The period roughly between 1978 and 1985 was a golden age if you were a British or American session musician.
The mission: to sprinkle your unique brand of fairy dust over a song or album. You lived on your wits and gambled on your talent but your employers were more often than not creative artists at the top of their game.
As far as UK bassists go, Glasgow-born John Giblin, who has died at the age of 72, was always near the top of the list. He was famed for his melodic fretless bass style (though later pretty much disowned it, moving to five-string fretted and stand-up acoustic basses), starting his career with ex-Yes guitarist Pete Banks. He then hooked up with Brand X and Phil Collins and the rest is history.
After prestigious work with Kate Bush, John Martyn and Peter Gabriel, Giblin joined Simple Minds as full-time member in summer 1985 but left three years later after a falling out with producer Trevor Horn during the recording of Street Fighting Years. He also ran a much-loved rehearsal studio called Barwell Court near Chessington, Surrey.
Of course he was influenced by Jaco Pastorius but didn’t really sound like him. (Anyway, he traced that particular line from Eberhard Weber, who apparently claims Jaco ripped HIM off!) Giblin played memorable bass on tens of key tracks but here are seven that particularly registered with your correspondent, in chronological order.
7. John Martyn: ‘Some People Are Crazy’
movingtheriver’s introduction to Giblin’s work, he delivers a brilliant fretless commentary here, though I’m not even sure I realised it was a ‘bass’ circa 1985 – just superb music. It’s funky, flowing and also features those famed sliding harmonics, nicked from Ron Carter and Percy Jones. Giblin is also a talking head in the great Martyn documentary ‘Johnny Too Bad’.
6. Peter Gabriel: ‘Family Snapshot’
The whole of Gabriel III is of course a bass masterclass but Giblin and Gabriel fill in the backstory of the troubled political assassin to great effect in the moving final minute of this.
5. Kate Bush: ‘Breathing’
Just business as usual for Giblin on this classic Bush anti-nuclear ballad, weaving arch, memorable lines around her vocals. Also listen out for his closing, sepulchral E-flat.
4. Phil Collins: ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
The much-ripped off (hello Pearl Jam) line that propelled one of the better Beatles cover versions.
3. Simple Minds: ‘Let It All Come Down’
Giblin didn’t get many composer credits but this co-write was always your correspondent’s favourite track on Street Fighting Years (Jim Kerr apparently wrote the words).
2. Kate Bush: ‘Love And Anger’
Kate again, and this time Giblin lets fly with some brilliant slap bass in the final few minutes alongside David Gilmour’s tasty guitar solo.
1. Scott Walker: ‘Tilt’
Demonstrating his post-’80s five-string style, Giblin enlivens Walker’s classic title track with some strikingly ‘out’ notes and a great sense of space.
It’s a question that has been obsessing your correspondent over the last few days – which music epitomises the 1980s?
If, in 500 years, someone demanded to hear a song that represented the decade, which piece would best encapsulate it? And is ‘1980s Music’ a genre?
A website called movingtheriver.com should be able to pin down what makes a quintessentially 1980s track, but it’s not easy. So let’s begin with a process of elimination.
A lot of 1980s music was influenced by previous genres – Motown, punk, glam, psych, prog, metal, disco, jazz/funk, singer/songwriter, folk, reggae, ’70s electronica, minimalism, funk, blues. So we need tracks that jettison those tropes.
Many bands used synths in a way that was influenced by 1970s pioneers Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder (Japan, OMD, Pet Shop Boys, The Art Of Noise etc.), so wouldn’t qualify as uniquely 1980s. We’re after artists that used sequencers and synths in a more ‘progressive’/melodic way, mainly to aid songwriting.
Huge 1980s acts like Wham!, ABC, Madonna, Simply Red and Culture Club obviously tapped into Motown, R’n’B and Chic-style disco/funk. Eurythmics were inspired by everything from the Stones to Kraftwerk. So they won’t do.
Tina Turner, MJ, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, Bruce, Prince and Hall & Oates all blossomed in the 1970s, while Cyndi Lauper’s songs and style had elements of that decade too, as did many Goth acts. Production styles came and went, and of course there were common tropes like the gated snare drum and synth bass, but again they don’t particularly define the decade.
The sweet spot seems to be around 1984/1985. Musicians and songwriters were leaving behind post-punk, classic soul, blues and ‘rock’ (though of course all would return with a vengeance by the end of the decade) and forging a quintessentially 1980s sound.
