12 Angry Men: The 1980s Midlife Crisis Collection (Part One)

Here they come, these days about as welcome as turds in a jacuzzi, a collection of white, male, middle-aged ‘rockers’.

Then again, by the time of Live Aid, anyone over 30 was deemed a ‘veteran’, one of the funnier legacies of punk and New Pop.

Let’s survey the ages of some of the ‘rock legends’ who appeared at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985: Pete Townshend (40), Paul McCartney (43), Freddie Mercury (39), David Bowie (38), Bob Dylan (44), Keith Richards (41), Bryan Ferry (39), Mick Jagger (41), Elton John (37), Brian Wilson (43).

It’s interesting surveying the output of rock’s ageing alpha males during the ‘80s: angst, anger and lust were apparently their main drivers, alongside an interest in psychoanalysis and politics. Let’s take a look at some of their most coruscating work. For our purposes, we’ll define ‘mid life’ as 30 years old and above…

Peter Gabriel: ‘And Through The Wire’ (1980)

Upon hearing the early mixes of Peter Gabriel III, the US arm of his record company reportedly wondered if 30-year-old Pete had recently spent time in a mental asylum. But no, he was just letting off some steam, inviting Paul Weller along to supply raucous guitar, and unleashing a newfound, barely-concealed sexual energy: ‘Prowling the water hole/I wait for the kill/Pressure’s building/Overspill/I want you’. Ding-dong!

Richard Thompson: ‘Don’t Tempt Me’ (1988)

The folk/rock guitar/songwriting hero (38 at the time of recording) employed a killer US drums and bass team (Mickey Curry/Tony Levin) to carry off this pile-driving, piss-taking portrait of male jealousy and ‘little man’ syndrome. Note that he’s only ‘halfway’ out of his seat… Superb.

The Police: ‘Mother’ (1983)

Andy Summers (40 at the time of recording) takes some inspiration from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for this monstrosity, a hysterical, Oedipal blues in 7/4 time, very much inspired by his pal/guitar partner Robert Fripp. It’s quite funny to think that it was a contractually-obliged inclusion on the enormous-selling Synchronicity album, listened to by millions of unsuspecting teenagers before the emergence of the ‘skip’ button.

The Police: ‘Synchronicity II’ (1983)

Sting (31 at the time of recording) filters a Carl Jung concept through the story of family discord, a father’s paranoia and disquiet literally spawning a monster (in a Scottish loch!). Along the way, there’s also a barely concealed hatred for the common sprawl, ‘packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes’ during the morning commute, and the protagonist’s secretaries who ‘pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red-light street’, while Sting, Summers and Stewart Copeland lay down one of the most aggressive grooves in the band’s history. Scary, strange, midlife stuff.

David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part One)’ (1980)

33-year-old Bowie is jolly well peed off about…everything. There was certainly a lot to be angry about in 1980, and accordingly his Scary Monsters album dealt with some of the fears he felt for his son, from the increasingly bold tabloid press to the ever-present right-wing bully boys. In surely the most histrionic vocal performance of his career, he sounds terrified of the ‘fascists’ and violent revolutions that he sees on his TV screen.

Robbie Robertson: ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ (1987)

From the classic self-titled album, Robertson (43) sounds seriously teed off about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and more specifically, The Battle For Cu Chi of 1965/1966 (‘Down on Hell’s half acre/Shakin’ with fever/Rumble in the jungle’). Tony Levin and Manu Katche make for an appropriately barnstorming rhythm section and Robbie’s guitar is almost Clash-like in its viciousness.

More 1980s musical midlife crises soon.

David Bowie Impersonates Marc Bolan: 18th August 1985

1985 was a mixed year for DB.

Tragically, his half-brother Terry Burns took his own life in January, but then the summer was a very ‘up’ period – he was a wholehearted contributor to Live Aid, promoting the event widely and enjoying the company of his contemporaries and assorted young bucks alike.

He was also relishing getting out of his comfort zone courtesy of key roles in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ and Julien Temple’s ‘Absolute Beginners’.

Then summer 1985 spawned one of his greatest singles, the theme song for the latter movie. Like ‘Dancing In The Street’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was produced by David alongside Madness/Dexys/Costello collaborators Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer.

The backing tracks had been laid down at Abbey Road but the final vocal session took place at London’s West Side Studios (owned by Langer and Winstanley), Olaf Street, near Latimer Road tube station (and very close to Grenfell Tower), on 18th August 1985.

After nailing the song in just a few passes – as was his wont – Bowie found himself in the studio with a bit of time on his hands. Instead of making an early exit, he quickly wrote some rather overwrought lyrics vaguely in the style of Bruce Springsteen and then entertained Langer and Winstanley with a succession of vocal impersonations.

Engineer Mark Saunders thankfully captured these precious moments (in David Buckley’s essential book ‘Strange Fascination’, Winstanley mentions that he considered the tape lost) and has very kindly put them on YouTube for our delectation.

So enjoy Bowie’s irresistible takes on Springsteen, Marc Bolan, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Anthony Newley, Iggy Pop and Neil Young, complete with charming asides (‘That’s it – night-night!’). It’s a doorway to happier times. DB: miss him, miss him, miss him.

Story Of A Song: Iggy Pop’s ‘Play It Safe’

Soldier, released 40 years ago this month, was seen by Iggy’s paymasters Arista as a great opportunity for mainstream acceptance.

The Idiot and Lust For Life were now distant memories, and the label’s new head of A&R Tarquin Gotch and big boss Clive Davis were ‘taking an interest’, in Coen Brothers-speak a la ‘Barton Fink’.

As band (including ex-Pistol Glen Matlock and ex-XTC keyboard man Barry Andrews) and crew assembled at the legendary/infamous Rockfield Studios in south Wales, producer and fellow ex-Stooge James Williamson was feeling the pressure, apparently at times brandishing a bottle of vodka in one hand and loaded pistol in the other.

The Soldier sessions were long and laborious. No-one seemed to be steering the ship. Iggy was bored, brooding in deepest Monmouthshire. Then, one night, the proverbial saloon doors swung open and David Bowie swanned in with trusty assistant Coco Schwab. The mood changed instantly. Iggy lightened up and the old megawatt smile returned.

Around the dinner table, Bowie told the story of John Bindon, friend of the Krays, one-time Led Zeppelin bodyguard, part-time actor, alleged lover of Princess Margaret and possessor – also allegedly – of an unnaturally large appendage.

Iggy was fired up. Next morning, he and Bowie jumped into the studio and cooked up an ironic rumination on the lure of the criminal world, with some choice quotes lifted almost verbatim from Bowie’s monologue. Originally titled ‘I Wanna Be A Criminal’, it featured a classic Bowie descending chord sequence, icy synths and a superb vocal from Iggy.

Fellow Arista signings Simple Minds, hard at work recording their album Empires And Dance in the studio next door, were enlisted to provide amusing faux-Cockney backing vocals (you can also hear Bowie over the talkback mic at the song’s outset).

Some of the more libellous words about Bindon and Princess Margaret were later excised (Bowie apparently sidled up to Iggy at New York’s Mudd Club in early 1980 and begged him not to include them) and the song was finally released as ‘Play It Safe’, possibly Iggy’s self-conscious comment on his loss of nerve. But he still mustered a brilliantly insane ad-lib towards the end:

Rockin’ and reelin’ like Al Capone
Slippin’ and slidin’ like Joey Gallo
Movin’ and groovin’ with the Son Of Sam
Splish splash, I was Jim Jones!

Bowie had once again inspired his friend to create some of his best – if hardly commercial – work, and the best track on Soldier (though I also have a soft spot for ‘I’m A Conservative’). The album stalled at #62 in the UK chart and made a one-week appearance at #126 in the US, hardly a success in terms of making Iggy a mainstream concern. He stuck around on Arista for one more record, the forgettable Party.

Predictably, it was Bowie who would again inspire Iggy four years later to create his most effective album of the 1980s: Blah-Blah-Blah.

Book Review: Le Freak by Nile Rodgers

One of the few musical blessings of the last decade was Nile Rodgers’ career reinvention.

But the future had looked pretty bleak at the outset of 2010, with serious illness virtually putting paid to his live career and no new studio product in sight.

Then of course there was a well-received guest spot on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and a glorious concert reboot of the Chic brand, which went from strength to strength as the decade progressed. So it seems a good time to revisit ‘Le Freak’, Nile’s 2011 memoir (and it accords nicely with my current early-’80s NYC obsession).

The focus on gigging during the last decade has been a distinct volte face for a guitarist/songwriter/producer best known for his studio work with Chic, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Johnny Mathis and Al Jarreau.

