Albums Which Terrify Me

Some music is damn scary stuff. I’m not talking about the mostly juvenile Satanisms of Black Sabbath or Slayer or the “gargling vomit” histrionics of death metal. That kind of music is all about effect and atmosphere; it can be mighty enjoyable if you like that kind of thing, in the same way as a horror film or a good gothic novel, but I have the constant overriding feeling that it is all a performance. “Angel Of Death” is a brutally effective evocation of Auschwitz and the abominable deeds of Joseph Mengele, from the screaming insanity of the dueling guitar solos to the pummeling double bass drums, but it is essentially just that – a musical rendition of a terrible historical event. It is an act.

Nor I do not include distinctly sepulchral albums like Nirvana’s Unplugged, or aggressively bleak albums like The Wall or Lou Reed’s Berlin. In the former case, Unplugged, while funereal, is often elegiac, seeming to welcome death. A case can be made for In Utero being a more frightening album (the unraveling second half now feels to be more meaningful: at the time of release it felt lazy, now it feels like a metaphor for Kurt Cobain’s entire life), but it too has patches of warmth and heart, as in “Pennyroyal Tea” and the lovely “All Apologies”. The Wall seems to me to be almost autistically bitter, and unpleasant to listen to apart from the well-known highlights, while Berlin is Lou Reed’s chameleonic exploration of psychic areas: here he mines a grim and bitter seam, but his eye is dispassionate, not involved. No: for true fear, you’ve got to have a sense of artistic and personal involvement. Thomas Hardy said the role of the poet is to move the reader’s heart by showing his own: Reed, oddly enough for a poet of a rock n’ roller, rarely does this (except perhaps in “Street Hassle” and much of the New York album. Ellen Willis notes in her magnificent essay on the Velvet Underground how even standout tracks like “Venus In Furs” and “Sister Ray” are dramatisations rather than self-projections. Reed was always keen to let others sing his words: lyrics were not confessionals to him but literary creations).

The real horror, as good writers in the genre know, is within. The scariest music is that which evokes human feelings and situations. No supernatural bogeymen or monsters are necessary. While I have a vivid imagination and can get the fear like anyone else, the most terrible, scariest, times in my life have had little external cause – it’s all been internal. This is what truly frightening music evokes: mental landscapes of anguish, dread, angst, and even terror.

Joy Division Closer

While Unknown Pleasures often gets greater plaudits, this is the Joy Division album I find most unsettling. It is clearly the sound of a man (singer/lyricist Ian Curtis, of course) at the end of his tether. Unknown Pleasures is ferociously, even glossily, bleak – “Day Of Lords” is magnificent in its darkness (that staggering cry of “Where will it end?!”), while the increasing echo and reverb in “She’s Lost Control” give mind to being lost in a hall of mirrors– but Closer is the sound of painful acceptance.  There is no light; there never will be. Even the most uptempo tune in the album, “Isolation”, rings out with a glacial synthesizer, suggesting an utter cutting off of all social relations, all warmth, all humanity. Quieter, dragging tunes like “Passover”, “Decades” and “Heart And Soul” meanwhile evoke not the furious night of Unknown Pleasures but the bleak quiet dawn as suicide beckons. Perhaps the most affecting track is “The Eternal” which is clearly a funeral march. “Procession moves gone, the shouting is over”, as Curtis’ opening line has it. It’s all over; nothing more to fight for.

If all this is true, then why listen to it? What enjoyment can you derive from hearing a man prepare to kill himself? Tough question. Art to me is the conveying of feeling and emotion. Closer does that with unerring skill. To appreciate it, all you need is humanity and empathy. But that does not mean that the album grows any less somber a listen.

The scale of its achievement grows as the years roll by. Here is a literal musical suicide note. It is horrifying, bleak and grim. But it is brave, and true.

