Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They were of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication had the critics purring since 1972. They’ve also often been described as ‘influential’. But is that true? Does any other music sound remotely like Steely Dan?

In the 1980s, the term ‘Steely Dan-influenced’ was bandied about particularly in relation to British bands of the ‘sophisti-pop’ variety: The Big Dish, Style Council, Everything But The Girl, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Hue & Cry, Sade, Swing Out Sister, even Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue. More recently, it’s The High Llamas, Athlete, Mark Ronson, Toy Matinee, The Norwegian Fords, Mayer Hawthorne, State Cows and even Pharrell (this article rounds them up nicely).

None of them really sound like Steely. Sure, they show off some slick grooves, jazzy solos and nice chord changes. But they also generally scrimp on the hooks, harmonic sophistication, production values and soulful, distinctive vocals which characterise Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre. However, there are random tracks over the years – by artists one wouldn’t necessarily have predicted – that have seemingly ‘cracked the code’. Here’s a smattering, not all necessarily from the ’80s. More suggestions welcome if you can think of any.

10. Billy Joel: ‘Zanzibar’

Lush production (Phil Ramone), cool chords, great arrangements, biting Fagenesque vocals, quirky lyrics and nice guitar from Steely regular Steve Khan. Also featuring two kick-ass solos by trumpet/flugelhorn legend Freddie Hubbard.

9. The Stepkids: ‘The Lottery’

Underrated American psych-soulsters deliver jazzy weirdness, a nice groove, cool chords, memorable hooks and a distinctly Fagen-like croon from vocalist Tim Walsh.

8. The Tubes: ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’

The bridge and backing vocals always remind me of Steely, and I’m sure the boys would also appreciate the ‘50s B-movie lyric concept and ‘easy listening’ middle eight.

7. Danny Wilson: ‘Lorraine Parade’

The Dundonians’ superb debut is full of Dan-ish moments but this (sorry about the sound quality) could almost be an outtake from Katy Lied. See also the B-side ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’.

6. Frank Gambale: ‘Faster Than An Arrow’

The Aussie guitar master swapped the chops-based fusion for this slick, lushly-chorded, Steely-style shuffle. Gambale sings, plays piano and guitar and also wrote the excellent horn chart.

5. Maxus: ‘Nobody’s Business’

The little-known AOR supergroup came up with this standout in 1981. Jay Gruska’s vocals and Robbie Buchanan’s keys particularly stand out as Steely-like (apologies for the creepy video).

4. Cliff Richard: ‘Carrie’

More than a hint of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in the chorus, lovely production and Cliff does a neat Fagen impression throughout. And hey, isn’t that ‘Mike’ McDonald on backup? (No. Ed.) Apparently co-songwriter Terry Britten was a huge Steely fan (as Cliff told this writer during a live radio interview circa 2008).

3. Boz Scaggs: ‘We’re Waiting’

Steely regulars Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Findley contribute to this enigmatic cracker which could almost be an Aja outtake. The oblique lyrics possibly relate to Hollywood in some way. See also Boz’s ‘Gimme The Goods’ which sounds suspiciously like ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

2. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’

This Mark Knopfler-written gem pulls off the Steely tricks of simple melody/elaborate harmony and a risqué lyrical theme. There’s also more than a touch of ‘FM’ in the intro riff. Knopfler was always a big Dan fan and of course guested on ‘Time Out Of Mind’. See also Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ whose outro bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Royal Scam’.

1. Christopher Cross: ‘I Really Don’t Know Anymore’

From one of the biggest-selling debut albums in US chart history, this features the production/piano skills of Omartian, backing vocals from McDonald and a majestic guitar solo by Dan legend Larry Carlton. See also ‘Minstrel Gigolo’ from the same album.

Advertisements

Fuzzbox: Self! Self! Self!

fuzzbox_big_bangThe 1980s are littered with bands who started out with the noblest of indie intentions, but then got seduced and/or corralled into major-label action. And they didn’t come much more indie than We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, the Birmingham-born-and-bred, all-female, John Peel-endorsed quartet which formed in 1985.

