Some Guys Have All The Hits
It's hard to be a superstar in today's tough musical world. Caught for a long time between ever-changing trends, Robert Palmer finally found his blue-eyed soul after a good deal of searching. Several glasses of Smirnoff later, the Northern rock'n'blues shouter was domiciled in Nassau and holidaying in Paris, where no-one was going to judge his music just by the cut of his clothes.
"I've always loathed this rock'n'roll life style, you know, " mused Robert Palmer in a sumptuous hotel bedroom somewhere near the Champs Elysées. He went on to describe himself as an introvert who's overcome shyness, a pragmatist who's essentially romantic - with a personal book of dreams to prove it - and an ardent adversary of pride, vanity and narcissism.
When you're expecting to meet a man whose cynicism is as dry as his vodka-martinis, that kind of talk is very confusing. And in the record industry's market-place, where the stronger the image the more chance of trading it for some success, Palmer bemuse his public and certainly his press by seeming to be both hedonistic playboy and dedicated "muso". His permanent residence abroad only compounds the enigma.
A name that's been around for 15 years, that's been used as an index of both professionalism and plagiarism, and that's been dumped in as many musical bags as there are labels available, Palmer is as "misunderstood" as the next artist. That's the price he paid - along with a poor singles record and a lot of stick - for not trying hard enough at self-promotion. Looking at him is seeing a well preserved piece of rock history; if he's kept the wrinkles at bay, the old cliches he embodies are harder to smooth out. As the good-looking, urbane and inveterate bon viveur, Palmer has fooled and angered many. It's easy to locate the source of his unpopularity in his own myth; living the life of Riley and sunshine on funky Nassau, rolling off the beach and into Compass Point to knock out the odd album before the evening aperatif, disrespectful of British trends and other people's hard times; making `every Habitat home should have one' records for people who stack their glossy covers under the Hockney prints and live lives like his songs: stylised vignettes of being in love or despair with enough money and nice clothes to do it with panache.
No wonder he was persona non grata for the class of `77; all that taste and slick production just wasn't acceptable. And nor, of course, were those early album covers; like down-market Dormeuil ads, with Palmer dressed up in Burtons chic and some leggy model dressed down to nearly nothing, they were read as a wickedly sexist seduction through style - very un-hip. They shocked, quickly became unfashionable and were replaced - but the style tag remained. Strangely, his album sales began to rocket around this time: due perhaps to his oppositional romanticism and its power to penetrate the raised consciousness.
Then came 1982's Brit-funk bonanza of over-exposed, mainly over-rated variations on a theme that Palmer had been refining unacknowledged, with only Boz Scaggs for company in the white soul stakes. Still, when all's said and done, no one ever disputed his voice or his talent and they are the reasons why he can afford, financially and artistically, not to give a damn.
We met one night in Paris: Palmer tired from a week of frenetic city life but fired with enthusiasm for the album he was completing there; me nervous of his renowned moodiness. Happily, the mood was right and the new work even better - a skillfully craft mix of sharp-edged funk and crooning ballads and, on one hearing, a sure improvement on the patchy Clues. At the hotel Robert ordered "confit de lapin" in plausible French and, with his cosmopolitan entourage looking on, talked to me of his songs, his life and his image. From the northern soulboy haircut to the natty corduroy and leather trousers, it must be said, he did look a picture...and told a story.
"When I read about myself in the papers", he said, "I'm fascinated." He looked sincere. "I just don't know what they're talking about . . . it's just journalists and record companies trying to create an image for me. Sure, I like food, clothes and the company of women . . .but a sophisticate and a womaniser? Give me a break! You know people always ask me why I dress a certain way as if there's someone sending me to a tailor, not even my wife does that, I buy clothes for her. As for the early album covers, in retrospect they're just corny and sexist but at the time they were unusual, a humourous image reflecting the lyrics. But by the time the third one came out it had become a cliche and every disco record had a woman's bum on the cover." The Double Fun sleeve, with its heavily ironic toothpaste smile portrait, was meant to right matters, to turn the paragon of style into a parody of stylisation. No one got the joke and Palmer gave up on irony.
Subtlety is a relatively new luxury for Robert Palmer; along with the gracious living and enough money to dress from Milan, it arrived with the first solo album and the end of the "gypsying around" northern rock era. His early struggles began at the age 15 when he left school in Yorkshire to join a local blues band, the Mandrakes, from where he progressed through the Alan Bown Set, Dada, and Vinegar Joe. Rough times, years ago, and Palmer has no gilded nostalgia or sense of having paid his dues.
"At 16 I was opening shows for people like Hendrix and The Who. I looked at those successful people and thought `oh no, I can't do this forever!' As for paying your dues, that's just about glamourising the hooliganism, saying a person can act how they like cos they've been through this or that. It's bollocks! I joined a band because I didn't like school and there's nothing else I'd rather have done. If I really wanted to make money I'd be in real estate. . . but I'm rich enough. I have a son and a daughter, a lovely home and if I see something I like I can buy it. That's rich enough."
Despite the changes he's gone through, Palmer still retains values from that old rock tradition - in his itch to be back on the road (it's the only true feed-back, I don't feel any of that style thingwhen I'm up there"), his firm belief that bands learn best in church halls and his derision of academic perfection whilst using technically the "best" musicians around.
Privately, as publicly, a difficult man to pin down, one clue must reside in his essential rootlessness; he doesn't really belong anywhere and doesn't seem to mind. Made more or less aware, by tapes and news clippings, of what's happening in Britain (though he'd never heard of Wham!), there's no love lost between him and Batley and his accent is now a telling hybrid of northern candour and transatlantic cool. In America he's a star, on the continent his records sell millions - Double Fun was a huge disco hit while the brilliant Johnny And Mary topped the French, German and Italian charts for weeks and was largely ignored here. A true injustice but Palmer manifests no signs of resentment; in fact, I wonder if he cares about Britain.
"I don't care about countries at all. . . only people. I lived in Malta till I was eleven and all that happened when I went to England was I got busted! I don't have any geographical roots so my security has to lie elsewhere - with my family and in myself. Where I live now people are always passing through and moving on . . . that's the way I like it". Britain's refusal to ascribe him a proper commercial niche is frustrating ("I want to make music for the radio - it's very tiring being in a cult") but not blamed on an unenlightened public or bad promotion, rather on the quality of the product. "These things either happen or not," the fatalist in him tells me, "you can want them to happen as much as you like but you soon realise you're helpless. The notion of will is a redundant one, it's vanity and nonsense."
Nor does Palmer feel any misplaced allegiance to the States , where he's considered avant-garde. He talks instead of a public obsessed with cosmetic luxury and a music industry based on hard sell and hard cash. As an aficionado of Latin folk music and Nigerian pop - he bullied Chris Blackwell into signing Sunny Ade to Island records -what he respects in music is personalities. "But all I hear when I listen to an epic American production like that Donna Summer-Quincy Jones thing, is money - it's offensive. "
On the island of Nassau, with wife Sue, two children and the palm trees, Robert Palmer lives a quiet life: lying in the sun, writing songs, "making babies and playing with them". For most of the year. Once in awhile there's a tour, an album to mix and some European capital to paint red. In cities he's out of control, running from studio to restaurant to club and back again; he calls it "looking after the spirit so the body takes care of itself." But confirming his own stamina and having the best of both worlds is probably nearer the truth.
Nassau became a refuge in 1977 when he was exhausted from the merry-go-round of touring and recording and a bad experience with a former business associate. It was reassessment time and Nassau offered the chance to regain control - producing himself on his "Secrets" album for the first time - and the introspection he needs to write.
"Being around in this business for so long leaves me understanding that the only thing real about it is songs. If that's not straight the rest is a waste of time". Those songs, for Palmer, begin as inspired abstractions and end as subjects of a rigorous self-discipline, encouraged by his outside production ventures with the likes of Desmond Dekker and Cristina.
"I criticise myself from every angle and talk to myself as producer to singer. I go out of my way to embarrass myself, the lyrics are cathartic and if they don't relieve me they're no good. Lots of my songs are simple "miss you girl" things but I have to be intellectually convinced before I can deliver them. Like the new ballad, Want You More, for me it's about the fact that my mother always wanted and never had a daughter, or Double Fun was really about God! - there has to be something to pin them on. Sometimes it all turns out well - Johnny And Mary had great karma, people picked up on so many things in it which is heart-warming when you're working in isolation."
An avowed empiricist, Palmer's albums mirror an eclectic approach. From what America dubbed the "blue-eyed soul" of Double Fun to the New Wave-Numan collaboration of Clues (which sold a million in Europe), these are transitions that stay the same, unified by his voice and his fascination for and remarkable facility with forms of black music. The white man who dared to cover an "untouchable" like Pressure Drop shocked the States on his first visit . . . they'd assumed he was black.
"It all dates back to the early days, when I was playing up north and we had a break in our sets they'd always play Stax and Atlantic. I started putting those rhythms in my songs and picking up the inflections. I was never a fan of the Beatles or Stones but when I heard Otis Redding I knew there was somewhere to go. The last thing anyone would spend money on then was the P.A. system - you couldn't afford to sing baritone, you had to sing tenor with the mike sticking in your face to fight the guitar and drums. When I started getting into melodic singing it took me years to be able to sustain a note because I'd blown my voice out singing I've Been Loving You Too Long."
Rather unfashionably, Palmer enjoys being able to define himself as a singer; he can't sing professionally for more than a week in the year but he performs for himself everywhere: at home, in the car to a demo of the new work and even in the street - loud! For groups, he concedes, it may be prudent to establish and preserve an image but he wants to remain as variable as his music, "though I realize how confusing that can be for people."
Three a.m. that morning sees us sitting in that hotel room tapping a table, as Robert demonstrates a finer point of African rhythm. Suddenly he stops the lesson and puts on the style. A quick brush of the teeth, some tinted eye-drops and he's off, restored to party till long after dawn. Robert Palmer once wrote a song called Style Kills . . . but on the basis of that night's performance, it can only refer to his British record sales. Everything else seems pretty healthy.
Lesley White (The Face - Mars 1983)