Sunday 21 December 2014

George MICHAEL: Faith

(#356: 14 November 1987, 1 week)

Track listing:  Faith/Father Figure/I Want Your Sex (Parts I & II)/One More Try/Hard Day/Hand To Mouth/Look At Your Hands/Monkey/Kissing A Fool

The other day I asked about the English attitude towards pleasure – is there a book on it, or an essay?  I got one reply back about it being a rather “short pamphlet,” and (having lived here for six years) I had to sadly agree.  The English like “fun” but kind of mistrust the intensity and expansiveness of “pleasure.”  Being an American here is to be surrounded by people (this is a generalization, I realize) who were only encouraged to have fun, not to discover what really pleased them, something gratifying and rewarding and something they would like to share, not hoard; joy is for Christmas or a Bank Holiday, ultimately only for just about a week or so a year (birthday included).  I may come from a nation “founded” (cough) by the puritanical Pilgrims, but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are in the US mix, as well.  

That is a burden, sure, but it is also a right (I believe) and it makes up a lot of the raw qualities of the US, for better and indeed for worse.  It is a complex fate to be an American, but it is to be English too; the repressiveness and sense of alienation I feel here in the UK comes and goes, and I can only wonder how young Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in Bushey felt as the child of immigrants growing up in the 70s; his audacious leap into stardom has brought him here to 1987 and his first solo album, since Wham! ended in 1986.  I don’t know too much about him, but it is clear to see here he too is fascinated by the US and caught up in the mechanics of his own pleasure, within a society that will (and did) repress that need.

Which is to say, here is George Michael reaching out to the US, making music that is inspired by American music, and of course America took him on as one of their own (in Popstrology 1988 is the Year of George Michael).  Whether they were really listening to him all that closely I don’t know (whether they are listening to future Then Pay Long star Sam Smith all that closely I don’t know, either).  If Michael is being cagey or elusive in interviews around this time, it’s because (in hindsight) he is trying to appeal to everyone with this album, still expected to sell tons by his record label Epic, to take these very personal statements and make them – via tours and videos – very very public.  As you can see from the cover photo, Michael is (unlike Jackson) trying to hide, to protect himself, already saying, before you can hear the album, that this is all you are getting; there are parts of him that will always be (or have to be) reticent, held back…English, if you like*.  

Of course, there were other reasons for Michael to be cagey; drop yourself into 1987 and find yourself in a world of Section 28, a world where “It’s A Sin” can get to #1 but it’s still a huge deal for Princess Diana to be seen touching someone who has AIDS**.  My chronology here may be a bit off, for reasons that will become apparent, but it's no surprise that Michael essentially is playing a shell game with Faith; beautiful and hard to crack, vulnerable and (needlessly, I think) tough.

One of the reasons Faith did so well is precisely because of this mysterious tension in the album - a sense that while Michael is being open, he, well, isn't really completely forthcoming.  This is a New Pop strategy, saying something ("signifying" as it's called) without actually saying it.  It's not something that started with New Pop - anyone who hears Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing In The Street" or especially "Nowhere To Run" will know that pop can and does say more than one thing at one time, that the snow tire chains on the latter song aren't just there because they sound good.  Ahem.

Faith starts with the title track, with Michael coming off all 50s Bo Diddley by way of Marylebone, leather jacket, blue jeans, designer stubble, and that signifying earring - a gold cross.  That and a bit ol' acoustic guitar and it's all hello rock and roll, my name is George Michael, how are you?  But he's not about gurning guitar solos or heavy growls; "Faith" is light, percussive, relentlessly on the beat and as upbeat as it sounds, it's about what most of this album is about:  rejection.  The Other (it is left to us to figure out who it is) wants him, but he is being self-protective, having been a victim of the "games" of another who had dumped him - "games" that he plays too, he admits, but now he wants something more, an "ocean" of a love that will not leave him on the floor, gasping and flailing like a fish caught on a line.  He has been "foolish" before and is showing his potential Other the door, as he has to have, yes, faith.  What he wants is more than just to touch someone else, more than just physical. 

From this zippy beginning the album slows down immediately to "Father Figure."  My objectivity about this, because of the time, is about zilch; my own father was very ill at the time, and thus any song where someone wants to be a father to someone else (and it's impossible for me to figure out if Michael is singing this as if he wants one or wants to be one or is one; it is a patient song though, that's obvious enough) was never going to wash with me.  The shift, I can tell, was probably already happening inside me; that terrible gulf of no-father was becoming more and more clear, with no real person to fill it.  George Michael singing this didn't exactly help much, as the gap between life and music began to become more elastic, less predictable.  (It kind of goes without saying that I didn't really pay much attention to Michael at the time; he was there, he was popular, but he was merely there - not liked, not disliked, there.) And so I can listen to "Faith" and give it a thumb-up, but "Father Figure" seems big and intimate and distant and hopeless/unbelievable.  Good, sure, but I somehow can't take it to my own heart, for obvious reasons.  And what is the "life of crime" that the narrator is trying to avoid or escape?  The song is all about someone wanting the Other in a physical way (so much for the previous song's rejection of physical love) but also as a "preacher, teacher" - that latter word will appear later - "anything" the other wants.  It is as if this person isn't just a father but a mother as well - they are everything, and I guess this overwhelming need for someone to be all this for another/to need all this from another is too much for me; a bit suffocating...and yet it all floats by like a meeting of David Cassidy and P.M. Dawn, not oppressive at all.

