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.

Crap Lyrics Of The 1980s (Part Two)

I thought I had unearthed all of the decade’s stinkers in movingtheriver.com’s extensive first round-up. But it turns out that we were just scratching the surface. And I feel pretty confident that there will be many more to highlight as the weeks, months and years roll by.

So here we go again with some more logic-defying, ill-conceived, harebrained – and sometimes just plain weird – song lyrics of the 1980s. China Crisis obsessives: look away now…

‘Most of my friends were strangers when I met them.’

BROS: ‘I Quit’

 

‘Why do you do that poor man thing
Why do you do that poor man
All of my life it’s as sharp as the bigger the punch I’m feeling.’

CHINA CRISIS: ‘Bigger The Punch I’m Feeling’

 

‘Work in my world
Put up for sale
You buy you me
I buy me you.’

CHINA CRISIS: ‘The Highest High’

 

‘This wreckage I call me
Would like to frame your voice.’

GARY NUMAN: ‘This Wreckage’

 

‘We made our love on wasteland
And through the barricades.’

SPANDAU BALLET: ‘Through The Barricades’

 

‘All we want is our lives to be free
If we can’t be free then we don’t want to be we.’

CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT: ‘Free’

 

‘If I was you
If I was you
I wouldn’t treat me the way you do.’

EIGHTH WONDER: ‘I’m Not Scared’

 

‘Words don’t come easy to me
How can I find a way
To make you see
I love you?’

FR DAVID: ‘Words’

(How about saying the words ‘I love you’?)

 

‘I’m young and free and single
I just want to mingle with you, lady’

SUNFIRE: ‘Young Free And Single’

 

‘Can’t complain
Mustn’t grumble
Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble.’

ABC: ‘That Was Then But This Is Now’

 

‘Hello, hello, hope you’re feeling fine
Hello, hello, hope you’re feeling mine
Hello, hello, hope you’re feeling time.’

NICK HEYWARD: ‘Whistle Down The Wind’

 

‘A motivated, liquidated nightmare
Like a baby with a laser on a rocking chair.’

IT BITES: ‘Black December’

Gig Review: Let’s Rock Exeter, Saturday 4th July 2015

let's rockThe ’80s nostalgia festivals are big business right now judging by the quality of acts and impressive turnout of punters at Let’s Rock Exeter.

Taking place in a large, picturesque expanse of estate next to Powderham Castle, this all-day festival will be repeated at various venues across the country over the summer and it was a great chance to see if the musicianship and songwriting of the decade stand up today. And I’m pleased to say that, by and large, they do. Also it helped that there was no ubiquitous ‘house band’ – all the artists brought their own back line and this was no cost-cutting package deal.

We were too late to catch Altered Images or Nathan Moore from Brother Beyond – no great hardship! – but we heard most of The Real Thing’s impressive set while queuing. Nick Heyward followed with some fairly downbeat and strangely unmemorable near-hits bookended by still-effervescent Haircut One Hundred tracks ‘Love Plus One’ and ‘Fantastic Day’ which put everyone in a good mood. Five Star were the first big surprise of the day, featuring surprisingly strong lead vocals from Lorraine Pearson and a supertight, R’n’B-tinged band. ‘Rain Or Shine’ transcended its ‘guilty pleasure’ tag to become a true ‘80s pop classic.

Nik Kershaw

Nik Kershaw

Nik Kershaw brought some real muso cred to proceedings with some extended Allan Holdsworthesque guitar solos, more excellent singing (a big improvement on his mid-’80s vocals) and some engagingly dry humour, preceding ‘The One And Only’ with a curt ‘If you know this, sing along. If you don’t, don’t!’ A quick look at Go West’s singles chart positions show that they were big in the States in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; ‘Faithful’ and ‘King Of Wishful Thinking’ sounded tailor-made for that market. Peter Cox’s vocals were superb, soulful and inventive, and they’d put a lot of thought into their arrangements with some tracks sounding almost like 12” remixes. Covers of ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Black And Gold’ initially seemed curious choices but went down very well with the crowd. And the trio of great vocalists were concluded with the appearance of Martin Fry’s ABC who provided the classiest set of the day. A superb percussionist filled out the Lexicon Of Love material beautifully and Fry exuded charisma.

bananarama

Bananarama

I didn’t bother with much of Midge Ure or Howard Jones’ sets; Bananarama, now just a duo of Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward, looked good but unfortunately didn’t sound great or perform with much intensity – their vocals were harsh and there was apparently no love lost between them. Early-’80s pure pop classics like ‘Cruel Summer’ and ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ were also inexplicably mired in disco-lite arrangements and there was a bit too much emphasis on the Stock Aitken Waterman era for my liking.

We legged it before Billy Ocean and The Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey – I quite regret not seeing the latter but wasn’t too bothered about the former. But, all in all, an impressive showing for some great singles acts of the 1980s. There’s life in them yet.

How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #1: ABC’s Beauty Stab

abcMercury Records, released 14th November 1983

Bought: Notting Hill Record and Tape Exchange, 2006?

6/10

The ’80s were positively dripping with fine debut albums but equally cursed with a lot of substandard sophomore efforts. As the music biz cliché goes, you have your whole life to come up with your first album but only six months to make the followup.

ABC could hardly have got it more right with their 1982 debut Lexicon Of Love, a ravishing collection of string-drenched, post-disco torch songs, but they came seriously unstuck with Beauty Stab a year later.

martin fry

Martin Fry in 1983

Seen as ‘ABC go heavy metal’ by much of the music press at the time of release, these days Beauty Stab just sounds like a pretty tuneless but beautifully-produced rock/pop album with the odd ‘political’ lyric and barmy moment thrown in (the jazz-waltz interludes in ‘Love’s A Dangerous Language’, cacophonous finale to ‘That Was Then’, atonal strings that kidnap ‘Bite The Hand’ and Martin Fry’s astonishing rhyming couplets throughout…).

Though by no means heavy metal, the guitar playing is pretty unreconstructed throughout and seems to be searching in vain for some Robert Frippery.

But the album is thankfully graced with Roxy/Lennon/Sly drummer Andy Newmark, whose playing is lovely, especially on the very Avalonesque ‘If I Ever Thought You’d Be Lonely’. Co-producer and future Art Of Noise member Gary Langan does a great job too, in the main eschewing ‘80s production values in favour of a dry, ballsy mix and some strikingly original touches.

The problem is, for all its undoubted craftsmanship, amusing lyrics and faux grittiness, the album is short on memorable choruses. ‘Hey Citizen’, ‘King Money’ and ‘Power Of Persuasion’ have classic ABC hooks but fail to deliver catchy B-sections.

A quick survey of the track titles and it’s almost impossible to remember a chorus, save the opening ‘That Was Then…’, and that spells trouble. Unsurprisingly the album works best when the guitars simmer down a bit and Fry’s vocals take centre stage, as on ‘By Default By Design’ and fine state-of-the-nation closer ‘United Kingdom’ – you’ve got to hear Fry crooning the words ‘Barratt Homes’…

Commercially, Beauty Stab was not an outright disaster, reaching number 12 in the UK album chart and selling over 100,000 copies, but it was a big disappointment after such a successful debut. Acclaimed music writer Simon Reynolds even went as far as to call it ‘one of the great career-sabotage LPs in pop history’.

In late-1983, Britain was turning its back on back on guitars and kitchen-sink lyrics; glamour and fun were back in, typified by Wham!, Howard Jones, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, all of whom cashed in on the vibe and musical exuberance of Lexicon Of Love.

At the end of ’83, Fry famously burnt his gold suit in protest. Maybe that wasn’t such a great idea. But, happily, the decline wasn’t terminal – he returned with some big hits later in the decade.