From Elvis to Eminem, Arctic Monkeys to Zeppelin… we give you the greatest debuts
Presley’s first record back in March 1956 and the recent debut of the Arctic Monkeys, the fastest-selling of all time, bookend 50 years of rock music quite aptly. Despite concerns that rock is ebbing as a cultural force, despite the onset of new formats and downloads, there remains a fascination with the shock of the new in rock, a feeling that it can still deliver historical turning points.
The debuts here fall into various categories. Some represent relatively modest beginnings, with little hint of what their creators will later produce and become. So, Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album is a world apart from the brilliant carousel of Blonde On Blonde, while The Beatles’ first album is as culturally distant from Sgt Pepper as Gerry & The Pacemakers are from Pink Floyd. Conversely, there are others who have found it difficult to live up to the definitive achievement of their opener. Television’s Marquee Moon, say, or ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love, are such complete successes as to allow no further room for growth. Guns N’ Roses and The Stone Roses, meanwhile, both more or less collapsed under the strain of their early adulation. However, many of the debuts here – such as those by PJ Harvey, Spiritualized, Roxy Music and The Byrds – act as formidable indicators of what their creators would subsequently build and improve upon for the next few years.
Much is made of the ‘difficult’ second album. How much more difficult is the first: becoming what you are… hence this celebration of the debut. Because there’s nothing quite like the first time.
100 ARCADE FIRE
A concept album about suburban surrealism and political cynicism, Funeral was a word-of-mouth success. The Montreal eight-piece comprised a dynamic pocket orchestra, building from dreamlike balladry to immense anthems, with live performances of such intensity their contemporaries were scared witless.
Best track: “Neighbourhood #2 (Laïka)”
Provocative, pan-sexual and blessed with a glam-rock crunch courtesy of guitarist Bernard Butler, Brett Anderson’s neon-lit world of beautiful losers hit a nerve untouched since The Smiths.
Best track: “Pantomime Horse”
98 FOO FIGHTERS
Foo Fighters (1995)
After years of toil in the Nirvana misery mines, Dave Grohl finally exorcised his demons on this goofy, overdriven homage to the vein-bulging power pop of Cheap Trick. It was an instant success, with radio-friendly hits like “This Is A Call”. Stardom beckoned.
Best track: “This Is A Call”
97 VASHTI BUNYAN
Just Another Diamond Day (1970)
Briefly a Loog Oldham protégée, Bunyan fled for the Hebrides in a gypsy caravan, writing this dew-soaked marvel as she went. Produced by the legendary Joe Boyd, but initially ignored, it became the key text for Devendra Banhart’s acid-folk massive.
Best track: “Window Over The Bay”
96 PJ HARVEY
Anthems to pagan statues (“Sheela-Na-Gig”),spectral ballads (“Plants And Rags”), lust-fuelled rockers (“Oh My Lover”), Dry sent male rock critics into a tailspin while charting a path for fem-rock beyond Riot Grrrl.
Best track: “Dress”
95 THE WHITE STRIPES
The White Stripes (1999)
Deeply indebted to the blues, this was passionate and shambolic, while piano-assisted ballads and haunting covers evinced a range that would later pay dividends on Elephant. Meg White bashes gamely throughout, two months into her drumming career.
Best track: “Screwdriver”
94 MERCURY REV
Yerself Is Steam (1991)
This flopped in the US following Rough Trade’s collapse and doesn’t hint at later commercial successes like Deserter’s Songs. Rather, it’s a folie de grandeur, epitomised by the sprawling “Very Sleepy Rivers”.
Best track: “Chasing A Bee”
93 THE BIRTHDAY PARTY
Prayers On Fire (1981)
When Nick Cave and Co relocated to London from Melbourne, they were disgusted by the anti-rock New Pop, to which this was a chaotic corrective – its doomy squalls sounding like rock’s furthest, most testing extreme.
Best track: “King Ink”
Lazer Guided Melodies (1992)
Recorded for £3,000 with the intention of “creating Electric Ladyland”, Lazer Guided Melodies saw leader Jason Pierce surpass the dissipated space-rock of Spacemen 3 with a woozy overture to indolence.
Best track: “Angel Sigh/Sway/200 Bars”
91 THROWING MUSES
Throwing Muses (1986)
Boston’s Throwing Muses introduced a feminine sensibility that made a mockery of banal notions of Women In Rock. Over abruptly shifting guitar-chord patterns, Kristin Hersh, later diagnosed as manic-depressive, sang as if undergoing an exorcism or speaking in tongues.
Best track: “Call Me”
90 FRANZ FERDINAND
Franz Ferdinand (2004)
Like a Late Show discussion brought to life, the debut of these literate and funky Glaswegians combined the Red Krayola and Rodchenko with a knack for a rousing chorus, not least on electro-rock tour de force “Take Me Out”.
Best track: “Take Me Out”
Smart, sexy, and clearly in thrall to Wire, Justine Frischmann delivered her disdainful verdict on the indie milieu, dispatching scenesters (“Riding on any wave”) with brutal post-punk riffs and trust-fund insouciance.
Best track: “Line Up”
88 TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers (1976)
Petty’s self-styled ‘big jangle’ – led by Mike Campbell’s Byrdsian guitar and driving, Stonesy rhythms – brought a dash of new wave into the heartland rock of the US. With his rough, Dylanesque delivery, Petty rocked hard on the Byrdsian “American Girl”, later covered by Roger McGuinn. A diverse writing style and assured vocals foretold a glittering future.
Best track: “American Girl”
87 DR FEELGOOD
Down By The Jetty (1974)
The Canvey Island wideboys stripped vintage R’n’B down to its metronomic, monaural roots. The pub-rock scene they helped generate was the first kick at the door that punk would cave in.
Best track: “She Does It Right”
86 THE UNDERTONES
The Undertones (1979)
Stiff, Radar and Chiswick had already passed on their demos by the time John Peel began touting “Teenage Kicks”. Their debut eschewed politics and fashion
for raging hormones and chunky rib sweaters. Only the Buzzcocks rivalled them for punk-pop thrills.
Best track: “Billy’s Third”
85 ELVIS PRESLEY
Elvis Presley (1956)
Considered by many to be rock’n’roll’s equivalent of ‘The Book Of Genesis’, Elvis’ debut was actually a compilation (of sorts), mixing previously unheard Sun recordings with new tracks cut in the wake of “Heartbreak Hotel”. Of the former, his tender, spectral take on “Blue Moon” was a spine-tingling high that he’d seldom eclipse. Of the latter, his unbridled assaults through Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” and Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” set the bar for hi-adrenaline white R’n’B, which his countless imitators could never quite raise. When it hit the top, Elvis was playing at country showcase the Louisiana Hayride. Freeing a generation by the year’s end, he rarely returned to earth. The Clash made the sleeve more iconic still by apeing it on London Calling.
Best track: “Blue Moon”
Having quit Massive Attack, Tricky (Adrian Thaws) delivered a skunk-fuelled elegy for his late mother that bridged the uncharted hinterland between indie, hip hop and transvestism. Whatever it was, it wasn’t trip hop.
Best track: “Black Steel”
83 LITTLE FEAT
Little Feat (1971)
Having cut his teeth with The Mothers Of Invention, Lowell George’s outfit was on the verge of signing with Zappa before being snaffled by Warners. Like a bluesier Band, Little Feat chased southern-swamp boogie to its Dixie-fried roots, marked by hyperactive rhythms and a sound that collaborator Van Dyke Parks once equated to “white boys got the woo-woos”.
