Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain

After ‘82’s critically acclaimed New Gold Dream, the logical step for Simple Minds would seem to have been to go even further away from their art-rock roots and rush headlong towards some funky ‘sophisti-pop’.

After all, head honcho Jim Kerr is on record as saying that his favourites from the era were Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, Donna Summer’s two classic 1982 singles and Carly Simon’s ‘Why’.

To that end, Nightclubbing co-helmer Alex Sadkin was eagerly approached to produce Sparkle In The Rain, but he declined, busy with Duran Duran and Thompson Twins work.

Instead, inspired by premiering the pile-driving, Pink Floyd-meets-Doors ‘Waterfront’ at Dublin’s Phoenix Park gig (supporting U2) on 14 August 1983, they turned to producer Steve Lillywhite, chief architect of the Return to Rock that was eclipsing New Pop during summer 1983, courtesy of his work with Big Country and U2.

Lillywhite hastily took them into Shepherds Bush’s legendary Townhouse Studios 2, with Howard Gray engineering. Guitarist Charlie Burchill wrote ‘Herzog’ on the back of Lillywhite’s chair, inspired by his and Kerr’s newfound love of the German director’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and its theme of dreams moving mountains. A photo of Nastassja Kinski took pride of place on the control-room wall.

There were regular games of table tennis, Kerr using them to psych himself up for the very adrenalized vocal takes, especially on the hysterial ‘Kick Inside Of Me’.

After previous drummer problems to match Spinal Tap, the excellent Mel Gaynor was a real find for the band. Though quiet in the studio, he was a monster on the kit and also apparently contributed effective keyboard and guitar ideas.

Bassist Derek Forbes was more in the background, spending a lot of time drawing his ‘Dan Yer Man’ cartoons. Burchill allegedly gave him a bollocking about his lack of ‘commitment’; the writing was on the wall for the talented player. He’d soon join fellow ex-Mind Brian McGee in a superb iteration of Propaganda’s touring band.

Tellingly, Sparkle’s songwriting royalties are split five ways, except for a truncated cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ which jettisons some of the more ‘unsavoury’ statements of the original (shades of Bowie’s ‘Tonight’, recorded a few months later?).

But it’s Gaynor, Kerr and McNeil’s album. The latter provides epic textures, very high in the mix. Kirsty MacColl provides a very welcome ‘girl’s voice’. ‘Shake Off The Ghosts’ was certainly noted by U2. ‘Waterfront’ is brilliant. How many other hits use guitar harmonics for their main riff? (only The Hooters’ ‘Satellite’ comes to mind).

Alongside Empires And Dance, Sparkle remains my favourite Minds album. Yes it’s a sonic ‘experiment’ and most tracks go on for a minute too long, but it’s rooted in strong band playing and delicious ambient textures. And it’s bloody loud.

Released on 6 February 1984, it became their first of four straight UK #1 albums. But they weren’t delivering on the singles front: ‘Waterfront’ only got to #13, ‘Speed Your Love’ #20 and ‘Up On The Catwalk’ #27. With hindsight, their reluctant November 1984 recording of Keith Forsey/Steve Schiff’s ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ was a vital career move.

Minds hit the gig circuit for a very busy summer 1984 tour including a record-breaking (at the time) eight nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was a very different group to a year earlier. It’s fascinating to compare two ‘Oxford Road Show’ gigs from early 1983 and early 1984:

Gone was the skinny, neurotic Euro art-funk. Kerr was a far more wholesome, energised, welcoming character than before, screaming ‘Charlie Burchill!’ before the regular guitar breaks. He even started the Hammersmith gigs up a pole, Julian Cope-style!

But Kerr quickly disowned this period, citing exhaustion on the part of the band. Stateside success seemed so near yet so far. But then came ‘Don’t You’, Kerr’s marriage to Chrissie Hynde, ‘The Breakfast Club’ and Live Aid. The world was theirs.

Further reading: ‘Simple Minds’ by Adam Sweeting

David Sylvian: The Brilliant Trees Sessions

Sylvian’s modus operandi for the studio sessions that made up his classic 1984 debut album perfectly reflected its ‘anti-rock’ stance.

