Growing up in private: ten albums that changed my life

Posted: November 19, 2014 in music
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There are two beautiful moments in everyone’s life as a music fan. There’s the moment you first get into music; and then there’s the moment when you really get into music.

I had loved music for years before I experienced the latter of these ‘moments’. And then, over the following couple of years, I seemed to have a musical epiphany about once a week.

In this post I want to describe eight records that blew my mind as a teenager, as well as a couple of more recent personal touchstones.

These aren’t my ten favourite albums – I actually haven’t listened to some of them since last century – but they probably had the biggest impact on me as a listener. If only they had soundtracked the growth to maturity of a cooler person…

Definitely Maybe by Oasis

This was the big one – the record that changed my life as they say. But it really did.

Allow me to put this in context.

The first album I ever got was the Postman Pat album, aged two or three. It’s brilliant, by the way, and I still like to play the Postman Pat song on my guitar.

The following Christmas I got a Johnny Hates Jazz album to play on the family turntable. (This proved helpful many years later when I was able to identity Turn Back The Clock from that album in a pub quiz in Greece). Further albums by Wet Wet Wet followed, before I found my first musical hero: Billy Joel.

My dad got me into his Billy Joel records, and they’re really good. They are! You should give his stuff a listen.

Apparently the “here we, here we, here we f***ing go” chant that you hear around Glasgow has been misheard in certain quarters as “Billy, Billy, Billy f***ing Joel”. I stand behind Billy f***ing Joel as an excellent New York songwriter in the classic Brill Building tradition.

But soon enough I was off in search of more operatic, bombastic thrills, and so I naturally became a massive fan of Meatloaf.

Again, I challenge the giggling reader to listen to some classic Meatloaf. He’s great! Top tunes, and I am certain that I would know every word to all of his hits to this day without having to refer to the songbook. Not that I would expect to be taking on any Meatloaf songs in a karaoke context any time soon.

The other lucky recipients of my burgeoning musical enthusiasms were Tears for Fears. I actually got a bit hipster-ish when they became briefly cool around the time of the Donnie Darko soundtrack. “That’s not even one of their better songs!” I complained to the arrivistes when a dreary cover of Mad World became a hit.

But I was getting a bit too old to get away with such MOR taste by this stage, however. Luckily, help was at hand.

When I was twelve I went round to my friend’s house one Sunday to play football. His brother was a few years older than us and he played us Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana. It was the most exciting thing I had ever heard. I asked if they had any more songs. It seemed that they did, but alas the singer, Kurt Cobain, was already dead.

I had missed grunge completely.

The next weekend I was back in the same house, and this time my friend’s brother played us something else.

It was the first Oasis album.

I immediately forgot all about Nirvana. This was what I had been waiting for.

I couldn’t believe how good it was. Every song was dripping with melody. We only got to hear the album once but every song was stuck in my head for the whole week.

I couldn’t concentrate at school at all. All I could think about was the technicolor excitement of the Oasis album. I couldn’t wait for the weekend to come round again, when not only was I going to hear Oasis again – I had been promised a taped recording of the album.

I guarded that tape like a sapphire on the way home, and played it over and over for months. How could music be that good? How could songs be that exhilarating?

I bought Definitely Maybe on CD a couple of years ago. That was the first time I actually owned a proper recording of the album that changed my life. Until then, I only had the same taped copy I procured from my friend’s brother in 1994. It lasted me the best part of twenty years, and I only replaced it when my tape player stopped working. It’s quite weird not having to fast-forward after Columbia when I decide to stick the album on these days.

Definitely Maybe stands up today as a compelling, urgent statement of sheer talent. Just listen to Liam’s voice. Even the guitar solos are fun. And in Live Forever and Slide Away, the band gifted us two of the most romantic, aching epics of the 90s.

So you can imagine my disappointment when, after willing the days to pass to bring the follow-up album closer, Morning Glory turned out to be a boring load of crap. But that was another valuable life lesson well learned, so not to worry.

Thanks Oasis!

Generation Terrorists by the Manic Street Preachers

It’s perhaps not the most obvious pathway, but my next big discovery after Oasis were the Manics.

