Robert Palmer – Clues – Classic Music Review
If you read my “about me” page on altrockchick.com, you’ll learn that I have two degrees and speak three languages fluently or near-fluently. Pretty impressive, huh?
Well, despite all that book-larnin’ and all the highfalutin’ phrases I can conjure up in different tongues, I have one congenital defect I will never completely overcome.
I’m still a fucking blonde. Sometimes a really dumb fucking blonde.
I was reminded of my inherent limitation recently while preparing a collection of my reviews for publication in book format. After sorting the content in a myriad of permutations, one glaring data point stood out from all the rest: I have done very few reviews from the 1980’s.
There’s a good reason why my Reagan Era offerings are on the skimpy side: I think the 1980’s was a musical wasteland. I hate the excessive reverb and the overuse of the synthesizer to disguise weak material with what the people back then thought were cool sounds. I loathe the formulaic patterns and catchword-dominated lyrics. I despise the overproduction and sanitized sound. And except for a few brave souls like The Replacements and Pixies, hardly anyone challenged the me-me-me-fuck-you-I-got-mine-now-go-fuck-yourself ethic that dominated the decade. Filmgoers in the 80’s completely missed the point of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, and instead adopted Gordon Gekko’s motto “greed is good” as their own.
One of my greatest embarrassments was to be born in a decade full of losers.
Still, I found the relative lack of reviews from that period annoying, so I tried to put my brain to work coming up with something I could salvage from the sleaze of Morning in America.
Unfortunately, I put the blonde part of my brain to work and came up empty.
It all came to an embarrassing conclusion one night after my partner and I had consummated sexual relations, another outstanding fuck in a series of great fucks that began with fuck #1 eight years ago in Chicago, Illinois. I was stroking her hair as she played with my nipples when I stated the obvious.
“That was a fabulous fuck.”
“Hmm (lick, smack, squeeze), yes it was. I have dozens of pictures in my mind that will stay with me forever.”
She raised her eyes and looked into mine. “My favorite was when you were posing, and in perfect time to the beat—bam! bam! bam!—you put a hand on one hip, a hand on the other hip and on the third beat you thrust your crotch in my direction. I wanted to leap over there and bury my face in it.”
I smiled, and said, “I remember the look on your face, but I was so into it I don’t remember hearing the music. What song was it?”
She laughed and said, “Simply Irresistible, of course.”
For a few seconds more, I stroked her hair, her words gently echoing in my head. Soon I heard the distant sound of a freight train rising up from my medulla oblongata, getting louder and louder as it successfully navigated past the dangerous maze that makes up the blonde part of my cerebellum, then burst into breakneck speed to finally arrive at my speech center—Broca’s area in the frontal lobe of the left hemisphere.
I screamed. My partner thought she’d pinched my nipple too hard (impossible) and muttered an apology.
“No, no, no! Robert Palmer! Robert Fucking Palmer! He was in the 80’s, wasn’t he?”
She didn’t know for sure, so I dashed over to my laptop to google his discography. When I saw the entry, Clues, 1980, I almost had another orgasm on the spot.
“Robert Palmer! How could I miss Robert Fucking Palmer?”
The answer was right there in the mirror as I gazed helplessly at my long, blonde tresses.
Allow me to explain. I have to fuck to music. I couldn’t imagine not fucking to music any more than I could imagine fucking without a clitoris. Ever since the invention of the iPod, I have always had Fuck Playlists on my various iDevices, each of which consists of about three hours of music, carefully selected to enhance various stages of the erotic experience. Prior to each scene, I select the one most suited to my mood and to the erotic effects I want to achieve. Since I love variety, I have about forty Fuck Playlists, and I’m forever tweaking them to create new experiences.
And Robert Palmer is one of the few artists who has at least one song on every playlist. I’ve been fucking to Robert Palmer for years and my little blonde brain never connected him with the 19fucking80’s. Yes, yes, yes, I realize that his work spanned three decades, from his time with Vinegar Joe in the early 70’s to the fade out in the dot-com years, but his commercial and artistic peak began just before I was born and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Oh, Lord, why did I have to inherit my father’s hair? Why couldn’t you have given me the raven tresses of my classically beautiful mother? You there, Lord?
