Of late I’ve been finding myself going through my album collection to find something, anything worthwhile to listen to during my 13 ½ hour shifts patrolling cemeteries in Toronto. I’m lucky enough to be driving a current model Dodge Avenger – which is a Dodge Charger on steroids – with a sound system that rocks. It’s fun to toss in a disc while I’m issuing fines to people for letting their dogs piss on tombstones or skiers running rip shod over graves.
Gabriel_ShakingtheTree This week I grabbed a copy of Peter Gabriel’s 1990 hits package ‘Shaking the Tree’ to listen to as I hadn’t in quite some time. But when I put the disc into the player at work the first song off the top was “Red Rain”…not “Solsbury Hill” as indicated in on the tray card. I popped the disc back out and looked at the label. It was Gabriel’s album ‘So’. Oops. Must have mixed them up the last time I listened to either album. Which is probably sometime around 2000.

TFFThe problem with retro listening to something from so long ago is that you literally have to hold your breath and hope that the album has weathered over time. Is it going to sound dated? Is it speaking to me now or just reflecting back events and emotions that defined my psyche all those years ago? The answer to those questions is at the mercy of the listener. I don’t think The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ has held up particularly well, while Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ has. Most times it comes down to the aging process of production and technology. An album that sounds dated – say, pretty much anything from the 1980s – hasn’t got much of a chance if its impetus is the technology that created the songs. Tears For Fears’ ‘Songs From the Big Chair’ is 30 this year. It should sound as dated as Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’. It doesn’t. Why? Because TFF’s production was ahead of the technology curve when it was created. And sometimes that’s the key.

Eno_LanoisTrevor Horn, David Tickle, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were innovative producers in the 1980s. They were cutting edge and not only defying gravity, they were redefining the way we listen to music. It was about pushing the stereo image to a place where headphones and audiophiles had not gone before. Initially, I had a real hard time wrapping my head around songs that weren’t driven by a pounding rhythm section and chiming guitars. It was a format that drove 4-piece Beatle-bred bands for 20 years. At its base level was Cheap Trick. At its overblown apex was ELO. But this was different. The songs weren’t held together with white noise – cymbal crashes and sustained Am7 chords on 12-string Rickenbackers.  These songs, these audio paintings had no glue. They had silence between the notes and hung drifting on the breeze. Between the beats. Between the pounding bottom end. They felt like they might fall out of the sky in pieces. It was chocolate without the peanut butter to stick it all together.

Gowan - Strange AnimalI recalled not being impressed after hearing my teen hero Lawrence Gowan’s second solo album ‘Strange Animal’ in 1985 for the first time. The radio single was the more Prog Rockish “Criminal Mind” – with elements of piano fuelled Floyd and Supertramp over a sparse rhythm pattern. But the whole album was a lot cleaner and a lot more stop-and-start for my liking as Gowan’s first album had been a straight-up Canadian Rock record. I eventually grew to like David Tickle’s production. “Cosmetics” has an incessant bass groove. It was like disco without the hi-hats. Gowan’s band on that album featured the best of Peter Gabriel’s crew – Jerry Marotta and Tony Levin specifically. I followed the trail of production crumbs from there.

The following year came Peter Gabriel’s ‘So’ – with Marotta and Levin and Stuart Copeland and Manu Katche – it was revelatory. Daniel Lanois was on Gabrielthe same page as Tickle. But it was less Brit-centric. Lanois prayed at the Brian Eno Well of Souls. This was their U2 opus ‘Unforgettable Fire’ cranked to 11. Every note, every edit, every word and every fretless bassline was deliberate. What looked like sterility on paper became a massive hit for Gabriel; Blowing the doors wide open for pop music audio moving forward. “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” became MTV staples. Gabriel was swallowed by the format. The album, however, stands up 30 years later without being coloured by those original visual interpretations. “Mercy Street” and “Red Rain” are mood altering ear candy. And “Don’t Give Up” with Kate Bush became a standard duet for pop luminaries to imitate – but never quite capture in full. The key is to stop thinking that it’s a love song. It’s a tribute to poor working stiffs in underprivileged countries. It’s right there in the lyrics!

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no-one needs

Lanois, a humble musician/producer from Hamilton, Ontario became ubiquitous. He was the go-to producer not only for turning U2 into the biggest band in the world with 1987’s ‘Joshua Tree’, but in putting faded stars Robbie Robertsonback into contemporary rotation. What had The Band’s Robbie Robertson done after ‘The Last Waltz’ except a few movie soundtracks? (‘Carnie’, ‘The Color of Money’). A whole lot of nothing. He was a genius without portfolio. Geffen Records signed him with the hope that Lanois could bolster his public profile. The ‘Robbie Robertson’ album would become the clarion call. Lanois was squatting in New Orleans at this point. The atmosphere and the Garden District studio rife with inspiration. Robertson rose to the task – as did a parade of industry friends who owed Lanois favours…U2, Gabriel, Manu Katche, Tony Levin, Sam Llanas (The BoDeans). The album spawned five radio hits. Robbie barely had that over his entire run with The Band.

Meanwhile, back in England, Trevor Horn – co-founder of The Buggles and producer of 1980s acts like ABC, Simple Minds, Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Seal1Goes To Hollywood – was honing his own back room music laboratory as the owner-operator of ZTT Records. He’d gain major kudos by discovering and catapulting the career of a young black artist known only as Seal. The soulful singer and Horn struck paydirt with the 1990 self-titled debut album featuring the hit “Crazy”. The album took three years to make in half-a-dozen studios and featured 15 musicians – including Horn’s old cohort Trevor Rabin. The album sold well, Seal became a face to remember (mainly due to a scar he had). It was the lead up to bigger things.

Seal1994’s second self-titled album – which followed the Peter Gabriel gimmick of releasing eponymously titled records as if they were monthly magazines – made Seal a household name when the song “Kiss From A Rose” was lifted from the ‘Batman Forever’ soundtrack. For anyone that’s listened to the entire album, the song was a hiccup. The record is a lot moodier, a lot more soulful – like modern Gospel. Like Gabriel’s ‘So’ and even the other Lanois productions, ‘Seal 2’ is a bombastic ethereal production with some under exploited songs like “Bring It On”, “Prayer For the Dying”, “Fast Changes” and the Joni Mitchell duet “If I Could”.

It also proved to be Seal’s peak. By the time he and Horn re-teamed for ‘Seal 3’ in 1998, the music world had shifted again as Cher had destroyed the radio Cherlandscape with a new fangled vocal effect called Auto-Tune. Interestingly, Horn had produced her 1995 ‘It’s a Man’s World’ album featuring the hit remake of Marc Cohn’s “Walking In Memphis”. Horn loaded the gun. Cher pulled the trigger. Seems there’s a best-before date on producers just like there is on bands and musicians. Some old records do not hold up. Don’t believe me?  Just ask Mutt Lange. 



Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.comhttp://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon

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