10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is
7) Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, The Sex Pistols
My first two years in college, my central musical interests continued to revolve around bands who had come to fame fifteen or even twenty years earlier. My closest pal during those first two college years, Dan Neuburger, still one of my favorite human beings, was similarly taking his cues from the past. His taste ran towards what we then called art rock (Progressive rock? Come on? There was nothing hugely progressive about the longing of most such bands to claim the cultural authority of classical music) and the singer songwriters of the early 70s, while my focus was still heavy metal and electric folk rock. And of course both of us loved the obvious Beatles / Stones / Who touchstones.
It was getting along into the 80s. I knew a certain amount about new wave and a bit less and only a little about punk. I was a big fan of Blondie’s Parallel Lines (another album that could almost make this list) and I’d even heard a few Clash songs. But suburban Maryland, when I’d left there, was still country rocking and choogling and boogieing until it dropped. Beyond one or two people, including my friend high school friend Dave who had turned me on to Blondie and the B-52s, no one out there went near anything that sounded too urban. So I didn’t know anyone much who had ever pointed me in the direction of all that was going on with contemporary urban sounds.
I was soon to get an awakening that was, no doubt about it, rude.
In my third year, Dan connected me up with some of his other friends, a year younger than us, including Andy Rosenau and a bunch of other people who don’t hang around Facebook. Andy’s pals in his band Nixon’s Head, including Jim Slade, came to campus at times to hang around or to play shows. These guys had totally different tastes, developed through British pub rock, new wave, Elvis Costello (more on that later) and yes, punk.
I remember clearly the day my relatively new friend Greg Bologna told me, huffily, to “Take that stupid shit off!” when I started playing Deep Purple’s Machine Head. It was a call out long before that sort of thing existed as a named concept. He was still worked up about it several days later when he demanded that I listen to The Jam’s All Mod Cons. And yeah, that was an excellent record. Urban and up to date and energetic and, most of all, smart. Really really smart. Even if the Jam sometimes resemble too much The Who 2.0
I’m not sure who first played me Never Mind The Bollocks but soon I was playing it constantly.
So, I get it that The Clash is a band with a much bigger range of sound. I get the power of their influence. They’re the punk band that really established the clear-eyed progressive social critique that was what my literary friends often loved about them and that was a big influence on many many bands, including another punk band I love, Stiff Little Fingers.
The Sex Pistols, though, are not a band with progressive politics. In their lyrics, their goals are destructive. They call for anarchy and not of the theoretical kind. They want to fuck shit up, and that includes you. In “Holidays In the Sun” they go to the dark heart of everything that’s wrong with European history and roll around in it for some deeply psycho kicks. The infamous “Bodies” is, yeah, a song attacking abortion, it’s that backwards, but it’s also using abortion as metaphor for what’s happened to them, and to the dispossessed and forgotten in young in England, a song that wants listeners to know they’re all being aborted together, that they were never allowed to be born. And, okay, maybe it was partly all a pose, but listen to “Anarchy In the U.K.” and tell me these people in this song don’t mean it.
I don’t think I really need to analyze all the songs on the record, but I will point out that even the lesser known songs on the record are as nasty and unapologetic as the others. “No Feelings” (think the singer Johnny Rotten is kidding? maybe?) and especially “Submission” with its hard-edged minor key groove are among my favorites of the not-automatically famous songs on this album in which every song is infamous.
I’ve never been sure whether the Sex Pistols wanted to turn England into a cesspool or knew it already was. Both, I think. I guess the goal was to make that cesspool so clear that people would not be able to forget about it again, ever, but were forced to acknowledge that they were already drowning in it.
What makes this record so unmatchable though, along with the destructiveness signaled perfectly by Johnny Rotten’s voice, is the sound of the band. Guitarist Steve Jones and bassist Glenn Matlock keep up a focused roar on top of the drumming by Paul Cook that never bogs down.
And I do mean a roar. I don’t think there’s any rhythm section in the history of rock and roll that can match it for unrelenting intensity. There are better rhythm sections (the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, the Attractions) and some that are just as driving and tight (AC/DC), but Never Mind The Bollocks holds together its lyrics about everything falling apart with a sound that is thick and driving and that never lets up. The music isn’t sloppy, never falls apart. It propels its chaos at listeners and doesn’t let go.
