Keyboard player Tony Hymas had one of the weirder music careers of the 1980s.
He began the decade helping to make There And Back one of Jeff Beck’s best albums, then popped up in a supergroup called PHD with singer Jim Diamond and drummer Simon Phillips, getting a classic UK one-hit wonder ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ (#2 in 1982!), then played on/wrote arguably the best track from Beck’s pretty poor 1985 album Flash, and then…not a lot for a while.
But he was absolutely vital in Beck’s career comeback courtesy of Guitar Shop, released in October 1989. You might even call it Beck’s last great album, and arguably Bozzio’s too.
They recorded at Jimmy Page’s residential Sol Studios in leafy Cookham, Surrey (Beck later reported: ‘When we finished the album, I left me bike in his shed, so he got a bicycle out of it too…’!). The album ended up taking eight months to write and record because Hymas brought a chess board with him.
Beck took genres that he’d touched upon throughout his career – blues, reggae, rockabilly, metal, funk, fusion – and used them as a jumping-off points, working up material with Hymas and Bozzio in the studio.
And it’s very memorable material. On the title track Beck fondly mocks the gear obsession of guitar magazines, and goes through a range of tones and effects in the process, but…it all just sounds like Jeff. A Strat or Telecaster, distortion/delay pedals, and that’s it. It’s all in his fingers.
On the masterpiece that is ‘Where Were You’, he plays the lion’s share of the melody (reportedly very influenced by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir AKA Les Voix Bulgares) with harmonics and very judicious use of the whammy bar, bending in and out of notes with just the right amount of wrist tension.
Bozzio plays a blinder – mostly reining in his formidable technique at the expense of groove and presence – but unleashes some seriously quick double-bass playing on ‘Sling Shot’. Thrash drummers beware. And there’s THAT amazing fill at the end.
Hymas is a great accompanist – you hardly miss real bass and only very occasionally yearn for another instrumental foil for Beck. A couple of tracks on the album became live staples too, played in concert to this day – ‘Big Block’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Behind The Veil’.
Guitar Shop did OK in the States, making #49, but weirdly didn’t chart in the UK. But it did win a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy award in 1990. Their Hammersmith gig of 29 July that year was one of the loudest ever heard at the venue. Beck talked up the possibility of a second album and tour but it never happened. They did reform for Jeff’s birthday party at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 though. And El Becko got on ‘Rapido’:
The hype for ‘Moonage Daydream’ is presenting it as a very different kind of David Bowie documentary (and music doc in general), and in some ways that’s true – it’s certainly ‘non-linear’ (which creates a few problems, as we’ll see later) and not yet another retelling of the Bowie story replete with talking heads (David alone ‘narrates’ the movie).
It’s undoubtedly best seen in the cinema, with its striking sound collages, surreal jump cuts and sometimes startling imagery taken from many sources, cult movies (including Canadian curio ‘Universe’, apparently also an influence on Kubrick and Lynch) to Hollywood’s golden age.
Director Brett Morgen is best known for his Kurt Cobain and Rolling Stones documentaries (neither of which your correspondent has seen), and apparently he got complete family approval to sift through countless hours of Bowie’s personal archive – though reportedly David was less than convinced by Morgen’s credentials/pitch when they met in 2007.
But Morgen has certainly got hold of some coups: there’s madly exciting, previously unseen DA Pennebaker footage from the Earls Court and Hammersmith Odeon Ziggy gigs in 1973, including Jeff Beck’s guest spot on ‘Jean Genie/Love Me Do’ – what a thrill to see him trading licks with Mick Ronson.
There’s also some terrific David Hemmings-directed 35mm Earls Court footage from 1978, and you’ll be doing well if you don’t get a lump in the throat during ‘Heroes’ (when is the complete footage finally going to get a proper release?). Then there are tantalising glimpses of Bowie’s many paintings and some intriguing footage from his mid-1970s video experiments. Morgen also borrows large sections of Serious Moonlight tour curio ‘Ricochet’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’.
But the film really comes into its own with its sound design. Tony Visconti has donated audio stems from Bowie’s studio masters so there are interesting reversions of material like ‘Ashes To Ashes’, ‘DJ’ and ‘Absolute Beginners’. I almost cheered when Dennis Davis’s ‘Sound And Vision’ groove exploded into action and it’s a delight hearing Rob Sabino’s solo’d piano from ‘Modern Love’.
But there are issues with ‘Moonage Daydream’. The frenetic editing sometimes leads to jarring moments. If you were being kind you’d say it was ‘non-linear’, if you weren’t you might say it was completely random. Again, not a problem in itself, given Bowie’s use of cut-up techniques and mistrust of linear narratives by the mid-1990s.
