‘The baddest shit on the planet’ – that was Weather Report keyboardist/co-founder/chief composer Joe Zawinul’s assessment of his band’s music.
He wasn’t alone – many credit them as the greatest jazz/rock unit in history, pretty impressive considering they developed out of a ‘scene’ that also included The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.
Curt Bianchi has run the acclaimed Weather Report Discography website for many years and now expands his study to create the excellent ‘Elegant People’, an elaborate history of the band which features a myriad of exclusive interviews, photographs and information.
It has Brian Glasser’s effective Zawinul biography ‘In A Silent Way’ in the rear-view mirror but emerges as a very different proposition. Bianchi initially looks in detail at the formative years of Zawinul and co-founder/saxophonist Wayne Shorter, with sobering tales of the young Zawinul’s experiences in wartime Vienna and fascinating insights into Shorter’s extended periods in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey and Miles Davis.
The sections on Weather Report’s formation around 1970 are fascinating. Columbia’s marketing of them as a ‘progressive’ – rather than ‘jazz’ – band led to some interesting dichotomies; Shorter and Zawinul were already established superstars in their field but often had to engage in fairly menial/minor promotional work just to get a foot in the door with rock audiences. We also learn about the other potential band names that hit the cutting-room floor before ‘Weather Report’ appeared.
Bianchi then expertly traces the group from those early days as a kind of ‘chamber’ jazz/rock unit to their status as a ‘power band’ around the arrival of bassist Alphonso Johnson and drummer Chester Thompson in 1975, and the subsequent boost with the recruitment of Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine.
Bianchi brings the albums to life with great gusto. There’s a rare photo from the Night Passage sessions at The Complex in Los Angeles, and the last-ever photo of the Jaco/Erskine band taken at the Power Station in NYC, with Jaco almost a ghost at the back of the shot (shades of that famous final Syd Barrett photo with Pink Floyd). Elsewhere there are ticket stubs and even session track sheets.
And fans of Weather Report’s 1980s music can rest assured that Bianchi doesn’t give that era short shrift – there’s almost as much about the last few albums Sportin’ Life and This Is This (and many of Zawinul and Shorter’s post-Weather Report projects) as there is about commercial breakthroughs Black Market and Heavy Weather.
So ‘Elegant People’ is surely the ultimate Weather Report book – it’s an absolute must for fans and those wanting a deeper dive into the band’s music.
As he says, if you were a music fan and under 30 in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, you probably spent every penny of your disposable income on albums. And there were serious decisions to be made. If you were in the HMV Megastore and found a couple of US rarities but only had enough cash for one, it was a very big call. Mike Stern’s Time In Place or Lyle Mays’ Street Dreams? Better choose right, it might be a few months before you could afford another cassette.
If you were awaiting a new album, after spotting the release date in Q or the Melody Maker, it wasn’t abnormal to visit your nearest record shop twice in a few days to check if it had arrived. In my teens, I remember enduring a 30-minute bus ride (each way) to my local Our Price specifically to buy It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis and Larry Carlton’s Last Nite.
There were definitely a lot of moody ‘High Fidelity’-style shop keepers (always men), but some were more friendly/forthcoming. In a classic discounted store in Soho, I think Sister Ray’s, I remember handing over my Prefab Sprout Protest Songs and Van Halen Women And ChildrenFirst CDs and the assistant grinning and saying, ‘I thought I was the only person in the world who liked both of these albums!’
So I gave the record business a huge amount of my money in the latter half of the 1980s and 1990s. And, as we keep reading, ‘old’ music is hugely outselling ‘new’ music in 2022. Which brings us to my troubled relationship with Spotify. I’m hardly buying any new physical music at the moment. Convenient as it is, Spotify Premium is a lazy option.
I scour the music mags (these days mainly JazzTimes and Classic Pop) and always take the time to listen to every album that piques my interest. But unless it’s an absolute corker, I fillet the two or three good tracks onto a playlist, just as in the 1990s when I used to make cassette tapes of brilliant songs from less-than-brilliant albums. I’ve rounded a lot of them up on this playlist.