From the Andy Gibb-all-grown-up of "Father Figure" (he just wants to be his Other's everything) the album goes into Holly-Johnson-breathing-all-over-the-keyboard of "I Want Your Sex."  I don't know whether this was defiant or not as a song, but it's some nerve to write and perform a song that is about (as the kids put it back then) doing the nasty that is so direct and achy and slinky and unapologetic.  The song was all but banned on normal UK radio, mentioned only as "I Want"; the UK attitude towards pleasure - sexual desire and urgency - being that pointless equivalent of the French eating a certain bird - an ortolan? - with a napkin on their head so God can't see them do it.  But this song goes right to the issue - what is dirty?  What does his Other consider pornographic?  Michael sounds like someone who's just graduated and can't wait to show how great he is, how qualified - here he is, boys and girls, come and get him, he's beyond ready, now.  None of these songs is addressed to either gender specifically, letting Michael fly under the radar (so to speak) of what I guess is called "heteronormative" radio.  Sound enough like Prince and do a video with a girl in it and hey ho, beyond the ever-controversial subject of sex itself, then the line "there's boys you can trust/and girls that you don't" (as part of pt. 1) can be all but ignored, as Michael goes on to tell us (as if we didn't know) that sex is "natural" and "good."  I'm not sure if the US needed to hear this, but in pleasure-phobic UK, maybe it was more than necessary?  "I Want Your Sex" is just about desire for anyone, the kind that is near what in UK slang is "gagging for it."  Oh Michael is all grown up now, there's no allusions anymore to dancing - he is throwing it right out there, as polite as he can be - trying to turn the NO! he's getting into a sighing, panting YES.  (It doesn't happen, of course - even in pt. 3, which is tacked on here at the end, he's still trying to get his Other in the mood, via a "gin and tonic."  Hmmm, don't know if that's going to work, George. Pt. 2 is all brassy confidence covering up anxiety, as he endlessly frets/praises over his Other, saying "I'm not your father/I'm not your brother." Which is to say, the single version is heteronormative, the others, less so.)

"One More Try" is the big ballad that shows what Michael is really capable of; it's (my guess) why it debuted at  #1 on the Billboard R&B album chart, being the sort of song that again takes its time, but feels more solid than "Father Figure" - more of something that's been lived, fully experienced.  He has been, yes, dumped; but he is "feeling the heat" in this new relationship, but has no need for yet more rejection; the narrator is an "uptown boy" who is willing, but wary...for his "teacher" to love him, educate him, and then dump him, figuring that's what the relationship is, fundamentally - a short course that leaves the narrator wiser but much sadder.  All this to the ghost of "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and just as the song ends, the focus changes to the teacher, who is also alone, also damaged, but willing to give it "one more try" with this novice.  The decision here is to be courageous, to say YES rather than NO, because trying is better than being alone.  Again, in a world where people were basically told to keep themselves to themselves, to save their own lives, this need for the Other conquers all, including the persistent undertow of fear...

..."Hard Day" is about a relationship where the narrator (who clearly is out working) comes home and doesn't really want to hear about the Other's day; he just wants to have sex ("it's what we do best") with him/her, even though he isn't the one that this other loves the most.  Again we have this aching lack of completion, and if he was impatient in "I Want Your Sex" then here he's angry, wanting his Other to trust him and love him back, not bring him down by not loving him, not making love with him. "DON'T BRING ME DOWN" he yells in all caps, he's already had a hard day and doesn't need more difficulties at home with a "sweet little boy" - or is this another reversal, with the Other calling him this?  I don't know - and such ambiguity is how this album could do so well, could fit into the sonic lives of so many people.

So far so good; now, on to side two...

"Hand To Mouth" is the obligatory I'm-socially-conscious song on Faith; around this time, if you didn't have a socially conscious song on your album, you risked looking as if you weren't really grown-up.  It's a feather-light song, musically, but looks at a world of violence, poverty, abandoned women, abandoned babies..."I believe in America" the narrator sings, but here is a cold and unfeeling place, where everyone lives hand-to-mouth; and there is the immigrant woman who has nothing left to lose "so she ran to the arms of America" - hello, The Joshua Tree - into a world of yes, faith but no gods, no one to rely on but yourself.  The first side is about rejection (and longing for acceptance); this is social rejection and the same longing for a place, a place called America where freedom and love ought to be the laws of the land...but there is little happiness.

"Look At Your Hands" is one of the meanest songs I've yet to come across in Then Play Long; and yet as mean as it is, it is weak.  The narrator once knew a girl who he loved, who didn't decide to stay with him; she is now the wife of a "drunken man" and the mother of "two fat children."  He looks at her now with a combination of some (just some, not much) pity and a whole ton of contempt.  That's what she gets for not wanting to be with him - a life of misery, one he taunts her about, telling her she can leave it and be with him, and then telling her he knows she won't do it.  It's emotional abuse, pure and simple, any women's shelter could tell you that, and the narrator throws salt on this wounded woman's life with no real sense of empathy.  He wants her, he claims she wants him, but she doesn't have the guts to leave her abusive husband - well smartass, why don't you take her and her kids (you don't think she's going to leave without them, huh?  HUH?) down to that shelter and go take Feminism 101 to learn how these things happen in the first place.  I rarely get angry with the narrators of songs - but here I do, and I can only look sideways to Michael and one David Austin (the only time Michael has someone help him write a song) and wonder just what they were doing, writing a deliberately spiteful and abusive song.  Sign of the times?  Hmmm....really, all it needs is Mick Jagger pointing his finger contemptuously to show how old-fashioned this kind of thing is.  It's 1987, things are tough all over, and doing something like this to show you're "rock" is just dumb.

