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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Six More 1980s Christmas Songs Not Just For Christmas

Here we go again, then. Ducking the bombardment of Christmas musical missives, and two years on from the first collection, we present a few more festive tracks that – hopefully – don’t require the services of a sickbag.

A very Merry Christmas to all.

6. Paul McCartney: Pipes Of Peace (1983)

Paul’s Christmas 1983 chart-topper is, surprisingly, his only UK solo number one single (no doubt helped by the impressive video). The melody maestro puts together a hook-laden mini-symphony that Brian Wilson would surely be proud of. Producer George Martin even conjures a bit of Pepper-style surrealism for the intro.

5. Chris Rea: Joys Of Christmas (1987)

It can’t be easy writing a ‘downer’ Christmas song. ‘Joys Of Christmas’ was a single but wasn’t a hit, reaching just 67 in the UK, but it still sounds like a minor classic, lyrically a harrowing portrait of the North East underclass and musically a kind of ZZ Top/Robert Palmer hybrid (what’s with that weird ‘Addicted To Love’ accordion?) with some scorching Telecaster work from Rea. And his voice has never sounded better – he hits some amazing low notes in the verses.

4. Joan Jett: Little Drummer Boy (1981)

I first heard this on the soundtrack of the 1983 guilty-pleasure movie ‘Class’ and have had a soft spot for it ever since. It was never a single but appeared for a while on Jett’s breakthrough album I Love Rock’n’Roll until it was bumped off in favour of something less seasonal.

3. Wham!: Last Christmas (1984)

Recorded at London’s Advision studios in August 1984, George insisted on playing all instruments (including some very dodgy bass). But the bittersweet lyrics, twinkling synths, George’s gossamer vocals and the poignant memory of his death a year ago make it an indispensable seasonal hit. It was kept off the 1984 Christmas number one spot in the UK by Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’.

2. The Replacements: Beer For Breakfast (1983)

Is it a Christmas song? Dunno, but Paul Westerberg drawls ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas’ halfway through, and maybe it’s a portrait of his Christmas Day libations. Good effort (swearing alert).

1. Chris Rea: Driving Home For Christmas (1988)

Rea’s song was only a minor yuletide hit on its original UK release in 1988 (though written in 1984 and recorded in 1986) but it’s still played regularly and has made the top 100 every year it’s been re-released. Rea told Classic Rock magazine recently: ‘I do regret that I never got it to Van Morrison because that’s who I wrote it for. I thought he would have done a marvellous job. But I can’t knock it. I always think, if I don’t hear “Driving Home For Christmas”, it means I can no longer go on holiday…’