10 vinyl albums that changed my life

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Until the age of about 16 my musical tastes were rooted almost entirely in records released in the 1970s. The losers in my year at high school teased me for only liking “old people’s music” and not having ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Dammit’ on repeat. I didn’t get modern punk or Brit-rock. When held up against the other-worldly talents of the prog-masters and the God-like shamanistic psych-rock gurus of the early ’70s – those that wandered through the electrified mist that plumed from Woodstock and then followed that luminous rainbow cloud around the world – I didn’t believe modern music was worth my time. “Blink 182? Are you serious? Have you even heard Ritchie Blackmore play the guitar?”

I don’t regret my supreme bigotry about emerging artists. I eventually overcame it and now listen to every genre from every era. But I believe that early education was vital. All modern music should be viewed through the prism of the artists that stood before it. This is not necessarily to judge it – but to understand it. It’s funny how much more sense the long-form explorations of The Mars Volta make when you’ve heard Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery or Focus’ early ’70s output. And it’s a smug satisfaction one feels when the Foo Fighters bust into a raw rendition of Focus’ ‘Hocus Pocus’ in front of 21,000 screaming kids at Sydney’s Allphones Arena and you’re one of about a dozen people who jump to their feet.

When you’re a child discovering sounds that were born before you and having your mind expanded by the depth of human creativity, it changes you forever. It infuses your soul with meaning. It opens The Doors of perception.

Here are 10 records I played incessantly as a child, from roughly the age of five. They remain some of my favourite records to this day. My dad owned the majority of the vinyl in my parents’ collection but mum owned some too, and her contribution was mixed evenly throughout. I listened to a lot of dad’s stuff first – his tastes extended between southern country rock, like Poco and Marshall Tucker Band, to ’70s rock like Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and the more odd European progressive artists. The below list represents these varied tastes.

I’ve attempted a loose ascending order.

10. MEN AT WORK

Business As Usual

Released: November 9, 1981

Men_at_Work_-_Business_as_UsualThis is a slightly unusual inclusion, given that it heralds the introduction of Australia’s ’80s pop sound, and is in contrast to all the 1970s artists I’ve rambled about in the intro. But I must have sat and listened to this record hundreds of times, over and over and over again, as a child. Funnily enough, I almost always skipped the monster hit ‘Down Under’ and listened repetitively to the breathtaking love song ‘I Can See It In Your Eyes’ and uber-catchy album tracks ‘Underground’ and ‘Helpless Automation’. The warmth of Hay’s voice mixed with the genre-bending pop hooks and shiny ’80s instrumentation meant that I quickly became addicted to Business As Usual.

Note: Dad has the original release with the white cover, not the yellowed cover that seemed to be plentiful soon after.

09. BILLY JOEL

Glass Houses

Released: March 10, 1980

Billy_Joel_-_Glass_HousesThis is one of the most flawless rock records ever made. And whenever I hear a song from it I immediately remember why I became so obsessed with it as a seven-year-old. Perhaps the most well-known track is ‘It’s Still Rock and Roll To Me’, which was Joel’s cheeky meditation on the progression of popular music and how it would never hold up to the old rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly though, Joel embraces heavy synthesiser flourishes on two of the record’s best tracks – ‘Sometimes A Fantasy’ and ‘All For Leyna’. The first track I heard on the vinyl was ‘Sleeping With The Television On’. My father put a giant pair of headphones on my head and said, “You have to listen to this song, son. It’s brilliant. Pay close attention to Liberty DeVitto’s drumming. It’s huge.” To this day, that particular track probably stands as Joel’s finest. And that’s saying a lot. Of course, Glass Houses also features two stunning love songs – Joel writes the best ballads in the business – in the shape of ‘C’était Toi (You Were the One)’ and the moving closer ‘Through The Long Night’. It’s just a perfect album.

