1980s Soul: 14 Lost Classics

It’s highly unlikely that any critics’ poll of the greatest soul albums from the last 70 years would include anything from the 1980s, save possibly for a Diana, Anita Baker, Terence TD or Bobby Womack outlier.

There was the odd huge-selling ‘crossover’ album (Can’t Slow Down, Thriller, Whitney Houston) but arguably the decade didn’t produce a What’s Going On or Songs In The Key Of Life.

Classic soul fans generally became used to poor-to-middling album packages, with the requisite two or three-star reviews and complaints about too many producers and underwhelming material. The greats of the ’60s and ’70s also sometimes struggled to move with the times, getting hamstrung by technology and/or unsuitable collaborators.

But my goodness there were some superb tracks, particularly between 1980 and 1985, an interesting period when Classic Soul drew from Yacht Rock and Jazz/Funk. However, these songs tended to get quickly forgotten and/or ignored. In the late-’80s, ’90s and noughties, enterprising indie labels put together fondly-remembered compilations (Mastercuts, StreetSounds) that brought these tracks back for a small but very enthusiastic audience.

But the beauty of streaming services is that we can compile these beauties to create one sh*t-hot album, so I have, here. This has been my go-to playlist during lockdown. Forget the talent-show wannabees – these vocalists have serious pipes, and the songwriting and arrangements are top-class too. Here’s a small selection of lost classic soul tracks from the 1980s:

14. Johnny Gill: ‘Half Crazy’ (1985)
Co-written by legendary Philly wordsmith Linda Creed (‘Betcha By Golly Wow’, ‘People Make The World Go Round’), this was the lead-off track and first single from Gill’s second album and still sounds like a bona fide soul standard today. It was a long way from New Edition for Johnny, though he was just 18 years old when he recorded it. Scary…

13. Teena Marie: ‘My Dear Mr Gaye’ (1984)
Moving tribute to Marvin from the less-than-excellent album Starchild, featuring a string arrangement by Motown mainman Paul Riser and a groovy change of pace in the middle of the tune.

12. Carl Anderson: ‘Buttercup’ (1985)
Stevie Wonder-penned minor classic from a little-known vocalist who recorded many solo albums before his death in 2004, but was probably best known for his portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the Broadway and film versions of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.

11. Gladys Knight & The Pips: ‘Bourgie Bourgie’ (1980)
Just check out co-writer (with Nick Ashford) Valerie Simpson’s gospel-tinged piano playing on this – absolutely fabulous. And Gladys’s super-funky vocals are perfect. It’s adapted from a 1977 Ashford & Simpson instrumental.

10. Odyssey: ‘If You’re Lookin’ For A Way Out’ (1980)
Heartbreaking ballad written by Ralph Kotkov and superbly sung by Lillian Lopez. Made #6 in the UK singles chart.

9. Millie Jackson: ‘This Is It’ (1980)
Now THIS is how you kick off a soul album. A hilarious eight-minute tour-de-force that aims to get men squirming in their seats. Remarkably, it’s also officially a Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald composition.

8. Chris Jasper: ‘Superbad’ (1987)
Great song from long-time keyboard player of The Isley Brothers. A socially-conscious lyric looking at the value of inner-city education and the kind of tune Stevie should have been producing in the mid-’80s.

7. Diana Ross: ‘Cross My Heart’ (1987)
Superb, catchy song, written by frequent Leonard Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson, and Diana’s vocals are just gorgeous. From the otherwise fairly uninspired Red Hot Rhythm And Blues album.

6. Leon Ware: ‘Why I Came To California’ (1982)
Cool mixture of soul, jazz/funk and yacht rock, an ode to the West Coast with a top-drawer rhythm section of Chuck Rainey (bass) and James Gadson (drums) and vocals from Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel. But who plays the great sax solo? Seems impossible to find out…

5. SOS Band: ‘Weekend Girl’ (1984)
More evidence that producing/songwriting team Jam & Lewis were going to be arguably THE musical force of the decade, a gorgeous, upwardly-mobile, mature ballad that has the same kind of grandeur as one of Chic’s slow-burners.

4. Patti Labelle: ‘If Only You Knew’ (1983)
Just…wow. Killer ballad co-written by Kenny Gamble and Dexter Wansel which reached #1 on the Billboard R’n’B chart. Super arrangement too, emphasised by the unexpected key change going into the first verse.

