Curiosity Killed The Cat: Keep Your Distance 30 Years On

Mercury Records, released April 1987

7/10

If you’d taken a walk along London’s King’s Road in the summer of 1987, you would have seen a lot of lads who looked just like Curiosity Killed The Cat; jeans from Dickie Dirts in Westbourne Grove, black polo neck, white T-shirt or Fred Perry, bomber jacket or cardigan, loafers or Doc Martens, and a flat-top haircut with a bit of gel.

Certainly most of the girls at my school fancied Curiosity. But then there was the music. You knew they had raided their parents’ cool record collections – they had a bit of Sly & Robbie, Trouble Funk, Robert Palmer, Dr John, Michael McDonald and Chic in there, also a large dollop of Little Feat.

Singer Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot had a light, attractive tenor voice and of course some eccentric dance moves and ‘relaxed’ stage patter. Drummer Migi Drummond and bassist Nick Thorpe definitely knew where ‘one’ was, and the band rounded out their sound with some fine horn and percussion arrangements.

Curiosity were the slightly sloaney South-West London lads who found the funk, probably the most musically accomplished of ’80s ‘teenybopper’ bands.

They formed in 1984 from the ashes of Twilight Children, a post-punk band originally formed by Drummond and Thorpe. Offered studio time by family friend Eric Clapton, they cut a number of demos and quickly got the attention of businessman/impressario Peter Rosengard, who became their manager.

Curiosity played their first gig at London’s Embassy Club in December 1984 and quickly picked up quite a big live following. After co-writing ten tracks with session keyboardist Toby Andersen, they were snapped up by Phonogram/Mercury Records in summer 1985 after a considerable bidding war.

Simply Red/Crusaders/Randy Crawford/Sly and the Family Stone producer Stewart Levine was selected to rescue their debut album after aborted sessions with Sly & Robbie, Paul Staveley O’Duffy and Culture Club’s Roy Hay.

First single ‘Misfit’ stiffed in August 1986, even though its video featured early champion Andy Warhol (who writes amusingly about Curiosity in his diaries). But ‘Down To Earth’ crashed into the top 10 soon after and Keep Your Distance went straight into the UK album charts at number one in April 1987, and also made the US top 60.

A rereleased ‘Misfit’ then hit the UK top 10, and the Staveley O’Duffy-produced ‘Ordinary Day’ was a further hit. A fourth single, the Sly & Robbie-helmed ‘Free’, missed the top 40 entirely, possibly because its chorus featured one of the most hare-brained lyrical couplets of the decade.

But apart from Keep Your Distance‘s singles – all of which stand up pretty well these days – the album’s deep cuts showcase what the band were all about: the rather lovely ‘Red Lights’ and shimmering ‘Know What You Know’ are a winning fusion of Sade and Little Feat.

Andersen was dumped by the band just three months after the album’s release. He kvetched about it to Q Magazine in the December 1987 issue, saying ‘I suppose it could have been down to looks…’ Ben V-P disagreed, saying Andersen’s replacement ‘was just a better player’. What did Toby do after Curiosity? A Discogs search doesn’t reveal much beyond a few sessions for Belouis Some.

Curiosity’s impact was sudden, but their success short-lived. Why? Sacking a key songwriter and then waiting two years to release a follow-up didn’t help. Also their good looks and immediate success skewed record company expectations which would subsequently be almost impossible to fulfill, and also possibly blunted their musical potential.

Who knows what else they could have achieved? With a bit of luck and better guidance, they might have developed into a Simply Red-style soft soul/funk band, if that’s what they wanted to do.

Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

51dnFsTtIPLEvery serious jazz fan seems to have a favourite Sonny Rollins story.

One whose origins I forget – but it may be recited in Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’ documentary – concerns a late-night Carnegie Hall New Year’s Eve concert sometime in the 1990s.

Rollins embarked on a typically Herculean solo at around 11:30pm. This went on for quite a while. At EXACTLY ten seconds to midnight he quoted from ‘Auld Lang Syne’.*

Truth or fiction, it’s the kind of story that has followed the brilliant Harlem-born saxophonist around throughout his career. It also speaks volumes about the intellectual vigour of the man.

Robert Mugge’s excellent 1987 documentary ‘Saxophone Colossus’ spawns yet more Sonny stories, inadvertently filming an extraordinary moment during an outdoor New York gig.

Jumping off the stage mid-solo to join the audience, he misjudges the height and breaks his heel in the process. Lying stricken on the floor, alone and unaided though still holding his horn, there’s the briefest of pauses before he continues soloing as if nothing was amiss.

