Donald Fagen: Century’s End 30 Years On

Almost 30 years ago to the day, my brother arrived home from a Richmond shopping spree bearing strange cargo – a new Donald Fagen 12” single.

To say that this was a surprise would be an understatement. After all, it was six years since The Nightfly and the late ’80s were generally a Steely Dan wasteland apart from occasional guest spots (China Crisis, Rosie Vela, Love And Money, Yellowjackets).

‘I think we felt that a lot of the energy was missing so we kind of sat out the ’80s,’ Fagen once said. But, in his book ‘Eminent Hipsters’, he went further, talking about ‘falling apart like a cheap suit’ towards the end of the decade, with panic attacks, antidepressants and shrinks abundant. But at least he didn’t need the money – ‘What supported me was that when CDs came out at the beginning of the ’80s, people had to buy the albums again.’

Fagen’s movie-producing cousin Mark Rosenberg headhunted him to come up with some music for the film version of Jay McInerney’s celebrated yuppie-in-peril book ‘Bright Lights Big City’. Fagen was typically reluctant but apparently swayed by the quality of McInerney’s writing. There was also something distinctly Steely-esque about this tale of a disillusioned twentysomething’s descent into a drug-addled, paranoid New York hell. So Fagen fashioned his version of the movie, co-writing the lyric with Timothy Meher. There are touches of ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ and ‘Wall Street’ in there. AIDS too, and ‘American Psycho’ was of course just around the corner.

The opening scene finds our hungover hero lamenting the roar of the Monday-morning garbage trucks. Cut to the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, where our yuppie daydreams about a conquest of the female variety: ‘We cut to this blonde/Dancing on a mirror/There’s no disbelief to suspend….‘ The image brilliantly conjures up Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. Madonna should also probably come to mind. ‘She’s the concept, more or less, of love in the city at century’s end…

Nothing and nobody is real – it’s all pose and high-concept. There’s no hope for redemption either: ‘Nobody’s holding out for heaven‘. Greed is good. But then the mystery blonde is using her ‘pirate radar’ to find a likely escort or – even better – a minor celebrity to latch onto. But no-one materialises, so you’ll do, although you know you’re only the second choice. But still: ‘Let’s get to the love scene, my friend‘…

Musically, ‘Century’s End’ is yet another brilliant Fagen concoction, initially based around a typical minor vamp and groovy half-time shuffle groove shepherded by Yellowjackets’ ‘Jim’ Haslip on bass and drummer Leroy Clouden (submerged in one or two different bits of rhythm programming). Michael Brecker and Lew Soloff lead the horn section, and the raft of uncredited backing vocalists sounds like it might include Patti Austin. Gary Katz co-produced the song at Chelsea Sound. Fagen’s vocals have rarely been better – check out his phrasing in the chorus. The 12” and CD also came with ‘Shanghai Confidential’, a neat little fuzak instrumental starring Marcus Miller on bass and Steve Khan on guitar.

The movie, starring Michael J Fox, stiffed. The casting didn’t help. But ‘Century’s End’ seems to be a bit of a guilty secret in Fagen’s discography, and it’s ripe for rediscovery. I’m pretty sure he’s never played it live with Steely on the road – at least it’s not on YouTube anywhere.

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Stump: A Fierce Pancake 30 Years Old Today

If you read the press blurb about Stump, the general consensus seems to be that they didn’t quite ‘make it’. But rather we should probably be thankful that they got it together for as long as they did.

The Anglo-Irish band made me smile (and continue to do so), released a great mini album (Quirk Out) and one full-length one, A Fierce Pancake. Released 30 years old today, the latter is probably in my ’80s top 10 (and is reportedly one of Faith No More/Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton’s favourites too).

It was never going to be easy: the drummer (Rob McKahey) sounded like he belonged in Beefheart’s Magic Band or Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the fretless bassist (Kev Hopper) was into sampling, Pere Ubu and Brand X, the guitarist (Chris Salmon) sounded like a cross between Hank Marvin and Adrian Belew and brilliant frontman/lyricist (the late Mick Lynch) was more than likely to engage in a bit of onstage belly dancing.

But it somehow works. A Fierce Pancake is dedicated to the life and works of physician/psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and writer Flann O’Brien. It was released on Ensign Records, mainly known for breaking Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys. Recording sessions at Hansa in Berlin were apparently long and difficult – original producer Holger Hiller jumped ship halfway through and then ‘stabilising influence’ engineer Stephen Street got summoned away to work with Morrissey.

But the album’s sometimes hilarious (‘Bone’, ‘Charlton Heston’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Eager Bereaver’), sometimes touching (‘Alcohol’, ‘Boggy Home’) and always musically interesting. I think of it as something like a cross between Viz magazine and XTC. It’s a shame that they couldn’t maintain the John Peel-endorsed momentum of their early days.

Their manager persuaded them to call it a day after a disastrous Camden Electric Ballroom gig supported by The Blue Aeroplanes on 21st December 1988. A Fierce Pancake hadn’t come close to recouping its costs and the Rave scene was in full flow. It was all over, barring a one-off comeback gig in May 2015.

For more on the band, check out this excellent podcast.

The Cult Movie Club: Driving Me Crazy (1988)

Documentary director Nick Broomfield has spent most of his almost 50-year career annoying people in pursuit of the truth.

In the ’70s and ’80s, his attention was focused mainly on societal concerns – the British class system (‘Proud To Be British’), urban decay (‘Behind The Rent Strike’), juvenile delinquency (‘Tattooed Tears’) the US Army (‘Soldier Girls’), legalised prostitution (‘Chicken Ranch’). All are superb and worth seeking out, as is his latest ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’.

But 1988’s ‘Driving Me Crazy’ marked a lightening of tone and the birth of Broomfield’s post-modern style, where he became a ‘character’ in the film – and, it has to be said, often an irritant. The movie came about when the financiers of big-budget, all-black musical ‘Body And Soul’ – booked for a six-month run in Munich – sought out Broomfield to make a ‘Fame’-style documentary about the extended rehearsal process in New York. All well and good, thought Broomfield. It was a chance to extend his range and do something different, more light-hearted.

But then it all went pear-shaped. The financiers reduced the documentary budget from $1.6 million to $300,000. They also wanted to incorporate a ‘fictional’ element into the film, with writer Joe Hindy and his agent playing themselves. Egos ran wild and sensibilities were messed with. Broomfield considered bailing but decided to hang around and document the resulting drama. So ‘Driving Me Crazy’ became a film about not being able to make a film, in the tradition of ‘Waiting For Fidel’.

The good news is that it’s one of the funniest but also most awkward movies of Broomfield’s career. ‘Body And Soul’ choreographers George Faison/Mercedes Ellington and assistant director Howard Porter don’t take kindly to the film crew and give them hell. Broomfield becomes almost persona non grata. Though this must have sometimes been painful, he almost seems to relish it. He also flirts outrageously with the PA of show producer Andre Heller and there are uncomfortable suggestions of racism from some of the suits.

But Broomfield and his DoP Rob Levi also document some absolutely stunning rehearsal footage. There are memorable jazz, hip-hop, soul and doo-wop performances and beautiful images of late ’80s New York, with shades of films like ‘Fatal Attraction’ and ‘9 1/2 Weeks’. There’s a particularly notable panoramic cityscape shot towards the end, soundtracked by one of many fractious but funny Broomfield phone calls.

Entertaining, unsettling and sometimes exhilarating, the oft-neglected ‘Driving Me Crazy’ is well worth another look.

John Abercrombie: Getting There 30 Years On

Maybe John Abercrombie was the Andy Murray of jazz guitarists. People say Murray was ‘unlucky’ to be playing tennis at the same time as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal; Abercrombie was arguably ‘unfortunate’ to have been forging a career at the same time as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

But a superb career he forged all the same. Starting out as somewhat of a John McLaughlin imitator playing unhinged jazz/rock with Billy Cobham and Dreams on ‘some of the worst fusion albums ever made’ (his words), by 1974 Abercrombie had settled into a long, intriguing career on ECM Records, where he could pursue all his interests, from acoustic guitar duos with Ralph Towner to organ trios with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette.

But one of his best bands was this mid-1980s outfit with ex-Bill Evans/Lyle Mays sideman Marc Johnson on bass and legendary Peter Erskine on drums, often augmented by Michael Brecker on sax too. Abercrombie was getting heavily into the guitar synth around this time, while also using loops and ethereal keyboard patches to beef up the studio sound.

’86’s Current Events was a fine ‘blowing’ record but followup Getting There – released 30 years ago this month – was arguably Abercrombie’s most commercial album. It’s big and bold but definitely no ‘fusion’ sell-out, and it distills its ideas into relatively short, concise statements. It’s also somewhat of a rarity for the ECM label in that it’s not produced by Manfred Eicher – Lee Townsend is in charge here, assisted by James Farber.

The epic title track is loud and proud, almost approaching avant-rock with Erskine absolutely lamping his drums and a hysterical, exciting set of screaming guitar-synth solos. It gets near the approach of David Torn’s sometimes raucous Cloud About Mercury album. Ethereal, gentle and gorgeous ‘Thalia’ (composed by Vince Mendoza) and ‘Chance’ are ambient/jazz masterpieces with shades of Mark Isham’s work.

Classic ballad ‘Remember Hymn’ initially sounds like a re-harmonisation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’ but slowly becomes a vehicle for Brecker’s haunting tenor. The latter also cleans up on the raucous two-chord blowout ‘Furs On Ice’, reminiscent of Johnson’s Bass Desires band, with Erskine at his most Elvin Jones-like.

Getting There predictably received a somewhat muted critical reaction on its release. I wasn’t bothered about that – having been recommended Abercrombie by a guitar player friend, I bought it sight unseen from HMV Oxford Street on vinyl a few weeks after it came out. It’s still my favourite album by the guitarist. But it would be the last time Abercrombie dipped his toe into ‘rockist’ waters – he quickly regrouped to continue his ever-eclectic, increasingly gentle career, and, to the best of my knowledge, never picked up the guitar synth again…

David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper: 30 Years Old Today

Diamond Dave hit the ground running with his 1986 solo debut Eat ‘Em And Smile. That album had a raw, live-in-the-studio sound, courtesy of producer Ted Templeman and some of the greatest rock musicians of all time (Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, Gregg Bissonette), but sophomore record Skyscraper – released 30 years ago today – was something completely different: a meticulous, layered, fussed-over project.

