What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night.
The excellent Bob Harris returned to present – but where was Annie Nightingale? We saw a bit of her in her ’80s presenting pomp, but sadly she wasn’t in the studio.
The special reminisced unashamedly about a time when the musicians ran the music biz, and also documented the fascinating history of music TV with an interesting mix of guests (Joan Armatrading, Toyah, Chris Difford, Ian Anderson, Dave Stewart, Danny Baker) and live performances (Kiki Dee, Gary Numan, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson). Not exactly a cutting-edge, youthful lineup, but the musicianship was at an exceptionally high level.
Alongside ‘The Tube’, ‘Whistle Test’ was THE music show to watch in the mid-’80s, aided by some very agreeable presenters such as Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner, David Hepworth, Ro Newton and Mark Ellen.
The only real caveat was that – as Richard Williams pointed out during the special – the show possibly didn’t feature enough black artists. But it provided me with some formative musical memories – here are some bits from the ’80s incarnation that lodged in my brain (most unfortunately with dodgy sound/picture quality):
8. The Eurythmics: ‘Never Gonna Cry Again’ (1981)
Maybe a less than brilliant song but Annie’s vocals and stage presence are spellbinding. And I like the flute interlude. Also look out for an amusing cameo from Holger Czukay, who creeps onstage (to Annie’s annoyance?) like Banquo’s ghost.
7. Prefab Sprout: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (1985)
One of the first things I saw on the show. A tender reading of a classic song.
6. Joni Mitchell Special (1985)
Fascinating mini feature about Joni’s painting, ostensibly to promote her album Dog Eat Dog.
5. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)
One that has only come to light recently, but I would have been blown away by it had I seen it at the time. A special mention for man-of-the-match John Beck on keys.
4. Propaganda: ‘The Murder Of Love’ (1985)
The ex-Simple Minds rhythm section (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee) are cooking on this ZTT classic, as is Bowie/Iggy/Prefab guitarist Kevin Armstrong. Sadly, the clip has been removed from YouTube…
3. PiL: Home/Round (1986)
Chiefly remembered for a great two-guitar frontline (John McGeoch and Lu Edmonds) but I was also fascinated by John Lydon’s red headphones and suit.
2. Peter Gabriel So Special (1986)
One of the more illuminating interviews about So plus an interesting solo version of ‘Red Rain’.
1. King Crimson: ‘Indiscipline’ (1981)
Another corker that’s come to light recently, unfortunately shorn of its witty Annie Nightingale intro here. Pity poor Adrian Belew – Fripp’s gaze hardly moves from him throughout.
‘We’re not worthy!’ It was Wayne and Garth’s catchphrase but it could just as easily have been uttered by Thompson Twins’ frontman Tom Bailey in response to the band’s worldwide fame during 1983 and 1984.
He told Channel Four in 2001 (see below) that, at the peak of their success, he always felt on the verge of being ‘found out’ – an intruder at the 1980s Pop High Table.
And then there was the ignominy of being christened ‘The Thompson Twats’ by that naughty Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
They were being a tad harsh; The Thompson Twats made some great pop in the early ’80s. But Quick Step – released 35 years ago this week – is fiendishly difficult to ‘place’, representing a kind of musical Year Zero.
The only real antecedents seem to be Bowie, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby (who I can’t believe is not a guest keyboard player on the album – if he is, he’s not credited).
After the Twins’ first two records – when they were a kind of Grebo/agitprop/post-punk outfit – Bailey sacked half the band (including bass ace Matthew Seligman) and formed a lean, mean three-piece (Bailey took care of the music, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway the image and stage show, though all got songwriting credits).
The final masterstroke was recruiting star Grace Jones/Talking Heads/Robert Palmer producer Alex Sadkin.
The formula worked a treat on Quick Step, recorded at Compass Point Studios on the Bahamas and one of the first albums I loved all the way through. Sadkin plays a blinder, adding loads of percussion, perambulating synths and those much-imitated, elastic bass sounds.
There are so many classic early ’80s pop tunes that it’s almost indecent. Just hearing the intros to ‘Lies’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ makes me want to jump up and down like my 12-year-old self.
‘Watching’ – featuring Grace Jones’ hysterical vocals – and ‘We Are Detective’ are also good clean pop fun. The latter even throws in some Piazzolla-style fake accordion for good measure.
Quick Step & Side Kick was a big hit in the UK, hitting #2. Those anti-capitalist ideals were quickly waylaid.
US sales were helped no end when the ever-prescient John Hughes chose ‘If You Were Here’ for a key moment in his 1984 movie ‘Sixteen Candles’, but the Twins didn’t really hit the jackpot in the States until the follow-up album Into The Gap. They even played at Live Aid – in Philadelphia, not London.
N.B. Michael White wrote a really nice, little-known memoir about life in the Twins called ‘Thompson Twin’. He played live keyboards with the band during their pop peak. Spoiler alert: it was not a bed of roses…
You wait all day for a prog/pop legend and then three turn up at once.
