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Robert Palmer
Best Of Both Worlds/The Robert Palmer Anthology (1974-2001)
Hip-O
U.S. Release date: 30 April 2002


Unless really the next new thing, pop music dwells in cultural relevance and currency. That may be why, even though the public is tired of them, the “best ofs” continue to sell to untouched niches of the nostalgia markets. Which might do something to explain why Best of Both Worlds (subtitled The Robert Palmer Anthology, 1974-2001) is at least the 10th (though maybe the 11th or 12th) such compilation of his work released in the U.S. in about as many years. A decent collection on its own, there’s also one song that gives an advance taste of the material on his upcoming release, Drive, which is said to be more straight bluesy-jazzy thing than he’s ever before attempted.


I’m in a nostalgic mood because I’ve just listened to this latest anthology CD that spans a career of 27 years, so we’re talking major milestones big time. Those who happened upon Palmer’s music with his very first Island releases wondered why he seemed relegated to perpetual cult status—wondered, but not too much because the record business was always screwy and often unpredictable. Until, of course, the mid-‘80s arrived, a period that brought Palmer resounding mainstream success fueled by a made-for-MTV video, and the rest, as we know it, is history. As a vagary of public memory, Palmer’s more obvious “one hit song” (all right, then, “two hit songs”) threatened to eclipse forever the fairly respectable body of work that proceeded or any that might follow. As this double-disc collection shows in 42 songs, there was a lot more interesting about Palmer’s music than the material that made it to overplayed status, but just try convincing anyone of that fact.


Additionally, Palmer’s “image” happened to converge with the values and beliefs adhered to by those who aspired to what they imagined were similar lifestyles and he became visible in his career just as the yuppies (young, upwardly mobile professionals) began making their ascendance into society. As such, Palmer was subject to a nearly always-pitiless press because publishers sometimes love that sort of mumbo jumbo. Perhaps more to the heartless truth, the cosmopolitan café societies of Europe won’t ever translate well to Kalamazoo.


Flash forward to the present. It is morning for me in early August and the scheduled time for the telephone interview has arrived. I sometimes dislike interviews and perhaps for the same reason every one else does. Every statement for the reader is frozen in print and can become the truth for all time. That, and it’s always a challenge to catch anyone in a profound moment.


Up close and personal, though, Robert Palmer is disarmingly friendly, modeling beautiful manners and conversational charm. He seems to puddle up with good humor and many of his sentences end in a trail of laughter. Urbane, cheerful, always clever, he likes to be liked, and does not want you to think ill of him. When Palmer joshes or teases, just say “Hey!”




PopMatters:



First, may I say I’m recording this call and ask if that’s agreeable?



Robert Palmer:



Certainly, certainly. But in that case, let me ask you this. Is this for print?




PM:



It is for online print.



RP:



Good, then in that case I can use proper English?


See what I mean?


Calling from his home in Switzerland, overlooking his garden and the lakes, Palmer shared it was a beautiful evening there.


But what a surprise for me to hear, this chat was emanating from Switzerland. I should have felt more cosmopolitan just cradling the receiver, like a jet-setter, and should have said something appropriately yuppie here, like I wish I had the airmiles for that phone call.




RP:



I’m (let’s see) 3000 feet up in an old mill, an hour north of Milan. I’ve been here 15 years, so I must like it, eh?


So I’ll tell you in advance, he can appear to be a good guy, amiable and easy-going, and, as he sees himself, very fair-minded. And not modest about his attainments, as over the past several decades, he has been feeling affluent, and has become a club member of the rich and famous.


The Best of Both Worlds is the tipping point here. It’s a decent compilation, even for me, a person who is put-off by compilations. Today’s reason being something about creative output being filtered in this way. Anyway, there was only one song I wasn’t familiar with on the album, and Palmer wanted to know what that was.




RP:



Remember what?



PM:



“Milk Cow Calf’s Blues”.


People who know me might think I wouldn’t like even the idea of this cover, but I don’t find it offensive. Not only is Palmer’s smoky voice naturally suited to singing rhythm and blues, and even the blues, he’s also been known to pull it off. Plus he possesses enough sensibility to pay homage to the original. There’s enough going on to show there was some measure of emotional consideration, changing meter mid-lyric dependent on mood, occasional low bass drum stamped with a sense of unpredictable urgency or frustration, and other nuanced subtle accents. Palmer playing bass line tuba was remarkable enough in addition to providing vocals, but he also overlaid his own work on processed guitar.


I’m not even sure what “processed guitar” is, the modern name alone reminding me more of jeri-curl spray than Dixie Peach, but listening to the music, it wasn’t at all sacrilegious. Overall, not bad for an ensemble made up of an English ex-pat, an Italian on drums, and a German fellow on slide guitar. Though I still suspect that without cultural context, the stories might seem flat, at best confusing. Judging from this (and, I confess, having recently heard a plethora of bad blues or blues overdone, riding in on a constant loud pitch, shrill tone, and an over reliance on technique), I’m looking forward to hearing Drive. The album already promises to be better than most of what seems to be currently out there, at least anticipating by this one song.





RP:



Did you like that?




PM:



Yes, I do like that, and I’d never heard it before by you.



RP:



That’s because it’s coming out on my next record. It’s an advert for the next one.




PM:



Oh. That was clever.



RP:



It was clever to this extent, that I took it to the end. Since Universal munched up a couple of the previous companies that owned my material, it was the first opportunity I’d had to really make an anthology because I had access to it all legally.


And they said, go ahead, take your favorites off all of it, and put it together chronologically. And we’ve got this great mastering engineer, Suha Gur, who can give the whole thing an overall feeling of program, so there’s not that strange jump that you get with fidelity with technology—like an old fashioned recording against a modern recording is kind of jarring. He did a great job, and I was able to pick and choose between the best versions of songs, too, so if I’d reworked one in one way or another . . .


I was delighted with it, not only is it a comprehensive pop history of my own work, it also kind of reflects the trends in pop over the past 25 years. I was delighted with that.


There’s that chronological thing about it. Then the tunes get more and more familiar as they become number ones. Then I went to the extent of, as I say, advertising my next record, which strangely enough is a hark back to the ‘30s and ‘40s kind of approach to making music, a gutbuckety swamp thing. And I only finished that one about six weeks ago maybe. So it’s really comprehensive, and it’s amazing to me that I can listen to it for my own entertainment and not cringe. I like it a lot.


In fact, I kind of like the earlier stuff (laughter) more than the later stuff . . .


But it’s probably me. Doesn’t every one? The stuff I like most is the stuff I just finished. That’s where it’s at, yeah. But you sort of, like, hear the lacuna in your emotional vocabulary when you’re younger. Are you following me?


So, you think, “Well, oh boy!” that was a strange sort of insincerity that you feel, that sarcasm when you’re younger, and as you get older is when your attitudes become more deliberate and you’re retracking in your case your own work. Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s resonating more. So that’s how it’s got lately.


And to sort of have just finished a brand new record on top of making this anthology is a real kind of like, “Ah! Wow . . . what now?”




PM:



So anyway, the blues . . . “Milk Cow Calf’s Blues”. That’s probably the only Robert Johnson song that the Rolling Stones never recorded.



RP:



There’s a strange thing there. The record was more or less complete and I was intimidated by the act that we’re doing it. There was only, we’d only recorded 24 songs or something, so I was left with, I guessed, what we performed was the draft or something.


Strangely enough, when I went through it . . . that particular song, I’d known since I was a kid and I’d always loved it. I never knew what on earth he was singing, so the challenge was very weird. It was a kind of serendipitous thing that I’d been asked to do it. I’m sure everyone remembers “Crossroads” first, blah blah. I was just very pleased with the way that came out.


It was a catalyst. So why not try that? It was that and another event that said to me, ok, why not try that because that was an avenue that I’d never pursued. And especially since a lot of my peers grew up with that kind of thing and they were really into it. For me, it wasn’t sophisticated enough. So it’s strange to come back to it and realize that it was sophisticated, but I just didn’t know why. And of course the reason it’s sophisticated is the rhythm and the emotion.


Sorry. I’ve finished my tirade.




PM:



I don’t think it’s a tirade. I think it’s important for people to think about why music is meaningful to them.



RP:



The reason I mentioned it, it does appear that as time goes by—a lot of people get really enthusiastic about music in their teens and stuff—and they grow up with it—Bloom!—and then they (I don’t mean to be provincial) but they kind of get married and what not, lose interest in the hip scene, and don’t check it out any more. And some of them lose touch with content of music altogether.


And then you get these kind of like ‘80s sound, where in fact if you dissect it, it’s more resonant than that at least. Things do stand the test of time, and others don’t, they’re merely fashionable you know. And it interests me in a broader sense because I’m a big fan of music. I mean I listen and buy things all the time. So it’s not that I live in a vacuum. On the contrary, I would feel more in a vacuum in New York, it’s so predigested for me.




PM:



What are your impressions of the blues scene in Europe—is it really going along alive and well? I hear of little niche places happening in Denmark . . .



