Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sticks & Stones May Break My Bones, But Names Will Never Hurt Me

Though Joan Armatrading may have left at the age of eight, the little Caribbean island of St. Kitts would undoubtedly lay claim to the gifted singer/ songwriter as being one of their own. Armatrading emigrated to England with her family and in her early teens was gifted her first guitar by her mother (swapped at a pawnbrokers for two used prams). By her late teens Armatrading had formed a songwriting and performing partnership with Pat Nestor, also from the West Indies (Guyana).

The pair penned the songs for Armatrading's 1973 debut album 'Whatever's For Us', but when the album credited only Armatrading, the partnership was ended (Nestor wrote most of the lyrics to that point). The album was strongly influenced by the work of Joni Mitchell, and was well received though didn't chart. Armatrading then signed with the bigger A&M label and a belated second album 'Back To The Night' was released in April '75. Again the album missed the charts and didn't produce any hit singles, but it was obvious to the label that Armatrading was a rare talent and was a work in progress at that point.

1976's self titled album proved to be the breakthrough for Joan Armatrading. She had developed a style influenced by, but independent of, other female singer/songwriters. It's
easy to hear the influence that Armatrading's work during this period had on Tracy Chapman a decade later. 'Joan Armatrading' (UK#12/US#67/OZ#52) featured a song that would finally breach the singles charts in 'Love And Affection', which peaked at #10 on the British charts in late '76. Armatrading was aided in the studio during this period by the work of veteran producer Glynn Johns who was at the controls for 1977's follow up album 'Show Some Emotion' (UK#6/US#52/OZ#18). The album featured 'Mama Mercy' which was Armatrading's first foray into the Australian singles charts (#77).

1978's 'To The Limit' didn't produce any chart hits but continued Armatrading's solid record on the albums charts (UK#13/OZ#42). The live set 'Steppin Out' was especially well received in Australia late in 1979 (#23) which led into Armatrading's most productive period. The single 'Rosie' (OZ#52/UK#49) wasn't indicative of the harder rock
edged sound that Armatrading would introduce on her next album. 1980's 'Me, Myself, I' (UK#21/US#28/OZ#13) proved to be her most commercially accessible album to date. The title track cruised into the UK top 5 in mid 1980 promising big things for Armatrading. 'Walk Under Ladders' (1981) was even more warmely received reaching #6 in the U.K. and #16 in Australia, but America remained an elusive market in terms of serious sales.

1983's 'The Key' would unlock the American market for Armatrading. The lead out single 'Drop The Pilot' parachuted all the way to #11 in Britain and #6 in Australia, and though its sales were relatively disappointing Stateside (#78), its
straighter edged pop-rock sound added Armatrading to a great many radio network play lists, paving the way for 'The Key' to reach #32 in the U.S., the album reaching #10 in Britain and #4 in Australia (who had strongly embraced Armatrading and her music by that time - so much so that she had been given the Key to the City of Sydney). The follow up single '(I Love It When You) Call Me Names' continued the pop-rock motif but somehow missed the charts altogether in Britain, though it reached a solid #20 in Australia. Though I do like a lot of Armatrading's earlier work, '(I Love It When You) Call Me Names' is her best pop song as such, and one of my favourite songs from 1983. On the back of 'The Key's success A&M released a greatest hits package in late '83 featuring the previously unreleased track 'Heaven' (UK#14).

'The Key' was undoubtedly the commercial peak in Joan Armatrading's career but 1985's 'Secret Secrets' was a solid performer (UK#14/OZ#18). 'Sleight Of Hand' (1986-UK#34/OZ#39) produced another great Armatrading track in 'Kind Words (And A Real Good Heart)', which I bought on vinyl 45 at the time (though not many others apparently did). 1988's 'Shouting Stage' featured the guitar work of Mark Knopfler, and for an album which didn't yield any hit singles, it performed remarkably well on the charts (UK#28/OZ#15).

The 90s saw a slide in album sales generally for Armatrading though a steady output of recordings kept her fans happy throughout, and albums such as 1990's 'Hearts And Flowers'
(UK#29) and 1992's 'Square The Circle' (UK#34) gained her even more fans. In 2000 she was asked to write a song of tribute to Nelson Mandela, Armatrading performing the finished song for the first time in a private audience with Mandela. And proof that she isn't content to rest on her laurels came with 2007's 'Into The Blues' which saw Armatrading become the first UK based female artist to debut at #1 on the U.S. Billboard Blues Album Chart, gaining her third Grammy nomination in the process. The prolifically talented Armatrading has also found time to record an album of lullabies for a British charity, host several radio series in the U.K., and complete a university degree on the side.

Though prolonged commercial success has largely eluded Joan Armatrading, her uniquely rich vocal style and astute songwriting mix featuring elements of folk, reggae, soul and rock, has established her as an artist of enduring quality with a strong and loyal global fanbase.


Meggsy said...

One of my favourite female artists, such a strong and at the same time tender voice.
Cheers Meggsy

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Totally agree Meggsy - she is definetely a class act :)