The Cult Of Metheny has ensnared many, and puzzled just as many. But As Falls Wichita fell smack bang in my favourite era of Pat’s music (between American Garage and Song X), and represented a real change of scene.
Side one’s 20-minute title track delivered a full-on prog/fusion masterwork, ably assisted by Lyle Mays in classic-synth heaven (Prophet 5, various Oberheims, Roland CR-78 and Linn LM-1 drum machines), always totally recognisable, and at a time when polyphonic playing had just become possible. He was rapidly becoming a Joe Zawinul for the 1980s.
‘As Falls Wichita’ may be the most ‘rock’ music released on the ECM label during the 1980s, with the possible exception of David Torn’s 1987 record Cloud About Mercury. It also seems dangerously ambitious. Then again, the whole album was recorded in just three days! Lesser musicians could have taken a month to record this track alone.
Apparently chiefly written to play over the PA system before Metheny Group concerts, it’s pure headphone music. The enigmatic title (apparently nicked, with permission, from an unreleased Steve Swallow composition) and superb album cover certainly help.
The track plays out like a good movie (its working title was ‘Apocalypse When’). It’s more John Carpenter than Keith Jarrett. You might even describe it as cathartic, dammit.
(Another reason for its success may be the complete lack of instrumental solos. Pat doesn’t get any solo space at all – he just plays some unobtrusive bass, chiming 12-string electric and a little six-string. All sounds are textural and in the service of the whole piece.)
A superb live version was featured on the 1983 Metheny Group album Travels. And those who remember the Christian Dior ‘Fahrenheit’ adverts in the late 1980s may be familiar with a small excerpt of the track:
But back to that ‘album of two halves’ thing. Sadly, side two of As Falls Wichita is New-Age sludge. Ponderous and flabby, it’s fuel to Pat detractors, but probably loved by acolytes.
‘September Fifteenth’, a tribute to Bill Evans (named for the date of the great jazz pianist’s death in 1980) is the chief culprit. A closing, out-of-tune version of ‘Amazing Grace’ doesn’t help. It’s music for tired Apple executives, and sounds like it was recorded in the last afternoon of the three days.
But As Falls Wichita was an unexpected smash by ‘jazz’ standards: the album got to #1 on the Billboard Jazz Charts and quickly became Metheny’s biggest seller to date.
So happy 40th birthday to the classic title track. Pour yourself something tall, tune in, drop out, get the headphones on, lie on the floor and crank it up. It’s a trip, man…
A triumph of solo guitar, and the only acoustic solo in this list, Bireli stunned the cognoscenti with this track from his 1988 Steve Khan-produced album Foreign Affairs.
36. Bros: ‘Chocolate Box’ (Guitarist: Paul Gendler)
Yes, Bros… Gendler had been a fully-paid-up member of New Romantic nearly-men Modern Romance before becoming an in-demand player on the UK scene, and he enlivened this hit with a raunchy, nimble classic.
35. REO Speedwagon: ‘Keep On Loving You’ (Guitarist: Garry Richrath)
Unreconstructed, huge-toned, double-tracked solo which revels in being almost out-of-tune throughout. Its sheer, brilliant in-your-faceness always comes as somewhat of a shock.
34. George Benson: ‘Off Broadway’
Slick, tasty solo from a truly great player, exploding out of the speakers from about 3:13 below. The tune is of course a Rod Temperton-penned, post-disco beauty from Give Me The Night.
33. Killing Joke: ‘Love Like Blood’ (Guitarist: Geordie)
This is ‘just’ a melody, but it’s a great melody, escalating in volume and intensity.
32. Phil Upchurch: ‘Song For Lenny’ (Guitarists: Phil Upchurch/Lenny Breau)
A couple of superb solos from a great, totally forgotten 1984 Upchurch solo album Companions. Breau stuns with his array of false harmonics and jazzy runs, while Upchurch brings the blues feeling.
31. Frank Zappa: ‘Alien Orifice’
It’s nice to hear Frank blowing over a few changes rather than his usual one or two-chord vamps. And he really gets a nice ‘flowing’ thing going here, right in the middle of one of his densest compositions. Starts at around 1:32:
30. Cameo: ‘A Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Fred Wells)
From the classic album Single Life, this solo goes way over and beyond the call of duty for an ’80s soul ballad. But it’s mainly included for its brilliant final flourish, spitting notes out like John McLaughlin. Who is Fred Wells and where is he now?
29. Rush: ‘YYZ’ (Guitarist: Alex Lifeson)
Hard to do without this flowing, creamy, Strat-toned classic on one of the great rock instrumentals of all time (though inexplicably it lost out to The Police’s ‘Behind My Camel’ at the Grammies…).
28. Kevin Eubanks: ‘That’s What Friends Are For’
A real hidden gem from the almost impossible-to-find Face To Face album, Eubanks lays down a short but beautifully-structured solo on a cool cover version, from about 2:45 below.
27. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’
Good fun and totally unpredictable. Also notable for its lovely Spanish-style flurry of triplets in its last two bars.
26. Starship: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (Guitarist: Corrado Rustici)
Cheesy? Maybe a bit, but who cares when it’s this well-structured and performed. Add a great tone, nice string-bending and a lovely phrase at the end and you’ve got a classic. Starts at 2:58:
25. Queen: The Invisible Man (Brian May)
May played a lot of great solos in the late 1980s, mostly on other people’s records (Holly Johnson, Fuzzbox, Living In A Box etc) but this one was just a kind of ‘play as many notes as possible in eight bars’ solo, and it’s a killer. From about 2:30 below:
24. Lee Ritenour: ‘Mr Briefcase’
Rit found the sweet spot on his Ibanez many times in the early ’80s, no more so than on this single that kicked off the classic Rit album. The solo also sounds double-tracked too, no mean feat considering the crazy bunch of 32nd notes at the end of bar 10.
23. Michael Jackson: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ (Guitarist: David Williams)
Not so much a solo as a suddenly-foregrounded riff, Williams became one of the most in-demand US session players after laying down this classic.
22. Pat Metheny: ‘Yolanda You Learn’
A marvellous, ‘singing’ guitar-synth solo from the First Circle album, rhythmically interesting and reflecting a strong Sonny Rollins influence, also closing with a cool quote from the standard ‘My One And Only Love’.
21. Frank Zappa: ‘Sharleena’ (Guitarist: Dweezil Zappa)
Frank’s son was apparently just 14 years old when he laid down this absurdly fluid cameo, at 2:05 below:
20. Eric Clapton: ‘Bad Love’
Nice to hear Eric pushing himself for once, delivering a striking solo played right at the top of the neck, demonstrating a mastery of string-bending and precise fingering.
19. Sadao Watanabe: ‘Road Song’ (Guitarist: Carlos Rios)
A classic rock/fusion solo, all the more impressive because it’s apparently double-tracked, from the album Maisha. Rios is still one of the most in-demand session players in Los Angeles (and one of the few leftie fusion players…), probably best known for his work with Gino Vannelli, Chick Corea and Lionel Richie.
18. Prince: ‘Batdance’
It’s the unapologetic volume and raucous tone, almost distorting it’s so hot in the mix.
17. David Sanborn: ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Buzz Feiten)
Feiten seems a weirdly unrecognised figure in the guitar fraternity, but he contributed some great stuff to Sanborn’s seminal Voyeur album including this tasty break over a killer Marcus Miller/Steve Gadd groove. There are some lovely moments when Sanborn’s sax cuts in to augment his solo.
16. Paul Simon: ‘Allergies’ (Guitarist: Al Di Meola)
I love hearing ‘jazz’ musicians turning up on ‘pop’ records, and this is a classic of its kind featuring all of Al’s trademark licks in one short, tasty burst. It’s a lot more fun than listening to his solo albums, anyway… Starts at around 2:46.
