5 Albums That Changed My Life: Danbert Nobacon

5 Albums That Changed My Life: Danbert Nobacon

Former Chumbawamba singer Danbert Nobacon is out with his most recent solo record, Stardust to Darwinstuff, and, to celebrate its birth, he shared with TIDAL five records that changed his life. “I can safely say that trace evidence from all five of these albums exists, decades later, on my new release Stardust to Darwinstuff,” Nobacon told us, before launching into a pretty hilarious story about being banned from Graceland. More below.

Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at San Quentin 

A standout record with perhaps the greatest in-between song talkin’ ever. I was seven years old when this album came out and the reason my older brother got it was because we had seen Granada TV’s (our local TV channel in Northwest England) documentary film of the concert, with footage of Cash playing interspersed with interviews with some seriously scary inmates.

The record crackles with the most rock & roll “old” country sounds, matched by Cash’s plain incisive vocals and banter. I had never heard anyone talk like that. Cursing the TV company, cursing his guitar when it goes out of tune, making not so subtle jibes at the prison authorities. He wrote the song “San Quentin” the day before the gig, and because his prison audience went so spontaneously crazy for it, he played it straight up again. Both versions are there back to back on the record: ”San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell/May your walls fall and may I live to tell/May all the world forget you ever stood/And may all the world regret you did no good.”

In retrospect now, and perhaps subconsciously over the years, Johnny Cash at San Quentin has been a performing songwriters’ masterclass for someone like me who lacks classical training. As evidenced by this record, Cash’s simple style, his inability to read music or even tune his own guitar, were never things that stopped him from writing and performing great songs.

Whilst not on the original artwork, the most iconic photograph of Cash wearing a prison jump suit, leaning into the camera and flipping the bird, was taken during soundcheck on this visit to San Quentin (when Cash got frustrated by photographer Jim Marshall and/or the Granada film crew being too much in his face), putting into a pictorial image all the attitude and raw sound that leaks in buckets from this record.

The Slits, Peel Sessions

“Punk Rock Saved My Life” as the T-shirt slogan once said, or at the very least in my case it put my life on a whole new trajectory, which forty years later I am still exploring. I was fifteen when punk rock began to explode across the smaller towns of northern England. Every weekday night from ten until midnight, instead of doing high school homework, I would listen to the John Peel show on the BBC, and he played widely diverging strands of music, which, put quite simply, no one else did. This included the emerging punk rock, and many punk bands would be invited to the BBC studios to record a handful of songs on a strict one-day time limit for what were known as “Peel Sessions.” Punk rock bands working with highly trained but oft-times cantankerous BBC recording engineers (as Chumbawamba later found out) provided some spectacular results.

The first Slits session is simply mind- and body-blowing. As a teenage boy listening to my first-ever girl band I had never heard anything so utterly raw and female and visceral. “Love and Romance” offers sardonic girl to girl insight of the pitfalls of trad “love” and “romance,” powered by driving bass and drums, against a chorus of audio orgasming, punk girl purring and caterwaulings, which made a fifteen-year-old boy fall in love with a kind of girl who I never knew even existed.

I am sure these recordings, in part, are some of the reason we wanted girls to join the fledgling Chumbawamba after our first six months as a boy trio. And, certainly my first audio love with punk rock girls is why I get women to sing on my records and why, like on my new album, their various vocalizations become so addictive and enchantingly haunting to me.

The Fall, Live at the Witch Trials

The Fall hailed from Prestwich, Manchester, twenty-four miles up the road from Burnley, Lancashire, where I grew up and lived in the late seventies. Some of the references on this record were along the bus route we took to go to see punk bands in the big city. We saw the Fall play live and heard their Peel sessions in advance of this, their first album. I was counting down the days to its release and it did not disappoint.

Whilst the Sex Pistols and the Clash had definitely gotten me and my peers into punk rock, the Fall and ATV represented punk’s organic critical thinking outside of the corporate buy-out of punk. Shortly after this release, I interviewed renowned curmudgeon and lead singer/lyric writer Mark E. Smith for our local fanzine when they played four miles from where I was born. After proverbially shitting our pants in anticipation of meeting the great scribe, he ended up liking my pal and me because we asked him about his work — in the working class sense of “his trade,” i.e. his lyrics — some of which were not on this record (but we knew from bootleg cassettes of live shows we had made).

This record and early Fall shows and Mark E. Smith taught me that, if you wanted it, there was literature in writing music lyrics. And of course Smith did it in the vernacular of my native Lancashire and it is all over this record. From the simplicity of “Industrial Estate” (“the crap in the air will fuck up your face”) to the total punk poignancy of the “Mother Sister” intro (“No recipes … it was like a see-saw … it was like an up and down … bye bye”).

I didn’t get all the drug references at the time, but “Underground Medicine,” “Rebellious Jukebox” and the title track’s confessional of “still believ(ing) in the R’n’R dream” (“R’n’R as primal scream”) were all hints that there was something in this music, this culture, that was life-changing if you could grab on to it and keep hold.

