RIP Chris Squire

chris squireEven solely based on the evidence of his rather unappreciated ’80s playing, Chris Squire would surely still get into the pantheon of bass greats.

I first heard him on Yes’s 1987 album Big Generator and worked backwards from there. I was won over by Trevor Horn’s pristine production, the band’s outrageous musicianship and the sheer originality of the songwriting, but recently Chris’s bass playing from the era is kind of obsessing me.

To my ears, he detuned his low E string on a standard four-string bass to a low A, one octave lower than the second string, presumably to best accompany the new songs which generally tended towards A major. You can hear it most clearly on the powerful title track and ‘Love Will Find A Way’.

Anyone who’s ever picked up a bass will know how potentially treacherous that tuning could be, but he just sails through. It also gives him a massive melodic range, from the funky twang of the ‘I’m Running’ riff, to the brutal low-end grooves of the title track and ‘Almost Like Love’.

The 1983 Yes album 90125 is also full of great Squire moments (with mostly regular tuning this time), from the catchy riff underpinning ‘It Could Happen To You’ to the flanger freakout ‘Cinema’ and rifftastic ‘City Of Love’. He really extended the Paul McCartney melodic bass concept into exciting new territories.

Sadly, sometimes it takes a great player’s passing to spur you on to check out music that has thus far escaped you, so the 1980 album Drama is my latest discovery. The lead-off track ‘Machine Messiah’ and ‘Does It Really Happen’ are chock-full of classic Squire moments and I’m sure loads more will reveal themselves. I must also investigate his short-lived project XYZ alongside Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

By all accounts, Chris was a great and totally unique character too. RIP to a definite lord of the low end.

Christopher Russell Edward Squire (4 March 1948 – 27 June 2015)

Prefab Sprout: Steve McQueen 30 Years Old Today

prefabCBS/Kitchenware Records, released 25th June 1985

9/10

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby had taken part in a ‘Round Table’ singles review programme on Radio One in early 1984, waxing lyrical about Prefab’s ‘Don’t Sing’.

The Sprouts happened to be listening in and asked their manager Keith Armstrong to ring Dolby the next day. Dolby takes up the story:

thomas dolby

Thomas Dolby in 1985

‘Keith said, “It so happens we’re actually looking for a producer right now. Are you interested?” I said, “Absolutely.” So they said, “Well, we don’t have many songs on tape to play you, but we’d like to invite you up to Paddy’s (McAloon, Prefab singer/songwriter) house.” I took the train up, spent the day there. He lived on the top of a hill in an old Catholic rectory where his mum had looked after the church. There were crucifixes on the walls. His dad, who’d had a stroke, was ill in bed upstairs. Paddy took me to his room and pulled out this stack of songs. He’d squint at them and strum his way through them. He would write notes for chords and melodies over the top of the lyrics but primarily it was about the poems.’

The songs for Steve McQueen were worked up in rehearsals with Dolby at Nomis Studios in West London in the autumn of 1984, before the recording sessions proper started at Marcus Studios.

The Sprouts apparently found the Big Smoke in turns beguiling and baffling. Taken out for dinner by CBS execs, they were introduced to the dubious pleasures of haute cuisine. According to Dolby, upon being delivered a tiny plate of food, bassist Martin McAloon was once heard to utter, ‘That was for me neck – now what’s for me stomach?’!

Dolby brought out the best in singer Wendy Smith, often using her unique soprano almost as a musical instrument, especially on ‘Moving The River’ and ‘Blueberry Pies’.

Dolby realised that part of his role as producer was to ‘smooth out’ some of the rough edges of Paddy’s remarkable songs:

 

‘What happened when the band started to arrange those was that there were lots of extra beats here and there, strange chord changes or rhythm changes, or odd lengths of phrases. The musicians tried to sort of accommodate those, but in fact what needed to happen was a few of the rough edges needed to be trimmed off. But at the same time, I didn’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I mean, what made them so unique is that they defied logic. So the task, really, at hand, for me, was how to elevate them to a more accessible level, commercially, without homogenizing the essence of the music.That was the first meeting with Paddy. He’s a very interesting guy, very well read but humble.’

