Bireli Lagrene on Blue Note: Inferno/Foreign Affairs

It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and jazz/rock guitar players emerged during the 1980s. But arguably none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Bireli Lagrene.

He’s hardly a household name but Bireli recorded a few fine albums for Blue Note Records and toured extensively with Jaco Pastorius just before the bassist’s tragic death.

The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt at the outset of the ’80s. The teenage prodigy wowed everyone with a few independent releases (initially in a manouche style) and European tours.

The key to his sound seemed to be absolute freedom. Like Jaco and Django, he has no fear. He tries things, always pushing himself. To paraphrase John McLaughlin, he’s swinging before he even starts playing. Inferno, his debut Blue Note album, featured some excellent, freewheeling electric playing – more Mike Stern and Van Halen than Reinhardt – but the musical settings were a bit stilted and it suffered from too many changes in personnel.

But Bireli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan, and their 1988 follow-up Foreign Affairs was a big improvement. I was mildly obsessed with this album for about a month during spring 1989 – I remember buying it on the same day as seeing ‘Rain Man’ in the cinema, fact fans…

There was far more of a ‘band’ vibe on this sophomore effort, and what a band: monster drummer Dennis Chambers is in Weather Report mode, with Zawinul-style half-time shuffles (‘Josef’) and fast Latin/fusion grooves (‘Senegal’). And check out his burning solo at the end of the title track. Keyboardist Koono is a huge find and also obviously a big Zawinul fan, and recently departed bassist Jeff Andrews plays as tastily as ever.

Possibly as a result of his sad death in September 1987, Jaco’s influence is all over this album, particularly on the catchy opener ‘Timothee’ which features a mischievous, brilliant fretless bass solo by Bireli in tribute to his friend and mentor. Elsewhere, Bireli’s sometimes outrageous guitar playing is typified by the screaming octave leap at the end of ‘St Jean’, and he uses a lot more tonal colours than on the debut album.

Tunes wise, Foreign Affairs‘ formula is not really that much different to the classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s – a few originals, a few sideman compositions and a few covers (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Jack Rabbit’ and Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’). The latter in particular exemplifies a great production job by Khan, always getting a warm and ambient sound.

Foreign Affairs is almost impossible to find on CD or vinyl these days but it’s just been added to streaming platforms, featuring some extra solo acoustic guitar tracks not on the original album. It’s well worth another listen, as is Inferno. Bireli stayed with Blue Note for a couple more albums in the early ’90s, but they were far more traditional propositions.

Book Review: Le Freak by Nile Rodgers

One of the few musical blessings of the last decade was Nile Rodgers’ career reinvention.

But the future had looked pretty bleak at the outset of 2010, with serious illness virtually putting paid to his live career and no new studio product in sight.

Then of course there was a well-received guest spot on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and a glorious concert reboot of the Chic brand, which went from strength to strength as the decade progressed. So it seems a good time to revisit ‘Le Freak’, Nile’s 2011 memoir (and it accords nicely with my current early-’80s NYC obsession).

The focus on gigging during the last decade has been a distinct volte face for a guitarist/songwriter/producer best known for his studio work with Chic, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Johnny Mathis and Al Jarreau.

Chic were to disco what Steely Dan were to rock, bringing jazz chords, complex arrangements and subtly subversive lyrics to the top of the charts, but it’s easy to forget how out of fashion they were in the early ’80s, as ‘Le Freak‘ grippingly outlines.

But it’s also that rare thing for a music memoir, arguably at its best when it steers away from the music. Rodgers was born to a 14-year-old jazz-loving mother in late-1950s New York City, and his early life was a jaw-dropping sequence of underage sex, drug addiction and bohemian excess on all levels. His stepfather Bobby, a heroin-addicted beatnik, nicknamed the asthmatic Rodgers ‘Pud’, short for ‘pudding pie’, and used to reprimand him thus: ‘Pud. Dig yourself.’

