Motion Slickness – how UK soul kept on moving in the 80s and early 90s
Andy Stevens dons his well-worn soul boy strides to unzip a cornucopia of UK soul highlights from the ’80s and the onset of the ’90s, spanning the broad timeline as house and the rave scene emerged as the pre-eminent club culture.
My bad declared here upfront and in advance. Briefly, I’m afraid, we’ve got to talk business.
Any business – and for that also read ‘artist’ – with the desire to bust loose, fly and thrive, distinguish themselves from the pack – yes, disrupt – and all that malarkey in our strained and draining modern times needs to understand the value of ‘brand’.
Yes, brand. Our fine, fairweather imaginary friend. Soz, but there’s no escaping it, lovelies.
Whether innate, hated, loved, reviled or accepted with a zen-ish calm, good band brand is what helps bring the eyeballs, the earworms, and the chatter to the platters that matter.
Along with that the adoration and adulation, plus the feelgood heft of units cut then shifted with bespoke quality, breadth and width.
And, ultimately, the comfort which can only be conferred by a huge memory foam bag full of swag. And artistic integrity. Yes: don’t forget artistic integrity.
Enough of that. Time to fight the PowerPoint.
Soul II Soul knew. Those always-revered UK soul titans of the era knew all about the inestimable, life-enhancing powers of creating a multi-faceted brand (no, we’re not going to write ‘lifestyle’ however much you pay us) married to their musical mission, at a time when behavioural targeting still meant a bouncer dragging a pie-eyed pain in the arse off the dance floor at Ritzy’s.
Rising through their reputation via on the ground taste-makers from their London sound system and parties (Trevor Nelson used to DJ with them, no less) to global acclaim, Soul II Soul chap-in-chief Jazzie B was wised up from the off to the value of not just hot wax but cool clobber (or must-have merch, to you and me now) which punters who dig your sounds could also purchase.
And this in parallel to the Soul II Soul collective’s lushly-produced, richly built and layered tunesmithery. Tracks primed to an inch of their lives with a bold and bracing amalgam of genre-spanning influences and creativity – and which beyond debate saw them claim 1989 especially as their own.
The timeless, place-in-time-evoking Keep On Movin’ with the great Caron Wheeler on vocals was the record of that transitional year – by any scale and by any measure you may care to throw at it.
But already we sense a rumbling of a 1989 Stewards’ Enquiry (hot topic: which hit track is better – Keep On Movin’ or Back To Life?).
The Soul II Soul wagons are encircling the sass and sexiness which encapsulate the keys and strings-speckled groove of their majestic mega-hit Back To Life (However Do You Want Me). So let’s mark it down as a dead heat to keep the peace, shall we?
While we’re splashing about in the warm waves on Soul II Soul’s shores of sassiness, Fairplay featuring the ballsy vocal line of Rose Windross takes its own super strut into the influential UK soul echelon,fearsome clav-and-bass master-blaster that it is.
Soul II Soul – A Dream’s A Dream (1990)
From master-blaster to masterclass as you stride on now, head held high into the dawn of the new ’90s decade, with the stand-out release from Soul II Soul’s second album.
Like a Mexico ’70 Brazil, A Dream’s A Dream is stylistically singularly exciting, distinctively Soul II Soul yet fresh, and a sight of seamless wonder to watch this soul team working in glorious sync right at the top of their game.
To reach and then breach UK soul’s Thames Barrier, as Soul II Soul did in full sail and with full breakthrough, crossover honours, the British soul scene of the ’80s and early ’90s was also awash with many pristine pilot vessels – both bands and soulful vocalists – steering their own stylish course through the breakers.
With Jazzie B’s Soul II Soul A Crew firmly at the helm, here we chart along a divergent and diverting channel, popping out on deck to take in big hearty lungfuls of pivotal, soulful UK highlights of the age, in this unapologetically unscientific high-quality selection:
Loose Ends – Hangin’ On A String (1985)
Flick the ever-yielding book of all things UK soul from the ’80s/’90s era back a swift couple of chapters from Soul II Soul’s breakthrough bounce, and you’ll find yourself poring over some very appealing Loose Ends you’ll be eager to resolve.
London trio Loose Ends – originally Carl McIntosh, Jane Eugene and Steve Nichol, for it is they – can rightly claim a prized place on the UK soul honours board.
