Here’s a panacea for these mad times – spend a few weeks drilling down into the music released from Frank Zappa’s (final) 1988 tour.
It was a vision of modern America and a goodbye to ‘rock’; rather, FZ dealt with country, musical theatre, marches, TV/film themes, early ‘60s jazz, hymns, modern classical, reggae. In contemporary interviews he professed an admiration for Prince, who was also pretty much rejecting ‘rock’ in 1988.
The band had four months of intensive rehearsal, and you can hear it. He got the horn section doing things horn sections don’t normally do, playing lines from ‘The Untouchables’ or a Bartok piano concerto.
Some of rock’s sacred cows – Johnny Cash, Hendrix, Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Elvis – were in the firing line, as were the right-wing Christian fundamentalists running for US presidency in 1988. In fact, anyone restricting his right to speak freely (he cited that his politics were neither intrinsically left nor right-wing). He encouraged fans to register to vote at the shows and also incorporated snippets of daily news (‘confinement loaf’, Jimmy Swaggart etc.).
There were spectacular reimaginings of his old work and a cadre of new cover versions, including ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. There were good, new, sometimes stoopid songs with political lyrics and disarmingly brilliant musical flourishes. The epic ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’ became a kind of an epitaph: ‘I hope we never see that day/In the land of the free…And if you don’t believe by now/The truth of what I’m telling you/Then surely I have failed somehow’.
Though the gigs took place in big arenas, there was forensically superb musicianship and also lots of room for improvisation, areas where no one knew exactly what was going to go down. Zappa would set the Synclavier running with random ‘events’ and see how the band responded.
The tour made it down the East Coast of the US and to Europe. I saw the first night at Wembley Arena in April 1988 – an absolute revelation. But sadly the West Coast US leg was cancelled. Some say bassist Scott Thunes became persona non grata, others pointed to Zappa’s health and the huge outlay of the tour. The truth is probably somewhere inbetween. The various views are outlined in Andrew Greenaway’s book ‘Zappa The Hard Way’.
Watching the few bits of tour footage (from Madrid and Barcelona) is interesting – not always an easy watch and apparently neither were particularly good nights on the European tour. But one somehow forgets that Zappa chiefly saw himself as a COMPOSER, and there he is conducting the band through all the instrumentals. He didn’t leave the stage like Miles. Nor did he fine musicians if they screwed up, JB-style, but meticulously ‘comp’d’ only the best performances for any released work from the tour (and often incorporated ‘mistakes’ into a song’s arrangement).
Still, some will just take against Frank’s music – understandable, but it’s their loss. Paraphrasing Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece: ‘Listen to this stuff quietly because you don’t want your neighbours to hear you listening to this kind of stuff’ – I beg to differ. Play most of this stuff boldly and proudly, because it’s more interesting, more challenging and funnier than 90% of other contemporary music.
By summer 1984, Frank Zappa was already decrying MTV clichés in his ‘Be In My Video’ single (‘Pretend to be Chinese/I’ll make you wear red shoes’!).
But, away from the familiar tropes, there were trailblazing videos that set MTV on its way during the formative years. Either technically or thematically, these clips laid the groundwork right up until the end of the 1980s.
Of course they are kind of familiar, but watching them all the way through brought some interesting surprises, and even an unexpected lump in the throat area during the denouement of ‘Take On Me’…
9. Musical Youth: ‘Pass The Dutchie’ (Dir. Don Letts, released September 1982)
The first ever video shown on MTV by a Black artist. This was a huge bone of contention in MTV’s early days, not helped by their regular, disingenuous rebuttal: ‘We only play rock’n’roll’. Don Letts’ joyful film put a spanner in the works, placing the lads in front of the Houses Of Parliament, the supposed ‘postcard’ vision of London, a tribute to the influence of Black culture in the UK and a stark message to the powers that be. Letts also created a huge hit in the process, reaching #1 in the UK and #10 in the USA.
8. The Police: ‘Every Breath You Take’ (Dirs. Kevin Godley & Lol Creme, released 20 May 1983)
Strongly influenced by Gjon Mili’s 1944 short ‘Jammin’ The Blues’, this was the video that catapulted Synchronicity‘s album sales into the stratosphere and gave the band a UK and US #1. Apparently directors Godley and Creme were pretty blitzed throughout most of the filming – according to the latter, ‘The first thing we’d do when we arrived on set was roll a reefer.’ Sting was reportedly no shrinking violet either, pointing to himself and telling the directors, ‘Keep the camera on the money’!