Soon, both parents were junkies, and Rodgers turned to TV, movies, truancy and illicit substances, finding his own brotherhood of Puerto Ricans and Italians in Greenwich Village. Rodgers brilliantly captures the flavour of this bohemian underground and black music scene that flourished in the big cities of the US in the ‘60s.

There are tales of studying jazz harmony with legendary pianist Dr Billy Taylor, an early gig with the ‘Sesame Street’ house band and notable cameos from Thelonious Monk, Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Jimi Hendrix. Later his Harlem Apollo debut sees Rodgers being chased around the stage by a crazed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

With musical soulmate, bassist Bernard Edwards, he toured the Chitlin’ Circuit playing the soul, jazz and R’n’B hits of the day, returning to New York to see that dance culture was taking over. Their Big Apple Band quickly became Chic, a black fusion of Roxy Music and KISS, and although Chic quickly became synonymous with the disco movement, their roots in jazz, rock and R’n’B and desire to always include a Deep Hidden Meaning (or DHM) in their lyrics always kept them at some remove from the likes of the Bee Gees.

But things take a turn for the worse when the scene that embraced Chic suddenly implodes and gives way to New Wave, and Nile is brutally candid about his embarrassment that his band (and first solo album) can’t get arrested. Not in David Bowie’s opinion, though, and the extended riff on the making of Let’s Dance is essential reading for any fan of that album.

The passage on the passing of his musical brother Edwards while on tour with a reformed Chic is also moving and perfectly judged, encapsulating Rodgers’ philosophy of music and life.

All in all, ‘Le Freak’ is a fast-moving, well-written, original account of the life of a self-confessed ‘half-hippie, half Black Panther’, and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in black music over the last 50 years.

Rodgers has also intimated that there may be a second volume on the way – yes please. Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jarreau, Mariah Carey, Robert Plant, the B-52s and David Lee Roth are only mentioned in passing, and it would be good to get the full story of Chic’s live renaissance.

Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

Gonna Party Like It’s 1989

So farewell then, 1989.

Of course, I mean 2019…

But enough about 2019. Here’s Nick Hornby’s diary entry for 22nd August 1989, taken from his classic book ‘Fever Pitch’:

‘I have stopped buying NME and the Face, and, inexplicably, have started keeping copies of Q magazine under a shelf in my living room; I have bought a CD player; I have registered with an accountant; I have noticed that certain types of music – hip-hop, indie guitar pop, thrash, metal – all sound the same and have no tune; I have come to prefer restaurants to clubs; and dinners with friends to parties…’

Stump bassist Kev Hopper also had an interesting take on the era:

Organised raves were happening up and down the country and and the UK was awash with mockney DJs. You were made to feel like some sort of soulless, asexual blob if you didn’t like/want to move to their incredibly unfunky, over-quantised, four-to-the-floor marching music. Most of it had about as much rhythmic interest as a dripping tap. Remix DJs and “keyboard wizards” were calling all the shots, idolized by huge crowds of spazzed-out zombie youth. One thing was for sure: rock bands were out…’

In short, 1989 was one of the best music years of the ’80s, but also one of the most contradictory. Happy Mondays and Stone Roses had famously gatecrashed a November edition of ‘Top Of The Pops’, but hadn’t upset the status quo quite yet (and guitars wouldn’t properly make a comeback until the Blur/Oasis era of the mid-’90s, at least in the UK). The ‘yuppie’ consumer still had a stronghold on the charts, driven by the CD boom and a renewed focus on the home and car (which of course became convulsive).

But there was also the sinking feeling that pop music was no longer ruling mainstream culture. Stock, Aitken & Waterman (via Brother Beyond, Big Fun, Sonia, Sinitta, Jason Donovan and Kylie) and the bizarre Jive Bunny were ever-present in the charts, with TV tie-ins and ’40s/’50s nostalgia particularly prevalent, evidenced by this list of UK number one singles during 1989:

Kylie/Jason: ‘Especially For You’

Marc Almond/Gene Pitney: ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’

Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’

Jason Donovan: ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’

Madonna: ‘Like A Prayer’

The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’

Kylie Minogue: ‘Hand On Your Heart’

Gerry Marsden/Paul McCartney/Holly Johnson/The Christians: ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’

Jason Donovan: ‘Sealed With A Kiss’

Soul II Soul ft. Caron Wheeler: ‘Back To Life’

Sonia: ‘You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You’

Jive Bunny: ‘Swing The Mood’

Black Box: ‘Ride On Time’

Jive Bunny: ‘That’s What I Like’

Lisa Stansfield: ‘All Around The World’

New Kids On The Block: ‘You’ve Got The Right Stuff’

Jive Bunny: ‘Let’s Party’

Band Aid II: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’

And the fact is that era-defining albums by De La Soul, Pixies, Beastie Boys, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry and NWA were crushed in sales terms by the Bunny, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, Kylie, Jason, Sonia, Simply Red, Bros, Phil Collins and Chris Rea. And though Tiffany and Debbie Gibson had pretty much been snuffed out, crap teen pop was making a comeback in the shape of New Kids On The Block.

But there was still much to celebrate.  The second ’80s pop boom was well underway. ‘Smash Hits’ mag was selling a million copies a week. Prog-pop was alive and well courtesy of Marillion, It Bites, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and Trevor Rabin. There was a serious CD ‘sophisti-pop’ thing going on via Tanita Tikaram, Blue Nile, Black, Julia Fordham, Prefab, Deacon Blue, Toni Childs etc. ‘Going Live’ was a must-watch on Saturday mornings.

Hip-hop was commercial and vital, highlighted by great albums from De La Soul, Young MC, Schoolly D, Tone Loc, NWA and Beastie Boys. The ’60s generation were in fine fettle, evidenced by era-defining rock albums from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Beck and Lou Reed. Jazz and fusion were in good nick. And don’t forget the post-aceeeed dance scene via Bomb The Bass, S’Express, Yazz, Beatmasters, Betty Boo, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul, the Mondays and Roses.

Here’s just a smattering of 1989 album releases. Looks like a pretty damn good year, whether you were into pop, dance, hip-hop, indie, goth, soul, metal or jazz.

Happy new 2020, y’all. Let’s hope it’s better than 2019.

Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi

Danny Wilson: Bebop Moptop

China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse

Lil Louis: From The Mind Of Lil Louis

XTC: Oranges & Lemons

Tone Loc: Loc’ed After Dark

Joe Satriani: Flying In A Blue Dream

Nik Kershaw: The Works

Fine Young Cannibals: The Raw & The Cooked

Madonna: Like A Prayer

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Mother’s Milk

Allan Holdsworth: Secrets

Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe

Lou Reed: New York

Tin Machine

Pixies: Doolittle

Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique

Soul II Soul: Club Classics Vol 1

Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin’

Mike Stern: Jigsaw

John Patitucci: On The Corner

Miles Davis: Aura

All About Eve: Scarlet And Other Stories

Marillion: Seasons End

Kate Bush: The Sensual World

Janet Jackson: Rhythm Nation 1814

Julia Fordham: Porcelain

Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon

Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy

Miles Davis: Amandla

Schoolly D: Am I Black Enough For You

Neil Young: Freedom

Blue Nile: Hats

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Getahead

The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South

Trevor Rabin: Can’t Look Away

24-7 Spyz: Harder Than You

Jane Siberry: Bound By The Beauty

Rickie Lee Jones: Flying Cowboys

It Bites: Eat Me In St Louis

David Murray: I Want To Talk About You

Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop

NWA: Straight Outta Compton

Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin’

De La Soul: Three Feet High & Rising

The Sugarcubes: Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week

Regina Belle: Stay With Me

David Byrne: Rei Momo 

Belinda Carlisle: Runaway Horses

Terry Hall: Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes

Prefab Sprout: Protest Songs

Prince: Batman

Wendy & Lisa: Fruit At The Bottom

 

 

The Cult Movie Club: Diner (1982)

I knew it was good, but, revisiting it again last week, I’d forgotten quite how good ‘Diner’ was.