RP:



It’s an interesting thought, but unfortunately no. It’s the just same old chug-a-long bar gig it was, except if they get paid any more they just lose it. In content, it’s very much like treading water in terms of turning this new generation on to the vitality of this stuff. It’s kind of like, they come to stalk.


It’s marvelous when you visit Tokyo, they have these clubs and they’ll have “Motown Night” or “The Beatles—Totally Authentic and Live!” You know it’s shrunk, but at least there’s some sort of youthful figure to it. Whereas the blues scene in Europe is more like “Here we go again.”


On the other hand, in a broader sense, I have no idea why I went there. I guess it was just ambition. I’ve never done that. I can always press erase. I’ve killed Marvin Gaye songs, and, boy, that’s terrible. You have to at least feel you’ve re-illuminated them, never mind daring to release them. So that wasn’t too bad. But I found this most recent record I’ve made was the most challenging because it was the most exact mixture of emotion and rhythmic precision that I’ve ever come across. There was nothing I could mimic about it.




PM:



It was good stuff and I look forward to hearing more of that if that’s what Drive is going to be about.



RP:



You know, I don’t care if I say this. (Laughter). Because a couple of people earlier in the day, calling all over the world, have asked me what I’m wearing. How absurd to ask you what you’re wearing.


I told the truth (laughter). It’s not difficult, and at least they remembered what I said.




PM:



That’s good, it’s good to be truthful at least with certain people. Oh, here’s one, back in June you were onstage for an American Jazz Evening at a Beaux-Arts Ball in Brussels.



RP:



Oh, I was.




PM:



Yes, you were . . . with Dr. Gabs.



RP:



My goodness, where do you get your info? Are you the bulb on the screen?


(Well, I wasn’t sure what the heck he was alluding to, so I should have just tittered or said “Hey!”)




RP:



Actually he’s a guy that plays piano on the new record I made. He’s from the Belgian Congo and he’s the reincarnation of the best boogie-woogie and he plays African. It’s like unbelievable; I never heard anything like him. So I hired him out of the blue, so it’s tit for tat reciprocation. He said I do this thing every year, will you come up, so I said ok, we’ll do a couple of standards and a couple of boogies. It was crazy. Unfortunately he found delegates, and we could barely get in. There were no passes, no drinks backstage, and, boy, was everybody thirsty . . . we snuck out the back door, across the street and ran to the mall bar and came back with goodies.


They kind of thought the spontaneity had reversed.


So I was a bit awkward about it, because when I move into town it’s a bit like an army. You know, I want to be onstage when the second hand crosses the hour hand—“Do it!” and he was too laissez-faire for me. Anyway, it was ok. Brussels isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.




PM:



Do you have any thing on tap, performances or appearances on “this side of the pond”?



RP:



I know that’s the last question. It always is. And it’s no. It’s the same way as making sure that the inspiration comes before “product”. Going on tour has nothing to do with me. If something takes off, and the promoters are calling, you go out. You don’t go out to sell a record . . . that’s . . . inefficient. And that includes too expensive. These days, gigs are a split between stadiums and bars, with not much in between . . . dance halls (chung chung chung chung). It tends to be a bit of a circus these days, the gigs that work. I don’t know what I’m going to do about it, probably make DVDs. Hah!




PM:



Well, that’s probably a good idea. Because you know what? Most people want entertainment in their homes, is what I’ve decided, and as a result they’ve become pretty isolate, I think, at least in the US.



RP:



I agree. Consequently, with the advent of home cinema and the understanding that this generation that controls everything is living somewhere permanently . . . they invest in a car and a TV, and get involved in entertainment in a different way. To get somebody out of the house, especially when married with kids, becomes all different. To get somebody out of their house is difficult.


It all gets exchanged. Different things become important. Eating is very important. Shall we play a game of croquet. I don’t have to draw any lines. The phone rings, people call and say come over to Japan and mime on a TV show, I say sure. Obviously I have to check and make sure that I’m not advertising poisonous blow-fish.


So things come up, but in the meantime, you get busy enough as your life involves with getting better at your job, getting in on time, getting involved with more duties all because you are better at your job, and all . . . those . . . things . . . Trying to have a personal life that doesn’t interfere, keeping your things separate, and all that sort of nonsense. In the meantime, what are you going to do for entertainment? I buy Vanity Fair for the horoscopes.


It’s been nice talking to you, especially from the point of view that this is for “in print”. Because where I live, there are different languages and I don’t get the opportunity to speak English very much . . . so when I do, I get verbose. So let’s write it down.


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