12 Angry Men: The 1980s Midlife Crisis Collection (Part One)

Here they come, these days about as welcome as turds in a jacuzzi, a collection of white, male, middle-aged ‘rockers’.

Then again, by the time of Live Aid, anyone over 30 was deemed a ‘veteran’, one of the funnier legacies of punk and New Pop.

Let’s survey the ages of some of the ‘rock legends’ who appeared at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985: Pete Townshend (40), Paul McCartney (43), Freddie Mercury (39), David Bowie (38), Bob Dylan (44), Keith Richards (41), Bryan Ferry (39), Mick Jagger (41), Elton John (37), Brian Wilson (43).

It’s interesting surveying the output of rock’s ageing alpha males during the ‘80s: angst, anger and lust were apparently their main drivers, alongside an interest in psychoanalysis and politics. Let’s take a look at some of their most coruscating work. For our purposes, we’ll define ‘mid life’ as 30 years old and above…

Peter Gabriel: ‘And Through The Wire’ (1980)

Upon hearing the early mixes of Peter Gabriel III, the US arm of his record company reportedly wondered if 30-year-old Pete had recently spent time in a mental asylum. But no, he was just letting off some steam, inviting Paul Weller along to supply raucous guitar, and unleashing a newfound, barely-concealed sexual energy: ‘Prowling the water hole/I wait for the kill/Pressure’s building/Overspill/I want you’. Ding-dong!

Richard Thompson: ‘Don’t Tempt Me’ (1988)

The folk/rock guitar/songwriting hero (38 at the time of recording) employed a killer US drums and bass team (Mickey Curry/Tony Levin) to carry off this pile-driving, piss-taking portrait of male jealousy and ‘little man’ syndrome. Note that he’s only ‘halfway’ out of his seat… Superb.

The Police: ‘Mother’ (1983)

Andy Summers (40 at the time of recording) takes some inspiration from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for this monstrosity, a hysterical, Oedipal blues in 7/4 time, very much inspired by his pal/guitar partner Robert Fripp. It’s quite funny to think that it was a contractually-obliged inclusion on the enormous-selling Synchronicity album, listened to by millions of unsuspecting teenagers before the emergence of the ‘skip’ button.

The Police: ‘Synchronicity II’ (1983)

Sting (31 at the time of recording) filters a Carl Jung concept through the story of family discord, a father’s paranoia and disquiet literally spawning a monster (in a Scottish loch!). Along the way, there’s also a barely concealed hatred for the common sprawl, ‘packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes’ during the morning commute, and the protagonist’s secretaries who ‘pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red-light street’, while Sting, Summers and Stewart Copeland lay down one of the most aggressive grooves in the band’s history. Scary, strange, midlife stuff.

David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part One)’ (1980)

33-year-old Bowie is jolly well peed off about…everything. There was certainly a lot to be angry about in 1980, and accordingly his Scary Monsters album dealt with some of the fears he felt for his son, from the increasingly bold tabloid press to the ever-present right-wing bully boys. In surely the most histrionic vocal performance of his career, he sounds terrified of the ‘fascists’ and violent revolutions that he sees on his TV screen.

Robbie Robertson: ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ (1987)

From the classic self-titled album, Robertson (43) sounds seriously teed off about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and more specifically, The Battle For Cu Chi of 1965/1966 (‘Down on Hell’s half acre/Shakin’ with fever/Rumble in the jungle’). Tony Levin and Manu Katche make for an appropriately barnstorming rhythm section and Robbie’s guitar is almost Clash-like in its viciousness.

More 1980s musical midlife crises soon.

Linda Ronstadt: Canciones De Mi Padre

Great singing voices: you need ‘em, I need ‘em, the world needs ‘em.

Put me down for Mike Patton, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Chaka Khan, Lewis Taylor, Donny and Lalah Hathaway, Al Green, Phyllis Hyman, Johnny Gill.

And Linda Ronstadt too. I was a big teenage fan of her live cameo in cult movie ‘FM’ (though possibly for reasons other than musical), loved her guest spot with Randy Newman at this October 1984 TV special and her work with Neil Young on Freedom, but it was only when I heard her 1987 album Canciones de mi Padre that it all came together.

It’s a collection of traditional Spanish-language songs that she heard as a kid growing up in Tucson, Arizona, only 45 minutes from the Mexican border (her father was of German, English and Mexican ancestry).

Produced by long-time manager/producer Peter Asher and with arrangements by Ruben Fuentes, it’s a gorgeous selection, with Ronstadt’s majestic voice rising above trumpets, violins, acoustic guitar, string bass and mariarchi vocals.

