Palmer: I Got Something To Shout About
Robert Palmer, swinging back in his chair in a Pimlico office, is attempting to explain what his new album means to him. He uses five words pretty consistently. They are intense, ecstatic, energy, enthusiasm and enjoyment. I guess you could say he was happy just now.
"If you've spent 10 years being a musician and scratching your head thinking 'Well what is it? How come I'm not knocking myself out?' And you're really not. It's a kind of anguish, a physical anguish. You're fighting all the time.
"So that when you get into a situation where it's right, the feeling's ecstatic and yet the way I expressed it was like just 'blaah!' (arms flop down by sides, illustrating great outflow of something or other).
"I was at once really 'wired' but at the same time I was as peaceful as I've ever felt. It was an amazing sensation."
Palmer's album, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, is the first fruit of his labour since quitting the fast-disolving Vinegar Joe last February.
It was recorded in the States, produced by Steve Smith, and he was backed by the Meters and New York studio notories like Bernard Purdie, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee and Gordon Edwards. Palmer's taken his British blue-eyed soul and blended it with US funk.
"I'm really concious of that groove," says Palmer. "The things that led me into music in the first place, like Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Sam & Dave, had it."
"If a thing is driving solidly and there's that space that you use. And you just throw it (the vocal) in. There's no kind of overkill or too laid back. It just flows out of your mouth and you just become another instrument."
That, he says, is what his music is now all about and he'll use any method to get people to listen to it and, maybe, understand it. Any method, he adds, short of togging up in glitter - tho' his album's cover has a distinct tough of glamour.
Robert started off with a group called The Mandrakes up in his native Yorkshire in '64. They lasted four years and he went full-time pro with Alan Bown taking over from Jess Roden. Did that for a year or so and next joined Dada led by Pete Gage.
That group became the nucleus of Vinegar Joe in '71. Three albums and countless gigs later Palmer was out on his own. It was something he'd been thinking of doing for a while but the right circumstances never arose until Chris Blackwell gave him rope.
The album was recorded partly in New Orleans with the Meters and Lowell George of Little Feat helping out, and partly in New York. Guys like that don't play for peanuts so that's how much "rope" Blackwell dished out to RP.
"It was a decision," says Robert, "that I'd been too long riding on other people's energy. It was time I got to be the train driver."
And anyhow, he'd always wanted to record with those musicians and in the framework that they work. Everything was done in three takes at most, says Palmer, and the album was done in five days in New York and three in New Orleans.
There were a lot of tracks left over and Robert's finished another album which he cut with Little Feat in Baltimore. He also played two weeks' gigs with the Feats.
The mood of Sneakin' Sally is wholly rhythmic with Robert's lyrics on his own tunes reflecting beat rather than heavy meaning. Used to be, I recall, that he'd write lyrics as poems and then set them to music later.
Right, says Palmer, but the music he's been listening to conveys its sense rhythmically and the way he writes now (on drum machine and bass) is totally orientated to musical metre rather than lyrical sense.
"I've just found a way of working that suits me. I've got more energy than I know what to do with musically." Energy like working from 2pm to 5am the next morning, which is his current routine. He's trying to break back into a normal "body clock cos they're not taking care of business hours are they?" he laughs.
Of Vinegar Joe: "I understood then that I was working as a musician, and I wasn't getting satisfaction from it, but I didn't know why. I was in the dark as to what exactly was going on and I knew that it needed to change but not actually the specific things."
"Once I made the break from the band, it was just like 'woomph'. All of a sudden I had all this energy and I could make all my own choices, y'know? And control every aspect of what I did as finely as I could."
Of recording Sneakin' Sally: "My prime objective was to go there and enjoy myself, and it was like 'oh yeah, now I remember when I was a bit sad'," in that Robert's suggesting he'd wasted a decade of his career trying to rediscover the original vitality.
"It was so intense doing those sessions, in every aspect. Mechanically none of those things got in the way they can do, like the engineer and the studio. We'd just go in there , play some tunes, have a real good time and the guys that have been working for you had got it down on tape."
That's as opposed to what sort of atmosphere in British studios?
"Well... Oh God... well, generally, inefficient in that a studio's main job is to get sound down on a tape, right? So people working there that are not making music either have to be of such a disposition where they don't upset the musicians or they have to make sure that the atmosphere that surrounds them as personalities is, er, generally musically influenced and not technically influenced."
"And that the machinery is there to use to get the sound down and not as a separate entity."
In Britain, reckons Palmer, there's too great an interest in electronics and not enough involvement in the music. In the States, he continues, "the fact is that you can do it and not let any of that inanimate crap that's there get in the way. You just forget the microphones."
Basically Robert is saying that in the States the studio is more often the servant of the musician; in Britain it is his master? "Yeah... but I'm sure it isn't that one-sided. I'm sure the musicians have something to do with it. If you live amongst it sometimes puzzles you."
In Britain, says Palmer, he always felt he was ina studio "to make an album whereas when I was doin' this thing I was there to have a good time."
The songs written by Palmer for his album were constructed "really finely within the area, first of all, of all rhythm and blues and then what particular type of rhyhtm and blues and then with that area what kind of structure and the whole thing."
The studio players knew, says Robert, the exact feel and physical approach he wanted almost psychically. It was nice to play once more with "people who just enjoy being musicians."
No hang-ups about image either? "No, no. If you've got a product you stick it on the radio. If people like it they buy it without caring what you look like, where you come from or whatever. If the music fits that's it. Where as there there's a whole kind of process which you have to go through."
But will all that promotion make his album 'marketable' in the UK terms? "I hope so. The album yeah, but singlewise I've gotta problem. I can't hear any track that's gonna sit comfortably on the BBC radio but, I mean, I think that's the fault of the BBC. If they have to limit themselves to so few singles."
Robert launches into the first of two very bitter tirades against the Beeb. About the particular noise you can produce to ensure BBC radio airplay and about the 65-singles play-list.
"And what's that? Three and a half hours' music that's repeated endlessly." He shakes his head in disgust.
"In England, I guess I'll have to work on," a pause for a big smile, "Teen Appeal. Really. I mean I want everybody to hear it. If that's the way to get it to the public then that's how I'm gonna do it."
"I don't mind, see cos now I've got something I want to shout about. I'm really proud of everything. I sit and listen to it as part of my album listening. I enjoy it."
"It was just out after the groove and the feeling and that's what came out." He won't be manoeuvred, he adds, into a position he doesn't approve of but ideas he'd previously have sneered at he'll use with "tongue in cheek."
He sure nuff wants to sell this here album.
"I don't want to be underground and appeal to minority audiences. I want to be a pop star."
If he'd done the album a year ago Palmer may well've been overawed by the illustrious session teams. "But as it was I mean obviously I was nervous about these guys... 18 stone black, giant-tall."
He scowls like a real-heavy dude, and you can picture pale skinny, average-height Palmer dwarfed by all this Negro flesh 'n' muscle. "Did one song on the first day and that was it... Gordon Edwards came over and says 'Uh hi, didn't wanna know your name before but...'
"The whole thing as just a ball to do, just an adventure."
One track, Blackmail, he wrote with Lowell George. He had the song almost finished but couldn't complete the lyric. He laughs: "That was amazin' to find somebody that could complete a lyric."
"Although it's a story, I mean all the lyrics are kinda half abstract and for someone to jump in and use the right words, with the right sound and also finish the story and have fun with it, was amazing."
His past writing he reckons was cagey and a bit introverted. Now he's developing a style whereby he can "throw it away a bit more."
"Bit more humour without actually consciously thinking about it and where I want to write about something that could get odd I prefer to say rhythmically and just use the words as a cartoon strip... chunks of sensationalism."
How about performing again? "That's just gonna happen. It's all ready. I've got plans for how it'll be realised and the people I wanna use and the people who've offered their services but I don't wanna do it right now."
Maybe he'll tour towards the end of the year and anyway, "I've been on the road for almost solidly since I was 15... at least two or three gigs a week. And then all of a sudden in February, stop. I can still relate to the live thing."
But now he'd like to spend much more in the studio, where his previous work has been hurried and unsatisfying. "I just wanna cut tracks... the only person pressurising me to do anyhting is me."
"And that's fine, y'know. It means the only guard I've got to keep is against self-indulgence and I don't think I'm self-indulgent because I'm aware that it exists."
He pauses. And smiles again.
"You know I've been having such a good time... and I'd forgotten that it was, uh, possible. Really. I mean I was beginning to get cold and cynical and... I never thought it was possible to enjoy your stuff cos I tought you'd always be 'picky' about what was done."
"And I am, but even so I can put it on and just listen to it and prance about to it cos it makes me feel alright whereas other things made me worry."
Like Vinegar Joe albums? Well he plays the first one but only out of historical interest.
But now "I'm just enjoying music so much more. I mean I'd forgotten how to enoy it to a certain extent. I even go out to discotheques now."
He also said he was a "bit of a social risk."
I didn't know quite what he meant by that but I did know what he was getting at when he said, slowing, almost defiantly, "the only thing that concerns me at the moment is selling this album. Cos I'm proud of it and want people to hear it."
That statement reads as desperation but was said without a trace of it. Determination would be a better description.
Geoff Brown (Melody Maker - 7 septembre 1974)