Madness: Five Reasons To Be Cheerful

madnessThese days, brands (and possibly bands) spend thousands – if not millions – of pounds on copywriters who half-inch bargain-basement slogans from popular psychology and self-help books. You know the kind of thing: ‘Find Your Happy’, ‘Believe In Better’ (I’m compiling a list of the worst ad slogans of all time, by the way, if you have any to hand, but I digress…), and all that other absolute twaddle.

Anyway, I’ve needed a cheer-up recently and know a much better way to ‘find my happy’: watching a few Madness videos. It’s easy to forget how great a lot of their stuff is if you’re an English pop fan. They’re so much part of the furniture. According to the stats, no other band spent more time on the UK singles chart during the 1980s.

One of the keys to their longevity seems to be that they are essentially a songwriters’ collective; at one point or another, all the members have had a hand in penning a hit (they famously shared the publishing royalties seven ways – 50% for the writer/writers, and the remainder divided up equally among everyone else).

There’s definitely method in their madness: intelligent, often socially-conscious lyrics that are actually about something, subtly-effective major/minor chord changes, hooks galore, spooky textures (no doubt very influenced by The Specials/Jerry Dammers), a superb rhythm section and the ever-reliable Clive Langer/Alan Winstanley producing/engineering team (the former apparently had lots of good songwriting and arranging input too). And in terms of music videos, surely their body of work is the most consistent of the decade, alongside Talking Heads and maybe a few others.

So here, in chronological order, are my favourite Madness vids – and some pretty damn good songs to boot.

5. Baggy Trousers (1980)

The Ian Dury-influenced classic, written by singer Suggs and guitarist Chris Foreman. I can remember first seeing this video on ‘Top Of The Pops’ like it was yesterday.

4. Shut Up (1981)

Written by Suggs and Chris Foreman from the point of view of a very deluded house burglar, this is a worthy entry into that select group of hits whose titles don’t feature in the lyrics. Blur were definitely listening – compare it with their ‘Sunday Sunday‘.

3. Driving In My Car (1982)

Written by pianist Mike Barson, the video features the lads driving down Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, and there’s even a brief cameo from Fun Boy Three.

2. Our House (1982)

Written by Chris Foreman and saxophonist Cathal Smyth AKA Chas Smash, apparently the one-line chorus was added at the last minute at producer Clive Langer’s insistence.

1. House Of Fun (1982)

Written by Lee Thompson and Mike Barson, this time the chorus was apparently demanded by Stiff Records boss Dave Robinson.

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My Mahavishnu Moment

South-West London, 1986: after a short apprenticeship playing pots and pans, I had been given a very cheap kit by my parents and was taking my first steps towards the world of ‘serious’ drumming (yeah, right… Ed).

I was also fast becoming a major jazz/rock fan, buying the new Weather Report, Mike Stern, Billy Cobham, Lyle Mays, John Scofield and Steps Ahead cassettes from HMV on Oxford Street or my local Our Price in Richmond.

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One evening, my dad had my uncle round for one of their regular music-listening sessions. I gatecrashed. They cranked up the Plastic Ono Band, Santana, Monk and Miles while I sat in on a knackered Spanish guitar.

And then this other tune came on. A massively-distorted, strangely exotic riff crawled out of the speakers. All the conversation abruptly stopped. My adolescent, ‘muso’ brain kicked in – was it Hendrix? Miles? Zappa?

The riff moved through various modes, ascending into a wailing, chromatic guitar and violin crescendo, and then dropped dramatically to the main theme again. And then that drum groove…

Already being a huge major Billy Cobham fan, I had heard bits of Mahavishnu, mainly the mid-80s incarnation featuring ex-Miles sax player Bill Evans and bassist Jonas Hellborg. I was also aware of John McLaughlin’s playing due to his guest spot on Stanley Clarke’s incredible Journey To Love album (though didn’t know it was him on ‘Song To John’ until years later).

But this was different; striking, unhinged, dangerous, downright perverse. ‘The Dance Of Maya’ blew my mind and its otherness hits me just as hard today as it did 30 years ago. Cobham’s 6/8-flavoured groove sounds just as hip and surprising as ever.

Anyway, I was in: I came across a Mahavishnu Best-Of on cassette at my local Our Price, and a whole new world of music opened up. It was time to go back and explore the roots.

Magick Moments: Siouxsie and the Banshees In The Early ’80s

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Steve Severin, Siouxsie, Budgie

One of the nice things about immersing oneself in ’80s music is rediscovering stuff you’d once dismissed or were too young to really investigate. I must have been vaguely aware of Siouxsie’s music at some point in the decade, but she didn’t really appear on my radar until I started to get interested in the Sex Pistols around the early ’90s (she was famously in the studio during the Pistols/Bill Grundy ‘swearfest’ and even had the misfortune of being ‘propositioned’ by the semi-sloshed presenter…).

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

Siouxsie in New York, 1980

But now it’s time to confess: I almost wish I had been a Goth in 1982/1983. In these days of twee, over-sharing singer-songwriters and soul-deadening ‘rock’ bands, what is immediately appealing about Siouxsie and the Banshees is their absolute earnestness, the total lack of irony. They mean it, maaaan! These days, pop bands flirt with magickal images, shamanistic sounds and boundary-pushing lyrics, but the Banshees really were dark and truly an alternative (or reaction?) to shiny, aspirational Thatcherism. The song titles said it all: ‘Halloween’, ‘Nightshift’, ‘Voodoo Dolly’, ‘Arabian Knights’.

They also flew in the face of punk, totally rejecting the ‘DIY’ ethos. As bassist Steve Severin told Simon Reynolds in the excellent ‘Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews And Overviews’, ‘I never understood where that do-it-yourself ethic came from. It was so patently obvious that not everybody could do it. You had to have a modicum of talent and an original idea. But for one moment, the floodgates opened and everyone had their five minutes, put their single out, and then disappeared back to what they were destined to do in the first place.’

The Banshees began the decade with three classic albums of their kind: Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (best album title ever?). It was no accident that they all featured one of the great British guitarists in John McGeoch, master of inventive chord voicings and creative layering. The era spawned a raft of great singles: ‘Spellbound‘, ‘Happy House’, ‘Christine’, ‘Slowdive’, ‘Fireworks’, ‘Israel’, ‘Dear Prudence‘. Even as the post-punk era turned into fully-fledged Goth, they always retained a pop sensibility.

By 1982, though, it has to be said that they had also turned into a truly Bacchanalian outfit, with copious drug use, booze breakdowns and all kinds of weird rituals. McGeoch was sacked after collapsing onstage in Madrid, apparently as a result of an alcohol-induced nervous breakdown. (He re-emerged with The Armoury Show before becoming a member of PiL between ’86 and ’92. He died in 2004.)

The Cure’s Robert Smith filled in on guitar when McGeoch left, as he had at various times between 1979 and 1983 (Polydor Records apparently tried and failed to ‘merge’ The Cure and The Banshees towards the end of this period). He later said of his tenure in the Banshees: ‘It allowed me to go mad for a period of time. I had no responsibilities. I just had to turn up and play the guitar. Severin and I became good friends. Our friendship was based entirely on altered states. I’ve never felt as bad in all my life as when I was in the Banshees. I reached a point of total collapse in 1983.’

Siouxsie herself has revealed that she was on an LSD jag around ’82 and ’83, particularly inspiring the songs on Dreamhouse. Recently, she told MOJO magazine: ‘I seem to remember “Cocoon” being written whilst I was tripping. I was in a rented flat and if I didn’t have a notebook I used to write on the wallpaper.’

The band’s early ’80s period was also musically very influential. There were those effective, trademark tempo changes – usually a slowish intro that suddenly gathers momentum in the verse. As far as I know, no rock bassist had used a flanger pedal before Severin. Budgie came up with some arresting tribal rhythms and all their guitarists pretty much wrote the post-punk rulebook. As Robert Smith once said, tongue firmly in cheek: ‘I just used to turn all the effects pedals on – your basic Banshees sound.’ And Siouxsie is always such a powerful vocal presence. You can hear her sound in everyone from the Cocteau Twins and Lush to PJ Harvey and Florence And The Machine.

So here we are. The Royal Albert Hall, 30th September 1983. Siouxsie in her Goth Princess pomp, Robert Smith (who, despite everything, is obviously an excellent guitarist), Steve Severin and Budgie. Almost wish I’d been there. Were you there (as Shaw Taylor used to say)?

Catching Up With Eddie Van Halen

225px-Eddie_Van_Halen_(1993)When I think of ’80s Eddie Van Halen, the image in my mind’s eye is probably not a lot different to any other fan – he’s grinning from ear to ear, cavorting around the stage, playing some of the greatest rock guitar of all time with one of the sweetest tones.

So it’s interesting to see him recently – sober, reflective, brutally honest, fiercely independent – talking about his life and craft onstage at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

‘Jump’ had always been a favourite of mine and was at the back of my mind when I came across Van Halen’s superb debut album sometime in the late-’80s. In fact, I remember exactly when and where I bought it: Harry’s Records in Twickenham (another one that’s bitten the dust), during my first week of sixth-form college in 1989. I just loved the devil-may-care feel of Eddie’s playing. He was fearless, unconcerned about making mistakes (his dad gave him some advice: if you make a mistake, do it again – with a smile), the same attitude that spurred on Parker, Ornette, Hendrix and Jaco.

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I later got heavily into the VH albums Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984 and OU812, but the band have been completely off my radar since the early ’90s, when I loved the ‘Poundcake‘ single. Having said that, not living in the States, I’ve completely missed the recent new album and TV appearances featuring David Lee Roth back on vocals. Maybe I need to check in again because I dug this:

Anyway, back to the interview. It’s fascinating hearing Eddie chatting about his life and career, away from all the controversy that has dogged the band over the last few decades. He talks about building his first guitar, the last album he bought (clue: it was back in 1986!), demonstrates some techniques and talks candidly about his sometimes difficult early life as an immigrant in the USA. G’wan – give yourself an hour off and enjoy some words from a master.

Steve Khan: The Eyewitness Trilogy

51jiJqsP8ML._SX425_I’ve just had the absolute pleasure of writing the liner notes for a brand new Steve Khan 2-CD reissue featuring his three classic albums of the early ’80s, Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco, just released on BGO Records.

It was an honour to work with Steve on this project. He couldn’t have been more generous with his time/memories and hopefully the package does justice to the quality of the music.

Here’s an excerpt from the liner notes, giving some background to the three albums and also the legendary Eyewitness band:

Acclaimed guitarist/composer Steve Khan’s three classic albums of the early ’80s – Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco – came about seemingly against all the odds. By the end of the 1970s, the jazz/rock boom had come to an end, and the record industry was entering a major post-Punk/post-Disco recession. Khan’s tenure with Columbia Records – which had produced three well-received solo albums, and a ‘Best Of’ compilation – ended in early 1980. Acts such as Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Return To Forever and Herbie Hancock, all of whom had been signed to Columbia before Khan, were no longer selling the same quantities of records, and the ‘Young Lions’, Neo-Bop boom of the early ’80s was just around the corner.

Khan’s response was to go back to basics. The stripped-down masterpiece Evidence (1980) was a one-man-band project featuring an arsenal of multi-tracked acoustic guitars; the album showcased excellent takes on Lee Morgan, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver as well as the famous ‘Thelonious Monk Medley’.

The purity of the acoustic guitar sound on the album inspired a new approach to his electric playing too: “In 1981, I was still searching for a direction on the electric guitar, and it led me to go back to the most basic sound, the one I began with when I was 19 years old at UCLA: just plug into an amp with a Gibson, dial in a little reverb, and play!” The time was also right to move away from classic song-form and branch out into more improvised music-making. “I was ready to surround myself with a totally different group of players in conjunction with a new spirit of making music, something much looser, something not so married to having everything perfectly placed and played. Phone calls were made to three special and very unique players. We got together and the experiment began.”

Drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Anthony Jackson were two of the most in-demand musicians on the New York scene and first-call rhythm section on numerous high-profile sessions including John Scofield’s Who’s Who album. Jackson had also recently joined Khan on the recording of Steely Dan’s Gaucho while Jordan had been busy working with a huge variety of world-class artists as part of David Letterman’s ‘World’s Most Dangerous Band’. And when Khan hooked up with ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena during the recording of Mike Mainieri’s Wanderlust album, the final piece of the jigsaw clicked into place. Khan, Jackson, Jordan and Badrena began to jam regularly at Steve Jordan’s Chelsea loft.

