Shame’s release of Drunk Tank Pink punctuated the lockdown malaise with some much-needed exultation. This is just one of the reasons why we are humbled to be joined by the band’s frontman, Charlie Steen, for the latest instalment of Doctor’s Orders for a chat about the albums that provide that much-needed exultation for him personally, not just in lockdown but over the course of his life.
With everything Shame have released so far, there has been a sense of immediacy and a caustic cognizance of the current state of things. Their debut album, Songs of Praise, grabbed the sleepy UK music industry by the scruff of the neck and shook it about like a flat pack wardrobe on a fault line. Their sophomore follow-up, Drunk Tank Pink, was a record that gorgeously elucidated the need for both reflection and deliverance in music moving forward. Now, the band’s new concert film ‘Live in The Flesh’ has become the talk of the livestream circuit, the group have added another string to their bow— movie stars.
As frontman and lyricist, Sheen offers up poignancy with a pointy edge, probing and piercing at politics, philosophy and beyond. It would be a sin to think that the visceral post-punk energy of Shame suggested a lack of judicious regard for their subject matter, they are as thoughtful a band as any, the high-octane delivery merely lends the reverence in Steen’s words an adrenalised sonic edge that drives their message home in a maelstrom milk-truck.
This finger to the pulse outlook and inviolable passion for music makes Charlie Steen the perfect guest for our Doctor’s Orders feature.
Continuing with our Mental Health Awareness campaign, Far Out Magazine has teamed up with the suicide prevention charity CALM to help connect you with your favourite artists and hear how music has helped them during their darker times and day to day life.
The organisation, with the full working title of ‘Campaign Against Living Miserably’, offer a free, confidential and anonymous helpline for those most in need of mental health support. At a time when millions of people have been forced to stay home during strict lockdown measures, CALM has seen a huge spike in their workload.
We at Far Out believe in music’s ability to heal. It could be the moment that the needle drops on your favourite album and provides respite from a chaotic world or, conversely, it might be the fanatic conversation you have with friends about which guitarist was the greatest. Music, it’s safe to say, has always allowed us to connect with one another and ourselves.
In support of CALM, we’re asking a selection of our favourite people to share nine records that they would prescribe for anyone they met and the stories behind their importance. Doctor’s Orders will be an ongoing feature that will see some of our favourite musicians, actors, authors comedians and more, offer up the most important records, which they deem essential for living well.
Charlie Steen takes on the challenge of prescribing nine albums for living well and his stellar selections offer not only a perfect playlist but a distilled snapshot of his life so far, illuminating the ever-present boon and shaping influence that music has been in it. His record choices offer an eclectic mix all sharing a DNA of brilliance, propagated poetical lyricism, and a profusely profound creative soul.
Expect to see a run of tracks from folk, soul and everything in between in a swathe of music’s finest gilded gems that have all clearly been an influence on Charlie and Shame.
Charlie Steen’s 9 favourite records:
The Asylum Years – Tom Waits
This Tom Waits compilation record, which features some of his very finest tracks form ‘Martha’ to ‘Grapefruit Moon’, fell into Charlie’s possession in a way that would suggest the LP had been woven into position by some mythological music figures of fate. As Charlie explained, “I was ten years old when I bought my first record on vinyl from my primary school summer fête for 20p, it just so happened to be a masterpiece.”
“A collection of Tom Wait’s songs from his time at Asylum Records are engraved into two black circles and massively impacted the way I thought about lyrics and music,” he continued. “It’s a record I’ve never tired of and still listen to frequently to this day. The romance of Waits’ lyrics can rarely be compared, and the brave use of his instrumentation is what elevates him above so many others.”
Grotesque – The Fall
The next record is The Fall’s 1980 post-punk classic Grotesque. Whilst in terms of production, this may seem disparately contrasting to The Asylum Years, there is no denying that there is some implacable kinship between Mark E Smith and Tom Waits as songwriters, which clearly resonated on some level with Charlie. “I was 17, we’d just started Shame and all the clientele and staff of the Queen’s Head in Brixton,” where, he explains, how the band was formed, “Constantly drilling into me and the band the importance of The Fall and their impact on music as we know it.”
Charlie continued to regale, “Similar to most people’s love affair with the band, mine began with discomfort and uncertainty. I’d listen through songs but their discography was so large, like with other artists, it can be difficult to know where exactly to start. I think I came upon Grotesque because I loved the artwork, ‘The NWRA’ came on and from that moment that record was all I listened to for the next two months.”
“It seems we all have the one album that comes along and changes everything at the start of our teens, but there’s also a second formative blow that resonates a little later on and scores our coming-of-age years. It would seem this was Charlie’s, “It was the soundtrack to my journey to and from Graveney sixth form.”
Steen continued: “There’s no other group like The Fall, that much is clear. Mark E Smith said, ‘I think, that I can die happy knowing there could never be a cover band of The Fall’. People can play their songs note by note but there’s an originality to them that can’t be replicated. We got to support them about a year before MES died which was an honour, I remember my girlfriend at the time turning to me during their performance and saying ‘Even I could do this’. It still makes me smile to think about that line as I feel it’s the perfect way to describe them and their ethos… He also called Eddie ‘a spotty southern c*nt’ in our green room.” Fortunately for Eddie’s sake that’s as good as a handshake from the man who wouldn’t complement God if he had him in a headlock.
Extension of a Man – Donny Hathaway
The next record is R&B and soul legend Donny Hathaway’s 1973 album, Extension of a Man. Sadly the release was his last studio album before his untimely death in 1979, a tragedy that imbues the record what a poignant sense of reverence. “I think that my favourite song by Hathaway would be ‘The Ghetto’,” Charlie explains, “You can’t beat it, but as an album, this is a work of art.”
“I remember at the age of 15 this would be playing through my headphones at all times, the voice of an angel and a poet bursting forth with honest and beautiful musicianship. It seems that so many artists took influence from the work of Donny Hathaway, the sound of his voice alone stands out from any crowd and is completely his own. The album title reminds me of Pieces of a Man by Gil Scott-Heron which came out two years earlier and is indeed another work of art. And as such, must be mentioned.”
Pieces of a Man – Gil Scott-Heron
It is a skilled segue from a man who knows his media just as well as his music. As Charlie rightfully posits Pieces of a Man was released in April 1971 and is often touted as a proto-rap record. It is one that Charlie wholeheartedly adores, “The words, rhythm and subject matters that Scott-Heron tackles and masters are what causes him to be an unstoppable force, an undoubted poet and a genius.”
The frontman adds, “This album feels raw, a word over-used by the press when describing music,” (duly noted thank you, Charlie), “But completely deserved in this case.
“Again, his inspiration and influence can be seen in lyricists and artists to this day and his work will forever live on. The bravery involved in honesty and truth should never be overlooked or under-valued, its rarity is what makes it so special and so important. We’re coming up on 10 years since he passed away, the things he achieved will forever live on, and the fact that so many of his thoughts and music are printed onto vinyl and available is a privilege to have access to and a beauty to devote yourself to.”
God Bless the Child – Billie Holiday
Next up on the list is an artist that firmly planted the musical seed of protest that Gil Scott-Heron would later nurture and protect so that bands like Shame can continue to propagate its fruits. “This record was given to me by my parents when they gave me their vinyl collection, no greater gift can be given or received than the collection of someone’s music, unless they’ve got shit taste,” Charlie jokes. “To have this gem in my life has been nothing but a true pleasure.”
“Lady Day is a light forever shining, something humanity should never forget. The majestic nature of her lyrics, similar to the holy Ink Spots, is what makes it so powerful, sung by one of the greatest voices this world has ever heard. To summarise and perfectly capture universal moments, such as heartbreak, in a simple and beautiful sentence, is a challenge only the masters have conquered, Billie Holiday being no exception.”
Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole – Martha Wainwright
If you have never heard this song, then it’s far from the death metal barrage of profanity that the title might suggest. In fact, it is a heartfelt, almost hymn-like folk single from 2005 that candidly explores the insular world of reflecting on scorn and disparagement, and it’s one that Charlie describes as having some of the best lyrics ever.
“Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole’ is a song shown to me by our dear, dear friend Keith several years back in a transit van on an anonymous stretch of British motorway, and it has stuck with me ever since. The opening line, ‘Poetry is no place for a heart that’s a whore’, leads you into some of the greatest lyrics ever written.”
