Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

Reading obituaries of director Jonathan Demme, who has died from cancer aged 73, it struck me how many memorable scenes his films spawned.

Born in Baldwin, Long Island, his early career was mentored by B-movie pioneer Roger Corman. When Demme broke into Hollywood he never lost sight of his early exploitation influences and zany sense of humour; even ‘serious’ fare like ‘Silence Of The Lambs’ and ‘Philadelphia’ was hijacked by sundry in-jokes and bizarro guest stars including Corman, Chris Isaak and George A Romero.

Demme’s sets were famous for being fun places to work, and that’s borne out by the bonhomie and improvisatory vibe present in many of his films. He was clearly a friend of musicians, frequently using music in his movies as symbol of collaboration or even spiritual release (writer David Bowman memorably described ‘Stop Making Sense’ as ‘a three-act play documenting the spiritual journey of a hapless white guy trying to “get down”’!).

Apparently Demme sat down with each original member of Talking Heads before filming ‘Stop Making Sense’ and asked them, ‘How do you see me doing this?’ It’s hard to imagine Brian De Palma doing that. As a live-music documentarian, Demme let the viewer get to know each performer as if they were a character in a movie with the use of long, lingering shots, a world away from the clichéd, fast-cutting MTV style.

So, in tribute to a modern master, here are a few memorable moments from Demme films, in chronological order:

‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

‘Something Wild’ (1986)

‘Swimming To Cambodia’ (1987) (swearing alert)

‘Married To The Mob’ (1988)

‘Philadelphia’ (1993)

‘Heart Of Gold’ (2006)

‘Rachel Getting Married’ (2008)

Allan Holdsworth (1946-2017)

With the sad death of Allan Holdsworth, we have lost another guitar great and one of the UK’s most singular musicians. There’s an old muso cliché that seems to lend itself to guitarists more than other players – ‘he/she’s a musician who just happens to be a guitarist’. Allan really was that. He came up with an entirely original soundworld, and was feted by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John McLaughlin.

From a young age, Holdsworth always revered horn players – particularly Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker – above guitarists, but, given a guitar by his father as a teenager, decided to pursue his love of music using that tool. In doing so, he revolutionised the instrument, fashioning a unique legato technique.

The aim was a smooth, soaring sound which lent itself to horn-like improvisation, allowing him to play fiery, exciting solos with huge intervallic leaps. His chord work was underrated and equally innovative, using close-interval voicings and ridiculously large stretches. He came up with an entirely personal series of ‘chord scales’, loathing standard chord shapes and even calling them ‘disgusting’ on his instructional video!

The first time I heard Allan’s playing was his extraordinary solo on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Stories To Tell’ track from the album If This Bass Could Only Talk, but it took me a while to identify him since my cassette didn’t list the personnel… To my ears, it was just a remarkable solo; I didn’t even particularly ‘hear’ it as a guitar.

In the late 1980s, as I started reading various American muso mags, Allan’s name popped up frequently (particularly memorable was this 1989 Guitar Player cover feature) – it was time to explore his career in more depth. In the early to mid-1970s, he guested with Soft Machine, Nucleus, Tempest and Gong. Master drummer Tony Williams came calling, and he hot-footed it over to New York for 18 months of recording and touring with the New Lifetime band.

He then joined Bill Bruford in one of the greatest ever fusion units alongside Jeff Berlin and Dave Stewart, then formed prog supergroup UK with Bruford, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton (playing a legendary solo on ‘In The Dead Of Night‘). He also forged a brief but fruitful musical relationship with violinst Jean-Luc Ponty.

An early solo album, 1976’s Velvet Darkness, was virtually disowned by Allan despite featuring Narada Michael Walden on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. But he spent the 1980s embarking on a far more fruitful solo career. Endorsed by Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, mainstream success beckoned in the mid-’80s, but a high-profile Warner Bros contract came and went very briefly with only an EP Road Games to show for it. It didn’t hold him back though; in fact it led to probably his most commercially successful period – Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand were all important statements.

The period between 1988 and 1994 was arguably Allan’s peak – superb solo albums like Secrets, Then!, Hard Hat Area and Wardenclyffe Tower came out and he contributed striking guest spots to albums by Level 42 (Guaranteed), Stanley Clarke and Chad Wackerman (Forty Reasons). He was even lured to share the stage with Level for a month-long Hammersmith Odeon residency in 1990.

