Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’. Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’. Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too!

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!). The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans. Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars. Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.

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1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

David Bowie: The Serious Moonlight Tour 35 Years On

David Bowie, Milton Keynes Bowl, 3rd July 1983. Photo by Denis O’Regan

The current London heatwave has sent me back to the summer of 1983 when it seemed like the sun shone every day and the radio was set to ‘fun’, blurting Men At Work, Thompson Twins, Kid Creole, KC and the Sunshine Band, Dexys Midnight Runners and Culture Club.

But Bowiemania trumped them all. In July ’83, all my parents’ friends were dancing to Let’s Dance and David’s Serious (or should that be Sirius?) Moonlight Tour was the hottest ticket in town.

Apologies to Milton Keynes natives, but Londoners of a certain generation will probably always suppress a titter at the mention of the new town’s name (The Style Council didn’t help with their satirical 1984 single).

Maybe Bowie tittered a bit too when three Milton Keynes Bowl dates (1st/2nd/3rd July 1983) were swiftly added to the tour due to unprecedented demand in the London area (he had already done a night at Wembley Arena and a charity show at the Hammersmith Odeon). But the gigs were a huge success, and Denis O’Regan’s photo marking the occasion is surely one of the great ’80s music documents.

According to O’Regan, who had unparalleled access to Bowie and his entourage throughout the world tour, David had never been happier: ‘He talked about it being his Phil Collins period but this was heavily in retrospect. At the time, I know he loved it. It was the happiest and most successful he’d ever been’, O’Regan recently told MOJO magazine. Bowie was also making a bit of money at last, freed from dodgy record and management deals.

But he wouldn’t have been the great artist he was without injecting some spikiness into even his most ‘up’ periods: see the ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘China Girl’ videos, ‘Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence’ and also the below interview, where he takes MTV to task for not playing more black artists.

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.

David Bowie Stars In Alan Clarke’s ‘Baal’ (1982)

The films of Alan Clarke generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file. Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shone a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.

Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work made between 1978 and 1989 – including David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. For some reason, ‘Baal’ was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances, a serious oversight.

Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (cosy Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen.

According to producer Louis Marks, Bowie jumped at the chance to portray the ultimate street punk, and was already a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly completely undemanding, modest and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.

Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’ in ‘Baal’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic alienating Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence. He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent ‘Baal EP’, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.

‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing about Bowie’s performance, but their comments make for fairly amusing reading these days.

It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after ‘Baal’ was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would dare take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.

Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly

In Defence of David Bowie’s ‘Tonight’

The general critical consensus is that Tonight represents the nadir of David Bowie’s career, the only true stinker in his discography. It’s been described as a quickie cash-in on the Let’s Dance formula, a concession to his new ‘Phil Collins’ audience, a charity album for Iggy Pop. Only three years after its release, Bowie himself was virtually disowning it.

But it’s a fascinating, occasionally superb collection by arguably the greatest album artist in rock history. David tries out a lot of styles and gets away with most of them. And it could have been a lot worse. So I’m putting it squarely alongside Heathen, Black Tie White Noise, David Bowie, both the Tin Machine studio albums, hours… and several others in the second tier of DB albums.

In the summer of 1984, Uncle David was competing with the shiny British New Pop acts of the era – Duran, Wham!, Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Frankie, Bananarama – and to some extent beating them at their own game: Tonight went straight in at number one on the UK album chart on its release. But writer Nicholas Pegg made an interesting point about its sound in his ‘Complete David Bowie’: David was apparently more taken with the ‘straight’, poppier artists of the era than edgier acts such as Bronski Beat, The Smiths, The Cure, Marc Almond etc etc.

Tonight took five weeks to record, two weeks longer than Let’s Dance. It was tracked in Quebec, Canada during May 1984, only a few months after the end of the ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour. Lenny Pickett’s Borneo Horns were retained from the live dates and there were some holdovers from the Let’s Dance sessions: Omar Hakim on drums, Carmine Rojas on bass, Sammy Figueroa on percussion. But Nile Rodgers wasn’t asked back to co-produce (it’s oft forgotten that David was also a great producer). It was a decision which apparently baffled and disappointed Rodgers.

Instead, ex-Heatwave bassist Derek Bramble was brought in on the strength of his work with Lynx, David Grant and Jaki Graham. He probably hoped he would be the new Nile, but it wasn’t to be. He played some great bass, guitar and synths on the basic tracks but was given the boot only a few weeks into the project. Police/XTC/Peter Gabriel/Genesis man Hugh Padgham – initially only employed as the engineer – was asked to finish off the album as co-producer.

Hugh has since expressed dismay at the choice of songs, saying that a few new Iggy/Bowie compositions were left unfinished (perhaps later used for Blah-Blah-Blah) because Bowie ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to finish them. It’s hard to disagree – if ‘God Only Knows’, the title track and ‘I Keep Forgettin’ had been replaced by some new tunes, Tonight could have been a corker.

But it ain’t bad. And the critics all pretty much loved it at the time. It may have been a huge shock if you were brought up on Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, but I came in around Scary Monsters. It seemed a natural progression. Mick Haggerty’s sleeve design splits opinion too – it’s either a witty Gilbert & George pastiche or a garish bit of mid-’80s tastelessness. Judge for yourself. Oh, and get the 1990 Rykodisc version of Tonight if you can find it rather than the 1999 EMI remaster. Here’s a quick track-by-track rundown.

1. ‘Loving The Alien’

Read my full analysis of the song here.

2. ‘Don’t Look Down’

Interesting reggaefied cover of a track from Iggy’s album New Values. Featuring a sublime David vocal, some excellent Bramble bass and a gorgeous horn/synth arrangement embedded in the mix, reminiscent of Gil Evans’ soundworld. Play loud.

3. ‘God Only Knows’

A great David vocal though very curious MOR arrangement of this Brian Wilson composition. Cavernous drums, soaring strings and acoustic guitar high in the mix. Fascinating though only really defensible if viewed as a kind of Scott Walker homage.

4. ‘Tonight’

Shorn of the shock heroin-overdose intro heard on the original which came from Iggy’s Lust For Life album. But it’s hard to defend this rushed, underwhelming filler which flopped as Bowie’s 1984 Christmas single. Even Omar sounds out-of-sorts on this. But let’s cut them some slack – David helped save Tina’s career. According to her, David dragged the bigwigs of Capitol Records out to see her perform live in New York against their wishes, prompting them to re-sign her.

5. ‘Neighbourhood Threat’

This perky techno-rocker, also originally from Lust For Life, features a fine vocal from David in ‘cyborg’ mode and brilliant drumming from Omar. It works very well but sounds unlike anything else on Tonight. Bowie dismissed it in 1987, saying ‘it wasn’t the right band to do that song. It sounded so tight and compromised.’

6. ‘Blue Jean’

A brief, harmless bit of ‘sexist rock’n’roll’ in Bowie’s words, a portrait of a woman he fancied in a magazine ad. Padgham works his magic on Omar’s drums, there’s some window-shaking sax from Lenny Pickett and Bowie borrows Iggy’s baritone. The first single from the album, it reached UK #6 and US #8 and featured a watchable but very silly long-form video directed by Julien Temple, shown in UK cinemas as support feature to ‘A Company Of Wolves’.

7. ‘Tumble And Twirl’

Another album highlight, co-written by David and Iggy, it’s an effective slice of tropical swing/funk with Bramble’s bass in Stanley Clarke mode, Guy St Onge’s cheery marimba, some sparkling 12-string guitar from Alomar and funny ‘muzak’ bridge with soothing backing vocals. Also some amusing lyrics inspired by Iggy and David’s vacation in Java.

8. ‘I Keep Forgettin’’

The album’s low point, where its ‘happy’, summery, positive feel comes truly unstuck. Electric drums fizz unpleasantly, David hams it up to little effect and the arrangements are more Pebble Mill than Muscle Shoals.

9. ‘Dancing With The Big Boys’

Another Iggy/Bowie co-write, the album closes with a tasty piece of one-chord, horn-based techno-rock flash. A funny lyric that seems to be about American military might: ‘Your family is a football team’. Iggy is very audible on vocals. Arthur Baker also put together an ear-bleeding 12” remix which is worth a listen.

Further reading: ‘Strange Fascination’ by David Buckley

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka