Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
The Vaccines 2018
Nine Songs
The Vaccines

Justin Young and Freddie Cowan go deep on the songs that matter to them.

23 March 2018, 09:00 | Words by Ed Nash

From Justin Young’s teenage years playing in punk bands to Freddie Cowan’s late night music listening sessions with his older brother, The Vaccines’ singer and guitarist have been immersed in music for as long as they can remember.

As they talk through the key songs in their lives, sat in a room at their record company offices in Kensington, Young and Cowan’s ongoing fascination with the power of music is infectious. They both play some of their song choices on their phones to emphasise what they love about them and when Young discusses the merits of ABBA he gets so animated that at one point he seems on the verge of dancing on the table.

As they gear up to release their fourth album Young explains that many of his track choices have had an impact the songs he’s written for Combat Sports. “I’ve chosen songs that redirect me. They inspire me in a very tangible way. They really help me to head off in the right direction and connect with what I’m trying to achieve as a songwriter and as a musician in a band.”

For Cowan, what makes a great song comes down for a feeling of realness, a connection and belief in the artist that’s created it. “Outside of music or inside of music, you’re always looking for as much truth as you can in life to help you to find your way and I think people look to art for that. It’s about authenticity and I like to believe in believable people.”

Their song choices move from punk to pop to classic songwriters, but underpinning them all are their shared love of music. And of course, why ABBA are fabulous.

“Real Cool Time” by The Stooges

Freddie: “When I was about nineteen I used to have a lot of really late nights listening to music with my brother and his band and they were obsessed with psychedelia. They collected all of these obscure psychedelia seven inches and they’d stay up all night and listen to them, but I just didn’t like that kind of music. For me it seemed quite derivative, like everyone had interpreted this genre of psychedelia. There were some amazing records, but they never really connected with me.

“Then one night someone put on the first Stooges record. I heard 'Real Cool Time' and I just wanted to hear it again and again. I believed it and I believed them in a way I didn’t with the other records, because really amazing Rock and Roll is impossible to fake, it’s way too simple - it’s like being a really good footballer, the rules are too simple for you to cheat.

‘Real Cool Time’ has the most mundane lyrics and it’s the most mundane guitar riff, but the feel of it is just amazing, it has that darkness, innocence and knowledge but also a naivety, which is what I think Rock and Roll is all about. Ron Asheton is actually a brilliant guitarist, but it’s almost as if it was by mistake, like you couldn’t be that young and understand that music that well.

“It’s like a beautiful accident where all of the intentions are right and it stuck out like a sore thumb for me amongst all that other stuff, which was so ‘make sure we reference this park’, or ‘reference this acid trip’, but to me ‘Real Cool Time’ is about someone on a comedown or something, who’s just sitting there waiting, like ‘are you going to come over tonight?’ It couldn’t be more simple, but it’s so powerful and heartfelt. That’s what I wanted to hear at four in the morning.”

“Who Are You?” by Void

Justin: “When I was about thirteen an older friend of mine made me a tape of DC hardcore. Making tapes is a lost art and I still do it, but you can get USB’s now that look like tapes. He made me a tape because I only knew Minor Threat and they were like a gateway drug for me.

“This was the first song on there, it’s from the split record Void did on Dischord Records with The Faith in 1983. It’s funny, when Freddie was talking about what he liked and didn’t like, when you’re that age you’re constantly navigating through the sea of songs you actually really connect with and the ones you think you should like, because they make sense with the identity you’re trying to cultivate for yourself and I was floored by ‘Who Are You?’

“It’s everything that’s great about Punk Rock and everything that’s great about music when you’re a kid, that rage and that anger and also feeling completely misunderstood by everyone in your house, your family, your school or your hometown. I read that Kurt Cobain put this in his top 50 songs of all time and of course that makes sense, it’s a song about being misunderstood and that’s what Nirvana came to represent for another generation.

“It’s Punk Rock at its best and like The Stooges song for Freddie, this really taught me that it’s not what you play it’s how you play it, as long as you’re being authentic, and Punk Rock is just authentic rock isn’t it? I was in a punk band and my first shows were in Southampton above a pub for this DIY collective called ‘STE’ - which stood for ‘Southampton, Totton and Eastleigh punk collective.’ Students got in for a quid and under 16’s got in free. It was great, there weren’t many women, but other than that it was a great way to ply your trade.

“I’ll play it to you and when you hear the opening you’ll see what I mean. It’s this intro, this riff, it still excites me now, it’s just so brutal and the song’s a minute long. It’s so direct and to me it’s weirdly poppy as well, maybe I’m alone in thinking that, but it was a song that was really easy to connect with. It’s filled with rage and it’s one of those songs that you want to turn up so your parents can hear who you are and see where you are in your life.”

“Powerhouse” by Billy Cox’s Nitro Function

Freddie: “Cole, who produced our last record, played this to me and Dave Fridmann in the studio. It’s by a girl called Char Vinnedge, who was in in a band called The Luv'd Ones. You can’t really hear how good she was in her first band but when Jimi Hendrix died Billy Cox got her in as the third member to play guitar and sing. She wrote the songs and she’s one of my favourite guitarists ever. It’s so strange, I don’t own the album, I can’t find it, but I’ve listened to all the songs.

“It’s such a strange thing as a guitar player to discover, because you think you’ve heard most of the great people, but she’s one of my favourites now. She has such a respect for melody but there’s an abandon to it, she’s a real master of what she’s doing and it’s also very playful. The way she uses her guitar is just so clever in every way and I was just amazed that no one knew who she was.

“The band’s named after the bass player but there’s nothing significant about the bass playing on the record, she writes the songs and interestingly a lot of the songs are about her standing up for herself as a woman and yet she’s not mentioned on the album cover or the band’s name. She’s kind of invisible even though she’s unbelievably talented.

“When Cole played it to me it just blew me away and it was so strange to have such a significant discovery past the age of twenty-five. I’ll play you a few seconds of it. It’s very loose but what she plays is so smart. It’s one of the best and to me it’s very different to Hendrix, I think it’s more considered. This was a nice discovery for me, the album is amazing.”

“I Couldn’t Say It To Your Face” by Arthur Russell

Justin: “The first time I heard this was in 2012. I remember we were driving down the Great Ocean Road in Australia, the sun was out and hearing this, it was such an amazing song. And subsequently learning what it was about, or so the story goes, I don’t know whether it’s true or not but it’s an affecting story, which is the line ‘I couldn’t say it to your face, but I won’t be around anymore’ is about him either telling a lover or a friend that he’s HIV Positive and that his days are numbered.

“Aside from it being an amazing song, I always think as a lyricist you want to be having conversations that you can’t have, that you’re too scared to have. If you’re making yourself uncomfortable then you’re doing something right, because there’s an incredible catharsis that comes with that. It really puts my issues into perspective, it is all relative, but it’s an amazing song and I think to be that honest and to be that authentic is an amazing thing and that’s when I always connect to music, when it’s doing that.

“In the last few years Arthur Russell has had a real resurgence and that interest in him has snowballed. He had a million clubby projects and there’s a lot of his stuff that I don’t connect with, but the more direct, vulnerable stuff I really like. There’s the Love Is Overtaking Me compilation, it feels like a ‘Best of.’

Freddie: “He’s like R. Stevie Moore in the way he’s so prolific that it actually it takes someone to do a compilation of just one of his genre explorations, where someone curates the best of his stuff.

Justin: “I spent a day recently going deep on it and really finding his deep cuts - ‘Love Comes Back’ is another song that I absolutely love - and all the stuff he was releasing in bands under different names, but I think that the stuff that I’d already found had risen to the top. He is a musicians’ musician, but he’s amazing.”

“Giant Steps” by John Coltrane

Freddie: “This one is a bit of a curveball, but I’ve always loved the same things about music, regardless of the genre and regardless of the ability of the musician. What I love is believability, conviction and you can call it Rock and Roll or you can call it Punk, but I’ve always thought that Punk existed in Blues, it existed in Jazz, Rock and Roll and Rockabilly. Then it existed as Punk and it existed in what The Smiths did, which to me was like Punk.

