Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Robert Palmer: Before He Went Yuppie (AKA Robert Palmer: Proto-Yuppie?)

To paraphrase Noah Cross from Chinatown, you may think you know Robert Palmer, but believe me, you don't. "Hey, it's that 'Addicted to Love' guy! It's cool how he came out of nowhere with a killer video like that." Yes, "nowhere" - or to be more specific, ten years and seven albums of nowhere. Yuppie Rockers don't grow on trees, you know.

But if this Yuppie Rocker could have grown on trees, they would have been palm trees. Either palm trees, or those big drippy weeping willow-looking thingies you always see in pictures of plantations, because on Palmer's first couple of albums, he thought he was a funky New Orleans R&B singer. The thing is, when you're being backed by the Meters and covering Allen Touissant, you practically are a funky New Orleans R&B singer. Also, by chance, if anyone reading this happens to be looking for the great lost Little Feat album, Palmer's early albums are it, since that critically revered '70s boogie band played back-up on most of the songs, and he covered several Lowell George numbers as well. Here's the Touissant-penned title track from his first album, Sneakin' Sally Through The Alley, back when he thought he was the white reincarnation of Al Green. When people think of Robert Palmer, they don't think of music that sounds like this:

I know I didn't. I figured, "Well, if I'm going to write about the guy, I guess I better hear some of his early albums." And then "some" turned into "all of them except one," because, hey, each AMG review sounded kinda interesting, and then before I knew it, I woke up in an outhouse in Baton Rouge smothered in Robert Palmer mp3s. I thought a Best Of was gonna do it, but it turns out there's way more Robert Palmer than anyone other than his former agent can claim to know and understand. And his catalog is fairly consistent - although not exactly predictable. As I dug deeper and deeper, an existential question crept into my mind: Just exactly what kind of a singer was Robert Palmer? He was a little bit bar band rock, a little bit reggae, a little bit disco, a little bit blue-eyed soul, a little bit New Wave, and a little bit easy listening - you know, the usual. I was trying to think of a similar artist. AMG lists everyone from Foreigner to Bryan Ferry to Chic to the Knack (!). And the thing is, those all work! He was like the bastard child of Jimmy Cliff and Eddie Money. Despite all the shifts in musical style, however, there was one quality of Palmer's which remained constant: style. The man was like the James Bond of pop music, perennially prepared to pose for a Calvin Klein ad, with not even a single strand of hair out of place. Robert Palmer was suave before suave was "in." He was, if you will, proto-Yuppie.

So I thought this would be easy and I could just post a couple of videos and move on to the crap we all know, but now I find I've come to a crossroads. It's the worst kind too: the Robert Palmer crossroads. How do you sum up the '70s output of Robert Palmer? What happens to a dream deferred?

Well, you've got the reggae Robert Palmer. Here's his cover of "Pressure Drop" from his second album, which sounds more like the Doobie Brothers than Toots & The Maytals, but hey:

Then he moved to the Bahamas. I don't know if people are aware of this, or it's possible they forgot, but Palmer actually started having hits in the late '70s. Although his first three albums were solid from top to bottom (I actually haven't heard Some People Can Do What They Like, but I'll do what I like and assume it sounds like the other ones), he didn't sniff the charts until Double Fun's "Every Kind of People," which peaked at #16 in 1978. It's not so much "reggae" as it is "Caribbean," and the verses sound a little like Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," which Palmer eventually covered in the '90s, so I guess that shouldn't be too surprising.

And how could I skip "Bad Case Of Lovin' You (Doctor Doctor)," which hit #14 in 1979? Like the Rascals with "Good Lovin'" before him, Palmer seems to misunderstand what exactly it is that doctors do. Here he is doing a great Jimmy Fallon impersonation, about thirty years too early:

Honorable mentions: "How Much Fun," "Give Me An Inch," "Trouble," "Which Of Us Is The Fool," "Man Smart (Woman Smarter)," "Best Of Both Worlds," "You're Gonna Get What's Coming," "Can We Still Be Friends," "Jealous," "Woman You're Wonderful." Surprise all your friends at an upcoming house party with a killer '70s Robert Palmer mix.

Anyways, the existence of early Robert Palmer always confused the hell out of me. "You mean that's the same guy who did 'Addicted to Love'? How could he have had a hit in 1979 and then have done nothing for so many years?" Well, as any Eastern sage will tell you, it is impossible to do nothing, but the point is, in the years leading up to his MTV glory days, as we shall see, Robert Palmer mostly continued to do what he'd already been doing. Here was a '70s singer who didn't need to go and transform into a Yuppie. He let the Yuppie ... come to him.

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