No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle

the-riddle-54d854ab5fe83MCA Records, released November 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1985

8/10

One wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight.

But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious from the get-go that Nik was a superb musician and songwriter. He had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.

He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, probably didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’!

The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who later produced Rush’s Power Windows. It features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads.

Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads.

Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.

‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.

The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.

Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – probably a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Spinal Tap’s manager Ian Faith.

Steps Ahead: Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-Times

Any budding sax player of the ’80s had to have been checking out Michael Brecker, devouring his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord.

Funk and pop fans loved him because he could play absurdly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and also solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes.

He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl. It has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the 1984 follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect.

Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s works like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions.

Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G.

And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band was diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience.

But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me.

I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought the albums several times on various formats.

 

On Earth, Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection.

He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting.

My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album.

Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ featuring excellent, much imitated fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ should be covered by someone. Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself’ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording.

And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’).

But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a respectable #14 in the UK album chart, #35 in the US.

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout’s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth

Level 42’s Mark King talks about his ‘Influences’

Mark_King_-_Influences

EXCLUSIVE! Level 42’s Mark King speaks to movingtheriver.com about his classic solo album Influences, released by Polydor in July 1984.

MP: Can you just briefly summarise the story behind Influences? Was it your idea or did Polydor come to you?

MK: I was signed to Polydor Records via Level 42 and had a young, heavily-pregnant wife and needed to buy somewhere to live. This was back in 1981 I hasten to add, so Influences showing up in 1984 was really down to my tardiness in addressing the fact that I had taken the advance (£5,000) and, apart from delivering a single ‘Freedom‘, had somehow neglected to fulfil my contractual obligations! Polydor were actually very sweet about it and just before the agreement was due to expire gently reminded me that I needed to deliver an album.

You’ve talked about having loads of ideas in the tank for the album but how did you piece them all together on ‘The Essential’? Did you have to demo all the different sections before recording?

I may have exaggerated the ‘loads of ideas in the tank’ bit, but when push came to shove I booked a few days at Chipping Norton Studio and dived in. The opening piece ‘The Essential’ began on the studio Hammond B3 which Mike Vernon informed me had been used on the Focus album Moving Waves. I’m no keyboard player, but I fired her up and just hit the notes. Next I programmed the drum machine with a pattern so I could lay down some bass and guitar, and the riff and melodies just wrote themselves really. I was jamming with myself I guess, ha! Anyway, that’s how all the sections came to be, and in the twinkling of an eye I was 20 minutes into the album.

What was it like getting back into drumming again for the album? ‘There Is A Dog’ is an amazing tour-de-force.

Ta. I never stopped drumming, that’s what I love to do!

Did you put your bass and guitar parts down with a drum machine first and then overdub your drums? Or did you record your drums first?

I laid the bass and drum box down first. I had an Oberheim DMX drum machine that sounded awful but was a great writing tool because you could programme some pretty accurate drum parts that were in time! You have to remember that these were early days in digital technology, so ears weren’t so tuned in to accurate tempo, but I loved the idea of being able to f*ck about all over the groove and lean on the drum box because it had the time nailed. I laid the drums down next, Gretsch incidentally. Speaking of time, the guy with the greatest meter I know is Gary Husband. He IS a human machine… The guy is a phenomenon with tempo. Never shifts. The Level 42 track ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ was a first take at The Summerhouse Studio played on some Ddrums. That is AWESOME! The great Bill Cobham quote sings to mind: ‘You are either in time or you are out of time.’ I’m usually out.

How did you come to work with producer Jerry Boys? ‘The Essential’ features some really effective edits and cross-fades between the different sections.

Jerry was a good friend and had engineered some Level 42 stuff, which is how we had met of course, and Polydor were keen for me to involve a third party to keep an eye on me as I was three years overdue already, so Jerry was the perfect choice. A really good engineer, plus I respected his opinions. I probably did a lot of the edits myself. I certainly did for the Level 42 stuff.

How did Drummie from Aswad come to play on ‘Clocks Go Forward’? That track has a lovely feel.

Aswad were working in the studio next door and I bumped into Drummie in the corridor. I had just been running over the parts for ‘Clock Go Forward’ with Mike Lindup so I had no hesitation in inviting Drummie in to play with us. The Gretsch kit I had hired had only just shown up in the studio, and there was no stool…aaaargh! But this didn’t faze Drummie at all; he just pulled up a plastic studio chair and got stuck in. The studio floor was highly-polished parquet and it was quite funny watching him sliding around as he played, hahaha! The song is called ‘Clocks Go Forward’ because that was the day we recorded it on.

You play some great lead guitar on Influences – who are your favourite players apart from John McLaughlin?

Cheers. I love JM of course, but Clapton, Hendrix, Gary Moore and Bill Connors are all in there somewhere. So many, really. I love Al Holdsworth too and working with him on Guaranteed was a real privilege.

You played a lot of Influences at an amazing Ronnie Scott’s gig a few years ago – what was it like playing it live?

