Hal Willner (1956-2020)

Duke Ellington famously said that there are only two types of music: good and ‘the other kind’. Hal Willner spent most of his professional life living that maxim.

The producer, curator and soundtrack composer, who died aged 64 on 7th April 2020, was way ahead of the game.

His never-boring albums were like cross-genre playlists, 30 years before Spotify. In his world, it was totally natural to pair Todd Rundgren with Thelonious Monk, Lou Reed with Kurt Weill, The Replacements with Walt Disney, Chuck D with Charles Mingus.

Inspired by his mentor Joel Dorn, Orson Welles’ radio productions and albums like A Love Supreme, Sketches Of Spain, The White Album, Satanic Majesties, Yusef Lateef’s Part Of The Search and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Case Of The 3-Sided Stereo Dream, he became fascinated by telling stories with sound.

During the 1980s, Willner was somewhat of a ‘Zelig’ figure on the New York scene. In 1981, he became the long-time musical director of ‘Saturday Night Live’ (while driving a cab during the day) and put together tribute albums to Fellini’s favourite composer (Amacord Nino Rota) and Kurt Weill (Lost In The Stars), the latter beginning a long, fruitful association with Lou Reed.

Then there was That’s The Way I Feel Now (still missing from streaming services… I’m working on it…) from 1984, inspired by Willner’s trip to a Thelonious Monk tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, as he related to writer Howard Mandel: ‘The jazz people playing Monk’s music were making it boring. Monk’s music was never boring. When Oscar Peterson came on, that was it – he had even put Monk down.’

Hal fought back with a brilliant Monk tribute album featuring Was (Not Was), Donald Fagen, Dr John, Todd Rundgren, Elvin Jones, Joe Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and Carla Bley. (Fact fans: Elton John chose the below track as one of his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1986, singling out Kenny Kirkland’s superlative piano solo.)

1988’s Stay Awake repeated the trick, a positively psychedelic voyage through the music of Walt Disney’s movies and TV shows. The stand-outs were legion but included James Taylor, Branford Marsalis and The Roches’ ‘Second Star To The Right’, Sun Ra’s ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’, The Replacements’ ‘Cruella de Vil’, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ and Ringo’s ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.

Willner was at it again with ‘Night Music’, the much-missed, short-lived TV show fronted by David Sanborn which brought esteemed musical guests in to jam with a crackerjack house band (usually Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, Hiram Bullock and Don Alias).

It’s quite moving to see often-overlooked greats of American music (Van Dyke Parks, Pharoah Sanders, Elliott Sharp, Sonny Rollins, Slim Gaillard) getting their due and sharing the stage with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson and John Cale. So Willner did a superb job, but if only Jools Holland’s invitation to co-host had got lost in the mail…

In the 1990s, Hal worked on Robert Altman’s movie masterpieces ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Kansas City’, and then came possibly this writer’s favourite album of the decade, Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, a sprawling, kaleidoscopic audio journey through the jazz great’s work featuring Robbie Robertson, Bill Frisell, Keith Richards, Julius Hemphill, Henry Rollins, Vernon Reid and Elvis Costello. The Kinks’ Ray Davies also directed a superb documentary about the making of the album:

Willner also helmed Marianne Faithfull’s well-received 1987 comeback album Strange Weather. More recently, he curated many special ‘theme’ concerts, including a memorable gig at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012 dedicated to the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, featuring Antony Hegarty, Nona Hendryx, Tim Robbins and Eric Mingus. Hal was also instrumental in bringing Reed’s ‘Berlin’ multimedia show to the stage for the first time.

Farewell to a real one-off. Music needs a lot more like him.

Hal Willner (6 April 1956 – 7 April 2020)

Jack Nicholson: 1982

What’s the first image that comes to mind when we think of 1980s Jack?

Leering through the bathroom door in ‘The Shining’, or tearing up the furniture in ‘Batman’ and ‘The Witches Of Eastwick’?

We probably wouldn’t think of a sober, suited-and-booted man about the arts, but that’s exactly what we get in a recently-discovered BBC interview.

It took place on 18th January 1982 during his ‘year off’ after an intensive period of work on ‘Reds’, ‘The Shining’, ‘The Border’ and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’, and makes for fascinating viewing.

There’s certainly an element of him being on his ‘best BBC behaviour’, aided by Ian Johnstone’s austere interviewing style, but it demonstrates how Jack could so convincingly pull off the brilliant but troubled classical piano prodigy Bobby Dupea in ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (a part written for him by Carole Eastman, whom he discusses below).

It also shows how brilliantly he can ‘dial down’ his IQ to conjure hellraising characters like McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’. And, frankly, reveals why someone of Anjelica Huston’s calibre would enjoy his company so much. Next up was his Oscar-winning turn in ‘Terms Of Endearment’ – the year off certainly paid dividends.

Good Names/Bad Names

Are band names important? Discuss. Arguably, a good (or at least memorable) name has never been as important as now, if only to catch the eye amongst endless streaming lists.

Faces and names/I wish they were the same‘ sang John Cale in the guise of Andy Warhol. Maybe Andy would have been more content if there had been some better names around during the 1980s (no wonder he liked Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot so much…).

Many excellent acts certainly had very bad names (I’ve lost count of the times people have asked: ‘Why are they called Prefab Sprout?’), but a lot hit the jackpot too. So, in the spirit of the original Face magazine (which launched 40 years ago last month and, intriguingly, has recently been relaunched online) and with a big tip of the hat to the excellent WORD too, we round up the good, bad and ugly ’80s monikers.

Good Things with Good Names: Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Jamaladeen Tacuma, Half Man Half Biscuit, Stump, Fields Of The Nephilim, Virgin Prunes, The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Magnus Pyke, Los Lobos, De La Soul, Arvo Part, Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar, Valentin Silvestrov, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Derek B, Monie Love, Betty Boo, They Might Be Giants, ‘The Citadel Of Chaos’, ‘The Forest Of Doom’, ‘Codename Icarus’, Chevy Chase, Kim Basinger, Adrian Belew, Trevor Horn, Mike Patton, We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, The Slits, Tackhead, Boo Hewerdine, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, Robbie Shakespeare, Green Gartside, Paddy McAloon, Donna Summer, Terence Trent D’Arby, Echo And The Bunnymen, 808 State, All About Eve, Killing Joke, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, Skylarking, Cleo Rocos, ‘Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression’, Hipsway, Loose Tubes, Cocteau Twins, ‘In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky’, Desperately Seeking Fusion

Good Things with Bad Names: Prefab Sprout, The The, Yngwie Malmsteen, Dire Straits, Adam Ant, Boy George, Bow Wow Wow, Talk Talk, The Thompson Twins, A Guy Called Gerald, Herb Alpert, Faith No More, Dan Aykroyd, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Throbbing Gristle, It Bites, The Bible, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Danny Wilson, Tears For Fears, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Bucks Fizz, Wham!, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, Anvil, A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo, Deacon Blue, Curiosity Killed The Cat, The Hooters, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, Luther Vandross, Steve Stevens, Ozric Tentacles, The Teardrop Explodes

Bad Things with Good Names: Zodiac Mindwarp And The Love Reaction, Butthole Surfers, New Model Army, Twisted Sister

Bad Things with Bad Names: Jane’s Addiction, Johnny Hates Jazz, Then Jerico, The Blow Monkeys, Cactus World News, Pee-Wee Herman, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus Jones, Yazz And The Plastic Population, Diesel Park West, Insane Clown Posse, Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, Kajagoogoo, Enuff Z’Nuff, Kenny G, Dr And The Medics, Del Amitri, Bruce Hornsby And The Range, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Megadeth, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, U2, Mike And The Mechanics, Inspiral Carpets, James