Top Ten Waste of Money Musicians’ Purchases: 1980 to 1990

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 31 July 2014
1980s paraphernalia including a tape cassette and a Hughes and Kettner Red Box
Above: 1980s stuff. Some of it was quite good.

What a decade it was. The period between 1980 and 1990 was full of so many great developments in the world of music that it’s impossible to recount them all. But not every penny we spent was a wise action, and some purchases were positively an outright, flat-out, balls-down-the-chimney, waste of money.

This is only a bit of fun, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and of course this is personal opinion – not fact. Feel free to disagree with as much or as little as you like, as we commence the top ten most stupid ways a musician could waste his or her money in the decade from 1980 to 1990...

The Q Logic MIDI Metro

If paying £239 for a metronome in 1990 didn’t strike you as a waste of money in itself, paying £239 for a metronome with no sound almost certainly would. This work of genius was essentially a series of flashing lights in a rack mount unit, that was connectable via MIDI to other musical equipment. The lights digitally simulated “conducting”, creating a visual motion designed to keep the musician playing in time. But the Q Logic MIDI Metro overlooked the precision required for almost all digital recording, and to take away the audible beat was really to take away the usefulness of the product. This could only ever, for most MIDI musicians, be an executive toy, and I doubt that even the most cashed up exec toy fanatics would want to play with it for long.

The Gallien Krueger 250ML

The amount of hype this miniature poodle of a guitar amp got was unreal. It was essentially a ghetto blaster with built-in distortion and with the tape deck missing. But it cost well over six hundred quid in the UK, and that, I feel, prompted a sense of “Well, if it costs that much, and it’s only a tranny amp, and it’s small enough to fit in Jon Bon Jovi’s trouser pocket, it must be brilliant!”. A few characters on the local band scene were raving about them – including one or two guys who worked in guitar shops. So eventually I was persuaded to go and listen to a GK 250ML. It wasn’t unbearable or awful. It was just what you’d expect from a physically very small guitar amp, and accordingly an absolute waste of six hundred and twenty nine quid, given what else was available for that kind of money. You could buy some really substantial, classic valve amps for £600 or less in the mid to late ‘80s, so why anyone would buy a debauched ghetto blaster with overdrive in preference I still don’t know to this day.

Mini mixer unit

PA Hire in small pubs

“Yeah, no probs mate: 2K rig and lights: hundred quid… Half six?… Yeah we can get there for half six…” (Could they f***!!! – half six the next f***ing morning more like!!!)… “Right; guitarist – you’re too loud. Turn your amp down… No, more than that… Still too loud… Still too loud… And drummer; don’t like the sound of your kit. Can you put a sleeping bag in the bass drum and stick about eight rolls of tape on your toms… No, still too much tone – can you put another two rolls of tape on?… Keyboard player – can you hear what you’re actually playing?… No?… Good – something’s finally going right… Bassist – turn your cab completely off, it’s interfering with the crash and the ride…

Yeah: WE’RE f***ing paying YOU! Deal with what we give you, you whining, useless cretin!… For small venues, most PA hire was a waste of money, and in many ways counter-productive. The band’s own instruments and amplifiers were designed to fill small venues with sound, and much of the time, all the PA companies were doing was to find unnatural ways to replicate what the band’s own gear was perfectly capable of doing by itself. There were some good PA hire companies, and they weren't all quite as bad as in the example above, but in small pubs and bars, hired PA systems were a waste of money.

The Hammond Super B Sample Organ and just generally five-figure price tag organs for people with more money than sense

Okay, so I’ve picked on Hammond because they were always doing stuff like this and they seemed to completely miss the point about why their tonewheel organs were so revered. But in truth there were other organ manufacturers who’d make horrifically expensive furniture, with sounds which, whilst often nice, were really not desirable enough to justify any musician spending that kind of money.

If you were going to build an organ that cost nearly eleven grand in the ‘80s, and you were trying to get the tonewheel sound, why not just build a new friggin’ tonewheel organ????!!! As the title implies, with the Super B, Hammond instead built the expensive exterior casing of a tonewheel organ, then filled it with samples of a tonewheel organ. WTF??? That’s like building a Rolls Royce, but instead of giving the driver a steering wheel, putting in some sort of joystick and virtual reality headset. Why would anyone buy that when they could go secondhand and get a proper Rolls Royce with a steering wheel, that actually provides the full experience – cheaper?

Anything to do with DAT

Oh God, no! Not DAT… Yes, DAT. It was always obvious that Digital Audio Tape was a stopgap in music technology, attempting to fill an envisaged era between the widespread use of analogue audio tape, and the point at which desktop computers would finally be able to process audio and burn it straight to CD.

The problem was that there was never a need to fill that gap. There was nothing wrong with analogue audio tape, and since it was so well established and widely adopted, it was both massively cheaper and much less hassle than DAT. Worse, in the consumer domain, DAT had long since been beaten to market by Compact Disc. With CD already established, DAT was something only amateur producers and bootleggers could possibly need. Indeed, because a lot of people at the higher end of the music industry were scared of DAT for its premium quality bootlegging potential, there was a split in acceptance from the start, and this made it even less likely to become the new standard in recording formats.

In amateur music production, DAT was not only competing with analogue tape – it was also competing with MIDI recording, which could keep the sound live until the mastering stage. Competition from MIDI recording would intensify as time went on, and as multitimbral synths got better and cheaper. Worst of all, bands and musicians couldn’t realistically designate DAT as their end product, because hardly anyone had the means to play it. Audiences could play analogue tapes, and they could usually play CDs, so bands could feasibly sell them either. But most audiences didn’t know what a DAT was, let alone possess the wherewithal to play it. And who on earth, among regular consumers, was going to go out and buy a DAT player when they’d already got a CD player and a collection of CDs? Complete waste of money.

keys on a piano keyboard

The Fairlight CMI Series III

I’m genuinely sorry to include what was, at the dawn of the ‘80s, a spectacularly brilliant innovation and a true technical marvel. Costing in the region of twenty grand (UK), the early versions of this sampler/synth were hideously out of the average musician’s reach, but that’s how things were with music technology in 1980. The Fairlight clearly cost a lot to develop and make, and it was a remarkable machine when it first appeared. The price was only to be expected.

But by 1985, when the Series III arrived, technology had moved on a hell of a long way. The Fairlight had cheaper high end rivals, and ‘street level’ samplers like the Ensoniq Mirage, whilst obviously not in the Fairlight’s league, were putting immense pressure on all sampler prices. The Fairlights should have been dropping in price with each version, but in fact, the Series III was costing more than double its original figure. In a world so obviously on the doorstep of amazing things in mass market synths and samplers, the notion of the Fairlight costing fifty grand in ’85 was ridiculous. I wouldn’t say no if someone wanted to give me one in return for a few hundred quid, obviously, but fifty thousand quid in 1985?… Er, I’ll get back to you on that one mate.

Studio Time

It obviously wouldn’t be correct to say that all studio time was a waste of money in the ‘80s. It wasn’t a waste of money if it resulted in a hit record, or a good recording contract. But that, of course, was incredibly rare. Most studio time was an abject waste of money – not so much because the hourly rate was too high and the engineer(s) didn’t give a toss (though that was often the case), but because the bands or artists were horrendously disorganised, had absolutely no gameplan, had no idea how to handle the time pressure, and worst of all, had no market or purpose for the recording when it was finished.

Typically, the artists would leave the studio with a badly mixed tape full of mistakes, either arguing, or trying to pretend disaster hadn’t struck when it clearly had, and STILL paying no attention to the fact that this ‘recording’, for which they paid upwards of a hundred and fifty quid, had no function in life. Were they going to send it to a record company? No. And even if they did it would go straight in the bin. Were they going to try and sell it? No. Send it to the local rag’s music writer? No. What they were inevitably going to do, was give it away for free to their mates, then ask: “What do you think?”, and then, when the immortal “It’s alright but it’s not my cup of tea” came back in reply, blame the producer, the studio errand boy and the keyboard player’s spectacles for the fact that it wasn’t quite the wall of sound they set out to create.

But there was always a next time. None of us ever seemed to learn.

Guitars With Loads of Necks

By loads I mean more than one, obviously. I vaguely get the six string / twelve string thing, although I still think it’s a bit stupid putting it all on one guitar. But beyond that, just, like, why? I’m still convinced some people in the ‘80s watched This Is Spinal Tap and thought they were supposed to take it seriously. Has any bestselling guitar, at any point in history, ever, had three necks? No. I rest my case.

Local bar

Pay To Play

Pay To Play started to become part of the wider live band scene from the mid 1980s, when live music was in commercial decline. Initially it was adopted as an honest way for live venues to avoid going out of business in a market which was rapidly being taken over by discos. Discos and DJ sets gained such traction in the mid ‘80s, incidentally, because studio production had become so instrumental in the fashionable music of the day, that a lot of styles no longer could be played live in pubs by amateur bands.

Pay To Play was originally a reaction to large numbers of live venue and pub closures. It basically reverted to the old system of function room hire, which had been largely discarded in the pub rock era of the ‘70s when live bands in general were doing so much for bar sales that the boot was firmly on the musicians’ feet. Many venues would literally pay the bands as entertainers. But as the tide turned and bar sales were no longer reliable, Pay To Play took a fee from the live band or artist for the hire of the venue or room, as a guarantee that however bad the turnout, the venue would not lose money staffing the bar. Once the band had paid the fee, whatever they did was up to them, and however much money they took in ticket sales or on the door was their own. It threw the onus of attracting a crowd onto the band, and incentivised them to publicise the gig well.

But Pay To Play soon found itself being abused by landlords who’d charge a hire fee for the room, and demand a separate contribution for a ‘house PA’, and take a cut of the door money, and, in some cases, let in their regulars for free. Progressively, Pay To Play went from a straightforward venue hire scenario where bands with decent sized audiences could still make money, to a much more literal interpretation where pretty much whatever the outcome, the musicians were paying to do their work.

The concept could divide bands (it divided a band I was in). Some would say it was worth paying for the right audience. But of course what that overlooked was that Pay To Play was implemented because there WAS no audience. Not a reliable one, anyway. The venues most inclined towards extreme Pay To Play arrangements were the venues which had no regular crowd and were wholly relying on the band to provide it. For all but a very few bands who lucked on an A&R exec in a prestigious venue (and who probably would have done so without paying eventually), Pay To Play turned out to be one of the worst, most stupid, and most offensive wastes of money there was.

Musicians Institute courses, ‘Intense Rock’ guitar noodling tuition videos, and any other products, internships or services informing musicians how to aimlessly and endlessly play impossibly fast solos with a pained expression on their faces

I’m not saying tuition is bad. I’m just saying that teaching people how to solo at warp speed with a pained expression on their faces is bad. This kind of instruction, and in particular the tide of persuasion that people in some way NEEDED this kind of instruction, not only prompted a lot of people to waste a lot of money – it also helped to stagnate music and divert rock and pop musicianship away from the innovative and intuitive culture it had formerly been.