Manic Street Preachers The Holy Bible

The Manics weren’t really taken seriously when they first popped up in the early 90s, with their heavy Clash borrowings, silly interview edginess, eyeliner and agitprop sloganeering. Their first album (a double, no less) is often transparently derivative, but has some nice hooks and big harmonies, even some sly humour. Their next, Gold Against The Soul, saw them chasing LA rock when it was obviously heading up the arse of Guns N’ Roses. (Still, “La Tristessa Durera” is a very good song). All of this led to guitarist Richey Edwards being asked if they were “for real”. In response, the self-cutting Edwards carved (not cut, but carved) “4 REAL” into his arm. Red flags and alarm bells aplenty there.

The Manics’ third album was perhaps even more shocking. The Holy Bible is a trawl through the charnel house of history and the screams of disturbed minds. It examines (with intense and apt musical accompaniment) the Holocaust, serial killers (imploring they be killed too – “Give them the respect they deserve!”), and the abuse of American imperial power (“Grenada, Haiti, Poland, Nicaragua”). But more disturbing are the songs on body horror, depression and self-destruction. Few albums can have opened with such disturbing song as “Yes”, with its bleak and bitter portrait of prostitution (“He’s a boy, you want a girl so cut off his cock”, “I hurt myself to get pain out”). There’s just an overwhelming feeling of disgust and despair. “Of Walking Abortion” is a stunning feral howl – not the poignant cry that “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, but a raging scream at the ugliness and bitterness of the world (“Everyone is guilty / Fucked up, don’t know why? You poor little boy”), and an violent recognition that we are all walking abortions. Grotesque cynicism like this had not been heard since maybe prime-era Throbbing Gristle. With its pounding rock beats and vicious intent, The Holy Bible is an exhausting, disgusted trawl through the ugly festering pile of humanity. It is a not so much a glimpse into the abyss, but a jump headfirst into it. Just six months after recording, its prime creative source and lyricist Richy Edwards’ car was found at the Severn service station, a popular suicide spot. He has not been seen since.

Nico The Marble Index

Nico’s first album was produced by Tom Wilson, who also “produced” the first Velvet Underground album (i.e. the one “& Nico”). Chelsea Girls is relatively melodic, matching Nico’s Germanic singing with folky, European arrangements. Only the atonal guitar/viola scrapings and melismatic caterwauling of central track “It Was A Pleasure Then” reminds the listener of the Velvets, being somewhere between “European Son” and “Heroin”. Nico wasn’t overly pleased by Wilson’s arrangements, saying:

I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! […] They added strings, and— I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.

Her second album, The Marble Index, does not feature any flute. Instead, pulsating harmonium and glacial strings are the order of the day. In “Lawns Of Dawn”, Nico’s vocals and the harmonium create a weird, incantatory atmosphere, which often recurs (as on “Facing The Wind” and “Frozen Warnings”). Soundscapes, rather than songs, evoke a grim, bleak, joyless emotional atmosphere. The skill is compelling (John Cale did much of the instrumentation) in precise evocation, though the audience must surely be limited (though Siouxsie Sioux and Robert Smith evidently had close listens).

In the album, Nico gives a sense of her being deeply emotionally damaged, and seeking the cold comfort of isolation. It is no surprise to learn that she was addicted to heroin for a long spell in the 1970s and 1980s.

(The funny thing is, as bleak as The Marble Index is, Nico’s cover of “The End” on a later album is even more unsettling).

Radiohead Kid A

I guess Radiohead have the mantle of the modern kings of gloom. (To be fair, later albums like In Rainbows do seem to admit a little tenderness). While The Bends married tales of loss and woe to anthemic (god, how I hate the word “anthems”!) indie rock, and OK Computer went further into alt rock and condemnation of modern life, Kid A was a revelation (to me at least). Marrying an overwhelming sense of despair at not just modern life but existence itself to cold electronics and the discordances of post-Coltrane jazz, Kid A is an album of overwhelming can’t-take-more-of-this anguish. This is best seen in the song “The National Anthem”. I described it in another blogpost (I don’t think I can convey it any better) as:

unlike anything I have ever heard, apart perhaps from John Coltrane’s almost violent explorations of atonality (in Live At The Village Vanguard… Again! for example). Thom Yorke’s tinny voice, the malevolent parping of the atonal brass, the insistent obligatto of the bass, the overwhelming atmosphere of mounting despair and horror, completed by the crushing final chord.

