Getz Meets Grover: Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha

sadaoElektra Records, released 25th May 1985

7/10

Ah, the joy of tape-to-tape machines. One day, when I was about 16, my parents’ cool music-biz friend Steve brought me round a pile of cassettes, all tape-to-tape recordings, two albums per tape. That was an important little selection right there: Little Feat’s Last Record Album, Steely Dan’s Katy Lied, Talking Heads ’77 and a few others that have skipped my mind.

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Sadao Watanabe’s Maisha was also amongst them. I’d never heard of Sadao. He’s a highly-regarded Japanese sax player who has performed in many different idioms from straight ahead to bossa nova, but is probably best known for his late-’70s jazz/funk material when he borrowed Grover Washington Jr’s band (Steve Gadd, Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Ralph McDonald and Anthony Jackson) for some huge home-country gigs and a few fairly popular albums on CBS.

Maisha is a fairly light jazz-funk album of a mid-’80s vintage, but on reflection it’s got more in common with MJ’s Thriller than anything by Spyro Gyra or Shakatak. This is due to a really phenomenal rhythm section and very subdued production with no blaring synths, drum machines or digital reverb.

Instead, it’s a lesson in groove construction. Drummers John Robinson/Harvey Mason and bassists Nathan East and Jimmy Johnson have seldom played better. Yellowjacket Russell Ferrante’s keys are typically tasteful, sticking to Rhodes and acoustic piano rather than synths, while Jerry Hey adds brilliant horn arrangements to various tracks. Paulinho Da Costa is his usual effervescent self on all manner of percussion. And finally, guitarists Carlos Rios and David Williams play beautifully, the latter of course a mainstay of Thriller.

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In general, the musicianship is loose and spontaneous, a world away from the studied session-head sounds usually associated with the ’80s LA studio scene. John Robinson marshals the band through ‘Paysages’ with a fantastically loose interpretation of the famous Bernard Purdie shuffle.

Herbie Hancock pops in to contribute a ridiculously great synth solo to ‘What’s Now’ (which is surely due a big-band cover version) while Brenda Russell’s refreshingly artless vocals feature on the Calypso-tinged ‘Tip Away’ and infectious ‘Men And Women’. And not even Stanley Clarke could have bettered Nathan East’s bass-and-scat solo on ‘Good News’.

Unfortunately Sadao’s sax chops get a bit swamped by all this classy playing, but he does have a lovely tone, almost like an alto-playing Stan Getz, and writes several memorable themes on the album. So, thanks for this one, Steve, and for the Steely, Little Feat and Heads. Oh, and the China Crisis. I knew I’d remember eventually.

 

Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

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Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.

Level 42’s World Machine: 30 Years Old Today

level-42-world-machinePolydor Records, released 26th October 1985

As a young band starting out in the ’80s, your ideal career trajectory would probably go something like this: get together with a few mates, start rehearsing, get the gear in a van, tour the nation’s toilets, slowly build your audience, get a manager, get the (dodgy?) record deal, release your debut, get on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and then hope you’ve got a career.

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But it’s one of the rules of pop that some folks can’t handle fame when it hits. To paraphrase Bill Bruford: first you cope with failure, then you cope with success. From Syd Barrett through Ian Curtis to Billy Mackenzie (is it mainly a British thing?), there are always artists who have bailed out when the constant routine of promotion and miming to the hit single becomes too much like a regular job.

The syndrome even affected pop/jazz/funk heroes Level 42, who in 1985 produced arguably their finest album in World Machine, though lost half their original line-up in the process including one of the finest-ever British drummers.

The band’s popularity had been steadily building throughout the ’80s. Though their live following had always been strong and they always had hits, the singles usually seemed like happy accidents – ‘Sun Goes Down (Living It Up)’, ‘Chinese Way’ and ‘Hot Water’ were all last-minute album additions based on studio jams. Now their record label Polydor wanted a more concerted assault on the singles charts and a more current sound, and to that end outstanding bassist/vocalist Mark King took much more of a lead than before.

