SPECIAL SOUNDS FOR STRANGE TIMES: Simon Sweetman

Over the last few months, one of the things many people have been turning to during periods of isolation during the pandemic is music. Music for distraction, companionship, solace and joy. Whatever the reason, putting on a favourite album or discovering something new that pulls you in and hits the spot, intellectually or emotionally, can be a great and wonderful experience. In this series we check in with musicians, journalists and broadcasters to see what has inspired repeat listening and provided some special sounds for these strange times.

For episode two we’re very lucky to have New Zealand author, podcaster, music journalist and poet Simon Sweetman taking us through three albums that he’s been drawn to over the last few months. Simon has been writing about music for much of his adult life, he’s the man behind the long-running music blog Off The Tracks, host of Sweetman Podcast, which is now up to its 218th episode and in 2012 he published his first book – OnSong: Stories Behind New Zealand’s Pop Classics. His next writing project is his first book of poetry, due out in October through The Cuba Press and titled The Death of Music Journalism. He also recently made his first foray into e-books with Drummers You Just Can’t Beat a series of essays about favourite and influential drummers.

Linton Kwesi Johnson – Forces of Victory (1979)

Lockdown – in its various states and guises around the world – has done funny things to us and I first noticed that when all I wanted to listen to was reggae and dub music. This isn’t usually the case – but I found myself a fan anew. Returning to old favourites and desperately soaking up classic material that was brand new to me. I devoured the entire Bob Marley canon which included first listens to a few albums and I warmed my soul with the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell. Of their collaborations, this has always been my favourite, I guess it’s that nostalgia-thing of returning to the work you heard first. I hunted this album out 20 years ago or so after watching a documentary that was ostensibly about the poet John Cooper Clarke. And much as I loved it for that and soon immersed myself in his written words and worlds, it was the footage of LKJ that really impacted. Specifically his poem called “Sonny’s Lettah” – it’s probably my all-time favourite work of Johnson’s. And so Forces of Victory has been on a loop or me across the last few weeks. And, yes, I’ve gone through other albums by LKJ – his first handful all so magnificent that it’s almost a line-call – and Bovell’s production and DJ work outside of his collaborations with Linton. It’s all pretty special but Forces of Victory remains the one for me. It’s one of those albums where I remember instantly where I was when I first heard it.

Curtis Mayfield – Curtis (1970)

I was preparing a recent feature for RNZ where I talked about Curtis Mayfield’s life and work and played some tunes. That means I went deep – right through all the work, even though it was only a 40-minute program and I focused mostly on the soundtrack work and the diversity of his writing, from The Impressions through his own songs and several producing and writing jobs for other acts. But at home, in the build-up, I worked through all of the Impressions albums (fabulous!) and all of Curtis’ solo material. The album I kept coming back to though was his 1970 debut. I finally bought myself a copy for the turntable, but this was one of the first things I rushed out to buy when I got hooked on Curtis Mayfield about 25 years ago. The songs here, and the production, so vital and fresh and perhaps sadly so they are still so relevant. I mean take a listen to ‘We People Who Are Darker Than Blue’. That’s a movie in and of itself right there; that could be anyone else’s one and only greatest hit. For Curtis, it’s one of the ones you mention in a first or second breath.

Grace Jones – Private Life: The Compass Point Sessions (1998)

This two-disc anthology covers the work Grace Jones did with Sly & Robbie in the early 1980s. Phenomenal music that had a massive impact on me at the time and continues to – I feel like I’ve never not been a Grace Jones fan. As a kid she was just intriguing: turning up on TV and in movies, making these great pop songs and then finding out she was a model, artist, celebrity. The music is the thing I’ve always cared most about with Jones and this time around it was as much to do with loving and studying the work of Sly and Robbie – all timed and tied up with my reggae fascination I guess. The signature Grace Jones hits are here – ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’, ‘Walking In The Rain’ and her magnificent covers of ‘Nightclubbing’ and ‘Love Is The Drug’. (In fact she’s just a covers machine here: ‘She’s Lost Control’, ‘Use Me’, ‘Breakdown’, ‘Ring of Fire’, ‘Demolition Man’ and of course the title track – ‘Private Life’. Again this sounds so fresh and inventive close to 40 years on and the mix of dub and long versions, demos and originals paints a picture of the studio genius of Sly and Robbie as players and producers. 

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