Brett Anderson’s ‘Track Seven’ Theory: A Special movingtheriver.com Report

Brett, yesterday

All music fans love a theory.

And what with all this talk of Q’s sad demise, movingtheriver has been ruminating on the magazine’s great articles past, including an interview with Brett Anderson in which the Suede head honcho posited his theory that track seven of an album is always the best track.

This was red rag to a bull for movingtheriver. But was Brett on to something? Or does he just have some kind of weird, ritualistic interest in the number seven? In a world exclusive, we investigate some movingtheriver-approved, ‘critic-proof’ albums of the 1980s to test his theory.

In the words of Ian Dury, this is what we find…

1980: Talking Heads’ Remain In Light
Track seven: ‘Listening Wind’

1981: Human League’s Dare
Track seven: ‘I Am The Law’

1982: Roxy Music’s Avalon
Track seven: ‘Take A Chance With Me’

1983: Michael Jackson’s Thriller
Track seven: ‘Human Nature’

1984: Prince’s Purple Rain
Track seven: ‘I Would Die 4 U’

1985: Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love
Track seven: ‘Under Ice’

1986: Paul Simon’s Graceland
Track seven: ‘Under African Skies’

1987: David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive
Track seven: ‘Mother And Child’

1988: Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park To Memphis
Track seven: ‘Knock On Wood’

1989: The Blue Nile: Hats
Track seven: ‘Saturday Night’

So how do the track sevens stack up? It has to be said, most do seem to have something ‘Suede-like’ about them, something wistful, melancholic, or, in the case of the Talking Heads, Human League and Kate Bush tracks, positively menacing. Brett would probably approve.

But are they the ‘best’ tracks from their respective albums? No. You could possibly make a case for ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Saturday Night’* but you’d certainly be going out on a limb.

So there you have it. Obviously Mr A was talking out of his a*se. Next time: Peter Andrex’s ‘track four’ theory. B*llshit or not? YOU be the judge…

*Er… Wait. Wasn’t one of Suede’s best singles also entitled ‘Saturday Night’? Whoa, daddy…

(Other examples/alternative theories always welcome…)

Good Names/Bad Names

Are band names important? Discuss. Arguably, a good (or at least memorable) name has never been as important as now, if only to catch the eye amongst endless streaming lists.

Faces and names/I wish they were the same‘ sang John Cale in the guise of Andy Warhol. Maybe Andy would have been more content if there had been some better names around during the 1980s (no wonder he liked Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot so much…).

Many excellent acts certainly had very bad names (I’ve lost count of the times people have asked: ‘Why are they called Prefab Sprout?’), but a lot hit the jackpot too. So, in the spirit of the original Face magazine (which launched 40 years ago last month and, intriguingly, has recently been relaunched online) and with a big tip of the hat to the excellent WORD too, we round up the good, bad and ugly ’80s monikers.

Good Things with Good Names: Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Jamaladeen Tacuma, Half Man Half Biscuit, Stump, Fields Of The Nephilim, Virgin Prunes, The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Magnus Pyke, Los Lobos, De La Soul, Arvo Part, Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar, Valentin Silvestrov, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Derek B, Monie Love, Betty Boo, They Might Be Giants, ‘The Citadel Of Chaos’, ‘The Forest Of Doom’, ‘Codename Icarus’, Chevy Chase, Kim Basinger, Adrian Belew, Trevor Horn, Mike Patton, We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, The Slits, Tackhead, Boo Hewerdine, ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, Robbie Shakespeare, Green Gartside, Paddy McAloon, Donna Summer, Terence Trent D’Arby, Echo And The Bunnymen, 808 State, All About Eve, Killing Joke, Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot, Skylarking, Cleo Rocos, ‘Variations On The Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression’, Hipsway, Loose Tubes, Cocteau Twins, ‘In-A-Gadda-Stravinsky’, Desperately Seeking Fusion

Good Things with Bad Names: Prefab Sprout, The The, Yngwie Malmsteen, Dire Straits, Adam Ant, Boy George, Bow Wow Wow, Talk Talk, The Thompson Twins, A Guy Called Gerald, Herb Alpert, Faith No More, Dan Aykroyd, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Throbbing Gristle, It Bites, The Bible, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Danny Wilson, Tears For Fears, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Bucks Fizz, Wham!, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, Anvil, A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo, Deacon Blue, Curiosity Killed The Cat, The Hooters, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bryan Adams, Luther Vandross, Steve Stevens, Ozric Tentacles, The Teardrop Explodes

Bad Things with Good Names: Zodiac Mindwarp And The Love Reaction, Butthole Surfers, New Model Army, Twisted Sister

Bad Things with Bad Names: Jane’s Addiction, Johnny Hates Jazz, Then Jerico, The Blow Monkeys, Cactus World News, Pee-Wee Herman, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus Jones, Yazz And The Plastic Population, Diesel Park West, Insane Clown Posse, Milli Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, Kajagoogoo, Enuff Z’Nuff, Kenny G, Dr And The Medics, Del Amitri, Bruce Hornsby And The Range, Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Megadeth, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, U2, Mike And The Mechanics, Inspiral Carpets, James

Story Of A Song: Prefab Sprout’s ‘Nightingales’

Prefab Sprout’s 1988 album From Langley Park To Memphis was their pop breakthrough, reaching #5 in the UK charts, and is probably most casual fans’ favourite.

But let’s take a close look at the fifth track, the epic ‘Nightingales’. Featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and released as the fourth single from From Langley Park in November 1988, it remains one of Prefab’s most beguiling songs.

Written by Paddy McAloon under the influence of Barbra Streisand’s Broadway Album, it’s a stellar piece of work by any standards; melody, harmony and lyric are inextricably linked, as if the song had always existed and was just plucked out of the air.

Thought follows thought, musical idea follows musical idea completely naturally, without any songwriter ‘tricks’ such as looped chord sequences or vamps.

It’s fair to say that by the time of From Langley Park’s recording, McAloon was becoming a proficient pianist; eight of ten songs on the album were written on keyboards, including ‘Nightingales’. Its harmonic concept, with an emphasis on major-seventh chords (including an audacious jump from F#m7 to Cmaj7 in bars four and five of the chorus) and triads superimposed over apparently unrelated root notes, possibly reveals a Brian Wilson influence, but the final effect is more Stephen Sondheim than ‘Surf’s Up’.

‘Nightingales’ also has no apparent antecedents in the 1980s pop firmament, though, at a stretch, approaches one of Green Gartside and David Gamson’s gossamer Scritti Politti ballads. In a year when Acid House and the ‘Madchester’ sound were gestating and Stock Aitken Waterman ruled the charts, McAloon delivered something unabashedly romantic and somewhat old-fashioned; the opening line (‘Tell me do, something true‘) and general tenor of the lyric are more akin to ‘Daisy Bell’ than anything by the Stone Roses (and Paddy made no secret of his general distaste for late-’80s pop).

The song’s protagonist analyses his love affair, asking his paramour whether their love is fleeting like a ‘firework show’ or whether it’s a lasting, valuable entity. They agree that such questions are unhelpful and/or irrelevant – the key is to live in the moment.

‘Nightingales’ was co-produced by Jon Kelly and McAloon. By 1987, London-born Kelly was an experienced, highly-regarded producer and engineer, probably best known as one of Kate Bush’s key early collaborators on the classic 1980 album Never For Ever. He had also worked on successful albums by Chris Rea (Dancing With Strangers) and Paul McCartney (Ram) and just produced Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown, the latter definitely influenced by Prefab.

Double and triple-tracked keyboard parts dominate ‘Nightingales’, played by McAloon and legendary British session player Wix, AKA Paul Wickens. They closely follow the chord voicings of McAloon’s original acoustic piano demo, echoed on this lovely live version from 2000:

By the time of the first chorus, sampled sleigh bells and silky Synclavier drums are added to the mix alongside McAloon’s rather incongruous but effective (sampled?) banjo. Robin Smith’s widescreen string arrangement becomes increasingly prominent throughout the track; particularly notable is a flurry of ascending, almost celestial notes in three distinct phases beginning at 2:14 (and check out the rustle of fake locusts at 4:26!).

Stevie Wonder had long been a hero of McAloon’s, the album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants being a particular favourite. Mentioning as much to Prefab manager Keith Armstrong one day, Paddy half-joked that a Stevie harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’ would really bring the track to life.

Armstrong stunned McAloon by informing him that he was a good friend of Wonder’s operations manager Keith Harris and would put in a good word for the band (it’s also worth noting that Wonder played some sublime harmonica on Thomas Dolby’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ a year before the recording of ‘Nightingales’ – perhaps Thomas gave the band a good reference…).

Wonder’s harmonica solo was recorded in a very rushed session during September 1987 at Westside Studios in Notting Hill, West London. He apparently learnt the song quickly, disappearing into a corner of the studio with a rough mix on his Walkman, and then recorded two takes in the lower octave and two in the higher. The released solo is a composite of the four.

Richard Moakes was the young engineer tasked with capturing Wonder’s solo on tape. According to McAloon:

He (Moakes) looked at me and said, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit worried I won’t know how to get his sound’. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll just see what happens’. And of course you put the microphone on him and you turn the fader up and he sounds like Stevie Wonder. You don’t do anything. Unless you’re doing something really silly, you’ll get it and it will be identifiable. So I thought, OK, when you play a guitar, don’t blame an engineer if you don’t know what you’re doing…

New York mix engineer Michael Brauer cooked up the 12” version of ‘Nightingales’. He made some drastic changes from the 7” single, placing the sleigh bells right at the front of the mix, reinstating some of Wendy Smith’s stacked backing vocals originally left on the cutting room floor, stripping McAloon’s lead vocal of its reverb (though adding a lot more to the snare drum) and leaving more space for Smith’s string arrangement and McAloon’s banjo.

A video was also made, though it’s almost impossible to track down these days – never a sure sign of quality…

Happy 5th Birthday To Me

Can it really be five years ago today that a piece on Prefab Sprout’s Swoon kicked off this whole damn movingtheriver.com experiment?

Yes it ruddy well can, and it’s been a fun ride.

Even though there are some weeks when it seems the well has truly run dry, ’80s music and movies (to mix metaphors) turn out to be the gifts that keep on giving – there are always old sounds that continue to surprise and new avenues to explore.

So thanks for checking in and contributing now and then. You’ve made an old man very happy. My friend Spike Jones probably says it best:

The 17 Weirdest Record Company Freebies Of The 1980s

Pity the poor marketing manager of a 1980s major record label.

Everyone was telling you the future was in PR. The musicians were no longer running the music industry – the suits were. Millions of pounds were sloshing around but a dodgy decision could risk thousands. Label MDs had read their Dale Carnegies or at least their Peter Yorks. Everyone wanted to hobnob with Branson. And for every proverbial ‘fifth member of the band’ manager like Paul McGuinness or Ed Bicknell, there was a PR like Magenta Devine.

And, as James Grant of Love And Money (more from them below) once told movingtheriver.com, people had breakdowns over this stuff. But is it any wonder when staffers were sending radio programmers and promoters gifts like the following? (All are 100% authentic, and based on extensive research*.)

17. Doobie Brothers dope kit
It included a Doobies logo’d stash pouch, rolling machine and ‘skins’…

16. INXS pyjamas
These sartorial delights were embroidered with the time-honoured phrase ‘I Need You Tonight’. Groan…

15. Prefab Sprout snow globe
This cute little number featured some mini skyscrapers and bore the legend ‘Hey Manhattan!’ Unfortunately it couldn’t hype this Paddy classic into the top 40…

14. 10,000 Maniacs ceramic elephant teapot
A useful mammalian kitchen implement that was sent around to promote the Blind Man’s Zoo album.

13. Simply Red dressing gown
A his’n’hers, terry-towelling dressing gown to promote the Men And Women album. See what they did there?

12. Bob Seger windcheater
It was sleevless, quilted and defiantly macho, as befitting the proletarian singer/songwriter. And it was sent to promote…you guessed it… ‘Against The Wind’!

11. Brothers Johnson zippo cigarette lighter
The funk legends’ PR machine came up with this curio for fans to hoist aloft during ‘Light Up The Night’.

10. WASP bottle of ‘house red’
This disgusting blood-coloured beverage was sent around to promote the Live…In The Raw live album.

9. Billy Bragg teabag
As befitting the socialist icon, a marvellously utilitarian artefact to celebrate the release of the Brewing Up With… album.

8. Kirsty MacColl kite
Yeah?

7. Love And Money road atlas
This hand-bound tome failed to hype ‘Jocelyn Square’ into the top 40, though it remains a great single.

6. Madness pacamac
It was advertising their downbeat single ‘The Sun And The Rain’. And why not?

5. Eurythmics umbrella
To promote…you guessed it…’Here Comes The Rain Again’. Obviously did a pretty good job, to be fair – the single reached #8 in the UK charts.

4. ZZ Top frozen meal
Those naughty boys from Texas sent this around to promote – of course – ‘TV Dinners’.

3. Frankie Goes To Hollywood condom
One of Paul Morley’s better ideas, actually…

2. PiL jigsaw puzzle
A very strange object sent around to promote Johnny and the boys’ 9 album.

1. Kane Gang walkman
No, me neither…

Do you have any weird band freebies lying around from the era? Let us know below.

*Copied from a Q magazine listicle circa 1989

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.