John Martyn: Glorious Fool 34 Years On

john-martyn-glorious-foolWEA Records, released September 1981

9/10

Putting together my top 15 album list recently (and a dead laptop necessitating a break from this blog for a while) had an interesting knock-on effect: I actually spent some time listening to my choices.

Glorious Fool was possibly the one that surprised and pleased me the most (I listened to it on the original WEA cassette which sounds miles better than the CD master for some reason).

The general critical consensus is that John Martyn lost his way in the ‘80s, donning the suit, ditching the acoustic guitar and burying his music in synths, soft saxophones and stodgy productions. But it’s an overly simplistic view. I would put Glorious Fool and the previous Grace And Danger (not forgetting 1990’s The Apprentice) right up there with any of his fabled ‘70s stuff.

Certainly his compositions were more musically demanding, but John’s lyrics were still pithy and his chords as dark and rich as ever. It’s just that often he was concentrating on his singing a lot more in this period – no bad thing – and so often delegated the main harmonic accompaniment to a keyboard rather than his guitar. But he still often gave himself ample solo space on his trusty Les Paul or Strat.

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The ‘80s started fairly unpromisingly for John. He was still in turmoil over the breakup with wife Beverley, and the release of his classic Grace And Danger album had been delayed for 18 months, Island Records label boss Chris Blackwell believing it to be terminally uncommercial.

It was finally released in June 1980 to excellent reviews and reasonable sales but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as John’s relationship with Island was concerned.

His new manager Sandy Roberton got him a deal with Warner Brothers and also helped put together a cracking new band including ex-Jeff Beck keys player Max Middleton, Latin percussionist Danny Cummings and hotshot Glaswegian bassist Alan Thomson.

Martyn’s mucker and partner-in-heartbreak Phil Collins also returned on drums and production. John said at the time, ‘I wasn’t married. I thought: let’s go for it, let’s make some money and make a band.’

In June 1981, they all convened at the Townhouse Studios on the Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, to commence work on Glorious Fool. During the recording, John was living in the small apartment above the studio, and would often undertake vocal duties in the wee hours of the morning, slightly the worse for wear and clad only in his dressing gown!

I live about 15 minutes’ walk away from the Townhouse – sadly not in use as a commercial studio any more – and often walk past trying to picture the proceedings. Other classic albums recorded there include Peter Gabriel’s Melt, Collins’ Face Value and XTC’s Black Sea.

It’s clear that John’s failed marriage is still very much the emotional currency of his songwriting. ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’, ‘Hearts And Keys’ and ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’ are almost embarrassingly candid in their evocation of the contrasting emotions spawned by a relationship breakdown, everything from pure love and raw lust to rage, despair, envy, pleading and desolation. Just a typical evening with John Martyn then, by all accounts…

The furious ‘Never Say Never’ kicks off with Martyn screaming ‘Shuddup! Close your mouth!’ over Collins’ trademark tom fills. Brilliant. ‘Perfect Hustler’ and ‘Didn’t Do That’ are more comic evocations of lost love, the former featuring Martyn sarcastically taunting his paramour about her suave, Latin-dancing boyfriend, and wondering if he has ‘gold teeth in’! In contrast, ‘Hold On My Heart’ is an unashamedly soft, romantic love song, the nearest the album comes to an early ’80s Collins or Genesis ballad.

Elsewhere, ‘Don’t You Go’ is a heartbreaking anti-war folk ballad, with John’s moving vocal accompanied only by Collins’ piano and ghostly vocoder. The title track takes a satirical look at the then-newly-elected president Ronald Reagan while ‘Amsterdam’ is a harrowing portrait of a close friend’s funeral in the Dutch capital (after an unrequited obsession with a local prostitute). It features a nasty, brutal groove, sort of John’s version of post-punk, and the haunting refrain: ‘The night the kid left Amsterdam…’ It’s the ‘80s flipside to ‘Solid Air’, another tribute to a fallen comrade (Nick Drake).

Another reason for Glorious Fool’s success is the sheer quality of the musicianship. Collins has never played better, coming up with three or four classic beats and demonstrating a perfect understanding of what each song requires, and the whole band can turn on a dime. They’re just as comfortable with the Weather Report-style Latin/fusion groove of ‘Didn’t Do That’ as they are with the slinky Little Feat flavours of ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, driving hard rock of ‘Amsterdam’ or ambient balladry of ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’.

The album was a reasonable success, hitting number 25 on the UK album charts and staying in the top 100 for seven weeks, and the critics were generally onside. It also made for a very interesting companion piece to Collins’ Face Value, released six months before. You don’t need me to tell you which record sold more copies, but I doubt John lost much sleep over it.

For much more about Glorious Fool and John’s stellar career, check out ‘Some People Are Crazy’ by John Neil Munro and also this excellent BBC4 documentary.

My Top 15 Albums On The 18th (With Sicknote)

vinyl-goldTo quote Bill Hicks, I must have missed a meeting, hence my embarrassingly-late contribution to the bloggers’ ‘top 15 albums on the 15th September‘ concept (my laptop also gave up the ghost just when I was trying to get it in under the wire).

But like a lot of music fans, I can’t resist a list, so here’s my top 15 as of today. I set myself a few guidelines: only one artist per slot, no dud tracks, no compilations, and some kind of stylistic variety on offer across the selection; in other words, I thought of the 15 albums as a kind of extended desert-island playlist.

