Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.

Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).

She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier.

Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.

Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.

There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.

Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…

Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).

PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.

As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.

‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.

Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).

The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).

Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).

She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.

Scott Henderson/Tribal Tech: Nomad 30 Years On

Who are the most self-critical instrumentalists? Surely guitarists.

And in this age of social media, fans have never had a better insight into musicians’ views of their own work.

Steve Khan, Francis Dunnery, Andy Partridge and James Grant often take a pretty dim view of their own stuff. Allan Holdsworth was virtually unable to listen to his own guitar playing on record.

But brilliant guitarist Scott Henderson may trump them all. He emerged as a poster boy of jazz/rock guitar in the mid-to-late ’80s, when, along with Holdsworth and Frank Gambale, he would often appear alongside metal players du jour in the pages of Guitar World or Guitar Player.

A remarkably fluid improviser with a ‘rock’ sound but ‘jazz’ attitude, Henderson’s technical ability was always tempered by a strong blues feeling (distinguishing him from Holdsworth and Gambale).

In 1985, he formed Tribal Tech with ex-Wayne Shorter bassist Gary Willis whilst pursuing a sideman career with Jean-Luc Ponty and Chick Corea (and, later, Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul).

I first heard Scott in my late teens when a very shrewd guitar-playing college acquaintance played me his third album Nomad, recorded in 1988 but not released until early 1990.

I was instantly smitten, picking up on the strong ‘Weather Report with guitar’ vibe – mainly due to Willis’s fretless bass – but quickly realising they had their own thing going on.

Also, like Weather Report, Tribal Tech were also fortunate to have not one but two fine composers in their ranks. Willis’s ‘Tunnel Vision’ may be Nomad‘s standout, but Henderson was extremely modest about his superb, much-transcribed solo, telling his website:

The opening eight bars is good because it’s not me – it’s a melody written by Willis. I start playing after the first eight bars and things get considerably worse… We had a good laugh when a critic who reviewed the album commented on how great the beginning of my solo was. Then the tune was put into one of the new Real Books and that eight-bar melody was mis-labelled as my solo. Willis said to me: ‘Wow, I’m really making you look good…’

The excellent opener ‘Renegade’ was another embarrassment for Henderson:

On every Tribal Tech album, there are amazingly bad playing and production flaws, because we thought we were capable of producing the albums ourselves, and we clearly weren’t. We had little to no experience in the studio and were learning as we went. An experienced producer would have made those records much better, but we couldn’t afford one anyway, so they are what they are. The funniest solo is mine on ‘Renegade’ – I didn’t have any vocabulary for that 6/4 feel, so I’m clearly playing lines meant for 4/4 and they don’t fit the groove at all. It’s one of my most embarrassing solos…

Then there’s Henderson’s superb album-closer ‘Rituals’, showingcasing a heavy Wayne Shorter influence:

The last time I listened to the Tribal Tech version, I thought I’d throw up. I played the melody in a horribly stiff way, with the thinnest tone ever, and the arrangement sounds like we’re trying to be Journey – very dated and funny. Then there’s the pan flute synth sound… Holy sh*t, talk about corny. It’s one of my favorites but it didn’t get the production it needed. The drum sound is pathetic and the keyboards aren’t loud and clear enough. Those are some badass voicings and sometimes they’re buried. It’s not a tune I could play trio because there’s too much going on, but I’d like to re-record it and make it sound like it should…

Whatever. Nomad is a great album, with excellent compositions and playing from everyone involved, including drummer Steve Houghton, percussionist Brad Dutz and keyboard player David Goldblatt.

Tribal Tech went through a few other personnel changes until their split in 2013. Scott continues on with a highly-regarded solo career and occasional appearances on the irreverent podcast Guitarwank.

Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator 30 Years Old Today

wayne shColumbia Records, released February 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond 1987

10/10

In the late-’80s, Wayne was seemingly about as far away from ‘jazz’ as it’s possible for a jazz legend to get. His music hadn’t featured any tinging ride cymbals or walking acoustic basses for decades.

Even Miles thought Wayne was getting a bit too ‘far-out’ – he reportedly told the saxophonist as much when they met backstage during Miles’s Paris tribute show in July 1991.

Which must have come as quite a shock to Wayne – after all, his ’80s music featured strong, ‘funky’ grooves and attractive, happy melodies. On the face of it, albums like ’87’s Phantom Navigator (apparently inspired by the ‘Other Worlds’ sci-fi comic series he drew in his teenage years) weren’t that different from Miles’s Tutu and Amandla.

