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.