Andy Summers & Robert Fripp: Two-Guitar Telepathy Take 2

Andy-Summers-I-Advance-Masked-77760Regular readers will know that I’m a big guitar connoisseur, and the ’80s offered up a smorgasbord of great players. My brother is three years older than me and he was into ’80s King Crimson and Fripp’s fantastic solo album Exposure long before me. We listened constantly to an old cassette of Discipline which abruptly cut out in the middle of ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and didn’t have any labelling on it, but after some detective work we found out that this incredible music was a band called King Crimson featuring a rather odd but fascinating character from Wimborne named Fripp. And we were both huge Police fans so were well acquainted with Summers.

With hindsight, it seems completely logical for the two to record together, and their two collaborations are engaging if annoyingly inconsistent.

i-advance-masked-robert-fripp-andy-summers1982’s I Advance Masked (great title, surely Fripp’s) is under-produced, tentative and unfinished-sounding, and this approach works fine on the beguiling title track and evocative ‘Hardy Country’ where strong themes carry the day.

But the duo’s limitations as multi-instrumentalists hamper the rest of the album – the drum programming is limp, bass playing sometimes amateurish and the synth playing simplistic (though sometimes perversely enjoyable in a kind of sub-John Carpenter way).

The shorter tracks seem to be searching in vain for some status as ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ music but are just too quirky for that purpose. To coin a phrase, it’s all a bit ‘two men and a drum machine’.

What the album does offer are fascinating examples of the kinds of guitar woodshedding the players were doing in the early ‘80s. Summers is in full-on Ghost In The Machine mode with meshes of swelling guitar synth and simple, incongruously bluesy solos, while Fripp explores the arpeggiated, polyrhythmic ideas which would find fruit on Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair a few years later.

But, for me, some of the album, especially ‘Hardy Country’, will forever be associated with Fripp’s corner of Dorset, mainly due to its use in a brilliant Fripp BBC2 documentary from the mid-‘80s. Take a walk around Badbury Rings with ‘Hardy Country’ playing in your lugholes and you’ll see what I mean.

summers and fripp1985’s Bewitched is a dramatic improvement on the first album. In the main, it features attractive melodies, well-thought-out song structures, (mostly) real drums, some incredible playing from ex-League of Gentleman/Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee, pristine mastering and much more of a ‘band’ sound.

The opener ‘Parade’ flies out of the traps with New Wave drums and an engaging little synth guitar melody. With its major-chord exuberance and very short duration, it could easily have come from side one of Bowie’s Low.

‘What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy’ is pretty much a perfect distillation of the state of the electric guitar in the mid-‘80s, if you can take the incessant boom-bap of the drum machine. Fripp must have grinned at the simplicity of the blues chord changes and catchy melody. Summers’ ingenious layering takes in wah-wah funk, harmonic washes, Charlie Christian-style bebop, bluesy leads and tasteful guitar-synth textures. Fripp also plays one of the most extreme solos of his career and Sara Lee impresses with her high-speed soloing and tasty grooving.

Unfortunately, side two is more in line with the debut album, a series of rather uninteresting, short and surprisingly-badly recorded tracks. Think ‘Behind My Camel‘ in demo form but without Stewart Copeland. But the best is saved until last, the stunning closer ‘Image And Likeness’ featuring Summers’ gorgeous cascading harmonics.

On these two albums, Fripp generally takes a back seat and basically provides a framework for Summers’ talents to shine through. An admirable, modest position for sure, but he was becoming a bit like the Wayne Shorter of guitar at this point, happy to be in the shadows despite legions of fans wanting bolder musical statements. But this is in general a really intriguing and somewhat overlooked two-guitar collaboration calling to mind a brilliant era when big labels were putting some serious money behind instrumental music and rock was allowed to be intelligent.

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No More Protest Songs? Red Wedge 30 Years On

red wedge

The Red Wedge gang including Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville and Glenn Gregory meet Ken Livingstone and Labour leader Neil Kinnock, 1987

Some might say that music and politics should never mix. But it’s less than two weeks to the General Election here in England. Looking at the music press or listening to music radio, you’d never know it.

