Neil Young: This Note’s For You

Neil+Young+This+Notes+For+You+507216Reprise Records, released 11th April 1988

The general critical consensus maintains that Neil had a rotten ’80s. He made folk albums, rockabilly albums, synth-rock albums, undercooked Crazy Horse albums and country albums.

But you can’t say he wasn’t prolific, and hey, he’s Neil Young – there’s always something good going on somewhere. But none of these projects came anywhere near the commercial jackpot, to the extent that his label boss David Geffen sued him for ‘unrepresentative’ product!

But, with the release of 1988’s This Note’s For You, Young was getting back on track. He had returned to the Reprise label of his peak years and was gigging with a hard-hitting ten-piece band The Bluenotes (later changing its name to Ten Men Workin’ after a legal challenge from Harold Melvin) which featured a hot horn section and cracking new drummer Chad Cromwell.

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Neil had ten new songs in the can too, veering between two-chord R’n’B stompers and love ballads in the ballpark of his teenage hero Roy Orbison. He was also playing as much if not more lead guitar than he ever had in his solo career, this time in the biting, incisive style of Alberts King and Collins.

Lyrically, the songs were basically about workin’ hard, lookin’ for love, not sellin’ out and havin’ a good time, but with more humour than Bruce or Billy Joel. ‘I’m a married man – respect my happy home!’ he barks on the strident, irresistible ‘Married Man’. Neil gave writer Paul Zollo some cool insights into the writing of the song in the book ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’:

‘Oh, I like that song. I think I wrote that in my car. I have a ’54 Caddy limo. I was on my way down from Northern California to play with the Bluenotes. I was on Highway 5. Our driver was listening to tapes and I was playing my guitar…’

Neil’s tremulous voice croons ‘You have changed my life in so many ways’ on ‘Can’t Believe Your Lyin’, and it’s both touching and amusing. ‘Ten Men Workin” and ‘Life In The City’ are driving old-school R’n’B gems while ‘Sunny Inside’ is almost Brian Wilsonesque in its charming naivety.

Then there’s the title track, the standout cut on the album (though it inexplicably fades way too soon). A rum, anti-product-placement protest song which nevertheless manages to mention four big brands (and of course mocks Budweiser’s ‘This Bud’s For You’ campaign), it defiantly has its cake and eats it. It’s also a total blast.

In a delicious irony, the old hippie who had spent most of the ’80s in purgatory made one of the great vids of the decade (winning Video Of The Year at the 1989 Video Music Awards), with notable help from writer Charlie Coffey and legendary director Julien Temple. Temple talked about his motivations for making the video:

‘Beer companies and the like were beginning to take over music. A lot of beer ads were using rock musicians. The line between videos and commercials was blurring. We managed to get banned from MTV and win the Video Of The Year award. That was the peak of my video-making career…’

The clip mostly mocks the series of Michelob beer ads which featured the likes of Genesis, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. And it didn’t scrimp on Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston lookalikes. What’s also notable and totally unprecedented is that Neil decided to use a live take of the song for this video, completely different to the album version. Which major star would have the balls to do that today?

This Note’s For You was not a hit, only reaching number 61 in the US album chart. But Neil was laying down a marker for the classic follow-up Freedom. And he had also tapped into something very prescient by focusing on guitar-led soul, blues and R’n’B forms, echoing the resurgence of Clapton, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, Jeff Beck, Albert Collins and Gary Moore, and emergence of hotshots like Jeff Healey and Robert Cray.

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Sideways & Steve Jobs: An Invitation To Windham Hill 30 Years On

Windham+Hill+An+Invitation+To+Windham+Hill+164800DVD commentaries come and go, but among the best I’ve heard is for ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne’s classic 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church. One scene, set at at the fictitious Frass Canyon winery, opens on the shot of a pale, very sincere acoustic guitarist playing a ‘tender’ ballad. On the commentary, Haden Church mutters: ‘Very Windham Hill-ish’, eliciting a chuckle from Giamatti. You get the feeling that the term ‘Windham Hill’ is a code for something not entirely positive…

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For a brief period in my teens, a cassette copy of An Invitation To Windham Hill was always near the family hi-fi. I’m pretty sure my dad wouldn’t have bought it but he seemed to play it quite a lot anyway. It has since become one of those weird albums that I can’t shake despite having no particular interest in its musical genre or artists. Why is that? What is this kind of music really about once you subtract the nostalgia?

The Windham Hill label was founded in 1976 by Californian guitarist William Ackerman, who initially used the imprint to sell his own music out of a Palo Alto garage. Just down the road, Steve Jobs was establishing his Apple empire, and guess what: he was a big fan of Windham Hill, as Ackerman later recounted in an interview: ‘Steve fell in love with the aesthetic. All the Apple computers (played) Windham Hill music when you turned them on. It was such an exciting time. Anything seemed possible. People were making dreams come true, and I did feel part of that.’

Early on, the label emphasised solo acoustic instruments. Later, electronic music, contemporary bluegrass, smooth Latin/jazz and Celtic sounds were eased into the mix. The stark, ‘natural’ style of their album covers was apparently influenced by ECM, as was some of the musical ethos; Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the acoustic guitar work of Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny were apparently important to Windham Hill.

Also, in the same way that Jarrett’s album proved a huge sales breakthrough for ECM, a similar thing happened to Windham Hill – George Winston’s Autumn unexpectedly sold over a million copies and changed the label from a modest, regional imprint to nationally-known entity (and Autumn was the first of his seasonal-themed recordings!).

The whole Windham Hill package, both musically and visually, is very ‘white’, very ‘corporate’, very ‘Thirtysomething‘. It contributed massively to the mid-’80s popularity of New Age music (and the eventual backlash against it). It also has a lot in common with the Minimalist movement (including geography), and seems like music completely stripped of passion, rough edges, funkiness. Despite all that, I still find it pretty fascinating.

But Ian MacDonald has written persuasively about the infantilising effects of this stuff in his brilliant ‘The People’s Music’:

‘Something happens to people who listen to too much minimalism. They begin to smile facetiously, display a genially indiscriminate omni-tolerance and put their feet on your furniture. Some start wearing dungarees and playing with frisbees’!

There is definitely that element to An Invitation To Windham Hill, but it does also highlight the work of two genuinely excellent artists: Mark Isham and Michael Hedges. Isham has been a first-call soundtrack composer for 30 years now but his 1983 debut album Vapour Drawings is an ambient/electronic classic (more on that to come).

Hedges, who died in 1997, blew guitarists’ minds with the release of his debut album Aerial Boundaries. The title track manages to be both an amazing technical feat (it’s a solo piece for drastically detuned guitar sometimes featuring up to four intertwining melodies, achieved with a mixture of picking, tapping and hammer-ons) and also a substantial composition in its own right.

The other solo guitar tracks by Alex De Grassi and Ackerman are weirdly memorable, as are the solo piano pieces. In fact, the whole album is, and it might make a nice soundtrack to your wine-tasting evening or campfire gathering. Or it might not…

Track listing:

A1 George Winston ‘Thanksgiving’ (3:07),
A2 Alex De Grassi ‘Western’ (4:04),
A3 Mark Isham ‘Love Theme’ (From ‘Mrs. Soffel’) (4:11),
A4 William Ackerman ‘Visiting’ (6:07),
A5 Mark Isham ‘In The Blue Distance’ (4:07),
B1 Shadowfax ‘Angel’s Flight’ (4:00),
B2 Scott Cossu ‘Ohana’ (5:03),
B3 Michael Hedges ‘Aerial Boundaries’ (4:39),
B4 William Ackerman ‘The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter’ (3:50)
B5 George Winston ‘Longing/Love’ (5:11)

Why I Won’t Be Throwing My Cassettes Away

compact-cassette-157537_960_720‘We’re not in the music space – we’re in the moment space.’

Daniel Ek, CEO/Founder of Spotify, quoted in ‘The Song Factory‘ by John Seabrook

Spotify undoubtedly has many things going for it, but its boss’s comment might make many a true music fan take pause. It definitely goes some way to explaining why I’ll be hanging on to my cassettes.

Cassettes are anti-moment. They demand patience and care, both in their listening and making. The famous soliloquy in Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ explains the gentle art of compilation construction. Who didn’t try to woo someone with a well-crafted comp? (Maybe people are still trying.) It was also usually a good feeling to be on the receiving end of one, even when it mainly included dodgy ’80s Euro pop.

I’ve still got mutant compilation tapes made 20 years ago which mix up tracks from all kinds of sources: albums hired from the library, albums borrowed from friends, tracks taped from the radio and maybe even a bit of homemade Zappa-style spoken-word weirdness by myself or a few friends.

Then there are the teenage bedroom band rehearsals recorded on a brilliant Philips boombox. Wish I still had that. I swear it made better recordings than a lot of digital four-tracks I’ve heard since. And then there’s the cache of gig tapes recorded directly from the sound desk of various London venues. I barely listen to them but there’s no way I’m gonna chuck ’em.

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Then there are the official album releases. I like the way they sound slightly different on every player. My favourites are probably the grey and black Warner Bros ones of the late-’70s/early-’80s: to this day, Little Feat’s Time Loves A Hero, The Doobie Brothers’ Livin’ On The Fault Line and John Martyn’s Glorious Fool sound so much better on cassette than on CD, with improved dynamics and top-end.

Cassettes were always subtly subversive though – Malcolm McLaren masterminded his band Bow Wow Wow’s (cassette-only, of course) release of 1980 mini-album Your Cassette Pet as a reaction to the ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music‘ protest. He also named their debut single ‘C-30 C-60 C-90 Go!‘ in tribute to the humble tape.

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And the ‘punk’ element of cassettes has also definitely been picked on by Zack Taylor, director of a new documentary called – you guessed it – ‘Cassette’, showing later this month at London’s East End Film Festival. It features the likes of Henry Rollins (right), Thurston Moore and Ian McKaye waxing lyrical about the format which seems to be enjoying a resurgence in the US – cassette sales are on the up and there are reportedly more cassette-only labels than ever before.

This is all great news. Long live the cassette. But what no one tells you (at least here in the UK) is where you can buy a decent cassette player. I need a new one…

Steps Ahead: Magnetic 30 Years On

steps

Is this Philipe Petit?

Elektra/Asylum Records, released summer 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Some improvised music hits you at just the right age, to the extent that 30 years later you can still hum along to all the solos. Baby boomers were lucky enough to have Kind Of Blue, Time Out or Mingus Ah Um but jazz fans brought up on Weather Report and ’80s Miles had albums like Magnetic.

In the mid-’80s, recording and instrument technology was moving quickly, maybe too quickly. This development influenced all kinds of music, from rock to fusion, and, in the wrong hands, led to a lot of grossly-overproduced, unmemorable stuff that barely holds up today. As a few people have said, 1986 may be the worst music year of the decade.

steps 3But 1986 also somehow produced some really memorable fusion music. Smooth Jazz proper was just a twinkle in some bored record exec’s eye and the ever-reliable Japanese market was keeping quality electric jazz alive; Lyle Mays, Mike Stern, Wayne Shorter, John Abercrombie, Miles, Bireli Lagrene, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and John McLaughlin were going strong.

Though Steps Ahead’s Magnetic album embraces technology to a full extent, even more so than on ’84’s Modern Times, given the writing and playing talent (Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, Mike Mainieri) it’s no great surprise that they pull it off with so much aplomb. They had also now added the formidable ex-Weather Report bassist Victor Bailey.

A timeless classic it ain’t, but Magnetic isn’t any old ‘what does this button do?’ mid-’80s studio creation. Though the sound and mastering are superb, emphasised by the presence of Brothers In Arms producer Neil Dorfsman on engineering duties alongside future back-room stars James Farber and Tom Lord-Alge (fresh from Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life), the compositions very definitely come first and the audio ‘experiments’ second.

Despite all this, Magnetic is definitely the least-heralded Steps Ahead album, at least among jazz critics, probably because it’s a real onslaught of styles and sounds, closer to a ‘pop’ album in concept. The melodic themes are strong without ever getting too sugary and each track has a unique flavour. It’s hard to believe the same band can come up with ‘Something I Said’ (featuring one of Brecker’s great ballad performances) and also the coruscating avant-fusion of ‘Beirut’ (developed from a band jam session).

Hiram Bullock plays one of his many classic solos on ‘Trains’, adding some much-needed grit, while George Duke co-produces the weird but exciting contemporary R’n’B of ‘Magnetic Love’ featuring some outrageous sampled Brecker tenor lines and killer Dianne Reeves lead vocals (and great backups from Jocelyn Brown, Janice Pendarvis and Diva Gray).

A synthesized cover of Ellington’s ‘In A Sentimental Mood’ proves Steps’ link to the past masters and features some astonishing EWI (an electronic instrument with the same fingering as a sax that looks like an elongated metal lollipop) from Brecker. There’s even time for some banjo-playing on ‘Cajun’, powered along by Erskine’s superb ride cymbal work. Yellowjackets were definitely listening to that.

It’s weird seeing Steps Ahead playing this material live. They had obviously worked a bit on their stage ‘presentation’ between 1984 and 1986, maybe influenced by Chick Corea and his Elektric Band’s shenanigans. Peter Erskine and Victor Bailey had left to join Joe Zawinul’s Weather Update tour, so ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith, Sting/Miles bassman Darryl Jones and Stern came in, adding some big-name clout and a much tougher sound.

Magnetic was the last major-label action for Steps Ahead. Brecker and Erskine jumped ship but Mike Mainieri would continue with the name over the next few decades fronting a multitude of line-ups. He even fronted a ‘reunion’ tour in 2016 with a formidable band including pianist Eliane Elias and sax player Donny McCaslin.

Marvellous Marvin Gaye: Five From 1983

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Marvin entered 1983 with mixed emotions. His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.

But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career) and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.

Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.

The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs.

Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.

Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game. Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV.

He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly. Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career. It still makes the hairs stand on end.

Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.

His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.

Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.

Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.

Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.

Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.