Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

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Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.

Level 42’s World Machine: 30 Years Old Today

level-42-world-machinePolydor Records, released 26th October 1985

As a young band starting out in the ’80s, your ideal career trajectory would probably go something like this: get together with a few mates, start rehearsing, get the gear in a van, tour the nation’s toilets, slowly build your audience, get a manager, get the (dodgy?) record deal, release your debut, get on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and then hope you’ve got a career.

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But it’s one of the rules of pop that some folks can’t handle fame when it hits. To paraphrase Bill Bruford: first you cope with failure, then you cope with success. From Syd Barrett through Ian Curtis to Billy Mackenzie (is it mainly a British thing?), there are always artists who have bailed out when the constant routine of promotion and miming to the hit single becomes too much like a regular job.

The syndrome even affected pop/jazz/funk heroes Level 42, who in 1985 produced arguably their finest album in World Machine, though lost half their original line-up in the process including one of the finest-ever British drummers.

The band’s popularity had been steadily building throughout the ’80s. Though their live following had always been strong and they always had hits, the singles usually seemed like happy accidents – ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’, ‘Chinese Way’ and ‘Hot Water’ were all last-minute album additions based on studio jams. Now their record label Polydor wanted a more concerted assault on the singles charts and a more current sound, and to that end outstanding bassist/vocalist Mark King took much more of a lead than before.

Alongside co-producer/keys man Wally Badarou, the band laid down the most cohesive, streamlined collection of songs in their career thus far with two or three obvious singles at demo stage (though not a view apparently shared by then manager John Gould whose negative reaction to the new songs contributed to him being given the push in a heated band meeting).

Not everyone in the band was happy with this brave new musical direction either. Main lyricist and drummer Phil Gould (brother of ex-manager John and guitarist Boon) had always peppered Level 42’s songs with allusions to psychology, science fiction and esoteric spirituality, drawing on writers like Arthur Koestler, Hermann Hesse and EM Forster, but by early 1985 the pressure was on to deliver boy/girl songs with universal themes.

In an excellent recent interview, Phil has talked about Polydor wanting the band to do party anthems like ‘Let’s Groove‘ and suggesting they do a cover version of ‘Nature Boy‘. He struggled against this direction, rightly surmising that they would quickly become typecast as a clichéd Brit-funk band. Though he did eventually tone down the lyrical imagery a bit on World Machine, he still smuggled in some depth and despair to songs such as the title track, ‘Physical Presence’, ‘Leaving Me Now’ and ‘Coup D’Etat’.

Oh yes – the music. One of the great pleasures of World Machine is its consistency of tone; you can drop the needle anywhere and hear the quality. The band had mastered the kind of half-time funk groove which had frequently littered their earlier work, and the style reached its apogee here with bassists and drummers rushing off to play along to ‘Good Man In A Storm’ (why has it never been played live?), ‘A Physical Presence’, ‘Leaving Me Now’, ‘Dream Crazy’ and ‘It’s Not The Same For Us’ (which was initially going to be a Mark King lead vocal as revealed on this amusing demo). But the sequence-heavy nature of some other tracks (particularly the title track, ‘Something About You’ and ‘I Sleep On My Heart’) also aroused some musical differences in the band. It’s intriguing to imagine what these songs would have sounded like shorn of their ‘hi-tech’ elements.

Level 42 had secured several hits before, but for many people ‘Something About You‘ was the real breakthrough. Incredibly, it reached number 7 in the US singles chart, perhaps inspired by a really good accompanying video. It still sounds like a great pop song today despite a rather stiff groove (is it Level’s ‘Every Breath You Take’?!).

So whether it was a breakthrough or breakdown, or both, World Machine delivered both commercially and artistically. It reached number 3 in the UK album chart, staying in the top 100 for 72 weeks. I saw the band at the Hammersmith Odeon on the – as usual – completely sold-out UK tour. They then went off to the US to tour with Madonna and Steve Winwood. The brothers Phil and Boon Gould left the band soon after recording the follow-up Running In The Family and the classic line-up was no more. Great memories, great sounds, great band.

From Diva To De Palma: Seven Soundtrack Moments

withnail

Ralph Brown as Danny in ‘Withnail & I’

When it comes to the marriage of sound and vision, there’s a particular kind of ’80s cliché probably originating from the work of directors like Ridley/Tony Scott, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson and Alan Parker (interestingly, all Brits who ended up in Hollywood).

It’s basically a slick, beautifully-shot montage of images usually accompanied by vaguely ‘New Age’ kind of music which probably features some Satie-esque piano, possibly some strings (synthesized or real) and/or a bit of acoustic guitar or sax.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this combo is pure comfort food for me in these troubled times. It must be another of those ‘blokes of a certain age’ things. And it turns out that some of those directors also produced some of my favourite movie soundtrack moments of the ’80s:

7. Diva (1981)

Composer Vladimir Cosma channels Erik Satie, Peter Gabriel and Tangerine Dream to create a beguiling mix of solo piano, bleak new-wave rock and classic minimalism. I don’t ‘do’ opera but the two versions of Catalani’s ‘La Wally’ which bookend this superb album get me every time.

6. Angel Heart (1987)

A bleak synth swells in the distance, De Niro (?) whispers ‘Johnny… Johnny…’ and we’re off. Courtney Pine blows impressively over Trevor Jones’ ambient backing and the rest of the album features some excellent crooner tunes and R’n’B too.

5. Blow Out (1981)

Melody-maestro Pino Donaggio pulls out all the stops for this rather beautiful theme which accompanies director Brian De Palma’s most ’emotional’ movie slaying…

4. Betty Blue (1986)

Gabriel Yared’s haunting soundtrack for this famously-overrated art-house melodrama gives me an instant nostalgia rush. Very influential too, particularly on the next choice.

3. Withnail & I (1987)

David Dundas and Rick Wentworth’s music perfectly evokes some of the film’s themes darker themes, though the blues guitar licks were perhaps best left out of the final mix.

2. 9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

The bizarre, chameleon-like career of pianist/composer Jack Nitzsche is one for another time, but his ‘love theme’ from Adrian Lyne’s guilty pleasure is sentimental, hokey and clichéd. And gets me every time. There are other crackers by Jean-Michel Jarre, Brian Eno and The Eurythmics on the quite-hard-to-find soundtrack album.

1. Mrs Soffel (1984)

A confession – I’ve never seen this movie. And I’m really not sure I ever will. But Mark Isham’s majestic theme never fails to beguile, originally heard on a mid-’80s Windham Hill Records taster cassette.

Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 28 Years On

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

There were always reasons to dislike Sting in the mid to late-’80s (and now): his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz and acting. Some people just didn’t like the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music, even though he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the decade.

But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

To be fair, Sting probably didn’t care what people said. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

Mercedes_sting

Sting’s first solo album Dream Of The Blue Turtles traded in on the residual goodwill of his being in one of the most successful and musically-ambitious bands in pop history. As a Police nut myself, I also quickly became a confirmed Sting nut, seeing him at the Royal Albert Hall on the Turtles tour and eagerly buying the first few solo albums.

But if the debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements unsubtly ladled in amongst the pop, the follow-up …Nothing Like The Sun fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly strange mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of sophisti-fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of these chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. Sting’s speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

And the emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very beautiful neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage‘), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. It just feels natural and all in a day’s work for this serious, rapidly-improving artist.

Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. ‘Rock Steady’, ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’, ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple tunes with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate. And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout.

Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report and Miles Davis, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent ambient guitar in the vein of Bill Frisell or David Torn. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for a beautifully-sung ‘Little Wing‘, also featuring one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s highest-selling solo release. Those liner notes are still pretentious as hell, though…