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.

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Book Review: Cries And Whispers 1983-1991 (Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri) by Anthony Reynolds

Which ‘rock’ artists are the most likely to be subjects of not one but a series of biographies? The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan?

Japan are possibly unlikely recipients of such a legacy, but Anthony Reynolds’ superb new ‘Cries And Whispers’ – carrying on from where ‘A Foreign Place’ left off – holds the attention with ease.

His luxuriously-appointed new book takes an indepth look at all the protagonists’ (Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri) careers between 1983 and 1991, a mouth-watering prospect when you realise how scant the serious coverage of these groundbreaking musicians really is, Martin Power’s half-decent 1998 biography of Sylvian aside.

Here you get rigorous research, rare photos and unexpectedly candid interviews from producers, engineers, designers, record company execs, hangers-on and of course the musicians themselves. There are fascinating glimpses under the ’80s pop bonnet, with details of record company correspondence, press releases, tour itineraries/diaries and testimonies from session players.

There’s the odd unqualified muso revelation (did Mark King really get asked to play bass on ‘Pulling Punches’?!) and tasty gossip a-plenty, hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers the troubled Rain Tree Crow project.

In the main, Reynolds wisely keeps musical analysis to a minimum, letting the facts and musicians speak for themselves, and he also – admirably – is as interested in the murkier corners of Sylvian’s ’80s work (the one-off ‘Pop Song’ single, his involvement with Propaganda’s A Secret Wish album) as he is with the better-known stuff.

Indeed, all the chapters on Sylvian’s solo work are terrific, particularly the lengthy portrait of his punishing ‘In Praise Of Shamans’ 1988 world tour. The Rain Tree Crow section is also gripping. There are minor gripes here and there: some quotes from relatively peripheral figures – clearly cut and pasted from email correspondence – could do with trimming, and does anyone really want such a lengthy analysis of Dalis Car or The Dolphin Brothers? But even these longeurs have their fascinating moments.

This writer almost read ‘Cries And Whispers’ in one sitting, passing it from desk to sofa to dinner table to bath to bed, and you may well do the same. It’s another fine achievement by Reynolds and another classic music book to boot. We eagerly await the next instalment.

‘Cries And Whispers’ is published by Burning Shed.

 

Book Review: Pat Metheny (The ECM Years 1975-1984) by Mervyn Cooke

You know the guy: long, bushy hair, beatific grin, jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved T-shirt, usually rhapsodizing intensely via some kind of guitar gizmo. Despite his many stylistic detours, Pat Metheny is a brand all right, and his music inspires a devotion and attendant sales profile that has rarely – if ever – been afforded to ‘jazz’ musicians.

If you – like me – aren’t always enamoured by the bulletproof sincerity of his stage presentation (in Gary Giddins’ memorable words, he ‘intones plush melodies with excessive sobriety, as though the notes were transmitted directly from God’ – the main reason why I’ve always preferred his stuff on record rather than live…), it’s beyond doubt that Metheny is one of the great guitar soloists.

Mervyn Cooke’s superb new book ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ sheds light on the first – and, for me, best – decade of the guitarist’s recording career, when he was the famous European jazz label’s top turn. It’s an academic study, though never boring and certainly never predictable, with close attention played to Pat’s guitar styles, musical history, tunings, key collaborators (loads of new stuff about Jaco, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and Lyle Mays here), equipment, album cover designs and inspirations.

There are fascinating details, like Metheny’s obsession with flat ride cymbals (hence his deliberate placement of drummers onstage, ride cymbals always in close proximity to his left ear) and his singular band-leading philosophies. There are solo transcriptions and quotes from archive interviews. Cooke also shrewdly compares Metheny’s studio work in this era to that of Weather Report’s, drawing parallels between both acts’ meticulous sculpting of supposedly ‘spontaneous’ musical performances and attempts to concoct ‘through-composed’ – rather than vamp-based – material.

Metheny fans will love ‘The ECM Years’, as will anyone who has even the faintest interest in guitar trends of the last 40 years. It also serves as a rich biography of ECM Records in its early years, with numerous revelations about label boss Manfred Eicher.

Reading the book sent me running back to choice cuts from Pat’s early albums that I liked during my teenage years – Bright Size Life, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Travels, Rejoicing, First Circle, Song X. Revisiting As Falls Wichita in particular has been somewhat of a revelation. (Prog fans: check out side one, below. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, analysed in great detail by Cooke.)

Mervyn Cooke’s ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984’ is published by Oxford University Press.

Book Review: Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions by Duane Tudahl

There aren’t many titles in the ‘complete studio sessions’ pop library. Mark Lewisohn and others have done sterling work in this area on the Beatles, and Elvis’s career has been similarly scrutinised. But the relative lack of material begs the question – do we really want to know everything about our icons’ recording histories?

When it comes to Prince, the answer may be a resounding yes, since his mystique is so bound up with his status as a master multi-instrumentalist, famously with hundreds of unreleased songs in the studio vaults.

So such a book was probably only a matter of time, but fair play to Duane Tudahl for ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, a mainly fascinating day-to-day diary of Prince’s studio work (at LA’s Sunset Sound and various facilities and warehouses around Minneapolis) when he was recording the songs that made up Purple Rain, Around The World In A Day and key side projects with Sheila E, Jill Jones, Stevie Nicks, The Time and The Family.

