Joni entered the ’80s in a despondent state: ‘Everyone realised at the brink of the decade that it was going to be a hideous era…’, she reported to Q magazine.
It didn’t help that her beloved ’69 Bluebird had been stolen from outside Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard on New Year’s Eve 1979.
She was also sued by her cleaning lady and then found herself headhunted by old friend David Geffen for his new record label, though their relationship were never easy.
Then there were Thatcher and Reagan and a simmering Cold War. But Joni’s new songs avoided politics completely (she’d make up for that later). Instead, buoyed by her relationship with new bassist Larry Klein and beguiled by The Police and Talking Heads she was hearing on the radio, she produced possibly her most romantic, upbeat album to date, released 40 years ago this month.
But while there are some concessions to hard rock, new-wave and reggae, Wild Thing‘s best tracks are the ones that most closely resemble the shimmering, jazzy, almost psychedelic tracks of the mid-to-late-’70s.
Larry Klein and Joni on their wedding day, 21 November 1982
It helped that many of her ’70s ‘repertory company’ were still in place at the dawn of the ’80s – singer James Taylor, percussionist Victor Feldman, drummer John Guerin, saxist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Larry Carlton.
Her new recruits were the new generation of hotshot session players: guitarists Mike Landau and Steve Lukather, keyboardists Larry Williams and Russell Ferrante, formidable ex-Zappa drummer Vinnie Colaiuta.
My point of entry for this album was superb lead-off track ‘Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody’, the first music I’d ever heard by Joni. I was immediately a fan. It’s a moving meditation on love and loss with a haunting piano/bass motif and intricate Guerin drum part.
‘Be Cool’ and ‘Moon At The Window’ are classic Jazzy Joni. On the former, Klein stakes his claim as a worthy successor to Jaco while Shorter offers a witty, beautifully judged commentary on the latter. Klein in general gets a lot of space on the album – as much as Jaco got on Mingus – but he’s a totally different player (and doesn’t play fretless). His contributions make Wild Things one of the great bass records of the 1980s.
Larry Carlton plays a sublime accompaniment in the left channel on the elegant ‘Ladies’ Man’ (featuring more than a hint of Steely Dan’s ‘Third World Man’), while Joni surveys her lover’s ‘cocaine head games’ – one of several drug references on the album.
Some tracks are a curious but engaging mixture of hard rock and fusion – the title track, ‘You’re So Square’ and ‘Solid Love’ feature some dynamic, chops-infused interplay between Colaiuta and Klein, and it’s exciting hearing Joni pushing her vocals, singing with a lot of bite, though she probably should have left reggae well alone.
The closing ‘Love’ – appropriating Corinthians 13 11-13 – encapsulates all that’s good about Wild Things Run Fast: a beautiful vocal, superb and sensitive guitar playing from Steve Lukather and empathetic textures from Shorter and Colaiuta.
The 1983 touring band: Vinnie Colaiuta, Mike Landau, Joni, Larry Klein, Russell Ferrante
Joni toured Wild Things extensively with a band consisting of Colaiuta, Landau, Klein and Ferrante, dropping in to London’s Wembley Arena in 1983. Wish I had been there. Thankfully we have YouTube (see below).
The album was a minor hit, reaching #32 in the UK and #25 in the States, and the single ‘You’re So Square’ reached #47 in the US.
One’s appreciation of it probably depends on when you were born. People who adore Blue and For The Roses probably loathe this. But as my first exposure to Joni’s music, I hold it very dear.
One of the legacies of the wretched last few years is that everyone and their little brother has started a podcast.
Of course there’s a lot of flim-flam but the good news for fans of 1980s music and movies is that many of the decade’s big names are getting involved. They are in bullish, talkative mood, still full of ideas and enthusiasm.
Elsewhere podcasters of all stripes are revisiting key (and not-so-key) works of the 1980s and beyond, offering fresh perspectives. Here’s a selection of podcasts that have held movingtheriver’s attention over the last few years.
Electronically Yours is helmed by Human League/Heaven 17 co-founder and producer/synth pioneer Martyn Ware. He opens his formidable address book to speak to some big names as well as influential but less well-known figures who helped shape 1980s music. Ware seems an amiable fellow and he extracts some intriguing revelations from his guests, sometimes even getting closure on issues that affected his career 40 years ago (see the Bob Last and Simon Draper interviews).
Though he occasionally sounds a bit like Gareth Keenan of ‘The Office’ during one of his Health & Safety seminars, Edward Russell’s podcast Inside the Groove takes an indepth, entertaining look at Madonna’s music and career. There are intriguing bits of studio gossip and great chances to hear exposed multi-tracks of the hits – ‘Borderline’ and ‘Open Your Heart’ are doozies.
Smersh Pod is a look at the Bond films and their connections, expanding out to discuss notoriously cruddy cult movies such as ‘Bullseye’ and ‘Death Wish II’. John Brain presents with vigour and chats with a lot of amusing guests mainly from the comedy world.
Breakfast With Vinnie is the unique podcast of drum hero Vinnie Colaiuta. He generally eschews celeb interviews (though John McLaughlin makes a lovely appearance) in favour of philosophical musings about music, society and culture.
Rockonteurs, co-helmed by Spandau man Gary Kemp and Floyd/Bryan Ferry bassist Guy Pratt, is a series of informal chats with friends and colleagues. Their repartee is sometimes a little grating but interviews with Level 42’s Mark King, Boy George, Trevor Horn and key Madonna/Ferry collaborator Patrick Leonard are particularly memorable.
Word in Your Ear is the brainchild of ‘Whistle Test’ presenters and founders of Q/The Word magazines Mark Ellen and David Hepworth. It won’t surprise anyone that it’s witty, entertaining, opinionated and always worth a listen.
Bass Culture UK is a valuable portrait of the movers and shakers of British reggae and soundsystem culture, featuring excellent interviews with key figures like Don Letts and Dennis Bovell.
But – drum roll – the movingtheriver.com Podcast of the Year is… 80sography. It’s mostly a series of extended interviews with key producers of the decade and a must for anyone who wants to know what went on in studios during the 1980s. It also serves as a good ‘making of’ many classic albums. The Stephen Hague, Langer/Winstanley, Hugh Padgham and Stephen Lipson interviews are all entertaining and comprehensive.
Any other cool related podcasts? Leave a comment below.
Recently, I was pleased and very surprised to hear a youngish (30s?) sales assistant playing Zappa’s Apostrophe while guarding the till at a local charity bookshop.
A quick and enjoyable conversation led us to agree that of all the major music figures who emerged during the ’60s and ’70s, FZ may be the least respected/understood these days.
You’ll seldom see a major piece about him in the heritage rock magazines (and the family estate keep a close eye on such, as I discovered when writing this piece), but if you do, it’ll probably focus on the ‘golden’ era – i.e. the late 1960s.
Maybe Ian Penman’s famous hatchet piece had more power than he anticipated, and he certainly wasn’t the only naysayer – many were turned off by Zappa’s unapologetic, un-PC lyrical stance as the ’70s turned into the ’80s. But his musical intelligence is beyond question and pretty much unprecedented in the ‘rock’ era.
Frank kicked off the 1980s with the release of the stand-alone ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’ single, recorded on 16th and 17th February 1980 at Ocean Way studios in Los Angeles and released 40 years ago this month.
It kicked off an incredibly busy decade for FZ. Two albums – Francesco Zappa and Thing-Fish were released on the same day in 1984.
There were two albums of guitar solos (one triple and one double), three major orchestral works and hundreds of instrumental pieces for the Synclavier. Not forgetting many other studio/live albums, compilations, and two books, ‘Them Or Us’ and ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’, though both contained some previously-published material.
In the live arena, Zappa embarked on major tours in 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984 and 1988. Now that he, Miles Davis and Joe Zawinul are gone, it’s hard to imagine that any other major artist will ever again play such virtuosic, challenging music in front of large crowds, whilst also blooding young musicians in the process.
Author Ben Watson memorably described FZ’s final 1988 tour as ‘the wildest and most speculative music…heard in rock arenas since the days of Cream, Hendrix and the Mothers Of Invention’.
One of the pleasures of lockdown has been discovering some ’80s FZ works I hadn’t heard (Francesco Zappa,London Symphony Orchestra Vols. 1 and 2) via Charles Ulrich’s excellent book ‘The Big Note’.
What struck me again is the lack of sentimentality in his music (off the top of my head, only three ’80s tracks feature those ‘bittersweet’ major-seventh chords: ‘I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted’, ‘Jumbo Go Away’ and ‘Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk’), something that also seems to drive ‘rock’ critics crazy.
It ain’t all good, but the best of Zappa’s ’80s output is absolutely superb, and it really pays to have a root around in his discography. I’ve tried to separate the wheat from the chaff here. There’ll never be anyone like FZ again.
It was goodbye to Basildon and Braintree, hello to Bel Air and Beverly Hills.
Kershaw had always threatened the big-budget, US-recorded album, and in 1989 he delivered it. And, to no-one’s great surprise, it was an excellent collection, one of the best ‘Brit-Goes-Stateside’ pop records of the decade.
Recorded over four months in LA, The Works – released 30 years ago this week – saw Kershaw put together some of his best material to date with two top-notch drummers (Vinnie Colaiuta and Jeff Porcaro) in tow, the great Jerry Hey on horn arrangements, Paulinho Da Costa on percussion, ex-Zappa keyboardist Peter Wolf producing and backing vocals from Michael McDonald and Siedah Garrett.
And yet it was also the straw that broke the camel’s back, underselling drastically, cutting ties with MCA Records and leading Kershaw into decades of back-room writing and producing. But maybe he was happier that way (and he did write the enormo-hit ‘The One And Only’ for Chesney Hawkes a few years later).
But from August to December 1987, Kershaw was hob-nobbing with Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones and Toto, flirting with the kinds of scenes that he had mocked on ‘Radio Musicola’ and ‘City Of Angels’. Reportedly he didn’t get on very well with Wolf, virtually re-recording the entire album back in London alongside Australian producer Julian Mendelsohn (Level 42’s World Machine).
But hey, the hard work paid off. There’s nothing else in the ’80s pop canon quite like the techno/pop/fusion flash of ‘Don’t Ask Me’, ‘Wounded Knee’ and ‘Cowboys and Indians’, and Colaiuta’s extraordinary drum performances had players rushing to their practice rooms. In particular, the former track has that fill… If only Vinnie had played on a few of the other machine-driven tracks. And Kershaw coaxes Porcaro to play a classic half-time shuffle on the superb ‘Walkabout’.
It’s still hard to believe that ‘One Step Ahead’ and ‘Elisabeth’s Eyes’ (very influenced by Scritti) completely flopped as singles (though I would have gone with ‘Lady On The Phone’). They still sound great today, with brilliant choruses and nice grooves. ‘Burning At Both Ends’ may be the standout of the album, with its Middle-Eastern-flavoured hook and superb Siedah Garrett backup vox. Slightly less impressive are ‘Take My Place’ and ‘One World’; both could be Climie Fisher or Robbie Nevil.
The album disappeared without trace both in the UK and US. As far as solo pop success was concerned, the game was up. But it’s a shame that the kind of intelligent, superbly-played pop heard on The Works was unsustainable by the end of the ‘80s. As Nik so succinctly puts it on his website:
“Los Angeles for four months with producer Peter Wolf. Get to record with some legends: Jerry Hey, Larry Williams, Paulinho Da Costa, Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Colaiuta. House in Nichols Canyon; Rented Mustang; Earthquake. Constantly bumping heads with Peter. End up finishing album myself in London. More record company upheaval; another MD; another A&R person. Not looking good. European tour with Elton John. Goodbye MCA. Time for a break...”
Inspiration was easy to come by; the early ‘80s delivered brilliant drum-centric hits like The Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice’, Bow Wow Wow’s ‘I Want Candy’, Adam and the Ants’ ‘Ant Rap’ and Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’. Drums were sounding like DRUMS again – the days of dead-sounding kits seemed (almost) over.
Exciting fusions were everywhere: avant-gardists combined free-funk and free-jazz; art-popsters brought ideas from minimalism, Africa and the Far East; jazz/rock masters of the 1970s moved into production and arrangement; dub and World music thrived.
Post-punks fused rock and reggae; the ‘Young Lions’ embraced and sometimes extended the drum worlds of Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach; funk and R’n’B got precise and spicy; metal players took double-kick playing to extraordinary extremes. And of course there was also the sudden development of technology: some drummers shrunk from the challenge, others rose to it.
So, to celebrate movingtheriver.com’s third anniversary, here’s a personal selection of the decade’s finest drum performances, in no particular order.
46. Loose Tubes: Loose Tubes (1985) Drummer: Nic France
France marshals this big band through jazz/rock, Latin and African vibes with a sparky, lively studio sound, something like a Brit version of Dave Weckl.
45. Lee Ritenour: Earth Run (1986) Drummer: Carlos Vega
The album may be the beginning of Ritenour’s descent into bona fide smooth jazz but the best tracks feature brilliant playing by the underrated Vega.
44. Prefab Sprout: Protest Songs (1989) Drummer: Neil Conti
Conti’s classy playing provided a subtle, always stylish counterpoint to Paddy McAloon’s pithy, complex songs about poverty, childhood and the social mores of the early ’80s.
43. Robert Plant: Shaken ‘N’ Stirred (1985) Drummer: Richie Hayward
Little Feat were a tough act to follow from a drumming point of view but Hayward settled into the 1980s with this superb performance, showcasing a bright, expressive style on Plant’s quirky, Peter Gabriel-influenced art-rock.
42. Frank Gambale: Live! (1989) Drummer: Joey Heredia
LA-based Heredia combined slinky funk/fusion, Police-style rock/reggae and Latin grooves to spectacular effect on this classic live album. His sparring with a terrifyingly unhinged Gambale on ‘Credit Reference Blues’ and ‘Touch Of Brazil’ is essential listening.
41. Al Jarreau: L Is For Lover (1986) Drummer: Steve Ferrone
The ex-Average White Band ex-pat Brit takes us on a journey through the art of groove on this nearly-forgotten Nile Rodgers-produced minor classic. He gives James Gadson a run for his money with his killer 16th-note hi-hats, crisp snare and nifty footwork.
40. Eddie Gomez: Mezgo (1986) Drummer: Steve Gadd
On this Japan-only album (which is still waiting for a CD release), Gadd was at his most expressive, navigating the bebop flavours of ‘Puccini’s Walk’ and quirky fusion stylings of ‘Me Two’ with great aplomb. And no one else could have played a samba the way Gadd does on ‘Caribbean Morning’.
39. Miles Davis: We Want Miles! (1982) Drummer: Al Foster
In combination with bassist Marcus Miller, the underrated Foster laid down some highly original rhythm section work on Miles’s only live album of the 1980s. Listening to his ‘bouncing ball’ dynamics on ‘Kix’, you’d swear that the very fabric of time was being messed with.
38. Rockin’ Jimmy & The Brothers Of The Night (1982) Drummer: Chuck DeWalt
Here’s one out of left-field from a Tulsa bar band who I first heard yonks ago on Alexis Korner’s fabled early-’80s Radio One blues show. DeWalt had a Ringo-esque knack for coming up with simple but memorable drum parts, with a great feel and nice use of space.
37. Living Colour: Vivid (1988) Drummer: Will Calhoun
Calhoun’s whip-crack snare and natty ride cymbal/hi-hat combinations knocked a lot of drummers’ socks off in 1988. He was just as comfortable with the half-time, Bonhamesque rock of ‘Cult Of Personality’ as he was with the funk and go-go grooves of ‘Funny Vibe’ and ‘Broken Hearts’.
36. INXS: Kick (1987) Drummer: Jon Farriss
If it’s funky pop you’re after, Farriss is your man. His dynamics, ghost notes and weird accents on ‘New Sensation’ and ‘Need You Tonight’ are worth the price of admission, while ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ sounds a bit like Ringo if he had a few more chops.
35. Hiram Bullock: Give It What U Got (1987) Drummer: Charley Drayton
NYC-native Drayton delivered a cutting snare, subtle cymbal work and exciting two-hi-hat grooves on this impeccable slice of late-’80s funk/fusion. No one else – not even his buddy Steve Jordan – could have done a better job.
34. Sting: …Nothing Like The Sun (1987) Drummer: Manu Katche
Overproduced? It’s a moot point when the playing’s as delicious as this. His independence between kick drum and hi-hat on ‘Rock Steady’ is fairly mind-boggling, while no one apart from Copeland and Colaiuta has perfected the high-speed reggae groove with such aplomb.
33. Narada Michael Walden: Divine Emotions (1988)
The ’70s fusion hero turned ’80s producer extraordinaire still had time to deliver this forgotten classic featuring tasty, tight, propulsive grooves and a return to blazing jazz/rock on the hysterical closer ‘We Still Have A Dream’.
32. John Scofield: Electric Outlet (1984) Drummer: Steve Jordan
The NYC tyro had already turned heads with the Blues Brothers and ‘Saturday Night Live’ bands but this album perfectly captured his more expansive side. Two hi-hats, crisp snare, gorgeous K Zildjians and some spry kick drum work, particularly on ‘Pick Hits’, ‘Big Break’ and the title track.
31. Nik Kershaw: The Works (1989) Drummer: Vinnie Colaiuta
We knew that Vinnie could unleash some jaw-dropping chops, but this album perfectly demonstrates his groove side. Check out how he navigates the 6/4 time of ‘Cowboys And Indians’ and hot-wires mid-tempo rocker ‘Wounded Knee’. And then there’s THAT fill in ‘Don’t Ask Me’…
30. Billy Cobham: Powerplay (1986)
An album that finally captured what it’s like to stand a few feet away from the master, featuring a lovely acoustic drum sound, shorn of any studio effects. There was incredible clarity to his playing even if the material wasn’t quite as strong as on the previous year’s album Warning.
29. Japan: Oil On Canvas (1983) Drummer: Steve Jansen
Jansen was always looking at new ways to play a 4/4 beat and came up with five or six classics on this live retrospective. ‘Visions Of China’, ‘Canton’ and ‘Sons Of Pioneers’ still sound like unique drum statements in the history of recorded music.
28. Stanley Clarke: Rocks, Pebbles And Sand (1980) Drummer: Simon Phillips
Beautifully recorded by Dennis Mackay, his drums have never sounded better or bigger. From the driving rock’n’roll of ‘Danger Street’ to highly technical prog-fusion of ‘She Thought I Was Stanley Clarke’, the London maestro delivered a superb performance throughout.
27. Bireli Lagrene: Foreign Affairs (1988) Drummer: Dennis Chambers
Many to choose from in Dennis’s repertoire but I’ve plumped for this hard-to-find fusion classic. With a fatter snare than usual, he anchors the band beautifully on Weather Report-style jams ‘Josef’ and ‘Senegal’ and unleashes a trademark 6/8 groove and killer solo on the title track.
26. Van Halen: 1984 Drummer: Alex Van Halen
If he had only ever recorded the freaky double-bass workout ‘Hot For Teacher’, his place in the drum pantheon would be assured. But this breakthrough album also featured a host of other treats, not least ‘Jump’, plus the most identifiable snare drum in hard rock.
25. John Abercrombie: Getting There (1987) Drummer: Peter Erskine
Difficult to choose one from possibly the jazz drummer of the decade but I’ve gone for this mid-career classic. Erskine busts out his Elvin Jones chops on ‘Furs On Ice’ and rocks hard on the epic title track which almost approaches avant-rock.
24. John Martyn: Glorious Fool (1981) Drummer: Phil Collins
A fascinating companion piece to Phil’s Face Value and Genesis’s Duke during arguably his best period of drumming. He brings out lots of lovely ghost-noted grooves in the Little Feat style, some brutal rock on ‘Amsterdam’ and even spicy fusion on ‘Didn’t Do That’.
23. China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse (1989) Drummer: Kevin Wilkinson
Wilkinson was (he sadly took his own life in 1999) kind of an English Jeff Porcaro, a tasty groovemeister who always played exactly what was right for the song – with lots of elan. Check out the subtleties of ‘St Saviour’s Square’, ‘In Northern Skies’ and ‘Red Letter Day’.
22. Toto IV (1982) Drummer: Jeff Porcaro
It would almost be sacrilege not to include this. Some of the greatest rock drumming in history, with feel, finesse, style, a rich, full sound and lovely time-feel (though he famously claimed ‘my time sucks’!).
21. Pat Metheny: 80/81 (1981) Drummer: Jack DeJohnette
DeJohnette was always a class act on ECM’s ’80s projects and he sounds sparkling on this double album. But I include it mainly for his performance on ‘Every Day I Thank You’, goosing saxophonist Michael Brecker into one of his finest sax solos on record.
20. Stanley Clarke Band: Find Out! (1985) Drummer: Rayford Griffin
There are definitely shades of Cobham in his exuberant style (and he set himself up left-handed on a right-handed kit like Billy) but also grooves aplenty on this underrated album. His lopsided funk on ‘Born In The USA’ is balanced out by chops-fests ‘Campo Americano’ and ‘My Life’. This guy has technique to burn but also does what’s right for the song.
With the sad death of Allan Holdsworth, we have lost another guitar great and one of the UK’s most singular musicians.
There’s an old muso cliché that seems to lend itself to guitarists more than other players – ‘he/she’s a musician who just happens to play the guitar’.
It certainly applies to Allan. He came up with an entirely original soundworld, feted by the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Frank Zappa, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John McLaughlin.
From a young age, Holdsworth always revered horn players – particularly Cannonball Adderley, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Michael Brecker – above guitarists, but, given a guitar by his father as a teenager, decided to pursue his love of music using that tool. In doing so, he revolutionised the instrument, fashioning a unique legato technique.
The aim was a smooth, soaring sound which lent itself to horn-like improvisation, allowing him to play fiery, exciting solos with huge intervallic leaps. His chord work was underrated and equally innovative, using close-interval voicings and ridiculously large stretches.
He came up with an entirely personal series of ‘chord scales’, loathing standard chord shapes and even calling them ‘disgusting’ on his instructional video!
The first time I heard Allan’s playing was his extraordinary solo on Stanley Clarke’s ‘Stories To Tell’ from the album If This Bass Could Only Talk, but it took me a while to identify him since my cassette didn’t list the personnel… To my ears, it was just a remarkable solo; I didn’t even particularly ‘hear’ it as a guitar.
In the late 1980s, as I started reading various American muso mags, Allan’s name popped up frequently (particularly memorable was this 1989 Guitar Player cover feature) – it was time to explore his career in more depth.
In the early to mid-1970s, he guested with Soft Machine, Nucleus, Tempest and Gong. Master drummer Tony Williams came calling, and he hot-footed it over to New York for 18 months of recording and touring with the New Lifetime band.
He then joined Bill Bruford in one of the greatest ever fusion units alongside Jeff Berlin and Dave Stewart, then formed prog supergroup UK with Bruford, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton (playing a legendary solo on ‘In The Dead Of Night‘). He also forged a brief but fruitful musical relationship with violinst Jean-Luc Ponty.
An early solo album, 1976’s Velvet Darkness, was virtually disowned by Allan despite featuring Narada Michael Walden on drums and Alphonso Johnson on bass. But he spent the 1980s embarking on a far more fruitful solo career.
Endorsed by Eddie Van Halen and Frank Zappa, mainstream success beckoned in the mid-’80s, but a high-profile Warner Bros contract came and went very briefly with only an EP Road Games to show for it.
It didn’t hold him back though; in fact it led to probably his most commercially successful period – Metal Fatigue, Atavachron and Sand were all important statements.
The period between 1988 and 1994 was arguably Allan’s peak – superb solo albums like Secrets, Then!, Hard Hat Area and Wardenclyffe Tower came out and he contributed striking guest spots to albums by Level 42 (Guaranteed), Stanley Clarke and Chad Wackerman (Forty Reasons).
He was even lured to share the stage with Level for a month-long Hammersmith Odeon residency in 1990.
Like fellow ex-pats Richard Thompson and Morrissey, he made California his home, moving there in the early 1980s and forging valued musical relationships with Vinnie Colaiuta, Jimmy Johnson and Scott Henderson.
Henderson spoke of his incredible generosity in the studio. Drummer Kirk Covington – who recorded with Allan on the ‘standards’ album None Too Soon – reported that sessions at his home studio were always curtailed at 7pm at which point Allan would hand out pints of his home-brewed cask ale.
