Tag Archives: Thriller

Rocks In The Attic #809: Eric Clapton – ‘August’ (1986)

RITA#809After a lacklustre start to the decade, Eric Clapton really picked up the pace on this and its follow-up, Journeyman. Both covers feature photography by the recently departed Terry O’Neill, depicting a stylish, more mature Clapton. This maturity can also be heard in the songwriting, which finds a plaintive Clapton in a new spot, looking back at his life. The instrumentation is also similar across the two records, utilising the same band of Michael Jackson sideman Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Nathan East on bass and Phil Collins on drums.

The album kicks off with It’s In The Way That You Use It, featured in The Color Of Money, the 1986 sequel to The Hustler, starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman. But as commercial as that song is, there’s far stronger material to be found throughout the album.

RITA#809aTearing Us Apart features a vocal duet with Tina Turner, who returns to provide backing vocals on Hold On. The real highpoint though is Behind The Mask, the album’s closer and its only Top 20 single. Starting life as a song by Yellow Magic Orchestra, Quincy Jones heard the song and had Michael Jackson write new lyrics for it, eventually recording it during the Thriller sessions. Unreleased on the eventual album, Greg Phillinganes then recorded a version of it for his 1984 solo album, Pulse, before Clapton covered it on August.

My favourite track though is Miss You – a slow burning electric blues, with a soaring lead guitar from Clapton. It’s a fantastic taster of the kind of material and production that makes Journeyman such a joy to listen to. August is a great start, but Journeyman is clearly the better album.

Hit: Behind The Mask

Hidden Gem: Miss You

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Rocks In The Attic #748: The Eagles – ‘Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975’ (1976)

RITA#748I’ve never been too much of a fan of pre-Joe Walsh Eagles. It’s all a bit too country, too many jangling guitars. I prefer the edgier twin-guitar RAWK of Don Felder and Joe Walsh, rather than this singer-songwriter stuff.

I’ll still love Hotel California to the day I die, but there’s a reason this greatest hits set has sold so many copies. For a very long time, it was the best-selling album of the twentieth century in the USA, until it was finally surpassed by Michael Jackson’s Thriller following his death in 2009.

Seeing the Eagles live recently – or what is left of the band, having lost Glenn Frey a couple of years ago – I was reminded just how good this earlier material is. When you’re listening to six guys blast out a wall of harmonies, it sounds unbelievable.

Frey’s death at the age of 67 left a gaping hole in the band. Don Henley’s voice is too smooth, too AOR in comparison, and Walsh’s voice is too weird, too out there. Would they get somebody else in to stand in for Frey?

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The answer is yes…and no. Established singer-songwriter Vince Gill was brought into the band to fill the gap left by Frey’s absence. His guitar playing and singing – particularly a standout performance on Take It To The Limit – more than earned his place alongside Felder and Walsh.

The band’s secret weapon though was a clone of Glenn Frey, in the form of his 25-year old son, Deacon Frey. Young and handsome (next to the old men he shared a stage with), his vocals and acoustic guitar on the songs his father used to tackle – Take It Easy, Peaceful Easy Feeling, Already Gone – was uncanny. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. And good on him – apparently his first show with the band was at Dodger Stadium, so very much launched into life in the fast lane.

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The big question though was how the guitar solos on Hotel California were going to be handled. Lead-guitarist Steuart Smith was clearly the replacement for Don Felder, but I was curious whether he would play the song on a double-necked guitar as per his predecessor. Worry not, a blast of Mexican trumpet led into the opening 12-string acoustic section of the song, with a solitary spotlight on Smith playing a double-neck. My favourite guitar solo/s didn’t disappoint.

RITA#748cI expected the Eagles greatest hits – and got it! – but what I didn’t expect was the various solo songs by Joe Walsh and Don Henley. This was just as good – Walsh’s In The City, Walk Away, Life’s Been Good, Funk #49 and Rocky Mountain Way, and weirdly as a closer to the night (much to the chagrin of the man sat next to me), Don Henley’s The Boys Of Summer.

I wasn’t sure about seeing the band with so few original members, and not only were the wife and I both sick with head-colds, but we were also sat about 50 seats in from the aisles, which made getting out for refreshments virtually impossible. Despite all of this, it was still fantastic.

Hit: Take It Easy

Hidden Gem: Already Gone

Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

Rocks In The Attic #577: The Village People – ‘Cruisin’’ (1978)

RITA#577On Saturday mornings in Manchester, we would hit the local record stores; usually Kingbee in Chorlton, followed by Sifters a little further afield in Fallowfield. Of the two, I always preferred the selection in Kingbee. Even though the shop looked like it was never blessed with direct daylight, the rock and pop section was pretty good, although pretty pricey at times.

It was always a bit harder to navigate around the shop in Kingbee though. It isn’t the largest record shop in the world, and with only four or five racks of rock and pop – usually a record store’s most popular section – you’d always be fighting to get back into the L to R section after another buyer ruined your alphabetised digging.

RITA#577aIf pickings were not rich enough in Kingbee, we’d jump in the car and go to Sifters, the record store made famous by Noel Gallagher’s lyrics in Shakermaker. Sifter’s was such a different experience to Kingbee. It was always a bit quieter and not populated with the usual serious record buying types you would see in Kingbee.

I filled a lot of gaps in my record collection in Sifters. It seemed to be the record store where popular rock records ended up. My copies of Hysteria and Brothers In Arms probably came from Sifters, and I think I picked up the whole of ZZ Top’s pre-Eliminator output there once I figured out how good their early material is. My copies of Thriller and Bad were from there, and while I already owned Frampton Comes Alive by the time I first set foot in Sifters, I reckon I would have been able to pick up a copy there every week if I needed to.

