Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz, and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music. 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.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. 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).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His songwriting 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.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple 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, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

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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.

Andy Summers & Robert Fripp: Two-Guitar Telepathy Take 2

Andy-Summers-I-Advance-Masked-77760Regular readers will know that I’m a big guitar connoisseur, and the ’80s offered up a smorgasbord of great players. My brother is three years older than me and he was into ’80s King Crimson and Fripp’s fantastic solo album Exposure long before me. We listened constantly to an old cassette of Discipline which abruptly cut out in the middle of ‘Thela Hun Ginjeet’ and didn’t have any labelling on it, but after some detective work we found out that this incredible music was a band called King Crimson featuring a rather odd but fascinating character from Wimborne named Fripp. And we were both huge Police fans so were well acquainted with Summers.

With hindsight, it seems completely logical for the two to record together, and their two collaborations are engaging if annoyingly inconsistent.

i-advance-masked-robert-fripp-andy-summers1982’s I Advance Masked (great title, surely Fripp’s) is under-produced, tentative and unfinished-sounding, and this approach works fine on the beguiling title track and evocative ‘Hardy Country’ where strong themes carry the day.

But the duo’s limitations as multi-instrumentalists hamper the rest of the album – the drum programming is limp, bass playing sometimes amateurish and the synth playing simplistic (though sometimes perversely enjoyable in a kind of sub-John Carpenter way).

The shorter tracks seem to be searching in vain for some status as ‘ambient’ or ‘environmental’ music but are just too quirky for that purpose. To coin a phrase, it’s all a bit ‘two men and a drum machine’.

What the album does offer are fascinating examples of the kinds of guitar woodshedding the players were doing in the early ‘80s. Summers is in full-on Ghost In The Machine mode with meshes of swelling guitar synth and simple, incongruously bluesy solos, while Fripp explores the arpeggiated, polyrhythmic ideas which would find fruit on Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair a few years later.

But, for me, some of the album, especially ‘Hardy Country’, will forever be associated with Fripp’s corner of Dorset, mainly due to its use in a brilliant Fripp BBC2 documentary from the mid-‘80s. Take a walk around Badbury Rings with ‘Hardy Country’ playing in your lugholes and you’ll see what I mean.

summers and fripp1985’s Bewitched is a dramatic improvement on the first album. In the main, it features attractive melodies, well-thought-out song structures, (mostly) real drums, some incredible playing from ex-League of Gentleman/Gang of Four bassist Sara Lee, pristine mastering and much more of a ‘band’ sound.

The opener ‘Parade’ flies out of the traps with New Wave drums and an engaging little synth guitar melody. With its major-chord exuberance and very short duration, it could easily have come from side one of Bowie’s Low.

‘What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy’ is pretty much a perfect distillation of the state of the electric guitar in the mid-‘80s, if you can take the incessant boom-bap of the drum machine. Fripp must have grinned at the simplicity of the blues chord changes and catchy melody. Summers’ ingenious layering takes in wah-wah funk, harmonic washes, Charlie Christian-style bebop, bluesy leads and tasteful guitar-synth textures. Fripp also plays one of the most extreme solos of his career and Sara Lee impresses with her high-speed soloing and tasty grooving.

Unfortunately, side two is more in line with the debut album, a series of rather uninteresting, short and surprisingly-badly recorded tracks. Think ‘Behind My Camel‘ in demo form but without Stewart Copeland. But the best is saved until last, the stunning closer ‘Image And Likeness’ featuring Summers’ gorgeous cascading harmonics.

On these two albums, Fripp generally takes a back seat and basically provides a framework for Summers’ talents to shine through. An admirable, modest position for sure, but he was becoming a bit like the Wayne Shorter of guitar at this point, happy to be in the shadows despite legions of fans wanting bolder musical statements. But this is in general a really intriguing and somewhat overlooked two-guitar collaboration calling to mind a brilliant era when big labels were putting some serious money behind instrumental music and rock was allowed to be intelligent.

Seven More Great ’80s Album Openers

7. David Bowie: ‘It’s No Game (Part 1)’ from Scary Monsters (1980)

Weird doesn’t cover it. We hear tape spooling around the reels and the machine being turned on, followed by drummer Dennis Davis whirling around a football rattle and counting us in in his best Cyborg voice. After this, Robert Fripp’s deranged solo and Michi Hirota’s strident Japanese outbursts sound almost normal.

6. De La Soul: ‘Intro’ from 3 Feet High And Rising (1989)

A whole generation of pop kids hadn’t heard anything like this before, and yet somehow it bears repeated listening. It’s just as fresh and original as anything The Small Faces or The Beatles tried 20 years before and arguably started off the whole ‘intro’ concept on hip-hop albums.

5. Genesis: ‘Behind The Lines’ from Duke (1980)

In musical theatre, I believe it’s called an overture. This bombastic piece previews many of the themes that will reverberate through the album. Tony Banks’ keys and Phil’s drums have seldom sounded brighter or tighter.

4. Lil Louis: ‘I Called U’ from From The Mind Of Lil Louis (1989)

This classic piece of bunny-boiler house is funny, weird and arresting (sorry about the sound quality).

3. It Bites: ‘Positively Animal’ from Eat Me In St Louis (1989)

Watch that volume dial. The talented, underrated four-piece jolt you out of complacency with a flashy, these-go-to-11 opener. Audacious and very un-English.

2. The Police: ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’ from Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

Another moody classic. A brooding Oberheim bass-throb, a fudged Andy Summers chord, a hint of click track and then that brilliant, patented half-time groove. This full-length version hints at the darker themes of the lyric.

1. Talking Heads: ‘And She Was’ from Little Creatures (1985)

Hope you enjoy our new direction (though Little Creatures is probably my least favourite Heads album). Leaving behind the art-funk of Speaking In Tongues, this sprightly opener introduces a new stripped-down pop sound in no uncertain terms.