David Sancious, Francis Dunnery and Peter Gabriel gathered at London’s Abbey Road Studios on 7th February for a Steinway Pianos event:
Ex-It Bites frontman Francis posted on his always-entertaining Facebook page:
‘It was great to see David and Peter again. I’m havin’ fun here at Abbey Road. I’m hanging with Youth who I found out is a Capricorn. Killing Joke were an amazing band. It’s all good. Performance tonight for loads of Germans for Steinway Hamburg…‘
Now that I wanna hear: the Francis D/Killing Joke collaboration. I always suspected It Bites’ classic near-hit ‘Midnight’ was a teeny bit influenced by the Joke’s ‘Love Like Blood’.
It’s a very busy time in the Dunnery camp – he’s just finished the sold-out ‘Eat Me In St Louis’ UK tour (named after It Bites’ 1989 album), played a solo gig at Iridium in New York, has a live album out and is recording a new studio record.
He also has some UK house concerts booked in March and will return next year for ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ tour. Looking forward to that.
In the meantime, check out my review of Francis’s recent London gig in issue 38 of Classic Pop magazine.
In the ’70s and ’80s, documentarian Nick Broomfield’s focus was mainly on societal concerns – the British class system (‘Proud To Be British’), urban decay (‘Behind The Rent Strike’), juvenile delinquency (‘Tattooed Tears’) the US Army (‘Soldier Girls’), legalised prostitution (‘Chicken Ranch’). All are superb and worth seeking out.
But 1988’s ‘Driving Me Crazy’ marked a lightening of tone and the birth of Broomfield’s post-modern style, where he became a ‘character’ in the film – and, it has to be said, often an irritant.
The movie came about when the financiers of big-budget, all-black musical ‘Body And Soul’ – booked for a six-month run in Munich – sought out Broomfield to make a ‘Fame’-style documentary about the extended rehearsal process in New York.
All well and good, thought Broomfield. It was a chance to extend his range and do something different, a little more light-hearted.
But then it all went pear-shaped. The financiers reduced the documentary budget from $1.6 million to $300,000. They also wanted to incorporate a ‘fictional’ element into the film, with writer Joe Hindy and his agent playing themselves. Egos ran wild and sensibilities were messed with.
Broomfield considered bailing but decided to hang around and document the resulting drama. So ‘Driving Me Crazy’ became a film about not being able to make a film, in the tradition of ‘Waiting For Fidel’.
The good news is that it’s one of the funniest but also most awkward movies of Broomfield’s career. ‘Body And Soul’ choreographers George Faison/Mercedes Ellington and assistant director Howard Porter don’t take kindly to the film crew and give them hell.
Broomfield almost becomes persona non grata. Though this must have sometimes been painful, he almost seems to relish it. He also flirts outrageously with the PA of show producer Andre Heller and there are uncomfortable suggestions of racism from some of the suits.
But Broomfield and his DoP Rob Levi also document some stunning rehearsal footage. There are memorable jazz, hip-hop, soul and doo-wop performances and beautiful images of late ’80s New York, with shades of ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘9 1/2 Weeks’.
There’s a particularly notable panoramic cityscape shot towards the end, soundtracked by one of many fractious but funny Broomfield phone calls.
Entertaining, unsettling and sometimes exhilarating, the oft-neglected ‘Driving Me Crazy’ is well worth another look.
Peaking between 1983 and 1985, the digital funk sound took the base elements from early pioneers James Brown, The Isley Brothers and Sly and the Family Stone and combined them with the new studio technology of the early ’80s.
Producers Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin, Leon Sylvers III (The Whispers, Shalamar), Kashif, Prince and Steve Arrington, and keyboardists/programmers such as David Gamson, David Frank and Robbie Buchanan, instigated a new kind of funk incorporating syncopated synth parts, percussion and intricate rhythm guitar.
The resulting sound is instantly recognisable and an influence on everyone from Beck and Bruno Mars to Daft Punk and Mark Ronson. Here are 11 tracks that still retain the wow factor. Play ’em loud…
11. Zapp & Roger: ‘More Bounce To The Ounce’ (1980)
Roger Troutman took the key elements of George Clinton/Bernie Worrell’s P-Funk template (squelchy synth bass, solid drums, clipped rhythm guitar) and stripped them back to their bare essentials, creating this classic single which made the Billboard top 100 in 1980.
10. The System: ‘You Are In My System’ (1982)
Later covered by Robert Palmer, ‘You Are In My System’ was the trademark track by the New York outfit comprising Mic Murphy on vocals and David Frank on keyboards and programming. If the opening minute of this doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead…
9. Person To Person: ‘High Time’ (1983)
This was former ABC drummer David Palmer’s bid for solo pop stardom after jumping ship from the ‘Lexicon Of Love’ tour. Produced by David Frank, it’s catchy and beautifully arranged but lacks a decent vocalist and didn’t dent the charts on its 1983 single release.