Best track: “Willin’”
82 THE POP GROUP
Self-consciously audacious debut from the Bristol firebrands that attempted a radical post-punk brew of free jazz, dub, contorted avant-funk and rasta-beatnik theology. Maddening and brilliant.
Best track: “She Is Beyond Good And Evil”
81 PEARL JAM
More even than Nirvana, Pearl Jam forged the popular template for grunge here: thundering hard rock, complicated by punk ideals. “Alive” provided the keynote, and the operative word.
Best track: “Jeremy”
80 CHEAP TRICK
Cheap Trick (1977)
An odd mix of cartoon dweebs and hirsute hunks, this Illinois quartet straddled the boundaries of trash pop and brash metal. Stadium-sized hooks and meticulous melodies concealed disturbing songs about playground paedophiles, mass murderers… and yuppies. Power pop never rocked harder.
Best track: “He’s A Whore”
79 JACKSON BROWNE
Jackson Browne (1972)
The template for early-’70s West- Coast soft rock. Browne’s songs were exquisitely crafted, touching on deep, difficult subjects, marrying world-weary reflection with the youthful optimism of the times.
Best track: “Looking Into You”
78 THE LIBERTINES
Up The Bracket (2002)
The Libertines’ debut is a ragged racket, but it has a sarcastic swagger all of its own. Combining the wistful elegance of The Kinks, the zip of The Jam and druggy swagger of The La’s, Up The Bracket offered a poetic snapshot of life on the margins.
Best track: “Time For Heroes”
The Slim Shady LP (1999)
Joyously un-PC, mentored by Dr Dre, Marshall Mathers’ debut laced trailer-park alienation with a lacerating wit to match King Ad-Rock and Flavor Flav.
Best track: “My Name Is”
76 GUNS N’ ROSES
Appetite For Destruction (1987)
Big-haired LA rivals were blown away by this ferocious, punk-meets-Zep amalgam. US No 1 “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was a brief distraction from the LP’s robot-rape sleeve, and attendant controversies that saw the band heading for self-destruction.
Best track: “Paradise City”
75 THE LA’S
The La’s (1990)
The sort of gritty pop record only Liverpool can produce: dripping with tunes but as tough as tungsten. Its melodic menace paved the way for Oasis, while Lee Mavers hinted at his own future on “Son Of A Gun”.
Best track: “Looking Glass”
74 KATE BUSH
The Kick Inside (1978)
Discovered by Dave Gilmour, the 19-year-old Bush had astonishing ambition from the off. Coating a myriad of influences in the weird and dramatic, her self-penned debut was remarkable for her emotive, swooping soprano, best heard on No 1 hit “Wuthering Heights”.
Best track: “Man With The Child In His Eyes”
Slanted And Enchanted (1992)
Pavement had built up a hipster mystique through their singles, but here they caught a post-grunge tailwind to become the decade’s paradigmatic college rock band. Slanted triumphed through a slackly chaotic pop sensibility and Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics, which could break your heart without giving you the faintest idea what they were about.
Best track: “Here”
72 THE STROKES
Is This It (2001)
Coaxing their nervy ramalama into three-minute spasms, the NY quintet may have looked like Vogue delinquents, but sounded equal parts Detroit ’69, NYC ’76 and skinny ’80s new wave. Their rediscovery of rock’s primal pulse in the age of superstar DJs seemed revolutionary and they inspired a new generation of guitar bands.
Best track: “Soma”
Fab Moretti on how The Strokes found the perfect NY sound…
UNCUT: Why did Is This It have such a huge impact?
MORETTI: We brought back the band vibe: the unity of the gang.
Did you see the parallels between yourselves and the ’70s NY bands?
We liked a handful of bands from that scene, but we never recognised the same unifying force in New York.
The hype suggested you came out of nowhere, but you’d been gigging solidly by summer 2000. How easy was the debut to make?
It was difficult in that we had to find the perfect sound and producer. We wanted
to establish a relationship with someone we trusted. Once we’d found Gordon [Raphael], it was easy to lay it down. We’d been playing these songs for months, so we already had the arrangements. The only thing we had to seek out was a sound that best represented the vibe of the songs.
You recorded it in a studio under the sidewalk at Avenue A and Second Street. Was that crucial?
Yes, although it wasn’t intrinsically tied to the neighbourhood. But just being in a basement and then being able to go and listen to the music in a bar across the street where we’d befriended the staff, all played a part in how the album sounded.
Did you receive the same reaction in the US as you did here?
The critics were pretty nice about us, but it’s a whole different set of criteria there. Because of the scale of the place, it’s much more difficult to break the United States than the UK, where word of mouth is so much more influential. The UK populace takes greater pride in discovering its own music, rather than being spoon-fed by some conglomerate like MTV.
Prior to your first UK gigs, the pressure to deliver must have been enormous…
We were very aware of the press reaction. The way our manager Ryan [Gentles] made it seem was that we’d come off the plane and it’d be like The Beatles in America, waving for a huge fucking crowd that’d come out to meet us. But it wasn’t like that at all. We got in kinda unnoticed, until the night of the show. We felt like nameless warriors trying to promote our music.
Touring and promoting it seemed to grind the band down. Did the strain have a bearing on the next album?
I’m sure it did. You try to ignore it as much as possible, but you’re always influenced by what people say. We felt like we were on a never-ending tour. After we recorded Room On Fire , we made the decision to slow down a little. You split your time between touring and recording new records, so it feels like a never-ending cycle of fucking hard work and pressure. In retrospect, Room On Fire was rushed. After that, we decided to take it easier and make the third record [2006’s First Impressions Of Earth] sound exactly like we wanted it to.
71 SCRITTI POLITTI
Songs To Remember (1982)
Songs To Remember saw Scritti transform from scratchy post-punk to pop without compromising on quality or intelligence. “The ‘Sweetest Girl’ ” demonstrated that pop sweetness could coat a cerebral lyrical pill, a trick ABC and Frankie would later emulate.
Best track: “Faithless”
70 JUDEE SILL
Judee Sill (1971)
Incandescent fusion of Laurel Canyon songwriting and Bach-style intricacy – “country-cult-baroque” Sill termed it. Her lyrics, drawing on junkiedom and a peculiarly sexualised Christianity, were more complex still.
Best track: “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”
69 ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN
Part-produced by Ian Broudie and Bill Drummond, the Bunnymen’s post-psychedelic dreamscapes marked them out as Liverpool’s answer to Joy Division. Frontman Ian McCulloch pouted like a cryptic Jim Morrison, while Will Sergeant’s choppy, restless guitar made instant classics of “Villiers Terrace” and “Happy Death Men”.
Best track: “Villiers Terrace”
Another Music In A Different Kitchen (1978)
When Howard Devoto left after the “Spiral Scratch” EP, odds were long on Buzzcocks reinventing themselves as the first modern pop group. With Pete Shelley now on vocals and Steve Diggle switching from bass to guitar, they achieved it with a furiously paced debut of unrequited love songs brimming with melodic and lyrical wit.
Best track: “Autonomy”
The godfathers of DIY electro-punk, Martin Rev’s propulsive melodies and Alan Vega’s stuttering rockabilly vocals dragged the ghosts of Elvis and Jim Morrison into the electronic age.
Best track: “Ghost Rider”
66 BEASTIE BOYS
Licensed To Ill (1986)
Producer Rick Rubin assembled the greatest party music of the period on this shotgun marriage of streetwise and cartoonish rock. The first hip hop LP to top the US chart, it was also parent label Columbia’s fastest-selling debut of all time.
Best track: “Paul Revere”
65 DEXYS MIDNIGHT RUNNERS
Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)
Fusing the revolutionary spirit of punk with the brassy emotiveness of Stax, Dexys’ new soul vision was released to ecstatic acclaim by critics and public alike.
Best track: “I’m Just Looking”
“Autobahn” is seen as Krautrock’s premier contribution to road music. But it was ex-Kraftwerkians Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, aka Neu!, who created a new chassis and engine of rhythm and sound on their debut, which had a sublime velocity and hood-down joy for which the word ‘motorik’ was coined.
Best track: “Hallogallo”
63 PERE UBU
The Modern Dance (1978)
While New York was overrun with studiously cool skinny punks, in post-industrial Cleveland, Ohio, a more bulbous and daringly uncool strain of avant-rock was emerging. This had all the headlong rush of Ramones, although vocalist David Thomas was flailingly existential, guitarist Tom Herman’s solos had the eviscerating force of a nervous breakdown, and Allen Ravenstine’s analogue synth interventions ran like brainwaves throughout.
Best track: “The Modern Dance”
62 THE ASSOCIATES
The Affectionate Punch (1980)
Mackenzie and Rankine’s intro to their kosmische kabarett, equal parts Bowie’s Berliner croon, Shirley Bassey sass and Kraftwerkian cool and John Barry Cinemascope. Pop music of unsurpassed strangeness and glamour.
Best track: “Amused As Always”
61 LEONARD COHEN
The Songs Of Leonard Cohen (1968)
Cohen here displayed a literacy that surpassed even Dylan, although he was convinced he couldn’t sing. Technically he was right, but his voice was steeped in a rich off-key gloom which perfectly suited the songs’ existential romanticism.
Best track: “Suzanne”
60 RICHARD HELL & THE VOIDOIDS
Blank Generation (1977)
Having already passed through some notable staples of the NY underground – The Neon Boys, Television and the Heartbreakers – Hell’s literate disaffection finally found expression in the innovative, jagged guitar-lines of the late, great Robert Quine. Anti-anthem “Blank Generation” had already reached the Pistols, re-shredding it as “Pretty Vacant”.
Best track: “Love Comes In Spurts”
U2 may have been archetypal post-punkers, all dark atmospheres and echo, but The Edge’s ringing guitars and Bono’s soaring, anthemic vocals meant that experimentation would be no barrier to success.
Best track: “An Cat Dubh”
58 TIM HARDIN
Tim Hardin 1 (1966)
Hardin was on a self-destructive path of smack addiction and womanising when he cut this debut. A veteran of the Greenwich Village folk scene, the strings gave Hardin’s melodic ballads baroque beauty. But the lyrics, heavy on sexual deceit and guilt, suggested the inner darkness that would leave him dead from heroin, aged 39.
Best track: “Reason To Believe”
Come On Pilgrim (1987)
Here, The Pixies rediscovered the primal energies of rock after 10 years of pop and poodle hair. Tracks like the frantic, half-drowned “Caribou” were a raging blueprint for Nirvana and Radiohead.
Best track: “Caribou”
56 BOB DYLAN
Bob Dylan (1962)
By the time these September 1961 recordings were released, Dylan had already outstripped them, hitting a songwriting stride the two originals here barely hint at. But this stark, haunted record remains a powerful opening statement.
Best track: “In My Time Of Dyin’”
55 IAN DURY
New Boots & Panties!! (1977)
Turned down by every major label, Dury was a 35-year-old pub-rock veteran by the time he was rescued by Stiff. Funny, cruel and bawdy, his debut showered old-fashioned music-hall wordplay with punk phlegm and cockney cheek.
Best track: “My Old Man”
54 RANDY NEWMAN
Randy Newman (1968)
The least confessional of LA songwriters, Newman’s debut eschewed all things Laurel Canyon for a sardonic roll through Tin Pan Alley and the rootsy R’n’B of his N’Awlins childhood. Co-produced by Van Dyke Parks, Newman’s sagas of death, cruelty and obesity were sweetened by lush orchestration.
Best track: “Davy The Fat Boy”
53 DE LA SOUL
3 Feet High And Rising (1989)
The Sgt Pepper of hip hop – a genre-defying mix of sampled folk and pop tunes, its vernacular full of in-jokes and Sesame Street surrealism.
Best track: Eye Know
The Lexicon Of Love (1982)
Sheffield’s subversive contribution to New Romantic, this was a Pop Art chart-topper. The missing link between Bryan Ferry and Jarvis Cocker, Martin Fry charted a succession of doomed romances over impeccably arranged plastic funk and synthetic soul. The bejewelled quartet of hit singles remain mini-masterpieces, but the arch lyricism and Trevor Horn’s glistening production sustain interest throughout.
Best track: “Date Stamp”
51 MOBY GRAPE
Moby Grape (1967)
Centred around former Jefferson Airplane drummer Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, the quintet combined garage-punk energy with glistening harmonies. Cut in three weeks for $11,000, their debut was as febrile as anything by the Springfield, but bad marketing and run-ins with the law (dope busts and alleged consorting with minors) hobbled them.
Best track: “Omaha”
50 THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN
Creation’s original battling bros, Jim and William Reid mapped out their One Big Idea on this ear-bleeding debut. But what an idea: classic, Spector-ish pop melodies drowned by hurricanes of feedback and shuddering distortion (see p112).
Best track: “Just Like Honey”
49 TALKING HEADS
Although they shared CBGBs stages with the Ramones, these art-school grads couldn’t have been further from NY punk, creating a neurotic bubble-funk from a love of the Velvets, Jonathan Richman, Al Green and disco.
Best track: “Pulled Up”
48 THE PRETENDERS
Forever the bridesmaid of the London punk scene, by the end of the ’70s Ohio-born ex-NME scribe Chrissie Hynde felt as if rock’n’roll had passed her by completely. Until she met three desperados from Hereford and made the first great rock debut of the 1980s.
Best track: “Kid”
Chrissie Hynde lets Uncut in on the inspiration behind the motley rock gang’s debut album: her Ohio childhood, running with bikers, and the scourge of Space Invaders. Words: Simon Goddard
“I’d been in England five years and thought I was too old to be in a band, but I finally met the right guys – James Honeyman-Scott (guitar), Pete Farndon (bass) and Martin Chambers (drums). They were these rural thugs from Hereford. Really, they were like the guys in Straw Dogs. That was the beauty of The Pretenders. We had this image of being a nice pop band, but really we were pretty hardcore. We liked melodic pop music, but we liked to get fucked. It was never a problem making that first album. It was dead easy, in fact. It was only later on that it did become a problem, with Pete and Jimmy. But then it always does when people start getting addicted to smack.
“That first album’s a pretty cohesive piece. I think the songs rely on each other; I don’t have a favourite. A lot of it was written in my room in Tufnell Park. I was in this weird girls’ rooming house. The landlord wouldn’t allow guys back there and it was freezing cold, but that’s where things like ‘Up The Neck’ and ‘Tattooed Love Boys’ were born.