7. ZZ Top: ‘Gimme All Your Lovin’ (Dir. Tim Newman, released August 1983)
Randy Newman’s cousin Tim helmed all of ZZ’s key videos (and Randy’s excellent ‘I Love LA’) and he masterminded this much-imitated, endlessly-rewatchable classic, giving the band a new lease of life and a lasting image as kind of ‘mythical rockers’ (apparently influenced by his reading of Joseph Campbell). But it was ZZ manager Bill Ham who laid down the law to Newman, offering two directives: ‘Use the car (Billy Gibbons’ 1933 Ford coupe) and put some girls in it.’
6. Cyndi Lauper: ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ (Dir.Edd Griles, released 6 September 1983)
Cyndi’s thing was inclusivity, and she delighted in showing a woman of every race in the video. It has echoes of John Waters’ aesthetic and the early Devo and B-52s videos, but this had a whole different vibe, apparently inspired by Lauper’s love of Jacques Tati’s 1958 film ‘Mon Oncle’.
5. Michael Jackson: ‘Thriller’ (Dir. John Landis, premiered December 1983)
‘Billie Jean’ opened the door for so many Black artists but this was pure box office and a delicious comedy/horror. Famously Michael headhunted director John Landis after watching ‘An American Werewolf In London’, giving him just one brief: ‘Can I turn into a monster?’ Landis was not interested in music videos but did like the idea of making a theatrical short. The video changed the game completely, and it’s arguable whether the dance routines have ever been bettered. It premiered on MTV on 2 December 1983 and reportedly doubled Thriller’s album sales within a few weeks of its first showing. It’s still absolutely thrilling.
4. Van Halen: ‘Jump’ (Dir. Pete Angelus, released December 1983)
Of course Metal acts were starting to make waves before this, with impactful videos by Twister Sister and Def Leppard, but ‘Jump’ laid down all the future ‘live on stage’ clichés, with balls on. Hair Metal became huge after this, and MTV adored the likes of Warrant, Winger and Bon Jovi, but none could ever match this song or Diamond Dave’s natural showmanship.
3. Madonna: ‘Borderline’ (Dir. Mary Lambert, released February 1984)
Lambert had only directed one video (Tom Tom Club’s ‘As Above So Below’) before getting her dream job on this breakout Madonna single. Madonna and Lambert discussed the video’s plot for two days in the former’s minimalist bolthole on the Upper East Side with Madonna insisting there be a Hispanic influence, necessitating moving the shoot to downtown Los Angeles. This is reportedly the first video to use black-and-white footage combined with colour; Madonna’s manager Freddy DeMann supposedly went ballistic on viewing the final cut but of course it became a video cliché, gave Lambert a successful career and Madonna her breakthrough song.
2. Lionel Richie: ‘Hello’ (Dir. Bob Giraldi, released February 1984)
Apparently director/scenarist Bob Giraldi was driven half mad by Lionel’s terminal lateness onto the set. For his part, Lionel was very sceptical about the bust. Apparently he finally plucked up the courage to approach Giraldi about it: ‘Bob, that bust does not look like me.’ There was a pregnant pause. Finally, Bob said, ‘Lionel…she’s blind.’
1. A-ha: ‘Take On Me’ (Dir. Steve Barron, released September 1985)
The song had completely flopped on its original release, so WEA gave Steve Barron a blank cheque to make a memorable video and get a hit. Working alongside rotoscope animator Michael Patterson, who did 1,800 drawings for the shoot, Barron was heavily influenced by Ken Russell’s 1981 movie ‘Altered States’. Barron knew it would work when the memorable image of an animated hand reaching out of a comic book popped into his head whilst he was bored shooting a Toto video. Apparently singer Morten Harket and lead actress Bunty Bailey fell in love during filming, becoming almost inseparable. ‘By take four, they would carry on holding hands even when we’d cut,’ remembered Barron. Aided by the video, ‘Take On Me’ became the band’s only US #1.
Further reading: ‘I Want My MTV’ by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks
Yes, they’re back, those undesirable, middle-aged, ‘legendary’ white males, with more songs that you probably couldn’t release on a major label today, more’s the pity… Check out the first six mid-lifers out of the traps here.
