Keyboard player Tony Hymas had one of the weirder music careers of the 1980s.
He began the decade helping to make There And Back one of Jeff Beck’s best albums, then popped up in a supergroup called PHD with singer Jim Diamond and drummer Simon Phillips, getting a classic UK one-hit wonder ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ (#2 in 1982!), then played on/wrote arguably the best track from Beck’s pretty poor 1985 album Flash, and then…not a lot for a while.
But he was absolutely vital in Beck’s career comeback courtesy of Guitar Shop, released in October 1989. You might even call it Beck’s last great album, and arguably Bozzio’s too.
They recorded at Jimmy Page’s residential Sol Studios in leafy Cookham, Surrey (Beck later reported: ‘When we finished the album, I left me bike in his shed, so he got a bicycle out of it too…’!). The album ended up taking eight months to write and record because Hymas brought a chess board with him.
Beck took genres that he’d touched upon throughout his career – blues, reggae, rockabilly, metal, funk, fusion – and used them as a jumping-off points, working up material with Hymas and Bozzio in the studio.
And it’s very memorable material. On the title track Beck fondly mocks the gear obsession of guitar magazines, and goes through a range of tones and effects in the process, but…it all just sounds like Jeff. A Strat or Telecaster, distortion/delay pedals, and that’s it. It’s all in his fingers.
On the masterpiece that is ‘Where Were You’, he plays the lion’s share of the melody (reportedly very influenced by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir AKA Les Voix Bulgares) with harmonics and very judicious use of the whammy bar, bending in and out of notes with just the right amount of wrist tension.
Bozzio plays a blinder – mostly reining in his formidable technique at the expense of groove and presence – but unleashes some seriously quick double-bass playing on ‘Sling Shot’. Thrash drummers beware. And there’s THAT amazing fill at the end.
Hymas is a great accompanist – you hardly miss real bass and only very occasionally yearn for another instrumental foil for Beck. A couple of tracks on the album became live staples too, played in concert to this day – ‘Big Block’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Behind The Veil’.
Guitar Shop did OK in the States, making #49, but weirdly didn’t chart in the UK. But it did win a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy award in 1990. Their Hammersmith gig of 29 July that year was one of the loudest ever heard at the venue. Beck talked up the possibility of a second album and tour but it never happened. They did reform for Jeff’s birthday party at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 though. And El Becko got on ‘Rapido’:
In her book ‘Hooked’, legendary movie critic Pauline Kael said that the only fresh element in American films of the 1980s may have been what comedians (Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Murray et al) brought to them.
Could we say the same about British films of the 1980s? Looking at ‘Supergrass’, ‘Eat The Rich’, ‘Morons From Outer Space’ and, er, Cannon & Ball’s ‘The Boys In Blue’, it would seem not. A shame, and strange in a way that the ‘Comic Strip’ generation couldn’t quite make the transition to the big screen.
But Lenny Henry – best known as a British TV star in the 1980s – made a damn good fist at the stand-up concert movie with ‘Lenny: Live And Unleashed’, mostly shot at London’s Hackney Empire, taking on the Americans (Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw’, Richard Pryor’s ‘Live On The Sunset Strip’ etc.) at their own game, complete with a posh credit sequence featuring brilliant impressions of Martin, Murphy and Pryor plus a not-very-funny skit with Robbie Coltrane as the most annoying taxi driver in the world (Why didn’t Lenny fit in another impression there? Couldn’t he have dusted off a De Niro?).
His flashes of surrealism evoke Alexei Sayle and Martin and also it’s clear that by 1989 Lenny had developed into a superb physical actor. He addresses political and racial topics head-on, beginning one skit with the simple statement: ‘We need to see more Black faces on British TV.’
There’s a great celebration of Black music (evidenced also in his appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs just before this was filmed) with homages to Prince and Bobby McFerrin, a good bit on Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ tour, and the striking ‘Fred Dread’ section featuring Dennis Bovell’s natty dub soundtrack.
