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Entries in nik kershaw (3)

Thursday
Dec092010

Nik Kershaw at 10

big artist head shot of nik kershaw, one of my musical heroesNik KershawTime flies. Ten years and some weeks already since I was riding in the car one night with Mike Thaxton and then, unannounced, he put in a CD with a powerful backbeat and an undeniable synth hook and a blaring horn section where a guitar solo might have been. At the time, scarcely a few notes in, I thought it was Eric Clapton's 1986 song It's In The Way That You Use It. I commented that it was good to hear that Clapton song after all this time. I had to bite my tongue when Mike straightened me out and told me it was Nik Kershaw's song Wouldn't It Be Good. Just as well. It had been even more years since I heard that one too, and this was a joyous reunion. Mixing up the songs was not impossible; Clapton was in his horns-and-background-girl-singers, 80s rock mode when he did In The Way. Glitzy 80s soulful rock stuff. Having both songs before me right now, it makes sense to mistake Nik's song (done in 1984, Clapton's in 1986), at least sonically, and with just a few notes to judge by. But I could never get into Clapton like I did with Nik Kershaw.

I think Mike had prefaced that night with some notice that he wanted me to hear some Nik Kershaw because he thought there was some loose parallel to the sound and career of Kevin Gilbert. Invoking KG was a surefire way to get my attention because Thax himself had given me a load of KG over the year prior, and that was the single most valuable artist for me then. What is interesting is that while Mike gave me a lot of KG in a hurry, there was a lot less NK available, though he did provide me with a copy of 15 Minutes and a year or so later, with To Be Frank. But it all hung on that one playing of Wouldn't It Be Good, that one November night, probably after a Magnificent Meatsticks session. That song still has some sort of magnetic attraction for me. I guess Mike's selling of NK by referencing Gilbert was to highlight that both had an insanely quantized and clear electronic sound in the 1980s that gave way to more organic and gritty acoustic-classic rock sounding instrumentation, greasier vocals, and generally more raw sound in the 1990s and present. In both cases, that was an appealing shift, though more so in Kershaw's case, I enjoy quite a bit of the earlier stuff. Another appealing thing for me was that both had a strong self-produced sound with each playing a number of instruments and minding the production too. Each has a distinctive voice that is applied in interesting ways. Sounded like promising stuff, this Nik Kershaw.

If my recollection of things is right, I didn't know it at the time, but Nik Kershaw became like a trusted new friend to me that season. Having hardly any prior experience with his music except for a vague recollection from 1984 of seeing the video of Wouldn't It Be Good, I was ready for his music to hit me with full force, not being diluted by endless radio play or other overexposure. Just as well. His CD 15 Minutes, the first he did after many years off and gone from the limelight, was the first full disk I heard, and this during the first weeks of the new wave of family drama that began about this time in 2000. For a few months from the fall of 2000 through the winter of 2001, it seemed the only disks I had in my 5-disk changer was 15 Minutes, Radiohead's Kid A, Jeff Buckley's Grace, Mike Keneally's Dancing, and Kevin Gilbert's Shaming of the True. That was the soundtrack to a time of depression met with a hopeful reunion with one side of my family which in turn was a provocative move for the other side, all with the exhaustion of finishing my own CD not long before and wondering when that would be pressed. Having just turned 27 shortly before, I was in deep. Whoever this Nik Kershaw dude was, he gave me a total gift with 15 minutes. I can't listen to it now without evoking memories of a cold empty house where my grandmother had left by ambulance and which the newly deregulated ($200) energy bill came down heavily upon me; angry letters; a day in the therapist's office (my sister's therapist); the lonely, tear-filled, raging 90 minute ride home from Long Beach at one in the morning; the smashing of tables and chairs and the spray painted message upon the tabletop, put out by the street for all to see; the fading moments of my grandmother's life, she sadly having seen the genie in the bottle finally get uncorked, and her befuddled response and complete helplessness to do anything but listen to me until she was overwhelmed; the endless hours of mining her belongings left behind; the painting of the house to make it my own; the trips to the CB therapist; the signing up for school at AIC—All that life for four or five months was accompanied in part with one great album of songs from a guy who I had hardly heard of a few months before.

Mike Thaxton eventually got me a copy of To Be Frank, the follow up to 15 Minutes. This came to me at another time in life, about a year later, when a lot of that edgy drama had subsided into a livable life. Maybe it was that that led me to not savor this album the same way. The songs are just as good but they didn't hit me the same. There are some that I do totally love now, but on the whole, I don't have the same experience with that disk. The uncharted territory remained so for a few years to come: with the exception of Wouldn't It Be Good, I had not heard a note of his 1980s era stuff. That took a few years to get to. At that time there wasn't YouTube to help find stuff to listen to, nor was there iTunes Music Store, so I relied on some alternative means to collect even a partial bunch of his songs from that era.

Even now there is woefully little on iTunes America store, and the CDs are damned hard to track down for a decent price, but I've gathered much of the 80s stuff by one download or another. I don't have a favorite full album from the four that he made in the 80s, but I tend to favor The Riddle and Radio Musicola. My understanding and appreciation for Nik's 80s era stuff was helped along considerably by the analysis of Patrick Daily. More recently, I found out about another thoughtful but more fan-oriented take on NK's music which helped shed more understanding. (The Patrick Daily dissection did a lot to help me understand more about music, and he analyzes more artists in similar fashion on his website.) Dissections did not scare me away because I already had an emotional connection with the music and I always appreciate a deeper look at it or what motivates its creation. Not particularly being of age in the period when this 80s era stuff was coming out, Daily's study about gender roles and New Men was an interesting perspective. His observation that despite the synthesized gloss and glitter, Nik is essentially protesting the capitalist culture even as he embraces the trappings of same. All that has given me more to look at while listening. But dissection or none, I am usually enthralled by the interesting harmonic and melodic turns this music takes. With a mix of live drums played by some of the best in the biz, and sequenced drums playing some nearly impossible parts, and sometimes doubled up parts using acoustic and electronic parts, there is rhythmic excitement too. At times Nik's voice seems exactly like Stevie Wonder. An odd thing, considering Nik is a very white dude from Britain. But not surprising considering he would have had Stevie's music to digest all during his formative years before he even cut his first album. At times I hear a sophistication and production spit and polish that one regards Steely Dan as having, but without the pretense and snobbiness that seems to accompany SD. One song, Know How, is a bunch of clever but subtle word and rhythmic play, and has this enormously satisfying Weather Report style bridge.

The thing is, I just don't know what I like about Nik's music. I know know that it speaks to me in its onion-like layers of meaning revealing themselves over time. There is no shortage of melodies that have sunk their hooks deep into me. This to me is the sign of good music, and even popular music can be good if it can keep peeling the layers away. I have to keep mining the recordings because Nik doesn't tour the States. There is a kind of longing that I have as this reality sinks in. Maybe that is part of what makes Kevin Gilbert and Jeff Buckley so appealing—the book is closed on those guys, and Nik and I are unlikely to cross paths unless I get to Blighty or Europe. I have never seen any of his 80s albums in the flesh; never read the liner notes or chewed on the lyrics like so many other albums I've held in hand. So I have to do what I can to forge an ongoing relationship with the material that I do have.

Friday
Feb052010

Oddness Indeed

In the space of one weekend or so, I was nearly simultaneously asked to reprise a life I thought I had left behind. The first request was more of a realization that I might be better off donating my time to Jubilee Economic Ministries by using my studio space to record stuff for a podcast. I had been trying my hand at doing stuff in the office, and I guess it was sort of clear that it was hardly lighting me on fire. But on the day when Lee was breaking the news that a hoped-for grant didn't come through, one that would have funded a DVD project, we had to set our minds to other tasks to widen the delivery of their message. So we tossed around the ideas of YouTube videos and podcasts. I've of course been equipped this way for years—the same years I have known of JEM have been the exact time when I have been at odds with my erstwhile identity as a studio operator. But, I suppose maybe it is time to reclaim that part and put it to some use, lest all my gear sit here and do nothing at all. We meet on Monday to record something, to get a feel for things.

The other odd calling out of hiding came the very next day when a young lady at church, active in a great many things there since she came onto the scene in the summer, asked if I might show her some guitar stuff and music theory tidbits to jumpstart her interests. Now I think this is odd because I wouldn't want to learn guitar from a guy like me, but I am not totally useless with the musical theory for a beginner, so maybe that will do some good.

Odd how these things came out of nowhere, at once.

I have been poking around with a functional studio setup in my office room, drums, guitar and bass amps and all. So far I've captured some acoustic guitar ideas and have been trying to learn parts to Nik Kershaw's song, Wouldn't It Be Good. This has involved watching a few YouTube videos to help witness certain hand positions on guitar because certain chord voicings were just totally escaping me. I was watching about a half dozen of these videos and getting nowhere then finally someone posted a detailed tutorial which, aside from being a pretty faithful cover of the song, was nice enough to make the hand positions on the various parts a front and center attraction! Damn. I was doing it the hard way. But finally this video made a lot of things clearer! (The biggest breakthrough came with the voicing of the G and E chords in the chorus and the melodic line behind the verse vocal. I still relate to piano better than guitar when it comes to picking out parts. Bummer I don't have any keyboards now.)

Tuesday
Feb082005

Nik Kershaw

nik kershaw head shotNik KershawI don't think I ever heard of Nik in the 80s when he was famous. Though when I heard his song Wouldn't It Be Good, I recognized it right away and seemed to know half the words, despite probably a decade and a half passing since I would have heard it last. In the same hearing, I was also introduced to Nik's then-new CD (I was having this experience in fall of 2000 with my buddy Thax), and told it had some qualities that I liked in Kevin Gilbert's music. Well, it was solo songwriter work with a personal stamp in the lyrics. Other than that, I don't remember much else similar to KG's music. I didn't have any artist mythology to surround it, so I just listened. Within a couple days or weeks, Nik's CD 15 Minutes became one of the five disks in my changer that defined a several month period in my life. Radiohead's Kid A, Kevin Gilbert's Thud and/or The Shaming of the True, Mike Keneally's Dancing, and Jeff Buckley's Grace all spun around and around for months during some extreme times for me in late 2000 and early 2001.

So the stage was set to get into Nik Kershaw. The one CD I had a lot of songs about missing out on life, while seemingly living it by going through the motions every day.

He had of course been a big figure in the 80s, but aside from WIBG, I had never heard a scrap of his 80's output, and periodically did p2p searches for the stuff, asked my musical guide Thax to see if he had any. Nothing. Nik was sort of a specialty item in the 80s, among the new wave likes of Howard Jones and those folks that I never really followed anyway. Of course, part of the 80s pop scene was that it was very synthesized and plastic sounding. I had been of the mind that he was just some bubblegum guy in the 80s and by the late 90s he had matured into the thoughtful songwriter I heard on 15 Minutes, using basically a guitar-dense live band for his recording. (I heard he didn't use much of a band, doing a lot but for the drums himself.) 15 Minutes was his tentative return to recording, done mostly in his home studio, not ever expecting to see the light of day. So it has a certain freedom from market values, despite being ready to take to market. But his day is over—he put out another CD and wanted to tour, but he kept getting branded as an 80s artist, which he hated, so he beat everyone. He stopped performing altogether a few years ago. I had both the newer CDs now and some singles that Thax rounded up, but now the only direction was to go backwards...

A couple weeks ago I did a search and found a site where a musicologist was dissecting popular songs in search of gender roles in music and production. One of Nik's songs from his 80s era was in there and well, fuck me, I got an education that day in how brilliant he is, and even in the 80s, he was running a smart show. This musicologist guy was tearing apart a song called Life Goes On in pretty formal analysis and looking at how the chords and lyrics had a brilliant way of working to enhance each other. I never thought about how detailed a pop song could get, but with this analytical approach to even one four minute song, I've gone and hunted down at least one greatest hits CD of Nik songs, and have been listening to the other CDs I have too.

It takes a bit to listen past the almost painful and embarrassing 80s production on the older stuff (not all is too bad—some are clearly meant to be "rock" band tracks with more concise arrangements). Some are quantized to death but are melodic and sometimes almost dancey. The musicologist guy did go into this—he noted that for Nik and his generation, male roles were in doubt and consumer culture ran strong. The advent of the drum machine and sequencer pretty much robbed the macho dinosaur rock band of its primacy in pop music, while use of these new sounds made tidy and slick music that became the sound track of the ME decade. The cock strutting sounds of heavy metal lost general popularity to new wave and people like Nik Kershaw emerged to be the stars of the new sound. But Nik at least was acutely aware of the new softer side of men that was allowed to show its face in the more polite and PC world in a period of strong feminism. And most of his songs had a theme of the internal confusion that resulted from wanting to be a big man but having to sublimate that energy to other pursuits. His music vocabulary was different as a result, not being able to "rock out with his cock out" like maybe Led Zeppelin was doing a few years before.

