ROCKWiRED REWiND: JOAN ARMATRADiNG - THE KEY  (1983) in 1991 I was sixteen years old and life as I knew it was falling apart due to the bitter, contentious and exhausting separation of my parents. This coincided with the year that grunge music had entered the public consciousness thanks to the blistering rage of NIRVANA and the flannel shirted cock rock raucousness of PEARL JAM. One would think that a sixteen year old like me at that time would've found common ground in this new rock n roll onslaught, but I didn't. I was a gawky, mixed race kid who had nothing in common with the white rage that was coming out of Seattle. The grunge movement to me seemed like a drab fashion movement and its puritanical ethos was at odds with the music I grew up loving in the bright, neon colored eighties. In fact, rivaling my obsession over the work of FRANK HERBERT at that time was my eagerness to immerse myself in the music that had come before me.

My musical salvation came in the form of VINYL INK RECORDS, a small record shop in Silver Spring, Maryland. I didn't have enough money to buy CDs but at VINYL INK I was able to buy albums from artists such as EURYTHMICS, THE STONES, PRINCE, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND, THE CLASH, BLONDIE, THE PRETENDERS and THE SMITHEREENS from $1.99 to $3.99. I was the only sixteen year old I knew who had an Emerson turntable. While I would record the contents of these albums onto cassette tapes for my Sony Walkman, my favorite past time was playing these records on the Emerson and getting lost in the music. My visits to VINYL INK were often and before I knew it I amassed a sizable and considerable amount of music. It was at one of these trips to VINYL INK MUSIC that I first discovered JOAN ARMATRADING and her 1983 album THE KEY.

Having not heard a note from the St. Kitts born U.K. songwriter, the album cover for THE KEY had to do all of the talking and it did so with its black background and a manic, colorful collage made of photographic and xerox cut outs and bright broad chalk and paint brush strokes. It all came together to form the figure of the singer songwriter brandishing a Les Paul guitar. And lets not forget the shiny key at the center. On the reverse sleeve of the album was ARMATRADING in the flesh in bold full color joyously posing with the aforementioned Les Paul. As a mixed race kid it was important for me to see a black artist holding an electric guitar. I wasn't into the modern R&B of the time or the hip hop that was coming out. A couple of years earlier the band LIVING COLOUR had a profound effect on me and I got the funny feeling that ARMATRADING would have the same effect on me.

JOAN ANITA BARBARA ARMATRADING was a born songwriter. By fourteen she was setting poems she had written to music on the keys of her mother's piano, but the young ARMATRADING truly persevered at her craft when her mother bought her a used acoustic guitar. At fifteen ARMATRADING dropped out of school to go to work to help support her large family which included five other siblings. If there was ever any doubt as to the woman's love for music, it should be noted that she was fired from her first job as a typist for playing her guitar during tea breaks. Slowly ARMATRADING began to find her footing in local coffee houses as a performer. In 1968 she was one of the stage performers in a local production of HAIR. It was through that experience that she met a young lyricist by the name of PAM NESTOR and the two formed a musical collaboration which would become ARMATRADING's first album WHATEVER'S FOR US on CUBE RECORDS. Unfortunately for NESTOR, the proposed partnership didn't fly with CUBE RECORDS who felt that it was ARMATRADING who had more star power. As a result, the songwriting partnership between ARMATRADING and NESTOR vanquished and the two women went their separate ways.

In 1975 ARMATRADING signed with A&M RECORDS and released her sophomore release BACK TO THE NIGHT with producer PETER GAGE. The album was a varied set of tunes with folk, jazz and calypso flourishes. It also featured future POLICE guitarist ANDY SUMMERS on the track STEPPIN OUT. Despite critical acclaim the album didn't make much of a dent. Success wouldn't come until producer GLYN JOHNS ( THE STONES, THE WHO, THE BEATLES, THE EAGLES) took a seat behind the recording console for JOAN ARMATRADING's eponymously titled third album in 1976. The album JOAN ARMATRADING went gold in the UK on the strength of its singles – the roaming country tinged rock ballad DOWN TO ZERO and the elegantly teasing torch song LOVE AND AFFECTION which stood out by a mile thanks to ARMATRADING one-of-a-kind chordal sense, her sweet-as-honey contralto and the alto saxophone of JIMMY JEWELL. The latter became a top ten hit in the UK and unfortunately made little dent in the U.S. which was infatuated by disco at the time.

ARMATRADING's association with GLYN JOHNS would continue for the remainder of the 1970s with a series of albums that boasted a sound with a range of musical influences from rock, folk, calypso and jazz. It wasn't until 1980 that ARMATRADING would return to gold sales with the album ME MYSELF I produced by RICHARD GOTTHERER (THE GO-GOS, BLONDIE). Aside from working with a new producer, ARMATRADING's career got a shot in the arm with an infectious new wave rock sound that made her already distinctive contralto all the more commanding. You can hear it loud and clear on the punchy reggae-fied title track. In 1981 ARMATRADING released WALKING UNDER LADDERS, this time with producer STEVE LILLYWHITE. Despite reaching gold status , the album's two singles I'M LUCKY and NO LOVE didn't chart significantly. THE WEAKNESS IN ME, another song from the album, never even charted despite being one of ARMATRADING's signature tunes.

*** became enthralled by JOAN ARMATRADING at the halfway point of her prolific career. Her 1983 album THE KEY is quite simply a hoot – a high energy bit of new wave with a decided rock edge. Once again, producer STEVE LILLYWHITE is in the producer's chair but on two of the album's tracks VAL GARAY (KIM CARNES, THE MOTELS) comes in to sprinkle a little early eighties pop fairy dust onto the recording in hopes of giving ARMATRADING a big US hit and he actually came through with the stomping new wave bop of DROP THE PILOT. THE KEY was a strange album to get acquainted with the work of JOAN ARMATRADING as it doesn't necessarily typify the earthy songcraft that has earned ARMATRADING a much deserved loyal worldwide following. While it's an energizing listen, at times the hard staccato synthesizer riffs can become a little too much. There is an irresistible urge to want to compare ARMATRADING with that other black female singer songwriter TRACY CHAPMAN, but in listening to THE KEY I found ARMATRADING had more in common with ANNIE LENNOX in terms of their strong contraltos, their androgyny and a similar lyrical perspective that takes great pains in analyzing a relationship down to the last detail. Maybe it's because they're both U.K. Artists? Who knows. THE KEY is an album with a sound as big as its heart.

An insistent drum beat and ADRIAN BELEW's disorienting lead guitar get this curious number to an engaging take off. I've made mention earlier in this article about ARMATRADING's contralto being able to issue sweetness and something a little more commanding. Here it is commanding yet the subject of the song suggests masochism. Violently so if the lyrics are to be taken at more than face value. For the verses only JOAN's voice and drumbeat dominate. When it gets to the chorus and bridges ARMATRADING and company rock out like nobody's business and you don't don't give a damn if the song is about being pushed around in a relationship and liking it. That's another similarity between her and LENNOX of that time – wanting too much of a bad thing.

This was the hit single on both sides of the Atlantic and armed with a clever music video, I have no idea why the thing wasn't as big a hit as EDDY GRANT's ELECTRIC AVENUE from that same year. I could've heard this one over the speakers at my local video game arcade. You have to give ARAMTRADING a huge amount of credit for not selling herself short as a friend and a lover. She offers solid ground to someone who is too flighty to know what the hell they they want. When you set that to a throbbing keyboard riff and and some power chords, you've got yourself a party and a reason to believe in love if you never did before. Kudos Mr. GARAY!

It was unknown to me at the time of my first listen to the album that ballads are kind of ARMATRADING's thing, so it felt like a revelation when side one of the album concluded with EVERYDBOY'S GOTTA KNOW. The woman puts her heart on her sleeve and the echo provided by LILLYWHITE, the synth-y landscape and BELEW's lead guitar send ARMATRADING's soulful plight all the way to the heavens. Yeah I got a little emotional at this one.

