Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies.

But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.


11 thoughts on “Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

  1. I always liked Robert Palmer , and while I preferred some of his albums to others , I always looked forward to seeing what he was up to when a new record came out .
    Clues is a great record .
    I was shocked at his passing .
    Thanks for posting this .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. He was certainly the master of getting a groove together and managing to create a really good song over the top. He managed to move from the 70’s Little Feat funk rock feel of the earlier albums to the 80’s electronics without missing a beat. Having Sadkin engineering can’t have hurt at all. The two singles are some of the best of the period – period.

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  3. When this came out, it was a wake up call for me. I had heard the couple of US top 40 hits that Palmer had. “Bad Case Of Loving You” and “Every Kind Of People.” Not bad, but not New Wave. My thoughts were elsewhere, but when this album sported Numan collaboration, it was a must hear, and an ear opener. Best of all, the Numan tracks weren’t even the best thing there! This was Gary’s first “rock star” collaboration and expanded his horizons as well. Palmer only got more willfully eclectic going forward! And I like it all, with his only duff album for my ears being the 2nd Power Station album, “Living In Fear,” but the last time I saw Palmer live was for that tour, which I very much appreciated! These days I want it all. I buy 12″ singles for remixes and really miss his approach and style. Chris Frantz was neighbors in Nassau with Palmer, and he’s a great presence in Frantz’ book “Remain In Love.” I also enjoyed reading about Palmer in the Guy Pratt book. I mentioned to Mr. Pratt that I’d love to see him write a Palmer bio, having been friends for so long and being a writer as well. I hope one day someone tells the Palmer story.

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  4. The UK first press of this album sounds incredible. I had very nice copies of the US original, which features the same metal work from Sterling (with Ray Janos’ initials in the run-out, despite the cover credit for Ted Jensen). No other pressing I have ever run across sounds anything like the UK. Not even the US 12″ promo of the title track. Huge, visceral soundstage. This record jumps out of the speakers. I’ve played it for friends who are familiar with it and they’ve been blown away.

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