Harold Pinter @ 90, The Caretaker @ 60

Playwright, actor, activist and poet Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve 2008, would have been 90 years old today. I couldn’t let 2020 pass without marking that fact and celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘The Caretaker’.

When I started my English Literature ‘A’ Level at the very end of the 1980s, theatre had barely appeared on my radar. I’d seen some Shakespeare, Webster, Sheridan, maybe a bit of Ayckbourn, mostly on school trips. Nothing really hit home. But then my excellent teacher Hugh Epstein introduced us to ‘The Caretaker’.

Needless to say, it was like no other play I’d read before. This was the language of the West London streets that I knew. It covered very familiar territory in terms of its themes too. Pinter’s legendary, hilarious piss-taking was evident from early on – mainly courtesy of the Mick character – but there was something else coming through loud and clear, something heroic, empathetic, charitable, even noble. I was gripped and it began a love affair with Pinter’s work that has lasted almost 30 years.

‘The Caretaker’ premiered on 27 April 1960 at The Arts Theatre in London, and starred Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe. It was a big hit, Pinter’s breakthrough play after a difficult experience with ‘The Birthday Party’. An excellent movie, starring Pleasence, Bates and Robert Shaw, was made in 1963, shot in Hackney and adapted by Pinter himself.

There are so many other great London Pinter memories, many involving his acting performances in his own plays: ‘No Man’s Land’ at The Almeida, ‘The Collection’ and ‘The Hothouse’ at the Richmond Theatre. Also Ian Holm in ‘Moonlight’ at The Comedy Theatre and Michael Gambon’s turn as Davies in ‘The Caretaker’ at the same venue.

Of course he wasn’t only a playwright, actor and poet. A cursory look at his public appearances now – especially those in the last 20 years of his life, when he received the Nobel Prize In Literature and spoke passionately at various rallies – suggests that there are very few public figures around these days with his kind of gravitas. He was known to be prickly – aren’t we all – but also exceptionally generous, as he was to this writer.

He’s much missed. Happy birthday Harold. And enormous thanks to Hugh Epstein who brought ‘The Caretaker’ to life.

Further reading: George Cole’s Betrayed: The Story Of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

Mark Batty’s About Pinter

Michael Billington’s The Life And Work Of Harold Pinter

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.

Book Review: My Life In The Purple Kingdom by BrownMark

It’s a time-honoured music-biz story: The Hometown Kid Makes It Big. Or to paraphrase Bill Bruford, first you get used to failure, then you get used to success.

But BrownMark’s new memoir ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’, outlining his five-year stint as bassist with Prince And The Revolution, has a few intriguing twists to the old story – firstly, it’s a very timely work, since there’s very little documentation about the Inner Workings of the Purple Rain circus (though this excellent new podcast lifts the lid a little more).

Then there’s the added intrigue of the book mainly taking place in the huge, often-underestimated Midwestern city of Minneapolis. The early sections are gripping, a vision of a young man flourishing as a musician, getting by in (racially and economically) difficult conditions, supported by a loving mother and extended family.

He documents the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s very well, tracing his development from young Staple Singers/Ohio Players/Earth, Wind & Fire fan into the local ‘star’, with lots of talk about image creation in the era of Rick James and Controversy-era Prince (‘Only women had clothes that fit the vibe I was looking for, but I didn’t want to dress in drag’…).

Soon Prince has his number, and there’s a long, strange section on his recruitment for The Revolution (spoiler alert: hardcore Prince fans should approach the book with caution…), and a memorable account of the infamous October 1981 gig supporting The Stones in Los Angeles. There are some excellent photographs, many of which this writer had never seen, and a fine introduction by Questlove, Prince fanatic and esteemed Black Music documentarian.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is also a cursory tale, a veritable How Not To Succeed In The Music Biz, and it has to be said that Mark sometimes comes across as incredibly naïve, even for a nineteen-year-old. This speaks to something very strange at the heart of the book.

There are missing details that put everything else into doubt – nothing about the status of the offer Mark received from Prince’s management upon joining The Revolution (whisked out of nowhere to join one of the most successful bands of all time, he never discusses terms and then is shocked when ‘cheated’ out of a bonus); nothing about his knowledge of Prince’s music before he joined The Revolution; barely a mention of any Prince songs or interesting musical moments during his time in the band (only Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink get cursory mentions).

The book has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts, ending with Mark’s late-‘80s solo deal with Motown Records, but bizarrely the recent (very successful) Revolution reunion isn’t even mentioned. It’s almost as if he wrote it back in 1990, at the height of his bitterness and brain fog. The closing, cursory thanks to Prince almost raises the first proper laugh.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is an absolute must for 1999 and Purple Rain completists and those wanting to know more about the Minneapolis music scene. It’s an arresting piece of social history, often interesting and original, especially in its early sections.

‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ by BrownMark (with Cynthia Ulrich) is published by the University Of Minnesota Press.

Brett Anderson’s ‘Track Seven’ Theory: A Special movingtheriver.com Report

Brett, yesterday

All music fans love a theory.

And what with all this talk of Q’s sad demise, movingtheriver has been ruminating on the magazine’s great articles past, including an interview with Brett Anderson in which the Suede head honcho posited his theory that track seven of an album is always the best track.

This was red rag to a bull for movingtheriver. But was Brett on to something? Or does he just have some kind of weird, ritualistic interest in the number seven? In a world exclusive, we investigate some movingtheriver-approved, ‘critic-proof’ albums of the 1980s to test his theory.