A quick scan of the lyrics on the liner notes would tell you that ARMATRADING knows more on the subject than she lets on. An interesting follow up single to DROP THE PILOT. I had no idea there was a music video.

With much of the album preoccupied with a whimsical outlook when it comes to love and life, it is surprising to find a song like THE DEALER toward the end of side two. Through her sparse lyrics and commanding voice, ARMATRADING paints the modus operandi of a cold, calculating character that you don't want to cross. Whatever you need she can fix it but you better pay up. ADRIAN BELEW's jarring guitar gives the piece a little extra menace. The song bears a striking resemblance to GRACE JONES' take on THE PRETENDERS' song THE PRIVATE LIFE.

*** KEY became another gold selling album for ARMATRADING reaching #10 on the UK album charts and coming in at #32 on the U.S. BILLBOARD ALBUM charts. In DEBRA RAE COHEN's review of the album in THE NEW YORK TIMES, she had this to offer: "Like a painter adding bright shades to her palette, Miss Armatrading is learning how best to apply the strength of her new tools, and gradually gaining the precision she has always had in the more muted shades. ''The Key'' isn't the end result of anything; it's just one more step in Miss Armatrading's continual journey ''To the Limit.'' With the whole spectrum at her disposal, Joan Armatrading should - finally - become a household name. But she's doing anything but holding her breath."

ROBERT CHRISTGAU of THE VILLAGE VOICE was just as generous. I think.

"Folkies manqué to the contrary, it's not hard rock she's unsuited for, a point she drives home on the side-openers, which are as nasty as this album gets both musically and emotionally, and also as rousing. What she's unsuited for is pop--the way Steve Lillywhite's hooks lockstep with her alto singsong on "The Key," "Drop the Pilot," and "The Game of Love" makes the friendly sentiments expressed therein seem mechanical. And since she's always been a tough broad, maybe they are."

THE KEY was the last JOAN ARMATRADING album to go gold but for me it was my first introduction to the singer songwriter. As I regularly frequented VINYL INK RECORDS I was able to pick up other titles from ARMATRADING such as her self-titled third album, ME MYSELF I and SHOW SOME EMOTION. Other albums followed the release of THE KEY but nothing charted exceptionally. However, critical acclaim often greeted every album until ARMATRADING was quietly released from A&M. In 2002 she released the independent album THE LOVER SPEAKS and has continued to release new albums consistently on her own without the support of a major label. I particularly warmed my heart when her gentle ballad THIS CHARMING LIFE was featured on an episode of SONS OF ANARCHY. JOAN ARMATRADING is an artist who has endured and boasts a catalog of music that still manages to woo and surprise.

FOR MORE iNFORMATiON GO TO: Lush is a music industry professional and entrepreneur. In 2005 he launched the online music site to help promote new music artists in conjunction with the weekly radio show Rockwired Live which aired on KTSTFM.COM from 2005 - 2009. In 2010 He launched the daily podcast series Rockwired Radio Profiles which features exclusive interviews and music. He has also developed and produced the online radio shows Jazzed and Blue - Profiles in Blues and Jazz, Aboriginal Sounds - A Celebration of American Indian and First Nations Music, The Rockwired Rock N Roll Mixtape Show and The Rockwired Artist of the Month Showcase. In 2012, Brian Lush and his company Rockwired Media LLC launched the monthly digital online publication Rockwired Magazine. The magazine attracts over 75,000 readers a month and shows no signs of stopping. Rockwired Magazine also bares the distinction of being the first American Indian-owned rock magazine. Brian Lush is an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Brian Lush's background in music journalism, radio and podcast hosting, podcast production, web design, publicity, advertising sales, social media and online marketing, strategic editorial planning and branding have all made Rockwired a name that is trusted and respected throughout the independent music industry.

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