For my 6oth birtday I used a big data approach to research and create a list of the best 3 single records from each year of my life, using the following criteria. A combination of:
– Commercial worldwide sales, mainly BBC charts and U.S.A. Billboard Top 100
– Critical acclaim, and awards such as Grammies and Brit awards
– Readers’ polls, TV and Radio votes like Absolute, and artist’ fans top ten lists
– Memorable lyrics including impact on society such as protests against injustice
– Moving the genre forward, initiating a music style, summing up a musical period
The full list is below but this graph summarises the results from the artists responsible for the 180 records. The Beatles/solo releases come out top, with Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson/ Jackson 5 next in line. In my opinion the top 3 artists of all time by some distance. Next were Adele, Beyonce/Destiny’s Child, Coldplay, David Bowie, U2 and Take That/Robbie Williams.
I then set about writing a story using the list, namely what each of the 180 records meant to me as I grew up, went to school and college, married Alison, and had children, purused a career. You can see that below too. The Year of each record is a little broad – from recording to end of first main chart run.
Decades 1950’s 1960’s 1970’s 1980’s 1990’s 2000’s 2010’s
Rick’s Top Ten 1.Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields 2.Billie Jean 3.Like A Rolling Stone 4.Good Vibrations 5.I Can’t Get No Satisfaction 6.Heartbreak Hotel 7.Crazy In Love 8.Johnny B Goode . 9.Going Underground 10.No Woman No Cry
“I put it to you m’Lord, that this was the record and year that truly launched rock’n’roll music”.
Let us look at the evidence for and against starting with the latter. Didn’t rock’n’roll start earlier?
Early claims for the title of the first great rock’n’roll record include Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll” and of course Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock around the Clock”. Both released in 1954, but from the different wings of rock’n’roll. The former was a Bluesman, brought up on boogie-woogie, swing and the blues; the latter a country and western and yodel singer who gradually developed and rockabilly style and incorporating rhythm and blues. Rock Around the Clock was a huge hit especially when attached to the Sydney Poitier/Glenn Ford multi-racial school film “Blackboard Jungle”, which ran from 1955-1956 and promoted Teddy Boy riots inside the cinemas when shown in the UK. But I always felt growing up that Bill Haley was somehow from a bygone era, an older man in a bow tie playing a young man’s music. Elvis seemed to me a teenager playing teenage music. But even when Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel came in 1956 was it fast enough to be rock’n’roll?
Now the case for the defence. Elvis Aaron Presley as a young man had followed country singers like and Hank Snow and was determined to be singer and musician of some sort. He also frequented the famous Beale Street in Memphis and begun to hear the Blues and R&B sounds. His break came when he wandered into Sam Phillips Sun studio on that fateful day in August 1953 and began a brief recording career on Sun label, producing some now iconic records like “That’s Alright Mama” originally an Arthur Crudup Blues number from way back in the 1940’s. This time Elvis was able to use Bill Black’s upright slap base as backing and Scotty Moore on lead guitar (to be become the Jordinaires) and crucially began to move and jump around in the studio. Over the next 2 years Elvis gradually built up a radio audience, developed his stage persona, and evolved his rockabilly sound which made listeners unsure of whether it was a black or white man they were hearing.
Still no international or even national breakthrough though. But Colon Tom Parker took over management of the increasingly popular Elvis, who switched to RCA records, and at age 20 in January 1956 recorded Heartbreak Hotel in his first session for the label in Nashville. Soon after his debut album was released, with the iconic cover later taken up by London Calling by the Clash. The cover is hugely significant – the wild look, and the emphasis on guitar, in contrast to the other great Rock’n’Roll record of late 1955/early 1956 Tutti Fruitti by Little Richard which was more piano and saxophone based.
Both Heartbreak Hotel and the album reached No.1 mid 1956. National TV appearances began to follow through 1956 including the all-important Ed Sullivan Show (when an astonishing 80% of the TV audience watched). A first film appearance in Love Me tender. Another huge number 1 with Hound Dog. Rounding off with the now famous “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. All in 1956 – an astonishing year. By the end, Wall Street Journal announced that Elvis had taken £22 million in merchandise sales on top of his records, which themselves had broken all records on the Billboard chart. Both the album and single were worldwide huge sellers. Presley “brought rock’n’roll into the mainstream of popular culture”, wrote historian Marty Jezer. Rock critic Dave Marsh wrote of the Sun and first RCA sessions that “these records, more than any others, contain the seeds of what rock & roll was, has been and most likely what it may foreseeably become.
The gyrations which TV producers tried to censor were of course exactly what the females in the audience were hoping to see and Elvis’s charisma was causing crazed crowd reactions like no other before. My comparison of Bill Haley to Elvis Presley is this. Great though “Rock Around the Clock” was there were two big differences to Elvis’s 1956 releases. First, Bill Haley to a certain extent soon faded whereas Elvis launched as a megastar. Second, Bill couldn’t be described as charismatic in the same way as Elvis’s sheer movement on stage made him irresistible. It is possible that if Elvis hadn’t emerged, Rock’n’Roll may have simply been a novelty lasting a few years without evolving into rock as a whole.
So if 1956 was the year that Rock’n’Roll truly emerged as a musical and cultural phenomenon which would last, was Heartbreak Hotel as opposed to Hound Dog the record which launched Rock’n’Roll?
Well one point is that as a young child growing up I always assumed that Heartbreak Hotel was the first great Rock’n’Roll record. Second listen to this rock royalty list of credits.
John Lennon: When I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel”, I could hardly make out what was being said. It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We’d never heard American voices singing like that
George Harrison: described “Heartbreak Hotel” as a “rock n roll epiphany” in 1956
Keith Richard: described “Heartbreak Hotel” as having a huge effect “Then, “Since my baby left me”—it was just the sound” Keith, astute as ever, focused on the “silence”, the “gaps”.
Pau McCartney. “It’s the way [Presley] sings it as if he is singing from the depths of hell. His phrasing, use of echo, it’s all so beautiful. Musically, it’s perfect”.
Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin “It was so animal, so sexual, the first musical arousal I ever had. You could see a twitch in everybody my age. All we knew about the guy was that he was cool, handsome and looked wild.”
Heartbreak Hotel is a moody, relatively slow blues number, with hints of rock’n’roll per se in the instrumental break, about a broken man’s suicide. An unusual choice for a first RCA single, but Elvis himself insisted against the advice of the executives that it should be released. The opening lines of “Well Since My Baby Left Me” are now amongst the most famous in popular music – not so much for the words (Blues singers may have sung similar before) but for the way Elvis sang them, That voice! As he develops the song, echo is applied and his unique singing style and phrasing unfolds. He creates the atmosphere – “I feel so lonely I could die”. Then Scotty Moore’s short but electrifying guitar break seems to predict the importance of guitar in rock. (And watch how Elvis moves during this break). The record was years ahead of its time, seeming to reveal the full potential and variation of what rock’n’roll could become. Everything changed with Heartbreak Hotel.
A critic described the song as “catapulting Presley’s regional popularity into national hysteria”. After performances on TV, the song soon made No.1 and was the highest selling single in 1956 in the USA.
So summing up; difficult to get a majority verdict but I contend that 1956 truly was the year that rock’n’roll and hence rock music as a genre became a global phenomenon rather than a passing fad, and it all centred around Elvis Aaron Presley. In particular the release in January 1956 of Heartbreak Hotel to an incredulous world. And a few months later yours truly was born in Carlisle. And 60 years later, who was top of the album charts in the UK in 2015/2016? Elvis Presley of course!
1956 Hound Dog Elvis Presley
Following soon after Heartbreak Hotel, Hound Dog was in many ways just as important as his debut. This time Elvis transformed a blues standard with a chequered history. An early Lieber and Stoller composition, it was first recorded by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton in 1952 and was an R&B hit. As frequently happened in those days, several cover and “answer” versions were released which changed or responded to the lyrics, including one by Rufus “Bear Cat” Thomas for Sam Phillips Sun label. Another such was Las Vegas Lounge act Freddie Bell and the Bellboys, who added the “never caught a rabbit” refrain and who in their live act effectively parodied the original.
While visiting Vegas, Elvis saw this version and decided to develop his own approach. Before release, he performed the song on TV shows such as the Steve Allen Show and then on June 5 1956, the day after I was born in Carlisle, England, Elvis performed this seminal version, on the Milton Berle show, without guitar this time. “Let ‘em see you son”, said Milton, wisely. For one of the first times on TV, he gyrated with the “Elvis the Pelvis” technique. He slowed the song down to spoken word tempo. Conservative critics hated it, “unfit for family viewing” – and that was from Ed Sullivan even as he booked him on his show! All this only added to his popularity of course. Another early video reveals more truly the full version that would ultimately be recorded at RCA’s New York City studios, revealing Scotty Moore’s wonderful guitar solo, D.J. Fontana’s lightning fast drum break, the Jordanaires smooth background harmony vocals. Dominated of course by Elvis himself, who on the recording was not credited with production duties, but in fact insisted on 31 takes. He very much was in control, even at age 23.
This time the tempo was faster than Heartbreak Hotel, almost manic: Elvis had invented his own brand of rock’n’roll, which would never be the same again. The song along with double A-side Don’t Be Cruel, was No.1 for 11 weeks in the U.S.A. a longevity not repeated for over 30 years.
1956 Tutti Fruiti Little Richard
“A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom!” started life as a verbal expression of a drum pattern but Little Richard turned it into one of the most memorable phrases in rockn’n’roll, especially as the accapella introduction to a record which changed the course of music history.
I was always intrigued by this singer because in the late 50’s early 60’s I literally was Little Richard. No I didn’t dress up as this icon, I was actually little and called Richard. I loved his music from the start – Long Tall Sally a favourite – but Tutti Fruiti as emerged over the years as his key release.
Little Richard has been singing for a few years on the RCA label when he sent a demo to Speciality Records of a song he had been singing casually on tour for a while. The lyrics had to be toned down for release- Tutti Fruiti – Aw Rooty was most definitely not the original chorus ! – but his new record company could see potential especially when he played around with his new piano style. He evolved boogie-woogie and shuffle into a new rock beat, and his playing style was new for a popular singer – one hand the rhythm, the other the trills, played in a flamboyant style, The charismatic singing style was loud and expressive, With this song he invented modern rock music – or at least the blues, soul and gospel wing of it also developed by such as Chuck Berry, James Brown and Ray Charles. Elvis with Bill Haley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis invented the country and rockabilly wing of course. As we will see later though, rock groups like the Beatles took up aspects of Little Richard’s style and merged them into European and conventional rock music for a white audience. Alison reminds me that music, movement and dance are inextricably linked. Little Richard instinctively understood this with both the way he moved at the Piano and the way his records brought everyone onto the dancefloor.
Little Richard was a bundle of contradictions, A very religious man, a devoted Christian, and yet also drug taker and an original wild man of rock’n’roll. Just check out his hairstyle and stance at the piano (for instance in the film, the Girl Can’t Help It) He was visionary in that he brought the races together. Though married, he appeared to be sexually ambiguous, long before Glam Rock. He was the first to use spotlights and flicker lights, he wore glittered shiny suits.The list goes on.
The list of people who have covered the song is a Who’s Who of rock’n’roll. Queen, Elvis, Pat Boone, Eric Clapton, Sting, and a Million Dollar trio of Mark Bolan, Elton John and Ringo Star. Let us develop the Beatles link further. The Beatles opened (yes opened) for Little Richard on a UK tour and also in their iconic Hamburg days, during which time they played the song many times but never recorded it. Little Richard is thought to have taught Paul on tour the high pitched “woo’s” made famous on “She.Loves You” and the style revisited on the closing “Judy-Judy” screams on” Hey Jude”. He played on the same bill as John Lennon at one of the Beatle’s last performances in Toronto (the rock’n’roll revival concert, and stole the show). George Harrison, The late lamented Bon Scott of ACDC, and more recently Bruno Mars are among many to acknowledge him.
The record was recorded late 1955 but did not peak in the U.S.A. until early 1956 and so joins with Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel in claiming the honour of inventing and first popularising the genre called Rock’’n’Roll in 1956. The birth of rock’n’roll and of yours truly Little Richard indeed! The record has been voted #1 by Mojo magazine in their list of records which shaped modern music.
1957 Walk the Line Johnny Cash
John wrote this while on tour, being away from his new wife Vivian. It is a proclamation to stay faithful. As with many Johnny Cash records it is simplicity itself, with the “freight train” rhythm of “boom-chika-boom”. Released in 1956 and charting into 1957, it eventually sold 2 million copies in America and helped launch his 50 year career.
The record label is hugely significant – the Sun label run by Sam Phillips – the same of course as the early Elvis records. The release date of 1956 marks that cusp of passing the baton from country and blues to rock’n’roll and Johnny was right at that interface. The famous backward chord sequence started life on Johnny’s tape recorder in his Airforce days stationed in Germany. The final recording took place in the famous Sun Studios at Memphis, where Johnny also took part in the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” impromptu jam with Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, as if to confirm his rock’n’roll credentials.
Johnny did mot “walk the line” forever. By 1963 he was with country singer June Cash and together they wrote and recorded the memorable “Ring of Fire” which still today you can hear as a ringtone on your mobile. (Vivian later downplayed June’s role in writing the song)
Like many Brits. I first got to know Johnny’s music through “Boy Named Sue” from the memorable 1969 San Quentin prison concert and followed his career through the subsequent “Walk the Line” Joaquin Phoenix film, through to his comeback with “American Recordings” and eventual epitaph with “Hurt”. That famous deep – yet sad, quivering – voice remains unmistakable. The “Man in Black” was truly a legend and a measure of his contribution in so many genres is his presence in so many Halls of Fame: Nashville, Country, Rock’n’Roll, Rockabilly and Memphis.
Jailhouse Rock Elvis Presley 1957
I had thought that Jailhouse Rock was Elvis’s first film, but in fact he had already made two. Many people say that this electrifying dance sequence, in front of the scaffolding screen and fireman’s pole, wearing his iconic hooped jailbird outfit, was his finest moment on screen. Hard to disagree. I watched this again recently and you cannot take your eyes off Elvis, though surrounded by other inmates. Elvis suggested the dance style himself, and the choreographer readily concurred.
An early Lieber and Stoller production, the song featured that memorable two note intro, a particularly throaty Elvis voice (think John Lennon on Twist and Shout) and a delightful Scotty Moore solo, and generally is a dynamic rock’n’roll classic.
The lyrics are terrific and fascinating. From the list of wonderful criminal names (Shifty Henry, a real one, and Sad Sack, World War 2 name for a loser) to probably the first hint of a gay relationship (“Number 47 tells Number 3, you’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see” – like Morecambe and Wise’s two men in a bed scene, it is only later that you realise the significance). The “band was jumping and the joint began to swing” is perfectly played out in the film.
The song was one of the first of the string of connections between Rock and Jail. Johnny Cash’s San Quentin and Folsom prison performances, 10CC’s Rubber Bullets (“went to a party at the local county jail”), The Blues Brothers closing rendition of Jailhouse Rock, right through to One Direction’s recreation of some of the scenes for a video. Talking of which, Elvis’s film sequence is often described as the starting point for MTV style videos. True, right down to the poor lip synching! Oh, and John Lennon’s early group the Quarrymen included it in their set. That will do for me!
Arguably this was the creative peak of Elvis’s first great period, after that the films and records were never quite as good – until his re-emergence in the 1960’s with the Comeback concert and “in the Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds” and then “You Were Always on My Mind”
Jailhouse Rock is truly a memorable visual delight and a musical assault on the senses, as any good rock’n’roll record should be.
1957 Buddy Holly That’’ll Be the Day
I first came across Buddy Holly as a child listening to the more recently released Rave On and Oh Boy and then caught up with “That’ll Be the Day” when the David Essex film That’ll Be The Day was a big hit. It seems it was also one of Alison’s favourites too! (The title of the song originated in a John Wayne line in a film)
After opening for Elvis and Bill Haley. Holly determined to have a musical career of his own and with the band the Crickets began recording with Decca on the Brunswick label. It was a number 1 all round the world. Hits like Peggy Sue followed, Holly’s guitar style using his Stradocaster was high stringed yet with a chunky rhythm. He was clean cut, with famously old fashioned spectacles eventually replaced by horn-rims, His vocal style included staccato hiccups. Peggy Sue was dedicated to the girlfriend of drummer Jerry Allison. The inclusion of another great Holly single on the B-side makes this a double helping of Holly’s genius – the faster A side with the slower more sensitive B side.
Like (it seems) so many pop stars of the time, he died tragically – in a plane crash in the Winter Dance Party tour of 1959 on take-off from Clear Lake, Iowa. Fellow singers Richie Valens and the Big Bopper also perished. For years his famous glasses were lost till recovered years later in a police effects box.
Innovative, he used reverb and overdub and unusually wrote his own material. He was credited with developing the “2 guitars, bass and drums” format of rock groups, yet also combined orchestration with rock’n’roll and was at home with ballads like True Love Ways
Although his career was so short he laid down 50 quality tracks and his legacy is huge. Unlike Elvis, he toured outside America and John Lennon and Paul McCartney saw Holly at the London Palladium and Holly influenced their recording and performing style in the Beatles – in fact helped find a name for the group (crickets and beetles – both insects).. Likewise Mick Jagger saw him live in Woolwich and the Rolling Stones later recorded Not Fade Away. And long after his death of course Don Mclean referred to that fateful day as the “day the music died” in American Pie.
The only rock’n’roll record to be included in the Voyager space capsule. Currently orbiting the heliosphere, and often voted as one of greatest records of any type in history. Chuck Berry (real name Anderson, excellent name) worked initially with Muddy Waters before launching his career on the famous Chess Record label, expanding blues into rock territory. The guitar solo is of course recognised as compulsory for any aspiring guitarist (my son Matthew plays it beautifully). Boogie –woogie style piano ( think Jools Holland) became a trade mark. The lyrics are partly autobiographical, with the story of a poor country boy trying to make good (Berry had been in jail, and was to spend two more spells there in future). And he lived on Goode Street at one point. Like many of the great radio songs, it paints an inspiring picture in your imagination: boy from Louisiana, sitting in the shade by the train track, strumming, he is noticed by passengers and encouraged by his mother to join a band.
The record took on a new lease of life in Back to the Future 1 and 2, in which Marty McFly plays rock’n’roll for the first time, and one of the band lets his cousin Chuck hear the sound over the phone. A great move scene continues with Marty trashing his guitar, anticipating Hendrix and the Who, but a step too far in 1955. Johnny B Goode continued to have a life beyond this single, featuring in many more for instance Bye Bye Johnny.
1958 Little Richard Good Golly Miss Molly
After the initial success of Tutti Fruitti in 1956, Little Richard’s 1958 Golly Miss Molly brought to an end an astonishing series of rock’n’roll classics including Long Tall Sally, Lucille, Ready Ready, The Girl and Can’t Help It.
Long Tall Sally, Girl Can’t Help It and Good Golly Miss Molly especially all share the hallmarks of Little Richard: I always was so excited by the vocal, so completely wild and seemingly out of control, screamed in that high register;12 bar blues made into the shuffle rhythm with the stop-restarts; the breakneck speed; the trill piano; the high note “woo” and the scream before the instrumental break which the Beatles would so memorably take up in Twist and Shout; the wonderful saxophone solo. The suggestive lyrics, double or triple entendres (how did they get away with them!) And the look, the pencil moustache, the stand up piano style, the exotic persona. Watch this video: what strikes me is the great combination of white all American teenagers clapping away to the black Little Richard and band – quite rare in those days – and the emphasis of saxophone and piano over guitar. With Little Richard “ducking back in the alley” and resting his leg a top the piano. Sensational stage performance.
The lyrics to Good Golly Miss Molly started life as a throwaway phrase by a Sothern DJ and Little Richard with producer Robert Bumps Blackwell developed the lyrics including “when you’re rocking and rolling you can’t hear your momma call”. Says it all really!
Good Golly Miss Molly and Long Tall Sally especially are regularly credited as songs that shaped popular music and have been covered and performed by countess rock acts from the Beatles to Credence Clearwater to the Swinging Blue Jeans.
1958 Eddie Cochran Summertime Blues
In his short life Eddie (who died in a car crash in Somerset, England, aged 21) made a huge contribution to popular music. Not only he did record at least three classic singes but also was a multi-instrumentalist, playing and singing on, and producing many other artists’ records, including that of Gene Vincent, who would play such as fateful part in his demise. Eddie also played a role in the early Jayne Mansfield / Little Richard movie “The Girl Can’t Help It” which would also be fateful – but for a good reason, When a young John Lennon saw Eddie performing Twenty Flight Rock in the film, he made it a staple of his pre Beatles group the Quarrymen.
Eddie is best known for three rockabilly style rock’n’roll singles employing his signature driving acoustic guitar. C’Mon Everbody – later covered part of a Levi jeans advert and covered by by Led Zeppelin; Somethin’ Else, memorably covered by Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols for the Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle album and a big hit single. But it will be for Summertime Blues that he will be most remembered.
The lyric to Summertime Blues contrasts a frustrated, protesting feeling with an upbeat sound. I always thought of Eddie, with his sharp dressing, Hollywood looks, and expresser of teenage angst as a kind of musical James Dean. But he was more than just a teenage rebel, he knew exactly what he was doing and didn’t take himself too seriously. Listen to the lyrics on the song, a bored boy wanting a real summer vacation after working hard for low pay “take my problem to the United Nations” – to which the deep voice reply comes “Sorry, son you’re too young to vote” to which Eddie concludes – “there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues”. The song is beautifully simple, barely more than Eddie and his acoustic guitar and occasional base – but it sounds full and large and just oozes rhythm. It is a regular near the top of the “greatest rock songs ever” polls.
An even larger sound was heard on The Who’s Live at Leeds album, often described as the greatest Live Album ever. The Who’s cover version of Summertime Blues is a magnificent early heavy metal re-working of the song. In fact It has been covered by a who’s who (excuse the pun!) of royalty rock’n’roll, – Rush, the Rolling Stones, and Bruce Springsteen. And interestingly a high-charting version by the relatively obscure Blue Cheer – pre dating not only the Who’s version but also Born to Be Wild and Helter Skelter, other claimants to “first heavy metal” record. To be fair, the Who began singing the song in 1967/8 at concerts like the Monterey festival, and recorded at that time an unreleased version.
My closing feeling about Eddie’s version is just how cool the voce sounds – the type of American accent and phrasing which Paul Weller of the Jam grew up thinking he just had to use – until he realised that his own South London accent would be more authentic.
And it surely reminds us of student summer holidays. In my time there was no need to get a job as Eddie was forced to do. You could sign on the “dole”, place “astronaut” in the box marked “desired job”, and supplement your no-strings student grant with a summer of benefits. How times have changed!
Eddie had seen his hero Buddy Holly die while touring and was worried the same would happen to him. But needs must. he toured and he died in Bath hospital in Somerset after injuries in a taxi accident in Wiltshire – and Gene Vincent was in the car with him. Gene survived but never completely recovered.
1959 Buddy Holly True Love Ways
One of the most romantic songs ever recorded – apparently the most popular wedding reception bride and groom dance opener – it features lush strings. It was recorded for his wife. But this effectively brought the Rock’n’Roll era to an end in many ways. Holly recorded this song – along with “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” and “Raining in My Heart” in what would be his last recording session and indicating perhaps for the time being was moving in a different direction from rock. The recording session was late 1958, “Raining” and “Doesn’t Matter” were released January 1959, but Holly’s his death in a plane crash in February 1959 meant “True Love” was not released until posthumously in 1960. I really believe it belongs to Buddy’s era of the 1950’s and in particular the year when he left us. Hence the inclusion in 1959. As Don Mclean memorably wrote in American Pie, Holly’s death was the “day the music died” – now quite well known but not so well known was the fact that “February made me shiver/with every paper I’d deliver” referred to McLean’s paper round – it is how he first found about his hero’s passing in February 1959. .
1959 Ray Charles What I’d Say Parts 1 and 2
Some say this was the record which invented Soul music. Ranked at No.10 in the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 greatest songs. Ray had been a gospel, R&B and Rhumba style singer for some time and when the song was successfully played live at a concert – essentially an accident because he had 10 minutes to fill at the end – he determined to record the song including the now famous call and response with the audience and the Wurlitzer electric piano. To capture the full length yet be suitable for radio play, the song was split into part 1 and 2 A and B side.
The song controversially fused gospel and romance and importantly gospel and blues – being released on the Atlantic label it must surely have influenced Aretha and the gang. But it also hugely influenced rock artists like the Beatles who played it live in Hamburg. Mick Jagger sung it on his first session with the future Rolling Stones. For me, it took me time to discover and warm to it – as a young boy growing up it was Ray Charles’s subsequent ballads such as “I Can’t; Stop Loving You” that my father liked which at that time of course was counter to the Beatles revolution. So I grew up believing that Ray was just a balladeer, not realising that he had changed the course of music history (but then nor did Dad, because although he liked his 50’s music he wasn’t a muso obsessive like me!) But I picked the scent again when Ray made a memorable appearance as the grumpy record store owner in The Blues Brothers.
One of his album’s was called “the genius of Ray Charles” – not an overstatement in this case.
1959 Miles Davis All Blues
Also classed as a genius, the track All Blues by Miles Davis is the standout track from arguably the greatest jazz album of all time, Kind Of Blue.
Miles Davis had earned his stripes in the 1940’s by playing jazz and bebop with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Harlem and 52nd street in New York, evolving into Cool Jazz in the 1950’s. Heroin addiction forced him to move from the temptations of New York. However he continued his career with Blue Note label recordings, before returning at the Newport Jazz festival and recruiting John Coltrane to his quintet. In 1959 came his definitive work Kind of Blue. The track All Blues is a modal 12 bar blues featuring “head” improvisations by each of the sextet, particularly on trumpet. Its famous “Blue Notes” on the 3td 5th and 7th notes of the scale feature a flattened 7th note. With an unusual split tree beat rhythm there is a hint of waltz.
At 12 minutes it is unusual to include in this list as it was never a hit single; it is the epitome of Cool. The album however at 4 million sales is the biggest selling jazz album of all time. The influence was enormous, not just in jazz but in rock and ambient. Duane Allan of the Allman Brothers used Davis’s ideas while Richard Wright of Pink Floyd credits Kind of Blue with influencing Breathe on Dark Side of the Moon. Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson’s principal producer, was a bug fan and close friend of Davis. It was voted 10th in the all-time Rolling Stone’s list of top 500 albums of any type. .
I grew up being somewhat dismissive of jazz, unable to understand or appreciate its complexities. It took me around half a century to catch up, with the track All Blues appearing in my son’s GCSE music syllabus.
1960 Sam Cooke Chain Gang
Sam Cooke began as a Gospel singer and gradually crossed over to popular music and soul. One of his first hits was You Send Me in 1957 and to a certain extent he treaded water till 1960 when first Wonderful World (“don’t know much about history…”) and then Chain Gang established him as the “Mr Soul” of the time I love both songs but have chosen the latter for the social significance which prefaced his increasing interest in Civil Rights which culminated in his posthumous “Change is Going to Come”.
A Chain Gang has huge significance in American history as it is a means of keeping prisoners together while out labouring, for instance while building the rail tracks. By 1960 it had mainly been phased out, but before that Sam and his brother had spotted and helped out a chain gang. They remembered it and wrote the song. The vocal sound effects Sam creates a memorable – re-creating in the listeners mind the sounds of the prisoner’s songs and perhaps even the sound of steel on rail track. And of course Sam’s unforgettable silky voice.
The track was a worldwide hit and re-established Sam for the latter part of his career.
1960 Chubby Checker the Twist
This track counts as the song with the oldest origins in our list. In 1844, Grape Vine Twist was a minstrel song, and then in 1938 Jelly Roll Morton’s song in “Wining’ Boy Blues” featured the line, “Mama, mama, look at sis, she’s out on the levee doing the double twist”. The evolution continued in the 50’s through a Drifters melody; a gospel group, the Sensational Nightingales’ original lyrics were developed by Hank Ballard and the Midnights, who recorded and released the song to modest success in 1958. Chubby Checker – so named because of slightly portly gait and because he was an impressionist of singers (a “checker”) – recorded his version for Dick Clark’s American bandstand. The song was an instant and enduring hit; reaching No.1 in two separate chart runs in the early 1960’s and by 1965 had sold 15 million copies, an incredible total for a single.
A standout feature is the saxophone – dirty base to open the song and then tenor sax solo mid track – my brother in law Chris a fine player himself could do worse than use this or other late fifties/early sixties saxophone examples to teach his music pupils! The other feature is the continuous “round and round” background refrain which sounds to me like a forerunner of 70’s dance and disco.
The dance itself brought not just teenagers but adults onto the dancefloor in numbers not seen before. Relatively easy and fun to perform (as I can vouch, even I could dance the Twist as a 6 or 7 year old). Just watch this video – Chubby shows us how but I always love the audiences in these early performances – going wild but told firmly to stay in their seats but itching to join in the twist.
The record has won numerous awards and was performed by Chubby with the rap group the Fat Boys at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at Wembley (which I attended). The follow up record, “Twistin the Night Away” is if anything more well-known with memorable cover versions by Sam Cooke and Rod Stewart. Watch Chubby twist the night away like he did last summer. “Is it a bird, is it a plane? No it’s a twister!
1960 Every Brothers Cathy’s Clown
The song by Don and Phil every informs Cathy that “I don’t want your love anymore”, trying to “stand tall” after she has dumped him, resenting being called “Cathy’s Clown”. The double drums effect achieved with a tape loop combined with the brothers memorable harmonies made it their biggest hit single, spending several weeks atop both the American and UK charts. Inspired by the Grand Canyon suite by Ferde Grofe, the song influenced the Beatles harmonies on Please Please Me. In fact when John and Paul headed south for the first time to a talent contest, they described themselves as the “English Everlies”.
Don and Phil were country-based rock singers who had started mid-fifties with Walk Right Back Wake Up Little Suzie and Bye Bye Love. Their music influenced the Beachboys and Simon and Garfunkel and in fact they played with Paul on Graceland. And Don Everly was recognised by Keith Richards as one of the finest rhythm guitar players.
1961 Ben E King Stand By Me
Many versions of this inspiring song have been made (by Seal, Otis Redding etc) but Ben E King’s 1961 release remains the definitive track (except perhaps for one(*)). King, who left the Drifters in 1960 to pursue a solo career commencing with Spanish Harlem, wrote the song with producers Leiber and Stoller, inspired according to Sam Cooke by the spiritual Stand By Me Father. The music is very simple R&B and the Atlantic Records track comes to life with King’s soaring chorus. It is high in the “Songs of the Century” lists and charted high again on the release of the film of the same name in the 1980’s (and also a Jeans advert)
(*) The version of Stand By Me by John Lennon from his 1975 Rock’nRoll covers album comes close to being the best. John completely reworks the accompaniment but stays absolutely loyal to the feel of the vocal. When John opens with “When the night…”, it is not what you call pure singing but oozes soul. It is one of his great vocal performances, almost up there with the historic Twist and Shout session. And the rhythm guitar is rightly brought forward, drums, dirty horns and electric guitar added. It was one of John’s last hits before his closing, brief revival in the fateful 1980, and one of my all-time favourites.
1961 Dion The Wanderer
“Well I’m the type of guy ..” is the memorable opening line from Dion, by now without his Belmonts with whom he had recorded “Teenager in Love”. His solo career had included Runaround Sue and took off with The Wanderer. “I roam from town to town and go through life without a care, I’m as happy as a clown with my two fists of iron, but I’m going nowhere” revealed a darker, edgier side to the carefree hero, who is so carefree he could answer the question his date asks – “which one do you like the best?” – by tearing off his shirt revealing “Rosie on my chest”. An early tattoo I guess.
Dion was an Italian American from the Bronx, New York. Initially a country singer, but he developed a harder city edge to his music. His early success won him a place on the ill fated Winter Garden tour, where he turned down a chance of a plane ride with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper simply because he couldn’t quite afford it. It was the day on which “the music died”.
The Wanderer is a memorable song, covered by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, but is from that “in-between” period in music history– after the first flush of rock and roll but before the onset of the Beatles. Talking of which, Dion joined Bob Dylan as the only other musician on the front cover of “Sergeant Pepper”.
1961 Del Shannon Runaway
From a similar period and stable as Dion’s the Wanderer and Runaround Sue, “Runaway” was a No.1 record in both America and the U.K. having received its big break like so many on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, the American equivalent of Top of the Pops. The record featured the famous Musitron electric organ high pitch break, performed by Max Crook, who had invented the instrument. The song was covered by many including the Travelling Wilburys and the Beatles sung it many times in Hamburg, almost certainly with harmonica replacing the Musitron.
As a very young boy I was drawn to songs like this with strange sounding electronic pianos – early synthesised music as it turned out. Other examples were Telstar by Joes Meek’s Tornadoes a year later, and of course the theme from Dr Who. The Moody Blues Mellotron (Knights in White Satin and the even better Tuesday Afternoon) and of course Pink Floyd (See Emily Play and Arnold Lane) took synthesised singles music forward. But it wasn’t till the early 1970’s that a true Moog synthesiser topped the UK pop charts with Chicory Tip’s Son of My Father. But we should never forget the early innovation linked to Del’s classic early 60’s voice that “Runaway” provided. Runaway like The Wanderer gained renewed traction in the U.K. as part of the “That’ll Be The Day” film and album.
1962 Sam Cooke Bring It on Home to Me
Sam Cooke had enjoyed great success with his crossover from Gospel to Pop with songs like Twistin the Night Away and Wonderful World. The recording session for Bring It On Home featured the almost equally popular Having a Party and the session was a very happy, carefree affair which comes across very obviously in the tracks. Bring it on Home contains references both on the lyrics and the vocalisations (call and response) to Sam’s Gospel roots and his early work with the Soul Stirrers.
The track has been covered countless time by artists such as the Animals and Rod Stewart, who is well known for crediting Sam as his favourite and most influential singer. Bring It on Home to Me is now a rock standard.
Sam subsequently recorded both Bring It on Home and Having a Party on his live album “Live at Harlem Square Club” in 1963, in a largely African American part of Florida – significant because by this stage the record company was pitching Cooke at more of a white audience. The album itself has a remarkable history. For this album, Sam’s voice seemed earthier and rougher than normal, and the crowd were raucous, wild almost at Sam’s amazing performance, and this comes across clearly on the record. The record company felt the overall effect was not suitable for release, with a more middle of the road sound and audience in mind. So the tapes lay in the vault until discovered years later, when it was realised that a gem had been discovered. The album was finally released in 1985 and quickly established itself as one of the greatest of all Live Albums, alongside such as the Who Live at Leeds, and James Brown at the Apollo Theatre. The album captures a time and a place and is a favourite in my collection. Sam’s relationship with his audience and especially female fans shines through, and reveals more of his true, original more gritty Soul voice.
Alas this was to be one of Sam’s last recordings as he died at the hand of a Hotel owner a year later, shot in mysterious circumstances. It brought to an end one of the great careers, and silenced one of the sweetest soul voices.
1962 John Lee Hooker Boom Boom
Perhaps not the greatest electric blues track or artist – surely that would be Muddy Waters, but this track from 1962 was perfectly placed in timing and style to play a crucial role in the development of rock.
