Hal Willner (1956-2020)

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.

Hal Willner (6 April 1956 – 7 April 2020)

Lou Reed: The Best Of The 1980s

Lou’s gallows humour has been giving me a lift recently, a tonic for these troubled times. There’s just something very apt about his cast of characters ‘that just squeak by’, with no hope of salvation.

His marriage of rock’n’roll music with the language of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Chandler and Tennessee Williams also seems totally timeless, and it’s barely believable that we’re approaching seven years since his death.

The predictable critical narrative is that Reed had a dodgy 1980s, not releasing a decent album until New York. But I’d throw in ’82’s The Blue Mask and ’84’s New Sensations too; by my reckoning, his only dog of the decade is 1986’s Mistrial. He also seemed to develop, slowly leaving behind the drugs/booze and moving towards higher climes by ’89.

Here’s a selection of the good stuff, often featuring such quality players as Robert Quine, Fernando Sanders, Fred Maher and L Shankar. He put a lot out there, addressing jealousy, addiction, violence, ecological issues. A cliché though it may be, it’s hard to imagine anyone ‘getting away’ with some of this these days.

Check out the playlist here and lyrics below. Keep calm and listen to Lou…

 

‘The Power Of Positive Drinking’ (1980)

Some like wine and some like hops
But what I really love is my scotch
It’s the power, the power of positive drinking

Some people ruin their drinks with ice
And then they ask you for advice
They tell you, I’ve never told anyone else before

They say, candy is dandy but liquor makes quipsters
And I don’t like mixers, sippers or sob sisters
You know, you have to be real careful where you sit down in a bar these days

And then some people drink to unleash their libidos
And other people drink to prop up their egos
It’s my burden, man
People say I have the kind of face you can trust

Some people say alcohol makes you less lucid
And I think that’s true if you’re kind of stupid
I’m not the kind that gets himself burned twice

And some say liquor kills the cells in your head
And for that matter so does getting out of bed
When I exit, I’ll go out gracefully, shot in my hand

The pow-pow-pow-pow-power of positive drinking

 

‘Average Guy’ (1982)

I ain’t no Christian or no born-again saint
I ain’t no cowboy or a Marxist DA
I ain’t no criminal or Reverend Cripple from the right
I am just your average guy, trying to do what’s right

I’m just your average guy, an average guy
I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place
You wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face

I worry about money and taxes and such
I worry that my liver’s big and it hurts to the touch
I worry about my health and bowels
And the crimewaves in the street

I’m really just your average guy
Trying to stand on his own two feet
Average looks, average taste, average height, average waist
Average in everything I do
My temperature is 98.2

 

‘Turn To Me’ (1984)

If you gave up major vices
You’re between a hard place and a wall
And your car breaks down in traffic on the street

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

If you father is freebasing and your mother turning tricks
That’s still no reason that you should have a rip
Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When your teeth are ground down to the bone
And there’s nothing between your legs
And some friend died of something that you can’t pronounce

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

You can’t pay your rent
Your boss is an idiot
Your apartment has no heat
Your wife says maybe it’s time to have a child

Remember, I’m the one who loves you
You can always give me a call
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

When it’s all too much
You turn the TV set on and light a cigarette
Then a public service announcement comes creeping on
You see a lung corroding or a fatal heart attack
Turn to me, turn to me, turn to me

 

‘Doin’ The Things We Want To’ (1984)

The other night we went to see Sam’s play
Doin’ the things that we want to
It was very physical, it held you to the stage
Doin’ the things that he want to
The guy’s a cowboy from some rodeo
Doin’ the things that we want to
The girl had once loved him, but now she want to go
Doin’ the things that we want to
The man was bullish, the woman was a tease
Doin’ the things that we want to
They fought with their words, their bodies and their deeds
Doin’ the things that we want to
When they finished fighting, they excited the stage
Doin’ the things that we want to
I was firmly struck by the way they had behaved
Doin’ the things that we want to …
It reminds me of the movies Marty made about New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
Those frank and brutal movies that are so brilliant
Doin’ the things that we want to
‘Fool For Love’ meet ‘The Raging Bull’
Doin’ the things that we want to
They’re very inspirational, I love the things they do
Doin’ the things that we want to
There’s not much you hear on the radio today
Doin’ the things that we want to
But you still can see a movie or a play
Doin’ the things that we want to
Here’s to Travis Bickle and here’s to Johnny Boy
Doin’ the things that we want to
Growing up in the mean streets of New York
Doin’ the things that we want to
I wrote this song ’cause I’d like to shake your hand
Doin’ the things that we want to
In a way you guys are the best friends I ever had
Doin’ the things that we want to

