Sly Meets Scritti: Tony LeMans (1989)

downloadPaisley Park/Reprise, released 29th September 1989

Bought: Mr CD, Soho, 1992?

7/10

This is an intriguing, very promising, almost completely forgotten debut album by a young singer and songwriter who very sadly died only three years after its release.

I came across Tony LeMans completely by chance at the Mr CD shop on Berwick Street, Soho. It had piles and piles of albums at five quid a pop, quite a steal by ’90s standards. You just never knew what you would find, in the days when you would take a chance on an album just on the strength of the label, cover, musicians and/or producer.

Me, I saw the words ‘Sylvester Stewart’, ‘David Gamson’ and ‘Paisley Park’ on the back and had to have it.

Tony-LeMans-Tony-LeMans-1989-Back-Cover-79406

Gamson plays keyboards and produces beautifully, fresh from Scritti Politti’s Provision. Tony LeMans was released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records – rumours were abound of the Purple One’s involvement, but he doesn’t appear.

But other ’80s funk masters do: Bernard Wright supplies some cracking wah-wah clavinet to a few tunes, though bassist Marcus Miller and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. are fairly nondescript.

Prince cohort Boni Boyer adds occasional back-up vocals alongside Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett (phenomenal on the opening ‘Higher Than High’).

The sonic clarity and mastering of Tony LeMans are outstanding; it would make a brilliant CD for auditioning a hi-fi. It’s also a real relief from the over-loud, over-compressed music of today. Musically and lyrically, it initially comes on like a ‘standard’ late-’80s pop/soul/funk album, but closer inspection reveals a strong psychedelic flavour.

Mainly though, due to Gamson’s total involvement, the album sounds like Provision-era Scritti fronted by Sly Stone.

tony lemans

The opener ‘Highest High’ fuses the synth hook from Prince’s ‘Lovesexy’ with Sly’s ‘The Same Thing’ (though neither get a songwriting credit) to great effect.

‘Forever More’ is a luxuriant ballad with a fine falsetto vocal from LeMans and some classic Gamson chord changes, while ‘Good For You’ is an infectious, catchy slice of doo-wop-influenced pop.

There’s a bit too much filler on side two, but the closing ‘Different Kind Of Thing’ is possibly the stand-out and the nearest thing to a Prince song (very much influenced by ‘Erotic City’), though it was only an extra track on the original CD release.

LeMans toured the album in the States, sometimes supporting MC Hammer (!), and was recording his second Paisley Park album at the time of his death. It was due to feature a Prince composition called ‘Fuschia Light’. Sadly, we’ll probably never hear what it sounds like.

Gig Review: Scritti Politti @ The Roundhouse, 5th February 2016

all photos: John Williams Photography

all photos: John Williams Photography

Stage fright is the elephant in the room for some musicians. For every Jimi Hendrix or Madonna there’s an Andy Partridge or Green Gartside, gifted songwriters for whom live performance never felt like their true calling.

And during the opening moments of this hugely enjoyable – even revelatory – Scritti gig, it all threatened to go a bit Pete Tong before a triumphant turnaround.

Despite his extraordinary, instantly recognisable vocals, Gartside has always been somewhat of a reluctant frontman. He started out almost as the default vocalist in a kind of post-punk collective before an extreme onstage panic attack meant that he didn’t play live at all between 1980 and 2006.

But during that enforced exile, he built up one of the most sophisticated, revered and interesting songbooks in British pop. As with Partridge, the break from live performing brought out the best in him and produced classic albums Songs To Remember, Cupid & Psyche ’85 and Provision.

This relatively rare Scritti gig at the legendary Chalk Farm venue was a celebration of a fascinating career, and Gartside was also committed to explaining (almost) all the whys and wherefores of his craft in often hilariously candid fashion.

Scritti Politti 2

You could forgive a remarkably youthful-looking Green his nerves – The Roundhouse was jam-packed, bathed in subtle lighting and beautifully decked out as an all-seater venue in the round. Just entering the auditorium almost led this writer to give out an audible expletive.

But in a way he should have felt right at home – Scritti’s original late-’70s HQ was just around the corner on Carol Street, and Green also revealed that the Young Communist League and men’s group (‘where we would berate ourselves for being men’!) had also been very near the venue.

But back to the stage fright. Before even a note had been played, Green had major guitar strap issues, finding himself unable to get the damn instrument on as the crowd applauded sympathetically. ‘Oh, sh*t… This is why I didn’t play live for 20 years’, he sighed, looking genuinely troubled.

‘The Sweetest Girl’ finally got things underway, the delicious 1981 single described by Gartside as being his attempt to fuse Kraftwerk and Gregory Isaacs.

He revealed that he had even approached those two to collaborate on the song; when he didn’t hear back from the German techno innovators, he subsequently bumped into their co-founder Florian at a Tito Puente gig (of all things), only to be told by the titular German: ‘I hate reggae’!

Gartside indulged in some spirited rapping during ‘Die Alone’ while ‘The Word Girl’ sounded simply fantastic, causing outbreaks of groovy dancing from the very diverse crowd.

Green revealed that the original vocal may have been influenced by looking out of the studio window and seeing a sheep up to its neck in snow during the song’s recording in 1984.

Scritti Politti 3

A spine-tingling ‘Boom Boom Bap’ was described as an ode to ‘beer and hip-hop’, while the delicious ‘Brushed With Oil, Dusted With Powder’ pushed its claim as the greatest ever Green composition, apparently written on one of Joni Mitchell’s guitars given to him by legendary manager Peter Asher. Green also described how the song was ‘started in an LA hotel and finished in a flat above a dentist in Newport, Gwent’.

The raw, spiky ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ and ’28/8/78′ (with spoken-word additions from Radio 4’s Harriet Cass) sounded like they could have been recorded yesterday, while the live premiere of ‘Asylums In Jerusalem’ was perfect.

A delicious ‘Oh Patti’ also got its live premiere, and ‘Jacques Derrida’ reiterated how similar Scritti and Prefab Sprout’s soundworlds were in the early ’80s, though Green ended it with a passionate rendition of Jeru The Damaja’s ‘Come Clean’. The closing duo of ‘Wood Beez’ and ‘Absolute’ prompted a further outbreak of dancing in the aisles, perfect slices of digital funk with fine keyboards from Rhodri Marsden.

Minor quibbles: onstage sound issues gave Gartside some serious pitching problems, though typically he was completely candid about this, describing his performance as ‘artfully inept’.

But there was never any doubt about how seriously he took his craft: announcing that the band was about to play a medley of unfinished new songs, a man in the front row let out a giggle, prompting Green to pointedly remark: ‘This is very f***ing serious, sir.’

At times, the band sounded brittle (though they would remain anonymous, there being no onstage introduction from Green), even though roughly 30 percent of the output seemed to be coming from backing tapes. But it really didn’t matter – you couldn’t take your eyes off the stage.

There’s simply no one else like Green Gartside in British music: a 60-year-old man fusing hip-hop, reggae, bubblegum pop, low-fi post-punk and superior synth-funk, and pulling it all together with great aplomb. This superbly shambolic gig very much whets the appetite for an upcoming album on Rough Trade.

Aztec Camera: Four Golden Greats

Aztec-camera-roddy-frameIt all came back to me recently when I heard some church bells in Totnes ringing out the opening bass melody from ‘We Could Send Letters’.

Although always one of my AC favourites, I hadn’t heard the song in years. Cue a period of rediscovery and a realisation that Roddy Frame penned four or five stand-out songs of the ’80s.

The guy had it all – intelligent lyrics, guitar chops, classic songcraft, good looks. Arguably the only thing missing was the classic album that his talent warranted.

But no matter: there were plenty of treats anyway. Here are a few:

4. We Could Send Letters (1983)

The low-key beginning builds into an epic, love-lorn pop gem, oddly never released as a single. Though dated by its Syndrum fills and airy production, the song however is water-tight with that lovely hike up into the chorus. An ’80s break-up classic.

3. Oblivious (1983)

Summery, Flamenco-tinged pop gem that reached number 18 in the UK singles chart. Frame works the minor/major thing beautifully (minor-key verse, major chorus), nails a very tricky acoustic guitar part and also pulls off the seldom-achieved trick of writing something catchy but not annoying.

2. Deep And Wide And Tall (1987)

Openly states the pressing question perhaps underlying all great pop music: are we going to live together? Roddy and producer Russ Titelman achieve the Scritti groove sought throughout the Love album. A mixture of spine-tingling backing vocals and major-seventh chords fuse to gorgeous effect. Inexplicably reached a lowly number 87 in the UK.

1. Working In A Goldmine (1987)

Roddy’s ‘blue-eyed-soul’ period wasn’t an outright success but this shimmering ballad with its fine Rob Mounsey arrangement is a standout. Seemingly about the unknowability of a lover (‘We love/What shines/Before our eyes/Why can’t we learn/What hides?’), it features one of the most sublime middle-eights (or, more accurately, middle-sixes) of late-’80s pop.

Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 10th June 1985

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street, 13th July 1985 (on the morning of Live Aid)

10/10

We come to another of my absolute ’80s favourites. Cupid is also one of those rare ‘classic’ albums that, despite big sales and critical appreciation, at the time of writing is still inexplicably awaiting a re-release/remaster.

David Gamson, Green Gartside, Fred Maher

Fred Maher, Green Gartside, David Gamson

Listening again to Cupid 30 years after its release, I wonder if it sounds very dated to modern ears.

Whilst it unabashedly utilised all manner of mid-’80s technology (Fairlight, drum machines, sequencers), I don’t really ‘hear’ those elements any more.

All I hear is top-notch songwriting, intriguing and intelligent lyrics, great grooves and Green’s unique vocals.

Cupid hit me at exactly the right age; it was the soundtrack to endless summer evenings, teenage crushes, adolescent musings.

Though Scritti leader/vocalist/co-songwriter Green Gartside left behind his post-punk roots and the ‘indie’ sound of his Rough Trade debut album Songs To Remember to create this major-label debut, Cupid certainly had antecedents: Green and keyboardist/co-composer David Gamson revered the highly-syncopated R’n’B/electro of The System, Chaka Khan, ZAPP and Michael Jackson, but they added some classic pop songcraft and intricate harmony.

Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis gave Green his blessing and, coupled with manager Bob Last (who also managed Human League and ABC), Green pitched the Americans his fusion of pop and funk.

As he told WORD magazine in 2006, ‘The American labels were all tickled pink by these big NME interviews we did and that loosened their wallets. Bob and I were terribly persuasive as to why they should part with vast sums so we could make a record.’

Legendary Aretha/Chaka producer Arif Mardin came on board as did a raft of quality players such as Marcus Miller, Steve Ferrone, David (The System) Frank, Robbie Buchanan, Robert Quine and Paul Jackson Jr.

But Green apparently turned out to be more of a perfectionist than any of them: ‘It took us a great deal of time to get our bits right and my anxiety about singing was pretty acute. I would demand to sing things over and over again and I’m not sure I ever got it better than the first time.’

Cupid featured three classic singles – ‘The Word Girl’, ‘Absolute’ and ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, though eventually a total of five tracks were released as A-sides.

The John Potoker remix of ‘Perfect Way’ (far superior to the album version) even became a massive hit in the States, reaching 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and pushing worldwide sales of the album over the million mark.

While ‘Don’t Work That Hard’ and ‘Lover To Fall’ might be deemed ‘filler’, they easily transcend that label by dint of their sprightly grooves and sheer catchiness.

The beautiful ‘A Little Knowledge’ showed that Green and Gamson were on the same page as Prefab’s Paddy McAloon when it came to sumptuous, intelligent romantic ballads in the mid-’80s, and the track is a great companion piece to ‘When Love Breaks Down’.

Post-Cupid, Green and Gamson booked and then cancelled a world tour (they were apparently visited in the studio by MTV executives who told them, ‘Just think, you’ll never have to tour again!’), wrote songs for Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan, made friends with Miles (who covered ‘Perfect Way’ on Tutu), hung out with George Michael at various London nightspots, embarked on a year of press in America to cash in on the success of ‘Perfect Way’ and then reluctantly hit the studios of New York and London to record the follow-up Provision.

george michael green gartside

George and Green, London, 1986

A cursory listen to a radio station like Absolute 80s reveals the wide-reaching influence of Cupid on countless late-’80s bands: a-ha, Go West, Climie Fisher, Living In A Box, Pet Shop Boys, Bros and Aztec Camera all tried for those clinical, Swiss-watch-precision arrangements and uplifting pure pop sound, but generally lacked Gamson’s ingenious chord changes and Green’s gift for melody.

Happy birthday to a bona fide ’80s classic.

Hue And Cry: Remote

hue and cryJust for a few years at the end of the ‘80s, Hue and Cry bothered the charts with a classy fusion of pop, jazz and Latin.

I recall singer Pat Kane saying at the time that they wanted to create a musical mix of Scritti and Sinatra; they almost pulled it off with the excellent Remote, released in December 1988.

They also pulled off the Steely Dan-ish trick of singing about subjects which might seem unsuitable in a pop context (domestic violence on ‘Looking For Linda’, corporate sexism on ‘Dollar William’, Latin-American poverty on ‘Three Foot Blasts Of Fire’, the dawning of the Web on ‘The Only Thing More Powerful Than The Boss’).

‘Guy On The Wall’ is a witty portrait of a perpetual party wallflower set against a ‘Word Up’ groove and brilliant Salsa horn arrangement.

hue and cry

And yet there was always something about Hue and Cry that seriously wound people up, an almost imperceptible naffness.  When they emerged on the scene in 1987, they rode a wave of goodwill thanks to their clean-cut looks, anti-Thatcher politics and dynamic ‘Labour of Love’ single (though that’s surely one of the decade’s worst videos).

But by the time of Remote, the tide was turning. Hue and Cry’s relatively soft, ‘aspirational’ sound was anathema in the bombastic late-’80s. It was too jazz for the yuppies and too pop for the jazz revivalists.

Maybe the fact that they’re brothers never helped too – The Proclaimers were the more acceptable face of Celtic brotherhood, more meat-and-potatoes, more reliably blue-collar. In 1995, Q Magazine wrote a cruel but witty hatchet piece about them entitled Britain’s Most Hated Band, offering them ‘a crisp tenner’ to split up (it didn’t do the trick…).

Whatever. I love this album. Recording Remote in New York gave the Kanes access to some amazing guest musicians – Ron Carter and Michael Brecker play beautifully on the very pretty ‘Where We Wish To Remain’, and Pat’s excellent vocals demonstrate a big Mel Torme influence.

The prime NYC rhythm section of Wayne Braithwate and Dennis Chambers supplies a 24-carat groove on ‘Three Foot Blasts’. ‘Sweet Invisibility’ puts a fantastically exciting Latin horn arrangement right upfront in the mix, beating David Byrne at his own game.

Bassist Will Lee delivers beautifully measured performances on ‘Ordinary Angel’, ‘Dollar William’ and ‘Looking For Linda’, offering a subtle commentary on the songs back in the days when a musical performance was supposed to have some narrative development and couldn’t just be ‘cut and pasted’ together.

It’s quite funny to hear legendary jazz trumpeter Jon Faddis play a stratospheric solo on the otherwise very soppy ‘Violently’. Pat Kane sings well throughout the album, with great phrasing, inventive ad-libs and excellent melodies.

 

But YouTube live footage from the Remote era hasn’t aged well and demonstrates why they were such a Marmite band, all cheap suits and wacky horn sections. I saw them at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1989 and struggle to remember anything about the gig.

Even they seemed to sense which way the wind was blowing; they disappeared for far too long after Remote, issuing the stripped-down Bitter Suite live EP and disappointingly brittle Stars Crash Down in 1991. The momentum and recording budget had gone.

But Hue And Cry did well to ride the pop bandwagon for a few years and sneak some sparky jazz, Sinatra and Latin licks into the charts. And because in the main they lent towards jazz and Latin rather than funk and soul, they avoided the all-too-audible mistakes of contemporaries like The Blow Monkeys, Style Council, Climie Fisher and Johnny Hates Jazz.