Gig Review: Mark Stewart & The Maffia/Tackhead @ The Forum, 30 April 2022

This was a twice-rescheduled London gig, initially designed to celebrate the 40th anniversary of On-U Sound Records.

And what a line-up was brought together to celebrate mixmaster general (and birthday boy) Adrian Sherwood’s iconic dub/funk/post-punk/industrial indie label (motto: ‘disturbing the comfortable, comforting the disturbed’): Creation Rebel, African Head Charge, Tackhead and Mark Stewart & The Maffia.

And what a pleasure to hear this music in a big hall, in front of a near-sell-out crowd. There were no half-measures here – this was an ageless performance from all the artists, and, refreshingly, also bone-crunchingly loud. Club gigs are all well and good but sometimes you need to hear this stuff in full effect.

Augmented by a striking set of projected visuals, taking in everything from Malcolm X to 1980s CND marches (On-U always championed agents of protest), Creation Rebel and Head Charge fused slow dubs and occasional bursts of metal guitar.

But the real draw was the return of Tackhead, their first London date for 14 years, and they didn’t disappoint – drummer Keith LeBlanc always swings even when tied to drum machines and loops, playing with dynamics and a killer right foot.

If there’s a greater contemporary rhythm section than him, bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald, I haven’t heard it – and these guys are not young any more. Joined by sermonising vocalist Bernard Fowler, they unleashed tracks taken mainly from their 1989 Friendly As A Hand Grenade album, excellent versions of ‘Stealing’, ‘Tell Me The Hurt’, ‘Mind At The End Of The Tether’, ‘Ticking Time Bomb’, and a brilliant take on ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’.

Mark Stewart, skulking around at the back of the stage for most of the Tackhead set, then took the mic, seriously pissed off with the state of the world – and who can blame him? He laid into ‘Hysteria’, ‘Liberty City’, ‘Passcivecation Program’ and ‘Resistance Of The Cell’ with the intensity of a man who knows everything he predicted 40 years ago has come to pass, but also found time to lead the crowd in a verse of ‘Happy Birthday’ for Sherwood.

Then, gig over and job done, Stewart was soon spotted in the stalls, chinwagging with fellow travellers. As he once said, the On-U audience is just as interesting as those on stage. Great gig.

Tin Machine: The Final Gig 30 Years On

I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this but Bowie came to me in a dream a few days ago and said I must! I’m under orders…

30 years ago this month, on 17 February 1992, Tin Machine played their last ever gig at the NHK Hall in Tokyo. It was the final date of the ‘It’s My Life’ tour.

It had been a period of ups and downs – ups in late October 1991 when Bowie proposed to Iman Abdulmajid in Paris, downs due to the drug problems of one band member (with the initials HS).

Some people never ‘forgave’ Bowie for TM but for many others the band represented his ’80s rehabilitation. I was fascinated from the get-go and for my money it spawned a fair share of classic David (sometimes co-written with Reeves Gabrels) songs: ‘I Can’t Read’, ‘Under The God’, ‘Amazing’, ‘Baby Universal’, ‘You Belong In Rock’n’Roll’, ‘Amlapura’, ‘Shopping For Girls’, ‘Goodbye Mr Ed’.

And it’s doubtful we would have got that brilliant Buddha Of Suburbia/1. Outside/Earthling triptych without TM.

Bowie agreed: ‘Once I had done Tin Machine, nobody could see me any more which was the best thing that ever happened, because I was back using all the artistic pieces that I needed to survive and imbuing myself with the passion that I had in the late seventies.’

True to his word, the band lasted three albums, though Bowie hinted it may have gone on longer had drug problems not reared their ugly heads. But it’s still hard to get hold of the last two records (Tin Machine II, Oy Vey Baby).

Here’s the second, penultimate night at the NHK on 6 February 1992. The sound quality is superb, though the audio cuts out completely around 45 minutes in and doesn’t return.

