Ry Cooder’s The Slide Area: 35 Years Old Today

Warner Bros, released 28th April 1982

7/10

Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book ‘The Slide Area’ was a collection of inter-related stories about a group of Hollywood’s lonely losers. His theme was that California’s natural phenomena made ‘normal’ behaviour virtually impossible.

‘The Slide Area’ obviously rang a bell with Ry. His 1982 album of the same name also featured an array of characters not exactly thriving in the Dream Factory. But it also turned out to be almost the complete opposite of Cooder’s commercial breakthrough, 1979’s slick, sparkling, digitally-recorded Bop Til You Drop.

The Slide Area sounds like what it is – a rough-and-ready band, often audibly cued by Cooder, playing songs of varying quality live in the studio with minimal, if any, overdubs. ‘Which Come First’, ‘Yes It’s Me And I’m Drinking Again’ and ‘Mama Don’t You Treat Your Daughter Mean’ are incredibly loose, with some bum notes and tentative moments left in.

Ry’s vocals are similarly raw but full of passion. On ‘Mama…’ he even sounds a bit like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Drummer Jim Keltner is uncharacteristically hyperactive, speeding up drastically on almost every song (definitely no click tracks involved with this album), but full of creativity on what sounds like a homemade kit with timbale, double kick drums, a trash can and a few different snares.

Cooder composes a lot more than on recent albums and even co-writes an ’80s classic with Keltner, ‘UFO Has Landed In The Ghetto’, which finds time to gently lampoon disco, rap and funk with references to the Bee Gees and George Benson. But perhaps predictably the three cover tunes are the standouts: a Tex-Mex version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Gypsy Woman’, funky take on Dylan’s ‘I Need A Woman’ and a gloriously arse-over-tit ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

But The Slide Area also marked the end of an era. Americana, roots music and blues were out, synths and drum machines were in. It was the end of the sort of albums Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks, the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman and Ry made with Warner Bros and the beginning of the sort of albums Madonna, Pat Benatar and Laura Branigan were making.

Live, it was a different matter – Ry was still a big draw in 1982, playing legendary gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon (my dad took me to one night, maybe my first ever major gig) and big shows all over Europe. But that too proved a false economy. ‘Someone yelled “Think of the money!” from the audience (during a 1977 Hammersmith Odeon gig). I’d like to show him my bank balance. I could never make a dime doing anything. I came back to California in debt. I’d make a record and I’m broke cos they’re not making any money, they don’t sell. I said, to hell with it,’ Ry told Q Magazine in 1987.

It was back to the movie soundtracks. For a while.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science 35 Years On

Warner Bros. Records, released April 1982

8/10

The 1980s were littered with ‘novelty’ hits but perhaps none was more unexpected – or more powerful – than Laurie Anderson’s John Peel-endorsed, eight-minute UK number 2 ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’. Massenet was a French composer, whose aria ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ (‘O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father’) appeared in the 1885 opera ‘Le Cid’.

‘O Superman’ was totally hip at the time, appearing in the slipstream of Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and also featuring a video which looked like avant-garde art. David Bowie was a big fan, covering the song during his 1997 Earthling tour. It still sounds unique and pretty hip today, even managing to throw in a little ode to Philip Glass with its brief, circular melodic motif that appears a few times.

A live performance of ‘O Superman’ was recorded in New York City in the week following the 9/11 attacks, and later appeared on the album Live In New York. In this context, certain lyrics seem to take on greater significance: ‘Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Smoking or non-smoking?’ Anderson has intimated that the song was inspired by watching television news reports of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/80.

‘O Superman’ came from Anderson’s performance art/music piece ‘United States I-IV’, and was initially released as a single on the indie One Ten label. When it quickly sold out of its initial run of 1,000 copies, Warners picked it up and also asked for a whole album of music from the show.

What about the rest of Big Science? Not having heard it for a few years, I approached the album with trepidation. But there was no need – ‘From The Air’ and ‘Sweaters’ (‘I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pen…cils’) are still very funny, but also oddly disquieting. There’s just something so fresh about Anderson’s persona. The album cover says it all (I was remiss to leave it out of my top covers of the 1980s lists) – she is the epitome of NYC post-punk cool minimalism.

