Albums of my years – 1997

Well after five and a half months of not working I didn’t manage to make the dent in this project I’d hoped to. But here were are in 1997 with the lockdown having returned my hair to a length not unlike that of ’97 and with than two months until my self-imposed deadline I’d get a move on.

1997 is the year Billie Myers kissed the rain, the Backstreet Boys wanted to tell everybody they were back (alright!), R.Kelly emoted really heavily about Batman’s fictional home, Chumbawamba drank a whiskey drink, drank vodka drink, drank a lager drink, drank a cider drink and then sang the songs that remind them of the good times  which was fitting as Bran Van 3000 were also getting wankered over in LA all the while Celine Dion’s heart was going on and on.

Townes Van Zandt passed away on 1st January 1997 aged 52 after what could probably be described as a lifetime’s battle with alcoholism and heroin abuse. It was the year that Notorious B.I.G was shot dead with Puff Daddy (gotta wonder about someone who calls themselves that) and Faith Evans going on to seemingly be played on loop lamenting his loss over samples of The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’.  In May, Jef Buckley went for a swim, fully clothed, in Wolf River Harbour. He was last seen, by his roadie who stayed on shore, walking into the water singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. After moving a radio and guitar away from the water, the roadie turned back to the water and realised Jeff had vanished. Search and rescue efforts that night were fruitless, Jeff Buckley’s body was discovered June 4th. He was 30 years old.

David Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday in January with a celebration at Madison Square Garden with guests including Frank Black, The Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Placebo, Billy Corgan and Robet Smith, as you do. I’m thinking of doing something similar for my 40th though not sure if it’ll be in New York. The Spice Girls managed to re-break Toni Braxton’s heart and secure the top spot on the US charts with ‘Wannabe’ in 1997, ensuring ‘Girl Power’ wasn’t restricted to this side of the Atlantic where they continued to dump the musical equivalent of human sewage coated in sugar into the airwaves with increasingly vomit-inducing videos from which escape was impossible thanks to their label boss’ fingers being in so many pies. Of course, if that wasn’t bad enough, 1997 was the year Hanson MMMBoped their way to number one in 27 different countries. FFS.

I’ve heard it said by one of the monstrously eyebrowed and overego’d Gallagher brothers that along with being so powerful in it, they also killed Britpop ‘the second Noel got off the helicopter’ in the ‘D’You Know What I Mean’ (the lead single from their self-indulgent album Be Here Now… but no: Britpop was already dying from the harpoon that Radiohead shot into it with the May release of ‘Paranoid Android’.

It ushered in a new era, thankfully, that led further from the turgidity that Britpop was falling into – even Blur had moved into a meatier terrain in ’97 with their self-titled album and singles like ‘Song 2’ and ‘Beetlebum’ sounding like the work of a different band to that which put out ‘Girls and Boys’. But with ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Lucky’ released as singles from 1997’s absurdly great OK Computer which became 1997’s biggest selling album in the UK (despite Capitol records having thought it would be ‘career suicide’)  and the band’s powerful headline performance at a notoriously muddy Glastonbury Festival that year felt like it rightfully belonged to Thom Yorke and co.

So, yeah – Blur released their album Blur in 1997 and Oasis released Be Here Now. Neither of which feature high, or at all,  in my own lists but I know plenty of people dig them both – oddly enough the park behind my house was home to a ‘social distancing’ festival this past weekend (concert goers sit in pods two metres apart from other pods and food etc is bought to them) made up of cover bands one of which was playing a combination of ‘Britpop classics’ and I managed to catch a brace of songs from both albums as we walked past.

Surging the wave of ‘TFI Friday’ (golden days, eh?) power, Reef’s Glow hit the top of the charts here in the UK and ‘Place Your Hands’ still enjoys a good play from time to time. Meanwhile the flow of strong non UK music continued with the likes of the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole,  the Stereophonics’ Word Gets Around and Texas enjoying a real-deserved change of fortune after years of diminishing returns following their first single ‘I Don’t Want A Lover’ with the chart-topping  White On Blonde which was packed full of the good stuff. Oh and The Prodigy erupted into massive sales on the back of ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ as The Fat Of The Land also hit the top spot en route to shifting ten million globally. Smack my bitch up indeed.

1997 was also the year Richard Ashcroft shrugged and stropped his way through some East End streets in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and Urban Hymns also topping the charts and giving birth to big singles like oh-so-cheerful ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’. Unfortunately for The Verve, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ borrowed some strings from The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ and the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein decided he wanted all the royalties… and thus began a series of disputes over the song’s royalties that wouldn’t wind down until Jagger and Richards signed over their publishing for the song in 2019. I guess if you’re going to life some strings from another song make sure it’s not a Rolling Stones one. Try something by Lennon / McCartney, they’re probably not litigious.

Speaking of The Rolling Stones, Mick and Keith took a break from running their corner shop to put together a new album: Bridges To Babylon. The album wasn’t really one to stand alongside their greatest but they were – and still are – at that point that as long as they don’t turn in an absolute howler they’ll still shift enough to keep em on the road, the tour behind the album would gross over $274 million. Probably more than enough to restock the shelves a few times:

Silverchair’s second and heavier album Freak Show continued to borrow heavily from their influences but did show a lot more originality and is still a pretty good listen today. Frontman Daniel Johns’ future wife Natalie Imbruglia was on her way to shifting 7 million copies of her debut album Left Of the Middle after ‘Torn’ dominated radio and MTV all over the shop. Continuing on the antipodean path, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released the amazing The Boatman’s Call in 1997 – a stately and poignant album dripping in gorgeous tunes.

It was a great year for post-rock; both Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Mogwai released their genre-benchmark debut albums, the faultless F♯A♯∞ and Young Team respectively. Mogwai also dropped Ten Rapid, a collection of earlier cuts that is often held up as one of their finest works even if it was never released as an album proper. All three get regular spins in my house – it’s rare if a week goes by without one of them being played. The same of which could be said for Elliott Smith’s fantastic Either / Or also released in 1997. Smith’s third solo album is another that’s often held up as his finest – it’s the one that got him a larger audience when three of its songs were featured in the ‘Good Will Hunting’ soundtrack and received universal critical acclaim, with due course: it was his finest collection of songs to date.

