Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies. But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.

Madonna: Like A Prayer 30 Years On

Here it is: Madonna’s artistic breakthrough, the first album of hers that was really geared to the CD-buying audience, and a fresh start after the distinctly dodgy years of 1987 and 1988.

Like A Prayer (weird title: didn’t someone in the Warner Bros. marketing department say, ‘Hey, it’s a bit similar to Like A Virgin‘?) was released 30 years ago this week. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned six hit singles and has sold around 15 million copies to date.

It was a revelation on a few levels – Madonna’s singing voice had more range and richness. Her lyrics were getting personal. There were two songs about her marriage to Sean Penn, and three zoning in on family relationships. She co-wrote and co-produced all the songs; by all accounts she knew exactly what she wanted and was present at all the tracking sessions, finding ever new ways of inspiring the performances she was after (see below).

She hooked up with co-producer/co-songwriter Pat Leonard to great effect. It was a classic double act – she provided melodies, street smarts and lyrics, he provided the classically-trained piano and arrangement skills. The result was her Sgt Pepper’s, a varied, ambitious, major work.

But how does Like A Prayer stack up these days? Here’s a track-by-track rundown of arguably Madonna’s greatest album.

‘Like A Prayer’: The lead-off single, a US and UK #1, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It was also highly controversial in its allusions to oral sex and an apparent conflation between religious/sexual ecstasy, not to mention the envelope-pushing video.

‘Express Yourself’: Great feminist party pop/funk tune co-written with Stephen Bray, inspired by Sly And The Family Stone and anchored by JR Robinson’s crisp grooving. Shep Pettibone’s single remix subsequently usurped the album version. David Fincher’s video cost a reported $5 million.

‘Love Song’: This duet with Prince was a curious meeting of pop giants, musically in the Lovesexy/Batman mould but lacking a great hook, though apparently they did initially write it eye to eye, Prince programming drums and Madonna donning a synth. Tapes were then worked on individually and sent back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. Whilst interesting, it’s nearer to a Prince B-side than something really memorable.

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A coruscating portrait of her marriage breakup to Sean Penn, made even more poignant by its sprightly Scritti-style pop. Bassist Guy Pratt was the recipient of Madonna’s unique production style on this track. ‘What did you think of that?’ she asked him after one take. ‘Um… I think it was OK…’ was his response. ‘Did it make your d*ck hard?’ Madonna shot back!

‘Promise To Try’: A powerful ballad, featuring an uncharacteristically emotional vocal. According to Madonna, it was written completely spontaneously: ‘He (Leonard) just sat down and started playing, and I started singing.’

‘Cherish’: More Scritti-inspired pop fun, all major chords and twinkling synths, looking at happier times with Sean. Jeff Porcaro’s trademark shuffle is his one and only drumming appearance on the album.

‘Dear Jessie’: An inspired take on late-’60s psychedelia, almost like a children’s lullaby. A very cool, unexpected track.

‘Oh Father’: A gorgeous ballad in 6/4 with music by Leonard and lyrics by Madonna, written in a tiny rehearsal studio in the garment district of New York when Madonna was in ‘a very, very dark place’ during her tenure in the David Mamet play ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Madonna: ‘”Oh Father” is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all the authority figures in my life’. The song’s intro alone can put a big lump in this writer’s throat. Madonna apparently coaxed the band through the song, telling bassist Pratt and drummer Jonathan Moffett in no uncertain terms where not to play. Apart from string section and guitar overdubs, they got it on the second full take, including Madonna’s live vocal. During the sessions, Moffett also asked her when he should come in. ‘You come in when I do this’, she replied, lifting up her blouse!

‘Keep It Together’: Another Stephen Bray co-write, this Go-Go-inspired ode to family togetherness, featuring some brilliant Randy Jackson bass, became a mainstay of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. If you play it loud you can also really hear the superb backing vocals of her regular live duo Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.

‘Pray For Spanish Eyes’: The point where Like A Prayer starts to run out of steam. A corny, soft-rock version compendium of Spanish clichés, complete with castanets and weary acoustic guitar, and a weirdly unmemorable melody.

‘Act Of Contrition’: And here’s the other stinker. Madonna free-associates awkwardly over a reversed version of the title track, with Prince’s backwards guitar track also ladled on to no great consequence.

Further reading: ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo

‘My Bass And Other Animals’ by Guy Pratt

Aces Of Bass in Early-’80s Britpop

mark_king_1988_tel_aviv_israelWatching the superb reruns of ‘Top Of The Pops’ recently, it’s apparent how many great bass players stormed the UK charts during the early/mid-’80s.

Everywhere you looked, there were hip, young four-stringers with good haircuts and some nifty licks (or ‘kids with a riff’, as Robert Palmer called them).

Though very much under the twin influences of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Jaco Pastorius, a whole host of ’80s players managed to forge some truly original sounds while clearly utilising the feels and techniques of both American bassists.

Here’s a smattering of great British players of the period (more from across the pond soon) with a few of their enduring performances. Make sure your subwoofer is turned on…

9. Mick Karn

By Japan’s 1979 Quiet Life album, the man born Andonis Michaelides had become one of the most original fretless players of all time, effortlessly bypassing the Jaco template. His lines were also absolutely integral to the band’s formula and eventual success. This minor hit demonstrates his melodic approach (though somehow he was denied a songwriter credit) and his playing reveals new discoveries even 35 years on.

8. Tony Butler

Shepherds Bush-born Butler brought something very unique to ’80s rock and pop with his band Big Country. He also formed a key rhythm section alongside drummer Mark Brzezicki. Check out his bouncy, almost dub-style rhythmic approach on this beautifully structured bass part.

7. Derek Forbes

The hyperactive Glaswegian just couldn’t stop coming up with classic early-’80s basslines. After his departure from Simple Minds in 1984, he also added some quality low-end work to Propaganda’s touring band.

6. Guy Pratt

The Artful Dodger of the early ’80s bass scene, Guy cut his teeth with Icehouse before breaking out to play with everyone from Madonna to Pink Floyd. This quirky 1984 hit is a compilation of all his licks and tricks – producers seemed to like his ‘more is more’ approach…

5. Graham Edwards

According to Pratt’s great ‘My Bass And Other Animals’ book, Edwards was always going up for the same gigs as him back in the mid-’80s. Now an almost forgotten name, he played some excellent stuff in Go West’s live band and also shone on this underrated gem:

4. Pino Palladino

Pino’s highly melodic fretless style had already graced megahits by Gary Numan and Paul Young by the mid-’80s, but this always seemed like his most intense, distinctive groove, with more than a hint of Bernie Worrell/Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ about it.

3. Mark King

Mr King has to be in this list. Though best known now for his formidable slap technique, his crisp, fluid fingerstyle lines were just as distinctive, not least this Eastern-tinged salvo which really sums up the spirit of 1982 (though one wonders if he’d like another go at the vocal…).

2. Colin Moulding

The XTC man’s flowing, melodic style showed that he was a worthy heir to Paul McCartney. No matter how ‘standard’ the chord changes, you could rely on Moulding to come up with something memorable.

1. John Taylor

Like or loathe Duran Duran (I have to say I was usually of the latter persuasion), Taylor certainly came up with some memorable if somewhat samey grooves (as gleefully parodied by Mr Pratt), finding a pleasingly-understated style on this minor classic.

Any more for any more?