The Mothers of Invention, We’re Only in it for the Money

The third studio album by the Mothers, coming in a year rocked by political revolutionary surges around the world. Discovering the Mothers’ albums retrospectively through the lens of punk rock revealed to me that the previous hippy generation had their own critical thinkers, not least in the form of Frank Zappa.

These albums were hugely influential on Chumbawamba in terms of: a) like Beatle albums, each successive album strived to be markedly different from the previous ones and b) specific, in our experience, the Zappa working model had all the tracks run into each other with experimental interludes and weird bits. We’re Only in it for the Money, with its pastiche of the Sergeant Pepper artwork, struck a chord because the same thing was happening to punk, as happens to most everything that that predator capitalismos touches. And you have to love that the boys in the band wore dresses for the photos. The record artwork and content was censored by the label, for which seem today piddly reasons, but it put Zappa on a life-long quest against censorship.

Zappa is of course satirizing the apathy-inducing, pot smoking style-over-substance, elements of hippy psychedelia, but his insight runs much deeper and more heartfelt into the darker dysfunction of the idealized nuclear family unit of the American Dream. “The Idiot Bastard Son,” “the father’s a Nazi in Congress today … the mothers a hooker somewhere in L.A.” The recurring plea that, “all your children are poor unfortunate victims of systems beyond their control,” “a plague upon your ignorance and the grey despair of your ugly life,” in “Lonely Little Girl.” And quite possibly the most precise piece of psychological acumen in a rock & roll lyric to date: “What’s the ugliest part of your body? … I think it’s your mind.”

Moreover, the album is a cry for the freaks who did not fit into the establishment of hippie-dom.

“Concentration Moon” anticipates the Kent State shootings, “Don’t cry/Gotta go bye bye/Suddenly: Die die/Cop kill a creep/pow pow pow” (or the all-out war by cops on “suspicious looking” black people during the Obama years).”

Zappa was the man. And, remember we know how much he was a true friend of “we the people” when the Berlin Wall came down and playwright Vaclec Havel became the president of the new Czech Republic and announced that Zappa was to be his Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. I would love to hear Zappa’s take on our current oligarch.

The Mekons, Rock ‘n’ Roll

A crunching rock and rolling mother of a punk album — punk as in, always evolving, always straining at the leash of conformity — that opens with the line from “Memphis Egypt”: “Destroy your safe and happy lives before it’s too late.” Also I might never have got a lifetime ban from Graceland had I not heard this record.

This was Mekons’ eighth studio album and they have had many more since then in what now is their fortieth year of existence, and there is something on all of them that quietly or loudly blows my mind. And if you ever get the chance to see them live then you simply must.

The Mekons originated in the first wave of English punk bands in Leeds Yorkshire, which is also where Chumbawamba was born. They, like us, gravitated to that city to go to its colleges, but found better things to do. They were about five years older than us, so when we saw them play live in the early days we were kind of in awe, but as time went on, we gradually got to know them, became friends, saw them as kindred spirits and eventually played shows with them. Jon Langford (and his Pine Valley Cosmonauts) play on and produced my 2007 album Library Book of the World (Bloodshot Records). Indeed Jon Langford, a Welshman migrating to Chicago, was my only (sort-of-native) rock & role model, for me an Englishman migrating to Washington state. A huge influence indeed in matters life-changing.

This album rocks and I could write about it, or other Mekons albums, at length, but I will stick to one specific detail … another lyric from “Memphis Egypt”: “Capitalismos favorite boy child,” referring, like the splintered artwork of the album cover itself, to one Elvis Aaron Presley.

Capitalismos is an Italian word for the beast that is capitalism (but I first heard it in this song) that is destroying our planet in front of our eyes, and I wrote it into the chorus on “To Be or Not To Be?” on Stardust to Darwinstuff.

The Elvis industry was growing exponentially back in the early ’90s. In 1992, when Chumbawamba were on tour in the U.S. (not least with a song called “Ulrike,” which featured an Elvis impersonator played by me), we had a show in Memphis. We successfully requested of the tour booker a day off so we could go visit Graceland.

Inevitably, for me who was always most easily convinced to do a dare, the morning of, my band mates convinced me to wear the Elvis outfit (which, graduating from my early punk sewing days, I had created from scratch). I thought other shrine attenders might be offended, but old ladies and young acolytes alike wanted to have their pictures taken with me in the hallowed grounds.

To get to Graceland from the entrance gate on the Boulevard one takes the mandatory shuttle bus that winds its way across the across the grounds to deliver one safely at the actual house. After the tour, you exit by the same buses. You wait in line for the bus. After about twenty minutes, the next available bus came and all my Chumbawamba band mates got on before me. Just as I was about to step up, the driver hollered “Full!” and the doors practically closed in my face.

Rather than wait another twenty minutes, I casually set off walking down the road, and then all hell broke loose as the security guards scrambled from all angles to go on full red alert. I started running, in a straight line across the grass to the exit, cutting across the slow moving path of the bus.

People on the bus were shouting “Elvis is escaping!” as my cape flapped in the chase. I did get to the front gate as the guards caught me, manhandled me and served me with the lifetime ban. I argued that, sure they could ban me from the grounds, but how would they ever enforce the ban of a public road that stretched for miles in either direction? The ban remains untested awaiting my return to Memphis.

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