According to the mighty notifications bell it’s been eleven years since I started putting words on page here. I did toy with the idea of doing ‘eleven things that have changed since’ but then that would move this blog’s wheelhouse into either the personal or political arenas into which it only occasionally dips. Though I think we could probably all benefit from taking a moment to think of how – a relatively short space of time ago – there was once a time when a certain orange defendant was just an annoying twat of a failed businessman and nobody really considered membership of the EU to be a problem.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?
Also – thanks to those that have read the increasingly infrequent output of this blog and creating blogs that I continue to read even if I no longer contribute so much.
Anyway, keeping with the music theme I thought I’d mark this historic moment by hurling eleven great Track Elevens at you. Once upon a time only double albums made it to eleven tracks, in the era of CD bloat many should have stopped at that point and now, while we seem to be veering a little closer back to shorter album run lengths, they typically mark an album’s closing point. There is, of course, very little scientific method to the selection and probably a few I’ve missed but, in the immortal words of The Ramones: “hey, you there – let’s get going”
Pearl Jam – Release (Ten)
Ten might not be their best album but ‘Release’ is one of their finest and works as both a great album closer and concert opener.
U2 – Acrobat (Achtung Baby)
Always good to highlight little-known bands. Achtung Baby may be a bit bloated but I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘Acrobat’ even if it took the band 27 years to recognise it and play it live (probably in some dingy basement somewhere).
REM – Nightswimming (Automatic for the People)
There are so many brilliant albums from those first few years of the 90s… and Automatic for the People isn’t even REM’s finest. The ‘Ride’ of their side may be handicapped by its first three tracks – ‘Monty Got A Raw Deal’, ‘Ignoreland’ and ‘Star Me Kitten’ probably aren’t anybodies favourites – but then ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Nightswimming’ and ‘Find The River’ is one of the best ‘final three’ since The Wild, The Innocent… and ‘Nightswimming’ is just pure gold.
The Black Crowes – Descending (Amorica)
Amorica is a damn fine album, damn fine. In retrospect I don’t think it was just the pubes that killed it – 1994 may not have been the optimum time for a southern, blues-rock album to be welcomed by the mainstream. ‘Descending’ is both a long-time Black Crowes favourite of mine and a great album closer. I’ll get out of the 90s on this list soon I’m sure.
Bruce Springsteen – The River (The River)
When The River was briefly a single album the title track sat in the middle of the running order. Expanded to a double it still, kinda did but by lobbing it on to the end of the first half of the album Springsteen puts one of his finest songs in place as a reward for making it through ‘I Wanna Marry You’
Pink Floyd – High Hopes
Until recently a beautiful final word from Pink Floyd. It’s still beautiful.
Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced? (Are You Experienced)
Not necessarily stoned…
Portishead – Glory Box (Dummy)
Ah, back to the 90s. Dummy is just sublime and ‘Glory Box’ one of my favourites and they slapped it right at the end of the album.
Dinosaur Jr – What If I Knew (Beyond
Closing off their first album since the original lineup got back together with a great tune felt like a way of saying ‘more to come, stay tuned’,
The Replacements – Can’t Hardly Wait (Pleased To Meet Me)
Yes, the Tim era versions with the ’til it’s over’ was great but this – with Alex Chilton on guitar, horns and strings – is as close to perfect as they got.
The Beatles – Blackbird (The Beatles)
Technically it is track eleven… because that’s what ‘track 3 on side 2’ translates to on CD and streaming etc.
Regina Spektor – Somedays (Soviet Kitsch)
I could, and probably should, write an individual piece on Ms Spektor. Soviet Kitsch is her third album and first for a major and can be seen as the template from which all her future albums would follow: there are pure, well-crafted tunes with just the right amount of refinement while still retaining enough rough edges, quirk and personality to make it engaging and all underpinned by Spektor’s vocals – wonderfully typified by the album closer ‘Somedays’ which she also closed the show with the one time I was able to catch her live some misty years ago.
