Tag Archives: the eighties

Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody – Joni Mitchell

Hi all. I should be in Barcelona right now, but owing to a rather nasty ear infection that dogged me all last week and hasn’t completely gone away yet, I thought it better not to risk flying; it tends to play havoc with my ears at the best of times. So since I’m here, here’s a little bonus post.

Joni Mitchell is high up on the list of my push-comes-to-shove favourite artists. But my appreciation of her music is based principally on the run of albums starting with Blue and ending with (but including) Mingus. There’s much good work to be found outside this period (the only time I’ve written about her on this blog before, I wrote about a song called Tin Angel from her 1969 album Clouds), but 1971-79 is where the most of the classics reside.

Wild Things Run Fast falls outside her great period. It’s the first studio album she made after Mingus, the first after signing to Geffen. It’s an album of variable quality, almost inconceivably bland at its worst. The mix of legit jazz players (Victor Feldman, Wayne Shorter) and LA session men (Steve Lukather, Michael Landau), intriguing on paper, instead seemed to bring out the most pedestrian aspects of both factions, making the album’s title the more unfortunate.

The record does, however, start with a wonderful song, a bona fide Joni Mitchell classic, and maybe the best thing she wrote in the whole of the 1980s: Chinese Café/Unchained Melody.

Interpolating an old song in a new song is a trick Mitchell had pulled off before, on Harry’s House/Centerpiece, an astonishing track from The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In that instance, the insertion of a romantic swing tune in such an unsparing portrait of a crumbling marriage signified the emotional distance travelled by Harry and his wife from the optimistic (1950s) beginnings of their affair to the (1970s) endgame of a marriage grown empty, in which love and optimism had been replaced by work and the accumulation of things. An irresistible but bitterly ironic musical joke, it’s the greatest coup on an album full of them.

Inserting Unchained Melody into her own Chinese Café, Mitchell repeats the trick to more straightforwardly poignant effect. Initially just quoting the song’s opening line within the chorus (“We’d be playing ‘Oh my love, my darling’ one more time”), she ends the track by singing a whole verse and chorus, with a few canny melody adjustments and reharmonisings. As in Harry’s House/Centerpiece, the older song stands for youth, for optimism, for the “birth of rock’n’roll days” that are referred to in the first stanza, so different from the life the narrator finds herself living now.

In 1982, Mitchell was 39 and given that the song’s narrator refers to bearing a child but not raising her, it’s probably not presumptuous to assume Mitchell was singing about herself. Which makes Chinese Café, like Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon from a year later, one of the great backward-looking, stock-taking songs of middle age, a style of song not too well served by rock music on the whole. Akin to Hejira and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter musically, but departing from the long-stanza, third-person reportage of her writing on those albums in favour of a simpler, near-the-knuckle style, Chinese Café stands comparison with her very best work.

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Fleetwood Mac in the uncanny valley – Marcello Carlin on Tango in the Night

Hi all. Just a quick post to apologise for there not being a proper post today. I am, once again, not feeling so great – seems like I’ve picked up everything that’s been going round for the last month or so.

In the meantime, I wanted to direct you to Marcello Carlin’s excellent write-up of Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night. Marcello started his blog, Then Play Long, six years ago so if you like what he does, the archives are extensive! He seldom fails to give me a new perspective even on albums I know well.

Tango is a curious record, the more so the more you listen to it. Sounding initially like a straightforward case of a band updating its sound just enough to remain relevant to a pop audience, it reveals itself on closer listening to be an uncanny valley version of Fleetwood Mac, a simulacrum constructed by Lindsey Buckingham to disguise how dysfunctional – how simply absent – some of the musicians were:

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.

Buckingham, in an interview with Uncut, quoted by Carlin

With tools like the Fairlight CMI allowing the sampling and precise repitching of vocals, this was more achievable than it was in the analogue age. But as well as raising sound quality issues (the Fairlight sampler was 8-bit technology), there was the simple lack of realism of dramatically repitched sounds. Some artists chose to foreground the unearthly effects they created (think of those last few ‘Cry!’s at the end of Godley & Creme’s Cry) while others tried to blend them into a more or less organic-sounding whole, as Buckingham did on Tango. But the ear is sensitive and can pick up on these things. A lot of music from the mid to late eighties (I was born in 1981, so that’s what was on the radio when I was a child) sounded threatening and weird to me then. In a way, it still does now, and I’m sure that it’s at least partly because the gap between what sounds claim to be and what they actually are can’t ever be entirely bridged.

More Than This – Roxy Music

I want to talk about this song’s drum track. When the Great Paul Thompson (as his fans called him) left Roxy Music in 1980, Bryan Ferry, possibly at the suggestion of producer Rhett Davies, did what most musicians in his position would have done: he called in a session player or two to fill the gap. On 1980s Flesh & Blood, one of those players was Andy Newmark. On Avalon, two years later, Newmark would drum on eight out of the album’s ten songs.

It’s hard to go wrong with Andy Newmark. If a drummer’s good enough for Sly Stone (Fresh), John Martyn (One World), John Lennon (Double Fantasy), Laura Nyro (Season of Lights) and Randy Newman (Good Old Boys), he’s good enough for you.

He’s a magnificent player, but seldom a showy one, and his work on More Than This is as unshowy as it gets. A mid-tempo groove, slightly on the brisk side, two and four, bass drum in quavers, no big fills – this is a drummer playing for the song, with just a few interjections (mainly on tom-toms, and short press rolls going into choruses), to make the track his own. Newmark’s judgement about how much to play is perfect, although it’s worth noting that his gig was to come in when the songs had been all but finished, with full arrangements built up over programmed Linn Drum patterns, and either augment or replace the Linn groove. Although playing to pre-recorded songs necessarily puts the drummer in a different position than most are used to – partly because the amount of available space in the arrangement is decided for you, but also because as in this situation the drummer isn’t the song’s engine, as the tempo is locked – it does provide unusual challenges, foremost among them being the insertion of a feel, something other than completely rigid, mechanically perfect eighth notes of unvarying velocity. How much you can swing against the track (a full arrangement, remember) and have the whole thing still work, well, that’s a big part of the game. And Newmark is a master at it.

Of course, session drummers had existed almost as long as there’d been a recording industry (and certainly since rock’n’roll bands started showing up whose songs and/or star quality ran ahead of their musical chops), but in the studio environment of the 1980s, the session drummer suddenly had this whole new avenue of work open up for them (it started with disco really, as consistency of tempo was a big deal in that style) – it wasn’t just about solo artists calling a drummer up to play on their record because they didn’t have a regular band.

The successful ones, like Newmark, adapted themselves brilliantly to this new environment. But evolution was forced on all musicians in the brave new world of automated consoles, polyphonic synths, drum machines, samplers and sequencers. This is a Roxy Music track where Bryan Ferry is dominant almost to point of elbowing out his bandmates completely. Phil Manzanera is present in the intro but is almost immediately pulled right back in the mix, and thereafter pops up now and then to play little variations around his main riff, and only returms in the long fade. Andy MacKay, meanwhile, plays all of seven notes throughout the whole song, all sustained, all easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. Whether it was his choice, Ferry’s or Rhett Davies’s, it’s another admirably disciplined and selfless performance on what for my money is the finest song Ferry ever wrote and the best record Roxy ever made.

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Andy Newmark, one of the very, very best