Neil Young – ‘MTV Unplugged’

In March ’93 I returned to France with Keycamp, this time to Fréjus on the Côte d’Azur, to a smaller, more relaxed site than Vias Plage with more opportunity and need to speak French, which nearly thirty years later I’m still learning. In June that year Neil Young released his MTV Unplugged live album, and that was my beautiful summer earworm. Why I bought that and not Harvest or other ‘70s classic albums I assume was because I’d seen the MTV show in February, but regardless, I devoured its lavish simplicity.

Neil Young’s voice makes me shiver in a very, very good way. It’s totally unique like an about to crack falsetto. But it never does. It strains, sounds pained and gushes with emotion like the sound of tears singing. My senses die for it, as opposed to the low growl of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave who I’ve never been able to enjoy. My loss. On his MTV Unplugged album his voice is front and centre. Every song is performed in its purest form, with the likes of Mr Soul and Like A Hurricane and in particular Transformer Man almost unrecognisable from the original.

Performing songs from ‘67’s Mr Soul to tracks from Harvest Moon released in ’92 this was my second phase of discovery into Neil Young, following the previous year’s obsession with After The Goldrush. Listening to the album I had little idea about the origin of almost all these songs, so was listening with fresh and eager ears. There’s little on the album I didn’t love, but some songs hit me particularly hard. Mr Soul got me with simple guitar, harmonica and: I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter / I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her.” Such gorgeous torture.

Pocahontas and Stringman are both stunning through their musical restraint, leaving the anguish in Neil’s voice to heighten the intensity. The emotion increases on Like A Hurricane, performed on a pump organ the song just brought tears…

“You are like a hurricane
There’s calm in your eye
And I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feelin’ stays
I wanna love you but I’m gettin’ blown away.”

Unrelenting, The Needle And The Damage Done and Helpless both keep the mood beautifully low, until the spirits lift and love, hope and happiness shine towards the set’s end. The harmonies on Transformer Man are angelic, matched on the adoring and sentimental homage to an Unknown Legend. I’d play that song to death, just to hear Neil sing: “I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.” Featuring Neil’s half sister Astrid on backing vocals and Nils Lofgren on autoharp, guitars and accordion, the band’s tone throughout is impeccable, his songs shone, and that summer my love for Neil Young just intensified. His down was just divine.

Paul Weller – ‘Paul Weller’

The last Style Council album I bought was Our Favourite Shop in 1985. I loved it. I didn’t bother with Home And Abroad, the ’96 live album, and by the time The Cost Of Loving came out in the next year my near ten-year obsession with Paul Weller was over. The bland, sickly slick faux-soul was not for me. Ditto next year’s Confessions Of A Pop Group. By ‘90 and with no more Style Council, Paul Weller was no more on my mind, especially as I was otherwise engaged somewhere in a van in Europe. 1991 was the same, except swap Europe for the USA. But, whilst I was finding myself overseas, Paul Weller was finding his musical mojo having lost it somewhere he didn’t really belong. And find it he most certainly did.

I bought Paul Weller’s self-titled debut solo album at the tail end of ’92 whilst living in Dublin, a city with the same energy, spirit and passion as that fantastic comeback album. The Paul Weller Movement was the start, re-introducing Steve White on the sticks, and Brendan Lynch as a mixer, co-producer and beat-king. Weller had released Into Tomorrow in ’91 and my interest was instantly alerted. Uh Huh, Oh Yeh and Above The Clouds were released in ‘92 heightening my interest so by the time Paul Weller was released later that year I was all ears. I couldn’t wait.

Going into 1993 dance music was dominating everything. House, techno, garage, RnB, hip-hop and all sorts of cheese was stinking out the charts. Britpop was about to kick-off and shake shit up. Weller must’ve felt something in the air because his solo debut was perfectly timed, riding the wave of the blossoming acid jazz scene, and bands like Suede, Saint Etienne, Pulp and Blur who were making new music; a new British sound with more than a nod to the ‘60s. Paul Weller fitted right in, blending and mix of mellow and acid jazz rhythms with heavy riffs and, thank fuck, that forgotten Weller attitude and swagger. Most importantly, he was writing great songs again.

The singles set the tone with Above The Clouds perfectly easy groove matching the riff-heavy Into Tomorrow. Steve White was a brilliant blast of energy and skill with Bull-Rush, Round And Round, Amongst Butterflies and Bitterness Rising showcasing his prowess, and with the dubby trip-fest closer Kosmos the album felt brilliantly of its time. At the time for me these 12 tracks were more than a launch pad to Weller’s solo career, they recaptured my belief in the man himself, and when you’ve believed in an artist as much as I and a nation of other teenagers had done ten years earlier, that felt huge. It felt like our hero had returned.