Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Soundtrack of my Life

Nearly a year ago, there was a meme going around the blogsphere to do with 'My Top Five albums'. I dutifully supplied my list but then started thinking about the wider issue of music and how it has, in some small way, defined who I am. Or is 'who I am' the thing that defines my musical tastes? It's an interesting question. All I know is that I love music in all its forms and it's rare you'll catch me not listening to something.

So I thought it might be fun to pick 10 albums that capture, in a nutshell, my personality. Nutcase more like, I hear you cry (That joke appears courtesy of Monty Python (c) 1975).

My earliest memories of enjoying music are inevitably bound up with my parents' tastes. There was a lot of their record collection I didn't really like - especially the 1950's rock and roll stuff - and they were oddly lacking anything by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. But they did have lots of stuff by The Kinks and the Beach Boys. I loved Village Green Preservation Society and Pet Sounds from Day One and still do. Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums ever made as far as I'm concerned and God only knows may well be my favourite song of all time. It was the multi-layering of the vocals, the richness of the musical textures that fascinated me. Ray Davis's quirky and very British lyrics appealed to me too. While I also loved The Mamas and the Papas, Andy Williams, Glenn Campbell and other US imports, they didn't quite grab me the way that the Beach Boys and Kinks did.

My dad was also fond of classical music, mostly of a Baroque nature, so I was exposed quite early to the likes of Bach and Albinoni. I still enjoy a lot of classical music and J S Bach remains a firm favourite. But I also grew to love the huge and powerful choral works exemplified by my second choice, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. But not just any old O Fortuna will do I'm afraid. I've heard many recordings over the years but this performance by Andre Previn and the LSO is unbeatable in my opinion.

The next big influence on my life was folk music. Growing up in Cornwall in the 1960s and 70s, there wasn't a lot of live music around unless you liked male voice choirs or strange beardy men in Arran sweaters with twigs in their hair singing songs with 'twelve-month and a day' in the chorus. But despite this handicap, I loved the songs themselves. I liked the way that they told stories and I soon became a fan of singer/songwriters generally and particularly female singer/songwriters who always seemed to go that little bit beyond superficial in their lyrics. Consequently, I still listen to a lot of folk, particularly modern interpretations by people like Jim Moray, Seth Lakeman, Bellowhead, Cara Dillon, Eliza Carthy and the sublime Karine Polwart as shown below. The title track of Faultlines sends shivers down my spine every time I hear it. However, I still love the traditional stuff and Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Capercaillie, Christy Moore and their ilk occupy a largish chunk of my hard drive.

I must also mention Kate Bush who has had a huge influence on me. I actually heard the very first ever national radio play of Wuthering Heights while in an art class during my A levels. David 'Kid' Jenson introduced the song and I completely fell in love with it. The woman is a genius and her finest work is surely Hounds of Love.

It being the 1970s, I was also very much into progressive rock. In much the same way the vocal richness of the Beach Boys, Kate Bush and others was grabbing me, so was the virtuoso twanging, tweeting and plinky-plonking of such prog superstars as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Steve Hackett, Thijs van Leer and Ian Anderson. My entry level to prog was Genesis and particularly the staggeringly beautiful Trespass album. But then, along came Selling England by the Pound and I was hooked. Soon I was listening to Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Peter Gabriel, Jethro Tull, Steve Hackett, Camel, Focus and UK. Their 'concept tracks' and massive soundscapes are still a guilty pleasure to this day and anyone who says that prog is soulless, unemotional pomp really should listen again to a Genesis track like Looking for someone or the last five minutes of Awaken by Yes. Wonderful, wonderful epic music. To represent this era, I've chosen Yes's Close to the Edge, arguably their finest work and with its gatefold sleeve art by the incomparable Roger Dean, it typifies the very best excesses of prog.

Also emerging from the 1970s are two bands that I consider the finest and probably most underrated bands in British rock history - 10CC and XTC. Sadly, most people only know them for their 'novelty singles' such as Making plans for Nigel, Sgt Rock, Donna or I'm Mandy, fly me. Listen to the albums and you'll soon see that these singles are hardly representative. What makes both bands so special is the quality of the songwriting. You never know where the next track is going on a 10CC or an XTC album. I've chosen The Original Soundtrack and Skylarking as my examples. The Original Soundtrack begins with the humorous mini-rock opera Une nuit a Paris - nine minutes of interwoven themes and more tunes than you'll find on any three Coldplay albums put together. This is followed by the groundbreaking I'm not in love and a sextet of songs ranging from the singalong Life is a minestrone to the high camp of The film of my love. Skylarking, meanwhile, is a tribute to everything that is summery and British. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding take us from Summer's Cauldron, past clouds of buzzing insects, through memoirs of smoking dope, clandestine meetings with loved ones, riding bikes in country lanes and Summer showers, getting married, worrying about money and dying, and the final plaintive Dear God; an angry letter from a child railing at the Almighty for all of the injustice in the world. It is a slice of everything that puts the Great in Great Britain and a contender, in my petty view, for the greatest album of all time.

I kind of missed Punk. It didn't impact on us down in west Cornwall. The Sex Pistols were done and dusted and Sid Vicious was dead before I even got to hear Never Mind the Bollocks ... but once I did there was no turning back. I moved to London in 1980 and it was a great time for seeing new bands. The Pistols had reinvigorated the music scene and nothing I have ever seen since has matched the raw energy of seeing bands like The Pogues, The Stranglers and The Damned playing live on stage. My best friend Huw reminded me yesterday that he'd actually sat on the stage at Middlesex Polytechnic in Hendon as a young and unpretentious U2 had gone through the set that would become their first album. I had to include the Pistols.

Punk eventually gave way to the New Wave and the New Romantics, all of which was a bit silly and left me cold. All except for Adam and the Ants who I thought were superb as they camped up the whole genre and turned out some cracking tunes. But from the ashes grew a strain of clever, brilliantly constructed pop from the likes of The Cure, Toyah and Tears for Fears and this in turn gave us the joy of bands like Curve, Cocteau Twins and Massive Attack all of which I am very fond.

Then along came Britpop and the likes of Oasis, Blur, Pulp and many others. I have many happy memories from seeing these bands live but my favourite among them all was the criminally under-valued Echobelly. As far as I am concerned, they have never written a duff tune ... and I can't say that for most bands of that era. It's hard to chose a favourite album in their back catalogue but ON was the LP that turned me 'on' to them, if you'll pardon the pun, so it seemed the best choice.

In writing this blogpost (at last) I've noticed several themes emerging from my choices of music: highly textured musical soundscapes, female singer/songwriters, 'underdog' bands that don't do as well as some of their contemporaries, virtuoso musicianship and experimentation. All of these come together in the form of Björk Guðmundsdóttir. I fell in love with her voice when Bjork was still lead singer of the Sugarcubes but her first solo album, Debut blew me away. Every album since has surprised, delighted and confused me and that's the joy of it. She refuses to be bound by convention, categorisation or even musical instrumentation; the album Medulla was performed almost entirely by using the human voice. Her finest work to date is, in my humble opinion, Vespertine. Beautiful, smart, challenging. It's everything I want from my music.
All of which bings us bang up to date. So what am I listening to currently? It's usually over on the right hand side of my blog. At the moment I'm enjoying Tale to Tell by The Mummers, Ladyhawke and St Vincent's new album Actor.

It's been so hard trying to whittle down my musical tastes and influences to just ten albums. That's why it's taken me so damned long. I could produce a list as long as a gibbon's arm of bands and artists I like that I haven't even mentioned ... like P J Harvey, Radiohead, Arcade fire, Arctic Monkeys, Burt Bacharach, Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Ian Dury ... see what I mean. I'm at it already.

So, have you got ten albums like this? Blog me in a year's time ...


Planet Me said...

What do you think of the Sugarcubes remix CD? "It's It"?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Isn't it 'It'? Damnably good.