Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz, and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music. But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.

And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

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‘Wendy & Lisa’: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 24th September 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989?

8/10

Los Angeles, October 1986, just after the Japanese leg of the ‘Parade’ tour: Prince has invited his bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to dinner (Lisa will later report in her excellent liner notes for the Wendy & Lisa 2013 reissue that she ‘knew something was up’ as soon as they arrived).

To cut a long story short, he gives them the boot – in the nicest possible way. The Revolution is no more. Lisa: ‘We were like Fleetwood Mac and Sly & The Family Stone rolled into one… I thought we were going to make records together for the rest of our lives.’ But Prince wants to take back his freedom and sex up his act again. Struggling for the right words, apparently he says to Wendy and Lisa: ‘I can’t ask you to wear crotchless panties or nippleless bras…’

After a period of introspection, the ladies get together with other sacked Revolution member Bobby Z and write a few songs. At this stage, they have no intention of releasing the new material as ‘Wendy & Lisa’. But once they agree to front the band, a record company bidding war ensues. Huge advances are mentioned. They settle on a ‘big but sensible deal’ with Virgin. Predictably, the suits are less than turned on by the more musicianly moments on the album, but the ladies are unapologetic, saying that they ‘wanted to show off all the colours in our crayon box’.

So much for the history. How does Wendy & Lisa stack up these days? Pretty well. The singles ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Waterfall’ are probably the weakest tracks, though the latter has a cracking chorus and was apparently deemed a surefire hit by the record company and musician friends. But it didn’t do the business, not helped by its rather humdrum video. As Lisa says in the liner notes: ‘I had paid my showbiz dues with The Revolution.’

But the album works brilliantly when it sticks to the ‘cool chord changes over good beats’ remit, when they genuinely do sound like a mashup of ’80s Joni Mitchell and Prince. ‘Honeymoon Express’ exemplifies this approach, nicking Sly Dunbar’s ‘My Jamaican Guy’ beat and adding a sumptuous melody. The vocal harmony in the chorus is just sublime. ‘Light’, ‘Everything But You’ and ‘Chance To Grow’ also succeed in a similar vein. Wendy’s multi-instrumental skills (vocals, guitar, bass, sometimes drums) and Lisa’s impressionistic synth parts mesh perfectly.

‘Song About’ sounds eerily like The Carpenters. Ballads ‘The Life’ and ‘Stay’ have become fan favourites, the former also turning up in an improved Trevor Horn-produced reworking on the soundtrack of Michelle Pfeiffer movie ‘Dangerous Minds’. The instrumental ‘White’, featuring Tom Scott on soprano and a killer bit of drum machine programming by Wendy, is possibly the standout. Test your speakers out with this one, kids.

Wendy & Lisa – perhaps surprisingly – was not a hit. Lacking a breakout single, it didn’t dent the US top 100 and only scraped to #84 in the UK. Better Wendy & Lisa albums would follow, but this is an ambitious, arresting debut. All the colours in the crayon box indeed.

Donna Summer (1982)

Geffen/Warner Bros. Records, released 19th July 1982

6/10

It’s understandable that Summer was reluctant to take on Billy Strayhorn’s song ‘Lush Life’. A morning-after portrait of a failed romance, it’s a remarkable composition for a 16-year-old to write, with elliptical lyrics, few repeat sections and a challenging, endlessly-modulating melody line. Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sarah Vaughan, John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman and Billy Eckstine all performed notable versions (Strayhorn himself apparently loved the latter).

But, coached through by producer Quincy Jones and keyboardists Greg Phillinganes, Herbie Hancock and Dave Grusin, Summer’s vocals are a knockout. Though the track sounds a bit rushed (Phillinganes would surely like another pass at his synth bass part), her work certainly paid off.

‘Lush Life’ closes Donna Summer, released 35 years old today. Classic singles begin the album and end side one: Grammy-nominated ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ and an inspired cover of Jon & Vangelis’s ‘State Of Independence’, the latter featuring an amazing array of guest vocalists:

The problem with Donna Summer is that it’s three classics and a lot of filler. Formula-wise, Quincy seems to be preparing for Thriller – there are many songwriters and a variety of styles. Springsteen contributes the slightly underwhelming ‘Protection‘ and elsewhere there’s a bit too much LM-1 drum machine and less-than-memorable choruses.

The album didn’t quite deliver the big hit to propel Summer into the ’80s but reached number 20 in the US album charts and 13 in the UK.

Introducing The Hardline According To Terence Trent D’Arby: 30 Years Old Today

CBS Records, released 13th July 1987

9/10

Yeau! The headline of Q Magazine’s September 1987 feature said it all. Perrier-quaffing Terence was correctly predicting a phenomenal critical and commercial reaction to his debut album and ready to dish the dirt. He had done it all on his terms; wrongfooted his record company (who had wanted a slick, current, ‘upwardly-mobile’ soul album) and played the press at their own game. But at what cost?

D’Arby had lived quite a life before becoming a ‘pop star’: he was born in the States, the son of a preacher father and gospel-singing mother, studied journalism in New York, became a half-decent boxer in his late teens, joined the army and was based in Germany throughout most of the ’80s during which time he worked on his music and acquired a manager (a strategy not dissimilar to another ex-army musical maverick, Jimi Hendrix).

Decamping to London in 1985, D’Arby worked on demos with Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware and, after being turned down by several major labels, finally got the nod from CBS. They pulled off a pre-release masterstroke when D’Arby was block-booked for four weeks running on ‘The Tube’ after a knockout debut live TV performance (I remember it well). To say that there was a buzz about him would be an understatement. The general consensus was: ‘Who the hell is this guy?!’

Hardline still sounds like one of the better debut album of the ’80s or any other decade. From the opening bars of ‘If You All Get To Heaven’ (mastered directly from a Walkman, by the sound of it), it’s clear that something pretty special and pretty different is going on, though the album inadvertently tapped into the ‘retro-soul’ revival that had built up in the UK over 1986 and 1987 – Ben E King and Percy Sledge had both had number ones in the months before Hardline‘s release, and The Pasadenas, The Christians and various others would bring forth similar grooves in the months to come.

Hardline also reminded critics and audiences alike of some of the great soul vocalists of the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s – Al Green, Otis Redding, Stevie, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown and especially Sam Cooke. All went into the mix but finally D’Arby sounded just like himself. He peppered ‘Dance Little Sister’ – a track that Prince would have killed for – with some outrageously over-the-top vocals. But, refreshingly, his singing throughout the album ain’t perfect – he’s much more into getting the emotion across and bringing a party vibe to the studio.

‘Sign Your Name’, ‘If You Let Me Stay’ and ‘Wishing Well’ are funky yet accessible (if the latter doesn’t make you move, you’re probably dead), but the a cappella, African-themed ‘As Yet Untitled’ is totally original. He even takes on Smokey Robinson and emerges unscathed on the closing ‘Who’s Loving You’. He plays a lot of instruments himself and only gets in occasional help when absolutely necessary (including future Skunk Anansie bassist Cass Lewis and Pop Group/PiL drummer Bruce Smith). As such it’s a remarkably cohesive album.

Hardline was a big hit, reaching number one in the UK, number four in the US and selling over eight million copies worldwide. D’Arby got the rep of being a ‘difficult’ artist when his follow-up album Neither Fish Nor Flesh missed deadlines and went over budget. Things would probably never be the same again. But we’d always have Hardline.

Roxy Music’s Avalon: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 1st June 1982

9/10

How do you like your classic album: consistent in tone/texture or mercurial and unpredictable like Sgt. Pepper’s (released on this day 50 years ago)? Or, like me, do you love both approaches? Avalon definitely belongs in the former camp. Beautifully performed, recorded, mixed and mastered (you can really hear the money), it maintains a mood throughout, sometimes feeling like one extended song.

Through a variety of working methods – some originated on previous albums Manifesto and Flesh & Blood – Messrs Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay arrived at Roxy’s perfect studio swansong and, for many, the peak of ’80s sophisti-pop. Today, Avalon sounds completely different to almost anything else released in 1982. It’s always a shock seeing reruns of Ferry on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming something from the album – the whole package seems way too refined and luxurious for the worldly environs of a TV studio.

Crucial to Avalon‘s success was the reinstatement of the crack Flesh & Blood ‘backroom’ team: producer Rhett Davies and legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Also key was the choice of studios: Compass Point in Nassau and Power Station in New York, whose staircase was put to good use, as Davies told ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine: ‘The main thing at the Power Station was the stairwell. It had an unbelievable sound. You’d put anything through it and you’d just go “Yeah, we’ve got to have that.”’

Davies also brought with him another recording technique developed from working with Brian Eno on Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World. ‘Eno had opened me up to the way of working where you walk in with a blank sheet, stick some white noise down, count one to 100 and then fill in the spaces, and it was great working that way. When I started working with Roxy, Bryan had only known the “Let’s cut the track with the band in the studio” approach. I said, “Well, there is another way of working. We can put down our groove exactly as you want it synthetically, using a rhythm box, and the musicians can then play to that groove.” The musicians came in and responded to the atmosphere that was already on tape.’ (Eno of course also utilised a similar approach on Bowie’s Low and Heroes.)

Accordingly, drummer Andy Newmark was very often the last musician to overdub – most tracks were first laid down with a Linn drum machine backing. ‘The Main Thing’, ‘India’ (which sounds like Ferry was checking out Miles Davis’s On The Corner) and ‘The Space Between’ are the most obvious results of this approach, essentially jam sessions built on one-chord vamps. This painterly, piecemeal style of recording was also meat and drink to Ferry who was struggling with writer’s block at the time.

The title track was apparently a delightful accident, rescued at the eleventh hour after the song had almost been shelved: Davies: ‘We were mixing the album, and the version of the song that we’d done just wasn’t working out, so as we were mixing we recut the entire song with a completely different groove. We finished it off the last weekend we were mixing. In the quiet studio time they used to let local bands come in to do demos, Bryan and I popped out for a coffee and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went “What a fantastic voice!” That turned out to be Yanick Etienne who sang all the high stuff on ‘Avalon’. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band’s manager, came in and translated.’

Some have claimed that Avalon‘s beautiful closing track ‘Tara’ demonstrates a rare example of Ferry’s humour, ‘ta-ra’ of course being Northern English slang for ‘goodbye’ (the track was co-written with Mackay).

Lyrically, Avalon shows Ferry becoming a superb, somewhat surrealist chronicler of intense love affairs, often painting himself as the windswept loner weighed down by desire. Musically, the album is a marvel of ensemble playing – solid but expressive bass (Neil Jason and Alan Spenner) and drums (Newmark – superb), Ferry’s impressionistic piano and synths, colourful percussion from Jimmy Maelen, and spare, tasteful guitar licks placed around the stereo spectrum from Phil Manzanera and Neil Hubbard (who also plays a great solo on ‘To Turn You On’). And finally there’s extra spice from Andy Mackay on various saxes and Fonzi Thornton on vocals, whose uncanny alto compliments Ferry so well.

Avalon was a hit, reaching number one in the UK album chart (though, surprisingly, only #53 in the US) and producing three UK hit singles. Sonically and lyrically, it also set the template for all of Ferry’s subsequent solo projects. Happy birthday to a true ’80s classic, oft imitated but never surpassed.

Swing Out Sister: It’s Better To Travel 30 Years Old Today

Mercury Records, released 11th May 1987

Bought: Woolworths, Deal, Kent 1989?

8/10

Though they emerged as a quintessentially-1980s pop act, Swing Out Sister actually had impeccable post-punk credentials: keyboardist Andy Connell had played with Factory Records-signed A Certain Ratio before SOS, drummer Martin Jackson had previously worked with Magazine and The Chameleons while singer Corinne Drewery had sung back-up with Working Week amongst others.

The result was a musically-rich, very commercial take on the self-contained recording ‘project’ in the Yazoo/Scritti/Steely mould. But Swing Out Sister’s USP was taking influences from the mid-’80s UK jazz revival and filtering them through ’60s pop and also the burgeoning house scene.

Young tyro Paul Staveley O’Duffy, fresh from his work with Hipsway, was brought in to produce – an inspired choice. He recruited Pat Metheny/Frankie/ABC arranger Richard Niles for the horns/strings and also mobilised the UK session elite (Wix, Guy Barker, Luis Jardim, John Thirkell, Gavin Wright, Chris Whitten, Jakko et al). The result was It’s Better To Travel, a fascinating mashup of jazz, early house, ZTT techno-flash and pop.

First, the jazz. It’s all over the album: ‘After Hours’ has a melody line straight out of Joe Zawinul’s ‘In A Silent Way’. The verse of ‘Communion’ borrows liberally from Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ and also has an instrumental break reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘Teen Town’ (but the song is crying out for the ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ go-go feel).

‘Twilight World’ and ‘Fooled By A Smile’ are cracking little pop songs with dynamic horns, memorable string arrangements and hints of Dusty and Bacharach. They sound a bit like Trevor Horn producing Working Week. ‘Breakout’ may be one of the more irritating hits of the late ’80s (making the top 10 hit in both UK and US) but musically it’s far superior to the usual ’80s chart fare.

‘Surrender’ still sounds fantastic today, a modal dancefloor track with intricate backing vocals, epic strings and a resplendent Guy Barker trumpet solo. It was also another top 10 hit (UK number 7). Minor tracks ‘Blue Mood’ and ‘It’s Not Enough’ are more synth-pop than pure-pop, but still very likable, and It’s Better To Travel closes with a dramatic instrumental (‘Theme’) which channels John Barry.

O’Duffy also does a sterling job with the mix: it’s very easy on the ear, not too loud or bassy. It’s music that breathes. I played the album alongside something recorded this year and it sounded far superior.

It’s Better To Travel was one of the best pop debuts of the 1980s and also a big hit, making number one in the UK album charts. Swing Out Sister waited a couple of years to release their followup, by which time they’d mainly ditched the house and jazz influences in favour of a far more poppy sound. But It’s Better To Travel still produces a kind of contact high for summer 1987 – good days, good days, as Derek Smalls once said.