Story Of A Song: McCoy Tyner/Phyllis Hyman’s I’ll Be Around

What makes a ‘good’ singer? In a recent podcast, Donald Fagen spoke about the importance of vocal tone, saying that he’d rather listen to Ray Charles singing a mediocre song completely ‘straight’ than a jazz singer pointlessly embellishing a songbook standard.

It got me thinking about Phyllis Hyman’s crackerjack performance on ‘I’ll Be Around’ (not to be confused with the Alec Wilder standard sung by many including Frank Sinatra and Chaka Khan), from McCoy Tyner’s 1982 CBS album Looking Out.

The song, which has haunted me since I first heard it in the late 1980s, was mainly written by Stanley Clarke and recycled from his lacklustre (despite featuring some lovely Stan Getz saxophone) 1979 track ‘The Streets Of Philadelphia’.

‘I’ll Be Around’ comes from an otherwise fairly mediocre McCoy album, mainly notable for featuring Carlos Santana, Clarke and Gary Bartz on several tracks. But Tyner’s fabled work with John Coltrane must have seemed a distant memory by 1982. In jazz terms, CBS was obsessed with Wynton Marsalis and neo-classicism, though still had time for Herbie Hancock’s hip-hop explorations and Miles’s comeback.

Phyllis and McCoy in the studio

Maybe McCoy in turn thought he’d hit paydirt by grabbing Santana, Bartz and Clarke (huge Coltrane fans, all), but Looking Out is now barely a footnote to his illustrious career – it was his second and last album for Columbia.

‘I’ll Be Around’ doesn’t feature Santana or Bartz, and was the sole LA-recorded track on the album (the other tracks being recorded at the Power Station in NYC), adding the excellent pairing of Charles ‘Icarus’ Johnson on guitar and Ndugu Chancler on drums.

Chancler and Tyner work together almost telepathically, the former driving the song forward, though always with one ear on the groove, the latter sprinkling on his majestic chord voicings.

Hyman’s vocals are huge, luscious, but she also adds some subtle flavours over Tyner’s piano solo, consciously removing vibrato and sometimes singing ever-so-slightly sharp for emotional effect. Of course it’s virtually impossible now to assess this heartfelt performance without considering her tragic suicide in 1995. But, happily, ‘I’ll Be Around’ gives a different slant on a fine career and shows Hyman’s mastery of almost all forms of black music, from disco to jazz.

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Story Of A Song: David Sylvian’s Pop Song

Sylvo is not particularly known for his sense of humour, but there was surely an element of black comedy about the release of the ‘Pop Song’ 12-inch single.

It’s hard to read it as anything other than his ironic response to being asked by Virgin Records to come up with something a little more ‘commercial’ to promote the Weatherbox limited-edition box set (a collection that, in the event, didn’t even contain ‘Pop Song’!).

Imagine the ashen faces of the management at Virgin HQ when the needle hit the vinyl. ‘OK, there’s some kind of groove, but hang on – the synth bass is out of tune, the drums sound like Tupperware boxes and the piano has been flown in from a different song altogether…’

Yes, this was David’s ‘Jugband Blues’. And it was brilliant (the B-sides are well worth tracking down too). Cooked up alongside regular co-producer Steve Nye at Marcus Studios, Fulham, West London, during late summer 1989, ‘Pop Song’ was Sylvian’s bitter farewell to the decade, a vision of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music and Sunday supplements. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t your typical feelgood summer single…

Musically, it was Sylvian’s version of ‘pop’ and pretty amusing at that, with some gorgeous ‘found sounds’, deliciously tangential piano work from ECM regular John Taylor and underwater drums/queasy synth bass courtesy of Steve Jansen. Sylvian delivers a great vocal too, full of cool, jazzy phrasing (check out the ‘But the money goes/And the time goes too’ line).

I bought ‘Pop Song’ on the day it came out (30th October 1989), and my memory is that it created quite a stir amongst Sylvian fans. It registered briefly at #83 in the UK singles chart and then promptly disappeared. Was it ever actually played on the radio? One doubts it.

But if ‘Pop Song’ proved a strange detour for Sylvian, life was about to get even stranger – next stop was the Japan ‘reunion’ Rain Tree Crow, of which much more soon.

Story Of A Song: Jill Jones’ Violet Blue

When Prince appeared on the box the other day, my mum expressed her approval. I ask why, and without hesitation she offered: ‘He respected and promoted women’. It struck me initially as a weird reason but upon further reflection seemed spot-on.

He wrote many songs from a female perspective in the early ’80s, many of which have never seen the light of day. Then there was Vanity/Apollonia 6 – dubious acts for some, but without too much moral adjustment you could interpret them as ‘women reclaiming their right to enjoy sex’.