Hmm. I guess the Lord doesn’t do requests from atheist perverts.
The three most frequent Robert Palmer contributions to my erotic experience are “Bad Case of Loving You,” “Addicted to Love,” and the aforementioned “Simply Irresistible.” All are rock numbers with pounding drums, distorted guitar and Robert’s “deep throat” voice, pun seriously intended. “Bad Case of Loving You” is a gotta-dance number suitable for energetic, playful posing during the warm-up. “Addicted to Love” is both a dramatic entrance number and equally effective in those moments of deep kissing and thrusting, when the orgasms fall one ofter another. “Simply Irresistible” inspires me to strut my stuff, put it out there, show him or her what I’ve got and raise the heat so high that my love interest is ready to explode before I’ve laid a hand on her (or him). In those vocals, Robert Palmer expressed human heat as effectively as any singer I’ve ever heard.
And none of them are on my favorite Robert Palmer album, Clues.
I briefly thought of doing The Very Best of the Island Years, but the truth is I loathe his lounge lizard stuff as much as I love his harder stuff. There are simply too many, too cute late-period disco numbers on that compilation to twiddle my diddle. While the collection does include my three performance numbers, the version of “Simply Irresistible” is a live version in which he sounds a bit tired of having to sing his signature song one more time. Clues, on the other hand, is his most inventive and interesting work, integrating some of his best compositions with intensely fascinating pieces from electronic whiz Gary Numan and a couple of blokes from Liverpool whose names have completely escaped my fragile blonde mind.
In keeping with the style of the decade, Clues opens with the sounds of synthetic funk in the namesake number, “Looking for Clues.” The synth feels like a letdown at first, but once Robert Palmer starts singing, he gets you perked up in a hurry. The vocal is double-tracked and sung in octaves, with Robert taking both parts. The semi-falsetto he uses for the higher part gives the vocal a pleasant lightness while adding a touch of vulnerability that mirrors the relational uncertainty expressed in the lyrics. He’s clearly feeling it without overdoing it, and in a very short time he’s got you hooked on both the groove and the story. The lyrics describe a man trying to come to terms with the loony world around him while at the same time dealing with a relationship where neither party is quite in sync with the other, in part due to the buildup of low-level irritants that accumulate gradually in our psyches as we weave our way through modern life:
It’s crazy but I’m frightened by the sound of the telephone, oh yeah
I’m worried that the caller might have awful news, oh my
Who knows these days where on earth the money goes, oh yeah
No doubt we could put it to a better use, oh my
You keep insisting that nobody showed you how to keep relationships, oh yeah
Your daddy made a real good try, oh my
You said you knew all along we could work it out, oh yeah
Do you have to make a fuss every time we fly
Ooh I’m looking for clues
The extended instrumental section is very clever, opening with some stutter-picking from Kenny Mazur, followed by a delightful solo played on what sounds like a xylophone, then building to an insistent guitar lick that mimics the warning bells of an approaching train, and there on the other side is Robert Palmer, smooth as silk. The effect is stunning, and throughout the last verses your hips are shaking, thrusting and grinding to the ever-present groove. “Looking for Clues” is an insidiously seductive song.
“Sulky Girl” is anything but insidious—it’s cut-to-the-chase and cut-out-the-bullshit bad ass rock ‘n’ roll. The song opens in hard rock tease mode with double guitars driving the rhythm and Kenny Mazur bending the shit out of those strings, a scintillating introduction to Robert Palmer in full deep throat mode. I have a very strong visceral reaction to this song.
Fuck Gypsy Rose Lee! This is what real stripper music should sound like! Don’t give me that one-piece-at-a-time shit, honey, rip it off and show me what you’ve got! Fuck–I can’t write while listening to Deep Throat Robert Palmer! Stop the music! Sorry . . . I really have to get off right now.
Ah, that’s better. With the song on pause, I will tell you that “Sulky Girl” is a classic demonstration of why it is so important for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a rocker to start with a solid grounding in blues or R&B. That’s where you learn the importance of the feel, the vitality in the groove. During his spell with Vinegar Joe, Robert Palmer wasn’t half the singer he would become at his peak, but the immersion in R&B was crucial to his development. “Sulky Girl” also demonstrates something else about Robert Palmer—when you gave him a song driven by nasty, kick-ass electric guitar, he raised his game to the nth power and delivered one knockout vocal after another. When he was on his game, few rock vocalists could match him for sheer, sex-dripping power.
Robert Palmer had more vocal identities than Lon Chaney had faces, and even in his commercially-oriented phase he would change his voice with the ease of a skilled impersonator. While scanning The Very Best of the Island Years I ran across several songs that elicited the reaction, “That was Robert Palmer? You’re kidding!” Clues is almost a mini-catalog of his different vocal styles, and on “Johnny and Mary” he sounds nothing like the guy channeling the great blues singers through his vocal cords. On “Johnny and Mary” he actually sounds . . . British!
His tone on “Johnny and Mary” is subdued and detached, befitting the role of an observer relating a slice-of-life tale of personal and relational disconnection. His choice to use the lower end of his vocal range essentially blocks the insertion of any emotional nuance that would bias the narrative. This low-range detachment allows the story to tell itself, giving listeners plenty of room for different reactions and interpretations. The steady and understated electronic background encourages the listener to focus on the story, which is how it should be: “Johnny and Mary” is an astonishingly rich piece of narrative poetry.
The story, structured in three two-verse pairs separated by instrumental passages, describes a couple in a state of constant tension, each party attempting to “manage” the relationship rather than engaging in authentic interaction. The first pair of verses establishes that Johnny is locked in a perpetual search for personal significance, while Mary, knowing she was settling from the get-go, attempts to cope by exercising a dreary patience:
Johnny’s always running around
Trying to find certainty
He needs all the world to confirm
That he ain’t lonely
Mary counts the walls
Knows he tires easily
Johnny thinks the world would be right
If it could buy truth from him
Mary says he changes his mind
More than a woman
But she made her bed
Even when the chance was slim
The second verse pair pictures Johnny as a restless soul whose ideas are all over the map and never come close to fruition. In response, “Mary combs her hair/Says she should be used to it,” conveniently distancing herself from Johnny’s obvious emotional and intellectual turmoil—you can almost hear her “yes, dear” response in the subtext of the narrative. Mary’s mission is to keep the marriage intact; her methodology is to dismiss any possible value in Johnny’s irrelevant ramblings:
Mary always hedges her bets
She never knows what to think
She says that he still acts like he’s
Scared that he’ll be caught
Without a second thought
That last couplet presents the listener with a fascinating ambiguity. Is it Mary who is “scared that he’ll be caught” or Johnny? If Mary, the message is one of compassion: she doesn’t want Johnny to embarrass himself when the world discovers he’s all talk and no substance. If Johnny, the lines underscore his intense insecurity. My take is that both interpretations are valid: relationships are galaxies of psychological complexities and opposing drives that exist on a constantly shifting continuum of relative stability. Hence “the love-hate relationship” and the common experience of waking up one day after spending years together and wondering who the hell that person is on the other side of the bed. Because human beings are bundles of contradictions, relationships are contradictions squared.
The closing verses allow Johnny to share his perspective, which introduces the possibility that Johnny may actually be the reasonable half. Unfortunately, Mary couldn’t care less:
Johnny feels he’s wasting his breath
Trying to talk sense to her
Mary says he’s lacking a real
Sense of proportion
So she combs her hair
Knows he tires easily
The song ends with the couple in existential inertia, locked into their patterns with no hope that the couple will ever engage in vulnerable, authentic dialogue:
Mary counts the walls
Says she should be used to it
Johnny’s always running around
In contrast to his playboy image, Robert Palmer was capable of creating works that are timeless, and “Johnny and Mary” certainly falls into that category—a deeply insightful read on relational dysfunction.
The high-speed stutter-funk of “What Do You Care?” comes next, lifting the mood with a lighter, anthemic sort of tune. Robert is in medium-throat mode here, the titillating effect of his rough voice tempered by the crowded syllables of the lyrical lines. While the song doesn’t bring me to orgasm, the message of not giving a shit about what other people think is always worth repetition, and vital to creating genuine intimacy. I mean, if you can’t be completely who you are with your partner, follow your impulses and reveal all your fantasies, what’s the fucking point?
No matter what you need I’ll never be your fool
Do me a favour and I’ll do the same for you
Go ahead do what you have to do
Don’t worry if you should do it
Tell me you love me now
Oh, girl I wish you would do it
What do you care
‘Bout what other people think
It may be difficult for even the relatively informed music aficionado to link the terms “Robert Palmer” with “experimental music” but Clues features two compelling expressions of his interest in new musical directions. The first is his cover of Gary Numan’s dystopian industrial work, “I Dream of Wires.” The dark and moody landscape and Robert’s generally disciplined, low-key vocal create a sense of anxious suspense as the tale of “the last electrician alive” unfolds. Robert plays the part of the nostalgic electrician on the verge of obsolescence in almost zombie-like fashion, with a cold hollowness that is creepily satisfying.
During this period, Robert Palmer lived in Nassau, soaking up Caribbean sun and sounds. “Woke Up Laughing” is an electronic calypso with the title serving as a catchy chorus and exclamation point on the dream scenario that provides the structure. The lyrics compare life in the Bahamas with our shitty existence in the urban-suburban rat race, so no wonder he woke up laughing, the lucky bastard. The song ends abruptly and appropriately on the last word of the rat-race passage:
You make yourself a fortune, out in Hong Kong
You sit at home and wonder whether you were wrong
You take a small vacation just to keep sane
You find on your return your home has blown away
You meditate, you make haste
You run a risk, you come late,
You pay a bill, you lose face
You’re not fully unaware
Your star or your fate
If you fall do you break
You go to war, you make love
You sign out in a box
I think there’s a message here, folks! Chill the fuck out!
I believe I’m on record elsewhere as generally despising covers of Beatle songs, probably in the context of my review of Judy Collins’ In My Life. While The Beatles produced hundreds of coverable songs, the problem any interpreter faces is that The Beatles’ versions are so damned good that other renditions pale in comparison. Open Culture devoted a page to The 15 Worst Covers of Beatles Songs that focuses on the more absurd attempts to identify with the Fab Four, but really, 99.9% of the covers I’ve heard are depressing disappointments.
Robert Palmer’s “Not a Second Time” is a clear exception. First off, he had great material to work with—“Not a Second Time” is one of John Lennon’ strongest early compositions, and though Lennon had no idea what the fuck an aeolian cadence was, serious music critics went gaga over his use of that chord progression. Related to that chord progression, Robert Palmer’s arrangement highlights those brilliant chord changes, turning each change into something like the experience of discovering a diamond. Robert also added a second verse, compensating for Lennon’s impatience or temporary lack of imagination. Finally, Robert Palmer’s arrangement adds more intense syncopation, strengthening the groove and transforming a nice piano song into a powerful melodic rocker.
Clues ends after only 31 minutes with “Found You Now,” a Gary Numan-Robert Palmer collaboration, a piece with both Phrygian and Indian influences that is both strangely mesmerizing and somewhat out of sync at the same time. I think the problem here is Robert’s vocal—it’s too passionate and intense for the exotic, swaying music. Closing numbers are always a challenge, though, and it may have been better to place this track elsewhere—I think “Woke Up Laughing” would have been a stunning closer, especially with the abrupt ending.
Speaking of abrupt endings, Robert Palmer died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of 54. The obituary in the Telegraph described a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of music whose public image was defined by a couple of music videos that led some to consider him the poster boy for yuppie-ism and not the serious musician he was. Despite his doctor’s warning about his high blood pressure (to which he responded, “That’s nice—I think I’ll have a Martini”), he never let go of his “unashamed predilection for designer suits . . . cigarettes and a good malt whisky.” Given his love of the finer things in life, I’m sure he would have liked to stick around a while longer, but it’s better to enjoy life’s pleasures while you’re here instead of trying to survive as a paranoid, irritating, death-denying health nazi.
There weren’t many more details about the exact circumstances that caused his death, but I hope he died like Nelson Rockefeller, in the middle of a great fuck. I think Robert Palmer deserved to go out that way.
My partner and I are also considering honoring Robert Palmer’s contributions to our erotic experience by instituting an annual mourning period commencing on September 26, the anniversary of his death. We will fuck nonstop during the entire mourning period.
And to make it a really special event, we’re also thinking about converting to Islam or Eastern Orthodox Christianity—their mourning periods last forty days!