01: The Jam, Setting Sons (1979)
Paul Weller has inspired me in so many ways. I’m far from unique in that respect. The haircuts, the Lonsdale t-shirts, the boating blazers, Dennis the Menace button badges etc … there was an identikit army of us back in the late 70s and early 80s. The ‘Spokesman for a generation’ tag sat uneasily on Weller’s head but his influence on a largely male teenage demographic was palpable. And it principally came from a phenomenal run of singles propelled by direct, identifiably personal lyrics about the pains (and sometimes the pleasures) of growing up in the societal rubble of Thatcher’s Britain.
My first ever gig was The Jam at Glasgow Apollo on 8th December 1979. I was fifteen. Setting Sons had just been released and made up much of the set-list. That whole night is seared into my memory. The Vapors as the support act, the walls dripping with sweat, looking back from the stalls during the encores to see the structure of the balcony bouncing, like it was in danger of imminent collapse.
Setting Sons – whilst not necessarily the best – is the archetypal Jam album. It’s a thirty-five-minute warning sign about the inevitability that friendships forged as teenagers are often unravelled by the harsh realities of adulthood. My own writing owes an embryonic debt to Weller, and to Setting Sons in particular. I find that complex blend of youthful working-class hope coming apart at the seams of adult and mid-life pressures very relatable. It’s a powerful canvas on which to play out dramatic ideas about people and relationships, and one I return to regularly.
02: Curtis Mayfield, Curtis (1970)
Paul Weller was also largely responsible for developing my wider musical knowledge. Various Jam covers and interview references to legends from Eddie Floyd to Lee Dorsey, The Zombies to The Small Faces, The Chi-Lites to Curtis Mayfield expanded my tastes. All brilliant, but Curtis Mayfield is the one that has stuck with me most. And Curtis is undoubtedly one of the greatest debut albums ever made.
The record shares a characteristic with another record regularly described as the greatest of all-time; Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – incendiary lyrics of justifiable anger and rage, delivered by the sweetest of voices (and, in Curtis Mayfield’s case, a high tenor in some parts). There’s something uniquely affecting about that combination. The subtle power the music creates; a sense that if enough people just listened to this mesmerising record, then change would inevitably come. And of course, ‘Move On Up’ is one of the greatest songs of all-time.
I bought my copy in 1982 and still listen to it at least once a week.
03: Michael Head & The Strands, The Magical World of the Strands (1998)
More than any other, The Magical World of The Strands was the record that finally prompted me to write. The night after I listened to it for the first time, I had a dream so vivid and fully formed that I wrote it down thinking it would make an interesting novel:
The central protagonist – a recovering addict – searches for something very personal and important to him (we will never exactly find out what it is) which he has lost or has had taken from him. His search forces him to confront the challenges and temptations he faces, the decisions he has made, the broken relationships, the places he somehow can’t leave … but also the joy and hope in people and things previously taken too much for granted. He ultimately concludes that, although he knows it will soon kill him, he preferred the anaesthetised life of an addict where he doesn’t have to deal with or confront the pain caused to others.
One of these days, I’ll get it started.
Michael Head’s masterpiece LP is Pele in the 1970 World Cup Final: all nonchalant poise and effortless balance. It’s Muhammad Ali dropping George Foreman in Zaire and knowing that he didn’t need that final punch. Arrogantly brilliant. It’s one of the greatest LPs ever made; one of the eight.
04: Tindersticks, Tindersticks II (1995)
When I began writing what would become There’s Only One Danny Garvey, I couldn’t shake off the sparse, evocative vibe of Tindersticks II, which I was listening to repeatedly at the time. If ‘Danny Garvey’ has a far darker tone than my previous books, it’s largely down to this album, and the brooding bleakness of the spoken word ‘My Sister’, in particular. Stuart Staples’ vocals, delivered in a husky half-whisper or a Brando-like mumble, are often obscured by what feels more like a tender cinematic score than a collection of individual songs.
It’s an album that’s densely layered, like a complex novel where much is left to the interpretation of the reader, or in this case, the listener. Consequently, there’s different things to hear in it regardless of how often it’s played.
As the NME review of the album concluded; the key to this immense, beguiling record: you can’t aspire to Heaven unless you’re aware of Hell.
05: Bobbie Gentry, Fancy (1970)
My mum died in the first few days of 1972. I was seven. The years before her death may well have happened to someone else for all I can specifically recall of them. But there is one thing. My dad was a country and western fan. Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash principally, but also of Glen Campbell. Their music was played regularly in the flat where we lived. There were other records. One called The Summit; a live Rat Pack gig (with Bing Crosby). Lipstick On Your Collar. Little Old Wine Drinker, Me. They were his favourites.
