Story Of A Song: Iggy Pop’s ‘Play It Safe’

Soldier, released 40 years ago this month, was seen by Iggy’s paymasters Arista as a great opportunity for mainstream acceptance.

The Idiot and Lust For Life were now distant memories, and the label’s new head of A&R Tarquin Gotch and big boss Clive Davis were ‘taking an interest’, in Coen Brothers-speak a la ‘Barton Fink’.

As band (including ex-Pistol Glen Matlock and ex-XTC keyboard man Barry Andrews) and crew assembled at the legendary/infamous Rockfield Studios in south Wales, producer and fellow ex-Stooge James Williamson was feeling the pressure, apparently at times brandishing a bottle of vodka in one hand and loaded pistol in the other.

The Soldier sessions were long and laborious. No-one seemed to be steering the ship. Iggy was bored, brooding in deepest Monmouthshire. Then, one night, the proverbial saloon doors swung open and David Bowie swanned in with trusty assistant Coco Schwab. The mood changed instantly. Iggy lightened up and the old megawatt smile returned.

Around the dinner table, Bowie told the story of John Bindon, friend of the Krays, one-time Led Zeppelin bodyguard, part-time actor, alleged lover of Princess Margaret and possessor – also allegedly – of an unnaturally large appendage.

Iggy was fired up. Next morning, he and Bowie jumped into the studio and cooked up an ironic rumination on the lure of the criminal world, with some choice quotes lifted almost verbatim from Bowie’s monologue. Originally titled ‘I Wanna Be A Criminal’, it featured a classic Bowie descending chord sequence, icy synths and a superb vocal from Iggy.

Fellow Arista signings Simple Minds, hard at work recording their album Empires And Dance in the studio next door, were enlisted to provide amusing faux-Cockney backing vocals (you can also hear Bowie over the talkback mic at the song’s outset).

Some of the more libellous words about Bindon and Princess Margaret were later excised (Bowie apparently sidled up to Iggy at New York’s Mudd Club in early 1980 and begged him not to include them) and the song was finally released as ‘Play It Safe’, possibly Iggy’s self-conscious comment on his loss of nerve. But he still mustered a brilliantly insane ad-lib towards the end:

Rockin’ and reelin’ like Al Capone
Slippin’ and slidin’ like Joey Gallo
Movin’ and groovin’ with the Son Of Sam
Splish splash, I was Jim Jones!

Bowie had once again inspired his friend to create some of his best – if hardly commercial – work, and the best track on Soldier (though I also have a soft spot for ‘I’m A Conservative’). The album stalled at #62 in the UK chart and made a one-week appearance at #126 in the US, hardly a success in terms of making Iggy a mainstream concern. He stuck around on Arista for one more record, the forgettable Party.

Predictably, it was Bowie who would again inspire Iggy four years later to create his most effective album of the 1980s: Blah-Blah-Blah.

Prince: Dirty Mind/Controversy

Picture the scene: It’s August 1980 at Warner Bros Records’ Los Angeles HQ. Prince’s manager Steve Fargnoli is playing the suits his charge’s new demos.

Both the artist and his manager want to release these rough recordings as the next album.

Fargnoli hits the play button, and these lyrics crawl out over a peppy – but distinctly lo-fi – new-wave groove:

I was only sixteen but I guess that’s no excuse
My sister was thirty-two, lovely and loose
She don’t wear no underwear
She says it only gets in her hair…

Major labels often – quite rightly – take a lot of flak, but Warner Bros deserves credit for taking on Dirty Mind (released 8th October 1980) and Controversy (released 14th October 1981). It was a brave move by Prince too, an incredible volte face after it looked like he might be going down a big-budget, soft-rock/disco rabbit hole. Just compare the Prince and Dirty Mind covers: it was definitely one in the eye for Reagan’s new, ultra-conservative regime.

I first heard these albums circa 1988 via a compilation tape made by my schoolfriend Seb. I already knew and loved Parade and Sign O’ The Times but these older songs sounded like they’d been sent down from a different planet. I didn’t pay much attention to lyrics in those days but sensed something very odd going on.

In the Dirty Mind/Controversy era, Prince’s main modus operandi seems to be: shock at all costs. It’s a novel approach, because if he can express himself completely freely, and then deliver such a classic, ‘throwaway’ rock song like ‘When You Were Mine’, you never know what’s going to come next. Cue a long, great career.

Recorded very quickly during summer 1980 at his rather ramshackle home studio in Lake Minnetonka, Minneapolis (the drum kit apparently sat in a puddle of water surrounded by sand bags), Dirty Mind has more in common with the B-52s, Elvis Costello, Blondie and The Cars than it does Earth, Wind & Fire or REO Speedwagon.

