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Influential albums

The challenge on Facebook was to list 10 albums over 10 days that were “influential” to my music taste without saying why (and to nominate each day some other poor devil to join in).

Influential is not the same as favourite. Few of the albums I chose were the one’s I initially thought I would put up. But in the end they covered rock, prog rock, world, reggae, folk, rockabilly, jazz, folk-rock and blues.

Here, I briefly explain my influence picks. Just because.

Twist and Shout – The Beatles

imagesFirst serious album (ok, EP) I ever bought. My 11 year-old friend Tommy was horrified in 1963 that I had not heard of The Beatles, so I ran out, listened to and bought this one. I have been a Beatles fan, rock fan, music fan ever since.

The song “Twist and Shout” still ranks as one of my favourites (although to be honest there are too many to list now).



Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd


No surprise here. My all time favourite since I first heard it lying on the floor of the Alzir Institute student house.  It taught me that rock could be complex and thoughtful, shaking your brain as much as your body.

It still speaks to me and I imagine it will as long as I breathe.


Music of the Incas – Pachacamac

Unknown-2I had a friend at University who was one of the quietest, most modest people I knew. He asked me if would like to hear his band play. On the stage he came, turning into a ponchoed madman with pan pipes and armadillo charango. I loved it.

This album, which I bought as a result, started a long love of world music that stretches well beyond the Andes.


Natty Dread – Bob Marley & The Wailers

Unknown-7I was at a student disco when the DJ put on “Lively Up Yourself”. I got through about four bass notes and one “wooo” before I rushed up to him and asked who the hell that was. Bought the album next day. Loved reggae ever since.

My only regret is that the one time I saw Bob Marley it was a real disappointment. The acoustics were foul and he was just going through the motions. Shame.


Martin Carthy – Martin Carthy

R-3741673-1342524585-3194.jpegAlways kind of liked folk music, but this one cemented it. Just a simple series of acoustic songs by one of the greatest English folk singers. Helps that I can play some of the songs myself.

It is said Carthy influenced Dylan, Paul Simon and Richard Thompson. He certainly influenced me — pushing me into an appreciation of British roots music



The Rosslyn Mountain Boys – The Rosslyn Mountain Boys


Barely anyone reading this (or my Facebook post) will have a clue who this is. They were a widely popular local band in 1970s Washington DC. They were fantastic, but never quite made it

I cheated a bit where this is concerned as I don’t think I had the LP then. But their live gigs at the old, original Birchmere in Arlington turned me into a fan of the rockabilly and outlaw-country strain of Americana.


Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy – Return to Forever (featuring Chick Corea)


Hadn’t listened to this for years, but it made a surprise appearance when I realised it was my introduction to jazz — at least jazz that was not trad. So it made the list of “most influential”.

There is another list this would go on. When I saw them play, Stanley Clarke was the bassist. Absolutely astonishing — best I have ever seen.



The Rock Machine Turns You On – Various

I have written in depth about this album. You can see the details here. Suffice it to say that it introduced me to Leonard Cohen and Taj Mahal.

Those two have played a part in my music life ever since.

I got to meet Taj and interview him in 2012. Leonard Cohen, in the meantime, gave a concert in London that my son and I will never forget – a real father-son bonding moment.


Commoners Crown – Steeleye Span


I like folk from anywhere, but this one sealed my embrace of British folk-rock roots. Goblins and guitar riffs — say no more.

Maddy Prior’s soaring vocals continue to this day to make Steeleye a band well worth seeing. I got to interview her a year or two ago and, much to my delight, she was as friendly and down-to-earth as her music.



Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin

Unknown-4For me, this is the Zeppelin album. Not that the ones that followed weren’t great (most of them were). But this was was blues.

It took Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Mayall and even the Rolling Stones to a new level. So consider it the combo of all those influences that have made be a blues buff. (Also got to interview Jimmy Page once — one of the nicest musicians I have met).





Satire and country from Western Centuries

There is a lot of Nashville in Call the Captain, the new album from Seattle-based band Western Centuries — the collaborative songwriting group of Cahalen Morrison, Ethan Lawton, and Jim Miller. Not surprising, perhaps, as it was produced by Nashville producer Bill Reynolds.

Take as an example “No Cure,” a jaunty little number that belies its classic country tale of  the heartbreak that comes with a cheating partner.

I hear the back door slamming but I pretend I don’t
Maybe I’ll try to catch him but chances are I won’t
And with the scent of another lingering on your skin
Your lips keep lying but your eyes say where you’ve been

Can’t get more country than those lyrics. What’s more, it’s all accompanied by some fine pedal steel, played skillfully and subtly throughout the album by Nashville-based “guest” Thomas Bryan Eaton. (Jim Lauderdale is another high-profile guest on the album, lending vocals to two songs.)

