Friday, February 18, 2011

Three best rock albums ever?

This blog has been in a hiatus for some time now, but I have found the need to interrupt its slumbers to bring a quick, possibly controversial, insight, or opinion. I have just treated myself to three albums which are probably the finest in the history of rock.

I have already covered a plethora of great musicians on this site, but some of my favourites, from the 1970s, remain unsullied by my niggling, nagging intrusion. But this week I couldn't resist it. I first felt the urgent need to listen, really listen, to David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. After being bowled over afresh by that gem, I was led by the Bowie-Ronson connection to Lou Reed's Transformer. Again astonished afresh by the wonderfully understated Britishness of this very New York album, the next step was the Strawbs masterpiece, Grave New World.

Look, I still intend to do the full Monty on Bowie, but some things can't wait for the bigger picture, as it were. This album was pure dynamite - in an impeccably subtle sort of way. As a music lover living in remote South Africa at the time, I wasn't too concerned with the Bowie persona. For me those first five or six seminal albums were what it was all about, and this was probably the pick of the bunch. Recorded in 1972 and produced by Bowie and Ken Scott at Trident Studios, London, this album was probably the apotheosis of an era which started with the Beatles, Stones, Animals and a whole lot more. There is something about the sound textures here that appeals to the wiring in my brain. I don't intend to explore the reasons now, but wonder what others out there think. Is this the ultimate rock album?

My South African pressing of this album has the back cover in black and white, which is in fact more effective than this glossy version. Be that as it may, this ever-so-English album cover, with photographs by Brian Ward, has to be one of the most iconic ever.

But then again, what about this! Again I shan't go into detail about Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground frontman, at this stage. Suffice it to say that this album, also released in 1972, has many of the qualities which made Ziggy so successful. Not least of them was the understated, yet incredibly gifted musicality which British session musicians brought to bear - along with producers Bowie and Mick Ronson's expertise. Would you believe that the rocker Ronson was capable of the string arrangement on the classic, Perfect Day? Well he has a profound impact on this album, which of course features many of the greatest rock songs of our time, including Vicious, Satellite of Love and, naturally, Walk on the Wild Side. Again somewhat eccentric, it is this very offbeatness which sets this album apart. An electric and string bass on Wild Side, tubas, recorders. Brilliant drumming. This is an absolute classic.

The controversial back cover. I've heard Reed confirm that the person on the left is indeed a woman, not him in drag, while that is in fact a banana down the front of his trousers.

Dave Cousins has to be one of the most underrated musicians of our age. His songwriting was sublime, his lyrics among the most poetic around, and his voice hauntingly beautiful. Indeed, like Bowie, he used the English language, its fullness and grace, to the utmost. It is the music textures on this concept album which most impress. It is rock, but it is again wonderfully understated. No surprise, it too was released in 1972, and, despite Rick Wakeman having left the band by then, his replacement Blue Weaver more than compensates on keyboards. Indeed, his work on organ, piano, harmonium, mellotron and clavioline is possibly what sets this apart. There is also a lovely mix between heavy rock tracks, and subtle, folk-based songs like Cousins's On Growing Older and John Ford's Heavy Disguise. Another classic.

But are these the greatest rock albums ever? I'd like to hear your views.

By the way, I listened to each of these on vinyl on my old Philips music centre, which dates back to about 1983. The band has been replaced several times, but it still gives a more rounded sound, I believe, than most CDs will yield.

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