The complexity of his style meant that Allan influenced relatively few guitarists, though for my money Henderson and Francis Dunnery adapted some of his techniques to great effect.
Fellow Yorkshireman John McLaughlin once said, ‘I’d steal everything Allan was doing if only I could figure out what he was doing!’
I saw Allan several times in concert; at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Jazz Cafe, Ronnie Scott’s, Queen Elizabeth Hall and twice with Level 42 at Hammersmith. He was notoriously self-critical, but to my ears achieved a remarkable consistency in the live context.
A 12-CD career-spanning box set The Man Who Changed Guitar Forever has just been released on Manifesto Records. Allan was also working on a long-awaited new studio album at the time of his death. He spoke about both projects in this recent podcast.
Farewell to a master. We won’t see his like again.
Allan Holdsworth, guitarist and composer, born 6th August 1946, died 15th April 2017
Allan, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Johnson in concert
Most music fans of a certain age probably had their favourite ‘Walkman albums’, those cassettes that worked perfectly on headphones, revealing intricacies (weird panning effects, funky little motifs, stereo drum kits) rarely noticed when played on normal speakers.
As much as I had loved Joni Mitchell’s music ever since my dad played me ‘Chinese Cafe (Unchained Melody)’ in 1983, I’d never have predicted that the superb Dog Eat Dog – released on 30 October 1985 – would turn into one of my top headphone albums. A clue, of course, was the presence of Thomas Dolby as co-producer and keyboard player, master of quirky soundscapes and synth textures.
Though initially he might seem a weird choice of collaborator, with hindsight it’s not that much of a surprise that Joni and co-producer/bassist/hubbie Larry Klein should enlist his services. Joni admitted in contemporary interviews that she ‘could use a hit’ and Dolby was still pretty hot in early ’85. But, according to Karen O’Brien’s biography ‘Shadows And Light’, they didn’t get along particularly well in the studio, Dolby not enamouring himself to her by blithely calling her ‘Joan’ between takes.
One of the key aspects of Dog Eat Dog is Joni’s anger at the state of the world, both lyrically and vocally. Her cover pose says it all – throwing her hands up in the air with indignation and/or helplessness. As she puts it, the album is a portrait of ‘a culture in decline’.
She takes aim at TV evangelists, consumerism, lawyers, yuppies and Reaganites with equal candour, letting fly with an F-bomb on the superb ‘Tax Free’ which also features some spirited spoken-word work from Rod Steiger.
The album also features some of Joni’s strongest singing on record. Her melodies are sometimes resplendent too, particularly on the title track and ‘Lucky Girl’. It’s also interesting to hear her trying out a slightly more minimalist lyric-writing approach on ‘Fiction’ and ‘Tax Free’, marrying her short, sharp lines to Klein’s music.
‘Good Friends’, initially a brooding piano ballad in demo form, kicks the album off in fine style, an AOR classic with more interesting chord changes than the usual and a typically distinctive guest spot from Michael McDonald. It was a bold though unsuccessful attempt at a hit, far too good for the charts. Joni even sung it live on ‘Wogan’ with a McDonald impersonator!
The elegant, stately ‘Impossible Dreamer’ is described by Joni as ‘a tribute to Martin Luther King, John Lennon, and Robert Kennedy – all those who gave us hope and were killed for it.’ It also features some sparkling soprano sax from Wayne Shorter.
Master drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is mainly reduced to providing drum samples for Dolby, though plays some lovely stuff on ‘Shiny Toys’, the second single from the album and subject to a great 12″ mix by Francis Kevorkian.
The ’80s weren’t particularly easy on Joni and her contemporaries Don Henley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Robbie Robertson. As she put it, ‘I made four albums for Geffen. For one reason or another, they were viewed as being out of sync with the ’80s. But I was out of sync with the ’80s. Thank God! To be in sync with these times, in my opinion, was to be degenerating both morally and artistically. Materialism became a virtue; greed was hip.’
A lot of people would probably have liked her to carry on making Blue for the rest of the ’70s and ’80s, but she was moving on. Every album was different and this may be the one most in need of critical reassessment. Some tracks would possibly benefit from acoustic reinvention, but hey… It’s Joni.