The Hornby Top Ten
by Nick Hornby
The author of “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy” picks the 10 record tracks he could not imagine living without.
1 Bruce Springsteen: ‘Thunder Road’, from Born to Run (Columbia, 1975)
At a crude estimate, I must have played ‘Thunder Road’ 1500 times. A lot in the first year – twenty times a week – and then probably once every couple of weeks since then. There’s another version I play a lot as well, which is an acoustic one on a bootleg someone gave, that’s very, very slow and very, very sad. It’s completely different, completely re-imagined, and I would think recorded when he was a bit older and sadder. In the mid-’70s, sax wasn’t such a big deal. And I can remember with Springsteen and Southside Johnny – who I used to see a lot at that time too – one of the amazing things about them is they had horns onstage. I never saw horns when I went to see Rory Gallagher or Dr. Feelgood, so that was a big deal. There was also that guitar sound that was almost a bit like the Shadows, a twangy thing, especially when Springsteen played live, and it just sounded like this great synthesis of all the music I’d ever liked up until that point. And I’ve really stuck by Springsteen. I still think he’s a really interesting person, and much misunderstood and maligned. And I hate people who hate him!
2 The Clash: ‘(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais’ (CBS B-side, 1979)
I couldn’t imagine a list of ten records that didn’t contain a punk record – that didn’t contain a Clash record. And this is my favourite Clash record: this and ‘Complete Control’. I still listen to it a lot, and I’m still struck by how unwieldy some of the lyrics are, and how out-of-tune some of the singing is. But it just builds up to such a fantastic climax, I think. And there are little pop hooks all over the place. I used to go and see the Clash a fair bit. I did think they were dead cool, and very handsome. It’s funny, I was looking at that Mojo list of a hundred punk singles that they did, and it struck me how fantastically awful almost all of them were, and how I never wanted to hear any of them again! But it was great then, because I was at college, and it just seemed like every couple of days I could go into the local record shop and there would be something brilliant that I had never heard before. But the point seemed to be the plenty – that there were so many of them, and so many labels. Once you start thinking, ‘Which ones would I choose?’, you realise this one’s horrible and that one’s horribleÖ do you know what I mean? I suppose I still play the Buzzcocks: those singles, I think, were fantastic. I certainly couldn’t bear to play Never Mind the Bollocks, I don’t think.
3 Marah: ‘My Heart is the Bums on the Street’, from Kids in Philly (E-Squared, 2000)
I suppose my last new discovery, that I absolutely loved, is a little band called Marah. I met, on a book tour, a really nice guy called Dan DeLuca from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and we went out for a drink. He gave me this cassette and said, ‘This is a local band and I think they’re great’. I don’t know why I put it on, but it was partly because Dan told me that Marah was the Tree of Bitterness in the Bible! And then he said, ‘I think it’s a Springsteen thing’, which was a sort of subterranean connection. And it turned out they were absolute Springsteen nuts, which is quite interesting ’cause they’re in their mid-20’s. The band consists of two brothers, and whichever other two people can put up with them at the time! I think they’re on their third rhythm section since I started listening to them. They’re very ambitious. I was in New York about a year after I’d first heard this cassette, and I was looking in the New Yorker and noticed they were playing that night. I’d arranged to meet everyone I knew in New York for dinner, and I made them finish their dinner very quickly and go round the corner to the Mercury Lounge to watch Marah. They did a whole extended medley that included ‘Magic Bus’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. And I met the band, and I’ve sort of kept in touch with them ever since. In a Clash way they’re a good gang. They look the part. The two brothers are incredibly handsome. And then I was back in New York, and they said they were playing the Stone Pony, which obviously was a big deal to me. I was reading with Zadie Smith, and I’d been given a driver by the New Yorker who’d been told to take us where we wanted to go. So three of us got in this car and said we wanted to go to Asbury Park! And the band basically waited for us to get there, which took about an hour and a quarter. My Heart is the Bums on the Street’ is sort of a little pop-soul song that sounds a bit Jackie Wilson-ish. Ideally I’d choose the Stone Pony version of that song. There was an embarrassing moment during that show when I was grabbed and shoved onstage to sing backing vocals on their encore version of ‘Love Train’! At least it wasn’t in England!
4 Teenage Fanclub: ‘Your Love is the Place Where I Come From’, from Songs from Northern Britain (Creation, 1997)
I love everything they do, but that one in particular. Last year I went to see the Fannies play an acoustic set at the Hammersmith Palais. When I walked in, they were doing a soundcheck and playing this song and it sounded completely beautiful. And when they played it later it was incredibly moving. And even though there’s probably fifteen of theirs I’d have, that one more than any is the one I’d choose. What I love more than anything about Teenage Fanclub is just tunes. I don’t think there are many other bands that have a back catalogue like that. I don’t like very much British music, so it’s nice for me to have something British that’s roughly contemporary. It tends to be Scottish groups that I like rather than English ones. People say they’re a direct Byrds ripoff, but I’m not that keen on the Byrds and I’m much keener on the Fanclub. I’ve got that Byrds box set and it’s very hard to make your way through that. I suppose what I also love about Teenage Fanclub is an optimism and a lack of cynicism. You get ground down after a while by the dark stuff. I’ve got a homemade Fanclub tape in the car that gets an awful bashing. And Songs for Northern Britain is a desert island album for me.