The film also features fascinating interviews with Sonny and his wife/manager/producer (and now sadly departed) Lucille. Writers Gary Giddins and Ira Gitler contribute intelligent, revealing summations of Rollins’ career. There’s also some superb concert footage of Sonny’s ‘Concerto For Tenor Saxophone And Orchestra’ premiere in Japan.

Watching the film again has led to a period of Sonny woodshedding, and I’m unearthing some real gems. It’s exciting that he has continued to be an absolutely vital presence on the jazz scene, performing when possible and frequently contributing to media debates about the music.

He has also written obituaries for his long-time producer Orrin Keepnews and long-time bassist Bob Cranshaw in recent issues of JazzTimes magazine.

More power to Mr Rollins. Here’s some of that woodshedding, in chronological order:

*(This is total BS. The concert was the day before Easter Sunday and the quote was from Irving Berlin’s ‘Easter Parade‘… Ed.)

Prince’s Sign O’ The Times: 30 Years Old Today

Paisley Park/Warner Bros, released 30th March 1987

Album chart position: #6 (US), #4 (UK)

Singles released: ‘Sign O’ The Times’ (#3 US, #10 UK)
‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (#67 US, #20 UK)
‘U Got The Look’ (#2 US, #11 UK)
‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ (#10 US, #29 UK)

At the time of Sign O’ The Times’ release, the general critical consensus seemed to be that it was a great double album but, shorn of a few tracks, would have made a sensational single album.

But what the press probably didn’t know was that Prince had actually intended to release a triple album!

He believed the three-record set Crystal Ball would have been be a huge artistic statement after a relatively disappointing 1986, but the idea scared the hell out of Warner Bros and also his manager Bob Cavallo. Prince was reluctantly forced to back down.

The tracks intended for Crystal Ball but later abandoned for Sign O’ The Times were ‘Rebirth Of The Flesh’, ‘Rockhard In A Funky Place’, ‘The Ball’, ‘Joy In Repetition’, ‘Shockadelica’, and ‘Good Love’ (all hoovered up from two other aborted album projects, Dream Factory and Camille).

But even after Prince removed these, he was still left with a 16-track double album, a brilliant mix of the sacred and profane, and a record which many fans believe was his finest hour.

The famous title track was recorded on 15th July 1986 in a single ten-hour session at LA’s Sunset Sound. Prince was experimenting with a new piece of kit – the Fairlight sampler/synth – but characteristically made the technology swing in a way that no other artist could.

The track also demonstrates his love of space; it’s essentially just a minimalist blues featuring a three-note melody line, some sampled drums/bass and a bit of electric guitar. Listening again on the day after the Westminster Bridge ‘terrorist’ attack of 23rd March, the song’s lyric also seems as relevant now as it was in 1987:

Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is tellin’ you somebody died
Sister killed her baby cos she couldn’t afford to feed it
And we’re sending people to the moon
In September my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June

It’s silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes
And everybody still wants to fly
Some say a man ain’t happy
Until a man truly dies

‘Play In The Sunshine’ and ‘Housequake’ are pure party pop – it’s scarcely believable that Prince alone could generate such a raucous studio atmosphere with only Susannah Melvoin’s backing vocals, a few guests and Eric Leeds’ sax for company. The latter also represents his first recorded attempt at hip-hop (unless you count the brief ‘rap’ in ‘Girls & Boys’), typically supplying something usually missing from the genre: humour.

‘The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker’, recorded in Prince’s Minneapolis home studio on 15th March 1986, may be his most psychedelic recording, the soundtrack to a dream with seemingly-spontaneous musical moments that no one else could have created. He demonstrates his mastery with the LM-1 drum machine and, vocally, sets up a novel ‘Greek chorus’ effect.

‘Forever In My Life’ takes a melody line very similar to Sly And The Family Stone’s ‘Everyday People’ (and maintains Sly’s key of G) but again demonstrates Prince’s remarkable sense of space and also features another extraordinary backing vocal arrangement.

The heartfelt lyric was written when he believed he would settle down with fiancée Susannah Melvoin (twin sister of Wendy) – sadly it wasn’t to be.

‘It’, another bold experiment with the Fairlight, returns to the cold, sexualised world of 1999, while ‘Hot Thing’ is its flipside, a funky, James Brown-inspired one-chord romp with some great Leeds tenor sax.

‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ (another song about Susannah/Wendy), ‘Strange Relationship’ (another big nod to Sly), ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’, ‘Starfish And Coffee’, ‘U Got The Look’ and ‘I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man’ are just brilliantly performed, beautifully written pop tunes with dashes of psychedelia and soul.