The origin of the lyrics are simple John used to play at a restaurant and was often not on time. A waitress finally said “Boom boom you’re late again!* and the song was born. The song has the feel of a modern record, a faster blues sound, with a memorable riff, which seemed to perfectly fit the requirements of the burgeoning British Blues boom (excuse the pun!), No surprise that a for a young Eric Clapton, it was the first song he ever recorded, with the Yardbirds to be.
A gross simplification it may be but one can chart a path from the folk blues of Robert Johnson pre War to the electrified blues of Muddy Water, BB King and John Lee Hooker through to rock and then heavy rock. It seems me this record was at the very cusp of that transition and one of the few genuine original Blues records to fully cross over to the conventional popular charts.
Boom Boom has been covered by many artists, including the Animals, whose version was used in the Skyfall film; it featured in a Jeans advert; and I first picked up John Lee Hooker as the street musician playing live in a Chicago market in the Blues Brothers film – which helped re-launch interest in so many Soul and Blues artists. My original favourite music writer Charles Shaar Murray from the New Musical Express called it the “greatest pop song John Lee Hooker” ever made. It has won numerous awards.
Boom Boom has become the name of clubs as far and wide as San Francisco (John Lee Hookers’ Boom Boom room) and Sutton in South West London where my friend Graham recently took a group of us to the Boom Boom club, home of many a great medium-size rock concert.
1962 Elvis Presley Can’t Help Falling In Love
The melody if this song is from 1784 (our earliest entry by some centuries) but the lyrics were written for the Blue Hawaii in 1961. Possibly the last great Elvis song of that first era, it made Number 1 in 1962 in the U.K. and America and is regularly voted near the top of his fans most favourite songs.
Can’t Help Falling in Love has taken forward a life of its own. UB 40 recorded a No. Hit cover version. Other covers range from the Stylistics to Andy Williams to Punk Band Leatherface whose version was used in bikers boxset TV series Sons of Anarchy. U2 often finished concerts with it A line from the song “wise men say, only fools rush in, but I can’t help falling…” has become the long lasting song of my football team Sunderland and indeed for a while “Wise Men Say” was the title of their fanzine before another musical title took over called “A Love Supreme” (in which I appeared one time wearing my Sunderland strip in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge).
This brought an end to Elvis’s first successful era. He resurfaced again at the top of the charts in the late sixties with great songs like In the Ghetto and Suspicious Minds, and even in the seventies with Way Down and Always on My Mind, but he was somehow playing catch-up rather than setting the pace.
Another key group in 1962 was the Four Seasons who were embarking on a career rather than completing it. It is worth spending some time on them because for me 1962 was the great “in between year”, namely before the Beatles revolution took hold, and after rock and roll. The Four Seasons had a foot in both eras.
I used to believe that the Four Seasons were somehow too middle of the road to belong to the rock family, but over the years the more I have learned about them and listened to their music the more I have come to appreciate them. As the Jersey Boys musical memorably recounts, there is an amazing story behind the band.
Founder members guitarist Tommy de Vito and singer Frankii Valli from New Jersey, NY, were working class Italian American boys flirting with petty crime when they formed the Four Lovers with composer Bob Gaudio and bass player Nick Massi. Their name changed after a failed audition at a Four Seasons bowling club. Producer Bob Crewe guided them to No.1 hits with Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man and for the next few years in the U.S.A. they almost matched the Beatles for sales. The band were the first white act to sign for Vee-Jay records, John Lee Hookers label – indicating how they were seen in the USA and in fact with Vee Jay also releasing Beatles records in the USA, the label issued what is now a collector’s item, the combined “Beatles versus the Four Seasons” album.
Big Girls Don’t Cry started life as a line in a Ronald Reagan film, and features of course the irrresistable falsetto voice of Frank Valli. More hits like Beggin followed, and although the early 1970’s were a fallow period, Franki of course returned with My Eyes Adored You and Grease. Then a comeback for the group with Oh What a Night Late December (1963) and Who Loves You.
The group have now sold an astonishing 100 million records worldwide and to this day Frank still performs and the Jersey Boys is still selling out after 10 years on Broadway and almost that time in the West End. Our family can vouch that it is a great watch !
So as the great Elvis era began to fade – and those 6 years left an astonishing mark – the Four Seasons must have thought their time had come. But across the channel in Liverpool something was stirring.
She Loves You The Beatles 1963
Imagine you are on business travel, you arrive early and check in at the hotel. What do you do? The gym? A coffee? Or write a million single with your colleague? That’s what happened in 1963! The Beatles wrote “SHE LOVES YOU” in Newcastle’s Grey Street Turk’s Head Hotel while in the city for a Majestic Ballroom gig, not so far from the Newcastle Royal Grammar School I was to attend and which my brother Malcolm was just starting. Lennon and McCartney were beginning to experiment with lyrics and developed the unusual third person singular idea around “she” loves you. The piece de resistance of course was the “Yeah Yeah Yeah” chorus (which importantly translated in any country and language). The impact of this cannot be understated. Replacing Yes by Yeah may seem trivial now, but it summed up the Beatles perfectly – challenging tradition but in a way your Mum could still like. In fact it was at this time that Mum started a tradition in our family that lasted through most of the 1906’s. Mum bough every new Beatles single that came out – and we all just couldn’t wait to hear the latest direction they were taking. The price at 7 shillings and sixpence stayed pretty constant. My brother and I soon took possession of them – though somehow I have ended up still owning them to this day. With some classic 45 vinyl cover.
She Loves You was captured at the London Palladium on film. As well as the Yeah Yeah’s the Little Richard wooh’s were absolutely mesmerising for the mainly female audience. The screams and tears in the audience were unprecedented and this record kick-started Beatlemania, at least in Britain. It took another 6 months before the record went to No.1 in the USA in 1964. . The beauty of the Beatles was that although of course girls loved their cuteness, and high decibel screaming eventually helped cause the band to stop touring, they were equally popular with boys, for mainly different reasons of course.
The record introduced us to many of the signature Beatles features. Starts with Ringos’ drumming, then straight to chorus (not the usual verse-chorus: Paul describes this order as the shape of his songs often being “W” not “M”. Paul’s violin bass, George’s lead, John’s rhythm, and perfect voice harmonies. She Loves You is still the best selling Beatles single of all time in the U.K. and was the best selling single by anyone in the U.K. in the 1960’s. Lyrically and musically more sophisticated than at first hearing, the impact of this record round the world was incalculable both to launch Beatlemania and change popular culture for ever.
Twist and Shout The Beatles 1963
Some would be surprised at this choice from all the other outstanding Beatles tracks available, but consider the evidence below suggesting it is one of the greatest Beatles records.
The band’s early Hamburg and Liverpool years were awash with cover versions of American Soul classics such as Please Mr Postman, Money and Rock’n’Roll classics like Chuck Berry’s “Rock’n’Roll Music”. Twist and Shout was originally by the Top Notes then the hit came with the Isley Brothers version, and Beatles had already been including it in their live sets.
It was decided to include Twist and Shout in the Beatles’ first LP, Please Please Me (the title track of which George Martin famously pronounced after finishing recording “gentleman you have your first No.! record – and they did, in the U.S.A –even though John can be heard, equally famously, forgetting some words). Martin wanted to bring an element of the Beatles’ live rougher feel to the recording session –and Twist and Shout achieved this beyond anyone’s expectations!
With John suffering from a cold, Martin kept this song to the very last, knowing it would test his voice. So the unforgettable throaty voice came partly by accident – but what followed was described by Ian MacDonald as “an intensity never before seen in British Rock’n’Roll”. The opening lines of “Shakin a Baby, Twist and Shout , C’mon C’mon Baby” starts big and just carries on getting bigger until into the astonishing crescendo of the rising “ah, ah”. Paul’s wonderful Little Richard style hollers and George and Ringo’s impeccable accompaniment complete the job. But John dominates with quite possibly the greatest 3-minute pop vocal ever – the ability of the great singers is to sound out of control – the shrieks – but still remain in control.
The Beatles played this on one of their famous Ed Sullivan appearances, and then memorably at the London Palladium Royal Variety Performance. I can remember to this day John’s wonderfully cheeky introduction to the song, “I need your help, can the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands, and the rest of you just rattle your jewellery.” Even the Queen Mother laughed at that one! John smiles sheepishly and the band launch into a raucous version of “Twist and Shout”. Looking back at the film of that momentous performance, John seems so happy, so healthy, so out front, so in control of the whole group – as indeed he was then. . Paul and George – famous left hand right hand pose – are great and Ringo does that “shakin’ his fringe” thing – but its’ John’s stage presence which totally dominates. He sounds big, the camera zooming in on his face makes him look big too. Utterly mesmerising, brings tears to your eyes, partly because of the performance, partly because of the innocence that would be lost. The four Beatles bow graciously together as one at the end.
At seven years old I was given the EP (remember them?) and the song was buried a little with the Taste of Honey/There’s a Place/Want to Know a Secret”. But Twist and Shout was always my favourite and it has grown in reputation to almost legendary status since then. A single in its own right in America, it was part of the famous “all the top 5 are Beatles” Billboard Chart
Much later the cult classic “Ferris Bueller Day Off” film featured a memorable Chicago parade scene in which Ferris mimes the song from his trailer and around a thousand ordinary citizens dance and sing to the song. You feel very little staged choreography was needed, the song is so infectious.
For me this is “roots” Beatles, before the psychedelic phase. Admittedly a cover, but it’s a song they truly made their own, and showcases John especially at his absolute explosive best as a vocalist. One of the all-time great vocal performances.
1963 Bob Dylan Blowin’ in the Wind
A song about suffering, freedom, and war, the song matched the growing social unrest at the time, and has become a folk and civil rights anthem. Bob Dylan poses the questions about these issues but reflects that the elusive answer is “blowin’ in the wind”. The single was never a big seller per se. but the album “Freewheelin’” launched his career and Peter, Paul and Mary had a worldwide hit with their version of Blowin’ in the Wind.
The lyrics have their roots in the Old Testament (“ears to hear but hear not”) a Woody Guthrie song and a slave song/spiritual, which perhaps explains why Mavis Staples was astonished that a white man could write a song which seemed to indicate he understood African American problems. The sentiments also may have been influenced by his then girlfriend, the more radical Suze Roloto.
Bob began to play the song live at folk festivals and performed the song in England, believe it or not as part of a BBC “Sunday Night Play” Madhouse on Castle Street. During the visit he began to make contact with English folk musicians like Martin Carthy and the Beatles began to be influenced by Dylan.
The song continued to ripple through cultural and political fabric. Bob Dylan’s own career went from strength to strength. The song has become a staple of acoustic guitar lessons. Sam Cooke, in a kind of long distance call and response, issued his own follow up to the song, “A Change is Gonna Come”, which posthumously became one of his most compelling and famous songs..
And bizarrely the song played a prominent role in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: after a computer’s 7 million year calculation to reveal the answer to the ultimate question about the Meaning of Life gives a rather unsatisfactory answer (“42”). A new computer called “planet earth” is programmed to come up with a better Ultimate Question, However, a few minutes before the question is revealed, the earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic bypass. Rather than re-programme, the Mice who are running it decide to simply go with this Ultimate Question:
“How many roads must a man go down?”
Which of course are the opening lines to “Blowin’ in the Wind”.
The song appears in the top twenty of Rolling Stone Magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs Ever” Bob Dylan was not even 21 years old when he wrote this song. The song and sentiment were game changers for Bob himself, and in music and society as a whole.
1964 The Kinks You Really Got Me
I began 1964 as a seven year old. 1964 was an important year for me musically. I owned my first single, on 45rpm vinyl. Well sort of. My cousin Suzanne bought “Would You Like to Swing on a Star” by Big Dee Irwin and Little Eva, and I immediately took ownership and have retained it to this day. (So, brother Malcolm, that’s where it went!) . My mother began to buy us records, mainly the Beatles, at 7 shillings and sixpence per single. My record collection began. I began to go the local cinema every Saturday morning where there was a terrific show with local groups playing pop for children.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of classic, enduring 1960’s records began to appear. Let us start with the Kinks.
The Kinks were at the Rolling Stones end of the spectrum from rebellious Stones to cute Beatles. I always remember that their hair was long, though not as long as the Pretty Things. “You Realy Got Me” was their first hit single, reaching No.1 in the U.K. and top ten U.S.A., making the Kinks part of the “British invasion”. The song is now famous as perhaps being the first heavy metal record, although if so the Kinks brothers Ray and Dave Davies would deny it,
The famous opening guitar riff came about because initially Ray planned for his song a slower, blues or jazz feel, with piano or saxophone as lead instrument, but Dave for his guitar break had the idea of cutting the front of his amp open with a razorblade and piercing it with a pin. This created the fuzzy guitar sound that the Kinks and many others were to use. The lyrics were as Ray said “a love song for street kids”. The song is regularly near the top of polls for greatest pop song or guitar riff.
Ray of course still performs regularly even today, though rarely with his brother, with whom his disagreements are legendary. The Kinks of course were to records several more classics, many of them much slower and innovative, such as Waterloo Sunset and Lola, but it was “You Really Got Me” which got the ball rolling.
1964 Righteous Brothers – You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling
This was the first hit for Bill Medley (the low notes) and Bobby Hatfield (high notes) as the Righteous Brothers, so named because when playing before African American marines, the call came through from the audience, “You’re righteous, brothers”. Indeed, they were a soul group of sorts, Blue eyed Soul in fact.
This record almost didn’t make it in the U.K. Written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector, our own Cilla Black recorded it first. Her version was climbing the charts when Phil Spector was advised to persuade the duo to come to England and perform the song: this they did and the rest is history.
Phil Spector had already achieved fame with his “wall of sound” on records with the Crystals and the Ronettes, and You’ve Lost That Lovin feeling is considered his finest production (though I would nominate Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep Mountain High). The video reflects the song – revealing in the dark first Bill Medley’s bass-baritone opening, then Bobby Hatfield’s countertenor, then a back-up choir to emphasise the wall of sound feel.
The song was a worldwide number 1, is said to be the most played song on American radio in the 20th century, and is placed 3rd in the list of songs generating the most dollar royalties, helped for instance by an iconic inclusion in Tom Cruise’s Top Gun. The duo also hit gold with Unchained Melody, also aided by a soundtrack – this time in Patrick Swayze’s and Demi Moore’s Ghost. Bill Medley himself took part in a memorable soundtrack recording – The Time of Our Life from Dirty Dancing, this time with Jennifer Warnes.
1964 The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go
The year 1964 saw a breakthrough for the Supremes after several years of gradually leaning their trade, visiting the Motown Hitsville recording studios after school, recording backing vocals and handclaps for such as Marvin Gaye, and releasing some unsuccessful singles as the Primettes. A name change to the Supremes and increasing feature of Dianna Ross as lead singer seemed to do the trick, as they had a first minor hit with “Lovelight”.
Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson were writing for them, but eventually it was a Holland Dozier Holland composition Where Did Our Love Go which made Number 1 for the first time. What followed was astonishing. Baby Love, Come See About Me (Alison’s favourite), Stop In the name of Love and Back in May Arms made it five number ones in a row.
You Can’t Hurry Love, I Hear a Symphony and the Happening were just some of the hits which followed, as was You Keep Me Hanging On, which incredibly was one of the first great Heavy Metal songs in 1967 – and I bought it. American psychedelic rock band Vanilla Fudge slowed the song right down and added electric guitar.
Dianna Ross especially went on to have a stellar career, whether a solo artists with Aint No Mountain High Enough, or the classic disco tracks Love Hangover or Nile Rogers produced Upside Down, or acting the part of Billie Holiday, or mentoring the young Michael Jackson.
When Where Did Our Love Go was released the Supremes were bottom of the bill on tour. By the time the record had finished its run they were top. The song perhaps doesn’t have the full range of melodies, harmonies and contributions from Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (that would soon afterwards emerge on Come See About Me) but over the years it has achieved legendary status, perhaps because of its superbly simple, driving, classic Motown beat and rhythm provided by the Motown house band the Funk Brothers. It was part of the Soft Cell tainted Love medley, and It was on the legendary list (legendary to me anyway) of Motown and Stax records which dominated the NME of chart of “best records ever” which first alerted me to the significance of soul music to rock, and which all those years ago sowed the seed to plan this list. Yes, I have been planning my sixtieth birthday for around 40 years!
Where do we start with this claasic Dylan record! Well, let’s start at the top. Like A Rolling Stone is frequently voted by critics as the best record ever, as in ever of any type. Including the Rolling Stone magazine (well they would wouldn’t they!).
For me, the lyrics are like the Shakespeare of pop, in that so many well-known pop phrases seem to have emerged from this song, or at least come to prominence, including:
. “How does it feel”…. .”to be on your own” …”no direction home” …”like a rolling stone”
“No direction home” became the name of Martin Scorsese’s famous documentary about Dylan. The “feel” memorably is spitted out as “feel”.
Bob wrote the lyrics up at his Woodstock home (yes that one, kind of: Woodstock village is actually 20 miles from the actual concert site: the Anderson family has visited Woodstock and we can vouch that is still has that laid-back hippy feel that attracted artists like Dylan to live there). Originally a twenty page rant, Dylan refined the song to become a memorable warning and revenge message to a girl who at one stage had it all, but fell on hard times (“nobody taught you to live out on the street”). But finishes with a slight note of optimism (When you aren’t got nothing you go nothing’ to lose”). When recording the song, Bob was at the phase of switching from pure acoustic folk to elements of rock. So the electric guitar was added, and the famous electric organ break was added almost accidentally when a then young session guitarist Al Cooper offered a suggested organ refrain when his producer-boss happened to be out of the room and the rest is history.
When Dylan played this live at jazz festivals he was booed (as selling out) and in fact when in Manchester an audience member shouted “Judas”. Nevertheless the record launched Dylan to a wider rock audience, it was his biggest hit single even though radio stations were at first unwilling to play it, partly because of its 6 minutes length, partly because of it morose message.
Dylan has never looked back, still of course active today.
The Rolling Stones started their live-career in 1962 at the Marquee Club in Oxford Street, and then in earnest in 1963 with residencies in South West London at The Craw daddy Club in Richmond, and at Eel Pie Island in Twickenham, a “stone’s throw” (!) from where we live now. But until this release in May 1965, the Stones had mostly released cover versions of blues, rock’n’roll or soul standards as singles (check out this incredible early live video) In fact it was at one their Richmond gigs that the Beatles first met them, and helped inspire them to later write their own lyrics. Lennon and McCartney offered the Stones one of their partly finished songs “I Wanna Be Your Man” and when the Stones concurred, John and Paul sat in the corner of the club and soon came back with the finished article. The Stones hadn’t realised it could be that easy!
“Satisfaction” was arguably the first great Jagger and Richards composition (later they published under their pseudonym the Glimmer Twins). The famous opening guitar riff was generated by Keith Richards using the Gibson Maestro fuzzbox and the song recorded at the historic Blues-based studios of Chess Records in Chicago.
The lyrics for me in “Satisfaction” are a white man’s blues. While the genuine suffering of African Americans is well documented on Blues Records (and of course the Stones cut their teeth playing those records) how could a middle class boy like Jagger express his angst? Well, for possibly the first time in popular song, here was a lyric complaining about the very thing that made modern life so comfortable – the consumer society, commercialism and all its trappings. “Man on the radio….telling me more and more about some useless information…about how white my shirts should be…but he can’t be a man because he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me” Still time for a bit of traditional blues, “Trying to make some girl…tells me better come back next week”
For me, I wasn’t sure about the Stones: you had to be a Stones or a Beatles fan: I was in the Beatles camp. But as a 9 year old, I was still fascinated by the unkempt look, Mick’s gyrations, lyrics about “white shirts and cigarettes”, the use in the title of brackets and a double negative (reasonably clever as I was, I didn’t learn till later this was a “negative concord”).
The track was initially censored because of suggestive and basically unsettling lyrics, but became a worldwide No.1 and perhaps the Stones best known record, which regularly appears in top tens of “best ever singles”. Two of it’s many covers include two completely different versions – Otis Redding’s electrifying Soul treatment, performed at the Monterey rock festival, and Devo’s post punk off-the wall version.
1965 The Who – My Generation.
Let’s deal with the question everyone asks, straight away. Should Pete Townshend have written that (in)famous lyric – “hope I die before I get old” – and yet still be singing the song at nearly 70 years of age, for instance at Glastonbury in 2015 as part of the “Who at 50” tour. Well the answer I believe is yes, it is fine. When Pete wrote the lyrics it was purely how he felt at the time – we all change our mind at some stage – and no doubt there was some calculation that it would cause a stir and be a “nod to the mods”. Pete has said at various stages it referred to “not getting rich” and was “searching for his place in society”.
Also, is 70 old “old” any more? If the Who could steal the show from young pups at Glastonbury are they truly old? Things have changed over the years. There is no way that I as a 16 year old in 1972 would wear a T shirt for a “group” from 50 years prior in 1922 (groups had only just begun to form, in the conventional sense): but my 16 year old son does indeed wear a Who T-shirt.
Pete, born in Chiswick, went to art school in Ealing alongside Ronnie Wood and Freddie Mercury, and now lives in Richmond. Very much a West London background. .
The song features the Roger Daltry stutter, the vocal call and response R&B style in the “talking ‘bout my generation” chorus, John Entwhistle’s “world’s best ever bass solo”, Keith Moon’s manic drums and Pete Townshend’s Rickenbacker guitar with his windmill arms. Occasionally accompanied by Pete breaking his guitar (a feature which in fact began when Pete, in anger at an audience laughing at his broken guitar string, smashed the instrument on stage.)
My Generation, when performed live, often segues into long versions of other songs, such as See Me Feel Me at “Live at Leeds”, one of the greatest of all Live rock albums. The Who also played My Generation at Woodstock. They weren’t as impressed as their American colleagues, and one of the reasons might be this. When I visited Woodstock itself on a USA visit, I realised how far out in the country the festival was (not actually in the town of Woodstock at all) and it occurred to me that the Who must have wondered, as they meandered through the countryside, what on earth they had let themselves in for.
Regularly voted in the top the of “best songs ever” lists, My Generation still has a universal message for any young generation, whatever the age of the singers!
The precise month-by-month chronology of Good Vibrations is crucial for context. Crucial for the history of rock music in fact. While the Beachboys had scored enormous commercial success with their Surfing sound and subsequent teen anthems like “I Get Around”, they hadn’t yet reached creative or critical acclaim. But their composer/arranger Brian Wilson heard the Beatles’ Rubber Soul in late 1965. He was struck by the continuity of the album and lack of filler tracks – all of them high quality. He vowed to aim for the same standard with his next album with the Beachboys which was to become Pet Sounds, which is now recognised as one of the greatest of all times in with tracks like “God Only Knows” and “Carline No” and the development of psychadelic rock, concept album and complex studio techniques. When Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, it was initially viewed as too radical for the band’s American record company, but was an immediate commercial and critical success in the U.K. Paul McCartney took note and was determined to respond too, and he did with Revolver in August 1966 and especially with Sergeant Pepper in June 1967. The Beachboys response should have come with the ill-fated unreleased classic Smile album in 1967, but Brian’s ill-health and increasing estrangement from the band and his record company meant the project was shelved for several decades. The battle with the Beatles was over.
So how does Good Vibrations fit in? Well, the track initially was an out-take from the Pet Sounds sessions, but was reworked in mid 1966 and released as a single to worldwide critical acclaim and commercial success. It was to be included on Smile and eventually included on Smiley Smile a watered down version of the hidden masterpiece Smile.
The song lyrics stretch from simple “good vibes” to extra sensory perception, while musically it was a highly complex “pocket symphony” recorded over several months and in several studios. One of the standout instruments was the electro- theremin, based on one of the first electronic instruments, which in fact could be played without physical contact. The instrument is frequently used where an eerie or ghostly sound is needed, hence its use in both Midsommer Murders theme tune and a Big Bang Theory “Sheldon-plays-instrument” episode as well as Good Vibrations (true!)
There are some similarities between Good Vibrations and Strawberry Fields. Both recorded at the creative peak of their composers, both a complex, highly produced patchwork of tempos and styles. Also partly drug induced. However, whereas John Lennon ‘s mind was able to recover within a few years, for Brian Wilson it was arguably decades. Thankfully, he recently played live the entire lost album of Smile.
At just 10 years old, I was unaware of most of the above, and my great interest was England’s World Cup bid. I created a scrapbook from newspapers cuttings (remember them?) about the tournament in general and England in particular. Of course I was pleased we won but will always regret that one of my footballing heroes Jimmy Montgomery being dropped from the final squad. (He was to gain legendary status 7 years later when I saw him make the double save at Wembley against Leeds)
Nevertheless I just loved the Good Vibrations record. It was bubbly, fun, thrilling, intriguing all at the same time – what did “I don’t where, but she sends me there” mean? How could so many jigsaw puzzle pieces of music all fit together so perfectly? All the while retaining the feel of California sunshine, and finally it added to me increasing fascination with electronic music a la Dr Who and Telstar.
1966 Wilson Pickett – Midnight Hour
This was recorded in 1965 and appeared on the album “Exciting Wilson Pikckett” in 1966. Wilson started as a gospel singer before joining Stax/Atlantic where with Steve Cropper, of Booker T fame, he wrote this song and recorded it with Donald Duck Dunn and Al Jackson, who with Steve Cropper were part of the classic Stax house band. (Later in the Blues Brothers this was the real band that Jake and Elwood Blues got “back together”). Producer Jerry Wexler added the off-beat and the end result is a classic Atllantic/Stax soul standard.
I first really began loving the slightly harsher than Motown Soul sound at Atlantic when Paul Rogers of Free expressed admiration for this style of music, and when I went up to Cambridge in 1974 I happened I to find a second hand record shop and saw the above Vinyl album on sale for 33 pence. I speculated and found I had a classic – Wilson Pickett, Aretha, Sam and Dave, Arthur Conley, Otis Redding et alia. Not Midnight Hour s it happens but other Pickett classics like Mustang Sally and a Thousand Dances. I still have the album. And finally, I do remember an NME “best ever record” poster and poll which included these kind of Stax records to my great surprise but huge fascination.
1966 Sounds of Silence Simon and Garfunkel
Simon and Garfunkel had performed many years before as teen duo Tom and Jerry with a little success with Hey Schoolgirl (Art was Tom, named after Tom Graph: he liked Maths: good!) This song was recorded a decade later in 1964, originally by the duo as a purely acoustic folk song on the subject of loneliness, but initially made no chart impact and they split up. Paul Simon in fact came to England. However producers back in America had the idea (after Dylan’s Rolling Stone) of electrifying folk and did the same with this song in 1965. It gradually gained radio plays and popularity and by January 1966 was vying with the Beatles “We Can Work It Out” for the U.S.A , No 1 position. Paul returned from England and with Art properly launched the group. The song was used in the Graduate film and has become one of the most performed songs of the last century. And exactly 50 years later in June 2016 Paul Simon finds himself back at the top of the UK album charts with his latest solo album. An astonishing career.
Cream Sunshine of Your Love 1967
Jimi Hendrix is playing the Lulu show live on TV (yes, it happened in those days). Jimi stops, announces that he wants to finish playing “this rubbish” (Hey Joe!)and launches into a Cream record to mark their split. It was Sunshine of Your Love. The impromptu song extended beyond the end of the programme. Lulu was fine with it (but the produces were not). In fact Jimi was returning a favour – Cream had been inspired to write the song after seeing Jimi in concert earlier.
Eric Clapton had formed the “supergroup” Cream with Jack Bruce, lead singer and bass guitarist, and drummer Ginger Baker. Their second album, Disraeli Gears, was being put together in America at the Atlantic Studios, home of many of the great Soul musicians at the time. The Band recorded Sunshine of Your Love and Atlantic luminaries such as Otis Redding, Booker T, and Jerry Wexler gave it their approval. And one more equally important man, Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records with Wexler. Ertegun brought in the producers, who were unused to the sheer decibels at which the band recorded, but the ensemble managed to infuse the Atlantic Blues sound into English rock and one would argue that the future sound ofAtlantic’s Led Zeppelin was born.
You may not know Sunshine of Your Love producer Ahmet Ertegun, but he is the Forest Gump of Rock and Soul music. He appears throughout it’s history. A Turkish immigrant to the U.S.A. , living the dream as they say. In the late 1940’s he co-founded Atlantic Record and produced records for Professor Longhair and Ray Charles. In the early 1950’s Ertegun wrote Blues standards s recorded for instance by Big Joe Turner and Pat Boone and was in the chorus for Turner’s seminal “Shake Rattle and Roll.”
In the 1960’s he was instrumental in developing the Atlantic/Stax Soul sound of Aretha, Wilson Pickett and Otis. Some of the greatest records ever. Ertegun then was instrumental in breaking Cream in America, and was thus predisposed to sign another upcoming British heavy rock band in the late 1960’s – Led Zeppelin ,with whom he formed a lifelong personal friendship and business bond.
When Ertegun sold his share in Atlantic, he invested in New York Cosmos soccer team and brought Pele and Beckenbauer to America. He was chairman of the American – Turkish society and promoted many joint causes for instance with Henry Kissinger.
Weill into his eighties he was still involved in the music business in 2006. Ertegun attended a Rolling Stones concert and unfortunately fell, and from the injuries died a few weeks later.
In 2007 the remaining members of Led Zeppelin reformed purely in honour of Ahmet Ertegun, their former producer,, and whose Jimmy Page had announced the death of Ahmet when Led Zeppelin were inducted to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of fame. The funds from the reunion concert (and there were a record 20 million applicants for this one concert at the O2) were for Ahmet’s Turkish American foundation. Led Zeppelin have never performed since.
The role of the record producer has fascinated me for years. I tried to be a producer myself, in my IT work, assembling teams, supervising work, generating ideas. With a little success, but ultimately not enough.
So back to the record. The significance of the tie-up with Ertegun and Wexler’s Atlantic is that it was a historic union of blues and rock – another example being Clapton’s reworking of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. Ginger Baker’s complex drum patterns are a highlight of “Sunshine”, and Clapton’s “woman tone” guitar riff became one of all-time greats. It was a big top ten hit in America. I personally remember the song as an example of the summer of love, a hippy tune.
Eric Clapton, having started in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and the Yardbirds, then went on to become the ultimate guitar hero in Cream and Derek and the Dominoes, sometimes known as “God”. I remember talking to my bother about the group Cream and observed that Clapton was “only the guitarist, not the singer” (at the time I believed that the singer in a band was far more important, in this case the base player Jack Bruce). My brother Malcolm, older and wiser, looked at me and said wistfully, “Hmmm, only the guitarist you say…”.
The band only ran for 2 years and played Sunshine of Your Love at their famous farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall (in those days a rare rock concert there). You can hear the enormous, full sound that the threesome makes, a feat repeated ten years later by the Jam.
Aretha Franklin Respect 1967
When Aretha recently sang “Natural Woman” to an audience at end 2015 including the Obamas and song writer Carole King, they were brought to tears because Aretha was so good. The wonderful voice from the Stax Atlantic years is absolutely still there and Aretha looked in good health. Alison would certainly not let me publish this1 list without an Aretha song – Say a Little Prayer perhaps? I have chosen Respect because of the multiple awards and recognitions (No.5 best ever song in Rolling Stone top 500) and huge sales: but more important because of its iconic status as a feminist anthem.
Although originally written by Otis Redding as a man’s demand for respect, Aretha turned it on its head to become a women’s rights call to arms, aided by the introduction of the famous R-E-S-P-E-C-T chorus. This truly launched Aretha as the Queen of Soul, a status she has held ever since.
The creative peak of Lennon, McCartney and the Beatles, therefore the creative peak of modern pop music as a whole and so my No.1 favourite of all time. The double A-Side is very relevant, Penny Lane being mainly Paul with help from John, George, Ringo and George Martin, and Strawberry Fields is John with help from Paul and the Gang.
Both songs were recorded in late 1966 and meant to be part of the Sergeant Pepper album. But because they were finished early and a single was due, the decision was taken to release the double A-side, early 1967, which in those days meant it could not be also included on the album. As Pepper was meant to be a concept album about memories of Liverpool, George Martin later felt it was a big mistake.
As it happens the record was a rare failure to reach No.1 (Englebert with Please Release Me bizarrely kept it off the top) but creatively the combination of John and Paul at their best on one 45 inch vinyl sends it to the top for me (any many others)
As an eleven year old I loved listening to the way Paul pronounced Customer in his still-Liverpool accent and wondered at image of the “fireman rushing in from the pouring rain”. Later I learned of the complex mock Baroque style piccolo trumpet in the horn section and the complex tonal chord changes to bridge the lyrics. The fish and finger pies, the line about “though she was in a Play, she is anyway” which was probably LSD induced. Penny Lane was a street in Liverpool on the local Bus route.
Strawberry Fields too finds a Beatle musing about his Liverpool childhood: it was a Salvation Army children’s home in whose garden John used to play. Too young to fully appreciate the scope of the song and music, I nevertheless came to the conclusion about the Beatle’s success. How could a song sound so weird and inscrutable and yet so attractively easy on the ear?
For a three minute single the song is astonishingly complicated – dissonances, Ringo’s’ wonderful drumming on the main track and its reprise after fade out, Paul’s early use of the Mellotron, Georges’s Indian zither, cellos, tape loops, reverse flutes, varispeeds, occupying an unprecedented 55 hours of studio time. Ringo Starr (the Ringo nickname came from the rings on his fingers, and a cowboy film character called Ringo ) sometimes became bored during these sessions but his drumming had certainly evolved from the Rory Storm days. The key lyric – one of the most important of John’s career – is “No one is in my tree”. John felt simultaneously that that no-one was near him creatively, and yet if true this worried him. “No I think I disagree”. Part impressionism and part psycho-analysis. With any other band this would be hidden on an LP but the genius of the Beatles was to create a memorable single from such complex, anarchic beginnings.
The “promotional film” for Fields – later on the “pop video” would be invented – featured reverse effects, piano’s in fields. Highly innovative as you would expect. And – I love the little extras – while filming it in Sevenoaks, John wandered into an antique shop and spotted the circus poster for Pablo Fanqie’s Fair that would become the inspiration for “The benefit of Mr Kite” on Sergeant Pepper. The Penny video shows features of Liverpool – the barber shop and famous “sheter in the middle of a roundabout” and the boys trying manfully to ride horses!
For me the Beatles had three key periods (which coincide with Ian MacDonald’s Revolution in the Head chapters of On The Up, At the Top, and Going Down): namely the early Liverpool years: the mid period of unsurpassed creativity from Rubber Soul through Revolver to Sergeant Pepper; and the later period of gradual wind-down starting with Magical Mystery Tour and the White Album and ending with Abbey Road and Let It Be. Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields lies at the zenith of the peak mid period. A natural bridge from the astonishing avant-garde closing track of Tomorrow Never Knows on Revolver to the beginnings of Pepper. It also meant the winning of the final battle in the war with Brian Wilson’s Beachboys over who could leapfrog the other’s creativity. Brian, perhaps sensing this, never quite recovered.
Consider this, in my opinion, on a scale of 1 to the 10 advance and technology and impact of Love Me Do to Tomorrow Never Knows in 3 years was 10. iPhone 3 to iPhone4 took the same time and the change was 5 out of 10.
I make no apology for saying that on their own the individual tracks on this Double A Side Penny lane/Strawberry Fields may not be at the top of the tree. But the combination of the two tracks together – one Lennon, one McCartney – and George Martin pulling it together with George and Ringo, is simply unbeatable. But wasn’t that always the case with the Beatles, the secret of their success? The record sums up their whole career. It is the centrepoint of the Beatles phenomenon. Everything before was leading up to it, and everything after it and Pepper was not quite the same.
1968 Otis Redding – (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay
I loved the song from the start but for many years I did not know what the title actually meant (how can you have a big Dock in a small bay?) until I learned that the song almost certainly refers to the San Francisco Bay. And the use of brackets intrigued me (and always has in song titles). Otis Redding was perhaps not the only person to be named “King of Soul” but he was right up there. An electric stage performer, sharp dresser, attractive, a wonderful throaty voice equally at home on up tempo numbers like his re-working of “Satisfaction” or slower songs like “Fa Fa Fa”. He was at the peak of his career, having triumphed at the Monterey rock festival – where he crossed over to a mainly white rock audience. Then he gave a few lines of a song to his collaborator Steve Cropper. They were Otis’s thoughts when staring across the bay from a rented houseboat and Steve extended the lines about “ships rolling in” to the full version that we know. Steve, being one of the world’s great guitarists (and still is), added his languid “less is more” guitar licks, the sound of the sea and the seagulls, recorded Otis and the rest is history. Except a very sad history it is of course. Soon after, Otis tragically dies in an accident – his place crashed into a lake. The song was rush released and was a huge hit.
The atmosphere on the song was wistful – surely Otis and Steve could not have foretold the events? Whatever, like so many artists the song they are best known for is not entirely typical of their output. Otis Blue or the Greatest Hits are great introductions to his marvellous Stax Atlantic years, the peak of which was also the end, the great “Dock of the Bay”.
Jimi Hendrix – All Along the Watchtower 1968
Jimi Hendrix’s career took off when he moved to London in 1966. Paul McCartney was living in central London and very much part of the social scene – actually unlike John Lennon who was having a difficult time out in Surrey. Paul and Ringo went to see Jimi early January 1967 at the Bag o’ Nails club in Soho, and again in summer ’67 in London where Jimi played the track Sergeant Pepper only three days after the Beatles release.
I used to think that of Jimi’s subsequent big hit singles, Hey Joe and especially Purple Haze were the best, with it memorable riff, and then I switched to Voodoo Chile, his posthumous No.1, with its famous guitar solo.
But finally – and not just because it features currently in a TV advert – All Along the Watchtower seems the most enduring and powerful. “There must be some kind of way outa here, said the Joker to the Thief” could only be Bob Dylan and indeed Bob wrote it at his home in Woodstock (where yours truly has visited) then recorded it at Nashville Tennessee, before Jimi transformed the song along with Traffic’s Dave Mason and the Stones’ Brian Jones in a recording session at Olympic Studio in London. (In those days great musicians, if hanging around the studios, were often invited to join in other rock stars’ sessions) What wasn’t a coincidence was the presence of Chas Chandler, future Slade Manager, who at the time was Jimi’s manager. Still they were not satisfied and final production was done at the Record Plant in New York.
Part of the Electric Ladyland album, “Watchtower” was released as a single and was very successful both in the UK and US. The combination of acoustic and Jimi’s now famous electric guitar solo is captivating, utterly dramatic.
Jimi’s most famous Live performances were at Woodstock ( I subsequently visited the famous site, which in reality is 20 miles from the actual Woodstock village) and Monterey, where Jimi famously burned his guitar.
Just today, I saw an interview with the leading rock journalist/PR manager Keith Altham, who as a friend of my cousin Suzanne I have briefly met – he remains one of the great rock officianados: he explained that his PR client Jimi’s incendiary stunt was not in fact spontaneous but planned!. Keith was one of a group of mainly sixties and seventies PR representatives/managers/journalists who did so much to shape rock and soul music. Many revolved around the NME (New Musical Express) which I read avidly in the rock decades. My favourite editors and journalists from the NME were Keith Altham, Charles Sharr Murray and from the Punk era Paul Morely, Nick Kent, Danny Baker, Carline Coon, Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill. Keith Altham started with the cult pop magazine Fabulous and BBC pop show Scene and Heard, then as writer and editor of the NME carried out many famous interviews and concert reviews including with Peter Green, the Beachboys, the Animals and Jimi himself. Keith was PR manager to a who’s who of rock, from Paul Weller to Ray Davies to Rod Stewart. He famously took Jim Morrison of the Doors to see Status Quo.
Keith Altham conducted the very last interview with Jim Hendrix on September 11 1970. A little earlier in 1969, one of my first recollections of Jimi was on the Lulu show. This may seem incongruous but in those days there was less differentiation between the genres – it was all just pop music. This was the famous occasion when the Jimi Hendrix Experience were playing Hey Joe and half way through Jimi stopped abruptly and said he wanted to stop “playing this rubbish” and switched to Sunshine of Your Love by the recently demised Cream. A sign that Jimi already knew he need to move on and try new styles – which he was at the time of his tragic death. There was lots more to come.
1968 The Beatles – Hey Jude
A full 44 years after its release, Paul McCartney found himself as a spectator at the 2012 Olympics velodrome in London. The crowd spotted him. There began a spontaneous rendition of Hey Jude, in particular the “Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na-Na Na-Na-Na-Na-Na- Hey Jude chorus”. Now that’s star quality, that’s longevity for a song. AT the time as a 12 year old I was unaware that the song was written by Paul for John’s son Julien, in particular as encouragement to accept the break-up of his father’s marriage, and to accept John’s new girlfriend Yoko, to “let her in to your life”. What I remember is the surprise at hearing such a long record on the radio, and a “record of two halves” with the long fading chorus, finished by Paul with a return to his Little Richard style “Judy-Judy”.
This was the biggest hit of the Beatles closing period. But visually for me the stand out images of that period were John and Yoko curiously in bed in Amsterdam pleading for peace as part of the “Ballad of John and Yoko”, and of course the last live concert on the roof for “Get Back”, after which John said “Thanks you very much and I hope we passed the audition”. Get Back for me was also a standout record, beautifully simple back to basics, so much so that even our staid R.S. teacher Claude Dales admitted he liked the record (why aren’t teachers called “Claude” anymore?)
1969 The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
The track wasn’t really an official major single release at the time – but has subsequently become one and in fact is recognised as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, featuring in countless films, TV series and computer games, and cover versions abound including one for the recent “Sons of Anarchy” biker-based TV series, which feels appropriate, and proves how enduring the song is (and always will be). The lyrics reflect the physical threat of flood and fire, but also the wider dark times of the Vietnam War period, (“war…just a shot away”); the music uses Keith Richards’ open string tuning guitar technique and a memorable, brutal guitar solo, and Mick’s harmonica. And the vocals are shared between Jagger and Merry Clayton, a wonderful soul/rock background singer who was also on Sweet Home Alabama. The overall feel is both claustrophobic and apocalyptic, yet simultaneously uplifting due to the closing “just a kiss away”.
The song comes from what to many is the Golden Age of the Stones, namely 1968-1972, in which their successive albums of Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street showed an astonishing burst of creativity with a string of memorable singles including Honky Tonk Women, Jumping Jack Flash, Brown Sugar and Street Fighting Man. Arguably comparable to the Beatles foursome of Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper and the White album. And all recorded during the difficult period of Brian Jones’ death, drugs busts and the beginning of Keith’s addictions, the Altamont Hell’s Angels concert tragedy, and tax exile.
Jump forward to the 2010’s and the bad are still active: Doom and Gloom a well-received single, Keith’s fascinating autobiography and now recognised as one of the great authorities on popular music, Mick’s co-producer role in Vinyl, the Sky TV New York rock and soul story of the 1970’s. And Gimme Shelter’s reputation just grows and grows. And after a 45 year misconception, I can finally clear up a personal “misheard lyric” mystery: it’s not “whoa Matilda it’s just a shout away” (which is plausible) but in fact its “War, children, it’s just a shot away”. Now I understand, now I no longer need to research Matilda after all this time. I can finally call time on a lifelong search.
1969 David Bowie – Space Oddity
In one sense this record was an oddity, what was seen at the time as a one-hit wonder, capitalising on the Moon landings that year. But we now know it was the beginning of a career, not an end. Bowie had released records before, like Laughing Gnome, but was yet to find his true muse. When I first heard the record at the age of 13 I believed it was indeed a novelty record, another Laughing Gnome. How wrong I was.
Consider this. Novelty records reveal less as you hear them more, you tire of them quickly. Space Oddity is the opposite. The more you listen the more depth is revealed. The combination of acoustic and electric guitars, and early synthesiser. The appreciation that astronauts have feelings too – “I miss my wife very much”. The eerie anticipation of Apollo 13 – “your circuit’s dead”. An extraordinary record for a 22 year old. And a sign of things to come.
My own recollection of the Moon landings was to create what is now I believe a thing of the past – the “Scrap Book”. Made up of newspaper cuttings before during and after the landings, this proved a worthy successor to my “1966 World Cup” collection. The record Space Oddity just seemed to add to the excitement.
Major Tom (as in “Ground Control to”) reappeared at least twice more in Bowie’s career, once in Ashes to Ashes and again in Blackstar, shortly before Bowie’s death. And of course the record became the first to be performed to video in Space when Chris Hadfield of the Space Station memorably sang Space Oddity to great approval from Bowie. Not a novelty record at all, it seems.
Jackson 5 I Want You Back 1969
I first began to take an interest in the group when their Jackson 5 Cartoon series was released, and when placed against teen rivals the Osmonds, I preferred the Jackson 5. One of the reasons was this record, the first of four consecutive USA number 1’s including the almost equally memorable ABC.
I Want You Back was written by the Motown writers and sung by Michael when he was only 11 years old. From the album Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5, it is often described as the “greatest pop record ever”, has the “greatest chord sequence ever” or the “greatest dance floor filler ever”. It was the innocent start to a wonderful career, even if in later years Michael went through some difficult times.
Marvin Gaye 1970 What’s Going On
Marvin began recording the song in 1970 after a hiatus following the death on stage of fellow singer Tammie Terrell. He began a new direction, moving on from his “Heard it Through the Grapevine” era, becoming more interested in the Civil Rights movements. Renaldo Benson, of the Four Tops, started the song after witnessing police brutality, and Marvin helped work up the lyrics into also an anti-Vietnam war song, a social commentary protest song. Recording as usual for Motown took place at Hitsville studios Detroit, and included the now famous but then novel multi-layered voice track. But when Marvin presented this to Motown Svengali Berry Gordy, he refused to release it, famously saying “it’s the worse thing I have ever heard”.
However, Marvin persisted and eventually a low key release in 1971 immediately lead to huge local then worldwide sales. The rest is history as they say. The accompanying equally successful eponymous album included early references to ecology and global warming. It launched a whole new chapter in Motown and Gaye’s career, which then included “Let’s Get It On” before a tragic death, at the hands of his own father, shot during an argument. (If you call it an assassination, only one other rockstar has died this way – John Lennon)
For me, this has been a slow burner. It is languid, haunting, sad. Marvin knows there’s a problem, but can’t quite understand it or solve it. Hence the title. Regularly appears in Rolling Stone’s “Top Ten songs ever” lists.
Elton John Your Song 1970
I first came across Elton when Noel Edmonds described how he “fell asleep” at an Elton John concert. To be fair, this was before Elton formed the Elton John Band and speeded things up.
What is not generally known about Elton is that he started as a professional musician as a young teenager in the early 1960s, playing as a pub pianist and at the age of 15 formed his own group Bluesology, which went on to back Long John Baldry’s band and, when touring, the Isely Brothers. In 1967 Reggie Dwight as he was then answered an advert to write songs with Bernie Taupin, and they have been partners ever since. He changed his name by combining Bluesology saxophone player with John Baldry. He and Taupin became house songwriters for a record label. Elton played backing piano on the Hollies He Aint Heavy He’s My Brother.
Elton began recording his own material and by the second album had released Your Song, which launched his career and the rest, as they say, is history.
For me it is slightly morose but I have grown to like it over the years. It also helped launch Ellie Golding’s career with her cover.
Free Allright Now 1970
When I went up to Cambridge in 1974, the type of music played at student Disco’s like the Grad Pad was rarely Soul music – it was Rock (in those days you danced to Rock). The DJ most frequently played “Can’t Get Enough” by Bad Company, whose lead singer was Paul Rogers and whose drummer was Simon Kirke. Both formerly of Free, who had broken up after the initial impetus of “Alright Now” had petered out.
All Right Now was written by Paul Rogers and Andy Fraser in Durham Students Union in 1970 (Paul was a Middlesborough boy). The band Free formed as teenagers and had worldwide success with Alright Now. The things which I remember at the time, were these. First, Paul Rogers said that all he ever wanted to do as a singer and musician was sound like the Stax Atlantic soul musicians – the gritty voices and driving bass lines with Steve Cropper’s delicious guitar. At that time as a rock fan I had not really heard of Stax but this made me curious and so began a lifetime love of all things Stax Soul. Second the guitar solo of Paul Kossoff – one of the greatest ever. Paul was the son of actor David, but alas was to live not much longer, succumbing to drugs in 1976. Third the bass line – at the time I hadn’t considered how important this was but this is so clearly obvious on this track. And lastly the line “let’s move before they raise the parking rate” is one of my favourites!
Although Free followed up with Little Bit Of Love, My Brother Jake and Wishing Well they could not repeat the success of All Right Now, which remains to this day a rock and guitar anthem. Paul Rogers is still singing today, for instance as a recent replacement for Freddie Mercury in Queen. His throaty voice defines the Rock Singer.
1971 Rod Stewart – Maggie Mae/Reason To Believe
When I first saw the record on Top of the Pops my first thought was this. “Doesn’t that look like John Peel, the disc jockey, on Mandolin?” And indeed it was he, perched on a stool.
Rod Stewart had been around the London music scene for many years before his breakthrough playing for instance with “Long” John Baldry – who hired Rod after hearing him play Harmonica on Twickenham Station: Brian Auger and Julie Driscol; the Jeff Beck group with Ronnie Wood; and Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green. He had released some singles, including Gasoline Alley and also lead for Python Lee Jackson on “In a Broken Dream”. But no great success, despite being featured in a half-hour TV documentary about Mod culture.
The breakthrough came with the album Every Picture Tells a Story. Although a solo album, it featured all the members of his then regular group the Faces, including his old mucker Ronnie Wood who would go on to replace Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones.
The A-side single from album went on to be No.1 simultaneously in the UK and USA, as did the album, and astonishing rarely repeated feat. In the early to mid 1970’s, Rod and the Faces were absolutely everywhere, alternating between group and solo albums.
Rod is till as popular today as ever with astonishing longevity: his American song book albums in the 2000’s were huge American successes; and 37 years after Night on the Town hit No.1 in 1976, his album Time in 2013 also reached the top (the longest ever gap) and was one of the highest selling records in UK that year. His first single was Good Morning Little Schoolgirl in 1964 and 52 years later he still looks the part. Not quite Rod the Mod, but close enough! And still sounding like the great Sam Cooke, who provided the inspiration for Rod’s silky voice and many of his songs.
1971 Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
On March 18, 1971, a friend in my school class, Paul Wellings said he had a spare ticket for an up and coming rock group, playing at Newcastle Mayfair ballroom, and would I like to come?
I turned it down.
To be fair, I was only 15, and was not used to going out on the Toon. And the group had not had any hit singles, so I was only just aware of them.
This was a huge mistake, because the group of course was Led Zeppelin, and the set list included one of the first plays of a new track, “Stairway to Heaven”.
That spring would be the last time they played small venues. Although their first three eponymous albums had established the group especially in America, they were not yet megastars and the band were determined to t play a “close to the fans” tour. All this was about to change, not least because their fourth album would have a different name to the group’s own – in fact no name at all on the sleeve, just four symbols.
I was about to enter the Newcastle Royal Grammar Sixth form , and of course in those days in the common room it was de rigeuer to bring in albums and their fantastic “arty” covers – King Crimson’s Court of the Crimson King, the Yes albums with Roger Dean’s futuristic covers. Led Zeppelin were seen in those days as somewhere between heavy metal and progressive (and their album covers did not disappoint).
Tracks on the fourth album – released later in 1971 – included “ Stairway”, Black Dog, and Rock’n’Roll and the record established the band once and for all as the biggest rock group of the seventies, possibly of all time. The album is in the top ten sellers of all time with close to 30 million sales.
Stairway to Heaven was written partly at Bron-Yr-Aur in the Welsh mountains, and the mystic feel of the slow tempo elements of the track perhaps come from this. The track builds pace of course and Jimmy Page’s guitar solo is now viewed as the greatest of all solos, played by many aspiring young guitar players including my son Matthew.
The track is the most played on F.M. radio in America, though never officially released as a single until years after release. I had tried to limit this list to headline singles, but for Stairway to Heaven, its legendary status elevates it above categorisation. Led Zeppelin’s policy was to release only albums, not singles.
Throughout the rest of the seventies I assiduously bought the band’s LP’s such as Physical Graffiti, and I did eventually manage to see them perform Stairway to Heaven, at Knebworth just before the end of their career together. But I often wonder what that night would have been like at Newcastle Mayfair ballroom. I wonder if my friend Paul remembers?
1971 – American Pie Don McLean
The major part of the record is now well understood. It is about the demise of Buddly Holly – “the day the music died”. Don had read about this while doing his paper round on winter’s morning in 1959. “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver”….”Something touched me deep inside, the day the music died”. My feeling is that much of the song is about the passing the baton from one musical icon to the next, not just Buddy Holly, and significant events in their lives and careers. So the Court jester” is Bob Dylan, Eight Miles High the Byrds, and the “Marching Band” is Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper while “Helter Skelter” is from the White Album. Jack Flash is surely Mick Jagger, at infamous Altamont with the reference to an “angel born in hell”.
There are so many theories – not all of them conspiracy theories – about the lyrics so l recommend this insight. Don went on the record the beautiful Van Gogh tribute “Vincent”, with the memorable spoken introduction, ”Starry Starry Night”. (Which was my personal introduction at the time to the great artist and Impressionism in general).
American Pie has been described as the “song of the (last) century”. Very recently, the original penned lyrics were auctioned for $1.2 million (how many of today’s songs will achieve that sum?) Don Mclean declined to reveal any more insights – and why should he? Good on him, it is the right of every songwriter to withhold his explanations. For me, the best songs invite the imagination to paint pictures, to leave some gaps in a full understanding. “Took my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry” fascinated me from the start. It was only when I listened to Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” did I understand ! Words like “levee” and “bayou” are so much more fascinating than “flood defence”!
Stevie Wonder 1972 Superstition
Steve Wonder had begun his career with a No.1 single at the age of 12 (yes!) with Fingertips. As he matured he scored memorable hits with Signed Sealed Delivered and For Once in My Life. He became an accomplished writer for Motown – for instance Tears of a Clown was his. But nothing could really prepare us for the simply astonishing set of four albums he released in the early to mid 1970’s : Talking Book, Inner Visions, Fulfillingness First Finale and Songs in the Key of Life. With these Steve completely redefined what a Motown artist could be, both lyrically and in terms of introducing modern electronic sounds. Up there with the Stones Let it Bleed and Beatles Rubber Soul sequence of three or four classic albums on the spin.
Superstition was put together in conjunction with guitarist Jeff Beck, and features multi instrumentalist Stevie playing the distinctive opening drum sequence, the Moog synthesiser bass, and Calvichord riff. As a dance record at parties it became and still is a memorable floor filler. This and Sunshine of My Life, also from Talking Book, established the former “Little” Stevie Wonder as one of the major artists of the seventies and in fact of all time.
1972 – Get It On T Rex
T Rex is all about Marc Bolan (you knew that) and John Peel (perhaps not).
I followed the bond and then duel between the two from start to finish. Sadly neither is around to reminisce as I am sure they would.
I was an early listener to Tyrannosaurus Rex, who played in the late 1960’s a kind of folk or hippy rock, mostly acoustic. With mysterious lyrics with fairytale content. And the first of two Tom Tom Players in Steve Perriguine Took. Just that name drew me to the band. John Peel the cheerleader of “differentness” championed the band as an “underground” group and sometimes even appeared with them on stage. The band had some success with singles like Debora, King of the Rumbling Spires, and the album Beard Of Stars, helped by Peel’s playing on his shows.
But Steve was taking the alternative culture route while Marc in a sense wanted a quitter life but also sought stardom and increasingly wanted to introduce an electric rock sound to the band.
The turning point came with the release of Ride a White Swan, perfectly balanced between the old Tyrannosaurus Rex and the new T.Rex. Although only 2 minutes long, Ride a White Swan was brimming with mythology references but featured a gorgeous rock guitar riff. A slow burner, it reached No.2 after 11 weeks, to be denied the Top Spot by Clive Dunn’s Grandad (illustrating the wonderful diversity of the charts then). The band became T. Rex, glam rock was born, Steve Peregrine Took was replaced on Bongos by Mucky Finn, and soon Hot Love and the electric Warrior the album came out with lead single Get It On.
Get It On was Terex’s biggest hit in the U.S.A., peaking in early 1972, and a big No.1 in the U.K. Hot Love (Woman of gold, not very old) and Get It On proved the last straw and turning point for John Peel, who abandoned the group because of its commercial bent, and John and Marc barely spoke again. Unfair I think, because history has concluded I believe that Marc was well, a genius and the creator of some of the most memorable and enduring songs in pop history, and importantly sounding relevant to any generation.
Get It On (Bang a Gong) features a great base line from Steve Currie, and guest saxophone playing from King Crimson’s Ian McDonald of 21st century schizoid fame. Marc’s guitar playing and singing are spot on and the lyrics are intriguing (“teeth of the hydra upon you”). A couple of spots of glitter under his eyes and he and glam rock were made. And the closing mumble of “meanwhile I’m still thinking” is a reference to Chuck Berry’s Little Queenie. Watch this T Rex video which features Elton John on piano (it was Rick Wakeman who originally played keyboard)
Consider Marc’s legacy. His best songs like 20th Century Boy taken up by advertising campaigns years later, even his ordinary songs such I Love To Boogie featured in Billy Elliot. The creator you would argue of glam rock. An inspiration already to Punk Rock and New Wave (he hosted a Punk TV show), the Indie scene (Morrissey was a big fan), Britpop (Oasis Cigarettes and Alcohol clearly influenced by T Rex) and more recently My Chemical Romance, one of my daughters favourites.
Sadly he died in a car crash near Barnes Bridge, on route to his home in Upper Richmond Road in east Sheen. Both very near to where me and Alison have lived, You can still see the flowers where it happened. The car was driven by then girlfriend Gloria Jones, early singer of Tainted Love (yes that one).
Marc Bolan, a true hero of rock and roll, who came through the hard way, paid his dues on the circuit, dared to be different and left a memorable legacy.
1972 – Imagine John Lennon
The record was recorded as part of the Imagine album in 1971, but not released as a single in the UK till 1975 and did not reach No.1 until 1980 after Lennon’s assassination outside the Dakota buildings near Central Park, where a monument to the great man now rests. It is called Strawberry Fields and has Imagine at its centre.
It is not my personal favourite Lennon solo single; I prefer the rockier Instant Karma, or harrowing Cold Turkey, or classic soul cover Stand By Me. But the “one world” message and simple C-Major chord structure make it a classic that people round globe turn to in times of trouble. John said later he felt it was one of his best works, but knew he had to “sugar coat” the overall sound to get his radical message across.
1972 was a crucial year in this record’s history, on its path to becoming an anthem, regularly voted in the top five of “best records ever”. For that was when the iconic video was made with at his Tittenhurst Park home near Ascot. Let us explore this a little – it is part of Beatles mythology.
John and Yoko moved there from Weybridge and the video shows them walking through the fog towards the house. On entering, John plays the song on the to-be famous white piano, which Yoko opens the shutters to let the light in before they sit together and complete the song.
The significance to me is this. Throughout his career, John’s appearance changed quite dramatically, not just the length of his hair but the shape of his face, depending on well he was eating, and the substances he was taking, and the mood which befell him. In this video, John looks handsome and healthy once more, at peace at least for a time.
When the four Beatles spent their very last day recording together, at Abbey Road for “She’s So Heavy”, on August 20 1969, they spent some time talking about the now famous “continuous play” sequence of Abbey Road, and then decamped to John and Yoko’s Tittenhurst Park home on August 22nd for their very last publicity shoot as the Beatles. As you can see their appearance had (I would argue) deteriorated to the point of resembling renegades from the American civil war. One more recording session with three of the Beatles (minus Lennon) took place on January 3rd 1970, and one final one in April 1970 with just Ringo and Phil Spector, producer of Let It Be. And that was it. I remember the feeling of breakup of the Beatles – huge disappointment but we all knew it was coming. Meanwhile Lennon had fully launched his official solo career with Instant Karma early 1970, with both he and Yoko shaving their long locks. So contrast the photo above with how John looked just over two years later at his piano at the same location for the iconic Imagine video.
The record has been covered many times but one of my favourite uses of the record was a few years ago when Liverpool football club found themselves near the bottom of the English Premier League. Ever ones for dark humour, graffiti was created in Liverpool “above us only sky, below us only QPR and Reading”….. .
And the house itself? Soon after the video. John and Yoko took a trip to New York, not realising they would never come back to England, partly because of John’s “Green Card” worries about being denied access to USA if he ever left. And so he sold Tittenhurst Park to an old friend of his, one Richard Starkey.
1973 David Bowie – Life on Mars
Although released as a successful single in 1973, this was actually part of the 1971 album Changes, which was David Bowie’s comeback album after a break following Space Oddity. Changes was one of the very first albums I bought and to me it was all about the title track. Life on Mars did not really stand out. However, following Changes, Bowie released in quick succession Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, and following them Life On Mars suddenly seemed to fit much better – hence the single release.
Bowie composed the song himself on piano, but brought in Rick Wakeman of Strawbs, Yes and Six Wives of Henry 8th fame to embellish the piano. Mick Ronson put together the string and guitar pieces.
The lyrics are anyone’s guess, but it seems the “girl with the mousey hair” is unhappy and muses on whether life can be better elsewhere. I have great admiration for lyrics that I simply don’t understand – it encourages you to paint pictures in your mind. “The mice in their million hordes. From Ibitha to the Norfolk broads”. BBC Radio 2 described it very well – “between a Broadway Musical and a Salvador Dali painting”. The song has a certain majesty and in some critics lists tops the list of “best song ever”.
The song came to prominence again with the TV cop series Life on Mars. The show’s title track plays on an iPod in Sam Tyler’s car (played by John Sim) while he is run over, and on an 8-track tape when he wakes up in 1973 in Gene Hunt’s Manchester police department (Philip Gleinster). The song memorably plays again at the climax of the series where John Sim’s life (probably) comes to an end.
1973 Stevie Wonder – Livin for the City
Although the music is fascinating enough –the foreboding opening electronic bass line and more uplifting synthesiser breaks – it is the lyrics that are memorable. From his album Inner Visions, the song took political protest song to a new level. Although Marvin had lead the way with What’s Going On” it was still rare for a Motown based African American to so overtly and graphically to describe their plight. I always wondered how Stevie as a blind man could not only play so beautifully but also write such vivid lyrics.
The song tells the story of a Mississippi boy moving to New York where he and his family suffer from prejudice, urban pollution and unemployment. “To find a job is like the haystack needle, Because where he lives they don’t use coloured people” is so Stevie. Slightly awkward rhyming, but absolutely makes the point.
The other singles from Inner Visions were Misstra Know It All and Higher Ground, memorably covered by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
Elton John Bennie and the Jets/Candle in the Wind 1973
I really started following Elton when he formed his Band with Dee Murray (bass), Davey Johnstone (guitar) and Nigel Olsen (drums). Occasionally assisted by Ray Cooper percussionist. While Dee Murray sadly passed away, Davey and Nigel recently completed their 2000th show with Elton and long fair haired Davey was easily picked out during Elton’s performance of his latest record early 2016 on the Graham Norton show. And Elton and Ray did a solo tour just a couple of years ago. And of course Bernie Taupin still writes the lyrics to Elton’s tunes.
Bennie and Candle in the Wind were two of the standout tracks from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, part of astonishing run of 8 albums in 5 years from “Elton John” (Your Song) in 1970 to “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy” (Someone saved my life tonight) in 1975. My own favourite was perhaps Honky Chateau (Rocket Man).
Bennie and Candle were released as a double A side single in Europe. Bennie was one of the oddest records that Elton released, but with the addition of crowd noises took on an unusual but alluring form, the story being about a mythical pop group. It was released alone in the USA and made Number 1. Elton reveals what a wonderfully innovative piano player he is with the off- beat tempo. Hints of all sorts of genres, whether its Ray Charles’ jazz piano of What I’d Say or Thunderclap Newman’s epic keyboard solo on Something In the Air, one of my personal favourites.
Candle in the Wind needs no explanation of course, the original being about Marilyn Monroe, and the re-recording as “Goodbye England’s Rose” about Princess Dianna, which is still the highest selling single in the U.K… Elton will not perform the song again, understandably, after his memorable performance at her funeral.
My all-time favourite Elton moment was when he performed live with John Lennon at what would be Lennon’s last major concert appearance, at Maddison Square Garden, where they sang “Saw Her Standing There” together. Lennon says “ thanks Elton and the band…let me sing this so I can get out of here and be sick…we chose one I wrote with an old fiancé of mine….Paul…..and we just about know it”. They also sang Whatever Gets You Through the Night (as a thanks to Lennon for contributing to it as a No.1 record) and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds. After the concert an estranged Yoko was reunited with John. I still have “Saw her standing there” as B-side to Philadelphia Freedom on vinyl.
Oh, and the lyrics to Bennie and the Jets are, memorably “She’s Got Electric Boots, and Mohair Suits”, in case you misheard them.
Time. Pink Floyd 1974
From Dark Side of the Moon, an album which absolutely dominated the charts in the mid 1970’s. I first came across Pink Floyd in the 1960’through their singles See Emily Play and Arnold Lane. My older friends preferred their albums, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Umma Gumma, and Atom Heart Mother, especially as it looked great carrying the album sleeves into the Sixth Form common room. The band heralded from a mixture of North London and Cambridge (technical college) locations and were classed originally as Undergound, then as Progressive, or Psychedelic, Rock (and finally as just mega!)
The Progressive Rock movement of the early 1970’s – which later helped launch the Punk genre as a reaction against it – included bands such as Pink Floyd, Yes and King Crimson (again with memorable album covers) and also the Nice and Emerson Lake and Palmer, both featuring of course the now late lamented Keith Emerson. As an example of how experimental and inclusive progressive rock could be, it is worth mentioning some of Keith Emerson’s contributions: a version of Leonard Bernstein’s America from West Side Story spiced with elements of Dvorjak’s New World Symphony; the composition and recording of the Five Bridges Suite (referring to the bridges over Newcastle’s River Tyne); Fanfare for the Common Man adapted from Aaron Copleland’s piece; and the live recording at Newcastle City Hall of Muzorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
One of the first signs of a backlash against Progressive rock was when underground and future champion of punk DJ John Peel described an ELP festival concert as a “waste of talent and electricity”; and the backlash became a flood when Johnny Rotten deployed his infamous “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt.
Rather unfairly, Prog Rock developed an “uncool” reputation, but for instance it gave rise to the great Peter Gabriel, and Roxy’s early Brian Eno-inspired tracks clearly incorporated some Prog Rock features. Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Floyd’s Richard Wright especially developed the use of keyboard synthesisers: Emerson for instance took the Moog and Hammond organ to new heights. And think of this: so much of modern EDM (electronic dance music) is synthesiser or electronica based. The Orb, KLF, Can, Georgio Morooder and Kraftwerk were all exponents of early programmable dance music which eventually evolved into the techno, ambient, Ibiza and EDM genres.
The current progressive Deep House movement – of which one of the most Streamed tracks of all time, Clean Bandit’s Rather Be, is an example – owes a lot to progressive rock in terms of the spirit of experimentation and the use of electronica. Progressive Rock is known by some for it’s “ten minute guitar solos” but in fact it’s use of keyboards was the really innovative and enduring element. Just to complete the circle, two examples: Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour contributed to the Orb’s recent Metallic Spheres album, and my personal favourite Progressive record, King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, has recently been covered by rapper Kanye West and the sample then used in the Pacco Rabanne after shave advert. Who’d have thunk it! (and I still call it after shave, I can’t abide the term “men’s fragrance”! )
So hands off Prog Rock! And was Dark Side of the Moon even truly Prog Rock at all? Well, let’s just say it was one of the greatest albums of all time and the third highest seller ever with 40 million plus units sold, and counting.
As the new decade arrived, Pink Floyd faced a dilemma. Syd Barret was forced to leave the band when his creative genius as a founder member was outweighed by his depression, instability and addictions. Guitarist David Gilmour replaced him. Should they leave behind Syd’s memory altogether, or somehow incorporate it? In fact Dark Side of the Moon, and the subsequent album, arguably even better, Wish You Were Here, both dealt extensively with Syd’s illness in the lyrics in tracks such as Brain Damage and Shine on You Crazy Diamond.
The album was recorded in Abbey Road studios from late 1972 to early 1973. It is said that recordings were sometimes interrupted because the band wished to watch Monty Python episodes, and Roger Waters took time off to see Arsenal F.C. Recording would have just finished by the time I travelled to Hillsboro in Sheffield with my brother Malcolm and his wife Susan, to see our football team Sunderland play and beat Arsenal in the semi-final of the F.A. Cup, before beating Leeds at Wembley. Perhaps Roger Waters was at that semi-final?
The recording used, as you might expect, very advanced recording techniques, and also an array of unusual sound effects, from simulated heartbeats on Breathe, alarm clocks on Time to cash registers on Money. And also the use of doormen and roadies to answer a series of Flash Card questions, to record their sometimes banal, sometimes amusing, answers. This is where the famous spoken phrase, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark” came from. The band’s use of unusual effects didn’t always work. When I came up to Cambridge, a friend and I were listening to an earlier track, Grantchester Meadows (devotees of the current Detective Series will know this is near Cambridge). I highlighted the recorded sound of a fly buzzing from one speaker to another. My friend said “so what”. He had a point!
The single Time, released in 1974, was one of two official singles from the album, the other being Money. The clocks on Time were actually not recorded specifically for the track, rather they were sound checks by engineer Alan Parsons (of Project fame). But those rock stars were wacky in those days – “let’s get them on the track!”. The lyrics are of the Lennon “life is what happens while you are making other plans” type –seize the moment before it’s too late, or else “ten years have got behind you”, and “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. The female vocalist who supplies the soaring chorus is not Clare Torry, who sings most of the non-lexical (words that are not words) vocals on the album. Rather, it was soul singer Doris Troy.
Pink Floyd were never really a singles band, so it’s difficult to say which is their best track. Comfortably Numb is often described as their best, but for me it is all about the guitar solo (David Gilmour is now recognised as one of the great guitarists). Another Brick in the Wall was a No.1, but somewhat of an unusual novelty. Wish You Were Here is probably my favourite, a simple, acoustic powerful song which it was great to hear Ed Sheeran play at the London Olympics ceremony with Floyd’s Nick Mason on drums.
But Time for me encapsulates what Pink Floyd were all about. And finally – I have long owned the famous Dark Side of the Moon prism logo T-shirt, and this inspired me last year to pose the question “could you wear a Pink Floyd T-shirt in a GCSE Physics exam” on my Tutoring website.
By the time this record came out the original Wailers Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer had already left the group, perhaps despairing of achieving worldwide success. However this record changed everything. Originally from the 1974 Natty Dread album, which built on the success of Catch a Fire, the song No Woman No Cry was a respectable but not outstanding reggae tune. B but as part of the Live! album in 1975 recorded at Lyceum Theatre in London, it really sprung to life.
Bob’s reputation had been growing both in the black and white communities, among young and older, middle and working class. So when he played his triumphant concert, the adulation was something of a surprise to many in England, but not to his increasingly adoring fans. A superstar had snuck up on us.
Also included on the album was Trenchtown Rock and so Kingston Jamaica was brought to London. To his London fans it was something of a homecoming, and to them No Woman No Cry was already well known as you can hear from the vociferous sing-along. The I Threes, including Bob’s wife Rita, provide memorable backing. But it was Bob Marley himself who was the focus, reaching out to and unifying his audience, and although record itself was not a huge seller, it began to establish his sound and band as worldwide phenomena. And eventually the song – and specifically the Live version – was recognised as one of the greatest ever.
But why did Reggae need re- promoting at all? I had been a fan of reggae from the start, when it emerged from ska, rocksteady and R&B in the late 1960’s, slowed down and with an offbeat added, and my favourites included Desmond Decker (Israelites), Toots and The Maytals (Pressure Drop), who were early pioneers, as were the Pioneers themselves with Long Shot Kick the Bucket (in the other words the horse had died). The Beatles with Obla-di-Obla-Da was an early white-reggae attempt, as was Paul Simon’s Mother and Child reunion. Although Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” kept things moving in the 1970’s, as did Eric Clapton’s version of Marley’s I Shot the Sherriff, Reggae had yet to achieve worldwide prominence, particularly in America.
I first began to realise that something special was happening in terms of recognition for Reggae in general and Marley in particular, in 1975 when the NME end of year polls had No Woman No Cry at best single, ahead of Bohemian Rhapsody, and the album at No.3 ahead of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.
What Bob Marley brought that was different was the charisma, the dreadlocks, universal lyrics, the spirit of Rastafarianism, superb musicianship of course, and the ability to grow as an artist over a decade with a large roster of high quality songs. And let us not forget the role of Chris Blackwell and Island Records in bringing reggae to an international audience. Marley proved that Reggae , which had wrongly been seen by some to be lacking credibility as a genre, a commercial novelty, very much deserved it’s top place at the table of rock’n’roll. He retained the authenticity of Roots reggae, while making it commercial enough to appeal to a mass audience. A trick which only the greats such as Elvis with rock, the Beatles with pop and Michael Jackson with soul have achieved.
The concert at the Lyceum was a major step towards this transformation of reggae. I have often wondered why The Lyceum was chosen as the concert venue, rather than, say the Hammersmith Odeon, nearer at that time to Marley’s more natural London audience in Notting Hill. The Lyceum, built in the 1700’s in London’s West End, has had many phases and uses. From a first home for Madam Tussaud’s waxworks, to a showcase for Dickens’s works, to the creation there of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with help from actor Henry Irving who performed Shakespeare many times at the theatre with Ellen Terry. Then in 1939 it was due to close for a road improvement, with Sir John Gielgud, Ellen Terry’s great nephew, performing Hamlet on its closing night.
But campaigns against closure were successful and – here is the crucial clue – the theatre was converted into a giant ballroom. Post war dance bands played there, the Miss World annual contest was stationed there, and rock bands had just begun to play there when Bob Marley’s Live! was recorded there. Could it be that the ballroom acted in effect as a larger version of the “dancehalls” of Jamaica from where sounds systems and reggae music had emerged? It was an inspired choice, as the atmosphere created is akin to those other two classic Live albums, James Brown at the Apollo in Harlem and Sam Cook live at Harlem Square in Florida. The theatre is still well used, now back to a conventional theatre, with the Lion King having been in-situ since the end of the 1990’s to today.
I remember the concert but wasn’t there, though I wish I had at least been a fly on the wall, observing history in the making. And it is difficult to obtain videos of the concert – copyright correctly preserved. But here is the recording of occasion. My interpretation is this: the Lyceum was only a Ballroom for 10% of its life: this coincided with a lift off point in Bob Marley’s career which his audience were thrilled to share; the intersection of these two brief moments in time produced unique musical and social magic.
I used to think there was ambiguity in the lyrics – no need to cry if you don’t have a woman – but actually it is a reassuring message to a girlfriend that, in the words of the immortal chorus, “everything’s going to be all right”, sung beautifully by the audience. In a nutshell, that is why the song is so enduring. Almost a hymn, tremendously uplifting.
Band on the Run 1974 Wings
After the break up of the Beatles in April 1970, Paul McCartney’s solo career had a relatively slow start, with George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine albums giving them a lead. In 1972 Paul formed Wings with members including wife Linda and former Moody Blue Denny Laine. I was fascinated at the time by Paul’s decision to take Wings on the road to low profile University bars and Student Unions, including Newcastle University where my brother was studying at the time.
The album’s title came from a combination of a George Harrison comment about the closing days and interminable business meetings of the Beatles – “if we ever get out of here” – and Pau’s desire to “escape”, both literally from the UK to an international recording studio, and as a thread for the songs. Nigeria was chosen as the location for recording, but in many ways the venture was problematic – band members leaving, health problems, and lyrics stolen at knifepoint. Nevertheless, a classic set of songs emerged – the title track, Let Me Roll It, Bluebird. And Jet, the lead single, before Band on the Run itself was released on 45.This finally re-established Paul back at the top of the charts and truly launched the highly successful Wings career.
The song itself is composed of three distinct fragments, and is classic McCartney in that it manages to be both experimental and commercial at the same time. A trick later repeated on “Live and Let Die”, which along with Band on the Run and Maybe I’m Amazed is often considered his best post Beatle work.
Don’t Leave Me This Way Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes/Thelma Houston 1975
There were so many release dates for the two key versions of the Philly classic; let’s begin with the first inclusion of the song on Harold Melvin’s memorable 1975 album Wake Up Everybody, which also included their disco hit Bad Luck, and was the last to feature vocalist Teddy Pendergrass. The producers were Gamble and Huff, among the main writers and leaders of the Philadelphia International record label. If Motown and Stax were the key soul labels in the 60’s, one might argue that Philly took their place in the 70’s, most notably with the rise of Disco. Philly acts included the O’Jays, MFSB, The Trammps, Billy Paul and even briefly the Jacksons. Indeed one of my favourite Elton John records at the time was the Philly tribute, Philadelphia Freedom. The Trammps 45 “Disco Inferno” is one of my treasured vinyls.
Don’t Leave Me This Way was not a hit single for Harold Melvin until 1977 is the U.K; it was released in response to the bigger selling (and worldwide No.1) version by Thelma Houston in 1977, hence my inclusion of both their versions in this list. Not (as some think) related to Whitney, Thelma was a Motown artist and her version was and remains a disco classic, often placed near the top of “best ever” disco lists. It took on a life of its own, becoming an Aids awareness anthem, taken back to No.1 by the Communards as an Eighties classic. It still pops up on the Reality TV music shows, either sung by Thelma herself or competitors. At the time, I like many rock fans was not keen on disco: that was to change in the coming years, with the impact of the Bee Gees and the recognition of the genre, including the smooth genius of the Philly productions.
Bohemian Rhapsody 1975 Queen
When I first heard this track, on the radio, I thought, yes, its Queen, but not as we know it, Freddie. A bit odd, I didn’t get it. And nor did the British pubic, because even after Kenny Everett wetted the public appetite by playing snippets of the song, because it was initially judged too long for radio, it first charted at a relatively low position. Then something changed, and it leapt to Number 1 and stayed there for 9 weeks. Yes, it was that video.
Characters like Scaramouche, Bishmilla, Figaro and Beelzebub clearly add an operatic feel to the song, while the genres covered vary from heavy rock to progressive rock via classical and opera itself. Highly complex, recored with numerous “wall of sound” overdub, the most expensive single ever at that stage. The thrust of the lyrics are that a boy has accidentally killed a man, sells his soul to the devil and seeks redemption
Ironically the video was very quickly and cheaply made, but such was its impact that it is vewed as the precursor to MTV seven years before it happened. The song has gone on to become the 3rd best selling single ever in the UK (behind Band Aid and Elton’s Goodbye England’s Rose). It went to No.1 again in 1991. It was pivotal in Wayne’s World – the air guitar and hair shaking in the car.
Queen had earleir had success with my personal favourites Seven Seas of Rhye and Killer Queen, and later of course with We are the Champions and Another One Bites the Dust; and their epic Live Aid performance – in those trainers and that vest, Freddie opened with Bohemian Rhapsody and went on to deliver what is considered one of the best Live rock performances of all time, principally the crowd-clapping version of Radio Gaga.
And one more thing. Bohmemian Rhapsody is one of that select group of songs which intrigue me – great rock songs with no chorus (think about it) – like REM’s Drive. I must get out more!
Abba Dancing Queen 1975
Recorded in 1975 and released in 1976 as part of the breakthrough album Arrival, Dancing Queen has always seemed to me one of those ingenious records which sounds slow and yet is good to dance to. A genuine floor filler frequently near the top of “people’s favourite” lists. I feel that Mama Mia from the same era has ultimately had more impact – the show, the film, and now a restaurant opened by the band – but Dancing Queen is the song that would become a dance anthem and their only number 1 in the United States. It was one of 9 number 1’s in the U.K.
The song revolves around the joy of dancing itself, the musically draws on Euro disco, but the addition of classical piano among other production superlatives lifts it well above the 70s dance craze records.
Boys are back in town Thin Lizzy 1976
I first heard Thin Lizzy when they released Whiskey in the Jar, their interpretation of a traditional folk song. I thought “OK, good, but what next” – like most people I suspect. Well, soon after, the album Jailbreak was released containing the hit singles of the title track and the epic Boys are back in Town.
I saw Thin Lizzy in their prime at the Reading Festival in 1975 with my friend Chris Car, where we saw Joan Armatrading and Prog Rock band Yes as well, and at Bridlington Spa Hall with their classic line up of :
Phil Lynott – bass, vocals
Gary Moore – guitar/Brian Robertson guitar
Scott Gorham – guitar
Brian Downey – drums
While working at Hull I visited the Spa quite often – so Lizzy could have been 1977 or 1979 – can’t work out which ! Or was it both! (Damn!.)Other groups I saw there were Darts and Madness, the latter of which remains one of my all-time favourite bands. But whatever happened to Darts!
Years later the song was made even more famous by its use in Toy Story 2.
“She was cool, she was red hot” was one of many classic lines on the record. Well, Phil himself was the coolest of cats. Phil, had you just lived longer, you would have seen your earlier son Macdargh and daughters by your wife Caroline Crowther (Leslie’s daughter) grow up. You may have persuaded your good friend George Best to look after himself. You might still have been living in your new house in Kew up the road from me. Most certain of all, you would have reformed the classic line up of Thin Lizzy and they would be the hottest ticket in town. I’d be there again.
Sex Pistols 1976 Anarchy in the UK
My family ask me why I like music played badly by badly behaved people. Well, you had to be there to understand. Of all the genres, Punk/New Wave is the one I felt most directly involved in – old enough to buy the records and go to gigs, but young enough to be about the same age as the participants. I wasn’t a Punk as such but I did dress up as one at a fancy dress party).
There have been many histories of punk but here is my principle chronology of the Punk experience.
On going up to Cambridge University in 1974 I began to read the New Musical express. Through 1975 the phenomenon of “pub rock” was featured heavily in the NME and I bought the Dr Feelgood Live album Stupidity in 1976, up there with The Who’s Live at Leeds as one of the great Live albums (and guitarist Wilko Johnson one of the greats too). “Back in the Night” and “Roxette” were Feelgood favourites. Also through the NME I became aware of the early American punk scene – principally in New York, the Ramones (“Blitzgried Bop”),early Iggy Pop, Blondie and Talking Heads and the New York Dolls – and also West Coast – the Flamin Groovies “Shake Some Action”.
Meanwhile Malcolm McLaren, having visited New York for himself, saw an opportunity to introduce New York punk rock to England. He and Vivienne Westwood at that time ran the rock’n’roll clothing shop on Kings Road, Chelsea (very near to where I would eventually live) called Let It Rock. (The shop supplied outfits to the That’ll Be the Day film and later Vivienne became fashion designer and Dame).They changed the name to SEX, changing the style of clothing to more avant garde. McLaren put together the Sex Pistols from his customers and their friends – Johnny Rotten, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock. MClaren was a student of the Situationist movement which inspired the French 1968 Left Bank rebellion and both he and Rotten (or Lydon as he was) used this as inspiration for the Punk ethos of the Pistols (and they wanted to make a few bob too!)
I began to read about the Sex Pistols in the NME and sure enough I walked into a Student Union bar in Cambridge in late 1976 and heard the famous words “I am an Anti Christ, I am an Anarchist” on the muffled juke vinyl box. At first I was a little puzzled – the music was slower than expected, compared to, say, the Ramones 100 m.p.h.style. Nevertheless, I was hooked after that.
My first (and only) punk gig was the Damned and the Adverts at Cambridge Corn Exchange in mid 1977. This was a rare occasion where town and gown met. The Corn Exchange was more used to gentle Folk Festival music, but here was a mixture of genuine local Punks, and students like me who just liked the music.
The Damned were actually, arguably the first UK Punk band to release a single – New Rose, championed by John Peel, was released fractionally before Anarchy. New Rose and Neat Neat Neat are still regarded as classics – certainly among my favourites.
Throughout 1977 and into 1978 there was an astonishing plethora of classic Punk and then New Wave records released. I bought many of them, singles and LP’s alike. The Clash (featuring former Pub Rocker in the 101ers Joe Strummer), White Riot and White Man in Hammersmith Palais; the Stranglers, Get a Grip, Peaches, No More Heroes and the ultimate Punk Album name Rattus Norvegicus; the Undertones, Teenage Kicks and My Perfect Cousin; Elvis Costello, I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea and Watching the Detectives; the Jam, In the City and Down in The Tube Station at Midnight; Eddie and the Hotrods (Get Out of Denver, Do Anything You Wanna Do); and Ian Dory (former lead of pub rockers Bursal Fliers) Sex and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll and Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick.
The list could go on – I bought them all and still have a great Punk and New Wave vinyl collection. That 1976-1980 period was hugely exciting – almost every month a new classic record would be released. Punk was famous for its anarchistic, rebellious attitude and its aggression (Rotten’s famous quote to a Pistol’s audience: “I bet we hate you more than you hate us”): but I just prefer to remember the great music.
So back to the group which kicked it all off – the Sex Pistols. If God Save the Queen – specially released in time for the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 by Richard Branson’s Virgin label – was the record which exploded rock music as we knew it – then Anarchy in the UK was the record which lit the fuse.
This video version shows Anarchy played live with original writer Glen Matlock on bass. While here is a later video – the studio recording – with Sid Vicious now in the group. Matlock, a very competent musician, was infamously sacked for liking the Beatles too much, to be replaced by Sid Vicious, not a musician at all but whose all-round attitude suited the band’s image better at the time.
The Never Mind album followed and two more classic Singles (Pretty Vacant and Holidays in the Sun, which together with Anarchy and God Save the Queen make one of the great “sequence of four” consecutive singles). And then it was all over, at Winterland, California. Rotten walked off stage- “ever get the feeling you have been cheated”. Well, yes, Johnny but what a legacy: the Pistols influence was genuinely, somehow far greater than what they actually were. A band lasting two years only, but what a two years. Truly the spirit of Punk, after all.
Fleetwood Mac Go Your Own Way 1976
I first heard Fleetwood Mac in 1969, as most did with the No.1 single Albatross. I loved it but they never made another track like it. No matter, I have been following the band ever since, up to including reading drummer Mick Fleetwood’s autobiography and seeing the band live at the O2 with Alison in 2015 (no need then to see the tribute band, Fleetwood Bac, down at the Boom Boom Club).
More of the concert later, let us start with the truly original line up, built around guitarist Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and bass player John McVie. (Peter Green, then leader, named the group graciously round his bass player and drummer). Mick Fleetwood had left school at 15 to start his drumming career in the London beat boom. His dyslexia led to a highly instinctive, unique drumming style. In the early to mid 1960’s he played in Shotgun Express with Rod Stewart, and in a group called the Cheynes, named after fashionable Cheyne Road, Chelsea, round the corner from where Alison and I would be married (see photo, the tall Mick Fleetwood apparent). He joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, home to so many future rock stars. Including Peter Green. John McVie, with whom Mick helped form “Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac”.
Oh Well, Green Manalishe and Man of the World followed Albatross to establish Fleetwood Mac not just as Britain’s top Blues group but also one of the highest record sellers – outselling the Beatles in 1969/1970. Peter Green was the focal point – if reluctantly – and is one of Britain’s greatest ever guitarists. Watch the Oh Well part 1 video, which with the slow atmospheric, acoustic Part 2 makes it one of my personal all-time favourite singles.
Meanwhile Christine Perfect had already made one of my favourite records, with Chicken Shack, called “I’d Rather Go Blind” (years later I was to bizarrely see Chicken Shack play a gig in a small Austrian ski resort). After she married John, to become Christine McVie, she joined the band as pianist/vocalist.
However, at the peak of their success, Fleetwood Mac lost their founder Peter Green, never the same after an acid trip in Germany. As luck would have it, in an American recording studio, Mick Fleetwood heard Lindsay Buckingham and Steve Nicks play and later invited them to join the group. The new sound of the second incarnation of Fleetwood Mac was born.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After the eponymous breakthrough album for the new group spawned hit singles like the epic Rhiannon (Stevie Nicks on vocals) and Say That You Love Me (Christine McVie), the album slow burned up to No. 1 in the U.S.A. and I certainly bought my copy. So the anticipation for Rumours was already huge and it did not disappoint. The various relationship problems in the band (the McVie’s were splitting up, Nicks left Buckingham, she had an affair with Fleetwood) if anything added to the quality and authenticity of the lyrics. As can be heard on the break-up songs Go Your Own Way, which has become what is generally viewed as the band’s best ever record, and Don’t Stop (later adopted by Bill Clinton for his inauguration). The Chain of course became the sound of Formula 1, and the album as a whole with 40 million plus sales is in the top ten all time highest sellers.
Musically, Go Your Own Way is curious and all the better for that. I have always felt that the in first few bars, the band is reaching for rhythm but not quite making it. False starts if you like. A bit like Street Fighting Man. So I was pleased to hear recently that Lyndsey on acoustic and electric guitar, and Mick on drums, were aware of this, but kept the complex opening because they loved playing it. Today the awkwardness would be smoothed out by a cast of thousand focus groups and producers, but it actually emphasises the joy when the chorus kicks in. If joy is the right word, mind – you still feel that Stevie still hasn’t forgiven Lyndsey for writing the song about her. But the band has kept going – for two main reasons. They all love the music, and Mick has stayed true to his vision that they are band truly worth saving.
And so finally I achieved a lifelong ambition, in 2015, when Alison (who had already seen the band live in Germany) and I went to see their concert at the O2 London as part of their reunion tour with the classic line up of the 1970’s. What struck me was this: although Mick Fleetwood is the leader and manager of the band and a great technical drummer (who with John McVie forms one of the great rhythm sections) it is now Lyndsey Buckingham who is the creative genius and master live performer in the band, and a wonderful guitarist. Stevie Nicks retains that wonderfully mysterious but powerful voice and charismatic stage presence, and the happily un-retired Christine McVie books her place on the Left Hand side of the stage behind keyboards (as we look) just like always. Her voice still sounds as it did all those years ago on Rather Go Blind and Over My Head, and she looks pretty much the same age too.
One person was missing for me, though the group may not all agree. Peter Green long ago left the major music scene, but still occasionally plays low profile concerts and still plays beautifully. Is it too late for Mick and John to invite their old friend Peter on stage, perhaps for a one-or two song reunion? Perhaps they have, but sadly he declined? After all, he named the group after them all those years ago.
David Bowie Heroes 1977
Not a big hit at the time. But has crept up to be one of the all-time great and most popular songs. David Bowie recorded this in his Berlin period and indeed the song concerns a boy girl story either side of the Berlin Wall. Appropriate because years later the song supposedly played a part in the dismantling of the wall and the Soviet empire. The music was composed before the lyrics but was always meant to sound “heroic”. Brian Eno – of Roxy Music fame – was the producer and between his synthesisers, King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on guitar, and Toni Visconti produced a stirring synthesiser sound. Bowie’s singing style was unusual in that microphones were placed at 9inches, 20 feet and 50 feet, a “gating” technique, and this contributed to his occasional screeching, to reach the final microphone.
The B side always interested me, named V-2 Schneider. Showing just how much Bowie was absorbing Berlin influences at that time.
So, a wonderful, inspiring song ideal for sporting events like the Olympics. (But I still can’t understand the Dolphins bit). Bowie scholar David Buckley has written that “Heroes” “is perhaps pop’s definitive statement of the potential triumph of the human spirit over adversity”.
I Feel Love Donna Summer 1977
If you took the average of all the “best dance/club” records ever this I believe would be come out top, even today, and deservedly so. Highly innovative, Giorgio Moroder, the Italian producer based in the famous Munich Musicland studio in Germany, laid down one of the first purely synthesiser tracks using a soul singer aimed at the club scene. The usual strings were absent. I loved the synthesised Osinato bass lines, especially the piece in the middle where it slows down and appears to get louder. The Wharfdale speakers I had at the time – taking up large proportions of my room – were perfect to turn up the amplifier Bass and watch the speaker covers vibrate and casings thud.
The track influenced Brian Eno while producing Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, and was the forerunner of High Energy, Techno and EDM. Yes, Kraftwerk had begun to make electronic dance music by then, but while Autobahn was for the brain, I Feel Love was for the soul. Some people feel that Donna got lucky to be picked to sing this, but consider this. Her ethereal vocals were superb, she went on to make many more classics like Last Dance, MacArthur’s Park, Hot Stuff and Bad Girls. (Hers is one of my favourite Greatest Hits collections). The video shows her real stage presence too.
Hotel California The Eagles 1977
Hearing the Eagles talking about the song’s lyrics confirms that Hotel California is a simple metaphor, rather than a complex metaphor of a metaphor as some have suggested. In other words, the story is just what it sounds like: a critique of the American music business and its participants, and their excesses, and of the American dream itself. The Eagles describe it as a passage from “innocence to experience”. Implying it is not especially bitter, more observational, gently ironic. The theme continued on their next single from the Hotel California album, Life in the Fast Lane.
The melody was conceived by then guitarist Don Felder as a kind of Latino, Mexican reggae (unusual for a country rock band!). This inspired the writers Don Henley and the late great Glen Frey to imagine a Hotel (perhaps based on Beverley Hills) in Southern California or the New Mexico desert, at which a traveller stops and finds a variety of voices and stories (“some dance to remember, some dance to forget”…”we are all just prisoners here of our own device” ). Closing of course with the classic line “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!”
Check out the video, showing the “best ever guitar solo” fought out by Don Felder and Joe Walsh (of Rocky Mountain Way fame). Think Duelling Banjos. The two guitarists took many days to compose, rehearse and record this extended closing solo, made even more complex by Felder’s use of his double-fret 12 string guitar. For me, the introduction is equally memorable – this time multi-acoustic guitars, a wistful opening punctuated suddenly by the initially surprising, and now familiar, double drum beat lead into the reggae rhythm. The record won a Grammy for the record of the year and is in the Rolling Stone Magazine’s top fifty records of all time.
I missed the chance in 2006 to see the Eagles at my local venue – Twickenham stadium – at which they closed the show (before encore) with Hotel California. My guess is that with Glen Frey’s demise, we will never see the Eagles on tour again. Over the years they had several great lead guitarists, but Frey and Henley were the constant members who defined the Eagles. Talking of which, one of many reasons I love the Eagles is that Don Henley is one of a select club – the drummer/lead singer. Think Dave Clark, Karen Carpenter, Phil Collins in Genesis and Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl. Details like that appeal to me. I must get out more!
If I never get to see the Eagles play live, the next best thing, well actually well down the list, may be to see a tribute band, And this I have done in fact, attending the “Alter Egos” concert at the Boom Boom Club in Sutton, West London. Invited by my friend Graham – such a spitting image for the band’s lead singer I though he was on stage – I hugely enjoyed hearing pretty well all the Eagles hits played and sung beautifully, right down to the epic duelling guitar solos of Hotel California.
Bob Marley and the Wailers 1978 One Love/ People Get Ready .
This is one of the stand out tracks from Exodus, the album recorded mid 1977 and charting for a whole year through to 1978 in the UK alone. The album was voted “album of the century” by Time Magazine and the song itself chosen as “song of the millennium” by the BBC.
One Love has an amazing history covering half a century. Recorded for the first time by the Wailers in 1965 as a ska song it was not a big hit. Meanwhile after Bob Marley gained popularity through albums like Natty Dread and Rastaman Vibration in the mid 1970’s, the next album could not be recorded in Jamaica after an assassination attempt and Marley moved to England.
The album moves on from Roots reggae and incorporates other styles such as rock and funk. Side 1 is highly political in a religious sense – the standout title track for instance, Side 2 has more familiar themes of love, for instance Jamming, Waiting in Vain and One Love /People Get Ready. You will notice the song has gained a “People Get Ready” – this is because the Curtis Mayfield song of that name has been added into the lyrics
The re-recording of One Love on Exodus continued to be popular through 1977-78 but was not released as a single until 1984, after Bob Marley’s death in 1981 as part of the Legend greatest hits album. The song was finally a huge worldwide hit. A video was released featuring among others Paul McCartney and Madness. The BBC used the song with re-rerecording from Ziggy Marley as the standout featured song in their Millennium 2000 celebrations. The film ”Marley and Me” features the naming of Owen and Jennifer’s dog as Marley after listening to the song. The Jamaican Tourist Board and Virgin Atlantic frequently advertise with the song. The last Shrek film features an Antonio Banderas version.
The influence of Bob Marley on music and culture cannot be overstated. Before Bob Marley passed away he recorded one last classic, Redemption song, not a reggae song at all, hinting at new directions. A very sad loss, there was lots more to come from the great man, but he left a wonderful legacy. Although I never saw the band perform, Alison my wife did, in Munich Reitstadion on 1 June 1980, with Fleetwood Mac on the bill, where the Exodus songs were heavily featured, along with No Woman No Cry.
Gloria Gaynor . I Will Survive 1978
Recently nominated for the Washington library of congress (*) along with the Supremes Where Did Our Love Go, it joins the Gutenberg Bible and Thomas Jefferson personal book collection. The reason is this; as well as being a great disco song, it’ a very affirmative, inspirational lyric. In one sense old fashioned compared to the electronic “I Feel Love”, nevertheless the song has itself survived down the years, to emerge near the top of “favourite dance tracks ever”. But I still cannot get the Roller Skater in the video!
(*) Sadly not the library in Washington County Durham where my father was born, but its namesake in the capitol city of America.
The Bee Gees . Stayin Alive 1978
In Hull where I was working at the time, The Waterfront Club was the coolest club, but Tiffany’s by the train station was the true disco. The Bee Gees Night Fever and Stayin Alive seemed to be on a permanent loop there for several years. These songs were part of the Robert Stigwood/John Travolta film Saturday Night Fever, with Stayin Alive being marginally the most well known and influential, partly because of its positioning at the beginning of the film. The lyrics reflect the struggle for survival on the tough streets of New York.
Sadly, the group won’t now play again, but Barry Gibb especially has his place as one of the greatest of pop composers. At one stage he was writer of four successive No.1 records for four different artists in the U.S.A., a feat never repeated.
I had followed the Bee Gees right from the start. Our family bought a copy of their very first UK hit in 1967 called New York Mining Disaster 1941. In one sense this was a very unlikely Bee Gees song – “I keep straining my ears to hear a sound, maybe someone is digging underground” – but it set the scene as clever writers and significantly, perhaps deliberately – had a Beatles feel about it. In fact some listeners on first play thought it was the Beatles. I always felt the spirit and sound of Eleanor Rigby was in there somewhere.
More hits followed like To Love Somebody and Massachusetts. However, by the early 1970’s the hits were drying up and ironically the band were reduced to playing the kind of small Northern variety nightclubs that in a few years’ time would become discos playing the Bee Gees songs. The turning point came with a move in 1975 to Miami, Florida, and with producer Arid Mardin they began to record more soul-oriented music, with Barry Gibb turning to falsetto style vocals. The singles Nights on Broadway, You Should be Dancing and Jive Talking were big hits. The rest, as they say, is history. The Bee Gees didn’t invent disco music but rode the wave and ended up in a sense defining the era. I often look back at that 1975-1979 period as one of the greatest in popular music, combining as it did two such influential (yet so different) genres – punk and disco.
London Calling The Clash 1979
The album London Calling is often described as The Clash’s best, and an all time great rock album, because of the sheer range of styles – post punk, roots reggae, ska, rockabilly. But still all with the “quickly made in a garage” style, and political lyrics, so attractive in punk. And of course, the iconic “like-Elvis” album cover with Mick Jones smashing the guitar.
The title track was still fairly close to the Punk sound – but much more polished. It tells the story of a “nuclear error” mimicking Three Mile Island, perhaps imagining that only a few people are left in the bunker; and despite living “by the river” (Thames) they are still able to send a radio signal out. The famous line about “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust” refers to the band’s worries post punk of retaining their own popularity. Apocalyptic and highly atmospheric, my own view is that song perhaps unconsciously was a call to arms to establish London as the cultural capital it was to become today, after the grey economic depression of the 1970’s. For instance an unlikely use of the song was in James Bond’s Die Another Day, when the song is played triumphantly as James (Pierce Brosnan) flies back to London on British Airways. Recognition: #15 on Rolling Stone magazines’s all time greatest 500 songs.
The sound of Punk growing up, the track established the Clash as greatest of all British Punk bands, achieving more longevity than the Pistols, and establishing the band in America. More classics were to come – “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and “Rockin the Casbah” before an eventual break up and Joe Strummer’s all too young passing away.
Blondie Heart of Glass 1979
Recorded in 1978 and released January 1979 his became a worldwide hit and arguably Blondie’s signature song. Some said that they jumped on the disco bandwagon, and “sold out”, but that’s not true. Yes, Blondie had emerged though the New York punk scene and along with the Ramones and New York Dolls had helped establish it, prior even to the British punk revolution. But when Debby Harry and Chris Stein played at a benefit gig for punk drummer Johnny Blitz at the famous CBGB’s club in 1978 in New York (he had been attacked, stabbed and hospitalised) they decided to play a version of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, much to the crowd’s amazement. At that time rock versus disco was a major battle. Further, it was Chris and Debbie that invited Chic’s Nile Rogers to an early hip hop event which was eventually to lead to the famous bass line on Good Times and Rappers Delight. And Debbie had already expressed admiration in interviews for Georgio Moroeder and Kraftwerk.
So when producer Mike Chapman discussed a disco version of Heart Of Glass, for the Parallel Lines album, a song written by Chris and Debbie four years earlier, the group were happy to experiment. The drums and baseline make it: the sound actually combines a drum machine and real drums.
The iconic video features Debbie at her best, asymmetric dress and all, convincing hundreds of thousands of teenagers to keep a poster of Debbie on their walls. All of this makes Heart of Glass one of the greatest of all tracks in both a disco and new wave sense – an amazing feet to combine two such distinct genres.
Michael Jackson Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough 1979
Michael we knew was a supremely talented child star. The Jackson 5 had perhaps lost the battles against their rivals the Osmonds, but ultimately won the war of longevity and credibility. I Want You Back and ABC are bona fida classics. Michael’s solo work such as Got To Be There, and the Jackson’s “Dancing Machine”, “Show You the Way to Go” and “Shake Your Body” kept things moving upwards through the 1970’s, but nothing could prepare us for the impact of “Off The Wall” in 1979.
What struck me first was the album cover – the tuxedo ,the Afro haircut, set against the brickwall background – clearly something different was signalled. Indeed it was, Michael’s first solo record on Epic Records as opposed to Motown, and the first with producer Quincy Jones.
I bought the album immediately on release, and when I played Side 1 Track 1, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, the first few bars simply blew me away and still do. Michael mumbles at first, then announces his arrival as a superstar with the iconic falsetto holler, before Quincy’s intricate jazz/funk/disco arrangement kicks in, and Michael’s impossibly high vocal is then played alongside his own deeper response. Now known as the pair’s signature sound, but highly innovative at the time. After 4 minutes an unforgettable moment occurs when the synthesised brass sound simply explodes and we have a dance floor anthem of a sophisticated type only matched by Earth Wind and Fire’s Boogie Wonderland.
The video for the song reveals a number of things: the first showing of Michael’s new dance style, the rolling up of the sleeve, the long legs, the sheer charisma of the man: the video only features him and you cannot take your eyes off him. And the smile on his face. The sheer joy of entertaining. The world at his feet. Not a care Before the problems kicked in. But let’s remember innocent days when the child star became the hugely talented young man.
Last year I visited a memorable retrospective of the Jam’s career at Somerset House in London called “About a Young Idea” (the lyric from their first record, In the City). A number of things struck me. A poster showing the NME readers’ poll results reminded me just how amazingly popular the Jam were. Best band, best album, best single, best singer, best everything. And that Paul Weller’s school report contained no encouragement from his music teacher !
The Jam had launched with Punk Rock but had survived its gradual decline. I had followed the band from the very start The early singles, all seeming to include the word “World” (including News of the World” now famous as the title music of “Mock the Week”). Then what I’d call interesting singles – like “A Bomb in Wardour Street” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”. Then the top twenty breakthrough singles, “When You’re Young” – “any guitar and any base drum” – and “Strange Town” – I just love the reference to A to Z guidebook. Then the classic top ten single “Eton Rifles” – “there’s a row going on, down in Slough” – which later David Cameron described as his favourite song while at the College, which Paul Weller did not particularly appreciate. As a Cambridge graduate, I understood the “town versus gown” problem, and as Royal Grammar School boy, I understood the “cadet force” context.
But all these songs were really leading up to the seismic breakthrough of Going Underground. Straight in at Number One, at the time almost unprecedented. For a Punk/New Wave group – incredible. The whole of the Jam’s back catalogue was rereleased and was all over the singles charts. The excitement at the time was incredible. Further Number One’s followed – Start, Beat Surrender and A Town Called Malice (of Billy Elliot fame). And That’s Entertainment, with their Five O’Clock Hero, are still the UK’s best-selling import singles – “wake up at 6am on a cool warm morning”. Watch this reat video for the softer side of the Jam.
My view is that The Jam are one of Britain’s greatest ever groups – many critics concur. Paul Weller’s voice really came through once he realised he didn’t need to mimic American accents. Woking, South London was fine. And he has emerged as one of our greatest guitarists, lyricists and composers. And we shouldn’t forget Bruce Foxton on guitar and Rick Buckler on drums, superb musicians in their own right.
Going Underground itself has a memorable guitar-burst intro, then “some people might say my life is in a rut”, followed by “the public gets what the public wants”…”kidney machines replaced by rockets and bombs”. As ever Foxton’s bass does more than just provide the rhythm it’s a lead instrument in its own right. The overall feeling of the record is both disturbing and yet uplifting, highly commercial and danceable. The sequence of singles – Strange Town, When You’re Young, Eton Rifles, Going Underground, and Start surely being one of the greatest in music history.
Watch this video to witness the trademarks of the Jam Live – playing Going Underground – superb musicians, audience excitement (“this boy shouts, this boy screams!”), the enormous sound that the threesome makes. And the boys as ever immaculately dressed!
Abba Winner Takes It All 1980
Recorded in 1980, Winner Takes It All is frequently voted to be the “best Abba song”. Written by Bjorn Ulvaeus, sung by Agnetha Fältskog, the pair had just divorced. It is assumed the song reflects the personal reality of their break-up, and though the couple deny it, Agnetha’s faltering voice towards the song’s close suggests otherwise, as does the original working title “The story of my life”. The song is from the Super Trouper album, their last great L.P. and “Winner” was their second last UK No.1, the last being the title track.
The beauty of the composition is that it is both simple yet complex at the same time. There is one key – F sharp major – and essentially only one melody throughout – perhaps two depending on definition – but the melody builds through the first three verses before slowing for the final heartbreak of the last verse.
Back in Black AC DC 1980
Being a Physics tutor I always like to think of Alternating Current and Direct Current as opposed to “swings both ways” !
The lead singer Brian Johnson replaced the sadly demised Bon Scott who sang on the early records like Highway to Hell. Brian is from Newcastle, and was lead singer of the group “Geordie”. In effect plucked from relative obscurity, he helped relaunch the Australian band, and their first new record was “Back in Black”, an album that on many counts is described as the 2nd highest album seller in history by anyone, behind only Thriller by Michael Jackson, showing the enormous world wide appeal of hard blues rock.
The distinctive musical sound of ACDC is of course the lead guitar, played by the still school-uniform wearing Angus Young, one of the world’s great guitarists. The riff to the single from the album is one of the most played and learned – my son Matthew plays it near perfect.
The more famous singles from the album are Rock N Roll Aint Noise Pollution and Shook Me All Night Long, but it is the title track that has gradually grown in status down the years. Like many “serious” rock fans it took me a while to warm to ACDC. At the time they were thought of as the “uncool” side of Heavy Metal. But the band’s inclusion in Hollywood Blockbusters soundtracks like Iron Man and Battlefield, and Computer game music, means that you simply can’t avoid hearing them, and the more I hear the more I like. Angus Young’s riffs are utter genius – and his playing technically superb, he effectively invented a style of playing – and Brian Johnson screeching vocals elevate the performance to breaking point. Will be interesting how Axl Rose from Guns N Roses gets on filling in for Brian Johnson in 2016 – Brian is taking time off, possibly permanently, because of deafness brought on I guess by years of standing by the amplifiers.
Vienna Ultravox 1981
The record that truly launched 1980’s music – at least the synthesised style that we now know as “eighties music”. Recorded in 1980, released January 1981, Vienna was recently voted as Britain’s favourite No.2 record on BBC Radio 2 – ahead of Fairytale of New York, Penny Lane and We Are The Champions – and famously kept off the top by Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup Your Face”
Vienna is a synthpop record with several synthesisers including synthbass, although the distinctive mid-record faster instrumental break is a conventional viola completed by grand piano. The video invokes the film -noir spirit of Orson Welles famous 1948 film the Third Man, with Harry Lime as the anti-hero. Screenplay by Graeme Greene, the expressionist film famously features the dimly lit streets and shadowy doorways favoured in the Vienna video. It also features the famous “Swiss cuckoo clock” speech – think: what have the Romans ever done for us –and also the zither sound track, but that’s another story (or is it, I wonder if use of such a “different” instrument inspired the synthesiser sounds or the viola solo?)
Actually there are several odd things about the video. First, strictly it isn’t a video at all, it is a collection of still photographs, mostly black and white to create the moody atmosphere, directed by Russel Mulcahy. Second, much of it is set not in Vienna, but in London’s Kilburn and Covent Garden (the band had to cut corners, funding the £6,000 video after the record company declined to pay!). Third, as well as the Third Man, the video also seems to invoke Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimit. Midge Ure later admitted that he made up the Klimit connection well afterwards !
And a strange fact about the lyric. When composing the music, group members Chris Cross and Billy Currie were discussing the comparison of the sound to composer Max Reger, the innovative, minimalist German composer principally of fuges. Midge Ure, walked in on the conversation, did not understand it, and turned away complaining “this means nothing to me”. The rest is history as they say, the phrase became a memorable, key part of the lyric. (Courtesy: SongFacts)
Ultravox had a chequered career till then. Formed mid 1970’s as a punk rock/new wave/art-rock outfit and lead by John Foxx, the band released several records which commercially failed. The band seemed finished, the Island record label dropped them, and Foxx left to have some minor solo hits such as Burning Car and Underpass (song titles very much of the time!
Meanwhile young Glaswegian Jim “Midge” Ure had spent time in teen-favourites Slik (remember their No.1 Forever and Ever?), and Sex Pistol Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids (remember power-pop?); in Viasge (Fade to Grey, co-written by Midge); contributed to fellow Scots group the Skids (of Into the Valley fame); and even briefly joined Thin Lizzy (touring with them as guitarist, taking over from Gary Moore no less).
One of the reasons Midge left Rich Kids was because he had purchased a synthesiser and “musical differences” took him away from a purely guitar and drums sound. So when the chance came to replace Foxx in Ultravox it seemed a natural progression, especially as Mk1 Ultravox’s Billy Currie had already worked with Midge in Visage. The label Chrysalis picked up the group
The reformed Ultravox’s first album Vienna was released in 1980, a slow burner which really took off after the single’s success, and eighties synth music was launched.
There is an argument that Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974, or Gary Numan with ground breaking and influential No.1’s, Are Friends Electric and Cars in 1979, or Human League Mark 1 with “Being Boiled” in 1978, invented 80’s music.
After all, didn’t the Undertones write and record this line in 1979 in one of my all-time favourite records, “My Perfect Cousin”: “His mother bought him a synthesiser / Got the Human League in to advise her / Now he’s making lots of noise / Playing along with the art school boys” (In fact my truly favourite line from the song about cousin Kevin is this: “he always beat me at Subbuteo, ‘cos he flicked the kick and I didn’t know”. (The “kick” being the ball, and for those unacquainted with Subbuteo rules (is there anyone?), touching it with your finger is illegal)
But the clue about eighties music is in the title. The mid-late 1970’s were still essentially the punk/new wave guitar years. Those early synthesiser records from the 1970’s were the exception not the rule. They didn’t quite fit. Continuing the Kevin theme, when Harry Enfield’s Kevin (from Kevin and Perry) turns 13 it is as if a switch (not a kick) is flicked and he instantaneously becomes a teenager. So when 1969 ticked over to 1970, things turned gloomy overnight. The Beatles split, Woodstock was over. Equally, when 1979 turned to 1980, truly a new decade launched as things seemed immediately brighter. Punk and disco were almost over, something new was needed in music. Although Vienna was a slow ballad record, it heralded the use the of synthesisers in what in many ways combined the spirit of punk and new wave with disco, namely fast joyous danceable music, but with simple synth riffs inspired by art rock. The glamour of new romantic outfits and hair do’s were added, replacing the harsher Mohican punk styles. And so eighties music became a genre – the last “genre of a decade” I believe. The nineties saw the fragmentation of music, then downloads kicked in. More of that later.
It is fascinating how Midge Ure, a canny Scot, hedged his bets and kept several different bands going until he hit the jackpot with Vienna and in doing so re-formed the failed group Ultravox from the Mark 1 version (One can imagine Simon Cowell advising him, “you want to do what?” ). Midge certainly paid his dues and was rewarded with success with more Ultravox hits (Dancing with Tears in my Eyes) and solo records (If I Was). And of course, immortally, he was the cofounder of Band Aid. Midge later said that it raised millions for charity, but did nothing for his bank balance! After returning to Ultravox, so much had happened and the band soon split up. But what a legacy, sometimes forgotten.
Don’t You Want Me Human League 1981
As noted in the Ultravox review above, the Human League had actually been releasing experimental synthesiser records since 1978. Their evolution into the famous threesome we recognise was tortuous: founded by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, the group’s name comes from a science fiction fantasy war game, Starforce Alpha Centauri: they wanted Glen Gregory, future Heaven 17 lead singer, but instead added a friend, Phil Oakey, a hospital porter, essentially because he was good looking and dressed well. But Oakey contributed lyrics to one of their first releases, the highly unusual Being Boiled, which became a cult NME favourite. Philip Adrian Wright, a friend of Oakey’s was added to provide film and lighting effects : he took the name “Director of Visuals” (long before the dreaded “Director of Football” became popular at soccer clubs !)
All seemed to be going well, with Empire State Human and Holiday 80 leading to an early Top of the Pops appearance, and the band were referenced as synthesiser purveyors in the Undertones’ “My Perfect Cousin” (see Ultravox above). However, two main problems emerged. First, genuine success eluded them, and the clue was in the Undertones’ dismissal of them as “art school boys”: they declined to sacrifice their artistic credibility for commercial breakthrough. When Gary Numan hit No.1 with “Are Friends Electric” with a similar type of music, this seemed to invoke disillusion rather than inspiration . And this in turn lead to a split, with Oakey keen to continue the band, while Ware and Marsh joined Glen Gregory at Heaven 17, who enjoyed some success with Temptation, but it was Oakey who had made the right choice.
At first though, things did not look promising. Without any other main members, Oakey had to recruit quickly to fulfil a tour commitment. And what happened next goes into the legend and folklore of rock music – but is true.
Oakey was in a nightclub in hometown Sheffield, the Crazy Daisy on High Street, and spotted two girls dancing together. Susan Ann Sully and Joanne Catherall. After a short conversation he invited them to tour with the band as back-up singers, which they did, after checking with their parents (they were 17 and 18 years old, still at school). They joined full-time as the group’s album “Dare!” was released and successful singles like Sound of the Crowd and Love Action followed. These were outstanding records but a “filler” track (Oakey’s dismissive word”) was lurking unloved at the end of Vinyl side 2.
Against Oakey’s wishes the track “Don’t You Want Me” was released as 4th single from the Dare! album by the record company. To his surprise, it quickly reached number 1, stayed there over Christmas (remember when it didn’t have to be the X-Factor release?) and sold 1.5 million copies including a No.1 spot in America. The British invasion Mk 2 had begun.
The opening line is unforgettable: “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, when I met you” seems to partially mirror co-lead singer Susan Sully’s experience, but essentially it’s about male-female power politics. The video helped establish the MTV video channel, with its’ clever, even creepy, murder mystery story.
I had followed Human League periodically in the early days – especially after the Undertones’ reference in 1979 – and was as surprised as anyone at their success and the recruitment of Susan and Joanne. But there is something delightfully “punk” about Oakey and then the girls arriving from nowhere with no training, and very quickly producing such a classic album (OK with help). Dare! is a masterpiece. The position of “Don’t You Want Me” as last track seems appropriate, as it heralds the transition from the “art school boys” of “Sound of the Crowd” on Side 1, into the international pop stars the group became. With a string of further classic singles such as American No.1 “Human” they certainly won the battle with Heaven 17 and they are still touring to this day.
Dare! is still one of my favourite vinyl albums. It was made without any conventional instruments – Casio, Roland, Korg synthesisers instead – and yet it has “soul” and New Wave spirit. Martin Rushent, producer, was actually credited with the title “programmer”: now that was a new type of music!
Specials Ghost Town 1981
In one senses Ghost Town was absolutely of its time, the riots in Brixton, London and across the UK happening exactly at the time in June 1981 that this record climbed to its’s No.1 position in the charts. It seemed the record and the riots, while not exactly cause and effect, were somehow linked. On the other hand, the record feels more like the end of one era – the 1970’s punk/new wave and reggae era and economic depression – rather than the new 1980’s era of synthesiser, the revival of the entrepreneurial spirit and the “greed is good,” Loadsa money” mantra.
But as a UK protest song it is an enduring gem. The ghost town in question is Coventry. “Deindustrialisation” – that word from O-Level geography – taking its toll. Unemployment rising, number of nightclubs falling (“all the clubs have been closed down”). The combination of Terry Hall’s deadpan delivery and Neville’s rap hit the spot, and the slow ska rhythm and tacky Hammond organ with ghostly backing vocals are delightful. The mood is edgy and contradictory – is it edge of the seat murder mystery, snake-charmer, or angry?
The mid-record fairground-style trumpet/trombone solo deliberately lightens the mood (“Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town” ) – reminding me of O-Level English in that the drunken Porter’s soliloquy comes from nowhere to punctuate Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s gloom with light relief.
“Fighting on the dancefloor” is a line that resonates through not just the social unrest but also the group itself. Jerry Dammers, the musical genius behind the Specials, had written and produced many of the band’s up tempo ska revival Two-Tone hits such as No.1.Too Much Too Young, but had difficulty persuading his colleagues of the need for such a radical departure with “Ghost Town”. Soon after the record was released, the band began to split.
And the clubs really did close. The song refers to a club, the Locarno Mecca in Coventry – which has now been replaced by the central library (something ironic about that!). And bringing the story up to date, between 2005 and 2015 the number of U.K. nightclubs has almost halved from 3500 to 1700 – and in early 2016 nightclub entrance fees were taken out of the “basket of goods” used in the U.K. inflation R.P.I. index. The reasons for closure are less now to do with social problems than with much less drinking out by the young in entrance-fee establishments.
For the video the band actually shot it in London but it conveys the right effect, famously featuring the band tightly packed in the 1962 Vauxhall Cresta . An earlier video for Message to You Rudy reminds me that the Skinhead movement was actually attached to the ska revival in a very positive way. Clearly one thinks of racism amongst some skinheads but they loved West Indian ska and reggae music. I have never quite understood that. Whatever, multi-racial groups emerged from this strange mix and “that’s all good” as they say.
I loved the ska genre, but Ghost Town more or less marks the peak of the ska revival which the Specials and among others Madness, the Beat and the Selector lead – I still have the best of 2 Tone on vinyl. And while the Specials really were special, it was Madness who were to adapt and be ultimately more enduring. But sad as I was when the ska revival petered out, at least I didn’t have to pretend to be able to do that fantastic jerky dance. Mind you, when Madness “One Step Beyond” is played, I can’t help twitching my feet to the rockinest rock steady beat…
But with Ghost Town itself the Specials left a legacy that still rings true today. The record was a No.1 in the U.K. and voted “best single” of the year by all of the then holy trinity of NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. However, it was a hit almost nowhere else in the world, because it was so peculiarly British. It did not chart in America, but the message seems still to be relevant there today, and absolutely fits with the spirit of the American political protest song. And even in the U.K., while there may not be “fighting on the dance floor”, some shop closures leave our town centres with a ghost town feel.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five The Message 1982
“It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”.
So begins perhaps the first great hip hop and rap record. I loved this record so much that I managed to include the chorus in my Master Of Business Administration (MBA) dissertation on the indirect economic effect of BP Chemicals Hull on the rest of Humberside.
“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under”
Goodness knows how I weaved these words in, or what the examiners thought (but anyway I passed!).
The group were a pioneering group of DJ’s, rappers and MC’s they were one of the first to popularise black urban protest through the then underground medium of rap and record deck scratching. But were they truly the first? The Sugarhill Gang’s Rappers Delight, with the epic Good Times/Another One Bites the Dust bass line, and “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn” refrain, a couple of years earlier, may claim that crown.
Both The Message and Rappers Delight were part of the Sugarhill Records collective. Another similarity is the sheer volume of words. In one sense I admire rappers for writing such long poems and actually remembering the lyrics, but sometimes I feel that, like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon or Paul Weller, a few high impact phrases do just as well. Weller’s “the smell of petrol on a cool warm morning” for instance paints a wonderfully simple picture of urban life, while Stevie’s “To find a job is like a haystack needle, Cause where he lives they don’t use coloured people” hits hard in just a couple of lines.
One of the differences between Rappers Delight and The Message was their degree of optimism. I always felt the former was an essentially happy record, whereas the latter was pretty gloomy and threatening – but a sign of things to come perhaps. Nevertheless one of my favourite records of all time and often described by critics as the greatest rap record ever, even after all this time.
Blue Monday New Order 1982
Some rock groups (think Rolling Stones with “Miss You” and U2 with the remix of “Real Thing”) have made creditable attempts to mimic dance music. But New Order the rock group simply are a dance group. No divide. New Order made it cool for young males to dance to club music in the discos. The Waterfront in Hull was simply saturated in New Order’s basslines in the same way that Donna Summer’s I Feel Love achieved.
New Order emerged from the ashes of Joy Division after the untimely death of Ian Curtis at the time of his greatest triumph with Love Will Tear Us Apart, Faced with a decision of whether to carry on, Bernard Sumner took up the challenge of leading singing. Early hits Temptation and Ceremony were followed by Blue Monday which featured Gillian Gilbert’s Synth and Synthbass, and Peter Hooke’s memorable guitar bass line. Bernard Sumner deliberately sang deadpan,
Recorded in 1982 and released in 1983 on the famous Indie label Factory, the single featured as B-Side and in the lyrics The Beach – a reference to a Manchester night club, which along with the Hacienda was very much part of the Madchester rave scene at the time. The song does not stick to conventional verse chorus structure and (like Bowie’s Sound and Vision) features long passages of instrumental music. The introductory “How Does It Feel” however is one of the most memorable spine chilling moments in any genre.
The record was released on the at the time new format of 12 inch Vinyl – with suitably cool packaging – and is now the highest selling 12-inch record in history. Their Greatest Hits “Substance” is a wonderful CD and reveals just how many perfect dance tracks they made. And they are still recording, albeit without Peter Hooke – great shame. Blue Monday has been re-released countless times and is hugely influential.
Soft Cell Tainted Love 1982
When American soul singer Gloria Jones recorded the original version of this song in 1964 to no great fanfare, she could not know the twists and turns her own life, and the life of this song, would take.
In the early 1970’s Northern Soul arrived and her decade-old record was dusted off and became part of the Northern Soul scene around the Manchester clubs and Wigan Casino. I had followed Northern Soul for some time, and was amused to read that in one of my favourite pop music books, “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, the history of the DJ”, the authors describe northern soul as “a genre built from failures”. I can see what they mean, because Northern soul records typically were not chart successes, their attraction was to be obscure, rare, hardly known except to a clique. Fast, simple Tamla style beats with a story in the song. Some of my favourites were R Dean Taylor’s There’s a Ghost in My House, and Robert Knight’s Love on a Mountain Top, and Al Wilson’s The Snake, which all climbed the charts after re-releases built on gradual Northern Soul success, fuelled by DJ’s who would search Vinyl records shops like Soul City in Covent garden or even fly to America themselves.
Meanwhile, Gloria Jones’s Tainted Love, though newly successful in the clubs, still didn’t chart, even though she re-recorded it in 1976 with help from a producer, one Marc Bolan. She had become his girlfriend in the early 1970’s and they worked together musically on several tracks. On September 16 1977 she and Bolan were returning to their Richmond flat from central London in a Mini 1275 when their car left the road. She was injured, but Marc sadly died. The spot near Barnes station is place we regularly drive past and the memorial flowers are still there and refreshed.
Four years later in 1981 embryonic synthpop duo Soft Cell were looking for a sure-fire hit to follow up their first, failed, record, Memorabilia. Tainted Love seemed a strange choice, but they completely changed the feel of the record by slowing right down and using synthesisers instead of guitar, bass and drums. They added a sequel of The Supremes Where Did Our Love Go onto the 12 inch and they were up and running, riding the wave of the new British Eighties synthesiser sound. It was a No.1 in the U.K. and although it didn’t reach that peak in the U.S.A.it still spent a then record 43 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. The video caused a stir on Top of the Pops, one of the first synthesiser duos, as opposed to groups, to appear.
Meanwhile whatever happened to Northern Soul? Well it’s gone back to its obscure roots. My family and I attended a Soul disco in Corfu – us and just a few others! .
Purple Rain Prince 1983
When Prince joined the list of 2016 casualties, this was a shocker. You get a vague impression from the BBC news – “Prince taken to hospital after emergency landing” – you think it’s an aircraft emergency. A day later he is released and everything’s fine. But it’s not. Found deceased in his own lift soon after, in Paisley Park – famed for his in-house recording studio where he lived in Minnesota. As readers know, younger than me.
I had first started listening to and buying Prince singles in 1982, with the release of classic double A side Little Red Corvette/1999 (to become famous for the line Let’s Party Like Its…). In the fall of 1983 Prince recorded the track Purple Rain, along with I Would Die 4 U, live in concert in his hometown. Both were included intact on the album of the same name in 1984. “Purple” is both a reference to African American struggles – it is a derogatory slang word – and his (real) royal name Prince (Rogers Nelson, named after his father Prince Rogers. Rain is a play in both Purple senses, on the word “reign”.
Along with other classic singles Lets Go Crazy and When Doves Cry, Purple Rain made the album one of the greatest ever as recognised in the Rolling Stone top 500. Difficult to categorise as rock, funk or soul, Prince was simply an astonishing multi instrumentalist, and wonderful writer and singer.
The song, also the title of has film Purple Rain, was a staple of his tour dates, of which I was privileged to see one at London Earls Court in June 1992, soon after I had moved to nearby Chelsea. What struck me then was the sheer showmanship, and professionalism, as well as charisma of the man. Years later Lyndsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac at the London O2.struck me in the same way. Talking of the O2, Prince played an astonishing 22 date programme at the O2 in August to September 2007 to 351,000 people. The sheer length of the residency is testimony to his popularity well after his peak record selling period had passed.
Almost to his very last day Prince was playing concerts. Why? Because he loved music and people loved him.
This song ticks all the boxes. Dance floor filler, unique, innovative bass line, fascinating lyrics, outstanding vocal performance, iconic video. Quite simply one of the greatest records of all time.
The Off the Wall album promoted Michael from child star to superstar, but nothing could prepare us what came next. The Thriller album, the title track and this single in particular catapulted Michael Jackson into the stratosphere.
Fifteen years of progress seemed to lead to this song, and cemented Michael Jackson’s place at the very top table of rock and soul royalty. He completed the holy trinity of Elvis, the Beatles and now Michael Jackson. Only a handful of music acts even come close to this trinity – perhaps Dylan, the Stones, Zeppelin, Marley, Madonna, Prince, Beyonce, Adele.
With Billie Jean, Michael Jackson began to reclaim the status of African American music, not just as a source of inspiration for 60’s and 70’s rock, but as a dominant force in itself, both global and multi-racial. The emerging MTV had been unwilling to feature soul and dance videos, but Billie Jean changed everything.
Billie Jean showed Michael’s increasing confidence as a writer, and producer. The lyrics seem to describe a real life experience, a claim that Michael was the father of a fan’s child, but the “kid is not my son”. Later Michael claimed that it was a generic song about the “groupies” that hung around the Jacksons, but either way it is a gripping and unusual story, especially for a pop lyric. The musical sound of the track is Jones’s sparse “less is more” arrangement, but is perhaps best known for the extended instrumental introduction – the drum and synth bass setting the rhythm. Producer Quincy Jones was initially unhappy with this, but Michael’s instinct was to include this and he held sway. And the rest is history as they say.
The video features some odd sequences – the photographer, the tramp, the dustbins –but what people remember: is this: the dance steps, lighting up squares, the sheer coolness of his look, the timing of the movement.
Billie Jean’s legendary status enhanced by Michael’s iconic performance at the Motown 25th anniversary TV show in 1983. After performing with his brothers for the first time for many years – reminding us of his already huge body of work – the boys leave Michael alone to perform Billie Jean. What followed was astonishing – often describe as the greatest live TV musical performance of all time. Completely mesmerising, Michael uses the 27 second instrumental introduction to captivate the theatre audience of his peers with his look – the pose, the rhinestone glove, the discarded fedora, the dance steps – before launching into the vocal. And a little later, the famous Moonwalk for the first time. Michael shows what a great showman, entertainer, and dancer he is, over and above the music. Fred Astaire complemented him.
I can only think of three other Live TV performances with a similar impact as the Motown 25 performance. I’m told of Elvis on the Ed Sullivan show and you can see the combination of movement, charisma and great music has equivalent impact. The Beatles’ Twist and Shout on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. And Adele’s Someone Like You at the Brit Awards.
The song was a No.1 simultaneously in the U.K. and U.S.A, winning several Grammy’s. The album Thriller went on to sell 60 million copies, likely to remain the highest of all time. For some, the title track is the centre piece of the album, but for me it is Billie Jean.
The Police Every Breath You Take 1983
The Police were a band I followed from the very start, not just the singles like Roxanne but all the early albums, Outlandos D’Amour, Reggatta de Blanc and Zenyatta Mondatta. Sting’s nickname (he was born Gordon Sumner in Wallsend, Newcastle, and was a teacher in nearby Cramlington) came from the yellow and black bee-like sweater he used to wear; Andy Sumner was an established guitarist, ten years older; and Stewart Copeland was the drummer in Curved Air, son of Miles Copeland, an American CIA agent.
Initially singles like Roxanne and So Lonely were not hits in the U.K. but after some success in America, the singles were released here and charted. I distinctly remember Sting saying in an interview that although pleased with the recognition, he was frustrated because it was holding up release of some exciting new material. What could it be? It turned out to be Message In A Bottle, their first number 1.
By the time the Police’s fifth (and last, as it turned out) studio album Synchronicity, they were on their way to being the biggest band in the world, and this album and the single
Every Breath You Take cemented that position. Just like with Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, their greatest success arose as tensions in the group caused a breakup. Every Breath was a story about suspicion and surveillance (“I’ll be watching you”) and not the love song that people first assumed. Further infused no doubt by Sting’s breakaway from wife Frances Tomalty to neighbour and friend Trudy Tyler.
The song gained further popularity when Puff Daddy recorded a version called I’ll Be Missing You, a No.1. Even though the lyrics were substantially changed, Sting still received royalties, helping to make Every Breath You Take one of the top ten “richest” songs in history in terms of royalty generation (with Happy Birthday, White Christmas and You’ve Lost that Lovin Feeling being the top 3).
The record in a sense was un-Police like. As if to emphasise that, the video shows Sting playing upright double bass instead of his familiar bass guitar. (It often happens that a group’s biggest hit is not typical of their sound: think Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall”). The record went on to be No.1 in the U.S.A. for 8 weeks, and is regularly voted among the best singles ever produced. For instance I was in as sense surprised that it was voted No.1 Eighties single in an ITV viewers poll – surprised because you can’t dance to it, it’s morose – but what it has got is enduring quality, and the personality of the group.
1984 U2 Pride (in the name of love)
I first came across U2 when watching them perform I Will Follow and Sunday Bloody Sunday on The Tube, the classic post-punk Eighties Jools Holland/Paul Yates live rock programme filmed in Newcastle. (I recorded many episodes on my old Video 2000 recorder, alas unplayable now) I was instantly hooked and bought the album Boy. New Years’ Day remains one of my all-time favourite singles. The song which really broke the band internationally was Pride, part of the album Unforgettable Fire, which moved on the group from their punk origins to more arty, yet stadium friendly, rock.
And the key event at that time for the band was their “Bono in the crowd” performance at Live Aid (from about 7 – 9 minutes in the video). Hearing Bono sing elements from the Stones Ruby Tuesday and Sympathy from the Devil at the time reminded me of this thought: did the Edge and the boys wonder “what on earth is he up to now” just as Charlie and Keith did all those years ago when watching Mick Jagger from the back? Years later, I found out, yes they did! An interview with the Edge revealed they thought Bono had simply disappeared into the crowd, and were about to pack up and go, annoyed they had lost the time to sing “Pride”. But, along with Queen, it was one of the most talked about sets, even though musically it wasn’t great – and don’t forget U2 were relatively new at the time.
Pride itself refers to the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King – the famous lines “Early morning, April Four, A shot rings out in the Memphis sky, Free at last, they took your life, but they could not take your pride”.
Two facts you may not know: As Bono now acknowledges, the shot was in the evening not the morning. And the credited backing vocalist was Christine Kerr, whom you may know better as Chrissie Hynde – she was married to Jim Kerr of Simple Minds at the time.
Bruce Springsteen Born In The USA 1984
Bruce Springsteen had been a star for 10years already. His “Born to Run” debit prompted the infamous journalistic quote, “I have seen the future of rock and roll and it’s name is Bruce Springsteen”. Bruce spent much of the next ten years trying to live that down. By the early 1980’s he and the E-Street band were producing great albums like The River and Nebraska. His next, Born in the U.S.A. was more up-beat, more rock and roll. The lyrics, however, if you looked closely, were just as thoughtful and sometimes dark. Although the title track Born in the USA may have appeared to be nationalistic and celebratory, in fact the lyric “I had a brother at Khe San, fighting off the Viet Cong, They’re still there, He’s all gone” revealed a sadness about the friends he had lost in the Vietnam War and the problems Veterans faced upon return.
This single and the album propelled Bruce to superstardom. I remember that wherever you were in the world, whichever radio station you tuned in to, in 1984 you were bound to hear one of the seven hit singles from album or see the famous blue jean album cover. He was everywhere.
Today Springsteen is still popular, selling albums and selling out tours. But I wonder if there is a contradiction: he is a hero of the blue-collar American working class male: but so is Donald Trump. But Springsteen one would think is the opposite of a Trump supporter. He is a champion of LBGT rights and in 2016 declared his opposition to North Carolina’s “bathroom law” considering it to be prejudicial. How to square that circle?
The Eurythmics . Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This 1984
Annie Lennox, from Aberdeen, and Dave Stewart, from Sunderland, started out in the Tourists, whom I followed in their early days with Blind Among The Flowers in 1979. However, it’s an indication that there’s not much left in the tank when your second record is a cover, albeit successful – Dusty’s I Only Want to Be With You was a hit for the Tourists – and the band soon broke up.
However, something interesting and innovative then occurred. Annie and Dave became one of the first “power duos” in pop. Previously, in the 70’s, you were either solo, or in a 3 or 4 piece band. They formed the Eurythmics, with the idea of running it as a collective but with them very much in charge of writing and direction. Several other synthpop bands were emerging at the same time in the early eighties with two front persons – OMD, Tears for Fears, among others.
I picked up on their first minor hit, Love is a Stranger, but it was Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This which made the band, reaching No.1 in the U.S.A., in fact succeeding The Police’s Every Breath You Take, showing just how successful the “second British invasion” was becoming. The video, with an androgynous looking, suited, Annie Lennox also used the increasing impact of early MTV to promote the record and the Eurthymics brand.
Do They Know Its Christmas Band Aid/Live Aid 1985
Sir Bob Geldof’s personal tragedies may have finally taken their toll but this does at least mean we see more of his co-conspirator Midge Ure when a comment is required for a Band Aid milestone, as it frequently is. Although I have tried to avoid overtly Christmas records in this list (good as War Is Over, Fairytale of New York and Merry Christmas Everybody are, all in my singles collection) this particular song is included for the following reason. Many records add social commentary to a political or social event which has already occurred. This record actually caused the event to occur – it changed the course of history, in a way that very few pop records have achieved,
It all started of course with Michael Buerk’s heartbreaking account of the famine in Ethiopia, Midge and Bob wrote the lyrics and quickly got together the gang to record the song . What is not generally known is this: how did Midge and Bob got together? Well, as a Geordie I am delighted to say that the Tube, one of my all time favourite programmes, was being filmed live as usual in Newcastle, in the old Tyne Tees studios. Paula Yates, co presenter with Jools Holland, was chatting to Midge Ure who was on the Tube that night, when Bob Geldoff happened to call. Bob and Midge got chatting about Buerk’s newscast and the rest is history.
It’s the little things I recall. The grainy film of the assembled singers arriving at the studio. Then why does the great Paul Weller of the Jam look so small? (Is he?) Paul Young sung the opening line (Its Christmas Time) though Bono sang memorable line the ironic “Well tonight thank God its them instead of you”. The Bananarama girls next to Spandau and Duran. . Basically a who’s who capturing a moment in time of great 80@s British pop. (But why were the excellent USA band Kool and the Gang there? Answer: same record label as Boomtown Rats). The argument with Mrs Thatcher over VAT.
A huge hit followed , reaching No.1 over late 1984 into 1985, keeping Wham’s Last Christmas off the No. 1 spot It is now the highest selling British single, approaching 4 million copies bar Elton’s Princess Dianna tribute. Over the years the lyrics have been criticised for being a little patronising (and in subsequent re-recordings have been changed for instance for the Ebola crisis) but the synth-based music is classic 80;s with an African feel, the lyrics were memorable and the record served its purpose more than Bob and Midge could have imagined.
Live Aid followed at Wembley 6 months later. I watched intently on TV all day. Again the little things are what I remember. Status Quo opening with Rocking all over the world. Queen’s and U2’s triumph, especially Freddie Mercury in his trainers and Bono in the crowd.. Phil Collins drumming at Live Aid, helicoptering to Heathrow and flying to America in time to drum for reunited Led Zeppelin (minus John Bonham) at the Philadelphia USA version (in fact Jimmy Page and Robert Plant unfairly felt he struggled, one of the reasons perhaps Phil’s career began to decline). Paul McCartney’s microphone failing. The closing Let It Be with Paul, Pete Townshend David Bowie and Alison Moyet the lifting of Bob Geldof on their shoulders.
I felt both the single and concert were more convincing than the USA “we are the world” and concert. Perhaps we discovered that we are “quite good at charity” that magical year. Since then countless Comic Reliefs and Sport Aides have carried on the tradition which Band Aid and Live Aid so memorably started. As I write, Sam Cam is winning celebrity bake-off for Sport Relief on TV. We discuss our Action Aid sponsorship of a young boy in Sierra Leone. Two small examples whose lineage perhaps traces back to the impact of Live Aid.
Bob and Midge may feel they would like to be remembered more for their music but they should be immensely proud of what they started that day at Tyne Tees Studio and continued at Notting Hill studio and Wembley Stadium. They truly changed the world.
Simple Minds Don’t You Forget About Me 1985
This song was offered to Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol, who turned it down, and eventually Simple Minds recorded it, without much enthusiasm for success. However, it’s inclusion in the film the Breakfast Clun launched it to No.1 in the United States and an amazing two year run in the U.K. charts. Retrospectively dubbed an enduring masterpiece, it’s one of the best from a great Scottish band still touring and recording today. I started following the band right from the start with Love Song, Promised You a Miracle and Waterfront. In one sense a quintessential eighties band but they transcended that.
The Breakfast Club itself was a surprise hit given its plot. Although the idea of five teens forming a club is attractive enough, the setting was unusual – the five pupils are ordered to meet in their High School library one Saturday morning as an all-day detention for misbehaviour, and to each write an essay about “who I am”. (Could that kind of punishment happen nowadays?) The story follows their developing relationships and the film ends with them leaving the library. In the video you can see Emilio Estevez, son of Apocalypse Now’s Martin Sheen and brother of Charlie Sheen.
The Smiths. How Soon is Now 1985
Many people think the Stone Roses were the great British guitar band of the 1980’s. Some similarities to the Smiths, their North West background, inspirational guitarists (John Squire, Stone Roses, and Johnny Marr, the Smiths) but for me the Smiths have it because they simply were more productive, with a string of hit singles over several albums and achieved worldwide success with no less than four albums appearing in the mainly America Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 best ever albums. I first noticed them when John Peel began to feature them – at the time a huge mark of quality – and when Sandie Shaw had her first hit for a decade with their song Hand In Glove.
The song that broke the Smiths was This Charming Man, and Morrisey’s TV appearances with his gladioli. Further signature hots followed like Heaven Knowns I’m Miserable Now. But as Johnny Marr says, How Soon Is Now is “possibly our most enduring record. It’s most people’s favourite, I think.”[4
Like so many band’s standout or best-selling songs it is not typical of the band’s overall sound, and often slower (think Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is). Whenever I hear How Soon is Now, for the first minute, I think, I know this is essentially the same slow pace and riff and chord F# for another five minutes, should I keep listening? But I do, it has a hypnotic effect which keeps you hooked to the end, and you are disappointed it has finished.
Johnny Marr’s guitar work on this track is one of the great electric guitar sounds – not a solo as such, but technically complex and yet riveting at the same time. Employing tremoic, tremolo guitar effect. Inspired by Bo Didley, and actually two of my favourite records I Want More by German techno band Can, and Hamilton Bohannon’s Disc Stomp, John Marr and producer John Porter used a series of feeback, reverb and bounce techniques to produce the now famous swirling sigma, slow vibrato sound on the record.
The lyrics are classic “Miserable Now” Smiths/Morissey:
“I am the son, and the heir, of a shyness that is criminally vulgar
I am the son and heir, of nothing in particular”
“…I am human and I need to be loved
Just like everybody else does”
Though not quite what they seem; the “nothing in particular” refers to TS Elliot’s Middlemarch.
Never a big hit (in fact few of the Smiths singles were) it nevertheless is a track which has gained in stature over the years to now been seen as one of the great guitar rock tracks, not just an indie anthem but in the rock pantheon as a whole.
Such as cool title too, even cooler that the record doesn’t actually include the words “How soon is Now” !
Walk This Way Run DMC/Aerosmith 1986
Aerosmith had already had a rock hit a decade earlier with Walk This Way when New York rap and hip hop group Run DMC were persuaded by their producer Rick Rubin to make a cover. Aerosmith’s singer Steve Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry joined the recording, which was revolutionary at the time in terms of linking classic guitar rock with rap and turntable scratching and indeed they created a new genre. What really sealed the deal was the video, one of the all-time greats. Starting on opposite sides of a wall in a real theatre in Union City, New Jersey, the two groups fought it out in competition before a hole was smashed in the wall with a guitar. Run DMC, one of the coolest of all groups with their bling, pork pie hats, sunglasses and unlaced Adidas trainers, and sound system amps, contrasted with the long haired rockers. Eventually reconciliation was reached in the video and in music too, with other cross genre artists like Eminem following.
For Run DMC further classic hits followed like “Tricky” and “It’s Like That” but the group finally finished when sadly one of the founder members Jam Master Jay was murdered at his recording studio in Queens, New York. The murder was unsolved like that of fellow hip hop stars Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac.
Bon Jovi. Livin on a Prayer 1986
I was never quite sure what to make of Bon Jovi. Somewhere between pop and heavy rock. Over the years, tracks like Wanted Dead Or Alive, You Give Love a Bad Name and especially Livin On A Prayer have become rock anthems. It’s a song about a working class couple trying to make ends meet, released during the Reagan era of trickle-down economics. The song includes he phrase “Unions been on strike, he’s down on his luck”. Was this a pro labour or anti labour message? It’s never been clarified, but an interesting song of it’s time, which would not be out of place in today’s America.
West End Girls Pet Shop Boys 1986
Coming towards the end of the eighties synthpop genre, this record was a sleeper needing a rerecording and release before it crept to No.1 in both the U.K. and U.S.A. Singer Neil Tennant, from North Shields near Newcastle upon Tyne, went to Catholic Grammar School St. Cuthberts. He was a journalist for Marvel Comics and then Smash Hits and after being sent to New York to interview the Police, he met a producer Bobby Orlando who listened to and recorded some of Neil and Chris Lowe’s tracks, including West end Girls. They had met soon before on Kings Road Chelsea. The rest, as they say, is history.
The lyrics for West End Girls include references to T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. The line “from lake Geneva to Finland Station” refers to a historic journey by Lenin. The record is influenced by the legendary rap pioneer protest song the Message by Grandmaster Flash. So not just an ordinary boy meets girl song!
Sign of the Times Prince 1987
Although by 1987 Prince was just passing the commercial peak of his Purple Reign years, this was possibly the peak in terms of cutting, socially aware lyrics combined with a dramatic, bluesy, hypnotic melody. Rightly voted the best single of the year by the NME in 1987, the song deals with current affairs – “the rocket ship explodes” referring to the Shuttle – and drug related issues – “In September my cousin tried a Reefer for the very first time, now he’s doing Horse, its June”. That classic line – and the way it is sung, the fractional pause between “Horse” and” Its June” – in a few words sums up what other songs take many verses to achieve. All accompanied by a sparse, staccato bass guitar synthesiser sound which so totally matches the dark lyrical themes, that it is utterly chilling.
From the album of the same name, the track was a worldwide success in the Singles charts. Almost unthinkable that such a track would be a hit today.
Further success followed. With prolific writers like Lennon and McCartney, Cat Stevens, Madonna and Ed Sheeran, their music tends to pop up in all kinds of unusual places. Prince was the same. A film soundtrack here – for Batman; a donated single there – Manic Monday for the Bangles; a first UK No.1 with a ballad, “The Most Beautiful Girl”; and best of all Sinead O’Connor’s rework of Nothing Compares 2 U.
Although this century brought less commercial success, if anything his legend grew with his almost continuous touring to sell-out arena sized audiences. And right to the end he was his own man – one of the very few artists to decline to place his back catalogue on Spotify, to signal his unease at the loss of control and small revenues. For me that’s fine I’ll be glad to purchase the greatest hits CD to replace my worn out copy (who said you could spread marmalade on them!)
Prince Rogers Nelson. A sad loss.
Whitney Houston I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) 1987
Whitney was born to Cissy Houston, herself a soul singer with work as back-up singer to none other than Jim Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin, who was Whitney’s honorary aunt. With Dionne Warwick being Cissy’s niece, Whitney and Dionne were cousins. No surprise that she followed a singer career, though initially she was a celebrated model. One might argue her peak was in 1992 with her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from the Bodyguard film, but “I Wanna Dance” five years earlier set up her career and is her second best-selling single after “Always Love You”
I myself saw Whitney perform at the Nelson Mandela concert at Wembley in 1988. My own favourite Whitney album is the one I bought quite late in her career, in 1999, the edgier “My Love is Your Love”, arguably her last great record before her voice and health agonisingly began to deteriorate. Her legacy is astonishing. The most awarded female singer in music history, selling towards 200 million records.
Guns’N’Roses Sweet Child of Mine 1987
From Guns’N’Roses 1987 breakthrough album Appetite for Destruction, the single followed Welcome to the Jungle, and along with Paradise City and November Rain has become one of the band’s signature songs. The lyric is focused upon singer Axl Rose’s then girlfriend, Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly, the singer. But the record is arguably more famous for Slash’s guitar solo. Initially just a warm up exercise, but he developed it into one of the world’s great solos, very popular with any teenage guitarist, including my own son Matthew who plays a very creditable version.
Michael Jackson Man in the Mirror 1988
The Bad album is sometimes viewed as a poor man’s Thriller but consider this: nothing could outsell Thriller and Bad has sold a monumental 30 million albums: the consistently high quality of every track and the number of hit singles is 9, 5 of which reached number 1 in America, a record only Kate Perry with Teenage Dream has matched. Almost every track was written by Michael himself but Man in the Mirror the 4th single was not. Rather it was co-written by Siedha Garret (who sung Can’t Stop Lovin You with Michael) and Glenn Ballard, but the way Michael sings it, he seems to believe in the sentiment. “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, asking him to change his ways”. One of his most critically acclaimed songs, the addition of the gospel choir brings a hymn-like feel to the song. A number 1 in America, it has grown in stature over the years and regularly voted near the top of fan’s favourite Jackson songs.
The album was the last with producer Quincy Jones. Quincy is one of the all-time-great musical producers, still active and spanning all the decades of my life. When I was born in 1956 Quincy was already trumpeter and musical director with Dizzy Gillespie. His list of credits includes producing Leslie Gore’s “Its My Party”, performing on Miles Davis’s last album Live at Montreux, introducing Will Smith to the world on Fresh Prince of Belle Air, arranging We are the World the American Band Aid, produced the Frank Sinatra/ Count Basie collaboration, and had a hit himself with Ai No Carrida. He is a social activist, champion of civil rights, and works with Bono on civil rights projects.
But it is for his work with Michael Jackson that he will be remembered. Specifically the Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad albums. Three of the greatest of all time, with some of the greatest singles of all time. He brings his jazz heritage to play, combining with rock, soul funk and disco to set the stage for Michael to reveal his true talent.
Although Michael recorded the creditable Dangerous later (featuring Black or White) in retrospect Bad was the last great Jackson album. What followed was a long slow decline both personally and musically.
An oft forgotten event at the peak of his fame in 1984 seemed to be the very first time that things started to go wrong. At a Pepsi commercial shoot, the special effects misfired and his hair was burned. Not his fault, but his invincibility was dented. And retrospectively considering the lyrics of Billie Jean -“People always told me be careful what you do….my mother always told me be careful who you love…the truth becomes the lie” the seeds of mistrust, misfortune and strange behaviour were perhaps apparent in early signs.
When he died in 2009 Michael was just days away from commencing the This Is It comeback dates at the O2 arena. A phenomenal 50 dates, sold out. My feeling is that his poor health and prescription drug problems would have at some stage prevented him from completing the tour. But even if only a few gigs were completed, it would have answered the question, “has he still got it”. Looking at the rehearsal footage, I think the answer would have been “yes”. A sad end to perhaps the greatest career in popular music.
Black Box. Ride On Time 1988
House dance music peaked around this time. Having started in a Chicago warehouse mid 1980’s, the U.K. was at the centre of the genre, with MAARS Pump Up The Volume, Yazz The Only Way Its Up, Bomb The Bass Beat Dis, and S Express Theme From S Express being prime examples and among my favourite records of the time. But it was Italy’s Black Box who emerged with one of the most enduring records, Ride On Time, a U.K. No.1 and one of the first examples of Italian house club music to make an international impact. The emerging Ibitha club scene also helped promote the record. Interesting fact: though recorded in 1988 the 1989 UK hit remix featured the voice of Heather Small, one of the favourite singers of myself and Alison, who went on to record with M People (see 1993, Movin On Up)
Like a Prayer Madonna 1988
My personal preference is the earlier floor fillers like Holiday and Into the Groove but the record that regularly tops the “best ever Madonna” lists is Like a Prayer, recorded in 1988 and released Spring 1989. A chart topper round the world, the song and the video mix Catholic religion and human love. After the memorable opening of “life is a mystery”, It combines rock, dance and funk with the memorable gospel choir. A turning point in her career, it showed how astute a business woman she was (a contract with Pepsi followed) and that she was not afraid to address controversial topics in her lyrics. Shaded of KKK, black civil rights, and much like the early soul and gospel singers like Little Richard and Sam Cooke, she seemed to blur the line between faith and desire. Madonna has had an astonishing career and is still touring regularly and recording new music. She is the highest dollar grossing touring solo artist of all time, and the best-selling female artist of all time, behind only the Beatles, Elvis and Jacko, with sales of 250 million and counting.
One of my first memories of Madonna was watching U.S.A. Live Aid in 1985 at JFK Philadelphia. It struck me that among the male rock-fest here was something brave and different: a confident performance, dancing while singing, enjoying herself clearly. A sign of things to come.
Fight the Power Public Enemy feat. James Brown 1989
1989 was surely the year of HipHop, when political rap and Gangster rap went mainstream. Public Enemy formed by Chuck D and Flavor Flor in Long Island New York had broken through with “Don’t Believe the Hype” on the iconic Def Jam label, which charted in the UK and was trumpeted by the NME . At the time the NME was till essentially in “rock” mode, and so when I read the “Don’t Believe the Hype” was their record of the year I really began to take note of Hiphop. Then “Fight the Power” from the album “Fear of a Black Planet” cemented the group’s place in history. More hit singles followed like Welcome to the Terrordome as the group challenged prejudice against the Black African American community.
“Fight the Power” is an astonishing record – samples from no less than 20 artists including James Brown, Afrika Bambata and the Isley Brothers. In fact James Brown features so heavily with his Funky Drummer, Funky President and Say It Loud, that rather naughtily I have included his name in the artist credit. Recorded for a Spike Lee film, the lyrics were the most controversial and hard hitting yet in the genre. Accusations of racism against Elvis and John Wayne were difficult to accept but thought provoking. All this with infectious dance beats and rhythms. Not for the feint hearted but often voted as one of the most important records ever made.
Meanwhile also in 1989, this time across the coast in a suburb of California, a father watched his children intently at play. He spotted a talent which he wished to nurture. His children faced an uphill struggle to overcome prejudice in their chosen field, but it was clear they were outstanding and talent prevailed. Venus and Serena – for it was the Williams sisters – became two of the greatest players in Tennis history, wining Grand Slams aplenty at a young age, then overcoming a whole new set of problems in their late twenties due to physical and emotional issues. But the girls were tough and Serena has come back to win many more Majors and Venus has been close. The girls got “Straight Outta Compton” – for Compton was their home town – because they had to, to succeed in Tennis. Hip Hop band N.W,A. also came Straight Outta Compton in 1989 with a ground breaking Gangster Rap album pulled together by Dr Dre and Ice Cube. Later they became successful solo artists and Dr Dre became rich through his Beats headphones company. “Straight Outta Compton” was recently a major film release, controversially winning a screen-writer Oscar for the all-white team behind it.
So 1989 was a turning point in in converting rap into political statement. More than just social comment, a call to arms, sometimes controversial in terms of language used and an association with violence. Public Enemy and N.W.A. have had a huge influence upon African American conscious nous in a battle that, judging by the Ferguson incident and reactions, is still ongoing. Beyoncé at Superbowl has carried on the fight in 2016, albeit through a more mainstream vehicle. Not my personal favourites – too much swearing – but both groups Public Enemy and N.W.A. And their records are well recognised in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame and the Rolling Stone Top 500.
Sinead O’Connor. 1989
The song, recorded in 1989, and written by Prince, was a worldwide hit for Sinead in 1990. She was asked in an interview if she had met Prince, and replied “not often, we didn’t get on very well together. In fact we had a punch up”. Prince denied this. Sinead later downplayed it. Sadly we can never now know both sides of the truth.
The video was an iconic performance, set in Paris. Mostly showing just Sinead’s face, and ending with tears. A similar video was made many years later by Welsh singer Duffy, for her Warwick Avenue hit.
The song, recorded in 1989, was released in 1990 by Adamski with Seal on vocals and released by Seal alone in 1991, this time with Trevor Horn of Frankie and Buggles fame producing. The baseline and synthesiser riff made it. Seal was the one who had enduring success. The record was covered successfully by George Michael, combining it with Papa Was A Rolling Stone.
Dee Lite. Groove Is In The Heart 1990
The record is often voted one of the greatest dance records ever. Dee Lite were an American dance band who on Groove Is In the Heart incorporated Bootsy Collins, the Parliament/Funkadelic bass guitarist. It was top ten in America and only kept from No. 1 in the U.K. by a quirk of chart methodology by Steve Millers’ The Joker: both had equal sales in the week in question, but a rule said that if a song’s increase from the week before was higher, it would take presidence, and indeed the Joker climbed from a lower position. This has never occurred since.
Vogue Madonna 1990
“Strike a pose” begins Madonna and proceeds to combine 70’s disco with an underground New York City dance craze called “vogueing” and set the scene for 1990’s dance music. No.1 in 30 countries, the highest selling record worldwide of 1990. The spoken middle section makes name checks of the style, dance and Hollywood icons she admires, such as Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Madonna’s early records were released on Sire, which to me as a punk fan is fascinating. Sire was the home of Talking Heads, the Undertones and the Ramones and confirms Madonna Louise Ciccone’s origin in the independent scene, initially at least. Vogue was by no means Madonna’s last classic – Frozen, Ray of Light and Hung Up were to follow. Just in May 2016 Madonna gave a wonderful rendition of Prince/Sinead’s Nothing Compares 2 U at the Billboard awards.. Why does she go on, when she does not need the money? Answer. Like all the great artists, she simply loves the music and performing.
Back to Life (However do you want me) . Soul 2 Soul 1990
I finally moved to London in 1990, and have lived here ever since. I lived in the Chelsea/Earls Court area, not far from Chelsea and Westminster Hospital where Alison would give birth to Matthew and Ellie. At the time I moved to London, Jazzie B of Soul to Soul was beginning to establish himself in the same area of London, Cromwell Road though Kensington up to Notting Hill, as a Sound System pioneer and record producer. He revolutionised and reinvented British soul music. I was a fan from the start, fascinated by the name of his album “Club Classics Volume 1” (how could they already be classics?) and by the way he brought singers like Caron Wheeler in and out of the group.
Is Back to Life, Jazzie B and the group, and associated video, one of the coolest records ever made? Judge for yourself! “Back to life, back to reality, back to the here and now”. Number 1 in the UK, a Grammy award in America, Jazzie B combined so many genres in his music from the Beatles and Bowie to reggae and hiphop, and developed a uniquely British style of urban soul music. He and the group had many more big hits and Jazzie B is still highly influential: a recent Ivor Novello award and OBE; he still presents a weekly radio show showcasing new music. A true hero of the U.K. black music scene.
Smells Like Teen Spirit Nirvana 1991
For me the Grunge rock style of the early 1990’s was possibly the last great rock movement which had a distinct new style and major cultural and musical impact. Although lead singer Kurt Cobain downplayed it, he represented the voice of the generation, Generation X, or the “slack generation”. The musical style was a sludgy guitar sound, with distortion, feedback and fuzz pedals typically common. The dynamics often switched several time mid song soft to loud and back, with the louder sections typified by angry sounding complaints of alienation and apathy. Hints of punk – certainly the spirit – but mostly slower. Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were other purveyors but it was Nirvana which lead the way with their Seattle sound in one of the first examples of “Alt-Rock”.
The lyrics for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were said to have come from graffiti written on the wall by Bikini Kill, the Riot Grrrls singer (sic). (Only after the teen anthem was written, did the suggestion arise that Teen Spirit was actually a deodorant!) Kurt Cobain built a lyric around this and worked up the unusual guitar sound with drummer Dave Groll, bass player Kris Novoslelic and Kurt playing lead guitar and of course singing that now famous disinterested yet angry style of his. Butch Vig produced. The video features a high school concert featuring both apathy and then chaos; in a dark and blurred style – similar to the grunge sound.
“I feel stupid and contagious”…”I’m worse at what I do best”….finishing with the epic, repeated “a denial”. Classic grunge lyrics. The song went on to achieve immense sales (close to 2 million in the U.S.A alone ) and is often voted into the higher echelons of “best record ever” by critics. The album Nevermind is now one of the highest selling of all time and features of course the famous “swimming baby” – who, as I saw in an interview, has grown up just fine.
Enter Sandman Metallica 1991
I love this record. And so do tens of millions of others too. Enter Sandman was the stand out single along with Nothing else Matters, from the eponymous album Metallica, their fifth ( I am always puzzled why groups use the eponymous name well into their career, as if they cannot think of anything else – the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac did this too).
The album was a calmer and hence more commercial sound than their thrash metal beginnings. Enter Sandman itself features the famous riff, a wall of sound of guitars, a frightening vocal, and very odd yet compelling lyrics. The song is a lullaby/fairytale/nightmare : “exit light/enter night…off to never never land”. With the sandman as “bogie-man”. The feel of Roald Dahl and the Brothers Grimm I think. Except more terrifying.
The release year was the same as Nirvana’s grunge peak – and although Metallica were seen as heavy metal the overall sound on Metallica has similarities to grunge I believe (the opening base line for instance) It is like heavy metal and Punk – some similarities but it is clear which groups belong in each camp.
When you see Metallica being interviewed these days they seem more like smart businessmen that rockers – but still at the top of their game. The album has gone on to become one of the biggest selling of all time with 30 million sales and counting, and a trophy cabinet full of awards.
REM . Losing My Religion 1991
Consider this. That’s me in the corner: one of the greatest of all pop lyrics? For 25 years I have tried to figure out why that simple line is so intriguing. Is Michael Stipe looking at a photograph of himself, or having an out of body experience? There is something of the Blair Witch Project about the line. The song as a whole has so many memorable lines. “Losing my religion” itself is in fact probably the American Southern expression for “losing one’s cool”; “I think I thought I saw you try” adds to the dream like quality of the song; “Oh no I’ve said too much, I havn’t said enough” is a familiar feeling. Michael Stipe, when interviewed wisely doesn’t reveal all the meanings, but hints that it’s a song about unrequited love, a similar paranoia described in the Police’s Every Breath You Take.
The lead musical instrument is the mandolin. A rare appearance for the instrument in popular music: think Mike Oldfield’s announcement in Tubular Bells (…two slightly distorted guitars, mandolin!) and John Peel playing mandolin for Rod Stewart’s Maggie May on TOTP. In fact it was Ray Jackson of Lindisfarne playing mandolin on Rod’s record. Wallsend, Newcastle born Ray was both lead singer and Mandolin player with Lindisfarne (memorably on Lady Eleanor, one of the inspirations for my daughter’s name). Lindisfarne’s other biggest hit, Meet Me on the Corner, brings us neatly back to “Corner”. Along with George Michael’s “Turn a different corner”,” Meet me on the Corner” is one of my favourite “corner” songs, but the best of all is REM’s “That’s me in the corner” in Losing My Religion. I’m obsessive about such connections: I must get out more!
Come As You Are Nirvana 1992
I remember having just come down to London and being in a dance hall with my much better looking fiend Nick, when this track was played. It struck me then very few rock tracks were played at dances but here it was – must be something special. Indeed it was. Like Teen Spirit it was from the multi-million selling album Nevermind. The watery, slippery feel of the opening guitar riff is matched by the feel of the video. The dominating image from the video, and line from the song, was Kurt Cobain imploring “I don’t have a gun”. Unfortunately Kurt did, and only a few years later, after deteriorating health and drug problems, he took his own life almost certainly at the hands of his own gun.
While not quite of the same impact as the anthemic Teen Spirit, Come As You are is nevertheless at the zenith of the band’s legacy. It reminds us what a fine guitarist Kurt was as well as a visionary songwriter and distinctive vocalist. Following his death a number of things occurred. Arguments about royalties already begun continued. Drummer Dave Groll went on to form the almost equally successful Foo Fighters – and continued his fantastic drumming on generally faster and more commercial songs. Kurt’s wife Courtney Love of Alt-Rock group Hole has branched into politics, art and advertising for YSL, but still to this day sings, records and tours and for instance shared vocals on my daughter Ellie’s fave band Fall Out Boy CD.
So 25 years on, Teen Spirit and Come As You are still sound as powerful, ground breaking and fresh as ever.
Boys 2 Men. End of the Road 1992
Boys 2 Men are among only 4 artists (themselves, the Beatles, Elvis and Maria Carey) to spend over 50 weeks at the top of the American charts (in fact they jointly released with Maria the song One Sweet Day which accounted for 16 of those weeks).
End of the Road shows the group at their best, four lead harmony vocals over gentle hip hop beats. Their first hit, it spent a continuous 11 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and hit No.1 in the U.K. too.
U2. One 1992
By now U2 were perhaps the world’s greatest rock band. Their live performances Under a Blood Red Sky, then on an L.A. rooftop a la Beatles, performing Streets Have No Name from the epic Joshua Tree, were for me better than their Live Aid show.
So I was thrilled to see the band perform at Wembley in August 1993 as part of the “giant screen” Zoo TV tour. (I had been to Wembley many times, not least for Sunderland’s famous 1973 Cup Final win, but this was the first time I got to stand on the pitch)
The song “One” – on the Wembley set list – was from the Achtung Baby album, one of my favourite U2 L.P.’s. Mysterious Ways is perhaps is a more typical track, as the band had gone to Berlin to record on the eve of unification, perhaps wishing to pick up the electronic vibe just as earlier David Bowie had, but now also hoping to absorb the “freedom” feeling. It didn’t turn out that way initially, as a surprisingly gloomy atmosphere seemed to pervade the album’s fractious recording. When eventually One was developed, initially as a few chords on the Edge’s acoustic guitar, things looked up. Even then, fascinatingly, the track took many many takes and remixes by producers Daniel Lanois and Eno (formerly of Roxy Music of course) before the track finally was ready.
I didn’t realise at the time, that it would become a classic. Not surprising, because nor did the band! The song is about reconciliation and unity, yes, but also the difficulties in achieving it. “We’re one, but we’re not the same”. “We get to carry each other”: the “get to” is emphasised as a privilege not a right. These are inspiring lyrics, along with “One life, sisters, brothers”; but like many of the great songs there is ambiguity and a dark side too. Nevertheless, most people take the positive and are inspired by the simple but memorable melody, the ultimately optimistic lyrics and one of the great guitar solos by the Edge.
Years later, one of the band’s heroes, Johnny Cash, recorded One, and I know the band were thrilled. It reminds me of the film I saw of U2’s recording of “When Love Comes to Town” with BB King, in which Bono behaves like a fan – he’s clearly in thrall to the great blue guitarist.
The song “One” crept up on us all but is now generally acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best, of U2’s prodigious output, and near the top of many “greatest songs of all time” lists.
REM . Everybody Hurts 1993
REM released Automatic for the People as an equally popular follow up to 1991’s Out of Time, and Losing My Religion. The key single was Everybody Hurts, a song with such sad lyrics, and a sad vibe, that it became associated with suicide charities. The song regularly used to be in the top ten of Absolute Radio’s listeners all-time favourite singles – long after its release, always a good sign. The Absolute Radio annual poll was one of the things which inspired the list you are reading . But the problem with it was that it was a little too narrowly focused on a particular period and genre; hence my idea of top 3 of each year.
REM (“Rapid Eye Movement”) were from Athens Georgia, home also to the B52’s. The city was named after the home of Plato and Aristotle, because one of the first buildings was a University. The state of Georgia is home to Augusta and the Master’s Golf, and – surprising considering the course’s spectacular azaleas – a speciality Chemicals Factory, on my list of regular visits in my BP Chemicals years.
REM were perhaps the most popular of all alternative rock groups: with both the public and their peers (Nirvana and Radiohead were big fans). Their 30 year career came to an end in 2011 when the band sensibly decided they had come to the end of the road, were struggling to say something new. After all, after naming a big hit single “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”, (one of my personal favourites) what more can you compose?
M People. Movin On Up 1993
This was the year when German electronic group Snap achieved a No. 1 worldwide rap/dance hit, Rhythm is a Dancer. But a British dance group was emerging which would have a more enduring legacy, namely M People. Formed by Mike Pickering and acid jazz pioneer Paul Heard, part of the Manchester clubs scene. Pickering was DJ at the famous Hacienda night club. Percussionist Shovel was recruited as was Heather Small, from the soul group Hot House, who had contributed the studio vocal to Black Box’s Ride On Time. How Can I Love You More was their first hit, but the group really secured international success with the album Elegant Slumming and singles One Night In Heaven, and Movin On Up, which was hit not just in the U.K. but America too.
I first came across M People when they won the prestigious Mercury Music prize, which is not renowned for awarding prizes to commercial groups. What was attractive about M People was their home grown, build up from the base, northern club beginnings. And they tapped into a variety of genres – acid house, northern soul, house and disco – yet a made a unique sound. Also of course that voice. Heather Small was and is one of the greatest soul singers, and brought sincerity to the songs with inspirational lyrics that some purely electronic dance music does not.
Alison and I, with our friends John and Theresa, went to see an early show of the band at Brixton Academy. What I remember is this: the band announced a new song, Open Your Heart, and I could tell after just a few bars it would be a major hit. It was, and it’s not often a song so immediately makes its mark. The album Bizarre Fruit revealed further hit singles like Sight For Sore Eyes and the enduring Search for a Hero.
Heather Small herself produced a major sold record, Proud, which has featured in TV shows as diverse as the theme to Oprah Winfrey’s show, and UK TV comedy Miranda, in which she appeared as herself in the last episode.
Alison and I saw M People play once more recently, with Niles Rogers and Chic, on a glorious summers’ evening in Kew Gardens, London and Heather’s memorable voice is absolutely still there.
Robin S . Show Me Love 1993
Robin Stone, American singer songwriter, had a wordwide hit with this House anthem that has been regularly voted as one of the best Dance records ever, sampled many times since. It’s a very strong soul vocal as well. In 2016, Robin is once more at the top of the Billboard Dance charts with Shout It Loud.
Blur 1994 Girls and Boys
This is remembered as their first hit, but is actually the comeback from a fallow period after their massive “There’s no other way”. That was seen as Indie, whereas Girls and Boys was one of the first Brit Pop record and arguably the beginning of their rivalry with Oasis, in which Blur won the battle with Country House, but Oasis won the war with the album What’s the Story Morning Glory.
Girls and Boys has a number of plus points. NME single of the year (at a time when it was still a major honour), an ingenious combination of rock and dance beats, and lyrics which seemed to anticipate both the Trans-gender agenda these days (“girls who are boys”) , and also the rise of the TOWIE Essex phenomenon. More important though, the lyrics summed up the “following the herd down to Greece” mentality (of which I was part). Damon Albarn claims to have written the song after a holiday in Magaluf, and this was an observation on the rampant immorality he discovered (of which I wasn’t a part!) Check out the video, a Wham Club Tropicana look alike (by Kevin Godley of 10 cc fame) but with irony.
Damon Albarn deserves his place in the list because of this song, which broke America for the band and paved the way for the worldwide hit “Song 2”, and for a continuing contribution to pop music in all its forms, including the Gorillaz cartoon band, and various Musicals, and a reformed Blur at Glastonbury recently.
Oasis. Live Forever 1994
Noel, Liam, Guigsy and Bonehead burst on the scene in Manchester in 1991 to 1992, Noel having actually joined after Liam. They signed to Creation Records and Live Forever was their first top 10 UK hit just as the first album Definitely Maybe was released. At first it was the charismatic Liam who garnered the attention. The Indie, arrogant hands-behind-back pose and nasal Lennon-like voice meant you couldn’t take your eyes off Liam. We didn’t realise that Noel was the chief songwriter and composer. Oasis were full of contradictions. I couldn’t decide if the music was retro or fresh, if the clothes were thrown together or deliberately, casually fashionable. Live Forever was intentionally upbeat, a reposte to American Grunge. The guitar work was great, the key “we see things we never see” verse and “you and I we’re gonna live forever” chorus are memorable. Regularly voted the greatest Oasis song, it’s become a rock anthem, growing in stature over the years.
Radiohead Street Spirit Fade Out 1994
Radiohead’s breakthrough album “The Bends” has often been recognised as one of the greatest Rock albums of all time and although not the first single, Street Spirit was arguably the most successful and well known track on the album. Bends elevated Radiohead from indie-rock to the Premier League as one critic said, and especially in America they have never looked back. Radiohead and in 2016 are selling out shows instantaneously.
Street Spirit has an ethereal, almost hymn like quality, which builds through the record. The lyrics are inspired by Ben Okri’s Famished Road. The phrase “terrible beauty” spring to mind, especially in this year of the Irish Easter Rising anniversary.
Radiohead’s debut single Creep a couple of years before almost didn’t see light of day, partly because of censorship of bad language and because the band were reluctant to compromise on re-recording, and partly because it’s first release had disappointing sales. But gradual positive sales on West Coast America and a sanitised Top of the Pops appearance meant successful re-release. The record went on to become the band’s most popular song on tour – so popular that the band tired of playing it.
The words in Creep are about trying to get noticed by the opposite sex – probably at a disco at Thom Yorke’s Exeter University -and trying to be so very special, which is a problem when you see yourself as a creep. Actually for me, this is the heir apparent to Jilted John from the punk era. “I was so upset that I cried all the way to the chip shop”.
Oasis. Wonderwall 1995
By the time this record was released, the Britpop rivalry was well underway. While Blur won the battle with Country House’s No.1 position versus Roll With It, Oasis clearly won the war with the album What’s the Story Morning Glory. This became one of biggest selling albums of all time in the U.K.. Strangely, though I was already a fan, when a disc jockey played the record for the first time without announcing the artist, I didn’t recognise it. However it was obvious to me this was an intriguing, alluring record with a very unusual sound and I was delighted to find it was Oasis.
The meaning of Wonderwall is open to question. Possibly a prison cell poster, or associated with the 1968 arthouse film for which George Harrison wrote the soundtrack (the first such Beatles solo outing) in which a hole in a wall is created for viewing. (I am always reminded of the famous Shawshank Redemption scene when Tim Robins has been hiding his escape route behind a poster). Noel himself says it is concerns an “imaginary friend” who saves you. Even then, there’s doubt about whether it is about Meg Matthews, Noel’s one-time wife.
Whatever (to coin another Oasis favourite) Wonderwall is about as near to a love song as Noel will get:
I don’t believe that anybody feels
The way I do about you now
The song was Oasis’s biggest worldwide hit (top ten on the Billboard Top 100) and is one of the most covered songs in history. The minimalist black and white video has become a classic.
I never saw Oasis live – I had a chance to see them at Earls Court but the show was sold out, as most Oasis gigs were then. Still, I had something called a VHS video – live at their “beloved” (*) Manchester City’s ground, then Maine Road. In those days the Maine Road ground was somewhat in decline (as were the club, after the heady days of Colin Bell and Francis Lee – “Just look at his face”) and so in 1996 Old Trafford was the chosen Manchester ground for Euro 1996.
20 years later and its Euros time again, at time of writing. No football song this time! But in 1996, at the peak of “Lads/Britpop” culture, The Lightning Seeds, with Frank Skinner and David Abdiel, recorded the equal best England football song, Three Lions on Your Shirt (thirty years of hurt is now fifty); equal with the 1990 World Cup’s New Order World In Motion, featuring lyrics by Lilly Allen’s father Keith, the John Barnes rap and back-up vocals by Paul Gascoyne and Chris Waddle. These two of course had actual hits respectively with Fog on the Tyne and (with Glenn Hoddle) Diamond Lights, mullets and all.
(*) The use of the word beloved annoys me. It is written by people who don’t understand football fans. Unless you support one of the top teams (and I support Sunderland) then you actually hate your football team most of the time because of the frustrations and misery they bring you (for instance their seemingly annual fight to achieve relegation), interspersed with occasional flowerings of joy (their failure somehow to achieve it).
Pulp Common People 1995
Incredibly, Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp had been recording and performing for over 15 years before achieving significant chart success. He founded the band in Sheffield at the age of 15 and with a little help from John Peel along the way just kept going through the 80’s synth-pop decade and into the Brit-pop era in the 1990’s. The release of albums His’n’Hers and Different Class, along with singles like Common People and Disco 2000, propelled the band eventually to fame, helped by a Glastonbury appearance and Jarvis’s infamous invasion of the stage a Michael Jackson performance of “Earth Song”.
Common People the song is based upon real life experience while Jarvis was studying film at St Martin’s College of art and design. He met a fellow student – a Greek girl – whom he claimed told him that she “wanted to move to Hackney and live like ‘the common people””. Jarvis developed the theme into a rant about the hypocrisy of social-class swapping. “Pretend you never went to school….because you “think that poor is cool”.
The identity of the Greek girl is not completely established but here is a clue. “She told me that her Dad was loaded”…”watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your Dad he could stop it all”. Danae Stratou, studying at the college at the time, now a well-established artist, was the daughter of a wealthy textiles businessman, and is considered the most likely candidate. Intriguingly, Danae is married to Yanis Varoufakis, a name you may know: he’s the left wing firebrand former Greek finance minister who tried to negotiate Greece’s debt reduction in the 2014 Euro crisis.
The record is now considered one of the cornerstones of the Britpop era, placing Pulp among the top four along with Oasis, Blur, and Suede.
Alanis Morisette. You Oughta Know 1995
Canadian Alanis had a strict Catholic upbringing, was a child TV star and an early Teen singer with some success. She moved to Los Angeles when her career stalled and began writing the album Jagged Little Pill. The first single You Oughta Know was picked up by LA alternative rock stations and became a Grammy Winner and worldwide hit – albeit not everywhere. Back in Canada there was some resistance to her new persona. The contribution of guitar and base by two of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers surely added edge and street credibility. The subject of Alanis’s annoyance is not exactly of Carly Simon “You’re So Vain” proportions, but has been the subject of much speculation without resolution.
Singles like Head Over Feet, Hand In My Pocket and Ironic (sparking a debate about the true meaning of the word) followed making Jagged Little Pill one of the highest selling ever by a female solo artist with sales of over 30 million.
Alanis could never possibly repeat the success of this album but has had a very creditable and successful career since then. I always felt her brand of Alt-Angst Rock revealed an angry as well as independent woman, but it seems she is happy now with marriage and motherhood
Underworld . Born Slippy 1996
The official name is Born Slippy.NUXX a reference to file names on the band’s computer, and because the original Born Slippy from the year before was a different track altogether, albeit also by Underworld. When the film Trainspotting came out, for which Born Slippy.NUXX was the closing soundtrack, the single was re-released and everyone just calls it Born Slippy now anyway. Even though the lyrics do not mention the Title. (Got that?) The lyrics do however mention “lager, lager, lager” and “chemicals” which makes it particularly suitable for Trainspotting, the cult Danny Boyle (of Olympics fame) film about the Irvine Welsh book of low life and the drug scene in Edinburgh. Trainspotting made the name of Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlisle, and while the group never quite reached this peak again, and the record is recognised as one of the greatest dance tracks ever.
And the name Trainspotting? It refers to station at Leith, as in Sunshine Over by the great Proclaimers.
Prodigy. Firestarter 1996
I’d been following Prodigy for a few years through their Charly, Everybody in the Place, and Outa Space phase and couldn’t work out what sort of group they were – rave, techno, yes but with a hint of reggae, jungle breakbeat and ragga. So when Keith Flint transitioned from dancer to Mohican punk lead singer to accompany main men Liam Howlett and Maxim Reality I was as surprised as anyone.
Firestarter was a U.K. number 1 for 3 weeks and the album Fat of the Land was a worldwide Number 1 including in the U.S.A. This brand of fierce, firebrand hardcore techno dance music has rarely been repeated since, but to this day sound exciting and refreshing, if a little disturbing.
Fugees. Killing Me Softly. 1996
One of the greatest cover versions ever, at least of the type which completely reworks the original song, like Joe Cocker with A Little Help and Sinead O’Connor with Nothing Compares 2 U. Roberta Flack had recorded the wonderful original version in 1972, then in 1996 the Fugees, the hip hop/soul group, comprising Wyclef Jean, Pras Michel and Lauryn Hill, released the album The Score. At the time I remember Lauryn being called the “coolest girl on the planet” and for a while the cap fitted. Their version starts memorably – is it guitar or synthesiser? – and includes the iconic “one time” background refrain.
Robbie Williams . Angels 1997
The first great Robbie single almost never made it to release. I remember when Robbie left Take That, there were health problems, booze rather than drugs, and we assumed that he would simply fade away. The release of Life Thru a Lens initially dispelled the worry, but as the first three singles, Old Before I Die, Lazy days and South of the Border charted at successively lower positions, not just the public but the record company began to lose faith. As a last resort, Robbie suggested Angels as a final single. Written by new co-writer Guy Chambers and initially with Dublin songwriter Ray Heffernan, the song relates to Robbie’s family. Although not a No.1 the song has gradually reached a million sales and become one of Robbie’s signature songs, and a classic Live show finale. During the classic Virgin / Absolute Radio annual New Year “best ever singles” votes and playbacks in the early 2000’s, Robbie’s Angels always vied with Bohemian Rhapsody and Imagine for the Top Three slot. Deservedly so. Robbie never really made it in the U.S.A but consider this: he is not just best-selling British solo artist ever in the U.K. but the highest selling Non-Latino artist in Latin America. One reason why at 75 million worldwide sales he is one of the most successful artists of all time.
The Beastie Boys . (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party) 1997
The band emerged from the punk scene in New York City – they supported the Dead Kennedy’s and the Misfits – and recruited Adam Horiwitz from his group the Young and Useless. They switched to hip hop after working with iconic DJ Rick Rubi, who formed Def Jam Records, and were part of the ground breaking Raising Hell tour with Run DMC (one of my favourite rap groups). The Beastie Boys first album Licensed to Ill was one of the label’s first releases and went on to sell 10 million copies. The chief singles were No Sleep Till Brooklyn (named after Motorhead’s “No Sleep Till Hammersmith”) and Fight For Your Right (to party). The video features a “party while your parents are away” and pays homage to Zombie movie Dawn of the Dead.
Radiohead Paranoid Android 1997
My personal introduction to Radiohead, like many others, came by purchasing their 3rd album OK Computer. The NME described it as the first great album of the 21st century (a Maths problem, surely, but I know what they meant!) Indeed since then the album s been described as the greatest album not just of the 20th or 21st century, but of all time. Including by REM’s Michael Stipe (not surprising since Radiohead often reference him as an influence).
Thom York describes how Bitches Brew by Miles Davis in 1970 was a major influence on OK Computer. “It was building something up and watching it fall apart, that’s the beauty of it. It was at the core of what we were trying to do with OK Computer.”.The Beatles Day in the Life was another. Krautrock band Can and film score producer Enio Moricone of Spaghetti Western fame are further influences.
Radiohead’s music has influences but the blend is unique. It is not always easy to listen to (and in the albums after Bends and Computer this was even more of an issue). The lyrical themes of alienation and anti-consumerism are fairly familiar but the electronic sounds are not, especially when they are mixed with quieter moments of beauty.
My personal favourite single from the album is Karma Police but the most successful and enduring is Paranoid Android. I know what you are thinking, you are thinking I know where that name comes from, and you would be right. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy of course features Marvin the Paranoid Android and the record’s title is a tribute to him.
Marvin of course memorably had a “brain the size of the universe”, but was depressed because he was never challenged to use it (we all know the feeling !). He had a difficult upbringing. “The first ten million years were the worst. The second ten million years were the worst too…after that I went into decline”. References for Marvin the Paranoid Android include A.A. Milne’s Eeyore and Shakespeare’s Jacques from As You Like It, and Marvin has become one of the great tragi-comedy characters.
But back to Radiohead’s Paranoid Android. There is an element of paranoia – “voices in my head” and “when I am king you will be first against the wall”. In fact the iyrical inspiration was observation of a woman’s meltdown after a drink was spilt upon her. And yet some of the lyrics seem unconnected to anything else in the song. “God Loves his children…”. As a mathematician that both annoys me and fascinates me. The Bowie technique of taking scissors to a song, scattering the lyrics and rearranging them, seems crazy on the face of it. And yet, I have always been absorbed by and admired lyrics that I don’t understand, that challenge you to paint pictures and interpret.
Musically, Paranoid Android, is both memorable and disturbing. When I think of the track I think “Heavy Metal” but in fact only small parts are metal. Some parts are acoustic, some almost choir-like. Some parts seem to echo King Crimson’s Court of the Crimson King. The record is a computer-age, digital successor to the great “epic” rock tracks of the seventies, Stairway to Heaven and Bohemian Rhapsody spring to mind, Or even Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret tracks – written by him or later inspired by him – such as “Several Species of Small Furry Animals…”. There are several distinct phases of different tempo, and which don’t always seem to connect easily together. And yet they do. And at the end of the day it’s pure, unique, Radiohead, not (directly) at all the songs which influenced it.
Radiohead’s music was never designed to be danced to, that’s for sure. The enduring popularity – now, incredibly, almost twenty five years on from their debut Creep – must, it seems to me, be because of the ongoing tradition associated with early Dylan and the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, of students huddling around warm coffee in freezing lodgings, listening to challenging rock music. Does that really still happen? It must!
The Verve . Bittersweet Symphony 1998
The song has a complicated past. The group had permission to use a short section of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham’s orchestral arrangement of the Stones “The Last Time” (watch this classic video and compare) However when the song Bittersweet Symphony became a hit as part of the classic Urban Hymns album release, the Stones’ former financial manager Allen Klein (he infamously of Beatles notoriety) claimed royalty rights. Although the lyrics were entirely written by the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, the credits were changed to Ashcroft/Jagger/Richards, and the royalties assigned to Klein’s ABKCO publishing company.
The song’s key lyric is “you’re a slave to money and then you die” (a bit harsh?) and the video has become a classic: Richard Ashcroft walks down a “so 90’s England” North London shopping street, appearing to bump into people deliberately. I saw Richard just in May 2016 on BBC breakfast TV describing how, with the video being shot live, passers-by thought he really was like that: rude, aggressive. Not the case!
Bittersweet Symphony was released in 1997 and is seen as part of the Britpop era, albeit near the end of it: it gradually became a big hit in America through 1998, helping to bring it to the attention of one Beyonce Knowles, who later sampled it as part of the “Mrs Carter” world tour.
It is strange how some songs take on a life of their own, over and above the original composition and lyrics, and Bitter Sweet Symphony is an example. It keeps popping up everywhere. The ITV coverage of England soccer matches for many years has begun with the orchestral arrangement of the song.
The Manic Street Preachers . If you tolerate this, then your children will be next. 1998
The Manics first came to my attention when I bought the 45 rpm single “Suicide is Painless” in 1992, their rock cover of the Theme from M*A*S*H*. An early “to become a classic” was Motorcycle Emptiness. Their peak years commercially were the mid 1990’s, first with the iconic “Design for Life”, written following the tragic disappearance – still unexplained – of band member Richey Edwards; and next with “If you tolerate this….” (confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records as the longest title (without brackets) of a No. 1 record in the U.K. – I love statistcs like that!).
The Manics are a highly political left leaning group – and James Dean Bradfield’s lyrics generally confirm that. (What a name! His real name!). I remember noting the grouped pulled out of a high profile charity gig because Royalty would be present and that was against their principles. I admired that. They are also firmly Welsh, are still going strong, and have recorded the Wales football team’s song for the 2016 Euro tournament.
The song draws its inspiration from the Spanish Civil war, where Welsh volunteers joined in the International Brigade’s fight with the fascists. The title is taken from a real Republican poster. There are echoes of the Clash’s Spanish Bombs and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
One of the most famous lyrics from the song is “if I can shoot rabbits so I can shoot fascists”. But for me “and on the streets tonight an old man plays, with newspaper cuttings of his glory days” does what the great songwriters achieve: introduce a picture in your mind, and the rest you invent yourself.
The lyrics are made all the more poignant by the gorgeous guitar intro, and James’s wonderful tenor vocal which is both angry yet touching at the same time. Sad yet inspiring. The record is regularly voted as one of the great British No.1 records.
The Manics Greatest Hits is one of my favourite type of albums: by a “just below the top” rock group who have nevertheless had such a stream of hits, not necessarily all No.1’s – that the group creeps up on you as in fact one of the great British bands. Think the Undertones, the Stranglers.
You’re Still The One Shania Twain 1998
From the album Come on Over, which went on to sell more than 40 million copies worldwide and spent a phenomenal 2 years in the Billboard Top 20. The sales are in the top ten of any album in history and the most by any female artist ever . Canadian born Shania was well established country artist before she evolved with producer Mutt Lange a country-pop cross over style. Single after single was released from the album over an incredible stretch from 1997 to 2000 and the two which I recall with fondness and which were the most successful in the UK were “Man, I feel like a woman” and “That Don’t’ Impress Me Much”. These were perhaps overly commercial – Euro Disco almost – but the one which stayed closest to her Country roots and still stands up today was “You’re still the one”, a sensitive love song for her producer/partner Lange, a reposte to critics who said the relationship would not last. Well, it did for some time but Shania and Mutt divorced some ten years later and the break up caused such trauma to Shania that she withdrew from touring and lost her voice altogether, but happily returned to form very recently with a successful world tour named after the song: “Still the One”..
The song won two Grammy awards and was her first top ten hit in the UK. Country in the UK has never been as popular as in America but it has clearly had a huge influence on pope and rock music (Hank Williams on Elvis Costello, country rock with the Eagles, Johnny Cash on rock’n’roll for instance ). There was a period in the 1970’s and 1980’s when Country was a major chart force in the U.K. (Blanket on the Ground, Billie Joe Spears, The Gambler and Lucille by Kenny Rogers for instance and I have a soft spot for these type of records). Garth Brooks is a huge seller in the USA but not so impactful in the UK. It tends to take a cross over artist like Shania or Taylor Swift these days to make a mark in the U.K.
Goo Goo Dolls Iris 1999
This one crept up to become a classic. I first heard this some years after release, near the top of the then-annual Virgin/Absolute Radio “greatest ever” tracks in the early 2000’s. Suddenly tracks like this and “Chasing Cars” were right up there with the usual suspects of “Angels” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Definitely worth investigating. The name Goo Goo Dolls emerged when an as yet un-named young American garage band from Buffalo NY got their first gig and needed a name. Quickly they saw a toy, and the rest is history. Founder John Rzeznic commented, “if we had more time we would have come up with something better”. But the name stuck and the rest is history. “Iris” is not the group’s first hit but certainly their most well known and popular, eventually reaching a reasonable UK chart position in 1999. It appeared in almost all variations of the Billboard Chart – alternate rock, Hot 100, Radio, Adult and so-on – and was part of the soundtrack for City of Angels starring Meg Ryan and Nicolas Cage. It won the Grammy for best record and also best song (no I don’t know the difference either!) It is regularly performed by X-Factor entrants, and generally charts again straight afterwards. Difficult to describe – powerful folk rock, perhaps – listen to it here – you’ll know it!
Moby Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad 1999
There is a wonderful story behind Moby’s rise to fame with singles like this from his breakthrough album Play. He had produced a first, dark, electronica album Animal Rights with a little success. Opening for Soundgarden on tour, the audience through things at him. He considered quitting but was encouraged by praise from Bono, Terence Trent Derby and Axl Rose (Moby commented, if you are going to get three pieces of fan mail, that’s the fan mail to get”). For his next album he took the unusual step of mixing his ambient electronica and techno music with samples from American folk and gospel (such as Run On, a version of God’s Gonna Cut You Down which Johnny cash recorded) and African music (such as the Banks Brothers on Why Does My Heart). The album Play gradually climbed the charts week by week in the U.K. until a year after release it hit No.1. Moby was as surprised as anyone to get the call about U.K. success, especially as he was still almost unknown in his home of America, playing well down the bill on tour.
The album carried on selling for another year or more eventually selling 12 million copies despite only reaching No.38 on the Hot 100 album chart. How did this happen? Well here’s my story. I resisted buying the album but eventually relented when I heard this incredible statistic: there are 18 tracks on the album and every one of them has either been a hit single with radio play (such as Porcelain, Southside and Where Does my Heart); or had been part of a film soundtrack such as Danny Boyle’s the Beach; or in TV series like the X-files; or in adverts such as Bailey’s Cream; or in new ballet. For a couple of years you couldn’t avoid Moby if you wished.
The album’s legacy is this: it brought original world and roots music to more prominence, and developed a subtle but commercial brand of electronic and ambient music. Fatboy Slim (a.k.a Norma Cook of the Housemartins) with Praise You was going in the same direction with big success too, but Moby’s music somehow seems more long lasting.
And as a footnote, years later, Alison and I helped our son Matthew with his GCSE music syllabus revision, which featured none other than Moby’s “Why Does My Heart”, up there with Mozart and Handel and Miles Davis. I learned about the record’s “layered textures and loops”! There is even a GCSE BBC Bitesize section devoted to it. (As a tutor I have become very familiar with Bitesize)
Baby One More Time Britney Spears 1999
Incudes the line “hit me baby” so I hoped at the time she meant Hit On Me, or whatever is the modern translation for “Step out” (OK I’m not that old) or “Go out” with me. In fact years later I learned that the Swedish writers has believed “hit me” meant “call me” in American. Phew, relief. Although one may have thought Britney would disappear like many teen sensations, in fact she has had a stellar career, with many hits like Oops I Did It Again, and Toxic, still highly successful especially in the U.S.A.
Stan. Eminem feat. Dido 2000
This record still has the power to enthral and disturb in equal measure 25 years after release, and deservedly recognised as one of the greatest rap records, and records in general, ever. There are so many things to say about it, where to begin? Well, first how come Dido is on a rap record?
Dido (whose full name was Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O’Malley Armstrong, now shortened by the singer herself to just Dido) was born on Christmas Day and so in common with Paddington Bear has another birthday in June. She went to school in Islington and Westminster school and studied music, Her first album No Angel and single Here With Me, were already beginning to sell well, and Thank You had featured on the Gwyneth Paltrow Sliding Doors film. Eminem sought to include the gentle Thank You on Stan as contrast to the harsher rap and brutal storyline. The success of Eminem’s record brought Dido to fame in America and No Angel was the top selling album worldwide in 2001. Life for Rent and White Flag followed as further huge successes. I bought them all.
Dido also appeared in the video, at first reluctantly because of the violent nature of the story. Stan is of course an obsessive fan, who feels he is being ignored by rapper Eminem/Slim Shady, and eventually kills himself and his girlfriend in a car crash, and records the event for posterity on something called “a cassette”. Eminem meanwhile is in the process of finally writing back to Stan when he realises it is too late. Stan recalls hearing about some dude on the news, they “found a tape but did not say who it was to” and utters the killer line:
“Come to think about it, his name was, it was you,
The memorable thing for me about the way he sings the last line is this: no name between “was” and “it”, and in fact no delay at all between the thought and the terrible realisation of what this means, or between “you” and the reaction, “damn”.
Eminem of course is now one of the world’s biggest stars (his duet with Rhianna of “Love the Way You Lie” for instance was a recent worldwide best seller). Dido lives a quieter life these days, as a mother, but is still recording and touring. In fact I thought she was appearing at our local theatre recently in “Dido and Aeneas”. (Yes, it’s the Purcell opera, of course. But there is a connection: Dido the queen of Carthage was absolutely the basis of the singer’s parents’ choice of name).
Daft Punk. One More Time 2000
You may think that Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Vanessa Paradi and Johnnie Halliday are the most famous singers. But no, Daft Punk surely are now. The robot helmeted pair of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter first scored a hit with “Around the World” and this worldwide electronic synthpop dance floor filler followed soon after. No.2 in the U.K., One More Time – seen here on the soundtrack of a Japanese cartoon film – is sometimes described as the greatest dance record ever and features in the Rolling Stone magazine’s top 500 tracks in history. More success of course was to follow some 15 years later with their Chic collaboration on Get Lucky. The compressed, auto tuned vocals are the most distinctive feature.
U2 Beautiful Day 2000
The song is about finding your way after “you’ve got no destination”; and finding solace in the beautiful day and sights you can see from space, including the “world in green and blue”. Also the “oilfields at first light” and I can relate to that, after working so long in the oil, gas and chemicals industry. Terrible beauty is a phrase U2 will know from their Irish back ground, and indeed there can be a terrible beauty about industrial scenes such as refineries, lit up at night, flares booming.
The Grammy winning, No.1 song took on a further significance when ITV used it as part of their “Premiership” programme, Desmond Lynam switching from BBC to present the early days of the Premier League. The show was initially shown at 7 p.m., but this was not popular and even when switched to later, soon the writing was on the wall: only Match of the Day could present a Saturday night football highlights show.
U2 have made some good records since then including Vertigo and The Saints Are Coming (with Green Day) but I wonder if history will judge Beautiful Day as the last U2 classic? When U2 recently released a promising album, their most recent, Songs of Innocence, and a storming punk inspired single “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”, I was about to buy the album. However the group, with Apple, decided to release it free of charge on iTunes. I thought, if it is free it has no value. If it is of no value, it cannot be that good. So from the point of being prepared to purchase for £10, I never did get the album, because it was too cheap, and ignored the free downloads.
Notwithstanding Bono’s serious injuries sustained in a cycling accident, U2 remain one of the great touring groups, but it would be great if they could release just one more chart topping rock single! Paul Hewson (Bono Vox, meaning good voice); David Evans (the Edge, nicknamed because of his angular looks and sharp instincts); Larry Mullen Jr; and Adam Clayton make up one of the greatest of all rock groups, having formed over 30 years ago as school mates at Mount Temple School in Dublin. They all answered an advert on a school noticeboard, looking for band members. An epic way to start. Keep going, boys!
Destiny’s Child Survivor 2001
The group’s three lead singers, Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams all went on to have solo success, especially Beyoncé, but this is where it all started. After scoring a big No.1 with What’s My Name, the album Survivor delivered three more hits, Independent Woman (from Charlie’s Angels), Bootylicious, and the title track I’m a Survivor, which went straight in at No.1 in the UK charts. The group were reinventing soul music in terms both of singing style, assertive lyrics, and an urban style which saw them jump in and out of double time. The group had initially been Girl Tyme, with a fourth member LaToya Tuckett, but after becoming a threesome a la Supremes, they settled on Destiny’s Child by referencing the Book of Isiah.
Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot . Get Ur Freak On 2001
I first really caught on to this record when it became the NME’s single of the year in 2001. (Just ahead of Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head – how times had changed since the NME championed punk). The record has the distinctive Bhangra style and tumbi instrument from India. An astonishing combination of world music and hip-hop, the producer was Timbaland with whom Missy has frequently collaborated down the years. She has had a stellar career since then both as a producer and solo artist, and the record hit the charts again in 2015 when she performed it at the half time Superbowl concert.
Kylie Minogue. Can’t Get You Outa My Head 2001
Kylie had moved on from early Neighbour’s acting roles to filming Shakespeare’s the Tempest in Barbados (she played Miranda); and from Stock Aitken and Waterman’s I Should Be So Lucky to the disco track Spinning Around, a U.K. No.1. So the scene was set for her greatest commercial and critical achievement, Can’t Get You Outa My Head. The track was co-written by Cathy Dennis (disco solo artist turned successful writer) and Rob Davis. If you recognise the name, yes it’s the guy from Mud, with the long curly hair and earrings. Initially the track was offered to S Club 7 – who turned it down – and then to Sophie Ellis Bextor, whom Rob had worked with on the classic Spiller track Goovejet (If this aint love). Sophie also turned it down. However Kylie knew it was for her within a minute of hearing the demo.
The song has a classic New Order type robotic dance bass line, and 124 bpm synthpop drum loop. But there are oddities which make it so appealing. The structure is not typical Verse Chorus Verse Chorus. Rather, it begins with the Chorus (just as some Beatles tracks did) but then has several “misplaced sections”. The lyrics at first sound fairly basic, but close listening reveals quite an obsessive feel, al la The Police’s Every Breath You Take.
The song entered the U.K. Chart at No.1, a position it reached in an astonishing 40 countries. It is one of the highest selling singles of all time with 7 million copies. It won several “single of the year” accolades and an Ivor Novello award. The song and video are considered Kylie’s “signature” performances. A footnote: at the time there was considerable hype of the “Blur/Oasis” type, for whether Kylie, or Victoria Beckham with “Not such an Innocent Girl” would hit the top spot first. It was Kylie of course.
Robbie Williams Feel 2002
Arguably the last great Robbie single, Feel was released from the Escapology album, and was a worldwide hit, though not in America. It is now seen as his third great signature tune, along with Let Me Entertain You and Angels. The classic line from the song is “before I’ve arrived I can see myself coming” and this was a line I kept humming years later when I popped his Greatest Hits album in the CD player while driving across France and Belgium through the long flat countryside on route to Brussels for one of my last ever appointments with BP Chemicals. This lyric – along with “not sure I understand this road I’ve been given” – seemed to be telling me something was wrong; and indeed, while I was there in Brussels, 7/7 was happening back in London. A scary moment. I was glad to get back to my family.
The other famous line in the song was “I want to feel real love, in the home that I live in”. I always sensed that Robbie found it a little awkward to sing this line. Mind you, the more grammatically correct “in the home in which I live” would be even more awkward! Shades of Paul McCartney’s “ever changing world in which we live in”.
Soon after Robbie played to an astonishing 375,000 fans over three consecutive nights at Knebworth. Arguably the biggest single live music event in Britain ever. I remember looking at the show on TV, and there was a moment when he stopped singing and just looked out at his adoring fans. I suspect he was wise enough to know, this will never happen again, enjoy the moment.
Coldplay . The Scientist 2002
The members of Coldplay are Chris Martin, Johnny Buckland, Guy Berryman and Will Champion. The band have continued unchanged since the start, apart from one brief firing and reinstatement of drummer Will, and a brief offer – turned down – for Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane to join. Most of the boys have a University College London background. There are mathematicians among them (hooray!) but Chris himself is a classicist (hooray from my brother!).
Chris had the decency to complete his studies even though the band had started releasing records. He gained a First Class Honours in Latin and Greek (not your average artists from the “street”!).
The band’s breakthrough was with “Yellow” and their rise to international stardom really gathered pace with “Rush of Blood to the Head” and the singles Clocks, In My Place and The Scientist.
The Scientist is a slow song, but seems to me to pull off the trick of having an insistent, pulsing rhythm. The video for the Scientist is shot in reverse motion – for which Chris had to spend a month learning the song backwards. Was it worth it? Yes, watch the video to the end it’s a fascinating, clever, story with a twist. And it makes sense of one of the key lines “I’m going back to the start”. The most important line, though is, “Questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart”.
Hurt . Johnny Cash 2002
I wouldn’t normally feature a record right at the end of an artist’s career – but with this record that is the whole point. Hurt was recorded just before the great Man in Black’s death, a fact which plays a significant part in the record’s story. And as well as being one his best ever records musically and lyrically, it features what is now recognised by many as the best pop video ever, by anyone, in history, period.
In a sense this record has nothing to do with the 21st century, in other senses it has everything to do with it because this century is a product of the last. And because the record is a beacon of “real” music amongst much of today’s homogenised, “produced by committee”, fare.
Hurt, along with B-side Personal Jesus written by Depeche Mode, comes from the album American IV, the last in a series of albums recorded in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, in which Johnny revisited and re-interpreted many mostly American classic folk and country songs, some well –known, some not. It would be wrong to say these albums were wholly responsible for relaunching his career – he never really went away – but they helped. His peers certainly recognised him as one of the greats – Bono was delighted when Johnny recorded U2’s “One” for instance.
Musically Hurt starts slowly and acoustically and builds to a memorable guitar and piano climax. But it is the video and lyrics which make this performance.
Johnny didn’t write the lyrics, but since almost every line seems to apply to him, one imagines he did, while looking back at his life. “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel” he begins in now crackling voice, and continues.….”the needle tears a hole”. He may or may not have been a heroin user but he certainly faced drug and alcohol demons. “Everyone I know, goes away in the end”. As he ages his friends pass away (and in 2016 the demise of the great sixties generation of stars that survived is accelerating).
And then the central line of the song, “You could have it all, my empire of dirt”.
“Empire of dirt”, written by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Raiznor, is one of the great evocative, “try and picture this” lyrics of rock’n’roll. Johnny looks back on his life, dismisses it (wrongly, you feel) – as tainted and corrupted. He’s achieved so much, but how much is it worth?
And Johnny continues, “I will let you down”. His first wife, certainly felt that way, as he spent so much time away on tour and eventually was unfaithful. And talking of faith, Johnny sings about the “crown of thorns” in reference to his own Christian faith. This was the only line in the whole song that he re-wrote, indicating both how much that faith meant to him, and yet that so much of the song’s darker sentiment really did fit with him.
And then at the end (one suspects at the real end of his life too); some reconciliation, happily, a compromise. “If I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep myself, I would find a way”. Not such a bad person, after all.
And then, on top of all that, the video. That video. Johnny sings “I remember everything” and producer Rick Rubin (of cult hip hop label Def Jam fame) indeed enables Johnny to do just that in the video.
Set in Cash’s own house and the House of Cash museum – but long since closed down, almost derelict, the victim of floods – we can see memorabilia, but faded: the cracked glass on a gold record. A banquet is laid out, but beginning to decay, perhaps for the emperor of dirt. We see Christ’s crown of thorns. Cash is still the main in black, but the handsome face a little blotched. Shots of Johnny playing guitar and piano, singing “Hurt” with the still deep and powerful voice, now a little cracked. Interspersed with footage of his earlier career, concerts: mostly happier times. Johnny living the American dream, jumping onto a railway wagon, guitar on his back.
Then as Johnny sings “What have I become, my sweetest friend” we see his wife June Carter Cash – a wonderful country singer herself – looking on from the stairs; worried, helpless, still adorable, still adoring.
The video closes symbolically with Johnny closing the piano lid, and stroking it tenderly, as if to say, “goodbye old friend”.
Three months later June passed away, and four months after that, Johnny too. And some time later the Cash’s house where the video was partly filmed, burned down.
The song and the video cast (self) doubt on the value of Johnny’s career. But he should not have worried – he achieved so much, his legacy is recognised more than ever.
Seven Nation Army White Stripes 2003
The song that shows why Jack White is a songwriter and I am not. He describes how “everyone” knows the story, and I would have been happy with that. But he goes on to embellish it with one of the great lines of modern rock music, “from the Queen of England to the Hounds of Hell”. That’s a pretty wide spread, and almost as good as the line I have just heard, that Jordan Speith, the golfer, makes a very rare double bogey at the Masters, and discovers his “inner Ernie Else”(Ernie had just taken 10 at a par 4).
And talking of sport, this record has become a favourite of England football fans. The guitar riff is played by the horn section (yes there is one) at England football matches.
I could never work out whether the drummer was Jack’s sister. Whatever, they were ahead of Royal Blood in creating very loud rock music from minimal instrumentation.
Jack has made many great records since then (including an off the wall Bond theme) but like it or not this is the one he’ll be remembered for, at least in the U.K.
Crazy in Love brings two genres together, first 1970’s soul/funk with the French horn sample from a Chi-Lites minor hit Are You My Woman(Tell Me So); and second, the hip hop beats, and rap from Beyonce Knowles’ husband to be Jay-Z. And of course there’s Beyonce’s electrifying vocal performance and iconic video. All adding up to a dance floor classic.
While Beyoncé was just starting her solo career, after Destiny’s Child went their separate ways, Jay-Z was well established by then as a hugely successful rapper. He had grown up as Shawn Carter in Brooklyn New York, and had a difficult up-bringing. His father had left the family, he moved from school to school and at an early stage seemed to be exposed to drugs and violence (he would later be charged with knifing a record producer).An early school friend was the Notorious B.I.G. , future rapper and murder victim of a drive-by shooting. Carter’s mother noticed him banging out drum beats on the kitchen table, bought him a beat-box, and the rest as they say is history. Shawn Carter became Jay-Z in honour of his nickname Jazzy and fellow rapper Jaz-O. He began by selling CD’s from the boot of his car before signing a distribution deal with iconic Hip-Hop label Def Jam, of which in years to come he would be president.
It is sometimes difficult in the U.K. to realise just how popular and successful rap and hip-hop is in America and how mainstream its artists have become. Jay-Z alone has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and received 22 Grammy awards. His business empire grew alongside his music career. He owns 40 40 sports bar in New York, he founded the Roc Nation Sports Agency, he is part owner of Brooklyn Nets NBA team and at once stage was a possible investor in Arsenal F.C. He co-founded urban clothing brand Rocawear and recently heavily invested in Private Jet booking app JetSmarter. He co-owns the music streaming service Tidal. The list could go on. He is also a philanthropist and active supporter of President Obama.
Meanwhile that record. While Beyoncé is the lead, Jay-Z’s contribution tops it off. Crazy In Love was No.1 in both the U.K. and America and has become one of the biggest selling records of all time with 8 million plus sales. And the ultimate accolade? It was officially voted the track of the (2000’s) decade by the NME staff. Bear in mind that award went to the Sex Pistols with God Save the Queen in the 1970’s. Hip hop and rap have come a long way.
Arctic Monkeys. Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor 2003
From Sheffield, Alex Turner’s band have taken on Indie and Punk rock music to the 21s century and achieved spectacular popularity both in the U.K. and, perhaps surprisingly, the U.S.A. as well. Their first hit is not easy on the ear, but then at the time it was very different to anything you were hearing on the radio. More recently their A.M. album with singles R U Mine and Do I Wanna Know has become one of my personal favourites not least because of its album cover – a nice oscilloscope style sin wave.
The Killers. All the Things I’ve Done 2004
Otherwise known by its famous refrain and chorus “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”. The Killers are from Las Vegas, Nevada, home to Andre Agassi. I visited Las Vegas after skiing in Aspen, and saw not the Killers but the Temptations, in a cabaret style show. In Las Vegas the point to note is that you don’t walk anywhere; like the toy-store owner in Toy Story 2 you take the car even to cross the road.
Mr Brightside, was one of their other great hits from the album Hot Fuss, and a rousing rendition was reported on the BBC in 2016 after an attendee at an Irish Wake spontaneously sang the song in a pub and (inevitably) the YouTube video went viral (it is very funny) .
Hot Fuss and the singles quickly established the Killers as the commercial, acceptable face of indie alternative rock and many Grammy nominations were to follow. The band were named after seeing a logo in a New Order video and Brandon Flowers was inspired to form a band after seeing Oasis live. So they have a British connection, which comes through in their music. Another thing I like is their annual release of a Christmas single in aid of African charities.
2004 Maroon 5 She Will Be Loved
Maroon 5, from Los Angeles, broke through with their Songs About Jane album and Harder to Breathe single, and This Love and She Will be Loved followed, both nominated for Grammies. Maroon 5, aided by singer Adam Levine’s Holywood looks, have never looked back, touring extensively and achieving phenomenal sales more recently with Payphone, and dance anthem Moves Like Jagger, featuring Christine Aquilera.
Green Day Boulevard of Broken Dreams 2004
Billie Joe Armstrong’s California based group had a big hot with Dookie, a full decade before, but success was fading. The release of the classic American Idiot, a punk rock opera, changed all that. Five big hot singles resulted, the title track, Wake Me Up When September Comes, Holiday Jesus of Surburbia, and arguably the standout track, Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The song is based around a poster for a James Dean poster and describes the loneliness of walking the streets of New York, after the initial euphoria of the Holiday. The album is overtly political. I am not sure Donald Trump would like it: “I am not part of the redneck agenda” Billie Joe famously sings on the title track American Idiot.
The song reached top 5 in both U.K. and USA and won a Grammy for Record of the Year. The album, which became a Broadway and West End musical, is one of my personal all-time favourites and shows how British Punk and New Wave could have developed had we persevered.
Colplay . Fix You 2005
This was about the time that, after 28 years, I was leaving BP and specifically the ill-fated Chemicals spin-off Innovene, taken over by Ineos. As I often walked up from my office at the time in Staines to its town centre at lunchtime, I felt somewhat sad. I hummed this tune, with its optimistic message around “fix you”. I remember at the time that Chris Martin described the song as the “centrepiece” of the album X&Y. I checked my copy and found that, no, Speed of Sound was 7th of 13, Fix You was 4th. As a data scientist this bothered me. But thinking about it, I realised what he meant. Some songs are so important that all the rest fit around it. And of course, “Questions of science, science and progress, do not speak as loud as my heart”.
