Scritti Politti’s Provision: 30 Years Old Today

A pop formula can be a dangerous thing. In Scritti mainman Green Gartside’s case, it was literally dangerous – dangerous to his physical and mental health.

He speaks of their 1988 album Provision with something akin to dread these days, lamenting the three-year recording process (no less than 10 studios are listed in the credits) and then ‘a year of hell’ – his words – promoting it (epitomised by the fairly dire ‘Boom! There She Was’ video). A full-blown breakdown followed, and he now says he wished he’d had the guts to explore the hip-hop sounds that had begun to enthrall him around ’86/’87.

But, to these ears, Provision is an almost-perfect follow-up to the classic Cupid & Psyche ’85. There’s arguably more cohesion – Gartside and keyboard-playing cohort David Gamson co-wrote and co-produced all tracks (no Arif Mardin this time) and the guest spots from Miles Davis, Roger Troutman and Marcus Miller are expertly placed.

‘Sweetness’ is the word that seems to follows Scritti around. And despite containing two classic ballads (‘Overnite’, ‘Oh Patti’), Provision is unashamedly happy music – all songs are in major keys – and for me it’s one of the ultimate summer albums (’88 was a great year in this regard, Provision sharing disc space with Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick, Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy and Joni’s Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm).

But Green’s lyrics are always subtly subversive. ‘Sugar And Spice’ may be about anal sex or drugs (or both!), ‘Boom’ references Immanuel Kant and a ‘pharmacopoeia’ (dictionary of drugs), amusingly lip-syched by Gartside in the video, while his interest in Marxism is never far from the surface of even the most seemingly-straightforward ‘boy/girl’ song.

And is there a Grammy award for arrangement? If so, Provision should have won. Gamson and Green do some intricate things here with backing vocals (check out ‘Bam Salute’), rhythm guitars and synth syncopation. No-one else has really explored similar areas, including the greats of ’80s R’n’B. No wonder Miles was a bit obsessed with Scritti.

Yes, the songs on side two are a bit too long and possibly point to a dearth of material, and the album could also do with a real drummer (Steve Ferrone, Vinnie Colaiuta?). Provision missed the top 100 in the States but made the top 10 in the UK (selling over 100,000 copies) and produced one top 20 hit in ‘Oh Patti’. Writer Nick Coleman gave the album a 9/10 rave in the NME, calling its songs ‘sweeties to rot your teeth and detonate your heart’.

Hear, hear. That ‘sweetness’ again…

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The 11 Worst Music Videos Of The 1980s

Billy Squier doing his ‘thing’

When MTV launched on 1st August 1981, it was estimated that only 150 music videos were in circulation. So if the round-the-clock station was going to succeed, it needed new content, and fast.

But, mired in the middle of a recession, record companies were initially sceptical about the commercial clout of videos. That period was short-lived; as record exec Mick Kleber put it in the hilarious book ‘I Want My MTV’, ‘Once Duran Duran started selling records in Oklahoma, it opened everyone’s eyes.’

Suddenly the video department of the major labels was the ONLY department that was expanding. In the rush to fill MTV schedules, production went into overdrive. The likes of Toto, Christopher Cross, Journey, Stevie Nicks, Van Halen, Steve Miller and Chicago – still-big-selling acts from a different generation – were forced to ham it up in front of the camera.

And thank goodness that some of their lamest, most ill-advised attempts are preserved for posterity, and for our delectation. We are pleased to present 11 of the worst clinkers. Here you will find a strange parade of transvestites, mullets, models, douchebags, disco line-dancers and little people. What were the directors thinking? Who knows, but for once I’m inclined to concede that the 1980s might have been the decade that taste forgot…

11. Chick Corea Elektric Band: ‘Elektric City’ (1985)

From that weird sub-genre of ’80s music video: the jazz-fusion artist looks for a hit. One has to feel particularly sorry for sh*t-hot guitarist Scott Henderson (who didn’t even play on the track!), looking like Screech from ‘Saved By The Bell’, hamming it up against his better judgement. Not forgetting the brilliant jazz dance troupe IDJ – why, lads, why?

