At the end of 2013, shortly after our record A Little Blood came out, The Whybirds were asked to compile a mixtape for a blog.
The idea was that it would be 10 songs each of some of our favourite and/or most meaningful songs (for some reason Dave and I picked 11. I'm useless at maths but Dave is pretty good, so I'm not sure what happened there). Anyway, the blog post never got published, but I found our list yesterday in my emails. I asked the boys and they were up for sharing, so here's the list and below is a Spotify playlist, which makes for an enjoyable listen!
1. Johnny B. Goode | Chuck Berry
There are so many reasons I've chosen this song but here are three:
1. It's just a perfect song, probably the best intro ever. Brilliant chorus. Brilliant lyrics (allegedly about himself). I defy anyone to not like this song.
2. It's the first song I ever saw performed live – I was in lower school and a band from the upper school came and played this us. I remember being so excited by the whole experience. I think it definitely had a lot to do with my wanting to play the guitar.
3. The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. One of the best scenes in one of the best films ever. I wanted to be Marty McFly. Still do actually.
2. In Bloom | Nirvana
Nirvana were my favourite band for a long time. I was pretty obsessed with them and while many of the bands I was listening to during the same period have fallen by the wayside, I still love and listen to Nirvana. It was really hard choosing one song, but I chose “In Bloom” in the end because it has everything that made Nirvana great: heavy guitar, brilliant drums, great melodies and harmonies, an absolutely awesome chorus, dynamics, and a very cool noise/feedback-laden solo.
3. Peaches | The Stranglers
This is one of the first songs I can remember liking. My dad had The Stranglers' Greatest Hits and I used to play it all the time. This is a very funny, pretty un-PC song but I love it! The 'singing' in this song is brilliant; I don't know how many other songs have an "Oh shit!" in them but this has surely got to be the best. The bassline is amazing too and who could forget the "mmm, mm, mmm, mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, mmmmm" vocal solo!
4. Free as a Bird | The Beatles
The Beatles are my all time favourite band. Unorthodox I know! This list could have been made up entirely of Beatles songs and I nearly opted for Abbey Road Side 2 as a choice but I thought that would be cheating. People might think its weird that I went with a song finished in the 90s (for the Anthology) but this really is one of my favourite Beatles songs. The slide guitar on this track is amazing. George is probably my favourite slide player and the solo on this track gets the hairs up on the back of my neck every time I hear it.
5. The Shadowlands | Ryan Adams
For me, Ryan Adams is the best songwriter of this century. This song, from Love Is Hell Pt. 1, is one of his best. His voice is amazing on this. I love the atmosphere created on the recording and the way it builds and builds as the song goes on. The guitar solo that comes in once the drums start is amazing. I don't know who plays it but it's so good. Like “The Free as a Bird” solo, this is another shiver-down-the-spine moment.
6. Midnight Rambler | The Rolling Stones
The live version from Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!. This song is just like early 70s Stones: fucking cool. And it's nine minutes long! The tempo changes really make the song. Every time it changes you get another amazing Keith riff. Mick Taylor's lead on this track is amazing too. I would have loved to have seen them live in this era.
7. They're Red Hot | Robert Johnson
My brother talked me into getting a Robert Johnson album. I was about 16 at the time and was looking at getting an Elmore James album but he argued that if I was getting into the blues I should definitely have a Robert Johnson album. He was right. The first time I listened to his stuff I was blown away. Lots of blues can be very formulaic and a tad boring but Robert Johnson wasn't just a great blues singer/guitarist – he wrote really good songs. “They're Red Hot” is a quick, fun song with some really strange chords and amazing vocals. Brilliant use of “feets” too.
8. Atlantic City | Bruce Springsteen
Like the rest of the band, I love Bruce. But we all tend to have different favourite albums. Mine tends to swap between Nebraska and ...Asbury Park and sometimes Born in the USA. Anyway, when it’s just Bruce and his acoustic he's unbeatable. I think the version of “Atlantic City” on Nebraska is the definitive version, as opposed to the 'rocked up' one he tends to play live now. I think this was the first Bruce song I loved as soon I as I heard it. The backing vocals give me chills.