According to engineer Susan Rogers, Prince was very influenced by Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love during the recording of SOTT, the track ‘Cloudbusting’ a particular favourite. Other songs showed contemporary influences too – ‘Adore’ was apparently Prince’s response to the popularity of Luther Vandross’s Give Me The Reason and Patti Labelle’s The Winner In You, and it also hugely influenced the neo-soul movement, particularly D’Angelo’s ballad style.

‘U Got The Look’ – the last song recorded for Sign O’ The Times on 21st December 1986 – was apparently inspired by Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’.

Sign O’ The Times sold 1.8 million copies in the US, a very similar number to Parade. Some believed the slightly disappointing sales were due to the choice of ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend’ as the second single; it is strange that ‘U Got The Look’ didn’t get the nod. But if Prince’s popularity was levelling out in the States, it was growing across Europe.

You Terrible Cult: The Enduring Appeal Of ‘Withnail And I’

Which films do you revisit every couple of years?

I never tire of ‘Sideways’, ‘Diner’, ‘Duel’, ‘Career Girls’, ‘Tape’, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘The Long Goodbye’, ‘The Apartment’, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, and a few others too.

But ‘Withnail’, released 30 years ago this week, should probably go right at the top of that list. I first saw it around 1988 when my dad rented the video.

I think he was a vague acquaintance of the movie’s writer/director Bruce Robinson at the time and had an inkling that it would float my boat.

How right he was. I was immediately smitten, drawn in by the superb swearing, anti-establishment mood, hilariously down-at-heel, self-important protagonists and low-key ending.

By the early ’90s, there was an outbreak of Withnails all over Britain – pasty, unshaven, rather insolent youths mooching around in leather overcoats and muttering about ‘wanting the finest wines available to humanity’…

Not a big hit on its original release, ‘Withnail’ has nonetheless become a classic cult movie, inspiring many devotees and even a notorious drinking game. But why has it endured? Here are seven reasons why it doesn’t seem to date as the years go by (swearing and spoiler alerts…).

7. No ‘Crap Bits’

Actor Ralph Brown – who plays Danny the Dealer – analysed ‘Withnail”s appeal thus. Almost every movie has a clunky change of pace/tone or a dodgy character beat – not this one, though Bruce Robinson has pinpointed an uncertain moment in the final reel when Danny embarks on his ‘They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths‘ speech.

6. Lack Of Plot

Let’s face it, nothing much happens in ‘Withnail’. There are no ‘life lessons’. But that’s its main strength. Two out-of-work actors try to go on holiday, one of their uncles comes to stay, falls in love with and attempts to seduce the other one, then they come home. It’s two fingers up to the screenwriting template taught in most film schools. But, framed another way, it’s actually the classic plot: put your hero(es) up a tree, throw rocks at him and get him down, though poor Withnail seems destined to stay up the tree forever…

5. Endlessly Quotable Dialogue

This is probably the key to the film’s longevity. ‘Fork it!’… ‘Monty, you terrible c**t!’… ‘We’ve gone on holiday by mistake’, ‘I demand to have some booze!’ ‘My thumbs have gone weird…’ etc. But as the years go by, it’s the throwaway lines that now make me chuckle the most: ‘Out-vibe it’, ‘Jesus, you’re covered in sh*t,’ ‘I’ve waited an aeon for assistance’, ‘Drugs banned in sport…’ ‘We’ll be found dead in here next spring…’ etc., etc…

4. Memorable Minor Characters

The film is chock-a-block with them. There’s Ralph Brown’s classic turn, Noel Johnson’s delightfully-plastered pub landlord, Llewellyn Rees’s tea-shop proprietor, Michael Elphick’s psychotic poacher and Anthony Strong’s manic traffic cop. All perform as if their lives depended on it. Late, great casting director Mary Selway must take a lot of credit.

3. Outstanding Lead Performances

Has there ever been a better movie drunk than Richard E Grant? (How about Ray Milland in ‘The Lost Weekend’? Ed.) It’s a superb breakout performance, especially coming from a famous teetotaler. In a far less showy role, Paul McGann does a fine job of tethering the movie (Kenneth Branagh and Michael Maloney were apparently sniffing around his part, so to speak), even if his accent flies around a bit. And of course Richard Griffiths as Uncle Monty is a delight.

2. Lack Of A Remake/Sequel

Please, please, please may it stay this way. Hollywood: stay away from ‘Withnail’. ‘Edgy’ young Brit writer/directors: leave well alone. You can just imagine the horror of a remake – lots of touchy-feely moments about ‘friendship’, and Withnail going on a ‘journey’… Just NO.

