Thursday, 24 February 2011

Golden Years

Some of the best music of the early '80's, and also some of the most forgotten, is the bright funky pop that came from a number of eccentric British soul bands. I suppose much of the reason it has fallen down the memory hole is that this stuff has never been genre-ised, which seems to be the ars memoria by which music critics fill their elephantine memories.

So I hereby invent the genre of "British Pop-Funk". I suppose the grand-daddies of this genre were the mighty Hot Chocolate, one of many 1970's hit machines whose reputation has gone from kitsch to genuine appreciation. Among their successors were Linx, whose big hit "Intuition" brightened up a miserable 1981. The personable frontman was David Grant, who is nowadays employed, along with his wife Carrie, as a hard-nosed bastard who tells people that they can't sing.



Imagination were fronted by the impish satyr Leee John, one of the early '80's great pop characters, and surely one of the inspirations for Red Dwarf's The Cat. Their hits, such as "Body Talk" and "Just An Illusion" were seductive epics that seemed to lie at the midpoint between the American soul greats and the weirdness of the New Romantics. It was this kind of crafted oddity that made these bands identifiably British, and not just carbon-copies of their American peers. Like Adam Ant and Kevin Rowland, Leee John would keep up the act in tabloid interviews, telling journalists that if he didn't make love five times a day he was in danger of exploding etc.



Loose Ends were genuinely highly rated at the time, and talked about in the kind of reverential tones that augured future greatness. They were one of the few British bands to make an impact on the U.S. R&B chart, and in 1985 it appeared that the world was their oyster. Alas it wasn't to be, and they appeared to vanish as quickly as they appeared. Doesn't mean we shouldn't recall them now though.



The only band who went on to build any kind of career out of this sound were the excellent (though terminally unfashionable) Level 42, who deserve their own post. This is a shame as the rest of the pop-funk bands of this era were chronically under-appreciated, not least in the UK itself, which always considered its own R&B music as ontologically inferior to that produced in the U.S., despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Ah, we can only look back on what might have been....

21 comments:

W. Kasper said...

They've been sampled a bit by some of hiphop's biggests stars. Soul-Jazz records did a slick compilation of this stuff a couple of years ago - did Simon Reynolds have something to do with it?

I have to agree 'Intuition' was a corker, but if you post anything advocating Level 42, I resign!

Phil Knight said...

I most certainly do advocate Level 42. Get over to Youtube, listen to "Sun Goes Down", and repent your ways.

If I'm feeling brave I might even advocate Shakatak too.

W. Kasper said...

This time you've gone too far, Knight - hand over your badge. You're off the case!

Phil Knight said...

Just give me 48 hours....

SIMON REYNOLDS said...

You forgot Junior Giscombe, "Mama Used To Say"

I don't know if this stuff was under-appreciated actually -- I think there was quite a lot of music paper and style magazine attention to Britfunk. Linx were on the cover of NME if i recall right and Junior Giscombe was lauded and hyped way beyond his actual talent. Paul Morley did a big NME piece on Level 42 quite early on, and described them as a "pop ECM" (see you are right about the elephantine memory thing!)

There was a camp-tinged affection for Imagination, and their tracks were undeniable on the production level. I bought their remix album, I think it might have been the first ever remix album actually. Actually they kind of spoiled the originals with production tricksiness.

Yeah in the music press and Face/iD etc, there was this kind of a punk-derived reflex for journos to be always looking to the homegrown Brit version of black American music.

Furry dice, Caister weekend Essex boy/girl loved jazz funk was another thing altogether -- I recall Danny Baker being a big supporter, Spandau Ballet used the Beggar & Co horn section on "Chant #1", etc etc
but in truth it was a bit of different universe to your music press world, and also Beggar & Co/Light of the World/Central Line weren't honesty much cop compared to the real Americna thing. Linx weren't that much better really , "intuition" aside.

Freez, though, "Southern Freez" -- sublime.

Phil Knight said...

Well, I think my point was not that this stuff was under-appreciated at the time, but that it has been forgotten here, now.

It's something that I'm quite interested in - that there were lots of subcultures in the early 80's that were self-organising and self-sustaining but tended to fly under the radar of the cultural observers.

Another one is the rockabilly scene, which revolved around the likes of The Stray Cats and the totally forgotten Matchbox, and then there's their distant cousins the Psychobillies, who followed The Meteors and King Kurt.

In hindsight, 80's culture was tremendously social in a way that it simply isn't now (I remember when every local pub had a darts and cribbage team for instance), and I think that that whole Caister weekend/Northern Soul scene, which these bands were tangentially connected to, was an aspect of that - another option, another means of escape or individuation, and as such should be remembered for that aspect if for nothing else.

