Hal Willner (1956-2020)

Duke Ellington famously said that there are only two types of music: good and ‘the other kind’. Hal Willner spent most of his professional life living that maxim.

The producer, curator and soundtrack composer, who died aged 64 on 7th April 2020, was way ahead of the game.

His never-boring albums were like cross-genre playlists, 30 years before Spotify. In his world, it was totally natural to pair Todd Rundgren with Thelonious Monk, Lou Reed with Kurt Weill, The Replacements with Walt Disney, Chuck D with Charles Mingus.

Inspired by his mentor Joel Dorn, Orson Welles’ radio productions and albums like A Love Supreme, Sketches Of Spain, The White Album, Satanic Majesties, Yusef Lateef’s Part Of The Search and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Case Of The 3-Sided Stereo Dream, he became fascinated by telling stories with sound.

During the 1980s, Willner was somewhat of a ‘Zelig’ figure on the New York scene. In 1981, he became the long-time musical director of ‘Saturday Night Live’ (while driving a cab during the day) and put together tribute albums to Fellini’s favourite composer (Amacord Nino Rota) and Kurt Weill (Lost In The Stars), the latter beginning a long, fruitful association with Lou Reed.

Then there was That’s The Way I Feel Now (still missing from streaming services… I’m working on it…) from 1984, inspired by Willner’s trip to a Thelonious Monk tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, as he related to writer Howard Mandel: ‘The jazz people playing Monk’s music were making it boring. Monk’s music was never boring. When Oscar Peterson came on, that was it – he had even put Monk down.’

Hal fought back with a brilliant Monk tribute album featuring Was (Not Was), Donald Fagen, Dr John, Todd Rundgren, Elvin Jones, Joe Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and Carla Bley. (Fact fans: Elton John chose the below track as one of his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1986, singling out Kenny Kirkland’s superlative piano solo.)

1988’s Stay Awake repeated the trick, a positively psychedelic voyage through the music of Walt Disney’s movies and TV shows. The stand-outs were legion but included James Taylor, Branford Marsalis and The Roches’ ‘Second Star To The Right’, Sun Ra’s ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’, The Replacements’ ‘Cruella de Vil’, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ and Ringo’s ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.

Willner was at it again with ‘Night Music’, the much-missed, short-lived TV show fronted by David Sanborn which brought esteemed musical guests in to jam with a crackerjack house band (usually Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, Hiram Bullock and Don Alias).

It’s quite moving to see often-overlooked greats of American music (Van Dyke Parks, Pharoah Sanders, Elliott Sharp, Sonny Rollins, Slim Gaillard) getting their due and sharing the stage with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson and John Cale. So Willner did a superb job, but if only Jools Holland’s invitation to co-host had got lost in the mail…

In the 1990s, Hal worked on Robert Altman’s movie masterpieces ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Kansas City’, and then came possibly this writer’s favourite album of the decade, Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, a sprawling, kaleidoscopic audio journey through the jazz great’s work featuring Robbie Robertson, Bill Frisell, Keith Richards, Julius Hemphill, Henry Rollins, Vernon Reid and Elvis Costello. The Kinks’ Ray Davies also directed a superb documentary about the making of the album:

Willner also helmed Marianne Faithfull’s well-received 1987 comeback album Strange Weather. More recently, he curated many special ‘theme’ concerts, including a memorable gig at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012 dedicated to the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, featuring Antony Hegarty, Nona Hendryx, Tim Robbins and Eric Mingus. Hal was also instrumental in bringing Reed’s ‘Berlin’ multimedia show to the stage for the first time.

Farewell to a real one-off. Music needs a lot more like him.

Hal Willner (6 April 1956 – 7 April 2020)

Jack Nicholson: 1982

What’s the first image that comes to mind when we think of 1980s Jack?

Leering through the bathroom door in ‘The Shining’, or tearing up the furniture in ‘Batman’ and ‘The Witches Of Eastwick’?

We probably wouldn’t think of a sober, suited-and-booted man about the arts, but that’s exactly what we get in a recently-discovered BBC interview.

It took place on 18th January 1982 during his ‘year off’ after an intensive period of work on ‘Reds’, ‘The Shining’, ‘The Border’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, and makes for fascinating viewing.

There’s certainly an element of him being on his ‘best BBC behaviour’, aided by Ian Johnstone’s austere interviewing style, but it demonstrates how Jack could so convincingly pull off the brilliant but troubled classical piano prodigy Bobby Dupea in ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (a part written for him by Carole Eastman, whom he discusses below).

It also shows how brilliantly he can ‘dial down’ his IQ to conjure hellraising characters like McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’. And, frankly, reveals why someone of Anjelica Huston’s calibre would enjoy his company so much. Next up was his Oscar-winning turn in ‘Terms Of Endearment’ – the year off certainly paid dividends.

Good Names/Bad Names

Are band names important? Discuss. Arguably, a good (or at least memorable) name has never been as important as now, if only to catch the eye amongst endless streaming lists.

