Thursday, June 27, 2013

Robert Palmer in Perspective: The Island Years by Peter Reum

Robert Palmer In Perspective: 
The Island Years

 The Seventies


Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley

Rating of This Album: 96%

Robert Palmer was a marvelous interpreter of different aspects of soul and rock, brought a willingness to try new material that was risky, and forced his listeners to grow as he grew. As a Little Feat and Lowell George fan, I picked up on his first solo album, Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, which snagged me after the first three tracks. This album was cut at Sea Saint Studios, Allen Toussaint's now closed studio in New Orleans. At the time Palmer's album was being recorded, Mr. Toussaint was reording his landmark Southern Nights album, with Van Dyke Parks helping. The influence of Allen Toussaint on Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley is pronounced. Album producer Steve Smith in an interview with Terry Moss cites Toussaint's intermittent help as useful in the recording sessions for this album.  Mr. Smith mentions in the same interview that he asked Allen Toussaint to play From a Whisper to a Scream on piano solo. The sessions players then recorded the song for this album. Another interesting anecdote is that Mr. Smith credits Lowell George with the arrangement of Sailin' Shoes. For the full interview, please visit

The album combines the cream of New Orleans players The Meters and Lowell George of Little Feat, with Allen Toussaint contributing songs and advice. It would be hard to find 3 better sequenced funk tunes sung by a blue eyed soul singer than the combination of Sailin' Shoes/Julia/Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, one after another. Producer Steve Smith indicates in an interview on that the idea of linking the three songs on side 1 did not occur to him until he returned to London to assemble the final track lineup. Robert Palmer wrote and recorded Julia in London, expressly for the idea of turning the three songs into a continuous flow. The Meters were an incredible force on this album, and their rhythms were heavily influential on future Palmer and Little Feat albums. As a slide player, Lowell George was unknown to the Meters, but he rose to the occasion, and ended up playing slide guitar on one of their albums. The second side is just as funky, with a great trio of uptempo funk tunes-Get Outside/Blackmail/How Much Fun. The album concludes with a Toussaint song, From a Whisper to a Scream, then 12 minutes of soulful workout on Through It All There Is You.Through It All There Is You was recorded with Bernard Purdie in New York in one take at Media Studios, according to Steve Smith. The idea was to give progressive FM program directors a tune that they could play and get away from the board for awhile and relax.Ironically, though this album is thoroughly funky, the idea for an extended length track came from Mr. Smith's familiarity with progressive rock albums such as Yes's Tales From Topographic Oceans.  Being a Little Feat aficionado, the album appealed personally to me immediately, and does not disappoint. 

If you love slide, you'll hear Lowell making noises on slide on this album that you don't hear on Little Feat albums. It was almost like he brought his best game to play with the New Orleans and New York guys. This album was cut right after Dixie Chicken, and it has a bit of flavor from that album. It is an auspicious debut album, nearly perfect to my ears.


Pressure Drop

Rating of This Album: 90%

Palmer's sophomore album, Pressure Drop, from 1975, delivered a counterpunch to the old idea that second albums are bad luck for recording artists. Little Feat members are all again onboard, and once again the whole album brings new meaning to blue eyed soul. Perhaps it was the visual contradiction of a man in a $500 suit and immaculate tie and hair delivering such raw, powerful interpretations of his and other writers' tunes. In his recollection of this album producer Steve Smith mentions that the album was cut in four locations. First in Maryland with Little Feat at George Massenburg's studio; second in Los Angeles with James Jamerson and members of the famous Wrecking Crew;  third, in New York City with famous session drummer Bernard Purdie; and fourth, in Muscle Shoals Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Horns.

The album begins again with two powerful and driving funk oriented tunes, Give Me An Inch and Work To Make it Work. Both of these tunes have powerful bass guitar and drums driving the melodies, which are almost a call and response form like old funk records. Work to Make It Work begins almost a capella, and then the instruments drop in and drive the tune throughout. Give Me An Inch uses a sophisticated almost jazz syncopation in the lead vocal. the third track, Back In My Arms employs a decidedly jazz syncopation which is even tastier. There is a nice offbeat adding funk, with a jazz guitar line offsetting both the vocal and the funk percussion. Riverboat is an Allen Toussaint tune, and Robert Palmer's version seems to focus on the rhythm section which makes the tune interesting and more satisfying than most versions I have heard. Pressure Drop, the title track, is a fun and light step into reggae, and gives the listener the opportunity to stretch with Robert a little as he tries a new style of music. The tune was originally recorded by Toots and the Maytals.  Here With You Tonight combines funk and reggae into a gumbo that is a delight to hear. Little Feat's Trouble is turned on its side from irony and sarcasm in the Feat version into more of a driving funk/reggae number that percolates. In a sense, the loss of subtlety from Feat is countered by Palmer's vocal, which adds almost a vaudeville type of humor to the song. Feat fans will either love it or hate it.

Fine Time cruises along allowing the funk to heat up for awhile before Palmer chastises his girl for saying she wants to be with him after cheating on him. James Jamerson on bass is definitely a highlight of this track, as are the call and response vocals. Which of Us Is the Fool, is a deceptive 4/4 tune with a sinuous James Jamerson bassline that carries the melody. The song reveals the internal thoughts of someone who is "best friends" in the platonic sense with the woman he would like to see, but who is averse to intimate relationships. In a sense, the whole second side of this album is an exploration of the reasons people don't get together in relationships. 

This album, as a whole, is one of the most diverse in the Robert Palmer catalog, and delivers the promise shown on Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley. With his use of reggae and strings, and his ability to surround himself with some of the best players in the business Palmer made himself into a respected interpreter of soul and funk and a capable writer of his own material.


Some People Can Do What They Like

Rating of This Album: 84%

After a move to the Bahamas, Palmer and Island records issued Some People Can Do What They Like, which continues in a soulful approach from his first two albums. This album has an all star cast, including Little Feat's  Paul Barrere, Bill Payne, Ritchie Hayward, Sam Clayton, Toto's Jeff Porcaro, The Wrecking Crew's Carol Kaye, and many more. The album was recorded primarily in Los Angeles with the cream of that area's session players. In interviews, upon the release of this album, Palmer cited Nigerian and Mexican Folk Music as major influences for the album. Palmer also mentioned that all of the songs he composed at the time began with the bass root.

