Who Writes The Songs That Make Those Old Blokes Cry: 1980s Tearjerkers

It’s all radio presenter Nick Abbot’s fault. On a recent podcast, he mentioned finding himself with a tear in the eye when listening to David Gilmour’s second guitar solo on Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ in his car.

But it’s a subject almost totally ignored in print outside scientific works: music’s effect on body and mind. If you love it, surely it’s supposed to create a molecular change.

The last few years may also have precipitated a more emotional relationship to music than usual, despite the current industry obsession with data and algorithms.

So, hide the onions and pass the sick bag: here are a few tracks from the 1980s that may have occasionally been known to put a lump in this correspondent’s throat, driven by nostalgia, musical excellence, loss of innocence and who knows what else.

19. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’
She wants a husband and some kids but somehow the music tells you that the protagonist is never going to get out from under…

18. Johnny Gill: ‘Half Crazy’

17. Keith Jarrett: ‘Spirits 2’

16. The Kids From Fame: ‘Starmaker’

15. Peter Gabriel: ‘Lead A Normal Life’
Hard to think of a piece of music that better expresses loneliness, but there’s compassion too.

14. Christopher Cross: ‘Sailing’

13. Blondie: ‘Atomic’

12. The Pretenders: ‘Hymn To Her’

11. Art Pepper: ‘Our Song’
Gratuitous sax and violins. Recorded 18 months before his death, inspired by meeting his widow Laurie, Pepper seeks redemption for a largely selfish, itinerant life – does he find it? He tries bloody hard.

10. Jaco Pastorius: ‘John & Mary’

9. Pino Donaggio: ‘Blow Out (closing titles)’
The melody maestro’s beautiful theme from Brian De Plasma’s 1981 film starring John Travolta and the director’s then-wife Nancy Allen. A critic once said that her character’s death in the movie is the first one De Palma seems to care about – Donaggio’s music is the reason.

8. Madonna: ‘Oh Father’

7. David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’
It’s the hope, not the despair. Maybe THIS time it’s all going to work out, ‘just like in the films’…

6. David Sanborn: ‘Imogene’

5. Dexter Gordon/Herbie Hancock: ‘Still Time’ 
The double meaning of Herbie’s title says it all – Dexter’s beautiful soprano playing is fragile yet also somehow ageless.

4. Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

3. Janet Jackson: ‘Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make)’
Just for the sheer beauty of Jam and Lewis’s composition. Janet’s words augment that.

2. Scritti Politti: ‘Oh Patti (Don’t Feel Sorry For Loverboy)’

1. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (only joking – that’s enough tearjerkers… Ed.)

If you’ve got the stomach for it, chime in with your tearjerkers below.

Story Of A Song: Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’ (1981)

Apart from Steely Dan reaction videos on YouTube, my other mini viewing obsession over the last year or so has been ‘Columbo’ repeats.

You expect amusing performances and ingenious plotting from the classic Peter Falk-fronted show; you don’t expect music tips.

But there it was – a great piece kicking off ‘Columbo Goes To College’, the first episode of the show’s tenth season, debuting on 9 December 1990.

A bit of detective work revealed that it was Ambrosia’s ‘Poor Rich Boy’, written for the Oscar-winning ‘Arthur’ soundtrack, the one headed up by Christopher Cross’s US #1 ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’. I’d never heard of the band before but apparently they had some big hits at the tail end of the 1970s.

Co-written – like the rest of the soundtrack album – by Burt Bacharach (alongside band members David Pack – himself a hugely respected songwriter – and Joe Puerta) and produced by Val Garay (Kim Carnes’ ‘Bette Davis Eyes’), it taps into that great period at the dawn of the 1980s when yacht rock dovetailed with prog/AOR/new wave/whatever.

It’s mixed refreshingly dry, with barely any reverb, and features a treacherous arrangement that separates the men from the boys. It’s in 2/4 but has some very odd accents (especially in that deliciously long fade). Try playing along. Where’s ‘one’? There’s a nice use of the ‘flatted fifth’ in the verse and also a superb vocal by…who? Pack or Puerta?

The chorus lyric smartly lays out the film’s plot and concerns of Dudley Moore’s Arthur:

Life is more than time and money that’s easy to spend
When you know that she’s out there
Lookin’ for the girl whose eyes out-sparkle all of your gold
And a heart that’s bigger than Times Square

‘Poor Rich Boy’ was released as a single in 1981 but didn’t chart. There was also a strange jazzy instrumental version played throughout the trailer (see below).

It’s a shame in a way but Ambrosia are almost ‘cursed’ for me now – I don’t want to hear anything else by them because I know it won’t be as good… Or will it?

Gig Review: Burt Bacharach/Joss Stone @ Hammersmith Apollo, 16th July 2019

In an interview, Randy Newman once talked about how, on his self-titled debut album, he tried to use the orchestra rather than the drums to ‘move things along’.

It was impossible not to think about that while watching Burt Bacharach’s triumphant Hammersmith gig last night, featuring a large band and huge string section.

This is music relying on texture, melody and counterpoint – it’s the world of Pet Sounds and Oliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth, with barely a guitar lick or drum fill.

Every chord has a flavour and intention – but few of the voicings are quite how you remembered them. ‘I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’, ‘This Girl’s In Love With You’ and ‘Alfie’ were elliptical and mysterious last night, with beautiful, ‘floating’ harmony.

Joss Stone treats any stage like her backyard, totally at ease, barefooted and gorgeous. And if she did a great job on the melodic, medium-paced material (‘Walk On By’, ‘Wishin’ And Hopin”, ‘Say A Little Prayer’), sometimes there was a ‘screechy’ element to her voice when improvising on the slower tracks.

