Book Review: Backtrack by Tessa Niles

Excellent recent documentary ’20 Feet From Stardom’ busted the myth once and for all that backing singers aren’t ‘good’ enough to be solo artists. In fact, the contrary is often true: they make the artist sound and look better, and there are often a myriad of reasons both professional and personal why they haven’t become headliners in their own right.

Tessa Niles is probably the UK’s most celebrated backing vocalist of the last 35 years, and her excellent new memoir – kind of a Brit version of ’20 Feet’ – lifts the lid on a distinguished career singing with David Bowie, George Harrison, Elton John, Kylie, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Annie Lennox, Gary Numan, The Police, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears For Fears and Robbie Williams.

It’s a real page-turner and ’80s guilty pleasure, a voyage through all the pop fads of the decade (and decades since) and a search for a fruitful work/life balance in the face of demanding touring schedules and family commitments. We follow Niles’ career from her early days as factory worker, cabaret entertainer and ‘Benny Hill Show’-auditioner to the late-’70s/early-’80s London live music scene, where good, young female singers could make a decent living at the city’s many nightclubs. She is excellent at painting a picture of this somewhat dodgy state of affairs, when a pre-New Romantic London was anything but swinging and ‘Page 3’ culture was at its peak.

But a shrewd volte face leads Tessa into the burgeoning jazz/funk scene and decent, reliable gigs with Morrissey Mullen and Incognito, plus a chance meeting with US ex-pat arranger and producer Richard Niles. Though their subsequent marriage gives Tessa her professional surname, it also leads to some conflicts of interest when he helms her commercially-unsuccessful solo debut.

But then Trevor Horn is on the blower and she is whisked into the studio to work on ABC’s ephocal Lexicon Of Love album, the beginning of a long and successful professional relationship with the uber-producer. ‘Date Stamp’ in particular shows Niles’ voice off to great effect.

From here on in, her career goes from strength to strength, but it’s not without its pitfalls: The Police’s long ‘Synchronicity’ world tour plays havoc with her vocal cords due to Sting’s insistence that she (and cohorts Dolette McDonald and Michelle Cobbs) sing in ‘full voice’ throughout, without any vibrato. There’s also a funny anecdote about what exactly constitutes an audition for Sting.

Then of course there’s Niles’ memorable, electrifying turn alongside David Bowie at Live Aid – it’s amazing that they only had two days’ rehearsal for the ‘little gig’, as Bowie called it.

Elsewhere, there’s lots of good technical stuff about what actually constitutes a decent studio vocal performance – and also what artists and producers demand from a backing vocalist – with wicked anecdotes concerning Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Steve Winwood’s ‘Roll With It’, Duran’s ‘Notorious’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘Swords And Knives’. Niles also doesn’t shy away from personal reflections about her family relationships and romances.

There’s far too much Clapton and Robbie Williams for my liking and a decent proofreader wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I devoured ‘Backtrack’ almost in one sitting. A really enjoyable, gossipy read.

‘Backtrack’ is out now on Panoma Press.

Roxy Music’s Avalon: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 1st June 1982

9/10

How do you like your classic album: consistent in tone/texture or mercurial and unpredictable like Sgt. Pepper’s (released on this day 50 years ago)? Or, like me, do you love both approaches? Avalon definitely belongs in the former camp. Beautifully performed, recorded, mixed and mastered (you can really hear the money), it maintains a mood throughout, sometimes feeling like one extended song.

Through a variety of working methods – some originated on previous albums Manifesto and Flesh & Blood – Messrs Ferry, Manzanera and Mackay arrived at Roxy’s perfect studio swansong and, for many, the peak of ’80s sophisti-pop. Today, Avalon sounds completely different to almost anything else released in 1982. It’s always a shock seeing reruns of Ferry on ‘Top Of The Pops’ miming something from the album – the whole package seems way too refined and luxurious for the worldly environs of a TV studio.

Crucial to Avalon‘s success was the reinstatement of the crack Flesh & Blood ‘backroom’ team: producer Rhett Davies and legendary mix engineer Bob Clearmountain. Also key was the choice of studios: Compass Point in Nassau and Power Station in New York, whose staircase was put to good use, as Davies told ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine: ‘The main thing at the Power Station was the stairwell. It had an unbelievable sound. You’d put anything through it and you’d just go “Yeah, we’ve got to have that.”’

Davies also brought with him another recording technique developed from working with Brian Eno on Taking Tiger Mountain and Another Green World. ‘Eno had opened me up to the way of working where you walk in with a blank sheet, stick some white noise down, count one to 100 and then fill in the spaces, and it was great working that way. When I started working with Roxy, Bryan had only known the “Let’s cut the track with the band in the studio” approach. I said, “Well, there is another way of working. We can put down our groove exactly as you want it synthetically, using a rhythm box, and the musicians can then play to that groove.” The musicians came in and responded to the atmosphere that was already on tape.’ (Eno of course also utilised a similar approach on Bowie’s Low and Heroes.)

Accordingly, drummer Andy Newmark was very often the last musician to overdub – most tracks were first laid down with a Linn drum machine backing. ‘The Main Thing’, ‘India’ (which sounds like Ferry was checking out Miles Davis’s On The Corner) and ‘The Space Between’ are the most obvious results of this approach, essentially jam sessions built on one-chord vamps. This painterly, piecemeal style of recording was also meat and drink to Ferry who was struggling with writer’s block at the time.

The title track was apparently a delightful accident, rescued at the eleventh hour after the song had almost been shelved: Davies: ‘We were mixing the album, and the version of the song that we’d done just wasn’t working out, so as we were mixing we recut the entire song with a completely different groove. We finished it off the last weekend we were mixing. In the quiet studio time they used to let local bands come in to do demos, Bryan and I popped out for a coffee and we heard a girl singing in the studio next door. It was a Haitian band that had come in to do some demos, and Bryan and I just looked at each other and went “What a fantastic voice!” That turned out to be Yanick Etienne who sang all the high stuff on ‘Avalon’. She didn’t speak a word of English. Her boyfriend, who was the band’s manager, came in and translated.’

Some have claimed that Avalon‘s beautiful closing track ‘Tara’ demonstrates a rare example of Ferry’s humour, ‘ta-ra’ of course being Northern English slang for ‘goodbye’ (the track was co-written with Mackay).

Lyrically, Avalon shows Ferry becoming a superb, somewhat surrealist chronicler of intense love affairs, often painting himself as the windswept loner weighed down by desire. Musically, the album is a marvel of ensemble playing – solid but expressive bass (Neil Jason and Alan Spenner) and drums (Newmark – superb), Ferry’s impressionistic piano and synths, colourful percussion from Jimmy Maelen, and spare, tasteful guitar licks placed around the stereo spectrum from Phil Manzanera and Neil Hubbard (who also plays a great solo on ‘To Turn You On’). And finally there’s extra spice from Andy Mackay on various saxes and Fonzi Thornton on vocals, whose uncanny alto compliments Ferry so well.

Avalon was a hit, reaching number one in the UK album chart (though, surprisingly, only #53 in the US) and producing three UK hit singles. Sonically and lyrically, it also set the template for all of Ferry’s subsequent solo projects. Happy birthday to a true ’80s classic, oft imitated but never surpassed.