40/4/40: The Albums That Shaped a Life

In honor of my fortieth year on this planet, I thought I’d do something fun and goofy and obsessive (three adjectives that describe my very nature): pick out my favorite album from each year of my life. And I’d nick the title of ESPN’s popular sports documentary series, 30 for 30, then throw a little Princespeak on it and call my own lil’ series 40/4/40. (Why? Because my mama always said, “When in doubt, E-Train, just do what Prince would do.” And that is a 100% true story.) And then I’d throw in a subhead that would make you feel just how crucial this task truly is. Something like . . . I dunno . . . The Albums That Shaped a Life. Yeah, that’s it.

Starting with 1977, I’m going to Wikipedia my way through every album released per year and determine which one I would take to that hypothetical desert island where we will all, at some point, while away our lives, stranded and alone but somehow also blessed with electricity. While I’m at it, I’ll throw in some honorable mentions and any humorous and/or random factoids I unearth. Sounds fun, right?

(What’s that you say? It sounds monstrously self-indulgent, not fun? Well—fie on you, sir or madam. Fie. Go hate-watch something and get off my lawn.)

BONUS! Once we get into the mid-Eighties and onward, I’ll also throw in the album that would have been my choice at the time. Which should make for a pungent mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment.

To start things off, let’s plow through 1977-79, a.k.a. He’s Named Like My Name!

1977: The Clash, The Clash

The Beatles are my favorite band ever. And I think they’re (as close to objectively as you can get in terms of art) the best band ever. But let’s just say I was going to get a band’s logo tattooed on my arm. I would choose the Clash. In addition to being my second-favorite band, the Clash connect with me viscerally in a way the Beatles can’t match. The Clash’s music is the perfect mix of sarcasm and anger and intellect. It’s not just nihilistic barking-for-profit (ahem, Sex Pistols); there’s also something lovingly workaday about them. Just listen to “Career Opportunities.” Yeah, yeah, punk was this snarling rebellion against the popular music and society of its day. But take out the three-chords-and-a-cloud-of-dust song structure and isolate the lyrics of that song, and what do you have? Pretty much a conversation any two out-of-work blokes could have in a pub. Alone among the punks, the Clash felt real. Plus, Joe Strummer is the lead singer of my time-travel fantasy band.

HONORABLE MENTION: I couldn’t leave this year without mentioning one other album: John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack. No, I never owned it, but I’d say Star Wars (and its score) is the one piece of art/entertainment that has had as much of an impact on my life as my favorite bands.

FUN FACTS:

  • In 1977, David Coverdale released an album titled White Snake. “Wait!” you exclaim. “Would that be the same David Coverdale who later formed a band called Whitesnake?” Yes—the very same. I wonder if any other solo artist has later started a band and named it after one of his solo albums.
  • Also, I like to imagine the Elvis compilation Welcome to My World was directed personally at me, as he passed away mere weeks before my birth. Sort of a pass-the-torch gesture from one King to another.

1978: Van Halen, Van Halen

We just covered how the Beatles and the Clash are my two favorite bands. But for the first third of my life, if you had posed that question to me—“Edward, what’s your favorite band?”—the answer would have been Van Halen. And it wouldn’t have been close.

Oh, every few months an individual album might have swayed me (looking at you, Hysteria), but though my eyes wandered, my heart never strayed. I would guess that I have spent more hours listening to Van Halen than any other band. Yes, that has a lot to do with the limitations of cassettes, Walkmen, and a kid’s budget . . . but I still love Van Halen. Their debut isn’t my favorite of their albums, but it unequivocally rocks. And Eddie Van Halen is the lead guitarist of my time-travel fantasy band.

And there’s this: I was named after my paternal grandfather, and I had an uncle on my mom’s side that half our relatives called Edward and the other half Joseph. Beyond those great men, I never met another Edward until I was a freshman in college. (It was an unsettling experience for both of us, let me assure you.) When I was a kid, there were plenty of Brians and Johns and Jeffs out there, but as far as I knew, only one me in my entire generation. So when I stumbled upon an Edward in popular culture, I was all like:

The three most important Edwards of my childhood:

Third Place: Eddie Fiola, a freestyle BMXer.

Second Place: Iron Maiden’s mascot Eddie (more on him later).

First Place By a Country Mile: Eddie Van Halen.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope. A bit of a dip from the debut, but nothing on The Clash can equal “Safe European Home.”

