12 Angry Men: The 1980s Midlife Crisis Collection (Part One)

Here they come, these days about as welcome as turds in a jacuzzi, a collection of white, male, middle-aged ‘rockers’.

Then again, by the time of Live Aid, anyone over 30 was deemed a ‘veteran’, one of the funnier legacies of punk and New Pop.

Let’s survey the ages of some of the ‘rock legends’ who appeared at Wembley Stadium on 13 July 1985: Pete Townshend (40), Paul McCartney (43), Freddie Mercury (39), David Bowie (38), Bob Dylan (44), Keith Richards (41), Bryan Ferry (39), Mick Jagger (41), Elton John (37), Brian Wilson (43).

It’s interesting surveying the output of rock’s ageing alpha males during the ‘80s: angst, anger and lust were apparently their main drivers, alongside an interest in psychoanalysis and politics. Let’s take a look at some of their most coruscating work. For our purposes, we’ll define ‘mid life’ as 30 years old and above…

Peter Gabriel: ‘And Through The Wire’ (1980)

Upon hearing the early mixes of Peter Gabriel III, the US arm of his record company reportedly wondered if 30-year-old Pete had recently spent time in a mental asylum. But no, he was just letting off some steam, inviting Paul Weller along to supply raucous guitar, and unleashing a newfound, barely-concealed sexual energy: ‘Prowling the water hole/I wait for the kill/Pressure’s building/Overspill/I want you’. Ding-dong!

Richard Thompson: ‘Don’t Tempt Me’ (1988)

The folk/rock guitar/songwriting hero (38 at the time of recording) employed a killer US drums and bass team (Mickey Curry/Tony Levin) to carry off this pile-driving, piss-taking portrait of male jealousy and ‘little man’ syndrome. Note that he’s only ‘halfway’ out of his seat… Superb.

The Police: ‘Mother’ (1983)

Andy Summers (40 at the time of recording) takes some inspiration from Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ for this monstrosity, a hysterical, Oedipal blues in 7/4 time, very much inspired by his pal/guitar partner Robert Fripp. It’s quite funny to think that it was a contractually-obliged inclusion on the enormous-selling Synchronicity album, listened to by millions of unsuspecting teenagers before the emergence of the ‘skip’ button.

The Police: ‘Synchronicity II’ (1983)

Sting (31 at the time of recording) filters a Carl Jung concept through the story of family discord, a father’s paranoia and disquiet literally spawning a monster (in a Scottish loch!). Along the way, there’s also a barely concealed hatred for the common sprawl, ‘packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes’ during the morning commute, and the protagonist’s secretaries who ‘pout and preen like cheap tarts in a red-light street’, while Sting, Summers and Stewart Copeland lay down one of the most aggressive grooves in the band’s history. Scary, strange, midlife stuff.

David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part One)’ (1980)

33-year-old Bowie is jolly well peed off about…everything. There was certainly a lot to be angry about in 1980, and accordingly his Scary Monsters album dealt with some of the fears he felt for his son, from the increasingly bold tabloid press to the ever-present right-wing bully boys. In surely the most histrionic vocal performance of his career, he sounds terrified of the ‘fascists’ and violent revolutions on his TV screen.

Robbie Robertson: ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ (1987)

From the classic self-titled album, Robertson (43) sounds seriously teed off about the legacy of the Vietnam War, and more specifically, The Battle For Cu Chi of 1965/1966 (‘Down on Hell’s half acre/Shakin’ with fever/Rumble in the jungle’). Tony Levin and Manu Katche make for an appropriately barnstorming rhythm section and Robbie’s guitar is almost Clash-like in its viciousness.

More 1980s musical midlife crises soon.

21 Great 12″ Singles Of The 1980s

To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was the end of music; but to many others it was a new dawn, a chance to hear your favourite song in widescreen format, expanded into an epic and not bound by radio conventions.

The 12” came about at an exciting time in music when a few things were colliding: the cult of the ‘star’ producer, club culture, sampling, dub techniques and electronic music moving into the mainstream, and the prevailing ‘anything goes’ post-punk ethos.

Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were also in the right place at the right time. And it probably helped that sales of 12” singles contributed to weekly chart positions, so the stakes were high.

So to celebrate this long Bank Holiday weekend, let’s have a look at some key artefacts of the 12” revolution, a great time in music when anything – well, almost anything – went. A few of these I now prefer to the originals. Play ’em loud… And get in touch if your favourite is missing.

21. Paul Young: ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (1985)

Laurie Latham’s completely mad mix seems entirely designed to annoy the neighbours. A cacophony of metal guitars, Pino Palladino’s floor-shaking, P-funk-influenced bass and bizarre samples. And is that a jazzy riveted cymbal slinking into the mix from time to time?

20. A Guy Called Gerald: ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1989)

A timeless collection of house music tropes which doesn’t ever seem to date. Simplicity is the key, with subtly-shifting riffs.

19. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (Slipstream mix) (1982)

This one seems impossible to find on the internet or any other compilation album apart from the marvellous Slipstream 2-LP set which came out on Beggars Banquet in 1982. It’s a feast for the eardrums with gorgeous, spacey delays and twinkling Moog lines sprinkled into the mix.

18. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

Remixer Gary Langan skillfully juggles of all this classic track’s trademark features: Trevor Rabin’s chiming guitar figure, the ethereal backing vocals and those crazy samples. Plus you can really hear Alan White’s drums here – never a chore.

17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Shiny Toys’ (1985)

Joni’s a name you probably wouldn’t expect to see in this list. But remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with here – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s gorgeous rhythm guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta’s killer drums and all the silly vocal overdubs.

16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

Trevor Horn ups the ante with a cool, extended lounge-jazz intro and lots of little musical motifs, a new bass part and some new guitar solos.

15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)

I can’t resist including this recent discovery – someone has somehow got hold of the Thriller stems/mastertracks and put together a real classic. It’s even funkier than the original, if that’s possible.

14. Madonna: ‘Open Your Heart (Maxi Extended Version)’ (1986)

Steve Thompson And Michael Barbiero’s insanely exciting mash-up of Motorik sequencers, Jonathan Moffett’s sick drums and Madonna’s strident vocals, all adding up to an ‘I Feel Love’ for the 1980s.

13. Phil Collins/Philip Bailey: ‘Easy Lover’ (1985)

John Potoker came of age working with Miles Davis and Steely Dan, and his sonic mastery shows through with this stunning reimagining of a somewhat corny single, bringing the originally-submerged drum machine right to the fore and adding loads of top-end. Well, Potoker’s nickname wasn’t ‘Tokes’ for nothing…

12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)

Gary Langan was at the controls again for this stunning collision of ’50s B-Movie voices, swooning synths, rhythm guitars and bangin’ machine beats. The only thing missing is some serious low-end.

11. Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ (1984)

Sylvia Robinson arguably laid down the groundwork for all future 12” singles with this 1984 classic.

10. Prince & The Revolution: ‘Mountains’ (1986)

If you – like me – are always frustrated when this track fades out on the album/single version, have no fear because this remix carries on for another six minutes in the same vein, and turns into one of the sickest grooves Prince ever submitted to vinyl.

9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)

Another entry helmed by John ‘Tokes’ Potoker, this one boosts the top-end again, adds some scary reverbs and focuses on David Rhodes’ guitar, Gabriel’s piano and background vocals and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this version of the song…

8. Eric B & Rakim: ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness Mix)’ (1988)

Coldcut put together this sonic feast, one of the most sampled 12”s of all time. You’ve probably heard almost everything on this remix 100 times on other tracks.

7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)

Alex Sadkin brings his Compass Point mastery to this remix, adding a real drummer (Sly Dunbar?) and bass player, and pushing the sequencers and percussion right to the fore.

6. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)

‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is possibly the more artful Grace remix, but this is included for its irresistible groove, and the fact that I always want the original single to go on for twice as long as it does. Also I love the ‘false’ ending and off-stage shout (Horn?) at 3:50.

5. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Dance Version)’ (1982)

You could hardly go wrong with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien at the controls, but this remix just brings out the sheer luxurious beauty of this single, and various sections are repeated and amplified to superb effect.

4. Will Powers: ‘Adventures In Success (Dub)’ (1983)

Chris Blackwell’s protegé Steven Stanley was in charge of this fascinating dub, completely dispensing with Lynn Goldsmith’s vocals and delaying the reveal of Robbie Shakespeare’s cool bassline for as long as possible.

3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)

Included mainly for Steve Lipson’s beatific long guitar solo during the outro, and the fact that it sounds like it could go on forever…

2. Paul Hardcastle: ’19 (Destruction Mix)’ (1985)

A chilling remix which brings out a little more detail of the single version, adding more spoken-word excerpts from the ‘Vietnam Requiem’ documentary and lengthening the funky drum breakdowns.

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Rage Hard’ (1986)

Stephen Lipson and Paul Morley created this insane confection, a kind of Young Person’s Guide To The 12”, featuring Pamela Stephenson introducing all the clichés of the genre, Viv Stanshall-style! Only ZTT can do this. (It seems like sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out of this list, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).

Whistle Test: Best Bits Of The 1980s

What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night.

The excellent Bob Harris returned to present – but where was Annie Nightingale? We saw a bit of her in her ’80s presenting pomp, but sadly she wasn’t in the studio.

The special reminisced unashamedly about a time when the musicians ran the music biz, and also documented the fascinating history of music TV with an interesting mix of guests (Joan Armatrading, Toyah, Chris Difford, Ian Anderson, Dave Stewart, Danny Baker) and live performances (Kiki Dee, Gary Numan, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson). Not exactly a cutting-edge, youthful lineup, but the musicianship was at an exceptionally high level.

Alongside ‘The Tube’, ‘Whistle Test’ was THE music show to watch in the mid-’80s, aided by some very agreeable presenters such as Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner, David Hepworth, Ro Newton and Mark Ellen.

The only real caveat was that – as Richard Williams pointed out during the special – the show possibly didn’t feature enough black artists. But it provided me with some formative musical memories – here are some bits from the ’80s incarnation that lodged in my brain (most unfortunately with dodgy sound/picture quality):

8. The Eurythmics: ‘Never Gonna Cry Again’ (1981)

Maybe a less than brilliant song but Annie’s vocals and stage presence are spellbinding. And I like the flute interlude. Also look out for an amusing cameo from Holger Czukay, who creeps onstage (to Annie’s annoyance?) like Banquo’s ghost.

7. Prefab Sprout: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (1985)

One of the first things I saw on the show. A tender reading of a classic song.

6. Joni Mitchell Special (1985)

Fascinating mini feature about Joni’s painting, ostensibly to promote her album Dog Eat Dog.

5. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)

One that has only come to light recently, but I would have been blown away by it had I seen it at the time. A special mention for man-of-the-match John Beck on keys.

4. Propaganda: ‘The Murder Of Love’ (1985)

The ex-Simple Minds rhythm section (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee) are cooking on this ZTT classic, as is Bowie/Iggy/Prefab guitarist Kevin Armstrong. Sadly, the clip has been removed from YouTube…

 

3. PiL: Home/Round (1986)

Chiefly remembered for a great two-guitar frontline (John McGeoch and Lu Edmonds) but I was also fascinated by John Lydon’s red headphones and suit.

2. Peter Gabriel So Special (1986)

One of the more illuminating interviews about So plus an interesting solo version of ‘Red Rain’.

1. King Crimson: ‘Indiscipline’ (1981)

Another corker that’s come to light recently, unfortunately shorn of its witty Annie Nightingale intro here. Pity poor Adrian Belew – Fripp’s gaze hardly moves from him throughout.

Francis Dunnery Meets… Killing Joke?!

You wait all day for a prog/pop legend and then three turn up at once. David Sancious, Francis Dunnery and Peter Gabriel gathered at London’s Abbey Road Studios on 7th February for a Steinway Pianos event:

Ex-It Bites frontman Francis posted on his always-entertaining Facebook page:

It was great to see David and Peter again. I’m havin’ fun here at Abbey Road. I’m hanging with Youth who I found out is a Capricorn. Killing Joke were an amazing band. It’s all good. Performance tonight for loads of Germans for Steinway Hamburg…

Now that I wanna hear: the Francis D/Killing Joke collaboration. I always suspected It Bites’ classic near-hit ‘Midnight’ was a teeny bit influenced by the Joke’s ‘Love Like Blood’.

It’s a very busy time in the Dunnery camp – he’s just finished the sold-out ‘Eat Me In St Louis’ UK tour (named after It Bites’ 1989 album), played a solo gig at Iridium in New York, has a live album out and is recording a new studio record.

He also has some UK house concerts booked in March and will return next year for ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ tour. Looking forward to that. In the meantime, check out my review of Francis’s recent London gig in issue 38 of Classic Pop magazine.

How We Live: Dry Land 30 Years On

How+We+Live+Dry+Land+554632Madchester aside, the late-’80s may be the least-heralded period of British pop, but the era also produced a surprising amount of intelligent, original bands that arguably never got their commercial due: Love And Money, Danny Wilson, The Bible, The Lilac Time, It Bites, Stump…

The list of ‘under-achievers’ is long and varied. But one name often forgotten is How We Live.

Most famous for featuring a pre-Marillion Steve Hogarth on vocals and keyboards, the band emerged from the ashes of new-wave popsters The Europeans to release their one and only album Dry Land in 1987.

Originally appearing on CBS offshoot Portrait Records but now given a shiny new remaster by Esoteric/Cherry Red, the album certainly ticks lots of ‘quality 1980s pop’ boxes: it was recorded at Crescent Studios in Bath with XTC/Peter Gabriel producer David Lord and The The/Deacon Blue engineer Warne Livesey, and features Tears For Fears’ drummer Manny Elias on a few tracks. Peter Gabriel and XTC get a thank-you on the inside cover.

Colin Woore and Steve Hogarth

Colin Woore and Steve Hogarth

Malcolm Dome’s incisive liner notes for this re-release outline the record-company shenanigans which dramatically shortened How We Live’s lifespan, whilst also acknowledging how Hogarth and fellow ex-European Colin Woore’s songwriting was very much informed by the other quality British pop of the time – Talk Talk, David Sylvian, Gabriel, Hue & Cry (Hogarth apparently being a big fan of Pat Kane’s vocals), Kate Bush.

And while it’s tempting to view Dry Land as the prelude to Marillion’s second phase, it’s pretty clear that Hogarth already had an extremely strong presence as a singer, songwriter and keyboard player long before he joined the Brit-prog behemoths.

Dry Land‘s opening 1-2-3 of ‘Working Girl’, ‘All The Time In The World’ and the title track (latter taken into the top 40 by Marillion) is pure dream-pop bliss. The latter benefits from a dramatic string arrangement, missing from the Marillion version, though connoisseurs might rue the big snare-drum sound.

‘Working Girl’ is simply a classic, with a haunting verse and swooning, truly uplifting chorus. How that and ‘All The Time’ didn’t crack the top 40 is still a mystery, though, according to manager Mark Thompson, CBS were spending most of their time and money trying to break Deacon Blue during this period.

Whilst the rest of Dry Land can’t quite maintain the quality of the first three tracks, there are plenty of other pleasures: ‘Games In Germany’ is a fine fusion of late-’80s PiL and Season’s End-era Marillion, a crashing new-wave groove with a fabulous, wrong-footing chorus.

Classy ballad ‘Lost At Sea’ is somewhat reminiscent of David Sylvian’s work of the same period, while ‘In The City’ takes a left turn into jazzy pop with great aplomb; its shimmering synths, swinging groove and catchy trumpet melody bring to mind such late-’80s movie soundtracks as ‘The Big Blue’ and ‘Betty Blue’.

‘India’ is unfortunately a bit more Chris De Burgh than It Bites, though Dave ‘Taif’ Ball’s elegant fretless bass impresses, as it does throughout Dry Land. ‘The Rainbow Room’ is perhaps the most ‘prog’ track on the album, powered along by an intricate keyboard sequence and guitar motif.

Unfortunately Dry Land was a dead end for How We Live – it stalled outside the top 40, and, although there were some big gigs including a Munich show on the same bill as Eurythmics and Tina Turner in front of 100,000 people, they called it a day in late 1987.

Hogarth was enquiring about becoming a milkman when he heard from his publisher that Marillion had been in touch. He was back in business, and remains so to this day. But Dry Land is a fascinating and worthwhile precursor.

Dry Land is out now on Esoteric/Cherry Red.

13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s.

You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…

I was never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years.

Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.

Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…

13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)

Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.

12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)

Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.

11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)

The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.

10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)

Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.

9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)

The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.

8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)

The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.

7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)

This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.

6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)

This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.

5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)

This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.

4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)

This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.

3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)

The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.

2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)

The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.

1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.

Let me know your killer B’s below.

11 Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

One of the many positives of the recent vinyl resurgence is the potential for some decent album covers again. For a while, it seemed as if the art was being lost.

Back in the ’80s, as the cliché goes, you would generally buy an album, stick it on and then peruse the cover at some length while you listened. The best covers seemed to take on a life of their own. Budgets were healthy, the musicians cared and you could see the time and effort that went into the work.

I particularly liked those covers with a ‘psychological’ aspect, some kind of story or scene, an image that maybe enhanced the lyrical themes of the album. Or, failing that, one that would look pretty good on a wall or even in a gallery.

Here are eleven album covers of the ’80s that still beguile, from the spooky to the decidedly Spielbergian.

11. Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls

Design by Barbara Wojirsch
Photo by Klaus Frahm

10. Weather Report: Procession (1983)

Artwork by John Lykes

weather report

9. It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill (1986)

Cover artwork by David O’Connor

It+Bites+The+Big+Lad+In+The+Windmill+452664

8. Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator (1988)

Cover artwork by Jean-Francois Podevin

wayne sh

7. Level 42: Level 42 (1981)

Cover artwork by Joy Barling Loyla

level

6. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)

Cover artwork by Frank Auerbach

japan

5. George Duke: Guardian Of The Light (1983)

Cover artwork: unidentified (anyone know?)

george

4. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)

Cover artwork by Mark Ryden

jeff-becks-guitar-shop-55b528bc7fc87

3. Peter Gabriel: 3 (1980)

Cover artwork/photography by Hipgnosis (Storm Thorgerson/Audrey Powell)

hs_PG3_UMGI_Vinyl-12_Gatefold_6mmSpine_OUT_RI_AUG10.indd

2. Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (1986)

Cover artwork by James Marsh

talk talk

1. Gil Scott-Heron: Moving Target (1982)

Photography by John Ford, artwork by Donn Davenport

gil scott heron

 

Peter Gabriel’s So: 30 Years Old Today

gabriel

‘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, leaving his ‘art-rock’ contemporaries (Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp) in the dust.

He opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; 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‘ 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’.

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.

‘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. The commercial assault had paid off but at what cost to his long-term creativity?