And while we’re banging on about gongs, no more so than for Loose Ends’ sit-up-and-listen pre-emptive success across the pond, where their clatteringly infectious Hangin’ On A String saw them bag a US Billboard R&B chart top slot in 1985.
Loose Ends were in fact the first Brit act to scale such heights, a few years before Soul II Soul’s Back To Life similarly grabbed Grammys and a platinum-selling US top ten placing.
Here are both Frankie Knuckles’ remix and the original version of Hangin’ On A String for your audio edification.
Loose Ends – Emergency (Dial 999) (1983)
So much for stat-happy trans-Atlantic chart plaudits. Spool back to ’83 and Emergency (Dial 999) re-materialises as a terrific tranche of soulful dance pop, with polished production values and a driving bassline that’s positively Brit-Funk to its very bones.
It’s a track which still merits greater exposure, as it did at the time.
Loose Ends’ golden pop chart sensibilities with a soulful lick found further expression on Magic Touch, which slunk into the UK Top 20 and made chrome and neon memories on the nationwide nightclub dance floors of 1985.
Loose Ends were dab hands at honing within their records a joyous brand of urban sophistication which sat pleasingly in the emerging UK soul-pop confection.
And while Watching You (Watching Me) arguably pitches up too stridently on Janet Jackson’s manicured lawn, 1990’s Don’t Be A Fool remains a landmark return to leading UK soul first team form.
Its insatiable juddering groove is suffused with a dance sensibility that is distinctly, unmistakably Big City Blighty.
Smith & Mighty – Walk On By (1987)
Also big city sound-wise with melange of a musical magnetism to this day like no other came Bristol: home of hazy trip-hop hyper-realism, art through chaos worth lots of money, cultural sound collisions, out on any limb of its own choosing and ready to put the west to the test.
That’s Brizzle. And, of course, with its unique historical ley line carved gorge-like across the Avon from a UK soul stance.
A crucible of innovation to its core, Bristol summoned up Smith & Mighty from its raging ravine, whose 1987 voyage around genuine god-like geniuses Bacharach & David’s Walk On By masterpiece could easily have come apart in less artistically adept hands.
It didn’t – and it doesn’t. And as Bristol is as Bristol does, Smith & Mighty’s version featuring Jackie Jackson walked right up instead of walking on by, thereby turning the unfurling UK soul scene on the sixpence of legend.
Massive Attack – Unfinished Sympathy (1991)
As did of course – while we’re standing here waiting with a coffee in hand at Temple Meads – this particular Massive Attack Bristolian landmark, which with Shara Nelson’s spectacular deep soul vocal is never destined to end up face down in the drink.
Quick historical point of order here, which merits clearing up…
Unfinished Sympathy has been placed forever in that priceless glass case marked ‘Classic Status – Do Not Touch’ down the years; a peculiarly British way of Faberge Egg-ing our most gilded, grade 1-listed musical assets. We’re funny like that.
Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, Loaded by Primal Scream, and New Order’s Blue Monday are tracks similarly lionised, having tapped the same bulging cultural vein.
At the time, this wasn’t exactly the case, Massive Attack-wise. Put it down to the shock of the new if you wish. Its grandeur took a while to dissect and emerge. We plebs just knew instinctively from the off that it was a very, very good record.
Total Contrast – Takes A Little Time (1985)
Now by way of total contrast… See what we did there? I’ll go and get my accessorised short-sleeved turquoise blouson jacket…
Total Contrast’s Takes A Little Time is one of those singles which remains fondly recalled with a smile when heard, yet spectacularly underplayed in current times (but not all the while I have what passes for breath in my body).
A couple of English dudes spot-welded to the sparking lathe of early ’80s electro, Total Contrast fashioned a humungous US dance hit with this, their joyous, bouncy soulful baby.
Takes A Little Time smacks beautifully, painfully, of Friday and Saturday nights hitting the town dripping with product of both hair and face as standard, doing the rounds when we were still allowed out – because that’s what young people do. And when ‘app’ was just the middle three letters in ‘happy’.
Overlooked and forgotten UK soul gems from 1985 – similarly slathered in enough fathoms of Kouros and Obsession in proximity to active packets of Silk Cut to make a fire safety officer emit kittens – include the underrated 52nd Street’s Tell Me How It Feels, Roses by the fragrant Haywoode (a Giorgio Beverly Hills user, possibly?), and Say I’m Your Number One, courtesy of Princess.