Alongside co-producer/keys man Wally Badarou, the band laid down the most cohesive, streamlined collection of songs in their career thus far with two or three obvious singles at demo stage (though not a view apparently shared by then manager John Gould whose negative reaction to the new songs contributed to him being given the push in a heated band meeting).

Not everyone in the band was happy with this brave new musical direction either. Main lyricist and drummer Phil Gould (brother of ex-manager John and guitarist Boon) had always peppered Level 42’s songs with allusions to psychology, science fiction and esoteric spirituality, drawing on writers like Arthur Koestler, Hermann Hesse and EM Forster, but by early 1985 the pressure was on to deliver boy/girl songs with universal themes.

In an excellent recent interview, Phil has talked about Polydor wanting the band to do party anthems like ‘Let’s Groove’ and suggesting they do a cover version of ‘Nature Boy’. He struggled against this direction, rightly surmising that they would quickly become typecast as a clichéd Brit-funk band. Though he did eventually tone down the lyrical imagery a bit on World Machine, he still smuggled in some depth and despair to songs such as the title track, ‘Physical Presence’, ‘Leaving Me Now’ and ‘Coup D’Etat’.

Oh yes – the music. One of the great pleasures of World Machine is its consistency of tone; you can drop the needle anywhere and hear the quality. The band had mastered the kind of half-time funk groove which had frequently littered their earlier work, and the style reached its apogee here with bassists and drummers rushing off to play along to ‘Good Man In A Storm’ (why has it never been played live?), ‘A Physical Presence’, ‘Leaving Me Now’, ‘Dream Crazy’ and ‘It’s Not The Same For Us’ (which was initially going to be a Mark King lead vocal as revealed on this amusing demo).

But the sequence-heavy nature of some other tracks (particularly the title track, ‘Something About You’ and ‘I Sleep On My Heart’) also aroused some musical differences in the band. It’s intriguing to imagine what these songs would have sounded like shorn of their ‘hi-tech’ elements.

Level 42 had secured several hits before, but for many people ‘Something About You’ was the real breakthrough. Incredibly, it reached number 7 in the US singles chart, perhaps inspired by a really good accompanying video.

World Machine delivered, both commercially and artistically. It reached number 3 in the UK album chart, staying in the top 100 for 72 weeks. I saw the band at the Hammersmith Odeon on the – as usual – completely sold-out UK tour. They later went off to the US to tour with Madonna and Steve Winwood. The brothers Phil and Boon Gould left the band soon after recording the follow-up Running In The Family and the classic line-up was no more.

Great memories, great sounds, great band.

Miles Davis’s You’re Under Arrest: 30 Years Old Today

miles

Columbia Records, released 9th September 1985

8/10

My love for Miles’s music was just getting into its stride when this album hit. As a teenage jazz/fusion fan and burgeoning muso, 1983’s Star People caught my ear but it was You’re Under Arrest that really captured my imagination.

Everything about the package was designed to be provocative, from the garish cover design to the in-your-face but always funky music.

It’s a far more colourful and multi-layered listen than the previous year’s Decoy, partly because Miles was going public with his views on police intimidation, racism and the nuclear threat for the first time (and also getting involved with the anti-apartheid movement on the Sun City project).

In the era of ‘We Are The World’, even Miles was demonstrating that he had a social conscience, but he used gallows humour and an uncanny ear for a gorgeous melody to make his points.

Between 1981 and 1984, the primary musical style of Miles’s comeback had been so-called ‘chromatic funk’, a hard-driving, minimalist style consisting mainly of one-chord vamps, heavy bass lines, frantic Latin percussion and fleet-fingered melodic heads, usually played by sax and guitar in unison (and more often than not based on transcribed John Scofield guitar solos).

milesBut in early 1984, Miles took his band into New York’s Record Plant studios to record a whole host of pop and AOR tunes, including ‘Wild Horses‘ by Nik Kershaw, Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Dionne Warwick’s’ ‘Deja Vu‘, Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’.

Though of course Miles was by no means new to recording pop songs, it’s doubtful whether any of these were anywhere near the calibre of ‘My Funny Valentine’ or ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’.

Various 1985 band members have since expressed their dissatisfaction Miles’s ‘pop’ direction and it’s telling that only ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Human Nature’ made the cut for You’re Under Arrest (and, to be fair, became centrepieces of his live gigs until the end of his life). The other covers are yet to see the light of day.

By all accounts, the album eventually came together very quickly and just under the wire; Miles took his band into the studio and re-recorded much of the 1984 material over a very short period in January 1985, later saying that the tempos had been wrong on the original takes and that they didn’t have enough punch.

miles-davis-youre-under-arrest-vinil-importado-zerado-13798-MLB3377978960_112012-OThe opening ‘One Phone Call/Street Scenes’, with its sound effects, darkly-comic spoken-word shenanigans (‘Smokin’ that marijaroney’!) and fleet funk, is the kind of thing you might expect from Prince or George Clinton, but not the most famous jazz artist in the world. The track was surely a big influence on Prince’s Madhouse project and also B-sides such as ‘Movie Star’.

John McLaughlin delivers an exciting modal guitar blowout on ‘Katia’ (named after his then wife the pianist Katia Lebeque) finding endless lines to play over the one-chord vamp. Despite the dated Simmons drums and synthesized horn blasts, the track is still gripping and dramatic after all these years.

Ditto the title track, the ultimate take on ‘chromatic funk’. The ‘Jean Pierre/And Then There Were None’ medley is also arresting with its eerie sound effects and childlike celeste. Listen out for Miles’ mordant closing remark too, intended either for Reagan or recording engineer Ron Lorman (or both?).

The only tracks I really can’t take are the two ‘pop’ ballads, ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Human Nature’. Although the latter became a really powerful live number, Miles’s playing is fairly underwhelming and the arrangements don’t add anything to the originals. But, in general, You’re Under Arrest is a really strong album and quite a stunning statement from a 59-year-old ‘jazz’ musician.

Watching footage of Miles playing live in 1985 shows what an extraordinary presence he still was – stalking the stage, sometimes whispering into his bandmates’ ears, sometimes throwing mock-right-hooks towards the camera lens – coupled with possibly his best trumpet chops during the last decade of his life.

Sheila E In Romance 1600: 30 Years Old Today

sheila ePaisley Park/Warner Bros, released 26th August 1985

Bought: Goldhawk Road Record and Tape Exchange, 1989?

8/10

The music biz is littered with successful solo artists who were tempted out from behind the drum kit. Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Phil Collins, Karen Carpenter, Dave Grohl, Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop all graduated from the engine room to centre stage, and while Sheila has never been on that level in terms of record sales or cultural impact (though trumps all of them in terms of drumming chops), her transition from sidewoman to frontwoman led to a couple of really infectious, interesting albums in the mid-’80s.

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She had an enviable CV long before going solo, including percussion work with Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Marvin, George Duke and Diana Ross. Prince and Sheila were a similar age and had followed each other’s careers since the late-’70s. When he tasted his first mainstream success and was looking to mentor new artists, she was top of the list.

Their first collaboration was the superb B-side ‘Erotic City’, swiftly followed by Sheila’s debut album The Glamorous Life, a hit. But its follow-up, Sheila E In Romance 1600, was a far more expansive and experimental piece, even though recording sessions were squeezed in on days off during the Purple Rain Tour between December 1984 and January 1985.

Despite Sheila’s obvious musical pedigree, Romance 1600‘s liner notes and song credits are misleading – this is a Prince album in all but name. According to biographer Per Nilsen (and as listed at the ASCAP offices), he wrote all the tracks here bar one (kicking Latin/fusion instrumental ‘Merci For The Speed Of A Clown In Summer’) and played all instruments except drums, percussion and sax.

But lucky for us, Romance 1600 was recorded smack-bang in the middle of his golden period and features some of Prince’s finest performances as a musician. His guitar solos on ‘Dear Michelangelo’ and ‘A Love Bizarre’ are simply tremendous, the latter throwing in some ridiculous bass too.

