Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

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David Sylvian: Pop Song 30 Years Old Today

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single 30 years ago today.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is completely out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at the Townhouse Studios, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out, and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.

Nik Kershaw: The Works 30 Years On

It was goodbye to Basildon and Braintree, hello to Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Yes, Kershaw had always threatened the big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over album, and in 1989 he delivered it.

And, to no-one’s great surprise, it was an excellent collection, one of the best ‘Brit-Goes-Stateside’ pop records of the decade.

Recorded over four months in LA, The Works – released 30 years ago this week – saw Kershaw put together some of his best material to date with two top-notch drummers (Vinnie Colaiuta and Jeff Porcaro) in tow, the great Jerry Hey on horn arrangements, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, ex-Zappa keyboardist Peter Wolf producing and backing vocals from Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett.

And yet it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back, underselling drastically, cutting ties with MCA Records and leading Kershaw into decades of back-room writing and producing. But maybe he was happier that way (and he did write the enormo-hit ‘The One And Only’ for Chesney Hawkes a few years later).

But from August to December 1987, Kershaw was hob-nobbing with Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones and Toto, flirting with the kinds of scenes that he had mocked on ‘Radio Musicola’ and ‘City Of Angels’. He apparently didn’t get on very well with Wolf at all, virtually re-recording the entire album back in London alongside Australian producer Julian Mendelsohn (Level 42’s World Machine).

But hey, the hard work paid off. There’s nothing else in the ’80s pop canon quite like the techno/pop/fusion flash of ‘Don’t Ask Me’, ‘Wounded Knee’ and ‘Cowboys and Indians’, and Colaiuta’s extraordinary drum performances had players rushing to their practice rooms. In particular, the former track has that fill… If only Vinnie had played on a few of the other machine-driven tracks. And Kershaw coaxes Porcaro to play a classic half-time shuffle on the superb ‘Walkabout’.

It’s still hard to believe that ‘One Step Ahead’ and ‘Elisabeth’s Eyes’ (very influenced by Scritti) completely flopped as singles (though I would have gone with ‘Lady On The Phone’). They still sound great today, with brilliant choruses and nice grooves. ‘Burning At Both Ends’ may be the standout of the album, with its Middle-Eastern-flavoured hook and superb Siedah Garrett backup vox. Slightly less impressive are ‘Take My Place’ and ‘One World’; both could be Climie Fisher or Robbie Nevil.

The album disappeared without trace both in the UK and US. As far as solo pop success was concerned, the game was up. But it’s a shame that the kind of intelligent, superbly-played pop heard on The Works was unsustainable by the end of the ‘80s.

As Nik so succinctly puts it on his website:

Los Angeles for four months with producer Peter Wolf. Get to record with some legends: Jerry Hey, Larry Williams, Paulinho Da Costa, Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Colaiuta. House in Nichols Canyon; Rented Mustang; Earthquake. Constantly bumping heads with Peter. End up finishing album myself in London. More record company upheaval; another MD; another A&R person. Not looking good. European tour with Elton John. Goodbye MCA. Time for a break...”

The Cult Movie Club: ‘Psycho’ Revisited

My dad was a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan. He liked the ‘minor’ Hitch as much as the ‘major’ Hitch. As a war baby, maybe he relished the director’s trademark mixture of dread and humour. Dad certainly didn’t sneer at ‘Psycho’; in fact, he would have put it firmly in the ‘major’ category.

We probably first watched the film together sometime around 1989. Revisiting it again recently, it struck me as a curiously – and defiantly – ‘modern’ movie. Even as the ghastliness of America’s modern serial killers was becoming public knowledge towards the end of the 1950s, the kind of seediness ‘Psycho’ portrayed had still not been shown on screen (though David Thomson’s superb book ‘The Moment Of Psycho’ notes that a few figures – James Dean, Jerry Lewis, Elvis, Brando and Jack Nicholson, by way of Roger Corman, were ushering in a new, youthful edginess. Thomson also asks us to imagine Elvis as Norman Bates…).

Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano really decided to let American audiences have it with their fairly loyal interpretation of Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel. Thomson describes the film as Hitch’s ‘revenge’ on Hollywood, a Hollywood that had never granted the director an Oscar and whose mixture of humour and dread had never been fully accepted.

These factors also particularly struck me when revisiting ‘Psycho’ recently:

7. Hitchcock/Stefano’s skewering of America’s sacred cows

The family unit, marriage, the home, sanity, the bathroom (never before in an American film had there been the shot of a toilet flushing), heterosexuality, the shower stall. And the way he gleefully starts the movie tracking into a fairly seedy motel room to eavesdrop on a post-coital tryst. It all seems run-of-the-mill now but all of this must have been an incredible shock for contemporary audiences. Hitch wanted to show how modern, urban people were living their lives.

