – this thing called ‘grunge’ was started to arrive on the scene, people were getting fecked off with the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and big stadium ‘rawk’. Hairspray bands were dying – Jon Bon Jovi was a year away from a haircut – and while punk hadn’t ‘broke’ just yet, it was about to; Goo was released at a time when the audience for its music was ripening. They and contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr had put in the groundwork for years before building up their own audience through hard work and harder touring and would now be championed by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, granting their music an even greater level of exposure to an audience hungry for this new alternative (even if they were already five albums in to a stellar career).

For me, the discovery of Sonic Youth’s Goo came along at a time when I was wide open for music and, in my mid-20s, at my most receptive state for it. These were heady, carefree days and I could dive headlong into a love affair with a new-to-me band like Sonic Youth, which is what Goo made me do. This album helped me discover a band that ranks among my favourites and I couldn’t even put a conservative estimate on the number of times I may have listened to it. Daydream Nation is undoubtedly their finest but Goo is both a very close second and a personal favourite.

 

 

*In a recent interview, one of the brothers Robinson revealed that they hated everything out of this scene as they felt that the grunge and Seattle inspired alternative shift in music robbed them of greater success they felt due.

Albums of my Years – 1988

1988…. a busy year with more memories making their way through the murk. Most of them, though, are more down to Thundercats and Manta Force toys than they are the music of ’88.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m pretty sure I heard Belinda Carlisle powering though the likes of ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and I’m sure Kylie Minogue would have eked into my years as this was the year that radio was rammed with ‘I Should Be So Lucky’ and everyone was doing the ‘Loco-Motion’. It was also a ‘Perfect’ year for Fairground Attraction and Billy Ocean told everyone to ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car’. I remember them all but I doubt they were the focus of my attention as seven/eight year old. Then again, given my own son’s ability to reference a surprising number of songs and lyrics he’s heard on the radio and claim as ‘really good actually’ – who knows, maybe I was singing along to ‘Circle in the Sand’ in the car.

A couple of bits of music trivia from the year – while I sure as hell wouldn’t claim to remember it from the time – did make me chuckle. A Florida Man (a meme in itself these days) decided it was time to sue Motley Crue. This bloke – Matthew John Trippe, to give name hime, who already had a history of mental health issues and was known to the fuzz. Sued the band, claiming that he was secretly hired to pose as Nikki Sixx  and went on to tour with the band and that he wrote and recorded with them during 1983 and 1984 . Now as claims go it’s pretty out there but the oddest thing about this was that it took until 1993 for Florida Man to drop his lawsuit.

The other is amusing more for the mental image it conjures up in my head. James Brown! The mad man that was James Brown… faced a tonne of charges in September 1988 after – presumably off his tits on PCP – he stormed into a seminar taking place in one of the office buildings he owned, waved a gun around and demanded to know who’d been using his toilets and then lead police on interstate chase. Convicted and sentenced six years, he was out for good behaviour in 1991… but the idea of James Brown storming into a meeting accusing people of using the shitter (presumably they left it looking like Baghdad) is a pretty weird one.

One of Seattle’s earliest ‘grunge’ bands, Green River – having called it a day in late ’87 – were officially done in 1988. Mark Arm and Steve Turner recruited Dan Peters and Matt Lukin and formed Mudhoney, quickly releasing their first single and EP by the end of the year and establishing themselves as one of the pioneers of the ‘Seattle Scene’. Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Bruce Fairweather meanwhile took their branch of the  Seattle Music Tree off in a different direction, forming Lords of the Wasteland (which Mark Arm – ever the bitter cynic – and co would take the piss out of with a one-off ‘Wasted Landlords’ gig) with Andrew Wood before, also in ’88, forming Mother Love Bone.

