Story Of A Song: Everything but the Girl’s ‘Driving’

drivingThe 1980s are littered with Brit pop bands going ‘across the pond’ to work with US producers and musicians – Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti, Love And Money, Wet Wet Wet and Simple Minds spring to mind, but the list goes on and on.

It was almost a rite of passage, or – according to some music critics of the slightly more cynical persuasion – a desperate attempt at credibility.

You could hardly level that accusation at Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, AKA Everything but the Girl. They were headhunted by legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, who had just put the finishing touches to Miles Davis’s Amandla, and their ‘Driving’ single (released in early 1990 but recorded spring 1989) seems a near-perfect marriage of US and UK sensibilities.

I confess I hardly knew anything about EBTG when my brother first played me ‘Driving’. I just heard something extremely classy, with intriguing chord changes, a great singer and strong jazz flavour. I didn’t know Tracey and Ben had spent much of the ’80s building up a considerable rep as ‘indie jazz/folk’ darlings of the music press and enjoying not inconsiderable commercial success too, but I was possibly vaguely familiar with Tracey’s gorgeous vocals on The Style Council’s ‘Paris Match‘, a favourite of my dad’s muso mates back in the mid-’80s.

Taken from The Language Of Life album, the song was recorded in LA at the famous Ocean Way and Sunset Sound studios with pretty much the finest session players money can buy (Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass, Larry Williams on keys/arrangements, Michael Brecker on tenor).

But, according to Tracey’s superb memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen‘, the American musicians were totally ignorant of the fiercely independent English scene from which Tracey and Ben had emerged. When Larry Williams found out that EBTG had recently recorded at Abbey Road, he blurted out: ‘Wow! Abbey Road! The home of the Beatles!’ Tracey’s reply? ‘God, I HATE the Beatles.’ There was a pregnant pause. Eventually Williams spluttered out: ‘You h-h-hate the Beatles?’ But you can imagine such ‘musical differences’ were all in a day’s work for EBTG.

‘Driving’ obviously sounds more like Anita Baker (I’d love to hear her cover it) than, say, The Smiths. It’s sophisticated but still has bite, with rich chords, an intriguing ABAA structure and glorious Brecker solo (inexplicably with a different, inferior take on my 7” vinyl version).

Ostensibly a song about ‘cars and boys’ (though written solely by Ben Watt), maybe one could read it as a clear concession to the US marketplace. Or is it the un-ironic response to Prefab’s ‘Cars And Girls’?

tracey thorn

‘Driving’ became somewhat of an airplay hit in the States (though surprisingly only reached #54 in the UK), and led to several high-profile US gigs which nevertheless unfortunately seemed to precipitate a crisis of confidence for Tracey.

The live band, which included future smooth jazz star Kirk Whalum on sax, whipped the crowds into a frenzy night after night, but there wasn’t much space for her subtle, low-key vocals any more. Cue a few years of soul-searching and a distinct change of direction exemplified by 1994’s Amplified Heart.

But re-reading Tracey’s book and listening again to the sublime ‘Driving’ have given me a new admiration for her writing (and music), and a keenness to check out a lot more of Everything but the Girl’s ’80s work. Only took me 25 years.

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Working Week: Does Jazz Go Into Pop?

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

I’ve just had the pleasure of writing the liner notes to a really good new live album by Working Week, possibly the premier jazz/pop band of the 1980s.

It got me thinking about why jazz has totally disappeared from the charts and why the first half of the ’80s seemed the perfect time for jazz and pop to co-exist, especially in the UK.

Here an excerpt from the liner notes:

‘Does jazz go into pop? Judging by the current music scene, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal ‘no’, but, for a golden period in the early-to-mid ’80s, it seemed as if the two styles could happily co-exist. Artists like David Sylvian, John Martyn, Hue and Cry, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Danny Wilson, Swing Out Sister, Joe Jackson and Everything But The Girl smuggled some cool chords into the charts introduced the pop audience to players of the calibre of Kenny Wheeler, Harry Beckett, Lester Bowie, Michael Brecker, Ronnie Scott, Eberhard Weber, Sonny Rollins, Guy Barker, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis. Sade, Carmel, The Style Council and Matt Bianco’s fusion of jazz and pop wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but all of them had big hits. The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ was a jazz waltz (with a few bars of 4/4 thrown in) which got to number one!

The advertising and TV industries played ball and a full-scale jazz ‘revival’ was underway, documented in classic 1986 documentary ’10 Days That Shook Soho’. Courtney Pine and Miles Davis shared space on the UK album chart, Wynton Marsalis made the cover of Time and you could even catch Loose Tubes, Tommy Chase and Andy Sheppard on primetime terrestrial TV. DJs Paul Murphy, Baz Fe Jazz, Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson packed out Camden’s Dingwalls and the Electric Ballroom and young hepcats were dancing to Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Though older British jazzers such as Stan Tracey, Keith Tippett and Mike Westbrook (and some younger ones too) naturally viewed this latest revival with some suspicion, at least it was a relief from the extremely precarious ’70s when rock, funk and fusion almost subsumed jazz. The old guard hung on, gigging in the back rooms of pubs, picking up occasional free improve shows in Europe or moonlighting in West End pit orchestras. But then punk came along, and it affected more than just disenfranchised young rock fans – its DIY ethos breathed new life into jazz too. Bands like Rip Rig + Panic and Pigbag made huge strides in engaging a youthful, receptive audience. Pigbag even made it onto ‘Top Of The Pops’…twice!

But it was Working Week, co-founded in 1983 by saxophonist Larry Stabbins and guitarist Simon Booth, who really typified the successful fusion of jazz and pop in mid-‘80s. Formed in 1983 from the ashes of jazz/post-punk outfit Weekend (whose ‘The View From Her Room‘ was a confirmed early-’80s club classic), initially Working Week was almost the de facto house band for the emerging scene, with the infectiously exuberant IDJ dancers often joining them onstage. Brit National Treasures™ Robert Wyatt and Tracey Thorn duetted on classic single ‘Venceremos – We Will Win’ which briefly made an appearance on the UK singles chart in late 1984. The accompanying album Working Nights, featuring other Brit jazz legends Guy Barker, Harry Beckett and Annie Whitehead and produced by Sade’s regular helmer Robin Millar, reached a sprightly number 23 in the UK album chart soon after…’

Read more in the newly-released Working Week live album recorded in May 1985.

Much more on the ’80s London jazz/dance scene to come.