I’ve also recently bought a very long audio cable which connects my laptop to the big speakers in my living room, so I can listen properly to this stuff, albeit with all the attendant audio quality issues, but it still gives the illusion that I’m listening to an album ‘as the artist intended’. Balls. The artist is making close to no money from Spotify, unless the streaming numbers are in their multimillions.
So my troubled relationship with Spotify continues, especially as the cost of living rises and rises. Yes we take music where we find it and pay for ‘convenience’ but a far more conscious decision is needed to save ‘new’ stuff. And of course it would help if artists made sure every album track was a winner. Great artwork wouldn’t hurt too.
The story goes that The Human League’s Phil Oakey smashed the phone to pieces immediately after hearing from his manager that ‘Don’t You Want Me’ had gone to number one in America.
There was a creeping suspicion that he had peaked too early, and the only way was down.
Maybe it was a natural reaction in those competitive, cut-throat pop years of the early 1980s, but little did he know that that song would probably come in very handy over the years and pay for kids’ school fees, parents’ homes, tax bills, etc etc.
Nick Duerden’s gripping, important new book ‘Exit Stage Left’ doesn’t interview Oakey but does many others from the pop pantheon who have had some early success and then swiftly asked ‘Is that all there is?’ after a career downturn or ‘change of musical direction’.
Duerden has a formidable contacts book and gets candid quotes from some surprisingly big names. Shaun Ryder tells of having to pay back huge debts after being hit with a legal bill in 1998. Robbie Williams discusses his surprisingly lonely, low-key bachelor life when moving to Los Angeles after becoming the UK’s biggest pop star.
Suzanne Vega relates the shame of having to ‘downsize’ her band and crew mid-tour when audiences failed to fill large enues and The Boo Radleys’ Martin Carr discusses saying no to licensing requests for ‘Wake Up Boo’, trying to hold onto his punk credentials, but then ‘teaching himself to say yes’. Ex-Frankie Goes To Hollywood guitarist Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash talks about his PTSD diagnosis (as do a few other artists).
Elsewhere there are fascinating interviews with Lloyd Cole, Natalie Merchant, Roisin Murphy and Wendy James on the relative benefits of success and the words of Kevin Rowland, Musical Youth’s Dennis Seaton and Ed Tudor-Pole are touching and somewhat humbling.
Duerden writes with compassion and has a winning way of summing up his interviewees’ physical essences – Stereo MC’s Rob Birch ‘never rose to his full height but rather hovered in a perpetual half crouch, as if his bones were made from elastic bands.’ Billy Bragg ‘looked like he would sunburn easily and so was best kept far from exotic beaches.’
‘Exit Stage Left’ is a sobering read and will ring true to anyone who’s ever been stung by the business, or had their dream job whipped from beneath them. Thanks to Duerden’s witty, fast-moving style, it’s pithy and powerful but never too depressing.
The book also touches on areas generally not touched with a ten-foot (Tudor) pole by the music biz – mental illness, poverty, shame, family estrangement, divorce, burnout. Like any other industry, the music biz sure has its casualties. And if the more discerning, slightly cynical reader may at points be shouting: ‘Why don’t you just go and get a NORMAL job?’ – well, a surprising amount of the interviewees did just that.
Along with Simon Garfield’s ‘Expensive Habits’, Eamonn Forde’s ‘The Final Days Of EMI’ and Seymour Stein’s ‘Siren Song’, ‘Exit Stage Left’ is one of the most illuminating books this correspondent has read about the music industry – how it really operates. As Duerden says, ‘Successful businesses tend to be the most ruthless, and the music business is very successful indeed.’ Don’t miss.
If Liverpool weren’t your favourite football team in the 1980s, they were probably your second or third team.
They set new standards with their ‘pass and move’ philosophy, brilliant goalscorers (Ian Rush, John Aldridge etc), probing wingers/midfielders and a famously tight defence (Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson et al).
But of course the team saw more than its fair share of tragedy during the decade too, the Heysel and Hillsborough stadium disasters looming large to this day.
Simon Hughes (namesake of the ex-cricketer/journalist) has interviewed many of the key players from that fabled 1980s Liverpool unit, plus notoriously strict coach Ronnie Moran, to create a candid, funny, sometimes touching account of the decade.