“Other things, like ‘The Phone Call’; that came from me hanging out with a bunch of bikers. There were a lot of threats and someone I knew got killed and it was all fucked up. The whole scene was fucked up, so it was meant to be a death threat that someone gets through the mail, which is why it’s spoken.
“The instrumental, ‘Space Invader’, came about because the rest of the band were insanely in love with those arcade machines. Not me. I loved pinball. We all loved pinball, but then suddenly every pinball machine disappeared, replaced by fucking Space Invaders. I boycotted them, but the others were obsessed and had them all over the studio. That’s all you ever heard, those fucking Space Invaders the whole time!
“I didn’t really want ‘Brass In Pocket’ to come out as a single. I’d never liked it that much and, frankly, I was a little embarrassed about it, even if it did go to No 1. I felt that people in my scene were laughing at me, because it just wasn’t my favourite. The stuff that really represented me and how I felt was never really heard on the radio. Like ‘Precious’. That was written about times I spent back home in Ohio.
“I guess that’s what gave an interesting flavour to the band, that a lot of it came from the gutter view of Ohio and the mid-western industrial suburban malaise. But I knew ‘Precious’ would never be played on the radio because of the ‘fuck off!’ line. Someone told me it’s the best use of ‘fuck off!’ in rock’n’roll. But it’s backfired for me, because these days when I tell someone to fuck off, they look at each other and say, ‘Wow! She said it!’ I mean, how am I supposed to tell somebody to fuck off now?
“When the album finally came out, it went to No 1 and everyone said it was hyped up the charts. Yeah, that was the big scandal! I don’t know who hyped it in, but if someone did then I’m grateful. But I didn’t care if it was No 1 or not. Really, I was just glad to be playing guitar in a band and not waitressing. Obviously you want to make records because making records is a gas and you want to sell enough so you can stay alive. But I’ve never had that ‘We want to be the biggest’ mentality. It’s always better to have not as much success as you want than to have excess success.”
Straight Outta Compton (1989)
Dr Dre switched rap’s default sample from James Brown to George Clinton’s languid funk while NWA addressed the realities of gangsta-stricken urban America on this ‘debut’ [real debut NWA And The Posse (1987) wasn’t officially sanctioned by the band].
Best track: “Fuck Tha Police”
46 THE SLITS
The Slits dug their dub-rock trench alongside post-punk luminaries like PiL and The Pop Group. Cut bristles with tribal rhythms and proto-Riot Grrrl observations on love, gender politics and consumerism.
Best track: “Typical Girls”
45 JEFF BUCKLEY
Having graduated from NYC’s early-’90s avant-garde scene, Buckley Jr’s one completed opus explored the full range of his multi-octave voice, framed by beautiful arrangements, soaring hymns, Zep-like noise and the odd dazzling showtune.
Best track: “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”
44 ORANGE JUICE
You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever (1982)
Lovelorn, naïve and vibrant, these foppish Glaswegians fashioned post-Byrds jangle and skinny white soul into their own nervy, lo-fi brand of romantic pop, paving the way for The Smiths, B &S and Teenage Fanclub.
Best track: “In A Nutshell”
43 SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES
The Scream (1978)
The Banshees are here still untamed by major success and largely free of their later theatrical mannerisms. Menacing, noir-ish soundscapes and John McKay’s spiky guitars dominate. Potent stuff, more creepy than crawly.
Best track: “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)”
42 THE MODERN LOVERS
The Modern Lovers (1976)
Inspired by the Velvets, The Modern Lovers possessed the urgent primitivism of the best rock’n’roll. Jonathan Richman’s teen anthems defined suburban romanticism as faithfully as Brian Wilson’s pocket symphonies nailed the Californian dream.
Best track: “She Cracked”
41 PUBLIC ENEMY
Yo! Bum Rush The Show (1987)
Replacing Run-DMC’s proto-bling with Afrocentric articulateness, Nation of Islam nods, and anti-racist ire, PE turned rap from novelty to “the black CNN”.
Best track: “You’re Gonna Get Yours”
Pink Flag (1977)
Defiantly minimalist – “Field Days For The Sundays” lasts 28 seconds – this 21-track debut anticipated the grim splendour of Joy Division.
Best track: “Three Girl Rhumba”
39 BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (1973)
Disastrously hyped as another “new Dylan”, this rush of florid wordplay and sub-Van soul-rock initially stiffed. But songs like “Spirit In The Night” were hits for others, and it remains Springsteen’s freshest, funniest, least self-conscious LP.
Best track: “Hard To Be A Saint In The City”
38 CAPTAIN BEEFHEART AND HIS MAGIC BAND
Safe As Milk (1967)
Arranged by 19-year-old musical director Ry Cooder (who also played slide) the Cap’n steered his band through Delta-blues boogaloo and acid freakout to startling effect, marked by odd rhythms and spasmodic beats. “Zig Zag Wanderer” hinted at the full flowering of Don Van Vliet’s vision on Trout Mask Replica.
Best track: “Electricity”
Real Life (1978)
Magazine – all alienation, literacy and epic ambition – saw the full unfurling of former Buzzcock Howard Devoto’s peculiar genius. Surging anti-anthem “Shot By Both Sides” was “Born To Run” as written by Franz Kafka.
Best track: “Motorcade”
36 ARCTIC MONKEYS
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (2006)
Antennae tuned to grim reality, Alex Turner delivered songs about copping off in nightclubs and Mondeo-driving kerb-crawlers, with a brio to match idols Mike Skinner and Jarvis Cocker. Result: the fastest-selling debut album ever. At last, The Jam and The Smiths had a legitimate heir.
Best track: “Riot Van”
35 BLACK SABBATH
Black Sabbath (1970)
A groundbreaking fusion of occult imagery, brutal blues riffs and working-class attitude. The title track is pure Hammer horror, but much of the album is churning, super-heavy proto-punk with a streak of genuine psychosis.
Best track: “Black Sabbath”
34 STEELY DAN
Can’t Buy A Thrill (1972)
Donald Fagen and Walter Becker fused ’50s Latin jazz, cool bop and faux LA rock and the Dan (named after a dildo in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) introduced a cynical jazzy sensibility to pop.
Best track: “Midnite Cruiser”
33 GANG OF FOUR
These Leeds students replaced punk’s passionate nihilism with carefully theorised alienation. Funk and dub techniques were whitened, while love and leisure – pop’s subject and purpose – were disgustedly dissected. A crucial bridge into the post-punk future.
Best track: “Anthrax”
Kick Out The Jams (1969)
Detroit proto-punks, radicalised by police harassment and the city’s apocalyptic ’67 race riots. Elektra introduced the “house band of the revolution” with a live album, to exploit their rep for gigs mixing soul testifying and feedback carnage. MC5 laid the seeds for punk and political rock.
Best track: “Kick Out The Jams”
31 ELVIS COSTELLO
My Aim Is True (1977)
Costello burst onto the Summer of Hate like a sneering Buddy Holly, unloading a sharp set of blazingly intelligent songs that veered between bitter disappointment and disgust, revenge and guilt. Backed by US country-rockers Clover (later to become Huey Lewis’ News), this was where New Wave songcraft met the twisted remains of old-school rock’n’roll.
