An Interview With Lewis Taylor

Lewis Taylor has never troubled the BRIT, MOBO or Grammy awards and never had a top 40 single or album but may be the most musically talented British solo artist of the last 30 years.

Over six studio albums – including last year’s unexpected NUMB, his first record for 18 years – Taylor’s work has embraced neo-soul, old-school R’n’B, prog, psych and yacht rock, influenced legions of blue-eyed-soul wannabes and been publicly lauded by David Bowie, Aaliyah, Paul Weller, Amy Winehouse, Leon Ware, Elton John, D’Angelo and Daryl Hall.

His classic self-titled debut album dropped on Island Records in 1996 and stunned the musical cognescenti. Who was this guy from Barnet who sung a bit like Marvin, played guitar like Ernie Isley, bass like James Jamerson and keyboards like Billy Preston, and created his extraordinary angst-ridden compositions in a North London flat on two digital reel-to-reel tape machines?

His second album – 2000’s Lewis II – was possibly even better, but sadly there were various reasons for its lack of commercial success. Lewis parted company with Island and recorded two further studio albums in the 2000s, Stoned Parts 1 and Part 2, and also issued The Lost Album and Limited Edition 2004. But what most fans didn’t know was that Lewis had a ‘secret’ 1980s history as purveyor of weird psychedelic pop/rock under the name Sheriff Jack and also as a touring guitarist in The Edgar Broughton Band.

It all adds up to a truly singular career, and Lewis is one of the most gifted artists working in music today. movingtheriver caught up with him as his new album NUMB was being released to rave reviews.

MTR: I gather you grew up in North London and were somewhat of a piano and guitar prodigy – can you tell me about your early experiences of seeing live music in the capital? Who would have been some artists you saw live/listened to?

LT: Ooh no, I wouldn’t say I was anything near a prodigy. My Dad was a wannabe musician who’d played percussion in a couple of jazz bands – Bongo Bernie they used to call him – so the real interest in music sort of came from being around him and I became obsessed with records. As a result live music has never interested me and it still doesn’t really, it’s all about the records. My dad liked a lot of big-band jazz – Stan Kenton was a fave of his, and he liked Latin stuff like Tito Puente. I also remember an album of Maya Angelou songs he liked as well cos it was sort of dark calypso. That was his thing – he liked anything that had that sort of exotic, syncopated rhythmic thing going on, but he liked some pop of the day too. He loved Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’, it used to make him laugh, and I can remember him in the car singing along to the end choruses of TRex’s ‘Hot Love’. He was quite a strange man.

On the keyboards side, would you say you were ‘classically’ trained? I only ask because I hear little bits of ‘classical’ harmony on some of your stuff, like ‘Satisfied’ and ‘The Final Hour’.

I would say I had a bit of classical training. But because the guitar had taken over I’d stopped paying attention to my piano lessons, but some of it must have still seeped through so I do have a good grasp of music theory, but I still can’t read music. I used to cheat in my lessons. I would learn whatever piece I was given to learn by ear and pretend I was reading it. Because I had a precocious taste in rock music as a pre-teen, the fact that the lessons were all based around classical piano music only served to distance me from it even more. So it very quickly started to feel like an extension of school. I did eventually manage to splutter out: ‘Mum, I hate this – I’m only doing it cos you told me to’, and that was the end of it.

Which guitarists/bassists/keys players do you/did you idolise? Re. the former, I hear Ernie Isley, Eddie Hazel, maybe Richie Blackmore, and I detect a John McLaughlin influence too?

One of my biggest bass influences is Chris Squire. I first heard Yessongs in 1975 and all I could hear was this clicky-clang of his bass but he would also be going places melodically where someone like James Jamerson went and the combination was so unusual and inspiring. On guitar, Pete Townshend, just for his rhythmic thing he has going on, I definitely got my strong right-hand attack from listening to him. For soloing, yeah a bit of Blackmore, but when I really started trying to play lead Van Halen had just come out so apart from the finger-tapping aspect which I’m not really into, the way he interpreted the blues scale influenced me a hell of a lot. Michael Schenker was another one. And of course Jimi. I do like players like John McLaughlin and John Scofield, Allan Holdsworth as well, but I’m not lofty enough to go there!

Tell me about joining/touring with the Edgar Broughton Band.