“Everything In Its Right Place” is a ominous opener – is it just me or does the album cover suggest it? – with its bleak, icy atmosphere and cutting winds. It’s not all great – “Optimistic” is essentially Radiohead by numbers, and “Idioteque” is a leaden, boring pastiche of drum and bass and an easy lyrical target. But songs like “National Anthem”, “Morning Bell”, “Kid A”, How To Disappear Completely” and “Everything” add up to one of the most viscerally bleak and musically astute albums I’ve ever heard.

Musical Orgasms

Excuse the gap. I’ve been in a bit of an epistolary and blogging desert of late. Maybe it was the winter. But now it’s warming up and I felt that sense of rising energy and possibility that you do in spring. Ah, glorious seasonal renewal, and all that Wordsworth bit. I also broke my bloody iPod a few months ago, and my phone can only (“only”, he says! It wasn’t so long I had a 256MB mp3 player which I thought was the shit) hold about 20 albums. Thus the choice on the daily grind commute is restricted. (I know, I could change the albums around a lot more, but…)

So recent listening has been trimmed down to my absolute utter favourites. And what I’ve found, or been reminded, is that there are still lots of songs – well, brief intense moments – which are just absolute musical orgasms for me. The kind of thing where I go “Oh yes! FUCK YEAH! OOOOHHH MY GOOOOOOD!!” as I listen – inside at least; externally I probably have my usual gormless nose-in-a-book look. These bits are from songs I’ve been listening to for 10, 20, even 25 years, and their power to captivate and enthrall remain.

So what are some of them?

1. John Cale’s organ solo in “Sister Ray” (Velvet Underground)

In which John Cale on the organ takes on Sterling Morrison AND Lou Reed, both on electric guitars, and thrashes them. Cale is playing an organ through a guitar speaker, and by sheer gleeful noise-loving beat-the-fucker-til-it-breaks energy, brings the song to a tumultuous mid-point climax. It’s the opposite of the precise malevolence of so many death metal bands: “Sister Ray” is instead immensely abrasive and dissonant. Man, I love it!

I find “Sister Ray” an utterly fascinating song, structurally: there’s a terrific analysis of it by Jeff Schwartz in The Velvet Underground Companion (a very good book). It’s built on a simple three-chord riff (G-F-C, apparently) by Reed and Morrison, but against which Cale and then shortly Reed swiftly depart. By moving against the simple riff, they introduce abrasion and distortion – if you have a regular rhythmic figure, that’s when you can play off of it, as all metal guitarists will know. Reed and Cale get more and more in-your-face, soloing over Morrison who keeps the rhythm going, but by 3.57 it heads off into uncharted improvisational territory, speeding up at 5.30 (with some incredibly deft drumming from Mo Tucker, who somehow keeps pace), and Cale overpowering everyone else with a screeching exultant solo from 6.26 which even muffles Reed’s vocal. It really is incredible stuff.

(I haven’t even mentioned the climax, which is a incredible outpouring of energies, going beyond form into a supersonic slipstream… amazing).

Fact: the Buzzcocks got together after Howard Devoto placed an ad seeking to do a version of it. Another fact: Lou Reed cites “Sister Ray” as their version of Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp freeform jazz kinda stuff. That was powerful stuff (like ramming themselves up against the very barriers of existence), but imagine that with the exponential power of massively redlining electric guitars and top-o’-the-line Vox amps. Final fact: consider the fact that the Velvet’s did this, and then on their next album did songs like “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free”, full of quiet nobility.

2. The relentless riff after the last “Battery” (Metallica)

Master Of Puppets was the first Metallica album I got, I think in about 1989 or 1990. I think it’s the best metal album ever and the title track I’ve eulogized several times before. The opening track “Battery” is an absolute stormer, though. It may the lack the ferocity of “Fight Fire With Fire”, the opener to predecessor Ride The Lightning, but it is perhaps more artful and more interesting – while no less intense. My favourite bit is after the final chorus, with the definitive shout of “BA-TTER-AY!” (4.45), how the riff kicks back in with an inexorable relentlessness. It sounded like nothing in the world could stop Metallica – their power, imagination, and indomitable anger would crush all before them. It was true, they conquered the world, but they never regained the heights of Puppets – the loss of Cliff Burton robbing Metallica of the one person who could stand up to both Ulrich and Hetfield. (Anyone who tries to argue that the Black Album is their best album will be laughed at, severely).

