Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska, 1982
He rocked the Superbowl in February and has upset some fans by releasing a compilation CD exclusive to Walmart, but who else could have walked the line between astonishing success and keeping it real like The Boss? Maybe he is the last of the true rock superstars: certainly nobody since has achieved that combination of massive celebrity and enduring respect from his core fans. Ronald Regan utterly missed the point of 1984’s Born In The USA, the album the propelled the Boss into the stratosphere. But before that, came a very different record: Nebraska.
It’s so different from both its predecessor – the gals-and-cars good time chugger The River (1980) and its successor, the stadium beast Born In The USA – that it seems like the work of a different man. Dark, plaintive, whisky tinged and full of pain, its humble, aching slices of working-class American life – the doomed-to-fail dreams of Atlantic City, for instance – could have been written by Woody Guthrie. A muted, bleak, windswept masterpiece.
The Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet, 1968
After the excesses, and not all in a good way, of the somewhat overblown Their Satanic Majesties Request, this 1968 album saw the Stones return to the top of their game and began the four-album golden period that would establish them as the biggest band in the world, and one of the greatest of all time. The unforgettable, unmistakeable opening of Sympathy For The Devil sets the tone for 40 minutes of sex, sinister swagger and bluesy brilliance all inside a sleeve depicting a toilet, and not a very sanitary toilet at that. The Summer Of Love was so last year.
The relationships between Mick and Keith, and Brian Jones and the rest of the band were deteriorating – in the latter case, for good. As great as Sympathy and Street Fighting Man ( a song that seemed written to be the soundtrack to the riots of 1968) is the Dylanesque Jigsaw Puzzle, with its twisted array of mysterious figures locked in some unexplained conflict, delivered with great slabs of ballsy bass.
Interesting to think the Stones were only five years into their career when they made this record, an album which came to define what they were all about.
Sly And The Family Stone, Stand!, 1969
A joyous, intoxicating blend of the overtly political (Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey), the more subtly political (title track Stand! You’ve been sitting far too long) and simple, get loaded and shake it fun (I Want To Take You higher), 1969’s Stand! is the album that took Sly and company to the top. In musical terms, it’s a terrifically accomplished blend of originality, huge brass and horn, Hendrix-tinged pop and rump-shaking James Brown-type hooks. They played at Woodstock the month after its release, a terrific set and the standout single from the album, Everyday People got to number one in the US. Stand! has been the inspiration for countless hip-hop artists and samples from it the basis of songs by pretty much anyone who’s anyone from NWA to Jay-Z.
Brand X – Livestock (1977)
Brand X came along on the wave of mid 70s jazz rock fusion which took the invention and musicianship of prog rock and added extra jazz and widdly bits and even though punk rock and its acolytes were telling us it was all rubbish, lots of us loved it anyway.
1977s Moroccan Roll had actually charted peaking at 37 in UK and 125 in USA. Livestock is the live album that followed and while it failed to make a chart impression, it’s the Brand X album I go back to when I need a cup of fusion. It comes with the obligatory Hipgnosis designed sleeve featuring some legs and a metallic boot in a field and was recorded live at the Hammy Odeon and also Ronnie Scott's.
You can hear echoes of the ambient aspect of Brand X’s music in later-day trance and techno music but this being 1978, the emphasis was still firmly on guitar played very fast. And John Goodsall – ex Atomic Rooster – was very fast.
To play this kind of music you must have chops to burn and these guys, helped out from time to time by Phil Collins, had them in spades. Underpinning it all is the rumbling, funky, hiccupping bass of the great Percy Jones, which makes some numbers almost danceable. Almost.
‘Euthanasia Waltz’ closes the first side of the album; the ancestor of such classic guitar workouts as Steve Vai’s ‘For The Love Of God’, it is Goodsall’s tour-de-force. Coming in on washes of synths and percussion it builds into a hair-raising blizzard of a guitar solo so intense, fast, lyrical and expressive that it almost defies belief that it is delivered live. Indeed, once it’s over, the music seems to lie back and enjoy a post-coital fag, so exhausted is it after Goodsall’s guitargasm.
While jazz fusion was only briefly fashionable and rarely a critical hit either, that shouldn’t stop anyone who loves atmospheric electronic music and widdly widdly guitar noise from digging this classic of the genre out. Indeed, if you only download one jazz fusion track, Euthansia Waltz will not disappoint.
When Giants Walked The Earth
By Mick Wall
A weighty beast coming in at a Kashmir-esque 496 pages, this is the definitive Led Zeppelin biography. Writer Mick Wall has a longstanding relationship with the band, Jimmy Page in particular, and makes great use of his access. Most of the stuff about the band at their peak will probably be quite well known to fans, but it’s the first third of the book that they might find most rewarding. Wall paints a fascinating and meticulously researched picture of the 1967-1968 session muso scene that begat the band, really giving a sense of how all the various personalities and groups of the time interacted and interrelated. It’s absolutely authoritative and nerdily in-depth – all sort of “Jeff Beck’s former plumber used to play darts with a bloke who he introduced to a bloke whose cousin went on to play bass on some of Free’s early demos - that sort of stuff.”
You also really get the sense of how YOUNG they all were – Plant and Bonham barely into their twenties when they set about conquering America. Favourite anecdote is the one about those two being really homesick over Christmas on their first tour, and Bonham gamely cooking a roast dinner to cheer them up.
The book has a nice technique of presenting the “imagined diaries” of the four band members and Peter Grant, which works quite well. Wall’s no David Peace, though, and some of it feels a bit clunky. Still, a good idea and one that I’m prepared to trust him with, given his obvious empathy with the subjects and sheer command of the material. A very thorough and enjoyable book, admiring but not uncritical.