Queen have proven to be among the most enduring of the mid to late 70’s rock bands. Their densely layered rock opera based style came into its fullest flower on “Bohemian Rhapsody” from 1975’s A Night At The Opera. Known for their blend of musical professionalism and theatrical stage shows, it was the bands lead singer/songwriter Freddie Mercury who helped to conceptualize Queen’s musical adventure. And it took them through many different musical forms-from opera,rockabilly,hard rock and disco, to maintain their sense of drama. Even after Mercury’s early passing from AIDS in 1991.
In 1980/81, Queen had a huge dance hit with the heavily Chic inspired Another One Bites The Dust. During the early 80’s, Michael Jackson was a close friend of the bands. This likely spurred Mercury onto the possibility of Queen re-fashioning their music into a funkier dance/rock based form. This led to the 1982 release of the album Hot Space. Its regarded by many hardcore rock writers and fans as their worst album. Especially coming right in the middle off the anti disco radio freeze out. For me however, the albums first track instantly got my attention. Its appropriately called “Staying Power”.
A percussive drum machine, Roger Taylor’s live drums and a round, fat sounding synth bass and John Deacon’s rhythm guitar begin the song with Mercury’s grunts and vocal ad libs. On the second part of the intro, horn charts arranged by Arif Mardin play call and response to Mercury’s vocals, Brian May’s guitar and the synth bass. This also represents the B section to the chorus, where Mercury’s sings along with Deacon’s guitar and a whooshing synth riser. After an extended big band horn chart on the bridge,an extended chorus continues until Mercury ends the final horn fanfare with a whispered “gotcha”.
“Staying Power” is a great defining way to begin an 80’s Queen album. Its heavy duty post disco funk-full of big brassy horn charts. Both vocally and musically, its also pretty much Freddie Mercury’s show. He plays many of the instruments on this song-from the drum machine,synth bass to the big windy synth wash. So the rhythmic and melodic base of the song is his creation. Even if many in Queen’s classic rock style dislike them doing horn based electro funk without any lead guitars, Queen and Mercury’s musical power comes through both instrumentally and melodically on this hefty funk number.
Michael Jackson began the sessions for Off The Wall, his first solo album produced by Quincy Jones, with the idea that he wanted to separate his adult solo career from what he’d been doing with his brothers. This was a concept he’d already pursued on their previous album Destiny from one year earlier. Talking with my friend Henrique, the then current sound of Barry White interested MJ in 1979-his album The Man and its emphasis on live horns and strings. That is the direction he pursued on the finished album. Early on in the sessions however, the music MJ and Quincy were making was slightly different.
Of course, instrumentally the same West Lake studio crew that worked on this album also played on the Brothers Johnson’s Light Up The Night. That album was recorded during the same time as Off The Wall, but was released in 1980. So musicians such as Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Jerry Hey, Rod Temperton and Toto’s Jeff Porcoro likely switched off from one album session to another. Since Light Up The Night has a more electronic flavor to its grooves, it doesn’t surprise me too much that an early song from the Off The Wall sessions has a similar flavor. And it was called “Sunset Driver”.
The intro features what sound like higher pitched synth horns followed along closely by the drum-beat by beat. The drums then settle into a straight up disco friendly dance beat pounding away. The melody is led by a thick polyphonic synthesizer, with a pumping synth bass underneath it. Chucking right along with it is a scratching wah wah guitar. On the refrains of the songs, the string arrangements ascend and descend with MJ’s vocals. On the choruses, the strings sustain along with the lead synth. On the bridge, the lead synth goes into a more descending pattern before an extended chorus fades out the song.
Upon hearing it shortly following MJ’s passing eight summers ago, “Sunset Driver” emerged as an unreleased song I had trouble placing into MJ’s vast recorded catalog. Its a lot closer to the post disco/boogie funk of a Brothers Johnson song such as “This Had To Be”. Especially with the synthesizer being a far more significant element than it had been on the final cut of Off The Wall. Still with MJ’s dialog near the end of the song saying “that’s it Jerry,that’s nice”, its clear now that this shows MJ in a different and cutting edge electronic dance/funk flavor at the beginning of his adult solo career.
Kool & The Gang’s period of being produced by Brazilian jazz funk Eumir Deodato represented the third stage of their musical evolution. The Jersey band started out with their heavy jazz funk style of such albums as Wild & Peaceful and Spirit Of The Boogie. Than they made a series of albums that reflected a growing disco funk vibe from Open Sesame on through their first Deodato production in 1979’s Ladies Night. After that, the band embraced a more post disco/boogie funk oriented sound with radio friendly pop elements. By the mid 80’s, the band were basically radio friendly dance pop.