1. Good Grammar

It’s not called ‘Withnail And Me’… (Enough reasons already… – Ed.)

David Sanborn: A Change Of Heart 30 Years On

Warner Bros Records, released March 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

4/10

On 17th July 1986, Tampa-born sax great David Sanborn broke off from his own European tour to guest with Miles Davis and band at the Montreux Jazz Festival, playing on ‘Burn’, ‘Jean-Pierre’ and also ‘Portia’, one of the standout Marcus Miller compositions from the soon-to-be-released Tutu.

Though obviously nervous, Sanborn acquitted himself well, getting stuck in with some tasty modal solos and prompting many Miles smiles. Hopefully the performance would bode well for Sanborn’s next studio recording.

Unfortunately not. Sanborn made some fine albums during the 1980s – Hideaway, Voyeur, As We Speak, Straight To The Heart – but A Change Of Heart was not one of them. It was the kind of over-produced, under-composed, unfunky ‘fusion’ record that Tutu should have killed off once and for all.

I bought it on cassette when it came out, proudly showing it off to a cool family friend who had previously introduced me to loads of great music. I hoped he would be impressed by my purchase.

He turned his nose up, mumbling something about ‘Bloody muzak…’ Harsh but fair, at least when it comes to most of A Change Of Heart.

The opening two Marcus-written-and-produced tracks – ‘Chicago Song’ and ‘Imogene’ – deliver a quality that the rest of the album never even remotely comes near. Miller was in constant demand around this time and presumably couldn’t commit to the whole album.

‘Imogene’ is a classic ballad with a haunting fretless bass melody and beguiling bridge, while ‘Chicago Song’ transcends its simple melody with an irresistibly funky rhythm section and biting Hiram Bullock guitar bridge. It’s still part of Sanborn’s live set to this day.

The rest of A Change Of Heart seems designed for the latest Don Simpson movie or an episode of ‘Miami Vice’. Syndrum overdubs and unsubtle Fairlight samples prevail alongside ugly synth sounds and flimsy melodic motifs, without a whiff of jazz or R’n’B.

Producer/synth players/writers Ronnie Foster, Philippe Saisse and Michael Colina toil away fruitlessly and even Sanborn’s licks don’t stick.

Sanborn toured A Change Of Heart extensively with a great band featuring Bullock and Dennis Chambers on drums, even popping up on primetime UK music show ‘The Tube’ playing Michael Sembello’s smooth jazz ballad ‘The Dream’.

He was clearly at his commercial peak (the album made the top 100 in the US and UK) but the creative rot would prevail to the end of the ’80s. He got back on track with the release of 1991’s Another Hand.

Magic Mickey: ‘Angel Heart’ 30 Years On

angel_heartIn 1987, Mickey Rourke was fast becoming one of the most controversial movie stars of the era, the go-to guy (alongside Michael Douglas) for potentially commercial but decidedly ‘off-colour’ material.

Even David Bowie rated Rourke as one of the coolest people on the planet in ’87 – to my knowledge, only Mickey, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner and Al B Sure! ever shared ‘lead vocals’ on a Bowie solo album (though their collaboration was less than essential…).

‘Angel Heart’ turns 30 this week. I’ve been a Mickey fan since randomly renting the video circa 1988. If, as Marlon Brando attested, acting (or at least good acting) is essentially ‘behaviour’, Rourke delivers one of the great modern screen performances.

He mumbles lines, adds strange emphases (‘Yeah, I could be free‘) and quirky ad-libs, smirks inappropriately and generally shambles around in his filthy linen suit; Pauline Kael memorably wrote that ‘he has enough dirt on him to sprout mushrooms’.

But, importantly, he carries off the action sequences with aplomb, looking like he could take care of himself in a bar fight.

Most importantly, Rourke tempers the increasingly hokey supernatural elements of the film with a believable, sympathetic, relatively down-at-heel protagonist: Harry Angel seems to be a regular knockaround guy in Brooklyn.

He likes the simple life, going for a beer, getting laid whenever he can. He minds his own business. He just gets by. He works, reads the comics, he takes a walk,’ Rourke told his biographer Christopher Heard.

William Hjortsberg’s screenplay for ‘Angel Heart’, based on his New York-set novel ‘Falling Angel’ (described by Stephen King ‘as if Raymond Chandler had written “The Exorcist”’), had been hanging around Hollywood for a while. First it looked like Robert Redford would produce and star.

Then ‘Midnight Express’/’Fame’ director Alan Parker came onboard, rewrote the script (with the questionable decision to relocate most of the action to New Orleans) and offered the lead role to naysayers Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the latter taking the role of Louis Cyphre (geddit?) instead.

