25 Great Drum Grooves Of The 1980s

Steve Jordan
Photo by Deborah Feingold

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 whole lot of attention to the drums.

Here are 25 notable grooves from the decade. My defintion: 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-timers. Bernard Purdie and John Bonham’s influences apparently loomed large. Play ’em loud…

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

Nimble-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.

Any more classic ’80s drum grooves?

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Great Drumming Albums Of The 1980s (Part Two)

So here’s the second instalment of essential drum albums from the 1980s (check out part one here), a selection of the decade’s movers and shakers who either pushed the boundaries, flew somewhat under the radar or simply made the music sound better.

19. Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers: Live ’87
Drummer: Ricky Wellman

Alongside Keith LeBlanc, Jonathan Moffett and Dennis Chambers, Wellman played some of the scariest single bass drum of the decade, laying down the go-go template that would influence everyone from Trevor Horn to Miles Davis (who headhunted Wellman in late 1987).

18. Nik Kershaw: The Riddle (1984)
Drummer: Charlie Morgan

Another somewhat underrated Brit sessionman, Morgan does exactly what’s right for the songs with a lot of panache. His ghost-note-inflected grooves on ‘City Of Angels’ and ‘Easy’ are treats for the eardrums.

17. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989)
Drummer/programming: Keith LeBlanc

Included because of the sheer variety of grooves, both human and machine-generated. Some beats bring to mind the sounds of electro and early hip-hop, but Keith also provides precise, tight, funky grooves on the kit.

16. XTC: English Settlement (1982)
Drummer: Terry Chambers

He was not subtle but the unreconstructed Swindon powerhouse could mix it with the best of ’em when it came to rock. Strongly aided by the dream Lillywhite/Padgham production/engineering team, his cavernous grooves always hit the spot. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (Or is he? Check out the comments section below… Ed.).

15. Power Tools: Strange Meeting (1987)
Drummer: Ronald Shannon Jackson

Ex-Ornette/Ayler collaborator and serious Buddhist Shannon Jackson cut a swathe through ’80s drumming with his striking solo albums and occasional projects like this frenetic trio alongside Bill Frisell and future Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. Free jazz with balls and humour. Play LOUD.

14. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982)
Drummer: Andy Newmark

Hard to bet against this masterpiece of tasteful, empathetic song-accompaniment. Even more impressive is the revelation that Newmark was usually the last musician to overdub, replacing a skeletal drum machine part.

13. Nile Rodgers: B Movie Matinee (1985)
Programming: Jimmy Bralower

Much-in-demand NYC programmer Bralower wasn’t every drummer’s cup of tea but he came up with many memorable, catchy beats on Nile’s forgotten second solo album. Even classy ballad ‘Wavelength’ chugs along to what can only be described as an electro groove.

12. Yes: Big Generator (1987)
Drummer: Alan White

Possessing one of the crispest snare sounds of the decade, White played 4/4 rock with lots of surprises – both listener and band alike have to be on their toes – and conversely also made the most complex arrangements sound completely natural.

11. Grace Jones: Living My Life (1982)
Drummer: Sly Dunbar

Sly came up with not one but two classic, much-imitated beats on this album (‘My Jamaican Guy’, ‘Nipple To The Bottle’) and also proved he could play rock with the best of them. Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan were definitely listening.

10. Mark King: Influences (1984)

We knew he’d started his musical life as a drummer but finally hearing the results of his misspent youth was well worth the wait. He gives his heroes Billy Cobham and Lenny White a serious run for their money on this varied collection, from Level-style funk to Latin-tinged jazz/rock.

9. King Crimson: Discipline (1981)
Drummer: Bill Bruford

Impossible to leave out. Aided by Robert Fripp’s ‘rules’, the Surrey sticksman redefined rock drumming for the new decade, adding unusual timbres and taking the emphasis off the hi-hat. He also delivered one of the great over-the-top performances on ‘Indiscipline’.

8. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985)
Drummer: Omar Hakim

The fusion supergroup’s penultimate studio album is also one of their best, and Omar is a big reason why. His touch on the hi-hats and ride cymbal is instantly recognisable, and he swings hard on the inspired cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.

