Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Robert Palmer in the Early Eighties- Plastic or Perfect?

photo by Blekske/Rudy Denoyette courtesy Creative Commons

I hope people don't just remember Robert Palmer for videos with undulating models pretending to play instruments, or even as a frontman for Power Station. He was a talented guy who for the first half of his career made some great music and curious choices. At least up until the big hits of the MTV age, he refused to keep making the same record again and again (Editor's note - I know, I know, I just did two "Robert" posts in a row. So sue me.).

I recently read a blog post about Palmer that frowned upon one of his attempts to use some different sounds in his music. Writer Matthew Boles was commenting on Palmer's dalliance with Gary Numan and electronic, synth-and-fake-drum music.

Boles says that songs Palmer wrote after meeting Numan were "plastic", as well as suggesting that Palmer's song Looking for Clues was "terrible", although it isn't clear why the writer hates the song. Is it the song itself, or the instrumentation, or the production? I'm guessing mostly the latter two were the problems from the use of the word plastic, because there is a purposefully artificial sound to, for example, the drums. I never would have called the song terrible, and even another Pop Dose writer, Jeff Giles, uses the word brilliant when describing it.

Boles also goes on to cite the video for Looking for Clues as groundbreaking. I don't remember it and couldn't find it anywhere, but I did find the other big video from that era, Johnny and Mary. If Palmer was the first guy to make a video like that one, he's got a lot to answer for in the realm of music video, such as the use of mime/modern dance and literal interpretation of lyrics that add nothing to the song's impact.

At any rate, I couldn't watch the whole video, but I could listen to the song, which I did and have done again and again. I was always fascinated by the mix of songs on Clues, the album from which the aforementioned songs are taken. The "plastic" songs are interspersed with rockin' tunes like Sulky Girl and Not a Second Time; I like that kind of musical schizophrenia, it's like my mix tapes were and cd mixes are. Actually, even Boles feels compelled to remark that Palmer was cool for doing his own thing.

Anyway, here's a few more of those synth and electronic drum tracks. What do you think, are they plastic, fake and soulless, or are they finely-crafted tunes featuring an artist successfully trying out new technology?

This one's from Maybe It's Live, featuring the guitar genius of Adrian Belew.

There's a good concert from this era (1983) available from Wolfgang's Vault.

For your curious side, here's Palmer doing Motorhead's Eat the Rich. I think he liked to keep people guessing, doing a Devo tune here, a Kool and the Gang cover there...I wish he could come back and shake things up again.


drfeelgoed said...

Nice one, I too like the Numan collaborations a lot.
However your last clip of 'Si Chau...' is not one of those. According to the original album (which I have) it is collaboration with none other than Adrian Belew! Also RP & Belew play all instruments, another overlooked great track...

chris yackoboski said...

Ha! I goofed, I meant t put Style Kills there, not Si Chat...but you can definitely tell it's Belew, too, so it's pretty funny that I messed that one up. I'll have to fix it. Thanks for the correction. Your blog is good too, I'd never heard that Sharpe & Numan stuff before.