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, picking up particularly 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 suddenly remembered 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/The Cult helmer Palmer brings a cavernous drum sound 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. You can’t teach this stuff. It breathes. It slows down, it speeds up. Gabrels sounds brilliant, consistently coming on like a cross between Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, but with more of a blues feeling.

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’, 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 been 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.

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.

Book Review: Ashes To Ashes (The Songs Of David Bowie 1976-2016) by Chris O’Leary

Another song-by-song study of Bowie’s output is certainly an ambitious undertaking; we already have Nicholas Pegg’s excellent ‘The Complete David Bowie’ and David Buckley’s brief but arresting ‘The Complete Guide To The Songs Of David Bowie’.

But O’Leary is more qualified than most, having run the popular Pushing Ahead Of The Dame website for over 10 years now. And, by and large, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ pulls it off, offering a far more personal, florid take on Bowie’s songs than the aformentioned books.

He makes the decision to discuss the songs not in alphabetical order but, roughly, in the order in which they were ‘conceived’ and/or recorded. While this doesn’t allow for easy reference, an alphabetical title index is included at the back of the book.

The section on Low/”Heroes”/Lodger is excellent, with up-to-date interview material from Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew, and a focus on the city’s geography/history mostly missing from previous Bowie books. And it’s great to see the ‘Baal’ sessions getting the detailed analysis they deserve.

Fascinating items also emerge around Bowie’s late-’80s/early ’90s work, from Never Let Me Down through ‘Pretty Pink Rose’ to The Buddha Of Suburbia, with more detail than usual about the formation of Tin Machine. And it would be hard to find a better study of Bowie’s final two albums, even if they are this writer’s least favourite works of the era.

There are predictable put-downs of Tonight (but an excellent analysis of ‘Loving The Alien’, complete with reading list!), Black Tie White Noise and Tin Machine II (which actually would have been a late-era Bowie classic if it had jettisoned Hunt Sales’ songwriting contributions), and some sometimes weirdly-personal slights.

There are also oft-repeated errors about the Let’s Dance era, like the listing of Tony Thompson’s drum appearances (he didn’t play on ‘Ricochet’ or ‘Shake It’), but O’Leary makes up for it with a fascinating section on the fact that Bowie was actually more of an actor than a singer when he made that album.

Musical appreciation doesn’t seem the author’s strong point – for example, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ is described as ‘being ‘mostly in E minor, the harmonic murkiness finally resolved with a closing Em chord’. This ignores the fact that the verse’s home key is clearly G major. And he denegrates Hakim’s ‘gated tom fills’ in ‘I Keep Forgettin’,  but they’re actually the dreaded Simmons electric drums. But elsewhere there are interesting, original observations, like the comparisons between ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Lust For Life’.

One thing’s for sure – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ takes one back to the music. Revisiting Scary Monsters in particular was very illuminating in light of the book. So even if one can’t avoid O’Leary’s natural aversion to much of this material, it’s a valuable addition to the Bowie bibliography.

The question is, will one reach for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for quick reference ahead of the Pegg and Buckley works? Only time will tell (or crawl).

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

Cult-De-Sac: Miss World (1992)

There were a lot of good quiffs around in the ’80s. The rockabilly and psychobilly revivals certainly wouldn’t have been the same without them, but one of the best was sported by Jonathan Perkins, lead singer/songwriter of Miss World.

Though Miss World’s self-titled debut album came out in early ’90s, it seems very much informed by the music of the 1980s. It was released on David A Stewart’s Anxious Records, featured cameos from Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers and was very much under the influence of Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah, INXS and Nick Cave, as well as Lou Reed, The Doors and Berlin-era Bowie.

I bought the first album after seeing their mightily impressive set supporting Shakespear’s Sister at the Hammersmith Odeon in summer 1992. An internet search of Perkins reveals very little, except that he was born in Swindon, was possibly an early member of XTC and probably later turned up in mid-’80s nearlymen Silver Spurs.

But whatever his pedigree, Perkins certainly seems to have a great record collection. Miss World opener ‘The First Female Serial Killer’ has a super-cool vocal delivery (is it about Aileen Wuornos?) while ‘Nine Steps To Nowhere’ sounds like Michael Hutchence fronting The Doors. ‘Watch That Man’ marries Iggy Pop’s ‘Isolation’ with Bowie’s ‘New Career In A New Town’ to superb effect.

‘Dead Flowers’ comes on a bit like Jim Morrison singing with The Clash, and then there are great, weirdo murder ballads ‘Highway Of Dead Roads’, ‘Thief Inside’ and ‘British Pharmaceuticals’. Lou Reed couldn’t have done a better job at covering ‘What A Wonderful World’. ‘Love Is The Whole Of The Law’ might be the best of the lot, the only co-write with Dave Stewart.

Perkins also has a great ear for a strong first line: ‘You make me act like a locust‘ (‘Nine Steps To Nowhere’), ‘I’m wasting away/The voices in my head have come out to play‘ (‘Highway Of Dead Roads’) and the Withnailesque ‘I was feeling very beautiful/Having taken pharmaceuticals‘. And – good news for us – the songs either seem to be about sex, drugs, death or religion, sometimes all of them.

Legendary recording engineer Phill Brown (Spirit Of Eden, Solid Air etc) gets a gorgeously uncluttered sound and then there’s the none-more-David-Lynchian cover image.

Not much has been heard from the band since this excellent debut, though some weird footage emerged a few years ago of a comeback gig with Perkins sporting a natty turban. And they seem to have some more recent tracks on streaming platforms. But they never quite caught on after this strong start, more’s the pity.

32 Great Cover Versions Of The 1980s

We’ve briefly looked at crap cover versions before (though doubtless there’ll be more to come), but how about good ones from the 1980s?

It was quite easy coming up with a fairly long list. I guess the ultimate test is that at the time most people (including me) didn’t know – or didn’t care – that they were cover versions. There wasn’t a great deal of looking back in this golden period for pop.

But it did seem as if a lot of ’80s acts had the magic touch, or at least a total lack of fear, making almost everything sound like their own. Punk probably had quite a lot to do with that.

Some of the following choices get in for sheer weirdness but most are genuine artistic achievements. Recurring themes? The Beatles, Motown, Otis Redding. Probably not too much of a surprise there. And 1981 seems a particularly good year for covers.

Anyway, enough of my yakkin’. Let the countdown commence…

32. David Bowie: ‘Criminal World’ (1983)

31. Ry Cooder: ’13 Question Method’ (1987)

Ry’s brilliant solo take on Chuck Berry from the Get Rhythm album.

30. Propaganda: ‘Sorry For Laughing’ (1985)

The Dusseldorf pop mavericks take on Josef K’s post-punk curio (apparently at Paul Morley’s urging) to produce a sweeping, majestic synth-pop classic.

29. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘Little Drummer Boy’ (1981)

28. Living Colour: ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ (1988)

27. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (1987)

26. Randy Crawford/Yellowjackets: ‘Imagine’ (1981)

Who knew this would work? Sensitive and imaginative reading of the Lennon classic, with a classic Robben Ford guitar solo.

25. Lee Ritenour: ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin” (1981)

Gorgeous West-Coast version of Sly Stone’s pop/funk opus. Surely one of the most unlikely covers of the decade, but it works a treat.

24. Luther Vandross: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ (1982)

23. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’ (1980)

Originally a reggae track by The Slickers and first released on ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack in 1972, Martyn and drummer Phil Collins rearranged it and added some lyrics. It featured on John’s fantastic Grace And Danger album.

22. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)

Cracking version of Gloria Jones’ ’60s Northern Soul classic (written by Ed Cobb). A hit all over the world, with pleasingly remedial synth arrangement, instantly recognisable soundworld and classic intro.

21. Grace Jones: ‘Use Me’ (1981)

The Nightclubbing album featured a veritable smorgasbord of good cover versions, but this take on Bill Withers scores particularly highly for originality.

20. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1981)

19. The Replacements: ‘Cruela De Vil’ (1988)

From the brilliant Hal Willner-helmed Disney tribute album Stay Awake, you’d have been a brave punter to bet a dime on this one working, but work it does.

18. Quincy Jones: ‘Ai No Corrida’ (1981)

17. Donald Fagen: ‘Ruby Baby’ (1982)

16. Stanley Clarke: ‘Born In The USA’ (1985)

Who knows, maybe this could have provided Stanley with a novelty hit if CBS had been quicker off the mark. He references John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in the intro while Rayford Griffin lays down seismic grooves and a funny old-school rap.

15. The Power Station: ‘Get It On’ (1985)

‘If cocaine was a sound…’, as a YouTube wag described it. This near-hysterical rave-up is mainly the sound of a fun late-night jam (Tony Thompson’s drumming being particularly notable). Also check out guitarist Andy Taylor’s little ode to Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ throughout.

14. Deborah And The Puerto Ricans: ‘Respect’ (1981)

A one-off solo single from The Flying Lizards’ singer, this Dennis Bovell-produced curio missed the charts but remains a fascinating post-punk artefact.

13. Roxy Music: ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (1980)

Roxy’s first cover version presumably raised some eyebrows but the lads pull it off with some aplomb, aided by Allan Schwartzberg’s tough NYC drum groove – and the fact that Bryan Ferry can’t resist adding some typical weirdness in the first 20 seconds.

12. Ringo Starr & Herb Alpert: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (1988)

Another once-heard-never-forgotten cracker from the aforementioned Stay Awake collection, the album version is preceded by a very menacing Ken Nordine spoken-word intro.

11. Japan: ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (1980)

David Sylvian probably hates this but no matter. It’s hard to think of another band pulling it off. Ominous synthscapes from Richard Barbieri, a nice recorder solo by Mick Karn and brilliant ‘where’s-one?’ beat from Steve Jansen.

10. Everything But The Girl: ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (1988)

It definitely divides opinion, but certainly fits the ‘sounds like they wrote it’ criterion.

9. Bananarama & Fun Boy Three: ‘Really Saying Something’ (1982)

Penned by Motown songsmiths Norman Whitfield, Micky Stevenson and Edward Holland Jr and first performed by The Velvelettes in 1964, it’s hard not to smile when this comes on the radio. I love the way the ladies pronounce ‘strutting’.

8. David Bowie: ‘Kingdom Come’ (1980)

The Dame’s magnificent take on a little-known track from Tom Verlaine’s 1978 debut album.

7. UB40: ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983)

No apologies for including this Neil Diamond-penned perennial. Great bassline, nice groove, lovely Ali Campbell vocal performance.

6. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1981)

Phil closed his Face Value album with this oft-forgotten corker, featuring a classic John Giblin bassline (later cribbed by Pearl Jam for the opening of their ‘Once’) and cool Shankar violin.

5. Robert Palmer: ‘Not A Second Time’ (1980)

Robert adds some New Wave grit to this Lennon-penned rocker, and his singing has rarely been better.

4. Siouxsie And The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’ (1983)

3. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)

First recorded by The Arrows in 1975, this is simply one of the great singles of the 1980s and a huge hit to boot.

2. Hue & Cry: ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ (1988)

It shouldn’t work but it does, courtesy of singer Pat Kane’s excellent tone and phrasing. His trademark ‘na-na-na-na’s help too. I wonder what Kate thought of it.

1. Blondie: ‘The Tide Is High’ (1980)

Written by reggae legend John Holt and first performed by The Paragons in 1966, this was an inspired – if somewhat cheesy – choice for the band. It’s mainly included here for Debbie Harry’s delightfully off-the-cuff vocal, sounding like her first crack at the song.

Any great tracks missing? Feel free to chime in below.