Then there are the obvious omissions/Morgen’s perceived irrelevances. Tin Machine isn’t mentioned by name, nor are there any images of the band. In fact the period of 1989-2005 is scarcely covered, save for some interesting outtakes from Samuel Bayers’ videos from that time, some footage from Bowie’s 50th birthday concert and a section on his marriage to Iman.
There is a fairly lengthy exploration of his family background, suburban upbringing and half-brother Terry Burns, though very little about his early Mod days and art-school contemporaries. And Bowie purists may be troubled (well, I was!) by the use of the Pet Shop Boys remix of ‘Hallo Spaceboy’ rather than the original to kick off the film.
Of course the question is, if you’re a big Bowie fan – and I presume you are if you’ve read this far – do you need to see ‘Moonage Daydream’? I’d say a qualified ‘yes’… But ultimately it’s still like a very expensive-looking YouTube greatest hits, with many bits of familiar interview footage and a lot of previously seen live stuff. But even that is a thrill to see on the big screen with good sound. Is the film pretentious? Of course, but that was never a criticism for Bowie. He even described his collaborations with Brian Eno as ‘the new school of pretension’…
In her book ‘Hooked’, legendary movie critic Pauline Kael said that the only fresh element in American films of the 1980s may have been what comedians (Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Murray et al) brought to them.
Could we say the same about British films of the 1980s? Looking at ‘Supergrass’, ‘Eat The Rich’, ‘Morons From Outer Space’ and, er, Cannon & Ball’s ‘The Boys In Blue’, it would seem not. A shame, and strange in a way that the ‘Comic Strip’ generation couldn’t quite make the transition to the big screen.
But Lenny Henry – best known as a British TV star in the 1980s – made a damn good fist at the stand-up concert movie with ‘Lenny: Live And Unleashed’, mostly shot at London’s Hackney Empire, taking on the Americans (Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw’, Richard Pryor’s ‘Live On The Sunset Strip’ etc.) at their own game, complete with a posh credit sequence featuring brilliant impressions of Martin, Murphy and Pryor plus a not-very-funny skit with Robbie Coltrane as the most annoying taxi driver in the world (Why didn’t Lenny fit in another impression there? Couldn’t he have dusted off a De Niro?).
His flashes of surrealism evoke Alexei Sayle and Martin and also it’s clear that by 1989 Lenny had developed into a superb physical actor. He addresses political and racial topics head-on, beginning one skit with the simple statement: ‘We need to see more Black faces on British TV.’
There’s a great celebration of Black music (evidenced also in his appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs just before this was filmed) with homages to Prince and Bobby McFerrin, a good bit on Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ tour, and the striking ‘Fred Dread’ section featuring Dennis Bovell’s natty dub soundtrack.
Other character favourites Delbert Wilkins, Deakus and the Teddy Pendergrass-lampooning Theophilus P Wildebeeste (you couldn’t do that sketch these days…) get a lot of stage time – superb portraits, with heart and soul. A new character, ageing blues singer Hound Dog Smith, gets a workout too, featuring an amusing guest spot from Jeff Beck (who also turned up in a few Comic Strip films around this time).
The box-office performance of ‘Lenny: Live And Unleashed’ is hard to uncover but does it have enough appeal to a non-British audience? Judge for yourself (and I must check out Henry’s next foray into the movie world, 1991’s ‘True Identity’, at some point…)…
Is there some sort of secret visual formula for successful albums, a design format that almost forces people to part with their moolah, encouraging buyers of all generations, all social demographics?
Can a terrible album have brilliant artwork? Can a brilliant album have terrible artwork (how about the Love And Money entry below? Ed…)?
So many questions, so little time. Someone somewhere must have researched which colours and designs have proved the most successful in terms of sales. But hell, it’s hard to believe that any of the below would have been cooked up in any kind of corporate brainstorming or focus-group session.
Here’s a motley selection of the 1980s’ most ill-advised album covers, in no particular order. Some are crushingly sexist, some boring, some ugly, some shocking, some just plain weird. And OK, a few are so bad they’re almost good…
18. Wishbone Ash: Raw To The Bone (1985)
17. Ratt: Out Of The Cellar (1984)
16. Poison: Open Up And Say…Ahh! (1984)
15. Eurythmics: Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) (1983)
14. Paul McCartney: McCartney II (1980)
13. Millie Jackson: Back To The S**t! (1985)
12. The Go-Betweens: 16 Lovers Lane (1988)
11. Ted Nugent: Scream Dream (1980)
10. Everything But The Girl: Eden (1984)
9. Loverboy: Get Lucky (1981)
8. OMD: Architecture & Morality (1981)
7. Snatch: If The Party’s In Your Mouth, We’re Comin’ (1985)
6. Jeff Beck: There And Back (1980)
5. Scorpions: Animal Magnetism (1980)
4. David Hasselhoff: Night Rocker (1985)
3. Love And Money: Strange Kind Of Love (1988)
2. The The: Infected (1985)
1. Dexys Midnight Runners: Don’t Stand Me Down (1985)
Can’t see your worst album cover of the ’80s? If so, pile in below…
Legendary producer/engineer Glyn Johns has worked with many of the biggies (The Beatles, Led Zep, The Stones, The Who), but arguably his most important task was putting together the Action for Research into Multiple Sclerosis (ARMS) concerts on Ronnie Lane’s behalf.