Also churning in one of his finest sets of songs for some time after getting pretty close to meeting Elvis, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was released to surprise and acclaim in 1997 and started something of a late-career revival in terms of both quality and interest. ‘Love Sick’, ‘Cold Iron Bounds’, ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’…. re-teaming with produce Daniel Lanois (behind the great Oh Mercy) did wonders for ol’ Bob.

Elsewhere Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On was just that; perfect. Recorded three times and a MASSIVE move forward into something more experimental and intricate, Perfect From Now On is one of the indie-rock genre’s benchmarks and another that I regularly grab from the rack as I’m heading to the car.

1997 was really a strong year for the whole indie-rock genre. Along with Elliott Smith and Built To Spill handing in career highlights, Pavement released the brilliant Brighten The Corners – and then followed it quickly with extra love in the form of the Shady Lane EP. I don’t think Pavement ever made a bad album and I’ve got a lot of time for Brighten The Corners especially ‘Date with IKEA’. Oh and Dinosaur Jr released what, to my mind, is the finest of their major label efforts and the one that pretty much sank without a trace. It took me ages to get a copy of this one when I was filling out my Dinosaur Jr collection some twelve years or more ago now. It didn’t shift anywhere near the numbers of Where You Been or Without A Sound – not that they’re exactly multi-million sellers either mind – but it’s still my favourite of the band from that era and last year’s expanded re-release was a wonderful thing. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Amen did the good stuff too with songs like ‘Brick’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ and ‘Song For The Dumped’ standing out for me and many others.

U2 dropped Pop like a half-baked turd and then hit the ‘MAX POWER’ button with the promotion and tour involving muscle-suits and a giant mirrorball lemon which made it clear they either hadn’t seen or grasped the point of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. Still, some two decades on and Pop, on reflection, isn’t all too bad – it could have done with a bit more gestation time and I’ve heard it said they were pushed to release before they were happy with it but songs like ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ and ‘Gone’ are still decent enough but ‘Discothèque’ remains a howler.

Faith No More wanted to get a head start on the accolades for their album and named it Album Of The Year – it’s their most straight-forward which helped it shift well and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is a great tune. Ry Cooder and some of his mates from Cuba got together to form the Buena Vista Social Club in ’96 and in 1997 released the cracking Buena Vista Social Club album which sent critics and music writers into a bit of a state in their efforts to find accolades to heap on it. Less so for Aerosmith though as critics weren’t so kind to Nine Lives despite the fact that, in my book, it’s one of their finest late-career efforts. A good, gritty kick in the balls to the over-production of Get A Grip thanks to Kevin Shirley it’s home to some great tunes like ‘Taste of India’, ‘Full Circle’, ‘Pink’, ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’…. I caught em on the tour for Nine Lives, albeit a few years later thanks to injures and delays that would become a staple for the group for the rest of their career, and I still reckon this is the last album to capture them at full flight.

Way out on a different side of the musical wave and even further geographically, Bjork released her brilliant Homogenic in 1997, ‘Jóga’ is one of my absolute favourite songs. Portishead released their second, self-titled, album which, though great as it remains, didn’t quite have the impact of Dummy, even if – to me – it’s a more rewarding listen. Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow arrived in 1997 as did Green Day’s Nimrod and ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’.

With the surprised – to him – success of his Foo Fighters’ first album behind him, Dave Grohl set about to make a ‘band’ album. However, the intense sessions – under producer Gil Norton – proved taxing on all members and Grohl’s redoing of drum tracks led to Will Goldsmith quitting the band. For his part, Grohl has since said “I wish that I would have handled things differently”. Goldsmith would be replaced by Taylor Hawkins who had said “yeah; me” when Grohl asked if he knew of any drummers who’d want the gig. The Colour and the Shape is probably their finest album and – depending on whether I’ve listened to Wasting Light that day – contains some of their best and most-loved songs. But… I’ve already written on this one pretty heavily and rules are rules.

So, not that there was much doubt what this could have been:

Radiohead – OK Computer

At some point in early 1997 I was sat in my room one evening watching TV – one of those big tube fuckers as this was pre-slimline LCD stuff – and as I’d have been upstairs on my own TV I’d have been stuck with the standard four channels so that means it must have been ‘Top of the Pops’ or similar I was watching rather than MTV2…. but I was watching but not watching, you know how, through what was the usual dross on these shows predominantly focused on the pop stuff and then they played the new singled from a band called Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’ and a bomb went off in my head.

OK Computer is an amazing album that’s been pretty much universally lauded since it was released in May 1997 – though, coincidentally, the Gallagher brothers were instant critics but then I’d take that as a compliment – and was a near-instant game changer. I didn’t pick the album up straight away – this was ’97 and at 16 years old I would’ve been spending what wages I had on other music or gobbling up the Aerosmith back catalogue as this was the year I got into them. No I do remember having the cash for a new CD at some point early in ’98 though as I remember going down to get hold of Pearl Jam’s Yield after reading positive reviews only when I took it to the counter they didn’t have it – so I picked up OK Computer instead and that bomb went off all over again.

I mean there’s been so much written about this album – when you consider the impact it had and how it exploded the band it would be impossible for there not to be. Plenty of pages have been dedicated to its origins (‘Lucky’ was recorded for The Help Album in 1995) and the recording processes (80% of it was recorded live according to Ed O’Brien) and that, after the introspective soul-searching focus of The Bends, Thom Yorke took a new tact with his lyric writing…. it would be fruitless to do so here and I wouldn’t be able to do so in a way that did the album justice.

