19. starless

Starless is just a lament basically, though for what I’m not sure. Maybe a lost love. Or perhaps every apocalyptic thing, because by the time it’s done, it’s pretty much fractured the universe, having done that thing that I’m pretty sure only so-called progressive rock can do (or certainly King Crimson, who it’s pretty easy to argue, invented the genre). Which is to say, Starless doesn’t waste a second of its twelve and half minutes, but neither is it ever in a rush, the first four minutes or so serving as set up (the aforementioned lament), the final eight evoking first the darkest night there’s ever been, and then … well, words fail. But the music doesn’t. The music carves a hole straight through all that darkness, ultimately unleashing vast Niagras of tumultuous and redemptive light. It’s unearthly, it’s uncanny, it’s terrifying, it’s finally so f***ing beautiful you want the whole of creation to just … well, I said it already, words fail when you go that far beyond the perimeter …

The weird part is that the guy singing is John Wetton who would go on to front Asia (the band), which, I’m sorry, is the kind of transgression that can only lead to eternal hellfire. Except based on Starless, maybe he’d already been there. To hell, that is. Which gets us to my old friend Geoffrey (aka the philosopher), and his three essentials of any epic. 1. There must be a hero. 2. There must be a list. 3. There must be a descent into hell. I’m still trying to figure out the list part, unless that’s what I’m doing here. But I’m no hero and I’ve only ever been half-way to hell. Anyway, I guess we’re supposed to be left with a mystery, certainly in the case of King Crimson as main man Robert Fripp had dissolved the band before Starless (and Red, the album that contains it) had even been released. Because as he later put it, ‘The old world, characterized by large, unwieldy and vampiric organizations, was dead, and with it King Crimson.’ Though as deaths go, it would be akin to what happened with Gandalf after he fell into that pit with the Balrog, because King Crimson would return in time, different, but still infused with a magic both terrifying and beautiful.” (Philip Random)

20. helpless

“Because we’ve all been there – that small town in Ontario of the heart and soul, all solitude and yearning. And learning. Which hurts at the time, but in the fullness of time, we come to realize it’s about as good as life gets. And nobody’s ever put it better than Mr. Neil Young in the song known as Helpless, and he never sang it better than he did one evening toward the end of 1976, the concert known as The Last Waltz, the band known as The Band bidding a proud and fond (though not exactly permanent) farewell. Even Joni Mitchell showed up in the background making for perhaps the most righteously Canadian thing that ever happened in a San Francisco ballroom (of course, it was called Winterland). It was even snowing (backstage anyway). Way better than hockey.” (Philip Random)

(Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

21. the beautiful ones

“Second of two in a row from the artist known as Prince, because you just don’t do justice to what he accomplished through the 1980s with a single item. In 1984, that would’ve meant Purple Rain (album and movie), which for me finally drove home the point that the most necessary music-art-whatever-you-want-to-call-it almost never comes from where you’re expecting it. In other words, I walked into the movie theatre more curious than anything (what were the kids all so excited about?) and walked out a lifelong fan of this almost annoyingly talented (so-called) black guy – something I absolutely did not see coming. With The Beautiful Ones perhaps the most necessary track of all for its evocation of an infatuation so pure and delirious, the only word to describe it is … purple? By which I mean not the colour of grape juice but affected, bloated, fancy-pants, grandiose, inflated, pompous, pretentious, stilted, excessive, flattering, fulsome, boastful, bombastic, elevated, eloquent, lofty, ultimately regal. Because such is true love. If it ain’t worth taking to a preacher right f***ing now, it ain’t the really thing. Or so I’ve been told.” (Philip Random)

22. Mountains

“As I once heard it put, if you’re not into Prince, you’re either racist or homophobic. Because if the 1980s had a Beatles, it was him, particularly up to 1988. Seriously, think about that run of albums: 1999, Purple Rain, Around the World in A day, Parade, Sign of the Times, The Black Album, Lovesexy. And then there’s all the b-sides and whatnot. Or in the case of Mountains, an extended version that isn’t so much a remix as a jam, expansive and epiphanous, like the mountains in question, I guess. The first few minutes are cool and expansive pop with a big beat, but then the genius truly takes over, takes groovy flight. Because by 1986, it was all getting proved on the dance floor, and nobody proved as often, with as much versatility, panache, invention, sheer gobsmacking talent and altitude as the skinny little mutherf***er called Prince.” (Philip Random)

(Morrison Hotel Gallery)

23. relax [the long version]

“I first heard this astoundingly epic remix of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax at Vancouver’s best dance club ever, the Luv Affair. It would’ve been 1984, I guess, at a time that many were saying it was already past its true glory. Because the club had become too populated with so-called breeders, was no longer a strictly gay and/or bi and/or trans situation. But I’d argue this made 1984 its true peak, because of those breeders (myself included), because this was the moment when the various compulsions all balanced each other, when no particular tribe held sway, sexually, politically, spiritually, philosophically (am I missing anything here?), yet all were being heard.  Felt anyway. In the music. And holy f*** this was good music.