5 Marvin Gaye: ‘Let’s Get It On’, from Let’s Get It On (Tamla Motown, 1973)
I think this is the best pop record ever made. I didn’t think they should do it at the end of High Fidelity because I didn’t think Jack Black would do it well, but he was so great. It was entirely appropriate for me that the movie ended like that, and it was very funny to write in the book – the idea of this nerd who was a pain in the ass but has this incredible singing voice. Still, I think, a lot of people don’t believe it was him actually singing. I’d say I got into Marvin Gaye properly in college. I probably only bought it in 1977. I think we white rock fans tend to be slightly retro in our black music listening! When I was 19 I went through all the Motown and the Stax things. Then it was Al Green and so on. And in the ’80s I listened more to soul than to rock, I think. I went to see Luther Vandross and things like that – Luther was one of the few people we got a chance to see. Let’s Get It On’ is just so bottomless, the way those voices are layered on top of each other. I still hear little ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and little vocal melody lines that I didn’t hear the last last time, and there’s not many records that have got anything left in them like that. It’s also, I think, got some of the greatest drumming I’ve ever heard on a soul record.
6 O.V. Wright: ‘That’s The Way I Feel About Cha’, from The Bottom Line (Hi, 1978)
With Hi Records, it’s Al Green followed by Ann Peebles followed by O.V. Wright. I love the O.V. Wright records, because it’s one of the few times that you hear that Hi house band being allowed to let rip a bit. It’s more sort of kitchen-sinky than the Al Green records. And I love it that O.V. Wright’s got a lisp. It sounds like his teeth aren’t in properly. [I think they’d fallen out – Ed.] Plus I love that Bobby Womack song, because it’s a sort of old marriage song, isn’t it?
7 The Bible: ‘Glorybound’, from The Bible (Ensign, 1989) – original single version currently unavailable
For a long time, Boo Hewerdine was the only person I knew who played music. He was a friend of a friend of mine who worked in a record shop in Cambridge, and I used to see him around. And there’s always that sort of fantastically embarrassing thing when somebody suddenly says they’ve made a record, and would you give it a listen. And I thought it was quite good. It was very professional, and it had a tune, and I was quite surprised because Boo was quite a dour character. And the Bible just started playing locally and I used to go and see them all the time. I think being a fan of a band is, in a way, the best sort of criticism, because you’re prepared to give songs a chance. When you love a band, any bad song is forgiven as an aberration. Any song you half-like you’ll play another four times to make up your mind about it. And actually, that’s what music criticism should be, and it just isn’t! “Glory Bound” is a lovely song, and very romantic. It nicks that Horace Silver bass line from the beginning of ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’. This was a time when I couldn’t find very much that I wanted to listen to. I found the post-punk period very difficult, so what saved it for me at the time was – because I love songs so much – Paddy McAloon and Danny Wilson and Roddy Frame. And I thought Boo’s best stuff was as good as theirs. And they were all doomed!
8 LL Cool J: ‘Going Back to Cali’, from Walking with a Panther (Def Jam, 1989)
There was a time when I thought hip hop was going to be fantastically exciting: there was an energy and a musicality there. But I’ve found almost nothing over the last few years. The second OutKast album, Aquemini, I liked a lot, but that’s a soul album, really. The LL Cool J track I first heard on the soundtrack to Less Than Zero, and I think it still sounds fantastic. That scratching has got a real thump to it. I have it on in the car a lot: it’s a fantastic driving song. I didn’t learn to drive until two years ago, so music in the car is quite a new thing for me, and a pretty good thing. With the LL Cool J, it’s a toss-up between that and Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’.
9 Prince and the New Power Generation: ‘Sexy MF’, from the ‘Symbol’ album (Paisley Park, 1992)
I loved him a lot, and I think the second best show I’ve ever seen was Prince on the Parade tour. It was just this soul revue that I’ve never seen the like of since. As I remember it, there were hardly any breaks. There were just these long jams, and he had a horn section and these three huge guys singing and dancing with him. It was just electric. And then the next time it was all rubbish with cars and beds and flowers unfolding. “Sexy MF” is the last great record he made. I’ve been doing a tiny bit of DJ’ing, at bits and pieces of things recently. And that is just such a fantastic record in a club. The whoompf of that riff, a great horn section, fantastic guitar and organ solos. It’s too short, I think: I wish there was a ten-minute version of it. I remember a great interview with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis where they said they couldn’t believe what he was asking them to play. They said, ‘We can’t do that’, and he said, ‘Yes, you can do that’. And then they did it, and then he said, “OK, now the dance stepsÖ”
10 Steve Earle: ‘Telephone Road’, from El Corazon (Warner Bros., 1997)
It’s got a fantastically understated gospel group on it – I think the Fairfield Four – doing a call-and-response thing, and that kind of tension in the record is great. It’s a sort of rocker, with a great syncopated rocky beat. And he’s someone that’s meant quite a lot in dark days of not much good music. Just all those great records in a row. And I still think there’s three, four, five great songs on probably every one of his albums since Train a-Comin’. He’s such a great rock’n’roll writer, I think. He takes a lot of trouble writing rockers, whereas most people who do rockers just think that any kind of all-purpose boogie is enough, and they’ll write tunes for the ballads. There aren’t many great rock songs from the last few years, but this is one of them.
I agree with most of this list. Do you?
The Hornby Top Ten