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  • Writer's pictureBlake

Top Ten Influential Albums

I was nominated to do the ten influential albums things on Facebook recently but, following a muso friend’s example, I felt compelled to write an explanation of why each album was so important to me. I thought I’d share what I’d written here, just in case someone finds it of interest.

1. The Rolling Stones – Big Hits (High Tide & Green Grass)

This was the first LP I ever heard. It was my mum’s from 1966. The fantastic colour photographs in the gatefold sleeve intrigued me almost as much as the music. Who were these mean and moody looking people in their incredible clothes? No-one was wearing clobber like this in the late seventies. Brian was my favourite from the photos. My mum also had a 45 of ‘The Last Time’ which was her favourite Stones song and this was also my favourite on the LP, although I soon fell in love with all the tracks. This is a picture of my mum’s original album and it’s one of my most treasured possessions. Up to (and including) Aftermath remains my favourite Stones period and this is a compilation of all the great songs up to then. When I hear the intro to the first song ‘Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?’, I am immediately taken back to the experience of listening to it on my parents’ record player as a kid and how alive it made me feel. My mum didn’t like The Beatles because she was a Stones fan. She said you had to choose between the two in the sixties. The Beatles would be my own discovery, but that’s a bit later.

2. Simon and Garfunkel – Greatest Hits

This was the other ‘pop’ record my mum owned. She was into classical music really. She had quite a few 45s that were a big influence on me too, though: ‘Wild Thing’ by The Troggs, ‘Have I The Right’ by The Honeycombs, ‘Oh Boy’ and ‘Not Fade Away’ by Buddy Holly and The Crickets, ‘Wooden Heart’ by Elvis, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ by The Everlys and, as mentioned above, ‘The Last Time’ by the Stones. The Simon and Garfunkel album was my first introduction to folk or acoustic music (although I think my mum may have had a 45 of Ralph McTell’s ‘Streets of London’, as well, coming to think about it), and, along with The Everlys, close harmony singing. It was certainly something different to the rock n roll records I had heard or the stuff in the top 40 at the time, with the emphasis on the emotional resonance of the words and melody. I quickly fell in love with all the songs. It was only years later that I heard the studio versions of ‘Kathy’s Song’, ‘For Emily Whenever I May Find Her’, ‘Homeward Bound’ and ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song’ because this compilation uses live versions which are terrific. I seem to have lost the LP over the years but I remember the lovely orange Columbia record labels vividly. One thing that has always puzzled me though, what exactly is Paul Simon holding in his hand on the front cover??

3. Status Quo – Dog of Two Head

This was easy to write aabout because I had recently covered one of the songs from this LP in one of my acoustic lockdown shows and blogged about it. If you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, this is the concise version: “I just can’t get enough of a blues shuffle!”

The first long player record I ever owned was Dog Of Two Head by Status Quo. I’ve still got my gatefold copy on the Piccadilly label. I was nine years old when Quo’s 'What You’re Proposing' came out in October 1980 and I played the single my parents had obligingly bought me from John Menzies in Cardiff to death. It was the insistent rhythm that gripped me. Oddly, when I asked for a Quo album that Christmas, they decided to get me the Dog album instead of the single’s parent album, Just Supposin’, which would have been the obvious choice. I’m glad they did. Dog of Two Head was released in 1971 just as Quo had transitioned from psychedelic popsters to scruffy, denim-clad blues-boogie merchants. However, this album remains an anomaly in the Quo catalogue, in my opinion, because of the diverse range of musical styles and songcraft employed which, I think, sees the band at its creative peak. The AllMusic review sums it up perfectly: “never again were Status Quo going to sound as innovative and inventive as they sound here.” 'Nanana', for instance is a wistful, acoustic track with piano backed by a vocal harmony group called ‘Grass’. This could easily have been released by Peter, Paul and Mary. On other tracks, Francis Rossi demonstrates his lead guitar virtuosity in extended solos which are so melodic they are hummable. One track credited to ‘Manston and James’, a pseudonym Rossi and Parfitt were obliged to use for legal reasons, takes the form of a Middle Eastern music inspired instrumental and another is about the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. All in all not the kind of fare you would expect on a Quo album, particularly if you are only aware of the more commercial stuff the band would release later. Hardcore Quo fans generally regard the period 1971 to 1976 as the band’s best, when they earned the reputation of being ‘The Frantic Four’. I still play this LP regularly. I just can’t get enough of a blues shuffle!