7. Stewart Copeland: Rumble Fish (1983)

Not for nothing was the ex-Police man calling himself The Rhythmatist around this time: he hits anything and everything (xylophone, drum kit, marimba, piano, typewriter) to create a colourful, unique soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white curio.

6. Sadao Watanabe: Maisha (1985)
Drummers: Harvey Mason, John Robinson

A superior example of big-budget ‘smooth jazz’ before it became a cliché, Mason and Robinson split the drum duties and perfectly compliment each other. The latter particularly lets his hair down a bit more than usual, particularly on ‘Paysages’.

5. Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain (1984)
Drummer: Mel Gaynor

Slinky, powerful grooves from South London’s answer to Omar Hakim. He has the walls of Shepherds Bush’s Townhouse studios shaking with his uber-grooves on ‘Up On The Catwalk’, ‘Waterfront’ and ‘C Moon Cry Like A Baby’.

4. Level 42: A Physical Presence (1985)
Drummer: Phil Gould

An exciting live performance from one of the great British drummers. His top-of-the-beat feel and crisp sound suggest a mix of Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, and he could also lay down explosive multi-tom fills to match both of them.

3. Chick Corea Elektric Band: Eye Of The Beholder (1988)
Drummer: Dave Weckl

Love or hate Corea’s Scientology-infused, neo-classical jazz/rock, Weckl’s stellar performance on this album was beyond question. He delivered a gorgeous sound, a total mastery of the drum kit and stunning chops when required.

2. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989)
Drummer: Terry Bozzio

One of the loudest drummers this writer has ever heard in concert (Hammersmith Odeon, December 1989), Bozzio delivered some of the fastest double-bass playing on record (‘Sling Shot’) and also unique takes on reggae (‘Behind The Veil’) and funk (‘Day In The House’).

1. The Clash: Sandinista! (1980)
Drummer: Topper Headon

The rebel rockers embraced rockabilly, reggae, dub, calypso, punk and even funk on this ambitious triple album, but they wouldn’t have been able to go there without the versatile London sticksman.

Any albums missing? Of course. Post your suggestions below.

In Defence of David Bowie’s ‘Tonight’

The general critical consensus is that Tonight represents the nadir of David Bowie’s career, the only true stinker in his discography. It’s been described as a quickie cash-in on the Let’s Dance formula, a concession to his new ‘Phil Collins’ audience, a charity album for Iggy Pop. Only three years after its release, Bowie himself was virtually disowning it.

But it’s a fascinating, occasionally superb collection by arguably the greatest album artist in rock history. David tries out a lot of styles and gets away with most of them. And it could have been a lot worse. So I’m putting it squarely alongside Heathen, Black Tie White Noise, David Bowie, both the Tin Machine studio albums, hours… and several others in the second tier of DB albums.

In the summer of 1984, Uncle David was competing with the shiny British New Pop acts of the era – Duran, Wham!, Culture Club, Thompson Twins, Nik Kershaw, Howard Jones, Frankie, Bananarama – and to some extent beating them at their own game: Tonight went straight in at number one on the UK album chart on its release. But writer Nicholas Pegg made an interesting point about its sound in his ‘Complete David Bowie’: David was apparently more taken with the ‘straight’, poppier artists of the era than edgier acts such as Bronski Beat, The Smiths, The Cure, Marc Almond etc etc.

Tonight took five weeks to record, two weeks longer than Let’s Dance. It was tracked in Quebec, Canada during May 1984, only a few months after the end of the ‘Serious Moonlight’ tour. Lenny Pickett’s Borneo Horns were retained from the live dates and there were some holdovers from the Let’s Dance sessions: Omar Hakim on drums, Carmine Rojas on bass, Sammy Figueroa on percussion. But Nile Rodgers wasn’t asked back to co-produce (it’s oft forgotten that David was also a great producer). It was a decision which apparently baffled and disappointed Rodgers.

