Great Tunes With Electronic Tom-Toms: The Not So Perfect Ten

“A drum. That’s right, a drum (shabba)”

Nothing epitomises late 1970s and early 1980s music better than early electronic instruments. At one extreme you had multifarious synthesizers from the Mini Moog to the Prophet 5 and the Yamaha DX-7. Then drum machines, sequencers and – 1981 onwards – the Fairlight CMI.

In the world of synthesized music, here lies an evil sibling of the drum machine and pipe organ. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the electronic version of an instrument which Mark E. Smith fined his fellow band members a fiver a time for if they hit them.

Enter stage left, the electronic tom-tom. Sometimes seen on a keyboard instead of a drum machine, a very 1980s sound. This month’s Not So Perfect Ten pays homage to an electronic sound associated with disco, television signature tunes and animated pigeons. Here they are:

  1. Theme from “Sale of the Century”, Peter Fenn (1971);
  2. Tryouts for the Human Race, Sparks (1979);
  3. Jazz Carnival, Azymuth (1979);
  4. Loving Just For Fun, Kelly Marie (1980);
  5. A Walk in the Park, The Nick Straker Band (1980);
  6. Japanese Boy, Aneka (1981);
  7. Theme from “Pigeon Street”, Soulyard (1981);
  8. How ‘Bout Us, Champaign (1981);
  9. Tarzan Boy, Baltimora (1985);
  10. Knock on Wood, Amii Stewart (1979 and 1985).

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1. Theme from Sale of the Century (Peter Fenn, 1971)

For many people of a certain age, the signature tune to Nicholas Parsons’ long-running quiz show their first exposure to electronic tom-toms. Following “From Norwich, it’s The Quiz of the Week…”, our toms appear early in the piece before the horn section kicks in.

Cue exuberant use of toms to punctuate the prizes in our opening titles, then a fade towards John Benson’s voice. The signature tune was used up until the final Anglia Television series in 1983. (Yet they had the temerity to replace it with The Zodiac Game though that’s another story…)

2. Tryouts for the Human Race (Sparks, 1979)

Ron and Russell Mael’s group: not only years ahead of their time but also a clear influence on many dance and electro music. Our electronic toms create a glorious spacey effect at the beginning. The real secret sauce is the driving synthesizer sound courtesy of the legendary Giorgio Moroder.

Tryouts for the Human Race is the opening track on Sparks’ 1979 album The Number One Song in Heaven. As the song is allegedly about semen, the opening tom-toms could symbolise ejaculation.

3. Jazz Carnival (Azymuth, 1979)

One thing you would have noticed is how 1980 seemed to have been Peak Electronic Tom-Tom Year. The start of that year saw the electronic toms used in a more inventive way. Brazilian group Azymuth has the electronic toms complementing cowbell and the mix of samba with late 1970s electronics is beautiful.

The Latin arrangement is best enjoyed on the 12″ version. Lasting a good 10 minutes it hammers the radio edit by a long way. It was their only UK chart hit single peaking at Number 19. This was owing to the tune being a club hit. Formed in 1973, Azymuth are still performing today with one of their recent gigs being at The Band on the Wall, Manchester.

4. Loving Just For Fun (Kelly Marie, 1980)

I could have played the safety shot and plumped for Kelly Marie’s Number One single from September 1980, which has some good electronic tom-tomage. Instead I chose one of the forerunners which peaked Number 21 in the UK singles chart in November ’80.

Like Feels Like I’m In Love, we hear the same two note synth tom at either side of the chorus. Where it eclipses her most famous piece is in the vocal gymnastics (how high are then notes leading up to the chorus?). Also in the middle eight with some Lene Nystrom [Aqua vocalist] style responses to the deep voice (I wonder if that exchange did inspire part of Barbie Girl or Doctor Jones?).

5. A Walk in the Park (The Nick Straker Band, 1980)

There seems to be another trend with this selection of tom-tom tomfoolery. 60% of our Not So Perfect Ten are One Hit Wonders, or acts which had a secondary minor hit. The Nick Straker Band’s biggest hit was this number which peaked at Number 20 in the UK singles chart. The liberal use of electronic tom-toms are chosen to mimic the sound of birds twittering prior to the chorus. What steals the show is its guitar solo.

