Pixies - Surfer Rosa / Come on Pilgrim
Technically two albums but they came together on one CD so I’m bending the rules. My first exposure to Pixies was hearing Monkey Gone to Heaven on The Chart Show but that song isn’t on here, it’s on Doolittle which is an absolute classic that would not have been out of place on here. For me though, getting this earlier release was a defining moment. I’d honestly never heard anything like it in my life.
Black Francis’s vocals stripped the ears off the side of my head and Joey Santiago’s guitar poured salt into the open wounds. His guitar is still my favourite sound and he’s the standard by which all other guitarists have been judged ever since. This assault on my general wellbeing was abetted by the effortless cool of Kim Deal’s bass and a bloke on the drums who looked like a supply teacher (“Hey kids, Mr Lovering is my dad’s name, call me Dave”), but beat the drums like they’d slept with his wife, his sister and his mother.
The first time I listened to Surfer Rosa, it felt like I’d been punched in the face while taking a shit… but in a good way - terrifying, cathartic, occasionally painful, but ultimately exhilarating. My bowels still clench when I hear Broken Face. Songs about incest, mutilation and large black penises sat right alongside songs about scuba diving and kids riding bicycles. It shouldn’t have worked but it really did.
I know other bands did this before them but Pixies perfected that LOUD quiet LOUD sound – a style that’s often been imitated since but, for my money, nobody has come close, although Nirvana had a good go.
Side note – a man called Dave the Bass (he played the bass, as opposed to Big Dave, who did not) used to call me Black because he thought I looked like Black Francis. I disagreed but took it anyway because Black Francis was (is) the coolest fat bloke I’d ever seen. There should be more of us.
NWA - Straight Outta Compton
People talk about old school hip hop with the same nostalgic blindness that affects them when they think about 80s cinema. The Goonies is not a good film but try telling that to someone who was a kid in 1985. They’ll pull a knife on you and leave you deader that One Eyed Willy.
Grandmaster Flash, Sugarhill Gang, etc. were definitely pioneers and we should be grateful for their vision, but the rapping is not good. Not good at all. Rapper’s Delight has a whole verse about going to your mate’s mum’s house for a shit dinner. A WHOLE VERSE! Thankfully Baby Bubba and the unnamed pal were still friends afterwards, which is a relief, but I didn’t need all the details.
For me, two albums revolutionised the genre and blew my tiny suburban mind. First came Licensed to Ill, the debut album from Beastie Boys which blended Led Zep samples with songs about beer and girls (“Yes please!” – 16-year-old me) and then in 1988 somebody loaned me a cassette of Straight Outta Compton.
It was my first experience of gangsta rap and, as a white teenager living in a middle-class home in Walkden, I could empathise fully with the struggles of the disenfranchised African American youth. I had once been briefly questioned by a surly police officer so I understood the anger behind Fuck Tha Police. I had recently moved straight outta neighbouring Swinton so, again, the album’s title track resonated with me. When Ice Cube asked, “Do I look like a muthafuckin role model?” on Gangsta Gangsta, I had to agree that he did not - quite the opposite.
For my money, this is the best rap album of all time (and I’ve heard a lot of them since). Every track is brilliant, with the possible exception of Something to Dance To which is daft. Not bad. Just oddly out of place on the album, not least of all because they suddenly forgot they were allowed to swear when the previous ten tracks had profanity every third word. “Maaaan, I don’t give a… WHAT?”
In 1989 Cube left the group due to a disagreement with Paul Giammati and, without his input, the follow up album wasn’t a patch on this. Then Dre left – I think he did alright for himself, but I always forget about him. (Ba dum TSCH!).
And then Eazy E died and that was that. Rest in Peace, Eazy. If I was a drinking man, I would pour out some of my 40 in your memory. As it stands, I’ll just have to spill my tea for you.
The Thermals - Fuckin A
My name’s Justin, I’m an alcoholic (recovered). “Hi Justin”.
When I quit drinking, there was a very shaky period before things started to settle down and I could feel the benefits of my newfound sobriety. Around two months in, as if by magic (magic, in this case, being the toxins leaving my body and decades of depression lifting), I suddenly started to feel good. It was like I’d spent ten years watching my life on a tiny black and white TV with the sound turned down and then suddenly I was thrust into 3D IMAX with Dolby Surround Sound.
This album sound-tracked one such moment of crystal clarity. I remember I was on a bus home from work and it was a hot July day. Crammed into public transport with a bunch of tired, sweaty commuters is not usually the place for an epiphany but I take my revelations where I can find them. We were coming up through Edgeley, a town twinned with the Fourth Level of Hell, when A Stare Like Yours came into my ears. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it; I’d had the album for a while, but when I heard it this time, I suddenly realised that there were things in life better than being drunk. The thing, in this instance, being noisy Portland based indie pop punk.
It was the first time I’d had one of those moments so, from that day forth, this album has been synonymous with that new hope that everything was going to be OK. Seven years later I’m still sober. Thanks, Thermals.
(Honorary mention in this category for The Von Bondies’ Pale Bride which invoked a similar moment of clarity a few days later.)
The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses
Madchester happened at the exact right moment for me. Just as I started going to clubs, Manchester became the centre of the musical world and I found myself right at the heart of a cultural movement.
I find most of the music from that time unlistenable now. Happy Mondays and James both fill me with mild embarrassment and Sit Down in particular causes anxiety thinking about the times I took the lyrics literally, sitting down on dancefloors and turning the song into an indie Oops Upside Your Head. I was not the only one who did this, I hasten to add.
The Stone Roses first album has no such associated shame. It’s still an absolute banger from start to finish and I defy you to find a more joyous, hands in the air, dancing like a tit, indie anthem than I Am The Resurrection. Go on. See?
Some of the songs were just other songs played backwards with new lyrics. One was just Scarborough Fair. I couldn’t believe the sheer brass balled Manc arrogance of it all but I loved it, all of it, tracking down rarities and obscure demos like some sort of musical crack fiend.
I bought the deleted 12” of Elephant Stone from Eastern Bloc for £25 securing my Top Fan status (£25 was a lot of money to me back then, now I can spend £25 before I’ve woken up). Then a month later they re-released it and I’ve never fully got over this betrayal.
Like so many other bands before, success spoiled them – money rolled in, notes were rolled up and cocaine was hoovered into beaks. When all you’re interested in is getting high, your art is going to suffer, as evidenced by The Second Coming which starts with five minutes of monkey noises and then descends into a parody of The Black Crowes (except Ten Storey Love Song, obviously). I have nothing against The Black Crowes per se, they’re not my cup of tea but they suit that kind of music. You know who doesn’t suit it? A bloke from Denton called Alan.
It was downhill from there. I was unfortunate enough to see their final show at Reading Festival in 96 (pre-reunions) which was a disgraceful shambles and a tragic end to what should have been a beautiful long lasting career. The best thing about it was a story that my friend told me afterwards - he’d seen a punk dancing on top of a large bin, the bin lid opened under his weight and then swung shut again, sealing him inside. Notice, I didn’t actually witness the event, I was just told about it but, even second hand, that was better than the actual concert. Weirdly enough, whenever I listen to the band now, my mind always wanders to that punk, trapped in the dark of a festival bin, surrounded by unknown waste. I wonder what happened to him. Maybe he still lives in there. I imagine that was still a better situation than the people who had to listen to the performance.
Tragic ends notwithstanding, for a brief moment in time, they were the best band in the world and I was right there with them, dancing like a tit, in a hat that didn’t suit me.
Adam and the Ants - Kings of the Wild Frontier
It was only recently that I realised Kings of the Wild Frontier was my first exposure to punk. The band had emerged from the London scene, Malcom McLaren was briefly their manager, Marco was a Banshee - their credentials were all in place.
As a child though, I didn’t know any of that. I just enjoyed the songs because they were about pirates, cowboys and *ahem* Native Americans and… erm… ants.
It was this sense of fun that would ultimately make them very unpopular amongst their sneering, nihilistic peers but very popular amongst nine-year-old boys from Swinton (which was their target demographic, I’m sure).
New romantic, new wave, post-punk, whatever you want to call it, Kings opened up my youthful ears to a whole new kind of music, acting like a gateway album to the years of noise that were to come – shouty vocals, boys wearing make-up, chungy guitars, BIG drums. Tick! Tick! Tick! Tick!