Steve Jansen’s drums and/or percussion were generally recorded first, usually followed by David’s rough keyboards/guitars and a guide vocal. After that he worked closely with guest musicians on a one-to-one basis.

And the latter aspect is the main focus of some fascinating, newly-released footage of the Hansa Studio sessions in Berlin, documented by Sylvian’s then-partner Yuka Fujii.

It’s an absolute treat for Brilliant Trees fans and a great chance to see what actually happened in most recording studios during the 1980s. In common with making movies, there’s a lot of waiting around, a fair bit of chewing the fat and then some pretty intense bursts of performance/concentration.

It’s fascinating watching Sylvian collaborating with his good friends Ryuichi Sakamoto and Holger Czukay. Sakamoto is a model of quiet concentration, quickly learning the chords to album outtake ‘Blue Of Noon’. Czukay is full of smiles and fun while tinkering with his Dictaphone and laying down a guitar solo on ‘Red Guitar’ which didn’t make the cut.

Elsewhere we finally get to hear what ball-of-energy guitarist Ronny Drayton actually plays on ‘Pulling Punches’, and Jon Hassell is every inch the NYC avant-garde auteur (in his excellent book ‘Cries And Whispers’, Anthony Reynolds reports that he did just one five-hour session for Brilliant Trees, asking for and getting $5,000 upfront plus co-writing credits for the two tracks he played on).

But who knew he recorded his solos sitting on the floor in the corner of a tiny studio, Sylvian at his elbow? For his part, Sylvo is generally smiley, quiet, engaged, charming, extremely professional and seems to have a good rapport with co-producer Steve Nye.

Sadly the short bit of footage that emerged recently (then rapidly disappeared) of bassist Wayne Braithwaite recording ‘Red Guitar’ is not reinstated here.

The clip is a vital addition to one’s enjoyment of Brilliant Trees – check it out (and I’ve included Sylvian’s own notes on the footage below) before it gets taken down.

This raw footage, shot on what’s now seen as a primitive camera but which was a top of the line consumer product at the time, a massive, unwieldy object, was documented by Yuka Fujii. I’ve put the material together in the order it was recorded to give a very general idea of the process of development. It’s been my practice to work closely with each individual musician since my earliest days with the band in an attempt to get the best results. I’ve always maintained the band prepared me for working with others, gave me the confidence to work with my peers, the ‘newcomers’ in the room all being older than myself (25). At this point in time Ryuichi’s English was very rudimentary (this was to change radically within the next ten years or so) so we had to communicate as economically as possible, or rather, 95% of the exchange was purely musical. Yuka and Peter Barakan would step in when greater explication was needed. Holger’s English remained consistent throughout the years i knew him. Again, subtleties could be lost so the dialogue was relatively basic. These sessions in Berlin were my first step in creating what would become ‘Brilliant Trees’ and my initial move away from the structure of the band. It was one of the happiest recording experiences I can recall while signed with a major label. Because of the success of having everyone meet in Berlin, a city native to no one involved, it felt like an adventure. People arrived with a spirit of openness and receptivity. I went on to repeat this process with albums such as ‘Secrets of the Beehive’, ‘Rain Tree Crow’, and ‘The First Day’ among others.

I’ve left a lot of Jon’s conversation in as it’s of interest. In one section he’s explaining the nature of raga and how he came to it by working with renowned Indian singer/teacher Pandit Pran Nath. He was also intimating that, as ‘Brilliant Trees’ asked that he play in the western tradition, ‘steps’ as he describers it, he didn’t see how his performance could be incorporated into the title track. I persevered. He returned to his hotel room that evening to work on it and, overnight, came up with something so beautiful and complimentary to the piece, that moved away from raga (outside of the coda), and gave us one of the rare, if not unique recordings, of Jon playing in the western tradition.