"Monkey" is about, yeah, junk, and if it sounds like a reworking of something by Janet Jackson (and, secondarily, Peter Gabriel's So) - well, I can imagine Michael did a lot of listening to Control while writing this.  It just works; and here the Other has him/herself an Other that is a drug, and it's all tough love again - "do you love the monkey or do you love me?" being the main question.  He doesn't know why the monkey is so hard to give up, but in his determination to keep bugging his Other he thinks he might get somewhere, the Other being fundamentally a weak person, weak enough to be swayed by his persistent begging and hectoring questions.  Now the rejection isn't even about a rival but something that clearly provides his Other with something he can't give - hence the anger in the song, the rejection he gives the Other, who can't or won't give up.  "Why do I have to share my baby with a monkey?" it ends, again showing that maybe he really doesn't know his Other as much as he thinks he does, as if s/he is "the best" and yet also mysterious and unknowable...hmm, maybe the Other is scared of something, as scared as the narrators of  "One More Try"? (Also, hello Robbie Williams.)

From this funk attack the album slows right down and reverses out of rock altogether for jazz; the easy sway of a song that talks of hearts, hearts lost and found, the fundamental need - "to even make a start" you have to be true to your heart.  True to yourself?  Is the shell game ending, with Michael ready to say what he really feels?  The song is sung to someone who the narrator has already had a relationship with, someone who was persuaded away from him - "You listened to people/who scared you to death/and from my heart/strange that I was wrong enough" - this all may be signifying, but it's also a story as old as the proverbial hills - two people attracted to each other, the one leaving the other because of what s/he is told by others, not by their own decision, and the rejected one feeling like a fool.  The narrator is loyal, a man - a man who is dumped and yet still hopeful, no longer a figure who is an "uptown boy" but someone with some maturity and understanding that faith is not enough, but knowing your own heart and following it - however fraught with difficulties that may be - is the best, the only way through romance, through life itself.

It isn't much of a mystery to figure out why this did so well - something for literally everyone, with the songs so deliberately vague/slyly signifying that no matter who you were, there was something to identify with - from the 50s to the present and back to the 40s, from longing to aching to a kind of calm...his heart, once on the floor, is now where it should be, solidly within himself, as he can hold on to not just faith but also love itself - patience, if you will - and the last song sets the stage for his next album, as if Faith was just a stage he was going through - a wildly successful stage, but just a stage, nevertheless.  The flood of fear and anxiety and lust is over, and he washes up on the shore of an ocean that is calm and luxe, still able to raise his voice as to how loyal and true he is, but then quietening down again to croon about being a fool, and maybe understanding that in all this he has been something of a fool too, pursuing the wrong people, the wrong goals.  So, a happy (even, pleasurable?) ending of sorts.

It is too bad that I was in no state to hear this at the time, but I was undergoing my own flood, and that dictated its own fears and anxieties, ones that Faith wouldn't have been able to allay much at the time.  The gap between hearing something and it leaping directly into my heart is very narrow now, for some music, and quite wide for others.  The incomprehensible is happening every day, and that is warping and stretching what I can hear, how I hear altogether.  But Faith stands as a near-perfect album of youth, young manhood, finding out what that oh-so-blithely-referred-to faith really means, which is mainly faith in yourself, and hence faith in others.  And also - to follow your heart, your own sense of pleasure.  That much, I would have understood even then, had I bothered to listen.        

Next up:  The power ballad hits the UK, hard.

*The American female response to suppressed/held back English guys is one of either intense curiosity and I’m-sure-I-can-make-him-talk enthusiasm or I-don’t-want-to-be-with-someone-who-won’t-communicate-openly harsh judgement, the latter being the usual response when she finds out that he will talk but only politely and not about himself.  Then, being American she will either give up or keep trying, particularly if he is cute, a description I don’t think any Englishman would use to describe himself, ever.

**The Queen was against this at the time, according to this link:

Thursday 27 November 2014

FLEETWOOD MAC: Tango In The Night

(#355: 31 October 1987, 2 weeks; 7 May 1988, 2 weeks; 28 May 1988, 1 week)

Track listing: Big Love/Seven Wonders/Everywhere/Caroline/Tango In The Night/Mystified/Family Man/Little Lies/Welcome To The Room…Sara/Isn’t It Midnight/When I See You Again/You & I, Part II

“Don’t know what’s wrong,” grunts Lindsey Buckingham halfway through “Family Man,” “but I do know what’s right.” Walking down that cold, cold road is this troubled man who is Springsteen’s junior by just ten days. But who is this “family”? “Mother…father…brother…”; well, if he means Fleetwood Mac, then that takes care of Christine, Mick and John. But somebody else is missed out. In any case, is there actually anybody on this song except him? Does this family even still exist? Or did they already make their excuses and leave?

Detour #1: a hallucinatory rainbow of Fairlight strings and harp and booming Cocteau Twins guitar, the coda to SMiLE Brian never managed to imagine. Then, eventually, a voice, slightly startling in its deepness, uttering words like:

“You, under strange falling skies
You, with a love that would not die”


“You, where the strange wind blows
You, with the secrets no one knows”

and beyond that, nothing except “You, you and I.” You probably won’t know it, because it’s “You & I, Part I,” which only appeared on the B-side of the “Big Love” single. Its omission from this album is rather like Pepper going straight into “With A Little Help From My Friends.”

