Gig Review: Kevin Armstrong @ Pizza Express Holborn, 12th September 2018

photo by Paul McAlpine

It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.

But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.

This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.

He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’. Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’. Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too!

A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!). The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.

Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.

There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans. Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’

In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars. Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.

But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.

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Great Opening Lines In 1980s Songs

As we’ve said before, the 1980s produced some fine lyricists. You couldn’t move for decent wordsmithery. But interesting lyrics came from the damndest places. 

What was that Trevor Horn maxim? A good pop song should be like a good story, such that the listener is always asking: what’s going to happen next?

And, like a good story, pretty much every good song starts with an intriguing opening line or two. As the proverbial cigar-munching music-biz mogul might say: ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar, kid…’ So here are some great opening lines from 1980s songs, lines that hopefully satisfy Horn’s requirements.

Everything But The Girl: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

Associates: ‘Club Country’

‘The fault is/I can find no fault in you’

 

Wet Wet Wet: ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’

‘I was living in a land of make believe/
When my best friend wrote and told me that there may be a job in the city’

 

Lou Reed: ‘How Do You Speak To An Angel’

‘A son who is cursed with a harridan mother or a weak simpering father at best/
Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives of filial love and incest’

 

Steely Dan: ‘Babylon Sisters’

Drive west on Sunset to the sea/
Turn that jungle music down/
Just until we’re out of town’

 

Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’

I’ll have a shower then call my brother up/
Within the hour I’ll smash another cup’

 

Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe’

‘Caught in the middle/
Carol, we’re middle-class/
We’re middle-aged/

We were wild in the old days/
Birth of rock’n’roll days’

 

The Smiths: ‘Reel Around The Fountain’

‘It’s time the tale were told/
Of how you took a child and you made him old’

 

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

Miller Time in the bar where all the English meet/
She used to drink in the hills/
Only now she drinks in the valleys’

 

Love And Money: ‘Hallejulah Man’

On the blind side and down the back ways/
The roots of sadness crawl/
When you can’t get what you need/
You feel like taking a torch to it all’

Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

When routine bites hard and ambitions are low/
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow’

 

The Teardrop Explodes: ‘Reward’

Bless my cotton socks/I’m in the news’

 

Tom Waits: ‘Swordfishtrombones’

‘Well, he came home from the war with a party in his head/
And a modified Brougham DeVille and a pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings’

 

Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

‘You surely are a truly gifted kid/
But you’re only as good as the last great thing you did’

 

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions: ‘Brand New Friend’

Walking in the pouring rain/
Walking with Jesus and Jane/
Jane was in a turtleneck/
I was much happier then’

Siouxsie & The Banshees: ‘Cascade’

Oh the air was shining/
Shining like a wedding ring’

 

Bob Dylan: ‘Jokerman’

Standing on the waters casting your bread/
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing/
Distant ships sailing into the mist/
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing’

 

Robert Palmer: ‘Johnny And Mary’

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty/
He needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely’

 

Prefab Sprout: Talking Scarlet

You hide under the eiderdown/
All you can’t sweep underneath the carpet’

 

The Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar/When I met you’

 

Talking Heads: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
Might end up in the hospital’

 

Scritti Politti: ‘A Little Knowledge’

Now I know to love you/Is not to know you’

 

The Smiths: ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’

Sweetness, I was only joking/
When I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head’

Any more for any more?

1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

The Walkman Legacy (AKA The Rise Of The Zombies)

Yesterday, when for the fifth time I was forced to avoid a rapidly approaching, earphone-wearing, phone-fixated zombie, it occurred to me that something had gone pretty wrong.

I remember the first time I was really blown away by my Walkman. It was Thomas Dolby’s samples on Joni Mitchell’s song ‘The Three Great Stimulants’. Those clanging industrial sounds seemed to be physically encroaching on me. Then there were a few other striking sonic details only revealed by close Walkman listening, including Donald Fagen’s stereo-traversing reverb vocals on Steely Dan’s ‘The Caves Of Altamira’.

The Walkman was the beginning of the truly solipsistic musical experience. But back then headphone listening definitely seemed a musical experience, designed for quiet contemplation rather than moving around the bustling big city (despite Cliff’s sojourn through Milton Keynes in the superbly naff ‘Wired For Sound’ video).

I took it to be an aural not psychological phenomenon – it was for wading into the music, not blocking out the world. (Actually a lot of ’80s music seems made for headphone listening. Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues and Dolby’s The Flat Earth spring to mind. Is that true of music now? Isn’t it just loud then quiet, or quiet then loud? Does this matter?)

Spotify’s MD Daniel Ek sums things up very well: ‘We are in the moment space, not the music space’. In other words, every important life ‘moment’, every emotion, should be accompanied by music. Or there’s probably something wrong with you.

This might be something to celebrate for musicians – it is, to a degree, but only a tiny percentage of artists are making money from streaming services. Taken to its extreme, it’s another weapon in the war on reality, another mode of desensitization. We are sleepwalking into trouble. We must be mindful. As JG Ballard said, there are danger signs ahead. A fear of robots? Maybe we are the robots. As we walk around in a zombified state, we are losing touch with each other. Street banter is disappearing.  Philosopher Michael Sandel recently wrote in his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy’: ‘Altruism, generosity, solidarity and civic spirit are like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of the market-driven society is it lets these virtues vanish.’

Remember when you rushed to the shops to buy an album? We might do well to keep that excitement about music. It’s not wallpaper or the soundtrack to the mundanities of life. To paraphrase Bill Shankly, it’s far more important than that.

(We apologise for this unseemly rant in E-minor. Normal service will be resumed soon.)

