Gary Clark talks ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and classic debut ‘Meet Danny Wilson’

danny wilson

Ah, yes, summer 1987. I remember it well.

I came across a review of Meet Danny Wilson in Q magazine which drew comparisons between Gary Clark’s voice and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan’s (spot-on).

That was enough incentive for a massive Steely fan like me to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed. Meet Danny is one of the most arresting, original debut albums of the ’80s, and it stands up extremely well today.

I would annoy my school friends bigging up the album and trying to get it played during art lessons – to no avail. U2, Simple Minds, The The, Fleetwood Mac and INXS couldn’t be usurped. But my enthusiasm was slightly justified when the gorgeous ‘Mary’s Prayer’ was finally a big hit at the third attempt (UK number 3, US number 23).

Danny Wilson shared a love of jazz, the Great American Songbook and Steely Dan with contemporaries Hue and Cry, Swing Out Sister, Sade and various other late-’80s acts, but (fortunately?) Meet Danny Wilson doesn’t sound remotely like any of them.

Gary graciously answered my questions in the middle of a very busy period of travelling, writing and recording. We talked about the inspiration behind the timeless ‘Mary’s Prayer’ single, hanging out with Billy Mackenzie, the golden age of Virgin Records and busking on transatlantic flights…

MP: Could you give a quick summary of how you started making music as Danny Wilson with your brother Kit (keyboards) and Ged Grimes (bass)?

GC: Ged was at school with me and clearly one of the most talented kids so we naturally gravitated towards each other and stayed together from the school band stage all the way through to Danny Wilson. Kit is my younger brother. When Ged and I returned from London we wanted to re-think the band and Kit, in our absence, had grown into a formidable musician, writer and singer so he was a natural choice to bring onboard.

What were the musical influences that went into the pot for Meet Danny Wilson? Any contemporary mid-’80s artists?

Well, I really found my voice as a writer when I stopped trying to sound contemporary. Ged and I spent three years in London living in a squat, gigging and trying to get a record deal and it seemed like the labels wanted us to sound like what was already on the radio at that time. If you can remember radio in 1984/85, everything was super- polished, super-quantised and very synthesised. Even guitars all tended to be layered in multi-effects. I very consciously decided to go in the opposite direction and return to my musical roots; all the music I loved was devastatingly unfashionable at the time. Off the top of my head, the main influences for that album were not contemporary at all: Sinatra, Bacharach and David, Jimmy Webb, Becker and Fagen, Tom Waits, a little bit of Hall and Oates, heavy dollops of the Great American Songbook and a ton of soundtrack records.

Danny Wilson Mary's Prayer vinyl

How did Danny write songs? Were all the tracks co-written or did you provide the blueprints?

I wrote all of the songs on that album and they were all written and mostly demoed prior to recording. The only exception I recall is finishing ‘Five Friendly Aliens’ at the piano in Puk studios after we’d started recording the rest of the album.

How did you come to be signed to Virgin? Were you fans of the label beforehand?

We played a gig in a bar in Edinburgh and a music journalist called Bob Flynn was there. He wrote a review in NME that literally changed our lives. The review was so good and the band were so unknown that the record labels who had systematically rejected us only months before were calling Bob asking how they could get in touch with the band. We had really served our time in the trenches live and in the studio so we were really ready for it when it came. The next gig we did in Edinburgh was packed and half of the audience were A&R and publishers from London. We literally had the choice of every major label and almost signed to Warners. In the end, a mixture of Virgin’s reputation as an artistic label, their sheer passion for the music and their willingness to give us complete artistic control won the day.

Can you remember your inspiration for ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and where you wrote it?

Yes, I wrote it in the squat in London quite a few years before it was released. My friend, the songwriter Ali Thomson, loaned me a Roland Juno 60 synth and I just switched on the first preset and immediately played the verse chords without thinking (they’re all white notes!). The melody and a large chunk of the first verse lyric came to me instantly. I liked it but couldn’t get a chorus that did the verse justice and it took about another year of me coming back to it until I finally hit on the chorus.

How did you come to include Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy on the album? Definitely not an obvious choice of special guests! Weren’t they signed to Virgin at the time?

