David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 7th November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

10/10

And so we come to the ultimate autumn album and the closing chapter of an incredible run of form for the ex-Japan singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. For my money, Sylvian’s 1984-1987 output (Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets) is the equal of any ‘pop’ triptych.

Each song is memorable, with its own specific mood and soundworld. Space and melody are the key commodoties. Arrangements are kept as simple as possible. If Sylvian can accompany his voice with just double bass and occasional piano, acoustic guitar or percussion – as on ‘Mother And Child’ – he does so. Some may find this minimalism disconcerting; I certainly did back in 1987, at least compared to the rich musical stew of Gone To Earth. But the sparseness also makes it timeless. Secrets is an album to live with.

Quality guest musicians – David Torn, Mark Isham, Phil Palmer, Steve Jansen, Danny Cummings, Danny Thompson – are brought in only when absolutely necessary. But Ryuichi Sakamato is a mainstay of the album and man of the match, contributing piano, organ and beguiling string/woodwind arrangements.

Sylvian’s detractors may label him ‘poet laureate of depressives’ but lyrically he goes way beyond ‘depression’ here. This is an unashamedly serious, ‘pre-irony’ album; many probably recoil from that too. ‘The Boy With The Gun’ is a controversial and – given the events in Texas this week – eerily relevant character study. ‘Maria’ and ‘The Devil’s Own’ are genuinely spooky and quintessentially gothic. ‘When Poets Dreamed Of Angels’ compares modern-day domestic abuse with medieval abuses of power, ‘bishops and knights well placed to attack’.

‘Let The Happiness In’ initially comes across as a two-chord dirge – it took me about 15 years to really appreciate it – but becomes an affecting song about hope against all the odds. A brave choice of lead-off single, it crawled to #66 in the UK chart. Second single ‘Orpheus’ didn’t chart at all but is no less than a late-’80s masterpiece featuring a gorgeous string arrangement from Brian Gascoigne. ‘September’ and ‘Waterfront’ are milestones in orchestral pop.

Secrets scraped into the UK top 40 at #37 – where it stayed for one week. It marked the end of Sylvian’s pop career. He would wait 12 years to release another solo album.  But next up was a world tour and one of this writer’s most memorable gigs of the 1980s – more on that soon.

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Bryan Ferry: Bête Noire 30 Years On

‘Only’ two years in the making, Ferry was on a bit of a roll when he released Bête Noire on Virgin Records 30 years ago this week. He was fresh from a UK number one album Boys And Girls and had cornered the market in upmarket, shag-pad sophistication.

But a formula can be a dangerous thing. Bête Noire hasn’t aged too well. Or rather its songs generally underwhelm. You can scan the titles and draw a blank, with the exception of obvious standouts ‘Limbo’ and ‘New Town’. Co-produced and occasionally co-written by key ’80s Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard, it’s generally ‘multi-layered low energy’, as Q magazine memorably described it.

So why do I return to Bête Noire time after time again? Good lyrics help. Bowie rated Ferry, Lennon and Morrissey as the best British pop wordsmiths. And its musical features are generally beguiling. Ferry is a bit of a sonic innovator in terms of human/machine interface. His synths and piano shimmer on the surface of the mix, lead guitars are stacked up, drum machines accompany drummers on all grooves. The bass playing is exemplary (Neil Jason, Guy Pratt, Abraham Laboriel). Bryan’s vocals are strong too, and he uses his favourite session singer Fonzi Thornton to great effect again.

The best tracks blend eerie synths, intriguing chord changes and striking lyrics. ‘Limbo’ features a gorgeous ambient intro, irresistible ‘Open Your Heart’ Madonna groove with great drumming from JR Robinson and rhythm guitar from David Williams. ‘New Town’ is a witty late-’80s take on Roxy’s ‘In Every Dream Home A Heartache’. The juxtaposition of scary chord changes and ironic lyrics point to a seldom-revealed Ferry humour. ‘Zamba’ is a winner too, a minimalist piece in an unusual 6/4 time, weirdly reminiscent of Weather Report’s ‘The Elders’.

But the title track exemplifies the rest of Bête Noire – it’s an initially gorgeous fusion of tango, classical and ambient funk, but the song just doesn’t fire. ‘The Right Stuff’, adapted from Smiths B-side ‘Money Changes Everything’, is also a non-starter, but became the only UK top 40 single from the album.

Vive la Résistance‘, Bryan writes in the liner notes, introducing the list of session musicians on the album. So does he see them and himself as not part of the ‘system’? Who knows? The problem is, with the exception of the occasional David Gilmour lead break, it’s very hard to identify any of the players (David Sanborn is sorely missed). Maybe that’s how Ferry likes it.

Bête Noire wasn’t as big as Boys And Girls but still reached #9 in the UK and spent 31 weeks on the US album chart. Ferry would wait another seven years to release any new original material, suggesting that maybe he was getting tired of the formula too.

Wanna See Something Really Scary? Two Takes On ‘The Twilight Zone’

‘Wanna see something really scary?’ Day Aykroyd’s ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ catchphrase was an open invitation to me back in 1983.

I had just seen John Landis’s ‘Thriller’ video, George Romero’s ‘Creepshow’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and was rapidly becoming a ‘confirmed ghost story and horror film addict’, as Jack calls Wendy in ‘The Shining’.

Although ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ was briefly a big VHS hit in my house, these days it looks like a bit of a misfire (decent Joe Dante and George Miller sections, less-than-decent Spielberg and Landis). The Miller story was of course a remake of the superb Richard Matheson-penned ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet’ which starred William Shatner as the terrified passenger driven insane by the possibility that a gremlin is sabotaging his aircraft.

But I mainly loved the flavour of the 1983 movie’s Landis-directed-and-scripted opening and closing tags. I can still randomly remember chunks of dialogue, especially Albert Brooks’ little ad-libbed songs (‘Look at those two apes/This must be where they live’ etc…).

Then my recent Cassette Revisitation Program brought round The Manhattan Transfer’s ‘Twilight Zone’, recorded a couple of years before the movie was released. Jay Graydon and Alan Paul adapt the original source music (either composed by Bernard Herrmann or Marius Constant, depending on which websites you trust…) with aplomb and, though the track comes a bit too close to disco for my liking, I was really knocked out by Janis Siegel’s lead vocal; her phrasing and enunciation are really something.

And what a band: Graydon on guitar and production, Jai Winding on keys and Toto in the engine room. Graydon’s stunning harmonized solo should possibly have been in my ‘wackiest guitar solos of the 1980s’ list and Winding lays down some excellent Fagen-esque keys. I like the lyric too: ‘Unpretentious girl from Memphis/Saw the future through her third eye…’ Throw in a spot-on impression of Rod Serling (or is it actually Rod?) and you’ve got a nice little tribute song. Released as a single in June 1980, it made #25 in the UK and #30 in the US.

But anyway, where were we? Back to the movie. ‘Happy’ Halloween, heh-heh-heh…

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.

Book Review: I’m Not With The Band (A Writer’s Life Lost In Music) by Sylvia Patterson

Sylvia Patterson’s hugely enjoyable memoir had me at page 28: ‘The post-punk era, roughly ’78 to ’83, was arguably the most richly dynamic of all musical time, an era defined by a cultural geyser of creative freedom and political indignation – all stoked, crucially, by the incendiary spark of jokes…’

That this pithy analysis of the era grabbed me immediately won’t surprise regular readers of this site. But what was more of a surprise to me was that ‘I’m Not With The Band’ turned out to be in the top two or three music biogs I’ve ever read.

It helps that Patterson is first and foremost a music fan (between 1980 and 1983, she describes herself consecutively as a Mod, Massive Goth, Moody Art-School Dreamer and Indie Kid). She is also a highly respected journalist who cut her teeth writing for Smash Hits during its million-readers-an-issue peak and has also contributed to the NME, Face, Big Issue, Glamour and Observer.

She has been a witness to how music journalism (and the wider recording industry) has become run by the lawyers, PR people and gossip mags. And she knows where the bodies are buried, locating the beginning of the decline in the 1990s when ‘tot pop’ (Christina Aguilera, S Club 7, Britney etc.), boy/girl bands, reality TV, corporate branding, celebrity culture and the internet ran roughshod.

She writes brilliantly about the surreal pop boom of the late 1980s, when Kylie, Jason, Big Fun (remember them?) Guns N’ Roses, Phil Collins, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Enya, Deacon Blue, Milli Vanilli, Brother Beyond (or The ‘Yond, in Smash Hits-speak), Bananarama, Salt ‘N Pepa and especially Bros ruled the waves. But in 1990, as the music biz hits a recession, Patterson opts to go freelance – an interview with Stock/Aitken/Waterman pop poppet Sonia is apparently the straw that breaks the camel’s back…

A few months later she’s on the dole, drinking too much, struggling to pay the rent, mourning her father and brother and rueing the deterioration of her relationship with an alcoholic, mentally-ill mother. Cue the second half of the book and the second half of her sometimes troubled life.

