Soul rockers Aquila recently frequented Blue Whale to work on new material with producer Russ Tite. Singer Rich Stokes kindly put together a top ten list of his favourite and most influential songs for your listening pleasure.
Top Ten Songs
I think I’ve taken this a tad too seriously. As it turns out, choosing a ‘Top Ten Songs’ is not all that easy. Ideas leap into your mind, each new one dislodging the last. You think of great shows you’ve been to, wonderful (and sad) times that have been soundtracked by talented strangers; it’s an odd business. However, I’ve just about managed it. At the end, I’ve added a list of bands and songs which, for one reason or another, didn’t make the final cut. This has helped assuage the inexplicable guilt I’ve felt for leaving certain artists out of the Top Ten.
Like I say, I might’ve taken this too seriously.
10. ‘Jesus For The Jugular’ by The Veils (from Nux Vomica)
I first heard The Veils a year or so ago, when I was idly browsing Myspace looking for new music. I clicked on this track, and I swear that day their hits must’ve had a serious spike, as I didn’t stop listening for about 8 hours. I had to be prised away from the computer by a team of medics and given a shot of Thorazine.
The song, a passionate rant against organised religion, is incredibly raw and powerful; it’s almost as if it wasn’t written as such, but was heard howling through a mountain cave and then somehow committed to tape. Finn Andrews, Veils’ vocalist and songwriter, has a rare, distinctive voice: a baritone croon giving way to a marvellously shredded upper register, similar to Kurt Cobain. In fact, ‘Jesus For The Jugular’ is quite reminiscent of Nirvana’s Unplugged album, a sort of bluesy, doom-laden ballad. The Veils also have uniformly original and often very witty videos for all their singles, which really influenced me when I was writing the script for the first AQUILA promo, ‘Let Me Go’
It’s great to be completely blown away by a comparatively new band, and The Veils did exactly that.
9. ‘Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano’ by Renato Carosone (from Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano)
In AQUILA, we add cover versions to our live set all the time, but we generally try to make weird choices; stuff you wouldn’t necessarily hear within a ‘rock band’ context. We’ve done ‘No-one’ by Alicia Keys, ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’, ‘Like A Prayer’, ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’, ‘Hide And Seek’, ‘Please Mr. Postman’… it’s just a habit we’ve gotten into, a way of grabbing everyone’s attention.
I really wanted to sing a piece of music in Italian, because I’ve been to Italy a few times and it’s just, to me, the most sensual language. (Simply ordering a drink of water sounds seductive – “una bottiglia d’acqua minerale naturale per favore.” Fantastic.) ‘Tu Vuò Fà l’Americano’ is also a brilliantly jazzy, catchy number to play. So we learnt it. It was written in the fifties, when US culture started to go aggressively global, and the chorus roughly translates as, ‘So you wanna be American?’ I can speak a little Italian, but not much, so I got a friend to translate and talk me through the lyrics, and I learnt the words phonetically.
Now, that was quite a while ago, and since then I’ve essentially been playing Chinese whispers with myself and the song. Every time we played it, I was getting further away from the actual words, so I began to preface it with a little caveat, an apology to anyone in the audience who actually spoke Italian. But at a gig recently, there was a young couple in from Naples, who came over after the show and said they’d understood ‘nearly every word.’
Nearly every word! I was so proud.
8. ‘I Shall Be Released’ by Nina Simone (from Blues)
Oh, Nina. I can’t get enough of Nina. Her vocals and piano-playing are so effortlessly moving. I could’ve picked anything really.
This is a song by Bob Dylan (of whom more later,) one of his anthems to personal freedom. Nina Simone’s performance totally re-contextualises the words; I might be reading too much into it, but it always sounds to me as though she was singing about the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s. She’s changed the tempo as well, to ¾, so there is a hymnal, sorrowful quality to this version. And the backing singer (whoever she is) has the voice of an angel too.
7. ‘Hard Day On The Planet’ by Loudon Wainwright III (from One Man Guy: The Best Of)
I grew up in a very musical household; I recall hearing a wide range of different genres from a very early age, with lots of folk and blues and classical from my dad and Beatles, Jazz and Motown from my mum. I was listening to Loudon Wainwright virtually in the womb, but this is the first song I ever heard that actually gave me the chills; proper hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck listening. I was about five, playing with some Lego, and my Dad put it on. I just stopped what I was doing and went into a bit of a trance. There’s a bit at the beginning of the chorus when a gospel choir erupts into the song and I think that’s the moment that really captivated me. Who are all these women? Where did that come from?
