Book Review: The Big Note (A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa) by Charles Ulrich

It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way. After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.

Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.

Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.

Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide (Ulrich rightly eschews the chronological approach, reasoning that nothing in FZ’s life or music was ever chronological) featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.

The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs. The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.

Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.

I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).

There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. This is the book his music deserves.

‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.

 

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The Cult Movie Club: Fourteen Days In May (1987)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a documentary comes along that makes you question everything, puts a new slant on life and death, the whole shebang. Or just gives you a damn good scare. Paul Hamann’s ‘Fourteen Days In May’ definitely fits the bill.

Shot over two weeks during the summer of 1987 at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary – AKA Parchman Farm – ‘Fourteen Days In May’ follows a young black man Edward Johnson as he prepares for – and, with the help of his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, tries to evade – the gas chamber.

First shown on the BBC over 30 years ago, it has become a landmark film. Similar areas have recently been explored by Werner Herzog, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, but arguably ‘Fourteen Days In May’ trumps all of them for sheer emotional impact.

It explores the inner workings of a prison geared up for taking human life. Astonishing shots shed light on a kind of modern slavery, with policemen on horseback brandishing shotguns, calling out loud reprimands and instructions to large groups of (almost exclusively) young black detainees as they dig ditches or clear roadside vegetation.

Elsewhere we are witness to the last few minutes of another (white) inmate’s life as he is strapped into the electric chair, though thankfully we don’t see the moment of truth. The gallows humour of both the killers and killed will linger long in the memory.

As ‘Fourteen Days In May’ moves painfully and inexorably on, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnson is innocent. But no-one can do anything about it. Various (black and white) prison officers bravely profess their doubts as to his guilt, while Johnson’s family rally around the quiet, unfailingly polite young man, singing him songs to keep his spirits up.

Hamann breaks the fourth wall to says his goodbyes to Johnson in a memorable scene. But shorn of a voiceover or title cards, ‘Fourteen Days In May’ offers no explicit critique of capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. The facts do that for themselves.

It would seem churlish and pointless not to reveal the ‘ending’ of the film here – Edward Johnson meets his maker. The crushing coda reveals that a young black woman came forward after the execution to verify that she saw him in a pool hall during the time of the alleged crime, but when reporting this to a white police officer soon after was threateningly advised to mind her own business.

What do we take away from ‘Fourteen Days In May’? The only correct response would seem to be rage. And fear. But after that, there’s a helplessness and a slow-burning disgust. The only slight light at the end of the tunnel is the knowledge that it was in direct response to this documentary that the Lifelines organisation was set up, arranging pen pals for death row prisoners. Stafford Smith has also founded Reprieve.

Is America still like this? Over to you. The suspicion would have to be that it is.

September Songs: David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees

September’s here again. The leaves brown, the nights draw in; thoughts and ears turn towards Sylvian’s music. The exquisite Brilliant Trees, released in July 1984is one of those collections that I must have owned on almost every format over the years, and probably bought a few times on each.

A period of extreme introspection and even depression descended upon Sylvian following the split of Japan in late 1982. Although his relationship with Mick Karn’s ex Yuka Fujii (who took the photos in the stylish Brilliant Trees album package) was largely thought to be the main catalyst, it still represented for Sylvian a distressing rupture of childhood friendships. He later claimed that he could barely stay awake during this period, so degraded were his immune system and emotional reserves.

Sylvian gathered co-producer Steve Nye and some of his favourite musicians at Berlin’s Hansa Studios and RAK in London. Influences came from ambient music, NYC avant-funk, John Martyn, Nick Drake and ECM jazz. His friend/ frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto and brother Steve Jansen were the main musical cohorts, though ex-Japan keyboard texturalist Richard Barbieri also appeared to great effect.

Brilliant Trees is very much an album of two sides. The opener ‘Pulling Punches’ is a sweetener, an effective but unrepresentative slice of white funk featuring NYC sessioneers Wayne Braithwaite and Ronnie Drayton on bass and guitar. The nearest thing to the Tin Drum sound, there’s nothing remotely like it on the rest of the album.

What a treat to hear Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham’s flugelhorn/trumpet breaks on the classic singles ‘Ink In The Well’ (UK #36) and ‘Red Guitar’ (UK #17). And, lucky for us, footage exists of the latter’s recording session, focusing in on Wayne Braithwaite’s bass overdubs (did they change the song’s key at a later date?):

Side two is a different matter altogether – it’s dark, foreboding, autumnal. Sylvian and Nye mostly eschew ‘conventional’ solos in favour of ‘found’ sounds courtesy of Holger Czukay’s Dictaphone (see below) or Jon Hassell’s extraordinary conch-like trumpet, both used to especially brilliant effect on ‘Wailing Wall’.

‘Backwater’ begins with a powerful build up of (sampled?) strings (and check out Jansen’s inspired groove on this, a queasy 6/4 over a very strange programmed shaker pattern), while the almost hymnal title track is beautifully performed by Sylvian and adorned with a gorgeous ethno-jam outro.

Listening 30 years on, what strikes one is the minimalist nature of the whole album. It has dated remarkably well. Many tracks are built around a cyclical Jansen groove, sparse bass, strong Sylvian melody and then tasteful, painterly touches from clean guitar, piano, Dictaphone or synth.

This stunning collection set in motion a superb four-album run of form for Sylvian. Brilliant Trees is an almost-perfect blend of songcraft and the avant-garde at a time when pop was drawing on jazz, ambient and world music to occasionally spectacular – and commercial – effect (the album reached #4 in the UK charts and sold over 100,000 copies). You might say that things were never quite the same again.

 

 

Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’. Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’. Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too!

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!). The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans. Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars. Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.

Great Opening Lines In 1980s Songs

As we’ve said before, the 1980s produced some fine lyricists. You couldn’t move for decent wordsmithery. But interesting lyrics came from the damndest places. 

What was that Trevor Horn maxim? A good pop song should be like a good story, such that the listener is always asking: what’s going to happen next?

And, like a good story, pretty much every good song starts with an intriguing opening line or two. As the proverbial cigar-munching music-biz mogul might say: ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar, kid…’ So here are some great opening lines from 1980s songs, lines that hopefully satisfy Horn’s requirements.

Everything But The Girl: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

Associates: ‘Club Country’

‘The fault is/I can find no fault in you’

 

Wet Wet Wet: ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’

‘I was living in a land of make believe/
When my best friend wrote and told me that there may be a job in the city’

 

Lou Reed: ‘How Do You Speak To An Angel’

‘A son who is cursed with a harridan mother or a weak simpering father at best/
Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives of filial love and incest’

 

Steely Dan: ‘Babylon Sisters’

Drive west on Sunset to the sea/
Turn that jungle music down/
Just until we’re out of town’

 

Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’

I’ll have a shower then call my brother up/
Within the hour I’ll smash another cup’

 

Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe’

‘Caught in the middle/
Carol, we’re middle-class/
We’re middle-aged/

We were wild in the old days/
Birth of rock’n’roll days’

 

The Smiths: ‘Reel Around The Fountain’

‘It’s time the tale were told/
Of how you took a child and you made him old’

 

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

Miller Time in the bar where all the English meet/
She used to drink in the hills/
Only now she drinks in the valleys’

 

Love And Money: ‘Hallejulah Man’

On the blind side and down the back ways/
The roots of sadness crawl/
When you can’t get what you need/
You feel like taking a torch to it all’

Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

When routine bites hard and ambitions are low/
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow’

 

The Teardrop Explodes: ‘Reward’

Bless my cotton socks/I’m in the news’

 

Tom Waits: ‘Swordfishtrombones’

‘Well, he came home from the war with a party in his head/
And a modified Brougham DeVille and a pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings’

 

Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

‘You surely are a truly gifted kid/
But you’re only as good as the last great thing you did’

 

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions: ‘Brand New Friend’

Walking in the pouring rain/
Walking with Jesus and Jane/
Jane was in a turtleneck/
I was much happier then’

Siouxsie & The Banshees: ‘Cascade’

Oh the air was shining/
Shining like a wedding ring’

 

Bob Dylan: ‘Jokerman’

Standing on the waters casting your bread/
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing/
Distant ships sailing into the mist/
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing’

 

Robert Palmer: ‘Johnny And Mary’

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty/
He needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely’

 

Prefab Sprout: Talking Scarlet

You hide under the eiderdown/
All you can’t sweep underneath the carpet’

 

The Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar/When I met you’

 

Talking Heads: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
Might end up in the hospital’

 

Scritti Politti: ‘A Little Knowledge’

Now I know to love you/Is not to know you’

 

The Smiths: ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’

Sweetness, I was only joking/
When I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head’

Any more for any more?

Book Review: Siren Song by Seymour Stein

One thing you could never say about the man born Seymour Steinbigle is that he’s led a dull life. And his new autobiography ‘Siren Song’ is anything but a dull book.

Born in a down-at-heel corner of Brooklyn, he did his time at Billboard, Tin Pan Alley, CBGB and Studio 54 and either discovered or nurtured Madonna, Talking Heads, k.d. lang (who calls him ‘the man with the golden ears’), Ramones, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Ice-T, Soft Cell, Squeeze, The Smiths, The Cult (by now you’ll be gleaning that he’s somewhat of an Anglophile), Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, all via his imprint Sire Records (which he co-founded with Richard Gottehrer).

So far, so common Rock Snob knowledge. And there’s no question that ‘Siren Song’ is a great resource for those who want to know about the making of and/or music-biz machinations behind some of the great modern pop/rock albums: Fear Of Music, Like A Virgin (complete with fascinating gossip about Nile Rodgers’ business dealings), My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, The Queen Is Dead, Ramones, New York. 

And then there are the fascinating tales of Stein signing Madonna from his hospital bed, visiting Talking Heads’ weird Long Island City loft and stalking Jethro Tull. He also writes superbly about the early ’80s music scene, when electro, hip-hop, Afro-beat, indie, new wave, reggae and post-disco combined to produce arguably the greatest ever pop period.

But two aspects separate ‘Siren Song’ from other similar tomes: Stein’s sheer love of music and his penchant for a pithy – but seldom tawdry – one-liner. On his lack of musical knowledge: ‘It’s usually better not to know the disgusting secrets of how the sausage got made.’ On David Byrne’s quirkiness: ‘He was someone I’d always support even if he wanted to make a concept album about toothpicks.’ On seeing Depeche Mode live for the first time: ‘They were four kids poking synths in a dump in the English suburbs.’ On the future of music: ‘Labels will always be needed, because only maniacs like me are insane enough to roam the globe, trawling through miles and miles of sh*t to just every now and then pick out a tiny diamond.’

Stein writes powerfully about the AIDS epidemic and the ramifications of being a gay man living a ‘straight’ life in the ’70s and ’80s (he had a wife and two daughters during the period). He superbly explains the timeless appeal of English guitar bands to Americans. The prologue is also a classic, describing what it means to love music and the joys, perils and sacrifices involved (especially if you’re coming from a working-class family) with seeking a career in A&R (artist and repertoire, or, in Stein-speak, people and songs).

‘Siren Songs’ is an unexpected gem and highly recommended.

Siren Song’ by Seymour Stein and Gareth Murphy is published by St Martin’s Press.