So the premise of this thing is I’m stranded on a desert island with only five records to take with me. I’m more concerned with these other more salient points…do I get to take five outfits as well? Do I have to actually hunt for food? I’m a plant eater, shit hunter. Are there vegetables on the island? Is the water drinkable? What about female companionship? Do I get to bring along a buxom companion with advanced wilderness survival skills? Overall, I don’t know about this, it all sounds kinda stressful to me…I’ll go ahead and pick the five records anyway.
The Beatles “White Album”
A shoo-in. No way am I leaving this one at home. Anyone who already knows me could’ve probably guessed this in a nanosecond. Granny Severs bought it for me in K-Mart in 1976 and it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession — not only with the songs, but the production. I think this is absolutely the best sounding record of all time, and I’d kill for the fuzz guitar/vocal/bass guitar/acoustic guitar/drum sounds they got.
As for the songs, well, the White Album has some of my favorite Beatle songs too. “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Back In The USSR,” “Julia,” “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road,” “Savoy Truffle”…even a nine-minute sound collage to scare the monkeys off while I rub two twigs together and try to make fire…by the way, how will I get juice for the turntable on this island?
The Clash, London Calling
In May of 1983 my brother Faris and I rode to a Clash show in a baby blue Monte Carlo with our 24-year-old first cousin, Maad Okko. Maad was from Algeria and spoke broken English. With an ear-to-ear grin, he sported a healthy afro and woolly mustache, plus parachute pants and a tight sleeveless shirt. He listened mainly to disco music. He had never heard of the Clash or punk rock. He was baffled by it all.
To document this momentous occasion, I planned on smuggling a micro-cassette recorder into the Civic Center. I don’t remember how this plan actually worked, I only remember being convinced I’d surely be caught and arrested — thus missing the Clash, my favorite band. Once inside we took our position about 20 rows back and in the middle. The lights dimmed and spaghetti western music came over the PA. The Clash finally took the stage. We jumped to our feet and cheered.
They kicked in with “London Calling.” My brother and I went crazy. Mick Jones hopped around like an elastic Mexican jumping bean. Paul Simonon bobbed, ducked and weaved like no bass player we’d ever seen before or since. Joe Strummer attacked his beat-up Telecaster with ferocious intensity, wearing a white sleeveless military jacket/vest and black straight to hell t-shirt. Maad looked to us while pointing at the band and yelled “You like this?” Well, yes Maad, I guess I liked it a lot, because 29 years later I’m picking the Clash’s London Calling as my desert island record #2.
By the way, I’ve chosen two double albums as my top picks so I’ve actually got four records worth of music on this desert island adventure. I’m not even at Number 3 yet!
The Kinks, Village Green Preservation Society
I was so obsessed with the Beatles as a kid that there was no room for any other bands to squeeze in. I had this great book called The British Invasion by Nicholas Schaffner that I spent hours and hours poring over. The Kinks had their own chapter in there as one of the most important British bands of all time. I liked their red equestrian riding coats, but couldn’t be bothered to actually go get one of their records (I didn’t like the song “Lola” because it was a ‘dirty’ song about a transvestite, so I figured the rest of their music was sleazy too).
Years later, when I was an over-earnest young man playing in a band, we’d struck up a musical friendship with a guy named Greg Smith. He was in a Syd Barrett inspired psychedelic band called Terrapin. Greg asked me if I dug the Kinks. I said, “No.” At the next show he turned up with a Kinks mix tape he’d made for me. “This will blow your mind, I promise…” He was right. I soon greedily snatched up every single Kinks record I could lay my hands on (and there were a zillion of them — both good and bad). Village Green… was the very best. It’s an ultra-melodic smorgasbord of witty, introspective nostalgia with some of the cleverest, most poignant words ever put in pop songs. “Do You Remember Walter,” ”People Take Pictures” and ”Sitting By The Riverside” are three of my favorite songs ever. This is one of my all-time favorite lyrics: “picture of me when I was just three/oh how I love things as they used to be, don’t show me no more, please…”
P.S. I eventually even came around to accepting “Lola” as a great song.
Finn Brothers, Finn
This terminally overlooked record was lost in the sea of ’90s bland rock bands, which probably explains why it isn’t on more people’s radar. It’s one of my favorite sounding records of all time – perfectly documented by Tchad Blake, who has recently come to massive commercial success with the Black Keys. Finn is both gorgeous and raw – it’s what I longed to make with my own brother. There’s a purity to two brothers writing together, harmonizing with each other like only brothers can do and also playing all of the instruments themselves.
The eldest Finn, Tim, is barely able to keep a beat on the drums, but his raw, innocent brilliance behind the kit is what counterbalances both brothers’ virtuosity on other instruments and makes this record so damn charming. I challenge you to listen to Tim howl “kiss the road to Rarotonga” and not ebulliently rock out! I also challenge you to listen to “Last Day in June” and not buckle under its touching beauty.
Finn is a mini White Album with its varied emotional content. I love all of it – the crunchy pop sarcasm of “Eyes of the World”; the life questioning melancholy of “Where Is my Soul”; the surreal, depressed swagger of “Mood Swinging Man.” It has songs that have made me laugh, cry and just plain wanted to quit music because I felt like I could never possibly do anything nearly as good as this. It also has another one of my favorite lyrics: “Did you suffer as a child, that’s why you wanna make me cry?”
Stephen Duffy, Duffy
I bought this record in Arlington, Texas, in the middle of one of the worst years of my life. I was killing time in a Tower Records, thumbing through the import section when I excitedly uncovered this gem. It was 1995. I had been a fan of Duffy’s twee, pastoral Lilac Time since the late ‘80s but sensed just by seeing this album cover that it was going to be quite different.
There Duffy stood, all in black with slicked back hair in front of a bright orange wall. I still love this iconic album cover. It’s a perfect fit for the music found inside…literate, bright pop with razor sharp words. The opening stomp of “London Girls” sets the scene by deftly foreshadowing the demise of Britain’s latest wave of hot shot pop groups. It’s Duffy’s nod to London Calling, I suspect. Then smack dab in the middle of track #2, “Sugar High,” he states “life is far too complicated to groove along quietly/have you got what it takes to survive?” Was he posing this question to said listener or to the floundering radio world? I like to assume both.
The next track, “She Freak,” comes rollicking out of the gate with Mitch Easter’s swirling Leslie guitar and Ric Menck and Paul Chastain from Velvet Crush sounding like a Beatles “Help”-era rhythm section on methamphetamines. “She Freak,” a clever dissertation on the excesses of chasing women, also contains another brilliant twist: “Excuse me for talking seriously these days I know it’s not thought of as polite/But to be yourself, your true self is the hardest thing to do and to do right…” Amen, Stephen.