Princess’ hit single is a particularly storming affair of the UK soul persuasion which chipped away at the British top 10 in 1985, while making similar waves in the US and mainland Europe.
The video lays on thick the whole London thing to allay any lingering touristic confusion,with red buses, Tower Bridge and probably a Pearly King or two in the out-takes.
Produced by the much-maligned Stock Aitken Waterman hit factory, it’s the best record they ever released. Apart from Roadblock – which is also good. And there’s a place in Eastbourne…
Unfairly encumbered by associations with the battleship-sized Motorolas and Moet glugging of ’80s yuppie excess is the smooth and operational output of Sade.
The slick, style-leading soulfulness of Sade and her eponymous band on 1984’s monumentally popular and successful Diamond Life album deserve a favourable hearing. More than as a mere musical time-stamp for grainy documentary footage of youthful City wannabe kings of the world, syncing two landlines between Hong Kong and New York while bagging a large before breakfast on the LIFFE floor.
Your Love Is King and Smooth Operator (both 1984) can – if you wish – be compartmentalised as cracking nascent soul-jazzchart upstarts alongside the early bossa-jazz Eden-wares of Everything But The Girl. But for our hard-earned day’s trading, Hang On To Your Love (1984) by Sade is the best of her designer-clad bankers.
Before the next incoming ’90s market crash came the smooth-as-Shippam’s lugubrious mid-pace love paste in the smoochy style of Omar’s There’s Nothing Like This (1990 and 1991), a hit for Gilles Peterson’s inspiring and eclectic Talkin’ Loud records imprint.
Omar commuted up from Canterbury on the rattler to cement fleeting chart stardom, but with it long-tail, latter-day credibility. And there is forever a furloughed All Bar One somewhere in the space-time continuum, serving ‘champagne wah-ah-hine’ and playing his biggie on a loop before the baked camembert arrives.
Same goes for Mica Paris’ superlative, uplifting, proper love song that was and is My One Temptation (1988), Feel So High (1992) by Des’ree and Shola Ama’s deliciously faithful cover of the Randy Crawford classic You Might Need Somebody (1996), in that big gaff on the high street we’re pretty sure used to be a Slug & Lettuce.
Gilles Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud also surprised and delighted when hip-hop heroes Urban Species took off on a soulful tip on the sublime Spiritual Love (1994).
Meanwhile the same label had memorably graced us with the majestic Road To Freedom (1991) album by UK/US amalgam Young Disciples three years earlier, and the matchless soul pedigree vocals of Carleen Anderson.
And further UK scene stand-outs emanating from that very same early ’90s acid jazz soul sensibility notably included the powerhouse that is Good Lover (1992) by the influential D Influence, Heaven (1990) by The Chimes (a real cut above their hit cover of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For which had to field all the fuss) and drivetime corkers such as Back To Love by the indefatigable, ever-lasting, funky smarty-pants which remain the Brand New Heavies.
And so, for now, to two earlier ’80s UK soul pearlers from the perhaps surprise hotbeds of Newcastle and Leeds (via Cardiff). Two singles which quite possibly transgressed some unseen indie code, to their silo-smashing credit.
Tempting but swerving in each case the meaningless admonishment of blue-eyed soul,came the Geordie nation’s Kane Gang with 1984’s pristine Closest Thing To Heaven.
You know it. You know it well. It’s a plaintive, heart-soaringly soulful love song released on Tyneside’s very own Kitchenware Records,while the UK’s striking miners were starting to have havoc wrought upon them in England’s north east heartlands and beyond – and it was happily a big hit to boot.
Two years earlier, stacked high with Rough Trade Records credibility but sadly not troubling the UK charts in any major way (and no worse for that) was Faithless (1982) by Green Gartside’s pigeonhole-swerving Scritti Politti.
Faithless is a magnificent single, supremely confident in its own instant epic status; a slow, measured, gospel-tinged burn replete with vocoder underlay and Great Gig In The Sky style backing vocal gymnastics.
Why, even the late, lugubrious John Peel thought it really was something else on his late night show, I recall from the mists of time.
Keeping the faith for the Faithless, it’s a green light for Green.