Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola: 30 Years On

radio-musicola-527b885540974MCA Records, released October 1986

7/10

The rather despairing NME headline at the time said it all: ‘When The Little Girls Have All Grown Up…’

After releasing two albums in the space of barely six months, Kershaw took his time over the third. He settled in to Swanyard Studios in North London for most of 1986 to work on the self-produced Radio Musicola, employing the cream of the English session scene (The Kick Horns, Charlie Morgan, Mark Brzezicki, Wix, Andy Richards, Simon Phillips etc). Yes, Musicola was Kershaw’s chance to take on the Trevor Horns of this world and deliver a big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over studio ‘project’…

kershaw

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his meteoric rise to fame, the main themes of the album are press intrusion and tabloid sensationalism. And, in a neat irony, the rise of technology-led, assembly-line music was also in Kershaw’s sights, despite Musicola making liberal use of all the latest sampling and synthesizer technology.

So let’s get Musicola‘s duff tracks out the way first – ‘What The Papers Say’, ‘Nobody Knows’ and ‘Running Scared’ are jarringly overproduced, though the latter had real potential. But there are loads of treats elsewhere – ‘Life Goes On’ is a musically-rich, very pretty ballad with swooning chord changes and fine vocals from Kershaw. ‘LABATYD’ is pure class, a half-time shuffle with tasty Mark Brzezicki drums, an excellent Kick Horn arrangement and soaring synth by either Wix or Andy Richards.

The title track blew a lot of musicians’ minds back in 1986. It really was state-of-the art and still sounds pretty novel today, as striking as the title track of Level 42’s World Machine a year before. I remember eagerly tuning in to ‘The Tube’ to see Kershaw performing the song live. You can hear a lot of the ‘little girls’ turning off their TVs as he lays into the opening guitar solo…

‘Don’t Let Me Out Of My Cage’ is pretty damn ambitious fare for a pop album, a fast swing number featuring some cracking Phillips drums and effective close-harmony backing vox from Mrs Kershaw (Sheri). ‘When a Heart Beats’, an excellent, intricate slice of pop/prog in the It Bites mould, gave Kershaw his last top 40 chart appearance (peaking at a disappointing #27) when it was released in November 1985.

The closing ‘Violet To Blue’ is possibly Kershaw’s finest and most ambitious recording to date, featuring some rousing vocals from the London Community Gospel Choir and superb, driving drum work from Phillips (much imitated in my music room back in the day).

kershaw-tour

An interesting album which clearly fell between the stools of art and commerce, Radio Musicola reached a barely believable #46 in the UK album chart, just over a year after Kershaw had played Live Aid. It disappeared without trace in the US.

The little girls had certainly grown up. Or maybe it was the new haircut. 18 months is a long time to leave between albums when you’re hot. But Kershaw didn’t seem bothered about his new ‘selective’ popularity; in fact, he seemed genuinely relieved, but wondered how MCA were going to sell him now that he was focused on being a musician rather than a pop star.

Despite the poor album sales, Kershaw embarked on a sold-out UK tour in early 1987 including three nights at London’s Town & Country Club. And he would be back once more before the ’80s were out to deliver perhaps his finest solo album to date.

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XTC’s Skylarking: 30 Years Old Today

xtcVirgin Records, released 27th October 1986

10/10

Produced by Todd Rundgren

Recorded at Utopia Studios, Woodstock, upstate New York

UK album chart position: #90 (!)
US album chart position: #70 (!)

terry-thomas

Terry-Thomas in ‘School For Scoundrels’

Side One:

1. ‘Summer’s Cauldron’

Andy Partridge (composer): ‘Something about the words reminded me of Dylan Thomas. Not that I’m saying I’m a Dylan Thomas. More of a Terry-Thomas, really…’

2. ‘Grass’

Colin Moulding (composer): ‘A lot of people think the song’s about marijuana – it isn’t. Todd said: “Don’t sing so deep. You sound like a bit of a molester.” So I just did the Bowie thing and added an octave above it…’

3. ‘The Meeting Place’

Moulding: ‘Because the riff was a bit like “Postman Pat”, we were just figures on a Toytown landscape viewed from above. It was me meeting her (future wife Carol) at the gates for a sandwich in The Beehive pub, embroidered with the suggestion of a lunchtime quickie…’

4. ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’

Partridge: ‘I’d go into his (guitarist Dave Gregory) little room, smelling of aftershave and guitar wax and dead mice, and he’d be rehearsing this solo over and over again. I can still see him playing it. I remember when we were recording the song that Todd was trying to master it on keyboard, and Dave whispered to me, “He’s got the chords wrong!” He thought the chords were major, and they’re not. I was hearing it a lot more clangorous…’

5. ‘Ballet For A Rainy Day’ (Partridge)

6. ‘1000 Umbrellas’

Partridge: ‘There was very little time to do the strings. They had one run-through and then recorded it. Their balls were on the line but they turned in a pretty fine performance…’

7. ‘Season Cycle’

Partridge: ‘I felt that I had maybe laid the ghost of Ray Davies ‘fore me and written a song that could stand up against “Shangri-La” or even, dare I suggest, “Autumn Almanac”.’

