Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.
Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).
She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier. Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.
Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.
There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.
Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…
Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).
PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.
As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.
‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.
Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).
The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).
Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).
She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.
Read a great interview with Joni, Larry Klein, Billy Idol, Tom Petty and Willie Nelson about the making of the album here.
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.
Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’.
He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.
I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987.
But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.
Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart).
The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.
‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson.
‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.
Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.
But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em).
This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there.
However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.
Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music.
But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.
He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).
If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman – fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way.
And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.
But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s chords.
Sting’s songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.
The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat.
The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.
And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him.
Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.
So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US.
He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).
‘At the time of coming back, he had tremendous determination. He said, “I do want to make it! I do want to succeed!” Instead of going along with the idea that he is different, special, unique, precious, So was about him saying, “F**k that! I’m going to allow myself to succeed.”’
Jill Gabriel, quoted in ‘Peter Gabriel’ by Spencer Bright
So was the Peter Gabriel album that put him – albeit very briefly – into The Big League, alongside the likes of Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Prince, Hall and Oates and Springsteen, leaving his ‘art-rock’ contemporaries (Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Peter Hammill, Robert Fripp) in the dust.
He opened himself up to mainstream success via more direct lyrics and music. And it worked a treat. So still sounds fantastic today; a near-perfect mix of art and commerce.
photo by Steven Toole
In interviews, Gabriel has described the ’83/’84’ period as a dark time in his life. He mixed and released an excellent live album and looked for solace in film soundtrack work, producing two fairly inconsequential tracks: ‘Walk Through The Fire‘ from ‘Against All Odds’ and ‘Out Out‘ from ‘Gremlins’.
Far more substantial was his soundtrack for Alan Parker’s ‘Birdy’, but, most importantly, it was the project that introduced him to So co-producer Daniel Lanois.
Gabriel later credited Lanois and his then wife Jill for steering him back towards more positive thoughts, and much more ‘up’ music and lyrics.
Gabriel came up with 20 new songs by early 1985. Lanois helped him whittle them down to 12, and then six months of pre-production began, focusing on song structures and arrangements. So was mainly recorded at Gabriel’s home studio, Ashcombe House near Bath.
Working at home was intended to save money on big studio fees and also speed up the creative process, but lyric-writing was still a big problem and a lack of words necessitated two missed release deadlines for So: 31st July 1985 and 14th December 1985.
Virgin were patient. Lanois once even nailed him into a back room to force him to come up with some lyrics – Gabriel was not amused, at least not for a few hours. ‘It is the most upset I’ve seen him at the studio,’ guitarist David Rhodes remarked. Lanois had made his point.
Musically, Gabriel very much leaned on tried-and-tested collaborators such as Rhodes and Tony Levin – it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing bass on So. He’s so much part of the music. Check out his ‘drumstick bass’ (later marketed as Funk Fingers!) on ‘Big Time’.
Joni Mitchell’s then husband Larry Klein also plays some lovely fretless on ‘Mercy Street’. French-African newcomer Manu Katche amazed everyone with his drumming, particularly on ‘That Voice Again’ and ‘In Your Eyes’. He had a new twist on Stewart Copeland’s style and also somehow found the time to fit occasional tom-tom flurries into his grooves too.
Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange
‘Red Rain’ opens with some resplendent Copeland hi-hat work, and ends with the kind of piano/vocal coda that Simple Minds excelled at – the influences were now flowing both ways.
‘Don’t Give Up’ was inspired by a BBC TV documentary about the effect of unemployment on British family life, and also the photography of Dorothea Lange, portraying dust-bowl conditions during the Great Depression.
‘Mercy Street’, dedicated to poet Anne Sexton, shows evidence of Lanois’ influence; its opening ambient textures resemble Brian Eno’s ‘Under Stars’ which Lanois co-produced.
Gabriel’s low-octave vocals apparently had to be recorded first thing in the morning for maximum deepness. The song’s Brazilian/African groove predates Paul Simon’s Graceland by six months or so.
‘We Do What We’re Told (Milgram’s 37)’, concerning social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous experiments, was originally recorded for Melt in 1980. While musically very rich and dark (I always think of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ when I hear that opening minor chord), lyrically it is possibly a little half-baked.
‘Big Time’ is Gabriel’s amusing, self-mocking, Randy Newmanesque satire on success and celebrity – ‘This drive for success is a basic part of human nature and my nature’, he later said.
Musically, it’s a potent mixture of driving Copeland drums, treated rhythm guitar, synth bass, quasi-industrial samples and some great Hammond organ by Simon Clark.
Another much rockier version – featuring Jerry Marotta on drums – was also recorded but scrapped just before the mastering stage.
‘Sledgehammer’ was the last song written and recorded for So. Ironically, it dislodged Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch’ to become a US number one single in July 1986.
A catalogue of sexual innuendos, it’s one of the weirder hits of the 1980s. Its odd cheerfulness may come from the fact that it’s mainly in a major key, a rarity for an R’n’B-influenced track. David Rhodes’ rhythm guitar part is eccentric and the Farfisa organ bizarre.
The opening sampled bamboo flute was copied by hundreds of keyboard players across the UK (or at least a few in my school). The groundbreaking video for the song, directed by Stephen Johnson (who had used similar techniques for Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’ clip), required 100 hours of Gabriel’s time.
Apparently Gabriel was obsessed with the album’s sequencing: he made up endless cassettes featuring just song endings/beginnings, testing all the different permutations.
He always wanted ‘In Your Eyes’ to close So, but was persuaded otherwise when told that its drums and bass wouldn’t hold up very well at the end of a long side of vinyl (though it’s hard to ‘hear’ it anywhere else but at the beginning of side two…). He finally got it where he wanted it on the definitive remastered version.
Gabriel’s only concession to the record company was to name the album something apart from ‘Peter Gabriel’. So seemed suitably off-the-cuff – ‘It had a nice shape but very little meaning’, he later said.
He also decided that a simple cover shot would better suit the directness of the music and lyrics than some of the more disturbing covers of albums past. So‘s design and packaging still look fantastic today.
The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and by summer 1987 had sold over 5 million copies worldwide. Gabriel promoted the album extensively before embarking on Amnesty’s Human Rights Now! with Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen in 1988.
He had a lot more than music on his mind – he waited a full six years before releasing the official follow-up to So. The commercial assault had paid off but at what cost to his long-term creativity?
Tears For Fears’ second album Songs From The Big Chair did the business. A relatively cheap record to make, it sold millions and elevated the Bath boys into the big league.
Early ‘80s technology, boy-band looks and some great hooks had carried TFF through the first two albums but now they felt they had to deliver a polished, ‘musicians’ album’ to match their heroes. Big mistake…
The Seeds Of Lovewas the result, and with it they tragically o’erreached themselves in the search to emulate their heroes Gabriel, Ferry and Sylvian. Four producers. Nine studios. Over a million pounds in studio costs. Broken marriages. Dozens of session musicians.
A famous Q article outlined the painful, sometimes embarrassing lengths the two protagonists Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith went to to complete Seeds.
Orzabal has said he wanted to make something musicians would love, something ‘world-class’. This over-egged curio shows what happened when pop stars tried to buy credibility in the late-‘80s, undeniably under a fair amount of record company pressure to follow up a monster.
The intro of ‘Woman In Chains’ still retains some Blue Nile-ish power before being obliterated by Phil Collins’ sledgehammer drums and overblown AOR guitars; Gabriel/Joni/Sting drummer Manu Katche plays a blinder on ‘Badman’s Song’ but the melodies barely register.
‘Sowing The Seeds Of Love’ still stands up though as a decent Beatles tribute complete with some lovely woozy drums from Big Chair producer and ex-Ant Chris Hughes and a very cool chord sequence.
‘Standing On The Corner Of The Third World’ is initially very attractive complete with Jon Hassell’s ethno-trumpet and some typically slinky fretless playing from Pino Palladino, but its grand atmosphere and ambience can’t obscure the lack of structure and good ideas.
Swords And Knives’ starts with an interesting piano/voice melody but quickly gets mired in a succession of annoying guitar solos and grandiloquent key changes.
‘Year Of The Knife’ (these boys are really interested in knives…) is a pretty ugly collision of gospel vocals and a sub-‘Broken Wings’ groove. Again, the song runs out of stream after two minutes and tries to cover it up with a fiddly string arrangement and weird avant-metal guitars. Even uber-drummer Simon Phillips sounds uninspired.
The Q article, September 1989
Orzabal almost achieves a Sylvian-ish level of sophistication on the closing ‘Famous Last Words’ but once again blows it, neglecting to supply a B section or cogent lyrics. Quiet/loud dynamics alone do not a good song make.
The album was a hit, going straight to number one in the UK and selling well in Europe and the States, but was it worth all the effort? Orzabal and Smith were barely on speaking terms and didn’t record together for over a decade after Seeds‘ completion. It was certainly a big and bold farewell to the ’80s from one of the decade’s success stories.