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.

 

 

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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…

 

John Abercrombie: Getting There 30 Years On

Maybe John Abercrombie was the Andy Murray of jazz guitarists. People say Murray was ‘unlucky’ to be playing tennis at the same time as Federer, Djokovic and Nadal; Abercrombie was arguably ‘unfortunate’ to have been forging a career at the same time as Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield and Bill Frisell.

But a superb career he forged all the same. Starting out as somewhat of a John McLaughlin imitator playing unhinged jazz/rock with Billy Cobham and Dreams on ‘some of the worst fusion albums ever made’ (his words), by 1974 Abercrombie had settled into a long, intriguing career on ECM Records, where he could pursue all his interests, from acoustic guitar duos with Ralph Towner to organ trios with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette.

But one of his best bands was this mid-1980s outfit with ex-Bill Evans/Lyle Mays sideman Marc Johnson on bass and legendary Peter Erskine on drums, often augmented by Michael Brecker on sax too. Abercrombie was getting heavily into the guitar synth around this time, while also using loops and ethereal keyboard patches to beef up the studio sound.

’86’s Current Events was a fine ‘blowing’ record but followup Getting There – released 30 years ago this month – was arguably Abercrombie’s most commercial album. It’s big and bold but definitely no ‘fusion’ sell-out, and it distills its ideas into relatively short, concise statements. It’s also somewhat of a rarity for the ECM label in that it’s not produced by Manfred Eicher – Lee Townsend is in charge here, assisted by James Farber.

The epic title track is loud and proud, almost approaching avant-rock with Erskine absolutely lamping his drums and a hysterical, exciting set of screaming guitar-synth solos. It gets near the approach of David Torn’s sometimes raucous Cloud About Mercury album. Ethereal, gentle and gorgeous ‘Thalia’ (composed by Vince Mendoza) and ‘Chance’ are ambient/jazz masterpieces with shades of Mark Isham’s work.

Classic ballad ‘Remember Hymn’ initially sounds like a re-harmonisation of Sibelius’s ‘Valse Triste’ but slowly becomes a vehicle for Brecker’s haunting tenor. The latter also cleans up on the raucous two-chord blowout ‘Furs On Ice’, reminiscent of Johnson’s Bass Desires band, with Erskine at his most Elvin Jones-like.

Getting There predictably received a somewhat muted critical reaction on its release. I wasn’t bothered about that – having been recommended Abercrombie by a guitar player friend, I bought it sight unseen from HMV Oxford Street on vinyl a few weeks after it came out. It’s still my favourite album by the guitarist. But it would be the last time Abercrombie dipped his toe into ‘rockist’ waters – he quickly regrouped to continue his ever-eclectic, increasingly gentle career, and, to the best of my knowledge, never picked up the guitar synth again…

David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper: 30 Years Old Today

Diamond Dave hit the ground running with his 1986 solo debut Eat ‘Em And Smile. That album had a raw, live-in-the-studio sound, courtesy of producer Ted Templeman and some of the greatest rock musicians of all time (Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, Gregg Bissonette), but sophomore record Skyscraper – released 30 years ago today – was something completely different: a meticulous, layered, fussed-over project.

Vai was promoted to co-producer, Roth enjoying his energy and studio nous, and his influence is all over the record. Vai told Classic Rock magazine recently about their working relationship: ‘We got on really well. We were friends. He listens and doesn’t assume to know everything. But it was his band. He made all the executive decisions. I’m very good at assuming a role and knowing where the boundaries are. I expect that from other people when they’re working with me.’

Vai took his time doubling parts, sculpting solos and thinking of the songs orchestrally. His playing is absolutely brilliant. He forensically explores every chord and adds humour too, an aspect missing from 99% of rock guitarists. The more challenging compositions (‘Bottom Line’, ‘Hina’, the title track) rehearse the concepts that Vai would pursue on his breakthrough Passion And Warfare solo album.

So Skyscraper is musically rich but great fun too. Vocally, Roth has such a strong presence and he busts his butt trying to entertain. Lead-off single ‘Just Like Paradise’ – described by Dave as his tribute to The Beach Boys – reached a very impressive #6 on the US Hot 100, ‘Perfect Timing’, ‘Damn Good’ and ‘Stand Up’ are pure pop, co-written by Roth and keyboard player Brett Tuggle.

‘Two Fools A Minute’ is quite unlike any hard rock this writer has heard, basically a live-in-the-studio take with a succession of nutty mini-solos by Vai and Sheehan. It’s something akin to a heavy-metal show tune, complete with ‘cheesy’ horn section. I love Dave’s little ‘Sizzlin’ to the top!’ exclamation before Vai’s solo and his increasingly weird comments as the track goes on: ‘Where’s the drummer?…Nah, we can’t let Stevie drive…’

There’s a distinct lack of low-end on Skyscraper though. Billy Sheehan’s number was up. He left after the album’s recording and didn’t take part in the hugely successful, 10-month world tour. But he would take a lot of this album’s approach to his next band project, Mr Big.

Skyscraper divided critical opinion on its release but was a big hit, reaching #6 in the US and #11 in the UK. Happy birthday to a fun-filled and oft overlooked minor classic of the ’80s.