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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Hiram Bullock’s From All Sides: 30 Years Old Today

hiramAtlantic Records, released 18th November 1986

7/10

Bought: Record & Tape Exchange, Shepherd’s Bush, 1990?

In the mid-’80s, London seemed to be Hiram Bullock’s second home. The late great New York-based guitarist was in David Sanborn’s band at the Wembley Arena in November ’84 (alongside Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick and Steve Gadd, one of my first ever gigs) and also appeared in town regularly with Carla Bley and Gil Evans during this period.

At a Sanborn Hammersmith Odeon gig around ’86/’87, Hiram embarked on a solo, and, with the aid of a wireless unit, promptly jumped off the stage to serenade the stalls. He then vacated the auditorium, soloing all the while, and a few minutes later appeared in the front row of the balcony, still blazing away, illuminated by a single spot. What a dude.

Such shenanigans would earn himself column inches in the jazz magazines and a cult following but sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the great guitarists of the ’80s or any other decade, effortlessly mixing up the blues, funk, bebop and rock.

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By mid-1986, he had enjoyed ten years as a first-call session player (Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Brecker Brothers et al) as well as being part of the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Late Night With Letterman’ bands. He had also recently hooked up with his one-time bass student Jaco Pastorius in the PDB trio (with drummer Kenwood Dennard) and produced Mike Stern’s excellent Upside Downside (guitar-wise, they have a lot in common).

In short, he had paid his dues. It was time for a solo album. Though From All Sides is in many ways a classic ‘journeyman’ record, covering all the bases from funky fusion (‘Window Shoppin’, ‘Cactus’) through R’n’B (‘Funky Broadway’) to smooth Sinatra-influenced balladry (‘Really Wish I Could Love You’), it’s never boring, helped also by some good guest spots – Kenny Kirkland supplies a classy solo to ‘Window Shoppin’ while Sanborn lights up ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’. On the witty ‘state of the world’ blues ‘Mad Dog Daze’, Bullock even comes over a bit like a Johnny Guitar Watson for the ’80s.

The album also benefits greatly from mostly sticking to the same excellent rhythm section – Charley Drayton on drums, Will Lee on bass, Clifford Carter on keys – which gives some consistency from tune to tune. Hiram plays some brilliant solos, even on somewhat cheesy material such as ‘When The Passion Is Played’ and ‘Until I Do’. The production is state-of-the-art for ’86, ie. extremely high on treble and compression but short on low-end.

But From All Sides is still mostly a blast, driven on by Hiram’s irrepressible energy and good vibes, though the followup Give It What U Got was a big improvement – more on that later.

Spanish Keys: Miles Davis & Marcus Miller’s Siesta

miles_davis__marcus_miller-music_from_siesta_aWarner Bros, released November 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988?

9/10

I came across this gem in a big crate of reduced cassettes in the old Our Price shop in Richmond town centre. I was a huge fan of Miles and Marcus’s ’80s work but Siesta had somehow passed me by. It was hardly reviewed anywhere and didn’t get any kind of promotion from Warner Bros despite the fact that it was the official follow-up to Tutu, possibly because it was ‘just’ a movie soundtrack and – even worse – the soundtrack to a really terrible movie.

But it quickly became the soundtrack to my summer of 1988 along with Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis, Prince’s Lovesexy, Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick and Scritti Politti’s Provision. Its Spanish-tinged melancholia, beautiful playing by Miles and stunning bass/keyboard work and production by Miller drew me in immediately.

Miles’s stock was rising high at the beginning of 1987. He was healthy, enjoying critical and commercial success with Tutu and playing to packed concert halls. The question was, how would he follow Tutu? A film soundtrack was definitely not the predictable option. Of course, Davis was no stranger to the world of movie scoring, even though his famous Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) soundtrack was mostly improvised in just two days, and his music for Jack Johnson was similarly spontaneous though subject to detailed post-production work by Teo Macero.

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But when Davis got a call from the producers of Siesta after their request to use Sketches Of Spain on the film’s soundtrack was turned down, he turned to the trusted Miller for help. Miller was also on a roll at the beginning of ’87. Fresh from co-producing and co-composing Tutu, his career was branching out in all directions. He hadn’t done any soundtrack work before and embraced the project, thrilled to work with Miles again and rightly sensing that the movie’s Spanish elements might open up some dramatic musical possibilities. But the clock was ticking, the budget was tight and time was of the essence.

Siesta is a fascinating companion piece to Tutu and it features some of the most arresting and spontaneous Miles trumpet playing from the last decade of his life. Indeed, some Davis-watchers such as critic Paul Tingen reckon it’s the pinnacle of Miller and Miles’s ’80s collaborations. Miles sounds fit and strong, investing the material with both power and pathos, consistently providing a sound that someone once described as ‘a little boy looking for his mummy’.

Apparently when Miller played the elegiac ‘Los Feliz‘ to an assembled cast and crew, several people broke down in tears. Miles solos at length with glorious open horn on several tracks. The dramatic, flamenco-tinged ‘Conchita‘ was used by American ice skater Nancy Kerrigan for her 1992 Olympic routine – she got bronze.

The ghost of Sketches of Spain/Miles Ahead arranger Gil Evans looms large and the album is dedicated to him, ‘The Master’. One can only imagine how ‘Los Feliz’, ‘Siesta’ or ‘Lost In Madrid‘ might have sounded with Evans’ full orchestral backing and arranging, but Miller and main collaborator Jason Miles consistently find just the right musical ingredients with gorgeous piano voicings, subtle synths, fretless bass and occasional guest appearances from the likes of guitarists Earl Klugh and John Scofield, drummer Omar Hakim and flautist James Walker.

As George Cole pointed out in his great book ‘The Last Miles‘, only Michel Legrand, Gil Evans and Miller’s names have shared a Miles Davis album cover, and that really proves how highly Miles rated Miller’s efforts. According to Miller, there is much more Siesta music residing in the Warner Bros vaults – here’s hoping the album gets the ‘Special Edition’ treatment soon.