15. Manhattan Transfer: ‘Twilight Zone’ (Guitarist: Jay Graydon)
At a time when he was getting much more into the production game, Graydon still found time to toss off a double-tracked showstopper on this hit single. All in a day’s work for the session genius who of course unleashed the famous solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’. Speaking of which…
14. Steely Dan: ‘Glamour Profession’ (Guitarist: Steve Khan)
A mini masterpiece of precision and invention. Khan is given his head and takes the classic tune OUT in the last three minutes. When the chord changes, he changes. Stay right through the fade too – he plays some of his best stuff towards the end. Kicks off at 5:30.
13. King Crimson: ‘Elephant Talk’ (Guitarists: Adrian Belew/Robert Fripp)
Two great solos for the price of one on this Discipline opener. Fripp supplies the opening horn-like curio, then Belew adds some fire and a bit of famous elephantosity for good measure.
12. Living Colour: ‘Funny Vibe’ (Guitarist: Vernon Reid)
A classic modern blues solo from a modern master, adding excitement and elan to an already burning piece, helped along by Will Calhoun’s cajoling kit work.
11. Steely Dan: ‘Third World Man’ (Guitarist: Larry Carlton)
Another day, another classic Steely guitar solo, this one recorded in 1977 during the Aja sessions but not unleashed for another three years. Again, double-tracked for lasting power, featuring a superb mastery of tone and melody.
Sadly this is my only female entry in the list (more suggestions please), but it’s a fuzz-toned, anthemic treat, with shades of Santana and McLaughlin. From around 3:04 below:
9. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (Guitarist: Andy Summers)
It’s the random, off-the-cuffness that appeals on this one. Summers sounds a lot more p*ssed off than usual, possibly reeling from yet another Sting jibe.
8. Steve Vai: ‘Call It Sleep’
Just a superb guitar composition from top to tail, but the moment at 1:22 when he stomps on the distortion pedal and rips it up is a great moment of ’80s music.
7. Propaganda: ‘Dream Within A Dream’ (Guitarist: Stephen Lipson)
Lipson modestly provided three or four extremely memorable guitar features during his golden ZTT period (not least Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’), but this one gets extra points for its infinite reverb and a dynamite fuzztone.
6. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (Guitarist: Edwyn Collins)
Just a funny two-fingers-up to the well-made solo, and also a fond homage to Pete Shelley’s famous break on Buzzcock’s ‘Boredom’.
5. Frank Gambale: ‘Credit Reference Blues’
Just wind him and watch him go. It starts slowly, almost wistfully, but then becomes a fire-breathing classic. Still scary after all these years.
4. Dire Straits: ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (Guitarist: Mark Knopfler)
The closing solo is just an oasis of choice phrases and unique tones.
3. Van Halen: ‘One Foot Out The Door’ (Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)
Of course ‘Beat It’ is the industry standard, and possibly the greatest guitar solo of all time, but I’m going for this curio which closes out the oft-forgotten Fair Warning album. He just blows brilliantly over the changes with a gorgeous tone.
2. Jeff Beck: People Get Ready
The second and last solo is the one, a feast of Jeff-isms. A rare good bit from the rather poor Flash album.
1. Stanley Clarke: ‘Stories To Tell’ (Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth)
No chucking out any old solo for our Allan – this is a brief but fully-formed, perfectly structured, wide-interval classic that is easily the best thing about the tune. He seems to get a bit ‘lost’ in the middle, but then regroups for a stunning closing section over the rapid chord changes. Starts at 2:04:
You know the guy: long, bushy hair, beatific grin, jeans, sneakers, long-sleeved T-shirt, usually rhapsodizing intensely via some kind of guitar gizmo.
Despite his many stylistic detours, Pat Metheny is a brand all right, and his music inspires a devotion and attendant sales profile that has rarely – if ever – been afforded to ‘jazz’ musicians.
If you – like me – aren’t always enamoured by the bulletproof sincerity of his stage presentation (in Gary Giddins’ memorable words, he ‘intones plush melodies with excessive sobriety, as though the notes were transmitted directly from God’ – the main reason why I’ve always preferred his stuff on record rather than live…), it’s beyond doubt that Metheny is one of the great guitar soloists.
Mervyn Cooke’s superb new book ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years, 1975-1984′ sheds light on the first – and, for me, best – decade of the guitarist’s recording career, when he was the famous European jazz label’s top turn.
It’s an academic study, though never boring and certainly never predictable, with close attention played to Pat’s guitar styles, musical history, tunings, key collaborators (loads of new stuff about Jaco, Charlie Haden, Michael Brecker, Gary Burton and Lyle Mays here), equipment, album cover designs and inspirations.
There are fascinating details, like Metheny’s obsession with flat ride cymbals (hence his deliberate placement of drummers onstage, ride cymbals always in close proximity to his left ear) and his singular band-leading philosophies. There are solo transcriptions and quotes from archive interviews.
Cooke also shrewdly compares Metheny’s studio work in this era to that of Weather Report’s, drawing parallels between both acts’ meticulous sculpting of ‘spontaneous’ musical performances and attempts to concoct ‘through-composed’ – rather than vamp-based – material.
Metheny fans will love ‘The ECM Years’, as will anyone who has even the faintest interest in guitar trends of the last 40 years. It also serves as a rich biography of ECM Records in its early years, with numerous revelations about label boss Manfred Eicher.
Reading the book sent me running back to choice cuts from Pat’s early albums that I liked during my teenage years – Bright Size Life, American Garage, 80/81, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, Travels, Rejoicing, First Circle, Song X.
Revisiting As Falls Wichita in particular has been somewhat of a revelation. (Prog fans: check out side one. It’s a cinematic masterpiece, analysed in great detail by Cooke.)
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.
I was a fan of most things jazz/rock as a 16-year-old, scuttling off to HMV or Virgin in central London to buy the latest stuff by John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, Steps Ahead, John Scofield, Bireli Lagrene and Miles.
Whilst Pat Metheny was never a favourite, I dug American Garage and 80/81, and always had a soft spot for Lyle Mays’ keyboard playing. His 1987 debut album featured a fantastic band (Bill Frisell, Marc Johnson, Billy Drewes, Alex Acuna and Nana Vasconcelos) and promised a lot for the future.
1988’s Street Dreams didn’t disappoint. It is to some extent a big-budget ‘vanity project’, full of guest appearances and experiments, but it’s all the better for that and virtually impossible to categorise.
Recorded exclusively at the Power Station in New York, Street Dreams has the range and ambition of some key pop albums of the era – yup, this is fusion’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome… It also for the most part avoids the new-age sentimentality that Metheny is sometimes prone to.
I delved deeply into Street Dreams – it was a real Walkman album, creating a movie in one’s mind. To this day, I seldom listen to a tune in separation; I have to check out the whole thing in one sitting.
‘Feet First’ sounds like an outtake from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly with the vocals taken off (and features some classic Steve Gadd); ‘August’ and ‘Hangtime’ are superb tone poems featuring tasteful work from Frisell, Johnson and Peter Erskine.
‘Before You Go’ is space-age muzak with sprawling orchestrations out of the Claus Ogerman book, and ‘Possible Straight’ is cracking big-band jazz with some great drumming by Steve Jordan.
The title track is just bonkers and has to be heard to be believed. It takes in elements of prog rock, minimalism (with its Reich-influenced marimba), New Age textures and a playful, Hermeto Pascoal-style Latin workout with Mays’ piano at its most Keith Jarrett-like.
Here’s part 2:
Compared to the sterility of most major-label jazz releases these days, Street Dreams still sounds pretty fresh, even if it is a touch lighter than what passes for jazz/rock or fusion in 2015.