It’s understandable to assume that prog rock would have loomed large in Mike Portnoy’s formative listening years (he was a co-founding member of Dream Theater, after all). But there were plenty of non-prog surprises in the roster he put together for Classic Rock.
However, when the magazine asked him to choose the 10 albums that changed his life in 2017, the drummer requested that a clarification be included before beginning: “It’s important to differentiate the 10 albums that changed my life versus my 10 favorite albums. Because if you look at my list of favorite albums, I’ll have ‘Spilled Milk’ by Jellyfish’s or ‘Paul’s Boutique’ by Beastie Boys. Those are my favorite albums. But I can’t really say they changed my life. So this is a slightly different approach. And these are more or less in chronological order.
At rock radio, we celebrate Mike Portnoy’s 55th birthday with the 10 albums that changed his life.
The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
“The first is an album that came out six weeks after I was born: ‘Sgt. Pepper’. I celebrated my 50th birthday last month, and ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is celebrating her 50th birthday this week. It changed my life and I think it changed everyone’s life on earth, because at the time it was the most groundbreaking album ever made. To this day, it remains one of the most innovative albums in history. To have done so much incredible work on just four tracks in the studio is absolutely incredible. It’s one of those albums where they broke every rule book and then wrote a new rule book in the process. The production is so deep.”
The Who – Live at Leeds (1970)
“The next couple trained me as a drummer, the first was The Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’. I had already been a huge fan of ‘Tommy’, which remains one of my favorite albums of all time, from a songwriting and music standpoint, but not really from a drumming standpoint. It was ‘Live at Leeds’ that really showed me the true colors of Keith Moon and the fact that he really was, to my ears, the focal point of The Who. Never before have I heard another drummer play with such character and personality. It was almost like I was playing circles around these songs. You see footage of The Who live, you can’t take your eyes off Keith, but if you listen to Live at Leeds it shows how amazing the band were live. And personally, I can’t take my ears off Keith. I can’t help but listen to what he does and be amazed.”
“When that came out, I wasn’t familiar with the first three studio albums. ‘Alive!’ It was the album that introduced me to Kiss. I just fell in love with those songs on that album. And there is so much history with that album. A lot of people say that it’s not really live and that everything was redone in the studio, but in any case, never mind, for me, that album captured the true spirit of what Kiss was about live on stage. Whether on stage or in the studio, at least he brought out that energy. At that point, when I heard that album, I became a Kiss fan and got to see them live in 1977. That pretty much changed my life and made me who I am today, in terms of wanting to be a touring musician.”
Led Zeppelin – The Song Remains the Same (1976)
“The next drummer from that time who shaped who I am today and changed my life was John Bonham. And he chose ‘The Song Remains the Same’, which is a live album. I find that the drummers really shine and get to be themselves live on stage. When you listen to ‘The Song Remains the Same,’ you hear that Led Zeppelin is what made them the great band they are: how each and every performance was different from one night to the next. And the live versions are all spread out, they’re jamming and branching out, and trying new things. I love hearing John Bonham lead these jams and improvisations on the album. He is sometimes leading them, and sometimes he is following the example of Jimmy Page or John Paul Jones. But I love hearing them improvise and play with each other.”
Pink Floyd-The Wall (1979)
«’The Wall’ is one of the most cinematographic records of life. It’s my favorite Pink Floyd album. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. And it showed me how deep a record can go, in terms of touching emotional chords. Not just musical chords, but emotional chords. When you listen to ‘The Wall’ from start to finish, you embark on this emotional journey of ups and downs. It’s like watching an intense movie from start to finish. That showed me the way a concept album can be truly cinematic and take you on a journey.”
