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What started as a sixty day countdown (to my retirement) on social media, principally out of boredom, has become an enjoyable wander down memory lane, looking back at some of the records that have informed, enlightened and enlivened my life so far, as well as highlighting one or two turning points along the way. Choosing just sixty records from my own collection has been quite easy, which is probably due to the fact that I'm not selecting my all time favourites, rather, the sixty records that have marked various rites of passage, turning points, moments of epiphany. Like pictures, every record tells a story and I wouldn't be able to tell these short stories without mentioning my family, friends and acquaintences along the way. I hope I haven't embarrassed anyone in doing so, after all, you were all part of the journey.
Would I have entered a burning building to save these records? Probably not. Some of the choices are highly predictable, some are relatively obscure, some will probably have you scratching your head. What each record means to me personally though, is that they are a little reminder of a life enjoyed thus far.
Let's start with the first LP I ever dropped a needle onto. The only record of note in the rack under the lid of our old radiogram back in the early Sixties, which belonged to my dad (both record and radiogram).
Fast forward through the miasma of the early 1960s to the so-called Summer of Love and the popular TV series The Monkees, the beginnings of prepubescent hero worship, and the weird awakening to the possibilities of the ‘eight-button bib shirt’, which I asked for time and time again with the usual parental response - shut up and play with yer lego!
The first long playing record I ever acquired with my own money from my paper round. I was dancing (kind of) to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich one Saturday morning at the Top Rank on Silver Street, whilst taking copious gulps of lemonade, when the DJ 'spun' Purple Haze. I had no idea what to do but to stare at him as if he’d just arrived from Venus. Afterwards, I saw Hendrix on Top of the Pops and my fears were confirmed - he looked just as weird as I imagined he would. Inevitably, I became an instant fan. Strained relations with dad sort of began at this juncture, choosing to sit a little further back from me on the bus.
At 12 years old, the beloved 45rpm single had begun to take second place to the still not quite affordable - but ten times more attractive - long playing record. My little 45s box had the now largely discarded Monkees singles collection, the odd Ten Years After disc, one or two Beatles platters and quite a few Creedence Clearwater Revival records, each on the vivid blue Liberty label. I thought it might be time to expand my LP collection, currently numbering just the one, and I promptly toddled off downtown to Foxes Records in the Arndale Centre to purchase Creedence Clearwater Revival’s third LP release Green River, with its rather tangible mottled sleeve showing a seemingly carefree sun-drenched California quartet led by one John Fogerty, who looked - to this Yorkshire lad at any rate - utterly amazing. I wanted to look just like that. Sadly, later that same year, a similarly attired Charles Manson ordered his gals to take up murder as a pastime, which kinda spoiled all the fun.
The arrival of the so-called ‘sampler’ LP was a veritable gift to a schoolboy not exactly enamoured with the pop charts of the day and with limited funds to boot. Once the cheap sampler arrived, I discovered many great bands, selecting along the way the albums to put on the top of my wish list. The Age of Atlantic cost a mere 99p brand new and was hardly off the turntable back in 1970, an LP that introduced me to the likes of Iron Butterfly, Allman Brothers Band, Delaney and Bonnie, Vanilla Fudge, Yes, Dr John and Led Zeppelin, along with several handy ways of using plasticine.
The first major discovery I made from the Age of Atlantic sampler was Led Zeppelin. One minute there was no Led Zeppelin, the next there was; that’s really how it felt at the time. Whilst my school friends cut their hair and formed several regiments of ‘skinheads’, I managed to maintain my locks, though at a cost. Imagine Cousin It with a centrally protruding nose. This in turn awarded me the slightly unflattering nickname of ‘Weirdo’, a term of endearment bestowed upon me by everyone; mates, siblings, parents, grandma. I first saw the band Led Zeppelin via a poster displayed in a shoe shop near Doncaster Market, where I was waiting to try on a pair of Wayfinders, the much sought after shoes, complete with animal prints on the soles and a compass in the heel, which I’d nagged mum about. There was already a whisper going around school about the band, so I made it my business to find out more. The band’s second album had just been released the year before and the central riff on Whole Lotta Love had become my latest earworm. I proceeded to wail “way down inside..” into a hairbrush around the house, desperately wishing that my unbearably straight locks would form one or two Plant-like waves (to no avail). It was my elder sister who tapped me on the shoulder to inform me of the meaning of the lyrics and that I should perhaps be careful using such double entendres around the vicinity of dad. She was right of course, it was indeed time to tone it down a bit; he’d already started sitting as far away from me as possible on the bus. Three years later, on January 2nd 1973 to be precise, I finally got to see the band at the Sheffield City Hall at the tender age of 16.
It was around 1970 when I discovered Ken’s Swap Shop along St Sepulchre Gate West, about a mile from where I lived at the time. Despite the distinct smell of piss in the doorway, I spent hours in that shop, gazing at the records in the window, on the walls and in the cardboard boxes scattered about the floor. You could either buy records or exchange them for your old discarded ones. This became a big thing for me, although in swapping, I did part with a good many gems along the way, probably out of necessity. I was a schoolboy with a £1 per week income from a gruelling paper round. One of the first records I bought was Absolutely Free by the Mothers of Invention, clearly the weirdest record I’d heard so far. If dad couldn’t handle Hendrix, then Zappa was completely off the dial. “What the bloody hell is this?” he would growl in a slow, deliberate, exasperated fashion. Glenn Miller was dad’s sole idea of a band leader. Discovering Frank Zappa at the tender age of 13 probably had devastating consequences on my already suspect reputation. Not only were my parents, my sisters, my mates, my gran and my teachers referring to me as ‘Weirdo’, the family dog had even started giving me curious looks, having as little to do with me as possible. It’s worth noting that Frank was the first musical hero of mine that I had no particular desire to look like.
If there was one single aspect of rock music that appealed to me during my early teenage years, it was that all-important and majestical guitar riff. I clearly recall hearing Sunshine of Your Love performed by a young band at our end of year school party, the lead guitarist being the son of our history teacher. I even remember his name, Andrew Ley, simply because his band was imaginatively called The Androoleys. The ten note descending riff that permeates Cream’s classic rock song haunted me for days after this, until I finally discovered its source, by humming it to all and sundry until finally someone recognised it. It all seemed to happen so fast. By the time I’d discovered this trio, a so-called supergroup, it was all over for them. The three had gone their separate ways. Despite this, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker topped the music press polls for what seemed like years after their break up and their Disraeli Gears LP (on the blue Reaction label) remains with me to this day, as do all the records in this highly self-indulgent countdown.
Though I’ve pretty much been religion-free since childhood, there was a period during my early teens when I adopted organised religion on purely selfish grounds. I frequented a local youth club at our local Methodist Chapel in my home village, providing the record player (and records) whilst being rewarded with the company of girls on most Friday nights. I would have been around 13 or 14 at the time. The upside of this puerile venture was that in addition to all the girls coming up to request Chicory Tip’s Son of My Father, I became pretty close to the two people who ran the club, a young married couple who were a good few years older than me, but still pretty hip. For the life of me I can’t remember their names now, but I do recall one of them giving me a couple of LPs. “For your collection”, one of them said. The records, Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat and Pentangle’s Basket of Light, provided me with completely new musical experiences. I marveled at the thought of a church leader dishing out anything other than the word of the Lord. Whilst I thought the Velvet’s record something of a racket, I really took to the Pentangle LP. Folk music was never really a consideration for me up to this point, probably due to the fact that I’d seen both The Spinners and The Corries on TV and let’s be honest here, if that’s your folk experience at 13, you’re going to run a mile aren’t you? Having said that, I was aware of Bert Jansch, his debut solo album having been played relentlessly by our high school art teacher as we splashed paint about in class. I have a clear memory of being huddled around the classroom with around six other students as he explained Needle of Death to us as a cautionary tale. The Pentangle record would become a firm favourite in the years to come. White Light White Heat on the other hand was exchanged for Babbacombe Lee shortly afterwards. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for Lou Reed.
In 1971, I spent hours thumbing through a rather inviting pictorial book about the Fillmore East and Fillmore West, which contained hundreds of pictures of bands and artists taken at the iconic Bill Graham-run venues in both New York City and San Francisco. This was a resource available to me at the time, along with the NME Book of Rock as well as all the weekly music papers. One of the Fillmore East performances most familiar to me back then was Humble Pie’s May 1971 concert, which was released as the double LP set, Performance, Rockin’ the Fillmore. The album ticked all the boxes as far as a live album was concerned, clearly capturing the sweaty atmosphere with the British band on blistering form, led by the much-missed ex-Small Faces frontman Steve Marriott and future zillion-selling guitarist Peter Frampton, who went on to have a huge success with his own solo double live set a couple or so years later. I avoided live albums at the time, but this particular one gave me much pleasure at the time until I wore both discs out. It still comes out now and again and wakes up the neighbours.
At the beginning of the 1970s, everything seemed to be lumped together under the 'Progressive Rock' banner, whether it was or it wasn't. In 1971, there was so much hitting my ears at once that I couldn’t ascertain what was good prog, bad prog, indifferent prog or not prog at all. Influenced by a neighbour's pristine collection of beautifully looked after LPs, each encased in a clear plastic sleeve, and each strictly prohibited to leave the house, I discovered the term 'green envy' as I gazed on with a mixture of jealousy and confusion. I eventually began to make sense of it all, becoming aware of some of the more idiosyncratic bands of the period, whose albums were released chiefly on the Harvest record label; Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Third Ear Band, Quatermass, The Battered Ornaments and my particular favourites at the time, the Edgar Broughton Band. I saw the band at the Doncaster Top Rank one memorable sweaty Friday evening in 1972 and held my position in front of the stage right there at the feet of my heavily hirsute hero. For my efforts, I was rewarded with an eyeful of projectile gob, straight from the Broughton's mouth. This was a clear five years before Punk I might add. It's usual at this point for some to declare "I didn't wash my face for a year" but on this occasion, it's not the case; I couldn't wait to get home and jump into a hot bath. Trivia: I once wrote the lyrics to Evening Over the Rooftops down as a poem and submitted it as homework in my English class, receiving a star from the teacher. I confess, I was a little shit.
From the same source as the Edgar Broughton Band, comes the eponymous Third Ear Band album, from one of the more unusual bands also signed to the Harvest label and who also appeared to me first via the double sampler album Picnic, which incidentally had one of the best sleeve designs in the history of rock. True to their nature, sampler albums encouraged us to go out and buy the albums they were sampling and this album was one of the most curious albums added to my burgeoning collection. The four improvised tracks, named for the four elements (Air, Earth, Fire and Water) and performed on violin, cello, oboe and percussion, raised one or two eyebrows in our house, mainly mine actually. I imagined dad walking past my bedroom on his way to the bathroom, momentarily pausing outside my door and hearing Paul Minns’ oboe skittering around Glen Sweeney’s tribal drums, with furrowed brow and a now familiar expression of total bewilderment. Mum on the other hand, would be oblivious as she listened to her Hank Locklin records, sweetly crooning along to Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On. Yep, some crazy shit in the Wilkinson household back then.
Artist: Alice Cooper
Title: School’s Out
First heard: 1972
What I like best about it: School’s Out
I left school with a certain feeling of euphoria back in 1972 and considered myself lucky enough to have had a rather felicitous soundtrack for this major personal event. I didn’t like school and school didn’t like me, in fact to this day, visiting schools (as part of my job), is a little like the feeling I imagine some people get when visiting mortuaries; the smell, the atmosphere, the lingering memories, the assault on the nervous system. I have a scenario that often plays through my head, a vision of school leaving day, bursting out of the double doors of Balby High School to the strains of School’s Out, the current smash hit, feeling exuberant and totally free at last. I felt like Tommy jumping through the mirror in Ken Russell’s film of the same name. It was only later that I realised it was I who had the problem, not necessarily the teachers. I guess I just didn’t take to authority in the way I should’ve done and none of the lessons (except art) could relieve me of the utter boredom I suffered. My education really began once those doors flew open onto Oswin Avenue, on that memorable summer afternoon in 1972, with no qualifications, no apparent prospects, no clue, just Alice Cooper, the mascara snake, brandishing his sword into the face of authority on Top of the Pops. No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher's dirty looks. Time to get a job, earn some cash and maybe even buy some more records.
Of course, it might have been the end of teacher's 'dirty looks', but it certainly wasn't the end of pencils or books. I took up reading and drawing with a voracious appetite, a paperback in one pocket of my overcoat and a sketchbook in the other, with a bush hat perched atop and tennis shoes at the other end. I think I may have modeled myself on a combination of Jimmy Page and Frank Serpico and felt very much part of the Woodstock Generation, despite being stuck in a grim Northern industrial town in the West Riding of Yorkshire with no prospect of escape. My first job after leaving school lasted just six months. Although the job description suggested I might be masquerading as a 'plumber's mate', I felt more like a plumber's gofer, spending much of my time running back and forth to the van. I never really saw my boss as a mate and I'm certain he didn't see me as one either. He would remind me occasionally that it was his wife, not he, who chose me (she was there at the interview), which to me, always translated to, "you were the last on my list!" I confess I was pretty diabolical as a plumber's mate and knew instinctively that I wouldn't last long. Still, I always had Wishbone Ash to go home to in order to blow all my cares away. I heard Lady Whiskey on the John Peel show one night and immediately fell in love with the sound of those harmony guitars, courtesy of Andy Powell and Ted Turner (no relation to Jane Fonda). I celebrated not being a plumber anymore by adding Wishbone Ash's debut album to my collection, complete with gatefold sleeve, whilst at the same time developing a lifelong disdain for copper pipe, wire wool, blow torches, solder wire and flux, not to mention that awful insulating wool I used to lay between the joists in loft spaces, which caused my wrists to itch for days. I was temporarily free again.
Looking back over six decades of listening to - and being suitable impressed by - an eclectic mixture of music, it still baffles me as to why a trio of minstrels armed with a couple of lutes and a crumhorn, remain one of my favourite bands of all time, with only a handful of LPs and three or four concerts to go on. Perhaps it was just the time and place. Formed just up the road in Scunthorpe, Amazing Blondel’s classic line-up consisted of John Gladwin, Eddie Baird and Terry Wincott, three extraordinary musicians whose music was very much out of fashion when they arrived on the scene in the late 1960s with hair down to their knees. I discovered the trio when I saw their fourth LP displayed high in the window of Ken’s Swap Shop back in 1972 shortly after the albums’ release. Upon first hearing this enigmatic trio sing Seascape, I became entranced by their distinctive harmony voices and their delicate musicianship. The band was apparently introduced to Island Records’ boss Chris Blackwell by members of Free, who obviously felt the same way as I. I never tire of hearing Blondel albums, although I missed out on seeing the band live in the early 1970s. Fortunately, we were all given the highly unexpected opportunity of seeing them when they re-formed in the 1990s for a handful of shows. They were just as good as ever and some might say, even better. I raise a glass to messrs Gladwin, Baird and Wincott (sounds like a firm of solicitors) wherever you are now.
I started my so called ‘proper’ job at a local printers in the spring of 1973 still 15, and already frequenting the popular Silver Link pub on Bradford Row. I had long hair with a nose peeking through, which rendered me pretty much anonymous. Not once was I ever questioned about my age. This notorious Doncaster pub was frequently raided by the drug squad, giving the under aged amongst us an extra adrenaline rush of a Friday night, when a half of bitter cost around 9p and the jukebox continuously played Hawkwind’s Silver Machine. It was around this time that I became acquainted with the town’s underground scene and would frequently crash late night parties around town with a copy of International Times under my arm. One night, a group of us found ourselves in a town flat gleefully rolling joints on LP sleeves (I know, terrible - what a blatant abuse of record sleeves!), when this album popped up in front of me. I was compelled to lift the needle off, I don’t know, Black Sabbath or suchlike, and put this on immediately and listen to it. Life changing stuff. It was at this point that I discovered the proverbial ‘singer songwriter’, in the form of an ordinary guy in a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, wearing a stoic expression. Nothing show business about him at all. I picked up a borrowed guitar and warbled Motel Blues and life wouldn’t be the same.
It’s not entirely true that Loudon Wainwright III was my initial introduction to singer songwriters, I’d previously had a brief taste of Carole King, James Taylor and Bob Dylan through their appearances in the singles charts with It’s Too Late, You’ve Got a Friend and Lay Lady Lay respectively, as well as Leonard Cohen, Laura Niro and Nick Drake through sampler LPs. My Uncle Paddy introduced me to Dylan, sitting me down and insisting that I listen to the words. It was Dylan’s fifth album, which was electric on one side and acoustic on the other. I was unaware of all the Dylan mythology back then; ‘going electric’ was still an alternative to North Sea Gas and Judas was the bloke in the Bible. Dylan was merely a character in the Magic Roundabout. Listening to this album, was torturous, the pain temporarily broken by the false start on Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream, which I found amusing. After hearing Wainwright’s second LP, I felt an urge to return to Dylan, which I did, going straight for Bringing It All Back Home, then working back to his debut, then continuing on from there. The rest is history; I became something of a Dylan fan and argued with all and sundry about the meaning of his lyrics, as if that mattered at all.
I saw Fairport Convention by accident, after a Budgie gig at the Danum Grammar School across town was cancelled at the last minute. Rather than wasting the night, a bunch of us rushed into town to see what was going on at the Top Rank. This was around 1972. I knew of Fairport Convention only from the inclusion of tracks on a handful of sampler albums at the time, including You Can All Join In (Meet on the Ledge), Nice Enough To Eat (Cajun Woman) and Bumpers (Walk a While). I would like to think it was the Full House line up I saw, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. I would have remembered Richard Thompson. No female singers either so no Judy or Sandy for sure. Dave Swarbrick was very much the frontman at the time I first saw them and I was completely taken by his fiddle playing, so much so, that I went out and bought the band’s then current compilation set that had just been released, History of Fairport Convention. My only clear memory of that night was losing my new wrist watch, scrambling around on my hands and knees in front of the stage, fruitlessly searching in the darkness through a sea of flairs and then cutting my hand on a broken glass for my trouble. Not my night then. Shortly afterwards, I heard that a kid up the road had a copy of the band’s Babbacombe Lee ‘folk opera’ LP, which I was intrigued by and offered to give him my Velvet Underground LP in exchange. He snapped my hands off. The deal was done and I spent the next few days brushing up on my knowledge of a certain Devonshire murderer and faulty gallows mechanisms, nursing a sore hand and with no idea of the time.
Around about 1973, I went to see the cult film Alice’s Restaurant, which was screened along with Spike Milligan’s post apocalyptic black comedy The Bed Sitting Room in a double bill at the Doncaster Arts Centre, later the Civic Theatre, later still, a pointless grassy wasteland. I immediately took to Arlo Guthrie, for his humour, his hippy lifestyle and his hat. “Turn your hat and cough” a memorable line from the draft medical examination scene. I didn’t really know who Arlo’s dad was at the time, despite the entirely wooden depiction of the great man lying in a New York hospital bed, as if he was suffering from a common cold rather than Huntington’s Chorea. The discovery of Woody Guthrie came shortly after. I was enchanted by the counterculture lifestyle featured in the film. Okay, I have to say at this point that I’ve never been particularly fond of littering, but hanging out in a disused church, riding about in a VW microbus and getting up to mischief on motorcycles, surrounded by guitar-strumming weed-smoking freaks, kind of ticked all the right boxes. This LP, recorded live at the Bitter End in 1968, was both quirky and hip and reflected just how I felt back in 1972. I picked up my second hand copy in a junk shop on Copley Road for a mere 40p, thus rendering it the bargain of the century as far as I was concerned and I couldn’t wait to get it home and stick it on the Fidelity. Like most (if not all) of the albums in this countdown, it’s not my favourite, but it popped up at the right time and became another landmark record for that reason.
I can’t remember exactly when I started tuning into John Peel’s radio show on a regular basis, but I do recall listening in quite a lot before his choices became completely bewildering. I guess we all have our own particular Peel era. Over those years there was plenty to get my teeth into, yet it was the arrival of the Derby-born singer songwriter Kevin Coyne that took me most by surprise. Upon first hearing such songs as This is Spain, Dog Latin and Good Boy, I wondered if I may have been on the receiving end of a joke, yet there was something about these songs that made them such compelling listening. Bizarrely, the girl I was knocking about with at the time (Janet), was also a fan and had one of Coyne's LPs, which made for an interesting night in! We shared a love for House on the Hill in particular. Back home, both my sisters had pretty much come to terms with all the Hendrix and Zappa records filtering through from my room, but they were having none of this Kevin Coyne chap. It was at this point that my elder sister considered having me committed.
Since we’re going through this cathartic exercise, it might be worth mentioning my infatuation for a certain ‘older woman’ in the early 1970s - well what 15 year old boy didn’t go through this? Pam wouldn’t have been out of place in the studios of the Pre-Raphaelites and lived alone in a two-room bedsit near town; her hair was Stevie Nicks, her dress sense Tapestry-era Carole King. She spent much of her time weeping as I recall, which could have been for any number of reasons, not least the fact that every time she turned around this 15 year old weirdo was always there. Perhaps it was because she was still mourning the death of her hero Jimi Hendrix, who had died three years earlier. I was happy to be the infatuated boy onto whom she offloaded and I knew instinctively that this was as far as this little venture was likely to go. The album that formed the soundtrack to my ‘bedsit years’ was strangely enough, the only electronic music I’ve ever really cared for. It was never really on my radar, with the possible exception of Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air, which had been doing the rounds at the time. When Pam popped the needle on Cybernaut for the first time, with joss sticks burning in each corner of the room, patchwork throws and cushions randomly scattered, a giant poster in black and white of Hendrix disappearing behind a cloud of smoke, which took pride of place above the one bar electric heater, I was immediately entranced. These days, I struggle to listen to Tonto without the smell of incense wafting in, together with thoughts of this strange and troubled girl, who was in fact only a couple of years older than me when I come to think of it. At that age though, a couple of years is almost a generation. It was much later that I discovered the musicians involved in the making of this album, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff, were responsible for much of Stevie Wonder’s synthesiser-based output at the time. Pam was last seen working for a travel agent in North Lincolnshire, Zero Time was last seen on my turntable about a week ago.
As a 15 year old, I thought it was about time I had a pin-up. I’d previously swooned over Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in The Avengers, gone weak at the knees at the sight of Marianne Faithfull warbling As Tears Go By on Top of the Pops and then fallen head over heels for Julie Christie on the big screen in Billy Liar, but the thought of popping a poster up on my wall of anyone other than The Monkees had been hitherto unthinkable. The object of my desire in 1971 was the totally unattainable Goddess of Prog Rock Sonja Kristina, whose image dominated a 30x40 Pace poster, which I tacked onto my bedroom ceiling as Back Street Luv blasted out of the speakers and rattled the windows. A mate’s brother had a copy of Curved Air’s debut LP on an early picture disc, which was about as thick as a roof tile and played not much better. It was the band’s second album that interested me, not least for the inclusion of the aforementioned Back Street Luv, which I already had on a single. I saw the band a couple of times during the early 1970s and then again a good few years later, when I actually sat and chatted with Sonja for an hour or so in the back of her tour van in complete darkness. Of course, I behaved like a gentleman.
I have clear memories of celebrating my 16th birthday - being unceremoniously dunked in a bowl of cold water on the first floor print shop where I was working at the time. The lads were obviously unaware of Galileo and his ‘Eureka’ theory as the water overflowed onto the ancient wooden floorboards, seeping through to the sign writing department below, which didn’t go down particularly well with the powers that be. I distinctly recall observing that I’d never before heard so much profanity in one single sentence. As the others scattered, I inevitably found myself facing the music. Fearing I would shortly be ‘out on my ear’ once again, I pleaded with the boss for leniency, wondering at the same time if he really did think I was actually daft enough to dunk myself in a bowl of water unaided? Well, that’s one memory. Another memory from this period is my tunnel-visioned obsession with the very first release on the Virgin record label. I discovered Mike Oldfield’s masterpiece by word of mouth, although I can’t remember precisely whose mouth. Once I became aware of the LP, I toddled off to my local record shop and bought a copy immediately. The music had a strange effect on me, as did the juxtaposition of this music with the girl from The Exorcist, whose head-spinning, projectile vomiting, devil possessing shenanigans dominated the box office around the same time. Despite it being misused in the film, the music was extraordinary and I found myself playing it over and over, flipping the record at twenty-five minute intervals, then returning to the futon, where I would continue to listen in my familiar horizontal position, dreaming of, well whatever teenage boys dream of I guess. Jaded by my family’s reaction to my ongoing exploration into strange musical developments, I found the perfect solution and bought a pair of headphones and assumed a state of karma, as Viv Stanshall boldly announced “..plus tubular bells!”
You would have imagined The Beatles to have infiltrated this list much earlier as up to now the records appear to be in roughly chronological order. This is probably due to the fact that although the band played a huge part of my childhood, they didn’t really seep into my grown up soul until the mid-1970s, and when this finally happened, it was like a bolt of lightning. I feel a great sense of privilege to have grown up in the Sixties to the soundtrack of The Beatles. I was just six when Beatlemania took hold, a contemporary of sorts, a little bit too young to remember it all clearly, but old enough to have perched in the front room doing the latest Fab Four jigsaw puzzles, or draw pictures of John Lennon’s latest facial growth on my Wooly Willy metal filings sketch toy, or strum along to All My Loving on my plastic Beatles ‘Beatle-ist’ Guitar. I saw each of the films as they were released, my grandma being an usherette at the local Gaumont cinema, who got us in for free. Many of their hit singles were under the radiogram lid, yet I failed to get my hands on my own copy of Sgt Pepper until my future wife bought it for me on my 19th birthday in the Spring of 1976, when it was added to the collection I’d started three years earlier. My relationship with Pepper actually goes back further though, when I first heard Billy Shears' orchestra crank up back in 1968 at school one afternoon, as we set up the hall for that year’s Christmas party. Suzanne Millward brought in her copy and proudly plonked it on the Dansette to entertain a somewhat bewildered audience, who probably preferred The Monkees back then. I have no idea why it took eight years to find myself on the receiving end of this life changing record, other things had obviously been getting in the way up to that point. The 1970s became my own personal Beatles decade, as I steadily caught up, collecting all the albums, almost in chronological order, then most of the solo records as well, along with dozens of books and magazines. I also attended the very first British Beatles Convention in Norwich on Saturday 28 August 1976, where the Fabs were rumoured to be attending (they didn’t, although their first manager Allan Williams did), which I arrived at drenched to the bone on the back of my pal’s Vespa scooter (Gerard would later become my Best Man). It was all Beatles for me until the end of the decade, when 1980 would put an end to the reunion rumours and bring much heartbreak, indicating that the dream was very definitely over. Thanks for that you crazy twat.
