The Curse Of 1986?

The critical consensus: 1986 was the worst music year of the decade, perhaps of any decade. But is that true?

There was certainly a vacuum between the end of New Pop/New Romanticism and the Rock Revival of ’87, exploited by one-hit-wonder merchants, TV soap actors, Europop poseurs, musical-theatre prima donnas, jazz puritans and Stock Aitken & Waterman puppets.

Also most pop records just didn’t sound good. The drums were too loud, the synths were garish, ‘slickness’ was the order of the day. Perhaps nothing emphasised these factors as much as The Police’s disastrous comeback version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close To Me’.

But listen a little harder and 1986 seems like a watershed year for soul, house, go-go, art-metal, John Peel-endorsed indie and hip-hop. Synth-pop duos were back on the map, the NME C86 compilation was a lo-fi classic and there were a handful of groundbreaking jazz/rock albums too. So here’s a case for the opposition: a selection of classic singles and albums from 1986. Not a bad old year after all.

Stump: Quirk Out

David Bowie: ‘Absolute Beginners’

Mantronix: Music Madness

PiL: Album

Rosie Vela: ‘Magic Smile’

George Michael: ‘A Different Corner’

Eurythmics: ‘Thorn In My Side’

Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover

XTC: Skylarking

Duran Duran: ‘Skin Trade’

George Benson: ‘Shiver’

Erasure: ‘Sometimes’

Cameo: ‘Candy’

Chris Rea: On The Beach

Europe: ‘The Final Countdown’

David Sylvian: Gone To Earth

OMD: ‘Forever Live And Die’

The Real Roxanne: ‘Bang Zoom’

The The: Infected

Half Man Half Biscuit: ‘Dickie Davies Eyes’

Anita Baker: Rapture

Michael McDonald: ‘Sweet Freedom’

Prince: Parade

Talk Talk: The Colour Of Spring

Luther Vandross: Give Me The Reason

Pet Shop Boys: ‘Suburbia’

Chaka Khan: ‘Love Of A Lifetime’

Gabriel Yared: Betty Blue Original Soundtrack

The Pretenders: ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’

Janet Jackson: Control

Run DMC: Raising Hell

Beastie Boys: Licensed To Ill

Miles Davis: Tutu

Iggy Pop: Blah Blah Blah

Courtney Pine: Journey To The Urge Within

ZZ Top: ‘Sleeping Bag’

George Clinton: ‘Do Fries Go With That Shake’

Talking Heads: ‘Wild Wild Life’

Kurtis Blow/Trouble Funk: ‘I’m Chillin”

The Source ft. Candi Staton: ‘You Got The Love’

James Brown: ‘Living In America’

Gwen Guthrie: ‘Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent’

The Housemartins: ‘Happy Hour’

Peter Gabriel: So

Mike Stern: Upside Downside

Steps Ahead: Magnetic

It Bites: The Big Lad In The Windmill

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Feminist Funk: Ray Parker Jr.’s Woman Out Of Control/Sex And The Single Man

Though ‘Ghostbray parker jrusters‘ is probably still paying a lot of Ray Parker Jr.’s bills, he’d certainly paid his dues before he got the call (apparently only after Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham turned down writing the theme song).

A decade earlier, Ray had played guitar on some great albums of the ’70s (Stevie’s Talking Book and Innervisions, Rufus/Chaka Khan’s Rags To Rufus,  Harvey Mason’s Funk In A Mason Jar, Marvin’s I Want You, Leon Ware’s Musical Massage), not to mention sessions with the likes of Boz Scaggs, Barry White, Tina Turner, Herbie Hancock and Bill Withers.

He also enjoyed a few big hits as part of Raydio before going solo in ’82. Either side of ‘Ghostbusters’, he put out two interesting albums which are now released as a good-value two-fer by Cherry Red/Soulmusic.com. ’83’s Woman Out Of Control unleashes a kind of feminist funk with various tracks unashamedly taking the laydeez’ side in the battle of the sexes, creating something pretty original. ‘Electronic Lover’ and ‘Invasion’ also rock the kind of psych-synth-funk sound that Prince and his contemporaries were tapping into at the time.

