Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies. But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.

Frank Zappa: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ 40 Years On

Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.

A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.

You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.

Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.

Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month. A satirical comment on the draft policy of the Carter administration, it was the first product issued on his own Barking Pumpkin label – and reached #3 in the Swedish singles chart!

It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984. There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.

In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.

Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.

One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’. What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.

It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.

Jeff Beck @ The Royal Albert Hall: 1983 v 2004

Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.

For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.

The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Back and he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long. A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!

But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.

Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.

But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.

Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish. However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.

Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?. There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.

For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut‘. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!

So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never, I suppose…)

Lou Reed: The Best Of The 1980s

Lou’s gallows humour has been giving me a lift recently, a tonic for these troubled times. There’s just something very apt about his cast of characters ‘that just squeak by’, with no hope of salvation.

His marriage of rock’n’roll music with the language of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Chandler and Tennessee Williams also seems totally timeless, and it’s barely believable that we’re approaching seven years since his death.

The predictable critical narrative is that Reed had a dodgy 1980s, not releasing a decent album until New York. But I’d throw in ’82’s The Blue Mask and ’84’s New Sensations too; by my reckoning, his only dog of the decade is 1986’s Mistrial. He also seemed to develop, slowly leaving behind the drugs/booze and moving towards higher climes by ’89.

Here’s a selection of the good stuff, often featuring such quality players as Robert Quine, Fernando Sanders, Fred Maher and L Shankar. He put a lot out there, addressing jealousy, addiction, violence, ecological issues. A cliché though it may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone ‘getting away’ with some of this these days.

Check out the playlist here and lyrics below. Keep calm and listen to Lou…

 

‘The Power Of Positive Drinking’ (1980)

Some like wine and some like hops
But what I really love is my scotch
It’s the power, the power of positive drinking

Some people ruin their drinks with ice
And then they ask you for advice
They tell you, I’ve never told anyone else before

They say, candy is dandy but liquor makes quipsters
And I don’t like mixers, sippers or sob sisters
You know, you have to be real careful where you sit down in a bar these days

And then some people drink to unleash their libidos
And other people drink to prop up their egos
It’s my burden, man
People say I have the kind of face you can trust

Some people say alcohol makes you less lucid
And I think that’s true if you’re kind of stupid
I’m not the kind that gets himself burned twice

And some say liquor kills the cells in your head
And for that matter so does getting out of bed
When I exit, I’ll go out gracefully, shot in my hand

The pow-pow-pow-pow-power of positive drinking

 

‘Average Guy’ (1982)

I ain’t no Christian or no born-again saint
I ain’t no cowboy or a Marxist DA
I ain’t no criminal or Reverend Cripple from the right
I am just your average guy, trying to do what’s right

I’m just your average guy, an average guy
I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place
You wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face

I worry about money and taxes and such
I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch
I worry about my health and bowels
And the crimewaves in the street

I’m really just your average guy
Trying to stand on his own two feet
Average looks, average taste, average height, average waist
Average in everything I do
My temperature is 98.2

 

‘Turn To Me’ (1984)

If you gave up major vices
You’re between a hard place and a wall
And your car breaks down in traffic on the street

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

If you father is freebasing and your mother turning tricks
That’s still no reason that you should have a rip
Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When your teeth are ground down to the bone
And there’s nothing between your legs
And some friend died of something that you can’t pronounce

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

You can’t pay your rent
Your boss is an idiot
Your apartment has no heat
Your wife says maybe it’s time to have a child

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When it’s all too much
You turn the TV set on and light a cigarette
Then a public service announcement comes creeping on
You see a lung corroding or a fatal heart attack
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

 

‘Doin’ The Things We Want To’ (1984)

The other night we went to see Sam’s play
Doin’ the things that we want to
It was very physical, it held you to the stage
Doin’ the things that he want to
The guy’s a cowboy from some rodeo
Doin’ the things that we want to
The girl had once loved him, but now she want to go
Doin’ the things that we want to
The man was bullish, the woman was a tease
Doin’ the things that we want to
They fought with their words, their bodies and their deeds
Doin’ the things that we want to
When they finished fighting, they excited the stage
Doin’ the things that we want to
I was firmly struck by the way they had behaved
Doin’ the things that we want to …
It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
Those frank and brutal movies that are so brilliant
Doin’ the things that we want to
‘Fool For Love’ meet ‘The Raging Bull’
Doin’ the things that we want to
They’re very inspirational, I love the things they do
Doin’ the things that we want to
There’s not much you hear on the radio today
Doin’ the things that we want to
But you still can see a movie or a play
Doin’ the things that we want to
Here’s to Travis Bickle and here’s to Johnny Boy
Doin’ the things that we want to
Growing up in the mean streets of New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand
Doin’ the things that we want to
In a way you guys are the best friends I ever had
Doin’ the things that we want to

 

‘The Last Great American Whale’ (1989)

They say he didn’t have an enemy
His was a greatness to behold
He was the last surviving progeny
The last one on this side of the world

He measured half a mile from tip to tail
Silver and black with powerful fins
They say he could split a mountain in two
That’s how we got the Grand Canyon

Some say they saw him at the Great Lakes
Some say they saw him off the coast of Florida
My mother said she saw him in Chinatown
But you can’t always trust your mother

Off the Carolinas the sun shines brightly in the day
The lighthouse glows ghostly there at night
The chief of a local tribe had killed a racist mayor’s son
And he’d been on death row since 1958

The mayor’s kid was a rowdy pig
Spit on Indians and lots worse
The old chief buried a hatchet in his head
Life compared to death for him seemed worse

The tribal brothers gathered in the lighthouse to sing
And tried to conjure up a storm or rain
The harbour parted and the great whale sprang full up
And caused a huge tidal wave
The wave crushed the jail and freed the chief
The tribe let out a roar

The whites were drowned
The browns and reds set free
But sadly one thing more
Some local yokel member of the NRA
Kept a bazooka in his living room
And thinking he had the chief in his sights
Blew the whale’s brains out with a lead harpoon

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
Land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
With human life not worth much more than infected yeast
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
And complain if they can’t swim

They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see
And none of what you hear
It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me:
‘Stick a fork in their ass and turn ’em over, they’re done’

Huey Lewis & The News: Weather

It’s not easy to make happy music.

But there was a lot of it about in the 1980s, and Huey Lewis And The News were hugely successful purveyors of the uplifting single, particularly during their mid-decade peak when ‘The Power Of Love’, ‘Hip To Be Square’ and ‘Stuck With You’ were seldom off the airwaves.

Does anybody in the world actually dislike this band (Patrick Bateman is a particular fan, of course… Ed.)? Huey has a great set of pipes and they always deliver a reliable fusion of roots music: blues, R’n’B, rock’n’roll, doo-wop and country, with some pop and soul hooks thrown in too.

New album Weather is their first for ten years. Huey has had hearing problems due to a recent onset of Meniere’s Disease, about which he’s reliably sanguine, recently telling Classic Pop magazine: ‘Things could always be worse. After all, I’m deaf, not dead…’

Weather is only 26 minutes long. It’s intended as a followup of sorts to their most popular album Sports. Geddit? Sports and weather… These are simple songs, well played and well written, with decent melodies, bridges, middle-eights and nice guitar or sax solos. And this time ’80s mixmaster general Bob Clearmountain (Simple Minds, Bryan Adams, Hall & Oates) is on hand to deliver a rich, punchy sound, with everything in exactly its right place.

‘While We’re Young’ is a witty R’n’B song about ageing. You can almost imagine Donald Fagen doing it. ‘Her Love Is Killing Me’ is out of the Robert Cray school. The Blues Brothers would have done a great version.

‘Hurry Back’ features a classic Texas shuffle and some decidedly Stevie Ray-style lead guitar. It won’t win any #woke points for its one-night-stand theme – but who cares. The funky ‘Remind Me Why I Love You Again’ also scores highly on the un-PC scale to amusing effect, Huey complaining that his resolutely modern squeeze refuses to cook or clean.

There’s even a cover of Eugene Church’s 1958 doo-wop standard ‘Pretty Girls Everywhere’, complete with ‘boogalee-woogalee’ backing vox. And gentle C’n’W closer ‘One Of The Boys’ is touchingly faux-naive about Huey’s place in the world: ‘Yes I’m playing with my friends/Until the music ends‘.

Weather is not cool, certainly not hip, but effortlessly enjoyable. Somehow Huey Lewis And The News still sound like the best bar band you’ve ever heard in your life.

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.