Gig Review: Little Axe @ The Jazz Cafe, 18th November 2017

The 1980s featured a smorgasbord of great guitarists and Skip McDonald was right in the thick of it. He started the decade playing on many classic Sugar Hill Records sides and ended it as a member of futuristic funk/rock titans Tackhead.

Since then blues-dub solo project Little Axe has been his chief musical outlet, a collaboration with legendary mixologist Adrian Sherwood and Sugar Hill cohorts Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith Leblanc on drums. 1994 debut The Wolf That House Built was a big critical success, but, after a run of middling albums through the noughties, Little Axe’s time somehow seemed to have come and gone.

Until now. It’s unclear whether the state of the world (and the White House) has given him a new lease of life but McDonald’s bittersweet missives seem tailor-made for these times. This packed one-off London gig – promoting impressive, surprisingly upbeat new album London Blues – saw McDonald joined onstage by Wimbish, Sherwood and drummer Andy Gangadeen.

Observing Sherwood was like watching a master cocktail-maker at work, adding his trademark delays and feedback loops with deft sleights of hand. The ageless Wimbish was in typically fine form too, creating mind-bending dub tones with some very nifty footwork – not for nothing has he occasionally referred to himself as the ‘Bruce Lee of bass’.

But McDonald’s impressive vocals were the star of the show, and he also seems to have found his electric guitar mojo again. Old favourite ‘If I Had My Way’ has never sounded so apt (‘These are demon days/It’s a time of chaos, rage and anxiety/Where you gonna be when two worlds collide?’) while new songs ‘Snake Oil’, ‘Factory Girl’ and ‘London Blues’ were instant earworms. The latter could even make for a leftfield choice of single. Best of all though was chilling closer ‘Deep River’, an eerie death-dub with a central image of ‘a flower blooming in hell’, sounding a bit like an unlikely collaboration between Gregory Isaacs and Sarah Kane.

There was a slightly valedictory feeling to the end of the gig; Wimbish, Sherwood and McDonald’s farewells were possibly more heartfelt than usual. It would be a great shame if this was the last we see of Skip’s Axe – the state of the world and a fine new album would seem to demand that he continue.

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‘Tis The Season For Crap Cover Versions

An ’80s music scribe whose name escapes me once wrote that Paul Young didn’t just murder Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, he dismembered it and burnt its house down.

I’m paraphrasing of course, but, listening to the current crop of seasonal offerings, I can sympathise. Readers in the UK will have recently been – or will shortly be – inundated with Christmas TV ads half-inching ‘classic’ songs. Years gone by have seen hugely successful ‘pop’ takes on ‘indie’ standards such as Lily Allen’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, and probably a few more too.

Love ’em or hate ’em, at least there’s some kind of stylistic consistency there. More disturbing is the recent appropriation of soul and funk classics. There’s a beyond-anodyne, twee, puny take on Rufus & Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ knocking about, sung by a vocalist/arranged by an arranger who have meticulously removed every vestige of emotion, feel and syncopation from the original.

You could say the same about the version of Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ currently all over the telly. A bright spark in adland, or the artist herself, has obviously said: ‘Yes, let’s take this heartfelt tribute to the Civil Rights pioneers and turn it into a banal snore-fest celebrating the feeling you get when you are hoovering up stuff that you really don’t need’. High-fives all round. (Of course Fatboy Slim was first out of the blocks with this one).

And we won’t even get into the cover of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ that has recently reared its ugly head.

When did all of this start? I blame Foghorn Florence’s annihilation of Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’. (She even had the audacity to rename it ‘You’ve Got The Love’!) On the plus side, the original writers are getting a decent wedge from the publishing. Yarbrough apparently takes 60% of the Fatboy royalties. So at least the pioneers won’t have any problem buying Christmas presents this year, or any other for that matter.

But money isn’t everything. So I’ll be hunkering down and attempting to avoid Elbow’s cover of ‘Golden Slumbers’ for as long as humanly possible. In the meantime, feel free to nominate your worst-ever cover versions below.

David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.

Wanna See Something Really Scary? Two Takes On ‘The Twilight Zone’

‘Wanna see something really scary?’ Day Aykroyd’s ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ catchphrase was an open invitation to me back in 1983.

I had just seen John Landis’s ‘Thriller’ video, George Romero’s ‘Creepshow’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and was rapidly becoming a ‘confirmed ghost story and horror film addict’, as Jack calls Wendy in ‘The Shining’.

Although ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ was briefly a big VHS hit in my house, these days it looks like a bit of a misfire (decent Joe Dante and George Miller sections, less-than-decent Spielberg and Landis). The Miller story was of course a remake of the superb Richard Matheson-penned ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ which starred William Shatner as the terrified passenger driven insane by the possibility that a gremlin is sabotaging his aircraft.

But I mainly loved the flavour of the 1983 movie’s Landis-directed-and-scripted opening and closing tags. I can still randomly remember chunks of dialogue, especially Albert Brooks’ little ad-libbed songs (‘Look at those two apes/This must be where they live’ etc…).

Then my recent Cassette Revisitation Program brought round The Manhattan Transfer’s ‘Twilight Zone’, recorded a couple of years before the movie was released. Jay Graydon and Alan Paul adapt the original source music (either composed by Bernard Herrmann or Marius Constant, depending on which websites you trust…) with aplomb and, though the track comes a bit too close to disco for my liking, I was really knocked out by Janis Siegel’s lead vocal; her phrasing and enunciation are really something.

And what a band: Graydon on guitar and production, Jai Winding on keys and Toto in the engine room. Graydon’s stunning harmonized solo should possibly have been in my ‘wackiest guitar solos of the 1980s’ list and Winding lays down some excellent Fagen-esque keys. I like the lyric too: ‘Unpretentious girl from Memphis/Saw the future through her third eye…’ Throw in a spot-on impression of Rod Serling (or is it actually Rod?) and you’ve got a nice little tribute song. Released as a single in June 1980, it made #25 in the UK and #30 in the US.

But anyway, where were we? Back to the movie. ‘Happy’ Halloween, heh-heh-heh…

Robbie Robertson (1987): 30 Years Old Today

robbie robertson

Geffen Records, released 27th October 1987

8/10

Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’. He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.

I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987. But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.

Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart). The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.

‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson. ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.

Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.

But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em). This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there. However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.