They say you should never meet your heroes – if the summer of 1985 is anything to go by, Thomas Dolby probably knows a thing or two about that.
First there was THAT Grammy Awards performance alongside Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock.
Then he contributed production, arranging and keyboard work to Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog, and, of course, there was his appearance at Live Aid as part of David Bowie’s band.
But arguably Dolby’s most intriguing collaboration of summer 1985 was with P-funk pioneer George Clinton, who was onto his third solo album of the decade.
Just after Live Aid, Clinton invited Dolby out to the Bee Gees’ Criteria Studios in Miami to work on two tracks for Some Of My Best Jokes Are Friends.
Clinton was finding much lyrical inspiration in Reagan’s America, and his latest album was firmly focused on the Nuclear Threat. During a hilarious fishing trip with Dolby off Miami (apparently during which Clinton sat in a swivelling captain’s chair, rolled joints and played rough mixes on a boombox), they came up with a character for Dolby – the Space Limousine Driver! Of course…
Clinton then invited Dolby to perform at a James Brown tribute night for the annual Black Urban Music Conference in Washington DC. Apparently his guest spot during ‘Sex Machine’ (described by Dolby as being ‘like Alec Guinness having a seizure’) made Mr Brown laugh and also gave Dolby some cred with the hardcore P-funk crowd (though sadly it doesn’t seem to be on YouTube…).
Clinton was also apparently thrilled with Dolby’s contributions, and asked if there was any way he could return the favour. Dolby quickly cooked up a new song, recruited the Brecker Brothers and Lene Lovich and retained the formidable bass/drums team of Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis and Dennis Chambers from ‘Thrashin’.
They christened the new band Dolby’s Cube and recorded a great one-off single at Battery Studios in London. Sadly, despite a cool video, it didn’t chart.
Dolby’s experiences with George loosened him up, and made him reassess a solo career that he felt thus far had been hamstrung by dodgy business practices and too much emphasis on ‘image’.
His effervescent 1988 album Aliens Ate My Buick was more explicitly influenced by Clinton, who also contributed the song ‘Hot Sauce’ (Francois Kevorkian’s superb remix of ‘May The Cube Be With You’ was also included). The summer of ’85 was certainly a memorable one for all concerned.
Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby
Prefab Sprout’s 1988 album From Langley Park To Memphis was their pop breakthrough, reaching #5 in the UK charts, and is probably most casual fans’ favourite.
But let’s take a close look at the fifth track, the epic ‘Nightingales’. Featuring Stevie Wonder on harmonica and released as the fourth single from From Langley Park in November 1988, it remains one of Prefab’s most beguiling songs.
Written by Paddy McAloon under the influence of Barbra Streisand’s BroadwayAlbum, it’s a stellar piece of work by any standards; melody, harmony and lyric are inextricably linked, as if the song had always existed and was just plucked out of the air.
Thought follows thought, musical idea follows musical idea completely naturally, without any songwriter ‘tricks’ such as looped chord sequences or vamps.
It’s fair to say that by the time of From Langley Park’s recording, McAloon was becoming a proficient pianist; eight of ten songs on the album were written on keyboards, including ‘Nightingales’.
Its harmonic concept, with an emphasis on major-seventh chords (including an audacious jump from F#m7 to Cmaj7 in bars four and five of the chorus) and triads superimposed over apparently unrelated root notes, possibly reveals a Brian Wilson influence, but the final effect is more Stephen Sondheim than ‘Surf’s Up’.
‘Nightingales’ also has no apparent antecedents in the 1980s pop firmament, though, at a stretch, approaches one of Green Gartside and David Gamson’s gossamer Scritti Politti ballads.
In a year when Acid House and the ‘Madchester’ sound were gestating and Stock Aitken Waterman ruled the charts, McAloon delivered something unabashedly romantic and somewhat old-fashioned; the opening line (‘Tell me do, something true‘) and general tenor of the lyric are more akin to ‘Daisy Bell’ than anything by the Stone Roses (and Paddy made no secret of his general distaste for late-’80s pop).