For the London iteration – taking place at the Royal Albert Hall on 20th September 1983 – Johns opened his address book and assembled a tremendous lineup of Brit greats: Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Steve Winwood, John Paul Jones, Andy Fairweather-Low, Bill Wyman, Kenney Jones, Charlie Watts.
The whole concert is worth watching and occasionally superb (check out Clapton’s versions of ‘Lay Down Sally’ and ‘Cocaine’), but Beck’s set is particularly fascinating. It was three years since his (superb) last studio album There And Backand he hadn’t played a major gig for almost that long.
A clearly under-rehearsed band did their best with the RAH’s famously dodgy ‘rock’ sound (despite Beck’s gorgeous stereo delay, if you’re listening on headphones/speakers), not helped by drummer Simon Phillips being set up about 20 yards behind the rest of the group!
But it’s a great success, mainly through the musicians’ sheer force of will and Beck’s outrageous playing (check out his solo on ‘Led Boots’). The Tony Hymas/Fernando Sanders/Phillips rhythm section is terrific, and there’s even a funny version of ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ featuring Beck’s reluctant vocals alongside Winwood and Fairthweather-Low.
Just over 20 years later, on 24th June 2004, Beck was back at the Albert Hall for his 60th birthday gig, and I had a good seat. His live outings were much more common at this point; recently he’d played Hyde Park and also celebrated 40 years in the music biz at the Royal Festival Hall with John McLaughlin and The White Stripes.
But this concert was particularly notable for featuring enigmatic keyboard genius Jan Hammer, one-time Mahavishnu member and chief collaborator with Beck on Wired and There And Back. Making up the numbers were the phenomenal Mondesir brothers: Mike on bass, Mark on drums.
Beck hardly seemed to have aged. Wearing black jeans and black vest, he stalked the stage like a born showman, exchanging grins and winks with Hammer, occasionally punching the air to emphasise a musical flourish.
However, things started a little uncertainly; ‘Freeway Jam’ and ‘Star Cycle seemed leaden. But by the time Beck roared into ‘Big Block’, the energy level of the band had gone up two or three notches.
Old favourites ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Blue Wind’ seemed to mean little to the Albert Hall audience but the long-hairs reacted more positively to Beck’s most recent work from albums like You Had It Coming and Who Else?.
There were some unintentionally amusing Tap-esque moments too, like the big-screen footage of Jeff’s souped-up hot rods during ‘Big Block’ and the cloud of dry ice which almost engulfed him during ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’.
For the encore, Ronnie Wood sauntered on to play a charmingly ramshackle version of The Meters’ ‘Cissy Strut’. Two old rockers from Surrey playing a funky New Orleans anthem? That’s the majesty of fusion!
So, while they’re still around, let’s cherish El Becko and the best of British. (And I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve featured Jeff – one of my all-time musical heroes – on this website. Better late than never.)
A triumph of solo guitar, and the only acoustic solo in this list, Bireli stunned the cognoscenti with this track from his 1988 Steve Khan-produced album Foreign Affairs.
36. Bros: ‘Chocolate Box’ (Guitarist: Paul Gendler)
Yes, Bros… Gendler had been a fully-paid-up member of New Romantic nearly-men Modern Romance before becoming an in-demand player on the UK scene, and he enlivened this hit with a raunchy, nimble classic.
35. REO Speedwagon: ‘Keep On Loving You’ (Guitarist: Garry Richrath)
Unreconstructed, huge-toned, double-tracked solo which revels in being almost out-of-tune throughout. Its sheer, brilliant in-your-faceness always comes as somewhat of a shock.
34. George Benson: ‘Off Broadway’
Slick, tasty solo from a truly great player, exploding out of the speakers from about 3:13 below. The tune is of course a Rod Temperton-penned, post-disco beauty from Give Me The Night.
33. Killing Joke: ‘Love Like Blood’ (Guitarist: Geordie)
This is ‘just’ a melody, but it’s a great melody, escalating in volume and intensity.