Listen to it these days, and it sounds slower and heavier and more precise than much of what came later in punk music. I can see that what’s heavy about it appealed to my earlier interests, even though the danger that this record exudes makes almost all heavy metal bands sound like little boys noodling around. But don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing slow really about anything on this record.
Johnny Rotten famously said that he wanted the band to be the end of rock and roll. I’ve always taken that to mean that he wanted everyone to understand that as a supposedly revolutionary counterforce to capitalist and totalitarian cultures, rock music had become a pathetic parody. But it’s not really The Sex Pistols that made that obvious. A record like Boston’s first album did more than Never Mind The Bollocks to show that rock and roll (even very good rock and roll) was usually little more than another corporate product.
And to point out the obvious, the more politically future-oriented punk music that was rising at the same time, a music for which The Clash are only the most obvious representative, was crucial in forming the rise of a new counterculture that was directly involved in connecting music to political protest and to the formation of alternative social communities based on values different than the mainstream values of their cultures. The Sex Pistols have some role in generating that, but they also stand outside it. Mr. Johnny Lydon is not exactly these days a spokesperson for progressive politics
I think The Sex Pistols are maybe the only band in the history of rock to release only one record in their life as a band and to have that record become one of the most essential albums in the history of its genre.
By the way, just in case anybody cares, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols sounds as great in the car on the highway in California as it does in a small east coast apartment. The roar of the apocalypse can go many places and sound just as dangerous.
10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is
6) Fairport Convention (United Kingdom title: What We Did On Our Holidays), Fairport Convention
It’s hard to overestimate how much I love this album. I don’t really have a favorite album in the history of rock and roll, but if I did, this album might be it.
Freshman year of college, I read in a magazine somewhere (maybe Rolling Stone, or maybe in an early Rolling Stone record guide?) that Fairport Convention was the “British version of Jefferson Airplane.” With my combination of love for British literature and for Jefferson Airplane, finding out about this band became a must. And I wasn’t disappointed.
The comparison to Jefferson Airplane isn’t bad at all. Fairport Convention is a rock band with a close connection to folk music. Multiple singers and songwriters. A fantastic lead guitarist (Richard Thompson). A daring and varied sound held down by a solid rhythm section that, as the band develops, learns to really stretch out. And a woman singer, Sandy Denny, of overwhelming power--but who, unlike Grace Slick, is also a singer of incredible precision and ethereal beauty.
Curiously, and partly because Jefferson Airplane was meant to be futuristic, Jefferson Airplane’s sound now feels more dated to a particular time and place. As innovative as they were, early Fairport Convention stayed connected to its folk roots and to its relationship to British history. That gave their music a sense of rootedness in long repeated human experiences that creates the sensation that people usually misrecognize as “timeless.”
The other difference: part of what was brilliant about Jefferson Airplane was that they never entirely let go of the experimental amateurishness that helped them resist the music professionalism that would dominate Jefferson Starship. But although the first Fairport Convention record shows a very good band still searching for what its sound is going to be, by the time of this, their second record, there’s nothing amateur about their music. What We Did On Our Holidays is filled with precise and occasionally virtuoistic music which takes British Isles folk influences and creates a new kind of rock and roll, one that would lead to generations of music to follow, both from the band itself and from all the other British bands that developed or became more prominent in its wake.
The records that followed this one, Unhalfbricking, Liege and Lief, and Full House (the first record without Sandy Denny) show the band becoming ever tighter, better players. But to my mind, What We Did On Our Holidays has the biggest range of textures, the widest variety of songs, and a broader array of surprises than any of the later, more tightly controlled records.