Side Two:

8. ‘Earn Enough For Us’ (Partridge)

9. ‘Big Day’

Moulding: ‘I’d been messing around with the chords of Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love” and, with a little moving around, it became this sort of fanfare to a big event, a ticker-tape parade for a big day.’

10. ‘Another Satellite’

Partridge: ‘I regret writing it because things turned out so marvellously with the person (Erica Wexler) it’s all about. The story had a happy ending because Erica and I finally got to express the emotional bond that was always there.’

11. ‘Mermaid Smiled’ (Partridge)

12. ‘The Man Who Sailed Around His Soul’

Partridge: ‘It just says you’re born, you live and you die. Why look for the meaning of life when all there is is death and decay? Todd said, “Let’s do a John Barry thing” and, literally overnight, came up with his arrangement with brass and flutes. It’s bang on. Cod spy music.’

13. ‘Dying’ (Moulding)

It frightens me when you come to mind
The day you dropped in the shopping line
And my heart beats faster when I think of all the signs, all the signs
When they carried you out your mouth was open wide
The cat went astray and the dog did pine for days and days
And I felt so guilty when we played you up
When you were ill, so ill
What sticks in my mind is the sweet jar on the sideboard
And your multicoulored tea cozy

What sticks in my mind is the dew drop hanging off your nose
Shrivelled up and blue
And I’m getting older, too
But I don’t want to die like you
Don’t want to die like you, don’t want to die like you

14. ‘Sacrificial Bonfire’

Moulding: ‘There was a touch of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and a bit of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” in it, I suppose. But I wasn’t moralising. It was just that this was an evil piece of music and good would triumph over it. (The strings) were a bit too Vivaldi for me, but it had to go somewhere, I suppose…’

Further reading: ‘XTC Song Stories‘ by Neville Farmer

Complicated Game‘ by Todd Bernhardt/Andy Partridge

Courtney Pine’s Journey To The Urge Within: 30 Years Old Today

courtney-2Island Records, released 25th October 1986

Produced by Michael Cuscuna and Roy Carter

Recorded at Angel Studios, North London between 21st – 23rd July 1986

UK album chart position: #39

Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories. Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood & General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London scene.

As he memorably put it in the excellent ‘Jazz Britannia, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’

But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.

A period of intense woodshedding paid off – soon Courtney was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the ‘Angel Heart soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.

Island Records came calling, and Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK, an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This writer fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, he unexpectedly found Pine and Miles Davis sharing the album chart. Happy days.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Liverpool: 30 Years Old Today

frankie_1309776451ZTT Records, released 20th October 1986

8/10

It’s well known that FGTH’s deal with ZTT was one of the worst recording contracts in pop history (outlined in embarrassing detail in vocalist Holly Johnson’s ‘A Bone In My Flute‘). But the band were already starting to show signs of subordination by late 1984 – they refused to record the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ as the B-side to ‘The Power Of Love’, part of ZTT ideas man Paul Morley’s bizarre plan* to get the label’s acts to write a history of pop through cover versions.

FGTH also scuppered ZTT’s plan for them to star in a sci-fi movie which was to be scripted by Martin Amis and directed by Nicolas Roeg (actually, that sounds brilliant…). The band then insisted that they actually play on their second album Liverpool rather than let session players lay down the basic tracks, a request that seems to have been granted, although close reading of the tiny liner notes reveals the names Trevor Rabin, Steve Howe and Lol Creme…

Sensing trouble, Trevor Horn took the role of ‘executive producer’ and passed production duties over to the gifted Stephen Lipson, who clearly had his work cut out. A schism was opening up between Holly Johnson and the rest of the band, or ‘The Lads’, as he dubbed them. Tensions were also running high in the country – by mid-1986, unemployment had topped three million and anti-Thatcher feeling had reached its peak. Oxford University had even just refused her an honorary degree. So the frivolity and epicurean excesses of Welcome To The Pleasuredome were definitely out.

frankie_say_war_hide_yourself-_t-shirt

Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford

Still, Liverpool is a sumptuous-sounding album, with immense care taken over recording, mixing and mastering – apparently to the tune of a whopping £760,000. It stands up pretty well today especially if taken as a separate entity to Pleasuredome, even if the songs are nowhere near as memorable as the debut’s.

Lipson pulls out all the stops, playing some superb fuzz-toned lead guitar, particularly on ‘Maximum Joy’ and ‘Rage Hard’, and piecing together an album of musically-rich, prog-influenced hard rock. Synth players Andy Richards and Peter-John Vettese contribute intriguing intros and outros, often involving backing vocalist Betsy Cook too.