Lyrically, Big Science – like the performance piece it comes from – seems to be satirising the rebirth of American ‘heroism’ and industrial might of the Reagan era. Anderson often speaks with (and mocks) the ‘voice of authority’, someone who, as she later said in an interview, is ‘either a shoe salesman or someone who wants to sell you an insurance policy you don’t want or need’ (now who does that remind me of?).

But there’s always a clash between this technological brave new world and the spiritual binds that hold us together – family (‘O Mom and Dad…’), folklore and tradition. The title track rams home the point with its ‘primitive’ percussion and vocals that sound vaguely like Native American chanting. ‘O Superman’ also does it with its initial focus on a piece of new technology – an answering machine – and then more metaphysical concerns (justice, God, love).

As the 1980s wore on, Anderson’s studio albums possibly suffered from being right on the ‘technological cutting edge’, but Big Science revels in simple acoustic/electric juxtapositions – some Velvet Underground drums here, an analogue synth, Vocoder or Harmonizer there, plus sax, percussion and treated violin. Occasionally it would be nice to hear an instrumental solo, maybe someone of the NYC-art-rock-approved school such as Shankar or Jon Hassell, but generally Anderson keeps it simple and maintains a very assured minimalist musical style throughout.

Big Science slightly outstays its welcome, its last two tracks quite a stretch, but overall still sounds like a vital piece of work from a major, treasured artist.

Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

With the sad death of Allan Holdsworth, we have lost another guitar great and one of the UK’s most singular musicians. There’s an old muso cliché that seems to lend itself to guitarists more than other players – ‘he/she’s a musician who just happens to be a guitarist’. Allan really was that. He came up with an entirely original soundworld, and was feted by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John McLaughlin.

From a young age, Holdsworth always revered horn players – particularly Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker – above guitarists, but, given a guitar by his father as a teenager, decided to pursue his love of music using that tool. In doing so, he revolutionised the instrument, fashioning a unique legato technique.

The aim was a smooth, soaring sound which lent itself to horn-like improvisation, allowing him to play fiery, exciting solos with huge intervallic leaps. His chord work was underrated and equally innovative, using close-interval voicings and ridiculously large stretches. He came up with an entirely personal series of ‘chord scales’, loathing standard chord shapes and even calling them ‘disgusting’ on his instructional video!

The first time I heard Allan’s playing was his extraordinary solo on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Stories To Tell’ track from the album If This Bass Could Only Talk, but it took me a while to identify him since my cassette didn’t list the personnel… To my ears, it was just a remarkable solo; I didn’t even particularly ‘hear’ it as a guitar.

In the late 1980s, as I started reading various American muso mags, Allan’s name popped up frequently (particularly memorable was this 1989 Guitar Player cover feature) – it was time to explore his career in more depth. In the early to mid-1970s, he guested with Soft Machine, Nucleus, Tempest and Gong. Master drummer Tony Williams came calling, and he hot-footed it over to New York for 18 months of recording and touring with the New Lifetime band.

He then joined Bill Bruford in one of the greatest ever fusion units alongside Jeff Berlin and Dave Stewart, then formed prog supergroup UK with Bruford, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton (playing a legendary solo on ‘In The Dead Of Night‘). He also forged a brief but fruitful musical relationship with violinst Jean-Luc Ponty.

An early solo album, 1976’s Velvet Darkness, was virtually disowned by Allan despite featuring Narada Michael Walden on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. But he spent the 1980s embarking on a far more fruitful solo career. Endorsed by Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, mainstream success beckoned in the mid-’80s, but a high-profile Warner Bros contract came and went very briefly with only an EP Road Games to show for it. It didn’t hold him back though; in fact it led to probably his most commercially successful period – Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand were all important statements.

The period between 1988 and 1994 was arguably Allan’s peak – superb solo albums like Secrets, Then!, Hard Hat Area and Wardenclyffe Tower came out and he contributed striking guest spots to albums by Level 42 (Guaranteed), Stanley Clarke and Chad Wackerman (Forty Reasons). He was even lured to share the stage with Level for a month-long Hammersmith Odeon residency in 1990.

Like fellow ex-pats Richard Thompson and Morrissey, he made California his home, moving there in the early 1980s and forging valued musical relationships with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Scott Henderson. Henderson spoke of his incredible generosity in the studio. Drummer Kirk Covington – who recorded with Allan on the ‘standards’ album None Too Soon – reported that sessions at his home studio were always curtailed at 7pm at which point Allan would hand out pints of his home-brewed cask ale.

