It Bites: Live In London

The classic It Bites lineup (Francis Dunnery, John Beck, Richard Nolan, Bob Dalton) produced three excellent studio albums and of course snared one huge UK hit in the shape of ‘Calling All The Heroes’.

Then there was the middling live collection Thankyou And Goodnight, and now a limited-edition 2018 box set called Live In London. I must have missed a memo because I only heard about it a year or so ago.

It was well worth the wait. It collects three unedited London gigs (I was at two of them) over five CDs, including their very last major show in the capital. Whilst these are essentially desk recordings, the sound quality ranges from good to excellent. The box set also features nice, previously unseen photos and some good liner notes including a long interview with Dalton, telling of their London history and details of each gig.

The Marquee concert from 21 July 1986 (at less than 40 minutes, presumably a support?) catches the band in their full-on, zingy, poppy/funky early pomp. Everything sounds a little fast and they haven’t quite settled into their groove yet but it’s still a good listen. There’s a rather shrill early version of ‘Black December’ and a great, rare outing for ‘Whole New World’ with Dunnery playing the horn lines on lead guitar with some aplomb.

Next is the very tangible peak of the band, a Once Around The World tour gig from 13 May 1988 at the much-missed Astoria. The sound is beefy, the tempos locked in, the backing vocals excellent and this really is the dog’s bollocks. There’s so much evidence of craft, with an extra note here and lick there, always slightly modifying the album versions.

‘Plastic Dreamer’ is a revelation, ‘Black December’ is huge, and ‘Old Man & The Angel’ ambitious and exciting. We finally get to hear what Dunnery sings in ‘Hunting The Whale’. The ‘Midnight/Wanna Shout’ medley is a knockout, complete with ‘Purple Haze’ coda, and Once Around The World’s title track is brilliant, complete with excerpt from ‘New York, New York’ which chimes rather cleverly with Dunnery and Beck’s Lamb Lies Down On Broadway fixation.

The third gig is the band’s final London show at the Hammersmith Odeon on 7 April 1990. The intro sounds like something from Prince’s Lovesexy. The new songs sound great, ‘Let Us All Go’ is superb but Dunnery’s voice is pretty shot throughout, and some of the backing vocals are also showing signs of strain. In truth you can hear the schisms in the band developing, though there are many, many great moments.

Barely two months later Dunnery had left the group. Not long after that, this correspondent would see him skulking around the King’s Head pub in Fulham (he was rehearsing upstairs with Robert Plant, I was gigging there), not looking a particularly well or happy man. Thankfully he’s on a far more even keel now.

Live In London is a really exciting release, a must-have collection for anyone who owns any of the studio albums, and arguably a much better package than Thankyou And Goodnight.

Further reading: I’ve written about the second It Bites studio album Once Around The World in the current edition of Classic Pop magazine.

Frank Zappa: 1988

Here’s a panacea for these mad times – spend a few weeks drilling down into the music released from Frank Zappa’s (final) 1988 tour.

It was a vision of modern America and a goodbye to ‘rock’; rather, FZ dealt with country, musical theatre, marches, TV/film themes, early ‘60s jazz, hymns, modern classical, reggae. In contemporary interviews he professed an admiration for Prince, who was also pretty much rejecting ‘rock’ in 1988.

The band had four months of intensive rehearsal, and you can hear it. He got the horn section doing things horn sections don’t normally do, playing lines from ‘The Untouchables’ or a Bartok piano concerto.

Some of rock’s sacred cows – Johnny Cash, Hendrix, Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Elvis – were in the firing line, as were the right-wing Christian fundamentalists running for US presidency in 1988. In fact, anyone restricting his right to speak freely (he cited that his politics were neither intrinsically left nor right-wing). He encouraged fans to register to vote at the shows and also incorporated snippets of daily news (‘confinement loaf’, Jimmy Swaggart etc.).

There were spectacular reimaginings of his old work and a cadre of new cover versions, including ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. There were good, new, sometimes stoopid songs with political lyrics and disarmingly brilliant musical flourishes. The epic ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’ became a kind of an epitaph: ‘I hope we never see that day/In the land of the free…And if you don’t believe by now/The truth of what I’m telling you/Then surely I have failed somehow’.

Though the gigs took place in big arenas, there was forensically superb musicianship and also lots of room for improvisation, areas where no one knew exactly what was going to go down. Zappa would set the Synclavier running with random ‘events’ and see how the band responded.

