Yes: Big Generator 30 Years On

In the pantheon of rock rhythm sections, bassist Chris Squire would surely have to feature not once but twice – he forged striking partnerships with both Bill Bruford and the underrated Alan White. Big Generator, released 30 years ago this week, is a brilliant distillation of the Squire/White hook-up.

But there are loads of other pleasures too, even though it’s usually mentioned as an inferior, mostly pointless sequel to 90215. But for my money it’s the better album – more cohesive, less top-heavy. Big Generator was apparently far from a walk in the park to make though, with band tensions, endless rewrites and remixes. And of course there was pressure to follow up such a huge hit.

Trevor Horn started work on the album in 1985 but left towards the end of recording, leaving guitarist/vocalist/co-writer Trevor Rabin and producer Paul DeVilliers to finish the job. But you can hear the craft (and money) that went into Big Generator, although it still basically sounds like a band playing live in the studio.

This is barmy rock music, full of surprises, made by musicians with unique styles and a wish to take chances. But no matter how complicated the arrangements get, there’s always a logic to them. Take the title track for example. An excerpt from the ‘Leave It’ 90125 vocal sessions kicks things off. Then Rabin piles into a gargantuan riff (achieved by tuning his low E string down to an A, echoing Squire’s ‘standard’ tuning on his 5-string) joined by Squire. White’s snare is tighter than a gnat’s arse and his phrasing is always novel – he’ll often hit the crash cymbal on a ‘one-and’ or ‘three-and’ rather than the standard ‘one’. Then there’s the ridiculous speeding-up snare roll accompanied by manic Rabin shredding and a chorus that sounds a bit like Def Leppard. It’s all in a day’s work for this amazing unit.

‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Almost Like Love’ and ‘Love Will Find A Way’ are serviceable, weirdly-funky slices of AOR. The very ’80s-Floyd-style ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ maintains its doomy mood impeccably and features a brilliant Di Meola-esque acoustic guitar solo from Rabin. The standout for me though is the stunning, ridiculous ‘I’m Running’. Just when you thought they couldn’t crowbar any more into its seven minutes, it chucks in a descanting vocal outro which sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Only a few bits of Jon Anderson whimsy on side two threaten to derail proceedings. But in general Rabin keeps him in check, though presumably to the detriment of their relationship. Big Generator was nominated for a Grammy and sold well over a million worldwide, making the top 20 in both the US and UK. It’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So here it is.

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King Crimson’s Beat: 35 Years Old Today

EG Records, released 18th June 1982

UK Album Chart position: #39

9/10

If you were to ask fans of 1980s King Crimson why they love the band, lyrics probably wouldn’t be a very high priority. But, pushed hard by Robert Fripp and possibly influenced by the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, Adrian Belew came up with some choice words on Beat, the excellent second album from this remarkable quartet.

References to the Beat writers abound; ‘Neal and Jack and Me’ concerns Kerouac and his best friend Neal Cassady and mentions several significant Kerouac works; ‘Heartbeat’ is the name of a book written by Cassady’s wife Carolyn about her experiences with the Beats; ‘Sartori In Tangier’ references the Moroccan city where a number of Beats resided; ‘Neurotica’ shares its title with a very influential Beat-era magazine, and presumably ‘The Howler’ refers to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.

As the saying goes, you take inspiration where you find it, and Belew had come up with a very handy concept on which to hang the new band improvisations.

Musically, Beat is a brilliant development of the Discipline sound. ‘Neurotica’ and ‘The Howler’ feature some remarkable, unhinged ensemble playing, teetering on total chaos. On the latter, Bill Bruford delivers intricate patterns on his acoustic/electric kit while Belew’s white-noise guitar outburst is a killer (he repeats the trick on ‘Waiting Man’ and ‘Neal’, extending his palette of sounds from Discipline and sometimes using a new tuning system with the high E string tuned down to a C).

‘Sartori’ is a superb vehicle for Fripp while ‘Waiting Man’ demonstrates the amazing rhythm dexterity of the band, a development of the ‘Village Music’ concept with Bruford and Tony Levin sharing a tricky 3/4 figure (joined by Belew on drums when they played it live) underneath an expressive vocal performance. There’s even a noble, painless attempt at a pop hit with ‘Heartbeat’. The only track that outstays its welcome is ‘Requiem’, a fairly dreary investigation of A-minor.

