11 May 1987: Talk Talk commence recording Spirit Of Eden

35 years ago today, Mark Hollis (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Tim Friese-Green (keyboards, production), Lee Harris (drums), Paul Webb (bass) and engineer Phill Brown convened at London’s Wessex Studios (don’t look for it – it’s not there any more) to begin work on the Talk Talk album Spirit Of Eden.

During May, June and July 1987, this core unit worked five-day weeks from 11am until midnight, in near darkness apart from an oil projector, a gentle strobe lighting effect and three Anglepoise lamps.

Tim Friese-Green on the Hammond organ, Wessex Studios

Basic tracks laid down, they took a break. On 19 October 1987, work resumed with instrumental overdubs; first woodwinds, then a coterie of world-class musicians including David Rhodes, Bernie Holland and Larry Klein, whose contributions would end up on the cutting-room floor. But those whose performances did make the cut include Nigel Kennedy, Danny Thompson, Robbie McIntosh, Martin Ditcham and Henry Lowther.

Lee Harris’s drum booth, Wessex Studios

Almost a year in the making, Spirit Of Eden was finally released on 12 September 1988 (after a long delay while EMI panicked – it was actually completed on 11 March 1988) and remains one of the most influential, least-dated ‘rock’ albums of the 1980s.

Thanks to Phill Brown for use of his photos.

‘Mark Hollis: A Perfect Silence’ is published by Ben Wardle.

The ‘Spirit Of Eden’ master tapes

Eddie Gomez: Mezgo/Power Play 35 Years On

Even amidst this digital revolution, there are still classic jazz and fusion albums which just resolutely refuse to appear on streaming platforms, due to copyright problems, label problems or whatever.

Eddie Gomez’s excellent late-1980s albums Mezgo (later rereleased as Discovery) and Power Play are cases in point, recorded for the Japanese arm of the Epic label and currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (glad I held onto my cassette copies).

Bassist/composer Gomez is probably best known for his stellar sideman work with pianists Bill Evans and Chick Corea, as well as being a co-founder of jazz/fusion supergroup Steps Ahead, but his solo work sometimes goes unheralded.

Perhaps most relevantly, given Bill Milkowski’s major new biography, both albums feature some of saxophonist Michael Brecker’s best-ever recorded work. And they are crucial items in drummer Steve Gadd’s discography too.

1986’s Mezgo is mainly a trio album, Gomez on bass and keys, Gadd on drums/percussion and Brecker on saxes and EWI. It’s a stunning potpourri of styles, starting with the Weather Report vibe of ‘Me Too’, calling in at the fast bebop number ‘Puccini’s Walk’ (poorly covered by Corea not once but twice!) with some superb Gadd, and ending with a very moving version of Henry Purcell’s ‘Cello Sonata In G Minor (1st Movement)’.

Power Play, released the following year, had more concessions to commercialism, with some romantic ballads featuring syrupy alto sax from Dick Oatts and a few Latin-style groovers featuring Jeremy Steig on flute.

But the title track was a stunner, featuring double drums from Gadd and Al Foster. There was also a superb duet with guitarist Jim Hall, ‘Amethyst’, and an excellent fast bop track ‘West 110 St.’ featuring Foster and Brecker.

Shame you can’t hear Mezgo or Power Play (I can’t even find half-decent streams on YouTube). Beg, borrow or steal them if they ever appear in those proverbial ‘bargain bins’…

The Crap Movie Club: Robert Altman’s ‘The Room’ (1987)

Robert Altman, director of ‘Gosford Park’, ‘The Player’, ‘Nashville’ and ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘doing’ Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter?

It could have worked. Two shrewder observers of human nature there have seldom been.

But Altman’s 1987 take on Pinter’s 1957 debut play ‘The Room’ was a bona fide stinker. A car crash. It doesn’t even warrant a single mention in Michael Billington’s rigorous Pinter biography.

Though a couple of Altman’s ‘80s films are well-regarded now (‘Fool For Love’, ‘Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’), the great director was mainly forced to scrabble around for one-off deals during this period, probably cursed by the critical mauling handed out to his 1980 version of ‘Popeye’ (Siskel & Ebert discuss Altman’s ’80s career in this interesting clip).

‘The Room’ certainly continued Altman’s reputation as a provocateur par excellence. In ‘Altman On Altman’, he claimed it came about when the TV network ABC offered him carte blanche to film any stage play he wanted. His choice of ‘The Room’ amazed, annoyed and confused them, as did his casting of Annie Lennox, Julian Sands and Linda Hunt.

The suits had a point. Hunt, best known for her Oscar-winning role in ‘The Year Of Living Dangerously’, is nothing less than a disaster in the film. Her London accent is appalling and she fudges the key line: ‘That’s this room.’ The emphasis should be on ‘this’, not ‘room’. You wonder why co-star Donald Pleasence didn’t raise any objection.

Lennox’s beauty beguiles but the Eurythmics star doesn’t deliver a classic performance. As for Sands, you only ever expect over-the-top weirdness from him and he doesn’t surprise here, suffice it to say that his Cockney accent is also a travesty.

