Peter Gabriel’s brilliant 1980 self-titled album is probably best known for its much-discussed ‘gated reverb’ drum sound, the ‘no cymbals’ rule and the tracks ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘Biko’.
The record portrayed various characters on the fringes of society, whether due to war, intolerance, mental illness, crime or racism.
But its penultimate track, the somewhat forgotten ‘Lead A Normal Life, is a chilling, minimalist classic whose power grows with each passing year. It’s set in an unnamed, uncharacterised institution – a borstal, high-security prison, crisis centre or mental asylum? The latter seems most likely.
It’s fair to say mental illness was a taboo in late-1970s Britain, even while the borstals were subject to Thatcher’s ‘short, sharp shock’ doctrine (in the era of Alan Clarke’s devastating film ‘Scum’), unemployment and institutional racism were rife, crime was on the increase, the Yorkshire Ripper rampant and The Troubles in Northern Ireland very much on the agenda.
In short, it sometimes felt like this song WAS normal life in 1979. And many aspects of life in 2021 may lead one to a similar conclusion.
Legendary Atlantic A&R man Ahmet Ertegun, upon hearing Peter Gabriel III, reportedly asked if Peter had recently spent any time in an asylum. This may have hit closer to home than is often reported.
Gabriel elaborated a little on ‘Lead A Normal Life’ in September 2013’s MOJO magazine: ‘I think the assumption was that you couldn’t write about something like that unless you had experience of it. I later discovered I had depression around the time of my marriage breaking up (in early 1987). But maybe there was something more there.’
The lyric is very brief, but its power comes from colloquial, off-hand phrases, as if spoken by a (somewhat blithe) visitor of an inmate (or an ‘official’ visitor – ‘A Clockwork Orange’ came to mind while listening again recently). Despite the calming view of the trees, surely the institution is anything but ‘nice’.
Musically, the track is built around Morris Pert’s minimalist marimba (and slung mugs or child’s xylophone?), Peter’s haunting Yamaha CP-70 piano figure/ominous chords and Fritched, primal-scream vocals (with treatments courtesy of Larry Fast), Jerry Marotta’s tribal toms, David Rhodes’ guitar loop (or feedback?) and Dick Morrissey’s brief, stacked tenor saxes.
Producer Steve Lillywhite expertly uses muting/fading-in and deep reverb to create big black holes in the track, crafting a cogent arrangement in the process which easily holds the attention for four-plus minutes. It’s an object lesson in how to use silence to enhance a mix.
‘Lead A Normal Life’ is a masterpiece on a subject rarely touched in ‘rock’, evoking loneliness and disturbance in equal measure, shot through with Peter’s trademark compassion. He’s even played it live a few times, to chilling effect.
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 lot of attention to the drums.
Here are 28 notable grooves from the decade. My definition: 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-times. Bernard Purdie and John Bonham’s influences apparently loomed large. Play ’em loud…
28. Joan Armatrading: ‘The Key’ (1983) Drummer: JERRY MAROTTA
27. Cameo: ‘She’s Strange’ (1984) Drummer: LARRY BLACKMON
26. Japan: ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’ (1981) Drummer: STEVE JANSEN
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
Fleet-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.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.