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 ex-Yes/King Crimson/Genesis sticksman Bill Bruford’s case, his snare drum is his main audio imprint (analysed by Bill on his website). 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, ‘European’ 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 with its lovely melody and soaring bridge. 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’ ingeniously fuses Turkish modes with a high-speed-bebop feel.

Buoyed by state-of-the-art production (maybe a bit too state-of-the-art for some) 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.

 

 

Seismic Grooves: Ronald Shannon Jackson’s ‘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, amongst many others. (Shannon’s version of Harmolodics was so successful it possibly even influenced Ornette’s sunny late-’80s minor classic, 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 the music on 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.’

Much more Shannon soon.

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.