Graded on a Curve: Robert Palmer,
Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley

I first heard Robert Palmer’s Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley the morning after my beloved alma mater, Shippensburg University, held its annual “Spring Fling” in a field in the middle of nowhere. Every year people would spend the day getting wonderfully wasted, and every year a tiny minority would disappear into the woods abutting the field for “a brief nap,” only to wake up the next morning marooned, like Robert Crusoe with a killer hangover.

I pulled this stunt one year—and figured I’d spend the remainder of my life out there all by my lonesome, living on squirrel meat and wearing bark clothing—when lo and behold another guy staggered out of the woods. And not only did he have a car, he had Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley playing on 8-track. I fell in love with it immediately, despite having a head that felt like one of those cartoon anarchist bombs that look like a bowling ball with a sizzling wick coming out of it.

For those of you who don’t know, there’s a million miles of difference between Palmer’s mid-1970s work and the swill—by which I mean the likes of “Addicted to Love,” “Simply Irresistible,” and “Can We Still Be Friends,” the Todd Rundgren tune that never fails to make me vomit from the ears—that constitutes his chief legacy to pop culture. And don’t even get me started on his stint with a few Duran Duraners in The Power Station. But the early Palmer, ah—that’s a different story. He had impeccable taste in studio musicians, could write a good song, and most importantly, he knew a great cover when he heard one.

Palmer’s solo career followed a stint with Vinegar Joe, the feckless English R&B band that released three forgettable (and I’m talking so forgettable I never even knew they existed) LPs for Island Records. Palmer obviously had friends in high places, or made a pact with the Devil, because Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley, his 1974 debut, is chock-a-block with big talents. Little Feat’s Lowell George, Steve Winwood, and The Meters (Art Neville on keyboards, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter, Jr. on bass, and Joseph Modeliste on drums) all play on the LP, while the great Allen Toussaint contributes two excellent songs, one of them the magnificent title cut. And while it’s perfectly possible to make a stinko LP even with such talent on hand, such was not the case with Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley.

The album opens on a high note with Palmer’s excellent cover of Little Feat’s “Sailin’ Shoes.” At the risk of angering Little Feat’s gigantic on-line fan base, which tore me a new asshole the last time I dared write a review of a Little Feat LP, I actually prefer Palmer’s version to Little Feat’s, because while the latter is pure blues genius, Palmer and The Meters opt (big surprise) to funk the thing up, and quicken the tempo some while they’re at it. And if that opening guitar riff has Lowell George—who wrote the song—written all over it, it’s because that is George.

The rhythm section is tighter than a Vulcan Death Grip, there are lots of cool female back-up singers, and Palmer doesn’t sound the least bit English, but more like he grew up next door to George, the two of them soaking up classic blues, funk, and R&B in George’s bedroom while his mom screamed up the stairs, “Turn that jukebox down!”

“Sailin’ Shoes” segues into the Palmer-penned “Hey Julia,” a syncopated and mid-tempo number that opens with a throbbing bass, handclaps, and some very cool percussion by Jody Linscott. But the song’s center is Palmer’s voice; it’s a revelation, the way he brings life to lyrics like “A horn section you resemble/And your figure makes me tremble/And I sure would like to handle what’s between your ears.”

“Hey Julia” in turn segues straight into the Toussaint-penned title cut, which is without a doubt the greatest song ever written. Okay, so I exaggerate. But it is one of the funkier tunes you’ll ever hear, and moves at a tempo that lets you know that Palmer and his fugitive inamorata aren’t so much sneaking through that alley as a making a mad dash. (See album cover.) Like “Sailin Shoes,” this one has more than a whiff of Little Feat to it, which is likely due to Lowell George’s slide guitar playing, as well as his general influence—let George get his foot in the door, and what you generally ended up with was a Lowell George song, whether he write it or not.

Meanwhile The Meters—with Simon Phillips filling in for Modeliste on drums—establish a slinky yet powerful groove (Porter’s bass is particularly ear catching) over which Palmer delivers a bravura performance on vocals. Both his phrasing and timing are impeccable, and his delivery is wild, man. He occasionally spits his words out in a mad rush, and nails the hazards of surreptitious romance with the speed jive, “Trying to double talk/Get myself in trouble talk/Catching myself in lies.” And Steve York’s harmonica solo is nothing to sneeze at either, although nobody ever sneezes at harmonica solos, just xylophones solos. Scientists don’t know why, but xylophones are the hay fever of musical instruments.

Palmer utilizes an entirely different band—the LP was recorded in three different locations, and Palmer chose to utilize the local talent in each case—on the slow and very funky “Get Outside.” The rhythm section of Gordon Edwards (bass) and Bernard Purdie (drums) will make your jaw drop. It made mine drop, anyway, but I suffer from a rare condition know as Shark Jaw, which basically means my jaw isn’t attached to my cranium. It’s extremely rare, especially seeing as how I just made it up.

But the rhythm section does kick keister, while Lowell George’s guitar—it’s the “George Effect,” yet again—gives “Get Outside” that Little Feat flavor. But my favorite parts of the tune are Richard Tee’s piano and—you guessed it—Palmer’s vocals, which are gritty when called for, and this tune definitely calls for some true grit. He groans, hisses, and digs down deep into his soul for that sound it’s impossible to emulate. Which is partly why songs like “Addicted to Love” annoy me so; they’re all surface and gloss, as if he’d turned in his musician’s union card in favor of imitating an oil slick.

Of course, the minute I say Palmer never plays it smooth on his early LPs what does he do? That’s right, he plays it smooth. And it doesn’t get much smoother than on the Palmer/George tune “Blackmail,” a fast-paced number that opens with some funky horns (for that Stax feel, natch). True, Palmer goes completely hoarse at the end, and (wonderfully) not a single soul in that studio insisted he re-record it “correctly.” And the song’s lyrics—which I suspect were written by George—are great, opening with the lines, “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.”

Needless to say, things go downhill from there, and what can I say? You’d think the guy would have learned his lesson sneaking Sally through the alley. As for Palmer’s “How Much Fun,” all I can say is lots, at least in this tune. A perky and upbeat song about drinking life to the dregs, it opens on a wacky note, then Art Neville plays a very funky piano riff that sounds like it came straight off a Little Feat record. Meanwhile the rest of The Meters funk things up, and George plays his guitar, although I don’t hear it. As for Palmer, who gets a lot of help from his female back-up singers, sings, “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.” Sounds like a plan.

Palmer plays soul man on Toussaint’s “From a Whisper to a Scream,” a slow but building R&B number that opens with an echoing wah guitar by The Meters’ Nocentelli and slowly builds while Palmer sings until in comes what sounds like the organ playing of Steve Winwood. I’m talking spitting image Traffic shit here people. But according to multiple sources the song’s keyboards are all played by Neville, while Winwood plays on the following track, “Through It All There’s You.” Anyway, no matter how you slice it, The Meters sets up one great atmospheric and snaky groove, with Nocentelli throwing great riffs your ears’ way while Porter works miracles on bass. Meanwhile Palmer takes punches at himself for fucking up a relationship. “From a whisper in the wind,” he sings, “To a loud scream the message came/That I’d lost you to another man.” And later, he tosses off the great line, “I took kindness for granted/As if it came with the wallpaper.” That’s what’s called poetry, folks.

As for the mammoth (12 and ½ minutes!) closer “Through It All There’s You,” its opening is a bit too Disco Dead for my comfort, what with its organ, drums, bass, and very Jerry gee-tar riff conspiring to make this tune a song very much of its time, and its time, as anyone who was around then knows, sucked. Which is not to deny that the tune’s propulsive groove will get you sooner or later, it having 12 minutes plus to do its dirty work. Nor is there any denying that Purdie’s drums are excellent, ditto Edwards’ bass and the horns. And the song gets downright funky at around the six-minute mark, with somebody (not Palmer) letting out the occasional cry while the band knocks everything up a notch.

But then that Disco Dead refrain returns, to the accompaniment of Palmer’s muttering, and everything slowly begins to wind down before starting up again, the band and Palmer—who outdoes himself at moments here, growling and repeating himself and generally upping the funk—giving it one final great go. Me, I’d have preferred a couple of songs (too bad Palmer didn’t get around to recording “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” and Little Feat’s “Spanish Moon” until 1976’s Some People Can Do What They Like) in its place. But what’s a guy to do? I’d go back in time in that pod Gary Wright’s looking all blessed-out in on the cover of The Dream Weaver LP and do some song shuffling, but I know Gary and he likes lending out his astral time travel pod even less than he does his riding mower.

It is my expert critic’s opinion that Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley is the best of Palmer’s LPs, better even than its chief competitor, Some People Can Do What They Like. Then again, I’m the guy who predicted a long and fruitful career for Mouth and MacNeal. But I am right about this; as Palmer’s career progressed, he slowly regressed, from being a great bona fide funk, soul, and R&B singer with a great voice to a pop star.

Nothing wrong with that—I fully intend to be a pop star myself one of these days—but his music slowly became every bit as cold, antiseptic, and robotic as the female clones or sexy cyborgs or whatever you choose to call those swaying and pouty “guitarists” who made the “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” videos such big hits. Like Rod Stewart (remember “Hot Legs”? I know, I wish I didn’t either!) before him, Palmer made hay (and a gigantic payday) by embracing a parody of sexuality, and it’s possible that’s precisely what he was looking to achieve, although I doubt it.

If so, he failed to account for the fact that by producing parodies, he became one himself. “Addicted to Love” leaves me cold because it is cold—and deliberately so—as cold as the Arctic, or a corpse. Which is why I intend to stick with the Palmer making his furtive way with Sally through the alley; he’s horny, afraid, and very, very much alive.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • Jazzthunder

    Great review and assessment of Palmer.the first Three albums were the best no doubt!

  • @nsmartinworld

    Robert wasn’t looking to achieve anything with the hits videos. He showed up to perform in them. That’s it.

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