Inspirations: 15 albums that changed things for me

I got tagged in Facebook with this, so never being one to waste some effort I’ll post it here too.

Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me.

Rather than being things I’d listen to now, these are the things that changed my perceptions at the time, so they’re heavily weighted to my childhood and adolescence, before anyone reading this was even conceived.

1. Various Artists – The Immortal Memory
A compilation of Robert Burns songs by ‘popular’ Scottish singers of the time like Kenneth McKellar. The songs were connected by a spoken poetic biography of Burns. I was a Burns fan by primary 3.

2. Rogers and Hammerstein – The King and I
It’s a tossup between this and ‘South Pacific’ both of which were on heavy rotation in our house throughout my childhood, when my parents loved them, and later, when I rediscovered them as a teenager. I didn’t even see the films till much later, but I had discovered how words and musical textures could tell stories or, in the case of ‘The King’ evoke an exotic atmosphere. I’ve a long standing fantasy of playing Yul Brynner’s part or doing ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame’ in a stage version.

3. Gustav Holst – The Planets Suite
My early adolescent music wasn’t pop but stuff like this, some Wagner, and themes from films like 633 Squadron, Dr Zhivago and Grand Prix. And of course Barry Andrews’ compositions for Gerry Anderson’s TV sagas.

4. Tyrannosaurus Rex – Unicorn
This was the first thing I got into that admitted me to an exclusive world of nerdy fandom. I was told by a friend there was another guy around who liked them. We spotted each other with ‘You must be Norman?’ ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex?’ ‘Yes!’. I still liked them when they became T.Rex but the mystery was gone.

5. The Incredible String Band – The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter
Momus pointed out recently that often the music we come to love sounds ugly and inaccessible on first hearing. So it was with this. I’d heard their fun, jokey side from The Hedgehog’s Song at folk clubs but nothing prepared me for this. First listen: incomprehension. Second: some hooks and reference points. Third: absolute unconditional love.

6. Mike Heron – Smiling Men with Bad Reputations
I’ve written at length about this on my blog, so I won’t repeat it here. It opened my mind to so many forms of rock outside of my folksy acoustic enclave. And introduced me to John Cale and Richard Thompson.

7. Bob Dylan – Greatest Hits Vol 2
I’d never understood the fuss about Dylan – surreal lyrics, dazzling wordplay, thin mercury sound? The only album I heard was Nashville Skyline. Eh? When I got this, things fell into place. Turned out it was all true. Later, I liked Nashville Skyline too.

8. Cat Stevens – Catch Bull at Four
Here he broke away from the cosy acoustic bedsit sound into highly arranged but surging and dramatic structures and instrumentation. This was the one that did it for me and everything I’ve wanted to do with multitracking started here. Later he took it too far and became over-arranged and over-synthed and lost the hunted quality that seemed to inhabit his voice for this and Foreigner. Few of my friends agree with me. I don’t care.

9. Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance – Any More for Any More
The other extreme, simply, homely and affectionate – full of personality. The soundtrack to one of the biggest love affairs of my life.

10. Jonathan Richman – Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers
During my first stint in Cairo I didn’t have many tapes. This and ‘Heroes’ were the most-played. If it was on during a drunken game of bridge, I’d slide off my chair and just sing along, to everyone’s annoyance. The tape also had ‘Roadrunner’ on it, so it was pretty much perfection.

11. Robert Fripp – God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners
I’d been a fan for years of Crimson but this was the first time I’d heard Frippertronics and, to quote Fripp on hearing his guru J G Bennett ‘It blew the top of my head off’. The fact that I now have the technology to create this kind of musical exploration myself is almost the completion of my musical biography. Songwriting is fine, but for me this is the pure language of music. (It also has a hilarious David Byrne vocal on one track.)

12. Momus – Tender Pervert
The first time I realised the true horror of how talented someone could be and not be massively famous, not even in the hip music press. I never understood why he wasn’t up there with, well, everyone. This was consummate, startling, erotic, sophisticated, witty and often disturbing writing. Listen to ‘Bishonen’ when you’ve just had a baby son. Brrrr!

13. Paul Simon – Rhythm of the Saints
I love all his stuff from Bookends on, but over-listening has dried up some of the ‘juice’; not so with this, which gives me something new every time I listen to it.

14. Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs
Again, I love everything he’s done, but this one, created at the end of his stay in the Zen monastery of Sasaki Roshi, was the first Cohen album that seemed to be completely devoid of ego, and filled with – I don’t know – luminous silence.

15. Robert Fripp – At the End of Time (Soundscapes)
Frippertronics were a young man’s research and development. This is the work of a master, reflecting on his life. Achingly beautiful but resolved and collected. A lesson in growing up.

I’ve enjoyed writing this.

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