This is the second part of my favourite albums of all time. You can find the first part here My Favourite Albums of All Time Part One.
6. Astral Weeks by Van Morrison
Astral Weeks is unique like many of the albums on my list. I’m not that much of a Van Morrison fan. I find most of his records fairly bland and stylised. I’ve heard most of them and am not that impressed apart from his early work with the seminal rock band Them. Here Comes The Night is a genius three minutes of pop and Baby Please Don’t Go is the essence of R&B. Astral Weeks was recorded and released soon after Them split up. As already said, it is unique and genre busting. Yes, it’s kind of jazz, kind of folk and kind of poetry but more of an amalgam of all three with a dose of unintentional classical music thrown in. How it ever came to be recorded by a major label is one of the wonders of the late sixties when good music came to be commercial. Or was it? It was quite a long time before anyone heard it or was aware of it. However, it ranks as one of the most creative records released by a commercial record company ever.
Without knowing the full details behind the creation of this album I feel that it contains the essence of a real sadness and sense of loss. I don’t know this, I feel it! It is like a folk/jazz equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with it’s evocative phrases and overwhelming sense of sorrow and psychic pain. This really IS the blues. Not the black American blues of the southern plantations and urban ghettos but the white blues of a psychologically dislocated Brit in the heart of Belfast, Northern Ireland. To add to the sense of alienation it was recorded in New York in 1968.
You know you’re in a different creative universe right from the word go. The first song Astral Weeks tells the listener that he is nothing but a stranger in this world and would like to be born again. The final song Slim Slow Slider describes a woman who has a brand new boy and a Cadillac but who is dying and every time I see you
I just don’t know what to do. The song ends in a blast of free jazz. Pretty bleak stuff!
In the meantime we have various shades of misery apart from The Way Young Lovers Do which is surprisingly upbeat and even optimistic. The real standout track is Madam George which in his Belfast/American drawl seems to sound like Madam JOY. He seems to plaintively be singing say goodbye to Madam JOY, wonder why for Madam JOY while the violins weep and intertwine around the three chord riff . Amazing stuff!!
7. Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan
Blonde on Blonde is a truly amazing album. The first double album in history with a price tag to match. How did anyone afford to buy it? I don’t know but I certainly couldn’t. I had to make do with the single releases until years later when I had a girlfriend who owned it. No, it wasn’t her only attraction!
This record continues the surreal imagery of Highway 61 Revisited but his voice has changed and the playing seems thinner and less aggressive. It was a thin, mercurial sound. When I first heard I Want You on a radio in Glasgow I thought it was a joke, a bad imitation of Dylan but I was wrong. I bought the single and soon realized it’s brilliance. The B side contained the rarely heard since version of Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues recorded live in Liverpool 1966. With screaming feedback and yelled lyrics it’s a complete contrast to the studio version.
Dylan in the 60s never stood still and he was a complete enigma. Not only did his voice change with each record so did the way he looked. It was like he was trying to stay one step ahead of everyone but he couldn’t, especially the growing army of crazies who were hanging on to his every word and before long were going through his garbage in search of even deeper meanings.
The real standout tracks on this album in my opinion are Visions of Johanna, Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, Just Like a Woman and I Want You but the rest is incredibly interesting. The anger has been dissipated and he is investigating relationships and general absurdity. He’s like the bastard offspring of Albert Camus lost in an absurd universe. In fact, throughout the album there is an expressed desire not to have to go through all of these things twice. A really brilliant record!
Dylan had the thin, mercurial sound but the Velvet Underground had the loud, distorted, grating sound delivered to perfection on this second album. Nico is no longer present and the soft, folky ballads have gone apart from the song Here She Comes Now. The rest of it is self-consciously anti-beauty. According to Lou Reed the producer, Tom Wilson ( who also produced Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone), was so pissed off with the cacophony of Sister Ray that he left the studio and showed them the record button and told them to do it themselves. Fantastic, it’s one of my favourite tracks. Although, Andy Warhol was no longer involved with the Velvets his influence is still felt with the extremity of the lyrics and the overall sound.
Although it sold few copies when first released it became one of the biggest influences on British Punk Rock. Apparently The Buzzcocks formed after members followed an advertisement looking for musicians who could collaborate on a Sister Ray cover.
Apart from the title song another truly great track is I Heard Her Call My Name which features uncontrolled guitar feedback accompanied with the cry of And then my mind split open by Lou Reed. It seems the band were disappointed with the recording of this because it didn’t match the energy or intensity of their live performance. Mercy!!
I actually bought this record when it was first released but I couldn’t convince many of my friends to share my love of it. In fact most of them thought it was terrible. How wrong they were!! Interestingly, Lou Reed was a very reluctant hero of Punk and, in fact, he had no time for it even though he is often presented as the ultimate Junkie Punk Persona. Many of his songs are quite complex both musically and lyrically and don’t fit into the simplistic barbarism of Punk. Okay, White Light, White Heat is the exception!
9. Hunky Dory by David Bowie
White Light, White Heat leads neatly into this album because David Bowie was a big fan of the Velvets. He featured that song in his live sets and even recorded it twice. He also references the Velvet Underground on the sleeve notes of Hunky Dory as an influence on the song Queen Bitch.
