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.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Liverpool: 30 Years Old Today

frankie_1309776451ZTT Records, released 20th October 1986

8/10

It’s well known that FGTH’s deal with ZTT was one of the worst recording contracts in pop history (outlined in embarrassing detail in vocalist Holly Johnson’s ‘A Bone In My Flute‘). But the band were already starting to show signs of subordination by late 1984 – they refused to record the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ as the B-side to ‘The Power Of Love’, part of ZTT ideas man Paul Morley’s bizarre plan* to get the label’s acts to write a history of pop through cover versions.

FGTH also scuppered ZTT’s plan for them to star in a sci-fi movie which was to be scripted by Martin Amis and directed by Nicolas Roeg (actually, that sounds brilliant…). The band then insisted that they actually play on their second album Liverpool rather than let session players lay down the basic tracks, a request that seems to have been granted, although close reading of the tiny liner notes reveals the names Trevor Rabin, Steve Howe and Lol Creme…

Sensing trouble, Trevor Horn took the role of ‘executive producer’ and passed production duties over to the gifted Stephen Lipson, who clearly had his work cut out. A schism was opening up between Holly Johnson and the rest of the band, or ‘The Lads’, as he dubbed them. Tensions were also running high in the country – by mid-1986, unemployment had topped three million and anti-Thatcher feeling had reached its peak. Oxford University had even just refused her an honorary degree. So the frivolity and epicurean excesses of Welcome To The Pleasuredome were definitely out.

frankie_say_war_hide_yourself-_t-shirt

Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford

Still, Liverpool is a sumptuous-sounding album, with immense care taken over recording, mixing and mastering – apparently to the tune of a whopping £760,000. It stands up pretty well today especially if taken as a separate entity to Pleasuredome, even if the songs are nowhere near as memorable as the debut’s.

Lipson pulls out all the stops, playing some superb fuzz-toned lead guitar, particularly on ‘Maximum Joy’ and ‘Rage Hard’, and piecing together an album of musically-rich, prog-influenced hard rock. Synth players Andy Richards and Peter-John Vettese contribute intriguing intros and outros, often involving backing vocalist Betsy Cook too.

And though Liverpool is obviously a more ‘serious’ album than Frankie’s debut, there are still amusing spoken-word inserts from members of the band in broad Scouse (‘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”!).

‘Warriors Of The Wasteland’, ‘Kill The Pain’ and ‘Rage Hard’ are tough techno-rock tracks which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on It Bites’ debut album. Holly’s vocals are unhinged and powerful. ‘Rage Hard’ was also subjected to a fantastically overblown extended mix featuring Pamela Stephenson (doing her best Thatcher impersonation?) taking us on a tour of the 12” single.

‘Maximum Joy’ is superb, pure ZTT bliss, while ‘Lunar Bay’ is also brilliant, balls-out prog/pop in the style of Propaganda’s A Secret Wish. ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ is completely barmy, an anti-Thatcher ballad (‘She should buy us all a drink’) in queasy 6/8 interrupted by some Native American chanting by Holly and a weird musical-hall middle section.

‘Is Anybody Out There’ is a fitting end to Frankie’s recording career, a majestic, distinctly Suede-like ballad (the guitar solo is totally Bernard Butler) with some beautiful Holly vocals and a subtle Richard Niles string arrangement. The only real dog on Liverpool is ‘Watching The Wildlife’.

The album was not a commercial disaster, reaching #5 in the UK album chart and the top 10 in many other European countries, but a disappointing #88 in the US. It wasn’t enough. Frankie were going back to Liverpool. And Thatcher still had four years left in Downing Street.

*Morley’s influence was apparently running amok, evidenced by Liverpool‘s fairly ridiculous liner notes (‘Best wishes to Stan Boardman’) and a choice of album title that suggested he was pretty certain the band would soon be returning to their hometown, banished from pop’s high table. Holly apparently hated the title.

Propaganda’s A Secret Wish: 30 Years Old Today

propagandaZTT Records, released 2nd July 1985

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1994?

8/10

A Secret Wish represents the peak of ’80s pop music. The glamorous though mysterious project was a flawed masterpiece but also the beginning of the end for big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over ‘concept’ albums. You might even say that ’80s pop was all downhill from here.

I was 12 when A Secret Wish came out, and, though I liked ‘Duel’ at the time, it took me another ten years or so to finally get hold of the album. If anything, it has only gained in mystique in the years since, quite possibly because it’s such a singular project. It doesn’t really sound much like much else around in mid-’85 (though Pet Shop Boys and a-Ha were definitely listening), nor is it particularly similar to other ZTT releases or Propaganda’s subsequent albums.

A large part of the mystique is provided by Stephen Lipson’s pristine, widescreen production (Trevor Horn only produced ‘Dr Mabuse’), as well as his formidable mixing and guitar work (check out the extended mix of ‘Duel’). Claudia Brucken’s lead vocals are original and Suzanne Freytag’s spoken-word interludes carry unmistakable echoes of Nico (emphasised by their seriously weird ‘Femme Fatale‘ cover from the album sessions).

Yes guitarist Steve Howe contributes a nifty solo to ‘The Murder Of Love’ and David Sylvian has a hand in writing the gripping ‘p:Machinery’. But man of the match is ZTT house keyboardist Peter-John Vettese, purveyor of doomy soundscapes and intriguing chord voicings. Josef K’s post-punk classic ‘Sorry For Laughing’ is reinvented as a Wagnerian synth-pop anthem and there aren’t many more epic album openers in pop than the majestic ‘Dream Within A Dream’.

Paul Morley, ZTT marketing/content man and former husband of Claudia Brucken, has talked about Trevor Horn and David Sylvian’s involvement in A Secret Wish:

Propaganda

‘When Trevor pulled out of producing them, I actually asked David Sylvian. While he was thinking about it, he came up with the ghostly top line of ‘P:Machinery’ – the music, if you like – and a gorgeous watery slowed down version of ‘Duel’, but he decided against producing them, and it stayed within the Sarm (London recording studio owned by ZTT label owners Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair) pop factory. Actually, another sign of the split between sensibilities at the label: I asked David Sylvian to produce Propaganda and Jill approached Stock Aitken and Waterman!’

A Secret Wish wasn’t a huge hit and surely didn’t make back its sizeable recording costs, reaching just 16 in the UK album chart, but the singles ‘Duel’ and ‘p:Machinery’ both made the top 30.

The band picked up the first-class rhythm section of ex-Simple Minds pair Derek Forbes on bass and Brian McGee on drums (as well as Bowie/Dolby guitarist Kevin Armstrong) and toured the album extensively.

I very clearly remember this performance on the BBC music show ‘Whistle Test’ in late 1985. Happy days: