Duke Ellington famously said that there are only two types of music: good and ‘the other kind’.
Hal Willner spent most of his professional life living that maxim. The producer, curator and soundtrack composer, who died aged 64 on 7th April 2020, was way ahead of the game.
His never-boring albums were like cross-genre playlists, 30 years before Spotify.
In his world, it was totally natural to pair Todd Rundgren with Thelonious Monk, Lou Reed with Kurt Weill, The Replacements with Walt Disney, Chuck D with Charles Mingus.
Inspired by his mentor Joel Dorn, Orson Welles’ radio productions and albums like A Love Supreme, Sketches Of Spain, The White Album, Satanic Majesties, Yusef Lateef’s Part Of The Search and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Case Of The 3-Sided Stereo Dream, he became fascinated by telling stories with sound.
During the 1980s, Willner was somewhat of a ‘Zelig’ figure on the New York scene. In 1981, he became the long-time musical director of ‘Saturday Night Live’ (while driving a cab during the day) and put together tribute albums to Fellini’s favourite composer (Amacord Nino Rota) and Kurt Weill (Lost In The Stars), the latter beginning a long, fruitful association with Lou Reed.
Then there was That’s The Way I Feel Now (still missing from streaming services… I’m working on it…) from 1984, inspired by Willner’s trip to a Thelonious Monk tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, as he related to writer Howard Mandel: ‘The jazz people playing Monk’s music were making it boring. Monk’s music was never boring. When Oscar Peterson came on, that was it – he had even put Monk down.’
Hal fought back with a brilliant Monk tribute album featuring Was (Not Was), Donald Fagen, Dr John, Todd Rundgren, Elvin Jones, Joe Jackson, Bobby McFerrin and Carla Bley. (Fact fans: Elton John chose the below track as one of his ‘Desert Island Discs’ in 1986, singling out Kenny Kirkland’s superlative piano solo.)
1988’s Stay Awake repeated the trick, a positively psychedelic voyage through the music of Walt Disney’s movies and TV shows.
The stand-outs were legion but included James Taylor, Branford Marsalis and The Roches’ ‘Second Star To The Right’, Sun Ra’s ‘Pink Elephants On Parade’, The Replacements’ ‘Cruella de Vil’, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah’ and Ringo’s ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.
Willner was at it again with ‘Night Music’, the much-missed, short-lived TV show fronted by David Sanborn which brought esteemed musical guests in to jam with a crackerjack house band (usually Omar Hakim, Marcus Miller, Hiram Bullock and Don Alias).
It’s quite moving to see often-overlooked greats of American music (Van Dyke Parks, Pharoah Sanders, Elliott Sharp, Sonny Rollins, Slim Gaillard) getting their due and sharing the stage with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson and John Cale.
So Willner did a superb job, but if only Jools Holland’s invitation to co-host had got lost in the mail…
In the 1990s, Hal worked on Robert Altman’s movie masterpieces ‘Short Cuts’ and ‘Kansas City’, and then came possibly this writer’s favourite album of the decade, Weird Nightmare: Meditations On Mingus, a sprawling, kaleidoscopic audio journey through the jazz great’s work featuring Robbie Robertson, Bill Frisell, Keith Richards, Julius Hemphill, Henry Rollins, Vernon Reid and Elvis Costello. The Kinks’ Ray Davies also directed a superb documentary about the making of the album:
Willner also helmed Marianne Faithfull’s well-received 1987 comeback album Strange Weather. More recently, he curated many special ‘theme’ concerts, including a memorable gig at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012 dedicated to the Freedom Riders of the civil rights movement, featuring Antony Hegarty, Nona Hendryx, Tim Robbins and Eric Mingus. Hal was also instrumental in bringing Reed’s ‘Berlin’ multimedia show to the stage for the first time.
Farewell to a real one-off. Music needs a lot more like him.
Even the most ’80s-phobic pop fan would have to concede that it was a great decade for singles.
The first 7″ I asked for was either Nick Lowe’s ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Less Than Zero’ or 10CC’s ‘Dreadlock Holiday’, all from the late ’70s, but the first single I distinctly remember buying was Scritti Politti’s ‘The Word Girl’.
But many others have stayed in the head and heart. Here are a bunch of them in no particular order (apart from the #1), but I’m barely scratching the surface.
