Scientology In Session: Chick Corea Elektric Band’s Light Years (1987)

Jazz/fusion of the late-’80s variety is sure to give any John Peel acolyte nightmares: visions of guys in tracksuit bottoms, trainers and vests, looking like extras from ‘Thirtysomething’, playing absurdly gymnastic jazz/rock based on corny ‘funk’ or Latin vamps, grinning at each other and the audience, using the cheesiest modern gizmos (Simmons electric drums, EWI wind instruments, guitar synths).

The Chick Corea Elektric Band (Corea: keyboards, Frank Gambale: guitar, John Patitucci: bass, Dave Weckl: drums) probably best epitomised this style. But guess what – revisiting their 1987 album Light Years recently, it emerges as one of the best and least ridiculous projects of Chick’s career.

He reins in the chops and gothic longeurs to produce a collection of really good themes and tight, attractive arrangements (though the three ‘extra’ tracks on the CD/streaming versions are disaster areas). The album is also musical catnip for me, bringing back memories of when I was first getting into jazz and fusion.

The thing is that Chick seems to actually relish including some pentatonic/blues-based harmony on Light Years. Some of his playing wouldn’t seem out of place in the music of Will Downing or Lonnie Liston Smith. There are even a few II-V-I chord changes.

‘Starlight’ and the title track are as catchy and immediate as David Sanborn’s ‘Run For Cover’ or ‘Hideaway’, though Marienthal’s alto tone is a bit too close to Dave’s for comfort. Weckl delivers lesson after lesson in Latin-flavoured funk and rock drumming. Gambale and Patitucci barely break sweat, or rather don’t get any room to show off, but still make a few telling contributions.

‘Time Track’ and ‘View From The Outside’ demonstrate everything that’s good about Light Years – catchy melodies, cool grooves and meticulous, gradually-escalating arrangements. The ridiculously technical last four bars of the former demonstrate some of the killer musical chops that are kept pretty much in the locker throughout the album, only to be brought out when strictly necessary. I saw them live a couple of times around this time and of course the musicianship was incredible, even if the relentlessly ‘up’ stage presentation now looks pretty embarrassing.

Light Years is obviously good. It’s brutally, clinically good. It’s almost critic-proof. The Elektric Band were the Level 42 of high-octane fusion and this album is their World Machine. Of course it’ll always sound a bit like muzak to some, but that’s quite cool too.

The CD’s inlay card features a really weird poem by Chick, kind of an ode to Scientology. It’s worth reading. And actually the album cover is pretty strange too when you think about it…

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Nik Kershaw: The Works 30 Years On

It was goodbye to Basildon and Braintree, hello to Bel Air and Beverly Hills. Yes, Kershaw had always threatened the big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over album, and in 1989 he delivered it.

And, to no-one’s great surprise, it was an excellent collection, one of the best ‘Brit-Goes-Stateside’ pop records of the decade.

Recorded over four months in LA, The Works – released 30 years ago this week – saw Kershaw put together some of his best material to date with two top-notch drummers (Vinnie Colaiuta and Jeff Porcaro) in tow, the great Jerry Hey on horn arrangements, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, ex-Zappa keyboardist Peter Wolf producing and backing vocals from Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett.

And yet it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back, underselling drastically, cutting ties with MCA Records and leading Kershaw into decades of back-room writing and producing. But maybe he was happier that way (and he did write the enormo-hit ‘The One And Only’ for Chesney Hawkes a few years later).

But from August to December 1987, Kershaw was hob-nobbing with Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones and Toto, flirting with the kinds of scenes that he had mocked on ‘Radio Musicola’ and ‘City Of Angels’. He apparently didn’t get on very well with Wolf at all, virtually re-recording the entire album back in London alongside Australian producer Julian Mendelsohn (Level 42’s World Machine).

But hey, the hard work paid off. There’s nothing else in the ’80s pop canon quite like the techno/pop/fusion flash of ‘Don’t Ask Me’, ‘Wounded Knee’ and ‘Cowboys and Indians’, and Colaiuta’s extraordinary drum performances had players rushing to their practice rooms. In particular, the former track has that fill… If only Vinnie had played on a few of the other machine-driven tracks. And Kershaw coaxes Porcaro to play a classic half-time shuffle on the superb ‘Walkabout’.

