Van Halen: Quantized

Harry’s Records, right next to the bus stop on my way home from sixth-form college, was a real institution for me in the late 1980s (I’ve only recently discovered that it was actually a UK-wide chain of music stores).

Many a trip home was enlivened by looking at the covers of, off the top of my head, Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop, It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis or Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

And Van Halen, the superb 1978 debut album. From the opening backwards car horns and Michael Anthony’s fuzzy bass to the manic closer ‘On Fire’, it was a total stunner.

It’s a brilliant mix of Cream, Led Zep, The Sex Pistols, Kinks and Who, featuring a talented vocals/guitar/bass/drums lineup with a striking audio imprint (producer Ted Templeman’s mastery of the famous Sunset Sound echo chamber, with Eddie’s guitar flying across the stereo spectrum: Rick Beato and Warren Huart have put together superb musical analyses of the album).

The band ‘breathed’ and grooved, and it sounded like they played live in the studio (they did, pretty much). It certainly wasn’t ‘perfect’. Perfection is an interesting concept for rock, one of the legacies of the post-Nirvana 1990s. Everyone recorded with a click track, and everyone seemingly looked for ‘perfection’.

The 1970s were different. So it’s a great jolt to hear VH’s ‘Running With The Devil’ quantized and placed on ‘the grid’ by this wacky music surgeon below. Judge for yourself if you prefer the ‘perfect’ version or original, ‘wrong’ version – it’s a fascinating, sometimes amusing project:

P.S. Check out this amazing soundboard recording of VH’s Hammersmith Odeon support show with Black Sabbath in June 1978.

David Lee Roth: Skyscraper 30 Years Old Today

Diamond Dave hit the ground running with his 1986 solo debut Eat ‘Em And Smile.

That album had a raw, live-in-the-studio sound, courtesy of producer Ted Templeman and some of the greatest rock musicians of all time (Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, Gregg Bissonette), but sophomore record Skyscraper – released 30 years ago today – was something completely different: a meticulous, layered, fussed-over project.

Vai was promoted to co-producer, Roth enjoying his energy and studio nous, and his influence is all over the record.

Vai told Classic Rock magazine recently about their working relationship: ‘We got on really well. We were friends. He listens and doesn’t assume to know everything. But it was his band. He made all the executive decisions. I’m very good at assuming a role and knowing where the boundaries are. I expect that from other people when they’re working with me.’

Vai took his time doubling parts, sculpting solos and thinking of the songs orchestrally. His playing is absolutely brilliant. He forensically explores every chord and adds humour too, an aspect missing from 99% of rock guitarists.

The more challenging compositions (‘Bottom Line’, ‘Hina’, the title track) rehearse the concepts that Vai would pursue on his breakthrough Passion And Warfare solo album.

So Skyscraper is musically rich but great fun too. Vocally, Roth has such a strong presence and he busts his butt trying to entertain.

Lead single ‘Just Like Paradise’ – described by Dave as his tribute to The Beach Boys – reached an impressive #6 on the US Hot 100, ‘Perfect Timing’, ‘Damn Good’ and ‘Stand Up’ are pure pop, co-written by Roth and keyboard player Brett Tuggle.

‘Two Fools A Minute’ is quite unlike any hard rock this writer has heard, basically a live-in-the-studio take with a succession of nutty mini-solos by Vai and Sheehan. It’s something akin to a heavy-metal show tune, complete with ‘cheesy’ horn section. I love Dave’s little ‘Sizzlin’ to the top!’ exclamation before Vai’s solo and his increasingly weird comments as the track goes on: ‘Where’s the drummer?…Nah, we can’t let Stevie drive…’

There’s a distinct lack of low-end on Skyscraper though. Billy Sheehan’s number was up. He left after the album’s recording and didn’t take part in the hugely successful, 10-month world tour. But he would take a lot of this album’s approach to his next band project, Mr Big.

Skyscraper divided critical opinion on its release but was a big hit, reaching #6 in the US and #11 in the UK. Happy birthday to a fun-filled and oft overlooked minor classic of the ’80s.