One Last Look leads off this album, with a mellow soulful groove that establishes a romantic feel from the start. There is less orchestra here, and use of multiple keyboards that nicely frame the vocal. The tune is fully produced and polished. The track is a Bill Payne song written with his then wife, Fran Tate. Keep In Touch is next. It offers an unusually funky but subtle use of guitars, and is more kindred to Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley than Pressure Drop. The bass guitar weaves in and out of the melody. Palmer also does the background vocals, which are cleverly arranged. The pedigree of Man Is Smart, Woman is Smarter goes back to Calypso Music. Perhaps it is best known as performed by Harry Belafonte or Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. The penny flute and steel drums needed for the track are here, arranged in a funky reggae beat. Palmer mentions in an interview at the time the song was cut that he first performed it with The Meters.  This tune is simply too catchy for its own good...a brilliant performance. Lowell George's Spanish Moon makes an appearance here. The version here is less menacing than Little Feat's version, which was produced by Van Dyke Parks. Quite simply, the performance here is suitably soulful, but not too believable. It is also too long. Have Mercy closes what was side 1 on the original vinyl release.  Have Mercy is a reggae flavored number that has a funky keyboard line which is offset with a tricky guitar which counters it. The question is not whether the song is funky or not, but does it add the the album's overall ambiance. The answer depends on how much one likes funk.

What was side 2 of this album kicks off with a Palmer original song called Gotta Get a Grip On You Part 2. Again, the tune is extra funky, but the tune is anemic in terms of lyrical content. What Can You Bring Me is the seventh tune on  this album. Again, the song is suitably funky, but seems almost cliched in it's effort to achieve a soulful/reggae feel. Hard Head continues in the hard core funk/reggae feel of this album. As like many of the tracks on this particular album, the song addresses the shortcomings of a partner in a relationship. The overall feel of the album is that of an artist who is trying to have an internal dialogue with a former romantic interest who has moved on. The problem here is that the persona adopted by Palmer in this album does not seem to be able to let go. Off The Bone follows, and is a clever little instrumental fragment that I adore and find especially fun to hear. Penny whistles abound here. Give it a listen! The album ends with the title track to the album which redeems the overall listening experience to some degree. It has that Little Feat and Meters groove to it. It tends toward a somewhat repetitive groove, The bridge offers a respite. Counterpoint background vocals enter after the bridge, along with a blues harp in the background.

Overall, this album is not as strong as Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, and perhaps is best downloaded as opposed to being purchased on cd. Purchased together, the first three albums cut by Robert Palmer are as satisfying a collection of blue eyed soul as any artist has put together.


Double Fun

Rating of This Album: 91%

Simply put, 1978's Double Fun album is a move toward a more radio friendly sound and away from harder funk. Double Fun was a dance club hit album in Europe, and was received well by the same audience in the United States.  The opening tune, Every Kinda People, written by former Free guitarist Andy Fraser,is a brilliant performance. The combination of the funky synths and the synthesized strings makes the tune the most accessible tune that Palmer had cut to that point. Steel drums add color in the background. Track 2, Best of Both Worlds, is also a move toward a more commercial, though reggae flavored sound. There is a sheen here that lends a sense of clean and detailed production that does not get in the way of the listener. Palmer's own backing vocals here are tasteful and understated. Track 3, Come Over, is a tongue in cheek tune that addresses the attraction that leads to passionate lovemaking. Palmer has posed throughout the first four albums as a skirt chaser. The couplet "You tease my monkey/Make my knees get funky"...says it all. Where Can It Go returns to a more FM radio sound, with a straight forward rhythm track, delicious lyrics, and a swinging, jazzy tone nailed down by the lead guitar and synthesized strings. It would be easy to hear a much younger Frank Sinatra cutting this excellent tune.

Side 2 of the original album begins with Allen Toussaint's Night People. The track is a throwback to some of the best soulful funk that Palmer recorded in his first three albums. Like many Toussaint songs, there is a strong Meters flavor to the track. Little Feat's Richie Hayward, Paul Barrere and Bill Payne add drums, guitar, and keyboards throughout the album. Also playing here are The Brecker Brothers and Freddie Harris. The track has a lighter feel to it than the heavier funk on Some People Can Do What They Like. The horns here are nicely arranged and add a great flavor to the track. Another Palmer original, Love Can Run Faster, is next. Recorded with Lee Perry  in Jamaica at Black Ark Studios, this is the only tune that was released from the sessions. The reggae beat is delicious, and Perry's wife Pauline was called in to do backing vocals at the last minute. This track is a delight. Another Palmer original, You Overwhelm Me, is next. The song is filled with beautifully arranged keyboard, strings, and shifting tempos that amplify the romantic ambiance of the song. Simply put, it is masterful. Ray Davies' You Really Got Me is next, and it is the only true creative misfire on the album. It is forgettable. The song translates okay to a reggae feel, but does not fit in with the rest of the album. It is the record's sore thumb. Double Fun's final track is another Palmer tune, You're Gonna Get What's Coming. It is a straight ahead rocker, something Palmer did not really fully tackle until his years at EMI.  It is fairly catchy, if a bit too long. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of a future style change, something Robert Palmer was fearless about. 

Double Fun overall is the strongest album Palmer recorded since Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley, and unsurprisingly sold much better than his first three albums.



Rating of This Album: 85%

Secrets, Palmer's 1979 Island album, was his most successful album in the United States. It also went platinum in Canada. Island was a label that took it's time with artists, thereby giving them the support the needed to build a following. In an interview at the time of Secret's release, Palmer mentions that he wrote the songs for this album on the road with his band that he toured in with in support  of the Double Fun album. This was quite a change for Palmer, as he self-produced, and used his touring band of that time for Secrets' sessions.

