The Yacht Rock Revolution (1980-1983)

Say ‘fusion’ to most music fans and it’s the classic early-‘70s jazz/rock of Miles or The Mahavishnu Orchestra that would probably come to mind.

But a decade later another kind of fusion was taking place, a mainly-American sound that drew on influences from R’n’B, jazz, pop, funk, AOR and MOR.

Yacht Rock was upwardly-mobile, multi-layered, widescreen, moneyed, beautifully-produced music, usually involving a string section and/or horns, generally West Coast-originated, driven by the lush production style of the time and effortless brilliance of the musicians involved.

The Yacht House Band generally centred around a few key members of the band Toto: Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on keyboards and Steve Lukather on guitar. You’d also have to factor in guitarists Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, keyboard players David Foster, Michael Omartian, Robbie Buchanan and Greg Phillinganes, drummers John ‘JR’ Robinson and Steve Gadd, bassists Louis Johnson and Abe Laboriel, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, horn arranger Jerry Hey, string arranger Johnny Mandel and a whole host more.

These were the greatest ‘rock’ musicians in the world, brought up on The Beatles, Beach Boys, Hendrix, Miles, McLaughlin and James Brown, making up their parts on the spot with the studio meter running, embellishing the basic chord changes with their own unique feel and voicings and bringing to life jazz-influenced compositions by some of the great songwriters of that or any other era: Kenny Loggins, Burt Bacharach, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager, Rod Temperton, Fagen and Becker, David Foster, Jay Graydon et al.

All kinds of singers got sucked in to this vibe, dialling down the operatics and dialling up the melody and behind-the-beat phrasing: George Benson, Patti Labelle, Michael Franks, Randy Crawford, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Manhattan Transfer, Leon Ware, Lionel Richie. Even a few Brits got onboard – George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Carrie’ are great stabs at the sound.

With a few notable exceptions, it was all over by 1984. The technology started running the show. Everyone was looking for the right drum machine, budgets were slashed and the great session musicians moved into production and songwriting. Stanley Clarke/George Duke’s heroic ‘Atlanta’ was somewhat of a finale for this kind of music; it’s quite affecting in a way.

Of course this stuff is way too laidback for some, the sound of clock-watching session musicians producing aural cotton candy, too close to muzak for comfort. It would be totally understandable to reach for the Throbbing Gristle after a while. But if it’s your bag you can really get lost in it – it’s pure comfort music, and brilliant for headphones.

Here’s a selection of the finest 1980s Yacht Rock artefacts for your listening pleasure. Ahoy there mateys, and wishing you a smooth sail.

Dedicated to James Broad.

Jamel v. Mid-Music Crisis

You’ve heard of a midlife crisis, but is there such a thing as a mid-music crisis?

A time when music has lost its shine and you’ve heard it all before? The new stuff sounds derivative and you’ve forgotten exactly why you took to your old favourites?

Well, an antidote may be at hand, in the shape of Jamel_AKA_Jamal (Jamel Griffin), a YouTuber and music fan from South Central Los Angeles. Born in 1980, he was brought up mainly on hip-hop but also a kind of shared American music heritage, so he’s familiar with ‘classic rock’ staples of the last 50 years without necessarily being able to identify bands or artists.

On his YouTube channel, he’s been seeking viewer recommendations for ‘reaction’ videos (put simply, he films his reactions to hearing a ‘new’ track, and responds in real time). As far as I can make out, thus far the tunes have mainly been of a rockist bent (Rush, ZZ Top, Mr Bungle, Living Colour, Doobie Brothers), but then I came across his take on Steely Dan.

His spontaneous reactions reveal a shrewd interpretation of the lyrics and a rare appreciation for the music. He also reminds me exactly why I loved the band in the first place, bringing the joy and soul of a true fan. With added humour. I’m now bingeing on his excellent Steely vids, but it all started here:

Great Guitar Solos Of The 1980s (Take Two)

We continue our rundown of classic solos from the 1980s. You can check out the first part here. Any missing? Of course. (Wanted: a lot more classic metal/post-punk solos). Let us know in the comments section below.

38, Shakespears Sister: ‘You’re History’ (Guitarist: Stevie Salas)

37. Bireli Lagrene: ‘Rue De Pierre Part 3’

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, weirdly double-tracked solo which revels in being almost out-of-tune throughout. Its sheer 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.

