British historian Dan Jones on the 11 albums that changed his life – "Over the years I’ve probably written a hundred thousand words with this on my headphones"

Dan Jones
(Image credit: Joe Magowan/Sony Music Entertainment)

We first got wind of Dan Jones's love for guitar when we spied a Hagstrom Pat Smear signature model lurking at the back amongst the hundreds of books in his office during one of the British historian's Facebook live chats with his readers. 

Dan's inclusive and engaging style has made him the kind of historian who helps to attract new interest in the history of the Middle Ages with the subjects he's written about; including the Plantagenets, Knights Templar and The Crusades. And after authoring ten tomes with over one million copies sold he's now moving into historical fiction with Essex Dogs. And we'll get to that, but the guitar we spotted got us wondering about a possible other string to his longbow.

It turns out music is a massive part of Dan's life, crossing into his work as an author in ways we couldn't have imagined. And the Hagstrom is just a small part of it. A while his choice of guitar, ever-growing collection of tattoos and the fact Duff McKagan is amongst his readers, suggests Dan's a rocker, his tastes are far broader than any pigeonhole can handle. And we also discover that he's also probably the first (and only?) historian to DJ at the Ministry Of Sound. 

We've got a lot to talk about – including the 11 albums that changed his life – so let's get started… 

Dan Jones

(Image credit: Penguin Publishing Group)
  • Essex Dogs by Dan Jones is published by Penguin and out now.
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Over the years, that's definitely been my big learning; connecting with readers isn't about putting up a big sort of pretence, it's about a sense of honesty

You've just been on a book tour and you're getting to meet your readers in person. Do you feel your books have helped open up history to new people?

"I was thinking about this the other day because someone asked me a similar question about the audiences I saw on book tours. And it's definitely widened over the years. My first book came out in 2009 and I'd say it used to be a very stereotypical history audience – mainly retirees, basically. Then I had no middle; I had students and retirees, and now it's a complete range of ages, people with different backgrounds. In nearly 15 years, it's definitely opened up. 

"I'm not going to take credit for it, per se. But I've definitely noticed more people, a greater diversity and a wider spread of people into it over the years."

Do you think part of the reason that's changed is because historians aren't these remote academic figures anymore? They're more connected with their readership and audiences, in a similar way to how musicians are now?

"I think possibly, yes. I think the fact that so many people, the majority of people, writing for a wide audience now work outside of universities. That's definitely part of it I think. The fact that there are so many different means of publishing. There's a thriving trade press, public-facing books and pretty much every TV channel commissions history.

"There's an unbelievably rich and deep pool of podcasts out there. People like Dan Snow, who set up History Hit, which is a fantastic network for people who just want to subscribe to history. So there's loads more platforms to talk to people on. And that's really a gift for people who like telling stories and finding their audience.

"Over the years, that's definitely been my big learning; connecting with readers isn't about putting up a big sort of pretence, it's about a sense of honesty. And people like to see the process, and they like to see behind the scenes. That's why I've gone live [on Facebook] in this room where all my books are, where I work. 

"And it's good for me as well really, to connect with people as I go, because it's a source of great ideas. It's a great way to test out what people care about – what they think about and what they like. And you build up a real solid, supportive, positive kind of audience in the same way that – and this might sound like a cheap segue-way but it's not intended to be – if you're a young band going out gigging you want your little core of supporters, right? People will come to every gig, people will come and see you in the same town every time, every year you go through that town. The same is true for writers. If you've got a real strong core loyal audience then that's the basis of a career but also of being able to do it in the first place."

Writing is like learning to play musical instrument; if you don't practice for hours every day you're not going to be any good

Drawing another parallel with music, someone once asked you on your livestream about how to stay inspired as a writer and you gave some good advice that might just as well apply to learning to play or writer songs. You've got to do the work… 

"Every day, man. I actually use the analogy of music quite a lot. When people ask me, 'I want to get better at writing, or I want to become a writer – what's your biggest tip?' And I say it's like learning to play musical instrument; if you don't practice for hours every day you're not going to be any good. So put aside anything else. Unless you're sitting down playing that keyboard, the writing keyboard, every day, you're not gonna go anywhere. 

