What exactly does a record producer do? Of course the role covers a multitude of aspects but generally falls into two categories – the techie or the psychoanalyst.
Tommy LiPuma was definitely in the latter camp, a five-time Grammy winner, label boss (courtesy of his cult imprint Blue Thumb) and bona fide music fan who worked in the upper echelons of the biz for nearly 60 years (he died in 2017).
A cursory look through his credits reveals a natural collaborator with good taste and good ears, via key albums by Bill Evans, Michael Franks, Randy Newman, George Benson, Randy Crawford, Dr John, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis (who, along with co-writer Marcus Miller, named the track ‘Tomaas’ after him), Natalie Cole, Diana Krall, Paul McCartney and Willie Nelson.
Ben Sidran’s hugely enjoyable ‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is the first biography of the producer, and it’s hard to think of anyone better qualified to tell his story.
Sidran’s a veteran singer/songwriter and pianist who has recorded over 30 solo albums (including a few for Blue Thumb) and written some key music tomes too, including the superb ‘Talking Jazz’, and he interviewed LiPuma extensively for the book.
The fast-moving, entertaining early sections come over a bit like ‘The Godfather Part II’ rewritten by Lord Buckley. LiPuma’s rite of passage takes him through Mob-riddled Sicily, to grim, industrial Cleveland where shoe-shining and hairdressing seem like his destiny.
But a long period recuperating from injury delivers to him the power of jazz, specifically Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s miraculous bebop excursions.
LiPuma thus finds his true calling, and a brief career as a jobbing sax player leads to a short period as promotions man par excellence.
But he quickly realises that production is his true metier, and embarks on a glittering career that takes him from MOR vocal acts (The Sandpipers, Claudine Longet) to classy jazz-related roots and pop projects.
Cue a succession of amusing, fast-moving anecdotes: a fabulous section on the making of George Benson’s Breezin’, an amusing trawl through Rio with a blasted Jobim, a voyage to Planet Miles via the Tutu album, a surreal encounter with Willie Nelson, interesting sections on breaking Michael Franks and Diana Krall and finally all the recent machinations of the Universal Music Group.
‘The Ballad Of Tommy LiPuma’ is warm, witty and resolutely un-PC, initially a portrait of the music biz’s bygone Wild West era featuring an engaging roll call of shysters, hucksters and hipsters, but also encapsulating the whole history of modern recording techniques and philosophies.
It’s a great companion piece to Seymour Stein’s autobiography. There’s a lot about the business, but it’s always shot through with humour and an emphasis that, finally, music is about people.
It’s also a valuable historical document too as it’s hard to believe there’ll be any space for these kinds of hands-on, ‘daddy’ producers in the future.
Thankfully Sidran doesn’t scrimp on the musical detail – there’s a lot of sage advice for aspiring producers and arrangers alike.
Perhaps the key takeaway from the book is music’s healing power. As LiPuma writes to a friend, ‘I might have been on my own at times but I was never alone. When you’re blessed with the love of music, you are never alone.’
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:
We’ve briefly looked at crap cover versions before (though doubtless there’ll be more to come), but how about good ones from the 1980s?
It was quite easy coming up with a fairly long list. I guess the ultimate test is that at the time most people (including me) didn’t know – or didn’t care – that they were cover versions.
There wasn’t a great deal of looking back in this golden period for pop.
But it did seem as if a lot of ’80s acts had the magic touch, or at least a total lack of fear, making almost everything sound like their own. Punk probably had quite a lot to do with that.
Some of the following choices get in for sheer weirdness but most are genuine artistic achievements. Recurring themes? The Beatles, Motown, Otis Redding. Probably not too much of a surprise there. And 1981 seems a particularly good year for covers.
Anyway, enough of my yakkin’. Let the countdown commence…
33. Bow Wow Wow: ‘I Want Candy’ (1982)
32. David Bowie: ‘Criminal World’ (1983)
31. Ry Cooder: ’13 Question Method’ (1987)
Ry’s brilliant solo take on Chuck Berry from the Get Rhythm album.
30. Propaganda: ‘Sorry For Laughing’ (1985)
The Dusseldorf pop mavericks take on Josef K’s post-punk curio (apparently at Paul Morley’s urging) to produce a sweeping, majestic synth-pop classic.
29. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘Little Drummer Boy’ (1981)
28. Living Colour: ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ (1988)
27. Sting: ‘Little Wing’ (1987)
26. Randy Crawford/Yellowjackets: ‘Imagine’ (1981)
Who knew this would work? Sensitive and imaginative reading of the Lennon classic, with a classic Robben Ford guitar solo.
25. Lee Ritenour: ‘(You Caught Me) Smilin” (1981)
Gorgeous West-Coast version of Sly Stone’s pop/funk opus. Surely one of the most unlikely covers of the decade, but it works a treat.
