I’ve been pondering a little on musical influences. In the UK we have (had? Not sure if its still running since I rarely subject myself to pumped media these days), a long running radio programme called ‘Desert island disks’, where they invite guests to burble on about themselves and introduce a selection of their favourite tunes, the premise being if they were marooned on an island, what music would they want to have with them. In this day and age of iPods and the like of course, we have become accustomed to carrying around with us a vast library of music, so the concept might seem a bit odd to younger readers; but there was a time when music, at least in my life, was hard to come by.
I still recall saving my pocket money for months to afford my first album: “Dark side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd. It would have been early ‘74, and I would have been 12 years old. And then when “Wish you were here” came out, I had to negotiate an extended repayment system with my mother in order to get it. When everyone was out I would listen to that album in the dark at immense volume, with just the little red light on the amp to focus on. Complete zen immersion. I had no inkling that mortals could make music like this. I can still vividly remember the day I visited our neighbours across the road, he was a Brummie and was playing an album by a little known band from his home town, “Black Sabbath”. Well when I heard that, my life changed forever.
By the time I was 15 I maybe had 10 albums of my own. My brothers probably had a similar number, and our tastes dovetailed quite well so there were maybe on the order of 25 albums in the house I could listen to – My stepfathers collection of Sinatra and related crooners being of little interest to me; and of course a handful of tapes made from albums borrowed from friends. There was precious little on the radio that interested me except for fuzzy reception of radio Caroline late at night and in later years sometimes I could get to listen to Nicky Horne’s “Mother wouldn’t like it” on Capital radio, which would play an eclectic mix of rock music.
Now I know I’m severely at risk of sounding like the old farts in the classic Python sketch here, “had to walk 7 miles in the snow to school even in Summer, uphill both ways and lived in a cardboard box in’t middle of road”. As my kids like to point out at every opportunity, but the fact remains that music, and in fact information of all sorts, was pretty scarce in those days – at least to me in the cultural wasteland of a suburb town where I grew up. What would I have given for Wikipedia when I was a kid.
So, since I’m never likely to be invited on to Desert Island Disks, here is an annotated list of my top ten tracks I’d like to send to that 12 year old boy (unless of course I can just send him my Zune), I know he would have appreciated them, you might like to try this exercise yourself.
So in classic “Top of the pop’s” reverse order:
At number 10: “I’m Going Home” by Ten Years After. Probably the definitive recording of this is the one form from Woodstock, which blew my mind when I first saw it (on film – I’m not quite that old!); but the recording I’ve grown rather fond of over the years is from the Live at Filmore East album. They say the blues is supposed to be a melancholy form of music, but not the way Alvin Lee plays it, which is more like a cheerleader on speed.
At 9: “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. Now young Sean might not have appreciated finger style acoustic guitar quite as much has his later self does, but this is a masterpiece of the singer-songwriter’s art and I’m sure he would have quickly come to love it. My favourite version of this was recorded from an Andy Kershaw session for the BBC back in the mid 90’s, which i don’t think has been commercially released, however the recording on the album “Rumor and Sigh” is pretty fab too.
At 8: “Eruption” by Van Halen on the eponymous debut album. Now this is a bit of an oddity in this list, because this was one of the albums I actually had when it came out (still have in fact), however the point of including it here is that although today it’s a bit of a cliché, and you can hear 12 year old kids playing it in guitar shops now; when I first heard this at the age of 15/16 it was like the Martians had landed. I mean I had NO IDEA how a slab of wood with wires attached to it could make noises like this. The cheapo Kay acoustic I was struggling with certainly didn’t. I’d like to send this to myself at the age of 12 with a half decent electric guitar and explanations of what hammer ons, pull offs, right hand tapping, whammy bars, string bends and monster amplification actually do. Genius. Unfortunately as far as I’m concerned the VH band never really lived up to the promise of this debut album, spiralling off into the excesses of 80’s pomp rock, but at the time this was a watershed recording.
At 7: “Shin Kicker” by Rory Gallagher from the live album Stage Struck. Now that’s how to open a set. Strangely Rory was someone I heard a lot about as a kid, but never actually heard play. I wish I had, I might have gotten to see him play before his untimely death.
At 6: “If I could Holler” on the album of the same name by Catfish Keith. This is someone who deserves to be better known; an absolute master at putting a fresh spin on old school blues and spiritual music. I could put probably any of his recordings in this list, and struggled trying to pick one. This however is just achingly beautiful; put it on your bucket list to see him play live.
At 5: “Supernaut” by Black Sabbath from the album Vol 4. Again an album I did in fact own as a teenager, but I wanted to include Sabbath here because they were so influential on me, and of course so many others. I picked this particular track out, although the same point is true of a lot of the Ozzy era Sabbath, because I find it interesting that although Sabbath had a reputation of being uncompromisingly heavy, to me their music was never sad or doom laden. I wish the thrash metal brigade would stop thundering out a single idea as fast as they can and that people would start making stuff like this again, speed and volume are no substitute for talent. Iommi puts more ideas in this one track than some bands put in a whole album, but it’s not tricked out Phrygian mode widdlings in 25/32 tempo either. His playing is open, lyrical, even paced and amazingly delicate for the so called progenitors of Heavy Doom laden metal; the musical equivalent of Shaker furniture, to my ears at least.
So now we move into the super league. These next four tracks are my all-time top favourites; to me they represent the absolute pinnacle of what playing the guitar is all about.
At 4: “Driving South”, the Jimi Hendrix Experience from the BBC sessions recording (disc 1). This is one track where the louder you play it the better it gets (legend has it when they recorded it they received complaints that it was too loud from people working 3 floors below). Jimi of course would be in pretty much anyone’s top 10 guitar list. I think it’s impossible now to appreciate quite how big a deal Jimi’s playing was at the time, and just about anything he recorded is magical, but this track to me epitomises his (and the band’s) playing, it still sounds fresh as a daisy today; it goes like a train, and is just unbelievably good.
At 3: “Little Wing” by Stevie Ray Vaughan on the greatest hits album. (Kind of unfair that Jimi gets in twice but then he is that good). Stevie of course would again get in on merit in any guitarist top 10, but this track stands out to me because he is playing Jimi’s music. The love and respect that Stevie had for Jimi just shines through in every note here. A thing of beauty.
At 2: “Pantomima” by Carlos Paredes. You might struggle to find this one, it’s on an album called “Guitarra Portugesa” from 1990 put out by EMI but not on all versions. Not well known outside his native Portugal, Carlos’s playing here is simply breath-taking. He is not playing a six string guitar, but the Portugese guitar, a very interesting sounding instrument. This particular track is unaccompanied, and has a roll in it about half way through which still gives me goosepimples whenever I hear it. Wonderful stuff. I wish I could have packed young Sean off to Portugal to study with Carlos.
At 1: “Ship Ahoy” by Frank Zappa on the “Shut up n play yer guitar” double album. What can I say about this? When I got this album I must have played this track back to back in the headphones for about 2 hours. I think this is the most astonishing musical statement ever made, I never tire of it. Even now 20 odd years on it still blows me away. If they don’t play this in heaven, I don’t wanna go.
There you go Sean, a little gift from me to me, hope you enjoy them