Clutch’s Neil Fallon: 10 Albums That Changed My Life

Neil Fallon of Clutch against a montage of his favourite album sleeves
(Image credit: Press)

Listening to a Clutch record can feel like driving through a bright and buzzing new city for the first time, yet feeling like you’ve somehow been there before. Unconsciously at first, you start to pick up on subtle reference points around you that ignite vivid memories and wild sensory payloads from long ago.

From their emergence in the early-90s through their latest effort, 2022’s Sunrise On Slaughter Beach, the Maryland rockers have steadily built a sprawling catalog of guitar-powered rock that burns brightly as a radiant testament to the eternal spirit of rock and roll, packed with a diverse range of influences ranging from smouldering, Dust Bowl-era blues to double-fisted DC hardcore.

Friendly and as down-to-earth as one can get without going subterranean, Neil Fallon grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where hardcore reigned supreme and an alluring doom scene lurked on the fringes. He’s combed through his vinyls and mined decades of memories to come up with his definitive list of the ten albums that changed his life.

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The West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band — Part One (1967)

My father listened to all the usual suspects of his generation, like The Beatles and Dylan and Fleetwood Mac. His buddy, who was into more extreme music, gave him this album, which was like late-60s California psychedelia. It’s a really great record. I very distinctly remember being three or four years old and putting on these giant cans and listening to it. There’s a song on there that Frank Zappa wrote called Help, I’m A Rock; they did all of the craziest, late-60s studio trickery that they did with guitars and panning and at that age I found it to be terrifying. But I loved it! I think that kind of set the precedent for my love of high weirdness and scary music. It doesn’t always have to be blastbeats to be spooky.

Bad Brains — Bad Brains (1982)

I’m going to fast forward all the way to my adolescence because I didn’t listen to anything that anybody else didn’t also listen to, which was whatever was on the radio from 1975 to 1985. Then someone’s older brother, who was a skateboarder — the punk rock kid, the bad apple — introduced me to the Bad Brains. I learned that they were from our neck of the woods. I guess I took it for granted, thinking that every town must have a Bad Brains. I didn’t realise that that’s not the case. This band did it the fastest, they did it the best and they somehow managed to introduce reggae seamlessly into this thing. They’re one of many bands that I think are a band’s band. I’m not saying that you have to be in a band to appreciate Bad Brains but if you’re a musician, you can appreciate the extremity of it. This album was a bolt out of the blue. Sure, people were playing fast, but not like that.

Black Sabbath — Black Sabbath (1970)

Not the most original but the DC doom scene was mainly tribute bands to Black Sabbath. It was so stupid back in the day where punk rock and hardcore were segregated from metal. “Dude, you shouldn’t go there with that hair — you’re gonna get beat up!” It was just so juvenile. So a lot of times you had to pick your camp.

I was definitely in the hardcore camp and I distinctly remember hearing Black Sabbath at a field party in October, standing around a bonfire and drinking something awful, like Bartles and James, and being terrified because I’d never heard that before.

There’s actually a Clutch song about this particular event called A Good Fire. I know Black Sabbath is probably mentioned in every single interview, but think about how weird that record must have been in the context of when it came out; this blues band that’s suddenly infusing this dark, occult existential lyrics and it still holds up.

Fugazi — 13 Songs (1989)

This album did change my life because I played it to death but they’re more representative of the DC hardcore scene that I grew up in. I was too young to see Minor Threat and Void and those kinds of bands but I can’t tell you how many times I got to see Fugazi.

As for this particular album, I didn’t realise what a profound effect it ultimately had on Clutch until later on. Musically, it might seem very different but Fugazi did this thing where they would play in the weirdest spots, like community centres, soup kitchens, churches, outdoors... No merchandise booth, no lighting show... Regardless of that, they burned down the house. All the trappings of big production were completely absent, but they came on and it was so visceral. That band had some kind of mojo that to this day, no one’s ever been able to put their finger on it. They’re such great songs and have a really unique sound.

Junkyard Band — Live At Safari Club (1989)

This is kind of a seminal DC go go band. Go go had a huge effect on Jean-Paul’s [Gaster] drumming. When you grew up in DC in the 80s, it was inescapable. I chose this album because it’s a great record but also because it was at the Safari Club, which was primarily a go go club. But on the weekends they would do Saturday and Sunday matinees, starting at noon and going to four and it was usually hardcore bands, punk rock bands and metal bands — remember, never mixing the two!

But kids from the suburbs like myself would go to downtown DC to the Safari Club and see five bands. They’d beat the crap out of each other and then leave the club around five o’clock in the afternoon while the go go bands were loading in. So it wasn’t figurative, it was literally crossing each other’s paths. I think there was mutual respect and admiration between the camps.

I couldn’t tell you what go go bands were loading in because I had to be out of there and back into suburban Maryland before my parents called the cops. You can tell that go go had a huge influence on Clutch’s sound. I think that swing is one of the elements that makes us different; Jean-Paul doesn’t play straight too much and that’s directly because of go go.

