Robbie Robertson (1987): 30 Years Old Today

robbie robertson

Geffen Records, released 27th October 1987

8/10

Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’. He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.

I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987. But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.

Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart). The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.

‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson. ‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.

Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.

But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em). This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there. However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.

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Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz, and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music. But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.

And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

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.

How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #2: Tears For Fears’ The Seeds Of Love

courtney pineFontana Records, released 25th September 1989

Bought: Oxfam Notting Hill?!

4/10

Tears For Fears’ second album Songs From The Big Chair did the business. A relatively cheap record to make, it sold millions and elevated the Bath boys into the big league.

Early ‘80s technology, boy-band looks and some great hooks had carried TFF through the first two albums but now they felt they had to deliver a polished, ‘musicians’ album’ to match their heroes. Big mistake…

The Seeds Of Love was the result, and with it they tragically o’erreached themselves in the search to emulate their heroes Gabriel, Ferry and Sylvian. Four producers. Nine studios. Over a million pounds in studio costs. Broken marriages. Dozens of session musicians.

A famous Q article outlined the painful, sometimes embarrassing lengths the two protagonists Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith went to to complete Seeds. Orzabal said he wanted to make something musicians would love, something ‘world-class’. This over-egged curio shows what happened when pop stars tried to buy credibility in the late-‘80s, undeniably under a fair amount of record company pressure to follow up a monster.

The intro of ‘Woman In Chains’ still retains some Blue Nile-ish power before being obliterated by Phil Collins’ sledgehammer drums and overblown AOR guitars; Gabriel/Joni/Sting drummer Manu Katche plays a blinder on ‘Badman’s Song‘ but the melodies barely register; ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ still stands up though as a decent Beatles tribute complete with some lovely woozy drums from Big Chair producer and ex-Ant Chris Hughes and a very cool chord sequence.

Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ is initially very attractive complete with Jon Hassell’s ethno-trumpet and some typically slinky fretless playing from Pino Palladino, but its grand atmosphere and ambience can’t obscure the lack of structure and good ideas; ‘Swords And Knives’ starts with an interesting piano/voice melody but quickly gets mired in a succession of annoying guitar solos and grandiloquent key changes.

Year Of The Knife’ (these boys really like knives…) is a pretty ugly collision of gospel vocals and a sub-‘Broken Wings’ groove. Again, the song runs out of stream after two minutes and tries to cover it up with a fiddly string arrangement and weird avant-metal guitars. Even uber-drummer Simon Phillips sounds uninspired.

The Q article, September 1989

The Q article, September 1989

Orzabal almost achieves a Sylvian-ish level of sophistication on the closing ‘Famous Last Words’ but once again blows it, neglecting to supply a B section or cogent lyrics. Quiet/loud dynamics alone do not a good song make.

The album was a hit, going straight to number one in the UK and selling well in Europe and the States, but was it worth all the effort? Orzabal and Smith were barely on speaking terms and didn’t record together for over a decade after Seeds‘ completion. It was certainly a big and bold farewell to the ’80s from one of the decade’s success stories.