Peter Gabriel’s So: 30 Years Old Today

gabrielVirgin Records, released 19th May 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1986

‘At the time of coming back, he had tremendous determination. He said, “I do want to make it! I do want to succeed!” Instead of going along with the idea that he is different, special, unique, precious, So was about him saying, “F**k that! I’m going to allow myself to succeed.”’

Jill Gabriel, quoted in ‘Peter Gabriel’ by Spencer Bright

So was the Peter Gabriel album that put him – albeit very briefly – into the Big League, alongside the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Prince, Hall and Oates and Springsteen. He stopped being simply the slightly esoteric, hugely-respected, highly-intelligent man about the arts, and opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; it’s a near-perfect mix of art and commerce.

photo by Steven Toole

photo by Steven Toole

In interviews, Gabriel has described the ’83/’84’ period as a dark time in his life. He mixed and released an excellent live album and looked for solace in film soundtrack work, producing two fairly inconsequential tracks: ‘Walk Through The Fire‘ from ‘Against All Odds’ and ‘Out Out‘ – produced by Nile Rodgers and featuring Adrian Belew on lead guitar – from ‘Gremlins’. Far more substantial was his soundtrack for Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’, but, most importantly, it was the project that introduced him to So co-producer Daniel Lanois. Gabriel later credited Lanois and his then wife Jill for steering him back towards more positive thoughts, and much more ‘up’ music and lyrics.

Gabriel came up with 20 new songs by early 1985. Lanois helped him whittle them down to 12, and then six months of pre-production began, focusing on song structures and arrangements. So was mainly recorded at Gabriel’s home studio, Ashcombe House near Bath. Working at home was intended to save money on big studio fees and also speed up the creative process, but lyric-writing was still a big problem and a lack of words necessitated two missed release deadlines for So: 31st July 1985 and 14th December 1985. Virgin were patient. Lanois once even nailed him into a back room to force him to come up with some lyrics – Gabriel was not amused, at least not for a few hours. ‘It is the most upset I’ve seen him at the studio,’ guitarist David Rhodes remarked. Lanois had made his point.

Musically, Gabriel very much leaned on tried-and-tested collaborators such as Rhodes and Tony Levin – it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing bass on So. He’s so much part of the music. Check out his ‘drumstick bass’ (later marketed as Funk Fingers!) on ‘Big Time’. No one else would have thought of that. Joni Mitchell’s then husband Larry Klein also plays some lovely fretless on ‘Mercy Street’. French-African newcomer Manu Katche amazed everyone with his drumming, particularly on ‘That Voice Again‘ and ‘In Your Eyes’. He had a new twist on Stewart Copeland’s style and also somehow found the time to fit occasional tom-tom flurries into his grooves too.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Red Rain‘ opens with some resplendent Copeland hi-hat work, and ends with the kind of piano/vocal coda that Simple Minds excelled at – the influences were now flowing both ways. ‘Don’t Give Up‘ was inspired by a BBC TV documentary about the effect of unemployment on British family life, and also the photography of Dorothea Lange, portraying dust-bowl conditions during the Great Depression.

Mercy Street‘, dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, shows evidence of Lanois’ influence; its opening ambient textures resemble Brian Eno’s ‘Under Stars‘ which Lanois co-produced. Gabriel’s low-octave vocals apparently had to be recorded first thing in the morning for maximum deepness. The song’s Brazilian/African groove predates Paul Simon’s Graceland by six months or so.

We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)‘, concerning social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments, was originally recorded for Melt in 1980. While musically very rich and dark (I always think of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ when I hear that opening minor chord), lyrically it is possibly a little half-baked – it’s hard to see what ‘One doubt/One voice/One war/One truth/One dream’ has to do with the experiment.

Big Time‘ is Gabriel’s amusing, self-mocking, Randy Newmanesque satire on success and celebrity – ‘This drive for success is a basic part of human nature and my nature’, he later said. Musically, it’s a potent mixture of driving Copeland drums, treated rhythm guitar, synth bass, quasi-industrial samples and some great Hammond organ by Simon Clark. Another much rockier version – featuring Jerry Marotta on drums – was also recorded but scrapped just before the mastering stage.

‘Sledgehammer’ was the last song written and recorded for So. Ironically, it dislodged Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch’ to become a US number one single in July 1986. A catalogue of sexual innuendos, it’s one of the weirder hits of the 1980s. Its odd cheerfulness may come from the fact that it’s mainly in a major key, a rarity for an R’n’B-influenced track. David Rhodes’ rhythm guitar part is eccentric and the Farfisa organ bizarre. The opening sampled bamboo flute was copied by hundreds of keyboard players across the UK (or at least a few in my school). The groundbreaking video for the song, directed by Stephen Johnson (who had used similar techniques for Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’ clip), required 100 hours of Gabriel’s time.

Apparently Gabriel was obsessed with the album’s sequencing: he made up endless cassettes featuring just song endings/beginnings, testing all the different permutations. He always wanted ‘In Your Eyes’ to close So, but was persuaded otherwise when told that its drums and bass wouldn’t hold up very well at the end of a long side of vinyl (though it’s hard to ‘hear’ it anywhere else but at the beginning of side two…). He finally got it where he wanted it on the definitive remastered version.

Gabriel’s only concession to the record company was to name the album something apart from ‘Peter Gabriel’. So seemed suitably off-the-cuff – ‘It had a nice shape but very little meaning’, he later said. He also decided that a simple cover shot would better suit the directness of the music and lyrics than some of the more disturbing covers of albums past. So‘s design and packaging still look fantastic today.

The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and by summer 1987 had sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Gabriel promoted the album extensively before embarking on Amnesty’s Human Rights Now! with Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen in 1988. He had a lot more than music on his mind – he waited a full six years before releasing the official follow-up to So.

More power to PG – a national treasure.

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Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog: 30 Years Old Today

joni_mitchell-dog_eat_dog(2)Geffen Records, released 30th October 1985

Bought: Christmas present, 1985

9/10

Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.

As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell‘s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that Dog Eat Dog would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.

joni

Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.

One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s palpable anger, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’. She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free‘ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.

The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.

‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!

The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.

Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian

The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen (David Geffen’s label). For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’

A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would definitely benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.

American Dreams Lost And Found: Robbie Robertson’s 1987 Solo Debut

robbie robertsonGeffen Records, released 27th October 1987

8/10

Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade appearing alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s partner in crime, acting as music consultant and occasional composer for ‘The King Of Comedy‘ and ‘The Color Of Money‘.

I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of countercultural heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in late 1987.

I think it was Robbie’s beguiling spoken-word vocal and the swirling ‘Daniel Lanois gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style) that drew me in – echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So with Manu Katche’s masterful Steve Gadd-influenced drums and Tony Levin’s expressive bass.

Gabriel himself supplies keyboards and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’, dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel, and also contributes trademark piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’.

American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture with some driving rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio (check out his bizarro groove playing in the outro) while ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ is another superb rocker with fine bass playing from Joni Mitchell’s hubby Larry Klein.

The only disappointments are two lacklustre collaborations with U2 (one inexplicably involving legendary jazz arranger Gil Evans too), but that’s what the ‘program’ button on the CD player is for.

Robbie Robertson is one of the best post-Live Aid rock albums, a great debut and interesting companion piece to Gabriel’s So, Joni’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. It was a really interesting era for the survivors of the ’60s and ’70s.

In a way, Live Aid, which featured such strong showings by ‘veterans’ like Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie, had given the older guys a new lease of life and a new reason to get back out there. Robbie was definitely tuning in.

Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis: 30 Years Old Today

Wayne-Shorter-Atlantis--Press-K-486376Columbia Records, released 1985

9/10

It’s not easy to write about an album that’s so much part of your musical DNA that it haunts you in the middle of the night and yet reveals fresh nuances every time you listen to it.

But first of all, I have to declare an interest – Wayne is one of my all-time musical heroes and has been since I was a teenager when his sax playing and compositions with Weather Report and Miles Davis totally bewitched me.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it took me 20 years to really appreciate Atlantis, and also to realise that it had to be listened to on CD and listened to loud. The recent remaster, as part of Wayne’s Complete Albums Collection, is the best I’ve ever heard it.

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1989. Photo by William Ellis

Wayne at The International, Manchester, 1987. Photo by William Ellis

How to describe the magical though totally uncompromising music on Atlantis? It was Wayne’s first solo release after the official split of Weather Report and it’s fair to say it wasn’t the album many fans and critics were expecting. It surely remains Wayne’s least understood work.  It’s ostensibly an album of through-composed, acoustic ‘fusion’, but that barely covers it. Someone once described it as the soundtrack to an animated children’s book.

Wayne seems to be weaning listeners away from a more bombastic form of jazz/rock towards a new combination of jazz, R’n’B and Third Stream which utilises sophisticated counterpoint and pure composition. Shorter is the only player who gets any significant solo time. Acoustic piano, flute, vocals and multiple saxes supply the dense, challenging, sometimes dissonant harmonies.

Atlantis could hardly be described as a ‘jazz’ album at all; ensemble work and composition generally override individual expression, and none of the tracks ‘swing’ in a conventional sense. And yet it’s still an utterly melodic set, full of memorable, criss-crossing themes which jostle for your attention. It takes time to work its magic, but work its magic it does.

The phenomenal opener ‘Endangered Species’ (recently massacred by Esperanza Spalding) is somewhat of a  ‘sweetener’ at the top of the album, like Sirens luring sailors to their deaths, as Shorter biographer Michelle Mercer noted. Many people, me included, struggled to get very far past it since the remainder of Atlantis sounded somewhat prim and precious in comparison. I wanted to hear Zawinul and Jaco’s blistering lines, Omar Hakim‘s colourful drumming, some virtuosity.

But when I studied Atlantis more closely, there are many subtle displays of instrumental mastery. Ex-Weather Report drummer Alex Acuna plays a blinder throughout, blazing through the outro of ‘Who Goes There’, Larry Klein’s bass playing is nimble and impressive (try playing along to Wayne’s intricate written lines), Michiko Hill’s piano comping is inventive and Wayne plays some fantastic solos, particularly his Rollins-style tenor on calypso-flavoured ‘Criancas’.

I remember seeing Wayne playing much of this music live to a barely-half-full London Shaw Theatre in late 1985 – it seems that audiences, booking agents and press officers alike were finding his post-Weather Report music a hard sell at this point. Critics were generally puzzled too, although Robert Palmer noted in the New York Times that ‘it’s not an album one should listen to a few times and then knowledgeably evaluate… It is an album to learn from and live with.’

wayne shorter

But if Atlantis was misunderstood and less than commercially successful on its original release, it seems to be gaining fans in the 30 years since. A good yardstick is that several compositions from the album are still regularly played by Shorter’s esteemed current quartet, particularly the title track, an eerie, labyrinthine tango.

‘The Three Marias’, a treacherous tune in 6/4 inspired by press reports of three Portuguese woman being arrested for writing obscene literature, has even been the unlikely recipient of a few cover versions, perhaps most notably (though not wholly effectively) by ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers.

Shorter delivered two more albums of dense and beautiful compositions before the ’80s were out, and I’ll return to them very soon.

Thanks to William Ellis for use of his photo.

(P.S. I’m taking one mark off for ‘Shere Khan The Tiger’ which was far better rendered on Carlos Santana’s 1980 album The Swing Of Delight, a version which featured Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Harvey Mason on drums.)

New Wave Love Songs: Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast

joni_mitchell-wild_things_run_fast(4)Geffen Records, released October 1982

8/10

As Joni reported to Q magazine in 1988, she entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’ Apparently she attended a New Year’s Eve party at the house of singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop which had the ghastly theme ‘Be nice to the ’80s and the ’80s will be nice to you’. On the way to the shindig, her beloved ’69 Bluebird was stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t a great start to the decade.

David Geffen and Joni, early '80s

David Geffen and Joni, early ’80s

There were other reasons to be worried. She was sued by her cleaning lady and found herself headhunted by old friend and media mogul David Geffen for his new label, though their relationship were never easy.

And then there was Reagan, Thatcher and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely, though she’d make up for that big-time with 1985’s potent Dog Eat Dog. Instead, buoyed by her marriage to new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date.

The simplistic critical reaction to Wild Things Run Fast was that she had turned her back on the ‘jazz’ period which culminated in the 1979 masterpiece Mingus (and live album Shadows And Light). But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Larry Klein and Joni, 21st November 1982

Another clue was that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton. Her new recruits were guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Russell Ferrante and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.

My point of entry for this album was the superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, recently voted in Uncut magazine’s top 30 Joni songs (nominated by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason), the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan.

It’s a very moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and a beautifully intricate drum part by Guerin, a great companion piece to ‘Both Sides Now’.

‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazz Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a great (and extremely underrated) bassist of the ’80s and worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter. The great Larry Carlton does something similar on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’, playing a sublime accompaniment on the left channel while Joni bitterly surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’. Lionel Richie even shows up on ‘You Dream Flat Tires’ to deliver one line and add some vocal harmonies – who saw that coming?

Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, though the latter is the weakest song on the album – Joni should probably have left reggae well alone.

The closing ‘Love’ encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast – a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta. And its appropriation of Corinthians 13 11-13 sums up Joni’s romantic worldview beautifully; hopeful about the future but constantly wary, ever aware of love’s tribulations.

TourProgram83RefugeGroup

Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante

Joni toured this album extensively with a superb band of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London for a date at the Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. But thankfully we have YouTube (see below).

The album was a minor hit, reaching 32 in the UK album charts and #25 in the States, and the single ‘(You’re So Square) Baby, I Don’t Care’ reached 47 in the US singles chart.

One’s appreciation of Wild Things probably depends on when you were born. There are people who adore Blue and For The Roses who must loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.