For me this is one of those albums that had a massive impact on my musical tastes.. I know a lot of comparisons were made between this and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon and I get that – there’s a sense of cohesion to it that works so beautifully as a whole, there’s almost a feel of concept about it in that way and there’s sense of intricacy almost akin to ‘prog’ but the prominence of guitars pushes it firmly into the more accessible and ‘this deserves to be played loud and live’ arena, just as DSTOM did – even though the band were very keen to shrug that off. But for me I stand it alongside Pink Floyd’s magnum opus in that it has had such an impact on a certain generation’s music taste and certainly on mine. It was that defining album and is held up in the same light as DSOTM was twenty years or so previous. Not to mention that just as there’s a “oh Meddle / Animals / Wish You Were Here is so much better” debate there’s a “but they really came into their own with Kid A / The Bends” argument too… but just as you can’t tell me ‘Time’ takes a back seat to ‘Fearless’, there’s no argument for ‘Treefingers is better than ‘Let Down’ (and I do really really dig Kid A).

It’s one of the few albums I own across multiple formats and I even had to replace that original CD as it ended up bouncing about in numerous cars over the years. It was like a reinvention of ‘guitar rock’ just as those genres that had defined the start of the decade were starting to wane. There was a creeping in of technological dread and wariness in there, a bite and snarl of sarcasm and angst, shimmering melodies, odd time signatures and a band tighter than a duck’s arse playing a fuckload of great songs that just get better and reveal more with repeated listening over the years.

There’s a reason OK Computer is so well regarded and it’s the same reason it’s featured here as my choice for 1997: it’s just perfect.

Albums of my Years – 1991

Here we are, 1991 – “the year punk broke.” This was the year in which grunge music broke through. Still in its infancy, though, the genre wasn’t the force in terms of sales it would become over the next couple of years. While Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in September) would be propelled by the surprise hit of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, metal was still a massive force and it would be Metallica’s ‘black’ album that became the year’s biggest seller along with the double wankfest of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 selling massive figures and Garth Brooks, still a good few years away from turning into Chris Gaines, was making money as fast as they could print it.

In February, James Brown was released from prison on parole after his bizarre ‘89 episode – presumably the wardens were fooled by his cape routine and feigned exhaustion. Years away from revelations of child abuse, Michael Jackson renewed his recording contract with Sony records for $65 million – that’s a lot of monkey food. The Rolling Stones also signed a new deal with Virgin Records and Aerosmith – riding high on the back of their comeback and the success of Pump, signed a $30 million deal with Colombia Records / Sony Music, though it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Nine Lives that they would release anything for the label.

On March 20th Eric Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor, died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment. The loss of his young son, with whom he had only just realised his role as father took a heavy toll and inspired the song ‘Tears in Heaven’.

The film ‘Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’ was released in 1991 and, from it, Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ took the piss at number 1 in the UK for sixteen weeks. Also, in the world of soundtracks and infinitely more culturally and artistically more significant than Christian Slater’s English accent, ‘Baywatch’ returned in 1991 for a second season of slow motion running, drama and acting almost as convincing as the breasts on its female stars, kicking off with a new theme song:

On November 23rd, after years of speculation and insulting suggestions from the press, Freddie Mercury released a statement confirming that he had tested HIV positive and had AIDs. The statement didn’t say that Mercury was close to blind and could no longer leave his bed. Less than 24 hours later Mercury passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. He was just 45.

Devo called it a day in 1991 as did Galaxy 500, NWA, Talk Talk, Talking Heads and The Replacements who played their last show together (minus drummer Chris Mars who had quit in 1990 ) in July at Chicago’s Grant Park, with each member leaving during the set with their respective roadies taking their places. Meanwhile Belly, Cake, The Chemical Brothers, Counting Crows, Heatmiser (featuring Elliott Smith), Incubus, Oasis, Portishead, Rage Against The Machine, Refused and, er, The Wiggles all formed in 1991.

So what about album releases? Well… Dickhead Dave got the year off to a cloudy start with the release of his third solo album A Little Ain’t Enough (despite the fact that a little of him is way too much). Still doing well with Sammy Hagar, Van Halen would release the imaginatively For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in June and while its title is a little Spinal Tap (Hagar wanted to call it ‘Fuck’ but was, in a pure ‘Really? And you believed him?!’ moment, was told by Ray Mancini that ‘Fuck’ was actually an acronym for what would become the album’s title), it’s a strong slab of good stuff that includes quite a few of my favourite VH riffs.

1991 also saw the final album from Dire Straits – On Every Street. As recently surmised by Jim over at Music Enthusiast: There was some good stuff on it but Brothers in Arms had come out in 1985 and six years in the pop world is an eternity. Knoplfer’s other production credits for the year came from a seminal release from Bob Dylan:The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. One of my go-to Dylan volumes, this is one of those sets (like Springsteen’s Tracks) which always makes you wonder how the fuck some of this stuff was left off, like this cut from the Knopfler-produced sessions for Infidels (a fine, fine album):

Tom Petty re-teamed with the Heartbreakers for 91’s Into The Great Wide Open which, following the success of Petty’s Full Moon Fever was produced by Jeff Lynne. A lovely album, it was stocked with singles like such as ‘Learning To Fly’ and the title track along with great cuts including one of my favourites – ‘Two Gungslingers’.

On the heavier side of the year’s releases, Metallica’s Metallica (the answer is none, none more black’) was 1991’s monster – it spawned the classics ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Sad But True’, ‘The Unforgiven’ … and would sell more than 16 million copies in the US alone.

One of my all-time favourite bands, Dinosaur Jr released their major-label debut in 1991. Green Mind is a great mix of J Mascis’ ferocious guitar playing, matching melody to walls of fuzz and power with a growing songwriting sensibility. It’s practically a J Mascis solo album as he not only produced by played most of the instruments too with original drummer Murph only playing on three of the album’s songs. Bass player Lou Barlow had been kicked out a year or two prior and would document this in ‘The Freed Pig’ on his new band Sebadoh’s album III, also released in 1991.

1991 is the year that the world was first introduced to Eddie Vedder. First via the Temple of the Dog album – discussed at length in 1990’s post. Released in April it was received well by those all-important critics but failed to chart… it would take a little more awareness of the key players for the momentum to build. Still it wouldn’t take long: preceded by the singles ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’ Ten was released in August. A stunning debut, it would gradually build a following as the band hit the road hard to support it just as the grunge explosion began getting underway. I’d put it as a featured album or I wouldn’t be worth my salt as paid-up Ten Club member but I’ve already featured the album and rules are rules. Still, here’s a Stone-cold classic:

Another classic was dropped in 1991: Slint’s Spiderland. Their second and final album, Spiderland was a slow-burner and its popularity within the music world grew with time as it gradually found its audience and proved a massive influence on the post-rock genre.

Back over here, another genre-definer was released – My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic and gem of an album Loveless eventually arrived in November after two years of recording, 19 studios and contributing to the bankruptcy of its label. Hailed as a ‘virtual reinvention of the guitar’ Loveless left a long shadow on the scene and would find new ears and inspire lots more for years to come – just as well as it took 22 years for the band to follow up.

Another great of the genre, Slowdive, released their debut Just For A Day in ’91 but it was Massive Attack’s Blue Lines that rightly stole a lot of column inches over here that year:

As if the year wasn’t bursting enough with big albums, REM chose 1991 to release their Out Of Time and find themselves catapulted to the level of MASSIVE with singles like ‘Shiny Happy People’ (I still think it’s naff) and ‘Losing My Religion’ sitting alongside beautiful album tracks like ‘Low’ and ‘Half a World Away’.  It was major hit time too for Crowded House with the great Woodface arriving in July of ’91 and doing the business worldwide. It’s stuffed with great songs (though my favourite Crowded House album was a couple of years off) that would go on to become much-loved hits.

Another band to breakout in ’91 – Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik found the band taking a different musical tact than previous and seeing monster results and was one of those early albums that would be regarded as a mainstay of the ‘alternative’ boom that would jump all over the 90’s. A band that really really deserved to be part of the 90’s alternative explosion but would break up before the decade was halfway through – Pixies released their fourth and greatest album in 1991: Trompe le Monde.

As the Pixies released their final album, Smashing Pumpkins released their debut in ’91 with Gish. Corgan’s monstrous cockwomble status and ego aside, they’d prove one of the scene’s finest in years to come. As we’re getting back to the ‘grungier’ part of the alternative scene, one of the genre’s too oft-overlooked acts The Screaming Trees released their fifth album Uncle Anesthesia in January. It was their last with drummer Mark Pickeral  and their first for major-label Epic. While it didn’t have the impact the band or label hoped for – the musical world was still waking up to the genre, to be fair, it was produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Date also produced 1991’s Soundgarden album Badmotorfinger. Their first with bass player Ben Shepherd and released on September 24th 1991,  Badmotorfinger is an absolute stonker and features some of Soundgarden’s greatest songs.

Badmotorfinger is one of those classic albums that proved a breakthrough for Soundgarden. Already veterans of the Seattle music scene, Chris Cornell and co’s third album helped them reach the burgeoning alternative rock / grunge fanbase with singles like ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’. However, it would be another album released on the same day that busted everything wide open for the likes of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam to storm through… Nirvana’s Nevermind.

There’s a great scene in the 1996 documentary Hype! (available to watch on Prime and well worth doing so) in which Sub Pop staff discuss how, toward the end of 1990 they felt the storm of the scene that was building in Seattle had passed and would soon wind down, the focus would shift and things would return to normal… and then a band with a relatively small following but plenty of buzz about them dropped a song called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

It’s overplayed and perhaps the most obvious choice to play but it’s a fucking classic for a reason. It did so phenomenally well for a reason – it’s a great tune that propelled the album Nevermind, the band and pretty much an entire scene into a new league. It’s one of those albums I play so often that I know every word. It’s not my favourite Nirvana album but it contains so many of my favourite Nirvana songs (and one of my all-time favourites in ‘Breed’) that I still get bemused – I’m too old to get bothered and riled up anymore – when people say “oh but it sounds too commercial” or “Kurt hated it”. No, he didn’t and no, id doesn’t. He loved it but needed to distance himself from it for fear of being seen as a sell-out. I fucking hate that aspect of the scene and music fans in general that mean artists are so worried about how it would be perceived as ‘not punk’ and blame that for the demise of it, and Kurt’s state of mind, and the rise of the absolute dog shit on the radio today….

However: that’s a boatload of great albums and yet these aren’t the ‘featured’ albums for the year. So, what’s it to be for 1991? Well, you may not have heard of this band, but:

U2 – Achtung Baby

“You who?” I hear you ask. “Is that the submarine that stole an enigma device?”

I give U2 an occasional jibe on this blog – like; what’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t walk around Dublin thinking he’s Bono – but for good reason, as the years have gone by their recorded merit has deteriorated as Bono’s ego and the extravagance of being ‘the biggest band in the world’ grew in its place. The reason I do this is pretty simple really – U2 used to be great and they’ve made some absolute first class albums, the best of which (in my opinion) is Achtung Baby.

As the band’s popularity sky-rocketed in the 80’s and following the massive success of The Joshua Tree, U2 had started to get a little too caught up in trying to be serious and – as Bono said of Rattle and Hum: “We looked like a big, overblown rock band running amok.” That album and concert film summed it all up really: they’d gone from penning great tunes to paying too much attention to the look of it and were too self-serious. I mean; thank fuck for Bono taking a moment in ‘Silver and Gold’ to lecture us on apartheid before clumsily telling Edge to ‘play the blues’. It had stretched a little thin so when, at the end of that tour, Bono announced the band had “to go away and…and dream it all up again” it was probably welcome.

But I don’t think anyone was expecting Achtung Baby. It’s a total reinvention – while the band’s ethics and singing about the connections between people remained, everything else was a total reinvention. The way the band presented themselves changed – from Bono’s wrap around shades and black leather to the discovery of irony and dark humour in interviews with a bit of danger and the sound… the chiming sound of the 80s was seemingly buried now in distortion and lurching rhythms and textures not previously associated with the band as the emerged into the 90s with their first single ‘The Fly’:

I adore Achtung Baby – there’s not a song on it I’ll skip, even if I didn’t really want to listen to ‘One’ for a while as it became so omnipresent, it was always tracks like ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘Until The End of the World’ (in my favourite songs of all time list) that kept me coming back to it. I’m surprised my copy of it still plays it’s been slipped into so many different car CD players and stereos over the years, the case is pretty much battered and the booklet’s edges scuffed.

The album was gotten underway in Berlin, at Hansa Studios (where Bowie and Iggy Pop famously recorded four albums in 1977) in October 1990 as the band sought inspiration from the reunification of Germany. Instead it nearly broke the band as they argued over songs and the musical direction until they had a eureka moment with the writing of One which came in an improvised session as they worked on the arrangement of an early version of ‘Mysterious Ways’. As overplayed as it would become, it remains a great song (I really dig a lot of the vibe on this album including the artwork and the Trabants of the original video):

Just look at the list of singles released from the album alone: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’, ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ – if any one of these comes on the radio you’re not likely to be changing channel.

But then there’s the tracks that weren’t released – and they’re all just as good. Take ‘So Cruel’, ‘Acrobat’ or ‘Love Is Blindness’ as examples:

The lyrics aren’t millions of miles away from territory they’d wandered previously – “And you can dream, so dream out loud, you know that your time is coming ’round,
so don’t let the bastards grind you down” – but there’s a little more darkness and questioning here and, instead of being married to obvious ‘anthem’ sounds, there’s an edge (and Edge’s playing) to the songs on Achtung Baby with a metallic distorted bite, that borrows from industrial, electronic and the alternative rock scene that sits so sublimely with these songs and reveals more each time.

It shifted somewhere in excess of 18 million copies and ushered in U2’s Zoo TV Tour which was both so very 90s and completed their reinvention. It was the start of a new journey musically – from here to Zoorapa (also containing great tunes) to Pop which could’ve been another masterpiece if they’d been allowed time to finish it – and in terms of touring as the set grew from Zoo TV to Pop Mart and giant lemons. At no point, though, would it be as wholly and compellingly perfect again as it is on Achtung Baby*.

 

*After Pop‘s lacklustre reception, the band ducked away for a while before returning with a Best Of which captured 1980-1990, the reception to which buoyed their ‘back to basics’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind album in 2000. It’s a decent enough collection though a little sticky-sweet and twee, they’d lost the bite they found in the 90s. A second Best Of covering 1990-2000 must have reminded them of it again as at least half of 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was really good and buzzed as well as chimed. After that though, for me, it was lost. Especially when they told me to get on my boots…

Seven!

This one started as a joke, a throwaway comment… but then, I like the idea of a ‘theme’ or ‘write about this’ approach so took a look at seeing what I could put together for the number 7.

Well… staying within this blog’s wheelhouse, there’s ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’ according to Queen and Wonders of the World for Fleetwood Mac, both decent tunes. Perhaps most famously now it apparently takes more than a ‘Seven Nation Army’ to hold back Jack White:

Aside from being ridiculously catchy, ‘Seven Nation Army’ has probably made Jack White more money than anything else he’s done. While their label was initially reluctant to release it as a single in 2003, The White Stripes’ single was moderately successful in the charts (hitting and peaking at, fittingly enough, number 7 here), its usage in about a gazillion sporting events, broadcasts and adverts has netted its writer millions on its way to becoming what’s got to be the second-most recognisable guitar phrase ever (nobody’s gonna top ‘Satisfaction’).

There are also ‘Seven Curses’ and ‘Seven Days’ on Bob Dylan’s The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (now THAT is a great collection of Dylan tunes) but only ‘7 Seconds’ for Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry.

On a more recent note there’s also ‘Seven O’Clock’ one of the standout tracks on the new Pearl Jam Gigaton* and what kind of fan would I be if I didn’t take the opportunity to feature it and it’s glorious lyric ”Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse they forged the north and west, then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting President”:

On the subject of Pearl Jam, there’s also 7 Worlds Collide – a musical project of Neil Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz and a raft of great solo albums).  Taking its title from a line in Crowded House’s ‘Distant Sun’, the project bought Finn together with a number of other musicians for a series of shows in support of charities. The group featured contributions from Eddie Vedder, Johnny Marr,  Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Phil Selway, Tim Finn and many others – and a record , 7 Worlds Collide: Live at the St. James, was released in 2001 with tracks from a series of 5 shows at the venue and still gets taken off my shelves for a spin or three today. I’ve not checked out the studio album the project – with a pretty different ‘cast’ – put together a few years later but it still warrants checking out given that the set revolves around some of Finn’s strongest tunes along with a few written by his guests at the time:

Now, here’s a thing: I’ve often had a theory that the seventh track on album can often be one of the strongest. It’s not always the case, of course, and will depend on artist etc but my logic is that it’s the key point at which to drop a great tune and keep the listener’s ear into the second half of an album.  With this in mind I took a rummage through my records then realised I could save myself a huge amount of time and use Spotify… duh.

With that in mind, there are loads of albums in which the seventh track is not only bloody strong but ranks among the best on that album. Take ‘Us and Them’! Or ‘Ramble On’… easily one of Led Zep’s greatest with that seamless switch in gears… or the actual title track on Highway 61 Revisited! There’s a wealth of great track sevens and, sticking to the ‘no more than 2 per artist’ rule I’ve oft imposed upon myself on this blog, I put together a playlist of great Track Sevens, enjoy:

*Moving away from Brendan O’Brien’s production sets it in with Binaural and Riot Act in terms of the band’s embrace of different sounds and vibe but I think it’s better than both of those, it’s easily their strongest set in some time, possibly since Yield.

Albums of my Years – 1989

1989 saw two events that would have a massive impact on my future, though I didn’t know it at the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the Romanian Revolution in December. At the time, as an 8 then 9 year old, I wouldn’t have known about the importance of these events – or David Hasselhoff’s involvement*.

But the arrival of glasnost had an impact on the music news of 1989. In January, Paul McCartney Снова в СССР (Back in the USSR) – an album of covers – exclusively for release in the Soviet Union with no exports. Copies that did make their way into ‘the West’ fetched daft money for a Macca album until Paul decided to release it universally in ’91.  August’s Moscow Music Peace Festival was held in Moscow, showing the Russians exactly why Western music should be banned with acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, Cinderella, The Scorpions and Bon Jovi doing their bit to undo decades of international politics and create a hole in the ozone layer over Russia with hairspray use.

1989 marked goodbye for The Bangles, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & the Pips, grunge and Seattle scene forerunners The U-Men and both a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ again to The Who – who had reformed for a heavily criticised The Kids Are Alright anniversary tour and promptly called it quits again until 1996. 1989 was the year Bruce Springsteen made a few calls and told the E Street Band he would not be using their services for the foreseeable future. It was hello to The Black Crowes, The Breeders, The Cranberries, Hole, Mazzy Star, Marilyn Manson, Mercury Rev, Neutral Milk Hotel, Morphine, Pavement, Red House Painters, Slowdive,  The Stone Temple Pilots…  oh; and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, who all formed in 1989 and were (mostly) poised for some heavy action in the 90’s and presence in my music collection.

In terms of album releases, 1989 has plenty to offer. Five years on from the ‘Boys of Summer’ featuring Building The Perfect Beast, Don Henley and his ponytail released The End of the Innocence with help from Bruce Hornsby and Heartbrakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, I still quite enjoy the title track. 1989 saw a massive return to form for The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels saw Jagger and Richards healing the rift between them and crafting an album packed with great Stones songs though was the last for both their label Columbia and to feature Bill Wyman who would leave the group at the end of the tour behind the album (though it wouldn’t be announced until ’93).

I’ll also go a little away from the expected here and say that 1989 also saw the release of an absolutely great pop album – Madonna’s Like A Prayer which mixed just under a dozen cracking songs (including one written and produced by Prince) with a classic, lush sound courtesy of Patrick Leonard’s production. Stepping back into this blog’s wheelhouse, Tom Petty released his first ‘solo’ album Full Moon Fever which went onto sell a crazy amount of records and would become his commercial peak. We all know this one – it’s packed from head to toe with pure gold: ‘Free Fallin’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’, ‘Yer So Bad’, ‘Alright for Now’… they’re all on here.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fourth album In Step arrived in June of ’89, Billy Joel released Storm Front and let the world know that while he didn’t start the fire, he could create one hell of an earworm alongside the stately ‘Leningrad’ and personal favourite ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” and Mother Love Bone released their debut EP, Shine which featured pretty much their only decent songs**:

Anything else released in 1989? Fuck… how about The Cure’s Disintegration – one of the best albums ever?

Or Nirvana’s debut album Bleach? Yes – both of these were released in 1989 along with Soundgarden’s second album and major label debut Louder Than Love which matched them with metal producer Terry Date and then lumped into the ‘heavy metal’ genre for some time much to the complete bemusement of their Seattle contemporaries and fans who knew how different they sounded usually. I think it was Mudhoney’s Mark Arm who pointed out that, pre-Nirvana, when an ‘alternative’ band signed to a major there were only two ways to go: the metal Guns ‘N’ Roses route or the REM route. Soundgarden were heavy and went the metal route.. they’d not really shake it off until 94’s Superunkown.

Meanwhile, riding high again without being high, Aerosmith decided to up the ante with their next ‘comeback’ album and knocked it clean out of the park with the best album of the second-half of their career: Pump. As strong and gleaming as Perry’s torso on the cover, Pump is an album of back-to-back GOLD, with Aerosmith’s raunchy, hard-edged riffing married to a great-sounding production. Less cheesy than Permanent Vacation and less over-worked than Get A GripPump is Aerosmith at their peak and revelling in it, better songs, more power and clearly here to kick arse:

There was also Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements in 1989. Much-maligned, the album was royally buggered up by the mix that Chris Lord-Alge decided to apply what, according to Wikipedia, he and his brother were famous for “abundant use of dynamic compression[5] for molding mixes that play well on small speakers and FM radio, thus somewhat contributing to the loudness war” to some of Paul Westerberg’s finest compositions to date. It killed the album at a time when the band were probably at the only point in their career when they coulda shoulda woulda broken through. Instead it’s one for the faithful only to really love and wouldn’t be heard as intended until last years’ Dead Man’s Pop box allowed producer Matt Wallace to release his original mix.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that Bob Dylan decided 1989 was the right time to return to his power and prominence by teaming with Daniel Lanois (who was recommended to him by someone called Bono. You may not have heard of him, he’s the singer with an obscure, little-known Irish band called U2) with the phenomenal Oh Mercy which features more than enough classic Bob Dylan songs to rank it as a vital addition to any fan’s collection:

I’m sure I’ve probably missed a few key albums from 1989 but there were so many. But if none of the above great, classic releases make it as my featured album for the month then it must be Boston’s other famous act….

Pixies – Doolittle

Album number 2 from Pixies is an out and out classic. I still hold by my statement that the band have never released a bad song, but Doolittle contains out and out classics from start to finish – ‘Debaser’, ‘Tame’, ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’… it’s just perfect.

I got into Pixies long after they called it a day, I can’t and won’t pretend I was into them when they were originally a going concern. But by the time they got back together and playing shows again in 2004 I was already way up to speed and in love with their back catalogue. When they did eventually get around to making new music (minus Kim Deal who didn’t want to be involved), I was straight on the pre-order link for EP1.

Doolittle was my, and I’m sure loads of other fans’, first Pixies albums and remains an absolute favourite – I got into them on the back of references in interviews of artists who count them as influences (amongst the many, Cobain would consistently cite them as vital) and having heard ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’. I didn’t look back and within a few weeks had quickly added their then compete works to my collection.

The band’s second album, Doolittle was the Pixies’ first international release and has continued to sell well since release (let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Pixies don’t exactly shift mega numbers) and is often placed in lists of greatest albums be it alternative, 80s or just great albums.

Doolittle marked the band’s first album with producer Gil Norton, they’d work with him on their next three albums (including Indie Cindy) but it wasn’t an instantly harmonious relationship. I’ve often read that Norton isn’t the easiest producer to work with and on Doolittle sessions he’d suggest adding to songs and changing their structure in ways that would often piss Frank Black off especially as he’d try and lengthen their songs. Apparently it got to the point that Black took Norton to a record shop and gave him a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits as a kind of “if short songs are good enough for Buddy Holly..” point making exercise. Black would say of Doolittle “this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”.

