Nick Mason: Fictitious Sports

Who are the luckiest musicians in rock? Which players have made the megabucks peddling middling-at-best instrumental skills and generally keeping their heads down? Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Eric Clapton, Phil Selway, Adam Clayton?

Nick Mason would probably have to be in that list too. But then you wonder if the Pink Floyd sticksman has hidden talents – after all, he’s produced the Damned, Robert Wyatt, Gong and Steve Hillage. Good musicians seem to really like and respect him and, to be fair, he has always seemed one of rock’s gentlemen.

He was at it again in 1979 when he gathered a rock snob’s dream team (Wyatt on vocals, Chris Spedding on guitar, cover designers Hipgnosis, record label Harvest) for his one and only solo album Fictitious Sports, eventually released in 1981.

Entirely written and arranged by jazz provocateur Carla Bley, it’s a fascinating, intermittently brilliant project that borrows from art-pop, prog, new-wave rock and even musical theatre to produce something pretty original (hardly surprising if one delves into Bley’s ouevre with any depth).

On the superb, disquieting ‘I’m A Mineralist’, Wyatt rehearses a Peter Gabriel-style blanked-out vocal and Bley inserts some witty Philip Glass Einstein On The Beach-style tomfoolery. And she doesn’t scrimp on the silly but menacing lyrics either: ‘Just the thought of ironing gives me spasms of lust’, ‘Mother used to try to meddle in my affairs’, etc…

‘Do Ya’ is a highly original, witty evocation of a crumbling relationship, reminiscent of something from Robert Fripp’s Exposure, with Wyatt sounding like he’s at the end of his tether. It could almost be the soundtrack to one of those Bruce Nauman man/woman video art pieces.

There are loads of other treats littered throughout, and even a Floyd/Kate Bush-style symphonic rock piece (‘Hot River‘). Mason adroitly leaves the clever stuff to Bley, generally only picking up the sticks during the riff sections. But it’s the best thing I’ve heard him do, with the exception of Syd-era Floyd. An interesting beginning – and end – to an almost fictitious solo career.

 

 

Advertisements

Story Of A Song: Bucks Fizz’s The Land Of Make Believe

On first listen, ‘The Land Of Make Believe’ would seem to be a frothy, fairly harmless bit of fun built on one of the oldest chord sequences in the book. But dig a bit deeper and it’s a distinctly odd psych/pop classic and one of the weirdest number ones of the 1980s (hitting the top spot 36 years ago this week).

The main reason for that would seem to be the presence of Pete Sinfield on the songwriting credits. Most famous for providing lyrics for prog behemoths King Crimson and ELP, in his bizarre career he has also – thrillingly – co-written Celine Dion’s ‘Think Twice’ and Five Star’s ‘Rain Or Shine’!

In the book ‘1,000 UK Number Ones’, he recalled being tasked by Fizz producer/co-songwriter Andy Hill to come up with the words for ‘The Land Of Make Believe: ‘It is 10 times more difficult to write a three-minute hit song with a veneer of integrity than it is to write anything for King Crimson or ELP. But I half-succeeded on “The Land Of Make Believe”. Beneath its ‘tra-la-laas’ is a virulent anti-Thatcher song. Oh yes it is. Something nasty in your garden, waiting, until it can steal your heart…’

Portraying Thatcherism as a kind of creeping ‘Invasion Of the Body Snatchers’-style affliction… Well, maybe it’s just about discernible in the lyrics. But more likely it’s a neat concept on which to hang a lot of disparate references, from Superman to Captain Kidd (apparently a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean) and fairy tales of all kinds. But I always think of that creepy scene in ‘Salem’s Lot’ when I hear those lines about ‘shadows tapping at your window/ghostly voices whisper will you come and play’…

The fade-out features a cod nursery rhyme – also penned by Sinfield – which was narrated by Abby Kimber, future Minipop and 11-year-old daughter of Bill Kimber, an executive at RCA Records. Listening as a nine-year-old burgeoning pop fan in early 1982, it used to give me the creeps, and can still send a chill down my spine.

The video was filmed at White City swimming baths in West London. It references ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’ and foregrounds some fairly blatant swimwear shots of singer Jay Aston, whose unhappy tenure in Bucks Fizz was outlined in Simon Garfield’s excellent book ‘Expensive Habits’. Aston also apparently chose the outfits for the video, the female costumes coming from Kahn & Bell on the King’s Road and the male costumes from Boy. Aston later remarked that her and Cheryl Baker’s costumes ‘were ten years ahead of Madonna, with the cone boobs…’

‘The Land Of Make Believe’ subsequently became Bucks Fizz’s biggest-selling single in the UK, outselling even their famous 1981 Eurovision winner ‘Making Your Mind Up’. Not bad for a song that apparently no-one in the group particularly liked. Don’t have nightmares…

The Cult Movie Club: Southern Comfort (1981)

After the extended prologue, when Ry Cooder’s swampy blues riff slides in over a glorious widescreen shot of the Louisiana bayou, you know you’re watching a classic of its kind.

To this day, co-writer/director Walter Hill claims that the superb ‘Southern Comfort’ doesn’t directly allude to the Vietnam War, but it’s hard to conclude otherwise – set in 1973, his film concerns a motley group of weekend National Guardsmen whose sojourn into Cajun country (with the promise of prostitutes at the end of the road) turns into a desperate fight for survival when a foolish prank leaves them at the mercy of some particularly vengeful locals.

Hill prefers to call it a ‘displaced Western’, a film about escalating moral dilemmas in unfamiliar surroundings. That rings true too, but watching it again after ten years or so, I couldn’t help comparing it to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, another all-male classic about creeping, self-defeating paranoia, fudged leadership and dodgy group-think. ‘Southern Comfort’ might also be described as ‘The Warriors’ meets ‘Deliverance’. It’s that good.

This is a pre-irony, pre-CGI action movie, where men are men (the sort of men who might get a ‘phone call in a pub….on a landline’), decisions have consequences and vengeance is swift and fairly brutal. The action sequences are gripping, though never tawdry, and look extremely punishing for the cast – there’s a particularly realistic dog attack and a memorable quicksand incident. Apparently the shoot was long, cold and difficult, with camera tripods frequently sinking into the bayou.

The dialogue is fast and loose – the brain has to be in gear to pick up all the political/ethical nuances that fly by – and the acting styles deceptively ‘naturalistic’. Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe are superb as the reluctant heroes who must overcome their basically apolitical stances to become men of action and moral choice. Carradine in particular makes for a fascinating action-man (according to Hill, his character is a ‘Southern aristocrat’). The secondary cast of mainly unknowns (the ever-excellent Peter Coyote aside) is also superb.

But ‘Southern Comfort’ was a commercial dud on its 1981 release. Maybe, like ‘The Thing’, it’s far too stark a vision. But it certainly it spawned some new movie clichés and looks like an influence on many ’80s movies from ‘Aliens’ to ‘Predator’. It’s also a fascinating watch these days considering the state of the US – the film’s message seems to be that peace is impossible while there remain so many internal divisions and prejudices.

Story Of A Song: Donald Fagen’s True Companion

Steely Dan’s breakup was officially announced on 17th June 1981 when Donald Fagen gave a scoop to journalist and long-time fan Robert Palmer in the New York Times. In the interview, Fagen didn’t rule out the possibility that he would one day reunite with Steely co-leader/co-songwriter Walter Becker, but neglected to mention that he had already returned to the studio as a solo artist.  

Until a few years ago, I assumed The Nightfly was Fagen’s ’80s debut, but the one-off track ‘True Companion’ preceded it by a year. It was part of the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack, an animated film based on the sex’n’slash fantasy comic book of the same name. Fagen used the song as an excuse to get back into the studio after a few years off.

‘True Companion’ was recorded at Automated Sound in New York and co-produced by Fagen and legendary engineer Elliot Scheiner (Dan helmer Gary Katz was busy producing Eye To Eye’s debut album). Lyrically, the song seemed to be a ‘Dark Star‘-esque meditation on the spiritually-bereft inhabitants of a spaceship, possibly narrated by God, or at least some kind of omniscient being…

Crewmen of the True Companion
I can see you’re tired of action
In this everlasting twilight
Home is just a sad abstraction

Just beyond the troubled skyways
Young men dream of fire and starshine
I’ve been dreaming of my own green world
Far across the reach of space time

Musically, the track showcased some exceptionally dense Fagen vocal harmonies (prefiguring a similar approach on The Nightfly‘s ‘Maxine’), and typically tasty Fender Rhodes playing by Steely regular Don Grolnick. But the first half of the tune was almost a mini guitar symphony for Steve Khan.

I asked Steve for his recollections of recording ‘True Companion’:

During those years, I think that Donald was trying  to find the confidence to move forward with a solo career because, after Gaucho, it seemed that he and Walter were going to need a long, long break! “True Companion” was one of a few experiments Donald recorded just to test the waters, as it were. To be in the studio with old friends and bandmates like Don Grolnick, Will Lee and Steve Jordan and with Elliot Scheiner engineering, nothing could have felt more familiar. Actually, for working with Donald, things went really fast. I would imagine that I played the electric parts first, then overdubbed the solo, and thereafter the acoustic steel-string. With the Les Paul, I know that I was playing REALLY loud in the room, but I did that because I felt that this was the underlying attitude of the song. It was a blend of subtlety and power. So I tried to give it both…’

On the ‘Heavy Metal’ soundtrack album, ‘True Companion’ sat incongruously alongside tracks by Black Sabbath, Grand Funk Railroad, Journey, Sammy Hagar and Stevie Nicks, a state of affairs that no doubt tickled Fagen. But, most importantly, he had taken his first major steps back into the recording studio, and by late summer 1981 was recording The Nightfly.

Almost 15 years later, a reunited Steely Dan also played ‘True Companion’ live on their second comeback tour:

The Human League’s Dare: 35 Years Old Today

human-leagueVirgin Records, released 16th October 1981

Produced by Martin Rushent/The Human League

Recorded at Genetic Sound Studios, Reading, Berkshire, UK

UK album chart position: #1
US album chart position: #3

Singles released: ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ (UK #12)
‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ (UK #3)
‘Open Your Heart’ (UK #6)
‘Don’t You Want Me’ (UK #1, US #1)

Phil Oakey (vocals/co-composer): ‘Martin really knew what pop was. He could take your mad sounds and make them pop. I still reckon “The Sound Of The Crowd” is one of the maddest songs that’s ever got in the Top 20. “Love Action” hasn’t got a proper chorus. I remember smashing the phone after I was told “Don’t You Want Me” was number 1 in America. It’s so much to live up to. Everyone and their grandma knows about you so no one wants to wear your badges any more…’

Martin Rushent: ‘To a large extent, I was their band. I was certainly their drummer because I programmed all the rhythms and made all the decisions about the grooves. I learned a lot from working with the arranger Johnny Harris. He was bandleader for all the show singers like Petula Clark, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. I learned about voicing instruments and how the most important element of music is silence. If you listen to Dare, there’s lots of space in the songs and lots of little parts and you can sing them all…’

King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset. But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming. He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other Fripp stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood. By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’ He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa.