Art Pepper’s Our Song

A slight detour today and a look at a piece of music that’s been haunting me over the last year or so.

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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.

1981: Best Pop Year Of The 1980s?

royEagle-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 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 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:

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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.

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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…

Book Review: Steve Jansen’s Through A Quiet Window

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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.