It was quickly clear to Khan that something very significant was happening during those informal get-togethers. “I’m still not certain just what to call what we did”, he says today. “We would begin to play ideas that didn’t seem to have a place in any other musical setting. Here you had four very distinct perspectives on music-making, and four of the most stubborn maniacs one could gather in a room, but somehow it was working. It was magical!” Khan recorded the sessions on a cheap cassette player and, listening back to them at home, quickly realised that the music should be recorded, “before we actually figured out what it was that we were doing!”

In the experimental era of King Crimson’s Discipline, Japan’s Tin Drum and Peter Gabriel’s Melt, the Eyewitness band began with very basic sounds and concepts but over the course of its existence came to use some fairly unique instrumentation to produce music that was complex but always accessible. Jordan’s hybrid drum set included a cowbell, a broken splash cymbal, two hi-hats, two snare drums (tuned slightly differently) and a Simmons bass drum. Jackson developed, designed and played a state-of-the-art six-string bass, while Badrena’s constantly-mutating percussion kit included a turtle shell, timbales, congas and eventually Pearl’s Syncussion synthesizer. He also employed a multitude of eerie vocal effects. This clearly was not your standard ‘fusion’ band.

Co-produced by Khan and Doug Epstein, Eyewitness was recorded at Mediasound Studios over a single weekend in November 1981. It has the spontaneity of a great jazz album and the high production values of a contemporary pop album…

To hear the three albums and read the full article, check out the 2-CD reissue.

Big Band Revolutionaries: 30 Years Of Loose Tubes

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A small segment of Loose Tubes, 1985

Anyone who got into jazz in the 1980s must surely have a soft spot for the legendary anarcho-big band Loose Tubes.

I saw them play live sometime around 1986 in one of those great community-run London venues (Logan Hall? Shaw Theatre? Camden Arts Centre?) that appeared quickly, burnt brightly and then disappeared. I don’t recall much about the music but do remember the crowd; the jazz revival was in full flight so there were lots of very hip people wearing chinos, black polo-necks and sometimes even berets dancing unashamedly.

Then, a bit later, Loose Tubes played on Saturday-evening primetime TV wearing very loud clothes, dancing idiotically and generally clowning around with the audience. It was youthful and different and gave Big Band Jazz a much-needed makeover. Of course there’s always the chance that some people just didn’t think of their music as ‘jazz’ at all, and their clowning may well have put a lot of potential punters off. But the band probably weren’t too bothered about that.

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In a way, the Loose Tubes could only have originated in the ’80s, emerging as it did from composer and educator Graham Collier‘s community big band workshops. There was no ‘leader’ per se (although keyboards/French horn man Django Bates was occasionally seen conducting in very syncopated sections) and any member of the band was free to submit compositions. Consequently, Loose Tubes’ music touched on anything that took its composers’ fancy – samba, heavy metal, folk, Weather Report-style fusion, flamenco, Hi-Life, blues, reggae, free jazz.

Their first self-titled album came out in the summer of 1985 and it was a really nice distillation of their sound (and featured one of my favourite UK drummers, Nic France, who left soon after the recording to join Working Week). Django Bates’ composition ‘Yellow Field’ remains a classic. The followup Delightful Precipice is probably their best known album, and the final studio recording was 1988’s Teo Macero-produced Open Letter.

It was probably a miracle that such a huge band lasted as long as it did (six years) but Loose Tubes was also a superb career springboard for Bates, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Tim Whitehead, guitarist John Parricelli, flautist Eddie Parker, drummers Nic France/Steve Arguelles and ‘bone man Ashley Slater, all of whom are going strong today.

And guess what – they reformed in 2014, playing concerts at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Brecon Jazz Festival and a sold-out week at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. Two live album have also recently been released, Sad Afrika and Dancing On Frith Street, both of which featured music from their original farewell gig at Ronnie’s in September 1990.

Check out lots more about Loose Tubes and the ’80s UK jazz revival in this excellent BBC doc: