Did you ever think that there would be ten songs that would be more important to you and what you’re doing right now than any others? Back then, right now and forever after…
The ten most influential songs of my life. I have tried to do this without the plethora of British rock bands that I always seem to spout at people when they ask me what sort of music I listen to. Doing this list without The Cure, The Cult, The Smiths or Joy Division forced me to look at the bands and songs that influenced my tastes in somewhat more formative years and the moments of live magic that have stayed with me ever since rather than simply repeating the names of my favourite songs from my record collection. It has been a memorable experience recreating the moments that shaped my musical past and present.
1. Add It Up – Violent Femmes
There was a time in my life, about a year in fact, when you couldn’t go to a party anywhere in Auckland without hearing the Violent Femmes first album in its entirety at least ten times over the course of any given evening. It became an anthem for every misconstrued, ill-thought of and awkward teenager there ever was. ‘Add It Up’ is a song about the difficulties of getting laid as a teenager aimed squarely at a demographic who think about nothing else. In New Zealand Gordon Gano, Brian Ritchie and Victor DeLorenzo quickly became part of musical folklore and their concert in Auckland touring the mighty follow up album, ‘Hallowed Ground’ was extraordinary. Their eponymous first album went gold on our tiny islands faster than anywhere else in the world. Gordon’s haunting and yet menacing vocals still resonate today and it’s hard to imagine how bands such as the awesome Placebo could have ever existed without this one coming first.
2. This Must Be The Place – Talking Heads
‘Speaking In Tongues’ was another album that was a revelation to my teenage ears. As was all of Talking Head’s early albums. ‘Fear Of Music’ and ‘Remain In Light’ have to be mentioned here as well. They opened my eyes and ears to the way that music could be looked upon as a performance art-form as opposed to simply a recorded medium. This culminated in their 1984 movie, ‘Stop Making Sense’ which was more like going to see a concert than a movie at the cinema with people dancing in the aisles and singing along to all the songs. Talking Heads become the uber-hip benchmark for all other cool bands of the late 70’s and early 80s. David Byrne and his collaborations with Brian Eno were also heavily influential especially their ‘My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts’ album which I had the dubious honour of listening to just as a dose of psilocybin was kicking in one night. ‘The Jezebel Spirit’ was indeed an interesting choice to start that night off with.
3. A New England – Billy Bragg
This was the first real love affair I had with a musician’s work. I saw Billy Bragg five times over the course of a year and a half in Auckland. His brutal honesty and heart-broken lyrics hit a chord like no other performer at that time. Such simple and yet beautiful songs performed with just a guitar slung around his neck and his heart worn on both sleeves were a breath of fresh air in a time of synth-pop and New Romantic over-indulgences. His plaintiff love songs sung in his unmistakeable accent were unlike anything else we had heard in NZ before. His live concerts were raw and real with his cover of The Clash’s ‘Garageland’ in particular bringing back the best days of British punk. His songs rang out from the stage like poetry put to music. Sonnets with an electric guitar commenting on everyday life through the eyes of a realist trying so very hard not to become a cynic.
4. Jennifer’s Veil – The Birthday Party
This song was the beginning of the end for me. Or the beginning of the beginning, or the end of the beginning of the end. Something like that. I’ll never know for sure. What it definitely was, was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the music, novels and screenplays of Nick Cave. My friends and I conspired to get this song to the top of Auckland student radio station BFM’s Alternative Top Ten chart and keep it there. And we did. For almost two whole months. The Mutiny EP was the first thing I listened to that scared me. It affected me in the same way that Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ did and the way the ‘The Exorcist’ did as well. It was proof that scary could be fun. It’s beautiful (albeit in a pretty weird fucking way) and it’s horrible too. It’s the musical equivalent of disease-ridden wounds and trench warfare nightmares that you could never fully recover from even if you did survive. Nick has gone on to write some of the most beautiful love songs ever written and some of the most disturbing images ever transmitted from one human being to another. And I love him for them both. For beauty and disgust go hand in hand in this world. That is an inescapable truth.
5. Celebrated Summer – Husker Du
These guys were the greatest band in the world. The first sensitive and emotionally relevant punk band. The Clash had certainly been emotive but these guys wrote love songs. And meant them. It heralded the beginning of something completely new in punk and ‘New Day Rising’, ‘Flip Your Wig’, ‘Candy Apple Grey’ and ‘Warehouse: Songs And Stories’ were all staggering albums. If you were to look at the American rocks bands of the last thirty years there wouldn’t be too many of any quality who wouldn’t cite these guys as a significant influence. They were the first punk band to be signed to a major label and considering that they probably never allowed themselves to hit their potential the indent they left on music was truly unforgettable. Nirvana and The Foo Fighters in particular owe enormous debts to the trailblazing exploits of Husker Du. Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton gave their all so that others could follow in their footsteps.
6. The Mission Soundtrack – Ennio Morricone
Okay, so this isn’t exactly a song but I couldn’t pick one track off this soundtrack that would have told the whole story. One night in the late 80s a group of friends and I headed to a disused WW2 bunker under an old gun emplacement dressed as outcasts from a Zodiac Mindwarp video. We spent the evening in there covered head to toe in leather, bandannas and the glowing liquid contents of a dozen Cyalume sticks sprayed liberally over every surface in the place, including ourselves. We were of course all completely off our heads on acid at the time. There could be no other explanation for such behaviour. The space we created looked like the universe seen inside out and upside down from the brain of a giant insect supernova and all the time we were listening to Ennio Morricone’s masterpiece. It was the most religious and spiritual experience of my life and if God does actually exist he was definitely checking us out that night. For we were on a par with him. Morricone’s music transports you to another time and place of your choosing. It is what cathedrals would sound like if they could make their own music without our help. It is a recording from above delivered to us through the ears, fingers and imagination of an Italian master. God bless him.
7. Man of Golden Words – Mother Love Bone
The song I want to be buried to. Andy Wood’s painful soul-aching lyrics on this track from one of the greatest rock albums ever made can break your heart into a thousand pieces. And if you spend too much time thinking about how he was to die shortly after recording it they probably will. The sorrow within the songs on this album as it swells towards its end is immeasurable. Listening to it one night (with the aid of LSD admittedly) I realised that what on the outside appears to be a great American psychedelic rock album is actually the journal of a truly beautiful man sliding away from us into the arms of heroin. It starts off as a celebration of life and spirituality with the joyous ‘This Is Shangrila’ but slowly becomes darker and darker still until you find yourself at ‘Man Of Golden Words’ and ‘Crown Of Thorns’.
“Wanna show you something like the joy inside my heart, seems I've been living in the temple of the dog.”
‘Temple Of The Dog’ would become the tribute album made in his memory shortly after his death by his flatmate Chris Cornell and the guys who would go on to become Pearl Jam. Along with the death of Jeffrey Lee Pierce this was one of the greatest untimely losses ever to American rock.
8. The Ship Song – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Now I know that technically I shouldn’t be using the same artist here twice but this seems so far removed from his earlier days with The Birthday Party that I thought I might get away with it. ‘The Ship Song’ was the song I wanted to get married to back in the days when I thought I might actually wind up getting married. They’re long gone but this is still one of the most sweepingly beautiful love songs ever written (along with ‘Are You The One That I’ve Been Waiting For’ and ‘Straight To You’) by a man who understands poetry as a way to woo any woman’s soul like no one else on this planet. No one still alive anyway. If this doesn’t make you want to fall in love your heart has long ceased to work properly. I have been fortunate enough to have seen Nick live twice. Once with The Bad Seeds and once solo with nothing more than a piano to aid him and frankly that’s all he needs. All his songs begin on a keyboard and songs such as ‘The Ship Song’ don’t need anything else.
9. My Iron Lung – Radiohead
One of the greatest live experiences of my life. I saw Radiohead play in Sydney when they were at the peak of their powers touring ‘OK Computer’. At that point in their career they only had three albums to pick their set-list from which is what made the show so good. Because those albums were three of the finest rocks albums ever. ‘Pablo Honey’, ‘The Bends’ and ‘OK Computer’ are all completely different and that has always been part of what makes Radiohead so unique. Never wanting to stand still they have continually pushed the boundaries of what they have done. Thom Yorke’s towering vocals and Jonny Greenwood’s awesome prowess as a guitar player and multi-instrumentalist made them a true force to be reckoned with. These guys were quite simply magical in their heyday.
10. Popplagið – Sigur Rós
The moment when the wave broke for me (to steal a phrase from the late great Hunter S. Thompson). A massive turning point in my life. Reduced to a gibbering speechless idiot after first seeing these guys live in Reykjavík I was forced to admit to myself that there was no other place on earth I wanted to live apart from Iceland. A move that has proved to be the best thing I’ve ever done with myself. They are still the most incredible live act I have ever seen and with six years in my twenties as a guitar technician for a number of rock bands I have seen hundreds of live shows. I have now seen Sigur Rós three times. I travelled to Denmark to see them at the Roskilde Festival and have also seen them in Dublin. They are beyond any doubt one of the ‘must see before you die’ bands in the world. The sensory overload that they inflict upon you at their concerts has reduced a number of people to tears. I had a girl standing in front of me at Roskilde who wept for about three songs. Not because there was anything wrong with her but because she was simply overwhelmed by what was going on in front of her. Their songs are from another planet. They don’t sing about anything. They open you up and let whatever is in there come out. Most of the time it is joy. In the shape of tears. Popplagið is the last song they play at all there shows because after it has finished there is simply nowhere left to go. They have taken you as far as you can go and it is simply time for them to let you go and get back to reality. You will probably find that your reality has changed a little bit after seeing them in the flesh.