As it’s that kick in the pills that serves as a reminder that the weekend is over that’s also known as Monday, it feels like a fitting moment to come down from tripping the cosmos collate some of those tunes that I’ve been enjoying of late in the hope that others dig them too.
Top Drawer – Song of a Sinner
I’ve been listening to a lot of Vietnam-era tunes lately (more on which to follow) and I guess the algorithm overlords of Spotify decided I’d enjoy this. They were right. Top drawer (pun intended) garage / psych rock from 1969 of which I know nothing about other than I dig it, man.
Pink Floyd – The Gold It’s In The… (2016 remix)
On a very similar vibe – and bypassing the fact that Roger Waters has travelled so far up his arsehole he’s come out as a Russian apologist for a moment – I’ve been enjoying some of the Early Years takes from Pink Floyd lately and Obscured By Clouds being one of those albums often overlooked it’s always worth revisiting a tune where Gilmour gets to break loose for a few bars.
Blondshell – Sepsis
This is one of those examples of not judging books etc etc…. I saw the name ‘Blondshell’ in one of those ‘artists to look for in 2023’ lists at the end of last year and scrolled on as it was sandwiched between some of those rappers with ‘Lil’ or ‘Big’ and numbers in their names and I figured it was more of the same. However, I went back to the list and read ‘brutally frank, distorted guitar-driven’ and started listening. Sabrina Teitelbaum – who performs as Blondshell – was en route to becoming a pro pop music writer before dropping out and writing her own stuff on a more alt leaning which means there’s a clear songwriting sensibility stapled to that aforementioned ‘distorted guitar-driven’ vibe that makes for great listening.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – The Trip to Pirates Cove
I’ve been listening to a lot of later-period Tom Petty on the road lately. The inbuilt chill to his voice serves as a perfect counterpoint to the throb of the Ferrari’s V12* that helps take the edge off the cocaine. For reasons unknown it took me a long time to get to Mojo (well, I guess the reason was the disappointment of The Last DJ) but it’s a real resurgence of a record and I love both the overall vibe of this one but especially the lyric “she was a part of my heart, now she’s just a line in my face.”
Gretel Hänlyn – Wiggy
I’m determined not to be one of those guys that once the mid-40s arrive they adopt the ‘no music worth listening to has been made since 199X’ and I’m constantly keeping an ear out for stuff that has a vibe I can plunge into. I can’t tell you anything about Gretel Hänlyn – who I caught on the radio – other than she’s a 20 year old singer / songwriter / guitar player from London. Obviously there’s a big 90’s guitar element to this that’s probably why it caught my ear and I’ve come to terms with the fact that, given the age of a lot of current new bands I’m digging, it’s likely that they’ve been taking inspiration from their parents’ record collections.
Howlin’ Wolf – Smokestack Lightning
The cub has some very specific requests when it comes to music to listen to and when he recently requested we pick up a 3-disc ‘Classic Blues’ comp I didn’t have any objections and this tune is always a stone-cold killer.
As I seem to be slipping back into the habit of posting more frequently, it feels like a fitting time to drop one of those ‘this is what I’ve been listening to’ posts that have peppered this blog previously as we head giddily into the weekend.
Pink Floyd – Hey Hey, Rise Up
Is this cheating? It only came out today but I’ve listened to it a good half dozen or so times already and it grows on me more each time. The first new Pink Floyd song in 28 years (songs from The Endless River were re-heated leftovers after all) is real grower – a gentle very-Floyd strum accompanying a powerful vocal from Ukrainian singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk giving way after a minute or so to a suitably screaming solo from David Gilmour that seems to be more an anguished scream of a protest song and keeps reaching those glorious notes so associated with the guitarist and Floyd. I’ve got a feeling that this song – a reaction to extraordinary times with added fuel as a result of Gilmour’s personal connection – is likely a one-off though.
