By his own admission, Paul Simon had some very lean years between his 1975 classic Still Crazy After All These Years and 1986’s multi-million selling, multi-Grammy-winning Graceland.
His 1983 album Hearts And Bones was a major flop despite featuring some fine songs and great musicianship.
But the real nadir was ‘One-Trick Pony’. I stumbled across it very late at night on British TV in the late ’90s and was instantly gripped. It’s that special kind of crap movie – the ‘rock star’ vanity project with a gallon of overreaching ambition.
To say it hasn’t aged well would be a huge understatement, though, as with most genuinely bad films, it features a myriad of guilty pleasures too…
In 1980, Simon clearly wanted to celebrate his new Warner Bros record contract with a bang (he’d just jumped ship from CBS) but who persuaded him that a self-written, autobiographical movie was the answer? His screen persona was hitherto based pretty much on one (admittedly superb) cameo in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’.
But in ‘One-Trick Pony’ he tried to carry an entire movie with just two default settings: he’s either bopping around the stage, sweaty and somewhat bug-eyed, trying desperately to ‘rock’ (in Joe Queenan’s memorably cruel words, Simon is ‘too short to rock’n’roll, too young to die’), or he’s sulky and morose, peering doe-eyed into the middle distance, desperately trying to be adorable.
Simon plays Jonah Levin, a once-popular folk-rock artist who has fallen on hard times (see what he did there?) and now reduced to hawking his band (Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Richard Tee and Eric Gale) around the Midwest, supporting bands like the B-52’s (who are held up as an example of the ‘hideous’ way the recording industry is going, but whose schtick is so much more vital and life-affirming than Simon’s supposedly ‘raw’ music…).
Jonah’s relationship with his estranged wife – Blair Brown in a completely thankless role – is terminally dull, with undramatic longueurs and clunking one-liners. There’s also some excruciating stuff with Jonah’s ‘cute’ son. You know the kind of thing – lots of ‘whatever happens, Daddy loves you, OK?’, cloying shenanigans with baseball mitts and copying Daddy shaving at the mirror.
From a muso perspective, you might well ask how a movie so heavily featuring superstar players such as Gadd, Gale, Tee and Levin can be outright crap. Well, the novelty effect lasts a few minutes but after that you can only feel for these gents – they’re given pretty thankless roles, playing a fairly tasteless ‘dead pop stars’ quiz in the car, reading out gig reviews and endlessly checking into dodgy hotels. Poor Richard Tee and Eric Gale look the most uncomfortable.
Jonah’s dealings with the record-biz ‘suits’ in ‘One-Trick Pony’ are presumably based on Simon’s disagreements with his previous employers CBS Records, and they produce the only enjoyable sections of the film.
Rip Torn is reliably gruff though resolutely uncomical in his impersonation of legendary CBS hatchet man Walter Yetnikoff, but Lou Reed clearly relishes his cameo as a jobsworth producer; he’s desperate to add strings, horns and backing vocals to Jonah’s stripped-down tracks. Cue a lingering close-up of David Sanborn letting rip on alto, though we’re never sure if this is meant to be a Bad Thing or even a joke – to this viewer, it seemed like the first bit of decent music in the movie.
Oh yeah, the music. The soundtrack of course did a hell of a lot better than the movie – great single ‘Late In The Evening’ featured a Steve Gadd groove almost as influential as ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ and even made the top 10 in the States.
To be fair to Simon, he had sorted out his screen persona by the time of the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video in 1986, settling on a kind of faux-naif ‘everyman’ figure with some aplomb. He was also pretty funny in Steve Martin’s ‘Homage To Steve’ short from the same year. But let’s just rejoice that he hasn’t returned to the world of feature films since…
1. He was the singer in early-’80s pop band The Teardrop Explodes.
2. He was a solo artist later in the decade and had some decent hits like ‘World Shut Your Mouth’, ‘Trampolene’ and ‘Charlotte Anne’.
