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Albums that formed me: Space Oddity

The first cassette I wore out was the second I was given by my brother…it had Genesis Live on the one side and David Bowie’s first (actually second, but the actual first is something completely different and we won’t dwell too long on that).  It is commonly known as “Space Oddity” although it was I believe originally just called “David Bowie”.  Space Oddity was, of course, the lead single from it and the song that shot Bowie into the fame he maintained the next 5 decades. 

Space Oddity is a song that encapsulates many of my favourite things: A story, acoustic guitars playing interesting chords, clever harmonies, unpredictable bassline and a great melody.  There’s even a tiny guitar solo and a bag of psychedelia.  A great song and released just at the right time, when the world was in a space travel mania.

Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed again mixes the acoustic guitar (with it’s Bo Diddly rhythm) with a rock backing, with again the bass in a John Entwistle style freestyle…generally a lot of the album sounds almost jammed and therefore very honest and authentic.  It’s a great rehearsal room sort of vibe, with blues harmonica mixing with the wild 60’s rock band freak out.

Letter to Hermoine is a beautifully written love song – and in it’s honesty manages to avoid all the clichés that usually put me off love songs…Bowie in these moments competes with even Dylan as songwriter and folk singer.

With brings us to the fantastic Cygnet Committee.   This song – for me – is Bowie at his absolute best.  Like Dylan but with more complex composition and arrangement…the story of how youthful hope and revolutionary activism becomes dissillusionment and corruption is way ahead of what could be expected of a 21 year old.  Also he taskes the time needed to complete the story…you could do that back then.  Nine and a half minutes is usually deemed too long for modern concentration levels.  It’s a work of genius and I could live on a desert island with no other music than this one song and not get bored for many years.

Janine is another guitar driven singer-songwriter song that – in the spirit of the late 60’s – let’s a rock band do what it wants behind the song.  I love the freedom of it all.  Not the strongest song on the album but still a good melody and a song that would actually sit really well on even his quite late albums like Hours or Heathen.

An Occasional Dream takes us back into the psychedelic with a Syd Barrett- like vibe along with a 12-string guitar that must surely have been an influence on the early Genesis repertoire.  Lots of harmony recorders – again…who would dare try that nowadays?

Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud was my favourite on the album when I was young.  Again there’s a good story…skilfully told.  There’s a version on a collection of recordings Bowie made at the BBC that I absolutely love…the orchestration is unnecessarily dramatic I feel and I adore his voice and the acoustic guitar and the passion he puts in – they could have kept the bass too, but the orchestra only detracts from what is a great performance of a fabulous song.

God Knows I’m Good was in the first solo sets I ever played…it was the first Bowie song I learnt to play and one what I still think fits many occasions.  Again a great little story – totally everyday stuff about shoplifting but getting the point of view of the “offender”.  The orchestration here is all acoustic guitars – at least 3 different parts…and gives it that folk feel I love.

Memory of The Free Festival is one of my absolute favourite Bowie songs.  When I first heard it I knew nothing of festivals but the joy and ecstacy in the lyrics may well be why I became such a huge fan of festivals later.  This song was one of my “signature” songs when I used to busk and play at gatherings and festivals as a youth.  It’s going to get it’s own video at some point cos it’s a classic…what a chord sequence apart from anything else!  But for now you can settle for the title track in this little performance from the studio.


Albums that formed me: Selling England By The Pound

Selling England By the Pound

The first music I ever owned was Pinapple Poll – the music of Arthur Sullivan (Of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) on an LP.  I played it on my sister’s Philip’s Stereogram with it’s auto-change function and 4 speeds (16, 33, 45 and 78) that was passed down from my music-loving grandpa.  This and my 2nd LP (The Wombles – Mike Batt’s novelty project and still a great album to this day!) were presents from my sister (I’m guessing I was 6 and 8 years old).  I would sit in her room and listen to these and some of her records (Leo Sayer, David Essex, Abba…and stuff handed down like Pinky and Perky – thank heaven for the 16RPM button which played Pinky and Perky at the speed it was recorded…ah…google it!)

From the room next door (or when I was in my room, the room upstairs) came a very different sound:  Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Caravan, David Bowie, Jethro Tull and much more.  My brother was (is) a music enthusiast and appreciates music and lyrics with depth and quality.  It was him who introduced me to the music that would soundtrack my life…starting with The Beatles (he gave me a cassette player and Beatles tape when I was 8) and then a year or so later another 2 tapes:  Genesis Live with David Bowie’s Space Oddity on the other side and Nursery Cryme with Selling England By The Pound.

