Aztec Camera: Four Golden Greats

Aztec-camera-roddy-frameIt all came back to me recently when I heard some church bells in Totnes ringing out the opening bass melody from ‘We Could Send Letters’. Although always one of my AC favourites, I hadn’t heard the song in years.

Cue a period of rediscovery and a realisation that Roddy Frame penned four or five stand-out songs of the ’80s. The guy had it all – intelligent lyrics, guitar chops, classic songcraft, good looks. Arguably the only thing missing was the classic album that his talent warranted.

But no matter: there were plenty of treats anyway. Here are a few:

4. We Could Send Letters (1983)

The low-key beginning builds into an epic, love-lorn pop gem, oddly never released as a single. Though dated by its Syndrum fills and airy production, the song however is water-tight with that lovely hike up into the chorus. An ’80s break-up classic.

3. Oblivious (1983)

Summery, Flamenco-tinged pop gem that reached number 18 in the UK singles chart. Frame works the minor/major thing beautifully (minor-key verse, major chorus), nails a very tricky acoustic guitar part and also pulls off the seldom-achieved trick of writing something that manages to be perennially catchy without being annoying.

2. Deep And Wide And Tall (1987)

Openly states the pressing question perhaps underlying all great pop music: are we going to live together? Roddy and producer Russ Titelman achieve the Scritti groove sought throughout the Love album. A mixture of spine-tingling backing vocals and major-seventh chords fuse to gorgeous effect. Inexplicably reached a lowly number 87 in the UK charts.

1. Working In A Goldmine (1987)

Roddy’s ‘blue-eyed-soul’ period wasn’t an outright success but this shimmering ballad with its fine Rob Mounsey arrangement is a standout. Seemingly about the unknowability of one’s lover (‘We love/What shines/Before our eyes/Why can’t we learn/What hides?’) , it features one of the most sublime middle-eights (or, more accurately, middle-sixes) of late-’80s pop.

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Sheila E In Romance 1600: 30 Years Old Today

sheila ePaisley Park/Warner Bros, released 26th August 1985

Bought: Goldhawk Road Record and Tape Exchange, 1989?

8/10

The music biz is littered with successful solo artists who were tempted out from behind the drum kit. Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Phil Collins, Karen Carpenter, Dave Grohl, Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop all graduated from the engine room to centre stage, and while Sheila has never been on that level in terms of record sales or cultural impact (though trumps all of them in terms of drumming chops), her transition from sidewoman to frontwoman led to a couple of really infectious, interesting albums in the mid-’80s.

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She had an enviable CV long before going solo, including percussion work with Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Marvin, George Duke and Diana Ross. Prince and Sheila were a similar age and had followed each other’s careers since the late-’70s. When he tasted his first mainstream success and was looking to mentor new artists, she was top of the list.

Their first collaboration was the superb B-side ‘Erotic City’, swiftly followed by Sheila’s debut album The Glamorous Life, a hit. But its follow-up, Sheila E In Romance 1600, was a far more expansive and experimental piece, even though recording sessions were squeezed in on days off during the Purple Rain Tour between December 1984 and January 1985.

Despite Sheila’s obvious musical pedigree, Romance 1600‘s liner notes and song credits are misleading – this is a Prince album in all but name. According to biographer Per Nilsen (and as listed at the ASCAP offices), he wrote all the tracks here bar one (kicking Latin/fusion instrumental ‘Merci For The Speed Of A Clown In Summer’) and played all instruments except drums, percussion and sax.

But lucky for us, Romance 1600 was recorded smack-bang in the middle of his golden period and features some of Prince’s finest performances as a musician. His guitar solos on ‘Dear Michelangelo’ and ‘A Love Bizarre’ are simply tremendous, the latter throwing in some ridiculous bass too.

But Sheila also brings out the best in him. There’s much more humour here than on his own albums of the period. She turns in some hilariously hammy vocal performances on ‘Sister Fate’, ‘Toy Box‘ and dramatic ballad ‘Bedtime Story’. Sheila and Prince were having a lot of fun and you can hear the results. Sometimes the rushed nature of the recording shows, though – the mix is very murky and the album is short of a few memorable pop hooks.

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Prince’s ‘movie’ concept was in full effect here. He was leaving behind the ‘street’ style of Vanity 6/Purple Rain/The Time and embracing a romantic, ‘Amadeus’-influenced image which also crossed over into The Family project and his Parade album. Thinking of Romance 1600 as a movie also opened up the album musically, allowing Sheila and Prince to embrace jazz (‘Yellow’), fusion, wacky synth-pop (the title track), Latin and even Third Stream. This eclectic outlook was no doubt also influenced by his Revolution bandmates Wendy and Lisa.

Sheila E In Romance 1600 was a reasonable hit, going gold in the US and reaching number 50 on the Billboard chart, no doubt helped by the success of the ‘Love Bizarre’ single (US number 11). Sheila toured the US for the second time in two years and was even joined onstage by Prince for a few storming versions of ‘Love Bizarre’ – one classic has sadly just been removed from Youtube.

She followed up Romance 1600 with a disappointingly bland self-titled album in 1987, which featured far less contribution from Prince. More successfully, she played some fantastic drums on the Sign ‘O’ The Times and Lovesexy tours – much more on them to come.

Sondheim Meets Springsteen: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis

prefabKitchenware/CBS Records, released 14th March 1988

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1988

9/10

Prefab go Pop. There are big-name guest spots (Stevie Wonder, Pete Townshend), gospel choirs, an orchestra and Deacon Blue’s producer. The lengthy recording period and increased budget certainly paid off; synths and strings glisten, Paddy McAloon and Wendy Smith sound like they’re singing in the room with you and one can hear every nuance of Neil Conti’s tasty drumming.

Steve McQueen producer Thomas Dolby could only find the time to oversee four out of the ten tracks; of these, only ‘Knock On Wood’ sounds like trademark TD. Apparently, once McAloon learned that Dolby would be unavailable for much of the recording, he flirted with the idea of using a different producer for each song. The notion was quickly abandoned but it reinforced the idea that this would be Paddy’s most collaborative project so far.

At the time of its release, Paddy publicly declared that he hated the sound of records being made in the late ’80s and in response seems to have looked for songwriting inspiration from pre-rock’n’roll forms – Gershwin, Berlin, Cole Porter and Broadway musicals. He had also by now made big strides in his keyboard playing, writing all but two From Langley Park tracks on piano.

Consequently, McAloon’s melodies are incredibly daring and original, but there’s arguably a fair degree of musical ‘schmaltz’ in the arrangements too, particularly on ‘Hey Manhattan’, ‘Nightingales’, ‘Nancy’ and ‘The Venus of the Soup Kitchen’, but it’s Stephen Sondheim schmaltz rather than Disney schmaltz. The wonderful ‘Nightingales’ sounds like the score from some kind of futuristic Broadway musical (and the 12″ single is worth tracking down for exquisite B-side ‘Bearpark’).

prefab stevieCBS obviously had high hopes for the album and their faith was paid off in the shape of a hit single, ‘King of Rock & Roll’, and one near-hit, ‘Cars And Girls’, though one wonders how McAloon views those now – I’ll wager with a degree of sheepishness. But I remember being extremely excited to see the video for ‘Cars And Girls’ popping up on ‘The Chart Show’.

Listening back after all this time, it’s From Langley‘s minor, more understated tracks that really stand the test of time. ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘Enchanted’ could have come from Steve McQueen. The former features a simple, unusually direct lyric from Paddy over a surreal, subtle pot-pourri of percussion and synth effects from Dolby. One wonders what McAloon’s demo sounded like. It’s slight and simple but no worse for that.

Nancy’ is gorgeous, a ‘Brief Encounter’esque tale of unrequited romance in the workplace, possibly inspired by McAloon’s relationship with his fellow Sprout (it doesn’t take a huge effort to imagine the word ‘Wendy’ in place of ‘Nancy’). ‘I Remember That’ sees McAloon in full-on crooner mode, emoting over MOR strings and weirdly-stilted gospel backing vocals. Paddy pokes fun at Springsteen’s obsessions on ‘Cars And Girls’, but then hilariously attempts a four-on-the-floor, Springsteenish rocker ‘The Golden Calf’ which doesn’t quite come off.

It’s hard to overstate the weirdness of the closing ‘Venus Of The Soup Kitchen’, a collision of slick Steely Dan drums, wonky Farfisa organ, distinctly-unfunky vocals from the Andrae Crouch singers and some amusing cocktail guitar from McAloon. It unnerves in a way I’m sure was intended, coming over like a Ken Loach tale told in Broadway-musical style. For better or worse, there’s nothing else remotely like it in the Prefab output.

So, an important, big-selling album for Prefab (reaching number 5 in the UK album charts) and another hugely impressive chunk of songwriting from McAloon. He was in a bullish mood, talking to the media about chart placings and competing with Michael Jackson and Prince, and his purple patch led to an even more cogent and powerful piece of work in the extraordinary Jordan The Comeback, of which more later.

Great Brit Swearing: Ian Dury, David Bowie & Up Yaws

487px-Ian_Dury_1Those of a nervous or sensitive disposition, look away now/cover your ears…

But I must confess: I’ve always had a penchant for good swearing in music. And long before those Parental Advisory stickers, there were some real humdingers.

Ian Dury’s oeuvre was of course an early landmark – his ‘Plaistow Patricia‘ became a kind of forbidden, blasphemous classic as did Marianne Faithful’s coruscating ‘Why D’Ya Do It‘. They both sounded like they really meant it.

David Bowie’s ‘It’s No Game (Part 2)‘ would also have us in stitches. His rather random four-letter word, sung in Iggyish baritone, enlivened many a dull afternoon. Cue the violins…

But then my uncle (it’s always uncles) passed me the following curio and the world of muso swearing was never quite the same again. Initially coming on like a first-rate pastiche of early-’80s UK jazz/funk as played by the likes of Shakatak, its gradual insertion of four-letter words, delivered Barry White-style, never fails to provoke a titter.

It’s puerile, silly and childish, and I absolutely defend it as a valid piece of music… Rumours abound as to who’s responsible – the most likely candidates have emerged as sundry members of The Damned.

And then there’s the whole sub-genre of bands-getting-it-wrong-in-the-studio-and-swearing-alot. The Troggs Tapes are of course the industry standard, but a Culture Club outtake from 1983 recently came to light on a career-spanning box set. We join our four heroes (plus poor pianist Phil Pickett) trying to record ‘Victims’ with the underlying pressures of expensive studio costs, an out-of-tune fretless bass and Boy George/Jon Moss’s corrosive love affair.

Suffice it to say, things don’t go too well. But imagine trying to produce this lot. Come to think of it, producer Steve Levine is possibly the one voice we don’t hear in this clip. Had he given up the ghost or was he all-too-aware of not getting involved and spoiling an audio verite ‘classic’?

(Ed’s note: In their infinite wisdom, YouTube have removed this video. It was obviously too ‘offensive’ for public ears…)

 

Dreams By The Sea: Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush

kate bushI’m certainly not alone in finding the seaside very evocative of childhood memories and, in turn, musical revelations gone by. Walking on Slapton Sands in Devon recently, I was taken back to family holidays at St Margaret’s Bay, a little village atop the famous White Cliffs of Dover on the English Channel.

Armed with my Walkman, I’d take off towards the creepy, deserted air-raid shelters, where our boys defended their island from attack, then scramble up the steep chalk track to enjoy the huge expanse of sea in all directions and the French coast in the distance.