The song’s protagonist analyses his love affair, asking his paramour whether their love is fleeting like a ‘firework show’ or whether it’s a lasting, valuable entity. They agree that such questions are unhelpful and/or irrelevant – the key is to live in the moment.
‘Nightingales’ was co-produced by Jon Kelly and McAloon. By 1987, London-born Kelly was an experienced, highly-regarded producer and engineer, probably best known as one of Kate Bush’s key early collaborators on the classic 1980 album Never For Ever.
He had also worked on successful albums by Chris Rea (Dancing With Strangers) and Paul McCartney (Ram) and just produced Deacon Blue’s debut album Raintown, the latter definitely influenced by Prefab.
Double and triple-tracked keyboard parts dominate ‘Nightingales’, played by McAloon and legendary British session player Wix, AKA Paul Wickens. They closely follow the chord voicings of McAloon’s original acoustic piano demo, echoed on this lovely live version from 2000:
By the time of the first chorus, sampled sleigh bells and silky Synclavier drums are added to the mix alongside McAloon’s rather incongruous but effective (sampled?) banjo.
Robin Smith’s widescreen string arrangement becomes increasingly prominent throughout the track; particularly notable is a flurry of ascending, almost celestial notes in three distinct phases beginning at 2:14 (and check out the rustle of fake locusts at 4:26!).
Stevie Wonder had long been a hero of McAloon’s, the album Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants being a particular favourite. Mentioning as much to Prefab manager Keith Armstrong one day, Paddy half-joked that a Stevie harmonica solo on ‘Nightingales’ would really bring the track to life.
Armstrong stunned McAloon by informing him that he was a good friend of Wonder’s operations manager Keith Harris and would put in a good word for the band (it’s also worth noting that Wonder played some sublime harmonica on Thomas Dolby’s ‘Don’t Turn Away’ a year before the recording of ‘Nightingales’ – perhaps Thomas gave the band a good reference…).
Wonder’s harmonica solo was recorded in a very rushed session during September 1987 at Westside Studios in Notting Hill, West London.
He apparently learnt the song quickly, disappearing into a corner of the studio with a rough mix on his Walkman, and then recorded two takes in the lower octave and two in the higher. The released solo is a composite of the four.
Richard Moakes was the young engineer tasked with capturing Wonder’s solo on tape. According to McAloon:
He (Moakes) looked at me and said, ‘Oh God, I’m a bit worried I won’t know how to get his sound’. I said, ‘Well, look, we’ll just see what happens’. And of course you put the microphone on him and you turn the fader up and he sounds like Stevie Wonder. You don’t do anything. Unless you’re doing something really silly, you’ll get it and it will be identifiable. So I thought, OK, when you play a guitar, don’t blame an engineer if you don’t know what you’re doing…
New York mix engineer Michael Brauer cooked up the 12” version of ‘Nightingales’. He made some drastic changes from the 7” single, placing the sleigh bells right at the front of the mix, reinstating some of Wendy Smith’s stacked backing vocals originally left on the cutting room floor, stripping McAloon’s lead vocal of its reverb (though adding a lot more to the snare drum) and leaving more space for Smith’s string arrangement and McAloon’s banjo.
A video was also made, though it’s almost impossible to track down these days – never a sure sign of quality…
A sense of contour, of line, a bit of colour, a good tone and maybe a touch of – that horrible word – narrative. A bit of flash never heart anyone either, but mostly we’re probably listening for emotion and ‘storytelling’.
Luckily for us, the 1980s featured an embarrassment of riches on the guitar soloing front, a decade when you could hear everything from glorious cameos of post-punk insanity, slabs of avant-garde weirdness, shock-and-awe widdlefests and sometimes perfect little compositions in themselves.
Sometimes great solos came from the guitarist in the band, but more often than not they came from the ‘ringer’, the session player. Truly great players of all stripes could find themselves blowing on a top 10 single. Their job was to add the pizzazz, the zing, the memorable bit that all the kids wanted to learn.
