James Knight Top Ten
This weeks Top Ten is one close to my heart as its from one of my old mates. James Knight has been working in the music industry in some form since he left uni wether it was DJing, doing a radio show, writing for Vice, being a part of House Anxiety Records – he’s been a busy man!! Now he works at the British Library in the music department and does Low Bias with Robin. He’s an amazing writer with a real passion for music so I asked him to do Ten Top Tens – one a month. Here is the first part!!
Hello there, my name’s James Knight. I like records and I have a show on NTS (https://www.nts.live/shows/low-bias-show/ ) where I play the records I buy. I also work at the National Sound Archive at The British Library. Go check out some the sounds stored there here (http://sami.bl.uk) and here (http://sounds.bl.uk/).
As a bit of background – Chris (who does this blog) is an old friend of mine. When I met him almost a decade and a half ago in Nottingham the breadth his musical taste and his passion for the records he liked was really inspiring for me. I had grown up exploring pretty diverse areas of music and Chris was the first person I’d met who, like myself, was into Darkthrone as much as he was into Arvo Pärt, the Germs, Legowelt and Whitehouse. We both also really really liked jungle and breakbeat hardcore, something that remains unchanged to this very day!
When he asked me to do one of these lists for the blog he jokingly suggested that I should do a top 100. Once I got to thinking about it I realised it would be really difficult to do a top 10 that was coherent so instead I offered to do ten top tens, one for each broad area of music I like. This means that Chris ends up with his top 100 after all. I’ll do them in chunks of ten and space them out over a good few months so I don’t bore people to tears.
The first ten records are all by artists that I got into in my pre-teen and early teen years and I guess could be viewed as ‘canonical’ or ‘foundational’ records, for me at least. A lot of the artists and records I got into right through to my twenties were massively influenced by magazines that I was reading regularly at the time as this was pretty much the pre-internet era. My school library carried copies of the NME and Melody Maker and I used to buy Kerrang whenever I could as a few of my friends older brothers (who I thought were really cool) used to read that so I was trying to listen to a lot of the indie, metal and punk those titles covered.
For some reason though I was really drawn to Mojo and started badgering my nan to buy that for me from about the age of nine or ten circa 1994. I got a subscription to Mojo in 1996 (issue 32) that I held for the following 13 years. From reading Mojo (and later, Uncut and Record Collector) every month I got a pretty solid grounding in a lot of the classic 60s and 70s rock, blues, folk, funk, soul and alt-country/americana artists that those mags loved to cover. My first ten records are all culled from that area of my listening and there’s nothing remotely rare or obscure about them, don’t worry though, there will be lots of that sort of stuff to come in future months!
“Visions of Johannah” – Bob Dylan
It would be remiss of me not to kick off with a Dylan record as he was definitely my first major musical obsession. My mum was into a bit of classical music so there were quite a few classical CDs knocking about the house when I was growing up but my Dad had no real interest in music and there were no records in the house so it was really exciting when my uncle Timmy moved in to live with my family for a bit when I was about 7 with his record collection. He was SUPER into Rush to the extent of owning one of Geddy Lee’s basses! Along with a few other prog bits his other big love was Hendrix. Going through his records was always amazing and the gatefold sleeve of Are You Experienced? with the naked ladies was pretty mind-warping age 7 or 8.
The Hendrix track I dug the most was “All Along The Watchtower” which totally blew me away. At the same time as I was getting into music I was also really getting into comics. I borrowed a copy of the Watchmen trade paperback from my local library which was another axis altering discovery. Much to my surprise the quotations from “All Along The Watchtower” that bookend the penultimate and final chapters of Watchmen were credited to Bob Dylan as opposed to Jimmi Hendrix. I had heard of Dylan but had no idea he had written my favourite Hendrix song. I started reading every article I could on Dylan that would appear in Mojo (which, as you can imagine, would crop up almost every month!) and I was able to borrow almost all of his albums, in chronological order on CD for a week at a time from the same local library I’d borrowed the Watchmen trade paperback from! Biggup Tudor Drive Library in Kingston!! It is perhaps no coincidence that all these years later I have ended up working in the music section of a library…
Serious Dylan obsession was to follow involving tape and, later, CDR trading which would lead to accumulating over 2000 live recordings and studio out takes as well as seeing him play live over 40 times but I have always come back to Blonde on Blonde. It was the album that struck me most listening to it under the covers on my mums Discman at ten years old and it continues to resonate with me to this day. Dylan described the sound he captured on that record as “the thin wild mercury music” which does a better job of verbalising it than I can. It’s pointless me bigging Dylan up or defending him against accusations of being a shite singer as those arguments are totally boring and old men have been having them for over half a century at this stage but this track broke me in half listening to it just now the same way it did the day I heard it and this is a list of records that do that to me so here it is.