4. The Beatles – The Beatles Ballads

When John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, I didn’t know who he was. Probably it was then that my dad told me for the first time that he’d interviewed Lennon in 1969 but I don’t think I took it in straight away. I was just perplexed as to why the charts were full of songs by this thin looking guy with his ever-present wife. All that altered when someone bought me this album for either Christmas 1980 or my birthday in March 1981, I can’t remember exactly. How can one record make such a huge impact on a person? It literally changed my life. Not immediately, of course, but one by one the songs entered a place deep within me and have remained there ever since. I don’t remember the first time I heard ‘Hey Jude’ but it would have been on this album at about this time and, for me, it has been a constant source of support throughout my life, reassuring me that everything is going to be alright. When I have faced challenges, particularly when I was younger and at university, this song has given me comfort. It was only later that I learned that the words had originally been “Hey Jules”. It’s often difficult to remember clearly how you first felt when listening to songs that are now over-familiar but I still remember the sense of magic and wonder hearing this, ‘Blackbird’, ‘Across the Universe’, ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘Do You Want To Know a Secret’, ‘Nowhere Man’, ‘For No One’, ‘All My Loving’, ‘Til There Was You’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and the other songs on the album when I was younger. The sense of uncovering something profound and mysterious was increased by the album cover itself. I have always loved John Patrick Byrne’s painting of the Fabs surrounded by wildlife with their melancholy and enigmatic faces. (It was the ultimately rejected album cover for their 1968 double LP, now known as “The White Album”.) My Beatles odyssey had begun. In 1982 I saw The Compleat Beatles film which is the perfect introduction to the history of the band, and by the end of the year I had added Please Please Me, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and 20 Greatest Hits to my collection. Soon after this, I think I acquired copies of the Red and Blue compilation albums and then the Rock ‘N’ Roll Music LPs, Volumes 1 and 2. Interestingly, I owned all these albums (except the Rock ‘N’ Roll Music ones) on cassette. The maddening thing about collecting Beatles albums on tape was that the track orders were changed around to give equal running times on both sides. For years I thought that the Please Please Me LP started with ‘Misery’ instead of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’. Ridiculous! Anyway, 26 years later I found myself playing the role of John in a Beatles tribute band by which time my dad’s paucity of memory of his encounter with Lennon drove me absolutely nuts! “What do you mean you can’t remember what he said?!”

5. The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground (Compilation)

My cousin Karen who is five years older than me bought me this album on tape for a birthday or Christmas present sometime in the mid-eighties. She couldn’t have got me a more perfect gift as a fourteen or fifteen year old. As they have influenced countless others, the Velvet Underground are the band that made me want to start a band. This compilation was released in 1974 apparently and this is the track listing:

White Light / White Heat  What Goes On  Venus In Furs  That's The Story Of My Life  Here She Comes Now  Beginning To See The Light  Jesus  Run Run Run  Some Kinda Love  The Gift  I'm Set Free  I Heard Her Call My Name

It should be on the curriculum. These are songs that, like The Beatles’ catalogue, are going to last the test of time, no doubt about it. The guitar solos on ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ are some of my favourites ever and have certainly influenced my playing. Fortunately, Lou Reed demonstrates that you don’t have to be technically gifted to make a glorious noise. His rhythm guitar playing on ‘What Goes On’ is possibly the best thing I have ever heard. I may have listened to that song more than any other but I never get bored of it. That mix of the drums, organ, bass and guitar in the outro could go on forever. So simple, yet so brilliant. In 1985 I was asked to be the singer in a group at school (mainly doing Joy Division covers) and from this point onwards all I have wanted to do is be a musician. I’m still working on it.

6. Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells

Tubular Bells, along with ‘McCartney’ and ‘McCartney II’, were the albums that made me aware that one person could record multiple parts to produce a record. This concept has always amazed me. I have never seen The Exorcist so I don’t have any associations with the music with something disturbing. In fact, the first time I heard the opening theme in a film was in Weird Science! That was 1985. Released in 1973, by the year of punk in 1976 the record was incredibly unfashionable and Oldfield was being called a dinosaur by people only a few years younger than him. I like a lot of different styles of music but if I had to choose one musical subculture then throw me on the Magic Bus with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters because hippies are my favourite tribe. I read Mike Oldfield’s autobiography a few years ago and went on a pilgrimage to find the house he used to own near Hergest Ridge in Herefordshire (much to my family’s dismay; especially when I said I needed to climb to the top of the hill!). He retreated there to escape the madness that the success of the record had caused; a record he had made, I discovered when reading his book, as a refuge from the panic disorder he was suffering from. Music was his place of solace and helped him to overcome his anxiety, together with the controversial methods of the Exegesis programme. I suffered from panic attacks myself for a number of years so I could relate very well to his situation. Sadly, when I sought help nobody was able to tell me that was I was experiencing, like Mike, was just my body’s normal fight or flight response. I thought I was slipping into madness. It was terrifying. Accurate information about panic disorder is now widely available, fortunately, and music as therapy - specifically recording albums using a similar process to Mike Oldfield’s - is something that helped me, too. Who says that art/pop culture isn’t important?

7. Bob Dylan – More Greatest Hits

I was in my first year of sixth form in 1987 when my next big musical discovery occurred. This time it was more of a formal introduction, actually. Everyone was listening to music on Walkmans or their equivalent in the common room and music was being shared around via compilation tapes. I was listening to Iron Maiden’s ‘Live After Death’ on double cassette when my friend Andrew Herod said I should give this compilation tape he’d made a listen instead. I remember being struck immediately by the really weird song titles: “Stuck Inside of Mobile with Thee”* What the hell? “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” What?? This was certainly intriguing. I duly took it home and gave it a listen. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The song that stopped me in my tracks, was “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall”. I listened to it over and over again. I just found it absolutely incredible. It opened up a whole new musical avenue to explore. Fortunately, Andrew and my other school chum Richard Kilbey, who were both ahead of me when it came to musical appreciation, were on hand to give me some pointers. Andrew soon turned me on to Joni Mitchell and Richard would make me compilation tapes of Lennon’s solo years music that was then unknown to me. I discovered Jimi Hendrix and Cream and, very soon, I would have another significant musical epiphany but that will have to wait until the next post. Importantly, Andrew and Rich had also learned to play guitar and would bring their acoustics into the common room and play Dylan and Beatles songs. I remember them playing an instrumental version of ‘Norwegian Wood’ together that blew my mind and gave me the motivation to learn to play the guitar as soon as I could.

Dylan has never left me. The first album I bought was ‘More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits’, the one pictured, probably because it had “A Hard Rain” on it. My friend James Atkin from the village where I lived, also loved Bob I discovered, and I heard his vinyl copies of ‘Slow Train Coming’ and ‘Infidels’ soon afterwards. The Dylan universe is vast. There are still a few of his records I don’t yet own. He was rightly honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature because he will be remembered as the greatest poet of his age. This isn’t because he wrote the best poetry. He didn’t - he wrote songs. But songs, as Dylan says in one of his “interviews” in Scorsese’s recent film of the Rolling Thunder Revue, are the lines that people remember now: “Today’s poets don’t reach into the public consciousness that way... Nowadays lines that people remember are lines from songs, lyrics from songs.” There are still more lines for me to hear. I read a YouTube comment the other day that summed up how I feel about Dylan perfectly: “He’s not the best singer; he’s not the best piano player or guitar or harmonica player. He captures the magic; he’s a magician, a wizard. I love him so much.” It probably wouldn’t have surprised my teenage self that I would one day be donning a wig, painting my face white and performing “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” to a roomful of strangers.

* I learned later that this was a mistitle on the UK cassette versions of ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and ‘More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits’ of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again”. Possibly deliberate in order to save space.

8. Fleetwood Mac – Greatest Hits

Continuing on from my previous post, one day in the common room in sixth form, my friend Richard asked me to listen to a song and tell him what I thought and to guess who it was. It was called ‘Shake Your Moneymaker’. I said I liked it and told him I thought it might be Eric Clapton. It was a surprise when I learned it was Fleetwood Mac. This was the year after ‘Tango In The Night’ had been released, so it didn’t sound at all like any of their recent hits. The mystery was resolved with the screening that year of the BBC’s excellent “Fleetwood Mac at 21” documentary which was my introduction to the incredible story of the band and to Peter Green, Danny Kirwan and Jeremy Spencer. Next to The Beatles, the music of the early Mac is closest to my heart. After watching that documentary, Richard and I began collecting all the early Fleetwood Mac stuff we could get our hands on. The original red Greatest Hits album from 1971 was an early find and is a fantastic collection of the band’s sublime work from this period. I could write for hours about every track on that album. It also contains Danny’s “Dragonfly”, the stand-alone single released in the month I was born, after Peter had left the band. This song means the world to me, as some of you may already know.

