Former chief rock critic for The Times, Peter Paphides has been writing about music for over 25 years and has amassed an untold collection of pop records from across the modern era. Including meditations on the melancholy of Abba and the Red hot Chili Peppers, an early obsession with Aztec Camera and an outspoken debut in music journalism, this is the extended transcript taken from our interview with Pete for our 10-minute film Pete Paphides: Private Collection which you can watch here.
Was there much in the way of music in the house when you were growing up?
There was some music but it wasn’t pop music – apart from Abba – Abba was an inalienable presence in our house. My dad was obsessed with Abba, but it’s odd because he didn’t like any other western music apart from Boney M. So very sad Greek folk music, very bluesy, not in the traditional bluesy sense but very sort of mournful, homesick Greek folk music which is called Rebetiko music, and that stayed with me and I think a lot of the sad music I listen to probably is traceable to that. Minor keys, minor chords, you can’t beat them.
Probably in direct contrast to Abba…
Well, it’s funny you should say that because I think there’s a lot of melancholy in Abba, I think that’s key to the appeal of Abba. The whole thing about Abba was the collision of this life-affirming, euphoric, studio-created pop and this undeniably melancholy that comes through. I mean it’s even in “Dancing Queen”, when they sing “You can dance, you drive, having the time of your life”, the fleeting moment of happiness is absolutely embodied in there. When she sings Chiquitita “You and I cry but the sun is still in the sky and shining above you”, that kind of kills me actually.
With so much Abba in the house, I imagine it wasn’t the first thing that you turned to to define your own personal taste growing up.
I bought my first record when I was nine, I was actually allowed to have two records at once. You know, back in the late 70’s when I started buying records, at the bottom of every street where you always had a little row of shops, you know it was common to have a record shop along with the green grocer and the butcher and the launderette and the haberdasher and the newsagent, which seems kind of crazy now.
From that point on, were records all you spent your pocket money on?
Yes, and the thing was to try and buy as many records as possible with the pocket money that I had, so in newsagents at the time they would sell ex-jukebox records with the hole punched out. Because jukeboxes were quite common you would get these carousel racks with “Ex-jukebox records – 50 pence” or whatever.
Some 7” reissues will have a punched whole anyway to try and recreate that aesthetic.
Yeah that’s true. It’s not necessary anymore. And it’s amazing how long jukebox records carried on being made and one thing I love as a collector is seeing how recently I can get them, because to me, if there’s a record you like in the charts, it’s great to have it on vinyl, it makes it sort of proper.
But towards the end of vinyl’s commercial heyday, so going in to the early 2000’s, the only way you could get certain records on vinyl was that in America there were certain limited jukebox runs, so a very recent one would be “Breathe” by Blu Cantrell, number one about ten years ago. Destiny’s Child “Survivor” I got that from Waxtrax in Denver, Colorado. I was interviewing Coldplay actually for The Times and I had a day free – Waxtrax is a brilliant shop – and people don’t really collect these hugely but I think they will be very collectible, they’re becoming collectible because there’s just a lovely, timeless quality about them.
And “MmmBop” by Hansen, I’ve got that on a jukebox record, because it’s one of the best pop records ever made, so if you’ve got one of the best pop records ever made you should have it on a 7” because that is the natural home, I think still, of pop music.
Watch Pete Paphides discuss the modern pop 7″ in greater depth HERE.
I had no idea you could still get 7” singles as recently as the early 2000’s.
Barely any. They tended to be on Jive, so there were some Britney Spears ones you could still get. I’ve got “Oops!… I Did It Again” and “Hit Me Baby One More Time” on 7”. They just look brilliant, they just look like they shouldn’t exist, because they’re like a relic from a previous age. When “Blurred Lines” came out, again when you’ve got a big hit like that that everyone loves, there’s like this sadness when you can’t find it on vinyl, because it’s like it’s not proper.
Aztec Camera – “Just Like Gold”
Going back to that time then, lots of people have a moment or a band or a song which really kick-starts their interest in music in a serious way. Can you put your finger on something similar?
