‘Rockschool’ Revisited

The early 1980s was a pretty good time to start out as a musician. If your ears were open and you had a half-decent hi-fi/radio, there were some truly inspirational players around and a host of different styles vying for your attention.

But the burgeoning muso couldn’t quickly get onto YouTube or download an app to learn a new skill or technique. Music education also wasn’t exactly in a great place, if the drum lessons at my comprehensive school were anything to go by…

You could see great homegrown bands and big-name American sessioneers playing live on ‘The Tube’, fork out an extortionate sum for the dreaded instructional video, or go to a live clinic (I gave up pretty quickly on these after seeing a guy called Lloyd Ryan, who supposedly ‘taught’ Phil Collins how to drum, even though Phil’s name is spelt incorrectly on his website…).

So you generally had to make your own fun (cue the violins…); jam with friends, play live whenever you could, and grab whatever bits of technical info that were passed around.

‘Rockschool’ was a bold attempt by the Beeb to bring modern music education right into the home. First airing on 1st November 1983, it featured a studio band (Deirdre Cartwright on guitar, Henry Thomas on bass, Geoff Nicholls on drums) breaking down basic contemporary arrangements, styles and instrumentation.

A US version also started in 1985, featuring the UK band and hosted rather excellently by Herbie Hancock. And then season two, broadcast in late 1987, brought in keyboard player Alastair Gavin. That was the series that really hooked my muso pals and I (and check out the brilliant, none-more-’80s intro music below).

But even back then we were dubious as to how proficient the studio band actually were. They certainly paled in comparison to the great US players of the decade. But they were engaging, knowledgeable presenters and it was just a great way of seeing some musical heroes like Omar Hakim, Bootsy, Jan Hammer, Larry Graham, Andy Summers, Tony Banks and Allan Holdsworth demonstrating their craft.

Could you bring back ‘Rockschool’ now? It seems unlikely given the relatively solipsistic nature of ‘rock’ music education these days. YouTube is chock-a-block with technically brilliant players, but the general musicianship of bands has probably never been worse. Here come those violins again…

Bireli Lagrene on Blue Note: Inferno/Foreign Affairs

It’s fair to say that many excellent jazz and jazz/rock guitar players emerged during the 1980s. But arguably none – with the possible exception of Stanley Jordan – made as much of an impact as Bireli Lagrene.

He’s hardly a household name but Bireli recorded a few fine albums for Blue Note Records and toured extensively with Jaco Pastorius just before the bassist’s tragic death.

The French guitarist was seen in many circles as the natural heir to Django Reinhardt at the outset of the ’80s. The teenage prodigy wowed everyone with a few independent releases (initially in a manouche style) and European tours.

The key to his sound seemed to be absolute freedom. Like Jaco and Django, he has no fear. He tries things, always pushing himself. To paraphrase John McLaughlin, he’s swinging before he even starts playing. Inferno, his debut Blue Note album, featured some excellent, freewheeling electric playing – more Mike Stern and Van Halen than Reinhardt – but the musical settings were a bit stilted and it suffered from too many changes in personnel.

But Bireli found a great foil in producer and fellow guitarist Steve Khan, and their 1988 follow-up Foreign Affairs was a big improvement. I was mildly obsessed with this album for about a month during spring 1989 – I remember buying it on the same day as seeing ‘Rain Man’ in the cinema, fact fans…

There was far more of a ‘band’ vibe on this sophomore effort, and what a band: monster drummer Dennis Chambers is in Weather Report mode, with Zawinul-style half-time shuffles (‘Josef’) and fast Latin/fusion grooves (‘Senegal’). And check out his burning solo at the end of the title track. Keyboardist Koono is a huge find and also obviously a big Zawinul fan, and recently departed bassist Jeff Andrews plays as tastily as ever.

Possibly as a result of his sad death in September 1987, Jaco’s influence is all over this album, particularly on the catchy opener ‘Timothee’ which features a mischievous, brilliant fretless bass solo by Bireli in tribute to his friend and mentor. Elsewhere, Bireli’s sometimes outrageous guitar playing is typified by the screaming octave leap at the end of ‘St Jean’, and he uses a lot more tonal colours than on the debut album.