The album was a deeply personal project, as she told MOJO magazine in December 2018:

‘I knew those songs all my life and I wanted to sing them. I didn’t know the lyrics to most of them but my dad did – he was a big part of my research – and although I knew roughly what they were about, I had to learn what the Spanish meant. I had to really, really work to get it up to speed.’

Canciones de mi Padre was a huge success, winning a Grammy for Best Mexican/American Performance, and sold approximately two million copies in the USA (and ten million copies worldwide), making it the biggest-selling non-English-language album in Billboard history.

That’s pretty good for a beautiful album that Linda considers herself lucky to have been allowed to make at all, claiming she was only given a green light by Warners after her Nelson Riddle-composed/arranged For Sentimental Reasons was unexpectedly a big hit. She subsequently toured Canciones across the States in theatres, revue-style, and also recorded two further Spanish-language albums.

Ronstadt sadly retired from public performance in 2009 after a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. The recent, moving documentary ‘Sound Of My Voice’ explores her ’70 and ‘80s music, including the great collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and focuses on the Spanish-language albums too.

Three Cheers For ‘Cheers’

If quality TV was your thing, you were quids-in on Friday nights back in the late 1980s. Channel 4 was supplying the goods: first there was ‘The Tube’, then, later on, it was ‘Cheers’. Happy days.

The Boston-set sitcom, created by director James Burrows and writer/producers Glen and Les Charles, ran between September 1982 and May 1993.

The evocative credit sequence, featuring Gary Portnoy’s theme song (check out some scrapped early versions here) and Russell Lee’s 1937 ‘Saturday Night In A Saloon’ photo, promised a lot, and ‘Cheers’ certainly didn’t disappoint.

Ted Danson’s ex-Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone was a superb performance against type (he won a Golden Globe in 1990). Apparently he had never tended a bar nor been to a baseball match in his life when he got the role. He brilliantly dialled down the IQ (in Jack Nicholson style) and dialled up the womanising and alcoholism. He was a great physical comedian too.

Shelley Long – playing Diane Chambers – was a marvellous comedienne, reminding many of Lucille Ball. Diane was the polar opposite of Sam, a feminist, fan of psychoanalysis, poetry and literature. There was great chemistry between Danson and Long, and their union reminded the show’s creators of Spencer Tracy’s work with Katherine Hepburn. Shelley won a 1983 Emmy for her terrific performance.

Rhea Perlman turned in a great performance as Carla (winning an Emmy in 1984) – she was also apparently pretty much the opposite of her character. Nicholas Colasanto beautifully portrayed the dim-witted Coach – he was a journeyman actor who had played a particularly memorable turn in ‘The Streets Of San Francisco’.

Later, Woody Harrelson who came in as Woody, kind of a Coach surrogate. It was a clever writing device too – in explaining things to Coach/Woody, you were also explaining things to the audience (apparently ‘Grizzly Man’ environmentalist Timothy Treadwell came very close to snagging the role of Woody).

‘Cheers’ also originated some much-imitated sitcom ‘rules’: any touchy-feely or dark stuff is fine but must be followed by a zinger or one-liner. Another edict of the first few seasons was that each episode had to end with Sam and Diane. Also the ‘cold start’, usually featuring Norm, became a sitcom trope.

True, after season five, ‘Cheers’ was increasingly hit-and-miss (though only then really began getting large TV audiences, the last season garnering an astonishing 80 million viewers), arguably with far too much attention paid to the minor characters (The Guardian newspaper had a good pop at Frasier here) but Kirstie Alley proved to be a gifted comedienne who won an Emmy award in 1991 (and she’s also one of the best screen drunks ever).

Other treats? Craig Safan’s cool, Katy Lied-era Steely Dan-style incidental music, with clarinet or alto sax, piano, drums, bass (some of the later excerpts were composed by an uncredited John Beasley, keyboardist for the jazz/rock stars and leader of the acclaimed MONK’estra).

Then there were the classic cameos: Emma Thompson, John Cleese, PJ Soles, John Kerry, and a host of ‘Hey it’s that guy/lady!’ actors of the early 1980s, many also often seen American movies of the time.

Favourite episodes? All of the five season-closers featuring Sam and Diane, plus ‘The Executive’s Executioner’, when Norm is reluctantly transformed into a hatchet man by his accountancy firm; ‘Look Before You Sleep’, when Sam gets locked out of the bar and his apartment and has to visit each of his friends’ houses in an attempt to get a night’s sleep; ‘Fear Is My Co-Pilot’, where Diane’s madcap friend takes her and Sam up in his airplane.

Not sure about you, but the daily early-morning reruns of ‘Cheers’ (in the UK) have been a real boon to this writer over the last year. Cheers to ‘Cheers’…

Level 42 (Every Album, Every Song): the book

‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song (on track)’ is my first book and the first in-depth study of the band’s illustrious catalogue.