3. The instrumental/shift in “L.A. Woman” (The Doors)

There’s a nice line in Bad Wisdom about The Doors – how “you wanna hate them, but they keep popping up in your list of Top Ten All Time Bands In The World Ever”. I really only think they have two good albums, but then they are great albums at that, and The Doors is one of the best I’ve ever heard. L.A. Woman has a few more dips (“Crawling King Snake” is a bit of a snooze), but its peaks are amazing: not just the famous tunes like “Riders In The Storm”, but strong album tracks like “Hyacinth House”, “Love Her Madly” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”. “L.A. Woman”, though, starts up with this great careening rhythm (aptly enough), with Morrison gruffly crooning about “another lost angel in the city at night”. The terrific honkytonk solo from Manzarek goes from the second verse to a peak at 3.01 – at which point the band suddenly turns on a sixpence. Now it’s quieter, meditative, Big Jim saying “I see your hair is burnin’ / Hills are filled with fire”.

The contrast is utterly delicious, the skill incredible – if you ever thought The Doors were one drunken would-be Rimbaud and a backing band, check your head, dude – Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger were an extremely tight group who could go from barroom raucousness (“Roadhouse Blues“) to far-out meditative trippy Oedipal weirdness (“The End“). It’s a great moment from a band who (in)consistently hit my musical g-spot.

4. The opening riff in “Get Up Stand Up” (Bob Marley)

I am not really overly familiar with reggae: I’ve got a bunch of stuff by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Peter Tosh but neither of them hold a candle, in my humble opinion, to the great Bob Marley. In reggae terms this is a bit like saying Queen is your favourite rock band – but then I don’t smoke hash so I might be missing a vital ingredient. All the same, I think it’s undeniable how fantastic Bob Marley is, and I don’t care how much of a studenty stoner cliche it is. His range is incredible – from flinty and impassioned to slinky and sensual to angry protest to dark smoky dub to carefree to wry confession. The Wailers, of course, are an amazing backing band, but Marley’s songwriting craft is consistently strong, and his singing always passionate and soulful.

For a microcosm of how good they were, check the opening riff to “Get Up, Stand Up”. It’s a famous tune, an angry protest song perhaps more typical of Peter Tosh (who co-writes and shares vocals). After an opening roll around the tom-toms, the riff rolls in – tar-thick, dark, but goddamn groovy – for two beats, pauses for one, repeats for one and half, pauses for two beats with percussion, repeats for two, pauses for one then goes into the verse – like so:

DUH DUH – DUH DUH (pause) DUH UH (percussion)

DUH DUH – DUH DUH  (pause) – (percussion).

It’s incredibly deft and skilful, almost mathematically precise and both funky and muscular. Fucking awesome.

5. The instrumental break in “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Beatles)

If you only know The Beatles from school music lessons singing “Yesterday” or “Let It Be”, it might surprise you to learn that the Fabs were actually pretty radical. Sure, they processed everything into a audience-friendly package most of the time (with the exception of “Revolution #9”, perhaps, but surely I’m not the only one who actually really enjoys it?), but within the constraints of two or three minutes, they did so much. “Tomorrow Never Knows” might well be their most radical song, in terms of studio innovation and departure from traditional forms, but holy fuck, it delivers such a megaton blast of musical delight. The rhythmic texture (Ringo on huge fat tom-toms with that famous syncopation  (ONE and TWO and THREE AND FOUR) and a sizzling halo of cymbals, Macca accompanying on bass with a typically melodic line) is stable, but there’s no verse-chorus-verse: instead Lennon repeats his schema: “Something something something… It is something, it is something“, while five samples like nothing you’ve ever heard criss-cross with ever greater frequency. Whoa! That’s some dense and heady brew!

