Tag Archives: 1987

Stevie Wonder At 67,’Characters’ Nearing Its 30th Anniversary

Characters

Stevie Wonder had entered the 1980’s in an interesting musical position. He began the decade on a political crusade with the late Gil Scott-Heron to make Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday a national holiday. Musically however,his albums began coming fewer and farther between. Since becoming an innovative musical icon after his early/mid 70’s salad days,he was still commercially successful. But the blend of organic and electronic sounds and melodies he’d pioneered was mainstream by the early 80’s. So technically,he wasn’t considered to be so much of a musical innovator anymore.

That being said, Wonder’s songwriting approach was something very few could copy. Especially with all its jazzy complexities. Thus he began developing to the artist he is today: a man whose current music was based more on collaboration and songwriting for and with other artists. Most notably Jermaine Jackson’s “Let’s Get Serious” and Gary Byrd’s “The Crown” during the early 80’s. He only had three formal studio albums during the 80’s though. And the third of them was the 1987 album Characters. It had a home in my family’s cassette collection right when it came out. And fast entered my musical core.

Characters is an album that has garnered mix opinions from everyone from writers to critics to fans. A good deal of that has to do with it being from the late 80’s. And public opinion of changes in music during that time is a complex and controversial one. On a personal level however,its one of my very favorite albums by Stevie Wonder. It came out in a year that also included Prince’s Sign O The Times and when Michael Jackson’s Bad came out. So there was a renewed interests by soul/funk artists of making creatively and commercially successful music in what started as a rather rock based musical decade.

Now Characters is also an album that did indicate the continuing distance black American artists were having with the pop charts at the time. The Top 10 of the R&B charts in American placed the album right within it. He even did an MTV special featuring a guest appearance by the late Stevie Ray Vaughn to promote the album. But it landed only within the pop Top 20. Still that was enough for many people to appreciate Stevie Wonder making a new album at that time. Five years ago,I wrote a review of this album on Amazon.com going further into the albums more musical virtues.


Stevie Wonder had recorded his previous album In Square Circle in 1983 but released it in 1985. Even though its clear based on internet knowledge that Stevie didn’t write all of the songs on this particular album at the same time. On the other hand,the production was contemporary to its release. Stevie Wonder’s musical success was in a very interesting place in the late 80’s. At only a mere 37 years old Stevie,having been a child prodigy, was already a musically iconic figure before 40. Something of a modern day popular equivalent of a George Gershwin and Duke Ellington in terms of his body of musical accomplishment by this time.

He had created an entire template for funk composition in the 70’s. He was able to show the innovations of funk were not merely instrumentally challenging dance music,but could have its own style of songwriting to accompany it as well. By the 80’s,funk was changing into a more electronic style of dance music that didn’t (and still doesn’t) suit everyone’s fancy. The pop audience had also found a new darling in Michael Jackson,an artist Stevie once helped mentor. For his part Stevie seemed to have no trouble dealing with this. The R&B community still regarded him as their main man,and that hadn’t (and still hasn’t) changed. So in terms of his commercial output,on this album he went more for quality than quantity.

“You Will Know” is a beautifully dreamy mid tempo slow groove opener,with Stevie’s classic multi layered keyboards playing his complex chord structures on a song that pleas for hope among the hopeless. “Dark ‘N’ Lovely” is an intense,uptempo dance/funk piece with some heavy bass Clavinet type synthesizer work mixed with spacier electronics that reflected a theme of darker hued African American’s as being treated differently in society.

“In Your Corner” takes this modern electronic funk instrumentation on a song that reflects more the flavor of 60’s Motown-with a tale that basically picks up where “I Wish” left off:Stevie’s possible imagined (or real for all we know) life as a young adult. “With Each Beat Of My Heart” is a mostly acapella ballad,built upon some transcendent multi tracked harmonies from Stevie and him breathing in the rhythm of a heart beat itself-providing mainly piano and harmonica as the other instrumentation.

“One Of A Kind” is a deeply funky dance number,again built on dynamic harmony and Stevie’s poetically lovelorn lyrical preoccupation. “Skeletons” is a strong funk mashup of themes between “Superstition” and “Part Time Lover”-not too far in flavor from Cameo’s Word Up only a bit warmer and gentler in instrumental flavor.

“Get It” is a heavy dance/funk number-again duetting with Michael Jackson to return the favor from “Just Good Friends” on MJ’s Bad-finding the two aggressively trading off lyrics call and response. The clavinet based funk returns on the wondrously grooving “My Eyes Don’t Cry” whereas “Come Let Me Make Your Love Come Down” marries Stevie’s electronic grooves with a heavy blues featuring a guitar solo from B.B.King playing Lucille herself.

“Crying Through The Night” is one of my own favorites here-a Latin flavored number updated from a song he recorded in the mid 70’s. The two most intriguing songs are “Galaxy Paradise”,which strongly anticipates R&B/funk’s near obsession with Arabic melodies in the 80’s funk context and “Free”,which brings to mind his Bach-styled Clavinet “classical funk” sound for some dynamic “people music”.

This album is actually one of my very favorites of Wonder’s-certainly his finest of the 1980’s for me,as well as his last release of the decade. Not only did he dip strongly into his celebration of the innovation of funk,jazz,soul and European classical that defined his blockbuster 70’s successes but also had the time to anticipate a few modern day funk/soul musical concepts along the way as well. As controversial as this might sound to some 1980’s musical naysayers,this album is easily as innovative and thrilling for its era as Songs in the Key of Life was a decade before this.


Just listening to any Stevie Wonder album,especially if someone is seriously learning about music,can be a school lesson in sound layering and composition in itself. And at the end of the day, Characters was no exception to that rule. Even myself making music on Garage Band with Apple Loops now, I find myself hearing melodic/rhythmic combinations the way Wonder might. Says a lot for Stevie Wonder’s music influencing the creativity of a non musician…sound mixer. Characters above all things showcases how no matter when he created,Stevie Wonder’s sound remained intensely vital.

 

 

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‘Sign O The Times’ At 30: Prince Bares The Cross Of His Time To Settle Down

Sign O The Times

Sign O The Times is the tale of three different Prince album projects. Because Prince was cutting edge in terms of the presentation of music as well as the sound of it,he recorded enough music during 1986 for three albums. Two of which were multi album sets. Those were The Dream Factory,Crystal Ball and an album credited to a pseudonym Camille. Due to Warner Bros. displeasure with so much Prince music coming out during a years time,all of this content was whittled down into a double album set. And it was all finally released thirty years ago today as Sign O The Times.

My own personal history with the album came with seeing a very choppy take of the music video for I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man”,one of the albums rockier hits,on a VHS tape of music videos my father recorded for me at work from MTV. That was early in 1988. I first heard the hits for the album years later on the collection The Hits/The B-Sides. It was shortly after the albums tenth anniversary that I first picked it up on CD. I’d only read about it through Allmusic Guide before. And unlike with many written reviews,after hearing Sign O The Times so often I still totally agree with the guide’s positive assessment of the album.

Sign On The Times is generally considered to be either his best or most significant album of the 80’s. The obvious reason for this album being considered is best is probably because,even with Prince’s trademark eclecticism,all of the musical ideas and combinations on this album work perfectly for what they are. Its detractors sometimes point out how disjointed the album is. To the point of being highly uneven. In a way, that’s also why this album is so important. As my friend Henrique pointed out to me, its perhaps Prince’s best early use of his vault material. None of this music was meant to heard together,but it sounded as if it were.

Any album that managed to put such disparate music, all intended for different projects,into a context that had some semblance of conceptual unity is the sign of a highly creative mindset. In many ways,the internal maturity Prince seems to showcase throughout this album comes out in his approach to its presentation. Its not him so much trying to fuse different genres into a whole anymore. But rather showcasing his ability at playing funk,soul,dance and rock ‘n roll with equal vitality and identity. Writing my review on Amazon.com of this album was a bit daunting. But it did manage to convey more specifically what the album was musically.


I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t already been said about what is very justly regarded as a classic album. Well maybe the best thing to do is discuss a little about why it might be so revered. In the three years or so since his commercial breakthrough with Purple Rain,Prince had been carefully balance creativity with his need to communicate with his audience. It was a restless struggle that’s basically defined his career and,to an extent his personal character up to this point. Somehow here he managed to make it all work.

Basically this is a double album pieced together from from three aborted 1986 album sessions and reworked into what ended up being one of his 80’s classics. As with any Prince album the sound is eclectic yet somehow consistent. On this album though the range of subject matter lyrically is much broader in scope and in a lot of ways more mature. During this time Prince was also interjecting strong live band and solo elements of jazz into his sound. It’s not only in the instrumentation but in the arrangements too and,not only that his production elements-especially his noted,inventive use of the LINN LM-1 drum machine is on full display here.

The title song here is a completely stripped down,pulsing musing on outwardly focused social ills of the day and very surprisingly became a big hit as well. There are also a good deal of genuinely sunny weather sounding pop/rock tunes such as the bouncy “Play In The Sunshine”. At the same time these songs,being that it’s Prince are not mere “fun” tunes and give you the full spectrum of weather as each song concludes with these minor chorded jazz-funk/blues instrumental bridges that express the human race’s duel consciousness very well.

There’s also a couple of dense,moody funky rockers in the explosive “It”,the tough grooving,hip-hop beat inflected “Hot Thing” and the stomping “Strange Relationship”. This album also offers up enormous doses of funk. Both the classic “Housequake” and “It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night”,with their precise horn charts and chunky rhythm guitars not only showcase the obvious James Brown influence but give a possible wink to out JB might’ve sounded had his career not been stalled after the mid 70’s and had he just continued on innovating.

So Prince is actually kind of picking up here where one of his musical heroes left off. There are also a series of songs here that just pull everything he does best together. One is the slinky,electronically polyrhythmic jazz-funk of “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”-one of my favorite Prince songs and one containing an intentionally misleading come on in the lyric. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” has a similar musical idea married to a lyric that plays on the idea about how opposite sexes may not relate to each other as well as they think.

“Forever In My Life” is a very poignant bluesy funk number that is about Prince maturing when it comes to matters of love. “U Got The Look” is one song here that does sound a little bit like his 1984 era material well,by degrees anyway although Sheila E’s percussion effects and the slicker production make it very distinctly it’s own beast. On an early nod toward what would later become known as praise rock “The Cross” has a very anthemic guitar god styled flavor and is one of Prince most rock oriented songs ever.

On the horn packed soul ballads “Slow Love” and “Adore” Prince is at his most sweet and romantic since the lyrics on his debut album For You. So across the sixteen songs on this album you get a Prince musically and personally in transition,augmenting his musical sound into yet another new territory while still keeping a foot in his original style. Also the lyrics illustrate Prince’s psyche in a similar place and in a way this stands as something of a peak of the stylistic progression he’d been working on since the 80’s decade got started.


Sign O The Times stands as a significant example,be it by accident or partial design, of Prince’s understanding of what his classic soul and funk progenitors had done. Artists such as Ray Charles were expert at playing many different kinds of music-from the soul style he innovated ,jazz and country music. And Prince was able to bring his own artistic personality to multiple styles here as well. It also showcased him in a new musical period too. It was one where he was no longer an on the loose partier. His outlook on nuclear war and other social issues here is not that of resignation anymore. Its one of concern for the future and a better life.

It was author Jason Draper who, in his coffee table book Prince: Life & Times in 2008, described the overall atmosphere of the album best. To paraphrase his words,the album jacket features an out of focus Prince in the foreground. He is walking away from what appears to be the set of a local production of Guys & Dolls. There is a glowing plasma ball in the center of it all. Draper speculated,and perhaps correctly so,that it was not only representative of Prince focusing more on music and less on the rock lifestyle. But also on Warner Bros passing on his planned releases as well.

Prince also delivered an album here that seemed to have provided a better viewpoint for music writers. My father described one such instance where Downbeat magazine (which is generally highly critical of even jazz releases) gave Sign O The Times a 5 star review-essentially describing it as Prince’s magnum opus. This was either in the late 80’s or early 90’s.  Now I can only relate my fathers story about this since I cannot find any confirmation in online archives for it. But it does speaks volumes about how the musical and personal maturation dealt with on the album has had positive results on even professional music journalism.

On its 30th anniversary,this album is also a shinning example to artists and producers who,today, inspired by Prince’s instrumental condensation of funky dance grooves. The Minneapolis sound has become the mainstream production approach now. But what is important for modern producers inspired by Prince is to take a listen to how even on these songs,most done by Prince himself,are possessed of strong chord changes and thick grooves. In fact, Sign O The Times should be experienced fully by any DIY producer/musician today before their next production because it remains that strong an album for that ethic.

My Favorite Songs From The Album For You To Hear:

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Anatomy of The Groove: “Dance Little Sister” by Terence Trent D’Arby

Terence Trent D’Arby is yet another example of a vital funk/soul revival occurring 30 years ago,in 1987. This ambitious NYC multi instrumentalist came from a multi racial and very confusing back round-with bigamy and a lot of moving around involved. After a failed career attempt as a boxer and going AWOL from the US Army after collage,D’Arby formed the band The Touch while in Germany in 1984. After their debut album,the ambitious D’Arby decided to forge ahead with a solo career. His first and generally best known release being 1987’s Introducing The Hardline-produced out of London.

The first time I heard of D’Arby was with his hit song “Sign Your Name”,a jazzy Brazilian number that I thought was Stevie Wonder at the age of 8. It was decades until I purchased his entire debut album. Many of its other successful songs I’d missed out on originally. Knowing only of another D’Arby song called “Delicate” recorded for his third album  Symphony Or Damn from 1991.  At that time,one song leaped right out for me and my mom. Especially in terms of its groove. So much so that we actually planned on doing a conceptual music video for the song. Its called “Dance Little Sister”

A high hat heavy funky drum groove begins the song-with D’Arby improvising a a humorous vocal ad lib. After this,the lead synthesizer plays a high pitched,ten note riff over two bars before the instrumentation of the refrain comes in. This is a chunky rhythm guitar and ascending bass line playing call and response to accompanying horn charts. On the choruses of the songs,the harmonic phrases of the melody becomes more sustained to follow D’Arby’s gospel soul shouting. Saxophonist Mel Collins plays a solo over the rhythm section during the bridge before the chorus repeats until the song fades out.

Listening to it all these decades since it first came out, “Dance Little Sister” sounds like something of a middle ground between Prince’s Minneapolis live band funk sound and the approach of neo soul to come within the next decade. It definitely maintains the mid/late 80’s approach of condensing a funk groove. On the other hand,its one of the hardest live band funk jams of the late 80’s to be sure. Not only are horns used on it,but the synthesizer is used in the 70’s approach of having it be part of a full band sound rather than a dominating factor in the groove. Another international funk breakthrough of 1987.

 

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Jody Watley’s Debut Album Has Turned 30: Its Been Some Kind Of Love

Jody Watley

Jody Watley first came to my attention sometime in 1988 when my father recorded a block of MTV videos on a VHS tape for me. This was when he worked as a master control engineer at our local NBC affiliate WLBZ. Among all the videos were two from Jody Watley. The first was for the song “Some Kind Of Lover” and the other for “Don’t You Want Me”. A decade or so later,I found her debut CD with these songs on it at Bullmoose Music-also in my area. As my abilities to locate music have evolved,from radio and pre recorded VHS tapes to MP3’s, Watley’s music seems to pop up every step of the way.

Watley’s self titled debut turned 30 a couple of weeks ago. During the time when I was deeply interested in the music of Prince,the solo debut of this former Shalamar singer was a major reminder to me that the Minneapolis sound had a huge far reaching impact in terms of cutting edge dance music of the late 80s.  Actually wrote a review of the album on Amazon.com,yet another they elected to take down from public viewing. In recent years,the song from the album that’s gotten my attention is the funkified “Looking For A New Love”. Of course, I went into Watley’s debut a bit further in my review here.


In terms of dance music the 80’s definitely had different parts to it. It started with a form of post disco music that would latter be called boogie which,in it’s many forms was basically an extension of late 70’s musical ideas. From there we go on to a mid 80’s synthesizer/hand clap variety of dance music heavy oriented around layers of sound that I sometimes dub “tinky tinky dance” just for fun. Around 1986 or so came a very stripped down and groove based style that occupied a very good point in the middle of both of us.

Jam And Lewis’s work with SOS Band and Janet Jackson really helped to get this particular sound going. Anyway around it usually someone from the Minneapolis scene is involved. And for her part Jody had already had her participation in all of these developments as a member of Shalamar until 1983. By this time married to one time Prince protege Andre’ Cymone she found in the music he’d been producing a way for her to stake her own claim in the late 80’s dance funk pool. And I think she won out on all levels.

At a time when almost every album in the R&B/soul genre had to have a least one slow jam involved,this album seems to come out of a serious of album where every groove was a funk groove of one sort or another. In the 70’s the Commodores Machine Gun and P-Funk’s  Mothership Connection fit the bill for all funk all the time albums. Very much under the Minneapolis spell here,even more so than Miss Janet “Looking For A New Love” starts out the occasion with a stomping 80’s funk jam if there ever was one. And that same kind of flavor just continues on “Still A Thrill”,”Love Injection”,”Do It To The Beat”,”Learn To Say No” with George Michael and even the other big hit “Don’t You Want Me”.

Jody has managed along with musical co-participants Bernard Edwards,Tony Thompson and Herbie Hancock synthesizer player Jeff Bova to do something vital on these songs:create melodically inventive compositions that possess some great bass/guitar heavy grooves and a then contemporary dance/funk flavor. When the tempo goes up? Well you end up with faster grooves such as “Some Kind Of Lover” and “For The Girls”. It’s still fresh,it’s still funky and it’s full of Watley’s own unique flavor.

Jody doesn’t present herself as someone who is about to prostitute herself musically on this album. Her take on relationships on this album is very much as an equal co-participant who is also lucky enough to have a strong singular wit about her as well. There’s an appealing arty flair about the way Jody presents her music and lyrics here. Of course having one half of Chic and Andre’ Cymone involved certainly made a difference too. However Watley herself is a very multi talented person on her own as a producer/singer and songwriter.

She was also doing something that was not particularly common during this time much outside the Jackson family. She was presented herself as primarily an uptempo based artist rather than emphasizing the ballads and slow jams that were becoming somewhat of a mainstay among female R&B/soul/funk/dance artists around this time. The fact that her debut consisted of nothing but uptempo tunes showed that in the right hands,dance music could maintain a strong sense of groove and funk without sacrificing that for sometimes gimmicky up to the minute instrumental effects. If 80’s funk was baseball I’d say Jody Wately hit a home run on this one.


The musical vibe that Jody Watley set up a scenario similar to the one Beyonce picked up in recent years: a black American female vocalist who strongly emphasized uptempo music and a strong empowered female stance. Am unsure if this similarity is even a thing as far as the artists themselves are concerned. But I can hear it. Especially when it comes to this debut album of Watley’s. Also like Beyonce,Watley’s music would later mellow a bit in danceability and take on more direct social concerns. That likely makes Jody Watley and this album a strong influence on the career arc of the modern day funky diva.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Prince Protege Special: “Honeymoon Express” by Wendy & Lisa

Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman knew each other their entire childhood in LA,with both their fathers being musicians in the group of iconic session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.  These musical lives led up to Coleman becoming the successor to Prince’s original keyboard player Gayle Chapman in 1980. In fact,it was Coleman who recommended Wendy to succeed original Revolution guitarist Dez Dickerson when he left before the making of the Purple Rain album. After two years of success with Prince,Wendy & Lisa left the Revolution,signed with Columbia and began their career as a duo.

Wendy and Lisa were significant because,similar to Jam & Lewis,the duo were never anyone Prince could be a puppet master with. They were genuine proteges who not only had enormous talent on their own,but also contributed new musical ideas for Prince. Their 1987 self titled debut featured songs that featured the production and co-writing of fellow Revolution alumni Bobby Z as well as Wendy’s brother,the late Johnathan Melvoin of Smashing Pumpkins fame. The first song on this album made an immediate impact on me personally. Its entitled “Honeymoon Express”.

Wendy starts out playing a thick and liquid rhythm guitar over an ethereal synth sound. A brittle,low ascending slap bass line. This is accompanied by a bassier sounding synth that plays for all the bars of refrain-along with a beat that kicks up high on the snare every few beats or so. Just before the choruses,the song goes up a chord just before the chorus-with the ethereal synthesizer mixed up a bit higher. The bridge features an electronic marimba type solo before the choral sequence of the song repeats to fade-with the synth marimba playing right along side it all the way.

Co written with Johnathan and Susannah Melvoin (‘ne of The Family,now fDeluxe), “Honeymoon Express” is a very densely composed,jazzy funk number. The rhythm is in as much an unusual time signature as what Dave Brubeck did in the “cool jazz” genre,also featuring some ultra funky bass/guitar interaction. The chord changes on the song are actually very singable. That being said,they are also somewhat outside American pop conventions of the late 80’s. And probably are part of why this album wasn’t a major success in the US. Still,this is Wendy & Lisa at some of their jazz funk finest as a duo.

 

 

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Need You Tonight” by Inxs

Inxs were an Australian band formed by Andrew,Jon and Tim Farriss  at the end of the 70’s. The band also included bass player Gary Beers and the late (and charismatic) lead singer Michael Hutchence. From their debut album in 1980 onward.the bands sound grew from post punk/ska/guitar based new wave into a stripped down,dancefloor friendly funk rock sound. This began to happen in a big way with their 1984 album The Swing and its Nile Rodgers produced hit “Original Sin”. This continued onward with their horn fueled smash “What You Need”  from the follow up album Listen Like Thieves.

The first time I ever heard Inxs was during 1987-1988. This was that period where energetic and cutting edge funk was not only getting back on the radio,but also making its influence felt again on the rock scene. This was often captured in the VHS collections of music videos from MTV my father would bring home for me to watch. A couple were Inxs videos of hits coming from their latest album at the time Kick. One of them was a song that has stuck with me so much,it remains among my favorite songs of them-especially from the funkier side of their musical personality. Its called “Need You Tonight”.

A heavy bass/snare drum kick starts off the song before Hutchence whispers “come over here”. That’s when the first rhythm guitar kicks in. This plays three quick chords,then a descending vamp. After that the pumping bass groove and lower,post disco/boogie rhythm guitar kicks on. These two compliment each other with a burst of reverbed keyboard as an accent. As Hutchence and the Farriss’s trade off call and response lead and backup vocals on the choruses,two rocky guitar chords. This represents the refrain/chorus pattern of the song. There is only strategic break of complete silence before entering into the last chorus of the song before it ends up Hutchence,without backup sings “your one of my kind”.

“Need You Tonight” is a song that I’ll always admire. Having learned so much about music,yet also knowing so little,still have my doubts as to whether people would consider this song to have any particular connection to disco/funk whatsoever. That being said, it does seem to be the basis of this song. From the multiple rhythm guitars playing call and response with Hutchence’s sexually charged vocals,it has the vibe of how a late 80’s pop /rock equivalent to the Rolling Stone’s might deal with contemporary black music of their time. That makes it a great personal standout of that ever important 1987 year for funk.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Fishnet” by Morris Day

Morris Day has a long and storied history with the Minneapolis sound. Again,blogging partner Zach Hoskins pulled this all together so well in his overview of The Time. He was originally in the local band Grand Central with Prince and Andre Cymone. After that,he was a member of a band called Enterprise. During the early 80’s,he was considered to be part of Prince’s spin off band The Time-at which time he went from being a drummer to being a lead singer for the group. Needless to say his persona as the flashy,pimped out OG helped give The Time their performance personality.

After The Time originally broke up in 1984 (they’d reunite 7 years later),Day began a solo career starting in 1985 with his debut album The Color Of Success.  A couple of years later he released his follow up sophomore solo album entitled The Color Of Success. Had this album for years on vinyl but never listened to it much,until earlier this year. It was also around that time that I learned it didn’t do too well commercially. Still,there were a handful of songs on the album that still stood out as highly funkified moments. One of them was actually a hit entitled “Fishnet”.

A heavy,kicking drum shuffle starts out the song. A mix of synthesized and electric slap bass segue right into the main chorus of the song. That consists of a high pitched orchestral synths along with lower synth horns. On the refrains of the song,those are stripped out for what sounds like a low organ style rumble. This is accompanied by a piano playing a bouncing chromatic walk down up with Day’s vocals. There’s a heavy rock guitar solo that comes in as kind of a bridge on the middle chorus. The synth brass,Day himself and the piano all improvise in and out of that chorus until the song ends on applause.

“Fishnet” is one of my favorite Morris Day solo jams. Part of the reasoning for that is how it spans two eras of funky music. At the end of the day,its a Minneapolis take on the DC go go sound. And then cut down to a 6 minute song rather than the sometimes hour long go go jams. On the other hand,it has a jazzy vibe that kid of goes along with some of the jazz/hip-hop styled new jack swing songs that would become huge in a couple of years.Still,its synth brass and phat (often punishing) funky rhythms keep it going along with the most cutting edge Minneapolis funk of 1987.

 

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Fake” by Alexander O’Neal

Alexander O’Neal’s importance to the Minneapolis music scene of the 1980’s probably hasn’t been as documented as it should be. The Mississippi native migrated to the twin cities by age 20. During that time,he became a member of two bands who’d eventually come together through the late Prince Rogers Nelson to become The Time: Enterprise (of whom Morris Day was a member) and Flyte Tyme (first home of Jimmy Jam,Terry Lewis and Monte Moir). O’Neal was to have been The Time’s original lead singer. He and Prince didn’t seem to have gotten along. So he was dropped in favor of Morris Day.

What O’Neal did do,with the help of Jam & Lewis’s production,was to conceptualize the Minneapolis sound on a solo career he launched in 1985. Cherrelle’s 1985 album (on which O’Neal appeared as a duet partner on “Saturday Love”) and his own sophomore album Hearsay two years later both followed loose concepts revolving around romantic issues of the mid/late 80’s such as artifice and honesty. As far as O’Neal’s album went,one of the best examples of how this concept dovetailed so well into the funkiest of his music came with the 1987 UK hit single “Fake”.

A pounding,cymbal heavy,percussive drum machine starts out the song. A synth piano scale down gets right into the rest of the song. Another main rhythmic feature of the song comes in-a thick,brittle (and possibly double tracked) synth bass part. Over this is a sizzling synth string orchestration. A higher bass tone accents this on O’Neal’s vocal parts. On the brief bridges before the choruses,big melodic synth brass plays call and response to O’Neal’s vocals. The chorus and refrain both maintain the same similar backing even to the fade out of the song itself.

Friend Henrique Hopkins described this as being a type of funk that’s “punishing”. And that description fits extremely well. This is hardcore,cutting edge industrial funk of the highest order-similar to Janet Jackson’s “Nasty” only with an even thicker funk bump to it. Lyrically it goes well with the albums concept as O’Neal is attracted to a lady who does little more than put on series physical airs just to get attention. The song on the other hand makes no apologies for how funky it is. It manages to be stripped down and sonically dense all at the same time. And its probably my very favorite piece of funk from O’Neal.

