The Hardware: The Mellotron

The electro-mechanical keyboards are known for amazing sound capabilities and quirks

Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away, I came across this YouTube demo of the Mellotron. It reminded me what a cool musical instrument this type of keyboard is and that I hadn’t done a “hardware” post since this one about the Vox Continental from August 2018. Two great reasons for a new installment, don’t you agree? ūüôā

I realize writing about musical gear can quickly get you into geeky territory. As a hobby musician, I can’t deny I get easily excited when it comes to instruments and their sounds and looks. I guess you could call that geeky. At the same time, I’m not exactly a tech wiz – in fact, far from it! As such, I mostly approach gear posts from the sound (and looks) side and keep the tech side relatively light.

Which brings me to the Mellotron. The first time I ever heard this marvelous keyboard in action, I didn’t realize I was listening to a Mellotron. Clever, huh? Well, it’s true. I suppose more frequent visitors of the blog may already have an idea where I’m going with this. I’ll give you a hint: Four lads from Liverpool…

Strawberry Fields Forever. Undoubtedly, my fellow Beatles fans already knew that! ūüôā This John Lennon gem from 1967, which was co-credited to him and Paul McCartney as usual, is perhaps the most famous example in pop rock of a Mellotron in action. I’m particularly referring to the beautiful flute sound intro, which was played by McCartney. According to The Beatles Bible, George Martin and Lennon also played two Mellotron parts, using the ‚Äėswinging flutes‚Äô and, towards the end of the song, ‚Äėpiano riff‚Äô settings.

U.S. picture sleeve of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, released as a double A-side single with “Penny Lane” in February 1967

I could easily dedicate an entire post to Strawberry Fields Forever, which was one of the most complex tunes The Beatles ever recorded. Perhaps one day I will, but for now, let’s get back to the Mellotron and some history, as well as an attempt to explain how the mighty instrument works, based on my ingenious tech understanding. ūüôā And, of course, I’ll wrap things up with some examples that illustrate what Mellotron keyboards can do!

Let’s start with the technology. Fortunately, there’s Wikipedia! Basically, the Mellotron is what’s called a sampler, meaning it samples music instruments and other sounds, but instead of relying on digital sampling like the modern samplers do, it’s based on analogue samples recorded on audio tapes – essentially like an old-fashioned tape deck! When a player presses a key, a tape that’s connected to it gets pushed against a playback head, which in turn generates the sound. Once released, the tape moves back in its default position.

The tapes in a Mellotron include recordings of actual instruments, voices and other sounds, which is pretty neat when you think about it. Each tape recording lasts for about 8 seconds. This means a player cannot indefinitely hold down a key and get a sound – one of the instrument’s many quirks. There are others. As Sound on Sound explains, the Mellotron had 35 tape heads and other interconnected hardware, which made it quite challenging to maintain from a mechanical perspective.

Inside of a Mellotron M400. The tapes are underneath the brown-colored key extensions.

For example, if the springs that pull back the tapes to their start position malfunction, this could mean the sampled sound only starts in the middle of the tape, and a player would have even less than 8 seconds of sound; or I suppose no sound at all, if the spring gets stuck in a completely extended position. There are different Mellotron models, so I’m not sure they all have 35 tape heads. My point here is to illustrate the instrument’s delicacy!

As you’d expect, the Mellotron offers a variety of sounds. From Wikipedia: On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together.

Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in both pitch and tempo. Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.

Okay, I promised to keep it “light” on the technology, so the above shall be sufficient. Next, I’d like to touch on the Mellotron’s history. While tape samplers had been explored in research studios, it wasn’t until 1962 that the instrument’s commercial concept originated. And it took a little help not exactly from a friend, as would become clear later.

Bill Fransen, a sales agent for the California-based maker of the Chamberlin electro-mechanical keyboards, took two Chamberlin Musicmaster 600 instruments to England to find a suitable manufacturer that could make tape heads for future Chamberlin keyboards. He met Frank Bradley, Norman Bradley and Les Bradley of tape engineering company Bradmatic Ltd. in Birmingham. The Bradleys told him they could advance the original instrument design, and keyboard history started to change.

The Bradleys subsequently teamed up with BBC music conductor Eric Robinson, who not only agreed to arrange the recording of the necessary instruments and sounds for the tapes but also to help finance the effort. They also pulled in English magician and TV personality David Nixon and formed Mellotronics, a company to produce and market the Mellotron.

Bill Fransen with the first Mellotron off the production line, 1963. Photo credit: Sound on Sound

In 1963, Mellotronics started making the Mk I, the first commercially manufactured model of the Mellotron. The following year, the company introduced the Mk II, an updated version featuring the full set of sounds selectable by banks and stations. There are multiple other models that were developed thereafter, including the M400, which is pictured on top of this post and became a particular popular version.