The instrumental break (starting at 0.56) tops all that though, totally overwhelming you and making you lose your sense of time and place. It consists of two of the loops brought more fully to the centre, and then Macca’s solo from “Taxman” (yes, him and not Harrison) slowed down and played backwards. Pollack tells me that the break is 16 bars, as you’d expect, but they’re divided into 6+10 (the loops being 4+2) instead of the standard 8+8, further throwing you off your balance. All of this makes the “instrumental” section a terrific sensory overload, and an example of the transfiguration which I believe Lennon the acid-muncher, Lennon the Lewis Carrol fan, Lennon the Joycean word-player, often sought.

6. The whole damn instrumental section of “Three Days” (Jane’s Addiction)

I can’t be bothered describing this precisely – but just listen to the way it builds up (starting from 4.43) via the great guitar solo by Dave Navarro to that amazing pedal point of immense tension and electric charge. It sounds like a gargantuan wall of static electricity, a vast forcefield of implacable and unmovable power. Amazing.

7. The arpeggio’s in “William, It Was Really Nothing” (The Smiths)

Morrissey some dismiss as a whining yelper – well, maybe. I hate the singer from Tool, Maynard James Keenan, though several metalheads assure me they are an awesome band. Johnny Marr, though, is without doubt an awesome guitar player – he has so many remarkable guitar riffs and leads from The Smiths that he’s often considered the best, or certainly the most influential, UK guitar player of the 1980s. Him and Peter Buck certainly reinvigorated the arpeggio, it having lain fallow since, oooh, maybe The Byrds. This is a dazzling example of his repertoire (note how many layers of guitar there are, particularly in the verse) – the sparkling, dazzling arpeggios after each verse (first seen at 0.41-0.48)… they just evoke the 1980s, or what they meant to me. Which means, I guess (how does one explain your own dreamscapes and evocations?) they give this romantic vibe of tender, yearning beauty. Yeah, really. (“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” gives off the same feeling, to me anyways, as I’ve probably said). It just makes me almost shiver, as at some almost glimpsed isle of limitless delight.

8. Slash’s second guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’Mine” (Guns N’ Roses)

This literally makes the hair on my arms stand up. Slash is surely the first since Hendrix to adopt the same kind of electric fluidity in his guitar sound, and he makes awesome use of it in this solo. (Compare, also, with the bone-head hair metallers of the time – CC Deville, Mick Mars, Warren DeMartini, Chris Holmes, etc – their sound tends to be very dry and lack Slash’s bluesiness). In comparison to the Eddie Van Halen-inspired fretboard wankers of the day, Slash doesn’t go overboard with hammer-ons, fretboard picking and all the miscellanea of lead guitar tosspots. He starts out at 3.35 playing simple notes, bending them for sustain, sure, but nothing too frilly – until the song hits a pedal point at 4.02, which rises the temperature and tension, Slash likewise increasing the speed of his picking. Once released from this into a more aggressive riff, Slash (again, complementing the song) goes higher up the fretboard, bending notes more, making the guitar wail, all rich with passion and conflict. It’s just stunning, and I’ve never bored of it in the 25 years I’ve had a copy of Appetite For Destruction.

How about you?

Favourite Bands Through Time

The Beatles

Sorry about that inordinately long break – the new job has been taking up so much of my time, and I was also on holiday in Scotland for two weeks, celebrating my daughter’s first birthday. But things feel a bit more settled now, and I’ve passed my probation at work :-), so hopefully I can get back to prattling on about my musical and cultural hobbyhorses (hey, that’s what you folks seem to like!).

I’ve previously written about books which were “life changers“, which altered the shape and colour of my mind. In a similar vein, I thought I would go through my favourite bands as time has gone by, and look at how they comment on what  was doing at the time.

1. Queen – 1986-1988

Like many British people born between 1960 and 1990, I became aware of chart music through Top of the Pops, my family regularly watching the show. (I still have a fondness for songs from 1986-7, as those were some of the first which permeated my consciousness: songs like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, “Caravan Of Love” and “Pump Up The Jam”). But the first group that really connected with me were Queen, as a result of us having the Queen: Greatest Flix video, which went from “Killer Queen” to “Flash”. There is something so timeless about Queen, about how many of their songs have become not just standards but embedded into the very soul of the British population. Just start singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” in a bar and see how everybody joins in! Also, it was my first real introduction to the power of the electric guitar, and also to the rather more subtle pleasures of fine bass playing – I esteem John Deacon very highly.

