Every now and then I revisit the idea of the eight tracks you’d take with you to the mythical radio 4 island. I’ve done it here and also here. So here are the current crop based on current obsessions. If you care to see what has survived between my fantasy appearances on this show, take a look at the earlier entries.
01. What Goes On (Version 1) – The Velvet Underground from The Complete Matrix Tapes
When I first heard this, on the double live set 1969, something exploded in my mind. I’d already heard the Velvet Underground’s first album but had not yet heard their third. There was a review in the NME of (a reissue of?) 1969 that called it “give or take Trout Mask Replica the long-lost greatest rock ’n’ roll record of all time”. I’m not one for going for hype, but 1969 was to me so unexpected, so utterly different from what I was prepared for, so far removed from what I had considered up until then the possibilities of rock music, that I was completely sold. It was so mysterious, too, with its saucy illustrated cover, its hyperbolic sleeve note and it’s almost complete lack of information about the circumstances of its creation: I was fascinated. The standout track was always the nearly nine minutes of “What Goes On” with its electrifying endless rhythm guitar and cheap organ solo. I’ve always loved guitar and get a visceral thrill out of a good solo from the likes of Vince Gill or Mike Campbell, but this choppy rhythm guitar was something else. The music sounded thin, cheap, badly recorded, hissy, with virtually no atmosphere, considering its supposed to be a live album, but none of that mattered. (This version of the recording comes from the Complete Matrix Tapes, and is somewhat cleaned up from the hissy original.)
02. That’s Life – Frank Sinatra
Each generation passes something on to the next. My kids like Springsteen, Tom Petty, The Who, The Beatles etc. Not sure they’re sold on Frank Sinatra, but he was transmitted to me via my parents. I’ve gone on record as saying that your knowledge of Sinatra should begin and end with the Capitol Record years, but there are a few exceptions to that rule. Of the Reprise albums, the ones he recorded with Count Basie and his Orchestra are sublime. There’s something about the Basie recordings (with Quincy Jones conducting and arranging) that makes them better than even those arranged by Nelson Riddle or Billy May (but lacking so many good songs, perhaps). A little more swing? More of a live feel? Who knows? Another exception to the Capitol rule is this mid-60s single, complete with a bluesy vocal, 60s organ by Mike Melvoin, and backing singers. I think it’s brilliant. The record-buying British public hardly agrees: it floundered at #92 in the UK charts, though it fared better in its native land (#4). This is a record that came out around the same time as Revolver and Pet Sounds (on which organist Melvoin also played), and maybe it sounds like a throwback, but I think it punches its weight. Sinatra gives it everything: perhaps feeling the heat from the new generation, perhaps wanting to prove that he could sing the blues. “You’re riding high in April / Shot down in May.” Sinatra was in his early 50s, and never so great again, maybe.
03. Tell Me Fool – Vince Gill – from Guitar Slinger
From his great 2011 set Guitar Slinger, this is my favourite track on the record. Like the Sinatra song, it has a swing, a groove and the arrangement allows the various instruments (drums, piano, bass, guitars) to play in the gaps each of them leaves for the other. Over all this, Gill’s soulful vocal and the call-and-response of the backing singers. All of this is enough to make this a wonderful groovy record, but then he plays his solo, lifts the song to another level, breaks it all down, and then brings it back again. “Tell me, fool, what she ever do to you?”
04. Wish Me Away – Chely Wright – from The Other Side
Chely Wright recorded two versions of this song. On her post-coming-out album Lifted off the Ground it was nice, but fairly basic, with a good vocal and a gentle acoustic backing. On the earlier recording, from the East Nashville compilation The Other Side, it’s a far more powerful piece of music, lifted by a pedal steel guitar turn by veteran player Lloyd Green that provides and underpinning to the sparse acoustic guitar and Wright’s fragile but intense vocal. But the kicker is the extended pedal steel outro that lifts the song into the heavens.
05. Detroit Medley – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – from Winterland Night
Always a live treat, Springsteen’s various performances of this medley of songs are part of his repertoire of showstoppers, especially on the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. This radio recording from the Winterland concerts that December features a bit of stage business designed to puzzle and tease the radio listeners while the crowd (who could see Bruce and Clarence dancing – “When me and the big man do this…”) went wild. Showcasing the brilliance of the E Street Band as well as Springsteen’s genius as a live performer, the Detroit Medley is a basic frame upon which Springsteen hangs a masterclass in rock music. Honking saxophone, rockin’ piano, twanging guitar, and a comedy “emergency announcement” in which the crowd are warned to leave the auditorium if they have stomach or heart problems, just before the band erupts into a climax so exciting that you can feel it through the years, over the airwaves, across the thousands of miles between there and here. “Jenny, Jenny, Jenny, won’t you come along with me?”
06. It’s You – Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – from It’s Time For
Talking of honking saxophone. When Jonathan Richman plays the instrument, he does so with love, but limited ability. Perfect for this one though, which combines rockabilly drums, acoustic guitar, that basic sax and Jonathan’s sweet and sincere vocal. “Well now, you’re looking, you’re looking, you’re looking as I’m watching different girls passing by…” The bit that makes this one for me is the little tap on his acoustic guitar just before the refrain. There’s so much joy in this song, I never get tired of it.
07. Wait it Out – Tift Merritt – from Tambourine
Still, for me, one of the most exciting three minutes and forty seconds ever committed to record. Mike Campbell’s guitar, Merritt’s vocals, the driving rhythm of the drums, the swirling organ, and (just as with the Richman song above) a stop in the chorus that makes the song. As the solo comes out of the middle 8, I want to clap my hands every time it gets to the two-bar stop.
08. The Pretender – Jackson Browne from The Pretender
My theme song, increasingly so as I get older. When Jackson Browne crafts a good lyric, he includes things that ordinary mortals couldn’t get away with. “The children solemnly wait for the ice cream vendor” conjures up an image so vivid and true and real that you have to forgive him the corniness of the rhyme. As I get up each morning and step out into the dawn to go to a job I no longer want to do, as I live this meaningless life in a suburban semi, I increasingly feel that the only way to get through it all is by pretending. Every hour of every working day is a struggle to survive without losing it, and the drive home each afternoon is an escape. Out into the cool of the evening I step out with my bike…