Robert Palmer Mellows Out
In a reflective moment during the end-of-tour party in the classic 1984 rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, consummate British rocker David St. Hubbins contemplates his future now that his band, Spinal Tap, is about to end its 15-year run.
"As you know," the guitarist tells band mate Derek Small, "I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic." The bass player knowingly nods his head. Not a minute earlier, he had reminded St. Hubbins of another project they'd once talked about doing but never got around to: a rock musical based on the life of Jack the Ripper called "Saucy Jack."
What makes the scene so funny is the accuracy of its parody. Consider the following evidence, all compiled since the fim's release:
Fab Four icon Paul McCartney takes a break from his rich melodic pop heritage to write an oratorio, a musical composition for voices and orchestra.
Pop diva Linda Ronstadt forsakes her successful Top 40 format in favor of traditional Mexican folk music.
Country star k.d. lang unceremoniously dumps the style that made her popular to record an album of introspective ballads.
So it should come as no surprise that Robert Palmer, another respected name in pop music, has chosen to dramatically change direction, at least temporarily.
"If Mick Jagger had made this - which he might be entirely capable of, as he's a great singer - I don't think people would take it seriously," says Palmer of his latest effort Ridin' High. "That's because he's Mick Jagger... But people are used to me doing a broad range of things. My appearance is kind of flexible. If they're used to me wearing a suit and singing rock-and-roll, well, I don't have to change the costume to sing this stuff."
Palmer, former lead singer of the Power Station, was responsible for such megahits as Bad Case Of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor), Addicted To Love and Simply Irresistible as a solo artist. Now, with Ridin' High, he has released a collection of standards that would make Harry Connick Jr. and Frank Sinatra feel right at home.
In fact, two of the songs, Witchcraft and (Love Is) The Tender Trap, are closely associated with the Chairman of the Board. The obvious question, and one Palmer has been answering since Ridin' High's release, is why?
"I'd been brought up listening to this kind of stuff," responds Palmer, who turns 44 on January 19. "I started recording it five years ago, and I've been recording it ever since. I chose the songs because of the lyrics, just what they were saying. I guess this is my first concept album."
Palmer selected sentimental songs written by such master tunesmiths as Sammy Cahn, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Cole Porter. He duets with Carnie Wilson of Wilson Phillips on Loesser's Baby It's Cold Outside and is joined by blues guitarist Johnny Winter on Eddie Curtis' Hard Head. Palmer also wrote three tracks himself, which blend in nicely with the more familiar, time-tested material.
Vocally, the project was the most challenging of his career. "There was a lot of learning involved in doing it," Palmer admits. "Singing-wise, it bears very little resemblance to everything I'd learned. The vocals are under a microscope; there's nowhere to hide. All the years of rhythmic things that I've been involved with were very helpful, because the rhythm is more felt than stated. It sort of pulses in the tune.
But then you're telling a story with a song, and the arrangement is... helping to tell the story, instead of you being sunk into the groove, " he continues. "It was all about telling the story with my own voice. It had nothing to do with nostalgia or with re-invoking a particular singer."
Palmer takes a sip of his scotch on the rocks and lights up a Dunhill cigarette. Legend has it that Palmer, now a Swiss resident, began drinking and smoking heavily as a teenager in Britain to help age his voice. In those days, he often opened for Jimi Hendrix, the Who and other top Sixties acts.
At the same time, he favored such artists as Sinatra, Holiday, Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole, whom he had listened to on American armed-forces radio during his childhood on the island of Malta, where his father served as a radio operator in British naval intelligence. The years spent on that small Mediterranean island exposed him to exotic musical styles from numerous locales, including the Middle East and northern Africa. Palmer, who has also lived in New York and the Bahamas, became keenly interested in world music years before Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel made it fashionable. His 1988 album, Heavy Nova, was an experiment that combined heavy metal with bossa nova.
The singer fronted several local bands in London before going solo in his early 20s and recorded his first album, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, in 1974. He released seven others with varying degrees of success before teaming with Chic's Tony Thompson and Duran Duran's John Taylor and Andy Taylor to form the Power Station. The heavy beat of the superstar quartet captured the imagination of a rock-hungry public and resulted in two Top Ten singles: Some Like It Hot and Get It On, the latter a remake of the 1972 T-Rex anthem.
Despite the Power Station's success, Palmer wasn't interested in persuing a group-oriented career. Rather than promote the collective effort on the road, he recorded and released his ninth album, Riptide. The album went triple platinum and spawed the N°1 hit Addicted To Love and its N°2 follow-up I Didn't Mean To Turn You On.
Both songs are probably as well-remembered for their distinctive videos as for the music itself. The videos feature a suave-looking Palmer decked out in one of his trademark Italian designer suits and backed by a chorus of miniskirted, gyrating models.
The images brought charges of sexism and even a protest parody by folk/pop artist Michelle Shocked, who used a male chorus in her video for On The Greener Side from her 1989 Captain Swing LP.
Ironically, Palmer had nothing to do with the stylish yet controversial videos beyond performing in them.
"I wasn't involved at all in any of it," he says. "The guy was a fashion photographer for Vogue or Harper's, and his whole thing was models, makeup, hair. I didn't know anything about it. He just said, "Trust me." I went there, and it took 20 minutes. When I saw it, I thought the imagery, although it was Vogue, was so classic and became more so when we developped it further. I Didn't Mean To Turn You On was really an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek song as well as a video. It almost has a Japanese classicism about it, like those woodcuts. It was strange that it was such a phenomenon."
Don't expect to see the girls return, however, in any of the Ridin' High videos.
"That would be monumentally inappropriate," the artist says, a smile crossing his face. Director Julian Caidan's nearly hour-long film of the album is already on the home video market and will be aired on British television later this year.
Touring, normally a money-losing proposition under the best circumstances, could be financially disastrous if Palmer decides to extend his limited schedule of concert dates. That's because he's being backed by a 50-piece orchestra.
"Through February, I'm hoping to do two dates each in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco," he says, "picking up the local orchestra and carrying a rhythm section. I hope to break even; I hope I can generate at least that much interest. And then if it goes from there, at least I'll have had the experience of doing it and finding out whelther or not it's feasible... If it generates more interest, then it would be something of an ambition for me to go and hit Chicago and do a big supper club with the orchestra one night and rock the windows the next night in another place. That would be really great."
Palmer is relunctant to speculate on the future direction of his music beyond the upcoming tour. "I guess it's the feelings that you want to convey," he says, pausing to take another sip of his drink and light another Dunhill. "Then you have to search for the appropriate songs and figure out how you're going to put that together.
This has been the most difficult album I've made because of the vulnerability it gives me. You've got to know exactly what you're saying and why you're saying it, because it's very intimate. I guess you design the music around what you want to express, and it's a broad enough vehicle for me so far. If the music works, then you get to travel around the world, meet people, exchange ideas. You go places, you hear things and you take that experience back and you present it.
A lot of people don't get that opportunity," he adds. " They're in one place and they take it; it's sort of a passive thing. So you just hope that your experiences are valid, and when you express them in song, that you might be a little ahead of the game. You've got a concentrated life that's come from music, so it feeds back on itself."
Keith Tuber (Orange Coast Magazine - 1993)