1980s Pop: The Best Bits

Earworms: ’80s pop was chock-a-block with ’em. Studio technology was blossoming fast and there was constant temptation (and pressure?) to come up with new sounds. Fairlights, Emulators, Synclaviers, gated snare drums: there had never been more ways to skin a cat.

But woe betide the ’80s popster who neglected the basic tenets of songcraft; the trick was coming up with memorable ‘bits’ that fitted seamlessly into a track and bore repeated listening. Thankfully, for every what-does-this-button-do novelty hit, there was a genuinely innovative, memorable pop confection.

So here’s a compendium of good bits from the 1980s, details that mark the decade out as a unique musical era. The rules: one artist per slot and every song has to have made the UK or US top 40 singles chart, or both…

33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’

32. The Middle Eastern-sounding synth riff in Blancmange’s ‘Living On The Ceiling’

31. Steve Jansen’s marimba solo on Japan’s ‘Ghosts’

30. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar at the tail end of Dire Straits’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’

29. Martin Drover’s trumpet riff on Adam Ant’s ‘Goody Two Shoes’

28. The bassline enters at 0:20 of The Cure’s ‘Love Cats’

Phil Thornalley is a veritable Zelig figure in ’80s pop, but even he couldn’t have imagined that his superbly simple-yet-complex bassline (try playing along) could have had such an impact on this stand-alone UK top 5 single.

27. Martin Fry’s hysterical ‘You think you’re smart/That’s stupid/Right from the start/When you knew we would part!’ at the tail end of ABC’s ‘Poison Ivy’ 

Pointing the way forward for similar outbursts from Jarvis Cocker et al.

26. The weird coda of Stephen Tin Tin Duffy’s ‘Kiss Me’

Just when you thought this slightly-annoying-but-effective UK top 10 single was all done and dusted, there’s that menacing little DX7 kiss-off…

25. Melle Mel’s laugh-rap on Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’

24. The guitar riff on The Pretenders’ ‘Back On The Chain Gang’

The jury seems to be out on whether Billy Bremner or Robbie McIntosh played this (answers on a postcard please).

23. Pino Palladino’s opening bass salvo at 0:04 of Paul Young’s ‘I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down’ 

22. David Williams’ guitar break on Michael Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”

21. The jangling piano motif of Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’

Who came up with this weird brilliance? For a generation of listeners, it’ll always be the theme to BBC radio’s ‘Week Ending’.

20. The post-chorus drum fills on It Bites’ ‘Calling All The Heroes’

Deceptively simple (leading with the left hand is not easy for a right-handed drummer), tasty fills from Bob Dalton, the Cumbrian four-piece’s sticksman.

19. The backing vocals at 1:45 of Quincy Jones’ ‘Razzamatazz’

Patti Austin’s kaleidoscopic overdubs on the Rod Temperton-penned single which reached #11 in the UK chart.

18. ‘Heeeere’s Grace!’ on ‘Slave To The Rhythm’

17. ‘Science!’

Dr Magnus Pyke’s outburst on Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ still raises a titter, but apparently he quickly came to regret his contribution to this US #5 single.

16. The Emulator string stabs which close Paul Hardcastle’s ’19’

Sending us out into that good night with a chill in the heart…

15. The spoken-word bits in Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s songs

Take your pick from: ‘Well ‘ard!’, ‘Are you flipping me off?’, ‘In Xanadu did Kublai Khan/Pleasuredome erect!’ or my favourite: ‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!

14. Neneh Cherry’s cockney accent on ‘Buffalo Stance’

13. The Sweetbreaths’ backing vocals at 1:36 on Tom Tom Club’s ‘Wordy Rappinghood’

Tina Weymouth’s sisters Lani and Laura bring the silliness, interpreted by Google thus: ‘Ram sam sam, a ram sam sam/Guli guli guli guli guli ram sam sam/Haykayay yipi yaykayé/Ahou ahou a nikichi’.