It’s still hard to believe that ‘One Step Ahead’ and ‘Elisabeth’s Eyes’ (very influenced by Scritti) completely flopped as singles (though I would have gone with ‘Lady On The Phone’). They still sound great today, with brilliant choruses and nice grooves. ‘Burning At Both Ends’ may be the standout of the album, with its Middle-Eastern-flavoured hook and superb Siedah Garrett backup vox. Slightly less impressive are ‘Take My Place’ and ‘One World’; both could be Climie Fisher or Robbie Nevil.

The album disappeared without trace both in the UK and US. As far as solo pop success was concerned, the game was up. But it’s a shame that the kind of intelligent, superbly-played pop heard on The Works was unsustainable by the end of the ‘80s.

As Nik so succinctly puts it on his website:

Los Angeles for four months with producer Peter Wolf. Get to record with some legends: Jerry Hey, Larry Williams, Paulinho Da Costa, Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Colaiuta. House in Nichols Canyon; Rented Mustang; Earthquake. Constantly bumping heads with Peter. End up finishing album myself in London. More record company upheaval; another MD; another A&R person. Not looking good. European tour with Elton John. Goodbye MCA. Time for a break...”

China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse 30 Years Old Today

‘File under: Victims Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’. That was Q magazine’s memorable verdict on What Price Paradise, CC’s 1986 studio album. They had a point – it was producer team Langer & Winstanley’s unfathomable attempt to turn the Liverpudlians into Madness.

But when Steely Dan co-founder/co-songwriter Walter Becker came back onboard for ’89’s Diary Of A Hollow Horse, released 30 years ago today, normal service was resumed. It now sounds like a perfect follow-up to the 1985 classic Flaunt The Imperfection.

Becker was reluctant to record in England so persuaded the band to convene at George Benson’s Lahaina studio in Maui, Hawaii, just down the road from Becker’s home. He brought engineer Roger Nichols along for the sessions too, famous for his painstaking work on Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. Nichols apparently taught all of the band how to scuba dive during their time off.

It’s hard to know what sort of expectations Virgin Records had for this album. What they ended up with is a kind of chamber pop, mainly the sound of a great, super-tight band playing live in the studio. The only concessions to ’80s music are the teeniest bit of reverb on the drums and the occasional synth overdub, to add colour in lieu of a horn section.

Becker’s real contribution seems to be on the arrangement side (the tasty modulation for the guitar solo in ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’ is a case in point), and he also brings in great backing singers Maxine Waters, Myrna Matthews and Linda Harmon, saxist Jim Horn, guitarist (and Countdown To Ecstasy engineer) Tim Weston and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, who presumably used up most of the recording budget.

Virgin obviously computed the ‘hits’ as ‘Red Letter Day’ and ‘St Saviour Square’, summarily canning Becker’s versions of the songs and bringing in Mike Thorne to ‘re-produce’ them (the ploy didn’t work – the singles stiffed at #84 and #81 respectively). You can listen to all of the versions on YouTube.

Hollow Horse also didn’t work commercially, only reaching #58 in the UK album charts. But this was a period when some great pop/rock by the likes of Danny Wilson, It Bites, Love & Money and David Sylvian (all Virgin acts except for one… hint, hint…) also failed to find a big audience. CC’s album sales diminished as the quality of their work increased – the game was up in terms of major-label support, but amongst fans of quality ’80s pop Hollow Horse has only gained status over the years.

The lads reproduced the album perfectly at London’s Dominion Theatre in spring 1989, a gig whose details elude me apart from the late Kevin Wilkinson’s superb drumming (and ahead-of-its-time, side-on kit placement) and vocalist Gary Daly proudly saying ‘That’s a good one, tha’!’ after ‘Day After Day’. He had good reason to feel chuffed – Diary Of A Hollow Horse still sounds like a minor classic 30 years on.

Madonna: Like A Prayer 30 Years On

Here it is: Madonna’s artistic breakthrough, the first album of hers that was really geared to the CD-buying audience, and a fresh start after the distinctly dodgy years of 1987 and 1988.

Like A Prayer (weird title: didn’t someone in the Warner Bros. marketing department say, ‘Hey, it’s a bit similar to Like A Virgin‘?) was released 30 years ago this week. It topped the US and UK charts, spawned six hit singles and has sold around 15 million copies to date.

It was a revelation on a few levels – Madonna’s singing voice had more range and richness. Her lyrics were getting personal. There were two songs about her marriage to Sean Penn, and three zoning in on family relationships. She co-wrote and co-produced all the songs; by all accounts she knew exactly what she wanted and was present at all the tracking sessions, finding ever new ways of inspiring the performances she was after (see below).

She hooked up with co-producer/co-songwriter Pat Leonard to great effect. It was a classic double act – she provided melodies, street smarts and lyrics, he provided the classically-trained piano and arrangement skills. The result was her Sgt Pepper’s, a varied, ambitious, major work.

But how does Like A Prayer stack up these days? Here’s a track-by-track rundown of arguably Madonna’s greatest album.

‘Like A Prayer’: The lead-off single, a US and UK #1, once described by Rolling Stone magazine as ‘as close to art as pop music gets’. It was also highly controversial in its allusions to oral sex and an apparent conflation between religious/sexual ecstasy, not to mention the envelope-pushing video.

‘Express Yourself’: Great feminist party pop/funk tune co-written with Stephen Bray, inspired by Sly And The Family Stone and anchored by JR Robinson’s crisp grooving. Shep Pettibone’s single remix subsequently usurped the album version. David Fincher’s video cost a reported $5 million.

‘Love Song’: This duet with Prince was a curious meeting of pop giants, musically in the Lovesexy/Batman mould but lacking a great hook, though apparently they did initially write it eye to eye, Prince programming drums and Madonna donning a synth. Tapes were then worked on individually and sent back and forth between LA and Minneapolis. Whilst interesting, it’s nearer to a Prince B-side than something really memorable.

‘Til Death Do Us Part’: A coruscating portrait of her marriage breakup to Sean Penn, made even more poignant by its sprightly Scritti-style pop. Bassist Guy Pratt was the recipient of Madonna’s unique production style on this track. ‘What did you think of that?’ she asked him after one take. ‘Um… I think it was OK…’ was his response. ‘Did it make your d*ck hard?’ Madonna shot back!

‘Promise To Try’: A powerful ballad, featuring an uncharacteristically emotional vocal. According to Madonna, it was written completely spontaneously: ‘He (Leonard) just sat down and started playing, and I started singing.’

‘Cherish’: More Scritti-inspired pop fun, all major chords and twinkling synths, looking at happier times with Sean. Jeff Porcaro’s trademark shuffle is his one and only drumming appearance on the album.

‘Dear Jessie’: An inspired take on late-’60s psychedelia, almost like a children’s lullaby. A very cool, unexpected track.

‘Oh Father’: A gorgeous ballad in 6/4 with music by Leonard and lyrics by Madonna, written in a tiny rehearsal studio in the garment district of New York when Madonna was in ‘a very, very dark place’ during her tenure in the David Mamet play ‘Speed-the-Plow’. Madonna: ‘”Oh Father” is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all the authority figures in my life’. The song’s intro alone can put a big lump in this writer’s throat. Madonna apparently coaxed the band through the song, telling bassist Pratt and drummer Jonathan Moffett in no uncertain terms where not to play. Apart from string section and guitar overdubs, they got it on the second full take, including Madonna’s live vocal. During the sessions, Moffett also asked her when he should come in. ‘You come in when I do this’, she replied, lifting up her blouse!

‘Keep It Together’: Another Stephen Bray co-write, this Go-Go-inspired ode to family togetherness, featuring some brilliant Randy Jackson bass, became a mainstay of her ‘Blond Ambition’ tour. If you play it loud you can also really hear the superb backing vocals of her regular live duo Niki Haris and Donna DeLory.

‘Pray For Spanish Eyes’: The point where Like A Prayer starts to run out of steam. A corny, soft-rock version compendium of Spanish clichés, complete with castanets and weary acoustic guitar, and a weirdly unmemorable melody.

‘Act Of Contrition’: And here’s the other stinker. Madonna free-associates awkwardly over a reversed version of the title track, with Prince’s backwards guitar track also ladled on to no great consequence.

Further reading: ‘Songwriters On Songwriting’ by Paul Zollo

‘My Bass And Other Animals’ by Guy Pratt

Propaganda: Wishful Thinking

ZTT Records – under the auspices of Trevor Horn – really used the remix format. No throwaway, rush-released projects for them. Their remixes were petri dishes for sonic experiments and situationist pranks, many worthwhile and innovative.

