Bob Dylan – ‘Desire’

So, in 1992 I discovered three incredible albums. Neil Young’s After The Goldrush, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory and Bob Dylan’s Desire. I used to make my own mixtapes. I had dozens and took them to France, but once these three incredible albums hit my ears my tapes took a back seat. All three dominated my headphones and were the soundtrack to my summer. Neil Young gave me sentiment, sincerity, honesty and hit my emotions with as much ferocity and ruthlessness as words and music can muster. Bowie was the ultimate musical stargazer, the supreme dreamer, romancer, chancer and whimsical rock earthling. And Dylan? The ultimate seductive storyteller and Desire was a book I couldn’t stop reading.

Obviously I was aware of Dylan’s legend, but Desire was my first album experience. The best stories take you places and paint beautiful pictures. They excite and exhilarate you, urging you to discover more. The opening track, Hurricane, did that and more. I heard it, dissected it, loved it and learned it. I read about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, and read some more. The song does his legend perfect justice, with Dylan’s protest able to capture the injustice in a cinematic eight minutes, aided by Scarlet Rivera’s rampant violin and Ronnee Blakley’s backing vocals.

One of my many loves on Desire is the juxtaposition between Dylan’s vocals and his backing singers, Blackley and Emmylou Harris. Many songs, vocally at least, sound like one-takes with Blackley and Harris struggling to match Dylan’s rhythm, imperfect but utterly impeccable. With the exceptions of Hurricane and Joey, Desire is largely an album full of seductive folk tales, it blends and flows to create a beautiful whole, a romantic vision of outlaws, gypsies, drifters and gunslingers, set in some Mexican mountain wilderness. Accordions, castanets, harmonicas and Scarlet Rivera’s sumptuous violin act as colourful characters to the gypsy cowboy theme.

That gypsy vision radiates through songs like Romance In Durango, One More Cup Of Coffee and Black Diamond Bay. The former’s opening is literally searing…

“Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun
Dust on my face and my cape
Me and Magdalena on the run
I think this time we shall escape.

Sold my guitar to the baker’s son
For a few crumbs and a place to hide
But I can get another one
And I’ll play for Magdalena as we ride.”

Desire was the first, and still my biggest Dylan love. Many more albums would follow, containing songs that would surpass these. But as with my biggest musical loves it’s the feel, the emotion, the warmth and the huge sense of taking you to a particular time and place, occupied by the most colourful and truly believable characters, that sets Desire apart.

The Beatles – ‘1967-70’ (Blue Album)

It was the autumn of 1980. It was going to happen at some point, but it happened to be David Sax – a schoolfriend, county tennis player and Vitas Gerulaitis lookalike, big hair, headband and everything, who did the deed. I remember the day well, we’d already spoken fairly briefly about music, I mentioned my love of The Jam, he mentioned his love of Bob Dylan then he showed me his (his dad’s I presume) record collection. He showed me The Beatles. More importantly, he leant me the Beatles’ Red and Blue albums.

Of course I’d heard plenty of The Fabs before, three years of listening to the Old Record Club as a musically illuminating warm-up to the late ‘70s Top 40 chart on Radio 1 had taught me their hit singles. But these two double-players in their gorgeous entirety were like opening up an Aladdin’s cave of wow, of oh my fucking god, of life-changing aural pleasure. Quite quickly the 1967-1970 Blue album became my favourite, and whilst Disc 1 – Side 1 made my jaw drop the furthest, all four quarters left me stunned and ridiculously, beautifully intoxicated.

It felt like the previous five years or so had been a learning experience, the perfect elementary school lesson into the history of pop music, but my teachers had saved the best until now. I was perfectly ready not just for The Beatles, but also for everything that opened up to me as a result, musically, emotionally, and spiritually. Strawberry Fields Forever and A Day In The Life blew me away, the former remains the best song I’ve ever heard, but this felt like more than music. Yes, it was lyrics and melodies, but it brought out such emotions that it seemed to lift me, enlighten me, raising me up to an even higher level of musical love. The album was my musical Garden of Eden.

Most of the lessons at school were wasted on me. For good or bad it was music that moulded me, that shaped the way I thought, influencing beyond the norm the way I lived my life. During 1978-80 most of this influence had been quite direct, very real and easy to appreciate and attach to my own life – The Jam, The Specials, Madness and The Beat sung about shit that was happening and modern day discontent – The Beatles were a dream; a multi-coloured, multi-layered, psychedelic mind expansion.

The Beatles Blue album did more than open up my eyes and ears. It attacked my inner self too, developing a deeper more introspective part of my persona that was previously non-existent. I read little as a boy, but songs like Across The Universe were my paperback substitute:

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup / They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe / Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind / Possessing and caressing me / Jai Guru Deva. Om / Nothing’s gonna change my world…

The Beatles changed mine.

Manfred Mann – ‘Mighty Quinn’

Now, my dad was a plane-spotter – like a train-spotter, but with a slightly smaller anorak. He had dozens of books containing thousands of aircraft makes, types and registration numbers, and when he visited an airport and spotted a previously un-spotted plane, he’d underline it with his red BIC® in one of his books. I think he’s seen them all now. I went with him a few times, but I think I enjoyed the cycle ride to Hurn Airport more than the aircraft.

Anyway, I say this as in 1976 and 1977, with the help of my dad I became a song-spotter. Listening to the Top 40 singles chart was a must, but for a year or more just as, if not more important, was listening to (as nauseating as this is to write) Jimmy Savile on Radio 1. His Old Record Club featured Top Tens from the late 1950s onwards, and with the book of Hit Singles at the ready, when we heard a song, we’d find it, underline it, and put a ‘listened to’ date for reference. Unbelievably nerdy. They were hugely enjoyable weekly lessons in the history of pop music.

Unavoidably at such a young age, my dad’s personal taste was an influence, and the quintessential ‘60s pop nuggets from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band were a clear favourite of his, and subsequently mine. As an eager ten-year-old Ha Ha Said The Clown, Fox On The Run, Do Wah Diddy Diddy and My Name Is Jack sounded like melodic heaven, and amongst those in a flurry of chart hits was the Mighty Quinn. This was over forty years ago, and my dad, bless him, has retained his love of a radio sing-a-long, given the right song.

Manfred Mann

A few years later I purchased Semi Detached Suburban – a gem of a compilation – still loving the Manfreds, and hopefully at some point realising that my pick of the bunch was in fact penned by Bob Dylan, less than one year prior to this release. I was a very happy and contented soul in 1976, and those distant memories of Manfred Mann fill me with joy. The photo above of Mr Manfred Mann could be a photo of my dad when he helped to make me. What a dude.