David Hasselhoff – “Looking For Freedom”
In 1989, a full eight years before David Hasselhoff brought the pounding rhythms of true Africa to us, via his “Ooga-Chaka Ooga Ooga” cover of “Hooked On A Feeling”, he had released this astonishing album. He was looking for freedom and you could tell he was looking really hard for it from the concentrated stare on the album’s cover. There was no way that freedom was going to be coming in unnoticed on his watch.
The album kicks off by asking “Is Everybody Happy?” which is clearly rhetorical and a reasonable starting point if we’re in a world that excludes freedom. Only sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome would be happy under such conditions and having established that things are not going well he simmers down into the second track which explains “Lonely Is The Night”. It’s a ballad of such haunting lyrical beauty that the extended fret-bass wig out solo in the bridge might be seen as out of place, though there’s no real way us mortals could possibly understand the work of such a master.
He confirms his status as superior being on track three which really spells out how far beyond our understanding he is in its very title – “Je T’Aime Means I Love You”. Many of us were forced to study French at school but who among us has ever known what the hell “Je t’aime” actually means? Thank Christ for Hasselhoff.
The album skips along, casually playing with form and structure, until we get to the title track. “Looking For Freedom” packs such an emotional punch that it’s impossible to overstate its impact. For such a weighty, metaphysical quest a lesser musician would have chosen something epic, something that inspires awe from the very sounds it consists of, but this would be cheating in Hasselhoff’s world, and so he sets himself a challenge and pits his lofty crusade for the fundamental liberty of our species against an incongruous jaunty pop-country swing, with phat synth pads flecked throughout. Bold. Very bold. But fuck-my-cock it works.
The album closes with “Amore Amore (Elisabeth)” and I’ve always admired the decision to specify in the song title that this call of love is not being randomly flung out to all and sundry, it is to a specific individual called Elisabeth. In keeping with the general concept of liberty and human rights it is certainly daring and courageous to close with a thought-provoking pseudo folk song set in Italy and sung from the point of view of a no-good thug who forces himself upon a rich girl.
“I’m fixing the phone and I’m locking the door
Nobody will hurt you, no not anymore.”
Cleverly anticipating a backlash for choosing to end the album on a slightly rapey note, Hasselhoff silences would-be naysayers by singing the following line:
“Elisabeth, You are the best and I am right for you,
A little town with little minds, We’ll leave it all behind.”
This stuff is too important to rhyme or even scan properly and our minds are far too little to comprehend the ways of The Hoff, living as we do in the lower realms of this funny old crazy world. So did Hasselhoff find his freedom? It’s not for me to say here. Maybe try asking the Berlin Wall back in 1989?
The Cure – “Disintegration”
This was not love at first listen. I’d engaged in a protracted courtship with Robert and the boys since 1986’s “Standing On A Beach” collection of singles came out. It’s a very confused entry point for The Cure since they’d already marauded their way from post punk to indie pop, via something approaching euro disco which made for an impossibly eclectic track listing. Much as I liked individual moments, it was hard to get a sense of what the band were: “Killing An Arab” sounds like it has nothing in common with “Let’s Go To Bed”, and although the cassette featured all the b-sides, they were no help either. What the hell was “A Man Inside My Mouth”? I was intrigued, but only gently so.
They made a bigger impact when I saw them on “The Tube” in 1987, performing “Catch” which I found got its hooks into me as the days went by, with me thinking about their goth-romanticism-plus-trainers appearance more and more. I loved that single enough to borrow the “Kiss Me” album, though I still wasn’t fully ready. As brilliant as “Just Like Heaven” was, there was too much psychedelic mood-swinging for me to be able to hang on as each of the album’s two discs bucked and threw me around.
So I was only mildly curious when “Disintegration” came out in May 1989. I’d read the lyrics for “Lullaby” in my sister’s copy of Smash Hits (it seems weird, now, that Smash Hits chose to publish these) and realised Smith wasn’t just any old lyricist, and I really fell for “Pictures Of You” in a big way. But the long, doominess of most of side two was troubling and almost impenetrable and so I left the album alone for a bit.
But then I had one of the most brilliantly intense weekends, not just of my teenage years, but of my entire life, and nothing would ever be the same again. What did that weekend entail? It involved me shutting myself in my room as I completed my GCSE art coursework. . .erm. . . yes, just that. Whilst listening to “Disintegration” on repeat for three days’ straight.
We all have ‘epiphanies’, those perfect storm moments that we can pinpoint as marking a weighty, overwhelming change in our lives, however quiet and unspectacular (or in my case – solitary) they might be. I was growing up in the True Blue Tory Heartland of south-east Kent, attending a grant-maintained state grammar school, heading for a career in journalism, aiming for 2.4 kids and a steady, secure life and had only just started chipping away at each of these assumptions in a manner that few people around me appeared to be doing. I had creative urgings that were not being satiated. My grandfather (and biggest influence on me) had encouraged me to take Art, though it was perceived by most others as a wasted choice. And yet this was the pulse giving life to a growing awareness that I was heading in the wrong direction.
I’d studied Max Ernst, a pioneer of the Dada movement and surrealism, and one of my submitted pieces was going to be a violent re-working of a view of one of Sandwich Town’s churches. My initial delicate and safe pencil sketch became a warped acrylic vision of the End Of Days. And suddenly I was off. Lost in a whirl of concentrated creativity the like of which I had never experienced before. Another piece corrupted a steady yet bland self-portrait into a Dorian Gray-esque, flesh-decaying monster, whilst my pastel view of St Paul’s Cathedral was suddenly splattered with violently crude depictions of homelessness as my 16 year old self attempted to grapple with social injustice. For light relief my final piece rendered a soldier in First World War battle dress and then chose to atomise him in a nuclear wind. For sure I was an intense young man, but never before had I found such exhilaration in this intensity. And throughout this mini-odyssey I had the glacial sounds of armageddon, the howling-at-the-end-of-the-world soundtrack provided by a single album – “Disintegration”.
It covered personal angst and longing but then elsewhere opened out into metaphysical declamations of understated ferocity and I tumbled through it all again and again and again, always enraptured:
“Mouth and eyes and heart all bleed
And run in thickening streams of greed
As bit by bit it starts the need
To just let go my party piece”
And in my stupid, naive, cocooned, teenage room I thought this album was singing directly to me. It changed my life as I realised the fire that sustained me was self-expression. I wanted that adrenalin rush to be something that defined me, and although it wasn’t to be in fine art, it led to me writing and performing and thereby changing tack completely.
From that long weekend on I loved The Cure, and continue to be utterly obsessed. I have everything they’ve put out, not all of it official, and I know the stories about the strangest deleted, most obscure and unavailable b-sides. . .and I cherish all of it. They’re still playing live and last year’s tour of European music festivals showed they’re in the best performing shape of their careers. There’s even whispers of a new album, though those are years old now. In Robert Smith I have found my north star, a guiding influence on diverse things from artistic integrity and experimentation to the very principles of what makes for a decent human being. And, my word. . .such richness of music.
It’s not just the Proustian hit of recall that makes me love “Disintegration” (or the smell of acrylic paint) so very deeply, this album has accompanied me through many further life-enhancing moments. Everyone has that one album that somehow defines them, that gets played at key moments, and always feels powerfully significant even if it’s playing in the background of someone else’s story. This is mine.
Nils Frahm – “All Melody”
Coming out, as it did, in 2018 this is the most recent paradigm shift for me, not just opening up a long-overdue reappraisal of electronic ambient music, but more profoundly igniting a love affair with contemporary classical. The cover of “All Melody” is perfect: it features the design of Frahm’s home-built studio and thereby presents an aesthetic that is as clear, as clean, and as sharp as the music contained on the disc, the natural wood of the structure additionally hinting at something organic contained within. And so it proves to be as waves of sound, growing into electronic pulses of rhythm, ebb away again as the next movement comes to the fore, with voices and traditional instruments co-habiting with unorthodox sounds and adapted physical elements, such as individual hammers of a piano being wrapped in cloth to produce a soft, almost dead yet still percussive sound. I never knew I loved this kind of music. I barely knew it existed before I heard “All Melody”.