They were signed to ECM. The Virgin connection came later through us. Howard Gray (later of Apollo 440) was producing the first half of our album at Puk. They had an incredible system in there and we liked to blast records on the big speakers at the start of the day and at the end of the night with some fine Elephant beers for refreshment. Digital was in its infancy and ECM were making some of the first records that could be legally labelled ‘DDD’ which meant ‘recorded, mixed and mastered without leaving the digital domain’. Howard played us Lester’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ one of those nights as an example of how great this process could sound and we all fell instantly head over heels in love. By sheer mind-bending coincidence, we saw that Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy were playing Copenhagen when we were still in Denmark. We went to the gig, one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen, and accosted Lester afterwards. It’s a little-known fact that because of budget restrictions, Ged, Kit and I busked our fare on a very early Virgin Atlantic flight to New York so we could be there for the sessions! Pre-9/11, of course… But we actually got free flights for entertaining the passengers in mid-air.

Your amazing vocal on ‘You Remain An Angel’ always reminded me of The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie – were you a fan and did you know him at all?

Well, thank you. I’m a huge fan of Billy’s work but I can honestly say that The Associates were nowhere near my mind when we did that song. There is a B-side called ‘Living To Learn‘ that has a huge Associates influence. Billy and I are from the same home town, Dundee in Scotland, and I got to know him a little. We would all hang out at a place called Fat Sam’s cocktail bar where they played great music and had great live acts passing through. We saw some amazing bands in their infancy back then. Billy was always so wonderful, charming and encouraging to me.

Meet Danny Wilson has a really pleasing mix of acoustic instrumentation and late-’80s technology – was there any pressure to be ‘produced’ and make a very modern-sounding record? I have a B-side version of ‘Aberdeen’ that was subtitled something like ‘The Way It Should Have Been‘…

No. Virgin were great like that. I think they understood that we had just as much chance commercially by being true to ourselves as we would have had conforming to some blueprint of what radio sounds like. I wish that vision was more prevalent in the music business today. I will say that although we used the most up-to-date technology available at the time, we didn’t use it to sound modern but to get what was in our heads onto the recording. On ‘Aberdeen’, for instance, we used a Fairlight to get the trumpet and string sounds but the production is probably more ’60s in tone than ’80s. That B-side was an interesting one; we had made a very early stripped back Portastudio demo of that song before the album and it had a certain beatboxy charm that we all kind of harked back to. The tape was lost so that B-side was our attempt to recreate that vibe. Never a great idea!

How do you feel about Meet Danny Wilson and its place in the 1980s musical landscape now?

I feel pretty much the same as at the time. It’s very me, very honest, very heartfelt and, just like me, doesn’t fit in anywhere. Exactly what we were going for, I suppose.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m always writing and recording with other artists. That’s what I do these days and have a whole heap of stuff in the pipeline but aside from that I’ve just written the music with John Carney (Once, Begin Again) for his next movie (‘Sing Street’) which I’m very, very excited about. As it happens, he got in touch with me because Meet Danny Wilson was a record his brother had turned him onto as a young kid growing up in Dublin in the ’80s. That neatly brings this interview to a lovely, rounded conclusion so I’d better shut up now!

Many thanks for your time, Gary.

Level 42’s Mark King talks about his ‘Influences’

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EXCLUSIVE! Level 42’s Mark King speaks to movingtheriver.com about his classic solo album Influences, released by Polydor in July 1984.

MP: Can you just briefly summarise the story behind Influences? Was it your idea or did Polydor come to you?

MK: I was signed to Polydor Records via Level 42 and had a young, heavily-pregnant wife and needed to buy somewhere to live. This was back in 1981 I hasten to add, so Influences showing up in 1984 was really down to my tardiness in addressing the fact that I had taken the advance (£5,000) and, apart from delivering a single ‘Freedom‘, had somehow neglected to fulfil my contractual obligations! Polydor were actually very sweet about it and just before the agreement was due to expire gently reminded me that I needed to deliver an album.

You’ve talked about having loads of ideas in the tank for the album but how did you piece them all together on ‘The Essential’? Did you have to demo all the different sections before recording?

I may have exaggerated the ‘loads of ideas in the tank’ bit, but when push came to shove I booked a few days at Chipping Norton Studio and dived in. The opening piece ‘The Essential’ began on the studio Hammond B3 which Mike Vernon informed me had been used on the Focus album Moving Waves. I’m no keyboard player, but I fired her up and just hit the notes. Next I programmed the drum machine with a pattern so I could lay down some bass and guitar, and the riff and melodies just wrote themselves really. I was jamming with myself I guess, ha! Anyway, that’s how all the sections came to be, and in the twinkling of an eye I was 20 minutes into the album.

What was it like getting back into drumming again for the album? ‘There Is A Dog’ is an amazing tour-de-force.

Ta. I never stopped drumming, that’s what I love to do!