24. Luther Vandross: ‘A House Is Not A Home’ (1982)
23. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’ (1980)
Originally a reggae track by The Slickers and first released on ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack in 1972, Martyn and drummer Phil Collins rearranged it and added some lyrics. It featured on John’s fantastic Grace And Danger album.
22. Soft Cell: ‘Tainted Love’ (1981)
Cracking version of Gloria Jones’ ’60s Northern Soul classic (written by Ed Cobb). A hit all over the world, with pleasingly remedial synth arrangement, instantly recognisable soundworld and classic intro.
21. Grace Jones: ‘Use Me’ (1981)
The Nightclubbing album featured a veritable smorgasbord of good cover versions, but this take on Bill Withers scores particularly highly for originality.
20. The Flying Lizards: ‘Sex Machine’ (1981)
19. The Replacements: ‘Cruela De Vil’ (1988)
From the brilliant Hal Willner-helmed Disney tribute album Stay Awake, you’d have been a brave punter to bet a dime on this one working, but work it does.
18. Quincy Jones: ‘Ai No Corrida’ (1981)
17. Donald Fagen: ‘Ruby Baby’ (1982)
16. Stanley Clarke: ‘Born In The USA’ (1985)
Who knows, maybe this could have provided Stanley with a novelty hit if CBS had been quicker off the mark. He references John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’ in the intro while Rayford Griffin lays down seismic grooves and a funny old-school rap.
15. The Power Station: ‘Get It On’ (1985)
‘If cocaine was a sound…’, as a YouTube wag described it. This near-hysterical rave-up is mainly the sound of a fun late-night jam (Tony Thompson’s drumming being particularly notable). Also check out guitarist Andy Taylor’s little ode to Talking Heads’ ‘Burning Down The House’ throughout.
14. Deborah And The Puerto Ricans: ‘Respect’ (1981)
A one-off solo single from The Flying Lizards’ singer, this Dennis Bovell-produced curio missed the charts but remains a fascinating post-punk artefact.
13. Roxy Music: ‘In The Midnight Hour’ (1980)
Roxy’s first cover version presumably raised some eyebrows but the lads pull it off with some aplomb, aided by Allan Schwartzberg’s tough NYC drum groove – and the fact that Bryan Ferry can’t resist adding some typical weirdness in the first 20 seconds.
12. Ringo Starr & Herb Alpert: ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (1988)
Another once-heard-never-forgotten cracker from the aforementioned Stay Awake collection, the album version is preceded by a very menacing Ken Nordine spoken-word intro.
11. Japan: ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’ (1980)
David Sylvian probably hates this but no matter. It’s hard to think of another band pulling it off. Ominous synthscapes from Richard Barbieri, a nice recorder solo by Mick Karn and brilliant ‘where’s-one?’ beat from Steve Jansen.
10. Everything But The Girl: ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ (1988)
It definitely divides opinion, but certainly fits the ‘sounds like they wrote it’ criterion.
9. Bananarama & Fun Boy Three: ‘Really Saying Something’ (1982)
Penned by Motown songsmiths Norman Whitfield, Micky Stevenson and Edward Holland Jr and first performed by The Velvelettes in 1964, it’s hard not to smile when this comes on the radio. I love the way the ladies pronounce ‘strutting’.
8. David Bowie: ‘Kingdom Come’ (1980)
The Dame’s magnificent take on a little-known track from Tom Verlaine’s 1978 debut album.
7. UB40: ‘Red Red Wine’ (1983)
No apologies for including this Neil Diamond-penned perennial. Great bassline, nice groove, lovely Ali Campbell vocal performance.
6. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (1981)
Phil closed his Face Value album with this oft-forgotten corker, featuring a classic John Giblin bassline (later cribbed by Pearl Jam for the opening of their ‘Once’) and cool Shankar violin.
5. Robert Palmer: ‘Not A Second Time’ (1980)
Robert adds some New Wave grit to this Lennon-penned rocker, and his singing has rarely been better.
4. Siouxsie And The Banshees: ‘Dear Prudence’ (1983)
3. Joan Jett & The Blackhearts: ‘I Love Rock And Roll’ (1982)
First recorded by The Arrows in 1975, this is simply one of the great singles of the 1980s and a huge hit to boot.
2. Hue & Cry: ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ (1988)
It shouldn’t work but it does, courtesy of singer Pat Kane’s excellent tone and phrasing. His trademark ‘na-na-na-na’s help too. I wonder what Kate thought of it.
1. Blondie: ‘The Tide Is High’ (1980)
Written by reggae legend John Holt and first performed by The Paragons in 1966, this was an inspired – if somewhat cheesy – choice for the band. It’s mainly included here for Debbie Harry’s delightfully off-the-cuff vocal, sounding like her first crack at the song.