“What’s interesting to me with John Coltrane is he’s probably one of the greatest technical musicians and this is one of the most challenging bits of Jazz ever, it was redefining what ‘challenging music’ was, but I heard punk in there. I heard that same intention as you hear in The Velvet Underground, where you’re not dealing with people who are super proficient, but the end goal is the same. That’s something that links any believable art, whether you’re a really gifted sculptor or a musician, as long as you’re doing it with believable intent and authenticity it will be of interest.

“’Giant Steps’ is so technically challenging and such an achievement of a commitment to an instrument but somehow it’s not self-indulgent.

Justin: “Having grown up in bands, I think some of the most technically gifted people I know are the least creative actually, I guess it’s the difference between Maths and English isn’t it? Or Science and Art at school.

Freddie: “There are a few anomalies, people like Robert Fripp and John Coltrane, where they’ve taken that technical mastery and managed to do something really good with it and ‘Giant Steps’ is my most extreme of example that.”

“Dancing Queen” by ABBA

Justin: “I didn’t really know about ABBA when I was growing up, they’re one of those bands you think you’d get into through your parents, but my parents didn’t listen to them. I think the first time I heard them properly was in Muriel’s Wedding, obviously that wasn’t a cool thing so they became a kind of guilty pleasure, but when Mamma Mia! came out in my late teens I was ‘Damn, all of these songs are so fucking good.’

“I have this list of songs in my head that I think are perfect, obviously that’s completely subjective, but they’re untouchable pop masterpieces like ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ABBA have so many of them. There’s a humanity in their songs but they also feel like ‘how could anyone have made something so perfect?’ The writing, the production, the arrangements, even the way their voices sound, it has the same effect as when siblings sing. Their voices are unbelievable, sometimes I think ‘is that a weird harmony?’ but it’s just the way their voices sound together, it’s incredible.

“This song makes me well up because it’s so perfect, but it’s also so silly, it makes me want to throw my hands in the air, I want to dance when I hear it and I want to smile. You feel silly when you hear it, you feel camp and like a character in Muriel’s Wedding or Mamma Mia! when it comes on. It’s an amazing feeling and that is the power music isn’t it?

“The other thing you have to remember is that one of the things that made The Beatles so amazing and such an interesting proposition and a reason why people really like The Velvet Underground as well, is because they changed the way songs were written, they rewrote the rulebook. Before then all music essentially sounded the same, everyone was using the same three or four chords and melodies, that kind of Rockabilly and Rock and Roll, all operating in the same framework, even the blues, The Stones and The Beach Boys, until they started breaking the rules too. But ABBA were making this music only ten or twenty years after pop music as we know it began to exist and it’s so innovative.

“You know when people talk about their favourite bands? They’re a band who if you’re in a car, someone could put on an hour of ABBA and I’d like every song and there’s bands who I consider to be my favourite bands who I couldn’t say that about. It’s banger after banger, I guess it depends what mood you’re in, actually I was listening to them in a car the other day and someone told me to turn it off!

“It’s mind-bending how good they are when they’re at their best. I think music is more often than not written about as art, but it’s also entertainment and whilst what they do is this incredible art it’s also so entertaining. It’s funny, we’ve been speaking about music for the last half an hour but this is the first time where we’ve talked about music making us happy and that’s really important. Music should make you happy and ‘Dancing Queen’ definitely does that.”

“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys

Freddie: “I had a pretty instant connection with this song. The first time I remember hearing it was in my friend’s bedroom, we were in a band and we were going to cover it, we were really young and obviously had no conception of how difficult it is to cover a song like this. I’d cry my eyes out every time I heard it. That friend of mine died and this was the walk out song at his funeral and it just hits a nerve, it’s like a knockout.

Justin: “It’s a knockout song isn’t it? It’s a song you imagine hearing at funerals, because it makes you cry every time you hear it.

Freddie: “It’s so painful but so beautiful. Carl Wilson sang it and you can hear his whole story - all his pain, all the persistence of humanity, of what you can do with pain and resilience. There’s so much in it and I couldn’t contextualise it like that then, but it still hit a nerve, even before my friend died, it hit a real nerve.

