Rock, pop, soul, funk, reggae: a musical Zelig reappraised
Robert Palmer, who died 20 years ago, aged only 54, was a Zelig-like figure in pop history, someone whose musical life intersected with everyone from Elkie Brooks to Gary Numan, from Little Feat to Duran Duran, Chic to Talking Heads, the Meters to UB40, the Brecker Brothers to Chaka Khan. In the popular consciousness he'll forever be the sleazeball crooner in Terence Donovan's oft-parodied video for Addicted To Love, backed by a band of identically clad female models. But this nine-disc boxset of his 11 years at Island Records puts a strong case that Palmer was Yorkshire's own answer to Hall & Oates or Bobby Caldwell: the quintessence of "blue-eyed soul", though his "soul" incorporated everything from Allen Toussaint to Jam & Lewis. He also fits neatly into that lineage of white Brits - Ken Colyer, Alexis Korner, Eric Burdon, Chris Blackwell - who almost became custodians of African-American music.
This obsession was evident in his fine debut, the swamp funk of 1974's Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, expensively recorded with a veritable who's who of US funk and R&B. Half the tracks were made in New Orleans with The Meters, the other half in New York with Bernard Purdie on drums and members of the jazz-funk outfit Stuff, both lineups featuring Little Feat's Lowell George on guitar. The same Southern-soul vibe continues on 1975's Pressure Drop and 1976's Some People Can Do What They Like, but now Palmer was moving beyond. N'Awlins funk into reggae, with squeaky skank versions of Toot's Hibbert's Pressure Drop and Eddie Curtis's Hard Head.
Double Fun, from 1978, is something of a minor masterpiece, featuring the hit Every Kinda People (written by Free bassist Andy Fraser) and some dancefloor-friendly production from Tom Moulton (who even manages to turn The Kinks' You Really Got Me into a Stevie Wonder-style funk epic). 1979's Secrets features some great tracks, including a version of Todd Rundgren's Can We Still Be Friends, although the cover of Moon Martin's Bad Case Of Loving You showcased the kind of hoary, machine-tooled rock that Palmer would later become associated with.
A soul purist he may have been, but 1980's Clues showed that palmer was willing to embrace the new wave: retooling himself for the '80s with the pulsating synth-funk of Johnny And Mary and Looking For Clues (featuring his pal Chris Frantz) and two surprise collaborations with Gary Numan. Pride, from 1982, flirts with African-inspired digi-dub but also features his definitive version of the electrofunk classic You Are In My System. After a sojourn with The Power Station came Palmer's final LP for Island, 1985's Bernard Edwards-produced Riptide. It was the multi-platinum-seller that took Palmer to the top of the US charts, spawning five hit singles, but it may have occluded some of his fascinating earlier work.
The Island Years 1974-1985 (Edsel/Demon): 8/10
John Lewis (Uncut - Mars 2023)