Barry Levinson’s directorial debut was the very definition of a sleeper movie when it first came out in March 1982. MGM virtually buried it on its initial release (and their appalling trailer didn’t help – see below), disappointed that it scrimped on the ‘Porky’s’/’Animal House’-style hijinks.

It took a private screening set up by Levinson and executive producer Mark Johnson and subsequent rave review from one attendee – legendary film critic and movingtheriver.com favourite Pauline Kael – to secure it an audience.

Some have made bold claims that ‘Diner’ is the most influential film of the 1980s, pointing forward to ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, Tarantino, ‘Seinfeld’, ‘The Sopranos’, Judd Apatow and beyond.

Set in Baltimore during December 1959 (it definitely counts as a Christmas movie), it focuses on a group of friends in their early 20s, trying to negotiate relationships and get through their working lives, but always finishing off the night at the Fells Point Diner (based on the real Hilltop Diner in northwest Baltimore) for a chin-wag about Sinatra and a fill of French fries with gravy (or a roast beef sandwich, fought over in one of the film’s most famous scenes).

Daly, Rourke, Stern, Bacon, Guttenberg and Reiser in ‘Diner’

Though there are shades of ‘American Graffiti’, ‘Animal House’ and even ‘Porky’s’ (Kael rather evoked Fellini’s ‘I Vittelloni’), the protagonists in ‘Diner’ seem older than in those movies, though you wouldn’t always know it – they seem totally at ease with themselves but struggle with members of the opposite ‘camp’. In fact, sadly, the sexual politics in ‘Diner’ ensure that it would probably struggle to get a green light these days.

The movie features almost of a who’s-who of ’80s talent: Mickey Rourke, Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Paul Reiser, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly, Ellen Barkin, all acting as if their lives depended on it. Arguably, none have done better work than ‘Diner’. One wonders how much rehearsal and/or ‘team-building’ Levinson was able to secure for them (quite a lot according to this excellent documentary), because they’re absolutely at ease with each other.

And, though almost entirely scripted (Levinson’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar), the movie has a loose, dreamy feel. These guys feel just like your – my – mates, from that golden era when everyone was rooted in the same spot and going through the same stuff.

Levinson packs the action with memorable secondary characters – the local screwball obsessed with ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’, Carol Heathrow (who unfortunately locates Rourke’s ‘pecker’ in her popcorn), the kindly pool-hall owner, Big Earl (who eats the whole left side of the menu), the picky TV-store customer, Bagel, Kevin Bacon’s smarmy brother, and many more.

He also creates a totally believable environment on a budget, replete with classic cars and almost-deserted suburban streets, and an impressive opening one-take shot introducing us to the main characters. He also brings in interesting period details like the glimpse of Kind Of Blue in Shrevie’s sacred vinyl collection, and the soundtrack is also brilliant, from R’n’B to doo-wop (though the only bum note is the very ’80s-sounding ‘live’ track played in the go-go bar towards the end of the movie).

‘Diner’ also has an almost ‘Withnail’esque finale, looking uncertainly into the next decade with its famous freeze-frame ending. And, like all the best coming-of-age movies, it has you wondering what the hell happened to these characters. Did Boogie make a go of it in the home improvement trade, and stay with Jane Chisholm? Did Modell ever get himself a car? How did Shrevie and Beth’s marriage turn out, not to mention Eddie’s?

So, Barry – any chance of a sequel?

(Postscript: A musical version of ‘Diner’ made a brief appearance a few years ago…and Sheryl Crow wrote the songs. No comment…)

Happy 5th Birthday To Me

Can it really be five years ago today that a piece on Prefab Sprout’s Swoon kicked off this whole damn movingtheriver.com experiment?

Yes it ruddy well can, and it’s been a fun ride.

Even though there are some weeks when it seems the well has truly run dry, ’80s music and movies (to mix metaphors) turn out to be the gifts that keep on giving – there are always old sounds that continue to surprise and new avenues to explore.

So thanks for checking in and contributing now and then. You’ve made an old man very happy. My friend Spike Jones probably says it best: