Steve Khan talks about recording Steely Dan’s ‘Gaucho’

steely

When I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was obsessed with my dad’s very old ABC Records cassette of Steely’s Greatest Hits.

It may have been the opening eight bars of ‘Do It Again’ that did it. I never looked back; they quickly became my favourite ‘band’, and remain so to this day.

I heard Gaucho – which turns 35 today – a few years later, maybe in 1986 or ’87, not even knowing of its existence until then. The album knocked me out. I practiced my drums to it every day.

By all accounts, it was a laborious and very expensive record to make, with various obstacles: whole songs were inadvertently erased (‘The Second Arrangement’) and other classics shelved.

Walter Becker endured a serious injury after being hit by a cab and there was even a lawsuit from Keith Jarrett regarding the similarity between the title track and his 1974 composition ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’.

But it all paid off in the end; Gaucho was sumptuously mixed and mastered with songs that were built to last. Guitarist Steve Khan was a key contributor to Gaucho. Along with Larry Carlton, he would seem the perfect player for their later work, combining a jazz sensibility with a great feeling for the blues and also speedy sight-reading skills.

I was delighted to catch up with Steve from his New York base to talk about his role on the album and the ‘Glamour Profession’ session that led to one of the great guitar solos in the Steely canon.

On getting the call to play on Gaucho:

SK: I had played on almost all the tracks for Gaucho (even though I was erased from some, and some tracks didn’t survive), so I was a pretty healthy part of that recording. As to why they thought of me, who the hell really knows? Donald tends to like players who have a jazz sensibility but who also have a bluesiness or soulfulness about their playing. I guess, in his eyes, I fall into that category of possibilities.  I was the last thing to go on ‘Glamour Profession’, just as I was the last one to go on ‘Third World Man’ as well.

‘Glamour Profession’ lead sheet, prepared by Steve Khan. Click to enlarge

On playing the ‘Glamour Profession’ rhythm parts:

SK: The first thing we did was all the rhythm parts. In a sense that was very simple because they just wanted me to double what some kind of synth had already played – probably sequenced – and with perfect time. At about 3:30 in the track, there’s a little four-bar guitar chorale that Donald wanted me to play, so we wrote out the four voices and I played each voice individually, giving each one a touch of ‘soul’ with a little personal phrasing and vibrato here and there. Then, I think that we returned to doing the rest of the rhythm part. Honestly, I don’t recall if I did the rhythm part on my Telecaster Custom or not – when I listen now, there’s a crispness to the sound which leads me to believe that this was the Tele.

On recording the famous ‘Glamour Profession’ solo:

SK: I used my new Gibson ES-Artist (with active electronics) – which is really a 335 – and after that solo, I never used it again – I sold it back to Manny’s Music! In the end, all the fancy things that they can do to guitars are fine but everything comes down to one’s touch, and I’m mostly speaking about the fingertips on the left-hand. If one has a good touch, the music will translate through virtually any amp. Equipment is just a tool.

glampro2

In concept, the solo represents a lot of linear concepts that I had been working on for years. And only in hindsight, many years later, after the publication of my second theory book ‘PENTATONIC KHANCEPTS‘, I hear these kinds of linear ideas at work. Based upon the chord progressions, it all seemed to work perfectly because, in the end, it is a combination of the angular with a bluesy feeling to it – and that’s what Donald and Walter like – with a touch of harmonic sophistication.  I think that the things that I was working on, a long time ago, in terms of other approaches to changing up the normal jazz/bebop-oriented construction of lines, seemed to be very present on ‘Glamour Profession’. If you apply the Pentatonic Khancepts to those chords, you’ll see/hear exactly what I was doing then, mixed in with a healthy dose of blues too.

The horns and the synth lines were already there, so it becomes like playing through a bit of a minefield because you have to dance around those other linear elements. I did one complete take which I actually liked very much. Then, of course, they asked me to do another one. Because of track space, I couldn’t have done more than three of them. Then, thank goodness, I think that we all felt that the first one had the most ‘meat’ to it, and so we would work from that. Then we went back through it. They kept all the phrases that they loved and asked me to try something else in a number of spots. Whether I wanted to or not, it’s still a job and you do what you are asked to do!

For more on Steve’s contribution to Gaucho and the rest of his career, check out his website and this great interview with Leo Sidran.

For much more about Steely Dan, check out ‘Reeling In The Years’ by Brian Sweet and ‘Aja 33 and 1/3’ by Don Breithaupt. 

Steve Khan talks about his classic 1983 album ‘Casa Loco’

steve khanDrummers and bassists: this album’s for you. And it’s for guitarists, percussionists and fans of great music too.

Put simply, Steve Khan’s hard-to-track-down Casa Loco has enthralled me and a whole generation of jazz and jazz/rock aficionados for over 30 years.

The compositions and performances of guitarist/leader Khan, bassist Anthony Jackson, drummer Steve Jordan and ex-Weather Report percussionist/vocalist Manolo Badrena are unique and unforgettable.

The album is also totally unclassifiable – a ‘fusion’ band playing a blazing surf-rock cover tune (‘Penetration’)? An unhinged Puerto Rican percussionist singing in quasi-Spanish but sounding remarkably like Sting?

Casa Loco is full of such beautiful and unpredictable juxtapositions. And it’s also blessed with Jean-Michel Folon’s eye-catching cover art.

I had previously bought Steve’s 1981 album Eyewitness just on the strength of the Folon cover but was immediately blown away by the all-time-great Jordan/Jackson rhythm section, Khan’s enigmatic, inimitable voicings and Badrena’s inspired percussives. But Casa Loco, the 1983 follow-up, cranked everything up a notch.

Steve Khan, the son of Sinatra/Dean Martin/Doris Day lyricist Sammy Cahn, is one of the most respected guitarists of the ‘fusion’ era. He played on not one but four of the great Steely Dan tunes (‘Peg’, ‘Babylon Sisters’, ‘Gaucho’, ‘Glamour Profession’), contributing to the latter one of the finest guitar solos in the band’s oeuvre, though he has mixed views on the painstaking recording process that led to those landmark pieces.

Check out his great interview with Leo Sidran for more on this and also a good overview of his career in general. But Steve is also one of jazz and fusion’s most erudite and honest figures, revealing (almost) all on his excellent website. He knows where the bodies are buried…

Steve, who recently released a well-received solo album Subtext, spoke with great candour and humour to movingtheriver.com from his New York City base.

Doug Epstein

Doug Epstein

MP: Casa Loco still sounds fantastic over 30 years on – how important was engineer Doug Epstein in the recording process?

SK: On countless levels, Doug Epstein was huge in all of this. At that time, he was the only person, on the technical side of things, who had participated in every single recording of mine. I owe him so much. He was always full of enthusiasm and energy for whatever it might have been that I was doing, and he encouraged me to do more. Knowing the financial difficulties we were having, he was the first one to offer to try to get the executives at Mediasound Studios to give us a break on the recording costs, and everyone there was wonderful to us. Nothing, of course, was ever free, but they tried their best to help. At the recording end of things, Doug was absolutely fearless. I think that most of the problematic issues came from Steve Jordan’s constantly changing, per tune, hybrid kit of drums: a combination of natural drums and Simmons electronic drums. Then there was Manolo’s amazing percussion set-up which included all his natural and supernatural sounds, plus the electronics emanating from the Syn-cussion that he was using back then. To accommodate all of that on 24-tracks, with one track taken for SMPTE code and another one blank just because of the risk, there were really only 22 tracks available. In the end, Doug had to know where each tune was headed in terms of possible overdubs, vocals, etc. He did all of that. But, it has to be noted, that Steve Jordan – where our mixing process was concerned – was hovering over Doug’s shoulder the entire time, and in many ways Steve is totally responsible for being the protector of Anthony’s bass sound and playing, and for his own drums, of course. Steve’s contributions in this regard were indispensable to the overall sound that you have come to know. Steve was present for the mixes on all three of our recordings together. He had a vision and a sound in mind, and he pushed hard for that. In great part, that’s why he has become an excellent producer himself – he has a great ear for these things.

Steve Jordan Photo by Deborah Feingold

Steve Jordan
Photo by Deborah Feingold

There’s a big Police influence on Casa Loco. Who brought that into the band?

I would say that Steve Jordan brought that into the band. I don’t think Anthony had ever heard anything by The Police. The fact that Manolo sounds a bit like Sting at times is just a cosmic accident. It’s not intentional at all. And, of course, 90% of the time Manolo is either singing in Spanish or vocalese, or his own form of gibberish! Recently, the great French jazz journalist Frêdèric Goaty wrote a piece for MUZIQ Magazine about his perceptions of the influence of The Police in contemporary music, and he cited all three of our albums as examples.

Regarding Steve Jordan’s famous drum solo on the title track – how the hell did you and Anthony stay in time when he really starts going out?!

Speaking for myself, it wasn’t easy. Anthony and Steve had a way of stretching the rhythmic boundaries in ways that would often confuse me, and I would get turned around. It was always an exercise in feel and concentration. That day, in the studio, my concentration was at its highest level, because there was no way that I was going to screw something up and ruin Steve Jordan’s incredible drum solo! No f***ing way! It remains one of the great moments on any recording of mine. I think that the complexities of that solo section, which is really a simple Latin tumbao, are demonstrated by the fact that Modern Drummer magazine published a transcription of the drum solo, but with the tumbao completely turned around and written out incorrectly! So, even an educated musician can get screwed-up with that one. I remember once when we were playing at Seventh Avenue South here in New York City, Bob Mintzer, one of the greatest musicians that I’ve ever known, came up to me and said, ‘What the f*** are you guys doing? I can’t ever find one!’ If Bob Mintzer felt that way, I guess there isn’t a much higher compliment. But it was never our intention to play anything that was purposely confusing to anyone.

The structure of ‘Some Sharks’ is incredibly intricate with many repeat signs and tags – were all the guys reading charts while recording this?

At that time, I don’t believe there were any formal charts to any of the tunes. We rehearsed hard and long, and we were prepared. The first lead sheets were done afterwards, I believe. I did them for copyright purposes, nothing more. I remember, when doing that, how astonishing it was to see, on paper, the intricacy of the music that we had created by improvising, and just jamming together pieces of music. It’s possible that I had written out ‘Uncle Roy’ beforehand, but maybe not. It’s hard to remember now. My facualties are not what they once were! But, when I listen to what Steve Jordan contributed to that tune with his unique concepts of beat displacement, it’s remarkable, and when you add in Anthony’s perspective, it makes perfect sense as to why the recordings that we made together between 1981-1983 have influenced bassists and drummers all over the world. Anthony and Steve deserve all of that adoration and more.

‘The Suitcase’ hints at a Discipline-era King Crimson influence – is that accurate?

I have never paid any attention to King Crimson’s music at any time. However, thanks to MTV, I did get to hear ‘Elephant Talk’ and I absolutely loved that tune. I love Adrian Belew and only wish that I could create 5% of the sonic textures that he creates. He is totally unique and brilliant. I admire him a lot.

Why is (great British drummer) Steve Ferrone thanked in the album credits?

To tell you the truth, I have no idea! In those days, we thanked people who stopped by the studio while we were recording, just for their good vibes. It’s also possible that Steve Ferrone lent something, a piece of gear, to Steve Jordan. I just can’t remember. We thanked people who didn’t even exist. For example, at one of our sleep-deprived rehearsals, Steve Jordan was trying to say the name Gore Vidal, and somehow it came out as Gordie Voll, and once he said that, I was rolling on the floor laughing – it was just so silly and funny. So Gordie ended up in the ‘special thanks’ section. I thanked a CNN newswoman, Marcia Ladendorff, who I had a crush on. I thanked an actress that I had a crush on too, Roberta Leighton. I thanked Flippy Hussein, who is not a real person – just a goofy name that the great vibraphonist David Friedman made up one day years before. But most of the names mentioned were people who in some way, shape or form contributed something positive, even if only via their encouragement to the music and the effort to keep going forward.

Jaco

Jaco

Is there anything else printable you can tell us about Steve Jordan’s crazy house of music (the Casa Loco or ‘crazy house’ of the album title – Ed.) ?

In all honesty, no! Unless someone wants to burn all their bridges behind them, there is a sacred trust that exists between musicians, especially those who are bandmates, or even just work on a special project together. You don’t talk ‘out of school’ about things that you see and hear, sometimes not even after a person has passed away. Those kinds of stories can be hurtful, and even end-up hurting relatives or loved ones. In those days, each of us was going through something difficult in our personal lives, and our behaviour reflected that. Trying to just get together to rehearse for a few hours a couple of days per week was never easy, but we managed. And Steve Jordan’s loft, his home, was a huge part of that. I can only say that all kinds of hysterical shit used to happen there, including people trying to stop by to hang out with us while we were trying to work. Jaco Pastorius was one of them. He used to phone Jordan all the time and beg us to let him come by. We reached a point where we would never answer the phone and never allow anyone in except for the delivery guy who was bringing by Steve Jordan’s breakfast – at 2pm in the afternoon! Does that give you an idea?! No matter what transpired those days were some of the most fun and productive days of my creative life. I have rehearsal cassettes from those times – I used to listen to them every so often – and the constant laughter on those tapes about absolutely nothing is priceless. It was just so damn funny most of the time and exasperating too, at least for me!

Anthony Jackson photo by David Tan

Anthony Jackson
photo by David Tan

I was astonished to read that the whole album was recorded in just TWO days, quite amazing when you consider the time spent on other albums of the era (Hello Donald and Walter…). How do you explain that? Was it just a case of getting the goods in the shortest possible time with the meter running?

Well, though it is true that the serious content of Casa Loco was recorded during May 21st-22nd 1983 at Mediasound, I didn’t realize that we were going to need a third day just for Manolo Badrena! I actually thought that we could finish a performance of a piece and then he would simply, right then and there, overdub his vocals. I’m speaking about tunes like the title track, ‘Some Sharks’ and ‘The Suitcase’. But what happened really threw me for a loop, because I did not want to spend the money, other than for mixing, to return to the studio just for Manolo. Thinking this way demonstrated my lack of experience and understanding that recording vocals, by anyone, requires a different kind of care and patience. It is something that you have to plan for. I was too worried about spending money for an extra day in the studio! The great lesson in this is always the same: if you begin by being cheap, you will pay for it later! There is, of course, a most wonderful expression for this very thought in Spanish: ‘Lo barato sale caro!’ If you are unwilling to spend money, you will end-up with a lousy or sub-standard sounding recording, and this is something that I never want to be a part of, because you have to live with the results forever. So as the recording unfolded, during ‘Casa Loco’, ‘Penetration’ and ‘Some Sharks’, Manolo actually just sat there and didn’t play a damn thing while Anthony, Steve and I were performing those tunes. At the time, he just motioned wildly to me that he could not hear himself in the headphones. Mediasound had one of the early systems whereby each musician could make his own headphone mix. Each time this happened, we all tried to work harder with Doug to help Manolo get what he wanted and needed. It was so frustrating to have him there and not have him with us making that music. So, in the end, I had to spend the time and money overdubbing him on those tunes. I was furious about this! In sharp contrast to that, if you just listen to what Manolo contributes to ‘Uncle Roy’ – there is not a sound there that was not performed completely live. It is simply brilliant – no one else could have created textures like that. He’s one of the most unique musicians on this earth but not easy to work with. Years later, I learned that it really wasn’t the damn headphones at all; he had been upset that he wasn’t getting paid for the sessions, as if I was pulling a ‘fast one’ on him and secretly hoarding money somewhere. This is, of course, the furthest thing from the truth. We had a number of band meetings during our rehearsals and I clearly explained to everyone that I was paying for the album out of my own pocket, and that after I had recouped my investment in full, if that ever happened, whatever money there was to be had, we would all split it equally four ways. Period! In other words, we were all going to get rich together, or stay exactly as we were, but together. It was certainly my impression that Manolo understood that. Anthony and Steve were on board, as they always were, and I will never ever forget their selflessness when it came to this music. I love them both and I’m deeply indebted to them, forever, no matter what else has happened.

steve khan

According to your website, you paid for recording costs entirely out of your own pocket – have you managed to recoup some of this over the years? I hope so…

We’ve addressed a portion of this during my answers to some of the other questions. But, the answer is: No! Absolutely not! I believe that, back then, my total investment in making Casa Loco was $17,500. That might not sound like much in 2015, but it felt like a fortune to me, having to go into my personal savings to do this. But that’s how much it meant to me. It was the second time that I had done that, Evidence (1980) being the first. And, it would not be the last; I have done this seven more times since! In the end, I was given advances from Trio Records (Japan) and eventually from Antilles Records (USA) that totalled $11,000, and that’s all that I have ever seen come back to me from this recording. In short, as it has been with all of my self-financed recordings, I will never ever again see that money come back to me. Do I regret it? Of course not. I am, and will always be, exceptionally proud of those recordings because everyone who participated gave something of themselves to do it. I don’t forget those people, those players! Never!

Thank you, Steve.

Love And Money’s James Grant on classic album ‘Strange Kind Of Love’

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In the miasma of soap-opera tie-ins, boy-band debuts, one-hit wonders and Stock, Aitken and Waterman productions that constituted late-’80s pop, Love and Money’s second album Strange Kind Of Love was a breath of fresh air. 

Released in December 1988 and produced by legendary Steely Dan helmer Gary Katz, the record was a triumph. James Grant’s literate, dramatic songs of romantic anguish and corporate avarice were built to last.

Musicians had a field day with Grant’s intricate guitar work and the rock-solid grooves courtesy of drum legend Jeff Porcaro and underrated bassist Bobby Paterson. Critics of the time were generally confused but I was sold from the first bar of ‘Hallejulah Man’.

Funkier than the likes of Curiosity Killed The Cat or Hipsway but lyrically just as piquant as The Smiths or The The, Love And Money joined Prefab Sprout, Prince, The Blue Nile, Danny Wilson, David Sylvian, De La Soul, Scritti Politti and Cocteau Twins in my list of late-’80s pop saviours.

I caught up with singer/songwriter/guitarist James Grant to talk Strange Kind Of Love, Jeff Porcaro, Tom Waits, touring with Tina Turner, ‘Top of the Pops’ and ’80s marketing meltdowns.

love and money

Love And Money 1988

MP: Could you just give us a quick bit of background to Strange Kind Of Love – what were the expectations for album number two and how did you come to work with Gary Katz?

JG: I always felt the first album was disparate and didn’t marry the different influences well. We sounded too desperate to impress. I was also anxious to prove that I was more than just a haircut. For Strange Kind Of Love, I had written the album and we had lived with the songs for a while. The mantra was: the song is king. Meaning that the song would dictate how it was meant to be, what was appropriate and what was not. The desire was to create something timeless and the man to facilitate that was Gary Katz. He had a track record that spoke for itself. He just seemed perfect. We set up a meeting – I flew to New York – and we just hit it off right away. There was a symbiosis, a shared desire to make great records, and we liked each other. We’re still pals to this day.

Lyrically, SKOL focuses mainly on the anguish, pain but also joy of romantic infatuation. Was there a particular relationship that precipitated this or had these songs built up over time?

Yes, there was someone in particular, but obviously there’s poetic license. Songwriters deify those we love. I just happened to think – and still do – that besides knowing you are going to die, being in love is the utmost existential experience there is. I was young, heartbroken and hungry; the right ingredients to make great music! I also had the distinct feeling that great songs contain a truth, perhaps not the literal truth but a truth. I wrote about myself; this tended to get uncomfortably forensic at times for those close to me.

Jeff Porcaro 1988

Jeff Porcaro 1988

How much of a contribution did the great Jeff Porcaro make to SKOL‘s arrangements and why is his surname misspelt in the credits? Was there enough budget to get him for rehearsals? His playing seems so integral to the material.

Jeff didn’t make any contribution to the arrangements – that was all planned months before we even met. I have no idea why his name is misspelt. We did the drums over a month in LA. Sometimes we just jammed the thing till we got the right vibe. On other tracks, I had a more concrete idea of what I wanted. For example, on ‘Razorsedge’, I wanted a go-go beat. I just went in with my guitar and told him what I was hearing. He just started playing this incredible, jaw-dropping stuff. Yes, we had the budget. Jeff was a brilliant, phenomenal musician. I felt like I had f***ing boxing gloves on sometimes when we were jamming but he never ever made me feel like that. He was a beautiful guy, great fun to be with and genuinely humble about his achievements and ability.

The four sublime singles from the album just missed out on the UK Top 40 – was that a disappointment? Was there pressure from Phonogram to get that first UK or US hit?

Yes – it was always a disappointment. You try and be stoic and say, ‘That’s not what it was about’, but we were gutted. We so nearly made it with Strange Kind Of Love. I always wanted to do ‘Top of the Pops’. If that’s shallow, then so be it. I grew up watching Slade and Bowie and prancing around in front of my bedroom mirror imitating them – it was my dream to be part of that, just like any kid. There wasn’t pressure from Phonogram as such; they were trying their best with us. It just wasn’t to be. I do believe that if we had had the success, Dogs In the Traffic may not have happened. That’s the Love And Money record I’m most proud of and it’s most representative of who I am. Perhaps that’s why I find it so hard to listen to…

Why is Tom Waits thanked in the album credits? And presumably (Steely Dan singer/co-leader) Donald Fagen is thanked because of the Katz connection?

Because I’m a fan and he was and still is a massive inspiration. It wouldn’t be easy to tell if you were judging this from the record. Donald Fagen played a little something. I’ve always kept that a secret. We didn’t want to make an issue of it or make it something marketable.

Gary Katz

Gary Katz

You play some fantastic lead guitar on the album and also some really inventive acoustic/electric textural stuff – did Gary Katz’s experience with the likes of Larry Carlton and Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter have any bearing on your playing?

Not really – Gary would have me playing for weeks on end though. I reckon I came on a bit during my time with him. And thank you.

SKOL doesn’t really sound like anyone else from the era and stands up exceptionally well today. At the time of release, some critics rather snootily compared it to Dire Straits and Deacon Blue but were there contemporary artists the band admired or were influenced by?

No, not especially – my tastes have always been very eclectic. In terms of marketing, this always led to problems; ‘Are you guys rock, pop, funk or country?’ ‘Yes…’ I did love Bowie, Talking Heads, Chic, Led Zeppelin and Prince – I can hear certain little things from all of them here and there.

Who is Beatrice Colin? Her voice compliments yours beautifully, especially on ‘Walk The Last Mile’.

She was my girlfriend. She’s an author now.

Who came up with the album cover concept? Studying it again, it’s one of the weirder covers of the ’80s…

Someone in the marketing department at Phonogram saw a photograph like the one on the cover and we decided to recreate it. Though I’ve always believed it to be extremely important, the amount of time and money invested in things like artwork was, by today’s standards, science fiction. We would have months of meetings discussing details. People would have nervous breakdowns!

You toured with and supported various US acts such as BB King and Tina Turner in the late-’80s – any memories that stand out? I loved your playing with Tom Verlaine on The Tube.

The one anecdote that would perhaps stand out is that when we supported Tina Turner, when I introduced the band, I said, ‘Hi, we’re not Tina Turner, she’ll be on a bit later.’ I thought this was amusing. Tina’s management did not. We were kicked off the tour. You’d think we would have been disappointed by such a thing, but – and I’m really proud of this – we did not give a f*ck.

Love And Money in 2011

Love And Money in 2011

I saw you revisiting SKOL on a memorable night at the Shepherds Bush Empire a few years ago – how do you feel about the album and its place in ’80s music now?

I’m really proud of it. It’s of its time, certainly, but a bit more than that. I think sonically it’s absolutely spot-on – it still sounds fantastic. I always think of the band’s place in the greater scheme of things as awkward. I think, as I said previously, we were difficult to categorise. This seemed to be a huge problem for some people. I never tried to make ‘difficult’ music. I still don’t. I think my tastes are fairly mainstream. Perhaps lyrically things are a bit more challenging at times, but even so, I don’t think they are wilfully arcane or esoteric.

Thanks, James.

Gary Clark talks ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and classic debut ‘Meet Danny Wilson’

danny wilson

Ah, yes, summer 1987. I remember it well.

I came across a review of Meet Danny Wilson in Q magazine which drew comparisons between Gary Clark’s voice and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan’s (spot-on).

That was enough incentive for a massive Steely fan like me to check it out.

I wasn’t disappointed. Meet Danny is one of the most arresting, original debut albums of the ’80s, and it stands up extremely well today.

I would annoy my school friends bigging up the album and trying to get it played during art lessons – to no avail. U2, Simple Minds, The The, Fleetwood Mac and INXS couldn’t be usurped.

But my enthusiasm was slightly justified when the gorgeous ‘Mary’s Prayer’ was finally a big hit at the third attempt (UK number 3, US number 23).

Danny Wilson shared a love of jazz, the Great American Songbook and Steely Dan with contemporaries Hue and Cry, Swing Out Sister, Sade and various other late-’80s acts, but (fortunately?) Meet Danny Wilson doesn’t sound remotely like any of them.

Gary graciously answered my questions in the middle of a very busy period of travelling, writing and recording. We talked about the inspiration behind the timeless ‘Mary’s Prayer’ single, hanging out with Billy Mackenzie, the golden age of Virgin Records and busking on transatlantic flights…

MP: Could you give a quick summary of how you started making music as Danny Wilson with your brother Kit (keyboards) and Ged Grimes (bass)?

GC: Ged was at school with me and clearly one of the most talented kids so we naturally gravitated towards each other and stayed together from the school band stage all the way through to Danny Wilson. Kit is my younger brother. When Ged and I returned from London we wanted to re-think the band and Kit, in our absence, had grown into a formidable musician, writer and singer so he was a natural choice to bring onboard.

What were the musical influences that went into the pot for Meet Danny Wilson? Any contemporary mid-’80s artists?

Well, I really found my voice as a writer when I stopped trying to sound contemporary. Ged and I spent three years in London living in a squat, gigging and trying to get a record deal and it seemed like the labels wanted us to sound like what was already on the radio at that time. If you can remember radio in 1984/85, everything was super- polished, super-quantised and very synthesised. Even guitars all tended to be layered in multi-effects. I very consciously decided to go in the opposite direction and return to my musical roots; all the music I loved was devastatingly unfashionable at the time. Off the top of my head, the main influences for that album were not contemporary at all: Sinatra, Bacharach and David, Jimmy Webb, Becker and Fagen, Tom Waits, a little bit of Hall and Oates, heavy dollops of the Great American Songbook and a ton of soundtrack records.

Danny Wilson Mary's Prayer vinyl

How did Danny write songs? Were all the tracks co-written or did you provide the blueprints?

I wrote all of the songs on that album and they were all written and mostly demoed prior to recording. The only exception I recall is finishing ‘Five Friendly Aliens’ at the piano in Puk studios after we’d started recording the rest of the album.

How did you come to be signed to Virgin? Were you fans of the label beforehand?

We played a gig in a bar in Edinburgh and a music journalist called Bob Flynn was there. He wrote a review in NME that literally changed our lives. The review was so good and the band were so unknown that the record labels who had systematically rejected us only months before were calling Bob asking how they could get in touch with the band. We had really served our time in the trenches live and in the studio so we were really ready for it when it came. The next gig we did in Edinburgh was packed and half of the audience were A&R and publishers from London. We literally had the choice of every major label and almost signed to Warners. In the end, a mixture of Virgin’s reputation as an artistic label, their sheer passion for the music and their willingness to give us complete artistic control won the day.

Can you remember your inspiration for ‘Mary’s Prayer’ and where you wrote it?

Yes, I wrote it in the squat in London quite a few years before it was released. My friend, the songwriter Ali Thomson, loaned me a Roland Juno 60 synth and I just switched on the first preset and immediately played the verse chords without thinking (they’re all white notes!). The melody and a large chunk of the first verse lyric came to me instantly. I liked it but couldn’t get a chorus that did the verse justice and it took about another year of me coming back to it until I finally hit on the chorus.

How did you come to include Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy on the album? Definitely not an obvious choice of special guests! Weren’t they signed to Virgin at the time?

They were signed to ECM. The Virgin connection came later through us. Howard Gray (later of Apollo 440) was producing the first half of our album at Puk. They had an incredible system in there and we liked to blast records on the big speakers at the start of the day and at the end of the night with some fine Elephant beers for refreshment. Digital was in its infancy and ECM were making some of the first records that could be legally labelled ‘DDD’ which meant ‘recorded, mixed and mastered without leaving the digital domain’. Howard played us Lester’s ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ one of those nights as an example of how great this process could sound and we all fell instantly head over heels in love. By sheer mind-bending coincidence, we saw that Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy were playing Copenhagen when we were still in Denmark. We went to the gig, one of the greatest live shows I have ever seen, and accosted Lester afterwards. It’s a little-known fact that because of budget restrictions, Ged, Kit and I busked our fare on a very early Virgin Atlantic flight to New York so we could be there for the sessions! Pre-9/11, of course… But we actually got free flights for entertaining the passengers in mid-air.

Your amazing vocal on ‘You Remain An Angel’ always reminded me of The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie – were you a fan and did you know him at all?

Well, thank you. I’m a huge fan of Billy’s work but I can honestly say that The Associates were nowhere near my mind when we did that song. There is a B-side called ‘Living To Learn‘ that has a huge Associates influence. Billy and I are from the same home town, Dundee in Scotland, and I got to know him a little. We would all hang out at a place called Fat Sam’s cocktail bar where they played great music and had great live acts passing through. We saw some amazing bands in their infancy back then. Billy was always so wonderful, charming and encouraging to me.

Meet Danny Wilson has a really pleasing mix of acoustic instrumentation and late-’80s technology – was there any pressure to be ‘produced’ and make a very modern-sounding record? I have a B-side version of ‘Aberdeen’ that was subtitled something like ‘The Way It Should Have Been‘…

No. Virgin were great like that. I think they understood that we had just as much chance commercially by being true to ourselves as we would have had conforming to some blueprint of what radio sounds like. I wish that vision was more prevalent in the music business today. I will say that although we used the most up-to-date technology available at the time, we didn’t use it to sound modern but to get what was in our heads onto the recording. On ‘Aberdeen’, for instance, we used a Fairlight to get the trumpet and string sounds but the production is probably more ’60s in tone than ’80s. That B-side was an interesting one; we had made a very early stripped back Portastudio demo of that song before the album and it had a certain beatboxy charm that we all kind of harked back to. The tape was lost so that B-side was our attempt to recreate that vibe. Never a great idea!

How do you feel about Meet Danny Wilson and its place in the 1980s musical landscape now?

I feel pretty much the same as at the time. It’s very me, very honest, very heartfelt and, just like me, doesn’t fit in anywhere. Exactly what we were going for, I suppose.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m always writing and recording with other artists. That’s what I do these days and have a whole heap of stuff in the pipeline but aside from that I’ve just written the music with John Carney (Once, Begin Again) for his next movie (‘Sing Street’) which I’m very, very excited about. As it happens, he got in touch with me because Meet Danny Wilson was a record his brother had turned him onto as a young kid growing up in Dublin in the ’80s. That neatly brings this interview to a lovely, rounded conclusion so I’d better shut up now!

Many thanks for your time, Gary.

Level 42’s Mark King talks about his ‘Influences’

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EXCLUSIVE! Level 42’s Mark King speaks to movingtheriver.com about his classic solo album Influences, released by Polydor in July 1984.