32. Phil Upchurch: ‘Song For Lenny’ (Guitarists: Phil Upchurch/Lenny Breau)
A couple of superb solos from a great, totally forgotten 1984 Upchurch solo album Companions. Breau stuns with his array of false harmonics and jazzy runs, while Upchurch brings the blues feeling.
31. Frank Zappa: ‘Alien Orifice’
It’s nice to hear Frank blowing over a few changes rather than his usual one or two-chord vamps. And he really gets a nice ‘flowing’ thing going here, right in the middle of one of his densest compositions. Starts at around 1:32:
30. Cameo: ‘A Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Fred Wells)
From the classic album Single Life, this solo goes way over and beyond the call of duty for an ’80s soul ballad. But it’s mainly included for its brilliant final flourish, spitting notes out like John McLaughlin. Who is Fred Wells and where is he now?
29. Rush: ‘YYZ’ (Guitarist: Alex Lifeson)
Hard to do without this flowing, creamy, Strat-toned classic on one of the great rock instrumentals of all time (though inexplicably it lost out to The Police’s ‘Behind My Camel’ at the Grammies…).
28. Kevin Eubanks: ‘That’s What Friends Are For’
A real hidden gem from the almost impossible-to-find Face To Face album, Eubanks lays down a short but beautifully-structured solo on a cool cover version, from about 2:45 below.
27. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’
Good fun and totally unpredictable. Also notable for its lovely Spanish-style flurry of triplets in its last two bars.
26. Starship: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (Guitarist: Corrado Rustici)
Cheesy? Maybe a bit, but who cares when it’s this well-structured and performed. Add a great tone, nice string-bending and a lovely phrase at the end and you’ve got a classic. Starts at 2:58:
25. Queen: The Invisible Man (Brian May)
May played a lot of great solos in the late 1980s, mostly on other people’s records (Holly Johnson, Fuzzbox, Living In A Box etc) but this one was just a kind of ‘play as many notes as possible in eight bars’ solo, and it’s a killer. From about 2:30 below:
24. Lee Ritenour: ‘Mr Briefcase’
Rit found the sweet spot on his Ibanez many times in the early ’80s, no more so than on this single that kicked off the classic Rit album. The solo also sounds double-tracked too, no mean feat considering the crazy bunch of 32nd notes at the end of bar 10.
23. Michael Jackson: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ (Guitarist: David Williams)
Not so much a solo as a suddenly-foregrounded riff, Williams became one of the most in-demand US session players after laying down this classic.
22. Pat Metheny: ‘Yolanda You Learn’
A marvellous, ‘singing’ guitar-synth solo from the First Circle album, rhythmically interesting and reflecting a strong Sonny Rollins influence, also closing with a cool quote from the standard ‘My One And Only Love’.
21. Frank Zappa: ‘Sharleena’ (Guitarist: Dweezil Zappa)
Frank’s son was apparently just 14 years old when he laid down this absurdly fluid cameo, at 2:05 below:
20. Eric Clapton: ‘Bad Love’
Nice to hear Eric pushing himself for once, delivering a striking solo played right at the top of the neck, demonstrating a mastery of string-bending and precise fingering.
19. Sadao Watanabe: ‘Road Song’ (Guitarist: Carlos Rios)
A classic rock/fusion solo, all the more impressive because it’s apparently double-tracked, from the album Maisha. Rios is still one of the most in-demand session players in Los Angeles (and one of the few leftie fusion players…), probably best known for his work with Gino Vannelli, Chick Corea and Lionel Richie.
18. Prince: ‘Batdance’
It’s the unapologetic volume and raucous tone, almost distorting it’s so hot in the mix.
17. David Sanborn: ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Buzz Feiten)
Feiten seems a weirdly unrecognised figure in the guitar fraternity, but he contributed some great stuff to Sanborn’s seminal Voyeur album including this tasty break over a killer Marcus Miller/Steve Gadd groove. There are some lovely moments when Sanborn’s sax cuts in to augment his solo.
16. Paul Simon: ‘Allergies’ (Guitarist: Al Di Meola)
I love hearing ‘jazz’ musicians turning up on ‘pop’ records, and this is a classic of its kind featuring all of Al’s trademark licks in one short, tasty burst. It’s a lot more fun than listening to his solo albums, anyway… Starts at around 2:46.
15. Manhattan Transfer: ‘Twilight Zone’ (Guitarist: Jay Graydon)
At a time when he was getting much more into the production game, Graydon still found time to toss off a double-tracked showstopper on this hit single. All in a day’s work for the session genius who of course unleashed the famous solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’. Speaking of which…
14. Steely Dan: ‘Glamour Profession’ (Guitarist: Steve Khan)
A mini masterpiece of precision and invention. Khan is given his head and takes the classic tune OUT in the last three minutes. When the chord changes, he changes. Stay right through the fade too – he plays some of his best stuff towards the end. Kicks off at 5:30.