It was a weird coincidental thing, one of the albums I’d borrowed from my cousin was an Edgar Broughton Band album so I’d first heard of them when I was 9 or 10. Ten years later my brother had got a job working at Steve Broughton’s studio. When Steve told him they were going to reform and were looking for a guitarist, he said: ‘Get my brother in, he already knows all your stuff’ so it went from there. I loved it. The dysfunctionality of their music and of the band itself sat very well with my own dysfunction! We toured round Germany, Switzerland and particularly Norway a lot, we played a huge stadium in East Berlin three years before the wall came down. Every tour was an experience of some kind, not always good, but even that was good! The one which really shone for me was an outdoor festival on a Norwegian island called Karlsoy. We played at midnight but it was daylight, really strange daylight. I’ll always remember the walk down to the stage and turning round to see this wonderfully eerie vision of Edgar waking behind me, his Lennon shades on, his long white mane of hair and this really odd, cold light from the midnight sun shining behind him. We played a blazing set that night. Love Edgar, love those guys!

Sheriff Jack – what are you memories of that period?

Steve Burgess was a bit of a character who had a shop in Crouch End called ‘English Weather’. He saw himself as a sort of record shop guru and I suppose he was, to me at least, the imploding 19-year-old I was back then. It coincided with the Paisley Underground thing that was starting at the time so his shop specialised in that along with 60’s garage and psychedelia, and so I quickly became a regular customer there and we became friends. He’d also been involved somehow with The Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock and I went through a period of listening to them quite a bit. I probably misread a lot of what Hitchcock was doing as just silly nonsense and tried to do the same thing with the Sheriff Jack stuff. The name came from a track on a Red Krayola album called God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It. Again, a very bizarre album to some that seemed to make perfect sense to me. On this song I think they’d deliberately recorded the drums without being able to hear the song so they would go out in and out of time with the rest of the music. I used to play that track over and over on so I thought it was fitting to name myself after that song. I wasn’t serious or ambitious about it and I’m still not quite sure why I did it to be honest, but I did.

 

When signing with Island, did you have any direct dealings with Chris Blackwell?

No I never met him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t even know I was signed to his label, let alone who I was!

Is it true that you worked quite a lot on that first Island album at their studios in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, with more of a ‘band’ vibe, before recording the album essentially by yourself?

Not really, no. I was still trying to find a direction and hadn’t found it at that point. So there was a lot of early material that was fairly dodgy. I’d gone in there with the multi-tracks to overdub a drummer to get a live feel. But even then everything else had been done at home. I used to have some bad habits – I would sometimes record the effects onto tape as opposed to sending the tracks to effects during the mixing stage, so I would just use a reverb unit, then compress the reverb so it really sort of sucked in, then record it with the dry signal. The album was actually mixed at that studio though, so I’m sure the notorious echo chamber is on there somewhere.

What was it like appearing on ‘The National Lottery’ show? And ‘Later…With Jools’? Did you enjoy that aspect of promotion?

Some of it I did, yeah. I actually was on ‘Later’ three times you know – oh yes. Once as Lewis, once on keys with Finley Quaye, and once as keyboardist with some rappers called Spooks.

Do you ever wonder how different your life would have been if ‘Lucky’ had been a big hit? (and btw, I’m stunned that ‘Whoever’ didn’t even chart – that sounds like a hit to me, even today…).

Oh thanks. I actually have a pretty good idea how I would have turned out had I been more successful – I’ve always had a few loose screws at the best of times but a successful career in music, and particularly the fame aspect of it, would’ve turned me into a complete basket case!

Is it true that it was completely your decision to scrap the second album for Island, before starting over and recording Lewis II? I do recall a comment at the Hanover Grand gig where you alluded to Island being responsible…

Not exactly, I pushed in such an extreme direction the other way with what eventually became The Lost Album, it was a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived ‘trapped in R&B’ feeling I was going through at the time and some people around me were in favour of it and others weren’t. In the end I think I lost confidence in it and did Lewis II instead.

It is mystifying to me why no singles were released from Lewis II. Do you regret that ‘You Make Me Wanna’ wasn’t released as a single? I might have gone for ‘My Aching Heart’ too…

I don’t know. I think things were fairly fragmented by then and really my heart wasn’t in it anymore, but I wasn’t aware of that so I was sort of on autopilot. Also a lot of the people who were at Island when I signed with them had left so a few things definitely sort of contributed to the way things went there.

That Hanover Grand gig around that time felt so positive and it was a thrill seeing an English artist making such patently world-class music, and starting with ‘Track’… Do you feel that that momentum wasn’t maintained? And how much do you lay at Island’s door?

Hmm, not much really, but I did at the time. In hindsight I don’t think I would have been an easy artist to work with, I was a guy who sounded like that but looked like this and I wouldn’t play ‘the game’. I’m surprised that they were as supportive as they were! I do remember it being a pretty good gig though.

Amy Winehouse was quoted as saying she wanted to work with Paul Staveley O’Duffy only because he’d worked with you – did you know Amy? Did she seek you out? She was obviously a big fan. I thought ‘Take The Box’ had more than a bit of your influence.

