Ten Songs That Made Me Love...
published: 10 /
Having begun writing for Pennyblack at the same time as he collected his GCSE results, Ben Howarth has now been writing for the site almost as long as it has been around. As we approach our 20th birthday, he selects in 'Ten Songs That Made Me love...' some of the songs that sum up his experience.
My family were relatively late to the internet. My brothers and I were raised on computer consoles plugged into the TV – a second hand Sinclair ZX Spectrum, then a Sega Master System, then a SNES and finally a Playstation. We didn’t get a PC until after I had begun studying for GCSEs. It was true that school was increasingly insistent that we type up our work, so the PC was needed for our studies, but the main reason we wanted it was for its superior memory, which allowed you to play sports management simulators. (You may remember Matthew Etherington as an underachieving winger for Spurs, but to anyone who played Championship Manager, this teenager was the ultimate bargain buy from Peterborough with stats to rival the Brazilian greats.)
Why I am telling you this? Mainly to emphasise that I wasn’t really an internet person. So it was pure chance that, for whatever reason, one afternoon in early summer in the year 2000, I decided to take a temporary break from playing ‘Champ’ or International Cricket Captain and have a look at an online shop I’d seen advertised in the back of 'Mojo'.
I visited the site first as a customer (my first purchase was Godspeed You Black Emperor’s ‘Slow Riot for New Zero Canada’ and the reissued ‘Tigermilk’ by Belle and Sebastian – neither of which were stocked on Maidstone High Street). But my attention quickly switched to the online webzine, at the time used as a vehicle for in-depth looks at some of the albums stocked on the site. At this point I was an obsessive reader of the weekly and monthly music press, but the music written about with such enthusiasm on Pennyblack was all stuff I had never heard of – hard bitten American country bands with beards and reformed C86 survivors.
After a few months, I fired off an email to the editor John Clarkson asking if I could join the team of writers (it hadn’t even occurred to me at that point that we’d be sent free records to review – I just fancied seeing my name in print). John has since confessed that he was more than a little dubious about allowing a sixteen year old who’d only just finished GCSEs to write for his site, but, after a couple of trial runs where I reviewed music I’d heard on John Peel, I quickly became a regular writer for the site. Now Pennyblackmusic is older than I was when I first started writing for it.
Over the years, writers have come and gone and the focus of the site has changed – the shop sadly didn’t last. But I am confident that, just as I did when I first stumbled upon the site, anyone arriving here for the first time will find music they don’t see written about anywhere else.
The ten songs below reflect what writing for Pennyblackmusic has been about for me. None of them are performed by household names – indeed, many of them need other jobs to pay the rent. But all have made records that I have stood the test of time with those of lucky enough to find them. If they sound like your sort of thing, search the archive at the top of your screen for an in-depth interview and go out and buy the records.
Rydell – 'The Plot is Lost'
The first band I ever interviewed in person. I’d been sent Rydell’s debut album to review because it had come out on Headhunter – the same label as a band I’d already reviewed for the site, Mycomplex. I’d enjoyed Mycomplex’s frantic shouty post-hardcore, but this was several divisions above. I played the record (‘Per Ardua Ad Astra') to death, John suggested an interview – which I initially assumed would be, like my earlier interviews for the site, conducted over the phone. But, when I discovered that Rydell were from Tunbridge Wells, a mere thirty minutes from my house, this was my chance to interview a band in person.
I couldn’t have asked for a better debut. Not only did singer Milo and guitarist David take me out for a Chinese, they arrived laden with free copies of their entire back catalogue and records from all their friend’s bands they thought I needed to hear as well. The interview itself, even conducted by a novice seventeen year old, still stands up fairly well.
Alas, Rydell weren’t destined for success – they made one more album, but had more or less broken up by the time it was released. But its combination of intense vocals, crisp guitar lines and busy drumming is best represented on this song (Track 7 on the album). I still love this album and I remain convinced that I stumbled upon an absolute gem when I was sent it to review. Play this one loud.
Chamberlain – 'Masterpiece'
One of the many bands Rydell recommended to me while we finished our meals was Chamberlain. In fact, they were horrified I had never heard of them.
This Illinois five piece weren’t much older than me – having built up a cult fanbase in their mid-teens as Spilt Lip. Though not long out of school, they had tired of the punk scene and had mutated into a Springsteen-influenced classic rock band by their early 20s. Every now and again, someone reissues ‘The Moon My Saddle’, the album they made in this period – it is the right album for the wrong fanbase. You’d love it.
But, before their final spilt, singer David Moore and guitarist Adam Rubenstein briefly attempted to keep the band going with a new rhythm section. They cut an album’s worth of demos and, though the band were no longer around to promote it, a few enthusiasts on either side of the channel kept the flame burning by issuing these songs. One of them was Rydell’s guitarust David Gamage, who had by then begun his own label (Engineer Records – still going strong and not far behind Pennyblackmusic in marching towards its third decade).
If Chamberlain had a flaw, it is a slight tendency to overwork their songs. Although the band were at pains to stress that the demos contained on ‘Exit 263’ do not represent the record they would have made if they had stayed together – singer David Moore told me they were “flimsy blueprints” - in my view they represent the band’s best work. The songs really don’t need more than a basic guitar-bass-drums production and the hum makes it sound like you are in that log cabin with them. I could have picked any song from this exceptional record, which I like more now than I did at the time, but the standout is unquestionably the final song, ‘Masterpiece’. It represents Moore saying farewell to the band, admitting that he’s given up on becoming a star but wishing that he can make his relationship with his soon-to-be-wife his true Masterpiece. Intense, heartfelt – I can’t imagine any band has broken up with as much dignity as this.
Willard Grant Conspiracy – 'Soft Hand' ('Paper Covers Stone' version)
If one band could be described as Pennyblackmusic’s house band, it is the WGC. A new release was given the same attention other magazines would give to something new by Dylan or Radiohead, and John Clarkson’s interviews with Robert Fisher are the definitive text on each of his records. Although John is the authority on the band, I also met Robert Fisher when I reviewed their London shows and I couldn’t not pick one of their songs – the only question is which. Even narrowing it down to a single album is a challenge, though I would probably edge in favour of the lushly produced ‘Pilgrim Road’. When the sad news of Robert Fisher’s untimely death came last year, the record I, however, gravitated to was a set of acoustic reworkings of earlier songs.
At this point in the WGC story, recording and touring budgets were being reduced and it was no longer feasible for Fisher to recreate the elaborate arrangements of the studio originals on stage. But there is a tone of defiance in these reworkings – so, while the original version of this song represented a moment of light relief in the middle of his darkest album (‘Regard the End’), here the poppy elements are presented as echoes. It sounds like someone singing a song written at the start of a relationship which has ended badly – bitter, but at the same time defiant and purposeful.
Darren Hayman and the Secondary Modern – 'Art and Design'
Darren Hayman’s band Hefner were the first band I ever wrote about for Pennyblackmusic – a review of their best single, ‘Good Fruit’. He was the first person I interviewed, over email, a few months later. I have written more words about him for this site than anyone else – including an earlier 'Ten Songs That Made Me Love' feature. So, no need for a long explanation for this one.
This isn’t my favourite of his songs. But, like too many of the people who bought Hefner fans, I hadn’t been following him as closely (I completely missed the 'Cortinaland' EP, which in fact contained his best set of songs up to that point).
If I hadn’t been writing for Pennyblackmusic, there is a good chance I wouldn’t have found myself putting his second solo album on in my flat in Wood Green, wouldn’t have heard the skronking sax that bursts out a few minutes into the opening track and thought, “Hmm… he’s raised his game here.”
I certainly wouldn’t have interviewed him. And even more certainly, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the work of some of his many collaborators – several of whom I have interviewed and whose records I now never miss.
Polly Paulusma – 'Where I’m Coming From'
Music journalists get things wrong all the time. Having received acclaim and attention for her debut album, which was acoustic folk tinged with nods to the then very much in vogue smoky jazz sound of Norah Jones, Polly Paulusma had reasonable expectations for a fair hearing for her follow up record, ‘Fingers and Thumbs’. It wasn’t a massive departure from the debut, but the acoustic had been shelved for the ringing sounds of an Epiphone (giving the album a rich depth far more in keeping than the jazzy imitations). The production work (by Ken Nelson of Coldplay fame) is exquisite. The rhythm section cooks throughout. It’s a superb album and whenever I hear it I am transported back to the weeks after I first moved to London, during which time I interviewed Polly before her album launch show in Kilburn. This is the best of the album’s ten tracks, but really you need to hear them all – intensely personal, written during as she struggled to conceive her first child but recorded during what became a successful pregnancy, the emotions feel real and each track has real bite. Almost everybody else ignored it – but once again, writing about this for Pennyblackmusic means an otherwise largely forgotten record remains an all-time favourite for me.
Anaïs Mitchell – '1984'
When I interviewed Anais Mitchell in 2008, she was a hopeful singer-songwriter in the UK to promote a recently released album of acoustic folk. Let’s face it, she was one of many people trying to distinguish themselves from a very crowded field.
And then, that evening, the day Barack Obama was inagurated, she introduced this song (written in a moment of despair during the Bush presidency) with undisguised joy and delivered it with such gusto that a few people at the front couldn’t help but start singing along. “Bless you, you guys know the words,” she said. At this point, everyone in the room started singing along – although her audience couldn’t yet fill a small venue, the people who were there had clearly become obsessed with these songs. I realised this was someone who was truly special.
Ten years later, she still isn’t as well known as she should be. I recently saw her play a support slot of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – a venue she is good enough to headline. But she has released three albums of incredible ambition, imagination and power – including ‘Young Man in America’, a stone cold classic that no home should be without.
Rotifer – 'I Just Couldn’t Eat As Much (As I’d Like To Throw Up)'
There is a lot I could say about this glorious record. It’s five minutes of Robert Rotifer (the singer in the band he gives his name to) getting his anger about political apathy and complacency off his chest, with a brilliant twist at the end. It’s my favourite track on one of my favourite albums. The interview I did with Robert shortly before it was released is as good as anything I’ve done for this site.
But the real reason I’ve chosen this song is because when Rotifer (the band) played our Fifteenth Anniversary Bands Night at the Lexington, this absolutely and uncompromisingly Rocked The Block (capital letters deliberate). A great memory.
Joe Gideon and the Shark – 'Anything You Love That Much, You Will See Again' (demo version)
Talking of Pennyblackmusic bands nights… when we writers meet up for our regular drinks gatherings, a regular topic of conversation is to reminisce over the great and the awful moments from hosting gigs over the years. The briefly acclaimed band who arrived for their soundcheck long after the support acts had begun their sets. The band who broke up during their set. The many creative ways people will try and get in for free.
But the biggest single memory I have of these nights is the sudden rush to merch stand as Joe Gideon (performing as a duo with his sister, the Shark) announced they had demo CDs to give away. I have still got mine. Now, I wouldn’t want you to think that the demo is actually as good as the finished studio version on the band’s debut album. But, it is the demo I am especially fond of.
The pair begun this project after their previous band, Bikini Atoll, packed it in. I’d never been much of a fan. Although listening back with hindsight, you can hear shades of what their next project would achieve, it's clear that the new project saw Joe Gideon unleash his personality into his songs in a way he’d never done before. The songs were taut and intense, delivered in semi-spoken word. They were dark, sometimes cruel. But they had a biting wit. Basically, they were brilliant – one of the most original bands I’d ever heard.
But over the next year, I played that demo obsessively as waited for that album. In the meantime, we went to see every gig they played in London – support slots, free gigs in bars… it didn’t matter, we were there.
Of course, as is becoming the theme in this piece, the big time eluded them. But that doesn’t stop this song, a seven minute epic, sounding absolutely fantastic.
John Howard – 'Permanently Temporary'
In the press notes to the Darren Hayman album I mentioned earlier, there was a reference to a ‘reclusive’ 70s songwriter who played piano on some of the songs. I didn’t know anything about him then – I’d overlooked the reissue of his lost 70's record, ‘Kid In A Big World’ and hadn’t been following his recent return to songwriting.
It wasn’t until 2013, when John Clarkson spotted the reference to Darren Hayman in the press release for his latest album and wondered whether I’d like to review it, that I heard his music for the first time.
I already knew I was going to give the record a glowing review after hearing the first two songs – but then track three blew me away. As soon as it finished, I hit repeat and then repeat again. A dainty pop song, not even three minutes long, it has no right to be as good as it is. ‘Permanently Temporary’ transports you to a glamorous, yet imperfect world, of hotel bars and coffee shops – as carefully crafted a story-in-song as ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘She’s Leaving Home’. It’s a great lyric, but the melody more than matches it – I literally don’t know how one person can come up with something so perfect on their own.
As with every artist on my list, I implore you to delve into the back catalogue. There’s a lot more to say about John Howard (indeed, I’m hoping we’ll be publishing another interview with him soon). But, if you really only have time for one song, this is the one. I have played it hundreds of times and I will be playing it many, many times more.
David Ford – 'It’s All You'
Music fans love lists. I am no exception. But what I love even more is the knowledge that the next great album could arrive at any time. One of the privileges of writing for this site is being able to hear that next great album before it is officially released. David Ford’s devoted fanbase are waiting with baited breath for his latest album – having been sent a promotional copy, I can tell them it will be worth the wait and that this song, which kick-starts side two, is the pick of a pristine crop.
Here’s to another list of ten more songs in ten years time…