Play Review: Mood Music by Joe Penhall, Old Vic, 16th June 2018

Joe Penhall was seen as one of ‘in-yer-face’ theatre’s leading lights in the 1990s, writing a few early classics (‘Love And Understanding’, ‘The Bullet’, ‘Some Voices’) but pretty quickly outgrowing that tag to produce major works (‘Blue/Orange’, ‘Landscape With Weapon’) that grappled with big issues to superb effect. More recently he co-penned The Kinks musical ‘Sunny Afternoon’ and also has a Netflix TV show, ‘Mindhunter’, but his new play ‘Mood Music’ takes us back into the murky world of the pop industry.

It concerns two troubled protagonists: Bernard, a louche, self-centred, middle-aged producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist; and Cat, a talented, young, female singer/songwriter. They are thrown together when he chooses her to co-write and sing a song on his album, but now a lawsuit is in the offing over publishing credit and also her claim of sexual harrassment/kidnapping. Who has the power? Who will prevail?

It’s an all-too-relevant tale given the Dr Luke/Kesha lawsuit and #MeToo movement. Penhall expertly digs into detail on the finer points of music copyright law, showing portions of Bernard and Cat’s fraught songwriting sessions. And there are some great laughs at Bernard’s expense. But in order to crowbar in a lot of exposition and character motivation, Penhall also comes up with the device of structuring the play around the two main characters’ conversations with their lawyers and shrinks, with multiple flashbacks/flashforwards. This can be confusing, not to mention sometimes dramatically inert. The second act is much the same as the first. The impression is that it might all be going on in one of the main characters’ heads.

But Ben Chaplin gives a crackerjack performance as Bernard in a role that seems written for him. Basically, anyone who’s ever had more than the most rudimentary dealings with the pop business will have met someone like Bernard. He’s a close relation to Damon Albarn, Keith Richards and Mark Ronson. There is also a genuinely dramatic moment when we finally see Bernard’s true colours, reminiscent of a similar note in David Mamet’s ‘Oleanna’, clearly a big influence on this play.

There are other problems with ‘Mood Music’: Cat, though certainly savvy beyond her years, looks about 18 rather than someone who’s been around the pop block a few times. Also the music Bernard and Cat come up with – somewhere between Dido and Donovan – sounds unlike anything that’s been in the charts over the last 20 years. And the idea that Bernard would have Sonny Rollins on speed dial is peculiar.

And what about the ending? I won’t give too much away but will just say that most of the cast morph into a string quartet. Maybe it’s something to do with the sanctity of single-author works of art. Or maybe it’s as simple as: don’t you dare mess with the pop business…

(‘Mood Music’ has just finished a successful run at the Old Vic but will probably be back soon.)

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The Cult Movie Club: Seems Like Old Times (1980)

It seems a bit weird to describe ‘Seems Like Old Times’ as a cult movie when everything about it screams ‘Hollywood’: co-stars Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, screenwriter Neil Simon, ‘Mary Tyler Moore’/’Cosby Show’ director Jay Sandrich, Columbia Pictures (this was one of the first movies they made after the David Begelman embezzlement scandal).

But it’s a cult movie in that it now seems completely forgotten. I’d never have heard of it or come across it unless I’d happened upon it on TV one afternoon. I stuck it on a VHS – wish I still had it, because it’s one of Chevy’s funniest films and an interesting companion piece to ‘Caddyshack’. 1980 was a good year for Steely Dan’s first drummer.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is clearly modelled on the great Hollywood screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. Even the title comes from a popular song written in 1945 (sung by Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’). Chase stars as a falsely-accused bankrobber who takes refuge at his ex-wife’s Beverly Hills ranch. There are ‘unresolved issues’ in their relationship, not to mention the suspicions of Hawn’s new husband Charles Grodin. The sparks fly and the one-liners come thick and fast.

Hawn, Chase and Grodin

Chase channels Cary Grant at his zaniest, Hawn is fairly adorable and has some great comic moments, and they have a decent chemistry. Grodin (who I was amazed to read was Razzie-nominated for this performance) excels in the role he always seems to play, a control freak seemingly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, while Robert Guillaume and Harold Gould lampoon the Reaganite elite almost as effectively as Ted Knight in ‘Caddyshack’.

Simon writes loads of memorable secondary characters too: TK Carter is funny as Chester (though the part wouldn’t win any ‘woke’ points these days) and Yvonne Wilder is great as Mexican maid Aurora (ditto). The locations are gorgeous, with a striking helicopter shot over the opening credits along the Southern California coast. I love Marvin Hamlisch’s theme tune too, sounding a bit like Herb Alpert jamming with Billy Joel. And the cheap, slushy, ridiculous last five minutes get me every time.