So here’s a selection of goodies from the guitar-shaped chocolate box, featuring some rock, some blues, some fusion, some soul, some new-wave, some pop, some metal, some funk, some jazz:
27. Lloyd Cole And The Commotions: ‘Forest Fire’ (Guitarist: Neil Clark)
26. Tears For Fears: ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’ (Guitarist: Neil Taylor)
25. Marillion: ‘Easter’ (Guitarist: Steve Rothery)
24. Michael Hedges: ‘Aerial Boundaries’
The whole thing is a solo, of course, but it’s one of the most astonishing examples of solo guitar in recording history, a mixture of tapping, strumming, thumping and hammering. There are no overdubs and a very strange tuning on the classic title track to Hedges’ 1984 album.
23. Tribal Tech: ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Guitarist: Scott Henderson)
An almost perfect solo from the jazz/rock master’s album Nomad. It’s so complete it sounds almost pre-composed (apparently only the first eight bars were hummed to him by the tune’s writer Gary Willis), each interesting idea following completely logically from the last. Starts at 1:13:
This one taken from the classic album The Colour Of Spring can be filed in the ‘minimalist’ category, but it’s brilliant. The way the veteran Pretenders/McCartney guitarist bends into his last note, perfectly fitting with the key change, is sublime. Starts at 2:52:
21. Johnny Guitar Watson: ‘Telephone Bill’
Johnny G pulled out all the stops for this barnstorming bebop-meets-blues breakdown, from the Love Jones album, closing out his funny proto-rap in some style. He also gets extra points for quoting Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Salt Peanuts’. Starts around 3:30:
From Booty’s now forgotten 1988 album What’s Bootsy Doin’, a brief but flamboyant classic from one of the great unhinged metal guitarists of the decade, used as a ringer by George Clinton, Bill Laswell and Shakespear’s Sister to good effect. Starts around 2:44:
19. Thomas Dolby: ‘Budapest By Blimp’ (Guitarist: Larry Treadwell)
The LA-based guitarist was part of a Christian duo backing the Pope on his infamous ‘Popemobile’ tour of American stadiums when he answered Dolby’s magazine ad, and he excelled himself on this epic track from Aliens Ate My Buick, coming up with a strong melody over the funky break and even throwing in a little Dave Gilmour homage. Starts around the 5:30 mark:
18. Trevor Rabin: ‘I Can’t Look Away’
The title track of the Yes guitarist’s 1989 solo album was a song of two brilliant solos, but I’m going for the opening salvo, a brutal, flashy classic that features all the notes he knows and more.
17. Robert Cray: ‘Waiting For The Tide To Turn’
You could choose almost any solo from Mr Cray’s Bad Influence album, but this one seems to be best encapsulate his classy string-bending, snappy rhythmic sense and ice-cold Strat tone. Starts at 1:33:
16. Nile Rodgers: ‘Stay Out Of The Light’
A brilliant player not necessarily known for his solos, but this closing track from his forgotten second solo album B Movie Matinee opened the floodgates – a fantastic mixture of Charlie Christian and Jimmy Nolen. Starts at 3:37:
15. John McLaughlin: ‘The Wait’
McLaughlin plugs in the Les Paul and unleashes one of the most vicious solos of his career, gradually developing in intensity, with even a touch of his old mucker Carlos Santana at times. Unfortunately it mostly fell on deaf ears, coming from a nearly-forgotten 1987 album Adventures In Radioland. Starts around 1:43:
14. Defunkt: ‘Eraserhead’ (Guitarist: Ronnie Drayton)
One of those unhinged solos that starts at ’11’ and then just carries on in the same vein. The underrated session great is given his head and goes for it. From the punk/funk legends’ forgotten, excellent 1988 comeback album In America.
