David Bowie Stars In Alan Clarke’s ‘Baal’ (1982)

The films of Alan Clarke generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file. Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shined a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.

Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work between 1978 and 1989. And what a pleasure to discover another lost classic inside: David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. For some reason, it was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances – a serious oversight.

Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (‘cosy’ Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen. According to producer Louis Marks, he didn’t take much persuading to play the role, jumping at the chance to portray the ultimate ‘super-punk’ and also already being a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly undemanding and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.

Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic ‘alienating’ Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence. He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent ‘Baal EP’, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.

‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing, but their comments make for amusing reading. It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after it was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.

Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly

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Book Review: The Life & Music Of Randy Newman

Randy’s music hooked me sometime in the late 1980s. Lying ill in bed, I heard a lyric wafting upstairs from the living room where my dad was playing some music by an American guy who sounded world-weary, beaten-down: ‘There she is sitting there/Out behind the smoke-house in her rocking chair/She don’t say nothin’/She don’t do nothin’/She don’t feel nothin’/She don’t know nothin’/Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know/Maybe that’s why I love her so‘ (later discovered to be ‘A Wedding In Cherokee County’ from Good Old Boys).

I’ve been a major fan since then, studying interviews and always checking out  the new albums, and yet the ‘real’ Newman remains elusive. ‘The Life & Music of Randy Newman’, written by husband-and-wife team David and Caroline Stafford, has a damn good crack at revealing the enigma and it’s also the first extensive biography of the singer/songwriter.

There are some great anecdotes. Don Henley reports that Randy’s only direction to him when singing background vocals on Good Old Boys was to ‘sound like a water buffalo’ – i.e. like Randy. When Newman premiered that same album with a concert at the very swish Atlanta Symphony Hall backed by an 87-piece orchestra, he decided to preface the title track by announcing: ‘Here’s a song that’s guaranteed to be offensive to black and white, Jew and gentile…’

The book is exhaustively researched; as befitting a songwriter so interested in historical and biographical detail, the authors do a fine job placing Newman’s songs in context. Tens of published Randy interviews are also mined to produce a great commentary on all the albums. But unfortunately there are no new interviews with Newman, his collaborators or friends, so real insight is scant. There are also occasionally ‘style’ issues too, jarringly flippant phrases that sometimes take one out of the narrative.

But ‘The Life & Music Of Randy Newman’ is an enjoyable read, a fitting tribute to a modern American master. And if one comes away without any concrete sense of the protagonist, in this case it’s hardly the fault of the authors – and probably just the way Newman likes it.

‘The Life & Music Of Randy Newman’ is published by Omnibus Press.

The authors discuss writing the book in this Word podcast.

The Sonic Secrets Of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

14th April 1982, Westlake Studios, Los Angeles: the recording sessions for Thriller commence. Producer Quincy Jones gathers his ‘crew’ – including mixing engineer Bruce Swedien, MJ and chief songwriter/arranger Rod Temperton – for a pep-talk. ‘We’re here to save the music business’, it begins…

It might sound a bit dramatic but the global recession of the 1980s was very much impacting a post-disco, pre-Madonna/Prince recording industry too. The team-talk worked: Thriller – released 35 years old today – is by far the biggest-selling non-greatest-hits album of all time.

For some, it’s bland, over-familiar and inferior to Jackson’s previous album Off The Wall. For this writer it’s the last truly great example of song-led, musician-crafted, post-disco R’n’B, beautifully produced, arranged and mastered. And Jackson was absolutely at the top of his game and still relatively ‘normal’.

Thriller was the soundtrack to 1983 and 1984 in my corner of London, loved by geeks, sporty kids, BMX riders and B-Boys alike. But sometimes it feels so familiar that it defies analysis. Here are a few aspects that jumped out during a recent reappraisal:

13. Michael’s lyrics. These are disturbing, ominous visions. ‘You’re a vegetable!’ he sneers on opener ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. ‘Billie Jean’ is about a deranged stalker, though Jackson claims she is a ‘composite’ of many obsessive fans. Is it any wonder he struggled with fame?

