A few days ago there was a trending hashtag on Twitter for #3AlbumsThatChangedMyLife. When I saw it pop up, I had to play along:
— JD Byrne (@JDBAuthor) September 26, 2016
I like this framing better than the typical list of “favorites” or desert island discs (do they even do that anymore in the iTunes and playlist age?) since it leans right in to the subjectivity of musical experience. There are no wrong answers to this question. Or so I hope . . .
Selling England By the Pound
To my mind, Selling England By the Pound isn’t just peak Genesis, it’s the template for much of what we call symphonic prog these days. The only thing it lacks is the truly oversized epic, but everything else is there – lush symphonic arrangements, lengthy instrumental passages, contrasting pastoral and bombastic passages. Throw in a set of very English lyrics and it’s hard to argue it gets any better than this.
But that’s not what makes it a life changer for me. I can’t see SEBtB was the first old school Genesis album I heard – my brother had everything from Nursery Cryme through Duke – but it was the first one I connected with. I’m not quite sure why. The macabre sensibility of Nursery Cryme or the sci-fi aspects of Foxtrot would seem to have been more obvious choices. But for some reason the album with the sleeping lawn mower on the cover and references to British politics and gang wars is what sucked me in. It wasn’t the only album that made me a prog fan, but it’s probably the one most responsible.
Special mention, probably, for starting my lifelong love affair with the Mellotron. The world’s first sampling keyboard, it was supposed to put classical musicians out of business, but it never really created lifelike sounds in the end – which is what makes it so cool! The intro to “Watcher of the Skies” from Foxtrot is probably the definitive Genesis Tron moment, but for me the part of “Dancing Out With the Moonlit Knight” where the choral tapes kick in gives me goose bumps every time.
When I got into Marillion in college, the fan base was split in the kind of way that happens when long-lived bands have major lineup changes. In this case, the fissure was between the early Fish-fronted version of the band and the then (and still) current version fronted by Steve Hogarth (aka “H”). The battle lines, as I understood it at the time, were that that Fish years hewed more truly to the band’s progressive rock roots, while the H years were all about mediocre attempts at mainstream success. As a result, after my gateway dose of Marillion (Misplaced Childhood) I focused on absorbing the Fish-era stuff.
Then I heard about Brave – a concept album, one with some long multi-part songs and a dark exploration of a potential suicide. This didn’t sound like the stuff of a low-rent Phil Collins desperate for pop glory. I decided it was worth checking out, even as part of me figured it would be a flop and send me back into the loving arms of the earlier material.
Holy hell, did I have that wrong! Brave wasn’t just a great, deep, layered progressive rock record, it’s one of the best albums I’ve ever heard. Yeah, it was different from the early days, more ambient and less overtly “prog,” but damn, it’s good. And that H guy’s no slouch! Hell, Brave even made its way into one of my books.
This was important not only because I discovered a great album, but because I learned that Marillion wasn’t a thing of the past. As a band they had a lot of life left in them (still do – seeing them again at the end of October!) and became one of my absolute favorites.
What makes it all the more impressive – Brave isn’t even my favorite H-era Marillion album.
Kid A didn’t work the sea change in my musical world that the others did. Instead, it set something going in my brain that slow burned its way into an appreciation of an entirely different kind of music.
I was late to OK Computer and wasn’t completely on board the Radiohead train when Kid A came out. What I read about it – electronic, experimental – didn’t really intrigue me. Then I saw this:
The song itself didn’t grab me so much as Johnny Greenwood (?) sitting at the front of the stage, swapping patch cords and twiddling knobs on a modular synthesizer. Not a keyboard in sight (RIP, Don Buchla, by the way). I went out and got the album and, it turned out, I really dug it. I’ve been on the train ever since.
The funny this is, at the time, I didn’t think to myself, “self, you’re listening to electronic music now.” Radiohead’s been drafted in by the prog crowd and Kid A (and just about everything else) is certainly adventurous and genre diverse to fit the bill. Nonetheless, it was definitely the gateway drug. It was a while before I consciously decided to check out Kraftwerk and Jarre (I think Richard Barbieri’s first solo album was a way station), but I got there and fell hard (much to my wife’s dismay). It was only a matter of time once I’d heard Kid A and let it seep into my brain.
So those are my three. What are yours?