Nik Kershaw’s Radio Musicola: 30 Years On

radio-musicola-527b885540974MCA Records, released October 1986

7/10

The rather despairing NME headline at the time said it all: ‘When The Little Girls Have All Grown Up…’

After releasing two albums in the space of barely six months, Kershaw took his time over the third. He settled in to Swanyard Studios in North London for most of 1986 to work on the self-produced Radio Musicola, employing the cream of the English session scene (The Kick Horns, Charlie Morgan, Mark Brzezicki, Wix, Andy Richards, Simon Phillips etc). Yes, Musicola was Kershaw’s chance to take on the Trevor Horns of this world and deliver a big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over studio ‘project’…

kershaw

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his meteoric rise to fame, the main themes of the album are press intrusion and tabloid sensationalism. And, in a neat irony, the rise of technology-led, assembly-line music was also in Kershaw’s sights, despite Musicola making liberal use of all the latest sampling and synthesizer technology.

So let’s get Musicola‘s duff tracks out the way first – ‘What The Papers Say’, ‘Nobody Knows’ and ‘Running Scared’ are jarringly overproduced, though the latter had real potential. But there are loads of treats elsewhere – ‘Life Goes On’ is a musically-rich, very pretty ballad with swooning chord changes and fine vocals from Kershaw. ‘LABATYD’ is pure class, a half-time shuffle with tasty Mark Brzezicki drums, an excellent Kick Horn arrangement and soaring synth by either Wix or Andy Richards.

The title track blew a lot of musicians’ minds back in 1986. It really was state-of-the art and still sounds pretty novel today, as striking as the title track of Level 42’s World Machine a year before. I remember eagerly tuning in to ‘The Tube’ to see Kershaw performing the song live. You can hear a lot of the ‘little girls’ turning off their TVs as he lays into the opening guitar solo…

‘Don’t Let Me Out Of My Cage’ is pretty damn ambitious fare for a pop album, a fast swing number featuring some cracking Phillips drums and effective close-harmony backing vox from Mrs Kershaw (Sheri). ‘When a Heart Beats’, an excellent, intricate slice of pop/prog in the It Bites mould, gave Kershaw his last top 40 chart appearance (peaking at a disappointing #27) when it was released in November 1985.

The closing ‘Violet To Blue’ is possibly Kershaw’s finest and most ambitious recording to date, featuring some rousing vocals from the London Community Gospel Choir and superb, driving drum work from Phillips (much imitated in my music room back in the day).

kershaw-tour

An interesting album which clearly fell between the stools of art and commerce, Radio Musicola reached a barely believable #46 in the UK album chart, just over a year after Kershaw had played Live Aid. It disappeared without trace in the US.

The little girls had certainly grown up. Or maybe it was the new haircut. 18 months is a long time to leave between albums when you’re hot. But Kershaw didn’t seem bothered about his new ‘selective’ popularity; in fact, he seemed genuinely relieved, but wondered how MCA were going to sell him now that he was focused on being a musician rather than a pop star.

Despite the poor album sales, Kershaw embarked on a sold-out UK tour in early 1987 including three nights at London’s Town & Country Club. And he would be back once more before the ’80s were out to deliver perhaps his finest solo album to date.

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No Mullet Required: Nik Kershaw’s The Riddle

the-riddle-54d854ab5fe83MCA Records, released November 1984

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

Yes, yes, this might be a hard sell for some, though one wonders how many readers outside the UK will even have heard of Nik. After several years playing guitar in cover bands and fronting East Anglia blue-eyed-soulsters Fusion, Kershaw wrote a few poppy-sounding tracks and suddenly found himself thrust into the solo spotlight. He hit the ground running with the superb ‘Wouldn’t It Be Good‘ single, but some would never forgive him for the annoyingly-jaunty ‘I Won’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ (though it was originally a downbeat, acoustic protest song in demo form).

nik

But he didn’t fool anyone with the snood, fingerless gloves and mullet – it was obvious that Nik was a serious muso (what a horrible ‘80s word). This very talented and rather underrated artist had a voice a bit like Stevie Wonder (though my dad rightly identified something Numanoid too), played guitar a bit like Allan Holdsworth and wrote clever, catchy pop songs with prog, metal and funk undercurrents.

He also had some very famous fans in the US including Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But his image, dreamed up by some wags in MCA’s marketing department, really didn’t do him any favours – Smash Hits summed it up perfectly, calling him ‘the thinking man’s Limahl’.

The Riddle is probably his best album. It was recorded pretty quickly to cash in on the unexpected success of his debut Human Racing, though featured a fair amount of post-production courtesy of the excellent Peter Collins who went on to produce Rush’s Power Windows.

The Riddle features a very solid but expressive rhythm section (Elton John sticksman Charlie Morgan and ex-Secret Affair bassist Dennis Smith plus a great guest appearance from Level 42’s Mark King on ‘Easy’). Kershaw’s use of synths was kind of revolutionary, with intriguing sequencer patterns and lots of subtle, almost subliminal pads (dare one posit a Gil Evans influence?).

Yes, The Riddle screams the mid-1980s, but, most importantly, every song on it is memorable and has a very distinct flavour. On a songwriting level, Kershaw always knows how to keep things interesting for the listener. ‘Know How’’s taut, white-funk groove always used to remind me a bit of Talking Heads, but the silly/funny spoken-word bit and weird prog sections approach the It Bites sound.

Miles apparently recorded a cover of the very pretty ‘Wild Horses’ which has never seen the light of day. Hollywood-baiting ‘City Of Angels’ and eco-themed ‘Roses’ have more than a hint of Steely Dan about them, partly due to the use of the famous Purdie Shuffle, nicely reformatted by Morgan.

‘Wide Boy’ and ‘Don Quixote’ have lots of interesting melodic modulations under their pop sheen. ‘Easy’ is a brilliant band performance and crafty composition with a nutty middle eight, while the closing ballad ‘Save The Whale’ is also musically rich and lyrically well-intentioned if naive. And though the title track divides opinion, to say the least, check out its two-chords-per-bar middle-eight for a great example of Kershaw’s craft.

The cover photo was taken at Chesil Beach in Dorset. The Riddle peaked at #8 on the UK Album Chart and went multi-platinum. The lead single was the title track which reached #3 in the UK. ‘Wide Boy’ peaked at #9, whilst the third and final single release ‘Don Quixote’ got to #10. Three top 10 hits from a sophomore album – pretty damn good.

Nik was massive for approximately 18 months. He played Live Aid in July 1985 (famously nearly taking an embarrassing tumble, see below) but then waited until autumn 1986 to follow up The Riddle – possibly a mistake. The screaming girls were growing up fast or moving on to a-ha. He was developing as a musician and songwriter but gaining a much more ‘selective’ appeal, in the words of Ian Faith. Watch this space for Nik’s next move.

Gig Review: Let’s Rock Exeter, Saturday 4th July 2015

let's rockThe ’80s nostalgia festivals are big business right now judging by the quality of acts and impressive turnout of punters at Let’s Rock Exeter.

Taking place in a large, picturesque expanse of estate next to Powderham Castle, this all-day festival will be repeated at various venues across the country over the summer and it was a great chance to see if the musicianship and songwriting of the decade stand up today. And I’m pleased to say that, by and large, they do. Also it helped that there was no ubiquitous ‘house band’ – all the artists brought their own back line and this was no cost-cutting package deal.

We were too late to catch Altered Images or Nathan Moore from Brother Beyond – no great hardship! – but we heard most of The Real Thing’s impressive set while queuing. Nick Heyward followed with some fairly downbeat and strangely unmemorable near-hits bookended by still-effervescent Haircut One Hundred tracks ‘Love Plus One’ and ‘Fantastic Day’ which put everyone in a good mood. Five Star were the first big surprise of the day, featuring surprisingly strong lead vocals from Lorraine Pearson and a supertight, R’n’B-tinged band. ‘Rain Or Shine’ transcended its ‘guilty pleasure’ tag to become a true ‘80s pop classic.

Nik Kershaw

Nik Kershaw

Nik Kershaw brought some real muso cred to proceedings with some extended Allan Holdsworthesque guitar solos, more excellent singing (a big improvement on his mid-’80s vocals) and some engagingly dry humour, preceding ‘The One And Only’ with a curt ‘If you know this, sing along. If you don’t, don’t!’ A quick look at Go West’s singles chart positions show that they were big in the States in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; ‘Faithful’ and ‘King Of Wishful Thinking’ sounded tailor-made for that market. Peter Cox’s vocals were superb, soulful and inventive, and they’d put a lot of thought into their arrangements with some tracks sounding almost like 12” remixes. Covers of ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Black And Gold’ initially seemed curious choices but went down very well with the crowd. And the trio of great vocalists were concluded with the appearance of Martin Fry’s ABC who provided the classiest set of the day. A superb percussionist filled out the Lexicon Of Love material beautifully and Fry exuded charisma.

bananarama

Bananarama

I didn’t bother with much of Midge Ure or Howard Jones’ sets; Bananarama, now just a duo of Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward, looked good but unfortunately didn’t sound great or perform with much intensity – their vocals were harsh and there was apparently no love lost between them. Early-’80s pure pop classics like ‘Cruel Summer’ and ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ were also inexplicably mired in disco-lite arrangements and there was a bit too much emphasis on the Stock Aitken Waterman era for my liking.

We legged it before Billy Ocean and The Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey – I quite regret not seeing the latter but wasn’t too bothered about the former. But, all in all, an impressive showing for some great singles acts of the 1980s. There’s life in them yet.