Then there were Prince’s striking collaborations with a variety of strong, independent characters: Ingrid Chavez, Sheila E, Sheena Easton, Dale Bozzio, Mavis Staples, Cat Glover, Elisa Fiorillo, Bonnie Raitt, Nona Hendryx, Wendy & Lisa, Susan Rogers and Peggy McCreary. How many other male pop icons can boast such a coterie of female cohorts?

Then there was Jill Jones. With hindsight, her 1987 debut album, released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records, is one of the great missed opportunities of his career, and its standout song ‘Violet Blue’ particularly demonstrates why.

The album started in the summer of 1983 during the filming of ‘Purple Rain’ (featuring Jill’s less-than-stellar cameo), when she replaced Prince’s guide vocal on ‘Mia Bocca’. Sadly he didn’t find time to resume work on the record until over two years later. Consequently, it’s very uneven, with some decent material (‘For Love’, ‘My Man’) mixed in with middling Prince outtakes, covers and B-sides (‘All Day, All Night’, ‘G-Spot’, ‘With You’) and undone by rushed arrangements and drastic changes in tone.

‘Violet Blue’, recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound in October 1986, was the last song put down for the album. Quite simply, it shows what the record could have been, and, frankly, how much Prince (and Jill) had developed between 1983 and 1986 – the vocal intro and accordion breakdown are two cases in point, not to mention the interesting chord progression and superb horn (Eric Leeds) and string (Clare Fischer) arrangements. Jill delivers a knockout vocal too, even throwing in a neat little Nancy Wilson impression via Dinah Washington.

Sadly the Jill Jones album sank without trace. She has recorded intermittently since, contributing a great guest vocal on Ryuichi Sakamoto’s ‘You Do Me’ and playing low-key gigs. She’s always a refreshing presence.

The Redskins: Bring It Down

I first heard The Redskins’ ‘Bring It Down (This Insane Thing)’ circa 1985 on ‘The Max Headroom Show’, but, beyond clocking Alexei Sayle’s performance in the video, I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. It didn’t help that Max was speaking in tongues all over it.

Listening back to the song recently, I was seriously impressed. There are shades of early ’80s punk/funk: Gang Of Four, 23 Skidoo, A Certain Ratio, plus a bit of Dexys/Jo Boxers, and there’s also a superb horn arrangement in a great (or not-so-great, depending on your predilection for horn sections) period for horn sections.

The lyrics seem fairly revelant in a post-Grenfell world (well, they’re probably a bit better than ‘Oh-Jeremy-Corbyn’…) and feature somewhat of a classic first line, parodying Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s famous 1957 speech: ‘You’ve never had it so good/The favourite phrase of those who’ve always had it better…’

The band’s break-up as announced in the NME – click to enlarge

The band are a solid, funky little unit and I like singer Chris Dean’s chuckling Melle Mel homage and general swagger – it’s a classic ’80s vocal performance. Their Wikipedia entry says that The Style Council’s Steve White plays drums on this but it doesn’t particularly sound like him.

The Redskins burned fairly brightly for four years, starting out as an NME-approved indie act and then graduating to a major-label deal in the classic ’80s style. They split up after their Anti-Apartheid tour of 1986. ‘Bring It Down’ was their one and only UK top 40 single – a fairly poor return when such blue-eyed-soul inanities like The Blow Monkeys’ ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’ were just around the corner.

Where are they now? Who knows? No reunion. No sell-out. One near-hit.

Donald Fagen: Century’s End 30 Years On

Almost 30 years ago to the day, my brother arrived home from a Richmond shopping spree bearing strange cargo – a new Donald Fagen 12” single.

To say that this was a surprise would be an understatement. After all, it was six years since The Nightfly and the late ’80s were generally a Steely Dan wasteland apart from occasional guest spots (China Crisis, Rosie Vela, Love And Money, Yellowjackets).

‘I think we felt that a lot of the energy was missing so we kind of sat out the ’80s,’ Fagen once said. But, in his book ‘Eminent Hipsters’, he went further, talking about ‘falling apart like a cheap suit’ towards the end of the decade, with panic attacks, antidepressants and shrinks abundant. But at least he didn’t need the money – ‘What supported me was that when CDs came out at the beginning of the ’80s, people had to buy the albums again.’

Fagen’s movie-producing cousin Mark Rosenberg headhunted him to come up with some music for the film version of Jay McInerney’s celebrated yuppie-in-peril book ‘Bright Lights Big City’. Fagen was typically reluctant but apparently swayed by the quality of McInerney’s writing. There was also something distinctly Steely-esque about this tale of a disillusioned twentysomething’s descent into a drug-addled, paranoid New York hell. So Fagen fashioned his version of the movie, co-writing the lyric with Timothy Meher. There are touches of ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’ and ‘Wall Street’ in there. AIDS too, and ‘American Psycho’ was of course just around the corner.

The opening scene finds our hungover hero lamenting the roar of the Monday-morning garbage trucks. Cut to the floor of the NY Stock Exchange, where our yuppie daydreams about a conquest of the female variety: ‘We cut to this blonde/Dancing on a mirror/There’s no disbelief to suspend….‘ The image brilliantly conjures up Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate. Madonna should also probably come to mind. ‘She’s the concept, more or less, of love in the city at century’s end…

Nothing and nobody is real – it’s all pose and high-concept. There’s no hope for redemption either: ‘Nobody’s holding out for heaven‘. Greed is good. But then the mystery blonde is using her ‘pirate radar’ to find a likely escort or – even better – a minor celebrity to latch onto. But no-one materialises, so you’ll do, although you know you’re only the second choice. But still: ‘Let’s get to the love scene, my friend‘…

Musically, ‘Century’s End’ is yet another brilliant Fagen concoction, initially based around a typical minor vamp and groovy half-time shuffle groove shepherded by Yellowjackets’ ‘Jim’ Haslip on bass and drummer Leroy Clouden (submerged in one or two different bits of rhythm programming). Michael Brecker and Lew Soloff lead the horn section, and the raft of uncredited backing vocalists sounds like it might include Patti Austin. Gary Katz co-produced the song at Chelsea Sound. Fagen’s vocals have rarely been better – check out his phrasing in the chorus. The 12” and CD also came with ‘Shanghai Confidential’, a neat little fuzak instrumental starring Marcus Miller on bass and Steve Khan on guitar.

The movie, starring Michael J Fox, stiffed. The casting didn’t help. But ‘Century’s End’ seems to be a bit of a guilty secret in Fagen’s discography, and it’s ripe for rediscovery. I’m pretty sure he’s never played it live with Steely on the road – at least it’s not on YouTube anywhere.

Story Of A Song: Bucks Fizz’s The Land Of Make Believe

On first listen, ‘The Land Of Make Believe’ would seem to be a frothy, fairly harmless bit of fun built on one of the oldest chord sequences in the book. But dig a bit deeper and it’s a distinctly odd psych/pop classic and one of the weirdest number ones of the 1980s (hitting the top spot 36 years ago this week).

The main reason for that would seem to be the presence of Pete Sinfield on the songwriting credits. Most famous for providing lyrics for prog behemoths King Crimson and ELP, in his bizarre career he has also – thrillingly – co-written Celine Dion’s ‘Think Twice’ and Five Star’s ‘Rain Or Shine’!

In the book ‘1,000 UK Number Ones’, he recalled being tasked by Fizz producer/co-songwriter Andy Hill to come up with the words for ‘The Land Of Make Believe: ‘It is 10 times more difficult to write a three-minute hit song with a veneer of integrity than it is to write anything for King Crimson or ELP. But I half-succeeded on “The Land Of Make Believe”. Beneath its ‘tra-la-laas’ is a virulent anti-Thatcher song. Oh yes it is. Something nasty in your garden, waiting, until it can steal your heart…’

Portraying Thatcherism as a kind of creeping ‘Invasion Of the Body Snatchers’-style affliction… Well, maybe it’s just about discernible in the lyrics. But more likely it’s a neat concept on which to hang a lot of disparate references, from Superman to Captain Kidd (apparently a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean) and fairy tales of all kinds. But I always think of that creepy scene in ‘Salem’s Lot’ when I hear those lines about ‘shadows tapping at your window/ghostly voices whisper will you come and play’…

The fade-out features a cod nursery rhyme – also penned by Sinfield – which was narrated by Abby Kimber, future Minipop and 11-year-old daughter of Bill Kimber, an executive at RCA Records. Listening as a nine-year-old burgeoning pop fan in early 1982, it used to give me the creeps, and can still send a chill down my spine.

The video was filmed at White City swimming baths in West London. It references ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’ and foregrounds some fairly blatant swimwear shots of singer Jay Aston, whose unhappy tenure in Bucks Fizz was outlined in Simon Garfield’s excellent book ‘Expensive Habits’. Aston also apparently chose the outfits for the video, the female costumes coming from Kahn & Bell on the King’s Road and the male costumes from Boy. Aston later remarked that her and Cheryl Baker’s costumes ‘were ten years ahead of Madonna, with the cone boobs…’

‘The Land Of Make Believe’ subsequently became Bucks Fizz’s biggest-selling single in the UK, outselling even their famous 1981 Eurovision winner ‘Making Your Mind Up’. Not bad for a song that apparently no-one in the group particularly liked. Don’t have nightmares…