It’s nasty, brutish and short. And of course what struck me listening to it again after five or six years, it’s remarkably stripped down compared to a great deal of modern music – hardly surprising when nearly all the noises are made by Prince. Only ‘Head’, ‘Partyup’ and ‘Uptown’ outstay their welcome, underwhelming grooves with slight vocal performances (though the former became a great live track).

Vinyl is back in vogue big-time, and my old LP version of Controversy sounds absolutely great. Of course it helps that the album’s only 37 minutes long, and also there’s a lot more bottom-end this time.

On a decent turntable, various details emerge like the scuzzy synth bass escaping from the left channel during the Lord’s Prayer on the title track (can you guess it’s a Prince album yet?!) and some low-octave backing vocals throughout.

It’s also a totally schizophrenic album again, with the title track and ‘Sexuality’ laying down a kind of free-love/free-speech manifesto, two rockabilly tunes (one a message to Reagan), a graphic seduction ballad and synthetic funk tune (‘Private Joy’) which marks Prince’s first use of the Linn LM-1 drum machine.

Weirdly, none of these songs made the PMRC’s Filthy 15 list. But they still sound totally fresh, especially the unclassifiable stuff like ‘Dirty Mind’, ‘Annie Christian’, ‘Jack U Off’, ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Ronnie Talk To Russia’.

Prince toured Dirty Mind and Controversy extensively, and there were three particularly infamous gigs during the period: his London debut at The Lyceum on 2nd June 1981 and the two shows supporting The Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on 9th and 11th October 1981.  Were you at any of them? Let us know your memories.

Book Review: Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor by Tim Lawrence

No less a pop personage than Brian Eno called the early 1980s ‘the most exciting era of New York music’, and he should know a thing or two about the subject. Tim Lawrence’s excellent ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ makes a good case for Eno’s claim.

The book traces the many musical and cultural strands of the early ’80s NYC scene, from the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement which briefly blossomed at the beginning of the decade through to the end-of-an-era AIDS panic of late ’83.

Lawrence vividly brings to life a scene where musicians, DJs, dancers, artists and club owners fused new-wave, no-wave, punk, dub, pop-art, Afro-funk, kitsch, S&M, psychedelia, disco, gospel, electro and hip-hop to create an exciting, vibrant, anything-goes aesthetic. Along the way, the book also looks at the making of some of the key NYC records of the era – ‘The Message‘, ‘Rapture‘, ‘Moody‘, ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Planet Rock’.

Pretty much all the key players of the scene make memorable appearances, a fascinating roll call including Larry Levan, David Byrne, Madonna, Afrika Bambaataa, Fab 5 Freddy, Sylvia Robinson, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kool Herc, Arthur Baker, Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash, Francois Kevorkian, Don Was and James Chance.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Lawrence also paints a vivid picture of the diverse dancefloors of The Roxy, Danceteria, Paradise Garage, Mudd Club and Canal Zone, where on any given night you could see people doing martial arts moves, magic tricks or even aerobics (yes, apparently early ’80s NY also foresaw that cultural boom which hit big later in the decade). Many rare and previously unpublished photos are included, and Lawrence also gets his hands on many interesting artefacts from the era such as Kraftwerk and Bambaataa full DJ setlists from The Ritz in 1981.

But all good things must come to an end, and ‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor’ doesn’t scrimp on the full details of how Reaganomics, gentrification, corporate intrusion and the spread of AIDS decimated the scene. The book is a great achievement by Lawrence, with a level of detail and seriousness befitting a Professor of Cultural Studies but also large doses of fun and gossip befitting a good-time era and its fascinating protagonists.

‘Life And Death On The New York Dance Floor 1980-1983’ is published by Duke University Press.

Book Review: Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel

walls come tumblingDaniel Rachel’s excellent new book focuses on the links between music and politics in the 1980s. Ostensibly an oral history of three epochal movements of the era – Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge – ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ shows how these campaigns politicised a whole generation.

Fresh from his fine ‘Isle Of Noises’ tome which interviewed key British songwriters, Rachel opens his contacts book again to get telling contributions from Pauline Black, Dennis Bovell, Billy Bragg, Lloyd Cole, Elvis Costello, Jerry Dammers, Andy Gill, Junior Giscombe, Paul Heaton, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tracey Thorn, Tom Robinson, Paul Simonon, Paul Weller and many more. There are also many rare or never-before-published photos of the era by the likes of Pennie Smith, Jill Furmanovsky and Kevin Cummins.

The story starts on 5th August 1976 when Eric Clapton used a notorious Birmingham Odeon gig to lambast the audience, calling for ‘w*gs’ and ‘P*kis’ to ‘leave the country’ and pledging his support for Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP who eight years earlier had made the infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech. Clapton’s shocking proclamations sparked the Rock Against Racism movement, a campaign also inflamed by David Bowie’s comments to Playboy magazine concerning Hitler and the rise of fascism.

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

This troubling era is picked over in immense detail, with various jaw-dropping artefacts: Clapton’s handwritten ‘apology’ letter to Sounds magazine is printed in full, and there’s also an extremely rare photo of Bowie’s ‘Nazi salute’ at Victoria station in May 1976 (as well as a new-to-this-writer explanation/apology from Bowie). Black musicians and music-biz legends also comment with great candour about life in the UK during this period.

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The 2 Tone movement attacked racism at its source while many artists under that umbrella also supported the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament and Rock Against Sexism. When Margaret Thatcher swept to a second term of office in 1983, bolstered by the Falklands War, a new pacifism emerged, typified by tracks like Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding‘ and Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang‘.

Later, as the miners’ strike took hold and Thatcher’s assault on socialism gathered pace, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg formed the Red Wedge movement which focused its attentions on ousting her in the 1987 General Election. It wasn’t to be, of course – although she did resign in December 1990.

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The final section of ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ focuses on Dammers and various accomplices’ efforts to raise public awareness about the banned ANC, with high-profile singles and the famous 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium, followed by his eventual freeing from jail on 11th February 1990.

Full of juicy details, potent memories of a far more passionate and politically-engaged era of pop music, and gripping, sometimes moving testimonies, this fascinating book outlines a period when youth culture demanded a voice.

‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is published by Picador.

King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset.

But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming. He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other Fripp stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood.

By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’ He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa. Hard to argue with that.

The Pop Group: Where There’s A Will…

pop groupPunk’s tributaries reached far and wide post-1976. Save country and classical, there was barely a music genre that wasn’t affected by it (someone should write a book about the number of early Pistols, Ramones, Clash and Damned fans who went on to form bands).

But one of the most singular and unclassifiable collectives to emerge from the punk boom was Bristol’s The Pop Group, who just for a few years fused all their passions – reggae, dub, free jazz, funk, Erik Satie, Beat poetry, Dadaism, Situationism – into a gloriously chaotic unit.

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I don’t know a better band for annoying the neighbours. At their best, The Pop Group sound a bit like an avant-garde jazz band trying and somehow failing to play like Chic with a psychotic politician screaming over the top, all passed through Adrian Sherwood’s dub effects. But they are pretty damn exciting in small doses and offer textures that are genuinely surprising. I usually turn to them as an antidote to the Ed Sheerans and Ellie Gouldings of this world. They also came up with some of the best cover artwork of their era.

The Pop Group emerged from a gang of West Country teenage music fans called The Bristol Funk Army who apparently would wear zoot suits and brothel creepers and listen to heavy ’70s funk. Meanwhile, vocalist/lyricist and Last Poets fan Mark Stewart was getting a serious political awakening, hellbent on documenting his research into consumerism, nuclear power and US foreign policy.

The band’s lifespan was pretty brief, limited to two albums (the debut Y was produced by UK reggae legend Dennis Bovell) and three classic singles – ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil‘ (not about Thatcher, according to Stewart), ‘We Are All Prostitutes‘ and ‘Where There’s A Will’, which was released as a double A-side with The Slits’ ‘In The Beginning There Was Rhythm’ in March 1980.

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They apparently lost thousands of pounds of revenue by mainly playing benefit gigs for Cambodia and Scrap The Sus (stop and search law). It was a very volatile time and they definitely put their money where their mouth was – they once even had to do a benefit for themselves to raise some cash! Their last gig before an amicable parting of the ways was the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament benefit in Trafalgar Square on 26th October 1980 in front of 250,000 people.

Mark Stewart spent the rest of the ’80s pursuing a fascinating solo career, of which much more later, while Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith formed Rip Rig & Panic (later featuring Neneh Cherry on vocals), and Smith has also been PiL’s drummer since the mid-’80s. The Pop Group’s sound has also been massively influential on a host of punk/funk bands over the last 20 years or so including Radio 4, Primal Scream and LCD Soundsystem.

And guess what – they are back among us again. They released a superb comeback album in 2015 – Citizen Zombie, produced by Adele helmer Paul Epworth – and have played live fairly regularly since 2011. It’s a pleasure to report that the rage and weirdness are very much still there.

But back to ‘Where There’s A Will’. This recently unearthed clip has become a favourite of mine (I love the studious Belgian host attempting to make some sense of this insanity), an antidote for anaemic, safe music everywhere. Not even Chris Morris could have come up with anything more grippingly bizarre.

For much more about The Pop Group and early ’80s music, check out Simon Reynolds’ excellent ‘Rip It Up And Start Again‘.