There was only one hiccup. Fransen had never told the Bradleys that he wasn’t the original owner of the Chamberlin concept. Suffice to say the California company wasn’t exactly pleased that a British competitor essentially had copied their technology. After some back and forth, the two companies eventually agreed that each would be allowed to continue manufacture instruments independently.

In the ’70s, the Mellotron name was acquired by American company Sound Sales. After 1976, Bradmatic that had renamed themselves Streetly Electronics in 1970, manufactured and sold Mellotron type keyboards under the Novatron brand name. But eventually, the advent of modern electronic samplers caught up with both companies. As a result, they found themselves in dire financial straits by the mid ’80s. In 1986, Streetly folded altogether.

In 1989, Les Bradley’s son John Bradley and Martin Smith, who had built Mellotron keyboards for the Bradleys at the original factory in Birmingham, England, revived Streetly Electronics as a Mellotron support and refurbishment business. The company exists to this day. In 2007, they also developed a new model that became the M4000. It combined features of several previous models with the layout and chassis of the popular M400 but with a digital bank selector that emulated the mechanical original in the Mk II.

If you’re still with me, let’s now move on to the post’s final and actual fun section: Seeing and hearing Mellotron keyboards in action. And while many things in pop music start with The Beatles, the Mellotron is one of the exceptions that prove the rule! Apparently, in the mid ’60s, English multi-instrumentalist Graham Bond became the first rock artist to record with a Mellotron. He also was an early user of the legendary Hammond organ and Leslie speaker combination. Here’s Baby Can It Be True from The Graham Bond Organization’s 1965 sophomore album There’s a Bond Between Us. Per Wikipedia, the tune was the first hit song to feature a Mellotron Mk II.

Another early adopter of the Mellotron was Mike Pinder, who had worked as a tester at Streetly Electronics (then still called Bradmatic) for 18 months in the early 1960s and became the keyboarder and co-founder of The Moody Blues in 1964. Pinder started using the Mellotron extensively on each of the band’s albums from Days of Future Passed (1967) to Octave (1978). Here’s one of the former record’s absolute gems written by Justin Hayward: Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon). In addition to Mellotron, the album used plenty of actual orchestration.

And since it was Pinder who introduced The Beatles to the Mellotron, now it’s time to come back to Strawberry Fields Forever. Notably, George Martin was less than excited about the Mellotron, reportedly describing it “as if a Neanderthal piano had impregnated a primitive electronic keyboard” – ouch! Probably, he was referring to some of the instrument’s quirks I mentioned above! The Beatles still ended up using various Mellotron keyboards on their albums Magical Mystery Tour and The White Album.

Another well-known user of the Mellotron was Rick Wakeman. Before joining Yes in 1971, Wakeman was a full-time session musician. Among others, this included work with David Bowie on his second eponymous studio album and the mighty Space Oddity. As reported by Ultimate Classic Rock, the initial idea was for Wakeman to play a guide track with the Mellotron that would be replaced by an actual orchestra. But producer Tony Visconti decided to keep Wakeman’s Mellotron part.

Let’s do a few more Mellotron examples from the ’70s. These selections are taken from the previously noted Ultimate Classic Rock piece. First up: And You And I, a tune from Close to the Edge, the fifth studio album by Yes released in September 1972. The more than 10-minute track was co-written by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe (except the Eclipse section), Chris Squire and Bill Bruford. Wakeman used the Mellotron to capture stings, brass and flutes sounds, especially during the tune’s Eclipse section.

One month later, in October 1972, Genesis released their fourth studio album Foxtrot. Here’s the opener Watcher of the Skies, which like all of the record’s tracks was credited to all members of the band. Ultimate Classic Rock notes the sound of the Mellotron created by Tony Banks turned out to be so popular that the manufacturer introduced a “Watcher Mix” sound on the next version of the keyboard – pretty cool in my book!

Since all things must pass including epic gear blog posts, let’s wrap up things with one final – and I might add particularly mighty – example of Mellotron use: Kashmir, from Led Zeppelin’s sixth studio album Physical Graffiti, which came out in February 1975. Credited to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham, the closer of Side 2 of the double LP features plenty of orchestration arranged by John Paul Jones. This includes both Mellotron strings and an actual string and brass section. While this makes it tricky to distinguish between the Mellotron and “real instruments”, Ultimate Classic Rock notes, The consensus is that Jones‚Äôs fake strings are heard during the ‚ÄúAll I see turns to brown‚Ķ‚ÄĚ bridge (starting around 3:25) and join up with the actual strings in the tune‚Äôs closing minutes, adding a weird and wonderful effect.

This post focused on the use of the Mellotron during its most popular period from the mid ’60s to the second half of the ’70s. One can also find occasional examples thereafter like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark and XTC on albums they released during the first half of the ’80s, as well as Oasis and Radiohead on recordings made during the second half of the ’90s. I think it’s safe to assume some keyboarders continue to use Mellotrons to this day, though with the modern digital samplers, it has to be a niche product.

Sources: Wikipedia; The Beatles Bible; Sound on Sound; Streetly Electronics website; Ultimate Classic Rock; YouTube

Celebration Day All Over Again

Led Zeppelin’s 2007 tribute concert at London’s O2 arena to stream on band’s YouTube channel this Saturday

In 2007, the surviving members of Led ZeppelinRobert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones – reunited for a tribute concert for Ahmet Erteg√ľn, which they performed on December 10 that year at London’s O2 Arena, together with drummer Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham. This Saturday, that show will stream live on Led Zeppelin’s YouTube channel at 8:00 p.m. BST (3:00 p.m. EST).

Erteg√ľn was the co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, the label that issued the band’s first five albums. Zep’s tribute gig was their first full-length show in almost three decades. The tribute opened with an all-star band, including Keith Emerson, Chris Squire, Alan White and Simon Kirke, who were backed by the brass section from Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. The concert also featured Paul Rodgers, Paolo Nutini and Foreigner as supporting acts, who played together with the Rhythm Kings as well. Other guests on the Rhythm Kings’ set were Maggie Bell and Alvin Lee.

Zep’s show, the headliner of the event, has been captured in various formats, including a limited big screen release in October 2012, DVD, home audio and CD. My streaming music provider includes the latter, and I listened to it this morning. While perhaps not quite as outstanding as Cream’s 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, I think it’s pretty great stuff, especially, once you get past the opener Good Times Bad Times, where to me Plant sounds like he’s holding back a bit.

I’m certainly planning to watch this Saturday. Apparently, the stream will be up for two or three days. Here are two clips – a little appetizer, if you want! First up: Black Dog, from Led Zeppelin IV, the band’s forth studio album released in November 1971. The song was co-written by Page, Plant and Jones.

And here’s Kashmir, from Physical Graffiti. Co-written by Bonham, Page and Plant, I’ve always found this tune both a bit weird, yet brilliant at the same time. Physical Graffiti, which appeared in February 1975, was Zep’s sixth studio album, and the first record they released on their own label Swan Song Records, which the band had launched in May 1974.

Sources: Wikipedia; Facebook; YouTube

Another Rocking Thanksgiving Weekend With Music By Led Zeppelin

Zep tribute Get The Led Out Rocks Asbury Park’s Historic Paramount Theatre

Sometimes spontaneous decisions are the best and this one certainly qualifies. Almost exactly one year ago, on November 22, 2017, I had seen Get The Led The Out¬†(GTLO) for the first time. You can read about it here. Last night I saw them again, at the historic Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J. I only had found out about the gig Friday and got a ticket yesterday afternoon. There weren’t many left, and I was fortunate to get a decent seat at a pretty reasonable price. This six-piece Led Zeppelin tribute band and their guest backing vocalist once again put in an incredible performance, so it was definitely worth it!

‘Wait a moment,’ you might say, ‘Led Zeppelin were only four guys, so how come there are six guys and they call themselves a Zep tribute?’ Well, as lead vocalist Paul Sinclair¬† explained again to the newbies in the audience last night, when the guy singing Robert Plant looks like Howard Stern¬†while one of the guitarists actually resembles Plant, you obviously know that GTLO¬†isn’t trying to impersonate Zep. Instead, they are all about capturing their music – more precisely, the British rockers’ recorded music. And with all the overdubbing and other techniques Zep applied in the studio, you simply cannot replicate that sound live with just four guys.

GTLO Band Members
GTLO (clockwise from upper row left): Paul Sinclair (lead vocals, harmonica), Paul Hammond (electric & acoustic guitars, mandolin), Jim Marchiano (electric & acoustic guitars, vocals), Phil D’Agostino (bass, vocals), Adam Ferraioli (drums, percussion), Eddie Kurek (keyboards, electric & acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion) and Diana DeSantis (guest vocalist on Battle Of Evermore)

I didn’t capture any music last night except for one tune I simply couldn’t resist recording. Instead, I decided to simply enjoy the show and forget about my stupid smartphone. Yet after almost each song, I kind of wished I had recorded it – especially the acoustic-oriented renditions that were just unbelievably good! Well, I didn’t, so to capture the music of last night’s show I had to resort to what I did in the past before starting to record my own concert footage: Rely on YouTube videos taken by others.

I’d like to kick things off with one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes:¬†All My Love. Credited to John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, it was included on Zep’s eighth studio album In Through The Out Door from August 1979, the final record prior to John Bonham’s untimely death in September 1980 in the age of 32. I just totally dig the keyboard part on this track.

I already mentioned the acoustic songs, which to me were the standouts. Here’s Going To California. Co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, this gem appeared on Led Zeppelin IV from December 1971.

Here’s another acoustic Zep diamond, from Houses Of The Holy, the band’s fifth studio album released in March 1973: The Rain Song, which was also co-written by Plant and Page.

The last song I’d like to call out was the first encore and the only tune I recorded myself: Stairway To Heaven. I just couldn’t resist! Yet another Page-Plant co-write, the track also appeared on Led Zeppelin IV.

GTLO, which are from Philly and were founded in 2003, currently includes the following members: Paul Sinclair (lead vocals, harmonica), Paul Hammond (electric & acoustic guitars, mandolin), Jim Marchiano (electric & acoustic guitars, vocals), Phil D’Agostino (bass, vocals), Adam Ferraioli (drums, percussion) and Eddie Kurek (keyboards, electric & acoustic guitars, vocals, percussion). In addition,¬†Diana DeSantis performs as a guest vocalist on The¬†Battle Of Evermore.

The band has a pretty packed schedule that currently has dates until late April 2019. Upcoming shows include Harrisburg, Pa. (Nov 29 & 30 and Dec 1), Philadelphia (Dec 7) and Jim Thorpe, Pa. (Dec 28 & 29).

Sources: GTLO website and Facebook page, Wikipedia, YouTube

Music of Cream Shines at New Jersey’s Count Basie Theatre

Relatives of original members pay tribute to legendary power rock trio

While I’ve seen many tribute bands over the past couple of years, Tuesday night was a first: a tribute act whose members were relatives of the original band’s musicians. Meet Music of Cream: Malcolm Bruce¬†(bass) and Kofi Baker¬†(drums), sons of Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker;¬†and Will Johns¬†(guitar), nephew of Eric Clapton.

The closest case I can think of is Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who pays tribute to the English rockers with¬†Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin¬†Experience. But I’ve never seen a tribute act where the entire lineup is blood-related to the members of the original band.

Apart from being true masters of their craft, Malcolm Bruce, Kofi Baker and Will Johns also have impressive other accomplishments, as their bios on the Music of Cream website show. Malcolm is a composer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and engineer. In addition to having recorded and performed with his father, he can be heard on recordings of other artists like Little Richard, Eric Clapton or Elton John. Last year, Malcolm also released his debut solo album Salvation.

Kofi first performed live with his father on the BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test when he was just six years old. In addition to Jack Bruce, he has also played and toured with other rock musicians, such as Uli Jon Roth (former lead guitarist of Scorpions), UFO guitarist Vinnie Moore and Rick Derringer. He also released a solo record, Lost City, and recorded an album with Jonas Hellborg and Shawn Lane called Abstract Logic.

Kofi, Malcolm and Will
Music of Cream (from left): Kofi Baker, Malcolm Bruce and Will Johns

In addition to Jack Bruce, Will has performed with Ronnie Wood, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman. Will’s strong connection to members of The Rolling Stones is likely due to his father Andy Johns, recording engineer and producer, who apart from the Stones has worked with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Will is also the nephew of Glyn Johns who has produced for The Who, Eric Clapton and Eagles. To date, he has released three solo albums: Count On Me, Hooks & Lines and Something Old, Something New.

Yes, it’s safe to assume that all their connections haven’t hurt Malcolm, Kofi and Will, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that they are highly talented musicians and accomplished artists. Music of Cream’s shows are billed as a 50th anniversary tour, which was launched in Australia and New Zealand last year. Cream’s debut album Fresh Cream appeared in December 1966.

Tuesday night’s show was divided in two sets separated by a 20-minute intermission. Based on what I’ve seen on Setlist.fm, this appears to be the typical format. In addition to great music, I also thought the projection of psychedelic color patterns mixed with historical footage of Cream on the stage background was pretty cool. While the band was taking a break, documentary film footage was shown. During both sets, Kofi, Macolm and Will also shared anecdotes about Ginger, Jack and Eric.

Time for some clips! Here are two from the first set.¬†Politician¬†appeared on Wheels Of Fire, Cream’s third album released in August 1968. It was written by Jack Bruce and lyricist and singer Pete Brown who frequently collaborated with Bruce.

Next up: Strange Brew, the opener of Cream’s sophomore album Disraeli Gears from November 1967. The tune is credited to Eric Clapton, the record’s producer Felix Pappalardi and his wife Gail Collins.

Some of the other tunes from the first set included N.S.U., Badge and Sleepy Time Time.

