Doors lead to other doors – 10 albums that…..

February 20, 2011

Bill Bruford recently submitted a list of the 10 albums that changed his life to Goldmine magazine.

Interesting as ever, BB seemed to suggest (correctly in my opinion) that the 10 most influential pieces of music in a musician’s life aren’t necessarily the best and aren’t necessarily the artist’s favourites. Instead, these are the albums that pointed the artist in a particular direction at a crucial time in their development.

For obvious reasons, in the earlier part of a budding musician’s life there’s a greater possibility of being totally transformed by music.

After that point, Bruford felt that life as a professional changes little, but occasionally there are still albums / artists that can cause a change in direction or creative thinking.

Bearing this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to try and encapsulate my main musical tastes in just 10 albums.

Inevitably, this turned out to be a more difficult and self-indulgent task than I’d have ever imagined!

1. John Barry – You Only Live Twice (1967)

Huddled in the back row of the Warrington Odeon in the late 1960s, at the ripe old ages of 4 and 5, I was first exposed to the cinema courtesy of the then vogue-ish James Bond films. My Dad was a fan, my mum wasn’t. I was a very cheap date.

The abiding memories, beyond staring at the swirling clouds of cigarette smoke overhead, were the sense of excitement that the films’ action generated and the haunting nature of the music in the background.

Pouring scorn on Pinky and Perky and Rolf Harris, my early record collection proudly consisted of a John Barry compilation, a John Barry single, and an MFP LP of Geoff Love‘s versions of John Barry’s James Bond themes. Diverse it wasn’t!

Barry’s scores for You Only Live Twice and The Ipcress File were the two that most caught my attention, with the minor key arpeggios of Capsule In Space being the soundtrack to many a pre-pubescent dream.

My early love of evocative film music continues to this day with Barry, alongside the likes of Angelo Badalementi, Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo being a particular favourite), John Murphy, Jon Brion and Cliff Martinez still appearing regularly on my iTunes playlists.

Barry’s influence can also be heard in other subsequent personal favourites (Portishead, for example).

2. 10cc – The Original Soundtrack (1975)

For years I only listened to film music, hymns (courtesy of the school choir) and my parents hopelessly dated record collection (mainly comprising crooners of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Sinatra, Andy Williams and Jack Jones).

Preferring Sinatra’s You Go To My Head, I didn’t understand my school friends enthusiasm for The Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz and Mud’s Tiger Feet, but on hearing 10cc‘s I’m Not In Love, I suddenly ‘got’ Pop music.

After playing the single and its equally beautiful and ironic b-side (Good News) to death, I unexpectedly found the band’s current album The Original Soundtrack in a rack in a local Spar. One bout of irrational pre-teen begging later and along with the Angel Delight, Golden Wonder and Smash, the goddamn album was mine.

For years afterwards, I devoured everything by the band and its offshoots (Consequences is a work of genius, I tells ya!).

My liking for 10cc quickly led me to a discovery of the bands that influenced them (The Beatles, The Beach Boys) and contemporary releases with a similar feel (Lennon‘s Mind Games and Wings‘ inventive 1970s take on the Abbey Road sound).

In retrospect, the cinematic sweep of 10cc’s mid-1970s sound combined with Kevin Godley‘s and Eric Stewart‘s choirboy-esque vocals made them an obvious first Pop flirtation for me.

The band’s love of ballads and multi-sectioned epics (Une Nuit A Paris, Somewhere In Hollywood, Feel The Benefit etc) also paved the way for other future interests including Progressive Rock and the sophisticated Pop of Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby, Steely Dan and XTC.

3. Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975)

Two of the stranger mid 1970s obsessions were the cassette tape and Subbuteo. In the raging hot Summer of 1976, I was a willing slave to both.

Hiding from the sun, along with a group of friends, a Summer-long Subbuteo competition took place in my front room. While we excitedly flicked away during improbable encounters between Haiti and Leeds United (away kit) or Crystal Palace and Brazil, my Dad’s trusty Lloytron Music Centre provided a sonic backdrop to the less than beautiful games.

Bored with my limited supply of 10cc, Beatles, Wings and John Barry, my friends soon started bringing their own music in. Most of it passed me by, but one of our friends had a Dad with long hair, an afghan coat and a cassette collection of almost current hi-fi sensations (Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Mike Oldfield and so on). This may have been the Summer Of Punk, but the long-form ambition of Atom Heart Mother, Physical Graffiti and Hergest Ridge became the revolutionary sound of the Cheshire suburb I lived in.