I’d like to say that, even as a child I was a hipster and, when Stand and Deliver came along a year later I deemed them sell outs and moved on to Slaughter and The Dogs instead, but that’s not the case. I loved that nonsense too and recall dancing like a tit at the school disco with my arms crossed above my head to Prince Charming (oh OH). Ridicule was indeed, nothing to be scared of.
The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
I resisted The Smiths for a while. This has been a pattern throughout my musical history – I initially reject a band and then fall hopelessly in love with them (see also The Libertines, The Strokes). My friend Andrea would play Hatful of Hollow after school and I would laugh, favouring instead Simple Minds, U2 and Big Country. Looking back, I don’t fully understand those choices but they’re far from the only musical crimes I’ve committed. I heard Two Princes by the Spin Doctors the other day and couldn’t work out why I’d enjoyed that atrocity as a younger man. I presume it was something to do with alcohol… or maybe I’d sustained a head injury in 91… possibly because of alcohol.
Anyway, one evening in 1986 I was doing whatever teenage boys did in their bedrooms back then, probably playing Ghosts and Goblins, when I heard Bigmouth Strikes Again on the wireless and everything clicked. (A wireless, for younger readers, is a device we streamed music on in the olden days.) Johnny Marr’s jangling opening chords and Morrissey’s characteristic warble began a musical love affair with The Smiths that’s still just as passionate today. I was particularly obsessed with Morrissey - lyrics have always been the most important part of music to me and Morrissey has rarely disappointed. He’s probably got eight slots on my lyrical top ten, the other two being “There are fewer sights more distressing than that, of an English man in a baseball cap” from The Libertines and “Nothing says I miss you quite like poetry carved in your door with a Stanley knife” from Los Campesinos.
Sure, he’s become “a bit of a fascist” of late and he’s been correctly condemned for his reactionary nonsense, but that doesn’t change the fact he wrote There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. Don’t for a second presume that I’m condoning his racist bollocks, I’m just not writing off the man’s earlier genius (as some fans have done) because he’s turned into an idiot now he’s older. If that was how things worked, most of you wouldn’t be talking to your parents. And your children wouldn’t be talking to you. I’ll tell you what though, I bet those fans who got tattoos are regretting it now *awkward emoji*
Side note - The Queen is Dead is arguably their best album and the one that taught me that everything I was listening to was tripe, but Meat Is Murder has always been my favourite, despite the fact it’s home to two tracks I actively despise – Barbarism Begins at Home and the titular Meat is Murder. Thankfully the producer had the good sense to put those two clunkers at the end of the album so I can pretend they don’t exist
Side side note – when I hear the term Meat is Murder, I always hear it in Max’s voice from Hart to Hart… “And when they meat… it was moider”.
My Chemical Romance - Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge
For a long time, Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge was my official break up album but, despite this, it remains one of my all-time favourites.
When a dumping occurs, it’s common for the dumpee to wallow in their shared favourite songs and taint them by association. For a man who got dumped as often as I did in my younger years (and many of my older years), it quickly became necessary to limit the amount of music that got ruined. As such, I chose one album to stick on repeat and stay with it through each ensuing romantic catastrophe.
MCR’s second offering was the perfect blend of misery and vitriol to get me through those tough, freshly single days of too much wine and weeping. A bitter stomper of rage, regret and dark humour, containing some of the band’s best known classics (I’m Not Okay, Helena, The Ghost of You) but every track is an absolute gem.
Thankfully, now that I’m engaged to my soulmate and my days of being dumped are a distant memory, Three Cheers can just be enjoyed as a brilliant body of work, rather than the catalyst for the tears and regret it once was.
Now that it’s been retired from break up duty, it spends long, sunny days happily gambolling around the fields behind the Hotel Bella Muerte with a smile on its face and its mascara intact.
David Bowie - Hunky Dory
This is by David Bowie. Need I say more?
Justin lives in Stockport with his fiancée Victoria and no pets. At weekends he identifies as a Pop Pop when his grandbabies visit (pre-pandemic). By day he is Chandler Bing, and by night he feeds his passion for all things nerd to dangerously obsessive levels. His proposal of a Star Wars themed wedding was vetoed, his proposal of matching Star Wars tattoos was not.
When he grows up, he would like to be either The Hulk or a writer. He has been writing his debut novel for ten years. This blog took him about a year to finish. It may be a while. Becoming Hulk is perhaps more likely. He does not like Fleetwood Mac.