The golden age of soul music is rightfully considered to be the classic Motown/Atlantic/Stax period from the early-mid ‘60s to the mid ‘70s. Characterised by crack songwriting teams and tight-ass musicianship, these labels reeled off hit after hit and made legends of the likes of Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder et al. By the mid ‘70s though, when the social, political and musical landscapes were changing, the classic sound was starting to sound stale and oversaturated, as any man and his dog was invoking the essence of soul to ever decreasing results.
So what gave soul music the kick up the arse it sorely needed? Much as rock critics would like to have you think that ‘Anarchy In The UK’ was the record of 1977 that changed music forever, it was a record out of Munich with a sassy American vocalist that changed everything – after Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer released the seminal and sexy ‘I Feel Love’, they invented pop music’s future. Simultaneously in Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk were honing their modern electronic sound. And soul music took the Moroder/Kraftwerk template and ran with it.
Kraftwerk are arguably the biggest influence on early hip-hop/electro – just listen to ‘It’s More Fun To Compute’ from Kraftwerk’s 1981 album ‘Computer World’ and ‘Cosmic Cars’ from Cybotron’s 1983 album ‘Clear’ and the similarities are striking. It’s a dystopian, Ballardian, proto-techno record (unsurprisingly given that Juan Atkins became one of the originators of Detroit techno in the mid ‘80s). Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 track ‘Planet Rock’ was not only the first hip-hop track to take advantage of this modern technology, utilising drum machines, but it sampled two Kraftwerk tracks (‘Trans Europe Express’ provides the melody, whilst ‘Numbers’ provides the drum pattern) and was the first notable production by Arthur Baker.
Bands who’d previously worked in different genres were jumping on board. The Gap Band, known for ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ this side of the pond, the staple of any terrible disco, were a funk outfit who’d revitalised themselves with some shit-hot R&B singles; ‘Burn Rubber On Me’ but also ‘You Dropped A Bomb On Me’, which used some seriously heavy synths – even to this day, Charlie Wilson is treated like royalty by hip-hop’s A-list, guest starring on several Snoop Dogg records. London’s ‘Freeez’, a jazz-funk band whose 1981 hit ‘Summer Freeez’ is a pleasant but inconsequential piece of fluff that probably made Robert Elms cream himself the first time he heard it, hooked up with Baker and produced ‘I.O.U’ in 1983, a classic of the early electro-breakbeat scene. Baker went onto work with Hall and Oates on their ‘Big Bam Boom’ album in 1984 and New Order on ‘Confusion’ and ‘Thieves Like Us’ in 1983/1984 – this is one of those records that the band would’ve known him for. New York’s Mantronix fused hip-hop and electro and contributed to the rise of house music later in the decade. A New Order biography revealed that 1985’s ‘Bassline’ was one of the most played tracks at the Hacienda nightclub (still yet to reach the legendary status it holds now).
But not all soul music of the ‘80s was about breaking new boundaries. Sure, producers were using synthesisers and drum machines in the wake of discovering how cheap and accessible they were, but the motivation was to produce hit records, just as it always had been. The real big players in mid-80s soul music were the songwriting and producing team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. First known for their work on the SOS Band’s classic 1983 single ‘Just Be Good To Me’, notable for its use of the Roland TR-808 drum machine – you know, the 808 that was used by Kanyé West on his most recent album, from which he took the album’s name.
Their subsequent work with Cherrelle (‘I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On’, yes, the Robert Palmer version was a cover!), The Human League (‘Human’) and Alexander O’Neal (‘Criticize’) all followed their smooth, clinical dance-pop formula and brought them to the attention of Janet Jackson, for whom they produced the massively successful 1986 ‘Control’ album. Although it should be noted that it was perhaps a white Welsh Marxist who partially gave Jam and Lewis their sound. Scritti Politti’s 1985 album ‘Cupid and Psyche ‘85’ was almost a prototype of the Jam and Lewis formula; a real state of the art electro record – expensively produced using session musicians at the top of their game, but the crucial ingredient was Green Gartside himself with his helium-processed vocals and Derrida and Lacan inspired lyrics.
Many genres have a natural lifespan and by the late-80s, it’s evident that this form of electro-soul was on its last legs and was starting to mutate into different directions. The rise of hip-hop and house music as serious forces contributed to its decline, as it took aspects of electro-soul but absorbed them into their own more progressive ideas. Joe Smooth’s 1988 ‘Promised Land’ was the moment the Jam and Lewis template went ‘deep house’ and if you want a serious laugh, check out the cover by The Style Council on Youtube, as if you could ever think Paul Weller’s a bigger twat than he already is. Keith Sweat, a proto-R Kelly if you like, all sensual moaning and pleading, was perhaps its final exponent on tracks such as 1987’s ‘How Deep Is Your Love?’, with its vocodered backing vocals and syncopated percussion.
Nowadays, you’ll hear much of this in awful retro-nightclubs in Basildon or some similar provincial town. As soon as the DJ spins ‘Solid’ by Ashford and Simpson, dozens of middle-aged women will suddenly take it as their cue to behave in a quasi-embarrassing fashion unbefitting their mature years. Much of this music will have been derided during its time, but two decades of hindsight is a glorious thing. Much of the music of today; hip-hop, dance, R&B, pop – it wouldn’t be the same without this second golden age of soul music.
There's a Spotify playlist to go along with this that is going to soundtrack every pre-drinking session for me in the next few months.