Other character favourites Delbert Wilkins, Deakus and the Teddy Pendergrass-lampooning Theophilus P Wildebeeste (you couldn’t do that sketch these days…) get a lot of stage time – superb portraits, with heart and soul. A new character, ageing blues singer Hound Dog Smith, gets a workout too, featuring an amusing guest spot from Jeff Beck (who also turned up in a few Comic Strip films around this time).
The box-office performance of ‘Lenny: Live And Unleashed’ is hard to uncover but does it have enough appeal to a non-British audience? Judge for yourself (and I must check out Henry’s next foray into the movie world, 1991’s ‘True Identity’, at some point…)…
There’s a secret history of bands/artists disowning their own albums before they’ve even been released.
Lee Mavers’ La’s, Prince and Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders come to mind, and the brilliant Cumbrian four-piece It Bites can also be added to that list.
They even sent out a ‘please don’t buy our new album’ letter to their fan club. I still have it. Quote: ‘They feel Thankyou And Goodnight to be a complete rip-off on the part of Virgin Records…’ It didn’t work, of course. I bought it during its first week of release.
By summer 1991, a year after guitarist/lead vocalist Francis Dunnery had done a runner from the band (this interview gives intriguing hints as to his state of mind during spring 1990) while they were recording their never-to-be-released fourth studio album in Los Angeles, remaining members John Beck (keyboards), Dick Nolan (bass) and drummer Bob Dalton (then trying to make a go of it as Navajo Kiss, and later Sister Sarah) were less than thrilled to hear that Virgin intended to release an It Bites live album.
But it was out of their hands. They reluctantly helped with track selection/sequencing, approved the artwork and title and Thankyou And Goodnight summarily became the official au revoir to one of the finest British bands of the 1980s.
One top 40 single (‘Calling All The Heroes’) was a pretty dire return for one of the most melodic acts of the era. Virgin should get some blame for that (were they generally better cheerleaders for their solo acts, apart from Genesis, Simple Minds and Culture Club?).
But you hear ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Kiss Like Judas’ and ‘Midnight’ today and it’s inexplicable that they didn’t crack the charts.
In particular, their singular lack of mainstream success throughout 1988 seems to have been a huge shock for the band, especially off the back of an extraordinary sophomore album Once Around The World, sold-out UK tour and well-received Robert Plant support slot.
But back to Thank You And Goodnight. Visually, it’s a pretty shoddy package. The cover looks like it was knocked off by a reluctant Virgin designer after a long liquid lunch. There are no recording dates or technical personnel, save for mixing engineer Nick Davis (XTC, Marillion, Genesis, Phil Collins), whose surname is misspelt.
Then there are some cursory ‘history of the band’ liner notes, with an annoying addendum by a Virgin staffer: ‘We owe you a drink, Ian!’. Yeah, right…
And then there’s the track choice – it’s basically the audio from the televised June 1989 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, plus a few ringers: ‘Yellow Christian’ (recording date/venue unknown) and ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ from London’s Marquee in 1987 (anyone know the date?), previously the B-side of ‘Midnight’.
A better bet for a live album would surely have been the whole T&C show, plus the whole Marquee 1987 show. It’s also surprising that both of their Hammersmith Odeon headliners (in December 1989 and April 1990) were not available for release (but both are allegedly audible on the privately-released Live In Londonbox set, in which I’m yet to invest…watch this space…).
But it’s no surprise to report that most of the music on Thankyou And Goodnight is fantastic. Under Davis’s jurisdiction, Nolan’s bass and Dalton’s drums sound like a million dollars, at least on the T&C tracks. ‘Underneath Your Pillow’ is the standout, emerging as a superb pop song augmented by the extended, proggy ending, with Dunnery quoting from Holst’s Planet Suite (Venus, the Bringer of Peace).
‘The Ice Melts Into The Water’ and ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ (with its clever ‘Old Man & The Angel’ tag) are also superb, fitting reversions.
From memory, I saw It Bites live five times (Brunel University/Astoria 1988, T&C/Hammersmith 1989, Hammersmith 1990) and they were never less than sensational. Thankyou And Goodnight is not a great package but a decent-enough document of their late-career pomp.
