‘Rockschool’ Revisited

The early 1980s was a pretty good time to start out as a musician. If your ears were open and you had a half-decent hi-fi/radio, there were some truly inspirational players around and a host of different styles vying for your attention.

But the burgeoning muso couldn’t quickly get onto YouTube or download an app to learn a new skill or technique. Music education also wasn’t exactly in a great place, if the drum lessons at my comprehensive school were anything to go by…

You could see great homegrown bands and big-name American sessioneers playing live on ‘The Tube’, fork out an extortionate sum for the dreaded instructional video, or go to a live clinic (I gave up pretty quickly on these after seeing a guy called Lloyd Ryan, who supposedly ‘taught’ Phil Collins how to drum, even though Phil’s name is spelt incorrectly on his website…).

So you generally had to make your own fun (cue the violins…); jam with friends, play live whenever you could, and grab whatever bits of technical info that were passed around.

‘Rockschool’ was a bold attempt by the Beeb to bring modern music education right into the home. First airing on 1st November 1983, it featured a studio band (Deirdre Cartwright on guitar, Henry Thomas on bass, Geoff Nicholls on drums) breaking down basic contemporary arrangements, styles and instrumentation.

A US version also started in 1985, featuring the UK band and hosted rather excellently by Herbie Hancock. And then season two, broadcast in late 1987, brought in keyboard player Alastair Gavin. That was the series that really hooked my muso pals and I (and check out the brilliant, none-more-’80s intro music below).

But even back then we were dubious as to how proficient the studio band actually were. They certainly paled in comparison to the great US players of the decade. But they were engaging, knowledgeable presenters and it was just a great way of seeing some musical heroes like Omar Hakim, Bootsy, Jan Hammer, Larry Graham, Andy Summers, Tony Banks and Allan Holdsworth demonstrating their craft.

Could you bring back ‘Rockschool’ now? It seems unlikely given the relatively solipsistic nature of ‘rock’ music education these days. YouTube is chock-a-block with technically brilliant players, but the general musicianship of bands has probably never been worse. Here come those violins again…

When Thomas Dolby Met George Clinton: 35 Years On

They say you should never meet your heroes – if the summer of 1985 is anything to go by, Thomas Dolby* probably knows a thing or two about that.

First there was THAT Grammy Awards performance alongside Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock. Then he contributed production, arranging and keyboard work to Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog, and, of course, there was his appearance at Live Aid as part of David Bowie’s band.

But arguably Dolby’s most intriguing collaboration of summer 1985 was with P-funk pioneer George Clinton, who was onto his third solo album of the decade. Just after Live Aid, Clinton invited Dolby out to the Bee Gees’ Criteria Studios in Miami to work on two tracks for Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends.

Clinton was finding much lyrical inspiration in Reagan’s America, and his latest album was firmly focused on the Nuclear Threat. During a hilarious fishing trip with Dolby off Miami (apparently during which Clinton sat in a swivelling captain’s chair, rolled joints and played rough mixes on a boombox), they came up with a character for Dolby – the Space Limousine Driver! Of course…

Clinton then invited Dolby to perform at a James Brown tribute night for the annual Black Urban Music Conference in Washington DC. Apparently his guest spot during ‘Sex Machine’ (described by Dolby as being ‘like Alec Guinness having a seizure’) made Mr Brown laugh and also gave Dolby some cred with the hardcore P-funk crowd (though sadly it doesn’t seem to be on YouTube…).

Clinton was also apparently thrilled with Dolby’s contributions, and asked if there was any way he could return the favour. Dolby quickly cooked up a new song, recruited the Brecker Brothers and Lene Lovich and retained the formidable bass/drums team of Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers from ‘Thrashin’. They christened the new band Dolby’s Cube and recorded a great one-off single at Battery Studios in London. Sadly, despite a cool video, it didn’t chart.

Dolby’s experiences with George loosened him up, and made him reassess a solo career that he felt thus far had been hamstrung by dodgy business practices and too much emphasis on ‘image’. His effervescent 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick was more explicitly influenced by Clinton, who also contributed the song ‘Hot Sauce’ (Francois Kevorkian’s superb remix of ‘May The Cube Be With You’ was also included). The summer of ’85 was certainly a memorable one for all concerned.

Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby

*Or ask me in a few months when I’ve finished my book on Level 42, out early next year…

Bill Evans: Living In The Crest Of A Wave/The Alternative Man

When people say ‘I hate jazz’, I sometimes wonder if they’re really saying they know a crap composition when they hear one.

Legions of talented jazz sidepeople have been given solo record contracts only to deliver music that proves they can’t write decent tunes.

A case in point is saxophonist and William Hurt-lookalike Bill Evans. He’s had a very solid career but his solo work is distinctly underwhelming.  (And then there’s the name. If you play jazz, you probably need a stage name if you have exactly the same moniker as a bona fide legend from decades gone by – the pianist Bill Evans died in 1980.)

But give Sax Bill some credit – he was an absolutely vital figure in Miles Davis’s 1980s comeback, a good friend and carer of the trumpeter and player of several gritty solos on record (Star People is a good place to start). But by 1983 Bill found himself inexplicably frozen out, barely getting any solo space from Miles.

He got the message and jumped ship to join John McLaughlin in the new Mahavishnu Orchestra and also embark on a solo career which kicked off with 1984’s Living In The Crest Of A Wave, a pretty anodyne collection of new-agey fusion. Let’s call it The Metheny Effect. Many tried and failed to ape that guitarist’s mixture of Ornette Coleman-inspired melodicism, Latin flavours and down-home, Midwestern, open-sky simplicity.

With its folky themes, puny production, emphasis on soprano sax, fretless bass, ride cymbals and an ‘environmental’ bent, LITCOAW could almost have come out on Windham Hill. Only the closing title track works up any kind of energy or interest, when Evans finally busts out the tenor and blows up a storm over Adam Nussbaum’s frenetic jazz/rock groove.

Evans’ followup, 1985’s The Alternative Man, was his first record for the illustrious Blue Note Records and as such should have been a celebration. Unfortunately it was an object lesson in how not to use technology, and just the kind of ‘80s ‘jazz’ album that illustrates what a brilliant job Marcus Miller did on Miles’s Tutu.

Evans in the main stumbles around with ugly Linn Drum patterns, electric drums, blaring synth pads and raucous hair-metal guitar solos, all topped off with some fairly insipid soprano playing. A few tracks and you’ll be wanting to break out the Albert Ayler or David Murray albums, and fast.

The only interest predictably comes with two more open, organic offerings, the excellent ‘Miles Away’ which reunites Evans with his Miles colleagues Al Foster on drums and Miller on bass. And ’Let The Juice Loose’ is fun, a cool bebop head featuring some enjoyably un-PC Strat-mangling from the late great Hiram Bullock.

But hey – some of this music brings back good memories, when I was digging around the Record And Tape Exchange and Our Price for bargains and closely monitoring the personnel on the back of my favourite Miles and McLaughlin albums.

These albums also definitely represent a weird time for ’80s jazz, when established labels were signing all and sundry, fishing around for the next Young Lion or Metheny. And thankfully a few dodgy early solo records didn’t hurt Evans’ career much, as he’s gone on to be one of the most respected players on the scene.