This YouTube link (which has now been pulled from YouTube sorry!) is a live version from the infamous 1965/66 tour, everyone knows that story so I won’t go into the details other than that I remember reading in one of the multitude of biographies or articles I absorbed that he would smoke brown before going out and doing the solo-acoustic first half of the show and then get hopped up on speed in the interval to go back out and play the rock & roll second half of the show with The Band. Who knows if that’s true but whatever he was smoking it sure adds to the utterly opiated, woozy, ethereal delivery. Love you Bob.
“Lungs” – Townes van Zandt
Another one straight from the pages of Mojo and Uncut! I was heavy into Townes for a good while in my teens and had started smoking fags and drinking booze which his music is a great accompaniment to! I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a copy of Heartworn Highways on VHS in the old Tower Records in High Street Ken. This would have been circa 1997 and long before access to everything on YouTube (or even ordering pretty much anything on DVD from Amazon for that matter!) If you’ve never seen Heartworn Highways it’s a documentary covering Townes, Steve Earle, Guy Clarke etc and it’s well worth a look. This track is a recording off the Live From The Old Quarter double LP which is a great one stop shop for a lot of Townes’ best songs and despite how heavy songs such as “Lungs” are lyrically Live From The Old Quarter also shows how gentle and funny Townes could be despite the image of him being an arch miserabilist. He’s certainly fatalistic but never without good humour. Here he is performing “Waitin’ Around To Die” in Heartworn Highways:
“The Weeping Song” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
Cave was another one I worked through chronologicaly and systemtically and I genuinely don’t think there’s a dud in his discography. I even love Nocturama which is the one everyone seems to think is a bit shit but it’s got that “Bring It On” track with the geezer from The Saints and that 15 minute “Babe I’m On Fire” track which is a wicked wig out so I’m sticking with my 100% hit rate theory. Of all the artists on this little list Cave is possibly the one I still listen to the most frequently. It is very weird that Mick Harvey no longer plays with him but I miss Blixa being in the band the most. “The Weeping Song” is probably my favourite single track of his if I had to chose and him and Blixa are good in the video!
“Who By Fire” – Leonard Cohen
No introduction necessary and another giant who sadly left us recently. They showed the Bird on The Wire documentary on BBC4 the night he died and I hadn’t seen it in years, much like the D.A. Pennebaker Dylan tour documentaries (Don’t Look Back and Eat The Document) it manages to capture a sense of how fragile Cohen was during his early years of performing live without seeming voyeuristic or intrusive. Cohen’s lyrics are often what people focus on but the arrangement and choice of instruments in his tracks is often incredible. None more so than on this one if you ask me. The spartan, measured backing track really ratchets up the tension in the opaque and mystical lyric. No strangers to tension and mysticism it’s little wonder that Coil chose to cover it:
“Late November” – Sandy Denny
Honourable mentions to Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins but if I had to choose one female vocal forevermore it would be Sandy’s. I first encountered her in a Fairport Convention context on the Liege & Leif LP but her solo records were what got me fully hooked. The Northstar Grassman & The Ravens LP in particular is on a different level: eternal, singular, cosmic music that remains as spellbinding to me today as the first time I heard it. Sandy was born, grew up, went to school, studied, died and is buried very near where I grew up in South West London and I go to visit her grave at Putney Vale cemetery every couple of years to pay my respects.
“Don’t Cry Sister” – J.J. Cale
‘The other’ Cale’s music has such a distinct vibe you can usually tell it’s one of his tracks within a bar or two, his records all sound like warm gusts of understated finesse to me, laid back to the point of horizontal. I chose this track off of his 5 LP as it really epitomises his sound to my ears. I also love that he was into using drum machines as soon as they came out which most of his contemporaries would no doubt have balked at. I am sure if you keep checking the Rock bins at Reckless you’ll be able to pick up most of Cale’s output for next to nothing and while the 70’s LPs are all gold you can’t really go wrong – I also love Tavel-Log, Number 10 and Closer To You all of which appeared in the late 80s/early 90s. Get involved!
