Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

Gonna Party Like It’s 1989

So farewell then, 1989.

I mean 2019, of course…

But enough about 2019.

Here’s Nick Hornby’s diary entry for 22nd August 1989, taken from his classic book ‘Fever Pitch’:

‘I have stopped buying NME and the Face, and, inexplicably, have started keeping copies of Q magazine under a shelf in my living room; I have bought a CD player; I have registered with an accountant; I have noticed that certain types of music – hip-hop, indie guitar pop, thrash, metal – all sound the same and have no tune; I have come to prefer restaurants to clubs; and dinners with friends to parties…’

Stump bassist Kev Hopper also had an interesting take on the era:

Organised raves were happening up and down the country and and the UK was awash with mockney DJs. You were made to feel like some sort of soulless, asexual blob if you didn’t like/want to move to their incredibly unfunky, over-quantised, four-to-the-floor marching music. Most of it had about as much rhythmic interest as a dripping tap. Remix DJs and “keyboard wizards” were calling all the shots, idolized by huge crowds of spazzed-out zombie youth. One thing was for sure: rock bands were out…’

In short, 1989 was one of the best music years of the ’80s, but also one of the most contradictory. Happy Mondays and Stone Roses had famously gatecrashed a November edition of ‘Top Of The Pops’, but hadn’t upset the status quo quite yet (and guitars wouldn’t properly make a comeback until the Blur/Oasis era of the mid-’90s, at least in the UK). The ‘yuppie’ consumer still had a stronghold on the charts, driven by the CD boom and a renewed focus on the home and car (which of course became convulsive).

But there was also the sinking feeling that pop music was no longer ruling mainstream culture. Stock, Aitken & Waterman (via Brother Beyond, Big Fun, Sonia, Sinitta, Jason Donovan and Kylie) and the bizarre Jive Bunny were ever-present in the charts, with TV tie-ins and ’40s/’50s nostalgia particularly prevalent, evidenced by this list of UK number one singles during 1989:

Kylie/Jason: ‘Especially For You’

Marc Almond/Gene Pitney: ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’

Simple Minds: ‘Belfast Child’

Jason Donovan: ‘Too Many Broken Hearts’

Madonna: ‘Like A Prayer’

The Bangles: ‘Eternal Flame’

Kylie Minogue: ‘Hand On Your Heart’

Gerry Marsden/Paul McCartney/Holly Johnson/The Christians: ‘Ferry Across The Mersey’

Jason Donovan: ‘Sealed With A Kiss’

Soul II Soul ft. Caron Wheeler: ‘Back To Life’

Sonia: ‘You’ll Never Stop Me Loving You’

Jive Bunny: ‘Swing The Mood’

Black Box: ‘Ride On Time’

Jive Bunny: ‘That’s What I Like’

Lisa Stansfield: ‘All Around The World’

New Kids On The Block: ‘You’ve Got The Right Stuff’

Jive Bunny: ‘Let’s Party’

Band Aid II: ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’

And the fact is that era-defining albums by De La Soul, Pixies, Beastie Boys, Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry and NWA were crushed in sales terms by the Bunny, Tina Turner, Gloria Estefan, Kylie, Jason, Sonia, Simply Red, Bros, Phil Collins and Chris Rea. And though Tiffany and Debbie Gibson had pretty much been snuffed out, crap teen pop was making a comeback in the shape of New Kids On The Block.

But there was still much to celebrate.  The second ’80s pop boom was well underway. ‘Smash Hits’ mag was selling a million copies a week. Prog-pop was alive and well courtesy of Marillion, It Bites, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and Trevor Rabin. There was a serious CD ‘sophisti-pop’ thing going on via Tanita Tikaram, Blue Nile, Black, Julia Fordham, Prefab, Deacon Blue, Toni Childs etc. ‘Going Live’ was a must-watch on Saturday mornings.

Hip-hop was commercial and vital, highlighted by great albums from De La Soul, Young MC, Schoolly D, Tone Loc, NWA and Beastie Boys. The ’60s generation were in fine fettle, evidenced by era-defining rock albums from Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Beck and Lou Reed. Jazz and fusion were in good nick. And don’t forget the post-aceeeed dance scene via Bomb The Bass, S’Express, Yazz, Beatmasters, Betty Boo, Neneh Cherry, Soul II Soul, the Mondays and Roses.