10. Wendy & Lisa: ‘Waterfall’ (Guitarist: Wendy Melvoin)

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 the beauty of its infinite reverb and a dynamite fuzz tone.

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:

China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse 30 Years Old Today

‘File under: Victims Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’. That was Q magazine’s memorable verdict on What Price Paradise, CC’s 1986 studio album. They had a point – it was producer team Langer & Winstanley’s unfathomable attempt to turn the Liverpudlians into Madness.

But when Steely Dan co-founder/co-songwriter Walter Becker came back onboard for ’89’s Diary Of A Hollow Horse, released 30 years ago today, normal service was resumed. It now sounds like a perfect follow-up to the 1985 classic Flaunt The Imperfection.

Becker was reluctant to record in England so persuaded the band to convene at George Benson’s Lahaina studio in Maui, Hawaii, just down the road from Becker’s home. He brought engineer Roger Nichols along for the sessions too, famous for his painstaking work on Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. Nichols apparently taught all of the band how to scuba dive during their time off.

It’s hard to know what sort of expectations Virgin Records had for this album. What they ended up with is a kind of chamber pop, mainly the sound of a great, super-tight band playing live in the studio. The only concessions to ’80s music are the teeniest bit of reverb on the drums and the occasional synth overdub, to add colour in lieu of a horn section.

Becker’s real contribution seems to be on the arrangement side (the tasty modulation for the guitar solo in ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’ is a case in point), and he also brings in great backing singers Maxine Waters, Myrna Matthews and Linda Harmon, saxist Jim Horn, guitarist (and Countdown To Ecstasy engineer) Tim Weston and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, who presumably used up most of the recording budget.

Virgin obviously computed the ‘hits’ as ‘Red Letter Day’ and ‘St Saviour Square’, summarily canning Becker’s versions of the songs and bringing in Mike Thorne to ‘re-produce’ them (the ploy didn’t work – the singles stiffed at #84 and #81 respectively). You can listen to all of the versions on YouTube.

Hollow Horse also didn’t work commercially, only reaching #58 in the UK album charts. But this was a period when some great pop/rock by the likes of Danny Wilson, It Bites, Love & Money and David Sylvian (all Virgin acts except for one… hint, hint…) also failed to find a big audience. CC’s album sales diminished as the quality of their work increased – the game was up in terms of major-label support, but amongst fans of quality ’80s pop Hollow Horse has only gained status over the years.

The lads reproduced the album perfectly at London’s Dominion Theatre in spring 1989, a gig whose details elude me apart from the late Kevin Wilkinson’s superb drumming (and ahead-of-its-time, side-on kit placement) and vocalist Gary Daly proudly saying ‘That’s a good one, tha’!’ after ‘Day After Day’. He had good reason to feel chuffed – Diary Of A Hollow Horse still sounds like a minor classic 30 years on.

Great Opening Lines In 1980s Songs

The 1980s produced some fine lyricists. You couldn’t move for decent wordsmithery. But interesting lyrics came from the damndest places. 

What was that Trevor Horn maxim? A good pop song should be like a good story, such that the listener is always asking: what’s going to happen next?

And, like a good story, pretty much every good song starts with an intriguing opening line or two. As the proverbial cigar-munching music-biz mogul might say: ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar, kid…’ So here are some great opening lines from 1980s songs, lines that hopefully satisfy Horn’s requirements.

Everything But The Girl: ‘Each And Every One’

‘If you ever feel the time/
To drop me a loving line/
Maybe you should just think twice/
I don’t wait around on your advice’

 

Associates: ‘Club Country’

‘The fault is/I can find no fault in you’

 

Wet Wet Wet: ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’

‘I was living in a land of make believe/
When my best friend wrote and told me that there may be a job in the city’

 

Lou Reed: ‘How Do You Speak To An Angel’

‘A son who is cursed with a harridan mother or a weak simpering father at best/
Is raised to play out the timeless classical motives of filial love and incest’

 

Steely Dan: ‘Babylon Sisters’

Drive west on Sunset to the sea/
Turn that jungle music down/
Just until we’re out of town’

 

Associates: ‘Party Fears Two’

I’ll have a shower then call my brother up/
Within the hour I’ll smash another cup’

 

Joni Mitchell: ‘Chinese Cafe’

‘Caught in the middle/
Carol, we’re middle-class/
We’re middle-aged/

We were wild in the old days/
Birth of rock’n’roll days’

 

The Smiths: ‘Reel Around The Fountain’