Best track: “Alison”
Definitely Maybe (1992)
The Gallaghers’ arrival was perfectly timed. A pair of mono-browed enforcers preaching the glories of The Beatles and the Pistols, they crushed the opposition with their sledgehammer melodies, sung with brutalist zeal by 22-year-old thug-Adonis Liam Gallagher. Oasis would subsequently take a great deal of flak both for their boorish antics and for dragging indie rock back into an era of retrograde conservatism. Even Noel Gallagher suggested in interviews that they were delivering diminishing returns with each new album. But it’s hard to deny the stone killer qualities of their debut, recently voted the best album of all time in an NME.com poll. Tracks like “Cigarettes And Alcohol”, dirty, restless and toxic, were about the everyday frustrations of a dead-end job and the need for kicks. Definitely Maybe provided an adrenaline shot, with Liam’s voice – fag-rough, rasping and dangerous as Lennon at his most acerbic – the ideal mouthpiece for brother Noel’s songs, the whole thing capturing the intoxicating euphoria of the mid-’90s.
Best track: “Slide Away”
29 NICK DRAKE
Five Leaves Left (1969)
Drake’s cult status is partly attributed to his early death. But in reality it stems from the realisation that his debut contains some of the loveliest songs ever – languid, haunting, folk-based wisps marinated in a fragile but gorgeous melancholy.
Best track: “River Man”
28 THE DOORS
The Doors (1967)
In Jim Morrison, The Doors boasted a wild child touched with genius. His poetic visions and fearless desire to explore the limits of human experience produced a debut remarkable for its depth and darkness.
Best track: “End Of The Night”
27 MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Isn’t Anything (1988)
Redrawing the noise-rock map to embrace the molten fury of hip hop and the lysergic euphoria of acid house, this goes off like fireworks inside your brain. Kevin Shields’ guitars bend the fabric of space-time, blending soft and hard textures, speed with torpor, and dissonance with dreamlike beauty.
Best track: “No More Sorry”
26 BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD
Buffalo Springfield (1967)
They were doomed to be shortlived. With Stephen Stills and Neil Young jostling for position with Richie Furay, their West Coast collision of folk-rock and country-soul made for a thrillingly diverse experience, leant added intensity by Stills’ and Young’s guitar freakouts. “For What It’s Worth” became Sunset Strip’s protest anthem.
Best track: “For What It’s Worth”
25 THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION
Freak Out! (1966)
Frank Zappa’s Mothers looked like hippie delinquents, but they were fearsomely tight musicians, led by a man whose facetious iconoclasm belied a disciplinarian streak and serious satirical intent. Musical references went all the way from doo-wop to modern classical. A touchstone for the entire rock avant-garde.
Best track: “Trouble Every Day”
24 BIG STAR
#1 Record (1972)
Led by a post-Box Tops Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the Memphis quartet’s brash, Anglophile pop harked back to the innocence of the British Invasion while gorging on gritty white soul. Streaked with melancholy, “The Ballad Of El Goodo” typified their beauty-into-sadness classicism. Label Ardent had no idea how to market them, resulting in poor sales and inter-band friction.
Best track: “The Ballad Of El Goodo”
23 THE FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS
The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
Too wild for country boys and too hillbilly for rock snobs, ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman barely registered on the charts with the Burritos. Nowadays, its marriage of redneck C&W, soulful white R’n’B and Nudie-suited psychedelia is regarded as important in its field as The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Best track: “Sin City”
Murmur was pivotal, announcing the arrival of a classic band and inspiring a deluge of alternative rock and Americana that transformed the music industry. R.E.M. sounded old as the hills yet sparklingly fresh, mixing folk and rock traditions and post-punk into a newly-minted language.
Best track: “Perfect Circle”
21 THE SMITHS
The Smiths (1984)
Morrissey’s assertion that The Smiths’ debut was “a complete signal post in the history of popular music” wasn’t too grand. Johnny Marr’s spangled guitar lines and Morrissey’s mordant wit introduced an oddly English kind of romantic fatalism: euphoric one moment, doomed the next.
Best track: “Still Ill”
20 THE SPECIALS
The Specials (1979)
No sooner had Maggie settled in No 10 than the Coventry septet issued this; a Costello-produced manifesto for a generation who’d oppose Thatcher while moonstomping to ’60s ska rhythms. Not just 2-Tone’s best debut, but its defining hour.
Best track: “Doesn’t Make It Alright”
Jerry Dammers recalls the inspirations, tensions and hippie-baiting that went into the touchstone of 2-Tone, The Specials’ eponymous debut album…
As the ’70s ended, The Specials were a bolt of new life from the most unlikely surroundings – Coventry, in the country’s rapidly fading industrial heartland. Their debut album was a cross-cultural epiphany featuring a sharp-suited community of black and white rowdies. Though short-lived, The Specials Mk I were punk’s multi-racial idealism made flesh. In the years ahead, with the draconian government of Margaret Thatcher wielding power, the album would prove a touchstone and rallying point.
On its release in October 1979, the music, a confrontational yet mournful mix of ’60s ska and punk, represented a dynamic surge in the national pop grid. A year later, with the group’s downbeat second album, More Specials, world-weariness crept in. But The Specials’ debut maintained its influence.
The group came together by osmosis, gathering together the remnants of several Coventry punk, soul and reggae outfits. Chief instigator, songwriter, designer and founder of the 2-Tone label was keyboard player Jerry Dammers, he of the gap-toothed look (the result of a childhood accident). The son of a Church of England vicar, Dammers harboured dreams of forming an epoch-defining band dating from the day he saw The Who play “My Generation” on Ready Steady Go! in 1965, age 11.
By the mid-’70s he was delighting in breaking up hippie student parties by commandeering the sound system and playing Prince Buster tunes. A short stint on keyboards in local New Faces winners The Sissy Stone Soul Band came to an end with the coming of punk. “I was more into black music, but with punk it just felt that my generation had found a voice, a way to speak about real things,” he tells Uncut. “It was incredible. All our heroes had sold out and suddenly it all seemed real again.”
Together with bassist ‘Sir’ Horace ‘Gentleman’ Panter and Jamaican-born guitarist Lynval Golding, Dammers formed The Automatics. Deadpan vocalist Terry Hall from The Squad and second guitarist Roddy Radiation from The Wild Boys soon joined the trio. After a mercifully short-lived liaison with then-local DJ Pete Waterman, the group secured a support slot on The Clash’s On Parole Tour.
The breakout from Coventry was encouraging and the emergence of roadie Neville Staples as toaster/dancer/stage invader, an early adherent of the Chas Smash (and, later, Bez) school of sidekick-as-star, a key move. But the sonic blend, which would be immortalised on the album, was still being developed.
“On the Clash tour, we were still a punk-reggae band,” recalls Dammers. “Like on ‘Up To You’ we’d go from punk thrash into half-speed dub reggae. That was sort of working, but we’d hit on the idea of ska as having more energy. The inspiration came from a Birmingham reggae band called Capital Letters; they had this track, ‘Smoking My Ganja’, with a ska beat.”
With Dammers’ flatmate John Bradbury on drums, Golding’s collection of old ska 45s was raided for Dandy Livingstone’s “Rudy, A Message To You”, joining covers of Andy and Joey’s “You’re Wondering Now” and Toots And The Maytals’ “Monkey Man” in the album’s track list. Another ska tune, Lloydie And The Lowbites’ “Birth Control”, inspired Dammers to pen the controversial “Too Much Too Young”.