Lou Reed: ‘The Gun’ (1981)
39 at the time of recording, Lou brings the white heat of a Scorsese or Tarantino movie right to your door, taking on the character of a gun-wielding psychopath – maybe not that much of a stretch… But this shocking, seemingly stream-of-consciousness piece expunges a lot of bile that seems to have built up in Lou over the 1970s, fuelled by alcoholism, drug addiction and…everything, really. Key moment: the terrifyingly blank ‘Watch your wife…’. Quite brilliant, if totally unacceptable these days.
John Martyn: ‘Never Say Never’ (1981)
If Grace And Danger generally portrayed Martyn’s more tender/wistful feelings about his marriage breakup, the following year’s Glorious Fool was decidedly more barbed. ‘Never Say Never’ is Exhibit A, with a 32-year-old John opening up with ‘Shut up! Close your mouth!’. Things get weirder/more intense from there, propelled by Phil Collins’ battering drums reverberating mightily off the Townhouse studio’s stone walls.
Neil Young: ‘Don’t Cry’ (1989)
Neil (43 at the time of recording) surveys the detritus of a relationship breakup from a scarily blanked-out perspective, though his real feelings about the matter are maybe revealed by some of his most extreme guitar tones on record. Exciting, life-affirming stuff, even if the lyric suggests otherwise.
Robert Fripp/Peter Hammill: ’Disengage’ (recorded 1978, released 1985)
Fripp, 32 at the time of recording, lets it all hang out with his pals Peter Hammill on vocals and a Mr P Collins on drums (yes, Philip again…), a seriously paranoid tale of a relationship schism from a certain ‘Mrs Marion’ with Hammill delivering a deranged, brilliant vocal over a mixed-meter groove and exciting modal riffs. Funny, scary and pretty warped.
Frank Zappa: ‘We’re Turning Again’ (1982)
42 at the time of recording, Uncle Frank skewers 1960s heroes Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and The Byrds, and the piano motif may take the mickey out of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Ike Willis even pops up with an impersonation of legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite. Apparently guitarist Steve Vai was so offended by ‘We’re Turning Again’ that he refused to play it live, though Frank later said he was just making fun of the whole sixties media circus. For FZ-haters, it probably contains everything they despise in one song, but for fans it’s a typically provocative mix of ‘happy’ music and uncompromising lyrics.
Randy Newman: ‘My Life Is Good’ (1983)
39 at the time of recording, Randy’s track came from 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, the thesis of which seemed to be that there was something very rotten inside The American Dream. The ‘beauty spots’ of LA and Miami were struggling, and toxic celebrity was the true currency of Reagan’s America. But in this song he’s completely complicit in the whole thing, totally part of the scene, and he hates himself for it. Luckily for us…
Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.
A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.
You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.
Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.
Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month.
It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984.
There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.
In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.
Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.
One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa,London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’.
What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.
It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.
A triumph of solo guitar, and the only acoustic solo in this list, Bireli stunned the cognoscenti with this track from his 1988 Steve Khan-produced album Foreign Affairs.
36. Bros: ‘Chocolate Box’ (Guitarist: Paul Gendler)
Yes, Bros… Gendler had been a fully-paid-up member of New Romantic nearly-men Modern Romance before becoming an in-demand player on the UK scene, and he enlivened this hit with a raunchy, nimble classic.
35. REO Speedwagon: ‘Keep On Loving You’ (Guitarist: Garry Richrath)
Unreconstructed, huge-toned, double-tracked solo which revels in being almost out-of-tune throughout. Its sheer, brilliant in-your-faceness always comes as somewhat of a shock.
34. George Benson: ‘Off Broadway’
Slick, tasty solo from a truly great player, exploding out of the speakers from about 3:13 below. The tune is of course a Rod Temperton-penned, post-disco beauty from Give Me The Night.
33. Killing Joke: ‘Love Like Blood’ (Guitarist: Geordie)
This is ‘just’ a melody, but it’s a great melody, escalating in volume and intensity.
32. Phil Upchurch: ‘Song For Lenny’ (Guitarists: Phil Upchurch/Lenny Breau)
A couple of superb solos from a great, totally forgotten 1984 Upchurch solo album Companions. Breau stuns with his array of false harmonics and jazzy runs, while Upchurch brings the blues feeling.
31. Frank Zappa: ‘Alien Orifice’
It’s nice to hear Frank blowing over a few changes rather than his usual one or two-chord vamps. And he really gets a nice ‘flowing’ thing going here, right in the middle of one of his densest compositions. Starts at around 1:32:
30. Cameo: ‘A Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Fred Wells)
From the classic album Single Life, this solo goes way over and beyond the call of duty for an ’80s soul ballad. But it’s mainly included for its brilliant final flourish, spitting notes out like John McLaughlin. Who is Fred Wells and where is he now?
29. Rush: ‘YYZ’ (Guitarist: Alex Lifeson)
Hard to do without this flowing, creamy, Strat-toned classic on one of the great rock instrumentals of all time (though inexplicably it lost out to The Police’s ‘Behind My Camel’ at the Grammies…).
28. Kevin Eubanks: ‘That’s What Friends Are For’
A real hidden gem from the almost impossible-to-find Face To Face album, Eubanks lays down a short but beautifully-structured solo on a cool cover version, from about 2:45 below.
27. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’
Good fun and totally unpredictable. Also notable for its lovely Spanish-style flurry of triplets in its last two bars.
26. Starship: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (Guitarist: Corrado Rustici)
Cheesy? Maybe a bit, but who cares when it’s this well-structured and performed. Add a great tone, nice string-bending and a lovely phrase at the end and you’ve got a classic. Starts at 2:58:
25. Queen: The Invisible Man (Brian May)
May played a lot of great solos in the late 1980s, mostly on other people’s records (Holly Johnson, Fuzzbox, Living In A Box etc) but this one was just a kind of ‘play as many notes as possible in eight bars’ solo, and it’s a killer. From about 2:30 below:
24. Lee Ritenour: ‘Mr Briefcase’
Rit found the sweet spot on his Ibanez many times in the early ’80s, no more so than on this single that kicked off the classic Rit album. The solo also sounds double-tracked too, no mean feat considering the crazy bunch of 32nd notes at the end of bar 10.
23. Michael Jackson: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ (Guitarist: David Williams)
Not so much a solo as a suddenly-foregrounded riff, Williams became one of the most in-demand US session players after laying down this classic.
22. Pat Metheny: ‘Yolanda You Learn’
A marvellous, ‘singing’ guitar-synth solo from the First Circle album, rhythmically interesting and reflecting a strong Sonny Rollins influence, also closing with a cool quote from the standard ‘My One And Only Love’.
21. Frank Zappa: ‘Sharleena’ (Guitarist: Dweezil Zappa)
Frank’s son was apparently just 14 years old when he laid down this absurdly fluid cameo, at 2:05 below:
20. Eric Clapton: ‘Bad Love’
Nice to hear Eric pushing himself for once, delivering a striking solo played right at the top of the neck, demonstrating a mastery of string-bending and precise fingering.
19. Sadao Watanabe: ‘Road Song’ (Guitarist: Carlos Rios)
A classic rock/fusion solo, all the more impressive because it’s apparently double-tracked, from the album Maisha. Rios is still one of the most in-demand session players in Los Angeles (and one of the few leftie fusion players…), probably best known for his work with Gino Vannelli, Chick Corea and Lionel Richie.
18. Prince: ‘Batdance’
It’s the unapologetic volume and raucous tone, almost distorting it’s so hot in the mix.
17. David Sanborn: ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Buzz Feiten)
Feiten seems a weirdly unrecognised figure in the guitar fraternity, but he contributed some great stuff to Sanborn’s seminal Voyeur album including this tasty break over a killer Marcus Miller/Steve Gadd groove. There are some lovely moments when Sanborn’s sax cuts in to augment his solo.
16. Paul Simon: ‘Allergies’ (Guitarist: Al Di Meola)
I love hearing ‘jazz’ musicians turning up on ‘pop’ records, and this is a classic of its kind featuring all of Al’s trademark licks in one short, tasty burst. It’s a lot more fun than listening to his solo albums, anyway… Starts at around 2:46.
15. Manhattan Transfer: ‘Twilight Zone’ (Guitarist: Jay Graydon)
At a time when he was getting much more into the production game, Graydon still found time to toss off a double-tracked showstopper on this hit single. All in a day’s work for the session genius who of course unleashed the famous solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’. Speaking of which…
14. Steely Dan: ‘Glamour Profession’ (Guitarist: Steve Khan)
A mini masterpiece of precision and invention. Khan is given his head and takes the classic tune OUT in the last three minutes. When the chord changes, he changes. Stay right through the fade too – he plays some of his best stuff towards the end. Kicks off at 5:30.
13. King Crimson: ‘Elephant Talk’ (Guitarists: Adrian Belew/Robert Fripp)
Two great solos for the price of one on this Discipline opener. Fripp supplies the opening horn-like curio, then Belew adds some fire and a bit of famous elephantosity for good measure.
