Steve Martin in…Homage To Steve!

My Steve Martin ‘thing’ probably peaked around 1989. I had just found his ‘Live!’ video (bought on the same day as The Blue Nile’s Hats, if memory serves) and loved his Wild And Crazy Guy LP, ‘borrowed’ from a family friend.

‘Live!’ was taken from a September 1978 gig at the Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles (supported on the night by The Blues Brothers), when Steve was about as big as a comedian can get. He was even on the cover of People magazine (or ‘Screw Up Your Life’ magazine, as he called it).

Back then, if there’d been anything like the marketing machine of today, he could have retired on the sales of Steve Martin bunny ears, Lucky Astrology Mood Watches or arrows-through-the-head alone.

So how did he do it? Or should that be why? As the cliché goes, maybe America was ready for stupid jokes after Vietnam and Watergate. Someone once said that Steve brought surrealism to the masses. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that movies like ‘Airplane’ wouldn’t have happened without him. But he had a philosophical, post-modern approach too, often starting out with the punchline and then working backwards – or never supplying one at all.

And he was a pretty damn decent magician, musician and juggler too.

And of course he was basically ‘in character’ on stage, an uptight, arrogant white guy in a white suit (remind you of anyone? Stop Making Sense indeed, though apparently the suit idea came from one-time roommate Martin Mull…). During the ‘with-it’, drug-fuelled 1970s, Steve was desperately trying (and failing) to ‘get down’, to be hip, cool and one step ahead of the audience. But the character generally failed, becoming grouchy and out of his depth, hence the famous ‘Excuuuuuuse…meeeeee!’ catchphrase.

Steve was also a Philosophy Major (I can’t say for sure if it influenced my choice to study the subject at university, but with hindsight maybe it did…) and his reminiscences of ‘the intellectual thing’ used to make me laugh a lot. ‘I studied the ethical questions: Is it OK to yell “Movie!” in a crowded fire house? The religious questions: Does the pope sh*t in the woods?’

Then there were the albums – his friend and movie producer Bill McEuen had been recording gigs since the mid-’70s. By ’76, Warner Bros were sniffing around. Again, it’s easy to forget how far ahead of his time Martin was here – stand-up comedy albums were extremely rare at the time, and he didn’t just enjoy some success but smashed it out of the park: Let’s Get Small, A Wild & Crazy Guy and Comedy Is Not Pretty all went either gold or platinum (and were almost impossible to find in the UK until fairly recently – I had to buy them at the much-lamented J&R Music World during a trip to New York in the mid-1990s).

By 1981’s The Steve Martin Brothers album, the game was up – it was his worst and lowest-selling record. Steve got out of stand-up and into movies. Again, he was way ahead of the curve and extremely influential – you could make a good case for the ’80s scene being wholly driven by comedian-turned-actors: Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, John Candy, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Levinson, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd etc etc.

Since then, Steve has ploughed his own path, writing books, playing the banjo, getting into ‘serious’ acting with some aplomb (‘Grand Canyon’, ‘The Spanish Prisoner’). Some people will never forgive him. Dennis Pennis spoke for many when he zapped Steve with this cruel zinger in the late 1990s:

But hey, that’s my homage to Steve. And if there weren’t enough jokes for you… Excuuuuuse…meeee!

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De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising: 30 Years Old Today

The citizens of Punxsutawney have the groundhog to tell them whether there’ll be an early spring (much to Phil Connors’ disgust). But my yardstick is generally: is it time to listen to 3 Feet High And Rising yet?

Perhaps prompted by the recent freakishly-warm weather in London, the answer is a resounding yes. Because De La Soul’s debut album, released 30 years ago today, can refresh the most jaded of pop palettes and may be the ultimate summer record.

At my school, it was all the rage and a huge relief from the incessant INXS, Simple Minds and U2. Probably because De La Soul were from the suburbs of Long Island rather than the inner city, they brought a playful spirit and much-needed humour to hip-hop. It also reminded older music fans (or – let’s be honest – music critics) of that other ‘summer of love’ anthem, Sgt Pepper, even if the band denied any knowledge of that album.

