Robert Palmer: Clues EURO CD 
- Looking For Clues
- Sulky Girl
- Johnny + mary
- What Do You Care
- I Dream Of Wires
- Woke Up Laughing
- Not A Second Time
- Found You Now
I had a strange approach to Robert Palmer. I remembered his late 70s pop hits from Top 40 radio which I listened to fairly indiscriminately. “Every Kind of People,” a cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends,” and “Bad Case Of Loving You” were the three hits that made a beachhead in America in ’78-’79. In the time period when I was transitioning form Prog to New Wave, so they honestly meant little to me at the time. That all changed with his next album. In 1980 we were riding the Gary Numan wave, but hard. We were three albums in and Numan was an amazing sound to people who hadn’t yet connected the dots backward to Ultravox. When “Telekon” appeared in early 1980, it was played heavily. Whenever I visited my friend David, he played the tape on a loop that auto reversed and played it continually. And that was fine.
So when the 1980 Robert Palmer album appeared with Gary Numan involvement, tongues wagged. Eyes peered. Purchases were made. The album sported Numan playing on a cover version of his own “I Dream Of Wires” with Palmer singing, as well as a new song, “Found You Now,” that they co-wrote. I do think I may have heard the title track on WPRK-FM college radio, so obviously, the album had passed their New Wave sniff test. I bought the LP and got my first heady whiff of the sort of rollercoaster of genres that Palmer loved to call an album.
“Looking For Clues” was as enervated a slice of New Wave dance funk as you could have heard in 1980. As the album was recorded at Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, there was enough crossover with TVLKING HEVDS [also there recording “REMAININLIGHT”] that Palmer played percussion on that album while Chris Franz returned the favor with bass drum on this jittery number. Palmer’s voice was double tracked at split octaves with his falsetto slightly dominant for a different sound. The anxious synth-riff loop that the layers of repetition were built upon was probably giving DEVO fits of jealousy. The xylophone solo was very creative but the one note guitar solo felt ripped straight from “Born Under Punches [the beat goes on]” so I’m guessing Palmer may have had “insider knowledge” in that instance. That possible life notwithstanding, it was still a catchy-as-hell single and more than credible False New Wave from this rock guy. See for yourself.
That pace-setting opener had barely faded when the mischievous Palmer decided to whack our heads with the stylistic 2″x4″ that was “Sulky Girl.” Unlike the au courant New Wave up front, this was an exercise in pure Stones Raunch®, right down to the guitar solo barely re-written from a little number you may know called “Brown Sugar.” If the presence of Chris Frantz and Gary Numan elsewhere looked forward to the 80s, then the bass of Andy Fraser of Free here, screamed 1970s. This was my first indication that whatever his interest, Palmer did things his way. The more eclectic, the better. Oh, little did I know then.
The bigger hit from this album was the delicate and gorgeous “Johnny + Mary.” This one barely missed the UK Top 40, but went Top 10 in W. Germany and all the way to number one in Spain. The motorik tempo was utterly beholden to La Düsseldorf and bore a heavy Krautrock influence while being touched with disco pop heavy on the synths with shimmering synth leads that sounded gorgeously crystalline. The darker emotions of the song were given a contrasting undercut by the lighter, almost euphoric music bed. The song had proven very durable with a few dozen covers over the years. Perhaps as karmic payback for lifting from “Brown Sugar,” the biggest cover of this song isn’t a cover at all, but Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks;” a facile re-write that copped the vibe of this one whole hog.
“I Dream Of Wires” was not one of the highlights of “Telekon” for me. Truth be told, it was a bit plodding next to the likes of “Remind Me To Smile.” How would it play here, in a different context? With Numan manning the synths [and even Numan’s bassist Paul Gardiner reprising his role here!] it had the same sound design for the synths that it originally had, but Palmer’s arrangement was far more muscular.
Some might say that was missing the point, but to his credit, he began the song in the same passive way as Numan, before becoming much more aggressive and full-bodied in the singing and [funky] arrangement before reverting to passivity in the outro. Palmer gave Gardiner the direction to dig into the latent funk the song always had and I really enjoyed it. The complex flourishes of the completely new middle eight were a huge addition here. If the emphatic “hunh!’ that Palmer unloosed afterward was something that Numan would never dare to utter, then it was certainly earned in this new arrangement. I have to say that this was my preferred version. Another score for Robert Palmer.
In 1980, I was playing it cool and aloof to the astonishing charms of “Woke Up Laughing.” Now, its sophisticated Afro-pop towers over the rest of the album. The minimal skanking organ rhythm beguiles and Palmer delivered the coup de grace with his nimble, subtle phrasing in what sounded like Arabic scales. The whole song was a dazzling, interlocking mandala of sound, with rhythm and melody tessellated together in perfect harmony.
The cold ending of “Woke Up Laughing” could not be any colder as it was butt-spliced right into the Beatles cover of “Not A Second Time.” I can’t say I’ve ever heard the original, but from the sound of it, it probably dated from the earlier part of their career. Even so, Palmer was clever enough to crank up the synths and to employ a killer New Wave backbeat on this one, giving it enough vitality to not make me hit the fast forward button. Then the album concluded with the strange collaboration between Palmer and Numan, “Found You Now.” This one did not have Numan on synths, and regular keyboardist Jack Waldman played on the tune that sounded as if Palmer and Numan were investigating how to make “Kashmir” sound genuinely Middle Eastern. The evasive eastern scales of the string synths never seem to coalesce into something tangible. Letting the album end on an unsatisfying, evasive note.