3. He is interested in paganism and various esoterica.
4. He has published a few well-regarded memoirs.
Well, that’s a start. But suddenly everything’s going Cope-crazy round my gaff. For starters, I recently read one of said memoirs ‘Head-On/Repossessed’ after coming across it in my local library, a hilarious, unhinged, Withnailesque account of a singer’s journey through the 1980s pop firmament.
Here’s a slightly-edited excerpt, an account of Cope’s first acid-assisted appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ alongside the other Explodes including arch nemesis/keyboardist Dave Balfe.
By the time we reached the BBC TV Centre in London, everyone was f***ed up. We seethed out of the car and moved as one gibbering person towards the dressing room. Tony Hadley (of Spandau Ballet) walked elegantly down the corridor.
‘Hey, there’s Spandoo!’, cried Balfe, and I danced around the singer, psychotically friendly and encouraging.
We piled into the dressing room. Waiting around was not a drag. We got to see Toyah lisp her way through some piece of kack and we got to dance on the stage during our rehearsals. The acid made us happy and nice. We gushed around the place like inbreds at a New England dinner party.
Then we were on. Suddenly the song (‘Reward’) sounded like a massive hit. ‘Top Of The Pops’, man. It’s total bullshit. But it’s brilliant. I loved it. Let’s be huge.
Afterwards, we partied at some club, as you do. Women were nice to me. Men complimented me. I just sat there drooling all night…
A few months later, Cope finds himself invited back to the ‘TOTP’ studios to perform ‘Passionate Friend’ for the 1981 Christmas special. He comes across another of his pop contemporaries:
A group called Bucks Fizz were doing their thing on the other side of the studio. I watched, fascinated. I felt sucked into their scene. God, they were brilliant. I wanted to be in Bucks Fizz…
‘Head-On’ continues very much in this vein, and it’s superb. ‘Repossessed’ concerns Cope’s life and solo career later in the ’80s. It begins with him surveying the wreckage of The Teardrop Explodes:
Here was I, struck down with shamanistic depression, while Balfe had immediately gone off and set up a new label called Food Records, with the cynical, f***-you-up-the-ass ’80s motto: LET US PREY!
F***, man, you invented the ’80s. Learn from your mistakes, you gormless, bug-eyed bushbaby! You’ve preyed on everyone these past years – d’ you have to make such a Thatcherite celebration of it, you unmystical f***er?
If there’s a better put-down in music-biography history, I’ve yet to read it. And then I had a vague recollection of Cope making a memorable appearance on a great programme from the late ’80s called ‘Star Test’ (though, perhaps tellingly, it’s not mentioned in ‘Repossessed’).
Finally, one last recent Cope discovery, fascinating and entertaining, creating lots of food for thought and travel tips. You certainly couldn’t call him an unmystical f***er.
(PS: Julian and Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins: separated at birth?)
It can’t hurt a record label to have a USP, a recognisable visual concept and/or sound.
It has certainly stood Blue Note, Impulse and 4AD in good stead.
When one thinks of ECM, images of fjords, mountains or trees probably come to mind, alongside a certain sonic quality, a kind of rarefied ambience (producer/owner Manfred Eicher’s choice of reverb units are apparently almost as ‘secret’ as Colonel Sanders’ chicken recipe…).
The ECM formula worked for two decades. But then along came Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection in 1989 to throw a spanner in the works.
Though the title is a joke – there are no ‘singles’ on the album – you wish more pop music was as bold as this collection which explores hard rock, early-’60s-style balladry, techno-fusion and even Prince-influenced funk to exciting and sometimes amusing effect.
The shorter tracks start out sounding a bit like Living In A Box jamming with Jeff Beck, before completely changing gear a minute in and turning into dark, introspective mood pieces with Messiaen chords and ethereal fretless bass.
They chuck in the whole kitchen sink, as if desperate to avoid a boring listening experience. The ploy works. And, yes, it cannot be denied – this is the ECM album whose first track is titled ‘There Is A Hot Lady In My Bedroom And I Need A Drink’… It’s Lovesexy meets Ligeti.