To my ears, it was the first time sampling was used to bring about a truly surreal vision of music. This was a carefree world where it was perfectly normal for a ‘how to speak French’ lesson to accompany The Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’, or for Sly Stone’s ‘Poet’ to back up some nursery-rhyme rapping. Liberace, The Headhunters, Fats Domino; they were all fair game (though controversial – see below). If it sounded good, it was good.

There’s a silly-but-funny fake quiz show schtick running through the album and it’s not often you hear a whispered rap. Almost every track is under three minutes. There are rhymes about school, haircuts and soap, and if you don’t like one song, there’ll be another one along very shortly.

3 Feet High And Rising was the gateway to some brilliant retro music too, especially for my generation who were too young or not even born the first time around. A theory: it single-handedly led to a resurgence of interest in Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, early Michael Jackson and Funkadelic.

At the time of writing, the album is unavailable on streaming platforms, pending a stand-off between the band and Tommy Boy Records. Is it karmic payback for the boys being so trigger-happy with the samples? Who knows. But it doesn’t stop 3 Feet High And Rising being a classic of the ’80s or any other decade.

The 13 Most Unlikely Number Ones Of The 1980s

Number ones: they were the G-spot of all ’80s pop action. Anyone brought up on Bowie or Bolan’s ‘Top Of The Pops’ shenanigans could die and go to heaven if they achieved a chart-topper (except for The Human League’s Phil Oakey, who reportedly smashed his phone after being told ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was #1 in America…).

And we can probably all still remember the wow factor of singles going ‘straight in at #1’ in the 1980s (pop quiz: how many can you name? Only The Jam’s ‘Town Called Malice’  and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’ spring to mind…).

But there were some damn weird UK number ones during the decade, in all kinds of styles. For every Madonna (a record-breaking six solo chart-toppers, though George Michael had a ‘hand’ in eight), there was a Goombay Dance Band. For every ‘Two Tribes’ (most weeks at #1 in the 1980s: nine), there was an ‘It’s My Party’.

Here are some of the strangest, in chronological order:

13. Kenny Rogers: ‘Coward Of The County’ (12th February 1980)

There was definitely a country ‘thing’ going on in the UK at the turn of the decade, especially in Scotland. But surely no-one could have predicted the success of this slow chugger, beautifully sung though it is.

12. Don McClean: ‘Crying’ (17th June 1980)

After Roy Orbison but before k.d. lang, there was Don’s sepulchral take on this evergreen tearjerker…

 

11. Joe Dolce Music Theatre: ‘Shaddap You Face’ (17th February 1981)

We’ve discussed this masterpiece a few times before on movingtheriver.com…

 

10. Smokey Robinson: ‘Being With You’ (8th June 1981)

Who would have predicted Smokey would hit so big with this charming but not exactly earth-shattering mid-tempo ballad? But hey, let’s celebrate it: this was his first – and to-date only – solo UK #1.

 

9. Dave Stewart/Barbara Gaskin: ‘It’s My Party’ (13th October 1981)

This was the first thing keyboard wiz Stewart recorded after leaving Bill Bruford’s techno-fusion band and it sounds like it. Certainly one of the weirdest covers of the decade, emphasised by the drummer’s (Bruford?) insane opening fill at 1:02.

8. Goombay Dance Band: ‘Seven Tears’ (23rd March 1982)

No words (apart from those…and those…).

7. Jim Diamond: ‘I Should Have Known Better’ (25th November 1984)

The Glasgow-born singer made it to #1 for one week with this peculiar ballad, replaced fairly swiftly by Frankie’s ‘The Power Of Love’. He sportingly requested that punters stopped buying his single and buy Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ instead, which swiftly became 1984’s Christmas #1.

 

6. Phyllis Nelson: ‘Move Closer’ (28th April 1985)

UK singles-buyers have always had a thing for soft soul ballads, but this still seems like a particularly peculiar smash hit. Having said that, if it had been revealed as a cover of an early Prince track, no one would have been that surprised.

 

5. Jackie Wilson: ‘Reet Petite’ (21st December 1986)

There’s no question about the quality of this life-affirming ditty, but the R’n’B/rock’n’roll revival of 1986/1987 was strange and unexpected.

 

4. Fairground Attraction: ‘Perfect’ (4th May 1988)

Imagine the pitch: it’s in a swing/jazz style, it’s going to be recorded live in one take, there’ll be no keyboards on it and the drummer will play brushes throughout. And don’t forget the brilliant, none-more-Scottish video.

3. Enya: ‘Orinoco Flow’ (23rd October 1988)

Enormo-selling – but still completely bonkers – single by the singer/songwriter who had previously been a member of Celtic band Clannad. It was the lead-off single from her second solo album Watermark.

 

2. Marc Almond/Gene Pitney: ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ (22nd January 1989)

It’s the sheer audacity of this duet which beggars belief. On paper, it looks like a crackpot idea – two of the ‘edgiest’ male vocalists on the planet letting it all hang out, metaphorically speaking of course… But it was #1 for four weeks. (FOUR weeks? Check that… Ed.)

1.  Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (19th February 1989)

A theme of the tracks on this list seems to be that they’re almost all slow-burners – they would barely survive the Spotify ‘grab-’em-in-the-first-five-seconds’ rule. But this nearly-seven-minute epic still delivers, 30 years on.

Moonlighting Strangers: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis & Al Jarreau

Bruce Willis as David Addison, Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting’

What music delivers for you a headrush of nostalgia, fills your heart with a warm glow, makes you feel everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds and we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket?

For me, it’s the short reprise of the ‘Moonlighting’ theme that used to play over the end credits, featuring Toots Thielemans’ (citation needed… Ed.) harmonica swooping gorgeously over swooning strings.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Lee Holdridge’s title song (with lyrics added later by Al Jarreau) was reminiscent of an old standard in the Porter/ Gershwin mould. After all, the TV show, which ran in the States and on the BBC from 1985 to 1989, most assuredly harked back to the romantic comedies and private-eye noirs of the ’30s and ’40s.

Co-star Cybill Shepherd, upon reading the script for the pilot episode, apparently called it a ‘Hawksian comedy’ (as in ‘Bringing Up Baby’/’His Girl Friday’ director/writer Howard Hawks), an influence of which creator/co-writer Glenn Gordon Caron was fairly unaware. He had been focusing his energies instead on lampooning the in-vogue detective shows of the early ’80s, one of which (‘Remington Steele’) he’d helped usher into existence.

‘Moonlighting’ made a star out of Bruce Willis and reignited Cybill Shepherd’s career, though she was apparently an exceptionally reluctant contributor and not a huge fan of her male co-star.

For the part of David Addison, Willis apparently had to audition not once but 11 times, and even then almost lost the role until a lone female NBC executive said (in front of a cadre of other male execs): ‘He looks like a dangerous f*ck’!

I was hooked on ‘Moonlighting’ in the mid-’80s, helped no doubt by a teenage crush on Shepherd. I watched two eps again recently – the pilot, which seemed overlong and clunky, and the absolutely superb ‘A Womb With A View’, the big-budget Season 5 curtain-raiser first transmitted in December 1988.

Gleefully jumping the shark, it has everything – an exuberant, self-referential song-and-dance number (‘A chance for critics to scoff and sneer’!), a chubby Willis in a diaper playing Shepherd’s unborn child, and some startling, creative visuals.

It also brought home how the show always assumed the audience was smart, rather than most modern TV which assumes it’s dumb. And the production values were super high, even though the pressure was on – they had to make 22 x 50-minute episodes per season! That works out at around ten days per shoot.

But back to the music. ‘Moonlighting strangers/Who just met on the way’. What a lovely line. I’m partial to the original version of the theme song with its brilliant rhythm guitars and JR Robinson drums, but not so keen on Al’s re-recording with producer Nile Rodgers which – rather incredibly – made the UK top 10. And Willis of course enjoyed a brief solo music career (and made a weird HBO mockumentary) off the back of his David Addison persona, tapping into a kind of Billy/Brucie, New Jersey ‘everyman’ vibe.

Frank Gambale Live! 30 Years On

I’ll never forget it. Circa 1990, I was on holiday with my parents in Kent, near the Cliffs of Dover. A summer storm was chucking it down. Holed up inside, I flicked through some French music stations on my longwave radio.

Suddenly I heard this absolutely ridiculous guitar playing – deafeningly loud, hysterical, but totally precise, with great phrasing and notes that spluttered out in absurdly wide intervals. The tone was heavily distorted but the feel was closer to jazz/rock than metal. And the rhythm section didn’t sound too shabby either.

By this time, I had heard Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John McLaughlin, some pretty outrageous guitarists, but this was different. Who the hell was it? I strained my ears and just about heard the French DJ utter the words ‘Frank Gambale’.

Yes, it was the Italian-Australian wunderkind, the man who introduced so-called ‘sweep picking’ to a wider audience than before. And the album was revealed to be Live!, released 30 years ago this week and recorded at LA’s jazz/rock haven The Baked Potato on 21st August 1988.

What was really weird was that I had heard Gambale with the Chick Corea Elektric band before this, and even seen them live a few times, but he seemed pretty anonymous in that band. Not here. To this day, ‘Credit Reference Blues’, ‘Fe Fi Fo Funk’, ‘Touch Of Brasil’ and ‘The Natives Are Restless’ sound like guitar landmarks.

But he was way more than a chops phenomenon – he’s an excellent composer too, clearly influenced by Chick Corea and Larry Carlton but with some moves all of his own. The album also introduced me to the fantastic Joey Heredia on drums, a completely original player who can do fiery jazz/rock, spicy Latin and Police-style rock, sometimes all in the space of one tune. And the excellent keyboard player Kei Akagi was moonlighting with Miles Davis while playing some sh*t-hot stuff on this album.

Frank Gambale Live! was a key artefact in the golden age of shred guitar, and it gained him some crossover success with metal fans and lots of coverage in guitar magazines. Sadly his solo career refused to fire after this release, with only moments of 1990’s Thunder From Down Under subsequently holding much interest for me, but this was a sporadically brilliant live jazz/rock album – and one of the best. (It has to be said, there’s not much competition – Larry Carlton’s Last Nite, Weather Report’s 8:30, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live!, Mahavishnu’s Between Nothingness And Eternity, and…er…)

Book Review: Cries And Whispers 1983-1991 (Sylvian, Karn, Jansen, Barbieri) by Anthony Reynolds

Which ‘rock’ artists are the most likely to be subjects of not one but a series of biographies? The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan?

Japan are possibly unlikely recipients of such a legacy, but Anthony Reynolds’ superb new ‘Cries And Whispers’ – carrying on from where ‘A Foreign Place’ left off – holds the attention with ease.

His luxuriously-appointed new book takes an indepth look at all the protagonists’ (Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, Richard Barbieri) careers between 1983 and 1991, a mouth-watering prospect when you realise how scant the serious coverage of these groundbreaking musicians really is, Martin Power’s half-decent 1998 biography of Sylvian aside.

Here you get rigorous research, rare photos and unexpectedly candid interviews from producers, engineers, designers, record company execs, hangers-on and of course the musicians themselves. There are fascinating glimpses under the ’80s pop bonnet, with details of record company correspondence, press releases, tour itineraries/diaries and testimonies from session players.

There’s the odd unqualified muso revelation (did Mark King really get asked to play bass on ‘Pulling Punches’?!) and tasty gossip a-plenty, hardly surprising when you consider that the book covers the troubled Rain Tree Crow project.

In the main, Reynolds wisely keeps musical analysis to a minimum, letting the facts and musicians speak for themselves, and he also – admirably – is as interested in the murkier corners of Sylvian’s ’80s work (the one-off ‘Pop Song’ single, his involvement with Propaganda’s A Secret Wish album) as he is with the better-known stuff.

Indeed, all the chapters on Sylvian’s solo work are terrific, particularly the lengthy portrait of his punishing ‘In Praise Of Shamans’ 1988 world tour. The Rain Tree Crow section is also gripping. There are minor gripes here and there: some quotes from relatively peripheral figures – clearly cut and pasted from email correspondence – could do with trimming, and does anyone really want such a lengthy analysis of Dalis Car or The Dolphin Brothers? But even these longeurs have their fascinating moments.

This writer almost read ‘Cries And Whispers’ in one sitting, passing it from desk to sofa to dinner table to bath to bed, and you may well do the same. It’s another fine achievement by Reynolds and another classic music book to boot. We eagerly await the next instalment.

‘Cries And Whispers’ is published by Burning Shed.