Stranger still, I approach everything in this genre category in a way that is utterly different from the way I absorb and appreciate every other kind of music in my collection (even traditional “classical”). Usually I scrutinise every sound, every chord change, every lyric, every production note. . .but these ambient soundscapes are like plunging my head into a rock pool and just seeing what happens, letting what’s there find me rather than me actively seeking it out. I can’t remember any of the tracks in any great detail, however much I listen to them, and though that sounds like a damning criticism, it means it’s all permanently new and exciting. It also feels different every time I play it. I have no firm, rational explanation for any of this and I’m also aware this is sounding dangerously close to new age guff-nollocks, and yet this does have substance, it does feel worthwhile to me, even if it is so very different from everything else I participate in.
“All Melody” led me into the worlds of Olafur Arnaulds, Peter Broderick, Jon Hopkins, Will Samson and Erland Cooper, and on, further, into the work of Max Richter. These musician-composers and their output are amazing, their work mind-expanding. Collectively and individually they take me as close to the edge of a world of meditation as I’m prepared to go. Without their ethereal sounds I’d just be sitting in the dark in silence, wrapped in an emptiness broken only by me guffing from the nollocks, and no one would consider that worthwhile, not even me.
Beyonce – “Lemonade”
If it’s true that we’re not supposed to remain interested in contemporary, mainstream music after a certain age, then I quit that particular club. I remember, as a student, reading an interview with Dave Gedge of The Wedding Present in which he said most people stop caring about music once they hit 30, and I was horrified. I need not have been, since that particular dystopian vision has not been realised in my life, and neither has it in many of my (ageing) friends.
So including Beyonce’s sixth studio album from 2016 in this list is not, I assure you, a bit of verbal Dad Dancing. It’s not me desperate to appear down with the kids and I’m not including it because “it’s got a good beat”. I remain genuinely interested in most forms of music and am passionately insistent that ‘pop’ music should never be reviewed under a sneering cloud of cultural snobbery. Just because ABBA, to take but one example, have been obsessively, weirdly commodified over the years should not obscure the power a song like “The Winner Takes It All” packs within its formal structure and lyrical content. Kylie Minogue’s output between 2000 and 2003 is supremely innovative (as documented alongside the history of pop itself in the highly idiosyncratic but brilliant Paul Morely book “Words and Music”), and what Billie Eilish is doing right now demands (and receives) the highest critical cultural attention. If this is all trivial to you, you’re possibly reading the wrong blog. Pop music is serious, even when it is not.
Beyonce has always been hugely impressive, and always put stuff out that was better than it needed to be in strictly commercial terms. There’s a remix version of “Independent Women”, for example, on the CD single from her time with Destiny’s Child incorporating a South American, flamenco feel that is so good I usually crave hearing it again even whilst I’m still listening to it. It is pop, dance, RnB providing nourishment so deeply satisfying it feels biological.
When she headlined Glastonbury in 2011 the show was so densely packed with songs, performed with power, grace and energy, backed-up with a mind-boggling array of singers, dancers, musicians and light-show pyrotechnics that it felt like we were witnessing something as big as Elvis in his prime. Maybe it’s the other way around and listening to Presley’s breathtaking concert album “An Afternoon In The Garden” recorded in 1972 feels like a precursor to Beyonce some forty years later.
So when “Lemonade” landed as a concept album exploring the twelve stages of grief that she’d been through in her personal struggles with Jay-Z and his infidelities, I dived straight in. It features all-star collaborations from people such as Kendrick Lamar, James Blake and Jack White and the song cycle it spins through gives the album a concrete “beginning”, “middle” and “end” narrative drive that rewards close listening for its entire duration. Hip-hop, reggae, blues, gospel and funk are all woefully under-represented in my collection but this album re-fired in me a desire to explore further, leading me down the rabbit holes of back catalogues from artists such as Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Parliament-Funkadelic and then further back into the work of Otis Reading and Wilson Pickett. Returning to 2016, Beyonce stirs all this (and more) together and delivers a towering work that deserves its place on any list of all-time greatness.
