In the mid-‘80s, the popular music landscape experienced a sudden takeover by aging yuppie hipsters who looked more like your parents' bosses than they did teen idols. In spite of the '80s being such an image-conscious decade, guys who looked like Huey Lewis, Phil Collins, Eddie Money, and Steve Winwood were able to convince a predominantly teenaged record buying public to purchase records by the millions, with their “Dirty Uncle Berty-mugs” on the album covers. From roughly 1985-1988, images of middle-aged white men with conservative coifs and four-in-hand knotted ties were dominating the MTV airwaves, while their songs dominated the Billboard charts. Considering this bizarre phenomenon, Robert Palmer had a lot in common with his contemporaries in this troupe. The one thing that DID set Robert Palmer apart from his '80s peers was a semblance of sex appeal, aided by the everlasting image of him crooning in front of a band of pasty, mute women in the “Addicted to Love” music video. Ultimately, Palmer became a victim of his mid-'80s success. His legacy lies more in an image frozen in a brief period of time, rather than in the surprisingly diverse and interesting music he recorded before 1985. In particular, his mostly forgotten 1980 album Clues showed a side of Palmer that had not been seen before, nor would it ever be seen again.
While his big hit singles- “Addicted To Love,” “Simply Irresistible,” and “I Didn’t Meant To Turn You On”- are pop classics that define a decadent era, they fall short of fully exhibiting the eclectic potential heard in Palmer’s best work. Palmer paid his dues in the late-‘60s and early-‘70s fronting several blues based bands in the UK, along with a very brief stint singing for Little Feat. By the mid-‘70s, Palmer had a solo recording contract with Island Records, where he essentially became a run-of-the-mill, blue-eyed soul crooner. After years of flops as a major label artist, he finally had a breakthrough in 1978 when his single “Every Kinda People,” a Caribbean-flavored R&B song written by Free’s Andy Fraser, snuck into the Billboard Top 20:
At this point, Palmer seemed destined to enjoy a modestly successful career with radio hits on uninspired MOR/adult contemporary radio stations with the likes of “yacht rockers” such as Christopher Cross, Dan Fogelberg, and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers. But Palmer would crank it up bit with the more raucous 1979 single “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor).” Penned by Moon Martin, it became a #14 hit that gained Palmer some more mainstream exposure:
The modest successes Palmer experienced on the singles charts at the end of the 1970s seemed to reinvigorate his lust for songwriting. To kick off his career in the new decade, Palmer decamped to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, where he would act as sole producer on the sessions for Clues. It was an ambitious effort for Palmer, who was desperately determined to shed his singer-for-hire status in the music industry and prove his worth as a true artist in the studio.
The recording sessions for Clues enabled Palmer to take advantage of a time period when it was acceptable for a major label artist to take risks in the studio. That period of 1979-1981 was something of a musical Renaissance: with the emergence of technology in the recording studio, the influence of the New York art scene, and the post-punk attitude that flowed out of the UK, many artists were releasing some of the most interesting, if not slightly divisive, works of their careers. Established acts like Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Phil Collins, and even Paul McCartney released some of their most challenging and artistically successful albums during this period, competing with the experimental sounds coming from new wave and post-punk acts such as The Clash, Joy Division, DEVO, XTC, and Talking Heads.
Speaking of Talking Heads, it is interesting to note that they were recording their landmark Remain In Light LP with Brian Eno at Compass Point at the same time that Palmer was there working on Clues. The staggering amount of creative energy floating in the ether at Compass Point at the time is mindboggling. Perhaps also a bit mindboggling is the vastly different trajectories the two records, recorded at the same time in the same studio, were about to take: Remain In Light not only became an essential new wave staple, but it became one of most influential albums of any genre of all time, while Clues was a mostly forgotten work by the end of the decade, going out of print by the mid-‘90s. On the surface, this fact is not surprising, for it was far easier to write-off Palmer by the end of the ‘80s. From 1985-1989 he was a multi-platinum music video star, whose career took a mighty tumble back into crooning mediocrity (his last charting single was a rather pedestrian cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” in 1991). That Palmer capitalized on his “Addicted to Love” fame will forever haunt his legacy. Therefore, his earlier, less commercially successful works seem less important to rediscover- his career was seemingly based on image and commercial success, not innovation and artistic integrity (like Talking Heads). Yet, in 1980, these two differently remembered acts were peers on an equal-level playing field.
That evidence lies in the liner notes of both records: Palmer contributed percussion for several tracks on Remain In Light, while Heads’ drummer Chris Frantz pounded the kit for Clues’ quasi-title track, “Looking For Clues.” This track opens the album and is a generous sample platter that offers listeners a rather filling appetizer for the rest of the album: an interesting mix of styles, with a dab of funk here, some crunch-rock over there, plus a not-at-all-out-of place xylophone solo. Also, Palmer manages to flawlessly harmonize with himself throughout the song. The music video for the song, which aired on MTV’s first day of broadcast, may not be as influential as those other music videos Palmer became known for in the latter half of the '80s, but it is unquestionably his most enjoyable visual effort:
“Johnny and Mary” is arguably the most well-known song off the record and is probably the closest Clues has come to any sort of mass recognition. The song's video received a relatively generous amount of airplay on MTV and a fair amount of spins on dance club turntables. Allegedly, "Johnny and Mary" also inspired Rod Stewart to record “Young Turks” (arguably his last great song). But apart from hearing “Johnny and Mary” occasionally on classic-era playlists of just about any hip city’s independent radio station, it’s practically a misfit on the island of “Forgotten New Wave Singles.” It’s hard to fathom why that was the song's ultimate fate- nevermind the mimes in the campy music video:
Running at just over a half-hour long, there is not one wasted moment on the LP. Side 1features the record's more accessible material. Apart from the aforementioned standouts “Looking For Clues” and “Johnny and Mary,” “Sulky Girl” is a genuine toe-tapper featuring lyrics that Elvis Costello would envy (Yes, I am aware Costello recorded a song with the same title) and “What Do You Care?” is perhaps the most exciting stadium jam that never was, complete with thunderous hand claps and referee whistles. Up to this point in his career, Palmer was mostly known for his blue-eyed soul crooning rather than his ability to toe the line between slick lounge lizard and blue-collar troubadour. However, he manages that feat on Side 1 with unparalleled success. But if Side 1 is mostly fun and games meant to exhibit Palmer's knack for writing a good tune (he wrote of the all songs, a rarity for him), Side 2 is where Palmer becomes more meditative and produces some of his most challenging material.
Throughout his entire career, both pre- and post-Clues, Palmer traditionally covered many songs for each LP. For Clues, however, he limited himself to two: The Beatles’ “Not A Second Time,” Clues' penultimate track and new wave icon Gary Numan’s “I Dream Of Wires.” Palmer does a rather faithful rendition of that Beatles deep cut, while giving it an appropriately experiemental new wave update. However, it is his Gary Numan cover, which opens Side 2, that is one of the more fascinating moments on the record. Not only does the track’s hypnotic and droning quality seem way, way, way out of Palmer’s wheelhouse, Numan himself plays the synthesizer on this recording. That’s right, Gary Numan performs on a cover of his own goddamn song!
A vote of confidence from Numan, perhaps? It’s highly likely, consdiering how “I Dream of Wires” is a highly successful centerpiece to Clues, bridging the gap between Palmer’s past and present sounds. In addition to hanging out at Compass Point to play keyboards on a cover of his OWN GODDAMN SONG, Numan co-wrote and played on closing track “Found You Now.” The Numan-effect here is merely ornamentation to the island-synthpop-rock sound Palmer was successfully aiming for, as “Found You Now” bares hardly any resemblance to what had preceded Numan’s career up to that point.
The aforementioned island-synthpop-rock sound is also fully exhibited in “Woke Up Laughing,” which most recently popped-up in the final scene of Pineapple Express. Earlier, I disucssed how Clues was written and recorded in the Bahamas' Compass Point at the same time as Talking Heads were there recording Remain In Light. This is pure speculation, but “Woke Up Laughing” could provide music geeks the world over with a game of “Who inspired whom?” While the island atmosphere both artists were working in no doubt influenced their creative processes to a certain degree, “Woke Up Laughing” comes off as the song David Byrne wishes he would have written for the Remain In Light sessions. Rather than forcing it out, as Byrne possibly would have (I say that as a HUGE Byrne fan), the song's atmospheric qualities come natural to the perpetually relaxed Palmer, in spite of the juxtaposition that the song's paranoid lyrics provide:
Upon its release, Clues would find a modicum of commercial success, mostly throughout mainland Europe. However its reception in the U.S., and to a lesser extent the U.K., was lukewarm at best (the album peaked at #59 on the Billboard charts). Songs like “Johnny and Mary” and “Looking For Clues” would gain Palmer brief exposure on MTV and college/alternative radio stations, but his big moment in the sun was still a good 4 or 5 years away. Had Clues seen more record sales in the U.S. or the U.K., an entirely different career could have emerged for Palmer and we would perhaps be living in a world where Clues ranks among the finest pop records of all time. Perhaps critics and music fans would have seen Palmer as more serious of an artist than he's now know for. But alas, this was not to be.
Historically, Clues may be considered merely a precursor to Palmer’s “magnum opus,” 1985’s Riptide. Before that, though, the personal artistic success of Clues fed into Palmer further experimenting on his 1983 album, Pride. However, Pride was a critical and commercial failure, the most personally upsetting professional setback for Palmer. He would escape the shadow of that slump by collaborating with Power Station in late 1984, a “supergroup” that included members of Duran Duran who weren't Simon LeBon and members of Chic who weren't Nile "Get Lucky" Rodgers. Riding the coattails of the surprising success of Power Station (a cover of T. Rex's "Get It On [Bang A Gong]" was a major international hit), Palmer rushed into the studio in 1985 to record Riptide. The rest was history, as Palmer spent the latter half of the decade being one of the most commercially viable acts on the planet. However, he wound up limping his way through the ‘90s, feebly attempting to recapture past glory. Inexplicably, Palmer would spend a ludicrous amount of time in the ‘90s updating and remixing the heart out of many of Clues’ songs and sprinkling them into a series of greatest hits compilations called- you probably guessed it- Addictions Vol. 1 & 2. It was as if Palmer sensed that the record buying public seemed to have no interest in Clues, and he, too, needed to follow suit.
At the time of his death in 2003, precious little was written about Clues, if anything at all, outside of mentioning it in a discography. Palmer’s epitaph might as well have just read “He was ‘Addicted to Love.’” He had released his final record earlier that same year, Drive, an album containing mostly covers. Surprisingly, it was hailed by critics at the time for being one of those celebrated “return-to-form” records. One can never know what else might have been for Palmer, but perhaps the bigger tragedy is that the fantastic work he created outside of his most commercially successful period is largely aignored or just forgotten.
In the end, Clues contains a little bit of what Palmer is remembered for, that being a smooth, slick and soulful new wave crooner. At the same time, though, it gives listeners "clues" to everything he will perhaps never be remembered for: When he wanted to be, Palmer was an eclectic and risk-taking artist who was fully capable of creating work that could both stimulate the neuroses of the intellectually hip and give the layperson a handful of great hooks, but only if they were all listening.
(NOTE: Robert Palmer's Clues is currently out-of-print, however, it can be purchased digitally through iTunes and vinyl copies of the record can often be found wherever used LPs are sold. Also, this piece was edited from the original, which was written for an abandoned project in July of 2012. Apparently, in the year since this piece was originally conceived of, Mayer Hawthorne has come out to admit that he thinks Clues is awesome. Great.)