Whatever the process and arguments (and I’m not even gonna touch on the whole bickering between Deal and Black), the result is unarguably a classic that was critically and (for the band) commercially well received with sales up to a million units and it remains both one of the best alternative albums of the 80s and a big favourite of mine.

 

*I don’t know what’s gone wrong in the Hoff’s head or when it went wrong but the man remains convinced he played a, if not the, pivotal role in the reunification of Germany.

**Sorry, as important as the group is to Pearl Jam history they’re a little too glam / Poison cover band for the most part in my ears.

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.

Self-compiled; Aerosmith Pt 2

Oddly enough I like the idea of doing a split, two-parter post as it gives me something resembling a structure to post on rather than ramble – especially when current events are something I need to stay away from if only for the sake of my blood pressure and keeping that black dog at bay.

Earlier this week I got the Pre-Milk Spillage Aerosmith compilation up having been inspired by Jim over at Music Enthusiast’s post-trilogy on the Toxic Twins. Turns out that one was the easiest of my original comps to recreate on Spotify and share. For some reason Falling Off isn’t included on the streaming version of Nine Lives (I guess it was cut from international versions of the album) which meant I head to substitute it for the lesser Walk On Down and Can’t Stop Messin’ has been culled from Get A Grip but once you start substituting….Well, I wanted to get something from the latest Music From Another Dimension on there and Out Go The Lights seemed the only one to fit (I guess because the tune has its origins from the Pump era) which meant I was able to slice out some of those awful ballads that I’d no longer want to hear (and clog up most of Big Ones).

But then with an extra minute or three do any of the tracks from the period between Nine Lives and Music… warrant selection? Well, no. I, like Mr Perry (2010: “I don’t think we’ve made a decent album in years. Just Push Play is my least favorite. When we recorded it there was never a point where all five members were in the room at the same time and Aerosmith’s major strength is playing together. It was a learning experience for me: it showed me how not to make an Aerosmith record”) don’t care for Just Push Play. And, yes, I open with three from Pump and even include two more including the only one of their ballads that I can still enjoy (if you’ve seen them live and been part of the crowd that sings along to the start so loudly it shuts Steven Tyler up you’ll have a soft spot for it too) but Pump is to their latter-day period what Rocks is to their initial run; unimpeachable.

So, it was possibly the trickiest to compile and is by no means perfect but if I were to compile for CD length, tunes from the Post-Rehab (I can’t really call this one Post-Milk Spillage as I’ve selected nothing from Done With Mirrors) now it would probably look like this:

Honourable mentions go to:

Monkey On My Back

The Movie

Line Up

Heart’s Done Time

 

Self-compiled; Aerosmith Pt 1

There are some real simple / guilty pleasures in my music collection. They might not be ‘critical’ favourites but I’ll always stick em on.

MTV has a lot to answer for. That’s the MTV that used to be – the one that actually showed more music than reality TV. I can’t say that I’ve watched it for years. Back in the 90’s it was a gateway into a lot of music. For me, in amidst all the “holy shit” moments that came with the explosion of grunge, the video for Aerosmith’s Livin’ On The Edge was an attention grabber – Joe Perry wringing a solo out of his guitar as a freight-train barrels down on him, only to casually step out of the way all cool-as-fuck.

A few years later when the video for Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees) aired I went out and got the CD single (again, almost a defunct format now) but listened more to the b-sides instead – Seasons of Wither and  Sweet Emotion. It was like a taster for the early Aerosmith. So, after Big Ones I went right back to the music shop (again, a chain that has long since been relegated to the “do you remember?” list) and picked up Rocks the next day. It got, and gets, a lot more plays than that sumo-wrestler featuring comp.

Jim over at Music Enthusiast (I really need to update my blogroll etc) just finished a great 3-post wrap-up covering Aerosmith and it got me thinking about my own Aerosmith favourites. It wasn’t a deep thought, mind, as back in the days of cassettes I’d already compiled a couple for the car and – though they were on the old 90 minutes cassette and a touch of trimming was required – then done the same with CD. And, now, Spotify.

But why a self-compile in the first place? This is a band with 12 compilations to their 15 studio releases. Chiefly the length of Aerosmith’s career (now at 40+ years and counting) and the switch in record labels from Columbia to Geffen and then back meant that there was no one-stop album that would compile both until 2002’s disappointing compilation (odd song selection, ‘remix’ tracks in the running order, reeked of cash-grab) and those volumes that covered either chapter – let’s call it Pre and Post-Milk Spillage – were a little short on the run time and, therefore, missed a lot of key tracks for my tastes.

Those tracks that were cut off to fit on a CD-length comp were Downtown Charlie and Shithouse Shuffle and a longer, live version of Chip Away At The Stone replaced the studio version here. A few of these tracks (Train and Same Old Song And Dance) most definitely fare better in a live setting but that’s the way it is. Lightning Strikes or Jailbait from Rock In A Hard Place made the cut when there was more tape space but when faced with cutting for length they simply don’t hold up to the rest. Listening through this again now what strikes me most about this part of Aerosmith’s career is the rawness of the sound. Their later work would have a tendency to be more slick and over-produced in its sound as they sought the higher echelons of the chart. Prior to sobriety I guess they just wanted to tear the arse off the place.

So – here’s the slightly trimmed compilation I’ve been spinning in one form or another for the last decade or two from those early days. Starting with what has to be their greatest lead-in to a track, covering personal favourites like Seasons of Wither and the first Tyler/Perry collaboration Movin’ Out before concluding with the biographical No Surprize and, of course, Dream On:

 

Out Go The Lights

So – for all the grunge, alterna-indie, post-rocking selectivity of music collection there’s a fair few not-so-guilty pleasures. Amongst those is a large selection (yep, every album and a lot of singles) from a band that are oft described as America’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll band – that’s right; Aerosmith.

