Bill Bruford’s Earthworks: 30 Years On

earthworksEditions EG Records, released January 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street, 1987

8/10

Some musicians have a unique touch – you can identify them within a few notes. In Bill Bruford’s case, his snare drum is his main audio imprint.

But he also always had a highly-original composing style before his retirement in 2009, and both are very much in evidence on the excellent Earthworks album.

Bruford had spent the mid-’80s winding down Crimson and duetting with ex-Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, mostly in spontaneous improvisation mode, but now a new musical approach was called for.

He had based his career on defying expectations and he did it again in 1986, forming a quartet made up two young jazz tyros best known for their work in big-band-extraordinaire Loose Tubes (keys man Django Bates and saxist Iain Ballamy) plus acoustic bassist Mick Hutton.

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Bruford chose well: Bates and Ballamy were excellent and prolific composers too. Also key to this new band was Bruford’s development of a very advanced electric/acoustic kit whereby he could play chords and melodic ideas alongside a ‘standard’ jazz setup.

This approach also chimed well with Bates’ propensity on both acoustic piano and synth. On the latter instrument, he was fast becoming almost as recognisable as Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea or George Duke.

All the ingredients add up to one of the key British jazz albums of the ’80s, showcasing a band equally at home playing Weather Report-style fusion, Eastern themes and odd-time prog as they were with ECM-flavoured chamber jazz of the type played by obvious heroes Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor.

Ballamy’s opener ‘Thud’ (inspired by the Rosenhan psychology experiment?) almost has a ska feel – if Madness had tried their hand at quirky instrumental jazz/rock, they might come up with something like this.

‘Pressure’ is possibly the album’s standout, a superb mini-suite featuring some classic odd-time Bruford mischief and lyrical piano playing from Bates.

Ballamy’s ballad ‘It Needn’t End In Tears’ still sounds like a jazz-standard-in-waiting to this writer, though its possibly a bit saccharine for some. Bruford unleashes a fine drum solo on ‘My Heart Declares a Holiday’ while Bates’ ‘Emotional Shirt’ veers humourously between an early hip-hop groove and free-jazz freakout. ‘Bridge Of Inhibition’ fuses Turkish modes with high-speed bebop.

Buoyed by state-of-the-art production (maybe a bit too state-of-the-art) and stylish packaging, Earthworks was a palpable hit by ‘jazz’ standards, selling well and turning up in several ‘best of 1987’ lists.

Some critics were of course suspicious of Bruford’s jazz credentials, but he probably couldn’t have cared less; he had always considered himself a jazz drummer anyway and knew he was onto a winner with Bates, Ballamy and Hutton.

The latter wouldn’t last beyond this first album, but Earthworks (the band) would continue to make some excellent music throughout the rest of the ’80s and for two decades beyond that. Bruford had successfully defied expectations yet again.

Movie Review: Command And Control (2016)

cmd-ctl-movieThis is a golden age for documentaries, and, in its own way, ‘Command And Control’ may just be as powerful as 2012’s BAFTA-winning ‘The Act Of Killing’.

As nail-biting as any Hollywood thriller and carrying a terrifying message, it’s also a remarkably timely film given this week’s Theresa May Trident controversy.

Based on the book by acclaimed journalist and author Eric Schlosser (‘Fast Food Nation’, ‘Reefer Madness’), Robert Kenner’s documentary looks in detail at the notorious accident of September 1980 at the Damascus underground nuclear base in Arkansas, when the fuel tank of an idle Titan II missile was damaged – with disastrous consequences.

Meticulously researched and beautifully paced, the film expands into a shocking and riveting exposé of the US nuclear industry. Testimonies of the accident survivors are heartfelt, often surprising and occasionally moving, describing a world where human error can be catastrophic and is usually the result of an unreliable – and sometimes unjust – system.

Any event which leads to loss of life can hardly be classed as a ‘near miss’, but Damascus could easily have been a lot worse – we learn that Vice President Walter Mondale and Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton were just 46 miles down the road at a Democratic convention in Little Rock when the accident happened.

They would have been pulverized if the warhead had exploded, along with thousands – if not millions – of other citizens.

The scary facts pile up: during the Cold War, it was believed that the US needed between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons to keep up with the Soviet Union – there are currently around 7,000 nuclear weapons on US soil and surrounding oceans, including approximately 500 primed and ready to go.

And some experts estimate that 1,000 similar accidents to the one at Damascus have occurred in the US since the advent of nuclear weaponry.

