The imminent release of Hendra, my first solo album for thirty-one years, is in part inspired by a desire to reconnect with my nineteen-year-old self, the precocious boy who played folk-jazz guitar and made “Summer into Winter” (1982) with Robert Wyatt, and then “North Marine Drive” (1983).
Within months of the release of those two early records, I’d taken a fork in the road, spending twenty of the intervening years playing with Tracey Thorn in Everything But The Girl, and then ten as a DJ and label boss at Buzzin’ Fly. In 2013 I teamed up with former Suede guitarist, Bernard Butler to come up with the new sound for ‘Hendra’, so with that in mind here’s a peek at a few formative guitar moments for me over the years.
My dad was a jazz musician. I grew up with a lot of it in the house. I loved the warm sound of the Getz-Gilberto records. When I first picked up a guitar - we’re talking mid-70s - I would strum standard folk chords but also tried to ape the bossa stylings and voicings of Joao Gilberto. Seems to capture melancholy and beauty at the same time. And that has always appealed to me.
This was the first record I ever bought with my own money. I was ten. I am not a big McCartney fan but I love this, and even now I’m intrigued by the way he can seem to toss off such a majestic heart-stopping tune yet settle for such a half-finished lyric. It’s like he’s almost shrugging his shoulders as he writes it. Must feel a bit weird when you can do that. But the other reason I pick it is that it also has one my favourite ever guitar solos in it. Be upstanding for Denny Laine. Bring it.
I was given his ‘Decade’ triple album retrospective when I was only fourteen. Being a journalist, my mum used to get sent albums. If none of my older siblings wanted to them they fell into my hands. Not sure why no one wanted it, but it became mine. I have recently realised what a huge impression that record left on me. I didn’t know anything about him at the time. There is such a raw splendour to his lead guitar playing. Technically limited but operating on the very edge of it. Tense and beautiful. He sticks the sound right in your face. It was the opposite of the jazz sounds I was absorbing through my dad. I felt branded by it. On my new album ‘Hendra’ I have tried to find that faultline between open-tuned impressionism and gritty distortion. This track, and others like it, are in some way responsible.
His guitar-playing was a revelation to me. A boy from school played me ‘Solid Air’. Folky but louche and and bluesy. I immediately wanted to play like him. But then I heard this track ‘Small Hours’ a bit later. And it was just as important to me. The heavy delay on the guitar pushed through a volume pedal, the suspended chords, the tiny ticking drum machine. Spent hours trying to work out how he did it.
This was a paradigm shift for me. From the lush harmony to which I was accustomed, I was suddenly confronted by a fractured brittle post-Bowie-in-Berlin rock. I saw them at the Nashville in London. I must have been sixteen, and feeling a bit angsty. The bassist (Hook) and the guitarist (Albrecht, now Sumner) weren’t playing chords at all, just insistent guitar lines in counterpoint to each other. Yes, Curtis was fairly mesmerising but I remember the guitar lines and gaping holes more. Although you might not guess it, the guitar part for the gentle ‘Walter and John’ on my first EP, ’Summer into Winter’ was as much inspired by Barney Albrecht as by anyone else.
If Tracey was won over by early Morrissey, I was caught off balance by Johnny. He seemed to marry the two worlds I had discovered - rich harmony allied to nonchalant aggression. All those chiming driving arpeggios. I picked up a plectrum for the first time and went back and discovered The Byrds and George Harrison too. This track was the second B-side on ‘This Charming Man’. I’m not trying to be clever-clever by choosing a rare B-side. It was just one their early tracks that genuinely hit me.
I saw him play Upstairs at The Garage in Islington just after his debut EP came out. Precocious, sensual, extroverted. On guitar he seemed to have taken all of Johnny Marr’s sharp, melodic, ‘mod’ angles and shamelessly added the bluesy growl of Jimmy Page and the freeform shapes of Astral Weeks-era Van Morrison. It seemed daring - wasn’t Led Zep uncool? - but oozed confidence. ‘Last Goodbye’ merges the worlds perfectly - the metal riff of the intro giving way to the modal open-tuned elegance of the verse chords. That said, I’ve picked ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ as again it has the minimalism and space I love. Handpicked chipped-out chords, stunning rhythm section, great lyrics and delivery. Knocked me out when I heard it. Especially as it arrived just after his untimely death.
There was a big gap in my guitar playing for about fifteen years from the mid-nineties to a couple of years ago. I turned towards electronic music and DJing for a long period, but lately an instinct has driven me back. One of the keys to it has been a return to words and the discovery of open tunings. It has turned the guitar into a new instrument in my hands and made me interested in it again. A recent discovery has been the guitar playing of the veteran folk performer, Michael Chapman. His first album ‘Rainmaker’ was recently re-issued after lying dormant since the late sixties, and the playing on it was eye-opening. Folk, yes, but steely, close-mic’d and edgy. A great sound. And then I came across his ‘train songs’ and this is one of them, an instrumental, complete with half-fluffed notes but all with a driving coherence.
Another recent discovery, this time from the early seventies. This whole album - ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name …’ is shot through with great moments. Self-absorbed and self-important without doubt, but also heartfelt and imaginitive. This particular track has its fair share of of meaningless acid-trip lyrics but the atmosphere, the open-tuned guitars and the loose effortless pulchritude of the vocals mixed with guitars and autoharp do it for me every time.
Of all the modern-day guitarists, I am intrigued by Mark McGuire, formerly of Emeralds. His long cyclical compositions are part Steve Reich, part Durutti Column (another big early influence on my playing) but add a dazed affectlessness that seem very contemporary. He also came up with a great album title in ‘A Young Person’s Guide to Mark McGuire’ - wish I’d thought of that.