Vai was promoted to co-producer, Roth enjoying his energy and studio nous, and his influence is all over the record. Vai told Classic Rock magazine recently about their working relationship: ‘We got on really well. We were friends. He listens and doesn’t assume to know everything. But it was his band. He made all the executive decisions. I’m very good at assuming a role and knowing where the boundaries are. I expect that from other people when they’re working with me.’

Vai took his time doubling parts, sculpting solos and thinking of the songs orchestrally. His playing is absolutely brilliant. He forensically explores every chord and adds humour too, an aspect missing from 99% of rock guitarists. The more challenging compositions (‘Bottom Line’, ‘Hina’, the title track) rehearse the concepts that Vai would pursue on his breakthrough Passion And Warfare solo album.

So Skyscraper is musically rich but great fun too. Vocally, Roth has such a strong presence and he busts his butt trying to entertain. Lead-off single ‘Just Like Paradise’ – described by Dave as his tribute to The Beach Boys – reached a very impressive #6 on the US Hot 100, ‘Perfect Timing’, ‘Damn Good’ and ‘Stand Up’ are pure pop, co-written by Roth and keyboard player Brett Tuggle.

‘Two Fools A Minute’ is quite unlike any hard rock this writer has heard, basically a live-in-the-studio take with a succession of nutty mini-solos by Vai and Sheehan. It’s something akin to a heavy-metal show tune, complete with ‘cheesy’ horn section. I love Dave’s little ‘Sizzlin’ to the top!’ exclamation before Vai’s solo and his increasingly weird comments as the track goes on: ‘Where’s the drummer?…Nah, we can’t let Stevie drive…’

There’s a distinct lack of low-end on Skyscraper though. Billy Sheehan’s number was up. He left after the album’s recording and didn’t take part in the hugely successful, 10-month world tour. But he would take a lot of this album’s approach to his next band project, Mr Big.

Skyscraper divided critical opinion on its release but was a big hit, reaching #6 in the US and #11 in the UK. Happy birthday to a fun-filled and oft overlooked minor classic of the ’80s.

The Crap Movie Club: Homeboy (1988)

One of the pleasures of reading Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ is the way he follows his trains of thought wherever they go, however obtuse. Possibly the most random is a mention of Mickey Rourke’s performance in his self-penned, almost totally forgotten 1988 film ‘Homeboy’, seen by Bob during the difficult Oh Mercy sessions:

‘He could break your heart with a look. The movie traveled to the moon every time he came onto the screen. Nobody could hold a candle to him. He was just there, didn’t have to say hello or goodbye.’

I’m a huge Mickey apologist, but I think Bob was way off the beam here. ‘Homeboy’ is irredeemable. It also signalled the beginning of Rourke’s 20-year slump. Clearly a ‘vanity project’ for our star (he started writing it during the ‘Heaven’s Gate’ shoot in 1980), it’s the film where Mickey started to believe his own hype and play the sort of parts which echoed how badly he obviously felt about the movie business.

‘Homeboy’ is a weirdly masochistic (at times reminiscent of Brando’s similar explorations in that area), relentlessly downbeat, funereally-paced, vaguely camp melodrama. The ‘plot’, such as it is, is almost identical to that of ‘The Wrestler’, the 2008 comeback that won Mickey his first Oscar. He plays Johnny Walker, a punch-drunk, third-division-south pugilist reduced to hawking his wares around Asbury Park for a few bucks with his portly coach in tow.

Possibly Mickey’s character is supposed to have endured some kind of stroke, because he spends the whole film squeaking out of the side of his mouth, rendering his sparse dialogue almost inaudible. Christopher Walken appears intermittently as the dodgy agent who wants Johnny’s assistance with a jewellery heist. Modelling a succession of deafening suits, he chews up the scenery a couple of times, dances a bit, sings a bit, clearly knowing this film is a heap of sh*t. At times amusing but not enough to rescue the movie, it’s a dry run for his superior turns in ‘King Of New York’ and ‘Wild Side’.

Poor Debra Feuer – Mickey’s wife at the time – underwhelms in the almost non-existent role of Johnny’s love interest. Eric Clapton phones in an always-too-loud soundtrack, obviously tossed off during yet another Albert Hall run, adding a few tired licks but mainly employing bassist Nathan East to improvise some fairly half-baked solo cues. Director Michael Seresin, previously the cinematographer on ‘Angel Heart’ (and recently one of the Harry Potter films), can’t seem to rustle up any convincing or memorable scenes. The final effect is sub-Golan-Globus.

Rourke has one great moment towards the end of the film though, possibly the one Dylan picked up on, where he peers up at his coach and tearfully asks (with shades of Brando again), ‘You think I coulda been good?’ But it’s too little too late. ‘Homeboy’ should probably have stayed in Development Hell.