No, I didn’t know Amy and I wasn’t aware that she was a fan. She was a great singer though. Very sad what happened.

Did you record a whole Trout Mask Replica covers album? I remember hearing ‘Ella Guru’ and being knocked out by it.

Oh cool, I’m glad you liked that! No I didn’t do the whole album, it was a bit of an anal job. You can’t learn those songs that easily cos there isn’t a straight line going through them, well there is but it’s very, very bent. So the only way was to get the instrumental version of each song, record it onto a stereo track cos Beefheart always had two guitars panned hard left and right, then I would just drop in and overdub it phrase by phrase, erase the original then try and sing on it. I gave up after 13 tracks, couldn’t be bothered! LOL…

How do you feel Universal have treated your Island catalogue since you left the company? Do such things bother you?

No, not really. It’s a shame that they didn’t contact me when they did the expanded reissue thing but other than that it’s all cool.

Did you know beforehand that the 2006 Bowery Ballroom gig in NYC was going to be your last for a long while?

No I didn’t as such, but I had started looking at myself from a personal point of view by then and I was trying to figure out where I ended and where the musician began. Unfortunately that process coincided with the involvement of the US guys so I was on a different page to them and it was the wrong page to be doing what I was doing. I didn’t have a clue about that at the time though so my behaviour may have been a bit baffling to them!

Famously you withdrew much of your online presence in 2006 – what has driven you to ‘switch it on’ again? And how do you feel about being a solo artist now with all the social media marketing etc. that goes along with it?

I dunno really, up until about two years ago I still wasn’t bothered, if somebody told me I’d be putting an album out in 2022 I’d have laughed at them. It feels a bit like it came out of nowhere but at the same time it doesn’t feel like one of those ‘I just have to create again and now is the time’ scenarios either. There was always a part of me that was pretty cynical about that way of thinking, and coming back to it now I still think like that, but in less of a cynical way if that makes any sense. The whole social media thing is just another thing – ‘new skin for the old ceremony’ – it has its pros and cons just like everything else that came before it.

You used to make music using a digital reel-to-reel tape machine in your home – is that still the case?

No, it’s all on a Mac now.

What do you think of the streaming revolution and its effect on album listening? Do you miss the physical product (and is NUMB going to appear on vinyl?)

I don’t really miss the physical format, I actually like mp3s, I like the convenience of them. Yes NUMB is definitely getting a vinyl release some time next year. Be With Records are doing it, the guys who did the vinyl of the first album. I’ve heard the test pressing and it sounds great.

B-sides – you created some brilliant music. Personal favourites: ‘Lewis III’, ‘Pie In Electric Sky/If I Lay Down’, ‘Asleep When You Come’. Is there anything more in the vaults? What’s the favourite of your B-sides?

Oh cool, thanks! No I don’t think there is anything left over, each set of B-sides was written and recorded specifically for each ‘single’ release. My favourite has always been’ I Dream The Better Dream’. In my fantasy it’s what early Soft Machine would’ve sounded like if Marvin Gaye was their lead singer.

I enjoyed your collaborations with Deborah Bond and The Vicar’s ‘The Girl With Sunshine’ (please tell me more about that). Did you consider any other duets/collaborations in a similar vein just before your ‘retirement’? Or is there anything in the pipeline for the future?

Both of those things were done at a time when I was starting to back away and shut up shop so it was all done via email. The Deborah Bond thing was a nice little job, cute little song. The Vicar thing was a guy called David Singleton who was somehow attached to Robert Fripp, I’m not sure exactly how. I think he’d heard a tune from The Lost Album which was featured on a compilation that came free with one the mags and so he sent an email asking if I’d like to sing on this funny album he was doing. Why did I do it? Good question. Looking back I think I was probably just flattered that someone was still interested at that stage.

You were involved as a ‘sideman’ capacity with Gnarls Barkley and Finley Quaye – was there ever any possibility of you just becoming an ‘anonymous’ sideman post-2006? Could you have carried on as a session player?

No I don’t think so. I definitely needed a total break from everything. I was approached with a couple more MD jobs after the Gnarls thing but as soon as I started thinking about the possibility of doing them it just felt wrong. I did reconnect with The Edgar Broughton Band though and we did a few more tours over the course of about four years, but that doesn’t count cos they were mates and it was away from Lewis Taylor and the mainstream industry. We toured the same places as they had always done, Norway, Germany and Switzerland. I think a few gigs were recorded but not for a record, although we did do a German Rockpalast show which had a DVD and CD release, and there are a few fan-made clips of some Norway shows on YouTube.

Listening to NUMB, it’s striking how much lower your vocals are in the mix as opposed to say on Lewis II. There’s a ‘horn-like’ feel to your vocals now too. I gather you particularly love Johnny Hodges’ playing?

