English Snapshot: Peter Gabriel III

peter gabriel

Virgin Records, released 23rd May 1980

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987?

10/10

I wasn’t a Genesis fan as a teenager (I came to them later) but was definitely a Robert Fripp man. At my local Our Price, I came across a cassette of Peter Gabriel III and saw Fripp’s name on the credits, so I bought it. A few years later, I thrust it at Fripp during a signing session in the Oxford Street Virgin Megastore after a League of Crafty Guitarists gig – he signed it ‘Peter Gabriel’. What a wag…

But I loved So, as did all my musician mates at school. So I went back and checked out some other albums by this Gabriel fellow. In truth, as a 15-year-old, I really didn’t get Melt. The deceptively dry, claustrophobic mix, extensive use of processing, Gabriel’s animalistic yelps and the barmy Fairlight sound effects seemed so forbidding compared to So. It all seemed…well, pretty scary. I’d heard and laughed at Peter Hammill’s berserk singing with Fripp on the Exposure album but this was different.

The opening ‘Intruder’, with its liberal use of flatted-fifth chords and Gabriel’s schizophrenic vocal, was exceptionally unsettling to a teenage lad in leafy south-west London… Forget Black Sabbath, this sounded genuinely dangerous, in a particularly English way. And we haven’t even mentioned the cover yet.

The question is, of course, what an ostensibly happy, settled, middle-class young man such as Gabriel was doing digging around in the dirt in such spectacular fashion. But thank goodness he did. He extended ‘character’ songwriting – also used to memorable effect by the likes of Randy Newman, Sting, Steely Dan and The Beatles – far beyond the range of the characters he utilised with Genesis, conjuring up a memorable parade of the bungled and botched operating on the edges of society.

Musically, Gabriel apparently instructed producer Steve Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham that nothing ‘normal’ was acceptable. Hence the famous banning of drummers Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta’s cymbals, the layering of Kate Bush’s ethereal backing vocals and seemingly out-of-control processing and phasing.

kate bush peter gabriel

Kate Bush and PG recording at The Townhouse, London

The album’s themes seem to be the moral trapdoors of late-20th century urban life (mental illness, sexual violence, political assassinations, terrorism, the dehumanisation of war, social isolation). You could argue that at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, Bristol riots and IRA bombings, this was the perfect soundtrack.

‘Intruder’ subtly probes the sexual connotations of ‘breaking and entering’, equating a petty criminal’s intrusion with other kinds of violation, suggesting – controversially – some kind of tacit consent or ‘understanding’ by the victim.

On the epic, affecting ‘Family Snapshot’, Gabriel somehow manages to make us feel empathy for a fame-obsessed political assassin, especially in the beautiful, closing ‘All turned quiet, I’ve been here before…’ section (which It Bites ‘paid homage to’ on their fine 1988 B-side ‘Staring At The Whitewash’).

I used to think the protagonist of ‘Lead a Normal Life’ (‘eating with a spoon, they don’t give you knives’) was stuck in a borstal, but now I’m sure it’s far worse than that. And is the narrator of ‘I Don’t Remember’ an imprisoned political dissident or someone in an abusive relationship? It’s certainly not going to end well judging from Gabriel’s indecipherable whispers over the mechanized hum of the Fairlight in the outro, suggesting meek (drugged?) capitulation or even death.

It took me ten years or so to fully appreciate the album. But now it’s by far my favourite work by PG. Some fantastic UK session players play as if their lives depended on it, especially Dick Morrissey on sax and bassist John Giblin. Tony Levin delivers one of the greatest and most influential basslines in rock on ‘I Don’t Remember’ and single-handedly invigorates interest in the Chapman stick.

And Padgham and Lillywhite have never done better work. Check out their stunning sound design on ‘And Through The Wire’; the mix subtly develops the drums with a little more room reverb in each successive chorus until the explosive last one when Marotta’s snare and Paul Weller’s brutal guitar threaten to destroy your speakers.

And the gradual building of ‘Biko’ and ‘No Self Control’, the latter with some distinctly Steve Reich-inspired marimbas played by Morris Pert, remains an aural treat. This fantastic album still challenges and surprises after all these years.

Spanish Keys: Miles Davis & Marcus Miller’s Siesta

miles_davis__marcus_miller-music_from_siesta_aWarner Bros, released November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988?

9/10

I came across this gem in a big crate of reduced cassettes in the old Our Price shop in Richmond town centre. I was a huge fan of Miles and Marcus’s ’80s work but Siesta had somehow passed me by. It was hardly reviewed anywhere and didn’t get any kind of promotion from Warner Bros despite the fact that it was the official follow-up to Tutu, possibly because it was ‘just’ a movie soundtrack and – even worse – the soundtrack to a really terrible movie.

But it quickly became the soundtrack to my summer of 1988 along with Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy, Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick and Scritti Politti’s Provision. Its Spanish-tinged melancholia, beautiful playing by Miles and stunning bass/keyboard work and production by Miller drew me in immediately.

Miles’s stock was rising high at the beginning of 1987. He was healthy, enjoying critical and commercial success with Tutu and playing to packed concert halls. The question was, how would he follow Tutu? A film soundtrack was definitely not the predictable option. Of course, Davis was no stranger to the world of movie scoring, even though his famous Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) soundtrack was mostly improvised in just two days, and his music for Jack Johnson was similarly spontaneous though subject to detailed post-production work by Teo Macero.

miles-kix-500

But when Davis got a call from the producers of Siesta after their request to use Sketches Of Spain on the film’s soundtrack was turned down, he turned to the trusted Miller for help. Miller was also on a roll at the beginning of ’87. Fresh from co-producing and co-composing Tutu, his career was branching out in all directions. He hadn’t done any soundtrack work before and embraced the project, thrilled to work with Miles again and rightly sensing that the movie’s Spanish elements might open up some dramatic musical possibilities. But the clock was ticking, the budget was tight and time was of the essence.

Siesta is a fascinating companion piece to Tutu and it features some of the most arresting and spontaneous Miles trumpet playing from the last decade of his life. Indeed, some Davis-watchers such as critic Paul Tingen reckon it’s the pinnacle of Miller and Miles’s ’80s collaborations. Miles sounds fit and strong, investing the material with both power and pathos, consistently providing a sound that someone once described as ‘a little boy looking for his mummy’.

Apparently when Miller played the elegiac ‘Los Feliz‘ to an assembled cast and crew, several people broke down in tears. Miles solos at length with glorious open horn on several tracks. The dramatic, flamenco-tinged ‘Conchita‘ was used by American ice skater Nancy Kerrigan for her 1992 Olympic routine – she got bronze.

The ghost of Sketches of Spain/Miles Ahead arranger Gil Evans looms large and the album is dedicated to him, ‘The Master’. One can only imagine how ‘Los Feliz’, ‘Siesta’ or ‘Lost In Madrid‘ might have sounded with Evans’ full orchestral backing and arranging, but Miller and main collaborator Jason Miles consistently find just the right musical ingredients with gorgeous piano voicings, subtle synths, fretless bass and occasional guest appearances from the likes of guitarists Earl Klugh and John Scofield, drummer Omar Hakim and flautist James Walker.

As George Cole pointed out in his great book ‘The Last Miles‘, only Michel Legrand, Gil Evans and Miller’s names have shared a Miles Davis album cover, and that really proves how highly Miles rated Miller’s efforts. According to Miller, there is much more Siesta music residing in the Warner Bros vaults – here’s hoping the album gets the ‘Special Edition’ treatment soon.

Goin’ For The Duran Duran Money: Prince and The Family

the family

Paisley Park Records, released 19th August 1985

Bought: Sister Ray’s, Soho, 1991?

