Book Review: The Invisible Man (The Story Of Rod Temperton) by Jed Pitman

How many British songwriters have made their living exclusively in soul/funk/R’n’B? If you can come up with more than one name, you’re doing pretty well…

It shows just how singular and important Rod Temperton’s career was until cut short by his death in 2016. Though never ‘flavour of the month’ (i.e. not ‘rock’), he has to be in the pantheon of great songwriters, Brit or otherwise.

Jed Pitman is first out of the traps with a biography of the Cleethorpes-born melody maestro who came out of the somewhat unprepossessing mid-’70s Midlands soul scene to somehow write (or co-write) ‘Thriller’, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Sweet Freedom’, ‘Give Me The Night’, ‘The Dude’, ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, ‘Ya Mo Be There’, ‘Love X Love’, ‘Always And Forever’, ‘The Lady In My Life’, ‘Razzamatazz’ and ‘Boogie Nights’.

Pitman’s book evolved from a BBC radio programme and as such does at times feel somewhat like a transcription, with lots of verbatim interview material but fairly limited authorial insight. But that’s nitpicking when one considers his interviewees: Quincy Jones, Siedah Garrett, Michael McDonald, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Bruce Swedien. The only major absentee seems to be Michael Jackson.

It has to be said, the constant theme of these interviews is: I can’t believe Rod wasn’t black. But once he’s got over that elephant in the room, Pitman builds up a more vivid picture of this rather geeky guy writing his funky, hook-laden tunes on a cheap keyboard in the weird town of Worms, Germany.

The groundbreaking disco/funk band Heatwave were of course the first recipients of his signature tunes, but the book’s great success is forging a line through all of Temperton’s work, identifying common traits and signposts. All those little synth and vocal motifs were clearly planned well in advance – it’s also clear that he worked from the bassline up. And what fabulous, much-sampled basslines they were. Even Public Enemy nicked from Heatwave’s brilliant ‘The Groove Line’ for their ‘Sophisticated B**ch‘.

The other really pleasing aspect of ‘The Invisible Man’ is discovering some of the more obscure avenues of Temperton’s career – collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Bob James, ‘The Color Purple’ soundtrack, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ theme music. The book also places a lot more emphasis on his arranging work than is commonly known.

But we never quite work out what makes Temperton tick musically. Who were his main influences? The anecdotes seldom go beyond: ‘He was the real deal’. And Pitman rather glosses over the leaner last 20 years of his career – it would have been interesting to find out more about his view on the more technology-led/minimalist R’n’B of recent years.

But on the whole this is an extremely readable, valuable book, and the world is a better place for it. It certainly had me scurrying to various streaming services to check out everything in Rod’s illustrious songbook. The Heatwave albums, in particular, have been a revelation. (Incidentally, the cover of ‘The Invisible Man’ is pretty ghastly but apparently a very accurate portrayal – almost every interviewee speaks of his obsession with the cigs…)

‘The Invisible Man’ is published now by The History Press.

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Book Review: Uncharted (Creativity And The Expert Drummer) by Bill Bruford

Recently, for work, I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with Paddy Spinks, the man charged with keeping King Crimson together in the 1980s. Chatting about that mighty musical unit recently, he said that Bill Bruford had been the ‘natural showman’ of the band.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read Bruford’s words about the latter part of his distinguished drumming career in the introduction to fascinating new book ‘Uncharted’: ‘I dreaded performance to the point where…I was unable to function meaningfully. Performance had become incomprehensibly difficult and insuperably so.’

‘Uncharted’ is Bruford’s detailed voyage through the psychology of performance, performance anxiety and drumming creativity. He sets out his objectives clearly: ‘I want to suggest some answers to some fundamental questions about drummers. What do we do and why do we do it? Is there anything creative about it? What are drummers for, if not to be creative?’

He provides some answers himself and also garners opinions from a variety of respected players including Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Kate Bush, Steely Dan), Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and Cindy Blackman-Santana.

‘Uncharted’ is most assuredly an academic book, the fruits of a University of Surrey PhD, so it probably won’t surprise any Bruford fans to learn that it features no drummer jokes. But it’s never less than gripping, with fascinating titbits dropped in here and there about a distinguished career in music.

The book shines a light on the current state of the recording world, with pithy comments about the rise of the ‘bedroom’ musician and ‘stay-at-home’ drummer sending in his/her parts via email or Skype. Bruford laments the lessening of time that bands spend together in the rehearsal room these days, often due to financial constraints, rightly commenting that music as complex and nuanced as Yes or King Crimson could only have been produced via lengthy band ‘woodshedding’ sessions.

There are striking observations on the merits or otherwise of ‘playing to your audience’, especially from Erskine: ‘I don’t really give a f**k about the audience. You can quote me on that!’, and also a couple of amusingly barbed Bruford comments about playing double drums with another of the UK’s greatest players. Hint, hint…

Despite its occasional longeurs, ‘Uncharted’ is a fascinating, forensic look at creativity and collaboration, with reverberations that go far beyond the world of music.

‘Uncharted: Creativity And The Expert Drummer’ is published by the University Of Michigan Press.

Book Review: A Message To Our Folks (The Art Ensemble Of Chicago) by Paul Steinbeck

If the 1980s saw the full flowering of PR and image’s influence on the music world, it’s sometimes forgotten that jazz was an unlikely beneficiary of this trend too.

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, that important unit whose line-up went unchanged for almost 30 years until trumpeter/co-founder Lester Bowie’s death in 1999, were a massive live draw during the early ’80s, particularly in France, where they were welcomed more like rock stars than avant-garde jazzers.

Image and stage presentation were undoubtedly big factors. Paul Steinbeck fine new biography of the band ‘A Message To Our Folks’ is a scholarly, forensic study, tracing their origins from the South Side of Chicago through their controversial move to Paris in 1969, return to the States in 1971 and commercial peak in the early 1980s.

He analyses key albums, talks to living members and dissects the Ensemble’s cultural importance. Despite the sometimes frivolous onstage ‘antics’, musically the collective was as serious as your life, to borrow the title of Val Wilmer’s groundbreaking book. Drummer Don Moye remembers Bowie taking him aside after his successful audition and saying: ‘Don’t even mess with us or get any more involved if you can’t commit to playing Great Black Music at a very high level, becoming famous and taking our place in the history of jazz.’ The stakes were high.

They were ahead of their time with the use of slogans, labelling their sound Great Black Music to distinguish it from jazz; according to Bowie, ‘Never before were we even allowed the dignity of selecting a name for our own music.’ They also described their music as ‘Ancient To The Future’.

The band would pick up various celebrity fans: in 1975, Bowie took a trip to Nigeria and became Fela Kuti’s ‘guest of honour’ when he wowed him with an impromptu trumpet solo: ‘I played this blues… After I played a couple of choruses, Fela said, “Stop. Somebody go get this guy’s bags. He’s moving in with me…”‘ David Bowie also famously employed his namesake for the Black Tie White Noise album as did Danny Wilson for their acclaimed debut Meet Danny Wilson.

Don Moye in 2017

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago would also open doors for other instrumental groups with their onstage presentation, verging on dramatic performance – face paint and stage personas were the norm at a time when ‘jazz’ was becoming extremely bland.

‘Message To Our Folks’ is a fairly brief, fairly serious but highly effective biography, a must for general fans and a good companion piece to other key books on Free Jazz: ‘As Serious As Your Life’, Graham Lock’s ‘Forces In Motion’ and Ben Watson’s ‘Derek Bailey’.

‘A Message To Our Folks: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’ is published now by The University Of Chicago Press.

Book Review: The Life & Music Of Randy Newman by David & Caroline Stafford

Randy’s music hooked me sometime in the late 1980s. Lying ill in bed, I heard a lyric wafting upstairs from the living room where my dad was playing some music by an American guy who sounded world-weary, beaten-down: ‘There she is sitting there/Out behind the smoke-house in her rocking chair/She don’t say nothin’/She don’t do nothin’/She don’t feel nothin’/She don’t know nothin’/Maybe she’s crazy, I don’t know/Maybe that’s why I love her so‘ (later discovered to be ‘A Wedding In Cherokee County’ from Good Old Boys).

I’ve been a major fan since then, studying interviews and always checking out  the new albums, and yet the ‘real’ Newman remains elusive. ‘The Life & Music of Randy Newman’, written by husband-and-wife team David and Caroline Stafford, has a damn good crack at revealing the enigma and it’s also the first extensive biography of the singer/songwriter.

There are some great anecdotes. Don Henley reports that Randy’s only direction to him when singing background vocals on Good Old Boys was to ‘sound like a water buffalo’ – i.e. like Randy. When Newman premiered that same album with a concert at the very swish Atlanta Symphony Hall backed by an 87-piece orchestra, he decided to preface the title track by announcing: ‘Here’s a song that’s guaranteed to be offensive to black and white, Jew and gentile…’

The book is exhaustively researched; as befitting a songwriter so interested in historical and biographical detail, the authors do a fine job placing Newman’s songs in context. Tens of published Randy interviews are also mined to produce a great commentary on all the albums. But unfortunately there are no new interviews with Newman, his collaborators or friends, so real insight is scant. There are also occasionally ‘style’ issues too, jarringly flippant phrases that sometimes take one out of the narrative.

But ‘The Life & Music Of Randy Newman’ is an enjoyable read, a fitting tribute to a modern American master. And if one comes away without any concrete sense of the protagonist, in this case it’s hardly the fault of the authors – and probably just the way Newman likes it.

‘The Life & Music Of Randy Newman’ is published by Omnibus Press.

The authors discuss writing the book in this Word podcast.

Book Review: I’m Not With The Band (A Writer’s Life Lost In Music) by Sylvia Patterson

Sylvia Patterson’s hugely enjoyable memoir had me at page 28: ‘The post-punk era, roughly ’78 to ’83, was arguably the most richly dynamic of all musical time, an era defined by a cultural geyser of creative freedom and political indignation – all stoked, crucially, by the incendiary spark of jokes…’

That this pithy analysis of the era grabbed me immediately won’t surprise regular readers of this site. But what was more of a surprise to me was that ‘I’m Not With The Band’ turned out to be in the top two or three music biogs I’ve ever read.

It helps that Patterson is first and foremost a music fan (between 1980 and 1983, she describes herself consecutively as a Mod, Massive Goth, Moody Art-School Dreamer and Indie Kid). She is also a highly respected journalist who cut her teeth writing for Smash Hits during its million-readers-an-issue peak and has also contributed to the NME, Face, Big Issue, Glamour and Observer.

She has been a witness to how music journalism (and the wider recording industry) has become run by the lawyers, PR people and gossip mags. And she knows where the bodies are buried, locating the beginning of the decline in the 1990s when ‘tot pop’ (Christina Aguilera, S Club 7, Britney etc.), boy/girl bands, reality TV, corporate branding, celebrity culture and the internet ran roughshod.

She writes brilliantly about the surreal pop boom of the late 1980s, when Kylie, Jason, Big Fun (remember them?) Guns N’ Roses, Phil Collins, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Enya, Deacon Blue, Milli Vanilli, Brother Beyond (or The ‘Yond, in Smash Hits-speak), Bananarama, Salt ‘N Pepa and especially Bros ruled the waves. But in 1990, as the music biz hits a recession, Patterson opts to go freelance – an interview with Stock/Aitken/Waterman pop poppet Sonia is apparently the straw that breaks the camel’s back…

A few months later she’s on the dole, drinking too much, struggling to pay the rent, mourning her father and brother and rueing the deterioration of her relationship with an alcoholic, mentally-ill mother. Cue the second half of the book and the second half of her sometimes troubled life.

Mariah Carey and Sylvia

‘I’m Not With The Band’ outlines what it’s like to live and breathe music. It has certainly been tough remaining true to her school. But in documenting her journey Patterson also reaches the places other music biogs don’t reach. She’s like a big sister reporting from the front line of the pop biz – you’re always rooting for her, no matter how dark things get.

She also raids her cassette box to sprinkle in hilariously candid interviews with almost all the major pop players of the last four decades: Barney Sumner, Mick Hucknall and George Michael in the 1980s, Richey Edwards, Liam Gallagher, Shaun Ryder, Blur, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Heaton, Bobby Gillespie, Westlife, Page/Plant, Madonna and Prince in the ’90s, U2, Johnny Cash, Beyoncé (sample question: ‘Now you’re working with Jay Z and loads of tough guys, you’re hanging out with ex-drug dealers – how does your mum feel about Jay Z’s background?’), Kylie, Mariah, Britney, Eminem, Lily and Amy in the noughties. She captures exactly what it’s like to meet these people and asks all the difficult questions.

Witty and humane, never boring, occasionally hilarious, at times deeply affecting, Patterson’s book is up there with Giles Smith’s ‘Lost In Music’ (perhaps consciously referenced in the title) in documenting a troubled love affair with this thing we call…pop. We await Mike Leigh’s film adaptation.

‘I’m Not With The Band (A Writer’s Life Lost In Music)’ is published by Sphere/littlebrown.

Sylvia talks about the book in this Word podcast.

Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.