"Those guitars in the background in this office don't get played every day. That's why I'm a historian [laughs]. And it's it's a hard thing to get your head around because with my limited experience in music when I was much younger and my more extensive experience writing now I'm older, it's like some days it's a grind. And if you stop it's really hard to get started again. But it's about rhythm and it's about discipline. And it's about putting in the hours and putting in the work."

I turned 40, I finished my 10th book and I felt like, now can I give myself permission to try something different

Essex Dogs is your first historical novel, is that something you'd always had in your mind as an ambition or did it come later? 

"It's something that people had asked me to do. And I'd actually deliberately shied away from it and said, 'No, that's not for me.' I was very busy for a long time working on nonfiction books. I wanted to have a substantial body of nonfiction books and felt like I was doing that properly. But I got to the point where I've written 10… I think it was 10 when I decided to do this one. I'd written Powers & Thrones as my last nonfiction book, which was a big history of the Middle Ages. And that was like completing the Middle Ages in a way. It felt like, ok that's the biggest one it's possible to do. 

"So I turned 40, I finished my 10th book and I felt like, now can I give myself permission to try something different, when it won't feel like a sort of copout or a diversion or avoiding a task. And yes, people had asked me over the years, but I had an idea as well. 

"Over a couple of years I'd come up with the idea of an opening scene of these 10 guys who were sort of mercenaries, sort of freebooters and would join the army if there was war. They're on on a beach and that beach became the beaches of Normandy – the same beaches that were landed on D Day in 1944, only it's the Middle Ages. And that the scene would be, by definition, the opening of the Crécy campaign of 1346. But it would feel like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now. 

"It'd be hard in that American, hardboiled kind of way, and I read a lot of those kinds of books, rather than a slightly mannered 'Hey nonino, my liege' English Romantic approach to medieval fiction, which is not for me."

What was the experience like of creating characters?

"It's very different writing process, full stop. So nonfiction as a process is focus, structure, architecture and winnowing things – putting material into shape. And that's quite an orderly process. I found and this was something that Bernard Cornwell had mentioned when I interviewed him once. When you write fiction, it's a much freer process, and you put characters into situations and see what they do. And then quite often, they will surprise you. Then you're just sort of following the story as it unfolds, and that's when it's working properly. 

"It's very, very different from the process of writing nonfiction. And I found it hard to get into to begin with actually – it was a real, real change of styles. Of thinking styles, I suppose, as well as writing styles. But once it sort of clicked, and I was in the groove of it, I really, really enjoyed it."

And Essex Dogs is the first in a trilogy?

"I'm writing the second one at the moment. So that's due out next year and it's called Wolf Moon. And it follows many of the same characters on this next stage of this adventure. It's a siege book. So book one is like a big march and a battle. Book two is the siege of Calais – huge siege, one of the biggest sieges of the 100 Years War, if not the biggest. And then the third book is a sea battle, at core of it, the battle of Winchelsea. 

"They all do different things. So the first book looks at chivalry and power through a moral code. The second book is about money merchants and a medieval kind of deep state, and the third book is probably going to be more about power exercised through religion in the wake of the Black Death. And so those themes are hidden under the the adventure, but the they're sort of there if readers want to go looking for them."

And there's a new documentary based around the events of the first book? 

"It's on History Hit and we went to France, we went to all the locations and it's the real history behind it. So I know a lot of people will be familiar with my nonfiction work, and might want to retain a little bit of that sense of what actually happened. So they can compare where I've put my characters into real historical situations and see the locations as well. It's kind of important, it's a really spectacular march they take from Normandy down the Seine and up to the Somme. And we had glorious weather when we shot it in France during the summer."

