Sneaking through the alley…

Cover!

Robert Palmer was a very cool dude. And he was never more fun or cooler than on his very first album. For one thing, he may have managed to get a line-up of musicians who were just as cool if not cooler! Honestly, if you were to list the personnel for the album without including Robert Palmer’s name, I’d jump at the chance to hear it.

The two biggest and most important names in the credits are Allen Toussaint and Lowell George. And as I’m writing this, I am now realizing Palmer, Toussaint, and George are all no longer with us. Whoa. Let’s not dwell. ANYWAY. Allen Toussaint is a New Orleans music god – up there with Louis Armstrong, Dr. John, and Fats Domino. He produced the album (and provided the songs “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley” — a hit for Lee Dorsey, a New Orleans music demigod — and “From a Whisper to a Scream”). And the whole album just has a groove about it. 

Honestly, I want to live in this album. 

Lowell George (of Little Feat) is one of the greatest (and occasionally oddest) songwriters. And no slouch on guitar. He helps in both categories. 

OK – cool. That’s a solid start. BUT WAIT – are those the Meters as the backing band?! Hot damn. Well, whatabout when they weren’t around? Oh, some of the best players in New York, including drummer Bernard Purdie, who has a goddamned beat named after him (“The Purdie Shuffle”).

And even with all this talent, Palmer holds his own.

But that’s all just fun background information – would anyone look at the list of players if it was a snooze? I Initially found the album in my dad’s collection… he may have even recommended it. And I was in love with this album for years before I even glanced at who was involved. 

Great. Let’s talk songs. The first three songs blend together beautifully and might be the funkiest 10 minutes of 1974. Or, as the promo puts it – 9:32 of Nifty Dance Time (I mean, they’re not wrong, and that speaks to some of the goofy stuff to come).

Promo!

“Sailin’ Shoes” is a Little Feat song that is definitely about cocaine and I honestly have no idea what any of it means. I love Lowell George songs. I rarely understand what’s going on in Lowell George songs. Drugs, travel, and music, mostly, as best I can tell (“Fat Man in the Bathtub” is probably about drugs? “Willin’” is the greatest truckin’ song ever written. And things like “Tripe Faced Boogie” and “Teenage Nervous Breakdown” are about… not paying too much attention to lyrics?).

1. Sailin’ Shoes
2. Hey Julia
3. Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley
Single!

I’ll get back to song two in a moment, but song three is the previously mentioned “Sally”, and lyrically a fantastic contrast to George’s song, at least in the sense that I know exactly what it’s about. Lyrics include such unambiguous statements as The fact is I’ve just been caught and Trying to talk doubletalk, get myself in trouble talk; Catching myself in lies. And while Palmer makes it clear that the situation is less-than-ideal, seems pretty jovial about the whole thing, sleeping in the bed he made and all that.

Now, obviously, these songs should be listened to in the correct order – they flow together very well. But I wanted to contrast “Hey Julia” (written by Palmer) sandwiched between the songs of George and Toussaint. And the lyrics are, well, goofy. How goofy? I’m compelled to just write out all the lyrics here, but I’ll try to keep it to a few highlights:

  • A horn section you resemble and your figure makes me tremble (Oh, to be compared to an entire section of a band or orchestra… I searched around a bit to see if this was a saying I was not aware of, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. Just how Palmer likes his women, I guess.)
  • You’re a strain on my eyeses and you’re full of surprises (this line is perfect)
  • Julia, you’re a danger just like giving sweets to strangers (I think Palmer forgot who is at risk when sweets are proffered (hint: it’s never the person who is giving away sweets))
  • And then there is the line that, while a little perplexing if you think about it too hard, is genuinely sweet: You’re a temptation to a man; I could not resist you, and I won’t if I can

“Hey Julia” was probably what really drew me into the album on my first listen. I still love it so much.

4. Get Outside

So three great and funky and great and fun and funky songs. Solid start. Now let’s cool off and get a little space… “Get Outside” instructs a person to, well, get outside. Over twenty times. As relief from the stress and commotion. Honestly, it’s not deep, but it is solid advice. Sometimes the song comes on when I’m on the subway and I look forward to a summer spent in the woods.

Back!
5. Blackmail

So, he’s done cocaine, said a bunch of goofy stuff to a girl, gotten caught cheating, then went for a hike. What other kinds of adventures remain to be discovered on side two? Well, much like “Get Outside”, it’s pretty easy to gather what song five is about (it’s about being blackmailed). Palmer and George both get writing credits, and that sounds about right. Combining the slightly odd storytelling of George and the catchy simplicity of Palmer, we get lines like Well you told me that you weren’t infectious; So I brought no precautions with me; And you said your old man was in Texas; And anyway he’d forgotten his key. Lady doth protest too much, “I’m clean. Also my husband is far away. And even if he weren’t far away (he is), he can’t get in the place anyway. C’mon!” That backfired. And I think the husband is happy and willing to pay him as this will be grounds for divorce, so it works out? But he does say Rendering you a service; Makes me feel real nervous; Trying to get me into your schemes. The story is unclear. The song is great. 

(note: I contend that all the songs are great; I will still probably make of point of saying each song is great at least once)

6. How Much Fun

“How Much Fun” is exactly what it says on the tin. A very fun song about having as much fun as you can. Oh, presumably by sleeping together:

We got what’s what

Let’s make it work

Feel the beat in your seat

Don’t make it jerk

Settle down, look around, there ain’t no rush

There’s a whole load of possibilities

Just the two of us

You make me feel like I don’t need another

Come on baby let’s pull back the covers

And do our best to help one another

Find out how much fun we can get into life

Robert Palmer

Favorite (most fun) part of the song? A little after the two minute mark a flute (flageolet?) takes the spotlight and just bounces delightfully over everything, provided by the South African jazz musician Mongezi Feza. No idea why he appeared in these sessions, but he joined Palmer for his next album as well. It’s these little things, ya know? Great.

7. From a Whisper to a Scream

And now, maybe feeling some regret from previous adventures, comes a cover of Toussaint’s “From a Whisper to a Scream”. A man who hasn’t been a good partner reflects on the fact that he, undeniably, has not been a good partner. He’s heartbroken. And actually admits it’s all his fault. That’s a nice bit of recovery from the first half of the album.

8. Through It All There’s You

The final song is my favorite song. Over 12 minutes long, it finds such a good groove and everyone shines. The lyrics are irrelevant – Palmer is using his voice more as an instrument than a vehicle, slipping and sliding around the instruments, eliding and slurring his words together, à la John Martyn (whose Solid Air came out a year before).  And the drumming! Purdie! Starts low-key, and he kicks it up every couple minutes, only to bring it back down to a simmer soon after. It’s amazing – constantly shifting and ebbing and flowing, but never less than the most critical part of the song’s structure. Are those TWO pianos? Yes. Richard Tee, who is on half the album, and he continues to shine, all the more impressive because the fella on piano number two is none other than Steve Winwood! What’s he doing here?! Mongezi came back too! This time with horns. In the twelve minutes the instruments bob and weave around each other, occasionally all coalescing for a minute or two of power, before cooling down just a bit. This song is great. Possibly better than great. 

There you have it. My overappreciation for an underappreciated album.

9:32 of “Nifty Dance Time” and another 26 minutes of fun, funky music. GET INTO IT.