Instead, ex-Heatwave bassist Derek Bramble was brought in on the strength of his work with Lynx, David Grant and Jaki Graham. He probably hoped he would be the new Nile, but it wasn’t to be. He played some great bass, guitar and synths on the basic tracks but was given the boot only a few weeks into the project. Police/XTC/Peter Gabriel/Genesis man Hugh Padgham – initially only employed as the engineer – was asked to finish off the album as co-producer.

Hugh has since expressed dismay at the choice of songs, saying that a few new Iggy/Bowie compositions were left unfinished (perhaps later used for Blah-Blah-Blah) because Bowie ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to finish them. It’s hard to disagree – if ‘God Only Knows’, the title track and ‘I Keep Forgettin’ had been replaced by some new tunes, Tonight could have been a corker.

But it ain’t bad. And the critics all pretty much loved it at the time. It may have been a huge shock if you were brought up on Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, but I came in around Scary Monsters. It seemed a natural progression. Mick Haggerty’s sleeve design splits opinion too – it’s either a witty Gilbert & George pastiche or a garish bit of mid-’80s tastelessness. Judge for yourself. Oh, and get the 1990 Rykodisc version of Tonight if you can find it rather than the 1999 EMI remaster. Here’s a quick track-by-track rundown.

1. ‘Loving The Alien’

Read my full analysis of the song here.

2. ‘Don’t Look Down’

Interesting reggaefied cover of a track from Iggy’s album New Values. Featuring a sublime David vocal, some excellent Bramble bass and a gorgeous horn/synth arrangement embedded in the mix, reminiscent of Gil Evans’ soundworld. Play loud.

3. ‘God Only Knows’

A great David vocal though very curious MOR arrangement of this Brian Wilson composition. Cavernous drums, soaring strings and acoustic guitar high in the mix. Fascinating though only really defensible if viewed as a kind of Scott Walker homage.

4. ‘Tonight’

Shorn of the shock heroin-overdose intro heard on the original which came from Iggy’s Lust For Life album. But it’s hard to defend this rushed, underwhelming filler which flopped as Bowie’s 1984 Christmas single. Even Omar sounds out-of-sorts on this. But let’s cut them some slack – David helped save Tina’s career. According to her, David dragged the bigwigs of Capitol Records out to see her perform live in New York against their wishes, prompting them to re-sign her.

5. ‘Neighbourhood Threat’

This perky techno-rocker, also originally from Lust For Life, features a fine vocal from David in ‘cyborg’ mode and brilliant drumming from Omar. It works very well but sounds unlike anything else on Tonight. Bowie dismissed it in 1987, saying ‘it wasn’t the right band to do that song. It sounded so tight and compromised.’

6. ‘Blue Jean’

A brief, harmless bit of ‘sexist rock’n’roll’ in Bowie’s words, a portrait of a woman he fancied in a magazine ad. Padgham works his magic on Omar’s drums, there’s some window-shaking sax from Lenny Pickett and Bowie borrows Iggy’s baritone. The first single from the album, it reached UK #6 and US #8 and featured a watchable but very silly long-form video directed by Julien Temple, shown in UK cinemas as support feature to ‘A Company Of Wolves’.

7. ‘Tumble And Twirl’

Another album highlight, co-written by David and Iggy, it’s an effective slice of tropical swing/funk with Bramble’s bass in Stanley Clarke mode, Guy St Onge’s cheery marimba, some sparkling 12-string guitar from Alomar and funny ‘muzak’ bridge with soothing backing vocals. Also some amusing lyrics inspired by Iggy and David’s vacation in Java.

8. ‘I Keep Forgettin’’

The album’s low point, where its ‘happy’, summery, positive feel comes truly unstuck. Electric drums fizz unpleasantly, David hams it up to little effect and the arrangements are more Pebble Mill than Muscle Shoals.

9. ‘Dancing With The Big Boys’

Another Iggy/Bowie co-write, the album closes with a tasty piece of one-chord, horn-based techno-rock flash. A funny lyric that seems to be about American military might: ‘Your family is a football team’. Iggy is very audible on vocals. Arthur Baker also put together an ear-bleeding 12” remix which is worth a listen.

