Keyboard player Tony Hymas had one of the weirder music careers of the 1980s.
He began the decade helping to make There And Back one of Jeff Beck’s best albums, then popped up in a supergroup called PHD with singer Jim Diamond and drummer Simon Phillips, getting a classic UK one-hit wonder ‘I Won’t Let You Down’ (#2 in 1982!), then played on/wrote arguably the best track from Beck’s pretty poor 1985 album Flash, and then…not a lot for a while.
But he was absolutely vital in Beck’s career comeback courtesy of Guitar Shop, released in October 1989. You might even call it Beck’s last great album, and arguably Bozzio’s too.
They recorded at Jimmy Page’s residential Sol Studios in leafy Cookham, Surrey (Beck later reported: ‘When we finished the album, I left me bike in his shed, so he got a bicycle out of it too…’!). The album ended up taking eight months to write and record because Hymas brought a chess board with him.
Beck took genres that he’d touched upon throughout his career – blues, reggae, rockabilly, metal, funk, fusion – and used them as a jumping-off points, working up material with Hymas and Bozzio in the studio.
And it’s very memorable material. On the title track Beck fondly mocks the gear obsession of guitar magazines, and goes through a range of tones and effects in the process, but…it all just sounds like Jeff. A Strat or Telecaster, distortion/delay pedals, and that’s it. It’s all in his fingers.
On the masterpiece that is ‘Where Were You’, he plays the lion’s share of the melody (reportedly very influenced by the Bulgarian State Radio & Television Female Vocal Choir AKA Les Voix Bulgares) with harmonics and very judicious use of the whammy bar, bending in and out of notes with just the right amount of wrist tension.
Bozzio plays a blinder – mostly reining in his formidable technique at the expense of groove and presence – but unleashes some seriously quick double-bass playing on ‘Sling Shot’. Thrash drummers beware. And there’s THAT amazing fill at the end.
Hymas is a great accompanist – you hardly miss real bass and only very occasionally yearn for another instrumental foil for Beck. A couple of tracks on the album became live staples too, played in concert to this day – ‘Big Block’, ‘Where Were You’ and ‘Behind The Veil’.
Guitar Shop did OK in the States, making #49, but weirdly didn’t chart in the UK. But it did win a Best Rock Instrumental Grammy award in 1990. Their Hammersmith gig of 29 July that year was one of the loudest ever heard at the venue. Beck talked up the possibility of a second album and tour but it never happened. They did reform for Jeff’s birthday party at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 though. And El Becko got on ‘Rapido’:
Horn sections – they sure divide opinion, especially in the ‘pop’ realm.
Some people just cannot stand all of that pomp and circumstance, while others get turned on by a hot, punchy chart.
But like ’em or hate ’em, some great records just wouldn’t be the same without the horns: The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ for example.
But who are the most-recorded sections of all time? You’d get very short odds on The Brecker Brothers, comprising Michael on tenor and Randy on trumpet, occasionally augmented by David Sanborn on alto too.
They graced hundreds of recordings before Michael’s death in 2007, including Parliament’s ‘Chocolate City’, Todd Rundgren’s ‘Hello It’s Me’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Your Latest Trick’.
Under their own name, seven studio albums showcased a really cool sound with funky grooves and intricate harmony, somewhere between Stevie Wonder and Steely Dan.
And now they’ve been given the full-on archive treatment, a newLive And Unreleased album featuring a complete two-hours-plus gig with no edits or overdubs, recorded in Hamburg on 2nd July 1980.
This is a really impressive package, a beautifully-recorded double with extended liner notes by Bill Milkowski and additional, amusing memories from Randy Brecker.
The sh*t-hot band includes Neil Jason on bass (familiar to fans of Roxy Music’s Flesh & Blood and Avalon), Barry Finnerty on guitar (most famous for a short stint with Miles Davis), Mark Gray on keys and Richie Morales on drums.
The material is a mix of BB favourites like ‘Squids’, ‘Sponge’, ‘Some Skunk Funk’, ‘Straphanging’, ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘East River’. Pleasingly, these are pretty faithful to the original studio versions tempo-and-arrangement-wise, but there’s also a big emphasis on extended solos and one-chord vamps.
It’s also clear that, by 1980, Michael was giving Randy a serious run for his money on the composing front – his tunes and sometimes extraordinary solos dominate proceedings, particularly on the sprightly ‘I Don’t Know Either’ and ‘Tee’d Off’.
Finnerty gets a hell of a lot of solo time but is generally pretty characterless compared to other Brecker-approved studio guitarists (Hiram Bullock, Steve Khan), while Gray is excellent but too low in the mix.
