Robbie Robertson (1987): 30 Years Old Today

robbie robertson

Geffen Records, released 27th October 1987

8/10

Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’. He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.

I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987. But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.

Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart). The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.

‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson. ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.

Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.

But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em). This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there. However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.

Advertisements

Yes: Big Generator 30 Years On

In the pantheon of rock rhythm sections, bassist Chris Squire would surely have to feature not once but twice – he forged striking partnerships with both Bill Bruford and the underrated Alan White. Big Generator, released 30 years ago this week, is a brilliant distillation of the Squire/White hook-up.

But there are loads of other pleasures too, even though it’s usually mentioned as an inferior, mostly pointless sequel to 90215. But for my money it’s the better album – more cohesive, less top-heavy. Big Generator was apparently far from a walk in the park to make though, with band tensions, endless rewrites and remixes. And of course there was pressure to follow up such a huge hit.

Trevor Horn started work on the album in 1985 but left towards the end of recording, leaving guitarist/vocalist/co-writer Trevor Rabin and producer Paul DeVilliers to finish the job. But you can hear the craft (and money) that went into Big Generator, although it still basically sounds like a band playing live in the studio.

This is barmy rock music, full of surprises, made by musicians with unique styles and a wish to take chances. But no matter how complicated the arrangements get, there’s always a logic to them. Take the title track for example. An excerpt from the ‘Leave It’ 90125 vocal sessions kicks things off. Then Rabin piles into a gargantuan riff (achieved by tuning his low E string down to an A, echoing Squire’s ‘standard’ tuning on his 5-string) joined by Squire. White’s snare is tighter than a gnat’s arse and his phrasing is always novel – he’ll often hit the crash cymbal on a ‘one-and’ or ‘three-and’ rather than the standard ‘one’. Then there’s the ridiculous speeding-up snare roll accompanied by manic Rabin shredding and a chorus that sounds a bit like Def Leppard. It’s all in a day’s work for this amazing unit.

‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Almost Like Love’ and ‘Love Will Find A Way’ are serviceable, weirdly-funky slices of AOR. The very ’80s-Floyd-style ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ maintains its doomy mood impeccably and features a brilliant Di Meola-esque acoustic guitar solo from Rabin. The standout for me though is the stunning, ridiculous ‘I’m Running’. Just when you thought they couldn’t crowbar any more into its seven minutes, it chucks in a descanting vocal outro which sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Only a few bits of Jon Anderson whimsy on side two threaten to derail proceedings. But in general Rabin keeps him in check, though presumably to the detriment of their relationship. Big Generator was nominated for a Grammy and sold well over a million worldwide, making the top 20 in both the US and UK. It’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So here it is.

Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction 30 Years On

Geffen Records, released 21st July 1987

Approximate worldwide sales: 30 million

Singles released: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ (US #7, UK #24)
‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (US #1, UK #6)
‘Paradise City’ (US #5, UK #6)
‘Nightrain’ (US #93, UK #17)

W. Axl Rose (vocals/co-writer): ‘This record’s gonna sound like a showcase. I sing in five or six different voices, so not one song’s quite like another, even if they’re all hard rock. Sometimes six lines (of lyrics) take two years. It just has to say exactly what I mean…’

Slash (guitar/co-writer): ‘We can sound like AC/DC, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Aerosmith. We can sound like what’s-his-name, that f***in’ idiot that plays guitar real fast… Al Di Meola…’

1987 was the year rock and metal made a comeback big-time. But Appetite doesn’t really sound like an ’80s album at all. It’s totally different to what Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Def Leppard offered in the same era, but not so different from Aerosmith, early Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols or The Stones. It’s funky hard-rock rather than metal, with the occasional punky moment, and still sounds superb today.

W. Axl Rose (born William Bailey) was and is one of the all-time great rock frontmen. His vocals stand out: he unleashes the growling, banshee-screeching and brooding baritone, sometimes all in the space of one song. Then there are the stage moves: the serpentine shuffle, ‘revolving stomp’, the pogo-ing, and the androgynous looks and gift for winding audiences up didn’t hurt either.

Guns were surely the ultimate ’80s Hollywood street band, seriously dangerous both to themselves and others. Signed to Geffen Records in March 1986, there was subsequently a lot of discontent at the label when it dawned on them just what they’d taken on. One A&R man said: ‘They were having sex with porn stars, openly using hard drugs. Once they arrived at the Geffen office, late for a meeting, with a naked girl wrapped in a shower curtain. There was a real belief at the label that Axl was simply not going to make it out alive. I remember someone at Geffen saying, “We must record everything they do – rehearsals, soundchecks, concerts – because this band is going to be incredibly popular and incredibly short-lived. One of them is going to OD before it’s all over…”’.

