In Praise Of… Live At The Ritz

One of the things that most fascinates me about gig-watching is seeing the band dynamics right up there in front of you. You see all types: from the nervous, egg-shell anxiety of the other Nirvana members towards Kurt Cobain at Unplugged In New York; the primus inter pares status of Thom Yorke to Radiohead (I saw them during their tour for Amnesiac); the pseudo-democracy of Belle and Sebastian (with leader Stuart Murdoch as a self-effacing dictator); Paul Di’anno-era Iron Maiden very clearly has Steve Harris as the front man (bass guitar thrust at the audience like a machine gun) rather than the singer; Queen’s Olympian Live Aid performance draws not just on Freddy Mercury’s huge charisma, but also the band’s exceptional stage-craft honed across over fifteen years of intensive gigging; The Beatles’ famous rooftop gig is a dream for any student of body language, as Lennon and McCartney constantly turn to each other to sing (Macca being a southpaw, of course) while poor George looks on and Ringo hopes to keep up; hell, even with the League Of Gentlemen, Steve Pemberton comes across as very much the man in charge – no mean feat considering his colleagues are the sublime Mark Gattis (on whom I have rather a man-crush) and the spiky Reece Shearsmith. Closer to home, I once saw a very much beginner band with a talented guitarist with a cheeky smile that girls found intensely fuckable; the singer was much weaker, and it was odd but very obvious how much he draw confidence and strength from the guitarist. You could see him literally extracting it from the guitarist.

The most enthralling live performance I’ve ever seen is and remains Guns N’ Roses’ Live At The New York Ritz. Recorded in February 1988, it was performed eight months after the release of Appetite For Destruction but before it had set the world alight – it’s sometimes forgotten that it took a year to catch fire, with early single ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ not attracting much attention and ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ being released twice when its first release was similarly lackluster. Guns at this stage were therefore still “hungry tigers” – a phrase from my wife when I showed her the DVD of this gig, which I think was brilliantly apposite. They were lean, ferociously hungry for success and absolutely on fire.

The stage chemistry and presence of the band is magnificent. Axl naturally dominates, but without overshadowing the others: his raw charisma is utterly compelling, his red hair, sharp cheek bones and not-an-ounce-of-fat frame mean you can’t take your eyes off him; there’s something smoldering, some risk, always possible. (Like when he falls/jumps off the stage – I’ve never quite figured out which it is). At the start of the show, in his snakeskin jacket, swaying hips and mirrored-sunglasses, he is the very definition of young male arrogance. Slash, by contrast, is the faceless demon, the dark monster of rock. His face is concealed by his hair but somehow a cigarette still props out of his mouth, and he doesn’t just play that guitar (naturally a Les Paul Gibson), it’s like he is hard rock itself. Steven Adler on drums beats the skins and cymbals with glorious emphasis, pounding them like his life depends on it (and to time!). And when Guns are rocking hard, as in the end of “Paradise City” or when the verse kicks in on “Welcome To The Jungle”, he’s a pulsating blizzard of hair, drumsticks, arms and leather. Izzy interestingly eschews the leather look of the others for a white shirt and waistcoat, and he’s also the least active member on stage. His riffs propel the whole gig, though: when Slash is soloing you realize how essential Izzy is to the Guns sound. (His departure in 1991 was the end of Guns as a great band: Slash might be more exotic and is a stunning soloist, but Izzy was the heart and soul of the band, the riff, the Keith Richards). And in Duff, tall and lean and blonde, with that Sid Vicious-style chokechain-and-padlock, there was the punk presence in GN’R. But as a bassist he is terrific, constantly outlining the melody (as in the intro to “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or to the riff of “My Michelle”): he’s no dum-dum-dum-dum average punk bassist. (Can you think of a memorable bass line on a great punk tune? Nope, me either. I’m not including Public Image or later Clash albums in that, to clarify!). Every band member feels essential: there’s no Dave Rowantree (the Blur drummer) or Jason Newsted slightly left out, feeling inessential. It helps that the Ritz is fairly small: I think it held (holds?) about 2000 people, so it has that small club intensity of atmosphere I have always preferred to communal festivals, which I find slightly Nuremberg. The band get in each other’s space, have to work with each other: the stage can only be about fifteen foot wide for all five of them. They are close, and tight.

As for the performance, it’s stunning. Energy doesn’t just flow from Guns, it blazes from them, like the heat from a desert sun. This is partly from the music of course: the surging power of the electric guitars is undeniable. (Those Les Pauls and Marhsall stacks!) But the band put in a tremendous shift, headbanging, stomping, pounding, thumping the air – all conveying the power and force of their songs. When the main riff begins on “Nighttrain”, Slash blasts the riff to the audience as he runs the length of the stage. As “Out Ta Get Me” starts, Axl does these quite odd high kicks, while during “It’s So Easy” he does those great hipswaying movements. And during the climax to “Paradise City” they all rock like a bunch of demented bastards. (Except Izzy). It’s fucking brilliant.

There is always something special when chemistry and talent lock in: the power of a group of people multiplies exponentially. Here, for this hour-long video, you can feel the unquestionable force of this, when GN’R were the best band in the world.

 

Queen Playlist

Here’s my Queen playlist:

Keep Yourself Alive  Queen I
Seven Seas Of Rhye  Queen II
In The Lap Of The Gods… Revisited  Sheer Heart Attack
Now I’m Here  Sheer Heart Attack
Stone Cold Crazy Sheer Heart Attack
Killer Queen  Sheer Heart Attack
’39 A Night At The Opera
You’re My Best Friend  A Night At The Opera
The Prophet’s Song  A Night At The Opera
Seaside Rendezvous A Night At The Opera
Good Company A Night At The Opera
Bohemian Rhapsody A Night At The Opera
Somebody To Love  A Day At The Races
Tie Your Mother Down (2)   A Day At The Races
We Will Rock You News Of The World
We Are The Champions  News Of The World
Sheer Heart Attack News Of The World
Spread Your Wings News Of The World
Bicycle Race  Jazz
Let Me Entertain You  Jazz
Fat Bottomed Girls Jazz
Another One Bites The Dust The Game
Dragon Attack The Game
Play The Game  The Game
Under Pressure  Hot Space
Radio Ga Ga  The Works
I Want To Break Free The Works
I’m Going Slightly Mad Innuendo
Innuendo  Innuendo
These Are The Days Of Our Lives  Innuendo

That is an amazing set list! A great body of work.

Incidently, my wife, who is Chinese, likes Queen better than any band I’ve introduced to her. Even The Beatles! Her percipient comment was, “They are a band that loves their power”.

The Films I Have Watched Most

Weird Science

There’s the films you watch and admire – Chinatown, say, or The Godfather or Raging Bull or Scum. Then there’s the films you can put on and you know all the dialogue but they’re like faithful companions. I mean, I know all the bits in Revolver but that’s never going to stop me giving it another spin (if FLAC files spin). These films are your duvet-day entertainment, what you stick on when you come home drunk before falling asleep on the couch, the ones you swap lines with friends unto infinity. For people of a certain age, you might still raise a chuckle at “Shut your fucking face, uncle-fucker!”, or it might be “We have both kinds, country and western,” or “I know that penis – it had a mole on it!” or “The one with Bad Motherfucker on it” or even “Yes, it’s true – this man has no dick”.

I’ve quite a collection of these. I like, as Mr Keating said in Dead Poets Society, to “suck the marrow” out of the things I really get into, to really understand them- but also just because they become part of me.

Rocky II

You remember how people used to have video cabinets filled with VHS tapes? As in the blank ones they’d tape films onto. When I was a nipper we had about a dozen, all numbered with a small notepad I used to keep track of what was there. (Even then I was anal retentive about organising my entertainment…). We also had a smaller collection of bought VHS tapes, with the cover and all. These included Queen’s Greatest Flix, The Best of Hot Chocolate (my mum really likes Errol Brown), The Making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller (my sister was the Jacko fan), and Rocky II. On Saturday mornings me and my siblings would get up and watch the Stallone tale of Balbao’s descent into poverty, his half-assed training, Adrian’s coma, his redemptive (and quite brilliant) training montage, and his rematch with Apollo Creed. It’s all character-based and pretty slow moving until the montage and fight – so with the patience of kids (i.e. none) we’d most often just skip the boring bits to the exciting ending. Still, I really do think this is a very good film (for what it is) – very much better than Rocky, which better works as a concept rather than enjoyable film, and is of course far superior to the subsequent films in the series, where Rocky becomes an absurd superhero. And goddamn that montage – the music is so stirring, slow-building on the brass and climaxing on the strings. Fucking outrageously manipulative but so well done!

Ghostbusters

I was literally just watching this today for, I don’t know, the hundredth time. It is just so well done. The plotting is extraordinarily efficient for one thing: at the beginning, they flee the ghost in the library back to Columbia only to find the Dean evicting them. Dana Barret watches the Ghostbusters ad on TV right before her fridge has a nervous breakdown (I was tempted to say “meltdown”). The newscasts letting us know (without having to have any further big-budget special effects) that the ‘busters have been busting lots of ghosts. Compare with the absurd lengthiness of post-2000 blockbusters – this is lean and sharp, just how a film like this should be. The characterisation is wonderful: I just love Egon and his semi-autistic geekiness, while sweet lovable Ray is just right for Dan Akroyd, and Bill Murray… this is probably his most quintessential role, no? At least in his earlier wise-cracking incarnation before he became the prototypical alienated, mildly depressed, existential-doubt type in Lost In Translation (though see also Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt). The ghosts and other supernatural hokum is played for fun but with intelligence rather than mickey-taking. (Dan Akroyd is a fully paid-up Spiritualist). Ghostbusters is a film that’s just great fun and filled with endless quips (“Listen – do you smell something?”).

The Empire Strikes Back

I’m not really a Star Wars geek. No, really. I am not in general big on sci-fi, which I find humourless and not character-driven, which are two things I find essential in films (not necessarily in conjunction). But goddamn this is a fucking brilliant film, so rich in drama, stuffed full of major motifs like OEDIPAL CONFLICT and BETRAYAL and REDEMPTION. The characters are complex and recognisable (I am sure we have all met Leia’s and Luke’s, though perhaps not Boba Fett or Yoda); the special effects are stunning (oh god, the blu-ray version is magnificently detailed) but organic, with no artificial CGI sucking the life out of it; and the set piece action scenes are terrific: the lighting in the picture below is so well done.

Empire Strikes Back is just a film I can watch again and again and again. (Can’t really say the same about the other Star Wars films!)

Weird Science

I first saw Weird Science about the time that I got Appetite For Destruction, and the two have long felt to some extent complementary in my mind. I used to watch it repeatedly watch it with a friend with whom I’d bonded over GN’R, and we’d drool over how great the parties were and how hot the chicks were, man, and how awesome it must be to be 18 and be able to drink and have sex and drive and have tattoos and shit. We were essentially pretty much like Gary and Wyatt, in reality, but that went unsaid. For young boys (we must have been about nine years old), the film just seemed to hit everything we ever dreamed about. Aaah, such naive stupidity. Great film though: Bill Paxton in scene-stealing form as the vicious older brother Chat, Kelly LeBrock as the hottest woman ever, with those Brigitte Bardot lips, the mutant bikers from hell, Gary’s terrible parents, Wyatt’s even worse parents, the great soundtrack, the sense of teenage kicks… damn, I watched the fuck out of this film.

Best Of, 2012

writing

This blog has been running about 18 months now, and I’ve managed to keep going at about a post a week. Hopefully you can see that the posts I write are mostly quite lengthy (about 1000 words) and so do take time. I haven’t really gone out of my way to publicise it – I don’t even tweet or Facebook most posts, so the audience (you lovely people) has grown slowly, steadily and organically. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and especially to those who have commented. It really does spur you to keep on writing when you feel there’s an audience there.

To round off 2012, I thought I would simply take a leaf out of Froog’s book and recap on what I feel were the most interesting posts. Here’s six of the best from me to you (again). The order is simply chronological.

