From an early age I joined the club. The door was wide open to all, ‘Come on in,’ it beckoned. My big sister’s Bowie and Bolan fixation was the key that led to this magical world. A truly eclectic journey has ensued, with periods of loving everything from punk to reggae, jazz to hip-hop, dance to classical, soul, folk and rock, and much more besides. As I grow older, the genres and moods I want to feed me follow suit, and, as of late, even long periods of abstinence are in order. (This may also be due to having assaulted my poor little ears for many years listening with the volume at 11!)
I write as somebody who relishes listening alone, absorbed in the music, admiring the form and structure, development and layering of sound. Live music of course is more palatable or preferable for others wanting to engage in the group energy. For example I can listen at home, and really like the music of Nine Inch Nails, but once at a gig of theirs the dark energy aroused in the crowd was so overpowering I had to get out of there sharpish. Of course, many gigs and clubs have had exactly the opposite effect for me, unifying, fun and uplifting. Indeed, I have witnessed many, from festivals to bhajans.
But I’m a studio man, that’s where the magic moment can be captured and laid in stone. Forever. Those moments when we feel, hear and acknowledge the depths from which the singer or player has gone to bring their raw emotion and words to the surface, to us, these mean the most to me. It’s these moments, the ones seemingly drawn from another place.
We are so blessed that science and technology has allowed recordings (old and new) to be made available for us to savour, for allowing creative artists to have a canvas that can be explored and experimented with and to leave beautiful landscapes that can make you want to dance or cry or contemplate or heal and can find a direct path to your soul.
Sometimes a piece of music connects on such a profound level. It may have one specific moment in your life, when and where you first heard it, or mark a life-altering event in your life.
Of course it is impossible to narrow an all-time favourite list down to a few songs, but this is what I’m feeling today.
Keep On Movin’ – Soul II Soul
Hot summer in New York City, 1989. Age 23.
Armed with a few clothes, a camera and some dollar bills I arrived solo at JFK and just about managed to survive the treacherous path through passport control. I had (maybe somewhat unexpectedly) taken up one of those offers that people occasionally throw your way of “I have an apartment on Upper Westside that I won’t be using for a while, you can go and stay a few weeks.” Oh yes! I thought, an offer I would be stupid to let slip by. At the time I was working as a sound engineer for a record label in London (which had its perks – see above!) and was due a holiday. I arrived in the Big Apple, spent the first couple of nights elsewhere (before I could head to the aforementioned apartment.) Luckily, another work acquaintance, he was then working in A&R for the label in NY, offered me a place to crash. Brooklyn, down Flatbush way. His philosophy meant he would abstain from certain activities between Monday and Friday, alas, this being Sunday, he had to clear his reserves! All I remember is listening very loudly to at least 3 Led Zeppelin albums (did they have 3?) and sleeping like a baby.
The rest of the trip was amazing; Central Park. Walking the Avenues for hours. Staring upwards. The intense heat I felt and immediate sweat when taking the Subway. Taking photos of children playing innocently in the gushing water vents in Spring Street and of legendary skyscrapers. The delicious bagels with cream cheese quaffed down with coffee for breakfast. CBGB’s (not nice.) New friends (nice).
But, the way that this tune was being pumped out of seemingly every store, every car sound system and club was incredible. The sound of London was destroying New York, the drum loop, the bass, the production and the sweetest voice ever in Caron Wheeler. It was everywhere. I must have heard the track in the UK before but it was hearing it here that propelled it to another level and secured its place for me.
You and I – Stevie Wonder
From the opening bar, he’s got me. The beautiful, melancholic synth and piano intro sets a plaintive mood. Then, in comes that amazing voice, with its tight delay effect. The substance and gratitude in the beautiful lyric, the bond that finding and being in love, that love in itself can conquer all, have no boundary and is eternal, in life and thereafter. And the way Stevie Wonder stretches and pushes his limits vocally, every time he goes to the maximum brings a rush of blood through my veins and a tear to my eye. “Cause in my mind, you will stay here always, in love, you and I”
What an incredible catalogue there is to behold in those five albums released in the 1970’s from ‘Music of my mind’ to ‘Songs in the key of life’.
Nothing Compares 2 U – The Family
This was penned by the prolific Prince and originally recorded by The Family, a group from Minneapolis, USA. I can’t remember who introduced me to this but it was long, long before the more familiar version by Sinead O’Connor. I had it in cassette format and would listen repeatedly on my Walkman (remember them!) rewinding again and again until the batteries died a death. As with ‘You and I’, it is a haunting welcome to the track, layered synths, simulated strings, the beautiful opening couplet “It’s been seven hours and fifteen days, since you took your love away” delivered ‘acapella’ and right to the source. The lead vocal delicately supported and harmonised by background vocals. Then we have the incredible sax break that embellishes the sense of loss, of pain, of heartbreak. In fact there are two saxophones there as they double track, overlap and harmonize, and the sound of them, so dry and in your face, you can hear the fingers on the keys. Breathtaking.
Resolution – John Coltrane
The way the screaming sax comes out of the bass intro with such a power that then leads you down a path. Where does it take you? The second part of the ‘Love Supreme’ recording of 1964 that was made as he found his love for God, spirituality and faith. The whole togetherness of this amazing quartet, connected as one in their performance. I hear every player, deep in their own performance and at the same time, totally aware of the others around them. I hear respect and admiration among them, magnificent musicians at the top of their craft. A record so harmonious and harmony is found on so many levels. Deep devotion.
I also cannot hear this piece without a thought for a dear friend, who left this world far too young.
So, there you go. Just four key tracks from a (back) catalogue of plenty that have been with me through the years, unlocking doors. And, for sure, there are songs being released now that may one day be part of another list.
Soul II Soul http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEHqOfKeabc
Stevie Wonder http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vy8Vf9d-GHM
The Family http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LBc7-v5exY
John Coltrane http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Xx-rawGfn8