The album was mixed at Farmyard Studios in Buckinghamshire. That was where Paddy really became aware of what Dolby had cooked up:

‘It’s taken me decades to try to absorb what it was that Thomas did. I mean, he had a great ear for individual sounds, he wasn’t swayed so much by the things of the day. He had a Fairlight and a PPG Wave and he would use them sparingly, and he had no time for the Yamaha DX7 and the things that everyone else rushed out and bought. He was into synthesis really. He didn’t make a big thing of it… it was just what he did, in addition to having a good sense of structure.’

Dolby talks about Paddy’s vocal style on the album:

‘He can be coaxed into letting rip every now and then. So one of my favourite things about the album is that you get these occasional primal screams. The way he sings “Antiques!”, the opening line. And then later on in “Goodbye Lucille” which is this very sort of lush, soft song, in the chorus he just lets rip at the end with this scream. And I always liked that he did that on that album. In later years he tended to be this sort of breathy crooner, and you hear less of that raw side.’

prefab

Drummer Neil Conti on recording Steve McQueen:

‘When we went in to record the album, there was a very relaxed vibe which I think you can hear in the music. After a rather tense start, when Thomas Dolby, who was used to drum machines, basically tried to get me to play like a machine, things loosened up and we had some hilarious late night jams after coming back from the pub. The track “Horsin’ Around” was recorded after one such rather inebriated sojourn to the boozer and you can hear Martin laughing while I’m counting it off. That track is all over the place, but it was just what the song needed. We couldn’t get it at all before we went to the pub to horse around a bit. I think the relaxed vibe really is one of the keys to why that album sounds good. No clicks, three takes max of each song, very loose and natural.’

Steve McQueen reached 21 on the UK album chart, perhaps a slight disappointment, but the critics generally loved it. It made number 4 in NME’s Albums of 1985 poll and was well-received in Europe and the US. Rumours even appeared in the press (some good CBS PR) that Prefab might play at Live Aid. That was never going to happen but half the band did back David Bowie (producer Thomas Dolby, drummer Conti and occasional guitarist Kevin Armstrong).

An extensive UK and European tour followed the album release after which the band quickly recorded Protest Songs in late 1985, though it wouldn’t released for another four years. There was so much more to come from arguably the British band of the decade.

The Strange Story Of Stump

Blimey. That appeared out of nowhere on ‘The Tube’ in late ’86 or early ’87. I was amazed and amused.

Though the clip was forever etched on my memory, for some reason I didn’t seek out any recordings by Stump until a few years later when I came across a cassette of debut mini-album Quirk Out in the corner of my local HMV.

stump

I love this band. Built around Rob McKahey’s tribal drums, Kev Hopper’s fretless bass, Chris Salmon’s whammified Strat with no effects or barre chords and the joyously insane though highly-literate gibberings of singer Mick Lynch, Stump’s music should never have worked but it did.

It reminded me a bit of Belew-era King Crimson and XTC at their most unhinged but otherwise I was clueless.

Lynch told surreal tales of TV extras, low-rent strippers and out-of-control bodily functions over seemingly improvised ‘post-rock’.

In the intervening years, I’ve detected influences from James Joyce and Flann O’Brien in his brilliantly surreal storytelling, and Hopper has cited Pere Ubu, Brand X and Captain Beefheart as musical influences. But Stump could only have happened in the ’80s.

They got quite a live following in ’86, mainly among London’s Irish population, and a John Peel Session, Mud On A Colon EP and appearance on legendary compilation C86 followed quickly.

Quirk Out came out on their own label Stuff Records and featured favourites like ‘Tupperware Stripper’, ‘Our Fathers’, ‘Bit Part Actor’ and, of course, ‘Buffalo’. More appearances on ‘The Tube’ followed, the gigs went from strength to strength and everything seemed rosy.

The first album proper, 1988’s A Fierce Pancake, fulfilled their potential. Ensign Records, who specialised in popular Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and The Waterboys, schmoozed the lads and they duly signed on the dotted line, despite having no real idea why they had been schmoozed.

