Catching Up With Eddie Van Halen

225px-Eddie_Van_Halen_(1993)When I think of ’80s Eddie Van Halen, the image in my mind’s eye is probably not a lot different to any other fan – he’s grinning from ear to ear, cavorting around the stage, playing some of the greatest rock guitar of all time with one of the sweetest tones.

So it’s interesting to see him recently – sober, reflective, brutally honest, fiercely independent – talking about his life and craft onstage at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC.

‘Jump’ had always been a favourite of mine and was at the back of my mind when I came across Van Halen’s superb debut album at Harry’s Records in Twickenham (another one that’s bitten the dust), during my first week of sixth-form college in 1989.

I just loved the devil-may-care feel of Eddie’s playing. He was fearless, unconcerned about making mistakes (his dad gave him some advice: if you make a mistake, do it again – with a smile), the same attitude that spurred on Parker, Ornette, Hendrix and Jaco.

I later got heavily into the VH albums Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984 and OU812, but the band have been completely off my radar since the early ’90s, when I loved the ‘Poundcake’ single.

Having said that, not living in the States, I’ve completely missed the recent new album and TV appearances featuring David Lee Roth back on vocals. Maybe I need to check in again because I dug this:

Anyway, back to the interview. It’s fascinating hearing Eddie chatting about his life and career, away from all the controversy that has dogged the band over the last few decades.

He talks about building his first guitar, the last album he bought (clue: it was back in 1986 and by an English singer who was once in a very famous progressive rock band…), demonstrates some techniques and talks candidly about his sometimes difficult early life as an immigrant in the USA.

G’wan – give yourself an hour off and enjoy some words from a master.

Steve Khan: The Eyewitness Trilogy

51jiJqsP8ML._SX425_I’ve just had the absolute pleasure of writing the liner notes for a brand new Steve Khan 2-CD reissue featuring his three classic albums of the early ’80s, Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco, just released on BGO Records.

It was an honour to work with Steve on this project. He couldn’t have been more generous with his time/memories and hopefully the package does justice to the quality of the music.

Here’s an excerpt from the liner notes, giving some background to the three albums and also the legendary Eyewitness band:

Acclaimed guitarist/composer Steve Khan’s three classic albums of the early ’80s – Eyewitness, Modern Times and Casa Loco – came about seemingly against all the odds. By the end of the 1970s, the jazz/rock boom had come to an end, and the record industry was entering a major post-Punk/post-Disco recession.

Khan’s tenure with Columbia Records – which had produced three well-received solo albums, and a ‘Best Of’ compilation – ended in early 1980. Acts such as Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Return To Forever and Herbie Hancock, all of whom had been signed to Columbia before Khan, were no longer selling the same quantities of records, and the ‘Young Lions’, Neo-Bop boom of the early ’80s was just around the corner.

Khan’s response was to go back to basics. The stripped-down masterpiece Evidence (1980) was a one-man-band project featuring an arsenal of multi-tracked acoustic guitars; the album showcased excellent takes on Lee Morgan, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Horace Silver as well as the famous ‘Thelonious Monk Medley’.

The purity of the acoustic guitar sound on the album inspired a new approach to his electric playing too: “In 1981, I was still searching for a direction on the electric guitar, and it led me to go back to the most basic sound, the one I began with when I was 19 years old at UCLA: just plug into an amp with a Gibson, dial in a little reverb, and play!”

The time was also right to move away from classic song-form and branch out into more improvised music-making. “I was ready to surround myself with a totally different group of players in conjunction with a new spirit of making music, something much looser, something not so married to having everything perfectly placed and played. Phone calls were made to three special and very unique players. We got together and the experiment began.”

Drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Anthony Jackson were two of the most in-demand musicians on the New York scene and first-call rhythm section on numerous high-profile sessions including John Scofield’s Who’s Who album. Jackson had also recently joined Khan on the recording of Steely Dan’s Gaucho while Jordan had been busy working with a huge variety of world-class artists as part of David Letterman’s ‘World’s Most Dangerous Band’.