13. King Crimson: ‘Elephant Talk’ (Guitarists: Adrian Belew/Robert Fripp)
Two great solos for the price of one on this Discipline opener. Fripp supplies the opening horn-like curio, then Belew adds some fire and a bit of famous elephantosity for good measure.
12. Living Colour: ‘Funny Vibe’ (Guitarist: Vernon Reid)
A classic modern blues solo from a modern master, adding excitement and elan to an already burning piece, helped along by Will Calhoun’s cajoling kit work.
11. Steely Dan: ‘Third World Man’ (Guitarist: Larry Carlton)
Another day, another classic Steely guitar solo, this one recorded in 1977 during the Aja sessions but not unleashed for another three years. Again, double-tracked for lasting power, featuring a superb mastery of tone and melody.
Sadly this is my only female entry in the list (more suggestions please), but it’s a fuzz-toned, anthemic treat, with shades of Santana and McLaughlin. From around 3:04 below:
9. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (Guitarist: Andy Summers)
It’s the random, off-the-cuffness that appeals on this one. Summers sounds a lot more p*ssed off than usual, possibly reeling from yet another Sting jibe.
8. Steve Vai: ‘Call It Sleep’
Just a superb guitar composition from top to tail, but the moment at 1:22 when he stomps on the distortion pedal and rips it up is a great moment of ’80s music.
7. Propaganda: ‘Dream Within A Dream’ (Guitarist: Stephen Lipson)
Lipson modestly provided three or four extremely memorable guitar features during his golden ZTT period (not least Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’), but this one gets extra points for its infinite reverb and a dynamite fuzztone.
6. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (Guitarist: Edwyn Collins)
Just a funny two-fingers-up to the well-made solo, and also a fond homage to Pete Shelley’s famous break on Buzzcock’s ‘Boredom’.
5. Frank Gambale: ‘Credit Reference Blues’
Just wind him and watch him go. It starts slowly, almost wistfully, but then becomes a fire-breathing classic. Still scary after all these years.
4. Dire Straits: ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (Guitarist: Mark Knopfler)
The closing solo is just an oasis of choice phrases and unique tones.
3. Van Halen: ‘One Foot Out The Door’ (Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)
Of course ‘Beat It’ is the industry standard, and possibly the greatest guitar solo of all time, but I’m going for this curio which closes out the oft-forgotten Fair Warning album. He just blows brilliantly over the changes with a gorgeous tone.
2. Jeff Beck: People Get Ready
The second and last solo is the one, a feast of Jeff-isms. A rare good bit from the rather poor Flash album.
1. Stanley Clarke: ‘Stories To Tell’ (Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth)
No chucking out any old solo for our Allan – this is a brief but fully-formed, perfectly structured, wide-interval classic that is easily the best thing about the tune. He seems to get a bit ‘lost’ in the middle, but then regroups for a stunning closing section over the rapid chord changes. Starts at 2:04:
Nigel Planer as Den Dennis, Castle Donington, 16th August 1986
If you were a British teenager in the mid-’80s, ‘The Young Ones’ and ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ were pretty much required viewing.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine that period without them. They fused comedy and music with anarchic zeal and have endured as bona fide TV classics.
Nigel Planer was an integral part of both groundbreaking shows, working alongside Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, Peter Richardson and many more.
He brought the world such classic characters as the perennially-prickly hippy Neil and Den Dennis, heavy metal’s unluckiest guitarist.
Since then, Planer has appeared in countless quality TV productions, written several books and plays and starred in the hit musicals ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Wicked’, ‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Hairspray’.
He’s also worked on several BBC Four music documentaries and is currently revisiting an early interest in songwriting.
I began my chat with Nigel by asking him about his musical influences.
MP: There was a great punky energy about the early days of The Comic Strip troupe, but I’m guessing your own musical tastes weren’t rooted in punk. Did you play in bands before becoming a pro actor?
NP: I was more into psych-folk and new-age jazz stuff. I didn’t so much play in bands but I did make a bubblegum pop record with my brother Roger, and I had a publishing deal for my songs which were sort of sub-Nick Drake, soft, liberal, poetic things.
We all loved your portrayal of Neil in ‘The Young Ones’ (I think I still have ‘Neil’s Book Of The Dead’ somewhere…), but how much of that character was yours and how much of it Ben Elton and Lise Mayer’s?
