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.

World Party – ‘Goodbye Jumbo’

Before the summer of 1990 I’d travelled abroad a bit. Jersey, Switzerland and Spain hardly made me a globetrotter, I was still selling tracksuits, cricket bats and using the gym far more than was good for my health. On a boy’s holiday in Spain where amigo Simon was working, we hatched a plan. Simon planted a seed. “Who fancies travelling?” he asked. “Me! Me! Me!” replied I. I paraphrase profusely, but a few months later we were off, and with us came our new favourite album, World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo.

We had a VW Camper, we had a van full of music, we had a map, Lenny Kravitz and The Who Maximum R&B t.shirts, and we were wearing sunglasses. But as we set off on a three-month trip across Europe it was Karl Wallinger’s sunshine, foresight and relentless positivity that were sending us on our way. Way Down Now highlights his Beatles obsession, with the eco aware, playful Lennon-esque lyrics and his love of the Stones with the glorious “woo woos”

“The clocks will all run backwards
All the sheep will have two heads
And Thursday night and Friday
Will be on Tuesday night instead.

And the times will keep on changing
And the movement will increase
And there’s something about the living, babe
That sends me off my feet.

There’s breeding in the sewers
And the rats are on their way
They’re clouding up the images of my perfect day.

And I know I’m not alone
And I know I’m not alone
And I know I’m not alone”

Karl Wallinger’s work with The Waterboys and World Party’s epic single Ship Of Fools had already shown his immense talent, but whilst Private Revolution showed some signs of brilliance, its follow up Goodbye Jumbo showed nothing but. He was another crazy talented maestro; a writer, performer and multi-instrumentalist whose influences glow throughout the music rather than define it. The album flows rhythmically, melodically and like our trip across western Europe, it brings back nothing but sunshine memories.

Goodbye Jumbo is perfect pop with faint psychedelia and large dollops of ‘60s folk. It’s hugely uplifting yet at its heart is the sublime and sorrowful story of love lost, And I Fell Back Alone, which despite its lament did nothing but add to the emotional ride. Put The Message In The Box, Show Me To The Top, Love Street and Sweet Soul Dream are luxurious and captivating, and just listening to Karl Wallinger just encourages smiles.

Mixtapes were our musical medium, with a splattering of essential albums and as we’d pull into campsites our music choice would accompany our arrival. We’d wind down the windows and treat our new neighbours to some Hendrix, Marley or Led Zep. Music was ever present. Some albums take you straight back to a time and place, and Goodbye Jumbo takes me straight back to our VW Camper and that joyful summer of 1990.

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.