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
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.
Pink Floyd were one of those bands that just made music seem easy. Quite apart from David Gilmour’s outlandishly good guitar playing, the bass and drums (Rogers Waters and Nick Mason respectively) were so well played that you didn’t realise you were hearing them. It’s hard to describe but as an example, there were times when I would catch myself listening to just the drums or just the bass and thinking “shit, that’s just a normal bass or drum sound” and being really surprised that they weren’t something more amazing or unattainable. It dawned on me then of course that the quality of Pink Floyd’s music was due to musicianship and not the quality of their instruments or recording equipment. I’m sure it’s for this reason that great recordings remain a great mystery to me to this day…