Tom Waits — Bone Machine (1992)

I know that Tom Waits purists probably don’t like this album because it’s different from everything he’d done prior but this was my introduction and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Every song was like a little movie. I heard this kind of at the beginning of Clutch’s career as I was trying to figure out how to write lyrics.

Between [debut album] Transnational Speedway and our self-titled album (1995), I heard this album and it was a bit of a “Eureka!” moment. He was a storyteller and there were these absurdities in there. There’s a song called Goin’ Out West, which is basically like hip hop boasts — “I know karate, voodoo too, I’m gonna make myself available to you/I don’t need no makeup, I got real scars, I got hair on my chest, I look good without this shirt.” When I heard that I thought, This is what I want to do! If you listen to The House That Peterbilt [from Clutch’s self-titled album], it’s sort of a jack of that, with the absurd boasts singing along with that. You can pretend to be that guy. I don’t really feel that way about myself but it’s fun for three minutes to pretend that you’re the baddest motherfucker on Planet Earth. As long as it stops when the song stops! That was a big influence for me.

Public Enemy — It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back (1988)

I remember in high school, all of a sudden all of these kids started walking around with big clocks around their neck. I was like, “What’s going on?” and I’d either get “I’m a time bomb,” or “You don’t know what time it is,” and these kind of cryptic responses. Finally someone let the cat out of the bag and I borrowed a friend’s cassette. The next day, I bought my own copy.

Chuck D’s delivery was unlike anything I’d ever heard. The music was so catchy, it was brutal and he managed to mangle words together that should never be together. But he made it sound completely natural. And to this day, he’s punk rock. He’s still putting our records and still doing it. I really think that he had a big influence. I wasn’t really gifted with pitch and melody at the beginning. I still struggle with it, so the default to that is rhythm. Listening to him I saw that I could maybe do kind of like a percentage of that, to a degree and that’s why I mention this record.

Skip James — King Of The Delta Blues Singers (1931)

I got into Skip James when I bought a cassette at a truck stop in the middle of America at probably three in the morning for probably $3.99. I grabbed The Roots Of Robert Johnson. The band was sleeping in the van and the first song was Skip James, Devil Got My Woman. I was just driving down the highway and suddenly the hairs were standing up on my neck. It was the spookiest song I’d ever heard. Jean-Paul was sleeping behind me and he kind of shot up and asked, “What are you listening to, dude?”

 King Of The Blues Singers is a great collection of his music. One of our more popular songs, The Regulator, got its beginnings in me trying to learn how to play Devil Got My Woman and kind of, not quitting, but reaching a point where I knew I was never going to sound like Skip James. From that point it evolved into its own entity, mostly the guitar tuning, which is open D minor. That album definitely had a profound effect on me.

Funkadelic — Funkadelic (1970)

I was kind of late to them. I was in my early 20s and this was pre-Internet, so sometimes it took awhile to discover stuff. But I had the best introduction to Funkadelic that any 22-year-old kid could ever hope for. It was with a bunch of other people that we had met at a club after a show, in the back of a 1979 conversion van with the shag rug interior, passing joints back and forth and this music came on. I was like, “What is this?”

There are certain records where you can recall exactly where you were when you first heard it; even being chemically-compromised, I remember it exactly, just like that. Also, I think Eddie Hazel is one of the most underrated and underappreciated guitar players. I mention him whenever the opportunity arises because everyone’s heard him do Flash Light and Parliament and that kind of stuff, but the cuts on the first couple of Funkadelic records are just the bomb.

Pink Floyd — The Dark Side Of The Moon (1973)

I mention this because it was the first rock band poster that I could put up in my bedroom — because it was so vague. My dad probably thought it was a tribute to Isaac Newton, thinking I was really smart. Ha ha So it stayed up. I tried putting a Judas Priest poster up and that lasted about a week before it came down. He might have even gone to confession to confess that he’d failed as a father.

There are certain albums that we hear so much that we almost grow deaf to them. But every once in a while, after you take a break and go back to it, you realise the mastery of it. Time is one of my favourite songs of all time because the best songs, the mood of music can be so hard to capture in words, but they did it there. And it’s so melancholy and so surreal that it’s kind of the pinnacle of rock music for me in a lot of ways. And I still listen to it and I still have a Pink Floyd poster up on my wall, so clearly they made an impression on me.

Clutch’s Sunrise On Slaughter Beach is out now

Joe Daly

Hailing from San Diego, California, Joe Daly is an award-winning music journalist with over thirty years experience. Since 2010, Joe has been a regular contributor for Metal Hammer, penning cover features, news stories, album reviews and other content. Joe also writes for Classic Rock, Bass Player, Men’s Health and Outburn magazines. He has served as Music Editor for several online outlets and he has been a contributor for SPIN, the BBC and a frequent guest on several podcasts. When he’s not serenading his neighbours with black metal, Joe enjoys playing hockey, beating on his bass and fawning over his dogs.