I’d like to be able to say something like “I only started listening to them because of Buffalo Tom’s referencing them in the linear notes on ‘Asides From'” or “it was the cover of Toys in the Attic that was on ‘Lifes Rich Pageant”  but I can’t. The truth of the matter is, in a similar way to Peter Buck’s statement that “if you grew up in the 70s you like Aerosmith” , if you were watching MTV and taking it all in like a hungry sponge in the 90s there was no way to not know Aerosmith. If you happened to be a 15 year old boy watching Joe Perry blast out a guitar solo on a railroad track then step out the way of a speeding freight-train with that “too cool to give a fuck” attitude in the vid for Livin’ On The Edge, then there was no escape. My first concert was an Aerosmith show – The Toxic Twins Towers Ball. The band were riding their late-90s high, post “Don’t Wanna Miss…” and with an album harder and rawer than they’d done for a while – the superb Nine Lives – it was, really, the ideal time to see them. They were still strong and tight and it was just before the dip that would take over a decade to pull out from, really.

It’s strange, then, that for the way in which my music collection and taste has grown and varied since I first got hold of an Aerosmith album – Big Ones – I’ve still paid attention to the boys from Boston. For all the lack of interest in the band and potential mocking I’d endure from those friends with whom I would share tastes in more ‘acceptable’ music I still plunk on Pump or Rocks when the feeling takes me. I still remember the ‘really?’ look I got when one such friend caught me coming out of a store having bought their last studio album Just Push Play. That was eleven years ago.

11 years…. in that time the band put out numerous compilations, a couple of live albums and a collection of blues covers. There were suggestions of new albums in the works and so much band bickering that it looked like game over. But still, I held out some hope. Call it nostalgia, perhaps, but I wanted to think that they’d come back and it would be good. Joe Perry released an awesome solo album then another not-quite-so-hot album that hinted that he was still firing out the licks… then Steven Tyler sat behind a desk and passed judgement on tweenie-bopper acts… and then it was confirmed: a new album WAS in the works and it was being helmed by Jack Douglas – Aerosmith’s own George Martin. To say I was hopeful was an understatement. Then I heard the first song, Legendary Child, and kinda thought… ‘oh’. I had images of the band desperately trying too hard to capture a sound long gone. I then heard ‘What Could Have Been Love’ and thought ‘oh, well, I’ll wait until it hits the bargain bins’. The buzz around the album involved talk of revisiting old riffs and song ideas and going for that old sound – it sounded like we were to expect some reheated left-overs.

And yet…

And yet last week on a rare day-off in the week with my wife I found myself in HMV buying the album – Music From Another Dimension – (in Special Edition format for that matter) on the day of release. I then found myself putting it up onto my iPod to play it through my new sound-system (which will make anything sound amazing). Strangely enough, I then found myself fucking loving it.

music from another dimensionFor a band to go back and play as if they were in their twenties (especially when most of Aerosmith are three times that age) would sound awful – those times are gone and to try and reproduce it would sound sad. But it was never about eras with Aerosmith, it was about the sound, the passion, the fun and the attitude. Something that was desperately missing from Just Push Play. Which is where this works so well: far from going back to the seventies sound Music From Another Dimension takes over from where Nine Lives left off.

Between their last decent album – Nine Lives – and the abysmal follow up, Aerosmith lent a couple of tracks to the Armageddon soundtrack. The big one, the one everybody knows and gave the band some new legs – literally for Mr Tyler – wasn’t the one that should’ve gained attention. There was a track on there that sounded like the next step for the band, what should’ve been the direction and sound to expect on their next album; What Kind of Love Are You On? was hard, gritty, riff-heavy and full of balls. Instead the next we heard was Jaded.

Until now. Music From Another Dimension is everything an Aerosmith album should be; it’s loud, it’s got passion and drive, it’s got guitars ALL over it and it’s got a pounding rhythm that will stay lodged in your head. All topped off with Steven Tyler’s trademark scatting, howling, soul-baring wail and howl. Most of all – and this is probably why I love the band – it’s FUN. There’s no pretension. This is Aerosmith; they came to play. They came to turn it up loud and fuck everything else.

There’s tunes on here that will stay lodged in your head for days – check out Tell Me and Street Jesus. Even Legendary Child is redeemed by it’s placement amongst Out Go The Lights et al. And although you can’t have an Aerosmith album these days without the odd ballad I still don’t think that much of What Could’ve Been Love.

It even got my wife’s attention and she was soon asking to have it dropped onto her iPhone – something she certainly wouldn’t have done with the last couple of Aerosmith ‘albums’. Strangely enough listening to it does spark a nostalgia for the 90s – which is odd as their stock from that period of their career was mostly the work of the late Bruce Fairbairn rather than Jack Douglas (who has done an outstanding job producing this album) – which gave us a weekend of delving into the ‘banks’ for one great tune after another. Finding a time when music was made for the sake of music and what the band had to say – not what a team of songwriters and producers wanted them to use to flog a perfumer.

The overwhelming impression I get from Music From Another Dimension is that this time the band sat down and played together for possibly the first time in a long time and came up with the tunes that they thought sounded great – not the tunes that half a dozen other writers (the most common collaborator this time around is Marti Frederiksen, hence the similarity to Nine Lives methinks), producers and industry folks wanted them to put out. Yes there is a Dianne Warren song on here but there’s also tunes by Tom Hamilton (Tell Me should be ranking up there with Janie… ), Brad Kramer and Joey Kramer along with a decent chunk of Perry / Tyler collaborations. More than that Joe Perry gets to drape his bluesy growl over two songs on this disc.

It’s an Aerosmith as a band, not a product, is back album. In a world of jury-selected music artists and auto-tuned hits, to hear an album by such a large, mainstream act that is unapologetic-ally non-pop, is refreshing. It also makes me think that there’s still hope while music is produced this way. That while the specific sounds that first got me into music back in the 90s may not be there, the soul and reasons for making music are. That there’s reason to believe guys who have seen a fair old dose of life and make music that doesn’t involve programmed loops and 15 year old boys singing ‘baby’  can still produce something vital and tough. It’s good to hope…

music from another dimension