Nick Joyce

Nick Joyce

Sunday, 8 August 2010


Tom Jones’ new album „Praise & Blame“ has drawn quite a few comparisons to producer Rick Rubin’s work with Johnny Cash. Not all of these have been favourable, partly due to the fact that Tiger Tom’s pipes are just too big for the small band format he’s currently working in. But Mr. Rubin’s work is also horribly over-rated. Although I appreciate many of his rap and rock productions (RUN-DMC’s version of “Walk This Way” is still one of my favourite records of all time), the sound of his acclaimed acoustic albums for Donovan, Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash has started to bore me: the hushed vocals, gossamer guitar and muted piano backing have become a parody of themselves.
Add to that the fact that Rubin is working with consummate performers who hardly need spiritual guidance to get back to basics in the studio, and you start wondering what it is that the producer really does on such projects besides choosing the repertoire and musicians to work with. In Rubin’s case, a “hands off” approach might mean having his hands tied behind his back when he’s in the studio. In fact, I prefer Ethan Johns’ work for Tom Jones to Rick Rubin’s latest Cash production “Ain’t No Grave”. Although “Praise & Blame” is flawed, there’s a sense of risk-taking here that is absent from Rubin’s all-too-tasteful acoustic work of late. Tom Jones may rip into tracks like Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” and John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell” with more Las Vegas bluster than is good for this material, but you’ve got to admire the man for his energy and verve. And for upsetting his record company in the process. If the reports are true, the vice-president of Island Records tried to stop the release of “Praise & Blame” as late as May. Even at 70, Tom still manages to right people up the wrong way. He might be a veteran, but he’s also a rebel of sorts. Chapeau!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


Anyone who knows me personally also knows that I’m partially-sighted; a fact that only really causes problems when I meet someone for the first and sometimes only time, i.e. in an interview situation. I used not to mention my eyesight when meeting musicians, as I wasn’t always comfortable with that amount of self-disclosure, plus I didn’t want it to take up valuable interview time. But I’ve changed my tack, thanks mainly to Chuck D of Public Enemy. Because of the rap crew’s then radical political stance, I was very nervous about meeting him in 1992, and that made my attempts at eye contact even more erratic than usual. Chuck complained about this fact, saying that he was used to people looking him in the eye. I thought that his outburst would be the end of the interview, but in fact he became quite interested in my predicament, and the tone of the conversation lightened up considerably. So much so that he was in a decidedly buoyant mood by the time we parted. That encounter made me realise that mentioning my sight gave me an invaluable opportunity to make contact with interview partners by jolting them out of promotion stupor. These days, I bring my partially-sightedness up right at the beginning of my interviews, and people react to it in quite different ways. The Brits are usually very clued up and realise there’s something there before I say anything, Central Europeans are quite glad of the mention as eye contact is more important here than in the UK. And some people are kinder than they need be. David Bowie once tried to lead me from the door of a conference room to the table where we would be having our interview.
Why am I mentioning all this? A few weeks back, I met Nina Hagen, German punk’s most enduring and colourful personality, a bit like Lotte Lenya on Ecstasy or Lene Lovich with a greater vocal range. Her first two albums “Nina Hagen Band” (1978) and “Unbehagen” (1979) still stand up as some of the best rock music to come out of Germany, as they combine new-wave aggressiveness with an almost Zappa-like sense of musical adventure. When I told Frau Hagen I had a problem with my eye-sight, her first response was to coo “how sweet” which I found a little patronising. But she redeemed herself quickly by adding: “If you’re partially-sighted, then you can see eternity, you’re not missing much by not seeing a lot of what’s happening in the here and now.” If she’s right, eternity looks pretty darn fuzzy. But perhaps that’s not really surprising.

Saturday, 26 June 2010


It’s interesting to know that “Rolling Stone” magazine still gets read by some very important people: This week, Barack Obama dismissed ISAF and USFORA commander General Stanley McChrystal for disparaging remarks about the President and other Washington residents as reported in Michael Hastings’ article “The Runaway General”. The incident has confirmed my suspicions that RS publisher Jan Wenner is pursuing a subtly subversive course with his magazine. The political reporting in “Rolling Stone” still adheres to the high standard you used to be able to expect from the magazine, always giving you the feeling that the writer had really got to the centre of his or her subject matter without being sucked into a PR vortex. In contrast, current music reporting in RS makes you wonder about the magazine’s editorial stance. The coverage given to casting show “American Idol” seems both excessive and sycophantic; which music writer Christian Weingarten puts down to the sorry fact that such copy generates clicks and thus makes RS more attractive to potential advertisers. This is definitely a case of the proverbial tail wagging the dog, but if RS can get some of the “American Idol” crowd thinking about American politics in a more critical way, that seems like a trade-off worth considering. One that in fact runs true to the ideals “Rolling Stone” gave up decades ago when the magazine started courting the mainstream rather than championing the counter-culture.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


You can’t blame them for doing it. Every performer has stock phrases he or she uses on stage to communicate with the audience; the great art lies in making the crowd feel that that particular night is special for the artist. Justin Currie once told me that when his band Del Amitri supported Tina Turner in Glasgow, the stage was littered with notices reminding la Turner of where she was performing lest she address the crowd incorrectly. A sensible precaution in the light of the rate at which successful artists change location or even continent while on tour. When big names come to Zurich, they regularly apologize for not being proficient in Schweizerdeutsch and then inevitably stammer a few words of the local tongue for which they are rewarded with resounding applause. Fergie, the singer with Black-eyed Peas, made use of the apology gambit when I went to see the band play recently, but dropped an absolute clanger in the process. Shortly before launching into “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, she apologised for not speaking Schweizerdeutsch, got the expected roar from the faithful, but then made the mistake of saying what a beautiful language she thinks Schweizerdeutsch is. The reaction to that remark started to gain momentum but died away quite abruptly as the audience realised that Fergie obviously didn’t know what the hell she was talking about. Schweizerdeutsch is far too guttural to be called a beautiful language even with a lot of imagination, and the clanger showed Fergie’s banter for what it was, a set of stock moves she pulls every night, whether she’s in Barcelona or Zurich. As Michael McKeegan of Northern Irish band Therapy? once said, there’s a thin line between being a professional and a cynic, and this seems to be a case in point.

Monday, 10 May 2010


2010 is definitely the year to be considering rock music’s potential as a force for positive change in the world. Not only will we be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Live Aid concerts in July; Bono of U2 turned 50 today, giving admirers and detractors alike the opportunity to analyse his success as Africa’s most visible ambassador to the industrialised nations. It would take an expert on aid policy to tell you with any authority how effective Bono activism is, and his debt relief and more money policies have attracted criticism from writers such as Paul Theroux who are more than sympathetic to Africa’s troubles. I feel more at home considering Bono’s activities within show business which is what rock at the stadium level undeniably is. U2 put on a clever show, but funnily enough, the weak link at their concerts is often the music. As Bono once said the band is like “a boxer who has the grasp but not the reach”.

Perhaps it’s the realisation that U2 are far better songwriters than musicians that leads Bono to be so cocky when talking about the band and its music. Given, if you are beloved by millions, you do have the right to be a little self-assured, but I can’t help thinking of Golda Meir when I think about Bono. The fourth Prime Minister of the state of Israel reputedly once said to a fellow politician that “you’re not great enough to be modest". With Bono, a man painfully aware of his limitations as a singer and an instrumentalist, Golda Meir’s quip has a canny ring. I think his subtle shortcomings more than his evident triumphs are what make Bono interesting as an artist, and he’s always most engaging when he’s not trying to convince you of his own greatness. As he himself once said, sometimes the least serious music turns out to be the most eloquent. The song “Sugar Daddy” he co-wrote for Tom Jones is proof of that. It by far outstrips anything on U2’s current album “No Line On The Horizon” because it’s funny, sexy and autobiographical all at the same time. That’s a combination not many song-writers achieve.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010


