Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade appearing alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s partner in crime, acting as music consultant and occasional composer for ‘The King Of Comedy‘ and ‘The Color Of Money‘.
I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of countercultural heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in late 1987. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling spoken-word vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style) that drew me in. Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.
Gabriel himself supplies keyboards and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’, dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel, and also contributes trademark Yamaha CP-50 piano and synths to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’. ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ is simply a superb composition with yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.
‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture which sounds a bit like The Clash. The first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some driving rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio (check out his bizarro groove playing in the outro) and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Band-mate Garth Hudson. ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ is another superb rocker with fine bass playing from Joni Mitchell’s hubby Larry Klein.
The only disappointments are two lacklustre collaborations with U2 (one inexplicably involving legendary jazz arranger Gil Evans too). But Robbie Robertson is one of the best post-Live Aid ’80s rock albums, a great debut and interesting companion piece to Gabriel’s So, Joni’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. It was a really interesting era for the survivors of the ’60s and ’70s. In a way, Live Aid, which featured such strong showings by ‘veterans’ like Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie, had given the older guys a new lease of life and a new reason to get back out there.