And though Liverpool is obviously a more ‘serious’ album than Frankie’s debut, there are still amusing spoken-word inserts from members of the band in broad Scouse (‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!).

‘Warriors Of The Wasteland’, ‘Kill The Pain’ and ‘Rage Hard’ are tough techno-rock tracks which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on It Bites’ debut album. Holly’s vocals are unhinged and powerful. ‘Rage Hard’ was also subjected to a fantastically overblown extended mix featuring Pamela Stephenson (doing her best Thatcher impersonation?) taking us on a tour of the 12” single.

‘Maximum Joy’ is superb, pure ZTT bliss, while ‘Lunar Bay’ is also brilliant, balls-out prog/pop in the style of Propaganda’s A Secret Wish. ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ is completely barmy, an anti-Thatcher ballad (‘She should buy us all a drink’) in queasy 6/8 interrupted by some Native American chanting by Holly and a weird musical-hall middle section.

‘Is Anybody Out There’ is a fitting end to Frankie’s recording career, a majestic, distinctly Suede-like ballad (the guitar solo is totally Bernard Butler) with some beautiful Holly vocals and a subtle Richard Niles string arrangement. The only real dog on Liverpool is ‘Watching The Wildlife’.

The album was not a commercial disaster, reaching #5 in the UK album chart and the top 10 in many other European countries, but a disappointing #88 in the US. It wasn’t enough. Frankie were going back to Liverpool. And Thatcher still had four years left in Downing Street.

*Morley’s influence was apparently running amok, evidenced by Liverpool‘s fairly ridiculous liner notes (‘Best wishes to Stan Boardman’) and a choice of album title that suggested he was pretty certain the band would soon be returning to their hometown, banished from pop’s high table. Holly apparently hated the title.

The Human League’s Dare: 35 Years Old Today

human-leagueVirgin Records, released 16th October 1981

Produced by Martin Rushent/The Human League

Recorded at Genetic Sound Studios, Reading, Berkshire, UK

UK album chart position: #1
US album chart position: #3

Singles released: ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ (UK #12)
‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ (UK #3)
‘Open Your Heart’ (UK #6)
‘Don’t You Want Me’ (UK #1, US #1)

Phil Oakey (vocals/co-composer): ‘Martin really knew what pop was. He could take your mad sounds and make them pop. I still reckon “The Sound Of The Crowd” is one of the maddest songs that’s ever got in the Top 20. “Love Action” hasn’t got a proper chorus. I remember smashing the phone after I was told “Don’t You Want Me” was number 1 in America. It’s so much to live up to. Everyone and their grandma knows about you so no one wants to wear your badges any more…’

Martin Rushent: ‘To a large extent, I was their band. I was certainly their drummer because I programmed all the rhythms and made all the decisions about the grooves. I learned a lot from working with the arranger Johnny Harris. He was bandleader for all the show singers like Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. I learned about voicing instruments and how the most important element of music is silence. If you listen to Dare, there’s lots of space in the songs and lots of little parts and you can sing them all…’

From The Comic Strip to Castle Donington: An Interview With Nigel Planer

Den Bad News

Nigel Planer as Den Dennis, Castle Donington, 16th August 1986

If you were a British teenager in the mid-’80s, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ were pretty much required viewing. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that period without them. They fused comedy and music with anarchic zeal and have endured as bona fide TV classics.

Nigel Planer was an integral part of both groundbreaking shows, working alongside Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and many more. He brought the world such classic characters as the perennially-prickly hippy Neil and Den Dennis, heavy metal’s unluckiest guitarist.

neil-young-ones

Since then, Planer has appeared in countless quality TV productions, written several books and plays and starred in the hit musicals ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Hairspray’. He’s also worked on several BBC Four music documentaries and is currently revisiting an early interest in songwriting.

I began my chat with Nigel by asking him about his musical influences.

MP: There was a great punky energy about the early days of The Comic Strip troupe, but I’m guessing your own musical tastes weren’t rooted in punk. Did you play in bands before becoming a pro actor?

NP: I was more into psych-folk and new-age jazz stuff. I didn’t so much play in bands but I did make a bubblegum pop record with my brother Roger, and I had a publishing deal for my songs which were sort of sub-Nick Drake, soft, liberal, poetic things.

We all loved your portrayal of Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ (I think I still have ‘Neil’s Book Of The Dead’ somewhere…), but how much of that character was yours and how much of it Ben Elton and Lise Mayer’s?

Well, the original Neil comes from a show I wrote and performed with Peter Richardson and Pete Richens called ‘Rank’. Many of the characters later to appear in Comic Strip films stem from this show. We first did it at the Roundhouse and then on tour with various bands. We were trying to be like Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias or The Fabulous Poodles, if anyone remembers them. We ended up more like a Mike Leigh play with a rock band in it. When we made our double act, Neil came along with us and so he was my character in the ‘Young Ones’ setup. He was mostly my character but Ben and Lise made him more stereotypically hippyish.

Your cover of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ got to number 2 in the charts in July 1984! Any good memories from Neil’s ‘pop’ period? 

It was an incredible experience, to be a pop star all of a sudden without having to take the consequences of that decision because I was in character. I learned that I would hate to be a pop star.

Who or what was your inspiration for the brilliant Den, the hapless rhythm guitarist from The Comic Strip‘s ‘Bad News Tour’ and ‘More Bad News’?

I’m afraid Den Dennis comes from deep inside my soul…

You famously played the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington with the News, how was that? The festival was probably at its peak during that time.

It was our first gig. We were terrified. It looks pretty good in the film – you see all the usual spoof documentary gags, we argue, get ready for the gig, go up the stairs onto the stage. And then in one panning shot you realise it’s real, there are actually 40,000 people there baying for our blood and throwing bottles of urine at us. The compere (Tommy Vance) had to wear a helmet and face guard, but we just walked out there like idiots.

‘Bad News Tour’ famously appeared on British TV long before ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released. Have you ever met any of the Tap guys? Are they aware of ‘Bad News Tour’?

I think both ideas were in germination at the same time. Funny how things happen like that. I never met any of them but have a huge admiration.

In Ade’s Comic Strip film ‘Private Enterprise’, you play this great character Derek, a bow-tied, extremely effete A&R man. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a lot of those public school types who got into the music biz in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Was Derek based on anyone you knew?

Not really. I didn’t think of him as a public school type, I just came up with this weird voice. A lot of the time things are just done on instinct and it’s best not to work it out too much. I did feel I knew the kind of person he should be, ie it wasn’t exactly a stretch.

In later Comic Strips, there were cameos and musical contributions from the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush and Lemmy. Any printable memories of working with them?

We used to do this gag where one of us, probably Ade, would turn down volume on his guitar and mime, and out would come the most amazing solo. Then out from behind a speaker would walk Brian May, Jeff Beck or whoever we’d managed to con into doing the solo. Then Ade would stop and shout at the guitar hero: ‘I paid you a fiver to stay behind that speaker, you bastard!’ At The Marquee, we did it not once but twice – after coming out, Brian then turned down volume on his guitar and out walked Jeff. Jimmy Page did the gag with us once too, but I can’t remember where we were playing. Ah, memories… I do remember an early morning filming call in a hotel in Devon on a Comic Strip film. There had been a lot of drinking the night before. I’d gone to bed early, being a professional ‘actor’ you know, but others had stayed up trying to keep up with Lemmy. The next day at 6am, I get down to the lobby for pick-up time – none of the cast are there, not even the runner nor the driver. In fact, the only other person turning up on time for work, with his lines learned, was Lemmy.

You’ve been in the original casts of several very popular West End musicals (‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘We Will Rock You’) in the last ten years or so – what are the challenges of singing live night after night?

It’s a slog doing eight shows a week on a raked stage. Lots of injuries and physio and the like. The singing is the nice bit. One is also fighting boredom on a grand scale. It’s hard to stay cheerful. But on ‘We Will Rock You’, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Shut the f*** up, you are about to go on in front of 3,000 people and sing a beautiful song with a band of incredible musicians handpicked by Queen and then do about 20 minutes of jokes and make everyone laugh and you’re complaining?’ I’m good at complaining. Ben used to call me Niggle Complainer.

In recent years, you’ve been the go-to voiceover guy for music documentaries on BBC4 – do you enjoy them and are there any more in the pipeline?

None in the pipeline at the moment unfortunately, but they are a really, really good gig. You get to sit for a day listening to all this brilliant music and hear some people talking who maybe meant a lot to you when younger. I particularly enjoyed ‘Blues Britannia’ which I thought was very interesting. The idea that the Brits re-imported the Blues back to America where it was dying.

What are you up to at the moment? A little bird told me you’re working on a music project alongside the acting…

I have a couple of musical projects at the moment. One is a stage musical I have written with Hannah-Jane Fox and Andrew Holdsworth who I met in the ‘We Will Rock You’ days. We’re trying to place it in a theatre now. It’s not usual musical theatre fare. It’s heavy-rock/pop based, a very dark gothic horror story called ‘She Devil’! The other is a psych-folk band called Rainsmoke I have formed with my musician brother Roger and a guy called Chris Wade who is behind the Dodson And Fogg albums. We have one song up on Bandcamp now, and are hoping to finish the album by the new year. Most of the songs are based on all those songs I wrote in the early 1970s when I was a young, green, poet-type guy.

Thanks Nigel.

nigel_planer

Nigel receiving his Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Edinburgh Napier University in 2011