Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s ‘Nightingales’

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.

Scott Henderson/Tribal Tech: Nomad 30 Years On

Who are the most self-critical instrumentalists? I’m going for guitarists.

And in this age of social media, fans have never had a better insight into musicians’ views of their own work.

Steve Khan, Francis Dunnery, Andy Partridge and James Grant often take a pretty dim view of their own stuff. Allan Holdsworth was virtually unable to listen to his own guitar playing on record.

But brilliant guitarist Scott Henderson may trump them all. He emerged as a poster boy of jazz/rock guitar in the mid-to-late ’80s, when, along with Holdsworth and Frank Gambale, he would often appear alongside metal players du jour in the pages of Guitar World or Guitar Player.

A remarkably fluid improviser with a ‘rock’ sound but ‘jazz’ attitude, Henderson’s technical ability was always tempered by a strong blues feeling (distinguishing him from Holdsworth and Gambale). In 1985, he formed Tribal Tech with ex-Wayne Shorter bassist Gary Willis whilst pursuing a sideman career with Jean-Luc Ponty and Chick Corea (and, later, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul).

I first heard Scott in my late teens when a very shrewd guitar-playing college acquaintance played me his third album Nomad, recorded in 1988 but not released until early 1990. I was instantly smitten, picking up on the strong ‘Weather Report with guitar’ vibe – mainly due to Willis’s fretless bass – but quickly realising they had their own thing going on.

Also, like Weather Report, Tribal Tech were also fortunate to have not one but two fine composers in their ranks. Willis’s ‘Tunnel Vision’ may be Nomad‘s standout, but Henderson was extremely modest about his superb, much-transcribed solo, telling his website:

The opening eight bars is good because it’s not me – it’s a melody written by Willis. I start playing after the first eight bars and things get considerably worse… We had a good laugh when a critic who reviewed the album commented on how great the beginning of my solo was. Then the tune was put into one of the new Real Books and that eight-bar melody was mis-labelled as my solo. Willis said to me: ‘Wow, I’m really making you look good…’

The excellent opener ‘Renegade’ was another embarrassment for Henderson:

On every Tribal Tech album, there are amazingly bad playing and production flaws, because we thought we were capable of producing the albums ourselves, and we clearly weren’t. We had little to no experience in the studio and were learning as we went. An experienced producer would have made those records much better, but we couldn’t afford one anyway, so they are what they are. The funniest solo is mine on ‘Renegade’ – I didn’t have any vocabulary for that 6/4 feel, so I’m clearly playing lines meant for 4/4 and they don’t fit the groove at all. It’s one of my most embarrassing solos…

Then there’s Henderson’s superb album-closer ‘Rituals’, showingcasing a heavy Wayne Shorter influence:

The last time I listened to the Tribal Tech version, I thought I’d throw up. I played the melody in a horribly stiff way, with the thinnest tone ever, and the arrangement sounds like we’re trying to be Journey – very dated and funny. Then there’s the pan flute synth sound… Holy sh*t, talk about corny. It’s one of my favorites but it didn’t get the production it needed. The drum sound is pathetic and the keyboards aren’t loud and clear enough. Those are some badass voicings and sometimes they’re buried. It’s not a tune I could play trio because there’s too much going on, but I’d like to re-record it and make it sound like it should…

Well, whatever. Nomad is a great album, with excellent compositions and playing from everyone involved, including drummer Steve Houghton, percussionist Brad Dutz and keyboard player David Goldblatt.

Tribal Tech went through a few other personnel changes until their split in 2013. Scott continues on with a highly-regarded solo career and occasional appearances on the irreverent podcast Guitarwank.

Moonlighting Strangers: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis & Al Jarreau

Bruce Willis as David Addison, Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting’

What music delivers for you a headrush of nostalgia, fills your heart with a warm glow, makes you feel everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds and we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket?

For me, it’s the short reprise of the ‘Moonlighting’ theme that used to play over the end credits, featuring Toots Thielemans’ (citation needed… Ed.) harmonica swooping gorgeously over swooning strings.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Lee Holdridge’s title song (with lyrics added later by Al Jarreau) was reminiscent of an old standard in the Porter/ Gershwin mould. After all, the TV show, which ran in the States and on the BBC from 1985 to 1989, most assuredly harked back to the romantic comedies and private-eye noirs of the ’30s and ’40s.

Co-star Cybill Shepherd, upon reading the script for the pilot episode, apparently called it a ‘Hawksian comedy’ (as in ‘Bringing Up Baby’/’His Girl Friday’ director/writer Howard Hawks), an influence of which creator/co-writer Glenn Gordon Caron was fairly unaware. He had been focusing his energies instead on lampooning the in-vogue detective shows of the early ’80s, one of which (‘Remington Steele’) he’d helped usher into existence.

‘Moonlighting’ made a star out of Bruce Willis and reignited Cybill Shepherd’s career, though she was apparently an exceptionally reluctant contributor and not a huge fan of her male co-star.

For the part of David Addison, Willis apparently had to audition not once but 11 times, and even then almost lost the role until a lone female NBC executive said (in front of a cadre of other male execs): ‘He looks like a dangerous f*ck’!

I was hooked on ‘Moonlighting’ in the mid-’80s, helped no doubt by a teenage crush on Shepherd. I watched two eps again recently – the pilot, which seemed overlong and clunky, and the absolutely superb ‘A Womb With A View’, the big-budget Season 5 curtain-raiser first transmitted in December 1988.

Gleefully jumping the shark, it has everything – an exuberant, self-referential song-and-dance number (‘A chance for critics to scoff and sneer’!), a chubby Willis in a diaper playing Shepherd’s unborn child, and some startling, creative visuals.

It also brought home how the show always assumed the audience was smart, rather than most modern TV which assumes it’s dumb. And the production values were super high, even though the pressure was on – they had to make 22 x 50-minute episodes per season! That works out at around ten days per shoot.

But back to the music. ‘Moonlighting strangers/Who just met on the way’. What a lovely line. I’m partial to the original version of the theme song with its brilliant rhythm guitars and JR Robinson drums, but not so keen on Al’s re-recording with producer Nile Rodgers which – rather incredibly – made the UK top 10. And Willis of course enjoyed a brief solo music career (and made a weird HBO mockumentary) off the back of his David Addison persona, tapping into a kind of Billy/Brucie, New Jersey ‘everyman’ vibe.

Narada Michael Walden: Looking At You, Looking At Me/The Nature Of Things/Divine Emotion

Singing drummers: the ’80s were chock-a-block with ’em. But Narada seems a somewhat forgotten example, at least compared to the far more popular Phil C, Don H, Stevie W and Sheila E.

Yet he started the decade as the one you’d probably have put your money on, ending the ’70s as he did with an impressive run of R’n’B hits.

Narada had of course started his music career as a jazz/rock drumming tornado in the second incarnation of John McLaughlin’s mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra, going on to record famous fusion sides with Jeff Beck, Weather Report, Tommy Bolin, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius.

During the ’80s, he was one of the most in-demand producers on the planet, helming Whitney Houston’s ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’, Aretha Franklin/George Michael’s ‘I Knew You Were Waiting For Me’ and Starship’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’. But his solo career was somewhat in limbo during this period, so it’s fascinating to check out a new, nicely-appointed three-album survey of his 1983-1988 output.

Looking At You, Looking At Me (1983) is the best of the three albums, but a frustratingly inconsistent record. Listening to the superb title track, you’d think he might have found hit his true metier, a languid, luxurious, West Coast pop/jazz, similar to the kind of music Al Jarreau or Manhattan Transfer were making at the time.

But an OK duet with Angela Bofill, passable cover of ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and sick drum-machine/horn workout ‘Shake It Off’ aside, the rest of the album is fairly unmemorable R’n’B with occasional virtuosity from guitarist Corrado Rustici and bassist Randy Jackson.

The followup, 1985’s Nature Of Things, is even more problematic, sounding mainly like a kind of soft R’n’B version of the ‘Top Gun’ soundtrack, with way too many synth-based ballads. But Divine Emotion (1988) was a partial return to form, led by the effervescent title track (with one of the great ’80s basslines) which gave him a timely UK hit.

Narada had obviously been prompted into action by his highly successful production work – his vocals and arrangements have never been better. But while Divine Emotion sounds like a million dollars, there are still issues on the songwriting front. Put simply, only the title track, ‘But What Up Doh’ and closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’ have memorable hooks (the latter also features some brilliant jazz/rock kit work from Narada).

One wonders what might have happened if he had hooked up with some great ‘pop’ songwriters like Kenny Loggins, Rod Temperton, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager or even Burt Bacharach at the outset of the decade rather than relentlessly ploughing his own furrow. ‘Looking At Me, Looking At You’ offers tantalising possibilities.

But looking at his career as a whole, it’s all turned out fine – Narada’s always been one of the coolest, most talented musician/producers around, and apparently he’s an absolute joy to work with.

Book Review: The Big Note (A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa) by Charles Ulrich

It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way. After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.

Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.

Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.

Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide (Ulrich rightly eschews the chronological approach, reasoning that nothing in FZ’s life or music was ever chronological) featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.

The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs. The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.

Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation: ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.

I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).

There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. This is the book his music deserves.

‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.