The opening single off of Secrets, Moon Martin's Doctor Doctor (Bad Case of Loving You), picked up where the last track from Double Fun left off. It is an infectious, straight ahead rocker that fits securely within the back to basic approach that was in vogue at the time in Rock. It was Top 20 in the US, and was Palmer's highest charting single to date. Too Good To Be True is a return to the reggae beat with a bouncy track that accompanies the video which shows a rather buxom Brazilian singer. The song is solid, if unspectacular. Todd Rundgren's melodic gift highlights the Palmer version of Can We Still Be Friends. The version here is a close replication of Rundgren's own version, even down to the backing vocals. Certainly an unusual experiment for Robert Palmer. Three songs so far, and three different musical approaches thus far. Palmer returns to a reggae feel for In Walks Love Again, a "B" side of singles from Secret in some parts of the world. It is a lost Palmer track, well sung, and gently funky. Mean Old World is a light reggae flavored island anthem that has a "let's escape from our troubles" theme. Although it is short, it has a steady beat, and addresses life on the rebound from a relationship wipeout. It is a simple, satisfying track.

Side 2 of Secrets begins with Love Stop. It is apparent in listening to this track, and Jealous, the track that follows, that Palmer is moving toward a heavier Rock sounding type of approach. This pair of tracks sound heavier and center on a driving beat with repetitive lyrics emphasizing the sound of the track rather than its lyrical content. Under Suspicion is a fully realized Rock track, with lyrics that parallel the ideas Sting expressed in Every Breath You Take. The music on this track SOUNDS angry. Staccato guitar is buttressed by percussion that somehow reminds me of a frustrated man hitting his head against a wall.  Woman You're Wonderful is a collaboration between Jo Allen and Palmer. This track again has a driving, almost new wave sound, offering hints of future directions for Palmer. Clearly, he was evolving away from funk and more toward a Rock or New Wave orientation. What's It Take is a rant about a paranoid wife or girlfriend who keeps her man on a very short leash. The track is a modified reggae that, while funky, also bows to New Wave. Secret's eleventh and final track is Remember to Remember. This is clearly a track designed for dance clubs, complete with a synthesizer track and ARP strings. The tune clearly points to Palmer's new direction on his next album, Clues. 

That Secrets was his most successful album to date rests upon Palmer's improving commercial instincts, which were more highly honed here than on past albums. The variety of self-penned tunes on Secrets shows a greater confidence in his own ability to set a musical course for himself.

The Eighties


Rating of This Album: 81%

Robert Palmer's collaboration with Gary Numan and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads, Clues, highlights his progression into use of synthesizer tracks, with the opening number, Looking For Clues picking up right where the last rack of Secrets left off.  In an interview from the time of Clues' release, Palmer takes pride in his musical changes from album to album, and states that he believed the music he cut for Clues was "unlike anything  that is out." 

Looking For Clues was a big hit in dance clubs, and established Palmer as someone who could adapt to differing trends. The second track on this transitional album is Sulky Girl. The whole feel of this track owes lots to The Rolling Stones, specifically the Some Girls album, and has some Keith Richards style guitar throughout. The keyboards are also remarkably in the Stones mode. Johnny and Mary, the third track goes back to the dance club mode with a stylized vocal that sounds quite intimate, as if Palmer were confiding a secret to the listener. The lyrics portray a relationship that is troubled because Johnny cannot make up his mind who he is or what he wants to do. Mary, long suffering, stays only because she can't find anyone better. Johnny and Mary was a huge hit in the UK and Europe, and moved Palmer into a larger level of recognition in those areas. What Do You Care continues in a dance club mode, synthesizer flatulence throughout. The tune is once again about a relationship communication problem, with the music shifting moods as the male protagonist in the tune sarcastically asks his partner, if she holds back saying what she wants to say. 

The second side of the original vinyl release begins with I Dream of Wires, a tune that recalls Sixties psychedelia, especially The Beatles. The vocals here are phased, and have a Strawberry Fields feel to them. The song itself is not by Palmer, and is slight lyrically. They suggest that humankind has moved beyond electricity by wires, and is set in the future. Palmer's collaboration with Numan began with this track, and continued with Style Kills, a single "B" side, and their co-written track on Clues, Found You Now. Interestingly, Palmer mentions in an interview of the time that he only listens to world folk music, and that he considers Numan a "folk musician."  Woke Up Laughing takes us back to the tropics with synthesized steel pans. The tempo is reggae flavored. The lyrics address the idea of working all your life so you can retire and enjoy life, versus enjoying it as you go along by not chasing money, social position, and possessions.  This track, with music and lyrics by Palmer, is a standout on this album.  Not a Second Time  is a track that is a little more metal flavored than the rest of the album. Syn drums are present here, and I miss the real thing. This is not just a bow to The Beatles,  but is a tune originally recorded by them.  The song as interpreted by Robert Palmer becomes an anthem of defiant refusal to reconcile in a relationship that is over.  Found You Now concludes the album, a collaboration between Palmer and Gary Numan,  and has a foreboding organ that brings a feeling of tension to the tone of the song. A rhythm keeping synthesizer beats like a heart in the background. The song addresses the tension that attraction brings between two people who could have been lovers earlier in life feel when the rediscover each other later in life and the feelings of conflict that their meeting again generates.

Overall, Clues is a transitional album, marking time between the Robert Palmer of the Bahamas and the Robert Palmer of Europe. The tension in the tunes on the album reflects the conflict that Palmer himself no doubt felt when he was making the adjustments musically that led to the Robert Palmer who joined Power Station and cut tunes in the late Eighties that bordered on heavy metal.


Maybe It's Live

Rating of This Album: 70%

Palmer was nearing the end of his contractual commitment to Island, and next did what many artists in that circumstance do, which is to mark time by releasing an album with live material. Maybe It's Live came in 1982, and was half live material and half studio songs. Maybe It's Live's in concert tracks are from a 1980 show in London. The first thing to say about this  album is that his live selections kick butt. They rock, even though some are more reggae than straight ahead rock. Palmer had a tight band backing him live, and the only comparison I can make is to the band that backed James Brown for many years. This is that tight a band. Adrian Belew guests on guitar. 