Not that Relax wasn’t profoundly, exquisitely, educationally gay (particularly the extended version). It actually coached us all on the exquisite pleasure of delaying orgasm, of NOT firing all the guns at once … which instantly made it political, because this was a moment in history when the overall consensus (among those who actually thought about things) was that some level of global nuclear cataclysm was no longer an ‘if’ but a ‘when’. Mere minutes to midnight on the doomsday clock. Yet Frankie seemed to be saying, we all just needed to Relax, that yes, we have this climax in us, wanting out, but the more we just lie back, relax, focus on our breathing, the better it all starts to feel. Like maybe the point isn’t to climax, but to find that spot just short of the edge, and ride it to eternity, sheer gushing pleasure to the ends of universe, the right kind of apocalypse. I distinctly remember thinking all this one night at the Luv Affair, dancing, LSD in my veins. And no, it wasn’t lost on me that there already was a gay apocalypse playing out, a horrific one, the one known as AIDS. Everybody knew somebody who was dying or already dead. Hell, we’d soon find the guy who was singing Relax was infected. But all this just catalyzed things, I think, amped the volume, everything to play (and dance) for. Hallelujah!” (Philip Random)

24. full metal jackoff

“One of my more dangerous friends used to say Full Metal Jackoff was the ultimate surf tune – the music he wanted playing when that monster wave he was riding finally rose into a tsunami the size of a continent and effectively removed all evidence that humankind had ever existed. What it is actually, is a hardcore supernova — Jello Biafra and DOA together (for one short 1990 album), and no question, Full Metal Jackoff is its primary reason to exist. Because it uses its fourteen piledriving minutes to put it all together for us: the monstrous evil of Ronald Reagan’s America in all of its streamlined complexity, conspiracy and cynical malevolence.

Because it really would be a little obvious to fence off all the slums, hand machine guns to the poor and just let them kill each other off. No you need to be more subtle than that, you need a plan that involves illegal cash from Iran, cocaine from Colombia, the ‘freedom fighting’ Contras of Nicaragua and CIA guns … until at some point there’s a black van with no windows cruising the various mean streets of the great US of A, sealing the deal, maybe disappearing a few of your neighbours on the side. But nobody even hears their screams. Or if they do, they’re too terrified to do anything about it. Welcome to America at the end of the 1980s. Not fascist so much as stampeding in that particular direction. Though it’s not as if serious f***ing noise isn’t getting made about it.” (Philip Random)

(Winston Smith)

25. eight miles high

“Because what else could ever follow Turn On The News on a playlist but perhaps the greatest cover tune of all time? Husker Du‘s annihilating take on the Byrds‘ seminal 1966 psyche out capturing that pivotal mid-80s moment when the hardcore monster caught a glimpse of itself in the psychedelic mirror, and it paused, saw both tragedy and beauty, and amplified at that. Which is to say, truth. But a truth that’s beyond words, and even music eventually, a truth that can only be conveyed via amplified sonic weaponry and an all too human howling that must leave the words behind lest they be swallowed by whatever hell hounds have been unearthed by all the compounded, concentrated evils of the world. There were a lot of those as the 80s hit their midpoint. But we weren’t too concerned. We had a killer soundtrack.” (Philip Random)

26. turn on the news

Turn On The News arrived in my life as one of those ‘you must hear this’ items. 1984 sometime, the dark middle point of Ronald Reagan’s reign. It’s a radio night, Bostock shouting everyone else down, elbowing his way to the turntable, demanding we pay attention to the first track on Side Four of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, punk rock’s first truly epic album. Which, of course, meant Zen Arcade wasn’t really punk rock. It was too big, too beyond, and no question, Turn On The News was its most essential four and a half minutes.  A song of pain, a song of despair, and yet hope as well, because it’s a song of consciousness, of not turning away from the noise and pain of the world. And it forced a turn of phrase, in my life anyway. Some friend’s boring you to death with his girlfriend issues, or the details of the mortgage on his new condo. You finally just shake your head and say, ‘Turn on the news, man. There’s people out there with real f***ing problems’.” (Philip Random)  

27. final solution

Final Solution equates unrequited lust and thermonuclear holocaust, then binds them with a title that can’t help but force reflection on the worst damned thing human beings have ever done. How punk is that? And all this from Cleveland, Ohio, 1976 before punk rock had even officially arrived in the Americas. The Pere Ubu crowd in full mad annihilation mode, simultaneously demolishing and inventing the future we all had coming, ready or not. Also, it’s basically a cover of Summertime Blues, one of rock and roll’s seminal protest songs, except these weirdos have exploded it into something far bigger and hungrier, ravenous even. In my idea of a perfect world, it would replace Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl at all weddings. And hell, play it at funerals too. Because who ever dies with all their problems solved?” (Philip Random)