Chris Tsangarides (1956-2018)

Producer, engineer and mixer Chris ‘CT’ Tsangarides spent his last decade living and working at The Ecology Room studio overlooking Kingsdown, a pretty hamlet on the Kent coastline between Dover and Deal.

The studio is featured strongly in the brilliant documentary ‘Anvil! The Story Of Anvil’, as is the very charming Tsangarides.

CT was one of the sonic architects of ’80s music, working on key albums by Killing Joke, Depeche Mode, Gary Moore, Magnum, Japan, Bruce Dickinson, Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy.

He also had a unique perspective on the excesses of the era’s hard rock scene, recently telling Classic Rock magazine:

I was lucky enough to be looked after by Zomba Management who also had (major producers) Martin Birch, Mutt Lange and Tony Platt. Battery Studios (in Willesden, North West London) was our home. Any piece of equipment, any mic, you could have it. It was all, “Oh, we’ll go to Barbados to record the bass drum.” It got silly. I think we did disappear up our own jacksies…

People would put on 18 tracks of guitar doing the same thing because “it’ll sound mega, man.” Well, it didn’t. Because you’ve still got the same frequency spectrum. So the more you put on, the smaller it sounds…

You couldn’t mix a record unless you had 500 bits of outboard gear. There was this thing called the Aphex Aural Exciter. You used this machine on your final mix and they’d charge you something like £75 for every minute of song. And all it did was make everything sound really toppy. Pointless. But it was like, “You’ve got to have one of those…because they’ve got one!”

RIP, CT.

Guns N’ Roses: Appetite For Destruction 30 Years On

Geffen Records, released 21st July 1987

Approximate worldwide sales: 30 million

Singles released: ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ (US #7, UK #24)
‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (US #1, UK #6)
‘Paradise City’ (US #5, UK #6)
‘Nightrain’ (US #93, UK #17)

W. Axl Rose (vocals/co-writer): ‘This record’s gonna sound like a showcase. I sing in five or six different voices, so not one song’s quite like another, even if they’re all hard rock. Sometimes six lines (of lyrics) take two years. It just has to say exactly what I mean…’

Slash (guitar/co-writer): ‘We can sound like AC/DC, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Aerosmith. We can sound like what’s-his-name, that f***in’ idiot that plays guitar real fast… Al Di Meola…’

1987 was the year rock and metal made a comeback big-time. But Appetite doesn’t really sound like an ’80s album at all. It’s totally different to what Whitesnake, Motley Crue, Poison, Skid Row, Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Def Leppard offered in the same era, but not so different from Aerosmith, early Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols or The Stones. It’s funky hard-rock rather than metal, with the occasional punky moment, and still sounds superb today.

W. Axl Rose (born William Bailey) was and is one of the all-time great rock frontmen. His vocals stand out: he unleashes the growling, banshee-screeching and brooding baritone, sometimes all in the space of one song.

Then there are the stage moves: the serpentine shuffle, ‘revolving stomp’, the pogo-ing, and the androgynous looks and gift for winding audiences up didn’t hurt either.

Guns were surely the ultimate ’80s Hollywood street band, seriously dangerous both to themselves and others. Signed to Geffen Records in March 1986, there was subsequently a lot of discontent at the label when it dawned on them just what they’d taken on.

One A&R man said: ‘They were having sex with porn stars, openly using hard drugs. Once they arrived at the Geffen office, late for a meeting, with a naked girl wrapped in a shower curtain. There was a real belief at the label that Axl was simply not going to make it out alive. I remember someone at Geffen saying, “We must record everything they do – rehearsals, soundchecks, concerts – because this band is going to be incredibly popular and incredibly short-lived. One of them is going to OD before it’s all over…”’.

Appetite producer Mike Clink (installed after aborted sessions with Paul Stanley of KISS and Sex Pistols engineer Bill Price) was nicknamed ‘That Was It!’ Clink: he preferred first takes if possible, with the band mostly playing live in the studio.

