David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

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Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.

Robbie Robertson (1987): 30 Years Old Today

robbie robertson

Geffen Records, released 27th October 1987

8/10

Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’. He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.

I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987. But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.

Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart). The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.

‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson. ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.

Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.

But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em). This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there. However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.

Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz, and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music. But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.

And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

‘Wendy & Lisa’: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 24th September 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989?

8/10

Los Angeles, October 1986, just after the Japanese leg of the ‘Parade’ tour: Prince has invited his bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to dinner (Lisa will later report in her excellent liner notes for the Wendy & Lisa 2013 reissue that she ‘knew something was up’ as soon as they arrived).

To cut a long story short, he gives them the boot – in the nicest possible way. The Revolution is no more. Lisa: ‘We were like Fleetwood Mac and Sly & The Family Stone rolled into one… I thought we were going to make records together for the rest of our lives.’ But Prince wants to take back his freedom and sex up his act again. Struggling for the right words, apparently he says to Wendy and Lisa: ‘I can’t ask you to wear crotchless panties or nippleless bras…’

After a period of introspection, the ladies get together with other sacked Revolution member Bobby Z and write a few songs. At this stage, they have no intention of releasing the new material as ‘Wendy & Lisa’. But once they agree to front the band, a record company bidding war ensues. Huge advances are mentioned. They settle on a ‘big but sensible deal’ with Virgin. Predictably, the suits are less than turned on by the more musicianly moments on the album, but the ladies are unapologetic, saying that they ‘wanted to show off all the colours in our crayon box’.

So much for the history. How does Wendy & Lisa stack up these days? Pretty well. The singles ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Waterfall’ are probably the weakest tracks, though the latter has a cracking chorus and was apparently deemed a surefire hit by the record company and musician friends. But it didn’t do the business, not helped by its rather humdrum video. As Lisa says in the liner notes: ‘I had paid my showbiz dues with The Revolution.’

But the album works brilliantly when it sticks to the ‘cool chord changes over good beats’ remit, when they genuinely do sound like a mashup of ’80s Joni Mitchell and Prince. ‘Honeymoon Express’ exemplifies this approach, nicking Sly Dunbar’s ‘My Jamaican Guy’ beat and adding a sumptuous melody. The vocal harmony in the chorus is just sublime. ‘Light’, ‘Everything But You’ and ‘Chance To Grow’ also succeed in a similar vein. Wendy’s multi-instrumental skills (vocals, guitar, bass, sometimes drums) and Lisa’s impressionistic synth parts mesh perfectly.

‘Song About’ sounds eerily like The Carpenters. Ballads ‘The Life’ and ‘Stay’ have become fan favourites, the former also turning up in an improved Trevor Horn-produced reworking on the soundtrack of Michelle Pfeiffer movie ‘Dangerous Minds’. The instrumental ‘White’, featuring Tom Scott on soprano and a killer bit of drum machine programming by Wendy, is possibly the standout. Test your speakers out with this one, kids.

Wendy & Lisa – perhaps surprisingly – was not a hit. Lacking a breakout single, it didn’t dent the US top 100 and only scraped to #84 in the UK. Better Wendy & Lisa albums would follow, but this is an ambitious, arresting debut. All the colours in the crayon box indeed.

Jaco (1951-1987)

Jaco Pastorius died 30 years ago today: 21st September 1987. He was beaten up outside the Midnight Bottle nightclub in Wilton Manors, Florida.

Jaco fans like me had particularly meagre pickings in the late 1980s. You gleaned whatever info you could from magazines like Bass Player and The Wire or swapped gossip with muso pals. I’m not even sure I knew he had passed away when I got my hands on import albums like Stuttgart Aria and Live In Italy, both recorded with the brilliant French guitarist Bireli Lagrene, or heard his guest spot on Mike Stern’s Upside Downside.

Then my dad came home from work one day around 1989, excitedly talking about a Jaco concert movie he had secured the rights for, eventually broadcast on Channel Four as part of the ‘Sounds Of Surprise’ series of jazz films. Sure enough, the 1982 Montreal Jazz Festival show was a whole new insight into this master musician, shot at a time when he was firing on all cylinders and one of the biggest ‘jazz’ stars on the planet.

He was ostensibly touring his Word Of Mouth album at the time, but didn’t play one tune from it. Starting with his old ‘sweetener’, Pee Wee Ellis’s ‘The Chicken’, Jaco led his superb band (Peter Erskine on drums, Bob Mintzer on reeds, Randy Brecker on trumpet, Othello Molineaux on steel pans, Don Alias on percussion) through a tasty combo of jazz, R’n’B, blues and Caribbean influences.

Particularly notable are a breezy ‘Donna Lee’ and brilliant version of Mintzer’s ‘Mr Fone Bone’, starting at 27:40. Jaco’s soloing throughout the gig is beautiful – emotional, nuanced, dramatic. On the closer ‘Fannie Mae’, he plays the blues with as much feeling as Alberts King or Collins.

So here it is in all its glory. July 1982, Montreal, Canada. RIP Jaco.