Tom Petty – ‘Wildflowers’

By the summer of ’96 I’d grabbed another DJ residency, playing northern, mod, soul and ‘60s beat at Shake Your Mini, a Bournemouth club for uh, ‘60s beatniks. It was a great gig and ten years after my first stint at Charivari I always thought: “if only I had all this knowledge and music back then.” My knowledge and collection had grown massively, but aged 20 I was young, ebullient and wide-eyed which was probably what they wanted, and aged 30, well, I wasn’t.

Anyway, back in MVC the next long-player to leave its love mark was the exquisite Wildflowers by Mr Tom Petty. I’d been a big fan for many years and loved most of his early stuff including his fab version of Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air. Unusually for a rock dude who made his name in the ‘70s he seemed to get better with age. His ’91 album Into The Great Wide Open included some absolute belters. Without even listening to his lyrics Tom Petty has one of those voices that leaves you in no doubt that he’s one of the good guys. He sounds like he sings from a heart of gold. That’s confirmed in the opening thirty seconds of Wildflowers:

“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free.”

Wildflowers opens the album beautifully, and the fourteen tracks that follow never drop far from great, but six go way beyond that. It’s Good To Be King shows the brilliance of Petty’s simplicity with Steve Ferrone’s drums just gliding over the top of wistful dreamscape. Tom Petty described Wildflowers as his divorce album, saying “That’s me getting ready to leave. I don’t even know how conscious I was of it when I was writing it … it just took me getting up the guts to leave this huge empire we had built, to walk out.” Knowing that makes many of these songs hit even harder…

“Here comes that feeling I’ve seen in your eyes
Back in the old days, before the hard times
But I’m not afraid anymore
It’s only a broken heart”

– Only A Broken Heart

Hard On Me is just as beautiful, but no less sorrowful. Again, everything is musically simple, no fuss, just keys, guitar and drums caressing Petty’s sombre vocals. To Find A Friend is a perfect example of his storytelling genius. No airs or graces, just perfect picture painting that tugs at the heart, and those unhurried, succulent vocals adding even more depth. Ringo Starr wins on drums, too.

Vocally, lyrically, musically and melodically everything about Crawling Back To You is sublime. But as with the whole album it’s the overwhelming sincerity of Petty’s voice that adds the most.

“I’m so tired of being tired
Sure as night will follow day
Most things I worry about
Never happen anyway.”

– Crawling Back To You

Wildflowers may have saved the best to last with the exquisite Wake Up Time, which is quite something considering what has gone before. Rick Rubin is a colossal of record production whose stripped-down sound is perfect for Tom Petty. Of all the albums that are part of my musical chronicle that may be unknown to some, Wildflowers is the one I’d most highly recommend. The following Spring me ‘n Bob took a trip to Santorini and Wildflowers was the perfect soundtrack. I’d go as far as to say it’s Tom Petty’s masterpiece.

Teenage Fanclub – ‘Grand Prix’

Bob, another close MVC compadre looked like Neil Young circa 1967. A very good start. He was also into his guitar-based indie, the best of which was Teenage Fanclub and for a long number of months I devoured their back catalogue. Their most recent release and focus of my favoured attention was the gloriously sparky Grand Prix. I’d liked but not really raved about much of the indie and Britpop around since the early ‘90s, but The Fannies… they were special.

The boorish Britpop thing was overhyped, but there were some great ‘90s indie bands for sure, The Charlatans, The Las, The Bluetones, Pulp, Primal Scream, Supergrass, Belle & Sebastian and Blur vs Oasis was a thing, but the band who won on songs alone was Teenage Fanclub. What sets The Fannies apart is that there’s zero attitude with them, that and the fact that no other band has a guitar sound so gorgeously uplifting. Grand Prix is packed with killer songs that just lift the mood, even with the more musically downbeat or melancholy the band’s shared vocals have such an overwhelming sense of optimism that all just feels good with the world.

Having listened to all Fannies albums pre and post, Grand Prix sounds like the band at its peak, with the democratic attitude to the songwriting and vocals reaping rewards. The guitar intro to About You sets the tone, and lyrically too as Grand Prix is, if anything a love album. There are killer lines throughout and on Sparky’s Dream “She painted pictures that never dried, always tried to keep the feeling alive” was The Fannies all over.

The opening guitars to Don’t Look Back are the most perfect thirty seconds, but the next twenty just tip me over the edge:

“If I could find the words to say
The sun shines in your eyes
So brighten up my city sky”

The Byrds and particularly Big Star shine in their music with the guitars just singing, enhancing the sentiment perfectly, never more so than in the magnificent Neil Jung, Norman Blake’s Grand Prix peach. For me it’s Gerard Love who wins gold on the songwriter’s podium with Sparky’s Dream, Don’t Look Back, Discolite and the gorgeous Going Places which makes my heart hurt.

