David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper: 30 Years Old Today

Diamond Dave hit the ground running with his 1986 solo debut Eat ‘Em And Smile. That album had a raw, live-in-the-studio sound, courtesy of producer Ted Templeman and some of the greatest rock musicians of all time (Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, Gregg Bissonette), but sophomore record Skyscraper – released 30 years ago today – was something completely different: a meticulous, layered, fussed-over project.

Vai was promoted to co-producer, Roth enjoying his energy and studio nous, and his influence is all over the record. Vai told Classic Rock magazine recently about their working relationship: ‘We got on really well. We were friends. He listens and doesn’t assume to know everything. But it was his band. He made all the executive decisions. I’m very good at assuming a role and knowing where the boundaries are. I expect that from other people when they’re working with me.’

Vai took his time doubling parts, sculpting solos and thinking of the songs orchestrally. His playing is absolutely brilliant. He forensically explores every chord and adds humour too, an aspect missing from 99% of rock guitarists. The more challenging compositions (‘Bottom Line’, ‘Hina’, the title track) rehearse the concepts that Vai would pursue on his breakthrough Passion And Warfare solo album.

So Skyscraper is musically rich but great fun too. Vocally, Roth has such a strong presence and he busts his butt trying to entertain. Lead-off single ‘Just Like Paradise’ – described by Dave as his tribute to The Beach Boys – reached a very impressive #6 on the US Hot 100, ‘Perfect Timing’, ‘Damn Good’ and ‘Stand Up’ are pure pop, co-written by Roth and keyboard player Brett Tuggle.

‘Two Fools A Minute’ is quite unlike any hard rock this writer has heard, basically a live-in-the-studio take with a succession of nutty mini-solos by Vai and Sheehan. It’s something akin to a heavy-metal show tune, complete with ‘cheesy’ horn section. I love Dave’s little ‘Sizzlin’ to the top!’ exclamation before Vai’s solo and his increasingly weird comments as the track goes on: ‘Where’s the drummer?…Nah, we can’t let Stevie drive…’

There’s a distinct lack of low-end on Skyscraper though. Billy Sheehan’s number was up. He left after the album’s recording and didn’t take part in the hugely successful, 10-month world tour. But he would take a lot of this album’s approach to his next band project, Mr Big.

Skyscraper divided critical opinion on its release but was a big hit, reaching #6 in the US and #11 in the UK. Happy birthday to a fun-filled and oft overlooked minor classic of the ’80s.

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Chris Tsangarides (1956-2018)

Producer, engineer and mixer Chris ‘CT’ Tsangarides spent his last decade living and working at The Ecology Room studio overlooking Kingsdown, a pretty hamlet on the Kent coastline between Dover and Deal. The studio is featured strongly in the brilliant documentary ‘Anvil! The Story Of Anvil’, as is the very charming Tsangarides.

CT was one of the sonic architects of ’80s music, working on key albums by Killing Joke, Depeche Mode, Gary Moore, Magnum, Japan, Bruce Dickinson, Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy. He also had a unique perspective on the excesses of the era’s hard rock scene, recently telling Classic Rock magazine:

‘I was lucky enough to be looked after by Zomba Management who also had (other major producers) Martin Birch, Mutt Lange and Tony Platt. Battery Studios (in Willesden, North West London) was our home. Any piece of equipment, any mic, you could have it. It was all, “Oh, we’ll go to Barbados to record the bass drum.” It got silly. I think we did disappear up our own jacksies…’

‘People would put on 18 tracks of guitar doing the same thing because “it’ll sound mega, man.” Well, it didn’t. Because you’ve still got the same frequency spectrum. So the more you put on, the smaller it sounds…’

‘You couldn’t mix a record unless you had 500 bits of outboard gear. There was this thing called the Aphex Aural Exciter. You used this machine on your final mix and they’d charge you something like £75 for every minute of song. And all it did was make everything sound really toppy. Pointless. But it was like, “You’ve got to have one of those…because they’ve got one!”’

RIP CT.

Deacon Blue: Raintown

I missed the recent 30th anniversary of Raintown probably because I was surprised it was originally released as early as 1st May 1987. A famous ‘sleeper’ record, it eventually crawled up to #14 in the UK album charts but remained in the top 100 for 18 months off the back of some single re-releases and constant touring.

Later on in Deacon Blue’s career, singer/lead songwriter Ricky Ross name-dropped Van Morrison and Springsteen, but on Raintown the big influence is surely Prefab Sprout. They gave the game away a few years later, naming their collection of B-sides and outtakes Ooh Las Vegas. Nothing to do with Prefab’s ‘Hey Manhattan’, then… (To be fair, the influence may have worked the other way round too – Prefab employed Raintown producer Jon Kelly for some of From Langley Park To Memphis, and that album’s slick sheen bears an occasional resemblance to Raintown.)