My reaction might also have been caused by Wainwright’s use of a Magic Chord Sequence for the song. There are two or three different Magic Chord Sequences and they usually turn up in the choruses of pop tunes for maximum emotional impact. They’re over-used, but always effective and they’re the reason you can sing ‘Pokerface’ over ‘Mr. Brightside’ or ‘With Or Without You’ over ‘Don’t Stop Believin” (or anything by Oasis over anything else by Oasis.) It doesn’t matter though, as an MCS always works brilliantly.
The lyrics are a sarcastic look at how the media portrayal of world events makes us feel impotent and isolated: “The dollar went down and the President’s sick… a new disease every day and the old ones are coming back… don’t turn on the TV…they keep on hijacking airplanes…the rain pours out of a poisonous sky…who’s in charge now? I dunno… it’s been a hard day on the planet.”
I’ve noticed, now I come to write this, how appropriate the song is in these times, when we’re constantly told about International Terrorism, Recession, Credit Crunch, Corruption… it would make quite a good alternative national anthem for the Brown government.
(A sad post-script for this entry. Loudon’s ex-wife [and Rufus Wainwright’s mum] singer/songwriter Kate McGarrigle, passed away recently. Found it quite upsetting- I’ve been listening to her music almost as long as I have Loudon Wainwright’s.)
6. ‘Black Cherry’ by Rachel Stamp (from Now I’m Nailed To Your Bedroom Wall I’ve Only Got Myself To Blame…)
People are constantly coming up to me and saying – “Rich, what d’you think would happen if you crossed Rage Against The Machine with Led Zeppelin and the Scissor Sisters?” An odd question, certainly, but one for which I am luckily well-prepared. “Rachel Stamp,” I always reply confidently, and then stride away in the satisfaction of a job well done.
Well, that’s obviously a lie. I apologise. And the description is pretty vague. If you’ve not heard of The Stamp, they’re a combination of pop, punk, electronica and glam rock with a uniquely debauched world view (which I approve of) and they’re one of the best live bands I’ve seen. I caught them at Eddie’s on their last UK tour and at the launch of their compilation album in Islington, and both times they were wonderful. Pure energetic inspiration. My wife brought the band to my attention, for which (among other things) I am eternally grateful, and they’re also my 3 yr old son’s favourite music – beats the hell out of ‘Twinkle Twinkle.’
5. ‘Who the Fuck?’ PJ Harvey (from Uh Huh Her)
I loved her last album White Chalk, and the recent collaboration A Man A Woman Walked By, but for me Polly Harvey is at her best when she’s all fuzzed up and dirty and angry. I don’t know how she gets that guitar sound on her songs; it’s certainly not fey indie, or rock & roll, or straightforward blues, or metal… it’s just monumental. People talk a lot about her lyrics, which are admittedly excellent, but the thing that always strikes me about her recordings is how vital and cathartic they sound. It’s something I’ve tried to emulate (with varying degrees of success) every time AQUILA go into the studio.
4. ‘Down In The Valley’ by Otis Redding (from Otis Blue)
This piece of music has one of the best end sequences in the history of history. There’s only about twelve words in the whole song anyway – mostly about being down in the valley and feeling lonely – but at the finish, Otis jettisons the lyrics altogether, in favour of a barrage of growls, rasps, barks, roars, and whoops. I’ve read that in his heyday, he was an impossible act to follow when he was opening for other soul acts, and I find that totally believable. It’s also bone-shakingly, bowel-shatteringly funky; when I first started a band, I knew I wanted to make music people could dance to, and I think Otis Redding has a lot to do with that.
As you can see, I’ve had to combine the last few, in the interests of Justice. Each are equally important to me in their own way, looming in the background of anything I do like three giant carved effigies – the dark gods of singer-songwriting. Sometimes they deign to glance over my shoulder at whatever I’m up to and give the most imperceptible of nods; generally they keep their distance, outlined against the horizon.
First off, Jeff Buckley. What to say that has not already been said? The astonishing range, the beautifully articulated torment… I saw him once at a festival, when I was still at school. I remember thinking: man, that guy can sing. I was quite jealous. I only got hold of Grace a while later, and that album’s sweeping tales of fractured romance came at just the right moment. I was going through a cycle of ‘messy relationship, messy break-up, lather, rinse, repeat’ at the time and it was invaluable to have Buckley nearby to hold my hand (metaphorically of course – he died in a swimming accident some years earlier.)
