The heart always beats a little faster when there’s news of a ‘previously unreleased’ Miles project. And if it’s from the 1980s, even better.
The era is still one the least understood/lauded periods of Miles’s work, despite the stellar efforts of George Cole.
It also has not been served well posthumously, particularly by his final label Warners; in recent years. there has been the weirdly undercooked/incomplete Rubberband project, and the appallingly-mastered/incomplete Warners Years box set.
So hopes were high for Sony’s new Bootleg Series 7, which takes in the years 1982 to 1985 and looks at the sessions that made up the (classic) albums Star People, Decoy and You’re Under Arrest. The packaging looks OK:
But what about the music? Before his death, Teo Macero, producer of many epochal Davis albums and also Star People, was very critical of the ‘complete sessions’ boxes that appeared after Miles’s demise. It’s safe to say he would not like this one either.
We essentially get a collection of long studio jams, with occasional familiar sections that Teo edited in to the final masters, plus some alternative versions of some You’re Under Arrest material, some full-length, unedited versions of released tracks and one or two outtakes such as ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’.
The full, unedited versions of ‘Freaky Deaky’ (Darryl Jones’ first recording with Miles) and ‘Katia’ (before Miles took his razor blade to John McLaughlin’s remarkable solo) are well worth hearing. Marcus Miller plays a brilliant bass solo on ‘Remake Of OBX Ballad’. There’s also a really strange duet between legendary jazz trombone player JJ Johnson and Miles on keyboards.
Unlike some of the previous Bootleg Series albums, there’s a lack of interesting studio chatter, which would have enlivened things (though there is the occasional funny Miles interjection). And there are still tracks that refuse to leave the vaults, such as Miles’s version of Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wild Horses’.
Disc one just contains too many formless jams, with Mike Stern, Miles and Bill Evans struggling to put together cogent solos (despite Al Foster’s beautiful drumming), and basically the band is crying out for John Scofield’s arrival in autumn 1982. He brings immediate relief, from both a soloing and compositonal perspective. The live disc is serviceable and quite well recorded, but certainly not one of the best nights from the 1983 tour.
Essentially, we learn three things from the very uneven Bootleg Series 7: Scofield was a vital addition to Miles’s band and prolonged his career, Miller was Miles’s best bass player of the 1980s and Macero did a great job on Star People. But we probably knew all of that already.
So, basically, it’s another opportunity missed. I’ll stick to the original albums, with one or two exceptions. But you gotta check it out if you’re a fan of Miles’s 1980s music. George Cole covers the box in a lot more detail here.
And look out for new documentaries about Darryl Jones and Scofield.
As he says, if you were a music fan and under 30 in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, you probably spent every penny of your disposable income on albums. And there were serious decisions to be made. If you were in the HMV Megastore and found a couple of US rarities but only had enough cash for one, it was a very big call. Mike Stern’s Time In Place or Lyle Mays’ Street Dreams? Better choose right, it might be a few months before you could afford another cassette.
If you were awaiting a new album, after spotting the release date in Q or the Melody Maker, it wasn’t abnormal to visit your nearest record shop twice in a few days to check if it had arrived. In my teens, I remember enduring a 30-minute bus ride (each way) to my local Our Price specifically to buy It Bites’ Eat Me In St Louis and Larry Carlton’s Last Nite.
There were definitely a lot of moody ‘High Fidelity’-style shop keepers (always men), but some were more friendly/forthcoming. In a classic discounted store in Soho, I think Sister Ray’s, I remember handing over my Prefab Sprout Protest Songs and Van Halen Women And ChildrenFirst CDs and the assistant grinning and saying, ‘I thought I was the only person in the world who liked both of these albums!’
So I gave the record business a huge amount of my money in the latter half of the 1980s and 1990s. And, as we keep reading, ‘old’ music is hugely outselling ‘new’ music in 2022. Which brings us to my troubled relationship with Spotify. I’m hardly buying any new physical music at the moment. Convenient as it is, Spotify Premium is a lazy option.
I scour the music mags (these days mainly JazzTimes and Classic Pop) and always take the time to listen to every album that piques my interest. But unless it’s an absolute corker, I fillet the two or three good tracks onto a playlist, just as in the 1990s when I used to make cassette tapes of brilliant songs from less-than-brilliant albums. I’ve rounded a lot of them up on this playlist.
I’ve also recently bought a very long audio cable which connects my laptop to the big speakers in my living room, so I can listen properly to this stuff, albeit with all the attendant audio quality issues, but it still gives the illusion that I’m listening to an album ‘as the artist intended’. Balls. The artist is making close to no money from Spotify, unless the streaming numbers are in their multimillions.