I’d put forward the following as completely 1980s, born and bred in that decade, with no apparent antecedents from any well-worn styles (‘bluesy’ chord progressions, ‘folky’ singing) or particular era, with the possible exceptions of Sting and Associates (and of course one could have chosen some other tracks by these artists). In short, for better or worse, it’s pretty hard to work out their influences:
It was surely only a matter of time before arguably the most important producer of the last 50 years put pen to paper, but Trevor Horn’s memoir ‘Adventures In Modern Recording’ was still one of the nicest surprises of 2022.
The opening section outlines his upbringing in the tough, industrial North East of England, and then each chapter is centred around one key track that made his name as a producer, from The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ to Seal’s ‘Crazy’.
We trace Horn’s early days as a Beatles and Dylan fanatic, self-taught guitarist (his musician father buys him a knackered old four-string which gets broken and is never replaced) and upright bass player in the school orchestra.
There’s the constant fear of going down the mines, a fate that had befallen most of his relatives. Young Trevor eventually has to move in with his grandparents (sharing a bed with Uncle John), though they are supportive of his musical talent.
Horn moves to Leicester and starts playing double bass with big bands whose repertoire includes pop covers and light jazz. By this time, he has become an ace sight-reader, something that he values throughout his career.
He relocates to Blackpool to take up a residency with the band, his dad dropping him off with the words: ‘Well, you’re on your own now, son. You just watch it.’ Horn then hits London to play with a band called Canterbury Tales and pick up various function gigs.
As disco takes hold, Horn finds himself on the studio scene, getting a regular gig with Tina Charles and ‘fixing’ a lot of duff songs, including Leicester City’s ‘This Is The Season For Us’. The penny drops – he suddenly realises he’s a record producer.
This becomes his driving force as he moves away from the bass and meets Jill Sinclair, studio manager of SARM West (formerly Island’s Basing Street studio) and soon to be both his manager and wife. We get the fascinating story of Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, Horn literally having to construct a hit out of various disparate elements.
We learn that Horn sacks ABC’s bass player Mark Lickley just before the recording of Lexicon Of Love (Horn reports that U2 later got wind of this and refused to work with him!) – he is fairly ruthless as a young producer, always with Jill in his corner, but is now repentant.
There’s a very funny chapter on working with Malcolm McLaren and The Supreme Team on Duck Rock and a toe-curling account of cooking up Yes’s US #1 single ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’.
We get the inside story on making Frankie’s ‘Relax’ and Holly Johnson’s court case plus Horn’s involvement with the 12” version of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. Horn reports that when he first meets Bob Geldof, the Boomtown Rats frontman immediately tells him he preferred Bruce Woolley’s version of ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ to the Buggles’. Horn reacts thus: ‘What a twat. After filing him under “Rude Fucker”, I moved on…’ (They later made up.)
There are tales of painstakingly piecing together ‘Slave To The Rhythm’, Seal turning up for his 2004 Wembley charity gig (see below) at the last minute, and a trained Special Branch dog making an immediate bee-line for his bag in the dressing room. You can read the book for the funny punchline.
‘Adventures In Modern Recording’ is the very definition of the muso page-turner. Full of interesting titbits and amusing gossip, you need it if you have even the slightest interest in 1980s and 1990s pop.
Though not a big hit on its original release, Propaganda’s 1985 album A Secret Wish only seems to grow in stature as the years pass.
It was arguably the last meaningful release on the ZTT label, spawning two UK top 40 singles. More importantly it was a sonic treat, full of grandeur and drama, one of the great pop albums of the 1980s.
The Dusseldorf-formed band made a couple of botched attempts to reunite – the 1234 album in 1990, a Martin Gore/Tim Simenon-assisted try in 1998, then a partial gathering at Trevor Horn’s charity gig at Wembley Arena in 2004.
But now they’re back as xPropaganda (who knows the legal machinations behind that moniker). Founding members Michael Mertens and Ralf Dorper are not around this time but vocalists/songwriters Claudia Brucken and Susanne Freytag are, alongside Secret Wish producer/guitarist Steve Lipson.
Excitingly their album The Heart Is Strange is also on the newly reignited ZTT (Horn is credited as ‘Advisor’), via Universal Music Catalogue.
My expectations were high but then were slightly dashed with the choice of ‘Don’t You Mess With Me’ as lead-off single/trailer. It’s easily the least interesting track on the album.
