Monthly Archives: April 2014
I recently was afforded the great pleasure of serving as Master of Ceremonies for a really neat event called “Rock for Dimes.” A key fundraising initiative for the March of Dimes Canada, the “Rock for Dimes” night featured a variety of rock bands and special guests, all coming together to help raise money and awareness for a great cause.
As I took in each performance, I was struck by the variety of music that was played, and I noted what songs were covered and what other famous artists had been represented. I was interested to see what kind of songs these performers had so deep in their souls that they would be willing to dedicate so much time and effort into rehearsing and, ultimately, sharing them on stage.
I also wondered what it was that got each of the members of these bands to pick up an instrument in the first place? It was clear that they loved what they were doing, and that they were singing and playing as an extension of their spirit, rather than just a means to an end.
It was nice to watch, and it all got me thinking about what had inspired me musically. Once I started to really think about it, I was amazed at how many wonderful things in my life have come as a result of embracing and expanding upon the music I love. I had fun looking closer at which artists and albums had actually had the largest affect on me over the years.
Most of the truly “iconic” bands were a little before my time. While I appreciate them, I never had a love affair with the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Queen, the Who or other bands of that caliber. In that sense, I feel I was born a decade or two too late. I bet I’d have loved following along with groups like that.
Some of the big hit-makers of the 80’s, such as AC/DC and ZZ Top, are among my favourites. I still listen to their music and enjoy them from time to time. But they didn’t particularly influence me to do or try anything beyond just listening to their songs.
The albums listed here are not necessarily my “favourites,” or the ones I still listen to the most. But each of them will have made this list for having had an incredible impact, in one way or another, on my own creativity, curiosity, thirst for further knowledge and happiness in general. To have made this list, the album had to have had a considerable influence on me in one way or another.
I consider these the 10 most influential albums in my life (so far):
Here we go:
10. Volbeat – Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies
Granted, this one is very recent, so it may be a bit of a stretch to include it here. But I’ve no doubt that Volbeat’s “Outlaw Gentlemen and Shady Ladies” will not only hold up over time, but will probably move even further up this list as the years go by.
A year ago right now, I had never heard of this band. I first encountered the track “Heaven Nor Hell” while listening online to an out-of-market rock station last summer. The song practically jumped out of the speakers at me. I’d not had that kind of exciting, “what the heck is that?” kind of experience in a long, long time.
I wrote down the name of the band, and looked them up online once I got home. For years, I’d hoped to find a current group that wrote heavy, solid riff-based rock but with really attractive melodies and insightful lyrics. I honestly didn’t think I’d ever find one. And so, when I did my online search, I was astounded to learn that Volbeat had been around a while, had already sold millions of records and had a very large and loyal following, particularly across Europe.
As my taste for Volbeat grew, I eventually got to “Outlaw Gentleman and Shady Ladies” and it resonated with me right away, from start to finish. I remember the first time I listened through it. I had my headphones on and was in the kitchen, preparing to make dinner. Just after the opening instrumental (“Let’s Shake Some Dust”) rattled to a close, the cold opening of “Pearl Hart” practically body-slammed me with an immediately likeable melody. I instantly giddy. That song is so infectious that it got into my bones straight away. I thought, “That was awesome, but the rest of the CD can’t possibly be this good.”
But it is.
After “Pearl Hart,” another stellar track came next. Then another. And another. And another.
I cannot pick a favourite song from the disc. Looking further into the band’s inspiration for the whole concept of the record helped me to feel the spark of my own creativity again. The excitement over hearing new music I loved as much as Volbeat got me back strumming the guitar again after having been away from it for the better part of three years. At the time, I’d been wavering on completing and/or releasing an acoustic EP I’d been working on. Volbeat’s arrival in my life helped me to see that it was important to me to finish that project, regardless of what anybody else might have thought of it.
Bonus points for this record: my 11-year-old son, Eddie, LOVES Volbeat. I don’t know why. But he does. He insisted upon seeing them live. We are going to see them in May.
It will be his first concert ever. And it’ll be with his Dad.
9. David Francey – Skating Rink
David Francey writes astonishingly beautiful songs. They are brilliant in their simplicity, in that they sound somewhat minimal at first blush, but are in fact quite complex, insightful and thought-provoking. Francey is the most efficient lyricist I’ve heard, and he packs more wallop into just one or two lines than any other artist I can think of.
This CD has had a massive influence on me. I’d have put it further up the list, except for the fact that we’re going to run into Francey again in a bit.
I remember listening to “Skating Rink” for the first time. Back then, I enjoyed the title track (which is also the first song on the disc). And the second track, “Broken Glass,” is also lovely. But it was the third track, “Exit,” that initially stopped me in my tracks. I’d not heard many artists include a song with vocals but no music accompaniment, but it’s not uncommon for Francey, and he does it with “Exit.” The song is just Francey’s voice alone until a sweet little musical bit appears and then fades the song out, like a reluctant acceptance of what he sings about before the instrumentation comes in: “Rich or poor or young or old. Some of us carry a heavy load.”
“Skating Rink” is a beautiful CD from start to finish. Standout tracks for me include “Belgrade Train,” “Nearly Midnight” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” an absolutely beautiful song that would be a massive hit if it were covered by the right popular band.
My sister giving me this CD turned out to be the impetus for many inspirations and wonderful experiences in the years to come, including getting to meet and visit with David Francey on several occasions. And spending time with him has only deepened my appreciation and sincere affection for these wonderful, beautiful songs.
8. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
I held a strong dislike for this group for a long time. They became popular at a time when the band that I still consider my favourite (more on them a little later) was not getting anywhere near the attention I felt they deserved. Partially because of that, I didn’t like Green Day and never paid them any mind. I thought they were childish punks. And maybe they were. But they certainly were churning out better music than I ever gave them credit for.
Ironically, it was it was another fan of that same favourite band of mine (the one I’ll reference in just a bit), that suggested that “21st Centrury Breakdown” was a “masterpiece.” I laughed at the thought and challenged him on it. He challenged me back. So I went and gave it a listen, and was floored by the scope of it. There was so much to dig through in this one record alone. For some reason, its tone and lyrics spoke to me at the time in a way that kept this CD in my stereo for months.
The style of writing and overall concept of this album left me considering different ways to write, and to listen to and enjoy music. I’m still finding things on this record I’d not notice before.
Green Day may be best known for “American Idiot” or their debut, “Dookie,” but it’s “21st Century Breakdown” that had the biggest influence on me, and made me a fan of the band.
7. The Trews – Hope and Ruin
The Trews are a Canadian rock band from Nova Scotia, and I absolutely love them. All of their records are among my favourites, but this one came out at a time when it almost felt as if it had been created just for me. Having just been through a marital separation (and eventual divorce), the very title of this collection had me feeling as if the band was inside my own head.
Songs like “Hope & Ruin,” “Love is the Real Thing,” “I’ll Find Someone Who Will,” “You’ve Gotta Let Me In,” “If You Wanna Start Again” and “Dreamin’ Man” all hit home for me in a deep and profound way. I clung to this record for many months, and felt rather emotional when I got to see them live on the headlining tour they did to support this effort.
I’ve got a bunch of songs kicking around that I wrote in the months following this CD’s release. It both held me up and inspired me.
For a time, I held on to this record like a life preserver.
6. Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
I love the story about how Bruce recorded these tracks alone, at his home, and when he brought the songs into the studio for the E Street Band, they just couldn’t recapture the original emotion and feeling, no matter what they tried. And so they ultimately decided to master and release Springsteen’s original demos, a gutsy, bold move. The results are downright spooky.
It’s a good lesson in the power of a good song not needing much instrumentation or production. If the song is solid, it will still remain (and maybe even become more impactful) even with much of the instrumentation stripped away.
“Nebraska” is loaded with heavy, heavy tracks about common people and their daily struggles, their simple hopes, collective fears and frailties.
I tried to write some songs in this style in the mid 90’s, but I realized I didn’t have the knack for it. Most don’t. Springsteen’s ability to tell a story in the framework of a song is absolutely incredible. His characters appear on the scene fully developed, and the settings are clear from the get-go. I don’t know how he does it. Some novelists take pages (or even chapters) to do what Springsteen achieves in a single lyric line.
To me, the album is absolutely heart wrenching, but a good reminder of the thin line between happiness and despair that lurks within us all.
It’s also powerhouse songwriting that leaves me a little breathless if I really dive into it.
5. Great Big Sea – Courage, Patience and Grit (Live)
In trying to remember how I first came upon this disc, I think I may have been going through a phase of enjoying all things about pirates and found the song “Captain Kidd.” If memory serves, I think I found this double CD at the local Wal Mart and bought it without having heard anything from it. In fact, that would have been an odd thing to do, as I’d previously been aware of Great Big Sea as the band that performed “Ordinary Day” and “Sea of No Cares” but, to be absolutely honest, I never much cared for them. It’s not that I disliked them as much as I just really wasn’t interested. But when I listened through this collection of songs, that all changed.
As with Springsteen, I don’t listen to Great Big Sea all that much anymore. But I still love them. And for a time, I played this particular album over and over and over again. The Celtic, folk, pop, rock and traditional tones that run through all of Great Big Sea’s music strongly influenced a lot of the stuff I was writing at the time (I consider my songs “Hope Over Hurt” and “Glass” to have been heavily influenced by Great Big Sea).
I love my country and feel even more deeply Canadian when I listen to this band. And most of all, I suppose I just truly appreciate the sincerity with which these fellows perform, particularly Alan Doyle. At the time I found this CD, I had just come off of a particularly draining job change. This music helped me to feel revitalized, and I will always remember and be grateful for that.
The musicianship, the vocal harmonies, the tone of the songs and the general feeling of being in a big ‘ol Newfoundland kitchen party are all things that appeal to me about Great Big Sea. And maybe it’s because one of my sisters lives in St. John’s. Perhaps this music helps me feel a little less removed from her. In any case, it’s all great stuff.
4. Extreme – Pornograffitti
Here is the band I referred to earlier, writing about Green Day. Back in the early 90’s, I resented Green Day (and a lot of other bands) for getting the attention I felt Extreme rightly deserved. Luckily, I’ve grown up a lot since then!
Still, Extreme was the wrong band at the wrong time. In my view, they are easily the most misunderstood and under-appreciated band of my generation. They were not a “hair metal” band, nor a “grunge” band. They were just a great group of musicians who always showed incredible reverence to their own musical idols like Queen, The Who, Zeppelin and the Beatles.
“Pornograffitti” sounds like KISS one minute, then the Everly Brothers another minute, then the Red Hot Chili Peppers another, and Frank Sinatra the next. They grew even more eclectic in future recordings, and I loved them for it.
Extreme is, and always will be, my favourite band. I have an irrational attachment to this group, and the fact that most people don’t understand or appreciate them at all only makes me love them more. “Pornograffitti” was the record that started my love affair with their music.
Like many others, my first exposure to Extreme was through the smash acoustic song, “More Than Words,” which hit in 1991. I did not like that song at all at the time. Just another hair band, I thought (and, as it turned out, that’s what many others thought as well). “More Than Words” was a Billboard Number 1 sensation and helped Extreme sell millions of records worldwide. The trouble was, that song was not at all representative of Extreme’s real body of work. It turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. While I resented the song somewhat for overshadowing the collective work of the band, I later came to appreciate that it, too, is really special piece of music that went to number one for a reason: it’s good. Really good.
“Pornograffitti” is a brilliant rock record. A theme runs throughout, following a character named Francis as he’s subjected to the allure of money, sex, power, love and the rat race of life in general. It starts with “trying so hard to keep up with the Joneses” in what is still probably my favourite song of all time, “Decadence Dance” (shame about the hideous music video for this song, though. Ugh. No wonder people had the wrong idea!). From there, it follows many twists and turns addressing all of life’s temptations until it comes back to rest with “Hole Hearted,” a song many misinterpret as a boy-meets-girl love song, but is actually more of a statement the singer is making to his or her interpretation the Divine: “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you.”
Those who feel this record sounds like other 80’s-based rock of the time are missing the message. Extreme was always different, and they foreshadowed their falling out of sync with the popular music industry in general with the very first song of the record: “It’s hard to stop once the music gets started. Til the souls of your feet harden up like your heart did.”
The first big festival-type concert I ever went to, I attended simply to see Extreme. When Gary Cherone, the lead vocalist, climbed up and over the runway/risers behind the drum kit as the rest of the band launched into the opening song, I thought, “Oh my goodness! I want to try to learn how to do this!” It was one of the most exciting things I’d ever experienced, and led me to writing songs, learning how to sing and, eventually, to play guitar.
Extreme was my band. They still are.
They always will be.
3. David Francey – Right of Passage
To me, all of David Francey’s songs are gems. Each of his albums is a gift, and it almost seems wrong to rank them. I’ll just say that, of all of the truly incredible CDs he’s shared, this one means the most to me.
Francey’s story behind the song “All Lights Burning Bright” makes me emotional. I sang this song at my Grandpa’s funeral.
I remember seeing Francey perform in Aylmer, months before the release of this CD. He sang “The Ballad of Bowser MacRae.” When he got to the part of Bowser’s son saying to his Dad, over the phone, “I love you Daddy, good luck and goodnight,” I cried. I am almost doing it again right now. I think of my own two sons and get a lump in my throat every time I hear that song. My sons mean everything to me, as they do to Bowser as well.
I love the stories behind “Kansas,” “The Conversation,” “The Gate,” “Stone Town” and “Under the Portland Weather” (if you’re curious, you can find all the lyrics and liner notes to these songs HERE).
Part of Francey’s liner notes about the instrumental track “Ferry to Cortez” served as inspiration for part of the lyrics to my song, “No Schedule Man.”
I was fortunate enough to be a at Hugh’s Room in Toronto to see the CD release show for this stellar collection. I had never heard (or heard of) a Shruti Box prior to that, but I will never forget its mournful tones as it opened the show with Francey then singing, “Well it was Edmonton late in the fall, and I was done for good and all.” It gave me shivers.
There were only two times that I can remember when I saw someone perform and thought to myself, “Wow – I want to try that.” One was the first time I saw Extreme. The other was seeing David Francey at Hugh’s Room. What an incredible inspiration.
To me, each of David Francey’s CDs rate a rock solid 10 out of 10.
“Right of Passage” gets an 11.
2. Jimmy Buffett – Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays
I can’t help but chuckle, looking at this album so far up this list. In the late 90’s, I was in a band that played (among other songs), “Margaritaville.” I detested the song. I felt that we were lazy for including it in our sets and trying to appeal only to the “lowest common denominator” (I felt the same way about many other songs we played as well, including “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Mustang Sally,” “Honky Tonk Woman” and a whole bunch of others). Of course, I can now admit that those songs are all very popular for a reason. If I’d been choosing which songs to play, the bar would have been empty!
In the early 2000’s, I visited Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida. Among the many restaurants and bars at that complex is Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. There was a cover band playing in there that night. Their music was being piped out to the walkways outside the restaurant as well, and I distinctly remember the singer saying, “We’re in Jimmy Buffett’s bar. I guess we should play one of Jimmy Buffett’s songs.” They then went into an upbeat track I’d never heard before and I thought it was really catchy. I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. I didn’t know what the name of the song was but remembered that they kept getting back to singing, “Fins to the left, fins to the right.”
A couple days later, I saw on the news that Jimmy Buffett had been kicked out a Miami Heat basketball game I had attended the day before (in fact, that was the reason for the trip: to see the Heat in Miami playing their arch rival at the time, the New York Knicks). I figured that was a sign. At least Jimmy Buffett and I had the Miami Heat in common.
On the last day of that vacation, I decided I’d try to find a Buffett CD, maybe with that song on it, so I could have it as a kind of soundtrack-type reminder of the vacation. I went into the FYE music store in Florida Mall, expecting to find some kind of collection like “Margaritaville and 10 other songs you’ve never heard of before.” I was shocked when I found row after row of albums by Buffett, in stock. There must have been 25 different selections. I couldn’t believe it. How could a guy that only had one “hit” have recorded and released so much music?
I combed through the bin until I found “Live: Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays.” I figured it would be a good sample of his career, and saw that one of the songs on it was a tune called “Fins,” which I figured was the one I’d heard a few nights before.
When I first listened to the album, I didn’t like it right away. But as I started to go through some of the songs and they began to sink in a little more, I started to realize I’d been way off in my assessment of Jimmy Buffett and his music. Songs like “One Particular Harbor” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty” infused me with a sense that Buffett was a guy who knew what he liked, was entirely comfortable inside his own skin, was happy to share what made him happy, had more insight to offer than it seemed from the surface, and that there were a LOT of people that were happily in on it.
Despite the fact that he’d only ever had one “hit” (and “Margaritaville” never even got to the top of the charts), Buffett had been selling out stadiums and amphitheatres for years. He’d established a successful restaurant chain, began his own internet radio station (eventually picked up by Sirius/XM satellite radio), and had made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list as both a Fiction and Non-Fiction writer.