Well, the original Neil comes from a show I wrote and performed with Peter Richardson and Pete Richens called ‘Rank’. Many of the characters later to appear in Comic Strip films stem from this show. We first did it at the Roundhouse and then on tour with various bands. We were trying to be like Alberto y Los Trios Paranoias or The Fabulous Poodles, if anyone remembers them. We ended up more like a Mike Leigh play with a rock band in it. When we made our double act, Neil came along with us and so he was my character in the ‘Young Ones’ setup. He was mostly my character but Ben and Lise made him more stereotypically hippyish.
Your cover of Traffic’s ‘Hole In My Shoe’ got to number 2 in the charts in July 1984! Any good memories from Neil’s ‘pop’ period?
It was an incredible experience, to be a pop star all of a sudden without having to take the consequences of that decision because I was in character. I learned that I would hate to be a pop star.
Who or what was your inspiration for the brilliant Den, the hapless rhythm guitarist from The Comic Strip’s ‘Bad News Tour’ and ‘More Bad News’?
I’m afraid Den Dennis comes from deep inside my soul…
You famously played the 1986 Monsters Of Rock festival at Castle Donington with the News, how was that? The festival was probably at its peak during that time.
It was our first gig. We were terrified. It looks pretty good in the film – you see all the usual spoof documentary gags, we argue, get ready for the gig, go up the stairs onto the stage. And then in one panning shot you realise it’s real, there are actually 40,000 people there baying for our blood and throwing bottles of urine at us. The compere (Tommy Vance) had to wear a helmet and face guard, but we just walked out there like idiots.
‘Bad News Tour’ famously appeared on British TV long before ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ was released. Have you ever met any of the Tap guys? Are they aware of ‘Bad News Tour’?
I think both ideas were in germination at the same time. Funny how things happen like that. I never met any of them but have a huge admiration.
In Ade’s Comic Strip film ‘Private Enterprise’, you play this great character Derek, a bow-tied, extremely effete A&R man. It’s a brilliant portrayal of a lot of those public school types who got into the music biz in the late-’70s and early-’80s. Was Derek based on anyone you knew?
Not really. I didn’t think of him as a public school type, I just came up with this weird voice. A lot of the time things are just done on instinct and it’s best not to work it out too much. I did feel I knew the kind of person he should be, ie it wasn’t exactly a stretch.
In later Comic Strips, there were cameos and musical contributions from the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush and Lemmy. Any printable memories of working with them?
We used to do this gag where one of us, probably Ade, would turn down volume on his guitar and mime, and out would come the most amazing solo. Then out from behind a speaker would walk Brian May, Jeff Beck or whoever we’d managed to con into doing the solo. Then Ade would stop and shout at the guitar hero: ‘I paid you a fiver to stay behind that speaker, you bastard!’ At The Marquee, we did it not once but twice – after coming out, Brian then turned down volume on his guitar and out walked Jeff. Jimmy Page did the gag with us once too, but I can’t remember where we were playing. Ah, memories… I do remember an early morning filming call in a hotel in Devon on a Comic Strip film. There had been a lot of drinking the night before. I’d gone to bed early, being a professional ‘actor’ you know, but others had stayed up trying to keep up with Lemmy. The next day at 6am, I get down to the lobby for pick-up time – none of the cast are there, not even the runner nor the driver. In fact, the only other person turning up on time for work, with his lines learned, was Lemmy.
You’ve been in the original casts of several very popular West End musicals (‘Charlie And The Chocolate Factory’, ‘Hairspray’, ‘We Will Rock You’) in the last ten years or so – what are the challenges of singing live night after night?
It’s a slog doing eight shows a week on a raked stage. Lots of injuries and physio and the like. The singing is the nice bit. One is also fighting boredom on a grand scale. It’s hard to stay cheerful. But on ‘We Will Rock You’, I remember thinking to myself: ‘Shut the f*** up, you are about to go on in front of 3,000 people and sing a beautiful song with a band of incredible musicians handpicked by Queen and then do about 20 minutes of jokes and make everyone laugh and you’re complaining?’ I’m good at complaining. Ben used to call me Niggle Complainer.
In recent years, you’ve been the go-to voiceover guy for music documentaries on BBC4 – do you enjoy them and are there any more in the pipeline?
None in the pipeline at the moment unfortunately, but they are a really, really good gig. You get to sit for a day listening to all this brilliant music and hear some people talking who maybe meant a lot to you when younger. I particularly enjoyed ‘Blues Britannia’ which I thought was very interesting. The idea that the Brits re-imported the Blues back to America where it was dying.
What are you up to at the moment? A little bird told me you’re working on a music project alongside the acting…
I have a couple of musical projects at the moment. One is a stage musical I have written with Hannah-Jane Fox and Andrew Holdsworth who I met in the ‘We Will Rock You’ days. We’re trying to place it in a theatre now. It’s not usual musical theatre fare. It’s heavy-rock/pop based, a very dark gothic horror story called ‘She Devil’! The other is a psych-folk band called Rainsmoke I have formed with my musician brother Roger and a guy called Chris Wade who is behind the Dodson And Fogg albums. We have one song up on Bandcamp now, and are hoping to finish the album by the new year. Most of the songs are based on all those songs I wrote in the early 1970s when I was a young, green, poet-type guy.
Nigel receiving his Honorary Doctor of Arts degree from Edinburgh Napier University in 2011
It can’t hurt a record label to have a USP, a recognisable visual concept and/or sound.
It has certainly stood Blue Note, Impulse and 4AD in good stead.
When one thinks of ECM, images of fjords, mountains or trees probably come to mind, alongside a certain sonic quality, a kind of rarefied ambience (producer/owner Manfred Eicher’s choice of reverb units are apparently almost as ‘secret’ as Colonel Sanders’ chicken recipe…).
The ECM formula worked for two decades. But then along came Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection in 1989 to throw a spanner in the works.
Though the title is a joke – there are no ‘singles’ on the album – you wish more pop music was as bold as this collection which explores hard rock, early-’60s-style balladry, techno-fusion and even Prince-influenced funk to exciting and sometimes amusing effect.
The shorter tracks start out sounding a bit like Living In A Box jamming with Jeff Beck, before completely changing gear a minute in and turning into dark, introspective mood pieces with Messiaen chords and ethereal fretless bass.
They chuck in the whole kitchen sink, as if desperate to avoid a boring listening experience. The ploy works. And, yes, it cannot be denied – this is the ECM album whose first track is titled ‘There Is A Hot Lady In My Bedroom And I Need A Drink’… It’s Lovesexy meets Ligeti.
The Singles Collection was the third album in a row where Rypdal hooked up with The Chasers, a cracking bass and drums team comprising of Bjorn Kjellemyr and Audun Kleive. The latter is thinking more Manu Katche and Stewart Copeland than Jon Christensen on this album, and the music is much better for it (no disrespect to the excellent Jon).
But a vital ingredient is the addition of keyboardist Allan Dangerfield who contributes three compositions and all manner of weird textures, Synclavier drum/sequencer patterns and unhinged, hysterical Hammond organ solos very much in the Prince style.
‘Sprøtt’ (Norwegian for ‘crazy’) sounds like an outtake from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop album with its chugging rockabilly rhythms and blistering lead guitar.
Luscious noir ballad ‘Mystery Man’ will be familiar to fans of the Michael Mann movie ‘Heat’. If Mann hadn’t bagged it, you can bet David Lynch wouldn’t have been far behind. Maybe Dave can still put the gorgeous, glacial ‘Somehow, Somewhere’ to good use.
Elsewhere, ‘U’n’I’ fuses rockabilly and free-jazz beats with fusion bass, Ligeti chords and Van Halen guitar styles to thrilling effect. ‘Steady’ features some serious funk/rock riffing and another nutty Dangerfield solo. All in all, a striking, fascinating album.
Here’s another selection of choice quotes taken from various 1980s magazines, TV shows, biographies and anthologies that have drifted through my transom in the last few months.
Check out the first instalment here if you missed it.
‘Morrissey’s a precious, miserable bastard. He sings the same song every time he opens his mouth. At least I’ve got two songs: Love Cats and Faith.’
Robert Smith of The Cure, 1989
‘It’s a better product than some others I could mention.’
David Bowie defends the Glass Spider Tour, 1987
‘Back then I thought I’d lost it and I did a bunch of things I was really unhappy with – all in public and on record. But it turned out not to be true. My ability hadn’t deserted me. And it won’t go away. Ever.’
Lou Reed, 1988
‘The gig I have as the drummer in King Crimson is one of the few gigs in rock’n’roll where it’s even remotely possible to play anything in 17/16 and stay in a decent hotel.’
Bill Bruford, 1983
‘When I toured with The Rolling Stones, the audience would come up to me after the show and say, “Man, you’re really good, you ought to record.” How do you think that makes me feel after 25 years in the business?’
Bobby Womack, 1984
‘I find politics ruins everything. Music, films, it gets into everything and f*cks it all up. People need more sense of humour. If I ran for President, I’d give everybody Ecstasy.’
Grace Jones, 1985
‘I’m not the most gifted person in the world. When God handed out throats, I got locked out of the room.’
Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, 1988
‘I’m lazy and I don’t practice guitar and piano because I’ve gotten involved with so many other things in my life and I just had to make a sacrifice. Stephen Sondheim encourages me to start playing the piano again. Maybe I will.’
‘Nile (Rodgers) couldn’t afford to spend much time with me. I was slotted in between two Madonna singles! She kept coming in, saying “How’s it going with Nile? When’s he gonna be free?” I said, “He ain’t gonna be free until I’m finished! Piss off!”’
Jeff Beck, 1989
‘I’ve never really understood Madonna’s popularity. But I’ve talked to my brothers and they all want to sleep with her, so she must have something.’
Nick Kamen, 1987
‘They ask you about being a Woman In Rock. The more you think about, the more you have to prove that you’re a Woman In Rock. But if you’re honest, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. That’s the way we work.’
Wendy Melvoin, 1989
‘In Japan, someone told me I was playing punk saxophone. I said, “Call me what you want, just pay me”.’
George Adams, 1985
‘In the past, we’d bump into other musicians and it would be, “Oh, yes, haven’t I heard of you lot? Aren’t you the bass player that does that stuff with your thumb?” But once you’ve knocked them off the number 1 spot in Germany, they’re ringing you up in your hotel and saying, “Hey, howyadoin’? We must get together…”‘
Mark King of Level 42, 1987
‘We played London, we played Ronnie Scott’s, and I noticed that there were a lot punk-rock kids in the audience. After we finished playing, we had to go to the disco and sign autographs, because “Ping Pong”, the thing we made about 30 years ago, is a big hit over there.’
Art Blakey, 1985
‘I believe music – just about everything – sounds better these days. Even a car crash sounds better!’
Miles Davis, 1986
‘It’s a dangerous time for songwriters in that a monkey can make a thing sound good now.’
Randy Newman, 1988
‘To have those glasses on the cover was important because it was a statement and you have to understand that it was like John wanted you guys to see those glasses.’
Yoko Ono, 1989
‘I’ll f*cking… I’ll go and take on anyone, any white singer who wants to give me a go.’
Matt Goss of Bros, 1989
‘I’ve never said this before but my drums is so professional, man, know what I mean?’
Luke Goss of Bros, 1989
‘I hate parts of my own albums because I know I’m hearing something that doesn’t translate to piano. In fact, I’m being dishonest by playing piano at all.’
Keith Jarrett, 1987
‘When I began to see how Elvis lived, I got such a strong take off of it. It was all so revolting!’
Albert Goldman, 1989
‘The best way to make great art is to have it trivialised by other people as much as possible. That way, you fight and fight and fight.’
Julian Cope, 1989
‘Whatever you’re tops in, people is trying to bring you down, and that’s my philosophy.’
Samantha Fox, 1987
‘Call me fat and I’ll rip your spine out.’
Ian Gillan, 1983
‘Sure I care about my fans. Because fans is money, hahaha. Muh-neee! And who does not care about money? Me, I like muh-neee, haha.’
Chuck Berry, 1988
‘I have this long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me.’
David Bowie, 1980
‘People who say, Oh, I don’t know anything about music – they’re the people who really do know about music because it’s only really what it does to you.’
Steve Winwood, 1988
‘I notice that critics and others don’t credit black people with the ability to write ingenious, creative lyrics.’
Nile Rodgers, 1981
‘I’m below the poverty line – I’m on £16 a week. We needed some clothes and our manager said, “I don’t know what you do with your money. I mean, 16 quid!”’
Gary Daly of China Crisis, 1984
‘You take four or five of those rattlesnakes, dry ’em out and put them inside your hollow-box guitar. Lightnin’ Hopkins taught me that trick.’
Albert Collins on his guitar tone, 1988
‘People are bored with Lionel Richie going “I love everybody, peace on earth, we are the world…” F*ck that! People love bastards.’
Terence Trent D’Arby, 1987
‘Epstein dressed The Beatles up as much as he could but you couldn’t take away the fact that they were working-class guys. And they were smart-arses. You took one look at Lennon and you knew he thought the whole thing was a joke.’
Billy Joel, 1987
‘I remember when the guy from Echo & The Bunnymen said I should be given National Service. F*** him...’
Boy George, 1987
‘The industry is just rife with with jealousy and hatred. Everybody in it is a failed bassist.’
‘I couldn’t stand it – all that exploitation and posturing, the gasping at the mention of your name, the pursuit by photographers and phenomenon-seekers. You get that shot of adrenalin and it’s fight or flight. I chose flight many a time.’
Joni Mitchell, 1988
‘I’m strongly anti-war but defence of hearth and home? Sure, I’ll stick up for that… I’m not a total pacifist, you know? I’ve shot at people. I missed, but I shot at them. I’m sort of glad I missed…’
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.