Greetings pop pickers and welcome to this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday, our weekly look at the rainbow and glitter world of music produced by artistes who are simply fabulous darling.
This week we’ll be probing the backroom activities of knob twiddlers in the 1980s. The producers and musicians responsible for a serious shift in the musical landscape at the end of the 1970s. Oh yes indeedy, laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents one of the greatest technological shortcuts since some hairy geezer picked up a leg bone and gave his opponent a right good wallop; the technological leap that has been blamed for “inventing the 80s!” – Sampling!
Rather like James Burke in his splendid TV series, Connections, we have to pick a starting point. It’s a fairly arbitrary decision on my part, but I’m going to sidestep musique concrète and start in 1949 with the American inventor Harry Chamberlin. Harry had the bright idea to combine a piano-style keyboard with tape recordings. Each key on his keyboard would trigger a tape-playing mechanism, this would in turn play an individual tape, with each tape being pre-recorded with whatever musical instrument or sound effect Harry wished to reproduce. Chamberlin unsurprisingly called his invention the Chamberlin, and although it was only intended for home entertainment, it was quickly and enthusiastically adopted by musicians and recording studios who saw the potential of Harry’s invention. Amongst the early adopters of this technology were Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin.
The American Federation of Musicians also sat up and took notice – and they were not amused. As the Chamberlin was primarily being used as an orchestra-in-a-box, producing string, brass and woodwind sounds with a reasonable degree of realism, they understandably saw this as a serious threat to orchestral musicians and promptly set about limiting the use of Chamberlins. Clearly band leader Lawrence Welk saw more of an opportunity than a threat, as all the recordings on the Chamberlin were performed by members of his orchestra. However, despite the best efforts of the AFM, the Chamberlin company prospered in North America. In Europe however, a more serious threat had emerged. In the early ’60’s some of Harry’s instruments made their way to the UK and eventually led to the development of the now near legendary Mellotron. Chamberlin, unsurprisingly, was less than impressed. Litigation followed and eventually settlements were reached. We won’t go into the murky details here, but the story is available online for any who might be curious. However, despite its shady inception, the Mellotron was enthusiastically embraced by UK musicians and recording studios alike, with one of the early high-profile adopters being George Martin and The Beatles, who subsequently used a Mellotron to produce the flute sounds at the opening of their rather splendid “Strawberry Fields Forever”.
The Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever
And here’s David Bowie (featuring Bowie on Stylophone and a very young Rick Wakeman on the Mellotron) with another early high-profile deployment of this novel technology.
David Bowie – Space Oddity
The Mellotron, unlike the Chamberlin, was developed (after a few iterations) into something that could withstand the rigours of live performance and even (well, to some extent at least) touring. Suddenly, keyboard players could be a live band’s orchestra, and for the emerging progressive rock scene in particular this must have seemed like a gift from the Gods. King Crimson, The Moody Blues, The Nice, Pink Floyd, Yes and countless other nascent proggers eagerly embraced this new technology and were soon giving it a damn good spanking. Here’s Tony Banks, one of the prog’s finest Mellotron-botherers, with his splendidly ethereal opening for the Genesis track “Watcher Of The Skies”, recorded live during the (suitably flamboyant) Peter Gabriel years. This track also marks the FFF debut of tub-thumper extraordinaire, Puffin favourite and all-round diamond geezer – Mr. Phil Collins!
Genesis – Watcher of the Skies
And that was about as far as the Mellotron went. It’s still around as a digital emulation of the original ’60s instrument and it’s still a very popular keyboard, but as a sampler it was a technological dead end. In fact, in 1969, just as the Mellotron was achieving serious popularity, its replacement was already lumbering over the horizon with the development of the first digital sampler. Credited to a system designer named Peter Zinovieff, his EMS-Musys digital sampling system (snappy name, Pete…) was used to control the world’s first digital recording studio (EMS Studios) in Putney. Harrison Birtwistle’s “Chronometer”, recorded at EMS studios and released in 1975, has the honour of being the first commercial release to be created using digital sampling. So, with the basic technology of sampling now in place, we shall fast forward to the end of the 70s and take a look at the work of one Trevor Charles Horn CBE.
Trevor Horn is a record producer and musician whose influence on pop and electronic music in the 1980s was such that he has been called “the man who invented the eighties”. This is a bit of an exaggeration in my opinion, but he did have an enormous effect on the musical landscape of the 80s, so we shall probe him a little deeper.
Originally a bass player and singer, Horn spent the 70s honing his skills and sharpening his chops as a jobbing session musician with a wide range of artists including Dusty Springfield, Tina Charles and Anne Dudley. He also worked with the BBC on various television shows including the seminal Come Dancing (stop sniggering at the back). Importantly, during this period he also built his own recording studio and began exploring the dark arts of knob twiddling and other production and studio skills. Whilst working with Tina Charles, Horn met keyboard wizard Geoff Downes. They began collaborating and in 1977 formed The Buggles, gaining fame in ’79 with their debut album, The Age Of Plastic, and its hit single “Video Killed the Radio Star”.
“Video Killed the Radio Star” delivered considerable international success for Horn and Downes and (top trivia) became the first song to be played on the soon-to-be-launched MTV station. Buggles seemed to have a bright future and their record label gave them the green light to get back into the studio for their sophomore release. Fate, however, had other plans. Whilst working on new material, the Buggles duo were invited to join progressive rock giants Yes (at a very turbulent period of that band’s history) and for a while Horn and Downes served respectively as lead singer and keyboard player for Yes, leading them through the oddest (and certainly the campest) period of that band’s illustrious career.
Yes – Tempus Fugit
And, to be frank, that is quite enough of Mr Horn as a front man. That clunky line-up of Yes lasted for just one album then promptly disintegrated. Horn and Downes had a second crack at the follow-up Buggles album, but that too was foiled when Downes was persuaded to join the newly formed supergroup, Asia. To be fair to Downes, this was a very smart move. Asia went on to have enormous commercial success in North America, shipping albums and concert tickets by the truckload via the simple expediency of delivering a diet of routine, radio-friendly, rock-by-numbers for the burgeoning MTV generation.
Asia – Heat of the Moment
Happily for our tale, it was around this time that Mrs Horn (the late Jill Sinclair) had the good sense to tell her hubby that he was a second rate performer, would always be a second rate performer, but was a damn fine producer, and could very well be a world class producer if he knuckled down and focused on that part of his career. Wisely, Horn heeded the advice of ‘er indoors. He finished the second Buggles album, Adventures in Modern Recording, and set about becoming a full-time record producer. One of the first acts he worked with was the fabulously flamboyant Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, given their tremendous chart success, his career as a producer was soon up and running.
Although the second Buggles album had been a frustrating time for Horn, it was also an important time as he gained extensive experience with his shiny new studio toy – a digital sampler. Horn had wisely chosen to equip his recording studio with an eye-wateringly expensive piece of cutting edge technology called the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument, and it was Horn’s mastery of this technology that would provide the foundation for his massive success as a producer throughout the ’80s.
So what exactly is a Fairlight CMI? Simply put, it was an early a digital audio workstation and synthesizer but – crucially – it was also the world’s first practical, reliable and polyphonic digital audio sampler system to be made commercially available to recording studios. You could record a sound, any sound, manipulate it with the synthesizer, and play it back via the Fairlight’s keyboard. It was a digital Mellotron, simple in concept, fiendishly complex in execution, and it would radically change the way music was produced. By the time Horn had mastered this unwieldy beast, it had already been adopted by a number of artists and had begun to change significantly the way in which they produced music in the studio. Amongst these early adopters were Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder – who bravely took these $30k monsters out on tour.
Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke
However, initially, it was the high-profile production success of Horn that made other producers and artists sit up and pay attention to this new-fangled digital sampling malarkey. Horn very quickly became a go-to producer and during the 80s he worked with an impressive roster of acts including Grace Jones, Tina Turner, Tori Amos, The Pet Shop Boys, Seal, Dollar, ABC, Malcolm McLaren and many more.
Seal – Crazy
However, his most influential work (in production rather than commercial terms) was probably produced by his often avant-garde, but never too serious, synth-pop outfit, The Art Of Noise.
The Art of Noise ft. Tom Jones – Kiss
The distinctive sound of his production – via his mastery of digital sampling – went on to become the defining sound of 80s pop music in Europe and was copied by many artists and producers. In fact, by the mid-80s, the ubiquity of sampling and in particular the Fairlight CMI was such that tub-thumper extraordinaire, Puffin favourite and all-round diamond geezer Phil Collins was moved to state on the sleeve notes of his 1985 studio album, No Jacket Required, that there was unequivocally “no Fairlight on this record”. And as an additional illustration of Horn’s influence, here’s Bucks Fizz with a typical ’80s track that has absolutely nothing to do with Trevor Horn, but is practically an homage to his production style and studio techniques.
Bucks Fizz – My Camera Never Lies
To bring our Trevor Horn section full circle, we should note that he made a triumphant return to prog rockers Yes, this time as their producer, and used his sampling and production skills to deliver the biggest hit of their career.
Yes – Owner of a Lonely Heart
Inevitably, 80s sampling technology did not stand still. The success of the Fairlight system encouraged other companies to develop their own sampling systems, new models were launched, prices tumbled, and very soon affordable and reliable sampling systems were available for hundreds instead of tens of thousands of pounds. Before long, it seemed like every wannabe producer had a cheap ‘n’ cheerful sampler in their bedroom studio and were busily sampling their parents’ record collections with gusto and aplomb. As a result, sampling flourished and the 1980s hip-hop scene flourished right along with it. Soon records with multiple samples taken from the recordings of other artists were being created and released – often with no credit (or royalties) given to the original copyright owners. For the second half of the 1980s, sampling felt like the wild west of music production, with songwriters and musicians startled and surprised to suddenly find bits of their old recordings unexpectedly popping up on radio and TV. It was of course too good to last: copyright owners were mightily displeased, m’learned friends began to sniff the air, and things finally came to a head in 1991 when the irresistible force of sampling ran into the immovable object of a ’70s rock titan: Gilbert O’Sullivan.
Someone had to be first in the barrel and the unfortunate artist to be singled out for special attention, pour encourager les autres, was the American rapper, Biz Markie. He had sampled and used a big ol’ chunk of “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan without obtaining any copyright clearance. The case ended up in court, Biz lost and was ordered to pay very substantial damages. The offending song was removed from his album and he ruefully titled his next album “All Samples Cleared”. For the sampling community, the primary outcome of the court’s decision was that the use of any unapproved sample would constitute copyright infringement – the 80s sampling party was over.
Inevitably, lawyers began to rub their hands with glee. A quick google search of “sampling copyright infringement” yields a substantial list of lawsuits involving sampled music, with a wide range of high profile artists listed as defendants or litigants. Perhaps the most famous of these cases involves the very successful single “Ice Ice baby” by the American artist Vanilla Ice. Mr. Ice sampled the Queen and David Bowie song “Under Pressure” and originally gave neither artist credit. Lavishly befunded lawyers narrowed their eyes and started to mutter darkly about hugely expensive litigation. Mr. Ice wisely gave due credit to both artists.
Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby
Some artists did even better. Lou Reed snaffled all the royalties of the song “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest, when his track “Walk on the Wild Side” was sampled and used throughout their song.
A Tribe Called Quest – Can I Kick It?
Of course, not all artists were displeased by the attention of the sampling brigade. The Suzanne Vega track “Tom’s Diner” was sampled, heavily reworked and released by the British duo, DNA, without permission from Vega, her record label or her publishers. Vega, however, was rather impressed with their efforts, decided that negotiation rather than litigation was the way to go and (apparently) it was high fives and cheerful trips to the bank for all concerned.
Inevitably, digital sampling has continued to develop, has long since moved out of the bedroom studios of hip-hop wannabes, and has become fully integrated into the live performance arena. Even that most Neanderthal of musicians, the drummer, has not escaped its ubiquitous clutches. These days, if you attend a typical rock or pop concert, there is probably a 50/50 chance that you will not be listening to the drum kit you can see being played by the drummer on stage in front of you. Rather, what appear to be microphones on the kit will in fact be a collection midi-triggers, ready to trigger the playback of digital samples of drum sounds whenever the skins are struck. In this way, drummers can change kits (in an aural sense) as many times as they desire during a live performance; and of course, in much the same way, other traditional instruments such as guitars and basses can also be used to trigger digital samples. As a result, we have in effect come full circle: the technology that was once seen as a threat has now been embraced by the community of musicians that once feared it, and sampling has become just another artistic tool in their ever-expanding creative palette
Anyway, that’s yer lot for this week’s episode of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays. We’ll wrap things up with a very nice live session from the British trio, Three Trapped Tigers – some rather impressive young bucks for whom the live use of state-of-the-art samples and on-the-fly digital audio manipulation is all now rather routine and par for the course. TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!
Featured Image Joho345, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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