2. Guns N’ Roses – 1988-1992

Yes, I was a greasy little metaller. A smalltown boy with a bad ginger mullet, some truly epic metal tshirts, an electric guitar I couldn’t begin to get the hang of (dexterity is not my strong point), and a detestation of anything pink and fluffy. Oh me! All the same, Appetite For Destruction is an absolute monster of an album, and one whose power and authority have if anything increased as time has gone by; and the guitar playing on the second half of GN’R Lies is remarkable, worthy of the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers. I just wish I hadn’t looked like such an absolute tool in those days. Ah well.

3. Sex Pistols – 1992-1993

While a metaller, I didn’t really know much about punk except through its hardcore subvariant (I still have a vinyl copy of the peerless Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing by Discharge). Then one day I on TV an advert for the Sex Pistols compilation Kiss This, and the rawness of the guitar shocked and delighted me. I got a copy of Never Mind The Bollocks, and was blown away! Holy fuck! The sheer raw exuberance, the thrilling noise, the outraged sneer of Lydon and the thick power of Jones’ guitar… an intoxicating mix. fortunately, in those days you could pick up punk compilation CDs for buttons, and so I spent many happy hours discovering great songs like the Undertones “Teenage Kicks”, Ian Dury’s “Sex And Drugs And Rock N’ Roll”, Sham 69’s “If The Kids Are United”, and the brilliant “Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please” by Splodgenessabounds. Punk/post-punk is probably still my favourite genre of music. Teenage kicks, indeed.

4. The Beatles – 1993-1995

Guess I’ve said all I need to say about The Beatles. But, oh boy, what a discovery! What colour, wit, variety and grace! They remain my No. 1 All Time Favourite Best Band In The World Ever (man), but of course other groups have periodically taken their place.

5. The Smiths – 1995-1997

It’s sometimes ridiculous how apt music can be – or maybe it just finds you at the right time. Anyway, in those days Britpop was jst getting going, and I used to read the magazine Select. In the small ads section at the back, there was an entire category called “Stuff About Morrissey”, such was the devotion of his fans. I knew he’d been in the band The Smiths, so one day I borrowed their Best Of Vol. 1 from the library, and… ZANG! Often dismissed as miserablists or because of Morrissey’s patent narcissism, The Smiths considered just for their music are a band of high lyricism, from the gloomy foot-stomper “How Soon Is Now?” to the fierce indictment “The Queen Is Dead” to the outrageously pert “This Charming Man” (still a dancefloor filler) to the achingly selfpitying “I Know It’s Over”. This was just as I was becoming a literary-obsessed love-bereft aesthete; in other words, a real prat. Still, I can’t deny the force of The Smiths’ impact, nor how incredibly pertinent it all seemed.

6. Tricky – 1997-1999

During my time as a student, I developed an inordinate pot-smoking habit. (There was about a three-month period when I was never not stoned). Tricky’s remarkable Maxinequaye was an ideal accompaniment, being sensuous, slinky, and itself obviously a devotee of the herb. His subsequent albums Pre-Millenium Tension and Angels With Dirty Faces were ever more dark, brooding, disjointed and dismissive of simple pleasures like melody and structure, and his entire career has been a continual downward trajectory (how galling to have so many “special guests” on his comeback album Blowback, and how badly they were used!), but there was a time when Tricky seemed like a genius. How swiftly times change. (I haven’t smoked pot in almost 12 years now.)

7. Belle and Sebastian – 1999-2000

Like many people, I suspect, I bought this album by mistake. Intending to buy an album by Arab Strap, I instead bought The Boy With The Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian’s third. But even on its first play, I found it to be a striking listen – quiet and underplayed, to be sure, but poetic, folky yet rich with orchestral colour, and with lyrics to die for. Apart from The Beatles and Kraftwerk, 99% of my music was dark, gloomy, or angry – I had also been going through a Joy Division phase earlier (great band, but not one which illuminates your life). But Belle and Sebastian’s ironic gentleness, their soft lilting melodies set to hushed, biting portraits and evocations came at a completely different angle, and set the pace for what was a hazy, crazy, lazy summer, the likes of which you can only have as a student.

8. Leftfield – 2000-2001

After a few years smoking pot, other drugs began appearing. The most revelatory was ecstasy, which as the cliché goes, gave me a whole new outlook on life. (The most important, ironically enough, was that the joy was within us all, and that we didn’t need drugs or anything to access it. Just knowing it was there was enough). So of course you need a soundtrack, and though their first magnificent album Leftism was already five years old by then, Leftfield fit the bill splendidly. It was unusual to get dance/electronica that worked well across an album, which had such a range of emotions and textures and which was paced so well. Starting with the bouncing toy-piano-y “Release The Pressure”, modulating through the gears in “Melt” and “Song Of Life”, and building to a peak through the sinister charged force of “Black Flute” and the exhilarating dancefloor release of “Space Shanty”, Leftism was a remarkable feat. I also saw Leftfield in summer 2000’s T In The Park festival, and was blown away by the sheer intensity of their attack – it beat any rock band I’d ever seen. (Moby, whose album Play was taking off after being out for a year, also did a really good headlining set).

9. The Velvet Underground – 2001-2003

While I’d been a fan of the Velvets since discovering them in 1995, they were never quite my favourite band; I admired them, but maybe I had to get through some living first. I also wasn’t keen on their third or fourth albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, which I considered weak pop sellouts. Anyway, eventually it started to dawn on me just how impressive they were, particularly The Velvet Underground. Ditching the extreme amplification and distortion which made White Light/White Heat such a glorious failure (in recording terms, at least – song-wise, there’s not a thing to complain about), the Velvets instead revealed their vulnerable, open, fragile side; not in a weak way (as perhaps with Nirvana’s Unplugged) but with a sense of strength and nobility. Being able to dig this, and continuing to worship at the altar of the ferociously distorted “Sister Ray”, finally made me fully appreciate the Velvets. I mean, a band with Lou Reed, John Cale and the incredible Sterling Morrison? Whoa!

10. Miles Davis – 2003-2005

As I said before, I got into jazz via the Velvets, and started with Miles Davis and Kind of Blue. I then spend about six months buying a jazz album every week, mostly Miles Davis, but also John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Parker. (Though I am a big Philip Larkin fan, I seem to disgree with him on every aspect of jazz). What’s so admirable about Miles Davis? At his best, he integrates vision and method with astonishing success, as seen in the out-there horns of “Orbits”, the candlelit dusky dreaminess of “Shhh/Peaceful”, the aching melancholy of “Blues In Green”, the sinister foreboding of “Pharaoh’s Dance”. But more than that, his ever-changing approach is magnificently inspiring. His willingness to constantly challenge himself, to leave his comfort zone and seek new musical territories is an object lesson in how to create. (Somebody once asked him why he didn’t play ballads any more. “Because I like playing them so much,” he replied). Similarly, his work with younger musicians is incredible – this is the man who recognised the talent in musicians of the calibre of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams (if you don’t know who Tony Williams is, listen to his top-hat work on “Shhh/Peaceful” – he plays it like a lead instrument!), and Joe Zawinul.

Since about 2005, I haven’t really had any new favourites; I seem happier exploring the byways of musical history than seeking out the latest sounds. But how about you?

Guitar Solos

Listening to my iPod on the way to work every day, I tend to go for more energetic music: mostly hard rock and metal. And consequently, I have been considering what makes a great guitar solo. (This is the kind of thing that goes through my head, I’m afraid – it’s a burden). Structurally, the solo in rock music is different from that in jazz. In rock, the solo often goes after the bridge, before the final chorus, or verse/chorus. (Not always, of course – it used to irritate me, for example, that Oasis’ “Live Forever” has the solo after the first verse, but now I see the point of setting out a bold statement so early in the song), while in jazz the solos are what is being “sung” in each “verse” (or in jazz terms the chorus).

