He's coasted - apparently unperspiring - through 15 years of shifting fashion while somehow remaining knuckle - gnawingly modern. All it took was a schrewd ear for black american dance trends and a series of swiftly seized opportunities. And "performability" he tells Robert Sandall.
"I don't like the international rock'n'roll context. I never did."
Robert Palmer, the international rock artist, now resident in Switzerland, cradles his cocktail - safe, for the time being anyway, from all noisesome vulgarity in the St James Club Hotel. It's a stone's throw across Green Park from Buckingham Palace and the pile of the carpet feels about three feet deep. "When I was 17 opening up for The Who and Jimi Hendrix I was just disgusted by all those excesses. It was like, how much do you wanna be a singer? Can you put up with this shit? A lot of the time it's the tail wagging the dog in this business."
Not, however, since the M1-in-a-Transit days of Vinegar Joe back in the early '70s has it been noticeably wagging Robert Palmer, a man who in many ways seems to have spotted the 1980s coming. The eclectic musical connoisseurship, the white soul connection, the dabbling in World Musics, the investment in Gianfranco Ferre suits and continental haircuts, the early abandoning of the search for that Holy Grail of old rock'n'rollers - "sweet credibility" - in favour of something a bit more, you know, stylish: this was always the Palmer path. And in recent years with the number 1 American album Riptide and the massive hit single Addicted To Love it has made him into something of a star. Sufficiently stellar to be able to recently persuade EMI to buy out his unexpired contract with Island in their bid to up the profile of (and turn a profit on) their ailing American operation.
Palmer acknowledges that the '80s have been kind to him with a brief "Yeah, but it could have gone the other way" and another pull on his cocktail. Thirty-nine years of almost constant travelling and 20 away fromBritain have not removed a distinct Yorkshire accent and a recognisably Nothern sardonic wit. The man behind the suits is a determined, conscentious sort of bloke who often refers to his "work habit". Robert Palmer's genius, you are made to feel is of the perspirational rather than inspirational variety. He definitely isn't a complacent clothes horse and he isn't even, ladies, quite as hunky as he looks on the magazine covers, being in possession of an ever so slightly squashed nose.
The key to the Robert Palmer story lies in his early childhood. His father was in the services. "I was a navy brat, grew up in Malta listening to Lena Horne, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole on the American Services Network. There was nothing else to listen to. I never saw movies on TV till I was about 10 or 11. I never knew what colour these singers were. But I'll always remember the Italian naval officers in their uniforms. They just looked happening."
And thus began a lifelong commitment to self-discipline, black American music and Italian style which survived an adolescence in Batley, Yorkshire, and has led him finally to Lugano in Italian Switzerland, his home since last year. "It's got the casual manana-pasta business plus the efficiency and hyper-civilisation of the Swiss." It's handy too, he admits, for Milan, where he has just finished recording Heavy Nova, his first album for EMI-Manhattan, in the Logic Studio.
He started out playing in groups at the age of 15 but the hugger-mugger semi-squalor of group activity at that time was not really his thing. Robert was always the solo artiste, as Elkie Brooks, who poached him from The Alan Bown Set to form Dada (which became twin-vocal R&B minor sensation Vinegar Joe), soon discovered. "I always thought of him as a very classy person. His singing lacked soul but he had a wonderful singing technique. But what used to make me mad was the way that when the band had a rough night you'd see Robert in the back of the van looking like, Oh, this has got nothing to do with me. And then when it was all really happening he'd decide to join us. But then I'm convinced that Chris Blackwell always saw Vinegar Joe as a band that Robert could get a lot of experience with before he went on to promote his solo career. We were only supposed to do so well, to be just a gigging band. I don't know how we found the time to record three albums."
Palmer himself regards the early days as an "apprenticeship" and cheerfully commiserates with me when I mention attending a Vinegar Joe concert.
"I was getting more confident about the songs I was writing but with the supposed democracy of a band they were like pieces you'd handed in. By the time the group finished with a thing it was turned upside down, lost the mood, everything." So when the split came in 1973 that was very much that and Elkie Brooks hasn't seen or heard from him since, though she has kept up with his parents in Scarborough.
Palmer meanwhile went off in search of the superior American players he had admired, copied and, at a distance, cultivated. "I was always a collector. When I was 15, I kept up a correspondence with Stax, Motown and Atlantic. I was a real smartass, learning the new Temptations' song before it was released over here." So with the full support of Blackwell and Island, Palmer precociously assembled a host of top American session men for his first solo album, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley - people like Little Feat guitarist Lowell George and Aretha Franklin's MD drummer Bernard Purdie (then playing in a section called The Encyclopedia of Soul).
"It was intimidating. The studio was full of these big black men from a heavy R&B church tradition, and I walked in and thought Yoiks! I was paying the bill but it felt like an audition." Palmer, it seems, has always been able to impress, and he passed. "I swallowed hard and said, OK, everybody plugged in? Let's go. And 16 bars into the first tune they went, Hey, wait a minute. What did you say your name was?"
