"... What matters in Robert Palmer's albums is the overall effect. The tightness, the intertwining of rhythm and melody lines..."
Robert Palmer's third album,Some People Can Do What They Like, is one of the strongest, most compelling rock records that I've heard this year and should provide him with the breakthrough he's been waiting for, the final push from potential to full-blown stardom. He plays the Palladium on December 10 and, since he is almost as good onstage as on disc, it's a show to be caught at all costs.
Palmer has done his apprenticeship. Originally, he came from Batley, Yorkshire. For years, having journeyed south to London, he played guitar in a series of second-level bands, wrote songs that were never published, got nowhere in particular. Then he took some tapes to Chris Blackwell, who ran Island Records, and Blackwell liked them. "What exactly do you want?" Blackwell asked.
"Everything," said Palmer, more or less. "I want to move to Los Angeles, I want these and those musicians, this producer, that studio. I need unlimited time, and almost unlimited finance. Also, I cannot work without freedom, total independence."
Impossible demands. Unheard of. "Fine," said Blackwell, who does not quibble. So the partnership was launched.
The first album was Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, two years ago. Straightaway, a distinct style was set. The sound was aggressive, taut, intense. So were the productions. Rhythm tracks, rather than the melodies, were dominant. And Palmer's own vocals, hoarse and urgent, deliberately strained, were used in a kind of counterpoint, echoing the pulse, twisting it, sometimes pushing against it, almost like a jazz saxophonist.
The basic format has not changed. Palmer writes half the songs himself. The rest come from sundry members of Little Feat, who also anchor the backup band, or are culled from alien styles - reggae, the Latins, New Orleans. Whatever the source, however, the keynote remains economy, a stern self-discipline.
No fifteen-minute meditations on the human condition, no mantras or synthesizer ramblings, this is strict rock and roll, fierce and clean.
Even onstage Palmer steers clear of indulgence. At this moment almost anyone who is willing to flit out in a Hawaiian shirt and mirrored shades, squealing like a stuck pig, has got it made. Clearly, Palmer, who is extremely pretty, could play the same game. Instead, he appears in a suit, most austere, and does not flounce in the slightest. He has real presence; he looks, and performs, like a star. But he does not grovel. A few scattered handclaps, the odd toss of the head, that's as far as his exhibitionism stretches. For the rest, he simply gets on with the music.
Given the seventies' passion for gross-outs, this is hardly the most commercial of approaches. As a result, his progress has been unspectacular. His albums have sold steadily, without exploding; his concerts have been well reviewed, without hysteria. Only now, when the obsession with camp has finally peaked, is he starting to break loose.
Some People Can Do What They Like should be the clincher. Not because it is better, or worse, than its predecessors. Simply because the moment, one senses, has come.
Individual tracks, on Palmer's albums, are not the main point. What matters is the overall effect. The tightness, the drive. The intertwining of rhythm and melody lines. The variety and inventiveness of sounds. Above all, the marvelous juggling with time in Palmer's own phrasing.
Even so, on Some People, certain highlights stand clear: a sinuous, slow-drag reworking of Don Covay's Have Mercy, for one; Man Smart Woman Smarter, a roistering nonsense, half-Trinidad, half-Muscle Shoals, which Island has released as a single; and Spanish Moon, written by Little Feat's Lowell George, an agonized epic of the bordello as inferno, insane with bad wiskey, bad women, bad cocaine.
Prodigious stuff. A friend of mine, so disgusted with rock of late that he had sworn not to touch another drop, not if he lived to be 100, took just one listen and instantly keeled over backward, spread-eagled, streaming sweat and babbling, a rhythm junkie once more.
The hero in all this, apart from Palmer himself, has been Chris Blackwell. I can think of no one else in the record industry these days who would have invested some much time and money, such belief, in a total unknown. Certainly no one would persevered so steadfastly, regardless of instant reward.
Blackwell, altogether, is a remarkable figure. He is a white Jamaican, heir to a grocery fortune, who threw up the obvious options of wealth, idleness, and ease, and instead has spent the past fifteen years hustling Jamaican music, struggling to force it into mass acceptance.
To this end he started by selling ska records from the back of a van, then progressed to producing records himself. From the proceeds he formed Island, his own English label.
Over the next years, as producer/manager, he was responsible for countless Jamaican hits, and also for such non-Caribbean acts as Traffic, Cat Stevens (nobody's perfect) and Roxy Music. Finally, in the seventies, he expanded to America, where he has created the reggae cult almost single-handedly.
Apart from Robert Palmer, Island's current roster includes Bob Marley & the Wailers, Toots & the Maytals, Stevie Winwood, the Heptones, and Burning Spear. It is, beyond all comparison, the finest small label extant.
Despite all this, Blackwell remains unknown, partly because he loathes personal publicity, partly because of his hopeless lack of greed. Whatever triumphs he has scored he has invariably plowed the profits straight back into new ventures, wilder and wilder risks. He must have grossed millions, many of them. Yet he has never ceased to play financial Russian roulette.
According to rumor, his recent campaigns on behalf of Marley, Toots, and Palmer have left him overstretched yet again. He will survive, of course; he always does. But the mere fact that he keeps running on the brink, when it would be so much easier to draw back, play safe, bespeaks a heroic folly.
Nik Cohn (New York Magazine - 1976)