Happy 5th Birthday To Me

Can it really be five years ago today that a piece on Prefab Sprout’s Swoon kicked off this whole damn movingtheriver.com experiment?

Yes it ruddy well can, and it’s been a fun ride.

Even though there are some weeks when it seems the well has truly run dry, ’80s music and movies (to mix metaphors) turn out to be the gifts that keep on giving – there are always old sounds that continue to surprise and new avenues to explore.

So thanks for checking in and contributing now and then. You’ve made an old man very happy. My friend Spike Jones probably says it best:

Steve Martin in…Homage To Steve!

My Steve Martin ‘thing’ probably peaked around 1989. I had just found his ‘Live!’ video (bought on the same day as The Blue Nile’s Hats, if memory serves) and loved his Wild And Crazy Guy LP, ‘borrowed’ from a family friend.

‘Live!’ was taken from a September 1978 gig at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles (supported on the night by The Blues Brothers), when Steve was about as big as a comedian can get. He was even on the cover of People magazine (or ‘Screw Up Your Life’ magazine, as he called it).

Back then, if there’d been anything like the marketing machine of today, he could have retired on the sales of Steve Martin bunny ears, Lucky Astrology Mood Watches or arrows-through-the-head alone.

So how did he do it? Or should that be why? As the cliché goes, maybe America was ready for stupid jokes after Vietnam and Watergate. Someone once said that Steve brought surrealism to the masses. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that movies like ‘Airplane’ wouldn’t have happened without him. But he had a philosophical, post-modern approach too, often starting out with the punchline and then working backwards – or never supplying one at all.

And he was a pretty damn decent magician, musician and juggler too.

And of course he was basically ‘in character’ on stage, an uptight, arrogant white guy in a white suit (remind you of anyone? Stop Making Sense indeed, though apparently the suit idea came from one-time roommate Martin Mull…). During the ‘with-it’, drug-fuelled 1970s, Steve was desperately trying (and failing) to ‘get down’, to be hip, cool and one step ahead of the audience. But the character generally failed, becoming grouchy and out of his depth, hence the famous ‘Excuuuuuuse…meeeeee!’ catchphrase.

Steve was also a Philosophy Major (I can’t say for sure if it influenced my choice to study the subject at university, but with hindsight maybe it did…) and his reminiscences of ‘the intellectual thing’ used to make me laugh a lot. ‘I studied the ethical questions: Is it OK to yell “Movie!” in a crowded fire house? The religious questions: Does the pope sh*t in the woods?’

Then there were the albums – his friend and movie producer Bill McEuen had been recording gigs since the mid-’70s. By ’76, Warner Bros were sniffing around. Again, it’s easy to forget how far ahead of his time Martin was here – stand-up comedy albums were extremely rare at the time, and he didn’t just enjoy some success but smashed it out of the park: Let’s Get Small, A Wild & Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty all went either gold or platinum (and were almost impossible to find in the UK until fairly recently – I had to buy them at the much-lamented J&R Music World during a trip to New York in the mid-1990s).

By 1981’s The Steve Martin Brothers album, the game was up – it was his worst and lowest-selling record. Steve got out of stand-up and into movies. Again, he was way ahead of the curve and extremely influential – you could make a good case for the ’80s scene being wholly driven by comedian-turned-actors: Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, John Candy, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Levinson, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd etc etc.

Since then, Steve has ploughed his own path, writing books, playing the banjo, getting into ‘serious’ acting with some aplomb (‘Grand Canyon’, ‘The Spanish Prisoner’). Some people will never forgive him. Dennis Pennis spoke for many when he zapped Steve with this cruel zinger in the late 1990s:

But hey, that’s my homage to Steve. And if there weren’t enough jokes for you… Excuuuuuse…meeee!

The Walkman Legacy (AKA The Rise Of The Zombies)

Yesterday, when for the fifth time I was forced to avoid a rapidly approaching, earphone-wearing, phone-fixated zombie, it occurred to me that something had gone pretty wrong.

I remember the first time I was really blown away by my Walkman. It was Thomas Dolby’s samples on Joni Mitchell’s song ‘The Three Great Stimulants’. Those clanging industrial sounds seemed to be physically encroaching on me. Then there were a few other striking sonic details only revealed by close Walkman listening, including Donald Fagen’s stereo-traversing reverb vocals on Steely Dan’s ‘The Caves Of Altamira’.

The Walkman was the beginning of the truly solipsistic musical experience. But back then headphone listening definitely seemed a musical experience, designed for quiet contemplation rather than moving around the bustling big city (despite Cliff’s sojourn through Milton Keynes in the superbly naff ‘Wired For Sound’ video).