He has never been short of illustrious sidemen since: The Muscle Shoal horns, the Motown rhythm section; for the new album he had Michael Jackson's guitarist David Williams on the phone actually asking to be included.
Sneakin' Sally, tailored for the American white R&B market, made significant waves on college radio in the States and that, coupled with a disastrous flood at their London flat, persuaded Palmer and his wife Sue, an artist and textile designer, to move to New York in 1975.
The following year after a holiday on the Bahamas island of Nassau, they upped sticks down there instead. Palmer, a bit of a clubber, found he wasn't getting enough songs written in the city that never sleeps. "In those days, Nassau was so low key, there was so little to do. In the past 18 months, it's changed inbelievably. Because of the drug traffic, it now has the third highest crime rate in the world. It's a terrible place to bring up children (he has a son, 10, and a daughter, 8). Ghastly." Hence Lugano.
Before the drug traffickers showed up, Chris Blackwell had arrived and built Island's Compass Point Studio just across the road from Palmer's house. This initially irked - a man who likes to temper glamour with discretion and guards his privacy - but he soon came to find that it nurtured his growing taste for musical promiscuity. "The general reaction was always, How can you live down there? You're so cut off. But, in fact, the opposite was true. It's in cities that you get styles and prejudices whereas in Nassau, it came from everywhere. There'd be AC/DC in the studio at the same time as Talking Heads and they'd get on fine. They wouldn't even say hello to each other on the street in New York."
Curiously, for a person so beloved in recent years by the fashion magazines, style bigotry upsets Palmer, which is one of the reasons he's an infrequent visitor to Britain. Despite having been one of the first white musicians to make a decent stab at recording a Reggae tune, the title track of his 1975 album Pressure Drop, his reputation at home dipped sharply when the New Wave broke in 1977. Savaged by the music press for everything from his expensive suits to his overtly muso leanings, Palmer is to this day still wary of British music journalists. And he particularly resents the way in which those he terms "female chauvinists" have misconstrued the images of women on his early album sleeves. The naked girls, he would like to point out, are not just a flimsily attention-grabbing commercial ploy - heaven forbid! - but the legacy of his teenage years as a graphic designer. All his album artwork, like a lot of his music, is based on other people's ideas: the Sneakin' Sally sleeve was inspired by scenes in the Jean-Luc Godard film Alphaville; Pressure Drop by a painting by Edward Hopper; Secrets by the work of the surrealist Man Ray; Clues by '50s sci-fi illustrator Virgil Finlay ("the sea is upside down"); Double Fun by a Japanese magazine cover; Pride by an illustration by Bert Kitchen; and Heavy Nova by the cover of a German magazine called Manipulator. "Why is it," Palmer recently enquired of his PR, "that the British seem to think I'm a sexist pig? It doesn't happen anywhere else."
Few artists maintain such tight control over every aspect of their work as Robert Palmer. By the time he made Double Fun in 1978, he realised that producers could not always be trusted. Tom Moulton had intensitively recruited a volatile collection of sidemen. "I knew all of them and I was thinking, There's going to be one hell of a personality clash here, and there was. It was mayhem. I ended up taking the floor and siding with the guys who had the longest attention span and the coolest tempers. Which was the bass player and the keyboards, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John). We ended up having to cut as a trio without a kit and I said to the producer, If this is all you can do for me, forget it." And three years later, Palmer was himself producing one of his teenage heroes, the ska superstar Desmond Dekker.
Production led him to prototype sequencers and - accidentally, he insists - made his name as a pioneering techno-brat with the 1980 album Clues. "The technology was so primitive that you spent most of the time behind the machines with a screwdriver. But it did give you a simplicity of form. In America, that record was regarded as inaccessible and avant-garde when it came out." It fared a lot better in Europe, and particularly Britain where Palmer enjoyed Top 50 singles success for the first time with the sprightly electro-romanticism of Johnny And Mary and the upbeat metronomic funk of Looking For Clues.
But the new technology became something of a Pandora's box. Some Guys Have All The Luck took him into the British Top 20 in 1982, but the album Pride which followed in 1983 was widely felt to be unusually impenetrable and sank almost without trace. "I thought it was really, really commercial but Chris Blackwell thought it was an off-beat jazz record. The problem with it was that it was sophisticated in the true sense of the word. Do you know what that is? It means corrupted from its true value. Well, I got too locked on to the machines. Pride just wasn't performable."
Performability (his word) is very important to Palmer. Touring seems to excite both his Nothern work ethic and his keen inherited desire to run a tight ship. "If I'm out there going from A to B and Arkansas is in the middle, I'll play it - even a 200-seat club. Well the roadies just love that, but I don't want to have a night off. The band's only gonna go out and get messed up and be hungover. If the show's happening and the halls are full, you don't need to be getting off any other way." This is not, evidently, a view shared by all who work for him however. "Last time I was out, I did 90 cities in 100 days, blew out three road crews, went through a couple of singers and completely freaked out my bass player."
