David Bowie Impersonates Marc Bolan: 18th August 1985

1985 was a mixed year for DB.

Tragically, his half-brother Terry Burns took his own life in January, but then the summer was a very ‘up’ period – he was a wholehearted contributor to Live Aid, promoting the event widely and enjoying the company of his contemporaries and assorted young bucks alike.

He was also relishing getting out of his comfort zone courtesy of key roles in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ and Julien Temple’s ‘Absolute Beginners’.

Then summer 1985 spawned one of his greatest singles, the theme song for the latter movie. Like ‘Dancing In The Street’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was produced by David alongside Madness/Dexys/Costello collaborators Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer.

The backing tracks had been laid down at Abbey Road but the final vocal session took place at London’s West Side Studios (owned by Langer and Winstanley), Olaf Street, near Latimer Road tube station (and very close to Grenfell Tower), on 18th August 1985.

After nailing the song in just a few passes – as was his wont – Bowie found himself in the studio with a bit of time on his hands. Instead of making an early exit, he quickly wrote some rather overwrought lyrics vaguely in the style of Bruce Springsteen and then entertained Langer and Winstanley with a succession of vocal impersonations.

Engineer Mark Saunders thankfully captured these precious moments (in David Buckley’s essential book ‘Strange Fascination’, Winstanley mentions that he considered the tape lost) and has very kindly put them on YouTube for our delectation.

So enjoy Bowie’s irresistible takes on Springsteen, Marc Bolan, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Anthony Newley, Iggy Pop and Neil Young, complete with charming asides (‘That’s it – night-night!’). It’s a doorway to happier times. DB: miss him, miss him, miss him.

Roxy Music: Flesh + Blood 40 Years On

Couldn’t let 2020 squeak by without celebrating 40 years of Flesh + Blood. As a young whippersnapper, along with Sgt. Pepper’s, it was probably the first LP I enjoyed all the way through.

But these days it’s often mentioned as an afterthought to Avalon and the early albums (maybe Peter Saville’s cover rankles?).

It featured not one but three classic singles (‘Oh Yeah’, ‘Same Old Scene’, ‘Over You’), two distinctive cover versions, and was arguably one of the most influential collections of the 1980s.

It also perfectly compliments such contemporary new-wave/disco work from Blondie, Duran Duran and Japan (also sharing with those acts a reliance on the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, heard prominently in the intro of the below).

Flesh + Blood is the last Roxy studio album where Andy Mackay (sax) and Phil Manzanera (guitar) were major players if not songwriters (all tracks were written by Ferry apart from the covers, though Manzanera had a hand in ‘Over You’, ‘No Strange Delight’ and ‘Running Wild’). Both add memorable solos and nice ensemble work throughout.

It’s also a classic early-’80s bass album: reliably excellent Alan Spenner and Neil Jason joined new boy Gary Tibbs, fresh from his acting role in Hazel O’Connor’s ‘Breaking Glass’ movie and about to become one of Adam’s Ants.

The great Andy Newmark piled in on drums, having just completed work on Lennon/Ono’s Double Fantasy, alongside fellow NYC sessionman Allan Schwartzberg (who plays a blinder on ‘Same Old Scene’).

Londoner Rhett Davies was on board as co-producer, fresh from groundbreaking work with Brian Eno (both are apparent influences on the psychedelic/ambient outros to ‘My Only Love’ and ‘Eight Miles High’, and atmospheric overdubbing throughout), working with the band at his favourite Basing Street Studios (later Sarm) in London’s Notting Hill. There were also occasional sessions at Manzanera’s Gallery Studios in Chertsey, Surrey.

Burgeoning star NYC mixing engineer Bob Clearmountain took time off his work with Chic to add some hefty bottom-end and fat drums at the fabled Power Station studios. Bob Ludwig’s ‘definitive’ 1999 CD remaster is one of the loudest, bassiest re-releases of the last few decades (but not a patch on the original cassette!).

But basically Flesh + Blood is very much Ferry’s show, layering Yamaha CP-80 piano (in his trademark ‘no thirds’ style) and synths to great effect, and even adding some amusingly sleazy guitar on the title track. He also sings superbly, delivering a particularly impassioned performance on ‘Running Wild’.