Is politics just terminally uncool? Do today’s musicians not give a damn about who gets into power? It seems to be a mixture of both, though I was intrigued to see Paloma Faith hand-picking the writer Owen Jones to open some of her recent gigs.

The deafening silence (apart from a recent Jazz For Labour event at the Barbican) can’t help but beg comparison to the state of play 30 years ago when the movement known as Red Wedge got underway. Formed in 1985 initially as a Labour-supporting group to encourage young people to vote and get Margaret Thatcher out of office, it arguably politicised a second generation of music fans a decade after Rock Against Racism and punk. Though I was too young to fully understand Red Wedge’s aims (and too young to vote), I certainly took notice.

Red Wedge officially started on 21st November 1985 when Kirsty MacColl, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Strawberry Switchblade were invited to a reception at the Palace of Westminster by Labour MP Robin Cook. Major tours followed in the next few years leading up to the 1987 General Election featuring additional artists such as The Communards, The Style Council, Junior, Jerry Dammers, Madness, The The, Bananarama, Prefab Sprout, Elvis Costello, Sade, The Beat, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions and The Smiths. In short, this was no Mickey Mouse setup.

Unfortunately, their efforts amounted to diddly squat; the 1987 election resulted in a third consecutive Conservative victory. But at least they tried and their message didn’t fall on deaf ears. And where is the new batch of protest songs and protest singers? Unfortunately the current crop of musicians are just like most of the politicians: bland, middle-of-the-road, lacking in ideas and desperate not to offend.

Seven More Great ’80s Album Openers

7. David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ from Scary Monsters (1980)

Weird doesn’t cover it. We hear tape spooling around the reels and the machine being turned on, followed by drummer Dennis Davis whirling around a football rattle and counting us in in his best Cyborg voice. After this, Robert Fripp’s deranged solo and Michi Hirota’s strident Japanese outbursts sound almost normal.

6. De La Soul: ‘Intro’ from 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)

A whole generation of pop kids hadn’t heard anything like this before, and yet somehow it bears repeated listening. It’s just as fresh and original as anything The Small Faces or The Beatles tried 20 years before and arguably started off the whole ‘intro’ concept on hip-hop albums.

5. Genesis: ‘Behind The Lines’ from Duke (1980)

In musical theatre, I believe it’s called an overture. This bombastic piece previews many of the themes that will reverberate through the album. Tony Banks’ keys and Phil’s drums have seldom sounded brighter or tighter.

4. Lil Louis: ‘I Called U’ from From The Mind Of Lil Louis (1989)

This classic piece of bunny-boiler house is funny, weird and arresting (sorry about the sound quality).

3. It Bites: ‘Positively Animal’ from Eat Me In St Louis (1989)

Watch that volume dial. The talented, underrated four-piece jolt you out of complacency with a flashy, these-go-to-11 opener. Audacious and very un-English.

2. The Police: ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ from Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

Another moody classic. A brooding Oberheim bass-throb, a fudged Andy Summers chord, a hint of click track and then that brilliant, patented half-time groove. This full-length version hints at the darker themes of the lyric.

1. Talking Heads: ‘And She Was’ from Little Creatures (1985)

Hope you enjoy our new direction (though Little Creatures is probably my least favourite Heads album). Leaving behind the art-funk of Speaking In Tongues, this sprightly opener introduces a new stripped-down pop sound in no uncertain terms.

Prince’s Around The World In A Day: 30 Years Old Today

Prince-Around-the-World-in-a-DayPaisley Park Records, released 22nd April 1985

9/10

I was a late starter when it comes to Prince, too young to get the sexual/spiritual absolutism of Purple Rain. The first album that really hooked me was 1986’s Parade, but Around The World In A Day really stands out as my favourite.

Prince and Wendy, Nice, South of France, 1985

Prince and Wendy, Nice, South of France, 1985

It was released just ten months after Purple Rain, a serious statement of intent and a good indication of how prolific he was at the time (though of course there was record company pressure to move quickly).