But of course they were completely different, and Phantom Navigator is probably the most ‘far-out’ collection of Wayne’s solo career.

mi0002600353

Many critics couldn’t see beyond the drum machines, bass vamps and synths, missing the complexity of the arrangements and incredible care and attention that went into making the album, though maybe Wayne was asking for trouble by recruiting legendary NY beat-maker Jimmy Bralower, who had recently featured on Steve Winwood’s ‘Higher Love’ and Nile Rodgers’ B Movie Matinee.

wayne-shorter_in_amsterdam_1980

But these elements were just ‘sweeteners’ – Phantom Navigator was designed to be lived with, devoured in long stretches as one would a classical piece.

There were so many good melodic ideas packed into every tune but it wasn’t an album for short attention spans – not ideal in the MTV-flavoured, thrill-a-minute late-’80s.

‘Condition Red’ fairly bursts out of the speakers, with Wayne’s hair-raising soprano (I’d posit that Phantom Navigator features the best soprano tone of his career), sublime harmonies and witty scat vocals.

Chick Corea’s crystalline piano features strongly on the intricate, beguiling ‘Mahogany Bird’, while ‘Remote Control’ taps into a go-go groove (though Bralower’s snare is way too big – where was Ricky Wellman when Wayne needed him?) underpinning rich, endlessly-flowing soprano harmonies.

Side two’s triptych of ‘Yamanja’ (named for a sea goddess of Brazilian legend), ‘Forbidden – Plan-It!’ and ‘Flagships’ are nothing less than mini concertos for soprano sax, electric bass and synths. All would work fine with a symphony orchestra with their endlessly intertwining lines and countermelodies.

Wayne toured a lot during this period (I think I saw him three times in London between ’85 and ’88) and to a certain extent the music was a hard sell, both for audiences and the musicians. His sci-fi fusion stuck out like a sore thumb during the late-’80s London jazz/rare-groove revival when he was sometimes put on the same bill as people like The James Taylor Quartet and Gilles Peterson! I remember a really weird such gig at the old Town & Country Club in the late ’80s.

It’s the same old story – the problem of marketing music that goes way beyond category. But, in the final analysis, Wayne doesn’t play jazz, rock, go-go, funk or soul on Phantom Navigator – he plays life.

Stanley Clarke: If This Bass Could Only Talk

stanley_clarke-1988-if_this_bass_could_only_talk

Portrait/CBS Records, released summer 1988

8/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This album was a substantial breath of fresh air when it came out in 1988. I remember walking into Our Price and hearing Wayne Shorter’s majestic soprano sax over some swooning chord changes and thinking: ‘What the hell is this?!’

It was a relief and total surprise when it turned out to be Stanley’s cover of Mingus’s ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (and what a brave choice of track to play in the shop…).

It wasn’t just the Baby Boom rockers who struggled a bit during the 1980s. Stanley started the decade very well with Rocks Pebbles & Sand but then there were a few middling collaborations with George Duke and a very patchy run of albums: Let Me Know You, Time Exposure and Hideaway. 1985’s Find Out had some brilliant moments though.

But ITBCOT put Stanley back on the jazz map. Its full-on playing – with admittedly a few late-’80s production values in tow – brought to mind classic ’70s albums Journey To Love and School Days. Drum machines were out: drummers were back in (Ndugu Chancler, John Robinson, Gerry Brown and Stewart Copeland, all of whom play beautifully).

The album also emphasised how much of a singular voice Clarke had now developed on piccolo bass, as distinctive on his instrument as Parker, Miles, Monk or Rollins were on theirs.

‘Working Man’ is an update of ‘Lopsu Lu’ from Stanley’s classic first album and features some ridiculously brilliant soloing leaning very heavily towards John Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’ approach.

Gerry Brown stays toe-to-toe with Stanley, providing some spectacularly-unhinged drums, though maybe with a bit too much ’80s ‘gated’ snare for some ears.

My cassette copy of ITBCOT didn’t have any personnel listed on it, so when I first heard ‘Stories To Tell’ I didn’t realise I was getting my first exposure to the extraordinary guitar playing of Allan Holdsworth.

I’m very thankful that Stanley unleashed Holdsworth onto my sensibilities. He delivers some remarkably-fluid playing with a shrill, almost reedy tone. The first and last four bars of his solo are really special. Copeland plays superbly too, with more restraint than usual.