08. BLACK SABBATH

Black Sabbath

Released: Friday the 13th, February, 1970

Black-Sabbath-1970-vinile-lp2I was listening to late night rock radio as a six-year-old, keen to be exposed to other ’70s rock bands. I heard Black Sabbath’s cover of the Crow track ‘Evil Woman’ (Sabbath’s version is a lot more evil than Crow’s – the original sounds a bit like Elvis Presley at a Halloween party). I asked my dad about it and, as it turned out, he happened to have the original Vertigo pressing of Black Sabbath in the collection. So I put on the giant headphones and sat by the vinyl player, gazing at the cover art of that creepy witch motionless in the garden (the image was taken next to Mapledurham Watermill, by the River Thames in Oxfordshire) and listened to the terrifying intro of the eponymous opening track. In a darkly poetic way I shared the experience of every other person who heard Black Sabbath on its initial release – the birth of a new genre called heavy metal. I recognised the blues influence in other ’70s bands I had listened to. But this was more. There was a bestial groove in the bass and guitar, and undeniably sinister charm in Osbourne’s vocals. ‘N.I.B.’ remains the highlight. I had never heard anything as heavy in my life. That slinking wah-wah intro from bassist Geezer Butler is like a hobgoblin twirling at the bottom of the garden and the thundering riffs from Tony Iommi are all dark storm clouds and gloom. There’s really no praise you can place on this mighty album that is not already contained within the towering mountain of reverence.

07. FOCUS

At The Rainbow 

Released: October 1973

Focus-At-The-Rainbow-458909_zps3abd4561There’s never been a band like Focus – not before or since. Nothing has ever blown my mind like hearing these Dutch prog geniuses for the first time. You need only hear the spell-binding version of ‘Hocus Pocus’ from this immaculately recorded live album at London’s Rainbow Theatre to get an idea of how my tiny five-year-old brain might have struggled to process what these guys were doing. Thijs van Leer’s operatic vocal range comes to the fore when he yodels on ‘Hocus Pocus’, as does his aggressive flute. I had never heard anything like it. And master guitarist Jan Akkerman’s guitar work shifts effortlessly between mind-bending, schizophrenic solos and stunning, tear-jerking sustained notes. He can make the guitar cry. I also really loved the Akkerman guitar piece ‘Sylvia’. It’s beauty is up there with Santana’s ‘Samba Pa Ti’.

Another bit of trivia: By the time At The Rainbow was released in October 1973, drummer Pierre van der Linden had left the group, having had pressure placed on him to change his jazzy style to a more mainstream approach. He has since rejoined the modern line-up of Focus which has van Leer as its driving force. At The Rainbow is one of the best live rock records in the history of music.

Note: Dad has the really cool original gatefold sleeve, which opens up into some great artwork. And, a few years ago, I managed to find the same version of the release at a vinyl fair. Score.

06. DEEP PURPLE

Made In Japan

Released: December 1972

Deep_Purple_Made_in_JapanAs the name subtly suggests, this legendary live album was recorded over three nights in Japan – in both Osaka and Tokyo. And while Deep Purple continue to this day and remain a really impressive live band, Made In Japan documents the most potent line-up of the group. While they’ve had a rotation of vocalists throughout their career, Gillan is the original and the best Deep Purple singer (and of course continues in the band to this day). His performance on the second track, the epic ‘Child In Time’, is surely one of the best vocal performances in classic rock history. But he was supported by one of the best bands in the world at the time, one capable of beauty and aggression. From Ritchie Blackmore’s blitzkrieg solos, to Jon Lord’s wall of organ, Roger Glover’s rhythmic bass spine and Ian Paice’s relentless drumming (he’s up there with Bonham), Deep Purple were a force of nature.

While I believe in personal freedom, I would throw my support behind a law that made it mandatory for all six-year-old kids to have to wear a voluminous pair of vintage headphones and listen to this live version of ‘Child In Time’ on vinyl. If you haven’t heard it, then you don’t know rock music.

Oh, and the recording of ‘Smoke On The Water’ is huge.

05. THE OUTLAWS

Bring It Back Alive

Released: February 1978

OutlawsA lot of people say Live and Dangerous is the greatest live record of all time, but they’re wrong. It’s actually The Outlaws’ Bring It Back Alive. This monstrous double LP opened my mind to southern rock. My dad was a hardcore fan of the genre, and he had acquired vinyl by all the masters: The Marshall Tucker Band, Poco, The Eagles, Firefall, Loggins and Messina, The Doobie Brothers, Amazing Rhythm Aces, Pure Prairie League, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Stills-Young Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers (to name just a few).

But of all those bands, I really latched on to The Outlaws. I loved prog music as a kid and I think the Tampa, Florida, six-piece juggernaut treated their music with the same sensibility. They loved a long jam. Bring It Back Alive captures this penchant for extended live versions of their album tracks, culminating in the greatest live recording of all time – the 21-minute cut of ‘Green Grass and High Tides’. They also placed importance on multiple harmonies, adding colour and texture to their catchy country rock classics. There’s noticeable jazz, funk and blues influences too.

Bring It Back Alive captures the soaring talent of Outlaws vocalist and guitar virtuoso Hughie Thomasson, who sadly checked out in 2007 at the young age of 55. Also in this showcase is fellow axe master Bill Jones, who took his own life in 1995, and the phenomenal drummer and percussionist Monte Yoho, who remains in The Outlaws to this day.

The haunting, slow-burning ‘Prisoner’ sounds like it could have been sewn during the British prog explosion and is in stark contrast to the desert ghost story ‘Hurry Sundown’ which has one of the most scintillating guitar riffs ever released in southern rock.

A moving moment from this live recording is the dedication of ‘Green Grass’ to Lynyrd Skynyrd, with whom The Outlaws had a close association (Thomasson would go on to join Lynyrd) and whose plane crashed during the months that Bring It Back Alive was being recorded at various live performances. I still get a little chill whenever I hear that solemn dedication.

04. LED ZEPPELIN

IV

Released: November 8, 1971

led-zep-ivThere’s not a great deal I can say about Led Zeppelin’s landmark untitled fourth record that has not been said all ready. No superlative really captures the spiritual experience of listening to this record. And no words can do justice to that transformative moment when you sit in your darkened living room, place a giant pair of vintage headphones on your head and listen to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ for the first time. Of all the moments from my childhood, listening to ‘Stairway’ that very first time is one I recall with some clarity.

With the benefit of hindsight I now look at the mystic artwork of the officially untitled IV as a stroke of marketing genius. Music critics, reluctant to admit that Led Zeppelin deserved the mainstream adoration they had stolen from The Beatles, called the band a hyped fad. They didn’t accept them. So what do Zeppelin do? Release an abstract and decidedly confusing album cover with no mention of the band or the record’s name. It was ground-breaking and it quickly silenced a lot of entertainment journo hacks.

I reference the experience of listening to Led Zeppelin IV for the first time in my novel, Enormity. This is an excerpt from a scene in which the protagonist, Jack, is performing ‘Black Dog’ to an auditorium of fans: “My mind briefly concentrates on the lyrics of ‘Black Dog’, a song I listened to as an eight-year-old on my father’s record player. Headphones that were too big for me. I often wish that I could go back and listen to Led Zeppelin IV for the first time. Even when placed next to all the amazing music that humans have produced, it’s in a universe of its own. Melodic nirvana. ‘The Battle Of Evermore’, with its penetrating harmonies, pastoral imagery and parochial sensibility. I lie awake at night and hear it over and over again. Echoes of a world lost.”

Speaking of nirvana, I experienced that exquisite stillness of mind a few years ago when Robert Plant toured Australia. I went to two of his gigs. In his set was the classic ‘Going To California’ – a faithful, note-perfect rendition. Breathtaking.

03. MOUNTAIN

And The Road Goes Ever On

Released: April 1972

Mountainroad72Takings its title from The Hobbit, this four-track live record from New York hard rock pioneers Mountain was one I dived into on innumerable occasions. The main reason for my return visits was its 17-plus-minute rendition of their classic ‘Nantucket Sleighride’. To this day, it remains one of the most astoundingly beautiful rock jams you will ever hear. This version is a sublime sonic excursion. It picks you up and forces you to drift on its tide. The peaks and troughs are expertly crafted and ultimately very haunting. Lyrics like: “There are years behind us reaching to the place where hearts are beating, and I know you’re the last true love I’ll ever meet,” still give me goosebumps whenever I hear them.

The first two tracks from And The Road Goes Ever On, the frequently hip hop sampled ‘Long Red’ and ‘Waiting To Take You Away’, were recorded live at a little-known music gathering called Woodstock in 1969. But the second two tracks, ‘Crossroader’ and ‘Nantucket Sleighride’, were, I believe, from Mountain’s own headline shows.

The line-up on stage during ‘Nantucket’ is one of the best you will hear. Guitarist and vocalist Leslie West was (and is still) a monstrous axeman. Then behind him was one of the greatest bass players of all time, Felix Pappalardi. The great man, who produced Cream’s Disraeli Gears and was often referred to as the fourth member of that band, was shot and killed by his wife, Gail, on April 17, 1983, in their East Side Manhattan apartment. Rock music lost one of its unsung superstars on that day. Incidentally, Gail, an artist, created the cover for And The Road Goes Ever On, casting a grim and ironic shadow over the record and its title.

