25 Great Drum Grooves Of The 1980s

Steve Jordan
Photo by Deborah Feingold

Could it be that the ’80s spawned more ‘drum-based’ songs than any other music decade?

New recording technology meant that the drums had never been louder and prouder in the mix. Stylistically, influences from ’70s fusion and classic soul/R’n’B were still fresh and relevant. Hip-hop and go-go brought a funky swing. Metal and punk added a unashamedly aggressive dimension. And let’s not underestimate The Collins Effect: Phil brought a whole lot of attention to the drums.

Here are 25 notable grooves from the decade. My defintion: pieces of music where the drum parts are intrinsic to the architecture of the piece. Eagle-eyed readers will spot lots of shuffles here – fast ones, slow ones, medium ones, half-timers. Bernard Purdie and John Bonham’s influences apparently loomed large. Play ’em loud…

25. Lee Ritenour: ‘Road Runner’ (1982)
Drummer: HARVEY MASON

How does he find time to fill out the groove with all those 32nd notes on the hi-hats? With such solidity? Only the master knows.

24. Steve Khan: ‘Uncle Roy’ (1983)
Drummer: STEVE JORDAN

Apparently Khan’s instruction to Jordan was to play an ‘Elvin Jones type of thing’ on this half-time shuffle. He completely ignored the guitarist and came up with an outrageous groove , turning the snare off, smacking the crash/ride cymbal as if his life depended on it and adding some tasty footwork for good measure.

23. U2: ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (1983)
Drummer: LARRY MULLEN JR.

Love or hate the track, it was the beat of choice for air-drumming schoolkids across the land (at least it was at my school). You can even hum it.

22. TONY WILLIAMS: ‘Sister Cheryl’ (1985)

In essence, Tony ‘straightens’ out the jazz swing ride cymbal/hi-hat pattern, adds some snare backbeats and then dials in almost a Latin feel. It’s a revolutionary beat on an album full of them (Foreign Intrigue).

21. Weather Report: ‘Volcano For Hire’ (1982)
Drummer: PETER ERSKINE

Maybe Joe Zawinul came up with this pattern, but it’s superbly played and certainly one of the most striking and powerful in WR’s illustrious drumming legacy.

20. INXS: ‘What You Need’
Drummer: JON FARRISS

Nimble-of-foot dancefloor funk/rock smasher from one of the best groove drummers of the ’80s.

19. China Crisis: ‘In Northern Skies’ (1989)
Drummer: KEVIN WILKINSON

A different kind of half-time shuffle, with crossed hands, neat ghost notes and a nice tom-tom emphasis on the ‘3’.

18. Prince: ‘Dance On’ (1988)
Drummer: SHEILA E

Sheila unleashes her ’70s fusion chops on this curio from Lovesexy. Quite unlike anything else in her or the Purple One’s discography.

17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Be Cool’ (1982)
Drummer: JOHN GUERIN

LA session legend Guerin ended his 10-year sideman gig with Joni playing this inspired take on a medium jazz swing. Holding two brushes, one marks out time with triplets and other ‘brushes’ in quintessential jazz style.

16. Level 42: ‘It’s Over’ (1987)
Drummer: PHIL GOULD

One of many crafty, original ’80s grooves from the Isle Of Wight sticksman, this one was achieved by playing 16th notes on the hi-hat with both the foot and the hands. On a good system you can really hear the subtleties.

15. Jeff Beck: ‘Space Boogie’ (1980)
Drummer: SIMON PHILLIPS

Of course it takes its cue from Billy Cobham’s famous ‘Quadrant 4’ double-bass-plus-ghost-notes shuffle, but Phillips’s beat is in 7/4 and bloody hard to pull off. He maintains the intensity remarkably well and throws in some killer fills.

14. Jeff Beck: ‘Star Cycle’ (1980)
Drummer: JAN HAMMER

Another classic from Jeff’s There And Back album, the composer/keyboard player takes the sticks himself for a classic, still-funky, displaced-snare groove. Hammer has always been a superb drummer – check out his First Seven Days album for more evidence.

13. Weather Report: ‘Molasses Run’ (1983)
Drummer: OMAR HAKIM

Lots to choose from in Omar’s prestigious ’80s discography but this one sticks out. His beats have a sense of structure befitting a natural songwriter/arranger (which, of course, he is too).

