John McLaughlin: Music Spoken Here 35 Years On

WEA Records, released August 1982

Bought: Shepherd’s Bush Record & Tape Exchange, 1990?

8/10

All great artists with any kind of career longevity have very distinct periods, and John McLaughlin is no exception. Apart from his mid-’60s output, the early 1980s (let’s face it – the whole of the 1980s… Ed.) is probably his least understood/appreciated era.

McLaughlin had left New York, relocated to Monte Carlo (where he resides to this day) and formed a new band occasionally known as The Translators featuring a top-class American drummer (Tommy Campbell) and otherwise French band including his new paramour, outrageously talented keyboardist Katia Labèque. His music too had turned away from electric jazz/rock and moved towards a gentler – but still intense – fusion of jazz, classical, blues, flamenco, Indian and Latin music, focusing on the acoustic nylon string guitar.

I was a major John completist in the late ’80s/early ’90s but didn’t have a clue Music Spoken Here even existed until chancing upon a vinyl copy. You’d be hard pushed to find it in any jazz reference book these days; it’s virtually been written out of his discography. Some would say with good reason, but to these ears it’s one of the nuttiest, most piquant albums of John’s career.

At times you can feel him edging again towards the Mahavishnu reunion which happened a few years later in ’84, reaching for the Les Paul on a few cuts and pushing the drums and synths higher in the mix. But in its own way, and considering what else was going on in the jazz world at the time (Wynton, Branford and the Young Lions traditionalists) Music Spoken Here is as shocking an album as Inner Mounting Flame.

‘Blues For LW’ is the album’s centrepiece, a thrilling, richly-chorded tribute to the Polish activist Lech Welesa with a neat quote from Miles Ahead and completely insane Chick Corea-meets-Rachmaninoff Labèque synth solo. ‘Honky Tonk Haven’ is brilliant too, a cacophony of early hip-hop beats, modal keyboards and a killer guitar/synth melody line borrowed from the Shakti track ‘Get Down And Shruti‘. You’ve gotta think that Miles would have dug it.

The cover of Egberto Gismonti’s ‘Loro’ may be taken a tad too fast but the arrangement kicks ass. Elsewhere, the album is full of sunny, fresh, cosmopolitan grooves, with frequently outrageous guitar and keyboard playing – the latter way too high in the mix though.

Music Spoken Here was another two fingers up to the purists of the music world, and another artistic success. It reached #24 on the US jazz album chart, a reasonable return but not exactly a big hit for an artist of his magnitude. It’s crying out for a remaster though, one of the muddiest-sounding records of McLaughlin’s career. The Translators played live on and off during summer 1982 too (see below).

Next stop for John was an undercooked acoustic trio album with Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, and then the aforementioned return to Mahavishnu, reuniting with Billy Cobham and also adding Bill Evans, Jonas Hellborg and Mitch Forman. Needless to say, it would be another hard sell for the critics…

The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way

I recently got hold of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond’s ‘The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way’ for a quid in my local Amnesty bookshop. Written in 1988, it purports to be a foolproof guide to creating a hit single.

But then you never can tell. It might not be wise to take it too seriously because Cauty and Drummond are very naughty boys. The former was once in ’80s pop agitators Brilliant and Zodiac Mindwarp while the latter is of course an industry veteran, a member of Liverpool proto-punks Big In Japan (also featuring Holly Johnson, Budgie and Ian Broudie) and later the manager of Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.

The two pop pranksters got together and made some serious money from their genre-busting (read: nicking bits of other records and stitching them together), giant hits as The KLF, The Timelords and The Justified Ancients Of Mu-Mu, before announcing their retirement very publicly onstage at the 1992 BRIT awards in a hilariously inappropriate send-off.

Two years later, they burnt a million quid on an island off the west coast of Scotland to make a point about…something. Even they didn’t seem to know, as evidenced by this interview with Gay Byrne.

All bluster aside, these days ‘The Manual’ makes for fascinating and weirdly relevant reading. When it comes to the pop biz, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Cauty and Drummond were already rewriting the rules back in 1988 and correctly predicting how chart music would turn out…forever. The following was written in 1988 when the UK music business was thriving and recording studios had never been more popular:

‘It’s obvious that in a very short space of time the Japanese will have delivered the technology and then brought the price of it down so that you can do the whole thing at home. Then you will be able to sod off all that crap about going into studios.’

Then the ‘boys’ seem to predict the whole home recording/laptop thing:

‘A kid with a box of records, two Technics turntables, a sampler and drum machine can have a number one.’

The third aspect that jumps out is the section on ‘trademarking grooves’, especially in the light of the recent Pharrell/Marvin Gaye lawsuit controversy. Cauty and Drummond claim that ‘copywright law…has been developed by whites of European descent – 50 percent for the lyrics, 50 percent for the top-line melody. Groove doesn’t get a look in. If copyright law had been in the hands of blacks of African descent, at least 80 percent would have gone to creators of the groove.’

Controversial and prescient stuff, and cheap at the price (a quid from a charity shop). Ah, the sweet irony. Not sure if it’s going to spawn a hit single though. And where are the lads now? Who knows? They’re probably doing OK, although Drummond already looked pretty ‘ancient’ in 1994…

Story Of A Song: David Bowie’s ‘Loving The Alien’

The lead-off track and third single (UK #19 in May 1985, not released in the US) from 1984’s Tonight album, ‘Loving The Alien’ was arguably Bowie’s most committed piece of writing since Scary Monsters‘ ‘Teenage Wildlife’ four years earlier. Recorded at Quebec’s Le Studio in May 1984, the song was musically rich with a striking set of lyrics and a superb, soaring vocal performance.

Like a good Kubrick movie, it distills down weeks of research to just the crucial components. Bowie was apparently doing a lot of reading about Christianity and the Catholic Church, influenced particularly by Donovan Joyce’s notorious ‘The Jesus Scroll’ which posited that Jesus died in Masada at the age of 80 and wrote a scroll that is currently in Russian hands.

The wider implications of this led Bowie into further thoughts on organised religion in general and Christianity in particular. He told writer Charles Shaar Murray: ‘It was always more of a power tool than anything else, which was not very apparent to the majority of us. My father encouraged me to become interested in other religions. It’s extraordinary considering all the mistranslations in the Bible that our lives are being navigated by this misinformation, and that so many people have died because of it. That’s how the song started out: for some reason, I was very angry…’

Using the bloodshed of The Crusades as its central image, the lyric uses various effective ploys, one of which is an almost Pinteresque juxtaposition of the banal and portentous. While Bowie blithely stated ‘It’s just a song of images’ in the above interview, each line is ripe for analysis.

Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They’re travelling the holy land
Opening telegrams

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror-blind

But if you pray
All your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers, they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

You pray til the break of dawn
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And you’ll believe you’re loving the alien
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best-laid plan

Watching them come and go
Tomorrows and the yesterdays
Christians and the unbelievers
Hanging by the cross and nail

Bananarama it ain’t. Both lyrically and musically, the song stands out a mile on Tonight. But unfortunately these days it’s a difficult listen – despite Bowie’s fantastic vocal, it’s let down by an immense production with huge, gated drums (Omar Hakim’s entrée into rock drumming that arguably got him the gigs with Dire Straits and Sting), muddy bass, an overwrought Arif Mardin string arrangement and ponderous Carlos Alomar guitar solo. More successful are Guy St Onge’s marimba and the sampled Bowie vocals at the top (apparently more influenced by Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein On The Beach‘ than Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ – the kind of detail that was very important to Bowie!).

Regular collaborator David Mallet directed the video, storyboarded – as usual – by Bowie. Though seemingly a fairly disparate series of arresting images, the clip was fairly successful as a surreal assault on religion’s materialistic symbols and commodification of women. It also makes a fascinating companion piece to his ‘Blackstar’ video. Bowie’s cheery grin that accompanies the ‘Opening telegrams/Whoa-oh’ line is a thrillingly weird moment.

Bowie performed ‘Loving The Alien’ throughout the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. Then, in 2002, DJ Scumfrog remixed the track to create a single called ‘The Scumfrog vs Bowie’, a top 10 hit in the UK Dance Chart. A year later Bowie himself resurrected the song, cooking up a stripped-down version in duet with guitarist Gerry Leonard. They dropped the key from E-minor down to C-minor and dispensed with many of the original’s passing chords, arguably dissolving some of its power, but it’s certainly a unique reading.

According to Bowie, the best version of ‘Loving The Alien’ is his original home demo of the song, yet to see the light of day. Let’s hope we get to hear it sometime.

 

 

Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction 30 Years On

Geffen Records, released 21st July 1987

Approximate worldwide sales: 30 million

Singles released: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ (US #7, UK #24)
‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (US #1, UK #6)
‘Paradise City’ (US #5, UK #6)
‘Nightrain’ (US #93, UK #17)

W. Axl Rose (vocals/co-writer): ‘This record’s gonna sound like a showcase. I sing in five or six different voices, so not one song’s quite like another, even if they’re all hard rock. Sometimes six lines (of lyrics) take two years. It just has to say exactly what I mean…’

Slash (guitar/co-writer): ‘We can sound like AC/DC, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Aerosmith. We can sound like what’s-his-name, that f***in’ idiot that plays guitar real fast… Al Di Meola…’

1987 was the year rock and metal made a comeback big-time. But Appetite doesn’t really sound like an ’80s album at all. It’s totally different to what Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Def Leppard offered in the same era, but not so different from Aerosmith, early Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols or The Stones. It’s funky hard-rock rather than metal, with the occasional punky moment, and still sounds superb today.

W. Axl Rose (born William Bailey) was and is one of the all-time great rock frontmen. His vocals stand out: he unleashes the growling, banshee-screeching and brooding baritone, sometimes all in the space of one song. Then there are the stage moves: the serpentine shuffle, ‘revolving stomp’, the pogo-ing, and the androgynous looks and gift for winding audiences up didn’t hurt either.

Guns were surely the ultimate ’80s Hollywood street band, seriously dangerous both to themselves and others. Signed to Geffen Records in March 1986, there was subsequently a lot of discontent at the label when it dawned on them just what they’d taken on. One A&R man said: ‘They were having sex with porn stars, openly using hard drugs. Once they arrived at the Geffen office, late for a meeting, with a naked girl wrapped in a shower curtain. There was a real belief at the label that Axl was simply not going to make it out alive. I remember someone at Geffen saying, “We must record everything they do – rehearsals, soundchecks, concerts – because this band is going to be incredibly popular and incredibly short-lived. One of them is going to OD before it’s all over…”’.

Appetite producer Mike Clink (installed after aborted sessions with Paul Stanley of KISS and Sex Pistols engineer Bill Price) was nicknamed ‘That Was It!’ Clink: he preferred first takes if possible, with the band mostly playing live in the studio. He captures the ferocity of the band in full manic mode, mostly keeping to a fairly basic format: Izzy Stradlin’s guitar panned hard left, Slash panned hard right, Steven Adler’s snare drum of doom (though Geffen apparently wanted to use a session player for the album) and Duff McKagan’s bass in the middle. There’s only one synth part on the album, the weird Geddy Lee-style Moog in ‘Paradise City’. Appetite was also pretty much the last major rock album mastered for vinyl.

They had built a formidable live following on the West Coast but Guns’ London Marquee shows of the 18th, 22nd and 28th June 1987 were their European debuts. They had to work. The pressure was on. The first show mostly sucked, with plastic beer glasses and snot raining down on the band, but the second and third gigs were apparently much better.

After Appetite‘s release on 21st July, nothing much happened in the States. Radio pretty much ignored it. MTV didn’t have a video to show. The New York writers thought they were just another hair-metal band from Hollywood. There was a better reception in England. Kerrang! magazine loved it: ‘Rock is being thrust back into the hands of the real raunch rebels’. (Within a few years, Axl would be berating Kerrang! onstage…)

‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (based on Slash’s famous opening riff that was apparently just a ‘joke’ warm-up guitar pattern) pushed the album up to #64 in November 1987. Incredibly, Appetite didn’t hit the number one spot in the US album chart until 23rd July 1988 when Guns were on tour supporting Aerosmith – almost a year to the day after its release.

On 2nd August 1988, Axl played live shows in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. He was a mega-star, the album was a smash, but he had mixed emotions about returning to the belly of the beast. ‘Don’t look up to him’, one of Bill Bailey’s old Jefferson High School teachers apparently said to some kids watching ‘Sweet Child’ on MTV. ‘He didn’t do well here…’

Further reading: ‘Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns N’ Roses’ by Stephen Davis