Besides the limited nature of my vocabulary, the paired down nature of our exchanges for the reasons given above, my only regret is that I didn’t use Holger’s guitar solo on ‘Red Guitar’. At the time I felt it a little lightweight compared to the mix Steve Nye was prepping. I would now mix it quite differently pushing the drums way back (from the mid 70s through the 80s, drums were often foregrounded, a trend I wasn’t fond of. I fought for a change of approach on ‘Beehive’ and that’s about the time when things began to resemble how I’d initially imagined the material. There are always exceptions of course, ‘Weathered Wall’, ‘Before the Bullfight’ are just two examples). I loved Holger dearly and wish I’d imortalised his solo in some capacity. If it still exists on multitrack, all is not lost.

I came away from Berlin with an incomplete album and preceded to write a few remaining pieces to complement the best of what I had. “The Ink in the Well’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Backwaters’ were added, ‘Blue of Noon’, an alternate version of ‘Forbidden Colours’, and a new track composed with Ryuichi were, with the exception of the latter, to find a home elsewhere. ‘Blue of Noon’ was originally a vocal piece but I felt this version didn’t hold together and, in any case, was out of place in the context of the album. Virgin released a working rough mix of the track as the B-side of a single.

I hope the mutual respect and good humour of everyone involved comes across along with their seriousness and committed nature to the material. Rarely has this proved otherwise for me. In this respect I feel very fortunate. From this session I made lifelong friends, a trend that was to continue for many years to come.

david sylvian july 2021

Bill Evans: Living In The Crest Of A Wave/The Alternative Man

When people say ‘I hate jazz’, I sometimes wonder if they’re really saying they know a crap composition when they hear one.

Legions of talented jazz sidepeople have been given solo record contracts only to deliver music that proves they can’t write decent tunes.

A case in point is saxophonist and William Hurt-lookalike Bill Evans. He’s had a very solid career but his solo work is distinctly underwhelming.

(And then there’s the name. If you play jazz, you probably need a stage name if you have exactly the same moniker as a bona fide legend from decades gone by – the pianist Bill Evans died in 1980.)

But give Sax Bill some credit – he was an absolutely vital figure in Miles Davis’s 1980s comeback, a good friend and carer of the trumpeter and player of several gritty solos on record (Star People is a good place to start).

But by 1983 Bill found himself inexplicably frozen out, barely getting any solo space from Miles.

He got the message and jumped ship to join John McLaughlin in the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and also embark on a solo career which kicked off with 1984’s Living In The Crest Of A Wave, a pretty anodyne collection of new-agey fusion.

Let’s call it The Metheny Effect. Many tried and failed to ape that guitarist’s mixture of Ornette Coleman-inspired melodicism, Latin flavours and down-home, Midwestern, open-sky simplicity.

With its folky themes, puny production, emphasis on soprano sax, fretless bass, ride cymbals and an ‘environmental’ bent, LITCOAW could almost have come out on Windham Hill.

Only the closing title track works up any kind of energy or interest, when Evans finally busts out the tenor and blows up a storm over Adam Nussbaum’s frenetic jazz/rock groove.

Evans’ followup, 1985’s The Alternative Man, was his first record for the illustrious Blue Note Records and as such should have been a celebration. Unfortunately it was an object lesson in how not to use technology, and just the kind of ‘80s ‘jazz’ album that illustrates what a brilliant job Marcus Miller did on Miles’s Tutu.

Evans in the main stumbles around with ugly Linn Drum patterns, electric drums, blaring synth pads and raucous hair-metal guitar solos, all topped off with some fairly insipid soprano playing. A few tracks and you’ll be wanting to break out the Albert Ayler or David Murray albums, and fast.

The only interest predictably comes with two more open, organic offerings, the excellent ‘Miles Away’ which reunites Evans with his Miles colleagues Al Foster on drums and Miller on bass.

And ’Let The Juice Loose’ is fun, a cool bebop head featuring some enjoyably un-PC Strat-mangling from the late great Hiram Bullock.

But hey – some of this music brings back good memories, when I was digging around the Record And Tape Exchange and Our Price for bargains and closely monitoring the personnel on the back of my favourite Miles and McLaughlin albums.

These albums also definitely represent a weird time for ’80s jazz, when established labels were signing all and sundry, fishing around for the next Young Lion or Metheny.

