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. 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  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 closing ‘All turned quiet, I’ve been here before…’ section (which It Bites ‘paid homage to’ on 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.

Miles Davis & Marcus Miller: 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 a bronze medal.

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 and fretless bass.

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 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 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.

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

level 42

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

I first became aware of the legendary jazz/funk/pop band Level 42 in January 1983 when I saw them on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming to their hit single ‘The Chinese Way’.

I was just another young music fan and burgeoning drummer enjoying the Second Golden Age of British Pop, but this was different: the band was tight, soulful, and yet somehow otherworldly.

And their musicianship was superior to other chart acts of the day. For a few years, they were my band.

Cut to 2000. I was embarking on a career as a session drummer. However, all the gigs I’d been offered had been with sub-Stone Roses indie bands or smooth jazz acts. Then I saw an ad in Loot magazine: ‘Drummer Wanted for Level 42 tribute band. Call Nick on…’ My mind started racing. This was the dream gig.

I rang Nick – playing the ‘role’ of famous bassist/vocalist Mark King – immediately. I managed to impress him by mentioning that it would be fun to play ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’, an obscure B-side that sounded like Jeff Beck jamming with Weather Report.

Nick had also recruited Peter, a keyboard player, and the three of us met for a drink, sharing Level 42 stories and trivia. These were the halcyon days. We were all buoyed by a shared love of the band’s music.

Nick was an amiable, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. He did have a passing resemblance to Mark King, but also had the rather distressing habit of calling all the drummers he had ever worked with ‘w*nkers’…

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 the band’s trademark keyboard sounds. I was trying to replicate Phil Gould’s drum parts to the letter and doing a reasonable job. We named ourselves Level It Up, a pun on the band’s 1983 hit ‘The Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’.

After only a few rehearsals, Peter got us a gig at a Level 42 convention in a huge hotel off the A303. We were nowhere near ready to be playing live, but felt we might recruit a much-needed guitarist and backing vocalist at the venue.

The initial omens were not good – I had contracted laryngitis the day before the gig. By the time we arrived at the hotel, I was almost incapable of speech.

I looked at the live stage and immediately noticed something: no drums. Suddenly two assistants appeared and an Ikea-like structure was erected next to the keyboard rig: the dreaded, electronic V-Drums, with all of their naff connotations to the ‘boooo!’ sounds heard on terrible disco records. I had never played them before in my life, and the chances of Phil Gould ever playing them were miniscule.

We were told we would be playing at 9pm. I peered at the clock. It was 4pm. Somehow we got through the afternoon with regular toilet breaks and watching bass players trying to play exactly like Mark King in a soundalike competition.

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?

The stage manager rushed on 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.

A dilapidated 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.

Nick’s sister sang with us for a rare gig at his local and we got someone in to play guitar – he papered over the cracks for a while, but wasn’t the main problem.

The problem was that my relationship with Nick was starting to echo the real, troubled relationship between the people we were ‘impersonating’ in the tribute band – Phil Gould and Mark King – whose falling out precipitated the breakup of the original Level 42 lineup.

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 management skills and forced intimacy that entails, do you naturally take on the roles that characterised the original band?

All I knew was that whereas I once looked forward to rehearsals, now I dreaded them. That’s when reality finally kicked in. It was time to leave the cut-throat world of the tribute band.

Sure, 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 Green Man in Guildford 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.

‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’ by Matt Phillips is out now.

Women And Rhythm Section First: An Interview With Keith Leblanc

keith leblanc

Keith Leblanc

When late, great bass hero Jaco Pastorius was asked about his philosophy of music, he had a stock response – ‘Women and rhythm section first!’

In the world of black music, whether jazz, funk, R’n’B or soul, the hookup between the drummer and bass player has always been pivotal. As the cliché goes, a band is only as good as its engine room.

In jazz, you can’t do much better than Tony Williams with Ron Carter or Philly Joe Jones with Paul Chambers. In funk, you can’t go wrong with Benny Benjamin with James Jamerson or Clyde Stubblefield with Bootsy. In fusion, you know it’s going to work if Dave Weckl/John Patitucci or Steve Jordan/Anthony Jackson are taking care of business.

But interestingly, possibly the most heralded rhythm section in recent black music hasn’t come out of jazz, funk or soul music (though these undoubtedly went into the mix), but rather hip-hop.

Drummer Keith Leblanc hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald when they were summoned to work on the label set up by industry veterans Sylvia and Mickey Robinson to showcase the new hip-hop artists emerging from the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-’70s.

Just prior to that, Keith had briefly worked with Doug and Skip in the funk band Wood, Brass and Steel but when The Sugar Hill Gang’s controversial ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a monster hit in ’79, the Robinsons were on the lookout for a house band to lay down the foundations for the follow-up.

sugar hill records

It seems the call was inevitable, according to Keith, speaking crisply and candidly down the line from his home in Connecticut:

‘Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug but they initially said no because they’d had a bad experience with her before. But I was new to the band and when I heard the words “recording studio” and “money”, I bugged them until they said yes! And the day we all went up there, we started recording. I didn’t want to know about the business, I just wanted to record.’

The slick, dynamic fusion of funk, rock and jazz laid down by Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald proved just the ticket for Sylvia and they were in. But in those very early days of hip-hop, the money was tight although luckily for Keith the musicianship was too.

‘I was brought up with James Brown, Muscle Shoals, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gap Band and Cameo, so playing the rap stuff wasn’t much of a stretch from what we were already doing. But the first Sugar Hill Gang album was recorded in the Robinsons’ studio which was falling to bits.’

They moved to the slightly more lugubrious surroundings of H&L Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (also home to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio where so many classic Blue Note albums were recorded), and so began a golden period of recording characterised by great performances captured sometimes under great duress in the studio.

Extended jams like Funky Four Plus One’s ‘That’s The Joint’, The Sequence’s ‘And You Know That’ and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘Freedom’ featured jazzy horn charts, challenging stop-and-go arrangements and extended solo sections that had more in common with Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway than Eminem and Jay-Z.

These tracks were not piecemeal studio confections; according to Keith, ‘Back then, playing live in the studio was normal. The arranger Clifton “Jiggs” Chase would get with the rappers and do an arrangement based on what they wanted to use and then make up a chart. Then we’d add things. The musical ethic was really good at that time. You had to get it right or there’d be someone else in there recording the next day.’

The work ethic was almost comparable to the famous Motown production line: ‘We’d cut a track on the Friday, drive home to Connecticut, drive back to New Jersey on the Monday and hear the track on the radio.’

In the time-honoured hip-hop tradition, sometimes sections from other records were ‘replayed’ to give tracks an air of familiarity, most notoriously on the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ which stole Chic’s ‘Good Times’ groove lock, stock and barrel. But this just provided yet another irresistible musical challenge to the young Leblanc: ‘Alot of the time, we were playing maybe a bar of someone else’s music. So we wanted to cut it better than the original!’

But then came the second seismic shift in hip-hop’s history – the release of ‘Planet Rock’, Afrika Bambaataa seminal track which was the first rap tune to properly utilise newly-affordable drum machines and sequencers.

And for Keith, it was both a blessing and curse: ‘When the drum machine first came out, I saw my job opportunities flying out of the window! Now anybody could make a rap record in their bedroom. But then it dawned on me that I could program a drum machine better than any engineer. I did “No Sell Out” just to see what I could do with the technology.’

Featuring a mash-up of Leblanc’s apocalyptic beats and segments of Malcolm X’s oration, the track led to many more intriguing fusions of man and machine in his recorded output and also prefigured the Tackhead project which teamed up Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald with London dub mixologist Adrian Sherwood to thrilling effect.

Sadly, the Sugar Hill story wouldn’t be complete without reporting its demise – in less than honourable circumstances, according to Leblanc – with lots of law suits, claims and counter claims. But much of the music stands the test of time, particularly the extended jams of the ’80/’81 period which suggested a thrilling fusion of Duke Ellington, George Clinton and Trouble Funk.

Leblanc has continued to work with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald regularly over the years in projects such as Little Axe and Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Check out what he’s been up to on his Facebook page.

Portrait Of Paddy As A Young Man: Prefab Sprout’s Swoon

prefab swoonPerhaps like a lot of Prefab fans, I came to Swoon some time after I’d bought and fallen in love with the later albums Steve McQueen, Protest Songs, From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan The Comeback.

The dry, Thomas Dolby-less production came as a bit of a shock at the time but Swoon stands up pretty well today.

Though some critics have compared the album to Steely Dan, my contemporary reference points would be Lloyd Cole, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and Songs To Remember-era Scritti, though it’s basically impossible to locate Prefab’s influences.

It’s tempting to say that Swoon sounds like the epitome of an ‘indie’ record, 1980s style, with its stripped-back production values and jagged edges. Prefab singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon recently told The Guardian that he thinks of it as more akin to Captain Beefheart, nicknaming the album ‘Sprout Mask Replica’!

Swoon definitely still sounds very much like a debut album; it’s perky, eager to please, naive, studenty, slightly pretentious. McAloon’s vocals occasionally resemble the ramblings of a slightly squiffy, randy teenager. But the album’s adolescent in a really good way with its literary flights of fancy, indulgent ruminations on romantic love and lots of audacious melodic flourishes.

paddy prefabIt sounds almost like rock, with solid 4/4 drums, always-inventive bass from Paddy’s brother Martin and ‘girlie’ backing vocals from Wendy Smith, and yet it resolutely refuses to ‘rock out’ with not a single power chord or jangly electric guitar in the mix.

Instead, the intrepid layering of synths and acoustic guitars (utilised to far greater effect on Steve McQueen and Jordan) probes the songs’ pressure points. And Smith’s pristine vocals give the music an enigmatic, otherworldly flavour.

Lyrically, Swoon reminds me of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; a survey of a young man’s hopes, dreams and romantic/professional disappointments. From a songwriting perspective, the words presumably came before the music, resembling stream-of-consciousness prose rather than traditional verse/chorus songcraft.

Novelist/essayist Dave Eggers wrote a great piece about how much he was influenced by this golden generation of literate British songwriters.

As befitting a band from the North East, work (and the lack of it) is a recurring theme, particularly on ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’ and the extraordinary ‘Technique’. ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’ is a classic Prefab ballad (though surely never the right choice for second single) and seems to offer a truly original take on the doomed love affair – the narrator simply doesn’t feel worthy to deserve the attentions of another. Very Nick Hornby-esque.

Future producer Thomas Dolby has talked about the shock of hearing ‘Don’t Sing’ when he was a guest reviewer on the Radio 1 ‘Round Table’ show.

‘Cruel’ is still a delicious piece of pop/bossa nova, more than a decade before the likes of Belle and Sebastian mined similar ground. Some of Paddy’s chords are gorgeous on this. Lyrically it’s original too, an expression of lust and affection from someone who is desperately afraid of offending his ‘enlightened’ paramour. A very modern love song. It was once covered by Elvis Costello.

Oh – and don’t forget to read the funny mock liner notes penned by McAloon in the guise of an over-exuberant music scribe.