12. Bill Wyman’s French accent in the chorus of ‘(Si Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star’

Or the whole damn song really… 

11. Stevie Wonder’s harmonica solo on Eurythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel’

Is there any musician in pop music history who has better communicated pure joy?

10. The ‘Hey!’ sample on Art Of Noise’s ‘Close (To The Edit)’

Not the Noise’s Anne Dudley apparently, but Camilla Pilkington-Smyth (Who she? Ed.). A song of good bits.

9. The ‘Oh yeah!’ sample in Yello’s…’Oh Yeah’

8. Eric B’s ‘Pump up the volume!’ on ‘Paid In Full’

7. That Phil Collins drum fill on ‘In The Air Tonight’

It’s always a bit louder than you think it’s going to be…

6. Roy Bittan’s flanged piano on David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

5. The banshee-wailing on The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’

It’s a close call between that and the haunting air-raid sirens at the end.

4. The whistling on XTC’s ‘Generals And Majors’

Real whistling or a synth? Who cares? Colin Moulding’s song has more great pop hooks than you can shake a stick at.

3. Abby Kimber’s cod nursery rhyme at the end of Bucks Fizz’s ‘Land Of Make Believe’

2. The synth riff of Human League’s ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’

1. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s funky piano on David Sylvian’s ‘Red Guitar’

Have I missed out some great moments? Of course. Let me know below.

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The 11 Worst Music Videos Of The 1980s

Billy Squier doing his ‘thing’

When MTV launched on 1st August 1981, it was estimated that only 150 music videos were in circulation. So if the round-the-clock station was going to succeed, it needed new content, and fast.

But, mired in the middle of a recession, record companies were initially sceptical about the commercial clout of videos. That period was short-lived; as record exec Mick Kleber put it in the hilarious book ‘I Want My MTV’, ‘Once Duran Duran started selling records in Oklahoma, it opened everyone’s eyes.’

Suddenly the video department of the major labels was the ONLY department that was expanding. In the rush to fill MTV schedules, production went into overdrive. The likes of Toto, Christopher Cross, Journey, Stevie Nicks, Van Halen, Steve Miller and Chicago – still-big-selling acts from a different generation – were forced to ham it up in front of the camera.

And thank goodness that some of their lamest, most ill-advised attempts are preserved for posterity, and for our delectation. We are pleased to present 11 of the worst clinkers. Here you will find a strange parade of transvestites, mullets, models, douchebags, disco line-dancers and little people. What were the directors thinking? Who knows, but for once I’m inclined to concede that the 1980s might have been the decade that taste forgot…

11. Chick Corea Elektric Band: ‘Elektric City’ (1985)

From that weird sub-genre of ’80s music video: the jazz-fusion artist looks for a hit. One has to feel particularly sorry for sh*t-hot guitarist Scott Henderson (who didn’t even play on the track!), looking like Screech from ‘Saved By The Bell’, hamming it up against his better judgement. Not forgetting the brilliant jazz dance troupe IDJ – why, lads, why?

10. Hall & Oates: ‘Private Eyes’ (1981)

After an unforgivable snare-drum-in-the-wrong-place opening, one of the most unimaginative visual documents in pop history, fronted by an anaemic, manic, clearly uncomfortable Hall. It didn’t stop the single from getting to #1 in the States, though…

9. Billy Joel: ‘Allentown’ (1982)

Actually, Russell Mulcahy’s homoerotic curio would make a pretty good musical. Just putting it out there…

8. The Police: ‘Wrapped Around The Finger’ (1983)

Directors Godley and Creme’s instructions to the lads seem to have been: look as much of a pr*ck as possible…

7. Billy Squier: ‘Rock Me Tonite’ (1984)

Apparently our Billy was aiming for a homage to ‘American Gigolo’ but ended up with this slightly deranged, camp classic. ‘Directed’ by Kenny Ortega, later famed for ‘High School: The Musical’ and Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’.

6. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’ (1983)

Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring…

5. Toto: ‘Waiting For Your Love’ (1982)

We’ll leave aside that this is a very ill-advised choice of single off the back of ‘Rosanna’ and ‘Africa’. According to guitarist Steve Lukather, the video was so bad that even MTV wouldn’t play it.

4. Journey: ‘Separate Ways’ (1982)

Could it have been any more unflattering to poor singer Steve Perry? And whose ideas was it to have the guy playing air keyboards? Not to mention that the preyed-upon, obligatory ‘sexy woman’ is obviously a drag queen, when seen in long shot…

3. The Jacksons: ‘Torture’ (1984)

The clue is in the title. Michael obviously got wind of the impending disaster – he didn’t even turn up for the shoot. They used a Madame Tussauds dummy in his place.

2. Chicago: ‘Hard Habit To Break’ (1984)

Great piece of music, horrible video. Lots of ‘sensitive’ men of a certain age longing for a succession of scantily-clad model/actresses.

1. Van Halen: ‘(Oh!) Pretty Woman’ (1982)

Short people? Tick. Transvestite? Tick. Questionable antics? Tick. Ridiculously cheap production values? Tick. Definitely a case of too much bourbon and not enough brains. Roy Orbison’s views on this monstrosity are not recorded…

Are there other stinkers from the 1980s? Of course. Let us know below.

Sting’s Nothing Like The Sun: 30 Years Old Today

stingA&M Records, released 13th October 1987

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1987

8/10

Although he was surely the most effortlessly brilliant British pop musician and songwriter of the 1980s, people always found reasons to dislike Sting: his ‘dabbling’ in ecological affairs, jazz, and acting, plus the fact that he seemed to care about stuff besides pop music. But perhaps the thing that most riled the critics in the anti-muso mid-’80s was Sting’s insistence on improving himself, as a singer, songwriter and musician. British pop artists were supposed to exude a cool detachment from the ‘craft’ of pop, or at least not draw attention to it.

He probably didn’t give a monkey’s. And the fact is that in the late-’80s, some of the greatest rock, pop and jazz musicians were queueing up to collaborate with him (Frank Zappa, Mark Knopfler, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock etc).

If his debut album now sounds largely like an indulgent misfire, with the jazz and classical elements crudely ladled in with the pop, the follow-up Nothing Like The Sun – co-produced by Brothers In Arms helmer Neil Dorfsman –  fused all of Sting’s musical and political concerns in a far more cogent way. And it demonstrated that his voice had become a remarkable instrument. Along with Ten Summoner’s Tales, this is the one I come back to most all these years later.

But it’s a decidedly weird mainstream pop album, where political protest songs and love songs meet elements of fusion, cod-funk, cod-reggae, hi-life and even bossa nova. You might hear some of Sting’s chords on Herbie Hancock or Weather Report’s albums from the same period. His songwriting speciality is a great one-chord groove, a pretty melody and unexpectedly out-there lyric which makes you think ‘Did I hear that right?’ ‘They Dance Alone’ and ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ are cases in point. Talk about a sting in the tale.

The emotional and musical range is pretty impressive. When he closes the album with a very pretty, sparse neo-classical art-song (‘The Secret Marriage’), it doesn’t seem forced or trite the way ‘Russians’ did on the first album. Sting also excels in writing genuinely happy music – no mean feat. The very Paul Simonesque ‘Rock Steady’ (featuring a remarkable performance from drummer Manu Katche – listen on good speakers), ‘Straight To The Heart’, ‘We’ll Be Together’ (apparently very influenced by Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’), ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ and ‘Englishman In New York’ are deceptively simple with vibrant melodies which lodge in the memory and don’t grate.

And there are always interesting musical grace-notes throughout. Percussionist Mino Cinelu, headhunted from Weather Report, gets an amazing amount of freedom – ‘History Will Teach Us Nothing’ is almost a feature for him. Andy Summers supplies excellent textural guitar on a few tracks. Sting nicks Gil Evans’ superb rhythm section (Mark Egan and Kenwood Dennard) for Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’ and coaxes one of the great guitar solos from the late Hiram Bullock.

So, all in all, a cracking album which remains Sting’s most successful solo release, selling around 18 million and hitting #1 in the UK and #9 in the US. He couldn’t get arrested singles-wise though – the first four from the album missed out on the UK top 40 (though ‘We’ll Be Together’ made the top 10 in the US) before fifth single ‘Englishman In New York’ made the top 20 (fact fans: astonishingly, he only has three UK top 10 singles to his name, all ’90s duets…).

Book Review: Backtrack by Tessa Niles

Excellent recent documentary ’20 Feet From Stardom’ busted the myth once and for all that backing singers aren’t ‘good’ enough to be solo artists. In fact, the contrary is often true: they make the artist sound and look better, and there are often a myriad of reasons both professional and personal why they haven’t become headliners in their own right.

Tessa Niles is probably the UK’s most celebrated backing vocalist of the last 35 years, and her excellent new memoir lifts the lid on a distinguished career singing with David Bowie, George Harrison, Elton John, Kylie, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Tina Turner, Pet Shop Boys, Annie Lennox, Gary Numan, The Police, Duran Duran, ABC, Tears For Fears and Robbie Williams.

It’s a real page-turner and ’80s guilty pleasure, a voyage through all the pop fads of the decade (and decades since) and a search for a fruitful work/life balance in the face of demanding touring schedules and family commitments.

We follow Niles’ career from her early days as factory worker, cabaret entertainer and ‘Benny Hill Show’-auditioner to the late-’70s/early-’80s London live music scene, where good, young female singers could make a decent living at the city’s many nightclubs. She is excellent at painting a picture of this somewhat dodgy state of affairs, when a pre-New Romantic London was anything but swinging and ‘Page 3’ culture was at its peak.

But a shrewd volte face leads Tessa into the burgeoning jazz/funk scene and decent, reliable gigs with Morrissey Mullen and Incognito, plus a chance meeting with US ex-pat arranger and producer Richard Niles. Though their subsequent marriage gives Tessa her professional surname, it also leads to some conflicts of interest when he helms her commercially-unsuccessful solo debut.

But then Trevor Horn is on the blower and she is whisked into the studio to work on ABC’s ephocal Lexicon Of Love album, the beginning of a long and successful professional relationship with the uber-producer. ‘Date Stamp’ in particular shows Niles’ voice off to great effect.

From here on in, her career goes from strength to strength, but it’s not without its pitfalls: The Police’s long ‘Synchronicity’ world tour plays havoc with her vocal cords due to Sting’s insistence that she (and cohorts Dolette McDonald and Michelle Cobbs) sing in ‘full voice’ throughout, without any vibrato. There’s also a funny anecdote about what exactly constitutes an audition for Sting.

Then of course there’s Niles’ memorable, electrifying turn alongside David Bowie at Live Aid – it’s amazing that they only had two days’ rehearsal for the ‘little gig’, as Bowie called it.

Elsewhere, there’s lots of good technical stuff about what actually constitutes a decent studio vocal performance – and also what artists and producers demand from a backing vocalist – with wicked anecdotes concerning Tina Turner’s ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’, Steve Winwood’s ‘Roll With It’, Duran’s ‘Notorious’ and Tears For Fears’ ‘Swords And Knives’. Niles also doesn’t shy away from personal reflections about her family relationships and romances.

There’s far too much Clapton and Robbie Williams for my liking and a decent proofreader wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I devoured ‘Backtrack’ almost in one sitting. A really enjoyable, gossipy read.

‘Backtrack’ is out now on Panoma Press.

Stewart Copeland, Mark King & Adrian Belew Hook Up

copeland bandKing Crimson, The Police, Level 42: three of the greatest bands of the 1980s, loved by musicians and non-musicians alike. But, on the face of it, you might be hard-pressed to come up with too many common musical traits between them (barring the fact that both Sting and Level 42’s Mark King are bass/vocal double threats).

king and belew

That’s what makes the news of an Adrian Belew (Crimson vocalist/guitarist), Stewart Copeland (Police drummer) and King collaboration so exciting.