Dealing with K&TG as album artists in the early 80’s was a daunting task for me,having long accepted them as a singles act during that era. One day while looking through the cutout CD bins at a record store called Strawberries in the mid 90’s, I came across a K&TG album from 1982 entitled As One. I recognized the song “Big Fun” on it. And was happy to be able to hear it on the car CD player on the way home. The very first song that played upon popping it in helped me to really understand K&TG’s 80’s funk variant very well. And the name of this particular song was “Street Kids”.
George Brown’s drum kickoff begins the song before he puts himself into an in the pocket dance friendly beat for the remainder of the song. Deodato’s bubbling synth bass then proceeds to play call and respond to a two note synth-likely an OBX played by Ronald Bell. On the chorus, JT Taylor’s falsetto vocals play to the tune of Charles Smith’s liquid rhythm guitar-along with the bands powerful and melodic horn charts. There’s a B section with a sustained orchestral synth plays in the back round. This repeats somewhat later in the song as an extension of the chorus,which fades the song out in the end.
“Street Kids” is, to me, a superb example of Kool & The Gang adapting their sound for the post disco/boogie era. The horns,guitars and drums are still all the way live. But orchestral and bass elements are now electronic. The lyrics about street kids who “like to play Captain Video” and “doing the motor roller” go right with it. And the groove itself is squarely in the classic funk framework-right in the pocket and right on the one. JT Taylor has a tremendous vocal showcase here. You get his usual smooth tenor, his breathier falsetto and even his rapping. Part of a strong post disco reboot for this iconic funk band.
Linx were a a Brit funk/soul/disco group with a rather short lived career. It was a six member band featuring keyboardist Bob Carter, drummer Andy Duncan, guitarist Canute Edwards, bassist Peter Martin,backup vocalist Junior Giscombe and lead singer David Grant. The group split up in early 1983-after Junior had left to begin a solo career and Grant was about to do the same. After a moderately successful solo career, Grant became a successful backing singer for people such as Rick Astley and The Lighthouse Family. He later became a judge on the UK TV show Pop Idol with his second wife Carrie.
Linx recorded two albums during 1981, the first of which I picked up four years ago on vinyl. Their major hit on it was “Intuition”, a Caribbean flavored post disco number became popular to its accompanying music video being played so often on the British music program Top Of The Pops. And all due to a technicians strike. The overall album is a superb example of how the post disco/boogie funk sound thrived,prospered and evolved along with new romantic/synth pop during the early 80’s. One fine example of this was the song “Together We Can Shine”.
A dance beat begins the song with a pulsing Fender Rhodes and a bluesy funk rhythm guitar break. As the main song kicks in, Martin’s slap bass line kicks in heavy. The dance beat becomes more steady. Carter adds spacey synthesizer flourishes-which become very high pitched on the choruses along with the melodic, liquid rhythm guitar bubbling right along. On the bridge of the song, the vocals of the refrain move aside for Carter’s piano solo before Grant’s vocals return. Before the fading refrain, the song breaks off into a percussive Brazilian funk breakdown.
Musically speaking, “Together We Can Shine” showcases the vitality and diversity within the UK post disco/boogie scene. Many American groups/ soloists emerging from that were primarily disco and funk based from the get go. In terms of Linx, its a different story. Bob Carter and Canute Edwards play in a manner very indicative of jazz oriented instrumentalists. Bassist “Sketch” Martin and drummer Andy Duncan have a strong Brazilian funk flavor to their playing. So this song is a superb example of the post disco sound coming from a diverse level of musicianship from the sound of things.
Fat Larry’s Band are a name that goes back to the pre internet days of reading the few funk/soul review books (now torn to bits in my collection from many page turnings) in the late 90’s and early aughts. The Philly natives got lost in the transition of my own crate digging to such a degree, there are presently no LP’s or CD’s of theirs in my collection. Thanks to the presence of YouTube and social media in general,was able to listen to some of the music made by the late singer/drummer “Fat” Larry James,who was born today in 1949 and passed on 30 years ago this December 5th.
In their decade as a recording entity, Fat Larry’s Band recorded nine albums starting in 1976. Their first album to chart was 1982’s Breakin’ Out. As one of many late 70’s funk bands to survive the disco backlash and continue on innovating the boogie/post disco sound, Fat Larry’s Band not only had their only (mid way in the charts) R&B hit album in 82, but also one of their biggest charting hits. It was part of the soundtrack CD to the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The name of this particular song, and the one being discussed today, is “Act Like You Know”.
