- This is part of an expansion on a ’25 albums that changed your life’ thread that some people were doing on Facebook. I posted the original list knowing that I would be self-compelled eventually to explain what led to the inclusion of particular albums… Halfway through writing, it seemed like the most atrocious bit of self-indulgent twattery, as of that supreme wittering lister Nick Hornby, but then it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually that bothered about being derivative, as he’s essentially wrong about all the music that he discusses in 31 Songs, particularly Teenage Fanclub, and particularly because he was merely one foaming droplet on a cresting, some might say crashing, wave of pop academia from the late 20th Century.
Anyway, that bit of absurd pretzel-argued self-examination/ justification concluded, I pressed on, in the knowledge that writing about music you love is fine of itself, if anything is worth writing about. I was quite tickled by some of the ideas and memories that stirred while I was compiling the list. They seemed, at least partially, worth writing about. Either that or you can read the whole list and substitute the word ‘arse’ for the noun of your choice in the title.
The first five albums on a mainly chronological (order of first encounter) list:
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Born in the USA
I think this was the first album I ever got hold of, a Christmas tape present for nine year old me. When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s (note Springsteenish confessional aside tone throughout), this album and me connected. This was because it represented America, the home of The A-Team, burgers, Superman, rock ‘n’ roll, the Fonz, Knight Rider, and the promise of future dreams and mysteries – movies and music, cars and girls, highways stretching sea to shining sea.
I loved the songs, the guitars and sax and vocals, pianos and drums, the audible camaraderie of the musicians, and the adult themes of love, friendship and longing. Years later, as I matured and politics, awareness and real life intruded, it became possible and appropriate to hear the regret, the bitterness and the dismay at opportunities slipping away, or perhaps never having been presented, the way friendships (“Buon viaggio mi fratelli, Little Steven”, from the sleeve) can change, dwindle.
Springsteen is far more complex than a lot of people give him any credit for. Anyone who still thinks title song ‘Born in the USA’ is dumb-ass patriotic has never listened to it. It is Unbelievably Shitting Angry. The easily-parodied rasp of Springsteen is part of a deliberate, full tilt howl against the narrator’s American nightmare. The protagonists in the songs are convicts, unemployed construction workers, ex-marines, people whose love affairs have gone wrong, people tied to their past. The locales are sun blasted highways in the shadows of prisons, refineries, railroads, slowly-expiring small towns full of whitewashed windows and vacant stores.
Yet this was baseball-capped-off with big singles covered in synths, huge stadia appearances and rippling biceps, from a formerly skinny beardy pup (I later came to note). Use of Steroids America, perhaps, like the contemporaneous Rocky IV. The glossy, shop window jeans covered album was in stark contrast to the dark, dark ‘Nebraska’, (again, this came later, and is a bit of an in joke with some of my pals, who I tease for owning the only Bruce Springsteen record hipsters like). Nebraska was downbeat and done mainly by Bruce on a 4-track, but it was written at the same time as Born in the USA and, so Bruce lore has it, was nearly given the hard rock treatment instead.
Instead, we got the full Sousa marching band version, Rushmore buttocks in Levi’s, signifiers of Bruce presenting his entire ass to the world to kiss or kick for what he was about to deliver. Then, indeed, Springsteen seemed to bestride the world like a denim-clad colossus for a number of years. I said to a pal of mine in the early nineties, ‘How can you not like the Boss?’, to which he rejoined dryly ‘Yeah, have you ever had a boss you liked?’ ‘Born in the USA’ had become a millstone, onerous, something that people associated, perhaps erroneously, with all things Amerikkka.
It was definitely something that sent Springsteen, I think it can be convincingly argued, into a familiar artistic long, dark teatime of the soul. He sacked his mates in the E-Street Band and went it alone, popping out a few albums of slender worth. Happily, for those of us who still care, Bruce is reborn… reuniting with the E-Street Band, responding to the symbolic death of New York that took place on 11th September 2001 (which definitively vanquished the persona of the American entrepreneurial chancer, getting by with a smile and ‘$200′, portrayed on ‘Darlington County’: “Girl you’re looking at two big spenders; why, the world don’t know what me and Wayne might do. Our Pas each own one of the World Trade Centers, for a kiss and a smile I’ll give mine all to you…”, a song illustrating that even at his most populist, Bruce is slyly digging around weightier themes than cars and girls…)
He is now, if you will, the Asbury Phoenix, stepping up in front of a sooty flag to rock ‘n’ roll, yes, and flog albums, but also to talk, confessional-style, about the USA, and ‘things that are happening here that should not happen here’, just as he does all over this album. My favourite song on ‘Born in the USA’ is No Surrender, which might neatly encapsulate my feelings about music in general: ‘We learned more from a three miniute record than we ever learned in school.’ 1-2-3-4!