Peter and Danny’s stories are very sad. Peter is still alive but suffered from serious mental health problems, likely initiated by his use of LSD after being introduced to the drug by the Grateful Dead while touring in the US, and retired from the music industry soon after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1970. He spent time in psychiatric hospitals and underwent controversial electroconvulsive therapy and was prescribed with high dose tranquillisers. Peter returned to live performance and recording a few times over the years but was sadly a shadow of the force of nature he had been at his peak. To hear Peter at the top of his game, track down the Live at the Boston Tea Party shows from 1970. These are the most incredible live performances I’ve ever heard.

When the 1988 documentary was screened, Peter was living a reclusive life and had let his fingernails grow long so he couldn’t play the guitar. He was coaxed out of retirement soon after this for a period by his long-time friend Nigel Watson with whom he formed The Splinter Group. Peter now enjoys fishing and is cared for by his family, with whom he has always been close. Fortunately, he is widely recognised as one of the world’s best and most influential guitarists.

Danny and Jeremy steered the Fleetwood Mac ship following Peter’s departure until Jeremy abruptly left the band during a US tour in February 1971 following a religious epiphany. He told the group he was going for a walk to a bookshop before a show in Los Angeles that evening but never returned. A few days later, the band’s manager discovered that he had joined the Children of God, a controversial Christian cult, of which he is still a member (now called ‘The Family‘). Peter was persuaded to re-join the band temporarily to finish the tour. Jeremy released sporadic solo albums over the years, including 1972’s excellent ‘Jeremy Spencer and the Children’, but recently has begun recording prolifically again. He stole the show at this year’s Peter Green celebration concert at the Albert Hall with two fantastic performances on slide guitar. (Peter did not attend the event in his honour because he said he’d prefer to watch it when it came out on DVD.)

Danny completed a further two fantastic albums with Fleetwood Mac, ‘Future Games’ (1971) and ‘Bare Trees’ (1972), the latter being probably my favourite album of all time. He was fired from Fleetwood Mac on a US tour promoting Bare Trees because his alcoholism had got out of hand. Before a show, he smashed his head against a wall and destroyed his ‘Black Beauty’ Les Paul following an argument with Spencer’s replacement, the American singer/guitarist Bob Welch. Danny refused to play the gig that night and was consequently asked to leave. He recorded three solo albums in the seventies after leaving Fleetwood Mac which contain some absolute gems, but he struggled with rising mental health problems. When the BBC documentary was broadcast, Danny’s whereabouts were unknown and the interest in the early band that was generated after it was aired prompted Mick Fleetwood to enlist the help of the Missing Person Bureau to locate Danny. He was living at a hostel for the homeless in London, spending most of his time drinking in the famous Soho haunt, the Coach and Horses. Mick ensured that he received the correct royalties owed to him. Danny later moved in with his ex-wife Clare and her husband, the Dr Feelgood drummer, Kevin Morris. I began writing a biography of Danny several years ago and I wrote to Clare to ask if Danny would be happy to talk with me about his time in Fleetwood Mac. She wrote back and said that Danny didn’t wish to discuss that period of his life, but said that my kind words about him had been appreciated.

The original Fleetwood Mac were together for only a few short years but they left a wonderful musical legacy that has enriched my life so much. In the words of poet W.H. Davies, whose ‘The Dragonfly’ poem Danny adapted for his beautiful song, “it was a fleeting visit, all too brief”.

9. Faiport Convention – Liege & Lief

I have my friend Richard to thank again for the introduction to the next band to have a huge influence on my musical taste. Rich was often digging around at record fairs (I would later write my song ‘Vinyl Junkie’ about him) and one day told me that he might have found the best album ever made. I was keen to hear it. It was this one. I remember that our friend Mike, the owner of Vinyl Vault in Cheltenham, the second hand record shop that we used to hang around in all the time, wasn’t that keen on the premise when I got my copy, although he admitted it was very good. It was another subculture of music I wasn’t yet familiar with - British folk rock. I had already been introduced to Nick Drake by another friend, but I hadn’t heard of Richard Thompson or Sandy Denny when I set the needle down on side one and ‘Come All Ye’ sprang into life. This album precipitated another journey into unexplored territory and I still have a long way to go before I finish collecting Richard Thompson’s vast back catalogue alone. Fairport, like Fleetwood Mac, were all too brief a phenomenon in their original classic incarnations, even though they managed to get through four line-up changes by the time Thompson left the band in 1970. Starting off as US West Coast wanna-bees in 1967, and covering Dylan, Cohen and the great American songbook, the band decided to focus on the music of the British Isles as a source of inspiration by the time Sandy Denny joined after her stint in The Strawbs. They almost single-handedly invented British folk-rock by rummaging through the Cecil Sharp House folk music archives and adding electric instruments to the arcane songs they discovered. Thompson and Denny were writing fine material of their own, however, and were soon keen to pursue solo careers. As a result, Liege and Lief stands as their greatest achievement.

Thompson has remained a constant companion. Like Peter Green, he is one of the finest guitarists Britain has ever produced and a fantastic songwriter. Remarkably, he doesn’t seem to have lost his songwriting gift, in the same way that most of his contemporaries have over time to a greater or lesser degree. I’m not quite sure how he’s managing to sustain it but you will find it difficult to find a bad Richard Thompson album - and there are many out there. He appears to be a pretty sorted guy, perhaps it’s something to do with his Sufi faith.

For a number of years, I had a theory that you could split artists up into those influenced by the city and those whose music was more pastoral. So, Blur: city. Led Zep: pastoral. I admit, it’s a crap theory. Where do you put The Beatles? City probably with Lennon’s solo career remaining there while McCartney goes pastoral from 1970. It’s rubbish, I know. I once relayed this idea to one of my musical heroes, Nick Salomon, in a London pub before his band The Bevis Frond played and he immediately dismissed it as nonsense. It was a bit embarrassing. I think he may even have been offended when I suggested that his music was in the pastoral category, given the fact that he’d spent most of his life in Walthamstow. However, while I’m driving around the Wiltshire countryside listening to Fairport, I allow myself a self-satisfied smile that, at least in this instance, my theory is sound.

10. Bob Marley & The Wailers - Exodus

Well, this was hard. I was tempted to include ‘Snap!’ by The Jam, ‘Out of Time’ by R.E.M. and ‘Tigermilk‘ by Belle and Sebastian in my top ten influential albums. The only reason I didn’t - when in fact these were all very influential albums for me - is because I don’t listen to these artists now as much as I used to in earlier stages of my life. When I was at university I listened to the Doors more than any other band, probably, but although I still like their music, it doesn’t speak to me the same way it did when I was nineteen and convinced that I would be dead by the age of 27.

Likewise, I haven’t included albums by two artists that have influenced me hugely over the past eighteen years (The Bevis Frond and Hamell On Trial) because I have been concentrating on the albums that influenced me when I was younger and not those I discovered at the age of 31 (incidentally, the age I still think I am.) I also haven’t included records by two of the artists I listen to the most these days, Donovan and Van Morrison, because I wasn’t properly introduced to their classic records when I was young.

The record that I need to include is the one pictured because Bob Marley’s music has stayed with me as I’ve grown older. Like the other albums and artists in my top ten, it isn’t linked predominantly to a specific set of memories of a particular place, time or era. To me, Marley’s music is timeless because it is deeply spiritual. I think he has more successfully than anyone combined religious feeling with popular music (although Dylan, Van Morrison and, another of my all time faves, Kula Shaker, have been pretty good at doing this, too.) Marley’s message is compassionate, militant and politically astute. He believed he was put on Earth to fulfil a mission and he really didn’t think he had had time to say everything he needed to say when he was cruelly taken away by cancer in 1981. He was the first ‘Third World Superstar’ and used his platform to challenge injustice, inequality and racism, to give a voice to the voiceless and to heal divisions and bring people together. He demonstrated that his vision wasn’t just sloganeering and that music was genuinely able to effect political change when he brought the heads of the warring Jamaican political parties together in an embrace during a performance of “Jammin’” at the One Love Peace Concert in Jamaica in 1978. This was an extraordinarily brave thing for him to do because he had had to flee the island just two years earlier for exile in London after being nearly killed in a politically motivated assassination attempt. He used devotional music - whether to a lover or to God (or, like George Harrison, both simultaneously) - to transcend barriers by revealing our common humanity and/or higher needs and purposes. I could have plumped for ’Survival’ or ’Rastaman Vibration’ for this final choice but ’Exodus’ was the first Bob Marley LP I heard and owned and it is his masterpiece. As Bill Hicks said, if you’re going to write and perform music, play from your heart. “We’re jammin’ in the name of the Lord.” Amen.

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