Classic, Seminal - The Misuse of The Superlative
  • Classic - an outstanding example of a particular style, something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality
  • Seminal - containing or contributing the seeds of later development. Relating to, or having the power to originate
  • Legendary – extremely well known, famous or renowned

Classic, bearing in mind the definition posted above, may possibly be the most misused word in the English language. Especially when used to describe music. Journalists and fans frequently define music or records that they hold in high regard as classic, when in reality they are anything but.

Meanwhile, a record deemed as important may often be described as seminal. Despite that particular record having few real fans.

Legendary is another highly misused word, sometimes used to describe records or concerts that are barely a year or two old.

Pick up a copy of any music magazine and I would wager that all three of the above words will appear within the pages on several, even numerous occasions. What, however should constitute a classic, seminal or legendary piece of music, record, concert or film?

To adhere to the strictest of definitions, then The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts cLub Band is almost certainly classic, seminal and legendary whereas The Rolling Stones’ Her Satanic Majesties Request is not, although both records were of a very similar style and appeared within a few months of each other. Not that The Stones’ attempt at psychedelia was a total artistic failure, rather that it was clearly an attempt to mimic Sgt Pepper, and did not achieve the level of success that the band were used to. It is not fondly remembered, few of the songs could be considered essential by anyone except maybe dedicated fans of the group.

It is easy to get over excited about records and concerts, especially when one feels the need to justify the time and effort spent acquiring the former or attending the latter. For amazing, mind blowing and excellent, try very good or most enjoyable. Conversely, those in receipt of free records and tickets – journalists, disc jockeys, record shop staff – are more likely to remain blasé about the same album or concert. So-so, just OK, not bad. They haven’t had to pay one red cent for the experience; they don’t have to care all that much. Except when it’s an exclusive, such as an album that is one month from release or a secret gig with an invited audience. In which case, either may indeed be brilliant, fantastic and incredible.

Which reminds me. I need to proof read all of the articles on this site and temper my enthusiasm. Superlatives, watch out.

The following then may be considered both classic, seminal and legendary. Of course, it is not an exhaustive list, rather some examples of records that are truly exceptional in their field and also represent a springboard, a game changer in terms of influence and creativity.

Miles Davis – Kind Of Blue
A record whose composition and improvisation absolutely changed the course of jazz. Complex, memorable, yet easy on the ear. A record that stands up to repeated hearings. Kind Of Blue survives and thrives on detailed note-by-note analysis - or casual listening.

The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
The realisation of psychedelia and the concept album. The Summer Of Love in one remarkable package. Perhaps for the first time, rock music as art. Popular music enshrined. Drug induced, yet singable.

Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
Dylan turned electric, albeit on side one only, as his protest song mutated into a new mid 60s brand of rock n’ roll. A record that temporarily left an army of beatniks and folkies behind (Judas!) Most came back for the (even rockier) follow up album, Highway 61 Revisited. All sins were forgiven.

David Bowie – The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
Bowie anticipated and perfected glam rock with this fictional story of an over the hill superstar. Possibly the most relevant album of his genre-hopping career, Ziggy Stardust is the promise of his previous albums made real.

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin
The dawn of heavy rock. On the back of this album - and several tours of the USA - Led Zeppelin became the biggest band in the world. This bone-crunching blues-steeped powerhouse of an album remains a reference point in made-to-be-played-loud guitar and blues based rock. Best listened to alongside Jeff Beck’s Truth – a record released one month before Led Zeppelin recorded this eponymous debut. And one that featured – gosh – Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Prior to this album, Motown long players retained the two-singles-and-some-filler format. With this suite of songs, Marvin Gaye migrated contemporary black music from the dance floor into the mind. Demanding to be heard in one sitting, the record navigates the mood of the listener back and forth, from that of intellectual radical to born again Christian. The sheer elation exalted by the final chorus of Inner City Holler somehow made the world seem a better place in which to live. A drug-free trip.

However, the following are certainly classic and legendary, but not seminal – in that none of these titles could have any real claim to changing the development of popular music. All of the titles listed below nonetheless had yards of column inches of enthusiastic prose written about them. Indeed, you’d have trouble finding anything negative written or said about the following records. And they all belong in any serious record collection. But they are not seminal.

Pink Floyd – The Dark Side Of The Moon
An audio mind trip. The Dark Side Of The Moon developed themes of birth, religion, war, time, death and money against a palette of tasteful soft rock. Stereo effects and snatches of semi cohesive conversation dragged the listener along into the collapsed mind of an imagined lunatic. On paper at least, the record should have been left behind at the dog end of the progressive era. Instead, the cohesiveness of the production, singing, playing and writing – not forgetting the elegantly themed packaging – afforded this record a universal appeal. It should have aged badly, but the album has instead achieved immortality. Few would dare to imitate this record in concept, sound or appearance. It sounds fresher with each listen.

The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street
The Rolling Stones at a creative peak, pure and undiluted. Blues, rock, country & soul fused across four sides of vinyl. Unlike much of their previous album output, the band had assembled a wholly articulate catalogue of songs – there’s no room for filler on this record. At times urgent, elsewhere supremely loose and laid back, the album’s sound is very much the product of the well documented chaotic surroundings of its recording. In the years following the release of this album, it is almost as if The Stones gave up any further attempt to reach such heights. (Original vinyl copies of this album sounded notoriously coarse. Later remastering – notable on the 1997 CD edition – finally revealed the full quality of the recording).

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left
Practically ignored on release, Nick Drake’s fine debut album was originally considered to be borne of folk or roots music. Five Leaves Left is neither, it falls into no recognisable musical category. The record is beautifully orchestrated, whilst being gentle, sparse and deceptively appealing. Nick’s closely miked vocals weave a spell with the somewhat introspective lyrics. It would be many years before the true genius behind this record was widely recognised. In later years, the trio of albums released in his lifetime have been taken by some as some form of protracted suicide note. They are, of course, nothing of the sort. Five Leaves Left and its two antecedents are a snapshot into the mind of one of England’s greatest romantics.

The Who – Who’s Next
Also well documented is the collapse of Pete Townsend’s concept album, film and concerts that were to have become Lifehouse. The salvaged songs, when gathered together by producer Glyn Johns, may have lacked whatever storyline that Townsend originally intended. But unlike Tommy, the album’s predecessor, each of the component songs works collectively or individually – even though outside of the Lifehouse concept, the lyrics to the opener Baba O’Reilly were essentially meaningless. Who’s Next moves between fist pumping triumphalist rock anthems and soul baring ballads, in particular the brutally confessional Behind Blue Eyes.

Worth discovering is an independent reconstruction of the original Lifehouse album – go to the excellent Albums That Never Were website and hear how the album might have sounded.

Stevie Wonder – Songs In The Key Of Life
Stevie Wonder’s quartet of Motown albums following the renegotiation of his recording contract in 1970 are essential to any serious collection. The fifth, Songs In The Key Of Life built upon the strengths of the previous four (intelligent lyrics, crack playing, infectious rhythms and limitless beauty) and emerged as one of the most consistent record albums in history. It was almost as if Stevie was sitting on a bottomless well of timeless songs and inspiration*. In common with the best double albums, the record works a whole, as four independent sides, or as individual tracks. More than any of his albums to date, Songs In The Key Of Life reached outside of the soul/R&B genre. It was black music redesigned.
*The record came with a freebie 7” 4 track EP, containing four somewhat disposable tracks that were presumably the remnants of a planned triple album. Regrettably, these songs now form part of the compact disc issue and essentially dilute the sheer genius of the original double album. Maybe the well of inspiration was not always overflowing.

Joni Mitchell – Court And Spark
A bedsitter album that drew in part upon folk and jazz, Court And Spark assumed suite formation as one song led into the next. Joni Mitchell played with song structure and time signatures whilst delivering delicately challenging and highbrow lyrics. Combined with flowery melodies, the effect was to render the album to be like that of a more accessible Laura Nyro. The album set her off on a spiralling and elevating musical journey that continued with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns and ended with Mingus. Those wary of such demanding albums (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter is a frighteningly complex but worthwhile listen) should begin with Court And Spark, preferably with its predecessor, Blue, served as hors d’ouevres.