Book Review: Backtrack by Tessa Niles

Excellent recent documentary ’20 Feet From Stardom’ busted the myth once and for all that backing singers aren’t ‘good’ enough to be solo artists. In fact, the contrary is often true: they make the artist sound and look better, and there are often a myriad of reasons both professional and personal why they haven’t become headliners in their own right.

Tessa Niles is probably the UK’s most celebrated backing vocalist of the last 35 years, and her excellent new memoir – kind of a Brit version of ’20 Feet’ – lifts the lid on a distinguished career singing with David Bowie, George Harrison, Elton John, Kylie, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Annie Lennox, Gary Numan, The Police, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears For Fears and Robbie Williams.

It’s a real page-turner and ’80s guilty pleasure, a voyage through all the pop fads of the decade (and decades since) and a search for a fruitful work/life balance in the face of demanding touring schedules and family commitments. We follow Niles’ career from her early days as factory worker, cabaret entertainer and ‘Benny Hill Show’-auditioner to the late-’70s/early-’80s London live music scene, where good, young female singers could make a decent living at the city’s many nightclubs. She is excellent at painting a picture of this somewhat dodgy state of affairs, when a pre-New Romantic London was anything but swinging and ‘Page 3’ culture was at its peak.

But a shrewd volte face leads Tessa into the burgeoning jazz/funk scene and decent, reliable gigs with Morrissey Mullen and Incognito, plus a chance meeting with US ex-pat arranger and producer Richard Niles. Though their subsequent marriage gives Tessa her professional surname, it also leads to some conflicts of interest when he helms her commercially-unsuccessful solo debut.

But then Trevor Horn is on the blower and she is whisked into the studio to work on ABC’s ephocal Lexicon Of Love album, the beginning of a long and successful professional relationship with the uber-producer. ‘Date Stamp’ in particular shows Niles’ voice off to great effect.

From here on in, her career goes from strength to strength, but it’s not without its pitfalls: The Police’s long ‘Synchronicity’ world tour plays havoc with her vocal cords due to Sting’s insistence that she (and cohorts Dolette McDonald and Michelle Cobbs) sing in ‘full voice’ throughout, without any vibrato. There’s also a funny anecdote about what exactly constitutes an audition for Sting.

Then of course there’s Niles’ memorable, electrifying turn alongside David Bowie at Live Aid – it’s amazing that they only had two days’ rehearsal for the ‘little gig’, as Bowie called it.

Elsewhere, there’s lots of good technical stuff about what actually constitutes a decent studio vocal performance – and also what artists and producers demand from a backing vocalist – with wicked anecdotes concerning Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Steve Winwood’s ‘Roll With It’, Duran’s ‘Notorious’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘Swords And Knives’. Niles also doesn’t shy away from personal reflections about her family relationships and romances.

There’s far too much Clapton and Robbie Williams for my liking and a decent proofreader wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I devoured ‘Backtrack’ almost in one sitting. A really enjoyable, gossipy read.

‘Backtrack’ is out now on Panoma Press.

Spitting Image: We’re Scared Of Bob

In the ’80s, there was no shortage of pop coverage to inspire conversation in the playground, whether it was Boy George’s first appearance on ‘Top Of The Pops’, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ video or Matt Bianco being verbally abused live on children’s TV. Of course it really helped that there were only four terrestrial channels to choose from, breeding a feeling of community and sense of occasion.

But one TV show absolutely guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing and rescue many a depressing Sunday evening was ‘Spitting Image’. Just a cursory look at a show from its mid-’80s peak leaves one stunned at the craftsmanship and production values on offer (especially as they only had a few days to write, build and shoot each episode), and quite honestly it shows up the state of television these days for the sad farce it is.

Spitting+Image+The+Chicken+Song+226291

There were some good musical spoofs too, composed by Philip Pope, fresh from UK comedy classic ‘Not The Nine O’Clock News’ and his parody band The Hee Bee Gee Bees, who even managed a few hits in the early ’80s. ‘Spitting Image’ featured some memorable Phil Collins, ZZ Top and Madonna skits, and they even managed to rope Sting in to re-sing this.

But ‘We’re Scared Of Bob’ is full of surprises and surely the best spoof (I love the reveal of Cyndi Lauper…). Its sheer potency is still a shock to the system. You also suspect that Sir Bob was watching, so unmissable was the programme in the mid-’80s.

Why isn’t there anything like this around now? Money and talent. And also a show like ‘Spitting Image’ highlights the paucity of genuinely interesting musical (and public) figures these days. OK, off the soapbox now…

Ladies And Gentlemen, It’s Max…Headroom!

