Jimi Hendrix Experience – ‘Smash Hits’

Whilst my early teenage years around 1980 saw me primarily fixating on music of that time, by the mid ‘80s my focus on an earlier era was, if not deliberate, then blindingly apparent. I’ve always had a preoccupation with lists and numbers, and this obsession stretches to dates, so to be exact 1965-1972 was where I was very much at. Music from that era expanded, blossomed and created more genius than in any other period since, well, ever. Why? Well, drugs may have played a part. The talent and is always there amongst those lucky enough to be blessed with it, but for six or so years drugs really pushed that talent along.

Pot had a huge, positive, mind-expanding influence in the mid ‘60s, and in the late ‘60s acid had a similar, though far more creative effect. These drugs, for the large part, worked on many of the most influential artists of that era, and those artists influenced a whole new generation until the early ‘70s. Cocaine on the other hand, the most prominent drug around ’72-’73 had a more destructive effect. Death, primarily. Now, I’m simplifying things massively and I know there are many, many exceptions, the numerous ‘acid casualties’ and the abstention of Frank Zappa spring to mind, but that’s my theory (which I can expand on at much length if anyone’s interested) and I’m sticking to it. Which brings me on to Jimi Hendrix.

By the tail end of ’85 I’d heard Hendrix plenty, but owned nothing other than a scratchy as hell live LP. If I was DJing at Charivari then Hendrix has to be on the turntable. A visit to my second home at Snu-Peas set me up with Smash Hits by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. There were several different versions released, but the UK issue in 1968 included the singles’ A&B sides, plus other tracks from Are You Experienced. Hendrix, Mitchell and Redding achieved, created and turned on more artists in a two-year period than any other band in history, bar one.

Think psychedelia, the Summer Of Love, Monterey or Woodstock are one man reigns. In 1967 Hendrix was a beautiful guiding light, showing everyone the way to a higher musical conscience, and yes, drugs were a positive influence. As 1986 dawned, I got high on a few things, one of which was Smash Hits, a sunning, overblown psychedelic blues groove. Hendrix, for that two-year period was THE MAN. To quote Rolling Stone magazine: “His riffs were a pre-metal funk bulldozer, and his lead lines were an electric LSD trip down to the crossroads, where he pimp-slapped the devil.”

The Specials – ‘The Specials’

By late 1979 the musical mix of post punk and new wave was dominating the UK charts, whilst ‘the second wave of ska’ was also fast becoming part of the Top 40 countdown that by now, I was obsessed with. Of course there was dross too, but when isn’t there? Maybe there has to be the crap to fully appreciate the good stuff. If there’s one thing Thatcher can be credited with it’s inspiring a multitude of musicians, poets, and social commentators to wax lyrical; to pour scorn through their chosen medium.

Well, I was yet to read poetry or any literature beyond Smash Hits, Melody Maker or the NME, but one band who were a major part of my cultural learning, of my awareness of social, political and class issues were The Specials. Their eponymous debut album was a masterpiece, and would still rank as one of my favourite albums of all time.

Produced by Elvis Costello and released on Jerry Dammers’ 2-Tone label, The Specials was a dance mix of ska and punk; a brilliant homage to their musical heroes including covers of Dandy Livingstone, Toots & The Maytals and Prince Buster whilst capturing perfectly the angst and energy as well as inspiring the youth of the day. Unlike debut albums from Madness and The Beat (brief 2Tone label-mates) the album never veered towards pop, instead the social messages were as persistent as the ska rhythms. At 13 I was totally naive, but my eyes, ears and dreams were being opened up and fuelled by provocative, radical visuals and lyrics.

Political correctness did not exist in ’79 and the album is full of piss-taking and social spikes that seem wonderfully sharp compared to today’s banality, not that The Specials wouldn’t have given a shit anyway.

“I won’t dance in a club like this / all the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss” – Nite Club

“The only things you want to see are kitch / the only thing you want to be is rich / your little pink up-pointed nose begins to twitch / I know, you know, you’re just a little bitch” – Little Bitch.

Welcome to being a teenager. The Specials packed a mighty live punch and whilst I had to wait over thirty years to see them live, this album alone was enough to last three decades.

Madness – ‘One Step Beyond’

40 years ago I was a spunky school kid sporting sta-prest and Fred Perrys, carrying an unhealthy obsession with pop and desperately trying to mimic my newly found idols. Madness’ debut album One Step Beyond was made for a boy like me. The brand new 2-Tone label was seen as the second wave of ska; coming off the back of punk it was faster and edgier than in its sixties heyday, and in most cases, due to the social unrest at the time, had a strong political lyrical edge.

One Step Beyond was released on the classic Stiff label but Madness were still a huge part of that early 2-Tone scene. That said, politics seemed to be the last thing on their minds. Unlike most of their ska revival counterparts Madness regularly swayed from the labels’ ska roots, blending rock’n’roll, rockabilly and ‘60s pop into their sound. Lyrically too the subject matter was more diverse, from schoolboy tales of playground antics and first loves to underwear thieves and random cockney patois. The stomping Night Boat To Cairo was my fave, just a glorious ska romp and learning the lyrics to sing along was a must.

As much as anything bands like Madness had a wonderful identity; beyond the tonic suits and loafers this wasn’t musical sophistication, but was something teenagers could instantly and totally relate to. I dived into the deep end consuming the music with a fevered passion of which only a 13 year-old is capable. This was an album way beyond its brilliant singles One Step Beyond, My Girl and The Prince, I could listen to it now and love it almost as much.

One Step Beyond was totally of its time, but nostalgia apart it is still a brilliant debut album. Looking back, I feel lucky to have been thirteen years old in 1979. Not just for The Jam, The Specials, The Selector, The Beat and the iconic 2-Tone scene, but the Top 40 singles chart, Top of the Pops, Smash Hits, Our Price, Cassette Players, now all long gone but I’d take those days over our current instant download culture any day. My love affair with Madness ended with the release of their third album, but Absolutely, and in particular One Step Beyond are iconic, brilliantly British pop masterpieces.