Say ‘fusion’ to most music fans and it’s the classic early-‘70s jazz/rock of Miles or The Mahavishnu Orchestra that would probably come to mind.
But a decade later another kind of fusion was taking place, a mainly-American sound that drew on influences from R’n’B, jazz, pop, funk, AOR and MOR.
Yacht Rock was upwardly-mobile, multi-layered, widescreen, moneyed, beautifully-produced music, usually involving a string section and/or horns, generally West Coast-originated, driven by the lush production style of the time and effortless brilliance of the musicians involved.
The Yacht House Band generally centred around a few key members of the band Toto: Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on keyboards and Steve Lukather on guitar.
You’d also have to factor in guitarists Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, keyboard players David Foster, Michael Omartian, Robbie Buchanan and Greg Phillinganes, drummers John ‘JR’ Robinson and Steve Gadd, bassists Louis Johnson and Abe Laboriel, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, horn arranger Jerry Hey, string arranger Johnny Mandel and a whole host more.
These were the greatest ‘rock’ musicians in the world, brought up on The Beatles, Beach Boys, Hendrix, Miles, McLaughlin and James Brown, making up their parts on the spot with the studio meter running, embellishing the basic chord changes with their own unique feel and voicings and bringing to life jazz-influenced compositions by some of the great songwriters of that or any other era: Kenny Loggins, Burt Bacharach, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager, Rod Temperton, Fagen and Becker, David Foster, Jay Graydon et al.
All kinds of singers got sucked into this vibe, dialling down the operatics and dialling up the melody and behind-the-beat phrasing: George Benson, Patti Labelle, Michael Franks, Randy Crawford, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Manhattan Transfer, Leon Ware, Lionel Richie.
Even a few Brits got onboard – George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Carrie’ are great stabs at the sound.
With a few notable exceptions, it was all over by 1984. The technology started running the show. Everyone was looking for the right drum machine, budgets were slashed and the great session musicians moved into production and songwriting. Stanley Clarke/George Duke’s heroic ‘Atlanta’ was somewhat of a finale for this kind of music; it’s quite affecting in a way.
Of course this stuff is way too laidback for some, the sound of clock-watching session musicians producing aural cotton candy, too close to muzak for comfort. It would be totally understandable to reach for the Throbbing Gristle after a while.
But if it’s your bag you can really get lost in it – it’s pure comfort music, and brilliant for headphones.
Here’s a selection of the finest 1980s Yacht Rock artefacts for your listening pleasure. Ahoy there mateys, and wishing you a smooth sail.
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:
‘Wanna see something really scary?’ Day Aykroyd’s ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ catchphrase was an open invitation to me back in 1983.
I had just seen John Landis’s ‘Thriller’ video, George Romero’s ‘Creepshow’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ and was rapidly becoming a ‘confirmed ghost story and horror film addict’, as Jack calls Wendy in ‘The Shining’.
‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ was briefly a big VHS hit in my house. Though these days it looks like a bit of a misfire (decent Joe Dante and George Miller sections, less-than-decent Spielberg and Landis), I mainly loved the flavour of the 1983 movie’s Landis-directed-and-scripted opening and closing tags.
I can still randomly remember chunks of dialogue, especially Albert Brooks’ little ad-libbed songs (‘Look at those two apes/This must be where they live’ etc…).
Then my recent Cassette Revisitation Program brought round The Manhattan Transfer’s ‘Twilight Zone’, recorded a couple of years before the movie was released. Jay Graydon and Alan Paul adapt the original source music (either composed by Bernard Herrmann or Marius Constant, depending on which websites you trust…) with aplomb.
Though the track comes a bit too close to disco for my liking, I was knocked out by Janis Siegel’s lead vocal; her phrasing and enunciation are really something.
And what a band: Graydon on guitar, Jai Winding on keys and Toto in the engine room. Graydon’s stunning harmonized solo should possibly have been in my ‘wackiest guitar solos of the 1980s’ list and Winding lays down some excellent Fagen-esque keys.
I like the lyric too: ‘Unpretentious girl from Memphis/Saw the future through her third eye…’ Throw in a spot-on impression of Rod Serling (or is it actually Rod?) and you’ve got a great tribute song. Released as a single in June 1980, it made #25 in the UK and #30 in the US.
But anyway, where were we? Back to the movie. ‘Happy’ Halloween, heh-heh-heh…