The second set kicked off with I’m So Glad, followed by Crossroads. Following is a clip of the latter, a¬†Robert Johnson tune arranged by Eric Clapton.

White Room was another tune Music of Cream performed during the second half of show. Co-written by Bruce and Brown, the song was the opener of the Wheels Of Fire album.

Some other tunes from the second sets included Born Under A Bad Sign, Sitting On Top Of The World, Toad and Sunshine Of Your Love. Here’s a clip of the latter, another track from Disraeli Gears, co-written by Bruce, Clapton and Brown. The band stretched it into an 11-minute-plus jam.

Music of Cream also threw in Spoonful as an encore. Including the intermission, the show lasted a solid three hours. Not only did Malcolm Bruce, Kofi Baker and Will Johns do a great job to capture the music of Cream, but they were also clearly enjoying themselves.

Upcoming tour dates include Baltimore, Md. (Oct 25), Greensburg, Pa. (Oct 26), Bristol, Tenn. (Oct 28) and Richmond, Va. (Oct 30). The full schedule is available here.

Sources: Wikipedia, Music of Cream website, Setlist.fm, 

 

Aw, The ’80s (Part 1: 1980-1984)

A two-part feature looking back at music of the decade

I’ve mentioned my weak spot for ’80s music on a few previous occasions. My taste has since evolved, and I now find myself wondering more often than not how I could have liked certain songs as much as I did back then. Well, obviously, I was a lot younger (though of course, I’m still young at heart!), and that music was all around me. It also triggers memories of school, parties, the first vacations with friends (and without my parents or any adults for that matter), the first hangover…in other words, it really was the soundtrack of growing up – okay, call me a sentimental fool!

This morning, I rode the car with my wife and put on¬†Duran Duran’s Rio album – she loves ’80s, so it was all her fault! ūüôā Anyway, listening to this 1982 record gave me the idea to reflect on music and some related events from that decade. Since it’s a big topic, I figured it would be best to divide my thoughts in two parts. Obviously, it’s still not possible to make this all-inclusive, so I’m going to be arbitrary and selective, focusing on things that are meaningful to me. Here’s part I spanning 1980 to 1984.

Prince_Purple Rain

Some of the first things that come to my mind when thinking about the ’80s are Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, the death of disco, new wave, the advent of the CD, hair metal bands and Live Aid. Of course, I could add many other buzz words, e.g., music videos. At the time, we didn’t have cable or satellite television at my house back in Germany, so I missed out on MTV and VH1. In fact, believe or not, it wasn’t until 1993 when I first came to the U.S. that I watched VH1 and kind of got hooked,¬†especially on their Behind The Music documentaries. For some reason, I never warmed to MTV.

1980

Some of the events I’d like to call out are Paul McCartney’s arrest in Tokyo for marijuana possession, which resulted in the cancellation of the remaining Wings tour that year (Jan 16); launch of Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour in Los Angeles (Feb 7); release of Back In Black, AC/DC’s first album with Brian Johnson who had replaced original lead vocalist Bon Scott (Jul 25); death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham (Sep 25); and murder of John Lennon who was shot by deranged Mark David Chapman¬†in front of his Manhattan residence after returning from the recording studio with Yoko Ono¬†(Dec 8).

The biggest hit singles of the year were¬†Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) (Pink Floyd), Woman In Love (Barbara Streisand), (Just Like) Starting Over (John Lennon), Funkytown (Lipps) and Upside Down (Diana Ross). I dug all of these songs at the time. While from today’s perspective my favorite is the Lennon tune, the track I’d like to highlight in a clip is Call Me by Blondie. Co-written by Debbie Harry and producer Giorgio Moroder (remember that guy?), the song was released as a single in February that year and was also included on the soundtrack for the 1980 picture American Gigolo. It became the band’s biggest hit, topping the Billboard Hot 100, as well as the charts in the U.K. and Canada, and scoring in the top 20 in many other countries.

1981

Notable events include the release of Face Value, the first solo album by Phil Collins – like it or not, the Genesis drummer was just everywhere in the ’80s – with Genesis and solo! (Feb 9); first break-up of Yes (Apr 18) only to reunite less than two years later and release their biggest-selling album 90125; U2’s television debut in the U.S. on the NBC late night program The Tomorrow Show (Jun 4); official launch of MTV in New York (Aug 1); Simon & Garfunkel’s free reunion concert in the Big Apple’s¬†Central Park, drawing more than 500,000 visitors – no disputes over crowd attendance here! (Sep 9 ); and Rod Stewart show at Los Angeles Forum, broadcast live via satellite and watched by an estimated 35 million people worldwide – the first such broadcast since Elvis Presley’s 1973 Aloha From Hawaii special.

The top 5 hit singles of the year were Bette Davis Eyes (Kim Carnes), Tainted Love (Soft Cell), In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins), Woman (John Lennon) and Stars On 45 Medley (Stars On 45). Again, to me the Lennon tune holds up the best, though I also still like Bette Davis Eyes¬†and have to admit In The Air Tonight is kind of cool. Even though I feel I’ve been over-exposed to Collins, I admit he’s done some good songs. Here’s a clip of Down Under by Men At Work. Co-written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, and released in October, the song was the second single from the band’s debut album Business As Usual that appeared the following month. It was cool then, and I still dig this tune.

1982

Perhaps most notably, the year saw the debut of Madonna with Everybody¬†(Oct 2), the lead single from her first eponymous 1983 studio record, as well as the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album (Nov 30), which remains the world’s best-selling record to date. Some of the other events include the death of comedian and Blues Brothers vocalist John Belushi (March 5); premiere of Pink Floyd – The Wall, a film adaptation of the band’s 1979 album with the same title, at the Cannes Film Festival in France; and start of CD mass production by Dutch technology company and disc co-inventor Philips in Langenhagen near Hanover, Germany (Aug 17).

Eye Of The Tiger (Survivor), Down Under (Men At Work), I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll (Joan Jett & The Blackhearts), Come On Eileen (Dexys Midnight Runners) and Ebony And Ivory (Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson) were the biggest hit singles that year. Below is a clip of Come On Eileen, which appeared as a single in June. Co-written by Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams, the song was also included on the band’s second studio album Too-Rye-Ay, released the following month. I always found it cool how the catchy tune blended elements of Celtic folk with pop music.

1983

On March 2, CDs started to go on sale in the U.S., following their initial release in Japan the previous October. Some of the year’s other events in music include the debut of Let’s Spend The Night Together in New York, a film documenting the 1981 North American tour of The Rolling Stones (Feb 11); release of U2’s third studio album War, which debuts at no. 1 in the U.K. and features their first international hit single New Year’s Day (Feb 28); release of David Bowie’s commercially most successful studio album Let’s Dance (Apr 14); unveiling of Kiss’s faces without their make-up for the first time on MTV¬†(Sep 18) – yes, I do seem to recall that seeing their actual faces was a pretty big deal at the time!; and Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, the first heavy metal album to top the Billboard 200 (Nov 26).

The biggest hit singles of the year: Karma Chameleon (Culture Club); Billie Jean (Michael Jackson); Flashdance…What A Feeling (Irene Cara); Let’s Dance (David Bowie) and Every Breath You Take (The Police). Did I have all these songs? You betcha – in fact, I still do, mostly somewhere on music cassettes! Here’s Billie Jean, written by the King of Pop himself, and released as the second single from the Thriller album in January 1983.

1984

Some of the happenings in the music world that year: Announcement from BBC Radio 1 DJ Mike Read of this refusal to play Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood due to its suggestive lyrics (Jan 11), a ban that was put in place by the entire BBC around the same time – in a clear illustration that something forbidden oftentimes tends to make it more attractive, only 10 days later, the tune stood a no. 1 on the Official Singles Chart in the UK; death of one of the greatest soul artists,¬†Marvin Gaye, who following an argument was killed by his own father with a gun he had given to him as a Christmas present the previous year (Apr 1); release of Prince’s sixth studio album Purple Rain¬†(Jun 25), the soundtrack to the 1984 film of the same name – one of his most successful records and the third-best-selling soundtrack album of all time, exceeding more than 25 million copies sold worldwide; and the first annual MTV Music Awards held in New York, where Madonna raised some eyebrows with a racy performance of Like A Virgin (Sep 14) – Madonna being controversial?

The biggest hit singles of 1984 were Careless Whisper (George Michael), I Just Called To Say I Love You (Stevie Wonder), Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go (Wham!), Girls Just Want To Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper) and Relax (Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Since I was a good boy and never listened to Relax and Like A Virgin, here’s a clip of Borderline, a song¬†from Madonna’s debut record. On a more serious note, the tune that was written by producer Reggie Lucas¬†still is one of my favorite Madonna songs. It became the album’s fifth and last single released in February 1984, peaking at no. 2 in the U.K. and reaching no. 10 in the U.S., less successful than the scandalous Like A Virgin!

Stay tuned for part 2, which will cover the period from 1985 to 1989.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

In Appreciation of the Drummer

My top 10 favorite rock drummers, from Baker to Watts

I learned the guitar and also used to be a bass player. The first additional instrument I’d pick up if I had the time would be the drums – and, yes, also after soundproofing a room in my basement!

I’ve always been fascinated with the drums. I have a fairly good feel for¬†rhythm and might actually be good at it – at least that’s what I’m telling myself! Since the drums and the bass form the core rhythm section of a rock band, I also think it would make sense for me to learn the drums next.