Lush, cinematic opener ‘The Night’ definitely evokes memory of A Secret Wish’s epic track one ‘Dream Within A Dream’, even if Terry Edwards’ muted trumpet is incongruously ‘jazzy’ as opposed to the resplendent playing (by whom? Guy Barker? Steve Sidwell?) on the 1985 track. And there are too many vocal melodies to choose from, none particularly intriguing.
Elsewhere there are better tunes and the odd appealing lyrical zinger. And if synths are your bag, these sounds – mostly courtesy of Pete Murray – are fantastic, sometimes lush and ominous, sometimes intricate and ingenious. It’s great headphone music.
But there’s not enough memorable Lipson lead guitar on The Heart Is Strange and the drum programming is a bit flat. Paging Steve Jansen. Best track? The enigmatic closer ‘Ribbons Of Steel’, a nearly ten-minute spoken-word rumination on the end of a relationship with hints of the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab’s I Trawl The Megahertz.
The Heart Is Strange is a solid B+. Good in places but must try harder. Too many mid-tempo songs. Certainly not in the league of the freaky A Secret Wish (a lack of Mertens may have a lot to do with that?) and without that album’s pristine mastering, depth of sound, harmonic intrigue and wacky guest appearances, but some decent new material to play live. Maybe next time they’ll let their hair down a bit – and hopefully get Mertens involved again.
Brucken and Freytag speak about The Heart Is Strange in this podcast.
And Stephen Lipson deconstructs A Secret Wish and xPropaganda here.
35 years ago today, on 12 January 1987, Frankie played the first of two nights at Wembley Arena on their final European Tour.
It’s oft forgotten that, even at their commercial peak, they played live. A lot. In fact they were on the road pretty much non-stop between autumn 1984 and summer 1985. And, make no mistake, they were decent musicians.
It’s not surprising they were so eager to show that they could cut it live. ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’ were mainly made in the control room by Trevor Horn and associates (Steve Lipson, JJ Jeczalik, Anne Dudley, Gary Langan, Andy Richards et al).
And vocalist Holly Johnson was getting most of the publishing royalties (fair enough, his Reagan-baiting lyric for ‘Two Tribes’ is brilliant: ‘Cowboy number one/A born-again, poor man’s son/On the air America/I model shirts by Van Heusen/Working for the black gas…’).
As Holly told NME in November 1983: ‘We were wary of being Trevor’s puppets at first but as soon as we met him that all went out of the window. He’s just a human being. He’s that little guy that used to be in The Buggles’!
So, initially at least, there wasn’t much bad feeling – they occasionally even let Uncle Trevor play live with them, as in this excellent performance on ‘The Tube’ from June 1984, augmented by Luis Jardim on percussion, a couple of keyboard players (wearing interesting shorts) and an extra guitarist (names please?):
According to (ZTT strategist/sleevenote-writer/A&R man) Paul Morley, Horn and his label boss/ manager/wife Jill Sinclair were convinced Frankie could break America, becoming something like The Village People! After all, ‘Relax’ made #10 in the US pop charts.
But surely the Sex Pistols is a better comparison (Frankie as punk’s last gasp? There’s a whole book there…). After all, Horn had just worked with – and hugely admired – Malcolm McLaren. For his part, Horn allegedly hoped the band would split up after ‘The Power Of Love’, their third UK number one in December 1984.
But Frankie didn’t split up. Instead, on their US tour of 1985, they would often open their set with Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’. In the new Bruce-obsessed/Reagan-blessed America, this didn’t go down too well…
By 1986/1987, the thrills and spills had gone but Frankie had drastically improved as musicians and became a very slick live unit. They toured second album Liverpool extensively, using a lot of pre-recorded backing tracks and retaining an extra keyboard player and guitarist.
The very good quality tape of the first Wembley gig is well worth listening to. The crowd seems made up of screaming teenage girls and there are excellent versions of ‘The Power Of Love’ and ‘Two Tribes’.
‘Maximum Joy’ becomes a whole new thing even if the rest of the Liverpool material doesn’t deviate much from the album. And it’s always a laugh hearing Holly’s laconic between-song banter.
Rumour has it that backstage after this first Wembley gig the band had the mother of all fall-outs. But somehow they got through their 1987 European tour, and found time to play again on ‘The Tube’ for the last time (Faith No More were definitely watching, at least from a sartorial point of view).
Maybe they could they have carried on but it didn’t seem enough to be a ‘good band’ any more – people wanted events, sensations. Also Holly was itching for a solo career, still smarting at the terrible deal the band had signed with ZTT.
Anyway, we hope Holly, Paul, Nasher, Peter and Mark are OK. And hopefully still playing music, in some form.
The Associates gave good title: ‘Tell Me It’s Easter On Friday’, ‘Kitchen Person’, ‘White Car In Germany’, ‘Q Quarters’, ‘No’, ‘Those First Impressions’, ’18 Carat Love Affair’, ‘Nude Spoons’, ‘Party Fears Two’ etc. etc.
The first four appeared on Fourth Drawer Down, released 40 years ago this weekend.
Mostly co-produced by 19-year-old Flood (Depeche Mode, U2), it was a collection of the increasingly bizarre singles released by the ‘band’ during 1981, all of which featured strongly on the Independent charts.
The Associates were yet another impressive 1980s pop duo, at least in their early incarnation. Billy Mackenzie was arguably the greatest singer of the post-punk era, while Alan Rankine was a key guitarist (and talented multi-instrumentalist) alongside John McGeoch, Charlie Burchill, Will Sergeant et al.
They were also arch music-biz pranksters, years before The KLF, good-looking, talented lads milking the record companies for all they were worth.
Newly departed from Fiction Records, with ex-Cure bassist Michael Dempsey in tow, the three spent 1981 holed up in their St John’s Wood flat by day and Willesden’s Morgan (later Battery) Studios by night.
If taken in an amount just over their recommended dose, Quiet Life (also an ‘influence’ on David Sylvian/Japan?) health tablets would give a nice buzz, found in the ‘fourth drawer down’ of their bedroom cabinet.
It was a hedonistic, musically expansive period. Experimentation was king. It wasn’t unusual to see Billy singing down a vacuum tube or through tracing paper, while Rankine occasionally applied a water-filled balloon to his guitar strings.
Vintage synths were layered with dulcimer, xylophone, early drum machines, ‘funky’ bass and mad fuzz-toned guitar. It was a brittle, lo-fi sound, influenced by Bowie, Roxy, Sparks, Ennio Morricone and John Barry, quite insane in places.
The scary, majestic ‘White Car In Germany’ was the logical conclusion to all of that icy, post-Heroes Euro-grandeur, but is it a pastiche? ‘Lisp your way through Zurich/Walk on eggs in Munich’, croons Billy. It’s impossible to say, but that’s part of the fun.
The brilliant ‘Q Quarters’ is strongly reminiscent of Scott Walker’s ‘70s/’80s soundworld, and comes complete with Billy’s coughing solo. Superbly chaotic ‘The Associate’ is invaded by a screaming fit and what sounds like a major vacuum-cleaner malfunction.
Some of it may remind one of early Cocteau Twins (particularly Mackenzie’s strident vocals and oblique lyrics), early Suede and the work of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Propaganda from later in the decade (Trevor Horn apparently almost produced a solo Mackenzie album around 1987, sadly yet another what-if in this gifted artist’s short life).
Less than a year later, aided by some more streamlined material, Warners money and the excellent producer Mike Hedges (who also worked on ‘White Car In Germany’ and ‘The Associate’), they spent nine months as bona fide pop stars in the UK.
But nothing ever sounded as singular as Fourth Drawer Down. And don’t miss out on the wacky B-sides, newly added to the remastered 2-CD version. Also worth checking out is their extraordinary Peel Session from April 1981.
To some, the advent of the 12” single in the early ’80s was musical sacrilege; but 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, club culture, sampling, dub techniques, electronic music moving into the mainstream and an ‘anything goes’ post-punk ethos.
Talented sound designers such as Trevor Horn, Gary Langan, Shep Pettibone, John Potoker, Francois Kevorkian, Alex Sadkin and Steven Stanley were 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 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.
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.
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 here but remixer Francois Kevorkian had great raw materials to play with – Thomas Dolby’s dub-style treatments, Mike Landau’s lush 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 masters 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 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)
Mixing engineer John Potoker cut his teeth 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. His 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 committed 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/vocal ad-libs and Manu Katche’s drums to superb effect. I now prefer this version…
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 3:40.
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 various sections are repeated and amplified to superb effect.
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 delaying the reveal of Sting’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 the 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 sacrilege to leave Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes (Annihilation)’ out, but this gets the nod for sheer balls).