12. Joni Mitchell: ‘My Secret Place’ (1988)
Drummer: MANU KATCHE

Kind of a variation on number 8, this cyclical groove almost IS the song.

11. Bennie Wallace: ‘All Night Dance’ (1985)
Drummer: BERNARD PURDIE

Another classic from the shuffle master on this track from the saxophonist’s hard-to-find Blue Note album Twilight Time, this managed to incorporate both of Purdie’s trademarks: ghost notes and hi-hat barks.

10. Adam & The Ants: ‘Ant Rap’ (1981)
Drummers: CHRIS HUGHES, TERRY LEE MIALL

There are two or three grooves on this and they’re all corkers. The song led to an outbreak of desktop hand-drumming by schoolkids in the early ’80s, driving teachers to distraction.

9. Grace Jones: ‘Warm Leatherette’ (1980)
Drummer: SLY DUNBAR

Trust Sly to come up with two such original takes on the shuffle.

8. Paul Simon: ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ (1982)
Drummer: STEVE GADD

What a treat to hear and see this classic live version from Central Park, possibly with some tiny deviations from the recorded take. Much imitated, never surpassed. And check out Gadd’s superb extended coda.

7. John Scofield: ‘Blue Matter’ (1986)
Drummer: DENNIS CHAMBERS

One of the great beatmakers of the ’80s or any other decade, the Baltimore master busted loose with two classic go-go grooves for the price of one.

6. Van Halen: ‘Hot For Teacher’ (1984)
Drummer: ALEX VAN HALEN

Modern Drummer magazine said it best: ‘The song begins with Alex pounding out a fairly complex floor-tom pattern featuring the ever-popular hairta rudiment, played over shuffling double bass drums. Add some tom hits and then a driving ride cymbal, and you’ve got one of the most classic drum tracks of the ’80s—or any decade.’

5. The Police: ‘Murder By Numbers’ (1983)
Drummer: STEWART COPELAND

Yet another ingenious variation on the medium jazz swing, Copeland turns 4/4 into 6/8, adds some weird emphases and catches the ear every time.

4. King Crimson: ‘Frame By Frame’ (1981)
Drummer: BILL BRUFORD

At Robert Fripp’s prompting, Bruford plays the lion’s share of the beat on one of his Octobans, not the hi-hat. From the classic album Discipline.

3. Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers: ‘We Need Some Money’ (1985)
Drummer: RICKY WELLMAN

The right foot that floored the drumming world.

2. Toto: ‘Rosanna’ (1982)
Drummer: JEFF PORCARO

Impossible to leave out this half-time classic. Porcaro fused The Purdie Shuffle with a Bo Diddley beat to create a monster.

1. John Martyn: ‘Pascanel (Get Back Home)’ (1981)
Drummer: PHIL COLLINS

Phil came up with numerous cool variations on Harvey Mason’s ‘Chameleon’ beat in the ’80s, but this is my favourite. It’s basically ‘Chameleon’ but with a very groovy triplet figure inserted between the hi-hats and snare. From the classic Glorious Fool album.

Any more classic ’80s drum grooves?

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Memorable Gigs Of The 1980s (Part One)

Mark King of Level 42, Hammersmith Odeon, 13th November 1985

The London live music scene was buoyant in the 1980s. There was a gig on pretty much every corner. You could see a Goth band, a pub-rock band, a reggae band, a psychobilly band, a soul band – sometimes all on the same bill.

Places like The Rock Garden in Covent Garden, Swan and King’s Head in Fulham, Clarendon in Hammersmith, Red Lion in Brentford, Astoria in Soho and Mean Fiddler in Harlesden are quite understandably still revered by music fans of a certain age.

There were brilliant nightclubs too: The Bat Cave, Dingwalls, Wag, Blitz, Limelight, Marquee. Let’s be thankful a handful of legendary venues from that era survive (The Half Moon in Putney, Ronnie Scott’s, Roundhouse, Scala, Borderline) and long may they last.

