Music can be a very personal thing. For a lot of people music is associated with specific events or times, with people and places, various phases of relationships – good and bad. Music can cover a whole range of emotions. It can be uplifting or soothing but is rarely both in the same song or piece of music, unless your name is Beethoven. For me music is really about particular times and certain places. I can vividly recall what I was doing when I heard a particular song or piece of music, where I was, who I was with, and even what the weather was like in some cases. These things really stand out which is why certain songs and music always stay with me. They are part of your past, your life, your history. Like books and people, music shapes you, makes you who you are, and can be part of your character. One of the things I always did first when I went to someone’s house was check out what they read but also what they listened to. – but it is a bit different now, people don’t keep physical libraries of their own now, just on hand-held devices. If people read the same books or listen to some of the same music, then there’s an instant connection. Of course, differences can be interesting too, and can lead you in a whole new direction, which may even change your life. When I started out compiling a list of some of the more evocative music for me, of what I have heard over the years, I quickly realised just how hard this can be, especially having heard so many which captured something special. In fact, if I was to do this exercise again, I could easily come up with another 10 and another. But for what it’s worth, here are some seven songs and three pieces of music in no particular order that have stood out for me over the years.
Margaritaville – the ultimate beachcomber chill-out song from singer and author Jimmy Buffett who specialises in songs known as “island escapism”. It has been covered, parodied (which is not a good thing) and merchandised, which is even worse. For some it may classify as elevator music. The song came from an album titled Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, which has to be about travel for some, but was written about a drink, the cocktail, and the first surge of tourists to Key West, where he lives. Doubtless they destroyed what they all came to seek. Whenever I hear it I always think of sun, sand and the deep blue sea, the horizon, also boats and the Greek islands before I discovered places like the Gulf of Thailand. Buffet’s fans are called parrot-heads – go figure – may be because he resembles one, sort of, it’s the nose. He has a range of business ventures from music to film, writing books (Tales from Margaritaville) to cannabis having patented several brand names for the day when it is all legal. Basically, he seems to have made a good living out of never having had a regular job, or at least turned his hobbies or passions into a living, which is preferable to most people who experience the loss of freedom with being wage slaves. There is an official road sign in northern India containing a quote of his, probably left by some hippie back in the day and adopted by the local road board. He owns a café called Margaritaville which probably plays this song all day. Too much for me but occasionally I like a listen. The line about the tattoo and having not a clue how it got there always makes me smile.
Loaded by Primal Scream, the “Flower of Scotland” as one presenter called them were originally heavily influenced by punk rock and Indie music but later poured out covers of the Velvet Underground (dark and gritty) and the Byrds (lighter but with a psychedelic twist). In 1988 they got into the Acid House scene. The band was formed in Glasgow in 1982, which seems a long time ago now but only broke into the mainstream in 1991 with their seminal album of that decade, Screamadelica. Lead man Bobby Gillespie played with the Jesus and Mary Chain as their drummer with the brothers Reid, alternating between the two bands, but as Bon Scott once said, the singer gets all the chicks. Loaded was produced by the late Andrew Weatherall, who reworked the track reputedly for the fee of £500. He recalls he first met Primal Scream on a rainy Wednesday night in Exeter when working as a journalist. At the time the band had become some of a parody. Their publicist complained he could write little about them and their manager said gigs were hard to come by. It started out life under another name I'm Losing More Than I'll Ever Have from their eponymous previous album. Weatherall’s first crack at revision was rejected as being “too polite”. In all he had several attempts and said later he had no idea what he was doing but was imbued with the “confidence of ignorance”, (he was quoting Orson Welles when he spoke about making Citizen Kane) all piss and vinegar. The lyrics are limited but the music uplifting, and for some doubtless hypnotic with the right chemicals. Weatherall removed the guitar and added heavy bass and interjecting layers of samples including lines of Peter Fonda’s dialogue from the ‘The Wild Angels’, a counterculture B-grade film collaboration with direct Roger Corman from 1966, which inspired the biker film genre that continued into the early 1970s. The song was constructed from others including those from the Emotions, Edie Brickell and even a line from the legendary Robert Johnson, though some might say this kind of DJ’ing is just pilfering, being unable to write your own. Loaded was released as a single in February 1990, a full 18 months before the full album and got to 16 on the UK Singles Charts making it their first top 40 hit. Screamadelica was influenced by the Beach Boys (mainstream) and Nico (underground) and was one of the albums credited for bringing techno and house in the pop mainstream. “We’re going to have a party”.