That’s interesting, it didn’t occur to me that I sounded like that! I do remember saying I liked Johnny Hodges but I love all the classic alto and tenor players. The Hodges reference was probably from when I was listening to a Charlie Parker Jam Session album and Johnny Hodges was one of the many players on it, and compared to everyone else’s blazing solos his playing was so small and sly in a wink-wink kind of way and I remember being very entertained by it at the time. But then I discovered Albert Ayler and everything changed.

Who’s that on backing vocals on ‘Apathy’? And are there are any other guest appearances on the album?

Well that’s Sabina (Smyth) of course! And she is by no means a guest, any female vocals you hear are her! She’s on all the albums. We write, produce and mix all the albums together – it’s all us.

Is that a Syd Barrett interview reference on ‘Feel So Good’? (‘I even think I ought to be’…)

Of course! God bless Syd. I love him.

‘Nearer’ is extremely complex. Any memories of how that tune came about?

It’s strange cos while it does sound complex it was actually one of those tracks the just seemed to write itself.

NUMB is generally downbeat but also uplifting, kind of modern blues. A key theme seems to be having the courage to be yourself, faults and all, and the problems that go along with that. ‘Braveheart’ says it all.

That is a key theme, yes. Self-awareness and trying to be more authentic than you may have been in the past. All that shite. Yeah, I love ‘Braveheart’.

It’s a beautiful mixing and mastering job on NUMB. It’s really easy on the ear. Do you enjoy that aspect of music-making?

Thanks man. I think I enjoy that and the programming more than anything. Using a program like Logic is so much fun. You’re only limited by yourself. Logic will do anything you want it to and having those tools accessible is a great thing.

I think NUMB is really original (and, for what it’s worth, your best album since Lewis II…), but what music do you listen to for enjoyment now?

Thank you so much and I’m so glad you like it. I listen to a lot of opera these days. Totally away from anything I do as a musician.

How do you feel about people covering your stuff? Anything you particularly like? I’ve heard a few – Taylor Dayne, Peter Cox, Beverley Knight. Jarrod Lawson plays a great live version of ‘Right’. And of course Robbie. Presumably the latter has been absolutely vital for your income stream.

I think it’s cool and I think Robbie did a great job on ‘Lovelight’. I was watching some footage of him the other day and he’s such a powerhouse as a performer.

Do you miss playing live at all? Personally I found the last few years of your live stuff in the mid noughties a little ‘perfect’ with great players but maybe a little too slick… Do you agree? And any chance you might play live behind NUMB?

I actually thought that last band, myself, Ash Soan, Lee Pomeroy and Gary Sanctuary was the best band I ever had. I heard some tapes of us when we were over in NYC and we were so fierce.

Finally, how would you sum up your career in music thus far?

Hmm, probably with a small ‘c’…

Thank you, Lewis…

Japan: The Final Concert 40 Years On

40 years ago this week, Japan played their last ever gig. It was on 16 December 1982 at Nagoyashi Kokaido, the last date of a brief Far East tour.

To the band, it seemed pretty much like any other concert until someone started firing a water pistol at Steve Jansen as he tried to play the marimba solo on ‘Ghosts’. Then, as they came out for their first encore (‘Life In Tokyo’), the ping pong balls arrived, as did someone in a Father Christmas suit.

David Sylvian’s partner Yuka Fujii (such an important documenter of his 1980s work) filmed from the balcony of the hall as Japanese support act Sandii & The Sunsetz joined the band plus various people in animal suits.

Sylvian’s grin when he notices live mixer John Punter mucking about at the side of the stage is priceless. Much-missed Mick Karn and Jansen amuse themselves with some booze, guitarist Masami Tsuchiya attempts some Mick-style stage shenanigans and it’s touching to see this so buttoned-up of bands letting their hair down as they play their last ever live track: ‘Fall In Love With Me’.

The gig was a bittersweet end for Japan. Sylvian and Karn had fallen out irreparably (but would make up soon after). Manager Simon Napier-Bell was furious about the split (though would initially go on to manage Sylvian as a solo artist) as they were poised to become massive and had never sounded better.

Upon hearing of the band’s decision to break up, he reportedly asked for his full (back-dated) commission, as was his contractual right, leaving everyone in the band except Sylvian basically penniless. But – pending a strike from Jansen and Barbieri – he eventually relented and gave each band member £6,000 for the tour.

But huge credit to Japan for splitting when they did – a host of inferior imitators would come along in their wake.

Joni Mitchell: Wild Things Run Fast 40 Years On

joni_mitchell-wild_things_run_fast(4)Joni entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’, she reported to Q magazine.

It didn’t help that her beloved ’69 Bluebird had been stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard on New Year’s Eve 1979.

She was also sued by her cleaning lady and then found herself headhunted by old friend David Geffen for his new record label, though their relationship were never easy.

Then there were Thatcher and Reagan and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely (she’d make up for that later). Instead, buoyed by her relationship with new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date, released 40 years ago this month.

But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new-wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Larry Klein and Joni on their wedding day, 21 November 1982

It helped that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton.

Her new recruits were the new generation of hotshot session players: guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Russell Ferrante, formidable ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

My point of entry for this album was superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan. It’s a moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and intricate Guerin drum part.

‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazzy Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter. Klein in general gets a lot of space on the album – as much as Jaco got on Mingus – but he’s a totally different player (and doesn’t play fretless). His contributions make Wild Things one of the great bass records of the 1980s.

Larry Carlton plays a sublime accompaniment in the left channel on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’ (featuring more than a hint of Steely Dan’s ‘Third World Man’), while Joni surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’ – one of several drug references on the album.

Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, and it’s exciting hearing Joni pushing her vocals, singing with a lot of bite, though she probably should have left reggae well alone.

The closing ‘Love’ – appropriating Corinthians 13 11-13 – encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast: a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta.

TourProgram83RefugeGroup

The 1983 touring band: Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante

Joni toured Wild Things extensively with a band consisting of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London’s Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. Thankfully we have YouTube (see below).

The album was a minor hit, reaching #32 in the UK and #25 in the States, and the single ‘You’re So Square’ reached #47 in the US.

One’s appreciation of it probably depends on when you were born. People who adore Blue and For The Roses probably loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.

It Bites: Live In London

The classic It Bites lineup (Francis Dunnery, John Beck, Richard Nolan, Bob Dalton) produced three excellent studio albums and of course snared one huge UK hit in the shape of ‘Calling All The Heroes’.

Then there was the middling live collection Thankyou And Goodnight, and now a limited-edition 2018 box set called Live In London. I must have missed a memo because I only heard about it a year or so ago.

It was well worth the wait. It collects three unedited London gigs (I was at two of them) over five CDs, including their very last major show in the capital. Whilst these are essentially desk recordings, the sound quality ranges from good to excellent. The box set also features nice, previously unseen photos and some good liner notes including a long interview with Dalton, telling of their London history and details of each gig.

The Marquee concert from 21 July 1986 (at less than 40 minutes, presumably a support?) catches the band in their full-on, zingy, poppy/funky early pomp. Everything sounds a little fast and they haven’t quite settled into their groove yet but it’s still a good listen. There’s a rather shrill early version of ‘Black December’ and a great, rare outing for ‘Whole New World’ with Dunnery playing the horn lines on lead guitar with some aplomb.

Next is the very tangible peak of the band, a Once Around The World tour gig from 13 May 1988 at the much-missed Astoria. The sound is beefy, the tempos locked in, the backing vocals excellent and this really is the dog’s bollocks. There’s so much evidence of craft, with an extra note here and lick there, always slightly modifying the album versions.

‘Plastic Dreamer’ is a revelation, ‘Black December’ is huge, and ‘Old Man & The Angel’ ambitious and exciting. We finally get to hear what Dunnery sings in ‘Hunting The Whale’. The ‘Midnight/Wanna Shout’ medley is a knockout, complete with ‘Purple Haze’ coda, and Once Around The World’s title track is brilliant, complete with excerpt from ‘New York, New York’ which chimes rather cleverly with Dunnery and Beck’s Lamb Lies Down On Broadway fixation.

The third gig is the band’s final London show at the Hammersmith Odeon on 7 April 1990. The intro sounds like something from Prince’s Lovesexy. The new songs sound great, ‘Let Us All Go’ is superb but Dunnery’s voice is pretty shot throughout, and some of the backing vocals are also showing signs of strain. In truth you can hear the schisms in the band developing, though there are many, many great moments.

Barely two months later Dunnery had left the group. Not long after that, this correspondent would see him skulking around the King’s Head pub in Fulham (he was rehearsing upstairs with Robert Plant, I was gigging there), not looking a particularly well or happy man. Thankfully he’s on a far more even keel now.

Live In London is a really exciting release, a must-have collection for anyone who owns any of the studio albums, and arguably a much better package than Thankyou And Goodnight.

Further reading: I’ve written about the second It Bites studio album Once Around The World in the current edition of Classic Pop magazine.

The Essential Nik Kershaw

Universal’s Nik Kershaw CD re-release program seems to have stalled after Human Racing and The Riddle emerged around ten years ago, a pretty scant return considering he spent more weeks on the UK singles chart during 1984 and 1985 than any other solo artist.

And though all four of his MCA albums are now on streaming platforms, there’s still no sign of decent physical versions of Radio Musicola or The Works (and absolutely nothing on vinyl yet), so we’ll have to make do with Essential Nik Kershaw, a new budget 3-CD compilation which, confusingly, has the same title as a similar one-CD comp that came out in 2000.

Back when his four 1980s albums were basically unavailable, Kershaw fans had to make do with fairly crappy CD compilations, so it’s a relief to report that this one’s pretty good. It’s two discs of original album tracks/singles plus one of remixes.

The good stuff first: the remastering is absolutely first-rate. The tracks have punch and not too much bass, usually the first sign of an overzealous tinkerer. The design is attractive, and the digipack very light but very solid. There are a few decent B-sides I’d never heard: ‘When I Grow Up’ circa The Works could easily have been a single, and certainly should have appeared on the album. Instrumental ‘One Of Our Fruit Machines Is Missing’ gives the Chick Corea Elektric Band a run for their money in terms of insanely technical jazz/fusion.

Now for the not-so-good stuff: the track order is random, certainly not chronological, and there are songs missing that most fans would say are among his greatest: ‘Easy’, ‘City Of Angels’, ‘Walkabout’, ‘Lady On The Phone’, ‘LABATYD’, ‘Violet To Blue’. The disc of remixes is a slog to get through, but it’s worth hearing ‘One Step Ahead’, ‘Radio Musicola’ and ‘Don Quixote’. There are also zero musician/producer credits and no liner notes, but they’re not particularly missed.

But Essential Nik Kershaw a very good entry-level compilation and a treat to acknowledge again just how high the quality threshold was with this guy. I’ve also developed a real penchant for some material from the first album which I’d earlier dismissed, especially ‘Bogart’.

In recent interviews, both his engineer/mixer Julian Mendelsohn and keyboard player Andy Richards rate Kershaw as top of the list in terms of musical talent, pretty special when you consider the two have worked with Trevor Horn, Yes, George Michael, Level 42, Prefab Sprout and Paul McCartney.

(Mendelsohn also revealed that, much to producer Peter Collins’ annoyance, he spent a whole WEEK mixing ‘Know How’, so highly did he rate the track. His work definitely paid off…)

 

xPropaganda: The Heart Is Strange

Though not a big hit on its original release, Propaganda’s 1985 album A Secret Wish only seems to grow in stature as the years pass.

It was arguably the last meaningful release on the ZTT label, spawning two UK top 40 singles. More importantly it was a sonic treat, full of grandeur and drama, one of the great pop albums of the 1980s.

The Dusseldorf-formed band made a couple of botched attempts to reunite – the 1234 album in 1990, a Martin Gore/Tim Simenon-assisted try in 1998, then a partial gathering at Trevor Horn’s charity gig at Wembley Arena in 2004.

But now they’re back as xPropaganda (who knows the legal machinations behind that moniker). Founding members Michael Mertens and Ralf Dorper are not around this time but vocalists/songwriters Claudia Brucken and Susanne Freytag are, alongside Secret Wish producer/guitarist Steve Lipson.

Excitingly their album The Heart Is Strange is also on the newly reignited ZTT (Horn is credited as ‘Advisor’), via Universal Music Catalogue.

My expectations were high but then were slightly dashed with the choice of ‘Don’t You Mess With Me’ as lead-off single/trailer. It’s easily the least interesting track on the album.

Lush, cinematic opener ‘The Night’ definitely evokes memory of A Secret Wish’s epic track one ‘Dream Within A Dream’, even if Terry Edwards’ muted trumpet is incongruously ‘jazzy’ as opposed to the resplendent playing (by whom? Guy Barker? Steve Sidwell?) on the 1985 track. And there are too many vocal melodies to choose from, none particularly intriguing.

Elsewhere there are better tunes and the odd appealing lyrical zinger. And if synths are your bag, these sounds – mostly courtesy of Pete Murray – are fantastic, sometimes lush and ominous, sometimes intricate and ingenious. It’s great headphone music.

But there’s not enough memorable Lipson lead guitar on The Heart Is Strange and the drum programming is a bit flat. Paging Steve Jansen. Best track? The enigmatic closer ‘Ribbons Of Steel’, a nearly ten-minute spoken-word rumination on the end of a relationship with hints of the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab’s I Trawl The Megahertz.

The Heart Is Strange is a solid B+. Good in places but must try harder. Too many mid-tempo songs. Certainly not in the league of the freaky A Secret Wish (a lack of Mertens may have a lot to do with that?) and without that album’s pristine mastering, depth of sound, harmonic intrigue and wacky guest appearances, but some decent new material to play live. Maybe next time they’ll let their hair down a bit – and hopefully get Mertens involved again.

