Albums from the Lost and Found: Joan Armatrading / Walk Under Ladders / The Key

by Jeff Fiedler

Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.

She’s considered a legend in the U.K., where’s she had five Top Ten albums, twice been nominated for the BRIT award for Best Female Artist, won an Ivor Novello Award for songwriting, been given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the BBC (at their Radio 2 Folk Awards), and even been made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Yet the St. Kitts-born singer/songwriter Joan Armatrading still remains only a cult figure in the United States, where she’s strangely not only never had a Top 40 hit but has only ever reached the Hot 100 on one solitary occasion. This week we highlight three of this criminally overlooked artist’s finest albums during her two-decade tenure with A&M Records, starting with her 1976 Glyn Johns-produced self-titled third album (following 1972’s Whatever’s for Us and 1975’s Back to the Night), which, like most of Armatrading’s discs, features a great cast of supporting musicians, ranging in this instance from drummers Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention) and Kenney Jones (The Who, The Faces) to Peter Wood (Al Stewart, Tommy Shaw) and labelmate Graham Lyle. 

Armatrading did luckily attract enough raves for her third album to land an invitation as musical guest on the penultimate episode of the second season of Saturday Night Live, which did help boost album sales. (The self-titled outing would become her first album to reach the Billboard Top 200, climbing all the way to #67). The album spawned two of her most enduring classics in “Down to Zero,” a more muscular version of the kind of folk-rock Tracy Chapman would shoot to meteoric fame with in the late Eighties, and the major U.K. Top Ten hit “Love and Affection.” The lovely, gentle ballad – generally considered to be Armatrading’s masterpiece – was surprisingly very catchy for a song lacking a traditional chorus and would later be covered by both Sheena Easton (who included the song on her gold album A Private Heaven) and the Motels’ Martha Davis (who recorded it as a duet with Sly Stone for the soundtrack of Soul Man).

[Fun trivia: the male singer providing the distinctive baritone background vocals on “Love and Affection” is actually future actor Clark Peters, who shot to fame playing Lester Freamon on the much-critically-lauded cable series The Wire!]

Despite the fact that both of the album’s singles were ballads, it’d be inaccurate to label Armatrading as just another introspective female singer-songwriter in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or Carole King because most of the other material here is much more up-tempo than “Love and Affection,” and Armatrading could get quite funky on occasion, as album cuts like this disc’s “Water with the Wine,” “People,” “Join the Boys,” and “Like Fire” show. Aside from being a fabulous songwriter, Armatrading was also always a criminally underrated guitarist, and her acoustic playing throughout the album is alternately lovely and downright soulful.

Taking fans and critics both off-guard, Armatrading shifted course entirely in the ‘80s, revealing a more playful side and unexpectedly delving into the world of new-wave. Her second album of the decade, 1981’s Steve Lilywhite-produced Walk Under Ladders, even featured a backing band consisting of synthesizer player Thomas Dolby (who would shoot to fame two years later with the synth-pop classic “She Blinded Me with Science”) and guitarists Gary Sanford (from the Joe Jackson Band) and Andy Partridge (from the much-beloved British new-wave band XTC), in addition to session greats such as drummer Jerry Marotta, bassist Tony Levin, and former King Crimson saxophonist Mel Collins. Reggae legends Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare also make guest appearances as drummer and bassist, respectively, on the haunting “I Can’t Lie to Myself.” [Peters also makes another cameo, providing the voice of the bear on the deliriously fun throwaway cut “Eating the Bear,” which employs Partridge’s trademark rhythm guitar playing to great effect.]

The album’s a world away from the more folk-oriented sound of Joan Armatrading, but it’s great, great fun, particularly on the rhythmically-complicated reggae-tinged singalong “When I Get It Right.” The engaging opener “I’m Lucky” (so lucky, she can walk under ladders!) pulls off the unusual feat of sounding both happy and menacing at the same time thanks to Dolby’s haunting synth work.

The disc also features one of Armatrading’s all-time greatest ballads in the vulnerable, beautiful “The Weakness in Me,” featuring some especially inspired jazz-tinged instrumental work from Levin, Partridge, second guitarist Hugh Burns, and pianist Nick Plytas.

1983’s The Key (produced primarily by Lilywhite) would climb as high as #32 on the album charts in America and yield her only Hot 100 single in the playful pop of “Drop the Pilot,” produced by Val Garay, who had helmed Kim Carnes’ massive Number One hit “Bette Davis Eyes.” Easily both Armatrading’s catchiest and most surprisingly danceable single to date, “Drop the Pilot” strangely stalled at #78 on the Hot 100 but is very much a legitimate contender for the title of the catchiest song from the Eighties to miss the Top 40. [Mandy Moore would later include the song on her surprisingly great 2003 covers album Coverage.]

Armatrading caused some minor controversy with the album’s other single, the tongue-in-cheek humor of the masochistic “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names,” featuring a typically memorable and off-kilter guitar solo from King Crimson’s Adrian Belew, but the song is so relentlessly upbeat and catchy (like “Drop the Pilot,” it’s another one of the most danceable songs Armatrading has ever made) that it’s somewhat strange in retrospect that some listeners took the song so seriously.

Why Armatrading didn’t become a huge star in America with this album is a bit of a mystery since it’s the most radio-friendly album she ever made, with even surrounding album cuts like the horn-laden “Foolish Pride” and “Tell Tale" (the latter featuring Stewart Copeland from The Police on drums), the vaguely ska-tinged “Bad Habits,” and the punchy new wave of “What Do Boys Dream?” boasting nearly just as many hooks as the singles.

Armatrading’s art is so consistently strong that it’s hard to go wrong with any of her studio albums, particularly these three, but for any new listeners looking to delve into her catalog, there are several first-rate single-disc compilations available that serve as a great introduction to her work if you’d prefer to start with a sampler and branch out into the studio albums from there. The 1983 anthology Track Record covers her work from Joan Armatrading through The Key, also throwing in a pair of great new cuts made with Lilywhite (“Heaven” and “Frustration”). The 1996 package Greatest Hits, covering nearly her full tenure at A&M, includes everything from Track Record except, irritatingly enough, the not-available-elsewhere “Frustration” while also throwing in earlier ‘70s sides like “Back to the Night” and “Whatever’s for Us, for Us” and a couple of excellent mid-to-late-‘80s singles like “Temptation” and the funk-pop of “Kind Words (and a Real Good Heart).”