Typical of the things that have stayed with me since my youth, the very first time I heard the Violent Femmes and in particular, their singer Gordon Gano, I had to throw out all of the ideas I had about what it took to make great music. Here’s what I thought you needed: slick playing, pitch-perfect vocals, great equipment, great production, great songwriting. The Violent Femmes were a 1/5 according to my list and yet I immediately knew they weren’t getting it wrong, it was my list that was wrong. They were getting it right in a big way. If you had asked me beforehand what kind of music I disliked, I probably would have described something pretty close the Violent Femmes. I distinctly remembered being quite shocked and a bit pissed off that I liked them so much. Juvenile lyrics, whiny, atonal vocals, thrashy, twangy crappy guitar playing, if I saw it on a menu, I wouldn’t order it in a million years, yet there it was and I loved it. Thanks Gordon for making the world of music a whole lot bigger for me.
Favourite Femmes song: Never Tell
Putting myself out there… but I’m a sucker for the absolute sumptuousness of Karen Carpenter’s voice. I imagine there were lots of kids like me that grew up in a house where the parents played the Carpenters and I don’t know whether it’s because of this early imprinting or just the quality of her voice, but as an adult, I’ve ended up with a deep appreciation for her vocals. And she played the drums too! Really wish she ‘d been able to get a handle on her eating issues and was still around today.
I use the Smiths as a vehicle here to mention both Morrissey and Johnny Marr who, when they were together made some of the best pop songs I’ve ever heard. Apart ie. solo, I haven’t heard anything much that grabs me. Funny how you can love someone in a certain band and then they leave you flat solo or in a a new band. I would rate the Smiths as a 9/10 (on par with Radiohead) for wrist-slitting value but it’s a whining you can just so easily soak up and take on. Somehow it just works. The Smiths have a sound all their own, led by Morrissey’s unmistakeable voice, lyrics and delivery style. It’s love or hate with the Moz I think. Johnny Marr plays the Brit pop sound so well from the clean, jangly sounds in “This charming man” to the shearing splendour of “How soon is now”. There are sublime moments in a number of their songs like the chord and melody progression in “Last night I dreamt somebody loved me” and pretty much the entirety of “Ask”. It’s damn fine stuff.
These guys basically have a mortgage on cool. Thom Yorke’s haunting voice is a dish I never tire of consuming. From the very start, they were a bunch of guys that really didn’t seem to care about fitting in which is always a drawcard for me. Even the way they ran the business side of their careers was a thumb up to everything that everyone else was doing. When they announced in 2007 that their album “In Rainbows” was going to be released through their website for free download and you could pay what you thought it was worth, I wasn’t surprised, that’s Radiohead. Brave. Brilliant. Other, mainstream artists tried to get on the train and do the same thing but with little gotchas so you couldn’t really get the full product without paying which was just utterly pathetic to watch and so predictable. It only made Radiohead look even better. They have in recent times almost completely abandoned the traditional drum and bass backing for dry, electronic percussive sounds and they pull it off amazingly well. Favourite song – “Fake plastic trees”.
It almost feels wrong to mention the Beatles here. That as a musician (or otherwise), you’d need to explain the reasons why you were including them in your favourites. But to not include them would be the greater wrong. Where do you begin with the Beatles? I tried in my teens and twenties to write pop songs and failed utterly. These guys wrote hundreds of them. Like others in my faves list, they could create music that was at once accessible, hugely popular, unforgettable and yet still incredibly sophisticated. And do it time after time after time. A friend lent me his Beatle’s collection once and I sat down to listen to it one day, not having listened to any of their music directly since I was very young, and I was deeply moved. As each song started and I listened with adult ears and mind, I couldn’t believe the artistry they had and that EVERY damn song, one after the other was a massive hit and they just kept coming. And not the same style or formula either, there were all kinds of wonderful things. I kept imagining bands like the Stones sitting in a room together getting their first listen to a new Beatles album like the “White Album” or “Sgt Peppers” and looking at each other in disbelief. It would have been completely demoralising to hear those records because as musicians, you’d understand exactly what you were hearing and where you stood. I guess that’s what drugs and alcohol are for aren’t they. My kids hate a lot of the music I love but they love the Beatles. I have to say, much of their work seems timeless. I tried to pick a favourite song but can only narrow it down to a handful – “Let it be”, “Hey Jude”, “Something”, “Strawberry fields”, Penny Lane”, “All you need is love”, “While my guitar gently weeps”. I tend to shy away from liking the most obvious things but look at that, all huge hits.
I think I first saw Björk in a Sugar Cubes film clip for “Deus” on one of those music video shows. She was like a little pixie but with a dynamic, exotic voice and style. And from Iceland too. That’s not something you see every day! She has such an exciting voice, with a real strangeness to it and along with her accent, it makes for captivating listening. She can sing a lot of different styles and do them very well, from more gentle, delicate stuff like “Isobel” to epic pop like “Play dead” and even big band like “It’s oh so quiet”.
For a long time, Nick Cave was just too discordant and hard core for me. I’d heard of him and knew he was a local musician which was probably also why I didn’t pay much attention to him. If he was from round here, then he can’t have been any good can he. Great muso’s come from somewhere else. In my budding but ill-fated music career, I tried to do everything right – play the notes right, sing in tune, stand right, look right, basically be what I thought was ‘professional’. Nick did none of that, in fact it was pretty obvious he didn’t even try which I found hard to understand at the time. What he did do was be himself and create some of the best songs I’ve ever heard. What really got me was hearing “Shivers” the first time. I suddenly got Nick Cave and the rest was easy.
I remember vividly the first time I saw and heard Tom Waits. It was on the Don Lane show in the late 70’s and he sang “Tom Traubert’s Blues”, hunched over the piano, smoking and swigging from a whiskey bottle every now and then. I’d never seen or heard anything like it and I hated him. I hated the song, especially as it includes the chorus of “Walzing Matilda” and although it’s far from a favourite of mine, it is an Australian icon and in my mind he had just shat all over it. He looked drunk and for those who have never heard Tom sing before, and I mean the full gravel treatment, it’s a very big shock. Not only that someone could possibly sound like that but that supposedly there must be a bunch of people out there that actually liked listening to it. Time passed as it does and I’d forgotten all about old Tom until a good friend of mine, whose car I used to spend a lot of time in, started playing “The Heart of Saturday Night” in his car stereo relentlessly. After initial resistance, (it was the antithesis of everything I was into at the time) I got to know the songs, began to appreciate his voice, his stories and his songs. It was probably a week or so, and then I loved him. I saw this comment on a YouTube video of Tom – “All these years….I just never understood..the appeal…I was so very wrong. This is genius, this is torture, this is soul. This is just so incredible and personal, I almost feel like a voyeur.” I think to really appreciate Tom Waits, you need to be a certain age, an age where you’ve become fully aware of humanity. My favourite Waits songs – “Invitation to the Blues”, “Kentucky Avenue” and about a hundred others.
Like a lot of people my age, I first heard Elvis Costello singing “Watching the detectives” on the radio. I was pretty ambivalent about the song and Elvis and it stayed that way till I was about 19 or 20 at which point I listened to his “Armed Forces” album and it really started growing on me. There’s no doubt Elvis’ natural talent for the craft of songwriting is a major factor in the length of his career and the huge volume of work he’s produced over that time.
XTC’s singles really grabbed me – “Senses working overtime”, Generals and Majors” etc. They were just really sharp, catchy and clever. I rediscovered XTC when I was older and had bought “Oranges & Lemons” and loved “Mayor of Simpleton”. Great singer, guitarist and songwriter, Andy Partridge ticks all the boxes for me. Their last two albums, Apple Venus Vol 1 (1999) and Wasp Star (2000) are absolute crackers and I play them all the time.
I realised when I was in my early teens and hearing Pink Floyd and David’s guitar playing for the first time that this guy was very, very special. I’ve listened to many great guitarists in my time and have plenty of favourites but David absolutely takes the cake. Why? There are probably hundreds of guitarists out there in the world who could outplay David for speed or technique but I’ve never heard anyone play with the feeling he plays with or create the magical riffs that he comes up with. Everything he does is so damn tasty! I also love that David explored his guitar tone technically in a big way and created a unique sound to go with his unique playing style. David’s also got a great voice and sang the vocals on many Pink Floyd hits like “Us and them”, “Wish you were here” and “Money”. In my opinion, the best note in guitar history – 4:11 in “Time”.