No Agreement – the title track from the seventeenth album by Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome Kuti or Fela for short, once considered the unofficial president of Nigeria. Kuti was a multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, composer, political activist and Pan-Africanist and the pioneer of Afrobeat, a blend of traditional Yoruba music with a heavy drumming emphasis, Afro-Cuban music with funk and jazz. He came from a prominent upper middle-class family and shot to stardom in the 1970s during which he was an outspoken critic of and target of Nigeria’s military rulers. In 1970, he founded the Kalakula Republic commune, which declared itself independent from military rule. The “republic” was in a compound that housed his family, band members, and recording studio in Lagos. The compound was raided by 1000 armed Nigerian soldiers in 1978 and burned to the ground. During the raid Kuti’s mother was thrown from the first-floor balcony and later died from her injuries. Kuti was badly beaten (almost losing his life), arrested and jailed. The raid was supposedly in retaliation for his recording of a song called Zombie about the Nigerian military regime. In the song, soldiers are called “zombies” in distinctive West African Pidgin English for obeying orders blindly. The song upset Nigeria’s leader, the repressive and corrupt General Olusegun Obasanjo, nicknamed Baba Africa. Kuti afterwards delivered his mother’s coffin to Obasenjo’s residence in protest. Kuti’s band was called the legendary Africa 70 described by some observers as the tightest outfit they had ever seen perform. He set up a nightclub in the Empire Hotel, first named the Afro-Spot and later the Afrika Shrine. The Cream’s drummer Ginger Baker turned up for an extended stay and recording session in 1972 partly so he could work with Tony Allen who played drums on the song. Brian Eno called Allen perhaps the “greatest drummer who has ever lived”. Kuti said without him there would be no Afrobeat. Kuti's music was widely popular among the Nigerian public and Africans in general with his house parties attracting thousands. Every time he ventured out became a spectacle and even shopping trips stopped traffic. The album was released in 1977 in Nigeria and was over 15 minutes long though edited versions are available on a compilation of his greatest hits from 1972-89, The Best Best of Fela Kuti.
Holly Holy – by Neil Diamond, a gospel-inspired song that fits well within the uplifting category. The song was recorded with the instrumental backing provided by the American Sound Studio in Memphis. The studio was where more than 100 hits songs were recorded over time by everyone from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin and was run by Lincoln “Chips” Moman who began by working with Stax Records. The studio musicians were known as the Memphis Boys and sometimes the Thomas Street Band. The song was released in 1969 before inclusion on his fifth studio album, Touching Me, Touching You which also included another successful hit, Sweet Caroline, widely regarded as Diamond’s signature song. Unlike that song Holly Holy hasn’t been adopted by sports fans, though it probably could be. I first heard it as a kid on Hot August Night a live album recorded at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on 24 August 1972, though he performed 10 shows there in a row that month (later that year in New York he performed 20 straight shows, so must have had some stamina). The best thing about that album was the music and the worst Diamond’s cheesy monologues, thankfully few and far between. Diamond cut his teeth writing songs when bored with classes at university. Then he started writing for money; first for other people and then recording them himself. He performed for almost 50 years, all around the world before being forced to retire.
Strawberry Letter 23 – any version, the Brothers Johnson will do, it is kind of what their famous for but especially Shuggie Otis, the original from his second album Freedom Flight which was never as famous as his third album, Inspiration Information. He made his first two albums as a teenager and his third at age 24. Johnny Shuggie Otis is the son of the multi-talented Johnny Otis. Shuggie is short for “Sugar” according to his mother Phyllis, who is African American part-Filipino and his father part Greek (real name Ioannis Veliotes). His father produced Freedom Flight and played percussion on the album and did the backing vocals with Liverpudlian Aynsley Dunbar on drums (not to be confused with Sly Dunbar of Sly and Robbie fame), who over the years has played with the veritable who’s who of rock acts. Shuggie Otis once turned down the opportunity to play on tour with the Rolling Stones and had his recording contract with Epic nullified as he took way too long to produce material. His follow-up album the wonderfully named Inspiration Information took almost three years to finish and despite the long anticipation had only one single, the title track. Later the album gained somewhat of a cult following, which is always nice but doesn’t always pay the bills. Artists such as Prince and Lenny Kravitz were big fans as was David Byrne whose independent label re-released it in 2001 with four songs from Freedom Flight including Strawberry Letter 23. The original album when released drew comparisons with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and supposedly impressed Sly Stone. Strawberry Letter 23 gained fame after it came to the attention of George Johnson, of the Brothers Johnson who then played it to Quincy Jones. The song became a smash it. The Brothers Johnson were brothers. Aside from George there were Louis and Tommy and their cousin, Alex Weir. They formed while still at school and went on to back acts like Bobby Womack and the Supremes. They had platform shoes, flares, and mighty afros the size of a sombrero. I’ll Be Good To You was probably their most famous song which got to Number 3 on the Billboard 100 in 1976.
Move on Up – by Curtis Mayfield; inspirational from the first few bars all the way through. Mayfield was born in Chicago and was a prolific singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer, and one of the most influential musicians behind soul and politically conscious African American music during the civil rights period and beyond. He first played with The Impressions, a band formed in Tennessee as The Roosters, but later moved to Chicago as part of the northern urban drift. Mayfield started singing in gospel choirs, a common beginning for many black singers. At high school in a north-side Chicago he met Jerry Butler, later dubbed the “Iceman” by a disc jockey, a Mississippian, and the original lead singer of The Impressions. Mayfield joined the band at age just 14 and was one of the first musicians to bring prevalent themes of social awareness into soul music. Later, arguably more famous artists followed, like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which is often compared to Move On Up in addressing social change. Mayfield’s People Get Ready was among the first of these socially aware songs and ranked number 24 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Other songs penned by Mayfield became civil rights anthems; It’s All Right and Keep On Pushing which became an anthem for Martin Luther King Junior. He formed his own label, and with James Brown and Sly Stone was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement. Move On Up is a song from his 1970 debut album. At nearly nine minutes long it failed to chart. A shorter version was released a year later and made the top 50. Over the years it has become a soul classic. Since its release it has been covered and sampled many times. It has been used on film soundtracks, used by US presidential candidates, and has been adopted by Arsenal FC as their post-match anthem. While regarded as a civil rights hero, Mayfield paid a commercial price for his stand, some of his music was banned by radio stations. In 1990, Mayfield was paralysed in a freak stage accident and died nine years later aged just 57.
Low Rider – by War, a funk rock soul band from Long Beach in Los Angeles. The distinctive opening riff makes you sit up immediately. I also like Summer, at the other end of the spectrum, laid-back and mellow. The original War was conceived by record producer Jerry Goldstein from Brooklyn and singer Eric Burdon from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, of the band the Animals fame. The origins of War go back to a band called the Creators in 1962 which in 1968 became Nightshift. Goldstein was War’s producer and songwriter and had been in a band called the Strangeloves who had a hit with Night Time which was later covered by Doctor Feelgood, among others. War was a crossover band usually featuring seven members and mixing rock, funk, jazz, Latin, rhythm and blues, psychedelia, and reggae. Burdon began playing with them live in Southern California after he moved to the States, before they recorded the first album Eric Burdon Declares War in 1970, with the hit Spill the Wine (featured on the soundtrack of the movie ‘Boogie Nights’) which was the band’s first hit. Low Rider was written and produced by Goldstein. It was recorded in San Francisco in 1974 and released the following year on the band’s seventh studio album Why Can’t We Be Friends? The album’s cover is strikingly similar to the logo of Doctor Feelgood, a caricature penned by their lead man, Lee Brilleaux. The song itself is about the Mexican-American (Chicano) practice of hydraulically hot-rodding classic cars and using innuendo, extends the image to a lifestyle. The song features a driving bass line by Morris B.B. Dickerson throughout and alto saxophone riff by Charles Miller, who also sang the lead part and was said by some to be the dominant and original songwriter. Five years later Miller was fatally stabbed in a botched street robbery, a crime that was never solved. Low Rider peaked at number seven on the Hot 100 singles chart and number one on the Billboard charts. It has been covered by a few, has been used as the theme for television and is often heard used in films (‘Friday’, ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ to name but two) but almost never appears on the accompanying soundtracks.
Heroes – David Bowie’s anthem, almost, and title track of his twelfth studio album, the second of the so-called Berlin trilogy where he and a bunch of his campaneros, including Iggy Pop, headed off to Germany. It was the only one of the trilogy—Low and Lodger being the others—recorded entirely in Berlin. The Hansa studio was in sight of the Berlin Wall which was how some of the lines were added (“Standing by the wall”), quite by chance, most of the songs being composed on the spot. Usually, they had music and no lyrics or lyrics and no music. Every day they would watch the East German border guards watching them which was described as “provocative and frightening” that the band played with so much energy. They also found Berlin at that time to be “dark and industrial”. Visconti described the whole experience as one of his “last great adventures in making albums”. I particularly like some of the many cover versions of the song which I’ve heard by bands some with a dozen musicians (Widespread Panic) all the way through to one guy (Neil Finn) doing it solo in his kitchen on an acoustic guitar. Motorhead do a great cover version with just bass, drums, and rip-roaring guitar. Tony Visconti gave a break-down of how the song came into being which sounded way too complicated. It was more like science than art. Listening to his construction of the multi-layered, multi-instrumental production I was struck by what Bluesmen, with the simplicity of their sound, would make of it. Probably not a lot. I can’t help but wonder how music like this would get along without all that technology. Visconti has producing pedigree going back to the 1960s when working with T-Rex, Badfinger and with Bowie on Diamond Dogs along with Mick Ronson, and a whole bunch of performers since. Recording Heroes was a process described as “"sporadic bursts of inspiration surrounded by longer stretches of contemplation”. Heroes remains one of Bowie’s best-known and acclaimed songs. It was released as a single in 1977, but it wasn’t until it was performed at Live Aid in 1985 that it has been thought of as a classic.
Fine Corinthian Leather – by composer guitarist and bandleader Charlie Hunter from the 2008 album Baboon Strength a kind of fusion recording I heard by chance in a café and the only piece of music in the list from this century. I tend to go for these long, slow pieces these days. Hunter is from Rhode Island but was raised on a commune in California before moving to Berkeley where he took guitar lessons from Joe Satriani. Later he moved to Paris where he busked, which he said was great job training. He first came into to prominence in the early 1990s. His very first album, Charlie Hunter Trio was released in 1993 and cost just $100 to record. He plays custom-made seven and eight-string guitars, on which he simultaneously plays bass lines, chords, and melodies with a technique that been described as “mind-boggling” and giving the illusion of two guitars. Part of his technique and the reason for customised guitars is down to his small hands, so he has the guitar neck reworked and the top string removed. The slow intro makes you wonder if you hit ‘play’ or not. With its melodic organ, solid rhythm of bass and drums the guitar cuts through the track – it all works. Baboon Strength was produced by Hunter which has Tony Mason on drums and Erik Deutsch on keyboards. It marks the culmination of Hunter's more eclectic fusion recordings. His future works would follow a more straightforward blues/R&B pattern.
Another option is The Creator has a Master Plan from American tenor-saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Sanders would qualify as a living legend, a term often bandied about but in his case at age 80, probably true. His career stretches back to the sixties and is one of the founding fathers of what’s called “Spiritual Jazz” of which this track, title and all, is a firm member. The genre has gotten more popular in the last few years for its graceful blend of intense soloing and messages of enlightenment and healing. I first heard The Creator has a Master Plan years ago driving on a sunny day. I wanted to know what the track was so called up the radio station. The next day I went and bought the album. The piece is influenced by Sanders' mentor John Coltrane and is a kind of sequel to Coltrane's legendary 1964 recording, the best-selling A Love Supreme which usually turns up on lists of greatest albums of all time. Sanders’ opening echoes it with a muscular yet lyrical “prelude”, with Sanders playing over a suspended, non-rhythmic backdrop, before the entrance of a bass figure which underpins much of the piece. Getting away from the religious overtones, I never tire of Sanders’ saxophone. Sanders has real gravitas and plays all over the world. He’s now 8o and still going strong.
