Although Greg Phillinganes had worked as a session musician with some of music’s biggest names, by 1985, he’d only released one solo album, 1981s Significant Changes. This was all about to change, with Greg releasing his second and final solo album Pulse. Since he’d released Significant Changes in 1981, Greg had been busy, working on Quincy Jones’ The Dude, Donald Fagen’s Nightfly, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones and Lionel Ritchie’s Can’t Slow Down. These were the type of artists Greg Phillinganes worked with, given his reputation as one of the best keyboard players in the world. Whether keyboards or synths, Greg Phillinganes can play them with aplomb, resulting in nearly every major artist having Greg’s telephone number. His client list also includes Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney and Toto, with whom he spent three years working with. With such a busy schedule, it’s incredible that Greg even found the time to record one solo album, never mind two. However, three years after his debut solo album Significant Changes, the follow-up Pulse would be released. After I’ve told you about the background to Pulse, I’ll tell you about the music on the album.
The idea for Greg Phillinganes’ second album Pulse can be traced to a meeting that changed music history. Present were Rod Temperton, Quincy Jones, Greg and Michael Jackson. The occasion was a pre-production meeting where Michael played some of the tracks that would end up on Thriller. This included Billie Jean, Wanna Be Startin’ Something plus a number of other tracks that didn’t make the cut for Thriller. One of these tracks was Behind the Mask, originally written by The Yellow Magic Orchestra, with additional lyrics written by Michael Jackson. After the meeting, Greg asked Michael if he could have the song if he decided not to include it on Thriller. Michael agreed, and after a busy period between 1983 and 1984, Greg decided to revisit Behind the Mask. This became the starting point for what would become Pulse.
Having recorded Behind the Mask, approval came from Yellow Magic Orchestra founder and cowriter, Chris Mosdell, who liked how Greg had stayed true to the original, but added a soulfulness and a new sense of emotion. This combination of the studio technology and the more radio friendly fusion of soul and pop became the byword for the album. Greg chose eight other songs to record. These songs were written by artists like Robbie Nevil, Janet Jackson, Donald Fagen and Rogers and Hammerstein. Guest artists included people who Greg had previously worked with, including The Pointer Sisters, Howard Hewett, Phillip Ingram and James Ingram. To produce the album, Richard Perry was drafted in. Recording would take place in Los Angeles, with a number of guest musicians playing on Pulse.
Recording of Pulse took place primarily at Studio 55, with additional recording taking place at The Room, Bodifications and The Music Grinder. Among the musicians who’d play on Pulse, were percussionist Paulinho DaCosta, guitarists Robbie Nevil and David Walker, drummer Carlos Rios and horn player Jerry Hey. Together, they recorded a total of eight tracks. For recording of Lazy Nina, especially written by Donald Fagen for Greg, Donald co-arranged the track with Greg, while Robbie Nevil did likewise on Won’t Be Long Now. With Pulse finished and such a multitalented personnel working on the album, would the album be a commercial success?
Before the release of Pulse, Behind the Mask was released as a single in February 1985 on Planet Records. Although it only reached number seventy-seven in the US R&B Charts, it reached number four in the US Dance Charts. The problem was radio play, Greg wasn’t an established artist, so wasn’t able to radio playlists. This impacted on sales of Pulse, when it was released in March 1985. It failed to chart, as did Playin’ With Fire, the second single released from Pulse in April 1985. It seemed that like Greg’s 1981 debut album, Significant Changes, commercial success had eluded him, even with such multitalented, group of musicians and singers appearing on Pulse. However, what did the music on Pulse sound like? That’s what I’ll now tell you.
Opening Pulse is the lead single, Behind the Mask, co-written by Chris Mosdell and Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Yellow Magic Orchestra with additional lyrics written by Michael Jackson, who arranged the track. Futuristic synths give way to crisp, pounding guitars, stabs of synths and then Greg’s powerful, emotive vocals. Guitars, then a vocoder, played by Michael Boddicker enters, with Greg answering its call. Between the vocoder and synths, this stays true to the Yello Magic Orchestra’s original track, with Greg adding one other ingredient…his soulful vocal. Between Michael Jackson’s arrangement, with its waves of drama and power, plus the emotion, passion and soulfulness in Greg’s vocal, this is an outstanding track, far better than Eric Clapton’s effort.
Won’t Be Long Now was the first of two tracks co-written by Robbie Nevil, this time with Mark Muller. Robbie had written songs for artists that include Eddie Kendricks, Linda Clifford and The Pointer Sisters, who sung backing vocals on this track. With Greg singing lead vocal, against an arrangement where stabs, then washes of synths, guitars and percussion combine, June, Anita and Bonnie Pointer contribute some subtle and beautiful backing vocals. Their voices compliment each other’s perfectly, with their vocals contrasting the wash of synths. They meander, squeak and squelch behind them, like a futuristic, bubbling machine. This works well in Greg and Robbie Nevil’s eighties sounding, yet timeless arrangement. They’re them replaced by the vocal, with Greg and The Pointer Sisters, each feeding off each other, driving the other to greater, more soulful heights.
Jackie Jackson cowrote and arranged Playin’ With Fire. James and Phillip Ingram, plus Howard Hewet deliver the vocal. This they do against one of the best arrangements on Pulse, that’s perfect for the lyrics. Key to this are the synths and drums. Here, as well as the usual synths, a horn synth is played by Jerry Hey. He also adds punchy, blazing horns, while Carlos Rios’ drumming is a mixture of power, passion and drama, which is reflected in the vocal. The three vocalists deliver their vocals with an equal measure of power, passion, power and drama spraying shrieks and yelps throughout the track. When they’re vocals are combined with the arrangement, this results in one the real highlights of Pulse.
I Have Dreamed sees Greg revisit the songbook of Rogers and Hammerstein giving an old song a new interpretation. His voice has a tenderness, with just synths accompanying him. Later, hissing hi-hats and cymbals augment the wash of synths, before later a prolonged synth solo adds to the emotion and drama of a beautiful track, arranged by Greg.
Come As You Are is the second song co-written by Robbie Nevil, this time with Brock Walsh, who both were associate producers on the track. Robbie arranges the track, with just percussion, stabs of synths and then layers of synths producing a multi-layered sound. Searing, screaming guitars, drums and percussion all play their part in an arrangement that’s powerful and dramatic. Meanwhile, Greg’s vocal mixes joy and emotion, while deep, punchy backing vocalists answer his call. Having Robbie Nevil the cowriter, arrange the track was a masterstroke, he brings the track to life, resulting in track that’s variously joyful, emotive and dramatic.
Previously, Greg had played on Donald Fagen’s solo album Nightly. Here, he returns the favor, writing Lazy Nina especially for Greg’s second album Pulse. Donald co-arranged the track with Greg, which has a slow tempo, and a real Donald Fagen/Steely Dan sound. The track tells a story about an enigmatic woman Lazy Nina, with a piano accompanies the synths and drums. Greg meanwhile, delivers one of his best vocals on Pulse, with layers of backing vocalists and piano key to the track’s success. Here, the arrangement, including the vocal, has the sound you’d expect from a track Donald Fagen’s associated with. Of the nine songs on Pulse, this jazz-tinged track is one the best, surpassed only Behind the Mask.
Signals has a dark, moody and dramatic sound when it opens, with broody synths, drums and bass combining. When Greg’s vocal enters, it offers a contrast, with his vocal tender and emotive. The darkness is still there, but contrasted by keyboards and percussion. Later, as Greg’s vocal soars, he’s accompanied by powerful, punchy backing vocalists. Mostly though, his voice is tender, emotive and impassioned, on a track that although sometimes is dark, is quite beautiful, with some of the best lyrics on the album co-written by Greg.
Countdown To Love a real retro-sounding track is arranged by Howie Rice, who plays synths on the track. Greg plays both keyboards and synths, on a track that when it opens, has a real doo-wop sound. This continues throughout the track, with backing vocalists accompanying Greg, singing in a doo-wop style. Compared to the modernity of the arrangement, and the synths and keyboards that are key to the sound, this is a compelling, contrast in sounds and styles. However, this works well, with the sounds and styles fusing seamlessly, resulting in a stunning, sounding track.
Closing Pulse is Shake It, a track where the arrangement is played entirely by synths and keyboards. Crispy, crunchy drumbeats, beefy synths and punchy, backing vocalists accompany Greg. Together, the synths provide a backdrop resembling a futuristic train careering along. Later, synths generate a series of percussive sounds, augmented by beeps and squeaks, while Greg and his backing vocalists combine, producing powerful, punchy and emotive vocals. For six minutes, this epic, innovative, ambitious and futuristic sounding track unfolds. During this time, it reveals its charms, subtleties and secrets, with jazz, electronic and soul music uniting.
Greg Phillinganes and his multitalented group of guest musicians, arrangers and songwriters all played their part in making Pulse, Greg’s second album a compelling, accomplished and highly enjoyable album. With Joe Perry producing Pulse, the nine tracks are a combination of soul, R&B, jazz and electronic music. Opening with Behind the Mask, arranged by Michael Jackson, the quality of music continues to be consistent. From there on, Greg demonstrates that not only is he a hugely talented keyboard player, but is an equally talented vocalist. He delivers the songs with variously a tenderness and beauty, with sometimes, emotion, passion and power. Accompanied by The Pointer Sisters on Won’t Be Long Now, Greg gives one of his best vocals on Pulse, surpassed only by his vocals on Behind the Mask and Lazy Nina, written by Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. This demonstrates how highly regarded Greg is, with Donald Fagen writing a track for him, Michael Jackson arranging Behind the Mask and The Pointer Sisters adding backing vocals on Won’t Be Long Now. Not only that, James and Howard Ingram, plus Howard Hewet contribute vocals on Playin’ With Fire. Sadly, Pulse, with its multitalented cast of songwriters, singers, musicians, arrangers and producers failed commercially. After this Greg Phillinganes didn’t release another solo album, concentrating on session work for some of the biggest names in music. Thankfully, Pulse has been remastered and will be rereleased by BBR Records on 23rd April 2012, along with six bonus tracks, including Only You, the B-side of Behind the Mask, which Greg cowrote with Bill Withers. This rerelease of Pulse allows anyone who previously, has only heard Greg Phillinganes work as a session musician to hear just how talented a singer, songwriter and musician he really is. After this, why not revisit some of the classic albums that Greg Phillinganes played on, during his long and illustrious career. Standout Tracks: Behind the Mask, Won’t Be Long Now, Playin’ With Fire and Lazy Nina.