Brucken and Freytag speak about The Heart Is Strange in this podcast.

And Stephen Lipson deconstructs A Secret Wish and xPropaganda here.

Story Of A Song: Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’ (1981)

Apart from Steely Dan reaction videos on YouTube, my other mini viewing obsession over the last year or so has been ‘Columbo’ repeats.

You expect amusing performances and ingenious plotting from the classic Peter Falk-fronted show; you don’t expect music tips.

But there it was – a great piece kicking off ‘Columbo Goes To College’, the first episode of the show’s tenth season, debuting on 9 December 1990.

A bit of detective work revealed that it was Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’, written for the Oscar-winning ‘Arthur’ soundtrack, the one headed up by Christopher Cross’s US #1 ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’. I’d never heard of the band before but apparently they had some big hits at the tail end of the 1970s.

Co-written – like the rest of the soundtrack album – by Burt Bacharach (alongside band members David Pack – himself a hugely respected songwriter – and Joe Puerta) and produced by Val Garay (Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’), it taps into that great period at the dawn of the 1980s when yacht rock dovetailed with prog/AOR/new wave/whatever.

It’s mixed refreshingly dry, with barely any reverb, and features a treacherous arrangement that separates the men from the boys. It’s in 2/4 but has some very odd accents (especially in that deliciously long fade). Try playing along. Where’s ‘one’? There’s a nice use of the ‘flatted fifth’ in the verse and also a superb vocal by…who? Pack or Puerta?

The chorus lyric smartly lays out the film’s plot and concerns of Dudley Moore’s Arthur:

Life is more than time and money that’s easy to spend
When you know that she’s out there
Lookin’ for the girl whose eyes out-sparkle all of your gold
And a heart that’s bigger than Times Square

‘Poor Rich Boy’ was released as a single in 1981 but didn’t chart. There was also a strange jazzy instrumental version played throughout the trailer (see below).

It’s a shame in a way but Ambrosia are almost ‘cursed’ for me now – I don’t want to hear anything else by them because I know it won’t be as good… Or will it?

Story Of A Song: Queen/David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ (1981)

In the immediate aftermath of Bowie’s fabled appearance in the Broadway production of ‘The Elephant Man’, and despite the commercial success of the Scary Monsters album, at least in the UK, his thoughts were far from music in early 1981.

The sorts of modern nightmares he had sung about on ‘It’s No Game’ were becoming all too real. He was particularly shaken by the death of his friend John Lennon in December 1980.

It was time for a reassessment and reboot. First to go was a proposed world tour, originally pencilled in for summer 1981. Instead, Switzerland seemed as good a place as any to hide out, at least initially.

In July, Bowie was at Montreux’s Mountain Studios, recording his vocals for the ‘Cat People’ movie theme song with co-producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder.

Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to their drummer Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was on the cards (Bowie was also keen to bend Freddie Mercury’s ear about Queen’s label EMI, as he was pretty desperate to get off RCA).

It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: guitarist Brian May recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’.

But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, booze-fuelled few hours, described by engineer/co-producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, something started happening.

With Bowie running between piano and 12-string guitar (his D-based chordal concept is not dissimilar to David Gilmour’s work on Pink Floyd’s contemporaneous ‘Run Like Hell’), a groove, melody and basic song structure emerged.

Bowie encouraged Mercury to improvise on the microphone – apparently the latter’s wordless ad-libs were only meant as placeholders, to be replaced with real lyrics, but they were left in when no-one could think of anything better.

Bowie reportedly then ‘comped’ both vocal improvisations to give them something to build upon, and then lyrics were considered. The nascent song was initially titled ‘People On Streets’, but Bowie’s push to call it ‘Under Pressure’ led to the emergence of a more focused composition.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Bowie struggles with Queen’s natural tendency to break out the pomp-rock but he reins it back in with the moving, double-tracked ‘This is our last dance’ section.

It’s also instructive to hear his vocal mastery during the section; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance.

It’s also impressive that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘Pressure’ – no mean feat.

Still, it’s quite a bold song lyrically. There aren’t many #1 singles with lines like ‘It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friends scream let me out’.

It’s not surprising Bowie’s mind was on the healing nature of love in 1981. It’s possible the song was a reaction to the street uprisings going on throughout the UK during spring and summer. The result is a kind of ‘Heroes’ for the early 1980s. Also it’s possibly a prelude to his involvement with Band Aid/Live Aid later in the decade.

It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s infamous Lord’s Prayer at the 1992 Freddie tribute concert at Wembley Stadium took place soon after his performance of ‘Under Pressure’ in duet with Annie Lennox.

The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’ It’s certainly far from a hi-fidelity recording.

EMI were understandably convinced ‘Under Pressure’ was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so. But it entered the UK charts at #8 40 years ago this week, and then summarily knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ off the top spot on 15 November, staying at #1 for two weeks.

In the US,  it reached #29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ almost six years before.

David Mallet’s clever video used stock/public domain footage to interesting effect, though it was banned by the BBC (though I definitely remember seeing it on telly at the time) for including a few seconds of footage from an IRA bomb in Belfast.

As for Bowie, he quickly moved on to the filming of Alan Clarke’s excellent TV play ‘Baal’ in August 1981, rounding off an interesting year for him.

On a personal level, I recall that November 1981 was exactly the time when the pop music bug really got me. I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Under Pressure’, and many tracks from that month’s chart hold a special place in my heart to this day.

Further reading: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ by Chris O’Leary

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain

After ‘82’s critically acclaimed New Gold Dream, the logical step for Simple Minds would seem to have been to go even further away from their art-rock roots and rush headlong towards some funky ‘sophisti-pop’.

After all, head honcho Jim Kerr is on record as saying that his favourites from the era were Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, Donna Summer’s two classic 1982 singles and Carly Simon’s ‘Why’.

To that end, Nightclubbing co-helmer Alex Sadkin was eagerly approached to produce Sparkle In The Rain, but he declined, busy with Duran Duran and Thompson Twins work.

Instead, inspired by premiering the pile-driving, Pink Floyd-meets-Doors ‘Waterfront’ at Dublin’s Phoenix Park gig (supporting U2) on 14 August 1983, they turned to producer Steve Lillywhite, chief architect of the Return to Rock that was eclipsing New Pop during summer 1983, courtesy of his work with Big Country and U2.

Lillywhite hastily took them into Shepherds Bush’s legendary Townhouse Studios 2, with Howard Gray engineering. Guitarist Charlie Burchill wrote ‘Herzog’ on the back of Lillywhite’s chair, inspired by his and Kerr’s newfound love of the German director’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and its theme of dreams moving mountains. A photo of Nastassja Kinski took pride of place on the control-room wall.

There were regular games of table tennis, Kerr using them to psych himself up for the very adrenalized vocal takes, especially on the hysterial ‘Kick Inside Of Me’.

After previous drummer problems to match Spinal Tap, the excellent Mel Gaynor was a real find for the band. Though quiet in the studio, he was a monster on the kit and also apparently contributed effective keyboard and guitar ideas.

Bassist Derek Forbes was more in the background, spending a lot of time drawing his ‘Dan Yer Man’ cartoons. Burchill allegedly gave him a bollocking about his lack of ‘commitment’; the writing was on the wall for the talented player. He’d soon join fellow ex-Mind Brian McGee in a superb iteration of Propaganda’s touring band.

Tellingly, Sparkle’s songwriting royalties are split five ways, except for a truncated cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ which jettisons some of the more ‘unsavoury’ statements of the original (shades of Bowie’s ‘Tonight’, recorded a few months later?).

But it’s Gaynor, Kerr and McNeil’s album. The latter provides epic textures, very high in the mix. Kirsty MacColl provides a very welcome ‘girl’s voice’. ‘Shake Off The Ghosts’ was certainly noted by U2. ‘Waterfront’ is brilliant. How many other hits use guitar harmonics for their main riff? (only The Hooters’ ‘Satellite’ comes to mind).

Alongside Empires And Dance, Sparkle remains my favourite Minds album. Yes it’s a sonic ‘experiment’ and most tracks go on for a minute too long, but it’s rooted in strong band playing and delicious ambient textures. And it’s bloody loud.

Released on 6 February 1984, it became their first of four straight UK #1 albums. But they weren’t delivering on the singles front: ‘Waterfront’ only got to #13, ‘Speed Your Love’ #20 and ‘Up On The Catwalk’ #27. With hindsight, their reluctant November 1984 recording of Keith Forsey/Steve Schiff’s ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ was a vital career move.

Minds hit the gig circuit for a very busy summer 1984 tour including a record-breaking (at the time) eight nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was a very different group to a year earlier. It’s fascinating to compare two ‘Oxford Road Show’ gigs from early 1983 and early 1984:

Gone was the skinny, neurotic Euro art-funk. Kerr was a far more wholesome, energised, welcoming character than before, screaming ‘Charlie Burchill!’ before the regular guitar breaks. He even started the Hammersmith gigs up a pole, Julian Cope-style!

But Kerr quickly disowned this period, citing exhaustion on the part of the band. Stateside success seemed so near yet so far. But then came ‘Don’t You’, Kerr’s marriage to Chrissie Hynde, ‘The Breakfast Club’ and Live Aid. The world was theirs.

Further reading: ‘Simple Minds’ by Adam Sweeting