Faces and names/I wish they were the same‘ sang John Cale in the guise of Andy Warhol. Maybe Andy would have been more content if there had been some better names around during the 1980s (no wonder he liked Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot so much…).

Many excellent acts certainly had very bad names (I’ve lost count of the times people have asked: ‘Why are they called Prefab Sprout?’), but a lot hit the jackpot too. So, in the spirit of the original Face magazine (which launched 40 years ago last month and, intriguingly, has recently been relaunched online) and with a big tip of the hat to the excellent WORD too, we round up the good, bad and ugly ’80s monikers.

Good Things with Good Names: Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Jamaladeen Tacuma, Half Man Half Biscuit, Stump, Fields Of The Nephilim, Virgin Prunes, The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Magnus Pyke, Los Lobos, De La Soul, Arvo Part, Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar, Valentin Silvestrov, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Derek B, Monie Love, Betty Boo, They Might Be Giants, ‘The Citadel Of Chaos’, ‘The Forest Of Doom’, ‘Codename Icarus’, Chevy Chase, Kim Basinger, Adrian Belew, Trevor Horn, Mike Patton, We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, The Slits, Tackhead, Boo Hewerdine, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, Robbie Shakespeare, Green Gartside, Paddy McAloon, Donna Summer, Terence Trent D’Arby, Echo And The Bunnymen, 808 State, All About Eve, Killing Joke, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, Skylarking, Cleo Rocos, ‘Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression’, Hipsway, Loose Tubes, Cocteau Twins, ‘In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky’

Good Things with Bad Names: Prefab Sprout, The The, Yngwie Malmsteen, Dire Straits, Adam Ant, Boy George, Bow Wow Wow, Talk Talk, The Thompson Twins, A Guy Called Gerald, Herb Alpert, Faith No More, Dan Aykroyd, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Throbbing Gristle, It Bites, The Bible, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Danny Wilson, Tears For Fears, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Bucks Fizz, Wham!, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, Anvil, A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo, Deacon Blue, Curiosity Killed The Cat, The Hooters, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, Luther Vandross, Steve Stevens, Ozric Tentacles

Bad Things with Good Names: Zodiac Mindwarp And The Love Reaction, Butthole Surfers, New Model Army, Twisted Sister

Bad Things with Bad Names: Jane’s Addiction, Then Jerico, The Blow Monkeys, Cactus World News, Pee-Wee Herman, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus Jones, Yazz And The Plastic Population, Diesel Park West, Insane Clown Posse, Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, Kajagoogoo, Enuff Z’Nuff, Kenny G, Dr And The Medics, Del Amitri, Bruce Hornsby And The Range, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Megadeth, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, U2, Mike And The Mechanics, Inspiral Carpets, James

Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On

Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.

A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.

You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.

Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.

Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month. A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!

It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984. There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.

In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.

Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.

One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’. What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.

It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.

London Lockdown Circa 1980: ‘Babylon’ & ‘Breaking Glass’

One of the few positives of this lockdown may be investigating your local area more than usual.

And if London is your manor, the mostly-silent, near-empty streets may just take you back to the city of your youth, when car ownership was relatively rare and there was plenty of room to kick a football or swing a cricket bat – mainly for sporting purposes, you understand…

Joking aside, London felt pretty edgy at the turn of the ’80s. Youth subcultures fought each other, and the police fought them. Some parts of the city had barely moved on from the Victorian era. There were great swathes of wasteland, still reeling from World War 2 bombs. Tube trains and stations were often deserted and you might even get a slap (there didn’t seem to be many knives around) if you wandered into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood (hello Gary Bates…).

It was a world accurately captured by feature films like ‘Babylon’, ‘Rude Boy‘, ‘DOA‘, ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle‘ and ‘Breaking Glass’, all released 40 years ago. ‘Babylon’ was illuminated by sumptuous photography by legendary Brit cinematographer Chris Menges (‘Kes’, ‘The Mission’, ‘The Killing Fields’), capturing rundown, turn-of-the-decade Lewisham, south-east London, site of a notorious August 1977 battle between the National Front and 10,000 protestors.

All of these films accurately capture the energy of inner-city life during the late-’70s and early-’80s, and the pressures of young people living at the sharp end of recession, racism and unemployment. Also ever-present is the constant theme of music-business skullduggery and police brutality. But it’s all shot through with healthy doses of humour and humanity, particularly throughout ‘Babylon’.

For all the benefits of ‘gentrification’ and the corporate restructuring of the capital, true Londoners of a certain age probably feel a tinge of nostalgia about the time when they seemed to own the streets, when there were many secrets to be found in the city’s nooks and crannies – for better or worse.

Jeff Beck @ The Royal Albert Hall: 1983 v. 2004

Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.

For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.

The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Back and he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long. A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!

But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.

Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.

But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.

Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish. However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.

Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?. There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut‘. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!

So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never, I suppose…)