So this was my first exposure to Palmer and in the heat of 1980, it was inconclusive. I didn’t buy another palmer album for some years. The stylistic whiplash that he was certainly fond of may have given me pause in a period where I was eager to dump the old and embrace the new; even as this album did little else. But he still had a penchant for conventional rock that I had a bigger problem with then. So I traded this off in the Great Vinyl Purge and my next Palmer album was on CD format. Either :The Power Station” or “Riptide;” by the time of which I’d heard enough Palmer’s diversity to begin to suspect that the guy was simply an eclectic like few others I could name.
Ultimately, that the the fun of listening to Palmer. Soca next to Metal? Suuuuure! Why not? Fast forward 39 years and I have almost every Robert Palmer album, and more to the point, I really miss the guy. Sure, he had his crass facets, but I’ll overlook them easily. In all of the Palmer albums I’ve owned by now [everything except for “Some People Can Do What They Like, “Double Fun,” and his live albums], he only issued one irredeemable dud and I also treasure the two concerts I managed to catch with him. I’ll bet he would have made some interesting music in the years he’s been gone.
– 30 –
My first exposure to Palmer was “Pride”, purchased on the back of seeing (and being utterly knocked out by) the video for You Are In My System on MTV. To say I was unprepared for the stylistic whiplash on that one would be a huge understatement. I’ve since investigated the rest of the Palmer ouvre and yeah, he’s an original all right.
jsd – Yow! So your went from “You Are In My System” [one of the songs that made me realize I had to give this guy another chance…] to “Pride” only to hear songs sung in Urdu and calypso music. So it seemed like you had something less than an immediate fave rave reaction; much like I did. I think Palmer fandom is by nature a cumulative, slow-burning thing. And I’m guessing it’s something you have to grow into. Of the three pre-“Clues” albums I have, they are far more stylistically coherent. I think that “Clues” was the line in the sand for Palmer to get all of that musical wandering out of his system, no matter what. Gotta love the guy for sticking to his guns.
I actually bought the cheesy but quite electronic “Some Guys Have All the Luck” on 7″,he always liked a good synth and Syn drum combo
djjedredy – So do I! We dumped Syndrums for Linndrums far too quickly for my taste.
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I was late to the game, my proper introduction was via “The Power Station,”
So Palmerheads, what’s worth exploring in his catalog prior to that?
Tim – I’ve liked everything… with the exception of the second, ill-starred Power Station album, “Living In Fear.” But the modern Palmer era began with “Clues.” It’s almost like the 80s sea change that occurred with Tom Waits. That’s only two albums earlier than “The Power Station.” [he said, discounting “Maybe It’s Live”]
So what’s better, pre-Clues or Clues and post? You make a Tom Waits analogy (does this mean you’re a fan?) and for me it’s pre-80’s by and large, much more hit and miss albums over a chunk of that swath.
I always loved Robert Palmer and appreciated the eclecticism of many of his albums, and “Clues” is definitely my favorite. I note that you didn’t mention the (initially) non-album track “Style Kills”, another Palmer/Numan collaboration, which turned up on the “Maybe It’s Live” album but started out its existence on the b-side of “Johnny & Mary.” I also miss the guy; gone much too young.
Mark Moerman – Well, the B-sides are another story. Personally, I would have substituted “Style Kills” for “Found You Now.” Another relative strength for “Clues” was its 30 minute running time. I’m inclined to think that shorter is always better.
I have this on LP,but sadly not played it for years.Must give it another go.Not really familiar with most of Palmer’s work,though I think I enjoyed a live video of him with Elkie Brooks as Vinegar Joe.
Gavin – His electro cover of The System’s “You Are In My System” from 1983 was superb. I wrote about it a few years back. You scoop me though with Vinegar Joe. I’ve never had the pleasure, though I enjoy his first two solo albums with him fronting US funk band Little Feat. The “Addictions Vols. 1+2” compilations are a good career overview. They show the breadth of his take on R+B/Rock/New Wave/ Latin/MOR/Funk/and Afro-Caribbean styles and feature many re-recorded/remixed tracks making them supplemental if you ever get the complete albums. His megahits on those comps were untouched, but the bulk of it [more obscure deep cuts, by and large] were re-worked. His liner notes are always great.
I actually strongly disparage the Addictions sets, or at least Addictions Vol 1, for they just *ruined* the brilliant single “Bad Case of Loving You” with a horrible, unnecessary, overly loud new guitar part. Let that version be cast into the pit of eternal peril! The later single disc “Very Best of” compilation has the proper version.
I like Palmer’s hits, but I tend to think that his most interesting music and most satisfying albums were done with by the time he was having the big hits.
Mark Moerman – That one was a case of “ZZ Top” syndrome where they tried to make an older track sound “current” for a reissue. But at least with Palmer, you got the original version on “Secrets.” It’s my understanding that the first six ZZ Top albums were laden with gated drums and synths for quite some time before the outcry saw those restored on CD.
The versions of the London Records ZZ Top albums in the 90s “Sixpack” set were indeed bizarrely remixed — not sure if that also applied to individual CD editions of those titles — but thankfully, both sanity and the proper original mixes were restored at a later time.
Did ZZ Top resort to this sort of thing for the same reason that Taylor Swift, Def Leppard, etc., has with re-iterations of their catalog, i.e. tweaking, re-recording, etc due to copyright control issues?
No, nothing like that. The six London Records titles had long since been reverted to Warner Bros, the group’s then-current label. It was simply a wrongheaded, misbegotten effort to try and make records that were perfectly fine to begin with sound “contemporary” in 1987 when the Sixpack set was done (not in the 90s, as I mistakenly said earlier).
Tim – I think with ZZT it came find to their 80s audience not accepting the greasier form of boogie proffered by The Bearded Ones in the previous decade. Then they did something about it. That everyone hated.