According to Schlosser, the fact that there hasn’t been more loss of life is down to the excellence of the weapons designers and bravery of the (mostly very young) site engineers.

But mostly it’s down to luck. And the thing about luck is that it eventually runs out, as ‘Command And Control’ so harrowingly depicts.

Ronald Shannon Jackson: Behind Plastic Faces

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Shannon Jackson in 2012

Musicians and writers have long puzzled over a definition of Harmolodics, the musical system invented by Ornette Coleman.

The man himself was famously coy on the subject, his brief liner note on the back of the Dancing In Your Head LP possibly the nearest he ever got to an outright definition: ‘Rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship’.

Of all the Ornette collaborators who developed their own take on Harmolodics, Ronald Shannon Jackson, who died in October 2013, probably came up with the most accessible version.

He had played with avant-garde pioneers Albert Ayler, Ornette, James Blood Ulmer and Cecil Taylor in the 1970s, but developed into a fine bandleader/composer in the ’80s, fronting a red-hot band featuring guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), bassist Melvin Gibbs (Rollins Band), trombonist Robin Eubanks and saxophonist Zane Massey. (Shannon’s version of Harmolodics was so successful it possibly even influenced Ornette’s Virgin Beauty.)

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My dad used to get sent a lot of music in his capacity as a programme consultant for Channel 4 TV’s music arm back in the mid-1980s. A surprising amount of it would come in home-compiled cassette format. One such tape was simply called ‘Dance Music’ – I’ve still got it somewhere.

Most of it was fairly standard Brazilian and Blue Note stuff but one track stood out a mile and became somewhat of an obsession for my brother and I: Shannon’s ‘Behind Plastic Faces’, from the 1985 album Decode Yourself. It was the beginning of my love affair with his music and drumming.

He lays down one of his patented military grooves on Simmons drums underneath slithering fretless bass, chattering Reid guitar and Onaje Allan Gumbs’ summery keyboards.

But then the track suddenly changes gear halfway through and turns into a Afro-Funk/No-Wave rave-up, with Shannon moving over to the acoustic drums and Eric Person rhapsodising on alto sax.

The track and attendant album were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and produced by Bill Laswell. Decode Yourself seems very difficult to find these days, like many of Shannon’s numerous other ’80s albums.

Shannon Jackson was born and brought up in Forth Worth, Texas, just like Ornette. His father’s jukebox introduced him to BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, but there were many other influences in the mix too, as he told writer Gary Giddins in 1985:

‘You’d wake up and hear hillbilly music on the radio. In school, we’d play (Wagner’s) “Lohengin”, at night we’d hear Bo Diddley or Bobby “Blue” Bland. On Sunday, we’d hear gospel. It was a total black community, and music wasn’t categorised as jazz or pop – nobody told you you weren’t supposed to like something.’

Book Review: Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel

walls come tumblingDaniel Rachel’s excellent new book focuses on the links between music and politics in the 1980s.

Ostensibly an oral history of three epochal movements of the era – Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge – ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ shows how these campaigns politicised a whole generation.

Fresh from his fine ‘Isle Of Noises’ tome which interviewed key British songwriters, Rachel opens his contacts book again to get telling contributions from Pauline Black, Dennis Bovell, Billy Bragg, Lloyd Cole, Elvis Costello, Jerry Dammers, Andy Gill, Junior Giscombe, Paul Heaton, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tracey Thorn, Tom Robinson, Paul Simonon, Paul Weller and many more.

There are also many rare or never-before-published photos of the era by the likes of Pennie Smith, Jill Furmanovsky and Kevin Cummins.

The story starts on 5th August 1976 when Eric Clapton used a notorious Birmingham Odeon gig to lambast the audience, calling for ‘w*gs’ and ‘P*kis’ to ‘leave the country’ and pledging his support for Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP who eight years earlier had made the infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech.

Clapton’s shocking proclamations sparked the Rock Against Racism movement, a campaign also inflamed by David Bowie’s comments to Playboy magazine concerning Hitler and the rise of fascism.

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

This troubling era is picked over in immense detail, with various jaw-dropping artefacts: Clapton’s handwritten ‘apology’ letter to Sounds magazine is printed in full, and there’s also an extremely rare photo of Bowie’s ‘Nazi salute’ at Victoria station in May 1976 (as well as a new-to-this-writer explanation/apology from Bowie).

Black musicians and music-biz legends also comment with great candour about life in the UK during this period.

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The 2 Tone movement attacked racism at its source while many artists under that umbrella also supported the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament and Rock Against Sexism.