Tunes wise, Foreign Affairs‘ formula is not really that much different to the classic Blue Note albums of the ’60s – a few originals, a few sideman compositions and a few covers (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Jack Rabbit’ and Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke’s ‘I Can’t Get Started’). The latter in particular exemplifies a great production job by Khan, always getting a warm and ambient sound.

Foreign Affairs is almost impossible to find on CD or vinyl these days but it’s just been added to streaming platforms, featuring some extra solo acoustic guitar tracks not on the original album. It’s well worth another listen, as is Inferno. Bireli stayed with Blue Note for a couple more albums in the early ’90s, but they were far more traditional propositions.

Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

The Cult Movie Club: Fourteen Days In May (1987)

It doesn’t happen very often, but occasionally a documentary comes along that makes you question everything, puts a new slant on life and death, the whole shebang. Or just gives you a damn good scare. Paul Hamann’s ‘Fourteen Days In May’ definitely fits the bill.

Shot over two weeks during the summer of 1987 at the infamous Mississippi State Penitentiary – AKA Parchman Farm – ‘Fourteen Days In May’ follows a young black man Edward Johnson as he prepares for – and, with the help of his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, tries to evade – the gas chamber.

First shown on the BBC over 30 years ago, it has become a landmark film. Similar areas have recently been explored by Werner Herzog, Louis Theroux and Nick Broomfield, but arguably ‘Fourteen Days In May’ trumps all of them for sheer emotional impact.

It explores the inner workings of a prison geared up for taking human life. Astonishing shots shed light on a kind of modern slavery, with policemen on horseback brandishing shotguns, calling out loud reprimands and instructions to large groups of (almost exclusively) young black detainees as they dig ditches or clear roadside vegetation.

Elsewhere we are witness to the last few minutes of another (white) inmate’s life as he is strapped into the electric chair, though thankfully we don’t see the moment of truth. The gallows humour of both the killers and killed will linger long in the memory.

As ‘Fourteen Days In May’ moves painfully and inexorably on, it becomes increasingly clear that Johnson is innocent. But no-one can do anything about it. Various (black and white) prison officers bravely profess their doubts as to his guilt, while Johnson’s family rally around the quiet, unfailingly polite young man, singing him songs to keep his spirits up.

Hamann breaks the fourth wall to says his goodbyes to Johnson in a memorable scene. But shorn of a voiceover or title cards, ‘Fourteen Days In May’ offers no explicit critique of capital punishment. It doesn’t need to. The facts do that for themselves.

It would seem churlish and pointless not to reveal the ‘ending’ of the film here – Edward Johnson meets his maker. The crushing coda reveals that a young black woman came forward after the execution to verify that she saw him in a pool hall during the time of the alleged crime, but when reporting this to a white police officer soon after was threateningly advised to mind her own business.

What do we take away from ‘Fourteen Days In May’? The only correct response would seem to be rage. And fear. But after that, there’s a helplessness and a slow-burning disgust. The only slight light at the end of the tunnel is the knowledge that it was in direct response to this documentary that the Lifelines organisation was set up, arranging pen pals for death row prisoners. Stafford Smith has also founded Reprieve.

Is America still like this? Over to you. The suspicion would have to be that it is.

Story Of A Song: Jill Jones’ Violet Blue

When Prince appeared on the box the other day, my mum expressed her approval. I ask why, and without hesitation she offered: ‘He respected and promoted women’. It struck me initially as a weird reason but upon further reflection seemed spot-on.

He wrote many songs from a female perspective in the early ’80s, many of which have never seen the light of day. Then there was Vanity/Apollonia 6 – dubious acts for some, but without too much moral adjustment you could interpret them as ‘women reclaiming their right to enjoy sex’.

