Tuesday 20 March 2018

That Facebook 10 albums thing that everybody's been doing

10 all time favourite albums over 10 days. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your playlists, even if only now and then.
Post the cover, no need to explain and nominate a person each day with each album to do the same.

Well, that's not hard at all, ten is loads isn't it?

Yeah right.

If we are friends on Facebook then you will have seen this cropping up a lot over the last couple of weeks (I know it should have been ten days but there were alcohol-related gaps).

A lot of people have been doing it, and most cannot resist the urge to explain. I am no different, but I'm utilising a loophole and putting it all here in a very self-indulgent blog. Sorry if you were hoping for something more Russia-related and relevant.

It turned out to be an impossible ask to get my favourite albums down to ten, and I spent a good two days writing and rewriting and changing my mind about the list. I got it down to 30, but none of those ended up in the final ten. I added extra rules for myself, changed the goalposts. It didn't help, so I ended up picking stuff I like pretty much at random. If I did it again now they'd all be completely different.

At no point do any of the records that I routinely quote as my favourite appear, and only one of my rolling roster of answers to the question 'What's your favourite band?' made it. There's no Led Zeppelin, no Jimi Hendrix, no Beatles, no Queen, no Rolling Stones, no Sex Pistols, no Clash, no Frank Zappa, no Captain Beefheart, no Lou Reed, no Doors, no Skynyrd, no Creedence, no Mahavishnu Orchestra, not a single acoustic singer-songwriter (Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, Suzanne Vega, Carole King, all missing). No Folk, no Jazz, you get the picture.

And I forgot Stoned Age Man by Joseph completely – fuck...

So without further ado, here's those ten albums.

Come An' Get It – Whitesnake

When I was ten, I got a ghetto blaster for Christmas. Mum and Dad asked me what music I liked so they could buy me a tape to play on it. I said Whitesnake, expecting to get a copy of 1987 (because as far as I knew they had only done the one album, and I loved 'Still of the Night' despite being too young to understand the delicate nuance of David Coverdale's metaphors).

Being canny with their money, they found this album in a bargain bin and got it for me instead. My brief disappointment at not having 1987 (it's okay, Dad bought it for me in the January sales) was dissipated as soon as the massive intro riff of the title track started. I had not heard proper 70s pomp rock before. Mum and Dad listened to classical music, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and very occasionally The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, and you never got Alice Cooper on Saturday Superstore (pretty sure I once saw Motorhead on the 8:15 from Manchester though, or it might have been Number 73), so I had been denied the joy of overdriven Hammond organs.

The sheer naughtiness of David Coverdale singing 'Baby you can kiss my arse, yes indeed,' was enough to turn my ten year old brain on to screamy, open-shirted, velvet-flared-high-kicking rock. Without this album I might never have bothered with Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Mountain, Edgar Winter or any of the other bands I didn't put on this list but should have.

Easter – Patti Smith Group

International Women's Day popped up while I was doing this and I noticed that my original list was a massive sausage-fest. I had yet another reshuffle and threw this in.

As a teenager I spent a lot of time buying old vinyl records from market stalls and second hand shops – because I couldn't afford new tapes. I mostly had to judge everything by its cover (hence all my Grateful Dead and Incredible String Band albums) since I had rarely heard of any of it. Obviously this striking woman's nipply vest cried out to my testosterone soaked mind and I had to buy it. Also it had 'Rock and Roll Nigger' on it, and I loved the Byrdland (who?) version of it already.

From the crashing opening of 'Till Victory' right to the haunting menace of the title track it is a tour de force of energy, beauty and awesome. More immediately accessible than the waking dream of Horses, and thus a better gateway to the high priestess of punk poetry. Horses took me longer to get, and if I had bought it first I might never have bothered with any more Patti Smith records. Which would have been a mistake.

Snuffsaidbutgorblimeyguvstonemeifhedidn'tthrowawobblerchachachachachachachachachachachayou'regoinghomeinacosmicambience – Snuff

If you did your teenage years in the early 90s and were into music that didn't get played on the radio then you needed friends with record collections. I had a few of them, and Jim 'Don't Call Me Lofty' Brameld was one of the best. I would spend school lunchbreaks in his study where he played me the Sub-Humans, Dead Kennedys, Lard, DOA, Chumbawamba (before THAT song ruined them) and Snuff (who I had said I was a fan of because I once read their name in a skateboard mag). The massive guitars and frenetic drumming were perfect for a 14 year old buried deep in 70s punk music and paved the way for a later obsession with the Descendants, Rancid and NOFX. I thought I had worn my tape of it out with excessive play, but then I replaced it with a vinyl copy and it turns out the production is incredibly underwhelming – exercise your rights to excessive equalising. (The same applies to Metallica's And Justice For All...)