Here are a few gigs that still loom large (all in London unless otherwise stated). I hope they spark some memories of your own. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that I pretty much camped out at the Hammersmith Odeon in the late ’80s – well, it was my local, and it seemed like almost everyone came through that brilliant venue…

9. Frank Zappa @ Wembley Arena, 18th April 1988

Yes yes yes, Frank was in town for the first time in four years. I was a new fan and very excited to see him live. His guitar was insanely loud and very trebly. The reggae version of ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was particularly memorable. Lots of onstage banter and political rhetoric. Lots of old-school hippies in the stalls. What a treat.

8. The New York Jazz Explosion (Roy Ayers/Tom Browne/Lonnie Liston Smith/Jean Carn) @ Hammersmith Odeon, 24th February 1985

I’d never heard of any of these guys when my dad offered me a ticket but I’m bloody glad I went. Lonnie started the show with some prime, instrumental, Rhodes-driven jazz/funk, then Roy played some old favourites and quite a lot from his In The Dark album. I don’t remember much about Jean or Tom but Roy blew me away (I’ve seen him at least five times since). The Odeon was packed and a very raucous crowd made a lot of noise in those glorious days when almost every famous US soul star played there. A real eye-opener.

7. David Sylvian @ Hammersmith Odeon, 30th May 1988

It was pretty much the first sight of David since Japan’s split and there was a genuinely exciting atmosphere in the old venue. Lots of screaming girls and a large Goth contingent. An unsmiling, slight and pale Sylvian silenced them by playing keys for the first few ethereal instrumentals (with hindsight, very reminiscent of Bowie’s ‘Stage’ tour a decade earlier). Fantastic band: David Torn, Mark Isham, Steve Jansen, Ian Maidman, Richard Barbieri. An excellent desk recording has appeared on YouTube, probably frustrating David no end:

6. Art Blakey @ Ronnie Scott’s, 26th January 1989

Ronnie’s hosted a lot of the bona fide jazz greats in those days. My dad took me to a see a fair few but catching Bu was a revelation. His sheer presence was memorable and his press rolls made the walls of the club shake. The suited-and-booted band, including top-notch Brit pianist Julian Joseph, were excellent too.

5. It Bites @ Brunel University, March 1988

My schoolmate Nigel had played me this band’s debut The Big Lad In The Windmill and I was becoming a massive fan when we got a lift out to darkest North-West London just before the release of their second album Once Around The World. They played in the low-ceilinged students union bar and it became one of the most outstanding pop gigs I saw in the ’80s. A terrifyingly tight band – ‘coming at you like a f***in’ juggernaut’ as singer/guitarist Francis Dunnery said recently – with humour and chops. And a cracking version of ‘New York, New York’ in the middle of ‘Once Around The World’ to boot.

4. Level 42 @ Hammersmith Odeon, 13th November 1985

They were finally making the big pop breakthrough with World Machine but still had one foot in their jazz/funk ‘roots’ – this era was an exciting mix of both approaches. These boys were going places but were still quite naughty/rough’n’ready with it. Sadly this was the peak of the original four-piece band, but it was another brilliant, noisy, sweaty night at the Odeon.

3. John Scofield @ Half Moon Theatre, Docklands Festival, Sept 1988?

This took place at a makeshift venue in the back-end of nowhere within Thatcher’s huge Docklands development. It was a long car ride from West London into a strange wasteland. I had wanted to see this band since Blue Matter had come out a year earlier and accordingly watched drummer Dennis Chambers like a hawk throughout. From memory, he in turn eyeballed me throughout. His playing was pretty mindblowing from 10 yards away.

2. Wendy & Lisa @ Town & Country Club, 25th April 1989

It was a hot, sweaty night at the T&C, and the nearest to seeing Prince in such a small venue (which does a great disservice to Wendy and Lisa’s excellent playing and songwriting, but there you go). There was a genuine star quality to the (almost all-female) band and a very cool clientele – everyone was clocking a peak-fame Sinead O’Connor at the bar. The gig delivered the promise of summer and some cracking music too.

1. Animal Logic @ Town & Country Club, 25th May 1989

Back in the late ’80s, you only really gleaned info about musicians from magazines. When Rhythm – the now-defunkt UK monthly – printed that Stewart Copeland and Stanley Clarke were doing a gig in North London, we just had to be there. It was a surprise to say the least. There had literally been no sign of Copeland since The Police and the crowd seemed to be entirely composed of their fans – a huge roar erupted when Stewart’s kit was rolled onto the stage. Unfortunately the songs weren’t great but the atmosphere was.

Great Drumming Albums Of The 1980s (Part One)

Dennis Chambers

It was a good decade to pick up the sticks. Inspiration was easy to come by; the early ‘80s delivered brilliant drum-centric hits like The Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice’, Bow Wow Wow’s ‘I Want Candy’, Adam and the Ants’ ‘Ant Rap’ and Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’. Drums were sounding like DRUMS again – the days of dead-sounding kits seemed (almost) over.

Exciting fusions were everywhere: avant-gardists combined free-funk and free-jazz; art-popsters brought ideas from minimalism, Africa and the Far East; jazz/rock masters of the 1970s moved into production and arrangement; dub and World music thrived; post-punks fused rock and reggae; the ‘Young Lions’ embraced and sometimes extended the drum worlds of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach; funk and R’n’B got precise and spicy; metal players took double-kick playing to extraordinary extremes. And of course there was also the sudden development of technology: some drummers shrunk from the challenge, others rose to it.

So, to celebrate movingtheriver.com’s third anniversary, here’s a personal selection of the decade’s finest drum performances, in no particular order.

44. Prefab Sprout: Protest Songs (1989)
Drummer: Neil Conti

Conti’s classy playing provided a subtle, always stylish counterpoint to Paddy McAloon’s pithy, complex songs about poverty, childhood and the social mores of the early ’80s.

43. Robert Plant: Shaken ‘N’ Stirred (1985)
Drummer: Richie Hayward

Little Feat were a tough act to follow from a drumming point of view but Hayward settled into the 1980s with this superb performance, showcasing a bright, expressive style on Plant’s quirky, Peter Gabriel-influenced art-rock.

42. Frank Gambale: Live! (1989)
Drummer: Joey Heredia

LA-based Heredia combined slinky funk/fusion, Police-style rock/reggae and Latin grooves to spectacular effect on this classic live album. His sparring with a terrifyingly unhinged Gambale on ‘Credit Reference Blues’ and ‘Touch Of Brazil’ is essential listening.

41. Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover (1986)
Drummer: Steve Ferrone

The ex-Average White Band ex-pat Brit takes us on a journey through the art of groove on this nearly-forgotten Nile Rodgers-produced minor classic. He gives James Gadson a run for his money with his killer 16th-note hi-hats, crisp snare and nifty footwork.

40. Eddie Gomez: Mezgo (1986)
Drummer: Steve Gadd

On this Japan-only album (which is still waiting for a CD release), Gadd was at his most expressive, navigating the bebop flavours of ‘Puccini’s Walk’ and quirky fusion stylings of ‘Me Two’ with great aplomb. And no one else could have played a samba the way Gadd does on ‘Caribbean Morning’.

39. Miles Davis: We Want Miles! (1982)
Drummer: Al Foster

In combination with bassist Marcus Miller, the underrated Foster laid down some highly original rhythm section work on Miles’s only live album of the 1980s. Listening to his ‘bouncing ball’ dynamics on ‘Kix’, you’d swear that the very fabric of time was being messed with.

38. Rockin’ Jimmy & The Brothers Of The Night (1982)
Drummer: Chuck DeWalt

Here’s one out of left-field from a Tulsa bar band who I first heard yonks ago on Alexis Korner’s fabled early-’80s Radio One blues show. DeWalt had a Ringo-esque knack for coming up with simple but memorable drum parts, with a great feel and nice use of space.

37. Living Colour: Vivid (1988)
Drummer: Will Calhoun

Calhoun’s whip-crack snare and natty ride cymbal/hi-hat combinations knocked a lot of drummers’ socks off in 1988. He was just as comfortable with the half-time, Bonhamesque rock of ‘Cult Of Personality’ as he was with the funk and go-go grooves of ‘Funny Vibe’ and ‘Broken Hearts’.

36. INXS: Kick (1987)
Drummer: Jon Farriss

If it’s funky pop you’re after, Farriss is your man. His dynamics, ghost notes and weird accents on ‘New Sensation’ and ‘Need You Tonight’ are worth the price of admission, while ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ sounds a bit like Ringo if he had a few more chops.

