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.

How Not To Follow Up A Hit Album #2: Tears For Fears’ The Seeds Of Love

courtney pineFontana Records, released 25th September 1989

Bought: Oxfam Notting Hill?!

4/10

Tears For Fears’ second album Songs From The Big Chair did the business. A relatively cheap record to make, it sold millions and elevated the Bath boys into the big league.

Early ‘80s technology, boy-band looks and some great hooks had carried TFF through the first two albums but now they felt they had to deliver a polished, ‘musicians’ album’ to match their heroes. Big mistake…

The Seeds Of Love was the result, and with it they tragically o’erreached themselves in the search to emulate their heroes Gabriel, Ferry and Sylvian. Four producers. Nine studios. Over a million pounds in studio costs. Broken marriages. Dozens of session musicians.

A famous Q article outlined the painful, sometimes embarrassing lengths the two protagonists Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith went to to complete Seeds. Orzabal said he wanted to make something musicians would love, something ‘world-class’. This over-egged curio shows what happened when pop stars tried to buy credibility in the late-‘80s, undeniably under a fair amount of record company pressure to follow up a monster.

The intro of ‘Woman In Chains’ still retains some Blue Nile-ish power before being obliterated by Phil Collins’ sledgehammer drums and overblown AOR guitars; Gabriel/Joni/Sting drummer Manu Katche plays a blinder on ‘Badman’s Song‘ but the melodies barely register; ‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ still stands up though as a decent Beatles tribute complete with some lovely woozy drums from Big Chair producer and ex-Ant Chris Hughes and a very cool chord sequence.

Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ is initially very attractive complete with Jon Hassell’s ethno-trumpet and some typically slinky fretless playing from Pino Palladino, but its grand atmosphere and ambience can’t obscure the lack of structure and good ideas; ‘Swords And Knives’ starts with an interesting piano/voice melody but quickly gets mired in a succession of annoying guitar solos and grandiloquent key changes.

Year Of The Knife’ (these boys really like knives…) is a pretty ugly collision of gospel vocals and a sub-‘Broken Wings’ groove. Again, the song runs out of stream after two minutes and tries to cover it up with a fiddly string arrangement and weird avant-metal guitars. Even uber-drummer Simon Phillips sounds uninspired.

The Q article, September 1989

The Q article, September 1989

Orzabal almost achieves a Sylvian-ish level of sophistication on the closing ‘Famous Last Words’ but once again blows it, neglecting to supply a B section or cogent lyrics. Quiet/loud dynamics alone do not a good song make.

The album was a hit, going straight to number one in the UK and selling well in Europe and the States, but was it worth all the effort? Orzabal and Smith were barely on speaking terms and didn’t record together for over a decade after Seeds‘ completion. It was certainly a big and bold farewell to the ’80s from one of the decade’s success stories.

Six Great ’80s Album Openers

vinyl-goldSequencing an album can be a real headache but it’s surely one of the dark arts of the music business. One thing’s for sure: the lead-off track is key. You know the old A&R cliché – ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar!’ But sometimes quiet and enigmatic can be just as effective as loud and arresting.

Repeated listening and nostalgic reverie possibly cloud the issue but it’s almost impossible to imagine some albums with different opening tracks. Revolver kicking off without ‘Taxman‘? Rubber Soul without ‘Drive My Car‘? Pretzel Logic without ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number‘? Unthinkable.

So here are six of my favourite album-openers from the ’80s:

6. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ from Face Value (1981)

Love or hate Phil, no one can deny this is one of the killer intros. He programmes his own ‘Intruder‘ beat on a Roland CR-78 drum machine, adds some slabs of heavy guitar, some moody chords (in D minor, the saddest of all keys…) and chills all and sundry.

5. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ from 90125 (1983)

A blast of sampled Alan White drums (later co-opted for Art Of Noise’s ‘Close To The Edit‘) and we’re away! Trevor Rabin’s gargantuan power-chord intro became an MTV mainstay and gave the prog-rock survivors their only US number one single. But, arguably, they shot their load too early – the rest of the album never comes close to this lavish opener.

4. Simple Minds: ‘Up On The Catwalk’ from Sparkle In The Rain (1984)

I’m a sucker for drummer count-ins and this is one of the best. There’s a lovely contrast between the unproduced timbre of Mel Gaynor’s yelp and stick-clicks and the subsequent blizzard of gated drums and Yamaha CP-70 piano in the classic Gabriel/Lillywhite/Padgham style.

3. Tears For Fears: ‘Woman In Chains’ from The Seeds Of Love (1989)

A less-than-great song from a less-than-great album, but messrs Olazabal and Smith weave a rather delicious, Blue Nile-influenced intro that promises great things, before Phil Collins’s stodgy drums and some chronic over-production buries it in bombast.

2. PiL: ‘FFF’ from Album (1986)

‘Farewell my fairweather friend!’ bawls Johnny over a cacophony of gated drums (played by jazz legend Tony Williams, fact fans) and angry guitars. Well, hello!

1. The Blue Nile: ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

Another one that asks, ‘Hang on, is there something wrong with this CD?’ Subtle synths ruminate in near-silence before some found sounds (coins being inserted into a slot machine?) and a lonesome trumpet gently prod a classic album into life.

Tears For Fears’ Songs From The Big Chair: 30 Years Old Today

tears-for-fears-songs-from-the-big-chairPhonogram/Mercury Records, released 25th February 1985

Recorded at The Wool Hall, Beckington, Somerset, and the Hammersmith Odeon, London

Produced by Chris Hughes

Peaked at #2 in the UK album chart

Remained in the UK Top 10 for over six months and the Top 40 for over a year

Reached #1 in the US album charts

Bassist/singer/co-writer Curt Smith explained the album’s title in a 1985 interview:

“The title was my idea. It’s a bit perverse but then you’ve got to understand our sense of humour. The ‘Big Chair’ idea is from this brilliant film called Sybil about a girl with 16 different personalities. She’d been tortured incredibly by her mother as a child and the only place she felt safe, the only time she could really be herself was when she was sitting in her analyst’s chair. She felt safe, comfortable and wasn’t using her different faces as a defence. It’s kind of an ‘up yours’ to the English music press who really fucked us up for a while. This is us now – and they can’t get at us anymore…”