Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Thirty Year Thursday – BILLY COBHAM “POWER PLAY”

[Welcome to Thirty Year Thursday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1986]


Billy Cobham - Power PlayI first discovered the monstrous drumming of Billy Cobham during high school via his early-‘70s work with John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. I previously discussed their debut album The Inner Mounting Flame in my Great Out Of The Gate series, and I highly recommend that record and its follow-up, Birds Of Fire, to hear why Cobham is considered one of the greatest drummers of all time. Following the dissolution of that group in 1973, Cobham began a solo career that included several #1 and Top 10 jazz albums that also impacted the Pop and R&B charts. I didn’t hear those records until several years later, so my introduction to his solo career was his 1985 GRP Records debut, Warning. That album, with the back-cover warning about how its digitally recorded music could damage your speakers if played too loud, was a touchstone release for me and it’s still a record I know by heart from start to finish. The synth- and keyboard-heavy production will likely scare away a lot of jazz purists, but the songs & musicianship are impressive and overcome any technological date-stamping.

A year later he released Power Play with most of the musicians from the previous album (bassist Baron Browne, guitarist Dean Brown, keyboardist Gerry Etkins and percussionist Sa Davis). Although it’s not in the same league as Warning and it contains Billy Cobham Photo (1985)fewer jaw-dropping drum explosions, as well as two mediocre tracks anchored by electronic drums, it’s a solid follow-up with several excellent songs. Opening track “Times Of Our Lives” has a funky groove and a couple of memorable synth melodies. The propulsive “Radioactive” is a great driving song that features some typically impressive drumming, and the 6-part, 14-minute “Summit Afrique” suite takes us on a memorable musical journey with a couple of percussive showcases (most notably “The Debate” and “The Conflict”). I won’t claim that Power Play is a classic or a must-have, but I enjoyed it in 1986 and much of it still sounds really good, in spite of being an obvious product of its time. If you check out & enjoy Warning there’s a lot to like here as well.


13 comments on “Thirty Year Thursday – BILLY COBHAM “POWER PLAY”

  1. stephen1001
    July 28, 2016

    I like this series Rich – not everyone has nice things to say about the 80s, but thanks to you & Ian, I’ve learned plenty of strong supporting evidence in favour of the decade!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Geoff. There was a lot of great music created in the ’80s, including many mainstream artists & albums. Some of my friends tend to write off the whole decade but I think they’re too dismissive of that era. Hopefully this series can possibly change their minds, even if it’s just one or two albums they previously overlooked. I’m glad there are people like you & Ian out there; music lovers with open minds.


  2. Kevin
    July 28, 2016

    I am glad you posted this, Rich. When I was in high school, I remember walking into the school ‘band room’ and hanging out with the “musicians.” One time, the drummer was listening to some very interesting music that I had never heard before. He told me it was Cobham, and I think it was Warning. I made a mental note to check it out sometime. Later, when I started listening to Mahavishnu, I also checked out Cobham’s Spectrum, but wasn’t too knocked out. I completely forgot to try out his 80’s stuff, and these three songs reminded me of what I heard and liked back in high school. I now look forward to checking out the rest of this, and Warning.


    • Hi Kevin. Those musician friends you had in high school probably had very similar tastes to me & my friends. Spectrum is an awesome album that may be worth revisiting since it didn’t knock you out, and the live Shabazz album might be a good one to check out as well. A lot of his ’70s albums combined jazz-fusion with funk, pop and even disco. I love those records but they’re not for everyone. If you hear Warning I hope it lives up to the hype. Please let me know what you think. Thanks.


  3. Vinyl Connection
    July 28, 2016

    Absolutely at your side on Mahavishnu Orchestra (original incarnation).

    Billy’s first solo album, ‘Spectrum’, was my very first fusion record; I loved it then and love it now. Wrote about the first three (70s) solo Cobham albums quite a while back at Vinyl Connection. They’re all strong.

    Not being a huge GRP fan – weren’t we in this territory not long back? 😉 – I’m not getting a great deal from this one. I’m not against 80s fusion, mind you, just find much of Billy’s work from this decade not as time-robust as others. Still, might have a listen to ‘Warning’ and see of that lives up to its name.

    Always great to have some jazz-rock posted, Rich!


    • Hi Bruce. It’s hard to top the original Mahavishnu Orchestra so I try not to compare any other jazz-fusion to them because most will pale in comparison. I realize you’re not doing that but it’s important to point out that they reached some unbelievable peaks that other bands could never approach, no matter how talented the musicians. I remember your post on the first three Cobham solo albums. Not sure if I commented but I appreciated you giving such detailed attention to those records. I realize you’re not a GRP fan (yep, we covered this in my Rippingtons post) but Warning should appeal to you for the musicianship and killer tunes, as long as you can get past the synths & somewhat ’80s production. I don’t think you would enjoy much on Power Play beyond the tracks highlighted in this post.

      Spectrum is an excellent “first fusion album.” I can’t remember mine, since I got a whole bunch at one time during high school. Albums by Mahavishnu, Tony Williams Lifetime, Return To Forever, Bruford, Jeff Beck, Kazumi Watanabe and a few others were eye-openers for me.


  4. mikeladano
    July 29, 2016

    I only know the name, not the music. Time to change that.


    • Mike, if you think you’re aware of the best, most powerful & awe-inspiring drummer you’ve ever heard, you might re-think that whenever you hear Mr. Cobham. Not sure either of his solo albums I mentioned here would convince you, although there’s plenty of firepower on Warning, but the first two Mahavishnu Orchestra albums (which I referenced here as well) are all you need to have your mind blown. Happy listening.


  5. I relate very much to these recollections, Rich. After becoming obsessed with ‘Spectrum’ when I was 12 or 13, ‘Warning’ and ‘Powerplay’ were the first two Cobham albums I bought brand new. Like you, I also know every note of ‘Warning’. But ‘Powerplay’ is maybe the better album with much more ‘breathing space’ in the production, apart from that really weird drum machine track on side two…


    • Hi Matt. Glad we had similar experiences with these Cobham albums, although I don’t agree about Power Play being the better of the two. Between the drum machine track you referenced and another one with a programmed rhythm that doesn’t go anywhere, it’s just not as consistent as its predecessor. Also, I find the ballads on Warning to be much more memorable. Thanks for the feedback. I’m always happy to talk about these hidden gems of the ’80s with you.


  6. CheeseBurgerPatrol
    August 24, 2016

    I felt the soullessness on the electronic/programmed drum tracks as well. Cobham probably figured by ’86, he might as well appease what was already a drummer’s/musician’s greatest enemy: programming. Thankfully, it resulted in two forgettable, unjazz-like tracks that kept the other players far from the studio those days. I always skip them and don’t consider apart of an otherwise fantastic 80s fusion album.


    • Hi there, CheeseBurgerPatrol. Thanks for stopping by. That’s a good point about Cobham possibly appeasing the programming gods. I actually don’t dislike those tracks but they belong on a different album. Glad you agree about the rest of the album, though. How do you rate it compared to Warning?


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