Yes, they’re back, those undesirable, middle-aged, ‘legendary’ white males, with more songs that you probably couldn’t release on a major label today, more’s the pity… Check out the first six mid-lifers out of the traps here.
Lou Reed: ‘The Gun’ (1981)
39 at the time of recording, Lou brings the white heat of a Scorsese or Tarantino movie right to your door, taking on the character of a gun-wielding psychopath – maybe not that much of a stretch… But this shocking, seemingly stream-of-consciousness piece expunges a lot of bile that seems to have built up in Lou over the 1970s, fuelled by alcoholism, drug addiction and…everything, really. Key moment: the terrifyingly blank ‘Watch your wife…’. Quite brilliant, if totally unacceptable these days.
John Martyn: ‘Never Say Never’ (1981)
If Grace And Danger generally portrayed Martyn’s more tender/wistful feelings about his marriage breakup, the following year’s Glorious Fool was decidedly more barbed. ‘Never Say Never’ is Exhibit A, with a 32-year-old John opening up with ‘Shut up! Close your mouth!’. Things get weirder/more intense from there, propelled by Phil Collins’ battering drums reverberating mightily off the Townhouse studio’s stone walls.
Neil Young: ‘Don’t Cry’ (1989)
Neil (43 at the time of recording) surveys the detritus of a relationship breakup from a scarily blanked-out perspective, though his real feelings about the matter are maybe revealed by some of his most extreme guitar tones on record. Exciting, life-affirming stuff, even if the lyric suggests otherwise.
Robert Fripp/Peter Hammill: ’Disengage’ (recorded 1978, released 1985)
Fripp, 32 at the time of recording, lets it all hang out with his pals Peter Hammill on vocals and a Mr P Collins on drums (yes, Philip again…), a seriously paranoid tale of a relationship schism from a certain ‘Mrs Marion’ with Hammill delivering a deranged, brilliant vocal over a mixed-meter groove and exciting modal riffs. Funny, scary and pretty warped.
Frank Zappa: ‘We’re Turning Again’ (1982)
42 at the time of recording, Uncle Frank skewers 1960s heroes Donovan, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and The Byrds, and the piano motif may take the mickey out of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’. Ike Willis even pops up with an impersonation of legendary newscaster Walter Cronkite. Apparently guitarist Steve Vai was so offended by ‘We’re Turning Again’ that he refused to play it live, though Frank later said he was just making fun of the whole sixties media circus. For FZ-haters, it probably contains everything they despise in one song, but for fans it’s a typically provocative mix of ‘happy’ music and uncompromising lyrics.
Randy Newman: ‘My Life Is Good’ (1983)
39 at the time of recording, Randy’s track came from 1983’s Trouble In Paradise, the thesis of which seemed to be that there was something very rotten inside The American Dream. The ‘beauty spots’ of LA and Miami were struggling, and toxic celebrity was the true currency of Reagan’s America. But in this song he’s completely complicit in the whole thing, totally part of the scene, and he hates himself for it. Luckily for us…
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:
If you were to ask fans of 1980s King Crimson why they love the band, lyrics probably wouldn’t be a priority.
But, pushed hard by Robert Fripp and possibly influenced by the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’, Adrian Belew came up with some choice words on Beat, the excellent second album from this remarkable quartet.
References to the Beat writers abound; ‘Neal and Jack and Me’ concerns Kerouac and his best friend Neal Cassady and mentions several significant Kerouac works; ‘Heartbeat’ is the name of a book written by Cassady’s wife Carolyn about her experiences with the Beats; ‘Sartori In Tangier’ references the Moroccan city where a number of Beats resided; ‘Neurotica’ shares its title with a very influential Beat-era magazine, and presumably ‘The Howler’ refers to Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.
As the saying goes, you take inspiration where you find it, and Belew had come up with a very handy concept on which to hang the new band improvisations. Musically, Beat is a brilliant development of the Discipline sound. ‘Neurotica’ and ‘The Howler’ feature some remarkable, unhinged ensemble playing, teetering on total chaos.
On the latter, Bill Bruford delivers intricate patterns on his acoustic/electric kit (with shades of Steve Reich, acknowledged with Bruford’s credit for ‘Drumming’) while Belew’s white-noise guitar outburst is a killer (he repeats the trick on ‘Waiting Man’ and ‘Neal’, extending his palette of sounds from Discipline and sometimes tuning his high E string down to a C).
