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.

Nina Simone – ‘Here Comes The Sun’

I came back to Bournemouth from the south of France via a month in Paris in late ’93. I had just split from my girlfriend and I was a bit lost and a lot unemployed. Looking back, streaming tears on a crowded train back from Paris whilst listening to Neil Young’s Birds seems like a faintly masochistic thing to do:

“When you see me
Fly away without you
Shadow on the things you know
Feathers fall around you
And show you the way to go
It’s over, it’s over.”

Compared to the young, relatively shy, pale man who existed in early ‘90, the years I spent travelling and working abroad had changed me. I was more confident. I was happy with who I was. I had a raging suntan and a Brad from Neighbours kind of look. I’d like to think that look disappeared quickly but it probably hung around longer than the suntan.

So, what next? After an eventful few months of meeting some old friends and making some new, and playing some extremely good golf, I got a job. With MVC. The Music and Video Club, and I’d work for them for the next eleven years. Aged 27 I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I had retail experience and a passion for music, so a job in a music and entertainment shop? Yeah, I might enjoy that. Enjoy it I did. Well, most of it thanks to the dozens of nerds, musos and funsters I’d get to meet and befriend. MVC took me to Bournemouth, Poole, Penzance, Fareham and Weymouth. I worked with many lovely and a few not so lovely folk, and my musical enlightenment was about to go up a few gears.

I have a strong memory at MVC, after just a few days in the job somebody stuck on a Nina Simone CD. I heard her incredible version of Here Comes The Sun and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard it before, though I soon realised there were endless other amazing songs, albums and artists I’d not heard and that would be a never-ending joy of the job. But Nina Simone stands out. It is a rare thing, hearing a Beatles song that’s better than the original, but here was one that managed that with its sheer, overwhelming beauty.

Nina’s voice is more than enough. But her tender piano, the brushes, strings and perfect percussion make this a sensory joy that radiates happiness. Those first few months at MVC were exciting times. Working in a record shop (okay, a CD, DVD and games shop) was, for a music nerd, a great place to be. But more than the music it would be the friends I’d make that would have a huge impact on my life. The travels had ended, but another ride had just begun.

Santana – ‘Moonflower’

Now I’m in my fifties I like to think of myself as musically open-minded. As the decades passed and my juvenile prejudices departed, I opened up to music I’d previously derided. That said, everyone has their personal likes and dislikes, and for most of my fifty odd years I’ve had an aversion to what I’m going to lazily call hair metal (let’s choose Whitesnake as an example) with shit songs full of fake sentiment. Similarly and around the same time guitar virtuosos like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, whilst being technically brilliant, did not make music to or for my ears. Too much posturing and not enough soul. But that’s just me.

So, I say all that because Carlos Santana can gurn and throw rock god shapes with the best of them, posing with aplomb. But – and that’s a huge and very important but – he emanates soul and radiates sincerity. In 1989 I’ve no idea how Santana’s Moonflower came to me, but when it found me it blew me away. Released in 1977 it’s an epic, full-blown, four-sided spiritual voyage into a carnival fusion of rock, latin and jazz. Part live, part studio, it felt so warm I would hug the glorious, gatefolded beauty as I played it.

The three live tracks on side one: Carnaval, Let The Children Play and Jugando were new musical territory for me. I loved the euphoric and uplifting sound, like a fifteen piece band of amigos in full flow, rhythmically and magically in perfect harmony. I’ll Be Waiting followed the euphoria and is a perfect example of Carlos Santana radiating soul and sincerity. Just gorgeous. Side two continued the transcendental theme, but then somehow side three found another notch, somewhere in the clouds.

Santana’s version of The Zombie’s She’s Not There is unreal, with the mix of Carlos’ phenomenal guitar, wailing keys and electrifying percussion taking the song to a different world. We’re brought back down to heaven on earth with the sublime Flor d’Luna (Moonflower), only to be sent back sky high with Soul Sacrifice/Head, Hands & Feet, a 14 minute live jam and simply one of the best live instrumentals I’ve ever heard. Graham Lear’s drumming is astounding, but then so is everything. Virtuoso overload.

For me, sides one and three wore out my needle. The other two were great, and Moonflower ends with Savor/Toussaint l’Overture, another outpouring of Latin dynamism and flair, but the album rarely got a start to finish play in all of its near 90 minute glory. I was lucky enough to see Santana a couple of years later at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, but that’s another story…

Carole King – ‘Tapestry’

There are albums that define careers, even those as incredible as Carole King’s. One of the most successful songwriters of all time, having written dozens of hits for other artists including the classic (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman for Aretha Franklin and Pleasant Valley Sunday for The Monkees, both in 1967. Tapestry is her masterpiece, a stunningly blissful album, totally alluring for anyone with a heart, and particularly one that’s fragile.

In the early ‘70s the likes of Neil Young, James Taylor, Paul Simon and Randy Newman were writing deeply personal, introspective songs. There was a certain Laurel Canyon vibe in 1971, post-hippy and spiritual, songs capturing real life, acoustic with sparse musical arrangement. Tapestry, with Carole King living there at the time, captured that vibe perfectly. Unlike other troubadours like Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Tapestry’s lyrics were straightforward and unembellished. Carole King had a supreme gift in her ability to use simple phrasing, and the same talent to nail a sentiment, to capture the fragility of romance, relationships and love.

“Stayed in bed all mornin’ just to pass the time
There’s somethin’ wrong here, there can be no denyin’
One of us is changin’, or maybe we’ve just stopped tryin’
And it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late
Though we really did try to make it
Somethin’ inside has died, and I can’t hide
And I just can’t fake it, oh, no, no”

– It’s Too Late

From my teens and into my early twenties and largely influenced by the music I’d been listening to, I was becoming more reflective and ruminative, still dealing with shyness despite having a fairly lively social life. Tapestry struck a personal chord. That Laurel Canyon scene in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was primarily a stoned, laid-back amalgamation of blues, country, psychedelia and folk. It was the original Americana, and with the likes of The Doors, CSNY, Frank Zappa, Mamas and the Papas and Joni Mitchell all doing their thing, it was an era and musical landscape I dived into.

Tapestry is lyrically unguarded, bleeding the warmth and spirit of the early ‘70s, stripping back any fuss to fully expose the intense emotion and vulnerability. Carole King’s ability to write a near perfect album is matched by the overwhelming sincerity in her vocals and the jazz-tinged warmth of the production. For me this was, and still is an album almost impossible not to love.