King of Rock – Run DMC

Hip-hop is divisive. Always has been, and amazingly there are still cocks out there who do the 'Rap is spelled with a silent C' joke. Twats. We were a lot more tribal when I was a kid, so being into Rock music I claimed not to like rap – even convinced myself it was true. It wasn't, I loved the Beastie Boys first album (like everybody did) but it took Run DMC to cement it. Big guitar riffs, check, memorable hooks, check, vocal acrobatics, check. Everything good about music is on this album. It took the changing attitude of the late 90s for me to come out as someone who enjoyed more than one kind of music. It felt good, and it is hard to believe how solid the battle lines were before that.

Against The Grain – Rory Gallagher

I had seen pictures of Rory Gallagher in magazines, I had read about how important he was, I had fallen deeply in love with his 1961 Stratocaster, but never heard him. We had no internet, I had little money for records and didn't know anybody that listened to him already. Then, when I was about 16, I was flicking through the new in section at Discovery Records in Bideford (now moved to Barnstaple, and still hosted by the greatest Record Shop owner I have ever known, Matthew 'Top Hat Matt' Poulton) when a familiar guitar appeared in the drifts of Rumours and Brothers In Arms. My heart skipped a beat and it went in the haul. I got it home, stuck it on, and with the opening riff of 'Let Me In,' I realised that I had been right to be in love with that Stratocaster for so long. It turned out that Mr Furness, my A Level Economics teacher, was also a big fan, which led to a lot of record swapping, the discovery of good Jazz via John Etheridge and Wes Montgomery, and a disappointing C in Economics.

An Electric Storm – The White Noise

During the 90s I began to realise that electronic music was okay after an out of body experience involving some stairs and an Orb album while staying with my Canterbury cousins. My friend Julian (who I had previously thought only listened to Kate Bush and The Sisters Of Mercy) managed to track down a copy of this record he had been looking for forever. He sat me down and made me listen to it, and everything changed. Wild electronica from Delia Derbyshire out of the BBC Radiophonic workshop, stories of the sounds of wild orgies being recorded by having an actual orgy. Tales of people committing suicide to the last track, rumours of it being banned. I have no idea how many of these things are true, but I became fixated with the tape of it Julian did for me. I've since replaced it with an original pressing on Island, a CD and a backup reissue somewhere. It's that important to me.

Straight??!! – The Dogs D'Amour

I love the Dogs D'Amour. They are probably the reason for my mildly eccentric dress sense. I should really have put Errol Flynn in here as it was the first Dogs album I got (taped off my mate Paddy who found them first) or the eponymous 1988 EP that I played more than any other. But Straight??!! has a special place in my heart.

A long time ago I went to a birthday party, a friend's girlfriend. Said friend borrowed the band's guitar to play a song in the break. It was supposed to be for the girlfriend. He spotted me, and remembered my claim that 'Back on The Juice' had the best opening of any song ever. So he played me 'Back on the Juice', the girlfriend had never even heard of the Dogs D'Amour. He did not play any other songs.

I like to think it went some way to that girlfriend eventually marrying me instead (she still hates the Dogs D'Amour though).

Meet The Residents – The Residents

Scanning the shelves at Discovery one Saturday morning I saw an album by the Residents. I recalled that I really liked their song, 'Left of the Dial' so I bought it and took it home. That album was Whatever happened to Vileness Fats? and it did not have 'Left of the Dial' on it. That's because 'Left of the Dial' was by The Replacements. A second rate, instantly forgettable, American college rock band.

The Residents particular brand of batshit insane avant-gardism left me bemused, confused and intrigued. I went back the next week and more had turned up, including Meet The Residents with its defaced Beatles cover. I bought the lot and forced myself to keep listening. It took a while to get but once I got it there was no turning back. This wouldn't happen now, in a world of quick fix online listening I wouldn't have accidentally bought the wrong record, or bothered to keep on listening until they became the one answer to the question 'What's your favourite band?' to make this list. I'd have found the wanky song about radios and gone on listening to bland crap forever. God bless my shitty memory and second hand record shops.

