Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies. But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.

Bill Evans: Living In The Crest Of A Wave/The Alternative Man

When people say ‘I hate jazz’, I sometimes wonder if they’re really saying they know a crap composition when they hear one.

Legions of talented jazz sidepeople have been given solo record contracts only to deliver music that proves they can’t write decent tunes.

A case in point is saxophonist and William Hurt-lookalike Bill Evans. He’s had a very solid career but his solo work is distinctly underwhelming.  (And then there’s the name. If you play jazz, you probably need a stage name if you have exactly the same moniker as a bona fide legend from decades gone by – the pianist Bill Evans died in 1980.)

But give Sax Bill some credit – he was an absolutely vital figure in Miles Davis’s 1980s comeback, a good friend and carer of the trumpeter and player of several gritty solos on record (Star People is a good place to start). But by 1983 Bill found himself inexplicably frozen out, barely getting any solo space from Miles.

He got the message and jumped ship to join John McLaughlin in the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and also embark on a solo career which kicked off with 1984’s Living In The Crest Of A Wave, a pretty anodyne collection of new-agey fusion. Let’s call it The Metheny Effect. Many tried and failed to ape that guitarist’s mixture of Ornette Coleman-inspired melodicism, Latin flavours and down-home, Midwestern, open-sky simplicity.

With its folky themes, puny production, emphasis on soprano sax, fretless bass, ride cymbals and an ‘environmental’ bent, LITCOAW could almost have come out on Windham Hill. Only the closing title track works up any kind of energy or interest, when Evans finally busts out the tenor and blows up a storm over Adam Nussbaum’s frenetic jazz/rock groove.

Evans’ followup, 1985’s The Alternative Man, was his first record for the illustrious Blue Note Records and as such should have been a celebration. Unfortunately it was an object lesson in how not to use technology, and just the kind of ‘80s ‘jazz’ album that illustrates what a brilliant job Marcus Miller did on Miles’s Tutu.

Evans in the main stumbles around with ugly Linn Drum patterns, electric drums, blaring synth pads and raucous hair-metal guitar solos, all topped off with some fairly insipid soprano playing. A few tracks and you’ll be wanting to break out the Albert Ayler or David Murray albums, and fast.

The only interest predictably comes with two more open, organic offerings, the excellent ‘Miles Away’ which reunites Evans with his Miles colleagues Al Foster on drums and Miller on bass. And ’Let The Juice Loose’ is fun, a cool bebop head featuring some enjoyably un-PC Strat-mangling from the late great Hiram Bullock.

But hey – some of this music brings back good memories, when I was digging around the Record And Tape Exchange and Our Price for bargains and closely monitoring the personnel on the back of my favourite Miles and McLaughlin albums.

These albums also definitely represent a weird time for ’80s jazz, when established labels were signing all and sundry, fishing around for the next Young Lion or Metheny. And thankfully a few dodgy early solo records didn’t hurt Evans’ career much, as he’s gone on to be one of the most respected players on the scene.

The Brecker Brothers: Live And Unreleased

Horn sections – they sure divide opinion, especially in the ‘pop’ realm. Some people just cannot stand all of that pomp and circumstance, while others get turned on by a hot, punchy chart.

But like ’em or hate ’em, some great records just wouldn’t be the same without the horns: The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ for example.

But who are the most-recorded sections of all time? You’d get very short odds on The Brecker Brothers, comprising Michael on tenor and Randy on trumpet, occasionally augmented by David Sanborn on alto too.

They graced hundreds of recordings before Michael’s death in 2007, including Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’, Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Your Latest Trick’.

Under their own name, seven studio albums showcased a really cool sound with funky grooves and intricate harmony, somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan. And now they’ve been given the full-on archive treatment, a new Live And Unreleased album featuring a complete two-hours-plus gig with no edits or overdubs, recorded in Hamburg on 2nd July 1980.

This is a really impressive package, a beautifully-recorded double with extended liner notes by Bill Milkowski and additional, amusing memories from Randy Brecker. The sh*t-hot band includes Neil Jason on bass (familiar to fans of Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood and Avalon), Barry Finnerty on guitar (most famous for a short stint with Miles Davis), Mark Gray on keys and Richie Morales on drums.

The material is a mix of BB favourites like ‘Squids’, ‘Sponge’, ‘Some Skunk Funk’, ‘Straphanging’, ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘East River’. Pleasingly, these are pretty faithful to the original studio versions tempo-and-arrangement-wise, but there’s also a big emphasis on extended solos and one-chord vamps.

It’s also clear that, by 1980, Michael was giving Randy a serious run for his money on the composing front – his tunes and sometimes extraordinary solos dominate proceedings, particularly on the sprightly ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘Tee’d Off’.

Finnerty gets a hell of a lot of solo time but generally pretty characterless compared to other Brecker-approved studio guitarists (Hiram Bullock, Steve Khan), while Gray is excellent but too low in the mix. Morales is rock-solid but, again, fairly anonymous compared to other Brecker favourites Steve Jordan, Terry Bozzio, Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason (hardly surprising, since they are three of the all-time greats…). Jason, with his big, buoyant, funky sound, is the star of the rhythm section.

As usual, ‘Some Skunk Funk’ makes for fascinating listening – the funk/fusion standard has become a kind of test piece for drummers (Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio all had memorable cracks at it, offering subtly different readings). Morales has a good go here but again lacks the invention and drive of the aforementioned.

So: three-and-a-half stars for the music, five for the package. It’s definitely worth immersing oneself in it on vinyl or CD, helped by Randy’s witty between-song comments. It’s a really strong live album with some great performances, and exemplifies an interesting period for jazz/rock when good grooves and extended solos took precedence over technical chops. Even if you can’t stand horn sections…

Huey Lewis & The News: Weather

It’s not easy to make happy music.

