In the mid-1930s, Robert Johnson transformed himself very quickly from an ‘embarrassingly bad guitarist’ (not my words, the words of the great Son House) into one of the most important blues musicians of all time, and the King of the Delta Blues style that underpinned much of what followed in popular music.
As the now often recounted tale goes, he was alleged to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads near a plantation in Mississippi in exchange for the ability to master the six string weapon he was attempting to use to tell his stories of love, loss and hoodoo. The Devil apparently took his guitar from him, tuned it, played a couple of numbers (I don’t know which ones, but I’d certainly love to find out) and handed it back to him. Johnson was transformed into a mesmerising, complex guitarist, who was suddenly not only adept within Blues, but also other related genres too. My favourite Johnson moment is undoubtedly the ragtime-influenced ‘They’re Red Hot’, which arguably isn’t even Blues at all.
The veracity of this tale is clearly up for debate. The more time passes, the more sceptical we become, and this sort of Faustian tale isn’t going to wash with the majority of right-thinking people in 2011.
But, to question the veracity of the story is to miss the point.
Throughout the history of popular music, the best artists have built a world and a myth around them and resided within it. They’ll construct a series of tales that add to their legend and blur the lines between fiction and reality. When Bowie transformed himself into the androgynous Ziggy Stardust, it was not enough to dress like him and sing songs about him. He had to believe there was only Five Years until the end of the world, he had to become him. Johnson’s tall tales were simply an extension of his myth, which he propagated further with his songs ‘Me and the Devil’ and ‘Hellhound on my Trail’. The music may have been primitive, but he knew the value of a good story.
C.W. Stoneking is a character. No-one can live in the manner that he apparently lives; taking sloops to Africa, being washed up in shipwrecks and owning the last Dodo in existence. But he means it. He lives it, and because he lives it, we believe it. To see Stoneking live is to take a time-machine back 75 years as he stops to tell us about his time as a Hoodoo Doctor’s assistant, before breaking into another song with his Primitive Horn Orchestra.
To listen to Stoneking on record is to be transfixed to the point of hypnosis for 40 minutes as he gallivants around the Deep South, administering potions to would-be sweethearts after escaping 25 years hard labour (the sentence sent down by a ‘monkey in an old wicker chair’, naturally) in sub-Saharan Africa where he was washed up in a shipwreck. Meanwhile, he pays homage to General Douglas MacArthur and his sterling efforts in the Pacific in World War II.
As an aside, the reason the homage to MacArthur, emotively titled ‘Brave Son of America’, is such an important song on his Jungle Blues record is because it adds context. To reference a prominent figure in history within the era you’re trying to resurrect is a smart move, it covers the entire set of stories with a varnish of authenticity.
The song I’ve chosen to accompany this post, the yodelling ‘Talkin’ Lion Blues’, isn’t necessarily his strongest work on his second record Jungle Blues (out on King Hokum), but it perfectly encapsulates the importance of building a myth as an artist. Our protagonist starts off as a gold miner, has a brief tête-á-tête with a talking lion, and, well, I’ll leave the rest to Mr Stoneking. He’s a much better storyteller than me.
Angel - Massive Attack (Mezzanine, 1998) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbe3CQamF8k
As creative conflict swirled around the Bristolian trip-hoppers towards the end of 1997, they seemed to somehow harness this anger and dispute and commit it to acetate. The deep, rumbling bass at the start of Angel quickly gives way to Horace Andy’s haunting vocal, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia and genuine menace. Couple this with the bleak and distant production, and you’ve got an unsettling beginning to a timeless record. Some people will tell you that Blue Lines is Massive Attack’s best album. It isn’t. It’s Mezzanine. And Angel sets the tone perfectly for the musical malevolence that follows.
Is This It - The Strokes (Is This It, 2001) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQRJvZBH1gw
How do you react to being called ‘the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band since The Rolling Stones’, and tickets for your shows trading hands for hundreds of pounds on the streets of London before you’ve even released an album? Sarcastically call your debut long-player and opening track ‘Is This It’, of course. Julian Casablancas’ observational and often sardonic lyrics and delivery underpin everything on the New York quintet’s debut record, and the first song typifies this. The mock disinterest takes on another dimension when you realise they called the last track ‘Take It or Leave It’. Touché.
See No Evil - Television (Marquee Moon, 1977) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7L0IYPXKj8
The band that The Strokes desperately wanted to be, Television were the original New York hipsters, cutting their teeth at CBGBs in Manhattan, New York at the same time as The Ramones and Blondie. As one of the founders of New Wave, they released Marquee Moon in 1977, and the soaring guitar work from Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd is intricate, beautiful, and is a hallmark of their now trademark sound. The first track is See No Evil, a song that manages to be a foot-stomper and a work of complicated beauty all at the same time. Marquee Moon is one of the best records of the 70s, and See No Evil makes no small contribution.
