Book Review: My Life In The Purple Kingdom by BrownMark

It’s a time-honoured music-biz story: The Hometown Kid Makes It Big. Or to paraphrase Bill Bruford, first you get used to failure, then you get used to success.

But BrownMark’s new memoir ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’, outlining his five-year stint as bassist with Prince And The Revolution, has a few intriguing twists to the old story – firstly, it’s a very timely work, since there’s very little documentation about the Inner Workings of the Purple Rain circus (though this excellent new podcast lifts the lid a little more).

Then there’s the added intrigue of the book mainly taking place in the huge, often-underestimated Midwestern city of Minneapolis. The early sections are gripping, a vision of a young man flourishing as a musician, getting by in (racially and economically) difficult conditions, supported by a loving mother and extended family.

He documents the Minneapolis music scene of the 1970s very well, tracing his development from young Staple Singers/Ohio Players/Earth, Wind & Fire fan into the local ‘star’, with lots of talk about image creation in the era of Rick James and Controversy-era Prince (‘Only women had clothes that fit the vibe I was looking for, but I didn’t want to dress in drag’…).

Soon Prince has his number, and there’s a long, strange section on his recruitment for The Revolution (spoiler alert: hardcore Prince fans should approach the book with caution…), and a memorable account of the infamous October 1981 gig supporting The Stones in Los Angeles. There are some excellent photographs, many of which this writer had never seen, and a fine introduction by Questlove, Prince fanatic and esteemed Black Music documentarian.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is also a cursory tale, a veritable How Not To Succeed In The Music Biz, and it has to be said that Mark sometimes comes across as incredibly naïve, even for a nineteen-year-old. This speaks to something very strange at the heart of the book.

There are missing details that put everything else into doubt – nothing about the status of the offer Mark received from Prince’s management upon joining The Revolution (whisked out of nowhere to join one of the most successful bands of all time, he never discusses terms and then is shocked when ‘cheated’ out of a bonus); nothing about his knowledge of Prince’s music before he joined The Revolution; barely a mention of any Prince songs or interesting musical moments during his time in the band (only Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink get cursory mentions).

The book has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts, ending with Mark’s late-‘80s solo deal with Motown Records, but bizarrely the recent (very successful) Revolution reunion isn’t even mentioned. It’s almost as if he wrote it back in 1990, at the height of his bitterness and brain fog. The closing, cursory thanks to Prince almost raises the first proper laugh.

But ‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ is an absolute must for 1999 and Purple Rain completists and those wanting to know more about the Minneapolis music scene. It’s an arresting piece of social history, often interesting and original, especially in its early sections.

‘My Life In The Purple Kingdom’ by BrownMark (with Cynthia Ulrich) is published by the University Of Minnesota Press.

Book Review: The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma by Ben Sidran

What exactly does a record producer do? Of course the role covers a multitude of aspects but generally falls into two categories – the techie or the psychoanalyst.

Tommy LiPuma was definitely in the latter camp, a five-time Grammy winner, label boss (courtesy of his cult imprint Blue Thumb) and bona fide music fan who worked in the upper echelons of the biz for nearly 60 years (he died in 2017).

A cursory look through his credits reveals a natural collaborator with good taste and good ears, via key albums by Bill Evans, Michael Franks, Randy Newman, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Dr John, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis (who, along with co-writer Marcus Miller, named the track ‘Tomaas’ after him), Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson.

Ben Sidran’s hugely enjoyable ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is the first biography of the producer, and it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to tell his story. Sidran’s a veteran singer/songwriter and pianist who has recorded over 30 solo albums (including a few for Blue Thumb) and written some key music tomes too, including the superb ‘Talking Jazz’, and he interviewed LiPuma extensively for the book.

The fast-moving, entertaining early sections come over a bit like ‘The Godfather Part II’ rewritten by Lord Buckley. LiPuma’s rite of passage takes him through Mob-riddled Sicily, to grim, industrial Cleveland where shoe-shining and hairdressing seem like his destiny.

But a long period recuperating from injury delivers to him the power of jazz, specifically Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s miraculous bebop excursions. LiPuma thus finds his true calling, and a brief career as a jobbing sax player leads to a short period as promotions man par excellence.

But he quickly realises that production is his true metier, and embarks on a glittering career that takes him from MOR vocal acts (The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet) to classy jazz-related roots and pop projects. Cue a succession of amusing, fast-moving anecdotes: a fabulous section on the making of George Benson’s Breezin’, an amusing trawl through Rio with a blasted Jobim, a voyage to Planet Miles via the Tutu album, a surreal encounter with Willie Nelson, interesting sections on breaking Michael Franks and Diana Krall and finally all the recent machinations of the Universal Music Group.

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is warm, witty and resolutely un-PC, initially a portrait of the music biz’s bygone Wild West era featuring an engaging roll call of shysters, hucksters and hipsters, but also encapsulating the whole history of modern recording techniques and philosophies. It’s a great companion piece to Seymour Stein’s autobiography. There’s a lot about the business, but it’s always shot through with humour and an emphasis that, finally, music is about people.

It’s also a valuable historical document too as it’s hard to believe there’ll be any space for these kinds of hands-on, ‘daddy’ producers in the future. Thankfully Sidran doesn’t scrimp on the musical detail – there’s a lot of sage advice for aspiring producers and arrangers alike.

Perhaps the key takeaway from the book is music’s healing power. As LiPuma writes to a friend, ‘I might have been on my own at times but I was never alone. When you’re blessed with the love of music, you are never alone.’

‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is published by Nardis Books.

Book Review: Le Freak by Nile Rodgers

One of the few musical blessings of the last decade was Nile Rodgers’ career reinvention.

But the future had looked pretty bleak at the outset of 2010, with serious illness virtually putting paid to his live career and no new studio product in sight.

Then of course there was a well-received guest spot on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and a glorious concert reboot of the Chic brand, which went from strength to strength as the decade progressed. So it seems a good time to revisit ‘Le Freak’, Nile’s 2011 memoir (and it accords nicely with my current early-’80s NYC obsession).

The focus on gigging during the last decade has been a distinct volte face for a guitarist/songwriter/producer best known for his studio work with Chic, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Johnny Mathis and Al Jarreau.

Chic were to disco what Steely Dan were to rock, bringing jazz chords, complex arrangements and subtly subversive lyrics to the top of the charts, but it’s easy to forget how out of fashion they were in the early ’80s, as ‘Le Freak‘ grippingly outlines.

But it’s also that rare thing for a music memoir, arguably at its best when it steers away from the music. Rodgers was born to a 14-year-old jazz-loving mother in late-1950s New York City, and his early life was a jaw-dropping sequence of underage sex, drug addiction and bohemian excess on all levels. His stepfather Bobby, a heroin-addicted beatnik, nicknamed the asthmatic Rodgers ‘Pud’, short for ‘pudding pie’, and used to reprimand him thus: ‘Pud. Dig yourself.’

Soon, both parents were junkies, and Rodgers turned to TV, movies, truancy and illicit substances, finding his own brotherhood of Puerto Ricans and Italians in Greenwich Village. Rodgers brilliantly captures the flavour of this bohemian underground and black music scene that flourished in the big cities of the US in the ‘60s.

There are tales of studying jazz harmony with legendary pianist Dr Billy Taylor, an early gig with the ‘Sesame Street’ house band and notable cameos from Thelonious Monk, Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Jimi Hendrix. Later his Harlem Apollo debut sees Rodgers being chased around the stage by a crazed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

With musical soulmate, bassist Bernard Edwards, he toured the Chitlin’ Circuit playing the soul, jazz and R’n’B hits of the day, returning to New York to see that dance culture was taking over. Their Big Apple Band quickly became Chic, a black fusion of Roxy Music and KISS, and although Chic quickly became synonymous with the disco movement, their roots in jazz, rock and R’n’B and desire to always include a Deep Hidden Meaning (or DHM) in their lyrics always kept them at some remove from the likes of the Bee Gees.

But things take a turn for the worse when the scene that embraced Chic suddenly implodes and gives way to New Wave, and Nile is brutally candid about his embarrassment that his band (and first solo album) can’t get arrested. Not in David Bowie’s opinion, though, and the extended riff on the making of Let’s Dance is essential reading for any fan of that album.

The passage on the passing of his musical brother Edwards while on tour with a reformed Chic is also moving and perfectly judged, encapsulating Rodgers’ philosophy of music and life.

All in all, ‘Le Freak’ is a fast-moving, well-written, original account of the life of a self-confessed ‘half-hippie, half Black Panther’, and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in black music over the last 50 years.

Rodgers has also intimated that there may be a second volume on the way – yes please. Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jarreau, Mariah Carey, Robert Plant, the B-52s and David Lee Roth are only mentioned in passing, and it would be good to get the full story of Chic’s live renaissance.

Book Review: High Concept (Don Simpson And The Hollywood Culture Of Excess) by Charles Fleming

Director Robert Altman once said of his classic 1992 satire ‘The Player’: ‘What we show is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood’.

Revisiting Charles Fleming’s excellent, coruscating ‘High Concept’, one can easily believe it. It is to the ’80s and ’90s movie scene what Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was to the ’60s and ’70s.

The main focus of the book is Don Simpson, producer of ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days Of Thunder’. He died in 1996 at the age of just 52.

‘High Concept’ explores this fascinating, contradictory character; an egotistical monster who was also inordinately generous to friends and relatives; a rampant egomaniac and alleged sex pest who was nonetheless haunted by his God-fearing Alaskan upbringing; a producer best known for lowest-common-denominator fodder but described by various people as a creative genius whose 30-page memos to screenwriters became legendary. Many also heralded his uncanny ability to find a screenplay’s crucial flaw.

Both the Simpson character and this book feel incredibly prescient. He comes across as half Trump, half Weinstein. There are endless stories that could have sparked a #MeToo moment had Twitter been around in the late ’80s.

He flourished at a time when corporate skullduggery in the movie business was a given. You could get away with anything as long as the studio was profitable. As Fleming puts it, ‘As long as he didn’t kill anyone he was always going to be welcomed back. If he did kill someone, well, arrangements could be made’ (indeed Stephen Ammerman, a doctor, was found dead at Simpson’s pool house in 1995).

Other people very much in Simpson’s orbit included Heidi Fleiss, OJ Simpson and Kato Kaelin. He was ahead of his time but always went too far. Or, to put it in Simpson-speak, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much?’ Fad dieting, plastic surgery, Scientology, junk food, kinky sex, prescription drugs, cocaine – they were all meat and drink to him.

Simpson was also always super-competitive, in the classic ‘Wall Street’ style, from day one. Late in his career, he said: ‘Anytime I see someone come into the business who is smart and talented…and likes to go to lunch and dinner…I know he was failed already. He hasn’t got a prayer. Because someone like me is going to run all over him…’

But ‘High Concept’ opens out intriguingly to look beyond Simpson and explore the rampant egos of the entire Planet Hollywood generation, outlining staggering tales of excess involving Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Downey Jr., Julia Roberts and Charlie Sheen. Only Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise emerge with anything approaching dignity.

Fleming – an experienced, respected movie writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, LA Times, Variety and Newsweek – writes superbly, with natural elan and a swinging turn of phrase. Along with ‘Indecent Exposure’ and ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, ‘High Concept’ is the best book I’ve read about the darker side of modern Hollywood.

Book Review: Ashes To Ashes (The Songs Of David Bowie 1976-2016) by Chris O’Leary

Another song-by-song study of Bowie’s output is certainly an ambitious undertaking; we already have Nicholas Pegg’s excellent ‘The Complete David Bowie’ and David Buckley’s brief but arresting ‘The Complete Guide To The Songs Of David Bowie’.

But O’Leary is more qualified than most, having run the popular Pushing Ahead Of The Dame website for over 10 years now. And, by and large, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ pulls it off, offering a far more personal, florid take on Bowie’s songs than the aformentioned books.

He makes the decision to discuss the songs not in alphabetical order but, roughly, in the order in which they were ‘conceived’ and/or recorded. While this doesn’t allow for easy reference, an alphabetical title index is included at the back of the book.

The section on Low/”Heroes”/Lodger is excellent, with up-to-date interview material from Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew, and a focus on the city’s geography/history mostly missing from previous Bowie books. And it’s great to see the ‘Baal’ sessions getting the detailed analysis they deserve.

Fascinating items also emerge around Bowie’s late-’80s/early ’90s work, from Never Let Me Down through ‘Pretty Pink Rose’ to The Buddha Of Suburbia, with more detail than usual about the formation of Tin Machine. And it would be hard to find a better study of Bowie’s final two albums, even if they are this writer’s least favourite works of the era.

There are predictable put-downs of Tonight (but an excellent analysis of ‘Loving The Alien’, complete with reading list!), Black Tie White Noise and Tin Machine II (which actually would have been a late-era Bowie classic if it had jettisoned Hunt Sales’ songwriting contributions), and some sometimes weirdly-personal slights.

There are also oft-repeated errors about the Let’s Dance era, like the listing of Tony Thompson’s drum appearances (he didn’t play on ‘Ricochet’ or ‘Shake It’), but O’Leary makes up for it with a fascinating section on the fact that Bowie was actually more of an actor than a singer when he made that album.

Musical appreciation doesn’t seem the author’s strong point – for example, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ is described as ‘being ‘mostly in E minor, the harmonic murkiness finally resolved with a closing Em chord’. This ignores the fact that the verse’s home key is clearly G major. And he denegrates Hakim’s ‘gated tom fills’ in ‘I Keep Forgettin’,  but they’re actually the dreaded Simmons electric drums. But elsewhere there are interesting, original observations, like the comparisons between ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Lust For Life’.