Now, Rhodes’ business practices (lampooned on debut single “Gangsters”, recorded in January ’79, four months before the album) were found wanting. But, although he was dispatched as manager in favour of Coventry publicist Rick Rogers, Dammers took some of the Clash mastermind’s advice to heart. Specifically, Rhodes had told him the band needed to look like their audience.
“We went back to Coventry and got the whole ska thing together: the look, the label, the whole caboodle,” he explains. “We’d done a gig in Lincoln full of normal kids in baggies, Northern Soul fans who hadn’t really been affected by punk, and by the end we’d won them over – four encores. They’d never heard of us, so we knew something genuine was happening with the live act. It wasn’t like we’d been hyped by the press.”
In the early months of 1979, with “Gangsters” only beginning its nine-month crawl from independently produced limited edition to chart hit, The Specials supported Gang Of Four, The Damned and Sham 69. The odious National Front had made their unwelcome presence felt at some gigs. Dammers recalls being struck by the supercharged atmosphere at Sham 69 gigs.
“It was like Wat Tyler leading the peasants’ revolt: literally a riot,” he says. “The feeling was that the revolution would come from football terraces not university politics.”
Aside from the lyrically explicit and musically tender “Doesn’t Make It Alright”, Dammers maintains originals such as “Blank Expression” and “Dawning Of A New Era” were personal songs about his own, invariably failed, relationships “with political bits added on”. The objective was to put across an unpatronising, anti-racist message to an audience comprising blacks and whites, mods, punks and soul boys.
Not that The Specials preached a united political accord. Roddy Radiation’s “Concrete Jungle”, one of the LP’s signature tunes, declared, “I don’t want to fight for a cause/Don’t want to change the laws”, an outlook at odds with the campaigning zeal espoused by Dammers.
“Everything from left-wing socialism to all-out anarchism, it was all in there,” he declares. “Roddy insisted on singing on that, too, rather than Terry.”
Elvis Costello, an early supporter of the band, was hired to produce the album. Recording took place over three weeks, a month after Thatcher’s election win, at TW studios in Fulham.
“It wasn’t just about capturing the live act,” offers Dammers. “He did eccentric things with the mix, like suddenly making the drums really loud on ‘Do The Dog’. And on ‘Nite Klub’ he got a sound like you were outside a night club.”
Dammers deflects the standard criticism about the ‘thinness’ of Costello’s production. “He didn’t do a reggae mix – he made the bass very trebly, which meant you could hear it on a transistor radio. That worked for us, because in those days most people still had tinny speakers. I loved his idea to put sleigh bells on “Blank Expression”; it gives it a really bleak feel. It’s my favourite track on the album.”
Elsewhere, the sound of raucous desperation holds sway – guitars like sharpening knives, keyboards like breaking bottles, rhythm tracks like distant gunshots and Terry Hall’s sinister Midlands monotone. It’s not surprising to learn that it was all alcohol-fuelled.
“With today’s licensing laws the album wouldn’t have got made; everything had to be done before the pub opened at 5pm,” Dammers laughs. “That was far more important to us than recording the LP. It was good, as there was no time for self-indulgence: we just banged down the tracks. Elvis was too famous to come into the pub – when he did there was a crowd around him. I’d wanted to be a pop star since I was a kid and seeing that was an eye-opener.”
However, Costello did join in the studio party mood. Dammers remembers him falling off his chair at one point and brandishing the master tape of Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different For Girls” – his intention was to re-record the lead vocal using his own voice. The opening bars of the album – “A Message To You Rudy” – unveiled something never previously heard in The Specials’ live show. Counterpointing the band’s punk energy and revamped ska with the baleful wails of the Rico Rodriguez-Dick Cuthell horn section throughout the record was a masterstroke. Rodriguez had, in fact, played on the original.
Says Dammers, “To us, he was the ultimate hero; the fact he was playing with us made the album a million times better. Bringing that history to us was brilliant.”
During the recording, Dammers says the band were well “into a mad session that lasted two years”. Their united front found voice in the belligerent “Monkey Man” and the rallying cries of “Rudy” and “It’s Up To You”. But there was also an underlying feeling of despair, one never far from the surface of late-’70s urban Britain.
By the time it was released in October 1979, the 2 -Tone insurgency was in full effect. The label had produced hit (debut) singles by The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and The Beat. The band’s look captured on the cover – shady operatives from a potent multicultural underground – was replicated around the country.
Dammers admits to being embarrassed by one song, “Little Bitch”, written when he was 15 and displaying a misogynous trait. Even so, The Specials is much more than a period piece: its depictions of one-parent families, urban violence and insistence on multiculturalism as a fact of life make it just as relevant in 2006.
“It was a pretty horrible time… Thatcher was a turning point for Britain,” says Dammers. “But it was great that bands were saying something. I remember meeting John Lydon in New York after Duran Duran came out and started pissing about on yachts. We both just thought that was the end, a return to the same old rock-star crap.”
19 THE SEX PISTOLS
Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols (1977)
The most feverishly-anticipated LP of all time, how could Bollocks live up to the raging hype? By delivering the definitive soundtrack to punk. Its obnoxious brilliance made it near-immune to criticism, with producer Chris Thomas mining wall-of-sound gold from the chaos.
Best track: “Bodies”
18 PATTI SMITH
Smith, a respected poet, eschewed punk’s Year Zero-ism, evoking instead Dylanesque visions and employing tough basic rock, adding a visceral female sensibility with no precedent.
Best track: “Kimberly”
17 THE BEATLES
Please Please Me (1963)
A detonation more than a debut. Recorded in 10 hours, the eight Lennon-McCartney originals threw down a songwriting gauntlet to every group that followed.
Best track: “Please Please Me”
16 NEW YORK DOLLS
New York Dolls (1973)
The Dolls gave ’70s US rock a lipstick-smeared kiss of life, mixing the trash aesthetic of Bolan and warped world view of Lou Reed with a healthy dose of nihilism. Somewhere, Malcolm McLaren was listening…
Best track: “Jet Boy”
15 THE ROLLING STONES
The Rolling Stones (1964)
The Beatles’ 50-week reign at the top of the UK charts was broken by this raw, brash collection of R’n’B covers (plus Jagger-Richards’ plaintive “Tell Me”) that started the groups’ rivalry as stylistic leaders.
Best track: “Not Fade Away”
14 PINK FLOYD
The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (1967)
Syd Barrett’s only complete Floyd album, his influence is clear in the fairytale-ish whimsy that envelops the material. Piper is textbook Brit psychedelia: weird, ingenious pop songs; freewheeling instrumentals crammed with experiments in dissonance and feedback.
Best track: “Interstellar Overdrive”
13 THE BYRDS
Mr Tambourine Man (1965)
The darlings of Sunset Strip melded The Beatles, Dylan and Bach into glorious, folk-rock heaven. Jim (later Roger) McGuinn’s Rickenbacker became the definitive sound of mid-’60s LA, while the tiered harmonies and Gene Clark’s songwriting established The Byrds as the first US band to seriously threaten the dominance of the Fabs themselves.
Best track: “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better”
Ramones reduced rock to basics: leather jackets, solo-less riffs, lyrics torn from True Confessions. It was at once brilliant and dumb. Without it, claimed Joe Strummer, there would’ve been no UK punk.
