There must be a huge cache of unreleased material in the George Clinton vaults – we’re probably talking Prince/James Brown/Frank Zappa amounts here.
And will it be Warners, BMG or Universal who get control of his recorded legacy (unless the deal has already been done…)?
As it is, you could probably spend a lifetime listening to his existing work. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, new things keep trickling through, like Sweat Band’s self-titled 1980 debut album.
The P-Funk side project, mainly written and performed by Bootsy Collins and Maceo Parker and recorded at United Sound Studios in Detroit, was the first release on Clinton’s short-lived Uncle Jam label, distributed by CBS.
In truth the album is very patchy (not helped by the cover which probably should have made my worst of the 1980s list) and shows the decline also encountered by Parliament/Funkadelic and Bootsy (whose Ultra Wave was released in the same week) around the same period, when funk was getting watered down by disco and commercial R’n’B.
But the track ‘Jamaica’ is brilliant. It’s gone straight into my 1980s Funk playlist with a bullet. It features legendary London music writer Lloyd Bradley (credited as Lloyd Bridges) talking rubbish all over it plus a seriously arse-over-teacup groove, catchy chants, underwater bass and fantastic horns.
And is that an uncredited Harvey Mason on drums? It sure sounds like him. Bring on the Clinton vaults if there’s a lot more like this lying around.
Apart from Steely Dan reaction videos on YouTube, my other mini viewing obsession over the last year or so has been ‘Columbo’ repeats.
You expect amusing performances and ingenious plotting from the classic Peter Falk-fronted show; you don’t expect music tips.
But there it was – a great piece kicking off ‘Columbo Goes To College’, the first episode of the show’s tenth season, debuting on 9 December 1990.
A bit of detective work revealed that it was Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’, written for the Oscar-winning ‘Arthur’ soundtrack, the one headed up by Christopher Cross’s US #1 ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’. I’d never heard of the band before but apparently they had some big hits at the tail end of the 1970s.
Co-written – like the rest of the soundtrack album – by Burt Bacharach (alongside band members David Pack – himself a hugely respected songwriter – and Joe Puerta) and produced by Val Garay (Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’), it taps into that great period at the dawn of the 1980s when yacht rock dovetailed with prog/AOR/new wave/whatever.
It’s mixed refreshingly dry, with barely any reverb, and features a treacherous arrangement that separates the men from the boys. It’s in 2/4 but has some very odd accents (especially in that deliciously long fade). Try playing along. Where’s ‘one’? There’s a nice use of the ‘flatted fifth’ in the verse and also a superb vocal by…who? Pack or Puerta?
The chorus lyric smartly lays out the film’s plot and concerns of Dudley Moore’s Arthur:
Life is more than time and money that’s easy to spend When you know that she’s out there Lookin’ for the girl whose eyes out-sparkle all of your gold And a heart that’s bigger than Times Square
‘Poor Rich Boy’ was released as a single in 1981 but didn’t chart. There was also a strange jazzy instrumental version played throughout the trailer (see below).
It’s a shame in a way but Ambrosia are almost ‘cursed’ for me now – I don’t want to hear anything else by them because I know it won’t be as good… Or will it?
In the immediate aftermath of Bowie’s fabled appearance in the Broadway production of ‘The Elephant Man’, and despite the commercial success of the Scary Monsters album, at least in the UK, his thoughts were far from music in early 1981.
The sorts of modern nightmares he had sung about on ‘It’s No Game’ were becoming all too real. He was particularly shaken by the death of his friend John Lennon in December 1980.
It was time for a reassessment and reboot. First to go was a proposed world tour, originally pencilled in for summer 1981. Instead, Switzerland seemed as good a place as any to hide out, at least initially.
In July, Bowie was at Montreux’s Mountain Studios, recording his vocals for the ‘Cat People’ movie theme song with co-producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder.
Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to their drummer Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was on the cards (Bowie was also keen to bend Freddie Mercury’s ear about Queen’s label EMI, as he was pretty desperate to get off RCA).
It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: guitarist Brian May recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’.
But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, booze-fuelled few hours, described by engineer/co-producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, something started happening.
With Bowie running between piano and 12-string guitar (his D-based chordal concept is not dissimilar to David Gilmour’s work on Pink Floyd’s contemporaneous ‘Run Like Hell’), a groove, melody and basic song structure emerged.
Bowie encouraged Mercury to improvise on the microphone – apparently the latter’s wordless ad-libs were only meant as placeholders, to be replaced with real lyrics, but they were left in when no-one could think of anything better.
Bowie reportedly then ‘comped’ both vocal improvisations to give them something to build upon, and then lyrics were considered. The nascent song was initially titled ‘People On Streets’, but Bowie’s push to call it ‘Under Pressure’ led to the emergence of a more focused composition.
It’s a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Bowie struggles with Queen’s natural tendency to break out the pomp-rock but he reins it back in with the moving, double-tracked ‘This is our last dance’ section.
It’s also instructive to hear his vocal mastery during the section; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance.
It’s also impressive that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘Pressure’ – no mean feat.
