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…).

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‘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.

 

Yes: Big Generator 30 Years On

In the pantheon of rock rhythm sections, bassist Chris Squire would surely have to feature not once but twice – he forged striking partnerships with both Bill Bruford and the underrated Alan White. Big Generator, released 30 years ago this week, is a brilliant distillation of the Squire/White hook-up.

But there are loads of other pleasures too, even though it’s usually mentioned as an inferior, mostly pointless sequel to 90215. But for my money it’s the better album – more cohesive, less top-heavy. Big Generator was apparently far from a walk in the park to make though, with band tensions, endless rewrites and remixes. And of course there was pressure to follow up such a huge hit.

Trevor Horn started work on the album in 1985 but left towards the end of recording, leaving guitarist/vocalist/co-writer Trevor Rabin and producer Paul DeVilliers to finish the job. But you can hear the craft (and money) that went into Big Generator, although it still basically sounds like a band playing live in the studio.

This is barmy rock music, full of surprises, made by musicians with unique styles and a wish to take chances. But no matter how complicated the arrangements get, there’s always a logic to them. Take the title track for example. An excerpt from the ‘Leave It’ 90125 vocal sessions kicks things off. Then Rabin piles into a gargantuan riff (achieved by tuning his low E string down to an A, echoing Squire’s ‘standard’ tuning on his 5-string) joined by Squire. White’s snare is tighter than a gnat’s arse and his phrasing is always novel – he’ll often hit the crash cymbal on a ‘one-and’ or ‘three-and’ rather than the standard ‘one’. Then there’s the ridiculous speeding-up snare roll accompanied by manic Rabin shredding and a chorus that sounds a bit like Def Leppard. It’s all in a day’s work for this amazing unit.

‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Almost Like Love’ and ‘Love Will Find A Way’ are serviceable, weirdly-funky slices of AOR. The very ’80s-Floyd-style ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ maintains its doomy mood impeccably and features a brilliant Di Meola-esque acoustic guitar solo from Rabin. The standout for me though is the stunning, ridiculous ‘I’m Running’. Just when you thought they couldn’t crowbar any more into its seven minutes, it chucks in a descanting vocal outro which sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Only a few bits of Jon Anderson whimsy on side two threaten to derail proceedings. But in general Rabin keeps him in check, though presumably to the detriment of their relationship. Big Generator was nominated for a Grammy and sold well over a million worldwide, making the top 20 in both the US and UK. It’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So here it is.

Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction 30 Years On

Geffen Records, released 21st July 1987

Approximate worldwide sales: 30 million

Singles released: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ (US #7, UK #24)
‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (US #1, UK #6)
‘Paradise City’ (US #5, UK #6)
‘Nightrain’ (US #93, UK #17)

W. Axl Rose (vocals/co-writer): ‘This record’s gonna sound like a showcase. I sing in five or six different voices, so not one song’s quite like another, even if they’re all hard rock. Sometimes six lines (of lyrics) take two years. It just has to say exactly what I mean…’

Slash (guitar/co-writer): ‘We can sound like AC/DC, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Aerosmith. We can sound like what’s-his-name, that f***in’ idiot that plays guitar real fast… Al Di Meola…’

1987 was the year rock and metal made a comeback big-time. But Appetite doesn’t really sound like an ’80s album at all. It’s totally different to what Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Def Leppard offered in the same era, but not so different from Aerosmith, early Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols or The Stones. It’s funky hard-rock rather than metal, with the occasional punky moment, and still sounds superb today.

W. Axl Rose (born William Bailey) was and is one of the all-time great rock frontmen. His vocals stand out: he unleashes the growling, banshee-screeching and brooding baritone, sometimes all in the space of one song. Then there are the stage moves: the serpentine shuffle, ‘revolving stomp’, the pogo-ing, and the androgynous looks and gift for winding audiences up didn’t hurt either.

Guns were surely the ultimate ’80s Hollywood street band, seriously dangerous both to themselves and others. Signed to Geffen Records in March 1986, there was subsequently a lot of discontent at the label when it dawned on them just what they’d taken on. One A&R man said: ‘They were having sex with porn stars, openly using hard drugs. Once they arrived at the Geffen office, late for a meeting, with a naked girl wrapped in a shower curtain. There was a real belief at the label that Axl was simply not going to make it out alive. I remember someone at Geffen saying, “We must record everything they do – rehearsals, soundchecks, concerts – because this band is going to be incredibly popular and incredibly short-lived. One of them is going to OD before it’s all over…”’.

Appetite producer Mike Clink (installed after aborted sessions with Paul Stanley of KISS and Sex Pistols engineer Bill Price) was nicknamed ‘That Was It!’ Clink: he preferred first takes if possible, with the band mostly playing live in the studio. He captures the ferocity of the band in full manic mode, mostly keeping to a fairly basic format: Izzy Stradlin’s guitar panned hard left, Slash panned hard right, Steven Adler’s snare drum of doom (though Geffen apparently wanted to use a session player for the album) and Duff McKagan’s bass in the middle. There’s only one synth part on the album, the weird Geddy Lee-style Moog in ‘Paradise City’. Appetite was also pretty much the last major rock album mastered for vinyl.

They had built a formidable live following on the West Coast but Guns’ London Marquee shows of the 18th, 22nd and 28th June 1987 were their European debuts. They had to work. The pressure was on. The first show mostly sucked, with plastic beer glasses and snot raining down on the band, but the second and third gigs were apparently much better.

After Appetite‘s release on 21st July, nothing much happened in the States. Radio pretty much ignored it. MTV didn’t have a video to show. The New York writers thought they were just another hair-metal band from Hollywood. There was a better reception in England. Kerrang! magazine loved it: ‘Rock is being thrust back into the hands of the real raunch rebels’. (Within a few years, Axl would be berating Kerrang! onstage…)

‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (based on Slash’s famous opening riff that was apparently just a ‘joke’ warm-up guitar pattern) pushed the album up to #64 in November 1987. Incredibly, Appetite didn’t hit the number one spot in the US album chart until 23rd July 1988 when Guns were on tour supporting Aerosmith – almost a year to the day after its release.

On 2nd August 1988, Axl played live shows in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. He was a mega-star, the album was a smash, but he had mixed emotions about returning to the belly of the beast. ‘Don’t look up to him’, one of Bill Bailey’s old Jefferson High School teachers apparently said to some kids watching ‘Sweet Child’ on MTV. ‘He didn’t do well here…’

Further reading: ‘Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns N’ Roses’ by Stephen Davis

Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby: 30 Years Old Today

CBS Records, released 13th July 1987

9/10

Yeau! The headline of Q Magazine’s September 1987 feature said it all. Perrier-quaffing Terence was correctly predicting a phenomenal critical and commercial reaction to his debut album and ready to dish the dirt. He had done it all on his terms; wrongfooted his record company (who had wanted a slick, current, ‘upwardly-mobile’ soul album) and played the press at their own game. But at what cost?

D’Arby had lived quite a life before becoming a ‘pop star’: he was born in the States, the son of a preacher father and gospel-singing mother, studied journalism in New York, became a half-decent boxer in his late teens, joined the army and was based in Germany throughout most of the ’80s during which time he worked on his music and acquired a manager (a strategy not dissimilar to another ex-army musical maverick, Jimi Hendrix).

Decamping to London in 1985, D’Arby worked on demos with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and, after being turned down by several major labels, finally got the nod from CBS. They pulled off a pre-release masterstroke when D’Arby was block-booked for four weeks running on ‘The Tube’ after a knockout debut live TV performance (I remember it well). To say that there was a buzz about him would be an understatement. The general consensus was: ‘Who the hell is this guy?!’

Hardline still sounds like one of the better debut album of the ’80s or any other decade. From the opening bars of ‘If You All Get To Heaven’ (mastered directly from a Walkman, by the sound of it), it’s clear that something pretty special and pretty different is going on, though the album inadvertently tapped into the ‘retro-soul’ revival that had built up in the UK over 1986 and 1987 – Ben E King and Percy Sledge had both had number ones in the months before Hardline‘s release, and The Pasadenas, The Christians and various others would bring forth similar grooves in the months to come.

Hardline also reminded critics and audiences alike of some of the great soul vocalists of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s – Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown and especially Sam Cooke. All went into the mix but finally D’Arby sounded just like himself. He peppered ‘Dance Little Sister’ – a track that Prince would have killed for – with some outrageously over-the-top vocals. But, refreshingly, his singing throughout the album ain’t perfect – he’s much more into getting the emotion across and bringing a party vibe to the studio.

‘Sign Your Name’, ‘If You Let Me Stay’ and ‘Wishing Well’ are funky yet accessible (if the latter doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead), but the a cappella, African-themed ‘As Yet Untitled’ is totally original. He even takes on Smokey Robinson and emerges unscathed on the closing ‘Who’s Loving You’. He plays a lot of instruments himself and only gets in occasional help when absolutely necessary (including future Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Pop Group/PiL drummer Bruce Smith). As such it’s a remarkably cohesive album.

Hardline was a big hit, reaching number one in the UK, number four in the US and selling over eight million copies worldwide. D’Arby got the rep of being a ‘difficult’ artist when his follow-up album Neither Fish Nor Flesh missed deadlines and went over budget. Things would probably never be the same again. But we’d always have Hardline.