Beautifully produced by Holger Hiller at Hansa Studios, with lots of detail and a bit more sonic punch than on the debut, Pancake was a minor classic. Surely a minor hit single would follow. The Cure’s mainman Tim Pope even directed the video for the most likely song, ‘Charlton Heston’.

But nothing. So Ensign tried to scare up a few remixes – nada. Even their charmingly ramshackle live shows were starting to flatline. During the long period of recording Pancake, the live scene had changed completely, and now rave and house were prevalent.

Stump’s brand of funky insanity was out. It’s another classic case of mismanagement and squandered budgets. No matter – the album contains such ’80s classics such as ‘Eager Bereaver’, ‘Bone’, ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Boggy Home’.

stump

Recent box set The Complete Anthology includes demos that were intended for the third album and they sound mainly marvellous, particularly ‘The Queen And The Pope’ and ‘Warm In The Knowledge’, but things couldn’t go on as they were. The band called it a day in 1989, apparently £250,000 in debt to Ensign.

But a few ‘celebrity’ fans have emerged over the years, most notably Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr Bungle fame. The latter band certainly has Stumpy elements.

There has even emerged a really weird YouTube video of the rest of Stump looking for missing singer Mick Lynch in Cork. Is a reunion on the cards? (A reunion gig actually happened in May 2015, and Mick Lynch sadly passed away in December 2015 – Ed.)

Ornette Coleman: Made In America

ornetteOrnette Coleman’s sad recent passing reminded me of a superb, almost totally forgotten ‘documentary’ that is begging for a DVD re-release (though it may be available in the US).

Shirley Clarke’s 1985 film ‘Ornette: Made In America’ centres around Coleman’s 1983 return to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, to receive the keys to the city from the mayor, open his Caravan Of Dreams venue and also perform astonishing orchestral work The Skies Of America (29th September 1983 was officially named Ornette Coleman Day).

The film weaves in re-imaginings of Coleman’s childhood in segregated Texas, surreal music-video images and talking-head tributes from scientists, writers, musicians, philosophers and William Burroughs about the impact and importance of Ornette’s music. Ornette himself is interviewed at length and we see him in conversation with family and friends.

It really is a trip (in the best sense of the word), and one of the great jazz films. I taped it off air from Channel Four in the UK when it got a one-off showing in the late-’80s. I’ll be watching it again in the next week or so – can’t wait.

Japan: Oil On Canvas 32 Years On

japanVirgin Records, released 18th June 1983

9/10

Produced by John Porter and Japan

UK Album Chart Position: #5

First of all: the cover. As a teenager, I was instantly intrigued by Frank Auerbach’s mesmerising artwork, and the music very definitely lived up to the packaging.

Recorded live during Japan’s final tour, though with a good few overdubs (according to the recent band biography ‘A Foreign Place’, the only ‘live’ elements on the album are Steve Jansen’s drums – everything else was replayed in the studio) and three new studio tracks added too, Oil On Canvas was released six months after their break-up and proved a near-perfect farewell from one of the key bands of the early ’80s.

The fact that it ended up as Japan’s highest-selling album (shifting over 100,000 in the UK) must have really irked manager Simon Napier-Bell – after year of toil, the band were calling it a day just as they were getting some commercial success (read ‘A Foreign Place’ for a full explanation of the split).

Tin Drum was great but who knows what they might have come up with as a follow-up given the giant strides they had made as musicians, songwriters and arrangers since ’81. Sure enough, within a few months of their split, Duran Duran were taking their sound and image to the bank.

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

There is so much to enjoy on Oil On Canvas. The Tin Drum tracks have added heft and a bit more air. David Sylvian’s vocals are warmer and more expressive than on the studio albums (though he has since virtually disowned this early singing style), and his Satie-esque title track prefigures the triumphs of his solo career.

‘Ghosts’ is extended with a superb Stockhausen-meets-serialism intro/interlude thrown in while ‘Canton’ becomes a mighty parade of musical colours, with clanging synths, whip-lashing china cymbals and the late great Mick Karn’s increasingly insane bass embellishments.

There has never been a rhythm section quite like Karn and Steve Jansen (drums) and probably never will be again. They revel in open spaces and ‘non-rock’ textures, typified by the deceptively simple and downright spooky ‘Sons Of Pioneers’.

Karn sounded like no one else on fretless bass (and looked like no one else too – see below), exploring Middle Eastern concepts and weird intervals to produce a sound both complex and hilarious. Jansen came up with several of the most ingenious backbeats in pop history while always making them danceable.

Together, they produced classic grooves like ‘Visions Of China’, ‘Cantonese Boy’ and ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’, and Richard Barbieri’s creative keys playing always emphasises texture and mood over technique. His closing instrumental ‘Temple Of Dawn’ bids a fantastic album farewell first with a chill and then with a brief shot at redemption.

Sylvian escaped to a successful, innovative solo career, Karn also went solo and hooked up with collaborators including Midge Ure, Peter Murphy and, most memorably, Kate Bush.

Barbieri and Jansen teamed up regularly in various projects and recorded together as The Dolphin Brothers in 1987 but didn’t enjoy much commercial success. Against all odds, they all got together again at the end of the ’80s for the intriguing Rain Tree Crow project.

 

Allan Holdsworth: Secrets

Allan_Holdsworth_-_1989_-_SecretsIntima Records, released May 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989

8/10

Some time around the late ’80s, I became a bit disillusioned with the major UK music mags (but continued to love Q).

Their infinite search for ‘coolness’ coincided with my increasing interest in playing bass and guitar, so I started checking out American mags such as Musician, Guitar World and Guitar Player, as well as Guitarist here in the UK.

Their focus seemed to be on the mechanics of/intentions behind making music rather than puking in hotels or haircuts.

I think I first heard guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s name via a Guitar Player cover interview to promote his Secrets album. I hadn’t yet heard a note of his music but his intelligent, exceptionally modest (some would say mordant) approach to playing drew me in, as did his endorsement of sax players (Brecker, Coltrane, Parker) rather than the usual guitar influences.

Also he mentioned that he had been working with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, another name that I had heard with relation to Frank Zappa but had never really properly investigated.

By chance, I came upon Secrets a few months later in a bargain bucket. From the first bar of the opener ‘City Nights’ (a typically nimble salvo around the kit by Vinnie) I was blown away.

Holdsworth’s solo is burning, with loads of notes spraying out everywhere, but it’s also totally devoid of clichés. He repeats the trick all over Secrets, with Vinnie and bassist Jimmy Johnson prodding and cajoling him every step of the way.

It’s also refreshing to hear Allan blowing over lots of major chords in ‘Joshua’, the sort of tune which might be a bit soppy in the hands of Metheny or Abercrombie but is transformed into a stunningly fluent series of solos alongside Colaiuta’s brilliantly unhinged accompaniment.

‘Spokes’ is a nicely arranged vehicle for Allan’s nutty synthaxe playing (and some more Vinnie/Jimmy genius) and, on ‘Endomorph’, Holdsworth even comes up with a very moving song inspired by the death of his father with some excellent vocals from Craig Copeland.

Secrets is the one where technology really caught up with his ingenious concepts. All lead guitarists are on an endless search for tone and Allan seems to have found his ideal here.

It’s smooth yet fiery and he genuinely achieves the ‘sheets-of-sound’ style of improvising that he so admires in his favourite sax players by utilising incredibly wide intervals (for a guitarist) and legato phrasing.

His playing is as instantly recognisable as Wes, Van Halen or Scofield’s. It’s not easy music, though. But, as he lamented in the interview mentioned above, it’s not that difficult and he always wished it was more popular.

Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta

Secrets was the first in a trio of superb solo albums (and some sterling sideman work with Chad Wackerman) which continued with Wardenclyffe Tower in ’92 and Hard Hat Area in ’94, all of which are pretty essential listening if you like his vibe.

Within a year of Secrets coming out, I’d seen Allan live at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London and also checked out his month-long guest spot with Level 42 at Hammersmith Odeon throughout December 1990 (and some brilliant solos on their Guaranteed album). I was becoming a major fan and have been ever since.

Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 10th June 1985

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street, 13th July 1985 (on the morning of Live Aid)

10/10

We come to another of my absolute ’80s favourites. Cupid is also one of those rare ‘classic’ albums that, despite big sales and critical appreciation, at the time of writing is still inexplicably awaiting a re-release/remaster.

David Gamson, Green Gartside, Fred Maher

Fred Maher, Green Gartside, David Gamson

Listening again to Cupid 30 years after its release, I wonder if it sounds very dated to modern ears.

Whilst it unabashedly utilised all manner of mid-’80s technology (Fairlight, drum machines, sequencers), I don’t really ‘hear’ those elements any more.

All I hear is top-notch songwriting, intriguing and intelligent lyrics, great grooves and Green’s unique vocals.

Cupid hit me at exactly the right age; it was the soundtrack to endless summer evenings, teenage crushes, adolescent musings.

Though Scritti leader/vocalist/co-songwriter Green Gartside left behind his post-punk roots and the ‘indie’ sound of his Rough Trade debut album Songs To Remember to create this major-label debut, Cupid certainly had antecedents: Green and keyboardist/co-composer David Gamson revered the highly-syncopated R’n’B/electro of The System, Chaka Khan, ZAPP and Michael Jackson, but they added some classic pop songcraft and intricate harmony.

Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis gave Green his blessing and, coupled with manager Bob Last (who also managed Human League and ABC), Green pitched the Americans his fusion of pop and funk.

As he told WORD magazine in 2006, ‘The American labels were all tickled pink by these big NME interviews we did and that loosened their wallets. Bob and I were terribly persuasive as to why they should part with vast sums so we could make a record.’

Legendary Aretha/Chaka producer Arif Mardin came on board as did a raft of quality players such as Marcus Miller, Steve Ferrone, David (The System) Frank, Robbie Buchanan, Robert Quine and Paul Jackson Jr.

But Green apparently turned out to be more of a perfectionist than any of them: ‘It took us a great deal of time to get our bits right and my anxiety about singing was pretty acute. I would demand to sing things over and over again and I’m not sure I ever got it better than the first time.’

Cupid featured three classic singles – ‘The Word Girl’, ‘Absolute’ and ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, though eventually a total of five tracks were released as A-sides.

The John Potoker remix of ‘Perfect Way’ (far superior to the album version) even became a massive hit in the States, reaching 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and pushing worldwide sales of the album over the million mark.

While ‘Don’t Work That Hard’ and ‘Lover To Fall’ might be deemed ‘filler’, they easily transcend that label by dint of their sprightly grooves and sheer catchiness.

The beautiful ‘A Little Knowledge’ showed that Green and Gamson were on the same page as Prefab’s Paddy McAloon when it came to sumptuous, intelligent romantic ballads in the mid-’80s, and the track is a great companion piece to ‘When Love Breaks Down’.

Post-Cupid, Green and Gamson booked and then cancelled a world tour (they were apparently visited in the studio by MTV executives who told them, ‘Just think, you’ll never have to tour again!’), wrote songs for Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan, made friends with Miles (who covered ‘Perfect Way’ on Tutu), hung out with George Michael at various London nightspots, embarked on a year of press in America to cash in on the success of ‘Perfect Way’ and then reluctantly hit the studios of New York and London to record the follow-up Provision.

george michael green gartside

George and Green, London, 1986

A cursory listen to a radio station like Absolute 80s reveals the wide-reaching influence of Cupid on countless late-’80s bands: a-ha, Go West, Climie Fisher, Living In A Box, Pet Shop Boys, Bros and Aztec Camera all tried for those clinical, Swiss-watch-precision arrangements and uplifting pure pop sound, but generally lacked Gamson’s ingenious chord changes and Green’s gift for melody.

Happy birthday to a bona fide ’80s classic.