The album kicks off with an exceptional version of Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley. Singing to the syncopated drum and bass part of this song presents a huge challenge even for the most talented vocalist. Palmer carries it off without thinking twice. It's a marvelous beginning. What's It Take from Secrets is next, and the tension of the lyrics is conveyed by the band masterfully. There is a tension that conjures up a picture of a man pacing back and forth trying to talk with his paranoid wife. Best of Both Worlds here is solid rocking reggae workout, with a pumping organ, thumping bass, and great drumming. Palmer by this time had internalized reggae, and could perform it effortlessly. Every Kinda People is next, and the bassline drives a wonderful lead vocal. The trademark organ intro is instantly recognizable, and Palmer's passionate vocal carries the day. The organ part is echoed by the lead guitar. This taste of live material demands more, not just half an album. The ringing rock riffs of Doctor Doctor (Give Me the News) lead into three or four minutes of sublime pedal to the metal rock and roll. Years before his entry into metal, he was singing this powerful form of rock live. This is live music at it's peak.

Instead of doing an entire live album, Robert Palmer chose to include the equivalent of an EP of studio music, four songs, on side 2. Some Guys Have All the Luck combines the synthesizer sounds of Clues with the sassiness of New Wave style vocals, including brief ventures into falsetto singing. The tune is catchy as hell, and became a staple in Palmer's live set for years for years afterward. The falsetto sets off the vocal as soulful instead of rock style wise. Style Kills owes a bit of indebtedness to some of the more dance oriented tunes of the early Eighties, perhaps a bit to David Bowie's late Seventies and early Eighties sounds. Palmer's voice becomes essentially an extension of the synthesizers in this song, and is difficult to understand. The vocals are heavily phased. Guitars are similarly distorted. The song is a co-write between Gary Numan and Palmer.  Si Chatoullieux is an unusual guitar workout, somewhat characteristic of European club music of that era.  It is the type of tune that recalls Kraftwerk and Gary Numan's work. It also has the feel of Walk Like An Egyptian at times. A distorted guitar bellows over a simple rhythm track that carries the song to it's end. Some French is spoken that is borderline unintelligible, which is why the lyrics to this song are unusually not available online. Maybe It's You is the final studio tune, and it is a rockabilly beat crossed with a Middle Eastern/African riff that Palmer most likely picked up listening to Afrobeat. Once again, this tune would be perfect in a dance club. What Do You Care from the Clues album is the last song on side 2, and is from the live 1980 London show. The song has the sassiness of the Clues version, but is nearly frantic. The flatulent synths are present and accounted for. There are some slight modulations mid tune, but the song is a low point of the live tunes on this album.

Whether Robert Palmer intended to make a seriously uneven album or not, this is the impression that Maybe It's Live leaves with it's listeners. The high points are many, basically the first five live tracks and the first two studio tracks. The last three tunes appear to be an effort to establish a more pronounced beachhead in dance music. The listener is left wondering if perhaps Palmer did not know what direction he wanted to go with the Island contract due to expire after Riptide..



Rating of This Album: 85%

By the time Robert Palmer had cut this album for Island, Pride, he had been an Island artist for twelve years. It appeared that he was at a crossroads in his career. Pride offers some of Palmer's style from the entire period he recorded for Island. This album was recorded at several locations, New York, London, Nassau, and Paris. In reviewing interviews from the time Pride was being recorded, it became an interesting detail that Palmer used Nigerian rhythms as a primary influence in the recording of the album. The title refers to the nationalism he perceived as prominent at the time, and the connection with African wildlife, a groups of lions being called a "pride."

The first tune, Pride, is the title track, and it is reminiscent of some of Palmer's stint in the Bahamas. The tune has a reggae beat with steel pan in the mix. It has a rather strange tag which sound like someone breathing in an artificial lung. Deadline, the second track segues via the artificial lung sound. This tune is a dance record, but has an unusual chord progression that drives the vocal.  On first blush, Pride is an album looks a little bit like a man entering middle age and reflecting about it's prospects. Palmer was 35 when this album was released. The iron lung comes back at the end of Deadline. Want You More, the third track, is a song about forbidden love. As with the first two tunes, nearly the entire instrumental accompaniment is synthesizer based. The use of percussion and other tricks Palmer employs here are cool. The next tune, Dance For Me, continues the tropical feel of the album, and uses overdubbed vocal counterpoint to create a dense wall of vocals over the rhythm track. The synths are at times in a minor key, and offer a strange but interesting contrast to the melody line. This tune appears to be targeted for European dance clubs. The abrupt transition to a pounding rhythm track is deliberate, and track 5, You Are In My System, is a beautifully creative synthesizer based tune that became a concert standby for several years. In the United States market, this song got lots of airplay on FM. The hook on this song is infectious, and the contrasting vocals and rhythm tracks are a delight. As a single in Europe, it was a hit.

Side 2 of the original album begins with a song called It's Not Difficult. The track flirts with some power chords, and some almost ELO sounding vocals and synths. The segue to the seventh song, Say You Will, a Palmer and Rupert Hines co-written tune, is abrupt, as are most of the transitions on this unusual album. The track appears to have some guitar and horn sounding synthesized  sounds on the bridge. The backing vocals are contrapuntal. There are at least three vocal patterns contrasting here. You Can Have It was cut by Kool and the Gang. This rack is simple, soulful, and it swings. This track could play on any Urban FM station of that time and be well received. The economy of this track makes it successful. What sounds excessively busy on other parts of this album does not exist on this tune.  What You Waiting For is a Palmer original, and it suffers from a monotonous rhythm track. There is clearly a tempo shift here on the chorus, but it really can't save the tune.  Again, as a dance tune, it succeeds, but outside that narrow genre, it suffers from sounding too  monotonous and formulaic.The final track is The Silver Gun, a co-written tune with Alan Powell. The tune shows possible Middle Eastern influence that is quite delicious. As near as I can tell, Palmer sings this tune in what sounds like Arabic. It is a fresh direction, and is quite catchy. The tune percolates along, and has some overdubbed synthesized strings near the end. The counterpoint in the rhythm tracks is wonderful. What sounds like an Indian or Middle Eastern instrument near the end is very well done. The track ends with some bass synthesizer and what is probably a guitar played through a synthesizer.