I didn’t really adhere to the notion of ‘you’re either a Beatles fan or a Stones fan’, I always thought that was a bit silly. Both bands were there all the time when I was growing up in the Sixties; on the radio, in the music press, on the box and in the news. The exploits of the Stones in particular frequently made the headlines with various drug busts, the odd accidental drowning, the whole ‘would you let your daughter go with a Stone’ publicity campaign and more infamously, a murder right under Mick Jagger’s nose at the notorious Altamont Speedway Festival in California, right in the middle of a performance of Under My Thumb. If I can’t claim to have ever been the band’s biggest fan (I’ve never actually seen the band live) I acknowledge their golden period and cite Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street as their finest work. I could also add It’s Only Rock and Roll to that list, my own particular favourite. I was influenced largely by one of my cousins, who would become known as ‘Daisy’ in the late Sixties, a hippy about town. He had posters of Mick and Keith all over the walls of his room, together with a white upright piano, which had every key painted a different colour as I recall. I remember passing by the house as a schoolboy one summer afternoon where he and several others, including girls, were running around the garden wearing nothing but flowers in their hair and a smile; how could I not be impressed? In the early Seventies, I hung around for the arrival of the next Stones LP, whilst enjoying the free promotional flexi-disc with the New Musical Express, which provided a taster of what was to come on Exile. Slightly disappointed with the album at first, it eventually grew on me in time and the album is now widely regarded as the band’s masterpiece. All great records take some getting used to I always find. My cousin sadly didn't survive the Seventies.
By 1974 I’d fully embraced the ‘freak’ lifestyle by joining a hippy theatrical group, feeling somewhat accomplished with my bold attempt to shrug off chronic shyness. I do recall the foreman at the printers I worked for at the time telling me with great authority “you’re a layman, don’t try to be something you’re clearly not”, which was a futile attempt on his part to dampen my spirits and aspirations, a hangover from the post war ‘know your place’ mentality. The group was formed around a handful of trainee teachers based at a nearby teachers training college in High Melton. Chris and Ian led the group, which was simply named ‘Arthur’. When we were not rehearsing Samuel Beckett plays in an old disused Methodist Church on the corner of Broxholme Lane or performing Chekhov one-act shorts at High Melton College, we would be listening to Steve Miller Band records in a top floor flat adjacent to the Cenotaph on Bennetthorpe Road. My memory of Chris’s flat is equally as blurred as it is vivid. When I pass the row of town flats each morning on my way to work these days, I never can remember with any certainty which one it was, but I do remember the inside of it as clearly as if it was yesterday; a low attic ceiling with LPs and books scattered around the floor in fruit boxes, the Robert Crumb cartoons in several Creem magazines, a pile of well-thumbed Oz mags next to the record player and theatrical notes scattered randomly, together with the ever-present aroma of weed and the smell of vegetable curry simmering on the stove in the adjacent kitchen, with the Goats Head Soup poster tacked above the kitchen table -“it’s there to remind me to stay a vegetarian” Chris would say. I remember us all patiently awaiting the arrival of a specially imported copy of Steve Miller’s Brave New World LP from the States with eager anticipation. These were the days when you couldn’t get hold of obscure records no matter how you tried. Chris and Ian clubbed together to buy it and I was there when it arrived. We stuck it on the player with all the excitement we could muster. My particular favourite Steve Miller LP at the time was Recall the Beginning..Journey From Eden, which I wore out in that flat. Arthur’s big moment was when we received an invitation to perform our play at the notorious 1974 Windsor Free Festival, which we’d only performed once as a warm up at the old church the week before. Mum and Dad came along to see it and I will never forget their startled expressions as our bizarre Beckett-inspired play ‘Arthur and Co Job Lots Ltd’ unfolded before their eyes. The stage set included a cobbled together Heath Robinson contraption representing the face of Capitalism, which included bicycle wheels, giant metal teeth, a huntsman’s bugle and even a full set of tubular bells. I was young, daft and probably for the first time in my life, pretty scared when I was questioned and searched by the Thames Valley Police in the woods at Windsor Park a week later, two of whom stood before me searching through my pockets and tearing the fag packet I had in the bib pocket of my denim dungarees to shreds. The festival was eventually broken up shortly afterwards by those same police, which unbeknownst to me was being widely reported on the evening news as we returned home in the van. The violent scenes were observed with great interest by my dad, who was waiting for me when I got home. That was a fun moment. I still love the Steve Miller Band and each of their albums come out to play every now and again.
Whilst I was knocking about with Arthur and Co in the early Seventies, I spent a whole bunch of time at Ian’s house. Ian was the director of our group and was often hilarious. Whereas Chris made do with his bohemian flat opposite the Elmfield Park gates, Ian had a terraced two up, two down a short walk across the park. Much of the action in this house was centred around the living room, which was pretty basic, dominated by a giant painting above the fireplace depicting the crucifixion, painted from the perspective of Christ’s bloody right hand having just had a nail driven in, which was fully in focus, with the body and cross blurring back into the distance - just the thing to look at whilst devouring one of his wife's fabulous curries. I come from a roast beef and Yorkshire pudding family, all bubble and squeak and gravy, so exotic curries were new to me back then. Ian was the married one in the group, who lived there with his wife, together with Paul, a lodger friend, who was also in our little theatre group. Paul was a quiet bear of a guy with long bushy hair and matching thick beard, which almost entirely obscured his face. I never did know what Paul looked like underneath and knew very little about him, he was so quiet and unassuming. His box of records on the other hand, I knew intimately. The cardboard box was kept by the record player, situated under the window looking out onto the backyard, which was invariably left open. After late night parties at the house, there would often be droplets of rain or dew on the last record played before everyone passed out the previous night (or early morning as the case may be). The box was a treasure trove of undiscovered gems from the period, many of which were American; this included the the Allman Brothers, Ry Cooder, Jackson Browne, Doobie Brothers, Poco, the Flying Burrito Bros, Todd Rundgren, Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and most impressively, the mighty Little Feat, a band I instantly adored as soon as I first heard them. The record that stood out head and shoulders above the rest was the band’s second LP Sailin’ Shoes, which was the first of many LPs from this box I subsequently added to my own collection. Failing to see Little Feat live is one of the great regrets of my life, but I’m steadily getting over it. After seeing the band a year later on the Old Grey Whistle Test performing Fat Man in the Bathtub, I began to think it was cool to wear a sweater over the shoulder, even though I instinctively knew I would never in twenty million years look as cool as Lowell George.
In the haze of time, I seem to have completely forgotten how our little drama group came to an end and how those friendships were lost. Did I leave the group prematurely? Did the others finish their teacher training and go off teaching, to infiltrate primary schools across the land and be pestered on a daily basis by wayward adolescents for the rest of their working lives? Was it simply due to the sudden presence of growing pains and the need for closer company, the arrival of girlfriends and the discovery of love? Ah, that could be it, I probably discovered lurve. Whatever it was, it was destined not to last very long; young girl with hopes of fun meets young weirdo with no hopes at all, whose latest album obsession is Foxtrot and in an endeavour to impress, whispers the entire lyrics of Supper’s Ready into his lover’s ear, which in all fairness is almost as pathetic as those people who would quite irritatingly recite entire Monty Python sketches verbatim. Why didn’t someone tell me? (sister - “We did!”, other sister - “yes, we definitely did!"). Anyway, the obsession with Genesis started a couple of years earlier with Trespass and Nursery Cryme, but it was Foxtrot that sealed the deal for me, an album loaded with nimble noodling and eccentric theatrics, Genesis became a fully expected distraction from the strains of Puppy Love, which was both my current juvenile pursuit and also an insipid sentimental number one record, which is bizarrely enough, played often on daytime radio to this day. My love for what was generally described as Prog Rock began at school after I stopped holding my cricket bat as a guitar in the mirror as a failed attempt to be Hendrix and instead began utilising the entire sideboard as a Hammond Organ, upending the thing whilst sticking knives into it ala Keith Emerson. Genesis was an inevitable continuation of this obsession, although I can’t claim to ever having had the urge wear a red dress and a fox head, however fetching this might sound. It was all pretty short lived anyway; no sooner did I pick up my copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, than Peter Gabriel flew the roost and left Genesis to do other things. I was temporarily bereft and wondered where to turn next, certainly not I Can’t Dance that’s for sure. Around this time, I also recall having a lengthy discussion with someone at a friend's party about the current vocalists of the day and he announced that he didn’t care for Peter Gabriel’s voice. Asked what his idea of a good voice was, he cited Frank Sinatra, whereupon the conversation abruptly ended and I moved on to more interesting company, which I think was the family gerbil. Peter Gabriel may not have been in possession of the most brilliant voice in music, but he had vision, presence, style and charisma and a lot of that was present on this defining LP, which I still play today. A flower?
Mick Jagger once wrote “I always hate nostalgia, Living in the past, No use getting misty eyed, It all screamed by so fast”, which is fine for him to say after such a life fully lived, but what of the ordinary Joe? The son of a sugar boiler, currently spending his last working days looking down the annals of time before embarking on his own crucial ‘third act?’ What started as a brief nod towards the records that popped up at certain moments has become more about the event rather than the tune, which I’m only too glad to further exercise (or should that be exorcise?) These misty-eyed recollections are becoming ever more vivid as the days go on, and they do seem to help me come to terms with the changes that are obviously taking place in my life right now, and perhaps inform those decisions. Somewhere over the next thirty-odd records, I might discover why my love for music - and nostalgia - continues to make no sense at all. Why for instance do I occasionally listen to Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1 then have a sudden urge to whip it off the turntable, alter the speed, and pop on Birdhouse In Your Soul by They Might Be Giants during the same cup of tea? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, I sometimes have to make a birdhouse in my own soul. Let’s now continue with a list of pubs: The White Bear, The Blue Bell, the Salutation, the underground den of iniquity known as Beethams and The Yorkist - this was the regular pub crawl routine on a Friday and Saturday night in 1973. I never had just the one set of friends but rather I would migrate from one group to another, talking hippy shit mainly, discussing the artistic merits of Beefheart’s latest release or whether the Shaft soundtrack was a better record than In Search of Space or attempting to impress the girls with my understanding and interpretation of Syd Barrett lyrics, obviously to no avail. Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain was always inexplicably on the jukebox. This is where I met both Lynne and Yvonne, two early romantic liaisons, both of whom put up with me, each for a short period of time. My romantic credentials were about as successful as those of Groucho Marx. Much of my time as a seventeen year-old was spent lying on my bed, the room spinning around me like a carousel in a jagged blurry fashion, while listening to Alex Harvey crooning “Me, I really would have liked a little bit of tenderness, maybe a word, maybe a smile, maybe some happiness”, followed by the snarling growl “but Next! Next!” This was my lost weekend for sure, nourished on a diet of Carlsberg Lager rather than the Brandy Alexanders Lennon would at the time speak of. Between playing at sweethearts, drinking far too much and reciting obscure song lyrics, together with prancing around town in a bandsman’s tunic (a leftover costume from the Chekhov play I’d appeared in a few months prior), and having to endure the humiliation of a chorus of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band courtesy of Graham Firth each time I entered the pub, I managed to catch a few gigs in between, including Wishbone Ash, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Stone the Crows, Mott the Hoople, Glencoe and most memorably, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band who I finally got to see at the Sheffield City Hall. After a thoroughly entertaining set, he wouldn’t get off the stage at curfew time, singing acoustically after all the power had been switched off, hurling abuse at the City Hall management from the vantage point of the treasure chest prop placed centre stage. A fantastic performer sadly missed. Years later I was chuffed to meet and interview the band’s drummer Ted McKenna, a lovely man with an endless repertoire of stories of his own. “Oh, it was not so tragic.”
By the mid 1970s, some thought it might be a jolly good idea to give rock and roll a bit of a shake up, initiating a sort of year zero policy, where everything that went before ‘had to go’ in order to launch a thing called Punk. Adopting a sort of Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge style strategy, the Punks bullied anyone with long hair and a taste for complex rhythms to move over, burn all their Rick Wakeman LPs, and join the revolution, and by the way, instead of all this boring peace and love shit, do you mind if I break your nose as we pogo around the dance floor? I never did quite get it, neither did I get why we should all collectively drop one musical genre to make way for another; couldn’t the two just joyfully co-exist? The stubborn side of me decided to stage a rebellion all my own, which included less vomit, fewer safety pins and not quite as much frightening behaviour as I continued to move through my own increasingly eclectic musical landscape. I explored the possibilities voraciously and refused to tow the new NME line, in fact I cancelled my subscription as the writing became increasingly incoherent - not incoherent, wrong word, more like deliberately written in a language totally indecipherable by anyone over the age of 16. Yes, I was made to feel old and I hadn't yet turned 20. I never did accept Punk as the successor to the music I loved; to me it would have been like ditching Dostoevsky in favour of the Beano. I saw Punk more like an antidote to the bubblegum trash currently driving Radio 1 programming, rather than being a revolution in rock music. I knew there was an alternative music out there waiting to be discovered and I guess Peter Gabriel was probably thinking the same thing as he ‘walked right out of the machinery’ going on to lead the revolution with his Real World studios a decade later. I began to feel the pull of a more roots-based music too. First though, I had to deal with what to listen to in the meantime, and the first of three self-titled Gabriel solo albums seemed to be a good enough place to start. I was once again knocked out by Gabriel’s musical direction. Two years later I would trudge a muddy field in Reading, specifically to hear my hero sing Biko, dressed in a yellow tracksuit with Phil Collins in tow banging on an off-the-shoulder bongo number. Despite one or two subsequent ‘dodgy moments’ (and there was) I’ve managed to maintain a love for Gabriel’s music, although I no longer recite his lyrics in the company of girlfriends, for obvious reasons.