But this post is not about my crazy drumming dreams. It’s about professional drummers who are masters of their craft. More specifically, it’s about drummers playing rock, blues, soul and pop, which are the genres I’m most familiar with. Undoubtedly, there must be incredible jazz drummers out there, but since I essentially don’t know jazz, I’m purposely leaving them out.

Here are some of the drummers I find pretty cool, in alphabetical order.

Ginger Baker

Best known as the founder of power rock trio Cream, Ginger Baker is widely considered to be one of the most influential rock drummers and a pioneer in jazz fusion, heavy metal and world music. Born Peter Edward Baker, he began playing the drums at the age of 15. He met bassist Jack Bruce¬†and infamously started clashing with him for much of the time ever since when he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. Despite their clashes, Baker and Bruce continued playing together in the Graham Bond Organization and, of course, in Cream, which they co-founded with Eric Clapton in 1966. After briefly playing with Clapton in Blind Faith and heading his own band Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Baker lived and recorded for several years in Africa. In the mid-70s, he co-headed the Baker Gurvitz Army, a hard rock band. He has also recorded 18 solo albums throughout his career, starting in the early 1970s, and collaborated with various other artists, including Gary Moore.¬†Here is a clip of Cream instrumental Toad from one of the band’s 2011 reunion shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall, featuring an extended drum solo.

Cindy Blackman

The inclusion of Cindy Blackman in my list is solely based on the fact that she is a kick-ass drummer. That being said, how many high-profile non-white female drummers do you know? When I saw a clip of Blackman sometime ago, playing live with Lenny Kravitz, I was truly blown away by her furious drumming. Before becoming part of his live band in 1993, Blackman had focused on jazz. She returned to her roots when she left Kravitz’s touring band in 2004. Blackman joined forces with Kravitz again in 2014 to support the tour for his 10th studio album Strut. In 2010, she got involved with another well-known guitarist, Carlos Santana, and got married to him in December that year. Currently, Blackman, now Cindy Blackman Santana, is part of his touring band and also appears on Power of Peace, Santana’s just-released collaboration album with The Isley Brothers. Here is an awesome clip of Blackman’s live days with Kravitz. The entire band is absolutely killing it.

John Bonham

Modern Drummer magazine and others have called John Bonham the best rock drummer of all time. He is also no. 1 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time list. While I’m not sure it’s possible to determine the best drummer, I think Bonham’s drumming on Stairway to Heaven is one of the coolest drum parts in rock music I know. According to Wikipedia, Bonham was self-taught and began playing when he was five years old, using containers and coffee tins. He would imitate his idols Max Roach, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. At the age of 15, he received his first drum set and started playing in bands only a couple of years thereafter. In 1966, Bonham met Robert Plant when joining a blues group called Crawling King Snakes. When Plant formed Band of Joy in 1967, he chose Bonham as the drummer. After the breakup of the Yardbirds in 1968, guitarist Jimmy Page was putting together another band and recruited Plant who brought in Bonham. Bassist and keyboarder John Paul Jones completed the line-up of the band that soon thereafter became¬†Led Zeppelin. After Bonham’s untimely death in September 1980 at age 32, the band decided to disband. Here is a clip of Stairway to Heaven from 1975.

Sheila E.

Born Sheila Escovedo, Mexican-American percussionist, drummer, singer, author and actress Sheila E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family since her early childhood. Since the late 60s, her father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente. Already at the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George Duke, Marvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince and worked with him until 1989. Meanwhile, she also launched her own solo career in 1984 with her debut album The Glamorous Life. E. reunited with Prince several times and also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006. Her most recent release in June 2016 was Girl Meets Boy, a song in honor of Prince. Here is a clip of E. showcasing her drum skills during and appearance on David Letterman in 2011.

Al Jackson Jr.

As a founding member of Stax Records‘ session band Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Al Jackson Jr. performed on countless classics produced by the legendary soul, blues and jazz label, such as Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Albert King. He was known as “The Human Timekeeper” for his drumming ability. Jackson started playing the drums at an early age and began performing in his father’s jazz dance band when he was just five years old. Later, he played in the band of trumpeter Willie Mitchell, where he met¬†Booker T. Jones who convinced him to come to Stax. Booker T. & M.G.’s were formed in 1962. In addition to backing up the label’s artists in the studio and working on Booker T. & the M.G.’s own music, Jackson co-wrote many Stax hits, such as Otis Redding’s Respect and Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. Additionally, he worked as a session drummer outside of Stax with artists, such as Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Bill Withers. On October 1, 1975, Jackson was shot to death by a home intruder. He was only 39 years old. Jackson was inducted in the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2015 and ranked No. 9 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. Sam Moore of Sam & Dave had this to say about Jackson: “I put him in the same bag with Ray Charles or Billy Preston, in a class all his own.”¬†Following is a cool clip of Sam & Dave’s Hold On I’m Coming, featuring Jackson as part of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

Keith Moon

I think it’s safe to say there is no other drummer like Keith Moon and perhaps never will be. According to Drum! magazine, “His drumming style was tribal, primitive, and impulsive, with him often stomping the bass drums and pounding his wall of toms like a madman. Yet his drumming was often surprising and always made an impression.” I think the following quote in Rolling Stone from Ahmir Khalib Thompson, aka Questlove – the drummer and joint frontman of The Roots, sums it up nicely: “Often drummers are supposed to be the line on the paper where you write the sentence, but Keith Moon is the exclamation point.” Perhaps no other tune by The Who illustrates Moon’s raw energy better than My Generation – and Pete Townshend’s! Here’s an awesome clip.

Ian Paice

Ian Paice is best known as the drummer of Deep Purple. In fact, he is the only member of the band who played on each of their albums. After Deep Purple disbanded in 1976, Paice formed a supergroup called Paice Ashton Lord. From August 1979 to January 1982, he played in Whitesnake and then in Gary Moore’s band. In April 1984, he rejoined Deep Purple and remains with the band to this day. Pictures Of Home from 1972’s Machine Head album features on of my favorite Paice drum parts. It also happens to include a terrific bass solo by Roger Glover.

Jeff Porcaro

In addition to being the drummer of Toto from the band’s inception in 1977 until his death in 1992, Jeff Porcaro was one of the most sought-after session drummers. Pocaro took up the drums when he was seven years old. He received lessons from his father Joe Porcaro, a jazz drummer, and later from Robert Zimmitti and Richie Lepore. At 17, Porcaro got his first professional engagement with Sonny & Cher’s touring band. He has also collaborated with numerous other artists, such as Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Elton John, to name a few. Porcaro died from a heart attack at age 38 in August 1992. Here is a 1982 clip of Toto performing Rosanna, one of their biggest hits. It features Porcaro’s so-called “half-time shuffle groove,” a beat he explained to Drum! magazine he created by combining Bernard Purdie’s shuffle on Steely Dan songs Babylon Sister and Home Alone with John Bonham’s groove on Fool In the Rain.

Ringo Starr

While Ringo Starr may not be the first who comes to mind when thinking about The Beatles and got less attention than some of his ’60s compatriots like Keith Moon or the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, he has received accolades from may other drummers. Prior to joining The Beatles in 1962, Starr had played in Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, which had become one of Liverpool’s leading bands in early 1960.¬†After the break-up of The Beatles in early 1970, Starr launched a solo career, which to date has included 18 studio albums. In 1989, he put together a live rock supergroup called The All-Starr Band, which has since consistently toured with various line-ups. Starr’s 19th solo album Give More Love is scheduled for September 15 and will be supported with a tour by the All-Starr Band starting in October. In 2015, Starr became the last Beatle to be included as a solo artist in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He is ranked no. 14 in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time. The accompanying write-up quotes Dave Grohl who said, “Ringo was the king of feel.”¬† In Modern Drummer, Jim Keltner called Ringo “the epitome of a feel-good drummer, with just the right amount of chops needed!” According to Wikipedia,¬†Journey’s Steve Smith said, “His parts are so signature to the songs that you can listen to a Ringo drum part without the rest of the music and still identify the song.” A drum part frequently mentioned by other drummers is A Day In the Life from the Sgt. Pepper album. Here’s a clip.

Charlie Watts

Charlie Watts received his first drum set from his parents in 1955 at the age of 14. At the time, he was into jazz and practiced the drums listing to jazz records. In the late 50s, he joined a local jazz band, together with his neighbor and friend Dave Green, who went on to become a jazz bass player. In 1961, Alexis Korner invited Watts to join his band Blues Incorporated. Watts met Brian Jones, Ian “Stu” Stewart, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards the following year. But it wasn’t until January 1963 that he agreed to join¬†The Rolling Stones. In addition to recording music with the Stones ever since, Watts has also released various jazz albums since the 80s. According to Rolling Stone, drum compatriot Jim Keltner told Drum! magazine, “Charlie can rush like mad and still make it feel great. That’s his style…He can’t explain it and I don’t necessarily like going into too much detail with him about it. I just marvel at it.” Here’s a cool clip of Get Off My Cloud, captured in 2012 from the Stones’ 50th anniversary show.

Sources: Wikipedia, Modern Drummer, Rolling Stone, Modern Drummer, Drum!, Sheila E. website, YouTube