12. Living Colour: ‘Funny Vibe’ (Guitarist: Vernon Reid)
A classic modern blues solo from a modern master, adding excitement and elan to an already burning piece, helped along by Will Calhoun’s cajoling kit work.
11. Steely Dan: ‘Third World Man’ (Guitarist: Larry Carlton)
Another day, another classic Steely guitar solo, this one recorded in 1977 during the Aja sessions but not unleashed for another three years. Again, double-tracked for lasting power, featuring a superb mastery of tone and melody.
Sadly this is my only female entry in the list (more suggestions please), but it’s a fuzz-toned, anthemic treat, with shades of Santana and McLaughlin. From around 3:04 below:
9. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (Guitarist: Andy Summers)
It’s the random, off-the-cuffness that appeals on this one. Summers sounds a lot more p*ssed off than usual, possibly reeling from yet another Sting jibe.
8. Steve Vai: ‘Call It Sleep’
Just a superb guitar composition from top to tail, but the moment at 1:22 when he stomps on the distortion pedal and rips it up is a great moment of ’80s music.
7. Propaganda: ‘Dream Within A Dream’ (Guitarist: Stephen Lipson)
Lipson modestly provided three or four extremely memorable guitar features during his golden ZTT period (not least Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’), but this one gets extra points for its infinite reverb and a dynamite fuzztone.
6. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (Guitarist: Edwyn Collins)
Just a funny two-fingers-up to the well-made solo, and also a fond homage to Pete Shelley’s famous break on Buzzcock’s ‘Boredom’.
5. Frank Gambale: ‘Credit Reference Blues’
Just wind him and watch him go. It starts slowly, almost wistfully, but then becomes a fire-breathing classic. Still scary after all these years.
4. Dire Straits: ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (Guitarist: Mark Knopfler)
The closing solo is just an oasis of choice phrases and unique tones.
3. Van Halen: ‘One Foot Out The Door’ (Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)
Of course ‘Beat It’ is the industry standard, and possibly the greatest guitar solo of all time, but I’m going for this curio which closes out the oft-forgotten Fair Warning album. He just blows brilliantly over the changes with a gorgeous tone.
2. Jeff Beck: People Get Ready
The second and last solo is the one, a feast of Jeff-isms. A rare good bit from the rather poor Flash album.
1. Stanley Clarke: ‘Stories To Tell’ (Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth)
No chucking out any old solo for our Allan – this is a brief but fully-formed, perfectly structured, wide-interval classic that is easily the best thing about the tune. He seems to get a bit ‘lost’ in the middle, but then regroups for a stunning closing section over the rapid chord changes. Starts at 2:04:
It’s difficult to believe but today marks 30 years since the release of FZ’s final ‘rock’ album, Broadway The Hard Way.
After that, there were just a few more official live collections, and then he was gone.
Posthumous Zappa books seem to have mainly focused on his status as a countercultural hero (though Ben Watson’s incisive works deserve a special mention) and the musicians around him.
Even the entertaining 1989 ‘autobiography’ (ghosted by Peter Occhiogrosso) propagated most of the myths and featured only one chapter about music.
Charles Ulrich’s ‘The Big Note’ redresses the balance. This is the book Zappa fans have been waiting for. It’s an alphabetical album guide featuring everything you’ll ever need to know about his songs, musicians and concerts.
The title comes from Zappa’s theory that all of his recorded, live and written work formed a kind of ‘Big Note’, with overlapping themes and recurring motifs.
The book features very little – if any – critical appreciation of this work, just detailed notes on the lyrical and musical references alongside many explanatory quotes from FZ himself.
Ulrich’s approach works a treat. The book functions as both a meticulously-researched reference guide and a ‘gospel according to FZ’. For example, it’s been bugging me for nearly 30 years what the band plays after Frank’s exclamation: ‘…who was strictly from commercial!’ in ‘Nanook Rubs It’ – I found out in an instant.
I was also pleased and amazed to read that ‘Rat Tomago’ from Sheik Yerbouti was nominated for a 1979 Best Rock Instrumental Performance Grammy (but lost out to Wings’ ‘Rockestra Theme’!).
There’ll never be anyone else quite like Zappa. Long overdue, this is the book his music deserves.
‘The Big Note’ by Charles Ulrich is published now by Newstar Books.
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
Yessir, 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.
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.
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 in the UK 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.