As an album, Pride succeeds as an amalgam of several past collaborations, and a few new influences, especially using synthesizers in different rhythm patterns to create an intricate pattern of contrapuntal rhythms that the lead and background vocals can play off of. The album is like Palmer, simple appearing, but complicated upon deeper examination.



Rating of the Album: 98%

Riptide was the monster in Robert Palmer's back pocket. He finally achieved the success that he may not have desired, but with success came the risk of being typecast. In reviewing the press covering Palmer's Island Years, it is evident that one of the reasons it took so long for him to have a massive hit single and album was that the international press did not seem to be able to categorize him. By the time the press had gotten used to the sound of whatever album he had in circulation during press coverage, by the time the next project came along, Palmer had moved on in his creative interests and sound. 

Riptide is not a formulaic listen. The influences of years of living, sleeping, and eating music are present here. In the case of Addicted to Love, the huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, he literally did sleep the tune. Press anecdotes of the period quote Palmer as saying the song woke him up from a nightmare, and that he felt compelled to write down and record what he was hearing immediately. Another interesting thing about Riptide as an album is that he only has three originals on this album, which is the fewest since his very early Island solo albums. Clearly there was a strong Power Station influence on Addicted to Love, and Andy Taylor and Tony Thompson from that supergroup play on it. The album was produced by Bernard Edwards, another Power Station member, and Palmer's tendency to experiment is present, but channeled by Edwards in a more commercial direction. This was not a hard change, because Palmer stated in several interviews from the period that he was tired of being thought of as a cult figure. Despite quitting Power Station just before a tour, it appears that the press and musical coverage that he attracted during his Power Station membership helped in press understanding of Riptide. If nothing else, they could write about him being a former member of The Power Station. 

The title track of the album is broken into an opening and closing track for the album. It recalls Palmer's pre-teenage appreciation in Malta of such Forties singers as Nat King Cole. The tune itself is a standard,  written by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn. The track processes into the album, at first sounding like a Parisian cafe group with a German oompah band sitting in. The vocal is suave, and sung in a voice unlike anything else Palmer had cut for Island. It is bewitching and strangely curious at the same time. Hyperactive, the next track, is somewhat of a throwback to Secrets. There is a short segment of children crying dubbed into the track. The percussion is very similar to what one hears on Addicted to Love. The song's lyrics are almost vicarious. The way they are sung and played, it is as if Palmer is confiding in the listener, The suggestion is that he has somehow managed to get involved with a much younger woman, who overwhelms him with energy. In fact, I think the song is about his daughters, and he is awed by how much energy they have. He disguises the lyrics just enough to throw off that hypothesis.  What can be said about Addicted to Love? The song recalls Roxy Music's Love Is the Drug...a reference to the initial rush that serial monogamists feel when pursuing a new conquest. Director of the video Terence Donovan auditioned the women who were featured in the official video for the song by recruiting women who DID NOT know how to play their instruments. The identical makeup for the women was thought to be a vision that Donovan had about a futuristic rock band. Palmer originally wanted to duet with Chaka Khan on the song. Trick Bag is a tune that is both new wave and soulful at the same time. One could imagine James Brown singing it and killing it. The version that probably moved Palmer to cut the song was by The Meters, as it was the title track of their seventh album.  The provenance of the song goes back to the late Fifties and early Sixties in New Orleans, as Earl King recorded there for Imperial and later for Allen Toussaint. James Booker played piano on King's original version. The last track on the first side of the original album is a Robert Palmer original, Get It Through Your Heart. The song is a lovely ballad reminiscent of the Forties that is a straight forward declaration of love. The work Palmer put into this track shows a fondness for the ballads he listened to as a teenager, and his vocal recalls Nat King Cole in the easy and seemingly effortless manner that he delivers the song. Truly beautiful in every way.

Side two kicks off with a revolutionary 
version of Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam's    I Didn't Mean To Turn You On. This version has the Palmer intimate breathy lead vocal, a funky, imaginative rhythm track, and a passionate but almost confessional interpretation of the song's message. The message one gets is that Palmer means exactly the opposite of what he is saying. The track is smashing, unconventional, and utterly dripping with passion. The dance mix, extended to a full 6 and a half minutes is even better.  The next track, Flesh Wound, is a song Palmer co-wrote with Frank Blair. The song reminds me of past songs on albums from the early Eighties. The song may be the only creative misfire on Riptide.  It is more kindred to New Wave than the more metal funk sound of the rest of Riptide. Discipline of Love is the other hit off of Riptide. The song's lyrics hint of rough sex play, which in the days of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher was fairly radical.  The song has a great bottom, and is an earthy mix of hard funk and proto-metal. Riptide reprises at the conclusion of the album, and listeners are left marveling at this concept album about love. The album is a delight, a beacon pointing toward Palmer's future work at EMI, and a bookend to the twelve years he spent as a solo artist at Island.

The Island Years were a remarkable series of creative explorations, self-searching, and very independent creativity.Robert Palmer was allowed to try a number of approaches to his muse because of his relationship to Chris Blackwell at Island, and his love of music from all over the world. He was a complex man in times that were full of turmoil. At Island, he never took his ear off the pulse of the various sorts of music he loved. Because he began as a bass player, one of his most significant contributions to Rock was his ability to construct intricate and fascinating bass tracks that carried the melodies of his songs. In the Island Years, his heart and his spirit led him to focus on relationships and love. In that sense, his music is universal, and should be appreciated long after his untimely death in 2003. Riptide, all in all, is an unusually challenging listen, but that is really what Robert Palmer's Island Years were about. He challenged himself to grow musically, and became a competent vocal arranger, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. His challenge to those of us who followed him and his career was to not try to categorize him, but to grow as a listener as he grew as a musician.