 

 

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Prince 1958-2016: “If I Was Your Girlfriend” (1987)

Prince was an artist whose musical conceptualization helped me personally to view sexuality as an act of love,rather than as a profane taboo. Considering his classic soul music struggle between spiritual and carnal pleasures,that may be hard for some people to believe. But as far as that aspect of Prince’s talent,it really began to reach its peak in the mid/late 80’s. A period that I feel represents Prince’s creative peak as a musician. Prince was also on the cusp of becoming a 30 something during this period as well. This represented another stage in Prince’s emotional maturity.

Sign O The Times was the Prince album that illustrated this stage of his maturity most fully. Because of the time frame in which I heard it,the 1987 album reminds me of a long period during the 90’s that wasn’t paying attention to Prince’s new music. There is one memory from a rainy afternoon in 1994 when I was driving home with my parents from Strawberries Records. They had the radio on and this Prince song came on with a very deep and strange sound at the beginning. They shut it off before I knew what it was. When I finally heard Sign O The Times,I realized that song was “If I Was Your Girlfriend”.

That “strange sound” I mentioned begins the song over a three note LINN drum hit. Actually sounds like revving an amp’d up electric guitar at its very lowest notes. Then a thick slap bass pop breaks into the refrain of the song. Its a very slow beat accompanied by a trumpet like synth brass solo while foreboding layers of synth strings play along in the back round. On the refrains,Prince sings in a sped up falsetto along with mainly the drum and bass line of the song. Toward the end of the song,the bass line gets somewhat more intricate as Prince raps frantically with some operatic orchestration before the song stops.

Its taken me too long to realize that this is one of Prince true funk classics. The slap bass pretty much carries the entire song-one that TLC would also cover around the first time I first hear…well the intro anyway. Lyrically,this song finds Prince exploring a sexual double standard. His asking a lover if she’d undress in front of him if they were anything but lovers. Even saying by the end “we don’t have to make babies to make love/we don’t have to make love to have an orgasm”. Prince taking on romantic insecurity in this funky musical way was a major step in his evolution as a human being.

 

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Filed under 'Sign 'O The Times', 1987, Funk, guitar, Linn Drum, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, sexual revolution, slap bass, synth brass, synthesizers

Prince Summer: “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker” (1987)

During the mid/late 80’s,Prince was refashioning the MPLS sound into something far beyond its stripped down drum machine/synth brass based new wave style groove it started out as being.His music was becoming far more orchestral and jazzier-showcasing a more live instrumental approach and more improvisational horn charts and solos. In 1986 however, Prince was still close enough to his signature sound to expand on it with some of his newer musical ideas. This came to fruition on the unreleased album Dream Factory,which evolved into Sign O The Times.

When I first started collecting Prince CD’s,Sign O The Times was on my bucket list of albums in terms of introductions to his music. It was actually the last on this list I ended up getting. It was a 2 CD set that I actually had to listen to several times in order to gauge what each song meant to me. Looking back on it now,the album has o conceptual unity as its cobbled together from several unreleased sessions. Yet all the songs sound like they belong together. One of a handful of album tracks that really stood out for me on this particular,the top of that list would be “The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker”.

A drum kick on the Linn LM-1 starts out the song. A steady Linn drum track,with a number of call and response Afro Latin percussion accents and claps,remains the main rhythm of the entire song-save for another drum kick before another refrain. The bass line is an intricate,snaky movement sewing the song together. Prince provides a number of unique synth leads here. One is a high,pitch bent one that sounds almost out of tune. The other is a similarly toned line if a bit lower-both improvising on the series of melodies throughout the song until it ends on the same theme on which it began.

Especially since this same man sang “its time for jazz to die” in 1982,this song shows how much Prince had integrated jazz improvisation and Latin drum patterns into his one man band approach by the mid 80’s. Some of the unusual,improvised modulations of the synthesizers on this sound have a similarity to Joni Mitchell’s music,of which Prince was a major fan growing up. He even name drops her as an element in the story told by the lyrics-a rye musing on Prince being played by a cocktail waitress. In terms of his multi instrumental jazz/funk approach,this is among my very favorite Prince songs.

 

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Filed under 'Sign 'O The Times', 1987, jazz funk, Joni Mitchell, Linn Drum, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, Prince, slap bass, synthesizers