MP: Can you just briefly summarise the story behind Influences? Was it your idea or did Polydor come to you?

MK: I was signed to Polydor Records via Level 42 and had a young, heavily-pregnant wife and needed to buy somewhere to live. This was back in 1981 I hasten to add, so Influences showing up in 1984 was really down to my tardiness in addressing the fact that I had taken the advance (£5,000) and, apart from delivering a single ‘Freedom‘, had somehow neglected to fulfil my contractual obligations! Polydor were actually very sweet about it and just before the agreement was due to expire gently reminded me that I needed to deliver an album.

You’ve talked about having loads of ideas in the tank for the album but how did you piece them all together on ‘The Essential’? Did you have to demo all the different sections before recording?

I may have exaggerated the ‘loads of ideas in the tank’ bit, but when push came to shove I booked a few days at Chipping Norton Studio and dived in. The opening piece ‘The Essential’ began on the studio Hammond B3 which Mike Vernon informed me had been used on the Focus album Moving Waves. I’m no keyboard player, but I fired her up and just hit the notes. Next I programmed the drum machine with a pattern so I could lay down some bass and guitar, and the riff and melodies just wrote themselves really. I was jamming with myself I guess, ha! Anyway, that’s how all the sections came to be, and in the twinkling of an eye I was 20 minutes into the album.

What was it like getting back into drumming again for the album? ‘There Is A Dog’ is an amazing tour-de-force.

Ta. I never stopped drumming, that’s what I love to do!

Did you put your bass and guitar parts down with a drum machine first and then overdub your drums? Or did you record your drums first?

I laid the bass and drum box down first. I had an Oberheim DMX drum machine that sounded awful but was a great writing tool because you could programme some pretty accurate drum parts that were in time! You have to remember that these were early days in digital technology, so ears weren’t so tuned in to accurate tempo, but I loved the idea of being able to f*ck about all over the groove and lean on the drum box because it had the time nailed. I laid the drums down next, Gretsch incidentally. Speaking of time, the guy with the greatest meter I know is Gary Husband. He IS a human machine… The guy is a phenomenon with tempo. Never shifts. The Level 42 track ‘Take Care Of Yourself’ was a first take at The Summerhouse Studio played on some Ddrums. That is AWESOME! The great Bill Cobham quote sings to mind: ‘You are either in time or you are out of time.’ I’m usually out.

How did you come to work with producer Jerry Boys? ‘The Essential’ features some really effective edits and cross-fades between the different sections.

Jerry was a good friend and had engineered some Level 42 stuff, which is how we had met of course, and Polydor were keen for me to involve a third party to keep an eye on me as I was three years overdue already, so Jerry was the perfect choice. A really good engineer, plus I respected his opinions. I probably did a lot of the edits myself. I certainly did for the Level 42 stuff.

How did Drummie from Aswad come to play on ‘Clocks Go Forward’? That track has a lovely feel.

Aswad were working in the studio next door and I bumped into Drummie in the corridor. I had just been running over the parts for ‘Clock Go Forward’ with Mike Lindup so I had no hesitation in inviting Drummie in to play with us. The Gretsch kit I had hired had only just shown up in the studio, and there was no stool…aaaargh! But this didn’t faze Drummie at all; he just pulled up a plastic studio chair and got stuck in. The studio floor was highly-polished parquet and it was quite funny watching him sliding around as he played, hahaha! The song is called ‘Clocks Go Forward’ because that was the day we recorded it on.

You play some great lead guitar on Influences – who are your favourite players apart from John McLaughlin?

Cheers. I love JM of course, but Clapton, Hendrix, Gary Moore and Bill Connors are all in there somewhere. So many, really. I love Al Holdsworth too and working with him on Guaranteed was a real privilege.

You played a lot of Influences at an amazing Ronnie Scott’s gig a few years ago – what was it like playing it live?

A lot of fun actually. I was so chuffed at how the guys were able to recreate the sounds for me. Nathan (King) in particular was fantastic on all the guitar parts. It didn’t feel like we were playing music from nearly 30 years before, and having not listened to any of it since then I was quite proud of what I had created way back when.

Thanks, Mark!

Find out much more about Mark and Level 42 at level42.com

More about my history with Influences below.

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Some of these basses and guitars were used during the making of ‘Influences’…

Even though I’d been a huge Level 42 fan from the day I bought A Physical Presence in 1985, I didn’t even know Influences existed until two or three years after its initial release. I came upon a cassette copy in a ramshackle shop near the Swanage seafront while on a family summer holiday. It would be an understatement to say I couldn’t get it onto the hi-fi quickly enough.

And it didn’t disappoint. The sharp crack of the snare drum on opener ‘The Essential’ led me to believe that Level’s Phil Gould was behind the kit. But a quick look at the album credits blew my mind: Mark was playing all the drums, guitars and bass? Yep. Influences takes the ‘one-man-band’ ethos and runs with it. Not for a second does one rue the lack of a conventional band; this music swings, snaps, crackles and pops.

With a few decades’ more listening experience, I now hear some of the ingredients that went into the Influences brew – Chick Corea’s Latin excursions, Spectrum-era Billy Cobham, Mahavishnu and also Stanley Clarke’s mind-bending prog/fusion – but Mark’s musical voice also comes through loud and clear. ‘There Is A Dog’ could almost have graced Return to Forever’s Light As a Feather album. ‘Clocks Go Forward’ and ‘Picture On The Wall’ are in a Level style and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on True Colours or Standing In The Light.