8. The Girls: ‘I’ve Got My Eyes On You’ (1983)
Minneapolis was a hotbed of digital funk in the early ’80s too, not all generated by Prince (but I’d definitely have included ‘DMSR’ or ‘Erotic City’ if they were on YouTube…). This curio, produced by his 1979-1981 touring bassist Andre Cymone, lacks a decent chorus but is still a catchy funk stew all the same. The Girls released their one and only album in 1984.
7. Kashif: ‘Stone Love’ (1983)
This has more than a whiff of Luther’s ‘Never Too Much’ about it, but it was also a major influence on Scritti Politti (see below). Kashif released five studio albums between ’83 and ’89 and worked with Whitney Houston and George Benson before his death in 2016.
6. Chic: ‘Believer’ (1983)
The corking title track from their last studio album of the ’80s which received a critical mauling at the time. It sounds pretty fresh these days though maybe lacks the killer pop hooks that categorised their most successful work.
5. Scritti Politti: ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’ (1984)
Arif Mardin produced this classic single which made #10 in the UK chart in March 1984.
4. Wally Badarou: ‘Chief Inspector’ (1985)
Best known as keyboard player for Grace Jones and Level 42, Badarou also scored movies (‘Kiss Of The Spiderwoman’) and came up with this classic Afrocentric take on the digital funk sound.
3. Loose Ends: ‘Hanging On A String (Contemplating)’ (1985)
Obviously at the commercial end of the sound, this reached the giddy heights of #13 in the UK singles chart and was all held together by a superb performance by Ron Jennings on guitar.
2. Chaka Khan: ‘I Feel For You’ (1984)
Overfamiliar it may be, but this Prince-penned epic is undeniably the commercial apotheosis of the digital funk sound. The famous opening was apparently a total mistake, producer Arif Mardin getting trigger-happy with the sampler. Chaka was not amused and wanted it erased, but Mardin insisted on keeping it, telling her: ‘Don’t worry, my dear, it will be a hit.’ A hit it was, the only #1 of her career.
1. Beck: ‘Get Real Paid’ (1999)
The Los Angeles pop chameleon revived the sound for his underappreciated 1999 solo album Midnite Vultures.
Maybe John Abercrombie was the Andy Murray of jazz guitarists.
People say Murray was ‘unlucky’ to be playing tennis at the same time as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal; Abercrombie was arguably ‘unfortunate’ to have been forging a career at the same time as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.
But a superb career he forged all the same. Starting out as somewhat of a John McLaughlin imitator playing unhinged jazz/rock with Billy Cobham and Dreams on ‘some of the worst fusion albums ever made’ (his words), by 1974 Abercrombie had settled into a long, intriguing career on ECM Records, where he could pursue all his interests, from acoustic guitar duos with Ralph Towner to organ trios with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette.
But one of his best bands was this mid-1980s outfit with ex-Bill Evans/Lyle Mays sideman Marc Johnson on bass and legendary Peter Erskine on drums, often augmented by Michael Brecker on sax too.
Abercrombie was getting heavily into the guitar synth around this time, while also using loops and ethereal keyboard patches to beef up the studio sound.
’86’s Current Events was a fine ‘blowing’ record but followup Getting There– released 30 years ago this month – was arguably Abercrombie’s most commercial album. It’s big and bold but definitely no ‘fusion’ sell-out, and it distills its ideas into relatively short, concise statements.
It’s also somewhat of a rarity for the ECM label in that it’s not produced by Manfred Eicher – Lee Townsend is in charge here, assisted by James Farber.
The epic title track is loud and proud, almost approaching avant-rock with Erskine absolutely lamping his drums and a hysterical, exciting set of screaming guitar-synth solos. It gets near the approach of David Torn’s sometimes raucous Cloud About Mercury album.
Ethereal, gentle and gorgeous ‘Thalia’ (composed by Vince Mendoza) and ‘Chance’ are ambient/jazz masterpieces with shades of Mark Isham’s work.
Classic ballad ‘Remember Hymn’ initially sounds like a re-harmonisation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’ but slowly becomes a vehicle for Brecker’s haunting tenor. The latter also cleans up on the raucous two-chord blowout ‘Furs On Ice’, reminiscent of Johnson’s Bass Desires band, with Erskine at his most Elvin Jones-like.
Getting There predictably received a somewhat muted critical reaction (but did get a three-star review in Q Magazine). I wasn’t bothered about that – having been recommended Abercrombie by a guitar player friend, I bought it sight unseen from HMV Oxford Street on vinyl a few weeks after it came out. It’s still my favourite album by the guitarist.
But it would be the last time Abercrombie dipped his toe into ‘rockist’ waters – he quickly regrouped to continue his ever-eclectic, increasingly gentle career, and, to the best of my knowledge, never picked up the guitar synth again…