Though A Walk in the Park was The Nick Straker Band only Top Twenty hit, some of its group enjoyed chart success elsewhere. Nick Straker himself plus Tony Hibbert, Tony Mansfield and Phil Towner were in New Musik. Their hits included This World of Water, Living By Numbers and Straight Lines. Their album From A to B is a worthy purchase too.

6. Japanese Boy (Aneka, 1981)

From the sublime to the ridiculous I suppose, but Aneka’s Japanese themed song is good on the tom-tom count. Japanese Boy was Aneka’s only UK single, hitting the top spot on the 29 August 1981. It also topped the Swiss, Swedish, Irish, Finnish and Belgian singles charts.

Like after Japanese Boy was hard for Aneka. Even under her real name as Mary Sandeman she was still type casted for her 1981 hit. Prior to her success and after 1984, she was a folk singer and a part time tour guide in Stirling Castle. She has since retired from the music business.

7. Theme from Pigeon Street (Soulyard, 1981)

One of the great joys of the BBC, other than ad free television is its children’s output. Pretty much of its time in 1981 was Pigeon Street. It was a comfortable children’s programme based around the adventures of one terraced street and its community. Interestingly, most of the animated cast would be classed as ‘morbidly obese’ (how many skinny characters were there besides the pigeons?). As well as Long Distance Clara, another great joy was its opening and closing title music.

The jazzy signature tune has a similarly relaxed air with the tom-toms being the coo of pigeons. For me, any electronic tom-tom reference has to be cross-referenced by Pigeon Street (“You know, as in the theme from Pigeon Streetwhilst in conversation). Which is all right if I’m talking to forty-somethings though a dead loss to anyone born after 1990.

Another joy of Pigeon Street, besides its deft animation, is the other music in each episode. All well written by Benni Lees and performed by Soulyard. Derek Griffiths also lent his vocals to some of the incidental music.

8. How ‘Bout Us (Champaign, 1981)

Continuing the theme of one hit wonders, here’s another one. Also our second song to feature Use of Electronic Tom-Toms In A Space Style. Instead, the galactic style tom-toms are used in an amorous context.

Champaign (a septet led by Pauli Carman and Rena Day) took the name from their home city in Illinois. How ‘Bout Us peaked at Number Five in the UK singles chart. The electronic toms are used in a discreet manner which doesn’t ruin the song nor sound typically 1980s.

9. Tarzan Boy (Baltimora, 1985)

Our next entry, another one hit wonder, wears its 1980s badge with pride. That of Joan Collins shoulder pads, Thatcherism, and waiting for the steel trolley to come round with some extra chips in primary school. Yes, put your hands together for Jimmy McShane the genius behind Baltimora.

Though low on the tom-toms (only heard at the start), the rest of the song is glorious 1980s kitsch. The oh-so-highbrow “woah-ooooo-ooo-ooooo-oooooo-ooo-oooooo woah-oh…” at the start, earwormtastic. The synths, gloriously 1980s. It peaked at Number Three in the UK singles chart and got to Number One in Holland, Belgium, France, Finland and Spain.

Why this is not a karaoke classic is beyond me. It should be! Plus there’s a longer version which is worth seeking out (thanks to one of our readers for pointing this out whoever you are).

10. Knock on Wood (Amii Stewart, 1979 and 1985)

To conclude this month’s Not So Perfect Ten is our first cover version. Released in 1978 and 1986 was Amii Stewart’s treatment of the Eddie Floyd song Knock on Wood. As with the previous entry, electronic tom toms were only used sparingly, again at the start.

I like this version as much as the original by Eddie Floyd. It brought the song a new lease of life and a new audience. In the UK singles chart, Amii Stewart’s version peaked at number six in 1979 and at number seven in 1985. Its second appearance in the UK singles chart saw a remixed version. Both versions fantastic, but her follow up to this (the cover of Light My Fire) is even more tom-tom tastic (I know, we should have gone in to that one in greater detail).

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Any more requests?

Secretly, we love the electronic tom-tom. If your love of this instrument is mutual, feel free to show your appreciation to the ten tracks detailed above. Better still, suggest a few more tracks with the said instrument. We would love to hear from you, listener or musician.

S.V., 16 July 2015.

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