The Yacht Rock Revolution (1980-1983)

Say ‘fusion’ to most music fans and it’s the classic early-‘70s jazz/rock of Miles or The Mahavishnu Orchestra that would probably come to mind.

But a decade later another kind of fusion was taking place, a mainly-American sound that drew on influences from R’n’B, jazz, pop, funk, AOR and MOR.

Yacht Rock was upwardly-mobile, multi-layered, widescreen, moneyed, beautifully-produced music, usually involving a string section and/or horns, generally West Coast-originated, driven by the lush production style of the time and effortless brilliance of the musicians involved.

The Yacht House Band generally centred around a few key members of the band Toto: Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on keyboards and Steve Lukather on guitar. You’d also have to factor in guitarists Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, keyboard players David Foster, Michael Omartian, Robbie Buchanan and Greg Phillinganes, drummers John ‘JR’ Robinson and Steve Gadd, bassists Louis Johnson and Abe Laboriel, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, horn arranger Jerry Hey, string arranger Johnny Mandel and a whole host more.

These were the greatest ‘rock’ musicians in the world, brought up on The Beatles, Beach Boys, Hendrix, Miles, McLaughlin and James Brown, making up their parts on the spot with the studio meter running, embellishing the basic chord changes with their own unique feel and voicings and bringing to life jazz-influenced compositions by some of the great songwriters of that or any other era: Kenny Loggins, Burt Bacharach, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager, Rod Temperton, Fagen and Becker, David Foster, Jay Graydon et al.

All kinds of singers got sucked in to this vibe, dialling down the operatics and dialling up the melody and behind-the-beat phrasing: George Benson, Patti Labelle, Michael Franks, Randy Crawford, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Manhattan Transfer, Leon Ware, Lionel Richie. Even a few Brits got onboard – George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Carrie’ are great stabs at the sound.

With a few notable exceptions, it was all over by 1984. The technology started running the show. Everyone was looking for the right drum machine, budgets were slashed and the great session musicians moved into production and songwriting. Stanley Clarke/George Duke’s heroic ‘Atlanta’ was somewhat of a finale for this kind of music; it’s quite affecting in a way.

Of course this stuff is way too laidback for some, the sound of clock-watching session musicians producing aural cotton candy, too close to muzak for comfort. It would be totally understandable to reach for the Throbbing Gristle after a while. But if it’s your bag you can really get lost in it – it’s pure comfort music, and brilliant for headphones.

Here’s a selection of the finest 1980s Yacht Rock artefacts for your listening pleasure. Ahoy there mateys, and wishing you a smooth sail.

Dedicated to James Broad.

Harold Pinter @ 90, The Caretaker @ 60

Playwright, actor, activist and poet Harold Pinter, who died on Christmas Eve 2008, would have been 90 years old today. I couldn’t let 2020 pass without marking that fact and celebrating the 60th anniversary of ‘The Caretaker’.

When I started my English Literature ‘A’ Level at the very end of the 1980s, theatre had barely appeared on my radar. I’d seen some Shakespeare, Webster, Sheridan, maybe a bit of Ayckbourn, mostly on school trips. Nothing really hit home. But then my excellent teacher Hugh Epstein introduced us to ‘The Caretaker’.

Needless to say, it was like no other play I’d read before. This was the language of the West London streets that I knew. It covered very familiar territory in terms of its themes too. Pinter’s legendary, hilarious piss-taking was evident from early on – mainly courtesy of the Mick character – but there was something else coming through loud and clear, something heroic, empathetic, charitable, even noble. I was gripped and it began a love affair with Pinter’s work that has lasted almost 30 years.

‘The Caretaker’ premiered on 27 April 1960 at The Arts Theatre in London, and starred Donald Pleasence, Alan Bates and Peter Woodthorpe. It was a big hit, Pinter’s breakthrough play after a difficult experience with ‘The Birthday Party’. An excellent movie, starring Pleasence, Bates and Robert Shaw, was made in 1963, shot in Hackney and adapted by Pinter himself.

There are so many other great London Pinter memories, many involving his acting performances in his own plays: ‘No Man’s Land’ at The Almeida, ‘The Collection’ and ‘The Hothouse’ at the Richmond Theatre. Also Ian Holm in ‘Moonlight’ at The Comedy Theatre and Michael Gambon’s turn as Davies in ‘The Caretaker’ at the same venue.

Of course he wasn’t only a playwright, actor and poet. A cursory look at his public appearances now – especially those in the last 20 years of his life, when he received the Nobel Prize In Literature and spoke passionately at various rallies – suggests that there are very few public figures around these days with his kind of gravitas. He was known to be prickly – aren’t we all – but also exceptionally generous, as he was to this writer.

He’s much missed. Happy birthday Harold. And enormous thanks to Hugh Epstein who brought ‘The Caretaker’ to life.

Further reading: George Cole’s Betrayed: The Story Of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal

Mark Batty’s About Pinter

Michael Billington’s The Life And Work Of Harold Pinter

Robert Palmer: Clues 40 Years On

If in 1979 you’d been asked to draft a list of key 1970s artists most likely to go ‘new-wave’, Robert Palmer would surely have been near the bottom.

After all, he spent most of the decade as a kind of sophistifunk Bryan Ferry, with his ‘problematic’ album covers and Little Feat-inspired grooves.

1979’s Secrets had shown glimpses of ‘rock’, but Clues, released 40 years ago this week, went the whole hog. And, along with 1978’s Double Fun, it’s probably his most consistent album and definitely worth a reappraisal.

There are good omens in the liner notes – a Talking Heads guest appearance here, a Gary Numan song there, Compass Point mixmaster general Alex Sadkin (Nightclubbing etc.) on knob-twiddling duties, Free’s Andy Fraser on bass. And Clues delivers big-time, exploding out of the speakers and clocking in at just over half-an-hour (it must sound great on vinyl).

It’s buoyed by two superb singles, ‘Looking For Clues’ and ‘Johnny And Mary’, the former scraping into the UK top 40 (shockingly, Robert only had SIX top 40 singles during the 1980s…). But there are other treats throughout: ‘Sulky Girl’ sounds curiously like Low-era Bowie, with its histrionic vocals, unhinged guitars, processed drums and barrelhouse piano.

The Beatles cover ‘Not A Second Time’ is excellent (with a new second verse), as is the Numan contribution ‘I Dream Of Wires’. When Gary’s synths squelch into action, it’s a great moment, as is the funky fanfare in the middle. And no-one but Palmer could have pulled off the minimalist Township swing of ‘Woke Up Laughing’, featuring a brilliant, polyrhythmic vocal performance.

If Good Drum Sounds are your thing, Sadkin delivers a masterclass here. I’ll be amazed if anyone can point to a better-recorded 1980s kit than on album-closer ‘Found You Now’, played by the excellent Dony Wynn (who he?).

Clues was, perhaps surprisingly, not a big success in the UK, making just #31. Nor did it go down too well in the US, peaking at #59. But it was a big hit in France, Sweden and the Netherlands.

Robert generally gets a bad rap these days, maybe due to those album covers (despite glowing character references in Phill Brown’s ‘Are We Still Rolling’ and Guy Pratt’s ‘My Bass And Other Animals’), and he seldom gets the ‘career overview’ treatment in the rock monthlies. But he was actually married to the same woman for 28 years (from 1971 to 1999) and had two kids. A private man and music fan through and through, he died of a heart attack in 2003 at the age of just 54.