Thompson Twins: Quick Step & Side Kick 35 Years On

‘We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!’ It was Wayne and Garth’s catchphrase but it could just as easily have been uttered by Thompson Twins’ frontman Tom Bailey in response to the band’s worldwide fame during 1983 and 1984.

He told Channel Four in 2001 (see below) that, at the peak of their success, he always felt on the verge of being ‘found out’ – an intruder at ’80s Pop’s High Table. And then there was the ignominy of being christened The Thompson Twats by those naughty boys Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

They were being a tad harsh; The Thompson Twats made some great pop in the early ’80s. But Quick Step – released 35 years ago this week – is fiendishly difficult to ‘place’, representing a kind of musical Year Zero. The only real antecedents seem to be Bowie, Gary Numan and Thomas Dolby (who I can’t believe is not a guest keyboard player on the album – if he is, he’s not credited).

After the Twins’ first two records – when they were a kind of Grebo/agitprop/post-punk outfit – Bailey sacked half the band (including bass ace Matthew Seligman) and formed a lean, mean three-piece (Bailey took care of the music, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway the image and stage show, though all got songwriting credits). The final masterstroke was recruiting star Grace Jones/Talking Heads/Robert Palmer producer Alex Sadkin.

The formula worked a treat on Quick Step, recorded at Compass Point Studios on the Bahamas and one of the first albums I loved all the way through. Sadkin plays a blinder, adding loads of percussion, perambulating synths and those much-imitated, elastic bass sounds. There are so many classic early ’80s pop tunes that it’s almost indecent. Just hearing the intros to ‘Lies’ and ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ makes me want to jump up and down like my 12-year-old self. ‘Watching’ – featuring Grace Jones’ hysterical vocals – and ‘We Are Detective’ are also good clean pop fun. The latter even throws in some Piazzolla-style fake accordion for good measure. The only dud I can make out is the closing ‘All Fall Down’.

Quick Step & Side Kick was a big hit in the UK, hitting #2. Those anti-capitalist ideals were quickly waylaid. US sales were helped no end when the ever-prescient John Hughes chose ‘If You Were Here’ for a key moment in his 1984 movie ‘Sixteen Candles’, but the Twins didn’t really hit the jackpot in the States until the follow-up album Into The Gap. They even played at Live Aid – in Philadelphia, not London.

N.B. Michael White wrote a really nice, little-known memoir about life in the Twins called ‘Thompson Twin’. He played live keyboards with the band during their pop peak. Spoiler alert: it was not a bed of roses…

 

Book Review: The Speed Of Sound by Thomas Dolby

A cursory survey of Dolby’s musical career reveals that he’s a pivotal figure by any standards, collaborating with Prefab Sprout, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, Jerry Garcia, George Clinton, Herbie Hancock, Trevor Horn, David Bowie, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell… And that’s not even factoring in the excellent solo albums and technological innovations (he created the software for the first popular mobile ringtones).

So if it’s pithy, musicianly anecdotes and the bittersweet memories of an Englishman (mostly) abroad you’re after, his enjoyable autobiography ‘The Speed Of Sound’ certainly does the business. But, as we’ll see, it’s very much a book of two halves.

A music-and-technology-mad teenager, Thomas Morgan Robertson first builds up his performing chops during a lengthy period of busking in Paris, finding out quickly that playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is the only way to make any money. Returning to London, he’s in the right place at exactly the right time and on the verge of launching his solo career when summoned across the pond to work on Foreigner 4. Christened ‘Booker T Boofin’ by the AOR legends for his considerable efforts, it nonetheless turns out to be a not entirely edifying entrée into the world of mega-bucks recording.

Then there’s solo-artist fame in the US, tempered by difficult video shoots, stage fright and the occasional debilitating panic attack. He’s summoned by Michael Jackson to come up with a few new post-Thriller tunes. It doesn’t end well. His tours are well-attended but lose money and his second major single release ‘Hyperactive’ and attendant solo album The Flat Earth flatline partly due to dodgy record company ‘accounting’. It’s a chastening experience; he focuses more on production work in the mid-’80s and any fans of Prefab’s Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s Dog Eat Dog will find loads to enjoy here. But Dolby inadvertently locks horns with Joni and finds himself sending in keyboard parts and arrangement ideas from Jenny Agutter’s spare room. Only in LA…

We get the inside story of his appearance with David Bowie’s at Live Aid (with only three short rehearsals), hear about a hilarious fishing trip with George Clinton and a memorable serenading by Stevie Wonder in a studio broom cupboard. Then there’s an enjoyable detour into the world of movie soundtracks, ‘hanging out’ with George Lucas and meeting the love of his life in LA. By the early ’90s, we’re deep in ‘Spinal Tap’ territory when Dolby has amusingly mystifying dealings Eddie Van Halen and Jerry Garcia.

So far so good. But the second half of ‘Speed Of Sound’ focuses on Dolby’s lengthy sojourn in Silicon Valley. Depending on your taste, this will either be a trial or treat. I skipped large chunks of it. I wanted a lot more music and a lot less tech, and you sometimes get the feeling Dolby did too throughout that period (he frequently laments the fact that his more ‘personal’ music on Aliens Ate My Buick and Astronauts & Heretics failed to find an audience).

The other issue – hardly Dolby’s fault of course – is that everyone seems to be writing a memoir these days and it only emphasises the dearth of decent recent music. And slightly lessens the mystique of the best ’80s material. I’d trade one more decent Dolby solo album for any number of ‘Speed Of Sound’s… But it’s still an enjoyable read.

‘The Speed Of Sound’ is published now by Icon Books.

Thomas discusses writing the book here.

Much more on Thomas’s music career here.