Saturday, 1 December 2012

Albums that changed my life

Here are five albums that changed my tastes in music and  my outlook on life.

1.  Magical Mystery Tour - The Beatles

I had grown up with The Beatles.  My dad liked them and had a number of the early singles and EPs and I remember collecting the Yellow Submarine bubblegum cards from the shop over the road.  We watched A Hard Day's Night and Help! when they were on the TV.  Then I stopped and it was the BBC showing all the Beatles films in one week that reawakened me.  Emboldened, I went around the record shops to find the one I wanted to listen to first.  The one I chose was Magical Mystery Tour because I recognised many of the titles.

Boy was I in for a surprise.  This isn't a cosy, moptop pop album.  It is full out weird from start to finish.  I had heard nothing like it and it truly took me to another place entirely, away from the conventional rock and pop I was hearing in the charts.  The first songs I gravitated towards were "Hello Goodbye" and "Your Mother Should Know" but the ones that fascinated me were "I Am The Walrus" and "Baby You're A Rich Man".  It took me a long time to work out how to do what The Beatles did here.  At least I did it by pure thought and without the help of the underground chemical industry.

2. Blood On The Tracks - Bob Dylan

I had been listening to Dylan for about a year before I bought this album in the autumn of 1982.  HMV were doing some sort of promotion in their shops and several Dylan albums were reduced in price.  I knew the reputation of the record so I bought it.  I first heard it while lying back in the bath at my digs.  All I know is that when I got to the end of the first track I said, aloud, to myself that if the rest of the album were as good, I was in for a real treat.

Mind you, it is hard to be as good as "Tangled Up In Blue" across ten tracks but Dylan almost did.  In many respects this is the perfect album.  The pace and texture of the songs, mostly simply played with acoustic guitars and subtle rhythm sections, has enough variety to keep the ear from going numb.  The melodies are subtle, twisting, delightful, and the lyrics are caustic and biting in the main.  Over familiarity means, and the shuffle button on my MP3 player, means that this isn't an album I listen to as a piece so often, but it is one that I can return to and find still fresh, still interesting.  And "Tangled Up In Blue" is a true masterpiece.  That song leaves me breathless at the end, as I should imagine it did Dylan himself after the frenetic harmonica solo that plays the song out.

Other standouts for me include the acidic "Idiot Wind" and the soothing "If You See Her, Say Hello".  Dylan's marriage at the time was falling apart and the songs reflect it.  If he has ever been so naked on the grooves of a vinyl release then I don't remember it.  There is no way you can miss his pain, nor the sheer humanity of his response.  Unlike so many other break up songs or albums, which usually look back wistfully with a touch of bitterness, Blood On The Tracks smells of revenge.  He doesn't say it, although "Idiot Wind" gets close, but Dylan wants to get his own back.  I don't know what happened in the marriage, and probably I don't, but the vengeful Dylan of "Positively Fourth Street" and its ilk from ten years before is returned and taking it out on the mother of his children.

Standouts are most of the songs, but most especially "Tangled Up In Blue" and he's still playuing it (see this video from 2012).

3 Hejira - Joni Mitchell

Like Blood On The Tracks, this is a stark album with little that might be called pop on it.  It is also long and wordy and utterly brilliant.  Forget the early Joni Mitchell, the folky.  This is the epitome of Joni Mitchell in my opinion.  It distills the folk narratives, her growing fascination with jazz and the idea that sparsity is most often more interesting than kitchen sink arrangements and production and supports it with alluring and interesting songs.

The standout songs are the opener, "Coytote", "Amelia" (ostensibly about the pioneer female flyer Amelia Earhart) and "Song For Sharon".  The songs dissect relationships through the idea that humans are restless beings, always moving on.  Mitchell does this from both sides of the gender divide.  "Coyote" has the theme of the predator and its prey - male and female respectively in this case.

The cover has a road on it for a good reason.  The album was written on the road and has travel running as blood through its veins.  It does not sit still.  Its feet are eager to get to the next destination.  I was lucky to be introduced to it at university and played in endlessly for months before playing it to anyone who would sit and listen.  I hope I turned some people on to Joni Mitchell as a result.

4 Lone Justice - Lone Justice

I had never heard a note by Lone Justice before I bought this album.  I got it purely on reviews alone and I was not disappointed.  Just like the Dylan album above, I can remember the first time I listened to it.  I sat through the first couple of songs but then pricked my ears up well and truly when I heard the third, "Ways To Be Wicked", and it just kept going.  This album is just stunning and it was the first time that I had thought of country as a music form I could listen to.

Not that Lone Justice were strictly country.  Their's was a more new wave version of country and they sure rocked when they wanted to.  And their were tender songs too, especially "Don't Toss Us Away".  But already there were the signs, if I could have read them, of their own downfall.  "Sweet Sweet Baby" is corporate rock with a punk-country flavour and is a forerunner of the second Lone Justice LP, Shelter.  By then, lead singer Maria McKee was enthralled to Waterboys/U2 big music and Christian themes.  Oh, dear.

So this is the purest mixture of Lone Justice you can get legally, although some early live bootlegs capture the real legend of the band and tell you why they were hot property, and why so many were let down.  And if you can get to see some of the live clips on YouTube of Lone Justice, do so, because they show more of a band than the 1986 Shelter vintage act that was pretty much Maria McKee solo in all but name.

Some years later, I did get into the sort of country act that this album bred: Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams and Kim Richey for example.  Although they don't appear to owe too much to Lone Justice, perhaps they do, because the idea of a rocking country female singer wasn't one I can see before 1984.

My favourites here are probably "You Are The Light" and "Ways To Be Wicked".   But I offer you a live "Don't Toss Us Away" because it was the song that opened that particular door for me.

5 Who's Gonna Save The World - Cindy Lee Berryhill

OK, I think you knew at least three of the first four artists, but if you know this one then you are doing well.  Not that you should, of course, because obscurity is pretty much her middle name, and hits are certainly not associated with her.  I think I remember hearing her once on the radio and pretty much nothing else.  I came across one of her albums by accident in the Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street when looking for something else, not knowing she had even released anything in the last five years.  Not that there's that many Cindy Lee albums to go chasing down.  About half a dozen in a career spanning the better (or worst) part of a quarter century. 

But I urge you to listen to this one.  It is brilliant.  I kept playing it to friends who, as usual, weren't that interested in it to start with, but it has such wit, such verve and such a quirky style that it is nothing short of a masterpiece in my humble opinion.  And wit is truly it's defining quality.  This is like the early Dylan comedy songs spiced with a bit less stand up comedian routine than those songs but still played for fun rather than for serious effect.  Cindy Lee Berryhill deserves greater recognition.

Stand out tracks are the title track, "Damn I Wish I Was A Man" and "She Had Everything" which is a bit like "Save The Life Of My Child" by Simon & Garfunkel but not much.  What I took from this album was its energy.  Later releases became less energetic, shall we say, and much more intriguing for their musical style.  Anyone who can write a song called "Radio Astronomy" deserves an award so if no one else will, I shall.  Cindy Lee Berryhill, have a certificate for the greatest song about astronomy in wavelengths other than visible light.  There you go.  Keep the speech short, the commercial break is coming up.

Her career seems, from this side of the pond, to be about playing in small venues and looking after her severely ill husband, the rock writer Paul Williams.  Visit her blog about herself and his travails.  It is certainly moving.  Paul Williams was one of the most perceptive writers on Dylan.

Five albums, five artists.  I could have chosen many more (so some of the contenders who didn't make the cut include Sound Of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel, After The Goldrush by Neil Young, Music From Big Pink by The Band, Relics by Pink Floyd and Suzanne Vega's eponymous first album.  And so many more.

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