Did you put your bass and guitar parts down with a drum machine first and then overdub your drums? Or did you record your drums first?

I laid the bass and drum box down first. I had an Oberheim DMX drum machine that sounded awful but was a great writing tool because you could programme some pretty accurate drum parts that were in time! You have to remember that these were early days in digital technology, so ears weren’t so tuned in to accurate tempo, but I loved the idea of being able to f*ck about all over the groove and lean on the drum box because it had the time nailed. I laid the drums down next, Gretsch incidentally. Speaking of time, the guy with the greatest meter I know is Gary Husband. He IS a human machine… The guy is a phenomenon with tempo. Never shifts. The Level 42 track ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ was a first take at The Summerhouse Studio played on some Ddrums. That is AWESOME! The great Bill Cobham quote sings to mind: ‘You are either in time or you are out of time.’ I’m usually out.

How did you come to work with producer Jerry Boys? ‘The Essential’ features some really effective edits and cross-fades between the different sections.

Jerry was a good friend and had engineered some Level 42 stuff, which is how we had met of course, and Polydor were keen for me to involve a third party to keep an eye on me as I was three years overdue already, so Jerry was the perfect choice. A really good engineer, plus I respected his opinions. I probably did a lot of the edits myself. I certainly did for the Level 42 stuff.

How did Drummie from Aswad come to play on ‘Clocks Go Forward’? That track has a lovely feel.

Aswad were working in the studio next door and I bumped into Drummie in the corridor. I had just been running over the parts for ‘Clock Go Forward’ with Mike Lindup so I had no hesitation in inviting Drummie in to play with us. The Gretsch kit I had hired had only just shown up in the studio, and there was no stool…aaaargh! But this didn’t faze Drummie at all; he just pulled up a plastic studio chair and got stuck in. The studio floor was highly-polished parquet and it was quite funny watching him sliding around as he played, hahaha! The song is called ‘Clocks Go Forward’ because that was the day we recorded it on.

You play some great lead guitar on Influences – who are your favourite players apart from John McLaughlin?

Cheers. I love JM of course, but Clapton, Hendrix, Gary Moore and Bill Connors are all in there somewhere. So many, really. I love Al Holdsworth too and working with him on Guaranteed was a real privilege.

You played a lot of Influences at an amazing Ronnie Scott’s gig a few years ago – what was it like playing it live?

A lot of fun actually. I was so chuffed at how the guys were able to recreate the sounds for me. Nathan (King) in particular was fantastic on all the guitar parts. It didn’t feel like we were playing music from nearly 30 years before, and having not listened to any of it since then I was quite proud of what I had created way back when.

Thanks, Mark!

Find out much more about Mark and Level 42 at level42.com

More about my history with Influences below.

mark king

Some of these basses and guitars were used during the making of ‘Influences’…

Even though I’d been a huge Level 42 fan from the day I bought A Physical Presence in 1985, I didn’t even know Influences existed until two or three years after its initial release. I came upon a cassette copy in a ramshackle shop near the Swanage seafront while on a family summer holiday. It would be an understatement to say I couldn’t get it onto the hi-fi quickly enough.

And it didn’t disappoint. The sharp crack of the snare drum on opener ‘The Essential’ led me to believe that Level’s Phil Gould was behind the kit. But a quick look at the album credits blew my mind: Mark was playing all the drums, guitars and bass? Yep. Influences takes the ‘one-man-band’ ethos and runs with it. Not for a second does one rue the lack of a conventional band; this music swings, snaps, crackles and pops.

With a few decades’ more listening experience, I now hear some of the ingredients that went into the Influences brew – Chick Corea’s Latin excursions, Spectrum-era Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and also Stanley Clarke’s mind-bending prog/fusion – but Mark’s musical voice also comes through loud and clear. ‘There Is A Dog’ could almost have graced Return to Forever’s Light As a Feather album. ‘Clocks Go Forward’ and ‘Picture On The Wall’ are in a Level style and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on True Colours or Standing In The Light.

To date, Mark has not returned to such unhinged jazz/rock outside of the Level 42 ‘day job’ (apart from a fabulous gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 2012), but this is one of the great British fusion albums, or fusion albums period. Influences also deserves a place alongside Innervisions, Lewis Taylor’s self-titled debut and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times in the pantheon of great one-man-band albums.

Women And Rhythm Section First: An Interview With Keith Leblanc

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Keith Leblanc

When late, great bass hero Jaco Pastorius was asked about his philosophy of music, he had a stock response – ‘Women and rhythm section first!’