Still, it’s quite a bold song lyrically. There aren’t many #1 singles with lines like ‘It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friends scream let me out’.
It’s not surprising Bowie’s mind was on the healing nature of love in 1981. It’s possible the song was a reaction to the street uprisings going on throughout the UK during spring and summer. The result is a kind of ‘Heroes’ for the early 1980s. Also it’s possibly a prelude to his involvement with Band Aid/Live Aid later in the decade.
It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s infamous Lord’s Prayer at the 1992 Freddie tribute concert at Wembley Stadium took place soon after his performance of ‘Under Pressure’ in duet with Annie Lennox.
The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’ It’s certainly far from a hi-fidelity recording.
EMI were understandably convinced ‘Under Pressure’ was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so. But it entered the UK charts at #8 40 years ago this week, and then summarily knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ off the top spot on 15 November, staying at #1 for two weeks.
In the US, it reached #29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ almost six years before.
David Mallet’s clever video used stock/public domain footage to interesting effect, though it was banned by the BBC (though I definitely remember seeing it on telly at the time) for including a few seconds of footage from an IRA bomb in Belfast.
As for Bowie, he quickly moved on to the filming of Alan Clarke’s excellent TV play ‘Baal’ in August 1981, rounding off an interesting year for him.
On a personal level, I recall that November 1981 was exactly the time when the pop music bug really got me. I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Under Pressure’, and many tracks from that month’s chart hold a special place in my heart to this day.
Peter Gabriel’s brilliant 1980 self-titled album is probably best known for its much-discussed ‘gated reverb’ drum sound, the ‘no cymbals’ rule and the tracks ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘Biko’.
The record portrayed various characters on the fringes of society, whether due to war, intolerance, mental illness, crime or racism.
But its penultimate track, the somewhat forgotten ‘Lead A Normal Life, is a chilling, minimalist classic whose power grows with each passing year. It’s set in an unnamed, uncharacterised institution – a borstal, high-security prison, crisis centre or mental asylum? The latter seems most likely.
It’s fair to say mental illness was a taboo in late-1970s Britain, even while the borstals were subject to Thatcher’s ‘short, sharp shock’ doctrine (in the era of Alan Clarke’s devastating film ‘Scum’), unemployment and institutional racism were rife, crime was on the increase, the Yorkshire Ripper rampant and The Troubles in Northern Ireland very much on the agenda.
In short, it sometimes felt like this song WAS normal life in 1979. And many aspects of life in 2021 may lead one to a similar conclusion.
Legendary Atlantic A&R man Ahmet Ertegun, upon hearing Peter Gabriel III, reportedly asked if Peter had recently spent any time in an asylum. This may have hit closer to home than is often reported.
Gabriel elaborated a little on ‘Lead A Normal Life’ in September 2013’s MOJO magazine: ‘I think the assumption was that you couldn’t write about something like that unless you had experience of it. I later discovered I had depression around the time of my marriage breaking up (in early 1987). But maybe there was something more there.’
The lyric is very brief, but its power comes from colloquial, off-hand phrases, as if spoken by a (somewhat blithe) visitor of an inmate (or an ‘official’ visitor – ‘A Clockwork Orange’ came to mind while listening again recently). Despite the calming view of the trees, surely the institution is anything but ‘nice’.
Musically, the track is built around Morris Pert’s minimalist marimba (and slung mugs or child’s xylophone?), Peter’s haunting Yamaha CP-70 piano figure/ominous chords and Fritched, primal-scream vocals (with treatments courtesy of Larry Fast), Jerry Marotta’s tribal toms, David Rhodes’ guitar loop (or feedback?) and Dick Morrissey’s brief, stacked tenor saxes.
Producer Steve Lillywhite expertly uses muting/fading-in and deep reverb to create big black holes in the track, crafting a cogent arrangement in the process which easily holds the attention for four-plus minutes. It’s an object lesson in how to use silence to enhance a mix.
‘Lead A Normal Life’ is a masterpiece on a subject rarely touched in ‘rock’, evoking loneliness and disturbance in equal measure, shot through with Peter’s trademark compassion. He’s even played it live a few times, to chilling effect.
It’s something to do with the way the best players always give every note its full value, and never sound rushed.
The term is usually reserved for American musicians. But, to paraphrase jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, we had a few who could play some aces too.
Apparently folk/rock pioneers Fairport Convention had long split up when they reconvened for a one-off Granada TV special in August 1981. They delivered a beguiling version of ‘Sloth’, originally from their 1970 album Full House.
It’s a killer performance from drummer Dave Mattacks, adding to some classic tracks of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Chris Rea’s ‘On The Beach’ and XTC’s ‘Books Are Burning’ (Andy Partridge discussed Mattacks and XTC’s other drummers in this great interview). There’s also a whiff of US players Andy Newmark, Richie Hayward and Jim Keltner, not to mention Ringo.
Despite the slow tempo, the whole performance is kind of raw and ‘post-punk’, with some spikey Richard Thompson solos and excellent, ‘artless’ vocals from Linda. It easily transcends the folk-rock cliches.
Another band this writer needs to investigate further. And, despite the serious faces, maybe it was a relatively happy reunion – Fairport reformed properly four years later.
Prefab Sprout’s 1988 album From Langley Park To Memphis was their pop breakthrough, reaching #5 in the UK charts, and is probably most casual fans’ favourite.
But let’s take a close look at the fifth track, the epic ‘Nightingales’. Featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and released as the fourth single from From Langley Park in November 1988, it remains one of Prefab’s most beguiling songs.
Written by Paddy McAloon under the influence of Barbra Streisand’s BroadwayAlbum, it’s a stellar piece of work by any standards; melody, harmony and lyric are inextricably linked, as if the song had always existed and was just plucked out of the air.
Thought follows thought, musical idea follows musical idea completely naturally, without any songwriter ‘tricks’ such as looped chord sequences or vamps.
It’s fair to say that by the time of From Langley Park’s recording, McAloon was becoming a proficient pianist; eight of ten songs on the album were written on keyboards, including ‘Nightingales’.
Its harmonic concept, with an emphasis on major-seventh chords (including an audacious jump from F#m7 to Cmaj7 in bars four and five of the chorus) and triads superimposed over apparently unrelated root notes, possibly reveals a Brian Wilson influence, but the final effect is more Stephen Sondheim than ‘Surf’s Up’.
‘Nightingales’ also has no apparent antecedents in the 1980s pop firmament, though, at a stretch, approaches one of Green Gartside and David Gamson’s gossamer Scritti Politti ballads.
In a year when Acid House and the ‘Madchester’ sound were gestating and Stock Aitken Waterman ruled the charts, McAloon delivered something unabashedly romantic and somewhat old-fashioned; the opening line (‘Tell me do, something true‘) and general tenor of the lyric are more akin to ‘Daisy Bell’ than anything by the Stone Roses (and Paddy made no secret of his general distaste for late-’80s pop).
The song’s protagonist analyses his love affair, asking his paramour whether their love is fleeting like a ‘firework show’ or whether it’s a lasting, valuable entity. They agree that such questions are unhelpful and/or irrelevant – the key is to live in the moment.
‘Nightingales’ was co-produced by Jon Kelly and McAloon. By 1987, London-born Kelly was an experienced, highly-regarded producer and engineer, probably best known as one of Kate Bush’s key early collaborators on the classic 1980 album Never For Ever.
He had also worked on successful albums by Chris Rea (Dancing With Strangers) and Paul McCartney (Ram) and just produced Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown, the latter definitely influenced by Prefab.
Double and triple-tracked keyboard parts dominate ‘Nightingales’, played by McAloon and legendary British session player Wix, AKA Paul Wickens. They closely follow the chord voicings of McAloon’s original acoustic piano demo, echoed on this lovely live version from 2000:
By the time of the first chorus, sampled sleigh bells and silky Synclavier drums are added to the mix alongside McAloon’s rather incongruous but effective (sampled?) banjo.
Robin Smith’s widescreen string arrangement becomes increasingly prominent throughout the track; particularly notable is a flurry of ascending, almost celestial notes in three distinct phases beginning at 2:14 (and check out the rustle of fake locusts at 4:26!).
Stevie Wonder had long been a hero of McAloon’s, the album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants being a particular favourite. Mentioning as much to Prefab manager Keith Armstrong one day, Paddy half-joked that a Stevie harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’ would really bring the track to life.
Armstrong stunned McAloon by informing him that he was a good friend of Wonder’s operations manager Keith Harris and would put in a good word for the band (it’s also worth noting that Wonder played some sublime harmonica on Thomas Dolby’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ a year before the recording of ‘Nightingales’ – perhaps Thomas gave the band a good reference…).
Wonder’s harmonica solo was recorded in a very rushed session during September 1987 at Westside Studios in Notting Hill, West London.
He apparently learnt the song quickly, disappearing into a corner of the studio with a rough mix on his Walkman, and then recorded two takes in the lower octave and two in the higher. The released solo is a composite of the four.
Richard Moakes was the young engineer tasked with capturing Wonder’s solo on tape. According to McAloon:
He (Moakes) looked at me and said, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit worried I won’t know how to get his sound’. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll just see what happens’. And of course you put the microphone on him and you turn the fader up and he sounds like Stevie Wonder. You don’t do anything. Unless you’re doing something really silly, you’ll get it and it will be identifiable. So I thought, OK, when you play a guitar, don’t blame an engineer if you don’t know what you’re doing…
New York mix engineer Michael Brauer cooked up the 12” version of ‘Nightingales’. He made some drastic changes from the 7” single, placing the sleigh bells right at the front of the mix, reinstating some of Wendy Smith’s stacked backing vocals originally left on the cutting room floor, stripping McAloon’s lead vocal of its reverb (though adding a lot more to the snare drum) and leaving more space for Smith’s string arrangement and McAloon’s banjo.
A video was also made, though it’s almost impossible to track down these days – never a sure sign of quality…
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.