Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’. Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’. Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too!

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!). The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans. Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars. Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.

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Story Of A Song: Rolling Stones’ Undercover Of The Night

Rolling+Stones+Undercover+Of+The+Night+-+Stoc+141290bSo here it is: The Stones’ last great single. ‘Undercover’ is essentially a one-chord groove with powerful lyrics, stinging guitar licks, a memorable hook and notable video. 

Though Mick and Keef share a writing credit, the song was apparently largely a Jagger composition, with Richards later saying: ‘Mick had this one all mapped out. I just played on it. There was a lot more separation in the way we were recording at that time. Mick and I were starting to come to loggerheads…’ Guitarist Ronnie Wood concurred but also had reservations: ‘There was a great acoustic version which is the kind of song it should be. The final, polished version may have been Mick’s vision of the song…’

Reading between the lines, Jagger was clearly keen to bring outside players into an increasingly dysfunctional band situation. Recording took place during the summer of 1983 at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, giving Jagger the opportunity of using some great local players, many of whom light up ‘Undercover Of The Night’.

A raft of percussionists including Sly Dunbar, Martin Ditcham, Moustapha Cisse and Brahms Coundoul accompany drummer Charlie Watts on various instruments including bongos, Simmons drum and even a timpani (there are rumours that a complete different version of the song exists featuring a rhythm section of Sly and Robbie). Producer Chris Kimsey also enters into the spirit of things with an ingenious ‘dub’-style arrangement (or is that the work of Brian McGee, credited as ‘editor’ on the vinyl label?).

Jagger claimed that his lyric was heavily influenced by William Burroughs’ 1981 novel ‘Cities Of The Red Night’. The song is a disturbing vision of Latin America’s dirty war. This was, after all, an era in which thousands of ‘political prisoners’ were tortured and killed in the ESMA detention camp in Buenos Aires, less than a mile from the stadium where the 1978 football World Cup Final was taking place (according to many reports, the cheers of the fans obscured the screams of suffering prisoners).

Excellent documentary ‘The Shock Doctrine’ claims that many torture techniques used by the Chilean and Argentinian junta (including rape and genital mutilation) may have been ‘learned’ in the US-run School Of The Americas. Jagger manages to crystallise many of these disturbing aspects in a powerful lyric:

Hear the screams of Centre 42
Loud enough to bust your brains out
The opposition’s tongue is cut in two
Keep off the street cos you’re in danger
One hundred thousand disparos
Lost in the jails in South America

Cuddle up baby, cuddle up tight
Cuddle up baby, keep it all out of sight
Undercover of the night

The sex police are out there on the streets
Make sure the pass laws are not broken
The race militia has got itchy fingers
All the way from New York back to Africa

All the young men, they’ve been rounded up
And sent to camps back in the jungle
And people whisper, people double-talk
And once-proud fathers act so humble
All the young girls they have got the blues
They’re heading on back to Centre 42

Down in the bars, the girls are painted blue
Done up in lace, done up in rubber
The johns are jerky little GI Joes
On R&R from Cuba and Russia
The smell of sex, the smell of suicide
All these sweet things I can’t keep inside

Undercover, all out of sight
Undercover of the night

Julien Temple directed the controversial video, shot in Mexico City. As he relayed in ‘I Want My MTV’, his dealings with Jagger and Richards gave him a pretty stark insight into the state of their relationship:

‘I wrote an extreme treatment about being in the middle of an urban revolution, and dramatised the notion of Keith and Mick really not liking each other by having Keith kill Mick in the video. I never thought they would do it. Of course they loved it. I went to Paris to meet with the band. Keith was looking particularly unhappy. He was glowering with menace and eventually said, “Come downstairs with me.” My producer and I went down to the men’s room. Keith had a walking stick and suddenly he pulled it apart. The next thing I know he’s holding a swordstick to my throat. He said, “I want to be in the video more than I am.” So we wrote up his part a bit more. That was Keith’s idea of collaboration!’

The video was initially considered too violent for MTV (though they did eventually air an edited version after 9pm) and it was heavily censored when shown on British television, leading to a fractious interview on ‘The Tube‘ during which presenter Muriel Gray questioned Jagger and Temple about the extreme content and their motives for making the video.

‘Undercover Of The Night’ was released as the first single from the accompanying Undercover album on 1st November 1983. It got to number 9 in the US singles chart and 11 in the UK – not bad. No Stones single has gone higher since.