Memory Motel: Robert Palmer Sexes Up The Synthesizer
U.K. pop polymath's New Wave moment.
It's understandably tough to generate too much sympathy for Robert Palmer in terms of his career. After all, a guy who racked up multi-platinum sales in the mid ‘80s while dominating MTV by cavorting with a cadre of black-clad models is a tough sell as a pity case. Nevertheless, if we abandon commercial concerns for a moment and concentrate exclusively on the aesthetic end of things, it's entirely fair to say that Palmer was shortchanged. The late crooner, who left us far too prematurely in 2003, was a true musical seeker - not merely a dabbling dilettante but a multifariously talented eclectic, whose early albums encompass everything from reggae to New Orleans R&B, with every stylistic shift deftly executed.
Just when it seemed like Palmer might be headed irretrievably headed toward the mainstream with 1979's Secrets, which contained his biggest hit thus far (the Moon Martin-penned AOR evergreen "Bad Case of Loving You"), he pulled a quick left turn with the 1980 album Clues. Sure, a few years later he'd be Mr. Commerciality, monopolizing the radio both on his own ("Addicted To Love," "Simply Irresistible") and with supergroup Power Station ("Some Like It Hot," "Get It On [Bang a Gong]"), but just before he began leaning into his superstar destiny, he made a detour into the then cutting-edge territory of synth-pop and New Wave.
Just a year later, Rod Stewart (more or less Palmer's contemporary) would be leaping into the electro-pop fray in a far less seamless manner with Tonight I'm Yours and scoring sizable hits with the title track and "Young Turks." Nothing on Clues came anywhere near the Top 40 in the U.S., but it was as sharp and forward-looking an album as anything under the pop/rock umbrella at the time. The singles "Looking For Clues" and "Johnny and Mary" were sort of "alternative" hits at the time, and the former is driven by impossibly infectious, synth-flecked grooves that blend New Wave with a slip-and-slide feel evocative of Palmer's previous Caribbean exploits. This in itself would have made for a worthy enough endeavor, but when the quirky stop-time section segues into an out-of-nowhere xylophone solo and then an Andy Summers-esque one-chord guitar break, the track ascends to become one of the premier pop productions of the era. The latter song, even more synth-based, seems in retrospect like it was studied closely by Stewart, who immediately demanded of his peons, "Write me something like that, but not as good!" and ended up with "Young Turks."
Palmer was always one for going straight to the source - for instance, when he wanted to investigate Crescent City funk for his 1974 debut album, he enlisted the assistance of none other than The Meters. Similarly, his electronic explorations on Clues found him sidling up to Gary Numan, not normally known as the "joiner" type. With the backing of Numan and his bassist, Paul Gardiner, Palmer cut one of the synth-pop pioneer's tunes, but instead of tackling one of Numan's earlier hits, he instead opted for the not-yet-released "I Dream of Wires" from Telekon, which ended up coming out the same month as Clues. The fact that Palmer outsang the tune's originator didn't stop Numan from co-writing a Clues cut with Palmer, "Found You Now." The pair also wrote "Style Kills" together, though it didn't crop up until '82 on Maybe It's Live, a concert recording from 1980.
The only real misstep on Clues is a synth-swathed update of the second-tier Beatles tune "Not a Second Time," on which Palmer elected to write new lyrics for the second verse, instead of simply repeating the first, like the lazy Liverpudlians did on the original. Karma would bite Palmer back for this a few years later, when Melissa Manchester tackled "Johnny and Mary" in a rather unfortunate electro-pop attempt of her own, inexplicably inserting additional lyrics by Bernie Taupin.
|Looking For Clues|