The tour made it down the East Coast of the US and to Europe. I saw the first night at Wembley Arena in April 1988 – an absolute revelation. But sadly the West Coast US leg was cancelled. Some say bassist Scott Thunes became persona non grata, others pointed to Zappa’s health and the huge outlay of the tour. The truth is probably somewhere inbetween. The various views are outlined in Andrew Greenaway’s book ‘Zappa The Hard Way’.

Watching the few bits of tour footage (from Madrid and Barcelona) is interesting – not always an easy watch and apparently neither were particularly good nights on the European tour. But one somehow forgets that Zappa chiefly saw himself as a COMPOSER, and there he is conducting the band through all the instrumentals. He didn’t leave the stage like Miles. Nor did he fine musicians if they screwed up, JB-style, but meticulously ‘comp’d’ only the best performances for any released work from the tour (and often incorporated ‘mistakes’ into a song’s arrangement).

Still, some will just take against Frank’s music – understandable, but it’s their loss. Paraphrasing Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece: ‘Listen to this stuff quietly because you don’t want your neighbours to hear you listening to this kind of stuff’ – I beg to differ. Play most of this stuff boldly and proudly, because it’s more interesting, more challenging and funnier than 90% of other contemporary music.

Check out the complete albums taken from the tour – Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, Make A Jazz Noise Here – or I’ve put together a 1980s Zappa playlist which fillets my favourite moments (OK, even I can’t take ‘Planet Of Baritone Women’ or ‘Elvis Has Just Left The Building’…).

Further reading: ‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich

‘The Complete Frank Zappa’ by Ben Watson

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

John Martyn: The Apprentice

Island Records undoubtedly did a lot of good for John Martyn but they also royally messed around with arguably his two best post-1970s albums.

First there was the delayed, eventually botched release of 1980’s Grace And Danger, then the complete rejection of The Apprentice when first delivered in 1988.

The album eventually saw the light of day on Permanent Records (owned by Martyn’s then-manager) in early 1990, after John finished it at his own expense at Glasgow’s Ca Va Studios. It immediately sold strongly and got a great review in Q magazine (alongside a memorable interview) amongst other rags.

But co-producer Brian Young reckons it could have done a lot better – the idea apparently had been to tout it around the major labels, but John’s manager decided to steer clear of the suits this time around. We’ll never know if that was wise (and sadly it’s currently on streaming platforms with completely the wrong artwork attached).

Most importantly, The Apprentice is full of memorable songs which easily offset the sometimes fairly flimsy production. He was expanding his harmonic horizons (and vocal range – this is probably his best singing on record) and there’s a strong Latin influence throughout, helped enormously by the return of Danny Cummings on all kinds of percussion.

‘Live On Love’, ‘Deny This Love’ and ‘Send Me One Line’ could have made cracking singles, the latter apparently penned for the movie ’84 Charing Cross Road’ but not used. ‘The Moment’ and ‘Patterns In The Rain’ suggest a hitherto unacknowledged influence from the Great American Songbook.

‘Look At That Girl’ is a gorgeous ballad for his daughter Mhairi, while the title track was a rare insight into Martyn’s political leanings, written from the point of view of a terminally-ill worker at the Sellafield nuclear plant. ‘Income Town’ may just be the standout, another attack on rampant capitalism featuring a meaty guitar solo.

In short, there was something for everyone. Long-term fans just had to accept that he wasn’t going to be playing the acoustic through an Echoplex anymore; but his collaboration with keyboard player Foss Patterson was hitting its peak, after promising beginnings on 1986’s Piece By Piece.

John sold out no less than eleven nights at London’s Shaw Theatre to promote The Apprentice, enlisting Dave Gilmour to guest on guitar, and then played at the Glasgow Big Day festival a few months later. 1990 turned out to be a pretty good year (reportedly followed by one of his worst, though I saw him live several times in 1991 and he was always superb) for Big John.

Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.

Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).

She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier. Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.

Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.

There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.

Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…

Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).

PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.

As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.

‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.

Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).

The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).

Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).

She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.

Read a great interview with Joni, Larry Klein, Billy Idol, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson about the making of the album here

Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s ‘Nightingales’ (1988)

Prefab Sprout’s 1988 album From Langley Park To Memphis was their pop breakthrough, reaching #5 in the UK charts, and is probably most casual fans’ favourite.

But let’s take a close look at the fifth track, the epic ‘Nightingales’. Featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and released as the fourth single from From Langley Park in November 1988, it remains one of Prefab’s most beguiling songs.