After my brush with Definitely Maybe it was clear that there was a whole other world out there – but how to access it? To coin a phrase,
how do you start? Where do you go? Who do you need to know?

Again, guidance was at hand. I stumbled upon a magazine in my local newsagents that would lead me by the hand into that promised land of brilliance. The magazine was called Select.

Oh, how I miss Select. It was the best magazine.

PJ Harvey was on the cover of the first issue I bought, in April 2005, and I pored over every word for clues about what was good in that secret world of Adult Culture.

And the cover star of the May issue? Richey Edwards from the Manics. And the headline? VANISHED.

Over the course of ten brain-mangling pages, Select introduced me to the angry radicalism of the Manics, and the sad articulacy of Richey in particular. I learned about their lyrics, their cover art, their anthemic choruses and their fans. And I learned about their guitarist Richey’s struggles with depression, anorexia and alcoholism.

I was obsessed right away and needed to hear them.

There was no internet in them far off days (at least outside cutting edge science labs) so I headed out to the mid-90s equivalent – the library. My local library had recently started to lend cassettes and videos, which seemed impossibly cool. To my shock and delight, they had the first two Manics albums on tape, so I borrowed them both and kept them for months.

Today, if I’m absolutely honest, I don’t really think they’re particularly great albums. But they had an immeasurable impact on my life; the debut album, Generations Terrorists, especially.

For the uninitiated, the Manics emerged fully formed in the early 90s with a debut double-album full of complicated lyrics and weighty cover art. Their interviews and album sleeve notes were drenched in literary, cultural and political references and they immediately inspired the most cultish of cult followings.

I scoured the Generation Terrorists sleeve for literary tips. Beside the lyrics to the album’s greatest song, Motorcycle Emptiness, was a quote from Sylvia Plath: “I talk to God but the sky is empty”. This seemed important.

The Plath influence on Richey in particular became apparent the more I read about the Manics. A year later I was lucky enough to win a £10 book token as a school prize. The idea was that you’d buy a book with the money before the award ceremony, and be presented with your book rather than the token. So my 3rd year prize was the Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath.

What a wanker!

Richey vanished in February 1995 and has never been seen since. The band eventually opted to struggle on without him, and became hugely successful. The SECC gig they played on their comeback tour in 1996 was the first proper gig I went to and the emotion was almost overwhelming.

A key part of my routine around this time was to come home from school at lunchtime, click onto the Planet Sound music news on Channel 4 teletext, and see if Richey had re-appeared. I really hoped he’d come back.

The Melody Maker parodied people like me quite majestically in its Diary Of A Manics Fan column. It usually opened with the phrase “I’m feeling intensely intense” and got even more accurate from there. If ever there was a band that brought out people’s embarrassing inner goth, it was the Manics. And there’s a bed in heaven for them for that.

An unfortunate symptom of my Manics fandom was my unwise decision to try to write some lyrics. It was all about the lyrics with the Manics, y’see. I wrote in this piece about how I don’t actually care about lyrics when I listen to music these days – but it was different when I was an intensely intense Manics fan. Their lyrics were like scripture.

My own lyrics were less successful than Richey’s. I tried to echo his political passion, but it was tricky when I didn’t actually know anything about politics. One particularly laughable effort tried to equate Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot with, um, John Major.

While the Manics once claimed iconoclastically that they “would always hate Slowdive (a boring shoegazing band) more than Hitler”, I’m not sure even they would have suggested that Major’s Patient’s Charter was worse than the Cambodian Killing Fields.

So the Manics made me write terrible, stupid lyrics, look hilariously pretentious at a school prize-giving and, worst of all, listen to some seriously ropey indie-metal (Gold Against The Soul, the second album, is pretty horrible in places).

But against that they introduced me to dissident writers, painters, ideas and activists I would have been unlikely to encounter by any other route. They made me feel part of something progressive and intelligent. They showed me that a band could mean something.

And, in the right mood, they were the greatest band in the world. Just listen again to Motorcycle Emptiness, A Design For Life, Faster, From Despair To Where, or Donkeys: melancholia to bruise the very heavens.

Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot by Sparklehorse

And now for something completely different.

I bought this album on Christmas Eve, 1995, from Missing Records in Glasgow. They were selling it discounted on tape for a couple of quid, and I liked the band name and album title.

Sparklehorse was the work of Mark Linkous, a troubled, brilliant songwriter from Virginia. Alas, like Richey Manic, he is no longer with us.

Vivadixie… is a magical album, and it opened me up to a whole new sonic palate.

I was trying to write music myself by this point (more successful than the lyrics) after my encounter with Oasis inspired me to learn how to play my dad’s guitar. I learned a ridiculous amount from this album in terms of songcraft, even though it probably took me another ten years to make music that didn’t blatantly rip it off.

There are four types of song on the record – tuneful stompers like Someday I Will Treat You Good, sad ballads like The Most Beautiful Widow In Town, weird Lynchian americana like Homecoming Queen, and battered country songs like Gasoline Horses. And for an album that is often quite wonky and eccentric, there isn’t a note out of place.

If you want to learn how to write songs, listen to this record. Mark Linkous was a wonderfully idiosyncratic songwriter, so he’ll teach you how to find your own voice. It might take a while to shake his off, mind you.

I only got the chance to see Sparklehorse once, at the Leeds Music Festival a few years after I first discovered them. The sound was horrendous – you could basically only hear the bass player and a backing singer. I didn’t mind though, because Sparklehorse were always a secret treat to be indulged alone, after dark.

Oh, and the album title freaked me out because it was apparently derived from a dream the singer had…and I thought I’d had the same dream. Creepy!

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic by the Sundays

Another album that I haven’t listened to for many a year, but a tone-setter for a massive chunk of my record collection.

The Sundays were really…pretty. They comprised a pretty couple called Harriet and David, who met at university and wrote pretty songs together in their student digs. Their first album, Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, was a big deal on the indie scene in the early 90s at about the time I was rocking out to Bat Out Of Hell.

That album must have been re-released for some reason, because I read a review of it in the NME in 1995. The reviewer awarded the album 9 or 10 out of 10 and praised Harriet Wheeler’s “breathlessly emotive vocals”. I didn’t know what breathlessly emotive vocals were, but they sounded like fun.

And so they proved. Harriet has an extraordinary voice: rich, happy, colourful and, frankly, a bit posh. It’s perfectly suited to the cartwheeling melodies of the first album, and beautifully accompanied by David’s spectral, echoing guitar lines.

Every song on the album is brilliant – tuneful, dynamic and soulful. And very, very pretty.

I haven’t listened to the Sundays for years and haven’t replaced my cassette copies of their three albums. Prettiness is perhaps not the most enduring of musical characteristics. But I recommend the first album to anyone who hasn’t heard it. The songs are as good as those on the first Stone Roses album, and the guitars are worthy of Johnny Marr.

It was Harriet’s voice that left the biggest impression on me, though. She was the first of many breathy female singers with whom I would be smitten. My mum thinks I basically only ever listen to breathy female singers. She’s pretty much correct too.

Harriet’s mantle would shortly be taken by another breathy female singer. And unlike the Sundays, her group would remain at the very top of my hit list to this day.

Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine

Another one from the re-releases page of the NME. Bizarrely, the impression I got from the review was that it would sound like the Sundays. It really doesn’t.

My Bloody Valentine made some rubbish records in the mid-80s, before suddenly becoming amazing almost overnight in 1988 after abandoning their indie jangle for something much more interesting.

Following a couple of legendary EPs that announced their transformation, they released Isn’t Anything on Creation Records. Supposedly the label thought they’d signed a jangly indie band. They were in for a shock.

I got a similar shock when I thought I had bought a Sundays-esque album of pretty, jangly songs. I put on the CD and immediately assumed the disk was faulty. The first song, Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside) is built on a groaning, grinding sound the like of which I haven’t heard anywhere else. That couldn’t be right, surely?

