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High Fidelity

From Johnny Cash to Strummer's clash

Audrey asked Toby Francis to bring in his favourite records. The interview could have gone on all day.

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Toby Francis: In vinyl veritas

Date: 2 Nov 2017

Toby Francis, star of High Fidelity, the musical adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel about a record store owner’s chequered love life and obsession with music, sees more than a bit of himself in the lead role.

“If I was directionless or if things hadn’t panned out as well as they have, I would definitely be that guy in a record shop blaming the world,” says Francis, who comes to the show after a lengthy stint playing the lead role in Kinky Boots. “Maybe if I hadn’t gone to therapy, I would have been Rob Gordon for sure.”

Rob and his record shop cronies – abrasive Barry, nerdy Dick – spend most of their time creating lists, Francis says. “The Best Records of All Time, or The Best B-sides Ever, or The Biggest Sellout Albums, or The Top 5 Worst Tracks That Everyone Loves. These are guys who define themselves by what they don’t like more than what they do.”

The novel was turned into a film in 2000, starring John Cusack and Jack Black. “I really liked the film when I was a teenager, but I didn’t like it as much as The Breakfast Club, that was the big movie for me,” Francis admits. “But about four years ago, someone mentioned the musical to me. I found the script and totally fell in love with it.”

Like the character he plays, Francis is a vinyl junkie. But you won’t find many stage musical cast recordings in his collection. “I’m a terrible music theatre performer in that regard,” he says. “I only have one, Jesus Christ Superstar, the one with John Farnham, Kate Ceberano and Jon Stevens. Though I do listen to a bit of Dear Evan Hansen now and then.”

Francis says his musical tastes run to country, rap and punk. So if things had panned out differently, and he was running a record store, what would be his Top 5 Greatest Albums of All Time?

Johnny Cash – American V: A Hundred Highways (2006)

“I listened to Johnny Cash a lot as a kid, mostly on long car trips because my parents loved him. For me, it’s just his voice. I love music that tells a story and Johnny Cash told some really brutal ones. He was a precursor to punk rock. He was playing in prisons for people no one would have a bar of and singing about real things he experienced. He lost his brother at a young age, he had problems with addiction, he married but fell in love with another woman. He lived a very rich life but by the end he was a very straight and narrow kind of guy.

“My favourite track on American V is God’s Gonna Cut You Down. It’s just so cool. ‘You’ve been running for a long time but sooner or later God’s gonna cut you down …’ I love that. Then there’s a song called Like the 309, which is the last song he ever recorded. His voice is cooked and on its last legs – and he is too – but it’s not a sad song. It’s just about going away. You hear his entire life in it.”

Propagandhi – Potemkin City Limits (2005)

“I discovered punk when I was 12 or 13 and it opened the whole world to me. I didn’t realise you could be so angry and have such melody. I wasn’t a very angry young man until I hit 17 but this album for me, is everything I love about punk rock. It’s really loud and really heavy but it has these incredible melodies.

“I have a theory that punk rock was birthed in pop. As much as it was a response to popular culture and music at the time, you listen to early punk rock and it still has that pop shape in the songwriting, the melody and the chord structures that are really catchy.

“Propagandhi understand melody and structure and songwriting. I don’t even agree with a lot of what they sing about anymore, like on Rock for Sustainable Capitalism, but it’s still a great song.

“I got this record in 2005, I would have been in year 12. I remember my dad finding an album in my bag about that time. Osker’s Idle Will Kill. He took it out and read the lyrics and said ‘I don’t want you listening to that, all that swearing’. But the reason I went to punk rock is because when you are a teenager everything feels so important and the things you feel you don’t always know how to say, and sometimes you’re not allowed to say them. You want to sing about love but Kenny Rogers singing She Believes in Me doesn’t mean anything to a teenager. But a song that says everything is a nightmare, I love her but she doesn’t love me – that’s perfect, that’s what you feel.”

Queen – Made in Heaven (1995)

“Everything in me says I should pick A Night at the Opera, but I’m not going to. I’m going to look like the biggest hack by saying Made in Heaven is my favourite Queen album. It’s the album they were working on when Freddie Mercury died and there are beautiful tracks on it like I Was Born to Love You, Too Much Love Will Kill You and It’s a Beautiful Day.

“To me it’s like the Johnny Cash album. I love records made by men at the end of their lives, the bitter-sweetness, the retrospective. Those tend to be my favourites. I love that this album should be sad but it’s not. Its like a celebration of what Queen was and who they were. When I listen to this album its like I’m listening to their entire catalogue.”

The Clash – London Calling (1979)

“I wish I could say I discovered punk through the Ramones or The Clash, but really I got into it through an album called Punk-O-rama, which was full of skate punk and California punk. I discovered the older punk bands later, when I was about 16 or 17.

“[The Clash’s] Joe Strummer did really complex things with his music. His lyrics were much more real than anything the Sex Pistols sang. He was writing about the working class and his life experiences, and stuff like the miners’ strike. And he could really play, too. It’s one of those albums you can listen to straight through. It’s the one that made me realise punk rock doesn’t have to be just noise. It can be as rich as any other kind of music.”

Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013)

“This album got a lot of flack from a lot of people. It’s the spiritual successor to Marshall Mathers, which blew him up. I think he’s one of the greatest rappers of all time.

“When I was growing up my parents used to say that rap music was spelled with a silent ‘c’. And I bought into that for a while, but then I started to realise, actually no, it’s all about the poetry and Eminem does really clever things with his wordplay.

“Obviously, you can’t ignore the fact that some of his lyrics are homophobic. I don’t know how to make peace with that, honestly. It’s the same as people who like Woody Allen movies trying to separate the art from the artist. Eminem is like that for me.”

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