In the words of Ian Dury, this is what we find…

1980: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light
Track seven: ‘Listening Wind’

1981: Human League’s Dare
Track seven: ‘I Am The Law’

1982: Roxy Music’s Avalon
Track seven: ‘Take A Chance With Me’

1983: Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Track seven: ‘Human Nature’

1984: Prince’s Purple Rain
Track seven: ‘I Would Die 4 U’

1985: Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love
Track seven: ‘Under Ice’

1986: Paul Simon’s Graceland
Track seven: ‘Under African Skies’

1987: David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive
Track seven: ‘Mother And Child’

1988: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis
Track seven: ‘Knock On Wood’

1989: The Blue Nile: Hats
Track seven: ‘Saturday Night’

So how do the track sevens stack up? It has to be said, most do seem to have something ‘Suede-like’ about them, something wistful, melancholic, or, in the case of the Talking Heads, Human League and Kate Bush tracks, positively menacing. Brett would probably approve.

But are they the ‘best’ tracks from their respective albums? No. You could possibly make a case for ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Saturday Night’* but you’d certainly be going out on a limb.

So there you have it. Obviously Mr A was talking out of his a*se. Next time: Peter Andrex’s ‘track four’ theory. B*llshit or not? YOU be the judge…

*Er… Wait. Wasn’t one of Suede’s best singles also entitled ‘Saturday Night’? Whoa, daddy…

(Other examples/alternative theories always welcome…)

‘Rockschool’ Revisited

The early 1980s was a pretty good time to start out as a musician. If your ears were open and you had a half-decent hi-fi/radio, there were some truly inspirational players around and a host of different styles vying for your attention.

But the burgeoning muso couldn’t quickly get onto YouTube or download an app to learn a new skill or technique. Music education also wasn’t exactly in a great place, if the drum lessons at my comprehensive school were anything to go by…

You could see great homegrown bands and big-name American sessioneers playing live on ‘The Tube’, fork out an extortionate sum for the dreaded instructional video, or go to a live clinic (I gave up pretty quickly on these after seeing a guy called Lloyd Ryan, who supposedly ‘taught’ Phil Collins how to drum, even though Phil’s name is spelt incorrectly on his website…).

So you generally had to make your own fun (cue the violins…); jam with friends, play live whenever you could, and grab whatever bits of technical info that were passed around.

‘Rockschool’ was a bold attempt by the Beeb to bring modern music education right into the home. First airing on 1st November 1983, it featured a studio band (Deirdre Cartwright on guitar, Henry Thomas on bass, Geoff Nicholls on drums) breaking down basic contemporary arrangements, styles and instrumentation.

A US version also started in 1985, featuring the UK band and hosted rather excellently by Herbie Hancock. And then season two, broadcast in late 1987, brought in keyboard player Alastair Gavin. That was the series that really hooked my muso pals and I (and check out the brilliant, none-more-’80s intro music below).

But even back then we were dubious as to how proficient the studio band actually were. They certainly paled in comparison to the great US players of the decade. But they were engaging, knowledgeable presenters and it was just a great way of seeing some musical heroes like Omar Hakim, Bootsy, Jan Hammer, Larry Graham, Andy Summers, Tony Banks and Allan Holdsworth demonstrating their craft.

Could you bring back ‘Rockschool’ now? It seems unlikely given the relatively solipsistic nature of ‘rock’ music education these days. YouTube is chock-a-block with technically brilliant players, but the general musicianship of bands has probably never been worse. Here come those violins again…

When Thomas Dolby Met George Clinton: 35 Years On

They say you should never meet your heroes – if the summer of 1985 is anything to go by, Thomas Dolby* probably knows a thing or two about that.

First there was THAT Grammy Awards performance alongside Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. Then he contributed production, arranging and keyboard work to Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog, and, of course, there was his appearance at Live Aid as part of David Bowie’s band.

But arguably Dolby’s most intriguing collaboration of summer 1985 was with P-funk pioneer George Clinton, who was onto his third solo album of the decade. Just after Live Aid, Clinton invited Dolby out to the Bee Gees’ Criteria Studios in Miami to work on two tracks for Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends.

Clinton was finding much lyrical inspiration in Reagan’s America, and his latest album was firmly focused on the Nuclear Threat. During a hilarious fishing trip with Dolby off Miami (apparently during which Clinton sat in a swivelling captain’s chair, rolled joints and played rough mixes on a boombox), they came up with a character for Dolby – the Space Limousine Driver! Of course…

Clinton then invited Dolby to perform at a James Brown tribute night for the annual Black Urban Music Conference in Washington DC. Apparently his guest spot during ‘Sex Machine’ (described by Dolby as being ‘like Alec Guinness having a seizure’) made Mr Brown laugh and also gave Dolby some cred with the hardcore P-funk crowd (though sadly it doesn’t seem to be on YouTube…).

Clinton was also apparently thrilled with Dolby’s contributions, and asked if there was any way he could return the favour. Dolby quickly cooked up a new song, recruited the Brecker Brothers and Lene Lovich and retained the formidable bass/drums team of Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers from ‘Thrashin’. They christened the new band Dolby’s Cube and recorded a great one-off single at Battery Studios in London. Sadly, despite a cool video, it didn’t chart.

Dolby’s experiences with George loosened him up, and made him reassess a solo career that he felt thus far had been hamstrung by dodgy business practices and too much emphasis on ‘image’. His effervescent 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick was more explicitly influenced by Clinton, who also contributed the song ‘Hot Sauce’ (Francois Kevorkian’s superb remix of ‘May The Cube Be With You’ was also included). The summer of ’85 was certainly a memorable one for all concerned.

Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby

*Or ask me in a few months when I’ve finished my book on Level 42, out early next year…