Prince unveiled Around The World In A Day, the first release on his new Paisley Park label, at an uncomfortable listening party on 21st February 1985 in the LA offices of Warner Bros attended by 15 to 20 Warners executives, plus Joni Mitchell and Prince’s father, all of whom had to sit on the floor. Apparently the general reaction from the suits was: how the hell are we gonna sell this?

For me, ATWIAD is prime Prince, when he was tapping into jazz, psychedelia and even modern classical. But, perhaps surprisingly, the main musical influence is gospel. There’s no other way to describe ‘The Ladder’ and ‘Temptation’, though obviously both have elements of rock too and are very much in style of ‘Purple Rain’. Prince screams his way through these morality tales with just as much intensity as Al Green, Bob Dylan or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.

princeI also hear a lot of late-’70s Joni in the more experimental tracks such as the intense ‘Temptation’ and sublime ballad ‘Condition Of The Heart’ – he’s not scared to leave a lot of space for lengthy piano and guitar improvisations. This is the first Prince album where you can add ‘arranger’ to his list of musical gifts.

Much of Around The World In A Day actually predates Purple Rain. The title track, ‘Pop Life’, ‘Temptation’ and ‘Paisley Park’ were all recorded in early ’84, while the other songs were put together during the Purple Rain tour. While the album is credited to ‘Prince And The Revolution’, only ‘America’ and ‘The Ladder’ feature the full band. The rest is a one-man-band operation with guests here and there.

Any album which contains the classic singles ‘Paisley Park’, ‘Raspberry Beret’, ‘Pop Life’, the title track and ‘America’ definitely works. It’s well worth seeking out the 12” version of ‘America’ which runs to 21 minutes with no edits and no ‘remix’ element – just endless grooving. Only ‘Tambourine’ now sounds suspiciously like filler, despite Prince’s spirited impersonation of Sheila E’s drum style.

And we’ve got to mention Doug Henders’ sumptuous cover art. He explained the cover concept to writer Per Nilsen: ‘Most of the figures are characters in the songs, but some of the people are parts of Prince so they’re all somewhat autobiographical.’ Prince insisted on zero promotion for the album – no singles, no press or TV ads. This was totally unheard of in the mid-1980s. Even so, Around The World In A Day went to number one in the US album chart on 1st June 1985, just 20 weeks after Purple Rain had completed its 24-week run at the top. It eventually sold over three million copies in the US.

prince

With Purple Rain, Prince had shown Warner Bros that he could mix it with the biggies – Springsteen, Hall and Oates, Madonna and Michael Jackson. But now he was battling to do things his way, beginning with Around The World In A Day. While this stance produced his best music, it also drove a wedge between him and Warners leading up to the ‘SLAVE’ debacle of 1994/1995. But it was also, thankfully, a battle he won, producing an astonishing output of work between Purple Rain in ’84 and Batman in ’89 which rivals any five-year run in pop history.

Six Great ’80s Album Openers

vinyl-goldSequencing an album can be a real headache but it’s surely one of the dark arts of the music business. One thing’s for sure: the lead-off track is key. You know the old A&R cliché – ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar!’ But sometimes quiet and enigmatic can be just as effective as loud and arresting.

Repeated listening and nostalgic reverie possibly cloud the issue but it’s almost impossible to imagine some albums with different opening tracks. Revolver kicking off without ‘Taxman’? Rubber Soul without ‘Drive My Car’? Pretzel Logic without ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’? Unthinkable.

So here are six of my favourite album-openers from the ’80s:

6. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ from Face Value (1981)

Love or hate Phil, no one can deny this is one of the killer intros. He programmes his own ‘Intruder‘ beat on a Roland CR-78 drum machine, adds some slabs of heavy guitar, some moody chords (in D minor, the saddest of all keys…) and chills all and sundry.

5. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ from 90125 (1983)

A blast of sampled Alan White drums (later co-opted for Art Of Noise’s ‘Close To The Edit‘) and we’re away! Trevor Rabin’s gargantuan power-chord intro became an MTV mainstay and gave the prog-rock survivors their only US number one single. But, arguably, they shot their load too early – the rest of the album never comes close to this lavish opener.