When Margaret Thatcher swept to a second term of office in 1983, bolstered by the Falklands War, a new pacifism emerged, typified by tracks like Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ and Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’.

Later, as the miners’ strike took hold and Thatcher’s assault on socialism gathered pace, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg formed the Red Wedge movement which focused its attentions on ousting her in the 1987 General Election. It wasn’t to be, of course – although she did resign in December 1990.

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The final section of ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ focuses on Dammers and various accomplices’ efforts to raise public awareness about the banned ANC, with high-profile singles and the famous 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium, followed by his eventual freeing from jail on 11th February 1990.

Full of juicy details, potent memories of a far more passionate and politically-engaged era of pop music, and gripping, sometimes moving testimonies, this fascinating book outlines a period when youth culture demanded a voice.

‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is published by Picador.

Classic Rock’s 100 Greatest Albums Of The ’80s: First Impressions

_57I’m a sucker for a ‘best albums of the 1980s’ list. Classic Rock magazine have just published their ‘real’ top 100, focusing on under-the-radar records by both well-established and cult artists.

The countdown features a fair few critics’ favourites – Peter Gabriel 3, Lou Reed’s New York, David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, The Police’s Synchronicity, Roxy Music’s Avalon. No major surprises there.

Then there are the slightly left-field choices that would possibly scrape into my top 100 too (Living Colour’s Vivid, PiL’s Album, Brian Wilson’s self-titled debut, Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, Genesis’s Duke, Neil Young’s Freedom, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled debut, David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper).

There are the slightly puzzling choices from established artists – Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years, Yes’s Drama, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Uplift Mofo Party Plan, Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, Van Halen’s Women And Children First, Faith No More’s Introduce Yourself and Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors.

And then there’s a whole raft of albums by artists I’ve long meant to check out. So I gave them a spin. I didn’t make much headway with Dead Kennedys, Billy Squier, Zodiac Mindwarp, John Mellencamp, Gun, Sea Hags, Green On Red, Queensryche, Georgia Satellites, Enuff Z’Nuff and King’s X, but here’s some stuff that did make an impression – very surprisingly, in most cases:

#86: Steve Perry’s Street Talk (1985)

I’ve always respected the Journey man’s voice but was unaware of his solo career until I heard this super-catchy single (whose video even throws in a bit of ‘Spinal Tap’ self-parody).

#84: Michael Bolton’s Everybody’s Crazy (1985)

The sound of Michael McDonald fronting ZZ Top.

#55: Gary Moore’s Corridors Of Power (1984)

Included for the extraordinary first two minutes: scary chops from a guitar great.

#38: Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut (1983)

You’d be hard pressed to call it a great voice but Waters emotes very effectively on this beautifully-produced, evocative album opener.

#24: Iron Maiden’s Piece Of Mind (1984)

A slinky harmonized riff and absolutely killer guitar solo.

#3: Def Leppard’s High ‘N’ Dry (1981)

One for audiophiles everywhere: producer ‘Mutt’ Lange works his magic again.

I won’t give away the number one…but you can check out the full top 100 albums here.

Fuzzbox: Self! Self! Self!

fuzzbox_big_bangThe 1980s are littered with bands who started out with the noblest of indie intentions, but then got seduced and/or corralled into major-label action.

And they didn’t come much more indie than We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, the Birmingham-born-and-bred, all-female, John Peel-endorsed quartet which formed in 1985.

By 1988, though they had enjoyed a lone top 40 single, you probably wouldn’t have put much money on them making a claim for serious stardom. But against all odds, they spent most of 1989 as proper pop stars.

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Too young to appreciate their early stuff, I had only ever known their ‘pop’ period. But I hadn’t thought about them for over 25 years until the other day when I heard their 1989 single ‘Self’ on Absolute 80s.

I was immediately impressed and intrigued; an irresistible slice of post-Frankie, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pomp-pop, ‘Self’ features swooning synths, powerhouse drums, strident, Claudia Brucken-esque vocals, a brilliant chorus and even a saucy Brian May guitar solo. How did they do that?

It was all so different back in ’86. Their first UK single, a double A-side of ‘XX Sex’ and ‘Rules And Regulations’, appeared on Vindaloo Records and reached number 41 in March of that year. In December, debut album Bostin’ Steve Austin was released, spawning hilarious first UK Top 40 single ‘Love Is The Slug’.

Further single releases included ‘Rocking With Rita (Head To Toe)’, featuring a version of ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ on the B-side, and even a cover of ‘Spirit In The Sky’.