Yeah I think it was a group called Aztec Camera and their first single “Just Like Gold”, which has never been issued on CD or digitally so the only way to hear it is to own it, which is quite unusual these days. And I had this sort of moment of epiphany where you’re at an age where you’re just kind of ready for that. What was yours?
Somewhat embarrassingly it was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication… in so far as they just took me to a lot of different places. It was like an entry point.
They’re great for that, because you can trace the source, can’t you? There’s something that people don’t often pick up on with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which I think is a lovely quality that they have when their music gets a bit more reflective, which is that kind of “I’m young, I’m tanned, I’m unbelievably handsome, I’m in Los Angeles, I’m reasonably well-off, I have a huge Spirulina smoothie in my hand, I will live to be 100, and yet I still feel this strange, existential melancholy”. In my head that’s kind of what I turn into when I listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers. I don’t know exactly what it is. I once proffered that theory to Thom Yorke before he was in Atoms For Peace because I think he mentioned that he was a fan and I was surprised and I don’t think he knew what the hell I was on about.
Yeah I see that, although I doubt I realised it at the time. Anyway, back to Aztec Camera.
So, I was definitely in the market for liking a serious band that reflected the pubescent turmoil happening inside me and poor old Aztec Camera bore the brunt of this moment of soul-seeking.
Roddy Frame just looked like the coolest older brother in the world, and his hair, he’d let grow quite long and he had a suede-fringed jacket, and I think he had pointed boots and black jeans and it was a great song and I just played it over and over again. He looked like he would understand whatever non-specific anxiety I was going through.
I wrote Aztec Camera all over my hold-all at school, I copied out lyrics on the inside cover of my exercise book, I’m so embarrassed, I wrote him letters. Now of course I know musicians and I know some well-known musicians and I know how much grief they get and I feel slightly guilty for having been part of the problem, but it’s the nature of pop music and hero worship and all of that.
Having the vinyl record is very much a part of that too.
I’m very lucky, I get sent CDs and I’m never short of music to listen to, but I still have to go out and buy the vinyl, because I try harder when I do that. I can’t be dismissive about music when I’ve paid money for it.
There’s a kind of detective work that records bring out of you; you look at the credits, you see who wrote it, you see who produced it, you cross-refer it with records other people produced and it kind of gives you an appreciation of areas of music that you might not ordinarily have.
I still feel quite loyal to a lot of what some people might consider the cheesier pop things of the late 70’s that I like. So I might pick up a Cliff Richard record like “Wired For Sound” or “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and you see credits like “produced or written by Alan Tarney” who you know also did stuff with A Ha and produced “Take On Me” and later on worked with St Etienne and Pulp and you start making these connections quite young and you realize often there isn’t that much separating the slightly cheesy uncool things that you weren’t supposed to like and something like a Pulp record.
Would that be a good way of describing how you collected records – moving freely between bands and eras rather than collecting methodically?
There was a period in my teens when I probably started getting a bit snobby, but up until then it was fine, I didn’t really understand why people were tribal. There’s a good example, Laura Branigan “Self Control”, which you wouldn’t really boast to your friends that you had.
I’ve always had a thing for that slightly camp Euro-disco, again it’s got quite a melancholy thing going on. I do this radio series for 6 Music called Vinyl Revival where we just have musicians in and they bring their favourite records in. And I was very happy when the Wild Beasts came in and they played “What Is Love” by Haddaway. These two records [Haddaway and Laura Branigan] are made in different eras but I think they’re very much related. If it was like a piece of food and you looked on the ingredients in the supermarket on this record and that one, they’re made of the same stuff really.
Aside from the more cheesy, popular stuff, you probably have some particularly rare or special artifacts in your collection. Could you maybe pick out 5?
The one that is closest to hand – you’d half expect to pull something out that’s forty years old or something but this one is just near. I got this a few months ago and I had to pay £120 for this – Kate Bush’s Aerial – hardly any were pressed and I didn’t manage to get one at the time and I really regretted it.