35. Hiram Bullock: Give It What U Got (1987)
Drummer: Charley Drayton

NYC-native Drayton delivered a cutting snare, subtle cymbal work and exciting two-hi-hat grooves on this impeccable slice of late-’80s funk/fusion. No one else – not even his buddy Steve Jordan – could have done a better job.

34. Sting: …Nothing Like The Sun (1987)
Drummer: Manu Katche

Overproduced? It’s a moot point when the playing’s as delicious as this. His independence between kick drum and hi-hat on ‘Rock Steady’ is fairly mind-boggling, while no one apart from Copeland and Colaiuta has perfected the high-speed reggae groove with such aplomb.

33. Narada Michael Walden: Divine Emotions (1988)

The ’70s fusion hero turned ’80s producer extraordinaire still had time to deliver this forgotten classic featuring tasty, tight, propulsive grooves and a return to blazing jazz/rock on the hysterical closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’.

32. John Scofield: Electric Outlet (1984)
Drummer: Steve Jordan

The NYC tyro had already turned heads with the Blues Brothers and ‘Saturday Night Live’ bands but this album perfectly captured his more expansive side. Two hi-hats, crisp snare, gorgeous K Zildjians and some spry kick drum work, particularly on ‘Pick Hits’, ‘Big Break’ and the title track.

31. Nik Kershaw: The Works (1989)
Drummer: Vinnie Colaiuta

We knew that Vinnie could unleash some jaw-dropping chops, but this album perfectly demonstrates his groove side. Check out how he navigates the 6/4 time of ‘Cowboys And Indians’ and hot-wires mid-tempo rocker ‘Wounded Knee’. And then there’s THAT fill in ‘Don’t Ask Me’…

30. Billy Cobham: Powerplay (1986)

An album that finally captured what it’s like to stand a few feet away from the master, featuring a lovely acoustic drum sound, shorn of any studio effects. There was incredible clarity to his playing even if the material wasn’t quite as strong as on the previous year’s album Warning.

29. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983)
Drummer: Steve Jansen

Jansen was always looking at new ways to play a 4/4 beat and came up with five or six classics on this live retrospective. ‘Visions Of China’, ‘Canton’ and ‘Sons Of Pioneers’ still sound like unique drum statements in the history of recorded music.

28. Stanley Clarke: Rocks, Pebbles And Sand (1980)
Drummer: Simon Phillips

Beautifully recorded by Dennis Mackay, his drums have never sounded better or bigger. From the driving rock’n’roll of ‘Danger Street’ to highly technical prog-fusion of ‘She Thought I Was Stanley Clarke’, the London maestro delivered a superb performance throughout.

27. Bireli Lagrene: Foreign Affairs (1988)
Drummer: Dennis Chambers

Many to choose from in Dennis’s repertoire but I’ve plumped for this hard-to-find fusion classic. With a fatter snare than usual, he anchors the band beautifully on Weather Report-style jams ‘Josef’ and ‘Senegal’ and unleashes a trademark 6/8 groove and killer solo on the title track.

26. Van Halen: 1984
Drummer: Alex Van Halen

If he had only ever recorded the freaky double-bass workout ‘Hot For Teacher’, his place in the drum pantheon would be assured. But this breakthrough album also featured a host of other treats, not least ‘Jump’, plus the most identifiable snare drum in hard rock.

25. John Abercrombie: Getting There (1987)
Drummer: Peter Erskine

Difficult to choose one from possibly the jazz drummer of the decade but I’ve gone for this mid-career classic. Erskine busts out his Elvin Jones chops on ‘Furs On Ice’ and rocks hard on the epic title track which almost approaches avant-rock.

24. John Martyn: Glorious Fool (1981)
Drummer: Phil Collins

A fascinating companion piece to Phil’s Face Value and Genesis’s Duke during arguably his best period of drumming. He brings out lots of lovely ghost-noted grooves in the Little Feat style, some brutal rock on ‘Amsterdam’ and even spicy fusion on ‘Didn’t Do That’.