Nobody orders Robert around though. Not even Duran Duran, as John and Andy Taylor found out after they had drawn him into the "supergroup" recording project which came to be known as the Power Station (after the studio in New York), and which provided Palmer with three big hits in 1984 and thus became a platform for the huge success of Riptide. "I'd known John Taylor for a long time. I liked the guy because he's not as sour as a lot of the older players I know. Duran just completely dug what they were doing, which was being pop stars."
A pop star was not, at this point, something which Palmer himself, after the Pride debacle, could exactly claim to being, especially in America. He'd had a couple of Top 20 hits back in the late '70s, most notably with Every Kinda People, a song written by his old Island buddy and original bass player with Free, Andy Fraser (now a songwriter in Los Angeles). Nothing much since. Robert Palmer was still stuck at the level of respected cult figure, an albums man, popular with the older listeners.
"Out of the blue one day, John sent me four minutes of an A minor groove and asked if I could think of a melody and a lyric. I really liked it. It was a holiday for me because I didn't have to produce it mix it." Palmer's "muso" credentials and top line, coupled with half the supple Chic rhythm section (drummer Tony Thompson) and the teen-appeal of the Taylor brothers, made Some Like It Hot into an international smash hit, far and away the biggest Palmer had ever had. Two more hits were concocted in the same composite fashion to the same dazzling effect - the old T-Rex number Get It On and Communication.
There are shades of the youthful opportunist of Vinegar Joe in all this, but Palmer laughs at the suggestion. "We knew it was scripted; it was like, You're looking for a young pop audience; these guys are after credibility. It was hilarious, but it turned into an overblown pop affair, and I would blame Duran's greedy business people for that. Anyway, I'm mixing Riptide one day and they call up and say, Hey, we're going on the road! and I go Whaat! They picked up on my lack of enthusiasm and didn't bother to ask again." They asked somebody else instead (Michael Des Barres, formely of Silverhead and Detective). With no contractual obligation to the "group" whatsoever, Palmer had, knowingly or otherwise, launched an excellent trailer for his new album, featuring as it did a retreat from spiky synthesizers and a return to the electric guitar. "I went out and bought a fuzz-box and a Steinberger guitar that wouldn't go out of tune and just cranked it up and started writing on the guitar again."
One night, he had a strange dream, later to become known as the international blockbuster Addicted To Love. "That noisy riff woke me up. I went downstairs, got out the tape recorder, then went back to bed. Next morning, I thought, Phew, caught one there!"
Indeed he had. That elephantine guitar figure, a hybrid of Heavy Metal and his beloved R&B, pushed Palmer into the big league, going to Number 1 in the States and 5 in Britain. No surprise. "After recording it, I flew off to see my manager and said to him, You'd better watch who you're talking to. I'm the guy who wrote Addicted To Love!"
The album which accompanied it was the boldest stylistic free-for-all that Palmer had ever attempted. Riptide itself was a '40s ballad in the American Services Network mode. Trick Bag had a New Orleans-ish/Little Feat groove. The riff to Flesh Wound sounded like a Jimmy Page patent and I Didn't Mean To Turn You On was smooth disco funk. The generic restlessness of the 1980s has seldom been more thoroughly pandered to on one record. Urged on by the single and a major North American tour, Riptide topped the US album chart in the summer of 1986.
One of Palmer's responses to this was to look for a new label. A cornerstone of Island for 16 years, he had been patiently fulfilling a 12-album solo deal, struck, at a rather disadvantageous royalty percentage, back in 1974. "I'd been with Chris Blackwell rather than Island Records. But his enthusisam these days is for films rather than music. It came down to wanting the exclusive focus of company support behind my product." And the higher royalty which EMI was happy to offer might have been a consideration as well.
Heavy Nova, the first EMI offering, was recorded over a period from last September to May and is the Riptide "anything goes" formula writ large. For Addicted To Love, read Simply Irresistible, the new single. For Riptide, check It Could Happen To You, from the Pennies From Heaven musical. For sheer bemusement, hear Palmer yodelling his way through the reggae-ish tune called Change His Ways, a meditation obviously on his recent relocation from the Carribbean to the Swiss Alps. One of the tracks Palmer cut but which didn't make it on to the album was an unsolicited little number sent to him by Prince, Lust You Always. "I had to record it because I didn't want to offend the chap, did I? But I thought the lyric stank."
As is generally the case with artists when their latest masterwork is imminent, Palmer declares Heavy Nova to be his best ever. And in doing so, he cheerfully acknowledges his role as a pasticheur. "I wanted to give this album a sense of humour. The sentimental songs are more sensual, and the rock songs are even sillier. Playing this intense rock stuff is such a posture, it's so silly."
And sophisticated - in the true sense of the word, of course.
Robert Sandall (Q - Juillet 1988)