Appetite producer Mike Clink (installed after aborted sessions with Paul Stanley of KISS and Sex Pistols engineer Bill Price) was nicknamed ‘That Was It!’ Clink: he preferred first takes if possible, with the band mostly playing live in the studio. He captures the ferocity of the band in full manic mode, mostly keeping to a fairly basic format: Izzy Stradlin’s guitar panned hard left, Slash panned hard right, Steven Adler’s snare drum of doom (though Geffen apparently wanted to use a session player for the album) and Duff McKagan’s bass in the middle. There’s only one synth part on the album, the weird Geddy Lee-style Moog in ‘Paradise City’. Appetite was also pretty much the last major rock album mastered for vinyl.

They had built a formidable live following on the West Coast but Guns’ London Marquee shows of the 18th, 22nd and 28th June 1987 were their European debuts. They had to work. The pressure was on. The first show mostly sucked, with plastic beer glasses and snot raining down on the band, but the second and third gigs were apparently much better.

After Appetite‘s release on 21st July, nothing much happened in the States. Radio pretty much ignored it. MTV didn’t have a video to show. The New York writers thought they were just another hair-metal band from Hollywood. There was a better reception in England. Kerrang! magazine loved it: ‘Rock is being thrust back into the hands of the real raunch rebels’. (Within a few years, Axl would be berating Kerrang! onstage…)

‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (based on Slash’s famous opening riff that was apparently just a ‘joke’ warm-up guitar pattern) pushed the album up to #64 in November 1987. Incredibly, Appetite didn’t hit the number one spot in the US album chart until 23rd July 1988 when Guns were on tour supporting Aerosmith – almost a year to the day after its release.

On 2nd August 1988, Axl played live shows in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. He was a mega-star, the album was a smash, but he had mixed emotions about returning to the belly of the beast. ‘Don’t look up to him’, one of Bill Bailey’s old Jefferson High School teachers apparently said to some kids watching ‘Sweet Child’ on MTV. ‘He didn’t do well here…’

Further reading: ‘Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns N’ Roses’ by Stephen Davis

King Crimson’s Beat: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 18th June 1982

UK Album Chart position: #39

9/10

If you were to ask fans of 1980s King Crimson why they love the band, lyrics probably wouldn’t be a very high priority. But, pushed hard by Robert Fripp and possibly influenced by the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, Adrian Belew came up with some choice words on Beat, the excellent second album from this remarkable quartet.

References to the Beat writers abound; ‘Neal and Jack and Me’ concerns Kerouac and his best friend Neal Cassady and mentions several significant Kerouac works; ‘Heartbeat’ is the name of a book written by Cassady’s wife Carolyn about her experiences with the Beats; ‘Sartori In Tangier’ references the Moroccan city where a number of Beats resided; ‘Neurotica’ shares its title with a very influential Beat-era magazine, and presumably ‘The Howler’ refers to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.

As the saying goes, you take inspiration where you find it, and Belew had come up with a very handy concept on which to hang the new band improvisations.

Musically, Beat is a brilliant development of the Discipline sound. ‘Neurotica’ and ‘The Howler’ feature some remarkable, unhinged ensemble playing, teetering on total chaos. On the latter, Bill Bruford delivers intricate patterns on his acoustic/electric kit while Belew’s white-noise guitar outburst is a killer (he repeats the trick on ‘Waiting Man’ and ‘Neal’, extending his palette of sounds from Discipline and sometimes using a new tuning system with the high E string tuned down to a C).

‘Sartori’ is a superb vehicle for Fripp while ‘Waiting Man’ demonstrates the amazing rhythm dexterity of the band, a development of the ‘Village Music’ concept with Bruford and Tony Levin sharing a tricky 3/4 figure (joined by Belew on drums when they played it live) underneath an expressive vocal performance. There’s even a noble, painless attempt at a pop hit with ‘Heartbeat’. The only track that outstays its welcome is ‘Requiem’, a fairly dreary investigation of A-minor.

In short, the musical intelligence of this unit was pretty damn scary. But they never neglected a crucial factor: melody. Lesser bands might have built their entire careers on any Beat song.

Not surprisingly, tensions were high during the London recording sessions. Echoing the situation with The Police around the same time, they sought out a producer who might act as peacemaker. Fripp told writer Anthony DeCurtis in 1984: ‘We tried to get someone from the outside to organise it: Rhett Davies. I think if failed. I would rather have the wrong judgement of a member of the band than the right judgement of someone outside the band.’

Also, Belew was now very much the centre of attention and under pressure to produce melodies and lyrics to order. According to Bruford’s autobiography, Belew told Fripp to leave the studio after one too many barbs from the bespectacled Wimbornian, who ‘went straight back to Dorset and was silent for three days’. Only some desperate calls from Bruford and manager Paddy Spinks rescued the situation.

In the same 1984 interview as above, Fripp said of ’80s Crimson: ‘I feel I’ve created a field in which other people can discover themselves’. On the evidence of Beat, he did a fine job.

Frank Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch: 35 Years Old Today

Barking Pumpkin Records, released 3rd May 1982

Bought: Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

6/10

This is the first Zappa album I ever bought. It was a cheapo Fame Records/EMI cassette edition. Before Ship, I had only heard choice cuts courtesy of a friend’s career-spanning compilation. I was going to say that Ship was not the ideal album to start with, but actually with hindsight it probably was; it’s maddening, brilliant, tawdry, overblown – basically a microcosm of Zappa’s ’80s output.

Ship ditched the lush, multi-tracked sound of 1981’s You Are What You Is in favour of a no-reverb, claustrophobic mix featuring Chad Wackerman’s busy drums, blaring synths, in-your-face bass and loads of wacky guitar processing.

Opening track ‘No Not Now’, concerning the sexual dilemmas of a long-distance truck driver, is a six-minute disaster area that would surely test the patience of even the most diehard Zappa fan. ‘Valley Girl’ placed killer new-wave rock around daughter Moon’s hilarious vocal exclamations. It was a typically bold, spontaneous and very successful career move by FZ resulting in a timely hit single (peaking at #32 in the US).

But we then unfortunately segue into ‘I Come From Nowhere’, a fairly unlistenable track about the inanity of TV personalities with a ghastly vocal performance by Roy Estrada over an uninvolving, sub-Men At Work riff.

But side two of Ship demonstrates all that’s essential about ’80s Zappa. It should really be heard in its totality. The title track is surely one of his career highlights, a unique, surrealistic 12-minute salvo featuring spoken-word, ‘scatting’, a great rock guitar solo over a grinding 9/8 vamp, a blizzard of avant-garde piano/percussion and even a quote from Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ (of course also a piece about ritual sacrifice).

‘Envelopes’ is a brief but brilliant through-composed tribute to Conlon Nancarrow featuring close-interval, player-piano perversions, while ‘Teenage Prostitute’ is the R-rated version of ‘Valley Girl’, a hellish vision of Hollywood’s underbelly complete with ‘Peter Gunn’ riffs, intricate marimba and operatic vocals by Lisa Popeil.

I was in. I would immediately go back/forward and investigate FZ’s career in more detail. Next up was Sheik Yerbouti, the first CD I ever bought and probably my favourite Zappa album.

Ry Cooder’s The Slide Area: 35 Years Old Today

Warner Bros, released 28th April 1982

7/10

Gavin Lambert’s 1959 book ‘The Slide Area’ was a collection of inter-related stories about a group of Hollywood’s lonely losers. His theme was that California’s natural phenomena made ‘normal’ behaviour virtually impossible.

‘The Slide Area’ obviously rang a bell with Ry. His 1982 album of the same name also featured an array of characters not exactly thriving in the Dream Factory. But it also turned out to be almost the complete opposite of Cooder’s commercial breakthrough, 1979’s slick, sparkling, digitally-recorded Bop Til You Drop.

The Slide Area sounds like what it is – a rough-and-ready band, often audibly cued by Cooder, playing songs of varying quality live in the studio with minimal, if any, overdubs. ‘Which Come First’, ‘Yes It’s Me And I’m Drinking Again’ and ‘Mama Don’t You Treat Your Daughter Mean’ are incredibly loose, with some bum notes and tentative moments left in.

Ry’s vocals are similarly raw but full of passion. On ‘Mama…’ he even sounds a bit like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. Drummer Jim Keltner is uncharacteristically hyperactive, speeding up drastically on almost every song (definitely no click tracks involved with this album), but full of creativity on what sounds like a homemade kit with timbale, double kick drums, a trash can and a few different snares.

Cooder composes a lot more than on recent albums and even co-writes an ’80s classic with Keltner, ‘UFO Has Landed In The Ghetto’, which finds time to gently lampoon disco, rap and funk with references to the Bee Gees and George Benson. But perhaps predictably the three cover tunes are the standouts: a Tex-Mex version of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Gypsy Woman’, funky take on Dylan’s ‘I Need A Woman’ and a gloriously arse-over-tit ‘Blue Suede Shoes’.

But The Slide Area also marked the end of an era. Americana, roots music and blues were out, synths and drum machines were in. It was the end of the sort of albums Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks, the Doobie Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman and Ry made with Warner Bros and the beginning of the sort of albums Madonna, Pat Benatar and Laura Branigan were making.

Live, it was a different matter – Ry was still a big draw in 1982, playing legendary gigs at the Hammersmith Odeon (my dad took me to one night, maybe my first ever major gig) and big shows all over Europe. But that too proved a false economy. ‘Someone yelled “Think of the money!” from the audience (during a 1977 Hammersmith Odeon gig). I’d like to show him my bank balance. I could never make a dime doing anything. I came back to California in debt. I’d make a record and I’m broke cos they’re not making any money, they don’t sell. I said, to hell with it,’ Ry told Q Magazine in 1987.

It was back to the movie soundtracks. For a while.