Episode 29: Almost Famous (2000)

almost famous cover site

One thing I wish we’d had more time to discuss on this episode was the music is in Almost Famous. I mean, I’m being an idiot in that we did in fact discuss the music used in the film quite a bit – about the amount of diegetic tracks and how Cameron Crowe is one of cinema’s greatest mixtape makers/needle-drop aficionados, and the problem is more that I could talk about music until you’d all nervously excuse yourself to go to the bar/toilet/smoking area and never, ever come back. Very reasonably. But what I think we didn’t nail down in our episode was how much music the band surrounds themselves with – about how through all of the interpersonal dynamics and tour bus drama and electrocutions and life lessons, the film never loses track of the fact that these professional musicians love music. Love playing it. Listening to it. Talking about it. They may have their veneer of studied cool stripped mercilessly from them by the keen yet innocent eye of fan-turned-The Enemy William Miller, but from Russell sitting down immediately at a piano when stepping foot in their first hotel of the tour, to a pantsless Jeff Bebe chasing a similarly under-dressed Anna Paquin around while toting an acoustic guitar, to Silent Ed Valencourt never parting with his drumsticks, the bond between these people, band, fans and ‘Band Aids’ alike, and the music that drives all of the silliness and scandal that plays out over the run time is the true love story of the piece.

Fairuza Balk’s Sapphire says it best: “…what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.” In that spirit, I’d like to indulge myself massively and shamelessly and tell you about the 9 albums that changed my life. This isn’t comprehensive; if it was, this would be less of a blog and more of a never-ending internal monologue and I’m sure these screeds are tedious enough as it is. So, with that out of the way, TO THE LIST:

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Guns n’ Roses – Use Your Illusion II
It’s not the best hard rock album. It’s not the best Guns n’ Roses album. It’s not even the best Use Your Illusion album. But to a 7-year-old in a small rural village it was the wildest thing I’d ever heard and it blew my tiny mind. It was loud and obnoxious and filthy and glamorous and all I wanted to do was wear a giant top hat and blast guitar solos on a Les Paul with my top off forever. Didn’t have the physique for it, though.

Deftones – White Pony
Basically the Rosetta stone for all the music I’ve loved ever since I first heard it. It wasn’t until this came out when I was 16 that I truly started obsessing about music, buying at least an album a week throughout college and university, digging deep in to this weird take on metal that was totally unlike the generic riff-rock I was getting in to in my mid-teens. There was a texture that didn’t feel like anything else, a vulnerable, emotive undertow. Ambient tones I’d never heard before. A softness underneath the bluster. Where Guns n’ Roses taught me to love things loud, Deftones taught me to love the strange spaces that could be exploited underneath.

Cave In – Jupiter
Post-Deftones, I started hoovering up albums at an alarming rate. Every time I’d find a genre, something glorious would come along and subvert it, or twist it in to new directions. Cave In wrestled 1970s style space-prog rock with all the snap and muscle of a veteran hardcore band, despite being barely a few years older than I was at the time. There was a musical ambition here that I’d never heard from one of “my” bands. Ambition was always for old people bands, and I still hate 90% of prog rock, but the combination of these 4 musicians did something to my brain chemistry that persists to this day. Their recent tour, in memoriam of their peerless bassist Caleb Scofield, was one of the most emotional shows I’ve ever been to.

At The Drive-In – Relationship Of Command
Another album that grabbed shards of genres my nascent music fixation had pointed me towards (emo, nu-metal, the noisier end of indie rock) and smashed them in to some kind of intoxicating powder. It was feral, but intricate, and totally unabashed. It was angry, but smart. I never really liked the cynical, smarmy distance a lot of indie rock bands kept their music at, and this album typifies the total opposite. Absolute conviction at all times.

Hundred Reasons – Ideas Above Our Station
Hundred Reasons was the first time I felt proper kinship with a band. Gn’R were ROCK STARS. Deftones were untouchably cool West Coast skaters. Even Cave In seemed impossibly glamorous, or kind of unknowable. Hundred Reasons were from an unfashionable English town, looked and dressed like me, and visibly loved that they got to play on increasingly large stages (even TOP OF THE GODDAMN POPS). They earned it because they meant it. They never quite hit these heights again, but for a brief, beautiful window, Hundred Reasons and bands like them (The Copperpot Journals, Kids Near Water, ThisGIRL, early Biffy Clyro, Hell Is For Heroes, Reuben and other partners on their endless touring schedule) were the local boys done good, even if none of them were actually local to me. When I would plug in my trusty Epiphone Les Paul Studio Gothic that I spent most of my first student loan installment on, it was bands like Hundred Reasons that I pictured when squawking out my mediocre riffs. I never thought I’d play in some soulless mega-arena, but I could totally imagine myself schlepping my own gear onstage downstairs at Newcastle Uni Students Union, or upstairs at The Fenton in Leeds.

Mogwai – Happy Songs For Happy People
My housemate at the time played me Ten Rapid and Rock Action the year this came out, and I liked them a lot, but it was Happy Songs… that hooked me. It was stately, pretty, and a little menacing underneath. I listened again and again trying to fathom how they had constructed this thing that to me, sounded so precise and confident and crystalline. It subverted everything I knew about how a rock band was put together and what they were allowed to do.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Slow Riot For The New Zero Kanada
This was a gift from the same housemate. And again, I didn’t know music like this existed, I had no frame of reference for it, which is probably why it left such a mark. It could have been from 20 years ago, or beamed in from some ruined future. It was ragged, coherent, noisy, beautiful. It was purely cinematic in the sense that if you used it as a film score, it would be too much. The images are already in the music. This album/EP has a relentless sense of urgency and purpose that the rest of their work doesn’t, which doesn’t mean it’s better, just that it hit me that much more directly.

Cocteau Twins – Stars and Topsoil
Cheating here, as it’s a compilation, but the first time I heard Liz Fraser intoning those invented syllables, like a forgotten pagan hymn, over the fractured, circular guitar sounds of Blind Dumb Deaf, the cheap processed drums echoing away in the background, I was at a loss. Standing behind the counter in Music Zone Darlington, where my boss Ron was cool enough to let us play what we wanted unlike those squares over at HMV, I only knew who Cocteau Twins were because I heard Chino Moreno mention them (Deftones again), and they seemed, like a lot of bands I fell in love with immediately, totally otherworldly. They were so swooningly romantic and mysterious and I wanted them to stay that way. I love not knowing what Liz Fraser says, because you know she means SOMETHING. Means it entirely, and it’s purely musical, not literal. I’ve never been keen on lyrics as literature, and this bypassed any pat interpretations and headed straight for the squishy, pink innards of my brain.

Stars Of The Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline
For about a year I couldn’t sleep unless I played this album. And even then, I’d play it when I got up again. There was a through line from Deftones, seeing a metal band smarten up by using ambient sounds, via Mogwai, who lulled with hypnotic textures between the noise, to SotL, who existed entirely in the space where sounds drifted over you, gossamer light and restorative. Nothing sounded like anything, just pure sound, occasional flutters of strings anchoring a few notes for a second before they would dissolve in to pure feeling. With this album in your headphones, anywhere can feel like a sanctuary.

So there you have it. I love hearing about other people’s history with music, so please if you feel compelled, drop us a comment, tweet, email, fax with your life changing albums. Jeff Bebe may have sounded like a dick when he said rock and roll can save the world, but who knows, maybe he was on to something (he was, it was cocaine).

Oh yes, and in other news we had a great chat about the film Almost Famous which you can listen to here:

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