21 Great 12″ Singles Of The 1980s

To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was the end of music; but to many others it was a new dawn, a chance to hear your favourite song in widescreen format, expanded into an epic and not bound by radio conventions.

The 12” came about at an exciting time in music when a few things were colliding: the cult of the ‘star’ producer, the rise of club culture, sampling/dub techniques/electronic music moving into the mainstream, and the prevailing post-punk/ ‘anything goes’ ethos.

Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were also in the right place at the right time. And it probably helped that sales of 12” singles contributed to weekly chart positions, so the stakes were high.

So to celebrate this long Bank Holiday weekend, let’s have a look at some key artefacts of the 12” revolution, a great time in music when anything – well, almost anything – went. A few of these I now prefer to the originals. Play ’em loud… And get in touch if your favourite is missing.

21. Paul Young: ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ (1985)

Laurie Latham’s completely mad mix seems entirely designed to annoy the neighbours. A cacophony of metal guitars, Pino Palladino’s floor-shaking, P-funk-influenced bass and bizarre samples. And is that a jazzy riveted cymbal slinking into the mix from time to time?

20. A Guy Called Gerald: ‘Voodoo Ray’ (1989)

A timeless collection of house music tropes which doesn’t ever seem to date. Simplicity is the key, with subtly-shifting riffs.

19. Freeez: ‘Southern Freeez’ (Slipstream mix) (1982)

This one seems impossible to find on the internet or any other compilation album apart from the marvellous Slipstream 2-LP set which came out on Beggars Banquet in 1982. It’s a feast for the eardrums with gorgeous, spacey delays and twinkling Moog lines sprinkled into the mix.

 

18. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ (1983)

Remixer Gary Langan skillfully juggles of all this classic track’s trademark features: Trevor Rabin’s chiming guitar figure, the ethereal backing vocals and those crazy samples. Plus you can really hear Alan White’s drums here – never a chore.

17. Joni Mitchell: ‘Shiny Toys’ (1985)

Joni’s a name you probably wouldn’t expect to see in this list. But remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with here – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s gorgeous rhythm guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta’s killer drums and all the silly vocal overdubs.

16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

Trevor Horn ups the ante with a cool, extended lounge-jazz intro and lots of little musical motifs, a new bass part and some new guitar solos.

15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)

I can’t resist including this recent discovery – someone has somehow got hold of the Thriller stems/mastertracks and put together a real classic. It’s even funkier than the original, if that’s possible.

14. Madonna: ‘Open Your Heart (Maxi Extended Version)’ (1986)

Steve Thompson And Michael Barbiero’s insanely exciting mash-up of Motorik sequencers, Jonathan Moffett’s sick drums and Madonna’s strident vocals, all adding up to an ‘I Feel Love’ for the 1980s.

13. Phil Collins/Philip Bailey: ‘Easy Lover’ (1985)

John Potoker came of age working with Miles Davis and Steely Dan, and his sonic mastery shows through with this stunning reimagining of a somewhat corny single, bringing the originally-submerged drum machine right to the fore and adding loads of top-end. Well, Potoker’s nickname wasn’t ‘Tokes’ for nothing…

12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)

Gary Langan was at the controls again for this stunning collision of ’50s B-Movie voices, swooning synths, rhythm guitars and bangin’ machine beats. The only thing missing is some serious low-end.

11. Grandmaster Flash/Melle Mel: ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ (1984)

Sylvia Robinson arguably laid down the groundwork for all future 12” singles with this 1984 classic.

10. Prince & The Revolution: ‘Mountains’ (1986)

If you – like me – are always frustrated when this track fades out on the album/single version, have no fear because this remix carries on for another six minutes in the same vein, and turns into one of the sickest grooves Prince ever submitted to vinyl.

 

9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)

Another entry helmed by John ‘Tokes’ Potoker, this one boosts the top-end again, adds some scary reverbs and focuses on David Rhodes’ guitar, Gabriel’s piano and background vocals and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this arrangement of the song…

8. Eric B & Rakim: ‘Paid In Full (Seven Minutes Of Madness Mix)’ (1988)

Coldcut put together this sonic feast, one of the most sampled 12”s of all time. You’ve probably heard almost everything on this remix 100 times on other tracks.

7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)

Alex Sadkin brings his Compass Point mastery to this remix, adding a real drummer (Sly Dunbar?) and bass player and pushing the sequencers and percussion right to the fore.

6. Grace Jones: ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ (1985)

‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ is possibly the more artful Grace remix, but this is included for its irresistible groove, and the fact that I always want the original single to go on for twice as long as it does. Also I love the ‘false’ ending and off-stage shout (Horn?) at 3:50.

5. Donna Summer: ‘Love Is In Control (Dance Version)’ (1982)

You could hardly go wrong with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien at the controls, but this remix just brings out the sheer luxurious beauty of this single, and I love the way various sections are repeated and amplified.

4. Will Powers: ‘Adventures In Success (Dub)’ (1983)

Chris Blackwell’s protegé Steven Stanley was in charge of this fascinating dub, completely dispensing with Lynn Goldsmith’s vocals and tantalizingly delaying the reveal of Robbie Shakespeare’s bass for as long as possible.

3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)

Included mainly for Steve Lipson’s beatific long guitar solo during the outro, and the fact that it sounds like it could go on forever…

2. Paul Hardcastle: ’19 (Destruction Mix)’ (1985)

A chilling remix which brings out a little more detail of the single version, adding more spoken-word excerpts from the ‘Vietnam Requiem’ documentary and lengthening those funky drum breakdowns.

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: ‘Rage Hard’ (1986)

Stephen Lipson and Paul Morley created this insane confection, a kind of Young Person’s Guide To The 12”, featuring Pamela Stephenson introducing all the clichés of the genre, Viv Stanshall-style! Only ZTT can do this. (It seems like sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out of this list, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).

Women And Rhythm Section First: An Interview With Keith Leblanc

keith leblanc

Keith Leblanc

When late, great bass hero Jaco Pastorius was asked about his philosophy of music, he had a stock response – ‘Women and rhythm section first!’

In the world of black music, whether jazz, funk, R’n’B or soul, the hookup between the drummer and bass player has always been pivotal. As the cliché goes, a band is only as good as its engine room.

In jazz, you can’t do much better than Tony Williams with Ron Carter or Philly Joe Jones with Paul Chambers. In funk, you can’t go wrong with Benny Benjamin with James Jamerson or Clyde Stubblefield with Bootsy. In fusion, you know it’s going to work if Dave Weckl/John Patitucci or Steve Jordan/Anthony Jackson are taking care of business.

But interestingly, possibly the most heralded rhythm section in recent black music hasn’t come out of jazz, funk or soul music (though these undoubtedly went into the mix), but rather hip-hop. Drummer Keith Leblanc hooked up with bassist Doug Wimbish and guitarist Skip McDonald when they were summoned to work on the label set up by industry veterans Sylvia and Mickey Robinson to showcase the new hip-hop artists emerging from the Bronx and Brooklyn in the mid-’70s.

Just prior to that, Keith had briefly worked with Doug and Skip in the funk band Wood, Brass and Steel but when The Sugar Hill Gang’s controversial ‘Rapper’s Delight’ became a monster hit in ’79, the Robinsons were on the lookout for a house band to lay down the foundations for the follow-up.

sugar hill records

It seems the call was inevitable, according to Keith, speaking crisply and candidly down the line from his home in Connecticut: ‘Sylvia was looking for Skip and Doug but they initially said no because they’d had a bad experience with her before. But I was new to the band and when I heard the words “recording studio” and “money”, I bugged them until they said yes! And the day we all went up there, we started recording. I didn’t want to know about the business, I just wanted to record.’

The slick, dynamic fusion of funk, rock and jazz laid down by Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald proved just the ticket for Sylvia and they were in. But in those very early days of hip-hop, the money was tight although luckily for Keith the musicianship was too. ‘I was brought up with James Brown, Muscle Shoals, Parliament/Funkadelic, Gap Band and Cameo, so playing the rap stuff wasn’t much of a stretch from what we were already doing. But the first Sugar Hill Gang album was recorded in the Robinsons’ studio which was falling to bits.’

They moved to the slightly more lugubrious surroundings of H&L Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey (also home to Rudy Van Gelder’s famous studio where so many classic Blue Note albums were recorded), and so began a golden period of recording characterised by great performances captured sometimes under great duress in the studio. Extended jams like Funky Four Plus One’s ‘That’s The Joint’, The Sequence’s ‘And You Know That’ and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s ‘Freedom’ featured jazzy horn charts, challenging stop-and-go arrangements and extended solo sections that had more in common with Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway than Eminem and Jay-Z.

These tracks were not piecemeal studio confections; according to Keith, ‘Back then, playing live in the studio was normal. The arranger Clifton “Jiggs” Chase would get with the rappers and do an arrangement based on what they wanted to use and then make up a chart. Then we’d add things. The musical ethic was really good at that time. You had to get it right or there’d be someone else in there recording the next day.’ The work ethic was almost comparable to the famous Motown production line: ‘We’d cut a track on the Friday, drive home to Connecticut, drive back to New Jersey on the Monday and hear the track on the radio.’

In the time-honoured hip-hop tradition, sometimes sections from other records were ‘replayed’ to give tracks an air of familiarity, most notoriously on the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ which stole Chic’s ‘Good Times’ groove lock, stock and barrel. But this just provided yet another irresistible musical challenge to the young Leblanc: ‘Alot of the time, we were playing maybe a bar of someone else’s music. So we wanted to cut it better than the original!’

But then came the second seismic shift in hip-hop’s history – the release of ‘Planet Rock’, Afrika Bambaataa seminal track which was the first rap tune to properly utilise newly-affordable drum machines and sequencers. And for Keith, it was both a blessing and curse: ‘When the drum machine first came out, I saw my job opportunities flying out of the window! Now anybody could make a rap record in their bedroom. But then it dawned on me that I could program a drum machine better than any engineer. I did “No Sell Out” just to see what I could do with the technology.’

Featuring a mash-up of Leblanc’s apocalyptic beats and segments of Malcolm X’s oration, the track led to many more intriguing fusions of man and machine in his recorded output and also prefigured the Tackhead project which teamed up Leblanc, Wimbish and McDonald with London dub mixologist Adrian Sherwood to thrilling effect.

Sadly, the Sugar Hill story wouldn’t be complete without reporting its demise – in less than honourable circumstances, according to Leblanc – with lots of law suits, claims and counter claims. But much of the music stands the test of time, particularly the extended jams of the ’80/’81 period which suggested a thrilling fusion of Duke Ellington, George Clinton and Trouble Funk.

Leblanc has continued to work with Doug Wimbish and Skip McDonald regularly over the years in projects such as Little Axe and Mark Stewart and the Maffia. Check out what he’s been up to on his Facebook page.