What a shame they couldn’t have recorded one more studio album after 1989’s Eat Me In St Louis though and basked in some long-overdue success.
And one further mystery – Dunnery has obviously added some post-production vocals to ‘Ice Melts Into The Water’ – when and where? Maybe he was secretly in on the project after all…
Playwright, actor, activist and poet Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve 2008, would have been 90 years old today.
I couldn’t let 2020 pass without marking that fact and celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘The Caretaker’.
When I started my English Literature ‘A’ Level at the end of the 1980s, theatre had barely appeared on my radar. I’d seen some Shakespeare, Webster, Sheridan, maybe a bit of Alan Ayckbourn, Willy Russell and John Godber, mostly on school trips. Nothing really hit home.
But then my excellent teacher Hugh Epstein introduced us to ‘The Caretaker’. Needless to say, it was like no other play I’d read before. This was the language of the West London streets that I knew. The play’s themes covered familiar territory too.
Pinter’s legendary, hilarious piss-taking was evident from early on – mainly courtesy of the Mick character – but there was something else coming through loud and clear, something heroic, empathetic, charitable, even noble. I was gripped and it began a love affair with Pinter’s work that has lasted almost 30 years.
‘The Caretaker’ premiered on 27 April 1960 at The Arts Theatre in London, and starred Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe. It was a big hit, Pinter’s breakthrough play after a difficult experience with ‘The Birthday Party’. An excellent movie, starring Pleasence, Bates and Robert Shaw, was made in 1963, shot in Hackney and adapted by Pinter himself:
There are so many other great London Pinter memories, many involving his acting performances in his own plays: ‘No Man’s Land’ at The Almeida, ‘The Collection’ and ‘The Hothouse’ at the Richmond Theatre. Also Ian Holm in ‘Moonlight’ at The Comedy Theatre and Michael Gambon’s turn as Davies in ‘The Caretaker’ at the same venue.
Of course he wasn’t only a playwright, actor and poet. A cursory look at his public appearances now – especially those in the last 20 years of his life, when he received the Nobel Prize In Literature and spoke passionately at various rallies – suggests that there are very few public figures around these days with his kind of gravitas. He was known to be prickly – aren’t we all – but also exceptionally generous, as he was to this writer.
He’s much missed. Happy birthday Harold. And enormous thanks to Hugh Epstein who brought ‘The Caretaker’ to life.
Here’s Nick Hornby’s diary entry for 22nd August 1989, taken from his classic book ‘Fever Pitch’:
‘I have stopped buying NME and the Face, and, inexplicably, have started keeping copies of Q magazine under a shelf in my living room; I have bought a CD player; I have registered with an accountant; I have noticed that certain types of music – hip-hop, indie guitar pop, thrash, metal – all sound the same and have no tune; I have come to prefer restaurants to clubs; and dinners with friends to parties…’
Stump bassist Kev Hopper also had an interesting take on the era:
‘Organised raves were happening up and down the country and and the UK was awash with mockney DJs. You were made to feel like some sort of soulless, asexual blob if you didn’t like/want to move to their incredibly unfunky, over-quantised, four-to-the-floor marching music. Most of it had about as much rhythmic interest as a dripping tap. Remix DJs and “keyboard wizards” were calling all the shots, idolized by huge crowds of spazzed-out zombie youth. One thing was for sure: rock bands were out…’
And yet 1989 was one of the best music years of the ’80s, and one of the most contradictory. Happy Mondays and Stone Roses had famously gatecrashed a November edition of ‘Top Of The Pops’, but hadn’t upset the status quo quite yet (and guitars wouldn’t properly make a comeback until the Blur/Oasis era of the mid-’90s, at least in the UK).
The ‘yuppie’ consumer still had a stronghold on the charts, driven by the CD boom and a renewed focus on the home and car (which of course became convulsive).
But there was also the sinking feeling that pop music was no longer ruling mainstream culture. Stock, Aitken & Waterman (via Brother Beyond, Big Fun, Sonia, Sinitta, Jason Donovan and Kylie) and the bizarre Jive Bunny were ever-present in the charts, with TV tie-ins and ’40s/’50s nostalgia particularly prevalent, evidenced by this list of UK number one singles during 1989:
Kylie/Jason: ‘Especially For You’
Marc Almond/Gene Pitney: ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’
Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’
Jason Donovan: ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’
Madonna: ‘Like A Prayer’
The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’
Kylie Minogue: ‘Hand On Your Heart’
Gerry Marsden/Paul McCartney/Holly Johnson/The Christians: ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’
Jason Donovan: ‘Sealed With A Kiss’
Soul II Soul ft. Caron Wheeler: ‘Back To Life’
Sonia: ‘You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You’
Jive Bunny: ‘Swing The Mood’
Black Box: ‘Ride On Time’
Jive Bunny: ‘That’s What I Like’
Lisa Stansfield: ‘All Around The World’
New Kids On The Block: ‘You’ve Got The Right Stuff’
Jive Bunny: ‘Let’s Party’
Band Aid II: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’
And the fact is that era-defining albums by De La Soul, Pixies, Beastie Boys, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry and NWA were crushed in sales terms by the Bunny, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, Kylie, Jason, Sonia, Simply Red, Bros, Phil Collins and Chris Rea.
And though Tiffany and Debbie Gibson had pretty much been snuffed out, crap teen pop was making a comeback in the shape of New Kids On The Block.
But there was still much to celebrate. The second ’80s pop boom was well underway. ‘Smash Hits’ mag was selling a million copies a week. Prog-pop was alive and well courtesy of Marillion, It Bites, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and Trevor Rabin.
There was a serious CD ‘sophisti-pop’ thing going on via Tanita Tikaram, Blue Nile, Black, Julia Fordham, Prefab, Deacon Blue, Toni Childs etc. ‘Going Live’ was a must-watch on Saturday mornings.
Hip-hop was commercial and vital, highlighted by great albums from De La Soul, Young MC, Schoolly D, Tone Loc, NWA and Beastie Boys. The ’60s generation were in fine fettle, evidenced by era-defining rock albums from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Beck and Lou Reed. Jazz and fusion were in good nick.
And don’t forget the post-aceeeed dance scene via Bomb The Bass, S’Express, Yazz, Beatmasters, Betty Boo, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul, the Mondays and Roses.
Here’s just a smattering of 1989 album releases. Looks like a pretty damn good year, whether you were into pop, dance, hip-hop, indie, goth, soul, metal or jazz.
Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi
Danny Wilson: Bebop Moptop
China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse
Lil Louis: From The Mind Of Lil Louis
XTC: Oranges & Lemons
Tone Loc: Loc’ed After Dark
Joe Satriani: Flying In A Blue Dream
Nik Kershaw: The Works
Fine Young Cannibals: The Raw & The Cooked
Madonna: Like A Prayer
Red Hot Chili Peppers: Mother’s Milk
Allan Holdsworth: Secrets
John Lee Hooker: The Healer
Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe
Lou Reed: New York
Lenny Kravitz: Let Love Rule
Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique
Soul II Soul: Club Classics Vol 1
Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin’
Mike Stern: Jigsaw
John Patitucci: On The Corner
Miles Davis: Aura
All About Eve: Scarlet And Other Stories
Marillion: Seasons End
Kate Bush: The Sensual World
Janet Jackson: Rhythm Nation 1814
Julia Fordham: Porcelain
Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon
Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy
Miles Davis: Amandla
Schoolly D: Am I Black Enough For You
Neil Young: Freedom
Blue Nile: Hats
Curiosity Killed The Cat: Getahead
The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South
Recorded 30 years ago, Live At The Royal Festival was the beginning of John’s live career in concert halls rather than ‘rock’ venues, at least as far as the UK goes.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t at this gig, but, in those days, even major shows could easily go under the radar.
If it wasn’t listed in Time Out or The Wire, you could easily miss it. Or maybe I was just turned off by the lack of ‘stars’ appearing with John.
Which was a big mistake, because this album introduced two monster players, both hitherto unknown to UK audiences. Bassist Kai Eckhardt was yet another miraculous bass find for McLaughlin, apparently fresh out of the Berklee School of Music.
Trilok Gurtu brought the best aspects of American jazz and fusion playing but also rhythmic concepts and sounds from his native Mumbai (including a water bucket and tablas). In short, he was a perfect fit for McLaughlin.
It had been a weird few years for the guitarist, closing down Mahavishnu for good, duetting with bassist Jonas Hellborg and guitarist Paco De Lucia but also recording the fabulous Mediterranean Concerto which was finally released in 1990.
So his return to the acoustic guitar had thus far been a partial success, but Live At The Royal Festival Hall was the beginning of an acclaimed trio that lasted nearly three years (though weirdly it doesn’t appear to have made it to streaming platforms yet).
The album starts slowly but gets better and better; a gentle take on Miles/Bill Evans’ ‘Blue In Green’ is nothing special but demonstrates John’s rich, Gil Evans-inspired chord concept.
Adventures In Radioland tracks ‘Florianapolis’ and ‘Jozy’ are quite superb, beautifully rearranged for the trio. When Gurtu lays into the half-time shuffle on the latter, it’s one of the great bits of modern fusion drumming.
His ‘Pasha’s Love’ is an intricately-arranged version of a track on an impossible-to-find Nana Vasconcelos live album. But the album’s centrepiece is ‘Mother Tongues’, the debut of a tune which is a mainstay of John’s live sets to this day.
The only disappointment is the over-extended ‘Blues For LW’, almost derailed by some dodgy group vocals, Gurtu beatboxing and throwaway references to ‘Are You The One?’ and ‘Miles Beyond’.
Eckhardt didn’t stick around for long after this gig, for undisclosed reasons – Dominique Di Piazza came in, yet another Jaco-influenced chops monster.
But Trilok stayed on for the decent 1992 studio album Que Alegria. Then it was time for another change – John’s forte.
One can get caught up revisiting the ‘lost’ periods of the truly great artists of the last 50 years – Miles, Neil Young, Bowie, Dylan, Zappa, whoever.
At the moment, it’s Bowie’s late-’80s and early-’90s that particularly intrigue, roughly the period from ‘Intruders At The Palace’ to Tin Machine II.
There was a lot more to the era than Tin Machine. ‘Pretty Pink Rose’, a song Bowie had originally demo’d in early 1988 with members of Bryan Adams’ band (and one later rejected by TM, though one can hear echoes of it in their cover of Roxy Music’s ‘If There Is Something’), generally gets a bum rap but features some classic Bowie moves, like the descending, superbly-sung bridge and ‘secret’ chord also heard in ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Loving The Alien’.
Bowie rang Belew on 4th August 1989 asking him to play guitar and take the role of musical director on the ‘Sound + Vision’ greatest hits tour. But Belew owed Atlantic Records a solo album, the one that eventually became 1990’s Young Lions. Bowie offered to pitch in with ‘Pretty Pink Rose’. Apparently Belew was initially less than enamoured, but grew to love it.
Belew recorded the backing tracks on 11th November 1989 at Royal Recorders near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, playing all instruments. He achieves a great garage-rock sound with sprightly bass, Leslie-toned rhythm guitars and some mad lead playing courtesy of a Fender Strat wired with a Kahler tremolo arm that he found could be ‘tapped’ on the neck instead of using his finger tips.
Bowie and Belew recorded their duet vocals (at the same mic – apparently Belew was unexpectedly starstruck) on 15th January 1990 at Right Track in NYC (Bowie recorded his spontaneous vocals for ‘Gunman’ on the same day). Apparently a spoken-word intro was later excised, which featured Bowie intoning: ‘She had tits like melons… It was love in the rain’!
‘Pretty Pink Rose’ was released a single in May 1990 but inexplicably missed the top 40 in both the US and UK, despite regular MTV screenings of the Tim Pope-directed video featuring Bowie and Belew hamming it up with ‘Life And Loves Of A She-Devil’ star Julie T Wallace.
Bowie and Belew also played it every night on the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour, augmented by some great chord additions by keyboardist Rick Fox. It looks like they were having a lot of fun. It’s a cracking song and a lost Bowie classic.