Is there a bucket list of historical subjects that you'd like to tackle as an author?

"No, there's not really. I mean, I know my root is in the Middle Ages, and I've usually got two or three books lined up – it's like planes circling the airport, ready to come in. One's landed and there's two more circling above. 

"At the moment, I know I'm doing book two of the trilogy, book three of the trilogy, and a nonfiction biography of Henry V. Which is actually a sort of bucket list one and I have wanted to do that for a while. I've been waiting until I felt ready to do it. Quite what the order we do them in is I don't know, but that's me between now and 2026, I suppose. And I have absolutely no idea what I'll do after that, except to say that I've enjoyed the process of writing fiction a lot. And if it works, I'd like to continue writing novels as well as nonfiction."

Do you enjoy doing television presenting?

"I enjoy doing it occasionally. I wouldn't want it to be my whole life, but it's it's great to do once or twice a year. Go out and work with some other human beings instead of me just in here on my own, in my imagination. And in a nerdy structural way I'm interested in the shape of TV, I'm interested in the process of making TV. I get involved in the production as much as I can. So yes, I'm interested in television, as well as it being a sort of just an important part of the mix of stuff I do."

I annoyed my guitar teacher by stringing this classical guitar with with metal strings so that I could play Polly from Nevermind

So looking through your choice of albums that changed your life, Nirvana's Nevermind was the one made you want to pick up the guitar, like a lot of people from that era in the '90s. What were your first experiences when you started playing?

"I'd say it was like Guns and Nirvana around about the same time, it probably must have been '91 / '92. So I'm 10, 11 years old, and I think Nirvana was more approachable. Guns is like, wow, I would love to be able to play guitar like Slash! Yeah. Okay! But Nirvana is more, I feel like I could play like that. And that's deceptive because Kurt was a f***ing amazing guitarist. And that's hidden really under the under the style. But it was Nevermind that really got me thinking, yeah, I'd love to play guitar, and then a little later, of course, when Unplugged In New York came out everyone bought an acoustic guitar straightaway.

"So I said to my mum, 'I want to play the guitar'. And I think she slightly misinterpreted it and bought me a classical guitar and got me classical guitar lessons. So the first guitar, I haven't got any more and I can't even remember what it what it was, but it was it was probably off the shelf from Chapel's Music, in the early '90s, maybe 100 quid or maybe not even that much. A nylon-strung guitar, and I had lessons every Tuesday night. And I got on okay. I mean I did my grades, got about grade… I don't think I took grade seven, I took grade five and I was sort of grade seven standard. And then I sort of jacked it in.

"I annoyed my guitar teacher by stringing this classical guitar with with metal strings so that I could play Polly from Nevermind. And he would he would bitch and complain about this every week, restring this guitar saying it sounds horrible. I'd say, 'No man, I'm strumming this thing when I'm at home'. So I'm glad I did that, because actually having a little bit of formal musical training was useful. But of course, I didn't really keep up. The dial-up internet era was coming in and then you can start to download tab, right? So then every album I bought from HMV, or the local record shops… can I get a tab for this? You'd get new tab off a dial-up site that is just wrong.

I played every goddamn day, for years, from probably the age of 14 through 19


"A few years after I got my classical guitar, I begged and begged and wheedled and cajoled my parents and they got me for Christmas, I think I've still got it at their house but couldn't tell you what it is, but another sort of cheap, probably Chinese Strat imitation electric guitar and a little tiny amp, which I don't have any more. Then it was just like, noise. It was just noise. Every day. And I did practice a lot. I played every day in my teens. Every single day. I did practice the classical stuff but I played every goddamn day, for years, from probably the age of 14 through 19."

Were you in bands at all during that time?

