Book Review: Backtrack by Tessa Niles

Excellent recent documentary ’20 Feet From Stardom’ busted the myth once and for all that backing singers aren’t ‘good’ enough to be solo artists. In fact, the contrary is often true: they make the artist sound and look better, and there are often a myriad of reasons both professional and personal why they haven’t become headliners in their own right.

Tessa Niles is probably the UK’s most celebrated backing vocalist of the last 35 years, and her excellent new memoir – kind of a Brit version of ’20 Feet’ – lifts the lid on a distinguished career singing with David Bowie, George Harrison, Elton John, Kylie, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Annie Lennox, Gary Numan, The Police, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears For Fears and Robbie Williams.

It’s a real page-turner and ’80s guilty pleasure, a voyage through all the pop fads of the decade (and decades since) and a search for a fruitful work/life balance in the face of demanding touring schedules and family commitments. We follow Niles’ career from her early days as factory worker, cabaret entertainer and ‘Benny Hill Show’-auditioner to the late-’70s/early-’80s London live music scene, where good, young female singers could make a decent living at the city’s many nightclubs. She is excellent at painting a picture of this somewhat dodgy state of affairs, when a pre-New Romantic London was anything but swinging and ‘Page 3’ culture was at its peak.

But a shrewd volte face leads Tessa into the burgeoning jazz/funk scene and decent, reliable gigs with Morrissey Mullen and Incognito, plus a chance meeting with US ex-pat arranger and producer Richard Niles. Though their subsequent marriage gives Tessa her professional surname, it also leads to some conflicts of interest when he helms her commercially-unsuccessful solo debut.

But then Trevor Horn is on the blower and she is whisked into the studio to work on ABC’s ephocal Lexicon Of Love album, the beginning of a long and successful professional relationship with the uber-producer. ‘Date Stamp’ in particular shows Niles’ voice off to great effect.

From here on in, her career goes from strength to strength, but it’s not without its pitfalls: The Police’s long ‘Synchronicity’ world tour plays havoc with her vocal cords due to Sting’s insistence that she (and cohorts Dolette McDonald and Michelle Cobbs) sing in ‘full voice’ throughout, without any vibrato. There’s also a funny anecdote about what exactly constitutes an audition for Sting.

Then of course there’s Niles’ memorable, electrifying turn alongside David Bowie at Live Aid – it’s amazing that they only had two days’ rehearsal for the ‘little gig’, as Bowie called it.

Elsewhere, there’s lots of good technical stuff about what actually constitutes a decent studio vocal performance – and also what artists and producers demand from a backing vocalist – with wicked anecdotes concerning Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Steve Winwood’s ‘Roll With It’, Duran’s ‘Notorious’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘Swords And Knives’. Niles also doesn’t shy away from personal reflections about her family relationships and romances.

There’s far too much Clapton and Robbie Williams for my liking and a decent proofreader wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I devoured ‘Backtrack’ almost in one sitting. A really enjoyable, gossipy read.

‘Backtrack’ is out now on Panoma Press.

Book Review: Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence

No less a pop personage than Brian Eno called the early 1980s ‘the most exciting era of New York music’, and he should know a thing or two about the subject. Tim Lawrence’s excellent ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ makes a good case for Eno’s claim.

The book traces the many musical and cultural strands of the early ’80s NYC scene, from the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement which briefly blossomed at the beginning of the decade through to the end-of-an-era AIDS panic of late ’83.

Lawrence vividly brings to life a scene where musicians, DJs, dancers, artists and club owners fused new-wave, no-wave, punk, dub, pop-art, Afro-funk, kitsch, S&M, psychedelia, disco, gospel, electro and hip-hop to create an exciting, vibrant, anything-goes aesthetic. Along the way, the book also looks at the making of some of the key NYC records of the era – ‘The Message‘, ‘Rapture‘, ‘Moody‘, ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Planet Rock’.

Pretty much all the key players of the scene make memorable appearances, a fascinating roll call including Larry Levan, David Byrne, Madonna, Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, Sylvia Robinson, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kool Herc, Arthur Baker, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Francois Kevorkian, Don Was and James Chance.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Lawrence also paints a vivid picture of the diverse dancefloors of The Roxy, Danceteria, Paradise Garage, Mudd Club and Canal Zone, where on any given night you could see people doing martial arts moves, magic tricks or even aerobics (yes, apparently early ’80s NY also foresaw that cultural boom which hit big later in the decade).

Many rare and previously unpublished photos are included, and Lawrence also gets his hands on many interesting artefacts from the era such as Kraftwerk and Bambaataa full DJ setlists from The Ritz in 1981.

But all good things must come to an end, and ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor’ doesn’t scrimp on the full details of how Reaganomics, gentrification, corporate intrusion and the spread of AIDS decimated the scene.

The book is a great achievement by Lawrence, with a level of detail and seriousness befitting a Professor of Cultural Studies (at the University of East London) but also large doses of fun and gossip befitting a good-time era and its fascinating protagonists.

‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ is published by Duke University Press.

Book Review: More Songwriters On Songwriting by Paul Zollo

51o7o-ad4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_For students of songwriting, there’s been an embarrassment of riches on the book front recently – in the last few years we’ve had the groundbreaking ‘Isle Of Noises’, entertaining ‘Complicated Game’, and lengthy autobiographies by the likes of Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Phil Collins.

And now here comes Paul Zollo’s ‘More Songwriters On Songwriting’, the weighty sequel to his landmark 1991 volume, comprising new, indepth interviews with famous composers from the worlds of pop, rock, country, R’n’B and jazz.

When the book catches fire, tasty anecdotes come thick and fast: Kenny Gamble delivers a powerful statement on his hopes for America’s future; Joe Jackson discusses his love of Duke Ellington and Steely Dan; Bryan Ferry reveals that the lyrics for ‘Avalon’ (the song) were written in no less than four different countries.

Elvis Costello talks about trying (and failing) to collaborate with legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn; Rickie Lee Jones discusses how caring for her sick mother reignited her music mojo; Chrissie Hynde describes in visceral detail how her views on animal rights inform her songwriting.

Ringo talks about how George helped him write ‘Octopus’s Garden’; Dave Stewart recalls the thrill of writing ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ with Annie Lennox in double-quick time; James Taylor waxes lyrical about Paul McCartney; Don McLean reveals the unusual inspiration behind ‘American Pie’.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Zollo always knows the right questions to ask and the conversations flow unpredictably. Highly recommended.

‘More Songwriters On Songwriting’ is published by Da Capo Press.