9. Rain | The Beatles
Yup, another Beatles song! This is a great catchy Lennon song that once is in my head is there for days and days. It's also probably my favourite Macca performance on bass. What he plays is so melodic and moves around at quite a pace but fits the song so perfectly. I also love the weird drumming Ringo does on this track. Pretty good for a B-side.
10. Young Man Blues | The Who
Live at Leeds would have to be in my top five albums. It's just phenomenal. I have memories of listening to this album again and again in my old blue Mini, when I was about 18, and getting so carried away. When ever “Young Man Blues” came on I just couldn't help but stomp my feet and start to speed. There's so much aggression in it but it's still so cool. I think every one of them was at their peak when this was recorded.
1. Mannish Boy | Muddy Waters
This is the first song I ever remember loving. We used to have a compilation tape called Blues Brother, Soul Sister, which along with Queen (who I’ll get to later) is pretty much all we ever used to play in the car on family trips. I remember when it was just me and dad in the car, and we played and rewound it maybe four times in a row. In all honesty, the reason it appealed at that young age is because the riff reminded me of “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood off the Terminator 2 soundtrack, but I grew to love this version better. I could’ve easily picked “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray off the same compilation but I think Muddy just pipped him to the post.
2. Codeine | Jason Isbell
I thought this would be a good modern(ish) song to include. First off, the hook is amazing. It’s a stupidly catchy chorus. But the lyric: “If there’s one thing
I can’t take/ it’s the sound a woman makes / about five seconds after her heart begins to break” is absolutely bloody amazing. Isbell is one of my favourite contemporary songwriters, alongside people such as Ryan Adams and Josh Ritter.
3. Nothingman | Pearl Jam
This was the first song I ever sang in front of an audience. So it’s for that reason I’ll pick this song. Pearl Jam are my favourite band and have been since I was 16, so I could pick a lot of tracks, but this is the one I’ll go for. I didn’t really realise I could sing until I won the Sky Masterson part in Guys & Dolls at school. As a confidence builder before the play, the teachers had me sing this song at a school recital at aged 17. It was way before I played guitar, so [fellow Whybird] Ben accompanied me and did the harmonies. My teenaged voice broke on the “she once believed…” bit, but other than that it went okay, and from then on I was hooked on singing.
4. Goodbye | Steve Earle
I was already into Steve Earle, courtesy of a uni buddy who’d lent me a couple of CDs. But it wasn’t until I read the book Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle that I really started to get it, and knowing his life story from that book, I knew that “Goodbye” was a song he wrote for one of his wives who he divorced while on drugs, and how he didn’t even really remember the experience. Pretty emotional stuff. I’ve always found that if the song was a true story, the more raw it was and the more it appealed to me...
5. The River | Bruce Springsteen
…but on the flipside of that, is “The River”. I remember being bitterly disappointed when I found out that “The River” wasn’t autobiographical (although apparently it was about his sister and brother-in-law). It was the song that made me get into Boss. Before I’d always regarded him as too cheesy, but Ben and I were on holiday once in Suffolk, and he had the Greatest Hits tape in the car. When I heard this song, I was blown away, and with [Whybird] Dave’s help, became a dedicated fan very quickly. After a while I realised that writing in character is just as noble a thing to do as writing autobiographically. These days I do both.
6. It Makes No Difference (Last Waltz version) | The Band
I first watched The Last Waltz at uni with my friend Juan. And while I’ll always remember that, the movie actually always makes me think of [former Whybirds member] Taff Thatcher. We fucking loved that film. Absolutely loved it. We thought it was the be all and end all of what a band should be, what performances should be, how a band should look, how they should play together. And it is my all time favourite vocal performance. When Danko’s voice breaks on the “I love you so much, and it’s all that I can do…” line, I get goosebumps. The guitar solo is great, the sax solo is great… It’s just an amazing performance from top to bottom.
7. Now I’m Here | Queen
Another one from the family car trip days. The other tape we played all the time, other than the aforementioned Blues Brother, Soul Sister, was Queen’s Greatest Hits. I remember at a young age hating “Bohemian Rhapsody”, until I saw Wayne’s World, and then of course I loved it. I also loved “Seven Seas of Rhye”, “Another One Bites the Dust”… the list goes on. But this one I’ll pick, because it is still one of my favourite riffs of all time. When it kicks in after the crescendo intro, it is as good as rock ‘n’ roll gets.
8. Picture in a Frame | Tom Waits
I got into Tom Waits through Pearl Jam, through their cover of this song, just like I did Neil Young, through PJ’s version of “Fuckin’ Up”. Once I’d heard this song, Taff’s brother Chris played me the original version and some other ballads off Mule Variations, which I loved.
I then asked Chris and Taff what album I should buy to start my Waits collection, and they both said Rain Dogs. When I first heard that record I thought they’d tricked me. I was listening to it, growing more and more angry, thinking “what the fuck is this?”. Then I got to “Downtown Train”, which instantly clicked. On the strength of that song, I reckoned there might be a bit more to it, so I played the whole album again. The second time round, “Time” stood out. “Hang Down Your Head” stood out, “Blind Love” stood out. The whole record is amazing, it just takes a bit of work.
After that I was hooked, and I bought his entire back catalogue within two months or so. Rain Dogs is still my favourite album of his, but then some days I’ll say it’s Bone Machine or go back to Mule Variations. And the latter contains this song, which remains my introduction to the genius that is Tom Waits, and says so much about love in about four lines than most songs could ever say. Perfect.
9. You Can Call Me Al | Paul Simon
This song cannot fail me. When I’ve felt down in the dumps and put it on, boom, my mood is lightened. Especially if you watch it with the Chevy Chase video. If you’re ever at a party and people are competing on the stereo – putting different songs on and trying to pick the best crowd-pleaser – stick this on and you’ve won. It is unbeatable. The synth brass riff, the strange beauty of the lyrics with the angels in the architecture and your roly-poly little bat-faced girl, that reverse bass bit in the middle… it’s got it all. And by all, I mean it’s got a fucking piccolo solo! Play it at my funeral.
10. Down by the River | Neil Young
For me, Neil Young is the biggest influence on The Whybirds. The others might not see it that way, but for me it’s Neil, and not just because of the plaid shirts.
We have never once done what anyone else has told us if we didn’t think it matched our ideals. We have never once made any decision for commercial reasons or for any reason other than the music. While it might make us stupid or boneheaded or whatever – given the fact that bowing to other people at certain times might have made us more successful – at least we can say we never once sold out.
And while Pearl Jam were an influence that way too, I think it was Neil Young who laid this message of integrity, earnestness and honesty out to me the most clearly. Why not take a great pop song like “Down By the River”, with that mighty chorus, and stick a huge solo in it, where he repeats the same note 30-odd times? Why not follow up the hit record Harvest with Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night? Just follow the muse. You might get it wrong sometimes, but at least you’re always being honest.
Neil Young might not be my favourite songwriter of all time – though he’s always in my top five – but I think it’s safe to say he’s my favourite artist.
11. Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie | Joanna Newsom
Al Small (the singer from Taff, Ben and I’s first band) and I were in a record shop in New York in March 2004 and this record (The Milk-Eyed Mender) was playing. We were both enchanted by it. Al bought it on the spot and when we got back to England, he lent it to me and I was blown away by this song. Taff and I went to see Joanna Newsom at the Albert Hall – seventh row – and she played this song. But mainly I love it because of these lyrics and how many times in my life I felt they applied directly to me. Thankfully not so much these days.
Unfortunately, this one isn’t on Spotify, but you can hear it here.
1. Nuclear | Ryan Adams
I’d been a Ryan Adams fan for about a year and had avoided buying this album (Demolition) as I’d heard it was a bunch of demos and assumed it wouldn’t be up to scratch with the first two albums he’d already released. I remember getting home the day I bought it, sticking it in the CD player, and I will never forget the second the album started with this song. There’s just something about it that’s so simple I can’t describe it. I know a lot of people who love this song. He’s never returned to playing it live, and I find it interesting that something that seems throwaway to him can mean so much to so many other people.
2. We Built This City | Starship
Not sure how Ryan Adams would feel about being followed by Starship but this is one of the first songs I can remember enjoying so I feel it deserved a place on this list. And it’s got a silly good pre-chorus and I’m not ashamed to say it!
3. Golden | My Morning Jacket
This list could have been full of My Morning Jacket songs. Johnny Quaid, Jim James and Carl Broemel have all been a huge influence on how I play in the band. I have picked this song as I feel I have been through everything the song describes. Right down to what his girlfriend tells him in the final verse. And the pedal steel lick kills me every time. They opened with this song the first time I saw them too.
4. Me & Jiggs | Josh Ritter
An amazing songwriter. This is not his best vocal performance, not his best recording, not from his best album, not played with the tightest band. But it hits home for many reasons with me. It reminds me of being young, friends you only have once and long summer evenings.
5. Love On The Wrong Side Of Town | Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes
I’m a big fan of a good classic pop chorus. Guess it comes from the stuff I was brought up on. This song has it in true Walker Brothers style and a title that just makes you want to hear the song straight away. Written by the very much underrated Little Steven Van Zandt. A true hero of mine.
6. Free Fallin’ | Tom Petty
I’m not as big a Petty fan as other members of the band. And it’s pretty predictable I know. But (being one for a bit of cheese) the famous scene in the movie Jerry Maguire opened my ears to this song. It was played non-stop on MTV at the time and I loved the video. Full Moon Fever was my first ever CD purchase.
7. Fallen Angel | Poison
While my friends were listening to Green Day, Nirvana and Everclear, I was listening to this (sort of) masterpiece, and dreaming I would be the one to meet the girl “stepping off the bus into the city streets”! Big, bold, ballsy! I’d like to say I’m ashamed, but I’m just not. I invite you to “roll the dice of your life” as well! Amazing dive bomb solo too.
8. Don’t Look Back | Bruce Springsteen
Goosebumps from the opening chord, every time, without fail. Just one of the most romantic songs ever written. “Angel writes her name in lipstick on my dash” is easily one of my top three Springsteen lines! The guy’s a genius and lines like that make you feel like you are right there in the car with him. (Best listened to in the car when you’ve got plenty of road ahead. Don’t be pressing play when you’re going to be slowed down by T junctions.)
9. Under Control | The Strokes
Not to get too technical, but this band are the kings of high guitar chord voicings that give me shivers (in a good way). Unfortunately they spawned a bunch of bands that did the same thing, but with overly-English accents on the top, which give me shivers (in a bad way). But the chords in this song, simple as they are, and the clumsy drum fills, and the simple groove just gel for me. The guy can’t write a bad melody either. Definitely a big reference point for me during the recording of our latest album.
10. Glad Tidings | Van Morrison
One of those songs when you’re watching a TV show or movie and you hear a song, instantly love it and you have to go look it up straight away! Easy with this one as it’s hard to mistake his voice. This is from an episode of The Sopranos series five. It keeps popping up throughout the episode and really helps build the intensity of what’s about to happen. I’m always one for a singalong “La La La” wordless chorus, and no one does it better then Van! I just love this song.
11. Winter | Rolling Stones
A couple of winters ago I got some awful news that Taff from the band was moving away. It winded me, and I couldn’t really bring myself to do much. I stopped listening to music for a while. This was one of the first songs that got me back on track. I’d never heard it before, and after hating Goats Head Soup on the first listen, I persevered, and it turns out it's amazing and probably my favourite Stones album. I played this song on repeat for a week. The last gig Taff and I saw together just before he left was Rich Robinson from the Black Crowes in London, and he covered this song by coincidence. I love the strings near the end, and the sweet Mick Taylor licks, and I figured someone doing a Van Morrison impression would fit pretty well after the man himself!