Freddie Hubbard shines on a fine cover of Janet Jackson/Jam and Lewis’s ‘Funny How Time Flies (When You’re Having Fun)’ while Stanley brings the funk with a great take-off of Zapp’s Roger Troutman on ‘I Want To Play For You’.

Elsewhere there are two fun but rather dispensable duets with tapdancer Gregory Hines but they don’t outstay their welcome. Finally, ‘Tradition’ may feature Stanley’s finest recorded playing bar none and highlights a strong John McLaughlin influence (via Coltrane, of course).

In a much-maligned genre of music, ’80s fusion, ITBCOT is a minor classic that deserves critical reappraisal. It also led to a really good period for Stanley – he joined Shorter in Lenny White’s short-lived but intriguing Manhattan Project, and also toured as part of a supergroup with Herbie Hancock, Shorter and Omar Hakim.

Stanley was back, back, back!

12 Great Album Covers Of The 1980s

One of the many positives of the recent vinyl resurgence is the potential for some decent album covers again.

For a while, it seemed as if the art was being lost.

Back in the ’80s, as the cliché goes, you would generally buy an album, stick it on and then peruse the cover at some length while you listened. The best covers seemed to take on a life of their own.

Budgets were healthy, the musicians cared and you could see the time and effort that went into the work.

I particularly liked those covers with a ‘psychological’ aspect, some kind of story or scene, an image that maybe enhanced the lyrical themes of the album. 

Here are eleven album covers of the ’80s that still beguile, from the spooky to the decidedly Spielbergian.

12. Scritti Politti: Cupid & Psyche 85 (above)

Design by Keith Breeden/Artwork by Art-O-Matic

11. Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (1981)

Design by Barbara Wojirsch
Photo by Klaus Frahm

10. Weather Report: Procession (1983)

Artwork by John Lykes

weather report

9. It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill (1986)

Cover artwork by David O’Connor

It+Bites+The+Big+Lad+In+The+Windmill+452664

8. Wayne Shorter: Phantom Navigator (1988)

Cover artwork by Jean-Francois Podevin

wayne sh

7. Level 42: Level 42 (1981)

Cover artwork by Joy Barling Loyla

level

6. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)

Cover artwork by Frank Auerbach

japan

5. George Duke: Guardian Of The Light (1983)

Cover artwork: unidentified (anyone know?)

george

4. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)

Cover artwork by Mark Ryden

jeff-becks-guitar-shop-55b528bc7fc87

3. Peter Gabriel: 3 (1980)

Cover artwork/photography by Hipgnosis (Storm Thorgerson/Audrey Powell)

hs_PG3_UMGI_Vinyl-12_Gatefold_6mmSpine_OUT_RI_AUG10.indd

2. Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring (1986)

Cover artwork by James Marsh

talk talk

1. Gil Scott-Heron: Moving Target (1982)

Photography by John Ford, artwork by Donn Davenport

gil scott heron

The 1980s Summer Playlist (Part Two)

Neil Young: ‘Eldorado’

Castanets, Spanish guitars and dodgy dealings down Mexico way in this Peckinpahesque corker from the Freedom album.

Linda Ronstadt: ‘Los Laureles’

More Warner Bros. Americana, this time from Ronstadt’s excellent Mexican-themed Canciones de Mi Padre album.

Wayne Shorter: ‘Condition Red’

A blast of classic sci-fi-fusion from Wayne’s Phantom Navigator album, featuring some ‘sideways’ harmony, incendiary soprano sax, a Big Snare Sound and even a bit of vocal scatting.

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

A shimmering summer classic from The Flat Earth.

Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’

This duet with Peter Gabriel kicked off Joni’s underrated Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm album. Takes me straight back to summer ’88.

Mark King: ‘There Is A Dog’

The Level 42 mainman’s breezy tribute to Return To Forever. Musos behold: he played drums, percussion, bass and all the guitars on this. Taken from the classic Influences album.

The Clash: ‘Hitsville UK’

Mick Jones’ breezy, ironic rumination on the rise of indie labels featuring the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Taken from the Sandinista! album.

Miles Davis: ‘Catembe’

Takes me straight back to the summer of ’89. The breezy lead-off track from Miles’s last studio album Amandla.

Danny Wilson: ‘Davy’

A classic ‘advice’ song which kicked off the Dundee band’s excellent 1987 debut album.