Here’s a quandary. If you had to choose one 1980s song to get people on the dancefloor – maybe you’re the last-minute guest DJ at a wedding disco – what would you go for?
The track probably needs a few things going for it:
1. A great intro – a ‘call to arms’.
2. Cross-generational appeal, one for the kiddies and grandparents alike.
3. It has to be a total hit – no cult favourites.
4. Loudness and ‘impact’.
5. It’s probably ‘pop’ and pretty genre-less – no heavy metal or R’n’B.
6. A soundtrack hit might be good – something from a John Hughes joint or ‘Dirty Dancing’?
7. A flavour of the ‘novelty’ hit/one-hit wonder might help.
In his (great) book ‘Nothing Is Real’, David Hepworth comes up with five ultimate floorfiller contenders including two from the 1980s: Brucie’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and Madonna’s ‘Open Your Heart’. Both choices strike this correspondent as a little odd. Rather I’d posit the following (feel free to chime in with any omissions):
Michael Jackson: ‘Billie Jean’
Dexys Midnight Runners: ‘Come On Eileen’
Simple Minds: ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’
Toni Basil: ‘Mickey’
Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’
Roxy Music: ‘Same Old Scene’
Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’
Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes: ‘(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life’
De La Soul: ‘Say No Go’
Young MC: ‘Know How’
Wham!: ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’
Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’
ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’
Madonna: ‘Into The Groove’
But the one 1980s track I’d choose to get people onto the dancefloor is…
David Bowie: ‘Let’s Dance’
I’ve rounded up most of these and some others into a playlist. Happy groovin’.
He wasn’t alone – many credit them as the greatest jazz/rock unit in history, pretty impressive considering they developed out of a ‘scene’ that also included The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.
Curt Bianchi has run the acclaimed Weather Report Discography website for many years and now expands his study to create the excellent ‘Elegant People’, an elaborate history of the band which features a myriad of exclusive interviews, photographs and information.
It has Brian Glasser’s effective Zawinul biography ‘In A Silent Way’ in the rear-view mirror but emerges as a very different proposition. Bianchi initially looks in detail at the formative years of Zawinul and co-founder/saxophonist Wayne Shorter, with sobering tales of the young Zawinul’s experiences in wartime Vienna and fascinating insights into Shorter’s extended periods in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey and Miles Davis.
The sections on Weather Report’s formation around 1970 are fascinating. Columbia’s marketing of them as a ‘progressive’ – rather than ‘jazz’ – band led to some interesting dichotomies; Shorter and Zawinul were already established superstars in their field but often had to engage in fairly menial/minor promotional work just to get a foot in the door with rock audiences. We also learn about the other potential band names that hit the cutting-room floor before ‘Weather Report’ appeared.
Bianchi then expertly traces the group from those early days as a kind of ‘chamber’ jazz/rock unit to their status as a ‘power band’ around the arrival of bassist Alphonso Johnson and drummer Chester Thompson in 1975, and the subsequent boost with the recruitment of Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine.
Bianchi brings the albums to life with great gusto. There’s a rare photo from the Night Passage sessions at The Complex in Los Angeles, and the last-ever photo of the Jaco/Erskine band taken at the Power Station in NYC, with Jaco almost a ghost at the back of the shot (shades of that famous final Syd Barrett photo with Pink Floyd). Elsewhere there are ticket stubs and even session track sheets.
And fans of Weather Report’s 1980s music can rest assured that Bianchi doesn’t give that era short shrift – there’s almost as much about the last few albums Sportin’ Life and This Is This (and many of Zawinul and Shorter’s post-Weather Report projects) as there is about commercial breakthroughs Black Market and Heavy Weather.
So ‘Elegant People’ is surely the ultimate Weather Report book – it’s an absolute must for fans and those wanting a deeper dive into the band’s music.
The classic It Bites lineup (Francis Dunnery, John Beck, Richard Nolan, Bob Dalton) produced three excellent studio albums and of course snared one huge UK hit in the shape of ‘Calling All The Heroes’.
Then there was the middling live collection Thankyou And Goodnight, and now a limited-edition 2018 box set called Live In London. I must have missed a memo because I only heard about it a year or so ago.
It was well worth the wait. It collects three unedited London gigs (I was at two of them) over five CDs, including their very last major show in the capital. Whilst these are essentially desk recordings, the sound quality ranges from good to excellent. The box set also features nice, previously unseen photos and some good liner notes including a long interview with Dalton, telling of their London history and details of each gig.
The Marquee concert from 21 July 1986 (at less than 40 minutes, presumably a support?) catches the band in their full-on, zingy, poppy/funky early pomp. Everything sounds a little fast and they haven’t quite settled into their groove yet but it’s still a good listen. There’s a rather shrill early version of ‘Black December’ and a great, rare outing for ‘Whole New World’ with Dunnery playing the horn lines on lead guitar with some aplomb.
Next is the very tangible peak of the band, a Once Around The World tour gig from 13 May 1988 at the much-missed Astoria. The sound is beefy, the tempos locked in, the backing vocals excellent and this really is the dog’s bollocks. There’s so much evidence of craft, with an extra note here and lick there, always slightly modifying the album versions.
‘Plastic Dreamer’ is a revelation, ‘Black December’ is huge, and ‘Old Man & The Angel’ ambitious and exciting. We finally get to hear what Dunnery sings in ‘Hunting The Whale’. The ‘Midnight/Wanna Shout’ medley is a knockout, complete with ‘Purple Haze’ coda, and Once Around The World’s title track is brilliant, complete with excerpt from ‘New York, New York’ which chimes rather cleverly with Dunnery and Beck’s Lamb Lies Down On Broadway fixation.
The third gig is the band’s final London show at the Hammersmith Odeon on 7 April 1990. The intro sounds like something from Prince’s Lovesexy. The new songs sound great, ‘Let Us All Go’ is superb but Dunnery’s voice is pretty shot throughout, and some of the backing vocals are also showing signs of strain. In truth you can hear the schisms in the band developing, though there are many, many great moments.
Barely two months later Dunnery had left the group. Not long after that, this correspondent would see him skulking around the King’s Head pub in Fulham (he was rehearsing upstairs with Robert Plant, I was gigging there), not looking a particularly well or happy man. Thankfully he’s on a far more even keel now.
Live In London is a really exciting release, a must-have collection for anyone who owns any of the studio albums, and arguably a much better package than Thankyou And Goodnight.
Further reading: I’ve written about the second It Bites studio album Once Around The World in the current edition of Classic Pop magazine.