Dr. Richard James Burgess: Percussive Prognosticator

Dr. Richard James Burgess (2022). Photo By: Craig Barrit / Stringer, Getty Images

If all he’d done was invent the terms “EDM” and “New Romantic,” Dr. Richard James Burgess would have earned his place in music history. But those familiar monikers are really just footnotes to Burgess’s career, which is something like a roadmap of musical history—and, specifically, the musical history of the ‘80s, when nearly every week it seemed that technology changed music and how it was made.

Burgess played multiple, critical roles in that development—especially in the realm of electronic percussion. He was there at the dawn of Fairlight programming. Working with producer Trevor Horn, he may have been the first drummer who ever had to “play like a drum machine.” With inventor Dave Simmons, he helped bring the Simmons drum kit to reality, and was responsible for its iconic hexagonal shape.

As a producer, he had huge hits with a number of artists—including Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet, King, and his own group, Landscape—using an influential combination of his own drumming and electronics. And in 1984, his LinnDrum’d production of Colonel Abrams’ “Trapped” spawned not just a No.1 Dance hit—it also created the template for house music.

Colonel Abrams “Trapped (12" Vocal Regisford Mix)”, which features the LinnDrum machine.

Born in London and raised in New Zealand, Burgess studied in America at the Berklee College of Music. He returned to Britain, joining the soft-rock group Easy Street, who in 1976 had a Billboard Hot 100 single called “I’ve Been Lovin’ You.” But Burgess was thinking about more than just the charts.

“My opinion was that electronics were the next frontier of musical instruments,” says Burgess. “We’d had thousands of years of strings and heads and reeds and columns of air vibrating. We’d had electrified instruments for more than 30 years at that point, and synthesizers were the next, obvious step.”

Well, not obvious to quite everyone—yet. Most people weren’t using electronic percussion in those days—but it was clear that Burgess could play like a drum machine. His studio precision might have been what led Trevor Horn to seek him out for 1980’s “Living In The Plastic Age” by Horn’s band the Buggles.

“Bear in mind that the [Linn] LM-1 had not come out yet,” Burgess says, “so nobody really knew what a digital drum machine sounded like—apart from boxes like the Roland CR-68, which were analogue and didn’t really sound like drums. To really sound machine-like the parts had to be perfectly in time, and each hit on each drum had to be completely consistent.”

Burgess neatly managed this difficult feat, even if, in the amused recollection of engineer Gary Langan, Horn “wore Richard out making that record.” Around the same time, Burgess was also programming the first version of the Fairlight CMI on Kate Bush’s Never For Ever album. While it wasn’t used for percussion sounds, “the first machine had a unique sonic quality to it,” Burgess says. “It wasn’t that the sounds were particularly realistic, but they were different than anything other devices could generate. The vocal ‘aaahs’ and ‘ooohs’ became iconic.”

Never For Ever, recorded at Abbey Road and Air, “was a very satisfying and creative experience. Kate understood the capabilities and limitations of the technology very quickly, so we sampled everything live in the studio. Breaking glass on ‘Babooshka,’ cocking rifles on ‘Army Dreamers,’ and so on.”

But Burgess was also developing some innovations of his own. He began his electronic percussion odyssey by using several of the single-pad electronic drums available at the time, like the Impakt, the Synare, and the Syndrum.

“Those devices were really just sonic support or sound effects,” he adds, mentioning the use of the Synare in “Ring My Bell,” the Anita Ward disco hit. “They were interesting but didn’t stand alone very well, other than as an effect. I used to say that a snare drum should sound like an axe through your head, and the kick drum should be like a kick in the gut.”

In search of those elusive sounds, Burgess began attaching crystal microphones, taken from old telephone handsets, to his drums, using them to trigger synthetic sounds. Then he made a fateful trip to St Albans, just outside London, to visit the UK distributor of another electronic device: the Lyricon wind synthesizer.

The distributor was Dave Simmons, who showed Burgess a Syndrum-like device he was working on called the SDS III. “I got several of those and triggered them from my Pearl drum set,” Burgess says. Now his live drums “had the attack, but the electronics gave the acoustic drums a new, space-age timbre.”

By then, he says, he’d thought a lot about the way drums work. “When you tune drums, especially for recording, you have to understand how all the elements work together—the initial attack, the length of the sustain, the fundamental pitch, and whether the pitch changes as the sound sustains, how the snares interact on the snare drum, and so on. I realized that there were several sound generators and modifiers happening simultaneously and sequentially.”