Here’s just a smattering of 1989 album releases. Looks like a pretty damn good year, whether you were into pop, dance, hip-hop, indie, goth, soul, metal or jazz.

Happy new 2020, y’all. Let’s hope it’s better than 2019.

Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi

Danny Wilson: Bebop Moptop

China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse

Lil Louis: From The Mind Of Lil Louis

XTC: Oranges & Lemons

Tone Loc: Loc’ed After Dark

Joe Satriani: Flying In A Blue Dream

Nik Kershaw: The Works

Fine Young Cannibals: The Raw & The Cooked

Madonna: Like A Prayer

Red Hot Chili Peppers: Mother’s Milk

Allan Holdsworth: Secrets

John Lee Hooker: The Healer

Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe

Lou Reed: New York

Tin Machine

Lenny Kravitz: Let Love Rule

Pixies: Doolittle

Beastie Boys: Paul’s Boutique

Soul II Soul: Club Classics Vol 1

Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin’

Mike Stern: Jigsaw

John Patitucci: On The Corner

Miles Davis: Aura

All About Eve: Scarlet And Other Stories

Marillion: Seasons End

Kate Bush: The Sensual World

Janet Jackson: Rhythm Nation 1814

Julia Fordham: Porcelain

Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon

Bob Dylan: Oh Mercy

Miles Davis: Amandla

Schoolly D: Am I Black Enough For You

Neil Young: Freedom

Blue Nile: Hats

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Getahead

The Beautiful South: Welcome To The Beautiful South

Trevor Rabin: Can’t Look Away

24-7 Spyz: Harder Than You

Jane Siberry: Bound By The Beauty

Rickie Lee Jones: Flying Cowboys

The Stone Roses

It Bites: Eat Me In St Louis

David Murray: I Want To Talk About You

Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop

NWA: Straight Outta Compton

Young MC: Stone Cold Rhymin’

De La Soul: Three Feet High & Rising

The Sugarcubes: Here Today, Tomorrow, Next Week

Regina Belle: Stay With Me

Kirsty MacColl: Kite

David Byrne: Rei Momo 

Belinda Carlisle: Runaway Horses

Terry Hall: Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes

Prefab Sprout: Protest Songs

Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon

Prince: Batman

Wendy & Lisa: Fruit At The Bottom

Paul McCartney: Flowers In The Dirt

 

 

The Curse Of 1986?

The critical consensus: 1986 was the worst music year of the decade, perhaps of any decade. But is that true?

There was certainly a vacuum between the end of New Pop/New Romanticism and the Rock Revival of ’87, exploited by one-hit-wonder merchants, TV soap actors, Europop poseurs, musical-theatre prima donnas, jazz puritans and Stock Aitken & Waterman puppets.

Also most pop records just didn’t sound good. The drums were too loud, the synths were garish, ‘slickness’ was the order of the day. Perhaps nothing emphasised these factors as much as The Police’s disastrous comeback version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’.

But listen a little harder and 1986 seems like a watershed year for soul, house, go-go, art-metal, John Peel-endorsed indie and hip-hop. Synth-pop duos were back on the map, the NME C86 compilation was a lo-fi classic and there were a handful of groundbreaking jazz/rock albums too. So here’s a case for the opposition: a selection of classic singles and albums from 1986. Not a bad old year after all.

Stump: Quirk Out

David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’

Mantronix: Music Madness

PiL: Album

Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’

George Michael: ‘A Different Corner’

Eurythmics: ‘Thorn In My Side’

Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover

XTC: Skylarking

Duran Duran: ‘Skin Trade’

George Benson: ‘Shiver’

Erasure: ‘Sometimes’

Cameo: ‘Candy’

Chris Rea: On The Beach

Europe: ‘The Final Countdown’

David Sylvian: Gone To Earth

OMD: ‘Forever Live And Die’

The Real Roxanne: ‘Bang Zoom’

The The: Infected

Half Man Half Biscuit: ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’

Anita Baker: Rapture

Michael McDonald: ‘Sweet Freedom’

Prince: Parade

Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring

Luther Vandross: Give Me The Reason

Pet Shop Boys: ‘Suburbia’

Chaka Khan: ‘Love Of A Lifetime’

Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack

The Pretenders: ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’

Janet Jackson: Control

Run DMC: Raising Hell

Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill

Miles Davis: Tutu

Iggy Pop: Blah Blah Blah

Courtney Pine: Journey To The Urge Within

ZZ Top: ‘Sleeping Bag’

