This is reprinted from my Brisbane website Collapse Board, originally written for an Australian publication that never ran with the article. My original intro pretty much covers it – to this list of omissions I would now add most obviously Beyoncé (Lemonade, duh), but also St Vincent, some gospel (this, for instance), Blind Blake, Metal Box (PiL), more ska and bluebeat for sure, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and dub reggae circa late 1970s, Talking Heads, Undertones, Tunabunny, Little Mix, some female grime (this, for instance – or this), my own stuff, Miley Cyrus (seriously), The Cramps, The Saints, The Go-Betweens (but also this!), The Roches’ first two, Daniel Johnston and so forth.
Here’s a list of some records that have influenced me. For the sake of simplicity and driving a handful of Arcade Fire fans towards some decent music, I’ve called them my “10 favourite albums of all time”.
Also, as I cannot get my head around the concept of narrowing down my life to a list of 10 records, I’ve kept the parameters narrow: what I’d term “Rough Trade circa 1979” music, the sort of stuff Simon Reynolds covers in his book Rip It Up. Even so, it’s absurd The Specials aren’t in there – or This Heat. Or Elvis Costello. Nina Simone. Irma Thomas. The Shangri-La’s. Throbbing Gristle. The Residents. Saturday Night Fever. There’s not even any Buzzcocks, for Bangs’ sake! (Slaps head.) Plus around about 10,000 others.
For reference, I sometimes listen to Sixties bluebeat when I’m at home; and Christmas songs.
Live At The Witch Trials (1979)
I never joined The Fall.
I’ve never wanted to join The Fall. Mark E Smith’s reputation as a cantankerous, belligerent ringmaster precedes him – thoroughly entertaining and a scoundrel, yes, but far too demanding, way above and beyond the call of duty. I’m a Fall fan, not an obsessive – I fall into the right categories: male, white, over 40. (Critics, in particular, love this band: there’s so much they can pick apart.) I felt The Fall peaked round about 1983 (coincidentally, when manager Kay Carroll ran out on them) – same as David Bowie believes – but there again, acknowledge a couple of storming returns to form at the start of the Nineties (see 1992’s scathing Code: Selfish), and also in 2005 with Fall Heads Roll. I’m not particularly familiar with band-members – um, off the top of my head, Scanlon, Karl Burns, Riley, Blue Orchids founder Martin Bramah of course, Una Baines, alt fashion icon Brix Smith of course, Hanley, Yvonne Pawlett, Julia Nagle perhaps…certainly not all the 44-plus ‘musicians’ that have served time with The Fall during their 30-year history.
For, as Mark E Smith once put it, “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall” – and who cares who’s creating the music, long as it’s there? I mean, really.
The Fall are a band I return to time and time again (a cursory glance at my iTunes reveals 554 songs – and that’s not including the vinyl), but not very often in female company. Females, curiously, don’t usually seem to appreciate the entire Making Top 10 Lists/Football Fan/Pitchfork reader side of being a Fall fan. Yet I’ve never wanted to discover more about the personalities behind the sound, not even the vocalist’s. My curiosity is sated by the music – the music alone, brilliantly spasmodic and grating and anti-melodic and sometimes outright pop. I hardly ever listen to lyrics, even when they created by the most lyrical of iconoclasts. I hook on to the odd line, like I do with Ramones and The Shangri-La’s and The Spice Girls. I appreciate the timbre and rhythm of Mark E’s voice.
“What is intelligence?” Who cares?
I met Mark E Smith once – he turned up uninvited at a Melody Maker debate with Peter Hook, and there’s a great photo somewhere of the two Mancunian heavyweights, each resting a hand on my shoulder. Never wanted to know him: never wanted to be so obvious: don’t his fans take heed the warning of the lyrics and musical adventurism and want to move on soon as they can? Stasis is death, and while 1979’s Live At The Witch Trials may well be the first album I purchased (I was so naïve I believed it must have taken years to achieve such a fluid, rich sound), why would I want to shake the hand of the man that can bite me? (I still reckon Witch Trials to be of my favourite three albums … um, when I want to grade music like a Pitchfork nerd, which is rare.)
