So it’s official – Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke ripped off Marvellous Marvin’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ when they wrote ‘Blurred Lines’ in just one hour (though Thicke denies having any input into the writing of the song).
And The Guardian reports that Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ may now be in the Gaye family’s sights too due to its alleged similarity to ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’.
Trumpet player, composer and blogger Nicholas Payton has written eloquently and passionately about the whys and wherefores of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case.
But maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising – Pharrell seems to have previous. Let’s investigate the track ‘Roller Rink’ from Kelis’s great 1999 album Kaleidoscope which, according to the credits, Pharrell co-wrote with Chad Hugo and Kelis.
Now compare that with ‘No Ordinary Romance’, credited to Michael Gregory, which features on the 1983 album Situation-X and also Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover from 1986, both produced by Nile Rodgers:
Kelis/Pharrell/Chad haven’t even bothered to change key. They’ve just ‘replayed’ Gregory Jackson’s original. Their version arguably comes up a better top-line melody in the verses, but the chorus just lifts the catchy synth motif from both the Gregory and Jarreau versions.
Michael Gregory Jackson circa 1983
Michael Gregory Jackson started out as a first-call guitarist in the New York avant-garde jazz scene in the mid-’70s. Later in the decade, he reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter and did a pretty job of it, his 1987 solo album WhatTo Where (sadly not currently available on streaming platforms) getting rave reviews in Q Magazine and a few other influential rags at the time.
My 1999 Kaleidoscope CD credits state that ‘Roller Rink’ was ‘written by K Rogers/P Williams/C Hugo’, with no mention of Gregory Jackson’s name, or sample permissions etc.
So one wonders how much publishing income he has lost out on, though Kaleidoscope wasn’t a huge hit album and ‘Roller Rink’ wasn’t released as a single.
We continue to follow this story with great interest.
There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).
But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.
Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that sh*t wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’
Jaco and Mike, 1980
To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.
Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!
Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.
My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and someone shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’
Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell
Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.
But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’.
Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.
Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.
The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.
Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.
Mike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I also saw him live at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.
In the miasma of soap-opera tie-ins, boy-band debuts, one-hit wonders and Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions that constituted late-’80s pop, Love and Money’s second album Strange Kind Of Love was a breath of fresh air.
Released in December 1988 and produced by legendary Steely Dan helmer Gary Katz, the record was a triumph. James Grant’s literate, dramatic songs of romantic anguish and corporate avarice were built to last.
Musicians had a field day with Grant’s intricate guitar work and the rock-solid grooves courtesy of drum legend Jeff Porcaro and underrated bassist Bobby Paterson. Critics of the time were generally confused but I was sold from the first bar of ‘Hallejulah Man’.
Funkier than the likes of Curiosity Killed The Cat or Hipsway but lyrically just as piquant as The Smiths or The The, Love And Money joined Prefab Sprout, Prince, The Blue Nile, Danny Wilson, David Sylvian, De La Soul, Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins in my list of late-’80s pop saviours.
I caught up with singer/songwriter/guitarist James Grant to talk Strange Kind Of Love, Jeff Porcaro, Tom Waits, touring with Tina Turner, ‘Top of the Pops’ and ’80s marketing meltdowns.
Love And Money 1988
MP: Could you just give us a quick bit of background to Strange Kind Of Love – what were the expectations for album number two and how did you come to work with Gary Katz?
JG: I always felt the first album was disparate and didn’t marry the different influences well. We sounded too desperate to impress. I was also anxious to prove that I was more than just a haircut. For Strange Kind Of Love, I had written the album and we had lived with the songs for a while. The mantra was: the song is king. Meaning that the song would dictate how it was meant to be, what was appropriate and what was not. The desire was to create something timeless and the man to facilitate that was Gary Katz. He had a track record that spoke for itself. He just seemed perfect. We set up a meeting – I flew to New York – and we just hit it off right away. There was a symbiosis, a shared desire to make great records, and we liked each other. We’re still pals to this day.