I know these 4 albums inside out and upside down.  A short while later he gave me his entire cassette collection…many many amazing albums, a lot of which I still listen to (though not on cassette!).  I will always be grateful.

Selling England was made when Genesis were at their absolute peak.  The 3rd album with Steve Hackett on guitar and Phil Collins on drums, and when the band was really creative and still enjoying what they were doing.  When I briefly worked with Steve Hackett in the early 90’s he said it was his favourite Genesis album and that he enjoyed making it…his playing is absolutely sublime on it.

It starts with Peter Gabriel’s voice a cappello – like an unaccompanied folk song: “Can you tell me where my country lies?”…Dancing Out With The Moonlit Knight is a perfect example of how Genesis in those days played with words – something that has profoundly influenced my songwriting.  Here too is a way of describing the disintegration of England and the infiltration of American culture in a way that is both tragic and fun.  Uplifting even.  The complexity of the composition and the stunning guitar solo – more a composition than a solo – are the epitome of mid 70’s Genesis.

Next comes the sound of a lawnmower.  Genesis up to this point had never had a single in the charts.  Since the awful Jonathan King production of the first album they had become an album band – most songs were too long to get on radio anyway.  “I Know What I Like (in your wardrobe)” became their first “hit”…something I’ve always struggled to understand.  Not the hottest track on the album, but it is pleasant and quirky.  And it’s hard to say “it’s one o’clock” without saying “and time for lunch umdidumdidum”.

Firth of Fifth is one of the best things Genesis ever did in my opinion.  The classical piano intro is a work of art in itself, but the way it explodes to life when the band come in, dips, dives and develops, as if following the river it describes is fascinating and symphonic.  Then there’s the guitar solo…possibly Hackett’s finest?  Tony Banks said he wasn’t happy with the lyrics, but I think it’s a beautiful piece of poetry.

Then comes “More Fool Me”.  I think the less I say about that song the better.  Suffice it to say that I always stop the record before the start.  In retrospect it shows where Genesis were eventually going to head, and makes some of the 80’s material less surprising (particularly Collins’ and Rutherford’s solo material).  Anyway…

Side 2…

I was once asked what my favourite song on the album was, and I replied “The Battle Of Epping Forest” much to the amazement of the questioner.  I wouldn’t give the same answer again – Moonlight Knight, Firth of Fifth or Cinema Show definitely beat it – but the fact is that it is an amazing piece of work.  It tells a story (as many Genesis songs did) about a fight between 2 rival London gangs, and for it Gabriel invented characters and plots and added stacks of humour, whilst the band went full on fusion in one of the most complex arrangements they ever made.  The ending is simultaneously hilarious and poignant.

After the Ordeal is classic Hackett and a beautiful number.  I discovered that the band weren’t keen on including it, but I think it fits perfectly and ties together “Epping Forest” and “Cinema Show”.  Also it kind of signals the emphasis on the folk music element of the album.  And it has great melodies.  Both guitar styles: the acoustic and electric parts have been a huge part of where I come from as a guitarist…although I only gently scratch the surface!

Cinema Show is the archetypal Genesis song of this era.  The 12 string guitars in the soft build up.  The classical mythology references.  The flute link up.  The keyboard solo over 7/8 rhythm – as Prog Rock as you get…but yet very melodic.  The ending was one of the few pieces from the Gabriel era that the band played when I saw them in 1981.

Aisle Of Plenty brings back the themes and melody from the opening song, along with more of the playful puns.  And creates the feeling of a concept album…just in time for “The Lamb Lies Down” to take it all the way.

I never tire of this amazing record, because no matter how many times you hear it, something new pops out.  On top of that it has the vibe of a band that is bursting with creativity and enjoying their first taste of large-scale success…and are keen to remind themselves of their British roots as they conquer the world.  It’s a beautifully English album…in a thatched cottages and cream teas sort of way…and is a “go to” record for me when I want to feel my own roots.