23. China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse (1989)
Drummer: Kevin Wilkinson

Wilkinson was (he sadly took his own life in 1999) kind of an English Jeff Porcaro, a tasty groovemeister who always played exactly what was right for the song – with lots of elan. Check out the subtleties of ‘St Saviour’s Square’, ‘In Northern Skies’ and ‘Red Letter Day’.

22. Toto IV (1982)
Drummer: Jeff Porcaro

It would almost be sacrilege not to include this. Some of the greatest rock drumming in history, with feel, finesse, style, a rich, full sound and lovely time-feel (though he famously claimed ‘my time sucks’!).

21. Pat Metheny: 80/81 (1981)
Drummer: Jack DeJohnette

DeJohnette was always a class act on ECM’s ’80s projects and he sounds sparkling on this double album. But I include it mainly for his performance on ‘Every Day I Thank You’, goosing saxophonist Michael Brecker into one of his finest sax solos on record.

20. Stanley Clarke Band: Find Out! (1985)
Drummer: Rayford Griffin

There are definitely shades of Cobham in his exuberant style (and he set himself up left-handed on a right-handed kit like Billy) but also grooves aplenty on this underrated album. His lopsided funk on ‘Born In The USA’ is balanced out by chops-fests ‘Campo Americano’ and ‘My Life’. This guy has technique to burn but also does what’s right for the song.

The countdown continues here.

John Scofield’s Blue Matter: 30 Years On

scofieldGramavision Records, released February 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street 1987

9/10

Occasionally a musician appears out of nowhere, ‘fully-formed’, or at least it can seem that way during one’s formative years. In my lifetime, there have been a few: Lewis Taylor, Omar Hakim, Trilok Gurtu, and probably a few more. Drummer Dennis Chambers, who plays brilliantly throughout Blue Matter, would definitely be one too.

My muso schoolmate Jem Godfrey had lent me John Scofield’s superb Still Warm album sometime around 1986. Before then, I knew John’s playing mainly from Miles Davis’s Star People, one of my mid-’80s favourites. So when the Steve Swallow-produced Blue Matter dropped in early ’87, I was primed and ready – and instantly gripped.

john-scofield-blue-matter_b

The presence of Hiram Bullock’s rhythm guitar on three tracks gives a good indication of Scofield’s approach on this album – it’s R’n’B/funk-based jazz/rock, with great grooves, neat chord changes and no gratuitious displays of instrumental technique for technique’s sake – though Scofield and Chambers were of course quite capable of some serious chops, evident on the killin’ ‘Trim’.

The dynamic title track is clearly influenced by Miles/Marcus Miller’s ‘Tutu’ with its half-time groove, walking synth bass and enigmatic chords, but Chambers’ brilliant contribution (closely monitored by the excellent Gary Grainger on bass) transforms it into something totally new. In the first minute of the tune, he achieves a novel ‘bouncing ball’ snare drum effect and then unleashes some of the most kick-ass kick-drum playing in music history. Chambers had already turned some heads playing with George Clinton, but, even if he had never picked up the sticks again after 1987, ‘Blue Matter’ would probably have put him right up in the drum pantheon.

‘Heaven Hill’ – named for Sco’s favourite brand of bourbon? – a slow blues with surprising chord changes and tasty gospel-tinged piano playing by Mitch Forman, influenced a whole host of ‘fusion’ guitarist/composers such as Robben Ford, Scott Henderson and Frank Gambale (compare it to Henderson’s ‘Slidin’ Into Charlisa’). ‘Now She’s Blonde’, ‘Time Marches On’, ‘The Nag’ and ‘So You Say’ manage to be both funky and catchy while retaining enough harmonic interest and ‘dirt’ to go way beyond the smooth jazz tag.

The Blue Matter band got quite a live following around this time, with good reason. They were somewhat of an antidote to the Chick Corea Elektric Bands and Al Di Meolas of this world, as musically jaw-dropping as those artists were/are. Scofield himself acknowledged as much during an interview with Howard Mandel in 1988: ‘What I hate about fusion music is the gymnastics. We are often playing to audiences who want to hear fast and loud and I have to watch myself. I’ve never been that good at doing fast stuff. Luckily, it doesn’t come easy to me. Now, Dennis Chambers is a chops phenomenon. On his solos, he destroys the drums. But he also has inbred musicianship, so it’s exciting and not so calculated…’

Funk, Junk & Pulp Culture: Thomas Dolby’s Aliens Ate My Buick

aliens-ate-my-buick-52dea191dc659EMI/Manhattan Records, released April 1988

9/10

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1988

This was Dolby’s ‘Marmite‘ album – the one that really tested his fanbase. A relocation to the States after marrying soap actress Kathleen Beller (Dolby’s companion on the front cover) led to a new home in the Hollywood Hills (apparently a very large, rather creepy movie-star mansion), the recruitment of a great new band The Lost Toy People via an advert in a local paper and a wholesale embracing of American black music.

In many ways, Aliens is Dolby’s reaction to the work of George Clinton and Prince. Of course, he’d duetted with the former on his Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends album. But it’s also a rather uptight Brit’s view of American culture complete with tacky local detail: smog alerts, Bel Air bimbos, pink leather upholstery, weird license plates.

dolby

A very brave bit of sequencing puts ‘The Key To Her Ferrari’ right at the front of the album. A fake-jazz/B-Movie swinger with a vaguely ‘50s rock’n’roll feel featuring lots of Zappaesque spoken word stuff from Dolby and some brilliant close-harmony female vocals, it’s all pretty stupid but the band plays fantastically and everyone sounds like they’re having a great time. However, you do wonder how many listeners made it past such an uncompromising track.

The lead-off single ‘Airhead”s delirious mash-up of funk and pop is pretty irresistible. Mr Clinton contributes the funny and funky ‘Hot Sauce’ which packs in an incredible amount of good stuff into its five minutes including a Spaghetti Western prelude, a reference to Cameo’s ‘Candy’, a touch of salsa and even a killer James Brown-style piano break.

Ditto ‘May The Cube Be With You’, featuring Clinton and Lene Lovich on backing vocals, the Brecker Brothers on horns and a brilliant groove from P-Funk bass/drums team Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers.

But, as with most Dolby albums, the treasures are mostly found in the more introspective, less gimmicky moments. ‘My Brain Is Like A Sieve’ easily transcends its title and faux-reggae arrangement to become a superb and quite downbeat pop song in the Prefab style. ‘The Ability To Swing’ is a cracking piece of funk/jazz, with some excellent lyrics, possibly Dolby’s most (or only?) covered song.

‘Budapest By Blimp’ is very much the centrepiece of Aliens and its stand-out track, an epic ballad harking back to the Flat Earth sound with a great, David Gilmour-esque guitar solo by Larry Treadwell (one of many on the album) and some superb, driving bass from the late Terry Jackson.

The only slight misfire is ‘Pulp Culture’, initially interesting but quickly grating with coarse lyrics and a melody line too similar to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Have A Talk With God’. It’s worth noting, though, that according to Dolby, the entire song (including his vocals) is made up of Fairlight samples.

The album’s moderate success (it reached #30 in the UK albums chart and 70 in the US) was probably not a massive surprise – it was totally out of sync with anything in British or US pop. Aliens probably rather reflected Dolby’s interest in music video and movie soundtracks (he’d just finished scoring ‘Gothic’ and ‘Howard The Duck’).

The ‘Marmite’ element doesn’t bother me, though – I’d put Aliens up there with The Flat Earth as his best album, a perfect companion piece to other classics of summer 1988 such as Prefab’s From Langley Park To Memphis, Scritti Politti’s Provision and Prince’s Lovesexy. It’s strong beer but I love its pungent textures. And let’s not forget Steve Vance and Leslie Burke’s brilliant cover artwork.

The Bebop Roy Buchanan: Mike Stern’s Upside Downside

mike stern

Atlantic Records, released summer 1986

Bought: HMV Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

9/10

There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).

But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.

Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that shit wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’

Jaco and Mike, 1980

Jaco and Mike, 1980

To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.

Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a set-break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!

Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.

My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and a heckler shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell

Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.

But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’. Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.

Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.

The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.

Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.

mike sternMike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I saw him at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.

Mike’s career thrives to this day – he’s just released a duet record with Eric Johnson. Let’s be thankful he’s still with us. Many fellow travellers didn’t make it.