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 has kind of obsessed 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)

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Prefab Sprout’s 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:

Prefab Sprout

‘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 heard 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. Who were these mutants? 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 Japan 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 perfect farewell from one of the key bands of the early ’80s.

The fact that it ended up as Japan’s highest-selling album (selling 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.