And when Khan hooked up with ex-Weather Report percussionist Manolo Badrena during the recording of Mike Mainieri’s Wanderlust album, the final piece of the jigsaw clicked into place. Khan, Jackson, Jordan and Badrena began to jam regularly at Steve Jordan’s Chelsea loft.

It was quickly clear to Khan that something very significant was happening during those informal get-togethers. “I’m still not certain just what to call what we did”, he says today. “We would begin to play ideas that didn’t seem to have a place in any other musical setting. Here you had four very distinct perspectives on music-making, and four of the most stubborn maniacs one could gather in a room, but somehow it was working. It was magical!”

Khan recorded the sessions on a cheap cassette player and, listening back to them at home, quickly realised that the music should be recorded, “before we actually figured out what it was that we were doing!”

In the experimental era of King Crimson’s Discipline, Japan’s Tin Drum and Peter Gabriel’s Melt, the Eyewitness band began with very basic sounds and concepts but over the course of its existence came to use some fairly unique instrumentation to produce music that was complex but always accessible.

Jordan’s hybrid drum set included a cowbell, a broken splash cymbal, two hi-hats, two snare drums (tuned slightly differently) and a Simmons bass drum. Jackson developed, designed and played a state-of-the-art six-string bass, while Badrena’s constantly-mutating percussion kit included a turtle shell, timbales, congas and eventually Pearl’s Syncussion synthesizer. He also employed a multitude of eerie vocal effects. This clearly was not your standard ‘fusion’ band.

Co-produced by Khan and Doug Epstein, Eyewitness was recorded at Mediasound Studios over a single weekend in November 1981. It has the spontaneity of a great jazz album and the high production values of a contemporary pop album…

To hear the three albums and read the full article, check out the 2-CD reissue.

Big Band Revolutionaries: 30 Years Of Loose Tubes

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A small segment of Loose Tubes, 1985

Anyone who got into jazz in the 1980s must surely have a soft spot for the legendary anarcho-big band Loose Tubes.

I saw them play live sometime around 1986 in one of those great community-run London venues (Logan Hall? Shaw Theatre? Camden Arts Centre?) that appeared quickly, burnt brightly and then disappeared.

I don’t recall much about the music but do remember the crowd; the jazz revival was in full flight so there were lots of very hip people wearing chinos, black polo-necks and sometimes even berets dancing unashamedly.

Then, a bit later, Loose Tubes played on Saturday-evening primetime TV wearing very loud clothes, dancing idiotically and generally clowning around with the audience. It was youthful and different and gave Big Band Jazz a much-needed makeover.

Of course there’s always the chance that some people just didn’t think of their music as ‘jazz’ at all, and their clowning may well have put a lot of potential punters off. But the band probably weren’t too bothered about that.

loose tubes

In a way, the Loose Tubes could only have originated in the ’80s, emerging as it did from composer and educator Graham Collier‘s community big band workshops.

There was no ‘leader’ per se (although keyboards/French horn man Django Bates was occasionally seen conducting in very syncopated sections) and any member of the band was free to submit compositions.

Consequently, Loose Tubes’ music touched on anything that took its composers’ fancy – samba, heavy metal, folk, Weather Report-style fusion, flamenco, Hi-Life, blues, reggae, free jazz.

Their first self-titled album came out in the summer of 1985 and it was a really nice distillation of their sound (and featured one of my favourite UK drummers, Nic France, who left soon after the recording to join Working Week).

Django Bates’ composition ‘Yellow Field’ remains a classic. The followup Delightful Precipice is probably their best known album, and the final studio recording was 1988’s Teo Macero-produced Open Letter.

It was probably a miracle that such a huge band lasted as long as it did (six years) but Loose Tubes was also a superb career springboard for Bates, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Tim Whitehead, guitarist John Parricelli, flautist Eddie Parker, drummers Nic France/Steve Arguelles and ‘bone man Ashley Slater, all of whom are going strong today.

And guess what – they reformed in 2014, playing concerts at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Brecon Jazz Festival and a sold-out week at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. Two live album have also recently been released, Sad Afrika and Dancing On Frith Street, both of which featured music from their original farewell gig at Ronnie’s in September 1990.

Aztec Camera: Four Golden Greats

Aztec-camera-roddy-frameIt all came back to me recently when I heard some church bells in Totnes ringing out the opening bass melody from ‘We Could Send Letters’.

Although always one of my AC favourites, I hadn’t heard the song in years. Cue a period of rediscovery and a realisation that Roddy Frame penned four or five stand-out songs of the ’80s.

The guy had it all – intelligent lyrics, guitar chops, classic songcraft, good looks. Arguably the only thing missing was the classic album that his talent warranted.

But no matter: there were plenty of treats anyway. Here are a few:

4. We Could Send Letters (1983)

The low-key beginning builds into an epic, love-lorn pop gem, oddly never released as a single. Though dated by its Syndrum fills and airy production, the song however is water-tight with that lovely hike up into the chorus. An ’80s break-up classic.

3. Oblivious (1983)

Summery, Flamenco-tinged pop gem that reached number 18 in the UK singles chart. Frame works the minor/major thing beautifully (minor-key verse, major chorus), nails a very tricky acoustic guitar part and also pulls off the seldom-achieved trick of writing something catchy but not annoying.

2. Deep And Wide And Tall (1987)

Openly states the pressing question perhaps underlying all great pop music: are we going to live together? Roddy and producer Russ Titelman achieve the Scritti groove sought throughout the Love album. A mixture of spine-tingling backing vocals and major-seventh chords fuse to gorgeous effect. Inexplicably reached a lowly number 87 in the UK.

1. Working In A Goldmine (1987)

Roddy’s ‘blue-eyed-soul’ period wasn’t an outright success but this shimmering ballad with its fine Rob Mounsey arrangement is a standout. Seemingly about the unknowability of a lover (‘We love/What shines/Before our eyes/Why can’t we learn/What hides?’), it features one of the most sublime middle-eights (or, more accurately, middle-sixes) of late-’80s pop.

Sheila E In Romance 1600: 30 Years Old Today

sheila ePaisley Park/Warner Bros, released 26th August 1985

Bought: Goldhawk Road Record and Tape Exchange, 1989?

8/10

The music biz is littered with successful solo artists who were tempted out from behind the drum kit. Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Phil Collins, Karen Carpenter, Dave Grohl, Frank Zappa and Iggy Pop all graduated from the engine room to centre stage.

But while Sheila has never been on that level in terms of record sales or cultural impact (though trumps all of them in terms of drumming chops), her transition from sidewoman to frontwoman led to a couple of really infectious, interesting albums in the mid-’80s.

She had an enviable CV long before going solo, including percussion work with Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Marvin, George Duke and Diana Ross. Prince and Sheila were a similar age and had followed each other’s careers since the late-’70s. When he tasted his first mainstream success and was looking to mentor new artists, she was top of the list.

Their first collaboration was the superb B-side ‘Erotic City’, swiftly followed by Sheila’s debut album The Glamorous Life, a hit.

But its follow-up, Sheila E In Romance 1600, was a far more expansive and experimental piece, even though recording sessions were squeezed in on days off during the Purple Rain Tour between December 1984 and January 1985.

Despite Sheila’s obvious musical pedigree, Romance 1600‘s liner notes and song credits are misleading – this is a Prince album in all but name. According to biographer Per Nilsen (and as listed at the ASCAP offices), he wrote all the tracks here bar one (kicking Latin/fusion instrumental ‘Merci For The Speed Of A Clown In Summer’) and played all instruments except drums, percussion and sax.