8/10

I’ve bought this album on almost every format since I first found a cassette copy in the early ’90s, back when it was a pretty rare groove. It came out during my favourite Prince period, 1985 to 1989. He was embracing jazz, fusion, psychedelia, classic rock and even modern classical, mainly prompted by his collaboration with the very excellent (and possibly under-appreciated by Prince) Wendy and Lisa but also other associates Sheila E, saxists Eric Leeds and Eddie M and string arranger Clare Fischer.

The author with The Family in background, summer 1991

This was my soundtrack to teenage unrequited love in the summer of ’91. I instantly loved the retro Hollywood glamour of the cover artwork and the way it chimed with the whole Parade/Under The Cherry Moon concept.

The Family slipped out on Paisley Park Records in summer ’85 (just three months after Prince’s Around The World In A Day) to a very low-key critical and commercial reception. These days, the album is known mainly for including an early version of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. But it’s full of far superior fare to that such as the killer opening funk medley, classic near-hit ‘The Screams of Passion’, charming pop of ‘Desire’ and especially instrumentals ‘Yes’ and ‘Susannah’s Pyjamas’ where Prince indulges in some fantastic Sly Stone-meets-Miles bass, guitar and drum grooves. This is the album that led Tutu producer Tommy LiPuma to recommend Prince to Miles as a possible collaborator and it’s easy to hear why.

The Family was put together by Prince when the first incarnation of his massively successful offshoot project The Time split up in the summer of 1984. The band’s keyboardist/vocalist Paul Peterson (renamed St Paul by Prince), drummer Jellybean Johnson and vocalist/dancer Jerome Benton were summoned to Prince’s house along with his then-fiancee (and sister of Wendy) Susannah Melvoin and Leeds. A band concept was quickly ad-libbed by Prince, who, according to engineer David Rivkin (reported by Per Nilsen in his superb Prince: The First Decade book), issued them with the directive: ‘We gotta go after some of that Duran Duran money!’

the family

But what they ended up with was far from Duran Duran music. Prince wrote all the songs (except ‘River Run Dry’), played all instruments on the basic tracks and sang all the guide vocals. Peterson and Melvoin painstakingly replaced Prince’s scratch vocals (and apparently took dance and acting lessons!), Leeds added his trademark baritone, tenor and flute and Fischer provided deliciously non-linear string arrangements.

Prince’s ‘no bass’ philosophy (as famously heard on ‘When Doves Cry’ and ‘Kiss’) seems well to the fore on The Family. I still have in my possession a cassette of demos from the album, given to me by my old friend Marlon Celestine, featuring Prince’s phenomenal bass playing on ‘High Fashion’ and ‘Mutiny’, presumably deleted at the last minute.

The Family was released without much fanfare or marketing. After just one gig at First Avenue in Minneapolis (rare footage of which was recently removed from Youtube), the project was put on hold when Prince recruited Melvoin, Benton and Leeds for his Under The Cherry Moon movie. Peterson was put on a retainer, but, tired of waiting around for Prince to get back from filming in the south of France, served his notice by phone call. According to Per Nilsen, Prince was flabbergasted, believing that The Family’s time wasn’t far away and that St Paul was jumping ship too soon.

And, in a way, he was right – The Family album just won’t go away. At the request of Roots/D’Angelo/Erykah Badu drummer Amir ?uestlove Thomson, a long-time fan, the four-piece minus Prince delivered a mesmerising comeback performance at a pre-Grammys bash in 2007. And then in 2012 a full-length album Gaslight was released under the new name fDeluxe (with considerable contributions from Wendy and Lisa) and a successful world tour followed (including a great Jazz Cafe gig in London). It proves that this band was much more than a Prince side project and are a pretty formidable funk/soul act in their own right – and they’ve just released a great new album of covers.

Level 40-Who: True Confessions Of A Tribute Band Drummer

level 42

Boon Gould, Phil Gould, Mark King, Mike Lindup, London 1982

I remember seeing Level 42 on Top Of The Pops in 1983 doing ‘The Chinese Way’. I was 11 years old and fascinated.

The noise they were making was tight, soulful and yet somehow otherworldly, kind of like Japan mixed with Earth Wind & Fire. They had a completely different sensibility to other British funk bands of the time such as Shakatak, Lynx and Light Of The World.