 

‘The Last Great American Whale’ (1989)

They say he didn’t have an enemy
His was a greatness to behold
He was the last surviving progeny
The last one on this side of the world

He measured half a mile from tip to tail
Silver and black with powerful fins
They say he could split a mountain in two
That’s how we got the Grand Canyon

Some say they saw him at the Great Lakes
Some say they saw him off the coast of Florida
My mother said she saw him in Chinatown
But you can’t always trust your mother

Off the Carolinas the sun shines brightly in the day
The lighthouse glows ghostly there at night
The chief of a local tribe had killed a racist mayor’s son
And he’d been on death row since 1958

The mayor’s kid was a rowdy pig
Spit on Indians and lots worse
The old chief buried a hatchet in his head
Life compared to death for him seemed worse

The tribal brothers gathered in the lighthouse to sing
And tried to conjure up a storm or rain
The harbour parted and the great whale sprang full up
And caused a huge tidal wave
The wave crushed the jail and freed the chief
The tribe let out a roar

The whites were drowned
The browns and reds set free
But sadly one thing more
Some local yokel member of the NRA
Kept a bazooka in his living room
And thinking he had the chief in his sights
Blew the whale’s brains out with a lead harpoon

Well Americans don’t care for much of anything
Land and water the least
And animal life is low on the totem pole
With human life not worth much more than infected yeast
Americans don’t care too much for beauty
They’ll shit in a river, dump battery acid in a stream
They’ll watch dead rats wash up on the beach
And complain if they can’t swim

They say things are done for the majority
Don’t believe half of what you see
And none of what you hear
It’s a lot like what my painter friend Donald said to me:
‘Stick a fork in their ass and turn ’em over, they’re done’

Cult-De-Sac: Miss World (1992)

There were a lot of good quiffs around in the ’80s. The rockabilly and psychobilly revivals certainly wouldn’t have been the same without them, but one of the best was sported by Jonathan Perkins, lead singer/songwriter of Miss World.

Though Miss World’s self-titled debut album came out in early ’90s, it seems very much informed by the music of the 1980s. It was released on David A Stewart’s Anxious Records, featured cameos from Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers and was very much under the influence of Iggy Pop’s Blah-Blah-Blah, INXS and Nick Cave, as well as Lou Reed, The Doors and Berlin-era Bowie.

I bought the first album after seeing their mightily impressive set supporting Shakespear’s Sister at the Hammersmith Odeon in summer 1992. An internet search of Perkins reveals very little, except that he was born in Swindon, was possibly an early member of XTC and probably later turned up in mid-’80s nearlymen Silver Spurs.

But whatever his pedigree, Perkins certainly seems to have a great record collection. Miss World opener ‘The First Female Serial Killer’ has a super-cool vocal delivery (is it about Aileen Wuornos?) while ‘Nine Steps To Nowhere’ sounds like Michael Hutchence fronting The Doors. ‘Watch That Man’ marries Iggy Pop’s ‘Isolation’ with Bowie’s ‘New Career In A New Town’ to superb effect.

‘Dead Flowers’ comes on a bit like Jim Morrison singing with The Clash, and then there are great, weirdo murder ballads ‘Highway Of Dead Roads’, ‘Thief Inside’ and ‘British Pharmaceuticals’. Lou Reed couldn’t have done a better job at covering ‘What A Wonderful World’. ‘Love Is The Whole Of The Law’ might be the best of the lot, the only co-write with Dave Stewart.

Perkins also has a great ear for a strong first line: ‘You make me act like a locust‘ (‘Nine Steps To Nowhere’), ‘I’m wasting away/The voices in my head have come out to play‘ (‘Highway Of Dead Roads’) and the Withnailesque ‘I was feeling very beautiful/Having taken pharmaceuticals‘. And – good news for us – the songs either seem to be about sex, drugs, death or religion, sometimes all of them.

Legendary recording engineer Phill Brown (Spirit Of Eden, Solid Air etc) gets a gorgeously uncluttered sound and then there’s the none-more-David-Lynchian cover image.