But Sheila also brings out the best in him. There’s much more humour here than on his own albums of the period. She turns in some hilariously hammy vocal performances on ‘Sister Fate’, ‘Toy Box‘ and dramatic ballad ‘Bedtime Story’. Sheila and Prince were having a lot of fun and you can hear the results. Sometimes the rushed nature of the recording shows, though – the mix is very murky and the album is short of a few memorable pop hooks.

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Prince’s ‘movie’ concept was in full effect here. He was leaving behind the ‘street’ style of Vanity 6/Purple Rain/The Time and embracing a romantic, ‘Amadeus’-influenced image which also crossed over into The Family project and his Parade album. Thinking of Romance 1600 as a movie also opened up the album musically, allowing Sheila and Prince to embrace jazz (‘Yellow’), fusion, wacky synth-pop (the title track), Latin and even Third Stream. This eclectic outlook was no doubt also influenced by his Revolution bandmates Wendy and Lisa.

Sheila E In Romance 1600 was a reasonable hit, going gold in the US and reaching number 50 on the Billboard chart, no doubt helped by the success of the ‘Love Bizarre’ single (US number 11). Sheila toured the US for the second time in two years and was even joined onstage by Prince for a few storming versions of ‘Love Bizarre’ – one classic has sadly just been removed from Youtube.

She followed up Romance 1600 with a disappointingly bland self-titled album in 1987, which featured far less contribution from Prince. More successfully, she played some fantastic drums on the Sign ‘O’ The Times and Lovesexy tours – much more on them to come.

Dreams By The Sea: Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush

kate bushI’m certainly not alone in finding the seaside very evocative of childhood memories and, in turn, musical revelations gone by. Walking on Slapton Sands in Devon recently, I was taken back to family holidays at St Margaret’s Bay, a little village atop the famous White Cliffs of Dover on the English Channel.

Armed with my Walkman, I’d take off towards the creepy, deserted air-raid shelters, where our boys defended their island from attack, then scramble up the steep chalk track to enjoy the huge expanse of sea in all directions and the French coast in the distance.

The two tracks most redolent of that time – and two which somehow seem to capture something about the English fascination with all things nautical – are Kate Bush’s ‘And Dream Of Sheep’ and Peter Gabriel/Robert Fripp‘s ‘Here Comes The Flood’ (not strictly an ’80s track, being recorded in 1978, but originally appearing on the ‘definitive’ 1985 reissue of Fripp’s Exposure album). They are almost indistinguishable to me and will forever be connected to that coastline and the seaside in general.

Gabriel’s sea song was originally recorded for his 1976 debut album in a bombastic, overblown style, very characteristic of its producer Bob Ezrin. But in 1978, during the Robert Fripp-produced sessions for the second album, he laid down a much gentler, far superior piano/vocal version, to which Fripp later added Frippertronics and a spoken-word segment from his spiritual guide and Gurdjieff-follower JG Bennett (who turned up on David Sylvian’s Gone To Earth too).

kate bush peter gabriel

Bennett’s words set up the themes of the song; Gabriel’s lyric seems to point towards the inhabitants of an island (England?) joining forces (telepathically?) to save themselves from a pending (apocalyptic?) tsunami. In doing so, the islanders taken on mystical, extra-sensory powers.

There are shades of the Genesis track ‘Supper’s Ready’, with its epic tale of good versus evil, and also elements of the research into ESP that Gabriel was apparently doing at the time. For some reason, the lyric also always reminds me of John Carpenter’s movie ‘The Fog’. Something to do with bad things coming out of the sea, I guess. Anyway, it all adds up to make a very affecting piece (below paired up with Fripp’s ‘Water Music’ too).

Bush’s version of the sea song kicks off the extraordinary Ninth Wave suite that takes up the entire second side of her classic 1985 album Hounds Of Love. We are thrust unceremoniously into a psychic association with a female protagonist who finds herself in the middle of the sea after a shipwreck. Echoes of past/present obsessions, loves and losses float to the surface of her mind (including the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast), ostensibly to keep her awake so that she doesn’t drown.

The conclusion of the song cycle suggests that she’s now at peace and in a far more positive state of mind, either in death or safe at shore. It’s an incredibly evocative piece of music, with Bush truly painting pictures with sound.

Let me know some other great ’80s sea songs.