Written by Paddy McAloon under the influence of Barbra Streisand’s Broadway Album, it’s a stellar piece of work by any standards; melody, harmony and lyric are inextricably linked, as if the song had always existed and was just plucked out of the air.

Thought follows thought, musical idea follows musical idea completely naturally, without any songwriter ‘tricks’ such as looped chord sequences or vamps.

It’s fair to say that by the time of From Langley Park’s recording, McAloon was becoming a proficient pianist; eight of ten songs on the album were written on keyboards, including ‘Nightingales’.

Its harmonic concept, with an emphasis on major-seventh chords (including an audacious jump from F#m7 to Cmaj7 in bars four and five of the chorus) and triads superimposed over apparently unrelated root notes, possibly reveals a Brian Wilson influence, but the final effect is more Stephen Sondheim than ‘Surf’s Up’.

‘Nightingales’ also has no apparent antecedents in the 1980s pop firmament, though, at a stretch, approaches one of Green Gartside and David Gamson’s gossamer Scritti Politti ballads.

In a year when Acid House and the ‘Madchester’ sound were gestating and Stock Aitken Waterman ruled the charts, McAloon delivered something unabashedly romantic and somewhat old-fashioned; the opening line (‘Tell me do, something true‘) and general tenor of the lyric are more akin to ‘Daisy Bell’ than anything by the Stone Roses (and Paddy made no secret of his general distaste for late-’80s pop).

The song’s protagonist analyses his love affair, asking his paramour whether their love is fleeting like a ‘firework show’ or whether it’s a lasting, valuable entity. They agree that such questions are unhelpful and/or irrelevant – the key is to live in the moment.

‘Nightingales’ was co-produced by Jon Kelly and McAloon. By 1987, London-born Kelly was an experienced, highly-regarded producer and engineer, probably best known as one of Kate Bush’s key early collaborators on the classic 1980 album Never For Ever.

He had also worked on successful albums by Chris Rea (Dancing With Strangers) and Paul McCartney (Ram) and just produced Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown, the latter definitely influenced by Prefab.

Double and triple-tracked keyboard parts dominate ‘Nightingales’, played by McAloon and legendary British session player Wix, AKA Paul Wickens. They closely follow the chord voicings of McAloon’s original acoustic piano demo, echoed on this lovely live version from 2000:

By the time of the first chorus, sampled sleigh bells and silky Synclavier drums are added to the mix alongside McAloon’s rather incongruous but effective (sampled?) banjo.

Robin Smith’s widescreen string arrangement becomes increasingly prominent throughout the track; particularly notable is a flurry of ascending, almost celestial notes in three distinct phases beginning at 2:14 (and check out the rustle of fake locusts at 4:26!).

Stevie Wonder had long been a hero of McAloon’s, the album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants being a particular favourite. Mentioning as much to Prefab manager Keith Armstrong one day, Paddy half-joked that a Stevie harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’ would really bring the track to life.

Armstrong stunned McAloon by informing him that he was a good friend of Wonder’s operations manager Keith Harris and would put in a good word for the band (it’s also worth noting that Wonder played some sublime harmonica on Thomas Dolby’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ a year before the recording of ‘Nightingales’ – perhaps Thomas gave the band a good reference…).

Wonder’s harmonica solo was recorded in a very rushed session during September 1987 at Westside Studios in Notting Hill, West London.

He apparently learnt the song quickly, disappearing into a corner of the studio with a rough mix on his Walkman, and then recorded two takes in the lower octave and two in the higher. The released solo is a composite of the four.

Richard Moakes was the young engineer tasked with capturing Wonder’s solo on tape. According to McAloon:

He (Moakes) looked at me and said, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit worried I won’t know how to get his sound’. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll just see what happens’. And of course you put the microphone on him and you turn the fader up and he sounds like Stevie Wonder. You don’t do anything. Unless you’re doing something really silly, you’ll get it and it will be identifiable. So I thought, OK, when you play a guitar, don’t blame an engineer if you don’t know what you’re doing…

New York mix engineer Michael Brauer cooked up the 12” version of ‘Nightingales’. He made some drastic changes from the 7” single, placing the sleigh bells right at the front of the mix, reinstating some of Wendy Smith’s stacked backing vocals originally left on the cutting room floor, stripping McAloon’s lead vocal of its reverb (though adding a lot more to the snare drum) and leaving more space for Smith’s string arrangement and McAloon’s banjo.

A video was also made, though it’s almost impossible to track down these days – never a sure sign of quality…

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.