PARENTAL GUIDANCE: This blog contains willful self-indulgence and bad (musical) taste.
STYLE GUIDANCE: Album titles are in bold, Song Titles are capitalised, lyrics are in italics.
I clambered up into our attic to find something important for the Journey. I’m not sure now what it was, but I didn’t find it. What I did find, eventually, were two crates of LPs, long-playing vinyl albums from my formative music-buying years. The majority of them were from the Seventies – the decade that taste forgot. The others weren’t much better. The rest of the day has disappeared as I resolved to take each record out of its crate, embrace it like a long-lost but ill-dressed friend, and then spend my very valuable time picking out and writing down what my ten favourite LPs from that decade were.
You may think there is only a tenuous connection between this blog and my two week journey crossing Europe, and then Siberia, by train. I look on it as vital research for my two-day ferry trip across the Sea of Japan, should I become shipwrecked on a desert island with only my record collection for company.
So here they are, in roughly chronological order, with their covers snapped in my attic, and why I still love them:
Bridge Over Troubled Waters (1970). Every adult must have this LP. It hung around in the album charts for years. I liked the single, the title track, so my parents bought me the LP for Christmas: my first LP, ever. I still play it all the way through when the need arises.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters is such a classic song that it’s easy to forget just how wonderful it is. It starts off in hurt, and in the offer of comfort, and ends in a glorious crescendo of fulfilment and optimism. It warms your cockles. Baby Driver has the lines I’m not talking about your pigtails, I’m talking about your sex appeal. To a young boy still wearing short trousers, that was raunchy in the extreme. How I blushed listening to it!
The track I loved most though is the closing track, Song For The Asking. Here is my song for the asking… Here is my toon (tune) for the taking. Take it, don’t turn away. I’ve been waiting, all my life. Beautiful. It resonated with that maudlin part of my juvenile Irishness. Years later it found its echo in my evolving CD collection with a similarly brief moment of genius from Manchester’s finest: Please please please let me, let me, let me, get what I want this time…
Elton John (1970). I found Elton John in his glam rock years, strutting along the Yellow Brick Road. Like with all the singers, groups, and writers that I hooked up with, I grew tired of waiting for the next release and started working my way through his back catalogue. I didn’t need to look further than this, his second album, which seemed to have a freshness, a pared-back simplicity, a passion.
There wasn’t a duff track on the LP. It had Your Song, of course, and the dreamy First Episode at Hienton. I loved the white socks that you wore, but you don’t wear white socks no more, now you’re a woman. My best friend’s best friend wore white socks. But my greatest discovery on this album was The Greatest Discovery. And all you ever learned from them, until you grew much older, did not compare with when they said… Still has the hairs on the back of my neck standing to attention.
The Slider (1972). Marc Bolan was my first love, my true teenage obsession. His was the rebellion that every sensitive young adolescent growing up in Belfast’s boarded-up drabness should have aspired to – creative, confident, and just a touch of glitter on each cheekbone. I ain’t no square with my corkscrew hair. My hair had natural corkscrews so I was on to a winner.
I have over a dozen Marc Bolan albums in my attic to choose from. Bolan Boogie was the first album of his that I ever owned. It was a last-ditch money-earning offer from the record company he was about to leave, but it captures him on the cusp of greatness. Electric Warrior is the definitive T. Rex album, of course, but The Slider just does it for me. A number one single to start each side and the driving rhythm, energy, lyricism and harmonies that were the best of Bolan and his producer, Tony Visconti. And at the same time, just a hint, perhaps more than a hint, of the sameness and a reluctance to change which signalled that the best was maybe no longer yet to come.
Aladdin Sane (1973). I’m really surprised that this is the only David Bowie LP in my collection. I liked Bowie, but I didn’t love him. Maybe I only bought this album on the strength of the rumour that Marc Bolan had been guesting as guitarist on The Prettiest Star? For me this record was always about OPEC and the oil crisis. The vinyl on this LP could almost touch its own toes. It was so flexible, it was less than half the thickness of that on Bolan Boogie.
From the opening track the album carries you off to Watch That Man. I took the album to school on ‘Bring Your Own Disc’ day and my classmates insisted on playing Time to see how long it would be before Mr Findlay, the music teacher, objected vehemently to the lyrics. Time, he flexes like a whore, falls wanking to the floor. The teacher, however, only seemed concerned that he had got the wrong balance of bass and treble on the speakers.
Planxty (1973). Their first album. I probably shouldn’t have been listening to this type of music from my side of Belfast. Some ladies in a local Presbyterian church hall told me they were learning Gaelic (Irish) on a Wednesday afternoon until the Kirk Session stopped them because it “wasn’t sending the right message to the IRA”.
I wasn’t sending any message to the IRA. I just stumbled upon this first album from a ‘supergroup’ of Irish musicians and fell head over heels. Had to wait for their second album to hear As I Roved Out (Andy), a track that will be on my Desert Island Discs shortlist for ever – lost love and the haunting melody of the Uillean pipes.
Between the lines (1975). Anyone who thinks that Morrissey is the master of miserableness has never listened to Janis Ian. This is an LP that you only ever put on once you have removed all sharp objects from the room and locked any high-storey windows. There is the classic At Seventeen, of course, a ‘Girl Powerless’ anthem from an age before Spice. Elsewhere the lyrics twist and tease you from unrequited love to burning your own house down. The album leaves you marinating in melancholy, and don’t you just love it!
Between the early Seventies and the late Seventies something must have happened musically, but it didn’t for me. There was ‘disco’, I think, but the only dance I could ever really do wasn’t invented until the latter end of the decade. There was ‘prog rock’, I’m afraid, but that was too pretentious even for me. And then came the safety-pinned tsunami, the new wave.
Setting Sons (1979). I didn’t set out to be a fan of The Jam, not being anything remotely resembling a Mod, but I went with a group of mates to see them at the Manchester Apollo and was blown away. All that righteous anger and left wing posturing. I just loved it, and it was damned good music too.
It was a concept album, almost written just for a student. Think of Edward, still at college. You send him letters which he doesn’t acknowledge. Burning Sky, maybe written for an economics student, or Smithers-Jones for a careerist economics student. And then my favourite track, Thick as Thieves. We seemed to grow up in a flash of time while we watched our ideals helplessly unwind. Perfect.
Inflammable Material (1979). Suspect Device. Wasted Life. Barbed Wire Love. Alternative Ulster. You will never hear a better debut album. White Noise is probably the most racist anti-racism song ever written. Bob Marley must have had a very wry smile on his face as the boys hammered out an extended punk-reggae version of Johnny Was.
You listen to the breakneck fury of the first side and almost forgive them that they ran out of steam at the end of side two. I took my son to the Manchester Ritz last year to see the remnants of SLF and they were just as full-pelt as they were 35 years ago. I was so happy I could have pogoed.
Get Happy!! (1980). The end of the decade and Elvis Costello was still the music press’s darling. He was funny, his lyrics were clever, and his tunes were catchy. I have most of his vinyl albums in the attic to prove it. My favourite Costello songs might be scattered across other albums, but this one was special to me. Though I look right at home I still feel like an exile.
I was working for a year in France and had been taken ill. I was ill for a while. Then I was sent off to live for three weeks with a family in the town of Digne to convalesce. The only music I could get my hands on was an album by Michel Sardou and a tape of Get Happy!! I needed to get well soon, and to get happy. Get Happy!! got me both.