The rules: one artist per slot, and a simple ‘quality’ criterion applies: when any of these songs comes on the radio or onto a playlist, they demand to be listened to. They stand alone, retaining a magic ‘buzz’, wow-factor, presence, mood (and, pop pickers, there’s nothing from 1986…). Nothing grates, and nothing – or at least not much – could be improved upon…
85. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’
84: UB40: ‘Food For Thought’ (1980)
83. Special AKA: ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ (1984)
82. Kid Creole And The Coconuts: ‘Annie I’m Not Your Daddy’ (1982)
81: The Clash: ‘Rock The Casbah’ (1982)
80. The Commodores: Night Shift (1985)
79. Janet Jackson: What Have You Done For Me Lately? (1986)
78. Lionel Richie: All Night Long (1983)
77. Cliff Richard: Carrie (1980)
76. James Brown: Living In America (1985)
75. Tom Tom Club: Wordy Rappinghood (1981)
74. Rolling Stones: ‘Undercover Of The Night’ (1983)
73. David Bowie: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ (1980)
72. Dire Straits: ‘Private Investigations’ (1982)
71. Afrika Bambaataa & The SoulSonic Force: ‘Planet Rock’ (1982)
70. Belinda Carlisle: ‘I Get Weak’ (1988)
Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ kept it off the US number one spot in early ’88. Almost-perfect pop/rock from the pen of Dianne Warren.
69. The Jam: ‘Town Called Malice’ (1982)
68. Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’ (1982)
Always the loudest song on any playlist.
67. Robert Wyatt: ‘Shipbuilding’ (1982)
66. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1984)
65. Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (1980)
64. Carly Simon: ‘Why’ (1982)
63. Bros: ‘I Owe You Nothing’ (1988)
62. Dollar: ‘Videotheque’ (1982)
61. Yazoo: ‘Don’t Go’ (1982)
Difficult now to disassociate it from Alan Partridge’s early morning show, but still a brilliant slice of Basildon techno-funk.
60. Bronski Beat: ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)
Touching meditation on the travails of youth. Even an appallingly-played synth in the intro cannot wither it.
59. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ (1981)
The first showing for that ’80s staple, the Roland CR-78 rhythm box, on a single that legendary Atlantic boss Ahmet Ertegun adored…
58. Fine Young Cannibals: ‘Johnny Come Home’ (1985)
57. Robert Palmer: ‘Addicted To Love’ (1985)
No apologies for including this US number one. Imagine waking up with this buzzing around your head. Palmer apparently bumped into Chaka Khan on a New York street during the vocal sessions and asked her to harmonize the lead line – a great pairing (but was she removed from some versions? Doesn’t really sound like her… Ed.).
56. Alexander O’Neal ft. Cherelle: ‘Never Knew Love Like This’ (1987)
Producers/songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a damn good job of creating a Marvin/Tammi or Marvin/Diana for the ’80s. Gorgeous harmonies and vocals.
55. Salt-N-Pepa: ‘Push It’ (1988)
The ‘Smoke On The Water’ of ’80s rap. But, according to the ladies, it’s not about sex – it’s about ‘pushing it’ on the dancefloor.
54. Talking Heads: ‘Once In A Lifetime’ (1981)
53. Don Henley: ‘Boys Of Summer’ (1984)
52. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)
51. Billy Joel: ‘Uptown Girl’ (1983)
Billy’s tribute to The Four Seasons works a treat, with a slammin’ rhythm section and melodic curveballs to make even Macca jealous.
50. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (1982)
The joyful sound of late summer 1982 and the first song by a black artist to be played on MTV.
49. Junior: ‘Mama Used To Say’ (1982)
48. Genesis: ‘Mama’ (1982)
The first ‘event’ single in their career. Epic/menacing.
47. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ (1982)
Quincy assembles his dream team (Ndugu, Swedien, Hey, Temperton, Phillinganes) to produce an underrated cracker.
46. The Police: ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ (1981)
Sting wrote the band’s fourth UK number one in 1976. Apparently Summers and Copeland hated Jean Roussel’s keyboard playing on this – but they were wrong.
45. Japan: ‘I Second That Emotion’ (1981)
Most original cover version of the ’80s?
44. Bananarama: ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (1983)
Apparently about sexual abuse…
43. The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’ (1989)
42. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: ‘The Message’ (1982)
41. Blondie: ‘Atomic’ (1980)
Minor/major splendour. Debbie’s voice always sends a shiver down the spine and there’s that Roland CR-78 again.
40. The Specials: ‘Ghost Town’ (1981)
39. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Two Tribes’ (1984)
No expense was spared for the all-important follow-up to ‘Relax’ – according to arranger Anne Dudley, a 60-piece orchestra featured on the intro.
38. Ultravox: ‘Vienna’ (1981)
Kept off the UK top spot by Joe Dolce’s Music Theatre’s brilliant ‘Shaddap You Face’ (which nearly made this list…).
37. OMD: ‘Souvenir’ (1981)
More like a dream than a pop song.
36. Adam And The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)
35. Bucks Fizz: ‘Land Of Make Believe’ (1982)
34. Madonna: ‘Crazy For You’ (1985)
Featuring Rob Mounsey’s sumptuous arrangement and a winning vocal from La Ciccone.
33. The Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’ (1982)
32. Thompson Twins: ‘Hold Me Now’ (1984)
31. Young MC: ‘Know How’ (1989)
By way of tribute to Cooking Vinyl founder Matt Dike who died recently.
30. S’Express: ‘Theme From S’Express’ (1988)
29. Nik Kershaw: Wouldn’t It Be Good (1984)
28. The Passions: ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’ (1981)
A quintessential ’80s one-hit wonder, still beguiling after all these years, with a classic guitar performance from Clive Temperley.
27. Wham!: ‘Freedom’ (1984)
26. ZZ Top: ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ (1983)
25. George Michael: ‘Careless Whisper’ (1984)
24. Art Of Noise: ‘Close (To The Edit)’ (1984)
Allegedly built on an unused Alan White drum track recorded during Yes’s 90125 sessions.
23. Blancmange: ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (1982)
22. Paul Hardcastle: ’19’ (1985)
21. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)
20. Rick Astley: ‘Whenever You Need Somebody’ (1987)
Wacky song construction; try playing along on guitar. So many key changes. Arguably Stock/Aitken/Waterman’s best and vastly superior to ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.
19. Hall And Oates: ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ (1982)
18. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (1981)
17. Kim Carnes: ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ (1981)
A classic lyric, and musically rich too.
16. MARRS: ‘Pump Up The Volume’ (1989)
15. Eric B & Rakim: ‘I Know You Got Soul’ (1988)
14. Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (1982)
13. Christopher Cross: ‘Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)’ (1981)
Hard to resist the gorgeous Bacharach-penned melody and superb drum performance from Jeff Porcaro.
12. Will Powers: ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (1983)
11. The Jones Girls: ‘Nights Over Egypt’ (1981)
10. Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’ (1980)
9. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)
8. Joe Jackson: ‘Stepping Out’ (1982)
7. Neneh Cherry: ‘Buffalo Stance’ (1989)
You may mock…but slap on this Tim Simenon-produced corker and watch the dancefloor fill up…
6. Prince: ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ (1987)
5. Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’ (1989)
Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn cooked up this epic UK No.1, adapted from the traditional Irish song ‘She Moved Through The Fair’. Here’s an interesting live version I’d never seen before.
4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (1984)
3. Madness: ‘Baggy Trousers’ (1980)
It is London school life in 1980 – simple as.
2. Scritti Politti: ‘Absolute’ (1985) And – drum roll – the single I would save if my flat was on fire…
1. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)
Check out the full list, with some other classics, on Spotify:
Most jazz players don’t really seem to ‘get’ the music of Thelonious Monk.
Decent cover versions are hard to come by, of course with some notable exceptions (Steve Khan, Kenny Kirkland, Lynne Arriale, Paul Motian and probably a few more).
During the centenary of the genius’s birth, it seems as good a time as any to revisit a classic 1980s Thelonious tribute album which puts his miraculous compositions front and centre (plus the fact that I’ve just acquired a brilliant new cassette player* which is bringing it to life again after years stuck in the proverbial drawer).
That’s The Way I Feel Now was masterminded by producer/curator Hal Willner and inspired by bad Monk cover versions. Willner told writer Howard Mandel:
‘I was sitting at Carnegie Hall at some jazz memorial to Monk, getting freaked out that all these other people who really had a love of Monk weren’t performing. Monk’s music was never boring.’
So, at New York’s Mediasound Studios in early 1984, he set about assembling an extraordinary cast of fans including Todd Rundgren, Donald Fagen, Joe Jackson, Carla Bley, Peter Frampton, John Zorn, Was (Not Was), Dr John, Gil Evans, Bobby McFerrin, John Scofield and Elvin Jones to celebrate Monk.
(Willner has gathered similarly eclectic casts for albums celebrating Mingus, Nino Rota, Kurt Weill and the music of Walt Disney films, as well as producing records by Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful and movie soundtracks including ‘Short Cuts’.)
Listened to in one sitting, That’s The Way I Feel Now still makes for a gloriously psychedelic celebration of Monk’s ouevre. Over 22 tracks, I can only make out three duds. It’s also a triumph of sequencing, holding the attention with ease by unashamedly juggling the rock, jazz and avant-garde.
First, the ‘rock’: Rundgren’s take on ‘Four In One’ is a gloriously anarchic, Gary Windo’s sax blaring out over a cacophony of samples, cheap drum machines and amateurish keyboards. Was (Not Was)’s take on ‘Ba-Lue-Bolivar-Ba-Lues-Are’ features a knockout multi-tracked guest spot from vocalist Sheila Jordan, while Donald Fagen and Steve Khan mesh perfectly on beautiful ballad ‘Reflections’.
NRBQ’s take on ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ comes near to perfection, as does Chris Spedding/Peter Frampton’s surf-rock-tinged ‘Work’ featuring a classic Marcus Miller bass performance. Only Joe Jackson didn’t get the memo, delivering an overly-lush – though obviously heartfelt – ‘Round Midnight’.
Then there’s the ‘jazz’: John Zorn lays down an outrageous ‘Shuffle Boil’ featuring babbling vocals, bubble-blowing, chainsaw guitar, Bontempi organ and hilariously remedial drumming; Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy deliver a memorable ‘Evidence’; Randy Weston, Dr John and Barry Harris’s contributions are solo piano masterworks; John Scofield and Mark Bingham smash ‘Brilliant Corners’ out of the park, as do vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Bob Dorough on ‘Friday The 13th’.
Finally, Carla Bley’s ‘Misterioso’ is possibly the album standout, an affecting symphony for Monk featuring electrifying performances from Kenny Kirkland on piano, Johnny Griffin on tenor and Hiram Bullock on guitar.
The Rundgren tune aside, to my ears That’s The Way I Feel Now could have been recorded yesterday. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy these days. So I’m bloody glad I held onto my ancient cassette version. Here’s hoping for a CD/download re-release soon.
For students of songwriting, there’s been an embarrassment of riches on the book front recently – in the last few years we’ve had the groundbreaking ‘Isle Of Noises’, entertaining ‘Complicated Game’, and lengthy autobiographies by the likes of Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Chrissie Hynde, Neil Young, Brian Wilson and Phil Collins.
And now here comes Paul Zollo’s ‘More Songwriters On Songwriting’, the weighty sequel to his landmark 1991 volume, comprising new, indepth interviews with famous composers from the worlds of pop, rock, country, R’n’B and jazz.
When the book catches fire, tasty anecdotes come thick and fast: Kenny Gamble delivers a powerful statement on his hopes for America’s future; Joe Jackson discusses his love of Duke Ellington and Steely Dan; Bryan Ferry reveals that the lyrics for ‘Avalon’ (the song) were written in no less than four different countries.
Elvis Costello talks about trying (and failing) to collaborate with legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn; Rickie Lee Jones discusses how caring for her sick mother reignited her music mojo; Chrissie Hynde describes in visceral detail how her views on animal rights inform her songwriting.
Ringo talks about how George helped him write ‘Octopus’s Garden’; Dave Stewart recalls the thrill of writing ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)’ with Annie Lennox in double-quick time; James Taylor waxes lyrical about Paul McCartney; Don McLean reveals the unusual inspiration behind ‘American Pie’.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Zollo always knows the right questions to ask and the conversations flow unpredictably. Highly recommended.
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.