ROCKWiRED REWiND: JOAN ARMATRADiNG - THE KEY (1983)
ack 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.
I LOVE IT WHEN YOU CALL ME NAMES
DROP THE PILOT
EVERYBODY'S GOTTA KNOW
WHAT DO BOYS DREAM?
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.
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