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Off the Beaten Tracks: My Top 100 – Part 10

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I HAD planned this to be the final instalment of my list of favourite albums but enjoyed revisiting them so much that my keyboard ran away with me. So here are numbers ten to six, with the final five to come next week.

10 Joni Mitchell: Blue (1971)

I went through Blue track by track here in 2018, and hope you’ll revisit the column or indeed read it for the first time. As I wrote then, it was the first of five consecutive classic albums by the great Canadian, all of which feature in my top 100. She once said that Blue was ‘probably the most emotional record that I will ever make in my life. There is not one false note. I love that record more than any of them’. 

9 Bert Jansch: LA Turnaround (1974)

My favourite Sunday morning album of all, surpassing even Bridget St John’s Ask Me No Questions. Appropriately enough it begins with the beautiful Fresh as a Sweet Sunday Morning, with Bert’s voice at its warmest, backed by Klaus Voorman on bass and Red Rhodes on pedal steel. Rhodes, you may recall, was Michael Nesmith’s sidekick on the excellent The Hits Keep on Coming album and Nesmith produces here on all but two tracks, the guitar instrumentals Chambertin and Lady Nothing. The former Monkee manages to coax Jansch into the finest vocal performances of his career, including One for JoOf Love and Lullaby, a reprise of Bert’s great anti-drug message Needle of Death and Travelling Man, which Jansch acknowledged is an attempt to cram as many lines as possible from different folk songs as into one track. Part of the album was recorded at Charisma Records chief Tony Stratton-Smith’s lovely country home, Lexford House near Crowborough, East Sussex. The rest went down at Nesmith’s ranch in Sepulveda, California. A 2009 CD reissue includes this fascinating film of the events at Lexford House. For more about our Bert, follow this link. 

8 Van Dyke Parks: Discover America (1972)

Last year in a column about the great VDP, I wrote that this album brings West Indies sunshine into the room whenever I plop it on the turntable.

‘Having worked with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, which consolidated his love for calypso music, at the beginning of the Seventies Parks headed for Trinidad and Tobago. His time spent there resulted in this neglected classic. Most of the songs were written by calypso musicians between the 1920s and 1940s and are credited as “public domain, arranged and adapted by Van Dyke Parks”.  

‘Track one, Jack Palance,  is in fact a minute-long clip from the Grenadian calypso king The Mighty Sparrow and refers to a lady with a face like the famously craggy film actor. 

Bing Crosby and The Four Mills Brothers were both written by a Trinidadian known as Roaring Lion. I love the former, which concludes:

I wonder if you heard him singing the song
May I Be the One to Say I
I wonder if you heard again
Every Time It Rains It Rains Pennies from Heaven

But Love Thy Neighbour was a most thrilling song
And Get Along Little Dogie Get Along
Unanimously three cheers for
Mr Bing Crosby.

‘Sandwiched between the Roaring Lion tracks is the instrumental Steelband Music, featuring Parks’s much-loved Esso group.

‘Honestly, every song is great. Be Careful is a father’s advice to a son regarding the perils of romance, while the irresistible John Jones is a warning to a gangster to lay off. FDR in Trinidad,  written by Fitz McLean, is a deeply satirical account of a 1936 visit to the island by President Roosevelt (The greatest event of the century/In the interest of suffering humanity). It was performed for many years by the Trinidadian Atilla (sic) the Hun and also made an appearance on Ry Cooder’s magnificent second album Into The Purple Valley. Sweet Trinidad s a short and charming interlude then we return to the US for the Allen Toussaint numbers Occapella and Riverboat,  which appear on either side of Lowell George’s Sailin’ Shoes, title track of the second Little Feat album.

‘Back in the Caribbean we have two Lord Kitchener songs, Ode to Tobago and Your Own Comes First, (can’t resist includin’ de original)  followed by Sir Lancelot’s brilliant G-Man Hoover.    

And to finish, a steel band version of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. Brian Wilson once described Discover America as the greatest album ever made.’

After this column was published I had a charming email exchange with VDP’s nephew Rick Parks, a professor at the School of Cinematic Arts, University of Southern California. His late father Carson, Van Dyke’s brother, wrote the hit song Somethin’ Stupid. Rick sent me pictures of his cactus and succulent collection (all grown outdoors, of course) and added that his uncle had read my piece and ‘appreciated, yet ignored the praise’.

7 Nic Jones: The Noah’s Ark Trap (1977)

Along with the previously mentioned The Rout of the Blues, this is another folk classic which generations have missed because of contractual squabbles. You can, however, listen to it here in its entirety. I still have a vinyl copy plus an Australian bootleg CD taken from the LP, complete with snap, crackle and pops, but it would be lovely to have a proper remastered version one day. The nine tracks are all brilliant but especially beautiful are Ten Thousand Miles, The Indian LassIsle of France and Annachie Gordon. If you’re interested, there are still some Nic Jones CDs available as I mentioned in a column from 2018 here. However, there seems little chance of a digital release for The Noah’s Ark Trap. I recently got back in touch with Nic’s wife Julia and she confirmed that sadly there has been no progress. ‘It will probably not see the light of day in the foreseeable future.’ What a crying shame.

6 Jackson Browne: For Everyman (1973)

I covered this album here in April 2019.

I wrote that it contains ‘wonderful songs and great musicianship provided by such luminaries as Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Glenn Frey and Don Henley – even Elton John, credited for contractual reasons as Rockaday Johnnie. Most significant of all was the beginning of Browne’s enduring partnership with the peerless David Lindley on guitars and fiddle. Opening track is Take It Easy, which was co-written with Frey and had already provided a breakthrough hit for the Eagles. Browne had intended it for his first album but had difficulty completing the lyrics. One night he played Frey the unfinished second verse which begins, “Well I’m standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona.” Frey completed it with, “Such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.” Browne’s For Everyman version features Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar and Lindley on electric.

‘Next comes Our Lady of the Well, followed by Colors of the Sun and I Thought I Was A Child, all excellent, but the standout is Browne’s own version of These Days, with soaring lap steel guitar from Lindley.

‘Side two begins with the rocking Redneck Friend, featuring Elton pounding away on the joanna, and then we’re into four charming pieces. The Times You’ve Come is followed by Ready Or Not, about being unprepared for his future wife Phyllis Major’s pregnancy.

Someone’s going to have to explain it to me
I’m not sure what it means
My baby’s feeling funny in the morning
She’s having trouble getting into her jeans
Her waistline seems to be expanding
Although she never feels like eating a thing
I guess we’ll reach some understanding
When we see what the future brings.

‘Ready Or Not also includes an account of how Jackson met Phyllis, a blonde former model and actress. Apparently they were in the Troubadour, a West Hollywood rock club, when he saw her having a screaming row with her boyfriend. He intervened and took her back to his place. According to the song,

I met her in a crowded barroom
One of those typical Hollywood scenes
I was doing my very best Bogart
But I was having trouble getting into her jeans
I punched an unemployed actor
Defending her dignity
He stood up and knocked me through that barroom door
And that girl came home with me.

Sing My Songs To Me segues into the title track, which culminates in a long drum roll bursting into a joyous final instrumental sequence. I saw Browne perform this at the Royal Albert Hall in 1994 and at the climactic moment a girl in the audience leapt, I swear, six feet into the air.’

Next week, my top five.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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