“Anything that’s a bit spooky and a bit rural, that’s right at the centre of my music taste. My favourite song in the world when I was eight was The Riddle by Nik Kershaw. I think there’s something in that – it has a sensibility that’s a bit bucolic, a bit magic, the shape of things to come.
But if I go back, there are elements of my mum and dad’s taste from when I was small. Records that really stick in my head were Neil Young, Planxty and this [self-titled] one by Andy Irvine and Paul Brady. It’s a post-Planxty project and the one album they did together; I wish they’d done more. It doesn’t sound like it was made on drugs – they’re not into dragons, it’s not mystical – but to call it trad would be to undervalue it. There’s something very weird going on under the surface. I rediscovered this about eight years ago. All I need is a joss stick and the smell of my dad’s cigar that he’s just nipped down to the pub to get and I’m five years old again, in north Nottinghamshire. It’s quite a powerful thing.
My musical journey is a weird one. As a kid I was massively into music and constantly dancing. Then I got really sporty and in my whole teens I left music behind and played golf. After a while I realised I wasn’t good enough to go professional, but then I remembered: ‘I love music! I’m going to be a music writer!’ So I started a BTEC media course – something from the 90s for people who didn’t quite know what they wanted to do! – and hoovered up grunge records really quickly to just get up to speed. I started working for the NME, and discovered Big Star, The Byrds and Neil Young. That sent me back and I started to listen to much more old music. I also became mates with Circulus, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of acid folk, early music and some funky stuff from the 70s on the edges of prog.
If one record took me back to folk music, it was Pentangle’s Basket Of Light. I bought it in Good Vibrations in Nottingham – a great shop ’cos the owner [Sharon Robinson] didn’t sell anything for more than £3.50. She wanted record lovers to come in and get a bargain. Pentangle were like an acoustic Led Zeppelin with a female singer. And while Basket… is well loved, the brilliant Solomon’s Seal seems to get ignored. Willy O’Winsbury is an outstanding track. Only in a folk song could you get the story of a girl who fancies a boy, but her dad fancies him too.
Everyone talks about Penguin Eggs, but I think every single one of Nic Jones’ 70s albums is priceless. I got an original of Ballads And Songs for 49p from the Salvation Army in Norwich but I didn’t get to listen to it properly before I had to sell a shitload of records to keep financially afloat. About five years later, I heard him again, thought, ‘What have I done?’ and re-bought them all. Ballads And Songs sounds old, dusty and scratchy, like time’s left its mark on it. But it sounded like that when it came out! He’s a perfectionist and his version of Sir Patrick Spens is so different to Fairport Convention’s. I’m addicted to him. There are some times I’m driving on country roads and no other music will suit my mood. His voice can be an acquired taste – if ever a sheep vocal was going to be perfected, this is it. His songs inspire me to write. A lot of this music does.
I have to pick Trees’ On The Shore – look at that cover! It’s quite haunting. It makes me think of scary TV shows from when I was a kid. It’s a shame that the folk horror genre is so small – it feels like there should have been more and this should have been the soundtrack. My favourite song is Murdoch, and there have been lots of great times to listen to it, but one of the best was at my friend’s house, The Hermitage, which is on the Devon coast where Deep Purple recorded Fireball. It’s a spooky place, the last house before the sea, in nine and a half acres with steep cliffs either side. I sat in the car with this blaring out – just perfect!
Bands I like from this era often sounded like they’d ‘got it together in the country’ but didn’t have the means. Traffic did. For me, they’re the ultimate band. It’s funk and folk together, the two best genres of music. I love all eras of Traffic but John Barleycorn Must Die is the best. I want to hear pagan grooves and songs about corn dollies and hills and witches, and this has it all. It sends chills through you.
Emma from Circulus did the best mix tapes. That’s how I found Yours by Forever More. They’ve got that same ‘countryside’ feel as Traffic, but were under the wing of [60s pop svengali] Simon Napier Bell, who’d signed them among a lot of average bands to scam money from the record label. But even he admitted that they were really good, and more people need to hear them.
My DJ set is funky prog bleeding into disco. With Keef Hartley Band’s Overdog I looked at the cover and went, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be good.’ Roundabout is just this crazy stomping riff that makes people leap onto the dance floor. It’s blues rock with Afro influences, and a record can’t get me more excited than this. I also like albums from the early 70s about ecological stuff, and Rare Earth’s Ecology has got that real spirit. Way ahead of their time, the hippie shit that people took the piss out of in the 80s is what we’re all talking about now.
A modern pick is Steeple by Wolf People. It’s perfect – not one song on there I don’t love. I didn’t know anything about them and saw them supporting Black Mountain in 2010. Me and my mate Seventies Pat just looked at each other and went, ‘Yep.’ That record’s even more impressive because [frontman] Jack Sharp is from Bedfordshire and he’s writing about folk tales and legends of Bedfordshire. You wouldn’t think that’s very interesting, but he’s found stuff. It refreshes the folk genre, with the hints of hip hop and beats. And guitarist Joe is so quiet and shy, then he unleashes something wild and phenomenal.
I’ve been collecting records from this era for two decades now, and just when I think there can be no more lost, interesting records, there are more. I feel that is going to go on for the rest of my life. When I say to idiots that I like prog, they think that you’re talking about four bands. I love Yes and two Genesis albums, sure, but the edges of it are the things that are really interesting.”
Latest book The Good, The Bad & The Furry is out April 14 via Little Brown. Hear Tom every fortnight on Friday, 12-3pm on http://www.soundartradio.org.uk and find My Sad Cat at http://www.twitter.com/mysadcat.