Island Records undoubtedly did a lot of good for John Martyn but they also royally messed around with arguably his two best post-1970s albums.
First there was the delayed, eventually botched release of 1980’s Grace And Danger, then the complete rejection of The Apprentice when first delivered in 1988.
The album eventually saw the light of day on Permanent Records (owned by Martyn’s then-manager) in early 1990, after John finished it at his own expense at Glasgow’s Ca Va Studios. It immediately sold strongly and got a great review in Q magazine (alongside a memorable interview) amongst other rags.
But co-producer Brian Young reckons it could have done a lot better – the idea apparently had been to tout it around the major labels, but John’s manager decided to steer clear of the suits this time around. We’ll never know if that was wise (and sadly it’s currently on streaming platforms with completely the wrong artwork attached).
Most importantly, The Apprentice is full of memorable songs which easily offset the sometimes fairly flimsy production. He was expanding his harmonic horizons (and vocal range – this is probably his best singing on record) and there’s a strong Latin influence throughout, helped enormously by the return of Danny Cummings on all kinds of percussion.
‘Live On Love’, ‘Deny This Love’ and ‘Send Me One Line’ could have made cracking singles, the latter apparently penned for the movie ’84 Charing Cross Road’ but not used. ‘The Moment’ and ‘Patterns In The Rain’ suggest a hitherto unacknowledged influence from the Great American Songbook.
‘Look At That Girl’ is a gorgeous ballad for his daughter Mhairi, while the title track was a rare insight into Martyn’s political leanings, written from the point of view of a terminally-ill worker at the Sellafield nuclear plant. ‘Income Town’ may just be the standout, another attack on rampant capitalism featuring a meaty guitar solo.
In short, there was something for everyone. Long-term fans just had to accept that he wasn’t going to be playing the acoustic through an Echoplex anymore; but his collaboration with keyboard player Foss Patterson was hitting its peak, after promising beginnings on 1986’s Piece By Piece.
John sold out no less than eleven nights at London’s Shaw Theatre to promote The Apprentice, enlisting Dave Gilmour to guest on guitar, and then played at the Glasgow Big Day festival a few months later. 1990 turned out to be a pretty good year (reportedly followed by one of his worst, though I saw him live several times in 1991 and he was always superb) for Big John.
Yes, they’re back, those undesirable, middle-aged, ‘legendary’ white males, with more songs that you probably couldn’t release on a major label today, more’s the pity… Check out the first six mid-lifers out of the traps here.
Lou Reed: ‘The Gun’ (1981)
39 at the time of recording, Lou brings the white heat of a Scorsese or Tarantino movie right to your door, taking on the character of a gun-wielding psychopath – maybe not that much of a stretch… But this shocking, seemingly stream-of-consciousness piece expunges a lot of bile that seems to have built up in Lou over the 1970s, fuelled by alcoholism, drug addiction and…everything, really. Key moment: the terrifyingly blank ‘Watch your wife…’. Quite brilliant, if totally unacceptable these days.
John Martyn: ‘Never Say Never’ (1981)
If Grace And Danger generally portrayed Martyn’s more tender/wistful feelings about his marriage breakup, the following year’s Glorious Fool was decidedly more barbed. ‘Never Say Never’ is Exhibit A, with a 32-year-old John opening up with ‘Shut up! Close your mouth!’. Things get weirder/more intense from there, propelled by Phil Collins’ battering drums reverberating mightily off the Townhouse studio’s stone walls.
Neil Young: ‘Don’t Cry’ (1989)
Neil (43 at the time of recording) surveys the detritus of a relationship breakup from a scarily blanked-out perspective, though his real feelings about the matter are maybe revealed by some of his most extreme guitar tones on record. Exciting, life-affirming stuff, even if the lyric suggests otherwise.
Robert Fripp/Peter Hammill: ’Disengage’ (recorded 1978, released 1985)
Fripp, 32 at the time of recording, lets it all hang out with his pals Peter Hammill on vocals and a Mr P Collins on drums (yes, Philip again…), a seriously paranoid tale of a relationship schism from a certain ‘Mrs Marion’ with Hammill delivering a deranged, brilliant vocal over a mixed-meter groove and exciting modal riffs. Funny, scary and pretty warped.