2. Status Quo – 12 Gold Bars
Just to get this out of the way early, compilation albums are perfectly acceptable for this kind of exercise. It’s ‘albums that changed your life’, and this was one. SO! A double tape, which I got the same Christmas as ‘Born in the USA’, and similarly played till the batteries ran down repeatedly. Some comedian once noted that it’s impossible to listen to a Quo song without tapping your foot or nodding your head. The urge to play air chords, head down down banging, becomes overwhelming. Making guitars sound like motorbikes revving, feel like greasy denim and smell like burger vans, some kind of distorted Telecaster-induced synaesthesia. I loved it, and love it. Even now the intro to ‘Down Down’ is irresistible.
Although the Quo has long since been a lamentable joke – horrific Jive Bunny medleys, songs with Manchester United, tours with the nineteenth nervous knock-off of the Beach Boys – Volume 1 in particular of 12 Gold Bars captures a pop band that played harder and with more relentless neck straining than anyone else of the era. Check out any of their live footage from the 1970s – it’s awesome. The hair and guitars made me acquire both, eventually. Now witness the sad demise of Francis Rossi’s ponytail, a Hemingway-ish cutting of the corta – it all seems such a waste, a loss of an era.
Yet perhaps they knew they were past it when they opened Live Aid, looking back… but my nostalgia is for something that happened before I was even born. They may still be rocking it live, but sometimes it’s best left… unresolved, really. Instead, consider the biker sulphate days. A scarf fluttering in the wind above a denim jacket, somewhere in the Midlands, slightly battered British road movie of mullets, motel quickies, fried breakfasts and the momentary freedom of the B-Road, a battered copy of Mayfair, little ladies and wandering guys, head down boogie.
My actual favourite Quo song of all time, possibly, is ‘Paper plane’.
3. Simon & Garfunkel – Greatest hits
When I was a young ‘un, we (the family, my mum, my dad, my sister and me) went on a number of holidays round Britain, for t’was the time before cheap flights. We had one venture to Devon, which was additionally hilarious because everyone in the hotel when we got there had booked because of an advert in the Mail on Sunday, and everyone was – uniformly – disappointed that the deluxe establishment with sea views, pool, sauna, award-winning chef, etc, turned out to be a bit of a run-down, sea views obscured by rain, half-finished sauna in the back garden complex; a menu-featuring-crème-brulée-for-dessert-every-night-because-no-one-wanted-to-eat-it shithole.
The entertainment during most of what I recall as a mainly rainy holiday consisted of me reading The Man With the Golden Gun (another first) and my dad testing me on my memory of the events therein by asking me – I note, with retrospective amusement, very dry – questions such as ‘What was the food on offer at number 3½ Love Lane?’ (3½ Love Lane being a brothel and Ian Fleming being the master of subtlety that he is, the answer was of course ‘Hot Cock Soup Daily’); playing an original Space Invaders table game; snooker on a full size table; saunas, a bit of swimming… and occasional fantastic trips to castles on wild and rocky promontories (which resolutely unDevonian locations definitively illustrate how memory might fool one into thinking that James Bond’s secretary was Crème Brulée).
Anyway, there I was in the middle of a pool in the middle of the week in the middle of Devon, having jumped in after a sauna. I was floating face down with a snorkel on, chilling out, by which I mean ‘actually chilling’; it must have been about 2˚ in the pool, and freezing rain also, and just kind of letting the entire world fade away, also for one of the first times… When I related this extraordinary satisfying feeling of seclusion to my dad, he merely hummed/sang the mysterious phrase ‘Hello darkness, my old friend’ at me.
Later, I managed to get him to elaborate. He told me there was this great film from the 1960s where the hero is just floating in a pool, letting the entire world fade away from him… and there was this exotic sounding duo, Simon & Garfunkel, who were singing over it.
When we finally got home, I stuck on the record as instructed and there you have it.
Every other song is great, and little Polaroids of someone else’s life now juxtaposed all Wonder Yearsish with mine. 59th Street Bridge Song is cute as buttons; America, utterly romantic living through and becoming disillusioned with the Beat experience (echoes of Ben and Elaine on the back of the bus at the end of The Graduate); The Boxer… Scarborough Fair. I’ve always had a soft spot for Kathy’s Song, which has my favourite Paul Simon lyric in it: ‘And the song I was writing is left undone./ I don’t know why I spend my time/writing songs I can’t believe/with words that tear and strain to rhyme’. The very same sentiment stops me from writing most of the time. An album of preposterous hair, one of a number of beautiful, melancholy teenage enthusiasms. (I still have my books and my poetry to protect me).
4. Beastie Boys – License to ill
I was, dear reader, a bit of a young conservative. Those who know the effing and ceeing me now may be surprised – or not at all – to learn that I was very polite and reserved. Musically and socially, I found myself suspicious of stuff that seemed to be ‘offensive’ – and to what, I had no idea – or, and I’m thinking more of music here, obviously, not based on guitar rock or lyrically-sensitive folk stylings. When the Beastie Boys started their career, I was privy only to the tabloid version of their reality, which was full of outrage concerning their willingness to swear at cripples, their total nastiness.
Part of this was just entering teenagerhood and forming your own opinions instead of receiving them, of course. The Daily Mirror ran this kind of campaign against them which, looking back at that and the shock! horror! dirty rap lyrics! tenor of virually all the press in the mid-eighties was of course reactionary and uninformed. Ah – that’d be what was sparking the offence. Syd Barrett and me, man – yearning for the piper.
ANYWAY, the Beasties. Actually reading about them in proper music press, hearing tracks blasting through open windows at the youth club – well, when I finally got a tape off a mate, it KICKED MY TWAT IN. It was nothing I had ever heard. From incredible opening (the drums on cataclysmic opening track Rhymin and Stealin are sampled off ‘When the levee breaks’ by Led Zeppelin, and, I learn while researching this, the guitars are ‘Sweet Leaf’ by Black Sabbath and there’s a snippet of The Clash’s ‘I fought the law’, which simply piles genius on existing genius as far as I’m concerned) through guitar screaming rock/rap anthems (screaming rock guitar filled in by Def Jam label mate Kerry King from Slayer) through some actually high quality funky jams pre-dating the Paul’s Boutique/Ill Communication respectability, overlooked in the sensational headlines and VW badge pinching. (I did indeed help myself to a VW badge, but never wore it, thank fuck).
There is more sophisticated hip hop and rap, edgier punk, classier rhyming, more lascivious cartoon mysogyny, but look – I was 13. Youth totems, for this youth anyway – first hangovers, best porno mags, stupidly improbable cowboy stories that might encourage people to steal shit for laughs… I think it can be best summed up with the deathless line ‘yo ho ho and a pint of Brass Monkey/and when my girlie shakes her hips, she sure gets funky’.
5. Meatloaf – Bat out of hell
Well, now. This is part of a ‘tapes in the car’ duo, to be continued in ’5×5, part two’. Basically, dad had about three tapes in the car, which I won’t spoil by naming them early. They were played countless times on road trips and moving luggage between Yorkshire and Glasgow where I was living. This is yet another album from the year I was born, and I am glad that an auspicious era of music commenced with my arrival.
The opening bars of the title track are a throttle-opening gargle of anticipation, the overture to what becomes a cartoon epic, like ‘What’s opera, doc?’ In fact, if anyone ever wants to get Warner Bros on to making an adaptation of the whole album with Looney Tunes characters (“I can see a-pee, a-pee, a-pee, a-Paradise by the d-a-dashboard light.”) I for one would chip in a couple of quid to get the ball rolling. If the people of the Status Quo road movie inevitably went back to Wakefield to work in the Morrison’s and the chippie, this was an all-American Easy Rider motorbike trip from which no return was ever to be possible.
Jim Steinman, like the ludicrous hero on the cover, revs hell for leather on a silver black phantom bike of creative exaggeration, taking the essences of rock n roll and pastiching and parading them with pride, some daft banner billowing from the pillion. American Graffiti cars driving by the amusement parks – not only does Steinman parody Springsteen’s contemporary obsession with engines, stolen teenage kisses under the boardwalk and pulling out of Loserville in a gasoline haze, but he has the temerity to use the same drummer and pianist to do it. It’s awesome. The album is an overdone hamburger with everything on it – baseball, vaudeville, ridiculous intros, the best bumper sticker titles in existence, a grandiose deconstruction and reconstruction of USA, rock opera, Spector production values, adolescent preoccupations, greased hair, Greased Lightnin, daring to have stupid widescreen dreams, popcorn, guitars, outrageous shades and net curtains in front of wind machines. Jim, Meat and Ellen Foley are Andrew WK’s parents.
If one has to pick a track, I would say that You took the words right out of my mouth’ is the complete song, although the last three minutes of ‘Paradise by the dashboard light’ is the funniest and saddest end to a song, in the world, possibly of all time, today.
Coming up in part two… More Paul Simon, then we’re into the punk and metal years! [Steve Wright smug voiceover, run credits.]