Sandy Denny’s singing on “Fotheringay” and Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” is impossible to match. “Eastern Rain” (a Joni Mitchell song) and the non-traditional version of the folk traditional “Nottamun Town” are filled in with unique sonic textures. The two Richard Thompson tunes, “No Man’s Land” and “Tale in a Hard Time” mark his brilliance as a songwriter and guitarist while foreshadowing his coming expansion of abilities. Ian Matthews’ “Book Song” is wistful and fragile, and his singing elsewhere on the record provides a brilliant counterpoint to the singing of Denny and Thompson. “Meet on the Ledge” is a beautiful song, with great ensemble singing. It’s a little funny that these musicians are performing a song about the best years being behind them when they were just emerging as a band of genius, although the song also takes on a powerfully poignant feeling when one considers that the band’s then drummer Martin Lamble would soon die in a car crash. The closing bit of precisely toned guitar melancholy, “End of a Holiday,” played by Simon Nicol, seems nearly a perfect ending.
If the album has a weakness, it’s that two of the numbers sung by Denny, “The Lord Is In This Place” and “She Moves Through The Fair” are maybe a little too monotonous, yet her voice is so stunning that the lingering tone of these numbers remains quite haunting.
In the years that followed, I explored a lot of the electric folk and then folk music produced in England and Ireland and discovered a lot of great bands, Steeleye Span and Planxty being two of my favorites. And I’m a big fan also of the solo careers of Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson and of course also his work with Linda Thompson.
This is the record that started me down that path, and it remains one that I play very often. The powerful dream-like mood it creates is really unlike any other record I can think of, even others by the same band. The music on it feels both in this world and beyond it and has the power to heal.
10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is
5) Bob Dylan, Greatest Hits Volume 1 and Volume 2
I'm listing these two as one entry because that's how they feel to me.
I don’t seem to have my copy of Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 anymore. I guess at some point the record seemed no longer necessary to keep, although I’ve kept volume 2, maybe because the song sequencing on it is really great. Obviously, I moved past these records to his actual original albums soon enough, but these albums really helped define Dylan’s work for me when I first came to love it. They’re also good reminders that as excellent as some of Dylan’s albums are, he’s especially impressive on specific, unforgettable songs.
Dylan was a musician my father recognized, mostly as a cultural icon. My parents’ collection of only a few records included work by Peter, Paul, and Mary, and maybe a Pete Seeger album, and a few classical records. My mother was fond of watching and listening to the Nutcracker around Christmas.
My father, a licensed minister who had become a professor, participated in the Civil Rights Movement and marched with Martin Luther King on several occasions. The church I was brought up in, New York Avenue Presbyterian, had a long history of involvement with activist politics in Washington, D.C.. And it had also been Abraham Lincoln’s church during the Civil War Years--that’s how far back it went as a church.
So Bob Dylan’s name came up in my house every now and then. I associated him for many years with the kind of gentle folk rock that was the only kind of popular music my parents ever played (and which they stopped playing probably by the time I was around ten).
I don’t recall when exactly in high school I picked up these, my first Dylan records, or what specifically prompted me to do it, but I had no idea what I was in for. I do remember being shocked.
I mean, this guy was HARSH, and funny, and his music had energy and bite and, hey, poetry. The word play amazed me. There was barely a whiff of gentle folky puffery on any music he made.
Over the next few years I bought a lot of Dylan records, beginning probably with his first and second, the two best of his folk-based records, and moving on quickly to his electric 60s period and after. I soon picked up the recently released albums of his Christian period (Shot of Love is a fine record; Saved is not) and beyond, including the big surprise of his 1983 Infidels when the Christian period vanished into what was then talked about as his “radical Zionism.”
I think the main thing that still makes Dylan controversial as a music icon is his negativity. Really, there’s not a whole lot of positive messaging with Dylan, and not much in the way of positive representations of people. He doesn’t have a kindly or generous outlook on women. He doesn’t like men either. He expresses very little of the stereotypical concept of “peace and love.” If he sometimes seems in favor of those things, it’s mostly because he’s describing a world of war and hate that he finds himself drawn into, whether he wants to be or not. And one of the undercurrents about Dylan that confuses people is the way he often did NOT want to be drawn into the social issues of his time, but ended up there anyway because that’s where the most powerful conflicts could be found.
He’s good at hating, Bob Dylan is.
