Joan Armatrading On The Spot

IN THE STRANGE WAY it has at certain phases of your life, time is running backwards for Joan Armatrading. She’s growing younger. To prove it she’s getting spots.

Now acne might be part of the deal for a legitimate adolescent, but when you’re approaching 30 it’s an unsettling development. “And they always come up when you’ve got to go on the telly,” she protested.

One of these malicious zits reared its head just before she was going to make a promotion film for ‘Me Myself I’ and it put her through a very Joan Armatrading trauma. The make-up girl said she’d fix it, no problem, and zoomed in on the artist’s chin with a fingerful of brown stuff and Joan found herself diving away as if it was a dentist’s drill.

She had to be practically strapped down for the cover-up job to be completed: “I’ve never worn any sort of make-up and somehow it didn’t feel right, I didn’t want it.”

‘Me Myself I’ to a tee. Although she has been telling people for years that her songs are all imagination and there’s no point in trying to detect autobiography, she concedes that the single/LP title track is JA all the way. She is a person who values being herself totally, no artificial additives.

That’s why she’s never smoked or taken drugs, why over recent years she’s cut out drinking any alcohol at all and become a vegetarian. Ms Clean if you like, which is probably one reason why she seems more unfashionable as she gets more popular. The rare falls from grace she will confess, such as an occasional six-week bender on cheese and onion crisps, doesn’t quite make it. Somehow, but not exactly in McCullough terms, she isn’t rock’n’ roll.

I think that’s a lame and limiting view of her, though. After seeing her Hammersmith Odeon gig I feel she has developed the best female rock voice extant, and is moving fast towards finding its full potential.

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FOR OUR INTERVIEW she sat on the window-ledge in the A&M office just as she had done when I first met her five years ago. But she is not the same singer, she is not the same person who first attracted mass attention with the tenderness of ‘Love And Affection’, Beautiful as that will always remain, it’s her past.

I’m not saying she’s better now, but she is transformed, in new territory, I mean, the singer she reminded me of most at the Odeon was . . . Roger Daltrey. Fraid so. For sheer vocal poke dominating a very loud band it’s the only comparison in my experience. If God is a woman She’ll be studying Joan’s form to pick up some tips on how to make Herself heard above the Last Trump.

Mostly it’s a conscious decision in line with her dropping the sax from her band and bringing in a second guitar. Recording the album she surprised producer Richard Goettherer by concentrating on the middle of her stratosphere-to-subterranean range and simply giving it stick. Her approach has hardened even more since then.

The Lizzie-like guitar tandem on ‘You Rope, You Tie Mean’ and Joan’s high-kick finish aren’t the keynotes of her set just yet. They are indications though. A young fan in front of me was headbanging. An older one beside me pronounced himself “disappointed”. Most of the crowd rushed down to the front. The portents seemed good.

Not that she’s going HM, mind. The possibilities are more Springsteen/Parkerish – passion-rock. The time seems to be ripe. When she was recording ‘Me Myself I’ in New York Springsteen was upstairs working on another chapter of the Bible or, conceivably; his new album and Joan borrowed Clarence Clemons for some sax bits. Meanwhile, whenever she went to the canteen she put Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ (co-written by Springsteen) on the juke box.

Why the change? Because she got happy. That’s really-it. “Just at the minute all I can think of is enjoying myself,” she said. “You know how you can hear me laughing while I’m singing ‘Friends’ on the album? I couldn’t stop myself. Just finding myself standing there singing, I seemed so funny.”

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BACK IN ’76 Joan told me she would give up live performance within two years. Then it was a form torture to her. Now she loves being on the road. Her formerly diffident, sometimes terrified, manner on stage has turned into an individual and attractive ease which reflects her continued wonderment at the way audiences respond to her. The straight-faced singer-songwriter image, the black Joni Mitchell figure, was a result of inhibitions. In 1980 she’s still discovering herself, still growing into her youth. She hasn’t shaken all the shackles though.

For instance, after years of practicing electric guitar in her living room, and establishing her mastery of the Ovation acoustic, she still can’t bring herself to play her Strat on stage. She almost got there in Europe recently, borrowing a Les Paul (which used to belong to Clapton) from Dick Simms, her current keyboard player. But then it started buzzing and burping and that was enough:

“The blooming guitar wouldn’t work so I thought ‘Let Bilko [Richard Belke] play it’. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. It’s still my solo though!”

In truth she’s intolerant with herself where she gives others the benefit of their mistakes, and she also feels the residue of that self-doubt which used to make her quiver on stage – she is not quite sure that the technique of the heavy sessioneers who parade through her band wouldn’t show her up (as if that mattered realty).

But these days with Joan it’s fear that’s got its back to the wall. She loves to see the charts and know people are buying and liking her music. The profits barely concern her. She lives as plainly as ever, with her abstemious habits and taste for cheap pleasures tike reading the Beano. Her car is newer and a couple of hundred ccs nippier, but she still gives lifts to hitch-hikers. She wore a pair of rather sudden pink boots instead of her usual plimsoles. Her only adornment is still her Yale house key on the chain around her neck.

Really it seems she can’t even give it away. She offered to buy her mum a house somewhere nicer than Birmingham: “You know what? She said she wanted the house across the street from where she is now. I said ‘But mum there’s someone living there’. So she said ‘I’ll wait then’.”

© Phil SutcliffeSounds, 26 July 1980

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