The song opens with Larry’s slow dragging,high key drum stomp with Larry La Bes’s shuffling,complex bass line providing the intro. The song then kicks into heavy gear with a a bouncing,high pitched bent synth squiggle and a liquid rhythm guitar-all along with the percussive kick on the drum’s rhythm. On the choruses, a melodic horn/string arrangement accent the choral vocals. On the bridge of the song, the drum/bass interaction of the intro is accompanied by a mildly Afro beat style horn chart. A talk sung outro to that goes into another refrain/chorus exchange that fades out the song.
“Act Like You Know” is one of those funk songs that has a very familiar opening. Certainly was to me-especially having never heard the song. As such, it has one of those hooks that a funk audience could respond very well and easily to. Its also very much out of the 70’s style of funk too. The boogie synth is a decorative element with the horns,drum and bass line remain the instrumental starts of the show. Larry’s smooth lead is also served well by the sweet harmonies that come along on the chorus. As a whole, the song showcased the live instrumental vitality of the post disco/boogie era.
Calvin Harris is yet another example of a European DJ/producer/multi instrumentalist in the 2010’s who have wound up keeping strong funkiness in their club oriented music. As a matter of fact, many of them (Harris included) have taken many contemporary singer/performer’s along for the ride with them. Hailing from Dumfries, Scotland, Harris is the son of a biochemist. Calvin himself had a very working class trajectory after high school-working odd jobs to buy DJ gear to develop his craft further. By 2011, Harris was working with pop artists such as Rihanna. And had several major albums on his own too.
Last week Harris, whose generally EDM based releases have generally veered about as far as nu disco in the past, released his fifth studio album entitled Funk Wav Bounces Vol.1. It is his first to include no instrumental pieces. And is heavy on collaborations with contemporary singers and rappers. The album first came to my attention riding around town with my mom and hearing the song “Feels” from it on the local new music radio. Very much enjoyed it but upon listening closer, I found Big Sean’s language in it too profane. On the song I’m doing today “Heartstroke”,its a somewhat different story.
A cymbal and jazzy electric piano melody opens the album,with Pharrell Williams deepened voice being soon joined by light percussion and rhythm guitar. When Young Thug’s lead vocals coming,the songs post disco beat and grinding,popping bass line comes in to join it for the first verse of the song. Pharrell joins Young Thug in call and response harmony on the choruses. The song changes octave a bit when Ariana Grande comes in as vocal lead-again duetting with Pharrell. After a bridge with a more sustained synthesizer part, it all fades out on a psychedelic Latin funk wah wah/percussion tone.
What “Heartstroke” actually does musically is very interesting. It showcases the most condensed groove present in the (in its day) somewhat necessitated lower budget of early 80’s post disco/boogie music. Yet it also has some the jazzy electric piano and Brazilian style percussion flavors of late 70’s jazz funk. The type that found its way into Quincy Jones’s late 70’s/early 80’s productions as part of the “LA sound”. Young Thug’s language has its issues here for sure. But he presents it with a Jamaican dancehall style vocal that makes this a strong mixture of older and newer funky musical ideas.
Stanley Clarke was a musician whose solo albums of the 1970’s were always talked about. Yet there was one album that hardly ever did-only occasionally as a mentioned titled in some discographies of his music. It was his 1982 album Let Me Know You. First I found the album on vinyl,then picked it up on CD. Then realized why it might’ve been left out. This is basically a full on post disco/boogie album from Clarke-featuring the likes of Greg Phillinganes and Paulinho Da Costa among the musicians. Here’s an Amazon.com review I wrote just over a decade ago that goes more deeply into its musicality.
Right after the release of the first Clarke/Duke Project LP Stanley Clarke and George Duke both decided to take a musical break from each other and do a pair of solo albums without the participation of the other.Duke produced ‘Dream On’ while Clarke produced this album ‘Let Me Know You’,both in 1982.Both albums are very much funky pop/R&B vocal albums with some curious differences.’Let Me Know You’ is the slightly more jazz oriented of the two and as always,Clarke is not quite as experienced (or communicative) as Duke.
The songwriting is extremely strong and three “Straight From The Heart”,”I Just Want To Be Your Brother”,”The Force Of Love” and the pounding “New York City” find Clarke moving away from hardcore jazz-rock fusion and into the world of tighter,more carefully crafted and arranged R&B,funk and pop.The sexy title song is actually the only instrumental on the album and is the only representation of the ‘old’ Stanley Clarke.
My favorite cut is the Linn drum/Leslie Amp powered “Play The Bass” the more or less trails off before it get’s a chance to get going-it’s funny how many R&B and funk artists elect to showcase some of their most creative music as brief interludes (read:Earth Wind & Fire).Nevertheless ‘Let Me Know You’ is a wonderful pop/funk album and actually one of Clarke’s most consistently enjoyable of the early 80’s.