But there was a lot of it about in the 1980s, and Huey Lewis And The News were hugely successful purveyors of the uplifting single, particularly during their mid-decade peak when ‘The Power Of Love’, ‘Hip To Be Square’ and ‘Stuck With You’ were seldom off the airwaves.

Does anybody in the world actually dislike this band (Patrick Bateman is a particular fan, of course… Ed.)? Huey has a great set of pipes and they always deliver a reliable fusion of roots music: blues, R’n’B, rock’n’roll, doo-wop and country, with some pop and soul hooks thrown in too.

New album Weather is their first for ten years. Huey has had hearing problems due to a recent onset of Meniere’s Disease, about which he’s reliably sanguine, recently telling Classic Pop magazine: ‘Things could always be worse. After all, I’m deaf, not dead…’

Weather is only 26 minutes long. It’s intended as a followup of sorts to their most popular album Sports. Geddit? Sports and weather… These are simple songs, well played and well written, with decent melodies, bridges, middle-eights and nice guitar or sax solos. And this time ’80s mixmaster general Bob Clearmountain (Simple Minds, Bryan Adams, Hall & Oates) is on hand to deliver a rich, punchy sound, with everything in exactly its right place.

‘While We’re Young’ is a witty R’n’B song about ageing. You can almost imagine Donald Fagen doing it. ‘Her Love Is Killing Me’ is out of the Robert Cray school. The Blues Brothers would have done a great version.

‘Hurry Back’ features a classic Texas shuffle and some decidedly Stevie Ray-style lead guitar. It won’t win any #woke points for its one-night-stand theme – but who cares. The funky ‘Remind Me Why I Love You Again’ also scores highly on the un-PC scale to amusing effect, Huey complaining that his resolutely modern squeeze refuses to cook or clean.

There’s even a cover of Eugene Church’s 1958 doo-wop standard ‘Pretty Girls Everywhere’, complete with ‘boogalee-woogalee’ backing vox. And gentle C’n’W closer ‘One Of The Boys’ is touchingly faux-naive about Huey’s place in the world: ‘Yes I’m playing with my friends/Until the music ends‘.

Weather is not cool, certainly not hip, but effortlessly enjoyable. Somehow Huey Lewis And The News still sound like the best bar band you’ve ever heard in your life.

Prince: Dirty Mind/Controversy

Picture the scene: It’s August 1980 at Warner Bros Records’ Los Angeles HQ. Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli is playing the suits his charge’s new demos.

Both the artist and his manager want to release these rough recordings as the next album.

Fargnoli hits the play button, and these lyrics crawl out over a peppy – but distinctly lo-fi – new-wave groove:

I was only sixteen but I guess that’s no excuse
My sister was thirty-two, lovely and loose
She don’t wear no underwear
She says it only gets in her hair…

Major labels often – quite rightly – take a lot of flak, but Warner Bros deserves credit for taking on Dirty Mind (released 8th October 1980) and Controversy (released 14th October 1981). It was a brave move by Prince too, an incredible volte face after it looked like he might be going down a big-budget, soft-rock/disco rabbit hole. Just compare the Prince and Dirty Mind covers: it was definitely one in the eye for Reagan’s new, ultra-conservative regime.

I first heard these albums circa 1988 via a compilation tape made by my schoolfriend Seb. I already knew and loved Parade and Sign O’ The Times but these older songs sounded like they’d been sent down from a different planet. I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics in those days but sensed something very odd going on.

In the Dirty Mind/Controversy era, Prince’s main modus operandi seems to be: shock at all costs. It’s a novel approach, because if he can express himself completely freely, and then deliver such a classic, ‘throwaway’ rock song like ‘When You Were Mine’, you never know what’s going to come next. Cue a long, great career.

Recorded very quickly during summer 1980 at his rather ramshackle home studio in Lake Minnetonka, Minneapolis (the drum kit apparently sat in a puddle of water surrounded by sand bags), Dirty Mind has more in common with the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Blondie and The Cars than it does Earth, Wind & Fire or REO Speedwagon.

It’s nasty, brutish and short. And of course what struck me listening to it again after five or six years, it’s remarkably stripped down compared to a great deal of modern music – hardly surprising when nearly all the noises are made by Prince. Only ‘Head’, ‘Partyup’ and ‘Uptown’ outstay their welcome, underwhelming grooves with slight vocal performances (though the former became a great live track).

Vinyl is back in vogue big-time, and my old LP version of Controversy sounds absolutely great. Of course it helps that the album’s only 37 minutes long, and also there’s a lot more bottom-end this time.

On a decent turntable, various details emerge like the scuzzy synth bass escaping from the left channel during the Lord’s Prayer on the title track (can you guess it’s a Prince album yet?!) and some low-octave backing vocals throughout.

It’s also a totally schizophrenic album again, with the title track and ‘Sexuality’ laying down a kind of free-love/free-speech manifesto, two rockabilly tunes (one a message to Reagan), a graphic seduction ballad and synthetic funk tune (‘Private Joy’) which marks Prince’s first use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine.

Weirdly, none of these songs made the PMRC’s Filthy 15 list. But they still sound totally fresh, especially the unclassifiable stuff like ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Annie Christian’, ‘Jack U Off’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Ronnie Talk To Russia’.

Prince toured Dirty Mind and Controversy extensively, and there were three particularly infamous gigs during the period: his London debut at The Lyceum on 2nd June 1981 and the two shows supporting The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on 9th and 11th October 1981.  Were you at any of them? Let us know your memories.

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.