388px-Mhcom_max_headroom_guidetolife_frontYep, it’s M-M-M-M-Max, scourge of celebrities everywhere and purveyor of surreal one-liners, bizarre stream-of-consciousness meanderings and often-quite-obscure music videos.

Max was created in 1985 by Annabel Jankel (sister of Ian Dury-collaborator Chaz), Rocky Morton and George Stone as rather eccentric, attention-grabbing ‘talking head’ to present videos on the burgeoning Channel Four (actually, with hindsight, it’s strange that no other terrestrial TV channels had aped the MTV format before Max came along).

Brilliantly played by Matt Frewer, who apparently had to endure over four hours in the make-up chair before each day of filming, Max was born in a one-off drama that played on Channel Four in 1985. He then returned to front two series in 1985 and 1986 and two further series emerged on US TV in ’87 and ’88.

I think it’s fair to say people either loved or hated Max. I confess I was an immediate fan. I even bought the book! Large swathes of his monologues are indelibly etched on my memory – maybe they tapped into how my teenage mind was being wired. Even today, I can’t hear the words ‘Sebastian Coe’ without thinking of Max’s unique delivery.

I also discovered some good music and vids on his shows too, including Peter Gabriel’s live version of ‘I Don’t Remember‘, The Redskins’ ‘Bring It Down‘, Donald Fagen’s amazing ‘New Frontier’ vid (directed by Jankel and Morton) and Sid Vicious’s terrifying ‘My Way‘ (how did that get onto pre-watershed TV?).

Most of the press attention was aimed at the state-of-the-art computer graphics, his incredible make-up job and bizarre speech patterns. But, apart from the music vids, what immediately hooked me was his smarmy, gleeful piss-taking. He was kind of a mixture of Fletch and Johnny Rotten. There was also a touch of Dan Aykroyd/Chevy Chase’s portentous Weekend Update newsreaders on ‘Saturday Night Live’.

Though the show had three regular writers – David Hanson, Tim John and Paul Owen – Frewer apparently improvised a large part of Max’s ramblings. I always assumed Max’s ‘cool guy’ persona was coming from Steve Martin (with a soupçon of David Byrne’s big suit from ‘Stop Making Sense’), but Frewer claims that he based Max’s shtick on Ted Knight’s hilariously hammy portrayal of Ted Baxter in ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’. This performance was new to me, but watching it now makes perfect sense. I’ve always been a huge fan of Knight’s brilliant turn as Judge Smails in ‘Caddyshack’.

Ted_Knight_1972

Ted Knight, inspiration for Max

Possibly the sections of the show which have the most relevance now are Max’s interviews with stars like Sting (see below), Boy George and David Byrne. Years before Dennis Pennis, he was hilariously detached, if not downright dismissive of their celebrity status. I love the way he ridicules Sting’s new ‘jazz’ direction.

Later on, the tables were turned as Max found himself being interviewed on primetime chat shows by David Letterman and Terry Wogan. He calls Letterman ‘Davey-doo’ throughout and seems to be slowly driving him to distraction. By contrast, Terry is more than happy to play along, as is his wont.

Max signed off from his UK TV series with a rather lovely little ballad, which, I confess, still threatens to put a lump in my throat. Hey, I know, the mid-life crisis is kicking in big-time… I had a few episodes on video for many years but chucked them out a while ago – a mistake, as there’s still no sign of a UK DVD.

Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 28 Years On

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond

8/10

There were always reasons to dislike Sting in the mid to late-’80s (and now): his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz and acting. Some people just didn’t like the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music, even though he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the decade.

But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

To be fair, Sting probably didn’t care what people said. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

Mercedes_sting

Sting’s first solo album Dream Of The Blue Turtles traded in on the residual goodwill of his being in one of the most successful and musically-ambitious bands in pop history. As a Police nut myself, I also quickly became a confirmed Sting nut, seeing him at the Royal Albert Hall on the Turtles tour and eagerly buying the first few solo albums.

But if the debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements unsubtly ladled in amongst the pop, the follow-up …Nothing Like The Sun fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly strange mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of sophisti-fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of these chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. Sting’s speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

And the emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very beautiful neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage‘), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. It just feels natural and all in a day’s work for this serious, rapidly-improving artist.

Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. ‘Rock Steady’, ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’, ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple tunes with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate. And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout.

Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report and Miles Davis, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent ambient guitar in the vein of Bill Frisell or David Torn. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for a beautifully-sung ‘Little Wing‘, also featuring one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s highest-selling solo release. Those liner notes are still pretentious as hell, though…