The two tracks most redolent of that time – and two which somehow seem to capture something about the English fascination with all things nautical – are Kate Bush’s ‘And Dream Of Sheep’ and Peter Gabriel/Robert Fripp‘s ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (not strictly an ’80s track, being recorded in 1978, but originally appearing on the ‘definitive’ 1985 reissue of Fripp’s Exposure album). They are almost indistinguishable to me and will forever be connected to that coastline and the seaside in general.

Gabriel’s sea song was originally recorded for his 1976 debut album in a bombastic, overblown style, very characteristic of its producer Bob Ezrin. But in 1978, during the Robert Fripp-produced sessions for the second album, he laid down a much gentler, far superior piano/vocal version, to which Fripp later added Frippertronics and a spoken-word segment from his spiritual guide and Gurdjieff-follower JG Bennett (who turned up on David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth too).

kate bush peter gabriel

Bennett’s words set up the themes of the song; Gabriel’s lyric seems to point towards the inhabitants of an island (England?) joining forces (telepathically?) to save themselves from a pending (apocalyptic?) tsunami. In doing so, the islanders taken on mystical, extra-sensory powers.

There are shades of the Genesis track ‘Supper’s Ready’, with its epic tale of good versus evil, and also elements of the research into ESP that Gabriel was apparently doing at the time. For some reason, the lyric also always reminds me of John Carpenter’s movie ‘The Fog’. Something to do with bad things coming out of the sea, I guess. Anyway, it all adds up to make a very affecting piece (below paired up with Fripp’s ‘Water Music’ too).

Bush’s version of the sea song kicks off the extraordinary Ninth Wave suite that takes up the entire second side of her classic 1985 album Hounds Of Love. We are thrust unceremoniously into a psychic association with a female protagonist who finds herself in the middle of the sea after a shipwreck. Echoes of past/present obsessions, loves and losses float to the surface of her mind (including the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast), ostensibly to keep her awake so that she doesn’t drown.

The conclusion of the song cycle suggests that she’s now at peace and in a far more positive state of mind, either in death or safe at shore. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of music, with Bush truly painting pictures with sound.

Let me know some other great ’80s sea songs.

Five Great ’80s Madonna Moments

5. Late Night With David Letterman, 1st July 1988

Though her most famous Letterman appearance was probably 1994’s swearfest, here she comes off more like a naughty big sister than an established star. Madonna and Sandra Bernhard laugh off Dave’s temper tantrums and seem to have stepped out of a ’50s B-movie.

4. Live Aid

This footage from La Ciccone’s Philadelphia appearance on 13th July 1985 gives a great insight into the atmosphere on the day and the adrenalin(and other substances?)-fuelled panic of the artist soundchecks. Live Aid came just a week after Madonna’s pre-fame topless pictures were leaked to the press. Her response was to wear lots of layers and silence the cat-calls with style, humour and an irrepressible joie de vivre.

3. ‘Crazy For You’

Most of my favourite Madonna tracks are ballads (‘This Used To Be My Playground’, ‘Take A Bow’, ‘Something To Remember’, ‘Oh Father’, ‘Promise To Try’) but this is possibly the pick of the bunch. Beautifully arranged by Steely Dan/Ashford & Simpson man Rob Mounsey (though that snare is still too big…), it was transformed from just another song in a so-so movie into a UK number 2 and US number one in March 1985.

2. The 1984 MTV Awards

A totally shameless and over-the-top celebration of womanhood. Imagine the reactions of the Armani-suited execs in the stalls. Madonna and Joni Mitchell have both spoken publicly about the chauvinistic attitudes that prevailed in the music industry of the mid-’80s. This was a brave response. Love her or loathe her, you’ve gotta admire her…balls.

1. The ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ club scene

For many people, this was her only decent movie performance, and I wouldn’t argue with that (though I need to see Abel Ferrera’s ‘Snake Eyes’ again…). Polanski paid homage to this scene ten years later in ‘Bitter Moon’, starring Hugh Grant, to similarly comic effect.