Even when he veers slightly out of tune, as on ‘Rain Rain Rain’, it’s an artful, conscious move (unlike these days!), a la Dylan or Bowie. His lyrics are generally fascinating – dreamlike, elliptical, odes to unrequited love and possibly one or two illicit substances.

Flesh + Blood was a big hit in the UK, reaching #1 on two separate occasions between May and September 1980. But surprisingly it didn’t quite work in the States, just scraping into the top 40, possibly not helped by a stinking review in Rolling Stone (‘…such a shockingly bad Roxy record that it provokes a certain fascination…’!).

But Ferry could see a path ahead, and would repeat the winning formula (drum machine + painstaking overdubs + much-pondered-over lyrics/melody lines) for the rest of the decade. Rhett Davies had his work cut out – he moved on to work with Robert Fripp on the classic King Crimson reunion album Discipline.

 

Book Review: Kick It (A Social History Of The Drum Kit) by Matt Brennan

What’s your favourite drummer joke? One attributed to legendary London saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott particularly sticks in the memory:

‘Dad, I want to be a drummer when I grow up.’

‘Well, make your mind up, son. You can’t do both.’

Though Matt Brennan’s excellent new book ‘Kick It: A Social History Of The Drum Kit’ commences with a raft of such jibes, it does so only to make a point and might even put pay to them forever.

The book puts skin-spankers right at the forefront of modern music and is surely the best PR job for the profession yet to emerge.

Though ostensibly an ‘academic’ work, ‘Kick It’ is anything but stodgy or overly-analytical – rather, it’s an enjoyable, fast-paced, truly internationalist voyage through the evolution of the drum kit and status/profession of the drummer, from slave ships to the modern-day, multi-tasking, technology-savvy ‘beat-maker’, via Congo Square, the swing/bebop revolutions of the 1930s/1940s and advent of the studio player in the 1960s.

‘Kick It’ unflinchingly outlines how racial and cultural stereotypes initially hampered the status of the percussionist in modern industrial societies, but also brilliantly describes the vital role of the multi-faceted, ambidextrous drummer in vaudeville, minstrel and music-hall traditions (drummers were called upon to supply everything from rainfall to thundercracks during live performance).

Accordingly, Brennan also shows how drummers’ demands accelerated technological developments both in kit/cymbal construction and recording techniques, and also how German, Turkish and British manufacturers were arguably just as important as the American companies.

Earl Palmer

Brennan outlines the careers and styles of such legends as Gene Krupa (who put the tom-tom on the map), Kenny Clarke (who brought the ride cymbal and kick drum into play) and Earl Palmer, who served as a link between ‘jazz’ and ‘pop’ players, ‘swinging’ his rock grooves on records by Fats Domino and Chuck Berry even as pianists and guitarists were moving towards ‘straight eights’.

Brennan also looks at the issue of sexism in the percussion industry, with particular focus on the tragic career of gifted drummer Karen Carpenter.

Later Brennan makes fascinating parallels in the careers and playing styles of first Ringo Starr and Charlie Watts, then, in a moving section, Keith Moon and John Bonham (the latter two dying at the depressingly young age of 32 – Brennan fascinatingly explores how both may have suffered from feelings of inferiority and insecurity, not helped by the attitudes of their bandmates).

‘Kick It’ moves intriguingly into the 1980s, looking at the careers of Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Neil Peart and Steve Gadd, exploring how recording techniques and drum machines revolutionised percussion sounds, and finally comes right up to the present to investigate how sampling and programming have given drummers a whole new lease of life in the streaming era.

A tremendous achievement – both a history lesson and exciting story to boot – ‘Kick It’ had this drummer newly inspired, rushing to his kit with some gusto and not a little pride.

Players will find a host of fascinating photos and stories – the book may also have you questioning everything you ever assumed about the traditional kit – while the general music fan will find an intriguing, fast-paced history of modern music.

Don’t let ‘em ever tell you you’re ‘just’ a drummer…

‘Kick It’ is published by the Oxford University Press.