I’ll never forget it. Circa 1990, I was on holiday with my parents in Kent, near the Cliffs of Dover.
A summer storm was chucking it down. Holed up inside, I flicked through some French music stations on my longwave radio.
Suddenly I heard this absolutely ridiculous guitar playing – deafeningly loud, hysterical, but totally precise, with great phrasing and notes that spluttered out in absurdly wide intervals.
The tone was heavily distorted but the feel was closer to jazz/rock than metal. And the rhythm section didn’t sound too shabby either.
By this time, I had heard Allan Holdsworth, Paul Gilbert, Yngwie Malmsteen, John McLaughlin, some pretty outrageous guitarists, but this was different. Who the hell was it? I strained my ears and just about heard the French DJ utter the words ‘Frank Gambale’.
Yes, it was the Italian-Australian wunderkind, the man who introduced so-called ‘sweep picking’ to a wider audience than before. And the album was revealed to be Live!, released 30 years ago this week and recorded at LA’s jazz/rock haven The Baked Potato on 21st August 1988.
What was really weird was that I had heard Gambale with the Chick Corea Elektric band before this, and even seen them live a few times, but he seemed pretty anonymous in that band.
Not here. To this day, ‘Credit Reference Blues’, ‘Fe Fi Fo Funk’, ‘Touch Of Brasil’ and ‘The Natives Are Restless’ sound like guitar landmarks.
But he was way more than a chops phenomenon – he’s an excellent composer too, clearly influenced by Chick Corea and Larry Carlton but with some moves all of his own.
The album also introduced me to the fantastic Joey Heredia on drums, a completely original player who can do fiery jazz/rock, spicy Latin and Police-style rock, sometimes all in the space of one tune. And the excellent keyboard player Kei Akagi was moonlighting with Miles Davis while playing some sh*t-hot stuff on this album.
Frank Gambale Live! was a key artefact in the golden age of shred guitar, and it gained him some crossover success with metal fans and lots of coverage in guitar magazines.
Sadly his solo career refused to fire after this release, with only moments of 1990’s Thunder From Down Under subsequently holding much interest for me, but this was a sporadically brilliant live jazz/rock album – and one of the best. (It has to be said, there’s not much competition – Larry Carlton’s Last Nite, Weather Report’s 8:30, Jeff Beck With The Jan Hammer Group Live!, Mahavishnu’s Between Nothingness And Eternity, and…er…)
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.
46. Loose Tubes: Loose Tubes (1985) Drummer: Nic France
France marshals this big band through jazz/rock, Latin and African vibes with a sparky, lively studio sound, something like a Brit version of Dave Weckl.
45. Lee Ritenour: Earth Run (1986) Drummer: Carlos Vega
The album may be the beginning of Ritenour’s descent into bona fide smooth jazz but the best tracks feature brilliant playing by the underrated Vega.
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.
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.