Aces Of Bass in Early-’80s Britpop

mark_king_1988_tel_aviv_israelWatching the superb reruns of ‘Top Of The Pops’ recently, it’s apparent how many great bass players stormed the UK charts during the early/mid-’80s.

Everywhere you looked, there were hip, young four-stringers with good haircuts and some nifty licks (or ‘kids with a riff’, as Robert Palmer called them).

Though very much under the twin influences of Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Jaco Pastorius, a whole host of ’80s players managed to forge some truly original sounds while clearly utilising the feels and techniques of both American bassists.

Here’s a smattering of great British players of the period (more from across the pond soon) with a few of their enduring performances. Make sure your subwoofer is turned on…

9. Mick Karn

By Japan’s 1979 Quiet Life album, the man born Andonis Michaelides had become one of the most original fretless players of all time, effortlessly bypassing the Jaco template. His lines were also absolutely integral to the band’s formula and eventual success. This minor hit demonstrates his melodic approach (though somehow he was denied a songwriter credit) and his playing reveals new discoveries even 35 years on.

8. Tony Butler

Shepherds Bush-born Butler brought something very unique to ’80s rock and pop with his band Big Country. He also formed a key rhythm section alongside drummer Mark Brzezicki. Check out his bouncy, almost dub-style rhythmic approach on this beautifully structured bass part.

7. Derek Forbes

The hyperactive Glaswegian just couldn’t stop coming up with classic early-’80s basslines. After his departure from Simple Minds in 1984, he also added some quality low-end work to Propaganda’s touring band.

6. Guy Pratt

The Artful Dodger of the early ’80s bass scene, Guy cut his teeth with Icehouse before breaking out to play with everyone from Madonna to Pink Floyd. This quirky 1984 hit is a compilation of all his licks and tricks – producers seemed to like his ‘more is more’ approach…

5. Graham Edwards

According to Pratt’s great ‘My Bass And Other Animals’ book, Edwards was always going up for the same gigs as him back in the mid-’80s. Now an almost forgotten name, he played some excellent stuff in Go West’s live band and also shone on this underrated gem:

4. Pino Palladino

Pino’s highly melodic fretless style had already graced megahits by Gary Numan and Paul Young by the mid-’80s, but this always seemed like his most intense, distinctive groove, with more than a hint of Bernie Worrell/Parliament’s ‘Flashlight’ about it.

3. Mark King

Mr King has to be in this list. Though best known now for his formidable slap technique, his crisp, fluid fingerstyle lines were just as distinctive, not least this Eastern-tinged salvo which really sums up the spirit of 1982 (though one wonders if he’d like another go at the vocal…).

2. Colin Moulding

The XTC man’s flowing, melodic style showed that he was a worthy heir to Paul McCartney. No matter how ‘standard’ the chord changes, you could rely on Moulding to come up with something memorable.

1. John Taylor

Like or loathe Duran Duran (I have to say I was usually of the latter persuasion), Taylor certainly came up with some memorable if somewhat samey grooves (as gleefully parodied by Mr Pratt), finding a pleasingly-understated style on this minor classic.

Any more for any more?

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Book Review: Steve Jansen’s Through A Quiet Window

karn sylvian

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Stanhope Gardens, London, 1981

Ringo Starr was once asked: What do you remember about recording Sgt Pepper’s? His reply? ‘I learnt how to play chess on that album.’ Not to do Ringo down at all – he’s the reason this writer picked up the drum sticks – but the line does say something about the sometimes tedious nature of recording in the era of multi-tracking. The drummer may have laid down all his parts in the first week of a project, so he or she had better have a Plan B for when the rest of the band are tinkering endlessly.

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Japan drummer Steve Jansen didn’t learn chess but he did use his time very productively while the band recorded their masterpieces, Gentlemen Take Polaroids and Tin Drum; he developed his formidable photography skills, and now his work has been collected in a sumptuously-designed hardback book ‘Through A Quiet Window’.

To say that it will appease Japan fans is a total understatement – it makes a brilliant companion piece to Anthony Reynolds’ excellent recent biography ‘A Foreign Place’, and brings the band’s relatively short but very eventful story to life.

We see portraits of the band in all kinds of different locations, mainly between 1979 and 1981: Mick Karn laying down his bass parts at AIR Studios and mooching about Holland Park in West London; David Sylvian lounging in various hotel rooms and recording studios including the Townhouse and the Manor, Richard Barbieri sitting stone-faced at his keyboard or smirking on the tour bus.

There is also a memorably candid shot of Karn and Sylvian at the breakfast table in their Stanhope Gardens flat. We also see fleeting glimpses of producers Steve Nye and John Porter at various mixing desks, often flanked by either Karn or Sylvian. Jansen’s other musical projects of the time are also beautifully documented, including various Japanese sojourns featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto, Masami Tsuchiya and Akiko Yano.