The most played track might have been Zeppelin’s Kashmir, but the album that most engaged me was Wish You Were Here. From its atmospheric opening onwards, this was an album that exuded mystique and depth.

Smitten by this heady mystery, Pink Floyd quickly became another favourite band and just as some of my friends were discovering AC/DC or The Damned, my walls were being covered by the famous Dark Side Of The Moon pyramid posters.

I arrived back at school with Robert Plant’s (lack of) haircut and a nice line in badges on jumpers and logos on exercise books. The only pupil with longer hair was my future drummer and Granada TV’s future history presenter, Mark Olly.

As a result of my interest in Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, within the year, I was drawn to the likes of Genesis, The Who, Yes and King Crimson, which in turn drew me to Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Soft Machine, The Doors, Brand X, Van Der Graaf Generator and more.

A lot of my albums came cheap. Visibly embarrassed, a friend’s sister gave me her complete ‘Progressive’ collection to make way for future Punk releases. Around the same time, I obtained a sun warped copy of Lizard for the princely sum of 12 and a half pence from local drumming sensation Howard Jones (later known to some as Porcupine Tree‘s The Expanding Flan).

As for the Punk revolution, I liked The Stranglers and The Buzzcocks, and really liked the later Post-Punk/New Wave scene (particularly Magazine, The Cure, Talking Heads, Durutti Column, Teardrop Explodes and Joy Division). That said, the ire and dissonance in the music of Crimson and Van Der Graaf seemed far more menacing than the comic- strip aggression of Hersham Boys. Courtesy of Red and White Hammer, my teenage nightmares had a suitably apocalyptic soundtrack.

4. David Bowie – Low (1977)

As the late 1970s advert went, ‘There’s Old Wave, New Wave and there’s David Bowie.’

Low came to me via a school friend who bought illegal cassettes cheaply in Saudi Arabia (where his Dad was working). At 5p, I couldn’t resist.

Still one of my favourite albums, side one’s warped electronic Pop songs and side two’s desolate proto-Ambient atmospherics, paved the way for many of my tastes to come.

The treated drums, synth textures and emotional yet mannered croon may have derived from elements of Kraut Rock and Scott Walker, but (along with Peter Gabriel‘s later 3 album) they pretty much defined the sound of the early part of the decade to come.

Inspiring countless New Romantic, Goth and early Factory / Mute bands, Low remained a vital album years after its release.

As for me, I investigated Bowie’s diverse back catalogue and the work of his colleagues in spirit, Roxy Music and Eno. I also foolishly bought a pair of baggy ‘Bowie trousers’ from Affleck’s Palace. Making me look more Euston tramp than Station To Station fashion icon, they weren’t my finest purchase.

Between 1977 to 1985, Bowie’s influence and influences seemed to crop up everywhere I looked, from emerging talents such as Japan and The Associates (where the ‘doors lead to other doors’ title comes from), to older artists like Scott Walker, Can, Kraftwerk and Jaques Brel.

Where Bowie was concerned, doors frequently led to many other doors.

5. Peter Hammill – Over (1977)

This was an album I found in the Yanks Records (in Manchester) bargain bin that came to define half a decade for me.

Discovering it at a difficult time in my life, its tales of love, life and hope lost resonated strongly. Its articulate, highly personal lyrics and raw, yet poetic sound gave me something I could identify with as well as the courage to feel that I could possibly make music other people might be interested in. Without doubt, Hammill’s uncompromising individuality influenced many of my painfully unlistenable early adventures in music.

At various points, seeing I liked Hammill, people encouraged me to listen to artists such as Kevin Coyne, Nico, John Cale, Roy Harper, Kevin Hewick, Tim Buckley, and Robert Wyatt, which I did.

Thus followed a period of very introspective and dark music making and listening. Most of what I produced, I now find unbearably bad, but the albums that influenced my directions, I still admire and play (Over, The Future Now, Rock Bottom, Lifemask, The Marble Index, Helen Of Troy etc).

6. Joni Mitchell – The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975)

After the darkness, came the light (of a sort).

Seeing what I listened to and liked, in the early 1980s, future No-Man member The Still Owl introduced me to a whole host of artists I’d only read about. As well as a lot of Progressive music, his vast collection contained Classical (Stravinsky, Satie and Debussy appealed), Jazz (Miles Davis, Mingus and John Coltrane became instant hits) and singer- songwriters galore. Of the latter, Joni Mitchell was the one who most impressed me.

Stunned by her musical diversity, compositional sophistication and effortlessly perceptive lyrics, albums like the eclectic Hissing Of Summer Lawns and the intimate Hejira became oft-played firm favourites. I felt humbled by her immense talent and still do.

This love of Joni led me to discover other singer-songwriters of a similar vintage or reputation (John Martyn, Donovan, Nick Drake, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Rickie Lee Jones and many more) and pushed me towards some Modern Jazz (Weather Report / Pastorius / Metheny…).

As with John Martyn, Joni’s music was as personal and as intense as Hammill’s, Nico’s and Coyne’s etc, but there was a lightness of touch and an occasional optimism (or submission to love, perhaps?) that meant it wasn’t as bleak. There was also an interesting fusion of the acoustic and the synthetic, and a quality of sensuousness in the music of Mitchell and Martyn, which completely turned around my approach to music. From this I learned to try and respond to musical ideas as opposed just impose myself on them.

7. Steve Reich – Tehillim (1982)

Another Still Owl recommendation, this was unlike anything I’d come across before (though I could hear elements of Minimalism in Gabriel, Bowie, Eno and Discipline-era King Crimson, of course).

A complex ever-shifting music that superficially seemed to change little, I was blown away by its insistent rhythmic sensibility and constantly rising sense of tension.

As well as becoming a regular reference point in my own music, Reich has pointed me towards Philip Glass, John Adams, Arvo Part, John Tavener, Terry Riley and Gorecki, and more recently the Jazz Minimalists, Nik Bartsch’s Ronin and The Portico Quartet.

8. Miles Davis – In A Silent Way (1969)

A gorgeously shimmering yet restless (under)statement, In A Silent Way‘s contradictions make it an album worthy of frequent repeat plays.

The offshoots of this seductive electric pastoralism include early Weather Report, early Return To Forever, ECM Records (Eberhard Weber, Terje Rypdal, Benny Maupin and more), Mwandishi, Van Morrison (his odd album out, Common One), John Martyn, The Necks and Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man, I Want You).

I’d like to think that some of its precariously suspended beauty has made its way into some of what I’ve done over the years.

9. David Sylvian – Brilliant Trees (1984)

Not usually known for its great contribution to music, the mid-1980s was a genuinely exciting time of musical discovery for me. The slightly emotionally inhibited approach of the late 1970s and early 1980s was being replaced with grander statements and the restrictive Rock quartet and Electro-Pop line-ups were being enriched by new sampling technology and a more exploratory use of acoustic instruments.

From a personal point of view, many favourite albums and artists emerged around this time.*

Three of my favourite albums from this period were David Sylvian‘s trilogy, Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive.

For me, they possessed beauty, conviction and a constant, subtle sense of surprise.

The introspective, ethereal promise of Tin Drum‘s standout track Ghosts was taken several steps further, and as Sylvian’s writing developed, his inspired choice of collaborators (Hassel, Fripp, Wheeler, Torn, Sakamoto etc) served to push his music into an exciting, contemporary fusion of Jazz, Ambient, Singer-songwriter and Chamber Classical styles.

Like Miles Davis and David Bowie before him, Sylvian proved himself to be a great facilitator, providing a great basis from which to draw stunning performances from a dream team of gifted musicians.

10. Lou Reed/John Cale – Songs For Drella (1990)

1989 to 1991 in the press was about The Happy MondaysPublic EnemyThe Stone Roses, Daisy Age and Madchester. I liked some of this music and undoubtedly some of it informed No-Man’s sound at the time. That said, I was personally far more drawn to less celebrated albums such as Steve Reich’s Different TrainsThe Cure’Disintegration, Kate Bush’s The Sensual WorldThe Cocteau TwinsHeaven Or Las VegasJoni Mitchell’s Night Ride HomeThe Blue Nile’Hats, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock and Rain Tree Crow’s debut.

Alongside these, It’s Immaterial’s Song, Momus‘s Don’t Stop The Night and American Music Club‘s Everclear also made a big impression on me, as did the long-awaited Reed/Cale reunion release, Songs For Drella.

Its coherent stripped-down and drummerless blend of simple but affecting ballads and pummelling Minimalist song miniatures was moving, honest and sonically very raw.

In 1991, using Songs For Drella’s spartan piano, guitar, voice approach as a starting point, Michael Bearpark, Peter Chilvers and I began writing and rehearsing material for the first incarnation of Samuel Smiles.

The simple Smiles trio sound was a universe away from the lush productions of No-Man, and much in the way that Porcupine Tree was for Steven, perhaps represented a necessary creative diversion for me.

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Beyond the above, there have been many other albums that have shaped what I do (Portishead‘s Dummy and Sigur Ros‘s ‘()’, for two), as well as a great number of influential films, books and personal experiences, of course.

Despite appearing exhaustive (even to me!), the lists are incomplete.

They miss out my long-term interest in the work of Kate Bush, Rickie Lee Jones and Randy Newman for instance, and my ‘flash passions’ for Blaxploitation soundtracks, Donna Summer’s disco epics, Black Sabbath, Barre Phillips, Pete Atkin/Clive James, Magma and Harold Budd and many more.

Chronicling my own listening experiences in this way reminds me that most of us have highly idiosyncratic ‘journeys in music’ that rarely conform to the typical ‘greatest albums and artists of all-time’ lists that frequently appear in the likes of Q, The Guardian and the NME.

Ultimately, I suspect that most music fans’ tastes are far more diverse and unpredictable (both more experimental and commercial) than the magazines would have us believe.

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* From the mainstream (The Waterboys‘ ‘big music’, Depeche Mode‘s Master And Servant, Prince‘s When Doves Cry, Genesis‘s Mama, Fleetwood Mac‘s Big Love, Gabriel‘s So, EurythmicsSavage) to the underground (Pictures, The Wolfgang Press, Swans, Eyeless In Gaza, El Records), interesting things seemed to be happening.

For example…

Prefab Sprout’s glorious Swoon and Steve McQueen, Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth, Nico‘s Camera Obscura, Wire’s creative comeback, The Ideal Copy, XTC’s Mummer, The Big Express and Skylarking, Laurie Anderson‘s Mister Heartbreak, Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, Rickie Lee Jones’ The Magazine, Kate Bush’s The Hounds Of Love, The Smiths’ entire career, The The’s Soul Mining and Infected, Prince’s Purple Rain, Parade and Sign “☮” the Times, Roy Harper’s Whatever Happened To Jugula?, John Surman‘s Such Winters Of Memory, Depeche Mode‘s Music For The Masses, Miles Davis‘s Tutu, John Cale’s Music For A New Society and Artificial Intelligence, Eno’s Apollo and The Pearl, Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues, Durutti Column’s Without Mercy, Pink Floyd‘s The Final Cut, David Bowie‘s Let’s Dance, Absolute Beginners and This Is Not America, the ECM Records Works series, Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog, It’s Immaterial‘s Life’s Hard And Then You Die, the emergence of Public Enemy and hip-hop, Cocteau Twins’ Treasure and Victorialand, Dead Can Dance‘s Within The Realm Of A Dying Sun, Roedelius’s Gift Of The Moment, Godley & Creme‘s Cry and Birds Of Prey, This Mortal Coil‘s It’ll End In Tears, Dali’s Car, The Sugarcubes‘ Birthday, Jan Garbarek‘s It’s Okay To Listen To The Grey Voice, Holger Czukay‘s Der Osten Ist Rot, A Certain Ratio’s Force, Rush’s Grace Under Pressure, Big Audio Dynamite’s first two albums, Suzanne Vega‘s debut, Momus‘s’ Circus Maximus and The Poison Boyfriend, Virginia Astley‘s From Gardens Where We Feel Secure, Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather, King Crimson‘s Three Of A Perfect Pair, Philip Glass‘s Koyaanisqatsi, Scott Walker‘s astonishing Climate Of Hunter, Propaganda‘s A Secret Wish, Van Morrison’s No Method, No Guru, No Teacher, Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm, The Blue Nile’s transcendent A Walk Across The Rooftops, Everything But The Girl‘s Eden and Love Not Money, Talk Talk‘s breakthrough The Colour Of Spring and probably dozens more I can’t remember.

Some artists certainly found the mid-1980s a creative struggle (Neil Young, Yes, Miles Davis, Brian Wilson and David Bowie, for instance, appeared more driven by fashionable outside producers than their own muse), while others creatively thrived (Prince, Gabriel, Bush,Trevor Horn, Bill Laswell and more). 

Tim Bowness, February 2011