The War On Drugs – I Don’t Wanna Wait
It took me until this year to fall head over heels with The War On Drugs’ I Don’t Live Here Anymore because Atlantic Records are one of those major labels who seem to enjoy taking the piss with prices. The album was going for close to £40 on my preferred format and the fact that I could usually pick up a double on a lesser money grabbing label for half that meant I didn’t add it to my collection until I picked up the CD for under a fiver this year. It’s a brilliant album that’s been in the car pretty solidly over the last month or three. ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait’ is both a highlight and representative of the album as a whole – it builds from a deceptively simple very-80s beat before expanding into a much more involved, seemingly boundless song that’s dripping in that sun-kissed AOR vibe circa ’87 (think Tunnel of Love) underpinned by a guitars whose tone and fluidity leave me feeling sticky and satisfied.
The Mysterines – Hung Up
I’ve mentioned this group before and have been digging every song they’ve released thus far as they were on of those bands oft-played on 6Music during my commute. I’ve been spinning and loving their debut Reeling this week after I was able to make it to my usual dealer to collect my pre-order and I’m looking forward to where they take it next.
Loop – Heaven’s End
I have to wonder if the guy that owns my usual record shop has one of those ‘I will now sell five copies of “The Three EPs” by The Beta Band’ moments before I visit because when I stopped by to pick-up The Mysterines’ record he was playing an album to which both my wife and I both said “who is this?… it’s good!” As a result Loop’s debut Heaven’s End from 1987 is nestled in my collection and has been played quite a bit since. Think raw, Detroit-punk imbued trance-rock with hypnotic, discordant guitars and you’re on the way. I thought it was early Mudhoney at first but there’s elements of shoegaze in the mix with these drone-like soundscapes. I read a review that referred to this as “sound(ing) like the soundtrack to a missing hallucination scene from Easy Rider.”
Monty Python – I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song on the Radio
My son has been discovering and generally enjoying Monty Python of late. Given that he’s only 8 there’s plenty that gets skipped or simply not shown but he was so loving ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ that the ’45 was added to the collection. This one was on the flip side and has probably been played more as it seems to hit the same mass enjoyment buttons shared by 8 and 41 year olds.
Dire Straits – News
I went to a record fair last weekend and all I got was this lousy t-shirt the only record I walked away with was Dire Strait’s Communique. A nice, clean and well-kept copy for a fiver hits about right for me. I think Communique gets a bit of a bad rap – it was a bit of a rush job after their first album took off and doesn’t have a hook akin to ‘Sultans of Swing’ and isn’t a patch on Making Movies but in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, ‘News’, ‘Where Do You Think You’re Going?’ ‘Angel of Mercy’ and ‘Portobello Belle’ does has have five cracking Dire Straits song and it’s more laid-back, subdued style is perfect for a certain vibe.
Apparently it’s my ‘WordPress Anniversary’ today. Well, at least with this blog. I say this only to make those of you who have failed to send gifts my way feel guilty.
To mark this most important of events I thought I’d be achingly original and put together a list – Ten great Track Tens.
Ten. In the seventies some couldn’t keep it up that long whereas by the nineties’ era of CD bloat some went on much longer. Some use it as a ‘leave them wanting more’ final track while for others it’s the point at which they’re in the midst of their second wind. For many, though, it’s just filler.
Anywho, without further prattle, ceremony here’s a sweep of some pretty solid tracks that also happen to be the tenth tune on an album – while a little bit of a sausage-fest* – also serves to cover most of what this blog has in the last ten.
Pearl Jam – Present Tense
Bob Dylan – The Man In Me
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness On The Edge of Town
Noir Desir – Lost
Snail Mail – Mia
Tom Petty – Alright For Now
Pink Floyd – Lost for Words
Weezer – Only In Dreams
The Replacements – Skyway
Mogwai – Mogwai Fear Satan
*only down to the lack of stand out tracks that happened to sit between the ninth and eleventh ones.
Here we are with the weekend behind us and staring down the barrel of another week. So, on the day that always feels like a kick in the pills, here’s a quick wander down the path of tunes I’ve been giving a lot of ear time this last week.