And some may have found her between-song ‘chats’ with Burt a little mawkish. But to be fair he did tell some good stories, particularly the one about being inspired by Ursula Andress – not his then-wife Angie Dickinson – to write ‘The Look Of Love’ for the original ‘Casino Royale’ movie.

And though Hal David’s name was only mentioned once by Bacharach, the lyricist’s influence hung heavy over proceedings. It came to mind just how brilliantly he evoked the nooks and crannies, the high stakes, of all romantic relationships, particularly when one party is looking for the door.

The inclusion of some more recent stuff was a revelation to this writer, particularly a couple of fervent – though musically gentle – anti-Trump songs, and the remarkable Elvis Costello co-write ‘This House Is Empty Now’, with its stratospheric middle eight and an excellent vocal from John Pagano.

‘On My Own’ and ‘Close To You’ were reinvented as spine-tingling, slow-motion ballads, even slower than the originals, while Josie James’ powerful take on ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ got the biggest ovation of the evening. Such is Bacharach’s range as a songwriter, you kept hoping he would throw in a few more outliers, ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ or ‘Love Power’.

But ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ was the perfect closer, sending us out into that good night with a smile (though it was odd that Joss didn’t return for a final song).

One left the gig uplifted but also, truth be told, emotionally spent. Still, it was a weird, wonderful, affecting two hours of pop music. And you try to tell the kids these days…

Sounds Like Steely Dan?

They are of course the pop/jazz masters whose harmonic and lyrical sophistication have had the critics purring since 1972.

They’ve also often been described as ‘influential’. But is that true? Does any other music sound remotely like Steely Dan?

In the 1980s, the term ‘Steely Dan-influenced’ was bandied about particularly in relation to British bands of the ‘sophisti-pop’ variety: The Big Dish, Style Council, Everything But The Girl, Curiosity Killed The Cat, Hue & Cry, Sade, Swing Out Sister, even Prefab Sprout and Deacon Blue.

More recently, it’s The High Llamas, Athlete, Mark Ronson, Toy Matinee, The Norwegian Fords, Mayer Hawthorne, State Cows and even Pharrell.

None really sound like Steely. Sure, they show off some slick grooves, jazzy solos and nice chord changes. But they also generally scrimp on the hooks, harmonic sophistication, production values and soulful, distinctive vocals which characterise Becker and Fagen’s oeuvre.

However, there are random tracks over the years – by artists one wouldn’t necessarily have predicted – that have seemingly ‘cracked the code’.

Here’s a smattering, not all necessarily from the ’80s. More suggestions welcome if you can think of any.

10. Billy Joel: ‘Zanzibar’

Lush production (Phil Ramone), cool chords, great arrangements, biting Fagenesque vocals, quirky lyrics and nice guitar from Steely regular Steve Khan. Also featuring two kick-ass solos by trumpet/flugelhorn legend Freddie Hubbard.

9. The Stepkids: ‘The Lottery’

Underrated American psych-soulsters deliver jazzy weirdness, a nice groove, oblique lyrics, cool chords, memorable hooks and a distinctly Fagen-like croon from vocalist Tim Walsh.

8. The Tubes: ‘Attack Of The 50ft Woman’

The bridge and backing vocals always remind me of Steely, and I’m sure the boys would also appreciate the ‘50s B-movie lyric concept and ‘easy listening’ middle eight.

7. Danny Wilson: ‘Lorraine Parade’

The Dundonians’ superb debut is full of Dan-ish moments but this (sorry about the sound quality) could almost be an outtake from Katy Lied. See also the B-side ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’.

6. Frank Gambale: ‘Faster Than An Arrow’

The Aussie guitar master swapped the chops-based fusion for this slick, lushly-chorded, Steely-style shuffle. Gambale sings, plays piano and guitar and also wrote the excellent horn chart.

5. Maxus: ‘Nobody’s Business’

The AOR supergroup came up with this standout in 1981. Jay Gruska’s vocals and Robbie Buchanan’s keys particularly stand out as Steely-like (apologies for the creepy video).

4. Cliff Richard: ‘Carrie’

More than a hint of ‘Don’t Take Me Alive’ in the chorus, lovely production and Cliff does a neat Fagen impression throughout. And hey, isn’t that ‘Mike’ McDonald on backup? (No. Ed.) Apparently co-songwriter Terry Britten was a huge Steely fan (as Cliff told this writer during a live radio interview circa 2008).

3. Boz Scaggs: ‘We’re Waiting’

Steely regulars Michael Omartian, Victor Feldman, Jeff Porcaro and Chuck Findley contribute to this enigmatic cracker which could almost be an Aja outtake. The oblique lyrics possibly relate to Hollywood in some way. See also Boz’s ‘Gimme The Goods’ which sounds suspiciously like ‘Kid Charlemagne’.

2. Tina Turner: ‘Private Dancer’

This Mark Knopfler-written gem pulls off the Steely tricks of simple melody/elaborate harmony and a risqué lyrical theme. There’s also more than a touch of ‘FM’ in the intro riff. Knopfler was always a big Dan fan and of course guested on ‘Time Out Of Mind’. See also Dire Straits’ ‘Private Investigations’ whose outro bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘The Royal Scam’.

1. Christopher Cross: ‘I Really Don’t Know Anymore’

From one of the biggest-selling debut albums in US chart history, this features the production/piano skills of Omartian, backing vocals from McDonald and a majestic guitar solo by Dan legend Larry Carlton. See also ‘Minstrel Gigolo’ from the same album.