But lucky for us, Romance 1600 was recorded smack-bang in the middle of his golden period and features some of Prince’s finest performances as a musician. His guitar solos on ‘Dear Michelangelo’ and ‘A Love Bizarre’ are simply tremendous, the latter throwing in some ridiculous bass too.

But Sheila also brings out the best in him. There’s much more humour here than on his own albums of the period. She turns in some hilariously hammy vocal performances on ‘Sister Fate’, ‘Toy Box’ and dramatic ballad ‘Bedtime Story’.

Sheila and Prince were having a lot of fun and you can hear the results. Sometimes the rushed nature of the recording shows, though – the mix is very murky and the album is short of a few memorable pop hooks.

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Prince’s ‘movie’ concept was in full effect here. He was leaving behind the ‘street’ style of Vanity 6/Purple Rain/The Time and embracing a romantic, ‘Amadeus’-influenced image which also crossed over into The Family project and his Parade album.

Thinking of Romance 1600 as a movie also opened up the album musically, allowing Sheila and Prince to embrace jazz (‘Yellow’), fusion, wacky synth-pop (the title track), Latin and even Third Stream.

This eclectic outlook was no doubt also influenced by his Revolution bandmates Wendy and Lisa.

Sheila E In Romance 1600 was a reasonable hit, going gold in the US and reaching number 50 on the Billboard chart, no doubt helped by the success of the ‘Love Bizarre’ single (US number 11). Sheila toured the US for the second time in two years.

She followed up Romance 1600 with a disappointingly bland self-titled album in 1987, which featured far less contribution from Prince. More successfully, she played some fantastic drums on the Sign ‘O’ The Times and Lovesexy tours.

Five Great ’80s Madonna Moments

5. Late Night With David Letterman, 1st July 1988

Though her most famous Letterman appearance was probably 1994’s swearfest, here she comes off more like a naughty big sister than an established star. Madonna and Sandra Bernhard laugh off Dave’s temper tantrums and seem to have stepped out of a ’50s B-movie.

4. Live Aid

This footage from La Ciccone’s Philadelphia appearance on 13th July 1985 gives a great insight into the atmosphere on the day and the adrenalin(and other substances?)-fuelled panic of the artist soundchecks. Live Aid came just a week after Madonna’s pre-fame topless pictures were leaked to the press. Her response was to wear lots of layers and silence the cat-calls with style, humour and an irrepressible joie de vivre.

3. ‘Crazy For You’

Most of my favourite Madonna tracks are ballads (‘This Used To Be My Playground’, ‘Take A Bow’, ‘Something To Remember’, ‘Oh Father’, ‘Promise To Try’) but this is possibly the pick of the bunch. Beautifully arranged by Steely Dan/Ashford & Simpson man Rob Mounsey (though that snare is still too big…), it was transformed from just another song in a so-so movie into a UK number 2 and US number one in March 1985.

2. The 1984 MTV Awards

A totally shameless and over-the-top celebration of womanhood. Imagine the reactions of the Armani-suited execs in the stalls. Madonna and Joni Mitchell have both spoken publicly about the chauvinistic attitudes that prevailed in the music industry of the mid-’80s. This was a brave response. Love her or loathe her, you’ve gotta admire her…balls.

1. The ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ club scene

For many people, this was her only decent movie performance, and I wouldn’t argue with that (though I need to see Abel Ferrera’s ‘Snake Eyes’ again…). Polanski paid homage to this scene ten years later in ‘Bitter Moon’, starring Hugh Grant, to similarly comic effect.

The Strange Story Of Stump

Blimey. That appeared out of nowhere on ‘The Tube’ in late ’86 or early ’87. I was amazed and amused.

Though the clip was forever etched on my memory, for some reason I didn’t seek out any recordings by Stump until a few years later when I came across a cassette of debut mini-album Quirk Out in the corner of my local HMV.

stump

I love this band. Built around Rob McKahey’s tribal drums, Kev Hopper’s fretless bass, Chris Salmon’s whammified Strat with no effects or barre chords and the joyously insane though highly-literate gibberings of singer Mick Lynch, Stump’s music should never have worked but it did.