Albums that formed me – No 1: Al Stewart – Love Chronicles

When I was 20 a friend of mine lent me 2 Al Stewart albums – Bed Sitter Images and Love Chronicles.  We did that kind of thing back then…the culture amongst teenagers was that we’d buy records on a Saturday at HMV or one of the 2 second hand record shops in Wolverhampton, and then we’d play them for each other, or maybe record them on cassette and give them to each other.  Many of us still did this well into our 20’s…I probably would never have stopped if my record collection hadn’t been stolen.

Bed Sitter Images was fantastic – a clear example of a record company investing in a young artist’s debut and it has elaborate orchestration on its many fine songs.  But Love Chronicles I immediately considered a masterpiece.

So with that in mind I’ve decided to use it as the basis of the first of a series of essays on albums that have been hugely influential in my life.  Partly because I enjoy writing and partly because it gives me time to appreciate them and share my joy. You’ll be able to see these on the first Monday of each month here on the MD Blog…

I nearly didn’t get to hear it (Love Chronicles that is)…whilst picking up the 2 records to take them home I dropped and just managed to catch them, prompting Mark’s Dad to say “He’s a big lad, you don’t want to upset him”.  Happily neither disc was harmed.

The album starts in New York city with the tale of the young Englishman observing the comings and goings of the Big Apple natives between the narrative of his romantic exploits with a harmonica-playing astrology student.  His observational skills and his choices of adjectives take the listener straight there.  It’s a fantastic opening number: upbeat and catchy.  In my early days of busking I used to sing “In Brooklyn” and enjoyed it vastly…I think I still know all the words!

Next up comes another observational piece.  “Old Compton Street Blues” has a beautiful haunting melody with a melancholic descending bass that perfectly fits the story of the young, beautiful model who “really did have something that the others never had”, whilst following her decline through destitution, rejection and prostitution into middle age.

Let’s talk about the musicians on this record.  I was a Led Zeppelin fan years before I heard these songs, and both Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones play on the title track (we’ll come to THAT later), but most of the album is played by members of Fairport Convention; Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Martin Lamble (recorded before his fatal car crash, though the album was released later that year) and Ashley Hutchings, although under pseudonyms, so they didn’t get in trouble with their record company…this did mean that I was unaware that they were performing on this album until much later…It was around this time that I got really into Fairport and regularly attended their Cropredy Festival but somehow didn’t realise they were on one of my favourite records.

The 3rd track is another song I used to play a lot in my busking days, and performed at my first ever solo gig.  “The Ballad of Mary Foster” is a terrific story of a husband and wife growing apart, but where most songwriters would stick to the relationship, Stewart delves into the whole life stories of both parts…the first part being David Foster’s story, and then we zap over into a completely different rhythm, tempo, mood and tune (which may be familiar to Dylan fans and folk music know-alls).  The band drops out and Mary Foster’s story is told just to an acoustic guitar.  Amazing amounts of detail are listed as her whole life is told.  Always brings a tear to my eye this one!

For me the absolute highlight of the album is “Life and Life Only” – again it’s the descriptive detail and back stories of the characters that make it so powerful.  From sitting on a wall at Bournmouth beach and looking at a few people Stewart manages to imagine every detail of their lives, assert that “sometimes it must get lonely” and then muse “who will I be?”

Side 2 begins with the song that, to me, sounds like the record company said “But we have to have a hit single on this thing!”  You should have listened to Al is that – a good song, but a poppy dancey sort of affair that feels a little out of place in this aural gallery….so for my side 2 always started with…

Love Chronicles.  Ok, I am a sucker for excessively long and complex compositions with lots of guitar solos…and at 18 minutes Love Chronicles fits the bill.  And it’s a story – a true story.  And perfectly told.  With humour, honesty, humility and intimate detail we are taken through the narrator’s love life from “passing sticky sweets under the table” at kindergarten through teenage crushes and crushing heartbreaks to mature relationsh where ”it grew to be less like fucking and more like making love”.   Ending with a big rousing thank you to all the girls he ever knew.  With an almost gospel feeling B3 Hammond to finish off the album on a mega-high.

The album is largely a singer-songwriter affair with an acoustic guitar base and that is absolutely my go to genre…in fact this album generally is the exact blueprint of how I best like music to sound…except for the production.  Unfortunately this was recorded in the days when stereo was new and multi-tracking was in its infancy…though contemporary with some great sounding albums (Led Zeppelin 2 for example), this has a terrible tinny acoustic guitar sound, and the band sounds like it was recorded live in a rehearsal room.  Even the 2007 remastering for digital release doesn’t save it.