Hearts – I Break Horses

Honestly, I think I put this record in because my list lacked women, and needed something a bit more modern. Still desperately trying to look cool in my 40s. That's not to say that it's not worthy of the list. I was entranced and obsessed with this record from the first moment I heard 'Winter Beats' on 6 Music. I'm a sucker for a massive throbbing analogue synth drone, and this is the best example out there, it's utterly sublime. I played it endlessly during the first few months of 2012 driving back and forth to rehearse with Maz Totterdell's band and it is now irrevocably linked with that very happy period of my life. It's a special record and I still grin from ear to ear every time it comes on (I mostly listen to music from an mp3 player on shuffle these days). Does it deserve to be on this list at the expense of Weezer's Blue album though?

Open Up And Say ...Ahh! – Poison

This is another moment of throwing off years of repression. (I've written about the trouble with music snobbery before here). So much of being a teenager is trying to make sure you like the right things, and that nobody thinks you like the wrong things. Being consistent in your image was all. (I can admit now what a pretentious little prick I was when I was 14 – can you?) My brief dalliance with Poodle Rock in the late 80s/early 90s was thrown away once I discovered Punk. I got rid of all my Metal albums (except Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Anthrax et al – they were practically punk) and cut all ties with spandex, perms and widdly nonsense. Since then I have stopped giving a fuck what people think, embraced Motley Crue, welcomed back Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Faster Pussycat, Van Halen, and the most shameful of them all – Poison.

Two-tone permed hair, eyeliner, cowboy boots, leather trousers, and Bret Michaels looking like the most beautiful creature I had ever seen – while being a man. Stupid throw away songs about girls and having (nothin' but) a good time with excessive show off stunt guitar solos. All utterly unforgiveable in an early 90s of earnest plaid-clad grunge, even though 'Every Rose Has Its Thorn' was the first song most of us learned how to play on guitar.

But all so fucking awesomely cool – oh the shame of it.

It's not shameful now, kids today don't define themselves by one kind of music. The 16 year old drummer in Carnivala told me he liked 'Your Mama Don't Dance' when I was driving him to a gig a couple of years ago. I expected scorn of the kind I received at school, and some snobby shit about Loggins and Messina. Times have changed, times are better, I can wear my cowboy boots with pride.

So, come on CC, pick up that guitar and talk to me....

*For your delectation, here's a massive list of stuff that got cut before I hit the final ten. There's a lot of it and it could easily be four times this.

Catch Bull At Four – Cat Stevens
Lifebringer – Zervas and Pepper
Last Scream of the Missing Neighbours – DOA with Jello Biafra
Exile On Main Street – The Rolling Stones
Thick as a Brick – Jethro Tull
Skid Row – Skid Row
Queen 2 or Queen, or News of the World, or Sheer Heart Attack – Queen
Radio 1 – The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Sleepwalking – Kingmaker
Pendulum - Creedence Clearwater Revival
Flogging a Dead Horse – Sex pistols
Desire – Bob Dylan
Fountains of Wayne – Fountains of Wayne
Blue Album – Weezer
Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy – The Who
Flat, Baroque and Berserk – Roy Harper
Love It To Death – Alice Cooper
Alive! - Slade
God Shuffled His Feet – Crash Test Dummies
Flood – They Might Be Giants
How to Make Friends and Influence People – Terrorvision
Led Zeppelin 1-4 inclusive
Black Sabbath vol. 4 – Black Sabbath
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn – Pink Floyd
Little Earthquakes – Tori Amos
Suzanne Vega – Suzanne Vega
Let It Be – The Beatles
Powerage – AC/DC
Bongo Fury – Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart
Give 'Em Enough Rope – The Clash
Van Halen – Van Halen
Second Helping – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Crises – Mike Oldfield
Harvest – Neil Young
Peace Sells But Who's Buying? - Megadeth
Inflammable Material – Stiff Little Fingers
Landscape – Landscape
Penguin Eggs – Nic Jones
Lovesexy – Prince
Skeletons From the Closet – The Grateful Dead
Volunteers – Jefferson Airplane
Gorilla – The Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band
Back in the DHSS – Half Man Half Biscuit
and on and on and on and on