I ploughed on through the rest of the album, reluctantly acknowledging that it did seem to be playing properly. It was loud, obscure, weird and horrible. I hated it.

A few days later my partner in musical exploration, Drew, popped round to my house. “Wait til you hear how shit this is!” I told him, putting the album on for the second time.

I don’t recall what Drew’s reaction was, because I was suddenly unaware of anything apart from My Bloody Valentine. It had taken me two attempts, but this time I got it. They’ve been my favourite band ever since.

I wrote at some length about my love for My Bloody Valentine in this piece. Isn’t Anything is variously primal and thunderous, hazy and vague, ecstatic and abandoned, and hidden and blank. All I Need sounds like the descent of a god. Nothing Much To Lose is a bubblegum pop song held up suddenly at gunpoint. And the aforementioned Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside) is a seriously x-rated way to start an album (and completely beyond my frame of reference aged fourteen).

Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher sing beautifully together on that album, and much more clearly than they would on future records. It sounds as if the album was recorded on the planet earth, unlike its successors.

This was 1995, and MBV had last released an album (Loveless, the even better follow-up to Isn’t Anything) in 1991. They were still being mentioned occasionally in the news pages of the music press in relation to an allegedly nearly finished new album, but it soon went quiet. And so the long years of silence began.

None of the MBV singles or EPs were in print by the time I got into them, so I spent considerable time and money visiting record fairs (and Stephen Pastel’s record shop above Hillhead subway) buying them up, often at £20 a pop. The value of my record collection really plummeted when the internet made those recordings available more widely!

I can’t imagine paying £20 for a four-song EP by any other group, or being completely satisfied with my purchase. But every penny spent on the Valentines was a super-bargain.

The waiting for a new album went on. The first MBV fan sites started appeared online, but where other bands had a “news” section, the MBV site had a “rumours” section. It featured bizarre claims about Kevin breeding chinchillas and Deb driving a cab, all of which later turned out to be true. One fan wrote in to say she’d been in the queue behind Kevin in Safeways, and her report of his shopping prompted deep speculation on his financial state and the likely urgency of getting a record out.

Then suddenly in 2008 they announced a tour. I couldn’t believe it. I battled my nerves to secure tickets to both nights at the Barrowlands, and they were the best gigs I’ve ever been to in my life.

Even more amazingly, I woke up one morning early last year to learn that they had made their third album available online overnight. I was having laptop problems at the time so I had to travel to my parents’ house to download the album. The train journey to Cathcart has never taken so long. It was, of course, more than worth it.

Until that happy day, I had been a fan of My Bloody Valentine for more than half of my entire lifetime without them releasing a single note of music. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I think.

Ritual de lo Habitual by Jane’s Addiction

Yet another gem from the re-releases pages, this time from Select Magazine. Alongside a frankly bewildering photo of Jane’s Addiction from their imperial phase, Andrew Mueller’s brilliant review concluded by bemoaning the fact that hardly any bands ever even try to be good, to be different. Jane’s Addiction were very good and very different indeed.

Jane’s were basically a rock band, and I don’t really think of myself as listening to rock music. They refused to support Guns ‘n’ Roses on tour, and played their final gig (from the band’s first incarnation) completely naked, so they weren’t your average rock band. The singer, Perry Farrell, handled the band’s lyrics and art work, and demonstrated himself to be a brave, poetic visionary on this album and its (equally brilliant) predecessor Nothing’s Shocking.

Jane’s were almost like a good version of someone like Extreme – guitar virtuosos, but with soul and the true punk spirit rather than a love of endless twiddly solos.

For all of that, the first half of Ritual is fairly traditional rock fare, albeit with better tunes and more interesting lyrics. Been Caught Stealing was the big single, and it was a rock club staple when I were a lad.

It’s the second half of the album that really blew my mind though.

Side two, as I presume it would have been on vinyl, begins with Perry reading out a poem to his lost love Xiola Blue. “At this moment you should be with us/ feeling like we do/ like you’d love to, but never will again”.

That sounded to my naive ears like an invitation not to be missed. The heroin references in these lines and the very album title itself were, needless to say, lost on me.

Perry’s poem is soon drowned out by the creeping, sad notes of Dave Navarro’s guitar as Three Days builds slowly through the gears. It’s a massive, draining, emotional, beautiful song, which eventually climaxes with, of all things, a truly thrilling guitar solo. It has to be heard to be believed.

The first time I listened to that song I had to put the record off immediately afterwards and go downstairs to my dad. “I think that song just hurt my brain”, I told him.

Once you recover from Three Days, there follow three more amazing songs. Then She Did…, a tribute to Perry and Dave’s late mothers, is possibly even more beautiful than Three Days. That song more than any other demonstrates what drew me to Jane’s Addiction: their feminism. Like the earlier Jane Says, Then She Did eschews the usual rock machismo in favour of a celebration of female energy. Kurt Cobain must have been listening closely.

And there’s still time for Of Course, a Slavic dance about natural selection, and Classic Girl, a shiny groove about ignoring gunshots when you’re with the one you love.

The album finishes with Perry getting a big smooch from someone, followed by a delightful showbiz guitar chord.

And then you have to lie down for a minute.

Jane’s Addiction introduced me to alternative music: as in, subcultural music. They were a band drawn from the Los Angeles back streets, and their friends were drug addicts, sex workers and homeless people. Their songs celebrated people living at society’s margins, and their philosophy was utterly epicurean and free from shame. They were a loud rock band, but they rejected macho bullshit. And in Perry Farrell they had a frontman who performed like David Bowie.

This was all impossibly exotic to me as a teenager in Glasgow. (On reflection, it still is impossibly exotic.) As an arty, progressive, non-commercial group of free spirits, they opened my mind to forms of political thinking that I remain committed to today.

I really need to listen to that record again.

Timeless by Goldie

I’ve acknowledged that I no longer listen to some of the records discussed above. I’m not sure I ever really listened to this one – but it has huge symbolic value.

I got this for Christmas in 1995 and it was one of the first (possible the first) dance records I ever owned.

During 1995 when I was busy with my crash-course in alternative culture, I listened every night to the Evening Session on Radio One. I would love to say I listened to John Peel but, for some reason I’ve never quite identified, I never really heard his show. No – it was all about Jo Whiley and Steve Lamacq in my bedroom.

I was a very, very shy teenager, and I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. (By myself, naturally).

I listened to indie music on the radio while I did my homework. I always did lots of homework, because I was a swot. When I wasn’t doing that I practiced my guitar furiously.

I had played computer games all the time before I took up the guitar, but around that time my TV exploded (!) which robbed me of my monitor. I then (completely mentally) decided not to connect my SNES to my replacement telly when I later got one, lest it distract me from my guitar practice.

What a wanker!

Little did I know that by choosing the guitar over the games console I was effectively rendering myself culturally redundant.

Luckily, the wise guides on the radio helped me make at least some passable life decisions.

The Evening Session is remembered these days, if at all, as a bastion of Britpop. This is unfair though. I got into techno, hip hop and (whisper it) trip hop by listening to Jo and Stoive. They often played some quite off-the-radar stuff, especially in the days before guitar music went suddenly overground.

I loved most of the non-indie stuff, but there was one genre I couldn’t get into at all. It just sounded stupid, like a spin dryer or something. It seemed to be called jungle. It confused me.

Every night they would play that rubbish. How could anyone listen to it? It was just noise.

And then, one evening, I realised I didn’t want to hear anything else. I had to listen to jungle, all the time.

Now, I was hamstrung in my sudden love of jungle by the fact I was thirteen years old. It was quite difficult to keep up with the cutting edge of drum’n’bass in those days as a shy, swotty Glaswegian teenager. Not too many pirate jungle stations in our area, and the art school My Machines club night didn’t let children into their drum’n’bass events.

All of the records seemed to be by people called Psyko or Kr8pton or whatever, and I wouldn’t have known where to start if I wanted to buy them. The only junglist I really knew about was Goldie.

He’s had quite a life, has Goldie, and is pretty much universally known these days. I’m not sure how much of his recognisability is due to his music, though.