By 1988, though they had enjoyed a lone top 40 single, you probably wouldn’t have put much money on them making a claim for serious stardom. But against all odds, they spent most of 1989 as proper pop stars…

fuzzbox-smash-hits

Too young to appreciate their early stuff, I had only ever known their ‘pop’ period. But I hadn’t thought about them for over 25 years until the other day when I heard their 1989 single ‘Self’ on Absolute 80s. I was immediately impressed and intrigued; an irresistible slice of post-Frankie, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pomp-pop, ‘Self’ features swooning synths, powerhouse drums, strident, Claudia Brucken-esque vocals, a brilliant chorus and even a saucy Brian May guitar solo. How did they do that?

It was all so different back in ’86. Their first UK single, a double A-side of ‘XX Sex’ and ‘Rules And Regulations‘, appeared on Vindaloo Records and reached number 41 in March of that year. In December, debut album Bostin’ Steve Austin was released, spawning hilarious first UK Top 40 single ‘Love Is The Slug’.

Further single releases included ‘Rocking With Rita (Head To Toe)’, featuring a version of ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ on the B-side, and even a cover of ‘Spirit In The Sky’.

Clearly a change of direction was needed. Apparently it was WEA A&R gurus Rob Dickins and Bill Drummond who masterminded the band’s assault on the charts, recommending a shortening of their name to Fuzzbox, bringing in songwriter Liam ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ Sternberg, putting more focus on lead singer Vickie Perks and recruiting session keyboard player Andy Richards to produce the Big Bang album.

Richards’ credentials were exemplary – prior to ’89 he had played on no less than eight ’80s UK number ones: Frankie’s ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’, George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ and the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Heart’. He had also recently produced Prefab Sprout’s ‘Hey Manhattan‘.

And, in the short-term, Richards did a sterling job – Big Bang went top 5 and Fuzzbox were pop stars. Three singles from the album got into the top 30 – the infuriatingly-catchy Sternberg co-writes ‘Pink Sunshine’ and ‘International Rescue‘ as well as ‘Self’. But the fourth single, a cover of Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, flopped, as did later stand-alone single ‘Your Loss My Gain’. Warners pulled the plug, probably prematurely.

But the story doesn’t end there. Fuzzbox made a comeback in 2010 with a spiffing cover of M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ but sadly lost founding member Jo Dunne in October 2012. After a brief hiatus, they reformed again in 2015 and have just finished touring with The Wonder Stuff. Their YouTube channel claims they are officially the most successful British all-female band. Dispute it at your peril…

UB40: Promises & Lies

Scene of the band's first Birmingham gig

Scene of the band’s first Birmingham gig

Sometimes a decent music documentary can really open up a subject like a good book or movie. The Dexys/Kevin Rowland film ‘Nowhere Is Home’ did the job recently, and last weekend’s ‘Promises & Lies’ does it superbly too. It lets the protagonists speak for themselves purely in interview format without any ‘I’m-going-on-a-journey’, narrator-led BBC guff.

Like Simply Red, Madness or The Beautiful South, UB40 are so much part of the ’80s UK chart furniture (39 Top 40 singles including three number ones to date – surely only Shakin’ Stevens and Madness bettered them during the decade?) that it’s quite hard to listen to their music objectively these days.

By the mid-1980s, they had essentially become a stadium reggae band, exemplified by their joyous Nelson Mandela 70th birthday duet with early mentor Chrissie Hynde (she headhunted them at a London Rock Garden gig in 1980 for a big US tour).

UB40’s huge success has possibly obscured their great passion for the music – singer/guitarist Ali Campbell claims several times in the film that they were always promoting reggae rather than seeking fame, and the claim rings true. But their amazing hit-rate was somewhat of a smokescreen for some serious inter-band issues, culminating in a disastrous schism between vocalist/guitarist brothers Ali and Robin in 2008 that makes the Gallagher boys’ break-up look like a petty family tiff.

It was arguably always on the cards. A very tight-knit bunch of Brummies in their early days, UB40 had always split all their performance and songwriting royalties eight ways, a decision which created financial ‘situations’ (millions missing) that would have given even Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen serious cause for concern. The resentments, claims and counterclaims piled up, and now in 2016 there are two bands gigging as UB40, one almost unbelievably fronted by another Campbell brother, Duncan.

James 'Jimmy' Brown

James ‘Jimmy’ Brown

‘Promises & Lies’ gleans strikingly honest interviews from everyone involved – no punches are pulled. And despite lots of fascinatingly-grim stuff, the documentary shows all band members to be an incredibly resilient, exceptionally talented, somewhat stubborn bunch. Drummer James ‘Jimmy’ Brown gets an especially bad ride in the film, apparently the chief social-media ‘Ali-hater’, but his playing sounds great throughout (no less an ’80s pop personage than The Police’s Stewart Copeland once named him as his favourite rock drummer), as do almost all of UB40’s classic ’80s anthems.

I’ll be looking more closely into a band I’d mainly ‘dismissed’ as a singles act. Catch ‘Promises & Lies’ while you can on the BBC iPlayer.

Julian Cope: Full-On

julian_cope

What I knew of Julian Cope pre-2016:

1. He was the singer in early-’80s pop band The Teardrop Explodes.
2. He was a solo artist later in the decade and had some decent hits like ‘World Shut Your Mouth‘, ‘Trampolene‘ and ‘Charlotte Anne’.
3. He is interested in paganism and various esoterica.
4. He has published a few well-regarded memoirs.

Well, that’s a start. But suddenly everything’s going Cope-crazy round my gaff. For starters, I recently read one of said memoirs ‘Head-On/Repossessed‘ after coming across it in my local library. It’s a hilarious, unhinged, Withnailesque account of a singer’s journey through the 1980s pop firmament.

Here’s a slightly-edited excerpt, an account of Cope’s first acid-assisted appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’ alongside the other Explodes including arch nemesis/keyboardist Dave Balfe.

By the time we reached the BBC TV Centre in London, everyone was f***ed up. We seethed out of the car and moved as one gibbering person towards the dressing room. Tony Hadley (of Spandau Ballet) walked elegantly down the corridor.

‘Hey, there’s Spandoo!’, cried Balfe, and I danced around the singer, psychotically friendly and encouraging.

We piled into the dressing room. Waiting around was not a drag. We got to see Toyah lisp her way through some piece of kack and we got to dance on the stage during our rehearsals. The acid made us happy and nice. We gushed around the place like inbreds at a New England dinner party.

Then we were on. Suddenly the song (‘Reward’) sounded like a massive hit. ‘Top Of The Pops’, man. It’s total bullshit. But it’s brilliant. I loved it. Let’s be huge.

Afterwards, we partied at some club, as you do. Women were nice to me. Men complimented me. I just sat there drooling all night…

A few months later, Cope finds himself invited back to the ‘TOTP’ studios to perform ‘Passionate Friend’ for the 1981 Christmas special. He comes across another of his pop contemporaries:

A group called Bucks Fizz were doing their thing on the other side of the studio. I watched, fascinated. I felt sucked into their scene. God, they were brilliant. I wanted to be in Bucks Fizz…

‘Head-On’ continues very much in this vein, and it’s superb. ‘Repossessed’ concerns Cope’s life and solo career later in the ’80s. It begins with him surveying the wreckage of The Teardrop Explodes:

Here was I, struck down with shamanistic depression, while Balfe had immediately gone off and set up a new label called Food Records, with the cynical, f***-you-up-the-ass ’80s motto: LET US PREY!

F***, man, you invented the ’80s. Learn from your mistakes, you gormless, bug-eyed bushbaby! You’ve preyed on everyone these past years – d’ you have to make such a Thatcherite celebration of it, you unmystical f***er?

If there’s a better put-down in music-biography history, I’ve yet to read it. And then I had a vague recollection of Cope making a memorable appearance on a great programme from the late ’80s called ‘Star Test’ (though, perhaps tellingly, it’s not mentioned in ‘Repossessed’).

Finally, one last recent Cope discovery, fascinating and entertaining, creating lots of food for thought and travel tips. You certainly couldn’t call him an unmystical f***er.

(PS: Julian and Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins: separated at birth?)

Angela Bofill: Angel Of The ’80s

angelaThe strand of jazzy soul music developed by artists like Minnie Riperton, Phyllis Hyman, Chaka Khan, Jon Lucien, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford and Carl Anderson probably reached its commercial apex with Anita Baker’s eight-million-selling 1986 album Rapture.

angela bofill 01

But perhaps the most underrated singer in that style was Angela Bofill, an ever-present on the US R’n’B charts between 1978 and 1984. Best known for her sultry ballads and Latin-tinged mid-tempo jazz/soul tracks, I stumbled upon an Angie Best-Of sometime in the early ’90s and have been a fan ever since.

Her voice has a lovely, yearning quality, with power, range, great enunciation and a hint of Whitney Houston about it. But you’ll never hear Bofill’s music on the radio, at least here in the UK, and it’s a shame that she didn’t quite manage that breakthrough pop hit.

angie

Born in the Bronx to a Cuban father and Puerto Rican mother, Bofill studied classical singing at the Manhattan School of Music. After a tip-off from Latin Jazz flautist Dave Valentin, she was initially mentored by producers Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, recording her successful first two albums Angie and Angel Of The Night for the fledgling GRP label.

Moving to Arista Records under the supervision of legendary impresario Clive Davis, she worked with some big-name producers throughout the ’80s: George Duke, Narada Michael Walden, Norman Connors and The System (David Frank/Mic Murphy). Narada particularly seemed a good fit for her, co-writing a few killers such as ‘Tropical Love‘ and ‘Too Tough‘ and teaming up with future ‘American Idol’ judge Randy Jackson on bass to make a phenomenal rhythm section.

Angela also made a wonderful guest appearance on ‘Where Do We Go’, the standout track from Stanley Clarke’s lacklustre Hideaway album of 1986, and there were also interesting duets with Boz Scaggs and Johnny Mathis around the same time.

But her most impressive material was self-penned. ‘You’re A Special Part Of Me’, ‘Gotta Make It Up To You’, ‘Song For A Rainy Day’ (which she also produced), ‘I Try’ (memorably covered by Will Downing in the early ’90s), ‘Accept Me’, ‘Rainbow Inside My Heart’ and ‘Time To Say Goodbye’ are all stand-outs which demonstrate her fine musicianship as well as vocal skills. It’s a shame her composing, producing and arranging talents were never properly utilised, though she left us with a few classics nevertheless.

Angela made a comeback in the mid-’90s with Love In Slow Motion, a nice album featuring three superb tunes – ‘All She Wants Is Love’, ‘Soul Of Mine‘ and the very Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis-esque ‘Love Changes‘ – which matched anything from her ’80s peak. She also made a notable appearance at the 1998 Montreux Jazz Festival with Billy Cobham and George Duke.

Unfortunately serious illness befell Angela in 2006. Two strokes have limited her recording and live appearances, but she did make a brief return to the stage in 2012: ‘The Angela Bofill Experience’ featured stories from her life and career, with artists such as Maysa Leak, Phil Perry and Melba Moore performing signature songs.

Since then, things have been quiet, but we send good vibes from London. Angie’s certainly not forgotten in these parts.

Marvellous Marvin Gaye: Five From 1983

marvin

Marvin entered 1983 with mixed emotions. His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.

But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career) and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.

Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.

The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs.

Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.

Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game. Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV.

He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly. Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career. It still makes the hairs stand on end.

Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.

His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.

Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.

Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.

Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.

Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.