Sunday 4 March 2018

Some rather more helpful things that I have learned in four decades of singing in front of people for money

As I mentioned in my last blog (which I have been told was unhelpful and had a misleading title) I have an average at best voice which has been forced into the spotlight out of necessity. This was brought into very clear focus last night when the lead vocalist of one of my bands couldn't make it and I was once again thrust into the singing spot. At least it gave me an excuse for the music stand full of lyrics I had (I've used one for the last twelve years of acoustic duo Rob and Dave, despite rarely adding new material, and make no excuses for never having cared enough to learn the words). Lyric learning tip, run through the words in your head (keep the words out of sight, just check you're doing them right occasionally) while you're doing something entirely mundane like walking to work or washing dishes and they stick easily. I haven't bothered, but I used to care enough to.

I know, I used this photo last time as well, but I honestly can't think of any better one to use

In light of last night's near-disaster, I figured the best thing I could do is share what little I have learned over the years in hopes that it helps others who don't want to sing but find they have to. As opposed to the self-indulgent snark of my last piece, sorry.

The first piece of advice I can give anybody is know your range and stick to it. If you can't get to the note you are aiming for it will both sound rubbish (somewhere I have a recording of an eighteen year old me trying to hit the chorus of Self-Esteem by The Offspring which demonstrates this to great effect) and destroy your voice. I was reminded of this while screaming American Woman by the Guess Who last night and then having to croak the rest of the set: I really should have practised the songs earlier in the day. If your band are dicks and won't change the key to a more comfortable one then drop the song, do something else. Then remind your fuckwit guitar player that people only listen to the singer anyway.

This leads nicely into the obvious one, practice. Practice a lot, and at full volume. I don't. If I practice at all then I tend to do it mumblingly and about an octave lower than I'd do the song live (unless I am in the car, and then it is both loud, out of tune, and probably the best workout my voice ever gets these days). Hence all the trouble with The Guess Who. You can go for stuff outside of your range when you practice, since increasing that range is a good thing (though less likely to work the older you are, sorry) and nobody is there to hear you miss those notes.

Inhibition is your enemy. Have none, fear nothing and don't worry about being embarrassed. I should have curled up in a ball and died a few times last night, since trying to play John Entwistle bass lines and sing at the same time is a very good way to not be able to do either. By manfully singing all the wrong notes and fluffing the bass lines (lot of root notes, really a lot) I got through it and, depressingly as always, nobody in the audience even noticed I had fucked it up. That's how little they care, just go for it. It is both terribly sad, and incredibly useful that even when they're paying attention they can't tell when you get it wrong.

Learn an instrument so you can accompany yourself. Singing along to records with a voice already there as reference is no good for getting your tuning ear going. Karaoke machines with flashing words don't help you develop your sense of timing. Learn to read music, understand intervals, scales, keys and dynamics. Your voice is an instrument every bit as hard to master as any other. The more you use it, the better it gets. But you can't get to the fiddly mechanical bits if you break it and you can't buy a new one: if it hurts, stop and do it differently. (From the guy who tried to fix a completely knackered larynx with 3 pints of cider and a marlboro light last night – do as I say, not as I do. In my defence, it worked in time for War Pigs).

Take lessons, really. I know I don't, and am always claiming to be self taught, and may have taken the piss out of you for having lessons, but that's because of my selective memory. While it's true I never had a lesson, a solid ten years or so of choir practice and GCSE music does give you an advantage. And is, in fact, comprised mainly of singing lessons that I have pretended not to have taken. This will also help to increase your range – in a much safer way than trying to scream as high as Ronnie James Dio.

Up above the streets and houses, Rainbow flying high...

Finally, stand up. Really, don't ever sing sitting down, and not just because it scares people into thinking there's going to be a key change when you stand up. It constricts the diaphragm, stops you being able to access your lungs properly and makes you look like a dick. If your back is so fucked that you can't support yourself anymore, get a stool so you're still upright or find something to lean against.

Be aware that none of this is approved by any actual singing teachers. These are just things I have noticed over the course of my accidental singing career. If you follow them then you too can manage to achieve mediocrity. In case you think this is all just false modesty, check out the massively multitracked vocals on this track I recorded a year or so ago.