Never wanted to see The Fall play live too much – saw them a handful of times, start of the Eighties, but only because mighty American female trio UT played support – scared they could only disappoint, same way I can’t watch penalty shootouts even when I don’t care for the teams (which is always). Heard Mark E Smith likes a drink. Heard he likes a fight. Heard he likes to unsettle. All of these are mighty great things to like, of course, but why the need to live vicariously? I have my own secret identity.
Dexys Midnight Runners
Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)
I once punched a fellow music critic for telling me how much he liked Dexys.
I’m not proud of myself. It was due more to drink than passion. It was at one of those interminable mid-Nineties ‘grunge’ Reading Festivals, late at night, in a hotel bar. We’d both been raving about Dexys’ first album, 1980’s life-changing Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, how it spoke to us – naive, impassioned youngsters fruitlessly trying to make sense of the adult world – with a clarity and confidence we’d never experienced before (or since). How it was our first introduction to Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, The Foundations – all those ancient soul men. How it was the first time we’d come close to understanding the night time delights and romance of Dexys’ Irish precursor Van Morrison. How it was an album to die for.
We loved its crystal-bright horn sound, the way it spoke directly to us with words that left no room for doubters with songs like ‘There, There, My Dear’ (a letter to wannabe hipsters set to music), ‘Keep It’, and triumphant ‘Dance Stance’. “I’ve been searching for the young soul rebels,” frontman Kevin Rowland spoke over mellow brass during the middle-section to ‘There, There, My Dear’: “I’ve been searching for them everywhere. I can’t find them anywhere! Where have you hidden them?” We’re here, Kevin! We’re here. The album’s Number One single, ‘Geno’ – a shout-out to the UK Sixties journeyman soul man Geno Washington – was pure inspiration. When Dexys appeared on Top Of The Pops to celebrate its ascent, they were all Mod sharpness and mirror-bright brass.
It was like being born again.
But I digress. Myself and my fellow critic were locked in bitter combat, calling on Dexys’ lines and songs to prove our devotion. I’d quote a line from Searching‘s rampant hate song ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’ – “Seen quite a bit in my 23 years/I’ve been manic depressive and I’ve shed a few tears” – and he’d throw back something from the torched, doomed paean ‘Old’, or inspirational ‘Plan B’. (Both the latter songs came from Dexys’ second album, the violin-led Too Rye Aye, the record which spawned the monster novelty hit ‘Come On Eileen’ – one of the weaker songs Dexys recorded.) At every turn, he would match me – line for line, love for love, passion for passion. So I punched him. It was the only recourse left to me to prove my devotion.
“Don’t tell me how much you love Dexys Midnight Runners,” I screamed at him, as our Editor hurried over to separate us, “You have no right! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT!”
(Domino Records website)
I moved to London because of The Slits.
More specifically, I moved to London because of a song on The Slits’ debut album Cut called ‘Shoplifting’. It sounded as though the four girl musicians were having such a great, great time – all the squeals and giggles of glee as they ran shrieking away from the besieged store. The bass looped, pounded, and panted in sympathy behind them, the guitar played all shrill discord and exclamation marks. The vocals were… dirty. “Ten quid for the lot/We paid FUCK-ALL,” they boasted, out of breath. Never had I heard girls sound so natural and unafraid and mischievous, so comfortable with their own naughtiness. (Years later, the same qualities attracted me to Olympia’s contradictory Bikini Kill and London’s turbulent Huggy Bear.) Never had I heard anyone – male or female – sound so free, so in love with the limitless possibilities of life.
Sure, I used to steal from shops – but to me, it was more of a necessity. (I could never afford the vinyl I craved.) The risk usually outweighed the thrill and adrenaline rush. I was – to put it frankly – a wuss. The Slits sounded like anything but, as they moved unchecked through their West London streets. “Is this what the big city is like?” I wondered. “A place where girls like The Slits run rampant on the underground and down dark alleyways, a place where punk gigs happen in dark, dub-heavy Ladbroke Grove clubs – playing music like that created by Cut producer Dennis Bovell – not in a fucking Chelmsford community centre?” Listening to ‘Shoplifting’ made me want in, so bad.
