11 rock songs I wish I'd written, by Helmet's Page Hamilton
As Helmet prepare to release Dead To The World, Page Hamilton looks the songs that shaped him as a young musician
Page Hamilton thinks a lot of journalists are sick of him being honest. They ask what’s exciting and influential and he tells it straight: it could be something from the avant-garde, a bebop classic like Hot House by Charlie Parker, or today, Israel by Bill Evans.
“When I tell people what I’m into, they’re like ‘What. Ever.’ Right now it’s Israel by Bill Evans – I’m figuring out his chord voicings. It’s D-minor blues, but he does cool things and displaces the chords all over the place. So while I’ve listed a lot of rock tracks here I might not have listened to them for more than 20 or 30 years. These are rock records that influenced me as a young man.”
Since those days, Hamilton’s life in Helmet has given him the chance to meet many of his musical heroes, from Buzzcocks to Killing Joke and David Bowie, who recruited him as guitarist for the Hours tour in 1999.
“These bands are extremely important to me, though. When you’re in your twenties listening to music is a different thing than now, but all these tracks are very dear to me and I hold them all in such high esteem. Many of them I had on 8-track in my Volkswagen, when I was a teenager and still smoked pot…”
The Beatles – And Your Bird Can Sing (Revolver, 1966)
Page: "I was a kid when I first heard this, long before harmonised rock guitars were a staple of bands like Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy. I had older cousins who turned me on to The Beatles, the Monkees and KISS, and this song always stood out. Lennon just has this sense of urgency in his voice. There’s so much straining and I love the ‘material possessions’ thing. That’s a recurring thing with Helmet. Lyrically, when you think about it, it’s really a spiritual song and the guitar is just ridiculous. Helmet have a cover of this on Seeing Eye Dog. We did a couple of versions. We did their perky drumbeat, and then we did a slower moshy kind of beat. We do the perkier one live as it’s more fun – we have a lot of moshy stuff in Helmet already."
Led Zeppelin – Black Dog (Led Zeppelin IV, 1971)
"In retrospect I can look back at what influenced me, where my sense of rhythm and odd time signatures comes from. Black Dog was one of the first. This was the first Led Zeppelin album that I got. I exchanged a copy of Rod Stewart’s A Night On The Town that I’d been given for Christmas. I got two copies of the same album, so I went to the Pay Less drugstore where I used to buy my albums. I actually tried shoplifting there a couple of times. In fact I did shoplift there a couple of times when I used to hang out with this hood named Rob Gibner. But only things like candy, when you were a kid. Later when I was an upstanding citizen with a lawnmowing allowance I thought, ‘I’m going to swap this album’. I loved the cover. My hand just gravitated towards it. I think it was $3 back then, brand new. Black Dog is the first thing you hear and it’s just fucking creepy, and magical and otherworldly. It’s my favourite Led Zeppelin song ever of all time."
AC/DC – Highway to Hell (Highway to Hell, 1979)
"I didn’t see them with Axl Rose – I saw them at the LA Forum with Brian Johnson. I was supposed to meet them many years ago but Helmet got a call for a big tour. I finally got to see them play and it was amazing. An interviewer asked Angus once, “So, you’ve written the same album 22 times…” And Angus said, “23, actually.” I thought that was great. The first time I heard Highway to Hell I was 19. It came out in 1979 and I was a freshman in college and a friend said, 'You have to hear this.' We walked into the stereo store in Eugene, Oregon. Back then, speakers were the size of cars and there was the sound room, with sliding glass doors. He had the vinyl, we closed the door and put it on and cranked it. I’ve since learned many licks from that solo – and it’s out of tune! It’s flat. The song is not tuned to concert pitch. Is that what makes it so evil, creepy and scary? That voice, for me, is the number one rock voice. Bon is it. He’s my man. I just crapped myself."
Elvis Costello – Beyond Belief (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)
"I will credit my ex-wife for turning me on to Elvis Costello. I was an indie rock guy back before indie rock meant tight jeans and long hair and tattoos and beards, and I was always like “I’m not listening to that crap. I listen to rock music.” But Beyond Belief just blew my mind. It’s genius and I became obsessed with them, listening to every album including later stuff like Blood and Chocolate. I memorised the lyrics. I also met Pete Thomas and kinda made an ass of myself. Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake were producing Ron Sexsmith and they were in the studio, the Magic Shop in New York, when I went to visit. We were all going to go to lunch but Pete decided to stay and work on a drum part. I said, 'It’s Pete Thomas… I gotta just shake his hand.' So I walked in while he was rearranging his drums and he looked at me like “Who the fuck are you and why are you coming in?” Later, he ended up looking at some lawn furniture that a friend of mine was selling in LA. I was just waking up and powering on my computer on my hands and knees under my desk and in walks Pete Thomas through my living room. We exchanged numbers. I was going to give them a VHS of show a London show of theirs that he had never seen. But we never got it together. A genius band, though, which made me start thinking about rock music in a different way."
David Bowie – Move On (Lodger, 1979)
"This is so sad and seeking. His approach to the idea of moving, moving away from the past and trying to forget someone – this is what I get from the song. And the way the chorus happens two times in different ranges: 'Somewhere someone’s calling me…' It becomes so much more urgent by the last chorus. It’s epic. It’s beautiful. I drive a lot, I drive to see my mother in Oregon and spend a lot of time listening to music in the car. I’ve always sung along to this at the top of my voice. One famous critic called Lodger 'an instant non-classic' as soon as it came out. I was like 'Fuck. You. Dude. You missed on that one.' It’s one of the greatest albums ever made in my opinion. It’s this odd progression and it’s just Bowie – he had this unique approach to things and he would listen to everything. One of the greatest nights of my life was taking David Bowie to see Wire. Introducing heroes. There’s a famous photo bouncing about in the Wire book by the English writer Wilson Neate, with me taking Bowie to Wire’s dressing room at Irving Plaza towards the end of 1999."
Wire – From the Nursery (Chairs Missing, 1978)
"How do you write a song like this? I mean, how? All the background falsettos – they’re so fucked up in such a great way. It’s hard to pick a favourite Wire song as I love everything about them. I was honoured to play on Object 47 on a song called All Fours. They asked me to join the band, and Bruce is a great hero of mine and I was so flattered and honoured and we spent several months trying to figure out how to have Helmet in LA and work with Wire in the UK and Europe. Helmet did a cover of Mercy from Chairs Missing, but I’m going to wait for them to hear it before I ask them what the fuck they’re singing about. Their lyrics are poetry. Just beautiful. They’re great human beings and I feel honoured to call them friends. We email regularly and I got drunk with Graham when I was working with Entombed in Stockholm. He came down from Uppsala and it was the same thing I went through with Bruce Gilbert when we went to see Sonic Youth at the Astoria: 'I can see what you’re doing Page, and it’s a bad idea.' I was trying to keep up with their drinking. I feel like I can keep up with anyone except for the English."
Killing Joke – Requiem (Killing Joke, 1980)
"Foo Fighters covered this? Well, we did it before they did, I bet. I think. Oh! We did it afterwards in 2006 as part of the Size Matters recording sessions. Our first Killing Joke cover was back in the day; Primitive, from the same album. Killing Joke is another band who haven’t lost their intensity and their brilliance. Certain people just have it. I’d say that about David Byrne – I’ve seen him as a solo artist and the Stop Making Sense tour in 1980. People like that – Wire, Killing Joke, David Byrne, Bowie – they’re not going to lose it. Killing Joke, I love everything they do, but the first album is the one for me. Requiem has a super-cool Geordie guitar part. The lyrics weren’t on the album and I would lie in my bed when I lived in Harlem trying to figure them out. Later I remember listening to Tension, for example: 'You take some / And then you take some pills…' Then it’s like, no – the tension builds, you dick. Maybe you should look at the song title?"
Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb (The Wall, 1979)
"I probably listened to this a thousand times. One of these songs for when you’re in that state – and I was in that state – and again many years after the album came out. I loved Pink Floyd growing up, and when I was in college we listened to so much Dark Side of the Moon. When The Wall came out it was on non-stop. I was in a house with a bunch of deadheads in college, stoners, and I actually took out an emergency student loan to buy weed. Really stupid, like, 'We’re going to make the money back because we’re going to sell it!' And of course we smoked it all. That’s why I quit smoking weed back then. Comfortably Numb, like certain other songs, are just beyond songs. Like Black Dog. To me these songs, I don’t know what the people were going through, but Gilmour’s vocal and the guitar, the solo that you can’t hear enough. A friend of mine, a drummer that I played with in Brooklyn in the 80s said, 'Yep – that solo’s still going, right now.' Amazing song, amazing recording, amazing band."
Buzzcocks – Orgasm Addict (Orgasm Addict/Whatever Happened To…?, 1977)
"I had finished grad school and started auditioning for everything, like Village Voice bands, in New York. I got a job where I would write reviews for a thing called Rock Pool, like a tip sheet – there were no bad reviews. So I used a fake name as a lot of stuff they had me write about was garbage. But they had a great record collection and this is where I would find things like Killing Joke and Gang of Four, Undertones, and Buzzcocks. They just connected in a great way, and this song is so damn funny. It’s punk but it’s so disjointed and I just like the fuck-off delivery. I got to meet Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle years later when they joined the Warped Tour and they shouted us out onstage. They rule."
Gang of Four – I Found That Essence Rare (Entertainment!, 1979)
"I wrote liner notes for Entertainment! for Henry Rollins when he did a reissue of it many years ago. I’m sure they were terrible liner notes – I’m not a journalist, but I was so enthusiastic that I might have described it as ‘pointillistic’, with the guitar playing ‘like icepicks to the forehead’ which is what Louise from CBGB’s said about Helmet the first time we auditioned there. They’re so funky, without trying to be white boys playing funk. There are a couple of American bands I can’t stand who are like ‘We’re funky…' and it’s like oh God, just stop. Real funky is like AC/DC and Gang of Four. They just groove their balls off. And I Found That Essence Rare I fell in love with because I was in Band of Susans before Helmet and we covered it. It was my single favourite song to play live in my nine months with Band of Susans. Such a great song and such a great album. Those first two records, for anyone who’s into punk or rock, are just life-changing. If you don’t have those records then don’t talk to me."
Aerosmith – Back in the Saddle Again (Rocks, 1976)
"High school. Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. You know when you’re younger you only have so much of an attention span, or the ability to concentrate? There were three things that I loved more than anything aged fifteen: Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and Ted Nugent. I’ve since outgrown Ted Nugent as he’s such an asshole. I remember there was an article about him in Creem magazine where he was talking about how he dodged the draft. He ate potato chips and garbage for weeks on end and started shitting and pissing in his pants until he was a crusty disgusting mess. He went to his draft meeting where they said, “No… you’re not fit to serve in the army.” Ironic that he’s a right-wing asshole now. But Aerosmith, before they had the lobotomies, were maybe one of the best and certainly the most inhuman rock singers you could hear. Steven Tyler – that vocal performance is just bloodcurdling. This album is the pinnacle, for me, but the first five albums are all must-haves. After that, they were invaded by aliens and I can’t stand the shit they do now. But these were the 8-track days, in my Volkswagen, my ’69 Bug."
Helmet release Dead To The World on October 28.