Enter Mickey. Parker made it clear to Rourke that he was nowhere near his first choice, but was interested in what he could bring to the role.

Rourke was disillusioned with acting in general and Hollywood in particular but desperately needed the part: ‘I was about to lose my big-assed house in California and needed a big paycheck fast…’

Parker warned Rourke that he wouldn’t put up with any funny business, also apparently giving him many a dressing-down on set.

But how does ‘Angel Heart’ stack up these days? It’s still very watchable, salvaged by the Rourke/De Niro scenes and Mickey’s eccentric ‘behaviour’. Bonet is a refreshingly natural presence and De Niro hams it up semi-convincingly.

Trevor Jones’ original soundtrack (recorded at the aptly-named Angel Studios in Islington, North London) still holds the attention alongside some great crooner and blues tunes.

But Parker searches in vain for his inner Nicolas Roeg (or Ken Russell?), showing his background in advertising with a succession of beautiful, if clichéd, images of ‘evil’ (a glistening, freshly-extracted human heart, ceiling fans, lift shafts, writhing bodies, blood-stained walls), memorable crane shots and disorientating flashbacks, but it all feels way too slick.

Kael again: ‘There’s no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible. Parker simply doesn’t have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher.’

There’s also a lack of memorable secondary characters – Charlotte Rampling and Brownie McGhee seem miscast and barely register.

‘Angel Heart’ just about broke even at the box office but has enjoyed a healthy cult following since. My brother tells me that it most definitely worked on the big screen, delivering a real sense of impending doom. I don’t doubt it, ably aided by some classic Mickey.

John Scofield: Blue Matter 30 Years On

scofieldGramavision Records, released February 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street 1987

9/10

Occasionally a musician appears out of nowhere, ‘fully-formed’, or at least it can seem that way during one’s formative years.

In my lifetime, there have been a few: Lewis Taylor, Omar Hakim, Trilok Gurtu, and probably a few more. Drummer Dennis Chambers, who plays brilliantly throughout Blue Matter, would definitely be one too.

My muso schoolmate Jem Godfrey had lent me John Scofield’s superb Still Warm album sometime around 1986. Before then, I knew John’s playing mainly from Miles Davis’s Star People, one of my mid-’80s favourites.

So when the Steve Swallow-produced Blue Matter dropped in early ’87, I was primed and ready – and instantly gripped.

The presence of Hiram Bullock’s rhythm guitar on three tracks gives a good indication of Scofield’s approach on this album – it’s R’n’B/funk-based jazz/rock, with great grooves, neat chord changes and no gratuitious displays of instrumental technique for technique’s sake – though Scofield and Chambers were of course quite capable of some serious chops, evident on the killin’ ‘Trim’.

The dynamic title track is clearly influenced by Miles/Marcus Miller’s ‘Tutu’ with its half-time groove, walking synth bass and enigmatic chords, but Chambers’ brilliant contribution (closely monitored by the excellent Gary Grainger on bass) transforms it into something totally new.

In the first minute of the tune, he achieves a novel ‘bouncing ball’ snare drum effect and then unleashes some of the most kick-ass kick-drum playing in music history.

Chambers had already turned some heads playing with George Clinton, but, even if he had never picked up the sticks again after 1987, ‘Blue Matter’ would probably have put him right up in the drum pantheon.

‘Heaven Hill’ – named for Sco’s favourite brand of bourbon – a slow blues with surprising chord changes and tasty gospel-tinged piano playing by Mitch Forman, influenced a whole host of ‘fusion’ guitarist/composers such as Robben Ford, Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale (compare it to Henderson’s ‘Slidin’ Into Charlisa’).

‘Now She’s Blonde’, ‘Time Marches On’, ‘The Nag’ and ‘So You Say’ manage to be both funky and catchy while retaining enough harmonic interest and ‘dirt’ to go way beyond the smooth jazz tag.

The Blue Matter band got quite a live following around this time, with good reason. They were somewhat of an antidote to the Chick Corea Elektric Bands and Al Di Meolas of this world, as musically jaw-dropping as those artists were/are. Scofield himself acknowledged as much during an interview with Howard Mandel in 1988:

‘What I hate about fusion music is the gymnastics. We are often playing to audiences who want to hear fast and loud and I have to watch myself. I’ve never been that good at doing fast stuff. Luckily, it doesn’t come easy to me. Now, Dennis Chambers is a chops phenomenon. On his solos, he destroys the drums. But he also has inbred musicianship, so it’s exciting and not so calculated…’