So Nik's 80s content had an uncanny aspect of soul searching and baring despite being wrapped in the glossy sheen of the 80s production values of digital drums, gated reverb, and goopy chorus effects on everything. His harmonic sense was keen—interesting slash chords, key changes in the middle of a lyric, phrasing, mixed use of major and minor keys, sometimes revolving around the same root note, so as to add conflict to what it means to be in the key of A or D or whatever, sort of like what it means to be a man in reality but to be pretty much caved in to societal pressures—Notice the 80s were a time of clean cut and natty dressers, unlike the hairy, chest baring, package-bulging dress of the 70s.

A lot of people write off the 80s as being a empty period for music. And I do know what they're talking about. It was vacuous in some senses, but not all of it was. There were some really good song writers and musicians then who just happened to be caught using some gimmicky production. My exercise of hearing through lame and sterile 80s production helped me before. Early on in my Jethro Tull listening, as I was beginning to learn the mythology of the band (with not much in the way of outside reference points), I was intrigued by the "electronic" records they made in the early 80s (or Ian Anderson's solo record that tested the waters in 1983, using sampled drums, lots of keyboards, and little sign his acoustic instruments). Under Wraps from 1984 was pretty well dismissed, and even hated by some Tull fans. It was sonically a little richer than the previous year's Anderson solo album Walk Into Light which had paved the way for it. Sure, on both, there is an overwhelming change in sound toward keyboard sounds, solid state amplified and direct guitar sounds, sampled drums, and the quirky samples that got dropped in for effects. They ARE different, no doubt about it. But I don't think the production on these records, or Kershaw's earlier work for that matter, masks the talent of the songwriter. Listening to Under Wraps is a treat for me. What it sounds like to me is that when they didn't have to occupy a third of a reel of tape tracks on drum kit with 8-10 tracks, they put that track space into lusher vocals and more arrangement fun. There are exciting little arrangement bits that keep revealing themselves upon more listenings. But then again, the same is true for older Tull material, but instead of all the arrangement being made up of keyboards and digital sounds, they used to have flutes, guitars, keyboards, and percussion trading places in the arrangement. Really all that changed was the sounds, so some patient and persistent listening to these black sheep albums will still show a keen songwriting and arranging sense, with a good song being draped in some somewhat unfortunate clothes that don't age too well. When I listen to Under Wraps or Walk Into Light, I hear some very detailed and energetic songs with interesting parts, melodies, interesting harmonic twists, rhythmic variety, and lyrical themes that sound at home in lots of other Tull and Anderson recordings. All I find I need to do is imagine a live band playing it, maybe six pieces strong or so, and those sonic details come to life. Listening to Nik Kershaw's stuff is sort of like that for me. The underlying art and mastery and passion is there, but sonically it's dated. Some of his songs are so hooky, and would be even if they didn't have quantized drums and too clean digital samples. His lyrical content is interesting to me now as it ever was, but some of his imagery is a little different in his older stuff.

I don't write off the 80s as quickly as a lot of people do. I think it was the last great decade of music with something new to offer. As of late, I don't think there has been much new under the sun in pop music or production since the advent of the synthesizer in the 70s and its popularity in the decade or so that followed. The synthesizer did not remove the need for musicality and passion, but I think the modern trend toward prefab music (zillions of presets, sample libraries—sometimes of 80s sounds!), auto tune, and hyper compression has done a lot to ensure the mediocre a place in music, whereas the true artists who have lofty ideas of composition and maybe even risk making genuine mistakes in the name of developing as artists are sidelined. In a more perfect world, people of Mike Keneally's talent would not be relegated to their peripheral status as they are. Kershaw would shed the 80s tag because even though he is still handsome, he probably isn't dressed in skinny ties and suits. The flood of music made by all the practitioners out there is great, and it's a shame that the worst of it gets to decide how history is marked off into periods.