It reminded me a bit of Belew-era King Crimson and XTC at their most unhinged but otherwise I was clueless.

Lynch told surreal tales of TV extras, low-rent strippers and out-of-control bodily functions over seemingly improvised ‘post-rock’.

In the intervening years, I’ve detected influences from James Joyce and Flann O’Brien in his brilliantly surreal storytelling, and Hopper has cited Pere Ubu, Brand X and Captain Beefheart as musical influences. But Stump could only have happened in the ’80s.

They got quite a live following in ’86, mainly among London’s Irish population, and a John Peel Session, Mud On A Colon EP and appearance on legendary compilation C86 followed quickly.

Quirk Out came out on their own label Stuff Records and featured favourites like ‘Tupperware Stripper’, ‘Our Fathers’, ‘Bit Part Actor’ and, of course, ‘Buffalo’. More appearances on ‘The Tube’ followed, the gigs went from strength to strength and everything seemed rosy.

The first album proper, 1988’s A Fierce Pancake, fulfilled their potential. Ensign Records, who specialised in popular Irish acts like Sinead O’Connor and The Waterboys, schmoozed the lads and they duly signed on the dotted line, despite having no real idea why they had been schmoozed.

Beautifully produced by Holger Hiller at Hansa Studios, with lots of detail and a bit more sonic punch than on the debut, Pancake was a minor classic. Surely a minor hit single would follow. The Cure’s mainman Tim Pope even directed the video for the most likely song, ‘Charlton Heston’.

But nothing. So Ensign tried to scare up a few remixes – nada. Even their charmingly ramshackle live shows were starting to flatline. During the long period of recording Pancake, the live scene had changed completely, and now rave and house were prevalent.

Stump’s brand of funky insanity was out. It’s another classic case of mismanagement and squandered budgets. No matter – the album contains such ’80s classics such as ‘Eager Bereaver’, ‘Bone’, ‘Alcohol’ and ‘Boggy Home’.

stump

Recent box set The Complete Anthology includes demos that were intended for the third album and they sound mainly marvellous, particularly ‘The Queen And The Pope’ and ‘Warm In The Knowledge’, but things couldn’t go on as they were. The band called it a day in 1989, apparently £250,000 in debt to Ensign.

But a few ‘celebrity’ fans have emerged over the years, most notably Mike Patton of Faith No More/Mr Bungle fame. The latter band certainly has Stumpy elements.

There has even emerged a really weird YouTube video of the rest of Stump looking for missing singer Mick Lynch in Cork. Is a reunion on the cards? (A reunion gig actually happened in May 2015, and Mick Lynch sadly passed away in December 2015 – Ed.)

Courtney Pine: ’80s Jazz Messenger

courtney pine

Courtney in concert, 1987

Gifted saxophonist Courtney Pine‘s career is one of British jazz’s great success stories.

Starting out in the early ‘80s as a sideman with reggae act Clint Eastwood and General Saint and various Britfunk bands, he became disillusioned with the outlawing of jazz as a respected, popular music in the climate of the early ’80s London music scene.

As he memorably put it in the superb BBC TV documentary Jazz Britannia, ‘I would add different notes in the scale the way Sonny Rollins did and people would say, “No man, we don’t want that.” They were saying to me, “If you’re black and you want to play jazz in this country, you’d better go and live somewhere else!”’

But all that changed when he caught US trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on TV one afternoon. Marsalis’s professionalism and dynamism were a revelation to Pine (not to mention his youthfulness); if Marsalis could bring jazz to a wide audience, he could too.

A period of intense woodshedding paid off, and soon he was guesting with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and The Charlie Watts Big Band, blowing all over the Angel Heart soundtrack and blowing people away with his solos in Gary Crosby’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors and Jazz Jamaica groups.

Island Records came calling, and his 1986 hard-bop-based debut Journey To The Urge Within made the Top 40 in the UK (scraping in at 39 on 25th October ’86!), an almost-unheard-of state of affairs for a jazz album. This web editor fondly remembers the day when, on opening the NME, unexpectedly found Pine’s debut and Miles Davis‘s Tutu sharing the chart.

courtney pine

Courtney spearheaded a huge resurgence of interest in jazz in the mid-to-late ’80s. But despite his huge success and admirable teaching work, he’s still somewhat of an anomaly on the scene, a barnstorming soloist with a lot of technique and a huge sound, one of the few British saxists who can give US brain-blowers like James Carter and David Murray a run for their money.

With Courtney’s playing and talent, it’s a question of context. His musical vision has certainly diversified since the mid-’80s, taking in elements of reggae, drum and bass, UK garage and jazz/funk, though the last few years have seen him refocus on mainly acoustic formats.

His fine 2011 album ‘Europa‘ was his first all-bass clarinet record and it was an absolute blast. He investigated calpyso forms on the 2012 House Of Legends set and returned to the bass clarinet for his beautiful current album Song (The Ballad Book).

Courtney is still a prolific live performer too, check out his website for details of all upcoming gigs. More power to his elbow.

Omar Hakim, Drummer Of The ’80s: Seven Of The Best

omarhakim3Of the all-time-great drummers who emerged in the ’80s – a list that would have to include Manu Katche, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Trilok Gurtu – you could argue that Omar Hakim was the main man. His hip, funky, vibrant style typified all that was good about the music of the era.

Effortlessly versatile, endlessly creative and always musical, Hakim emerged from the early ’80s New York jazz and fusion scene and quickly became the drummer of choice for David Sanborn, David Bowie, Dire Straits, John Scofield, Weather Report and Sting. He could play everything from straight jazz to heavy rock’n’roll with total ease, great feel and a beautifully light touch.

I first became aware of Omar when he demonstrated his ‘Children’s Crusade’ beat on BBC TV’s ‘Rock School’. I was a major fan from that day on.

Here are seven great Omar performances from the ’80s:

7. Sting: ‘I Burn For You’ (1985)

Drum legend Jeff Porcaro waxed lyrical about this performance which appears in the 1985 film ‘Bring On The Night’. One of Omar’s specialities is soloing over a static vamp, and he really takes it out about as far as it can go here.

6. Dire Straits: ‘So Far Away’ (1985)

Omar can do slick, clean, laidback rock too, as heard on this Brothers In Arms opener. Check out his lovely fills, layered in at the end of each chorus, bringing the playing of Motown star Benny Benjamin into the ’80s.

5. David Sanborn: ‘Rush Hour’ (1982)

Omar dusts off a much-imitated ghost-note-inflected groove for this track from the As We Speak album, possibly influenced by the late great Little Feat sticksman Richie Hayward. Only Hayward could have nailed this with as much panache, drive and subtlety.

4. Weather Report: ‘Db Waltz’ (1984)

Omar pulls out all the stops on this ingenious 3/4 (or is it 6/8?) groove, the centrepiece of the Domino Theory album, falling somewhere between a swing feel and straight feel just the way the old guys used to do it on the R’n’B hits of the ’50s. He also demonstrates some jaw-dropping chops towards the end.

3. Special EFX: ‘Sabariah’ (1988)

The music comes uncomfortably close to smooth jazz on this opening track from the Confidential album but Omar’s grooving is just sublime. The controlled energy explodes from his kit.

2. David Bowie: ‘Neighbourhood Threat’ (1984)

Omar could also play heavy rock with the best of them as demonstrated by this underrated track from Tonight. And not even Jeff Porcaro could have conceived of the floor-shaking fill at 2:14.

1. John Scofield: ‘Techno’ (1985)

The lead-off track from the classic Still Warm album, this perfectly illustrates Omar’s intricate hi-hat playing, as distinctive as Stewart Copeland’s almost a decade before. I dig the way he takes the tune out with some sick china cymbal/snare combinations.