Eddie Vedder – Long Way
An Eddie Vedder solo song without a hint of a ukulele? Yup – what’s more there’s an album on the way (I think he plays all instruments but that might be a malicious rumour from the fan forums) following quickly on the heels of the ‘Flag Day’ soundtrack he’d put out earlier. This is a real Tom Petty vibing track, rather than a Pearl Jam song that didn’t pass muster, and that’s no bad thing.
Regina Spektor– While My Guitar Gently Weeps
I’ve been watching a lot of Studio Ghibli films recently with my son and ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ (which isn’t a Studio Ghibli but from Laika, another studio with a very strong set of films under its belt) came up. It’s got a great soundtrack as you’d expect from a film about a boy with a magical instrument, and while it’s mostly originals there’s this really cool cover of a – frankly – stone cold classic that runs with the credits. I don’t think Regina Spektor has put out a lot of late but she put out a couple of belters back in the day.
Sting – Rushing Water
I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to Sting’s solo output for a long time. I don’t think he’s put out much in the way of ‘straight ahead’ solo music for a bit. If I recall there’s been a musical about a ship, a winter solstice themed album, some tosh with Shaggy, duets…. if anything I’ve listened to his daughter’s work more than his. That being said, turns out he’s got a new album called The Bridge on the way. Not a cover of Billy Joel’s album, more one primed with ‘pop-rock’ tunes that he put together over the last year when nobody could really do anything outside for more than five minutes. Maybe I’m getting older but this seems like a pretty good upbeat and cheerful place to be.
Aerosmith – Boogie Man
We’re all victims of algorithms aren’t we…. I guess because I’d talked about Joe Perry’s book out load in the presence of my phone Prime recommended I watch Aerosmith’s ‘Rock for the Rising Sun’ concert doc. It’s an alright live doc but the most interesting thing was hearing them dust off ‘Boogie Man’ – the almost-instrumental closing track from their gargantuan selling Get A Grip. It’s been in my head ever since and has got me pondering an Aerosmith Least to Most series…
Pixies – Here Comes Your Man (’87 version)
When picking up my copy of the Trompe Le Monde anniversary press from my local record shop I decided to add the Pixies EP aka The Purple Tape to my collection which is a collection of those songs recorded during the band’s first studio session in 1987 that didn’t make it to Come On Pilgrim and it’s a great blast of ‘pure’ Pixies magic.
Pink Floyd – One Slip (2019 Remix)
As part of The Later Years box set Pink Floyd decided to remix their oft-derided 1987 A Momentary Lapse of Reason, their first without that cockwomble Roger Waters shouting at them about how shit they were. Because of Waters’ shouting neither Nick Mason or Richard Wright had enough confidence in their playing to contribute much to the album and it was mostly Gilmour and session musician – hence the remix that’s about to be released as a stand-alone outside of the box set. It features new drum parts from Nick Mason as well as the restoration for Richard Wright’s keyboard contributions to “restore the creative balance between the three Pink Floyd members”. It also sheers off some of the overwrought 80’s production that hampered the original too. Having loved it on The Later Years I’m glad it’s getting a wider reissue.
Lists can be such a pain in the arse sometimes… and yet I’m seemingly addicted to making them. Take the whittling down – this one has taken an AGE to get together since seeing Jim over at Music Enthusiast’s some time ago now along with that of Aphoristic Album Reviews‘ slightly shorter list, especially when combined with my procrastination.
Then there’s the ordering – how do you get around that? Simple – this list isn’t in any order what so ever.
What about the title – well this isn’t a ‘Greatest’ list, there’s no way I’d ever attempt to claim that, so the less snappy title for this is actually ’20 Guitarists That I’ve Dug for Years and Will Always Tune In For’. Which is what it is, it’s 20 of my favourite players – not always the most technically proficient or even considered as a virtuoso types but those that nonetheless make the music I enjoy consistently great through their playing. That would make an even less snappy title though.
As is always the way there are plenty that don’t make the list but continually skirt the outside like non-ticket holders hanging around an outdoor show’s fence trying to grab a sonic snatch of their favourite song. Players like Mike Campbell inject a gorgeous sound into some of my favourite songs while the fluidity and wash of sound from the likes of The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel and his pal Kurt Vile are happy mainstays in my ears lately and if I could make this longer they’d be on the long list for sure as would Wilco’s Nels Cline or even Joe Perry or John McLaughlin… you get the point. But I needed to pick an arbitrary number and stick to it or this would never leave the notebook where I make these lists let alone spend the wrist power typing this thing up….
So, with that in mind, let’s get going so that I can think about that ‘Drummers list thing’:
A list has to start somewhere even one that’s not in any particular order. So I’ll start off with sideman extraordinaire, a warm and extremely talented dude: Nils Lofgren.
Nils came to attention as a teenage prodigy having played on Neil Young’s After the Goldrush at just 17 and while the emergence of punk and the shift in musical tastes may have put pay to his burgeoning solo stab at stardom, he continued to put out high quality albums before joining Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for the ‘Born In The USA’ tour. He’s worked with the Boss solidly since the E Street Band’s reunion (as well as the Greatest Hits reunion of sorts) as well as regular stints in Neil Young’s band Crazy Horse and continuing to record and tour as a solo player.
He’s a ridiculously gifted player – capable of pulling out searing leads and picking out tender acoustic work, whether he’s setting fire to other people’s songs (see his reading Springsteen’s ‘Youngstown’) or his own.
He caught my attention as a solo artist when I heard the acoustic take on ‘Black Books’ on the Sopranos way back in 2000, I could hear his solo on that (from about two and a half minutes thru to the end) daily and still love it.
Mike McCready may not be on a lot of lists but the dude should get more credit for sure… he toned down his theatrics and finger-tapping to bring a blues-influenced tone and ability to the Seattle scene in a subtle but important way that no other ‘grunge’ band did.
Often referred to as Pearl Jam’s ‘secret weapon’, McCready had just begun moving away from the 80’s metal sound having gotten into Stevie Ray Vaughan just as the band got going and it’s his beautiful tone and leads that set Pearl Jam apart for me and got my ear immediately.
His songwriting contributions to the group are always worth tuning in for as his ability to take another member’s song ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and take it to a whole new level with his guitar work while live he absolutely let’s rip whether it’s absolutely rinsing the arse off ‘Even Flow’ or tearing through a perfect take on ‘Eruption’ into ‘Yellow Ledbetter’.
So I have this memory… must be before my teens, before I got a CD player even so I’d put that to when I was 11… it gets foggy in the timeline.. anyway this much is concrete: I’d got one of those old midi-systems of the 80’s, you know a black plastic Aiwa thing with a twin tape deck and radio and turntable up top all in one block as opposed to the hi-fi separates of old (which, fittingly, I’m now back to). At some point I decided to get the turntable working – even buying a new cartridge for £1.50 – that’s how vividly I remember it, if only they were that cheap now.
Once I’d got it working – fuck knows why I’d done so or what I tested it on – my Dad used the opportunity to blow the dust off a couple of LPs to get me to listen to – Led Zeppelin’s IV (don’t worry, we’ll get to Jimmy) and The Dark Side of the Moon. Hearing that and David Gilmour’s guitar work was pretty mind blowing. Then, a few years later, I heard ‘Comfortably Numb’ and that second solo… fuck, I still have to stop what I’m doing and listen to it intently – what Gilmour can do with just a subtle bend. Floyd a heavy mainstay in my ears ever since.
Gilmour’s playing elevated Pink Floyd and drove their direction after the departure of Syd Barrett as much as Waters’ songwriting – without Gilmour’s playing the Pink Floyd sound we now all know wouldn’t exist. His own songs may veer toward the floatier stuff (see ‘If’ or ‘Fat old Sun’) but his playing is transportive – hugely melodic and often sprawling solos with perfect tone that I can never can get enough off.