Another thing to note is that this album came out in April and took just over half a year to make number one. In the States, it did very well but never got past number seven on Billboard. Its eventual appearances in this tale can be explained by “Little Lies” becoming a major hit single (and “Everywhere” the following spring, hence its return to the top). This indicates that a lot of people found the record problematic, not quite what they had anticipated ten years before.

But then, what do you make of an album whose lead song and lead single were “Big Love”?

Detour #2: 23 May 1997, in the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, before an invited audience; the “classic” Fleetwood Mac quintet have briefly reconvened for an MTV special entitled The Dance. It is the first time they have been on stage together since Clinton’s inauguration over four years previously. The performance will climax with a spectacular “Tusk,” featuring the USC Marching Band themselves. But for “Big Love,” Lindsey Buckingham is all alone with his guitar.

Nobody really knew what to make of “Big Love” when they first heard it. Yes, this is Fleetwood Mac – or is it (like “Caroline” and “Family Man,” it was originally intended for Buckingham’s third solo album but sequestered by the band, with some resistance from its author)? Certainly, even Buckingham has rarely sounded so intense or angry. On one hand, as is evident elsewhere on the album, he is having an awful lot of fun with this sparkling new Fairlight toy.

But, not expecting the audience to know about Buckingham’s tortured love life, whom is he addressing? One moment he is promising to build her a kingdom, but in the next verse she is begging him to stay in that very same kingdom; that is, if it is the same “she,” which I doubt is the case (there was Stevie, and then there was Carol Ann Harris, and latterly Cheri Casperi). All the while he is “looking out for love – BIG, BIG LOVE” as though “love” were the equivalent of Family Fortunes’ “BIG MONEY.”

It really is that story again – wanting love as a symbol of perfection, settling for nothing less and not understanding what love is really about. And despite the determined futurism on the music’s surface and the alleged blackboard lectures about New Pop, Buckingham’s howl reaches back to Roy Orbison and forward to Kurt Cobain. When the rhythm section really make themselves known – under the “ooh, aah” climax – Buckingham’s high, pealing, extended one-note guitar scream reminds us that this is the same band who once performed “Man Of The World” and “Oh Well.” Names and faces change but emotions don’t.

More disquieting, however, is the fact that the male/”female” cross-channel “ooh”s and “aah”s are not Lindsey and Stevie, but Lindsey entirely. Where is Stevie again?

A decade later, they are all present, but Lindsey is alone on the stage, and performs a lightning-speed reading of the song. If you know the tricks of playing guitar then you’ll know the playing is not quite as complicated as it sounds – one hand plucking the upper two strings, the other holding down or otherwise handling the lower three, so it’s a question of technical coordination above everything else – but nobody except Lindsey could perform the song with the intensity that he invests in it. When he reaches the climax, thrashing out flamenco chords, rocking back and forth as though in an uncontrollable fit, screaming and crying rather than grunting, and right at the end, cutting off and reeling back from the microphone as though having collided with a volcano, there is a terror that is not present in the original recording; his Orbison musings have mutated into Chris Isaak, and, particularly when taken in combination with the penultimate song on #516, the conclusion is that this is some kind of threnody for Kurt.

Consider the trappings of the original song, which were already oppressive enough; here is Lindsey Buckingham, here’s Charlie Kane, alone in his big castle, with things, but things are not PEOPLE, and he is alone and he knows that none of it means anything without love, the right love, and in 1987 he is not yet ready to break down like he does at the end of the MTV “Big Love,” to admit vulnerability and fear.

What did that old song say?

“And how I don't want to be sad anymore
And how I wish I was in love.”

But where is Stevie?

“Seven Wonders” in Britain was the second single, and missed the Top 40 entirely, and it is recognisably Stevie Nicks but on closer listening sounds more like a demon possessing Stevie Nicks. It doesn’t help that she didn’t write the song herself – the songwriter was her long-time associate Sandy Stewart (who worked extensively with her on 1983’s solo The Wild Heart) and the sum total of Nicks’ contribution was to make minute changes to some of the lyrics and get one line wrong (it was meant to be “All the way down you held the line” but Nicks heard it as “All the way down to Emmeline” and that’s how it stayed, as if she’d just remembered Hot Chocolate).

But Nicks’ delivery is rough, tortured, furious. I’m not saying she heard Kristin Hersh on “Delicate Cutters” and knew that the bar had been raised a little – since she wouldn’t have been in a position to do so – but her voice could scratch paint off the Taj Mahal, despite Buckingham’s sterling background support.

As for Christine, she was responsible (or, in the case of “Little Lies,” one-half responsible, with her then husband Eddy Quintela) for the album’s two best-known songs. “Little Lies” works chiefly because of Buckingham’s keen awareness of New Pop mores – the arrangement and whispered chorales are distilled Prefab Sprout, whereas the chorus could be Bucks Fizz (“Tell-me-TELL-ME-LI-IES!” Who said something about their camera never lies?) – and its own little lie that it’s a charming late eighties love song when actually it is proposing a break-up (“We’re better off apart, let’s give it a try”). Likewise, the happiness on “Everywhere” sounds very transient indeed (“You better make it soon/Before you break my heart”); the latter is effective because of the cut-up symphony Buckingham and his Fairlight make of piercing, pointillistic stars of voices.

