Talking Heads Part One (1980/1981): Reagan, Ghosts & Listening Winds

For many Americans, 1980 hoped to offer a break from the recent past: the Watergate scandal, defeat in Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, a major recession. Disco.

A Presidential Election was also pending in November. At the beginning of the year, Jimmy Carter stood at 62% in the polls, Ronald Reagan at 33.

Reagan promised to return America to a pre-countercultural era, prioritising family values and social order. He courted the Fundamentalist vote; evangelists and motivational speakers suddenly popped up all over the radio.

Something pinged in David Byrne’s head, and he later outlined the febrile atmosphere of early 1980 in Simon Reynolds’ book ‘Totally Wired’: ‘The text was saying “Thou shalt not” but the preacher’s performance was this completely sensual, sexual thing. I thought, “This is great – the whole conflict is embodied right there…”’

Byrne and Brian Eno explored some of these themes on their groundbreaking My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (named after the 1954 book by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola) with a particular emphasis on Islam and its contrasts with Christianity.

The project was originally supposed to be a three-way collaboration between Jon Hassell, Eno and Byrne, a fake ‘field work’ complete with ethnography, liner notes and photos, but Hassell dropped out at the eleventh hour. The album is strikingly original, still relevant and sometimes terrifying.

A month before the Presidential Election, on 8 October 1980, Talking Heads released their masterpiece Remain In Light, also a collaboration with Eno. The album’s key tracks, ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and ‘Listening Wind’, went even further than Bush Of Ghosts: the former showed that Byrne had completely assimilated the ‘sensual preacher’ persona, while the latter outlined a young Arab’s act of terror.

Mojique resents the rich ‘foreigners in fancy houses’ turning up in his country, makes a bomb ‘with quivering hands’ and dispatches it to his American enemy. It’s a unique, powerful piece of work, and one wonders whether its inclusion on Remain In Light contributed to the album being their worst-ever seller in the USA.

Reagan was elected on 4 November 1980 with 50.7% of the national vote. His famous Election Eve speech mentioned ‘that shining city on the hill’, invoking both Jesus’s Sermon On The Mount and noted Puritan John Winthrop. But Byrne’s New York had been under the cosh: more murders, robberies, burglaries and subway breakdowns were reported in 1980 than in any other year since records began 49 years earlier.

Reagan was inaugurated on 20 January 1981. My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts was finally released – after several postponements – almost exactly a month later.

Further reading: ‘Life And Death On The New York Dancefloor’ by Tim Lawrence

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.

The Cult Movie Club: 17 Things I Didn’t Know About ‘Caddyshack’

‘Caddyshack’, the cult comedy released 40 years ago this month, has been a favourite of mine since I accidentally came across it on TV sometime in the late 1980s.

It now seems an almost forgotten and/or strangely ‘forbidden’ movie despite some cult status amongst golfers and hardcore fans of National Lampoon and ‘Saturday Night Live.’

With a corking cast of Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Ted Knight and Cindy Morgan, its basic pitch is ‘”Animal House” at a country club’, but for me it’s a funnier movie than John Landis’s 1978 hit.

It’s chaotic, unhinged, poorly structured, hard to follow, mostly improvised and won’t win any woke awards, but many scenes still make me chuckle like a teenager. In particular, Chase and Murray’s monologues and druggy non-sequiturs.

Directed by Harold Ramis (‘Groundhog Day’) and shot at Rolling Hills Country Club (now Grand Oaks) in Florida during September and October 1979 , ‘Caddyshack’ is ostensibly a coming-of-age story concerning amateur caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe).

On release, the critical reception was unsurprisingly poor but it did pretty good business ($40 million against a $6 million budget), if proving too weird for any kind of ‘Animal House’ action. But, like most Hollywood movies of the era, there are a myriad of ‘what ifs’ and surprising revelations around its making. Here are just a few of them:

17. The bishop struck by lightning after shouting ‘Rat farts!’ (Henry Wilcoxon) was a silent-movie star back in the 1920s, working in several Cecil B DeMille films.

16. ‘Caddyshack’ was Rodney Dangerfield’s movie debut.

15. Bill Murray (Carl Spackler) was the last actor to be cast, and his totally unscripted role was initially only supposed to be a cameo.

14. Ted Knight (Judge Smails) was an Emmy-winning star of the legendary ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ TV show in the 1970s.

13. Bill Murray and Chevy Chase (Ty Webb) were sworn enemies during the shoot due to some bad-mouthing in the press after Chevy had left ‘Saturday Night Live’. Their famous improvised scene was a last-minute addition after the studio insisted they appear on screen together.

12. Cinematographer Stevan Larner had previously worked on Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’.

11. Recently-departed, legendary composer/arranger Johnny Mandel (‘Theme From M*A*S*H’, Steely Dan’s ‘FM’) wrote the incidental music for the movie.

10. Mickey Rourke was first choice for the Danny Noonan role but turned the producers down at the final hour.

9. ‘Caddyshack’ was Harold Ramis’s directorial debut.

8. Co-writer and National Lampoon legend Doug Kenney died in strange circumstances soon after the film was released.

7. The pitch (‘Animal House’ in a country club) was given the green light by Orion studio bosses before they had seen any kind of story outline or screenplay.

6. The co-writers’ original idea was to make the film all about the teenage caddies (maybe that would have made for better box office… Ed.)

5. Cindy Morgan (Lacey Underall) was a DJ in Chicago before becoming an actress.

4. Bill Murray was actually a greenskeeper as a young man, and his elder brother Ed was a champion caddie.

3. Danny Noonan’s large Irish-Catholic family was based on the Murray family.

2. The whole cast stayed in the same hotel throughout the shoot – and partied heartily.

1. Bill Murray’s shenanigans with the gophers was a last-minute idea – initially there had only been one scene with a fake gopher (the one where Rodney Dangerfield shouts ‘Hey, that kangaroo just stole my ball!’).

The Brecker Brothers: Live And Unreleased

Horn sections – they sure divide opinion, especially in the ‘pop’ realm. Some people just cannot stand all of that pomp and circumstance, while others get turned on by a hot, punchy chart.

But like ’em or hate ’em, some great records just wouldn’t be the same without the horns: The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ for example.

But who are the most-recorded sections of all time? You’d get very short odds on The Brecker Brothers, comprising Michael on tenor and Randy on trumpet, occasionally augmented by David Sanborn on alto too.

They graced hundreds of recordings before Michael’s death in 2007, including Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’, Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Your Latest Trick’.

Under their own name, seven studio albums showcased a really cool sound with funky grooves and intricate harmony, somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan. And now they’ve been given the full-on archive treatment, a new Live And Unreleased album featuring a complete two-hours-plus gig with no edits or overdubs, recorded in Hamburg on 2nd July 1980.

This is a really impressive package, a beautifully-recorded double with extended liner notes by Bill Milkowski and additional, amusing memories from Randy Brecker. The sh*t-hot band includes Neil Jason on bass (familiar to fans of Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood and Avalon), Barry Finnerty on guitar (most famous for a short stint with Miles Davis), Mark Gray on keys and Richie Morales on drums.

The material is a mix of BB favourites like ‘Squids’, ‘Sponge’, ‘Some Skunk Funk’, ‘Straphanging’, ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘East River’. Pleasingly, these are pretty faithful to the original studio versions tempo-and-arrangement-wise, but there’s also a big emphasis on extended solos and one-chord vamps.

It’s also clear that, by 1980, Michael was giving Randy a serious run for his money on the composing front – his tunes and sometimes extraordinary solos dominate proceedings, particularly on the sprightly ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘Tee’d Off’.

Finnerty gets a hell of a lot of solo time but generally pretty characterless compared to other Brecker-approved studio guitarists (Hiram Bullock, Steve Khan), while Gray is excellent but too low in the mix. Morales is rock-solid but, again, fairly anonymous compared to other Brecker favourites Steve Jordan, Terry Bozzio, Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason (hardly surprising, since they are three of the all-time greats…). Jason, with his big, buoyant, funky sound, is the star of the rhythm section.

As usual, ‘Some Skunk Funk’ makes for fascinating listening – the funk/fusion standard has become a kind of test piece for drummers (Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio all had memorable cracks at it, offering subtly different readings). Morales has a good go here but again lacks the invention and drive of the aforementioned.

So: three-and-a-half stars for the music, five for the package. It’s definitely worth immersing oneself in it on vinyl or CD, helped by Randy’s witty between-song comments. It’s a really strong live album with some great performances, and exemplifies an interesting period for jazz/rock when good grooves and extended solos took precedence over technical chops. Even if you can’t stand horn sections…

Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On

Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.

A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.

You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.

Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.

Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month. A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!

It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984. There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.

In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.

Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.

One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’. What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.

It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.

London Lockdown Circa 1980: ‘Babylon’ & ‘Breaking Glass’

One of the few positives of this lockdown may be investigating your local area more than usual.

And if London is your manor, the mostly-silent, near-empty streets may just take you back to the city of your youth, when car ownership was relatively rare and there was plenty of room to kick a football or swing a cricket bat – mainly for sporting purposes, you understand…

Joking aside, London felt pretty edgy at the turn of the ’80s. Youth subcultures fought each other, and the police fought them. Some parts of the city had barely moved on from the Victorian era. There were great swathes of wasteland, still reeling from World War 2 bombs. Tube trains and stations were often deserted and you might even get a slap (there didn’t seem to be many knives around) if you wandered into the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood (hello Gary Bates…).

It was a world accurately captured by feature films like ‘Babylon’, ‘Rude Boy‘, ‘DOA‘, ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle‘ and ‘Breaking Glass’, all released 40 years ago. ‘Babylon’ was illuminated by sumptuous photography by legendary Brit cinematographer Chris Menges (‘Kes’, ‘The Mission’, ‘The Killing Fields’), capturing rundown, turn-of-the-decade Lewisham, south-east London, site of a notorious August 1977 battle between the National Front and 10,000 protestors.

All of these films accurately capture the energy of inner-city life during the late-’70s and early-’80s, and the pressures of young people living at the sharp end of recession, racism and unemployment. Also ever-present is the constant theme of music-business skullduggery and police brutality. But it’s all shot through with healthy doses of humour and humanity, particularly throughout ‘Babylon’.

For all the benefits of ‘gentrification’ and the corporate restructuring of the capital, true Londoners of a certain age probably feel a tinge of nostalgia about the time when they seemed to own the streets, when there were many secrets to be found in the city’s nooks and crannies – for better or worse.