Frank Zappa: ‘We’re Turning Again’ (1982)
42 at the time of recording, Uncle Frank skewers 1960s heroes Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and The Byrds, and the piano motif may take the mickey out of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Ike Willis even pops up with an impersonation of legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite. Apparently guitarist Steve Vai was so offended by ‘We’re Turning Again’ that he refused to play it live, though Frank later said he was just making fun of the whole sixties media circus. For FZ-haters, it probably contains everything they despise in one song, but for fans it’s a typically provocative mix of ‘happy’ music and uncompromising lyrics.
Randy Newman: ‘My Life Is Good’ (1983)
39 at the time of recording, Randy’s track came from 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, the thesis of which seemed to be that there was something very rotten inside The American Dream. The ‘beauty spots’ of LA and Miami were struggling, and toxic celebrity was the true currency of Reagan’s America. But in this song he’s completely complicit in the whole thing, totally part of the scene, and he hates himself for it. Luckily for us…
A sense of contour, of line, a bit of colour, a good tone and maybe a touch of – that horrible word – narrative. A bit of flash never heart anyone either, but mostly we’re probably listening for emotion and ‘storytelling’.
Luckily for us, the 1980s featured an embarrassment of riches on the guitar soloing front, a decade when you could hear everything from glorious cameos of post-punk insanity, slabs of avant-garde weirdness, shock-and-awe widdlefests and sometimes perfect little compositions in themselves.
Sometimes great solos came from the guitarist in the band, but more often than not they came from the ‘ringer’, the session player. Truly great players of all stripes could find themselves blowing on a top 10 single. Their job was to add the pizzazz, the zing, the memorable bit that all the kids wanted to learn.
So here’s a selection of goodies from the guitar-shaped chocolate box, featuring some rock, some blues, some fusion, some soul, some new-wave, some pop, some metal, some funk, some jazz:
27. Lloyd Cole And The Commotions: ‘Forest Fire’ (Guitarist: Neil Clark)
26. Tears For Fears: ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Guitarist: Neil Taylor)
25. Marillion: ‘Easter’ (Guitarist: Steve Rothery)
24. Michael Hedges: ‘Aerial Boundaries’
The whole thing is a solo, of course, but it’s one of the most astonishing examples of solo guitar in recording history, a mixture of tapping, strumming, thumping and hammering. There are no overdubs and a very strange tuning on the classic title track to Hedges’ 1984 album.
23. Tribal Tech: ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Guitarist: Scott Henderson)
An almost perfect solo from the jazz/rock master’s album Nomad. It’s so complete it sounds almost pre-composed (apparently only the first eight bars were hummed to him by the tune’s writer Gary Willis), each interesting idea following completely logically from the last. Starts at 1:13:
This one taken from the classic album The Colour Of Spring can be filed in the ‘minimalist’ category, but it’s brilliant. The way the veteran Pretenders/McCartney guitarist bends into his last note, perfectly fitting with the key change, is sublime. Starts at 2:52:
21. Johnny Guitar Watson: ‘Telephone Bill’
Johnny G pulled out all the stops for this barnstorming bebop-meets-blues breakdown, from the Love Jones album, closing out his funny proto-rap in some style. He also gets extra points for quoting Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’. Starts around 3:30:
From Booty’s now forgotten 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’, a brief but flamboyant classic from one of the great unhinged metal guitarists of the decade, used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Starts around 2:44:
19. Thomas Dolby: ‘Budapest By Blimp’ (Guitarist: Larry Treadwell)
The LA-based guitarist was part of a Christian duo backing the Pope on his infamous ‘Popemobile’ tour of American stadiums when he answered Dolby’s magazine ad, and he excelled himself on this epic track from Aliens Ate My Buick, coming up with a strong melody over the funky break and even throwing in a little Dave Gilmour homage. Starts around the 5:30 mark:
18. Trevor Rabin: ‘I Can’t Look Away’
The title track of the Yes guitarist’s 1989 solo album was a song of two brilliant solos, but I’m going for the opening salvo, a brutal, flashy classic that features all the notes he knows and more.
17. Robert Cray: ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’
You could choose almost any solo from Mr Cray’s Bad Influence album, but this one seems to be best encapsulate his classy string-bending, snappy rhythmic sense and ice-cold Strat tone. Starts at 1:33:
16. Nile Rodgers: ‘Stay Out Of The Light’
A brilliant player not necessarily known for his solos, but this closing track from his forgotten second solo album B Movie Matinee opened the floodgates – a fantastic mixture of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Nolen. Starts at 3:37:
15. John McLaughlin: ‘The Wait’
McLaughlin plugs in the Les Paul and unleashes one of the most vicious solos of his career, gradually developing in intensity, with even a touch of his old mucker Carlos Santana at times. Unfortunately it mostly fell on deaf ears, coming from a nearly-forgotten 1987 album Adventures In Radioland. Starts around 1:43:
14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)
One of those unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his head and goes for it. From the punk/funk legends’ forgotten, excellent 1988 comeback album In America.
13. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: ‘Black Star’
This piece, kicking off the Swede’s Rising Force opus, is a guitar masterclass from top to tail, but the first few minutes demonstrate some extraordinary touches like a legato section that you’d swear was achieved with a delay pedal.
12. Stanley Clarke: ‘Straight To The Top’ (Guitarist: Carlos Santana)
The song – which kicked off Stanley’s 1981 career nadir Let Me Know You – may be a disco cheesefest but Carlos’s solo is a stonker, an emotive showstopper with a luscious, creamy tone and lots of emotional moments. It was a good period for Santana – see also Herbie Hancock’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Carlos’s own ‘Stay Beside Me’ and ‘Song For Devadip’.
11. It Bites: ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ (Guitarist: Francis Dunnery)
The Cumbrian gunslingers wrote a great ballad here and Dunnery laid his claim as one of the great Brit guitarists of the ’80s with this extreme solo, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes demented mixture of flash and panache. From the lads’ debut album The Big Lad In The Windmill. Starts at 5:09:
10. Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’ (Guitarist: Steve Stevens)
He produced several memorable moments alongside the 6’2” blond bombsite born William Broad, but Stevens excelled himself here with a memorable, well-organised solo full of flashy bits and unexpected ‘outside’ notes.
9. Joe Satriani: ‘Ice 9’
Satch’s sophomore album Surfing With The Alien of course produced some guitar highlights but this track featured one of his most distinctive solos ever, Allan Holdsworth meets Eddie Van Halen.
8. Randy Crawford: ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (Guitarist: Steve Lukather)
This gets in for superb tone and admirable restraint, apart from that fantastic flurry of notes in the middle. Luke could hardly do any wrong around this time. Just around the corner was Quincy’s The Dude, ‘Rosanna’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Love’ and Jacko’s Thriller.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘Sex Rap’ (Guitarist: Hillel Slovak)
One of those great solos that sounds like it could fall apart any second, and frequently does. From the lads’ uneven but sometimes thrilling George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley album. Starts at 1:14:
6. Yellowjackets: ‘Monmouth College Fight Song’ (Guitarist: Robben Ford)
In the days when Robben’s trump card was playing bebop/blues with a distorted guitar, and when he loved blowing over interesting chord changes, this track from 1981’s Casino Lights is a classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:
Hiram could be relied upon to produce classic solos in the late 1980s, as he did with Steps Ahead, Terri Lyne Carrington and on his solo records, and this from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was sublime. Starts at 1:27:
4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Guitarist: David Gilmour)
Take your pick between two fantastic solos from The Wall album, but I’m going for the first one, a beautiful feature with a killer tone and great use of whammy bar. Starts at 2:38:
3. XTC: ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (Guitarist: Dave Gregory)
He apparently rehearsed it alone for hours in a little room stinking of rat poison in Todd Rundgren’s rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic classic. Starts at 2:08:
2. Mike Stern: ‘Time In Place’
The title track of Mike’s second solo album demonstrated definitely one of the slowest solos of his career, and also one of the most lyrical. Starts at 1:35:
1. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’
This was one of the more memorable solos of Martyn’s career, during a decade when he was more interested in songwriting than making extreme guitar statements. But he sure found his Les Paul’s sweet spot on a classic cover version from Grace And Danger. Starts at around 1:28:
We’ve briefly looked at crap cover versions before (though doubtless there’ll be more to come), but how about good ones from the 1980s?
It was quite easy coming up with a fairly long list. I guess the ultimate test is that at the time most people (including me) didn’t know – or didn’t care – that they were cover versions.
There wasn’t a great deal of looking back in this golden period for pop.
But it did seem as if a lot of ’80s acts had the magic touch, or at least a total lack of fear, making almost everything sound like their own. Punk probably had quite a lot to do with that.
Some of the following choices get in for sheer weirdness but most are genuine artistic achievements. Recurring themes? The Beatles, Motown, Otis Redding. Probably not too much of a surprise there. And 1981 seems a particularly good year for covers.
Anyway, enough of my yakkin’. Let the countdown commence…
33. Bow Wow Wow: ‘I Want Candy’ (1982)
32. David Bowie: ‘Criminal World’ (1983)
31. Ry Cooder: ’13 Question Method’ (1987)
Ry’s brilliant solo take on Chuck Berry from the Get Rhythm album.
30. Propaganda: ‘Sorry For Laughing’ (1985)
The Dusseldorf pop mavericks take on Josef K’s post-punk curio (apparently at Paul Morley’s urging) to produce a sweeping, majestic synth-pop classic.
29. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘Little Drummer Boy’ (1981)
28. Living Colour: ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ (1988)
27. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (1987)
26. Randy Crawford/Yellowjackets: ‘Imagine’ (1981)
Who knew this would work? Sensitive and imaginative reading of the Lennon classic, with a classic Robben Ford guitar solo.
25. Lee Ritenour: ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin” (1981)
Gorgeous West-Coast version of Sly Stone’s pop/funk opus. Surely one of the most unlikely covers of the decade, but it works a treat.
24. Luther Vandross: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ (1982)
23. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’ (1980)
Originally a reggae track by The Slickers and first released on ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack in 1972, Martyn and drummer Phil Collins rearranged it and added some lyrics. It featured on John’s fantastic Grace And Danger album.
22. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)
Cracking version of Gloria Jones’ ’60s Northern Soul classic (written by Ed Cobb). A hit all over the world, with pleasingly remedial synth arrangement, instantly recognisable soundworld and classic intro.
21. Grace Jones: ‘Use Me’ (1981)
The Nightclubbing album featured a veritable smorgasbord of good cover versions, but this take on Bill Withers scores particularly highly for originality.
20. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1981)
19. The Replacements: ‘Cruela De Vil’ (1988)
From the brilliant Hal Willner-helmed Disney tribute album Stay Awake, you’d have been a brave punter to bet a dime on this one working, but work it does.
18. Quincy Jones: ‘Ai No Corrida’ (1981)
17. Donald Fagen: ‘Ruby Baby’ (1982)
16. Stanley Clarke: ‘Born In The USA’ (1985)
Who knows, maybe this could have provided Stanley with a novelty hit if CBS had been quicker off the mark. He references John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in the intro while Rayford Griffin lays down seismic grooves and a funny old-school rap.
15. The Power Station: ‘Get It On’ (1985)
‘If cocaine was a sound…’, as a YouTube wag described it. This near-hysterical rave-up is mainly the sound of a fun late-night jam (Tony Thompson’s drumming being particularly notable). Also check out guitarist Andy Taylor’s little ode to Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ throughout.
14. Deborah And The Puerto Ricans: ‘Respect’ (1981)
A one-off solo single from The Flying Lizards’ singer, this Dennis Bovell-produced curio missed the charts but remains a fascinating post-punk artefact.
13. Roxy Music: ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (1980)
Roxy’s first cover version presumably raised some eyebrows but the lads pull it off with some aplomb, aided by Allan Schwartzberg’s tough NYC drum groove – and the fact that Bryan Ferry can’t resist adding some typical weirdness in the first 20 seconds.
12. Ringo Starr & Herb Alpert: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (1988)
Another once-heard-never-forgotten cracker from the aforementioned Stay Awake collection, the album version is preceded by a very menacing Ken Nordine spoken-word intro.
11. Japan: ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (1980)
David Sylvian probably hates this but no matter. It’s hard to think of another band pulling it off. Ominous synthscapes from Richard Barbieri, a nice recorder solo by Mick Karn and brilliant ‘where’s-one?’ beat from Steve Jansen.
10. Everything But The Girl: ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (1988)
It definitely divides opinion, but certainly fits the ‘sounds like they wrote it’ criterion.
9. Bananarama & Fun Boy Three: ‘Really Saying Something’ (1982)
Penned by Motown songsmiths Norman Whitfield, Micky Stevenson and Edward Holland Jr and first performed by The Velvelettes in 1964, it’s hard not to smile when this comes on the radio. I love the way the ladies pronounce ‘strutting’.
8. David Bowie: ‘Kingdom Come’ (1980)
The Dame’s magnificent take on a little-known track from Tom Verlaine’s 1978 debut album.
7. UB40: ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983)
No apologies for including this Neil Diamond-penned perennial. Great bassline, nice groove, lovely Ali Campbell vocal performance.
6. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1981)
Phil closed his Face Value album with this oft-forgotten corker, featuring a classic John Giblin bassline (later cribbed by Pearl Jam for the opening of their ‘Once’) and cool Shankar violin.
5. Robert Palmer: ‘Not A Second Time’ (1980)
Robert adds some New Wave grit to this Lennon-penned rocker, and his singing has rarely been better.
4. Siouxsie And The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’ (1983)
3. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)
First recorded by The Arrows in 1975, this is simply one of the great singles of the 1980s and a huge hit to boot.
2. Hue & Cry: ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ (1988)
It shouldn’t work but it does, courtesy of singer Pat Kane’s excellent tone and phrasing. His trademark ‘na-na-na-na’s help too. I wonder what Kate thought of it.
1. Blondie: ‘The Tide Is High’ (1980)
Written by reggae legend John Holt and first performed by The Paragons in 1966, this was an inspired – if somewhat cheesy – choice for the band. It’s mainly included here for Debbie Harry’s delightfully off-the-cuff vocal, sounding like her first crack at the song.
Managers, eh? In 1997, David Bowie said, ‘They’re a species I really have nothing to do with’, an unsurprising position considering his disastrous earlier experiences.
But, in the rock and pop world, it’s almost a rite of passage to be ripped off by a manager. As the old music biz saying goes: where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.
There were certainly a number of dodgy characters hanging around in the 1980s, generally wearing cheap suits and deafening aftershave. Japan/Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell knows where all the bodies are buried: he told all in ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay’, his jaw-dropping account of record business skulduggery.
And Giles Smith’s hilarious ’80s memoir ‘Lost In Music’ outlined his doomed-to-fail attempts at pop stardom whilst being hamstrung every step of the way by chronically-inept ‘career adviser’ Pete The Bastard.
Basically, for every Bruce Findlay (Simple Minds), Ed Bicknell (Dire Straits) or Paul McGuinness (U2) – the nominal ‘fifth member of the band’ – there’s probably a Colonel Tom Parker or Defries in the wings. Here are three prime 1980s acts who turned on their ex-managers in the best way they knew how.
3. XTC: ‘I Bought Myself A Liarbird’ (1984)
For many years, songwriter Andy Partridge was unable to discuss this song due to ‘legal issues’ with the band’s former manager Ian Reid (the sticking points seemed to be a huge unpaid VAT bill and also work/life balance, or lack of it…). Partridge delivers a pretty caustic portrait of the ‘starmaker machinery behind the popular song’, as Joni Mitchell called it. XTC settled out of court with Reid in 1989.
I bought myself a liarbird He came with free drinks Just to blur the lies falling out like rain On an average English summer’s afternoon
I bought myself a new notebook Sharpened my guitar and went to look If this biz was just as bongo as the liarbird made out
All he would say is ‘I can make you famous’ All we would say: ‘Just like a household name’ Is all he would say
Methinks world is for you Made of what you believe If it’s false or it’s true You can read it in your bible Or on the back of this record sleeve
I bought myself a liarbird Things got more and more absurd It changed to a cuckoo And expanded, filling up with all I gave
I bought myself a big mistake He grew too greedy, bough will break And then we will find that liarbirds Are really flightless on their own
Methinks world is for you There’s no handing it back If it’s false or it’s true You can read it in your prayer book Or on the side of a cornflake pack
I gave away a liarbird A couple less drinks And now I’ve heard the truth shining out like sun On an average English winter’s afternoon
2. John Martyn: ‘John Wayne’ (1986)
This Eastern-tinged, dramatic doom-ballad was initially written as a diatribe against Martyn’s early-’80s manager Sandy Roberton. The main problem seemed to be ‘cashflow’, judging from the lyric below… After a rewrite and the adding of a soupçon of humour (as well as some of John’s ‘strangled duck’ vocals, as he called them), it also became a cheeky portrait of the type of ball-busting, all-American bullyboy represented by Duke Wayne and Martyn’s old favourite Ronald Reagan. He even managed to include the Pinteresque euphemism: ‘I’ll measure you – fit you up!’
You know you’ve got it coming I’ll tell it to you straight I’m coming for you very soon I’ll never hesitate I’ll measure you And fit you up
I am John Wayne I do believe I’m John Wayne I am John Wayne Drink your milk!
Don’t you dare look behind you You know I will be there You’ll feel my breath on your neck Turn, face me if you dare
I am John Wayne I believe I’m John Wayne Get on your horse!
You felt the money flowing You watched the beast arrive Watch the money going away Time to skin the lamb alive
1. Prince: ‘Bob George’ (1987)
Black Album curio ‘Bob George’ was recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound as a present for Sheila E, and premièred at her Vertigo club birthday bash on 11th December 1986. Engineer Susan Rogers explained the genesis of this bizarre, self-mocking, X-rated piece: ‘Prince felt (Billboard music critic) Nelson George had become very critical of him all of a sudden, at a stage in his career where he needed all the help he could get. (Manager) Bob Cavallo also ticked him off.’ Roots of this discord may have lain in Prince’s wish to release the triple-album Crystal Ball as the follow-up to Parade, a wish that fell on deaf ears during negotiations with Prince’s record company Warner Bros. Maybe Prince felt that Cavallo hadn’t pushed hard enough on his behalf, terminally affecting their working relationship – Cavallo was given the push just after the release of the Batman album 18 months later. (Is ‘Bob George’ also a homage to/pastiche of Miles Davis? Ed.)
Rea has – a little unfairly – never quite been able to escape a slightly dodgy image here in the UK, but, along with George Michael, he was probably the most popular male British singer/songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The breakthrough/breakdown was his 1989 single/album ‘The Road To Hell’, so close to the Dire Straits sound as to be almost parody. I preferred the more laidback, distinctive Rea of the mid-’80s.
He started out pushing the glossy AOR and light, folky pop, enjoying a huge US hit with ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ in 1978 (later claiming that early producer Gus Dudgeon had blunted the ‘bluesier’ elements of his sound).
His career seemed to be hitting a cul-de-sac in the early ’80s, but On The Beach was one of the albums that turned things around, the beginning of his commercial era
It taps into the same kind of jazzy, introspective pop/soul sound that the likes of John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were flirting with in the same period, helped by an excellent band including Fairport Convention/XTC drummer Dave Mattacks, Martin Ditcham on percussion and Max Middleton on keys.
Rea also plays an impressive array of instruments himself, including fretless bass and synth.
Listening in one sitting to On The Beach again, the first thing that struck me is its almost relentlessly downbeat vibe. But the opening title track, with its lilting Latin-tinged groove and jazz chords, perfectly introduces the album’s themes of lost innocence and childhood reminiscences.
The moment when Mattacks lays into his fat snare drum for the first time is one of my favourite ’80s drumming moments.
‘Little Blonde Plaits’ is a vehicle for Middleton’s expressive Mini Moog, very redolent of his atmospheric playing on John Martyn’s Glorious Fool. There’s further ethereal jazziness on ‘Just Passing Through’, featuring a really lovely vocal performance and tasty solo guitar from Rea.
‘It’s All Gone’ ups the ante with some subtle Donald Fagen-style synths and excellent lyrics, and the groovy extended outro is close enough for jazz/funk with some empathetic Mattacks drums alongside Middleton’s fine Fender Rhodes solo.
On The Beach was a decent hit in the UK, reaching 11 in the album chart and selling over 300,000 copies. After this, Rea’s music became increasingly rootsy with elements of blues, country and rock’n’roll; he started channelling Dire Straits and ZZ Top rather than John Martyn and consequently enjoyed much more commercial success.
But On The Beach‘s four or five choice tracks are still my favourite Rea moments of the ’80s.
Putting together my top 15 album list recently had an interesting knock-on effect: I actually spent some time listening to my choices.
Glorious Fool was possibly the one that surprised and pleased me the most (I listened to it on the original WEA cassette which sounds miles better than the CD master for some reason).
The general critical consensus is that John Martyn lost his way in the ‘80s, donning the suit, ditching the acoustic guitar and burying his music in synths, soft saxophones and stodgy productions.
But it’s an overly simplistic view. I would put Glorious Fool and the previous Grace And Danger (not forgetting 1990’s The Apprentice) right up there with any of his fabled ‘70s stuff.
Certainly his compositions were more musically demanding, but John’s lyrics were still pithy and his chords as dark and rich as ever. It’s just that often he was concentrating on his singing a lot more in this period – no bad thing – and so often delegated the main harmonic accompaniment to a keyboard rather than his guitar.
The ‘80s started fairly unpromisingly for John. He was still in turmoil over the breakup with wife Beverley, and the release of his classic Grace And Danger album had been delayed for 18 months, Island Records label boss Chris Blackwell believing it to be terminally uncommercial.
It was finally released in June 1980 to excellent reviews and reasonable sales but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as John’s relationship with Island was concerned.
His new manager Sandy Roberton got him a deal with Warner Bros and also helped put together a cracking new band including ex-Jeff Beck (Blow By Blow) keys player Max Middleton, percussionist Danny Cummings and hotshot young Glaswegian bassist Alan Thomson.
Martyn’s mucker and partner-in-heartbreak Phil Collins also returned on drums and production. John said at the time, ‘I wasn’t married. I thought: let’s go for it, let’s make some money and make a band.’
In June 1981, they all convened at the Townhouse Studios on the Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, to commence work on Glorious Fool.
During the recording, John was living in the small apartment above the studio, and would apparently often undertake vocal duties in the wee hours of the morning, slightly the worse for wear and clad only in his dressing gown.
It’s clear that John’s failed marriage is still very much the emotional currency of his songwriting. ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’, ‘Hearts And Keys’ and ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’ are crushingly candid in their evocation of the contrasting emotions spawned by a relationship breakdown, everything from pure love and raw lust to rage, despair, envy, pleading and desolation.
The furious ‘Never Say Never’ kicks off with Martyn screaming ‘Shuddup! Close your mouth!’ over Collins’ trademark tom fills. Brilliant. ‘Perfect Hustler’ and ‘Didn’t Do That’ are more comic evocations of lost love, the former featuring Martyn sarcastically taunting his paramour about her suave, Latin-dancing boyfriend, and wondering if he has ‘gold teeth in’!
By contrast, ‘Hold On My Heart’ is an unashamedly soft, romantic love song, the nearest the album comes to an early ’80s Collins or Genesis ballad.
The title track takes a satirical look at the then-newly-elected president Ronald Reagan while ‘Amsterdam’ is a harrowing portrait of a close friend’s funeral in the Dutch capital (after an unrequited obsession with a local prostitute). It features a nasty, brutal groove, sort of John’s version of post-punk, and the haunting refrain: ‘The night the kid left Amsterdam…’ It’s the ‘80s flipside to ‘Solid Air’.
The album ends with the desolate ‘Don’t You Go’, a heartbreaking anti-war folk ballad with John’s moving vocal accompanied only by Collins’ piano and ghostly vocoder.
Another reason for Glorious Fool’s success is the sheer quality of the musicianship. The band can turn on a dime, and Collins has never played better, coming up with three or four classic beats and demonstrating a perfect understanding of what each song requires.
The album was a reasonable success, hitting #25 on the UK charts and staying in the top 100 for seven weeks, and the critics were generally onside. It also made for a very interesting companion piece to Collins’ Face Value, released six months before. You don’t need me to tell you which record sold more copies, but I doubt John lost much sleep over it.