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80s Soul: The redemption – Vol.1

October 8th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments
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After the glorious era of the ’60s and ’70s, soul music found itself in a bit of a rut in the ’80s, and has never recovered from it. Where in the golden age the public standard bearers of soul were the likes of Aretha Franklin and Al Green, in the ’80s it was Whitney Houston and Lionel Richie. I am referring to popular perception, of course. Still, the soul giant of the 1980s was Luther Vandross; rather a step down from Al, Ike, Marvin or Curtis (soul singers are always referred to by their first names). Much of ’80s soul was too smooth to be sexual, even as the lyrics promised total sexual gratification, or your money back. The more the singers sang about makin’ lurve to you awawawawall nighyeet, the more sexless the genre became. Things were called soul that weren’t much soulful. Like Whitney Houston, like Lionel Richie (though both made some excellent soul records).

It is not surprising that ’80s soul has acquired such a bad reputation. And it is unfortunate that the excesses in jheri-curled smoothery have tarnished much great work. This series, then, is intended to present some of the great soul songs from the ’80s, from the decade’s premium moist-maker to its best soul grooves. By force, there will be obvious choices. But I hope there will be some more obscure numbers and rare tracks which may become welcome (re-)discoveries, and that at least in some measure those who disown the genre might find that it can be at least partly rehabilitated.

Alexander O’Neal – If You Were Here Tonight.mp3
If any soul classic has suffered most unjustly from the prejudices against ’80s soul, then 1985’s If You Were Here Tonight may well be it. I have made the case for Alex before. Yes, he could be smooth; yes, he had an ’80s soul singer’s moustache. But, boy, the man could project with restraint. Hear this song and imagine how many other soulmeisters might have gone into wailing histrionic mode (suppose Patti LaBelle, the Queen of Scream, singing this!). The song was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – like O’Neal freshly disaffected from Prince side-kicks The Time – who did much to shape soul music in the ’80s, sometimes for the better (with O’Neal, the S.O.S. Band, some Atlantic Starr), sometimes not. Their association with Janet Jackson, for example, helped facilitate the migration of soul to mainstream pop – a movement they seemed to embrace when they produced the Human League’s 1986 single Human and the slimy treacle that was Atlantic Starr’s Always – which would give rise to the 1990s behemoth likes of Mariah Carey.

S.O.S. Band – Weekend Girl.mp3
For their culpability in the corporatisation of soul, Jam & Lewis cannot be seen as altogether a force for good (just as one cannot regard, say, Berry Gordy in an entirely benevolent light). And some of their production values now sound terribly dated. Yet their music does not, however, merit reflexive censure. Weekend Girl is perhaps the best example of all these three currents meeting: it is impossibly smooth, it features a terribly dated spoken bit, and it is endearingly catchy. To paraphrase the title of the album it appeared on, it gives it to you just the way you like it.

Isley Brothers – Between The Sheets.mp3
When in my introduction I referred to moist-makers, Between the Sheets sprang to mind. The subject matter – ooh, I’m gonna make good lovin’ to you all night baby coz I been trainin’ all week for makin’ you feel like my laydee. With 12kg weights! – is cliché, as is the LP cover with, of course, silk sheets (though, and call me girly if you like, I really like the colour of those sheets). But few songs capture the rapture of being in the moment of unitive sex as does this track; by the masters of sexy music, of course. Younger generations of R&B and Hop Hop fans will know the riff; it has been sampled prodigiously. If the whole Quiet Storm thing has a bad name, Between The Sheets is a powerful redeemer.


Maze featuring Frankie Beverly – Back In Stride (live).mp3

In 1985, Maze announced five gigs at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. By the time I got there, a queue was snaking right around the old cinema complex. I had to get to work and jumped back on the Picadilly Line. It is one of my great regrets that I never got to see Maze live, except on DVD. Maze’s studio LPs were okay, but their live albums is where it’s at, when the band jams a tight funk and frontman Frankie Beverley’s towering charisma rises from the grooves. I might have chosen a dozen equally worthy songs from the two fantastic live albums, Live in New Orleans (1981) and Live In Los Angeles (1986), but decided to go with the almost totemic Back In Stride, a song packed with an abundance of energy which finds Beverly in commanding form. Beverly was a Marvin Gaye protegé – Maze’s 1989 homage to the man, Silky Soul, is quite excellent – and, I submit, was so good a pupil that he eclipsed the master as a vocalist. Yes, I’ve said it, Frankie Beverley is a better soul singer than Marvin Gaye.

Rufus & Chaka Khan – Stay.mp3
My pal Mr Agreeable probably won’t agree with my choice of a Chaka Khan song; I suspect he’d advocate the inclusion of Any Old Sunday. Others might make the case for Ain’t Nobody. Both would make a very strong case. But this is my favourite Chaka Khan track, from 1983’s Stompin’ At The Savoy live album. Unlike Maze, I did see Chaka Khan live at the Hammersmith Odeon, in January 1985. It was a bit of a let-down on two fronts. I had bought two tickets for me and a date in December. Then my mother died, necessitating a very sudden trip to South Africa. I returned to London just in time for the gig, but couldn’t contact my date who in turn thought I wouldn’t pitch and sold her ticket outside the Odeon. So instead of falling in love with a lovely dark-haired Irish girl at a Cha

ka Khan concert, some oversized fucker sat next to me. I didn’t fall in love with him. The second disappointment was that Chaka was suffering from some ailment which turned her powerful voice into a croak. Like the trooper she is, Chaka performed anyway and put on a fine show (she cancelled the second Odeon date though). But it wasn not the real thing, more like watching a thunder-thighed Tina Turner impersonator pretending to be Chaka Khan. On Stompin’ At The Savoy, recorded as Rufus’ swansong, Chaka was not invariably in fine vocal form either, but she nails Stay beautifully, with band and vocals creating a dramatic interplay as the song reaches its climax.

Keni Stevens – 24-7-365.mp3
I can almost guarantee that this song cannot be found on any other music blog, and perhaps not even on P2P networks. As far as I can ascertain, it was never issued on CD. This file is a vinyl rip from the British singer’s 1987 You album, his second, which did not do brisk business. It is a pity that it didn’t: it’s a superb laid-back soul album by a self-assured independent singer who turned down a massive recording deal because he didn’t want to produce the commercial, upbeat sounds of the likes of his compatriots Loose Ends. Steven’s debut album, Night Moods, which is by no means better, achieved respectable sales, but as a gimmick-free soul singer on an independent label, Stevens did not get much exposure. After three albums, the last released in 1989, this talented artist vanished from the scene. Ignore the rather hackneyed lyrics (“24-7-365 gets you on the loveline”!) and check out the groove of an artist who deserved much more than he got.

Paul Johnson – When Love Comes Calling.mp3
Another UK soul singer who didn’t get his dues. I’ve posted this file before (and it is this blog’s most downloaded file, probably because some bastard leeched it), but it must be included in this series as one of my favourite ’80s soul tracks. When Love Comes Calling, released in early 1987, is a joyous tune and Johnson’s falsetto – which bears comparison with the maestro, Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire – soars with happiness as he elucidates on the enchantments of being in love. The long falsetto note when he sings “I’m masquerading” before launching into the chorus is particularly impressive. I will never comprehend how this song failed to become a massive hit at a time when all kinds of inferior “soul” numbers (such as Always, for crying out loud) sold well.

Bill Withers – Oh Yeah.mp3
And talking of songs that capture the ecstasy of being in love, the great Bill Withers got his sunshine back on 1985’s Oh Yeah (actually, he must’ve already done so in 1977 with Lovely Day). The bouncy tune and relaxed vocals confirm that for Bill being in love is indeed “a pure delight”, especially as he finds different ways of singing the titular words. But one might wonder about the depth of Bill’s love when he sings: “And I think you’re very nice”. Easy on the hyperbole, tiger! Soon after the release of this, Withers retired from the music industry to become a family man (I suppose Mrs Withers must be very nice), resurfacing only briefly in 1988 when the great Ben Leibrand remix of Lovely Day charted in the UK (MP3 of that here).

More any major soul
60s Soul
70s Soul

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  1. Anonymous
    October 8th, 2008 at 20:16 | #1

    I have to agree with your Paul Johnson comments… brilliant. I must dust off my vinylGordy

  2. Cap
    October 9th, 2008 at 00:30 | #2

    Hey, you might be interested to know that one of the singers from the SOS Band has a regular gig at a piano bar in Nagoya, Japan.

  3. Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas
    October 9th, 2008 at 02:38 | #3

    Your Chaka Khan tale certainly ran the gamut of emotions.

  4. My hmphs
    October 10th, 2008 at 15:06 | #4

    Why haven’t I heard any of these songs? I am way too white for my own good.

  5. Simon
    October 22nd, 2008 at 08:27 | #5

    There were some good soul tunes in the 80s, but there was some crap too. Listening back to a lot of it the funk has gone out of the music as producers stopped playing and started programming.The other thing that I can hear in a lot of 80s soul is that jazz funk thing going on, which frankly I’m not too keen on as an adult. Liked it as a boy. Where I grew up there weren’t many nights out, despite it being central London. One of the pubs near me had a soul/groove night on a Saturday. It was the only place that had a mixed race crowd, so me and my friends who were a mix of white and black went regularly. I can’t listen to 80s soul without seeing shiny shoes and Farah trousers. And stripey shirts. The whole place was filled with that.The place was firebombed a couple of years later. Nobody was saying if it was racist arseholes or an insurance job…

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