A man once asked “Is that ironic?” upon seeing me wearing an AEROSMITH t-shirt and I was very restrained and polite to him in response, but I probably shouldn’t have been, since “Is that ironic?” is one of the most offensive things you can ever say to anyone about an item of clothing they’re wearing. Aerosmith have made some feeble music in their time but their brace of lusty, roaring mid-seventies albums, Toys In The Attic and Rocks, would probably appeal to people who love the first New York Dolls album, if more people who loved the first New York Dolls album were willing to open their minds a little and stop worrying so much about what other people think about the music they enjoy. Aerosmith were also half responsible for my favourite gig of all time, at Wembley Stadium in 1999, with The Black Crowes. The opening of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is just a muscle car cruising out of a car park and some long-haired teenagers lighting joints to the sound of the opening bars of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion but creates a form of pregnant carpe diafternoon excitement that to my knowledge has never been equalled anywhere else on celluloid.
People knew how to make records in the 60s. By that I don’t mean the bands, or the producers, or the engineers, although they all obviously did too; I mean the people who made the vinyl itself. That’s a very person-who-is-no-longer-particularly-young-who-buys-too-many-records statement, but it is true in the truest of ways. I am one of the minuscule number of ex-music journalists who have never done any hard drugs, and I have never been troubled by any regrets about that. Even less so now because I can’t imagine how any hard drugs could be better than listening to Eight Miles High by THE BYRDS on the mint 1960s pressing of their 5th Dimension album that I acquired last week as a replacement for my flimsy, thin-sounding 1980s pressing. A lot of people who were born around the same time as me spent the mid-1990s listening to Britpop. I did not. I spent them listening to The Byrds. Around this time, I spoke to the music historian Johnny Rogan a few times on the phone from my bedroom in my mum and dad’s house, which was a very exciting experience, as I was only about three, and lived quite near Codnor, and Johnny was at least 40, and didn’t. Johnny, who was updating his celebrated Byrds biography, had met the late Gene Clark, the greatest genius of all the great geniuses to pass through the revolving doors leading to and from the band’s creative nucleus. Johnny told me great stories about Gene, and other stuff, but I soon found out I did not have the necessary assertiveness skills to extract myself from the codas to the stories, and the other stories subsequent to the codas, and the ones after that. One time Johnny was talking about Gram Parsons and my mum told me my tea was ready, and I needed to pass on this news to Johnny but couldn’t find a way to get the words in, so instead I laid the phone gently on its side and went downstairs to eat. Twenty minutes later I returned to my room and picked the phone up to find Johnny talking about Chris Hillman and Skip Battin.
CATS don’t piss on my records any more. But they did, a fair bit, between 2010 and 2013, when a group of stray ginger ones started breaking into the house in Norfolk where I lived at the time and mysteriously decided that the most important territory in the parish to mark as theirs in the locality was the V-Z section of my collection. Bill Withers, who surely did not have abuse of this specific nature in mind when he wrote his fine and funky song Use Me, always got the worst of it.
DON’T write off Liza Minnelli. Her version of Bill Withers’s Use Me, from her 1973 album The Singer, is almost as moodily funky as Bill’s own. Hip-shakingly brilliant in a similarly unexpected way is the version of The Detroit Spinners’ Rubberband Man that Lynda Carter did on The Muppets.
The band I have most often missed motorway EXITS while singing along to is Cheap Trick. The band I have second most often missed motorway exits while singing along to is Heart.
I will buy on spec pretty much any reasonably priced LP made between 1967 and 1973 with the word “witch” or “FLUTE” on its back sleeve, even if I know practically nothing else about the LP. When you say this to people they will often go, “Oh, so you mean Jethro Tull, then.” I like a fair bit of Jethro Tull, but they’re only an example when it comes to witches and flutes, just like IKEA isn’t the only shop that sells bread bins.
I am the opposite of fond of the term GUILTY PLEASURE but I often enjoy music wrongly bracketed within it. What people mean by the term “guilty pleasure” 99.5% of the time, when talking about music or anything else, is “something genuinely joyous that pretentious dickheads told me not to like”. Maybe musical guilty pleasures do exist, but not in the way popularised since the turn of The Millennium. Perhaps a true guilty pleasure for me is the Dawes album North Hills. I feel guilty listening to North Hills because the art it contains is so clearly elevated by the fact that its composer, Taylor Goldsmith, had recently had his heart kicked through a swamp and stapled to a fence, and I find myself wishing a similar misfortune on him so he can revisit the record’s emotional intensity and put an end to the very-nice-but-not-as-interesting albums his band have been making for the nine years since.
My track record makes me not the ideal person to recommend HUNGOVER record shopping but it has its perks. The trick is catching the hangover when it’s still on the upswing, but even this is something your bank manager will not thank you for later on. When I lived in London in 1999 I’d leave the downbeat gigs that it was often my job to review as a newspaper rock critic and be itching to dance to Chic and Sly and The Family Stone and The Isley Brothers, so my friend Al and I would wander central London until we found a large room, often filled with tourists, in which we could do just that or something roughly akin to it. The following day, with the momentum still rolling, we’d hit the city’s secondhand record shops. On the bottom floor of Rhythm Records in Camden the flower power era would scroll out in front of me, endlessly, one discovery leading to five others, all of which looked more magical and seductive in my sleep-deprived state. “Look at this guy on the cover!” I’d say to Al. “Look at his beard. And he’s sitting on a bench shaped like a raven. I have to buy this.” With a job that necessitated listening to as many new records as possible, I did not find the time to do all of my purchases listening justice and when I was very hard up for cash, four years later, and had to sell several hundred of them, there was a sort of vinyl karma at play. I have a far more personal and intimate relationship with my record collection now. I do regret some of that clear out, though. Sometimes I’ll see casualties of it on record shop walls and they’ll stare down at me like friends whose deeper talents you never suspected because you never took the time to find out. “Hi,” they will say. “You sold me for £8 on eBay in 2003. I now have a market value of £65, and that’s with a discernible speck of dried baby boomer era chocolate stuck to my rear and a missing insert.”
I had a dream a few years ago, at a time when I was stressed and poor and not buying any records, and all that happened in it was my mate Seventies Pat and I were lazily flicking though the racks in a record shop, one of us occasionally pulling out a rarity to show the other one, or a sleeve featuring someone in a good cape. It was all very ambient and uneventful, and I was very content. What the dream confirmed to me is that, while an addiction to acquiring vinyl can be viewed as of no serious practical adult use and could well constitute a genuine disease, there are worse diseases to have. Also: I have had a fair bit of experience of things that are viewed as of serious practical adult use and discovered most of them to be overrated.
JOE Coker was not a real life, talented singer from the Woodstock era, but Joe Cocker was. “Joe Coker” was the phrase I found typed into the track selection box on my computer’s iTunes the morning after a party in 2011 when, long after everyone else had stopped dancing and gone to bed or gone home, Seventies Pat had soldiered on alone, frugging around my kitchen and bellowing along in a Black Country baritone to some of the most raw and muscular rock songs of the 20th Century.
I am a great admirer of KILLER final tracks. A killer final track is often the most deadly killer of all. You have to be impressed with the audacity that makes, say, Stevie Nicks boast “I have this astonishingly haunting and brilliant song, which I have decided to call Gold Dust Woman” and the rest of Fleetwood Mac say “Cool. We will hide it away right at the end of our most inspired and cohesive album – we are THAT good” and Stevie Nicks concede “That is true.” Tom Petty, the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen, but only in the sense that poor people frequently write better songs than rich people, was already 26 by the time he recorded his debut album – virtually middle-aged in 1970s rock star terms – and had already been in a couple of quality bands that didn’t work out but he still had the nads to make American Girl the record’s second bookend. That tells you all you need to know about Tom Petty right there: a man so sure of himself and what he is doing that he writes a tune that transcends all The Byrds tunes it is directly and obviously influenced by (though not, it must be said, all Byrds tunes) but knows it will not be overlooked because the other songs on his album are so strong that people with any modicum of taste are guaranteed to listen right until the end. Planxty’s version of The Blacksmith is not only the greatest final track on the greatest Irish record of all time, it might have the best ending to any track ever: swirling uilllean pipes, bouzoukis and tin whistles pretending to stop then starting again and making you feel like you’re trapped in a magical treehouse that’s also a pub, banging your head on objects but in a pleasurable way. I cannot find another song in the oeuvre of The Rascals that is as free and funky as Hold On, but it is squirrelled away, as if purely intended for the future use of people like me, at the end of 1969’s See, which is not even their best-known album. When I used to DJ in London at around the turn of the Millennium I would play Hold On to people who’d never heard it and they’d be drawn towards the dancefloor with the same haste and violence that seagulls are drawn to an abandoned pasty. I am indebted to Emma, the original lead singer from the acid folk band Circulus for introducing me to the song, which was part of a mixtape she compiled for me in 1999: an intricate masterpiece with a carefully weighted mood, packed with nuggets excavated from between the gaps in the paving stones of acid folk, late psychedelia, early prog and almost funk. When I moved the following year, unpacked and realised that the tape had somehow failed to make it to my new flat, I felt a tiny bit like someone who had lost an influential hirsute mentor in a flood.
I was LYING when I once told a staunchly, proudly punk person that the only band whose music I get true enjoyment out of any more is Foreigner. But I do like Foreigner and Long Long Way From Home, from their first album, is one of the most addictive strutting rock anthems ever written. I also believe that most people who say “I like every kind of music” are lying. My taste is quite broad, but that broadness is largely within the parameters of the years 1963-1980. I even like a fair bit of jazz nowadays, but that’s probably chiefly because I’m finally old enough to have developed a character that is somewhat complex. A 70s genre I get very little out of is punk, and god knows I spent enough time trying to when I was a teenager. The punk I do love is the punk that was made by overreaching sexually frustrated adolescent lunkheads in their garages somewhere in the middle of America in the 1960s. My favourite song associated with the later punk era would no doubt be considered laughably belated and radio-friendly by true punks, and that is Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation, which came out in 1981.
MIDLAKE’s Trials Of Van Occupanther album is like an old chest of drawers, carved from quality walnut. It was always beautiful, but it gets better every year. The second line of the record is grammatically incorrect – using the word “I” where it should have a “we” – as is a subsequent line about the village Midlake live in in their heads, but you can’t get let yourself get too annoyed by poor grammar during a timelessly brilliant song made by men from a magic forest. That tautological bit on Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused where Robert Plant sings “Every day I work so hard bringin’ home my hard-earned pay” does bother me a bit, though, to be honest. We already know it’s hard-earned, dudes, because you just said that. You tour a lot. The limo got stuck in heavy traffic in Chicago last week. The sex with endless groupies can be exhausting. Sometimes your old ladies back at home make unreasonable demands on you, such as wanting a modicum of personal independence. Life is gruelling. No need to labour the point.
The city where I was born, NOTTINGHAM, has yielded relatively few classic albums, for a large place, but it did give us Alvin Lee, the frontman of Ten Years After, who between 1969 and 1972 made some mystical, underheard space rock, which you would never suspect existed if, like many people – including me, until 2013 – all you knew of them was their tiresome blues workout on the Woodstock film. Nottingham was once described as “The worst slum in the British Empire outside India.” My visit last autumn to Rob’s Records, in Hurt’s Yard, suggests little has changed to this day. There’s something very reassuring in the modern era about the continuing longevity of Rob’s Records: a retail outlet that is 93% dust. It’s a shop that always promises the discovery of buried treasures but generally only delivers dirty knees. If you go in there, I’d advise wearing your gardening clothes. The one great record I have purchased from Rob’s Records in almost three decades of visiting is the first in the 1990s crate-digger series The Sound Of Funk. The standout track on this is Let The Groove Move You, the lone single by Gus ‘The Groove’ Lewis, which dates from 1967 includes perhaps soul’s most effective piece of grunting. I once broke a bed while dancing to Let The Groove Move You. That’s how funky it is.
When I saw The OLIVIA Tremor Control support The Bluetones in the mid-1990s at The Roundhouse in London, Bluetones fans threw lots of plastic bottles at this excellent band from Georgia whose mid-fi psychedelic dream odysseys, Dusk At Cubist Castle and Black Foliage, are two rare albums from the 90s I am still captivated by and, as they did back then, continue to make the music of The Bluetones sound like an unwell trout struggling to open a door. The bottle incident does not stand up to rational explanation and may be the most publicly violent one ever to involve Bluetones fans en masse.
Some people think of PSYCHEDELIA solely as a period in music, or as a genre linked only to that period, which peaked in 1967. I think of psychedelia as ultimately timeless music that’s multicoloured, often in a dizzying way, wild and technologically ambitious without being overpolished, boldly reaching for something it can never quite grasp. Unheard examples of this are what I look for most often, as a record shopper – perhaps even more than I look for the words “witch” and “flute” on the back sleeves of albums.
The best QUEEN song, to me, is Dancer, and I don’t understand why people don’t talk about it more. But then I’m not, on the whole, a Queen fan; I’m just someone who likes to dance. The least happy years of my life were the ones when I took a long break from dancing. I am never more conversationally rude than when I’m in a social gathering and a song I want to frug to comes on. The people who know me best know I’m in my element leaping about to Superstition by Stevie Wonder, but I find that folks who know me only as a writer can be surprised by it, as if raised on a firm belief that humans of the bookish professions do not possess hips. I spent a vast amount of my life as a journalist fantasising about submitting articles that consisted solely of the sentence “Sod this: I want to DANCE.”
Sadly it is not as often that you find RANDOM and slightly less random old gubbins hidden in the sleeves of secondhand records that you find it hidden between the pages of secondhand books, but on the plus side that means that when you do find it, it’s even more special. A favourite example of this is the typed, pictureless mid 1960s Topic Records catalogue that arrived inside my copy of The Watersons’ astonishingly raw and wonderful Frost And Fire debut LP. Another is the letter I found inside the copy of Jeffrey Cain’s virtually unknown 1970 debut album, For You, when I got it home from Barnstaple and played it. The letter is from Colin to his friend Phil, begins with the greeting “Hey and Wahoo” and includes the revelation that Banana from pastoral hippie 60s New York rockers The Youngbloods has for many years liked to take an annual holiday in Cornwall. I am not going to cast aspersions and say Phil thoughtlessly got rid of For You – he might have experienced a personal housing crisis, or be no longer of this mortal coil – but if he did, he was wrong, as For You has about as much going for it as any stripped-down record that seems to have been made by some dude with a headful of poetry and sky who just rolled into town on a Greyhound wearing a fringed suede jacket. It’s as great as Dylan’s New Morning LP would be if nearly every song on Dylan’s New Morning was as blow-your-mind heavenly inspirational as The Man In Me.
The most important job of a record dealer is not, as is popularly believed, to keep clean, well-organised stock and price it fairly; it is to have the right kind of STICKERS. Even in the enlightened age we now live in, some record dealers still use stickers which, after only a day attached to a record, will bring a large chunk of the cover art off with them. These dealers probably don’t think they are doing anything wrong and wonder why their customers don’t return to buy more vinyl. I will tell you the answer: it is because their customers are too busy making voodoo dolls of them, then burning the dolls on fires in occult poison broths, along with old rats and the saliva of toads. A sticker on a record tends not to have the charm of a former owner’s pen mark on a record – a rare exception being the tiny yellow sticker saying “Keith” that somebody has stuck on Keith Richards’s shoulder on my copy of Out Of Our Heads by The Rolling Stones. People have very occasionally accused me of being a serious record collector but they’re wrong. One way you can tell I’m not a serious record collector is that until a few years back I still had price stickers on some of my records, and not just ones that I’d kept on them intentionally because they were from the 1960s and 1970s and had comically low amounts of cents written on them. The main reason I no longer have price stickers on my records is because at a party in 2013 my more conscientious record collecting friend Steve, horrified at my neglect, went through the whole lot and, with the most remarkable expert’s level of care, peeled every one of them off. “Steve, come over here and have some of this lemon drizzle cake, and play Giant Jenga,” other guests began to say to Steve, an hour or two after he had begun to peel off the stickers. “I am almost done – five more minutes!” replied Steve, but he was not telling the truth. Due to the extreme level of his concentration, he had become innacurate and unrealistic about time.
Pentangle are my favourite band, on the days when TRAFFIC, The Rolling Stones or Anne Briggs aren’t my favourite band. Anne Briggs isn’t technically a band but she is at least as good as a band and could probably beat most of them in a fight. I own two Traffic t-shirts. When I go out in them I am wise enough not to expect their presence on my person to help me gel with strangers in any positive way and I am usually not proved wrong. Last summer I went out to buy avocados in my local town here in Devon wearing my Traffic t-shirt and when I arrived at the greengrocer’s a stranger in late middle-age strode assertively up to me and asked why my t-shirt had ‘Traffic’ written on it.
“Oh, they’re one of my favourite bands,” I told the stranger.
“Do you go to Glastonbury to see them?” she asked.
“No, I haven’t been for years,” I said. “And they split up in 1974.”
“Is that your wife?” she asked, pointing to a woman I’d never seen before, who was standing in the doorway, minding her own business.