Author's note:

Several people who worked hard to bring me this information need to be acknowledged for their work. 

First, the official website, has exceptional firsthand contributions from Steve Smith, producer of Palmer's first four albums. His viewpoint was very helpful in gaining perspective on Palmer's first solo albums, and an understanding of the creative approach taken with Robert Palmer.

Second, the Allmusic website and it's critical summaries offered a perspective that broadened my perspective on each album.

Third, The blog Robert Palmer: Music and Style is an incredible resource on the internet, and includes articles, interviews, and other resources that were invaluable in examining Robert Palmer's creative mindset at the time he was recording a given album.

Fourth, Youtube was a great resource for hearing some of the more unusual     versions of songs on Palmer's albums.

The artwork reproduced here is the property of Island Records, and is reproduced solely for the purpose of helping those whose musical curiosity is activated by this article to know what they are looking for when they shop for Robert Palmer's music.

Any errors in this article are my responsibility. 

Text copyright by Peter Reum-2013-All Rights Reserved

Sunday, June 23, 2013

ESQ Roundtable Contribution

ESQ Round Table Contribution

Peter Reum:


"Surfer Girl" - I know one rock critic who thinks 'Your Summer Dream' is transcendent -- do you agree?

Songs like In My Room, Your Summer Dream, and The Surfer Moon address a prime need most young people have, a need to belong to someone, to be significant and have a loving relationship. It was these songs that expressed the soul of Brian Wilson. It was him at his most personal. "Do you love me, do you, Surfer Girl?"”Make it real…your summer dream…”

"Surfer Girl" - Is it the first fully realized Beach Boys album?

As is well known, Brian Wilson's production credit on the Surfer Girl album as it's producer made him the first major producer outside of the direct supervision of a major record company. This is not to say other artists did not produce themselves, but Brian broke the glass ceiling with respect to a group having autonomy from direct major label supervision. Murry Wilson was helpful in this regard, a point often lost. What this freedom gave Brian was to craft an album free of record company interference with respect to how much an album cost, who played on such an album, and what songs were chosen from the repertoire available to be recorded.

Surfer Girl:  Do you agree that "Catch A Wave" was a watershed moment for Brian and the group in terms of arrangement & production?

Catch a Wave presents a sophisticated use of harp from Maureen Love, and layered production. This "stratification' of the Beach Boys' production sound was something that very few groups could duplicate. Perhaps the only other producer in pop music circles doing this was Jan Berry. Brian and Jan together brought layered production into pop music at a time when perhaps Sinatra records were the only ones that had it.

Surfer Girl: What do you think of the “deep tracks” “The Surfer Moon” and “Your Summer Dream”?

Brian had a gift for singing ballads, like The Surfer Moon and Your Summer Dream, which became a contrast to the more uptempo numbers that Mike Love and occasionally Dennis would sing. As Carl Jung would say, one needs to address the muscles and the soul in creative artistry.  The Surfer Girl album's repertoire presents a quality not usually seen in 'teen' albums. It has the animus-surfing and hot rod music, and the anima-ballads expressing love and belonging

Surfer Girl: Are the instrumentals on this album filler or do they stand up next to the other tracks?

In one respect, Surfer Girl was quite strong, in that the album tracks were for the most part all potential singles or 'B' sides, excluding the instrumentals, yet in Sweden and Japan, the instrumentals were selected as singles. They were hits in those countries.

Do you believe that the Surfer Girl LP shows a noticeable improvement in production ability compared to the two previous LPs?

A common criticism of the first two Beach Boy albums is that they tend to have a lack of continuity with respect to songs and their lyrical content. This is particularly true of Surfin' Safari, their first album, and to some degree true of their second, Surfin' USA, due to the large number of instrumentals that are on it. With the guidance of veteran engineers like Chuck Britz and Larry Levine, at Western and Gold Star Studios, a young Brian as producer was allowed to experiment as needed to find the sounds he wanted, and to record the songs he believed were most commercial without interference. The result of this experimentation was the Surfer Girl album. In listening to the track order of Surfer Girl, it becomes apparent that Brian alternated a ballad with an uptempo tune on the first side, with the exception of the transition from The Rocking Surfer to Little Deuce Coupe. Yet, the next tune beginning side 2 is a ballad, In My Room. This is followed by the more uptempo Hawaii. The album order then shifts to two mid tempo numbers, Surfers Rule and Our Car Club, followed by another ballad, Your Summer Dream, and an instrumental, Boogie Woodie. The two instrumentals bow to the Surf Music trend of guitar virtuosity, but use keyboard virtuosity instead of guitar runs.

Surfer Girl - Why do you think it took so long to get the title track re-recorded and on an album considering its long history prior?

Perhaps the reason it took so long for Brian to share Surfer Girl with a larger audience was that he did not feel safe enough to share such personal feelings until he was the man in charge of recording his group's sounds. From Surfer Girl on through Pet Sounds, personal ballads were Brian's way of sharing his deepest creative feelings as a musician.


"Wild Honey" - An essential work or a creative misfire? 

I will let Brian Wilson himself answer this question….In a January 2013 interview in Uncut Magazine, Brian shared that "It was always a challenge for me to live up to my name. It was a really big thing for me. People expected me to come up with great orchestral stuff all the time and it became a burden. I was getting tired of it. It still happens, too, but you just learn to live with it.  So the other guys started getting more into the production side of things. Carl [Wilson] really got into that. And we decided to make a rhythm ’n ’blues record. We consciously made a simpler album. It was just a little R’n’B and soul. It certainly wasn’t like a regular Beach Boys record. It was good to go back to the boogie-woogie piano I’d grown up with. Dear old Dad [Murry Wilson] taught me how to play that stuff when I was young. In its way, it’s very nostalgic. And we used the theremin again for 'Wild Honey'. Carl had fun singing on that." So Brian saw it as it turned out, to be a chance to let the other Beach Boys, particularly Carl, channel their creative energy in the studio, and to let Brian’s role be mainly singing and songwriting.