In the world of black music, whether jazz, funk, R’n’B or soul, the hookup between the drummer and bass player has always been pivotal. As the cliché goes, a band is only as good as its engine room.

In jazz, you can’t do much better than Tony Williams with Ron Carter or Philly Joe Jones with Paul Chambers. In funk, you can’t go wrong with Benny Benjamin with James Jamerson or Clyde Stubblefield with Bootsy. In fusion, you know it’s going to work if Dave Weckl/John Patitucci or Steve Jordan/Anthony Jackson are taking care of business.

But interestingly, possibly the most heralded rhythm section in recent black music hasn’t come out of jazz, funk or soul music (though these undoubtedly went into the mix), but rather hip-hop.

Drummer Keith Leblanc hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald when they were summoned to work on the label set up by industry veterans Sylvia and Mickey Robinson to showcase the new hip-hop artists emerging from the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-’70s.

Just prior to that, Keith had briefly worked with Doug and Skip in the funk band Wood, Brass and Steel but when The Sugar Hill Gang’s controversial ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a monster hit in ’79, the Robinsons were on the lookout for a house band to lay down the foundations for the follow-up.

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It seems the call was inevitable, according to Keith, speaking crisply and candidly down the line from his home in Connecticut:

‘Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug but they initially said no because they’d had a bad experience with her before. But I was new to the band and when I heard the words “recording studio” and “money”, I bugged them until they said yes! And the day we all went up there, we started recording. I didn’t want to know about the business, I just wanted to record.’

The slick, dynamic fusion of funk, rock and jazz laid down by Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald proved just the ticket for Sylvia and they were in. But in those very early days of hip-hop, the money was tight although luckily for Keith the musicianship was too.

‘I was brought up with James Brown, Muscle Shoals, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gap Band and Cameo, so playing the rap stuff wasn’t much of a stretch from what we were already doing. But the first Sugar Hill Gang album was recorded in the Robinsons’ studio which was falling to bits.’

They moved to the slightly more lugubrious surroundings of H&L Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (also home to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio where so many classic Blue Note albums were recorded), and so began a golden period of recording characterised by great performances captured sometimes under great duress in the studio.

Extended jams like Funky Four Plus One’s ‘That’s The Joint’, The Sequence’s ‘And You Know That’ and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘Freedom’ featured jazzy horn charts, challenging stop-and-go arrangements and extended solo sections that had more in common with Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway than Eminem and Jay-Z.

These tracks were not piecemeal studio confections; according to Keith, ‘Back then, playing live in the studio was normal. The arranger Clifton “Jiggs” Chase would get with the rappers and do an arrangement based on what they wanted to use and then make up a chart. Then we’d add things. The musical ethic was really good at that time. You had to get it right or there’d be someone else in there recording the next day.’

The work ethic was almost comparable to the famous Motown production line: ‘We’d cut a track on the Friday, drive home to Connecticut, drive back to New Jersey on the Monday and hear the track on the radio.’

In the time-honoured hip-hop tradition, sometimes sections from other records were ‘replayed’ to give tracks an air of familiarity, most notoriously on the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ which stole Chic’s ‘Good Times’ groove lock, stock and barrel. But this just provided yet another irresistible musical challenge to the young Leblanc: ‘Alot of the time, we were playing maybe a bar of someone else’s music. So we wanted to cut it better than the original!’

But then came the second seismic shift in hip-hop’s history – the release of ‘Planet Rock’, Afrika Bambaataa seminal track which was the first rap tune to properly utilise newly-affordable drum machines and sequencers.

And for Keith, it was both a blessing and curse: ‘When the drum machine first came out, I saw my job opportunities flying out of the window! Now anybody could make a rap record in their bedroom. But then it dawned on me that I could program a drum machine better than any engineer. I did “No Sell Out” just to see what I could do with the technology.’

Featuring a mash-up of Leblanc’s apocalyptic beats and segments of Malcolm X’s oration, the track led to many more intriguing fusions of man and machine in his recorded output and also prefigured the Tackhead project which teamed up Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald with London dub mixologist Adrian Sherwood to thrilling effect.

Sadly, the Sugar Hill story wouldn’t be complete without reporting its demise – in less than honourable circumstances, according to Leblanc – with lots of law suits, claims and counter claims. But much of the music stands the test of time, particularly the extended jams of the ’80/’81 period which suggested a thrilling fusion of Duke Ellington, George Clinton and Trouble Funk.

Leblanc has continued to work with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald regularly over the years in projects such as Little Axe and Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Check out what he’s been up to on his Facebook page.