1. “Biographies”

Bit of a monster post, going over ten of my favorite biographies (by which I also include memoirs, letters and diaries). Being a lapsed intensive diarist and journal-keeper myself, I find these kind of books fascinating and just devour them. From William Burroughs to Oscar Wilde to Alistair Campbell to Philip Larkin, here are some of my most recurrent interests/obsession.

2. Punk-Rock-O-Rama

Twenty great videos from twenty different punk (in the broadest sense) bands, from X-Ray Spex to The Exploited to 999 to Stiff Little Fingers. Yup! 😀

3. BANGIN’

I like this post for the opening sentence:

I may have given the impression in the blog that I take music waaaay too seriously, that I sit and pore over every last bar and nuance like a lepidopterist gingerly analysing the skeletal remains of a rare and exotic butterfly.

Also a nice and perhaps slightly off-the-beaten-track selection, for me at least. I mean, no Beatles??

4. Favourite Bands Through Time

Interesting to look back in time and see the bands and artists who entranced you. Fortunately, nothing too embarrassing there! My journey through music, from Queen to Tricky to Miles Davis, has been enormously entertaining and endlessly interesting.

5. Three Top British Films

Bit of a monster post here, too, culled from three individual posts from my old blog. Obviously I’m more of a cultist when it comes to films; I just get so utterly bored by films which lack imagination or creativity (hello 2012!). Maybe I should do a Three Top American Films in counterpoint?

6. An Introduction to John Lennon

This is by far the most viewed single post in the blog, though not the most commented (that’s the “I Hate Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” post, now at 22 comments and counting – they’re still coming in!). It’s the introduction to the putative biography of Lennon during his Beatle years which I have been yearning to write. I think this is probably the best writing I’ve posted.

How about you, dear reader? Were there any posts you liked more than this selection?

Live! Tonight! Sold Out!

(To borrow a phrase from Nirvana)

I’m not, to be honest, much of a gig-goer. I’ve worked in bars and nightclubs which had live performances, and seen the whole gamut of quality. The nightclub was an underground/alternative kinda place, and often had excellent DJs (Grandmaster Flash, one of the guys from Orbital, brilliant jungle and drum and bass nights), and bands from Napalm Death to local pop-punk that was lapped up by the kids (band sets were open to those 14 and over; staff called it “the paedo shift”). The bar was a bog standard chain lager-burgers-sports venue, and had bands every Friday: even now, eight years later, if I hear “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Brown Eyed Girl”, I get violent. Also, I like to listen to music whilst reading or writing: when you’re at a gig, you’re compelled to seem like your enjoying yourself, rather than being able to discuss what you find interesting or striking about the performance. Yeah, I’m a real chattering classes type (how I hate that derisory phrase, so typical of Britain). The main exception to this is jazz: maybe it’s because the first time I encountered jazz was at a gig when  I just utterly got it immediately: one of those brilliant “Eureka!” moments. But then jazz, even when recorded, is about the performance and enactment of creativity, so there’s less of a dichotomy between records and gigs as there is in rock, say.

While the live video is nowadays mostly filler (compare with the 70s, when bands often made their big breakthroughs on live albums – such as Kiss Alive! or Frampton Comes Alive!), there’s still plenty good ones out there, especially with DVDs capturing the sound better than ever.

1. Guns N’ Roses, New York Ritz, 1988

I struggle to comprehend that this was 24 years ago. I’d only recently bought Appetite For Destruction, and by coincidence BBC2 was having a “Heavy Metal Heaven” season, as presented by Elvira. I dimly remember watching stuff like Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years, and (by the same director) the shockingly raw and disturbing film Suburbia. But they were also kind enough to show this: Guns N’ Roses when they were lean, ferociously hungry and incredibly good. They looked amazing, they were tight as fuck (I always say that Izzy was the best guitarist – Slash is great at soloing, but the riffs are all Izzy’s), and the performance rocked. I must have watched this every day for about a year, and seen it hundreds of times. GNR’s later televised gigs – one in Paris, and the double Live in Japan set – are utterly dreadful. They never really mastered stadium shows, being catapulted from clubs to arenas within one year. This gig is when they were setting the world on fire, and it’s a glorious reminder of how absolutely fucking awesome they were for that brief period.

2. U2, Zoo TV, Sydney 1994

Yeah, yeah, Bono is a wanker. We know… I’m not massive on U2 either: I find their albums pretty hit and miss, with lots of empty emotional posturing, like on “In God’s Country”, or simple banality (pretty much everything after Pop). The albums I do really like are their mid-period postmodernist pieces, Achtung Baby and Zooropa, which are colourful, imaginative, and superbly produced by Brian Eno. Their Zoo TV tour is probably the most jaw-dropping stadium spectacle this side of The Wall: both are ironic meditations of their particular form of performance, too. Zoo TV’s media overload hyper-babble was very prescient, considering it was pre-internet, but the main thing is the spectacle, with video screens, lights, and stage design combining to create a terrific sensory overload.The “unplugged” set practically in the middle of the audience is a terrific counterpoint.

3. Nirvana Unplugged, 1994

On the other hand, simple stark performances are equally effective. With  lilies and candles giving a funereal, sepulchral atmosphere, and the awkward intra-band chat revealing the huge tensions between them, Nirvana somehow manage to give the performance of a lifetime. They’d until then been known for the enormous energy and charisma of their stage shows. This Unplugged took away all that and let the performance speak for itself: rescuing “About A Girl” as the great pop song it is, letting the great Cobain-Grohl harmonies in “All Apologies” and “On A Plain” come to the fore. The six covers are brilliantly chosen, from the unwinding, enigmatic “Plateau” to the bone-chilling primal blues of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?“. It’s heart-rending stuff.

4. Beatles Rooftop Gig, 1969

Nowadays easily downloadable, this is absurdly hard to get a hold of legally. Of course, Let It Be hardly shows the Fabs at their best, but the Rooftop gig is still bloody great. Part of it is the band interaction: with Lennon centre and Macca to his right, they often turn to face each other when harmonising, creating a fascinating mirror image (Macca being a southpaw, of course). George, left of Lennon, doesn’t get much of a look-in, steadfastly keeping an eye on them as he hops from foot to foot to keep rhythm. Lennon’s spindly guitarists’ fingers are noticeable, while Ringo looks happy just to be there. But then of course the music is glorious: “Don’t Let Me Down” has better, more vibrant, harmonies than in the recorded version; “One After 909” is better as a live throwaway than on record; “I’ve Got A Feeling” just pulses with emotion; and “Get Back” shows how well they synch with each other, so long after that Candlestick Park gig.

5. Queen, Live Aid, 1985

Guess I really have to have this here. Freddy Mercury grabs 80,000 people by the scruff of the neck and completely owns them. A performance that is utterly Olympian. Music’s none too shabby either.

6. Michael Jackson doing “Billy Jean”, Motown 25, 1983

With Thriller not long out, this is the moment when Jackson seizes the mantle of the World’s Best Pop Star. Having first performed a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, Jacko goes on to show why he is indeed the King of Pop. With dance moves beamed in from some futuristic parallel dimension, he does things with his ankles that defy the laws of physiognomy, before clinching it with the unveiling of the moonwalk. I love the way that he was such an aggressive, angry dancer.

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?

Favourite Albums

The Guardian has been doing a nice series on writers’ favourite albums – see here. With some nice left-field choices (it was pleasantly surprising to see Alex Petridis choose “Saturday Night Fever Original Soundtrack” as his favourite – it’s not often you see disco treated in the music press without sniggering), it’s been a fun new feature. There are albums which are the greatest – and these the classic rock mags endlessly pontificate on, with endless lists – but your favourite is something more personal, more meaningful, more autobiographical. The grandma with a taste for T. Rex and Alice Cooper, the aging fish factory worker with a passion for Charlie Parker, the oil engineer whose liking for The Blues Brothers led him to Howling Wolf and Robert Johnson, the prog-rocker turned onto The Orb… I have known all these people, and it’s sometimes wonderful how unexpectedly musical passion will hit.

But for me it was all quite simple. The first album I ever bought remains my favourite unto this day, after some 23 years and unending musical exploration. Let me give some context: at the time I was nine years old and was really just getting into music, via my mum’s copy of Queen’s Greatest Flix, their videos from “Killer Queen” to “Flash” (a-ah). From the off, I liked the heavier, guitary parts – the heavy section of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the faster version of “We Will Rock You”, the killer riff to “Tie Your Mother Down”. But I didn’t encounter much rock music in those days – as a family we used to watch Top Of The Pops every week (how we laughed over the “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us” video, and how baffled we were at Black Box’s “Ride On High”!) and my dad and uncles were massively into Pink Floyd, Mike Oldfield, etc, but I almost never heard any real hard rock. My mum preferred Simply Red and Bob Marley, and my older sister liked Radio 1 stuff, especially Michael Jackson.

So then one day a music shop opened up in my one-horse home town – or should I say, another one opened up, for there was already one, which sold musical instruments, a wide variety of music, music stands, amplifiers, guitar strings and plectrums, violin cases and the like. The new shop had one killer feature, though: they had a TV in the shop, and on this they would play MTV. I had never even seen MTV before but knew what it was thanks to Dire Straits, and like all British kids’ idea of America, it summoned images of unimaginable delight and pleasure, of unguessed-at consumer possibilities and a heightened glamour of life. Here was the world of youth, of freedom, of desire. So I used to hang about the shop and browse through their cassettes while listening/watching the videos. This being early in 1988, Guns N’ Roses were then riding high, with “Paradise City”, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome To The Jungle” on pretty heavy rotation. These songs excited me beyond words. Their power and visceral hunger were enthralling, and their look was equally as appealing – the intoxicating sense of bad boys, living fast and living hard, in the big city lights. For a small town boy like me, who could resist?

My brother and I went halfs on the album, Appetite For Destruction, a reasonable 6.75 as I recall, and played it to death. Song after song was just fantastic. The overture of “Welcome To The Jungle”, half an incantation and half a shriek from hell, set the tone right away: here was something gritty, almost overwhelming and above all alive. “It’s So Easy” postured and preened with astonishing yet believable arrogance, the ultimate expression of young-man narcissism, with Axl singing at the bottom of his range and the riff exploding out at you like a Molotov Cocktail of belligerent intent. “Nighttrain”. an ode to cheap tonic wine and seat-of-your-pants living (“I never learn”) was mighty fine, almost fun, while the duelling guitars at the start of “Out Ta Get Me” were magnificent. “Mr Brownstone” had this bad-ass funk and a subtext I would only later pick up (hey, I was only 9). The major statement, though, was “Paradise City”: oh dude, that amazing cavernous drum sound at the beginning, as confident as America in the Reaganite 80s, and that amazing boogie-stomp of the crushing riff, and the urban nightmare lyrics of the verses (“Captain America’s torn apart / Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart/ He said turn me around / And take me back to the start / I must be losing my mind / “Are you blind?!” / I’ve seen it all a million times”) with the open yearning and desire of the chorus (I’ll assume everyone knows it by now). And that was just side 1!

This led me down the track of late-80s hard rock and heavy metal, with bands like Poison, Motley Crue, WASP, and the like, while I also much admired Metallica’s Master Of Puppets and Faith No More’s The Real Thing. I grew my hair into a ridiculous mullet, I got an electric guitar I never could get the hang of, I made friends (well, a friend) who was into much the same stuff, I read Kerrang! and RAW magazines, I stayed up until 4.30am on Saturday mornings to watch Raw Power, the only place to watch heavy metal videos on British TV (we still didn’t have MTV), and generally was quite the greaser. I lived and breathed the album, reading the lyrics and credits obsessively, watching the tape I had of GN’R at the New York Ritz on countless occasions, and counting the days for a full successor. Guns N’ Roses subsequent career, of course, was something of a joke – has there ever been a band with such a bad trajectory? But the fact that I stayed on this path for something like five years is testament to the endless thrilling power of Appetite For Destruction, its sheer quality and unforgettable hunger and desire. I have never bored of it, and it remains my favourite album ever.

How about you? What’s your favourite? And what do you think of Appetite For Destruction?