Further reading: ‘Strange Fascination’ by David Buckley

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka

Story Of A Song: David Bowie’s ‘Loving The Alien’

The lead-off track and third single (UK #19 in May 1985, not released in the US) from 1984’s Tonight album, ‘Loving The Alien’ was arguably Bowie’s most committed piece of writing since Scary Monsters‘ ‘Teenage Wildlife’ four years earlier. Recorded at Quebec’s Le Studio in May 1984, the song was musically rich with a striking set of lyrics and a superb, soaring vocal performance.

Like a good Kubrick movie, it distills down weeks of research to just the crucial components. Bowie was apparently doing a lot of reading about Christianity and the Catholic Church, influenced particularly by Donovan Joyce’s notorious ‘The Jesus Scroll’ which posited that Jesus died in Masada at the age of 80 and wrote a scroll that is currently in Russian hands.

The wider implications of this led Bowie into further thoughts on organised religion in general and Christianity in particular. He told writer Charles Shaar Murray: ‘It was always more of a power tool than anything else, which was not very apparent to the majority of us. My father encouraged me to become interested in other religions. It’s extraordinary considering all the mistranslations in the Bible that our lives are being navigated by this misinformation, and that so many people have died because of it. That’s how the song started out: for some reason, I was very angry…’

Using the bloodshed of The Crusades as its central image, the lyric uses various effective ploys, one of which is an almost Pinteresque juxtaposition of the banal and portentous. While Bowie blithely stated ‘It’s just a song of images’ in the above interview, each line is ripe for analysis.

Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They’re travelling the holy land
Opening telegrams

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror-blind

But if you pray
All your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers, they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And your prayers they break the sky in two
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

You pray til the break of dawn
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And you’ll believe you’re loving the alien
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best-laid plan

Watching them come and go
Tomorrows and the yesterdays
Christians and the unbelievers
Hanging by the cross and nail

Bananarama it ain’t. Both lyrically and musically, the song stands out a mile on Tonight. But unfortunately these days it’s a difficult listen – despite Bowie’s fantastic vocal, it’s let down by an immense production with huge, gated drums (Omar Hakim’s entrée into rock drumming that arguably got him the gigs with Dire Straits and Sting), muddy bass, an overwrought Arif Mardin string arrangement and ponderous Carlos Alomar guitar solo. More successful are Guy St Onge’s marimba and the sampled Bowie vocals at the top (apparently more influenced by Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein On The Beach‘ than Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ – the kind of detail that was very important to Bowie!).

Regular collaborator David Mallet directed the video, storyboarded – as usual – by Bowie. Though seemingly a fairly disparate series of arresting images, the clip was fairly successful as a surreal assault on religion’s materialistic symbols and commodification of women. It also makes a fascinating companion piece to his ‘Blackstar’ video. Bowie’s cheery grin that accompanies the ‘Opening telegrams/Whoa-oh’ line is a thrillingly weird moment.

Bowie performed ‘Loving The Alien’ throughout the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. Then, in 2002, DJ Scumfrog remixed the track to create a single called ‘The Scumfrog vs Bowie’, a top 10 hit in the UK Dance Chart. A year later Bowie himself resurrected the song, cooking up a stripped-down version in duet with guitarist Gerry Leonard. They dropped the key from E-minor down to C-minor and dispensed with many of the original’s passing chords, arguably dissolving some of its power, but it’s certainly a unique reading.

According to Bowie, the best version of ‘Loving The Alien’ is his original home demo of the song, yet to see the light of day. Let’s hope we get to hear it sometime.

 

 

Victor Bailey (1960-2016)

800px-victor_bailey

Victor in 2008

I was really sad to hear today of Victor Bailey‘s passing.

Born in 1960, he was part of the illustrious Philly bass fraternity alongside such luminaries as Christian McBride, Alphonso Johnson and Stanley Clarke.

He replaced Jaco in Weather Report at the age of just 21, teaming up with Omar Hakim to make one of THE great bass/drums team in music history. They featured on the albums Procession, Domino Theory, Sporting Life and This Is This, and appeared regularly on each other’s solo projects. They also toured with Madonna together in the mid-1990s.

I’m pretty sure I saw Victor five times in concert – first in an outrageous Weather Report gig at the Dominion Theatre (26th June 1984), then in a very cool jazz/funk/groove unit with drummer Lenny White at the Subterania, twice at Ronnie Scott’s with an electrifying Zawinul Syndicate, and finally about ten years ago in a trio with Larry Coryell and White at the Jazz Cafe. At all times, Victor’s playing was tasty, expressive, exciting.

I was pleased when he was recently the subject of a long, excellent feature in JazzTimes magazine in which he talked frankly about music, bass playing and also his illness. I hoped the piece might be the start of a healthy, fruitful period for Victor. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

Victor Bailey (27th March 1960 – 11th November 2016)

Story Of A Song: Everything but the Girl’s ‘Driving’

drivingThe 1980s are littered with Brit pop bands going ‘across the pond’ to work with US producers and musicians – Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti, Love And Money, Wet Wet Wet and Simple Minds spring to mind, but the list goes on and on. It was almost a rite of passage, or – according to some music critics of the slightly more cynical persuasion – a desperate attempt at credibility.

You could hardly level that accusation at Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, AKA Everything but the Girl. They were headhunted by legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, who had just put the finishing touches to Miles Davis‘s Amandla, and their ‘Driving’ single (released in early 1990 but recorded spring 1989) seems a near-perfect marriage of US and UK sensibilities.

I confess I hardly knew anything about EBTG when my brother first played me ‘Driving’. I just heard something extremely classy, with intriguing chord changes, a great singer and strong jazz flavour. I didn’t know Tracey and Ben had spent much of the ’80s building up a considerable rep as ‘indie jazz/folk’ darlings of the music press and enjoying not inconsiderable commercial success too, but I was possibly vaguely familiar with Tracey’s gorgeous vocals on The Style Council’s ‘Paris Match‘, a favourite of my dad’s muso mates back in the mid-’80s.

Taken from The Language Of Life album, the song was recorded in LA at the famous Ocean Way and Sunset Sound studios with pretty much the finest session players money can buy (Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass, Larry Williams on keys/arrangements, Michael Brecker on tenor). But, according to Tracey’s superb memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen‘, the American musicians were totally ignorant of the fiercely independent English scene from which Tracey and Ben had emerged. When Larry Williams found out that EBTG had recently recorded at Abbey Road, he blurted out: ‘Wow! Abbey Road! The home of the Beatles!’ Tracey’s reply? ‘God, I HATE the Beatles.’ There was a pregnant pause. Eventually Williams spluttered out: ‘You h-h-hate the Beatles?’ But you can imagine such ‘musical differences’ were all in a day’s work for EBTG.

‘Driving’ obviously sounds more like Anita Baker (I’d love to hear her cover it) than, say, The Smiths. It’s sophisticated but still has bite, with rich chords, an intriguing ABAA structure and glorious Brecker solo (inexplicably with a different, inferior take on my 7” vinyl version). Ostensibly a song about ‘cars and boys’ (though written solely by Ben Watt), maybe one could read it as a clear concession to the US marketplace. Or is it the un-ironic response to Prefab’s ‘Cars And Girls‘?

tracey thorn

‘Driving’ became somewhat of an airplay hit in the States (though surprisingly only reached #54 in the UK), and led to several high-profile US gigs which nevertheless unfortunately seemed to precipitate a crisis of confidence for Tracey. The live band, which included future smooth jazz star Kirk Whalum on sax, whipped the crowds into a frenzy night after night, but there wasn’t much space for her subtle, low-key vocals any more. Cue a few years of soul-searching and a distinct change of direction exemplified by 1994’s Amplified Heart.

But re-reading Tracey’s book and listening again to the sublime ‘Driving’ have given me a new admiration for her writing (and music), and a keenness to check out a lot more of Everything but the Girl’s ’80s work. Only took me 25 years.