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Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn and David Sylvian, South Moulton Street, London 1981

While there are a lot of laughs about, the overall impression is of a very insular bunch of guys, extremely dedicated to their music but also their friendships. No real surprise there, then, but the intimate nature of many photos is very refreshing. Steve Jansen demonstrates the same precision and natural sense of timing behind the camera as he always does behind the kit. And there are some cracking hairstyles on show too. Highly recommended.

‘Through A Quiet Window’ is available from Artes Publishing.

Japan: A Foreign Place

japanIt’s been a bit quiet over here at movingtheriver.com recently, partly because I’ve been focusing on my (blatant plug) new site Sounds Of Surprise. But when I recently received Anthony Reynolds’ new book ‘Japan: A Foreign Place‘ in the post, I just had to drop everything and give it a read.

It’s only befitting that Japan – a band who put a big emphasis on surface and style – should be rewarded with such a glossy, beautifully-designed biography.

To paraphrase an old joke, when I got the book in my hand I didn’t know whether to read it or frame it. ‘Japan: A Foreign Place’ comes with a weighty, thick binding and a glorious cover featuring the band’s characteristic logo. It’s also packed with many fantastic photos, almost all of which were new to this correspondent. Many of them even appear to show David Sylvian smiling.

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Toronto, 24th November 1979

Mick Karn and David Sylvian, Toronto, 24th November 1979

But what of the book’s content? Though it will satisfy the most information-starved Japan fan, with detailed commentaries on the band’s music and relationships, it also works very nicely as a portrait of the wider late-’70s/early-’80s music scene: Giorgio Moroder, Ryuichi Sakamato, Simon Napier-Bell, Gary Numan and David Bowie make regular appearances.

Though the band were, critically, a laughing stock up until the Quiet Life album in 1979, it’s often forgotten quite how out of place they always were in the UK pop firmament. From androgynous glam-rockers to glacial art-popsters, Japan resolutely stuck to their own guns and, by the time of their split in 1983, had become probably the most influential group of their era.

Sylvian and Barbieri, The Oxford Road Show, November 1981

Sylvian and Barbieri, The Oxford Road Show, November 1981

Reynolds expertly builds up a lucid picture of South-East London in the 1970s with its racial/cultural/class divisions and dodgy schoolmasters. The brothers Batt (soon to be rechristened David Sylvian and Steve Jansen) hooked up with schoolmate Andonis Michaelides (soon to become Mick Karn) to jam and write songs. Reynolds reveals some of Japan’s more outré musical influences (Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Aynsley Dunbar) and also that their early material was full of Sylvian guitar solos.

Jumping forward a bit, we get many gossipy revelations: Sylvian’s toe-curling audition for legendary manager Simon Napier-Bell, Gary Numan’s frequent stalking and also Japan’s early (and uniformly bad) experiences on the live scene of the late-’70s, supporting the likes of Blue Oyster Cult. Though the band were all resolutely straight, onstage they were subjected to constant homophobic comments and a barrage of missiles. Reynolds reveals that Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi had a real thing for Sylvian, pestering Napier-Bell for an introduction, not realising Sylvian wasn’t a ‘chick’. But this surely wasn’t the first time Sylvian had been mistaken for Brigitte Bardot.

Japan, November 1982

November 1982

Japan’s pop breakthrough is expertly handled, Reynolds spelling out in great musical detail how Sylvian’s emergence as a high-quality songwriter fused with Richard Barbieri’s canny synth programming and the stunning Karn/Jansen rhythm section to finally produce some music of worth. But success had come at a great cost; the band had completely grown apart, not helped by Karn’s girlfriend moving in with Sylvian on the eve of an important tour.

This Kickstarter project has clearly been a labour of love but ‘Japan: A Foreign Place’ punches way above its weight with in-depth interviews, sumptuous design and anecdotes aplenty. Occasionally, the text has a repetitious, ‘cut and paste’ quality, but this is a minor quibble. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will ever write a better book about one of the key bands of the ’80s. Highly recommended.

‘Japan: A Quiet Place’ is published by Burning Shed.

ECM Goes Rock: David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury

Cloud_About_MercuryECM Records, released 1987

8/10

The late ‘80s was a great period for avant-garde guitar playing with the likes of Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels, Adrian Belew, Arto Lindsay, Fred Frith, Dave Fiuczynski, Stevie Salas, Sonny Sharrock, Skip McDonald, Robert Quine, Steve Vai and Bill Frisell laying down some seriously mind-bending tones and textures.

Cloud About Mercury, David Torn’s second ECM solo album, definitely put him into the same league. Though just as influential as many of the aforementioned guitarists, he has never really gained as much of a public profile despite occasional solo albums (the latest Only Sky has just come out on ECM) and stellar sideman work with the likes of David Bowie and David Sylvian.

My dad used to get sent a lot of music for his work and I vaguely remember him passing Cloud About Mercury onto me knowing I was a big fan of early-’80s King Crimson. My muso mates and I quickly grew to like the album’s perverse concepts and silly song titles (‘Egg Learns To Walk’ indeed…). With a superstar avant-rock rhythm section of Bill Bruford and Tony Levin on board, the album also came on a bit like the follow-up to Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair, but it also offered a strikingly original take on jazz/rock.

I recall a contemporary review of Cloud About Mercury in Q magazine which said something like: ‘Torn luxuriates in the silence for a bit…and then goes KRAOOOOOOW!’ To be fair, that writer probably hadn’t listened beyond track one (and there is an excellent counterbalancing AllMusic review).

But in its louder moments, CAM is definitely one to annoy the neighbours. Torn can certainly make a racket. His Trans-Trem guitar enables him to create some very novel effects and original lines, with micro-tones and Middle Eastern flavours, and you can really get lost in his ambient loops. As far as I know, he was the first guitarist to use the loop/delay pedal extensively.

CAM is also a very uncharacteristic ECM album, being much more in-your-face and rockist in its mixing and playing than most of the label’s output. In fact, it’s not really fair to judge it as a ‘jazz’ album at all. But sometimes Torn seems much happier playing solo or in duet with Isham; he doesn’t seem to know quite how to best use his superb rhythm section, composing tunes that rely heavily on one-chord sections. Consequently Bruford and Levin sound somewhat muted and can’t quite bring the sort of forward-motion dynamics so crucial to jazz/rock. Bruford’s most successful moments are when he fashions melodic motifs from his Simmons pads.

Torn toured extensively to promote CAM (but presumably not London or I surely would have been there…) with ex-Japan bass player Mick Karn replacing the unavailable Tony Levin. An excellent decision, both musically and commercially. The band sounded fantastic and the tunes really came to life. Torn and Isham then accompanied David Sylvian on the In Praise Of Shamen world tour which I caught at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1988 – good memories.

Two quick questions to end, prompted by a discussion with my brother about Torn: why isn’t there any music like this around these days? Or is there?

Japan: Oil On Canvas 32 Years On

japanVirgin Records, released 18th June 1983

9/10

Produced by John Porter and Japan

UK Album Chart Position: #5

First of all: the cover. As a teenager, I was instantly intrigued by Frank Auerbach’s mesmerising artwork, and the music very definitely lived up to the packaging.

Recorded live during Japan’s final tour, though with a good few overdubs (according to the recent Japan biography ‘A Foreign Place’, the only ‘live’ elements on the album are Steve Jansen’s drums – everything else was replayed in the studio) and three new studio tracks added too, Oil On Canvas was released six months after their break-up and proved a perfect farewell from one of the key bands of the early ’80s.

The fact that it ended up as Japan’s highest-selling album (selling over 100,000 in the UK) must have really irked manager Simon Napier-Bell – after year of toil, the band were calling it a day just as they were getting some commercial success (read ‘A Foreign Place’ for a full explanation of the split). Tin Drum was great but who knows what they might have come up with as a follow-up given the giant strides they had made as musicians, songwriters and arrangers since ’81. Sure enough, within a few months of their split, Duran Duran were taking their sound and image to the bank.

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

The Oil On Canvas line-up, December 1982: Masami Tsuchiya, Richard Barbieri, David Sylvian, Steve Jansen, Mick Karn. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

There is so much to enjoy on Oil On Canvas. The Tin Drum tracks have added heft and a bit more air. David Sylvian‘s vocals are warmer and more expressive than on the studio albums (though he has since virtually disowned this early singing style), and his Satie-esque title track prefigures the triumphs of his solo career.

‘Ghosts’ is extended with a superb Stockhausen-meets-serialism intro/interlude thrown in while ‘Canton’ becomes a mighty parade of musical colours, with clanging synths, whip-lashing china cymbals and the late great Mick Karn‘s increasingly insane bass embellishments.

There has never been a rhythm section quite like Karn and Steve Jansen (drums) and probably never will be again. They revel in open spaces and ‘non-rock’ textures, typified by the deceptively simple and downright spooky ‘Sons Of Pioneers‘. Karn sounded like no one else on fretless bass (and looked like no one else too – see below), exploring Middle Eastern concepts and weird intervals to produce a sound both complex and hilarious.

Jansen came up with several of the most ingenious backbeats in pop history while always making them danceable. Together, they produced classic grooves like ‘Visions Of China’, ‘Cantonese Boy’ and ‘Still Life In Mobile Homes’, and Richard Barbieri’s creative keys playing always emphasises texture and mood over technique. His closing instrumental ‘Temple Of Dawn’ bids a fantastic album farewell first with a chill and then with a brief shot at redemption.

Sylvian escaped to a successful, innovative solo career, Karn also went solo and hooked up with collaborators including Midge Ure, Peter Murphy and, most memorably, Kate Bush. Barbieri and Jansen teamed up regularly in various projects and recorded together as The Dolphin Brothers in 1987 but didn’t enjoy much commercial success. Against all odds, they all got together again at the end of the ’80s for the intriguing Rain Tree Crow project.