Roland TR-808 – Iconic Drum Machine

Ikutaro Kakehashi, the founder of Roland Corporation, died on April 1st at the age of 87.  Roland has produced a huge range of electronic musical instruments and effects since its founding in 1972, and Kakehashi developed MIDI, the Musical Instrument Digital Interface that sits at the heart of electronic instrument communication. But no product or invention by Kakehashi and Roland has had more impact on popular music than the TR-808 drum machine.

Manufactured for three years beginning in 1980, the 808 has been used by innumerable artists for nearly 40 years, and it’s said that the 808 is to hip hop what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock and roll.  The 808 was built just before sampling became widespread and produced 16 synthesized approximations to sounds from a bass drum to a handclap.

The first hit record to use the 808 appears to have been Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” from 1982.   Listen to the opening bars and you’ll immediately recognize the iconic sounds.

Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock”, also from 1982, is credited with cementing the 808 into hip hop’s early vocabulary.

Whitney Houston used the 808 to set the beat for her 1987 hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”.

In 2008, Kanye West built his fourth studio album around the sounds of the 808, and even named the album “808’s and Heartbreaks”. The drum loop in “Say You Will” is all 808.

If you want to get the full scoop on this history of this important piece of technology, here is the trailer to “808” the movie!

What Do Martin Taylor, Joe Pass, Fred and Ginger, and Brian Wilson Have in Common?

Artists across generations and musical styles can always be united by great songs.  And no American songs have shown longer lasting and broader appeal than those of George and Ira Gershwin.

Last week’s post on Tommy Emmanuel also featured British jazz guitar virtuoso Martin Taylor. A quick search on YouTube uncovers Taylor’s version of the Gershwin brothers’ standard “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”. If you’d like to skip over the interview, the performance starts at 3:12.

One of Taylor’s influences is the late Joe Pass, icon of the chord/melody style of jazz guitar that Martin plays.  Enjoy Pass’ version of the same song from a 1992 performance.

The song was introduced in the 1937 movie “Shall We Dance” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. The clip below is a real treat.  It starts with Fred singing the song to Ginger in “Shall We Dance” and ends with them dancing to the song a dozen years later in their last movie together “The Barkleys of Broadway”.

A recent cover of this classic can be found on “Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin” released in 2010.

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Dave Grohl Documents the History of Sound City

Dave Grohl’s 2013 plunge into documentary filmmaking “Sound City” mines the history of the recently shuttered studio where Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was recorded.  Grohl weaves many story lines together in his film, from the people who built and ran Sound City, to the technology that made the studio famous and the later technology that doomed it, to the string of major artists that passed through its unassuming front door.  He concludes with a strong statement about the virtues of musicians hunkering down in a studio till inspiration and perspiration get it just right, and shows us what he means by releasing “Sound City 606”.

Check out the trailer for “Sound City”, then listen to one of the first songs released from the CD featuring Paul McCartney rocking as hard as he has since “Helter Skelter”.

Here’s a link to page on the Sound City Studio website that lists every album recorded there: Sound City Recordings.  It is an amazing list,  and the very first album ever recorded there was Spirit’s masterpiece “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus”.  If you’re not familiar with that album or have forgotten what a tour de force it was, listen to “Nature’s Way” and “Mr. Skin”.

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Music Documentaries – Ginger and Sixto and Their South African Connections

Two critically acclaimed rock music documentaries hit the screen in 2012, raising the profile of important musicians of years gone by – both with ties to South Africa.

Jay Bulger won the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival Grand Prize for “Beware of Mr. Baker” about the life of rock drum innovator and legend Ginger Baker.   Bulger lived at Baker’s ranch in South Africa for months, interviewing him for the movie. Check out the trailer and then watch Baker play with Nigerian musicians, a phase of Baker’s life chronicled in the movie.

Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” won numerous awards in 2012 and is nominated for a 2013 Oscar. The documentary follows two South Africans who set out to investigate what became of Sixto Rodriguez, an obscure American folk singer from Detroit whose songs became anthemic among whites involved in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement.

See the film trailer (you have to click through to YouTube?) then listen to the tune that inspired the movie title from Rodriguez’s first album.

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