Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.

Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).

She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier.

Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.

Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.

There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.

Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…

Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).

PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.

As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.

‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.

Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).

The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).

Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).

She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.

Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction 30 Years On

Geffen Records, released 21st July 1987

Approximate worldwide sales: 30 million

Singles released: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ (US #7, UK #24)
‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (US #1, UK #6)
‘Paradise City’ (US #5, UK #6)
‘Nightrain’ (US #93, UK #17)

W. Axl Rose (vocals/co-writer): ‘This record’s gonna sound like a showcase. I sing in five or six different voices, so not one song’s quite like another, even if they’re all hard rock. Sometimes six lines (of lyrics) take two years. It just has to say exactly what I mean…’

Slash (guitar/co-writer): ‘We can sound like AC/DC, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Aerosmith. We can sound like what’s-his-name, that f***in’ idiot that plays guitar real fast… Al Di Meola…’

1987 was the year rock and metal made a comeback big-time. But Appetite doesn’t really sound like an ’80s album at all. It’s totally different to what Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Def Leppard offered in the same era, but not so different from Aerosmith, early Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols or The Stones. It’s funky hard-rock rather than metal, with the occasional punky moment, and still sounds superb today.

W. Axl Rose (born William Bailey) was and is one of the all-time great rock frontmen. His vocals stand out: he unleashes the growling, banshee-screeching and brooding baritone, sometimes all in the space of one song.

Then there are the stage moves: the serpentine shuffle, ‘revolving stomp’, the pogo-ing, and the androgynous looks and gift for winding audiences up didn’t hurt either.

Guns were surely the ultimate ’80s Hollywood street band, seriously dangerous both to themselves and others. Signed to Geffen Records in March 1986, there was subsequently a lot of discontent at the label when it dawned on them just what they’d taken on.

One A&R man said: ‘They were having sex with porn stars, openly using hard drugs. Once they arrived at the Geffen office, late for a meeting, with a naked girl wrapped in a shower curtain. There was a real belief at the label that Axl was simply not going to make it out alive. I remember someone at Geffen saying, “We must record everything they do – rehearsals, soundchecks, concerts – because this band is going to be incredibly popular and incredibly short-lived. One of them is going to OD before it’s all over…”’.

Appetite producer Mike Clink (installed after aborted sessions with Paul Stanley of KISS and Sex Pistols engineer Bill Price) was nicknamed ‘That Was It!’ Clink: he preferred first takes if possible, with the band mostly playing live in the studio.

He captures the ferocity of the band, mostly keeping to a fairly basic format: Izzy Stradlin’s guitar panned hard left, Slash panned hard right, Steven Adler’s snare drum of doom (though Geffen apparently wanted to use a session player for the album) and Duff McKagan’s bass in the middle. Appetite was also pretty much the last major rock album mastered for vinyl.

They had built a formidable live following on the West Coast but Guns’ London Marquee shows of the 18th, 22nd and 28th June 1987 were their European debuts. They had to work. The pressure was on. The first show mostly sucked, with plastic beer glasses and snot raining down on the band, but the second and third gigs were apparently much better.

After Appetite‘s release on 21st July, nothing much happened in the States. Radio pretty much ignored it. MTV didn’t have a video to show. The New York writers thought they were just another hair-metal band from Hollywood.

There was a better reception in England. Kerrang! magazine loved it: ‘Rock is being thrust back into the hands of the real raunch rebels’. (Within a few years, Axl would be berating Kerrang! onstage…)

‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (based on Slash’s famous opening riff that was apparently just a ‘joke’ warm-up guitar pattern) pushed the album up to #64 in November 1987. Incredibly, Appetite didn’t hit the #1 spot in the US album chart until 23 July 1988 when Guns were on tour supporting Aerosmith – almost a year to the day after its release.

On 2 August 1988, Axl played live shows in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. He was a mega-star, the album was a smash, but he had mixed emotions about returning to the belly of the beast.

‘Don’t look up to him’, one of Bill Bailey’s old Jefferson High School teachers apparently said to some kids watching ‘Sweet Child’ on MTV. ‘He didn’t do well here…’

Further reading: ‘Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns N’ Roses’ by Stephen Davis