Gary Anthony James Webb was born into a working class family in the Hammersmith area of West London. Interestingly enough, his bus driver father brought him his first guitar. And after playing in a number of bands, he became the lead singer/ songwriter/ producer of the pioneering British new wave band Tubeway Army. His biggest success with them was the #1 hit “Are Friends Electric” in 1979. Later that year, his solo career kicked off to a major start with his internationally successful song “Cars”-from his debut solo album Pleasure Principle. These songs both helped kick off the synth pop genre.
Numan’s music began to take on a more orchestral based sound as the 80’s drew in. Albums such as 1981’s Dance even took on elements of jazz into the musical mix. With bands such as Level 42, Duran Duran and Heaven 17 deriving their sound from American funk and disco, Numan looked to the driving rhythm and expert playing of the funk genre as part of his 1982 album I, Assassin. Numan himself felt this change was important for his music-as he saw many synth pop artists at the time being stuck in a rut. And this 1982 album got right off with the funk on the song “White Boys And Heroes”.
A brittle drum machine and a dark, prickly synth bass tone build up into the refrain. This consists of Chris Slade and John Webb’s heavy Afro Cuban drum/percussion interaction. Pino Palladino’s thick, grooving fretless slap bass completes that part of the song. On the chorus, Numan takes off on a chorus with his swelling synth/guitar orchestral parts. With Pallidino’s bass taking off on runs more. After an couple choral/refrain rounds, the bass led refrain of the song becomes an instrumental bridge for the song. And it all ends on an extended chorus featuring “Mike” on sax as the song fades out.
“White Boys And Heroes” explores one of early 80’s new wave/synth pop’s most interesting elements. Part of it was the turn to funkiness-its combinations of brittle beats and synth washes with The Who’s Pino Palladino’s fretless slap bass and percussive groove made it very complimentary to what Talking Heads and Prince were doing at the time. The songs theme-seeming to parody the jingoistic, white male macho image also works with the mechanized rock end of new wave with the Afrocentric funk groove. So Gary Numan hit on a compelling musical and thematic mixture on this song.
Officially, this was not ABC’s final album of the 1980’s. At the same time it did a lot to some up these survivors of the 1980’s. In many ways, the 80’s had a few different pop cultural periods. And when each one was over,it was over. There was new-wave/synth pop early on, then it evolved into a more dance/pop sound. And by decades end, it was getting into different house/DJ dance music variations. ABC had seen themselves through the first two of those movements very cleanly. Even surviving a bit of a near miss with their second (and underappreciated) 1983 sophomore album Beauty Stab.
ABC came back with vigor to spare on their follow up album How to Be a Zillionaire . And stayed on track from that point on. Even if (as the decade wore on) pop music was becoming less and less fashionable, especially with more adult listeners, ABC remained on a roll after this. Even as pop music listeners found other things to listen to. But creatively and commercially, they remained at their peak when their fourth album here. And it shows. Basically this album features songs that,both musically and lyrically are more balanced than anything since their debut The Lexicon Of Love.
Alphabet City is presented as something of a loose follow up to that debut- with bluish cover art and a movie poster like liner notes. And the songs here very much stick out as well oiled 80’s pop basically. And it brings in all their elements from the Motown inspired “When Smokey Sings”,with a similar rhythm to the Smokey/Steve Wonder track “Tears Of A Clown”, praising Smokey and (seemingly) Marvin Gaye as influences to the band. Excellent artists to be inspired by musically anyway. Especially for pop/soul oriented people.
“The Night You Murdered Love”, “Think Again,”Rage And Regret” and “Ark Angel” all have a more down to Earth pop/funk-dance sound without a lot of the heavy sound attack of the proceeding album. Rhythm and catchy melody are the key to these songs. “King Without A Crown”,”Rage And Regret” and “One Day” showcase a heavy contemporary (for 1987) sophistifunk. The album closes with one of it’s finest cuts “Minneapolis”. Needless to say,it’s totally a Jam-Lewis/SOS Band styled number musically,not dissimilar to what you might hear on a record such as Sands of Time.
To be honest. it’s kind of too bad Jam/Lewis didn’t produce ABC as they did Human League and Robert Palmer. Their style of polished, electronic sophistifunk would’ve been ideal for ABC’s stylized sound and probing melodies and lyrics. Over the years I’ve heard ABC’s singles and always been on the cusp of picking up a compilation of them. But being an album listener I had this feeling it might be the best way to deal with their particular musical bent. And it was an excellent choice too. ABC craft these wonderful little mini synth/pop/dance/funk symphonies,complete with strong arrangements and harmonies.
But they definitely carry that over into album length concepts as well. All of ABC’s first four albums are very strong musical affairs. Full of liveliness,energy and some extremely clear buts of writing. And to hear them all back to back..well at least on my end I know what I’ve been missing all this time. As my friend Henrique pointed out? The funk/soul music that 1987 produced balanced classic live and cutting edge electronic sounds in the audio equivalent of fine wine. On Alphabet City, ABC showcase how this musical ethic was strong and vital on both sides of the pond in its time.
Joe Jackson, born David Ian, came out of his Staffordshire,England into playing piano bars as a teenager. His early precociousness led him to earn a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Music. His first band was Edward Bear, later renamed Arms and Legs. They band broke up in 1976 after two unsuccessful singles. He got his professional name from the experience however. His demo got the him the interest of A&M records,who signed him in 1978. His Joe Jackson Band had a big new wave hit right out of the box with “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” from their debut Look Sharp!.
The Joe Jackson Band broke up after the 1980 album Beat Crazy. Jackson himself went on to record an album of swing and jump blues classics on his 1981 release Jumpin’ Jive – oddly enough presenting that style of music as the punk rock of its time in terms of public reception. His sincere interest in jazz music grew to the point where, in 1982 he released the album Night & Day-a vital collection of jazz,pop and Afro Latin musical ideas and the song writing of people such as Cole Porter. The song that became the most enduring and popular on the album was called “Steppin’ Out”.
The song (especially in the single version where it doesn’t flow from the previous song on the album) begins with a metronomic, lightly gated drum after which a sizzling synth bass comes into the song-with Jackson’s heavy keyed piano melody comes building into the arrangement. Layers of piano parts plus bursts of organ play a major part of the refrain. The intro represents the instrumental approach of the chorus. The bridge of the song features the piano melody with a sustained organ and high pitched bells as accents. An extended chorus fades the song out.
“Steppin’ Out” is a song that defined much of my radio listening with family as a child. They even had the 45 of it. Over 35 years after it first came out, its got a combination of sounds I haven’t yet heard in other music since. Let alone an early 80’s pop hit. The basic rhythm of the song is a punky, new wave rock style kickoff. So is Jackson’s vocal style. At the same time, his approach to piano and the harmonic chordal changes come out earlier American jazz inspired song writers. Plus the fact it uses more organ than any pop song of the time. Its…new wave jazz sound makes a distinctive and continually enduring song.
1999 is celebrating its 34th anniversary today. Its understood as the album that really helped Prince cross his music over to a more pop oriented audience. A lot has been said about the album. Such as how the album was musically almost entirely the work of Prince himself. Also,how it helped establish the clearest headed example of the electronic based Minneapolis sound that he was pioneering at that time. Not to mention that it came right along with his first proteges in Vanity 6 and (most importantly) The Time. Now I’m really realizing just how important this album was in terms of Prince’s entire musical history.
Prince debuted in the late 1970’s,fresh out of his teens as a disco era version of Stevie Wonder: a youthful funk wunderkind. As Henrique and myself were discussing at the time of writing this,he was first coming out when so much was happening around him. Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life still churned out hits,P-Funk were dropping “Flashlight” and “One Nation Under A Groove” while Dayton,Ohio’s Slave was hitting with an R&B #1 smash in their song “Slide”. And than came Prince,a young musical genius who played all the instruments and produced his own music so expertly.
When the post disco radio freeze out occurred in the early 80’s,the enormous level of pioneering and trailblazing by funk and disco artists disappeared overnight. On the other hand,it remained very present overseas in the UK with some rock and electronic elements added. This sound became known as new romantic/new wave/synth pop movement. In the very beginning of the 80’s,most black artists were integrating electronics into what was still a standard funk/soul rhythmic framework. By 1982,Prince suddenly became his own innovator as really the only black American new wave/synth rock oriented artist.
The 1999 album is endowed with some amazing funk such as the title song,the instrumentally organic “Lady Cab Driver” and the driving “DMSR”. In fact,the idea of the album being a double LP set with full,elongated mixes made it an idea format for his Minneapolis funk. At the same time,it was songs like the albums other major hit “Little Red Corvette” along with “Let’s Pretend We’re Married”,”Something In The Water (Does Not Compute)” and “Automatic” showcase Prince as doing for the synth pop/new wave sound what Little Richard and Ray Charles did for rock ‘n roll and soul in the 50’s.
Prince infused his rockiest music,even the rockabilly hit of “Delirious” with tons of gospel influences and attitude. And brought those same elements into his ballads on here “Free” and “International Lover”. This also began the period when Prince was concentrating heavily on developing his single B-sides as musical works of art all their own. Songs such as “Irresistible Bitch” and “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” (covered famously by both Stephanie Mills and later Alicia Keys) represent the first time other artist realized even a Prince flip side was ripe for another artist to be really successful with them.
As of this writing,Prince enthusiasts await the official release of “Moonbeam Levels”,a well known outtake from this era. So interest in 1999 era Prince is still growing. For me,its an album that represents his finest mix of funk and rock music in terms of an album. The extended lengths gave the grooves room for a lot of expansion. For the heavy funkateer, 1999 is far more funk endowed than its blockbuster followup Purple Rain. On a personal note,it was my aunts favorite Prince album too. In many ways,1999 might be the most defining moment of Prince’s Minneapolis sound.
Prince was the topic of a conversation between myself and Henrique for much of this past summer. One of the big related topics had to do with an episode of Calvin Lincoln’s TV show Soul School TV out of Vallejo,California. The Prince tribute had a subtext involving its guest about Prince being the prime musical of all time. Henrique,Calvin and myself all ended up agreeing that Prince’s was the prime musical figure,but of the 1980’s-not of all time. The album that probably epitomizes this,as well as Prince’s main persona,came in the very first year of the 80’s decade Dirty Mind.
Last week,this album celebrated its 36th anniversary. Hard to believe Prince’s third album is the same as as I am. So no irony is lost on me that I’m a little late to the party over-viewing this album here. Most of the songs on this particular album came to me by way of their inclusion on the compilation The Hits/The B-Sides. Upon finally hearing the album in its entirety on vinyl,it became clear that this represented the beginning of an ongoing process on Prince’s part to gain the attention of the rock audience. His first two albums in the late 70’s were funk/soul with a West Coast soft rock twist. Dirty Mind changed all that.
The main characteristic of Dirty Mind is the stripped down instrumental approach. As well as the raw demo style production. From my understanding and research,the post disco radio freeze out of black American music had a key tenant: using the than often maligned term of “disco” as a musically racist slur to keep uptempo hits from black artists from crossing over. Brittle,jerky guitar/synthesizer based new wave rock was the order of the day in the very early 80’s on pop radio. And for all intents and purposes Dirty Mind is Prince’s new wave rock album.
Most of the songs showcase pulsing synthesizers,stiffly grinding guitars with like minded bass lines and punkish “rage against the machine” attitude. What Prince added to this mix were melodic structures that were still very much in league with the funk/soul genre from which he came. He was still singing exclusively in his falsetto vocal register. The lyrical content also reflects elements of the sexual revolution from the disco era. The difference came from the explicit “punk” attitude with which Prince expressed what was generally only implied during the disco era itself.
Actually,this album is not particularly funky throughout. Even its ballads have more of a 1950’s doo-wop flavor about them. “Head”,with its naked electro Minneapolis funk,essentially set the stage for numbers such as The Time’s debut single “Get It Up” and his own “Controversy” from a year later. “Partyup”,with Morris Day on drums,closes the album with a tight new wave funk hybrid that lyrically sets the stage for his song “1999” a couple of years later. In the end Dirty Mind found Prince re-imagining his sound for what the decade required of it. And trying to reconcile the relationship between funk and rock.
With his next two albums Controversy and his breakthrough 1999, Prince pulled more funk into his mix of Minneapolis new wave. Sometimes even hybridizing for an entire song. This is the sound that Prince would make famous. Both of these albums were sleeker and had a hotter mix than anything on Dirty Mind. And of course Prince’s major breakthrough as a rock star would come in 1984’s Purple Rain. After that,Prince was primarily funk with some rock mixed in. Still Dirty Mind shows how Prince would still come into his own-even when the general music tide seemed to work against his style.
Filed under 1980's, classic albums, Dirty Mind, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, naked funk, New Wave, post disco, punk funk, rock guitar, sexual revolution, synthesizer
In taking to a lot of people with a casual knowledge of Prince,Purple Rain is often their favorite album. And song. Its the period most associated with him. And it isn’t hard to see why. The man had a blockbuster album and motion picture out in a year dominated by Michael Jackson,Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen. It was Prince’s most thoroughly rock album but to that point. At the same time,it was a new wave/synth pop record with a lot of black American musical content-such as jazz and gospel melodic/rhythmic references. As for myself,I do have personal favorite songs on the album.
One of these songs was a song Prince conceived in a very grand way. It would seem that he conceived this song as a 14 minute opus-likely with multiple complex parts. But it does seem interference from Warner’s had him edit the song down intensely. One possible reason for its length was the co-writing credit for his father,John L. Nelson on an element he referred to as “Father’s Song”. This still ended up in the song. Conceptually the song dealt with Prince’s love triangle between himself,Apollonia and Morris Day in the film. The name of this song was called “Computer Blue”.
A classic Minnapolis Linn LM-1 drum clap opens the song-over which Wendy and Lisa have a bit of mildly S&M inspired dialog about hot water in the bath tub. Over this,the main keyboard melody plays over which Prince plays some shrieking guitar flourishes. His piercing scream breaks into the main song. This consists of a quavering,high pitched digital synthesizer,that Linn drum rhythm that opens the song and call and response rock guitar from Prince. On an instrumental bridge Prince plays a fast paced,hard rocking guitar solo before segueing into the “Father’s Song” sequence.
“Fathers Song” is more or less the instrumental bridge of the song. It finds Prince playing his father’s melody on a jazz-rock style guitar solo-accompanied by equally jazzy acoustic piano touches. Prince’s guitar solo begins to rock harder again. And the song returns to its main theme-ending with the same shriek with which it began. This might be the most thoroughly musical song on the Purple Rain soundtrack. The “Computer Blue” part an economical,brittle new wave synth rock. Than Prince brings in his father’s jazzier tones over his Linn for that bridge. This takes “Computer Blue” to its own unique musical level.
Filed under 1984, jazz rock, John L. Nelson, Linn Drum, Lisa Coleman, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Wave, piano, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, Purple Rain, rock guitar, Soundtracks, synthesizers, Wendy Melvoin