He captures the ferocity of the band, mostly keeping to a fairly basic format: Izzy Stradlin’s guitar panned hard left, Slash panned hard right, Steven Adler’s snare drum of doom (though Geffen apparently wanted to use a session player for the album) and Duff McKagan’s bass in the middle. Appetite was also pretty much the last major rock album mastered for vinyl.

They had built a formidable live following on the West Coast but Guns’ London Marquee shows of the 18th, 22nd and 28th June 1987 were their European debuts. They had to work. The pressure was on. The first show mostly sucked, with plastic beer glasses and snot raining down on the band, but the second and third gigs were apparently much better.

After Appetite‘s release on 21st July, nothing much happened in the States. Radio pretty much ignored it. MTV didn’t have a video to show. The New York writers thought they were just another hair-metal band from Hollywood.

There was a better reception in England. Kerrang! magazine loved it: ‘Rock is being thrust back into the hands of the real raunch rebels’. (Within a few years, Axl would be berating Kerrang! onstage…)

‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ (based on Slash’s famous opening riff that was apparently just a ‘joke’ warm-up guitar pattern) pushed the album up to #64 in November 1987. Incredibly, Appetite didn’t hit the #1 spot in the US album chart until 23 July 1988 when Guns were on tour supporting Aerosmith – almost a year to the day after its release.

On 2 August 1988, Axl played live shows in his hometown of Lafayette, Indiana. He was a mega-star, the album was a smash, but he had mixed emotions about returning to the belly of the beast.

‘Don’t look up to him’, one of Bill Bailey’s old Jefferson High School teachers apparently said to some kids watching ‘Sweet Child’ on MTV. ‘He didn’t do well here…’

Further reading: ‘Watch You Bleed: The Saga Of Guns N’ Roses’ by Stephen Davis

Classic Rock’s 100 Greatest Albums Of The ’80s: First Impressions

_57I’m a sucker for a ‘best albums of the 1980s’ list. Classic Rock magazine have just published their ‘real’ top 100, focusing on under-the-radar records by both well-established and cult artists.

The countdown features a fair few critics’ favourites – Peter Gabriel 3, Lou Reed’s New York, David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, The Police’s Synchronicity, Roxy Music’s Avalon. No major surprises there.

Then there are the slightly left-field choices that would possibly scrape into my top 100 too (Living Colour’s Vivid, PiL’s Album, Brian Wilson’s self-titled debut, Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, Genesis’s Duke, Neil Young’s Freedom, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled debut, David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper).

There are the slightly puzzling choices from established artists – Tom Waits’ Frank’s Wild Years, Yes’s Drama, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Uplift Mofo Party Plan, Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, Van Halen’s Women And Children First, Faith No More’s Introduce Yourself and Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors.

And then there’s a whole raft of albums by artists I’ve long meant to check out. So I gave them a spin. I didn’t make much headway with Dead Kennedys, Billy Squier, Zodiac Mindwarp, John Mellencamp, Gun, Sea Hags, Green On Red, Queensryche, Georgia Satellites, Enuff Z’Nuff and King’s X, but here’s some stuff that did make an impression – very surprisingly, in most cases:

#86: Steve Perry’s Street Talk (1985)

I’ve always respected the Journey man’s voice but was unaware of his solo career until I heard this super-catchy single (whose video even throws in a bit of ‘Spinal Tap’ self-parody).

#84: Michael Bolton’s Everybody’s Crazy (1985)

The sound of Michael McDonald fronting ZZ Top.

#55: Gary Moore’s Corridors Of Power (1984)

Included for the extraordinary first two minutes: scary chops from a guitar great.

#38: Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut (1983)

You’d be hard pressed to call it a great voice but Waters emotes very effectively on this beautifully-produced, evocative album opener.

#24: Iron Maiden’s Piece Of Mind (1984)

A slinky harmonized riff and absolutely killer guitar solo.

#3: Def Leppard’s High ‘N’ Dry (1981)

One for audiophiles everywhere: producer ‘Mutt’ Lange works his magic again.

I won’t give away the number one…but you can check out the full top 100 albums here.