Down at the Doctors by Doctor Feelgood from the 1979 live album As It Happens, though the song originally was released on Private Practice a year earlier. It was the band’s third hit single. I first heard this on a Sunday night when I was at school played on commercial radio of all things by a DJ who had a reputation for playing largely whatever he liked, much to the chagrin of his employers. Apparently, he would turn up to the studio in bare feet, jeans and Hawaiian shirts sometimes under the influence. In the end they bumped him to later and later slots to dissuade him, but he didn’t seem to care. The cover of the album was a bit basic, but it came with a 12-inch square poster of the band posing under a railway underpass. The two sides of the album combined had 13 songs recorded at two different venues. This wasn’t the original line-up of the band but had their second guitarist, Gypie Mayo in place of the legendary Wilko Johnson, who co-founded the band. Doctor Feelgood was one of the legendary English pub bands of the 1970s. They had a reputation for their “odd” appearance because unlike other bands of that era they wore whatever they liked. The band was started in Canvey Island in Essex, at the mouth of the Thames. The founding members were all called John, so they had to spend time thinking up alternatives. In the end they became: Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, the Big Figure, and John B. Sparks. Mayo looked like Rod Stewart but on speed. Gypie wasn’t his real name, he was also a John, but in keeping with nicknames for the band and given he was always sick with the “Gip” the name stuck. Brilleaux admitted he copied his stage act off Howlin’ Wolf after having seen the legendary blues’ man perform onstage in the UK in the 1960s. While the Wolf cupped his harmonica in his bear-like hand, Brilleaux seemingly had the ability to smoke, sing and play the harmonica all at the same time. I have seen Doctor Feelgood twice, but not in the UK. Wilko has this manic appearance and moves across the stage his head not bobbing up and down, like he is standing on a conveyor belt. He plays rhythm on a Telecaster and lead guitar simultaneously, a source of much musical curiosity. He has been recorded giving demonstrations of how he does this, something to behold. He also has a degree in literature, and maybe the only rock guitarist who speaks Icelandic as a second language. If you ever get a chance to watch 'Oil City Confidential', a documentary about the group when then were all still alive, or the original members were at least, do so, or just listen to Down at the Doctors like I did.
Smiley by tenor saxophonist Cedric Brooks from the album Im Flash Forward produced by the doyen of reggae, Clement Seymour “Sir Coxsone” Dodd whose nickname came from his cricketing abilities at school. Dodd produced and mixed music at Studio One in Kingston where everyone who was anyone in reggae made their music back in the day. He was influential in the development of ska the forerunner of reggae from the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. He picked up musical influences including rhythm and blues from his time in the southern states of the US. He imported music from Miami and New Orleans but when supplies dried up, Dodd and his rivals were forced to begin recording their own Jamaican music to meet the local demand for new music he opened Studio One, the first black-owned recording studio in Jamaica, in 1963. The studio became synonymous with the sound of ska, rocksteady, and reggae through the 1960s and 1970s as Jamaican music moved through these successive genres all of which influenced by jazz, rhythm and blues and Caribbean and African musical styles. This was Brook’s first solo album and featured Studio One rhythms from the early 1970s. The album itself is rare with a capital “R”. All up probably only about 10 copies were made in any year (I had one) and cut on a piece of vinyl so thick it could have double for industrial usage. This music could be defined as Jamaican jazz and indeed Dodd looked for jazz musicians back in the day to play on his tracks. Brooks was born in Kingston and was best known for his association with The Skatalites and Sound Dimension. The Skatalites had some fine musicians especially horn players as did Sound Dimension, who became the Studio One house band and played on loads of albums in reggae’s earlier days. Musicians like Tommy McCook, Rolando Alphonso, Lester Sterling, Vin Gordon, Ernest Ranglin, and the wonderful Jackie Mittoo whose later solo track Henry The Great could fit in this list. Im Flash Forward is regarded as one of the greatest Jamaican instrumental albums. Smiley is another favourite track on the album.
In other words, I listen to very little from this century, which probably says something about music in recent years but maybe I should get out more.