Straight Outta Compton - N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton, 1988) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMZi25Pq3T8
‘You’re now about to witness the strength of street knowledge.’ sneers Dr Dre, as Straight Outta Compton hits you with a wall of police sirens, fiercely spat lyrics, bass and snapping snare drum. In 1988, this was music from another planet. According to the outraged right-wing press, this was the ‘most dangerous group in the world’ proffering ‘gangsta rap’. To N.W.A. it was ‘reality rap’, the collective insisting they were just rapping about the lives of everyday kids in the ghetto. Whilst the entirety of Straight Outta Compton is an assault on the senses, they never sounded more vital, more threatening and more essential than on the opener.
Leave Them All Behind - Ride (Going Blank Again, 1992) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAT-5MTRrPo
The build up, the metronomic drumming, the guitar effects, the hushed vocal. In many ways this is the definitive Shoegaze song, and although Going Blank Again didn’t quite reach the heights of debut album Nowhere, the first song promised so much. The sound of Andy Bell’s guitar towards the end of the eight minutes has been described as ‘the sound of heaven and earth colliding’, and it’s hard to disagree.
Five Years - David Bowie (The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, 1972) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=louXPUW7tHU
‘I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human’ said David Bowie, and thanks to his alien creation Ziggy Stardust he finally was. Five Years is the start of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ beautiful, chaotic, apocalyptic journey. From ‘boys, toys, electric irons and TVs’ to ‘cops kneeling and kissing the feet of a priest’, the start of the end of the world has never been so much fun.
Welcome to the Jungle - Guns ‘n’ Roses (Appetite for Destruction, 1987) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_enNmzWn6Y
Aged just 24, Axl Rose wrote the lion’s share of Appetite for Destruction, the definitive concept album about living amongst the squalid Los Angeles underbelly. Welcome to the Jungle is less an opening song, more a trapdoor into a 53 minute tour around everything that was seedy and sordid about LA in the 80s; taking in heroin, porn, alcohol and crime. Rose may be a washed-up joke now, but back then he was a bona-fide social commentator with one hell of a voice. From Slash’s riff at the very start to the sneering ‘…it’s gonna bring you down!’ at the end, this is balls-out-of-the-bath hard rock finery.
Search and Destroy - The Stooges (Raw Power, 1973) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFe0OfEtP2w
As opening lines go, ‘I’m a street walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm’ is about as bold a statement as you’re likely to get. And can there be a more autologically titled record than Raw Power, the third of The Stooges’ triumvirate of vicious 70s proto-punk records? The thing that made The Stooges so engaging is that Iggy Pop didn’t just sing about how he’d ‘search and destroy’ you; he was more than likely to follow through with the threat. This wasn’t talking the talk. It wasn’t even walking the walk. It was strutting the strut.
Bring The Noise - Public Enemy (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, 1988) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cvy7MWjfVPE
Yes, there’s a short skit at the beginning of the record, which is technically track one, but Bring the Noise is the start of the album proper. ITANOMTHUB is an absolute whirlwind of a hip-hop record politically and musically, with Chuck D in blistering form, railing against everyone and every perceived injustice that African-Americans had had to endure in the US up to that point. The Bomb Squad’s oppressive production provides the perfect background to D’s clinical delivery and the result is the start of the most politically-charged and devastating hip-hop album of all time.
Like a Rolling Stone - Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965) - http://youtu.be/oykxg0eW3n8
‘…a song about hatred’, said Dylan when asked about Like a Rolling Stone, which kicks off probably his most rounded record. The song seen as Dylan’s crowning glory, it seems laced with bitterness, jealousy and longing for revenge against someone or something, possibly even himself. Highway 61 Revisited’s first song was voted as the greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine, and even after all this time it really is impossible to top.
Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana (Nevermind, 1991) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTWKbfoikeg&ob=av3e
‘I started Nirvana because there was nothing else to do’, said Kurt Cobain, the shy boy from Aberdeen, Washington who became the reluctant voice of the world’s disaffected youth. The opening track on their major label debut, Smells Like Teen Spirit, with its beautifully simple four chord riff, catapulted Nirvana into the mainstream, despite Cobain’s typically humble protestations that he was ‘just trying to rip off the Pixies’.
Arcarsenal - At the Drive In (Relationship of Command, 2000) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmTSQZjR3DE
Surely one of the world’s more underrated bands, At the Drive In threatened and hinted towards greatness for a long time before finally releasing what is now appreciated as one of the finest releases of this century in Relationship of Command. The level of brutal hardcore intensity, married with genuine melody and ever-changing tempo from the moment that opener Arcarsenal kicks in is a joy to behold. Sadly for ATDI fans, this was the beginning of the end as the band split up acrimoniously later the following year.
Gimme Shelter - The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, 1969) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJDnJ0vXUgw
With Brian Jones limited to a token role in the band (indeed, by ‘69, Mick Taylor had already arrived, and Let It Bleed would be the last album on which Jones would feature at all), The Stones set about making Let It Bleed against a background of great uncertainty in the world, not least the Vietnam War and possible nuclear destruction. Gimme Shelter, with its building intro, gospel backing vocal, and lyrics about war being ‘just a shot away’ captured the mood perfectly. Also, for fans of rock ‘n’ roll trivia, the cake on the cover of Let It Bleed was actually made by then unknown chef Delia Smith. Let’s be ‘avin’ you.
Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II, 1969) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bXKboDqiSbE
Less a rock outfit, more an all-encompassing tornado of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, Led Zeppelin were the band that sold more gig tickets in the US than even The Beatles, as well as 200 million albums worldwide. A perfect marriage of guitar and vocal, Page and Plant were absolutely untouchable, and Whole Lotta Love proves it beyond any doubt. Incidentally, guitar manufacturer Gibson recently voted Whole Lotta Love’s riff as the third best of all time. Which is roughly two places lower than it should be.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Star - Oasis (Definitely Maybe, 1994) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rBZ1HTkGF4s
The song that opens arguably Oasis’ only truly great album, Rock ‘n’ Roll Star has been described by Noel Gallagher as ‘probably my best ever song’. It seems to flawlessly sum up what Liam Gallagher is all about: a swaggering, cocky, genuinely gifted and confrontational (and therefore tremendously exciting) front man. Forget all the off-stage tabloid antics, Liam Gallagher was born to be a singer in a band, and if you picture him snarling, with his hands behind his back, Rock ‘n’ Roll Star is the soundtrack.
Sunday Morning - The Velvet Underground (The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eF_CQGHqzts
Possibly the best debut record of all time, The Velvet Underground & Nico saunters into focus with the understated and bleary-eyed Sunday Morning, a song about the morning after the night before. The album rapidly takes a nose-dive into the gutter straight afterwards with I’m Waiting For The Man, but the calm before the storm is a truly beautiful thing. Warning: The Velvet Underground song Sunday Morning is not to be confused with the Maroon 5 song of the same name, a piece of work so undeniably woeful it actually makes your teeth itch.
Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black) - Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps, 1979) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O1v_7T6p8U
Another entry into the pantheon of greatest ever riffs, Hey, Hey, My, My is a down-tuned, distorted monster of a guitar track mixed with the chaos of Young’s confusing yet brilliant backing band Crazy Horse and the Canadian genius’ fragile vocal. A song sadly better known for having a lyric included in the aforementioned Kurt Cobain’s suicide note (‘It’s better to burn out than fade away’), this opening salvo is a worthy start to one of Neil Young’s brilliant and criminally underrated records.
Astronomy Domine - Pink Floyd (The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, 1967) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ts-2lg5fpQ4
In their early days, Pink Floyd were a band that orbited around the nucleus of Syd Barrett, the wayward genius who eventually succumbed to mental illness. Barrett wrote all but one of the songs on The Piper at The Gates of Dawn, and Astronomy Domine takes us on a sonic trip around the solar system and beyond as Pink Floyd’s position as a truly boundary pushing band was set for generations to come.
Holidays in the Sun - The Sex Pistols (Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols, 1977) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWF9MMxnekQ
The marching boots, the descending lead guitar (allegedly stolen from The Jam), the knowing, cynical, snarling delivery of Johnny Rotten’s vocal. It’s all here. It’s in many ways the definitive punk song, and the definitive Sex Pistols song, and it kicks off the greatest British punk record of all time. The only full-length release the Pistols ever recorded with Rotten, it made everything before it sound suddenly obsolete and has never been bettered in the genre.
I Wanna Be Adored - The Stone Roses (The Stone Roses, 1989) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D2qcbu26gs&ob=av2e
Yes they only made one brilliant long-player (although Second Coming is a much better effort than the initial reviews suggested), but what a long-player it is. I Wanna Be Adored ushers The Stones Roses in beautifully, with Brown’s hushed yet defiant vocal tying together a building, crescendo of bass-led melody which rallies and eventually gives way to the glorious She Bangs The Drums, a song that just happens to be one of the greatest ever committed to acetate. It’s not just that The Stone Roses were so brilliant, it’s the fact that it seemed to come so easy to them. ‘You adore me’, whispers Ian Brown. Of course we do.