12. The African chant in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, stolen from Manu Dibango’s superb ‘Soul Mokassa’.

11. Paulinho Da Costa’s African percussion and cuica on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’.

10. Jerry Hey’s string arrangements on ‘The Girl Is Mine’ and ‘Billie Jean’. He supplies superb horn parts throughout Thriller but his strings are often neglected.

9. Tom Scott’s Lyricon interjections during the chorus of ‘Billie Jean’, a contribution that has sadly been left off the credits of many subsequent reissues.

8. The brilliant rhythm guitar playing throughout from David Williams, Paul Jackson Jr. and Steve Lukather.

7. For me, ‘Beat It’ is the weakest song on the album by some stretch (despite the great guitar riff and brilliant solo), but intriguingly it was apparently Jackson’s response to a Quincy remark that Thriller needed a ‘black version of “My Sharona”’!

6. Rod Temperton’s compositions throughout, and also his superb vocal arrangements – check out how he uses Michael’s stacked background vocals.

5. Greg Phillinganes’ superb Rhodes and synth bass work, particularly on the title track.

4. Ndugu Chancler’s drums, enhanced by Bruce Swedien’s sonic mastery. Have there ever been better-recorded drums than on ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘PYT’? According to Swedien: ‘I ended up building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat’.

3. Steve Lukather’s gorgeous guitar counterpoint throughout ‘Human Nature’, particularly in the closing 20 seconds.

2. Michael’s vocals. On ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, he sounds like three or four different singers. His backups throughout are also pretty special, and he takes ‘The Lady In My Life’ out.

1. Quincy knew that every song would have to be a killer, covering all styles. Around 30 compositions were considered. Among the many demo’d but scrapped included ‘She’s Trouble’, ‘Niteline’, ‘Carousel’ (only binned at the eleventh hour), ‘Got The Hots’ and ‘Hot Street AKA Slapstick’. These were all new to me until this week, but I’ve developed a particular liking for the Quincy/Jackson co-write ‘Got The Hots’:

Fist Of Fun: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk

Apart from some sojourns with Faith No More, Neil Young, Nirvana, The Rollins Band, Tin Machine, Blur and Suede in the ’90s, the last time I was really into rawk was during that incredible wave of bands who hit their straps in the late-’80s – Faith No More, Living Colour, Fishbone, 24/7 Spyz, Mr Bungle.

And this lot. Mother’s Milk, released by EMI Records in August 1989is rock all right, channelling Led Zep and various LA punk heroes, but these boys had some serious funk chops too. You knew they’d studied P-Funk, James Brown, The Meters, Fela Kuti, Hendrix. This immediately separated them from a lot of second-rate imitators.

After the sad death of great original guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer issues to rival even Spinal Tap, they’d finally hit on two top-notch permanent members (don’t ask about the initiation rituals…). John Frusciante channels Hendrix, Jimmy Nolen and Adrian Belew (and even dares to take the p*ss out of Slash at the end of ‘Punk Rock Classic’) and contributes serious songwriting chops. Chad Smith is an excellent groove player. And Mother’s Milk is one of the great bass albums of the ’80s: take a bow, Flea AKA Michael Balzary.

It screams: YOUTH! Listening back now after 10 years or so, it’s an extremely enjoyable listen and a real contact high for my teenage years of 1989/1990.

The issue for producer Michael Beinhorn was capturing the band’s incredible energy in the studio. In general, he achieves it really well here; it explodes out of the traps, though its gated snares, multiple guitar overdubs and occasionally dodgy Anthony Kiedis vocals overpower it from time to time.

But it’s hard to think of any other band of the era who could pull off the controlled mayhem of ‘Magic Johnson’, ‘Stone Cold Bush’ and ‘Subway To Venus’ (and is that a homage to Faith No More at the end of ‘Nobody Weird Like Me’?). The ‘pop’ tracks ‘Taste The Pain’ and ‘Knock Me Down’ work fine too, and they have something to say.

Mother’s Milk also has the feeling of ‘last chance saloon’. It was just successful enough, going gold in the US although failing to chart in the UK. The boys had bought themselves some time. They signed a shiny new deal with Warner Bros in 1990 and then made their magnum opus Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the one that truly fulfilled their potential.

Gig Review: Little Axe @ The Jazz Cafe, 18th November 2017

The 1980s featured a smorgasbord of great guitarists and Skip McDonald was right in the thick of it. He started the decade playing on many classic Sugar Hill Records sides and ended it as a member of futuristic funk/rock titans Tackhead.

Since then blues-dub solo project Little Axe has been his chief musical outlet, a collaboration with legendary mixologist Adrian Sherwood and Sugar Hill cohorts Doug Wimbish on bass and Keith Leblanc on drums. 1994 debut The Wolf That House Built was a big critical success, but, after a run of middling albums through the noughties, Little Axe’s time somehow seemed to have come and gone.

Until now. It’s unclear whether the state of the world (and the White House) has given him a new lease of life but McDonald’s bittersweet missives seem tailor-made for these times. This packed one-off London gig – promoting impressive, surprisingly upbeat new album London Blues – saw McDonald joined onstage by Wimbish, Sherwood and drummer Andy Gangadeen.

Observing Sherwood was like watching a master cocktail-maker at work, adding his trademark delays and feedback loops with deft sleights of hand. The ageless Wimbish was in typically fine form too, creating mind-bending dub tones with some very nifty footwork – not for nothing has he occasionally referred to himself as the ‘Bruce Lee of bass’.

But McDonald’s impressive vocals were the star of the show, and he also seems to have found his electric guitar mojo again. Old favourite ‘If I Had My Way’ has never sounded so apt (‘These are demon days/It’s a time of chaos, rage and anxiety/Where you gonna be when two worlds collide?’) while new songs ‘Snake Oil’, ‘Factory Girl’ and ‘London Blues’ were instant earworms. The latter could even make for a leftfield choice of single. Best of all though was chilling closer ‘Deep River’, an eerie death-dub with a central image of ‘a flower blooming in hell’, sounding a bit like an unlikely collaboration between Gregory Isaacs and Sarah Kane.

There was a slightly valedictory feeling to the end of the gig; Wimbish, Sherwood and McDonald’s farewells were possibly more heartfelt than usual. It would be a great shame if this was the last we see of Skip’s Axe – the state of the world and a fine new album would seem to demand that he continue.

‘Tis The Season For Crap Cover Versions

An ’80s music scribe whose name escapes me once wrote that Paul Young didn’t just murder Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, he dismembered it and burnt its house down.

I’m paraphrasing of course, but, listening to the current crop of seasonal offerings, I can sympathise. Readers in the UK will have recently been – or will shortly be – inundated with Christmas TV ads half-inching ‘classic’ songs. Years gone by have seen hugely successful ‘pop’ takes on ‘indie’ standards such as Lily Allen’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, and probably a few more too.

Love ’em or hate ’em, at least there’s some kind of stylistic consistency there. More disturbing is the recent appropriation of soul and funk classics. There’s a beyond-anodyne, twee, puny take on Rufus & Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ knocking about, sung by a vocalist/arranged by an arranger who have meticulously removed every vestige of emotion, feel and syncopation from the original.

You could say the same about the version of Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ currently all over the telly. A bright spark in adland, or the artist herself, has obviously said: ‘Yes, let’s take this heartfelt tribute to the Civil Rights pioneers and turn it into a banal snore-fest celebrating the feeling you get when you are hoovering up stuff that you really don’t need’. High-fives all round. (Of course Fatboy Slim was first out of the blocks with this one).

And we won’t even get into the cover of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ that has recently reared its ugly head.

When did all of this start? I blame Foghorn Florence’s annihilation of Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’. (She even had the audacity to rename it ‘You’ve Got The Love’!) On the plus side, the original writers are getting a decent wedge from the publishing. Yarbrough apparently takes 60% of the Fatboy royalties. So at least the pioneers won’t have any problem buying Christmas presents this year, or any other for that matter.

But money isn’t everything. So I’ll be hunkering down and attempting to avoid Elbow’s cover of ‘Golden Slumbers’ for as long as humanly possible. In the meantime, feel free to nominate your worst-ever cover versions below.