Chic were to disco what Steely Dan were to rock, bringing jazz chords, complex arrangements and subtly subversive lyrics to the top of the charts, but it’s easy to forget how out of fashion they were in the early ’80s, as ‘Le Freak‘ grippingly outlines.

But it’s also that rare thing for a music memoir, arguably at its best when it steers away from the music. Rodgers was born to a 14-year-old jazz-loving mother in late-1950s New York City, and his early life was a jaw-dropping sequence of underage sex, drug addiction and bohemian excess on all levels. His stepfather Bobby, a heroin-addicted beatnik, nicknamed the asthmatic Rodgers ‘Pud’, short for ‘pudding pie’, and used to reprimand him thus: ‘Pud. Dig yourself.’

Soon, both parents were junkies, and Rodgers turned to TV, movies, truancy and illicit substances, finding his own brotherhood of Puerto Ricans and Italians in Greenwich Village. Rodgers brilliantly captures the flavour of this bohemian underground and black music scene that flourished in the big cities of the US in the ‘60s.

There are tales of studying jazz harmony with legendary pianist Dr Billy Taylor, an early gig with the ‘Sesame Street’ house band and notable cameos from Thelonious Monk, Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Jimi Hendrix. Later his Harlem Apollo debut sees Rodgers being chased around the stage by a crazed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

With musical soulmate, bassist Bernard Edwards, he toured the Chitlin’ Circuit playing the soul, jazz and R’n’B hits of the day, returning to New York to see that dance culture was taking over. Their Big Apple Band quickly became Chic, a black fusion of Roxy Music and KISS, and although Chic quickly became synonymous with the disco movement, their roots in jazz, rock and R’n’B and desire to always include a Deep Hidden Meaning (or DHM) in their lyrics always kept them at some remove from the likes of the Bee Gees.

But things take a turn for the worse when the scene that embraced Chic suddenly implodes and gives way to New Wave, and Nile is brutally candid about his embarrassment that his band (and first solo album) can’t get arrested. Not in David Bowie’s opinion, though, and the extended riff on the making of Let’s Dance is essential reading for any fan of that album.

The passage on the passing of his musical brother Edwards while on tour with a reformed Chic is also moving and perfectly judged, encapsulating Rodgers’ philosophy of music and life.

All in all, ‘Le Freak’ is a fast-moving, well-written, original account of the life of a self-confessed ‘half-hippie, half Black Panther’, and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in black music over the last 50 years.

Rodgers has also intimated that there may be a second volume on the way – yes please. Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jarreau, Mariah Carey, Robert Plant, the B-52s and David Lee Roth are only mentioned in passing, and it would be good to get the full story of Chic’s live renaissance.

Story Of A Song: Adrian Belew/David Bowie’s ‘Pretty Pink Rose’

One can get caught up revisiting the ‘lost’ periods of the truly great artists of the last 50 years – Miles, Neil Young, Bowie, Dylan, Zappa, whoever.

At the moment, it’s Bowie’s late-’80s and early-’90s that particularly intrigue, roughly the period from ‘Intruders At The Palace’ to Tin Machine II.

There was a lot more to the era than Tin Machine. ‘Pretty Pink Rose’, a song Bowie had originally demo’d in early 1988 with members of Bryan Adams’ band (and one later rejected by TM, though one can hear echoes of it in their cover of Roxy Music’s ‘If There Is Something’), generally gets a bum rap but features some classic Bowie moves, like the descending, superbly-sung bridge and ‘secret’ chord also heard in ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Loving The Alien’.

Bowie rang Belew on 4th August 1989 asking him to play guitar and take the role of musical director on the ‘Sound + Vision’ greatest hits tour. But Belew owed Atlantic Records a solo album, the one that eventually became 1990’s Young Lions. Bowie offered to pitch in with ‘Pretty Pink Rose’. Apparently Belew was initially less than enamoured, but grew to love it.

Belew recorded the backing tracks on 11th November 1989 at Royal Recorders near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, playing all instruments. He achieves a great garage-rock sound with sprightly bass, Leslie-toned rhythm guitars and some mad lead playing courtesy of a Fender Strat wired with a Kahler tremolo arm that he found could be ‘tapped’ on the neck instead of using his finger tips.

Bowie and Belew recorded their duet vocals (at the same mic – apparently Belew was unexpectedly starstruck) on 15th January 1990 at Right Track in NYC (Bowie recorded his spontaneous vocals for ‘Gunman’ on the same day). Apparently a spoken-word intro was later excised, which featured Bowie intoning: ‘She had tits like melons… It was love in the rain’!

‘Pretty Pink Rose’ was released a single in May 1990 but inexplicably missed the top 40 in both the US and UK, despite regular MTV screenings of the Tim Pope-directed video featuring Bowie and Belew hamming it up with ‘Life And Loves Of A She-Devil’ star Julie T Wallace.

Bowie and Belew also played it every night on the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour, augmented by some great chord additions by keyboardist Rick Fox. It looks like they were having a lot of fun. It’s a cracking song and a lost Bowie classic.

Tin Machine: 1989

This week marks 30 years since Tin Machine wrapped up their first year of activity with a low-key gig at Moby Dick’s in Sydney, Australia (4th November 1989).

In the previous 12 months, they’d recorded and released their first album, written and recorded most of the second album, and toured extensively.

Any true Bowie fan must surely like elements of Tin Machine, or at least appreciate the career-reviving value of the band. After all, he was reportedly seriously considering giving up music at the beginning of 1988.

My muso college mates and I had an instant kinship with Tin Machine, particularly picking up on the Jeff Beck and Hendrix influences. Never Let Me Down had completely passed me by, but this felt instinctively like the natural followup to Scary Monsters.

Bowie first hooked up with guitarist Reeves Gabrels, whose wife Sarah had been a press officer on the US leg of his ‘Glass Spider’ tour. But who should join them on bass and drums?

There were mentions of Percy Jones and Terry Bozzio, but they settled on the street-tough Sales brothers, of course previously known to Bowie as the rhythm section on Iggy’s Lust For Life (Bowie realised what he had signed up for when drummer Hunt apparently strode into the first rehearsal wearing a ‘F*ck You I’m From Texas’ T-shirt…).

One of the first things the assembled unit apparently did was make a list of the artists that would inform and influence the band’s sound: Neil Young, The Pixies, Cream, John Coltrane, Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Bo Diddley, Sex Pistols, John Lee Hooker, John Lennon.

The debut album was recorded quickly (producer Tim Palmer was apparently barely able to get a decent sound before he realised they were in the middle of a take) and released on 22nd May 1989. How does it sound these days? Pretty damn good. Bowie’s singing is as committed as at any time in his career, and the material is sometimes electrifying.

The Mission/Cult helmer Palmer brings cavernous drums and great guitar layering, finding a most willing participant in Gabrels; ‘Pretty Thing’ in particular delivers a huge wall of sound. Hunt Sales: a rock drummer who swings. He goes double-time if he feels like it.  He slows down, he speeds up. You can’t teach this stuff. The music breathes.

Gabrels sounds brilliant, consistently coming on like a cross between Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, but with more of a blues attitude.

Back in 1989, it was also absolutely fascinating watching Bowie sublimate himself into a band situation, albeit very ‘artfully’ (one of Gabrels’ proposals for a band name was The Emperor’s New Clothes). He was instructed by the Sales brothers not to over-think his lyrics, but rather to lean on his first instincts. Consequently a few tracks aren’t going to win any #MeToo awards but they’re an honest, unfettered portrayal of middle-aged male lust. And why not?

But those tracks are balanced by the tender ‘Amazing’ and politically-charged ‘Crack City’, ‘Video Crimes’ and ‘Under The God’. It’s invigorating hearing David eschewing irony and nihilism in favour of passionate commitment, though he dusts off the old ennui for the brilliant ‘I Can’t Read’.

The album is 20 minutes too long. If it had been shorn of the dire ‘Working Class Hero’, deafening ‘Baby Can Dance’, dreary ‘Bus Stop’, turgid ‘Run’ and silly ‘Sacrifice Yourself’, I’d put Tin Machine up there with Scary Monsters as Bowie’s last great rock album.

It’s also largely forgotten that it was a critical and commercial success, reaching #3 in the UK, selling a million copies and making many writers’ albums of the year. (Though, hilariously, it also made the Melody Maker’s Worst Ever Albums top 20 list in 1998!).

Weirdly, Bowie bounced straight into announcing his own solo ‘greatest hits’ tour in December 1989, ostensibly to promote the excellent series of Rykodisc CD reissues which had kicked off with the Sound + Vision box set.

Quite what his TM bandmates thought of this state of affairs isn’t documented, though Gabrels declined to play guitar on the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour (Belew accepted). Gabrels went off to guest on The Mission’s Carved In Sand instead.