10. Hall & Oates: ‘Private Eyes’ (1981)

After an unforgivable snare-drum-in-the-wrong-place opening, one of the most unimaginative visual documents in pop history, fronted by an anaemic, manic, clearly uncomfortable Hall. It didn’t stop the single from getting to #1 in the States, though…

9. Billy Joel: ‘Allentown’ (1982)

Actually, Russell Mulcahy’s homoerotic curio would make a pretty good musical. Just putting it out there…

8. The Police: ‘Wrapped Around The Finger’ (1983)

Directors Godley and Creme’s instructions to the lads seem to have been: look as much of a pr*ck as possible…

7. Billy Squier: ‘Rock Me Tonite’ (1984)

Apparently our Billy was aiming for a homage to ‘American Gigolo’ but ended up with this slightly deranged, camp classic. ‘Directed’ by Kenny Ortega, later famed for ‘High School: The Musical’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’.

6. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’ (1983)

Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring…

5. Toto: ‘Waiting For Your Love’ (1982)

We’ll leave aside that this is a very ill-advised choice of single off the back of ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Africa’. According to guitarist Steve Lukather, the video was so bad that even MTV wouldn’t play it.

4. Journey: ‘Separate Ways’ (1982)

Could it have been any more unflattering to poor singer Steve Perry? And whose ideas was it to have the guy playing air keyboards? Not to mention that the preyed-upon, obligatory ‘sexy woman’ is obviously a drag queen, when seen in long shot…

3. The Jacksons: ‘Torture’ (1984)

The clue is in the title. Michael obviously got wind of the impending disaster – he didn’t even turn up for the shoot. They used a Madame Tussauds dummy in his place.

2. Chicago: ‘Hard Habit To Break’ (1984)

Great piece of music, horrible video. Lots of ‘sensitive’ men of a certain age longing for a succession of scantily-clad model/actresses.

1. Van Halen: ‘(Oh!) Pretty Woman’ (1982)

Short people? Tick. Transvestite? Tick. Questionable antics? Tick. Ridiculously cheap production values? Tick. Definitely a case of too much bourbon and not enough brains. Roy Orbison’s views on this monstrosity are not recorded…

Are there other stinkers from the 1980s? Of course. Let us know below.

Play Review: Mood Music by Joe Penhall, Old Vic, 16th June 2018

Joe Penhall was seen as one of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre’s leading lights in the 1990s, writing a few early classics (‘Love And Understanding’, ‘The Bullet’, ‘Some Voices’) but pretty quickly outgrowing that tag to produce major works (‘Blue/Orange’, ‘Landscape With Weapon’) that grappled with big issues to superb effect. More recently he co-penned The Kinks musical ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and also has a Netflix TV show, ‘Mindhunter’, but his new play ‘Mood Music’ takes us back into the murky world of the pop industry.

It concerns two troubled protagonists: Bernard, a louche, self-centred, middle-aged producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist; and Cat, a talented, young, female singer/songwriter. They are thrown together when he chooses her to co-write and sing a song on his album, but now a lawsuit is in the offing over publishing credit and also her claim of sexual harrassment/kidnapping. Who has the power? Who will prevail?

It’s an all-too-relevant tale given the Dr Luke/Kesha lawsuit and #MeToo movement. Penhall expertly digs into detail on the finer points of music copyright law, showing portions of Bernard and Cat’s fraught songwriting sessions. And there are some great laughs at Bernard’s expense. But in order to crowbar in a lot of exposition and character motivation, Penhall also comes up with the device of structuring the play around the two main characters’ conversations with their lawyers and shrinks, with multiple flashbacks/flashforwards. This can be confusing, not to mention sometimes dramatically inert. The second act is much the same as the first. The impression is that it might all be going on in one of the main characters’ heads.