Fix You was written in tribute to Gwyneth Paltro’s recently deceased father, and fact features an organ that he had bought but not had the chance to play. This gives it a feel of both gospel and Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross. The song is both sad (dedicated to the 7/7 bombings) yet inspirational (the central guitar break is played at American Hockey games). The lyrics “Lights will guide you home” refer to the way the BT Tower used to guide the guys home to UCL lodgings after a night out. (For me, BT Tower will forever be the Post Office Tower, just as the Rendezvous Café in my hometown of Whitley Bay will always the Venetian café, even though the name in reality changed around 40 years ago. I’m reminded of this every time I visit or it appears on TV series such as detective series Vera.)
The video to Fix You begins in London Bridge’s Tooley Street. This seemed appropriate, as soon after leaving BP, my next full time job was indeed at London Bridge, in Seacontainer’s offices, right underneath the Shard as it grew each day to eventually dwarf the Post Office Tower.
I Predict a Riot. Kaiser Chiefs 2005
The last great Punk record. Fast, attacking guitar sound, memorable chorus with shades of the Clash’s White Riot, and inner city angst lyrics.
The Kaiser Chiefs were named after the South African football team and arrived on the scene around the same time as their fellow Austro-German WW1 protagonist named group, Franz Ferdinand.
Ricky Wilson’s song describes a dismal, violent night out in his home town Leeds, which includes what reads like a police beating, which “would never have happened to Smeaton, an old Leodensian”. A memorable line.
I am ashamed to say that for many years I had assumed “Smeaton” was a Dickensian character (he does sound like one). But in fact John Smeaton was a civil engineer from Leeds (a Leodensian) and a very interesting one too. He contributed to the famous debate within the Royal Society scientists on whether Liebnitz’s conservation of energy theory contradicted Newton’s Laws. He designed the Eddystone Lighthouse (not, not quite Eddison Lighthouse of Love Grows fame). He designed the Portland tower for which Portland cement was developed, which became Smeaton Tower at Plymouth. He built many bridges including the Hexham and Coldstream bridges, and built the Spital Tounges chimney at Newcastle upon Tyne. He devised a water engine for Kew Gardens, and even found time to invent “Smeaton’s coefficient” and formula L = kV² AC1 which would be used a hundred years later by the Wright Brothers to help design the first successful aeroplane. What a man, a true British hero of the industrial revolution. No wonder he is credited with invention of the term “Civil Engineer”.
I have followed the band since that first hit. Excellent works like “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby”, but I always regret that “I Predict a Riot” was the end of a Punk revival rather than the beginning. The Kaiser Chiefs are still going strong, with Ricky Wilson branching out into ventures such as judge for the Voice and a small part in Harry Potter. Not especially a worldwide hit, but as an observation on inner city Britain and an attempt to keep punk rock music in the charts, it is spot on.
Foo Fighters. Best of You 2005
After the untimely death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, drummer Dave Grohl was at a loss how to proceed. A multi instrumentalist and songwriter, Dave put together his new group The Foo Fighters, which have become one of the most successful rock bands in the world, with Dave switching frequently to guitar as well as lead vocal. The song Best of You was written after working with politician John Kerry and is the band’s biggest single. Dave Grohl recently gained respect for carrying on playing with a broken leg after falling off the stage!
Crazy Gnarls Barclay 2006
I have a theory that if you want a hit record, then simply use a song with “Crazy” in the title. For instance Crazy For You, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, Crazy in Love, and “Crazy” itself (a different song) originally by Willie Nelson. This record took its inspiration from the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Dollars trilogy, with its Ennio Morricone score, and another Spaghetti Wester, Django Prepare a Coffin. The song received critical acclaim and spent nine weeks at the top of the U.K. charts, also becoming the first song to achieve the No.1 spot on the basis of downloads alone.
Chasing Cars Snow Patrol 2006
I began to realise just how good this was when it was voted Number 1 song of all time in the annual Virgin/Absolute poll, pushing the usual suspects of Bohemian Rhapsody, Angels, Let It Be and Imagine downwards. However, this actually was the inspiration partly for this 60 years of rock’n’roll list. Good as the song was, and still is, and as fascinating as these polls are, this type of vote is heavily influenced by what people have heard recently. So if the poll was repeated in 2016, would Chasing Cars still be No.1? Probably not, so the answer, as I have done, is to force the issue, ensuring three songs from each of my 60 years are chosen, across a wide spread of genres.
The song by Northern Irish band Snow Patrol – who had already released one classic, Run – starts slowly and builds beautifully and dramatically; in one sense it is romantic but is not quite what you think. The phrase “Chasing Cars” originates in an infatuation, yes, but comparing it to a dog relentlessly chasing a car, and ether not catching it or not knowing what to do when it catches up. Nevertheless, a timeless classic. The song was one of the early records to benefit from Download (I Tunes essentially in those days) and inclusion in the Grey’s Anatomy box-set seasons hugely boosted its American sales, such that it was nominated for a Grammy. It also brought the final curtain down on Top of The Pops, being the last song played live on the show.
Dani California 2006 Red Hot Chilli Peppers
I first took great interest in this song when fans in a Radio Poll voted it their favourite Chilli Peppers song. What, no “Under the Bridge”, or Higher Ground? Those early Peppers records from the 1990’s had put me on their case from the start But something strange had happened, It was the start of I Tunes, and the listeners had been greatly influenced by the new phenomenon called the “download” . But that’s not all. Dani California turned out to be the third in a trilogy of songs about “Dani”. “Californication” had introduced the as yet un-named “teenage bride with a baby inside”, and “By the Way” had proceeded with “Dani the girl” before Dani California told more of the unfortunate girl’s life story before eventual sad demise.
Anthony Keidis,songwriter and singer possessed of a powerful yet haunting voice, explained that Dani was a combination of all the girls he had been with. The Peppers have had a tortured life but are still at the top of their game, and are headlining Festivals in the UK in 2016. Keidis, guitarist Fruscianate, and Flea have both taken drugs and argued about usage. In “under the Bridge” Keidis is “lonely in the City of Angles” because his bandmates have disowned him for too little drug-taking. But their musical pedigree is assured. Flea is often voted amongst the top three bass players of all time (Paul McCartney and John Entwhistle being the others)
I watched the Peppers on TV at Knebworth and they were outstanding. The Dani song is the band’s usual unique combination of rock and funk and the story of Dani’s travels though America reminds me how cool American place-names like Minisota, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and California sound – much better than Yorkshire, Sussex, Norfork perhaps. The song features in “Rock Band”; and the “Sons of Anarchy” Cable TV series – an early indication of how popular rock songs would be in gritty American TV dramas of the Sky Atlantic/Netflix age.
2007 Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse Valerie
Although Rehab and the album title track Back to Black are probably of more substance lyrically and ultimately more prophetic for poor Amy, let us remember her for this up tempo dance track which I think in years to come will be the one that actually gets played most on the radio. Originally a hit for Liverpool band the Zutons, long time Amy collaborator and producer Mark Ronson recorded Amy’s version by completely reworking the song. Mark went on to produce Uptown Funk and Amy recorded with Tony Bennet no less. I remember having dinner with our friends Gerry and Denise, who mentioned they had seen a headline about one of their favourite singers, Amy Winehouse. They thought it seemed like bad news. I checked the internet and confirmed the worst. They were devastated, as we so many when she passed away.
Rihanna and Jay-Z Umbrella 2007
It’s is easy to forget that by 2007 Rihanna, born in Barbados to a Guyanan mother, and attending school with future England cricketer Chris Jordan, had already scored top 10 hits in the UK and U.S.A. with singles Pon de Replay, S.O.S. and Unfaithful. Rapper and music mogul Jay Z had signed Rihanna to his Def Jam label, and Umbrella eventually as a song came to Rihanna after almost being taken up by Britney Spears and Mary J. Blige. The thing which clinched it for Rihanna was the Ella, Ella hook, and the unusual hip hop hi-hat beat. The song was a No.1 worldwide including 10 weeks at the top in the U.K.
Take That Patience 2007
During the late 1990’s and early 2000’s shares in Gary Barlow collapsed while Robbie William’s stock went stratospheric. Gary was a million miles from being the nation’s treasure that he would become. So it was a surprise and a risk when after a ten year absence he reformed Take That as a foursome. But the Beautiful World album was high quality and two singles in particular stood out. Shine was one – featuring an up temp rhythm and rare Mark Owen lead vocal – which rather irritatingly became the signature tune for Morrison’s supermarket. The lyric was rumoured to be about Robbie prior to his return. The other singe was Patience, a more traditional ballad, featuring Gary Barlow falsetto. The song was No.1 for 4 weeks in the U.K. and went on to win the Brit Award for best British single. It was in the top sellers lists in the U.K.in both 2006 and 2007. Take That were well and truly “back for good”- now there’s an idea for a song!
A few years later in 20010 Robbie Williams re-joined for the Progress album from which The Flood – one of my own personal favourites – was released. Take That’s national tour was sensationally successful – I watched on TV as Robbie was given some solo time mid concert to do his three signatures, Angles, Feel, and Entertain You. Then the five members performed many of their number 1’s reminding you that they have had an astonishing 12 U.K. No.1’s over a 25 year career.
Sex on Fire. Kings of Leon 2008
As a fan of Southern Rock, of the Lynyrd Skynyrd type, I was already fascinated by this band from the Nashville and Tennessee areas, before their breakthrough. I also loved the fact that all four members of the band were related – three brothers and a cousin – all called Followill. As youngsters, the band has hit the road in an Oldsmobile, touring with their Preacher father at churches and tent revivals. The band achieved success in the U.K. before America, but scored worldwide success with their Only By The Night album, and singles Sex on Fire and Use Somebody.
One Day Like this Elbow 2008
I was well of the song by the time the 2012 Olympics came along, having bought the album already, the wonderfully titled Seldom Seen Kid. But I was unprepared for what happened when Guy Garvey and the band played live at the London Olympic ceremony – the whole crowd seemed to rise as one and join in in a Hey Jude style rendition of the chorus. (Guy Garvey later said this wasn’t a total coincidence – just for once he wanted to record an anthemic song). “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right” is one of the great feel-good lines in rock and “Its looking like a beautiful day” with staccato strings is equally memorable. Every one of the 80,000 people at the Olympic stadium seemed to know the song, whatever their age and background.
I also recall a wonderful re-playing of the whole Seldom Seen Kid album by the band with the BBC Concert Orchestra recorded at the “Beatles studio” Abbey Road. A “rock music as art” cultural event of the highest order. Although the track was not a big worldwide seller, it won the coveted “Ivor Novello” award for best song of the year musically and lyrically.
Lady Gaga Poker Face 2008
Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta seemed to appear from nowhere but she didn’t – she came up the hard way, learning her trade in theatre, in musicals, as a songwriter, as a method actor, small part TV actor, and performance artist. 75% Italian, she grew up in New York’s Manhattan, and went to school there in the Convent of the Sacred heart, She suffered some knock backs – dropped from Def Jam record label – before breaking through with her album “Fame”. The name Lady Gaga came by accident. Her boyfriend texted Radio Gaga, but autocorrected to Lady Gaga. The rest is history.
Relocating to Los Angeles, Lady Gaga scored worldwide success with Poker Face. A synthpop EDM song, it became the best welling single of 2009 worldwide, and launched Lady Gaga onto an unsuspecting public.
Lady Gaga proved she was by no means a two album wonder (Fame and Fame Monster) and with Born This Way in 2011 became one of the highest selling artists of all time. I had thought that Born This Way was an autobiographical life story, but in fact it pays homage to the gay and LBGT community that she resonates with. Unusual fact: the dance anthem was part recorded at iconic rock studio, Abbey Road.
Alecia Keys and Jay Z Empire State of Mind 2009
This is a record where I really get Rap. While Alecia rerecorded a version and video on her own, the much edgier original with rapper Jay Z really makes sense as you can see on this classic video. “Concrete jungle, where dreams are made of” sums up the New York I know. It’s a wonderful city, from Times Square all the way uptown to Harlem and beyond. When Jay Z was presented with the song for his Roc nation label, he wisely chose Alecia Keys, the classically trained pianist, for the vocal because of the epic sweep of the song which suited a major piano contribution.
Black Eyed Peas Gotta Feeling 2009
The Black Eyed Peas, featuring singer Fergie (Stacey Ferguson) and the now Voice host will.I.am (William Adams), had their first major number 1 in 2003 with Where Is the Love, and the dance floor filler followed with a 14 week spell at No.1 in the U.S.A in 2009. Adams has formed the group as early as 1988 in High School in Los Angeles, and at one stage approached future Pussycat Doll and Reality TV judge Nicole Scherzinger to join the group before settling on children’s TV star Fergie.
Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it). Beyoncé 2009
The record begins with classic soul and gospel call and response. “All the Single Ladies”. “Single Ladies!”. Beyoncé is on the prowl in a club with her single girlfriends. She spots an ex-boyfriend, and scolds him for not “putting a ring on it”. Not committing. The song follows in the great line of female empowerment anthems, from Aretha’s Respect to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. But there is an irony, that having got a $5 million Lorraine Schwartz designed ring herself from husband Jay Z, Beyoncé seemed to hide it. The power couple are famous for not especially appearing married in public, if I read the celebrity magazines and social media right (but then I don’t read them so I am probably wrong). However, Beyoncé was then criticised by some for naming her 2013 tour the Mrs Carter tour (Jay-Z is Shawn Carter). The poor lady cannot win!. Too complicated for me, as is the debate about who is the most powerful power couple, Jay-Z and Beyoncé or Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Again, I am unaware of this rivalry as I don’t own a Mobile phone with which to keep up with events.
The song was released from the I Am Sasha Fierce album, which la Rod Stewart had a fast side and slow side. So Single Ladies was released simultaneously with If I Were a Boy, an equally fine track. Musically, its principally rap with some Double Dutch staccato clapping rhythm, and a crooner break mid track, and the vocals are particularly strident to get the message across. The record has sold upwards of 6 million copies pushing it into the list of worldwide best-selling singles, and has been nominated for a multitude of awards; and interestingly Rock Magazine Rolling Stone made it their single of the year at the time.
The video, a very simple black and white, fast and furious dance routine with similar choreography to the “internet sensation” Mexican breakfast, has become iconic and further enhances the song’s legend. The song is very much part of her Live set list.
it is clear, all joking aside, that the Beyoncé is now the most influential and talented female star on the planet. I began to realise this, when listening to Rock Journalist BBC Radio’s Jo Whiley talking about Glastonbury. When asked what was the best live performance she had seen at the festival (and she has seen a few) she replied without hesitation, “Beyoncé”. She explained that she had started with her two best known songs (Crazy in Love and Single Ladies) and Jo had thought, where does she go from here? But in fact Jo recalled, she just got better and better, the hit songs just kept on coming.
And not averse to making a political statement, Beyoncé supported the Black Lives Matter campaign with her Formation performance at this year’s Superbowl.
She is one remarkable woman. Many of the vocal and musical styles we take for granted these days were initiated by her. She essentially reinvented soul music for this century.
2010 Katy Perry Firework
Kathryn Hudson as she is really named released her first album under that name. Initially a gospel singer she transitioned to dance pop and transitioned to Katy Perry, her mother’s maiden name, to avoid confusion with actress Kate Hudson. She first came to prominence with I Kissed A Girl. The song is about self-confidence (“You’re a firework, show them what you’re worth”) and has become one of her signature songs along with California Girls and Roar. The recent Taylor Swift song Bad Blood is rumoured to reflect strained relations between the girls. Time will tell of that is true.
2010 Adele Rolling in the Deep
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins grew up with a single mother in Tottenham and Brighton. Most people like myself first became aware of Adele through her Chasing Pavements single and album “19”, but Hometown Glory was her first hit, written about West Norwood (they had moved back to London, and Adele was a graduate of the Brit Performing Arts School in Croydon along with classmates Jessie J and Leona Lewis).
Rolling in the Deep, from “21”, set Adele on the road to superstardom. Written with co-songwriter Paul Epworth, who seems to me to perform the same kind of role that Guy Chambers did with Robbie Williams, the song was No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven weeks. It topped the year end Billboard sales charts, and was both Grammy song of the year and record of the year: a triumvirate achieved by very few – the only others being Bridge Over Troubled Water, First Time I Ever saw Your face, and Bettie Davies Eyes.
The other important thing it revealed was Adele’s ability to vary her genre and pace – this up-tempo, Bluesy foot stomper provided an edge to her credibility. By no means just a balladeer, I concluded.
Mumford and Sons 2010
Mumford and Sons became world superstars the proper way. Starting with small, then medium then large gigs, touring as support act, breaking America with radio play, then major success with debut album Sigh No More and the single “Little Lion Man”. Next came “The Cave”, which on first hearing sounds like an inspiring call to return to help your fellow prisoners on escape from confinement – “I will hold on hope, won’t let you choke”. Indeed it is, but it is much, much deeper than that. The lyrics are based in fact on the Greek philosopher Plato, the allegory of “Plato’s Cave”, in which prisoners are in chains from birth with only a wall to look at, and occasionally the shadows cast by humans by a fire. The allegory and the song are about disoriented feelings on release. “So come out of your cave walking on your hands, And see the world hanging upside down” And “call to the sirens” references Homer’s Odyssey too. Not your average “boy meets girl” song then! (And yet, is there a hint of relationship breakup in the lyrics? I love songs which on first hearing I haven’t a clue what they mean, then even revealing hidden depths lave an element of uncertainty. Many of the great songs – and this is one – are like that). And the Cave is probably the only part of my son Mathew’s A-Level Philosophy and Ethics syllabus which also appears in this “best song” list!. Mind you, daughter Ellie may well study a Shakespeare play which the Mumford reference in other songs.
The musical sound of the song – like “I will wait” from their even more successful album Babel, has the feel of all of the traditions of British and Irish Folk and American Bluegrass combined and yet sounds fresh and unique. Not often is a banjo, ukulele or mandolin heard in the Charts! (unless you count John Peel’s famous appearance on Top of the Pops to accompany on mandolin Rod Stewart’s Maggie Mae)
A few years ago I watched several episodes of the “Transatlantic sessions” on BBC4, a remarkable programme which paired country and folk musicians from both sides of the Atlantic and which explored the shared heritage of these two great musical genres in live relatively unrehearsed sessions.. One featured Transatlantic artist was country great Emmylou Harris, who performed a memorable version of “The Cave” with the Mumfords on the American country crossover programme “CMT Crossroads”.
The Mumfords are named after Marcus Mumford, the only Mumford but the chief organiser, and deliberately sound like an old small business. They organise small concerts in faraway villages in their “Gentlemen of the Road” programme which has the feel of the Travelling Wilburys concept. The band are from West London, which of course has a rich folk tradition, including the Strawbs, originally called the Strawberry Hill Boys, named after my current hometown village near Twickenham. Marcus, although American born, lived most of his life in nearby Wimbledon. He is married to actress Carey Mulligan, whom he met as a pen-pal. He has a voice to die for. Rather than categorise his music as folk-rock, too narrow a boundary, let me just call it quality music which happens to include folk and rock among other genres.
The Cave is multi award-winning and achieved no less than 4 Grammy nominations, the American music industry equivalent of the Oscars. The band have achieved Brit Award “Group of the Year” status. But for me the lasting legacy will have been to bring refreshing variety back to the increasingly formulated Charts, through the genre of folk music which only periodically goes mainstream. It is a cliché, but “authentic” defines the Mumfords. One of the great enjoyments of this journey through the ages is to rediscover records like the Cave which I had bought early on, but didn’t realise quite how critically acclaimed and popular worldwide it had become, and how much depth it possessed.
2011 Adele Someone Like You
Although Adele briefly showcased this song from “21” live on Jools Holland’s Later, for most people, including myself, the first viewing of Adele singing this was at the 2011 Brit Awards. Very simple, piano backing only, the lights from the audience tables shimmering, I knew before the end that I was a watching a classic live performance and so it proved. After the show the record shot to number 1 in the UK and America.
Here was a case where the live performance added something extra to the original recording. Bob Marley achieved this with No Woman No Cry, by changing the pace and drawing strength from the audience. Adele lived the story on stage, of rejection by a boyfriend, fighting to hold back the tears. What must that boy be thinking?
2011 Lana Del Ray Video Games
Elizabeth Woolridge Grant changed her name to Lana Del Ray because it reminded her of the seaside, Miami, Cuba – and the 50’s style glamour she so successfully brings to her persona. Born in New York City and with a catholic upbringing (as do so many female stars it seems to me) Lana’s second album Born to Die featured the unforgettable Video Games.
Awash with lavish strings, dramatic, sad, atmospheric it tells the story of her relationship with a boy, who seems to enjoy his beer and video games. Does she think he plays too much? Not clear but it raises the issue of whether modern the male youth is addicted to them. Gone are the days when boys carried LP covers of King Crimson under their arms as a sign of street credibility, or bought their favourite guitar band the Jam’s latest single immediately on release. Computer games and Box Sets have replaced rock music as the item of choice to spend pocket money on. Also gone are the days when boys outshone girls at school – while girls admittedly spend more time on social media, it is not as addictive as computer games.
The song was a worldwide hit and in many polls song of the year.
2011 We Found Love Calvin Harris and Rhianna
Calvin Harris (actually born Adam Wiles, in Dumfries) is a Scottish producer and DJ specialising in electronic and techno dance music. His album 18 Months surpassed Michael Jackson by producing no less than 10 hit singles. But given that he uses guest vocalists is it really “his” album. Rhianna performance on “We Found Love” (in a hopeless pace) generated a worldwide hit, staying at No.1 in the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.A for 8 consecutive weeks.
2012 Coldplay Paradise
Round about Viva La Vida is 2008 and continuing with Mylo Xoto in 2011 something strange happened. Though Coldplay were most certainly an alternative rock band, and arguably an album band, they began to court favour with celebrities from the dance and rap world and made singles which seemed deliberately commercial, for the charts. Were they selling out? Consider this: very few rock bands have Number 1’s or even Top Ten Singles anymore, and I feel Coldplay sensed there was a gap to be filled, that Singles success really mattered. The trend continued even further with Ghost Stories in 2014 with Sky Full of Stars, an out and out electronic dance music track a la Calvin Harris from Ghost Stories. Plus, their U2 sounding of Speed of Sound was beginning to sound a bit too, well, U2-like. Something had to change, to keep the band fresh and successful, and credit to Coldplay they have pulled it off, while still maintaining credibility. A constant of these most recent albums is the producer, one Brian Eno of Roxy Music fame, and sure to keep the band honest.
It is interesting though that following the usual success of 2014-5’s Head Full of Dreams, the band are hinting that this 7th album brings to an end a cycle of albums, and a break is imminent. Hopefully it is temporary.
Paradise live holds a special place in the memories of the Anderson family in 2012. Coldplay closed the Paralympic closing ceremony, bringing to an end one of the most memorable 4 weeks that any Londoner will ever experience. We watched two of the cycle events from the bottom of our road, we saw the Gloriana on the river, I saw the triathlon live at Hyde Park, sneaking out from work on a long lunchtime. My son Matthew visited Olympic park. The opening and closing of the Olympic and Paralympics showcased British rock music at its very best, and Coldplay did a magnificent job playing a full set, including joining with Rhianna on Princess of China and Jay-Z on Paradise.
Paradise became one few the few rock bands to achieve a number 1 in recent years, gradually rising week by week to hot the top spot in the first week of 2012. I often feel the slow burners are a sign of quality and longevity.
2012 Adele Skyfall
There have been some genuinely great Bond songs which transcend the movie, such as Live and Let Die and the Shirley Bassey songs, and this is one. The ending to this Bond film is not, as usual, in some giant structure, with hundreds of enemy agents. Rather, it takes place in the gloomy surrounds of the Skyfall country house, in Scotland where Bond grew up. Or was it? Although the car journey up through the Scottish mountains on the scenic valley road was real, the route was the A82 via Loch Lomond rather than Bond’s description of nearby the A9; and at the end of the journey they reach the house itself which is in fact in…Surrey. No matter, the song brilliantly captures both the traditional Bond theme drama, and the specific feel of the closing scenes, in which of course Judy Dench bows out of the series.
Imagine Dragons Radioactive 2012
Las Vegas based Imagine Dragons are famed for blending genres and that is just what they did with this combination of dubstep, electronica and rock. The disturbing, fuzzy sound matches the lyrics – apocalyptic. Making it perfectly suited to computer games such as Assassin’s Creed. The song was a sleeper, eventually reaching No.3 in the States and holding the record at 87 weeks for the most consecutive weeks on the Hot 100.
Rather Be. Clean Bandit feat. Jess Glynne 2013
Jess Glynne did the hard yards, pulling out of X-factor because of musical differences at the age of 15 in 2005, before completing A-Levels in London and building up her musical experience by networking in the music business, and taking a year-long music course at an East London college. She signed a deal with Atlantic Records – now there is a label with a pedigree, going all the way back to Aretha and Led Zeppelin – and a House group Route 94 asked her to sing lead on their My Love record (which would later become a No.1 for Jess) .
Meanwhile EDM producers and musicians Clean Bandit heard My Love, and asked Jess to take the lead on “Rather Be”. Recorded late 2013 the record immediately hit No.1 in January 2014 in the UK and became a worldwide hit, including in America. “Rather Be” is now officially one of the ten most streamed songs in Spotify history, at 400 million and counting, no doubt helped by the rather irritating M&S advert “Adventures in Imagination” (you know the one).
I liked Jess Glynne from the start. She has a voice that is suitable for the EDM age, yet is soulful and has a deep power (no doubt Atlantic were encouraged by that). Let us hope a recent operation on her vocal chords is successful. Plus, having come through the hard way, she will last the course, and in interviews she clearly has a strong focus on what she wants to achieve.
Psy “Gangnam Style (강남스타일)” 2013
As a song you might argue that it’s good but not great. But what brings it into this list is the video. At time of writing we are approaching 2.5 billion views on YouTube. That is two thousand five hundred million. It is difficult to get one’s head around that. Like a score of 8-0 has to be spelled out (that’s eight) It caused YouTube to redesign their rules for storage from 23 to 64 bit integers. The video of course featured the dance style which took off round the world, bringing K-Pop to an international audience. Presidents, Prime Ministers, Movie Stars and Royal Family were happy to be seen trying the “horse trot” dance move. As a dance craze, it’s not quite on a par with the “Twist” in 1962 to 1963 but it is up there.
Psy is not an overnight sensation, the single being from his 6th album, recorded and released in 2012 and charting through 2012/2013. He admits though it will be impossible to surpass the impact. He is a very nice fellow in fact. Paul Lester of The Guardian labelled it as “generic ravey Euro dance with guitars”, and as “Pump Up the Jam meets the Macarena with a dash of Cotton Eye Joe”
Gangnam style refers to a lifestyle in fashionable Seoul in South Korea, the equivalent of Chelsea or Beverley Hills. Additional private education is almost taken, with children cramming to get into the best cramming schools. The café culture is hip and trendy.
What does it say about the quality of music compared let us say to the 1960’s? Well the originality clearly is not there, but the worldwide impact is almost beyond imagination, and the means by which we measure impact (YouTube sensation, going viral, downloads etc) moved to a whole new level with this record. And culturally brought Asia and the West much closer.
2013 Daft Punk ft. Pharrell Williams and Nile Rodgers Get Lucky
Nile Rodgers of Chic was asked to contribute to this Daft Punk disco track and in the end dominated with the kind of wonderful guitar riff we remember so well from his 70’s and 80’s dance anthems like Good Times. For me Nile Rogers is right up there with some of the great guitarists showing you don’t have to be out and out rock to be a great lead electric guitarist. As Alison I found out at Kew Gardens that summer when we saw an outdoor concert featuring Chic (sadly without bass player Bernard Edwards who had passed away earlier) and another favourite Heather Small with M People. Nile has composed or produced so many classics from his own material like Le Freak to Bowie’s Lets Dance, Diana Ross’s Upside Down, Duran Duran’s the Reflex, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family and Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
Get Lucky – seen here in the video of perhaps the coolest super-group ever – once released was an instance success, No.1 round the world and selling 9 million copies. Bringing French enigmatic electronic duo Daft Punk a return to the upper chart echelons for the first time since their Around the World/One More Time era, and more success for Pharrell to add to Happy, originally from the closing credits of Despicable Me 2.
2014 Hozier Take Me To Church
Andrew Hozier-Byrne is a singer songwriter from County Wicklow in Ireland. I began tracking the progress of Take Me To Church when my sister-in-law bought the record before it was famous, and when it first hit the outer reaches of the top 40, first as a stand-alone E.P. and then as part of the album, supported by the “going viral” video. Each week over a period of almost a year it seemed to rise a couple of places, until eventually it made top ten and then eventually peaked at No.2.
The song and follow the tradition of mixing Catholic angst with human love (think Madonna’s Like a Prayer) except in this case there’s a protest against homophobia on behalf of the gay community.
It is a wonderful record in many respects – it is so different from the “design by committee” R&B hip hop which dominates the charts: essentially home-made a la Ed Sheeran; an intriguing song which passes my test of painting a picture about which you are not quite sure of the meaning. Also a No.2 in America, it was nominated for a Grammy award for song of the year.
The challenge for Hozier is to follow it up. Another standout track from the album, namely Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene, suggests there is plenty more to come.
2014 Meghan Trainor All About That Bass
The return of Bubblegum music, albeit with a flavour of hip hop and doo-wop. Reminiscent of the Archies Sugar Sugar, Tiffany’s I think We’re Alone Now, and Aqua’s Barbie Girl. But what makes it more interesting is this: the lyrics are about body image, specifically comparing it to the shape of a bass guitar (with no treble), and an infectious video to boot. Also, the phenomenally successful sales, No.1 in America for 8 weeks, reached No.1 in 19 countries including the UK and has sold over 10 million records. And Meghan is from Nantuckett, Masechusetts one of the earliest English settlements
2014 Taylor Swift Blank Space
In which Taylor Swift truly makes the break away from her country and western beginnings, into sophisticated pop. Clever, catchy lyrics poking fun at herself and the media obsession with her dating arrangements. “I’m a nightmare dressed as a daydream”, “I’ve got a Blank Space baby, I’ll write your name”. But one of the most discussed lyrics is this:
Got a long list of ex-lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane”
WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE: “Got a lot of Starbucks lovers / they’ll tell you I’m insane
(It really does, listen to the video)
And this so has joined that list of famous misheard lyrics, creating a “highstreet retail” pairing with Abba’s “Called you last night from Tesco”.
The song was a huge success, spending seven weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the first woman to succeed herself at the top, following Shake It Off, an even more un-country like record.
2015 Ed Sheeran Thinking Out Loud
While first hit A-team was more simple and spontaneous than this, Thinking Out Loud was the record that finally made Ed a world superstar. Showing a hint of inspiration from Ed’s hero Van Morrison, it was recorded in a small Surrey studio in the village near Windsor Great Park, of Windlesham, which must have the highest ratio of celebrity to resident: Agatha Christies, Glen Hoddle, Brian May, Nick Faldo and Andrew Ridgely have all lived there. Released in late-2014 Thinking Out Loud was still in the charts a full 12 months later and helped Ed become the most downloaded Spotify artist of all time with 860 million streams. Unusually it took a record 19 weeks to reach U.K. No.1 while it peaked at No.2 in the Billboard Hot 100 – for 8 weeks in a row – before eventually selling 4 million copies there. The video features Ed in a ball room dance and the song is about his (now ex) girlfriend. The song has been viewed a billion (a 1000 million) times on U-tube. It has a full set of awards, from Ivor Novello to Brit to Grammy.
While his music is neither rock, soul, reggae or dance and doesn’t therefore fit my favourite genres, this very fact makes it appealing, as it breaks up the “designed b committee” Eurovision style EDM and hip hop that so seems to dominate the charts. Ed Sheeran is unique not just for his musical style but for the way he self-started his early career. While he is happy to appear on the X-Factor, his propulsion to stardom owed nothing to that popular route.
Ed is from Yorkshire and then Suffolk, and he began playing guitar and writing songs at a ridiculously early age. I remember him saying, “I started playing solo shows to a few people, and the audiences simply grew as I played more shows”. (Shades of Gary Player’s the “the more I practice the luckier I get”) He caught the attention of Elton John and American actor Jamie Foxx who mentored him: Ed booked a one way ticket to America with just a one night booking, and simply carried on. He joined Taylor Swift’s tour, and was soon playing sold out solo shows at Maddison Square Gardens. He played A-Team and a memorable, impeccable-choice version of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here at the 2012 Olympic Opening ceremony. He pops up on other records too – One Direction’s Little Things is his composition, while No.1 single maker Jamie Lawson is signed to Ed’s own record label.
Ed Sheeran is now one of the most influential musicians in the music business world – and this will surely continue even if his own releases eventually fade – but he remains the bloke next door. What’s not to like about a guy who names one of his videos for a Wembley stadium concert “Jumpers for Goalposts”? Marvellous!
2015 Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars Uptown Funk
The best record that Prince never made (I’ve been aching to write a line like that!).
Mark Ronson, a U.K. born producer brought up in Masorti Judaism who moved to New York, has a stellar collection of direct or indirect family relations – businessman Gerald Ronson of Guiness Four fame, politicians Malcolm Rifkind and Leon Brittan, Odeon Cinemas founder Oscar Deutch, and Foreigner guitarist Mick Jones. Then as a child and student at New York University he befriended the Lennon’s son Sean, and Quincey Jones daughter Rashida. After graduating from DJ’ing to producer, his breakthrough with a Smiths song “Stop Me” was followed by his major work as producer of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
Meanwhle Bruno Mars – real name Peter Gene Hernandez, of Hawaiian and Philippine parents, but nicknamed after a wrestler called Bruno – was coming up the hard way as a writer of songs for many artists including Brits the Sugarbabes and Alexander Burke. His break eventually came when he recorded his own songs such as Just The Way You Are, Grenade, and Locked Out of Heaven. I used to think he was purely a commercial artist but took notice when seeing his “showmanship” stage performance and musical proficiency on TV, with his ultra-professional backing band known variously as the Smeezingtons and Hooligans.
So it was no surprise when Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars collaborated on 70’s style dance anthem Uptown Funk. The track received some unwelcome notoriety, first when Fleur East on the X-Factor covered the song before it had even been released, and the real version’s release date had to be rushed forward. Second, the similarity to the Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Yourself” required credits and a royalty share to be granted to the “rowing” song’s writers. Nothing to worry about though, it reached No.1 in the U.K. and around the world and achieved Grammy status. Bruno’s voice seemed to develop into a true, gritty, Stax-style soul voice as can be seen on this video. Will be interesting to see his next move.
Weeknd I Cant Feel My Face 2015
Canadian produces a stunning dance classic which gained critical recognition all round an a huge Number 1 around the world. There are so many hooks and choruses here.
But let us also finish on another 2015 record. Not a number 1 or Grammy winner, but a good one to end on may have been instead “Four five seconds to wildin” – by Paul McCartney, Rihanna and Kanye West. I thought at first it was a “24 hours to Tulsa” kind of record. However it seems “wildin” refers to losing one’s temper. This is a minimalist straight forward acoustic guitar folk song, with a touch of gospel organ, which rather neatly bookends the rock’n’roll era – Paul who was there almost at the beginning and Rhianna and Kanye current hip-hop stars. The song showcases Rhianna’s voice. The good choice is that Paul didn’t attempt to sing rap – he was never a soul or dance record maker – but the trio met on neutral territory. And so rap and hip hop stars of today still feel comfortable singing with a star who was there almost at the very start of my 60 years of rock’n’roll