Gabrels sounds great, Bowie (sporting a ‘Rock Against Racism’ T-shirt) does too and there are some nice bits of ‘amateurism’ including several fudged song openings (Bowie’s guitar tech has very kindly turned down the volume of his 12-string before the start of the gig!). Some of this material was used for the final album Oy Vey Baby.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood @ Wembley Arena: 35 Years Ago Today

35 years ago today, on 12 January 1987, Frankie played the first of two nights at Wembley Arena on their final European Tour.

It’s oft forgotten that, even at their commercial peak, they played live. A lot. In fact they were on the road pretty much non-stop between autumn 1984 and summer 1985. And, make no mistake, they were decent musicians.

It’s not surprising they were so eager to show that they could cut it live. ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ were mainly made in the control room by Trevor Horn and associates (Steve Lipson, JJ Jeczalik, Anne Dudley, Gary Langan, Andy Richards et al).

And vocalist Holly Johnson was getting most of the publishing royalties (fair enough, his Reagan-baiting lyric for ‘Two Tribes’ is brilliant: ‘Cowboy number one/A born-again, poor man’s son/On the air America/I model shirts by Van Heusen/Working for the black gas…’).

As Holly told NME in November 1983: ‘We were wary of being Trevor’s puppets at first but as soon as we met him that all went out of the window. He’s just a human being. He’s that little guy that used to be in The Buggles’!

So, initially at least, there wasn’t much bad feeling – they occasionally even let Uncle Trevor play live with them, as in this excellent performance on ‘The Tube’ from June 1984, augmented by Luis Jardim on percussion, a couple of keyboard players (wearing interesting shorts) and an extra guitarist (names please?):

According to (ZTT strategist/sleevenote-writer/A&R man) Paul Morley, Horn and his label boss/ manager/wife Jill Sinclair were convinced Frankie could break America, becoming something like The Village People! After all, ‘Relax’ made #10 in the US pop charts.

But surely the Sex Pistols is a better comparison (Frankie as punk’s last gasp? There’s a whole book there…). After all, Horn had just worked with – and hugely admired – Malcolm McLaren. For his part, Horn allegedly hoped the band would split up after ‘The Power Of Love’, their third UK number one in December 1984.

But Frankie didn’t split up. Instead, on their US tour of 1985, they would often open their set with Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’. In the new Bruce-obsessed/Reagan-blessed America, this didn’t go down too well…

By 1986/1987, the thrills and spills had gone but Frankie had drastically improved as musicians and became a very slick live unit. They toured second album Liverpool extensively, using a lot of pre-recorded backing tracks and retaining an extra keyboard player and guitarist.

The very good quality tape of the first Wembley gig is well worth listening to. The crowd seems made up of screaming teenage girls and there are excellent versions of ‘The Power Of Love’ and ‘Two Tribes’.

‘Maximum Joy’ becomes a whole new thing even if the rest of the Liverpool material doesn’t deviate much from the album. And it’s always a laugh hearing Holly’s laconic between-song banter.

Rumour has it that backstage after this first Wembley gig the band had the mother of all fall-outs. But somehow they got through their 1987 European tour, and found time to play again on ‘The Tube’ for the last time (Faith No More were definitely watching, at least from a sartorial point of view).

Maybe they could they have carried on but it didn’t seem enough to be a ‘good band’ any more – people wanted events, sensations. Also Holly was itching for a solo career, still smarting at the terrible deal the band had signed with ZTT.

Anyway, we hope Holly, Paul, Nasher, Peter and Mark are OK. And hopefully still playing music, in some form.

Did you see Frankie live? Leave a comment below.

Jeff Beck @ The Royal Albert Hall: 1983 v 2004

Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.

For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.

The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Back and he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long.

A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!

But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.

Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.

But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.

Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish.

However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.

Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?.

There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut’. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!

So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never.)

Gig Review: Burt Bacharach/Joss Stone @ Hammersmith Apollo, 16th July 2019

In an interview, Randy Newman once talked about how, on his self-titled debut album, he tried to use the orchestra rather than the drums to ‘move things along’.

It was impossible not to think about that while watching Burt Bacharach’s triumphant Hammersmith gig last night, featuring a large band and huge string section.

This is music relying on texture, melody and counterpoint – it’s the world of Pet Sounds and Oliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth, with barely a guitar lick or drum fill.

Every chord has a flavour and intention – but few of the voicings are quite how you remembered them. ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’, ‘This Girl’s In Love With You’ and ‘Alfie’ were elliptical and mysterious last night, with beautiful, ‘floating’ harmony.

Joss Stone treats any stage like her backyard, totally at ease, barefooted and gorgeous. And if she did a great job on the melodic, medium-paced material (‘Walk On By’, ‘Wishin’ And Hopin”, ‘Say A Little Prayer’), sometimes there was a ‘screechy’ element to her voice when improvising on the slower tracks.

And some may have found her between-song ‘chats’ with Burt a little mawkish. But to be fair he did tell some good stories, particularly the one about being inspired by Ursula Andress – not his then-wife Angie Dickinson – to write ‘The Look Of Love’ for the original ‘Casino Royale’ movie.

And though Hal David’s name was only mentioned once by Bacharach, the lyricist’s influence hung heavy over proceedings. It came to mind just how brilliantly he evoked the nooks and crannies, the high stakes, of all romantic relationships, particularly when one party is looking for the door.

The inclusion of some more recent stuff was a revelation to this writer, particularly a couple of fervent – though musically gentle – anti-Trump songs, and the remarkable Elvis Costello co-write ‘This House Is Empty Now’, with its stratospheric middle eight and an excellent vocal from John Pagano.

‘On My Own’ and ‘Close To You’ were reinvented as spine-tingling, slow-motion ballads, even slower than the originals, while Josie James’ powerful take on ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ got the biggest ovation of the evening. Such is Bacharach’s range as a songwriter, you kept hoping he would throw in a few more outliers, ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ or ‘Love Power’.

But ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ was the perfect closer, sending us out into that good night with a smile (though it was odd that Joss didn’t return for a final song).

One left the gig uplifted but also, truth be told, emotionally spent. Still, it was a weird, wonderful, affecting two hours of pop music. And you try to tell the kids these days…

Gig Review: John McLaughlin @ Barbican, 23rd April 2019

If this was John’s final London gig, what a way to go out.

Though the audience’s response was at times reverential and/or strangely undemonstrative, the outpouring of emotion at the conclusion was heartfelt and seemed to come as quite a shock to the performers too.

It’s hard to think of another ‘jazz’ band which has endured for so long with the same personnel as The 4th Dimension.

This unit (McLaughlin – guitars, Gary Husband – keyboards/drums, Etienne M’Bappe – bass, Ranjit Barot – drums) has toured the world and elsewhere since 2010, playing a fiery mix of jazz, rock, blues, Indian, old-school R’n’B and industrial.

Tonight was no exception, though there was a much larger dose of spiritual jazz than usual, courtesy of not one but two Pharoah Sanders covers: ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ and ‘Light At The Edge Of The World’. You could take or leave the slightly dodgy band singing, but the message of love and understanding was powerful and still relevant.

One can also take or leave John’s guitar tone these days (sometimes one wishes for a far less ‘refined’ sound), but his playing sounded back to its brilliant, fluid, lyrical best tonight, a little like his return to the electric in 1978 after the long acoustic sojourn in Shakti.

And if the mood of the evening’s music was generally uplifting, with new takes on the frenetic modern classic ‘Hijacked’, Mahavishnu favourite ‘Trilogy’ and raunchy ‘Echoes From Then’, ‘Gaza City’ was heartfelt and touching, a lament for a lost place.

Just a few gripes: one occasionally hankered after another soloing foil for John, an L Shankar or Gary Thomas; this music asks a hell of a lot from Husband and Barot.

Also, listening to the latter’s ‘hit everything all the time’ ethos (though his konakkol vocal/rhythmic interludes are always fascinating), one realised what a tasteful, selective drummer Dennis Chambers had been during the ’90s organ trio/’Heart Of Things’ era.

John started the evening heralding a slight return not to Great Britain but to ‘Great Brexit’, and ended it with a gentle: ‘You’re all one. Thank you’. A powerful, important concert, especially if we don’t see him on a British stage again.

Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

DB and Kevin A, 1986 photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’.

Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’.

Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too.

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!).

The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans.

Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars.

Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.