Okay, we’re onto part 2 of my blog post about the 7 albums that most influenced my taste in music. Check out part 1 for the first half of the story. Just to recap, these articles were inspired by a Facebook meme where people were invited to post the ‘albums which greatly influenced my taste in music. One album per day for 7 days. No explanation’.
I thought that was a great idea except for the bit about no explanation. I mean, it’s pretty boring without some explanation, right? So I decided to write about why I chose the 7 albums that have made my light. I outlined my first four album picks in Part 1, so we’re now into the last three.
Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, by The Red Hot Chili Peppers
By the early 90s, I had left Ireland to go to university at the University of Southampton. University is typically a time for young people to spread their wings, broaden their horizons, and experiment. So I decided to branch out from listening to hard rock bands (Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, etc) and try out the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik’ 1991 album. I’m glad that I did!
Having got back from the Our Price high street record store, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the album. I think I’d just heard their fabulous ‘Under the bridge’ song on the radio and bought the album off the strength of that hit single. As the rapped ‘Power of Equality’ played from my CD player, and bled into ‘If you have to ask’, I was listening to a style of music I’d never really heard before. It was very funky, big on bass, but still with guitars providing a link with my rock roots.
The production quality on the album is very high and the musicianship is great. Anthony Kiedis probably has his detractors as well as fans in terms of his singing ability, but I love the way he sings the songs on this album. And the songs are so cool and great. Under the bridge is the standout track for me, a beautiful ballad with a lyric that relates to the drug-related death of one of Kiedis’ friends. The other ballad ‘Breaking the girl’ is also great, proving how adept they were at those gentler songs. But the majority of the tracks are louder and ‘funky’ is the word that I think best describes them. The song ‘Funky Monks’ makes it crystal clear that was what they were about, and songs like ‘Suck my kiss’, ‘Apache Rose Peacock’ and ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’ are about as funky as music can get.
So it’s a fantastic album and represents (for me anyway) the clear peak of their creative capabilities. Their early albums (which I then bought) have a raw promise about them with Mother’s Milk in particular being a decent album. But ‘Blood, Sugar, Sex Magik’ was a big step up and really brought them into the big time. Their biggest commercial success was their Californication album in 1999 (and the predecessor ‘One Hot Minute’ is an underappreciated gem) but I feel that after then they have gone far too mainstream and most of the recent material that I’ve listened to has sounded polished but samey. Maybe others disagree?
Apart from being a great album in its own right, the other reason why I’ve included it as one of my 7 most influential albums is because of where it led me to in terms of my musical tastes. If I hadn’t got into the Chili Peppers I might not have gone onto listen to and enjoy other funk-rock bands, such as Faith No More, Dan Reed Network, Jane’s addiction, Fishbone, Living Colour, and Stevie Salas Colorcode.
Nevermind, by Nirvana
I guess Nirvana’s epoch-changing Nevermind album will feature on the most influential lists of many of my peers, but it may look like a strange inclusion for someone who is still primarily a fan of hard rock and heavy metal music. After all, weren’t Nirvana meant to be the band that killed rock?
Well, nothing’s ever that black and white in life. Firstly, Nirvana didn’t kill rock; rock is still very much alive and bands like Guns N’Roses and AC/DC remain amongst the highest earning musical acts to this day. But even if it knocked heavy rock from its MTV perch, that isn’t the fault of Nirvana or of the Grunge movement that they spearheaded. It was record execs and commercial radio station bigwigs who decided that the ‘latest cool’ should be Grunge rather than Rock, and who over subsequent decades have decided what other genres should be crowned kings of the moment.
So let’s look at the album on its own merits. There are probably not that many musical moments that remain imprinted in our memories – the equivalent of the old ‘I remember where I was when Kennedy got shot’ proclamations! But I can remember where I was when I first heard Nirvana’s huge hit ‘Smells like teen spirit’, and I remember where I was when I heard that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. The answers are ‘in my bedroom in the house we ranted during 2nd year at university’ and ‘in my parents’ car with the news being told on the car radio’.
Smells like teen spirit stood out because it sounded quite unlike anything I’d ever heard before. And because I heard it on a daytime radio station (Radio One) it particularly stood out as those programmes largely played songs that were safe and homogeneous. It made me (like countless others) buy their 1991 album Never Mind, and it is the first track that assaults your ears when you play the album. Still completely awesome!
I read a while back that Cobain’s songwriting approach was all about the music. Fitting words to the music was a secondary preoccupation as far as he was concerned. It’s not easy to make out all the words on their most famous song but the ‘With the lights out it’s less dangerous / Here we are now entertain us’ lines really stood out as a bit of genius. And Cobain’s distinctive angst-ridden vocals combined with great loud guitars and drums make this a song that will endure for many decades.
The rest of the album is great too. The particular standouts for me include ‘Come as you are’, ‘Lithium’, ‘Drain you’, ‘Breed’, and ‘Something in the way’. Actually, maybe on another day I would pick out some different tracks.
