If you, like me, are a huge fan of music but much less of a fan of organising that music into easily digestible playlists, then hopefully this article will be of some assistance to you. I often find myself skipping for five minutes through my 1500 song playlist as the Spotify algorithm desperately tries to provide me with a song familiar yet interesting enough for me to listen to the entire duration of it. To that end, here’s five picks for the ideal soundtrack to stroll through falling yellow leaves and snuggle down in a cable knit jumper.
1. Donovan – Season of the Witch (1966)
There are few songs that can claim authenticity when the adjectives ‘spooky’, ‘trippy’, ‘psychedelic’ and ‘jaunty’ are applied to them; yet Glasgow musician Donovan’s Season of the Witch is one of them. It is not overly complex in its lyrical composition, nor its musical structure, but it is a timeless song whose essence carries well into covers by other artists.
Donovan’s voice is the standout feature of the original recording, however, and none of the covers have managed to emulate the sense of enjoyability the original exudes – it just sounds like musicians having a good time, and maximising their effectiveness in a composition setting. The song sounds at once ethereal and foreboding as it does distorted and thrash-y.
Some debate exists over whether future Led Zeppelin members Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones contributed to the record; they certainly collaborated with Donovan on other records of the era but no official word from either party exists with regards to ‘Season of the Witch.’
You can also hear hints of the styles the Beatles would later go on to experiment with on the White Album, the group having struck up a friendship with Donovan in Rishikesh, India, during 1968. There he taught Lennon, McCartney and Harrison finger picking techniques he had learned from watching, amongst others, Glasgow folk musician Bert Jansch. ‘Season of the Witch’ is an enjoyable slice of late 60s acid rock before the scene arrived.
2. The Fall – Edinburgh Man (1991)
The Fall are revered as one of the most important bands of the 1980s post punk scene, though this is a scene for which frontman Mark E Smith publicly declares distaste on his 1991 track ‘Edinburgh Man’. This paints a peaceful portrait of Scotland’s capital city, where he had moved circa 1990, amid growing disillusionment with the ‘Madchester’ scene gaining traction in his hometown.
Smith spoke disparagingly about musicians, the music business, his listeners, bands like the Happy Mondays and the Smiths, audiences, journalists… the list goes on. Yet his unique song writing style (he often poured lengthy prose into his notebooks which he later truncated and set to music), and frequent disregard of the ideas of a prominent melody or rigid song structure, has proved massively influential in shaping the music landscape of the last 40 years.
Edinburgh Man is one of Smith’s softer compositions, longing for a quiet existence, stumbling home over the cobbles of the Royal Mile after a dram or two. The track reminds me of my first autumn in Scotland after leaving my home in North West England (I’m not Mark E Smith, regrettably,) familiarising myself with a new city and the epic journeys I henceforth undertook in my first car. One regret I’ll always have is not catching the final Fall show at Glasgow University’s Queen Margaret Union despite living 5 minutes away at the time.
At least listening to this, I can revel in the glory of what might have been. Enjoy yourself this autumn by falling in love with the one of the fathers of modern Manchester music, a true working class intellectual.
3. Fleetwood Mac – Gypsy (1982)
Perhaps thanks to her affinity for dark outfits and 40 years of popular culture affording her some kind of witch-like status, her own appearance amongst the ‘Coven’ in the namesake American Horror Stories season adding traction to this, anything written by Stevie Nicks is an ideal October listen.
‘Gypsy’ is an ethereal, emotional recording with a dual meaning; Nicks at once pays tribute to her humble origins sleeping on a mattress on the floor with bandmate Lindsey Buckingham and shopping at the same vintage clothing stores as Janis Joplin, as well as singing in remembrances of a friend who died from leukemia around the time of the record’s release. This shines through on the finished version and the airy feeling that can only be attributed to Nicks is ever-present.
The song was written and released in the midst of heavy cocaine use and interpersonal fractures within Fleetwood Mac. At the height of their fame, the members were beginning to look back on a youth they felt had passed them by in a haze of drugs, alcohol, and frantic decisions made out of panic and fear of the future. The song perfectly captures the spirit of longing for things gone too soon. Nicks lamented that the song’s innovative video, at the time the highest budgeted of all time, could have been the first of many more if they had managed to get their drug use under control.
This ethereal track is suggestive of the styles the band would later go on to exhibit on ‘Tango In the Night’ (1987), which was more relaxed and experimental than their best known record, ‘Rumours’ (1977) that featured more of a pop rock sound. Nicks would also continue this style in her solo career and Fleetwood Mac’s eventual reunion in the 21st century. Use Gypsy as a starting point, delve into what the ‘White witch’ has to offer this autumn.
4. Al Wilson – The Snake (1968)
‘The Snake’ marks the first cover on the list, as it was actually written by singer-songwriter and civil rights activist Oscar Brown 5 years prior to its release as a single by Al Wilson. It’s important not to detract from the cultural significance of the original, but it’s difficult to deny the sheer enjoyability of Al Wilson’s version. The shouty vocals, raucous horn section and gospel-like backing vocals combine to make a thoroughly smile-inducing track.
This soul track is something of a welcome break for fans of 60s music too, as the rock scene was becoming increasingly obsessed with using mind-altering substances to push the boundaries of consciousness and defining what ‘music’ was as a concept. Sometimes it’s enjoyable to just listen to a song. This is perhaps what has attracted the Northern Soul scene to ‘The Snake.’
That’s not to detract from the song’s quality, though. It doesn’t come off as nonsensical in comparison to the other songs on this list; it feels like a coherent and interesting addition to the playlist. The lyrics itself refer to the classic biblical tale of temptation by an evil spirit masquerading as a snake. Very Halloween-y, I’m sure you’ll agree. This version was produced by Johnny Rivers of ‘Secret Agent Man’ fame – the late 60s Louisiana soul scene is a great soundtrack to autumn, and Wilson’s single a great starting point.
5. The Coral – Secret Kiss (2003)
Liverpool band The Coral have often been victim to their own success, their vast and diverse discography often overlooked in favour of putting their hit singles ‘Dreaming Of You’ and ‘In The Morning’ on any playlist with the word ‘Indie’ in the title and not thinking much more of it. They are a hugely inventive band who blend influence from Americana, Merseybeat and psychedelia effortlessly. They are also well known as champions of unsigned bands through their label ‘Skeleton Key Records’, the Manc band Blossoms encountered great success partly due to the association they fostered with The Coral.
‘Secret Kiss’ comes from their 2003 album ‘Magic and Medicine.’ Whilst it came out at a time when post-punk revival and indie music was enjoying a popularity explosion, about to be helped by the zeitgeist that was the Arctic Monkeys in first album guise, Magic and Medicine occupied its own space on the rock scene. The Coral draw more influence from doo-wop grounds like Dion and the Belmonts or The Del Vikings than the go-as-fast-as-you-can-and-don’t-worry-about-the-production bands who were contemporary with their creative peak (Libertines/Cribs etc.)
Occupying the ether in between the decline of 90s Britpop and acceleration of 00s indie, ‘Secret Kiss’ is a dark and foreboding sounding record that forgoes the angular guitar riffs for a creepy rock organ and haunting vocal harmonies. It sounds more like the kind of thing you’d hear played in a jazz club at 2am than friends of Noel Gallagher’s.
The song, and the album it comes from, are miles apart from any of the band’s contemporaries. It’s a great mix of pleasant, relaxing pop singles and darker story-driven compositions that play well even when heard without the music. ‘Secret Kiss’ is a great place to start and the album cover just seems to have an autumnal tinge to it. Enjoy.