85’s Sex And The Single Man, the post-‘Ghostbusters’ album, ups the stakes with a lot more fuzz-toned lead guitar and also some weird synth-pop fun on ‘Girls Are More Fun’ and ‘I’m A Dog’. ‘One Sided Love Affair’ is an amusingly-shameless ‘Hello’ rewrite and there’s some cracking Cameo-style funk/rock on the title track. ‘Men Have Feelings Too’ demonstrates more of his rhythm-guitar mastery. I was going to say that his playing sounds very Prince-influenced but it’s the other way round; check out this masterclass for the evidence.

The albums were only minor hits – apparently Arista boss Clive Davis wasn’t blown away by their modest chart placings and was slow to return Parker Jr.’s call when contract-renewal time came around. While it’s true that there’s nothing as immediate or hook-laden as ‘Ghostbusters’ on these two records, they’re definitely worth reappraising and make nice companion pieces to Miles Davis’s You’re Under Arrest, Cameo’s She’s Strange, Prince’s Purple Rain and The Time’s Ice Cream Castle. Ray’s still going strong too, playing festivals and turning up on the occasional session.

P.S. Apparently Parker Jr. has been subject to an out-of-court settlement regarding the similarity of ‘Ghostbusters’ to Huey Lewis And The News’ ‘I Need A New Drug’. Judge for yourself…

Marcus Miller: Suddenly

marcus millerWarner Bros, released June 1983

Bought: HMV Richmond 1989?

7/10

I first became aware of Marcus when I saw him playing bass with Miles Davis at the trumpeter’s Hammersmith Odeon ‘comeback’ gig in ’82. He quickly became one of my bass heroes a few years later when I was bowled over by his contribution to Miles’ Star People album.

Marcus’s name came up again recently when I was talking to someone about great multi-instrumentalists. In the soul/funk/R’n’B world, obviously there’s Stevie, Prince, Lewis Taylor and Sly. Marcus’s 1983 debut Suddenly almost puts him up there with that esteemed company too, though in the final analysis it suffers from a lack of top-quality material.

Marcus has put it on record that he was first inspired to play music by Michael Jackson and Stevie, and Suddenly was his first attempt to enter their world of quality soul/funk/R’n’B songwriting. He’d certainly paid his dues for Warner Bros Records by 1983, producing, composing and/or playing bass with David Sanborn, Donald Fagen, Joe Sample, Roberta Flack, Grover Washington Jr. and Claus Ogerman, so a Warners solo debut was always on the cards.

Marcus-Miller

You can hear elements of ZAPP, Gap Band, The Time and Cameo on Suddenly, and if Marcus doesn’t quite establish himself as a genuine ’80s funk contender, there are a myriad of great grooves and musical touches to enjoy. He pretty much plays all instruments, getting in selected guests (drummers Harvey Mason and Yogi Horton, Vandross, Sanborn, Mike Mainieri) to add spice here and there. Marcus is not a great singer, his voice rather light and uncertain, but his bass and keyboard playing, songwriting and arranging really save the day.

‘Lovin’ You’ is uplifting pop/funk with a classic bassline, while ‘Just What I Needed’ features some great Richard Tee-like, gospel-tinged piano from Marcus. And his piccolo bass solo on ‘Much Too Much’ had me checking the sleevenotes in vain for the presence of late great guitarist Eric Gale. ‘Just For You’ was previously recorded by David Sanborn on the classic Voyeur album, but here it gets a nice new vocal treatment.

It’s telling though that the closing instrumental ‘Could It Be You’ is by far the most successful track, featuring Miller’s fabulous fretless bass solo. It was later covered excellently by Dizzy Gillespie on his 1984 Closer To The Source album.