The Singles Collection was the third album in a row where Rypdal hooked up with The Chasers, a cracking bass and drums team comprising of Bjorn Kjellemyr and Audun Kleive. The latter is thinking more Manu Katche and Stewart Copeland than Jon Christensen on this album, and the music is much better for it (no disrespect to the excellent Jon).
But a vital ingredient is the addition of keyboardist Allan Dangerfield who contributes three compositions and all manner of weird textures, Synclavier drum/sequencer patterns and unhinged, hysterical Hammond organ solos very much in the Prince style.
‘Sprøtt’ (Norwegian for ‘crazy’) sounds like an outtake from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop album with its chugging rockabilly rhythms and blistering lead guitar.
Luscious noir ballad ‘Mystery Man’ will be familiar to fans of the Michael Mann movie ‘Heat’. If Mann hadn’t bagged it, you can bet David Lynch wouldn’t have been far behind. Maybe Dave can still put the gorgeous, glacial ‘Somehow, Somewhere’ to good use.
Elsewhere, ‘U’n’I’ fuses rockabilly and free-jazz beats with fusion bass, Ligeti chords and Van Halen guitar styles to thrilling effect. ‘Steady’ features some serious funk/rock riffing and another nutty Dangerfield solo. All in all, a striking, fascinating album.
Recorded 1985/1986 at The Manor, Oxfordshire, and Townhouse, Shepherds Bush
UK album chart position: 24
Recently, I was honoured to be asked by photographer William Ellis to contribute to his One LP project where he asks musicians, writers and music business figures to speak about the album that has been most important to them.
I was given the album by my parents on my 14th birthday. I had heard the single ‘Taking The Veil’ a few weeks before and it had struck me immediately as something I needed to check out. Concurrently, I was getting into Japan, Sylvian’s band from the early ’80s.
But Gone To Earth had a whole new influence: ECM-style jazz. Kenny Wheeler plays some beautiful solos, John Taylor features strongly on piano, and Harry Beckett blows all over ‘Wave’. Back in the mid-’80s, pop music embraced jazz with ease, but now it seems like the two worlds have completely diverged. Sylvian combines both elements really nicely.
When I delved deeper into Sylvian’s lyrics, I realised that they could be related to romantic affairs – there was a ‘pop’ element to them – but they could also be spiritual in nature, about ‘the other’ in general, touching on religious ideas, metaphysical ideas. That concept has fascinated me as I’ve got older.
Side two of Gone To Earth is completely instrumental. Sylvian loathed the term ‘new age’ and instead produced ambient music which was more environmental, geared towards self-reflection and an appreciation of nature. He once said, ‘If I didn’t live in a city, I wouldn’t need to make this music.’
On ‘The Healing Place’, German artist Joseph Beuys speaks about his vision of art. Another track features Robert Graves reciting his poem ‘The Foreboding’. The voice of JG Bennett makes a few appearances, familiar from Fripp’s Exposure.
And then, of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice. I think of it as an instrument. Some people find him a bit doomy, depressing, po-faced, but I’m always inspired by his melodies. He’s also a great, natural musician, very underrated/understated on keyboards and guitar.
The story goes that Virgin didn’t want to fund the second instrumental side. You can imagine, can’t you? They said, ‘This pop singer’s trying to an album of instrumentals? What’s going on?’, even though Bowie had done it ten years before. In this fascinating interview from 1986, Sylvian explains that he had to work on side two in his ‘spare’ time, away from Virgin’s watchful eye. I’m glad he did.
Musically, the album is also a guitarists’ dream: Robert Fripp, Phil Palmer, Bill Nelson and Sylvian himself contribute memorable, considered work. Nelson in particular is a revelation. Sylvian gives him space to sculpt and layer his parts, and he delivers some brilliant solos. BJ Cole adds some dreamy pedal steel.
In 1988, I saw Sylvian at the Hammersmith Odeon with a great band featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, David Torn on guitar and Steve Jansen on drums. It was tremendously exciting; there was a kind of ‘goth’ element at the gig which surprised me and lots of young women screaming for Sylvian!