13. Yngwie J. Malmsteen: ‘Black Star’
This piece, kicking off the Swede’s Rising Force opus, is a guitar masterclass from top to tail, but the first few minutes demonstrate some extraordinary touches like a legato section that you’d swear was achieved with a delay pedal.
12. Stanley Clarke: ‘Straight To The Top’ (Guitarist: Carlos Santana)
The song – which kicked off Stanley’s 1981 career nadir Let Me Know You – may be a disco cheesefest but Carlos’s solo is a stonker, an emotive showstopper with a luscious, creamy tone and lots of emotional moments. It was a good period for Santana – see also Herbie Hancock’s ‘Saturday Night’ and Carlos’s own ‘Stay Beside Me’ and ‘Song For Devadip’.
11. It Bites: ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ (Guitarist: Francis Dunnery)
The Cumbrian gunslingers wrote a great ballad here and Dunnery laid his claim as one of the great Brit guitarists of the ’80s with this extreme solo, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes demented mixture of flash and panache. From the lads’ debut album The Big Lad In The Windmill. Starts at 5:09:
10. Billy Idol: ‘Rebel Yell’ (Guitarist: Steve Stevens)
He produced several memorable moments alongside the 6’2” blond bombsite born William Broad, but Stevens excelled himself here with a memorable, well-organised solo full of flashy bits and unexpected ‘outside’ notes.
9. Joe Satriani: ‘Ice 9’
Satch’s sophomore album Surfing With The Alien of course produced some guitar highlights but this track featured one of his most distinctive solos ever, Allan Holdsworth meets Eddie Van Halen.
8. Randy Crawford: ‘You Might Need Somebody’ (Guitarist: Steve Lukather)
This gets in for superb tone and admirable restraint, apart from that fantastic flurry of notes in the middle. Luke could hardly do any wrong around this time. Just around the corner was Quincy’s The Dude, ‘Rosanna’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Love’ and Jacko’s Thriller.
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers: ‘Sex Rap’ (Guitarist: Hillel Slovak)
One of those great solos that sounds like it could fall apart any second, and frequently does. From the lads’ uneven but sometimes thrilling George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley album. Starts at 1:14:
6. Yellowjackets: ‘Monmouth College Fight Song’ (Guitarist: Robben Ford)
In the days when Robben’s trump card was playing bebop/blues with a distorted guitar, and when he loved blowing over interesting chord changes, this track from 1981’s Casino Lights is a classic. A super-sophisticated mixture of Charlie Parker and Albert King. Starts at 1:35:
Hiram could be relied upon to produce classic solos in the late 1980s, as he did with Steps Ahead, Terri Lyne Carrington and on his solo records, and this from Sting’s …Nothing Like The Sun was sublime. Starts at 1:27:
4. Pink Floyd: ‘Comfortably Numb’ (Guitarist: David Gilmour)
Take your pick between two fantastic solos from The Wall album, but I’m going for the first one, a beautiful feature with a killer tone and great use of whammy bar. Starts at 2:38:
3. XTC: ‘That’s Really Super, Supergirl’ (Guitarist: Dave Gregory)
He apparently rehearsed it alone for hours in a little room stinking of rat poison in Todd Rundgren’s rundown studio complex in Woodstock, upstate New York, but it paid off, a memorable, melodic classic. Starts at 2:08:
2. Mike Stern: ‘Time In Place’
The title track of Mike’s second solo album demonstrated definitely one of the slowest solos of his career, and also one of the most lyrical. Starts at 1:35:
1. John Martyn: ‘Johnny Too Bad’
This was one of the more memorable solos of Martyn’s career, during a decade when he was more interested in songwriting than making extreme guitar statements. But he sure found his Les Paul’s sweet spot on a classic cover version from Grace And Danger. Starts at around 1:28:
It would be tempting to call Kevin Armstrong the ultimate ‘nearly man’ of 1980s pop – he nearly joined a post-Johnny-Marr Smiths, was nearly a founder member of David Bowie’s Tin Machine, nearly joined Level 42 Mark II, and nearly became Paul McCartney’s right-hand man during the ex-Beatle’s late-decade renaissance.
But that would be unfair on the guitarist; as well as stellar work with Bowie (Live Aid, ‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Dancing In The Streets’) and Iggy Pop (Blah-Blah-Blah, countless world tours), he has also contributed to classic albums by Prefab Sprout, Thomas Dolby and Morrissey and performed live with Roy Orbison, Sinead O’Connor, Grace Jones, Propaganda and PiL.
This entertaining Pizza Express show was half wonderfully-indiscreet spoken-word memoir and half gig. Decked out in all-black rock-star garb, Armstrong described his initiation into the music world via an obsession with Zappa’s ‘Black Napkins’ and postal-order guitar handbooks, and lamented the current pop scene as ‘just another part of consumer culture’.
He spoke of one life-changing morning in early 1985 when he received the call from legendary EMI A&R man Hugh Stanley-Clarke: an invitation to Abbey Road to record with ‘Mr X’.
Arriving at the famous address, Armstrong was shown upstairs to a tiny demo studio (not the big Beatles-frequenting Studio 1 downstairs) to find a bunch of session players and a smiling, suited Bowie holding an omnichord and uttering the totally superfluous ‘Hi, I’m David!’.
Bowie then proceeded to teach the band a song called ‘That’s Motivation’ (from the ‘Absolute Beginners’ soundtrack) two bars at a time – and they then recorded it that way too.
A few days later, Bowie summoned Armstrong to Westside Studios near Ladbroke Grove for the ‘Absolute Beginners’ and ‘Dancing In The Street’ recordings (the former with vocals by Armstrong’s sister, then working behind the till at Dorothy Perkins, responding to Bowie’s request for a ‘shopgirl’ to sing duet with him!).
The latter session was of course graced by an absurdly perky Mick Jagger. Apparently Bowie and Jagger spent most of the vocal sessions shouting ‘Let’s ring Maureen!’, their nickname for Elton John.
Armstrong then told great tales of Live Aid, mainly highlighting Bowie’s incredible generosity: fluffing the names of backing vocalists Helena Springs and Tessa Niles during his onstage band introductions (no other solo artist introduced his/her band on the day), according to Armstrong he immediately apologised profusely to the singers as soon as they were offstage.
There were further funny tales of Gil Evans, Iggy and McCartney (who apparently once smoked some unbelievably strong grass with Armstrong, said ‘That’s you stoned!’ to the erstwhile guitarist, then promptly disappeared) and an exceptionally eccentric Grace Jones who allegedly took a distinct liking to Armstrong at a party, taking him by the hand and leading him away for some sexual shenanigans.
Who should intervene but Bowie, grabbing Armstrong’s other hand and whispering in the guitarist’s ear: ‘No you don’t. She’ll have you for breakfast, sunshine…’
In the second half, Armstrong was joined by Iggy bandmates Ben Ellis on bass and Matt Hector on drums to perform songs that he’d played live with all the aforementioned stars.
Efficiently sung and superbly played, it was nevertheless a somewhat humourless set of music that only served to emphasise the difference between a perennial sessionman and born headliner.
But this was still a hugely enjoyable evening, foregrounding a time when music really was transformative. We await Armstrong’s forthcoming memoir with great anticipation.
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’
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…
37. Greg Phillinganes’ synth bass on Donna Summer’s ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’, especially the ‘squelch’ at 2:53 below:
36. Lee Thompson’s sax in the second verse of Madness’s ‘My Girl’
35. Marc Almond’s spoken-word line in Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’
34. Mel Gaynor’s volcanic snare-drum fill after the breakdown in Simple Minds’ ‘Alive And Kicking’
There’s a similar eruption in ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’, but this one wins out for sheer audacity. I wonder what ‘anti-muso’ co-producer Jimmy Iovine had to say about it…
33. The fade of The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’
32. The Middle Eastern 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’
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’
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’
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’
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.