"Sort of. I had a mate at school called Tan and he was a really accomplished musician. I was never very good but he could play pretty much everything. And he had quite a lot of musical instruments. He lived on a farm as well so he could play loud, and not piss people off. And he had a four-track as well so we used to record a lot, some stuff of our own composition, which I'm sure was pitiful, and some basic covers as stuff. And we played a few open mic nights with the two of us.

"The one gig with a sort of band that I really remember, and this kind of brings together the history and the music in a weird way, was my history teacher in secondary school. He was called Robin Green and he was a very, very keen musician, and he played guitar. He was a good guitar player. He had an invitational band for the end of school, like the leaver's concert, I suppose. It was called The Potentials and you had to be invited to play in The Potentials. He would often recruit from his history class if he could, and it was from the school leavers' sixth form. 

"So I played one gig with my history teacher, and it was only a slot in a leavers' concert, but I think we played 20th Century Boy by T Rex. And he was the frontman. Tan was playing bass, who was playing drums I cannot remember, and I was playing rhythm guitar. And we were wearing sort of glam rock costumes. And that was great. It was it was a real sort of coming together of the two things I love; the music and the subject that I most enjoyed doing at school. I've got photo of it somewhere. So that's 1998 or '99, something like that. Great fun."

I love how eclectic your list of albums is, and each one is a landmark in your life in a different but specific way.

"I took the task seriously, because it's a really interesting question. It's not your favourite albums – I'd have been agonising more over that. It's the ones that changed your life. So I looked at Slash's list, for example, and because he's a musician, that was kind of easy to understand. It was his musical influences; blues and rock. Of course, my life has not gone in the same direction, although I saw Slash in the Summer. Do you want to hear a Slash story?


"I don't think he'd mind me telling you this. I went out to Seville to see Guns play on their European tour this summer. And Duff is a big history fan, so we've sort of hit it off over history. Duff and Sue, his wife, very kindly invited me to come to the show. And backstage, we're waiting for Axl to all go on. 

"Everyone's got the earpieces in and I just like run into Slash in the corridor as we're getting into cars to go to the gig. And Slash has got both his earpieces and is just fiddling with his guitar. And he looks up and he takes an ear piece off and [gestures to me]. He says, 'I love your f***ing show, man – the castle show. I'm like, 'what?!' He says, 'I can't believe you're here'. I'm like, well, welcome to my world! 

"I have completed life because I've gone from sitting looking at the whole band in their Appetite for Destruction lineup, thinking how could I ever become friends with these guys, to, well, it turns out 30 years of study of medieval history did the job!"

The '90s were golden for being able to enjoy all these different genres

For Slash and Duff, mediaeval history is rock n' roll 

"I don't know Slash at all really, but I'm reasonably pally with Duff and he's a serious history reader. But then I think a lot of musicians secretly are.

"So back to your question, it is quite an eclectic mix. I do have a pretty broad taste. I grew up with a lot of guitar music, but there was a tonne of hip hop to listen to. It was the '90s – the '90s were golden for being able to enjoy all these different genres. I listened to a lot of drum and bass, a lot of hip hop. Although weirdly my wife was like, 'Oh I bet you put loads of hip hop on the list. You must have Biggie, you must have Eminem on there'. Because I used to go on and on and on, particularly about Eminem and Biggie, as having influenced the writing I do in this weird tangential way. Just being really interested in wordplay, and cadence of speech, internal rhyme. 

"Biggie for me was the best. [MF] Doom [too], I suppose, although I only got into Doom quite a lot more recently. Then Eminem coming out and doing all that kind of mad stuff. But, you know, when I was making the list there's only really room for one hip hop album on there. And it's the first one I ever heard; the Gravediggaz album. That was what turned me on to this entire genre and opened it up."

It's interesting how hip hop has influenced your writing, because there is this real sense of pace to the way you write. 

"It's a huge, huge part of it. I listen to so goddamn much. And it's not about the theme, although there's a combination of violence, braggadocio and humour that I've absorbed from it, but it is much more about the the musicality and the rhythm of prose. Well it's not prose really, it's closer to poetry, but it's wordplay. 