Mariah Carey and Sylvia

‘I’m Not With The Band’ outlines what it’s like to live and breathe music. It has certainly been tough remaining true to her school. But in documenting her journey Patterson also reaches the places other music biogs don’t reach. She’s like a big sister reporting from the front line of the pop biz – you’re always rooting for her, no matter how dark things get.

She also raids her cassette box to sprinkle in hilariously candid interviews with almost all the major pop players of the last four decades: Barney Sumner, Mick Hucknall and George Michael in the 1980s, Richey Edwards, Liam Gallagher, Shaun Ryder, Blur, Jarvis Cocker, Paul Heaton, Bobby Gillespie, Westlife, Page/Plant, Madonna and Prince in the ’90s, U2, Johnny Cash, Beyoncé (sample question: ‘Now you’re working with Jay Z and loads of tough guys, you’re hanging out with ex-drug dealers – how does your mum feel about Jay Z’s background?’), Kylie, Mariah, Britney, Eminem, Lily and Amy in the noughties. She captures exactly what it’s like to meet these people and asks all the difficult questions.

Witty and humane, never boring, occasionally hilarious, at times deeply affecting, Patterson’s book is up there with Giles Smith’s ‘Lost In Music’ (perhaps consciously referenced in the title) in documenting a troubled love affair with this thing we call…pop. We await Mike Leigh’s film adaptation.

‘I’m Not With The Band (A Writer’s Life Lost In Music)’ is published by Sphere/littlebrown.

Sylvia talks about the book in this Word podcast.

Thelonious Monk: That’s The Way I Feel Now

Most jazz players don’t really seem to ‘get’ the music of Thelonious Monk. Decent cover versions are hard to come by, of course with some notable exceptions (Steve Khan, Kenny Kirkland, Lynne Arriale, Paul Motian and probably a few more).

During the centenary of the genius’s birth, it seems as good a time as any to revisit a classic 1980s Thelonious tribute album which puts his miraculous compositions front and centre (plus the fact that I’ve just acquired a brilliant new cassette player* which is bringing it to life again after years stuck in the proverbial drawer).

That’s The Way I Feel Now was masterminded by producer/curator Hal Willner and inspired by bad Monk cover versions. Willner told writer Howard Mandel: ‘I was sitting at Carnegie Hall at some jazz memorial to Monk, getting freaked out that all these other people who really had a love of Monk weren’t performing. Monk’s music was never boring.’

So, at New York’s Mediasound Studios in early 1984, he set about assembling an extraordinary cast of fans including Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Carla Bley, Peter Frampton, John Zorn, Was (Not Was), Dr John, Gil Evans, Bobby McFerrin, John Scofield and Elvin Jones to celebrate Monk. (Willner has gathered similarly eclectic casts for albums celebrating Mingus, Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and the music of Walt Disney films, as well as producing records by Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful and movie soundtracks including ‘Short Cuts’.)

Listened to in one sitting, That’s The Way I Feel Now still makes for a gloriously psychedelic celebration of Monk’s ouevre. Over 22 tracks, I can only make out three duds. It’s also a triumph of sequencing, holding the attention with ease by unashamedly juggling the rock, jazz and avant-garde.

First, the ‘rock’: Rundgren’s take on ‘Four In One’ is a gloriously anarchic, Gary Windo’s sax blaring out over a cacophony of samples, cheap drum machines and amateurish keyboards. Was (Not Was)’s take on ‘Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’ features a knockout multi-tracked guest spot from vocalist Sheila Jordan, while Donald Fagen and Steve Khan mesh perfectly on beautiful ballad ‘Reflections’. NRBQ’s take on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ comes near to perfection, as does Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton’s surf-rock-tinged ‘Work’ featuring a classic Marcus Miller bass performance. Only Joe Jackson didn’t get the memo, delivering an overly-lush – though obviously heartfelt – ‘Round Midnight’.

Then there’s the ‘jazz’: John Zorn lays down an outrageous ‘Shuffle Boil’ featuring babbling vocals, bubble-blowing, chainsaw guitar, Bontempi organ and hilariously remedial drumming; Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy deliver a memorable ‘Evidence’; Randy Weston, Dr John and Barry Harris’s contributions are solo piano masterworks; John Scofield and Mark Bingham smash ‘Brilliant Corners’ out of the park, as do vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough on ‘Friday The 13th’. Finally, Carla Bley’s ‘Misterioso’ is possibly the album standout, an affecting symphony for Monk featuring electrifying performances from Kenny Kirkland on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Hiram Bullock on guitar.

The Rundgren tune aside, to my ears That’s The Way I Feel Now could have been recorded yesterday. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy these days. So I’m bloody glad I held onto my ancient cassette version. Here’s hoping for a CD/download re-release soon.

*a Denon DRR 6.5, if you’re interested…