Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (1963-2016)

george_michael_at_antwerp_bravo

George Michael in Antwerp, 14th November 2006

Sometime in the late 1980s, ‘doing a George Michael’ became music-biz parlance for leaving a ‘boy band’ and going on to become a credible, popular solo artist. It was many a record exec’s Holy Grail. George pulled it off with great aplomb and deceptive ease but it proved elusive – many others tried but very few, if any, cracked it.

George was surely the most successful and revered British solo artist to emerge during the 1980s, selling over 100 million albums and winning the Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year award in 1985 and 1989. He also possessed one of the all-time-great pure-pop voices.

Some mocked Wham! in their early days, but looking beyond the Lady Di hair and tight tennis shorts, it was always clear that the young George had some serious songwriting chops – ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ married amusing lyrics (‘Death by matrimony!’) with a slick Chic-meets-Britfunk groove. Everyone at my primary school loved ‘Bad Boys’. It was, to coin a phrase, the Sound of a Bright Young Britain.

Wham!’s second album Make It Big continued to wrong-foot the critics, featuring a parade of timeless, brilliant pop singles – ‘Freedom’, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, ‘Everything She Wants’ and ‘Careless Whisper’ (labelled as a George Michael UK solo single when released in July 1984). Love or loathe the latter, it’s impossible to dismiss the loveliness of that famous sax motif.

Solo albums Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 were monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic. If Madonna was the self-proclaimed Queen of Heartbreak, George was surely the King – to these ears, no other contemporary artist, not even Prince, could top the sublime late-’80s ballads ‘One More Try’, ‘Praying For Time’, ‘A Different Corner’, ‘Father Figure‘, ‘Cowboys And Angels’, ‘Mother’s Pride’ and ‘Kissing A Fool‘.

1996’s Older was another career highlight, the first album in UK chart history to feature six Top 3 singles. (Arguably, George’s music and songwriting were in terminal decline after Older, but that probably says more about the state of modern British pop than anything else.)

He became a solo artist of great integrity. Usually the first name on the team sheet for any high-profile charity gigs, he usually said yes but resolutely refused to play his own material, performing only cover versions at Live Aid and also his Prince’s Trust, Nelson Mandela Birthday and Freddie Mercury Tribute appearances.

He was a quiet philanthropist, giving a lot of money, time and energy to issues close to his heart, and he also became a vociferous anti-war campaigner. Ripped off in his early Wham! days, he went to war with Sony Records, inspiring other artists (including Prince) to study their contracts carefully.

Far from derailing him, his very public ‘outing’ in 1998 unleashed a new, outrageous side of his personality with candid interviews (a Q magazine piece in late 1998 being particularly memorable) and self-mocking videos aplenty.

March 2017 will see the release a new documentary about George’s life called ‘Freedom’, and also the re-release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. What a shame he won’t live to see the release of Volume 2.

He is survived by his father and his two sisters, Melanie and Yioda.

George Michael (Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou), singer and songwriter, born 25 June 1963; died 25 December 2016

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David Bowie & The Snowman

bowieDavid Bowie’s 1977-1985 period was one of his most fascinating and contradictory. On the one hand, there were the ‘adult’ themes embedded in Heroes, Lodger, Scary Monsters, ‘The Elephant Man’, ‘Christiane F’, ‘Cat People’, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’, ‘Baal’ and ‘The Hunger’.

But then there were the projects that were, on the face of it, more typical of a well-respected, part-of-the-furniture ‘family entertainer’; the 1977 Bing Crosby TV duet, the 1978 recording of Prokofiev’s children’s classic ‘Peter And The Wolf’, the ‘unthreatening’ pure pop of Let’s Dance and Tonight, the ‘Labyrinth’ movie and soundtrack, the huge investment of time and effort in various Band Aid/Live Aid ventures.

Were these karmic ‘atonements’ for those bleak Los Angeles and Berlin periods of the mid-’70s? Possibly, though his work had always touched on childhood themes, and he was apparently also very keen, whenever possible, to take on projects that his young son could enjoy.

snowman

So, in early December 1983, when Bowie was – albeit briefly – probably the biggest ‘rock’ star on the planet, he found time to contribute a touching, heartfelt introduction to Dianne Jackson’s film of Raymond Briggs’ ‘The Snowman’.