Grand Prix is packed with exceptional pop songs, perfect harmonies and a guitar sound that just pours sunshine over everything. Songs From Northern Britain was their next, nearly matching the brilliance of Grand Prix, but in 1996 The Fannies gave my heart a gentle squeeze and put a whopping big grin on my face.

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Layter’

Two years into my eleven-year MVC stint and the influences from work colleagues were coming thick and fast. Geoff had a big thing for folk: Fairport Convention in particular including members Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. He was also a big fan of Nick Drake who was unfamiliar to me at the time, though thanks to Geoff that was about to change.

I can’t remember if a particular album was recommended. I’m sure I checked out all three but it was Bryter Layter that I instantly gravitated to. Nick Drake’s personal story is so despairing it’s hard to ignore, though at the time I’m sure I had no idea of his isolation, depression or tragically early death. However, it was quickly apparent that he wasn’t the most contented soul. Nick Drake quickly led me to Tim Hardin and John Martyn, two others who constantly battled their demons yet through it all wrote and made some incredibly beautiful music.

Bryter Layter oozes refined and exquisite melancholy. Its occasionally upbeat jazzy ripple coupled with dreamy flute, sax and strings are pure bliss, but add Drake’s aching vocals and wistful, contemplative lyrics and you have a deeply beautiful album. That perfect melancholy drifts through the opening Introduction before the tempo lifts with the positively upbeat, lyrically perturbing Hazey Jane II. I’d like to think that the more upbeat musicality on Bryter Layter compared to Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon reflects a sense of optimism and positivity, but such was his reclusiveness that remains as much a mystery as the provocative lyrics.

The harmony between Drake’s faintly pleading vocals and John Cale’s viola on Fly tears me up, before another jazzy jaunt strolls along with Drake’s whispered, vivid lyrics on Poor Boy. Then, as near to musical utopia as is possible:

“I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.”

Northern Sky is lyrical and musical perfection. You know it comes from a fragile place, which adds everything to its stunningly poetic plea for love, and with John Cale’s sprinkling of magic musical dust it encapsulates everything that’s beautiful about Nick Drake. Bryter Layter sold in pitiful numbers at its time of release. Nick Drake didn’t want to play the game, but his delicate, mythical entity has grown to shine as brightly as his music.

Paul Weller – ‘Stanley Road’

Following Weller’s musical resurrection with his debut solo album in 1992, his follow up the next year further enhanced his status. Wild Wood was a stunning album, a notable step up from Paul Weller it was heavier and more soulful, blending folk and psychedelic bluesy jams. Steve Craddock was in and adding the perfect musical foil to Weller’s swank and vigor.

For five or so years from ’94 I saw Weller live more than a dozen times, and he was never less than totally captivating. His passion completely dominated his live performances, riding as he was on the crest of adulation from not just the new wave of Britpop admirers but also his original Jam and Style Council fanatics. Weller’s devotion to his art is unquestionable and his influences are celebrated through his music, never better than on his classic ’95 release, Stanley Road.

Musically, those influences are all over the back of Peter Blake’s album cover: Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane figurines, Artetha Franklin, John Lennon, a dude on a scooter plus mod and Stax iconography. You know where he’s at. For me, Weller’s influences are right at home in my record collection and on Stanley Road they shine magnificently. That said, this is a Weller album through and through; heavy and soulful with a groove that has attitude pulsing at its heart. Changing Man is just a classic Weller single and with Porcelain Gods and Dr. John’s Walk On Gilded Splinters the voodoo groove is blues swamp perfection.

The groove becomes more soulful through Stanley Road and Broken Stones before the intensity returns on the glorious Out Of The Sinking. It’s all there; a rock and blues stomp with Yolanda Charles and Steve White’s rhythm matched by Carleen Anderson’s stunning gospel vocals. The slower, piano lead tracks are great, but for me it was all about the full band at full tilt, and that was at its peak on Whirlpool’s End, a live classic that showcased the skills of Brendan Lynch and rhythm king, Steve White.

Ten years later Paul Weller said: “Stanley Road was one of those perfect moments when everything slotted into place naturally. It was a dream… Initially I wanted to call the album Shit or Bust, because that’s how I felt about it. I put everything into it, emotionally and physically. It was the culmination of my solo career to date. I knew it was special. We had a playback and I could sense the excitement among the people listening to it.”

To me, in over 40 years over making music Stanley Road is Weller’s best ever album. He was idolised by two generations, he’d just split from his wife DC Lee and he was partying with much gusto. His creative juices were fully fuelled, no doubt stimulated by his contemporaries who looked up to him for inspiration, and boy did he deliver.