The complexity of his style meant that Allan influenced relatively few guitarists, though for my money Henderson and Francis Dunnery (who will be presenting his own personal tribute to Allan on his Progzilla Radio show this Sunday at 6pm UK time) adapted some of his techniques to great effect. Fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin once said, ‘I’d steal everything Allan was doing if only I could figure out what he was doing!’

I saw Allan several times in concert; at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Jazz Cafe, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall and twice with Level 42 at Hammersmith. He was notoriously self-critical, but to my ears achieved a remarkable consistency in the live context.

A 12-CD career-spanning box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever has just been released on Manifesto Records. Allan was also working on a long-awaited new studio album at the time of his death. He spoke about both projects in this recent podcast.

Farewell to a master. We won’t see his like again.

Allan Holdsworth, guitarist and composer, born 6th August 1946, died 15th April 2017

Allan, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson in concert

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Keep Your Distance 30 Years On

Mercury Records, released April 1987

7/10

If you’d taken a walk along London’s King’s Road in the summer of 1987, you would have seen a lot of lads who looked just like Curiosity Killed The Cat; jeans from Dickie Dirts in Westbourne Grove, black polo neck, white T-shirt or Fred Perry, bomber jacket or cardigan, loafers or Doc Martens, and a flat-top haircut with a bit of gel.

Certainly most of the girls at my school fancied Curiosity. But then there was the music. You knew they had raided their parents’ cool record collections – they had a bit of Sly & Robbie, Trouble Funk, Robert Palmer, Dr John, Michael McDonald and Chic in there, also a large dollop of Little Feat.

Singer Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot had a light, attractive tenor voice and of course some eccentric dance moves and ‘relaxed’ stage patter. Drummer Migi Drummond and bassist Nick Thorpe definitely knew where ‘one’ was, and the band rounded out their sound with some fine horn and percussion arrangements.

Curiosity were the slightly sloaney South-West London lads who found the funk, probably the most musically accomplished of ’80s ‘teenybopper’ bands. They formed in 1984 from the ashes of Twilight Children, a post-punk band originally formed by Drummond and Thorpe. Offered studio time by family friend Eric Clapton, they cut a number of demos and quickly got the attention of businessman/impressario Peter Rosengard, who became their manager.

Curiosity played their first gig at London’s Embassy Club in December 1984 and quickly picked up quite a big live following. After co-writing ten tracks with session keyboardist Toby Anderson, they were snapped up by Phonogram/Mercury Records in summer 1985 after a considerable bidding war. Simply Red/Crusaders/Randy Crawford/Sly and the Family Stone producer Stewart Levine was selected to rescue their debut album after aborted sessions with Sly & Robbie, Paul Staveley O’Duffy and Culture Club’s Roy Hay.

First single ‘Misfit’ stiffed in August 1986, even though its video featured early champion Andy Warhol (who writes amusingly about Curiosity in his diaries). But ‘Down To Earth’ crashed into the top 10 soon after and Keep Your Distance went straight into the UK album charts at number one in April 1987, and also made the US top 60. A rereleased ‘Misfit’ then hit the UK top 10, and the Staveley O’Duffy-produced ‘Ordinary Day’ was a further hit. A fourth single, the Sly & Robbie-helmed ‘Free’, missed the top 40 entirely, possibly because its chorus featured one of the most hare-brained lyrical couplets of the decade.

But apart from Keep Your Distance‘s singles – all of which stand up pretty well these days – the album’s deep cuts showcase what the band were all about: the rather lovely ‘Red Lights’ and shimmering ‘Know What You Know’ are a winning fusion of Sade and Little Feat.

Anderson was dumped by the band just three months after the album’s release. He kvetched about it to Q Magazine in the December 1987 issue, saying ‘I suppose it could have been down to looks…’ Ben V-P disagreed, saying Anderson’s replacement ‘was just a better player’. What did Toby do after Curiosity? A Discogs search doesn’t reveal much beyond a few sessions for Belouis Some.

Curiosity’s impact was sudden, but their success short-lived. Why? Sacking a key songwriter and then waiting two years to release a follow-up didn’t help. Also their good looks and immediate success skewed record company expectations which would subsequently be almost impossible to fulfill, and also possibly blunted their musical potential. Who knows what else they could have achieved? With a bit of luck and better guidance, they might have developed into a Simply Red-style soft soul/funk band, if that’s what they wanted to do.