aces and kings on LP/ Sly Stone, JJ Cale, Bee Gees and...

Rhythm playing has always been a problem for any musicians playing in a reasonably confined space. Drummers are loud, they annoy the neighbours and their drum kits take up a lot of room. They also often play out of time. What a joy it would be to have drummers and drum kits that were completely reliable, space efficient, and with volume controls. This was the dream that consumed the rhythm machine pioneers.

The ancestor of the modern drum machine was introduced by visionary Californian Harry Chamberlin in 1949. Chamberlin's drum machine, the Chamberlin Rhythmate, used a number of continuous tape loops, not electronically generated sounds. Each contained a recording of a different drum patterns played live on an acoustic drum kit. The same technology would later re-emerge, much refined, in the British-produced Mellotron tape keyboard of the 1960s and 1970s. The Mellotron was itself rendered obsolete by digital samplers which offered a much more convenient way of realizing Chamberlin's original concept.

It was ten years after Chamberlin's first efforts that the next giant step in the evolution of the drum machine was made, when organ manufacturers Wurlitzer introduced their Sideman rhythm machine. The Sideman's sounds are electronically generated, rather than taped samples, but its operation is electro-mechanical. An electronic motor drives a wheel, to the rim of which are attached rows of contact points. Each row of contacts triggers a particular drum sound. Individual percussion sounds could also be triggered manually using a set of buttons. Volume and tempo controls gave further control.

The Sideman's real importance lies not in its modest commercial success, but in the inspiration it provided to a few musicians and technicians to design and produce the first solid state, fully automatic rhythm machines. This is the point where the prehistory of electronic rhythm blends into the history of the drum machine as it is known today. It is also the point in the story when the action moves to Japan.

Tsutsomu Katoh, later the founder of Korg, watched the accordionist Tadashi Osanai perform at his nightclub in the early 1960s accompanied by his new Wurlitzer Sideman. Osanai could see the potential of an automatic rhythm-generating device but found the Sideman limiting and unreliable. As well as being a musician, Osanai had an engineering background and this gave him the confidence to believe he could build a better machine than the Sideman.

No doubt recognising that Katoh was an entrepreneurial spirit, Osanai approached him for backing, and in 1962 the pair opened a small factory, a venture they named Keio Gijutsu Kenkyujo Limited. The company's first product came a year later, the DA-20 Disk Rotary Electric Auto Rhythm Machine, also known as the Donca Matic. This was a similar machine to the Sideman and was housed in a box with its own amp and speaker. Aimed at the electric organist it sold well in Japan and Osanai and Katoh were inspired to develop their concept further.

Around the same time, Ikutaro Kakehashi, later the founder of Roland, was setting up Ace Electronics. He also thought he could do better than the Sideman and, although his first attempt, The R1 Rhythm Ace, was a commercial failure, it is notable as the first fully electronic rhythm machine, unlike the electro-mechanical Donca Matic and Sideman.

It was Katoh who pushed the drum machine's evolution to the next stage. In 1966 a new generation of Donca Matics appeared that combined the virtues of both the original DA-20 Donca Matic and the R1 Rhythm Ace, while eliminating their respective weaknesses. These new devices were purely solid-state drum machines but they could play constant automatic preset rhythms. These machines were doubly important because they showed an understanding among manufacturers that rhythm devices could also be used as practise and compositional aids for all sorts of musicians - some came with integrated amplifier and speaker but others needed an external amp and were aimed at guitarists, something to keep time while you practised your licks.

A year after the second generation of Donca Matics was introduced, Ace Electronics replied with a new rhythm machine, the Ace Tone FR1 Rhythm Ace. This marked a great leap forward technically and in terms of usability. The FR1 has 16 preset rhythm patterns, which are selected by pressing a button, the tempo being set by a separate control. Each of the presets can be combined with one or more of the others simply by pressing two or more buttons at once. This gives the user hundreds of different options and can result in some very interesting polyrhythms. Even more control is offered by four "defeat" buttons which mute the sound of cymbal, claves, cowbell or bass drum so each preset or combination of presets can be further modified. These operations can be performed while a rhythm is playing, so that somebody can "play" the FR1 live, bringing individual percussion sounds in and out of the mix and changing beats.

It was a favourite amongst all sorts of musicians for many years and, crucially, it sounded good enough for some musicians to record with it. The Hammond Organ Company was impressed too, and incorporated the FR 1 presets into many of its organs from the late 1960s into the 1970s. Other manufacturers also introduced rhythm units aimed at the home organ market and as rehearsal aids. Kent, Seeburg and Maestro are just a few of the names that clambered on to the bandwagon.

With such a choice of electronic rhythm machines, it was only a matter of time before questing rock and pop musicians began to explore the musical possibilities the new devices offered. Sly Stone and JJ Cale are both heralded, rightly, as drum machine pioneers. But their recordings are predated by the often forgotten solo of work of Robin Gibb, better known as a member of The Bee Gees.

Gibb's brief late-1960s solo career is an object lesson in the fickleness of pop fame. The Bee Gees rapidly established themselves as one of pop's biggest acts after scoring their first international hit in 1967, with New York Mining Disaster 1941. A string of successful albums and singles, accompanied by massive press interest, saw them hailed in some quarters as rivals to The Beatles. Although they were originally a five-piece band, The Bee Gee's trademark harmonies and songs were the work of twins Maurice and Robin Gibb and older brother Barry. So when, in February 1969, at the peak of the bands first flush of success, Robin left over a dispute about what song should be the A-side of the next Bee Gees single, it was big news indeed.

Robin Gibb, although remaining tactful about his brothers, seemed to be enjoying his new-found independence. When his first solo single was released in June 1969, just four months after the split, Gibb claimed to have written 100 songs in ten weeks.

That first single was Saved By The Bell, a soaring ballad delivered by Gibb in a mannered, near-operatic style somewhere between Gene Pitney and Roy Orbison. Instrumentally it is a swirling mass of lush orchestrations, underpinned, oddly, by a simple tapping rhythm patter. This almost certainly comes from a FR1 Rhythm Ace, then by far the most common rhythm machine around, as the pattern sounds identical to the "slow rock" preset on the Ace Electronics machine. It is the first use of a rhythm machine on a major hit record.

The success was short-lived. A second single, One Million Years, also used a drum machine. It failed to chart, but Gibb was undeterred. In January 1970 a third single and a debut solo album, Robin's Reign, were released. Yet with the press and fans caught up in speculation about the future of The Beatles and the murder at Altamont, Gibb's new releases were all but ignored. He had gone from being one of the faces of the pop scene to a near has-been in six months.

Despite its commercial failure, Robin's Reign is deserving of attention. It is a lost eccentric pop masterpiece. Lyrics about house repossession, Admiral Nelson, epic strings, and a choir of multi-tracked Robin Gibbs are just some of the ingredients strangely juxtaposed. And then there's the rhythm machine which appears on five songs. However, although Gibb's recordings were pioneering, they did not start a trend. It would be the best part of two and half years after Saved By The Bell and two years after Robin's Reign before drum machines appeared again on major pop records, this time by two very different American artists.

It is often overlooked now just how big Sly & The Family Stone were in the late 1960s. A male/female multi-racial collective combining taut funk, psychedelic rock and leader Sly Stone's knack with an infectious chorus, the band scored many international hit singles and albums with a exuberant and optimistic sound that was in keeping with the spirit of the age. Buy by 1971 Sly was disillusioned with the previous decade's utopian dreams that he had so eagerly championed. Beset with drug problems, he retreated further and further into a paranoid closeted world. A feature in Rolling Stone in November 1971 paints a depressing picture of an indulged, drug-addled rock star surrounded by flunkies.

But he was still a powerful chart force. With a Sly & The Family Stone greatest hits package riding high in the album charts, Billboard was reporting advance orders of about 800,000 for the band's eagerly anticipated forthcoming studio album. By Christmas that album, There's A Riot Going On, was topping the charts. Family Affair, lifted from the album, held the top spot on the singles chart.

There's A Riot Going On is a dark, murky and ominous album, with slurred vocals, elastic bass, scratchy guitars ambiguous lyrics and a casual-sounding mix. It has all the hallmarks of an obscure cult album except that it was a huge seller. In 50 years pop music has turned up many classic cult albums that should have been huge. There's A Riot Going On is that much rarer thing, a classic album that probably wouldn't have been a hit at all if it hadn't been for the goodwill and reputation that preceded it, which translated into advance orders.

The circumstances surrounding the making of the album remain vague but there were rumours that other members of the band apart from Stone had drug problems and absented themselves from sessions. And although many of the songs are full ensemble workouts, others are dominated by the sound of Stone himself overdubbing many of the parts. His use of drum machine - a Maestro Rhythm King - was born out of this chaos. Probably originally intended as a simple time keeper, around which Stone could build up arrangements, it would remain the only percussion part on many of the songs, while on others it was combined with real drums.

The Rhythm King was produced by Maestro, a brand owned by Gibson's parent company, CMI. Several models were offered, the most popular of which was the MRK-2, launched in October 1970. Although it is not a programmable unit - like its main competitor, the Acetone Rhythm Ace, its core sounds are presets that can be played at varying speeds - it does offer a number of useful features that were considered advanced when the unit was launched. The 18 rhythm presets on the MRK-2 can be modified with a balance control, which alters the levels of bass or cymbal sounds within each preset. Additionally, eight different percussion voices can be manually added into a present to vary it. The MRK-2 proved popular with musicians when launched and is frequently sampled now.

There's A Riot Going On wasn't the first Sly Stone record to use the Rhythm King, nor was it the first drum machine record to enter the American charts. An earlier recording marked with Stone's distinctive stamp gets both honours. Little Sister was a short-lived R&B vocal group produced by Stone and featuring his sister Vet Stewart. Their single Somebody's Watching You, a minor US hit in early 1971, was driven by a chugging drum pattern from Stone's Maestro Rhythm King, a dry run for the Family Stone recordings later that year.

Of the 11 songs on There's A Riot Going On, only four have no trace of the rhythm machine. Of the remaining seven, three songs, Family Affair, Africa Talks To You "The Asphalt Jungle" There's A Riot Goin' On and Time, use rhythm machine only with no live percussion. Of these it is Family Affair that is best known, and the most influential. A slow paced funk song with a hook sung by Rose Stone around which Sly growled a rather obscure lyric, it is a hypnotic record. There is something distant, out of focus and washed-out about the sound, as if someone has accidentally pressed a wrong button on the noise reduction. Some have attributed this to Stone's repeated overdubbing actually wearing out the magnetic coating off the tape. However it came about, the muffled vagueness only enhances the record's mysterious appeal.

The arrangement of Family Affair is sparse: a syncopated electric piano, bass, spidery wah-wah guitar and little else. It is held together by the persistent repetitions of the Maestro Rhythm King, which a reviewer described as "the most incredible bubbling going on in the background." It serves both as a ballast - keeping the other elements of the arrangement from drifting too far away from each other - and it sets up a groove. Not for nothing did Stone call it the "funk box." Critics of drum machines say that they can't replicated the feel of live drums. The early ones like the Maestro Rhythm King definitely couldn't, it's true, but they could do something that a drummer couldn't do. The loping, inevitable forward momentum of Family Affair was down to the Rhythm King. It was a new sound.

In choosing to go with the Maestro's automated rhythms, as the anchor to his lazy, loose funk on Family Affair, Stone was unintentionally setting the rhythmic template for much black music that followed. Funk, hip-hop, and rap have long relied on the drum machine to generate the groove, but it started here. Not that anyone seemed to notice at the time, although Melody Maker's reviewer, writing in January 1972, did praise the drummer for his exemplary work throughout.

Released at almost exactly the same time as There's A Riot Going On was another pioneering drum machine record, Naturally by JJ Cale. The album established Cale's trademark style - economical, understated, husky, laid-back country blues - which Mark Knopfler later polished up for Dire Straits. Although musically a long way from Sly Stone's languid funk, Naturally is another example of the same phenomenon that defined Stone's record: it is swinging groove music created on a foundation of strict, basic drum machine presets.

Many of the tracks on Naturally started out with Cale playing along a few instruments along with a a Rhythm Ace drum machine which was played through a Fender Twin Reverb amp and then miked up. On some other songs, musicians were then called in to add further parts, although a few of the tracks make do with just the basic arrangements. Crazy Mama, the hit single from the album, chugs along to the simplest of Rhythm Ace rock presets.

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