George Clinton: ‘Do Fries Go With That Shake’

Talking Heads: ‘Wild Wild Life’

Kurtis Blow/Trouble Funk: ‘I’m Chillin”

The Source ft. Candi Staton: ‘You Got The Love’

James Brown: ‘Living In America’

Gwen Guthrie: ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’

The Housemartins: ‘Happy Hour’

Peter Gabriel: So

Mike Stern: Upside Downside

Steps Ahead: Magnetic

It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill

Stump: A Fierce Pancake 30 Years Old Today

If you read the press blurb about Stump, the general consensus seems to be that they didn’t quite ‘make it’. But rather we should probably be thankful that they got it together for as long as they did.

The Anglo-Irish band made me smile (and continue to do so), released a great mini album (Quirk Out) and one full-length one, A Fierce Pancake. Released 30 years old today, the latter is probably in my ’80s top 10 (and is reportedly one of Faith No More/Mr Bungle frontman Mike Patton’s favourites too).

It was never going to be easy: the drummer (Rob McKahey) sounded like he belonged in Beefheart’s Magic Band or Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the fretless bassist (Kev Hopper) was into sampling, Pere Ubu and Brand X, the guitarist (Chris Salmon) sounded like a cross between Hank Marvin and Adrian Belew and brilliant frontman/lyricist (the late Mick Lynch) was more than likely to engage in a bit of onstage belly dancing.

But it somehow works. A Fierce Pancake is dedicated to the life and works of physician/psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and writer Flann O’Brien. It was released on Ensign Records, mainly known for breaking Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys. Recording sessions at Hansa in Berlin were apparently long and difficult – original producer Holger Hiller jumped ship halfway through and then ‘stabilising influence’ engineer Stephen Street got summoned away to work with Morrissey.

But the album’s sometimes hilarious (‘Bone’, ‘Charlton Heston’, ‘Chaos’, ‘Eager Bereaver’), sometimes touching (‘Alcohol’, ‘Boggy Home’) and always musically interesting. I think of it as something like a cross between Viz magazine and XTC. It’s a shame that they couldn’t maintain the John Peel-endorsed momentum of their early days.

Their manager persuaded them to call it a day after a disastrous Camden Electric Ballroom gig supported by The Blue Aeroplanes on 21st December 1988. A Fierce Pancake hadn’t come close to recouping its costs and the Rave scene was in full flow. It was all over, barring a one-off comeback gig in May 2015.

For more on the band, check out this excellent podcast.

Mick Lynch R.I.P.

Stump featuring Mick Lynch (second from left)

Stump featuring Mick Lynch (second left)

Big bottom
Swing big bottom
Swing-a-linga
It’s blubbery Burberry, baby
It’s blubbery Burberry
Big bumpy-bump
Big bumpy
Bop-a-lula
In terylene tartan, lady
In terylene tartan, lady
How much is the fish? How much is the fish? How much is the chips?
Does the fish have chips?

I don’t want a drink but I’ll go to the bar
I’d go for a walk but I ain’t got a car
Exclamation mark, click-click-click…
I like when it’s different but it’s just not the same
The weather is perfect except for the rain
Immaculate molars, baby
Immaculate molars, baby
How much is the fish?
Don’t mention hamburgers, Harry…
How do I get off the bus?

‘Buffalo’ by Stump, lyrics by Mick Lynch

I was planning a piece about the 30th anniversary of Stump’s marvellous mini-album Quirk Out recently when inadvertently came across the sad news that their singer and main lyricist Mick Lynch had passed away on 17th December 2015. He was one of those fascinating, unique, highly-intelligent music-biz characters that could only have emerged during the ’80s.

Stump’s inclusion on the fabled ‘C86’ NME cassette (alongside Primal Scream, The Soup Dragons, Half Man Half Biscuit and The Wedding Present) was many people’s first exposure to the band, but it was their November 1986 video performance on ‘The Tube’ that will forever be etched on my memory. Lynch’s Tintin quiff, bulging eyeballs and brilliantly rubbery dance moves couldn’t obscure the fact that ‘Buffalo’ was a warped pop gem.