There is also a similar country-heartbreak feel to “All the Things That I Could Say to You Right Now,” with its message of staying true to (possibly unrequited) love.

But Call the Captain is no one-trick pony. The country sound (with a tad of bluegrass, Cajun, and rock thrown in) is also the backdrop for heaps of satirical derision poured on what the band sees as the evils of modern life — mainly religion, greed, and colonialism.

Heading the list is the splendid (and pointed) “Long Dreadful Journey,” which the band itself describes as “an anti-dogmatic, anti-religious, anti-colonial, anti-gospel gospel song.” You’ll have to listen to it, but here’s a hint: There’s not much left for the meek to inherit once the self-righteous are done.

As might be expected from a band that marches to a generally liberal drum, President Donald Trump does not escape the scorn, at least as far as his new Space Force is concerned.

Miller, a founding member of Donna the Buffalo, has written a satirical zinger about the new branch of the U.S. military. It is done in a cheerfully nationalistic ’80s style, rather reminiscent of Jimmy Buffett.

I want to join the Space Force / And wear a silver suit
I’ll have a day-glow ray gun / And a box to store my fruit
We’ll cruise around the galaxy / Taking all the bad guys down
No crime will go unpunished / Cause the Space Dogs are back in town

Call the Captain is good music  — nicely produced, fun and at times heart-warming. Well worth a listen, but I bet even better to hear live (one day).


(Review first published on No Depression website)


Music History: The Troubadour

IMG_1744I spent most of my teens living in and around London during the mid-’60s to early ’70s. As a result I saw many of the great bands live and in their heyday — Beatles, Zeppelin, Who  — as well as many in the next tier down such as Santana, ELP, Joe Cocker and John Martyn.

What I did not do, was go to many of the historic venues (unless you count the Hammersmith Odeon (which you should). I have now remedied this a bit with a gig at the Troubadour on Old Brompton Road. Wonderful place. Good food. Excellent drink. And, most importantly, a cosy basement area for music with a storied history.

My first question was whether it was this Troubadour or the one on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles that was the “real” thing. They answer is, of course, that they both are – but London’s is the original. The LA venue was opened later and based on the London one, including the historic sign (above)

As for the bands that played on Old Brompton back in the early days, well, hold your breath: Dylan, Hendrix, Paul Simon, Keith Moon, Charlie Watts, Sandy Denny and Sammy Davis Jr.

But it has not stopped. More recent performers have included Adele, Florence and the Machine, Ed Sheeran, The Chemical Brother and some Rolling Stones. (I saw Geraint Watkins, but that is a different story).

Now add to all this some non-music history. The British satirical magazine “Private Eye” was conceived at the Troubadour and Britain’s early Ban the Bomb activists met there,.

Not for the first time in my life, I which I could time travel back (knowing what I know now, of course) and just hang out.


When a tribute is not a tribute

IMG_1738My friend and I were sitting in a pub waiting to see The Australian Pink Floyd in the theatre across the road. A discussion ensued about what we were about to see. Was it a covers band? Was it a tribute band? Neither, I said, it is a recital band.

For those not familiar with The Australian Pink Floyd, they are exactly what it says on the tin — Australians who play Pink Floyd. But they are more than that. They are superb, have played in 35 countries and sold more than four million tickets along the way. They do not pretend to be Pink Floyd, they just play the music magnificently  — Astronomy Domine, Pigs On The Wing, Money, One Of These Days, Welcome To The Machine, you name it.

The pub issue at hand was whether covers band or tribute band was the correct term. I will get to my suggestion – recital band – in a bit, but I argued that neither of these descriptions fit the bill for the kind of performance we were about to hear.

Covers band was clearly inappropriate because that implies a degree of deliberate deviation from the original. Jimi Hendrix covered Bob Dylan’s All Along The Watchtower in such a way that it has become the better-known version. So many people have covered  Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that its has turned into a schlock pop song rather than the dark spiritual it was supposed to be.

For me,  the greatest covers artist ever was Joe Cocker, not just for With A Little Help From My Friends (The Beatles) but for a  repertoire including  You Can Leave Your Hat On (Randy Newman), Delta Lady (Leon Russell) and The Letter (The Box Tops).

No, The Australian Pink Floyd is not a covers band (although they could be if they wanted, I suspect). They play Pink Floyd but only interpret it in their show’s marvellous onstage graphics (e.g. a pink kangaroo rather than pig).

So we come to tribute band, a term that I feel would be demeaning to this particular set of musicians. Tribute bands tend to imitate others. That does not mean they are not enjoyable. A year or two ago I saw The Bootleg Beatles at a festival. The music was good, but I found the dressing up as various-era Beatles, the fake Liverpool accents and the reference to each other as John, Paul etc to be circus-like. Fun, but not altogether serious music.

The Australian Pink Floyd does not pretend to be the real band in any way at all.

