‘File under: Victims Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’.
That was Q magazine’s memorable verdict on What Price Paradise, CC’s 1986 studio album. They had a point – it was producer team Langer & Winstanley’s unfathomable attempt to turn the Liverpudlians into Madness.
But when Steely Dan co-founder/co-songwriter Walter Becker came back onboard for ’89’s Diary Of A Hollow Horse, released 30 years ago today, normal service was resumed. It now sounds like a perfect follow-up to the 1985 classic Flaunt The Imperfection.
Becker was reluctant to record in England so persuaded the band to convene at George Benson’s Lahaina studio in Maui, Hawaii. He brought engineer Roger Nichols along for the sessions too, famous for his painstaking work on Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. Nichols apparently taught all of the band how to scuba dive during their time off.
It’s hard to know what sort of expectations Virgin Records had for this album. What they ended up with is a kind of chamber pop, mainly the sound of a great, super-tight band playing live in the studio. The best tracks frequently evoke Steely Dan’s Katy Lied. The only concessions to ’80s music are the teeniest bit of reverb on the drums and the occasional synth overdub, adding colour in lieu of a horn section.
Becker’s real contribution seems to be on the arrangement side (typified by the tasty modulation for the guitar solo and flute arrangements in ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’), and he also brings in great backing singers Maxine Waters, Myrna Matthews and Linda Harmon, saxist Jim Horn, guitarist (and Countdown To Ecstasy engineer) Tim Weston and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, who presumably used up most of the recording budget but is almost inaudible.
Virgin obviously computed the ‘hits’ as ‘Red Letter Day’ and ‘St Saviour Square’, summarily canning Becker’s versions of the songs and bringing in Mike Thorne to ‘re-produce’ them (the ploy didn’t work – the singles stiffed at #84 and #81 respectively). You can listen to all of the versions on YouTube.
Hollow Horse also didn’t work commercially, only reaching #58 in the UK album charts. But this was a period when some great pop/rock by the likes of Danny Wilson, It Bites, Love & Money and David Sylvian (all Virgin acts except for one…) also failed to find a big audience.
CC’s album sales diminished as the quality of their work increased – the game was up in terms of major-label support, but amongst fans of quality ’80s pop Hollow Horse has only gained status over the years.
The lads reproduced the album perfectly at London’s Dominion Theatre in spring 1989, a gig whose details elude me apart from the late Kevin Wilkinson’s superb drumming (and ahead-of-its-time, side-on kit placement) and vocalist Gary Daly proudly saying ‘That’s a good one, tha’!’ after ‘Day After Day’.
He had good reason to feel chuffed – Diary Of A Hollow Horse still sounds like a minor classic 30 years on.
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.
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 the UK, China Crisis have always had what you might call an image problem – they’ve never quite been able to shake off an almost imperceptible naffness.
Is it because of their name? Because their first hit was the extremely wimpy ‘Christian’? Because they were neither doomy enough for the post-punk crowd nor cosmopolitan enough for the New Romantics?
Or maybe because they had the dubious honour of being playlisted by Alan Partridge? (Actually, they were played by Partridge’s nemesis Dave Clifton, Ed.)
Steely Dan co-conspirator Walter Becker didn’t think they were too shabby though, apparently requesting a meeting with the Liverpudlians after he heard the nuclear-themed ‘Papua’ from their second album, 1983’s Working With Fire And Steel. He was intrigued by their obtuse lyrics, they liked the cut of his jib and apparently got on like a house on fire.
Becker signed on as producer and was summoned to Parkgate Studios near Battle, Sussex, to begin work on Flaunt The Imperfectionwhich would turn out to be CC’s biggest success to date. Flaunt reached 9 in the album chart and stayed in the UK top 100 for 22 weeks.
China Crisis and Walter Becker, Parkgate Studios, 1985
With the steady hand of legendary Stones/Sly/Hendrix engineer Phill Brown onboard too, the album featured two infectious top 20 UK hits, ‘Black Man Ray’ and ‘Wake Up (King In A Catholic Style)’.
Well worth checking out too is the ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side ‘Animalistic’ which shows that the lads were also flirting with a variation on Britfunk in their spare time.
Apart from the singles, there are a host of other treats on this album, not least the drumming of the late Kevin Wilkinson. He was a big drumming hero in my teenage years. He’s very close to a British Jeff Porcaro or Carlos Vega, a tasteful groovemaster with a few chops too.
Gazza Johnson’s basslines are catchy and memorable and the songwriting is solid throughout, only ‘Wall Of God’ and ‘Blue Sea’ lacking strong choruses.
Then there’s Becker’s top-draw production. He ‘Fagenizes’ Gary Daly’s excellent vocals (usually double-tracked with a touch of delay) and shows off his arranging skills with subtle synth/guitar layering and brooding horns.
In particular, ‘Strength Of Character’, ‘You Did Cut Me’, ‘Bigger The Punch I’m Feeling’ and ‘Gift Of Freedom’ bear his fingerprints, the latter featuring some Gil Evans-esque woodwinds.
China Crisis followed up Flaunt with 1986’s What Price Paradise, a massive misfire wherein producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley inexplicably tried to turn them into Madness (If I remember rightly, the Q review of the album ended with the phrase ‘File under: Victim Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’!). But the band reunited with Walter Becker on the excellent Diary Of A Hollow Horse four years later.
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.