The album also exists as a “visual album” meaning one is able to “watch” it right through. I have yet to do that. I mean, I am 47 for god’s sake; that’s way too old to be messing around with such new-fangled what-have-yous.
David Bowie – “Blackstar”
There’s not much I can say about the impact of this record that hasn’t been said more eloquently by Bowie fans elsewhere. Like the rest of that particular world I was unnerved when the eponymous track was released online, and the same when I first saw the video for “Lazarus” ahead of the album’s release. These were astounding expressions of sound and vision, but something deeply disturbing was going on which was not fully understood until two days after the album itself was released, and we learned that Bowie had passed away. The album itself is a beautiful, alarming gift of enormous magnitude, and not simply because Bowie handled his own death as a work of art. Four years later I’m still unravelling its enigmas and obscurities. Or trying to.
I had come late to the temple of Bowie. South-east Kent was way behind every cultural curve in existence and I felt I’d done pretty well to gain access to as much interesting, left-field music as I could. Whilst still at home, Bowie was merely the poptastic number oner of “Let’s Dance” fame, and little else. He only moved on from that, within my music appreciation, once the University Years had expanded my spheres of influence. I devoured “The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars” as a student (so far, so utterly predictable), and also “Hunky Dory”, whilst I also made sure to put Lady Grinning Soul from “Aladdin Sane” on every single mix tape I created. Although I loved everything I heard, I still hadn’t heard all that much of his back catalogue, and it’s certainly true to say I had only the faintest idea of his chameleonic qualities as an artist throughout his long career.
I can’t fully justify how I managed to keep Bowie largely in the wings until Blackstar came out, but when it did it represented an explosion of understanding and awareness even in those two precious days before he died. And when THAT news broke, this explosion went nuclear. I pored over every lyric, read countless online interpretations of the cover art and what it might mean if you held it up to the light at a certain angle, and on a much more grounded level I became amazed that I could be coveting a work that incorporated so much Jazz, which was (and largely still is) offensive to my indie-kid sensibilities. And not just jazz; there are such strange, exotic arrangements throughout these seven songs and almost none of them make sense as rock and roll.
This album created a hunger to find out more, to make up for what I realised was tragically lost time, to retrospectively seek out and hold close those disparate works of greatness such as “Station To Station”, “Low” and “Heathen”, listening in awestruck wonderment at how all this could possibly be coming from the same man. And then spiralling into biographies that expanded in ever-greater fractals the gargantuan artistry of Bowie-as-internet-pioneer, Bowie-as-digital-music-innovator, Bowie-as-performance-artist. All whilst being Bowie-the-most-beautiful-and-most-otherworldly, something that his onscreen performances, particularly the seminal “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, have allowed us to possess and to preserve.
Hearing Adam Buxton break down in tears on his own podcast a few days after Bowie died drove home the understanding that this was the first time I was experiencing grief for the passing of someone I had never met. It all happened so fast for me, that I’m still coming to terms with it. It’s a process that I hope will take me the rest of my life.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – “Abattoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus”
Choosing this double-album on my “most influential” list is a little bit of a cheat, but more on that later. It’s also a big jump in time since, apart from one very notable exception, I’m listing these in the order in which I discovered them, though yesterday’s entry was fourteen years prior to this one, which came out in 2004.
Those intervening years had seen me settle into a consistent pattern of buying the music I loved and getting to grips with various (sometimes huge) back catalogues. Collecting and absorbing the works of The Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and many others, took a long time, especially as for most of this period I was a struggling actor accepting little more than poorly-paid temping jobs. That’s not to say the music I discovered during these years was not massively influential upon me, more that it was following an established set of preferences and little was opening the way into new, uncharted territory. This was, after all, the era of Radiohead, one of my all-time favourite bands, but such a discovery didn’t really change anything for me in the way Ride’s “Nowhere” had, for example. These were also the years in which I finally clicked into the world of Morissey and The Smiths, though given how far down certain ill-judged political paths that individual has since strayed, admitting this now is possibly akin to shouting about how much I might have loved “Rolf Harris’ Cartoon Time” in the 1980s, or how I might have held Saville’s “Jim’ll Fix It” up as a paragon of televisual formatting. Best whispered quietly, I think, and not fan-fared in a highly selective list such as this one.
It also sweeps over the whole Britpop era, though I’m happy and willing to admit that most of this left me a little cold. To my mind Suede were the best thing to come from this ‘scene’, and although Oasis’ debut album was exciting, I find their descent into posturing self-importance embarrassing. Especially when they’re coming up with Clifton Greeting Card songs like “Wonderwall” which is fingernails down a blackboard to me. Blur did some interesting things but were guilty of the Beatles’ chief crime which was the inclusion on every album of at least one absolutely stinking dud song. For “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” (Abbey Road) read “Crazy Beat” (Think Tank).
So, Nick Cave crashed into my senses with “Let Love In” in 1994 which started a lasting obsession and saw me purchase every subsequent new release the day it came out. I would say my “favourite” album of his is “The Boatman’s Call” and I would argue his “greatest” work is either “Skeleton Tree” or maybe even his most recent offering “Ghosteen” from last year. So why is 2004’s double album the Nick Cave entry on this list, and why is it a bit of a cheat? It’s a great set of songs, after all: “Abattoir Blues” is The Bad Seeds pummelling away at goth-rock at the height of their powers, and “The Lyre Of Orpheus” is a wholly gentler affair, the whole project glittering with the distinct voice and sensibilities of Nick Cave, a man who seems to become greater and more compelling with every passing year.
The album is here, on this list, solely because of the experience of seeing it performed live at Brixton Academy on November 12th 2004. It remains the greatest live music experience of my life, and indeed often features on more weighty, more ‘official’ lists of all-time greatest ‘things’. I don’t have the words to express how utterly mesmeric it was, how electrifying Cave himself became, how ferocious the sound, how tender the more fragile moments were. I have seen many great live performances, but never one that I would count as “life changing”. This was it. In the space of a few hours I was converted from simple fan, into fully paid up Moonie Cult member.
Today’s epilogue has me wrestling with the trivial issue of art versus life. My hero-worshipping of Mr Cave suffered an interruption a few years back after I worked with a cameraman who was extremely lovely and who became a friend of mine. This gentle, softly spoken guy told me a story of how he was shooting some live concert footage of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with a newly purchased, state-of-the-art camera, from the pit at the edge of the stage, when Mr Cave chose to give physical form to the howling noise he and The Bad Seeds were creating by kicking the camera into my mate’s face, shattering the lens, breaking his glasses and injuring his eye. This friend has zero time for Nick Cave as a result, and I can entirely appreciate why. But wow, that is the most rock and roll thing I have ever heard first hand, and it has to have a meaning more than mere random aggression, more than just an idiotic assault, doesn’t it? If you read The Red Hand files, you’ll know this is not a mindless thug kicking that camera.
I still like my cameraman friend. And I still follow Nick Cave, though maybe now only SEMI-religiously.
The Sundays – “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic”
Some great albums instantly sink their hooks into you, whereas others take time to settle and grow, and this album from 1990 is one of the latter. I merely ‘liked’ it at first, homing in on the pop charm of “I Kicked A Boy”, but there was something deceptive in the simplicity of the voice / guitar / bass / drums arrangements on each track that kept needling away. Every subsequent listen revealed a far greater complexity in the composition of the songs, and the ingenuity of the production to make each part work overtime and deliver something way bigger than the sum of its parts. The lyrics were sad, fragile, literary and often wryly comic.
“You’re too twisted by half, but that’s far enough
So live your life, build a home
Fill it full of flowers and a bottle of old cologne
If I could have anything in the world for free
I wouldn’t share it with anyone else but me
Except perhaps a certain someone.”
In Harriet Wheeler I had found one of the most beguilingly gorgeous indie rock voices I have ever heard. Her voice was the lead instrument, she could slide into semi-nonsense and make it sound enchanting, mysterious, dismissive, aggressive.
I was starting to understand how “indie” meant more than just a sweeping genre description, it referred to a creative approach, an attitude and more specifically an alternative to the big labels with their enormous marketing budgets which often came with a compromise on the artistic side of things. Since my tiny little home town of Sandwich had not had a record shop since the late 70s (when, bizarrely it had one that only stocked punk – it didn’t last long), I had to go to the nearest metropolis which was Canterbury, and Canterbury had a new shop called “Parrot Records”, a shop that instantly replaced the more mundane stock of “Our Price” as soon as I discovered it. Parrot Records was an Aladdin’s Cave for ‘indie’ music, and The Sundays opened my eyes and ears to taking chances on bands I had barely heard. This was the time of revelling in obscure choices and loving the rabbit holes they provided. This was the era of The Jazz Butcher, Barbel, The Jasmine Minks, Paris Angels, New Fast Automatic Daffodils and, at the most extreme end of esoteric preferences, the inimitable Edward Barton.
The Sundays marked the point at which my love affair with small, independent music makers really started and this is still how I consume the vast majority of new music. Aesthetically I can trace my obsession with artists such as Aldous Harding, Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett, Weyes Blood and Soccer Mommy back to “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic”, but it’s the more profound widening of understanding that this album delivered which really resonates so strongly. The album showed me a corner of the music industry that quietly gets on with releasing amazing, innovative and varied output. It’s the only ‘scene’ in music I’m truly happy to be a part of.
Ride – “Nowhere”
This is another album that made me sit up and stare right from its first cymbal splashes and creaking feedback howl. It sounded loud and menacing and yet had Beach Boy vocal harmonies underneath lyrics that were quiet, understated even. And, of course, the album has “Vapour Trail” which is one of my all time favourite tracks by anybody.
“Nowhere” was THE album from my sixth form years along with the “Today Forever” EP which came out a year later, in 1991. The follow-up album – “Going Blank Again” from 1992 – was subsequently one of the sounds of my university years, but this is more than just a nostalgic choice from vivid, formative years, “Nowhere” is a gateway album into some of the most beloved bands in my record collection, from My Bloody Valentine and their seminal “Loveless” through to Slowdive’s eponymous fourth release in 2017, and into the emergence of fellow-shoegazers DIIV later still. But then Ride’s “Nowhere” also took me into the Dream Pop of Cocteau Twins and the Noise Pop of Dum Dum Girls, Sonic Youth, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Yo La Tengo. The Oxford quartet even had me tumbling backwards in time looking for more “sheets of noise” which led me to The Velvet Underground and Jimi Hendrix. These are all massive influences on me, and I can even trace a line into early Radiohead and the subsequent experimentations of their more recent work, and link it back to falling in love with “Nowhere”.
“Shoegaze” is, to my mind, a lazy genre definition and in many ways 1990 marked a point where music journalism stopped being essential reading and fell into a pit of self-indulgence and reductive pedantry. It was also baffling to me how shoegaze, and Ride specifically, were accused of being dull as a live act because when I saw them it was one of the most exciting things I’d ever witnessed. And that remains true after they reformed, with 2015’s gig that Amy and I saw in New York becoming one of my favourite gigs ever.
There is an epilogue to this entry:
Amy used to work for Habitat where she met and befriended a lovely man called Steve Queralt who also worked for the home design company. They’d known each other for a few years before a conversation came up about taste in music and it wasn’t until then that Amy realised this was THE Steve Queralt, Ride’s bassist. They were still in touch after he’d left to take up with the band again, and he even put us on the guest list for the after party in New York, though the bouncer on the door couldn’t find our names, and didn’t believe that we were telling the truth. No matter, the gig was more than enough to fill us both with wonderment, propelling us back into Williamsburg that night.