Lyrically, SKOL focuses mainly on the anguish, pain but also joy of romantic infatuation. Was there a particular relationship that precipitated this or had these songs built up over time?
Yes, there was someone in particular, but obviously there’s poetic license. Songwriters deify those we love. I just happened to think – and still do – that besides knowing you are going to die, being in love is the utmost existential experience there is. I was young, heartbroken and hungry; the right ingredients to make great music! I also had the distinct feeling that great songs contain a truth, perhaps not the literal truth but a truth. I wrote about myself; this tended to get uncomfortably forensic at times for those close to me.
Jeff Porcaro 1988
How much of a contribution did the great Jeff Porcaro make to SKOL‘s arrangements and why is his surname misspelt in the credits? Was there enough budget to get him for rehearsals? His playing seems so integral to the material.
Jeff didn’t make any contribution to the arrangements – that was all planned months before we even met. I have no idea why his name is misspelt. We did the drums over a month in LA. Sometimes we just jammed the thing till we got the right vibe. On other tracks, I had a more concrete idea of what I wanted. For example, on ‘Razorsedge’, I wanted a go-go beat. I just went in with my guitar and told him what I was hearing. He just started playing this incredible, jaw-dropping stuff. Yes, we had the budget. Jeff was a brilliant, phenomenal musician. I felt like I had f***ing boxing gloves on sometimes when we were jamming but he never ever made me feel like that. He was a beautiful guy, great fun to be with and genuinely humble about his achievements and ability.
The four sublime singles from the album just missed out on the UK Top 40 – was that a disappointment? Was there pressure from Phonogram to get that first UK or US hit?
Yes – it was always a disappointment. You try and be stoic and say, ‘That’s not what it was about’, but we were gutted. We so nearly made it with Strange Kind Of Love. I always wanted to do ‘Top of the Pops’. If that’s shallow, then so be it. I grew up watching Slade and Bowie and prancing around in front of my bedroom mirror imitating them – it was my dream to be part of that, just like any kid. There wasn’t pressure from Phonogram as such; they were trying their best with us. It just wasn’t to be. I do believe that if we had had the success, Dogs In the Traffic may not have happened. That’s the Love And Money record I’m most proud of and it’s most representative of who I am. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard to listen to…
Why is Tom Waits thanked in the album credits? And presumably (Steely Dan singer/co-leader) Donald Fagen is thanked because of the Katz connection?
Because I’m a fan and he was and still is a massive inspiration. It wouldn’t be easy to tell if you were judging this from the record. Donald Fagen played a little something. I’ve always kept that a secret. We didn’t want to make an issue of it or make it something marketable.
You play some fantastic lead guitar on the album and also some really inventive acoustic/electric textural stuff – did Gary Katz’s experience with the likes of Larry Carlton and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter have any bearing on your playing?
Not really – Gary would have me playing for weeks on end though. I reckon I came on a bit during my time with him. And thank you.
SKOL doesn’t really sound like anyone else from the era and stands up exceptionally well today. At the time of release, some critics rather snootily compared it to Dire Straits and Deacon Blue but were there contemporary artists the band admired or were influenced by?
No, not especially – my tastes have always been very eclectic. In terms of marketing, this always led to problems; ‘Are you guys rock, pop, funk or country?’ ‘Yes…’ I did love Bowie, Talking Heads, Chic, Led Zeppelin and Prince – I can hear certain little things from all of them here and there.
Who is Beatrice Colin? Her voice compliments yours beautifully, especially on ‘Walk The Last Mile’.
She was my girlfriend. She’s an author now.
Who came up with the album cover concept? Studying it again, it’s one of the weirder covers of the ’80s…
Someone in the marketing department at Phonogram saw a photograph like the one on the cover and we decided to recreate it. Though I’ve always believed it to be extremely important, the amount of time and money invested in things like artwork was, by today’s standards, science fiction. We would have months of meetings discussing details. People would have nervous breakdowns!
You toured with and supported various US acts such as BB King and Tina Turner in the late-’80s – any memories that stand out? I loved your playing with Tom Verlaine on The Tube.
The one anecdote that would perhaps stand out is that when we supported Tina Turner, when I introduced the band, I said, ‘Hi, we’re not Tina Turner, she’ll be on a bit later.’ I thought this was amusing. Tina’s management did not. We were kicked off the tour. You’d think we would have been disappointed by such a thing, but – and I’m really proud of this – we did not give a f*ck.
I saw you revisiting SKOL on a memorable night at the Shepherds Bush Empire a few years ago – how do you feel about the album and its place in ’80s music now?
I’m really proud of it. It’s of its time, certainly, but a bit more than that. I think sonically it’s absolutely spot-on – it still sounds fantastic. I always think of the band’s place in the greater scheme of things as awkward. I think, as I said previously, we were difficult to categorise. This seemed to be a huge problem for some people. I never tried to make ‘difficult’ music. I still don’t. I think my tastes are fairly mainstream. Perhaps lyrically things are a bit more challenging at times, but even so, I don’t think they are wilfully arcane or esoteric.
I was a fan of most things jazz/rock as a 16-year-old, scuttling off to HMV or Virgin in central London to buy the latest stuff by John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, Steps Ahead, John Scofield, Bireli Lagrene and Miles.
Whilst Pat Metheny was never a favourite, I dug American Garage and 80/81, and always had a soft spot for Lyle Mays’ keyboard playing. His 1987 debut album featured a fantastic band (Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, Billy Drewes, Alex Acuna and Nana Vasconcelos) and promised a lot for the future.
1988’s Street Dreams didn’t disappoint. It is to some extent a big-budget ‘vanity project’, full of guest appearances and experiments, but it’s all the better for that and virtually impossible to categorise.
Recorded exclusively at the Power Station in New York, Street Dreams has the range and ambition of some key pop albums of the era – yup, this is fusion’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome… It also for the most part avoids the new-age sentimentality that Metheny is sometimes prone to.
I delved deeply into Street Dreams – it was a real Walkman album, creating a movie in one’s mind. To this day, I seldom listen to a tune in separation; I have to check out the whole thing in one sitting.
‘Feet First’ sounds like an outtake from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly with the vocals taken off (and features some classic Steve Gadd); ‘August’ and ‘Hangtime’ are superb tone poems featuring tasteful work from Frisell, Johnson and Peter Erskine.
‘Before You Go’ is space-age muzak with sprawling orchestrations out of the Claus Ogerman book, and ‘Possible Straight’ is cracking big-band jazz with some great drumming by Steve Jordan.
The title track is just bonkers and has to be heard to be believed. It takes in elements of prog rock, minimalism (with its Reich-influenced marimba), New Age textures and a playful, Hermeto Pascoal-style Latin workout with Mays’ piano at its most Keith Jarrett-like.
Here’s part 2:
Compared to the sterility of most major-label jazz releases these days, Street Dreams still sounds pretty fresh, even if it is a touch lighter than what passes for jazz/rock or fusion in 2015.
Ex-Propaganda/Act vocalist (and, dare we say, ’80s icon?) Claudia Brucken has enjoyed a real career renaissance in the last decade.
Her recent studio albums have featured collaborations with members of Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Erasure and OMD, and new release Where Else is a very strong record of torch songs which foregrounds fine melodies and an unexpected ’60s pop influence.
The Bush Hall was the perfect venue for this classy, deceptively low-key return to the London stage. With a minimalist red-curtain backdrop and versatile two-man backing band, Claudia began the gig seated but moved through the gears with consummate ease.
Her vocals sounded rich and rounded, a big improvement on the last London gigs in 2013, and it was also great that she kept audience banter to an absolute minimum, a lesson to some younger artists who seem desperate to pass the time of day with audiences given half a chance.
Where Else was played pretty much in sequence as is the current way, and what’s clear is that the new songs are stark and slight but very catchy, with attractive, slow-burning melodies.
To go along with the string synths, piano and digital beats, there was generally an unmistakable Zombies/Colin Bluntstone influence on the new material too, with some distinctly Doors-style keyboards thrown in for good measure.
The resplendent, still striking ‘Duel’ (which my companion very adroitly pegged as the sound a-Ha had vainly aimed for throughout their career) and ‘P-Machinery’ were saved for the rapturously-received encores, and a rousing cover of Bowie’s ‘Everyone Says Hi’ was perfectly judged.
The gig was crying out for a real drummer though (paging Neil Conti…) to add more of the human element, but budgets are budgets.
If all her stars are aligned, Brucken might yet enjoy an Everything-But-The-Girl-style sleeper hit. What seems unlikely is any kind of Secret Wish 30th anniversary tour; she seems very happy and musically fulfilled where she is right now.
Before their mid-‘80s commercial peak, Simple Minds were an art-rock band par excellence.
They fitted perfectly into the post-punk landscape and on Empires And Dance, their third album, they certainly wore their influences boldly on their sleeve – Kraftwerk, Can, Roxy, Joy Division, Eno, Magazine, Velvet Underground, ‘Lodger’-era Bowie – but combined them exceptionally well.
Musically very strong, with Derek Forbes’ memorable basslines very much to the fore, this uncompromising album combines motorik beats with doomy vocals, Eno-style ambience, jagged post-punk guitar and deliciously sludgy synths.
Jim Kerr’s travelogue lyrics compliment the music perfectly, snapshots of bleak European passport controls, attempted assassinations and wintery landscapes. Producer John Leckie brings his usual spirit of experimentation and lays on the brittle, creeping sense of paranoia.
While the one-chord grooves tire a bit on ‘Today I Died Again’, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Capital City’, the Euro-funk of ‘I Travel’ and ‘This Fear of Gods’ chills the blood. ‘Twist/Run/Repulsion’ is almost an early example of sampling with its random speech, out-of-phase horn blasts and queasy, looped drums. Kerr channels Bowie’s ‘African Night Flight’ with his high-speed rap (though on the demo he took a different approach).
‘Thirty Frames a Second’ and ‘Constantinople Line’ almost approach the work of Throbbing Gristle and Gary Numan with their garish synth tones and forbidding atmospheres. ‘Kant Kino’, named after a Berlin art-house cinema, pits a slight but very catchy Charlie Burchill guitar melody against amplifier hiss, tape echo and synth drone; Eno would surely approve and the track was possibly an influence on U2’s ‘4th Of July’.
The closer ‘Room’ could almost have come from the first Velvet Underground album (though they could have done with playing to a click track; the song almost doubles in speed by the end…).
Empires And Dance peaked at 41 in the UK album charts. It might have gone higher had Arista Records pressed more than just 7,500 copies at a time. The band couldn’t get off that label fast enough (like Iggy Pop).
But Peter Gabriel became a major fan and took them on tour with him throughout October and November 1980, allegedly paying most of their expenses.
Empires And Dance is very interesting album indeed and a great companion piece to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, Peter Gabriel III and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
Sportin’ Life represented the second career peak for Weather Report after Heavy Weather.
Featuring the incredible rhythm section of Victor Bailey on bass and Omar Hakim on drums, the band’s penultimate album showcased a line-up that had been building up a real head-of-steam since their debut on 1983’s Procession.
It’s not clear whether Zawinul named the album after the character in Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess but it wouldn’t be a surprise. The vitality of the music on offer here belies the fact that co-leaders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were aged 53 and 52 respectively when it was recorded.
Hakim was playing with David Bowie, Sting and Dire Straits while making this album, and he brought undeniable star quality to Weather Report.
Zawinul, Cinelu, Shorter, Hakim and Bailey
Sportin’ Life blew my mind when it came out in ’85. I was already a huge fan of Jaco-era Weather Report and could hear how their music had influenced my other favourites Level 42, Sting and Joni Mitchell, but this was something else altogether. And to say my drumming was influenced by Omar’s playing would be a gross understatement.
While Zawinul is very much in charge on Sportin’ Life (‘Hot Cargo’, ‘Indiscretions’ and ‘Ice Pick Willy’ are basically solo pieces), Wayne has returned to his best form, ex-Miles percussionist Mino Cinelu gets a lot of space and sounds as inventive as ever and Hakim has become a beautifully tasteful drummer. Bobby McFerrin and two other vocalists also contribute intriguing musical colours.
‘Corner Pocket’ may be the best-ever Weather Report album-opener, and that’s saying something. Over a superb drums-and-bass groove (possibly influenced by Trouble Funk/Chuck Brown?), Zawinul delivers a typically arresting, swinging melody and unhinged synth solo. The rhythm section gear-change when Shorter tears into his tenor break is perfectly judged.
‘Face On The Barroom Floor’ is a wonderfully enigmatic Shorter ballad featuring possibly the composer’s finest soprano playing on a Weather Report album. He lets rip here with some impassioned blowing over Zawinul’s moody synths with an uncharacteristically wide vibrato reminiscent of Sidney Bechet.
The cover of ‘What’s Going On’ is funny and touching with Omar’s delicious half-time shuffle deftly moving between sticks and brushes.
Cinelu’s delightfully Santanaesque ‘Confians’ closes with another joyous Shorter soprano solo, one of his most resplendent in latter-period Weather Report.
It’s a shame there wasn’t much of an American audience for this kind of jazz in ’85, especially since Sportin’ Life represented a new high for Weather Report.
Unfortunately the band didn’t tour the album – their last major tour came around the release of ’84’s Domino Theory. I saw them at the Dominion Theatre in London and vividly recall the intense interplay between Zawinul and Hakim.
Shorter and Zawinul would soon go their separate ways but not before leaving us with this last classic. Dig it.
I first heard brilliant English guitarist John McLaughlin as a very impressionable 15-year-old when I stumbled across the unsettling, brilliant ‘Dance Of Maya’, by his Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was instantly excited and intrigued.
But Adventures In Radioland, the second album from the ’80s reincarnation of Mahavishnu,was released in probably the least-heralded era of John’s music, a time when jazz and fusion seemed to be going in diametrically opposite directions and decent record deals were hard to come by.
With hindsight, it seems the mid-’80s popularity of Pat Metheny was having a huge influence on many instrumentalists and John was no exception; the decade was full of guitarists utilising synthesizer technology and looking to Brazilian songforms for inspiration (an obvious example is Al Di Meola’s Soaring Through A Dream).
But McLaughlin’s take on Metheny was far more raunchy, rooted in bebop and the blues (though the bridge of ‘Floriannapolis’ sounds suspiciously like Metheny’s ‘James’). And what a shocking record Adventures In Radioland was coming from a mainstream jazz artist, a two-finger-salute to the Young Lions neo-bop boom represented by the Marsalis brothers et al.
John seemed to be going out of his way to annoy the jazz purists but in doing so produced some material of worth. Like some of the best fusion music of the ’80s, its deceptively slick production obscures some pretty radical improvisations.
Is the album title wishful thinking? Is this John’s idea of ‘smooth jazz’, designed for radio play? If so, he must be living in a parallel universe because this is one of the weirdest albums of his career.
But, as he said himself in a 1996 interview with Guitar Player magazine, ‘Without madness or fantasy, music’s boring’. This album sure ain’t boring, especially if you’re a guitar fan, but devotees of The Inner Mountain Flame may struggle a bit…
John McLaughlin and Jonas Hellborg
Opener ‘The Wait’ luxuriates in pleasant synth washes and a gorgeous chord sequence for a while before McLaughlin grabs the Les Paul and unleashes one of his most intense solos over quite a funky little R’n’B bass vamp.
‘The Wall Will Fall’ fuses a gargantuan blues riff with nutty Simmonds drums fills, and McLaughlin’s furious solo over high-speed bebop changes is both funny and exhilarating.
‘Florianapolis’ initially steers dangerously towards Metheny territory with its breezy, major-chord cod-Latin groove and nasty DX7 synth sounds. But before you know it, McLaughlin has ripped into an absolutely outstanding acoustic solo, full of rhythmic/melodic risk-taking.
‘Jozy’ is a dramatic, swinging tribute to Joe Zawinul, beautifully marshalled by drummer Danny Gottlieb with some outstanding fretless bass work from Jonas Hellborg. ‘Gotta Dance’ comes on like a fusion Mr Bungle, rattling through mellow acoustic guitar, big-band jazz, Mark King-style slap bass and industrial drums all in the space of four minutes. ‘Half Man Half Cookie’ is even weirder, a kind of post-Scritti Politti pop/funk groove interrupted by yet another incongruous big-band interlude from a multi-tracked (or sampled?) Evans.
But your proclivity for this album will probably be based on your acceptance of the mid-’80s Big Drum Sound. It certainly features some absolutely superb music. McLaughlin regrouped after Adventures and played the nylon-string acoustic exclusively for a few years – make of that what you will.
When the intricate, interesting jazz/rock played by the likes of Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin started tanking in the mid-’80s, artists such as Bob James, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra took the classic fusion sound, sweetened it, added touches of light gospel and soul and repackaged it as yuppiefied, post-Windham Hill chill-out music, jazz for people who hate jazz. And they made a killing.
But a different kind of ‘smooth jazz’ had emerged a decade before, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a mixture of AOR, jazz harmony, classic fusion and Yacht Rock.
It was the soundtrack for driving West on Sunset, decadent, expensive-sounding music full of dreamy Fender Rhodes playing and tasty grooves.
Musicians and arrangers such as Johnny Mandel, Jerry Hey, Tom Scott, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Abraham Laboriel, Quincy Jones, George Benson, David Sanborn, Harvey Mason, Jay Graydon and David Foster thrived in this era when state-of-the-art production fused with jazz-tinged songwriting to create the missing link between Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire.
The unofficial headquarters of the sound was The Baked Potato, a nightclub in Studio City, LA, and one of the key musicians was guitarist Lee Ritenour (ironically one of the figureheads of the late-’80s Smooth Jazz scene proper).
His 1981 album Ritis a classic of its kind alongside George Benson’s Give Me The Night, Larry Carlton’s Friends, David Sanborn’s Hideaway, Casino Lights, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination and Steely’s Gaucho.
This sort of music was America when I was 13 or 14. In my daydreams, I was scooting along the West Coast in a Pontiac, top down, loud music playing, palm trees – you know the drill. Had I been watching too much ‘Knight Rider’ and ‘Moonlighting’ and listening to too much Steely Dan? Quite possibly…
Although early Ritenour albums had been tricksy fusion, more in line with what George Duke or Alphonso Johnson were doing, Rit saw him concentrate on collaborations with gifted Stevie-meets-Fagen vocalist/songwriter Eric Tagg. To this writer’s ears, George Michael very definitely checked out Mr Tagg. The track ‘Is It You’ got to number 15 in the singles charts and features one of the great middle-eights of the era:
Drum fans will enjoy Rit too; the great Jeff Porcaro plays a blinding shuffle on ‘Mr Briefcase’ (another pop hit from the album) and produces a classic rock performance on ‘Good Question’. According to Wikipedia, MTV broadcast the videos of ‘Mr Briefcase’ and ‘Is It You’ during its first day on air (1st August 1981)!
When things get too mellow, Ritenour always seems to know when to insert a spicy solo (in the days when he delivered high-octane jazz/rock playing a la Santana or Larry Carlton).
The instrumentals are an appealing mixture of early ’80s technology (Linn LM-1 abundant) and the sparky funk of Abe Laboriel’s bass playing and Don Grusin’s soulful Fender Rhodes. And Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements are instantly recognisable and a great addition.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Rit was an influence on Thriller (compare Rit’s ‘Just Tell Me Pretty Lies‘ with Jacko’s ‘Baby Be Mine’) and various other Quincy productions later in the decade.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.