Joan Armatrading

TrackAlbum
City GirlWhatever’'s For Us
Mama PapaInto The Blues
Eating The BearWalk Under Ladders
MovesSecret Secrets
WillowShow Some Emotion
Somebody Who Loves YouJoan Armatrading
Barefoot And PregnantTo The Limit
Virtual RealityThis Charming Life
Travel So FarBack To The Night
Ma-Me-O BeachMe Myself I

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Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

I don’t believe that Joan Anita Barbara Armatrading has ever recorded a poor song. She has a glorious voice that is so evocative whatever song she is singing and in whatever style. And there have been a variety of styles. Seen as the first black female artist to break into the UK rock scene, Armatrading has used blues, reggae, folk, jazz and soul influences in her music.

Joan Armatrading is a fiercely private person who has always argued that her music should be our focus and not what happens behind her front door.

Born on the Caribbean island of St Kitts in December 1950, Joan Armatrading came to the UK, to Birmingham, in 1958. She began writing songs at age 14 at a piano her mother had allegedly bought ‘as a piece of furniture’ shortly after she acquired her first guitar swapped for a pram at a local pawn shop.

Joan Armatrading has released 18 studio albums since 1972 and I have deliberately erred towards the non-single released album tracks for my selection which is why I have omitted Love And Affection possibly one of the most beautiful songs ever written and always a joy to hear, All The Way From America one of my favourite songs, and Drop The Pilot which reached No.11 in the singles chart. I identified a track from each album as outlined below then arranged them into a playlist, the first ten of which became my Toppermost. It has meant that songs I thought would be certainties have missed the cut, such is the quality I had to choose from.

I hope I’ve reflected the breadth of styles that Ms Armatrading has recorded. I also hope she would approve of the final lists – the 18 and the 10.

Her first album, Whatever’s For Us, was released in 1972 with Pam Nestor having written the lyrics for 11 of the 14 songs. It is said the record company saw Armatrading as the more likely ‘star material’ and broadly airbrushed Nestor out of the project. The whole album is spectacular and selecting only one song has been a pleasure, in that I have listened to the whole album end to end a number of times recently like revisiting an old friend having forgotten just what good company they are. As it happens my choice is one of the three Armatrading compositions; City Girl is a good indicator of what was to come. The Nestor-written It Could Have Been Better is a simply beautiful love song, as is Mister Remember Me. The album is in my 20 favourites of all time.

There was close to a three year gap to the release of Joan’s second album, Back To The Night by which time she had signed with A&M. The album included two songs co-written with Pam Nestor. Three tracks stand out for me: Steppin’ Out, Cool Blue Stole My Heart, and the lesser known Travel So Far which is the song I have chosen for the reasons cited above.

Joan Armatrading’s eponymous third album, released in 1976, gave her a top 10 hit single and I have mentioned Love And Affection above. It also has Tall In The Saddle and another tender love song, Somebody Who Loves You, that warrants inclusion in this list. The following year’s Show Some Emotion was not as critically well received as its predecessor but reached No.6 on the UK album charts. The title track itself and the rockier Kissin’ And A Huggin’ and Mama Mercy are the highlights of the album along with Willow, which is a song that tells of unconditional friendship, and selected itself – just listen to that bass line!

Barefoot And Pregnant from the next album, To The Limit, was a phrase that had come out of the Women’s Movement. I believe the full expression is “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen”. Armatrading was intrigued by the expression and its implications; the lyric is her cry against the control the phrase indicates.

The title track of Me Myself I is another anthem to independence and gave Armatrading a minor hit single, as was All The Way From America. The album was Joan Armatrading’s most commercially successful and Ma-Me-O Beach is an upbeat song with humour in the lyric. Only a black person could get away with writing a song about sunbathing and include the lyric, “me I’m brown enough, in fact I’m overdone”.

Walk Under Ladders was another commercial success although the resultant singles did not sell well. The Bear in Eating The Bear refers to life’s challenges, hence the lyric. I believe Armatrading heard the expression on tour somewhere and it stuck with her. May you eat the bear on a daily basis.

The Key from the album of the same name refers to the latch key Armatrading wears around her neck as a legacy of her childhood. (I Love It When You) Call Me Names was written about two men in a band who were always arguing and Drop The Pilot was a hit single and is still a great song. The Game Of Love can be about everyone’s relationship at some point and I urge you to seek it out. Continuing the theme, the next album, Secret Secrets, is about difficult, or failed, relationships as evidenced by my selection, Moves.

I had chosen Killing Time to represent the next album, Sleight Of Hand, the first that Armatrading recorded at her own Bumpkin Studios and also the first that she chose to produce herself having had the experience of arranging the songs on Secret Secrets.

The Shouting Stage has a more relaxed feel to it as evidenced by Watch Your Step. Mark Knopfler (see Toppermost #162) contributed to the album, and Did I Make You Up was based around a riff he had improvised in the studio.

I really like the album Hearts And Flowers (1990) and The Promise Land tells of the feelings we’ve all had at the beginning of a relationship when the uncertainty gives way to certainty. I wanted to have all ten but this is my favourite. When it came to the crunch, the song just missed 10th spot.

Square The Circle has a more pared down sound, more of a pop-rock album that its predecessors as evidenced by Crazy with its organ led solo.

After 18 years with A&M, Joan Armatrading signed for RCA Records in 1995. What’s Inside was the first album from this relationship. Merchant Of Love has a simple piano, guitar, bass, drums arrangement whereas there is a full orchestra on much of the rest of the album. The track Shapes And Sizes was inspired by the death of the British journalist and broadcaster, Brian Redhead.

There was a seven year gap to Lover’s Speak which is an album of unashamed love songs of which In These Times is an example.

Into The Blues released in 2007 is a triumph and was No.1 in the US Billboard Blues Chart and was nominated for a Grammy Award. I wanted to include the whole album. Mama Papa is a four minute autobiography.

Virtual Reality from This Charming Life (2010) and Close to Me from Starlight (2012) complete the Toppermost Ten and the longer Toppermost collection, respectively!

Joan Armatrading has a range and a quality to her voice that I would love to hear paired with June Tabor (see Toppermost #125) with the Oyster Band backing them.

Joan Armatrading – the official website

Joan Armatrading biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #171

4 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Jan 19, 2014

    Thorough and intriguing round up. It’s funny how things pass you by, there’s just so much music. The last one I bought was “The Shouting Stage” and I’m astonished to see that was way back in 1988. Then I just stopped noticing. Just been reading all the amazon reviews of ”Into The Blues” and I had never heard of it. Will investigate.

    On “seen as the first female black artist to break into the UK rock scene” I’ll have to nit pick. I’d see Linda Lewis, born the same year, actually in Britain. Recording five years earlier, first solo LP a year earlier, though major success was about the same time. You could argue the three UK-domiciled Americans too: Madeleine Bell, Marsha Hunt, P.P. Arnold, but Linda Lewis fits “singer-songwriter” which they don’t. I would agree that Joan Armatrading has the higher profile though.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 20, 2014

    Very good list – two of my personal favourites, however, would be ‘Down to Zero’ and “Dry Land’ which, in my view, is probably her best song.

    Like Peter, however, I am far more familiar with her older material than the new…

  3. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 15, 2014

    I am interested in the relation between music and politics. Joan Armatrading’s “Tall In The Saddle” was a favourite song among Swedish political feminism in the 80s. I have not heard her name in this context after that.

    • Ian Ashleigh
      Feb 15, 2014

      So far as I know, Joan Armatrading is publicly apolitical. The song may have been adopted by the Swedish feminist movement due to its lyric.

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