21 Great 12″ Singles Of The 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

16. ABC: ‘Poison Arrow’ (1982)

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

15. Michael Jackson: ‘PYT’ (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

12. Scritti Politti: ‘Hypnotize’ (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

 

9. Peter Gabriel: ‘Sledgehammer’ (1986)

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

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

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

7. Thompson Twins: ‘Lies’ (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Propaganda: ‘Duel’ (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

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Yes: Big Generator 30 Years On

In the pantheon of rock rhythm sections, bassist Chris Squire would surely have to feature not once but twice – he forged striking partnerships with both Bill Bruford and the underrated Alan White. Big Generator, released 30 years ago this week, is a brilliant distillation of the Squire/White hook-up.

But there are loads of other pleasures too, even though it’s usually mentioned as an inferior, mostly pointless sequel to 90215. But for my money it’s the better album – more cohesive, less top-heavy. Big Generator was apparently far from a walk in the park to make though, with band tensions, endless rewrites and remixes. And of course there was pressure to follow up such a huge hit.

Trevor Horn started work on the album in 1985 but left towards the end of recording, leaving guitarist/vocalist/co-writer Trevor Rabin and producer Paul DeVilliers to finish the job. But you can hear the craft (and money) that went into Big Generator, although it still basically sounds like a band playing live in the studio.

This is barmy rock music, full of surprises, made by musicians with unique styles and a wish to take chances. But no matter how complicated the arrangements get, there’s always a logic to them. Take the title track for example. An excerpt from the ‘Leave It’ 90125 vocal sessions kicks things off. Then Rabin piles into a gargantuan riff (achieved by tuning his low E string down to an A, echoing Squire’s ‘standard’ tuning on his 5-string) joined by Squire. White’s snare is tighter than a gnat’s arse and his phrasing is always novel – he’ll often hit the crash cymbal on a ‘one-and’ or ‘three-and’ rather than the standard ‘one’. Then there’s the ridiculous speeding-up snare roll accompanied by manic Rabin shredding and a chorus that sounds a bit like Def Leppard. It’s all in a day’s work for this amazing unit.

‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Almost Like Love’ and ‘Love Will Find A Way’ are serviceable, weirdly-funky slices of AOR. The very ’80s-Floyd-style ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ maintains its doomy mood impeccably and features a brilliant Di Meola-esque acoustic guitar solo from Rabin. The standout for me though is the stunning, ridiculous ‘I’m Running’. Just when you thought they couldn’t crowbar any more into its seven minutes, it chucks in a descanting vocal outro which sounds like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Only a few bits of Jon Anderson whimsy on side two threaten to derail proceedings. But in general Rabin keeps him in check, though presumably to the detriment of their relationship. Big Generator was nominated for a Grammy and sold well over a million worldwide, making the top 20 in both the US and UK. It’s definitely due a critical reappraisal. So here it is.

Six Great ’80s Album Openers

vinyl-goldSequencing an album can be a real headache but it’s surely one of the dark arts of the music business. One thing’s for sure: the lead-off track is key. You know the old A&R cliché – ‘You gotta grab ’em from the first bar!’ But sometimes quiet and enigmatic can be just as effective as loud and arresting.

Repeated listening and nostalgic reverie possibly cloud the issue but it’s almost impossible to imagine some albums with different opening tracks. Revolver kicking off without ‘Taxman’? Rubber Soul without ‘Drive My Car’? Pretzel Logic without ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’? Unthinkable.

So here are six of my favourite album-openers from the ’80s:

6. Phil Collins: ‘In The Air Tonight’ from Face Value (1981)

Love or hate Phil, no one can deny this is one of the killer intros. He programmes his own ‘Intruder‘ beat on a Roland CR-78 drum machine, adds some slabs of heavy guitar, some moody chords (in D minor, the saddest of all keys…) and chills all and sundry.

5. Yes: ‘Owner Of A Lonely Heart’ from 90125 (1983)

A blast of sampled Alan White drums (later co-opted for Art Of Noise’s ‘Close To The Edit‘) and we’re away! Trevor Rabin’s gargantuan power-chord intro became an MTV mainstay and gave the prog-rock survivors their only US number one single. But, arguably, they shot their load too early – the rest of the album never comes close to this lavish opener.

4. Simple Minds: ‘Up On The Catwalk’ from Sparkle In The Rain (1984)

I’m a sucker for drummer count-ins and this is one of the best. There’s a lovely contrast between the unproduced timbre of Mel Gaynor’s yelp and stick-clicks and the subsequent blizzard of gated drums and Yamaha CP-70 piano in the classic Gabriel/Lillywhite/Padgham style.

3. Tears For Fears: ‘Woman In Chains’ from The Seeds Of Love (1989)

A less-than-great song from a less-than-great album, but messrs Olazabal and Smith weave a rather delicious, Blue Nile-influenced intro that promises great things, before Phil Collins’s stodgy drums and some chronic over-production buries it in bombast.

2. PiL: ‘FFF’ from Album (1986)

‘Farewell my fairweather friend!’ bawls Johnny over a cacophony of gated drums (played by jazz legend Tony Williams, fact fans) and angry guitars. Well, hello!

1. The Blue Nile: ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ from A Walk Across The Rooftops (1984)

Another one that asks, ‘Hang on, is there something wrong with this CD?’ Subtle synths ruminate in near-silence before some found sounds (coins being inserted into a slot machine?) and a lonesome trumpet gently prod a classic album into life.