Great Guitar Solos Of The 1980s (Take One)

Steve Stevens

What do we expect from a great guitar solo? 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. (With a disclaimer: lots of great guitarists missed the cut including David Torn, Eric Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, John Scofield, Skip McDonald, Bill Frisell, Billy Gibbons, Terje Rypdal, James Blood Ulmer, Sonny Sharrock, just because I couldn’t think of era-defining solos, and maybe also because they played so much guitar…)

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, hammering and plain old melody. 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 (though 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:

22. Talk Talk: ‘I Don’t Believe In You’ (Guitarist: Robbie McIntosh)

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:

20. Bootsy Collins: ‘Kissin’ You’ (Guitarist: Stevie Salas)

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, often used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Gets started around the 2:44 mark:

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 finally showed exactly what he could do – 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, with crap sound quality:

14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)

One of those great, unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his due 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. Starts around 0:29:

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’. Starts at 2:21:

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. Starts at 2:27:

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, no doubt helped by the cool little drum fill that introduces it at around 1:15:

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. Starts at 1:50:

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 it 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 guitar classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:

5. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (Guitarist: Hiram Bullock)

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, but this one from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was just 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 rather rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic, chiming classic. A few phrases even bring to mind Robert Fripp. 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 best. 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:

Next time: Part two of our rundown of great 1980s guitar solos.

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Moonlighting Strangers: Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis & Al Jarreau

Bruce Willis as David Addison, Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting’

What music delivers for you a headrush of nostalgia, fills your heart with a warm glow, makes you feel everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds and we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket?

For me, it’s the short reprise of the ‘Moonlighting’ theme that used to play over the end credits, featuring Toots Thielemans’ (citation needed… Ed.) harmonica swooping gorgeously over swooning strings.

It shouldn’t be any surprise that Lee Holdridge’s title song (with lyrics added later by Al Jarreau) was reminiscent of an old standard in the Porter/ Gershwin mould. After all, the TV show, which ran in the States and on the BBC from 1985 to 1989, most assuredly harked back to the romantic comedies and private-eye noirs of the ’30s and ’40s.

Co-star Cybill Shepherd, upon reading the script for the pilot episode, apparently called it a ‘Hawksian comedy’ (as in ‘Bringing Up Baby’/’His Girl Friday’ director/writer Howard Hawks), an influence of which creator/co-writer Glenn Gordon Caron was fairly unaware. He had been focusing his energies instead on lampooning the in-vogue detective shows of the early ’80s, one of which (‘Remington Steele’) he’d helped usher into existence.

‘Moonlighting’ made a star out of Bruce Willis and reignited Cybill Shepherd’s career, though she was apparently an exceptionally reluctant contributor and not a huge fan of her male co-star.

For the part of David Addison, Willis apparently had to audition not once but 11 times, and even then almost lost the role until a lone female NBC executive said (in front of a cadre of other male execs): ‘He looks like a dangerous f*ck’!

I was hooked on ‘Moonlighting’ in the mid-’80s, helped no doubt by a teenage crush on Shepherd. I watched two eps again recently – the pilot, which seemed overlong and clunky, and the absolutely superb ‘A Womb With A View’, the big-budget Season 5 curtain-raiser first transmitted in December 1988.

Gleefully jumping the shark, it has everything – an exuberant, self-referential song-and-dance number (‘A chance for critics to scoff and sneer’!), a chubby Willis in a diaper playing Shepherd’s unborn child, and some startling, creative visuals.

It also brought home how the show always assumed the audience was smart, rather than most modern TV which assumes it’s dumb. And the production values were super high, even though the pressure was on – they had to make 22 x 50-minute episodes per season! That works out at around ten days per shoot.

But back to the music. ‘Moonlighting strangers/Who just met on the way’. What a lovely line. I’m partial to the original version of the theme song with its brilliant rhythm guitars and JR Robinson drums, but not so keen on Al’s re-recording with producer Nile Rodgers which – rather incredibly – made the UK top 10. And Willis of course enjoyed a brief solo music career (and made a weird HBO mockumentary) off the back of his David Addison persona, tapping into a kind of Billy/Brucie, New Jersey ‘everyman’ vibe.

The Wackiest Guitar Solos Of The 1980s

eddie_van_halen_at_the_new_haven_coliseum_2Pop music has always featured its fair share of brilliantly ‘inappropriate’ instrumental solos, from the (uncredited) honking tenor break on Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers’ ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’ and Tony Peluso’s brilliant fuzz-guitar feature on The Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye To Love‘ to Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter’s unreconstructed rampage through Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’.

And then of course there are the jazz solos that occasionally enhance ‘pop’ material – Sonny Rollins lighting up the Stones’ ‘Waiting On A Friend’, Ronnie Ross’s memorable break on Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ and Phil Woods/Wayne Shorter/Pete Christlieb’s tasty leads on some of Steely Dan’s best work.

In the ’80s, there was a lot of demand for the wacky solo, often thrown in to pep up some pretty light/fairly inconsequential material. One in particular really set the benchmark for the decade, and it’s naturally where we start our rundown…

6. Michael Jackson – ‘Beat It’ (Solo by Eddie Van Halen)

Eddie’s shock-and-awe break was a perfect distillation of all his trademark techniques: lightning-fast picking, close-interval tapping routines, whammy-bar divebombs and even a cheeky Jimi Hendrix ‘All Along The Watchtower’ homage.

5. Michael Sembello – ‘Maniac’ (1983)

Sembello, hitherto best known as a very able jazz/R’n’B session player for the likes of Stevie Wonder, David Sanborn and George Duke, unleashed this overblown post-‘Beat It’ solo (starting at 2:50) which sounds like it belongs to a completely different song. Maybe he should have stuck to the jazz and R’n’B…

4. Bros – ‘Chocolate Box’ (Solo by Paul Gendler)

Gendler was a respected UK-based session player (and member of Modern Romance!) before getting the call from the Goss boys. He tosses off a Francis Dunnery-esque, way-too-good-for-the-charts solo at 2:40 on this wafer-thin but very catchy single.

3. Europe – ‘The Final Countdown’ (Solo by John Norum)

This song is obviously crying out for a widdly guitar solo, but Norum’s brilliant Malmsteen-esque playing (starting at 3:17) goes beyond the call of duty even by the standards of a mid-’80s hair-metal band.

2. Al Jarreau – ‘Telepathy’ (Solo by Nile Rodgers)

Nicely set up by Steve Ferrone’s wrongfooting half-bar drum fill, Nile plays all the notes he knows and a few more too in this seriously weird but rather brilliant harmonized/double-tracked break (starting at 2:05) from the L Is For Lover album.

1. Allan Holdsworth – ‘In The Mystery’ (1985)

Jazz/rock guitar genius Holdsworth inexplicably saved some of his wackiest solos for vocal-based, ‘commercial’ material. This one, starting at 2:20, is fairly astonishing and, arguably, totally wasted on the song… (Bassist Jimmy Johnson also deserves a mention for his frenetic, Red-Bull-sponsored performance.)

Grace Jones: Inside Story

Grace

EMI/Manhattan Records, released November 1986

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1990?

7/10

Flicking through Grace’s well-received memoir recently, I noticed that she rates Inside Story as her favourite album – pretty surprising considering the likes of Nightclubbing and Living My Life nestling in her discography.

But close reading of the small print reveals why it’s her most personal project – she co-wrote every track (with ex-Camera Club/’Slave To The Rhythm’ co-writer Bruce Woolley) and also co-produced the album with Nile Rodgers. And while hardly a classic, Inside Story‘s a much more wholehearted and successful record than the previous year’s Slave To The Rhythm.

It seems pretty inevitable that Nile would end up collaborating with Grace. They were long-time acquaintances on the NY party scene since the Studio 54 days. On paper, he would seem the perfect fit for her, though she barely gets a mention in his excellent memoir ‘Le Freak’ (though he has promised a sequel which will presumably feature her a lot more).

Inside Story‘s lead-off single ‘I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You)’ surprisingly didn’t make much impact on the US or UK charts but was a minor hit all over Europe. Its Keith Haring-directed video is particularly striking though, featuring cameos from Andy Warhol and a load of other NY art figures, and there was also an interesting 12″ mix by early house pioneer Larry Levan.

The album is great when it sticks to short, sharp, frivolous pop tunes but comes a bit unstuck when going for something more ambitious. ‘White Collar Crime’ is very much the son of ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, sneaking in a few of that song’s chords and an almost identical two-note verse, but it’s let down by asthmatic synths, a puny drum machine and Nile’s sketchy bass playing, though Lenny Pickett’s punchy horn arrangement is a winner.

The title track is weirdly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s ’80s output while ‘Victor Should Have Been A Jazz Musician’ is possibly the standout, namechecking Nina Simone and featuring some lovely Wes Montgomery-style guitar from Rodgers.

Inside Story‘s rhythm section sounds in general are slightly disappointing – Rodgers’ guitar is too low in the mix and a Linn machine takes care of all the drum parts. This suits the mechanized grooves of ‘Barefoot In Beverly Hills’ (almost an example of early house music), ‘Party Girl’ and ‘Scary But Fun’, but the jazzier tracks are crying out for a real drummer. I wonder why Nile didn’t enlist the services of Mr Steve Ferrone, seeing as they’d recently worked together to superb effect on Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover and Duran Duran’s Notorious.

Inside Story was not a hit, reaching only #61 in the UK album chart and #81 in the US. It’s unlikely to ever get the big-budget, bells-and-whistles re-release/remaster treatment, but sounds pretty good these days.

David Bowie’s Let’s Dance: 32 Years Old Today

david bowieEMI America, released 14th April 1983

Produced by David Bowie and Nile Rodgers

Recorded at Power Station, New York City

David at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival

David at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival

UK Album Chart position: #1

Weeks in chart: 56

UK album sales: 842,000

Singles Released:
‘Let’s Dance’ (#1)
‘China Girl’ (#2)
‘Modern Love’ (#2)
‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ (#26)

Bowie on Let’s Dance: ‘At the time, it was not mainstream. It was virtually a new kind of hybrid, using blues-rock guitar against a dance format. There wasn’t anything else that really quite sounded like that at the time. So it only seems commercial in hindsight because it sold so many. It was great in its way, but it put me in a real corner in that it fucked with my integrity! It was a good record, but it was only meant as a one-off project. I had every intention of continuing to do some unusual material after that. But the success of that record really forced me, in a way, to continue the beast. It was my own doing, of course, but I felt, after a few years, that I had gotten stuck…’

Kelis, Al Jarreau And ‘Blurred Lines’: Does Pharrell Have Form?

KelisSo it’s official – Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke ripped off Marvellous Marvin’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ when they wrote ‘Blurred Lines’ in just one hour (though Thicke denies having any input into the writing of the song).

And The Guardian reports that Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ may now be in the Gaye family’s sights too due to its alleged similarity to ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’.

Trumpet player, composer and blogger Nicholas Payton has written eloquently and passionately about the whys and wherefores of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case here. I won’t go into whether I think that verdict is just; suffice it to say that I dig what Mr Payton says, right down the line.

But what’s interesting is that Pharrell seems to have previous. Let’s investigate the track ‘Roller Rink’ from Kelis’s great 1999 album Kaleidoscope which, according to the credits, Pharrell co-wrote with Chad Hugo and Kelis.

Now compare that with ‘No Ordinary Love’, credited to Michael Gregory Jackson, which features on Gregory Jackson’s 1983 album Situation X and also Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover from 1986, both produced by Nile Rodgers:

Weird. Kelis/Pharrell/Chad haven’t even bothered to change key. They’ve just ‘replayed’ Gregory Jackson’s original with a slightly different arrangement. Their version comes up with a better melody in the verses though the chorus melody just uses the catchy little synth motif from both Gregory Jackson and Jarreau versions.

Michael+Gregory+Jackson+michaelgregory2

Michael Gregory Jackson circa 1983

Michael Gregory Jackson started out as a first-call guitarist in the New York avant-garde jazz scene in the mid-’70s. Later in the decade, he reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter and did a pretty job of it, his 1987 solo album What To Where getting rave reviews in Q Magazine and a few other influential rags at the time. But commercial success eluded him.

Regarding ‘Roller Rink’/’No Ordinary Love’, maybe Gregory Jackson was just easy to push over. After all, he’s jazz. Maybe they did settle out of court. But you’d think at least a songwriting credit might be in order. I wonder how much income Gregory Jackson has lost out on, even though Kaleidoscope wasn’t a huge hit album and ‘Roller Rink’ wasn’t a single.

I haven’t checked to see if subsequent versions of the CD have different credits but my 1999 Kaleidoscope CD credits state that the track was ‘written by K Rogers/P Williams/C Hugo’ with no mention of sample permissions etc. The album’s Wikipedia page says the same thing.

About eight years ago, I made some routine enquiries to Virgin Publishing but didn’t get anywhere. Anyway, it’s only music, there are only 12 notes, etc etc. But who knows what other examples are out there? I’ll be listening closely in the future to Neptunes tracks and Pharrell solo tracks, co-productions and co-writes, many of which I’m unfamiliar with at this point.