1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’

34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’

There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it… 

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

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Six Great ’80s YouTube ‘Shreds’

SWING IN DEAUVILLE 1992

Chick Corea – look away now…

YouTube ‘shreds’ didn’t take off on social media the way trolling and cat videos did. And yes, they are possibly a little bit ‘niche’. But what I really like about these musical parodies is that they take on a quality all of their own, producing a surreal, appealingly-amateurish mash-up of cheap synths, terrible guitar sounds and fake drums.

There is some intelligence behind them too – it’s not easy to sound this bad. You need a bit of talent. The clips also bring home just how great these players are.

But hey – some possibly need taking down a peg or two…

6. a-ha play ‘Take On Me’

I like the badly-played synth motifs, Morten’s little off-mic asides and the unexpectedly-early chorus. And also the drummer’s Herculean efforts juxtaposed with the tinny, inconsequential sounds he is producing…

5. The Chick Corea Elektric Band play…something

This band were always one of the more unsavoury fusion units of the late-’80s. Their freakily-flawless musicianship, cheesy synth sounds and ‘zany’ stage performances are ripe for a bit of a rave-up…

4. USA For Africa play ‘We Are The World’

This one gets in for sheer oddness. It sounds like it’s been overdubbed by people whose first language is not English. Chinese? French? Kenny Rogers, Tina Turner and Billy Joel always get me.

3. Miles Davis plays ‘Tutu’

Sorry Miles, but I like the way this classic piece is re-imagined as a kind of remedial reggae/world music/’50s rock jam. Check out the intensity of percussionist Don Alias’s performance. That little ‘tinging’ ride cymbal gets me every time.

2. Dire Straits play ‘Money For Nothing’

This is ‘Money For Nothing’ played by a bunch of teenagers who have just been given a few cheap synths, a crap bass and a few rubbish guitars for Christmas. I particularly dig John Illsley’s backing vocals.

1. Chick Corea duets with Herbie Hancock

Yes, yes, why not some more Chick? There’s something about his smug performance style that lends itself to these clips. And of course the fact that he has made so much tasteless music for someone so near to genius…

Good Lyrics Of The 1980s

Joni_Mitchell_2004It has to be said, it was a bit easier coming up with good ’80s lyrics than it was to come up with crap ones. I could probably have chosen three or four crackers from many of the artists featured below, but space permits only one.

Maybe it’s not surprising that it was a great decade for lyricists when it was surely one of the most ‘literary’ musical decades to date – it would have to be with people like Bob Dylan, Morrissey, Paddy McAloon, Andy Partridge, Green Gartside, Tracey Thorn, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and Springsteen around.

So here’s just a sprinkling of my favourites from the ’80s. Let me know yours.

 

PET SHOP BOYS: ‘Rent’

I love you/</ em>You pay my rent

 

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS: ‘Forest Fire’

I believe in love/
I’ll believe in anything/
That’s gonna get me what I want/
And get me off my knees’

 

ELVIS COSTELLO: ‘I Want You’

I want you/
It’s the stupid details that my heart is breaking for/
It’s the way your shoulders shake and what they’re shaking for’.

 

RANDY NEWMAN: ‘Mikey’s’

Hey Mikey/
Whatever happened to the f***in’ “Duke Of Earl”?’

 

JONI MITCHELL: ‘The Reoccurring Dream’

If you had that house, car, bottle, jar/
Your lovers would look like movie stars’

 

TALKING HEADS: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

‘Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
I might end up in the hospital’

 

DANNY WILSON: ‘Never Gonna Be The Same’

‘Once there was an angel/
An angel and some friends/
Who flew around from song to song/
Making up the ends’

 

THE SMITHS: ‘Panic’

Burn down the disco/
Hang the blessed DJ’

 

DIRE STRAITS: ‘Brothers In Arms’

‘Now the moon’s gone to hell/
And the sun’s riding high/
I must bid you farewell/
Every man has to die/
But it’s written in the starlight/
And every line in your palm/
We are fools to make war/
On our brothers in arms’

 

DON HENLEY: ‘Boys Of Summer’

Out on the road today/
I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/
A little voice inside my head said/
Don’t look back, you can never look back…’

 

PREFAB SPROUT: ‘Horsechimes’

‘Hello Johnson/
Your mother once gave me a lift back from school/
There’s no reason to get so excited/
I’d been playing football with the youngsters/
Johnson says don’t dramatise/
And you can’t even spell salacious’

 

KING CRIMSON: ‘Indiscipline’

‘I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat myself when under stress/
I repeat…’

 

PETER GABRIEL: ‘Family Snapshot’

‘Come back Mum and Dad/
You’re growing apart/
You know that I’m growing up sad/
I need some attention/
I shoot into the light’

 