“Gun Street Girl” – Tom Waits
Again, not too much that needs to be said but I can highly recommend Barney Hoskyn’s book Lowside of the Road if you want to dig a bit deeper into Waits World. It’s hard to pick a favourite period of his stuff as I dig them all from the early singer-songwriter-y stuff on The Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at The Diner (“I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You” from Closing Time is a particular favourite from that era) right through to the ragged, blown-out blues of Mule Variations and Real Gone. I guess the Swordfishtrombones / Rain Dogs era in the mid-80s hits the sweet spot though so I have picked a track from Rain Dogs that has that weird haunted Americana feel that’s kind of like a sonic Grant Wood painting which he has a habit of totally nailing. This interview seems to have been doing the rounds a bit lately but it captures his odd, vaudevillian spirit well:
“Nottamun Town” – Bert Jansch
I’d imagine I first came across Bert in Mojo and it was true love at first listen. Along with Cave probably the artist who finds his way most regularly onto my turntable to this day. Bert’s guitar playing obviously speaks for itself but his voice is also wonderfully expressive and really suits standards such as this without ever falling into that identikit folk vocal that is often the default delivery for traditional material. Another great gift that Bert bestowed upon me was exposure to the wider the milieu that he floated in. His records led me to John Renbourne, Wizz Jones and of course Davey Graham and Davey led me to Shirley Collins – a fairly edifying path to follow! Sadly, aside from Wizz, most of that lot have passed now but I was lucky enough to see many of them play here and there, often at The Troubadour in Earls Court in the late 90s/early 00s which was a venue many of them had been playing for years. Wizz still plays out, often at The Ivy House in Nunhead, so if you want to hear this kind of stuff done right then go check him out as he’s one of the last left standing of that whole mob. Keeping up the book recommendations – there is a cracking one on Bert and that whole scene called Dazzling Stranger by Colin Harper that is well worth a read. Shouts out to Chris, Luke and any other Notts crew on dis wan! Here’s the Davey & Shirley version while we’re here:
“America” – John Fahey
I guess Fahey is, in a way, a trans-Atlantic counterpoint to Bert. As well as being a uniquely gifted guitar player and interpreter of several acoustic guitar traditions he was responsible for a re-appraisal and revival of his country’s blues and traditional music via his work with Joe Bussard. With his Takoma label, he helped stimulate a scene of similar players, Leo Kottke, Robbie Basho, Peter Lang , Max Ochs and Mike Auldridge all helped define the ‘Takoma sound’ (which Fahey termed ‘American Primitivism’) but it should also be noted that Fahey had wide and excellent taste: Takoma issued Craig Leon’s Nommos LP in 1981 as well as Bernie Krause’s first LP and Joseph Byrd’s solo records – I am sure that Fahey could hear a direct through line from Bukka White to Byrd’s work in the United States of America so these kind of releases sitting together make total sense to me. Fahey himself also made some very interesting records not involving finger picking the acoustic guitar – check out his mid-90s records Womblife or City of Refuge which features a track entitled “On The Death And Disembowelment Of The New Age” – 20 minutes of fuzz, hiss and drone that Peter Rehberg would be proud of! I could have picked any number of Fahey tracks (“Transcendental Waterfall” from Blind Joe Death is another stone cold favourite) but I love this one which was actually left off the original Takoma issue of the LP as it was originally intended to be a double LP but only the first disc was produced meaning half the tracks were chopped. Fear not though – it makes it on to subsequent pressings! Fahey’s style, attitude and influence resonates on indelibly via artists like Jack Rose (R.I.P.), Sir Richard Bishop, James Blackshaw and Ben Chasny. There is a great doc. called In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey that came out in 2013 and offers a good overview, I can’t find it on YouTube but it pops up on BBC4 every now and then so keep your eyes peeled on the old iPlayer! Here’s an entire concert from 1981 instead:
“Night Comes In” – Richard & Linda Thompson
It was a toss up between this and “Calvary Cross” off I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight but I went for this one in the end. Richard Thompson is another continuous presence on my turntable. His work as a solo artist, with Fairport Convention and, as previously mentioned, on Sandy Denny’s solo records, all have very fond places in my heart but the run of LPs he cut with his then wife Linda seem to capture a certain spirit that is unique even in the context of his large and varied catalogue. Maybe it had something to do with their devotion to Sufism at the time but the six albums they recorded between 1974 and 1982 all seem to be shot through with a certain mystical quality that has not dulled over the decades to my ears. I return to “Night Comes In” regularly after a long night on the plonk when I’m feeling a bit tired and emotional and “Oh, the songs pour down like silver”!
Thanks for taking the time to read all that if you have got this far! Next month I’m gonna do ten short and fast punk records so I’ll keep the waffle down to a minimum in keeping with tracks!
Thanks Jam – absolutely love it!!!! Can’t wait for the next one!!
Don’t forget to check out Jam and Robins show