Vocally it deserves eulogising too, “The notes that Wainright hits in this song could never be replicated, nor should they, this is this person’s truth and there’s alone to sing. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s a song that every time you go back to it you’ll find something new, and the rest of her music brings forth the same greatness.”
Fun House – The Stooges
The Stooges second studio album, Fun House, released back in 1970 is one that you may well have associated with Shame from the get-go for that same sense of a controlled explosion that serves as a measured incendiary attack on all that’s banal. The band’s impact on Charlie and Shame has been massive, “The Stooges changed my life. Only three albums to their name and these three records seem to have altered the fate and direction of so much that came after them. The list of artists that cite this band as the reason they picked up an instrument is endless.
“It seems as if this band has nothing to lose when you listen to them. No willingness to sacrifice their sound in hopes of achieving a high rank in the charts. No sign of trying to mould themselves to be something they were not. Nobody had seen anything like them at the time and nobody has seen or heard anything as real as them since. This album has tracks like ‘Down on the Street’ and ‘Loose’ that sit in their own elevated world. We’ve been lucky enough to perform with Iggy Pop a few times now and rest assured, he’s still a higher power.”
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – David Bowie
The next record is a masterpiece that needs no introduction, not least because Charlie pretty much encapsulates all there is to say about it as he waxes lyrical in his own words. “This list wouldn’t be complete without David Bowie,” he tells me and I fervently agree despite the fact the choices have nothing to do with me, “We are still not worthy.”
“Although his record Low probably held a higher place than a lot of his other work for a long period of my life, I would have to go with this album as it’s the one I go to the most at the moment. The opening track ‘Five Years’ still sends shivers down my spine.”
Charlie adds, “I fell in love with Bowie as a child and it’s a relationship that has not faltered or dipped since. I’ll never forget the day he passed away. We were at practice in Camberwell and walked with Jason and Candy, who owned the rehearsal space, up to Brixton. Never have I seen something like it and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again. The streets were chocked, and the traffic was at a stand-still, the pedestrians and the drivers both chanting along to the great David Bowie.” It’s an in-memoriam scene that conjures up notions of a World Cup Win.
Charlie continues, “There seemed like no greater way to commemorate a hero who has brought joy into so many lives. The proof was in the streets as to how much he brought to humanity. I wouldn’t like to meet the person who turns their ears down when he comes on the speakers, I’d question their qualifications as a human.”
As ever, it seems that Bowie is not simply a music hero, but a transcendent figure whose influence is interwoven into our daily lives: “I got evicted from a nursing home I’d been living in with a large group of people in South London last September. It was a big blow and a scarring experience to have myself and 30 other people being forced out with all of their belongings, but on the last night, Bowie seemed to save the day once again. We had a goodbye party with all the residents and Greg, our neighbour, gardener, friend and DJ all wrapped into one, had the single of ‘Modern Love’. He was devastated by his mistake of first playing the B-side version, which was a live rendition. After the song finished, he flipped the vinyl and played the A-side and it was just as fresh and just as strong to hear it twice. How many artists can have their song played twice in a row to a group of people and have the reception of euphoria thrive not dip?” Of course, that’s rhetorical.
I Trawl the Megahertz – Prefab Sprout
“Wow!” Charlie begins, when regaling the tale of how the last record on his list – Prefab Sprouts gorgeous symphonic piece of soaring epic escapism ‘I Trawl the Megahertz’ – on the Durham bands album of the same name, came to his attention. “The first time I heard the title track we were in Hong Kong, it was 5am and we were driving to the airport as the sun was rising over the water. I have no delusions as to how fortunate I am to have had this experience, but I also have no doubt anyone listening to this song can be transported to a similar place of serenity.
“One of our managers, Paul, played this to me and it’s a song that will never leave me. I have no idea if what he told me was true, but I chose to believe it. The story goes that the lead singer of the hit ’80s band Prefab Sprout [Paddy McAloon] started going deaf at a later stage of his life. Traumatised by the idea of this, as his entire world revolves around music, he decided to put everything he had into the last record he’d have the ability to indulge in and create. If this is true, he conquered all that he set out to do. Listen to this as soon as you can, there’s nothing quite like it.”
I can confirm that both sentiments are true. Paddy McAloon may well suffer from a hearing issue, but there is salvation in his music as he transfigured his hardships into something beautiful, much like the rest of the songs that Charlie has chosen. Which you can catch in a playlist below.