The long hot summer of 1976 was significant for several reasons, not least meeting Andrea, the girl I would go on to spend the rest of my life with, nurturing hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, cats and eventually kids along the way. Although we loved animals, we had virtually nothing in common musically, other than the occasional accidental crossover, such as our mutual appreciation of the Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, together with a shared enthusiasm for My Brother Jake and Emmylou Harris’s version of the Lennon/McCartney song Here, There and Everywhere. These aside, our record collections were poles apart; on the one hand David Cassidy, David Bowie and David Soul, on the other David Crosby, Dave Gilmour and Dave Mason, little wonder we later gave our first-born the middle name of David. During that drought-filled year, music pretty much took a backseat, mainly due to our financial situation at the time; we found ourselves listening to the simple pop music of the day via the radio, with only the very occasional visit to the record shop. Saving up for a deposit on a house was serious business (still is) and it was usually just birthdays and Christmas when sufficient funds could be raised for treats such as new records. In the case of 1976, those luxury items included Sgt Pepper for me (about time too) and Reach for the Sky for Andrea. During our relatively short courtship, an unexpected discovery occurred when a strange young woman appeared from nowhere on Top of the Pops singing like a banshee and looking like a fox in the headlights. Wide eyed and bushy tailed, Kate Bush immediately blew us away with her debut single Wuthering Heights in 1977, together with her debut LP A Kick Inside shortly afterwards. By Christmas of ‘78, Kate’s follow-up album Lionheart would arrive under the tree on Christmas morning and would be played often as we made our plans. Not Kate’s best album it has to be said, but the one I most associate with that particular year, the year we put a deposit down on our first house. It formed part of the soundtrack to the preparation of our new home, which we would both move into in May, once a certain parental-forced ceremony was done and dusted.
Home Sweet Home: a wife, a mortgage, a record player, a box of records, a jar by the fireplace collecting pennies for stuff like bread, milk etc. and the shocking revelation that DIY is much harder than the brochures suggest. My shelf-making left a lot to be desired it has to be said. Before I knew it, a married man with responsibilities at just twenty-one. Despite the financial struggle and my shortcomings as a handyman, I considered there to be no better feeling than to have a place of my own with no parents breathing down my neck, along with the freedom to do what the hell I liked - within reason. Music was all over the place during this period; one minute it might be Little Feat, the Beatles and Beefheart, then the next it might be Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. Then there was the more, let’s say, exotic music, such as Isao Tomita’s homage to Claude Debussy, Snowflakes Are Dancing, music that would later form the soundtrack to many a home video (on a borrowed camera, I hasten to add - a video camera was way out of our reach). I had one or two LPs by Japanese musicians, including the Floating Music LP by Stomu Yamashta’s Come to the Edge, one of a handful of budget releases on the Island Label. So taken by the sleeve design on this album, I took out my paints and did a mural of it which filled the wall above the bath in the bathroom, which for all I know is still there, possibly under tiles. This is the sort of thing I used to do back then, a lot of art and a lot of listening. Freedom Is Frightening, a later album by Yamashta included one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know, Wind Words, featuring Hisako Yamashta’s wonderfully haunting violin solo. Apparently, the piece is also featured on the soundtrack to film The Man Who Fell To Earth, but I wouldn’t know about that, having never seen the film. Perhaps I should make the effort after all this time.
“I don’t know what you’re doing in there” said my neighbour in an unnecessarily snotty manner, just as ‘I’m So Cute’ reached its eagerly awaited climax, “but whatever it is would you please stop?” Frank Zappa and his various incarnations of the Mothers were always a fixture on the turntable much to the delight of my wife and now my next door neighbour evidently. Hot Rats, Fillmore East, Just Another Band from L.A., Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe had all taken their turn at one point or another, but when Sheik Yerbouti was introduced to the turntable in 1979, things got infinitely more interesting. These days I find much of the early Seventies Zappa slightly infuriating and don’t really see what I saw in Flo and Eddie’s bizarre skits in the first place; Billy the Mountain fails to raise a smile and the yellow snow wore down to thin ice by my mid-twenties. Does humour belong in music? Well sometimes, but then again it would be useful to just shut up ‘n play yer guitar. Towards the end of the decade the legendary guitarist/composer was beginning to slip to the back of the collection until the surprise arrival of this double album, a fantastically produced slice of mayhem which immediately blew me away. Although Andrea couldn’t stand Zappa, she never once raised her eyebrows, rolled her eyes or furrowed her brow, but surprisingly enough, put up with such ditties as Broken Hearts Are For Assholes, Tryin’ To Grow a Chin and Jewish Princess belting out of the speakers at full volume. Listening to Zappa in full flight on this album simply can’t be done on low volume, neither can one be expected to fully appreciate Adrian Belew’s hilarious Dylan impersonation on Flakes on anything less than eleven, so when my neighbour came calling, I closed the door and left the volume exactly where it was. I played City of Tiny Lites the other day and it still sounds terrific after all these years. “Tiny pillows, Tiny sheets, Talkin’ ‘bout those tiny cookies, That the peoples eats”. Well, if ya say so Frank!
I was 23 when Mark Chapman shot John Lennon dead outside the Dakota Building in New York City. I was working for the same printing company I’d been with since 1973, standing in roughly the same place I’d been dunked in a bowl of water on my 16th birthday. Talk about knowing where you was when Kennedy was assassinated. I can remember the weather, the smell (of printing ink) and the exact spot where I stood when one of the young apprentices rushed up the sturdy old metal stairs and announced with some urgency “they’ve just topped John Lennon!” It took a few moments for the term ‘topped’ to translate into the sort of English I was used to and I then stood motionless for a few moments, unable to speak. At first, I refused to believe it, thinking it might be a prank. We’d all been used to all the rumours and capers associated with Beatle-lore, McCartney’s widely speculated and mysterious death in the Sixties for instance. Someone then turned on the radio and Imagine was halfway through. I sat down on the floor next to my printing machine in silence as I listened to the radio. A few weeks earlier, I’d been delighted with the news of Lennon’s return to music after a five-year hiatus, being a big fan of Lennon’s previous album of original material Walls and Bridges. There was an excitement in the air after the release of Double Fantasy, which was hardly off the turntable during the previous month, both Andrea and myself singing Watching the Wheels, Woman and Beautiful Boy around the house. I’m not really sure how good an album it actually is, but the significance of it is obvious. That night, we sat and watched the news unfold in utter disbelief (we had a little TV by this time ), the BBC choosing to broadcast the film Help in tribute, prefaced with a photo montage of Lennon to the soundtrack of In My Life. It was as if a black cloud had come over us all, whether you liked Lennon or not, it was a total shock to the system. Today, in the loft, there’s a box containing all the newspapers from that day, each with their own hastily written tributes and cobbled together pictorial supplements. No one expected it, which is what made it all the more shocking. A few days later, we sat and listened to Lennon’s final interview with Radio One’s Andy Peebles and started blubbering again. No rock star’s death has touched me in quite the same way either before or since.
The first time I became aware of the Blues was when I went around to see my Uncle Paddy sometime around 1970, who was happy to show me just two records that were at the time languishing in his his small record rack by the player. The first was Bringing It All Back Home, which I mentioned in number 44 of this countdown, the other was a record by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, which at that time had little effect on me, although I knew instinctively that this music would come back to haunt me someday. I don’t think it was the news of Lennon’s death that led me to the five-year self-imposed tunnel-visioned excursion into the Blues, but it might have contributed in a small way. Liam was well on his way by this time and it may have been an inevitable distraction from real life responsibilities. One of the first acts I turned to was Sonny and Brownie, whose dovetailed guitar/harmonica playing seemed to hit all the right notes. Once you’re aware of the ‘blue note’ nothing else seems to matter and I embarked on a twelve-bar journey into some of the deepest southern roots music without leaving the house. If Andrea couldn’t get through to me whilst listening to Zappa and Dylan, getting through to me on this trip was utterly hopeless. Doncaster Central Library’s invaluable Audio Visual department was a useful resource and had plenty of blues records to keep me satisfied, and I soon discovered Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson, Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Robert Nighthawk, John Lee Hooker and dozens of others both well known and totally obscure. I mean, which 24 year-old with a baby on the way would have time for Ishmon Bracey, Houston Stackhouse and Sam Chatmon? We now speak of John Peel with some reverence, but what of Alexis Korner? the only voice on the radio that mattered to me at the time, whose authoritative tones spoke to me like no other, like Moses handing down the commandments, and little me, more than happy to worship at the radio dial every Sunday evening from this point on. My love of the music was augmented by the library’s small collection of books on the subject, written by the likes of Paul Oliver, Sam Charters and Giles Oakley, all of which I absorbed with an almost insatiable appetite. The sum total of blues records available at Bradley’s Records, the successor to Foxes in Doncaster, amounted to little more than the odd compilation, maybe a Muddy Waters LP or something by Big Joe Williams, with not a sniff at any Big Bill Broonzy or Robert Johnson or anything of any real interest at all. I soon discovered a mail order company advertised on the back Blues Unlimited magazine, which I subscribed to at the time. The company, ‘Sailor’s Delight’, listed dozens of crucial LPs, one of them being Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Vol I and II double LP set, which noted next to the title, in brackets - “whaddaya mean you haven’t got it already?” I scraped a few pennies together and ordered it immediately. At the height of this obsession I noticed an ad in the Doncaster Evening Post, that Sonny and Brownie were actually playing a gig at The Crucible in Sheffield that very night (June 2 1982) as part of the Hallam Jazz Festival, and so I dropped everything to get over there. It came as a bit of a shock to find out - through their body language - that the two musicians couldn’t stand one another, although this didn’t come across in their music one bit. Sonny and Brownie had to be in this countdown.
I think I successfully frightened off our snooty neighbours, or at least, should I say Zappa did, and by the time Liam came along, they’d gone, vanished, replaced by a young couple, teachers both, who were rather more in tune with the music I loved. It didn’t take long before Steve and I were trading licks on our respective cheap guitars with mixed results. In the summer of 1980, Steve suggested we take our wives out for the day, to a little place outside Banbury, where ex-members of Fairport Convention were getting together for a reunion concert. It sounded like a fine idea to me and I was immediately up for it. Andrea drove the four of us down there, through the country roads of Oxfordshire, until we came to the festival site, where the first official Fairport Convention Reunion Concert took place in the pouring rain. It rained hard as I recall, sheets of rain sweeping the stage well into the night as Richard Thompson sulked his way through Sloth with Dave Swarbrick by his side. Ralph McTell was there, as well as Richard and Linda Thompson and John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris. Fairport Convention trawled through their back catalogue, which at the time was just over a decade’s worth of memorable tunes, each very much familiar to me; Walk a While, Matty Groves, the Lark in the Morning Medley and the like, finishing with a memorable Meet on the Ledge. Once again it was Dave Swarbrick who made the biggest impression on me, as he did back in the early Seventies when I first heard him perform. I never expected folk music to make such an impression on me and I dare say without Swarb, it would still be pretty much a case of uncharted waters. It's rather hard to believe that I would go on to spend untold hours slaving over the subject in later years. After this initial get-together at Cropredy, I heard that Dave Swarbrick had formed a touring duo with fellow Fairporter Simon Nicol and that they would soon be appearing at the Rockingham Arms in Wentworth, a place I'd never been to up to this point. I remember the duo’s repertoire being predominantly made up of fiddle tunes, with one or two songs sung by Simon. At the end of the gig, there was a resounding demand for the duo to return to the stage for an encore and for Dave to sing, which he hadn’t done up to this point. I think we tend to forget how important Swarb was as a singer as well as a fiddle player and I was delighted when he sang his song Rosie. I also helped Swarb’s concessions fund that night, buying his latest LP, and I’ve remained a fan to this day. We lost Dave in 2016 and he's still very much sadly missed.
Whilst the highly irritating falsetto noise of Don’t Leave Me This Way blasted out of the work’s radio, I became obsessed with the folk music I’d been hearing lately and I soon realised that the genre wasn’t just about the Dubliners, the Spinners, the Corries and the Five-sodding-Penny-Piece as the record shop browsers claimed, but instead held many magical treasures, incredible musicians and a wealth of haunting songs and enchanting tunes. I actually think the trajectory from Prog Rock to Blues to Folk Music was sort of a thing waiting to happen, especially as it was always the acoustic elements on albums by Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis and King Crimson, as well as the acoustic rural blues, that most interested me. Investigating the British folk club scene further would inevitably be just around the corner. I remember seeing an ad in the local paper for a forthcoming ‘Blues Night’ at the Coach and Horses on Scot Lane, organised by one Mick Swinson, who would later become a great pal. A chap by the name of Roy Machin was due to play who I knew nothing about. I soon discovered that Roy wasn't from the Mississippi Delta as I had hoped, but rather the Rotherham Delta and that he sang like Leon Redbone. His eclectic choice of songs though, from the likes of Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Harry Chapin, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Stewart and Doc Watson, opened up an entirely new repertoire of material to me and despite my initial disappointed that Roy wasn’t either black or from the southern states of America, I immediately felt a kinship with what he was singing about and the way he went about it. Shortly afterwards, I would begin to tune into the local folk show on Radio Sheffield where I discovered a plethora of local folk singers right on my doorstep, some of whom were collected on this compilation LP. Hoober’s Last Stand, named for Hoober Stand, an 18th century local landmark, included contributions from among others, Roy himself, Dave Burland, Tony Capstick, John Leonard and John Squire, Miriam Backhouse and Keppel’s Folly featuring Bob Hazelwood, who incidentally presented the radio show at the time. Meanwhile, by the mid 1980s, I’d been musically faffing myself aided and abetted by an old school pal who frequently came around to play. I learned lots from Malc about blues guitar styles, but also about harmony singing. I'm not a natural singer or musician myself, in fact my abiding memory of school, is being continually hit over the head with my own recorder each time I hit a bum note. Teachers were pretty determined back in the Sixties I recall, in fact there’s a dint in the centre of my scalp that still smells of Detol. It was Malc who introduced me to the other side of the folk club scene, that of the performer rather than the punter. Malc and I plucked up enough courage to visit our own local folk club held at the Corporation Taps, introduced ourselves to a group of local musicians, played a couple of tunes and forged friendships to last, with a handful of good people including Mick Swinson, Stu Palmer, John Crisp, Richard Gibson and Alan Nicoll. I didn’t realise I would be involved in this music in one form or another for the next thirty-odd years and whenever I see Phil Spencer’s black and white photo on the back of the Hoober’s Last Stand LP, featuring the thirty musicians huddled together in their trendy seventies attire and assorted moustaches, I remember where it all started for me and smile affectionately.