Elsewhere there is the unusual sight of three Lindsey/Christine co-writes. Of those, “Isn’t It Midnight” was again written with Quintela, and canters along like a standard mid-eighties MTV-friendly rocker until Buckingham’s furious, fuzzy and increasingly atonal lead guitar suddenly and terrifyingly appears on the scene and proceeds to erase the song altogether; the only other time this happens on the record is with the Buckingham-penned title track, poised as it is between morbid contemplation and unfettered fury, perhaps echoing the record’s cover painting, Homage á Henri Rousseau, by the Australian artist Brett-Livingstone Strong, which depicts a nocturnal glade by the seashore. At its centre something gleams with a light that has been pointed at it from a direction and source unknown; in the water there are two swans, one camouflaged, and between them lurks a crocodile, ready to come ashore and wreak havoc if it gets annoyed – therefore, an idyll which on closer inspection isn’t idyllic at all.

“You & Me, Part II” I’ll come to eventually, but the third Buckingham/McVie collaboration, which closes side one, is the rather lovely “Mystified” with its gorgeous, ruminating chord changes and a feeling of crisp eternity that is highly reminiscent of OMD; it could theoretically fade out altogether, but the song is about uncertainty when faced with what looks like love. It plays like a tropical beach hut silently surrounded by sharks.

Like practically all of the songs here not written by Stevie Nicks, “Mystified”’s lyric is minimalist, almost like a pop haiku, and it can mean whatever your circumstances demand it should mean. Otherwise, Buckingham’s “Caroline” is all scratchy Peter Gabriel manoeuvres, and something about reaching the mountain top and cutting the cord (signifiers!).

But if there are only three songs on this record sung (less than fully) by Stevie Nicks, only two of which she fully wrote, then there is a melancholy explanation for this, as Buckingham told Uncut in a 2003 interview: “It was a very difficult record to make. Half the time Mick was falling asleep. We spent a year on the record but we only saw Stevie for a few weeks. I had to pull performances out of words and lines and make parts that sounded like her that weren’t her.”

Actually, over the seventeen months it had taken to make the album – recording began as early as November 1985 – Nicks had spent a cumulative total of two weeks in the studio. Her cocaine habit had worsened to the extent that she required a thirty-day stay in the Betty Ford Clinic (which was the inspiration for “Welcome To The Room…Sara”). On her release, however, she went to see a psychiatrist and was prescribed the tranquiliser Klonopin, to which she soon became far more seriously addicted; she did not manage to shake the addiction off fully until the early nineties. As an addict, she was hardly capable of turning up in the recording studio and doing her bit and so Buckingham was faced with the task of having to build her vocal tracks up from isolated lines, sometimes even isolated words, as described above. If Nicks’ voice on things like “Little Lies” sounds cut and pasted, it is a speeded-up Buckingham (the drop-ins on “When I See You Again” where it sounds as though he is messing about varispeed-style with Nicks’ voice à la “If I Was Your Girlfriend” – within all the “What’s the matter, baby” stuff - are almost certainly speeded-up Buckingham).

Then again, is that really Christine McVie singing on “Isn’t It Midnight” or a 60 rpm Buckingham impersonating McVie impersonating Nicks? Buckingham, in the abovementioned Uncut interview, summed it up: “Everyone was at their worst, including myself. We’d made the progression from what could be seen as an acceptable or excusable amount of drug use to a situation where we had all hit the wall. I think of it as our darkest period.”

In other words, everybody in this family was too fucked up to make this album, and Buckingham (with co-producer Richard Dashut) had to bear most of the burden of putting it together and making it work. Thus Tango In The Night looks like Fleetwood Mac, sounds at a distance like Fleetwood Mac, but isn’t really Fleetwood Mac. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the two Nicks-penned/sung songs. In contrast to Buckingham’s essentially futurist musical outlook, Nicks sounds stranded in the past; “Welcome To The Room” plays with notions of Tusk and Gone With The Wind but in truth she is far too far gone; at one point (“This is a dream, right?”) she sounds like the yet-to-be-born Taylor Swift. She is back in the past, with the other “Sara” (but “Sara” is Stevie – isn’t she?), with “Beautiful Child” and maybe even with “Quicksilver Girl.” I wonder whether the nod to Propaganda’s “Duel” (“The first cut is the deepest one of all…”) was at Buckingham’s prompting. Most chilling is when she sings, towards the end of the song, “When you hang up that ‘phone/Well, you cease to exist.” As far as the Fleetwood Mac of 1987 was concerned, she was barely existing as it was.

In “When I See You Again” she is dreaming, she is lost in a dream, in memories of things and relationships that once were, and when she can go no further, she gives up:

“And the dream says I want you
And the dream is gone
So she stays up nights on end
Well at least there is a dream left”

With that, she makes her exit from the song, and the album; and we are left with the ghostly voice of Buckingham to sing the final lines - “If I see you again/Will it be over/Again and again/Over and over?” – and sing them right into the next world. He wants to get on; she is incapable of doing so.

The record closes with its most disquieting and disturbing song. Musically, “You & I, Part II” is a cheerful daytime television electro-jingle; with a slightly different arrangement it could have fitted onto the end of Sulk (and yes, I can imagine Billy Mackenzie singing “Big Love”) – but lyrically (and this is Lindsey AND Christine) what the hell is going on? Eyes shut tight, phantoms crawling out of the night, hoping and praying that tomorrow never comes, a Queen Dido-esque entreaty not to “forget about me”…but then again, the phrase “hoping tomorrow will never come for you and I” can have two meanings, depending upon whether you regard the verb “come” as transitive or intransitive. This, however, is unquestionably the end, the sound of the singer closing the door on the “family,” on the group which a decade earlier had already sounded on the point of disintegrating.