The first half of the book is fascinating for three reasons – it outlines the vengeful decline of one band (The Time) and the adrenalized formation of two others (The Revolution and The Family), though you have to be a major fan of the former to enjoy these sections. It also captures Prince at a crucial juncture in his career, when he was going from mid-table journeyman to title contender.

What comes across loud and clear in the second half is the relentless forward motion of Prince’s creative drive – for example, just a week before the start of his Purple Rain tour, he was completing work on both the Around The World In A Day and The Family albums! We also get a real sense of his famously-short attention span – he curtailed the Purple Rain tour at its absolute peak, bored of the material after only six months.

But the bane of the book is repetition. Too many calendar days are similar –  there’s only so much you can say about two weeks of ‘Baby I’m A Star’ overdubs. In Tudahl’s need to flesh out sometimes fairly uneventful studio days, he uses variations on very similar quotes.

But he also gets some great interview material from almost all of the major players, and there are plenty of revelations and interesting theories – he reveals that ‘When Doves Cry’ was written on Tuesday 1st March 1984, two days after Prince lost two Grammy awards to Michael Jackson. Did this double setback prompt some fairly uncharacteristic introspection, spawning his biggest hit?

Prince is also revealed as a major Springsteen fan, bringing the saxophone sound into his music mainly due to Clarence Clemons’ playing with The Boss. Then there’s his little-known charity work, including a touching photo of a gig at a Minneapolis deaf school, and we also get an insight into his fear before the first night of the Purple Rain tour.

There are also interesting comments about Prince’s business deals – Wendy Melvoin: ‘Collaboration with Prince was a reality, but it didn’t pay the bills.’ Her sister Susannah goes as far as to say that Prince would test people’s loyalty by paying terrible money. These are tantalising – if troubling – morsels, never fully explored by Tudahl.

But he gets closer than most to revealing the true Prince, warts and all. Spoiler alert: some of it isn’t pretty. ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’ is a major achievement and a real labour of love. The years of research have certainly paid off. It’s a vital buy for hardcore Prince fans, but arguably only the second best book on the Minneapolis master – just pipped at the post by Per Nilsen’s ‘Prince: The First Decade’.

‘Prince And The Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions’ by Duane Tudahl is published by Rowman & Littlefield

Book Review: The Big Note (A Guide To The Recordings Of Frank Zappa) by Charles Ulrich

It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way. After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.

Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.

Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.

Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide (Ulrich rightly eschews the chronological approach, reasoning that nothing in FZ’s life or music was ever chronological) featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.

The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs. The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.

Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.

I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).

There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. This is the book his music deserves.

‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.

 

Book Review: Siren Song by Seymour Stein

One thing you could never say about the man born Seymour Steinbigle is that he’s led a dull life. And his new autobiography ‘Siren Song’ is anything but a dull book.

Born in a down-at-heel corner of Brooklyn, he did his time at Billboard, Tin Pan Alley, CBGB and Studio 54 and either discovered or nurtured Madonna, Talking Heads, k.d. lang (who calls him ‘the man with the golden ears’), Ramones, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Ice-T, Soft Cell, Squeeze, The Smiths, The Cult (by now you’ll be gleaning that he’s somewhat of an Anglophile), Lou Reed and Brian Wilson, all via his imprint Sire Records (which he co-founded with Richard Gottehrer).

So far, so common Rock Snob knowledge. And there’s no question that ‘Siren Song’ is a great resource for those who want to know about the making of and/or music-biz machinations behind some of the great modern pop/rock albums: Fear Of Music, Like A Virgin (complete with fascinating gossip about Nile Rodgers’ business dealings), My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, The Queen Is Dead, Ramones, New York. 

And then there are the fascinating tales of Stein signing Madonna from his hospital bed, visiting Talking Heads’ weird Long Island City loft and stalking Jethro Tull. He also writes superbly about the early ’80s music scene, when electro, hip-hop, Afro-beat, indie, new wave, reggae and post-disco combined to produce arguably the greatest ever pop period.

But two aspects separate ‘Siren Song’ from other similar tomes: Stein’s sheer love of music and his penchant for a pithy – but seldom tawdry – one-liner. On his lack of musical knowledge: ‘It’s usually better not to know the disgusting secrets of how the sausage got made.’ On David Byrne’s quirkiness: ‘He was someone I’d always support even if he wanted to make a concept album about toothpicks.’ On seeing Depeche Mode live for the first time: ‘They were four kids poking synths in a dump in the English suburbs.’ On the future of music: ‘Labels will always be needed, because only maniacs like me are insane enough to roam the globe, trawling through miles and miles of sh*t to just every now and then pick out a tiny diamond.’

Stein writes powerfully about the AIDS epidemic and the ramifications of being a gay man living a ‘straight’ life in the ’70s and ’80s (he had a wife and two daughters during the period). He superbly explains the timeless appeal of English guitar bands to Americans. The prologue is also a classic, describing what it means to love music and the joys, perils and sacrifices involved (especially if you’re coming from a working-class family) with seeking a career in A&R (artist and repertoire, or, in Stein-speak, people and songs).

‘Siren Songs’ is an unexpected gem and highly recommended.

Siren Song’ by Seymour Stein and Gareth Murphy is published by St Martin’s Press.