"I enjoy wordplay, of having a wide vocabulary and the idea of making things bounce off each other within paragraphs and within sentences. The stop and start flow to open it up; to know when to break your little rhythm. That's all super important to me in writing. I've absorbed it all and I really think I've like got a lot of that from having played listen to way too much hip hop."

Think about a tune like Mother Russia by Maiden. They're writing tunes about the Russian Revolution – that was as big and bold"

Metal is the genre that makes the most references to events from history but are you a fan of the genre?

"I was. So around the time I listened to Guns, Nirvana,  that sort of era, I was really into Maiden. And I almost put Black Sabbath Paranoid on this list because the first gig I ever went to was a Black Sabbath gig. In Wolverhampton! It was Tony 'The Cat' Martin on vocals. 

"So the first gig was Sabbath, and I was really into Maiden. I used to play Maiden's Live At Donington on tape until I think the tape actually broke. I liked Metallica. I wasn't that keen on Megadeth. I had a brief flirtation with Sepultura and Pantera. I was quite upset when Dimebag Darrell died.

"But I sort of dropped out of metal quite a lot. What I didn't really get down with was the Insane Clown Posse turn – there was a moment when metal went a little bit sort of weird. Like B movie / slasher movie / cartoon dressing up… I was out at that point.

"But Maiden were great. I think it was the art and the visual spectacle. As you say, the interest in history was not insignificant. Think about a tune like Mother Russia by Maiden. They're writing tunes about the Russian Revolution – that was as big and bold."

Are there any periods of history you think have been neglected by metal? 

"I don't know enough about metal to say with any confidence. But I've got this idea of a sort of like a big… I don't know if it's punk or rock. Maybe it is metal, but it's a historically themed show, like a Hamilton in the middle ages. That would probably be metal, wouldn't it? But then it probably wouldn't go down very well on Broadway. It would have to be classic rock. I think that's the only way you could triangulate it."

I've kidded myself enough times that if I got a nice guitar I might play more

Is playing guitar something you do to wind down now?

"In theory, yes but I just play so infrequently now. My guitars just sit and chide me from the corner… 'Why? Don't you love me?' It's like in Toy Story when Andy stops playing with his toys and they're all miserable.

"Here I've got the Hagstrom that I love, I really love. And the electro-acoustic I had when I was a kid. It's an Aria and it's plastic backed. If I played guitar more I would go and out and buy all the guitars that I want. I'd go out and buy a nice electro-acoustic, but it would be disgusting to do it when I play as little as I do. 

"I've kidded myself enough times that if I got a nice guitar I might play more. There's a bass sitting over there. One of my kids momentarily expressed an interest; I think she came back from school and said, 'I'm in a band.' 

'Fantastic, What do you play?'

'I play the bass.'

'You don't have a bass.'

She said, 'I know… yet.'

"So straightaway I went on Amazon and ordered a £100 Stagg bass. Has she touched it? Maybe she touched it once. And of course I pick it up now and again and play Pea by Red Hot Chili Peppers and maybe Airbag by Radiohead. Then I put it down again." 

I see you have a Marshall amp there in your office too. 

"Actually my wife very kindly bought me the Hagstrom for Christmas one year and I was like, 'Fantastic, is there an amp to go with this?' But it's a bit too loud. We live in a street with other houses around; a Victorian house with single-glazed window… it's a bit loud for how shit I am at playing. If I was shredding away with long blues scales and stuff, I wouldn't mind and I wouldn't be so embarrassed about plugging it in. But no one wants to hear my bullshit!"

What music has impressed you lately?

"It's not really guitar music. I'm listening to Fred Again.. The kid is unreal. He's like Brian Eno's latest protégé but it's not Eno ambient… well watch it and you'll see. He's the most impressive electronic producer I've ever seen for years. 

"Do you remember when Burial came out? He was using a lot of samples from computer games and snatches of real conversation. So Fred uses a tonne of little grainy audio clips, just conversations of his mates, and then drops them into this unbelievably compelling… it's a veering towards house, but it's not like Ibiza house. It's just this truly splendid production. He's special. He's really special. 

"So he's impressed me a lot, and that's great writing music for me. Guitar bands… I liked Fontaines DC when they came out. I love that album. I like short albums. You know that first Fontaines album reminded me in a way of when Ash's 1977 came out when I was a kid. It felt like that movement all over again, although I listened to 1977 the other day and it didn't sound as raw as I remember it. Definitely not as raw as Fontaines.

Hip hop isn't as dead as it appears – I think there's some interesting younger hip hop artists out there and older guys still doing it

"The latest Cheat Codes album with Danger Mouse and Black Thought was spectacular. Probably because it reminded me of an album that came out about 15 years ago. But there's very little recent guitar stuff on my roster. It's the old stuff that I'm listening to. I think I was happiest music-wise in about 1998.

"But there's tonne of interesting electronic music happening at the moment. Hip hop isn't as dead as it appears – I think there's some interesting younger hip hop artists out there and older guys still doing it. 

"I still listen to Foo Fighters or Queens Of The Stone Age but if I think back to the moment where there was just relentless  albums coming out were it was like, this is amazing, and this is amazing… it must be '97 actually. The Verve came out with Urban Hymns and then Blur came along with their self-titled. You know Essex dogs is named after a track on Blur's Blur album…"

Ah, interesting! 

"I was listening to Essex Dogs and it's got this little line in it, and it has nothing to do with the Middles Ages or 100 Years Way, unless I've misread it. But Damon sings, 'In these towns the English army grinds its teeth / You'll get a kicking tonight'. And I was listening to the tune when I was on a plane and I was starting to come up with the idea of this story. That line, and that grubby feel."

I listen to non-lyrical music by and large while I'm writing

Does listening to specific music help when you're writing?

"Fred Again.. is perfect for me because it's a bit like the Chemical Brothers' Exit Planet Dust which is on the list. I listen to non-lyrical music by and large while I'm writing – so I can't listen to hip hop. I can't really listen to rock while I'm writing. It has to be electronic, or sometimes classical, but non lyrical. 

"So there's different stages. If I'm like working on book concepts and character and structure stuff, I'd really go into like a trance or deep house kind of thing. If I'm writing, I'll fit the mood to what I'm writing. So if I'm writing an intense battle scene, it'll be something with a big swell on it and a build. If I'm just sort of taking the pace off it would be something like Exit Planet Dust or an old essential mix or whatever."

So it's really integral how music informs your work.

It's been a huge, huge, huge part of my life. And remains so. And also briefly, some little known trivia – I had a DJ career. I've DJ'd The Ministry of Sound. I don't think any other historians have DJ'd the Ministry of Sound. 

"So my best my best mate Rick [Edwards] is a radio presenter and he does the Radio 5 Breakfast Show but he was a TV presenter before. He did E4 and T4 back in the day, so he was a presenter on there and pretty big in the music and TV world for a while. He got a DJ agent and he was like, 'Hey, should we do this together? It'd be kind of fun'. We thought it'd be fun to hang out in seedy nightclubs in Peterborough or whatever. And so yes, we for a couple of years we were DJing once a week, just for an hour. Usually about midnight. 

"The brief was almost always, 'Play stuff girls can dance to'. And so we used to generally do that, but then would always finish up with Killing In The Name by Rage Against the Machine as a sort of really childish f*** you to the next DJ; 'Go on and try and get out of that mess!'

"So we did get booked and we played the Ministry Of Sound. It was under 16 night, I admit, but I'm going to cling to that to my dying day; I have DJ'd at the Ministry Of Sound. And Slash watched my castle show!"

Dan Jones: 11 albums that changed my life

Dan Jones

(Image credit: Joe Magowan/Sony Music Entertainment)

The Beatles – The White Album (1968)

"My dad was (is) a music nut and he passed it on to me. My earliest musical memory is sitting on our living room floor, flicking through his vinyl collection, built around a core of rock and prog from the '60s and '70s. 

"The first of his records I can remember actually playing was The Beatles' ‘White Album’. I was fascinated by it as a physical object – two LPs, the blank cover with the tactile, embossed band name, monochrome pictures of the musicians, the crisp green apples on the vinyl labels. My favourite track was Rocky Raccoon: it was a weird, very compelling story – and it had the peculiar frisson of the bad guy being called Dan."

2. Guns N' Roses - Appetite For Destruction (1987)

"I was about eleven when Eggy, my best mate from the village I grew up in, played me Guns N' Roses for the first time. This was when the Use Your Illusion albums were coming out, so you couldn’t really miss GnR on MTV. But it was Appetite that got me going. 

"Pound for pound it’s still one of the tightest albums I’ve ever heard – in any genre. Eggy and I went into school singing Mr Brownstone like we meant every word, although I’m sure we didn’t have the faintest idea what heroin was at that time. I used to stare at the photos of the band in the sleeve notes. The hair, bandanas, ripped sleeves, tattoos, Jack Daniels, the pouting… it was all a million miles away from my life. But it seeded an idea."

3. Nirvana – Nevermind (1991)

Kurt was certainly the reason I picked up a guitar for the first time

"No sooner had I discovered rock and metal than grunge came along and blew it all to pieces. When I got to secondary school everyone had Nevermind. The grunge fashion for army surplus bags and plaid shirts was coming in, and I’d say about half the guys I knew had started playing guitar. Because how hard was it to learn Smells Like Teen Spirit

"Kurt was certainly the reason I picked up a guitar for the first time. The Nirvana sound, like the band, was so stripped back and raw and painfully honest. And LOUD. I wish to god I’d been five years older and been able to see them play Reading in 1992."

4. Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (1994)

I used a line from Mr Self Destruct at the start of it. Today they’d probably have sent straight me to therapy, but back then the teacher read it out to the whole class and gave me an A

I was aged about 14 when we were set a creative writing assignment in English class. I read Kerrang! magazine every week, and I’d seen the famous pictures of Trent Reznor at Woodstock 1994: caked in mud, screaming his lungs out. So I got The Downward Spiral and it zapped my brain: the clash of programmed drums, industrial guitars and the bleak hellscape of Reznor’s lyrics

For my assignment I wrote a very NIN-ish tale about a depressed psycho despairing of life and setting himself on fire. I used a line from Mr Self Destruct at the start of it. Today they’d probably have sent straight me to therapy, but back then the teacher read it out to the whole class and gave me an A. It was the first piece of writing I’d ever had ‘published’, so to speak. I got the bug.

5. Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep (1994)

That emphasis on wide and inventive vocabulary, lyrical flow, and the collision of violence and humour has found its way into my writing in ways that probably aren’t obvious to anyone but me

"This was the album that got me into hip op. It’s the RZA’s ‘horrorcore’ project with Prince Paul, and it dropped a few months after the much more famous Wu-Tang debut Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). 

"A ton of my friends were already into the Wu, Biggie, The Beastie Boys, Ice-T, Cypress Hill and all that. I wasn’t sold, until I got stoned in someone’s car one night and heard the Gravediggaz’ 1-800 Suicide. It was so ridiculous and over the top – but again, there was a story in there. After this I just gobbled hip-hop up. 

"That emphasis on wide and inventive vocabulary, lyrical flow, and the collision of violence and humour has found its way into my writing in ways that probably aren’t obvious to anyone but me."

6. The Chemical Brothers - Exit Planet Dust (1995)

"I bought this and The Prodigy’s Music For The Jilted Generation around the same time in the late nineties, but this is the one I still play. Over the years I’ve probably written a hundred thousand words with this on my headphones. I love the end of the album, when the seamless electronic flow gives way to a couple of vocal tracks, featuring Tim Burgess and Beth Orton. 

"This was another album I loved for the sleeve art – I hunted fruitlessly as a student for a poster of the cover, where a 1970s dude is walking down a dusty American highway with a guitar on his back and a girl on his arm. That was the dream! But I was on my way to becoming a medieval historian and life and art still seemed like they probably wouldn’t collide."

7. Dr Dre - 2001 (2001)

When I hear it I always smell cheap Kulov vodka and Diet Coke, mixed in a tall jug for drinking games

"I had a group of friends in university who loved this album so much that we used to play it literally every time before we went out. I mean like we’d delay going out to play the whole thing through. Even now, nearly 25 years on, if we’re going out, we’re playing Dre 2001. It’s the soundtrack to my student years, in that sense. 

"But it also means it has pretty strong sensory assocations – when I hear it I always smell cheap Kulov vodka and Diet Coke, mixed in a tall jug for drinking games. That sticky, sweet stink of knockout juice. A chloroform cocktail. Not quite the lifestyle of fast cars, fine cognac and blunts that Dre, Snoop and the gang are trying to evoke on the record."

8. Kate Bush - Aerial (2005) 

The best gig I’ve ever seen – full stop – was her 2014 residency in Hammersmith

"It took me a long time to ‘get’ Kate Bush – but the penny dropped when she released Aerial in 2005, and I from that point was fully immersed. Aerial is so rich and vivid, and it includes a song about Joan of Arc (Joanni), so bonus points for medieval content. 

"The best gig I’ve ever seen – full stop – was her 2014 residency in Hammersmith, when she performed the Ninth Wave (the B-side of The Hounds of Love) and then An Endless Sky of Honey (the second side of Aerial) as full theatrical productions. There are very few living artists I admire as much, and every time I listen to one of her albums I get all teary and inspired."

9. Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

My wife and I bonded talking about Radiohead when we first met

"Like everyone else I went crazy when OK Computer came out in 1997, but I think In Rainbows is probably their best work. 

"My wife and I bonded talking about Radiohead when we first met. And two of our most fun nights out together have been to see them play: once in a tiny club in Camden in around 2007 or 2008 when Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood played an acoustic set to just a few hundred people; and again about ten years afterwards, when the whole band did a big outdoor gig in Florence on their tour for A Moon Shaped Pool. They’ve kind of punctuated our relationship over the years and we have some very happy memories because of them."

10. Ryan Adams - 1989 (2015)

Weirdly I think it might be Adams’ best album after Heartbreaker and Gold

"Mostly the music my kids play makes me want to cut my ears off with the hedge trimmer. 1989 is the only place where the thin Venn diagram of our tastes overlaps – I like Ryan Adams and they like Taylor Swift, so this full cover album offers something for everyone. 

"Weirdly I think it might be Adams’ best album after Heartbreaker and Gold – which they won’t listen to, so that’s academic, really. The point is, we found something I can stick on during a long car drive and for about 55 minutes we’re all having a good time."

11. Max Creeps - NEIN (2002)

"This is actually an album that changed my life for the worse. These douchebags rang me up last year begging me to be in a video they were making about medieval torture, selling me this story about how they invented punk rock and here was my chance to be a part of real history rather than just writing about it. 

"I try to be a nice guy so I helped them out. And I figured it was going be the start of a real musical collaboration. Then they didn’t call me for months and the next thing I saw was they’d moved on to working with some dude on TikTok who dresses up as a horse and plays a goddamn plastic dustbin in his bath. I tried to give my copy of Nein away to my local charity shop. They wouldn’t accept it. Go figure."

  • Essex Dogs is out now on Penguin.
    The new Dan Jones podcast This Is History is out now via
    Spotify and
    Apple Music
Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.