Nick Kamen (1962-2021)

What a sad, strange bit of news to hear that Nick Kamen has died at the age of just 59.

It suddenly makes one feel very old. The singer, songwriter and model was such a quintessential 1980s figure, famously first appearing on the cover of The Face magazine in early 1984.

I remember seeing Nick and a few pals walking down London’s iconic King’s Road circa 1987. He looked great, wearing chinos, black polo neck and dark blue blazer. He literally stopped the traffic! It was a perfect late-80s moment.

His much-parodied 1985 Levi’s 501 ad might not have done much for jeans sales but it had the opposite effect on boxer shorts and also gave Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ a new lease of life.

He gave a great, outrageously flirtatious interview to Paula Yates on ‘The Tube’ on the eve of his first single ‘Each Time You Break My Heart’, written and co-produced (with Stephen Bray) by Madonna. It was a hit.

Nick’s brother Chester was in the meantime carving out a successful career as session guitarist and Bryan Ferry’s go-to axeman – you can watch him in action with Bryan at Live Aid.

Nick may have not enjoyed the rigmarole of the pop business but he did it pretty well. Though the UK press mocked (see below), he actually had two further UK top 40s, ‘Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever’ and ‘Tell Me’, also featuring Madonna on backing vox, which spent nine weeks at #1 in Italy during 1988.

Esteemed producer and Madonna/Stanley Clarke collaborator Patrick Leonard helmed Nick’s second album Us. Nick had several further hits all over Europe – ‘I Promised Myself’ was one of 1990’s best selling singles in Europe (#1 in Austria and Sweden, top 5 in Germany, Holland, Belgium and Switzerland) but just missed the UK top 40.

By 1993, though, Nick was sick of the pop game. He died of bone cancer at his Notting Hill home. Madonna and Boy George led the heartfelt tributes. RIP to a bona fide 1980s star.

Ivor Neville ‘Nick’ Kamen (15 April 1962 – 5 May 2021)

Milford Graves (1941-2021)

One of the most memorable music documentaries broadcast in Britain during the late 1980s was ‘Speaking In Tongues’, directed by Doug Harris for German TV and originally shown in 1982.

It began with John Coltrane’s funeral on 21 July 1967, featuring music from drummer Milford Graves, trumpeter Donald Ayler and saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, then mused on the mysterious death of the latter before opening up to focus on Graves’ extraordinary life and some coruscating duets with saxophonist David Murray.

Born 20 August 1941 in South Jamaica, Queens, New York, Milford Graves was a ‘drummer’, but, equally importantly, a truly evolved human being, a strict vegetarian, herbologist, acupuncturist, teacher and trained martial artist. He was famous locally for his backyard dojo and basement laboratory.

He began his career playing bongos and timbales, including a short-lived Latin-jazz band with a very young Chick Corea. At the urging of superstar percussionist Don Alias, he moved over to the drum kit in 1963 and found his true metier.

Alongside Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Ronald Shannon Jackson and a few others, he freed the drummer from purely a timekeeping role, introducing new melodic and tonal textures for the kit. But this wasn’t a po-faced, technical endeavour – it led to some of the most intense, high-volume work of the last 50 years. He described each of his limbs as playing ‘a different feeling’ (see below).

Legendary jazz writer Nat Hentoff apparently made a prediction in the late 1960s that the greats of the avant-garde jazz movement would eventually get lecturing jobs in universities, such was the importance and rigour of their conceptual flow.

It was true. Since 1973, Graves had been teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, a variety of courses including those touching on the healing aspect of music. He performed regularly across the world, including at a school for autistic children in Japan. From the late 1960s on, he eschewed nightclub and club gigs, restricting his live performances to festivals, community centres and outdoor shows.

He recorded astonishing duets with pianist Don Pullen, Andrew Cyrille (Dialogue Of The Drums) and David Murray on the classic 1991 album The Real Deal. He worked with Albert Ayler on various albums including Love Cry. He toured extensively during the 1980s, producing a sound as heavy as anything Black Flag or Metallica came up with.

Tragically, though he had studied the heartbeat as a source of rhythm since the 1970s, Milford died of congestive heart failure on 12 February. ‘It turns out, I was studying the heart to prepare for treating myself,’ he told The New York Times last year.