Cut yielded one astonishing single, ‘Typical Girls’. Its subject matter was, of course, about anything but. Typical girls wore white stilettos and short skirts with no stockings in the height of winter, and drank Babycham in cheesy disco clubs in Romford called the Pink Flamingo, hanging on the arms of only the most obnoxious brutes. Typical girls populated Sham 69 songs, or played the part of the brassy, bossy blonde in Seventies English sitcoms – they weren’t sassy and fun and boasting about leaving ‘smells’ the way The Slits wanted – but perhaps they were. I had no way of judging. And I loved The Slits for making me realise that there was more to girls than the patronising English Public School archetype.
The Slits introduced me to the ‘female gang’, a concept hitherto confined to Russ Meyer tittie-fests and cheap Fifties sexploitation flicks. The Slits introduced me to the concept of ‘sex’ with all its attendant glorious smells and tumbles and squeals of jealousy and open-air liaisons. The Slits taught me the concept of freedom, showed me that life didn’t begin and end with the cradle-to-grave route of school-university-office-job-marriage-retirement, that there were illicit pleasures to be gained and wrongful pacts to be made, that life wasn’t as serious as I had imagined.
I never shoplifted when I moved up to London, though. I was too scared.
Young Marble Giants
Colossal Youth (1980)
The sleeve to Colossal Youth – Young Marble Giants first and only album – shows three faces, shadowed against the light, faces seemingly hewn out of granite. Two angular boys flank an equally mysterious girl. It’s a black and grey, almost brutal, minimal picture that gives no sense of the beauty hidden inside the cover.
I was 19 when I first heard Colossal Youth in 1980. To say it tore my world apart is an understatement. Never before had I heard such unsettling, eerie, wonderful music. (And rarely have I since.) The trio’s formula was outrageously simple. Over drum machine tapes, the odd throb of bass and occasional keyboard, Alison Statton would sing in a curiously disconnected, melodic style. The bare bones of music, fleshed out by brothers Stuart and Philip Moxham’s considered, mannered arrangements. The beat never sounded out heavier than a faint click, guitars were kept to an absolute minimum. You could draw parallels between Young Marble Giants’ hurt alienation and the spooked, dark sound of Joy Division, but I never did. The latter were clearly almost crazed. The former were endearing precisely because they were so ordinary. Lyrics spoke directly of disaffection and despair: the mundane made extraordinary by the focus applied. “It’s nice to hear you’re having a good time,” sang Alison, almost supernaturally dispassionate, on ‘N.I.T.A’, “But it still hurts ‘cos you used to be mine.”
Who couldn’t relate to a stiff upper lyric like that?
There was an all-consuming darkness surrounding Young Marble Giants – not just on the album sleeve, but in the music itself. Strange how something so frail, so fragile and solemn, so commonplace can give off such an aura of bleakness. You could almost hear the emptying pits of Wales’ mining villages as Alison sang about a girl painting her nails on the chilling ‘Eating Noddemix’, as Alison denied all charges of being neurotic on ‘Music For Evenings’. It’s not a claustrophobic darkness like Joy Division and all the bands that followed (right down to Marilyn Manson) engendered, however. There’s too much beauty shining through – like a lighthouse beam in a storm, Alison’s voice was always there to guide us home. And when it wasn’t (as on the instrumental ‘The Taxi’) there was an upbeat, Casio keyboard sound, a burst of static radio.
(Plan B Magazine)
Live Through This (1994)
Courtney never thanked me on the sleeve to Live Through This.
She was upset because I’d told her what I thought of the album after it was recorded in September 1993. She’d asked me my opinion, and so I told her the truth. I thought she was asking me as a friend. This was crucial. I’m a critic. I usually pass when asked for my opinion because it hurts. I thought the production sucked. The songs were too refined, and you couldn’t hear enough of Eric’s guitars. I felt the structures were dull, traditional – a far cry from the passion of the debut album. The tracks I liked more were the minimal ones: the wicked and hilarious putdown of the Riot Grrrls from Kurt’s former hometown, ‘Olympia’; also ‘Doll Parts’, retained in a similar form to when Courtney played it to me acoustic down the phone, ‘Jennifer’s Body’, too, has an evil resonance that reaches to me down through the years,especially when Courtney screams the lines, “I’m your brother, I’m your friend/I’m purity, hit me again/With a bullet, number one/Kill the family, save the son”.
Sure, I liked the lyrics. But I also thought the single ‘Miss World’ (the first moment where I realised the extent of Courtney’s vanity) was weak, thin.
I’ve never liked rock bands that don’t rock.
