On the few occasions when my devout atheism wobbles, I call to mind the fact that a just and fair God would not allow Shaun Ryder and Shane McGowan to still be walking among us when Robert Palmer is six feet under. This isn't a value judgement on their music (though I've never understood the appeal of The Pogues); merely an observation about the relative health of all concerned. Shaun and Shane, who've been responsible for a large percentage of the GDP of Afghanistan, Bolivia and Dublin between them, are still dragging their cadaverous frames around the circuit. Palmer, on the other hand, who looked like a walking advert for Shredded Wheat (fit, tanned, peroxide-white teeth) took out a mortgage on a pine bungalow in 2003. Where's the justice?
To add insult to injury, I get the impression that Palmer's musical stock is pretty low too. Most people's image of him is of a self-satisfied smoothie, soul with the rough edges sanded down. And yet Robert Palmer produced a string of terrific LPs, and had a musical CV that oozed credibility. For fuck's sake, he roped in The Meters and Little Feat to make his first solo album, and you don't get much more credible than that. He also worked with Lee "Scratch" Perry, The System, half of Chic, Talking Heads (Chris Frantz guested on Clues; Palmer returned the favour by appearing on Remain In Light), Gary Numan (don't laugh- Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor are totally on the money when they cite him as an innovator), and, er, two of Duran Duran, and had the taste to cover Allen Touissant, Toots and The Maytals and Bob Dylan.
So, why is his name now accompanied by a sneer among the cognoscenti? Well, the Terence Donovan-directed video for Addicted To Love didn't really do him any favours in the long run. Sure, it was his biggest hit, but it also cemented the image in the public's mind of Palmer as a smug Lothario surrounded by bimbos. Even in Saturday's Guardian, Chromeo can't see past the tailoring (though they're correct when they say he's been all but forgotten).
So, does Palmer really have the funk, as Chromeo maintain? Well, judge for yourself. A few choice cuts are reproduced below. The first, Best of Both Worlds, is from Double Fun, his 1978 LP, the cover of which features a grinning Palmer surveying a couple of recently discarded bikinis by a swimming pool. While both the song and the album cover are a product of their time, there's no doubting the quality of the instrumentation on this gently lilting, reggae-inflected classic. In case you still don't believe that Palmer, now viewed by most as a slightly hipper Tom Jones, once had credibility to burn, this track(and much of Double Fun) is produced by Tom Moulton. Who hell he? Well, he's only the man who practically invented the 12 inch single and the genius behind Love Is The Message by MFSB. In fact, Tom Moulton is so achingly hip that those arbiters of urban cool at Soul Jazz have recently compiled a "best of".
The next cut, You Are In My System, is a cover of a lesser-known tune by The System (Palmer also had an endearing knack of championing the less obvious-- I remember an episode of The Tube where he was raving about the new album by The Family). Its digital, brittle funk may seem a little dry when placed next to the slinkier grooves of Sneakin'Sally Thru The Alley or Pressure Drop, but he was always able to intuit the zeitgeist, and this is exactly the sort of thing that was au courant in 1983, especially around Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where the likes of Tom Tom Club and Grace Jones had seemingly taken up residence, and where Palmer's albums Clues and Pride were both recorded under the auspices of the late Alex Sadkin. Incidentally, this version of the track is taken from a cheapie "best of", and not from Pride, which I don't own on CD; from memory, the vocal sounds like its been re-done on this one.
If his reputation has suffered, it probably dates to the time he left his spiritual home, Island, to sign with EMI at the end of the eighties. Out went the collaborations with Talking Heads and other darlings of the NME. In came the singles with the likes of UB40, and the playing up of the lounge lizard image. However, one album from his EMI years stands out, and is worth checking the bargain bins for. Strangely, and despite the above, it's an album of covers of 40s and 50s standards by Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Sinatra and the like, entitled Ridin'High. Usually this sort of lazy cash-in is the last refuge of the creatively bankrupt (cf. Bryan Ferry's Dylanesque), but in this instance it works, thanks in part to the daring orchestration of Clare Fischer, who also scored The Family's album, cited above. For my money, and this really will set the cat among the pigeons, Fischer beats Nelson Riddle's original orchestration into a close second place with his take on Witchcraft, and while Palmer's vocal on the track isn't quite on a par with Sinatra, the man from Batley adds enough brio to make this cover his own.
Download Best of Both Worlds MP3 (deleted May 2008)
Download You Are In My System MP3 (deleted May 2008)
Download Witchcraft MP3 (deleted May 2008)
Buy A Tom Moulton Mix here