And so it proved. Disgruntled by the prospect of touring the album, given the stresses incurred in recording it, Buckingham demurred and left the band. Tango In The Night remains the last new word that these five people have left us; The Dance included no new songs, and by the time of Say You Will, effectively a Buckingham-Nicks record, Christine McVie had retired, contributing only occasional, ghostly backing vocals. There is no indication that their forthcoming reunion will produce any new material. And so the dialogue, the pain, continued in other ways. By the time “You & I, Part II” has done its business, Buckingham’s voice has been reduced to a ghost in the Fairlight. Perhaps he saw the future only too plainly.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

STING: ...Nothing Like The Sun

(#354: 24 October 1987, 1 week)

Track listing: The Lazarus Heart/Be Still My Beating Heart/Englishman In New York/History Will Teach Us Nothing/They Dance Alone (Gueca Solo)/Fragile/We’ll Be Together/Straight To My Heart/Rock Steady/Sister Moon/Little Wing/The Secret Marriage

A Dictionary Of “…Nothing Like The Sun”

Chadwick, Guy  (b 1956): German-born English singer-songwriter and guitarist who, after a false start in the early eighties with the group The Kingdoms, found critical and commercial acclaim when he formed The House Of Love with guitarist Terry Bickers. In one of the inset photographs on the sleeve of …Nothing Like The Sun, where he is wearing a raincoat, Sting looks rather like Guy Chadwick.

Compact discs: The album was marketed as a double, though weighs in at just under fifty-five minutes and requires only one CD or cassette. The flow of the latter benefits the record as a whole, in order to distract from the suspicion that this is another smooth, never-listened-to item for the sophisticated yuppie car.

Crisp, Quentin (1908-99): Sutton-born model, writer and raconteur whose given name was actually Denis Charles Pratt. Famously suffering much mockery, abuse, contempt and violence for the way he dressed and conducted himself in public, he was determined to keep his dignity intact, though did not become a celebrity until John Hurt portrayed him in the 1975 television adaptation of his 1968 memoir The Naked Civil Servant. Thereafter he toured in a one-man show. Interviewed by Paul Morley for the NME, shortly before vacating the Beaufort Street bedsit in which he had lived for some forty-one years to emigrate to the States, he had that kind of Anthony Blanche-type insouciance which I think Morley was disappointed not to find in any of his other interviewees; Crisp is the first subject to appear in the anthology Ask: The Chatter Of Pop. The last subject is Sting.

“Englishman In New York” is all about Crisp, maintaining his style and preserving his pride (and thus reinforcing one of the album’s central themes, that of dogged resistance against oppression). As with several other songs on the album, the song breaks into a temporary jazz run before a five-second blast of hip hop beats – sort of – remind us that we are meant to assume that the 1987 Sting knows what time it is. Ironically, for such a cultured and unwavering man of the world, Crisp died in a hotel room in Chorlton-cum-Hardy near Manchester, the night before he was due to begin a British tour of his one-man show. In his sleevenote Sting remarks on how Crisp was looking forward to receiving his naturalisation papers “so that he could commit a crime and not be deported.  ‘What kind of crime?,’ I asked anxiously. ‘Oh, something glamorous, non-violent, with a dash of style,’ he replied. ‘Crime is so rarely glamorous these days.’”

Dream Of The Blue Turtles, The: Sting’s first solo album from 1985, which failed to top the charts because the public, not unreasonably, preferred Marillion. Working with what was more or less Wynton Marsalis’ old band, the record was full of catchy and moderately intriguing songs, but because they were performed by a jazz group essentially utilising a jazz approach, they were not viewed as pop, and it is hard to deny that songs like “Fortress Around Your Heart” really need The Police to work fully. In Britain, its biggest hit single was also its least typical song, the anti-war “Russians.”

ECM Records: Widely-acclaimed, innovative Munich-based record label (ECM is short for Editions of Contemporary Music), operative since 1969. Its famous slogan “The most beautiful sound next to silence” is secretly Canadian, quoting as it does from a 1971 article in CODA magazine. Although producer Manfred Eicher began ECM as a jazz label, his unique approach to production, presentation and packaging has meant that the label’s work has presaged much of Ambient and New Age music, and indeed the label has long been as famous for its contemporary classical releases (issued under ECM’s “New Series”) as its jazz catalogue. Unkind critics have condemned ECM’s music as jazz with its balls cut off, but these are the miserable politics of envy from social inadequates who spend their time listening to wasteful cack like Muslimgauze and “Bonnie” Prince Billy.

Instead, imagine a group of highly skilled musicians playing wistfully at the northernmost end of a stark Norwegian fjord, and you may get some idea of what …Nothing Like The Sun sounds like; sumptuously and expensively produced, so lavish that most of Sting’s vocals (and therefore, most of what he is trying to convey to us) get mixed into the murk and are incomprehensible. Rarely has Branford Marsalis sounded so akin to mid-period Jan Garbarek.

