50 songs for my 50th birthday – John Robb
The Cramps ‘Strychnine’ It was always going to be a tough call to find any space to improve on this cover of the Sonics classic, after all the original is a perfect slice of distorted garage rock n roll majesty from perhaps the best garage band of all time. The Cramps, though, somehow dredged something else out of the song. They kept the instrumentation cranked into the red VU and added a spookiness and a slinky, freak sexuality to the mix before twisting it with a psychobilly madness. Poison Ivy is one of the best guitar players ever, stripping down the six string to it’s rudiments, to exactly what you need – a distorted from the crotch guitar noise that picks out beautifully, simplified twanging lead lines that define the song. Oh and Lux Interior has such a great voice – like an Elvis on acid. This song was raw sex with added poison. Rancid ‘Timebomb’ Rancid saved punk rock with a songwriting skill that had been missing for years. They swam against the tide with their gutter punk look and proved that writing killer tunes and having a heartfelt delivery is key. Timebomb is a perfect example of ska punk done properly, a rasping street anthem and a highly influential classic. Lee Scratch Perry… anything! Lee Scratch Perry is the master who had a hand in nearly all the key Jamaican musics for years, an island whose musical invention was astonishing given it’s small size. Perry had the imagination and the audacious daring to take the music wherever he felt like it. Pure genius. Yoko Ono ‘Don’t Worry Kyoko’ This is here just for that astonishing vocal where Yoko goes off on this wailing trip that is a mesmerising outpouring of primal scream therapy and one of the great soulful vocals. I love the way the track is twisted garage rock meeting the avant garde non musical sensibilities of Yoko who just took off like a rocket. This kind of naked, totally open, self expression is so damn rare in the over codified conservative world of music that it’s a thrill to listen to. The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ Hard to believe in these days of Top 30 boredom that something like this could ever been used as a single. The song is utter genius, a twisting, dark dance of a very English psychedelia that is at once evocative of lost youth and of an acid drenched guru sat halfway up a mystical tree lost in LSD contemplation. Musically it’s perfect. It twists and turns and you get lost in its Wonderland madness, losing yourself in the confusion of sound. The added mellotron and Indian instrumentation give the song several other flavours that add to the palate. John Lennon’s vocal is the perfect rasp that somehow managed to sound as innocent as that lost youth and like a world weary old man who has seen and tasted everything. The song both sounds like the decayed Victoriana of a northern city and the LSD drenched future. It also has one of the most perfect videos ever that capture the song without wrecking it. The Horrors ‘Sheena Is A Parasite’ Ok. Ok. I know the second album is the one that is their moment and the debut has been shoved into history but that will be proved to be a mistake. When the band appeared in a shock of teased hair and polka dot shirts they looked magnificent. The NME cover was a landmark moment like the New York Dolls on the Old Grey Whistle Test, it split opinion. I loved those early gigs where the crowd looked as great as the band and the early singles were shots of weezing punk rock Garage band attitude. The Damned ‘New Rose’ One of the most perfect intros of all time before crashing into a speed drenched riff rush. From it’s “is she really going out with him” spoken intro to big sound this is like Phil Spector on the dole – a song that sounds massive, thundering in like bad tempered juggernaut in a hurry for a brave new era. The band’s guitarist Brian James was onto punk, arguably, before anyone else on the UK and his guitar playing, married to Rat Scabies urgent powerhouse drums is pure punk rock, Scabies was one of the best drummers to ever come out of the UK, he should be playing in stadiums. ‘New Rose’ was famously the first punk single and a perfect curtain call for all the excitement that was to follow. We once did a bunch of photos when we were 16 and starting off in The Membranes where we dressed up like the Damned’s first album cover with shaving foam replacing the mashed up cake- stupid but fun. The Clash ‘Complete Control’ Punk was urgent. There was no time to be wasted. Every seven inch single was like a manifesto. A rush of music and ideas that would change your life. I love the whole notion of the seven inch single – it’s perfect pop simplicity bagged up in a piece of artwork – the only pop statement that ever made any sense. ‘Complete Control’ was a classic scene inch single. It’s sleeve ruled. The speaker of the amp, stark and perfect, just waiting for some beautiful noise to wake you up. And ‘Complete Control’ was built to wake you up from Mick Jones typically brilliant arrangement of razor sharp guitars that twisted and turned never content to sit still endlessly climaxing all the time, each riff adding to the incendiary nature of the song add to this Joe Strummer’s vocal which inspire mania. Listen to this song and you can picture him twitching and crazy on the stage his eyes bulging with visions of the truth. A perfect record. Sex Pistols ‘God Save The Queen’ Marco from Adam And The Ants once described this to me as the best pop record ever made and it’s hard to argue with that. The Sex Pistols were pop. They had no interest in lurking in the underground. This was about gate crashing the mainstream with massive records. ‘God Save The Queen’ is a seething piece of punk rock perfection that never for once rests on it’s laurels and keeps shapeshifting into ever higher states of mania. Even if the song was about nothing it would be perfect, but with the added and gigantic bonus of being the perfect ‘V’ sign to the silver jubilee overload of 1977 in the UK, it became the rallying point for anyone left awake out there and was kept from the number one by the MBE seeking cowards in control who bizarrely fixed the charts. Crass ‘Shaved Women’ Dark and unsettling with a brilliant dynamic and sense of restraint, this is Crass at their very best. It’s cool currently being on tour with Steve Ignorant playing Crass and hearing this live. They have turned it into a brooding evocation of something very dark and sinister. Crass were so much more than simple polemic, they were also one of the most musically interesting bands of their era. God knows why they are missed out of so many post punk accounts, musical snobbery perhaps? A touch of re writing history and editing out the bands that didn’t play the music business and PR game? When you go to California and see what Crass mean to so many people you have to wonder just who won the re writing of musical history battle, though. X Ray Spex ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’ Dear Poly. RIP. On this American tour we have been playing this song every night and I have fallen in love with it even more. The brilliant lyrics; she is one of the great lyricists, her amazing voice which even she didn’t understand how great it was, the great melody, that chorus that captured a defiance perfectly, this is more than just a great pop song. Its inbuilt defiance is bourne out by the clutch of girls at the front of every show we play in America every night singing along with their eyes shut tight and emotions in overflew with the song. It’s a defiance that every woman must have felt in this stupid, dumb man’s world, and a defiance that was part and parcel of punk rock – where just saying no was part of the currency. Add to that the great Stooges riffing on the guitar and that great grunting sax that all added together to make the band sound so original. ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours’ is a perfect statement from a perfect time. If only Poly was still here so I could tell her. Again. Stone Roses ‘Made Of Stone’ The Stone Roses defined a time so perfectly hat they will be loved forever. When rock n roll captures the freedom of youth and all its possibilities it becomes part of a generational psyche like theRoses. Their debut album was a perfect record and ‘Made Of Stone’ my favourite moment. With its achingly beautiful chorus that is sung with such a cool throwaway swagger it reminds me of bedsit life in Manchester in the eighties. That sense of dereliction and idealism combined amongst the burning cars, broken dreams, post punk hope and a mish mash of really unlikely musical bedfellows. When ai first heard a rough mix of this round Ian Brown’s flat I knew, I just knew. A year later and the band had the world at their feet… Fela Kuti… anything! I can listen to the magical Fela Kuti all day and a portal to the magical music of Nigeria he is a gift. When I was in Austin every cab I caught was driven by a Nigerian and the music they played in their cabs was stunning, will blog about it soon. Rammstein ‘Amerika’ There’s a part of my psyche that remains eternally goth. Sisters Of Mercy released some great stuff, Killing Joke, Birthday Party, Bauhaus were all great bands who have been erased from the history books but deserve their acclaim. Rammstein are not goths but they inhabit the same dark world, the same warped sense elf humour and the same fascination with the macabre. They marry this to a simplistic almost brutal jackboot stomp and these hilariously over the top live shows which are a mind blowing mix of incendiaries, porn and filth. They also write great songs and this the band at their most sort of pop. They always make great videos as well… Gene Vincent ‘Be Bop A Lula’ The voice of an angel coming from the leather clad embodiment of rock n roll, Gene Vincent is the king of the fifties rockers whose swooning voice defines every song he sings on. He looked great and sounded even better and left this stone cold classic behind. RZA ‘Strange Eyes’ Wu Tang Clan are one of the great hip hop crews. They created a mystical world of cheap kung Fu movies and street lore and inhabited it. They then soundtracked it with amazing music that combined sharp use of samples with great beats. There was an intense imagination at play here and when they were on it, no-one could touch them. Their creative powerhouse RZA really hit paydirt for this track for the soundtrack of the Jim Jarmusch film ‘Ghost Dog’ which a funky, loping slow burner. Big Black ‘Heartbeat’ Big Black were a study in brutal music. They took the noise that bands like my own Membranes were doing and turned it into a science. Their cover of Wire’s ‘Heartbeat’ is just one of many great examples of their tense dynamic and their understanding of space in the creation of noise. They take the Wire song and crank it to it’s logic and powerful conclusion. They also made the stark dynamic of a drum machine sound more prefect than anyone else. Albini followed this exercise in brutality with the more sparse and stripped down Shellac who are equally brilliant and the best example of his stark and perfect recording techniques that utilise room sound and natural mic techniques to strip music back to it’s raw essence. Black Flag ‘Damaged’ The Black Flag debut album is one of those defining punk rock releases. Along with Minor Threat and Bad Brains it is one of the holy trilogy of hardcore, a release that took punk rock and cranked it to it’s maximum velocity and power. ‘Damaged’ is where the semi jokiness of the debut album is stripped away for a stark confessional that is perfect for the young Henry Rollins to bellow out his youthful pain over. Ramones ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ This is where it all started. The Ramones were the Elvis of my generation. They managed to take the great rush and nuance of rock n roll and cram it into a music that was deceptively simple. That got rid of drum rolls, guitar solos and all the frilly bits of rock n roll and left you with that chainsaw guitar and Joey’s heartbreaking vocals that could switch from girl group tragedy to the celebration of rock n roll in a syllable. After they played London in 1976 everyone knew just what punk rock was. Charlie Mingus ‘Fables Of Faubus’ There’s lots of great jazz and so little space to cram it in here. Mingus is one of the masters, a punk rocker of the jazz world whose crazed self assurance saw him create some of the most out there music possible. When modern music puffs up it’s chest and proclaims to be breaking new ground it forgets that jazz was already there and much further out. Freeform with little structure and its own internal logic music like this can never ever get boring and add to that the infernal catchy hook line and you have a piece of pure genius. The Doors ‘The End’ For shimmering apocalyptic darkness this cannot be bettered. Unless you bare in mind Joy Division. Joan Jett ‘I Love Rock n Roll’ Perhaps the last great glam single doused with the brattish spirit of punk rock, ‘I love Rock n Roll’ is one of the great covers. Joan rescued an obscure Arrows b-side and turned it into an eight week at number one all American smash. The guitars stub nosed brutality and her sneering raping vocal are so bump n grind godamn sexy that the song evokes the fuck clause in rock n roll. Fugazi ‘Waiting Room’ That slinky bass intro and those razor sharp clipped guitars evoke the spirit of the late and great Ruts, a band that should have dominated the eighties but fell to drugs. Fugazi were never going to do that and are a perfect fire breathing example of the fallacy that drink and drugs is key to making great rock n roll. The song deals in tension and dynamic and the ebb and flow of it is so perfectly arranged. It gave hardcore an escape route and is the opening for all post hardcore to go through. Ian Mackaye is one of the great spokespeople for our culture and his concise and impassioned interviews and songs are ever inspiring. The fact that the band didn’t deal in bullshit and set their own idealistic stall was an added extra and an inspiration for young bands who just wanted to make music without all the bullshit. Mott The Hoople ‘All The Way From Memphis’ The perfect slice of glam rock from a band who were not really glam rock even if the magnificent Overend Watts plastic thigh boots and silver hair were arguing otherwise. That piano intro that holds the tension before the stumbling, jagged verse and anthemic chorus come walloping in. The song told the sorry of a rock n roll band touring America, reporting back from the frontline back to the rainy streets of the UK with the perfect rock n roll poetry of Ian Hunter, a man whose voice was so heart on it’s sleeve that it really hooked under your skin. It’s worth checking YouTube for the band’s classic Top Of The Pops appearances – proto punk defined and at it’s best. Captain Beefheart ‘Electricity’ Twisting and turning the blues out of shape Captain Beefheart invented a new musical and lyrical language. He was so far ahead that still no-one has caught up. ‘Electricity’ is early Beefheart before he really went on his trip. His voice and wordplay hook you in and once your in to that dense undergrowth you will never get out again. The Slits ‘Typical Girls’ One of the great things about punk was that it empowered women musicians, iy created a whole new way of dealing with how to make and present music. It created a new sexuality on the musicians on terms and this was perfect captured by the Slits whose aural punk reggae party chaos sounds exactly what the spirit of punk was. The late and great Ari Up was a ferocious and precocious front woman even in her mid teens and her larger than life life force is running amok all the way through this song that sets the case and the unwitting manifesto for the band and countless people who were inspired by her band’s wild and carefree example. The Slits were the total opposite of Simon Cowell’s staged pop wonder bores caked in make up and auto tune. This was a wonderful loose and wild music that was as inspiring to the boys at the time as well as the girls. The band’s spirit lives on in countless women and in guitarist Viv Albertine’s brilliant current solo stuff. Gnawa The music of North Africa, the hypnotic desert pulse that sounds ancient and timeless. I can’t even give you one specific track to listen to just go and wallow in the whole lot. Ravi Shankar So many great moments to choose from. Today I will just go onto Spotify and at random pull down a tune. He seemed to spend his whole life recording endless great pieces of music. MIA ‘Galang’ The sound of the whole world up mashed up into one song topped up with pure attitude. MIA is currently the sound of the future fast forwarding and unravelling. Like all her songs this hints at Brazilian music from the favelas, Kuduro beats from Angola, UK street pop, rap and punk rock attitude. A colourful fuck you to the monochrome bores who stand in the way. Shangri-Las ‘Leader Of The Pack’ Could have been any girl group, that era of songs that could break your heart with their songs of break up and break downs, teenage lust and teenage tears all showcased by Phil Spector’s perfect wall of sound production. like all the girl band’s the vocals are both wonderful, emotive and drip passion and power and gum chewing attitude in equal measure. Sonic Youth ‘Death Valley 69’ Twisting the darkness of the Manson murders – the point at which the counter culture was tainted for ever and driving it through a post punk apocalypse resulted in this, one of the creepiest and scariest pieces of music ever made, that little guitar lick is insanely catchy and, well, just insane. Lydia Lunch vocals sound perfect and it was great to hear her snarling vocal on the track and a reminder of the potent power of that wonderful woman. The Fall ‘Fiery Jack’ Neo rockabilly or country n Northern? Who knows and who cares. This came out when The Fall were at their single releasing peak. A machine gun of attitude spitting tracks that defined their sound forever with Smith’s lyrics at their spittle flecked poetic and mystic best. Apex Twin ‘Didgidoo’ Acid house through up many possibilities but when the dust settled it was what came next that remains fascinating. like post punk after punk, post acid is an equally inventive period, a time when no one was actually in control and imagination ran riot. Kate Bush ‘Wuthering Heights’ Like Strawberry Fields this is a song that twists and turns and you can listen to endlessly without ever getting bored. There is so much melody and atmosphere crammed into a few minutes that it’s stunning. Evocative of a distant time and place it also makes sense in the now. One of the most talented British songwriters ever, Kate Bush plays the game by her own own rules but has never sounded better than on is, her debut single. Adam And The Ants ‘Kings Of The Wild Frontier’ Adam’s first album is one of the great art rock records, a pure punk statement that should be recognised for it’s potent power and invention. It was scorned by the press but loved by the underground. Like a lot of underground bands Adam eyed the mainstream and felt he had a chance, the only difference was that he pulled it of audaciously. After getting a recommended playlist and some tips from Malcolm Maclaren, Adam teamed up with Marco and recorded a new Ants album. This was the debut single off that album and was so stunningly off the wall that you were left wondering just what he was aiming at. If most people go for the charts it’s with a cover or some watered down pap. No one has ever gone for the mainstream with a record like this which combines Burundi drumming, tribal chanting, lyrics evoking the spirit of native Americans, feedback, twangy guitars and punk rock primal power. Just imagine Take That doing this and you get my point. This was a a true original and like the rest of the second album is a fantastic slice of almost avante gard 3D cinemascope pop majesty. Jimi Hendrix ‘Voodoo Chile’What would you give to be at one of those early Jimi Hendrix shows when he had stepped out from being sideman into this wondrous creation. Dressed in his freak clothes and with his hair teased to the ultimate explosion his whole look perfectly mirrored his music. He must have spooked everyone and sound like he came from outer space and tore the charts apart with his songs that ooze a loose and louche sexy airy and in this case a dark and dripping voodoo. The Seeds ‘Can’t Seem to make you mine’Just for Sky Saxon’s great yelping vocal which is garage perfection. In one moment the Seeds provided the template for both the Stooges with the vocal style and the Doors with keyboard drenched atmospherics. That they neither achieved either the notoriety and the success of both these bands and the failure of the Seeds is a sad indictment on the way music works. I just totally love this song, the way it oozes, the way the keyboard moves around and Sky’s utter yearning. T-Rex ‘Metal Guru’There are so many great T-Rex songs that picking one is a tough call but ‘Metal Guru’ shades it with it’s eternally uplifting, anthemic lift. It’s the sound of youth and eternal summer and a brilliant example of simplicity made perfect, there must be about two chords in the song that just repeat for ever like a hypnotic mantra taking music back to the drone, the meditative repetition at the heart of esteem music. It was at this moment that Bolan went from pop star to uber pop star and set off on that roller coaster of hits that for me define the early seventies along with David Bowie. The Stooges ‘No Fun’ Pure rock n roll poetry. Why have a thousand words when two will do? What Iggy did with those two words was sum up the whole rock n roll youth experience, that feeling of being cheated, that feeling of needing everything all at one, that helper skelter feeling of give it me now sixties madness that if it didn’t arrive in one second was, well, no fun. Combine that with the riff that is on one level a wall of sound and on the other a funky as fuck trip and you got one of the most perfect examples of the hip swivelling rock n roll power of rock n roll at it’s most primal, feral best. James Brown ‘Sex Machine’ James Browns military precision approach to the funk defined the form. With his amazing troupe of musicians that created a whole new style of music that has never been bettered. The drums define the ONE and the clipped guitars are so signature that you can hear them nicked by endless bands playing their ‘James Brown ‘ riff. His vocals are pure poetry without getting bogged down with bothersome words and reeling on call and response and grunts that strip everything down to it’s pure meaning. The Stranglers ‘Down In The Sewer’ Capturing the gloomy London of decayed Victoriana of the late seventies in the Stranglers song had everything you needed from the band- from Hugh Cornwall’s surly, dark humoured vocal and twangy Ventures on acid guitar to J J Burnel’s seething bass line in the song’s central section where he plays this crazy line that sticks with you for ever. It’s one of the greatest ever riffs and of course one of the great bass sounds, Dave Greenfield’s organ is spookily surreal as the song quite literally goes off on a trip. I can listen to this over and over. Perfection. The Kinks ‘Sunny Afternoon’ In the winter England is one of the ugliest countries in the world, grey and wet and endlessly miserable, everyone is in a bad mood, hunched up against the cold. In the summer it’s the best place in the world, an explosion of green and joy, the streets ooze a subtle sexuality and we become almost funky. There are so many great summer songs but Sunny Afternoon is the greatest, capturing the mid sixties atmosphere so perfectly in the music it also packs the sucker punch of being about someone hitting rock bottom – perfect Ray Davies – two moods for the price of one. Genius. Queens Of The Stone Age ‘Feel Good Hit Of The Summer’ The Queens are one of the great modern rock bands who added the endless vista and mystery of the desert to their sound. Driving through that desert on the Goldblade American tour you can feel the empty sky and endless hum of nature at it’s most powerful and when this is twisted into the great desert music like on Captain Beefheart and Queens Of The Stone Age it’s really effective. There is a 21st century blues here as well as a cheeky pop nous added to the turbo charged command of the power of rock n roll. Tom Waits ‘The Return Of Jackie And Judy’ Clanking percussion and gutter voiced weariness Tom Waits has soundtracked the clank and grind of American small towns. This is an ersatz blues, a weird gravel voiced trip that takes you to another place of misfits, outsiders, monkeys and tall barroom tales. Whether it’s pure theatre or not is irrelevant. It’s story telling magnificence with the music to match. Shut your eyes and you are in a time and place, I love songs that do that- to me it defines psychedelic- music that makes pictures in your head. And what do you choose? This track is a Ramones cover and for that it gets included because I love the Ramones and I have just read Everett True’s great book about them. Wire ‘Reuters’ Morose and brooding, ‘Reuters’ sounds like the report filed from the end of time. In the apocalyptic post punk period where nuclear war felt like it was just round the corner Reuters sounded like the perfect song of cold war paranoia and nuclear meltdown. Oddly is rounds just as contemporary now. Wire were an amazing band, their musical imagination, especially on that first album is mind blowing. Oddly, like the Ramones, they took full advantage of the simplicity offered by punk and created so many atmospheres out of a very simplistic template. Rembetika The Greek blues. The bazooka driven laments that I’ll break you heart. Again specific track, just an endless supply of half forgotten names from the Internet. Let Spotify be your guide.