Art Pepper: ‘Our Song’

After one of the toughest lives in jazz history, Art Pepper was astonished to still be around in the early ’80s.

He rallied for one last classic; ‘Our Song’ was recorded on 4th September 1980 at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California.

It doesn’t feel like an ’80s track at all – it’s more like the closing titles to an early ’70s Robert Altman movie or an alternative theme from Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Taxi Driver’ sessions.

Many commentators think that, on his day, Pepper’s alto sax playing rivalled Charlie Parker’s, and he demonstrates his mastery here with a real tour de force.

As a musical farewell, it’s a potent statement. Pepper believed it was the best thing he had ever done and the culmination of his life’s work.

‘Our Song’ also seems to be a personal goodbye and heartfelt tribute (apology?) to Laurie, this third wife and the last love of his life. She contributed to his jaw-dropping autobiography ‘Straight Life’ and has also recently published her own memoir about her life with Art.

1981: Best Pop Year Of The 1980s?

royWatching the excellent BBC doc ‘The Story Of 1981a few weekends ago got me wondering if it was one of the very best years for pop.

Of course, all music fans have their ‘bedrock’ years, periods when their tastes are pretty much formed for life.

1981 was certainly the year when pop music first properly impinged itself onto my consciousness, but looking back now it certainly does seem to feature more than its fair share of classic singles and albums.

There was so much variety on offer, from post-punk, revival rock’n’roll/psychedelia and classic heavy metal through to 2-Tone, jazz/funk, reggae and soul.

I was a football-and-cricket-mad whippersnapper in 1981. We had moved out of London for a few years because of my dad’s work, settling in Southsea on the South Coast.

Save from a few hard lads picking fights with my brother and I on the Common or at the Rock Garden, it was a very carefree time. You’d never have guessed that riots were exploding in Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Coventry.

It sounds selfish, but for me it was all about reading Roy Of The Rovers, playing football, collecting Space Lego and listening to The Beatles and brilliant chart music of the day.

1981 was full of singles that to this day are among my favourites of all time. But, in almost all cases, I haven’t searched out much more music by the artists involved – it’s almost as if I don’t want to curse the golden memories. Here’s just a selection:

Altered Images’ ‘Happy Birthday’
Bill Wyman’s ‘Je Suis Un Rock Star’
Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’
Haircut 100’s ‘Favourite Shirt (Boy Meets Girl)’
OMD’s ‘Souvenir’
Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’
Adam And The Ants’ ‘Ant Rap’
The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’
The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’
Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’
Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’
Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’
Third World’s ‘Dancing On The Floor’
Imagination’s ‘Body Talk’
Freeez’s ‘Southern Freeez’
Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’
Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’
Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’
The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’

And that’s just scratching the surface. There were also brilliant singles by Linx, Visage, Scritti Politti, The Pretenders, Squeeze, XTC, Talking Heads, Madness, Roxy Music, Level 42, Light Of The World, Smokey Robinson, George Benson etc etc etc.

And then there were the album releases of 1981. Here’s a partial list of favourites:

Human League: Dare
Phil Collins: Face Value
Randy Crawford: Secret Combination
Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates
Rush: Moving Pictures/Exit…Stage Left
Quincy Jones: The Dude
Chaka Khan: Whatcha Gonna Do For Me
Lee Ritenour: Rit
David Sanborn: Voyeur
Frank Zappa: Shut Up N Play Yer Guitar/You Are What You Is
John Martyn: Glorious Fool
David Byrne/Brian Eno: My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts
Grace Jones: Nightclubbing
Level 42: Level 42
John McLaughlin/Al Di Meola/Paco De Lucia: Friday Night In San Francisco
Jaco Pastorius: Word Of Mouth
King Crimson: Discipline
Japan: Tin Drum
The Tubes: The Completion Backward Principle
Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle…

Not bad. I can’t see how another year is gonna beat 1981, but we shall see…

Book Review: Steve Jansen’s Through A Quiet Window

karn sylvian

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Stanhope Gardens, London, 1981

Ringo Starr was once asked: What do you remember about recording Sgt Pepper’s? His reply? ‘I learnt how to play chess on that album.’

Not to do Ringo down at all – he’s the reason this writer picked up the drum sticks – but the line does say something about the sometimes tedious nature of recording in the era of multi-tracking.

The drummer may have laid down all his parts in the first week of a project, so he or she had better have a Plan B for when the rest of the band are tinkering endlessly.

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Japan drummer Steve Jansen didn’t learn chess but he did use his time very productively while the band recorded their masterpieces, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum; he developed his formidable photography skills, and now his work has been collected in a sumptuously-designed hardback book ‘Through A Quiet Window’.

To say that it will appease Japan fans is a total understatement – it makes a brilliant companion piece to Anthony Reynolds’ excellent recent biography ‘A Foreign Place’, and brings the band’s relatively short but very eventful story to life.

We see portraits of the band in all kinds of different locations, mainly between 1979 and 1981: Mick Karn laying down his bass parts at AIR Studios and mooching about Holland Park in West London; David Sylvian lounging in various hotel rooms and recording studios including the Townhouse and the Manor, Richard Barbieri sitting stone-faced at his keyboard or smirking on the tour bus.

There is also a memorably candid shot of Karn and Sylvian at the breakfast table in their Stanhope Gardens flat. We also see fleeting glimpses of producers Steve Nye and John Porter at various mixing desks, often flanked by either Karn or Sylvian.

Jansen’s other musical projects of the time are also beautifully documented, including various Japanese sojourns featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya and Akiko Yano.

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Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn and David Sylvian, South Moulton Street, London 1981

While there are a lot of laughs about, the overall impression is of a very insular bunch of guys, extremely dedicated to their music but also their friendships. No real surprise there, then, but the intimate nature of many photos is very refreshing.

Steve Jansen demonstrates the same precision and natural sense of timing behind the camera as he always does behind the kit. And there are some cracking hairstyles on show too. Highly recommended.

‘Through A Quiet Window’ is available from Artes Publishing.

Gig Review: Phil Gould/Mike Lindup/Wally Badarou @ 606 Club, 11th January 2016

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Phil Gould in 1987

‘Pocket’ is hard to define but you know it when you hear it.

Drummers often say that you’re either in the pocket or you ain’t, and as such the expression is mostly used in association with great US groovemasters like Richie Hayward, James Gadson, Bernard Purdie and Andy Newmark.

But ex-Level 42 drummer Phil Gould has been busy over the last 35 years (and a personal musical hero for about 30 of those) laying claim to be the UK’s premier proponent of ‘pocket’, but he has a lot of other weapons in his arsenal too.

Though relatively quiet since leaving Level 42 in 1987 (making a brief return in 1994), Gould pops up on the London live music scene now and again. He also released his first solo album Watertight in 2009.

This 606 gig was very much a Level 42 reunion of sorts featuring keyboards and vocals from Mike Lindup and honorary ‘fifth member’ Wally Badarou, though, in an unexpected but typically generous move from the modest drummer/leader, the focus was very much on excellent vocalists Diana Winter and Sumudu with added support from the superb Yolanda Charles on bass, guitarist Fabio Balestrieri and Alex (son of Phil) Gould on piano and occasional drums.

The opening ‘Madness’ was a reliable portent of things to come, with Gould’s tasty, behind-the-beat groove underpinning some gentle Latin percussion and Mike Lindup’s strong vocals and electric piano. Winter and Sumudu took centrestage for most of the rest of the first set, their voices combining exceptionally well especially on the catchy ‘Supergirl’.

Badarou dusted off a funky, rough-and-ready version of the mid-’80s dancefloor classic ‘Chief Inspector’, adding some piquant synth flavours, while Lindup aired an excellent songwriting collaboration with Billy Cobham and Dominic Miller.

Perhaps predictably though, the highlight of the evening was a nifty run-through of the classic Level 42 instrumental ‘Heathrow’, with Charles powering the band superbly and even supplying a note-for-note rendition of Mark King’s original bass part.

On a difficult day for music, with the earlier announcement of David Bowie’s death, Gould provided an uplifting – if very light – evening with lots of healing sounds, fine vocals, lean grooves and good vibes.

It’s always a pleasure to hear him at the kit, and it’s also always a pleasure to get down to the 606, one of the great hidden gems of the London music scene.

The Dude Abides: Johnny Guitar Watson’s Love Jones

johnny guitar watsonWhen it comes to the arts, ‘nobody knows anything’, as screenwriter William Goldman famously claimed.

But the music biz sure knows a good formula when it sees one. And in the late-1970s and early ’80s, formulas didn’t come much more successful than Johnny Guitar Watson’s.

His fusion of funk, blues, disco, jazz and R’n’B even gave Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire a run for their money. He was simply one of the coolest musicians ever to walk the planet.

A Texan blues master who influenced many guitarists including Frank Zappa (the two would collaborate regularly in the ’70s and ’80s), Watson relaunched his sound with Ain’t That A Bitch in 1977, a superb marriage of hilarious lyrics, double-tracked vocals, cool Stevie/Sly/Curtis grooves, ambitious horn arrangements and searing guitar solos. It was a big success and Watson spent the rest of the ’70s repeating the formula with minor variations and, to be honest, diminishing returns.

Ain’t That A Bitch hooked me right away. My dad had a knackered old cassette copy which came in a really horrible silver-and-yellow design, but for some reason I was fascinated by it. There was something seriously dodgy about the cover photo, title and…everything, really. But then I listened to it. By the late ’80s, I was getting into Sly, Stevie and The Isleys, so Bitch fitted in like a dream and became an essential soundtrack to summer 1989.

On 1980’s Love Jones, Johnny expanded his sound to include influences from P-Funk, gospel, bebop, bossa-nova, Afro-beat, hip-hop and even country, and the result is one of the weirdest but most interesting albums of his career. A lot of it sounds very rushed, as if his mind wasn’t really on the job, but that sometimes works in its favour!

With hindsight, Johnny should be included alongside Sly, Prince, D’Angelo, Stevie and Lewis Taylor as one of soul music’s finest multi-instrumentalists – on his great albums of the 1970s and early ’80s, he plays all the keyboards, bass, guitars and some drums, as well as producing and arranging.

His keyboard playing gives guys like Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann a run for their money, and he even once recorded a whole album of piano/vocal ballads, 1963’s I Cried For You.

Love Jones kicks off with the infectious ‘Booty Ooty’, powered by the great, unsung drummer Emry Thomas, which adds a touch of P-Funk to Johnny’s classic horn-driven sound.

The title track is a fairly cheesy soul ballad, while ‘Goin’ Up In Smoke’ continues his strand of state-of-the-nation political funk/blues tunes which began with Ain’t That A Bitch‘s title track in ’76. ‘Close Encounters’ is just plain odd, a bossa-nova with some funny lyrics about a mistaken love affair – ‘It was close encounters of the wrong kind’!

His update of ‘Lone Ranger’ is a classic, featuring some outrageous vocal scatting and some nutty electric piano and bass solos. The gospel curio ‘Jet Plane’ has a criminally-out-of-tune bass, badly-recorded keyboards and amateurish drums (presumably played by Johnny), but it still works.

Ditto the seriously weird ‘Children Of The Universe’, a country-rock coming-of-age piece which sounds like The New Seekers backing Sly Stone.

But Love Jones‘s centrepiece is of course the mighty ‘Telephone Bill’, oft cited as one of the first rap tracks. In 1994, Watson was asked if he had anticipated the hip-hop movement:

“Anticipated? I damn well invented it! And I wasn’t the only one. Talkin’ rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you’d hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talkin’ has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I’m talkin’ in melody. When I play, I’m talkin’ with my guitar. I may be talkin’ trash, baby, but I’m talkin’!”.

Yessir, but more importantly the track features his best guitar solo on record, an amazing mash-up of bebop, blues and funk.

Compared to the lush, meticulously-arranged Ain’t That A Bitch, Love Jones sounds like a series of demos but it still works, like pretty much all of Johnny’s music. He carried on touring and recording right through to his death in 1996. I wish I’d seen him play live. See ya, Johnny.

Ladies And Gentlemen, It’s Max…Headroom!

388px-Mhcom_max_headroom_guidetolife_frontYep, it’s M-M-M-M-Max, scourge of celebrities everywhere and purveyor of surreal one-liners, bizarre stream-of-consciousness meanderings and often-quite-obscure music videos.

Max was created in 1985 by Annabel Jankel (sister of Ian Dury-collaborator Chaz), Rocky Morton and George Stone as rather eccentric, attention-grabbing ‘talking head’ to present videos on the burgeoning Channel Four.

Brilliantly played by Matt Frewer, who apparently had to endure over four hours in the make-up chair before each day of filming, Max was born in a one-off drama shown on Channel Four in 1985.

He then returned to front two series of ‘The Max Headroom Show’ in 1985 and 1986. The show then moved to the US for two series shown in ’87 and ’88.

People probably either loved or hated Max but I was an immediate fan. I even bought the book. Large swathes of his monologues are indelibly etched on my memory. Even today, I can’t hear the words ‘Sebastian Coe’ without thinking of Max’s unique delivery.

I also discovered some good music and vids on his shows too, including Peter Gabriel’s live version of ‘I Don’t Remember’, The Redskins’ ‘Bring It Down’, Donald Fagen’s amazing ‘New Frontier’ vid (directed by Jankel and Morton) and Sid Vicious’s terrifying ‘My Way’ (how did that get onto pre-watershed TV?).

Most of the press attention was aimed at the state-of-the-art computer graphics, the incredible make-up job and bizarre speech patterns. But, apart from the music vids, what immediately hooked me was his smarmy, gleeful piss-taking. He was kind of a mixture of Fletch and Johnny Rotten. There was also a touch of Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase’s smarmy Weekend Update newsreaders on ‘Saturday Night Live’.

Though the show had three regular writers – David Hanson, Tim John and Paul Owen – Frewer apparently improvised a large part of Max’s ramblings. I always assumed Max’s ‘cool guy’ persona was coming from Steve Martin but Frewer claims that he based Max’s shtick on Ted Knight’s hilariously hammy portrayal of Ted Baxter in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’.

Possibly the sections of the show which have the most relevance now are Max’s interviews with stars like Sting (see below), Boy George and David Byrne. Years before Dennis Pennis, he was hilariously detached, if not downright dismissive of their celebrity status. I loved the way he ridiculed Sting’s new ‘jazz’ direction.

Later on, the tables were turned as Max found himself being interviewed on primetime chat shows by David Letterman and Terry Wogan. He calls Letterman ‘Davey-doo’ throughout and seems to be slowly driving him to distraction.

 

I had a few episodes on video for many years but chucked them out a while ago – a big mistake, as there’s still no sign of a UK DVD. Long live Max!

Randy Newman: Trouble In Paradise

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Warner Bros. Records, released 17th January 1983

8/10

One of the recurring themes of Randy Newman’s interviews seems to be the question of how long songwriters can maintain high-quality work.

He frequently compares himself to Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Don Henley and Paul Simon, wondering if he’s keeping pace. Trouble In Paradise proved that he was certainly keeping up, if not outstripping all of them.

After somewhat of a commercial breakthrough with 1977’s Little Criminals, Randy came seriously unstuck with the 1979 follow-up, Born Again. So a lot was riding on 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, and it certainly delivered; song for song, it equals Sail Away or Little Criminals.

Randy unleashes a parade of shucksters, hucksters, bigots, junkies and unreliable narrators that would be right at home in a David Mamet play or Coen Brothers movie.

In a neat irony, he also used the cream of the LA session elite (Jeff Porcaro, Jerry Hey, Nathan East, Steve Lukather, various Eagles and Fleetwood Macs) to sugarcoat his short stories; Trouble is one of the best-sounding bad-vibes albums in rock history, alongside Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti and Steely Dan’s Gaucho.

Randy almost had a second hit single with the deceptively cheery ‘I Love LA’, the Cole Porter-style intro leading into an ironic, ambivalent comment on the American Dream and some of its discontents. ‘Christmas In Cape Town’ is a disturbing portrait of Apartheid-era South Africa apparently written under the influence of Nadine Gordimer’s books.

‘The Blues’ is an amusing duet with Paul Simon poking fun at the plight of the oversensitive singer-songwriter, though Newman has claimed that he regrets writing the song. ‘Mikey’s’ is another amusing portrait of a racist, reactionary douchebag, with our narrator sounding off over a robotic synth-rock backing which seems to be Randy’s pastiche of new-wave rock.

I love the way the narrator comments on the music, bellowing: ‘Didn’t used to be all this ugly music playing all time… Where are we, on the moon? Whatever happened to the old songs? Mikey, whatever happened to the fucking “Duke Of Earl”?’!

The hectoring continues on the hilarious ‘My Life Is Good’, a self-mocking vignette which eavesdrops on the life of an arrogant, rich and famous rock star. Springsteen gets a namecheck and Ernie Watts’ booming impersonation of Clarence Clemons is accompanied by Randy screaming, ‘Blow, big man, blow!’ Pretty weird and pretty funny.

Newman then proves that he’s a master of the gear shift with the inclusion of two devastating ballads, ‘Same Girl’ and ‘Real Emotional Girl’. The former, described by its author as a song about ‘two junkies in love’, is a heartbreaking portrait of lost innocence with a sumptuous string arrangement, indelible melody and sometimes dissonant harmonies. He’s just way ahead of his contemporaries here.

The latter is an uncharacteristically tender portrait of a sensitive, gentle young woman who can’t help but get her heart broken. The middle eight is just sublime. Linda Ronstadt has performed this song from time to time.

‘Miami’, which kicks off side two, is the most musically expansive track on Trouble, featuring a delicious performance from Randy’s favourite drummer Jeff Porcaro, intricate stop-start arrangements and eerie mandolins by Dean Parks.

The two filler tracks on Trouble, ‘Take Me Back’ and ‘There’s A Party At My House’, are buried in the middle of side two, while ‘I’m Different’ is a self-mocking swinger with some lovely close-harmony backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and Ronstadt.

The closing ‘Song For The Dead’ is a devastating Vietnam War allegory features a mythological (dead?) colonel who has been left behind to say a prayer for his fallen comrades. The song bravely dares to send up a certain kind of American heroism, but still carries a hefty emotional punch.

Trouble In Paradise was not a commercial success, reaching only number 69 on the US album chart. That is a pretty shocking showing from such a major artist and one of the great songwriters.

The failure seemed to chasten Newman – he jumped back into the world of movies, scoring 1984’s ‘The Natural’ and co-writing the screenplay for the Steve Martin/Chevy Chase vehicle ‘The Three Amigos’. Like his friend and frequent collaborator Ry Cooder, it seemed that film work was now funding an increasingly unpopular solo career.

Randy returned as a solo artist in 1987 to make Land Of Dreams, perhaps the only album of his that hasn’t dated well (though he told Paul Zollo in the brilliant book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting‘ that it’s his personal favourite). Then, over a decade later and against all the odds, he released one more near-classic, 1999’s Bad Love, crowning 30 years of songwriting consistency.

He once told the writer Jon Ronson, tongue placed firmly in cheek: ‘My career has been a disappointment to me. I always hoped I’d sell millions of records. There are 40,000 people out there who just love me. But they may be surprised to hear I’ve been aiming beyond them…’