Pet Shop Boys - Behaviour
The Pet Shop Boys were the first vaguely alternative band I got into. When I was 12, in early 1986, I saw West End Girls on Top of the Pops and was instantly hooked – the Pet Shop Boys were different from other pop stars of the day, they were moody and aloof, and they wrote clever and quirky songs that I could appreciate – they felt like a band for outsiders, even though they’d scored a number one hit single.
My dad bought me their debut album, Please, on cassette for Christmas in 1986, and I was hooked. I soon became obsessed with them and got really excited whenever they had a new single or album out. In 1988, after watching them perform the Latin-flavoured Domino Dancing on Wogan, I persuaded my parents to buy me a Yamaha keytar, so I could be like Chris Lowe. Well, if the cap fits…
In 1990, while on a family holiday to Norfolk, I bought Behaviour on cassette in a record shop in Norwich and can remember listening to it on my Walkman and falling in love with it immediately. I was 16 and going through a melancholy phase – to be honest, I’m now 47 and I’m still in it!
Behaviour is the Pet Shop Boys’ masterpiece – a beautiful, sad, wistful and autumnal collection of pop songs, featuring guitarist Johnny Marr – more on him later – on some tracks.
Recorded with producer Harold Faltermeyer, in Munich, it has warm, atmospheric analogue synths, and, in typical Pet Shop Boys style, manages to include an eclectic range of influences, from house music and Stock Aitken Waterman (the reflective, nostalgic and elegiac Being Boring); the twangy ‘60s guitar instrumentals of The Shadows (the haunting and cinematic This Must Be The Place I Waited Years To Leave – which was actually based on a failed attempt to write a James Bond theme song for the film The Living Daylights); rave music-meets-Shostakovitch (the soulful My October Symphony) and West End / Broadway show tunes (the epic curtain closer, Jealousy). Behaviour is one of the greatest and saddest pop albums of all time.
Depeche Mode - Violator
My love of the Pet Shop Boys led me to discover other electronic pop acts, including OMD, Yazoo and Soft Cell, but it was Depeche Mode who had the biggest effect on me. In 1988 and 1989, when I was 14/15, the pervy Basildon synth stars soon became my latest obsession – two of my school friends were also huge fans. In fact, in 1990, we got a coach from the Isle of Wight, where I grew up, to see Depeche Mode play at Wembley Arena, as part of their World Violation tour – it was my first proper rock concert.
Violator, their seventh studio album, which came out the same year, had a massive impact on me.
I can remember being so excited ahead of its release. I’d loved the two singles that preceded it – the anthemic, bluesy stomp of Personal Jesus and the blissed-out, pulsing pop of Enjoy The Silence, so I couldn’t wait to hear the rest of the album. I wasn’t disappointed.
I bought it the day it came out – after school I walked to the local record shop to get it on tape and then listened to it on my Walkman on the bus home. I can still recall the effect hearing the opening, moody, techno-inspired synth line of the first song, the mysterious World In My Eyes, had on me.
I was in a short-lived band at high school – we were a trio and were called The Massive String Thing. I sang and my friends Chris and Dave played keyboards and drums, respectively. We only did two gigs – our first one was during a school lunch hour and we played three songs, opening with World In My Eyes. I wore a black denim jacket and did my best Dave Gahan impression.
I thought we were great, but looking back on it, I think most people who saw us would’ve rather enjoyed the silence.
The Smiths - The Queen Is Dead
After the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode, my next musical obsession was The Cure – I guess it was a natural Doc Martens-clad step for an introspective, moody and angst-ridden teenager – and then, rather predictably, I discovered Morrissey/The Smiths.
I’d been too young to appreciate The Smiths when they were active – I was 13 when they split up in 1987, living in a village on the Isle Wight and listening to the Pet Shop Boys.
In 1990, I heard a song by Morrissey – The Last of the Famous International Playboys – on a Top 40 hits compilation tape that my sister had. I was immediately struck by its brilliance – who was this crooning guy who sang about East End villains over an infectious and soaring guitar pop tune? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I needed to investigate further.
I bought Morrissey’s Bona Drag compilation on CD and then asked some school friends to tape me some albums by The Smiths. A girl I had a crush on made me a cassette, which had The Queen Is Dead on one side and the band’s self-titled debut album on the other. I liked their first record, but it was The Queen Is Dead that really captivated me – I especially loved the jangly guitar pop of Cemetry [sic] Gates, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side and There Is A Light That Never Goes Out, as well as the urgent and rushing Bigmouth Strikes Again.
Once, while on a train journey to rainy Stoke-on-Trent for a university open day, I became obsessed with listening to Bigmouth… so much so that I kept on rewinding it on my Walkman to hear the bit of the song where Johnny Marr’s electric guitar riff first kicks in. I think it’s one of the greatest musical moments of all time.
Similarly, There Is A Light… is my favourite song ever – my wife and I had our first dance to it when we got married. And, before you ask, no, she isn’t the girl who taped The Queen Is Dead for me.
Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left
In 1991, a lot of my school friends were into grunge, especially Nirvana. I didn’t get the appeal, and still don’t.
At the time, I was enjoying Depeche Mode and I’d just discovered The Cure. I’d bought a tape of Disintegration from the bargain bin in Woolworths and I played it to death. I used to enjoy reading music press interviews with The Cure’s frontman, Robert Smith.
In one article, he said he liked the music of Nick Drake and that he had been an influence on him – I’d never heard of Drake, so I was intrigued to listen to him and find out more.
This was in the early ‘90s, before the cult English folk singer-songwriter, who died in 1974, aged 26, was rediscovered and namechecked by Britpop acts like Paul Weller, or his song Pink Moon was used on a Volkswagen TV ad, so it wasn’t that easy to track down his albums.
One of my dad’s friends ran a secondhand record stall at a local flea market, so I asked him if he had any Nick Drake. He said he had a vinyl box set – Fruit Tree: The Complete Recorded Works – that he’d reserved for someone, but that they’d never come to pick it up, so he could let me have it for a tenner. I didn’t have a record player, but I told him I’d buy it. I took it home and got my dad to put it on tape for me.
I started in chronological order, first listening to Drake’s 1969 debut album, Five Leaves Left.
The opening song, the gorgeous, country-tinged Time Has Told Me, was good, but it was track two, the stunning River Man, that really grabbed me – it starts with Drake’s acoustic guitar and melancholy vocals, before Harry Robinson’s wonderfully cinematic string arrangement creeps in and takes the song to a truly magical place. The haunting and otherworldly Three Hours is even better, and the sad lament Day Is Done, which is my favourite song on the record, with its stately orchestration by Robert Kirby, can reduce me to tears. I want the latter played at my funeral.
The Beatles - Revolver
I first heard The Beatles when I was pretty young – my dad used to play the ‘Red and Blue albums’ (1962-1966 and 1967-70). At the time, I preferred the Blue album – I can remember being particularly fascinated by I Am The Walrus. I loved the weird imagery and I couldn’t believe someone had said the word ‘knickers’ in a pop song – nor could the BBC, as they banned the song when it was first released.
My dad didn’t own any of The Beatles’ studio albums, so I didn’t actually hear any of them until I went to university in 1992, when I was 18.
My housemate, Mark, who went on to become one of my best friends, had some of them on vinyl – he made me a tape of Revolver, as I still didn’t have a record player. I couldn’t stop playing it – I loved the mix of jangly guitar pop, psychedelic sounds, melancholy songs, wonderful melodies and studio experimentation.
For me, Revolver is The Beatles’ greatest achievement – in fact, I think it’s the best album ever made. It's a masterclass in pop songwriting and a groundbreaking record sonically and production-wise that was so far ahead of its time.
When it came out, in 1966, it changed everything and it’s influenced so many acts, from The Byrds to The Chemical Brothers, and pretty much any power-pop band that ever plugged in a Rickenbacker.
I never tire of listening to it – spending time with this album is such a richly rewarding experience. Last year, my in-laws gave me some of their record collection, including an original copy of Revolver. It’s one of my proudest possessions and, yes, I now have a record player.
In 2019, I became a dad – my wife gave birth to twin boys, Ronnie and Roddy. We had Yellow Submarine, from Revolver, on our Spotify playlist in the operating theatre while she was having a C-section – the hospital staff very kindly let us take a Bluetooth speaker in with us, as I couldn’t risk having our children being born to something bland being played on a local radio station.
Now our boys, who have just turned two, love the song and The Beatles. I’ll have to play them the Red and Blue albums next.
Scott Walker - Scott
I owe a lot of my music taste to my dad – he turned me on to a lot of great stuff, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Duane Eddy, The Shadows, John Barry, Ennio Morricone and the mighty Scott Walker.
He used to play me Walker’s 1967 solo debut album, Scott, on vinyl – as well as the follow-ups, the imaginatively named Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4.
I love all of those albums dearly, but there will always be a special place ‘here in my broken heart’ – to quote The Walker Brothers’ Another Tear Falls – for Scott, as it was the first time I heard his incredible, rich baritone and those dramatic, intriguing and mysterious theatrical songs, like Mathilde, Angelica, The Big Hurt, Montague Terrace (In Blue), and the chilling My Death – “my death waits like a witch at night”. There’s a song that should be played at more funerals.
On Scott, Walker puts his own twist on Easy Listening numbers like Tony Bennett’s When Joanna Loved Me, as well as the work of eccentric Belgian singer and songwriter Jacques Brel. He also covers Tim Hardin’s country folk song, The Lady Came From Baltimore – after hearing Walker’s version I delved into Hardin’s brilliant back catalogue – and includes some of his own compositions, like the towering Montague Terrace (In Blue), with its lush string arrangement and vivid, voyeuristic and risqué imagery: “The girl across the hall makes love, her thoughts lie cold, like shattered stone. Her thighs are full of tales to tell of all the nights she’s known.” How’s that for a lyric?
And, as if that’s not enough, the album has the best cover art ever – no one has looked cooler that Walker, in 1967, in moody black and white, wearing shades.
Gene - Drawn To The Deep End
Earlier I mentioned how The Smiths were one of the bands that I became obsessed with, albeit a few years after they’d split up. Well, in the mid-90s, while at university, I discovered my ‘Smiths’, the UK four-piece Gene, and I became equally besotted with them as I was with Morrissey and Marr’s Britrockers.
I loved Gene’s first single, 1994’s anthemic and country/Faces-tinged For The Dead, and once, in ’95, myself and my housemates drove from South Wales to Oxford to see them play live at the Jericho Tavern – it was a great gig and Gene soon became my favourite band. I went on to see them play so many times, I’ve lost count – I reckon it was around 30 performances.
It was actually all too easy to call Gene ‘the new Smiths’ – in fact, some harsher elements of the music press often labelled them as simply Smiths copyists, but that was unfair – they were so much more than that.
Sure, they did sound a bit like The Smiths at times – that got my interest straight away – and in frontman Martin Rossiter and guitarist Steve Mason they had the best singer and axeman pairing since, whisper it, Morrissey and Marr, or at least Suede’s Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler, but Gene’s influences also included The Jam, The Faces, The Who, The Beatles, R.E.M, Big Star, country-rock, soul and reggae.
Everyone cites Gene’s debut Olympian as their best work, but for me it’s their ‘difficult second album’ 1997’s Drawn To The Deep End.
It’s a much more ambitious and experimental record than its predecessor, with strings and brass. There’s a nod to Depeche Mode on the opening track, New Amusements, an epic, R.E.M-does-Vegas-era-Elvis ballad (Speak To Me Someone), a waltz (Long Sleeves For The Summer), swaggering Northern Soul (Fighting Fit), a country song (Why I Was Born), a disturbing murder ballad (The Accidental) and a delicate lullaby that segues into a massive rock finale, with an orchestral blowout (Sub Rosa).
In 1996, ahead of Drawn To The Deep End coming out, I was working as a music writer on a South Coast listings magazine and I interviewed Gene drummer, Matt James, about the album. Last summer, 24 years later, while writing an article on a series of Gene vinyl reissues, I spoke to him again and we talked about this record.
He thinks some of the songs are brilliant and that the album still stands up today, but he feels certain tracks are flawed, largely due to a lot of the new studio technology that was used at the time. I’d have to disagree with him on the latter point – I think it’s their masterpiece and, thanks to the 2020 reissues, after a long time, I’ve now finally got a vinyl copy in my collection. How’s that for Gene therapy?
Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
In recent years, I’ve become known for my love of Americana and alt-country. I’m a regular reviewer for the website Americana UK, I have my own music blog, Say It With Garage Flowers, which regularly features interviews with Americana acts, and, until the outbreak of Covid-19, I could often be seen propping up the bar at many Americana gigs in London and the surrounding areas.
How did I first get into the genre? Well, I owe it all to Ryan Adams’ solo debut album Heartbreaker and a copy of Uncut magazine.
In 2000, I was 26 and living in a flat share in Brighton. After reading a great review in Uncut, I picked up a CD copy of Heartbreaker and it was hardly off my cheap stereo for the next 12 months. Due to that album, I started listening to more Americana and alt-country music and immersed myself in the city’s local scene.
At the time, I was going through an emotionally distressing period in my life and Heartbreaker’s sad and self-destructive country rock and folk songs were the perfect soundtrack. I can remember spending a long, dark night of the soul alone in my bedroom, brooding about a girl who’d dumped me, accompanied only by Heartbreaker and a bottle of whisky. All I needed was for my dog to die…
My favourite song on it is the harmonica-led Come Pick Me Up – I love the lines: “Come pick me up, take me out. Fuck me up – steal my records...”
Despite now being happily married, Heartbreaker is an album I always return to. I’ve got three versions of it – that first CD I bought, plus two vinyl reissues, one of which is a box set. It’s Adams’ best record – the follow-up, Gold, was good, yet much more commercial – but last year’s Wednesdays was the closest he’s come to recreating the brilliance of his debut.
If I’m ever feeling sorry for myself, I put Heartbreaker on – although I’ve now knocked the whisky on the head. Please let me wallow in its beautiful misery, and then come pick me up.
Just for the record, I’ve never owned a dog.
Sean Hannam is a 47-year-old freelance journalist, specialising in writing about retail, tech and music. He lives in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, with his wife, Susie, and their two sons, Ronnie and Roddy, who are identical twins, aged two, and named after Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart, from The Faces.
As well as working in B2B and consumer magazines since the late ‘90s, for the past 12 years, Sean has published his own music blog, Say It With Garage Flowers – https://sayitwithgarageflowers.com/.
He can be found on Twitter at @seanhannam - https://twitter.com/seanhannam - where he mostly airs his views on ‘60s pop and rock, alt-country/ Americana albums and James Bond films.
Follow him on Instagram – shannam_ - https://www.instagram.com/shannam_/ - if you like pictures of vinyl album art, book covers and twin toddlers who are into rock ‘n’roll.