Whistle Test: Best Of The 1980s?

What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night (UK readers can watch it again here until 23rd March). 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.

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.

Advertisements

Deacon Blue: Raintown

I missed the recent 30th anniversary of Raintown probably because I was surprised it was originally released as early as 1st May 1987. A famous ‘sleeper’ record, it eventually crawled up to #14 in the UK album charts but remained in the top 100 for 18 months off the back of some single re-releases and constant touring.

Later on in Deacon Blue’s career, singer/lead songwriter Ricky Ross name-dropped Van Morrison and Springsteen, but on Raintown the big influence is surely Prefab Sprout. They gave the game away a few years later, naming their collection of B-sides and outtakes Ooh Las Vegas. Nothing to do with Prefab’s ‘Hey Manhattan’, then… (To be fair, the influence may have worked the other way round too – Prefab employed Raintown producer Jon Kelly for some of From Langley Park To Memphis, and that album’s slick sheen bears an occasional resemblance to Raintown.)

Raintown is pop, not rock. The album positively sparkles. James Prime’s excellent keyboard playing is prominent (they didn’t really need a guitarist at this point) with his ‘mystery’ chord very recognisable (later also heard on ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Love And Regret’). Vocalist Lorraine McIntosh emerges as a kind of ‘bluesier’ version of Prefab’s Wendy Smith though she certainly divides opinion – she nearly ruins the title track and superb ‘Love’s Great Fears’ but is very effective when reining it in on ‘Loaded’ and ‘Dignity’.

There aren’t many more evocative ’80s album openers than the brief ‘Born In A Storm’, a gorgeous mood piece which sounds a bit like The Blue Nile if they knew a few more chords. ‘Loaded’ is a classic song ‘about some of the people we’d met in the record business’, in Ross’s words. His gritty vocals really work on this – he sounds positively distraught by the last few choruses – and the modulation at 2:48 is one of the great moments of late-’80s pop.

‘When Will You Make My Phone Ring’ is also memorable, even if Ross struggles a little with the lead vocal and the whole thing is a little similar to the soul standard ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’. The excellent ‘Chocolate Girl’ – influenced by Prefab’s ‘Cruel’ in its portrait of a modern relationship – features some gorgeous BJ Cole pedal steel and a few classic couplets including: ‘He calls her the chocolate girl/Cos he thinks she melts when he touches her’.

Finally, Raintown is a romantic album about work, home, love and nostalgia which probably gives a lot of people (including me) a warm glow when they hear it. I couldn’t get with the band’s later rockier direction but I’ll always have a soft spot for this one.

 

Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.

Funk, Junk & Pulp Culture: Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick

aliens-ate-my-buick-52dea191dc659EMI/Manhattan Records, released April 1988

9/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This was Dolby’s ‘Marmite‘ album – the one that really tested his fanbase. A relocation to the States after marrying soap actress Kathleen Beller (Dolby’s companion on the front cover) led to a new home in the Hollywood Hills (apparently a very large, rather creepy movie-star mansion), the recruitment of a great new band The Lost Toy People via an advert in a local paper and a wholesale embracing of American black music.

In many ways, Aliens is Dolby’s reaction to the work of George Clinton and Prince. Of course, he’d duetted with the former on his Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends album. But it’s also a rather uptight Brit’s view of American culture complete with tacky local detail: smog alerts, Bel Air bimbos, pink leather upholstery, weird license plates.

dolby

A very brave bit of sequencing puts ‘The Key To Her Ferrari’ right at the front of the album. A fake-jazz/B-Movie swinger with a vaguely ‘50s rock’n’roll feel featuring lots of Zappaesque spoken word stuff from Dolby and some brilliant close-harmony female vocals, it’s all pretty stupid but the band plays fantastically and everyone sounds like they’re having a great time. However, you do wonder how many listeners made it past such an uncompromising track.

The lead-off single ‘Airhead”s delirious mash-up of funk and pop is pretty irresistible. Mr Clinton contributes the funny and funky ‘Hot Sauce’ which packs in an incredible amount of good stuff into its five minutes including a Spaghetti Western prelude, a reference to Cameo’s ‘Candy’, a touch of salsa and even a killer James Brown-style piano break.

Ditto ‘May The Cube Be With You’, featuring Clinton and Lene Lovich on backing vocals, the Brecker Brothers on horns and a brilliant groove from P-Funk bass/drums team Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers.

But, as with most Dolby albums, the treasures are mostly found in the more introspective, less gimmicky moments. ‘My Brain Is Like A Sieve’ easily transcends its title and faux-reggae arrangement to become a superb and quite downbeat pop song in the Prefab style. ‘The Ability To Swing’ is a cracking piece of funk/jazz, with some excellent lyrics, possibly Dolby’s most (or only?) covered song.

‘Budapest By Blimp’ is very much the centrepiece of Aliens and its stand-out track, an epic ballad harking back to the Flat Earth sound with a great, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Larry Treadwell (one of many on the album) and some superb, driving bass from the late Terry Jackson.

The only slight misfire is ‘Pulp Culture’, initially interesting but quickly grating with coarse lyrics and a melody line too similar to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Have A Talk With God’. It’s worth noting, though, that according to Dolby, the entire song (including his vocals) is made up of Fairlight samples.

The album’s moderate success (it reached #30 in the UK albums chart and 70 in the US) was probably not a massive surprise – it was totally out of sync with anything in British or US pop. Aliens probably rather reflected Dolby’s interest in music video and movie soundtracks (he’d just finished scoring ‘Gothic’ and ‘Howard The Duck’).

The ‘Marmite’ element doesn’t bother me, though – I’d put Aliens up there with The Flat Earth as his best album, a perfect companion piece to other classics of summer 1988 such as Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Scritti Politti’s Provision and Prince’s Lovesexy. It’s strong beer but I love its pungent textures. And let’s not forget Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork.

Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s Bearpark

prefabThere’s a quality to demo recordings (rough, early versions designed to demonstrate a composition for a potential multi-track studio recording) that really appeals, especially those with ‘delusions of grandeur’ that try to sound much more expensive than they are.

In the 1980s, a demo would typically be very quickly recorded onto a four-track tape machine and then tarted up with a bit of cheap reverb. But these artefacts can very often take on a quality all their own. ‘Chasing the demo’ syndrome is common among musicians and producers, where they try in vain to replicate the freshness of the original as compared with an endlessly-tinkered-with studio version which quickly loses its zing.

‘Bearpark’ first appeared on the B side of Prefab’s ‘Nightingales’ 12” single as part of a three-song EP called The Demo Tapes (the other two tracks were ‘Life Of Surprises’ and ‘King Of Rock’n’Roll’). It never made it onto any album but has nevertheless become one of my favourite ever Paddy McAloon compositions. It was also apparently the first time he had ever used a four-track cassette machine, recorded with a Dr Rhythm drum box, cheap synth and electric guitar.

The chords hang in the air, never quite getting resolved. In fact, playing along to the song on bass, virtually any root notes work under each chord. It’s hard to imagine how ‘Bearpark’ could be improved by a big-budget production, hence possibly why it hasn’t appeared on an official album, though Paddy says he ‘felt like Phil Spector’ when he’d finished it. Its charming musical naivety and sparseness perfectly suit the lyrical theme: home, for better or worse.

 

Home, sweet home
Sweet home, hard as nails

Bearpark, you were mine
I know, I know, I’ve been away but you’re
Not the type for valentines
Bearpark, I get homesick

Langley you are fine
I know, I know, I’m a gypsy
But Bearpark, Bearpark’s on my mind
There’s nowhere else like you

I’m gonna walk this weary body that’s been nowhere far too long
I’m gonna drag it back where it belongs

Home sweet home, Geordies
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram,
Hard as nails, Geordies
We am

Bearpark, what a place
I know that this will sound soft but I
Sometimes think you’ve got a face
Both eyes black and blue

A stranger comes to town
I know, I know, the chances are that
Some bright spark will run him down
No honey on your tongue

I’m gonna take this broken spirit
Gonna heal it for all time
When I see your dear name
Upon a sign

Bearpark, you are mine
Hard as nails, Geordies
Well out of my pram…

Maybe it is time the song got a ‘proper’ recording. As Paddy says in the liner notes on the back of the 12” single, ‘You might think you can do better – be my guest. I like cover versions.’ But he also advises: ‘Don’t spend too long on the demo’…