Burgess was by now touring with a new group, Landscape. The band had recorded an instrumental jazz-funk album that sold poorly, and Burgess was grappling with two issues simultaneously: the knowledge that Landscape would probably be dropped by RCA if a follow-up album wasn’t successful; and his quest for an authentic electronic drum kit.

Then he had the breakthrough that helped solve both problems. “I figured out that I could trigger four or five modules simultaneously to generate a single sound that was quite realistically drum-like,” recalls Burgess. “It didn’t necessarily sound like real drums, but it had the same impact as acoustic drums—enough to perform the function of a real drum set.”

Burgess returned to St Albans, where he shared this insight with Simmons. The two men began developing a full electronic kit, using sounds developed on an ARP 2600. This would become the Simmons SDS V—the drums that would become ubiquitous on MTV during the ‘80s.

The sounds, of course, were a major part of that ubiquity. But so was the design. Simmons and Burgess had realized that these new electronic drums didn’t have to sound or look like a standard kit. So Simmons first developed drums with batwing-shaped pads. Then he commissioned a local sculptor, Coleman Saunders, to create models of human heads that could house the drum pads—the “Mount Rushmore” kit that Burgess played with Landscape in a video seen on BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops.

By using the SDS V—as well as a variety of other electronic percussion devices, such as the Roland CR-68 drum machine—and adding vocals, Landscape had finally broken through. They now offered a sophisticated style of electronic dance music that Burgess called EDM. (This was in contrast to other bands Burgess worked with at the time, like Visage and Spandau Ballet, whose fashion-forward visuals led Burgess to dub them New Romantics.)

“Einstein A Go-Go” became a Top 5 hit in 1981, and Landscape’s album From The Tea Rooms of Mars …. To The Hell-Holes Of Uranus reached Number 13. The album still has numerous admirers today—including Hugh Padgham, then a young engineer, and later to become world-famous for his productions of Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, The Police, and Sting, among others.

“I think From The Tea Rooms Of Mars was the first record on which 99 percent of the percussion was electronic,” remembers Padgham. “I just listened to that record again the other day. It has some fantastic melodies on it. We have a lot to thank Richard Burgess for, when it comes to electronic percussion and drum machines. He was a real innovator.”

Landscape “Einstein a Go-Go”, which features the SDS V and Roland CR-68 drum machines.

Perhaps Burgess’s greatest innovation came to him while driving to St Albans one day, when he got an idea that would revolutionize the Simmons drum kit. “It struck me that, ergonomically, a honeycomb-shaped set would be very compact and versatile in the ways you could set it up,” he says. Customers agreed. And when combined with the fully modular setup, and the ability to store preset sounds, Simmons changed from small business to very big business almost overnight.

Yet for all his innovations, Burgess could also adapt to the equipment at hand. The demo for that pioneering hit “Trapped” by Colonel Abrams was recorded with gear Burgess had purchased in New York City after moving there from England. “I bought the DX7, a Juno-106, and a LinnDrum, so that I would have something to write on at my Manhattan place. I got a call to see if I could make a demo for Colonel Abrams. I loved what he was doing, and I decided to use the equipment I had there, because there was no budget and it was handy.”

As Burgess hoped, the demo wound up getting Colonel Abrams a deal with MCA. “And they used the demo as I recorded it,” he adds. “I’d changed some of my chips in the LinnDrum to my own custom chips, but generally I thought the sounds in the LinnDrum were punchy, and the feel of it was great too.” That sound and feel would inspire a new generation of producers, who turned the groove of “Trapped” into a faster, more insistent style known as house.

Much has changed, of course, since those heady ’80s days. Burgess has written a couple of well-regarded books about music production, has chaired the executive committee for Smithsonian Music, is currently CEO at A2IM (the American Association of Independent Music), and he received Britain’s MBE in 2022 for his services to music. But he always favors looking forward, not backwards.

“I prefer seeing what we can do with today’s machines that is better or different than what we did with yesterday’s devices,” he says. “This is why we started using drum machines in the first place. It’s why I started talking to Dave Simmons about the idea of fully electronic drums—so we could do something fresh and new.”

About the Author: Dan LeRoy’s latest book is Dancing To The Drum Machine: How Electronic Percussion Conquered The World (available here). For more information visit danleroy.com.

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