Prince: Batman Motion Picture Soundtrack 30 Years Old Today

At the beginning of 1989, the tabloids were full of rumours that Prince was in dire financial straits.

While that seems unlikely, with hindsight it does seem a curious decision for him to take on a soundtrack gig for such a huge mainstream movie, stepping right into the belly of the Warner Bros. beast.

But then it’s also not much of a surprise that he smashed Batman out of the park. On many levels, it was the perfect project for the time – the movie’s themes appealed to his post-Lovesexy spiritual concerns and also tapped into his own feelings about fatherhood. He explored those themes poignantly on ‘The Future’ and ‘Vicki Waiting’.

Musically, in the main he retreated from Lovesexy‘s album’s dense, complex, band-inspired sounds and went back to a minimalist approach, pushing his guitar right to the fore and making liberal use of samplers and a Fairlight.

But even though ‘The Future’, ‘Electric Chair’, ‘Partyman’, ‘Batdance’ and ‘Lemon Crush’ are essentially one-chord jams, Prince knows exactly how to hold the attention with false endings, escalating riffs, hysterical guitar solos and quirky chord voicings. The net result is a somewhat forbidding but still undeniably funky album.

Also he doesn’t scrimp on the dancefloor classics – put on ‘Partyman’, ‘Trust’ or ‘Batdance’ (a UK #2 and US #1) and to this day you’ll get any party started. Elsewhere, ‘Scandalous’ is a brilliantly-sung, sometimes funny seduction ballad in the tradition of ‘Do Me Baby’ and ‘International Lover’, while ‘The Arms Of Orion’ is a pretty – if somewhat trite – ballad.

The album was a smash hit, selling over a million copies in its first week of release and becoming his first US #1 album since Around The World In A Day. Prince was almost returning to his Purple Rain popularity, no doubt helped by the huge success of the movie too.

But this kind of mainstream success was short-lived. Something was eating him up inside – in typical form, he regrouped immediately and took on a deeply personal project, the doomed Graffiti Bridge movie/album.

It was a funny old end to the decade. But a totally Prince one. Probably his least-remembered album of the ’80s – though arguably the last great album he delivered – Batman is ripe for rediscovery as we reach more end-of-the-decade, spiritual/political uncertainty.

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David Sylvian: Pop Song 30 Years Old Today

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single 30 years ago today.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is completely out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at the Townhouse Studios, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out, and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.

Nik Kershaw: The Works 30 Years On

It was goodbye to Basildon and Braintree, hello to Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Yes, Kershaw had always threatened the big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over album, and in 1989 he delivered it.

And, to no-one’s great surprise, it was an excellent collection, one of the best ‘Brit-Goes-Stateside’ pop records of the decade.

Recorded over four months in LA, The Works – released 30 years ago this week – saw Kershaw put together some of his best material to date with two top-notch drummers (Vinnie Colaiuta and Jeff Porcaro) in tow, the great Jerry Hey on horn arrangements, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, ex-Zappa keyboardist Peter Wolf producing and backing vocals from Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett.

And yet it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back, underselling drastically, cutting ties with MCA Records and leading Kershaw into decades of back-room writing and producing. But maybe he was happier that way (and he did write the enormo-hit ‘The One And Only’ for Chesney Hawkes a few years later).

But from August to December 1987, Kershaw was hob-nobbing with Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones and Toto, flirting with the kinds of scenes that he had mocked on ‘Radio Musicola’ and ‘City Of Angels’. He apparently didn’t get on very well with Wolf at all, virtually re-recording the entire album back in London alongside Australian producer Julian Mendelsohn (Level 42’s World Machine).

But hey, the hard work paid off. There’s nothing else in the ’80s pop canon quite like the techno/pop/fusion flash of ‘Don’t Ask Me’, ‘Wounded Knee’ and ‘Cowboys and Indians’, and Colaiuta’s extraordinary drum performances had players rushing to their practice rooms. In particular, the former track has that fill… If only Vinnie had played on a few of the other machine-driven tracks. And Kershaw coaxes Porcaro to play a classic half-time shuffle on the superb ‘Walkabout’.

It’s still hard to believe that ‘One Step Ahead’ and ‘Elisabeth’s Eyes’ (very influenced by Scritti) completely flopped as singles (though I would have gone with ‘Lady On The Phone’). They still sound great today, with brilliant choruses and nice grooves. ‘Burning At Both Ends’ may be the standout of the album, with its Middle-Eastern-flavoured hook and superb Siedah Garrett backup vox. Slightly less impressive are ‘Take My Place’ and ‘One World’; both could be Climie Fisher or Robbie Nevil.

The album disappeared without trace both in the UK and US. As far as solo pop success was concerned, the game was up. But it’s a shame that the kind of intelligent, superbly-played pop heard on The Works was unsustainable by the end of the ‘80s.

As Nik so succinctly puts it on his website:

Los Angeles for four months with producer Peter Wolf. Get to record with some legends: Jerry Hey, Larry Williams, Paulinho Da Costa, Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Colaiuta. House in Nichols Canyon; Rented Mustang; Earthquake. Constantly bumping heads with Peter. End up finishing album myself in London. More record company upheaval; another MD; another A&R person. Not looking good. European tour with Elton John. Goodbye MCA. Time for a break...”

China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse 30 Years Old Today

‘File under: Victims Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’. That was Q magazine’s memorable verdict on What Price Paradise, CC’s 1986 studio album. They had a point – it was producer team Langer & Winstanley’s unfathomable attempt to turn the Liverpudlians into Madness.

But when Steely Dan co-founder/co-songwriter Walter Becker came back onboard for ’89’s Diary Of A Hollow Horse, released 30 years ago today, normal service was resumed. It now sounds like a perfect follow-up to the 1985 classic Flaunt The Imperfection.

Becker was reluctant to record in England so persuaded the band to convene at George Benson’s Lahaina studio in Maui, Hawaii, just down the road from Becker’s home. He brought engineer Roger Nichols along for the sessions too, famous for his painstaking work on Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. Nichols apparently taught all of the band how to scuba dive during their time off.

It’s hard to know what sort of expectations Virgin Records had for this album. What they ended up with is a kind of chamber pop, mainly the sound of a great, super-tight band playing live in the studio. The only concessions to ’80s music are the teeniest bit of reverb on the drums and the occasional synth overdub, to add colour in lieu of a horn section.

Becker’s real contribution seems to be on the arrangement side (the tasty modulation for the guitar solo in ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’ is a case in point), and he also brings in great backing singers Maxine Waters, Myrna Matthews and Linda Harmon, saxist Jim Horn, guitarist (and Countdown To Ecstasy engineer) Tim Weston and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, who presumably used up most of the recording budget.

Virgin obviously computed the ‘hits’ as ‘Red Letter Day’ and ‘St Saviour Square’, summarily canning Becker’s versions of the songs and bringing in Mike Thorne to ‘re-produce’ them (the ploy didn’t work – the singles stiffed at #84 and #81 respectively). You can listen to all of the versions on YouTube.

Hollow Horse also didn’t work commercially, only reaching #58 in the UK album charts. But this was a period when some great pop/rock by the likes of Danny Wilson, It Bites, Love & Money and David Sylvian (all Virgin acts except for one… hint, hint…) also failed to find a big audience. CC’s album sales diminished as the quality of their work increased – the game was up in terms of major-label support, but amongst fans of quality ’80s pop Hollow Horse has only gained status over the years.

The lads reproduced the album perfectly at London’s Dominion Theatre in spring 1989, a gig whose details elude me apart from the late Kevin Wilkinson’s superb drumming (and ahead-of-its-time, side-on kit placement) and vocalist Gary Daly proudly saying ‘That’s a good one, tha’!’ after ‘Day After Day’. He had good reason to feel chuffed – Diary Of A Hollow Horse still sounds like a minor classic 30 years on.

The Cult Movie Club: All The Vermeers In New York (1990)

A major trope of ’80s or ’80s-set films, books, plays and – dammit – life itself (plus ça change) was the bonkers – or, at the very least, morally unsound – banker, broker or trader. ‘Wall Street’, ‘American Psycho’, ‘9 1/2 Weeks’, ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’. You get the picture.

But in Jon Jost’s movie ‘All The Vermeers In New York’, actor Stephen Lack, best known for his unique performance in David Cronenberg’s cult classic ‘Scanners’, delivered a nuanced, highly original take on the character.

His middle-aged broker Mark is lonely, strange, poetic, neurotic and in possession of a serious death wish. He’s kind of a Zen Patrick Bateman, without the mass murder. So it’s just his bad luck when he becomes obsessed with French acting student Anna (Emmanuelle Chalet), whom he believes looks just like the woman in Vermeer’s painting ‘Study Of A Young Girl’.

Stephen Lack in ‘All The Vermeers In New York’

The film – which I managed to record onto VHS during its one and only showing on Channel Four in the mid-1990s – is kind of ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ meets Mike Leigh, a classic New York art-house movie with its quiet bars, art galleries (Mark finds Anna in the Met, in a scene reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s ‘Dressed To Kill’) and plush interiors, but one that also relies on ‘naturalistic’ performances and mostly improvised dialogue. Jon English’s avant-jazz score is also superb, with more than a hint of Charles Mingus about it.

‘All The Vermeers In New York’ is also weirdly au courant, about the commodification of art and sex, and the all-powerful money-mind. We only see fragments of the characters’ troubled, conflicted lives – the teenager who worries about the unethical companies her rich daddy is putting her name to, the heroin-addicted artist refused money by his gallery-owning friend, Mark wearily intoning about his lonely apartment looking out on a building that could be ‘street-level Europe’.

Roger Ebert gave ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ a decent review on its release. To some, the film will seem like pretentious twaddle, to others a refreshing voyage into a dream world à la ‘Blow Up’, ‘Dead Ringers’, ‘The Music Of Chance’. All I know is that I revisit it about every three years and take something new from it each time.

Director Jost seems to have a very sketchy rep, described online variously as an indie movie pioneer and pretentious waste of space. Yes, ‘All The Vermeers In New York’ probably belongs in an art gallery rather than a movie theatre, but it’s still a fascinating ride.

 

Madonna: Like A Prayer 30 Years On

Here it is: Madonna’s artistic breakthrough, the first album of hers that was really geared to the CD-buying audience, and a fresh start after the distinctly dodgy years of 1987 and 1988.

Like A Prayer (weird title: didn’t someone in the Warner Bros. marketing department say, ‘Hey, it’s a bit similar to Like A Virgin‘?) was released 30 years ago this week. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned six hit singles and has sold around 15 million copies to date.

It was a revelation on a few levels – Madonna’s singing voice had more range and richness. Her lyrics were getting personal. There were two songs about her marriage to Sean Penn, and three zoning in on family relationships. She co-wrote and co-produced all the songs; by all accounts she knew exactly what she wanted and was present at all the tracking sessions, finding ever new ways of inspiring the performances she was after (see below).

She hooked up with co-producer/co-songwriter Pat Leonard to great effect. It was a classic double act – she provided melodies, street smarts and lyrics, he provided the classically-trained piano and arrangement skills. The result was her Sgt Pepper’s, a varied, ambitious, major work.

But how does Like A Prayer stack up these days? Here’s a track-by-track rundown of arguably Madonna’s greatest album.

‘Like A Prayer’: The lead-off single, a US and UK #1, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It was also highly controversial in its allusions to oral sex and an apparent conflation between religious/sexual ecstasy, not to mention the envelope-pushing video.

‘Express Yourself’: Great feminist party pop/funk tune co-written with Stephen Bray, inspired by Sly And The Family Stone and anchored by JR Robinson’s crisp grooving. Shep Pettibone’s single remix subsequently usurped the album version. David Fincher’s video cost a reported $5 million.

‘Love Song’: This duet with Prince was a curious meeting of pop giants, musically in the Lovesexy/Batman mould but lacking a great hook, though apparently they did initially write it eye to eye, Prince programming drums and Madonna donning a synth. Tapes were then worked on individually and sent back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. Whilst interesting, it’s nearer to a Prince B-side than something really memorable.

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A coruscating portrait of her marriage breakup to Sean Penn, made even more poignant by its sprightly Scritti-style pop. Bassist Guy Pratt was the recipient of Madonna’s unique production style on this track. ‘What did you think of that?’ she asked him after one take. ‘Um… I think it was OK…’ was his response. ‘Did it make your d*ck hard?’ Madonna shot back!

‘Promise To Try’: A powerful ballad, featuring an uncharacteristically emotional vocal. According to Madonna, it was written completely spontaneously: ‘He (Leonard) just sat down and started playing, and I started singing.’

‘Cherish’: More Scritti-inspired pop fun, all major chords and twinkling synths, looking at happier times with Sean. Jeff Porcaro’s trademark shuffle is his one and only drumming appearance on the album.

‘Dear Jessie’: An inspired take on late-’60s psychedelia, almost like a children’s lullaby. A very cool, unexpected track.

‘Oh Father’: A gorgeous ballad in 6/4 with music by Leonard and lyrics by Madonna, written in a tiny rehearsal studio in the garment district of New York when Madonna was in ‘a very, very dark place’ during her tenure in the David Mamet play ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Madonna: ‘”Oh Father” is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all the authority figures in my life’. The song’s intro alone can put a big lump in this writer’s throat. Madonna apparently coaxed the band through the song, telling bassist Pratt and drummer Jonathan Moffett in no uncertain terms where not to play. Apart from string section and guitar overdubs, they got it on the second full take, including Madonna’s live vocal. During the sessions, Moffett also asked her when he should come in. ‘You come in when I do this’, she replied, lifting up her blouse!

‘Keep It Together’: Another Stephen Bray co-write, this Go-Go-inspired ode to family togetherness, featuring some brilliant Randy Jackson bass, became a mainstay of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. If you play it loud you can also really hear the superb backing vocals of her regular live duo Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.

‘Pray For Spanish Eyes’: The point where Like A Prayer starts to run out of steam. A corny, soft-rock version compendium of Spanish clichés, complete with castanets and weary acoustic guitar, and a weirdly unmemorable melody.

‘Act Of Contrition’: And here’s the other stinker. Madonna free-associates awkwardly over a reversed version of the title track, with Prince’s backwards guitar track also ladled on to no great consequence.

Further reading: ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo

‘My Bass And Other Animals’ by Guy Pratt