A lot of fun actually. I was so chuffed at how the guys were able to recreate the sounds for me. Nathan (King) in particular was fantastic on all the guitar parts. It didn’t feel like we were playing music from nearly 30 years before, and having not listened to any of it since then I was quite proud of what I had created way back when.

Thanks, Mark!

Find out much more about Mark and Level 42 at level42.com

More about my history with Influences below.

mark king

Some of these basses and guitars were used during the making of ‘Influences’…

Even though I’d been a huge Level 42 fan from the day I bought A Physical Presence in 1985, I didn’t even know Influences existed until two or three years after its initial release. I came upon a cassette copy in a ramshackle shop near the Swanage seafront while on a family summer holiday. It would be an understatement to say I couldn’t get it onto the hi-fi quickly enough.

And it didn’t disappoint. The sharp crack of the snare drum on opener ‘The Essential’ led me to believe that Level’s Phil Gould was behind the kit. But a quick look at the album credits blew my mind: Mark was playing all the drums, guitars and bass? Yep. Influences takes the ‘one-man-band’ ethos and runs with it. Not for a second does one rue the lack of a conventional band; this music swings, snaps, crackles and pops.

With a few decades’ more listening experience, I now hear some of the ingredients that went into the Influences brew – Chick Corea’s Latin excursions, Spectrum-era Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and also Stanley Clarke’s mind-bending prog/fusion – but Mark’s musical voice also comes through loud and clear. ‘There Is A Dog’ could almost have graced Return to Forever’s Light As a Feather album. ‘Clocks Go Forward’ and ‘Picture On The Wall’ are in a Level style and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on True Colours or Standing In The Light.

To date, Mark has not returned to such unhinged jazz/rock outside of the Level 42 ‘day job’ (apart from a fabulous gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 2012), but this is one of the great British fusion albums, or fusion albums period. Influences also deserves a place alongside Innervisions, Lewis Taylor’s self-titled debut and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times in the pantheon of great one-man-band albums.

Portrait Of Paddy As A Young Man: Prefab Sprout’s Swoon

prefab swoonPerhaps like a lot of Prefab fans, I came to Swoon some time after I’d bought and fallen in love with the later albums Steve McQueen, Protest Songs, From Langley Park to Memphis and Jordan The Comeback.

The dry, Thomas Dolby-less production came as a bit of a shock at the time but Swoon stands up pretty well today.

Though some critics have compared the album to Steely Dan, my contemporary reference points would be Lloyd Cole, The Smiths, Aztec Camera and Songs To Remember-era Scritti, though it’s basically impossible to locate Prefab’s influences.

It’s tempting to say that Swoon sounds like the epitome of an ‘indie’ record, 1980s style, with its stripped-back production values and jagged edges. Prefab singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon recently told The Guardian that he thinks of it as more akin to Captain Beefheart, nicknaming the album ‘Sprout Mask Replica’!

Swoon definitely still sounds very much like a debut album; it’s perky, eager to please, naive, studenty, slightly pretentious. McAloon’s vocals occasionally resemble the ramblings of a slightly squiffy, randy teenager. But the album’s adolescent in a really good way with its literary flights of fancy, indulgent ruminations on romantic love and lots of audacious melodic flourishes.

paddy prefabIt sounds almost like rock, with solid 4/4 drums, always-inventive bass from Paddy’s brother Martin and ‘girlie’ backing vocals from Wendy Smith, and yet it resolutely refuses to ‘rock out’ with not a single power chord or jangly electric guitar in the mix.

Instead, the intrepid layering of synths and acoustic guitars (utilised to far greater effect on Steve McQueen and Jordan) probes the songs’ pressure points. And Smith’s pristine vocals give the music an enigmatic, otherworldly flavour.

Lyrically, Swoon reminds me of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; a survey of a young man’s hopes, dreams and romantic/professional disappointments. From a songwriting perspective, the words presumably came before the music, resembling stream-of-consciousness prose rather than traditional verse/chorus songcraft.

Novelist/essayist Dave Eggers wrote a great piece about how much he was influenced by this golden generation of literate British songwriters.

As befitting a band from the North East, work (and the lack of it) is a recurring theme, particularly on ‘I Never Play Basketball Now’ and the extraordinary ‘Technique’. ‘Couldn’t Bear To Be Special’ is a classic Prefab ballad (though surely never the right choice for second single) and seems to offer a truly original take on the doomed love affair – the narrator simply doesn’t feel worthy to deserve the attentions of another. Very Nick Hornby-esque.

Future producer Thomas Dolby has talked about the shock of hearing ‘Don’t Sing’ when he was a guest reviewer on the Radio 1 ‘Round Table’ show.

‘Cruel’ is still a delicious piece of pop/bossa nova, more than a decade before the likes of Belle and Sebastian mined similar ground. Some of Paddy’s chords are gorgeous on this. Lyrically it’s original too, an expression of lust and affection from someone who is desperately afraid of offending his ‘enlightened’ paramour. A very modern love song. It was once covered by Elvis Costello.

Oh – and don’t forget to read the funny mock liner notes penned by McAloon in the guise of an over-exuberant music scribe.