Raintown is pop, not rock. The album positively sparkles. James Prime’s excellent keyboard playing is prominent (they didn’t really need a guitarist at this point) with his ‘mystery’ chord very recognisable (later also heard on ‘Real Gone Kid’ and ‘Love And Regret’). Vocalist Lorraine McIntosh emerges as a kind of ‘bluesier’ version of Prefab’s Wendy Smith though she certainly divides opinion – she nearly ruins the title track and superb ‘Love’s Great Fears’ but is very effective when reining it in on ‘Loaded’ and ‘Dignity’.

There aren’t many more evocative ’80s album openers than the brief ‘Born In A Storm’, a gorgeous mood piece which sounds a bit like The Blue Nile if they knew a few more chords. ‘Loaded’ is a classic song ‘about some of the people we’d met in the record business’, in Ross’s words. His gritty vocals really work on this – he sounds positively distraught by the last few choruses – and the modulation at 2:48 is one of the great moments of late-’80s pop.

‘When Will You Make My Phone Ring’ is also memorable, even if Ross struggles a little with the lead vocal and the whole thing is a little similar to the soul standard ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’. The excellent ‘Chocolate Girl’ – influenced by Prefab’s ‘Cruel’ in its portrait of a modern relationship – features some gorgeous BJ Cole pedal steel and a few classic couplets including: ‘He calls her the chocolate girl/Cos he thinks she melts when he touches her’.

Finally, Raintown is a romantic album about work, home, love and nostalgia which probably gives a lot of people (including me) a warm glow when they hear it. I couldn’t get with the band’s later rockier direction but I’ll always have a soft spot for this one.

 

Story Of A Song: Bucks Fizz’s The Land Of Make Believe

On first listen, ‘The Land Of Make Believe’ would seem to be a frothy, fairly harmless bit of fun built on one of the oldest chord sequences in the book. But dig a bit deeper and it’s a distinctly odd psych/pop classic and one of the weirdest number ones of the 1980s (hitting the top spot 36 years ago this week).

The main reason for that would seem to be the presence of Pete Sinfield on the songwriting credits. Most famous for providing lyrics for prog behemoths King Crimson and ELP, in his bizarre career he has also – thrillingly – co-written Celine Dion’s ‘Think Twice’ and Five Star’s ‘Rain Or Shine’!

In the book ‘1,000 UK Number Ones’, he recalled being tasked by Fizz producer/co-songwriter Andy Hill to come up with the words for ‘The Land Of Make Believe: ‘It is 10 times more difficult to write a three-minute hit song with a veneer of integrity than it is to write anything for King Crimson or ELP. But I half-succeeded on “The Land Of Make Believe”. Beneath its ‘tra-la-laas’ is a virulent anti-Thatcher song. Oh yes it is. Something nasty in your garden, waiting, until it can steal your heart…’

Portraying Thatcherism as a kind of creeping ‘Invasion Of the Body Snatchers’-style affliction… Well, maybe it’s just about discernible in the lyrics. But more likely it’s a neat concept on which to hang a lot of disparate references, from Superman to Captain Kidd (apparently a Scottish sailor who was tried and executed for piracy after returning from a voyage to the Indian Ocean) and fairy tales of all kinds. But I always think of that creepy scene in ‘Salem’s Lot’ when I hear those lines about ‘shadows tapping at your window/ghostly voices whisper will you come and play’…

The fade-out features a cod nursery rhyme – also penned by Sinfield – which was narrated by Abby Kimber, future Minipop and 11-year-old daughter of Bill Kimber, an executive at RCA Records. Listening as a nine-year-old burgeoning pop fan in early 1982, it used to give me the creeps, and can still send a chill down my spine.

The video was filmed at White City swimming baths in West London. It references ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’ and foregrounds some fairly blatant swimwear shots of singer Jay Aston, whose unhappy tenure in Bucks Fizz was outlined in Simon Garfield’s excellent book ‘Expensive Habits’. Aston also apparently chose the outfits for the video, the female costumes coming from Kahn & Bell on the King’s Road and the male costumes from Boy. Aston later remarked that her and Cheryl Baker’s costumes ‘were ten years ahead of Madonna, with the cone boobs…’

‘The Land Of Make Believe’ subsequently became Bucks Fizz’s biggest-selling single in the UK, outselling even their famous 1981 Eurovision winner ‘Making Your Mind Up’. Not bad for a song that apparently no-one in the group particularly liked. Don’t have nightmares…

Great Drumming Albums Of The 1980s (Part Two)

So here’s the second instalment of essential drum albums from the 1980s (check out part one here), a selection of the decade’s movers and shakers who either pushed the boundaries, flew somewhat under the radar or simply made the music sound better.

19. Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers: Live ’87
Drummer: Ricky Wellman

Alongside Keith LeBlanc, Jonathan Moffett and Dennis Chambers, Wellman played some of the scariest single bass drum of the decade, laying down the go-go template that would influence everyone from Trevor Horn to Miles Davis (who headhunted Wellman in late 1987).

18. Nik Kershaw: The Riddle (1984)
Drummer: Charlie Morgan

Another somewhat underrated Brit sessionman, Morgan does exactly what’s right for the songs with a lot of panache. His ghost-note-inflected grooves on ‘City Of Angels’ and ‘Easy’ are treats for the eardrums.

17. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989)
Drummer/programming: Keith LeBlanc

Included because of the sheer variety of grooves, both human and machine-generated. Some beats bring to mind the sounds of electro and early hip-hop, but Keith also provides precise, tight, funky grooves on the kit.

16. XTC: English Settlement (1982)
Drummer: Terry Chambers

He was not subtle but the unreconstructed Swindon powerhouse could mix it with the best of ’em when it came to rock. Strongly aided by the dream Lillywhite/Padgham production/engineering team, his cavernous grooves always hit the spot. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (Or is he? Check out the comments section below… Ed.).

15. Power Tools: Strange Meeting (1987)
Drummer: Ronald Shannon Jackson

Ex-Ornette/Ayler collaborator and serious Buddhist Shannon Jackson cut a swathe through ’80s drumming with his striking solo albums and occasional projects like this frenetic trio alongside Bill Frisell and future Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. Free jazz with balls and humour. Play LOUD.

14. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)
Drummer: Andy Newmark

Hard to bet against this masterpiece of tasteful, empathetic song-accompaniment. Even more impressive is the revelation that Newmark was usually the last musician to overdub, replacing a skeletal drum machine part.

13. Nile Rodgers: B Movie Matinee (1985)
Programming: Jimmy Bralower

Much-in-demand NYC programmer Bralower wasn’t every drummer’s cup of tea but he came up with many memorable, catchy beats on Nile’s forgotten second solo album. Even classy ballad ‘Wavelength’ chugs along to what can only be described as an electro groove.

12. Yes: Big Generator (1987)
Drummer: Alan White

Possessing one of the crispest snare sounds of the decade, White played 4/4 rock with lots of surprises – both listener and band alike have to be on their toes – and conversely also made the most complex arrangements sound completely natural.

11. Grace Jones: Living My Life (1982)
Drummer: Sly Dunbar

Sly came up with not one but two classic, much-imitated beats on this album (‘My Jamaican Guy’, ‘Nipple To The Bottle’) and also proved he could play rock with the best of them. Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan were definitely listening.

10. Mark King: Influences (1984)

We knew he’d started his musical life as a drummer but finally hearing the results of his misspent youth was well worth the wait. He gives his heroes Billy Cobham and Lenny White a serious run for their money on this varied collection, from Level-style funk to Latin-tinged jazz/rock.

9. King Crimson: Discipline (1981)
Drummer: Bill Bruford

Impossible to leave out. Aided by Robert Fripp’s ‘rules’, the Surrey sticksman redefined rock drumming for the new decade, adding unusual timbres and taking the emphasis off the hi-hat. He also delivered one of the great over-the-top performances on ‘Indiscipline’.

8. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985)
Drummer: Omar Hakim

The fusion supergroup’s penultimate studio album is also one of their best, and Omar is a big reason why. His touch on the hi-hats and ride cymbal is instantly recognisable, and he swings hard on the inspired cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.

7. Stewart Copeland: Rumble Fish (1983)

Not for nothing was the ex-Police man calling himself The Rhythmatist around this time: he hits anything and everything (xylophone, drum kit, marimba, piano, typewriter) to create a colourful, unique soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white curio.

6. Sadao Watanabe: Maisha (1985)
Drummers: Harvey Mason, John Robinson

A superior example of big-budget ‘smooth jazz’ before it became a cliché, Mason and Robinson split the drum duties and perfectly compliment each other. The latter particularly lets his hair down a bit more than usual, particularly on ‘Paysages’.

5. Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain (1984)
Drummer: Mel Gaynor

Slinky, powerful grooves from South London’s answer to Omar Hakim. He has the walls of Shepherds Bush’s Townhouse studios shaking with his uber-grooves on ‘Up On The Catwalk’, ‘Waterfront’ and ‘C Moon Cry Like A Baby’.

4. Level 42: A Physical Presence (1985)
Drummer: Phil Gould

An exciting live performance from one of the great British drummers. His top-of-the-beat feel and crisp sound suggest a mix of Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, and he could also lay down explosive multi-tom fills to match both of them.

3. Chick Corea Elektric Band: Eye Of The Beholder (1988)
Drummer: Dave Weckl

Love or hate Corea’s Scientology-infused, neo-classical jazz/rock, Weckl’s stellar performance on this album was beyond question. He delivered a gorgeous sound, a total mastery of the drum kit and stunning chops when required.

2. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)
Drummer: Terry Bozzio

One of the loudest drummers this writer has ever heard in concert (Hammersmith Odeon, December 1989), Bozzio delivered some of the fastest double-bass playing on record (‘Sling Shot’) and also unique takes on reggae (‘Behind The Veil’) and funk (‘Day In The House’).

1. The Clash: Sandinista! (1980)
Drummer: Topper Headon

The rebel rockers embraced rockabilly, reggae, dub, calypso, punk and even funk on this ambitious triple album, but they wouldn’t have been able to go there without the versatile London sticksman.

Any albums missing? Of course. Post your suggestions below.