“I was born in Toxteth, Liverpool, and grew up in Aigburth. Up until I was about 13 or 14 years old, music was just something around me. But then I found a rock show on Radio City, the local radio commercial station, called The Great Easton Express. The presenter was Phil Easton and it was three and a half hours every night of the week from 6.30 to 10pm. He would play whole albums and have all the new releases before anyone else.
I still remember the programme as if it was yesterday. He was a fantastic DJ, a great champion of rock. He’d always have people like David Coverdale and Ian Gillan on, so every night at 6.30pm I’d put the radio on and that’d be it. I remember when Pink Floyd’s Animals came out, he played the whole album, so you’d stick the old C90 in the deck and get cracking [with home taping]. Later he became the pitch announcer at Anfield when I was covering matches there – it’s a small world.
The Great Easton Express really fired my imagination and gave me the patience to listen to longer things. Phil would also DJ at Liverpool Empire, which was a great place to see bands. My gateway to prog was Deep Purple’s Made In Japan and I was at the infamous last Purple concert at the Empire in 1976. Tommy Bolin had replaced Ritchie Blackmore, which went down like a lead balloon, and it was nightmare to watch as it all fell apart. Afterwards Jon Lord went into the dressing room and said to Ian Paice, ‘It’s finished, isn’t it?’ and Ian said, ‘Yeah.’ They shook hands and that was the end of MkIV.
My favourite Supertramp album is Crime Of The Century but I saw them at the Empire on the tour after that. Crime… seemed to be the band’s last shot at doing something after the two previous albums did nothing. The songwriting’s great, the singles are great. Live, John Helliwell was the frontman and really fun to watch. I saw so many amazing bands at the Empire, from Roxy Music to Elton John. It attracted big, big names.
I was at school at a time when prog was really big and you’d see the sixth-formers with Yes logos on their bags. I found albums like Relayer a bit of a struggle. I liked more melodic stuff such as Pink Floyd but I’d give other things a try. My favourite Floyd album is Dark Side [Of The Moon]. It’s so memorably melodic and has the rock of tracks like Money. Then they follow it up with the brilliant Wish You Were Here. There was a place I’d go in Liverpool called Penny Lane Records – the guys in there knew their music and they’d give you an honest opinion before you bought something. I’d also buy all the rock magazines and later on, through work, I got to know Richard Williams, a journalist on The Guardian who used to be at Melody Maker and was one of the early presenters on The Old Grey Whistle Test. Meeting people like that is a perk of what I’m doing.
Much as I love a lengthy prog track, when I heard Rush’s Moving Pictures, I was drawn to the shorter, punchier style. Tom Sawyer, Red Barchetta, Vital Signs… they all have that melodic style melded with their talent as musicians. You might not care for the prog sound but the musicianship is dazzling. As someone once said about Neal Peart, his drum solos are the kind that empty bars, not fill them.
When Drama came out, I remember reading about it in the papers as a ridiculous idea of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman leaving Yes and being replaced by The Buggles. But listening to it at the time, people were almost scared of saying, ‘That’s quite good.’ I really like it – it was an interesting idea. From the ashes of that, my great favourite Asia were formed.
Seeing the names on the cover of Asia’s first LP, I thought this could be four massive tracks. I’d heard The Heat Of The Moment on the radio and I thought, ‘That sounds like a hit!’ And One Step Closer – ‘That’s a hit too!’ It’s a classic album, from Mike Stone’s production to the songs, the musicianship… It wasn’t what people expected from those four individuals and it’s massively underrated in this country.
Years later I’m on Twitter, tweeting about Derby County and this guy responds to me immediately. It looked like John Wetton in the profile pic and it was! We got chatting, so I said, ‘I’ve always been a fan of Asia.’ We became constantly in touch online, then Geoff Downes became involved because he’s a big Cardiff City fan. I saw them on the last Asia tour and met Geoff and John and became very friendly with them. I was invited to John’s funeral service. It was a great occasion because so many people were there – Bill Bruford, Carl Palmer, Robert Fripp, Eric Clapton, Marillion – celebrating his legacy. If I wasn’t picking this album I’d pick the third one, Astra. If Asia fans haven’t listened to this, they should. I could bore for Britain on it.
Once you’re into something, you go back in time to find out more. King Crimson’s Red is an album I got into quite late, in the 80s, because of John Wetton. It’s a very powerful, metallic rock album, and the personnel are incredible, especially on Starless.
Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound is from school. All we’d do is chat about football and music: ‘You must listen to this.’ It’s a very musical record, and slightly off the wall. On the Firth Of Fifth there’s that fantastic Steve Hackett guitar solo. He and John Wetton did a great version live.
Whereas I prefer Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, even though they are influenced by them, Marillion are a funny one – I prefer the Steve Hogarth era. I was reading Kerrang! and Sounds at the time and Brave was recommended to me. It’s a concept album with some immense standout tracks, such as Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury and The Hollow Man. I’m sure I saw Hogarth in [his earlier band] The Europeans at Liverpool Empire.
My final choice is Roger Waters’ Amused To Death. I’d not liked Radio K.A.O.S.– that was antiseptic and computerised. Amused… is something you have to pay attention to, and some tracks on there are just fantastic Floyd-like stuff. If that had come out with Floyd on the cover, it would have sold millions. It’s got the usual themes: God, death, war… and it’s got Jeff Beck on guitar. And now Is This The Life We Really Want? is out. I made a point of getting it the day before the Champions League final as I knew I was driving down to Cardiff and I’d get to hear the full thing uninterrupted in the car. It’s typical Roger Waters and Smell The Roses is very Have A Cigar.
My love of music still goes back to that radio show in Liverpool in the 70s and two blokes who seemed to run it all on their own. You can throw in some sport, too, as I wouldn’t have got to know John Wetton or Geoff Downes if it wasn’t for football…”
Find Phil on Twitter at @philmcnulty and follow his sports blog at www.bbc.co.uk/sport/correspondents/philmcnulty.