August 11, 2015
In 1983, rock photographer Lynn Goldsmith put down her camera, mortgaged her loft and released Dancing For Mental Health as self-help alter ego Will Powers. Featuring Todd Rundgren, Sting, Nile Rodgers and Carly Simon, it spawned cult disco classic ‘Adventures In Success’, and was accompanied by one of the first 3D computer animated music videos ever.
“My work has always been about breaking limiting thought patterns,” Lynn Goldsmith explains over a dusty Skype line from her home in Colorado. It’s close to 1am UK time when we speak – on “powder days” Goldsmith spends her mornings on the slopes – and her stories from a life in rock and roll are exceeding all limits.
One of the great rock photographers, Goldsmith has shot practically every major recording artist in modern history, from Miles Davis, James Brown and Michael Jackson to Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and the Beastie Boys. She hung out with the girls – Patti Smith, Debbie Harry and Laurie Anderson – her work with them and others adorning over one hundred record sleeves. She brought the best out of Frank Zappa and stayed regularly with his family in California, co-managed Grand Funk Railroad and sang backing vocals for John Denver whenever time would allow. With Grand Funk she created the world’s first 3D album cover for Shinin’ On (1974), complete with bi-visual 3D glasses, and as an independent film-maker with personal access to the biggest bands, made tour videos for The Doors and Grand Funk that would become among the first record promo clips in rock history.
It’s no surprise then, that when she would finally come to make her own record in 1983, Goldsmith had the odd friend to call on. Forged during an intense, boozy session in Nassau with Robert Palmer – and several abortive cameos from Marianne Faithful and Joe Cocker among others – Goldsmith sold the Will Powers concept to friend and confidant Chris Blackwell across the street at Compass Point Studios and a few months later Dancing For Mental Health was born. Released on Island Records, it was the manifesto of Goldsmith’s alter ego Will Powers, a pseudo self-help guru, who exposed the nation’s obsession with its own psyche across eight tracks that trod an ambiguous line between parody and sincerity.
With an all star cast of collaborators – Todd Rundgren, Steve Winwood, Sting, Nile Rodgers and Carly Simon were all involved to differing degrees – and a rigorous concept, Powers not only delivered a UK hit with ‘Kissing With Confidence’ (Goldsmith suspects the Brits got her humour a little more than the Americans) but also the leftfield disco classic ‘Adventures in Success’, a glorious synthesized oddity that sounds as fresh as it did in ’83.
Aside from her use of the vocoder – Will Powers was described by one as the “first white rap artist” – Goldsmith was also responsible for one of the first ever 3D computer-animated music videos, mortgaging her loft to raise the funds to render her face in pixels. “Making those videos wasn’t about selling the record,” she explains, “there were things I wanted to do because they would break limiting thought patterns”.
A record that set out to change lives, we spoke to Lynn to get the inside story of Will Powers and one of the most unique and ground-breaking records of the ’80s.
Where did this record come from for you? Was it tough to make the jump from photography?
I didn’t really make the jump from being a photographer. I’ve written songs and played the guitar since I was eight years old. I had a band in college, University of Michigan and had performed in a number of clubs. So, it wasn’t a jump, it was more or less, simply me as an artist expressing myself. The door of music and photography swinging both ways is not uncommon. There are lots of ‘musicians’ who are photographers, from Ansel Adams to Byran Adams. The bottom line is you’re an artist and you use different tools to express yourself at different times.
And for you, expressing yourself was creating the character of Will Powers?
I never really felt that I had the voice that I wanted, which was the voice of Aretha Franklin. I started thinking about how the actual speaking voice was musical and how it could affect people in the same way that an instrument does. That’s what prompted me to start going to see ministers like Reverend Ike in New York. The spiritual leaders that really captured the hearts of their community were the ones that had a certain rhythm in speaking. I started going to hear as many preachers as I could to get the idea of why the speaking voice could be so powerful.
Then, I started thinking about how music is a healing for so many and how subliminally it affects us in feeling less alone. I felt that writing a song in a conventional way and creating a performance of it, was not that interesting for me. I knew too that I was not anywhere near as good as many of my friends were so I wanted to make something that I thought only I could make as I am me and we all have something unique to offer. I have always thought that one has to find out who he or she is, and that’s why I wanted to create the character Will Powers.
You wanted Island Records’ Chris Blackwell to produce the record initially, right? But that didn’t happen…
For the first track, I took a base line from a James Brown song which I had heard at Robert Palmer’s home. He and I had worked on a track together but I didn’t feel it reflected what I had in my head. I called up Sting and asked if he’d work with me on it and generously he agreed as he liked the idea of the project. Sting was responsible for the music on the track ‘Adventures In Success’. I played it for Chris Blackwell who was the head of Island Records and had also produced for Bob Marley, the B’52s among others. He got excited about it and gave me an album deal which he offered to produce. I went down to his studios in Nassau where he also had a home. The first night in the studio he did not show up and I just went to work with an engineer there as I knew I’d be responsible for the costs of the studio and did not want to waste any money! .
Afterward, I went over to his house and asked why he didn’t show up. He said “that’s because I know you can produce this, you’re Will Powers you can do this!” That’s how it started. However because I had to keep my career as a photographer going to pay for my life, as a producer who also had to deal with a budget for record, I would choose studios in places that I happened to be in. I’d try to figure out how with my limited budget, I could put musicians together in a way that I thought would not only be good for the record but that it would help in some way those people who contributed.
An example of this would be how Steve Winwood got involved. He was another Island Recording artist. Steve had not performed with other musicians for a very long time. He made records all on his own, playing all the parts. I knew that if I could get Steve to play with others, not doing it as Steve Winwood project, it would be easier for him to step back into that role of being a musician who played with other musicians.
So the idea of help is central to the whole record?
Oh totally, and it’s central to the idea of Will Powers.
What was the idea of Will Powers?
The reason there is an ‘s’ on the end of Power is because I think that for any human being to reach their full potential it can only come from your asking help from other people. We’re not on this road alone and there are things that other people bring out in you. If you cannot ask for help, I think you’re denying yourself the opportunity to grow as an individual.
It’s hard for me to just say things like that without kind of making a joke of it because it sounds kinda of “hokey” – however it is what I believe and want to share. There was a period of time in the ’70s and in the ‘80s when it became accepted for the baby boom generation in America to see psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, to go to EST seminars, etc. Even John Lennon and Yoko did Janov scream therapy and publicised it.
And at the same time, there was the awareness of expanding one’s consciousness with a spiritual path. The Beatles’ stay with their Guru was worldwide news and it opened the doors to others who claimed an ability to transform others with meditation or yoga or both. There were TM, transcendental meditation centres, there was the sixteen year old Guru Maharaj Ji, who even though I may thought he was a phoney, I felt that it didn’t matter who he really is but that there were things he said which affected some people in a life-changing positive way.
This clarified for me that it didn’t really matter who the teacher is, what mattered is what was in the heart of the person looking to better themselves. I thought to have a sense of humour about it all and to be able to take from any teaching what works for you, would be helpful to the human spirit. If one could do that with music and dance to it, wouldn’t that be great!
Well that’s the great thing about it… ‘Adventures in Success’ is a leftfield disco classic now.
I wanted the whole record to be danceable, however that’s where it kind of got away from me because as writing and recording for the record progressed, I felt the words took over. In that way, the album did fulfill my original vision. It’s really important for all of us to get up and move. I think dancing is important.
It does make you wonder how serious you are trying to be…
Some people are not comfortable with the idea of it not being absolutely clear if I’m serious about what I am saying as Will or if I am making fun of ‘self-help’. In some cases it makes them angry. My point as Will Powers is that it doesn’t matter what I mean or who I am. It matters who you are. If you want to think this is serious advise, go for it, if you want to think it’s just funny, then laugh your ass off. If it helps you in any way what so ever, if that comes through to you with Will Powers, then it was a successful for me.
And there was also such a technological aspect to the whole release which really pushed things forwards. The vocoder played an important role and the video element was hugely influential.
At that time, I had also been a film-maker and a manager and from the early ‘70s it was my idea to make films on artists. I would go out with my 16mm camera and make films which we would then syndicate in Europe because there weren’t television outlets. So we made short films on The Doors, Delaney and Bonnie, a number of artists and so a few years later when I was co-managing Grand Funk Railroad, and I did We’re An American Band, I made a short film with the intention of basically selling records. It was a commercial for the record.
With Will Powers, the package that I sold more or less to Chris Blackwell was not that Lynn Goldsmith is a musician or a band or a recording artist, I said I was an optic music artist. I wanted my videos and my songs to be able to stand separately, but together there’s a gestalt.
But making those videos wasn’t about selling the record. There were things that I wanted to try and do because it would break limiting thought patterns, like three-dimensional computer animation. If this project had been today it would have been so much easier! I had to mortgage my loft to get the little face for fifteen seconds to turn around. There were a lot of things that I did because Will Powers was my baby and I wanted to put that stuff out there, in a way that people hadn’t really experienced before.
It does stand alone in terms of both genre and intention.
People thought I was the first white rap artist! I wanted a voice that was really white.
Did you think people would still be interested in it 30 years later? It has a bit of a cult following now.
Maybe in year forty I’ll release Will Powers Two. I’m not interested in a record label. I’m interested in the idea that there could be a Will Powers in every country doing it in different languages.
If Will Powers is just an idea, that could work, right? Looking at the 12” single sleeve, the face is so anonymous, it could be anyone.
It’s my face and then I stretched it out. A little behind the scenes story – that was set to be the original cover for the album. The album was going to be called Adventures In Success, but a couple of months before the record was to be released, my best friend and my partner who I managed Grand Funk with suddenly died of a heart attack, and emotionally I switched the cover.
And on the song ‘Dancing For Mental Health’, there’s a part where Andy and I talk to each other and I’m talking about having got pregnant and made these choices without him about what to do about it. And I just felt I wanted to do that for Andy, with an image of the statue Andy had given me of two forms dancing. I think that also threw people off, they weren’t quite sure, because it was a really weird cover.
And it makes it ambiguous again as to how serious or sincere the whole thing is.
Totally, I know. Let’s really screw with them! It is what it is and I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to put it out there. As Will Powers took off I really had to make the make decision about where I wanted my life’s focus to be. And I got so many letters from people about how I was changing their life, it kind of freaked me out.
You got fan mail? People whose lives had been turned around by Will Powers?
Oh the letters were even stronger than that! Marriage break ups etc… I was like ‘Oh My God’. One girl, she had a job and she sent me a painting of me with things in it that were personal in my life that I had no idea anyone knew about. And she lived in England and sent me this five-foot painting to New York and I was like ‘Wow’. I didn’t know if I was ready to take on that role.
The similarity between being a photographer and being Will Powers then seems to me that in both cases you’re trying to tease out something hidden, obscured or personal about your subjects that they didn’t know about themselves either.
That’s very insightful and perhaps correct, but what Will Powers is also about is that you don’t have to change anything, you just have to come to terms with the fact that if you want things to change, you need to be the source of that change.
And when I do a photo shoot with an artist or with anyone for that matter, it’s very much ‘you can be the way you are, or we can try this and you can feel if that’s even more you, if it makes you feel better about yourself’. All I do is present opportunities for change, and in the process of doing that, whether it’s as Will Powers or as a photographer, I’m able to because I make people feel they are not alone. There are others out there like you, who understand what you’re going through, there is community. What have you got to lose? Give it a shot.
Get your copy of Will Powers’ Dancing For Mental Health here.