Like fellow ex-pats Richard Thompson and Morrissey, he made California his home, moving there in the early 1980s and forging valued musical relationships with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Scott Henderson. Henderson spoke of his incredible generosity in the studio. Drummer Kirk Covington – who recorded with Allan on the ‘standards’ album None Too Soon – reported that sessions at his home studio were always curtailed at 7pm at which point Allan would hand out pints of his home-brewed cask ale.

The complexity of his style meant that Allan influenced relatively few guitarists, though for my money Henderson and Francis Dunnery (who will be presenting his own personal tribute to Allan on his Progzilla Radio show this Sunday at 6pm UK time) adapted some of his techniques to great effect. Fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin once said, ‘I’d steal everything Allan was doing if only I could figure out what he was doing!’

I saw Allan several times in concert; at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Jazz Cafe, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall and twice with Level 42 at Hammersmith. He was notoriously self-critical, but to my ears achieved a remarkable consistency in the live context.

A 12-CD career-spanning box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever has just been released on Manifesto Records. Allan was also working on a long-awaited new studio album at the time of his death. He spoke about both projects in this recent podcast.

Farewell to a master. We won’t see his like again.

Allan Holdsworth, guitarist and composer, born 6th August 1946, died 15th April 2017

Allan, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson in concert

Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (1963-2016)

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George Michael in Antwerp, 14th November 2006

Sometime in the late 1980s, ‘doing a George Michael’ became music-biz parlance for leaving a ‘boy band’ and going on to become a credible, popular solo artist. It was many a record exec’s Holy Grail. George pulled it off with great aplomb and deceptive ease but it proved elusive – many others tried but very few, if any, cracked it.

George was surely the most successful and revered British solo artist to emerge during the 1980s, selling over 100 million albums and winning the Ivor Novello Songwriter Of The Year award in 1985 and 1989. He also possessed one of the all-time-great pure-pop voices.

Some mocked Wham! in their early days, but looking beyond the Lady Di hair and tight tennis shorts, it was always clear that the young George had some serious songwriting chops – ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do)’ and ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’ married amusing lyrics (‘Death by matrimony!’) with a slick Chic-meets-Britfunk groove. Everyone at my primary school loved ‘Bad Boys’. It was, to coin a phrase, the Sound of a Bright Young Britain.

Wham!’s second album Make It Big continued to wrong-foot the critics, featuring a parade of timeless, brilliant pop singles – ‘Freedom’, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’, ‘Everything She Wants’ and ‘Careless Whisper’ (labelled as a George Michael UK solo single when released in July 1984). Love or loathe the latter, it’s impossible to dismiss the loveliness of that famous sax motif.

Solo albums Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 were monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic. If Madonna was the self-proclaimed Queen of Heartbreak, George was surely the King – to these ears, no other contemporary artist, not even Prince, could top the sublime late-’80s ballads ‘One More Try’, ‘Praying For Time’, ‘A Different Corner’, ‘Father Figure‘, ‘Cowboys And Angels’, ‘Mother’s Pride’ and ‘Kissing A Fool‘.

1996’s Older was another career highlight, the first album in UK chart history to feature six Top 3 singles. (Arguably, George’s music and songwriting were in terminal decline after Older, but that probably says more about the state of modern British pop than anything else.)

He became a solo artist of great integrity. Usually the first name on the team sheet for any high-profile charity gigs, he usually said yes but resolutely refused to play his own material, performing only cover versions at Live Aid and also his Prince’s Trust, Nelson Mandela Birthday and Freddie Mercury Tribute appearances.

He was a quiet philanthropist, giving a lot of money, time and energy to issues close to his heart, and he also became a vociferous anti-war campaigner. Ripped off in his early Wham! days, he went to war with Sony Records, inspiring other artists (including Prince) to study their contracts carefully.

Far from derailing him, his very public ‘outing’ in 1998 unleashed a new, outrageous side of his personality with candid interviews (a Q magazine piece in late 1998 being particularly memorable) and self-mocking videos aplenty.

March 2017 will see the release a new documentary about George’s life called ‘Freedom’, and also the re-release of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1. What a shame he won’t live to see the release of Volume 2.

He is survived by his father and his two sisters, Melanie and Yioda.

George Michael (Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou), singer and songwriter, born 25 June 1963; died 25 December 2016