Working Week: Does Jazz Go Into Pop?

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

Simon Booth, Juliet Roberts and Larry Stabbins of Working Week

I’ve just had the pleasure of writing the liner notes to a really good new live album by Working Week, possibly the premier jazz/pop band of the 1980s.

It got me thinking about why jazz has totally disappeared from the charts and why the first half of the ’80s seemed the perfect time for jazz and pop to co-exist, especially in the UK.

Here an excerpt from the notes:

‘Does jazz go into pop? Judging by the current music scene, the answer would appear to be an unequivocal ‘no’, but, for a golden period in the early-to-mid ’80s, it seemed as if the two styles could happily co-exist.

Artists like David Sylvian, John Martyn, Hue and Cry, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Danny Wilson, Swing Out Sister, Joe Jackson and Everything But The Girl smuggled some cool chords into the charts introduced the pop audience to players of the calibre of Kenny Wheeler, Harry Beckett, Lester Bowie, Michael Brecker, Ronnie Scott, Eberhard Weber, Sonny Rollins, Guy Barker, Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis.

Sade, Carmel, The Style Council and Matt Bianco’s fusion of jazz and pop wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but all of them had big hits. The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’ was a jazz waltz (with a few bars of 4/4 thrown in) which got to number one!

The advertising and TV industries played ball and a full-scale jazz ‘revival’ was underway, documented in classic 1986 documentary ’10 Days That Shook Soho’. Courtney Pine and Miles Davis shared space on the UK album chart, Wynton Marsalis made the cover of Time and you could even catch Loose Tubes, Tommy Chase and Andy Sheppard on primetime terrestrial TV.

DJs Paul Murphy, Baz Fe Jazz, Patrick Forge and Gilles Peterson packed out Camden’s Dingwalls and the Electric Ballroom and young hepcats were dancing to Cannonball Adderley, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey and Lee Morgan.

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Dancers at Dingwalls, London, 1988

Though older British jazzers such as Stan Tracey, Keith Tippett and Mike Westbrook (and some younger ones too) naturally viewed this latest revival with some suspicion, at least it was a relief from the extremely precarious ’70s when rock, funk and fusion almost subsumed jazz.

The old guard hung on, gigging in the back rooms of pubs, picking up occasional free improve shows in Europe or moonlighting in West End pit orchestras. But then punk came along, and it affected more than just disenfranchised young rock fans – its DIY ethos breathed new life into jazz too. Bands like Rip Rig + Panic and Pigbag made huge strides in engaging a youthful, receptive audience. Pigbag even made it onto ‘Top Of The Pops’…twice!

But it was Working Week, co-founded in 1983 by saxophonist Larry Stabbins and guitarist Simon Booth, who really typified the successful fusion of jazz and pop in mid-‘80s. Formed in 1983 from the ashes of jazz/post-punk outfit Weekend (whose ‘The View From Her Room‘ was a confirmed early-’80s club classic), initially Working Week was almost the de facto house band for the emerging scene, with the infectiously exuberant IDJ dancers often joining them onstage.

Brit National Treasures™ Robert Wyatt and Tracey Thorn duetted on classic single ‘Venceremos – We Will Win’ which briefly made an appearance on the UK singles chart in late 1984. The accompanying album Working Nights, featuring other Brit jazz legends Guy Barker, Harry Beckett and Annie Whitehead and produced by Sade’s regular helmer Robin Millar, reached a sprightly number 23 in the UK album chart soon after…’

Read more in the Working Week live album.

Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85: 30 Years Old Today

Virgin Records, released 10th June 1985

Bought: Virgin Megastore Oxford Street, 13th July 1985 (on the morning of Live Aid)

10/10

We come to another of my absolute ’80s favourites. Cupid is also one of those rare ‘classic’ albums that, despite big sales and critical appreciation, at the time of writing is still inexplicably awaiting a re-release/remaster.

David Gamson, Green Gartside, Fred Maher

Fred Maher, Green Gartside, David Gamson

Listening again to Cupid 30 years after its release, I wonder if it sounds very dated to modern ears.

Whilst it unabashedly utilised all manner of mid-’80s technology (Fairlight, drum machines, sequencers), I don’t really ‘hear’ those elements any more.

All I hear is top-notch songwriting, intriguing and intelligent lyrics, great grooves and Green’s unique vocals.

Cupid hit me at exactly the right age; it was the soundtrack to endless summer evenings, teenage crushes, adolescent musings.

Though Scritti leader/vocalist/co-songwriter Green Gartside left behind his post-punk roots and the ‘indie’ sound of his Rough Trade debut album Songs To Remember to create this major-label debut, Cupid certainly had antecedents: Green and keyboardist/co-composer David Gamson revered the highly-syncopated R’n’B/electro of The System, Chaka Khan, ZAPP and Michael Jackson, but they added some classic pop songcraft and intricate harmony.

Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis gave Green his blessing and, coupled with manager Bob Last (who also managed Human League and ABC), Green pitched the Americans his fusion of pop and funk.

As he told WORD magazine in 2006, ‘The American labels were all tickled pink by these big NME interviews we did and that loosened their wallets. Bob and I were terribly persuasive as to why they should part with vast sums so we could make a record.’

Legendary Aretha/Chaka producer Arif Mardin came on board as did a raft of quality players such as Marcus Miller, Steve Ferrone, David (The System) Frank, Robbie Buchanan, Robert Quine and Paul Jackson Jr.

But Green apparently turned out to be more of a perfectionist than any of them: ‘It took us a great deal of time to get our bits right and my anxiety about singing was pretty acute. I would demand to sing things over and over again and I’m not sure I ever got it better than the first time.’

Cupid featured three classic singles – ‘The Word Girl’, ‘Absolute’ and ‘Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)’, though eventually a total of five tracks were released as A-sides.

The John Potoker remix of ‘Perfect Way’ (far superior to the album version) even became a massive hit in the States, reaching 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and pushing worldwide sales of the album over the million mark.

While ‘Don’t Work That Hard’ and ‘Lover To Fall’ might be deemed ‘filler’, they easily transcend that label by dint of their sprightly grooves and sheer catchiness.

The beautiful ‘A Little Knowledge’ showed that Green and Gamson were on the same page as Prefab’s Paddy McAloon when it came to sumptuous, intelligent romantic ballads in the mid-’80s, and the track is a great companion piece to ‘When Love Breaks Down’.

Post-Cupid, Green and Gamson booked and then cancelled a world tour (they were apparently visited in the studio by MTV executives who told them, ‘Just think, you’ll never have to tour again!’), wrote songs for Al Jarreau and Chaka Khan, made friends with Miles (who covered ‘Perfect Way’ on Tutu), hung out with George Michael at various London nightspots, embarked on a year of press in America to cash in on the success of ‘Perfect Way’ and then reluctantly hit the studios of New York and London to record the follow-up Provision.

george michael green gartside

George and Green, London, 1986

A cursory listen to a radio station like Absolute 80s reveals the wide-reaching influence of Cupid on countless late-’80s bands: a-ha, Go West, Climie Fisher, Living In A Box, Pet Shop Boys, Bros and Aztec Camera all tried for those clinical, Swiss-watch-precision arrangements and uplifting pure pop sound, but generally lacked Gamson’s ingenious chord changes and Green’s gift for melody.

Happy birthday to a bona fide ’80s classic.

Simple Minds: Empires And Dance

Simple mindsArista Records, released 12th September 1980

8/10

Before their mid-‘80s commercial peak, Simple Minds were an art-rock band par excellence.

They fitted perfectly into the post-punk landscape and on Empires And Dance, their third album, they certainly wore their influences boldly on their sleeve – Kraftwerk, Can, Roxy, Joy Division, Eno, Magazine, Velvet Underground, ‘Lodger’-era Bowie – but combined them exceptionally well.

Musically very strong, with Derek Forbes’ memorable basslines very much to the fore, this uncompromising album combines motorik beats with doomy vocals, Eno-style ambience, jagged post-punk guitar and deliciously sludgy synths.

Jim Kerr’s travelogue lyrics compliment the music perfectly, snapshots of bleak European passport controls, attempted assassinations and wintery landscapes. Producer John Leckie brings his usual spirit of experimentation and lays on the brittle, creeping sense of paranoia.

Simple_Minds

While the one-chord grooves tire a bit on ‘Today I Died Again’, ‘Celebrate’ and ‘Capital City’, the Euro-funk of ‘I Travel’ and ‘This Fear of Gods’ chills the blood. ‘Twist/Run/Repulsion’ is almost an early example of sampling with its random speech, out-of-phase horn blasts and queasy, looped drums. Kerr channels Bowie’s ‘African Night Flight’ with his high-speed rap (though on the demo he took a different approach).

‘Thirty Frames a Second’ and ‘Constantinople Line’ almost approach the work of Throbbing Gristle and Gary Numan with their garish synth tones and forbidding atmospheres. ‘Kant Kino’, named after a Berlin art-house cinema, pits a slight but very catchy Charlie Burchill guitar melody against amplifier hiss, tape echo and synth drone; Eno would surely approve and the track was possibly an influence on U2’s ‘4th Of July’.

The closer ‘Room’ could almost have come from the first Velvet Underground album (though they could have done with playing to a click track; the song almost doubles in speed by the end…).

230212simple_minds

Empires And Dance peaked at 41 in the UK album charts. It might have gone higher had Arista Records pressed more than just 7,500 copies at a time. The band couldn’t get off that label fast enough (like Iggy Pop).

But Peter Gabriel became a major fan and took them on tour with him throughout October and November 1980, allegedly paying most of their expenses.

Empires And Dance is very interesting album indeed and a great companion piece to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, Peter Gabriel III and Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.