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Shakin’ Stevens interview – Classic Pop Magazine

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Shakin' Stevens
Shakin’ Stevens, 1978

In 2020, Shakin’ Stevens talked us through his incredible career, from his early days with the Sunsets to a decade-long run of 80s hit singles, via a starring role as Elvis in the West End… By Douglas McPherson

Of all the artists who emerged from the rock’n’roll scene of the 1970s and found chart success in the early 80s, no-one picked up the ball and ran with it as far as Shakin’ Stevens. From the moment he hit No.1 with This Ole House in 1981, the denim-clad singer was a regular fixture on Top Of The Pops.

In fact, he was the first artist to make 50 appearances on the show, performing hit after hit, including You Drive Me Crazy, Green Door, Oh Julie, It’s Late and Merry Christmas Everyone. By the end of the decade, he was the UK’s most successful singles act of the 1980s, spending more weeks on the chart than any other artist – an amazing 435 in all.

“It was full-on,” says the Welsh singer, who also topped the charts in Ireland, Australia, Sweden, Austria, Norway, Switzerland and Poland. “In those days, when you had success, they wanted the next single, the next album, the next single, the next album… In one year, I think I put out four singles. We were releasing them like bullets.”

Stevens also rang up impressive album sales, with six original LPs and two hits collections going gold, platinum or double-platinum in the UK and Europe.

Born Michael Barratt on 4 March 1948, in the Cardiff suburb of Ely, Shaky’s father worked in the building trade and was a former miner. “I was from a family of 13 children. I was the baby,” Shaky recalls. “I used to sing in junior school, in front of the class, and went from there. It was all I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in anything else but singing and performing.”

After growing up with the records of the 40s and 50s and the early 60s pop of The Beatles, he gravitated to rock’n’roll: “Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and many, many more.”

Among Shaky’s childhood friends was one Steven Vanderwalker, from whom he eventually took his stage name. “We used to play rounders in the street and this guy, Steve, used to hold the bat like a guitar and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen… Shakin’ Stevens!’ I thought, ‘That’s a wacky name’.

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“My own name didn’t ring as a singer, because there was a newscaster called Michael Barratt. So when I was looking for a name, I thought I’d use that.” Another pal was Shaky’s next door neighbour David Dutson, who played rhythm in his first band, The Olympics.

By day, Stevens and David started a window-cleaning round, and Shaky later shook, rattled and rolled a float full of bottles as a milkman. But his main focus remained the band, which evolved into The Denims. Gigs ranged from church halls to rugby clubs and events for the Young Communist League, although Shaky wasn’t interested in the politics.

Venturing further afield to London, “We played the famous 2i’s coffee bar, where Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele used to play. We did very well for a time.”

By 1969 Stevens was looking for a change, which came courtesy of new manager and fellow Welshman Paul ‘Legs’ Barrett. “I think somebody said to Paul, ‘Why don’t you go round and check out Shakin’ Stevens?’ So he came down to a gig. The band I was with was coming to an end, so I went with Paul. He had a group called The Backbeats. So some of The Backbeats’ members joined myself and became Shakin’ Stevens And The Sunsets.” 

The group played a mix of Chuck Berry and Johnny Burnette covers, and developed a wild stage act.

“The bassist would sit on the piano player’s shoulders and be bopping here and bopping there – we’d be all over the place. We had a brilliant sax player, who used to throw his instrument up in the air, then he’d catch it and carry on blowing! I’d think, ‘He’s only got to drop it and we’ve got no sax.’ But in the time that he was with me, he never dropped it once.”

After John Lennon’s appearance at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival concert, Legs wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter in the music press inviting the ex-Beatle to audition for The Sunsets. Lennon didn’t respond, but the publicity stunt resulted in The Sunsets being invited to open for The Rolling Stones at London’s Saville Theatre.

“As we walked in, the Stones were on stage rehearsing, and I heard Mick Jagger singing ‘Bopping at the high school hop…’, Jerry Lee Lewis’ High School Confidential. I thought, ‘Wow!’ It was a fantastic gig, a great thrill and I enjoyed it immensely.”

In 1973, Stevens shared the bill with Screaming Lord Sutch, Crazy Cavan ’N’ The Rhythm Rockers, and a host of other homegrown acts at ‘The First Ever All British Rock’n’roll Revival Festival’ at Alexandra Palace. The landmark event was an indication of the scale of Britain’s growing rock’n’roll revival, which Shaky was at the heart of.

When Stuart Colman launched the BBC’s dedicated rock’n’roll radio programme, It’s Rock’n’roll, in 1976, Shaky sang the opening jingle: “We ain’t got pop, we ain’t got soul, what we got is ROCK’N’ROLLLL!”

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“They had guests come in and sing, and I was one of them, with The Sunsets,” Stevens remembers. “They were good times, and learning times as well; doing your first recording on the radio.” Yet touring in those pre-hit days was far from glamorous. “We couldn’t afford B&Bs, so the five of us would sleep in the van. We’d wake up with chips on the floor. Not a pretty sight! Then it was off to a public convenience to have a wash down and shave before the next gig. That went on for a while.”

The Sunsets gained the attention of Radio 1 DJ John Peel, who briefly signed them to his own record label, Dandelion – without releasing anything – and fellow Welsh rocker Dave Edmunds (fresh from the success of the guitar instrumental Sabre Dance with his band Love Sculpture).

Edmunds introduced them to Parlophone and produced their first album, A Legend, in 1970. Sales were poor, however, and after five more little-heard albums with the band, Shaky signed his first solo deal with Track Records, former home of The Who and Jimi Hendrix, in early 1977. 

“We had some guys from Sounds Incorporated, really great musicians. It was very raunchy. Unfortunately, by the time they came to release the album [titled Shakin’ Stevens], the company went into liquidation, so everything fell flat,” he recalls.

Shaky’s big break came later that year when he was chosen to play the movie-era Elvis Presley, alongside Tim Whitnall and PJ Proby, who portrayed the 1950s and 1970s versions, in Jack Good’s West End musical, Elvis.

“Jack had a later-career Elvis lined up, and an early-career person lined up. They didn’t have a middle one, so one of the musicians in the show mentioned my name: ‘Why don’t you check Shaky out?’

“Jack attended my gig at the Greyhound. At the end of the show, he came over and asked me to audition for the part. I auditioned, but was very nervous. Keith Strachan, the musical director, was there. I sang two songs with the piano, and he said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, I’d say yes’. Jack Good came in and had a listen, and he said, ‘My boy, you have the part!’”

Opening at the Astoria Theatre just three months after Presley’s demise, Elvis was a huge hit. It won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical and ran for 614 performances, into 1979, playing to 8,000 people a week. “It was the show to go to,” as Shaky puts it.

Good, who had pioneered Britain’s television coverage of rock’n’roll with Oh Boy! in 1958, capitalised on the burgeoning rock’n’roll revival with a new version of the show in 1979, and followed it with the similar Let’s Rock. Both shows starred Shaky alongside Alvin Stardust, Lulu, Joe Brown and Freddie ‘Fingers’ Lee in a non-stop stream of brightly costumed song-and-dance numbers.

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“Jack was responsible for Oh Boy! in the beginning, with Marty Wilde and Cliff Richard, so it was a thrill to be with a man who knew his stuff,” Shaky recalls. “The musical lifted my name, and so did Let’s Rock, because it was on once a week.”

The exposure paved the way for Stevens to sign a new record deal with Epic, and make his first trip up the charts with Hot Dog. The original version by country singer Buck Owens, performing as Corky Jones, failed to chart in 1957, but Shaky’s revival reached No.24 in the UK and led to a spirited prime-time debut on Top Of The Pops that saw him dancing on top of Geraint Watkins’ piano.

“After that, I had Hey Mae, which had radio plays on Capital, but didn’t dent the chart. The one that really kicked it off for me was Marie, Marie. I heard the original by The Blasters when I was on a promotional tour somewhere. Somebody played it to me, and that was it.

“Sometimes you hear a song and think: ‘I like this, there’s something about it. It’s got the hook. It’s got a story in there as well’. I just wanted to record it. We were in the studio in the next couple of days. We recorded it and couldn’t wait to get it out.”

Shakin' Stevens
Shakin’ Stevens, 2005

Marie, Marie gave Shaky his first Top 20 hit, reaching No.19 in the UK and the same position in Germany. “That opened it up for me in Europe and other territories,” the singer recalls.

The single’s parent album was also called Marie, Marie, but not for long. The title was hastily changed to This Ole House to reflect the phenomenal success of Shaky’s next single, which catapulted him to No.1. This Ole House actually pre-dated rock’n’roll – Rosemary Clooney topped the charts with it on both sides of the Atlantic in 1954.

Stevens took his inspiration from a sparse rockabilly update by NRBQ in 1979, but made the song utterly his own, aided by slick production by Stuart Colman that combined 50s-style rockabilly guitar licks with a glossy 80s-pop drum track. 

Shaky made his first video to promote the song, with the help of some enthusiastic extras.

“We shot it at an old farmhouse with the windows missing, and because it was on farmland, we asked the farmers, ‘Do you want to be in the video?’ So there they are on the chorus in their farm clothes!” Stevens chuckles. The song also introduced Shaky’s most famous outfit, consisting of denim jacket, jeans and white shoes, although not by any grand design.

“I had a No.1 record, so I did Top Of The Pops. But I had no dressers or people saying you should wear this or wear that. I didn’t know what to wear, really. So I thought I’d put these denims on. I often wore white shoes. It became a trademark for me.”

The singer’s equally distinctive footwork was similarly achieved without the aid of a choreographer. “It was just natural stuff, really,” he shrugs.

The follow-up single, the laid-back You Drive Me Crazy, was a new song by Ronnie Harwood that reached No.2 in the UK, No.1 in Australia, Denmark and Ireland, and charted highly all over Europe. But Stevens was soon back in the top slot with another pre-rock’n’roll pop song – Jim Lowe’s 50s hit Green Door – which he gave a This Ole House-style makeover.

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“We were in Eden Studios in Chiswick, and the guys went down the road to get a bite to eat and a beer,” he remembers. “Nick Lowe was in the pub. He said, ‘Give Shaky my congratulations on the success of You Drive Me Crazy, and you know what? I think his next single should be Green Door’.

“It was quite a surprising thing to say, because none of us could see it. When they came back and told me, I went, ‘Green Door…?’ We carried on with what we were recording, then at the end of the day we said, ‘Let’s try it.’ So we did. It went into the chart at No.22 and then straight to No.1.”

As well as reinventing oldies, Shaky wrote a number of original songs for his albums. His craft came to the fore on his next chart-topper, Oh Julie, which was powered by the Cajun accordion of Geraint Watkins.

“I was really knocked out when it went to No.1,” says Stevens. “I think people could relate to the squeezebox, especially throughout Europe. It had a good Cajun feel and people really pricked their ears up. There have been a tremendous amount of covers of it.” 

Shaky’s total of 33 hits include A Love Worth Waiting For (No.2), What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For (No.5), the self-penned Teardrops (No.5) and his duet with Bonnie Tyler, A Rockin’ Good Way (No.5).

Perhaps one of the reasons Stevens was able to sustain a Top 40 career into the early 90s was his ability to blend an element of 50s nostalgia with a smooth contemporary pop sound.

One prime example was his 1983 hit Cry Just A Little Bit, with its prominent drum machine, Shaky’s only song to make a dent on the US chart.

“The DJs were saying, ‘This is a real change for Shaky’ and thinking back, I guess it was,” he reflects. “But it went to No.3 in the UK, and throughout Europe and Poland they really lapped it up.”

Another factor in Stevens’ longevity is the cross-generational appeal of his catchy, feel-good material. “When I first started, I think the parents were the fans and when I was on TV, they used to watch with their children. Then as time went on, their children became fans as well.

“I remember a man coming backstage in Scotland. He said, ‘I used to watch you with my parents when I was growing up, and here I am seeing you at 47.’ I think that’s how the audience has evolved. Today, it’s 24 to 54 and upwards. It’s a good range.”

In 2005, Shaky returned to the Top 20 with his cover of Pink’s Trouble, off the back of his appearance alongside other 80s pop stars on the TV show, Hit Me Baby One More Time. More recently, he enjoyed critical acclaim with Echoes Of Our Times, an uncharacteristically dark Americana-style album of self-penned songs about his family tree.

The 2016 release made No.22 on the UK Album Chart and a follow-up is in production, but has been paused by this year’s lockdown, as has his touring schedule.

The now 72-year-old singer has not been idle, however, and has spent his enforced time off from the road compiling the impressive 19CD career-spanning boxset, Fire In The Blood. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the most successful careers in rock’n’roll history.

Deep and crisp and Stevens

The story behind a Christmas classic

Christmas hits can have a special longevity and Shaky’s 1985 chart-topper Merry Christmas Everyone is perhaps his most enduring release. Having given the singer his fourth and, to date, last No.1 single in 1985, the song has become a Yuletide mainstay.

Thanks to downloads, it has returned to the UK chart every year since 2007, hitting a peak of No.6 last year. The crisp and catchy single was written by Bob Heatlie, who penned Shaky’s 1983 hit Cry Just A Little Bit, as well as Aneka’s 1981 chart-topper Japanese Boy.

The song was recorded for release in 1984, but the plan changed to avoid it being overshadowed by Band Aid’s fundraiser, Do They Know It’s Christmas?. “Not blowing my own trumpet, but Merry Christmas Everyone came across to me as a No.1 record,” says Stevens. “It would have been foolish to release it at the same time as Band Aid, because then I would have been No.2 or No.3 or whatever. So we held it back to the following year. Band Aid went to No.1 in 1984. Then the next year, I went to No.1 and Band Aid went to No.2.”

To mark the 30th anniversary of the initial release of Merry Christmas Everyone, in 2015, Shaky recorded a bluegrass-flavoured remake called Echoes Of Merry Christmas Everyone, with proceeds going to the Salvation Army.

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Janet Jackson albums – the complete guide

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After first finding fame as part of the Jackson family dynasty, Janet Jackson asserted her independence to become one of the most successful and influential solo artists in pop…

Janet Jackson
Released 1982
Label A&M
Chart Positions
US No.63 UK –

Janet Jackson albums – Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson albums – Janet Jackson

Despite being just 16 years old when she released her self-titled debut album in 1982, Janet Jackson already had close to a decade of performance experience under her belt thanks to regular appearances at her brothers’ Las Vegas revue and acting roles on US TV shows such as Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes.

She initially had no desire to enter the family firm, planning instead to go to college to study business law. However, those aspirations were swiftly vetoed by her strict disciplinarian father/manager Joe, who, having masterminded her brothers’ ascent to pop’s most successful dynasty, secured her a contract with A&M Records.

Trepidatious about how she wanted to present herself, Janet expressed a desire to be regarded as her own entity and was rather reluctant to have her surname on the record. Joe and A&M overruled her, however, seeing the Jackson name as a selling point and assembled a team of the R&B scene’s most promising talent to build the album around her.

Side One of the LP was written and produced by René Moore and Angela Winbush, a couple who’d written, produced, arranged and played on their own hits as well as those songs crafted specifically for Janet. Meanwhile, Side Two was helmed largely by Foster Sylvers from LA-based R&B family group The Sylvers with producer Bobby Watson completing the team.

With success and experience between them, Janet’s only required input was to turn up and sing, a commitment that she slotted in between her studies and acting work.

Janet’s minimal contribution to the record proves to be its greatest weakness. It lacks personality, sticking largely to the identikit pop and R&B of the time with her vocals elevating much of the unremarkable material.

Standouts are the funky opener Say You Do, a track that owes a large debt to Michael’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, the infectious, string-laden You’ll Never Find (A Love Like Mine) which harks back to Philly soul, and Come Give Your Love To Me, which refreshingly incorporates guitars and new wave synths into the mix.

Released in September 1982, Janet Jackson peaked at a disappointing No.63 in the US and failed to produce a hit single. Despite Janet’s attempts to push the album by performing on shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train, it was eclipsed by the release of the behemoth that was Michael’s Thriller two months later.

Dream Street
Released 1984
Label A&M
Chart Positions
US No.147 UK –

Janet Jackson albums – Dream Street
Janet Jackson albums – Dream Street

Not too dissimilar from the framework of her debut, Dream Street’s bid for crossover appeal, which trades the R&B foundations of its predecessor for a broader pop sound, comes across as contrived.

Boasting a mixed bag of collaborators including Janet’s brother Marlon, Giorgio Moroder and even Cliff Richard (yes, really), Dream
Street
suffers from a lack of direction. 

As was the case with her debut, Janet’s role began and ended with contributing vocals, with her recording sessions scheduled around her role in the Fame TV series.

Highlights are scarce though the Moroder-produced title track and the Marlon Jackson-navigated Don’t Stand Another Chance at least hint at the potential of what was to come. 

Fast Girls desperately wants to sound like Prince protégés Vanity 6 (it fails), while Pretty Boy, although equally unremarkable, is significant in the big picture as it is written and produced by The Time’s Jesse Johnson.

Faring significantly worse than Janet’s debut, Dream Street’s failure marked a significant turning point in that it prompted the realisation that if Janet was to pursue music seriously, it would have to be on her own terms and she would have to make some significant changes – however difficult that would be.

Control
Released 1986
Label A&M
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.8

Janet Jackson albums – Control
Janet Jackson albums – Control

As statements of independence go, few are as direct as the title track of Control. Although her third album, it serves as the world’s real introduction to Janet, given it truly was the record on which she found her voice.

After two unsuccessful albums which bore just her name and vocals, Janet took hold of the reins of her career by firing her father as manager. She then sought the guidance of A&M’s John McClain, who teamed her with former Prince cohorts Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis.

The failure of her previous album, Dream Street, had coincided with a turbulent time in Janet’s personal life, during which she had eloped with James DeBarge – singer with rival family group DeBarge – only to discover his voracious drug habit. Realising her mistake, she swiftly annulled the marriage and returned to the sheltered security of the Jackson estate. 

Unfulfilled in life and in her career, Janet reluctantly agreed to a temporary make-or-break move to Minneapolis to record her next album after Jam & Lewis refused to work in California.

Holed up in the production duo’s Flyte Tyme Studios, Janet, Jimmy and Terry quickly established a bond which transformed the trajectories of their careers, cultivating a unique sound which comprised rap, R&B, funk and pop (later termed New Jack Swing) and utilised cutting-edge technology to create an innovative art of noise. Teaming their ground-breaking sonics with Janet’s declarations of independence, control and respect, Control was undeniably a landmark record.

Now 36 years later, it manages to sound gloriously retro and futuristic concurrently. The crunching beats and percussive tics of Nasty berate the guys that had tried to intimidate her in Minneapolis, while the irresistibly funky What Have You Done For Me Lately updates Aretha’s demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

When I Think Of You, with its euphoric stabs of brass capturing the giddy heights of love, the chaotic euphoria of The Pleasure Principle and tender ballad Let’s Wait Awhile maintain a standard so high that seven of the album’s nine tracks justifiably went on to become hit singles. 

Self-assured, sassy and streetwise, Control sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

Read our feature on the making of Control here.

Rhythm Nation 1814
Released 1989
Label A&M
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.4

Janet Jackson albums – Rhythm Nation 1814
Janet Jackson albums – Rhythm Nation 1814

As is always the case when something becomes popular, pressure mounts to replicate that success and with Control’s impressive stats, A&M had a strong case for wanting Janet to continue in the same milieu for its follow-up.

However, feeling she had covered those themes, Janet eschewed their instructions for a carbon copy sequel and instead chose to tackle more expansive issues. 

Inspired by channel surfing during studio downtime and feeling deflated by the constant stream of negativity in the news (sound familiar?), Janet, Jimmy and Terry came up with the concept of a modern-day take on the social commentary of Marvin Gaye’s soul classic What’s Going On. 

Prompting unification through music, Janet created a movement with a manifesto to highlight the world’s ills – including racism, poverty, illiteracy and prejudice. The album was conceived as an immersive experience rather than a straightforward collection of tracks, beginning with a pledge and featuring between-song interludes to weave the material together.

Opening with a suite of songs that brought a strong socially conscious message – the Sly & The Family Stone-sampling title track, the slick swingbeat of State Of The World and sparse, industrial feel of The Knowledge, the mood of the album switches up with an interlude asking, “Get the point? Good, let’s dance!”, before giving way to a string of punchy dance tracks – all of which added to Janet’s impressive tally of US Top 5 hits, Miss You Much, Escapade and Alright, yearning ballad Come Back To Me, and the hard rock of Black Cat.

Although Rhythm Nation is deeply entrenched in its harsh black and white imagery and the iconic video for the title track, featuring Janet and her troupe of dancers delivering ground-breaking choreography in black military-inspired jumpsuits and baseball caps, as a body of work, the album’s severity is countered by many lighter moments. The highlight of which is the sparkling sensuality of Love Will Never Do (Without You), a seductive delight that served as the perfect teaser for where Janet headed next.

janet.
Released 1993
Label Virgin
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.1

janet
Janet Jackson albums – janet.

A lot had changed in the four years since Janet’s previous studio album. She had signed a deal with Virgin worth an estimated $40 million, making her the highest paid artist in the world, scored one of her biggest hits with The Best Things In Life Are Free with Luther Vandross, and shot her debut film, gritty romantic drama Poetic Justice.

Unbeknownst to the world at the time, she had also married her boyfriend, René Elizondo Jr. The combination of the latter two ignited the confidence and sexual liberty that informs 1993’s janet. 

The laidback groove of That’s The Way Love Goes, which effortlessly eased Janet back into the spotlight after a lengthy break, was the perfect reintroduction, topping the US chart for eight weeks.

Elsewhere, the album draws from a diverse range of influences with alt-rock (What’ll I Do) nestling comfortably next to operatic melodrama (This Time). You Want This and Because Of Love are both hip-hop-flavoured dance tracks, Throb is a pulsating house anthem and ballads Where Are You Now and Again are beautiful in their simplicity – the latter of which earned Janet an Oscar nomination due to its inclusion in Poetic Justice. 

Rhythm Nation’s social commentary is revisited briefly on New Agenda, which includes a rap from Public Enemy’s Chuck D, while the sensual The Body That Loves You and Any Time, Any Place are tailor-made for Janet’s fans who had confessed to playing her music while having sex, leading her to dub them her “baby-making songs”. Hidden track, Whoops Now, a Motown-flavoured breezy effort was one the album’s biggest hits in the UK, while the high-octane sexplicit masterpiece If provides the album’s highlight.

Janet’s newfound confidence and sexual liberation were reflected in the album’s artwork, particularly the cover, shot by Patrick Demarchelier. Deemed too risqué by the record label, who cropped the image to focus solely on her face, the full-length version, featuring a topless Jackson gazing confidently while a pair of male hands (later revealed to be her husband René’s) cup her bare breasts, became one of the most iconic pop images of the decade.

The Velvet Rope
Released 1997
Label Virgin
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.6

The Velvet Rope
Janet Jackson albums – The Velvet Rope

Having completed a hugely successful tour, renegotiated her record contract to $80 million, establishing her again as the highest paid artist in music history (at the time), and released her first greatest hits compilation, Design Of A Decade, Janet should have been feeling on top of the world.

In fact, she’d hit rock bottom, suffering what she later realised was an emotional breakdown. 

Backstage on the tour, the singer was unable to emerge from deep sadness and depression. Despite her status as one of the world’s leading sex symbols, she was plagued by body dysmorphia.

Rather than enjoying her wealth and success, she constantly felt worthless and inadequate, prompting psychotherapy that delved as far back as childhood to come to terms with her feelings. Understanding that other people must be sharing her insecurities, Janet poured her findings into her most personal LP.

Encompassing hip-hop, R&B, jazz, trip-hop, dance and electro, The Velvet Rope covers a myriad of subjects from the scathing self-analysis of You, the self-affirming Special and vitriolic What About, which tackles the horrors of domestic violence while Empty predicts the hollowness of social media. Go Deep, despite the title, has nothing to do with  therapy, and is the album’s most feelgood moment along with Together Again, an uplifting homage to Janet’s friends lost to AIDS.

Sexuality is also a central theme of much of the record, be it subtle (a cover of Rod Stewart’s Tonight’s The Night maintains the gender of the original and is sung to a woman), blatant (Rope Burn which is an ode to sado-masochism) or righteous (Free Xone denounces homophobia). Other high points include the sleek Joni Mitchell-sampling Got ‘Til It’s Gone, the synth-infused swingbeat of the title track and sublime R&B balladry of I Get Lonely.

Although it didn’t sell as well as its predecessors – though eight million copies is an impressive result – The Velvet Rope is in many respects Janet’s masterpiece and its influence on sub-genres including neo-soul and alt-R&B is undeniable. 

All For You
Released 2001
Label Virgin
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.2

All For You
Janet Jackson albums – All For You

Having offloaded some emotional baggage on The Velvet Rope and divorced her secret husband of nine years, René, the new millennium saw Janet in a positive frame of mind. She was excited to be single and dating for the first time, something she wanted to reflect in the fun, carefree stylings of 2001’s All For You. 

This forward-looking optimism informs a suite of feelgood songs which are the beating heart of the album, including the title track, America-sampling Someone To Call My Lover, house-inflected Come On Get Up and Doesn’t Really Matter. 

Things take a darker turn and deceit and betrayal are explored on the synthesised swagger of You Ain’t Right, the vitriolic Son Of A Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You), the sublime rocky, hip-hopera Trust A Try, before the mellow drum’n’bass of Better Days concludes the album on an optimistic note.

While All For You is a solid collection, it’s let down by the inclusion of too many bland boudoir ballads and the between-song interludes that enhanced previous records are now rather detrimental to the overal effect.

Nevertheless, despite competition from a generation of artists who followed in her footsteps, Ms Jackson reigned supreme scoring her highest first-week sales and fifth consecutive US No.1 studio album.

Damita Jo
Released 2004
Label Virgin
Chart Positions
US No.2 UK No.32

Damita Joe
Janet Jackson albums – Damita Joe

In a parallel universe, Janet’s 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show went according to plan: the wardrobe malfunction didn’t happen and her performance proved to be the meticulously choreographed launch for Damita Jo that it was always meant to be, and the singer’s eighth album went on to achieve the success it deserved. 

Of course, we all know that’s not what happened. The ridiculous overreaction to a flash of nipple saw Janet blacklisted by America’s major media organisations, thus derailing her career.

The fact that Justin Timberlake was held totally unaccountable for his part and saw his career flourish, highlighted America’s inherent sexism and racism with Janet solely suffering a backlash which has only dissipated in the last few years.

Released eight weeks after the Super Bowl debacle and unfairly eclipsed upon release, Damita Jo, when judged entirely on merit, is a diverse collection of songs, some of which rank among Janet’s best.

The horn-filled hip-hop of the title track and Strawberry Bounce explain Janet’s adoption of different personas in order to feel more liberated (a concept later explored by Beyoncé with her I Am… Sasha Fierce album). 

The acoustic-flavoured hip-hop of My Baby (featuring relative newcomer Kanye West) is charming, as is Thinking ‘Bout My Ex which contains all the hallmarks of Babyface’s classic R&B. Meanwhile, the lilting ballad Spending Time With You seguing into the Cathy Dennis co-write Island Life transports you to tropical climes.

Elsewhere, All Nite (Don’t Stop), with its irresistible hook, is a scorching companion to Throb from 1993’s janet., R&B Junkie is a fun throwback to the 80s, while I Want You takes us back even further with its lush production that pastiches classic 60s soul. Just A Little While, a new wave-flavoured song with a nod to Prince makes a cute album track but remains a baffling choice for Damita Jo’s lead single. 

Washed away in a tsunami of controversy, Damita Jo marked the beginning of a decline in sales for Janet and was her first studio album since Dream Street to miss the top spot in the US albums chart. Underrated and unfairly maligned, it is nevertheless a worthy addition to her canon which houses more than a few hidden gems.

20 y.o.
Released 2006
Label Virgin
Chart Positions
US No.2 UK No.63

Janet Jackson albums – 20 Y.O.
Janet Jackson albums – 20 Y.O.

The danger of using a landmark album from your back catalogue to hype up the release of your new record is that as well as creating a buzz, you also risk the danger of sparking expectations that are almost impossible to live up to.

Therein lies the main problem with 20 Y.O. Titled as a reference to the two-decade time-lapse since the release of Control, the record was teased as a sequel of sorts to Janet’s classic LP, and on that premise, 20 Y.O. (20 Years Old) falls way short, mainly due to a disparity of the styles on offer.

Hip-hop beats, 80s synths and an abundance of samples permeate much of the first half of the LP with Do It 2 Me and the Herbie Hancock-sampling So Excited (the album’s second single) proving the strongest.

However, the quality control takes a substantial leap towards the end when Janet reunites with Jam & Lewis for standouts Daybreak (which recaptures the breezy joy of Escapade) and the laidback groove of Enjoy, while the sensual Take Care and Love 2 Love are her “baby-making songs” done right. 

Unfortunately, a duet with Nelly, Call On Me, a weak retread of the rapper’s Kelly Rowland collab Dilemma, was released as the album’s lead single. That decision, along with the continued fallout from the Super Bowl, saw the LP underperform, spelling the end of her 13-year tenure at Virgin.

Discipline
Released 2008
Label Island
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.63

Janet Jackson albums – Discipline
Janet Jackson albums – Discipline

Having signed to Island Records, Janet chose to revamp her sound, embarking on a project without Jam & Lewis for the first time since 1984’s Dream Street. Without a single writing credit on the album from Janet, Discipline was also the least involved she had been on any of her later records.

As is the case with her first two albums, Janet’s lack of involvement results in a collection that falls short on personality and could be anyone thanks to its manipulated vocals on many of the tracks.

Her weakest collection since her breakthrough, Discipline does, however, have a few redeeming qualities. Lead single Feedback evokes Blackout-era Britney, while the sensual house of Rock With U and electro-infused R&B of 2Nite and Luv both make for highlights. 

Despite becoming her sixth No.1 album in the US, Discipline’s sales continued a decline for Janet. After the LP failed to produce any follow-up hits to Feedback, the campaign was shelved, prompting Janet and Island to agree to terminate their contract.

Unbreakable
Released 2015
Label Rhythm Nation
Chart Positions
US No.1 UK No.11

Janet Jackson albums – Unbreakable

With countless false starts and abandoned album recording sessions rumoured in the seven years since her previous release, not to mention an apparent focus on acting projects, fans had all but given up on the prospect of a new studio album from Janet. Though she had nothing to prove at this point, 2015’s Unbreakable, far exceeded expectations.

Her best album since The Velvet Rope, Unbreakable recreates the undeniable chemistry and magic conjured up by the dream team of Janet, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Highlights include dancefloor anthems Burnitup! and Night, the sensuous R&B of No Sleeep, retro-inspired hip-pop via Dammn Baby and anthemic power ballad Well Traveled. Also impressive was the slick synth-pop of The Great Forever and the emotional Shoulda Known Better.

Landing her back at the top of the US album charts and greeted with a critical reception which finally gave her work its long overdue credit, Unbreakable is a triumph on all counts.



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Watch “Gold” by Osvaldo Supino

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Considering the speed at which Osvaldo Supino is putting out his new tracks these days. I did not find it unusual when I discovered a press release announcing a new pride song by a Milan-based independent singer-songwriter hidden away in the submissions pile. (That has grown since I returned from Europe over the summer.) Similarly, if anyone was going to share an anthem for pride, one from Osvaldo Supino was likeliest an obvious choice.

During pride month it is typical. There are a number of tracks recognised for their uplifting and empowering nature. Of course, Osvaldo should put out a celebration song that at the same time contains an important message and becomes a real hymn to tolerance, respect and love for oneself. This song is “Gold“. “It goes beyond any flag color, beyond any genre, but directed at the essence and beauty of each of us.” – says Osvaldo, further adding

“Sometimes it is precisely what has hurt us so deeply and how we get up to make us understand how important we are. For ourselves, how strong we are despite everything, how “golden” we really are.”

Listen on Apple Music

His intention with the song is to go beyond promoting only feel-good vibes. There is plenty of such like happening in the rousing melody of the track. Using splashes of colour and gold embellishments, of course. The music video, produced together with the Caravians, highlights diversity and uniqueness. There may be countless tracks written over the years that are called ‘gold,’ but the one by Osvaldo wasn’t mere luck on his part. The anthem bears the hallmarks of classic dance-pop. This is a song that is suitable for any occasion The club, the beach, a birthday party, or even at a grandparent’s wedding anniversary celebrations. A song with multi-purposes is always good to have. As “Gold” suits many occasions, Osvaldo can expect to perform it from here until eternity.

More reasons to celebrate. VEVO has also selected Osvaldo’s song “Gold” for its Pride Vevo 2022 campaign.

Connect with Osvaldo Supino
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/osvaldosupino
Twitter: https://twitter.com/osvaldosupino
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/osvaldosupino/





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Q+A – Held By Trees

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Held By Trees

David Joseph’s instrumental project Held By Trees sees Talk Talk alumni joining forces for a remarkable album that immerses itself in the aura of the band’s Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock eras…

Instrumental project Held By Trees is the stuff of dreams for fans of Talk Talk and Mark Hollis. Helmed by multi-instrumentalist and composer David Joseph, their new studio album Solace dips into late-period Talk Talk and Hollis’ solo LP for inspiration using many of the same musicians that played on those sessions.

Guitarist Robbie McIntosh, percussionist Martin Ditcham, pianist Laurence Pendrous and flautist Andy Panayi are all onboard, while the record is mixed by Talk Talk collaborator Phill Brown. 

Furthermore, the eight-track LP includes a latter-era Pink Floyd ambience in places with the band’s live guitarist Tim Renwick also contributing to Solace. Bolstering the ranks, too, are Dire Straits founder member David Knopfler, Blur/Damon Albarn sideman Mike Smith and blues great Eric Bibb. 

If, like many of us, you’ve looked at Talk Talk’s slim yet stunning discography and yearned for more, this new album is a mouth-watering prospect. And as Storm Eunice battered CP Towers, the irony of discussing a record that celebrates the calming power of nature with David isn’t lost on us.

How did the initial Held By Tree project come together? Was there a specific jumping off point for it?
It was a couple of days in the first lockdown – a glorious Spring, an unprecedented quiet in the world, the aroma of blossom and cut grass was on the breeze. It was like nothing any of us have ever known before. Traffic was off the roads, people could only travel a certain distance from their homes.

The world felt like it was breathing in a new way. I found myself noodling on my home set-up and realised I was leaning into my great reverence for Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis’ solo record. That minimal spacious sound. I came up with three pieces of music then sent them to Tim Renwick. He introduced me to Phill Brown who engineered and mixed the late Talk Talk albums and Phill was really encouraging.

In turn, Phill intro’d me to Martin Ditcham who played percussion on those records. That started a train of thought – what would happen if I got together some of the musicians that worked on the Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock sessions? I knew the had a long parade of musicians coming in and improvising on compositions. I thought they could then do a similar thing with my drum patterns and chord progressions. 

That then prompted you to look further afield for collaborators…
I found Laurence Pendrous on Facebook who played piano and harmonium on Mark Hollis’ solo record. Andy Panayi also came from Facebook who played flute and clarinet on Mark’s album. Before long, I had a nucleus of people who’d worked with Hollis and/or Talk Talk. Then we got Robbie McIntosh, who uses the same studio in Dorset as me – Room With a View – in on the sessions.

We started to replace my demos with real parts allowing places for more improvisation. This was all going on during various stages of lockdown so a lot of these guys recorded their parts in their own home studios. The cast has ended up including David Knopfler, Eric Bibb – who’s a massive hero of mine – as well as Mike Smith who is Damon Albarn’s musical director and plays saxophone on our album. 

This must be the first time that this set of musicians have been back together working on the same project surely?
It is. Someone I guess was always going to think of this, though. It just happens to have been me. Time waits for no man and many of the collaborators on those Talk Talk records are no longer with us. People like Henry Lowther on trumpet. We’re 30 years on from the last Talk Talk album and 25 years on from the only Hollis record. That’s a lot of silence.

There’s a lot of Pink Floyd influence on this album, too, and the instrumental supergroup Sky. And there will always be a lot of influence of whatever Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon are up to. Blur are my favourite band. There’s a parallel with what Damon is doing in his solo work these days in improvisation and being inspired by the landscape. 

Held By Trees Solace
Held By Trees – Solace cover

What about live plans? There’s footage online of you rehearsing…
We’re exploring that very seriously for late 2022 or sometime in 2023. Everyone in the band is pretty busy. We have Robbie McIntosh and Paul Beavis who is Andy Fairweather Low’s drummer. Andy Panayi is an in-demand session musician and accomplished jazz soloist who also lectures at the Royal College Of Music.

Fittingly, there’s an ecological element to the new album…
We’re partnering with the Play It Green organisation. We’ll be able to plant a real tree in a sustainable managed forest in Madagascar for every album that we sell, which takes care of our carbon footprint. It actually takes out more carbon from the atmosphere than we put in via manufacturing the record. We’re not the first to do this, I think Pink Floyd planted forests with the proceeds from their Echoes compilation about 20 years ago.

But to know we’re doing this with a clear, green conscience while celebrating the natural world with our music feels right. We’re using as little plastic as possible in the manufacturing process, recycled eco mix vinyl and recycled card with the CDs. Without being preachy, annoying and woke, we’re trying to do the right thing regarding climate change.


The power of nature is intrinsic to the statement you’re making isn’t it?
The album is called Solace for a reason – the music was solace to make for me during lockdown and I hope it translates for the listener that they find a sense of comfort and peace listening to it. Trees are a divine symbol of solace because they quietly get on with giving us air, removing carbon and serving this planet.

When we walk among them we’re in the company of a lifegiving force. Nature looms large in the album as I’ve included field recordings I made in the South West over the course of several months. There’s a real thunderstorm from a field in Wiltshire, the sound of the waves from Bournemouth beach at night and birdsong from a wooded valley in North Somerset.

That’s woven into the music and there’s something about the sound of the natural world which does something to the human soul that’s quite powerful. There’s nothing like the dawn chorus or the sound of a blackbird singing as dusk comes on.

There’s an incredible bravery to Mark Hollis’ songwriting, the way he gradually stripped it back was almost unprecedented as a major artist…
It was a withdrawal and a deliberate direction that ends with years and years of silence. Not just in terms of his musical output but in terms of his press. Now, of course, he’s passed on so that silence is permanent. That journey is almost a perfect narrative.

With the Hollis solo LP, there’s a kind of intimacy and vulnerability that’s incredibly disarming and almost painful in its paucity because there’s so much space and weight on every note. I’m almost emotional thinking about how the solo album ends. How the silence that follows was so intentional.

As I understand it from talking to people who knew Mark, there was never any intention of making a follow-up. He’d said everything he wanted to say. He worked a little bit with UNKLE but remained uncredited as he got his name taken off the album. Mark also produced a couple of tracks on Anja Garbarek’s album Smiling & Waving in 2001. Then there was this weird 30-second piece for the TV show Boss

It’s a pretty nondescript piece of music isn’t it, that soundtrack piece...
It’s incidental sound really. If Mark had done anything you’d think it would be along the lines of avant-garde minimalists like Morton Feldman, Steve Reich or John Cage. Deliberately obtuse and difficult. He did a solo piece for an art installation that’s called Piano, which is out there and was around the same time as the solo album.

There’s no singing on it, it’s just piano. The first song on our album is called Next To Silence. If you imagine an ocean of nothing in terms of where the Talk Talk/Hollis thing got to, to even tread on the edges of that holy ground I thought that we had to emerge from the silence.

I’m at pains to say that I don’t think I’m Mark Hollis and we’re not Talk Talk but if we are going to have so many people involved in this project as worked with them, then uttermost care and reverence needs to be applied because of how much that music means to so many people. It only increases as time goes by as more and more generations discover Spirit Of Eden onwards. I know that I have to tread incredibly respectfully. 

Held By Trees’ Solace is out now



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