Aided by Hughes’s crisp, witty scene-setting, ‘Red Machine’ is chock-full of amusing anecdotes (frequently homesick Ian Rush’s nickname amongst the team was ‘E.T.’ – he was always phoning home…) and pithy observations.
It’s fair to say that many of these players have intriguing backstories. Bruce Grobbelaar (lest we forget, the most decorated goalkeeper in the history of English football) talks about fighting in the Rhodesian Bush War before his time at Liverpool, while John Barnes and Howard Gayle discuss their experiences of racism inside the game and outside it.
Craig Johnston’s life story would make a great movie, and many probably don’t know that he retired at the peak of his footballing career to care for his chronically-ill sister.
Heysel and Hillsborough are discussed in detail by all who were present, with player/manager Kenny Dalglish emerging as a hero. Margaret Thatcher’s regime and Liverpool’s social, economic and racial divisions are regular talking points.
Football-wise, Graeme Souness is frequently named as the team’s greatest player of the era (indeed many describe him as Europe’s best during the 1980s).
But ‘Red Machine’ also scores highly by offering the views of players who didn’t quite ‘make it’ – Michael Robinson, Gayle, Kevin Sheedy – and also exploring what it was like for a true southerner (Nigel Spackman) to establish himself on Merseyside.
I had also been looking for a decent history of English football in the 1980s – ‘Red Machine’ does that very nicely too. It’s highly recommended, and spawns memories of a great time to be a football fan, despite the obvious issues.
Gil Scott-Heron’s work could hardly be more relevant as we move into 2022.
The singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, poet and activist, who died in 2011, was arguably one of the most influential recording artists to emerge since the 1960s.
Malik Al Nasir, the poet, musician and activist formerly known as Mark Watson, has quite a story to tell in his memoir ‘Letters To Gil’. Essentially it’s an extended riff on a great obituary that originally appeared in The Guardian.
At the age of nine, Al Nasir was taken into care when his father became paralysed after a stroke. The early part of the book is a moving, grim portrait of Liverpool care homes in the late 1970s and 1980s, a system which turns out to be mostly abusive, racist, neglectful and exploitative (some lawsuits roll on to this day). This is the situation that lead up to the Toxteth riots of summer 1981 writ large.
But then Al Nasir’s life completely changes in 1984 at 18 years old when he gets into Scott-Heron’s performance at the Liverpool Royal Court and manages to meet his hero.
From then on, the two become firm friends, and Scott-Heron becomes his mentor, educating him on the music business and Black history, reading and critiquing his poetry (despite Al Nasir being virtually illiterate when they first meet).
Al Nasir also joins Scott-Heron on several tours, becoming his trusted confidante and PA, and the most gripping sections of the book deal with the machinations of travelling alongside a world-class musician. Later there’s a moving section when Al Nasir visits Scott-Heron in prison during a very dark time in the latter’s life, and we hear a lot of detail about Gil’s sad death and the various heartfelt tributes that emerged in its wake.
‘Letters To Gil’ is a must for anyone with even the slightest interest in Scott-Heron’s work and its relation to other key proto-rap act The Last Poets (whom Al Nasir also befriended and worked with).
But there are issues with the book: there’s a lack of self-awareness/reflection at times, which seems a stylistic device rather than deliberate evasion. It could also have benefitted from more rigorous editing/proofing – there’s lots of repetition. It’s a shame that several lovely photos included in The Guardian article are missing here. It also has to be said that Al Nasir’s poetry, sprinkled throughout the book, leaves quite a lot to be desired, despite its powerful message.
Perhaps it’s telling that the most moving words in the book come not from Al Nasir but from Scott-Heron himself. He talked about the mantra his grandma had taught him, and then went on to sum up his experience of mentoring Al Nasir:
‘If you could help someone, why wouldn’t you? Take the opportunity, take the chance that you’re offering them and run with it, and become a fully-fledged adult and an artist and a gentleman and a father and husband and a brother of peace and generosity. You feel as though the spirits have touched you in a special way, because they have seen one of your dreams fulfilled.’
