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.

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.

Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Greatest Hits’

Now I was earning my own pennies – a permanent job at Discus don’tcha know and where I’d met some fellow music aficionados – Snu-Peas was becoming my home from home. I don’t think I ever bought a vinyl LP from anywhere other than a second-hand shop, and Snu-Peas was a five minute walk from my front door; it was well stocked, well organised, stunk of musical history, and heaven for a classic vinyl junkie which I was fast becoming. In 1983 the Top 40 had become far less appealing than a few years previous, and more than ever my focus was on the musical past, not the present.

My love of soul and Motown was largely based on the groove, passion and pure gut-feeling, but more and more it was the melody, harmony and lyrics that were doing it for me. I’d heard Simon & Garfunkel plenty but had never given them the attention they deserved until I grabbed their Greatest Hits. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were melodic and vocal perfection who captured a mellow, harmonic grooviness that appealed to my ever-growing softer, deeper and more introspective side.

One year after school’s out I felt like I was growing up quickly; I’d left home, got a job, new friends, failing at girlfriends and more than ever my thoughts, feelings and outlook on life was hugely affected by the words emanating from my speakers. Simon & Garfunkel oozed whimsy and laid-back reflection, but within the perfect harmony were beautiful visions; soft, thought provoking and exquisitely descriptive.

“I hear the drizzle of the rain
Like a memory it falls
Soft and warm continuing
Tapping on my roof and walls.”

“And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies.”

– Kathy’s Song

“Sail on, silver girl. Sail on by.
Your time has come to shine,
All your dreams are on their way.
See how they shine,
Oh, and if you need a friend,
I’m sailing right behind,
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind,
Like a bridge over troubled water,
I will ease your mind.”

– Bridge Over Troubled Water

In 1983 new romantics had all but had their day, but the heavy hitters remained, joined in the charts by the likes of Wham, Culture Club and Kajafuckingoogoo. Looking back, those pesky new romantics actually made some pretty decent tunes, but at the time I detested their fake sentiment, their shit clothes and more than anything their ‘pretending to play instruments that aren’t actually on the record’. Fake. Fake. Fake. Synthesisers and drum ‘machines’ were replaced by bass, guitars on drums on Top of the Pops and that made me more angry than it really should. Yes, I was becoming a music snob, but given the option of For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her or Club Tropicana I really had no choice.