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.

Stewart Copeland, Mark King & Adrian Belew Hook Up

copeland bandKing Crimson, The Police, Level 42: three of the greatest bands of the 1980s, loved by musicians and non-musicians alike. But, on the face of it, you might be hard-pressed to come up with too many common musical traits between them (barring the fact that both Sting and Level 42’s Mark King are bass/vocal double threats).

king and belew

That’s what makes the news of an Adrian Belew (Crimson vocalist/guitarist), Stewart Copeland (Police drummer) and King collaboration so exciting.

What’s also exciting is that in these days of ‘distance’ recording, where musicians regularly email each other sound files for embellishment, never needing to be in the same room, the guys are actually in a studio together.

Copeland of course has had a long, fruitful relationship with bassist Stanley Clarke, who happens to be Mark King’s musical hero, so that makes some sense. But Belew is the real curveball (as he usually is – in the best possible way, of course!).

Adrian has kept followers up to date with the project’s conception and recording progress over on his Facebook page:

‘A bit of information about what we’re doing here in Milan. Gizmo is a recording project created by Stewart Copeland and Vittorio Cosma, keyboard player of Elio e le Storie Tese. (You may remember Elio is the band I played a Bowie tribute with on Italian television back in February).

It is their songs and music. They asked me a while back to contribute guitar and maybe some vocals. recently they asked Mark King to join in on bass and vocals as well. It is not a “supergroup” and there are no plans beyond making this record.

I’m enjoying it very much. Great music and great people making music in beautiful Italy. What’s not to like? We have done three of Stewart’s songs so far and they sound awesome. I must admit Stewart’s songs are custom-made for my guitar playing in the same way as Talking Heads songs were. Full of nooks and crannies ready to be filled with tasty sonic treats, and always a reserved parking spot for a blistering guitar solo from outer space. And it certainly is gratifying when you finish said solos to have everyone in the control room stand up in a rush of applause!’

We look forward to hearing a lot more from this project.

9 Embarrassing (But Great) Moments From ’80s Music TV

grace There’s no escape these days. Maybe your band were given a rollocking live on children’s TV or you turned up for a late-night interview slightly the worse for wear and made a bit of an arse of yourself thinking no one would be watching anyway.

Alas. It’s all retained for posterity on YouTube, and some smart aleck was poised with his finger on the VCR record button, primed for just such an indiscretion.

Some of these clips (parental discretion advised) I remember watching live, others have shown up occasionally on ‘TV Hell’-type compilation shows over the years, but they all make for great – if sometimes uncomfortable – viewing.

9. Five Star on ‘Going Live’, 1989

No, the Essex Jacksons were never the critics’ favourites, but this rhetorical question from a young caller may well have had more of a detrimental effect on their career than any NME scribe ever could.

8. Jools Holland interviews Andy Summers, 1981

Jools turned up in Monserrat while The Police were recording the Ghost In The Machine album, and he managed to ridicule their erstwhile guitarist’s demonstration of funk guitar (at 5:30). You must admit, Julian had a point…

7. Matt Bianco on ‘Saturday Superstore’, 1984

Yep, another nightmare phone-in situation, a subgenre full of guilty pleasures (from 1:00 below).

6. All About Eve on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1988

The infamous appearance during which singer Julianne Regan and guitarist Tim Bricheno were blissfully unaware of the song’s playback in the studio. Cue lots of schoolyard sniggering, but the Eve had the last laugh – their single rose UP the charts the following week.

5. BA Robertson interviews Annabella Lwin, 1982

The rather snide Scottish singer/presenter comes seriously unstuck when broaching the gender issue with Bow Wow Wow’s superbly-spikey frontwoman (I say ‘woman’ – she was only 16 at the time!).

4. Grace Jones attacks Russell Harty, 1980

An intractable Grace is seriously miffed by Russell’s back-turning.

3. Shakin’ Stevens attacks Richard Madeley, 1980

Humour is clearly the animus here, but the sight of a lagered-up Shakey throttling the grannies’ favourite is still quite something.

2. Dexys Midnight Runners on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1982

Did someone at the BBC really think the song was an ode to Scottish darts player John ‘Jocky’ Wilson rather than soul legend Jackie? Or was it a pisstake? (It was a pisstake – and apparently Kevin Rowland’s idea… Ed.) I love the juxtaposition of Kevin’s intensity and Jocky’s grinning mush.

1. Wayne Hussey on ‘The James Whale Show’, 1989

The Mission mainman seems to have wandered into the studio after a long night on the razzle, but he met his match with the confrontational Mr Whale.

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…