I took it to be an aural not psychological phenomenon – it was for wading into the music, not blocking out the world. (Actually a lot of ’80s music seems made for headphone listening. Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues and Dolby’s The Flat Earth spring to mind. Is that true of music now? Isn’t it just loud then quiet, or quiet then loud? Does this matter?)

Spotify’s MD Daniel Ek sums things up very well: ‘We are in the moment space, not the music space’. In other words, every important life ‘moment’, every emotion, should be accompanied by music. Or there’s probably something wrong with you.

This might be something to celebrate for musicians – it is, to a degree, but only a tiny percentage of artists are making money from streaming services. Taken to its extreme, it’s another weapon in the war on reality, another mode of desensitization. We are sleepwalking into trouble. We must be mindful. As JG Ballard said, there are danger signs ahead. A fear of robots? Maybe we are the robots. As we walk around in a zombified state, we are losing touch with each other. Street banter is disappearing.  Philosopher Michael Sandel recently wrote in his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy’: ‘Altruism, generosity, solidarity and civic spirit are like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of the market-driven society is it lets these virtues vanish.’

Remember when you rushed to the shops to buy an album? We might do well to keep that excitement about music. It’s not wallpaper or the soundtrack to the mundanities of life. To paraphrase Bill Shankly, it’s far more important than that.

(We apologise for this unseemly rant in E-minor. Normal service will be resumed soon.)

Francis Dunnery Meets… Killing Joke?!

You wait all day for a prog/pop legend and then three turn up at once. David Sancious, Francis Dunnery and Peter Gabriel gathered at London’s Abbey Road Studios on 7th February for a Steinway Pianos event:

Ex-It Bites frontman Francis posted on his always-entertaining Facebook page:

It was great to see David and Peter again. I’m havin’ fun here at Abbey Road. I’m hanging with Youth who I found out is a Capricorn. Killing Joke were an amazing band. It’s all good. Performance tonight for loads of Germans for Steinway Hamburg…

Now that I wanna hear: the Francis D/Killing Joke collaboration. I always suspected It Bites’ classic near-hit ‘Midnight’ was a teeny bit influenced by the Joke’s ‘Love Like Blood’.

It’s a very busy time in the Dunnery camp – he’s just finished the sold-out ‘Eat Me In St Louis’ UK tour (named after It Bites’ 1989 album), played a solo gig at Iridium in New York, has a live album out and is recording a new studio record.

He also has some UK house concerts booked in March and will return next year for ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ tour. Looking forward to that. In the meantime, check out my review of Francis’s recent London gig in issue 38 of Classic Pop magazine.

‘Tis The Season For Crap Cover Versions

An ’80s music scribe whose name escapes me once wrote that Paul Young didn’t just murder Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, he dismembered it and burnt its house down.

I’m paraphrasing of course, but, listening to the current crop of seasonal offerings, I can sympathise. Readers in the UK will have recently been – or will shortly be – inundated with Christmas TV ads half-inching ‘classic’ songs. Years gone by have seen hugely successful ‘pop’ takes on ‘indie’ standards such as Lily Allen’s ‘Somewhere Only We Know’, and probably a few more too.

Love ’em or hate ’em, at least there’s some kind of stylistic consistency there. More disturbing is the recent appropriation of soul and funk classics. There’s a beyond-anodyne, twee, puny take on Rufus & Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’ knocking about, sung by a vocalist/arranged by an arranger who have meticulously removed every vestige of emotion, feel and syncopation from the original.

You could say the same about the version of Camille Yarbrough’s ‘Take Yo’ Praise’ currently all over the telly. A bright spark in adland, or the artist herself, has obviously said: ‘Yes, let’s take this heartfelt tribute to the Civil Rights pioneers and turn it into a banal snore-fest celebrating the feeling you get when you are hoovering up stuff that you really don’t need’. High-fives all round. (Of course Fatboy Slim was first out of the blocks with this one).

And we won’t even get into the cover of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ that has recently reared its ugly head.

When did all of this start? I blame Foghorn Florence’s annihilation of Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’. (She even had the audacity to rename it ‘You’ve Got The Love’!) On the plus side, the original writers are getting a decent wedge from the publishing. Yarbrough apparently takes 60% of the Fatboy royalties. So at least the pioneers won’t have any problem buying Christmas presents this year, or any other for that matter.

But money isn’t everything. So I’ll be hunkering down and attempting to avoid Elbow’s cover of ‘Golden Slumbers’ for as long as humanly possible. In the meantime, feel free to nominate your worst-ever cover versions below.

Square Records in Fripp Country

squareI’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages (living in London, the whole place can sometimes feel like a music heritage site), but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.

As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about fascinating King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp.

Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.

The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt. We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/pitch meeting with Polydor Records to discuss the marketing for King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see Fripp at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.

Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings (probably my favourite spot), Knowlton Church, Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.

badbury rings

But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.

Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’

You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.