Morales is rock-solid but, again, fairly anonymous compared to other Brecker favourites Steve Jordan, Terry Bozzio, Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason (hardly surprising, since they are three of the all-time greats…). Jason, with his big, buoyant, funky sound, is the star of the rhythm section.
As usual, ‘Some Skunk Funk’ makes for fascinating listening – the funk/fusion standard has become a kind of test piece for drummers (Harvey Mason, Billy Cobham and Terry Bozzio all had memorable cracks at it, offering subtly different readings). Morales has a good go here but again lacks the invention and drive of the aforementioned.
So: three-and-a-half stars for the music, five for the package. It’s definitely worth immersing oneself in it on vinyl or CD, helped by Randy’s witty between-song comments.
It’s a really strong live album with some great performances, and exemplifies an interesting period for jazz/rock when good grooves and extended solos took precedence over technical chops. Even if you can’t stand horn sections…
So here’s the second instalment of essential drum albums from the 1980s (check out part one here), a selection of the decade’s movers and shakers who either pushed the boundaries, flew somewhat under the radar or simply made the music sound better.
19. Chuck Brown And The Soul Searchers: Live ’87 Drummer: Ricky Wellman
Alongside Keith LeBlanc, Jonathan Moffett and Dennis Chambers, Wellman played some of the scariest single bass drum of the decade, laying down the go-go template that would influence everyone from Trevor Horn to Miles Davis (who headhunted Wellman in late 1987).
18. Nik Kershaw: The Riddle (1984) Drummer: Charlie Morgan
Another somewhat underrated Brit sessionman, Morgan does exactly what’s right for the songs with a lot of panache. His ghost-note-inflected grooves on ‘City Of Angels’ and ‘Easy’ are treats for the eardrums.
17. Tackhead: Friendly As A Hand Grenade (1989) Drummer/programming: Keith LeBlanc
Included because of the sheer variety of grooves, both human and machine-generated. Some beats bring to mind the sounds of electro and early hip-hop, but Keith also provides precise, tight, funky grooves on the kit.
16. XTC: English Settlement (1982) Drummer: Terry Chambers
He was not subtle but the unreconstructed Swindon powerhouse could mix it with the best of ’em when it came to rock. Strongly aided by the dream Lillywhite/Padgham production/engineering team, his cavernous grooves always hit the spot. Currently residing in the ‘where are they now’ file (Or is he? Check out the comments section below… Ed.).
15. Power Tools: Strange Meeting (1987) Drummer: Ronald Shannon Jackson
Ex-Ornette/Ayler collaborator and serious Buddhist Shannon Jackson cut a swathe through ’80s drumming with his striking solo albums and occasional projects like this frenetic trio alongside Bill Frisell and future Rollins Band bassist Melvin Gibbs. Free jazz with balls and humour. Play LOUD.
14. Roxy Music: Avalon (1982) Drummer: Andy Newmark
Hard to bet against this masterpiece of tasteful, empathetic song-accompaniment. Even more impressive is the revelation that Newmark was usually the last musician to overdub, replacing a skeletal drum machine part.
13. Nile Rodgers: B Movie Matinee (1985) Programming: Jimmy Bralower
Much-in-demand NYC programmer Bralower wasn’t every drummer’s cup of tea but he came up with many memorable, catchy beats on Nile’s forgotten second solo album. Even classy ballad ‘Wavelength’ chugs along to what can only be described as an electro groove.
12. Yes: Big Generator (1987) Drummer: Alan White
Possessing one of the crispest snare sounds of the decade, White played 4/4 rock with lots of surprises – both listener and band alike have to be on their toes – and conversely also made the most complex arrangements sound completely natural.
11. Grace Jones: Living My Life (1982) Drummer: Sly Dunbar
Sly came up with not one but two classic, much-imitated beats on this album (‘My Jamaican Guy’, ‘Nipple To The Bottle’) and also proved he could play rock with the best of them. Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan were definitely listening.
10. Mark King: Influences (1984)
We knew he’d started his musical life as a drummer but finally hearing the results of his misspent youth was well worth the wait. He gives his heroes Billy Cobham and Lenny White a serious run for their money on this varied collection, from Level-style funk to Latin-tinged jazz/rock.
9. King Crimson: Discipline (1981) Drummer: Bill Bruford
Impossible to leave out. Aided by Robert Fripp’s ‘rules’, the Surrey sticksman redefined rock drumming for the new decade, adding unusual timbres and taking the emphasis off the hi-hat. He also delivered one of the great over-the-top performances on ‘Indiscipline’.
8. Weather Report: Sportin’ Life (1985) Drummer: Omar Hakim
The fusion supergroup’s penultimate studio album is also one of their best, and Omar is a big reason why. His touch on the hi-hats and ride cymbal is instantly recognisable, and he swings hard on the inspired cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’.