Courtney didn’t appreciate my candour. We rowed, not for the first time. Eric tentatively backed me up – he appreciated the comments about the guitars – but Courtney had become convinced the only way forward for her was to create an all-female rock band that came from the underground and sold as many records as her husband’s. I disagreed violently. Friends sometimes ask me what I think of the rumours that Kurt co-wrote some of the songs on Live Through This. If he did, he did a bloody awful job.
Maybe I was disappointed that Hole had stopped being Babes In Toyland.
Maybe I didn’t like all the references to myself on songs such as ‘Asking For It’. That seems unlikely, though. I’m as vain as the next critic, as narcissistic as the next person that leaps up on stage.
Maybe I was being too harsh, expected too much.
Hole were an incredible live band, fronted by a singer whose only equals in onstage charisma and passion were Calvin Johnson and Birthday Party-era Nick Cave. (I rated Courtney above Kurt as a front person initially.) I’d been disappointed by Birthday Party and bloody Nirvana albums too. Perhaps it was only compared to their live performances that Live Through This was a disappointment.
(taken from Live Through This: American Rock Music In The Nineties)
Beat Happening (1985)
It was Heather’s voice on ‘Foggy Eyes’ that originally drew me to Beat Happening. I’ve always preferred female singers. That, and the graphics – that cat on the spaceship! But also, I responded to the minimal backing. I’ve always hated extraneous noise, especially unnecessary drumming. I was a very big fan of the first Marine Girls album, too – something ‘Foggy Eyes’ reminded me of. I used to sing on stage either a cappella or with the most minimal of backings myself and was made to feel somewhat of a freak by doing so. It was nice to hear this deep-throated boy doing the same in some city I’d never heard of before. Calvin’s singing and the production on the album reminded me a little of early Cramps (stripped back to the bone). I loved the directness of it, the sense of fun, the fact that with a few sparse notes and carefully chosen words, this trio had managed to create a whole aura and mystique about themselves.
So I wrote about them in my fanzine. Pages. What else could I do? All I ever wanted to communicate by writing about music was the love I felt for certain records.
I’m not sure what I thought of Beat Happening in the context of the then-English music scene. It sounded refreshing, exciting to me – anything I love on first hearing always sounds refreshing to me. It made me feel less alone, made me feel that perhaps there were other people who had the same core values as me. I’m not sure if I heard it the same time as I heard Talulah Gosh (a band I loved) but if I did, I wouldn’t have connected the two bands together. They seemed on opposite sides of the world. Perhaps, though, a certain naivety and joy for music for its own sake, connected the two bands – them, and The Wedding Present, Razorcuts, Wolfhounds, (very early) Soup Dragons, Shop Assistants, Pastels, Shrubs, Bogshed, Membranes et al. Yeah, naivety is the word I’d choose. Innocence – without any of the pejoratives usually associated with the description. I’ve always wanted music that reflects the humanity of the people who make it (not in a boring way).
I saw Beat Happening live on a number of occasions. I felt – and still feel – that Calvin Johnson is one of the most powerful performers I’ve had the privilege to see. On his first visit to London (where he was staying on my floor: I met him with my then-girlfriend after work, playing with a yoyo) he reminded me of Johnny Rotten. Definitely. He had the same manic, intense stare in his eyes. The same way of intimidating an audience, the way he’d go up so close to them. I loved Beat Happening so badly when they played in England. It would make me so mad they weren’t the most massive band in the world, they were so incredible, how couldn’t they be? My favourite show was when I supported them and the McTells in a tiny village hall in Hertfordshire. I felt that life doesn’t get any better than to see three such intelligent, passionate, witty and soulful people on stage.
I still kinda preferred Heather’s vocals, though.
Beat Happening didn’t influence enough bands. That is so sadly clear, it hurts.
Setting Sons (1979)
Trios are perfect. Live, and on record. There’s no refuting the fact. When they get the balance right, there’s no stopping them. Think of The Jam, Young Marble Giants, Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü, Cream, The Slits … Nirvana. Trios strip music down to its basics and then, having worked out what it is that makes it work, build it up again with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of effect. Four’s unnecessary. Five is unwieldy. Three is just about perfection.
