Harold Pinter @ 90, The Caretaker @ 60

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 very end of the 1980s, theatre had barely appeared on my radar. I’d seen some Shakespeare, Webster, Sheridan, maybe a bit of Ayckbourn, 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. It covered very familiar territory in terms of its themes 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.

Further reading: George Cole’s Betrayed: The Story Of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

Mark Batty’s About Pinter

Michael Billington’s The Life And Work Of Harold Pinter

Gonna Party Like It’s 1989

So farewell then, 1989.

I mean 2019, of course…

But enough about 2019.

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

Tin Machine

Lenny Kravitz: Let Love Rule

Pixies: Doolittle

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

Trevor Rabin: Can’t Look Away

24-7 Spyz: Harder Than You

Jane Siberry: Bound By The Beauty

Rickie Lee Jones: Flying Cowboys

The Stone Roses

It Bites: Eat Me In St Louis

David Murray: I Want To Talk About You

Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop

NWA: Straight Outta Compton

Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin’

De La Soul: Three Feet High & Rising

The Sugarcubes: Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week

Regina Belle: Stay With Me

Kirsty MacColl: Kite

David Byrne: Rei Momo 

Belinda Carlisle: Runaway Horses

Terry Hall: Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes

Prefab Sprout: Protest Songs

Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon

Prince: Batman

Wendy & Lisa: Fruit At The Bottom

Paul McCartney: Flowers In The Dirt

 

 

John McLaughlin Trio: Live At The Royal Festival Hall 30 Years On

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.

Story Of A Song: Adrian Belew/David Bowie’s ‘Pretty Pink Rose’

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.

Tin Machine: 1989

This week marks 30 years since Tin Machine wrapped up their first year of activity with a low-key gig at Moby Dick’s in Sydney, Australia (4th November 1989).

In the previous 12 months, they’d recorded and released their first album, written and recorded most of the second album, and toured extensively.

Any true Bowie fan must surely like elements of Tin Machine, or at least appreciate the career-reviving value of the band. After all, he was reportedly seriously considering giving up music at the beginning of 1988. My muso college mates and I had an instant kinship with Tin Machine, picking up particularly on the Jeff Beck and Hendrix influences. Never Let Me Down had completely passed me by but this felt instinctively like the natural followup to Scary Monsters.

Bowie first hooked up with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, whose wife Sarah had been a press officer on the US leg of his ‘Glass Spider’ tour. But who should join them on bass and drums? There were mentions of Percy Jones and Terry Bozzio, but they settled on the street-tough Sales brothers, of course previously known to Bowie as the rhythm section on Iggy’s Lust For Life (Bowie suddenly remembered what he had signed up for when drummer Hunt apparently strode into the first rehearsal wearing a ‘F*ck You I’m From Texas’ T-shirt…).

One of the first things the assembled unit apparently did was make a list of the artists that would inform and influence the band’s sound: Neil Young, The Pixies, Cream, John Coltrane, Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Bo Diddley, Sex Pistols, John Lee Hooker, John Lennon.

The debut album was recorded quickly (producer Tim Palmer was apparently barely able to get a decent sound before he realised they were in the middle of a take) and released on 22nd May 1989. How does it sound these days? Pretty damn good. Bowie’s singing is as committed as at any time in his career, and the material is sometimes electrifying.

The Mission/The Cult helmer Palmer brings a cavernous drum sound and great guitar layering, finding a most willing participant in Gabrels; ‘Pretty Thing’ in particular delivers a huge wall of sound. Hunt Sales: a rock drummer who swings. He goes double-time if he feels like it. You can’t teach this stuff. It breathes. It slows down, it speeds up. Gabrels sounds brilliant, consistently coming on like a cross between Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, but with more of a blues feeling.

Back in 1989, it was also absolutely fascinating watching Bowie sublimate himself into a band situation, albeit very ‘artfully’ (one of Gabrels’ proposals for a band name was The Emperor’s New Clothes). He was instructed by the Sales brothers not to over-think his lyrics, but rather to lean on his first instincts. Consequently a few tracks aren’t going to win any #metoo awards but they’re an honest, unfettered portrayal of middle-aged male lust. And why not?

But those tracks are balanced by the tender ‘Amazing’ and politically-charged ‘Crack City’, ‘Video Crimes’ and ‘Under The God’. It’s invigorating hearing David eschewing irony and nihilism in favour of passionate commitment, though he dusts off the old ennui for the brilliant ‘I Can’t Read’.

The album is 20 minutes too long. If it had been shorn of the dire ‘Working Class Hero’, dreary ‘Bus Stop’, turgid ‘Run’ and silly ‘Sacrifice Yourself’, I’d put Tin Machine up there with Scary Monsters as Bowie’s last great rock album.  It’s also largely been forgotten that it was a critical and commercial success, reaching #3 in the UK, selling a million copies and making many writers’ albums of the year.

Weirdly, Bowie bounced straight into announcing his own solo ‘greatest hits’ tour in December 1989, ostensibly to promote the excellent series of Rykodisc CD reissues which had kicked off with the Sound + Vision box set. Quite what his TM bandmates thought of this state of affairs isn’t documented, though Gabrels declined to play guitar on the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour (Belew accepted). Gabrels went off to guest on The Mission’s Carved In Sand instead.

David Hasselhoff @ The Berlin Wall: 30 Years Ago Today

It wasn’t a dream.

The ‘Knight Rider’ star really did precipitate the demolition of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989 by singing his #1 hit ‘Looking For Freedom’, wearing a piano scarf/twinkling jacket, clapping on the ‘one’ and ‘three’ and looking/sounding like he may have ‘enhanced’ his performance somewhat…

Don’t believe me? Here’s the evidence! Everybody sing: ‘I been looking for freedom...’