Frank Zappa – Sheikh Yerbouti (1979)
“It’s very hard to pick just one Zappa album, because they were all so different. He went through so many different phases, and I love ‘Joe’s Garage’ with Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and I love ‘Apostrophe (‘)’ and ‘Over-Nite Sensation’. But if I had to single out one, it would have to be ‘Sheik Yerbouti’, because that was the first Zappa album I ever heard. I was attracted to Frank because of the humor. I remember being an eleven year old and being able to listen to songs like ‘Jewish Princess’ or ‘Broken Hearts Are for Assholes’, all these songs I felt like I was listening to a “dirty album”! I was able to learn about sex, drugs and rock and roll through these satirical lyrics by Frank Zappa. At first I was drawn to that album for the humor, but as I became a more serious musician, I began to realize what the hell was going on behind the lyrics. And that album was the first time I ever heard Terry Bozzio play drums. I came to appreciate that album on a musical level, as well as the rest of Zappa’s catalogue, which shaped who I am. To this day, Frank remains one of my greatest heroes of all time.”
Rush – Exit…Stage Left (1981)
“I discovered Rush around 1981, when ‘Moving Picture’s’ came out. As much as I love ‘Moving Pictures,’ ‘Permanent Waves,’ and ‘Hemispheres,’ for me, ‘Exit…Stage Left’ was the go-to album, because it had the best songs from those albums. It had ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, ‘Xanadu’, ‘YYZ’. So for me, ‘Exit…Stage Left’ was the go-to album for a crash course on Neil Peart. I remember learning every one of those songs, inside and out, and pretty much redefining my drumming at that stage in my life. Before discovering Neil and Rush, it was all the bands I just named. Which is a bit more direct, 4/4 beats. But then I discovered Rush, and Neil turned my world upside down, in terms of what you can do with a drum kit. As well as progressive type writing, in terms of longer songs and odd bars. That was the album that really shaped my style for what was to come in my career.”
Metallica – Kill ‘Em All (1983)
“A lot of people point to ‘Master of Puppets’ as the quintessential Metallica album. And still could, too. But I think it was ‘Kill ‘Em All’ that really changed my life and really had an effect on me. I remember the first time I heard ‘Kill ‘Em All,’ I had never heard anything so raw, heavy and fast in my life. I had already been listening to Motörhead and things like that, but this was the power and volume of Motörhead, but it was very tight. The thick beats and production were so raw and tight. I had never heard anything like this. It was the first contact with thrash. And then sure enough, along the way, I discovered ‘Bonded by Blood’ by Exodus, ‘Fistful of Metal’ by Anthrax, Megadeth, Testament and bands like that. But really ‘Kill ‘Em All’ was the one that changed the course of metal. And to this day, I still think it’s the one that impacted me the most.”
Dream Theater – Images and Words (1992)
“It would be crazy to have a list of albums that changed my life and not have one of my own, because Pictures and Words of Dream Theater literally changed my life! I wouldn’t be here talking to you today if we hadn’t made and released that album. It changed my life as I knew it and set me on the course for everything I’ve done since. And it allowed me the ability to do everything I’ve done since. It’s been 25 years now (in 2017, when the interview was done), and since then I’ve made about 50 albums, but it was the success of ‘Images and Words’ that allowed me to do that. We made that album at a point in Dream Theater’s career where we almost threw in the towel. We made that record after sitting around for almost two years, in the wake of the flop of our debut album. [‘When Dream and Day’ Unite de 1989]. And at that point, we changed singers, record companies, we spent two years writing this stuff with nothing going for us: no audience, no fan base, no management, no singer, no record label. We almost broke up, but we stuck it out, we got a singer, we got a new label, we made this album, and even once it came out, it sat on the shelf for a few months, before anyone noticed. But then, once ‘Pull Me Under’ broke around October 1992, it changed everything. It changed the course of the band and my life. Forever. It gave us an audience that has been with us ever since.”
Radiohead – OK Computer (1997)
“This was released in 1997, 30 years after ‘Sgt. Pepper’, but as far as I’m concerned, ‘OK Computer’ is the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ for the new millennium. And in the same way that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ rewrote all the rules and was the model for experimentation in ’67, I think ‘OK Computer’ did it in ’97, for a whole new generation. And the album has a lot of depth in terms of production and sonic value, but it’s not like the later Radiohead albums, where it’s just experimentation for the sake of experimentation. It also has amazing songs, from ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ to ‘Paranoid Android’ and ‘Karma Police’… I mean, those are amazing, well-written songs. So you had a combination of great songs and absolutely groundbreaking production – it’s a combination that makes it one of the greatest albums of all time.”