Clearly a change of direction was needed. Apparently it was WEA A&R gurus Rob Dickins and Bill Drummond who masterminded the band’s assault on the charts, recommending a shortening of their name to Fuzzbox, bringing in songwriter Liam ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ Sternberg, putting more focus on lead singer Vickie Perks and recruiting session keyboard player Andy Richards to produce the Big Bang album.

Richards’ credentials were exemplary – prior to ’89 he had played on no less than eight ’80s UK number ones: Frankie’s ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’, George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ and the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Heart’. He had also recently produced Prefab Sprout’s ‘Hey Manhattan’.

And, in the short-term, Richards did a sterling job – Big Bang went top 5 and Fuzzbox were pop stars. Three singles from the album got into the top 30 – the infuriatingly-catchy Sternberg co-writes ‘Pink Sunshine’ and ‘International Rescue’ as well as ‘Self’. But the fourth single, a cover of Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, flopped, as did later stand-alone single ‘Your Loss My Gain’. Warners pulled the plug, probably prematurely.

But the story doesn’t end there. Fuzzbox made a comeback in 2010 with a spiffing cover of M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ but sadly lost founding member Jo Dunne in October 2012. After a brief hiatus, they reformed again in 2015 and have just finished touring with The Wonder Stuff. Their YouTube channel claims they are officially the most successful British all-female band. Dispute it at your peril…

The Crap Movie Club: Mannequin (1987)

mannequinYou know the drill – it’s a few days after Christmas and the house is finally quiet. You sink into the sofa with a deep wish to indulge in some serious comfort viewing.

A guilty pleasure would be perfect, maybe a light Hollywood comedy, late-’80s style, something along the lines of ‘Vice Versa’, ‘Baby Boom’, ‘Innerspace’ or ‘The Money Pit’.

‘Mannequin’, starring Andrew McCarthy, James Spader and Kim Cattrall, would appear to fit the bill. Decent cast. You haven’t heard of the director (Michael Gottlieb) but surely he can’t fail with that kind of ammo.

So you settle in expectantly. But after a few minutes it’s pretty clear that ‘Mannequin’ is sub-‘Splash’, high-concept dross, and it becomes hard to take your eyes off a bona fide turkey…

McCarthy plays a ‘quirky’ department-store window dresser who falls in love with a showroom dummy (Cattrall). The kicker is that she ‘comes alive’ at night only for him, a state of affairs closely monitored by the shop’s prissy vice president (Spader) and Rambo-obsessed security guard (GW Bailey).

Spader – one of my all-time favourite actors – gets top marks for effort but is hideously miscast. He usually has the ability to rise above apparently ‘unsuitable’ material (see ‘The Rachel Papers’ and ‘The Music Of Chance’) but not here.

James Spader

James Spader

Ditto McCarthy. As an actor, on the evidence of ‘Class’, ‘Pretty In Pink’ and ‘St Elmo’s Fire’, he definitely had something, even if often ‘helplessly sucked down by the undertow of female desire’ with ‘a pair of panicked eyes that bulge out like those of a deer caught in headlights and a mouth stuck in the permanent pucker of a cat’s asshole’, in the memorable words of Jonathan Bernstein.

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Andrew McCarthy and a dummy. The dummy is on the right…

But here he (quite understandably) fails to decipher any of his character motivations, ending up either gazing ‘soulfully’ into the middle distance or yelping nonsensically. Not helped by a horrendous script, his line-readings barely make sense.

Poor Cattrall has a completely thankless role as an oppressed Ancient Egyptian who is put under a spell and then reincarnated as a mannequin (don’t ask). Elsewhere, Steve Vinovich makes for a terrible baddie, his performance barely exceeding am-dram level.

Gay and black stereotypes are hurled around willy-nilly and there’s even a large dose of weird corporate sexism thrown in for ‘comedy’ purposes.

The director and editor conspire to extend every shot just too long, killing any potential giggles. The score is awful too, with blaring sub-Harold-Faltermeyer synths and over-loud drum machines throughout (though there have been many worse movie themes than the Albert Hammond/Dianne Warren-composed, Narada Michael Walden-produced ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, the UK’s second-biggest-selling single of 1987).

But, in its own way, ‘Mannequin’ laid down a marker in Hollywood, arguably influencing the crap/ infamous ‘caper’ movies of the early ’90s such as ‘The Adventures Of Ford Farlaine’ and ‘Hudson Hawk’ etc. So at least we have that to ‘thank’ it for…