RITA#577bOne of the records I always saw in Sifters was a copy of the Village People’s third studio album, Cruisin’, from 1978. I have a soft spot for Y.M.C.A. – it’s such a banging tune that I don’t really care about anything else the song – or the band – symbolises. The album just refers to the band’s collective love of driving around, right? And the visual gag concerning the band’s attire in Wayne’s World 2 puts such a big smile on my face that I just have trouble taking them too seriously.

It was always on my agenda to pick up that copy of Cruisin’ in Sifters. I never got around to it for one reason or another. I must have picked it up a few times, but had to put it back once I’d figured my other records had easily surpassed my budget. I always regretted this after I left Manchester, but I was lucky to pick up a beat-up (or should that be ‘rough trade’?) second-hand copy here in New Zealand last year.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Village People were a one-hit wonder, but nearly every song on this record sounds like a reworking of Y.M.C.A. There’s a really tasty horn break in I’m A Cruiser which I’m having major trouble placing. Either it’s lifted from something else, or it’s been samped since (it’s at 02:50 here, if you can help me out).

Hit: Y.M.C.A.

Hidden Gem: Medley: The Women / I’m A Cruiser

Rocks In The Attic #465: REO Speedwagon – ‘You Can Tune A Piano But You Can’t Tuna Fish’ (1978)

RITA#465Thanks Moo. Thanks so much. You really shouldn’t have.

I always appreciate it when people give me records as gifts. There’s nothing more I’d like in the world. There’s nothing worse than receiving a gift that you’re just going to put at the back of a shelf to attract dust until you find it years later and end up throwing away.

At least with records, you always have them there to listen to if the feeling takes you. And when I feel the need to listen to some spectacularly titled AOR, it’s this album I always reach for.

That title though? Is there anything worse? I’m not sure there is. All of the dusty American rock bands of the mid ‘70s must have been shitting themselves when punk came along, and for some bands – Aerosmith’s Night In The Ruts is a good example – the new genre gave them a good kick up the backside. REO Speedwagon did something different though. They still continued to churn out the made moderate-speed moderate rock, but they just gave it a “funny” title that might appeal to the record-buying youth. I don’t think it worked.

Around this time – just before Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry met up and cursed themselves by naming their band so that their records would sit next to REO Speedwagon for the rest of eternity – there were so many bands of this ilk. REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Journey, Toto; I can’t really tell when one ends and another one starts. They’re all just very much the same in my mind. Toto get a pass because of Africa, and for their contribution to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, but all of the others can go and write some heart-wrenching pop together on a big desert island.

I remember being really amused when I was flicking through the racks at Beatin’ Rhythm in Manchester, and they’d put a load of (Journey vocalist) Steve Perry solo 7” singles in the Aerosmith section. Man, I bet they felt really stupid when they realised…

Hit: Roll With The Changes

Hidden Gem: The Unidentified Flying Tuna Trot

Rocks In The Attic #449: Toto – ‘Toto IV’ (1982)

RITA#449Africa has a permanent place in my favourite songs of all time. I’ve always liked it, but its inclusion on the soundtrack to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City secured its spot in my list of guilty pleasures. Another reason why it’s such a great song is this incredible rendition of it by Perpetuum Jazzile – a vocal group from Slovenia. How clever is that?

What other song rhymes the word ‘company’ with the word ‘serengeti’? It’s just ridiculous. They should have rhymed ‘spaghetti’ with ‘serengeti’ – although quite how they could have explained why they were eating pasta on an African safari is anybody’s guess.

I was lucky (?) enough to see a couple of songs from this record – Rosanna and Africa – performed by Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band in 2012. At the time, Steve Lukather was one of the guitarists in the extremely soft-rock tinged band (alongside Todd Rundgren, Richard Page from Mr. Mister and Gregg Rolie from Santana and Kansas). By Lukather’s own admission on the night, Toto amounted to “party music” – “Hey Auckland – who wants to hear some party music?!?!?” – and he was right. Of all the covers played by the band that night, the Toto songs – Rosanna and Africa, naturally – really got the crowd on their feet.

I imagine this record was massive when it was released in 1982. People would have bought it for the hit singles that bookend the album, but the rest of the songs are great. I Won’t Hold You Back was sampled by Roger Sanchez on his 2001 number one Another Chance, and Make Believe also has a GTA connection, being picked up for the Vice City Stories soundtrack.

However, it was another album released around this time that overshadowed Toto IV. Once the album was in the can, the band delayed touring so that they could play on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, creating a beast of a record and making Lukather one of the hottest players in the world.

Hit: Africa

Hidden Gem: It’s A Feeling

Rocks In The Attic #410: Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

RITA#410For many people, this is Michael’s debut record; in reality, it’s very far from that, being solo album number five. But just like Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From (and the later Music Of My Mind), it marked a departure away from the Motown hit machine – a kind of talent school / youth prison for both performers.

The big three Michael Jackson albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad – are really the three pop albums of my childhood. My Dad was a big fan of his – introducing Thriller to me, and hungry for more I greedily consumer the two albums bookending it. Of the three it’s clearly the least adventurous – with one foot firmly placed in the disco camp, Michael isn’t a superstar yet but you can hear the DNA of his songwriting and melodies that would come to the fore on Thriller.

I would classify Off The Wall as ‘not quite enough’, Thriller as ‘perfect’ and Bad as ‘too much’. The three work great together to show his progression from a talented black singer to a white oddball superstar – and I loved every step of the journey. I could never get into his post-Bad material though; his version of reality went askew extremely rapidly and aside a few highlights like Scream with his sister Janet, I couldn’t really care less if he recorded anything after 1987.

I still miss his pop genius. There’s nobody who can write a bridge / middle eight with so much passion it makes it sound like he’s singing about the end of the world.

Hit: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Hidden Gem: Off The Wall