But one stands out for other reasons. Fancy, by Bobbie Gentry. Bobbie sang with Glen. But Bobbie also sang beautifully on her own. I can’t recall my mum’s voice, but one glimpse of that bright, brilliant red painted cover and I can see her singing along:
“Out of those chains, those chains that bind you
That is why I’m here to remind you”
This amazing record forges a connection to a time that remains largely buried. One play of side one is like dusting away painful debris and emerging with total clarity. Like a restored painting. This LP is part of my DNA. My link to my parents now that they’re gone, and their lasting influence on my tastes, attitudes, relationships.
06: The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead (1986)
The Queen Is Dead is the pinnacle of five years during which The Smiths were untouchable. It’s an album composed of powerfully bittersweet vignettes of life in a working-class context that I knew well. These songs describe the lives of angry young men, the longing of lonely, directionless teenagers, and the increasing absurdity of the Monarchy. Morrissey’s lyrics were a magical mystery tour of his own literary influences, and gradually, they also became mine. From Shelagh Delaney to Keith Waterhouse, Oscar Wilde, and the American beat poets.
The grim up north subtext of the Smiths early songs concealed an extremely funny and identifiable perspective and on The Queen Is Dead, the dark humour is front and centre. Underpinning these phenomenal lyrics is Johnny Marr’s incredible music. Uplifting and intricate, it reminded me of everything that was great in my musical frame of reference – yet it still sounded original and unique.
In truth they weren’t a band to be listened to on CD. Even though the CD started to make an impact in the middle of the Smiths brief career, the structure of the track-listing of each album, and the graphic perfection of each sleeve and cover package were made for vinyl. And when The Smiths toured The Queen Is Dead, visiting Glasgow’s Barrowlands in 1986, they were the best band around at the best venue around. An unforgettable gig that finished very late and led to me and my girlfriend missing the last train home and having to spend the night on a carriage we’d broken into on a platform in the city’s Central Station. Worth every frozen minute of lost sleep and the written warning for missing work the following day.
07: Primal Scream, Screamadelica (1991)
I hope it’s not too self-indulgent to link all these records to books I’ve written but I guess music provides much of the stimulus for me to be creative. The Man Who Loved Islands is set in Ibiza and focuses on the pivotal point where the Balearic DJs were at the forefront of an entire musical paradigm shift; a new philosophy where the DJ had become an imaginative innovator let loose in a classic record store with everything ever recorded at his disposal.
When I first heard Loaded lolloping out of a massive speaker stack into the warm summer air, it sounded transcendental. It could transport you to a place where music seemed the only thing in life that mattered.
I used to DJ, but I never fully appreciated what proper DJ-ing was about until listening to Screamadelica and Primal Scream’s collaboration with Andy Weatherall. They were experimenting; taking risks and incorporating them into a new music that had evolved far from its basic origins. They were collectors, researchers, alchemists … all at the same time. This record’s creators are completely in love with music. That love permeates every second of this album and it’s hugely addictive. The album brews a cultural clash of classic soul, indie attitudes, and the punk appropriation of cool movie motifs. Like This Is Big Audio Dynamite before it, Screamadelica sounded like the future of music at the dawn of the 90s when it was released. Thirty years later and it still does.
08: The Clash, London Calling (1979)
Only four weeks separate the release of London Calling and Setting Sons, the albums which bookend this selection, and more than any others, positively influenced my attitude to life, politics, music, and my own creative potential. Maybe no real surprise that 1979 is my favourite year for music. I had just started buying LPs as well as singles, I was going to gigs and my newly voracious tastes had broadened in response to the melting pot of punk attitudes and black music that a record like London Calling represents. But although nihilism has its place, this record’s timeless appeal for me lies in the universal idea that music – inclusive and diverse and optimistic and hopeful – is the one thing that most connects us. In this sense, London Calling and Screamadelica (and all the other six records in this selection) share the same musical genetics.
I met Joe Strummer briefly in Glasgow in October 1989. He was promoting a new record and playing at the famous Barrowland Ballroom with his group, The Latino Rockabilly War. It was my very good fortune to be late for a signing session that Joe was conducting in a city centre record store. He didn’t see me as I approached him, and with a wind-milling arm, he accidentally elbowed me in the face. Consequently, he spent more time with me than I suspect would otherwise have been the case. We eventually left the store together, walking and talking all the way from Union Street to his hotel, where he gave me a guest list pass for the gig later that evening.
A man you don’t meet every day.