So here we go, in no particular order. Click on each cover for a listen:

Lewis Taylor: Lewis Taylor (1996)

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The Beatles: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

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Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)

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Steely Dan: Gaucho (1980)

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Peter Gabriel: III (1980)

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Weather Report: Mr Gone (1978)

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XTC: Skylarking (1985)

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Cocteau Twins: Heaven Or Las Vegas (1990)

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David Sylvian: Gone To Earth (1986)

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Sly And The Family Stone: There’s A Riot Goin’ On (1971)

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Tribal Tech: Illicit (1992)

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Stanley Clarke: Stanley Clarke (1974)

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Herbie Hancock/Freddie Hubbard/Wayne Shorter/Ron Carter/Tony Williams: VSOP The Quintet (1979)

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John Martyn: Glorious Fool (1981)

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Scritti Politti: Cupid And Psyche ’85 (1985)

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Just missed the cut:

Grace Jones: Nightclubbing (1981)

Prince: Around The World In A Day (1985)

Mr Bungle: California (1999)

It Bites: Once Around The World (1988)

Mark Isham: Vapour Drawings (1983)

Prefab Sprout: Jordan The Comeback (1990)

Michael Jackson: Thriller (1982)

Level 42: World Machine (1985)

Thomas Dolby: The Flat Earth (1984)

John McLaughlin/One Truth Band: Electric Dreams (1979)

Miles Davis: Nefertiti (1967)

Love And Money: Strange Kind Of Love (1988)

David Bowie: Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)

Thelonious Monk: Genius Of Modern Music Vol. 2 (1951)

 

David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps): 35 Years Old Today

bowieRCA Records, released 12th September 1980

10/10

‘Albums of the ’80s’ lists are all the rage these days. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) would easily be in my top five. It might even be in my top one. It’s a timeless, masterful work which, for me, can only ever be consumed in its totality. It’s also the collection that all subsequent Bowie albums have been measured against. I would put it over and above Low, Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory for its sheer consistency.

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Here’s my case for the defence, track by track:

1. It’s No Game (Part 1)

I’ve previously written about this being one of the great ’80s album intros. Vocally, Bowie channels John Lydon and Peter Hammill to deliver a New York/New Wave anti-fascist tirade that ranks among his great performances. Producer Tony Visconti ‘f***s with the fabric of time‘ to create a cavernous, Eventide-drenched mix and guitarist Robert Fripp delivers one of his most unhinged statements. Avant-rock heaven. Adapted from Bowie’s early demo ‘Tired Of My Life‘.

2. Up The Hill Backwards

A brilliant treatise on press intrusion and the wretchedness of celeb culture inspired by Bowie’s ‘dealings’ with the press during his failing marriage, with an ingenious central image of paparazza snapping away at their prey as they shuffle ‘up the hill backwards’. Endlessly catchy with a beautifully-realised unison vocal – the only track in the Bowie canon which doesn’t feature his solo singing.

3. Scary Monsters

Bowie revisits his finest Mockney accent to deliver a bleak, blanked-out, darkly funny tale of semi-stalking. There’s more Phil Spector-style brilliance from Visconti and another Fripp masterclass in balls-out guitar playing. The only minor criticism is that it possibly goes on for about a minute too long.

4. Ashes To Ashes

An instant classic with a very Bowie mix of child-like innocence and creeping malevolence as the hopelessly drug-addicted, world-weary Major Tom drifts off into the ether. Effortlessly superb songcraft with three or four memorable sections, boundary-pushing lyrics (‘Visions of Jap girls in synthesis’!) and a myriad of sweeping hooks.

5. Fashion

The lameness of the style wars is in Bowie’s sights this time as he almost mumbles the ironic verse lyrics over a tough New York disco/funk/rock groove. And there’s more barking mad Fripp soloing. Danceable, amusing, timeless. It was originally titled ‘Jamaica’ in demo form.

6. Teenage Wildlife

Initially coming across as slightly lumpy and leaden, the track builds and builds in intensity to deliver a touching, powerful message to Bowie’s ‘mythical younger brother’ about keeping a sense of perspective as one gets older. His patented histrionic vocal style is superbly realised and drummer Dennis Davis holds it all together with aplomb. It was originally titled ‘It Happens Every Day’ in demo form.

7. Scream Like A Baby

Spooky dystopian fable about a future society’s outlawing of homosexuality and other ‘deviant’ behaviour. Bowie’s ingenious stuttering provoked many a schoolyard titter and the weird vocal doppler effects are perfectly realised. Revamped from the Bowie-written/produced ‘I Am A Laser‘ originally recorded by Ava Cherry.

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8. Kingdom Come

A superb cover of a track from Tom Verlaine’s debut album, Phil Spector is the obvious influence again with Davis’s booming, overdubbed tom-tom fills and some anthemic backing vocals. Majestic, powerful, intriguing. Verlaine was apparently supposed to play guest guitar throughout the album but bowed out at the eleventh hour.

9. Because You’re Young

An ‘advice’ song to his son, Bowie offers the lessons he has learnt and looks back with great poignancy and not a little sarcasm on his carefree, youthful days. Peter Townshend strums along (apparently he arrived at the studio drunk and ready to party, but was stunned to find Visconti and Bowie sitting quietly at the recording desk like ‘two sober, little old men’!) and Bowie delivers a superb, kaleidoscopic lead/backing vocal combo.

10. It’s No Game (Part Two)

Carlos Alomar’s masterly rhythm guitar anchors this reprise, with Bowie doing his best Iggy croon and offering up images of world poverty, media saturation and dunderheaded political/cultural strategies. We hear the multitrack tape spool off its reels at the very end to close one of the great albums of the ’80s or any other decade.

A big nod to Nicholas Pegg.