Taxman - The Beatles (Revolver, 1966) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Maz9ddxEQnM
One of three songs on Revolver penned by George Harrison, Taxman rallies against Harold Wilson and his government’s ‘supertax’, which meant The Beatles were handing over 95% of their earnings to the state. So when Harrison sings ‘Let me tell you how it will be, it’s one for you, nineteen for me’, it’s not only a brilliant lyric, it’s also mathematically accurate.
Debaser - Pixies (Doolittle, 1989) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7q5WjYjzrEQ
Another disc that opens with a superb bass hook, Debaser starts Pixies third album Doolittle, and is certainly the only mainstream rock record we know of to kick off with an homage to surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel. Criminally under-appreciated in their first incarnation, Pixies were hugely influential to a generation of Grunge bands including the aforementioned Nirvana. Doolittle is a dark, challenging record in terms of lyrical content, but an undeniably brilliant one nonetheless.
Sure Shot - Beastie Boys (Ill Communication, 1994) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhqyZeUlE8U&ob=av2e
Just about every Beastie Boys record starts with an absolutely winning first track, but Sure Shot tops them all. The last full length album to feature long-time collaborator DJ Hurricane, Ill Communication has featured heavily on plenty of ‘Best of 1994’ lists, in a year that proved a very strong twelve months for music. It also contains the lyric ‘I’ve got more rhymes than I’ve got grey hairs, and that’s a lot because I’ve got my share.’ Self-deprecating hip-hop! What’s not to like?
Vicious - Lou Reed (Transformer, 1972) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMpARx-lnEM
A more commercial sounding record than his first release, Transformer is probably Lou Reed’s best solo work, and it starts with the sexy, raunchy Vicious, an opening salvo with David Bowie and Mick Ronson’s greasy mitts all over it. As Reed himself says, ‘You must think that I’m some kind of gay blade, but baby, you’re so vicious.’ Meow.
London Calling - The Clash (London Calling, 1979) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfK-WX2pa8c&ob=av2n
A song about the end of the world through a ‘nuclear error’ (which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s currently being used as a theme for the London Olympics), London Calling is the eponymous opener to The Clash’s third (and best) long player. A song beset with howling guitars and a metronomic drumbeat, when married up with Joe Strummer’s desperate singing it creates a genuinely bleak yet compelling start to an album that tackles several political themes throughout. Crucial stuff.
This article first appeared on IGN.com on 12th August 2011.
I wouldn’t imagine Acute Pancreatitis is a nice way to go. The sudden and severe inflammation of the organ that regulates digestion resulting in unbearable abdominal pain, usually sending the body into shock, leading to multiple organ failure doesn’t sound like a walk in the meadow. It’s usually brought on by heavy alcohol and/or drug abuse.
Consuming large quantities of alcohol and drugs was probably the thing that Peter Laughner was third best at. He succumbed to the aforementioned disease in 1977 (unfortunately the year that Punk, a genre he helped to create, finally took off) at the astonishingly young age of 24 after sustained substance problems, and initially left barely a scratch on the music world he was so desperate to be a part of.
If I was going to hazard a guess at what Laughner was second best at, it would probably be music writing. He contributed regularly to CREEM magazine, idolised Lester Bangs and championed a number of artists, including The Velvet Underground and Television. The man had taste.
His forté was undoubtedly as a songwriter, though. For a man that there’s hardly any record of actually entering a recording studio, he managed to get down a sizeable amount of material, mostly home recorded demos, and later some live recordings, and one thing that is absolutely staggering to appreciate is how varied, interesting and versatile he was as a songwriter and guitarist. Capable of proto-punk savagery with Rocket From The Tombs (most notable for their song Ain’t It Fun, covered by Guns ‘n’ Roses on The Spaghetti Incident?) as well as more interesting, experimental work with Pere Ubu (a band that he did actually manage to record with, but left after just two singles due to his ongoing battle with drug addiction), he was also a stunningly poignant, sensitive lyricist, capable of the lighest touch. In fact, it is arguably this versatility, making him impossible to pigeonhole, that limited his reach among potential fans and would-be admirers of his work.
The best example of Laughner’s lyrical prowess and emotionally wrought delivery is on the posthumously released compilation Take the Guitar Player for a Ride, a record sadly now out of print and therefore unavailable, aside from a rather below-par bootleg version. On the magnificent Amphetamine, he eschews any sneering, punk sensibilities to deliver a harrowing Springsteen-esque vocal that is both poignant (given his subsequent demise) and emotional. It dances along for over eight minutes, yet never outstays its welcome.
Peter Laughner was and is a criminally underrated contributor to modern music. He was undoubtedly a key protagonist in the birth of Punk and New Wave in the United States. In my view, he was arguably as important as The Stooges and The MC5, without which there’d be no Ramones. A man whose life seemed to be tarnished with such disappointment and personal problems culminating in an untimely and painful death deserves to be lauded for the beautiful, understated music he created.