First shown on British TV 33 years ago today (I can remember how much of an event it was in my house), it’s yet another fascinating piece of early-’80s Bowie ephemera, and his involvement was surely quite a coup for the film-makers. Though ‘The Snowman’ has become a perennial Christmas favourite, it is often transmitted without the introduction. So here it is in all its glory. Merry Christmas.

Stevie Nicks says Happy Birthday

cakeTwo years ago to the day, I published movingtheriver.com’s first piece on Prefab Sprout’s SwoonAuspicious beginnings, you know what I mean?

But seriously, folks, it’s been fun to focus on lots of good (and not so good) music, movies and TV shows, and also to share stories and comments with readers and fellow music-heads. So thanks for dropping by this year.

A quick message from our sponsors:

Movie Review: Round Midnight (1986)

round_midnight_xlg‘Round Midnight’ turns 30 today, and its status as one of the great jazz movies was confirmed at a birthday screening last night at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington.

Whilst the recent ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Miles Ahead’ were moderate commercial successes, they were subject to withering criticism in some quarters – I was with the naysayers regarding the former but, after watching the trailer, couldn’t even drag myself to the latter.

So until Woody Allen makes his long-promised big-budget ‘birth of jazz’ film, ‘Round Midnight’ is probably the best we’re gonna get. Its success even ushered in a short-lived Hollywood jazz revival – Clint Eastwood produced the wonderful ‘Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser’ (1987) and directed the underwhelming ‘Bird’ (1988), followed by Bruce Weber’s acclaimed Chet Baker documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (1988) and Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues’ (1990).

‘Round Midnight’ is loosely based on the memoir/biography ‘Dance Of The Infidels’ by Francis Paudras, a Parisian graphic designer who befriended legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell – and became his carer, business manager and confidante – during Bud’s expat period.

The film focuses mainly on the relationship between Francis and Dale Turner, a fictional mash-up of Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. My dad and I loved ‘Round Midnight’ from first viewing and, at a guess, very much related to Francis’s passion for jazz and desire to see his hero ‘living well’, rather than scuffling from gig to gig, drink to drink (Dad visited Paudras in France in the late ’80s in his capacity as a TV producer, but the proposed documentary never got made).

Put simply, the film ‘gets’ jazz; it’s immediately obvious that almost everyone involved loves the music and its players. Despite an incredibly slow, dark (as in: you can’t really see what’s going on) opening 20 minutes, ‘Round Midnight’ finally delivers the grandeur, romance and tragedy of America’s classical music.

Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated lead performance still thrills, 30 years on. Though his character mainly spends the first half of the film trying to get wasted, we can forgive him anything, especially when we hear of the beatings and racist abuse regularly doled out during his time in the army (this dialogue, according to director/co-writer Bertrand Tavernier, was pure autobiography on Gordon’s part).

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has some fun with his portrayal of the fairly sleazy New York booking agent Goodley, while Francois Cluzet gives a strong, touching performance as the quick-tempered though loyal Francis.

Tavernier has finally found a way to represent jazz on screen, and it couldn’t be simpler – just round up the best players available (including Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, most of whom also have speaking parts), get them to play live and capture a performance in one take if possible.

It’s no great surprise that Herbie’s soundtrack won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987, though the film’s original music arguably never quite evokes the high-energy rush of prime late-’50s bebop-tinged jazz. No matter: both ‘Round Midnight’ and its score have aged pretty damn well.

UB40: Promises & Lies

Scene of the band's first Birmingham gig

Scene of the band’s first Birmingham gig

Sometimes a decent music documentary can really open up a subject like a good book or movie. The Dexys/Kevin Rowland film ‘Nowhere Is Home’ did the job recently, and last weekend’s ‘Promises & Lies’ does it superbly too. It lets the protagonists speak for themselves purely in interview format without any ‘I’m-going-on-a-journey’, narrator-led BBC guff.

Like Simply Red, Madness or The Beautiful South, UB40 are so much part of the ’80s UK chart furniture (39 Top 40 singles including three number ones to date – surely only Shakin’ Stevens and Madness bettered them during the decade?) that it’s quite hard to listen to their music objectively these days.

By the mid-1980s, they had essentially become a stadium reggae band, exemplified by their joyous Nelson Mandela 70th birthday duet with early mentor Chrissie Hynde (she headhunted them at a London Rock Garden gig in 1980 for a big US tour).

UB40’s huge success has possibly obscured their great passion for the music – singer/guitarist Ali Campbell claims several times in the film that they were always promoting reggae rather than seeking fame, and the claim rings true. But their amazing hit-rate was somewhat of a smokescreen for some serious inter-band issues, culminating in a disastrous schism between vocalist/guitarist brothers Ali and Robin in 2008 that makes the Gallagher boys’ break-up look like a petty family tiff.