So, I came up with recital band. I have believed for many years that the more complicated rock and pop music will one day be treated as reverently as some classical music is today. When the London Philharmonic plays Beethoven, it is neither a cover nor a tribute. It is a recital in the sense of re-citing the music, playing it as it was originally written to an audience that cannot hear the original.

And we cannot really hear the real Pink Floyd live. Only three band members remain and they are highly unlikely to get together again.

So think of The Australian Pink Floyd as ground-breaking orchestral musicians somewhat ahead of their time – seriously, if highly enjoyably, presenting Pink Floyd music pretty much as it was written. It is trend that doubtlessly will grow as our heroes from the 1960s, 70s and onwards pass on.

As for the pub discussion, all I can say is that at the break in concert, by friend turned to me and said” “A recital band it is, then”.

R.I.P. Paul Barrere of Little Feat

IMG_5743I interviewed Paul Barrere in 2010, just before he went on stage at the Cropredy Festival (where I took this picture of him performing). Ironically, it was the day after the death of Little Feat drummer and founding member Richie Hayward.

The article I wrote for Reuters can be found here.

Little Feat were one of my favourite bands at university in the early 1970s and I still love them. It is so sad that Paul has now gone too.

Miles Davis: King of Cool … and Cruel

Wife-beater, failed husband, adulterer, on-and-off drug addict and all-round angry man. But boy could he play the horn!

UnknownThe new documentary “Miles Davis: Birth of Cool” paints a painfully unflattering picture of the jazzman –at least as far as personality goes. The soundtrack, however, does the opposite. And there lies an interesting dilemma.

From bebop through collaborations with the greats (John Coltrane and Gil Evans, in particular)  to the wild electronic sounds of the late ’60s/early ’70s and the 1980s comeback, Davis’ brilliance as trumpeter and musical genius shines glaringly through.

The film, directed by Stanley Nelson Jr (a specialist in documenting various sides of black American culture), is particularly strong in presenting Davis’ amazing contribution to music, his influence and invention. The section about “Kind of Blue” is worth the ticket price alone.

Jazz enthusiasts will love it and, I suspect, non-fans of the genre will learn that it is far more than the discordant lounge music they seem to think it is. Biting and beautiful.

But now we come to the issue of Miles Davis the man. He was violent, self-centred, misogynistic and cruel to many who loved him. It is one-sided, of course, but dancer Frances Taylor Davis, his first wife and third serious partner, tells of how he beat her up because she happened to mention after a party that Quincy Jones was attractive.

Taylor Davis — who had the film audience chuckling at her constant (and accurate) references to how hot she was when young — also related how Davis forced her to give up a promising role on Broadway (“West Side Story” ) to stay at home and cook.

As for male musicians and managers, he was brusque and would have nothing to do with many of them (with major exceptions such as Gil Evans).

There are all sorts of excuses given for Davis’ persona – drugs, having a father who beat his mother, tension over the direction of his music, police brutality, discrimination because he was black etc. But these are in the end just excuses.

The fascinating thing, however, is that all his family and collaborators appear to have forgiven him and put down his behaviour to something akin to “That’s just Miles”.

Is that ok? You are a genius so you can do what you like? Is it only art that counts? Not really.

“Miles Davis: Birth of Cool” is a wonderful documentary showing the master for what he was — a beautiful musician and an ugly human being.

Music changes and music endures

Browsing in a record shop this weekend, I saw a copy of an album by The Pretty Things for sale at the whopping price of £95 ($125 or thereabouts). It surprised me because a) they were not that big a name back in the day and b) I suspect that a lot of people today have not heard of them.Unknown

When it comes to records, of course, that does not necessarily make a difference. It is rarity and condition that counts, and this was an original, not a re-pressing.

Still, it got me to thinking about how music — like art — can be appreciated after the fact. Vincent van Gogh was not at all famous when he was alive and was certainly not a commercial success. Similarly, Mozart  struggled and ended up in a pauper’s grave.

This is not to say The Pretty Things are destined for late greatness (although I know one Xennial who rates them quite highly). I, for example, am still not overly familiar with their work. My main recollection was when I was around 14-years old and my father came harrumphing into the house to say he had just heard them on the radio and  that “They were singing about drugs!” It was not an endorsement.

It is just that seeing their album at such a price in the shop reminded me that things get judged differently over time. ABBA is a prime example. No self-respecting rock-prog musico like me would have dreamed of listening to them back when they were chart-toppers. After “Muriel’s Wedding”, however, things changed. Still not a huge fan, but I do listen with some pleasure because they are clever.

And I am constantly reminded of something Rick Wakeman told me when I interviewed him for my old employer Reuters. He said he had met a young fan with a copy of one of his oldest albums. He asked the fan why he was listening to that old stuff, and the fan said something like: “It’s old for you, but I have only just heard it”.

Music changes and music endures.