Well, I got his Timeless album for Christmas the year it came out. I might not have managed to plough all the way through to the end of it (it’s very, very long), but I was very excited to own a jungle record.

The first song, Inner City Life, is a genuine classic. It still stands up today, I think. I was never so bothered about the rest of the album, but for that song alone, and for symbolising my first encounter with turbo breakbeats, Goldie will always be the man.

I lost touch with jungle fairly quickly, sadly. I never really found it as exciting after people started calling it drum’n’bass – and I remember John Peel noting that the only justification for so-called “intelligent drum’n’bass” was the way it pre-supposed the existence of stupid drum’n’bass, which would be much more fun. A path sadly not taken.

But seriously – is there any sound more thrilling than that sudden crackling flurry of jungle breakbeats, attacking your brain like boxing combinations, breaking apart like fireworks…

Learning To Let Go by Terris

Fast-forward a few years and I went to university.

About this time, the internet changed the way people acquired music, as well as the way they found out about it. The music press died a lingering death, which was a genuine loss in many ways. At the same time, the few benign gatekeepers of the Melody Maker were replaced by thousands and thousands of dispersed enthusiasts writing about the music that excited them. And straddling the two eras, for me, were a band called Terris.

Terris were on the cover of the NME in the second week of the new millennium, amid a torrent of hype. The press interest waned almost immediately, but I was fascinated by the band and sought out more information online. This was a novelty at the time.

The Terris fan site was run by a cool guy called Mark, and featured a message board on which about ten people regularly posted about the band. A couple of them were connected to various band members, and one of them set me up with a tape of demos of some unreleased songs.

As time went on I found myself posting on the message board every day, and a genuine bond developed between a group of us. When the band finally got round to touring, it was agreed that everyone would meet up at one of their gigs. Helpfully for me, we met at King Tut’s in Glasgow.

That was truly one of the loveliest evenings of my life. The Terris fans were all wonderful people and we had a brilliant time down the front as our heroes blazed on stage. Best of all, I made a life-long friend in one of the furthest travelled fans, Rachel.

Eventually the band’s debut album came out. I thought it was brilliant, even if it’s probably not really in retrospect. Their moment had passed, strangely, and they disappeared shortly afterwards. The band’s message board gradually wound down, and I believe the singer went on to become an academic.

Looking back, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit to posting obsessively on a band’s message board. But we were a genuine community of friends, and we all shared a beautiful evening together in the greatest city in the world.

We didn’t back a winner, but Terris will always wear a suit of armour as far as I’m concerned.

The Fame by Lady GaGa

Several years later, I experienced the end of my first proper relationship. In need of cheering up, I went to stay with my sister and her partner in the fine city of Dundee. We went out clubbing (well, to the student union) and the first song I heard was Just Dance by Lady Gaga.

Instant results.

I bought the album and played it to death over the next few weeks as I pulled my shit back together.

I may not be Lady Gaga’s mental image of her modal fan, but she occupies a fairy godmother position in my mind. Thanks Lady Gaga!

As the release dates of these life-changing albums suggest, music changed my life more frequently when I was a teenager than it has done since. But as Lady Gaga’s superhero intervention in my hour of need shows: you’re never to old to be healed by the power of brilliant pop music.

The Bones Of What You Believe by Chvrches

I’ve written about my love of Chvrches at some length here.

Chvrches are not only special to me because they’re brilliant. They’re also the first group that my partner and I discovered together.

Okay, so I’m ending on a cheesy note here.

The albums described above have soundtracked years of solitary confinement in my bedroom, trying to write lyrics and music and learning about politics and culture. They have also soundtracked me being absolutely crap with women. I hope you’ll indulge me this happier musical turning point by way of an uplifting finale.

I wouldn’t make great claims for every one of these ten albums, but they are written indelibly into my life story. And my favourite chapter of my life is the current one with my fiancée. Chvrches have provided a lovely part of our rich, sunrising soundtrack, and I’ll always love them for that.

Bit of a loser for the first nine albums, though, wasn’t I?

  1. […] Growing up in private: ten albums that changed my life […]


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