Best track: “53rd And 3rd”
11 THE WHO
My Generation (1965)
With its pillhead stutter, “My Generation” was the ultimate disaffected teen anthem, but its originality lay more in the sound – raw, brittle R’n’B drenched in Townshend’s squealing feedback.
Best track: “The Kids Are Alright”
10 THE STOOGES
The Stooges (1969)
Drawing on British R’n’B, US garage rock and psych, The Stooges was a work of frenzied unease enhanced by John Cale’s production. Released in the same week as Woodstock, this record finally killed the ’60s.
Best track: “I Wanna Be Your Dog”
9 ROXY MUSIC
Roxy Music (1972)
Roxy arrived fully formed, like a sci-fi group from the 1950s or a nostalgia act from the future. On “Virginia Plain”, the band had married Bryan Ferry’s knowing pop classicism with Brian Eno and Andy Mackay’s avant-garde sensibilities. The LP outstripped it, fusing Hollywood glamour, elegant disenchantment and art-pop wit.
Best track: “Re-make/Re-model”
8 JOY DIVISION
Unknown Pleasures (1979)
Packaged in Peter Saville’s pulsar-graph sleeve and layered in chilly reverb by producer Martin Hannett, this album feels like a vast granite monument. In his richly emotive baritone, Ian Curtis sings of mental breakdown and urban alienation, at times even appearing to predict his own demise.
Best track: “Shadowplay”
7 LED ZEPPELIN
Led Zeppelin (1969)
Recorded in 30 hours, Led Zeppelin landed with a debut of astonishing urgency. It boasted majestic Page guitars, monumental grooves and Plant’s orgasmic vocals, establishing him as the archetypal cock-rock icon. Sadly, few of the HM hordes Zep inspired recognised the subtlety of shade and texture with which they surrounded the pummelling riffs.
Best track: “Communication Breakdown”
6 THE CLASH
The Clash (1977)
The Pistols were more notorious, but The Clash delivered the signal punk debut. A tour de force of politicised rage and shrewd (sometimes comic) social observation, it was designed to sound primitive, but there was artistry, too. The Jones/Strummer guitar combo embodied a bleeding-fingered brutalism, while the rhythm section was relentless.
Best track: “Garageland”
5 THE BAND
Music From Big Pink (1968)
An extension to the Basement Tapes that behaves as if psychedelia and acid rock never happened, The Band creating their own beautifully detailed inner world, filled with fables of search and belonging. Strange that it took a mostly Canadian group to wring so much from America’s musical heritage.
Best track: “The Weight”
4 THE STONE ROSES
The Stone Roses (1989)
In 1989, the Roses were still in the process of being transformed by rave. If they were known at all, it was as another mumbling Manc indie band, closer to Goth than dance. However, with their debut, they caught something new in the air. It’s the budding, hesitant yet sanguine quality of The Stone Roses that has made it endure to this day; not so much Something Happening as Something About To Happen. This LP was an implicit ‘good riddance’ to the weary ’80s. Opener “I Wanna Be Adored” hoves into being like a rising sun, a slow, expansive burst of psych ecstasy; “Waterfall”, with its backward version, “Don’t Stop”, bears literal witness to the effect the Roses had on British indie rock – turning it inside out, from b/w to colour. Squire’s rich guitar palette and Brown’s arrogance were a potent mix; “I Am The Resurrection” was a portent. The ’90s belonged to the Roses, only for them to fritter it away – Oasis’s path to glory was already Roses-strewn.
Best track: “I Wanna Be Adored”
3 THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE
Are You Experienced (1967)
In 1966, canny Chas Chandler had brought Hendrix to Britain with a view to relaunching his career as a Carnaby St-style novelty, after the guitarist had spent years on the chitlin’ circuit. Yet the energies Hendrix unleashed transcended the banalities of the Wild Man persona in which he’d been cast. Instead, Hendrix tossed old blues, folk, psych, soul, funk and rock’n’roll into a new electric melting-pot. With the opening, sensual rumble of “Foxy Lady”, it was clear this was the greatest rock guitarist of all time, stretching and awakening. From the bang-up-against-the-limits “Manic Depression” to “May This Be Love”, Hendrix’s debut flows like lava, entombing the hitherto anaemic history of guitar rock beneath it. Are You Experienced introduces a new heaviness and sensuality. Hitherto, we’d just been kissing, pecking and petting. This was the real thing. The volume and temperature had been raised forever. There was no going back.
Best track: “I Don’t Live Today”
Marquee Moon (1977)
Television almost split when the original sessions for Marquee Moon with Eno producing failed to ignite. Fred Smith took the place of Richard Hell and three intensive weeks in the studio produced music owing as much to John Coltrane as to the Velvets. Tom Verlaine’s expressionist lyrics and high-wire guitar interplay with Richard Lloyd made for a work of breathless wonder. Eloquent, minimal and portentous, Marquee Moon was New York punk with a cool, art-school intellect. Having ditched some Eno-produced demos, Andy Johns steered the quartet through Velvets-via-Coltrane soundscapes, marked by the stinging guitar interplay of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, topped with Verlaine’s detached, metallic vocals. The post-punk era’s original template, its centrepiece was the magnificent 10-minute title track.
Best track: “Venus”
1 THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO
The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)
Released just prior to Sgt Pepper, The Velvet Underground & Nico was the narcotic, leather-coated flipside to the Summer Of Love. Overseen by Andy Warhol and produced by Tom Wilson (Bringing It All Back Home, Freak Out!) it captured a rock’n’roll demi-monde of white noise and buzzing drone. With Lou Reed’s Bowery-bum poetry, John Cale’s avant-expressionism and the ice-maiden vocals of Nico, these poisonous tales of drug abuse (“Heroin”; “I’m Waiting For The Man”) and S&M sex (“Venus In Furs”) were as dark as ’60s rock got. All but ignored at the time – Rolling Stone didn’t even bother with a review – its No 171 placing on the Billboard chart belied its subsequent influence. As Brian Eno once remarked, those who did hear it immediately formed a band.
Best track: “Heroin”
Ex-Velvets sonic provocateur John Cale talks exclusively about the making of the greatest debut album of all time…
SIDE 1 TRACK 1 “Sunday Morning”
We did this at Mayfair Sound Studios in NYC, November 1966. It was the last recording for the album. The place had a beautiful wooden floor that was all ripped up and there were holes everywhere – you had to step around to set up; a real fucking hassle. We decided it needed a celeste and it was a pretty song, so it became our second single; one of the only things MGM could relate to. The song captures a mood and a specific event. Lou and I had been up all night on crank, as usual, so we decided to visit one of his old Syracuse college pals. Unfortunately, this guy’s upper-middle-class wife didn’t appreciate visits from old college pals high on amphetamines, at 3am, who wanted to play music. He had a guitar which Lou picked up and the evening inspired him to write the song.
SIDE 1 TRACK 2 “I’m Waiting For The Man”
One of our drone songs. We used a drone style on “Venus In Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. I liked it because it was rock’n’roll. I hammered the piano, smacking it with fists, and there was no back-beat for Maureen’s drums. It’s very British-sounding, mid- ’60s pop like The Honeycombs’ “Have I The Right?”. Lou came up with the riff and his solos were crazy. Sterling used to do the solos live. His method was to play like unwinding a ball of string, where you end up in the right place. I dunno how they got the vocal, because we recorded everything on four-track. They must have left one track open for the voice. It was all about mixing then; there weren’t any overdubs. The song’s about a trip up to Harlem, a conversational piece based on real experience. There was a lot of that stuff around: Dave Van Ronk, Arlo Guthrie… talking street poetry. It captures Lou’s voice perfectly and it’s got a body, which Tom Wilson achieved when we re-recorded it at TTG [aka Sunset-Highland Studios in Hollywood].