‘Sartori’ is a superb vehicle for Fripp while ‘Waiting Man’ demonstrates the amazing rhythm dexterity of the band, a development of the ‘Village Music’ concept with Bruford and Tony Levin sharing a tricky 3/4 figure (joined by Belew on drums when they played it live) underneath an expressive vocal performance.
There’s even a noble, painless attempt at a pop hit with ‘Heartbeat’. The only track that outstays its welcome is ‘Requiem’, a fairly dreary investigation of A-minor.
In short, the musical intelligence of this unit was pretty damn scary. But they never neglected a crucial factor: melody. Lesser bands might have built their entire careers on any Beat song.
Not surprisingly, tensions were high during the London recording sessions. Echoing the situation with The Police around the same time, they sought out a producer who might act as peacemaker.
Fripp told writer Anthony DeCurtis in 1984: ‘We tried to get someone from the outside to organise it: Rhett Davies. I think if failed. I would rather have the wrong judgement of a member of the band than the right judgement of someone outside the band.’
Also, Belew was now very much the centre of attention and under pressure to produce melodies and lyrics to order. According to Bruford’s autobiography, Belew told Fripp to leave the studio after one too many barbs from the bespectacled Wimbornian, who ‘went straight back to Dorset and was silent for three days’. Only some desperate calls from Bruford and manager Paddy Spinks rescued the situation.
In the same 1984 interview as above, Fripp said of ’80s Crimson: ‘I feel I’ve created a field in which other people can discover themselves’. On the evidence of Beat, he did a fine job.
14th April 1981: King Crimson – or Discipline, as they are currently named – are rehearsing new material in deepest Dorset.
But all is not well. Guitarist/de facto leader Robert Fripp is getting seriously ticked off with Bill Bruford’s drumming.
He outlines the pertinent issues in his diary (available to read in the remastered CD’s liner notes):
Bill is really getting to me, so I’m trying to understand how he works: 1. He’s a very busy player and doesn’t enjoy playing sparsely. 2. His parts have lots of fills and major changes of texture. 3. His fills are dramatic ie., they shock.
So Fripp comes up with some suggestions for Bruford:
1. Repeat yourself. 2. Take your time. 3. Leave room. 4. Listen to everybody else. 5. Develop a new set of clichés. 6. Develop a new vocabulary of drum sounds. 7. Listen to the sound of what you play.
Bruford’s autobiography outlines his general attitude to these instructions. But he gamely meets Fripp halfway and adapts his style accordingly, laying off the hi-hats, ride and crash cymbals unless absolutely necessary and adding a set of Octobans, a China cymbal and a few electric drums to his kit.
There are other Fripp stipulations. The music’s high frequencies should be saved for the electric guitar (Fripp was perhaps influenced by the ‘rules’ set by Peter Gabriel for his groundbreaking third album) and the 16th notes usually played by the hi-hat or ride cymbal should also now be the guitarists’ responsibility.
The formula was set. And one of the great albums (and bands) of the ’80s was born.
There was something very exciting in the air around late ’70s/early ’80s rock. The talk was all of ‘village music’ – an African concept wherein each player’s contribution is vital but only a small part of the mighty whole.
Talking Heads’ Remain In Light, Brian Eno/David Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, David Bowie’s Lodger, Japan’s Tin Drum and Gabriel III showed how ‘world’ influences could integrate with ‘rock’ to thrilling effect, and Discipline fits in very neatly with those albums.
Musical references might come from Mozambique, Java, China, Bali or South Africa, or from the soundworlds of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Glenn Branca, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Like Talking Heads, King Crimson filtered these influences through a New York art-rock/post-punk perspective but, arguably, no one integrated them more successfully.
Fripp and Bruford recruited Adrian Belew (who chose Crimson over Talking Heads) and Tony Levin in New York. Belew had grown into an incredibly assured vocalist – according to Bruford, he was literally incapable of singing out of tune – and master of unusual guitar textures. His solos featured tones and approaches never heard before.
Levin had already played bass with a plethora of heavyweights including Paul Simon, John Lennon and Gabriel, and had also just turned down an invitation to join Weather Report at the beginning of 1981. He unleashed a new weapon for the Crimson gig – the ten-stringed Chapman Stick, played by tapping or ‘hammering on’ (heard to great effect during the opening of ‘Elephant Talk’).
Back in the mid-’80s, my brother and I used to peruse Discipline‘s liner notes for clues as to the powerful and mysterious music therein. We didn’t have a clue what a ‘Stick’ was, concluding wrongly that it must be the slightly synthetic woodblock sound heard throughout ‘The Sheltering Sky’ and title track (I’m still not sure what that sound is – maybe a ‘triggered’ Bruford hi-hat?).
Tony Levin and Chapman Stick
The band wrote an hour of new material fairly quickly and toured modestly in the UK during April and May 1981, calling themselves Discipline. The album of the same name was recorded over the summer at Island’s Basing Street Studio in Notting Hill (later Trevor Horn’s Sarm complex) with producer Rhett Davies, fresh from helming Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood.
By September, pleasantly surprised by the quality of music in the can, Fripp was issuing a lengthy (and fairly incomprehensible) press release explaining why the band would henceforth be known as King Crimson.
As Bruford says in his book, ‘For a couple of years at the beginning of the ’80s, we were the right band in the right place at the right time – not to get hits, but to do useful, fascinating and right work.’
He also says that the Crimson drum stool was one of the three best rock gigs in the last few decades of the 20th century, naming the other two as Gabriel and Frank Zappa. Hard to argue with that.
Recorded 1985/1986 at The Manor, Oxfordshire, and Townhouse, Shepherds Bush
UK album chart position: 24
Recently, I was honoured to be asked by photographer William Ellis to contribute to his One LP project where he asks musicians, writers and music business figures to speak about the album that has been most important to them.
I was given the album by my parents on my 14th birthday. I had heard the single ‘Taking The Veil’ a few weeks before and it had struck me immediately as something I needed to check out. Concurrently, I was getting into Japan, Sylvian’s band from the early ’80s.
But Gone To Earth had a whole new influence: ECM-style jazz. Kenny Wheeler plays some beautiful solos, John Taylor features strongly on piano, and Harry Beckett blows all over ‘Wave’. Back in the mid-’80s, pop music embraced jazz with ease, but now it seems like the two worlds have completely diverged. Sylvian combines both elements really nicely.
When I delved deeper into Sylvian’s lyrics, I realised that they could be related to romantic affairs – there was a ‘pop’ element to them – but they could also be spiritual in nature, about ‘the other’ in general, touching on religious ideas, metaphysical ideas. That concept has fascinated me as I’ve got older.
Side two of Gone To Earth is completely instrumental. Sylvian loathed the term ‘new age’ and instead produced ambient music which was more environmental, geared towards self-reflection and an appreciation of nature. He once said, ‘If I didn’t live in a city, I wouldn’t need to make this music.’
On ‘The Healing Place’, German artist Joseph Beuys speaks about his vision of art. Another track features Robert Graves reciting his poem ‘The Foreboding’. The voice of JG Bennett makes a few appearances, familiar from Fripp’s Exposure.
And then, of course, there’s Sylvian’s voice. I think of it as an instrument. Some people find him a bit doomy, depressing, po-faced, but I’m always inspired by his melodies. He’s also a great, natural musician, very underrated/understated on keyboards and guitar.
The story goes that Virgin didn’t want to fund the second instrumental side. You can imagine, can’t you? They said, ‘This pop singer’s trying to an album of instrumentals? What’s going on?’, even though Bowie had done it ten years before. In this fascinating interview from 1986, Sylvian explains that he had to work on side two in his ‘spare’ time, away from Virgin’s watchful eye. I’m glad he did.
Musically, the album is also a guitarists’ dream: Robert Fripp, Phil Palmer, Bill Nelson and Sylvian himself contribute memorable, considered work. Nelson in particular is a revelation. Sylvian gives him space to sculpt and layer his parts, and he delivers some brilliant solos. BJ Cole adds some dreamy pedal steel.
In 1988, I saw Sylvian at the Hammersmith Odeon with a great band featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, David Torn on guitar and Steve Jansen on drums. It was tremendously exciting; there was a kind of ‘goth’ element at the gig which surprised me and lots of young women screaming for Sylvian!
He was still holding onto his ‘pop’ status – it’s no mean feat for an 80-minute, half-instrumental album to reach 24 in the charts. It was a time when pop music had a lot more mystique; you had to scan The Face, Wire, NME or Melody Maker to glean any snippets of information about artists of Sylvian’s calibre.
Every time I listen to Gone To Earth, I notice something new. It’s such a layered, beautiful piece of music, almost always to be enjoyed in one sitting, and it came out during an incredibly fertile period for Sylvian – the 1984-1987 run of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth and Secrets Of The Beehive surely matches any other artist in ’80s music…
I’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.
As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp.
Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.
The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt.
We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/Three Of A Perfect Pair playback session to Polygram Records (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see him at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.
Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings, Knowlton Church, spooky Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.
But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.
Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’ You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.