Trouble is it’s also his only record never to have been released on CD up until now.And while I am sure that many like myself who have enjoyed listening to the vinyl record of this album the new CD is a treat.But I really hope fans of Clarke or the Clarke/Duke Project will revisit this if they’ve never heard it-fans of both artist’s music from the 1980’s will feel right at home.
Let Me Know You comes from a time where Stanley Clarke was looking to condense his music to a degree. He actually managed to solo many times on these songs. That being said,, this album had him striving ever more to look towards gaining momentum as a composer as opposed to mainly an instrumental soloist. He even got a bit of a dance hit with the album with the song “Straight To The Top”. Once heard Clarke himself refer to his music at this time as “pretty commercial”. But its still by no means a Stanley Clarke album to avoid. Especially if you enjoy funk that where’s its jazziest flavors proudly.
The S.O.S Band (standing for “Sound Of Success”) was originally formed in 1977 in Atlanta,Georgia. They were originally named Santa Monica, but later changed their name. Clarence Avant was impressed enough with the bands demos to sign The S.O.S Band to his label Tabu in the late 70’s. Tabu would shortly become known for being among a series of independent black owned labels (such as Solar),inspired by Motown, which focused on R&B and funk acts. And S.O.S Band became a flagship act for Tabu with their self titled debut album in 1980 and its smash hit “Take Your Time (Do It Right)”.
After S.O.S’s second album Too,a creatively strong record focusing on message songs and even a jazzy instrumental,didn’t do well commercially the band turned to Rickey Sylvers to produce their third album. This album was called III. This album generally found The S.O.S Band moving towards a more synthesizer based sound-as opposed to focusing on the rhythm and horn sections. One song on the album is noted for being the first outside production for early Time members Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam,celebrating a birthday today. The name of this song was “High Hopes”.
A fairly slow drum beat and a 5 note slap bass line provide the intro to the song. As the intro progresses,a low 16 note rhythm guitar becomes part of the mix before a brief drum march inaugurates the main theme of the song. This represents both the chorus and refrain of this song. This adds two main synth parts to the song. One is a textural pad ,the other is a high pitched, more brittle new wave style arpeggiated line. Each respond to the other. After each section there’s a synth/drum breakdown. The bridge breaks into to intro with an added rhythm guitar before the chorus fades it out.
“High Hopes” brings together the sleek new boogie/post disco variant of S.O.S Band’s evolving funk sound and the more condensed approach of Minneapolis. The instrumental production of the song is stripped down. Yet the polish of an experienced live band defines the slinky groove Jam & Lewis wrote and produced for them. While this production would be part of a series of events that wound lead to Jam & Lewis being thrown out of The Time,it would begin their career as THE production team representing twin city funk for the rest of the 80’s.
Slave are a band that I’ve desired to talk about for some time now. They were among one of the great late 70’s/early 80’s Dayton Ohio bands along with Heatwave and Zapp. What made them unique in their time however is that they were likely the first Generation X funk band-all of its members still in high school when they formed in 1976. Their first album the following year got them an instant smash funk hit with the song “Slide”,now a mainstay of what many funkateers refer to as “Dayton funk” subgenre. By their 1979 album Just A Touch Of Love,singer/songwriter/drummer Steve Arrington joined the band.
Arrington was only a member of Slave for four years,before leaving to form a successful solo career of his own starting in 1983. But in the early 80’s,Arrington’s unique (and occasionally idiosyncratic) vocal approach allowed Slave to become one of the bands to lay the building blocks for what is now known as the post disco/boogie funk sound. Their first album of the 1980’s (and second album to feature Arrington) was called Stone Jam. Its one of the few Slave albums to remain consistently in print over the years. One of its most well known (and successful) jams is called “Watching You”
Arrington throws the strong dance beat along with Mark Hicks high,clean guitar tone that revs up into the main chorus of the song. This features Ray Turner’s high pitched synthesizer melody and and the late Mark “Mr. Mark” Adams delivers a great walking,slapping bass line holding the whole thing together. The falsetto choral vocals transition to Arrington’s narrative vocals on the refrains. The bridge of the song has Arrington’s drums showcasing M. Mark’s powerful bass line as a solo-with Turner’s synths on the accents. A new chorus with both vocal parts continues until the song fades.
My friend Henrique and I often have a lighthearted dialog about a “super hip young brother in the early 80’s” driving around in a sporty little car trying to impress the ladies around him. “Watching You” brings up this image strongly. Its got the thick,bass/guitar oriented groove that was Slave’s stock and trade. That combined with its playful lyrics of young black people giving each other the admiring,romantic eye made the song and the Stone Jam album Slave’s biggest commercial success since the bands debut four years earlier. And this helps to define “Watching You” a post disco funk masterpiece.