One thing’s for sure – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ takes one back to the music. Revisiting Scary Monsters in particular was very illuminating in light of the book. So even if one can’t avoid O’Leary’s natural aversion to much of this material, it’s a valuable addition to the Bowie bibliography.

The question is, will one reach for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for quick reference ahead of the Pegg and Buckley works? Only time will tell (or crawl).

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

Book Review: Small Victories (The True Story Of Faith No More) by Adrian Harte

It’s sometimes forgotten the influence Faith No More had as an alternative rock band. Long before Nirvana, Sonic Youth and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakthrough, they were really the first viable, commercial alternative to the hair metal and retro bands of the mid-’80s.

Adrian Harte’s new biography of the band is a fascinating document of a very strange career. They are certainly not your normal rock outfit; that’s made pretty clear when Harte – a trusted friend of the band and founder of newfaithnomore.com – picks up the story of Faith No More’s two co-founders, keyboard player Roddy Bottum and bassist Billy Gould, a couple of music-mad rich kids ‘enjoying’ a Catholic education at a Jesuit grammar school in Los Angeles.

Inspired by the West Coast and London post-punk scenes (I’m pleased to say that one of their formative gig experiences was seeing a double-header of 23 Skidoo and This Heat at the Battersea Arts Centre, of all places…), they quickly pick up a large local following and garner interest from various labels including Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound.

Adding drummer Mike Bordin is a huge catalyst, and he rivals Rush’s Neil Peart as one of the more intelligent skin-bashers in modern rock – he studied English literature at UC Berkeley, reporting: ‘My specialities were Middle English like Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, and I even liked Shakespeare a lot. To graduate, I did a thesis on Richard Wright, the African-American novelist.’ Mick Shrimpton he ain’t.

Vocalist/frontman Chuck Mosley is the next key addition, and he emerges as the great pioneer of the scene. Harte doesn’t shy away from the political/racial issues ignited by recruiting a mixed-race frontman, but happily is more interested in what Mosley brings to the table both musically and lyrically – he reports that the band’s ‘meta’ ideas (encapsulated by the tracks ‘We Care A Lot’ and ‘Introduce Yourself’) are mainly Mosley’s contributions. We also learn about the roots of rap/rock, Mosley saying that he was ‘trying to imitate David Bowie, but also there was other stuff I didn’t understand, so I would rant and rap over it. I was black and white, so it was my two worlds together.’

The UK was Faith No More’s first major market, but we learn that their Dingwalls debut in early 1988 was almost terminally scuppered when the keyboard roadie locked Bottum’s synth in its case and left the key back at the hotel across town – Roddy had to get the tube to retrieve it, drawing stares with his newly-shaved head and white paper jumpsuit.

After various incidents and misunderstandings, Mosley was sacked from Faith No More after a 24th May 1988 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, and then the band remembered a young kid from Eureka, California, who had thrust his Mr Bungle demo tape into Gould’s hands the year before. But we learn that Mike Patton certainly wasn’t a shoo-in, with the management far keener than the band to recruit him. Gould says: ‘I was scared we were gonna ruin this kid’s life. He was like Justin Bieber.’ Patton was the all-American kid from who’d never been on a plane before. But after he auditioned, adding his lyrics and melodies to ‘From Out Of Nowhere’, they knew they had their man.

Harte’s analysis of Patton’s contribution to the band is excellent, with particular emphasis on his melodies and lyrics (the latter spawning the beginnings of record-company discontent, producer/Slash Records employee Matt Wallace forcing him to tone down his original words for ‘Underwater Love’). And who knew that ‘Midlife Crisis’ was a first-rate – if somewhat disturbing – song about co-dependency (‘You’re perfect/Yes it’s true/But without me you’re only you/Your menstruating heart/It ain’t bleeding enough for two‘)?

We learn all about the band’s high-profile – and sometimes hilarious – support gigs with rock behemoths Guns N’ Roses and Metallica, and there’s also a gripping account of the Berlin gig during which Patton announced the falling of the Wall. If stats are your bag, Harte provides all the impressive info about the band’s record sales and chart placings, and he also expertly accompanies us through the band’s mid-’90s burnout (even as the quality of their records seemed to be increasing), 2009 reunion tour and subsequent comeback album.

‘Small Victories’ is a real page-turner, highly recommended to long-time fans of the band but also general fans of ’80s/’90s music.

‘Small Victories’ is published now by Jawbone Press.