MCA Records, released November 1984
Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1985
One wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight.
But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious from the get-go that Nik was a superb musician and songwriter. He had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.
He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, probably didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’!
The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who later produced Rush’s Power Windows. It features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads.
Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads.
Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.
‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.
The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.
Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – probably a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith.
6 thoughts on “No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle”
Excellent album. Thanks for reminding me, Matt.
Thanks for that, and glad you like it too.
So. Many. Chords.
I love this album a little less than Human Racing but it is part of a classic 80’s education. Check out his “No frills – acoustic” album for an update on his excellent song writing. And a Dancing Girls waltz….
Ta Seb, yes indeed, this kid knew one or two chords. I will give that ‘No Frills’ stuff a listen, though I saw Nik’s recent acoustic show at the Union Chapel and am pretty sure I prefer his compositions with all the technological bells and whistles.
The best part of the album is the first 6 tracks (from “Don Quixote” to the title-track), in my opinion. After that, concerning the 4 tracks left, I love “Wide Boy” and “Save the whale” to a cetain extent. But I’m not enthusiastic about “City of angels” that lacks of a strong direction, and even though I loved “Roses” during my first listens of the album, this song bored me rather quickly.
I would say that I would choose “Know how” as a favorite track. What a marvellous song : funky and pop, dark and shiny at the same time. It sounds like it was a juxtaposition of 2 or 3 different songs, and the result is wonderful.
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Thanks for dropping in Nono, and know what you mean about the album rather running out of steam towards the end. The last three tracks were obviously cobbled together pretty quickly. I’m also with you on ‘Know How’ – always my go-to track, along with ‘Easy’.