And of course several remix albums were released on ZTT – Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm was essentially one song done eight different ways, and there was also a whole Frankie Goes To Hollywood LP dedicated to ‘Two Tribes’ remixes.

But maybe a lesser-known example is Propaganda’s Wishful Thinking, a reworking of the Düsseldorf unit’s seminal 1985 album A Secret Wish, originally produced by Stephen Lipson (with one track – ‘Dr Mabuse’ –  helmed by Horn).

A Secret Wish’s stock seems to keep rising year after year, gaining more fans and sounding better than ever. But Wishful Thinking is a weird project, to say the least. Co-remixer (alongside former tape op Bob Kraushaar) Paul Morley’s absurd liner notes quote Goethe and boast that the album is the result of ’39 studio hours’, which, by ZTT’s painstaking standards, doesn’t actually sound like much.

But it’s a thrilling, epic collection just the same, regurgitating many of the original album’s sonic motifs but in a different order and in a different place on the stereo spectrum. ‘Machined’ reimagines ‘P-Machinery’ as a mid-tempo piece of minimalism, featuring mainly Claudia Brucken’s vocals and gentle drums.

‘Jewelled’ fuses the two versions of ‘Duel’ from the original album, mixing her ‘angry’ vocals with the backing from the ‘pop’ version. It’s pretty funny and genuinely surreal.

Hidden elements embedded in the original mix are subtly revealed, like Lipson’s chiming guitars on ‘Laughing’. ‘Loving’ exposes and amplifies Andy Richards’ gorgeous piano and synth from ‘The Murder Of Love’, finally revealing it as the fantastic pop song it is.

The two versions of ‘Dr Mabuse’ bring out Horn’s genius and natural flair for the dynamic, showcasing not one but two brilliant bass vamps and a whole host of other sonic delights (thrillingly, one version is used in the absurd opening credits of John Hughes’s 1987 movie ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’).

But possibly the best track on Wishful Thinking is the closing ‘Thought’, an excerpt of the band’s version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’. It’s nothing less than a brutalist, industrial masterpiece.

All in all, it’s an epic, exciting hour of music, and a real one-off. For anyone still fascinated by A Secret Wish, as this writer is, it’s required listening. The band probably hated it, though Brucken did donate one of her paintings for use on the cover (but then she was married to Morley at the time…).

De La Soul’s 3 Feet High And Rising: 30 Years Old Today

The citizens of Punxsutawney have the groundhog to tell them whether there’ll be an early spring (much to Phil Connors’ disgust). But my yardstick is generally: is it time to listen to 3 Feet High And Rising yet?

Perhaps prompted by the recent freakishly-warm weather in London, the answer is a resounding yes. Because De La Soul’s debut album, released 30 years ago today, can refresh the most jaded of pop palettes and may be the ultimate summer record.

At my school, it was all the rage and a huge relief from the incessant INXS, Simple Minds and U2. Probably because De La Soul were from the suburbs of Long Island rather than the inner city, they brought a playful spirit and much-needed humour to hip-hop. It also reminded older music fans (or – let’s be honest – music critics) of that other ‘summer of love’ anthem, Sgt Pepper, even if the band denied any knowledge of that album.

To my ears, it was the first time sampling was used to bring about a truly surreal vision of music. This was a carefree world where it was perfectly normal for a ‘how to speak French’ lesson to accompany The Turtles’ ‘You Showed Me’, or for Sly Stone’s ‘Poet’ to back up some nursery-rhyme rapping. Liberace, The Headhunters, Fats Domino; they were all fair game (though controversial – see below). If it sounded good, it was good.

There’s a silly-but-funny fake quiz show schtick running through the album and it’s not often you hear a whispered rap. Almost every track is under three minutes. There are rhymes about school, haircuts and soap, and if you don’t like one song, there’ll be another one along very shortly.

3 Feet High And Rising was the gateway to some brilliant retro music too, especially for my generation who were too young or not even born the first time around. A theory: it single-handedly led to a resurgence of interest in Hall & Oates, Steely Dan, early Michael Jackson and Funkadelic.

At the time of writing, the album is unavailable on streaming platforms, pending a stand-off between the band and Tommy Boy Records. Is it karmic payback for the boys being so trigger-happy with the samples? Who knows. But it doesn’t stop 3 Feet High And Rising being a classic of the ’80s or any other decade.