Last autumn, his life and work had just been subject to a residency at the ICA in Philadelphia, including a screening of ‘Speaking Of Tongues’ and a wide-ranging interview with Jason Moran.

RIP to a true one-off. To paraphrase Art Blakey, if jazz was about washing away the dust of everyday life, Milford Graves did it.

Milford Graves (20 August 1941 – 12 February 2021)

Further reading: ‘As Serious As Your Life’ by Val Wilmer

 

RIP Q Magazine (October 1986-September 2020)

The first issue – October 1986

Another one bites the dust: a succinct tweet from editor Ted Kessler spawning many emotional replies from scribes of all stripes, and it’s au revoir to one of the most respected music mags of the last 40 years.

Yes, the September issue will be the very last edition of Q. I was surprised how peturbed I was by this news. Without Q in the world, something is amiss.

I guess my dad, broad-minded and well-read music fan that he was, would have bought the very first Macca-adorned edition in October 1986, but I took the baton from there and got every issue (unless Robbie Williams or Noel Gallagher were on the cover) until the late 1990s.

There was a major cull in the early 2000s when I chucked quite a few out, and I have about 30 left. Of course now I wish I had kept them all.

Why did I stop buying Q every month? It was probably the general state of the late-1990s music scene rather than the writing, though I also missed the humour of the David Hepworth/Mark Ellen/Tom Hibbert troika which was the driving force in the early years.

But I kept my hand in right until the end, recalling a brilliant recent issue featuring Suggs, Suede, Status Quo and Mark E Smith.

The final issue – August 2020

Q was initially a perfect alternative to the NME and Melody Maker, a post-Live Aid, CD-age rag designed to cater to the ‘older’ rock/pop fan but actually delivering something subtly subversive.

It foregrounded extended interviews without any PR puffery, and added some much-needed humour and p*ss-taking of the burgeoning celebrity culture.

If you were a bit of a ‘muso’ like me, you got used to ‘your’ band generally getting a critical mauling, but I also discovered some great music via the mag’s review section (David Torn, Bireli Lagrene, Lewis Taylor, Spacek, Love And Money, Danny Wilson, John Abercrombie).

Lots of features stick in the mind – of course Tom Hibbert’s Who The Hell? and the much-imitated Cash For Questions.

And there were loads of memorable interviews: a post-toiletgate George Michael, Bob Geldof jostling with Sting, Macca talking candidly about drugs and Lennon for the first time, Jonathan Richman, Shirley Manson, Madonna in her ‘Blond Ambition’ pomp, Prince during the ‘Slave’ era, Joni Mitchell circa Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm, the Television reunion, JJ Cale, Bowie’s Cash For Questions, Green Gartside in his local East End boozer. There were also brilliant 10th anniversary and 100th anniversary issues.

So RIP Q. Who knows which esteemed music mags are next on the chopping block? Please buy ’em while they’re still around. We’ll miss them when they’re gone. And there won’t be anything to read on plane/train journeys – if they’re still around too.

Hal Willner (1956-2020)

Duke Ellington famously said that there are only two types of music: good and ‘the other kind’.

Hal Willner spent most of his professional life living that maxim. The producer, curator and soundtrack composer, who died aged 64 on 7th April 2020, was way ahead of the game.

His never-boring albums were like cross-genre playlists, 30 years before Spotify.

In his world, it was totally natural to pair Todd Rundgren with Thelonious Monk, Lou Reed with Kurt Weill, The Replacements with Walt Disney, Chuck D with Charles Mingus.

Inspired by his mentor Joel Dorn, Orson Welles’ radio productions and albums like A Love Supreme, Sketches Of Spain, The White Album, Satanic Majesties, Yusef Lateef’s Part Of The Search and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Case Of The 3-Sided Stereo Dream, he became fascinated by telling stories with sound.

During the 1980s, Willner was somewhat of a ‘Zelig’ figure on the New York scene. In 1981, he became the long-time musical director of ‘Saturday Night Live’ (while driving a cab during the day) and put together tribute albums to Fellini’s favourite composer (Amacord Nino Rota) and Kurt Weill (Lost In The Stars), the latter beginning a long, fruitful association with Lou Reed.