He’s a writer of angry songs, of protests of all kinds, with more in common with the punks to come than with the sometimes optimistic political folk tradition in the U.S.
I think it’s that darkness, the serious rage, at the heart of Dylan’s music that forms my earliest identification with his music, like most of the music on my list so far.
I’ve sometimes wondered if you have to be raised in a religious context to really feel the double meaning of “Everybody must get stoned” in the song whose title most people often forget ("Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35").
Something that doesn’t get mentioned as often as it might is how good the playing is on many Dylan albums. The American folk scene musicians of the 60s frequently prided themselves on avoiding virtuosity in the name of making music that seemed in support of “ordinary people.” But there’s no devotion to an air of amateurism in Dylan’s music right from the first album. Soon, of course, he would go on to play with some of the best rock musicians of the 60s.
Also, while I can understand people saying they hate Dylan’s voice, that’s only because of its remarkable distinctiveness. Whatever rough-hewn singing influence Dylan took from Woody Guthrie, from the first he always sounded exactly and only like himself. His voice is as distinct as his song writing.
Dylan changed my understanding of what lyrics could do. Jefferson Airplane’s lyrics are poetic too, but Dylan’s lyrics bite big verbal chunks out of whatever subject they’re taking on with a daring that’s hard to match. Saying that is just obvious, I know.
I wasn’t part of the 60s counter culture. I wasn’t even part of the 70s counter culture and its slow fade into psychic oblivion. When it became the 80s, with that time’s growing hatred of anything that didn’t sound like a studio confection, liking Bob Dylan felt like a way of enjoying the idea that what I might say might mean something.
10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is
4) After Bathing at Baxter’s, Jefferson Airplane.
I don’t remember when during my high school school years I first heard Jefferson Airplane, or where I was. By the time I heard them, the original band was already long gone. In fact it was only a few years until the remnants of that band renamed themselves Starship, dropping “Jefferson” and severing ties with their past brilliance.
If I don’t remember for certain why I first liked them, it must have had to do with Grace Slick and the Airplane’s two biggest hits, ‘Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
Her vocals were intense, powerful, certainly neither nice or sweet. She sang like she wanted the song to attack the listener.
The first pop songs I remember loving when I was very young, at six, were “It’s Too Late” by Carole King and “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon. Neither of those songs sees love (or in the second song, the formerly loved man) as positive, and that sense must have stuck with me. I liked then, and still do, lyrics by women that suggest the women are fighting back against behavior that harms them.
Grace Slick’s songs were tough, wild, smart, not passive. She had edge. And she certainly was not bowing down and letting anyone tell her what to do.
I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that I heard something of the over-the-top elements of Rob Halford’s singing in Judas Priest in the extent to which Slick pushed her voice as far sonically as she could. Maybe I’m the first person ever to compare Slick and Halford? But it made sense to me then, and still does.
Plus, I have to admit it didn’t hurt that she looked, like, well, like Grace Slick, former model stepped over to a rebellious, liberated life.
For awhile, the only Airplane album I had was the collection of hits, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. When I crossed into buying the original albums is something else I don’t know. Some time late in high school would be my guess.
After Bathing at Baxter’s isn’t Jefferson Airplane’s best record (that’s Volunteers), and it doesn’t have their biggest hits on it (that’s Surrealistic Pillow). But it’s the one that meant the most to me.
The album, especially the first side, was as risky musically as anything I’d heard and was still tuneful. The strange tone of the instruments felt like an odd combination of amateurish and experimental. Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen in particular made the sonic textures of the band startling. Kaukonen was one of the best guitarists in 60s rock and roll, something that doesn’t get said often enough. The weirdness, the sound experiments, and the consistent rocking edge of the record made it something I played over and over, especially in my first year or two of college. The band had four, yes, four, singers ranging from brilliant to capable, each of whom plays on that record an important role in the overall vocal ensemble.
Slick’s lyrics on “Rejoyce” were even farther out than most of her songs, and she referenced James Joyce. Then and now I can still get chills from the way she sings “It all falls apart” at the end of the song. And yes, I knew who Joyce was, very well. In high school I’d done a senior lit presentation on Finnegan’s Wake.