Eisler, Hanns (1898-1962): Austrian composer and polemicist, hounded out of Germany by the Nazis in the thirties and out of the USA by the HUAC in the forties. …Nothing But The Sun is not deprived of hope; “They Dance Alone” holds out hope for an eventual turnaround. “The Secret Marriage” put new English lyrics to the Eisler/Brecht song “An Den Kleinen Radioapparat” and, at the end of an album which largely seems to have been about women in one way or another – the record begins with his bearing a wound inflicted by his own mother, and ends with a new bonding – he echoes “Sonnet 130” by saying that there is no need for ceremony or rituals; we, you and I, know who we are and what we want from each other.

Evans, Gil (1912-88): Toronto-born jazz bandleader, arranger and composer; one of the key musicians in any genre of the last century. His brass-dominant harmonies hang over jazz like question-mark-shaped clouds. Beginning as an arranger for Skinny Ennis’ band in 1935, his work with Claude Thornhill persuaded unlikely instruments like the French horn to assimilate themselves into jazz vocabulary, and instruments like the tuba to realign their previous role. Although largely feted for his work with Miles Davis, which extended over the best part of four decades (from The Birth Of The Cool to Decoy) –and rightly so; the moment where Lee Konitz’s almost unaccompanied alto sax reed splits a double-voiced semitone on 1949’s “Moondreams,” with the accompanying transition from lushness to discordancy, marks the irrevocable dividing line between old and new ways – the work he did with his own bands is among the most remarkable jazz has ever seen, and his relatively sparse discography benefits from not being overcrowded.

I myself saw his orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in February 1978 (it was during an extended teachers’ strike up in Scotland; school was closed) – an event documented on two albums, released on different labels, which have yet to be tidied up, put in order and put on CD – made most other music, and not just jazz, seem small. The staggering “Variation On The Misery,” a feature for the trumpets of Ernie Royal and, unforgettably, Hannibal Marvin Peterson, was the high point.

But I had already been transfixed by his astonishing 1975 album There Comes A Time. Using twenty-three musicians, including at least five synthesiser players, Evans, with cheerful patience, drew lines from Jelly Roll Morton (“King Porter Stomp,” still a hit single waiting to happen) to Tony Williams’ Lifetime (the gargantuan title track, which Sting also interpreted with Evans’ help during the …Nothing Like The Sun sessions) via Miles Ahead (“The Meaning Of The Blues,” which extends to twenty minutes on the CD release, topped and tailed by a Morricone-ish kora motif and featuring George Adams’ tenor suffering for the world).

The album also features his original arrangement of “Little Wing”: more profuse and diffuse than Sting’s, it teeters into being with Joe Gallivan’s random drum synthesiser pitches and Ryo Kawasaki’s distant guitar pitched against Herb Bushler’s fulsome bassline. Then the whole orchestra spills in, letting way for a spirited alto solo by David Sanborn and a vocal by Hannibal Marvin Peterson, who, shall we say, does his best (he actually sounds like Ian Anderson). The Sting/Evans version begins not dissimilarly, with Mark Egan now handling the bass and Hiram Bullock’s more orderly guitar. Sting sings Hendrix’s song with palpable gusto and enthusiasm – but where is the Gil Evans Orchestra? We hear a backdrop of keyboards, which may have been played by Evans and/or Kenny Kirkland (my ears guess that it’s both), with harmonic cadences which are more advanced than Hendrix’s and, as Lena pointed out, are clearly Canadian. It wasn’t quite the last thing Evans did – that honour goes to a pensive but profound 1988 duo album with his old associate Steve Lacy – but Sting’s sleevenote (and accompanying picture of the two) makes his love of Evans’ art clear. He went on to sing with Evans’ band at the Sweet Basil club in New York, but there not being enough room for him to be onstage with fifteen musicians, he sang on the floor, between two dining tables.

Fuller, Buckminster (1895-1983): Massachusetts-born architect, inventor and writer. Jobless, drunk and suicidal by 1927, he had a profound experience in Lake Michigan which involved a sphere of white light and a voice calling out to him to continue to live and work out what good he could do for everybody else. Driven by his belief that more could be achieved with less, his short 1981 book Critical Mass was an attempt to sum up his life’s beliefs and produce a succinct but meaningful history of human progress. The song “History Will Teach Us Nothing” was directly inspired by the book, which continues to read as though it had been written yesterday. “The desire to make money is inherently entropic, for it seeks to monopolize order while leaving un-cope-with-able disorder to overwhelm others”; words which have not dated in these neo-robber baron/medieval liege days.

Hayes, Isaac (1942-2008): Tennessee-born soul singer, songwriter, producer and actor who became indelibly associated with Memphis and Stax Records.  His astounding 1995 comeback album Branded – which appeared on Virgin Records – is chiefly notable for its marathon reading and deconstructing of “Fragile,” which expresses and encompasses the song’s underlying pain far more avidly and inventively than Sting managed.

Hendrix, Jimi (1942-70): Sting first saw the Experience play at a club in Newcastle, when he was fifteen. He never forgot it. It is amusing how, in an album of so many words, Sting finds his truest and most open self singing somebody else’s words.

Highgate Hill: A street in North London which links Archway and Highgate Village. It is a formidably steep street, though nowhere near as steep a street as, say, Steep Street in Lincoln, which is so steep that it includes a stairway for those who find the climb too intimidating, though is worth visiting for its several excellent secondhand bookshops. Highgate Hill was also the site of the first cable car route in Europe, running between 1884 and 1909. At its Archway end you will find most of the Whittington Hospital. If you choose to walk up the street, expect to be accosted approximately every twenty seconds by confused tourists attempting to find Highgate Cemetery, which the street borders near its northerly end. It was while walking up Highgate Hill late one night that Sting was accosted by a drunk, pointing at the sky and demanding to know: “How beautiful is the moon?” Searching his mind for an answer, Sting replied by quoting Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” “A good answer,” said the drunk, who then staggered off.