W. Kasper said...

That's a good point. 90s 'clubland' ended up being a big enclosure in many ways. The subcultures of the 80s either ended up getting swallowed by post-rave 'superclubs', or legislated out of existence (by draconian drug laws, increased police influence, brewery monopolies, housing markets, racist licensing decisions etc). I expect recent cuts may indirectly kill the 'hardcore continuum' too (no youth clubs, community centres, radio, courses etc).

In the 00s it was a big 'in' policy that left an an enormous 'out'. Too many people found that their names weren't on the list.

PS. I don't consider 'hipster' a subculture either.

nick said...

I guess that Hi-Tension were one of the forerunners of this scene (and obviously they had Phil Fearon in their ranks who later had hits with Galaxy). Both their big hits ('British Hustle' and 'Hi Tension') are fantastic funky things, don't know about the rest of their stuff.

nick said...

Actually I just watched both those songs again on youtube and they're insanely great - thanks for jogging my memory.

Anonymous said...

I remember John Peel once played Level 42's 'Hot Water'. And their early 'Starchild' was a big NYC club tune. Interesting that jazz-funk has never been able to accrue cultural capital like Northern soul has - possibly because of its association with neo-liberal economics.

Phil Knight said...

I'm not sure if there's that much substance involved in associating Level 42 with neoliberalism though. They weren't overtly (or even covertly) pro-Thatcherism as far as I can tell.

I disliked them at the time because they were obviously associated with that whole travelling salesman/Ford Sierra mainstream commercialism, but since then I've known people who are into the most bizarre fringe-funk (stuff like Skull Snaps and Betty Davis) who nevertheless rate Level 42 extremely highly.

The lingering animosity towards them seems to be based on their context, but really I'm asking is that context accurate?

Anonymous said...

Well, my reference to neo-liberalism was only a joke - just a smartarse way of aligning them with a certain sensibility (self-made Essex man etc). But as you say, this is all inferred. Interesting though to note how this largely white combo did manage to break out of genre into the mainstream, unlike say Light of the World. Early Level 42 production duties were by Atmosfear's Andy Sojka, the man behind "Dancing in Outer Space" - which although a biggish hit, is pretty fringe-sounding. "43" is another great tune of theirs - a wine bar classic.

Phil Knight said...

Yes, their whiteness no doubt contributed to their success, but that's a pretty standard phenomenon, especially with regard to long-term success.

I remember watching one of those late-night line-up style TV debates in the late 80's where a couple of black music journalists (can't remember who now) were invited on to talk about how white artists were having bigger hits with certain songs than the original black artists. The sheer pissed-offness with the situation that these guys expressed was quite educational.

Carl Morris said...

Do my ears fool me or did the tune Just an Illusion invent the entire concept of George Michael?

Phil Knight said...

For me personally, it's not quite angsty enough for Georgios.

I'd expect a bit more of a piquish growl in the chorus, just to show that he's genuinely annoyed about the revelation of the illusion.

The Imagination boys seem to relish the fact of the illusion, which indicates their greater adherence to the concept of eroticism.

All imho, of course.

W. Kasper said...

The under-promotion of black British music, and its relationship to white 'soulful' artists in the 80s is a prime candidate for a blogpost, methinks.

Anonymous said...

Incognito's '81 debut album - simply called "Jazz Funk" - is a classic of that genre. Freeez's debut album is good too. I recently discovered an OGWT appearance by them on Youtube - I didn't know they'd appeared. However, although I was a fan, it all now seems to lack bite - which is something that S.B. added to Chant No 1. As for white artistes having hits with "black" songs - would a certain Mr Palmer be in the frame here, with his Toots, Cherelle and System covers?

Anonymous said...

He'd be in the frame as much as Mick Hucknall.

Phil Knight said...

Simply Red "Money's Too Tight", The Housemartins "Caravan Of Love" are ones I remember.

Also Phil Collins, although he seemed to give back as much as he took.

Anon - I've been following up the late 70's/early 80's jazz-funk you've been name-checking, and my impression has been one of technical excellence (esp. Atmosfear "Dancing In Outer Space") but a bit inward looking. I might be writing something about this scene in depth, so if you want to get involved, click my name and send me an e-mail.

Anonymous said...

'So I hereby invent the genre of "British Pop-Funk"' - didn't the NME call it BritFunk?

Phil Knight said...

Possibly. I would have been reading 2000AD at the time.