“It always amazes me, the ability that music has to take over the complete energy of your being. Whether you go to a club and someone puts on something like Justice, where the dance descends and you get so much aggressive energy, or if you listen to ‘God Only Knows’ and you just open up and view everything differently. Music just conquers your being and that’s why music is probably the most encapsulating art form, but like I said, before I could contextualize it, it still had the same effect and that’s what’s so special about it, people just love it and that’s grounded in the same way, because it’s so good.

Justin: “I played it endlessly about ten years ago and then for a year I wouldn’t go out of my way to listen to it, but it still floors me now when I hear it, it doesn’t get old does it?

Freddie: “I know how much of an effect it has on me, so it’s not something I go out of my way to listen to, but it’s incredible. I don’t know what our cover sounded like, it probably sounded awful!"

“Take This Waltz” by Leonard Cohen

Justin: “I’d always quite liked Leonard Cohen, but when he died we’d just started making this record and that sent me into a deep Cohen shaped hole. It also came at a time where I felt quite lost as a songwriter and we were still trying to figure out what we wanted to do with this record.

“That was about eighteen months ago and he really helped me to rediscover my voice I think. He reminded me how important it is to be yourself - to be cynical, to be dark, to try and be sexy, to put all of yourself into what you do, to be idiosyncratic, unique and personal in your approach to songwriting. I was in the midst of trying to write about quite universal themes and attempt to be as universal as possible and I think I maybe lost my way a bit, but he helped me to rediscover things.

“He’s just so clever as well. If you’ve got a broken heart the second verse in ‘Take This Waltz’ is so good, I love how he can take a really simple sentence, switch out one word and completely flip the meaning; “There's a concert hall in Vienna where your mouth had a thousand reviews”, that’s so evocative and he does that all the time. For this record it got me into the habit of writing entire songs before the music, I’d write an entire lyric before I had any melody, which is actually what I used to do when I was eighteen. Then I could try and focus on trying to be funny, cynical and as honest and personal as possible.

“I guess it’s like the difference between a book and a film isn’t it? People often ask me why I don’t like poetry or read it and it’s because I find it really hard to bring it to life, I’d much rather listen. A lot of my friends say ‘you’re so obsessed with lyrics, why aren’t you interested in poetry?’ but for me they don’t really come to life off the page. Leonard Cohen is a poet, but its poetry set to music and he brings it to life. For me, he’s more relatable and easier to connect with than Bob Dylan, you know what he’s talking about, but he does it in a very clever way.

“I chose this song because I had a broken heart when he died. I was almost listening to it as poetry more than a song and actually it’s not my favourite song of his, but in the second and third verses, he talks about people being sentenced to death by the blues and it’s really evocative. I’m sure I wrote ‘Young American’ because of him, that was the first song I wrote for the record and that was lyrics first and then put to music, because of verses like that. I was trying to be naked in my approach to lyrics.”

"2-4-6-8 Motorway" by Tom Robinson Band

Justin: “This one is like the mystery house on Escape to the Country, it’s a curveball. The point I wanted to make with ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ is that it’s not one of my favourite songs, the point is it’s always been there but I only really discovered it and fell in love with it in the last couple of weeks. That’s one of the most exciting and inspiring things about making music, discovering songs that have existed your whole life, even though you may have only been semi-aware of them.

“I’ve always found it much easier to place my faith in songs that have existed my whole life than a new band or a new artist, you know what they are, you know they’re not going to let you down, they’re not going to do anything sexist or say anything racist or make a terrible second EP.

“It’s also so exciting discovering things, I love all those reissue labels like Light in the Attic and finding these treasure troves of records and artists that have been there your whole life, like ‘How has this existed my entire time on earth and I’ve never stumbled upon it?’ ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ is a stone cold classic, it’s very British, it’s a big song.”

Combat Sports is released 30 March via Sony and The Vaccines headline the Live at Leeds festival 5 May
Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next
Babel Marriage cover


22 Sept 2023
Bakar Halo cover


22 Sept 2023
Doja Cat Scarlet cover

Doja Cat

22 Sept 2023