Jazz books written by ‘jazz widows’ are pretty rare. Only a few come to mind: Laurie Pepper’s ‘Art: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman’, Sue Mingus’s ‘Tonight At Noon’ and Jo Gelbart’s ‘Miles And Jo: Love Story In Blue’.
But, as Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ demonstrated some 50 years ago, behind a great jazzman is often a great jazzwoman, and usually one equally worthy of a tome.
And so it proves with Maxine Gordon’s excellent ‘Sophisticated Giant’. She was the wife and tour manager of Dexter Gordon – bebop pioneer, Blue Note saxophone great and Oscar-nominated actor – in the years leading up to his death in 1990.
The book serves as a gripping biography and much more besides. It came about as a direct result of Dexter’s unfulfilled ambition to publish his autobiography. He wrote periodically throughout his life, and many illuminating excerpts are included here.
The early pages portray an oft-neglected, Los Angeles-centred survey of how the swing scene developed into the bebop revolution; we get an inside story of Dexter’s work with the Louis Armstrong Orchestra and famous Billy Eckstine Band, hothouse for future stars Art Blakey, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.
We move onto Dexter’s productive spell with fellow bebop pioneer and close friend Dizzy Gillespie, and then his famous Savoy and Dial sessions (though there are sobering details of the contracts he signed throughout his life).
We get the story of Dexter’s dark years from 1955 to 1960, when he had frequent struggles with addiction and crime. He considered them ‘un’ years and planned to leave them out of his autobiography completely.
But things very much look up with his signing for Blue Note Records on 7 November 1960. This is the most gripping section of the book and the one that will hook most jazz fans. We learn about the recording of classic albums Our Man In Jazz and Go, and read many touching letters that Dexter sent label owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff while on tour.
We learn about Dexter’s move to Paris and subsequent settlement in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he was resident for 12 years and became a much-loved local face, frequently visible riding his bicycle around the city.
Maxine then explores Dexter’s triumphant return to New York in 1977, when he was welcomed back like a hero with a shiny new Columbia record deal and a host of memorable albums and gigs.
Finally there’s a long, arresting section on the making of classic 1987 jazz film ‘Round Midnight’, which almost gave Dexter a Best Actor Oscar and earned him plaudits from none other than Marlon Brando.
‘Sophisticated Giant’ slots right into the canon of great jazz books, a must for the general fan and anyone who loves Dexter’s Blue Note sides or performance in ‘Round Midnight’. It’s also notable for featuring some previously unseen photos, including a beautiful shot of Dexter, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, taken by Rudy Van Gelder.
Could Prince have thrived in this current age of the ‘bedroom’ musician?
On the evidence of Duane Tudahl’s superb new book – documenting every single studio session that produced the classic albums Parade and Sign ‘O’ The Times, plus countless others too – the answer would be a resounding ‘no’.
As Tudahl points out in his wonderful follow-up to ‘The Purple Rain Studio Sessions’, Prince’s genius very much depended on a coterie of talented, fiercely committed back-room staff, particularly Susan Rogers, Peggy ‘Mac’ Leonard, Coke Johnson and David Rivkin (brother of Revolution drummer Bobby), not to mention the constantly-on-call band mainstays Eric Leeds, Matt Blistan, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, all of whom are interviewed at great length.
But there’s absolutely no doubt who’s the boss and the book doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths about Prince’s methods and manners. However, it’s an embarrassment of riches for the fan and valuable historical document, not to mention a great, gossipy read.
We join the book at the beginning of 1985, smack bang in the middle of the Purple Rain tour. We learn how he quickly tired of its routine and looked ever forward, taking particular inspiration from Sheila E and other collaborators, ducking into studios around the country often straight after a gig, usually recording between 2am and 6am (Sheila’s album Romance 1600 was almost exclusively put together in this fashion).
We also learn that there were three huge equipment trucks on the tour – one that contained reels of tape, one with the stage gear and one that contained only Prince’s instruments, so that he could record anywhere, anytime.
Tudahl tells the whole story of the fascinating Los Angeles night of 28 January 1985, when Prince won three awards at the American Music Awards but then failed to repair to A&M Studios for the ‘We Are The World’ session (he offered a guitar solo to Quincy Jones but was turned down!), instead going out to party at Carlos ‘N Charlie’s Mexican restaurant.
