Just a quick one today to wish Mr Lydon a very happy 60th birthday. He continues to be an intelligent, irreverent, funny and fascinating figure.
A slight detour today and a look at a piece of music that’s been haunting me over the last year or so.
After one of the toughest lives in jazz history, Art Pepper was astonished to still be around in the early ’80s. He managed to rally 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 (check out ‘Notes From A Jazz Survivor’ below).
‘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.
Eagle-eyed readers of this website may have noticed that 1981 has been a bit of a recurring theme recently. And watching the excellent BBC doc ‘The Story Of 1981‘ a 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 nine-year-old 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 Gardens, it was a very peaceful, fun 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 the 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)’
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’
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
Cor. Not bad. I can’t see how another year is gonna beat 1981, but we shall see…
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.
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.
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.
In the days since David’s sad passing, we’ve heard a lot about Bowie the personality, songwriter, performer, chameleon and producer, but it’s also important to acknowledge Bowie the singer.
Though he was apparently very blasé about his own vocal abilities, he must surely lay claim to being one of the finest singers of his generation (this channel has been a revelation) with instinctively brilliant phrasing, breath control, tone and range.
Just compare ‘Move On‘ with ‘The Loneliest Guy‘. David’s frequent collaborator Mike Garson has recently intimated that Bowie would have liked to do a full-on big-band jazz album, and that doesn’t seem so outlandish given the power of his baritone.
I’ll be looking at some other great Bowie vocal performances in future editions but for now we focus on the 1981 UK number one single ‘Under Pressure’. It was arguably the beginning of Bowie’s ‘pop’ period, when his lyrics and music generally celebrated positivity and unity.
In July 1981, Bowie was at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, working on the ‘Cat People‘ theme song with producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder. Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to his good friend (Queen drummer) Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was finally on the cards.
It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: Queen guitarist Brian May later recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’. But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, adrenalin-fuelled few hours, described by producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, they quickly came up with a song initially titled ‘People On Streets’.
The song is a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Mercury is generally playful and operatic, while Bowie is brooding and understated, until he breaks out the extraordinary trademark ‘histrionics’ in the very moving double-tracked section: “Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word, and love dares you to care/And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves”.
It’s also very moving to hear his mastery of breath control here, belying the idea that he was just a good ‘natural’ singer; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout the section, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance. Roger Taylor also clearly joins Bowie for a high harmony. David’s whole vocal in general sends chills down the spine.
It’s also impressive from a vocal and production point of view that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘pressure’ – no mean feat for anyone who’s ever sung in a studio. It’s also instructive to hear the mastery of David Richards’ production – check out the variety of effects added to the vocals, from the deep reverb of the first section through to the total ‘dryness’ of the subdued middle-eight.
The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’
EMI were understandably convinced it was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so, though on its UK release in November 1981 it knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic‘ off the top spot and stayed at number one for two weeks. In the US, ‘Under Pressure’ reached number 29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ six years before.
David returned to the song 11 years later for a very famous rendition at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert on 20th April 1992, and he would perform it frequently throughout the ’90s usually in duet with his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.
Though ‘Fashion‘ was the first Bowie track that hooked me, this was the second, and it’ll forever be a firm favourite. Let’s celebrate a beautiful song and performance. Thanks to my friend Suzanna Noort for hipping me to the vocal-only version.
‘Pocket’ is hard to define but you know it when you hear it. Something akin to a drummer’s ‘feel’, musicians 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’, though he has a lot of other weapons in his arsenal too.
Though he has been 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, releasing 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 beautifully-behind-the-beat groove underpinning some gentle Latin percussion and Mike Lindup’s strong vocals and electric piano. Winter and Sumudu took centre stage 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 somewhat of 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.