“No,” I said. “I don’t have one of those.”
“And if you keep wearing t-shirts like that, you never will!” the stranger said, and strode off into the bright morning.
UNDER a plant in my living room that was not huge when I got it but now strikes me as possibly my best is the Beach Boys album containing Here She Comes, a song that was not huge at the time of release but now strikes me as possibly their best, and under that is the Donovan album containing Get Thy Bearings, a song that was not huge at the time of release but now strikes me as possibly his best, and under that is the album containing Indian Rope Man, a song by Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger that was not huge at the time of release but now strikes me as possibly their best, and under that is the album containing He Made A Woman Out Of Me, a song by Bobbie Gentry that was not huge at the time of release but now strikes me as possibly her best, and under that is a loose nail sticking out of one of my floorboards that, while I was dancing to that same Bobbie Gentry track, ripped my foot open a little, having risen mysteriously and without prompting out of the secure place it had initially occupied.
The VINYL Resting Place was a large wooden shed full of vinyl that I discovered close to the Suffolk coast in 2013 while on my way to Dunwich to listen for underwater ghost bells and look for sea bishops. I did not find any sea bishops and whether I heard the ghost bells is a matter of debate but I did find a copy of the first Dick Gaughan LP for the same price that some people will happily pay for a glorified cheese cob. The Vinyl Resting Place was owned by JJ, a retired session musician who’d always wanted his own record shop and, upon being diagnosed with a terminal illness, had decided to finally open one. A few weeks later, I returned with my friends Dan, Amy and Seventies Pat, half expecting to discover only an ordinary shed filled with rakes, spades and bradawls and realise with a depressing bump back down to earth that I had dreamed the whole episode. But The Vinyl Resting Place was still there, more colourfully stuffed with wares than ever. I stood back selflessly and let my friends search the racks ahead of me, then spent the rest of the afternoon seething about the smart-looking original pressing of Bert Jansch’s Jack Orion that Seventies Pat found for only eight quid.
Julian Cope bought a load of early Scott WALKER LPs in charity shops for pennies in the early 80s, when society was in a fugue state that made it temporarily insensible to the joys of early Scott Walker solo LPs. When I interviewed him, Cope, who once greeted me by running his tongue up the side of my face, very generously donated one of his copies of 1969’s Scott 3 to my collection. I haven’t got a clue why the album isn’t in my house any more because I sure as fuck didn’t sell it.
In an alphabet concerned with vinyl, the letter ‘X’ exists only so you can mention XTC, some of whose records have also been pissed on by the feral cats of East Anglia, possibly in a misfire while trying to direct their spray at the 1972 Bill Withers album Still Bill.
The record my mum played most while I was in the womb was After The Goldrush by Neil YOUNG. I heard it some more when I was a baby, then didn’t hear it again until my late teens, when it helped rescue me from a lot of bad indie rock from which I was striving to dredge pleasure. When I play it now, which is often, it doesn’t just sound like a record to me; it sounds like a place.
The first time I heard the music of ZERVAS AND PEPPER was when a friend told me they were a forgotten couple of hippies who bummed about in Laurel Canyon in 1972. This was a deliberate but very convincing lie. Zervas and Pepper are in fact in their thirties, and from Cardiff. Pepper works as a hairdresser. The two of them played a blinding acoustic set on my radio show a couple of years back and, with any justice, would now be making enough money from their music to move to a ranch house in one of the far-off places whose wildlife and scenery their songwriting basks in and thrives on: mountainous Colorado or rural California. Instead, like seemingly all the best bands these days, they get by as best they can, and keep on trucking, because their love for what they do is totally immersing and pure, and that means there’s no other choice.
Why not take out a voluntary subscription to this site?
Have a listen to some great records on my radio show (next one on Sound Art Radio on Feb 24th).
IMPORTANT NOTE TO EXISTING SUBSCRIBERS:I’ve been made aware that a few subscribers have received an email saying “Tom Cox suspended your payments.” I hadn’t realised this was happening. PLEASE NOTE: what it means is not that I have suspended your payments, just that you need to renew your credit or debit card details with Paypal, as they have expired. It’s essentially just Paypal being a total confusing bastard, and giving two people different sets of misinformation, as when you receive that email I receive one at the same time saying that you’ve cancelled payments. Hope that’s now cleared up, for those of you who’ve received the email and wondered why your subscriptions have lapsed!