As dozens of LPs began to fly off the shelves in the local Audio/Visual library, at a loan charge of 10p per item for a generous three week period, I steadily familiarised myself with the folk music of the day. I had an insatiable hunger to hear as much of this stuff as I possibly could, but I also needed to keep it close at hand, even inferior copies on cheap cassettes. If it was in the folk section, it had to be heard, good, bad or indifferent. Much of it was borrowed for the pleasure of listening, but then a good deal of it was also borrowed for the purpose of learning and then adding to our repertoire. Malc began playing the five-string banjo around this time and he got quite good very quickly, playing in an Earl Scruggs style. We each had two small children by this time and often they became our audience during practice run-throughs, which there would probably be laws about now, especially with the involvement of a banjo. Our musical exploration soon moved towards American folk music, which inevitably included Bluegrass and we were soon devouring Doc Watson records as if they were going out of fashion - erm, were they ever in fashion? (discuss). As our repertoire grew, Malc and I realised quite a lot of our material was from the Red Rocking Chair LP, which was crammed with simple folk songs played extraordinarily well by the old man and his son Merle. Merle had already met his tragic end in a tractor accident on the family farm the year before Malc and I discovered the duo. Mole in the Ground, Red Rocking Chair and Along the Road soon found their way into our set, which we frequently foisted onto people from the various stages of Doncaster’s enduring folk clubs during the mid-1980s. Things took an unexpected turn for the worst when Malc died a couple of years later at the age of 33. No one saw that coming, least of all me. I linked arms with his brother Graham as we carried Malc to his grave as a tape of James Taylor singing You’ve Got a Friend played in the chapel. Somehow Doc Watson wasn’t quite appropriate for this occasion, but when I think about Malc, which is often, I always hear Doc Watson.
I always felt I came to folk music at the right time, possibly using it as an antidote to 'the only way is up, baby' and all the other radio gaga at the time. I found the folk and roots community had already churned out one classic recording after another since the mid Seventies; Paul Brady and Andy Irvine’s eponymous ‘purple’ album (1976), Maddy Prior and June Tabor’s first Silly Sisters record (1976), Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs (1980), Dick Gaughan’s Handfulof Earth (1981) - has an acoustic guitar ever sounded better? - Planxty’s comeback record Words and Music (1983) and just around the corner Paul Simon’s killer roots album Graceland (1986). Hearing these great albums for the first time encouraged me to turn back the clocks and root around further in the dusty corners and alcoves for other such gems. It wasn’t long before I discovered for the first time, the voices of Robin and Barry Dransfield, Harrogate-born siblings who specialised in harmony singing, and specifically ‘parts’ singing, which on all accounts is a bit different. I soon acquired the duo’s first LP, The Rout of the Blues and played it to death. I also noticed our neighbours didn’t complain once. By this time the duo had long since parted company, both currently living in different areas of the country. I wanted to see the duo reunited so much that I cheekily called Robin Dransfield one day and asked him if there was any chance of him getting together with his brother for a gig. He was really sweet and said it depended on the circumstances, but he wasn’t totally against the idea. It didn’t happen on this occasion, which is a shame. The last time I saw Barry Dransfield was at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1995, where I sat at his feet, listening intently to his distinctive voice, yet knowing there was a vital ingredient missing, his brother Robin. These days we don’t hear much of the Dransfields in this highly cluttered world of folk music, more’s the pity. I still think their music is fantastic and listen to this LP as well as their other records, Lord of All I Behold, Fiddler’s Dream and Popular to Contrary Belief, as often as I can.
So, the story so far in a nutshell; born in the industrial North to confectionery-making parents, middle of three children, school a disaster, first job as a plumber’s mate a disaster, then a long-term commitment to a local printing firm - my kids say they remember the smell of printing ink when I walked in of an evening - and all the while, feeding a continually revolving turntable, which provided much of the joy I needed. By 1986, I’m still printing away by day, but by now folking around by night. It was roughly around this time, I discovered one of the most thrilling acoustic guitar players around when Martin Simpson played a gig at the Rockingham Arms in Wentworth. I’d started visiting the club more often and remember this night clearly. He played a green guitar, the sound of which I’d not heard the likes of before. I don’t know exactly what it was that I liked most about this performance, possibly his choice of material, which ranged from country blues, traditional airs, singer songwriter fare by the likes of Randy Newman and Bob Dylan, the odd Hank Williams country song, or it might have been the Cat Stevens number, which he played as an instrumental with a bottleneck. It could have been more to do with Simpson’s ballsy attitude, growling every single syllable with a sneer; I couldn’t tell if he was highly passionate or just plain angry. I think it was more likely to be his crisp, clear and polished guitar technique that hooked me in, never missing a note, a thump, a slap or a slide, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats throughout. It all looked and sounded so perfectly right for the occasion and he immediately became the guitar hero waiting to happen. He was also born just up the road from me in nearby Scunthorpe, though he was at the time bothering American audiences wholesale, building a reputation for himself as something rather special Stateside. I saw Martin a number of times during the mid to late 1980s, often on his own as a soloist, once with June Tabor and once with a strange American woman with a dragon tattoo the size of Maine on her back, his then wife apparently, who was no June Tabor it has to be said. One Sunday afternoon Martin rang me looking for a gig in the area. I almost fell off my chair and I recall temporarily losing the use of my voice; I distinctly remember speaking as if I had two weetabix boxes in my mouth as is the way when it comes to hero worship. Of course, the hero worship bit subsided shortly afterwards and he got the gig at the Bay Horse later that year. I remember shaking his hand upon arrival and then having to check each of my fingers to see if any were broken. A 'firm handshake' doesn’t quite cover it. My regret from this period is attempting to play Martin’s version of Peter Gabriel’s Biko, complete with Martin’s tricky instrumental ‘Townships’ prelude, one night at the Three Horse Shoes folk club shortly afterwards, which was probably a mistake in hindsight. Some places one should never attempt to go!
One of the things I enjoyed most about discovering the local folk club scene back in the mid-1980s, was the opportunities I found to play with musicians I admired. I met Mick Swinson when he put Roy Machin on at the Coach and Horses and it was then that I also discovered what a great guitar player he was himself. By his own admission, Mick’s not comfortable as a singer, but as a guitar player, there was no one to touch him at the time in the area. Finding myself trading guitar licks with him up in his music room a few months later was quite unexpected. I soon found that he was also pretty generous with his record collection and I frequently left his place loaded with LPs under my arms, making off with records by the likes of Bert Jansch, David Ackles, Danny O’Keefe, Guy Clark, Mike Nesmith, the Dave Bromberg Band and literally dozens of others, all of which I dutifully returned in the condition I found them and most of which I’ve subsequently added to my own collection over the years. The two records that impressed me the most around the time from Mick’s stash were both by our mutual guitar hero Bert Jansch; LA Turnaround (1974) and A Rare Conundrum (1976), both of which would now create a very definite ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment if ever I had to part with just one of them. Before buying the records myself, I had these albums copied onto each side of a C90 cassette tape, which I would flip over time and time again until I was never quite sure which song belonged to which album. During those years I got to see Bert quite a few times, memorably when Mick put him on at the Station in Conisbrough, which was probably the closest we got to 'hanging out' with the man. I was at the time involved in a band with Mick, and regularly got to play alongside him, along with others, including Stu Palmer, genius luthier and guitar repairer of this parish, and together we would have the sort of fun these pages don’t necessarily need to know about. Being asked to play mandolin on Mick’s arrangement of the Curragh of Kildare from this LP, the part borrowed from Rod Clements, remains a cherished memory from those much missed days.
I don’t think I could possibly reminisce about the late 1980s without a quick mention of my time as a volunteer radio presenter with our local hospital radio station, Radio Danum. I went along to do a weekly folk show, which had its moments, and I was allowed to play whatever I liked as long as it didn’t include any references to death. Can you imagine doing a folk show with no mention of death? That’s 90% of the subject matter of folk songs right there. I obviously skipped over that little aspect of our agreement, not that it mattered really as I was never really convinced I ever had a single listener. It was a matter of deduction really; take the number of people recuperating in hospital at any given time, deduct from that how many would bother to listen to an amateur DJ warbling pathetically ala Steve Wright in the afternoon, when they could simply flick a switch and have the real Steve Wright in the Afternoon. Then deduct further those who would rather die in those beds than listen to anything by Martin Carthy (or any folk singer for that matter), then we are left with around about nil. I had no listeners I could assure myself of that. I think the appeal of doing this show was to have the studio to myself, where I could play anything I liked on good quality equipment, with no kids running around under my feet, and to make tapes of the shows for later self gratification and adulation. It was a bit of fun and I enjoyed doing it, much the same as I continue to enjoy putting together the Northern Sky Vaults podcasts - which again, no one listens to. The very first record I played on the show was Martin Carthy’s Lovely Joan from the Because It’s There LP. Later, my good pal Kev Boyd joined me, occasionally to help out on the show and also to do his own programme. I remember him going out with his tape machine to chat to the aforementioned Carthy and also to have a chat over the phone with June Tabor. I think we had some fun in those days, playing at John Peel and Andy Kershaw, although in hindsight, perhaps we could’ve done with a John Walters to keep us in check. We both played quite a lot of Carthy in those days, in fact Kev went on to spend many a waking hour (and presumably a few sleeping hours as well) creating a fantastic resource on this very subject, his family and their associated pursuits (see Come Sing It Plain - carthyonline.wordpress.com) and I had the pleasure of watching Blade Runner with Martin late one evening after a gig I helped organise. Hands up anyone who’s had Martin Carthy explain the plot of a Ridley Scott film to them as it plays at 1am. As with most things, this was just another little episode, which came to an end as all good things do. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I got too involved as a volunteer. It soon went from doing a weekly folk show to becoming the station's Programme Controller to eventually towing the station's caravan to roadshows and then having to put up with Pepsi and Shirlie!
In 1987 I returned to the verdant fields of Cropredy for the first time since my initial visit seven years earlier. This time I went specifically to see John Martyn and Danny Thompson and I couldn’t wait to get in front of that stage. I’d been a fan of John Martyn through the Seventies and still hadn’t managed to see him live for some inexplicable reason. Gordon Giltrap was also on the bill that opening night, together with a band called Le Rue, who were in the middle of their set as we drove onto the festival site just as dusk approached. John and Danny’s set was plagued with sound problems from the beginning, which Martyn tolerated through the opener One Day Without You, but then abruptly called things to order before the second number, Solid Air; “Pleeeassse .. sort it out for fack’s sake!” the singer pleaded in his inimitable fashion. The sound improved as the set went on, which to this day remains one of my favourite ever festival sets. Although the duo were only to play once, I thought it would be churlish not to stick around for the rest of the weekend, and proceeded to get myself slaughtered on Irish poitin in the process. I’m not a huge fan of post-Swarb Fairport to be perfectly honest and despite my reservations about whether or not I could sit through four hours of the band, there were in fact one or two memorable moments, notably when Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Martin Barre made an appearance, performing Locomotive Breath no less. I returned the following year and then gave it a rest for 27 years when I finally returned as a guest scribbler, especially to see Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell in the pouring rain. So, what has any of this blunt and typically unforgiving Fairport confessional got to do with the Arizona Smoke Revue’s early Eighties LP A Thundering on the Horizon I hear you ask? Throughout that weekend, the sound crew played Border Song over the PA system in between just about every set, which became something of an ear worm, and the album from which it came subsequently found its way into my collection. It wasn’t just Border Song that I found interesting on this LP, or indeed Richard Thompson’s fine guitar solo on that particular track, but also their brilliant reworking of The Beatles’ minor hit Rain, which is almost on a par with Joe Cocker’s With a Little Help From My Friends as a fine example of how to take someone else’s song and then make it your very own. A couple of years or so ago I approached one of the Revue’s frontmen outside a church in Shepley to ask him about his memories of the making of this LP but midway through my opening sentence he pulled out his mobile phone and began to dial.. I have this effect on people, I can almost sense their internal yawning sometimes. Perhaps I should've asked Phil Beer instead.