And thankfully a few dodgy early solo records didn’t hurt Evans’ career much, as he’s gone on to be one of the most respected players on the scene.

Seven Breakdance/Old-School Electro Classics

Funny how a brief spell of good weather stirs happy musical memories (that’s England for you).

Round my way, if the summer of 1983 was all about Thriller, Let’s Dance and The Kids From Fame, summer ’84 was breakdance and electro.

When our playground wasn’t being used for tennis-ball soccer, British Bulldog or kiss chase (all probably outlawed now…), the cooler kids were dragging an old piece of tarpaulin over from the sports hall and having a go at breaking – to various degrees of success.

Here’s the soundtrack. Breakdance/electro was a short-lived musical relation to early hip-hop and digital funk, but some genuine pop classics emerged from era. Sure, they’re at the commercial end of the burgeoning electronic scene but they all deliver an instant nostalgia rush. The videos are great too.

7. Break Machine: ‘Street Dance’

Reached UK #3 in January 1984, and spent 16 weeks in the charts.

6. Ollie & Jerry: ‘Breakin’ (There’s No Stopping Us)’

Reached #5 in June 1984 and spent 11 weeks in the UK chart. Their only UK top 40 single.

5. Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five: ‘Beat Street Breakdown’

Only reached #42 in the charts but reverberated widely.

4. Herbie Hancock: ‘Rockit’

Reached #8 in July 1983. This mind-blowing performance on ‘The Tube’ opened the floodgates for a lot of kids of my generation. Has a jazz musician ever ‘crossed over’ more successfully?

3. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’

It was just massive in the UK, hitting #7 in July ’84 and staying in the top 40 for 17 weeks.

2. Rock Steady Crew: ‘(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew’

Hit #6 in October 1983. Co-produced by future New Order/Pet Shep Boys helmer Stephen Hague.

1. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’

Reached only #53 on its initial August 1982 release, but was an incredibly influential track.

Dedicated to Miss Walford, Mr Hall, Mr Richards, Miss Patrick, Tony Gourvish, Phil Hambridge and all the B-boys and girls at E.S.P.

September Songs: David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees

September’s here again. The leaves brown, the nights draw in; thoughts and ears turn towards Sylvian’s music.

The exquisite Brilliant Trees, released in July 1984is one of those collections that I must have owned on almost every format over the years, and probably bought a few times on each.

A period of extreme introspection and even depression descended upon Sylvian following the split of Japan in late 1982.

Although his relationship with Mick Karn’s ex Yuka Fujii (who took the photos in the stylish Brilliant Trees album package) was largely thought to be the main catalyst, it still represented for Sylvian a distressing rupture of childhood friendships.

He later claimed that he could barely stay awake during this period, so degraded were his immune system and emotional reserves.

Sylvian gathered co-producer Steve Nye and some of his favourite musicians at Berlin’s Hansa Studios and RAK in London. Influences came from ambient music, NYC avant-funk, John Martyn, Nick Drake and ECM jazz.

His friend/ frequent collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto and brother Steve Jansen were the main musical cohorts, though ex-Japan keyboard texturalist Richard Barbieri also appeared to great effect.

Brilliant Trees is very much an album of two sides. The opener ‘Pulling Punches’ is a sweetener, an effective but unrepresentative slice of white funk featuring NYC sessioneers Wayne Braithwaite and Ronnie Drayton on bass and guitar. The nearest thing to the Tin Drum sound, there’s nothing remotely like it on the rest of the album.

What a treat to hear Kenny Wheeler and Mark Isham’s flugelhorn/trumpet breaks on the classic singles ‘Ink In The Well’ (UK #36) and ‘Red Guitar’ (UK #17). Side two is a different matter altogether – it’s dark, foreboding, autumnal.

Sylvian and Nye mostly eschew ‘conventional’ solos in favour of ‘found’ sounds courtesy of Holger Czukay’s Dictaphone (see below) or Jon Hassell’s extraordinary conch-like trumpet, both used to especially brilliant effect on ‘Wailing Wall’.

‘Backwater’ begins with a powerful build up of (sampled?) strings (and check out Jansen’s inspired groove, a queasy 6/4 over a very strange programmed shaker pattern), while the almost hymnal title track is beautifully performed by Sylvian and adorned with a gorgeous ethno-jam outro.

Listening 30 years on, what strikes one is the minimalist nature of the whole album. It has dated remarkably well. Many tracks are built around a cyclical Jansen groove, sparse bass, strong Sylvian melody and then tasteful, painterly touches from clean guitar, piano, Dictaphone or synth.

This stunning collection set in motion a superb four-album run of form for Sylvian. Brilliant Trees is an almost-perfect blend of songcraft and the avant-garde at a time when pop was drawing on jazz, ambient and world music to occasionally spectacular – and commercial – effect (the album reached #4 in the UK charts and sold over 100,000 copies). You might say things were never quite the same again.

Thelonious Monk: That’s The Way I Feel Now

Most jazz players don’t really seem to ‘get’ the music of Thelonious Monk.

Decent cover versions are hard to come by, of course with some notable exceptions (Steve Khan, Kenny Kirkland, Lynne Arriale, Paul Motian and probably a few more).

During the centenary of the genius’s birth, it seems as good a time as any to revisit a classic 1980s Thelonious tribute album which puts his miraculous compositions front and centre (plus the fact that I’ve just acquired a brilliant new cassette player* which is bringing it to life again after years stuck in the proverbial drawer).

That’s The Way I Feel Now was masterminded by producer/curator Hal Willner and inspired by bad Monk cover versions. Willner told writer Howard Mandel:

‘I was sitting at Carnegie Hall at some jazz memorial to Monk, getting freaked out that all these other people who really had a love of Monk weren’t performing. Monk’s music was never boring.’

So, at New York’s Mediasound Studios in early 1984, he set about assembling an extraordinary cast of fans including Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Carla Bley, Peter Frampton, John Zorn, Was (Not Was), Dr John, Gil Evans, Bobby McFerrin, John Scofield and Elvin Jones to celebrate Monk.

(Willner has gathered similarly eclectic casts for albums celebrating Mingus, Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and the music of Walt Disney films, as well as producing records by Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful and movie soundtracks including ‘Short Cuts’.)

Listened to in one sitting, That’s The Way I Feel Now still makes for a gloriously psychedelic celebration of Monk’s ouevre. Over 22 tracks, I can only make out three duds. It’s also a triumph of sequencing, holding the attention with ease by unashamedly juggling the rock, jazz and avant-garde.

First, the ‘rock’: Rundgren’s take on ‘Four In One’ is a gloriously anarchic, Gary Windo’s sax blaring out over a cacophony of samples, cheap drum machines and amateurish keyboards. Was (Not Was)’s take on ‘Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’ features a knockout multi-tracked guest spot from vocalist Sheila Jordan, while Donald Fagen and Steve Khan mesh perfectly on beautiful ballad ‘Reflections’.

NRBQ’s take on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ comes near to perfection, as does Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton’s surf-rock-tinged ‘Work’ featuring a classic Marcus Miller bass performance. Only Joe Jackson didn’t get the memo, delivering an overly-lush – though obviously heartfelt – ‘Round Midnight’.

Then there’s the ‘jazz’: John Zorn lays down an outrageous ‘Shuffle Boil’ featuring babbling vocals, bubble-blowing, chainsaw guitar, Bontempi organ and hilariously remedial drumming; Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy deliver a memorable ‘Evidence’; Randy Weston, Dr John and Barry Harris’s contributions are solo piano masterworks; John Scofield and Mark Bingham smash ‘Brilliant Corners’ out of the park, as do vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough on ‘Friday The 13th’.

Finally, Carla Bley’s ‘Misterioso’ is possibly the album standout, an affecting symphony for Monk featuring electrifying performances from Kenny Kirkland on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Hiram Bullock on guitar.

The Rundgren tune aside, to my ears That’s The Way I Feel Now could have been recorded yesterday. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy these days. So I’m bloody glad I held onto my ancient cassette version. Here’s hoping for a CD/download re-release soon.

*a Denon DRR 6.5, if you’re interested…