Breakthrough Blues: The Robert Cray Band’s Bad Influence

Bad-Influence-coverHightone Records, released summer 1983

9/10

I was watching a newly-discovered Jaco Pastorius Q and A session from 1985 this week. Poor Jaco clearly wasn’t in the best of health, neither mentally nor physically.

Apparently he turned up at the Musicians Institute in LA without a bass and had to borrow a student’s axe. But when he played it, despite the instrument’s shortcomings, he sounded exactly like himself. In other words, his sound was completely in his fingers, not in any amp or effects pedal.

It got me thinking about other players who always sound only like themselves, no matter what axe they use or what kind of music they’re playing. Near the top of that list would have to be the great American guitarist, singer and songwriter Robert Cray.

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

Tina Turner with Robert, 1986

In guitar terms, he sticks pretty rigidly to his tried and tested sound: a Fender Strat plugged straight into the amp, no effects apart from a very occasional tremolo pedal, and very, very hard picking. But, in the process, on Bad Influence he plays three or four of the most electrifying guitar solos of the ’80s, proving himself a worthy heir to Albert King and Albert Collins.

But his tough guitar style is a contrast to a fairly sweet, soulful vocals and songwriting which reflect the influence of Al Green and BB King more than Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker.

Bad Influence was Robert’s second official release, and it was pretty much the one that alerted the wider world outside of blues aficionados to his potential. The Robert Cray Band had built up a formidable live following in the early ’80s, touring relentlessly on the West Coast and in Europe.

With the help of producers Bruce Bromberg and Dennis Walker, they were ready to take that consistency into the studio. And it certainly helps that there are no trinkets of ’80s production present on the album, no synths or dated drum sounds – Bad Influence mostly just sounds like a great band playing live in the studio, with the occasional addition of horns and Hammond organ.

Bad Influence is mainly known for its superb cover versions: Johnny Guitar Watson’s ‘Don’t Touch Me’ and Eddie Floyd’s ‘Got To Make A Comeback’, both slow 6/8 jams, the former angry and biting, the latter sweet and soulful. ‘The Grinder is another slowish 6/8 with a killer Cray solo. The CD version also comes with a great cover of the New Orleans R’n’B classic ‘I Got Loaded’.

The best-known songs from the album are probably the minor-key blues/funk standard ‘Phone Booth’ (featuring not one but two classic guitar solos), later covered by Albert King, and the title track which was subsequently covered by Eric Clapton on his less-than-essential August album (the two have collaborated many times since).

Also essential are the super-funky ‘So Many Women So Little Time’ and Bo Diddley-esque ‘No Big Deal’. Lyrically, my personal favourite is probably ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’, a kind of ‘ironic’ blues about procrastination. Vocally, ‘March On’ is also fantastic.

To date, Bad Influence has (according to some accounts) sold over a million copies, showing how much the blues was a hot ticket in the ’80s. Cray’s two follow-ups False Accusations and Strong Persuader sold even more, but arguably placed more emphasis on production and songwriting than on uncut guitar playing. Production was also a bit of an issue on the Cray/Collins/Johnny Copeland collaboration Showdown, which could and should have been a classic. But no matter – Robert is the real deal.

Magick Moments: Siouxsie and the Banshees In The Early ’80s

Siouxsie_and_the_Banshees-3

Steve Severin, Siouxsie, Budgie

One of the nice things about immersing oneself in ’80s music is rediscovering stuff you’d once dismissed or were too young to really investigate. I must have been vaguely aware of Siouxsie’s music at some point in the decade, but she didn’t really appear on my radar until I started to get interested in the Sex Pistols around the early ’90s (she was famously in the studio during the Pistols/Bill Grundy ‘swearfest’ and even had the misfortune of being ‘propositioned’ by the semi-sloshed presenter…).

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

But now it’s time to confess: I almost wish I had been a Goth in 1982/1983. In these days of twee, over-sharing singer-songwriters and soul-deadening ‘rock’ bands, what is immediately appealing about Siouxsie and the Banshees is their absolute earnestness, the total lack of irony. They mean it, maaaan! These days, pop bands flirt with magickal images, shamanistic sounds and boundary-pushing lyrics, but the Banshees really were dark and truly an alternative (or reaction?) to shiny, aspirational Thatcherism. The song titles said it all: ‘Halloween’, ‘Nightshift’, ‘Voodoo Dolly’, ‘Arabian Knights’.

They also flew in the face of punk, totally rejecting the ‘DIY’ ethos. As bassist Steve Severin told Simon Reynolds in the excellent ‘Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews And Overviews’, ‘I never understood where that do-it-yourself ethic came from. It was so patently obvious that not everybody could do it. You had to have a modicum of talent and an original idea. But for one moment, the floodgates opened and everyone had their five minutes, put their single out, and then disappeared back to what they were destined to do in the first place.’

The Banshees began the decade with three classic albums of their kind: Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (best album title ever?). It was no accident that they all featured one of the great British guitarists in John McGeoch, master of inventive chord voicings and creative layering. The era spawned a raft of great singles: ‘Spellbound‘, ‘Happy House’, ‘Christine’, ‘Slowdive’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Israel’, ‘Dear Prudence‘. Even as the post-punk era turned into fully-fledged Goth, they always retained a pop sensibility.

By 1982, though, it has to be said that they had also turned into a truly Bacchanalian outfit, with copious drug use, booze breakdowns and all kinds of weird rituals. McGeoch was sacked after collapsing onstage in Madrid, apparently as a result of an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown. (He re-emerged with The Armoury Show before becoming a member of PiL between ’86 and ’92. He died in 2004.)

The Cure’s Robert Smith filled in on guitar when McGeoch left, as he had at various times between 1979 and 1983 (Polydor Records apparently tried and failed to ‘merge’ The Cure and The Banshees towards the end of this period). He later said of his tenure in the Banshees: ‘It allowed me to go mad for a period of time. I had no responsibilities. I just had to turn up and play the guitar. Severin and I became good friends. Our friendship was based entirely on altered states. I’ve never felt as bad in all my life as when I was in the Banshees. I reached a point of total collapse in 1983.’

Siouxsie herself has revealed that she was on an LSD jag around ’82 and ’83, particularly inspiring the songs on Dreamhouse. Recently, she told MOJO magazine: ‘I seem to remember “Cocoon” being written whilst I was tripping. I was in a rented flat and if I didn’t have a notebook I used to write on the wallpaper.’

The band’s early ’80s period was also musically very influential. There were those effective, trademark tempo changes – usually a slowish intro that suddenly gathers momentum in the verse. As far as I know, no rock bassist had used a flanger pedal before Severin. Budgie came up with some arresting tribal rhythms and all their guitarists pretty much wrote the post-punk rulebook. As Robert Smith once said, tongue firmly in cheek: ‘I just used to turn all the effects pedals on – your basic Banshees sound.’ And Siouxsie is always such a powerful vocal presence. You can hear her sound in everyone from the Cocteau Twins and Lush to PJ Harvey and Florence And The Machine.

So here we are. The Royal Albert Hall, 30th September 1983. Siouxsie in her Goth Princess pomp, Robert Smith (who, despite everything, is obviously an excellent guitarist), Steve Severin and Budgie. Almost wish I’d been there. Were you there (as Shaw Taylor used to say)?

Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

I love you/You pay my rent

 

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

THOMAS DOLBY: ‘Hot Sauce’ (lyrics by George Clinton)

Brother in the codpiece/I’ve seen him on the TV
I think he likes his ladies all sweet and sugary
I’m partial to a pudding/But that’s for second course
The main meal and the hors d’oeuvres must be smothered in hot sauce’

 

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

I believe in love/
I’ll believe in anything/
That’s gonna get me what I want/
And get me off my knees’

 

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

I want you/
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/
It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

 

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

Hey Mikey/
Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

 

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/
Your lovers would look like movie stars’

 

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

‘Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
I might end up in the hospital’

 

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

‘Once there was an angel/
An angel and some friends/
Who flew around from song to song/
Making up the ends’

 

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

Burn down the disco/
Hang the blessed DJ’

 

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/
And the sun’s riding high/
I must bid you farewell/
Every man has to die/
But it’s written in the starlight/
And every line in your palm/
We are fools to make war/
On our brothers in arms’

 

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

Out on the road today/
I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/
A little voice inside my head said/
Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

 

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

‘Hello Johnson/
Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/
There’s no reason to get so excited/
I’d been playing football with the youngsters/
Johnson says don’t dramatise/
And you can’t even spell salacious’

 

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

‘I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat…’

 

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

‘Come back Mum and Dad/
You’re growing apart/
You know that I’m growing up sad/
I need some attention/
I shoot into the light’

 

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

‘People say that I’m no good/
Painting pictures and carving wood/
Be a rich man if I could/
But the only job I do well is here on the farm/
And it’s breaking my back’

 

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

So long, child/
It’s awful dark’

 

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

I could have been someone/
Well, so could anyone’

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part One)

Elis Regina

Elis Regina

What makes good summer music? Damned if I know, but the 1980s seemed to produce an endless trickle of tracks tailor-made for long, hot evenings.

Putting together this list, I gave myself only two rules: an artist can only appear once, and the choice has to be slightly off the beaten track, so no ‘accepted’ summer classics.

What else does the full selection (parts two and three to follow) have in common? Not a lot; there’s pop, funk, fusion, Latin, AOR, Brazilian, hip-hop and psychedelia, but of course they’re all pretty ‘up’ pieces of music.

Some of these songs were heard and bought when they came out, others have become key summer selections in the years since. Many of them will make up my soundtrack for this season and I hope yours too.

The Lotus Eaters: ‘The First Picture Of You’

On a very warm summer’s evening five or six years ago, I was in a pub just off Piccadilly Circus when this beguiling track came on – I was smitten, and have been ever since.

Robert Fripp featuring Daryl Hall: ‘North Star’

A rather lovely, rather uncharacteristic ballad from the Wimborne guitar master, prefiguring King Crimson’s ‘Matte Kudasai’.

Elis Regina: ‘Calcanhar de Aquiles’

One of the purest Brazilian voices of all time. This is from her final studio album, 1980’s Elis.

Dukes Of Stratosphear: ‘Bike Ride To The Moon’

Nothing says summer to me like Brit psychedelia. But since I’m not allowed anything by Syd Barrett/The Beatles/Small Faces/Kinks, XTC’s alter-egos will do just fine.

Wendy & Lisa: ‘Honeymoon Express’

Best known as Prince’s chief collaborators between 1984-1986, I never tire of Wendy & Lisa’s sublime vocal harmonies in the chorus.

Roy Ayers: ‘Poo Poo La La’

By the time of 1984’s In The Dark album, Roy didn’t have much to prove and was clearly having some fun in the studio. Contains the line: ‘Poo poo la la means I love you’!

Toninho Horta featuring Joyce: ‘Beijo Partido (Broken Kiss)’

A classic Brazilian ballad, full of gorgeous and mysterious harmonies, from a seriously underrated guitarist/songwriter. Taken from the 1988 album Diamond Land.

It Bites: ‘Once Around The World’

Included mainly for its pastoral, elegant opening section, the Cumbrian four-piece excelled themselves with this astonishing 15-minute melody-fest.

Light Of The World: ‘London Town’

This Brit-funk classic reminds me of all that’s great about summer in my hometown.

Talk Talk: April 5th

talk talkIt’s that time of year again. The birds are swaying, the trees are singing (to quote Dylan Moran) and a young man’s fancy turns to music (to misquote Tennyson).

We all have our favourite spring/summer tracks but in my gaff there isn’t an ’80s tune that does the job better than this gem.

Songwriters Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green pinpoint April 5th as the date when spring really kicks in, and this deceptively ramshackle, charmingly off-the-cuff track features elegant piano, Hammond organ, wobbly Variophon, Robbie McIntosh dobro, David Roach soprano sax, subtle percussion programming and a killer chord change.

It was probably the highlight of The Colour Of Spring and forerunner to classic TT post-rock albums Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, highlighting improvisation, lots of space and a much more pastoral sound than before. It floats in like a half-remembered childhood dream and then floats away just as rapidly.

Here she comes
Silent in her sound
Here she comes
Fresh upon the ground

Come gentle spring
Come at winter’s end
Gone is the pallor from a promise that’s nature’s gift

Waiting for the colour of spring
Let me breathe
Let me breathe the colour of spring

Here she comes
Laughter in her kiss
Here she comes
Shame upon her lips

Come wanton spring, come
For birth you live
Youth takes its bow before the summer the seasons bring

Waiting for the colour of spring
Let me breathe you

Chris Rea: On The Beach 30 Years Old Today

chris reaMagnet/Geffen Records, released 1st April 1986

6/10

Rea has – a little unfairly – never quite been able to escape a slightly dodgy image here in the UK, but, along with George Michael, he was probably the most popular male British singer/songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe too popular for the music press.

The breakthrough/breakdown was his 1989 single/album ‘The Road To Hell’, so close to the Dire Straits sound as to be almost parody. I preferred the more laidback, distinctive Rea of the mid-’80s.

But he’s always been a solid songwriter, great guitarist and distinctive vocalist. He started out pushing the glossy AOR and light, folky pop, enjoying a huge US hit with ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ in 1978 (later claiming that early producer Gus Dudgeon had blunted the ‘bluesier’ elements of his sound).

His career seemed to be hitting a cul-de-sac in the early ’80s, but On The Beach was one of the albums that turned things around, the beginning of his commercial peak.

rea back cover

It taps into the same kind of jazzy, introspective pop/soul sound that the likes of John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were flirting with in the same period, helped by an excellent band including Fairport Convention/XTC drummer Dave Mattacks, Martin Ditcham on percussion and Max Middleton on keys.

Rea also plays an impressive array of instruments himself, including fretless bass and synth.

Listening in one sitting to On The Beach again, the first thing that struck me is its almost relentlessly downbeat vibe. But the opening title track, with its lilting Latin-tinged groove and jazz chords, perfectly introduces the album’s themes of lost innocence and childhood reminiscences. The moment when Mattacks lays into his fat snare drum for the first time is one of my favourite ’80s drumming moments (but I wasn’t keen on the re-recording of the track that became a hit in 1988).

‘Little Blonde Plaits’ is a vehicle for Middleton’s expressive Mini Moog, very redolent of his atmospheric playing on John Martyn’s Glorious Fool. There’s further ethereal jazziness on ‘Just Passing Through’, featuring a really lovely vocal performance and tasty solo guitar from Rea.

‘It’s All Gone’ ups the ante with some subtle Donald Fagen-style synths and excellent lyrics, and the groovy extended outro is close enough for jazz/funk with some empathetic Mattacks drums alongside Middleton’s fine Fender Rhodes solo.

On The Beach was a decent hit in the UK, reaching 11 in the album chart and selling over 300,000 copies. After this, Rea’s music became increasingly rootsy with elements of blues, country and rock’n’roll; he started channelling Dire Straits and ZZ Top rather than John Martyn and consequently enjoyed much more commercial success.

But On The Beach‘s four or five choice tracks are still my favourite Rea moments of the ’80s.