To date, Mark has not returned to such unhinged jazz/rock outside of the Level 42 ‘day job’ (apart from a fabulous gig at Ronnie Scott’s in 2012), but this is one of the great British fusion albums, or fusion albums period. Influences also deserves a place alongside Innervisions, Lewis Taylor’s self-titled debut and Prince’s Sign O’ The Times in the pantheon of great one-man-band albums.

Women And Rhythm Section First: An Interview With Keith Leblanc

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Keith Leblanc

When late, great bass hero Jaco Pastorius was asked about his philosophy of music, he had a stock response – ‘Women and rhythm section first!’

In the world of black music, whether jazz, funk, R’n’B or soul, the hookup between the drummer and bass player has always been pivotal. As the cliché goes, a band is only as good as its engine room.

In jazz, you can’t do much better than Tony Williams with Ron Carter or Philly Joe Jones with Paul Chambers. In funk, you can’t go wrong with Benny Benjamin with James Jamerson or Clyde Stubblefield with Bootsy. In fusion, you know it’s going to work if Dave Weckl/John Patitucci or Steve Jordan/Anthony Jackson are taking care of business.

But interestingly, possibly the most heralded rhythm section in recent black music hasn’t come out of jazz, funk or soul music (though these undoubtedly went into the mix), but rather hip-hop.

Drummer Keith Leblanc hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald when they were summoned to work on the label set up by industry veterans Sylvia and Mickey Robinson to showcase the new hip-hop artists emerging from the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-’70s.

Just prior to that, Keith had briefly worked with Doug and Skip in the funk band Wood, Brass and Steel but when The Sugar Hill Gang’s controversial ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a monster hit in ’79, the Robinsons were on the lookout for a house band to lay down the foundations for the follow-up.

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It seems the call was inevitable, according to Keith, speaking crisply and candidly down the line from his home in Connecticut:

‘Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug but they initially said no because they’d had a bad experience with her before. But I was new to the band and when I heard the words “recording studio” and “money”, I bugged them until they said yes! And the day we all went up there, we started recording. I didn’t want to know about the business, I just wanted to record.’

The slick, dynamic fusion of funk, rock and jazz laid down by Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald proved just the ticket for Sylvia and they were in. But in those very early days of hip-hop, the money was tight although luckily for Keith the musicianship was too.

‘I was brought up with James Brown, Muscle Shoals, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gap Band and Cameo, so playing the rap stuff wasn’t much of a stretch from what we were already doing. But the first Sugar Hill Gang album was recorded in the Robinsons’ studio which was falling to bits.’

They moved to the slightly more lugubrious surroundings of H&L Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (also home to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio where so many classic Blue Note albums were recorded), and so began a golden period of recording characterised by great performances captured sometimes under great duress in the studio.

Extended jams like Funky Four Plus One’s ‘That’s The Joint’, The Sequence’s ‘And You Know That’ and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘Freedom’ featured jazzy horn charts, challenging stop-and-go arrangements and extended solo sections that had more in common with Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway than Eminem and Jay-Z.

These tracks were not piecemeal studio confections; according to Keith, ‘Back then, playing live in the studio was normal. The arranger Clifton “Jiggs” Chase would get with the rappers and do an arrangement based on what they wanted to use and then make up a chart. Then we’d add things. The musical ethic was really good at that time. You had to get it right or there’d be someone else in there recording the next day.’

The work ethic was almost comparable to the famous Motown production line: ‘We’d cut a track on the Friday, drive home to Connecticut, drive back to New Jersey on the Monday and hear the track on the radio.’

In the time-honoured hip-hop tradition, sometimes sections from other records were ‘replayed’ to give tracks an air of familiarity, most notoriously on the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ which stole Chic’s ‘Good Times’ groove lock, stock and barrel. But this just provided yet another irresistible musical challenge to the young Leblanc: ‘Alot of the time, we were playing maybe a bar of someone else’s music. So we wanted to cut it better than the original!’

But then came the second seismic shift in hip-hop’s history – the release of ‘Planet Rock’, Afrika Bambaataa seminal track which was the first rap tune to properly utilise newly-affordable drum machines and sequencers.

And for Keith, it was both a blessing and curse: ‘When the drum machine first came out, I saw my job opportunities flying out of the window! Now anybody could make a rap record in their bedroom. But then it dawned on me that I could program a drum machine better than any engineer. I did “No Sell Out” just to see what I could do with the technology.’

Featuring a mash-up of Leblanc’s apocalyptic beats and segments of Malcolm X’s oration, the track led to many more intriguing fusions of man and machine in his recorded output and also prefigured the Tackhead project which teamed up Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald with London dub mixologist Adrian Sherwood to thrilling effect.

Sadly, the Sugar Hill story wouldn’t be complete without reporting its demise – in less than honourable circumstances, according to Leblanc – with lots of law suits, claims and counter claims. But much of the music stands the test of time, particularly the extended jams of the ’80/’81 period which suggested a thrilling fusion of Duke Ellington, George Clinton and Trouble Funk.

Leblanc has continued to work with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald regularly over the years in projects such as Little Axe and Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Check out what he’s been up to on his Facebook page.