First the BBC, then Shakatak, now a solo album: Bill Sharpe's list of Famous People is an impressive one. Dan Goldstein makes further enquiries.
Shakatak keyboardsman Bill Sharpe has sprung a surprise on us by coming up with a solo album that throws his musical creativity into a new light. How does a session musician with a staid reputation come up with something so fresh and inspiring?
The recipe is now a familiar one. You take a musician, classically trained, very experienced and extremely competent, and put him in a field of music that pays the bills but doesn't stretch the ol' creative genius nearly as much - or as often - as it should. After a while, your musician will come to feel there's something lacking in his present way of working, and if he's really worth his salt, he'll seek to alter the current status quo by striking off at a tangent - doing something a little less formularised, a little more risqué.
That, simply, is what Bill Sharpe has done in 1985. As a session keyboardsman of some repute, he's done more than his fair share of playing just for the sake of playing, most notably as a founder member of soft-core dance group Shakatak. The band have been successful, no doubt about it. Sharpe now has a large, detached house in the part of Northeast London that would rather be called Essex, and an income level that guarantees a pretty comfortable lifestyle for at least the next couple of years - even if he were to do no more work in that time.
Yet Sharpe is still very much in business. Four years of writing, recording and touring with Shakatak came to a temporary end last summer, as Sharpe decided it was time to do his own thing.
'I'm constantly writing new material, and I'd got to the stage where I had a lot of songs that just weren't suitable for Shakatak. We were touring a lot in Europe and Japan last year, and when we got back, I decided to have a go at doing my own thing.
'So I bought some studio time at Rock City Studios in Shepperton, and started recording my own album. I was anxious not to use too many people from the band in the recording, because I wanted it to have a different feel from anything I'd done with Shakatak.'
And Sharpe has succeeded. The album, Famous People, is a varied and colourful collection of songs and instrumentals. They all have a vaguely jazz-funk feel to them, but rarely do they encroach on Shakatak territory. There's the YMO-influenced electro bop of 'Catching a Train', the synthesised tranquility of 'Peace', and the stunning dynamism of the first single 'Change Your Mind', to name but three. As many of you may already know, 'Change' saw Sharpe forming an unlikely collaboration with Gary Numan, who part-owns Rock City and guested on lead vocals for just that one track.
'It was an interesting combination - especially as we come from such differing backgrounds. He's from a totally synth background, whereas I'm a classically trained musician.
'It all came about by accident, really it was a fairly dull track to begin with, but then Gary put some vocals on it, and when some record company people heard the mix, they said they thought it was a hit record - they were right!' The success of 'Change Your Mind' has come as a pleasant surprise to Sharpe, but having hit singles isn't exactly a new experience for him, and he doesn't feel obliged to make a follow-up record with Numan in the near future.
'I'm not sure whether we're going to do anything like that again. Neither of us are going to have much time in the immediate future, because I'm recording the new Shakatak album now, and Gary's got plenty of his projects of his own. We might even decide we're not going to cash in on it at all, in which case we won't do anything.'
But Numan was far from being the only guest contributor to Sharpe's solo album. Pino Palladino came in to play fretless bass on a couple of the record's more downbeat songs, several members of the Morrissey Mullen band put in appearances at various intervals, and on the vocal front, Sharpe enlisted the help of session singer Tessa Niles for the lead on the album's title-track, which is also the new single.
The weeklies, of course, have taken to Famous People like a cat takes to water. Accusations that the album comprises nothing more than a load of Shakatak out-takes have been rife, but it hasn't bothered Sharpe in the least; he's experienced enough to know that very few music critics actually know anything about music.
'I've read a couple of reviews that have said it sounds like Shakatak. Anyone with an ear would realise that isn't the case, though obviously there are a couple of tracks that do sound similar. But I can take all that. The band has always been a target for criticism, so I'm used to it now. Mind you, some of the things Gary has had done to him by the press have been incredible - at least I haven't had to go through that.'
Like I said, Sharpe's background is a conventional one. Classical tuition on piano from an early age, a teenage immersion in the piano music of the romantic era, and study for a degree in Music Theory at University. But Sharpe the student had never confined his interests to the classics, and in time, jazz and rock began to take their effect on his own musical endeavours. He joined several jazz-rock groups as keyboard player in and around his native Bishops Stortford (one of the most successful featured one Trevor Horn on bass), but found himself even more entangled in the rock scene when he fell feet-first into a job as Trainee Engineer at the BBC's Maida Vale recording studios.
'Those were the days', he recalls with relish. 'I guess I was a bit lucky, just walking in there and getting a job. I started off as a tape-op, but within only a matter of months I was sitting in as engineer on sessions for the John Peel and Kid Jensen shows. We had all sorts of bands in there: The Police, The Jam, Duran Duran, you name 'em. Actually, the training was very useful. The BBC teach you an awful lot about recording and production that I don't think you can really learn anywhere else. That helped me appreciate the more technical side of making music, though I was still a playing musician first and foremost.'
In fact, it was Sharpe's skill as a playing musician that landed him the job as keyboard player and chief songwriter with Shakatak, the band itself being an initially informal get-together of like-minded studio friends. But he was keen to stay on at the Beeb lest the band suddenly fall apart, which meant spending the first two years of Shakatak's existence (during which the first handful of UK hit singles was notched up) working as an engineer by day and a musician by night. It was only when Shakatak began to break in overseas territories that things really got out of hand, and Sharpe jacked in his engineer's job to become a full-time working musician.
'It still wasn't an easy decision to take', he muses. 'But I realised I wasn't really getting the time to do either job properly, so I started playing with Shakatak fulltime. Not that I got an awful lot of time to myself then, either, but at least I only had one thing on my mind.'
It had been a couple of years earlier, back in Sharpe's pub band days, that he'd discovered what electronics could do for his act. Up until that time he'd had a Hammond organ and an ancient Fender Rhodes ('I've still got it, though it's a little bit the worse for wear now'), but once he'd come across the likes of the Minimoog and ARP Odyssey, there was no turning away from synthesisers. He bought both, and still uses them today.
"The instrument I've been most impressed with lately is the Kurzweil... but it'll never play like a piano, no matter how much it might sound like one."
'There's nothing today that can touch the way a Minimoog sounds. I think it's basically just a question of filters, because none of today's synths have a design quite like that. They might be polyphonic, but they just don't cut it the way a Minimoog does.
'The only thing I don't like about it is the wheels. I prefer the touch pads on the Odyssey: they're easier to use because pressing them is more like pressing keys on a keyboard, it's more natural. But they're both getting on a bit now, and they're difficult to use live because they keep going out of tune.
'Lately I've started using a DX7 quite a bit, like a lot of other people, I suppose. There's a lot of it on Famous People. In fact, 'Change Your Mind' is basically just a DX7 and a LinnDrum, with the odd bit of grand piano here and there. There are so many things the DX can do - I'm still exploring the preset sounds, editing them a bit. I'd love to get into programming it in a big way, because it's such a great instrument, but so far I just haven't had the time. It's something that I've been meaning to do for ages, to really get into programming synths and computers, but time has been the big problem.
'The instrument I've been most impressed with lately is probably the Kurzweil. I've been through it quite thoroughly and I'm really pleased with it. I guess I might just have to buy one! And the one I've been looking at didn't even have the user-sampling; the sounds inside the machine really are that good. The way I figure it is that I'll be able to replace a lot of my on-stage equipment with a set-up basically consisting of a Kurzweil and a DX7, linked together through MIDI. That'll mean no more out-of-tune monosynths, and no more having to lug a Yamaha Electric Grand around the place!'
And yet, against the impending flood of new technology in the Sharpe household, there stands an immaculate Bosendorfer grand piano, an instrument that sees use just as often as its owner can find the time to sit down at it.
'Yeah, I still practice whenever I can. It's still my favourite instrument. It's the feel of it, I suppose - it's such an expressive instrument. The Kurzweil will never play like a piano, no matter how much it might sound like one. It's such a great feeling, having all those mechanics in front of you and banging out a load of Chopin or whatever.
'I chose a Bosendorfer because it suits the sort of stuff we play. Some people prefer Steinways, and I can see their point because they do have a bright sound that carries really well at a concert. But for recording the music I'm involved with, it has to be a Bosendorfer, because it's so warm and vibrant, so smooth. Actually, Gary's got a great Bosendorfer at Rock City. It's a bit bigger than mine - a seven-foot-four - and it really sounds tremendous.'
But Chopin can't have been the only historical figure to have influenced Sharpe during his brief but nonetheless successful career so far. What keyboardists does he listen to himself?
'Well, I like a lot of the great jazz pianists like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Nat King Cole who was an absolutely great pianist, no question about that. But my man has to be Herbie Hancock. As a musician he's amazing, because he's one of the few guys who's managed to keep his jazz roots without getting left behind by what's happening in the charts. He's got two sides to his music - the jazz side and the 'Rockit' side - and they're both equally as good in their own way. He's obviously a great jazz pianist, but he's great at manipulating synths as well. I suppose it comes down to where he puts the notes; he manages to apply such a great jazz feel to everything he does. I guess I must have seen him play about eight times...
'There are a few rock players I respect as well. When I was at school I was a great Keith Emerson fan, because I like that very lyrical style of playing. You do need to have had a classical training to really appreciate that, though.'
But does Sharpe consider his training to have been an advantage, now that he's got as close to the top of the keyboard-playing world as makes no difference?
'Well, it's certainly been a help. It's important to have had a classical training if you want to be able to play like Keith Emerson, because it's the only way you'll be able to acquire that technique. I like that style of playing a lot, which is why I did the training and still practice now, but there are a lot of guys today who don't want to play like that at all.
'With the modern gear that's coming out now, it doesn't really seem to matter how much training you've had. Which is great, because it means you don't have to go through the strain of endless practising, but you can still make records. Vince Clarke might not be able to play black notes or chords, but he can still make some great records!'
Well, Sharpe can take heart in the fact that a lot of doubting Thomases I've exposed to Famous People think it's not a bad record at all, even if Shakatak's own brand of sugary jazz-funk is beyond the bounds of their taste. As for the man and his career, it's back to Shepperton for the recording of the next Shakatak album, and an end to the limitless opportunities solo projects afford their instigators.
But this won't be the last we see of solo Sharpe. Flushed by the success of the album in general and 'Change Your Mind' in particular, the keyboardist has already drawn up a shortlist of material for a follow-up LP, which he hopes to start work on before 1985 is out.
'I'd like it to be a weird album', he enthuses. 'Not weird in the sense of odd material, because I'd like to carry on writing good songs, but weird in the way it's arranged. I want to do something that really sounds different. With a bit of luck I'll have been able to get deeper into programming by the time I come to record the album, so I should be able to come up with some sounds that'll really surprise people.'
Not that Famous People hasn't done that already, of course, but there's a look in Sharpe's eyes as he declares his future plans that tells you his best work hasn't yet seen the light of day. Let's hope looks aren't deceptive.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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