He was still holding onto his ‘pop’ status – it’s no mean feat for an 80-minute, half-instrumental album to reach 24 in the charts. It was a time when pop music had a lot more mystique; you had to scan The Face, Wire, NME or Melody Maker to glean any snippets of information about artists of Sylvian’s calibre.
Every time I listen to Gone To Earth, I notice something new. It’s such a layered, beautiful piece of music, almost always to be enjoyed in one sitting, and it came out during an incredibly fertile period for Sylvian – the 1984-1987 run of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive surely matches any other artist in ’80s music…
Though he had recorded the very successful You’re Under Arrest and was in some of his best trumpet lip of the ’80s, his relationship with Columbia Records was at an all-time low.
For one, the label’s other star trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was at his peak of popularity, and, as far as Miles was concerned, Columbia boss Dr George Butler only had eyes for Wynton.
Then Miles felt that Columbia had procrastinated over releasing his cover of the Cyndi Lauper song ‘Time After Time‘ as a single. At the time, with typical mordant humour, Miles said, ‘He (George Butler) ignored it because he’s so busy with Wynton Marsalis. He heard us do it at the Montreux Jazz Festival last year and said “We gotta do it! We gotta do it!” I said, “George, I told you man. We already did it!” And he still didn’t release it…’
And the final nail in the coffin seemed to be Columbia’s unwillingness to put any financial clout behind Miles’s stunning collaboration with Danish trumpeter/composer Palle Mikkelborg, Aura, recorded at the beginning of 1985. For unknown reasons, the music didn’t see the light of day until 1989.
Again, in contemporary interviews, Miles rounded up the usual suspects: ‘I wanted $1400 for a digital remix and Columbia wouldn’t pay it. And then George Butler calls me up. He says to me, “Why don’t you call Wynton?” I say, “Why?” He says, “Cos it’s his birthday!” That’s why I left Columbia.’
Later reports had Miles carrying out Butler’s request, barking ‘Happy Birthday!’ to Marsalis and then slamming down the phone.
Miles officially became a Warner Bros. artist in autumn 1985. House producer Tommy LiPuma was delighted to get him – but what to do with him? Miles first took his touring band into the studio and embarked on a kind of You’re Under Arrest part two, covering tunes by Mr Mister, Nik Kershaw and Maze.
But this project was quickly abandoned, and Miles contacted various musicians including Prince (who supplied the rather humdrum ‘Can I Play With U’, later replaced by Marcus Miller’s ‘Full Nelson’), George Duke, Bill Laswell, Paul Buckmaster and Toto’s Steve Porcaro. He was desperate for new music and a new direction.
But he finally settled on an old contact, Randy Hall, the young Chicago multi-instrumentalist who had worked on his comeback album The Man With The Horn back in 1981.
Around a dozen tracks were completed between October and December 1985 in what was now known as the Rubber Band project. However, again for unknown reasons, the project was shelved, LiPuma quoted as saying, ‘I didn’t hear anything. To me, it didn’t sound like nothing was going on.’
Other collaborators were quickly suggested and then discarded including keyboardists Lyle Mays and Thomas Dolby. So Miles went back to George Duke. Their paths had crossed many times over the years, particularly when Duke was playing keyboards with Cannonball Adderley in the early ’70s.
As Duke remembers, ‘When Miles called, I initially thought it was a prank, one of my friends impersonating him. So I didn’t do anything, and a week later he called again. I said, “Who is this?” and he started swearing at me, “Mother****er, write me a song!”‘
It seems finally that George Duke’s demo of ‘Backyard Ritual‘ was deemed a direction worth pursuing by Miles and LiPuma. A strong, drum-heavy track put together by Duke using a Synclavier digital sampler with a simple but memorable main motif, he never intended it to be used as a final version, highlighted by the rather cheesy sampled alto sax solo.
But Miles eventually used almost the whole demo for Tutu, embellishing it only with some slithering percussion by Steve Reid and Paulinho Da Costa and of course his own pristine trumpet playing.
