Chris Rea’s On The Beach: 30 Years Old Today

chris reaMagnet/Geffen Records, released 1st April 1986

6/10

I don’t really do ‘guilty pleasures’ (some would say a love of ’80s music is a guilty pleasure in itself), but if I did, I guess this would be one.

Rea has – a little unfairly – never quite been able to escape a slightly dodgy image here in the UK, but, along with George Michael, he was probably the most popular male British singer/songwriter of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Maybe he was just too popular.

The breakthrough/breakdown was 1989’s ‘The Road To Hell’, so close to the Dire Straits sound as to be almost parody. I preferred the more laidback, distinctive Rea of the mid-’80s.

But he’s always been a solid songwriter, great guitarist and distinctive vocalist. He started out pushing the glossy AOR and light, folky pop, enjoying a huge US hit with ‘Fool If You Think It’s Over’ in 1978 (later claiming that early producer Gus Dudgeon had blunted the ‘bluesier’ elements of his sound). His career seemed to be hitting a cul-de-sac in the early ’80s, but On The Beach was one of the albums that turned things around, the beginning of his commercial peak.

rea back cover

It taps into the same kind of jazzy, introspective pop/soul sound that the likes of John Martyn, Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison were flirting with in the same period, helped by an excellent band including Fairport Convention/XTC drummer Dave Mattacks, Martin Ditcham on percussion and Max Middleton on keys. Rea also plays an impressive array of instruments himself, including fretless bass and synth.

Listening in one sitting to On The Beach again, the first thing that struck me is its almost relentlessly downbeat vibe. But the opening title track, with its lilting Latin-tinged groove and jazz chords, perfectly introduces the album’s themes of lost innocence and childhood reminiscences. The moment when Mattacks lays into his fat snare drum for the first time is one of my favourite ’80s drumming moments (but I wasn’t keen on the re-recording of the track that became a hit in 1988).

‘Little Blonde Plaits’ is a vehicle for Middleton’s expressive Mini Moog, very redolent of his atmospheric playing on John Martyn’s Glorious Fool. There’s further ethereal jazziness on ‘Just Passing Through’, featuring a really lovely vocal performance and tasty solo guitar from Rea. ‘It’s All Gone’ ups the ante with some subtle Donald Fagen-style synths and excellent lyrics, and the groovy extended outro is close enough for jazz/funk with some empathetic Mattacks drums alongside Middleton’s fine Fender Rhodes solo.

On The Beach was a decent hit in the UK, reaching 11 in the album chart and selling over 300,000 copies. After this, Rea’s music became increasingly rootsy with elements of blues, country and rock’n’roll; he started channelling Dire Straits and ZZ Top rather than John Martyn and consequently enjoyed much more commercial success.

But On The Beach‘s four or five choice tracks are still my favourite Rea moments of the ’80s.

John Martyn: Glorious Fool 34 Years On

john-martyn-glorious-foolWEA Records, released September 1981

9/10

Putting together my top 15 album list recently (and a dead laptop necessitating a break from this blog for a while) had an interesting knock-on effect: I actually spent some time listening to my choices.

Glorious Fool was possibly the one that surprised and pleased me the most (I listened to it on the original WEA cassette which sounds miles better than the CD master for some reason).

The general critical consensus is that John Martyn lost his way in the ‘80s, donning the suit, ditching the acoustic guitar and burying his music in synths, soft saxophones and stodgy productions. But it’s an overly simplistic view. I would put Glorious Fool and the previous Grace And Danger (not forgetting 1990’s The Apprentice) right up there with any of his fabled ‘70s stuff.

Certainly his compositions were more musically demanding, but John’s lyrics were still pithy and his chords as dark and rich as ever. It’s just that often he was concentrating on his singing a lot more in this period – no bad thing – and so often delegated the main harmonic accompaniment to a keyboard rather than his guitar. But he still often gave himself ample solo space on his trusty Les Paul or Strat.

John-Martyn24

The ‘80s started fairly unpromisingly for John. He was still in turmoil over the breakup with wife Beverley, and the release of his classic Grace And Danger album had been delayed for 18 months, Island Records label boss Chris Blackwell believing it to be terminally uncommercial.

It was finally released in June 1980 to excellent reviews and reasonable sales but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as John’s relationship with Island was concerned.

His new manager Sandy Roberton got him a deal with Warner Brothers and also helped put together a cracking new band including ex-Jeff Beck keys player Max Middleton, Latin percussionist Danny Cummings and hotshot Glaswegian bassist Alan Thomson.

Martyn’s mucker and partner-in-heartbreak Phil Collins also returned on drums and production. John said at the time, ‘I wasn’t married. I thought: let’s go for it, let’s make some money and make a band.’

In June 1981, they all convened at the Townhouse Studios on the Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, West London, to commence work on Glorious Fool. During the recording, John was living in the small apartment above the studio, and would often undertake vocal duties in the wee hours of the morning, slightly the worse for wear and clad only in his dressing gown!

It’s clear that John’s failed marriage is still very much the emotional currency of his songwriting. ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’, ‘Hearts And Keys’ and ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’ are almost embarrassingly candid in their evocation of the contrasting emotions spawned by a relationship breakdown, everything from pure love and raw lust to rage, despair, envy, pleading and desolation. Just a typical evening with John Martyn then, by all accounts…

The furious ‘Never Say Never’ kicks off with Martyn screaming ‘Shuddup! Close your mouth!’ over Collins’ trademark tom fills. Brilliant. ‘Perfect Hustler’ and ‘Didn’t Do That’ are more comic evocations of lost love, the former featuring Martyn sarcastically taunting his paramour about her suave, Latin-dancing boyfriend, and wondering if he has ‘gold teeth in’! In contrast, ‘Hold On My Heart’ is an unashamedly soft, romantic love song, the nearest the album comes to an early ’80s Collins or Genesis ballad.

Elsewhere, ‘Don’t You Go’ is a heartbreaking anti-war folk ballad, with John’s moving vocal accompanied only by Collins’ piano and ghostly vocoder. The title track takes a satirical look at the then-newly-elected president Ronald Reagan while ‘Amsterdam’ is a harrowing portrait of a close friend’s funeral in the Dutch capital (after an unrequited obsession with a local prostitute). It features a nasty, brutal groove, sort of John’s version of post-punk, and the haunting refrain: ‘The night the kid left Amsterdam…’ It’s the ‘80s flipside to ‘Solid Air’, another tribute to a fallen comrade (Nick Drake).

Another reason for Glorious Fool’s success is the sheer quality of the musicianship. Collins has never played better, coming up with three or four classic beats and demonstrating a perfect understanding of what each song requires, and the whole band can turn on a dime. They’re just as comfortable with the Weather Report-style Latin/fusion groove of ‘Didn’t Do That’ as they are with the slinky Little Feat flavours of ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, driving hard rock of ‘Amsterdam’ or ambient balladry of ‘Please Fall In Love With Me’.

The album was a reasonable success, hitting number 25 on the UK album charts and staying in the top 100 for seven weeks, and the critics were generally onside. It also made for a very interesting companion piece to Collins’ Face Value, released six months before. You don’t need me to tell you which record sold more copies, but I doubt John lost much sleep over it.

For much more about Glorious Fool and John’s stellar career, check out ‘Some People Are Crazy’ by John Neil Munro and also this excellent BBC4 documentary.