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The music challenge: seven influences

I've recently responded to a challenge on Facebook from an old friend to share over seven days seven key musical influences.

 I thought I might share them now with a (potentially) wider audience.

Day one

When it comes to listening to music, writing about music, writing songs or trying to play them, there’s one person who’s influenced me more than anyone else: Bob Dylan. I first bought a copy of Greatest Hits on Clitheroe market in about 1970. I was soon tracking down everything he’d done, guided by Michael Gray’s book ‘Song and Dance Man’, one of the first serious bits of rock criticism I’d come across. I’ve chosen a song from his 1975 album ‘Blood On The Tracks’, which was also the first record I ever reviewed – for a school magazine. I liked it then and I love it now: a gloriously sweeping and cinematic story of ill-starred love, beautifully written, passionately sung and featuring a decent harmonica break. I hope you enjoy it. Day two

In amongst my love of strongly constructed songs – and living happily alongside a taste for both punky stuff and some fairly angular out-there weirdness – there remains a place in my heart for the genre that rigorous musicologists define as "hippy shit".

When I started listening to music and buying records in 1970, Jefferson Airplane was one of my first obsessions and I splayed out from them into a whole load of West Coast stuff. From this side of the pond, I can happily stomach even the most whimsical bits of the Incredible String Band's catalogue. And I love the Airplane's transatlantic cover of Donovan's "Fat Angel", which must be about as hippy as you can get, and toyed with choosing it today...

But then I settled on this: the Grateful Dead at their inimitable best. I first heard it on "Europe 72". The delicately bonkers "China Cat Sunflower" (they don't write them like that anymore) flows irresistibly and practically telepathically into the traditional blues song "I Know You Rider". You don't need to see the pictures to know how closely they're listening to each other.

Day three

Growing up in Clitheroe (semi-rural east Lancashire, for the non-cognoscenti) I felt very much NOT at the centre of things that mattered to me. When it came to filling in UCCA forms a little later, the main question was: how far could you go?

But, looking back, there were some surprisingly enviable events. The local council decided to sponsor some one-day pop festivals in the grounds of the castle in the early 70s. We got to see the likes of Roy Harper, Third Ear Band and Brinsley Schwartz - some of the more interesting second and third division acts of the time - at a bargain rate. 50p for a 12 hour show in 1971.

Today's pick is probably the best of that bunch - Kevin Ayers. He also stands for a strand of slightly eccentric, playful Englishness in my influences: think of his time in the Soft Machine with Robert Wyatt. I love Robert's solo stuff too and a whole host of related stuff, like Henry Cow, Peter Blegvad, King Crimson. Cleverness and fun, mixed with some uncompromising music.

Anyway, Kevin's band at this time included a very young Mike Oldfield and (a rather older) Lol Coxhill. They were great live. I saw Kevin one more time in Brighton in the nineties or noughties. Then this year I happened on his memorial in the cemetery in Deia in Mallorca. I was looking for Robert Graves, but found Kevin and the great guitarist Ollie Halsall. There's a metaphor in there somewhere...

Day four

The halfway point and far too much still to fit in...

In the early 70s, alongside the hippy shit, I was heavily into its supposed antithesis: the pared-down, blunt realism of the Velvet Underground and the raw power of The Stooges and The MC5. Which meant I was ready and waiting when punk came knocking on the door of the mainstream in 1976

Meanwhile, the UCCA form had done its work and I enrolled at Royal Holloway in October 1975. 

In the Christmas holiday the album that soundtracked the next three years was released. I remember a sceptical John Peel playing the title track on the radio: he wasn't sure, but he thought his listeners ought to hear it. (Thank you, John, for that and a whole lot more.)

Well, what I heard rang true to me – and, remarkably, Reidys in Blackburn had an American import copy of the record. The combination of poetry, power and eye-balling self-confidence in the grooves was irresistible – even putting to one side the transcendent image of Robert Mapplethorpe's glorious cover photo. 

And, for me, she has just got better as time goes on. Her positive commitment to art and to human potential is genuinely inspiring – while her ability to tap in to the beating heart of rock 'n' roll can trump any intellectual explanation. 

I wrote a song about her twenty years ago, following a vivid dream. I have to keep updating the number in it, but the current version of the opening couplet is:

"She supplied the soundtrack to my bid for a misspent youth
And now we've tried through forty years she tells an older truth"

We saw her do a 40th anniversary recreation of "Horses" in the summer and a live interview about her new book a couple of weeks ago. 

Pretentious? Of course she can be – but, so what? She's a grown-up artist. It works.

My hero, as you might have guessed:  Patti Smith.


Day five

It's the turn of folk music.

The other good thing about Clitheroe musically (as well as Day 3's festivals) was the folk club above the Dog and Partridge pub. 

Mike Harding used to play there often, in the days before his hit and telly career: he was very funny and very good - a decent singer and guitarist. Bernard Wrigley (the 'Bolton Bullfrog') is another who sticks in the mind. But the Friday night that really floored me was Richard and Linda Thompson, playing an amazing set to about 50 people. One of the very best gigs I've ever been to.

The power and beauty of the British folk tradition has always been a big part of my musical make-up, starting probably with Fairport Convention. 'Liege & Lief' and 'Full House', in particular, were up amongst the key records that did the rounds at school and quickly got under my skin - both the traditional songs and the new ones that shared their spirit. I'm no purist. I can enjoy real finger-in-the-ear stuff but also the rocked-up versions. So long as it's good...

Today's choice is a traditional song, sung here by Sandy Denny and featuring the wonderful Richard Thompson on guitar and accordion. 

I was tempted to go for Bert Jansch's version, which is also lovely, in a different way. That would have allowed me to tell the story of a spur of the moment decision to get tickets to see Bert supporting Neil Young at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2010. He sang 'Blackwaterside' there and it was one of the experiences of my life. But I didn't choose his version so I can't tell you about it... However, let me say in passing, if you're dubious about going with a "silly" indulgence that would be an amazing one-off experience: just do it.

Back to Sandy. Perfect control. Beautiful melody. Literally spine-tingling every time I hear it, after more than 40 years listening.

Day six

Having done the folk tradition on this side of the pond, let’s cross the Atlantic to Americana – and particularly the bands and the experiences from going to folk festivals in Canada.

Family connections have meant five visits to the Edmonton Folk Festival in Alberta, the first in 1993, and we’ve more recently sampled the intimate and ridiculously scenic Canmore festival, in the foothills of the Rockies.

Bigger names have included Hot Tuna and Loudon and Rufus Wainwright, with assorted family members. These trips have also meant seeing a lot of talented folkies (and fellow travellers) from over here: the extraordinary Scottish singer Dick Gaughan has popped up a couple of times, Ireland’s Lisa Hannigan, England’s Richard Thompson… But the two big advantages are the opportunity to find a whole load of stuff you’d never otherwise have heard of; and the brilliant tradition they have over there of running a load of small side stages where they put different acts together in workshop sessions. It's great to see different performers joining in with each other’s songs and generally knocked out to be sharing a stage – all within spitting distance, so you can see the whites of their eyes, and what their plectrum’s up to.

Discoveries? Alejandro Escovedo, Braden Gates, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, Del Barber, The Wooden Sky, Oliver Swain, Jon Dee Graham… the list goes on.

But today’s choice is this guy, Tom Russell. First seen in Edmonton twenty-odd years ago, subsequently in Brighton several times (most recently a couple of months ago), as well as on return trips over there. He can sometimes do that overly-sentimental country thing but his strongest songs are superb – and I’ll happily mount the argument that he’s the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, if you’ve got a spare hour or two.

He’s here in his own right, but also as a symbol both of the happy coincidences of festival viewing and the strength of the country tradition. I wouldn’t ever want to have to choose between the folk heritage of North America and the British Isles, but of course they're hopelessly intertwined anyway…

Plus, the song seems appropriate too: I’ll be the protagonist’s age in just 5 months’ time, where ‘There’s a mighty thin line between a heavyweight champ and a used-up old clown’. But he’s still up for it: ‘The rock and the roll and the fight for your soul goes on and on. You put on the gloves, you’re always ready for love: pray your passion ain’t used up and gone.’ There's hope.

Day seven

Van Morrison has been an irreplaceable part of my musical landscape, since I first came across his 'Saint Dominic's Preview' album more than forty years ago. 

He's an astonishing performer, unmistakeable, never the same twice. The unpredictability and spontaneity mean that he sometimes lets you down. He's legendarily grumpy and I've sat through some concerts where he's essentially phoned in an unengaged performance. But when he's genuinely present and it all falls together, he is spellbinding. I've been there with him twice: a recreation of 'Astral Weeks' at the Royal Albert Hall (where this song also featured) and a supper club performance at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, where he was warm and relaxed and genuinely funny. Really. It's jazz, basically: sometimes it's amazing and couldn't get any better; then you're looking at your watch and wondering what went wrong...

But let's say something about this song. If you just saw the lyrics written down, or the very simple and repeated chord progression, you'd be asking what the fuss was all about. A few generic blues phrases and some incoherent rambling. Grunts, even. But, whoa: just give in and let him take you on the journey...

Rock critics tend to bandy the word 'shaman' around, but I'd say this performance is genuinely shamanistic: Van is channeling something, and I'm not sure what it is. And the musicians all play their part: lovely, subtle, flexible jazz drumming from 'Astral Weeks' veteran Connie Kay; great lead guitar from Ronnie Montrose, of all people – he went on to have a minor hit with 'Bad Motor Scooter' with his eponymously named hard rock band, featuring Sammy Hagar.

OK, it's a wonderful, one-off track. But I'm also including it here for another reason. Writing about music has always been a big part of my appreciation of music. I owed a lot in my early days to journalists like Richard Williams, Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray for tipping me off to what I should be listening to, and why. I loved the writing in Let It Rock in the seventies, through to The Wire (for all its pretensions) more recently. And when I stopped working full time I thought I'd have a go at writing about music. As well as my Eden On The Line website, I pitched for a commission to write a book about 'Saint Dominic's Preview'. I didn't get anywhere, but I'm really glad I went for it anyway and just wrote it. I had a great time doing the research and talking to some of the musicians and technicians who contributed to the record. The self-published book has sold nearly a thousand copies so far - and that feels good. To me, thinking about music has its place alongside simply enjoying it.

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