Book Review: A Message To Our Folks (The Art Ensemble Of Chicago) by Paul Steinbeck

If the 1980s saw the full flowering of PR and image’s influence on the music world, it’s sometimes forgotten that jazz was an unlikely beneficiary of this trend too.

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, that important unit whose line-up went unchanged for almost 30 years until trumpeter/co-founder Lester Bowie’s death in 1999, were a massive live draw during the early ’80s, particularly in France, where they were welcomed more like rock stars than avant-garde jazzers.

Image and stage presentation were undoubtedly big factors. Paul Steinbeck fine new biography of the band ‘A Message To Our Folks’ is a scholarly, forensic study, tracing their origins from the South Side of Chicago through their controversial move to Paris in 1969, return to the States in 1971 and commercial peak in the early 1980s.

He analyses key albums, talks to living members and dissects the Ensemble’s cultural importance. Despite the sometimes frivolous onstage ‘antics’, musically the collective was as serious as your life, to borrow the title of Val Wilmer’s groundbreaking book. Drummer Don Moye remembers Bowie taking him aside after his successful audition and saying: ‘Don’t even mess with us or get any more involved if you can’t commit to playing Great Black Music at a very high level, becoming famous and taking our place in the history of jazz.’ The stakes were high.

They were ahead of their time with the use of slogans, labelling their sound Great Black Music to distinguish it from jazz; according to Bowie, ‘Never before were we even allowed the dignity of selecting a name for our own music.’ They also described their music as ‘Ancient To The Future’.

The band would pick up various celebrity fans: in 1975, Bowie took a trip to Nigeria and became Fela Kuti’s ‘guest of honour’ when he wowed him with an impromptu trumpet solo: ‘I played this blues… After I played a couple of choruses, Fela said, “Stop. Somebody go get this guy’s bags. He’s moving in with me…”‘ David Bowie also famously employed his namesake for the Black Tie White Noise album as did Danny Wilson for their acclaimed debut Meet Danny Wilson.

Don Moye in 2017

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago would also open doors for other instrumental groups with their onstage presentation, verging on dramatic performance – face paint and stage personas were the norm at a time when ‘jazz’ was becoming extremely bland.

‘Message To Our Folks’ is a fairly brief, fairly serious but highly effective biography, a must for general fans and a good companion piece to other key books on Free Jazz: ‘As Serious As Your Life’, Graham Lock’s ‘Forces In Motion’ and Ben Watson’s ‘Derek Bailey’.

‘A Message To Our Folks: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’ is published now by The University Of Chicago Press.

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The Redskins: Bring It Down

I first heard The Redskins’ ‘Bring It Down (This Insane Thing)’ circa 1985 on ‘The Max Headroom Show’, but, beyond clocking Alexei Sayle’s performance in the video, I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. It didn’t help that Max was speaking in tongues all over it.

Listening back to the song recently, I was seriously impressed. There are shades of early ’80s punk/funk: Gang Of Four, 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio, plus a bit of Dexys/Jo Boxers, and there’s also a superb horn arrangement in a great (or not-so-great, depending on your predilection for horn sections) period for horn sections.

The lyrics seem fairly revelant in a post-Grenfell world (well, they’re probably a bit better than ‘Oh-Jeremy-Corbyn’…) and feature somewhat of a classic first line, parodying Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous 1957 speech: ‘You’ve never had it so good/The favourite phrase of those who’ve always had it better…’

The band’s break-up as announced in the NME – click to enlarge

The band are a solid, funky little unit and I like singer Chris Dean’s chuckling Melle Mel homage and general swagger – it’s a classic ’80s vocal performance. Their Wikipedia entry says that The Style Council’s Steve White plays drums on this but it doesn’t particularly sound like him.

The Redskins burned fairly brightly for four years, starting out as an NME-approved indie act and then graduating to a major-label deal in the classic ’80s style. They split up after their Anti-Apartheid tour of 1986. ‘Bring It Down’ was their one and only UK top 40 single – a fairly poor return when such blue-eyed-soul inanities like The Blow Monkeys’ ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’ were just around the corner.

Where are they now? Who knows? No reunion. No sell-out. One near-hit.

Nick Mason: Fictitious Sports

Who are the luckiest musicians in rock? Which players have made the megabucks peddling middling-at-best instrumental skills and generally keeping their heads down? Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Eric Clapton, Phil Selway, Adam Clayton?

Nick Mason would probably have to be in that list too. But then you wonder if the Pink Floyd sticksman has hidden talents – after all, he’s produced the Damned, Robert Wyatt, Gong and Steve Hillage. Good musicians seem to really like and respect him and, to be fair, he has always seemed one of rock’s gentlemen.

He was at it again in 1979 when he gathered a rock snob’s dream team (Wyatt on vocals, Chris Spedding on guitar, cover designers Hipgnosis, record label Harvest) for his one and only solo album Fictitious Sports, eventually released in 1981.

Entirely written and arranged by jazz provocateur Carla Bley, it’s a fascinating, intermittently brilliant project that borrows from art-pop, prog, new-wave rock and even musical theatre to produce something pretty original (hardly surprising if one delves into Bley’s ouevre with any depth).

On the superb, disquieting ‘I’m A Mineralist’, Wyatt rehearses a Peter Gabriel-style blanked-out vocal and Bley inserts some witty Philip Glass Einstein On The Beach-style tomfoolery. And she doesn’t scrimp on the silly but menacing lyrics either: ‘Just the thought of ironing gives me spasms of lust’, ‘Mother used to try to meddle in my affairs’, etc…

‘Do Ya’ is a highly original, witty evocation of a crumbling relationship, reminiscent of something from Robert Fripp’s Exposure, with Wyatt sounding like he’s at the end of his tether. It could almost be the soundtrack to one of those Bruce Nauman man/woman video art pieces.

There are loads of other treats littered throughout, and even a Floyd/Kate Bush-style symphonic rock piece (‘Hot River‘). Mason adroitly leaves the clever stuff to Bley, generally only picking up the sticks during the riff sections. But it’s the best thing I’ve heard him do, with the exception of Syd-era Floyd. An interesting beginning – and end – to an almost fictitious solo career.

 

 

Donald Fagen: Century’s End 30 Years On

Almost 30 years ago to the day, my brother arrived home from a Richmond shopping spree bearing strange cargo – a new Donald Fagen 12” single.

To say that this was a surprise would be an understatement. After all, it was six years since The Nightfly and the late ’80s were generally a Steely Dan wasteland apart from occasional guest spots (China Crisis, Rosie Vela, Love And Money, Yellowjackets).

‘I think we felt that a lot of the energy was missing so we kind of sat out the ’80s,’ Fagen once said. But, in his book ‘Eminent Hipsters’, he went further, talking about ‘falling apart like a cheap suit’ towards the end of the decade, with panic attacks, antidepressants and shrinks abundant. But at least he didn’t need the money – ‘What supported me was that when CDs came out at the beginning of the ’80s, people had to buy the albums again.’

Fagen’s movie-producing cousin Mark Rosenberg headhunted him to come up with some music for the film version of Jay McInerney’s celebrated yuppie-in-peril book ‘Bright Lights Big City’. Fagen was typically reluctant but apparently swayed by the quality of McInerney’s writing. There was also something distinctly Steely-esque about this tale of a disillusioned twentysomething’s descent into a drug-addled, paranoid New York hell. So Fagen fashioned his version of the movie, co-writing the lyric with Timothy Meher. There are touches of ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ and ‘Wall Street’ in there. AIDS too, and ‘American Psycho’ was of course just around the corner.

The opening scene finds our hungover hero lamenting the roar of the Monday-morning garbage trucks. Cut to the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, where our yuppie daydreams about a conquest of the female variety: ‘We cut to this blonde/Dancing on a mirror/There’s no disbelief to suspend….‘ The image brilliantly conjures up Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. Madonna should also probably come to mind. ‘She’s the concept, more or less, of love in the city at century’s end…

Nothing and nobody is real – it’s all pose and high-concept. There’s no hope for redemption either: ‘Nobody’s holding out for heaven‘. Greed is good. But then the mystery blonde is using her ‘pirate radar’ to find a likely escort or – even better – a minor celebrity to latch onto. But no-one materialises, so you’ll do, although you know you’re only the second choice. But still: ‘Let’s get to the love scene, my friend‘…

Musically, ‘Century’s End’ is yet another brilliant Fagen concoction, initially based around a typical minor vamp and groovy half-time shuffle groove shepherded by Yellowjackets’ ‘Jim’ Haslip on bass and drummer Leroy Clouden (submerged in one or two different bits of rhythm programming). Michael Brecker and Lew Soloff lead the horn section, and the raft of uncredited backing vocalists sounds like it might include Patti Austin. Gary Katz co-produced the song at Chelsea Sound. Fagen’s vocals have rarely been better – check out his phrasing in the chorus. The 12” and CD also came with ‘Shanghai Confidential’, a neat little fuzak instrumental starring Marcus Miller on bass and Steve Khan on guitar.

The movie, starring Michael J Fox, stiffed. The casting didn’t help. But ‘Century’s End’ seems to be a bit of a guilty secret in Fagen’s discography, and it’s ripe for rediscovery. I’m pretty sure he’s never played it live with Steely on the road – at least it’s not on YouTube anywhere.

77 Great Singles Of The 1980s

Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would have to concede that it was a great decade for singles.

The first 7″ I asked for was either Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ or 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, all from the late ’70s, but the first single I distinctly remember buying was Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word Girl’.

But many others have stayed in the head and heart. Here are a bunch of them in no particular order (apart from the #1), but I’m barely scratching the surface.

The rules: one artist per slot, and a simple ‘quality’ criterion applies: when any of these songs comes on the radio or onto a playlist, they demand to be listened to. They stand alone, retaining a magic ‘buzz’, wow-factor, presence, mood. Nothing grates, and nothing – or at least not much – could be improved upon…

77. Cliff Richard: Carrie (1980)

76. James Brown: Living In America (1985)

75. Tom Tom Club: Wordy Rappinghood (1981)

74. Rolling Stones: ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (1983)

73. David Bowie: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980)

72. Dire Straits: ‘Private Investigations’ (1982)

71. Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’ (1982)

70. Belinda Carlisle: ‘I Get Weak’ (1988)

Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ kept it off the US number one spot in early ’88. Almost-perfect pop/rock from the pen of Dianne Warren.

69. The Jam: ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982)

68. Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)

Always the loudest song on any playlist.

67. Robert Wyatt: ‘Shipbuilding’ (1982)

66. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1984)

65. Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980)

64. Carly Simon: ‘Why’ (1982)

63. Bros: ‘I Owe You Nothing’ (1988)

62. Dollar: ‘Videotheque’ (1982)

61. Yazoo: ‘Don’t Go’ (1982)

Difficult now to disassociate it from Alan Partridge’s early morning show, but still a brilliant slice of Basildon techno-funk.

60. Bronski Beat: ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)

Touching meditation on the travails of youth. Even an appallingly-played synth in the intro cannot wither it.

59. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)

The first showing for that ’80s staple, the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, on a single that legendary Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun adored…

58. Fine Young Cannibals: ‘Johnny Come Home’ (1985)

57. Robert Palmer: ‘Addicted To Love’ (1985)

No apologies for including this US number one. Imagine waking up with this buzzing around your head. Palmer apparently bumped into Chaka Khan on a New York street during the vocal sessions and asked her to harmonize the lead line – a great pairing (but was she removed from some versions? Doesn’t really sound like her… Ed.).

56. Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherelle: ‘Never Knew Love Like This’ (1987)

Producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a damn good job of creating a Marvin/Tammi or Marvin/Diana for the ’80s. Gorgeous harmonies and vocals.

55. Salt-N-Pepa: ‘Push It’ (1988)

The ‘Smoke On The Water’ of ’80s rap. But, according to the ladies, it’s not about sex – it’s about ‘pushing it’ on the dancefloor.

54. Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)

53. Don Henley: ‘Boys Of Summer’ (1984)

52. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

51. Billy Joel: ‘Uptown Girl’ (1983)

Billy’s tribute to The Four Seasons works a treat, with a slammin’ rhythm section and melodic curveballs to make even Macca jealous.

50. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (1982)

The joyful sound of late summer 1982 and the first song by a black artist to be played on MTV.

49. Junior: ‘Mama Used To Say’ (1982)

48. Genesis: ‘Mama’ (1982)

The first ‘event’ single in their career. Epic/menacing.

47. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ (1982)

Quincy assembles his dream team (Ndugu, Swedien, Hey, Temperton, Phillinganes) to produce an underrated cracker.

46. The Police: ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ (1981)

Sting wrote the band’s fourth UK number one in 1976. Apparently Summers and Copeland hated Jean Roussel’s keyboard playing on this – but they were wrong.

45. Japan: ‘I Second That Emotion’ (1981)

Most original cover version of the ’80s?

44. Bananarama: ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (1983)

Apparently about sexual abuse…

43. The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’ (1989)

42. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘The Message’ (1982)

41. Blondie: ‘Atomic’ (1980)

Minor/major splendour. Debbie’s voice always sends a shiver down the spine and there’s that Roland CR-78 again.

40. The Specials: ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)

39. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)

No expense was spared for the all-important follow-up to ‘Relax’ – according to arranger Anne Dudley, a 60-piece orchestra featured on the intro.

38. Ultravox: ‘Vienna’ (1981)

Kept off the UK top spot by Joe Dolce’s Music Theatre’s brilliant ‘Shaddap You Face’ (which nearly made this list…).

37. OMD: ‘Souvenir’ (1981)

More like a dream than a pop song.

36. Adam And The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)

35. Bucks Fizz: ‘Land Of Make Believe’ (1982)

34. Madonna: ‘Crazy For You’ (1985)

Featuring Rob Mounsey’s sumptuous arrangement and a winning vocal from La Ciccone.

33. The Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’ (1982)

32. Thompson Twins: ‘Hold Me Now’ (1984)

31. Young MC: ‘Know How’ (1989)

By way of tribute to Cooking Vinyl founder Matt Dike who died recently.

30. S’Express: ‘Theme From S’Express’ (1988)

29. Nik Kershaw: Wouldn’t It Be Good (1984)

28. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)

A quintessential ’80s one-hit wonder, still beguiling after all these years, with a classic guitar performance from Clive Temperley.

27. Wham!: ‘Freedom’ (1984)

26. ZZ Top: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ (1983)

25. George Michael: ‘Careless Whisper’ (1984)

24. Art Of Noise: ‘Close (To The Edit)’ (1984)

Allegedly built on an unused Alan White drum track recorded during Yes’s 90125 sessions.

23. Blancmange: ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (1982)

22. Paul Hardcastle: ’19’ (1985)

21. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

20. Rick Astley: ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’ (1987)

Wacky song construction; try playing along on guitar. So many key changes. Arguably Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s best and vastly superior to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.

19. Hall And Oates: ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ (1982)

18. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (1981)

17. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)

A classic lyric, and musically rich too.

16. MARRS: ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (1989)

15. Eric B & Rakim: ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1988)

14. Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (1982)

13. Christopher Cross: ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ (1981)

Hard to resist the gorgeous Bacharach-penned melody and superb drum performance from Jeff Porcaro.

12. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)

11. The Jones Girls: ‘Nights Over Egypt’ (1981)

10. Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’ (1980)

9. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

8. Joe Jackson: ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)

7. Neneh Cherry: ‘Buffalo Stance’ (1989)

You may mock but slap on this Tim Simenon-produced corker and watch the dancefloor fill up…

6. Prince: ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (1987)

5. Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (1989)

Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn cooked up this epic UK No.1, adapted from the traditional Irish song ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. Here’s an interesting live version I’d never seen before.

4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (1984)

3. Madness: ‘Baggy Trousers’ (1980)

It is London school life in 1980 – simple as.

2. Scritti Politti: ‘Absolute’ (1985)

And the single I would save if my flat was on fire:

1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)

You can listen to the whole list on Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/sebage/playlist/0gsb6Zkav8rFWWAQ03HFDx