But Ben Chaplin gives a crackerjack performance as Bernard in a role that seems written for him. Basically, anyone who’s ever had more than the most rudimentary dealings with the pop business will have met someone like Bernard. He’s a close relation to Damon Albarn, Keith Richards and Mark Ronson. There is also a genuinely dramatic moment when we finally see Bernard’s true colours, reminiscent of a similar note in David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’, clearly a big influence on this play.

There are other problems with ‘Mood Music’: Cat, though certainly savvy beyond her years, looks about 18 rather than someone who’s been around the pop block a few times. Also the music Bernard and Cat come up with – somewhere between Dido and Donovan – sounds unlike anything that’s been in the charts over the last 20 years. And the idea that Bernard would have Sonny Rollins on speed dial is peculiar.

And what about the ending? I won’t give too much away but will just say that most of the cast morph into a string quartet. Maybe it’s something to do with the sanctity of single-author works of art. Or maybe it’s as simple as: don’t you dare mess with the pop business…

(‘Mood Music’ has just finished a successful run at the Old Vic but will probably be back soon.)

The Cult Movie Club: Seems Like Old Times (1980)

It seems a bit weird to describe ‘Seems Like Old Times’ as a cult movie when everything about it screams ‘Hollywood’: co-stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, screenwriter Neil Simon, ‘Mary Tyler Moore’/’Cosby Show’ director Jay Sandrich, Columbia Pictures (this was one of the first movies they made after the David Begelman embezzlement scandal).

But it’s a cult movie in that it now seems completely forgotten. I probably would never have come across it unless I’d happened upon it on TV one afternoon. I stuck it on a VHS and wish I still had it, because it’s one of Chevy’s funniest films and an interesting companion piece to ‘Caddyshack’. 1980 was a good year for Steely Dan’s first drummer.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is clearly modelled on the great Hollywood screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Even the title comes from a popular song written in 1945 (sung by Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’). Chase stars as a falsely-accused bankrobber who takes refuge at his ex-wife’s Beverly Hills ranch. There are ‘unresolved issues’ in their relationship, not to mention the suspicions of Hawn’s new husband Charles Grodin. The sparks fly and the one-liners come thick and fast.

Hawn, Chase and Grodin

Chase channels Cary Grant at his zaniest, Hawn is fairly adorable and has some great comic moments, and they have a decent chemistry. Grodin (who I was amazed to read was Razzie-nominated for this performance) excels in the role he always seems to play, a control freak seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, while Robert Guillaume and Harold Gould lampoon the Reaganite elite almost as effectively as Ted Knight in ‘Caddyshack’.

Simon writes loads of memorable secondary characters too: TK Carter is funny as Chester (though the part wouldn’t win any ‘woke’ points these days) and Yvonne Wilder is great as Mexican maid Aurora (ditto). The locations are gorgeous, with a striking helicopter shot over the opening credits along the Southern California coast. I love Marvin Hamlisch’s theme tune too, sounding a bit like Herb Alpert jamming with Billy Joel. And the cheap, slushy, ridiculous last five minutes get me every time.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is a film that you can just let wash over you – you’re in the hands of experts. Indeed it sometimes feels a bit too professional. It was a reasonable hit but proved a bit of a career dead end for Chase, who pretty much eschewed the ‘romantic lead’ pictures from here on in. A shame, in a way. His dead-eyed buffoonery and surprisingly subtle charm take him and the film a long way.

Eric Tagg: Six Of The Best

I still haven’t done the West Coast drive between LA and San Fran, but I know which music I’ll have on in the Pontiac Firebird when I do: it’s a toss-up between Steely Dan and Eric Tagg.

Probably best known for his work with guitarist Lee Ritenour on the Rit and Rit 2 albums, Tagg possesses a soulful, velvety voice, pitched somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen (some have also drawn comparisons to David Pack and George Michael). To these ears, his compositions also sound superior to a lot of similar material.

He released three solo albums in the ’70s/early ’80s, the best of which (Dreamwalkin’) was produced by Ritenour. Tagg was born in Chicago but spent his formative musical years in Holland singing with Dutch bands Rainbow Train and Beehive.

Gravitating to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s, he embarked on a solo career and joined Ritenour for their successful double act. But over the last 30 years he’s slowly retreated from public life, mainly devoting himself to writing Christian songs from his Texas base.

Let’s go back to that golden time for West Coast music, the early ’80s, and focus on six of Eric’s best from the era.

Warning: the following tunes may contain soothing harmonies, cool chords, smooth melodies…

6. ‘Marianne (I Was Only Joking)’ (1982)

Subtle, mellow composition with a superb vocal, from Tagg’s ‘Dreamwalkin‘ solo LP.

5. ‘Is It You?’ (1981)

Released as a single under Lee Ritenour’s name in April 1981, it reached the dizzy heights of #15 on the US pop charts. A classic slow jam with one of the best middle-eights of the ’80s.

4. ‘Promises Promises’ (1982)

Funky bit of pop/soul with Bill Champlin on back-ups. Wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Dude or even Thriller.

3. ‘Mr Briefcase’ (1981)

A classic drum performance from Jeff Porcaro on another single from Rit.

2. ‘Marzipan’ (1982)

This gorgeous slice of pop/soul, with a winning set of chord changes in the verse, was recently covered (pretty well) by US neo-soul crooner Eric Roberson.

1. ‘Just Another Dream’ (1982)

Another richly-chorded delight with more than a hint of ‘My Cherie Amour’ about it. Sublime keyboard work from David Foster, some classic Lee rhythm guitar and a great arrangement.

 

Book Review: Uncharted (Creativity And The Expert Drummer) by Bill Bruford

Recently, for work, I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with Paddy Spinks, the man charged with keeping King Crimson together in the 1980s. Chatting about that mighty musical unit recently, he said that Bill Bruford had been the ‘natural showman’ of the band.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read Bruford’s words about the latter part of his distinguished drumming career in the introduction to fascinating new book ‘Uncharted’: ‘I dreaded performance to the point where…I was unable to function meaningfully. Performance had become incomprehensibly difficult and insuperably so.’

‘Uncharted’ is Bruford’s detailed voyage through the psychology of performance, performance anxiety and drumming creativity. He sets out his objectives clearly: ‘I want to suggest some answers to some fundamental questions about drummers. What do we do and why do we do it? Is there anything creative about it? What are drummers for, if not to be creative?’

He provides some answers himself and also garners opinions from a variety of respected players including Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Kate Bush, Steely Dan), Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and Cindy Blackman-Santana.

‘Uncharted’ is most assuredly an academic book, the fruits of a University of Surrey PhD, so it probably won’t surprise any Bruford fans to learn that it features no drummer jokes. But it’s never less than gripping, with fascinating titbits dropped in here and there about a distinguished career in music.

The book shines a light on the current state of the recording world, with pithy comments about the rise of the ‘bedroom’ musician and ‘stay-at-home’ drummer sending in his/her parts via email or Skype. Bruford laments the lessening of time that bands spend together in the rehearsal room these days, often due to financial constraints, rightly commenting that music as complex and nuanced as Yes or King Crimson could only have been produced via lengthy band ‘woodshedding’ sessions.

There are striking observations on the merits or otherwise of ‘playing to your audience’, especially from Erskine: ‘I don’t really give a f**k about the audience. You can quote me on that!’, and also a couple of amusingly barbed Bruford comments about playing double drums with another of the UK’s greatest players. Hint, hint…

Despite its occasional longeurs, ‘Uncharted’ is a fascinating, forensic look at creativity and collaboration, with reverberations that go far beyond the world of music.

‘Uncharted: Creativity And The Expert Drummer’ is published by the University Of Michigan Press.