On a positive note, there’s no way you can discuss this particular vinyl without mentioning the mesmerising drum work of long-time Mountain drummer Corky Laing. All aspiring drummers should sit and study this master class in dynamic percussion.

02. ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA

A New World Record

Released: September 11, 1976

ELO_A_New_World_RecordI discovered Electric Light Orchestra while watching a cinematic moment in which Steve Buscemi cradles a hunting rifle and applies women’s lipstick to his sensual pout. The movie was Billy Madison. The song was ‘Telephone Line’. Something about those digital-esque synth sounds, the replication of a dialling tone, intrigued me. When I found out the song was performed by ELO, I quickly looked in my parents’ vinyl collection to see if they owned the album. They did.

A New World Record was a commercial triumph for Jeff Lynne, who was also the most talented member of The Travelling Wilburys, and his high-concept orchestral rock group Electric Light Orchestra. It’s hard to believe that the preceding two records, the masterpiece Eldorado and the follow-up Face The Music, did not even chart in their UK home. But A New World Record, deliberately written by Lynne to be more accessible than their previous albums, exploded worldwide, reaching #6 in the UK, #5 in the USA and topping the charts in Australia and Sweden. Propelled by hit single ‘Livin’ Thing’ the album exposed the monstrous genius of Lynne to a worldwide audience.

What continues to astound me about this album is not just how faultless it is, perfectly fusing Lynne’s penchant and vision for irresistible melody, sonic innovation and classic music, but just how fresh and completely original it sounds in 2014. From the ballsy and polished reworking of 1972’s ‘Do Ya’, a song written by Lynne and recorded by The Move during his time in the band, to the heart-wrenching crescendo of ‘Shangri La’, A New World Record is as the name suggests – a new creative height that is near impossible to surpass.

01. WISHBONE ASH

Argus

Released: April 28, 1972

Wishbone_Ash_-_ArgusWhile Black Sabbath can be credited for inventing heavy metal music, Wishbone Ash’s pioneering twin-lead guitar prog-rock was certainly a large influence on Ozzy and his mates. Argus, the group’s third record, is a masterpiece. It features the original and most powerful line-up of the group which, in modern times, has rotated more often than a pig on a rotisserie. The Mark I roster consisted of stunning guitarists Ted Turner and Andy Powell, vocalist, bassist and songwriter Martin Turner and drummer Steve Upton.

Argus opens with an America-like track – ‘Time Was’ is a meandering and parochial folk number that turns into an epic and gorgeous rock song. From there the breathtaking guitar-work continues into the dreamy ‘Sometime World’. The most powerful song is perhaps ‘Warrior’, a lyrically simple story about lowly farmers picking up arms to fight a common enemy. In its chorus you can hear the genesis of the heavy metal genre.

I suppose what stays with me the most is the sublime melodies of Argus, more so than the brilliant Hipgnosis-designed cover. The British medieval themes make the album such an expansive and evocative experience, but ultimately the flawless guitar solos make this essential listening for anyone who has ever lifted the axe, put their back into it and gone for a full swing.

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6 responses to “10 vinyl albums that changed my life

    • Thanks Mick! I imagine Sabbath would have been a bit loose back then. Would have loved to have seen them in their early days. I saw them in Sydney in 2013 and they were incredible. They’d had a bit of practice by then.

  1. Great selection, man. You had cool parents. My oldies SHOULD have had an album collection like this, but didn’t. I discovered all of these bands (except The Outlaws, whom I have never heard at all) via reading the Encyclopedia of Rock and Pop and finding records in the collections of friends’ parents.

    I still remember the first time I heard Hocus Pocus by Focus, on a shitty beat-up second hand K-Tel album I picked up circa 1994. Never heard anything like it before or since and it blew my little mind. Been a fan ever since.

    • Hey Dave, thank you for reading. Yes, I was unquestionably lucky to have all of this incredible and diverse music in my parents’ collection. It is no doubt one of the main reasons I’ve gone on to write about music for a living.

      ps Definitely check out that Outlaws record. Great stuff.

  2. Argus! Well, what a surprise. There are not many people who are aware of and expound about this great album. Fantastic choice Nick and a great article. Have you ever checked out ‘Only Human’ by Mark Gillespie – Aussie singer/songwriter with the most amazing debut album?

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