The trouble I often find with guitar solos is that too many of them are generic, perhaps astonishing you with their vigour and intensity, but rarely do they add to the narrative of the song.  A good solo is usually a restatement of the themes or ideas of the song in “pure”, unrestrained fashion, outside the confines of the riff and chorus, but the truly great ones add to the meaning of the overall song. So, then, let’s look at examples of all three.

Generic Solos

I think Lou Reed is the most important American rock musician ever. Really! Trouble is, as good a guitarist as he is, he’s often a poor soloist. They meander here and there without making much of a statement, or, indeed, impression. Check out the solo in “Run Run Run”… great riff, crap solo.  He would go on and get better – the soloing in “I Heard Her Call My Name” is just demented (though still quite directionless), but he’s essentially a rhythm guitar player. (It’s notable that his best work has been with great guitar players like Robert Quine and Mick Ronson, as well as Sterling Morrison, of course).

Punk was so aggressively back-to-basics, reacting against the wanky instrumental pyrotechnics of “dinosaur rock” that being “flash” with guitar solos was actively discouraged. (See the essential anti-solo in The Buzzcock’s “Boredom” and the self-mocking “GUITAR HERO” on Steve Jones’ amp). Punk is therefore filled with example of merely adequate solos, and songs without solos at all. Brian James of The Damned (well, their first two albums) repeatedly riffs where the solo would normally be on Damned! Damned! Damned!here’s a good example.  The Adicts, in their fun song “Chinese Takeaway” show how a basic riff can make a good song, if performed with irrepressible relish, but there’s nothing to the solo at all. Steve Jones has excellent delivery (he must have incredibly strong fingers), but solos in “God Save The Queen” and “Satellite”, for example, are nothing special in comparison to his great riffs and Rotten’s electrifying voice.

Good Solos

As I said above, I think good solos restates themes or ideas of the song. The best example of this is “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, where instead of shredding the fretboard, Kurt Cobain simply plays the melody. This isn’t just laziness: it’s lean and concise, increasing the intensity of the song. Similarly, here’s AC/DC with the live version of “Whole Lotta Rosie”: god, that riff is fantastic, but while the solo brilliantly gives the feel of the song, it doesn’t add to its meaning. You see what I mean? Metal bands often feature riff-shredding solos, and while these can be enjoyed for themselves – if you like that sort of thing; I personally think they’re fairly self-indulgent: virtuosity means nothing to me. For great guitar solos, you need something more.

Great Solos

As said above, I believe that great solos add to the meaning of the song; they add to the overall narrative of the piece. Perhaps the best metal solos come in Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” – the first solo (starting at 3.35) gives a sense of the bliss and peace of the drug addict. Beautifully and skillfully, this modulates to an ominous, immensely powerful central section (“Master, master, where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”), with the bass-heavy, dark riffing giving the sense of abasement to some almost-Lovecraftian greater power . This clearly suggests drug bliss and drug withdrawal. Another brilliant example is in the Velvet Underground’s incomparable “Sister Ray”, the most ferociously dissonant song ever recorded. John Cale’s keyboard solo (starting from 3.53), where he takes on Lou Reed’s guitar and wins in an exultant example of pure volume and power (at 6.24), is just astonishing. Joy Division, no strangers to dissonance or atonality themselves, could not capture half of this power in their cover of the song. Slayer’s screamingly-intense solos (performed both by Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman) in “Angel Of Death” capture the insanity of Auschwitz in a way that no riff ever could.

Good soloing is not exclusive to metal, of course: Johnny Marr was probably the most influential British guitarist of the 1980s, with good reason. Check out the beautiful gossamer shimmer of “Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”: not only does it create a vivid atmosphere, they give a sense of yearning beauty that Morrissey’s tongue-in-cheek lyric fails to capture. The vibrato-rich, glossy black solo by Bernard Butler in Suede’s “The Asphalt World” similarly creates a world of epic longing and tortured poetry which redouble the effect of verses, which verge on the absurd. (Butler wanted the song (and solo) to be longer – I often think he was right. Structurally, the song is similar to Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” – itself over 17 minutes). And how about the solo in Television’s “Marquee Moon”? Just savour the guitar interplay.

These are, of course, just a few examples of songs which I think have great guitar solos. What about you, what would you nominate?