 

6. Joseph Stefano’s dialogue

Speed-reading Robert Bloch’s novel again, it struck me that screenwriter Stefano deserves huge praise for reworking the dialogue. He puts some pep in its step, fashions some brilliant lines for Norman (the whole mental illness speech during dinner with Marion in his den) and turns the scenes between Norman/Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman/Arbogast (Martin Balsam) into mini masterpieces. He also adds some good, hip stuff featuring the traffic cop (who doesn’t feature in the novel) and car salesman.

5. The shower murder

Hitchcock’s ‘pride’ at the slickness of the first murder scene belies its brutality. If there’s a more shocking death in the movies, I haven’t seen it. A troubling thought: to what extent does Hitchcock/Norman/’Mother’/Bloch/the audience ‘punish’ Marion for stealing (even though at the time of her murder she has made the decision to return the money)? But of course modern audiences would be primed for Janet Leigh’s early exit, since the opening credits say ‘…And Janet Leigh as Marion Crane’. It’s clear now she’s not going to last the whole movie, but audiences in 1960 wouldn’t have twigged.

 

4. The sexual politics of the first 40 minutes

Marion strikes us as an incredibly ‘modern’ character, strong, determined, troubled, independent, defiantly single (though willing to give Sam a try… Or is she? Why doesn’t she ring him to tell him she’s on her way with the money?). She passes through the first half of the film encountering men in scenes that somehow ‘mirror’ each other – her lover, the creepy, predatory client at work, traffic cop, car salesman, and finally Norman.

3. The concept of ‘doubles’

Of course, Norman ‘is’ Norma Bates, mother and son combined. Then there are the – on first viewing – strange matching shots of characters leaving rooms; first Marion, then ‘Mother’. Then there’s the remarkable physical likeness between Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and Norman (who, of course, in many ways seems far more pleasantly disposed towards Marion than Sam ever is).

 

2. The brilliance of Anthony Perkins’ performance

Hitchcock apparently instructed Stefano to write for Perkins once the teen heart-throb had signed on very early in proceedings. The novel has Norman as an overweight, alcoholic, 40-year-old schlub, but Perkins’ leading-man looks, disarming smile and gentleness are the movie’s masterstrokes. He delivers a classic performance, possibly influenced by Dennis Weaver’s panic-stricken ‘night man’ in Orson Welles’s ‘Touch Of Evil’.

1. The flatness of the second half

Hitchcock barely seems interested in any other characters apart from Marion and Norman, fatally unhinging the second half of the movie. It’s pretty boring apart from the terrific scene between Norman and Arbogast (which apparently earned lengthy applause from the crew), the Arbogast murder, the ‘Mother’ reveal in the basement and the closing Norman/Mother ‘monologue’, featuring more fantastic work from Perkins.

Boon Gould (1955-2019)

Boon Gould (third from left)

Every group needs a Boon Gould. The George Harrison of Level 42, he came up with consistently memorable guitar parts and the occasional exciting solo, whilst never overshadowing his more naturally exuberant bandmates.

His guitar playing probably peaked in the original band’s middle years, and he also wrote the words to many of their biggest hits including ‘Lessons In Love’, ‘It’s Over’, ‘To Be With You Again’ and ‘Heaven In My Hands’.

So Boon contributed much to one of the great bands of the ’80s. When I heard of his sad death this week, I first thought of his raunchy Jeff Beck-meets-Bill Connors solos on their jazz/funk opuses ‘Foundation And Empire’ and ‘Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’, but then remembered how much his rhythm guitar parts added to the band’s key mid-’80s tracks such as ‘Micro Kid’, ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’ and ‘The Chinese Way’.

Guitar-wise, his peak was probably the 1984 Level 42 album True Colours, playing some fantastic stuff on ‘A Floating Life’, ‘True Believers’, ‘Hot Water’ and ‘Chant Has Begun’. The former features his heaviest riffs in a Level shirt. He also contributed lyrics to Mark King’s solo album Influences around this time.

Boon was the most reluctant live performer in the band, often afflicted with stage fright and frequently laid low by the bad food and bad sleep that are part and parcel of regular touring. He jumped ship in 1987, his drummer brother Phil following soon after, and also who knows what kinds of pressures were involved with their elder sibling John managing the band too.

After officially leaving Level 42, Boon kept in touch and provided lyrics for 1988’s Staring At The Sun. He recorded a solo album, 1995’s Tin Man, which showed off his decent singing voice, and also came out of live retirement to guest with the reformed band during a Bristol gig in 2012.

By all accounts, Boon was a great guy, a gentle, self-effacing soul who just happened to be an excellent guitarist and intelligent lyricist. RIP to one of 1980s pop’s unsung heroes. There’s part of my childhood gone.

Rowland Charles ‘Boon’ Gould (4 March 1955 – 30th April 2019)

Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out. Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.

It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension. This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.

Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.

One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti. And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.

Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot. Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.

John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.