Pleasence – predictably – is the only actor who emerges with any credibility, his turn a fidgety comic masterpiece. You wonder what he said privately about this mess to Pinter (they were good friends).

Altman shot ‘The Room’ back-to-back with another Pinter play (and equally appalling/must-see) ‘The Dumb Waiter’, starring John Travolta during his career doldrums. They were shown separately during the 1987 holiday season and then released as a double bill under the banner of ‘Basements’.

The lack of critical or commercial success didn’t surprise anyone. But Altman seemed to like it that way. He didn’t get out from under until 1992’s ‘The Player’. It was a long, cold 1980s for the great director.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood @ Wembley Arena: 35 Years Ago Today

35 years ago today, on 12 January 1987, Frankie played the first of two nights at Wembley Arena on their final European Tour.

It’s oft forgotten that, even at their commercial peak, they played live. A lot. In fact they were on the road pretty much non-stop between autumn 1984 and summer 1985. And, make no mistake, they were decent musicians.

It’s not surprising they were so eager to show that they could cut it live. ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ were mainly made in the control room by Trevor Horn and associates (Steve Lipson, JJ Jeczalik, Anne Dudley, Gary Langan, Andy Richards et al).

And vocalist Holly Johnson was getting most of the publishing royalties (fair enough, his Reagan-baiting lyric for ‘Two Tribes’ is brilliant: ‘Cowboy number one/A born-again, poor man’s son/On the air America/I model shirts by Van Heusen/Working for the black gas…’).

As Holly told NME in November 1983: ‘We were wary of being Trevor’s puppets at first but as soon as we met him that all went out of the window. He’s just a human being. He’s that little guy that used to be in The Buggles’!

So, initially at least, there wasn’t much bad feeling – they occasionally even let Uncle Trevor play live with them, as in this excellent performance on ‘The Tube’ from June 1984, augmented by Luis Jardim on percussion, a couple of keyboard players (wearing interesting shorts) and an extra guitarist (names please?):

According to (ZTT strategist/sleevenote-writer/A&R man) Paul Morley, Horn and his label boss/ manager/wife Jill Sinclair were convinced Frankie could break America, becoming something like The Village People! After all, ‘Relax’ made #10 in the US pop charts.

But surely the Sex Pistols is a better comparison (Frankie as punk’s last gasp? There’s a whole book there…). After all, Horn had just worked with – and hugely admired – Malcolm McLaren. For his part, Horn allegedly hoped the band would split up after ‘The Power Of Love’, their third UK number one in December 1984.

But Frankie didn’t split up. Instead, on their US tour of 1985, they would often open their set with Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’. In the new Bruce-obsessed/Reagan-blessed America, this didn’t go down too well…

By 1986/1987, the thrills and spills had gone but Frankie had drastically improved as musicians and became a very slick live unit. They toured second album Liverpool extensively, using a lot of pre-recorded backing tracks and retaining an extra keyboard player and guitarist.

The very good quality tape of the first Wembley gig is well worth listening to. The crowd seems made up of screaming teenage girls and there are excellent versions of ‘The Power Of Love’ and ‘Two Tribes’.

‘Maximum Joy’ becomes a whole new thing even if the rest of the Liverpool material doesn’t deviate much from the album. And it’s always a laugh hearing Holly’s laconic between-song banter.

Rumour has it that backstage after this first Wembley gig the band had the mother of all fall-outs. But somehow they got through their 1987 European tour, and found time to play again on ‘The Tube’ for the last time (Faith No More were definitely watching, at least from a sartorial point of view).

Maybe they could they have carried on but it didn’t seem enough to be a ‘good band’ any more – people wanted events, sensations. Also Holly was itching for a solo career, still smarting at the terrible deal the band had signed with ZTT.

Anyway, we hope Holly, Paul, Nasher, Peter and Mark are OK. And hopefully still playing music, in some form.

Did you see Frankie live? Leave a comment below.

It Bites: Thankyou And Goodnight 30 Years Old Today

There’s a secret history of bands/artists disowning their own albums before they’ve even been released.

Lee Mavers’ La’s, Prince and Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders come to mind, and the brilliant Cumbrian four-piece It Bites can also be added to that list.

They even sent out a ‘please don’t buy our new album’ letter to their fan club. I still have it. Quote: ‘They feel Thankyou And Goodnight to be a complete rip-off on the part of Virgin Records…’ It didn’t work, of course. I bought it during its first week of release.

By summer 1991, a year after guitarist/lead vocalist Francis Dunnery had done a runner from the band (this interview gives intriguing hints as to his state of mind during spring 1990) while they were recording their never-to-be-released fourth studio album in Los Angeles, remaining members John Beck (keyboards), Dick Nolan (bass) and drummer Bob Dalton (then trying to make a go of it as Navajo Kiss, and later Sister Sarah) were less than thrilled to hear that Virgin intended to release an It Bites live album.

But it was out of their hands. They reluctantly helped with track selection/sequencing, approved the artwork and title and Thankyou And Goodnight summarily became the official au revoir to one of the finest British bands of the 1980s.  

One top 40 single (‘Calling All The Heroes’) was a pretty dire return for one of the most melodic acts of the era. Virgin should get some blame for that (were they generally better cheerleaders for their solo acts, apart from Genesis, Simple Minds and Culture Club?).

But you hear ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Kiss Like Judas’ and ‘Midnight’ today and it’s inexplicable that they didn’t crack the charts.

In particular, their singular lack of mainstream success throughout 1988 seems to have been a huge shock for the band, especially off the back of an extraordinary sophomore album Once Around The World, sold-out UK tour and well-received Robert Plant support slot.

But back to Thank You And Goodnight. Visually, it’s a pretty shoddy package. The cover looks like it was knocked off by a reluctant Virgin designer after a long liquid lunch. There are no recording dates or technical personnel, save for mixing engineer Nick Davis (XTC, Marillion, Genesis, Phil Collins), whose surname is misspelt.

Then there are some cursory ‘history of the band’ liner notes, with an annoying addendum by a Virgin staffer: ‘We owe you a drink, Ian!’. Yeah, right…

And then there’s the track choice – it’s basically the audio from the televised June 1989 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, plus a few ringers: ‘Yellow Christian’ (recording date/venue unknown) and ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ from London’s Marquee in 1987 (anyone know the date?), previously the B-side of ‘Midnight’.

A better bet for a live album would surely have been the whole T&C show, plus the whole Marquee 1987 show. It’s also surprising that both of their Hammersmith Odeon headliners (in December 1989 and April 1990) were not available for release (but both are allegedly audible on the privately-released Live In London box set, in which I’m yet to invest…watch this space…).

But it’s no surprise to report that most of the music on Thankyou And Goodnight is fantastic. Under Davis’s jurisdiction, Nolan’s bass and Dalton’s drums sound like a million dollars, at least on the T&C tracks. ‘Underneath Your Pillow’ is the standout, emerging as a superb pop song augmented by the extended, proggy ending, with Dunnery quoting from Holst’s Planet Suite (Venus, the Bringer of Peace).

‘The Ice Melts Into The Water’ and ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ (with its clever ‘Old Man & The Angel’ tag) are also superb, fitting reversions.

From memory, I saw It Bites live five times (Brunel University/Astoria 1988, T&C/Hammersmith 1989, Hammersmith 1990) and they were never less than sensational. Thankyou And Goodnight is not a great package but a decent-enough document of their late-career pomp.

What a shame they couldn’t have recorded one more studio album after 1989’s Eat Me In St Louis though and basked in some long-overdue success.

And one further mystery – Dunnery has obviously added some post-production vocals to ‘Ice Melts Into The Water’ – when and where? Maybe he was secretly in on the project after all…

 

Linda Ronstadt: Canciones De Mi Padre

Great singing voices: you need ‘em, I need ‘em, the world needs ‘em.

Put me down for Mike Patton, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Marvin Gaye, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Chaka Khan, Lewis Taylor, Donny and Lalah Hathaway, Leon Thomas, Al Green, Phyllis Hyman, Johnny Gill, etc. etc.

And Linda Ronstadt too. I was a big teenage fan of her live cameo in cult movie ‘FM’ (though possibly for reasons other than musical), loved her guest spot with Randy Newman at this October 1984 TV special and her work with Neil Young on Freedom, but it was only when I heard her 1987 album Canciones de mi Padre that it all came together.

It’s a collection of traditional Spanish-language songs that she heard as a kid growing up in Tucson, Arizona, only 45 minutes from the Mexican border (her father was of German, English and Mexican ancestry).

Produced by long-time manager/producer Peter Asher and with arrangements by Ruben Fuentes, it’s a gorgeous selection, with Ronstadt’s majestic voice rising above trumpets, violins, acoustic guitar, string bass and mariarchi vocals.

The album was a deeply personal project, as she told MOJO magazine in December 2018:

‘I knew those songs all my life and I wanted to sing them. I didn’t know the lyrics to most of them but my dad did – he was a big part of my research – and although I knew roughly what they were about, I had to learn what the Spanish meant. I had to really, really work to get it up to speed.’

Canciones de mi Padre was a huge success, winning a Grammy for Best Mexican/American Performance, and sold approximately two million copies in the USA (and ten million copies worldwide), making it the biggest-selling non-English-language album in Billboard history.

That’s pretty good for a beautiful album that Linda considers herself lucky to have been allowed to make at all, claiming she was only given a green light by Warners after her Nelson Riddle-composed/arranged For Sentimental Reasons was unexpectedly a big hit. She subsequently toured Canciones across the States in theatres, revue-style, and also recorded two further Spanish-language albums.

Ronstadt sadly retired from public performance in 2009 after a Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis. The recent, moving documentary ‘Sound Of My Voice’ explores her ’70 and ‘80s music, including the great collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and focuses on the Spanish-language albums too.

‘Rockschool’ Revisited

The early 1980s was a pretty good period 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…