4. Simple Minds: ‘Up On The Catwalk’ from Sparkle In The Rain (1984)

I’m a sucker for drummer count-ins and this is one of the best. There’s a lovely contrast between the unproduced timbre of Mel Gaynor’s yelp and stick-clicks and the subsequent blizzard of gated drums and Yamaha CP-70 piano in the classic Gabriel/Lillywhite/Padgham style.

3. Tears For Fears: ‘Woman In Chains’ from The Seeds Of Love (1989)

A less-than-great song from a less-than-great album, but messrs Olazabal and Smith weave a rather delicious, Blue Nile-influenced intro that promises great things, before Phil Collins’s stodgy drums and some chronic over-production buries it in bombast.

2. PiL: ‘FFF’ from Album (1986)

‘Farewell my fairweather friend!’ bawls Johnny over a cacophony of gated drums (played by jazz legend Tony Williams, fact fans) and angry guitars. Well, hello!

1. The Blue Nile: ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

Another one that asks, ‘Hang on, is there something wrong with this CD?’ Subtle synths ruminate in near-silence before some found sounds (coins being inserted into a slot machine?) and a lonesome trumpet gently prod a classic album into life.

Two-Guitar Telepathy: Marc Johnson’s Second Sight

marc johnson

Released October 1987

Bought: Virgin Records Oxford Street, November 1987?

8/10

John Scofield, Bill Frisell

John Scofield, Bill Frisell

The two-guitar, bass and drums setup is of course one of the mainstays of rock’n’roll. The Stones, Neil Young/Crazy Horse and Velvet Underground typify the form. Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd meshed perfectly in Television and Lou Reed never sounded better than when he had Robert Quine cajoling him from stage-left during the ‘Blue Mask‘ era.

But in jazz and fusion, the two-guitar setup is not as common. Since 1987, there have been a number of two-guitar celebrity summits (such as Scofield/Metheny, Scofield/Frisell, Stern/Eric Johnson, Carlton/Ritenour etc) but ex-Bill Evans bassist Marc Johnson’s superb ECM solo albums, ’85’s Bass Desires and Second Sight, both featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell, quite possibly started it all off.

Marc Johnson

Marc Johnson

1987’s Second Sight was considered somewhat of a disappointment on its original release, but for me this is the superior album of the two. I was a major Scofield fan when I bought it in ’87 but didn’t know Frisell’s name at all. I’m really glad I discovered his incredible playing here though.

Some of the interplay between Frisell and Scofield is nothing less than miraculous, although one could hardly think of two more different guitarists in approach. There’s an almost telepathic empathy between them, leaving each other space to play and at times even inadvertently doubling parts. And, to me, this doesn’t sound like typical ‘ECM jazz’ at all – it’s tough music, not for the faint-hearted.

The ever-reliable Peter Erskine slightly overplayed on the Bass Desires album but here expertly marshals the material without ever being overbearing, and the compositions are so fresh, memorable and catchy.

Only the opening ‘Crossing The Corpus Callosum’ sounds like a studio jam session, but this is no ordinary jam; Scofield’s emotive bluesy cries dissolve into a fantastically-eerie Frisell ambient soundscape, leading the track inexplicably into David Lynch territory.

‘Small Hands’ and ‘Hymn For Her’ are shimmering, moving ballads, with the guitarists’ approaches meshing beautifully. ‘Sweet Soul’ is a soulful slow swinger full of fantastic Scofield soloing.

‘1951’ is a superb Frisell composition evoking Thelonious Monk’s best work. ‘Thrill Seekers’ simply swings like hell and features a classic Frisell fuzzbox solo. ‘Twister’ is great fun, Scofield’s affectionate ode to surf rock with some very funky bass and guitar interplay and a short drum solo almost as memorable as Ringo’s on Abbey Road.

As far as I know, the band toured Europe but never the UK. Would love to have seen them. This performance is really special. No wonder Frisell is grinning like a Cheshire cat throughout.