Scritti Politti’s Provision: 30 Years Old Today

A pop formula can be a dangerous thing. In Scritti mainman Green Gartside’s case, it was literally dangerous – dangerous to his physical and mental health.

He speaks of their 1988 album Provision with something akin to dread these days, lamenting the three-year recording process (no less than 10 studios are listed in the credits) and then ‘a year of hell’ – his words – promoting it (epitomised by the fairly dire ‘Boom! There She Was’ video). A full-blown breakdown followed, and he now says he wished he’d had the guts to explore the hip-hop sounds that had begun to enthrall him around ’86/’87.

But, to these ears, Provision is an almost-perfect follow-up to the classic Cupid & Psyche ’85. There’s arguably more cohesion – Gartside and keyboard-playing cohort David Gamson co-wrote and co-produced all tracks (no Arif Mardin this time) and the guest spots from Miles Davis, Roger Troutman and Marcus Miller are expertly placed.

‘Sweetness’ is the word that seems to follows Scritti around. And despite containing two classic ballads (‘Overnite’, ‘Oh Patti’), Provision is unashamedly happy music – all songs are in major keys – and for me it’s one of the ultimate summer albums (’88 was a great year in this regard, Provision sharing disc space with Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick, Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy and Joni’s Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm).

But Green’s lyrics are always subtly subversive. ‘Sugar And Spice’ may be about anal sex or drugs (or both!), ‘Boom’ references Immanuel Kant and a ‘pharmacopoeia’ (dictionary of drugs), amusingly lip-syched by Gartside in the video, while his interest in Marxism is never far from the surface of even the most seemingly-straightforward ‘boy/girl’ song.

And is there a Grammy award for arrangement? If so, Provision should have won. Gamson and Green do some intricate things here with backing vocals (check out ‘Bam Salute’), rhythm guitars and synth syncopation. No-one else has really explored similar areas, including the greats of ’80s R’n’B. No wonder Miles was a bit obsessed with Scritti.

Yes, the songs on side two are a bit too long and possibly point to a dearth of material, and the album could also do with a real drummer (Steve Ferrone, Vinnie Colaiuta?). Provision missed the top 100 in the States but made the top 10 in the UK (selling over 100,000 copies) and produced one top 20 hit in ‘Oh Patti’. Writer Nick Coleman gave the album a 9/10 rave in the NME, calling its songs ‘sweeties to rot your teeth and detonate your heart’.

Hear, hear. That ‘sweetness’ again…

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Prince’s Lovesexy: 30 Years Old Today

Why is Lovesexy probably Prince’s least-heralded, least-mentioned album of the 1980s? Even Dirty Mind, Controversy and Batman seem to get a better rap these days.

The cover photo said it all – this was Prince’s ‘spiritual rebirth’ album, and you were either in or you were out. Lovesexy was also a response to his alleged dabbling with psychedelic drugs (apparently taking place on 1st December 1987) that shook him to his core, and also a response to the highly sexualised, uncharacteristically angry Black Album. He once said, ‘I realised that if I released that album and died, that’s what people would remember me for. I could feel this wind and I knew I was doing the wrong thing…’

So Prince shelved The Black AlbumLovesexy was the speedily-recorded, musically-rich antidote. It’s one of the most challenging albums of Prince’s career but also one of the most rewarding. From the opening synth chords and Ingrid Chavez’s brief ‘poetry’, it’s clear that this is something pretty special. And different.

The horn arrangements are downright loopy throughout. Discordant, dissonant. Instruments are layered to sometimes disconcerting effect. Comparisons to Zappa are not inappropriate. Prince also dials in a lot of his spiritual concerns, with God competing against the Devil (or ‘Spooky Electric’), the purity of the spiritual life competing against the sins of the flesh. With a few jokes.

For many, including saxophonist Eric Leeds, the result was a bit of a mess: ‘I thought it was going to be a great album, but when I heard the final mixes, I was very disappointed. I thought he had completely over-produced the music…’ But the savvy so-and-so that Prince was, he was also careful to throw in three of his most irresistible, ‘throwaway’ pop tunes – ‘Alphabet Street’, ‘Dance On’ and ‘I Wish U Heaven’ – and one of the finest ballads of his career, ‘When 2 R In Love’.

At once scary, profound, silly, funny, romantic and outrageous, Lovesexy still sounds fantastic 30 years on. It was Prince’s first UK number one album and spawned probably the best tour of his career. Here’s how prolific he was at the time – Sign ‘O’ The Times had only come out a year before. And many in Prince’s camp believed that the Sign album and tour had a lot more legs, and that releasing Lovesexy so soon killed them off. We’ll never know. But we do know now that he was coming towards the end of his Purple patch.

Dance On…

Nick Mason: Fictitious Sports

Who are the luckiest musicians in rock? Which players have made the megabucks peddling middling-at-best instrumental skills and generally keeping their heads down? Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Eric Clapton, Phil Selway, Adam Clayton?

Nick Mason would probably have to be in that list too. But then you wonder if the Pink Floyd sticksman has hidden talents – after all, he’s produced the Damned, Robert Wyatt, Gong and Steve Hillage. Good musicians seem to really like and respect him and, to be fair, he has always seemed one of rock’s gentlemen.

He was at it again in 1979 when he gathered a rock snob’s dream team (Wyatt on vocals, Chris Spedding on guitar, cover designers Hipgnosis, record label Harvest) for his one and only solo album Fictitious Sports, eventually released in 1981.

Entirely written and arranged by jazz provocateur Carla Bley, it’s a fascinating, intermittently brilliant project that borrows from art-pop, prog, new-wave rock and even musical theatre to produce something pretty original (hardly surprising if one delves into Bley’s ouevre with any depth).

On the superb, disquieting ‘I’m A Mineralist’, Wyatt rehearses a Peter Gabriel-style blanked-out vocal and Bley inserts some witty Philip Glass Einstein On The Beach-style tomfoolery. And she doesn’t scrimp on the silly but menacing lyrics either: ‘Just the thought of ironing gives me spasms of lust’, ‘Mother used to try to meddle in my affairs’, etc…

‘Do Ya’ is a highly original, witty evocation of a crumbling relationship, reminiscent of something from Robert Fripp’s Exposure, with Wyatt sounding like he’s at the end of his tether. It could almost be the soundtrack to one of those Bruce Nauman man/woman video art pieces.

There are loads of other treats littered throughout, and even a Floyd/Kate Bush-style symphonic rock piece (‘Hot River‘). Mason adroitly leaves the clever stuff to Bley, generally only picking up the sticks during the riff sections. But it’s the best thing I’ve heard him do, with the exception of Syd-era Floyd. An interesting beginning – and end – to an almost fictitious solo career.

 

 

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.

Joan Armatrading: The Key 35 Years Old Today

A&M Records, released 28th February 1983

Produced by Steve Lillywhite (except ‘Drop The Pilot’ and ‘What Do Boys Dream?’ produced by Val Garay)

Principally recorded at The Townhouse, Shepherd’s Bush, London

UK Album Chart position: #10
US Album Chart position: #32

Musicians include Adrian Belew, Jerry Marotta, Tony Levin, Stewart Copeland, Daryl Stuermer, Larry Fast, Annie Whitehead, Guy Barker, Tim Pierce

 

Thompson Twins: Quick Step & Side Kick 35 Years On

‘We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!’ It was Wayne and Garth’s catchphrase but it could just as easily have been uttered by Thompson Twins’ frontman Tom Bailey in response to the band’s worldwide fame during 1983 and 1984.

He told Channel Four in 2001 (see below) that, at the peak of their success, he always felt on the verge of being ‘found out’ – an intruder at ’80s Pop’s High Table. And then there was the ignominy of being christened The Thompson Twats by those naughty boys Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

They were being a tad harsh; The Thompson Twats made some great pop in the early ’80s. But Quick Step – released 35 years ago this week – is fiendishly difficult to ‘place’, representing a kind of musical Year Zero. The only real antecedents seem to be Bowie, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby (who I can’t believe is not a guest keyboard player on the album – if he is, he’s not credited).

After the Twins’ first two records – when they were a kind of Grebo/agitprop/post-punk outfit – Bailey sacked half the band (including bass ace Matthew Seligman) and formed a lean, mean three-piece (Bailey took care of the music, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway the image and stage show, though all got songwriting credits). The final masterstroke was recruiting star Grace Jones/Talking Heads/Robert Palmer producer Alex Sadkin.

The formula worked a treat on Quick Step, recorded at Compass Point Studios on the Bahamas and one of the first albums I loved all the way through. Sadkin plays a blinder, adding loads of percussion, perambulating synths and those much-imitated, elastic bass sounds. There are so many classic early ’80s pop tunes that it’s almost indecent. Just hearing the intros to ‘Lies’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ makes me want to jump up and down like my 12-year-old self. ‘Watching’ – featuring Grace Jones’ hysterical vocals – and ‘We Are Detective’ are also good clean pop fun. The latter even throws in some Piazzolla-style fake accordion for good measure. The only dud I can make out is the closing ‘All Fall Down’.

Quick Step & Side Kick was a big hit in the UK, hitting #2. Those anti-capitalist ideals were quickly waylaid. US sales were helped no end when the ever-prescient John Hughes chose ‘If You Were Here’ for a key moment in his 1984 movie ‘Sixteen Candles’, but the Twins didn’t really hit the jackpot in the States until the follow-up album Into The Gap. They even played at Live Aid – in Philadelphia, not London.

N.B. Michael White wrote a really nice, little-known memoir about life in the Twins called ‘Thompson Twin’. He played live keyboards with the band during their pop peak. Spoiler alert: it was not a bed of roses…