‘Seems Like Old Times’ is a film that you can just let wash over you – you’re in the hands of experts. Indeed it sometimes feels a bit too professional. It was a reasonable hit but proved a bit of a career dead end for Chase, who pretty much eschewed the ‘romantic lead’ pictures from here on in. A shame, in a way. His dead-eyed buffoonery and surprisingly subtle charm take him and the film a long way.

Eric Tagg: Six Of The Best

I still haven’t done the West Coast drive between LA and San Fran, but I know which music I’ll have on in the Pontiac Firebird when I do: it’s a toss-up between Steely Dan and Eric Tagg.

Probably best known for his work with guitarist Lee Ritenour on the Rit and Rit 2 albums, Tagg possesses a soulful, velvety voice, pitched somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen (some have also drawn comparisons to David Pack and George Michael). To these ears, his compositions also sound superior to a lot of similar material.

He released three solo albums in the ’70s/early ’80s, the best of which (Dreamwalkin’) was produced by Ritenour. Tagg was born in Chicago but spent his formative musical years in Holland singing with Dutch bands Rainbow Train and Beehive. Gravitating to Los Angeles in the mid-’70s, he embarked on a solo career and joined Ritenour for their successful double act. But over the last 30 years he’s slowly retreated from public life, mainly devoting himself to writing Christian songs at his Texas base.

Let’s go back to that golden time for West Coast music, the early ’80s, and focus on six of Eric’s best from the era.

Warning: the following tunes may contain soothing harmonies, cool chords, smooth melodies…

6. ‘Marianne (I Was Only Joking)’ (1982)

Subtle, mellow composition with a superb vocal, from Tagg’s ‘Dreamwalkin‘ solo LP.

5. ‘Is It You?’ (1981)

Released as a single under Lee Ritenour’s name in April 1981, it reached the dizzy heights of #15 on the US pop charts. A classic slow jam with one of the best middle-eights of the ’80s.

4. ‘Promises Promises’ (1982)

Funky bit of pop/soul with Bill Champlin on back-ups. Wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Dude or even Thriller.

3. ‘Mr Briefcase’ (1981)

A classic drum performance from Jeff Porcaro on another single from Rit.

2. ‘Marzipan’ (1982)

This gorgeous slice of pop/soul, with a winning set of chord changes in the verse, was recently covered (pretty well) by US neo-soul crooner Eric Roberson.

1. ‘Just Another Dream’ (1982)

Another richly-chorded delight with more than a hint of ‘My Cherie Amour’ about it. Sublime keyboard work from David Foster, some classic Lee rhythm guitar and a great arrangement.

 

Book Review: Uncharted (Creativity And The Expert Drummer) by Bill Bruford

Recently, for work, I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with Paddy Spinks, the man charged with keeping King Crimson together in the 1980s. Chatting about that mighty musical unit recently, he said that Bill Bruford had been the ‘natural showman’ of the band.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read Bruford’s words about the latter part of his distinguished drumming career in the introduction to fascinating new book ‘Uncharted’: ‘I dreaded performance to the point where…I was unable to function meaningfully. Performance had become incomprehensibly difficult and insuperably so.’

‘Uncharted’ is Bruford’s detailed voyage through the psychology of performance, performance anxiety and drumming creativity. He sets out his objectives clearly: ‘I want to suggest some answers to some fundamental questions about drummers. What do we do and why do we do it? Is there anything creative about it? What are drummers for, if not to be creative?’

He provides some answers himself and also garners opinions from a variety of respected players including Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Kate Bush, Steely Dan), Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and Cindy Blackman-Santana.

‘Uncharted’ is most assuredly an academic book, the fruits of a University of Surrey PhD, so it probably won’t surprise any Bruford fans to learn that it features no drummer jokes. But it’s never less than gripping, with fascinating titbits dropped in here and there about a distinguished career in music.

The book shines a light on the current state of the recording world, with pithy comments about the rise of the ‘bedroom’ musician and ‘stay-at-home’ drummer sending in his/her parts via email or Skype. Bruford laments the lessening of time that bands spend together in the rehearsal room these days, often due to financial constraints, rightly commenting that music as complex and nuanced as Yes or King Crimson could only have been produced via lengthy band ‘woodshedding’ sessions.

There are striking observations on the merits or otherwise of ‘playing to your audience’, especially from Erskine: ‘I don’t really give a f**k about the audience. You can quote me on that!’, and also a couple of amusingly barbed Bruford comments about playing double drums with another of the UK’s greatest players. Hint, hint…

Despite its occasional longeurs, ‘Uncharted’ is a fascinating, forensic look at creativity and collaboration, with reverberations that go far beyond the world of music.

‘Uncharted: Creativity And The Expert Drummer’ is published by the University Of Michigan Press.

Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part Two)

David Sanborn Band/Al Jarreau @ Wembley Arena, November 1984

We were sitting high up behind the stage with a great view of two of the great modern American drummers: Steve Gadd (with Sanborn) and Ricky Lawson (with Jarreau). To be honest, my parents and I left in the middle of Al’s set but Sanborn was fantastic with Marcus Miller and Hiram Bullock running amok on the huge Arena stage. The saxophonist was at his commercial peak here and probably could have headlined the show.

Marc Almond @ The Palladium, 12th October 1986

I have absolutely no memory of why I was at this gig but it was a genuine eye-opener. Almond was long past his pop fame and seemed to be acting out his own private, Berlin-inspired drama. Looking at the footage today, I’m still not sure if it’s brilliant or total sh*te.

Miles Davis @ Hammersmith Odeon, 21st April 1982

I remember someone shouting ‘Turn the guitar down!’ Poor Mike Stern wasn’t the critics’ flavour of the month and Miles was obviously exceptionally ill, but the gig was unforgettable. One of my first and very best. I saw Miles three or four times during the ’80s but this was the bomb for sheer atmosphere and occasion.

Robert Palmer @ Hammersmith Odeon, 25th September 1988

There really isn’t anyone around these days like the much-missed Robert with his gravelly voice, weirdly cosmopolitan compositions and ever-present smirk. He had a highly-drilled, sh*t-hot band with him at the Hammie Odeon too featuring Frank Blair on bass and Eddie Martinez on guitar. The gig started with a five-minute Dony Wynn drum solo which fair blew the minds of my brother and I.

Yes/No People @ Limelight, 9th September 1986

I think this gig was part of what was then known as the Soho Jazz Festival. There was a lively crowd of ‘jazz revival’ hipsters and rare-groove fans – this was my first taste of an underground scene that was quickly building momentum. DJ Baz Fe Jazz kicked off with some Blue Note post-bop (yes, people actually danced to that stuff) and then Yes/No People featured Steve Williamson on sax and the cracking Mondesir brothers (Mark and Mike) rhythm section. The band only lasted a year or so but nearly dented the charts with their ‘Mr Johnson’ single.

John McLaughlin/Mahavishnu Orchestra @ Hammersmith Odeon, 12th July 1984

The sign on the door said ‘Billy Cobham will not be appearing’ – heartbreaking to me at the time (McLaughlin apparently dumped Billy just a week before the tour). But Danny Gottlieb sat in with some style and John rattled off some outstanding licks in black shirt and black headband. It was bloody loud too. It was the first time many British fans had seen him since Mahavishnu Mark 1 days and as such there was a big hippie turnout.

Bill Withers @ Hammersmith Odeon, 18th September 1988

From memory, Bill spent most of the gig sitting at the front of the stage, talking about his life and career while Pieces Of A Dream accompanied with gentle jazz/funk. Bill wore a sweater and golfing slacks and seemed incredibly old, more Val Doonican than Curtis Mayfield.

Weather Report @ Dominion Theatre, 26th June 1984

The duels between keys man Zawinul and drummer Omar Hakim were spellbinding. This was clearly the dog’s b*ll*cks. Well, it was better than Duran Duran anyway. Omar’s huge shades, trash-can cymbal and big grin linger in the memory.

Level 42 @ Wembley Arena, 12th January 1989

Level again, but this time for all the wrong reasons. We were in the back row of the dreaded Arena, and the band were flogging their substandard Staring At The Sun album. The audience reaction to the ‘new stuff’ was distinctly subdued. After a contractually-obliged encore of ‘Chinese Way’, Mark King returned to the stage alone. ‘You ‘ad a good night?’ he bawled. The audience erupted. ‘Well, you can all go and f**k off home then’, deadpanned the thunder-thumbed one. Reply – and further encore – came there none…

Bubbling under:

Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band @ Town & Country Club, November 1989

Will Downing @ Hammersmith Odeon, 20th November 1988

Coltrane Legacy (Alice/Ravi Coltrane, Reggie Workman, Rashid Ali) @ Logan Hall, 10th July 1987

Ry Cooder @ Hammersmith Odeon, 27th May 1982

Bill Frisell @ Town & Country Club, 24th April 1989

Ornette Coleman/Prime Time @ Town & Country Club, 28th August 1988

Check out the first selection of memorable gigs here.

Were you at any of these concerts? Let me know your memories.

Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part One)

Mark King of Level 42, Hammersmith Odeon, 13th November 1985

The London live music scene was buoyant in the 1980s. There was a gig on pretty much every corner. You could see a Goth band, a pub-rock band, a reggae band, a psychobilly band, a soul band – sometimes all on the same bill.

Places like The Rock Garden in Covent Garden, Swan and King’s Head in Fulham, Clarendon in Hammersmith, Red Lion in Brentford, Astoria in Soho and Mean Fiddler in Harlesden are quite understandably still revered by music fans of a certain age.

There were brilliant nightclubs too: The Bat Cave, Dingwalls, Wag, Blitz, Limelight, Marquee. Let’s be thankful a handful of legendary venues from that era survive (The Half Moon in Putney, Ronnie Scott’s, Roundhouse, Scala, Borderline) and long may they last.

Here are a few gigs that still loom large (all in London unless otherwise stated). I hope they spark some memories of your own. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I pretty much camped out at the Hammersmith Odeon in the late ’80s – well, it was my local, and it seemed like almost everyone came through that brilliant venue…

9. Frank Zappa @ Wembley Arena, 18th April 1988

Yes yes yes, Frank was in town for the first time in four years. I was a new fan and very excited to see him live. His guitar was insanely loud and very trebly. The reggae version of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was particularly memorable. Lots of onstage banter and political rhetoric. Lots of old-school hippies in the stalls. What a treat.

8. The New York Jazz Explosion (Roy Ayers/Tom Browne/Lonnie Liston Smith/Jean Carn) @ Hammersmith Odeon, 24th February 1985

I’d never heard of any of these guys when my dad offered me a ticket but I’m bloody glad I went. Lonnie started the show with some prime, instrumental, Rhodes-driven jazz/funk, then Roy played some old favourites and quite a lot from his In The Dark album. I don’t remember much about Jean or Tom but Roy blew me away (I’ve seen him at least five times since). The Odeon was packed and a very raucous crowd made a lot of noise in those glorious days when almost every famous US soul star played there. A real eye-opener.

7. David Sylvian @ Hammersmith Odeon, 30th May 1988

It was pretty much the first sight of David since Japan’s split and there was a genuinely exciting atmosphere in the old venue. Lots of screaming girls and a large Goth contingent. An unsmiling, slight and pale Sylvian silenced them by playing keys for the first few ethereal instrumentals (with hindsight, very reminiscent of Bowie’s ‘Stage’ tour a decade earlier). Fantastic band: David Torn, Mark Isham, Steve Jansen, Ian Maidman, Richard Barbieri. An excellent-quality bootleg has appeared on YouTube, probably frustrating David no end:

6. Art Blakey @ Ronnie Scott’s, 26th January 1989

Ronnie’s hosted a lot of the bona fide jazz greats in those days. My dad took me to a see a fair few but catching Bu was a revelation. His sheer presence was memorable and his press rolls made the walls of the club shake. The suited-and-booted band, including top-notch Brit pianist Julian Joseph, were excellent too.

5. It Bites @ Brunel University, March 1988

My schoolmate Nigel had played me this band’s debut The Big Lad In The Windmill and I was becoming a massive fan when we got a lift out to darkest North-West London just before the release of their second album Once Around The World. They played in the low-ceilinged students union bar and it became one of the most outstanding pop gigs I saw in the ’80s. A terrifyingly tight band – ‘coming at you like a f***in’ juggernaut’ as singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery said recently – with humour and chops. And a cracking version of ‘New York, New York’ in the middle of ‘Once Around The World’ to boot.

4. Level 42 @ Hammersmith Odeon, 13th November 1985

They were finally making the big pop breakthrough with World Machine but still had one foot in their jazz/funk ‘roots’ – this era was an exciting mix of both approaches. These boys were going places, but were still quite naughty/rough’n’ready with it. Sadly it was the peak of the original four-piece band, but another brilliant, noisy, sweaty night at the Odeon.

3. John Scofield @ Half Moon Theatre, Docklands Festival, Sept 1988?

This was in makeshift venue in the back-end of nowhere in Thatcher’s huge Docklands development. It was a long car ride from West London into a strange wasteland. I had wanted to see this band since Blue Matter had come out and accordingly watched drummer Dennis Chambers like a hawk throughout. From memory, he in turn eyeballed me throughout. His playing was pretty mindblowing from 10 yards away.

2. Wendy & Lisa @ Town & Country Club, 25th April 1989

It was a hot, sweaty night at the T&C, and the nearest to seeing Prince in such a small venue (which does a great disservice to Wendy and Lisa’s excellent playing and songwriting, but there you go). There was a genuine star quality to the (almost all-female) band and a very cool clientele – everyone was clocking a peak-fame Sinead O’Connor at the bar. The gig delivered the promise of summer and some cracking music too.

1. Animal Logic @ Town & Country Club, 25th May 1989

Back in the late ’80s, you only really gleaned info about musicians from magazines. When Rhythm – the now-defunkt UK monthly – printed that Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke were doing a gig in North London, we just had to be there. It was a surprise to say the least. There had literally been no sign of Copeland since The Police and the crowd seemed to be entirely composed of their fans – a huge roar erupted when Stewart’s kit was rolled onto the stage. Unfortunately the songs weren’t great but the atmosphere was.