7. Stewart Copeland: Rumble Fish (1983)
Not for nothing was the ex-Police man calling himself The Rhythmatist around this time: he hits anything and everything (xylophone, drum kit, marimba, piano, typewriter) to create a colourful, unique soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s black-and-white curio.
6. Sadao Watanabe: Maisha (1985) Drummers: Harvey Mason, John Robinson
A superior example of big-budget ‘smooth jazz’ before it became a cliché, Mason and Robinson split the drum duties and perfectly compliment each other. The latter particularly lets his hair down a bit more than usual, particularly on ‘Paysages’.
5. Simple Minds: Sparkle In The Rain (1984) Drummer: Mel Gaynor
Slinky, powerful grooves from South London’s answer to Omar Hakim. He has the walls of Shepherds Bush’s Townhouse studios shaking with his uber-beats on ‘Up On The Catwalk’, ‘Waterfront’ and ‘C Moon Cry Like A Baby’.
4. Level 42: A Physical Presence (1985) Drummer: Phil Gould
An exciting live performance from one of the great British drummers. His top-of-the-beat feel and crisp sound suggest a mix of Billy Cobham and Bill Bruford, and he could also lay down explosive multi-tom fills to match both of them.
3. Chick Corea Elektric Band: Eye Of The Beholder (1988) Drummer: Dave Weckl
Love or hate Corea’s Scientology-infused, neo-classical jazz/rock, Weckl’s stellar performance on this album was beyond question. He delivered a gorgeous sound, a total mastery of the drum kit and stunning chops when required.
2. Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop (1989) Drummer: Terry Bozzio
One of the loudest drummers this writer has ever heard in concert (Hammersmith Odeon, December 1989), Bozzio delivered some of the fastest double-bass playing on record (‘Sling Shot’) and also unique takes on reggae (‘Behind The Veil’) and funk (‘Day In The House’).
1. The Clash: Sandinista! (1980) Drummer: Topper Headon
The rebel rockers embraced rockabilly, reggae, dub, calypso, punk and even funk on this ambitious triple album, but they wouldn’t have been able to go there without the versatile London sticksman.
Robbie had a strange old ’80s. He began the decade acting alongside Jodie Foster in weirdo circus movie ‘Carny‘ before becoming Martin Scorsese’s best buddy and music consultant on ‘The King Of Comedy’ and ‘The Colour Of Money’.
He ended it by making one of the best debut albums of the era – at 44 years old.
I didn’t have a clue about Robertson’s ‘mythical’ past as a founder member of counterculture heroes The Band when I first heard his superb ‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ single (which made #15 in the UK singles chart) in autumn 1987.
But I was sold immediately. I think it was Robbie’s beguiling film-noir vocal, the delicious Manu Katche/Tony Levin rhythm section (check out Levin’s little countermelody in the song’s opening minute) and swirling Daniel Lanois ‘gaseous effect’ (as Q magazine memorably dubbed the Canadian’s production style). Certainly there were echoes of Peter Gabriel’s So.
Everywhere you look on Robbie Robertson there are modern classics. Gabriel himself supplies synth and vocals to the majestic opener ‘Fallen Angel’ (dedicated to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel) and trademark Yamaha CP-300 piano to the anthemic ‘Broken Arrow’ (later covered – rather disastrously – by Rod Stewart).
The superb ‘Sonny Got Caught In The Moonlight’ features yearning backing vocals from Band-mate Rick Danko.
‘American Roulette’ is a coruscating portrait of US celebrity culture; the first verse concerns James Dean, the second Elvis and the third Marilyn. There’s some top-class rhythm section work from Levin and drummer Terry Bozzio and intriguing keyboard playing from another ex-Bandmate Garth Hudson.
‘Showdown at Big Sky’ and harrowing, Vietnam-themed, almost Clash-like ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ rock hard but with enormous finesse, mainly thanks to Katche.
Robertson’s voice has power and presence. In the main, synths are eschewed in favour of Lanois’s ambient textures and Bill Dillon’s ethereal guitars. Robbie himself supplies some biting, Roy Buchanan-ish Tele leads here and there. Bob Clearmountain works his magic on the mix. We’ll pass swiftly over the two U2 collaborations.
But Robbie Robertson is a corking debut and fascinating companion piece to Joni Mitchell’s Chalk Mark In a Rainstorm, Steve Winwood’s Back In The High Life, Neil Young’s Freedom and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy (and possibly trumps all of ’em).
This was a really interesting era for the heroes of the ’60s and ’70s. Live Aid – featuring such strong showings by Jagger, The Who, Queen and Bowie – had given the older guys a new lease of life and reason to get back out there.
However, Robbie Robertson was surprisingly somewhat of a disappointment sales-wise, only reaching #38 in the US and #23 in the UK.