It was arguably always on the cards. A very tight-knit bunch of Brummies in their early days, UB40 had always split all their performance and songwriting royalties eight ways, a decision which created financial ‘situations’ (millions missing) that would have given even Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen serious cause for concern. The resentments, claims and counterclaims piled up, and now in 2016 there are two bands gigging as UB40, one almost unbelievably fronted by another Campbell brother, Duncan.

James 'Jimmy' Brown

James ‘Jimmy’ Brown

‘Promises & Lies’ gleans strikingly honest interviews from everyone involved – no punches are pulled. And despite lots of fascinatingly-grim stuff, the documentary shows all band members to be an incredibly resilient, exceptionally talented, somewhat stubborn bunch. Drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown gets an especially bad ride in the film, apparently the chief social-media ‘Ali-hater’, but his playing sounds great throughout (no less an ’80s pop personage than The Police’s Stewart Copeland once named him as his favourite rock drummer), as do almost all of UB40’s classic ’80s anthems.

I’ll be looking more closely into a band I’d mainly ‘dismissed’ as a singles act. Catch ‘Promises & Lies’ while you can on the BBC iPlayer.

Mick Lynch R.I.P.

Stump featuring Mick Lynch (second from left)

Stump featuring Mick Lynch (second left)

Big bottom
Swing big bottom
Swing-a-linga
It’s blubbery Burberry, baby
It’s blubbery Burberry
Big bumpy-bump
Big bumpy
Bop-a-lula
In terylene tartan, lady
In terylene tartan, lady
How much is the fish? How much is the fish? How much is the chips?
Does the fish have chips?

I don’t want a drink but I’ll go to the bar
I’d go for a walk but I ain’t got a car
Exclamation mark, click-click-click…
I like when it’s different but it’s just not the same
The weather is perfect except for the rain
Immaculate molars, baby
Immaculate molars, baby
How much is the fish?
Don’t mention hamburgers, Harry…
How do I get off the bus?

‘Buffalo’ by Stump, lyrics by Mick Lynch

I was planning a piece about the 30th anniversary of Stump’s marvellous mini-album Quirk Out recently when inadvertently came across the sad news that their singer and main lyricist Mick Lynch had passed away on 17th December 2015. He was one of those fascinating, unique, highly-intelligent music-biz characters that could only have emerged during the ’80s.

Stump’s inclusion on the fabled ‘C86’ NME cassette (alongside Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons, Half Man Half Biscuit and The Wedding Present) was many people’s first exposure to the band, but it was their November 1986 video performance on ‘The Tube’ that will forever be etched on my memory. Lynch’s Tintin quiff, bulging eyeballs and brilliantly rubbery dance moves couldn’t obscure the fact that ‘Buffalo’ was a warped pop gem.

Lynch’s lyrics were some of the 1980s’ greatest, channelling Flann O’Brien, Beckett and Joyce, with a soupcon of Mike Leigh, to depict the more surreal aspects of Irish immigrant life in London. There were tales of dodgy landlords, bit-part actors, disastrous booze-ups, gormless American tourists (see above), pirates, part-time strippers, coffin-followers and even a classic song about Charlton Heston filming a Biblical epic (‘Lights! Camel! Action!’). Many lyrics still make me laugh out loud, his melodies were great and he was also a brilliant frontman.

stump

In a very rare interview with The Quietus, Lynch once said, ‘My lyrics are essentially ballads, I write in ballad time and still do to this day. Stump had no love songs. Everything was from a very oblique angle. “Boggy Home” would be closest to a love song. It was about being in London but desperately wishing to be on top of a mountain in Kerry!’

Though Stump’s tenure was short – consisting of only two studio albums and a handful of tours between 1984 and 1988 – but their impact was powerful. Bassist Kev Hopper has written a heartfelt tribute to Mick on this MOJO message board.

In the early 1990s, Lynch moved from London back to his hometown of Cork where he was a founding member of Dowtcha Puppets, a children’s puppet theatre company. Stump reunited for a one-off Cork gig in May 2015. Would love to have seen that.

Mick will be missed. He is survived by three sisters, Julianne, Noreen and Marie.

Recommended listening: ‘Stump: The Complete Anthology’ CD

‘Lights! Camel! Action! The Story Of Stump’ podcast