What does save it – and more – is the genius of the songwriting combined with a fantastic band who seem to be allowed to just let rip and express the compositions however they see fit.  Most people associate Al Stewart with the classic “Year of the Cat” (great album)…but for me this is his best.  I just love this album.

Note: The digital release of this album as seen below on Spotify has additional tracks (Jackdaw, She Follows and Fantasy).  I HATE when albums are re-released with additional tracks…put them on a new album FFS…so press the stop button after the organ dies out on Love Chronicles for the whole experience!

last week – marielyst and odense plus moullettes @ loppen

Last week I was in Marielyst on the Thursday night at the newly renovated and much larger Café Daisy.  They came with cake for me in the break, having found out that it was my birthday!  Very fun night with very fun people…will be back there in the summer (outside if the weather’s good) both solo and with Strong Ale.

On Friday I did the early set at The Old Irish Pub in Odense followed by 2 sets with Strong Ale.  Quite a lot of people I know there and a fab evening with a very drunk Leprechaun and Miss Monkey.  Saturday night I did the late set after the Strong Ale sets.  Fabulous evening again once the crowd got into gear.

On Sunday The Leprechaun and I went to Copenhagen, and, after eating at Pairøen (Copenhagen Street Food) we watched Moulettes play at Loppen in Christiania.  Amazing musicians and terrific use of cello and harmony vocals, and very inventive guitar playing and fantastic drumming, combined with Loppen’s brilliant sound…but still somewhat disappointing.  The interaction with the audience was embarrassingly ill-thought out and awkward, and the band really looked like they didn’t want to be there.  Still, we had a great night – rounded off nicely with drinks at Downtown Copenhagen where the greatest bar staff looked after us and a bunch of English visitors.  Happy days.

My Cd collection pt. 1

I’ve finally moved to a permanent address, which means that I’ve finally unpacked my CD collection which has been in storage for about 7 years.  Having set them up on shelves in the studio I’ve started playing through them in alphebetic order.  So far I’ve got through:

The Adventure Babies: Laugh

The last album released on Factory Records and recorded at Mad Hat Studios in Wolverhampton.  I was going out with an engineer from Mad Hat while it was being made and knew some members of the band and the engineer Mark Stuart.  I met Steve Lilywhite, who produced the album (with Mark) at the Newhampton Pub one evening.  I always liked TAB’s catchy tunes and clever, unorthodox lyrics, and it’s a good quirky, feelgood album

Aerosmith: Big Ones

I never consider myself a fan, but listening to this, it’s astounding how many great songs they crammed onto this.  And you really can’t question the musicianship.  Brilliant stuff and full of deserved hits.

AfroCelt Soundsystem: Vol 1 Sound Magic

The first Afro Celts album is still the best I think and it’s great to hear it again.  Whirl-y-reel was briefly included in Rumpus and The Rhythm Maniacs set when we had Matt playing Bass, whistle and Sax.  Still as good as ever, and – having recently seen the new Emerson fronted line up – it’s got the visual element of a record by a band I’ve seen live (although most of this line up wasn’t there).  Great and ground breaking record.

All About Eve: best of

I’m not a big fan of “best of” albums, but this has nearly the whole first album on it – which is what I really wanted, but this was on offer for a fiver!  Martha’s Harbour, Every Angel must die, Gypsy dance…amazing stuff.  Shame they didn’t keep the magic going longer.

Alphabeat: This is

An Ok album if you can ignore the terrible lyrics, and the out of place cover of Public Image.  You can hear why they made such an impact when they came out, but in retospect, you can also hear that they didn’t have enough substance to back it up with a second bearable album.  Brainless fun for a party.

Altan: Best of

I know…another best of.  Great band and this is one of my most played CD’s (it never made storage in the cellar and has been with me the whole way through!)  Concentrates mostly on the early years and is thus more whistle dominated than later stuff.  Which is no bad thing.

Tori Amos: Tales from a Librarian

Terrific songs from a terrific artist.  Crucify should zap straight on to my Spotify “Greatest Songs Ever Written” playlist

Anthony and The Johnsons: I am a bird now

I bought this on impulse after hearing Anthony do one song on a tribute show (I can’t remember what show).  I rather like his bizarre voice, the music is atmospheric and the theme of gender identity interesting…but a whole album is a lot to take at one time

Atomic Swing: In their finest hour

A great example of why the Swedish music scene has for years been one of the best.  A real band playing real music with real songs about real things.  The bass is beautifully abstract – he does exactly what you don’t expect all the time.  Love this band.  Shame they didn’t do more – I think this is a compilation of 2 albums.  I knew Meat Swap Bossanova, from which many of the songs are taken, and I think they did one more.  Weird in retrospect to hear Phil Spector singing on “So in need of a change”.

B52’s – Planet Clare

Early stuff from the great B52’s – most of this is from 1979, and is the same material by and large they played when we saw them 2 years ago.  Good live band, and that live vibe is captured perfectly on record.  You can’t help but love em!

I’ll keep you posted as I continue…

Afro celt soundsystem

I don’t get to as many gigs (of other artists!) as I’d like to (except at festivals), so when I finally get the chance to see an act I really like it is double the pleasure.  So when my good friend and ex-Rumpus partner Ed Conway suggested seeing Afro Celt Sound System at Birmingham City Hall while I was in England last week, I jumped at the chance.

First, I will get the only negatives out of the way.  They looked awful.  Dressed in the clothes they did their shopping in and with (in the case of the piper, Griogair Labhruidh) a sweater your uncle wouldn’t even wear at Christmas, they hadn’t made an effort on the visual side.  With the exception of the one (hugely talented) African member, N’Faly Kouyate, who donned a long colourful jacket, and the dancers, in their traditional Indian costumes.  And Griogair rapped.  Rapping is shite in any language – even Gaelic.

Right.  That’s the negatives out of the way.  The music more than made up for it.  I had always considered ACSS to be a very electronic project, with the acoustic, traditional instruments laid over computer-based rhythms and synthesizers.  The electronic side, actually, played a much smaller role than I expected and the bulk of the sound was produced by the pipes/flutes/whistles, guitars, kora, drums, percussion and bodhrán augmented by terrific harmony vocals.  The synth was mostly providing bass (I would have preferred a bass guitar, but that’s just a question of taste). One of those who made the biggest impression on me was Rioghnach Connelly on vocals and flute.  A hugely talented lady with great on-stage attitude.  But they were all amazing, and took turns coming to the front before stepping back into the huge African, Asian and Celtic sound soup.

The set was mostly from the new album “Source”, but with a few pieces I recognised from the early Afro Celt albums.  The members of the “other” band who share the name may be threatening legal action and disclaiming the project, but it was very much a Simon Emmerson project in the beginning, as I understand it, and he pulled off a spectacular show with this line-up, featuring all the elements we loved from the early records.

Fab night.

The Great Malarkey in Odense

Last gig I went to (that wasn’t my own) was The Great Malarkey at Dexters in Odense.  If you know the Great Malarkey, you’ll know that they put on an energetic, fun show.  They started the show by getting everyone to stand up and move forward.  Great for those at the front – unfortunately, Dexters being a sit down jazz venue, half the audience were left out of the experience from the start.  The sound at the back was awful, and visibility zero.  However, those of us young enough (haha) and keen enough, sneaked up to the front where the sound was great and a full-blooded gypsy punk party was in full flow.  The singer is a terrific front figure, the drummer looks mad (in a good way), the band look like they enjoy themselves, the trumpet player is (a very young) virtuoso, and they have a french horn.  What more could you want?  Great band – go see them if they play near you.  Just hope it isn’t a jazz venue.

Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party – Old Adam

This week’s recommended album: Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party – Old Adam

To capture so perfectly all the details and nuances of a bunch of acoustic instruments is a feat for which we have to take our collective hats off to Andy Bell, producer of the first Fay Hield album since the terrific Full English project.

But a great sound alone makes not a great album.  Next up the musicians:  Some of the top heavyweights of the current folk scene – Sam Sweeny, John Boden, Martin Simpson, and I’m going to have to add to these category Ben Nicholls, who I saw with Kings of the South Seas, singing and playing concertina, last year, not realising he was the bassist in, amongst others, the Full English.  His double bass playing on Old Adam is stunning, particularly on the opening track. Rob Harbron, Roger Wilson and Toby Kearney all play fabulously too.

Add to this the ever able singing of Fay Hield herself, and an excellent selection of songs – varied in style, mood and content.  All in all a terrific album, and so far album of the year…although it is only February.