What’s also exciting is that in these days of ‘distance’ recording, where musicians regularly email each other sound files for embellishment, never needing to be in the same room, the guys are actually in a studio together.

Copeland of course has had a long, fruitful relationship with bassist Stanley Clarke, who happens to be Mark King’s musical hero, so that makes some sense. But Belew is the real curveball (as he usually is – in the best possible way, of course!).

Adrian has kept followers up to date with the project’s conception and recording progress over on his Facebook page:

‘A bit of information about what we’re doing here in Milan. Gizmo is a recording project created by Stewart Copeland and Vittorio Cosma, keyboard player of Elio e le Storie Tese. (You may remember Elio is the band I played a Bowie tribute with on Italian television back in February).

It is their songs and music. They asked me a while back to contribute guitar and maybe some vocals. recently they asked Mark King to join in on bass and vocals as well. It is not a “supergroup” and there are no plans beyond making this record.

I’m enjoying it very much. Great music and great people making music in beautiful Italy. What’s not to like? We have done three of Stewart’s songs so far and they sound awesome. I must admit Stewart’s songs are custom-made for my guitar playing in the same way as Talking Heads songs were. Full of nooks and crannies ready to be filled with tasty sonic treats, and always a reserved parking spot for a blistering guitar solo from outer space. And it certainly is gratifying when you finish said solos to have everyone in the control room stand up in a rush of applause!’

We look forward to hearing a lot more from this project.

9 Embarrassing (But Great) Moments From ’80s Music TV

grace There’s no escape these days. Maybe your band were given a rollocking live on children’s TV or you turned up for a late-night interview slightly the worse for wear and made a bit of an arse of yourself thinking no one would be watching anyway.

Alas. It’s all retained for posterity on YouTube, and some smart aleck was poised with his finger on the VCR record button, primed for just such an indiscretion.

Some of these clips (parental discretion advised) I remember watching live, others have shown up occasionally on ‘TV Hell’-type compilation shows over the years, but they all make for great – if sometimes uncomfortable – viewing.

9. Five Star on ‘Going Live’, 1989

No, the Essex Jacksons were never the critics’ favourites, but this rhetorical question from a young caller may well have had more of a detrimental effect on their career than any NME scribe ever could.

8. Jools Holland interviews Andy Summers, 1981

Jools turned up in Monserrat while The Police were recording the Ghost In The Machine album, and he managed to ridicule their erstwhile guitarist’s demonstration of funk guitar (at 5:30). You must admit, Julian had a point…

7. Matt Bianco on ‘Saturday Superstore’, 1984

Yep, another nightmare phone-in situation, a subgenre full of guilty pleasures (from 1:00 below).

6. All About Eve on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1988

The infamous appearance during which singer Julianne Regan and guitarist Tim Bricheno were blissfully unaware of the song’s playback in the studio. Cue lots of schoolyard sniggering, but the Eve had the last laugh – their single rose UP the charts the following week.

5. BA Robertson interviews Annabella Lwin, 1982

The singer/presenter comes seriously unstuck when broaching the gender issue with Bow Wow Wow’s superbly-spikey frontwoman (I say ‘woman’ – she was only 16 at the time…).

4. Grace Jones attacks Russell Harty, 1980

An intractable Grace is seriously miffed by Russell’s back-turning.

3. Shakin’ Stevens attacks Richard Madeley, 1980

Humour is clearly the animus here, but the sight of a lagered-up Shakey throttling the grannies’ favourite is still quite something.

2. Dexys Midnight Runners on ‘Top Of The Pops’, 1982

Did someone at the BBC really think the song was an ode to Scottish darts player John ‘Jocky’ Wilson rather than soul legend Jackie? Or was it a pisstake? (It was a pisstake and apparently Kevin Rowland’s idea… Ed.) I love the juxtaposition of Kevin’s intensity and Jocky’s grinning mush.

1. Wayne Hussey on ‘The James Whale Show’, 1989

The Mission mainman seems to have wandered into the studio after a long night on the razzle, but he met his match with the confrontational Mr Whale.