So my troubled relationship with Spotify continues, especially as the cost of living rises and rises. Yes we take music where we find it and pay for ‘convenience’ but a far more conscious decision is needed to save ‘new’ stuff. And of course it would help if artists made sure every album track was a winner. Great artwork wouldn’t hurt too.
A sense of contour, of line, a bit of colour, a good tone and maybe a touch of – that horrible word – narrative. A bit of flash never heart anyone either, but mostly we’re probably listening for emotion and ‘storytelling’.
Luckily for us, the 1980s featured an embarrassment of riches on the guitar soloing front, a decade when you could hear everything from glorious cameos of post-punk insanity, slabs of avant-garde weirdness, shock-and-awe widdlefests and sometimes perfect little compositions in themselves.
Sometimes great solos came from the guitarist in the band, but more often than not they came from the ‘ringer’, the session player. Truly great players of all stripes could find themselves blowing on a top 10 single. Their job was to add the pizzazz, the zing, the memorable bit that all the kids wanted to learn.
So here’s a selection of goodies from the guitar-shaped chocolate box, featuring some rock, some blues, some fusion, some soul, some new-wave, some pop, some metal, some funk, some jazz:
27. Lloyd Cole And The Commotions: ‘Forest Fire’ (Guitarist: Neil Clark)
26. Tears For Fears: ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Guitarist: Neil Taylor)
25. Marillion: ‘Easter’ (Guitarist: Steve Rothery)
24. Michael Hedges: ‘Aerial Boundaries’
The whole thing is a solo, of course, but it’s one of the most astonishing examples of solo guitar in recording history, a mixture of tapping, strumming, thumping and hammering. There are no overdubs and a very strange tuning on the classic title track to Hedges’ 1984 album.
23. Tribal Tech: ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Guitarist: Scott Henderson)
An almost perfect solo from the jazz/rock master’s album Nomad. It’s so complete it sounds almost pre-composed (apparently only the first eight bars were hummed to him by the tune’s writer Gary Willis), each interesting idea following completely logically from the last. Starts at 1:13:
This one taken from the classic album The Colour Of Spring can be filed in the ‘minimalist’ category, but it’s brilliant. The way the veteran Pretenders/McCartney guitarist bends into his last note, perfectly fitting with the key change, is sublime. Starts at 2:52:
21. Johnny Guitar Watson: ‘Telephone Bill’
Johnny G pulled out all the stops for this barnstorming bebop-meets-blues breakdown, from the Love Jones album, closing out his funny proto-rap in some style. He also gets extra points for quoting Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’. Starts around 3:30:
From Booty’s now forgotten 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’, a brief but flamboyant classic from one of the great unhinged metal guitarists of the decade, used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Starts around 2:44:
19. Thomas Dolby: ‘Budapest By Blimp’ (Guitarist: Larry Treadwell)
The LA-based guitarist was part of a Christian duo backing the Pope on his infamous ‘Popemobile’ tour of American stadiums when he answered Dolby’s magazine ad, and he excelled himself on this epic track from Aliens Ate My Buick, coming up with a strong melody over the funky break and even throwing in a little Dave Gilmour homage. Starts around the 5:30 mark:
18. Trevor Rabin: ‘I Can’t Look Away’
The title track of the Yes guitarist’s 1989 solo album was a song of two brilliant solos, but I’m going for the opening salvo, a brutal, flashy classic that features all the notes he knows and more.
17. Robert Cray: ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’
You could choose almost any solo from Mr Cray’s Bad Influence album, but this one seems to be best encapsulate his classy string-bending, snappy rhythmic sense and ice-cold Strat tone. Starts at 1:33:
16. Nile Rodgers: ‘Stay Out Of The Light’
A brilliant player not necessarily known for his solos, but this closing track from his forgotten second solo album B Movie Matinee opened the floodgates – a fantastic mixture of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Nolen. Starts at 3:37:
15. John McLaughlin: ‘The Wait’
McLaughlin plugs in the Les Paul and unleashes one of the most vicious solos of his career, gradually developing in intensity, with even a touch of his old mucker Carlos Santana at times. Unfortunately it mostly fell on deaf ears, coming from a nearly-forgotten 1987 album Adventures In Radioland. Starts around 1:43:
14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)
One of those unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his head and goes for it. From the punk/funk legends’ forgotten, excellent 1988 comeback album In America.
13. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: ‘Black Star’
This piece, kicking off the Swede’s Rising Force opus, is a guitar masterclass from top to tail, but the first few minutes demonstrate some extraordinary touches like a legato section that you’d swear was achieved with a delay pedal.
12. Stanley Clarke: ‘Straight To The Top’ (Guitarist: Carlos Santana)
The song – which kicked off Stanley’s 1981 career nadir Let Me Know You – may be a disco cheesefest but Carlos’s solo is a stonker, an emotive showstopper with a luscious, creamy tone and lots of emotional moments. It was a good period for Santana – see also Herbie Hancock’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Carlos’s own ‘Stay Beside Me’ and ‘Song For Devadip’.
11. It Bites: ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ (Guitarist: Francis Dunnery)
The Cumbrian gunslingers wrote a great ballad here and Dunnery laid his claim as one of the great Brit guitarists of the ’80s with this extreme solo, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes demented mixture of flash and panache. From the lads’ debut album The Big Lad In The Windmill. Starts at 5:09:
10. Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’ (Guitarist: Steve Stevens)
He produced several memorable moments alongside the 6’2” blond bombsite born William Broad, but Stevens excelled himself here with a memorable, well-organised solo full of flashy bits and unexpected ‘outside’ notes.
9. Joe Satriani: ‘Ice 9’
Satch’s sophomore album Surfing With The Alien of course produced some guitar highlights but this track featured one of his most distinctive solos ever, Allan Holdsworth meets Eddie Van Halen.
8. Randy Crawford: ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (Guitarist: Steve Lukather)
This gets in for superb tone and admirable restraint, apart from that fantastic flurry of notes in the middle. Luke could hardly do any wrong around this time. Just around the corner was Quincy’s The Dude, ‘Rosanna’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Love’ and Jacko’s Thriller.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘Sex Rap’ (Guitarist: Hillel Slovak)
One of those great solos that sounds like it could fall apart any second, and frequently does. From the lads’ uneven but sometimes thrilling George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley album. Starts at 1:14:
6. Yellowjackets: ‘Monmouth College Fight Song’ (Guitarist: Robben Ford)
In the days when Robben’s trump card was playing bebop/blues with a distorted guitar, and when he loved blowing over interesting chord changes, this track from 1981’s Casino Lights is a classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:
Hiram could be relied upon to produce classic solos in the late 1980s, as he did with Steps Ahead, Terri Lyne Carrington and on his solo records, and this from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was sublime. Starts at 1:27:
4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Guitarist: David Gilmour)
Take your pick between two fantastic solos from The Wall album, but I’m going for the first one, a beautiful feature with a killer tone and great use of whammy bar. Starts at 2:38:
3. XTC: ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (Guitarist: Dave Gregory)
He apparently rehearsed it alone for hours in a little room stinking of rat poison in Todd Rundgren’s rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic classic. Starts at 2:08:
2. Mike Stern: ‘Time In Place’
The title track of Mike’s second solo album demonstrated definitely one of the slowest solos of his career, and also one of the most lyrical. Starts at 1:35:
1. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’
This was one of the more memorable solos of Martyn’s career, during a decade when he was more interested in songwriting than making extreme guitar statements. But he sure found his Les Paul’s sweet spot on a classic cover version from Grace And Danger. Starts at around 1:28:
Bought: Record & Tape Exchange, Shepherd’s Bush, 1990?
In the mid-’80s, London seemed to be Hiram Bullock’s second home. The late great New York-based guitarist was in David Sanborn’s band at the Wembley Arena in November ’84 (alongside Marcus Miller, Don Grolnick and Steve Gadd, one of my first ever gigs) and also appeared in town regularly with Carla Bley and Gil Evans during this period.
At a Sanborn Hammersmith Odeon gig in February 1987 (see the comments section below), Hiram embarked on a solo, and, with the aid of a wireless unit, promptly jumped off the stage to serenade the stalls.
He then vacated the auditorium, soloing all the while, and a few minutes later appeared in the front row of the balcony, still blazing away, illuminated by a single spot. What a dude.
Such shenanigans would earn himself column inches in the jazz magazines and a cult following but sometimes overshadow the fact that he was one of the great guitarists of the ’80s or any other decade, effortlessly mixing up the blues, funk, bebop and rock.
By mid-1986, he had enjoyed ten years as a first-call session player (Steely Dan, Chaka Khan, Brecker Brothers et al) as well as being part of the famous ‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘Late Night With Letterman’ bands.
He had also recently hooked up with his one-time bass student Jaco Pastorius in the PDB trio (with drummer Kenwood Dennard) and produced Mike Stern’s excellent Upside Downside (guitar-wise, they have a lot in common).
In short, he had paid his dues. It was time for a solo album. Though From All Sidesis in many ways a classic ‘journeyman’ record, covering all the bases from funky fusion (‘Window Shoppin’, ‘Cactus’, written by Randy Brecker) through R’n’B (‘Funky Broadway’) to smooth Sinatra-influenced balladry (‘Really Wish I Could Love You’), it’s never boring, helped also by some good guest spots – Kenny Kirkland supplies a classy solo to ‘Window Shoppin’ while Sanborn lights up ‘Say Goodnight, Gracie’.
On the witty ‘state of the world’ blues ‘Mad Dog Daze’, Bullock even comes over a bit like a Johnny Guitar Watson for the ’80s.
The album also benefits greatly from mostly sticking to the same excellent rhythm section – Charley Drayton on drums, Will Lee on bass, Clifford Carter on keys – which gives some consistency from tune to tune.
Hiram plays some brilliant solos, even on somewhat cheesy material such as ‘When The Passion Is Played’ and ‘Until I Do’. The production is state-of-the-art for ’86, ie. extremely high on treble and compression but short on low-end.
But From All Sides is still mostly a blast, driven on by Hiram’s irrepressible energy and good vibes, though the followup Give It What U Got was a big improvement – more on that later.
There’s no telling how a jazz musician will react to a bad review, whether from a critic or fellow player. Some, like Miles Davis, take a – how shall we put it – stoic view, either refusing to read any press or choosing his writer friends very carefully (Leonard Feather, Quincy Troupe).
But for every naysayer, there’s an aggressor; drum master Tony Williams laid into jazz scribe Stanley Crouch for his less-than-flattering comments on Miles’ electric-era music, while Weather Report famously took Downbeat magazine to task for its one-star slagging of 1978 classic Mr Gone.
Though guitarist Mike Stern had studied at the famous Berklee music school in the mid-‘70s and then landed a top gig with jazz/pop supergroup Blood Sweat & Tears, he wasn’t prepared for bandmate Jaco Pastorius’s succinct review of his guitar playing after a dodgy run through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’ on tour with BS&T one night – ‘Stern, you know that sh*t wasn’t happening at all! You’ve got to learn faster tempos!’
Jaco and Mike, 1980
To his great credit, Stern listened to his friend, learnt the tune note by note and in the process became one of the greatest players of his generation. His slick bebop lines played with a ‘rock’ sound were quite new when he came of age playing with Billy Cobham’s band.
Miles was also listening closely while he was in the early stages of putting together his ‘comeback’ band in early 1981. The story goes that he appeared in the front row of The Bottom Line club in New York City and poached Stern during a break, apparently even calling Cobham off the bandstand in the middle of a tune to issue his intentions!
Stern was then summoned to the Columbia Records studio to record the electrifying half-time strut ‘Fat Time’ (Miles’s nickname for Stern) in one take. The track appeared on the Man With The Horn album and Stern was then invited to go out on the road with Miles.
My dad took me to see Miles at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1982, my first proper gig. I’m sad to say that I don’t recall much about it apart from Miles’s white suit and someone shouting: ‘Turn the trumpet up!’
Dave Liebman, Miles and Mike Stern, 1981. Photo by Julie Coryell
Critics were harsh on Stern, not believing that a chubby, jeans-wearing, long-haired guy playing a white Strat with a fuzzbox could play ‘jazz’, but with hindsight he did a brilliant job of holding down the harmony and delivering powerful, surprising solos in the keyboard-less quintet.
But the demons that haunted some of his early career wouldn’t go away. Stern recently said, ‘I played about two gigs in my life between the ages of 12 and 32 when I was sober’.
Miles even got John Scofield into the band as second guitarist to cover for his increasingly unreliable secret weapon. Stern eventually missed a flight and got the boot, but after a successful spell in rehab returned to play with old friend Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri’s fusion supergroup Steps Ahead.
Stern also put together a solo record deal with Atlantic Records and began working on Upside Downside in early 1986 with his late friend and fellow shit-hot guitarist Hiram Bullock in the producer’s chair.
The album is a great excuse for Stern to play the hell out his guitar in a variety of idioms. The uptempo tracks are blessed with typically fiery solos while the ballads beautifully demonstrate Stern’s lyrical side, his Telecaster screaming emotively above Dave Weckl’s subtle drumming and Mark Egan’s springy bass.
Jaco completists will enjoy one of his very last recorded contributions on the raucous ‘Mood Swings’ while saxophonist David Sanborn’s playing on ‘Goodbye Again’ is spine-tingling. But mainly the album is a must for any lover of the guitar. His sound is a little more fluid and widescreen than on recent albums and there’s no-one quite like Stern at the top of his game, a fusion of Charlie Parker and Roy Buchanan.
Mike made two excellent follow-up albums later in the ’80s, Time In Place and Jigsaw, both produced by the fine guitarist Steve Khan. For me, this was Stern’s best era, when his raunchy playing was closer to blues and rock than the lighter Methenyesque jazz and World music vibes of recent times. I also saw him live at the Town and Country Club in 1989, a memorable gig featuring the mind-blowing Dennis Chambers on drums.
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.