The evening had huge repercussions and began a period of press barracking – he was even lampooned on ‘Saturday Night Live’, with Billy Crystal blacking up and singing ‘I Am The World’.
Tudahl has access to a huge number of candid interviewees who provide a kind of making-of guide to other key side projects from the period: St Paul Peterson talks in detail about the recording of The Family and his subsequent fall-out with Prince; Jill Jones describes the painful, hugely drawn-out period working on her underrated 1987 solo record; Eric Leeds describes how the Madhouse albums came about.
Then there are the fascinating details: we learn the full story of how ‘Kiss’ came together, with Prince getting inspiration while playing basketball on the Sunset Sound court; how the expansion of The Revolution in February 1986 was somewhat of a result of Prince’s fascination with ‘twins’, probably inspired by his fiancée Susannah Melvoin’s relationship with her sister Wendy.
We also get a real sense of Prince’s incredible progression as a musician, especially through the early days of 1986, and learn all of the relevant details about his collaboration with Miles Davis.
We read how the US bombing of Libya on 14 April 1986 affected Prince, inspiring a talk with Jill Jones, the viewing of a film about Nostradamus called ‘The Man Who Saw Tomorrow’ and subsequent removal of some of the more frivolous material on Jill’s album. We also learn how the LA earthquake of 12 July 1986 inspired the classic song ‘The Cross’.
And there are fascinating nuggets about how he saw his own work – he reportedly told Eric Leeds and Susan Rogers on 29 July 1986 that he thought his lyrics to ‘Adonis And Bathsheba’ were possibly his best, though Leeds and Rogers certainly didn’t agree… Both reasoned that Prince protested too much only when he was unsure of himself.
There are also the fascinating machinations of how the Sign ‘O’ The Times album finally came together, after numerous false starts, tracklist changes and the Warner Bros. top brass – led by Lenny Waronker – refusing him a triple album.
And then no detail is spared in the section on the ‘sacking’ of Wendy and Lisa, subsequent hiring of Cat Glover and reformatting of Prince’s live unit.
The period is an absolute whirlwind, and the mind boggles how much all of this studio time cost Prince and Warners. But finally the impression we are left with is that this book gets as close to the ‘real’ Prince as we are ever going to get – it’s not for the faint-hearted fan, but a fascinating, rewarding journey if you can take it.
As someone who regularly worked on a completely one-to-one basis with him, Susan Rogers often had the best seat in the house, and she offers rich insights into his family background and psychology. The section on Prince’s lonely recording session of Christmas Day 1985 will linger long in the memory.
But all of this is only scratching the surface. We haven’t even mentioned the making of ‘Under The Cherry Moon’. It’s another wonderful book and enormous achievement by Tudahl. We await ‘The Lovesexy/Batman Studio Sessions’ with baited breath.
The book has just been reprinted and is onto its second edition, so if you can’t find it in your favourite local bookstore, demand it! (Or check out the links below.)
Praise for ‘Level 42: Every Album, Every Song’:
“Phillips’ concise, forensic analyses opened my eyes and ears to new facets of the band’s music.”
George Cole, Jazzwise magazine
Jem Godfrey, *Frost/Joe Satriani keyboardist, songwriter and podcaster
“It’s excellent, it really is.”
Paul Waller, Level 42 expert and author of ‘Level 42: The Worldwide Visual Discography’
John Hannam, Isle Of Wight County Press
“To me, Level 42 are not the answer to the ultimate questions of life, yet Phillips’ engaging narrative certainly makes a strong case for it. It’s filled with knowledgeable wisdom, and he speaks his affection for the band brilliantly.”
‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song (on track)’ is my first book and the first in-depth study of the band’s illustrious catalogue.
It features recording information, musical analysis, studio gossip, full credits, stories from the road and contributions from head honcho Mark King and previous members Gary Husband and Phil Gould. The book also places their output within the wider musical landscape of the 1980s and 1990s.
‘Level 42 – Every Album, Every Song’ is available via the links below:
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.