Blinded by science: Remembering the surreal 'Synthesizer Showdown' of the 1985 Grammys

Lyndsey ParkerEditor-in-Chief, Music
Yahoo Music

Thirty-five years ago, something totally awesome went down at the 27th Annual Grammy Awards that changed television — at least in the science-blinded eyes of members of the original MTV generation.

That fateful evening, onstage at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium, elder-statesmen keyboard icons Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock joined new-school new-wavers Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones (the former in a powdered Beethoven wig, the latter resplendent in billowing primary-yellow satin while brandishing a keytar). Together, they delivered a futureshocking performance that has come to be known as the Great Synthesizer Showdown of ‘85. 

It was probably the most ’80s thing that ever happened. Ever. And yet, the grainy Betamax footage of that night still seems cooler than anything that has taken place at the Grammys in the three and a half decades that have followed.

“There's no doubt that when the musical history of the 20th century has been written, one of the major chapters will highlight the influence of electronic keyboards,” John Denver, of all people, declared as he introduced the surreal segment, “and that a section will be devoted to Stevie Wonder, who helped bring them into the use for pop music... to Herbie Hancock, who elevated [synthesizers’] use in jazz to an incredibly new level... to Howard Jones and to Thomas Dolby, whose exciting use of electronic technology is helping to shape the music of the ‘80s. Sit back and hold on your seats, folks. This place might really explode!”

And the Shrine did explode, as did many younger viewers’ minds.

Jones was the newbie of this all-star funky bunch, but he went on to have a very good 1985, racking up four top 40 hits in the U.S., including the top 10 singles “Things Can Only Get Better” and “No One Is to Blame.” This year, he celebrates another milestone besides his Grammy anniversary: He actually turns 65 on Feb. 23. Jones continues to push himself creatively — in 2015, he debuted his ambitious new live multimedia ENGAGE! project, and his latest album, 2019’s Transform, featured three collaborations with electronic musician BT. But in honor of this week’s upcoming Grammy ceremony, we chatted with him about the night in 1985 that first introduced him — and synthesizers — to many American fans.

Yahoo Entertainment: This was an awesome moment in ’80s television. How did it all come about?

Howard Jones: Well, I think the Grammys really wanted to mark the arrival of electronic instruments and sort of give it, I don’t know, a bit of credibility. And they wanted to use great legends, like obviously Stevie Wonder, and some new voices as well, like me and Thomas Dolby. It was a kind of celebration of keyboard players using new technology and making great music with it. I think it was a great move, and I think it really did mark a sort of turning point for electronic music.

What was the reaction in the Shrine Auditorium that night? Were people confused, or were they into it?

I think they were very excited about it, because it was a new thing. I don’t think anybody had ever done anything like that before — centered around keyboards, centered around new technology, drum machines and all that. That was quite controversial at that time. That’s the thing: As an electronic musician, people didn’t really understand how it was done, what you were doing or whether you were doing anything. I used to get things like, Rolling Stone would say, “Howard Jones doesn’t have to turn up to his shows; he can just send the keyboard and it plays itself!” It was absolutely not true at all; it was an acquired skill, and a difficult thing that I’d been developing for years. But I understand that people didn’t know that and it was a new thing.

You have to remember, Queen used to put on one of their albums: “No synthesizers at all used in the making of this record.” When you start out doing these new things, there’s always going to be a reaction. I suppose that’s just the way it’s always been. But that [Grammy] moment kind of swept that away. I think people were like, “Oh wow, these are musicians and they’ve got brains and they write; they’re just using a different instrument.” So I think that was a moment that changed things.

Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder, and Howard Jones perform at the 1985 Grammy Awards. (Photo: YouTube)
Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dolby, Stevie Wonder, and Howard Jones perform at the 1985 Grammy Awards. (Photo: YouTube)

What are your memories of rehearsing for the big event?

The whole process was so amazing. We originally started off in a studio in London. Me and Tom were there kicking around some ideas and we were waiting for Stevie, and of course he never showed up at that time, so we realized we had to reconvene in Los Angeles. We ended up, all of us, at Stevie’s studio [Wonderland] in L.A., and we had an amazing time putting it all together. For me, Stevie was a big influence on my playing. I’d studied classical music and musicals, but really my heart was in rock ‘n’ roll and funk and great keyboard players, so I used to really try and learn everything that Stevie did. And so we found ourselves in the studio together, and we jammed for 20 minutes — just him and me, trading licks back and forth, keyboard parts. I’ll never forget that moment. It was like we were having a dialogue through music. That was for me an absolute journey; it was incredible.

Were you intimidated to be sharing the stage with legends like Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock?

No, I didn’t feel that, actually. Maybe that’s just because of being the young new kid on the block — you’re full of confidence and you’ve got hits on the charts. I didn’t feel intimidated; I felt honored. It was great for me to be on the Grammys; I never thought I’d get that far, so it was great.

Is it true that Stevie didn’t show up to the actual Grammys until the last minute, and everyone was panicking?

Well, he was working on the mix in the studio all night, and he doesn’t really have a concept of time, particularly between day and night. He just worked all through the night to get the mix the way he wanted, so we left him to do that. I think that’s appropriate — like, he’s the elder statesman, one of the absolute legends of pop music, so he should do that 

Were you freaking out that he might be a no-show?

I kind of had the sense that Stevie was not always predictable, but I never panicked and thought that he wouldn’t turn up. I was used to [unpredictability] at that time: I was doing shows where we were using new technology, and things would go wrong and things wouldn’t happen the way you planned. So the fact that he didn’t turn up till the last minute really didn’t faze me at all.

Any other Stevie-centric memories of that time?

One thing I remember about being at Stevie’s studio which I was always really very moved by was that his studio wasn’t in the most upmarket part of town, and people would turn up in the foyer, people a bit down on their luck. And at lunchtime, he would arrange for food for them. And they would sit in the foyer and have takeaway food. That happened every lunchtime, and I was very impressed by that.

So, how much of the Grammys performance was actually live, and how much of it was pre-taped? 

A lot of it was prerecorded stuff that we’d already done in the studio because of the ambition of it, because it was using that amount of technology. I don’t think anybody would have been brave enough to play everything live! So we played some things over the top of it, and then the rest of it was pre-done in studio. I think that’s the only way to have achieved it for the Grammys. I think it would have been very risky otherwise!

Thomas Dolby at the 1985 Grammy Awards. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Thomas Dolby at the 1985 Grammy Awards. (Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Did you feel it all worked out in the end?

Yes, it did, and the big surprise was I didn’t expect Thomas Dolby to come out in that amazing wig and tuxedo — which is so him, you know, and brilliant. And that tiny little keyboard!

Do you think this performance turned people on to keyboards or electronic music?

Yes, lots of people have told me they got very, very excited and ran out the next day and bought a Moog or a Prophet synthesizer and just got into it.

And now, 35 years later, you’re still making music and still pushing yourself. What makes you want to keep trying new things, instead of just resting your laurels?

I think maybe it’s because I’ve never had, like, super-huge success. It’s always been consistent, where I’ve had a wonderful following with great fans, but it’s never been like every show I do gets sold-out or every album sells huge amounts. I felt I’ve always had to work hard at it and get people to the shows one by one, and I think maybe the struggle with that has kept me hungry to keep trying new things. At least that’s my theory at the moment.

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