In short, the musical intelligence of this unit was pretty damn scary. But they never neglected a crucial factor: melody. Lesser bands might have built their entire careers on any Beat song. In fact, given the status of each player, it’s a miracle Crimson produced anything of note in the studio.

Not surprisingly, tensions were high during the London recording sessions. Echoing the situation with The Police around the same time, they sought out a producer who might act as peacemaker. Fripp told writer Anthony DeCurtis in 1984: ‘We tried to get someone from the outside to organise it: Rhett Davies. I think if failed. I would rather have the wrong judgement of a member of the band than the right judgement of someone outside the band.’

Also, Belew was now very much the centre of attention and under pressure to produce melodies and lyrics to order. According to Bruford’s autobiography, Belew told Fripp to leave the studio after one too many barbs from the bespectacled Wimbornian, who ‘went straight back to Dorset and was silent for three days’. Only some desperate calls from Bruford and manager Paddy Spinks rescued the situation.

In the same 1984 interview as above, Fripp said of ’80s Crimson: ‘I feel I’ve created a field in which other people can discover themselves’. On the evidence of Beat, he did a fine job.

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks: 30 Years On

earthworksEditions EG Records, released January 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street, 1987

8/10

Some musicians have a unique touch – you can identify them within a few notes. In ex-Yes/King Crimson/Genesis sticksman Bill Bruford’s case, his snare drum is his main audio imprint (analysed by Bill on his website). But he also always had a highly-original composing style before his retirement in 2009, and both are very much in evidence on the excellent Earthworks album.

Bruford had spent the mid-’80s winding down Crimson and duetting with ex-Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, mostly in spontaneous improvisation mode, but now a new musical approach was called for. He had based his career on defying expectations and he did it again in 1986, forming a quartet made up two young jazz tyros best known for their work in big-band-extraordinaire Loose Tubes (keys man Django Bates and saxist Iain Ballamy) plus acoustic bassist Mick Hutton.

bruford-inside

Bruford chose well: Bates and Ballamy were excellent and prolific composers too. Also key to this new band was Bruford’s development of a very advanced electric/acoustic kit whereby he could play chords and melodic ideas alongside a ‘standard’ jazz setup. This approach also chimed well with Bates’ propensity on both acoustic piano and synth. On the latter instrument, he was fast becoming almost as recognisable as Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea or George Duke.

All the ingredients add up to one of the key British jazz albums of the ’80s, showcasing a band equally at home playing Weather Report-style fusion, ‘Eastern’ themes and odd-time prog as they were with ECM-flavoured, ‘European’ chamber jazz of the type played by obvious heroes Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor.

Ballamy’s opener ‘Thud’ (inspired by the Rosenhan psychology experiment?) almost has a ska feel – if Madness had tried their hand at quirky instrumental jazz/rock, they might come up with something like this. ‘Pressure’ is possibly the album’s standout, a superb mini-suite featuring some classic odd-time Bruford mischief and lyrical piano playing from Bates.

Ballamy’s ballad ‘It Needn’t End In Tears’ still sounds like a jazz-standard-in-waiting to this writer, though its possibly a bit saccharine for some with its lovely melody and soaring bridge. Bruford unleashes a fine drum solo on ‘My Heart Declares a Holiday’ while Bates’ ‘Emotional Shirt’ veers humourously between an early hip-hop groove and free-jazz freakout. ‘Bridge Of Inhibition’ ingeniously fuses Turkish modes with a high-speed-bebop feel.

Buoyed by state-of-the-art production (maybe a bit too state-of-the-art for some) and stylish packaging, Earthworks was a palpable hit by ‘jazz’ standards, selling well and turning up in several ‘best of 1987’ lists. Some critics were of course suspicious of Bruford’s jazz credentials, but he probably couldn’t have cared less; he had always considered himself a jazz drummer anyway and knew he was onto a winner with Bates, Ballamy and Hutton.

The latter wouldn’t last beyond this first album, but Earthworks (the band) would continue to make some excellent music throughout the rest of the ’80s and for two decades beyond that. Bruford had successfully defied expectations yet again.

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.

King Crimson’s Discipline: 35 Years Old Today

crimson-coverEG Records, released 10th October 1981

14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset. But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming. He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):

Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works:
1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely.
2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture.
3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.