Hunky Dory didn’t sell much when it was released in 1971 but people in the right places were aware of it and liked it. Bowie says that it was the first album he made that other people talked about and were interested in. Until then he was a promising singer/songwriter who had had one big hit with Space Oddity. His record company still had a lot of confidence in him, obviously.
It is a surprisingly mature piece of work for someone who is still finding his voice. It ranges from total all out pop to introspective gloom. He includes songs about Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol which are hard to fathom. Are they hero-worship or sneering sarcasm? There seems to be a bit of both there. Andy Warhol looks a scream hanging on my wall, Andy Warhol silver screen can’t tell them apart at all. The sleeve is interesting in that he deliberately creates an androgynous image, based on a picture of Marlene Dietrich apparently. He is developing and extending the kind of cross-dressing and gender-bending that had already begun with Mick Jagger who wore a dress at the Hyde Park Free Concert in 1969. Bowie also wears a dress on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold The World.
This really is a seminal album that throws up all kinds of interesting things. When William Burroughs interviewed Bowie he said that he thought the 8 Line Poem was referring to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Bowie professed to know nothing about T.S. Eliot but, almost certainly, went away and found out about him because he was so in awe of William Burroughs. Burroughs describes The Waste Land as the first cut-up poem, a technique that Bowie used in many of his songs.
One of the standout tracks is Life On Mars which along with O You Pretty Things illustrates one of the aspects I find most disturbing about Bowie’s work i.e. his flirtation with Nietzscheanism and the idea of the Superman. This idea features in many of Bowie’s songs e.g. The Man Who Sold The World, The Supermen etc. I’m not saying he is a Nazi but he comes dangerously close at times, especially when he gave a Nazi salute in Berlin in the mid 70s (he blamed it on the coke!). Oh you pretty things don’t you know you’re driving your Mamas and Papas insane let me make it plain, you’ve got to make way for the Homo Superior! Hippie ideology this aint!! And it’s all wrapped up in a fluffy pop package.
This is a brilliant record, though and gets better with each play. I particularly like the Bewley Brothers. This song has a sense of mystery and loss about a musical group who obviously make a big impact but maybe were never famous (or were they like the Beatles?). Like all good poems you can draw your own conclusions and read many different things into it.
This album became a hit after the success of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Ziggy made Bowie a big star but the standout record of this time, I think, is Hunky Dory.
10. GP/Grievous Angel by Gram Parsons
I discovered this record in 1975 about the first time I met Ric Grech. I was running a folk club in the top room of the Town Arms, Leicester U.K.at the time where many aspirational songwriters turned up. One night Ric arrived in his Ferrari with a violin and joined in. He had recently arrived from America having just made a record with super-group KGB. Okay, why he left LA and came to Leicester I don’t know but he was in awe of Gram Parsons and was interested in forming a country group with Leicester musicians playing his ( Ric’s) songs which were actually very good. He had collaborated with Gram on his two solo albums before he inconveniently died (Parsons that is. Ric inconveniently died some time later!) and two of the songs are written by him Kiss the Children and Las Vegas. He also had Gram’s guitar, a Gibson Dove, with him.
Gram Parsons had a big effect on people he met. English musician and hippie doctor Hank Wangford became a country singer because of his influence. By proxy, through Ric, he became a big influence on the local Leicester scene where many people turned to Country which had previously been a much maligned genre and was considered reactionary, corny and simplistic.
Parsons is considered the inventor of Country Rock but this isn’t apparent from his solo records which are actually quite traditional in many ways. He certainly didn’t like the sound of the Eagles who were becoming very successful at the time, members of which had played in various groups with him. What really stands out in his records are the ethereal quality of his songs, his voice, the brilliance of the band that included many top musicians like guitarist James Burton and the duets he sang with Emmylou Harris. In fact, after his death Emmylou Harris became a major star in her own right and continued Gram’s ideas for many years.
These records don’t leap out at you like Astral Weeks and others on this list but they definitely grow on you. Standout tracks include $1000 Dollar Wedding and Love Hurts. Gram and Emmylou are outstanding together, something that Bob Dylan picked up on when he hired Emmylou to sing on the Desire album. He also makes you aware of some really great country singers and songwriters that were not well-known at the time like The Louvin Brothers.
Definitely worth listening to, but give it time!
- My Favourite Albums of All Time Part One ( https://kennywilson.org/2013/06/05/favouritealbums/)
- Rolling Stone Magazine’s Best 500 Albums of All Time http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/500-greatest-albums-of-all-time-20120531
- Rolling Stone magazine’s review of Hunky Dory 1972 ( http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/hunky-dory-19720106)
- Recent release of CD of Gram Parsons with Ric Grech ( http://www.musiconlinea.com/album/id:552742932/Folsom_Prison_Blues__feat__Rick_Grech_)
- Interview with Hank Wangford about Gram Parsons and Ric Grech( http://www.gramparsonsproject.com/hank/)
- Van Morrison’s moments of disbelief: Colin Marshall talks to critic Greil Marcus (3quarksdaily.com)