Some favourite albums I have picked up over the years have been fairly random – acquired through a friend’s influence, an article I might have read somewhere, or random browsing through a shop like Fopp. In my teens in particular I was very magpie-ish about music, trying to get a hold of as many albums as I could. (I was one of those guys who when visiting friends for a weekend would come armed with a six-pack of blank C90 tapes, ready for copying anything good). As I was saying earlier, younger readers might not be familiar with a world where music wasn’t available at the push of some buttons! Back then, even the biggest collections I knew were only of a few hundred albums, and so acquiring more obscure stuff was a sometimes difficult task. (The music folder on my hard drive by comparison now comprises 132GB with 2722 albums – or as iTunes tells me, 306 artists, and 54.7 days of listening.) It took me months of searching before I found a copy of The Damned’s first album for example: my sister’s friend’s boyfriend have given me a copy on cassette which I adored, but it had broken. (He was quite the punk, and also gave me copies of In The City by The Jam and Rattus Norvegicus by The Stranglers – good guy!).
In those days, as I was saying, finding more obscure stuff was always difficult. I always read music magazines and wanted to find stuff that sounded good, but where the hell could you find The Melvins, Throbbing Gristle, Sonic Youth, Pantera, Kraftwerk or Primus? (I was born and bred a small-town lad, obviously). But fortunately the social network of pirated tapes was rich with many good albums quite beyond what you’d find in WH Smith or John fucking Menzies. Thus, some less well-known albums I’d like to recommend are:
1. Hate Songs in E-Minor by Fudge Tunnel
Awful band name, but this gem from a Nottingham band is one of the lost classics of British metal from the early 1990s. Massive, grinding guitars; huge, resounding drums; indistinct, shouted vocals: it’s kinda like “Sweet Leaf” by Black Sabbath but MUCH ANGRIER. The two stand-out tracks are the title track, which has an outstanding sense of the old quiet/loud dynamic, and the alternate version of that song: it’s like an death-ambient track, the like of which I have never heard anywhere else. Both are utterly outstanding.
2. I Know Electrikboy by Thee Maddkatt Courtship
When I first went to university, I felt incredibly gauche and uncultured. (I expect everybody felt the same, but were better at hiding it than me). It’s not like I went to Oxbridge or, indeed, any of the Russell Group; it was just that I was young (only just 17), naive, a smalltown boy. One of the friends I made, though, seemed dazzlingly cultured in comparison: he was marvellously stylish, while I wore simple checked shirts, jeans and the fleece I’d bought for camping. Anyhoo, we got on well despite all that, and one evening he came by with a new album which he insisted I listen to. I liked it straight away, and popped in a C90 to copy it. I forgot to ask him who it was before he left, and so just wrote “FUCK KNOWS” on the tape. Though not generally a house music fan, I loved I Know Electrikboy, which to be fair is beatier than your average house track. Songs like “Zone 2 Nite” and “My Fellow Boppers” just resounded with a deliciously fat bass, while the middle track, the apex of the album, “Cosmic Pop” was just the sound of a euphoric ecstasy rush. The structure of it, rising from the overture “My Life Muzik” to “Cosmic Pop” then declining to more ambient textures was so clever, mirroring the ideal night clubbing and house-partying afterwards.
Later on, I found that two of the songs are on the film Human Traffic, during the clubbing scene; and some internet sleuthery eventually showed me who it was by: he’s better known as Felix Da Housecat.
3. Skylarking by XTC
One of those unfortunate groups more critically esteemed than popular, XTC are one of the great 80s pop groups; in the sense that The Beatles are a pop group, with intelligence, style and flair, not like Wham! or Bucks Fizz. Doomed to be one of the finest exponents of classic pop in an era when everyone else seemed to be trying to run away from it, XTC are unfortunately a bit hit-and-miss over the course of an album, but many of their individual songs are just blinding classics. Listen to “Senses Working Over Time” and try to tell me it’s not one of the best fucking songs ever! It’s just absolutely joyous. One album, though, does stand above others in XTC’s canon, and that’s Skylarking. Produced as a song-cycle even though there’s no thematic link, it’s simply a collection of killer pop songs in the best tradition of the word. Their b-side “Dear God” (an apposite exploration of disillusion with religion) was a surprise hit in the US, but my favourite tune on Skylarking is the wonderful “Earn Enough For Us”, a great song about work, love and maturity.
4. Copper Blue by Sugar
When Nirvana’s Nervermind went batshit crazy and the Seattle “sound” was everywhere, the music press was full of articles about their forebears such as The Pixies and Hüsker Dü. Bob Mould, the Hüsker’s lead guitarist and main source of poppy tunefulness and aggressive guitar, was held up as the John The Baptist to Nirvana’s Jesus H. Christ. He’d by then had a few minor solo albums, but in 1992 came out with Sugar, the ultimate power-pop trio. Their first album Copper Blue was (I think) voted Album Of The Year by NME (not worth noting now, but NME back then was worth paying attention to), though it does suffer from a poor side 2. All the same, the first five songs are all stone cold classics. The opener, “The Way We Act”, has this amazing buzzsaw guitar, over which Mould repeatedly sings and solos in a dense brew of heady alternative rock. Just fucking brilliant.
5. The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band
As you may have gathered, I am a huge Beatles fan, and consequently have read Revolution In The Head, an exegesis of their songs, god knows how many times – probably at least twenty. The author, Ian MacDonald, several times compares later-era Beatles to ISB, with their “exotic sweetness” and similar childhood ambivalence. Intrigued, I bought a copy of The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter as it as the only one I could find: I would have preferred The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, just for its remarkable cover.
But it turned out that The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter was actually the better album, one of the most psychedelic and dazzlingly inventive collections of music I have ever heard. From the child’s-eye reminisce “Koeeoaddi There” (“Hullo to the postman’s stubbly skin / Hullo to the baker’s stubbly grin”) to the poetic/nonsensical “Witches Hat” (“If I were a witches hat / Sitting on her head like a paraffin stove”) to the hippy-dippy-trippy “Three Is A Green Crown” – I defy you to find a song more 60s, more psychedelic, more trippy, than that!
I could go on, but I’ll leave it up to you to offer up some of your own favourite obscurities!