SIDE 1 TRACK 3 “Femme Fatale”
This and “I’ll Be Your Mirror” were written for Nico at Andy Warhol’s suggestion when love affairs between Lou, Nico and I were in the air. Lou liked it when Andy gave him some words and said to go away and write a song around them. It could have been about Edie Sedgwick, but it was about all the starlets. There were a lot of screen tests going on at the Factory. The girls were all mad and strung out on drugs; beautiful and wasted. He was making Chelsea Girls when we rehearsed and that was harrowing. You’d see the girls disintegrating and sliding down walls with tears in their eyes. Nobody normal would go near the Factory. It was a protective environment for kooks – quite dangerous for your sanity. Andy wasn’t like that. He was a professional and a manipulator. He never pressed a button; he didn’t ‘do’ anything. He had his eye on the ball. Anyway, Chelsea Girls informed this song and it reminds me of an interview Andy did for PBS where he was at his most mischievous, and he says, “Ohhh, I really love New York. I think it should be carpeted.” Lou wanted to keep it pure. He was right. I wanted to push the envelope and fuck the songs up. That’s why we split. He wanted me to be a sideman in my own fucking group.
SIDE 1 TRACK 4 “Venus In Furs”
One of our oldest songs. Lou brought this and “Waiting For The Man” into Pickwick when he was a jobbing songwriter. It was a poetry song, which he used to play on acoustic guitar. I couldn’t concentrate when it was a folk number because it felt like Joan Baez to me. Anyway, he kept on shoving the lyrics in my face – “read the fucking lyrics!” – so I did. The first time we played it at our Ludlow Street apartment in fall ’65, we just locked ourselves in and did the damn thing as a 15-minute jam. Again, we re-did this in Hollywood and the more I talk about that, the more I realise we really didn’t do anything great in New York. I don’t think this has been said before. The Velvets recorded their debut in LA? We really may have done.
SIDE 1 TRACK 5 “Run Run Run”
A great stage song because it was so uptempo. You felt as if you were on the New York streets living the song out; like all of ’em, I guess, which was Lou’s genius. It had that chukka-chukka bluesy groove, and I’d keep the riff going and Lou would solo above it. It was weird stuff. I loved Champion Jack Dupree, but Lou knew a helluva lot more blues than I did. “Run…” was a song that worked live. We knew everything couldn’t be a “Black Angel’s Death Song” or a “Heroin”, which were designed to let off steam. This was less claustrophobic, a moment of release.
SIDE 1 TRACK 6 “All Tomorrow’s Parties”
This wasn’t originally written for Nico at all. We did a 20-minute version of it in Ludlow Street in ’65 and then we recorded it at Scepter, and probably TTG, with Nico’s vocal double-tracked. The single version [the first Velvets single was released to NYC radio stations before the album’s release] is slightly different. Nico sang very well on most of it, although a lot of it was out of tune. The song was about a girl called Darryl, a beautiful petite blonde with three kids, two of whom were taken away from her. Me and Lou were both trying to win her affections. We both had our day in the sun. We were at Darryl’s apartment one day and she had this boyfriend who was a Polish hitter, a construction guy who, if you gave him 200 bucks, he’d beat the shit out of someone for you. So we’re over there and Darryl’s asleep and she’s got this baby-sitter called Pepe hanging around and the Polish guy turns up and I’m playing a recorder. He says to me, “If you don’t stop, I’ll shove it down your fucking throat.” Lou was beside himself with fear. I carried on playing and the Pole goes, “OK, tough guy, come outside and I’ll show you how to fight.” He taught me a few moves, some boxing feints. Lou said as were leaving, “Are you fucking nuts? That guy was gonna kill us both.”
SIDE 2 TRACK 1 “Heroin”
The desire for something you can’t describe… This is about a guy who is jumping towards God or the perfection of Jesus. There’s a ferocious desire within the song to solve a problem. He doesn’t have much left apart from a desire to score; spiritually he’s bereft, but he thinks if he can get his fix, life will become better. I don’t know if it’s about a specific person, more likely an amalgamation, but it’s a beautiful portrayal of someone at their wits’ end. It’s the first song where we decided a drone would work. The song was pretty much the same in ’65; Lou just changed the key when I played the viola because that’s the dominant instrument – the landscape. Everything was downtuned and distorted with the Velvets in those days. We used cheapish guitars. Lou had the Gretsch Country Gentleman; I used a classical viola with mandolin and guitar strings that were eaten into with clips and pick-ups – really scarred, but it got better as time went on.
SIDE 2 TRACK 2 “There She Goes Again”
This was about the people living on 54th Street. The riff is a soul thing, Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” with a nod to The Impressions. That was the easiest song of all, which came from Lou’s days writing pop at Pickwick – write in a style. Any song that came down the pipe was a jewel for us. I dunno who the song was about; any number of derelict girls we knew down on the Lower East Side, probably. She would have been a bad girl. There were a lot of them; some of ’em were in the band for a few minutes. Electra, for example. We had an Afghanistan instrument called a sarinda that she played on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” [a contemporary Velvets song]. After we’d rehearsed we noticed her knuckles were bleeding. She was smacking the damn thing so hard because she enjoyed the pain. Later Lou introduced Maureen as drummer and I thought, “Oh no, not another of these mad women.” But she was very sweet.
SIDE 2 TRACK 3 “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
This was Nico’s favourite. It’s a song of infinite desire, strangely tender for us. This may have been one of Andy’s 14-word suggestions for a song but Lou accomplished it with great economy. Nico used to sing it in her big Germanic Marlene Dietrich way or, if we were lucky, with this kind of controlled passion. It’s a very beautiful song, a great interlude for a live show, but we sometimes opened with it as it set the tone between the thoughtful and the thoughtless, which is what you want in rock’n’roll. Our problem with Nico was this: what did she do when she’d finished? She couldn’t just stand there, but she didn’t like being side-stage, either. I suppose that was one of those insoluble problems that made the Velvets different.
SIDE 2 TRACK 4 “Black Angel’s Death Song”
Lou had this lying around from his Syracuse days; it was something his teacher suggested he write as a poem – free expression. It was almost like prose and we didn’t think we could pull it off. But those were the days when, if someone said it can’t be done, you did it anyway. When we mixed it in Hollywood we wanted to use maracas instead of that hissing I do, but it didn’t come off right. Sterling refused to play the bass. He resented playing bass on “Venus In Furs”. We played Tom Wilson this and “Heroin” screaming fucking loud with feedback; broke the speakers, all that shit. And Tom goes, “Yeah, hey, you’re, er, creating something exceptionally good there.”
SIDE 2 TRACK 5 “European Son”
This was inspired by Lou’s teacher, Delmore Schwartz. It was a total improv with my bass part that we fixed up when we went to LA. It had the longer song format, which radio wasn’t cut out for, and it was a big rave noise, fantastic for ending a show with. For the LP, we dragged a chair across a floor over some aluminium studio plates. We didn’t know what we were doing but it sounded funny. It sounded like a plate glass window being smashed. We wanted to break the rules, so we broke every fucking rule we could.