Story Of A Song: Everything but the Girl’s ‘Driving’

drivingThe 1980s are littered with Brit pop bands going ‘across the pond’ to work with US producers and musicians – Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti, Love And Money, Wet Wet Wet and Simple Minds spring to mind, but the list goes on and on.

It was almost a rite of passage, or – according to some music critics of the slightly more cynical persuasion – a desperate attempt at credibility.

You could hardly level that accusation at Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, AKA Everything but the Girl. They were headhunted by legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, who had just put the finishing touches to Miles Davis’s Amandla, and their ‘Driving’ single (released in early 1990 but recorded spring 1989) seems a near-perfect marriage of US and UK sensibilities.

I confess I hardly knew anything about EBTG when my brother first played me ‘Driving’. I just heard something extremely classy, with intriguing chord changes, a great singer and strong jazz flavour.

I didn’t know Tracey and Ben had spent much of the ’80s building up a considerable rep as ‘indie jazz/folk’ darlings of the music press and enjoying not inconsiderable commercial success too, but I was possibly vaguely familiar with Tracey’s gorgeous vocals on The Style Council’s ‘Paris Match’, a favourite of my dad’s muso mates back in the mid-’80s.

Taken from The Language Of Life album, the song was recorded in LA at the famous Ocean Way and Sunset Sound studios with pretty much the finest session players money can buy (Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass, Larry Williams on keys/arrangements, Michael Brecker on tenor).

But, according to Tracey’s superb memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’, the American musicians were totally ignorant of the fiercely independent English scene from which Tracey and Ben had emerged.

When Larry Williams found out that EBTG had recently recorded at Abbey Road, he blurted out: ‘Wow! Abbey Road! The home of the Beatles!’ Tracey’s reply: ‘God, I HATE the Beatles.’ There was a pregnant pause. Eventually Williams spluttered out: ‘You h-h-hate the Beatles?’

But such musical differences were all in a day’s work for EBTG.

‘Driving’ obviously sounds more like Anita Baker (I’d love to hear her cover it) than, say, The Smiths. It’s sophisticated but still has bite, with rich chords, an intriguing ABAA structure and glorious Brecker solo (inexplicably with a different, inferior take on my 7” vinyl version).

Ostensibly a song about ‘cars and boys’ (though written solely by Ben Watt), maybe one could read it as a clear concession to the US marketplace. Or is it a response to Prefab’s ‘Cars And Girls’?

tracey thorn

‘Driving’ became somewhat of an airplay hit in the States (though surprisingly only reached #54 in the UK), and led to several high-profile US gigs which nevertheless unfortunately seemed to precipitate a crisis of confidence for Tracey.

The EBTG live band, which included future smooth jazz star Kirk Whalum on sax, whipped the crowds into a frenzy night after night, but there wasn’t much space for her subtle, low-key vocals any more.

Cue a few years of soul-searching and a distinct change of direction, exemplified by 1994’s Amplified Heart.

Steps Ahead: Modern Times

Steps-Ahead-Modern-Times

Any budding sax player of the ’80s had to have been checking out Michael Brecker, devouring his post-Coltrane superchops and forensic exploration of every chord.

Funk and pop fans loved him because he could play absurdly-tight horn arrangements with his trumpet-playing brother Randy and also solo superbly over vamps, finding endless melodic ideas in the simplest two-chord changes.

He was surely the only sax player who could play comfortably with Kenny Wheeler, Parliament and Everything But The Girl. It has to be said that most hardcore jazz purists were intrinsically suspicious of this, but who cares what they think…

Brecker formed Steps Ahead (originally Steps) with fellow New York masters vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and bassist Eddie Gomez, put together initially for the Japanese market. Steve Gadd was their original drummer, replaced in the early ’80s by Weather Report man Peter Erskine.

Steps Ahead’s self-titled debut album showcased a mostly-acoustic fusion sound, but the 1984 follow-up Modern Times embraced all sorts of ’80s technology to intriguing effect.

Of course such tinkering opens it up to sounding somewhat dated these days, but at least the album has ambition, quality compositions and the kind of attention to detail that makes it an interesting companion piece to key mid-’80s works like The Flat Earth, Hounds Of Love, Boys And Girls and So.

Opener ‘Safari’ kicks off with a vaguely Caribbean/reggae groove featuring a multitude of synths and sequencers and a tribal, almost Zawinulesque melody. With repeated listens there are many pleasures to be found; Brecker’s typically incisive tenor solo, Erskine’s subtly-building groove work, the slinky bass line which rumbles on throughout.

Equally arresting is pianist Warren Bernhardt’s title track, a modal piece built over another serpentine, sequenced line, developing into a series of lovely vignettes featuring Brecker’s solos and some very Steely Dan-ish chord progressions.

Mainieri’s composition ‘Old Town’ features King Crimson/Peter Gabriel sideman Tony Levin playing some menacing Stick over the sort of exotic, ambient groove Bryan Ferry would utilise on Boys And Girls a year later. And ‘Radio-Active’ taps into some of the World vibes Peter Gabriel investigated throughout the ’80s.

Unfortunately a few tunes let the side down, drifting uncomfortably into smooth jazz territory. Mainieri’s composition ‘Self Portrait’ is almost saved by a lyrical Brecker solo but far too saccharine for my tastes, while Erskine’s ‘Now You Know’ features a melody line (Brecker on soprano) which, though memorable, veers scarily towards Kenny G.

And it has to be said that Eddie Gomez’s role in the band was diminishing very fast, so anonymous is his contribution. He would be gone by the next album Magnetic, replaced by ex-Weather Report man Victor Bailey.

In Modern Times‘ liner notes, Peter Erskine thanks someone for their help with click tracks, and that concept in itself would probably turn off a big section of the ‘jazz’ audience.

But some arresting compositions, tribal grooves and typically tasty Brecker solos ensure that one’s attention never strays for long. Modern Times is a key jazz album of the ’80s, albeit one that would probably have given most of the Young Lions nightmares…

Hue And Cry: Remote

hue and cryJust for a few years at the end of the ‘80s, Hue and Cry bothered the charts with a classy fusion of pop, jazz and Latin.

I recall singer Pat Kane saying at the time that they wanted to create a musical mix of Scritti and Sinatra; they almost pulled it off with the excellent Remote, released in December 1988.

They also pulled off the Steely Dan-ish trick of singing about subjects which might seem unsuitable in a pop context (domestic violence on ‘Looking For Linda’, corporate sexism on ‘Dollar William’, Latin-American poverty on ‘Three Foot Blasts Of Fire’, the dawning of the Web on ‘The Only Thing More Powerful Than The Boss’).

‘Guy On The Wall’ is a witty portrait of a perpetual party wallflower set against a ‘Word Up’ groove and brilliant Salsa horn arrangement.

hue and cry

And yet there was always something about Hue and Cry that seriously wound people up, an almost imperceptible naffness.  When they emerged on the scene in 1987, they rode a wave of goodwill thanks to their clean-cut looks, anti-Thatcher politics and dynamic ‘Labour of Love’ single (though that’s surely one of the decade’s worst videos).

But by the time of Remote, the tide was turning. Hue and Cry’s relatively soft, ‘aspirational’ sound was anathema in the bombastic late-’80s. It was too jazz for the yuppies and too pop for the jazz revivalists.

Maybe the fact that they’re brothers never helped too – The Proclaimers were the more acceptable face of Celtic brotherhood, more meat-and-potatoes, more reliably blue-collar. In 1995, Q Magazine wrote a cruel but witty hatchet piece about them entitled Britain’s Most Hated Band, offering them ‘a crisp tenner’ to split up (it didn’t do the trick…).

Whatever. I love this album. Recording Remote in New York gave the Kanes access to some amazing guest musicians – Ron Carter and Michael Brecker play beautifully on the very pretty ‘Where We Wish To Remain’, and Pat’s excellent vocals demonstrate a big Mel Torme influence.

The prime NYC rhythm section of Wayne Braithwate and Dennis Chambers supplies a 24-carat groove on ‘Three Foot Blasts’. ‘Sweet Invisibility’ puts a fantastically exciting Latin horn arrangement right upfront in the mix, beating David Byrne at his own game.

Bassist Will Lee delivers beautifully measured performances on ‘Ordinary Angel’, ‘Dollar William’ and ‘Looking For Linda’, offering a subtle commentary on the songs back in the days when a musical performance was supposed to have some narrative development and couldn’t just be ‘cut and pasted’ together.

It’s quite funny to hear legendary jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis play a stratospheric solo on the otherwise very soppy ‘Violently’. Pat Kane sings well throughout the album, with great phrasing, inventive ad-libs and excellent melodies.

 

But YouTube live footage from the Remote era hasn’t aged well and demonstrates why they were such a Marmite band, all cheap suits and wacky horn sections. I saw them at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1989 and struggle to remember anything about the gig.

Even they seemed to sense which way the wind was blowing; they disappeared for far too long after Remote, issuing the stripped-down Bitter Suite live EP and disappointingly brittle Stars Crash Down in 1991. The momentum and recording budget had gone.

But Hue And Cry did well to ride the pop bandwagon for a few years and sneak some sparky jazz, Sinatra and Latin licks into the charts. And because in the main they lent towards jazz and Latin rather than funk and soul, they avoided the all-too-audible mistakes of contemporaries like The Blow Monkeys, Style Council, Climie Fisher and Johnny Hates Jazz.