Joni entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’, she reported to Q magazine.
It didn’t help that her beloved ’69 Bluebird had been stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard on New Year’s Eve 1979.
She was also sued by her cleaning lady and then found herself headhunted by old friend David Geffen for his new record label, though their relationship were never easy.
Then there were Thatcher and Reagan and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely (she’d make up for that later). Instead, buoyed by her relationship with new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date, released 40 years ago this month.
But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new-wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.
It helped that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton.
Her new recruits were the new generation of hotshot session players: guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Russell Ferrante, formidable ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.
My point of entry for this album was superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan. It’s a moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and intricate Guerin drum part.
‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazzy Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter. Klein in general gets a lot of space on the album – as much as Jaco got on Mingus – but he’s a totally different player (and doesn’t play fretless). His contributions make Wild Things one of the great bass records of the 1980s.
Larry Carlton plays a sublime accompaniment in the left channel on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’ (featuring more than a hint of Steely Dan’s ‘Third World Man’), while Joni surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’ – one of several drug references on the album.
Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, and it’s exciting hearing Joni pushing her vocals, singing with a lot of bite, though she probably should have left reggae well alone.
The closing ‘Love’ – appropriating Corinthians 13 11-13 – encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast: a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta.
Joni toured Wild Things extensively with a band consisting of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London’s Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. Thankfully we have YouTube (see below).
The album was a minor hit, reaching #32 in the UK and #25 in the States, and the single ‘You’re So Square’ reached #47 in the US.
One’s appreciation of it probably depends on when you were born. People who adore Blue and For The Roses probably loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.