It features recording information, musical analysis, studio gossip, full credits, stories from the road and contributions from head honcho Mark King and previous members Gary Husband and Phil Gould. The book also places their output within the wider musical landscape of the 1980s and 1990s.

‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song (on track)’ is published on 28th March 2021 and available to pre-order via the links below:

UK:

Burning Shed
Hive
Amazon
Book Depository
Waterstones
Foyles
Wordery

USA: 

Barnes & Noble
Indigo

(The book will also shortly be available from Amazon in Europe and the USA.)

Jaco Pastorius: Truth, Liberty & Soul (Live In NYC, 27 June 1982)

Even as the streaming revolution sweeps all before it, there are a few aspects of physical music that seem to be thriving: vinyl and the ‘historical discovery’.

Bass superstar Jaco is now a worthy recipient of both, courtesy of Truth, Liberty & Soul, a complete gig recorded at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on 27 June 1982, part of that summer’s Kool Jazz Festival.

The concert was originally broadcast live on NPR but has lain in the vaults for decades, and it took Resonance Records (via vaultmeister Zev Feldman) six years to prepare these tapes for release.

It features Jaco alongside his regular band (Bob Mintzer – saxes, Randy Brecker – trumpet, Don Alias – percussion, Othello Molineaux – steel drums, Peter Erskine – drums), plus special guest Toots Thielemans on harmonica and a big band full of NYC’s finest horn players.

The album catches Jaco at somewhat of a crossroads; by most accounts, June 1982 was the last time he was truly ‘together’ in terms of his mental wellbeing, the wheels really coming off during the Japanese tour later that autumn. (Fans of a certain age may fondly remember the televised live gig from the Montreal Jazz Festival which took place on 3 July 1982 – see below).

The question is, if you already own Jaco’s 1983 live album Invitation (released in slightly expanded form as Twins in Japan), also featuring the big band, is it worth getting this one? The answer is a resounding yes. It’s thrilling to hear a whole gig in real time by one of the last true jazz titans.

The sound is superb – crisp, deep and rich. The packaging is excellent, with a weighty booklet full of incisive essays and previously unseen photos. Anyone sick of bandleaders’ endless yakking to the audience to run down the clock these days will be pleased to hear that Jaco doesn’t utter a single word until a garbled band announcement during the closer ‘Fannie Mae’ – he’s there to play music.

There are many highlights – a killer ‘Donna Lee’, touching Afro-Cuban take on Toots’s ‘Bluesette’, an epic ‘Liberty City’ and particularly Mintzer’s superb composition ‘Mr Fonebone’, electrifying in big-band format.

There are one or two longeurs – we could probably do without the extended percussion and drum ‘improvisations’. And it has to be said that Jaco doesn’t sound on completely top form during his solos, though that’s possibly due to the size/acoustics of the venue, alluded to by a few contributors in the liner notes. But his accompaniment is typically brilliant throughout.

Frankly, it makes one desperate to attend such a gig in these crazy times. Truth, Liberty & Soul is a valuable release and an absolute must for anyone who owns any Jaco or Jaco-era Joni Mitchell/Weather Report albums.

 

David Bowie Impersonates Marc Bolan: 18th August 1985

1985 was a mixed year for DB.

Tragically, his half-brother Terry Burns took his own life in January, but then the summer was a very ‘up’ period – he was a wholehearted contributor to Live Aid, promoting the event widely and enjoying the company of his contemporaries and assorted young bucks alike.

He was also relishing getting out of his comfort zone courtesy of key roles in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ and Julien Temple’s ‘Absolute Beginners’.

Then summer 1985 spawned one of his greatest singles, the theme song for the latter movie. Like ‘Dancing In The Street’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was produced by David alongside Madness/Dexys/Costello collaborators Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer.

The backing tracks had been laid down at Abbey Road but the final vocal session took place at London’s West Side Studios (owned by Langer and Winstanley), Olaf Street, near Latimer Road tube station (and very close to Grenfell Tower), on 18th August 1985.

After nailing the song in just a few passes – as was his wont – Bowie found himself in the studio with a bit of time on his hands. Instead of making an early exit, he quickly wrote some rather overwrought lyrics vaguely in the style of Bruce Springsteen and then entertained Langer and Winstanley with a succession of vocal impersonations.

Engineer Mark Saunders thankfully captured these precious moments (in David Buckley’s essential book ‘Strange Fascination’, Winstanley mentions that he considered the tape lost) and has very kindly put them on YouTube for our delectation.

So enjoy Bowie’s irresistible takes on Springsteen, Marc Bolan, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Anthony Newley, Iggy Pop and Neil Young, complete with charming asides (‘That’s it – night-night!’). It’s a doorway to happier times. DB: miss him, miss him, miss him.