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.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science 35 Years On

Warner Bros. Records, released April 1982

8/10

The 1980s were littered with ‘novelty’ hits but perhaps none was more unexpected – or more powerful – than Laurie Anderson’s John Peel-endorsed, eight-minute UK number 2 ‘O Superman (For Massenet)’. Massenet was a French composer, whose aria ‘Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père’ (‘O Sovereign, O Judge, O Father’) appeared in the 1885 opera ‘Le Cid’.

‘O Superman’ was totally hip at the time, appearing in the slipstream of Talking Heads’ ‘Once In A Lifetime’, and also featuring a video which looked like avant-garde art. David Bowie was a big fan, covering the song during his 1997 Earthling tour. It still sounds unique and pretty hip today, even managing to throw in a little ode to Philip Glass with its brief, circular melodic motif that appears a few times.

A live performance of ‘O Superman’ was recorded in New York City in the week following the 9/11 attacks, and later appeared on the album Live In New York. In this context, certain lyrics seem to take on greater significance: ‘Here come the planes/They’re American planes/Smoking or non-smoking?’ Anderson has intimated that the song was inspired by watching television news reports of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979/80.

‘O Superman’ came from Anderson’s performance art/music piece ‘United States I-IV’, and was initially released as a single on the indie One Ten label. When it quickly sold out of its initial run of 1,000 copies, Warners picked it up and also asked for a whole album of music from the show.

What about the rest of Big Science? Not having heard it for a few years, I approached the album with trepidation. But there was no need – ‘From The Air’ and ‘Sweaters’ (‘I no longer love the way you hold your pens and pen…cils’) are still very funny, but also oddly disquieting. There’s just something so fresh about Anderson’s persona. The album cover says it all (I was remiss to leave it out of my top covers of the 1980s lists) – she is the epitome of NYC post-punk cool minimalism.

Lyrically, Big Science – like the performance piece it comes from – seems to be satirising the rebirth of American ‘heroism’ and industrial might of the Reagan era. Anderson often speaks with (and mocks) the ‘voice of authority’, someone who, as she later said in an interview, is ‘either a shoe salesman or someone who wants to sell you an insurance policy you don’t want or need’ (now who does that remind me of?).

But there’s always a clash between this technological brave new world and the spiritual binds that hold us together – family (‘O Mom and Dad…’), folklore and tradition. The title track rams home the point with its ‘primitive’ percussion and vocals that sound vaguely like Native American chanting. ‘O Superman’ also does it with its initial focus on a piece of new technology – an answering machine – and then more metaphysical concerns (justice, God, love).

As the 1980s wore on, Anderson’s studio albums possibly suffered from being right on the ‘technological cutting edge’, but Big Science revels in simple acoustic/electric juxtapositions – some Velvet Underground drums here, an analogue synth, Vocoder or Harmonizer there, plus sax, percussion and treated violin. Occasionally it would be nice to hear an instrumental solo, maybe someone of the NYC-art-rock-approved school such as Shankar or Jon Hassell, but generally Anderson keeps it simple and maintains a very assured minimalist musical style throughout.

Big Science slightly outstays its welcome, its last two tracks quite a stretch, but overall still sounds like a vital piece of work from a major, treasured artist.

Book Review: Walls Come Tumbling Down by Daniel Rachel

walls come tumblingDaniel Rachel’s excellent new book focuses on the links between music and politics in the 1980s. Ostensibly an oral history of three epochal movements of the era – Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge – ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ shows how these campaigns politicised a whole generation.

Fresh from his fine ‘Isle Of Noises’ tome which interviewed key British songwriters, Rachel opens his contacts book again to get telling contributions from Pauline Black, Dennis Bovell, Billy Bragg, Lloyd Cole, Elvis Costello, Jerry Dammers, Andy Gill, Junior Giscombe, Paul Heaton, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Tracey Thorn, Tom Robinson, Paul Simonon, Paul Weller and many more. There are also many rare or never-before-published photos of the era by the likes of Pennie Smith, Jill Furmanovsky and Kevin Cummins.

The story starts on 5th August 1976 when Eric Clapton used a notorious Birmingham Odeon gig to lambast the audience, calling for ‘w*gs’ and ‘P*kis’ to ‘leave the country’ and pledging his support for Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP who eight years earlier had made the infamous ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech. Clapton’s shocking proclamations sparked the Rock Against Racism movement, a campaign also inflamed by David Bowie’s comments to Playboy magazine concerning Hitler and the rise of fascism.

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

Rock Against Racism march, Trafalgar Square, April 1978

This troubling era is picked over in immense detail, with various jaw-dropping artefacts: Clapton’s handwritten ‘apology’ letter to Sounds magazine is printed in full, and there’s also an extremely rare photo of Bowie’s ‘Nazi salute’ at Victoria station in May 1976 (as well as a new-to-this-writer explanation/apology from Bowie). Black musicians and music-biz legends also comment with great candour about life in the UK during this period.

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The 2 Tone movement attacked racism at its source while many artists under that umbrella also supported the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament and Rock Against Sexism. When Margaret Thatcher swept to a second term of office in 1983, bolstered by the Falklands War, a new pacifism emerged, typified by tracks like Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding‘ and Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang‘.

Later, as the miners’ strike took hold and Thatcher’s assault on socialism gathered pace, Paul Weller and Billy Bragg formed the Red Wedge movement which focused its attentions on ousting her in the 1987 General Election. It wasn’t to be, of course – although she did resign in December 1990.

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The final section of ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ focuses on Dammers and various accomplices’ efforts to raise public awareness about the banned ANC, with high-profile singles and the famous 1988 Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium, followed by his eventual freeing from jail on 11th February 1990.

Full of juicy details, potent memories of a far more passionate and politically-engaged era of pop music, and gripping, sometimes moving testimonies, this fascinating book outlines a period when youth culture demanded a voice.

‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ is published by Picador.