‘It’s time the tale were told/
Of how you took a child and you made him old’

 

Thomas Dolby: ‘Screen Kiss’

Miller Time in the bar where all the English meet/
She used to drink in the hills/
Only now she drinks in the valleys’

 

Love And Money: ‘Hallejulah Man’

On the blind side and down the back ways/
The roots of sadness crawl/
When you can’t get what you need/
You feel like taking a torch to it all’

Joy Division: ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’

When routine bites hard and ambitions are low/
And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow’

 

The Teardrop Explodes: ‘Reward’

Bless my cotton socks/I’m in the news’

 

Tom Waits: ‘Swordfishtrombones’

‘Well, he came home from the war with a party in his head/
And a modified Brougham DeVille and a pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings’

 

Prefab Sprout: ‘Moving The River’

‘You surely are a truly gifted kid/
But you’re only as good as the last great thing you did’

 

Lloyd Cole & The Commotions: ‘Brand New Friend’

Walking in the pouring rain/
Walking with Jesus and Jane/
Jane was in a turtleneck/
I was much happier then’

Siouxsie & The Banshees: ‘Cascade’

Oh the air was shining/
Shining like a wedding ring’

 

Bob Dylan: ‘Jokerman’

Standing on the waters casting your bread/
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing/
Distant ships sailing into the mist/
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing’

 

Robert Palmer: ‘Johnny And Mary’

Johnny’s always running around trying to find certainty/
He needs all the world to confirm that he ain’t lonely’

 

Prefab Sprout: Talking Scarlet

You hide under the eiderdown/
All you can’t sweep underneath the carpet’

 

The Human League: ‘Don’t You Want Me’

I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar/When I met you’

 

Talking Heads: ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Lost my shape/
Trying to act casual/
Can’t stop/
Might end up in the hospital’

 

Scritti Politti: ‘A Little Knowledge’

Now I know to love you/Is not to know you’

 

The Smiths: ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’

Sweetness, I was only joking/
When I said I’d like to smash every tooth in your head’

Any more for any more?

The Walkman Legacy (AKA The Rise Of The Zombies)

Yesterday, when for the fifth time I was forced to avoid a rapidly approaching, earphone-wearing, phone-fixated zombie, it occurred to me that something had gone pretty wrong.

I remember the first time I was really blown away by my Walkman. It was Thomas Dolby’s samples on Joni Mitchell’s song ‘The Three Great Stimulants’. Those clanging industrial sounds seemed to be physically encroaching on me. Then there were a few other striking sonic details only revealed by close Walkman listening, including Donald Fagen’s stereo-traversing reverb vocals on Steely Dan’s ‘The Caves Of Altamira’.

The Walkman was the beginning of the truly solipsistic musical experience. But back then headphone listening definitely seemed a musical experience, designed for quiet contemplation rather than moving around the bustling big city (despite Cliff’s sojourn through Milton Keynes in the superbly naff ‘Wired For Sound’ video).

I took it to be an aural not psychological phenomenon – it was for wading into the music, not blocking out the world. (Actually a lot of ’80s music seems made for headphone listening. Talking Heads’ Speaking In Tongues and Dolby’s The Flat Earth spring to mind. Is that true of music now? Isn’t it just loud then quiet, or quiet then loud? Does this matter?)

Spotify’s MD Daniel Ek sums things up very well: ‘We are in the moment space, not the music space’. In other words, every important life ‘moment’, every emotion, should be accompanied by music. Or there’s probably something wrong with you.

This might be something to celebrate for musicians – it is, to a degree, but only a tiny percentage of artists are making money from streaming services. Taken to its extreme, it’s another weapon in the war on reality, another mode of desensitization. We are sleepwalking into trouble. We must be mindful. As JG Ballard said, there are danger signs ahead. A fear of robots? Maybe we are the robots. As we walk around in a zombified state, we are losing touch with each other. Street banter is disappearing.  Philosopher Michael Sandel recently wrote in his book ‘What Money Can’t Buy’: ‘Altruism, generosity, solidarity and civic spirit are like muscles that develop and grow stronger with exercise. One of the defects of the market-driven society is it lets these virtues vanish.’

Remember when you rushed to the shops to buy an album? We might do well to keep that excitement about music. It’s not wallpaper or the soundtrack to the mundanities of life. To paraphrase Bill Shankly, it’s far more important than that.

(We apologise for this unseemly rant in E-minor. Normal service will be resumed soon.)