"Wild Honey" - can white boys sing R&B ? Well, can they ?

Carl and Brian both understood the roots of Rhythm and Blues, the basic boogie woogie piano that Brian refers to in the quote above...hence the track 'Boogie Woodie' from the Surfer Girl album. Carl, Brian, Dennis, and Mike had been sing rhythm and blues from the radio airwaves since the days at Mount Vernon and Fairway. There was Johnny Otis on the airwaves in LA. The production values in the released Wild Honey album reflected a desire to showcase the new major lead vocalist in the group...Carl Wilson. His prominence on the released Wild Honey is a bow to the need to let Brian take a rest.

Wild Honey:  Is "Aren't You Glad" a great "lost" song that deserves to be performed live nowadays?

It is no coincidence that Beach Boy album tunes began with Wild Honey to be jumping off points for killer live arrangements that Carl played a major role in facilitating. Wild Honey was a perfect album for live repertoire. Songs like Aren’t You Glad, Darlin’, and Let the Wind Blow became staples for years to come. Carl the road leader became Carl the studio facilitator. The days of Brian as the authority and final arbiter of what The Beach Boys were supposed to sound like were over until 1976. From that standpoint, the group would have to agree that some of the deep songs from the late Sixties albums like Aren’t You Glad are worth reviving.

Wild Honey: Do/did you see Wild Honey as a radical change in the group’s sound?

Wild Honey became an album different than perhaps what Brian originally conceived. Brother 9003, the first "Wild Honey,' had some quite personal music of Brian's begun and then left behind. In my travels, I turned several Capitol memoranda which revealed that 9003, the great lost Wild Honey album begun by Brian, had the following track lineup: Wild Honey, Here Comes The Night, Let The Wind Blow, I Was Made To Love Her, The Letter, Darlin', A Thing Or Two, Aren't You Glad, Cool, Cool Water, Game Of Love, Lonely Days, Honey Get Home. 

It is apparent that this aborted album, for the most part, was an album about love and being in the cycle of a relationship. Consider that Wild Honey is a discussion of a woman who is viscerally attractive....a woman who turns you on. This feeling is also expressed in A Thing Or Two, Here Comes the Night, and I Was Made to Love Her. The invitation into a true sexual and emotional relationship may be expressed by The Game of Love. Love in full bloom, perhaps marriage, is addressed in Darlin' and Aren't You Glad. They are both expressions of feelings of beneficence, that is, the rewards of being in a reciprocal loving relationship. While the relationship is in bloom, all is well and balanced. When things begin to crack, perhaps Lonely Days and Honey Get Home are expressions of the feeling of fear of loss of the intimacy, both emotional and sexual, that can be lost in a relationship. The Letter potentially expresses the confrontational moment when one partner in the relationship expresses the feeling that the relationship is broken, and the other person rushes to his partner's side to try to salvage what is lost. Finally, Let the Wind Blow is that moment when the partner who didn't sense his partner's unhappiness pleads with fate to save the relationship. It is no wonder that Cool Cool Water was had no topical relationship to the rest of the songs on the original album's theme. Thus, the released Wild Honey bears more resemblance to an album of 11 songs, not necessarily connected by an overriding theme. The  “new songs’ Country Air, I’d Love Just Once to See You, How She Boogalooed It, and Mama Says (from Smile) change the feel of the overall album to more humor, less focus on the relationship theme, and replacement of Cool Cool Water with a song focused on Country Air.

Wild Honey: Are these songs better on the album or in a live setting?

It is hard to discuss live versus recorded performance without considering the psychology of musical experience. As with Smile, there will be those who argue that Wild Honey as a complete multisensory live experience would transcend any passive listening experience to these songs, even with headphones. For me, hearing the entire Wild Honey album live would be a more complete experience….if Brian was present.

Is Wild Honey’s recent critical re-appraisal deserved?

As a production transition album, Wild Honey often is thought to be slight, with good songs that were underproduced. Taken on its own merit, Wild Honey offers a new Beach Boy experience, as did every Beach Boys album up through Beach Boys Love You. That is, it is the same group, but there are new and exciting twists, turns, and blind curves that make each new Beach Boys album that one hears for the first time a revelation. That is the joy of exhilaration that comes when you see your first Georgia O’Keefe painting in person, or discover a novel that takes you to a new world like Dune or the Harry Potter series.
Wild Honey - I've always felt this great collection of songs could have benefitted from a harder guitar and drum I an idiot?

I think that on the all out rockers…Wild Honey, Darlin’, How She Boogalooed It, and Here Comes the Night, that a harder guitar and drum sound would have added an edge that would enrich the album.


'15 Big Ones' - Can you analyze the spoken/shouted word intro to 'TM Song'? (I know you can)?

Well….I find the song to be a fairly normal exchange in a summer family barbecue where the inhibitions were loosened by John Barleycorn…..perhaps if they meditated they would alter their mood ‘naturally” or maybe their hemrrhoids were just acting up….

'15 Big Ones' - should Carl & Dennis stuck out for adhering to the original game plan ?

1975 brought more demand for a new album, and the period from Holland to 15 Big Ones saw only one studio record, a Christmas single produced by Brian called Child of Winter. The public flocked to Beach Boys concerts after Endless Summer, desirous of hearing Brian's music from the pre Smile period. Brian was therapeutically entrusted to Eugene Landy, who promptly introduced milieu therapy, essentially moving psychiatric aides into 10452 Bellagio Road. Brother Studio and the home piano became "work stations' that were part of Brian's daily milieu therapy. The group was persuaded to allow Brian to again assume the role of producer of the Beach Boys. 

What followed was a mixture of inspiration and music from the milieu therapy work stations. Somehow, it was conceived that Brian would find the new recording technology frightening, and a session was held at Western where the old equipment was brought out for Brian to use. He did Palisades Park in one take and left. 
The rest of the group were supportive of Brian, as they understood from Eugene Landy what his therapeutic goals were designed to accomplish….to “normalize” Brian. Carl and Dennis had tunes that were inspired and beautiful, but deferred them to make room for Brian's work. The eventual release of many songs from those Mid Seventies years that Dennis and Carl recorded while in the midst of Brian’s creative desert, with no new music from Brian, led to Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis's solo album.

15 Big Ones:  Do you think "Pacific Ocean Blues" would have worked as a track here, or was Dennis right holding it back for his solo album?

Due to the long period from In Concert to the 15 Big Ones sessions, it was imperative that The Beach Boys have more music released. The longer they delayed after the release of Endless Summer and Spirit of America, the more the public demanded a new album. But it was hard to reconcile the democracy The Beach Boys had become with the benevolent autocracy of the “Brian as producer” period from 1962 to 1967. The Beach Boys in Time Magazine in 1976 described the transition back to Brian as “ A little bruising….”  If you have Carl produce, you have the democracy, if you have Brian produce, you have the field general. It would likely be more bruising to have Brian try to produce a Dennis tune. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

15 Big Ones: After “Rock and Roll Music,” what oldie do you think works best?

On 15 Big Ones, Brian's productions innovatively used Moog Bass in a manner that influenced several 70s and 80s recording artists. On Just Once In My Life it was majestic. There is no question it is the pinnacle of tunes from the oldies sessions. If it were 45 seconds shorter, Michael Row the Boat Ashore would be a close second. 

15 Big Ones: Do you think, as Mike has suggested, that if "It's OK” had been released at the beginning of the summer it would have been a bigger hit?

Late that summer of 1976, It's Ok was released to modest commercial success, reaching number 30 on Billboard's Singles Chart. There is some conjecture that it might have gone higher had it not been released so late that summer.  It was an incredible instrumental track, somewhat derived from the same melodic idea as the 1974 Christmas single, and with an inspired lead vocal. I can only say that the Beach Boys didn’t get the album done in time for a double summer single release.

Was 15 Big Ones a major misstep for the group?

They say that hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to look back from 2013 and say what could have or should have been done. That is immaterial. What happened was after 15 Big Ones, Brian recorded his most personal album of the 70s, Beach Boys Love You, and we might not have that jewel had we not mined for gold on 15 Big Ones.

15 Big Ones - Big commercial success, but what was the long term impact in your opinion?

Creatively, after Love You…there was general stagnation with infrequent occasions of incredible creative inspiration. It would be easy to blame the producers….Brian, Carl, Bruce…..but the group dynamics after Dennis’s solo album were toxic, and it is hard to breathe creatively in the middle of a forest fire.


'Beach Boys Classics' - What does it represent in Brian's latter day attempt to put his stamp on the band's legacy?

It is an often spoken truism that if you ask Brian Wilson a question about what his favorite album is that he wrote and recorded, he will tell you the truth that day. The next day could be a different answer. This was the challenge facing EMI Toshiba when they asked Brian to compile a list of his favorite Beach Boys tracks. In the end, Brian's instincts for his best work on individual songs has remained fairly steadfast in interviews through the years.  EMI Toshiba asked Brian for his favorites. It is natural for him to choose songs from his oeuvre.

'Beach Boys Classics' - Who do you think **really** selected these tracks ?

The list of tunes Brian chose, probably with input from friends and family, represents a who's who of Beach Boys lyricists, including Brian himself. Brian's most popular lyricists were Mike Love, Van Dyke Parks, and himself! Second most selected were Tandyn Almer, Tony Asher, and Jack Rieley. Also named were Gary Usher, Roger Christian, Carl Wilson, Stephen Kalinich, and Ray Kennedy. Why is this illuminating? Perhaps because Brian named some of the songs that most personally represented not only the best of his songwriting and studio craft, but also touched him personally. As many songwriters say, songs are like children to their creators. The fact that Busy Doin' Nothin', In My Room, Til I Die, and Surfer Girl join this list is that they represent major parts of Brian...his love of home, feeling safe, feeling at sea with life, and the innocence of young love.

Beach Boys Classics: Selected by Brian Wilson:  What do you think of this version of "California Feelin'" (the first commercially-released appearance of this legendary song)?

California Feelin' is especially legendary, having been lauded by the late Timothy White in a 1976 article about Brian's music. The Beach Boys have taken stabs at it a few times, but it never sounded quite like the 1974 demo that Timothy White heard in 1975. The version Brian recorded is a latter day recording, done with his marvelous band. It showcases the song gently, and allows it to showcase it's intrinsic optimism, courtesy of Brian and Stephen Kalinich. It is a celebration of California, perhaps a foreshadowing of his Lucky Old Sun album.

Beach Boys Classics: Selected by Brian Wilson. Why do you think he chose the Smiley Smile version of "Wonderful"?

It is also very interesting to note that Brian chose the Smiley Smile version of Wonderful, rather than the Smile version, probably because he considers it to be the finished version of that song.  As far as songs chosen from albums represented on this collection, Smile/Smiley Smile is the clear favorite of Brian’s.

Do you think “We’re Together Again” (From Selected by Brian Wilson) would have fit well on 20/20?

The only enigma is We're Together Again, a tune written by Ron Wilson, with whom Brian did a 1968 single for Columbia which did not chart. Perhaps the sentiment expressed by the song's lyrics touched Brian. It is from around the Friends period roughly. It is on that album that I see it fitting the best.

BB's Classics - Do you find any of Brian's selections surprising or find anything glaringly missing?

There are beautiful tunes that are left out, most notably Wouldn't It Be Nice, something from the 'slow side' of Beach Boys Today, and tunes from 15 Big Ones and Beach Boys Love You being ignored.  Smile could easily have contributed Cabin Essence or Our Prayer. In the end, our list will differ from Brian's, but isn't that apropos? Brian's instincts for his best work remain sound. In his solo career, there are another half dozen tunes which could easily make the list, if not more. In this case, Brian and whoever worked with him to select this repertoire of his work were inspired. This is a most listenable compilation.

Answers Copyright 2013 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved