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Gifts from the three wise men of rock

Elton John, Iggy Pop and Henry Rollins are music's best tastemakers, presenting riveting shows that open new doors

Iggy Pop plays an eclectic mix of music on his BBC Sounds show.
Iggy Pop plays an eclectic mix of music on his BBC Sounds show. (Wikimedia Commons)

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I don’t know whether it has anything to do with the fact that I am ageing rapidly but I have been leaning more and more towards older wisdom these days. The three people whose music recommendations I depend on quite a lot when I am looking for new music to explore have an average age of 69.33. Two of them are in their seventies, while the third is just a shade younger than me.

I will come to the other two in a bit but of the three, it is the oldest whose taste in music I enjoy the most. It is none other than Elton John, the acclaimed and highly awarded singer, pianist, songwriter, and a name that everyone knows. John, who turns 75 next month, has been hosting an hour-long podcast on Apple Music every week for over 320 weeks. Appropriately named Rocket Hour, his show is one that I eagerly look forward to. Not only because his taste in music is impeccable but also because of the surprise element. You never know what you might get.

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In one of Rocket Hour’s recent episodes, John decided to focus on 1950s and 1960s classics. When I settled down with my headphones and put it on, I expected to be transported to an era when rock ‘n’ roll began to get immensely popular and hoped to hear his favourite songs from those decades. Well, surprise! The first track he played was The Hardest Cut from a new album by the Texas, US, alt-rock band Spoon, a band formed in 1993, several decades after the era that the episode was supposed to focus on. He followed it up with a bigger surprise, spinning, first, a song by 27-year-old British singer Sam Fender, and then another by the British psychedelic pop group Glass Animals. Both songs, Aye by Fender and I Don’t Wanna Talk by the other group, were nice but certainly not from the 1950s-60s.

Then I realised that he was just easing us in. Instead of unleashing a bunch of classics from eras past, John created a mood before he started giving you the really old stuff. After the two opening songs, he played a track, Chapstick, by a shiny sounding pop band, COIN, from Tennessee; and then the peppy Do You Want To by Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish band. Mood set, he then took us down the rabbit hole to Donnie Elbert, soul and rock ‘n’ roll singer from the 1950s, and his falsetto rendition of A Little Piece Of Leather. In that episode, John played several classics from those early years of rock ‘n’ roll.

We got to listen to Wilbert Harrison’s 1959 versions of the R&B classic Kansas City, we heard Howard Tate singing Look At Granny Run Run from 1966, we heard greats such as Etta James, Peggy Lee and Little Richard, but, interspersed between all these, we also heard a bunch of new and contemporary singers and bands.

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Apple Music describes Elton John’s Rocket Hour playlists as “music you know; music you don’t know; and music you should know”—and that is pretty apt. John is an excellent guide. His brief introductions to songs are informative and appraisive. And his knowledge of music, honed over a career that spans 60 years, is jaw-droppingly impressive. If you want to discover new bands and new musicians, some of whom may still be below the radar, or if you simply want to enjoy a well put together playlist with a venerated rock star as your DJ, Rocket Hour is a must-have podcast.

The two other gents from the trio of the musical Magi that I love are Iggy Pop, who, like John, will also turn 75 this year, and Henry Rollins, who is relatively young at 60. John’s shows usually have a guest—a new young performer or a band. In recent weeks, he has had guests that you might not have heard of. They include Wet Leg, a post-punk duo of women from the Isle of Wight who have not yet released a full-length album, and the Nigerian-born Ray BLK, an R&B singer. But he has also had the immensely successful Ed Sheeran on his show recently.

If Rocket Hour is made up of a bit of the unknown and a bit of the known, the show hosted by Iggy Pop, the “godfather of punk”, is an eclectic mix of what is going on in his mind. Accompanied by his unmistakably gravelly-raspy voice, he plays everything—from a post-punk English band called Snapped Ankles to the Italian composer Alessandro Alessandroni. You can hear it all on his shows, broadcast and streamed by BBC Sounds. My recent find on one of his episodes was a band called Pigeon, led by a Guinean singer, Falle Nioke, but formed in Margate, a seaside town in Kent, UK. You can’t get more eclectic than that.

And finally there is Rollins, former hard-core punk singer, actor and spoken-word performer. If your tastes in music run towards the harder stuff, turn to his show on KCRW, a public-funded radio station that also streams. You will get old music (Iggy’s band the Stooges is often featured) but also discover the unknown. It’s on Rollins’ show that I discovered the late Turkish composer İlhan Kemaleddin Mimaroğlu, bands such as New Zealand’s Shocking Pinks, and the late Ghanaian guitarist from the 1970s, Alex Konadu.

Seriously, who needs the algorithms from streaming platforms that try to “predict” the music you might like when you have the Magi doing it for you? Oldies are way better than algos.

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