The Guitar

I’ve recently made an iTunes playlist called “The Guitar” which, funnily enough, features songs which have great guitar. Here it is, with some comments. I restricted myself to one song per artist.

“The Act We Act”, Sugar Copper Blue
Bob Mould has surely got one of the best guitar sounds in rock. Played loud front and centre, the guitar here is so deep and loud, yet melodic – it’s rock for sure, but nothing like metal. I imagine he (as former Husker Du frontman) was pissed off that Nevermind was so successful, and wanted to really show off his chops. Great job, Bob.

“Columbia”, Oasis Definitely Maybe
This is an amazing song, easily my favourite by Oasis. (There’s not really much competition). The snarling guitar sound is terrific, and the pulsing riff and circular guitar lead could just go on forever.

“Only Shallow”, My Bloody Valentine Loveless
An utterly explosive opener to MBV’s magnum opus. The contrast between the overdriven guitar and the trancey, dreamy verses is delicious.

“One”, Metallica …And Justice For All 
That machine gun bit is still fucking incredible.

“Bron-Yr-Aur”, Led Zeppelin Physical Graffiti
Jimmy Page didn’t just do crushing riffs (see: “Immigrant Song”, “Heartbreaker”, “The Rover”), he is an amazing strummer. This accoustic worlout is from my favourite Zep album, Physical Graffiti, though Disc 2 (odds and ends) rather than Disc 1 (classics like “Custard Pie”, “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying”).

“Keep It In The Family”,  Anthrax Persistence of Time
Seven minutes of pure, focused, channelled aggression. The tightness of the riffing is amazing.

“Protest And Survive”, Discharge Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing 
I deliberately put this after Anthrax because I first heard of Discharge through Anthrax’s b-sides compilation Attack Of The Killer B’s, where they covered this song. I found this album at a record sale (just check the back cover!) and was blown away. The guitar sound is incredibly powerful, hugely overcharged without distorting.

“Wah-Wah”, George Harrison All Things Must Pass
In which George gets out his anger at The Beatles.

“Three Days”, Jane’s Addiction Ritual de lo Habitual 
I love multi-section epic type songs, from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Paranoid Android”. This is a killer example, with outstanding guitar from Dave Navarro in numerous points – the guitar solo which brings in the instrumental section (from 4.43), the static riff generating enormous electric power and tension (from 7.08), the sitting-on-the-brink-of-nirvana chords (9.24)… One of the best rock songs ever.

“Friction”, Television Marquee Moon
Like all songs on Marquee Moon, this features exceptional interplay on the guitar.

“I Heard Her Call My Name”, The Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat
Though Lou Reed invented lots of different aspects of punk/alternative guitar (static riffing, feedback, massive distortion), this is an example of his lead work. Overblown to the max!

“Satellite”, Sex Pistols Kiss This
Steve Jones is one fine rhythm guitarist. This was only a b-side (to “Holidays In The Sun”), but with its massive overdubbed guitars and Johnny Rotten throwing himself into the eye of the hurricane, it is a fan favourite.

“One In A Million”, Guns N’ Roses G N’ R Lies
GN’R at the Stones-iest. The fuzzy lead (by Izzy Stradlin) over accoustics is very reminiscent of Sticky Fingers-era Stones. Fucking brilliant. Ah, what could have been…

“I Found That Essence Rare”, Gang Of Four Entertainment!
Punk you don’t associate with rhythm, but Gang Of Four manage to be funky and punky. I don’t see that much of them in Franz Ferdinand, but they’re supposed to be a major influence. Gang Of Four stomp on them.

“Bed Crumbs”, Fudge Tunnel Hate Songs in E Minor
A forgotten gem of British metal, Hate Songs in E Minor has some massive, distorted, echoing guitars. “Bed Crumbs” has this, and a crushing riff… wow.

“Hangar 18”, Megadeth Rust in Peace
Dave Mustaine took great pride in being named the best metal guitarist in some book – it can appear odd to people outside the magic circle just how sensitive to critical attention artists can be. He found particular pride/glee in being named ahead of Kirk Hammet: I guess the scars remain. Anyway, the technical level on Megadeth’s best album Rust In Peace is astonishing. The best song “Hangar 18” showcases this: the shifts in time, the fury, the solos, the slashing riffs, the mounting climax… yup, Mustaine could play.

“Porch”, Pearl Jam Ten
Pearl Jam were a bit earnest and right-on in comparison to Nirvana’s headlong dive into the chaos of punk. They were the affirmative Clash to Nirvana’s nihilistic Sex Pistols. This song is one of the punkier in their debut, Ten (which is reverb-rich and soft-edged), and has this wonderful sense of mounting excitement

“Black Math”, White Stripes Elephant
See, I do like some music after 2000…! Jack White is obviously a great guitar player, with a primal, bluesy sound. I love the careening, free-wheeling vibe to this song.

“Amazing Journey/Sparks”, The Who Live At Leeds 
Goddamn. Just… goddamn.

“Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, The Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
Is it just me or were the Stones only really good when Mick Taylor was in the band? Well, that and Beggars Banquet. This song has a ferocious fuzz guitar intro (by Keith Richards) and an outstanding solo by Taylor.

“Painkiller”, Judas Priest Painkiller
I can see the evolutionary importance of Judas Priest, in their twin-lead guitars and stripping-out of any blues influences (whereas Black Sabbath used to, you know, be a blues band). But apart from Stained Class, I don’t think their albums really that much cop. Painkiller was a roaring return to form after a pretty indifferent decade in the 1980s, featuring magnificently over-driven guitars and a solo that threatens to burst out through the musical score.

“Symptom Of The Universe”,  Black Sabbath Sabotage
In which Tony Iommi invents thrash metal, eight years before Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All.

“Atrocity Exhibition”, Joy Division Closer
Bernard Sumner (nee Albrecht), like other guitarists in bands with stand-out bass players, often used his for texture and commentary rather than melody. Here, he make teeth-grindlingly abrasive shards and yowls, over a lop-sided rhythm and bass played as lead. It’s a fascinating step-change from previous album Unknown Pleasures.

“Theresa’s Sound World”, Sonic Youth Dirty
I love how this modulates from arpeggios to a beautifully controlled rising-tension section, ebbing and flowing several times, before building to an ambiguous climax. Compared to the simple telelogical pleasures of rock music, with its massive resounding resolutions, this is pleasingly open-ended and enigmatic.

“Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others”, The Smiths Strangeways, Here We Come
What I’ve previously called “the beautiful gossamer shimmer” of Johnny Marr’s guitar. Magnificent.

Obscure Gems

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!

Three Types of Album

My music collection is very much based upon the album. Even though they are all in mp3 and FLAC, I am old enough to be someone who believes in Side 1 and Side 2 and who remembers copying things onto a C90 blank cassette (Because of this, I almost always think that albums should be less than 45 minutes.) So I have things very much organised: each artist has albums with genre, year etc; hey, it might be anal retentive, but that’s how I roll, baby.

It strikes me that there are three types of album in my collection: the one I’ve liked but tired of , the one I initially didn’t think much of but came to like or even love, and the one which remained steadily in my affections through the years. (I don’t, of course, have any bad albums  🙂 )

For the first type, I’ve got ears experienced enough to tell me when studio trickery is concealing an absence of substance, which obviously is the case with most chart music these days, and I avoid this stuff like the plague. Other reasons for such albums becoming tiresome are:

  • uneven quality, typically seen in the hits + filler album (The Fat of the Land by The Prodigy, despite its high reputation, is an example; many of Lou Reed’s solo albums are the same, as are U2 albums)
  • being a one-trick pony (Cypress Hill’s Black Sunday; Add N To (X)’s On The Wire Of Our Nerves)
  • being badly ordered, usually by having all the good songs on “side 1” – Pantera’s A Vulgar Display of Power; I Know Electrikboy by Thee Madkatt Courtship (aka Felix Da Housekat)
  • lacking dynamic or emotional range – so many metal albums have this problem, tending to focus on rage, depression etc, or the good old stomping 4/4 riff; even a band as good as Metallica succumb to it.

(I was tempted to add Sugar’s Copper Blue to the the third category, but its first half is so strong that I haven’t tired of it yet. Tricky’s non-Maxinequaye albums could be in the first, second or third categories).

The second type is perhaps more interesting. Albums of this kind tend to be long, dense with incident and take numerous listenings to appreciate, as you catch on to what they’re doing. They lack immediacy but are rich with invention and detail. Classic examples include Exile On Main Street (the prototype of this kind of album, along with The Beatles’ White Album), Animals by Pink Floyd (an mysteriously under-rated album in my opinion) and Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. Other less-known examples might include Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth and Music Has The Right To Children by Boards Of Canada.

Finally, there’s albums which are steadfast with you throughout the years. Somehow you just don’t get tired of them. These are the very titans of the album. For me, examples include The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Revolver, and White Album, Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses, Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Kind Of Blue and In A Silent Way by Miles Davis, The Man Machine by Kraftwerk, David Bowie’s Low, the Velvet Underground’s first four albums, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Unplugged, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Pink Moon and Bryter Later, and Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. As time has gone by, my respect for these albums has only increased; they come to seem like comrades, if that isn’t too ridiculous a metaphor, music always there to enliven or relax or satisfy or illuminate.

Do you disagree – would you put any of these in different categories? Or which albums would you nominate for which category? Tell me.