2020: A Musical Odyssey (That Challenge Thing…)

Like many confined to their homes during the coronavirus lockdown, I have been spending more time than usual on social media, and one Facebook post – by my friend and former Time Out colleague Derek Adams – that ended up taking a lot of my time and attention was his challenge that I post the covers of ten albums which have been influential over the years in shaping my musical tastes. Initially it simply sounded like a fun thing to do, but the more I thought about it, the more intriguing the challenge became, as I decided I really did want to work out how the young boy raised in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s on his parents’ favourites (Nat ‘King’ Cole, Perry Como, Ray Conniff, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and so forth) became the musical glutton I am today. I ended up posting 12 albums – it could have been more, of course – most of which I’d heard by the time I was 30; I suppose most of us make our most important musical discoveries in our teens and twenties, though it’s always been important to me, at any rate, to keep on listening to new stuff. I don’t want or need simply to stick with the music I loved in my youth, as the best of it is in my head anyway.

Anyway, as you may know, the musical challenge in question asked merely for the album covers – no explanations or reminiscences. But since I did end up giving the matter an inordinate amount of thought, why not make some of that thought public? So here are the albums I selected as landmarks in my musical journey, and my reasons for choosing them.

1. The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night (Parlophone, 1964)

Not my first ever album – that was Tommy Steele Stage Show, a 10-inch LP of a live gig, given to me by my parents when I was around four or five (I still have it!) – nor the first album I bought, which was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, purchased soon after its release; instead, I chose the one where I realised the Beatles were really doing something quite different from the other bands around. I’d liked them since hearing the single Please Please Me and as a nine-year-old had accompanied my cousins to see them play at the ABC Northampton in November 1963 – I was also a member of their fan club – but for all their energy, charm and polish, until A Hard Day’s Night they’d basically been a superior pop band doing decent covers of other people’s material interspersed with a few catchy songs of their own. This album – which, if memory serves, was a birthday present from my aunt – changed the game, right from that astonishing opening chord on the title track. Great songs – all Lennon-McCartney originals – and fabulous production (George’s guitar solo on Can’t Buy Me Love!) paved the way for the even more audacious experiments of the band’s later albums. I was hooked.

2.  1812 and other Famous Overtures – Philharmonia, Nikolai Malko (Music for Pleasure, 1966) 1812

My first classical album was this popular LP centred on Tchaikovsky’s rousing overture. In fact, I think my first real classical favourite was the love theme from the Russian composer’s Romeo and Juliet, which my parents had on an EP, but the thing about the Philharmonia/Malko selection was that, in addition to the dramatically exciting 1812, it included Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture, which effectively introduced my early teenage self to the notion that music without words could nevertheless paint pictures or tell stories. The album led me on to the Tchaikovsky symphonies and concertos, and thereafter to orchestral works by the great Viennese composers. (Briefly in the school choir, as a 12-year-old treble I’d enjoyed singing Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass.) 

3.  Procol Harum: A Salty Dog (Regal Zonophone, 1969) salty

Perhaps unsurprisingly, besides my interests in pop, soul and folk, I also took a special interest in groups that were experimenting in one way or another with a combination of rock and classical. I was knocked out when I first heard A Whiter Shade of Pale, and I began buying Procol Harum’s albums; it was their third which really hit home. The title track – which I recall telling friends was my second-favourite single of all time (the favourite being Strawberry Fields Forever)felt to me like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in miniature, and the whole album – stylistically more varied than its predecessors – was a highlight of the band’s output, for me probably rivalled only by its successor Home.

4. King Crimson: Lizard (Island, 1970) liz

Another ‘progressive’ band blending musical genres was King Crimson; in addition to rock and classical, they drew upon jazz, probably nowhere more so than in this exhilaratingly inventive third album, which boasts contributions from the likes of Keith Tippett, Mark Charig and Nick Evans. Still, for all the musical talent on board, as ever with Crimson the album was primarily Robert Fripp’s baby (though credit is also due to the band’s superior lyricist, Pete Sinfield). Besides being one of my favourite guitarists and rock composers (I enjoyed all the Crimson albums up to and including Beat, and also liked his Frippertronic albums and his work with Eno, Bowie et al), it was probably Fripp who – along with Dmitri Shostakovich, a lifelong favourite – introduced me to the joys of dissonance.

5. Elgar: Enigma Variations; Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Haydn – London Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux (Decca, 1971) enig

Well, the Brahms is lovely, of course, but I include this mainly because of the Elgar. I’d first heard and been stirred by the famous ‘Nimrod’ variation years earlier, while watching Churchill’s funeral on television, but the Variations as a whole are important because – thanks to some illuminating lessons at school by the music teacher Michael Nicholas – they gave me some understanding (though not that much) of musical form and structure. The piece also introduced me to a major composer, of course, whose symphonies and concerts I loved.

6. Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter’s (RCA Victor, 1967) baxter

Though I was too young to be a proper hippie, I certainly found the summer of love and much of the music that came out of it very appealing, and was an admirer of quite a few of the West Coast bands. (Apart from anything else, I’d always been a fan of the Beach Boys.) My favourites were probably Spirit and the Airplane, though I confess I didn’t actually get to this particular album until two or three years after it was first released. Better late than never; I was enthralled by Grace Slick’s voice (and looks!), by the inimitably strange sound of Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner singing together, by Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar-playing, and by the sheer audacity and sophistication of the music and the lyrics. This was rock music that didn’t go out of its way to win over the listener with sweet harmonies; you had to accept it on its own uncompromising terms.

7. Sibelius: Symphonies 6 and 7 – London Symphony Orchestra, Anthony Collins (Decca Eclipse, 1971) sib

After Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Brahms, the composers I next discovered as favourites were Shostakovich, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. Half a century on, I still love them all, but if I were forced to pick a number one, I think it would have to be the Finn. And if I had to choose one piece of music by him, it would be the seventh symphony, which in a short, stunning, single 20-minute movement delivers all I could wish for. What I love about Sibelius’ best work is the way it seems to grow organically from a few short, simple motifs, so that the music feels as if it is operating on several harmonic levels and at several tempi at the same time. The seventh is arguably the finest example of that highly original and distinctive style and probably my favourite twentieth-century symphony. That said, the sixth – which the composer famously likened to ‘pure cold water’ – is also a thing of magical beauty.

8. Carla Bley: Dinner Music (WATT Works, 1977) dinner

Having taken a fairly mild interest in jazz for some years, I suddenly in 1977 made a conscious decision to explore it more methodically; punk wasn’t for me, some of my favourite rock singers and bands seemed to be treading water or going downhill, and I felt the need for something new. I read histories of jazz, sampled artists by making use of the local record library, and became a regular at specialist shops selling second-hand records. Carla Bley I had already seen in 1975 playing in the Jack Bruce Band; and Gary Burton – one of the first jazz musicians I began exploring in some detail – had recorded many of her marvellous tunes. Soon I owned all her albums. Why select this one? It was one of the first I bought, but it also introduced me to some very fine musicians including saxophonist Carlos Ward, trombonist Roswell Rudd and trumpeter-composer Michael Mantler. And the eight supremely melodic numbers include what for me is perhaps Bley’s loveliest composition: Ida Lupino.

9. Paul Bley: Alone, Again (Improvising Artists, 1975) alone

After Carla it was inevitable that I’d come across her erstwhile husband Paul, whose endless revisiting of her tunes – and those of his other ex, the likewise admirable Annette Peacock – has provided me with enormous pleasure over the years. The hugely prolific Canadian pianist ranged widely in style – from meditative abstraction and Schoenberg-derived modernism to freewheeling rhapsodic lyricism, bebop, blues and ballads – while always sounding exactly like himself and nobody else. To this day he remains my favourite jazz pianist (and along with my next artist is represented by the greatest number of albums in my combined record and CD collection); I chose this album because it was one of the very first I bought by him, and because it boasts beautifully imaginative renditions of compositions by Carla, Annette and – no mean composer – himself.

10. Ornette Coleman: Science Fiction (Columbia, 1972) sci

Just as Carla led me inevitably to Paul, so Paul led me inevitably to Ornette, since PB had given Coleman a break by inviting him to join him in performing at LA’s Hillcrest Club in October 1958, when most other people were of the belief that the man playing the alto sax in such a strange fashion didn’t actually know what he was doing. Ornette – like Miles Davis, he’s usually called by his first name – knew exactly what he was doing; he was revolutionising jazz. A rare genius, he broke the ‘rules’ of harmony and rhythm, favouring constant melodic invention instead of sticking to preconceived chordal progression, and encouraging his band members all to improvise at the same time. The result was usually exhilarating, and this album is for me one of Ornette’s very greatest, with terrific work from an array of top musicians (too many to mention here, but they do include the original Hillcrest Club players: Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins). 

11. John Adams: Harmonium – San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Edo De Waart (ECM, 1984) adams

In 1984, I think it was, a friend gave me a new LP which consisted of two ‘minimalist’ works: Steve Reich’s Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards, and John Adams’ Shaker Loops. I was intrigued by both pieces, and decided to investigate both composers. Soon afterwards, I bought this album – a genuinely exciting settings of poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson for a large chorus and orchestra – and that was it: I realised, somewhat belatedly, that there was still fine ‘classical music’ being written by living composers. (I’d very much liked Michael Nyman’s music, but for some reason I seem to have naively and erroneously thought of him for some time  merely as a ‘film composer’.)  Several others – notably Arvo Pärt, Valentin Silvestrov and Giya Kancheli – joined my small group of favoured contemporary composers, but Adams, producing a string of great pieces in various genres, remained my number-one choice for years, until I heard…

12. Thomas Larcher: Madhares – Till Fellner, Kim Kashkashian, Quatuor Diotima, Münchener Kammerorchester, Dennis Russell Davies (ECM, 2010)

The last big change in my musical tastes came around a decade ago. Despite my enthusiasm for dissonance and my love of far-out jazz and certain contemporary composers (most of them linked to some degree with ‘minimalism’), I still needed something to demolish my wariness of anything overly tainted by ‘atonality’. Around 2010 that happened, and suddenly everything changed: I was hungry to learn more about new music, and explored as much as I could. It changed my life; after years of having focussed on symphonies, concertos and operas, I even began to understand the appeal of chamber music. Which album was the turning point? I thought about that question a lot during my 12 days of responding to Derek’s musical challenge; I wondered about Schoenberg, Webern, Berio, Ligeti, Gubaidulina and Saariajo. In the end I decided it must have been this gem by Thomas Larcher – discovered after a recommendation by the critic Geoff Brown – which inspired my new journey of discovery. It includes a piano concerto, a viola concerto and a string quartet. Somewhat ironically, as it happens, it’s pretty tonal. But its consistently imaginative magic certainly paved the way for me to make my forays into the unknown…


Here endeth the journey. So who else did I consider but leave out? Certainly The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, David Bowie, Van Der Graaf Generator, Hatfield and the North, Steve Miller, Boz Scaggs, Albert Ayler, Graham Collier, Mike Westbrook, Jan Garbarek, Anouar Brahem, Frode Haltli, Trygve Seim, Johann Sebastian Bach and Harrison Birtwistle. And many, many more.



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