Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain

After ‘82’s critically acclaimed New Gold Dream, the logical step for Simple Minds would seem to have been to go even further away from their art-rock roots and rush headlong towards some funky ‘sophisti-pop’.

After all, head honcho Jim Kerr is on record as saying that his favourites from the era were Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, Donna Summer’s two classic 1982 singles and Carly Simon’s ‘Why’.

To that end, Nightclubbing co-helmer Alex Sadkin was eagerly approached to produce Sparkle In The Rain, but he declined, busy with Duran Duran and Thompson Twins work.

Instead, inspired by premiering the pile-driving, Pink Floyd-meets-Doors ‘Waterfront’ at Dublin’s Phoenix Park gig (supporting U2) on 14 August 1983, they turned to producer Steve Lillywhite, chief architect of the Return to Rock that was eclipsing New Pop during summer 1983, courtesy of his work with Big Country and U2.

Lillywhite hastily took them into Shepherds Bush’s legendary Townhouse Studios 2, with Howard Gray engineering. Guitarist Charlie Burchill wrote ‘Herzog’ on the back of Lillywhite’s chair, inspired by his and Kerr’s newfound love of the German director’s ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and its theme of dreams moving mountains. A photo of Nastassja Kinski took pride of place on the control-room wall.

There were regular games of table tennis, Kerr using them to psych himself up for the very adrenalized vocal takes, especially on the hysterial ‘Kick Inside Of Me’.

After previous drummer problems to match Spinal Tap, the excellent Mel Gaynor was a real find for the band. Though quiet in the studio, he was a monster on the kit and also apparently contributed effective keyboard and guitar ideas.

Bassist Derek Forbes was more in the background, spending a lot of time drawing his ‘Dan Yer Man’ cartoons. Burchill allegedly gave him a bollocking about his lack of ‘commitment’; the writing was on the wall for the talented player. He’d soon join fellow ex-Mind Brian McGee in a superb iteration of Propaganda’s touring band.

Tellingly, Sparkle’s songwriting royalties are split five ways, except for a truncated cover of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ which jettisons some of the more ‘unsavoury’ statements of the original (shades of Bowie’s ‘Tonight’, recorded a few months later?).

But it’s Gaynor, Kerr and McNeil’s album. The latter provides epic textures, very high in the mix. Kirsty MacColl provides a very welcome ‘girl’s voice’. ‘Shake Off The Ghosts’ was certainly noted by U2. ‘Waterfront’ is brilliant. How many other hits use guitar harmonics for their main riff? (only The Hooters’ ‘Satellite’ comes to mind).

Alongside Empires And Dance, Sparkle remains my favourite Minds album. Yes it’s a sonic ‘experiment’ and most tracks go on for a minute too long, but it’s rooted in strong band playing and delicious ambient textures. And it’s bloody loud.

Released on 6 February 1984, it became their first of four straight UK #1 albums. But they weren’t delivering on the singles front: ‘Waterfront’ only got to #13, ‘Speed Your Love’ #20 and ‘Up On The Catwalk’ #27. With hindsight, their reluctant November 1984 recording of Keith Forsey/Steve Schiff’s ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ was a vital career move.

Minds hit the gig circuit for a very busy summer 1984 tour including a record-breaking (at the time) eight nights at Hammersmith Odeon. This was a very different group to a year earlier. It’s fascinating to compare two ‘Oxford Road Show’ gigs from early 1983 and early 1984:

Gone was the skinny, neurotic Euro art-funk. Kerr was a far more wholesome, energised, welcoming character than before, screaming ‘Charlie Burchill!’ before the regular guitar breaks. He even started the Hammersmith gigs up a pole, Julian Cope-style!

But Kerr quickly disowned this period, citing exhaustion on the part of the band. Stateside success seemed so near yet so far. But then came ‘Don’t You’, Kerr’s marriage to Chrissie Hynde, ‘The Breakfast Club’ and Live Aid. The world was theirs.

Further reading: ‘Simple Minds’ by Adam Sweeting

12 Angry Men: The Midlife Crisis Collection (Part Two)

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 some 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, this 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…

David Bowie Impersonates Marc Bolan: 18th August 1985

1985 was a mixed year for DB.

Tragically, his half-brother Terry Burns took his own life in January, but then the summer was a very ‘up’ period – he was a wholehearted contributor to Live Aid, promoting the event widely and enjoying the company of his contemporaries and assorted young bucks alike.

He was also relishing getting out of his comfort zone courtesy of key roles in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’ and Julien Temple’s ‘Absolute Beginners’.

Then summer 1985 spawned one of his greatest singles, the theme song for the latter movie. Like ‘Dancing In The Street’, ‘Absolute Beginners’ was produced by David alongside Madness/Dexys/Costello collaborators Alan Winstanley and Clive Langer.

The backing tracks had been laid down at Abbey Road but the final vocal session took place at London’s West Side Studios (owned by Langer and Winstanley), Olaf Street, near Latimer Road tube station (and very close to Grenfell Tower), on 18th August 1985.

After nailing the song in just a few passes – as was his wont – Bowie found himself in the studio with a bit of time on his hands. Instead of making an early exit, he quickly wrote some rather overwrought lyrics vaguely in the style of Bruce Springsteen and then entertained Langer and Winstanley with a succession of vocal impersonations.

Engineer Mark Saunders thankfully captured these precious moments and has very kindly put them on YouTube for our delectation.

So enjoy Bowie’s irresistible takes on Springsteen, Marc Bolan, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Anthony Newley, Iggy Pop and Neil Young, complete with charming asides (‘That’s it – night-night!’).

It’s a doorway to happier times. DB: miss him, miss him, miss him.

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

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 David A 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 four at once.

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.