Smooth and rich to some, humble and quiet to others
There are those who have it in for Robert Palmer. Partly because his 1986 smash-hit video Addicted To Love was filled with prancing bimbos, making him look like an ageing Lothario. Partly because he has a history of framing himself among images of leisure and sexual adventure. And partly because he now lives in Lugano, Switzerland, and can cruise down the autostrada to the Italian border and pick up a few new suits from Gianfranco Ferre or Giorgio Armani.
Palmer strikes some as too smooth for comfort, and probably too rich (though he always throws his hands up in extravagant protest at any such suggestion, regarding questions about his personal wealth as "vulgar"). Yet there are distinct signs that the man has his tongue in his cheek. He writes about love as a drug, a compulsion, or a form of discipline, while his personal life appears almost grandparentally placid. This apparent poolside gigolo has been happily married for nearly 20 years.
"Writing a lyric tends to be a matter of crossing stuff off the list that you don't want to sing about," says Palmer, his brow slightly furrowed. "You are limited in a lot of ways with avoiding cliches within such a fixed form as a rock 'n' roll song. But the alternatives to using the fixed form of, say, a rock song tend to be a bit self-indulgent in the long run, because you can always personalise the particular song you're doing no matter what style it's in."
We're in the lounge of Palmer's New York hotel. Around us, artificially-preserved Americans are being force-fed cocktails as fast as the aggressively polite waitresses can bring them. So are we. The hotel is a spacious but tastelessly-decorated edifice which seems to have been assembled from ill-assorted mail-order furnishing catalogues. Palmer appears to like it here. Would it be absurd to draw a parallel between our surroundings and the artist's often confusing catholicity of taste?
Palmer is a musical David Bellamy, trekking across Africa and Latin America in pursuit of one more perfect beat, adding a little Detroit or jamaica here, a morsel of techno-Kraut there. His latest album is called Heavy Nova, because it has bits of heavy metal and bossa nova in it. He does all this without ruining his hair or getting horrid stains down his jacket. At its worst, this quest for new noises becomes a fidgety nervous tic, and almost garantees that for every three attractive songs on his albums, there'll be three more you wish you'd never heard.
He's astute and often ahead of publicity-seekers like Malcom McLaren (though it's hard to detect anything more noble than greed in his work with Power Station, the Duran Duran spin-off), and his chum Chris Frantz of Talking Heads speaks admiringly of Palmer's breadth of musical knowledge. But when you finally run him to earth, Robert Palmer, Macavity-like, isn't here.
The man guzzling gin in front of you is everything his image says he shouldn't be - quietly spoken, ironic, and inclined to be deferential where you expect arrogance. Perhaps it's all a form of smug superiority, masking a phallocentric ego as big as the World Trade Centre. Or perhaps (most likely) Robert Palmer isn't that complicated, or sophisticated, after all.
He was brought up in Malta until he was nine, where his father was something to do with Naval intelligence. "He was under the Official Secrets Act," says Palmer Junior. "I mentionned it before and he got into trouble, but he's retired now. Though I don't know if you ever retire from that, do you? Don't you go to Australia and write a nasty book?"
During his Mediterranean years, Palmer stockpiled an arsenal of ballads and popular songs which still surface in his own work - tunes he remembers being sung by Lena Horne or Nat King Cole. Hence the gentle lap of the title song to Palmer's 1986 album Riptide, or the string-driven ballad It Could Happen To You on the new one. He's recording a whole batch of 30's and 40's songs for the soundtrack to a film called Don't Explain, the title being taken from a Billie Holiday recording.
After Malta, the Palmer family moved to Batley in Yorkshire where Robert stayed for the next nine years, apparently loathing every minute of it. But despite subsequent years spent almost continuously on the road with DaDa and Vinegar Joe, and moving to New York and then the Bahamas, Palmer's Yorkshire accent lingers.
His character similarly bears traces of ingrained north-country values. Working hard and getting value for money probably come high up on the list, and deep down beneath those Italian suits, he may well be a Tetley Bitterman. Robert Palmer could just be a hardworking husband and father keen to put a bit by for his retirement, though the scale of this "bit" may take some getting used to. His recent recording deal with EMI after a decade and a half at Island also suggests a man planning ahead as middle-age sidles up to him.
He tries to keep waste to a minimum. When he makes a record he stays up as many nights as it takes to get it finished. His attitude to touring is that it's a job which you organise as efficiently as possible.
"You walk in backstage, you go out there, the lights are in your face, you don't where the hell you are," is how he describes it. "You just get on with it. You can't see a thing!"
On the road Palmer doesn't like days off. All they're good for, he says, is getting drunk in some nowhere-town, which drags the whole momentum of the tour down. "The road-crew don't like it much - they never get to stay in a hotel because they're always driving to the next gig. Sometimes you have to have two crews that leapfrog each other. But it's better than Prince's bed. In fact he carries two beds with him. They have to put one in his hotel, and then there's another one going to the next city the next night. It takes all sorts." There's a note of scorn in Palmer's voice (he even turned down a song Prince offered him for the new album).
The night before we spoke, he'd taken his new band into New York's Radio City Music Hall, the elegant West Side theatre which, one is surprised to learn, holds 5,500 people. At its best, Palmer's show intelligently sequences songs which shouldn't fit - the broody cross-rhythms of Woke Up Laughing surged purposefully into Riptide, while Discipline Of Love and Tell Me I'm Not Dreaming also proved surprisingly neighbourly. Palmer was on thinner ice with Shoot The Moon and You Are In My System, though by the time he concluded with the inevitable Addicted To Love, the house was eating dumbly out of his hand.
While all this is going on, Palmer likes to think of heart and home, be it not all that humble. Robert and Sue Palmer left Nassau because a lot of heavily-armed druggy types were moving in, and also because there wasn't much there in the way of schooling for their kids, James, who's 10, and Jane, 8. Switzerland is bronzer, apparently.
"It's just above the plain of Lombardy, it's as far south as you can go... One of the nicest things about it when I was checking it out was there's cobbled square with open cafes and lots of chairs, and it's full of young people sitting chatting. A really nice atmosphere, a gathering place for everybody. I get recognised, y'know, so I'd sit and talk to people and say "Do you like it here?" And I never got a negative answer."
Paradise, with cuckoo clocks... might not suit everyone.
(New Straits Times - octobre 1988)