Lynch’s lyrics were some of the 1980s’ greatest, channelling Flann O’Brien, Beckett and Joyce, with a soupcon of Mike Leigh, to depict the more surreal aspects of Irish immigrant life in London. There were tales of dodgy landlords, bit-part actors, disastrous booze-ups, gormless American tourists (see above), pirates, part-time strippers, coffin-followers and even a classic song about Charlton Heston filming a Biblical epic (‘Lights! Camel! Action!’). Many lyrics still make me laugh out loud, his melodies were great and he was also a brilliant frontman.

stump

In a very rare interview with The Quietus, Lynch once said, ‘My lyrics are essentially ballads, I write in ballad time and still do to this day. Stump had no love songs. Everything was from a very oblique angle. “Boggy Home” would be closest to a love song. It was about being in London but desperately wishing to be on top of a mountain in Kerry!’

Though Stump’s tenure was short – consisting of only two studio albums and a handful of tours between 1984 and 1988 – but their impact was powerful. Bassist Kev Hopper has written a heartfelt tribute to Mick on this MOJO message board.

In the early 1990s, Lynch moved from London back to his hometown of Cork where he was a founding member of Dowtcha Puppets, a children’s puppet theatre company. Stump reunited for a one-off Cork gig in May 2015. Would love to have seen that.

Mick will be missed. He is survived by three sisters, Julianne, Noreen and Marie.

Recommended listening: ‘Stump: The Complete Anthology’ CD

‘Lights! Camel! Action! The Story Of Stump’ podcast

The Strange Story Of Stump

Blimey. That appeared out of nowhere on ‘The Tube’ in late ’86 or early ’87. I was amazed and amused. Who were these mutants? Though the clip was forever etched on my memory, for some reason I didn’t seek out any recordings by Stump until a few years later when I came across a cassette of debut mini-album Quirk Out in the corner of my local HMV.

stump

I love this band. Built around Rob McKahey’s tribal drums, Kev Hopper’s fretless bass, Chris Salmon’s whammified Strat with no effects or barre chords and the joyously insane though highly-literate gibberings of singer Mick Lynch, Stump’s music should never have worked but it did. It reminded me a bit of Belew-era King Crimson and XTC at their most unhinged but otherwise I was clueless.

Lynch told surreal tales of TV extras, low-rent strippers and out-of-control bodily functions over seemingly improvised ‘post-rock’. In the intervening years, I’ve detected influences from James Joyce and Flann O’Brien in his brilliantly surreal storytelling, and Hopper has cited Pere Ubu, Brand X and Captain Beefheart as musical influences. But Stump could only have happened in the ’80s.

They got quite a live following in ’86, mainly among London’s Irish population, and a John Peel Session, Mud On A Colon EP and appearance on legendary compilation C86 followed quickly. Quirk Out came out on their own label Stuff Records and featured favourites like ‘Tupperware Stripper’, ‘Our Fathers’, ‘Bit Part Actor’ and, of course, ‘Buffalo’. More appearances on ‘The Tube’ followed, the gigs went from strength to strength and everything seemed rosy.

The first album proper, 1988’s A Fierce Pancake, fulfilled their potential. Ensign Records, who specialised in popular Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and The Waterboys, schmoozed the lads and they duly signed on the dotted line, despite having no real idea why they had been schmoozed. Beautifully produced by Holger Hiller at Hansa Studios, with lots of detail and a bit more sonic punch than on the debut, Pancake was a minor classic. Surely a minor hit single would follow. The Cure’s mainman Tim Pope even directed the video for the most likely song, ‘Charlton Heston’.

But nothing. So Ensign tried to scare up a few remixes – nada. Even their charmingly ramshackle live shows were starting to flatline. During the long period of recording Pancake, the live scene had changed completely, and now rave and house were prevalent. Stump’s brand of funky insanity was out. It’s another classic case of mismanagement and squandered budgets. No matter – the album contains such ’80s classics such as ‘Eager Bereaver’, ‘Bone‘, ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Boggy Home’.

stump

Recent box set The Complete Anthology includes demos that were intended for the third album and they sound mainly marvellous, particularly ‘The Queen And The Pope‘ and ‘Warm In The Knowledge’, but things couldn’t go on as they were. The band called it a day in 1989, apparently £250,000 in debt to Ensign.

But a few ‘celebrity’ fans have emerged over the years, most notably Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr Bungle fame. The latter band certainly has Stumpy elements.

There has even emerged a really weird YouTube video of the rest of Stump looking for missing singer Mick Lynch in Cork. Is a reunion on the cards? (A reunion gig actually happened in May 2015, and Mick Lynch sadly passed away in December 2015 – Ed.)