Not much has been heard from the band since this excellent debut, though some weird footage emerged a few years ago of a comeback gig with Perkins sporting a natty turban. And they seem to have some more recent tracks on streaming platforms. But they never quite caught on after this strong start, more’s the pity.

Great Opening Lines In 1980s Songs

As we’ve said before, the 1980s produced some fine lyricists. You couldn’t move for decent wordsmithery. But interesting lyrics came from the damndest places. 

What was that Trevor Horn maxim? A good pop song should be like a good story, such that the listener is always asking: what’s going to happen next?

And, like a good story, pretty much every good song starts with an intriguing opening line or two. As the proverbial cigar-munching music-biz mogul might say: ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar, kid…’ So here are some great opening lines from 1980s songs, lines that hopefully satisfy Horn’s requirements.

Everything But The Girl: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

Associates: ‘Club Country’

‘The fault is/I can find no fault in you’

 

Wet Wet Wet: ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’

‘I was living in a land of make believe/
When my best friend wrote and told me that there may be a job in the city’

 

Lou Reed: ‘How Do You Speak To An Angel’

‘A son who is cursed with a harridan mother or a weak simpering father at best/
Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives of filial love and incest’

 

Steely Dan: ‘Babylon Sisters’

Drive west on Sunset to the sea/
Turn that jungle music down/
Just until we’re out of town’

 

Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’

I’ll have a shower then call my brother up/
Within the hour I’ll smash another cup’

 

Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe’

‘Caught in the middle/
Carol, we’re middle-class/
We’re middle-aged/

We were wild in the old days/
Birth of rock’n’roll days’

 

The Smiths: ‘Reel Around The Fountain’

‘It’s time the tale were told/
Of how you took a child and you made him old’

 

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

Miller Time in the bar where all the English meet/
She used to drink in the hills/
Only now she drinks in the valleys’

 

Love And Money: ‘Hallejulah Man’

On the blind side and down the back ways/
The roots of sadness crawl/
When you can’t get what you need/
You feel like taking a torch to it all’

Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

When routine bites hard and ambitions are low/
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow’

 

The Teardrop Explodes: ‘Reward’

Bless my cotton socks/I’m in the news’

 

Tom Waits: ‘Swordfishtrombones’

‘Well, he came home from the war with a party in his head/
And a modified Brougham DeVille and a pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings’

 

Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

‘You surely are a truly gifted kid/
But you’re only as good as the last great thing you did’

 

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions: ‘Brand New Friend’

Walking in the pouring rain/
Walking with Jesus and Jane/
Jane was in a turtleneck/
I was much happier then’

Siouxsie & The Banshees: ‘Cascade’

Oh the air was shining/
Shining like a wedding ring’

 

Bob Dylan: ‘Jokerman’

Standing on the waters casting your bread/
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing/
Distant ships sailing into the mist/
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing’

 

Robert Palmer: ‘Johnny And Mary’

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty/
He needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely’

 

Prefab Sprout: Talking Scarlet

You hide under the eiderdown/
All you can’t sweep underneath the carpet’

 

The Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar/When I met you’

 

Talking Heads: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
Might end up in the hospital’

 

Scritti Politti: ‘A Little Knowledge’

Now I know to love you/Is not to know you’

 

The Smiths: ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’

Sweetness, I was only joking/
When I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head’

Any more for any more?

John Cale: Music For A New Society 35 Years On

Whatever happened to the psychologically-complex, ‘difficult’ male solo artist? In the ’70s and ’80s, you couldn’t move for them – Peter Gabriel, Peter Hammill, Lou Reed, David Bowie, John Cale et al.

Reed and Cale particularly seemed to dwell in the murky corners of the male psyche, chronicling alcoholism, jealousy, sexual deviance, anger, loneliness, death. The latter’s Music For A New Society, released 35 years ago this month, was a case in point. An interesting companion piece to Reed’s own 1982 The Blue Mask, it sometimes seems too personal for public consumption. Cale was clearly in a pretty bad emotional state during recording.

The album’s certainly not for everyone – a lot of it’s not for me – but a few tracks still sound like modern classics. Recorded at New York’s Skyline Studios, it features a novel production style; Cale apparently tracked most of the songs with a full band (including Chris Spedding on guitar), then strategically stripped back the instrumentation, ‘playing’ the faders a bit like a dub producer. The result is a sparse, claustrophobic listen.

‘Thoughtless Kind’ and the superb ‘I Keep A Close Watch’ benefit greatly from this approach. The latter of course featured a very ornate production on Cale’s album Helen Of Troy, but this time sticks to grand piano, Hammond organ, fake harpsichord, snare drum, bagpipes and a few found sounds.

On ‘If You Were Still Around’ (featuring lyrics by Sam Shepard), ‘Damn Life’ and various other tracks, Cale sounds almost beyond help. But the standout for me is the poignant ‘Taking Your Life In Your Hands’. Online theories abound as to the song’s subject matter, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s about a school massacre and the sacrifices made by the teachers and ‘gentlemen in blue’ who saved lives. The last chorus, when Cale’s assembly-hall piano kicks in, is heartbreaking. A dark masterpiece by a sometimes superb chronicler of human nature’s murkier aspects.

 

 

 

Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask: 35 Years Old Today

61doi8e-mvl-_sl1050_RCA Records, released 24th February 1982

8/10

Humour: it’s not something often associated with Lou Reed, even though he filled up much of 1978’s Live: Take No Prisoners with breakneck Lenny Bruce-style banter. But a listen to ‘The Gun’, ‘Underneath The Bottle’ or ‘Waves Of Fear’ from The Blue Mask always cheers me up; there’s just something so uncensored, unapologetic and even cathartic about his worldview, and of course an element of ‘there but for the grace of God…’

Newly married to Sylvia Morales (who also designed the striking album cover), recently clean and apparently the happiest he’d ever been, the more extreme cuts from the album seem to point towards some of the sacrifices Reed had made for this new life, and/or the fears that it could all go pear-shaped at any moment. Maybe falling in love scared the hell out of him.

lou_reed_-_the_blue_mask_1982-in01

He had put together possibly the finest band of his career (Robert Quine on guitar, Fernando Sanders on bass, Doane Perry on drums). Gone were the perky, ‘funky’ tones of 1980’s Growing Up In Public – now it was time to return to two guitars, panned hard-left and hard-right, voice, bass and drums. The whole album has a gorgeous, ambient mix – Rudy Van Gelder would have approved.

‘Women’ is just magnificent – Sanders plays some great countermelodies on fretless while Lou eulogises: ‘A woman’s love can lift you up, and women can inspire/I feel like buying flowers and hiring a celestial choir/A choir of castratis to serenade my love/They’d sing a little Bach for us and then we’d make love.’

‘Waves Of Fear’, a coruscating portrait of alcohol DTs, plays out like a deleted scene from ‘The Lost Weekend’. In the extended outro, as Reed riffs viciously, Quine’s manic solo quivers and flaps around like a dying fish. ‘Underneath The Bottle’ also focuses on the booze to gripping and sometimes amusing effect: ‘Things are never good, things go from bad to weird/Hey, gimme another scotch with my beer.’

The title track is a Burroughsian jaunt through torture, pain and self-loathing, while ‘The Gun’ seems to represent the worst possible situation between a man and woman: ‘A man…carrying a gun/And he knows how to use it/Nine millimetre Browning/Let’s see what it can do/Tell the lady to lie down/I want you to be sure to see this,’ croaks Lou over a gentle two-chord vamp and superb Sanders bass.

‘Average Guy’ brings back the lightness, a mock-heroic look at Lou’s new life: ‘Average in everything I do/My temperature is 98.2.’ ‘The Day John Kennedy Died’ is a classic piece of modern Americana, a fable of lost innocence: ‘I dreamed I was young and smart and it was not a waste/I dreamed that there was a point to life and to the human race.’

‘No redemption, no salvation… My characters just squeeze by’, Reed told the NME in 1983. Dylan rates him as one of the great lyricists and The Blue Mask offers many reasons why. The band sounds pretty damn great too but was sadly short-lived – apparently Lou couldn’t stand Perry who fled to Jethro Tull pretty soon after the recording. Quine lasted a little longer but was also soon on his way.

The Blue Mask only reached number 167 on the US album chart and didn’t even register in the UK – a pretty dire state of affairs for such an influential artist. The ’80s were not going to be easy on Lou.