I always thought that Whippersnapper was a pretty naff name for this band, a band I first heard on the radio back in the mid-1980s. It seemed to trivialise what the band did musically and made them sound for all intents and purposes like a comedy act. Far from it, those four musicians were nothing short of virtuosos in their respective fields. That first radio broadcast was a live recording from the Beverley Folk Festival on Radio Humberside, after which I felt a strong urge to see the band at my earliest convenience. That opportunity came shortly afterwards when I saw them at the Rockingham Arms in Wentworth, where they proceeded to ‘knock my socks off’ as they say. They quickly became my favourite live band and I saw them as often as I could around that time. One of those occasions was at the 1989 Cambridge Folk Festival, on the occasion of the festival’s 25th Anniversary. I took Andrea and two very young kids along, which was a very daring thing to do it has to be said and I had no idea what to expect. One of the other reasons for choosing to attend that particular festival was to see Nanci Griffith for the first time, who was very much on my then current playlist. Having never been to the festival before, I thought it would be perfectly fine to roll into town around noon on Saturday, after assuming Nanci would be on later that evening (she had actually played her first set on the main stage the previous night). After getting parked up and struggling to put up a less than adequate inflatable igloo tent, I remember strolling down Walpole Road and hearing the voice of my current Texan crush in what seemed like the middle of the day (it was actually around 2.30pm). I tried to hurry my young family along as best as I could, but we eventually arrived in front of the main stage just in time to catch the last couple of songs. Best laid plans eh? The Watersons were at the festival that year, so too was Al Stewart, Fairground Attraction and Ali Farka Toure. However, the main reason I was there was to see Whippersnapper and it was great to see the kids dancing around in front of the stage during their set at lunchtime on Sunday. It rained quite a lot and pretty much washed our inflatable igloo tent away and I agreed to take three sodden souls home early, providing I could catch Lyle Lovett’s mid-afternoon set before we go. I remember the last thing I did before driving off was to throw the limp tent into a skip. That was my first Cambridge Folk Festival. I lost count of how many times I saw Whippersnapper in those days, on one occasion having had a hand in booking them for our club at the Corporation Brewery Taps in Doncaster, which I remember being quite a night. The last time I saw them was when Chris Wade invited the original quartet of Dave Swarbrick, Martin Jenkins, Chris Leslie and Kevin Dempsey back to Beverley in 2008 shortly before the death of Martin Jenkins, the band’s first casualty. Despite the inclusion of one of their albums here in this countdown (their debut), the band couldn’t possibly hope to capture the magic of their live set on record, the likes of which we’ll never see again.
I’m constantly reminded of my own formative years in magazine features (Uncut and Mojo) as well as in general conversation with my own contemporaries and notably in the music documentaries we are frequently treated to on the box. These days, whenever I watch any of these retrospective films such as any of the ‘Under Review’ series, I’m instantly taken back to those times and often have those same feelings once again that I initially felt when this music took a hold of me in the first place. The other day I was watching a documentary about Pink Floyd’s sixth studio album Meddle and it was pointed out during the film that by and large, this album is overshadowed by the band’s subsequent releases Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here and The Wall. This is certainly not the case with me as Meddle was the first Floyd album to hit me right between the eyes (or ears as the case may be) and whenever I think of the band, it’s always Meddle that springs to mind first; not for the silly bluesy barking shenanigans of Steve Marriott’s dog on the filler Seamus, nor the rather lame yet lilting San Tropez or indeed even the Anfield Kop’s excitable rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone in the Fearless coda. Specifically, it’s the full side masterpiece Echoes that did it for me. I have no idea how many times I’ve played this track over the years, but it has to be well into the hundreds. It wasn’t however Echoes that drew me to the album in the first place, but the opening instrumental One of These Days, which was played every single Monday at the Prog Night at Doncaster Top Rank, a weekly ‘happening’ that I attended as often as I could, wearing my round-collared orange cord bomber jacket, white loons and marching tennis shoes, hair down to my shoulders (a regular pillock). There was something extraordinary about the Top Rank’s sound system that brought this particular track to life, with its pulsating twin bass guitars, its rather excellent slide guitar courtesy of Dave Gilmour and that weird slowed down spoken bit “one of these days I’m gonna cut you into little pieces”, apparently delivered by drummer Nick Mason. This sound could never hope to be achieved on the inadequate hi-fidelity stereo system in my room at home. I admit that I too waited around for the arrival of Dark Side of the Moon, after putting up with the rather limp Obscured By Clouds, and being completely blown away by it, an album that is apparently still used for testing new sound systems. My heart however, will always be with Meddle.
Jazz came through the backdoor quite unexpectedly as the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, which took me somewhat by surprise. Dad’s music was pretty much Big Band stuff, so as a child I wasn’t exposed to quite the sort of music I perhaps should’ve been. Miles Ahead was recorded and released in the year I was born yet all I heard from the crib was Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, which I was never really in the mood for. It’s a little hazy now on reflection but I recall my newfound love for jazz happening very quickly. One minute I was all folked up and the next I was a jazz snob who refused to listen to anything post 1957. They had all on preventing me from wearing a black polo-neck sweater and goatee and saying ‘nice’ at frequent intervals. I soon abandoned my beloved folk show on Radio Danum and took the jazz slot, increasing the show time to a couple of hours and avoiding the word ‘nice’ as much as possible. Not only did this obsession include playing more and more vintage jazz records, but I also ensured I knew precisely who played what on each track and where and when the tracks were recorded; it was real anorak stuff, trainspotting level. I saw the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day around this time, the opening titles of which were accompanied by the Jimmy Guiffre Trio (with guitarist Jim Hall) performing The Train and the River, which had me hooked from the moment I first heard it. I proceeded to seek out as many jazz albums as I could get my hands on, including this one. One of the most frustrating aspects of this time was that they had closed the Central Library audio/visual department for a couple of months for refurbishment and all I could think about was those records locked away somewhere in the depths of the library. Had I worked for the library service back then I would definitely have been in there a rootin’ and a tootin’ going through the boxes, bum in the air. I became aware of the fact that I was unable to do things in moderation when it came to music and once I became hooked on a new genre, I had to take it to the extreme (see Beatles, Zappa, Blues, Folk etc). Thank goodness I never got hooked on Cajun music, in fact, once whilst searching for a good place to pitch my tent at the Cambridge Folk Festival, I heard a Cajun outfit playing away and decided it might be interesting to spend the weekend camped right next to them. Biggest mistake of my life. By Saturday afternoon I wanted to wrap that accordion around the guy’s neck. I still collect and listen to jazz records and may have inadvertently passed this obsession on to my son. The records are there in the collection, providing me with subtleties unavailable in other music and as Robert Wyatt so eloquently put it, when things go tits up in the world, there’s always jazz, you can’t knock it.
Guy Clark had been recording songs a good ten years or so before I discovered him, with five albums already out there by the time I picked up his sixth album Old Friends from my local record shop in 1988. It had been one of those frequent dips into Mick’s record collection that revealed to me that Country music wasn’t something necessarily as insipid and sentimental as I had previously thought - these were good songs, very good songs. A new focus on Country music had become very much apparent by the mid-1980s with the emergence of such artists as Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Steve Earle and I distinctly recall Mick placing two early Guy Clark LPs in my mit, Old No 1 and Texas Cookin’ saying “you really need to hear these” with some authority. I knew one or two of the songs already that I’d heard in folk clubs around that time, notably Desperados Waiting for a Train, performed by one of the regulars, Richard Gibson. Mick was right of course, I really did need to hear these songs and I soon became a huge fan, tracking down all five previous Guy Clark records, together with records by Guy’s contemporaries, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Eric Taylor and Rodney Crowell while I was at it. In 1990, Chris Euesden, a local music promoter, enthusiast and thoroughly good guy, organised a series of gigs in the area, which included a Guy Clark gig at the Toby Jug on the outskirts of Doncaster. I couldn’t believe that the West Texan singer songwriter had come to my town, and I was pleased to see we were not alone, that Doncaster evidently knew about Guy Clark, judging by the size of the audience. I subsequently met Guy Clark on a couple of occasions and found him to be a quietly spoken giant of a man, full of stories and humour, and with songs to die for. Later, in the mid 1990s, a series of programmes popped up on TV that spoke to me like no other at that time, not since pre-Annie Nightingale Old Grey Whistle Test days - did Annie really say that John Lydon’s PIL debut on the show was the most powerful thing she had ever seen? The Transatlantic Sessions was the realisation of a dream I once had, that there should be a TV series featuring previously unconnected musicians gathered in an intimate setting with no audience, playing music together just for the fun of it - and here it was. The unrivaled first series featured all of my then current favourites including Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, John Martyn as well as Kathy Mattea and Dougie MacLean performing a fine duet on such as Ready For the Storm. Coincidentally, that same year, 1995, Guy Clark was back at the Cambridge Folk Festival and so Liam and I dutifully obtained tickets, and so began our long-time commitment to this annual event. Sadly, Guy died in 2016 and I was pleased to have been asked to sing a few of his songs, along with Liam, at a tribute night in York organised by Chris Euesden, the man who brought Guy Clark (and Townes Van Zandt) to my town a quarter of a century earlier. Old friends, they shine like diamonds - indeed they do.
The 1995 Cambridge Folk Festival wiped away all the frustrations of the previous festival we attended in 1989, as Liam, now a 13 year-old with a mature taste in music, helped me set up a tent in the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall for our first exclusively father/son festival experience. Six years had passed since the kids danced around to Whippersnapper’s foot-stomping John Gaudie and Fairground Attraction’s far too jolly Perfect at the 25th anniversary event and Liam and I felt it was time to make our return visit; it only took one name to make up our minds, Guy Clark. During the weekend we saw Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and Lindisfarne, featuring Alan Hull who would sadly not see the year out. We also saw The Equation featuring a young Kathryn Roberts, along with three youthful Lakeman brothers with bangs in their eyes. Shawn Colvin’s set was sandwiched between those of guitarist Leo Kottke and Paul Brady on the main stage on Sunday night and Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown played a guitar and a fiddle simultaneously. But, my lasting memory of the 1995 festival was seeing for the first time Kate and Anna McGarrigle, which has remained one of my fondest memories from the twenty-odd years I’ve been attending the festival. Their gorgeous harmonies hovered over the crowd as we relaxed on the Sunday afternoon, reclined flat out on our backs in front of the main stage as they sang Entre La Jeunesse Et La Sagesse, the only recognisable words being ‘Brigitte Bardot’, reminding me that our French teacher was probably right when she said “you never know when you might need it.” The little French I did know didn’t help me much here, but the words didn’t matter, it was the sound of those beautiful voices that made me feel alive. The three McGarrigle sisters (Jane was also there) had recently lost their mum and the siblings were utterly emotional throughout their Sunday afternoon set. I bought their French Record first, then sought out all the others in quick succession. It’s now eight years since we lost the beautiful Kate McGarrigle and I often think about her, especially when I feel inclined to pop one of the McGarrigles records on, which is often. A few years ago I was in Glasgow for the Folk Awards and was at one of the late night booze-ups when in walked Kate’s daughter Martha Wainwright. She looked straight at me and smiled and I was just far too shy to say hello. I’m so glad I didn’t speak, otherwise I would still be reeling with embarrassment at the memory of going up to a complete stranger and saying “hello, I loved your mum”, which would have been awkward, but completely true.
I met Jonathan Kelly the week after I performed Sligo Fair, one of his songs, at a Doncaster folk club organised by Bob Chiswick back in 2005. I sang the song as an anticipatory gesture knowing the singer was coming the following week and that I would finally get the opportunity to see a performer who I thought I would never get to see. When I did meet him, he signed my old copy of Twice Around the Houses with the accompanying note: ‘thanks for doing my song.’ It seemed like a poignant moment. Jonathan had given up music a good few years earlier, after a successful stretch on the folk scene, releasing at least two highly regarded cult LPs as well as one or two others. Being given the opportunity to see him perform and hear those songs all those years later was a real treat. I personally don’t play the guitar all that much these days, which is a little surprising, as I spent so many hours learning how to play the damn thing in the first place. Since picking up the guitar and having a few sessions with Malc, my first musical partner in the early 1980s, I’ve worked with a handful of bands and four different duos, which has been a bit of a blast. I’d done a guitar/banjo thing with Malc, which helped me to get involved with the local folk community, and I’ve always had a family thing going with my son Liam, which has been my most enjoyable musical partnership. We’ve played gigs, weddings, house concerts, festivals, sat around campfires and done some memorable support slots for the likes of The Unthanks, Steve Tilston, Chris and Kellie While and even on one memorable occasion, Ed Tudor Pole, joining him for a rousing Honky Tonk Woman during his encore at the Selby Town Hall. That was decidedly odd. There was also a couple of years playing alongside my pal Michelle, performing mainly contemporary songs by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Joan Osborne, Sarah McLachlan and Natalie Merchant. My main focus for a good few years though was as one half of a duo I formed with John, my Buffalo Brother. The Buffalo Brothers became a vehicle for our own self-penned songs, which we started to write around the mid-1990s. John says that his songwriting output came in one huge wave, the well running dry almost immediately afterwards. There were some memorable songs though, one of which went on to win a local songwriting competition in Sheffield, then another being the runner-up the following year. Quite a lot of the songs that John wrote during this highly creative period centred around the plight of the Native American Indian, including Lafayette’s Dog, The Last Train Ride and As Long as the Grass Shall Grow, yet it was the subject of intrusive photographers that resonated with our audiences. My Camera was jointly written by myself and John (my tune, his lyrics) and served us well over those few years, guaranteeing a few bookings in the South Yorkshire area around that time. Having achieved our goal of producing a couple of albums, one on cassette, the other on CD, we called it a day sometime in the early noughties, leaving behind quite a strong repertoire that included songs by Richard Thompson, Woody Guthrie, Ray Davies, Peter Rowan, Eric Taylor (from whom we stole our name) and Robert Johnson, along with all our own material. One of the songs from this period was from that classic Jonathan Kelly album from 1972, Sligo Fair, which always reminds me of Jonathan of course, but also of John whenever I hear it and I felt it should be acknowledged in this countdown: ‘Way above the northern coast, the seagulls circle high, as to the west the sinking sun spills gold across the sky, and homeward wends the Friesian herd to the ending of their day, and Sligo Fair is just a week away..’
The earliest I remember hearing Gram Parsons was around the mid-1970s, after I first discovered Emmylou Harris, which in turn led to the discovery of the Flying Burrito Bros, specifically their debut LP The Gilded Palace of Sin, one of the records in Paul’s brilliant cardboard box during my theatre group days. It’s really quite extraordinary how one thing leads to another, the very thing that is so attractive about being ‘into’ music in the first place. Those into Dylan will eventually discover Woody Guthrie, those into the Stones will eventually discover Chuck Berry, those into Westlife will discover Boyzone. Sorry, did I say that out loud? I never got to see Gram perform obviously, his body having been crudely torched at Joshua Tree by an idiot called Phil Kaufman after Gram’s untimely death in 1973. Both Parsons’ life and death have become a thing of legend, yet his songs still resonate to this day and I often find myself singing along to We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes, not only in the Morning, but also in the shower. In 2004 I finally embarked on a two-week tour of America that I’d been planning (sort of) since my teens. Not the predictable Route 66 road trip, but rather a good old meander through the heart of America, from Detroit, down to Kansas City, then onto Memphis, Nashville and finally down to New Orleans, the sole purpose being to check out the music in each of those locations. At times our plans didn’t go exactly to plan; like landing in Memphis and checking into a brothel for instance. Sensing we’d made this error, the motel owner suggested that his son take us to another hotel across town owned by his brother, a place more suitable to families, just as an unfeasibly large pink Cadillac circulated the motel, with a huge black arm dangling out of an half open tinted window, upon which hung a gold bracelet the size of a lifebuoy. We decided to take him up on the offer. Our time in America was a whirlwind trip, where we packed in as much as we could, visiting Beale Street, Graceland, Sun Studios, the Ryman Auditorium, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gibson Guitar Factory, Bourbon Street and at one point taking an early morning opportunity to dip our toes in the Mississippi River, just as a steamboat passed by. My choice of t shirts during the week sparked unsolicited interest. A Goth girl came right up to me in Memphis, placed the tip of her forefinger on the image of Jeff Buckley on my chest and said with a smirk “not much of a swimmer.” Then there was the night I was having a cool beer in a Nashville bar, listening to a young singer doing a Gram Parsons song, who from the stage noticed my replica Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels t shirt, which I was wearing by sheer coincidence. The singer acknowledged it and tipped his cowboy hat in respect. Just as I started to feel more at home for the first time since leaving Old Blighty, I was suddenly back home in the shower: ‘We're two people caught up in the flame that has to die out soon, I didn't mean to start this fire and neither did you, so tonight when you hold me tight we'll let the fire burn on, and we'll sweep out the ashes in the morning.’ The following day, we packed up our stuff and headed down to New Orleans.
Being a long-time Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Davy Graham fan, it was only a matter of time before the name Steve Tilston wandered onto my radar, as I began to take more interest in the British folk scene. Perhaps I’d seen the name advertised in a Folk mag, or maybe I’d become aware of him as one of the songwriters Fairport once borrowed from. For some reason though, I hadn’t heard any of his records nor had I attended any of his gigs, even as late as 1996. Was there ever a ‘where have you been’ moment? Perhaps It was the fact that no one was screaming his name from the rooftops at the time. Come to think about it, has anyone ever screamed his name from the rooftops? I discovered recently that a certain Rod Stewart once bought a box full of Steve’s first album to give away as gifts, so I guess there were some early high profile shout outs. Perhaps if Rod had ditched the leopard skin and recorded I Really Wanted You instead of Do Ya Think I'm Sexy, the world would now be a much better place? In the mid-1990s I was involved in the running of the Bay Horse Folk Club in Bentley, occasionally doing the support spot, now and again helping out on the sound desk and often avoided selling the raffle tickets. On one of those nights, we booked Steve for a solo appearance. I was helping with the sound desk that night, something I was completely inept at, and during the sound check, whilst listening to Steve’s instructions in my headphones, twiddling about as if I knew what I was doing, a light went on. Steve began to play, then sing and then suddenly I had one of those moments, an epiphany of sorts, when everything seemed to make sense. Here was a musician whose guitar playing, distinctive voice and mature songs all blended together so perfectly. I dare say if Steve remembered this night at all, he would say he didn’t play particularly well, forgetting one or two words of his songs, yet to me, this didn't matter at all. I’d discovered a very special sort of songwriter in such songs as Let Your Banjo Ring, Here Comes the Night, Salty Dog, Anthony Believes, And So It Goes, and so it goes indeed. I immediately embarked on a voyage of discovery, which took me back to 1971 to his debut LP, An Acoustic Confusion, which I first owned on CD, then subsequently obtained on record. I then worked my way through all Steve’s subsequent releases, coming across one gem after another. Over the years I’ve bumped into Steve at gigs and festivals and despite the fact that he is always pleasant and always asks after Liam, the two of us having supported him on at least a couple of occasions, I always feel a little awkward around him. Perhaps I’m just a little in awe of the man and his craft. I intend to continue in precisely the same manner. Bert was bloody good, John was too, Davy was the daddy of 'em all, but did they have Al Pacino portray them in a movie? no.
Van Morrison released Astral Weeks in 1968 and I first heard it four years later, when I started working as a screen printer on Market Road in Doncaster. I managed to persuade my boss at the time to let me bring in a valve reel to reel tape recorder, which had a most phenomenal sound, to sit right there next to my printing press, where I proceeded to get familiar with this masterpiece. These days every time I hear any of the songs from this album I smell printers ink and any time I smell printers ink, which is not all that often, I hear Van Morrison, ‘standin' with the look of avarice, talkin' to Huddie Ledbetter, showin' pictures on the wall, whisperin' in the hall’ and all the rest of it. In 1973, it was my opinion that nobody could touch Van Morrison, however, if I were ever to go into the reasons why I feel awkward around well-known people, this man’s name might just very well pop right to the top of the list. I first saw him many years ago at the City Hall in Sheffield, where he played for about half an hour, left the stage, then returned roughly a dozen times, each prefaced by a sycophantic introduction courtesy if Georgie Fame, his then musical director - ‘let’s hear it once again for Mr Van Morrison...’ It was a vacuous excuse for showmanship I always thought. "Let's hear it again..etc." When Morrison headlined the Cambridge Folk Festival a couple of years or so ago, there was a joke circulating the site, that there were two kinds of people in the world, those who liked Van Morrison and those who have met him. I was part of the press mob that year and I remember having to walk towards the grumpy old sod as we made our way around to the front of stage area. We were advised not to look at him, talk to him, or indeed contaminate his personal space whatsoever, as we took our positions on either side if the stage. As I waited for a clearing between the sea of lenses in order to take my little shot, I tried to make some sort of connection between the singer who strolled his merry way jumping hedges first, drinking clear clean water for to quench his thirst and the little hunched maggot on stage right before me. I couldn’t, they were completely different animals. Through all this, I wanted so desperately to be able to love the guy. It doesn't stop me from loving his music though, especially this.
I didn’t get to see the Woodstock film until the mid-1970s, when it was given a second theatre run and an airing at the Gaumont Cinema in Doncaster. I don’t think it had been shown on TV up to that point and I was far too young to go and see it upon its initial release; perhaps Country Joe, along with 400,000 other people chanting f*** in unison was too much for my young ears? However, I was very much familiar with the three-disc soundtrack, having borrowed it from a pal at the time. The soundtrack was important to me in that it featured many of the acts I was very much interested in during the early Seventies, Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, Santana, Joe Cocker and Canned Heat. The record then allowed for further introductions, a stoned Arlo Guthrie for example as well as the second live appearance by supergroup Crosby Stills Nash not to mention the aforementioned Fish Cheer courtesy of Country Joe, which was actually just the very thing to cheer this 15 year-old up during Edward Heath’s three day week, even though the record could hardly go round during the current spate of power cuts. The only option was to chant it to myself, usually out of the bathroom window and onto the street below. The ‘Woodstock Generation’ thing evidently failed and by the mid-1970s the idea of peace and love had turned into anger and rage and ‘gimme an ‘F’ had taken on a new dynamic. It all seemed to be over too quickly, but I guess Altamont and Manson were as much to blame for that as anything else. Besides the music, the other aspect I liked about the Woodstock soundtrack was the announcements, which always amused me. You wouldn’t get announcements like that now. Can you imagine at a festival near you an announcement going out to the effect of.. "To get back to the warning that I received, you may take it with however many grains of salt that you wish, that the brown acid that is circulating around us isn't too good. It is suggested that you stay away from that, of course it's your own trip, so be my guest, but please be advised that there is a warning on that one, ok?" The thing I most remember about going to see the film, was standing in a very long queue outside the theatre and hearing Crosby Stills Nash and Young singing Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock and fearing I might have missed the start of the film. I discovered 185 minutes later, that what I’d actually heard was the song playing over the closing credits from the earlier showing. With this film I discovered what a rewarding experience it was to see a film for the first time whilst being completely familiar with the soundtrack already. The film and accompanying soundtrack present a hugely successful event, however, many accounts point in the polar opposite direction and the festival was seen by many as a complete disaster. So, if ever you find yourself sitting in an open field enjoying a modern festival, secretly wishing that you were at Woodstock, be consoled in the knowledge that you are definitely enjoying an infinitely better organised event and that the myth of the Woodstock experience should perhaps be seen as a cautionary tale.
Having plucked the name ‘Northern Sky’ out of the ether some years ago and then having typed those two words under my name (and under other names) countless times on my website, it may come as no surprise that at some point down the line, I was inspired by a Nick Drake song. The song first appeared on Nick Drake’s second album back in 1971 and featured John Cale on celeste, which gave the song it’s ethereal feel. I first heard the song on the double Island sampler, imaginatively entitled El Pea, and became aware of Nick Drake for the first time. Nick’s songs began to appear on such affordable records, including Nice Enough to Eat (Time Has Told Me) and Bumpers (Hazy Jane) and by 1997 his songs began to appear all over the shop on film soundtracks and acoustic compilations, including bizarrely enough, One of These Things First appearing on a record entitled Four Decades of Folk Rock! Just to prove that the compilers of such samplers were probably still hitting the weed around the office, one of them, which went under the title ‘Great Songwriters’ (or something like that), featured Bryter Layter, which is of course an instrumental tune! I always felt that Nick’s inclusions were largely ignored, even by myself, in favour of those by Traffic, King Crimson, Fairport Convention, Spooky Tooth and Jethro Tull. Whereas I always sought out the albums of these bands after being teased with a sample track, I never considered finding out more about this strange, mysterious and troubled figure until much later. When I did eventually discover Nick’s three solo albums, collected together on the Fruit Tree box set, I immediately wondered why these items hadn’t popped up on my radar earlier. Both Liam and I became hooked around the same time, which led to some great late night discussions, some pointless guitar TAB studying and a whole bunch of ridiculous open tunings, as well as the initial incarnation of the Northern Sky website, which was in fact first published on MySpace. So far I’ve got away with running a website called Northern Sky, although I’ve always been half expecting a knock on the door by the Nick Drake estate with an invoice. Actually, on my travels I’ve spoken to record producer Nigel Stonier who told me he once had a band under that name, broadcaster Mark Radcliffe has told me on two occasions (I’m frequently introduced to people twice, sometimes three or four times before my very insignificance is liberated by vague recognition), that he wrote a book under that title and I believe Molly Tilston (daughter of my guitar totin’ hero of this parish, Steve) has a duo under that name too, so I’m not overly worried. The two words literally describe the expanse of blueness, blackness and quite often greyness, directly above me. A few years ago, Liam and I attended one of the Nick Drake Gatherings in Tanworth-in-Arden, the family home of the Drake family and the place where Nick is buried, right there under a tree in the churchyard. We sang a couple of songs in the church before a congregation of Nick Drake followers, including Nick’s biographer Trevor Dann. Sitting in a church listening to dozens of Nick Drake songs performed by lots of diverse characters, whilst enduring some lengthy re-tuning sessions, to the strains of snapping strings all over the shop and with some pretty serious ‘homage paying’, it all seemed a little over-the-top, but I do remember it all quite fondly. Although hearing people sing Nick Drake songs can be quite enjoyable, especially if they try to make it their own, I’m not a fan of cover recordings or painstakingly accurate guitar copying tributes. What’s the point? I’ve always been happy with Nick’s three officially released albums and feel there’s little point in dragging out sub-standard recordings from tapes in attics, which should in fact stay in attics. I’m reminded of that famous Lennon quote, that all the good Beatles stuff was officially released, so what’s the point in digging up the rest?
I’ve always had a theory that if you and your little band really want to sound like The Beatles, then you ought to listen to nothing but Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and early Elvis, much the same as John and Paul did to get their eventual sound. To get your outfit to sound like The Band, you would have to delve deep, very deep indeed, into the annals of American music to come anywhere near. I came to The Band quite late, around 1973 I would say, around the same time I really started to embrace Bob Dylan’s music. My knowledge of The Band prior to this was relatively sketchy; that they’d had a minor hit with Rag Mama Rag, which my sister used to sing around the house, and that Joan Baez had taken The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down up the British singles charts to number 6 in 1971. I’d also seen pictures in the music press of this strange looking bunch of characters, each of who looked very much out of place at that time and with the help of Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, I delved further into what this bunch were all about. One of the other contributing factors may have been Eric Clapton’s enthusiasm for the quintet, allegedly wanting to actually join the band. I headed straight for their eponymous LP, totally skipping Music From Big Pink, which I picked up on later. No doubt I was encouraged to go for the second helping due to the inclusion of the original version of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, which I played to death in the early 1970s. After only a couple of spins on the turntable, I knew I was dealing with something really special, something I’d never really heard the likes of before. There seemed to be just too much on this album to like. Once I’d made my mind up that Levon Helm was the greatest singer in the world, along came Rick Danko to change my mind, then Richard Manuel would sing on another song and knock the other two into a cocked hat. On other days I’d go straight back to Levon, and on it went for a couple of years, changing my mind on all aspects of this rather amazing record just about daily. By the mid-1970s we had all become pretty much aware of Martin Scorsese through his groundbreaking film Taxi Driver and all of us who were previously fixated with all things Bruce Lee, going around flexing our muscles and doing high kicks, whilst making weird chicken noises, had now taken to enquiring “are you looking at me” in a menacing way to all and sundry. Two years later, Scorsese would make the best rock concert film ever, bar none, and I mean bar none, The Last Waltz, featuring The Band with guest appearances by everybody in the world I loved at the time.. and Neil Diamond. I kind of overlook the fact that after The Band made their two outstanding records, what followed was a series of slightly inferior LPs, Stage Fright (1970), Cahoots (1971), Moondog Matinee (1973), Northern Lights - Southern Cross (1975), Islands (1977), Jericho (1993), High on the Hog (1996) and Jubilation (1998), but I was more than happy to collect them all as they came along. The Band are very much no more now with only two surviving members, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson left, yet they are very much alive and well through their records and I get no better pleasure than listening to their records as well as re-watching The Last Waltz, together with a handful of decent documentary films, some of which show the band recording songs from this album. Forty-odd years later I quite understand Clapton's desire to join The Band, I suspect that everybody wanted to join this particular band truth be known.
Artist: Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band
Title: Trout Mask Replica
First heard: 1976
What I like best about it: Ella Guru
Like so many people, I too hated Trout Mask Replica when I first plonked it down on the turntable back in the 1970s. It’s an all too familiar story; Frank Zappa fan hears about earlier Zappa-produced project, shows keen interest, gets LP home, plays first side then reels in horror at just how awful a band can sound and just how much din some musicians can make, only then to ponder over whether any ‘musicians’ were in fact involved at all? I imagine it was a little like the reaction Picasso received when he first showed Les Demoiselles d'Avignon to his pals back in 1907 - “Are you having a laugh mate?” But, as The Simpsons creator Matt Groening famously said, this has Zappa’s name on it, maybe one should persevere, maybe one should try again. I had the great fortune of borrowing the double album from the library, possibly in the mid 1970s, and therefore went through all the trauma without having spent a single penny. This, I imagine, would have come with great personal relief. After playing it through a few times however, it began to sink in and my interest became more focused on the sheer originality of the material and I finally began to see the point to it all - all four sides, all 28 tracks. Unlike Groening though, I never thought of it as the ‘greatest album ever made’, not by a long way, but as a piece of avant garde rock, or a work of art, with it’s peerless daring originality, it’s bizarre lyrical content, its eccentric production (the well reported ‘covering the drums with cardboard’ story) and it’s psychedelic cover artwork (is that really a shuttlecock on the top of the Captain’s Stovepipe Quaker hat?) I do indeed think it’s a work of genius. I subsequently met drummer Mark ‘Drumbo’ French and bassist Mark ‘Rockette Morton’ Boston, who were only too happy to share stories of their time together with Don Van Vliet, both of whom were delightful company and great people to chat to, and who showed no immediate signs of the mental cruelty they must have endured under the Captain’s eight-month captivity period during the recording of this album. They actually seemed worlds away from the strange looking musicians who appeared on the iconic LP sleeve back in the late 1960s. I’m sure Andrea’s relieved that I no longer sing ‘Pina’ in the shower..
Andy Kershaw once said, although I get the impression he says it quite often, that despite having being given the honour of appearing on Desert Island Discs, he’s spent the ensuing years regretting leaving out particular records that really ought to have been included in his original eight. I kind of know what he means. Although my ‘Retirement 60’ was never intended to be a list of my favourite records, in fact some are far from it, there are one or two ‘musts’ to mention before I wrap this little bugger up. The relatively obscure Woodstock Mountains: More Music From Mud Acres is a record that was introduced to me in the mid-1980s by my good pal Mick Swinson, a record he bought after seeing the collective at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1979. This was the year I really should have been there myself as the other headliners included Ry Cooder and Doc Watson. Instead, that particular year I actually chose to go to Reading where I watched the three members of The Police trying to do reggae in parkas for Heaven’s sake. I still have sleepless nights over this error of judgement. For years I made do with a cassette copy of this album until I discovered via the internet that there was a nice original gatefold sleeve version languishing in the back room of a Nottinghamshire record shop, so I immediately made my way down there and picked it up for next to nothing (thank you Langley Mill Records). There’s something about this little collection of songs that has stayed with me all these years, one or two of which I pinched in my playing days, Killing the Blues for example, a song written by Roly Salley and recorded much later by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for their acclaimed Raising Sand record. The LP introduced me to a whole bunch of talented American musicians, Happy Traum, Rory Block, Bill Keith, Artie Traum and Pat Alger among them, with contributions from one or two others who I already knew, Paul Butterfield, Eric Andersen and John Sebastian. The album is actually a follow-up to a record called Mud Acres: Music Among Friends, released exactly five years earlier, which to this day, I still haven't come across. The cover shot is evocative of the period, showing a bunch of musicians posing in the snowy Woodstock Mountains. I imagine these sessions were a sort of precursor to the Transatlantic Sessions, another fine example of just how good the music between friends can really be.
I thought I might touch upon the world of minor celebrity. I no longer make a habit of sychophanting around musicians these days, now that I’m a grown-up (allegedly) and prefer to get out of their way before I take the shape of an extra from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, gawping relentlessly, while I await an audience with the singer from a mediocre folk outfit. You just might as well throw a white smock over my head and hand me a sweeping brush as I wait. I have admittedly approached people in the past, held out my hand and delivered some mundane pleasantries, only to immediately regret it and wish I’d just watched the gig, knocked back the dregs of my lemonade and hit the road. Why on earth do we do it? It’s not that all our heroes turn out to be miserable gits, but rather, it’s the fear of being left with a lingering inferiority complex. Okay, confession time, I’ve touched the hand of such people as Bert Jansch, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Eric Taylor, Richard Thompson, Rodney Crowell, Judy Collins, Robin Williamson, John Renbourn, Peter Rowan, Dave Swarbrick, Jacqui McShee, Barbara Dickson, Ed Tudor Pole, Ian Hunter, Phil Cool, John Otway, Claire Hamill, Sonja Kristina, the odd Strawb, an ex-Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger’s brother, a lone Boomtown Rat, a couple of Animals, a few Pretty Things, a block of Blockheads, and bizarrely, a whole bunch of drummers (they always send the drummer to be interviewed, whilst The Guardian gets the singer), but I don’t think I’ve ever shook a better hand than that of the warm and wonderful Robert Wyatt, a musical hero whose space I was actually more than happy to sully with my presence, if only for a few moments. I was at a Rachel Unthank and the Winterset gig in Lincoln and Robert was in the audience with his wife, the artist Alfie Benge. In spite of myself I decided to approach him just to say hello, and in doing so, broke one of my own rules of engagement. Robert Wyatt seems to have always been there, ever since those early Soft Machine days, his time with Kevin Ayers and his Matching Mole episode. It was after his dreadful accident however, the one that left him in a wheelchair, during his early years as a solo artist, that I became a huge fan. Rock Bottom was the first solo LP I heard, having completely missed his debut The End of An Ear for some reason. There seemed to be so much going on at the time, especially with the formation of Virgin Records, the abundance of Canterbury Scene bands and the general musical confusion of the day, that it became slightly difficult to keep track. Rock Bottom provided a beacon, which I decided to follow thereafter, even though Wyatt did confuse me by popping up on Top of the Pops singing a Monkees song. I subsequently twigged the irony and by the time Shipbuilding came along, I seemed to have acquired a reluctant hero all my own and always wanted to meet him, ignoring my aversion to creeping around heroes. With next to no public appearances, a bit of a reclusive lifestyle, and with his recordings pretty much dried up, bumping into him at the Drill Hall was nothing short of thrilling. We chatted for a while outside the building under the streetlights, before I jumped in my car and drove home with a grin on my face. I’d just spoken to Robert Wyatt I told myself, just in case I hadn’t been paying attention. There’s always that odd occasion when it’s well worth the punt.
The era of the horrible little compact disc, which befell us somewhere between the 1980s and whenever people stopped buying them in favour of free downloads, introduced us to a small collection of (allegedly) ‘must have’ items, which were widely advertised in every magazine across the land and were available in every motorway services, supermarket chain and newsagents from Land’s End to John O’Groats. They were wrapped in sleeves with printed text only visible through the lense of a microscope and notably, yes that’s right, you probably already had them in your LP collection and was urged to buy them once again, this time in an ‘unbreakable’ format. (I was a stranger, so they took me in!). These CDs included Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Van Morrison’s Moondance, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, amongst others. So popular were these little fiendish items, found in every chartered accountant’s record collection, every IT nerd’s disc drive, scattered around the upholstery in open top sports cars and neatly stacked in the shelves of fitted teak wall cabinets in every bachelor’s lakeside condo, that there was a tendency to avoid them at all cost. Kind of Blue was the jazz world’s version of this, resulting in every self-respecting jazz aficionado hiding them behind their copies of Sketches of Spain in order to safeguard their reputation. Despite this, I think that if you don’t have a copy, even if you don’t care for jazz, then you should have at least one in whatever format that suits you, three ideally and in all available formats, just in case one goes missing or you accidentally mistake the other for a sandwich and eat it. It’s quite possibly my favourite album of all time. So familiar am I with every single note on this LP, that Andrea once remarked, as I hummed along to John Coltrane’s superb solo on So What, “how could anyone possibly hum along to this?.. it isn’t even a tune!” So, how did I discover Kind of Blue? Quite by accident actually. In the early 1990s I was eager to explore jazz for the first time after hearing Jimmy Giuffre, Dave Brubeck and all the other cool jazzers, when I finally realised jazz wasn’t necessarily Acker Bilk or Kenny Ball, and when I came across a copy of it in the jazz section of the Audio/Visual department in Doncaster Central Library. I’d not heard of the album before this, although I had a vague idea who Miles Davis was at the time after seeing pictures of this cool denim-clad dude on the cover of Sounds and Melody Maker in the early 1970s. I wasn’t aware of the album’s popularity nor its cultural status. To me, it was simply just another jazz record. I took it home and played it whilst reading the sleeve notes and underwent an immediate epiphany. ‘oh’ I thought, ‘so this is jazz?’ It was strange that the first Miles Davis LP I should pick up and listen to was in fact his most celebrated and importantly, no one had recommended it to me, therefore I felt that I had discovered it all by myself and that it was indeed mine. When I finally tracked down my own copy of the LP, to replace the sordid little silver devil I’d been putting up with, I hugged it. It’s never hidden behind others and still, to this day, often comes out to play. Did I mention Bill Evans? Oh my, don’t get me started on the content.
After 60 days of pulling records off the shelf that mark certain notable events in my life, each one having been around for a good few years and each one in the format now referred to as ‘vinyl’, not a term used when each of these items were first purchased, stolen or found, we’ve finally arrived at number one. These days, records (albums or LPs, choose your own term) are not only known by the material they use to make them, but also by their weight. They’re back, that’s for sure, but for me, they never really went away. So, as I write this final installment, I place the needle on an old friend, something I’ve done countless times for almost half a century. It seems to be rather trendy these days, although trendy is probably not a trendy word to use anymore, to cite other Joni Mitchell albums as one’s all time favourite; some say Court and Spark, others say Hejira, complete weirdos say Mingus, but I guess it all comes down to personal taste and circumstance in the end. I’ve lived through dozens of end-of-year polls where the best album of all time has alternated between Revolver and Pet Sounds, depending on the era, when for years it was always Sgt Pepper and nobody questioned it. At the height of Grunge, Nevermind was the best album of all time etc. I try not to be snobbish about these things, but I have no qualms in placing Blue right up there at the very top; a leopard thoroughly contented with his spots I am. I adore Joni Mitchell’s Blue album and it’s the only LP I’ve owned three copies of, plus the CD, which I haven’t managed to wear out yet. I don’t know why I love it so much, in fact some of Joni’s vocal affectations, you know, that vibrato thing she does, can be a little irritating at times, I just think the songs are sewn into every fibre of whatever organs are lurking within my torso and I know they’re in there to stay, right until they hammer the nails in. I don’t like comparing generational musical eras and I’m completely cool with the fact that some have Radiohead as their all time favourites, some have Nirvana, The Clash or Oasis, some for some inexplicable reason have Garth Brooks, others have Michael Jackson and Fleetwood-sodding-Mac, all sewn into their very fibres and that’s all perfectly fine with me, but I could not be more grateful for having had the good fortune to have been born in the era that produced Joni Mitchell. Will the Radiohead diehard still be listening to Creep fifty years on? I don’t know, quite possibly, who’s to say? I hope so. It doesn’t matter, it’s their era. All I know is that as I file away my P45 and prepare to discover exactly how many places I can get into for a reduced fee, take up bird watching and start saying things like “I’m 62 next” instead of “I’m 61 now” and using such terms as ‘having a fall’ rather than just plain ‘falling down’, I will drink a case of Joni whilst acknowledging the fact that I am now very much retired.
Thanks for listening to my 60 days of rambling, it’s been a cathartic, nostalgic and enjoyable way of getting through these last couple of life changing months and I’ll sign off now, suitably content in the knowledge that ‘I am (still) on a lonely road… travelling, travelling, travelling..’