Imagine the brass balls on Mark Knopfler; laying down your band’s first album full of guitar-hero moves at a time that punk was ascendant and adored by the music press, and then laying down its last at a time when alt-rock and grunge was taking over. A foolish move that would’ve failed spectacularly but for one thing: Knopfler’s unassuming and quiet confidence in his guitar playing prowess.
Surely everyone by now knows ‘Sultans of Swing’ – that solo and that tone are unmistakeable and no matter how good that street performer you’ve seen doing it on YouTube is, nobody can play it in the same way and with the same feel. I read that Knopfler arrived at the famous tone by mistake – his pickup getting stuck between settings -but there’s no getting away from his sheer skill as both a songwriter and player. That tone changed in later Dire Straits records – probably as he switched to using PRS and Les Pauls as much as his red Strat – and evolved into a much warmer, enveloping tone that I could just bathe in.
I grew up with those first four Dire Straits records on heavy rotation and I’ll still pick em up and play em regularly now (Love Over Gold is easily their finest) but then I’ll also just as happily put on one of his solo records because while – some nine studio albums in – they’re no-longer as ‘all gold’ as they used to be, through those Dire Straits albums, the soundtracks, the side bands, guest spots on Bob Dylan albums and solo records the common thread is a guitar tone and fluidity that’s always worth tuning in for.
Eddie Van Halen
Oh man… Eddie Van Halen is surely on so many of these lists it’s insane. I’m not a Van Halen fan by any stretch (I’d stick my flag in the Van Hagar camp, mind, as I can’t stand ‘Diamond’ Dave) but Eddie’s playing is something else… as I’ve said before, a real ‘light the touch paper and stand back’ player who could dazzle like no other.
VH’s brand of riff-heavy stuff isn’t my cup of coffee but EVH’s playing… what he could do in terms of harmonics, building textures and then pulling out a solo with so many ‘how the fuck?’ moments stood both his band and him apart and always worth listening to especially later when it became more song-oriented than blowing open a bag of tricks and would never fail to through in a staggering solo even if the song was less than stellar (see ‘Humans Being’ below). That I’m writing about the dude in past-tense now still seems shit.
Given how Springsteen seems permanently associated with his butterscotch telecaster, his first album didn’t hint at a solid guitar player at the helm. But while he may well have been signed as a thesaurus-swallowing ‘new Dylan’ acoustic singer / songwriter, but before Clive Davis signed him to Columbia, Bruce Springsteen had been honing his guitar chops for years with hours upon hours of daily practice and playing “loud guitars and a Southern-influenced rock sound” in Steel Mill. Since the emergence of those chops on record – ‘Kitty’s Back’ kicking in on The Wild The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle – Springsteen’s guitar playing has been at the centre of some of his best songs. Which seems like an idea for another Springsteen post…
He might not be the most technically proficient of players but he’s all about soul and feel and his guitar lines on songs like ‘Born To Run’ are as iconic as the guitar on that album’s cover. Whether he’s picking out an acoustic melody line on ‘Blood Brothers’, chiming teak-like tone on his later ‘other band work’ or those gorgeous twangy lines of ‘Tougher Than The Rest’ or pretty much all of the guitar work’s bite and crunch throughout Darkness of the Edge of Town, Springsteen’s guitar work always gives his songs – and live performances – the edge.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
You know how sometimes you can hear something and, for reasons unknown, it’s just the wrong time, wrong place for you to get into it? Like your receptors are tuned in to the wrong frequency or something? Happened to me with Stevie Ray Vaughan: I’d heard about the dude being a guitar player of excellence, bought The Essential and just… it didn’t click there and then. BUT a few years later, holy fuck did it click. Can’t remember when but I was sitting chowing down a burger and I heard ‘Empty Arms’ and I just saw there not chewing for four minutes, how had I not paid that cd any attention… I picked that Essential album up as soon as I got home and I’ve been getting as much SRV as possible since. That monster tone and skill; sit up, shut up, pay attention and pick your mouth up off the floor.
I mean, fuck: Jimmy Page… do you even need to explain? I remember hearing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in that same sitting as Dark Side of the Moon as being revelatory… John Bonham sitting around for the best part o five minutes and as soon as he begins to get going Jimmy switches to solo mode and unleashes and absolute fucking beast. He’s gotta be the master of dynamics – ‘Ramble On’ is a benchmark – and can swing from great acoustic rhythms to monstrous riffs and scorching solos, not just on the same album but often on the same song.
And it’s hi-ho silver lining, and away you go now baby…
How Jeff Beck ever released that is beyond me but I’m sure he gets plenty fed up with it now… as Jim over at Music Enthusiast pointed out – it’s impossible to think of a rock player ‘that’s dabbled in so many genres’. Whatever genre he goes for though, one thing that’s constant is that Jeff Beck is an astoundingly great guitar player.
Back when I was starting to pay attention more to music the radio was doing a massive disservice to Prince – wasn’t helped by the whole T-A-F-K-A-P / Squiggle thing, sure – and my only real exposure was to songs like ‘Kiss’, ‘Gold’ or ‘1999’ ‘Little Red Corvette’. I mean good songs all (except for ‘Kiss’) but nothing that made me go ‘holy fuck that guy can play’ and not just because using language like that would get my mouth washed out with soap. BUT, man when I heard Purple Rain…. sure it’s his most guitar-heavy album but holy fuck that guy can play! Rock balladry can be a mixed bag but the solo on ‘Purple Rain’ is easily the benchmark by which all others are judged and can’t hit.
I’m not a huge Prince fan – not all his music blows my mind but when he strapped on his guitar it was because he knew not only could he break out in the middle of a song and play the arse off of it, but he could integrate it into a song like few others even when it’s not the strongest thing in the mix. His playing was not only versatile and inventive in style but he could go from from 0-100 in seconds flat – take how he turned the usual circle-jerk Rock n Roll Hall of Fame jam of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and blew it into the stratosphere with no rehearsal!
Imagine trying to wreck a song and having your guitar’s ‘eh-eh. eh-eh’ stuttering sabotage attempt sounding so good it not only makes the mix but makes the song? That’d be Johnny Greenwood and ‘Creep’. A hugely talented player – equally adept at picking up the bass, piano, viola or drums – it’s Greenwood’s versatility and skill that’s helped push Radiohead from their early days skirting the very edges of Britpop to pushing the definition of alt.rock with OK Computer and then pushing further still with each subsequent album with Greenwood always weaving something brilliant around a song’s parts.
No discredit to Lindsey Buckingham, he’s a fine player for sure, but for me Fleetwood Mac and their ultimate guitar sound is the glorious Peter Green and Danny Kirwan era. Green, specifically (or ‘The Green God’ as he was briefly referred to having replaced Clapton in John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers) had something special, from creating and tearing through blues-based tunes like ‘Oh Well (Part One)’ to those gorgeous instrumentals like ‘Albatross’, I can listen to *that* Fleetwood Mac and Peter Green’s playing until the cows come home.
There are some artists and bands that I’ll be jumping on that ‘pre-order’ link the second a new album is announced and Dinosaur Jr and Mascis’ own solo work is top of that pile and it’s all down to J Mascis’ guitar playing. Having burst onto that noise-rock scene with Dinosaur Jr’s take on ‘ear-bleeding country music’ with melodies buried in fuzz-tone up to their arse, Dinosaur Jr’s sound shifted slightly as they signed to a major in time to capitalise (well, to a limited extent) on the praise being heaped on them by the era’s alt-rock champions.
Mascis’ playing has continued to evolve and swing from epic riffs to soft melodic tunes but all with one thing in common: it’s only ever a matter of time before Mascis detonates them with a scorcher of a solo, and I’ll never get tired of that.
I can’t lay any claim to being schooled on rock and blues history from a young age, I was born in 1980 – most music on the radio while my hearing was developing was tosh. My first exposure to a Chuck Berry riff was probably the same as so many others of my generation – “Chuck, Chuck! It’s Marvin! Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well, listen to THIS!”
But then you go back and hear the original and find out what Chuck was doing with Chess… man, it was like finding the skeleton of the missing link. I’ll put on a comp his first ten years and hear the blueprints for everything I dig now right there: he took the soul and tone of blues licks, sped em up and strapped em to the burgeoning rock n roll sound and seemingly invented rock guitar. More than being able to come up with a wicked lick, Chuck’s songs and lyrics can be fucking spot on too and the fact that live he’d play with pick-up bands and still bring the heat… there’s a reason he’s the legend he is.
Thurston Moore rubbing shoulders with Chuck Berry… such is the joy of these lists. What Thurston (in combination with Lee Ranaldo) bought to the front with their playing is a pretty unique sound that I dig on so many levels – experimentation with tunings, prepared and altered guitars, jams that cascade into feedback before pulling back the threads into the melody and thrash-like strumming to build hypnotic rhythms. This isn’t guitar playing of the ‘guitar hero’ style but it never pretends to be either. Standing up front with Thurston’s stack next to me probably cost me a percentage of hearing in my right ear but I’d give it again.
Yes, I know, George didn’t play the solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, but he did write the damned thing and write and play on those gorgeous tunes like ‘Something’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’. Not to mention his multitude of contributions to the Fab Four’s songs and a plethora of amazing solo tunes too. Deceptively uncluttered in it’s beauty and always hitting the sweet spot in tone.
Stuart Braithwaite / Barry Burns (Mogwai)
It wouldn’t be my list if there wasn’t a nod to post-rock in here somewhere and the guitar work of Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns has always been what sets Mogwai apart for me in a genre that’s stuffed with great players.
Perhaps down to their influences in early genre pioneers like Slint or Kevin Shields’ My Bloody Valentine, developed a sound of their own built on towering, repeating riffs that were deceptively simple while weaving intricate melodies to build this massive sonic space that they could either explode and pick up again or find a hidden gear somewhere and blow your speakers out.
As the band have evolved to incorporate an increasing away of sounds and influences over their 25 years the guitar work has remained the powerful heart.
Doug Martsch (Built to Spill)
Bringing guitar-hero moves and freakouts into alt. rock style with Built to Spill, Doug Martsch creates these brilliantly arranged guitar-centric songs that I just fucking lap up – there’s always something new I discover on repeating listens from those odd timing signature changes, odd structures and mid-song breakdowns that dissolve into unashamed guitar heroics before bouncing back in. And he does it all with the same guitar he’s used for the last couple of decades (a Fender Super Strat with wiring modded to a single pick-up for those that are curious) and without any theatrics – Built To Spill went from being indie-rock down the middle with their first couple of albums to Martsch’s inspired move to bring jam-band style workouts into the genre and made it seem an effortless combination, becoming one of indie-rock’s essential guitarists in the process.
I came to Jack Rose’s music by pure chance and too late. Hearing Rose’s guitar pieces was like being hypnotised and I’m still gobbling up as much of it as I can.
He took the experiments and sound of players like John Fahey as his base and created these brilliant acoustic pieces on 6 and 12 strings that took that finger-picking style, blended it with dissonance and Eastern elements that just blew my mind and opened me up to a whole new genre and way of playing that I’ll often get lost in.
Thurston Moore was a big fan – when Rose died of a heart attack in 2009 at 38 years old, Moore recorded and released an album 12 String Mediations for Jack Rose as a tribute.
I mean, come on, it’s a no-brainer, right? If Chuck Berry invented modern rock guitar then Jimi, literally, set fire to it and kicked it into a whole new game.
And, should those videos not load and the list is preferred in digestible Spotify-flavoured chunks:
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 Mask, Ace 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 – Diarypretty 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 JamTwenty 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 Dylan, New 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….
CarelessLove 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.