(opening paragraph from my review of Nevermind, Melody Maker 1991)
Listen to the drums. ‘Odyshape’. They’re febrile, smart, stuttering, a living beast, not there to fill the silence or the spaces for breathing, but alert and fluent to the music and story unfolding around them. A tumble on the floor toms. A hissing fit on the cymbals. A race around the snare.
How different, how oppositional to the dull thud thud thud of their competent male peers. Most drumming, you can predict it from beginning to end. Not on Odyshape, and rarely anywhere within the initial brace of Raincoats albums. No one will ever be able to convince me that Phil Collins is a good drummer , the way he sucks the life out of the instruments around him with his barrage of fills and cross-handed technique.
Bad drumming is the reason I’m unable to listen to most rock bands, more so then even the singing. I say ‘bad’, but clearly that’s a core subjective judgment. Yet who is anyone to tell me to think different? Listen to the drums on ‘Odyshape’ and tell me I’m wrong to feel this way…
And then listen to the downright wrong bass runs on ‘The Body’ (from The Raincoats’ 1983 album The Kitchen Tapes) and tell me that I was wrong to hate this band – for the way they betrayed me, the way they betrayed their own music – before they first split up, round about 1984. What’s this cod-funk got to do with intimacy? They knew it themselves, too. Take a listen too ‘Don’t Be Mean’, that incredible damaged-spiteful song of Gina’s released in 1996, a delayed reaction to a certain acquaintance’s interest in their music. It could be from a missing period between the first and second albums, such is the paranoia in the voice and violin.
Whatever. There’s often a reason bands split in the first place, y’know. What is far rarer is that they reform, and are still as vital. The Raincoats briefly proved to be the exception. Except that I saw them at the Concorde in Brighton in 1996 and they were horrible. I walked out. I can’t deny, however, that I might have been suffering from very mixed emotions that may well have prejudiced me that evening.
(Music That I Like blog)
It’s Alive! (1979)
Willesden 1984. I saved up for weeks to buy Too Tough To Die on import, and was so excited when I took it back home. The first time I took it out of its sleeve to play on my Dansette mono record player, my tiny white kitten – who was also excited – jumped up onto the vinyl as it spun round on the turntable. The cat and I then embarked on an exciting game of hide and seek round the house while Joey’s voice sounded out, poignant and raw and scratched.
That same year, I formed a New Wave a cappella group, The Legend! And His Swinging Soul Sisters, with my brother and Dave Smith from work, for the sole purpose of singing Ramones and Sixties soul covers in front of a live audience. We’d learnt the first rule of punk: that it didn’t matter how proficient you were at playing guitar – indeed, we’d taken the ‘less is more’ maxim of the Ramones to its logical conclusion. We’d dispensed with instruments altogether.
(introduction to Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story Of The Ramones)
You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever (1982)
This is where it starts: fumbled glances in doorways, fringes worn proudly like Roger McGuinn, guitars a rush of blood through the heart and out onto the streets, mistakes and laughter mixed in with crush-worthy melodies and the undeniable rush of falling in love for the 113th time. Orange Juice were Glasgow boys manly enough to admit their feminine side was at least twice as enticing as their male. Before Stephen Pastel and Morrissey and all the lesser lights that followed (them), there was Edwyn Collins. Cavalier, gay (in the old-fashioned sense), flashing a coy smile while simultaneously flicking his fringe back and falling over drunk: championing a proletarian pop music that took punk’s first and most important lesson to heart – do it yourself, the others are probably boring old farts anyway – and applied it to the music of Motown, Stax, disco, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, life itself.
The first Orange Juice singles are peerless – 1980’s debut ‘Falling And Laughing’ with its riotous instrumental B-side, ‘Simple Thrilled Honey’ (oh MY GOD!) with its infectious stuttered denouement of peer pressure, the tinny, delirious ‘Blue Boy’, the unstoppable ‘Poor Old Soul’…These were the rampant, barely formulated, refrains that launched a thousand independent bands (most of whom promptly missed the point of what they were aping) and helped define one of the Greatest Indie Labels of our time – Postcard Records (Orange Juice, Josef K, The Go-Betweens, early Aztec Camera), the Sound Of Young Scotland indeed. And then the band (Edwyn, much overlooked songwriting partner James Kirk, Steven Daly, David McClymont) got even better…
(Plan B Magazine)
And The One That Changed My Life…
This record changed my life, literally. For nearly three years, people wanted to know me.