Unknown David Bowie compilation
First heard: Age 3
I must have been about three. Lying in the back of the car, half-asleep, listening to Ziggy-era Bowie through the back speakers. I particularly remember Aladdin Sane and Starman, and I think those are the ones that have shaped me musically the most. The other bands I was exposed to at the time were Queen and Abba, so ever since, the music I have loved has been a combination of clever minor-key concept album noodling, punchy rock hooks and hard, funky disco. Not much of a surprise I became a NIN fan, then.
Pink Floyd – The Wall
First heard: Age 10
I liked a lot of cool music as a kid, along with some truly terrible music, but until the age of 10, everything I loved was informed by what my parents or sister were listening to. Then my sister played me Pink Floyd’s Wall album, and something just clicked. I dimly recalled Another Brick In The Wall Part 2, which had been the Christmas number one when I was three. Hearing the album in its entirety, though, shed a very different light on the track. It had mystified me – still does – why the song had been so popular, with its puerile shouty “we don’t need no education” refrain, but put into the context of preceding track The Happiest Days of Our Lives (the song doesn’t really work without it), it suddenly revealed a new concept to me: angst.
It seems funny to me now to think of myself as a child, debating the meanings of Syd Barrett songs with my rebellious best friend, Jym. We were absolutely obsessed – making our own Floyd-themed t-shirts, picking up sheet music to learn it on the piano, and just lying out in the sun in his back garden listening to Relics and Meddle. Jym would take mushrooms and smoke pot, but I could enter an altered state just meditating on the music. He got expelled from school a year or two later. I never saw him again.
Nine Inch Nails – Pretty Hate Machine
First heard: Age 13
By this point I was broadening my musical horizons from just Pink Floyd to other psychedelia, including the indie bands of the day – Primal Scream and all that shoegazing stuff. I used to listen to alternative rock show The Evening Session on BBC Radio One, watch the always-varied ITV Chart Show, and read teen pop mags Number One and Smash Hits, graduating to Melody Maker and Select magazine. BBC2 had a music show called Rapido, and I remember the dreadlocked singer being introduced as “Trent Rexon”. He immediately grabbed my attention by namechecking The Wall: “It was like a friend to me, growing up,” he said, and claimed that his aim was to make an album that could do the same for someone else. I was hooked by the interview alone.
Then the camera cut away to the band playing live – the drummer was playing inside a cage and people were jumping off the top! It looked absolutely wild – and that pure rage and energy in the performance just struck something primal within me. I’d been looking for that kind of catharsis and it just hit the spot in the way that nothing else had. I’ll always remember slamming my bedroom door, turning up Head Like A Hole, screaming “I’D RATHER DIE THAN GIVE YOU CONTROL!” and holding up two middle fingers to the locked door. I loved a lot of music during that era, and remember wanting to be Courtney Love (back when she was awesome) when I grew up, but I kept coming back to NIN’s music and when Trent said, “I realised I was never going to get laid playing piano with a nun,” I figured he pretty much had a point and swapped piano lessons for a guitar.
People can be quite snobbish towards Nine Inch Nails, but I think certainly coming in as a Floyd and Bowie fan, I had a passionate love for the music, and I’d never have heard those other bands like Skinny Puppy and Foetus if I hadn’t started off with NIN.
Levitation – Need For Not
First heard: Age 16
PIECES OF MARY <– F*** me, that song’s brilliant! – particularly past the 3-minute mark. Click on it now!
Formed from ex-members of the House of Love and Cardiacs, Levitation were a dizzying blend of prog-rock psychedelia, searing guitar riffs, frenetic tribal/jazz drumming and sweet pop hooks. While quite subtle on their singles, they were unlike any other band at the time and I was absolutely in love with them. So much so, that when they split, I dialled the record label number on the back of the album and asked to speak to someone to ask what had happened. They put me through to the band’s astonishingly talented drummer, Dave Francolini. I had been toying with the idea of starting a fanzine at the time, and so I asked if I could publish the conversation afterwards.
As well as putting me on the path to future employment, I got into a ton of other related bands – most notably Cardiacs. It opened up my ear to less rigid definitions of song structure and genre style, so I’d be generally more receptive to more experimental sounds, noise and heavy metal. Ironically, about the only band I didn’t get into who sounded like Levitation was Hawkwind.
Sophie Ellis Bextor – Read My Lips
First heard: Age 24
I loved Sophie’s song with Spiller, and started to notice that all the music I was getting asked to write about was generally rubbish, and that all the pop music filling the charts was getting better and better. Cathy Dennis was writing pretty much every hit at the time, and pop music sounded fresh and exciting. By contrast, industrial and metal sounded turgid, repetitious and dull. I realised I just had no interest in it at all, and swapped all my black clothes for sweet pink Legally Blonde-style ensembles and a collection of fun disco music.
Of the great pop records around the time – Madonna’s Music, Kylie’s Fever, etc. – Read My Lips was the greatest. The singles were all sugary disco dancefloor-fillers, but the album tracks leaned more towards melancholy electropop. Move This Mountain and Sparkle remain my favourites, along with Sophie’s live cover of Once In A Lifetime.
Foetus – Flow
First heard: Age 33
I’ve covered elsewhere my reaction on hearing the last two albums by Foetus – Flow came out in 2001 and Love in 2005 – but I heard them both on the same day, this year. I’m putting Flow down on the list but really it’s both – I’d decided three songs into Flow that it was the best thing I’d heard in 10 years, and by the end of Love that I just would not shut up about either of them.
I’ve probably listened to 5,000 albums in my life, but only six times has what I heard been sufficient to make me stop in my tracks and completely revolutionise what I’m doing at the time. I hadn’t had any intention of writing about music again, but that’s because I hadn’t heard anything worth writing about in the past decade. Nothing had really inspired me to that extent, and while it had an impact, I can hardly say that Sophie’s Read My Lips deserves a place on this list in terms of actual merit.
The most innovative album I heard in the last decade was Girl Talk’s Feed The Animals, the most interesting was Radiohead’s In Rainbows, the most listenable was 30 Seconds to Mars and the most engaging was Gwen Stefani’s Sweet Escape. I guess the problem is that none of those were really worth writing home about.