‘Wendy & Lisa’: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 24th September 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989?

8/10

Los Angeles, October 1986, just after the Japanese leg of the ‘Parade’ tour: Prince has invited his bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman to dinner (Lisa will later report in her excellent liner notes for the Wendy & Lisa 2013 reissue that she ‘knew something was up’ as soon as they arrived).

To cut a long story short, he gives them the boot – in the nicest possible way. The Revolution is no more. Lisa: ‘We were like Fleetwood Mac and Sly & The Family Stone rolled into one… I thought we were going to make records together for the rest of our lives.’ But Prince wants to take back his freedom and sex up his act again. Struggling for the right words, apparently he says to Wendy and Lisa: ‘I can’t ask you to wear crotchless panties or nippleless bras…’

After a period of introspection, the ladies get together with other sacked Revolution member Bobby Z and write a few songs. At this stage, they have no intention of releasing the new material as ‘Wendy & Lisa’. But once they agree to front the band, a record company bidding war ensues. Huge advances are mentioned. They settle on a ‘big but sensible deal’ with Virgin. Predictably, the suits are less than turned on by the more musicianly moments on the album, but the ladies are unapologetic, saying that they ‘wanted to show off all the colours in our crayon box’.

So much for the history. How does Wendy & Lisa stack up these days? Pretty well. The singles ‘Sideshow’ and ‘Waterfall’ are probably the weakest tracks, though the latter has a cracking chorus and was apparently deemed a surefire hit by the record company and musician friends. But it didn’t do the business, not helped by its rather humdrum video. As Lisa says in the liner notes: ‘I had paid my showbiz dues with The Revolution.’

But the album works brilliantly when it sticks to the ‘cool chord changes over good beats’ remit, when they genuinely do sound like a mashup of ’80s Joni Mitchell and Prince. ‘Honeymoon Express’ exemplifies this approach, nicking Sly Dunbar’s ‘My Jamaican Guy’ beat and adding a sumptuous melody. The vocal harmony in the chorus is just sublime. ‘Light’, ‘Everything But You’ and ‘Chance To Grow’ also succeed in a similar vein. Wendy’s multi-instrumental skills (vocals, guitar, bass, sometimes drums) and Lisa’s impressionistic synth parts mesh perfectly.

‘Song About’ sounds eerily like The Carpenters. Ballads ‘The Life’ and ‘Stay’ have become fan favourites, the former also turning up in an improved Trevor Horn-produced reworking on the soundtrack of Michelle Pfeiffer movie ‘Dangerous Minds’. The instrumental ‘White’, featuring Tom Scott on soprano and a killer bit of drum machine programming by Wendy, is possibly the standout. Test your speakers out with this one, kids.

Wendy & Lisa – perhaps surprisingly – was not a hit. Lacking a breakout single, it didn’t dent the US top 100 and only scraped to #84 in the UK. Better Wendy & Lisa albums would follow, but this is an ambitious, arresting debut. All the colours in the crayon box indeed.

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Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.

Larry Carlton: Last Nite 30 Years On

MCA Records, released June 1987

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith, summer 1987

9/10

In a previous piece about Robert Cray, I talked about ‘touch’ guitarists, those whose sounds are almost entirely in their fingers and not dependent on pedals or amps. Larry Carlton is certainly one of them. He played some of the great guitar of the 1970s with Steely Dan, The Crusaders, Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, his sound characterised by a deceptively ‘sweet’ take on the blues, alongside elements of jazz and rock. In the early ’80s, he put out some fine studio albums including Sleepwalk and Friends, but ’87’s Last Nite was his first official live release.

And what an album. In 1987, I was a big fan of his playing with Steely Dan but had never heard any of his solo stuff. A glowing review of Last Nite in Q Magazine sent me scuttling off to my local Our Price. Recorded on 17th February 1986 at the Baked Potato club in North Hollywood (good old YouTube has preserved some of the gig for posterity – see below), the album is Larry uncut, blowing on a mixture of originals and jazz standards, with no thought of commercial or airplay potential.

It’s hard to think of another guitarist who could cover such a stylistic range so effortlessly. He kills on the slow blues, tears up the fast Texas-style shuffle, delivers deliciously ‘out’ fusion on the title track and swings his ass off on ‘All Blues and ‘So What’, though with a pleasingly piercing tone as opposed to the warm sound favoured by most ‘jazz’ players. He’s also endlessly melodic, producing memorable phrase after memorable phrase. But don’t be fooled by the beatific expression and cream jacket – he isn’t afraid of throwing in some pretty wacky modal curveballs too.

Another key aspect of Last Nite is Carlton’s band. He uses the cream of the LA studio scene – John ‘JR’ Robinson on drums, Abe Laboriel on bass, Alex Acuna on percussion – and brings them right out of their comfort zone. Apparently they didn’t know ‘So What’ and ‘All Blues’ were on the setlist until Larry called them. JR in particular is a revelation, sounding like he’s been cooped up in the studio for far too long. And who knew he could swing like he does on the jazz cuts. Keyboard player Terry Trotter also impresses with his rich voicings and empathetic accompaniment.

Sadly, Last Nite turns out to be a bit of an anomaly in Larry’s discography, marking the beginning of an era when he was veering more and more towards a much smoother studio sound. But he’s always ripped it up in the live arena and has spent a lot more time on the road in his later years.

Winter Music

winter-music

So the evenings draw in, Christmas clogs up the telly and hygge is all over the Sunday supplements. You contemplate your navel and your age and comment on how quickly the year has gone by…again.

And if you listen to music a lot, chances are you’ll probably notice how your tastes change as the season eases from autumn to winter. This may have happened when winter turned to spring too, but something a bit more introspective might be called for when your football team starts sliding and the heavy stuff comes out of storage and into your wardrobe.

Here are nine ’80s tracks that instantly say winter to me, calling at Ambient, Eerie and Lovelorn:

9. Pat Metheny Group: ‘Distance’ (1987)

This is the only track from the Still Life (Talking) album I can listen to these days. Lyle Mays’ composition sticks out like a sore thumb on that 1987 collection, a challenging, spooky piece with a touch of serialism that suggests Very Bad Things… A soundtrack for the movie that never was.

8. Roxy Music: ‘To Turn You On’ (1982)

Ferry’s tale of long-distance love for someone very unsuitable. He’s in London, she’s in New York. She possibly has some kind of ‘ailment’ – drug addiction? Mental health problem? (You may be reading too much into this… Ed). He is hopelessly and rather tragically smitten. One of Ferry’s finest ballads with a crackerjack band (Paul Carrack, Rick Marotta, Alan Spenner, Neil Hubbard) bringing it to life.

7. David Sylvian: ‘Pop Song’ (1989)

I could have chosen any amount of Sylvo tracks but have settled on this stand-alone 12” single, his cheeky response to Virgin Records’ request for one more solo hit (which never materialised). It paints a fairly bleak portrait of late-’80s Britain as a nation of clock-watching factory workers numbed by banal pop music, featuring microtonal synths, Steve Jansen’s clever drum layering and close-interval piano work from the late John Taylor.

6. U2: ‘4th Of July’ (1984)

Ostensibly a duet for bass (though surely that’s not Adam Clayton?) and ‘infinite guitar’ (The Edge put through Eno’s processing systems), U2’s first bash at pure ambience was a minor triumph. To say one doesn’t miss Bono’s voice would be an understatement. As far as I know, the band have never attempted anything similar since – more’s the pity.

5. The Sundays: ‘Skin & Bones’ (1990, recorded in 1989)

The unforgettable lead-off track from the classic Reading, Writing & Arithmetic album. The Cocteau Twins meets The Smiths? You betcha.

4. Mark Isham: ‘In The Blue Distance’ (1983)

Isham’s plaintive trumpet and atmospheric keyboard playing create a sombre yet uplifting winter masterpiece. Click here for a listen.

3. Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ (1982)

I first heard this nostalgic classic in late 1983 and it was my first exposure to Joni’s music. I’ve never forgotten it and will forever associate it with this time of year.

2. Love & Money: ‘Inflammable’ (1988)

One of many great torch songs penned by James Grant, featuring on the late-’80s classic Strange Kind Of Love. ‘I go looking for what I want in the wrong places’ – there’s a winter mantra for urban singletons right there…

1. Lloyd Cole: ‘Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ (1985)

Let’s face it, winter can also be haunted by ghosts of failed romances, stolen moments and disastrous Christmas flings. This classic covers all that stuff very efficiently with a nice line in black humour.

Check out the playlist on Spotify (minus a few tracks not currently available).

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.

Check out Part One of the Summer Playlist here.

Prince’s Parade: 30 Years Old Today

prince

Warner Bros/Paisley Park, released 31st March 1986

9/10

On 17th April 1985, just ten days after the end of the Purple Rain tour, Prince walked into LA’s Sunset Sound studios, sat at the drums, taped the lyrics of four new songs onto a music stand, picked up his sticks and instructed engineer Susan Rogers: ‘Don’t stop the tape when I stop playing. Just keep rolling.’ He then played through ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, ‘New Position’, ‘I Wonder U’ and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ without pausing. This guy worked fast. The recording sessions for Parade had begun.

Prince, Brussels 1986

Prince, Brussels 1986

The album would see Prince continue his extraordinary mid-’80s run of form, surely comparable to Stevie Wonder’s fabled 1972–1976 period. He couldn’t release albums fast enough and the wider world was waking up to just how prolific he really was. His striking new horns-and-orchestra-driven sound, by turns jazzy, funky and psychedelic, lost him some fans in the States but made him a huge star in Europe.

Parade showed off the amazing versatility of Prince (drums, bass, guitar and keyboards) and his main collaborators Wendy (guitar) & Lisa (keyboards). It’s a trip, an anti-boredom album full of glorious contradictions – it features his first instrumental track but still contains four classic dancefloor singles; it’s his densest, most ‘produced’ ’80s album (alongside Lovesexy) and yet features his first all-acoustic track, recorded completely live in the studio; Clare Fischer’s orchestral arrangements are always high in the mix but rub shoulders with the Sunset Sound’s ancient sound effects library; Prince utilises ultramodern tech like a guitar synth and a Fairlight sampler, but the main solo instruments are Eric Leeds’ tenor and baritone sax. And there is zero electric lead guitar, barely 18 months after Purple Rain.

References this time around were The Beatles, ’80s Miles Davis, show tunes and funk-era James Brown. The biggest influence though is late-’70s Joni Mitchell. Parade is the nearest Prince ever got to the kaleidoscope range of her classic albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Hissing Of The Summer Lawns. There were also more vocals in Prince’s music than ever before: Wendy, Lisa, Susannah (Wendy’s sister and Prince’s fiancée) and Sheila E all contributed massively to the occasional West Coast/Bangles sound.

Prince_GB_single

By 2nd June 1985, nine songs for Parade were in the can, though three would later be left off the final album – the spooky ‘Others Here With Us’, frothy ‘All My Dreams’ and superfunky ‘Sexual Suicide’. Prince was also now working on not one but two other albums, Jill Jones and Mazarati’s debuts. By late June, he was also scouting locations in the south of France for the upcoming ‘Under The Cherry Moon‘ movie. But, true to form, he couldn’t stop recording – he set up a makeshift recording studio in his Antibes hotel suite.

Parade‘s first three tracks – ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, ‘New Position’ and ‘I Wonder U’ – pass by in the blink of an eye, gloriously odd, genuinely psychedelic funk miniatures. Very few have taken on the mantle of this style of music since 1986, though D’Angelo had a good go on the superb Voodoo album.

utcm-1

‘Under The Cherry Moon’ is almost a ’30s-style jazz number featuring asthmatic synths, fantastic piano playing and a daring melody line. I’d like to hear Tom Waits’ cover. If you listen very closely, you can hear the rattle of Prince’s necklace as he lays down the drum track.

‘Girls And Boys’ is a classic one-chord funk tune whose blaring guitar synth adds an engaging weirdness. Saxophonist Eric Leeds makes his mark on Prince’s music for the first time (though had already featured prominently on The Family’s album). ‘Life Can Be So Nice’ features fake harpsichord, sampled flute, piercing cowbell, some intricate acoustic guitar and a heavily-treated kick drum. It’s discordant and thrilling with an envelope-pushing vocal arrangement and some bizarre lyrics. The last minute of the song is a Latin/fusion jam in the Santana or Weather Report vein.

‘Venus De Milo’ is a sumptuous piece of symphonic muzak with some gorgeous trumpet from Matt Blistan (renamed Atlanta Bliss by Prince!) while ‘Mountains’ is another classic single, largely penned by Wendy & Lisa. The 12” mix has to be heard. ‘Do U Lie’ is an intoxicating little slice of soft jazz with cocktail guitar, spoken word, strings and accordion.

Prince_kiss

‘Kiss’ is another effortless classic. It was the first single to be released from Parade, hitting US number one in April ’86, though apparently loathed by the Warner Bros suits. Initially given to the band Mazarati for their debut album, it was reclaimed by Prince when he realised the potential of the track. He kept their backing vocals and gave them some money.

‘Anotherloverholenyohead’, recorded on December 16th 1985, was the last track recorded for Parade. Lisa’s crystalline, densely-voiced piano sounds like it was recorded in a school assembly hall, and there’s more peculiar guitar synth and a few incredible bass runs from Prince. The full-length version made for another classic 12” single.

Album-closer ‘Sometimes It Snows In April’ is Joni all the way. Its improvised, rubato prologue is very reminiscent of the opening to ‘Cotton Avenue‘. Prince delivers an amazing lead vocal but the song needs a stronger chorus (‘Sometimes I feel so bad’) and Wendy & Lisa’s backing vox are extremely rough. The track divides opinion – some find it moving, some mawkish (I’m in the latter camp) – but it was a pretty brave choice to close such an important album.

prince

The Parade sessions also spawned some fantastic B-sides: ‘Alexa De Paris’, ‘Sexual Suicide’, ‘Power Fantastic’, ‘4 The Tears In Your Eyes’, ‘Love Or Money’, ‘All My Dreams’ and the notorious ‘Old Friends 4 Sale’. All are well worth seeking out.

Then came the European tour. A funk revue. Horns, dance routines, backing vocals. Again, virtually no lead guitar. Europe loved him – there were riots in Holland – but the tour didn’t even make the States, which many insiders believe was a big mistake. Instead, there were several separate shows under the banner of the Hit & Run Tour. Sample some of the show here. You won’t regret it.

Despite the success of ‘Kiss’ in the States, three follow-up singles peaked outside the top 50. Prince believed that Warner Bros’ choice of second single (‘Mountains’) was wrong – it should have been ‘Girls And Boys’. Parade sold considerably less (1.8 million) in the States than Purple Rain (10 million) and Around The World In A Day (4 million).

By the end of the tour, it was all change: Wendy & Lisa were out of the band, Prince and Susannah had broken off their engagement and ‘Under The Cherry Moon’ had stiffed. But there were still a couple of amazing albums left in the tank which we will focus on in due course.