And as with the comment that I made about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, discovering Nirvana opened a doorway to listening to other bands. In the immediate aftermath of becoming a Nirvana fan, I bought Pearl Jam’s excellent ‘Ten’ album. And although it would be some more years before I would discover the delights of Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, I probably wouldn’t have been as receptive to them (or may not have checked them out at all) if I hadn’t been warmed up to grunge through Nirvana.
One final comment. Nevermind was Nirvana’s second album and heralded a rise to superstardom that surprised everyone, and that probably ultimately cost Cobain his sanity and life. I recently went back and listened to their debut album, Bleach. The excellent ‘About a girl’ gave a glimpse of their potential but my overriding sense was that it was a bit of a mess and felt like a band that was still in their infancy and hadn’t really mastered their art. The angst in Cobain’s voice was very evident but I have no idea what he was angry about as most of his vocals are unintelligible. There are some cool riffs and drumming though, so the underlying musical talent was already in place – I guess it just needed a bit of maturing.
And Justice for All, by Metallica
I was torn as to which album to choose for my 7th and final pick, but it was a choice between two Metallica albums. ‘And Justice for All’ was released in 1988, and was followed by their self-entitled Metallica album in 1991. The latter is also commonly referred to as ‘the Black album’ because of its all black album cover, and is the album that saw them really breakthrough to the big time, or sell out depending on your perspective!
I loved both those albums. The Black album was clearly more accessible and had great songs such as Nothing Else Matters and The Unforgiven that were less relentless is their guitar ferocity than much of the band’s earlier songs. But I’ve plumped for the ‘And Justice for All’ album as it’s the one that opened my eyes to Metallica and, more generally, to the louder end of the rock/metal spectrum.
My introduction to Metallica came through their epic anti-war song, ‘One’. It tells the story of a First World War soldier who has been blown up in a landmine and has lost all his limbs, his sight and his ability to speak. Internally, he is left praying for death but can’t make that wish known to those who are prolonging his suffering, or as they see it ‘caring’ for him. It’s a dark topic but is one of metal’s most memorable and impactful songs. It was a hit in the UK Singles charts in 1989 and, through that song, I remember seeing them on Top of the Pops.
Again, as with Nirvana’s ‘Smells like teen spirit’ it was one of those moments when I heard a song that sounded exciting and unlike anything that I had previously heard. And like many great songs (and art forms generally) its strength lies in moving between light and shade. A distinctive intro (sound of gunfire and helicopters, plus a voiceover from the 1971 film ‘Johnny Got His Gun’) leads into a cool riff and James Hetfield’s vocals telling the soldier’s desperate perspective. By Metallica’s standards (certainly at that point) it was fairly subdued but then at over four minutes in a monster guitar riff comes in. I remember seeing them go into that frenzied guitar section on Top of the Pops and thinking ‘what is this?!’ Of course, I now know that all performances on Top of the Pops were mimed but, even so, it stood out as something different!
The rest of the album contains lots of other great songs, but with the focus being very much upon VERY loud thrash metal tracks. Some of the standouts for me are Blackened, And Justice for all, Harvester of Sorrow, and the very fast-paced very cool ‘Dyer’s Eve’. I also like the very long ‘To live is to die’ which is an instrumental apart from a few spoken words towards the end.
The album won’t be for everyone and is also infamous for the band having pretty much removed newcomer Jason Newstead’s bass parts from the record, rendering it an album that is pretty much without bass guitar! In this Rolling Stone article, singer and guitarist James Hetfield stated that the bass was obscured for two reasons. “First, Jason tended to double my rhythm guitar parts, so it was hard to tell where my guitar started and his bass left off. Also, my tone on Justice was very scooped – all lows and highs, with very little midrange. My guitar sound ate up all the lower frequencies. Jason and I were always battling for the same space in the mix.”
One of the things that I liked about this album was Metallica’s willingness to explore social issues and the darker sides of life – war (One), environmental destruction (Blackened), family strife (Dyer’s Eve) and corruption in the justice system (And Justice for all). Writing about meaningful topics is something that I’ve very much embraced in my subsequent lyric writing. There are, of course, many other great songwriters who are renowned for songs that have meaning and who aren’t afraid to talk about powerful and sometimes dark emotions, but this album by Metallica showed me how it could be achieved with very loud guitar-based music.
And becoming a Metallica fan helped me to be open to exploring other loud music that I might otherwise have shied away from – bands like Sepultura, Megadeth, and System of a Down.
What albums would you select?
I’m conscious that my selected albums are all very rooted in my early years of discovering music. There have been lots of great bands and albums that I have discovered in the intervening years. Each of them though has influenced my taste in music, and looking at the old album covers and listening to the songs transports me back in time. I’m sure the albums you would choose would stir emotions in a similar way, even if your taste in music varies greatly from mine! I’d love to receive comments on the albums that you would select. You can use the Contact Me page to send me a message.
Finally, just a quick reminder to check out The 7 albums that most influenced my taste in music (Part 1), just in case you happened to stumble upon this part 2 blog first!