Kelis, Al Jarreau And ‘Blurred Lines’: Does Pharrell Have Form?

KelisSo it’s official – Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke ripped off Marvellous Marvin’s ‘Got To Give It Up‘ when they wrote ‘Blurred Lines‘ in just one hour (though Thicke denies having any input into the writing of the song).

And The Guardian reports that Pharrell’s ‘Happy‘ may now be in the Gaye family’s sights too due to its alleged similarity to ‘Ain’t That Peculiar‘.

Trumpet player, composer and blogger Nicholas Payton has written eloquently and passionately about the whys and wherefores of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case here. I won’t go into whether I think that verdict is just; suffice it to say that I dig what Mr Payton says, right down the line.

But what’s interesting is that Pharrell seems to have previous. Let’s investigate the track ‘Roller Rink’ from Kelis’s great 1999 album Kaleidoscope which, according to the credits, Pharrell co-wrote with Chad Hugo and Kelis.

Now compare that with ‘No Ordinary Love’, credited to Michael Gregory Jackson, which features on Gregory Jackson’s 1983 album Situation X and also Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover from 1986, both produced by Nile Rodgers:

Weird. Kelis/Pharrell/Chad haven’t even bothered to change key. They’ve just ‘replayed’ Gregory Jackson’s original with a slightly different arrangement. Their version comes up with a better melody in the verses though the chorus melody just uses the catchy little synth motif from both Gregory Jackson and Jarreau versions.

Michael+Gregory+Jackson+michaelgregory2

Michael Gregory Jackson circa 1983

Michael Gregory Jackson started out as a first-call guitarist in the New York avant-garde jazz scene in the mid-’70s. Later in the decade, he reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter and did a pretty job of it, his 1987 solo album What To Where getting rave reviews in Q Magazine and a few other influential rags at the time. But commercial success eluded him.

Regarding ‘Roller Rink’/’No Ordinary Love’, maybe Gregory Jackson was just easy to push over. After all, he’s jazz. Maybe they did settle out of court. But you’d think at least a songwriting credit might be in order. I wonder how much income Gregory Jackson has lost out on, even though Kaleidoscope wasn’t a huge hit album and ‘Roller Rink’ wasn’t a single.

I haven’t checked to see if subsequent versions of the CD have different credits but my 1999 Kaleidoscope CD credits state that the track was ‘written by K Rogers/P Williams/C Hugo’ with no mention of sample permissions etc. The album’s Wikipedia page says the same thing.

About eight years ago, I made some routine enquiries to Virgin Publishing but didn’t get anywhere. Anyway, it’s only music, there are only 12 notes, etc etc. But who knows what other examples are out there? I’ll be listening closely in the future to Neptunes tracks and Pharrell solo tracks, co-productions and co-writes, many of which I’m unfamiliar with at this point.

The Bebop Roy Buchanan: Mike Stern’s Upside Downside

mike stern

Atlantic Records, released summer 1986

Bought: HMV Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

9/10

There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).

But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.

Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that shit wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’

Jaco and Mike, 1980

Jaco and Mike, 1980

To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.

Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a set-break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!

Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.

My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and a heckler shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.

But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’. Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.

Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.

The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.

Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.

mike sternMike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I saw him at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.

Mike’s career thrives to this day – he’s just released a duet record with Eric Johnson. Let’s be thankful he’s still with us. Many fellow travellers didn’t make it.

How To Sidestep Second-Album Syndrome: Danny Wilson’s Bebop Moptop

danny wilsonVirgin Records, released 17th July 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989

8/10

Summer 1989. Change was in the air. A new decade beckoned. De La Soul, acid house, Madchester, Kylie/Jason/Bros and New Kids On The Block were in. School was out…forever. Sixth-form college beckoned – but not yet. There was tennis to be played, Thunderbird wine to be drunk and music to be bought/played.

I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Prince’s Batman and Sly Stone’s Fresh. And Bebop Moptop, Danny’s underrated second album. Apparently they turned down a few big-name US producers to helm the album themselves, and some might say they could have done with a slightly tighter quality control check. But for my money this more than justifies the potential of the debut.

DannyWilson1

‘Imaginary Girl’, ‘Loneliness’ and ‘The Ballad of Shirley MacLaine’ are dramatic torch songs taking Sinatra as their starting point, while ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’, ‘If Everything You Said Was True’ and ‘Goodbye Shanty Town’ are superb updates of the Steely style, the latter even throwing in some great ‘New Frontier‘ sequenced synths.

‘If You Really Love Me Let Me Go’ beautifully captures the subtlety and craft in their method; check out the passing piano chords that enjoin the various sections, livening up what could easily be a humdrum progression in another band’s hands.

The heavy lead guitar and slithering synth bass of ‘Charlie Biz’ suggest the lads had been listening to Prince‘s Lovesexy.  ‘Second Summer Of Love’ is a super-catchy, throwaway folk pastiche, and the only hit from the album, reaching UK number 23. Slightly less successful are ‘I Can’t Wait’ and the shambolic ‘NYC Shanty’, but no matter; they can’t stop this from being a first-class album with songs that are built to last.

danny wilson

Although Bebop Moptop reached number 24 in the UK album charts and sold more than the debut album, the lads went their separate ways after the promotion work was done and a few live dates undertaken. I saw them at the London Town And Country Club in autumn 1989 where a lavish, no-expense-spared backing band superbly recreated almost every nuance of the two albums.

Gary Clark resurfaced four years later with a fine solo album Ten Short Songs About Love, which could almost be viewed as Danny album number three as it featured sizeable contributions from both Kit Clark and bassist Ged Grimes (currently the bassist for Simple Minds).

But Bebop Moptop rounded off my 1980s in a very classy way. Goodbye, Danny – for now…

 

Love And Money’s James Grant on classic album ‘Strange Kind Of Love’

loveandmoney

In the miasma of soap-opera tie-ins, boy-band debuts, one-hit wonders and Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions that constituted late-’80s pop, Love and Money’s second album Strange Kind Of Love was a total breath of fresh air. 

Released in December 1988 and produced in Los Angeles and New York by legendary Steely Dan helmer Gary Katz, the record was a triumph.

James Grant’s literate, dramatic songs of romantic anguish and corporate avarice were built to last. Musicians had a field day with the rock-solid grooves (courtesy of Jeff Porcaro and late great bassist Bobby Paterson) and Grant’s intricate guitar work.

Critics of the time were generally confused but I was sold from the first bar of ‘Hallejulah Man’. Funkier than the likes of Curiosity Killed The Cat or Hipsway but lyrically just as piquant as The Smiths, Love And Money joined Prefab Sprout, Prince, The Blue Nile, Danny Wilson, David Sylvian, De La Soul, Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins in my list of late-’80s pop saviours.

I caught up with singer/songwriter/guitarist James Grant as he prepared for a solo UK tour to talk Strange Kind Of Love, Jeff Porcaro, Tom Waits, touring with Tina Turner, ‘Top of the Pops’ and ’80s marketing meltdowns.

love and money

Love And Money 1988

MP: Could you just give us a quick bit of background to Strange Kind Of Love – what were the expectations for album number two and how did you come to work with Gary Katz?

JG: I always felt the first album was disparate and didn’t marry the different influences well. We sounded too desperate to impress. I was also anxious to prove that I was more than just a haircut. For Strange Kind Of Love, I had written the album and we had lived with the songs for a while. The mantra was: the song is king. Meaning that the song would dictate how it was meant to be, what was appropriate and what was not. The desire was to create something timeless and the man to facilitate that was Gary Katz. He had a track record that spoke for itself. He just seemed perfect. We set up a meeting – I flew to New York – and we just hit it off right away. There was a symbiosis, a shared desire to make great records, and we liked each other. We’re still pals to this day.

Lyrically, SKOL focuses mainly on the anguish, pain but also joy of romantic infatuation. Was there a particular relationship that precipitated this or had these songs built up over time?

Yes, there was someone in particular, but obviously there’s poetic license. Songwriters deify those we love. I just happened to think – and still do – that besides knowing you are going to die, being in love is the utmost existential experience there is. I was young, heartbroken and hungry; the right ingredients to make great music! I also had the distinct feeling that great songs contain a truth, perhaps not the literal truth but a truth. I wrote about myself; this tended to get uncomfortably forensic at times for those close to me.

Jeff Porcaro 1988

Jeff Porcaro 1988

How much of a contribution did the great Jeff Porcaro make to SKOL‘s arrangements and why is his surname misspelt in the credits? Was there enough budget to get him for rehearsals? His playing seems so integral to the material.

Jeff didn’t make any contribution to the arrangements – that was all planned months before we even met. I have no idea why his name is misspelt. We did the drums over a month in LA. Sometimes we just jammed the thing till we got the right vibe. On other tracks, I had a more concrete idea of what I wanted. For example, on ‘Razorsedge’, I wanted a go-go beat. I just went in with my guitar and told him what I was hearing. He just started playing this incredible, jaw-dropping stuff. Yes, we had the budget. Jeff was a brilliant, phenomenal musician. I felt like I had fucking boxing gloves on sometimes when we were jamming but he never ever made me feel like that. He was a beautiful guy, great fun to be with and genuinely humble about his achievements and ability.

The four sublime singles from the album just missed out on the UK Top 40 – was that a disappointment? Was there pressure from Phonogram to get that first UK or US hit?

Yes – it was always a disappointment. You try and be stoic and say,’That’s not what it was about’, but we were gutted. We so nearly made it with Strange Kind Of Love. I always wanted to do ‘Top of the Pops’. If that’s shallow, then so be it. I grew up watching Slade and Bowie and prancing around in front of my bedroom mirror imitating them – it was my dream to be part of that, just like any kid. There wasn’t pressure from Phonogram as such; they were trying their best with us. It just wasn’t to be. I do believe that if we had had the success, Dogs In the Traffic may not have happened. That’s the Love And Money record I’m most proud of and it’s most representative of who I am. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard to listen to…

Why is Tom Waits thanked in the album credits? And presumably (Steely Dan singer/co-leader) Donald Fagen is thanked because of the Katz connection?

Because I’m a fan and he was and still is a massive inspiration. It wouldn’t be easy to tell if you were judging this from the record. Donald Fagen played a little something. I’ve always kept that a secret. We didn’t want to make an issue of it or make it something marketable.

Gary Katz

Gary Katz

You play some fantastic lead guitar on the album and also some really inventive acoustic/electric textural stuff – did Gary Katz’s experience with the likes of Larry Carlton and Jeff Skunk Baxter have any bearing on your playing?

Not really – Gary would have me playing for weeks on end though. I reckon I came on a bit during my time with him. And thank you.

SKOL doesn’t really sound like anyone else from the era and stands up exceptionally well today. At the time of release, some critics rather snootily compared it to Dire Straits and Deacon Blue but were there contemporary artists the band admired or were influenced by?

No, not especially – my tastes have always been very eclectic. In terms of marketing, this always led to problems; ‘Are you guys rock, pop, funk or country?’ ‘Yes…’ I did love Bowie, Talking Heads, Chic, Led Zeppelin and Prince – I can hear certain little things from all of them here and there.

Who is Beatrice Colin? Her voice compliments yours beautifully, especially on ‘Walk The Last Mile’.

She was my girlfriend. She’s an author now.

Who came up with the album cover concept? Studying it again, it’s one of the weirder covers of the ’80s…

Someone in the marketing department at Phonogram saw a photograph like the one on the cover and we decided to recreate it. Though I’ve always believed it to be extremely important, the amount of time and money invested in things like artwork was, by today’s standards, science fiction. We would have months of meetings discussing details. People would have nervous breakdowns!

You toured with and supported various US acts such as BB King and Tina Turner in the late-’80s – any memories that stand out? I loved your playing with Tom Verlaine on The Tube.

The one anecdote that would perhaps stand out is that when we supported Tina Turner, when I introduced the band, I said, ‘Hi, we’re not Tina Turner, she’ll be on a bit later.’ I thought this was amusing. Tina’s management did not. We were kicked off the tour. You’d think we would have been disappointed by such a thing, but – and I’m really proud of this – we did not give a fuck!

Love And Money in 2011

Love And Money in 2011

I saw you revisiting SKOL on a memorable night at the Shepherds Bush Empire a few years ago – how do you feel about the album and its place in ’80s music now?

I’m really proud of it. It’s of its time, certainly, but a bit more than that. I think sonically it’s absolutely spot-on – it still sounds fantastic. I always think of the band’s place in the greater scheme of things as awkward. I think, as I said previously, we were difficult to categorise. This seemed to be a huge problem for some people. I never tried to make ‘difficult’ music. I still don’t. I think my tastes are fairly mainstream. Perhaps lyrically things are a bit more challenging at times, but even so, I don’t think they are wilfully arcane or esoteric.