XTC: ‘Love On A Farmboy’s Wages’

‘People say that I’m no good/
Painting pictures and carving wood/
Be a rich man if I could/
But the only job I do well is here on the farm/
And it’s breaking my back’

 

DAVID BOWIE: ‘When The Wind Blows’

So long, child/
It’s awful dark’

 

THE POGUES/KIRSTY MACCOLL: ‘Fairytale Of New York’

I could have been someone/
Well, so could anyone’

Story Of A Song: Dire Straits’ Private Investigations

Andy Beckett’s excellent new book ‘Promised You A Miracle UK80-82’ has got me thinking about the early ’80s a lot. It was in many ways a bleak time in the UK (temporarily lightened by the Royal Wedding and Ian Botham’s cricket heroics against the Aussies), mainly defined by Thatcher’s deeply unpopular government, the Yorkshire Ripper murders, various terrorist attacks and fears of a nuclear war that were hardly appeased by the unintentionally-terrifying ‘Protect And Survive’ public information films.

dire straits

Contemporary pop music generally railed against this attitude, creating some much-needed fun and glamour out of the gloom. Although ‘Private Investigations’ shares almost nothing with prevailing musical trends of the period (and Mark Knopfler saved his reaction to the Falklands War for Brothers In Arms‘ title track), it continues to hold my fascination, ever since my Dire Straits-loving uncle played it to me sometime in the mid-’80s.

I would try to decipher the noirish lyrics in a typically teenage way (no change there, then) but these days it’s hard to read the song as anything other than a portrait of a love affair gone wrong, emphasised by the slightly dodgy video. The song’s protagonist is fixated on looking for clues of his paramour’s infidelities, so he goes ‘checking out the reports’ and ‘digging up the dirt’, finding some ‘confidential information in the diary’. We never found out exactly what he finds but it definitely ain’t good; in this song, to discover the truth of a relationship is a fate worse than death, leaving one ‘scarred for life’ with ‘no compensation’.

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

Love Over Gold Tour, Zagreb, 1983

I love the track’s sonic detail. The sense of drama and use of dynamics leaves other contemporary pop for dust. The stereo spectrum is used as a kind of panaromic field across which various sonic events are ‘placed’ to fit the narrative, including Mike Mainieri’s intricate marimba and subtle bits of percussion. The result is a kind of mini-movie set to music, best listened to with headphones. Ennio Morricone couldn’t have done it better. You could argue that ‘Private Investigations’ was the catalyst for all Knopfler’s film soundtrack work.

He also demonstrates a mastery of many guitar styles on the track, from the nylon-string acoustic main theme/mini-solos through to the power-chorded interjections towards the end, the latter frequently inspiring some of my uncle’s most spirited air guitar-playing back in the ’80s. Then Knopfler’s volume-pedal swell perfectly imitates a cat’s nocturnal howl. The last section, with its picked-bass/kick-drum heartbeat and Alan Clark’s chiming piano chords, seems very influenced by the title track of Steely Dan’s ‘Royal Scam‘. I love that glass (window?) breaking and the click of a suitcase opening, or is it the latch of a door being tampered with? The space in the track forces you to focus on these details. It all adds up to something akin to Knopfler’s version of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’.

Astonishingly, in a slightly edited form, ‘Private Investigations’ reached UK number 2 in September 1982 (sitting incongruously in the top 10 alongside ABC, Duran Duran, Dexys, Shalamar and The Kids From Fame!), a sure signifier as to just how much better the charts were back then. The track’s accompanying album, Love Over Gold, is seen as somewhat of a disappointment in Dire Straits’ discography, and I can’t say that any of its other tracks have had much effect on me.

But now that the nights are drawing in and the blinds are being shut, it’s always fun to dim the lights and give ‘Private Investigations’ a spin. The game commences…

Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms: 30 Years Old Today

dire-straitsVertigo/Warner Bros Records, released 13th May 1985

Recorded: AIR Studios, Montserrat

Produced by Neil Dorfsman and Mark Knopfler

UK Album Sales: 3,086,000

UK Album Chart Position: 1

Weeks On UK Album Chart: 195

Singles Released (and UK Chart Positions):

Walk Of Life (2)
Money For Nothing (4)
Brothers In Arms (16)
So Far Away (20)
Your Latest Trick (26)

Whilst enjoying Mark Knopfler’s considerable guitar skills and knack for writing cinematic ballads (‘Romeo And Juliet‘ and ‘Private Investigations‘ would probably make my top 20 songs of the ’80s), Dire Straits’ mega success has generally puzzled me. Knopfler always seemed a Bob Dylan/Randy Newman/Donald Fagen kind of guy – subtle, intelligent and wry/wary – but Straits’ mostly meat-and-potatoes rock music told another story.

But Brothers In Arms hit at exactly the right time on its release in 1985; its digital sheen, beautifully-crafted songs, tasty drumming (Omar Hakim, except on ‘Walk Of Life’ and ‘Money For Nothing’) and mastery of various styles (ZZ Top-style boogie, roots rock, jazzy pop) created an ’80s perfect storm. It’s so much part of the furniture that it’s almost beyond criticism.

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Mark Knopfler at Live Aid, 13th July 1985

Knopfler’s laidback, post-Dylan vocals are a great antidote to all those oversingers of the ’80s (and right up to the present day). On ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Walk Of Life’, his pitching is not perfect and his phrasing throwaway, but the overall effect is pleasing possibly because it’s such a contrast to the super-slick production and playing.

And he shows himself again to be a brilliant ballad writer – ‘Your Latest Trick’ carries on from where ‘Private Dancer‘ and ‘Private Investigations’ left off, a noirish classic featuring a famous sax break by Michael Brecker just as memorable as ‘Careless Whisper’ (for better or worse!). ‘Why Worry’ and the title track (apparently Knopfler’s response to the Falklands War) are timeless epics. I found myself unexpectedly very moved listening again to the latter the other day. In fact, I was surprised how generally downbeat the album was, not having heard it for a good few years.

Brothers In Arms outsold both Michael Jackson releases (Bad and Thriller) to be the UK’s best-selling non-greatest hits album of the ’80s, spending 14 weeks at number one. Surely a big reason for its success was that it was heavily promoted as a digital recording and as such was perfectly suited to the new CD format.

The fact that it was the ‘test CD of choice’ for yuppies on the lookout for new hi-fi equipment must have been a delicious irony for Knopfler and Straits manager Ed Bicknell, given the lyrics to ‘Money For Nothing’. There were even rumours that at the time other artists were struggling to get their albums pressed onto CD due to the overwhelming demand for Brothers In Arms. Happy birthday, chaps.

Omar Hakim, Drummer Of The ’80s: Seven Of The Best

omarhakim3Of the all-time-great drummers who emerged in the ’80s – a list that would have to include Manu Katche, Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Trilok Gurtu – you could argue that Omar Hakim was the main man. His hip, funky, vibrant style typified all that was good about the music of the era.

Effortlessly versatile, endlessly creative and always musical, Hakim emerged from the early ’80s New York jazz and fusion scene and quickly became the drummer of choice for David Sanborn, David Bowie, Dire Straits, John Scofield, Weather Report and Sting. He could play everything from straight jazz to heavy rock’n’roll with total ease, great feel and a beautifully light touch.

I first became aware of Omar when he demonstrated his ‘Children’s Crusade’ beat on BBC TV’s ‘Rock School’. I was a major fan from that day on.

Here are seven great Omar performances from the ’80s:

7. Sting: ‘I Burn For You’ (1985)

Drum legend Jeff Porcaro waxed lyrical about this performance which appears in the 1985 film ‘Bring On The Night’. One of Omar’s specialities is soloing over a static vamp, and he really takes it out about as far as it can go here.

6. Dire Straits: ‘So Far Away’ (1985)

Omar can do slick, clean, laidback rock too, as heard on this Brothers In Arms opener. Check out his lovely fills, layered in at the end of each chorus, bringing the playing of Motown star Benny Benjamin into the ’80s.

5. David Sanborn: ‘Rush Hour’ (1982)

Omar dusts off a much-imitated ghost-note-inflected groove for this track from the As We Speak album, possibly influenced by the late great Little Feat sticksman Richie Hayward. Only Hayward could have nailed this with as much panache, drive and subtlety.

4. Weather Report: ‘Db Waltz’ (1984)

Omar pulls out all the stops on this ingenious 3/4 (or is it 6/8?) groove, the centrepiece of the Domino Theory album, falling somewhere between a swing feel and straight feel just the way the old guys used to do it on the R’n’B hits of the ’50s. He also demonstrates some jaw-dropping chops towards the end.

3. Special EFX: ‘Sabariah’ (1988)

The music comes uncomfortably close to smooth jazz on this opening track from the Confidential album but Omar’s grooving is just sublime. The controlled energy explodes from his kit.

2. David Bowie: ‘Neighbourhood Threat’ (1984)

Omar could also play heavy rock with the best of them as demonstrated by this underrated track from Tonight. And not even Jeff Porcaro could have conceived of the floor-shaking fill at 2:14.

1. John Scofield: ‘Techno’ (1985)

The lead-off track from the classic Still Warm album, this perfectly illustrates Omar’s intricate hi-hat playing, as distinctive as Stewart Copeland’s almost a decade before. I dig the way he takes the tune out with some sick china cymbal/snare combinations. Here’s the last minute.