Book Review: A Message To Our Folks (The Art Ensemble Of Chicago) by Paul Steinbeck

If the 1980s saw the full flowering of PR and image’s influence on the music world, it’s sometimes forgotten that jazz was an unlikely beneficiary of this trend too.

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, that important unit whose line-up went unchanged for almost 30 years until trumpeter/co-founder Lester Bowie’s death in 1999, were a massive live draw during the early ’80s, particularly in France, where they were welcomed more like rock stars than avant-garde jazzers.

Image and stage presentation were undoubtedly big factors. Paul Steinbeck fine new biography of the band ‘A Message To Our Folks’ is a scholarly, forensic study, tracing their origins from the South Side of Chicago through their controversial move to Paris in 1969, return to the States in 1971 and commercial peak in the early 1980s.

He analyses key albums, talks to living members and dissects the Ensemble’s cultural importance. Despite the sometimes frivolous onstage ‘antics’, musically the collective was as serious as your life, to borrow the title of Val Wilmer’s groundbreaking book. Drummer Don Moye remembers Bowie taking him aside after his successful audition and saying: ‘Don’t even mess with us or get any more involved if you can’t commit to playing Great Black Music at a very high level, becoming famous and taking our place in the history of jazz.’ The stakes were high.

They were ahead of their time with the use of slogans, labelling their sound Great Black Music to distinguish it from jazz; according to Bowie, ‘Never before were we even allowed the dignity of selecting a name for our own music.’ They also described their music as ‘Ancient To The Future’.

The band would pick up various celebrity fans: in 1975, Bowie took a trip to Nigeria and became Fela Kuti’s ‘guest of honour’ when he wowed him with an impromptu trumpet solo: ‘I played this blues… After I played a couple of choruses, Fela said, “Stop. Somebody go get this guy’s bags. He’s moving in with me…”‘ David Bowie also famously employed his namesake for the Black Tie White Noise album as did Danny Wilson for their acclaimed debut Meet Danny Wilson.

Don Moye in 2017

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago would also open doors for other instrumental groups with their onstage presentation, verging on dramatic performance – face paint and stage personas were the norm at a time when ‘jazz’ was becoming extremely bland.

‘Message To Our Folks’ is a fairly brief, fairly serious but highly effective biography, a must for general fans and a good companion piece to other key books on Free Jazz: ‘As Serious As Your Life’, Graham Lock’s ‘Forces In Motion’ and Ben Watson’s ‘Derek Bailey’.

‘A Message To Our Folks: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’ is published now by The University Of Chicago Press.

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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, 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 little-known 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.

13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s. You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ single – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, glorious failure, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…

I was certainly never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years. Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.

Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…

13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)

Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.

12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)

Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.

11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)

The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.

10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)

Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.

9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)

The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.

8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)

The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.

7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)

This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.

6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)

This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.

5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)

This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.

4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)

This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.

3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)

The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.

2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)

The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.

1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.

Let me know your killer B’s below.

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.

Check out Part One of the Summer Playlist here.

Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

 

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

I love you/</ em>You pay my rent

 

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

I believe in love/
I’ll believe in anything/
That’s gonna get me what I want/
And get me off my knees’

 

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

I want you/
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/
It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

 

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

Hey Mikey/
Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

 

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/
Your lovers would look like movie stars’

 

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

‘Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
I might end up in the hospital’

 

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

‘Once there was an angel/
An angel and some friends/
Who flew around from song to song/
Making up the ends’

 

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

Burn down the disco/
Hang the blessed DJ’

 

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/
And the sun’s riding high/
I must bid you farewell/
Every man has to die/
But it’s written in the starlight/
And every line in your palm/
We are fools to make war/
On our brothers in arms’

 

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

Out on the road today/
I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/
A little voice inside my head said/
Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

 

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

‘Hello Johnson/
Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/
There’s no reason to get so excited/
I’d been playing football with the youngsters/
Johnson says don’t dramatise/
And you can’t even spell salacious’

 

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

‘I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat…’

 

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

‘Come back Mum and Dad/
You’re growing apart/
You know that I’m growing up sad/
I need some attention/
I shoot into the light’

 

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

‘People say that I’m no good/
Painting pictures and carving wood/
Be a rich man if I could/
But the only job I do well is here on the farm/
And it’s breaking my back’

 

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

So long, child/
It’s awful dark’

 

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

I could have been someone/
Well, so could anyone’

How To Sidestep Second-Album Syndrome: Danny Wilson’s Bebop Moptop

danny wilsonVirgin Records, released 17th July 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1989

8/10

Summer 1989. Change was in the air. A new decade beckoned. De La Soul, acid house, Madchester, Kylie/Jason/Bros and New Kids On The Block were in. School was out…forever. Sixth-form college beckoned – but not yet. There was tennis to be played, Thunderbird wine to be drunk and music to be bought/played.

I was listening to Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, Prince’s Batman and Sly Stone’s Fresh. And Bebop Moptop, Danny’s underrated second album. Apparently they turned down a few big-name US producers to helm the album themselves, and some might say they could have done with a slightly tighter quality control check. But for my money this more than justifies the potential of the debut.

DannyWilson1

‘Imaginary Girl’, ‘Loneliness’ and ‘The Ballad of Shirley MacLaine’ are dramatic torch songs taking Sinatra as their starting point, while ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’, ‘If Everything You Said Was True’ and ‘Goodbye Shanty Town’ are superb updates of the Steely style, the latter even throwing in some great ‘New Frontier‘ sequenced synths.

‘If You Really Love Me Let Me Go’ beautifully captures the subtlety and craft in their method; check out the passing piano chords that enjoin the various sections, livening up what could easily be a humdrum progression in another band’s hands.

The heavy lead guitar and slithering synth bass of ‘Charlie Biz’ suggest the lads had been listening to Prince‘s Lovesexy.  ‘Second Summer Of Love’ is a super-catchy, throwaway folk pastiche, and the only hit from the album, reaching UK number 23. Slightly less successful are ‘I Can’t Wait’ and the shambolic ‘NYC Shanty’, but no matter; they can’t stop this from being a first-class album with songs that are built to last.

danny wilson

Although Bebop Moptop reached number 24 in the UK album charts and sold more than the debut album, the lads went their separate ways after the promotion work was done and a few live dates undertaken. I saw them at the London Town And Country Club in autumn 1989 where a lavish, no-expense-spared backing band superbly recreated almost every nuance of the two albums.

Gary Clark resurfaced four years later with a fine solo album Ten Short Songs About Love, which could almost be viewed as Danny album number three as it featured sizeable contributions from both Kit Clark and bassist Ged Grimes (currently the bassist for Simple Minds).

But Bebop Moptop rounded off my 1980s in a very classy way. Goodbye, Danny – for now…