About a year ago I paid £230 for the only album that Jackson C. Frank made. Jackson C. Frank, for people who don’t know, was an American folk singer/songwriter who briefly went out with Sandy Denny and was one of the leading lights of the sort of folk guitar revival scene. And his only album was produced by Paul Simon.
This is an absolute must have; Gene Clark from The Byrds; he was a bit luckless as a solo artist, he never really had a hit album. He was very luckless because he was the best songwriter in The Byrds but kind of quite difficult to manage and he made this beautifully orchestrated sort of baroque folk album called No Other and that’s quite hard to get hold of but kind of an essential, beautiful artefact to have on vinyl.
This isn’t really rare, but it should be, I mean it kind of is rare but I don’t think it’s occurred to fans of Paulo Conte to actually look for a lot of his records on vinyl. Paulo Conte’s just this wonderful wonderful Italian singer songwriter, in a Randy Newman, Tom Waits kind of mode, but maybe with jazz influences slightly more to the fore and from 1990 his album barely appeared on vinyl. I think this was a limited issue in Greece and he’s just wonderful.
Speaking of rare or collectible things, Nick Drake – for a lot of people he’s a kind of touchstone artist – there are so many slightly different issues of Five Leaves Left that have been releases I think I might have about six copies of it on vinyl, each slightly different to each other, but of course you can’t leave them behind in the shop especially if they’re not very expensive.
There’s a new box set too…
Yes and there’s a very rare version of the box. A few of them were erroneously pressed where on the back it says “Bryter Layter” instead of “Five Leaves Left” and I think only about 15 escaped the pressing plant, so that’s probably the new latest Nick Drake rarity.
John Peel, in the tradition of broadcasters with considerable record collections of which you are a part, had a box of 7”s that represented his favourites among that enormous collection. Do you have something similar?
This box here is also my equivalent, it’s the kind of “let’s not fuck about” box and it changes all the time but there are certain key records that will always be in it. “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richmond, “Louie Louie”, what we were talking about earlier on, the relatively rare recent jukebox record “Milkshake” by Kelis.
I keep finding more examples of the phenomenon of the recent jukebox record. There’s my “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, there’s “Your Woman” by White Town and [“Mr Postman”] has to always be in the special box. These things were recorded so loudly as well.
One reason why I’ll always love The Beatles more than the Stones – and there are many reasons – is that they loved Motown. They liked the pop stuff more than the R&B stuff and so there’s this kind of pop sweetness that you get in almost any kind of Beatles song, certainly from the first half of their career – I mean John Lennon sang this [“Mr Postman”] so beautifully. And they were quick on to early Motown while the Stones would cover things like “Little Red Rooster” – the slightly more groin-based area of American music – and I will always love The Beatles for that taste that they had, because I don’t think it was especially cool music at the time to be into either, not like now when we lionize Motown. They just had good ears.
I have a few original Beatles 45’s at home and if you listen to “She Loves You” on vinyl and then listen to the Beatles’ One remastered CD compilation of a few years ago, the original is not only faster but as a result pitched slightly higher.
You can do that endlessly with Beatles songs because the stereo separation on some Beatles albums means that on American copies of Rubber Soul you get three albums for the price of one. You can play it on the left channel and you have no drums and it sounds like this kind of eerie acoustic folk record and then you can switch it over so you’ve got mainly the drums and no vocals and then you can listen to it all together.
And that’s of course the other that you get, which I will never get bored of – I did this on a radio show once so if people have heard me do this on the radio I do apologise. This is the classic – Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” which, when played at the wrong speed turns into a Dolly Parton cover version of itself.
And conversely you can do it the other way round as well. The Hanson 45 that we were talking about earlier on, if you play that at 33rpm it just sounds like this very world weary man ruminating.
Your career as a music journalist began earlier than most didn’t it? Am I right in thinking you crafted and wrote a music magazine from scratch as a boy?
This is Pop Scene. I was 11 when I put this together. This is my first attempt at music journalism. And the big thing with Pop Scene was that I thought I’d try and review every single record in the top 75 that week.