FUN FACTS:

  • In 1978, David Coverdale released an album titled Northwinds. Now I hope he starts a Celtic folk band with that name.
  • He also released a Whitesnake EP titled Snakebite AND a full Whitesnake album called Trouble. Settle down, Dave.

1979: The Clash, London Calling

Hey, are you sensing a theme? I told you I love the Clash.

Here’s the thing: 1979 was an absolutely loaded year for music. I kind of wish I could fudge things and shift some albums to later, leaner years. But I am a man of honor, so I shan’t.

Just look at these releases! Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces; Van Halen II; Talking Heads, Fear of Music; Michael Jackson, Off the Wall; The Police, Regatta de Blanc; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Damn the Torpedoes!; Prince, Prince; Pink Floyd, The Wall . . . the list goes on and on. It’s crazy.

Aaaand it doesn’t matter, because none of those albums holds a candle to London Calling.

So here’s my shameful story of how I got into the Clash:

Year’s ‘99 and my trunk is raw/In my rearview mirror is the motherfuckin’ law

—Wait, shit, that’s just me riffing on “99 Problems.” (Don’t worry: Jay-Z will have his day in this series.) Here’s the real story:

The year was 1999. I had moved home after college. I was unemployed. (I warned you this story was shameful.) I was in the hometown bookstore perusing a bargain-CD bin. Two glittering jewels emerged from the sea of shit there to be found: Combat Rock and London Calling.

At that point, I knew exactly three Clash songs: their cover of “I Fought the Law” (featured on The Clash), “Rock the Casbah,” and “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” The latter two appeared on Combat Rock. So yeah, I was a Clash neophyte, but hey, Rancid talked about them all the time and everyone said they were one of the great bands. Which left me with the question: Which album to buy—Combat Rock or London Calling?

(You may ask: “Why not both?” Ahem. I’ll just repeat myself here: I had moved home from college. I was unemployed. Pay attention to the narrative, people!)

Given the fact that two of the three Clash songs I knew—both of which are no-doubt-about-it classics—appeared on Combat Rock, why did I choose London Calling?

Because I was broke, and London Calling had more songs.

Yep! That’s it. London Calling, which I consider one of two or three contenders for the title of best album ever, only came into my hands because it featured nineteen tracks to Combat Rock’s twelve. And boy, was I ever lucky. Because Combat Rock, aside from those two famous tracks and “Straight to Hell” . . . well, there’s a reason it was the last Clash album featuring the full lineup. They had clearly already made their decision vis-à-vis staying/going.

Anyway. I went home, tossed London Calling in the stereo, and . . . was surprised. I knew this was one of, if not the, classic punk albums. Yet I wasn’t getting the snarling, three-chord savagery I expected. Instead I heard “London Calling.” “Brand New Cadillac.” Honestly, I was a bit . . . not underwhelmed, but taken aback.

My confusion built as the ultimate murderer’s row of songs kicked off with “Jimmy Jazz.” Then came “Hateful.” “Rudie Can’t Fail.” And finally, “Spanish Bombs.” For my money, this is the greatest four-song run on any album ever made. (And it’s not like the album dips appreciably in quality from there.) But it wasn’t until halfway through “Spanish Bombs” that I poked my head up, groundhog-style, and caught wind of what was happening. No, this wasn’t the proto-punk album I had expected. It was just a fucking INCREDIBLE album.

By the end of the year, I owned every single piece of recorded Clash material I could get my hands on. And that’s the story of how our Edward came to love the Clash.

HONORABLE MENTION: Of all those albums I listed above (and more; seriously, check out 1979 in music), I’m going to go with Armed Forces. “Accidents Will Happen.” “Senior Service.” “Oliver’s Army.” “Moods for Moderns.” “Two Little Hitlers.” This is my favorite Elvis Costello album, which I can’t say for any of the other artists who released otherwise awesome records that year.

FUN FACTS:

  • Both Cheap Trick and Bob Dylan released live albums from Budokan in 1979. Please please please tell me they shared a bill and performed together and that there is a bootleg of this I can listen to!
  • I also like that Pink Floyd released The Wall the same year Michael Jackson released Off the Wall. I want to believe that was no accident—that Floyd and Michael had created the first two-artist, double concept album and we’ve all just been too busy with the obvious Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon thing to notice.
  • Oh, and David Coverdale released a Whitesnake album titled Lovehunter. But no solo release. Looks like Dave finally settled down.

Coming soon(ish): 1980-84.