Then there was That’s The Way I Feel Now (still missing from streaming services… I’m working on it…) from 1984, inspired by Willner’s trip to a Thelonious Monk tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, as he related to writer Howard Mandel: ‘The jazz people playing Monk’s music were making it boring. Monk’s music was never boring. When Oscar Peterson came on, that was it – he had even put Monk down.’

Hal fought back with a brilliant Monk tribute album featuring Was (Not Was), Donald Fagen, Dr John, Todd Rundgren, Elvin Jones, Joe Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and Carla Bley. (Fact fans: Elton John chose the below track as one of his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1986, singling out Kenny Kirkland’s superlative piano solo.)

1988’s Stay Awake repeated the trick, a positively psychedelic voyage through the music of Walt Disney’s movies and TV shows.

The stand-outs were legion but included James Taylor, Branford Marsalis and The Roches’ ‘Second Star To The Right’, Sun Ra’s ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’, The Replacements’ ‘Cruella de Vil’, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ and Ringo’s ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.

Willner was at it again with ‘Night Music’, the much-missed, short-lived TV show fronted by David Sanborn which brought esteemed musical guests in to jam with a crackerjack house band (usually Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, Hiram Bullock and Don Alias).

It’s quite moving to see often-overlooked greats of American music (Van Dyke Parks, Pharoah Sanders, Elliott Sharp, Sonny Rollins, Slim Gaillard) getting their due and sharing the stage with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson and John Cale.

So Willner did a superb job, but if only Jools Holland’s invitation to co-host had got lost in the mail…

In the 1990s, Hal worked on Robert Altman’s movie masterpieces ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Kansas City’, and then came possibly this writer’s favourite album of the decade, Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, a sprawling, kaleidoscopic audio journey through the jazz great’s work featuring Robbie Robertson, Bill Frisell, Keith Richards, Julius Hemphill, Henry Rollins, Vernon Reid and Elvis Costello. The Kinks’ Ray Davies also directed a superb documentary about the making of the album:

Willner also helmed Marianne Faithfull’s well-received 1987 comeback album Strange Weather. More recently, he curated many special ‘theme’ concerts, including a memorable gig at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012 dedicated to the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, featuring Antony Hegarty, Nona Hendryx, Tim Robbins and Eric Mingus. Hal was also instrumental in bringing Reed’s ‘Berlin’ multimedia show to the stage for the first time.

Farewell to a real one-off. Music needs a lot more like him.

Hal Willner (6 April 1956 – 7 April 2020)

Paul Barrere (1948-2019)

Little Feat provided some of my happiest musical memories of the late ’80s.

Paul Barrere, who has died at the age of 71, was a big part of that. His stinging leads, tasty rhythms, decent vocals and excellent songwriting were a massive part of Little Feat’s middle and later periods – the eras that really grabbed me – and he toured with the band right up until near his death.

I finally saw them live in 2000, during the same week I also saw Steely Dan for the first time…

Barrere joined Little Feat in time for the release of ’73’s classic Dixie Chicken. As Lowell George’s influence waned in the band’s middle years (and critics mainly derided the band’s embracing of prog, jazz and fusion alongside the blues, country and rock’n’roll), he contributed more and more.

As a teenager, Little Feat’s music fascinated me. There’s an oft-quoted maxim, attributed to Joe Zawinul, about Weather Report’s modus operandi: ‘We always solo and we never solo’.

It could also be applied to Little Feat. Nothing was quite as it seemed. Barrere and George’s ensemble guitars meshed with Bill Payne’s keys to make a beguiling brew, sitting atop the brilliant rhythm section of Kenny Gradney (bass), Richie Hayward (drums) and Sam Clayton (congas).

Barrere was born on 3rd July, 1948, in Burbank, California, the son of Hollywood actors Paul and Claudia Bryar. He wrote or co-wrote many Feat classics, including ‘Skin It Back’ from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, ‘All That You Dream’ from The Last Record Album, ‘High Roller’, ‘Keepin’ Up With The Joneses’, ‘Old Folks Boogie’ and ‘Time Loves A Hero’.

The band originally split after Lowell’s sad death in 1980, but reunited for 1988’s Let It Roll, which I bought at the time and need to investigate again. I also recall a great gig broadcast live by Radio 1 from the Town & Country Club around that time.

Sadly it’s often a great musician’s death that leads one to explore the nooks and crannies of their recorded legacy, and Barrere is no different: he worked with Bob Dylan and unbeknownst to me also recorded three solo albums in the early ’80s.

Paul Barrere (3rd July 1948 – 26th October 2019)

Boon Gould (1955-2019)

Boon Gould (second from right)

Every group needs a Boon Gould.

The George Harrison of Level 42, intelligent, erudite but naturally shy, he came up with consistently memorable guitar parts and the occasional exciting solo, whilst never overshadowing his more naturally exuberant bandmates.

His guitar playing probably peaked in the original band’s middle years, and he also wrote the words to many of their biggest hits including ‘Lessons In Love’, ‘It’s Over’, ‘To Be With You Again’ and ‘Heaven In My Hands’.

So Boon contributed much to one of the great bands of the ’80s. When I heard of his sad death this week, I first thought of his raunchy Jeff Beck-meets-Bill Connors solos on their jazz/funk opuses ‘Foundation And Empire’ and ‘Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’, but then remembered how much his rhythm guitar parts added to the band’s key mid-’80s tracks such as ‘Micro Kid’, ‘Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind’ and ‘The Chinese Way’.

Guitar-wise, his peak was probably the 1984 Level 42 album True Colours, playing some fantastic stuff on ‘A Floating Life’, ‘True Believers’, ‘Hot Water’ and ‘Chant Has Begun’. The former features his heaviest riffs in a Level shirt. He also contributed lyrics to Mark King’s solo album Influences around this time.

Boon was the most reluctant live performer in the band, often afflicted with stage fright and frequently laid low by the bad food and bad sleep that are part and parcel of regular touring.

He jumped ship in 1987, his drummer brother Phil following soon after, and also who knows what kinds of pressures were involved with their elder sibling John managing the band too.

After officially leaving Level 42, Boon kept in touch and provided lyrics for 1988’s Staring At The Sun. He recorded a solo album, 1995’s Tin Man, which showed off his decent singing voice, and also came out of live retirement to guest with the reformed band during a Bristol gig in 2012.

By all accounts, Boon was a great guy, a gentle, self-effacing soul who just happened to be an excellent guitarist and intelligent lyricist.

RIP to one of 1980s pop’s unsung heroes. There’s part of my childhood gone.

Rowland Charles ‘Boon’ Gould (4 March 1955 – 30th April 2019)

Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018)

London-born filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who has died aged 90, will surely be remembered as one of the all-time greats.

He began his career as either lighting cameraman or director of photography on some key films of the 1960s: ‘The Caretaker’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’, ‘The Masque Of The Red Death’, ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, ‘Fahrenheit 451’.

He then of course co-directed (alongside Donald Cammell) the astonishing Mick Jagger vehicle ‘Performance’.

Roeg went to to make some of the finest films of the 1970s – ‘Walkabout’, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, and began the 1980s staking a claim to being England’s greatest living director.

And that was when his films really came alive for me. Many of the above were shown regularly on terrestrial TV during the decade. Then came a series of always-surprising new works, some of which also transferred quickly onto the small screen.

‘Bad Timing’ (1980) was a brutally candid portrayal of a love affair gone wrong, starring Art Gartfunkel and Theresa Russell in the first of her memorable lead roles for then-husband Roeg (a role that was apparently first intended for Sissy Spacek).

‘Eureka’ (1983) is little seen these days, and almost totally forgotten, but it’s unpredictable and brilliant. Gene Hackman heads up a superb cast including Mickey Rourke, Joe Pesci, Russell and Rutger Hauer.

‘Insignificance’ (1985) was a film to match the best of Roeg’s ’70s output, a what-if tale based on Terry Johnson’s play about a meeting between Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy and Albert Einstein.

‘Castaway’ (1986), a desert-island survival tale starring Oliver Reed and based on Lucy Irving’s bestselling book, was given a critical mauling but these days still looks like an incredibly vital film.

‘Track 29’ (1987) was, if anything, even stranger, a Dennis Potter-penned story about a demented manchild, with Gary Oldman and Russell the memorable leads.

And Roeg finished off the decade with a fine adaptation of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ (1990), well worth digging out for the kids this Christmas if you’re after some mildly-menacing, icky fun. Farewell to a bona fide Brit movie hero.

Nicolas Jack Roeg, 15th August 1928 – 23rd November 2018