In terms of albums dropped that fall within this blog’s wheelhouse… 1988 was a very good year.  Van Halen dropped their second with Sammy Hagar on vocals, OU812 and saw it propelled to the top of the charts en route to shifting several million copies. not to be outdone (except he was in every way), Dickhead Dave released his second solo album Skyscraper which seemed like it was only titled as such so he could prattle on about what an amazing rock climber he was in interviews. Tracy Chapman released her self-titled debut in April of ’88 with songs like ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, ‘Fast Car’ and ‘Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution’ helping it shift over a million in its first two weeks alone…

Living Colour released Vivid which featured ‘Cult of Personality’ and Crowded House released their second album, the fantastic Temple of Low Men and Jane’s Addiction released the insanely good Nothing’s Shocking – ‘Mountain Song’, ‘Had A Dad’, ‘Ted, Just Admit It…’ all kick arse. Sonic Youth found time in a very busy year to set up a side-project Ciccone Youth and release The Whitey Album which featured Mike Watt and J Mascis whose own Dinosaur Jr released the faultless Bug in 1988 (though apparently it’s J’s least favourite Dino album). Speaking of faultless, 1988 also saw the release of Pixies’ debut full-length Surfer Rosa which is wall-to-wall perfect:

Soundgarden dropped their debut in 1988 too – Ultramega OK, a real over-looked item in their back catalogue. Also debuting in ’88 was an album by a group for whom the average member had already released a thousand albums: The Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1. It’s a story well told as to how the band formed – recording a b-side for George Harrison leading to famous musicians calling their famous musician friends, breaking out the instruments and acting surprised that what they produced was solid gold, but the album is always worth a listen to, if only for Dylan’s fond piss-take of his mate Bruce’s songs:

But, if none of these make the cut as ‘featured’ for 1988, then what have I missed? Well, it’s not like I didn’t drop enough hints or the build up wasn’t kicked off a couple of years back:

Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth’s fifth album, released in October of 1988, is their masterpiece. It went on to massive acclaim from critics and continues to be cited as genre defining in every write up or re-release (I broke my no multiple-formats rule to get my hands on the 4lp expanded edition) since and is beloved by fans. Daydream Nation got the band their major label deal with Geffen (along with some creative accounting and rounding up of album sales to date) – which in turn allowed Kurt Cobain to think maybe it wouldn’t be selling out to have a chat to the same label – and has been referred to reverentially and held up as a massive influence from bands small (including my own last effort) to large in the alternative / indie rock genre. It’s fucking flawless.

I got into Sonic Youth via Goo (their major-label debut released in 1990) and the song ‘Tunic’. Having quickly picked up a couple of other albums, discovering Daydream Nation was like finding the moment everything clicked for their sound – it’s where all the improvisations and sonic experiments gelled with the drive toward writing ‘song’ structures and melodies without any sacrifice of either element.

This is one of the few albums that I listened to so frequently that the CD gave up the ghost and needed replacing. It’s one of those that I can just put on and lose myself in from start to finish – I even enjoy ‘Providence’. For me it’s akin to a concept album and ‘Providence’ provides the breather, the bridge between the album’s first ‘half’ and the likes of ‘Kissability’ and the 14-minute ‘Trilogy’.

There’s a real balance of Lee / Thurston / Kim songs – it would be a while before that came back as Goo and Dirty would feature just the one and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star would be devoid of Ranaldo’s vocals – anyone who’s hip to his solo work will agree that that’s a crying shame and I’m pretty sure it lead to a lot of tension in the band too.

However, on Daydream Nation all that – and the bands collapse – were way off in the future. This album is the sound of all the pieces locking into place and firing on full capacity – much like albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zep’s IV or Radiohead’s OK Computer, My Morning Jacket’s Z – a band playing at its strength and revelling in its abilities, almost as if they *know* they’re onto a real winner that will stand the test of time (and only time will tell if you pass that test….).

I also had the pleasure of seeing the band perform it in its entirety at London’s Roundhouse some years back – it was standing in front of Thurston’s speaker stack that cost me some of the hearing in my right ear.

 

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 – 1986

No 2019 roundup here – if I manage to keep to schedule  on these that one should arrive in late October.  Instead we roll past the halfway mark of my first decade: 1986.

It’s an odd year for music this one. I have vivid memory of the songs of this time – given that radio still plays a lot of them it’s no real surprise. I also have a clear memory of a walk home from school (we lived about 10 minutes’ walk from my primary school) and seeing a smashed cassette on the ground and having, at the time no idea who Bon Jovi were or why someone would have stomped on Slippery When Wet (my guess, now, is that they couldn’t hear ‘Without Love’ one more time without going loco).

Jon and his hairspray-loving mates didn’t really kick in over here in the same way as the US.  ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ did hit the top ten later in the year but here the radio was ruled by songs like Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ (True Blue was released in June and went on to bonkers numbers in sales) and Surivor’s ‘Burning Heart’ or, even worse Diana Ross’ ‘Chain Reaction’ and Boris Gardiner’s ‘I Wanna Wake Up with You’ that still haunts my brain. The Communards’ take on  ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ saw off the horrors of Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’ and Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ for the title of biggest single. Dark times on the radio.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held its first induction ceremony in January ’86. The ceremony took place in New York and first inductees included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry (inducted by Chuck devotee Keith Richards) along with The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and record producer Sam Phillips.

Bob Geldof picked up an award in ’86, he was awarded an Honorary Knighthood for his Band Aid / Live Aid work, though as he’s not a citizen of the Commonwealth he can never be Sir Bob…

In August, guitarist Bob Stinson was out of The Replacements, the group he founded, with the old ‘creative and personal differences’ explanation being wheeled out. Stinson preferred the faster, louder sound of the band’s earlier songs while Paul Westerberg’s growth as a songwriter was taking him down the quieter, introspective route with songs like ‘Here Comes a Regular’. Bob’s drug and alcohol abuse only made the situation worse.

Late September, Metallica were on tour in Sweden promoting Master of Puppets and members drew cards to determine which bunks on the tour bus they would sleep in. Bass player Cliff Burton won and chose to sleep in Kirk Hammett’s bunk. Next morning, as the sun rose, the driver lost control and the bus skidded and rolled over several times. The rest of the band were ok but Burton was thrown out of the window. The bus fell on him, pinning him  to the ground and killing him. While detectives would point to the lack of ice and the skid marks being exactly like ones seen when drivers fall asleep at the wheel, the driver was cleared of any fault. Burton would be replaced by Jason Newstead who would remain with the band until 2001.

It was goodnight from The Clash in ’86 as what was left of the band disbanded as did Men At Work, ELO and The Firm, the short-lived Paul Rodgers and Jimmy Page supergroup. However, The Afghan Whigs, Band of Susans, Boards of Canada, Manic Street Preachers, Slint, and two of Boston’s finest – The Pixies and Buffalo Tom all formed in 1986, putting the scales firmly in the positive.

There were a lot of album releases in 1986 but, in terms of what would fall in my listening orbit, it’s a slim entry of a year. Metallica’s Master of Puppets which contained not only the stonking title track but ‘Battery’ and ‘Orion’ arrived in March and Van Halen, now fronted by an actual singer called Sammy Hagar, dropped 5150 a couple of weeks later – it was the first of their run of four albums with Hagar, all of which would hit Number 1 on the charts. The glorified strip-club MC that previously fronted their band dropped his own debut Eat ‘Em and Smile in July.  While Dickhead Dave had Steve Vai, there’s no comparing to EVH, even when he’s in ballad-mode, the guy drips riffs and tricks:

In a similar arena-bound genre, Bon Jovi unleashed Slippery When Wet in ’86 with it going on to shift something like 30 million copies.  Meanwhile debuts this year came from Bruce Hornsby and the Range who, just for fun, said ‘get a job’, Big Black, Steve Earle and Crowded House whose strong, eponymous first album featured some absolute great tunes and one of their biggest singles to date:

Having dropped two belters in 1985 you’d be forgiven for expecting Hüsker Dü to take a breather but, instead they released Candy Apple Grey via their new major label Warner Bros. and shifted ever so-slightly enough from their hardcore punk sound to create what could be considered one of the first college-rock records. Former SST label-mates Sonic Youth released EVOL in 1986. It’s a real favourite of mine, possibly in the Top 5 of their albums – it’s their first with Steve Shelley on the drum stool and marks the turning point from the whole ‘no-wave’ to the sound they’d perfect over the next few years (1988 is pretty much a done-deal).

Bruce Springsteen topped the charts toward the end of 1986 with Live 1975 – 85. This (until then) career-documenting box set broke records for pre-orders and remains an absolute must in terms of both Springsteen’s catalogue and live records.. I mean I could feature this as it wasn’t covered in the Least to Most series but going for a live album would open up the ability to include compilations and … well I don’t think it can count. So, that leave:

Lifes Rich Pageant – REM

I got into R.E.M around the release of ‘E-Bow the Letter’ single in 1996. By that time it was impossible not to know who they were, this was after ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?’ etc had been riding the airwaves for a few years but it was that song that properly hooked me when I heard it on the car radio one day.  From there, as with so many other bands, I went back and scouring and collecting the back catalogue and discovering R.E.M’s IRS albums was almost like finding the work of a different band.

My second-favourite R.E.M album behind New AdventuresLifes Rich Pageant was the band’s fourth and strips away the murky sound of Fables of  the Reconstruction for something dramatically more direct and punchy sounding – well, certainly in terms of early R.E.M.

The choice of Don Gheman as producer is an odd one – the dude was known for his work with John Mellencamp and you’d be hard-pushed to listen to ‘Jack and Diane’ and think ‘this is the sound those dudes who did Harborcoat need’ – but it works, even if they didn’t work together again. Songs like ‘Just a Touch’ and ‘Begin the Begin’ are the clearest beneficiaries and were the hardest the band had sounded at that point, paving the way for future tracks like ‘Drive’ and Accelerate:

Stripping away the deliberate cloud in the sound and opting for a crisper approach may have been down to the fact that Stipe was becoming increasingly confident as a singer and as a songwriter with lyrics that were now taking on political and environmental / ecological themes like the one-two punch of greatness that make up ‘Fall on Me’ and ‘Cuyahoga’, which are underpinned by Mike Mills’ harmonies and rolling bass lines:

For me this is the album where R.E.M step away from the fog and sound both contemporary and forward-thinking. While it sounds very much of the time it isn’t bound by it either. It’s riddled with the sounds and hallmarks of what would soon be pegged as the R.E.M sound but still sounds fresh and exciting some three decades plus later and when you listen to the great live albums the band have made, some of the biggest cheers are reserved for songs from early albums like Lifes Rich Pageant – because they’re brilliantly crafted nuggets written before all the weight of expectation that would soon greet every R.E.M album and remain highlights in a catalogue stuffed with great tunes.

My only issue with this album isn’t the apostrophe. It’s the fact that the track listing on the back of the album isn’t correct. It’s never been and has never been corrected either, it drove me bonkers at first and it still gets me each time I listen to it.

Albums of my Years -1985

1985…. I started school in ’85 and have some vague memories that break through the dust. Not many, mind. I know the year’s big film releases that would wind their way into heavy rotation in my VHS / DVD collections in years to come – Back to the Future, Fletch, The Goonies, Spies Like Us, Fletch and the amazing Subway – were fighting what was the year of Stallone at the Box Office as he flexed his way through Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II (doesn’t that make it Second Blood, or Still Bleeding?) just as Arnie’s biceps dominated Commando and Red Sonja and Bruce Springsteen’s guns were shown off across stadiums as Bossmania took hold and the tour promoting Born In The USA moved from arenas to stadiums as it went on to becoming the year’s biggest selling album.

Meanwhile as I was starting my reading journey with a book called ‘Look’ (I vividly remember this one; ‘look’ repeated throughout and with increasing frequency) I was no doubt singing along to whatever was playing on my Dad’s car radio – if my own son’s behaviour is a guide – which, in 1985 England meant Tears for Fears’ ‘Head Over Heals’, Paul Young’s ‘Every Time You Go Away’, maybe Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ and, undoubtedly, Dire Straits’ ‘Money for Nothing’ or ‘Walk of Life’* as they dropped their game-changer Brothers In Arms in 1985. Aside from catapulting the band to a new level, it was the first album to sell more copies on CD than vinyl, its high sound quality suiting the format having been recording entirely digitally.

Pretty sure that Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’ must have featured heavily on the radio that year, or ‘Top of the Pops’ as it’s stuck in my head like a MAGA hat on a redneck and I’m confident I wouldn’t have looked it out for myself:

‘Diamond’ or, as I like to call him, ‘Dickhead’ David Lee Roth decided his vaudeville style twattery and ego were best suited to a solo career and quit Van Halen in April of `85. Another ego to decide he was better off without a phenomenal guitarist was Roger ‘don’t call me easy-going’ Waters, who announced that Pink Floyd was “a spent force creatively” and would, upon realising that when driven by Gilmour it was anything but, spend many a year in legal battles for control of the band’s name (turns out it wasn’t his after all) and whatever else he felt he could bitch about.

After 1984’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ single questioned meteorological facts, Band Aid expanded into the massive Live Aid concerts in July 1985 with concerts at Wembley – for which, somehow, U2 managed to sneak their way onto the performer list – and Philadelphia. Presumably because if one crowd had been forced to suffer, it was only fair for the Yanks to endure too,  Phil Collins decided he needed to be at both, carbon emissions and jet fuel be damned, and used Concorde to get across the pond to help Led Zeppelin play their first show since Bonham’s death in what Page would later call a  “pretty shambolic” performance marred by more than a slap-head drummer.

Zeppelin were sued in 1985 by American blues singer Willie Dixon – he believed their ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was a little too similar to his ‘You Need Love’. It was settled out of court and the credits for that song on my copy of Led Zeppelin II are for Page, Plant, Bonham, Jones, Dixon.

On one side of the Atlantic, a bloke called Axl Rose and his mate Izzy Stradlin formed a new band called Guns ‘n’ Roses and found a guy from Hampstead, London in a top hat shop and decided he should play too. On the other side of the Atlantic – at a school in Abingdon, Oxford to be precise – five friends formed a band called On A Friday. The band was named after the day they got together to rehearse each week in their school’s music room. A few years later, still together and now with label interest, they decided to take a new name from a song ‘Radio Head’ on a Talking Heads album. I think it’s clear which of 1985’s new bands would make the better contribution to music.

Aside from the aforementioned Brothers In Arms – and I can’t give Dire Straits a third feature, 1985 gave birth to a number of sterling albums that would sit right in this blog’s wheelhouse. Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs dropped toward the end of the year and threw about every style Tom Waits could muster at the listener, continuing the direction he’d moved to with Swordfishtrombones.

The tail end of 1985 saw Aerosmith release their first album since the previous  year’s return of Perry and Whitford and their first for Geffen, the much overlooked Done With Mirrors. In hindsight this one gets a bum deal. It’s real strong album, perhaps their best since Rocks and their first since then – and their last – written without any outside songwriters. It’s got the same wise-cracking lyrics and riff-heavy tuneage as Permanent Vacation but without the Bruce Fairbairn polish that buffed that album into a mega-seller. Instead, Aerosmith turned to Ted Templeman to produce Done With Mirrors as the Van Halen producer wanted to capture the band’s  “out of control freight train” sound. He didn’t quite succeed though and poor packaging, interest and commercial returns meant many thought the writing was on the wall for the band…  rehab and a massive comeback lay head instead but there’s still a lot of good on Done With Mirrors.

Jesus and Mary Chain’s debut Psychocandy also appeared in November, with the absolute classic ‘Just Like Honey’ destined to be a heavy player on future playlists. Hüsker Dü managed to pop out two gems in 1985 which meant New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig gave us 29 cracking tunes like ‘New Day Rising’, ‘Celebrated Summer’ and ‘Makes No Sense at All’ – of the two I still spin New Day Rising more.

Another rising album from ’85 that could easily sit as the featured album for the year -Sonic Youth released their second album Bad Moon Rising in 1985. Still more noise than tune oriented, it’s a huge leap forward from Confusion Is Sex and it’s hear you can find, in the segues between songs and in the structures, the sound and style that would be (de)tuned to perfection across their next three albums onward. The Replacements Tim could so easily sit at the top of this list too. It’s a HUGE leap for the band and a fucking great album, easily a 4 1/2 out of 5 for me. The only duff moments for me are ‘Lay It Down Clown’ and I really don’t like ‘Dose Of Thunder’ but these are but fleeting, easily skipped down points on an album otherwise choking with gold like ‘Bastards of Young’ ‘Kiss Me On The Bus’ and ‘Left of the Dial’ to name but a few.

So where do we go from here for my ‘featured’ album of 1985, the one I’ve listened to most and associate so strongly with that mid-point of the decade? It might be a surprise, a bit of a curve ball from left field (is that the right phrase?) given the above but it’s…

Hounds of Love – Kate Bush

Kate Bush’s fifth album is, to me, the album of the year. It’s the one I’ve listened to most over the years and one I continually revisit.

I also get a kick out of the fact that, as it had been a good three years since her last album The Dreaming, which itself had failed to produce anything resembling a ‘hit’ single, Ms Bush had found herself subject to a ‘where are they now?’ style column just a week or two before she debuted the amazing ‘Running Up That Hill’:

Hounds of Love is an album of two halves. Side One is ‘Hounds of Love’ – a near-perfect ‘pop’ record (I use the ” because in ’85 pop veered from the sounds captured on Side One of this album to utter tosh, perhaps ‘grown up pop’ would b more accurate) while Side Two is ‘The Ninth Wave’ – a concept-piece  Ms Bush described as being about ” a person who is alone in the water for the night. It’s about their past, present and future coming to keep them awake, to stop them drowning, to stop them going to sleep until the morning comes.”

Now take a moment to consider just how perfect a collection of soon-to-be hits Side One is: ‘Cloudbusting’, ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Big Sky’ and ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ would all be released as singles, all charting in the Top 40, three of them Top 20 and ‘Running…’ becoming her highest-charting single of the decade.

These were big, unabashed songs of drama and heart with the most sublime sound and production that, while very much of its time still sounds as evocative as it did 34 years ago. This is the wide-open panoramic sound that would be so wonderfully applied during this decade; pop sensibilities and sheen tied to songs of substance.

As for the second side… Just put the needle down and get absorbed. “The Ninth Wave was a film, that’s how I thought of it,” Kate would later tell BBC Radio 1 in 1992. Seven great tunes tied together by this concept that both work as a piece and individually:

The sound of Kate Bush loomed large in the 80’s. I know my Dad had a copy of The Whole Story – the compilation released in ’86 – which featured three songs from The Hounds of Love and it would get a lot of play, so these are sounds I absorbed and have stayed with me.

I got my copy of The Hounds of Love some years later. It’s an original pressing bought for less than a tenner somewhere before both the recent reissues and jump in record prices and I’ve spun the arse off it.

The now defunct Sounds magazine ran a review that summed it up: “dramatic, moving and wildly, unashamedly, beautifully romantic… If I were allowed to swear, I’d say that Hounds of Love is f***ing brilliant, but me mum won’t let me.”

It’s my blog and I can so I’ll say Hounds of Love is fucking brilliant – just pure bliss to listen to from start to finish. Yes, she may well have been (and could still well be) off her nut but that touch of crazy, wild abandon adds greatness to an album lush in sound and layers that just begs to have the needle dropped on it at each opportunity.

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.

Albums of my Years – 1982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dire Straits – Love Over Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.

 

Tracks: Tunic (Song for Karen)

Dreaming, dreaming of how it’s supposed to be
But now this tunic’s spinning – around my arms and knees
I feel like I’m disappearing – getting smaller every day
But when I open my mouth to sing – I’m bigger in every way

I’ve mentioned before how huge Sonic Youth are/were for me. Every now and then I still get bummed when I realise that I won’t hear ‘new’ material from them again. That being said it’s not as though there’s a shortage of songs to listen to; 15 studio albums, 9 SYR instalments and a number of post-dissolve releases trickling through.

It’s close-to impossible for me to choose a favourite Sonic Youth album but when it comes to an individual song it’s always Tunic (Song for Karen). I can’t recall my first hearing of it – I have some idea it involved something being smoked – but I know I was instantly hooked.

Yes; it’s a song about Karen Carpenter. Kim Gordon has said ‘I was trying to put myself into Karen’s body. It was like she had so little control over her life, like a teenager – they have so little control over what’s happening to them that one way they can get it is through what they eat or don’t. Also I think she lost her identity, it got smaller and smaller.’ In the instrumental breakdown in the middle of the song Kim and J. Mascis are singing Carpenters songs  – it’s buried deep in the mix but on the demo version (included in the 2005 Deluxe Edition) you can hear this more clearly.

The music certainly carries a dark edge appropriate to its subject matter but it’s pure hook and driving rhythm pinned down with guitar squeal. The collapse in the mid section, pulled out by the re-start of the drums and rhythm, is heaven to my ears.