Neil Young – ‘After The Goldrush’

Returning from the States I had most definitely caught a dose of wanderlust. I had no money, so working abroad was my only option. Mi amigo Simon was a Thomson rep, but whilst he was a natural entertainer I was a relative introvert. But I could dabble in French and I knew how to be nice to people, so a job as a rep for Keycamp in France was for me. Those six months turned out to be more fun than should really be allowed, sharing a campsite on Vias Plage with dozens of other reps and hundreds of friendly punters. But best of all I discovered three of my all time favourite albums.

Whilst it was through a girlfriend that I found these albums, I can look and listen back with no attached emotion. We had two seasons in the sun, a winter in Dublin and a month or so in Paris and I can very happily say, thank you for the music. Before we met I spent a few months working hard and partying harder. The most listened to album by far was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik. We loved it and did the socks on cocks thing, because. But then peak season hit, and as the sun was at full strength with it came the start of a near thirty-year love affair with Neil Young. I heard After The Goldrush.

Neil Young has one of those voices. And yes, I loved it. Give me sentiment, give me sincerity, give me honesty and most of all hit my emotions with as much ferocity and ruthlessness as your words and music can muster. With After The Goldrush Neil Young delivered that with beautiful, unmerciful aplomb. Vocally, anguish reigns. That high-pitched, pained and tortured inflection adds huge weight to an album of angst, protest, social comment and fragile, tender love.

Tell Me Why is a great opener, but when the title track starts you know you’re going to be in deep. With Neil Young it’s all about the feel, and instantly it felt like an album to devour, with enough lyrical obscurity to provoke the imagination. But, as was my leaning, the more sombre and sorrowful the song, the more I loved it. There I was, partying my ass of in France and totally obsessing over something so beautifully, incredibly down.

“Someone should call him
And see if he can come out
Try to lose the down that he’s found
But only love can break your heart
Try to be sure right from the start
Yes, only love can break your heart
What if your world should fall apart?”

– Only Love Can Break Your Heart

“Everybody’s going out and having fun
I’m just a fool for staying home and having none
I can’t get over how she set me free
Oh, lonesome me”

– Oh Lonesome Me,

“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”

– Birds

With Neil Young living in Topanga Canyon, the nearby Laurel Canyon vibe is everywhere, with an instrumental sparsity bringing the lyrics to the fore. An 18-year old Nils Lofgren was brought in to add guitar and piano, adding magic with little experience but perfect musical smarts, and as with most of Neil Young’s classic early ‘70s work everything feels so loose, so musically free and easy. It’s only Young’s trademark lead guitar that shows signs of strain, no more so than in his castigation of Southern racism and slavery’s disgusting legacy in Southern Man.

If there’s a more sublime and perfectly pained sound than Neil Young’s voice and guitar, I’m yet to hear it, and if there’s a more beautiful album than After The Goldrush, I’m yet to hear that too.

Fleetwood Mac – ‘Rumours’

Prior to the tail end of 1987 my knowledge of Fleetwood Mac was limited to say the least. Quite a few of their most popular songs were familiar to me, many of which I liked, but I’d owned nothing so had yet to pay them my full attention. That was about to change. Rumours was about to get personal.

Some artists or albums bring back memories of certain people, and Rumours is definitely one of those. A one-year relationship was the launch pad for a lifetime of love for an album flooded with personal trauma. It took me quite a while to be able to listen to Rumours and absolutely love it for the stunning album it is, rather than the associated memories, but if anything these songs hit me harder now than they’ve ever done.

Let’s ignore the drugs, apart from to say there’s no better album recorded under an ocean of booze and snowstorm of coke. Despite the intense and fractious themes, Rumours is so much more than a break-up album. Yes, pain is ever present, but so is love, and the songs are all the more powerful for their brutal honesty.

Rumours may be full of sorrow, but the album is also full of majestic songs that never fall far from perfect. Yes, I love songs that make me cry and I’ve shed plenty to Christine McVie’s epic, Songbird. Knowing that these songs were written amongst, and about, intense breakups within the band, makes them all the more magnificent.

Lindsay Buckingham wrote Go Your Own Way about Stevie Nicks. Buckingham on lead, Nicks on backing vocals…
“Loving you isn’t the right thing to do
How can I ever change things that I feel?
If I could, baby I’d give you my world
How can I when you won’t take it from me?”

Stevie Nicks wrote Dreams about Lindsey Buckingham. Nicks on lead, Buckingham on backing vocals…
“But listen carefully
To the sound of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering
What you had and what you lost”

I’m not sure what it says about me but much of my favourite music is the saddest and most despairing. Since a very early age I sought emotion from music, I couldn’t care for gimmick, for fake, for music that lacked soul. Music could move me in many ways, and Rumours hits heavy with the sheer genius contained in the songwriting; the melody, harmony, production and best of all it hits you where it hurts most. The heart.

Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Stevie Wonder. Where do you start? I think I remember my first vinyl purchase was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. At 12 years-old Little Stevie Wonder was an absolute dude, shining like a star on drums, bongos, keyboard and harmonica. Having binged on soul and Motown for a few years, I was totally aware of Stevie’s genius, and had worn out the grooves on Looking Back, his triple LP anthology that was a thorough compilation of ‘60s Stevie. Next was another comp, Original Musiquarium I, which upped the ante, showcasing his golden era during the ‘70s. But still the best was yet to come.

Songs In The Key Of Life was Stevie’s masterpiece. Preceded in the ‘70s by four absolute classic albums, it was an almost impossible ask to go one better, but Songs In The Key Of Life is more than an album, it’s a work of art, a visceral musical discovery, a perfect illumination into melody and musicality. Two years in the making, Stevie was still just 26 years old when it was released, and whilst the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock and dozens of jazz and soul musicians contributed, this was totally Stevie, having written, arranged and composed everything and performed more than one man should ever be capable.

Songs In The Key Of Life covers the same kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and it does human emotions, but you’re never in doubt as to Stevie’s sentiment; an appeal for love and humanity in a world of growing inequality and injustice. Stevie is at his absolute best in all senses. I Wish, Sir Duke and As show Stevie at his funkiest and most soulful, but whatever the song or style here it’s sense of joy and grace are completely overwhelming. Love is ever present, and whilst the whole double-album is an uplifting euphonic rollercoaster, I remember the LP one, side two just blew me away, and hey, Stevie’s drums are the highlight, oozing effortless soul.

Now, I Wish is a stone cold classic, and Summer Soft is an absolute beauty but I just couldn’t get enough of Knocks Me Off My Feet. There are three tracks on the album on which Stevie plays everything, and this is one.

“I see us in the park
Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head
And words from our hearts
Told only to the wind felt even without being said
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet”

I love everything about this song, but what killed me was Stevie’s drumming; it feels like he’s making love to the hi-hat, caressing it with such perfect subtlety… “I don’t wanna bore you with it oh but I love you, I love you, I love you”. Oh Stevie, you got me.

Songs In The Key Of Life was, and still is one of my all-time favourite albums. There are artists who inspire you to become a better person simply through their music. Stevie Wonder does that more than any other.