My curiosity led me to reading Buffett’s books, which resulted in me reading other authors he’d referenced (including Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Herman Wouk and Carl Hiaasen). I began devouring historical books about pirates, privateers and also modern day adventurers. One work led to another, and another, and another.
Listening to Radio Margaritaville helped me discover many other artists that I now love but wasn’t hearing anywhere else (some examples include Will Kimbrough, Sonny Landreth, Todd Snider and John Hiatt).
I eventually acquired Buffett’s entire recorded catalogue (that took a while!) and saw him in concert a couple of times. I wrote scads of songs off the various inspirations from the music, literature and experiences I gained that all started with discovering Jimmy Buffett (a couple of examples include two songs from my “No Scheudule Man” CD, “Orlando” and “Do Better,” the latter of which references the Buffett song, “Fruitcakes”).
In terms of sheer volume of additional influence and inspiration, this album really deserves to be at the top of this list. Looking back almost 15 years later, the inspirational ripple effect of first listening to Buffett has been staggering, and unmatched with anything else I’ve enjoyed.
And I guess that statement alone should give you some idea of just deep into my bones I feel about the only record that could rank ahead of this one, it terms of its influence on who I am, what I’ve created and what I still hope to be ….
1. Extreme – III Sides to Every Story
This album spun my head off my shoulders. It helped to shape the way I think about a lot of things, and still do. This was the one that spoke to me on a very meaningful level when I was an 18-year-old, bordering on adulthood and trying to figure out what my place in the world was going to be, who I really was and what I really thought about things.
Songs like “Am I Ever Gonna Change,” “Stop the World,” and “Who Cares” resonated with me very deeply. It was as if lead singer and lyricist Gary Cherone had lifted the thoughts from my head, made them eloquent and set them to incredible music.
Once I’d truly absorbed this record, I was so moved that I was sure I wanted to try and learn how to write songs to express my own thoughts and feelings. This is where my songwriting started.
When I eventually picked up an acoustic guitar, I didn’t learn by doing basic strumming patterns to traditional songs like “Tom Dooley.” Instead, I wanted to be able to play what I was hearing come out of the speakers when I put on an Extreme record. I bought any guitar magazine that had any reference at all to Extreme and tried to figure out the tablature so I could learn some of what guitarist Nuno Bettencourt was doing. I didn’t beging with basic lessons. I tried to learn how to play “Warheads,” “Cupid’s Dead” and “Peacemaker Die” instead.
I don’t recommend that, by the way!
Three sides to every story: Yours, Mine, and the Truth. It’s still true. And I can’t say enough about how this record just resonates with me deep into my soul.
The use of part of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech in the song “Peacemaker Die” is breathtaking. The band had to secure permission from Dr. King’s family to use that audio. The family must have sensed what Extreme was really all about, and I thank them for giving their blessing. The song is a masterwork.
The old Dr. Pepper commercial parody in “Warheads” works perfectly. It’s tragic comedy, illustrating just how casually we seem to accept violence and aggression as part of our everyday being. Sadly, that song resonates and holds up just as much today as it did over 20 years ago.
I may have learned a lot about other artists from Jimmy Buffett, as I outlined earlier, but my world expanded greatly because of Extreme long before that. Extreme would constantly nod their respect to the artists that influenced them. Their songs are laced with references, both lyrically and instrumentally, to iconic musicians like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Beatles, Alice Cooper, Queen, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and many others.
For evidence of just how much the members of Extreme respected those that came before them, listen to what Brian May says about them (in the video below) before they took the stage at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. Extreme then effectively stole the show with a spot-on medley of Queen songs in a display of absolute love, appreciation and reverence for Freddie Mercury.
“III Sides to Every Story” was acclaimed critically as a masterpiece. And it is. But it didn’t resonate with the public the way “Pornograffitti” did off the strength of “More Than Words.” It also was released at a time when the Seattle-based “alternative” sounds of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots were taking over the airwaves.
Extreme was cursed to have been the wrong band at the wrong time, at least in terms of sustained public success. But that doesn’t make their work any less impactful to those who found and embraced it
My love of “III Sides to Every Story” was a watershed connection in my life. I’ll never be that same age again. I’m not likely to ever be that impressionable again. I’m just glad it was this particular record that found its way into my spirit, as I believe I am better for it.
So there we have it! That’s my list. Thanks for reading. Please feel welcome to share yours as well, in the comments below. Maybe it will inspire others!