My favourite passage in ‘Lover…’ goes
“Sometimes a man gets carried away
When he feels like he should be having his fun,
Much too blind to see the damage he’s done,
And sometimes a man must awake to find that really he has no-one”
This song typifies the best elements of Buckley’s music; an envelope-pushing, flawless ache, and a longing to communicate. And it’s also a nice bit of boyish confession.
This leads me to The Twilight Singers, or, more specifically, vocalist Greg Dulli. I got into Dulli around the same time as I did Buckley, around the time the ‘Singers started, and he’d just broken up the Afghan Whigs. (To clarify, Greg seems to be a prolific sort of fellow; he was in the aforementioned Whigs and the Backbeat Band, then TS and Afterhours, then he was a Gutter Twin for a while, and now hopefully he’s a Twilight Singer again.) For me, Dulli is the chain-smoking dark angel flipside to Buckley’s tortured choirboy persona. They share an awful lot of the same influences: soul, jazz, R&B, gospel, and their lyrical concerns are very similar. However, their approach could not be more different. Here’s Dulli on the same subject I’ve just quoted Jeff on.
“Ladies, let me tell you about myself.
I got a dick for a brain,
And my brain is gonna sell my ass to you.
I’m OK, but in time I’ll find I’m stuck,
When she wants love, and I still wanna fuck…”
Not exactly subtle, but you have to admire the sheer guts and unflinching honesty. Dulli revels in revealing deep dark male thoughts. I find listening to his music a bit like having a one-sided conversation with an older brother (albeit one who doesn’t know who the hell I am.)
I’ve picked ‘$40’ because it’s such a gorgeous, brutal slab of a song. It’s only two chords repeated throughout, swapping them over for the chorus. But it’s amazing how much mileage the band get out of this deceptively simple idea. I especially like the sing-along ending, when they sling in lines from ‘Hey Ya’ by Outkast “I’m just being honest” and The Beatles’ She Loves You. On Youtube, there’s footage of the band performing the song with Joseph Arthur live on Kimmel. Recommended.
Finally, Bob. Another lifelong obsession of mine, due to both my parents being fans. ‘Idiot Wind’ is a particularly high point in a career littered with high points. Although presumably it represents an all-time low for Dylan personally; this is the break-up anthem, supposedly about the dissolution of his marriage. Forget rationalisation, forget sadness, forget loss. All that is just for the amateurs. This song is baptised in bile and hate, a sheer testament to exactly how much two people can hurt one another in a relationship. A few sample lines:
“Your corrupt ways have finally made you blind… I can’t even touch the books you’ve read… you cover up the truth with lies… hounded by your memory… someday you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes… you’re an idiot… it’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe…”
Pretty damning stuff. He’s not just venting, either; for every bit of accusatory finger-jabbing, there’s either a jibe at his own inadequacies, such as “I’ll never know your holiness or your kind of love… it makes me feel so sorry” or a startling piece of imagery: “idiot wind blowing like a circle around my skull, from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.”
I’ve chosen the live Hard Rain version rather than the one on Blood On The Tracks because of Dylan’s machine-gun delivery. He takes an already very powerful song and sends it off into new, almost frightening territory. You can hear the years of bitterness and disappointment pouring off him and it hits you like a wave.
So that’s my list for now. Honourable mention must go in no particular order to David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’, Nick Cave’s ‘No More Shall We Part’, Tom Waits’ ‘Lowdown, Ours’ Mercy’, Kate Smith’s ‘Goodbye Evelyn’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘Achilles Last Stand’, Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’, The Stones’ ‘Beast Of Burden’, Mary Coughlan’s ‘Baby Plays Around’, The Killers’ ‘Hot Fuss’, Prince, Tori Amos, John Coltrane, Nirvana, Joseph Arthur, Ella Fitzgerald, The Smiths, TV On The Radio, Janis Joplin, The National, Billie Holliday, and Ray Charles.
“Dulli & Buckley & Cobain & Coltrane,
Dylan & Gershwin & Nina & Ella,
Billie & Tori & good ol’ Zeppelin;
These are a few of my favourite things…”
Richard Stokes, February 2010.