Although Jefferson Airplane had had pop hits, other than the tunefulness there wasn’t anything significantly pop about After Bathing at Baxter’s. It was a record by a rock band trying to push past what was acceptable.
Jefferson Airplane was also the first band for whom I started doing something that I did for a few years: writing down the lyrics in order to know what they were and to try and decipher their meaning. At that time, you couldn’t just look a song up on the Internet. If you wanted to know the words, you had to listen.
And no, taking drugs had nothing to do with why I liked them, earlier or later. Aside from occasional experiments, my drug of choice in high school, and mostly even in college, was beer.
I was veering further into territory that felt to me experimental and exploratory and not at all in tune with the American normalcy that I felt all around me.
10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It is
3) Sad Wings of Destiny, Judas Priest
One more choice from junior high, the very end of it.
I have no memory of how I got from Black Sabbath to Judas Priest. Record store browsing seems most likely, but honestly I don’t know.
I’m also not sure I can explain adequately why, in high school, I preferred Judas Priest to Black Sabbath, who in many ways is a more important band, or why Judas Priest became my favorite band for most of my high school years.
Black Sabbath sounded a little more earthy, a more hippy-influenced metal that was still somehow on the cusp between folk rock peasant and modern rock factory worker. Judas Priest was flamboyant, textured, excessive, a different kind of metallic, technology going straight into the science fiction age. Plus, by Sin After Sin and especially Stained Class, they played faster. Although Black Sabbath would try to get up to speed on their 1980 record Heaven and Hell, they never really did.
Sad Wings of Destiny, though, wasn’t yet Judas Priest as sleek new metal. Black Sabbath was horror, but Sad Wings of Destiny was Gothic, a huge cathedral with big soaring melodies like big soaring spires, the first side especially. “Victim of Changes,” with its wild vocal assault, to “The Ripper” (about you know who), to the astonishing “Dreamer Deceiver” / “Deceiver”: the trajectory featured a range of sonic textures that was overpowering. And if the second side was a little less great, it had driving rhythm section and guitar power power and lyrics that (yes, like Black Sabbath) told mythological stories about political oppression.
I guess, throughout high school, I just felt a greater range of sonic pleasure in Judas Priest’s records than I got from Black Sabbath. The crazily excessive (and sometimes imperfectly crafted) singing seemed nearly impossible. That twin guitar sound was also a real joy; the huge sweeping grace of Tipton with the clipped churning of Downing in counterpoint.
I was a big fan of much of the popular hard rock of that era: Led Zeppelin certainly. Aerosmith. AC/DC. Van Halen--playing as an opening act--was fantastic the first time I heard them live, making the show of headliner Ted Nugent seem irrelevant. Their first record, which when it came out I and my friends played a lot on a trip to the beach at Ocean City, Maryland, could almost make my list here, but not quite.
But liking those bands just made me part of the suburban social environment around me, while liking Judas Priest distinguished me from it. I wanted to be part of that environment at times, but maybe more, I wanted out of it.
Also, even in high school I was never a huge fan of the “cock rock” macho that characterized the more mainstream hard rock lyric. I didn’t personally relate to that kind of thinking about girls and women. I’m not saying I thought those songs were “sexist”--I was in high school in the late 70s Maryland suburbs, and I doubt anyone I knew ever even said the words “sexist” or “feminism.” But I didn’t think of women as targets for my sexual desire; I tended to long for romantic love more than sex as such. Frankly, I thought that love was maybe a pretty neat possibility.
Not that I knew anything about it then or for quite a while after.
Maybe first and foremost, though, I remained committed to the doom side of metal and hard rock. When those other bands took on doom, I really got into them as well. I guess part of me felt that if you were going to play loud, hard music, something serious ought to be at stake. Like your life.
Maybe that was a key difference between Black Sabbath and Judas Priest for me: With Black Sabbath, doom was already here. Judas Priest always seem involved in a struggle to fight back. Although the band occasionally crossed into lyrics that sounded like unpleasant Winner Rock, more often they sounded like a band that was trying to survive.