Intertextuality: Having quoted “Every Breath You Take” at the end of “Love Is The Seventh Wave,” Sting was at it again when he faded “We’ll Be Together” with quotes from the entirely inapposite “If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free).” Some consumers wondered whether they weren’t investing in an expensive and egocentric jigsaw puzzle.

Marsalis, Branford (b 1960): Louisiana-born jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader; elder brother of Wynton, who drew a unilateral line in the sand when Branford began working with Sting. In truth, if jazz were Downton Abbey, Wynton Marsalis would be the Earl of Grantham (“I forbid pop music in this house! See to it, Carson!”) –and yet he ultimately recorded and worked with Eric Clapton.

Nonetheless Branford is this album’s man of the match; his saxophones, principally the soprano, go places Sting’s voice and words can’t (especially in “They Dance Alone”) and are always eloquent and telling. A mere eighteen months later, he would contribute harmolodic tenor and alto to the superior Do The Right Thing mix of Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which any meaningful list of the ten best singles of the eighties would have to include.

Padgham, Hugh (b 1955): Record producer who on …Nothing Like The Sun only mixes rather than produces as such; production credits go to Neil Dorfsman (replaced by Bryan Loren on “We’ll Be Together”) and Sting himself.

Police, The: Anglo-American rock-pop-reggae trio who enjoyed global acclaim with their unique blend of rock, pop and reggae between the years 1979-84. If “The Lazarus Heart” sounds uncannily like The Police, that is because Andy Summers appears on guitar, as he does on “Be Still My Beating Heart.” Drummer Stewart Copeland did not contribute to the sessions.

Politics, A Little Bit Of: No one doubts that “They Dance Alone” and “Fragile” are tremendously moving-sounding songs. “They Dance Alone” in particular benefits from underplaying the contributions of its multiple celebrity guest stars – a muttered spoken cameo by Ruben Bladés, guitars from Fareed Haque, Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler so tasteful and restrained that they are inaudible – but one wonders whether Sting is looking at the lonely dancing ladies of Chile or the world destroying itself and resisting the temptation to add the line “That’s my soul up there.”

Price, Alan (b 1942): County Durham-born, Jarrow-raised singer-songwriter and keyboard player whose jazz-influenced songs always bristle with pointed humour. Had it not been for the state of British light entertainment in the seventies, he and Peter Skellern would vie for the title of Britain’s Randy Newman. When Sting gets vocally worked up, he can sound just like Price, and “Rock Steady” sounds like a (below par) Price romp of wry wit.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616): English poet, playwright and actor, whose “Sonnet 130” begins with the couplet:

“My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips' red”

The poem was intended as a satire on flowery poets who made improbable comparisons between their beloved and various facets of nature. Shakespeare resolves not to describe his beloved in such a fashion, but this is not to demean her; on the contrary, he finally claims that she is above all such tired descriptions:

“My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.”

As opposed to walking on the moon, one supposes. In the song “Sister Moon,” Sting quotes the first line of the sonnet, following it up with the line: “My hunger for her explains everything I’ve done” – words which could only have been his own.

Simon, Paul (b 1941): Newark-born singer-songwriter and occasional producer (Jackson C Frank) and actor (Annie Hall) whose work, and specifically his singing style and occasionally very clunky lyrics, Sting strongly recalls on the rather hamfisted Noah’s Ark epic “Rock Steady.” The two are due to tour together in early 2015. Rumours that they will be firmly situated at opposite ends of the stage from each other and that Simon will nudge a bouncer and ask: “Who is that guy? I’ve never even seen him in my life” are nothing more than the miserable sneering of inferiority from social inadequates who spend their time listening to Communist subversives like Wolf Eyes and Peter Gabriel.

Special Disco Department, HMV: I’m not saying this was where Sting went when looking for the latest hot waxings by the Ultramagnetic MCs and Spagna, but “We’ll Be Together” is a zesty, zappy disco offering to kick off a second half which is largely (though not unquestionably) about love, following the first half, which is largely in mourning, mostly for Sting’s mother, who was ill with cancer and died while he was recording in Montserrat in late 1986, and also at the state of the world in general. Then again, the equally sprightly “Straight To The Heart” which follows it contains one of pop’s least convincing marriage proposals: “Come into (sic) my door/You’ll never have to sweep the floor.”

Springsteen, Bruce (b 1949): …Nothing Like The Sun is Sting’s Tunnel Of Love in that it sets itself the same questions: what am I doing, why am I doing it, how will I recognise myself and how can I make this different, not what people are expecting? And maybe Springsteen is the world’s best-disguised art-rocker. Springsteen constantly looks outside himself to understand himself better.  But, like Waits, the Sting of 1987 is heading for an imminent happy ending. The trouble is, I believe Springsteen and Waits more, because both recognise that they are not the cynosure of the troubled world of which they sing. I’m not sure Sting does.

Styler, Trudie (b 1954): Taught at North Bromsgrove High School, Worcestershire, by Clifford T Ward. She and Sting did not marry until 1992, but she is the clear subject of much of side two (or sides three and four) of …Nothing Like The Sun. When love comes round again, and all that.

Video Offer: Bring On The Night, 90 minutes, directed by Michael Apted, £5.50 for a limited period by mail order (+ £1.50 postage and packing).