I took quite seriously and I did try and write something about every band. So UB40, who had just put out “1 in 10” I said “they’re the most depressing group on vinyl”.
I was very pious about Squeeze, they had a single called “Tempted” which didn’t do very well and I wrote… I was quite annoying really, if I met myself now, I don’t think I’d like him very much. “Squeeze have got two things other groups have not got: Difford and Tilbrook. Squeeze deserve more than they are getting”.
I was very judgmental about Eddie Grant: “Same old Eddie, people are getting bored”. A supercilious little shit wasn’t I?
“One Day In Your Life” by Michael Jackson: “I bought it as soon as I had my pocket money” – you don’t hear many music journalists saying that, do you? “There’s so much feeling in that song, I admit”.
“No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley: “brought out in honour of the reggae King’s death, it’s got feeling and meaning but I don’t like it.”
ABBA: “The best group the world has ever seen. The only group that can get in the top 10 on 12” singles at £1.99 each alone. Another outstanding ABBA song”. I kind of cringe when I read this, but then that’s just what it is really.
Shakin’ Stevens was at number one with “Green Door” and so I wrote “I like it, it’s good, but it’s just not right how he can pick one old song and sell it. How about some new stuff, Mr Stevens?” Anyway, so there you go, that was Pop Scene. Maybe I peaked.
I think you’d be forgiven for being unreasonably opinionated aged 11, but did you ever feel like you developed any acrimonious relationships with musicians who would regularly cross your path?
Yeah, I mean I was a bit of dick head really at the beginning. You have this much power and you think you can wield it around indiscriminately. It’s ridiculous, you think you can actually be an influence on someone’s career and you’re kind of arrogant in your twenties a lot of the time, you’re more competitive with other people in their twenties. I don’t know why that should be really, but you’re more antagonistic.
I wish I hadn’t been but you get through that fairly quickly and by my late twenties I wanted to sort of try and keep quieter about groups I didn’t like and just focus on the ones that I did and these days I’m hardly ever in that situation. I would rather just not write about someone if I don’t like them. Sometimes that not possible and if that’s not possible I’ll try and be articulate, but you know there’s so little money in the music industry and in music making I just feel for any band. I’m in my forties now, and they could be my kids you know, it kind of breaks your heart.
The nature of the job has changed tremendously too.
Critics are probably more superfluous than ever before, I think it’s far nicer to bang the drum for things that might not otherwise be heard.
How many records do you own?
I don’t know, how many do you think? It’s kind of a waste of time to count them when you could be doing something more interesting or cooking the tea of something. I think I’ve got more than I good actually listen to in the rest of my lifetime, but I sort of justify that by saying what I’ve really amassed here is the autonomy to choose. You need lots of records in order to feel like you’ve exercised the freedom to make a choice.
And some of these records you don’t even know why you buy them when you buy them and suddenly they’re like a musical time bomb that assume a relevance for whatever reason. Maybe a new band has come along that cited them as an influence or something and you’re like “I’m so glad I kept that record, I knew it would come in handy one day”.
When I was a teenager I bought a Pentangle album, just because they looked really cool on the sleeve – it was Sweet Child. And you opened it up and there were these five separate shots of them and I’d never seen five cooler looking people. The singer Jaqui McShee was wearing a kaftan and she had really long hair and loads of eye-liner on, and John Renbourn, the only man I’ve seen carry off a double-denim look and he was obscured by a cloud of cigarette smoke and Bert Jansch, who looked cool whilst holding a puppy, which again is a difficult look to achieve.
And anyway that sat in my record collection for years and I didn’t really understand what they were trying to do, there were two Charles Mingus songs on there, there were traditional folk songs on there, the folks songs had a jazz rhythm section. I didn’t really understand what was going on and now it’s one of my favourite records of all time.
And not only that, but I got into people like Charles Mingus as a result of that record, all the sources that are traceable in the selection of songs and the ones that they wrote themselves, both backwards and forwards to their influences. That record itself is like a little record collection.