Then there were Prince’s striking collaborations with a variety of strong, independent characters: Ingrid Chavez, Sheila E, Sheena Easton, Dale Bozzio, Mavis Staples, Cat Glover, Elisa Fiorillo, Bonnie Raitt, Nona Hendryx, Wendy & Lisa, Susan Rogers and Peggy McCreary. How many other male pop icons can boast such a coterie of female cohorts?

Then there was Jill Jones. With hindsight, her 1987 debut album, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, is one of the great missed opportunities of his career, and its standout song ‘Violet Blue’ particularly demonstrates why.

The album started in the summer of 1983 during the filming of ‘Purple Rain’ (featuring Jill’s less-than-stellar cameo), when she replaced Prince’s guide vocal on ‘Mia Bocca’. Sadly he didn’t find time to resume work on the record until over two years later. Consequently, it’s very uneven, with some decent material (‘For Love’, ‘My Man’) mixed in with middling Prince outtakes, covers and B-sides (‘All Day, All Night’, ‘G-Spot’, ‘With You’) and undone by rushed arrangements and drastic changes in tone.

‘Violet Blue’, recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound in October 1986, was the last song put down for the album. Quite simply, it shows what the record could have been, and, frankly, how much Prince (and Jill) had developed between 1983 and 1986 – the vocal intro and accordion breakdown are two cases in point, not to mention the interesting chord progression and superb horn (Eric Leeds) and string (Clare Fischer) arrangements. Jill delivers a knockout vocal too, even throwing in a neat little Nancy Wilson impression via Dinah Washington.

Sadly the Jill Jones album sank without trace. She has recorded intermittently since, contributing a great guest vocal on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘You Do Me’ and playing low-key gigs. She’s always a refreshing presence.

Deacon Blue: Raintown

I missed the recent 30th anniversary of Raintown probably because I was surprised it was originally released as early as 1st May 1987.

A famous ‘sleeper’ record, it eventually crawled up to #14 in the UK album charts but remained in the top 100 for 18 months off the back of some single re-releases and constant touring.

Later on in Deacon Blue’s career, singer/lead songwriter Ricky Ross name-dropped Van Morrison and Springsteen, but on Raintown the big influence is surely Prefab Sprout. They gave the game away a few years later, naming their collection of B-sides and outtakes Ooh Las Vegas. Nothing to do with Prefab’s ‘Hey Manhattan’, then… (To be fair, the influence may have worked the other way round too – Prefab employed Raintown producer Jon Kelly for some of From Langley Park To Memphis, and that album’s slick sheen bears an occasional resemblance to Raintown.)

Raintown is pop, not rock. The album positively sparkles. James Prime’s excellent keyboard playing is prominent (they didn’t really need a guitarist at this point) with his ‘mystery’ chord very recognisable (later also heard on ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Love And Regret’).

Vocalist Lorraine McIntosh emerges as a kind of ‘bluesier’ version of Prefab’s Wendy Smith though she certainly divides opinion – she nearly ruins the title track and otherwise superb ‘Love’s Great Fears’ but is very effective when reining it in on ‘Loaded’ and ‘Dignity’.

There aren’t many more evocative ’80s album openers than the brief ‘Born In A Storm’, a gorgeous mood piece which sounds a bit like The Blue Nile with a few more chords. ‘Loaded’ is a classic song ‘about some of the people we’d met in the record business’, in Ross’s words. His gritty vocals really work on this – he sounds positively distraught by the last few choruses – and the modulation at 2:48 is one of the great moments of late-’80s pop.

‘When Will You Make My Phone Ring’ is also memorable, even if Ross struggles a little with the lead vocal and the whole thing is a little similar to the soul standard ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’. The excellent ‘Chocolate Girl’ – influenced by Prefab’s ‘Cruel’ in its portrait of a modern relationship – features some gorgeous BJ Cole pedal steel and a few classic couplets including: ‘He calls her the chocolate girl/Cos he thinks she melts when he touches her’.

Finally, Raintown is a romantic album about work, home, love and nostalgia which probably gives a lot of people (including me) a warm glow when they hear it. I couldn’t get with the band’s later rockier direction but I’ll always have a soft spot for this one.