There was a strange ‘rock’ weirdness going in plus some fairly futuristic synth sounds courtesy of Mike Lindup and Wally Badarou, all powered by the phenomenal rhythm section of Mark King and Philip Gould. Basically, they sounded as fresh as a daisy.

A few years after that (on the morning of Live Aid, actually), I bought my first Level album, the fantastic live set A Physical Presence. Something clicked and I knew they were going to be my favourite band for some time. I went back and excitedly bought all their other albums. I was already a big fan of Weather Report, Jeff Beck, Herbie Hancock and Stanley Clarke and could hear echoes of their work in Level 42’s music.

Level_42_Physical_Presence

Cut to 2001. I was seriously thinking about a career as a session drummer. However, all the gigs I’d been offered had been with horrible sub-Stone Roses indie bands or smooth jazz acts. Then I saw an ad in Loot – ‘Drummer Wanted For Level 42 Tribute Band. Call Nick On…’ My mind started racing.

I called Nick, who would be playing the part of Mark King, immediately. He seemed to be talking from some kind of warehouse. I managed to impress him by mentioning that it would be fun to try and play the phenomenal ‘Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’, an obscure B-side that sounded like Jeff Beck jamming with Weather Report. ‘You sound like you know what you’re doing, mate,’ Nick sniffed. ‘I think I’m gonna go with you. The other bloke sounds like a muppet.’

Even in that first conversation, I had the distinct impression Nick didn’t understand what the hell I was on about. He wasn’t really listening to what I was saying. This became more of a problem later on. But for now, I thought, ‘Keep going, this is going to be good.’

Nick had also got a call from Peter, a keyboard player who lived down the road from me in Chiswick. The three of us arranged to meet in a pub in Hammersmith to talk about what we should play, each making a list of five songs that we felt embodied the spirit of the band. My five were ‘Why Are You Leaving‘, ‘I
Sleep On My Heart‘, ‘Kansas City Milkman‘, ‘Eyes Waterfalling‘ and ‘Woman’.

Our initial meeting was a good laugh. We were all buoyed by a shared love of Level 42’s music. These were the halcyon days. Nick was an amiable, chubby, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a scruffy polo shirt. He did have a passing resemblance to Mark King, but he had the rather distressing habit of calling all the drummers he had ever worked with ‘f***ing wankers’. He was a builder by trade and his family was from South-West London (big Chelsea fans – another future source of conflict, me being Fulham…). He told us he had attempted to set up various tribute bands before, including a Madness, a Specials and a Police.

I know… Warning bells should probably have been ringing by now, but I was blinded by musical excitement.

The first few rehearsals went well. Nick was a capable bass player and, vocally, a passable Mark King impersonator. Peter did a good job of aping Level’s trademark keyboard sounds. I was initially trying to replicate Phil Gould’s drum parts to the letter and doing a reasonable job. We were going to be called Level It Up, a pun on the song ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’. We realised that we were lacking a guitarist and backing vocalist and hoped we would find a singer/guitarist to kill two birds with one stone.

In the meantime, Peter had got us a gig at something called the Britfest, a bizarre Level 42 convention mixed with some sort of Ukip meeting held in a huge hotel near Bedford. We had only done about five rehearsals at this stage and were nowhere near ready to be doing gigs, but felt we might recruit a guitarist/singer at the gig.

But the omens were again bad – I had contracted laryngitis the day before the gig, and on the way down in Peter’s battered Vauxhall Astra, I realised my throat was tightening up by the second. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was completely incapable of speech. So much for schmoozing.

Roland_V-Drum_TD-12S_V-Stage_set_+_expansion

I sidled over to Pete, the humourless Britfest manager who was in charge of the live stage, and managed to croak, ‘Where are the drums?’ He gestured towards the stage. ‘There. Being set up.’ Oh shit. An Ikea-like structure was being erected next to the keyboard rig. The dreaded Roland V-Drums. I had never played them before in my life, and the chances of Phil Gould having ever having played them or wanting to play them were miniscule.

We were told we would be playing at 9pm. I peered at the clock. It was 4pm.

Somehow I got through the afternoon with a mixture of regular toilet breaks out by the motorway and watching bass players trying to play like Mark King in a soundalike competition. Yes, this was a kind of hell, and, as David Bowie once sang, there’s no hell like an old hell.

Suddenly the raffle was over and we were on. I sat behind the V-drums tentatively and peered out into the crowd. There was silent expectation. Opening number ‘Almost There’ went by without any big hitches. There was even an enthusiastic reception at the end. They knew we were trying our best. ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’, conversely, was an unmitigated disaster. My V-drums started faltering halfway through the track and suddenly cut out completely. Had someone pulled the plug? Pete rushed onstage to fiddle with the wiring while I tried to hide behind the keyboards. ‘It’s never happened before,’ he growled, throwing me an angry glance as the small crowd chatted amongst themselves. My throat tightened painfully as I tried to respond. 

An acoustic kit was summoned from an anteroom and hastily set up. We resumed playing but the thrill had gone and we couldn’t recover. This was the first real omen that our little tribute band was heading for the skids but I still didn’t heed the warnings.

level it up

The author, second from right, with Level It Up, Andover 2002

We subsequently limped along for another four or five months searching for a vocalist. Any vocalist. Someone who’d heard a few Level 42 songs. Anyone who’d heard of Level 42. Nick’s sister Jane sang with us for a rare gig at his Andover local, The Railway Tavern, which went fairly well. Occasional DJ and full-time Reading bachelor Wayne, 41, was hired to play guitar, and he papered over the cracks for a while, but he wasn’t the main problem.

My relationship with Nick was starting to echo the real relationship between the people we were ‘impersonating’ in the tribute band. Phil Gould, the original drummer, chief lyricist and ‘conscience’ of Level 42, left the band when he found he couldn’t communicate with Mark King. Mark looked upon Phil as a dreamer, a romantic, someone who couldn’t be relied on when the going got tough in the music business. Phil started to see Mark as ruthless, someone who had turned his back on the passion for music that once made their band great. The fire had gone, thought Phil; the music had become secondary to the ‘business’.

Ditto our band. Was life imitating art?

Maybe all tribute bands eventually start to ape their heroes in ways other than musical. Maybe it’s a kind of
self-fulfilling prophecy. If you spend many hours in a rehearsal room trying to copy another band’s music with all the man management skills and intimacy that entails, do you naturally take on the roles that characterised the original band?

Perhaps you live out a band’s career in microcosm and somehow the unpleasant side effects unavoidably creep
up on you. Perhaps I subconsciously wanted to be in the band just in case Mark King was in need of a drummer and thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll employ someone who knows all the material.’ It’s happened before – Ian Brown recruited a Stone Roses tribute band to back him on a British tour. Judas Priest saved themselves hours of auditions by finding their new singer in a similar fashion.

All I knew was whereas I once excitedly sped along Askew Road in my knackered Golf to play the music I loved, I had started to dread rehearsals. My attempts at suggesting a passing chord or arrangement were met with increasingly bizarre efforts by Nick to change the subject. He was hell-bent on recording a demo CD. I was mystified. ‘Nick, we’re
a Level 42 tribute band. Our demo CD is The Best Of Level 42. Why spend £300 on a CD that sounds like a crap version of Level 42?’ He wouldn’t budge.

I think that’s when reality kicked in. There was only one Level 42 and that was how it was meant to be. It was time to cut my losses. I was getting out of the cut-throat world of the tribute band. We’d ridden on the crest of a wave for a while, but let’s face it, the odds were stacked against us.

Yes, we might have played the Railway Tavern in Andover once a month, the King’s Head in Bishop’s Waltham now and again, the Old Red Lion in Carshalton if there was a last-minute opening.

But the phone wasn’t ringing, and, anyway, as I found out later, there was already a Level 40-Who doing that circuit.