So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:

1. Repeat yourself.
2. Take your time.
3. Leave room.
4. Listen to everybody else.
5. Develop a new set of clichés.
6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds.
7. Listen to the sound of what you play.

Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.

There are other stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.

The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.

There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole. Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.

Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.

Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.

Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).

Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

Tony Levin and Chapman Stick

The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood. By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.

As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’ He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa.

How We Live: Dry Land 30 Years On

How+We+Live+Dry+Land+554632Madchester aside, the late-’80s may be the least-heralded period of British pop, but the era also produced a surprising amount of intelligent, original bands that arguably never got their commercial due: Love And Money, Danny Wilson, The Bible, The Lilac Time, It Bites, Stump… The list of ‘under-achievers’ is long and varied.

But one name often forgotten is How We Live. Most famous for featuring a pre-Marillion Steve Hogarth on vocals and keyboards, the band emerged from the ashes of new-wave popsters The Europeans to release their one and only album Dry Land in 1987.

Originally appearing on CBS offshoot Portrait Records but now given a shiny new remaster by Esoteric/Cherry Red, the album certainly ticks lots of ‘quality 1980s pop’ boxes: it was recorded at Crescent Studios in Bath with XTC/Peter Gabriel producer David Lord and The The/Deacon Blue engineer Warne Livesey, and features Tears For Fears’ drummer Manny Elias on a few tracks. Peter Gabriel and XTC also get a thank-you on the inside cover.

Colin Woore and Steve Hogarth

Colin Woore and Steve Hogarth

Malcolm Dome’s incisive liner notes for this re-release outline the record-company shenanigans which dramatically shortened How We Live’s lifespan, whilst also acknowledging how Hogarth and fellow ex-European Colin Woore’s songwriting was very much informed by the other quality British pop of the time – Talk Talk, David Sylvian, Gabriel, Hue & Cry (Hogarth apparently being a big fan of Pat Kane’s vocals), Kate Bush.

And while it’s tempting to view Dry Land as the prelude to Marillion’s second phase, it’s pretty clear that Hogarth already had an extremely strong presence as a singer, songwriter and keyboard player long before he joined the Brit-prog behemoths.

Dry Land‘s opening 1-2-3 of ‘Working Girl’, ‘All The Time In The World’ and the title track (latter taken into the top 40 by Marillion) is pure dream-pop bliss. The latter benefits from a dramatic string arrangement, missing from the Marillion version, though connoisseurs might rue the big snare-drum sound.

‘Working Girl’ is simply a classic, with a haunting verse and swooning, truly uplifting chorus. How that and ‘All The Time’ didn’t crack the top 40 is still a mystery, though, according to manager Mark Thompson, CBS were spending most of their time and money trying to break Deacon Blue during this period.

Whilst the rest of Dry Land can’t quite maintain the quality of the first three tracks, there are plenty of other pleasures: ‘Games In Germany’ is a fine fusion of late-’80s PiL and Season’s End-era Marillion, a crashing new-wave groove with a fabulous, wrong-footing chorus. Classy ballad ‘Lost At Sea’ is somewhat reminiscent of David Sylvian’s work of the same period, while ‘In The City’ takes a left turn into jazzy pop with great aplomb; its shimmering synths, swinging groove and catchy trumpet melody bring to mind such late-’80s movie soundtracks as ‘The Big Blue’ and ‘Betty Blue’.

‘India’ is unfortunately a bit more Chris De Burgh than It Bites, though Dave ‘Taif’ Ball’s elegant fretless bass impresses, as it does throughout Dry Land. ‘The Rainbow Room’ is perhaps the most ‘prog’ track on the album, powered along by an intricate keyboard sequence and guitar motif.

Unfortunately Dry Land was a dead end for How We Live – it stalled outside the top 40, and, although there were some big gigs including a Munich show on the same bill as Eurythmics and Tina Turner in front of 100,000 people, they called it a day in late 1987. Hogarth was enquiring about becoming a milkman when he heard from his publisher that Marillion had been in touch. He was back in business, and remains so to this day – their politically-charged new album F.E.A.R (F*** Everybody And Run) is out on 23rd September. But Dry Land is a fascinating and worthwhile precursor.

Dry Land is out now on Esoteric/Cherry Red.