Later, when I left the Washington, DC area and moved to Binghamton, New York for graduate school, I got rid of a lot of my record collection, though a huge amount remained. By that time I felt embarrassed by my earlier love of Judas Priest, and I sold all their records. My new wave / punk / pop urban friends didn’t approve of the band. Neither did the people I was starting to know in the worlds of literature and literary theory and political theory.
Those people mostly thought Judas Priest was dumb music for dumb people.
After I had my Ph.D., and my interests in music had grown out from rock and roll to also include all sorts of jazz and blues and folk and world music, over a period of a few months I went out and bought again all the Judas Priest records I had loved from the age of 14 to 20. And I still play them a lot, if not as much as I did when I was in high school.
It’s a tremendous relief to realize that you can like music just because you do and not because the social consensus of others permits it.
10 (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is
2) Black Sabbath
This is the first record I bought that I’d never heard any music from before buying it. It changed a lot for me and helped me down some paths I was already going.
My friend Steven was the source of most of my music knowledge from the ages of 12 until 14 or 15. Along with most of the Beatles records and some Stones, he played a lot of the big albums from the current time: Fragile by Yes and the first albums by Bad Company and Foreigner and Boston (which was the first album I ever bought for myself) were the ones I remember most. But Steven didn’t play heavy metal, a music that at that time couldn’t be found on any radio station I knew about.
When I bought the record, I didn’t know what heavy metal was. I just liked the cover art. Since about the age of 10 or 11 I’d been a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and had also begun to love horror movies, which I could see sometimes for whole weeks of afternoons down in the basement on the ABC afternoon movie that I could watch by myself, in the dark, before my parents called me upstairs for dinner.
The album turned out to be a musical equivalent of what I already loved. And I didn’t know anybody else who’d ever heard of it. The record became the first example of something that was becoming true of my musical taste and my taste in books and movies: I liked to explore and to find out about things on my own that nobody else could tell me.
Of course, there wasn’t anything like a social scene of gentle, sensitive, shy goths at that time. Didn’t exist. In my junior high, you could be a jock or a preppie or a pothead who hung out by “the tree,” a big tree down by a stream at the bottom of the hill on one edge of the school. Or you could be nothing.
It was only somewhat later that I met anyone who liked heavy metal, and it wasn’t in school: they were young mechanics or bikers (motorcyclists) or other kinds of tougher guys, some quite a bit older, who sometimes came to certain high school parties by the time I was 16 or 17. Black Sabbath didn’t have a pop audience. It had a working class audience.
I loved the big, slow, doomy sound of Black Sabbath. I loved the heavy guitar and the dark lyrics which matched my growing junior high mood. I loved the cover, which in comparison to other later heavy metal covers didn’t feel (then) cartoonish; it felt genuinely disturbed. For someone who read Faulkner’s Sanctuary at age 13 because I’d learned somewhere that it was supposed to be his most horrific book, disturbing was where I wanted to be. I liked the Black Sabbath songs about hell, or hell on earth, just fine.
I was about to go to high school. Hell? High school? I doubted there was a difference.
Once I bought this record, I was on my way to defining for myself what my taste in books and music and movies should be.
Ten (Rock) Albums That Made My Sense of Music What It Is.
This is not a challenge from someone, just my idea of fun.
1) The Beatles, aka The White Album.
Music wasn’t played often in my parents’ house. Although growing up I’d heard many songs on the radio or at the houses of friends, this was maybe the first album I ever listened to repeatedly from beginning to end. The summer I turned 13, my friend Steven played a tape of this album (and a few others) over and over again on a driving trip across the country with his father, my father, and my brother.
The adults tolerated the music, barely, and Steven’s father more than once told him to shut it off, but I loved and still love these songs, although I had no context then for knowing why I loved them. Young as I was, my favorite song at that time (Steven’s too) was “Piggies.” Even at thirteen I knew it was a nasty song about nasty people and I approved. Other favorites were “Blackbird” and “Rocky Racoon,” maybe because I’d always liked stories about animals even though that wasn’t really the focus of these songs, or maybe because the melodies and lyrics were just appealing.