Who said promotion doesn’t work? After speaking to Midge Ure of Ultravox a week ago, I got curious and went to see the band play in Zurich last Thursday. It turned out to be a very educational experience. What really struck me was how the band straddled the gap between Krautrock fanfares (“Astradyne”), and Roxy Music melodrama (“Visions In Blue”)during their hay-day - and how their atmospheric tracks far out-shone their more straight-forward songs. The concert also got me thinking about 1981, the year synth-pop rally broke through into the mainstream. I remember returning to England after a long summer holiday to find bands I’d never heard of like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode high in the charts dragging previous niche favourites such as Japan and The Human League with them. I wonder whether Ultravox’ success with the “Vienna” single in early 1981 helped to bring this paradigm shift about, then I started wondering what had happened to turn Ultravox from nobodys dropped by Island Records after three albums into a viable commercial proposition. For one part, Midge Ure joined the band in 1979, giving Ultravox Celtic fervour, rock guitar crunch and a clear-cut image, the other factor bears the name of Gary Numan who took Bowie-style alienation to the top of the charts with “Are Friends Electric?” in summer 1979. Although Numan became a figure of ridicule in the following years due to concepts that grew ever more ambitious as his career waned, one shouldn’t underestimate his influence on musicians to come. Even Nine Inch Nails now hail him as an inspiration.

Monday, 12 April 2010


Malcolm McLaren died last Thursday at an as yet undisclosed location in Switz-erland, and most of the ensuing obituaries concentrated on his efforts as the manager of the Sex Pistols. It’s wrong to reduce the man who brought hip-hop to the British charts with “Buffalo Gals” and taught Madonna how to vogue to his punk years. McLaren remained an astute observer of pop culture right up to his death, deploring the karaoke culture we live in where everybody wants to be in the limelight without putting in the work and declaring Napster inventor Shawn Fanning to be the greatest artist of the early 2000’s (“I don’t want everything in the world to be free, but I don’t want everything to have a price-tag either”). I met McLaren in 1994 while he was promoting “Paris” an album that nobody was really interested in, as it was a gaudy tribute to the French capital that featured icons such as Françoise Hardy and Catherine Deneuve as well as lush adaptations of Erik Satie’s music and McLaren’s own dodgy singing. I didn’t expect him to reveal any truthful insights into is chequered past, but I did find McLaren to be a generous and gracious interviewee. In the course of our conversation, he enthused about Bill Clinton’s sax playing (“You’d never get Jacques Delors doing something like that”), outlined the shortcoming of the then omnipresent dance scene (“It doesn’t produce any stars”) and predicted England’s demise as a leading nation (“Once the troubles in Ireland end, and all the Irish return, England will become a backwater as Portugal was between the wars”). By sheer coincidence, I had the pleasure to speak to Midge Ure of Ultravox two days after McLaren’s death, who, as legend will have it, was offered the job of the Sex Pistols’ singer in 1975. Ure, also an engaging interviewee, confirmed the story and went on to say that McLaren and later Clash manager Bernie Rhodes were selling stolen musical equipment in Glasgow when they popped their question. “I didn’t join the band but I bought an amplifier off them”, Ure chuckled. “And it actually worked. But I sold it quite quickly just in case it was hot.” He was very complimentary about McLaren’s business acumen: “It was phenomenal that he got EMI to let him walk away with 100’000 pounds just because they were embarrassed to be associated with the Pistols. It was like David against Goliath.” One doesn’t need to condone all of McLarens’ practices (especially with regard to how he handled his artists) to concede that he was one of the music business’s great personalities, always showing it for what it was: A smash-and-grab industry where mavericks like him could flourish. Provided they were brave and brash enough, that is.