Miles’s take on it was that he respected a quality arrangement, demo or not: ‘A guy like George Duke, he writes a composition, it’s all there. All you have to do is play on it and respect that man’s composition’, he told writer and musician Ben Sidran.
And Duke revealed that he had even played a ‘sampled’ trumpet solo on the original demo, which tickled Miles. Duke: ‘He said to me, “You think that’s the way I play trumpet?” And I said, “That’s the way it sounds to me!”‘
At the beginning of 1986, Marcus Miller phoned Tommy LiPuma out of the blue. The bassist and composer had of course played in Miles’s comeback band from 1981 to 1983.
He had since made two solo albums and worked with a huge variety of artists, from Luther Vandross and Aretha Franklin to Bryan Ferry and Carly Simon, and was aware that Miles had migrated to Warner Bros and wondered if he was looking for new songs.
LiPuma sent him the ‘Backyard Ritual’ demo; Miller was instantly inspired: ‘I thought, “Wow, if Miles is willing to use drum machines and stuff, let me show my take on that.” I wasn’t directly musically influenced by George’s track but it gave me a direction.’
Miller wrote and recorded demos for ‘Tutu‘, ‘Portia‘ and ‘Splatch‘ back-to-back, playing all the instruments himself. Previewing the tracks with Miles and LiPuma in LA in March 1986, he got an immediate green light to turn this into an album project – this was the direction they had been looking for.
Miller began recording the final versions of the three tunes immediately with the help of keyboardist and programmer Adam Holzman.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to why none of Miles’s touring band were invited to play on the Tutu sessions, with opinions differing as to who made the decision. Miller insists, ‘I wasn’t party to the decision not to use the live band but Tommy didn’t push me in any direction. He let me do my thing.’
Miles seemed to resign himself to the convenience of the situation, saying, ‘Rather than get myself, the working band and Tommy into all kinds of hassles by trying to bring my band in the studio to record music I might like, but Tommy doesn’t, we do it this way.’
Consequently, although some choice session players appear on the album, such as drummer Omar Hakim and the aforementioned Paulinho Da Costa, as well as some of Miller’s trusted friends and collaborators like keyboardist Bernard Wright, synth programmer Jason Miles and electric violinist Michal Urbaniak, there’s a unified sound to Tutu that comes directly from Miller’s contributions on fretted and fretless basses, keyboards, drum programming and occasional live drums.
His soprano sax acts as Miles’s main instrumental foil on the album, particularly evident on the call-and-response phrases in ‘Tomaas’.
Once the backing tracks had been laid down, LiPuma and Miller documented Miles’s trumpet playing as spontaneously as possible without resorting to too many ‘comp’d’ takes (final versions made up of several performances).
Apart from this being a necessity as Miles didn’t like to do more than two takes, it was also an intelligent arrangement idea serving as a contrast to the painstaking and meticulous piecing together of the backing tracks.
According to legend, Miles’s solos on the title track and ‘Portia’ are complete takes from beginning to end. Miller found himself performing on soprano sax at the same mic as Miles during the recording of ‘Portia’. He called it ‘one of the most tense experiences I’d ever had’.
But, by most accounts, Miles was a receptive and willing participant in the creative process, once telling Miller, ‘Come on, man, I don’t mind a little bit of direction! You wrote the tunes. Tell me where you want me to play.’ Again, Miles demonstrates his total respect for the composer.
Miles was also reportedly responsible for the inclusion of one of the more controversial cuts on the album, the Scritti Politti cover tune ‘Perfect Way‘. Miles apparently cajoled Miller into recording the song, believing it had the potential to be the new ‘Time After Time’, and even wanted to call the album ‘Perfect Way’ until just before release.
But Miller expressed reservations about replicating Scritti’s legendary ‘Swiss watch’ arrangements, and with good reason – the Tutu version does sound rather laboured and weedy compared to the original. But Miles remained a big Scritti fan and two years later made a memorable guest appearance on their ‘Oh Patti’ single.
So has Tutu stood the test of time? The title track, ‘Portia’ and ‘Tomaas’ would surely be right at home on any Miles best-of, with their majestic themes, engaging harmonies, slinky grooves and strong trumpet playing.
‘Full Nelson‘ remains a great tribute to Prince’s sound circa Parade and Sign Of The Times, while ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind‘ is a classy approximation of Sly and Robbie‘s mid-’80s collaborations. But ‘Perfect Way’, ‘Backyard Ritual’ and ‘Splatch’ unfortunately now sound suspiciously like beautifully-produced filler.
But, taken as a whole, Tutu is a very important album whose success was helped immeasurably by Irving Penn‘s striking cover portrait. It crystallised Miles’s interest in funk, soul and R’n’B more successfully than Decoy or You’re Under Arrest, whilst retaining a crucial ‘jazz’ flavour.
It was also a statement of political intent and black pride, significantly referencing both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in its song titles. And – perhaps most crucially – it was a hit, introducing a whole new generation to Miles’ unique trumpet sound.
For much more on Tutu and Miles’s ’80s work, check out George Cole’s great book ‘The Last Miles’ and also Paul Tingen’s ‘Miles Beyond’.
Watching the superb reruns of ‘Top Of The Pops’ recently, it’s apparent how many great bass players stormed the UK charts during the early/mid-’80s.
Everywhere you looked, there were hip, young four-stringers with good haircuts and some nifty licks (or ‘kids with a riff’, as Robert Palmer called them).
Though very much under the twin influences of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Jaco Pastorius, a whole host of ’80s players managed to forge some truly original sounds while clearly utilising the feels and techniques of both American bassists.
Here’s a smattering of great British players of the period (more from across the pond soon) with a few of their enduring performances. Make sure your subwoofer is turned on…
9. Mick Karn
By Japan’s 1979 Quiet Life album, the man born Andonis Michaelides had become one of the most original fretless players of all time, effortlessly bypassing the Jaco template. His lines were also absolutely integral to the band’s formula and eventual success. This minor hit demonstrates his melodic approach (though somehow he was denied a songwriter credit) and his playing reveals new discoveries even 35 years on.
8. Tony Butler
Shepherds Bush-born Butler brought something very unique to ’80s rock and pop with his band Big Country. He also formed a key rhythm section alongside drummer Mark Brzezicki. Check out his bouncy, almost dub-style rhythmic approach on this beautifully structured bass part.
7. Derek Forbes
The hyperactive Glaswegian just couldn’t stop coming up with classic early-’80s basslines. After his departure from Simple Minds in 1984, he also added some quality low-end work to Propaganda’s touring band.
6. Guy Pratt
The Artful Dodger of the early ’80s bass scene, Guy cut his teeth with Icehouse before breaking out to play with everyone from Madonna to Pink Floyd. This quirky 1984 hit is a compilation of all his licks and tricks – producers seemed to like his ‘more is more’ approach…
5. Graham Edwards
According to Pratt’s great ‘My Bass And Other Animals’ book, Edwards was always going up for the same gigs as him back in the mid-’80s. Now an almost forgotten name, he played some excellent stuff in Go West’s live band and also shone on this underrated gem:
4. Pino Palladino
Pino’s highly melodic fretless style had already graced megahits by Gary Numan and Paul Young by the mid-’80s, but this always seemed like his most intense, distinctive groove, with more than a hint of Bernie Worrell/Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ about it.
3. Mark King
Mr King has to be in this list. Though best known now for his formidable slap technique, his crisp, fluid fingerstyle lines were just as distinctive, not least this Eastern-tinged salvo which really sums up the spirit of 1982.
2. Colin Moulding
The XTC man’s flowing, melodic style showed that he was a worthy heir to Paul McCartney. No matter how ‘standard’ the chord changes, you could rely on Moulding to come up with something memorable.
1. John Taylor
Like or loathe Duran Duran (I have to say I was usually of the latter persuasion), Taylor certainly came up with some memorable if somewhat samey grooves (as gleefully parodied by Mr Pratt), finding a pleasingly-understated style on this minor classic.