3. Bobby Womack: ‘Games’ (1983)
‘You see, I like all kinds of music – no favourites!’, Bobby proclaims at the beginning of this superb track, then demonstrates it with a lovely little nod to Wes Montgomery’s guitar style.

2. Phyllis Hyman: ‘Why Did You Turn Me On’ (1983)
A hint of Rod Temperton about this catchy Narada Michael Walden-penned mid-tempo smoocher, showcasing Hyman’s giant voice to great effect. Sadly the Philly soul legend took her own life in 1995.

1. Terence Trent D’Arby: ‘As Yet Untitled’ (1987)
Ambitious accappella piece from Terence’s classic debut album, with a vocal nod to Sam Cooke but also featuring some stirring sounds purely of his own creation.

 

Bigmouth Strikes Twice: More Great 1980s Music Quotes

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Art Blakey

Here’s another selection of choice quotes taken from various 1980s magazines, TV shows, biographies and anthologies that have drifted through my transom in the last few months.

Check out the first instalment here if you missed it.

‘Morrissey’s a precious, miserable bastard. He sings the same song every time he opens his mouth. At least I’ve got two songs: Love Cats and Faith.’

Robert Smith of The Cure, 1989

 

‘It’s a better product than some others I could mention.’

David Bowie defends the Glass Spider Tour, 1987

 

‘Back then I thought I’d lost it and I did a bunch of things I was really unhappy with – all in public and on record. But it turned out not to be true. My ability hadn’t deserted me. And it won’t go away. Ever.’

Lou Reed, 1988

 

‘The gig I have as the drummer in King Crimson is one of the few gigs in rock’n’roll where it’s even remotely possible to play anything in 17/16 and stay in a decent hotel.’

Bill Bruford, 1983

 

‘When I toured with The Rolling Stones, the audience would come up to me after the show and say, “Man, you’re really good, you ought to record.” How do you think that makes me feel after 25 years in the business?’

Bobby Womack, 1984

 

‘I find politics ruins everything. Music, films, it gets into everything and f*cks it all up. People need more sense of humour. If I ran for President, I’d give everybody Ecstasy.’

Grace Jones, 1985

 

‘I’m not the most gifted person in the world. When God handed out throats, I got locked out of the room.’

Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, 1988

 

‘I’m lazy and I don’t practice guitar and piano because I’ve gotten involved with so many other things in my life and I just had to make a sacrifice. Stephen Sondheim encourages me to start playing the piano again. Maybe I will.’

Madonna, 1989

 

‘Nile (Rodgers) couldn’t afford to spend much time with me. I was slotted in between two Madonna singles! She kept coming in, saying “How’s it going with Nile? When’s he gonna be free?” I said, “He ain’t gonna be free until I’m finished! Piss off!”’

Jeff Beck, 1989

 

‘I’ve never really understood Madonna’s popularity. But I’ve talked to my brothers and they all want to sleep with her, so she must have something.’

Nick Kamen, 1987

 

‘They ask you about being a Woman In Rock. The more you think about, the more you have to prove that you’re a Woman In Rock. But if you’re honest, it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female. That’s the way we work.’

Wendy Melvoin, 1989

 

‘In Japan, someone told me I was playing punk saxophone. I said, “Call me what you want, just pay me”.’

George Adams, 1985

 

‘In the past, we’d bump into other musicians and it would be, “Oh, yes, haven’t I heard of you lot? Aren’t you the bass player that does that stuff with your thumb?” But once you’ve knocked them off the number 1 spot in Germany, they’re ringing you up in your hotel and saying, “Hey, howyadoin’? We must get together…”‘

Mark King of Level 42, 1987

 

‘We played London, we played Ronnie Scott’s, and I noticed that there were a lot punk-rock kids in the audience. After we finished playing, we had to go to the disco and sign autographs, because “Ping Pong”, the thing we made about 30 years ago, is a big hit over there.’

Art Blakey, 1985

 

‘I believe music – just about everything – sounds better these days. Even a car crash sounds better!’

Miles Davis, 1986

 

‘It’s a dangerous time for songwriters in that a monkey can make a thing sound good now.’

Randy Newman, 1988

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‘To have those glasses on the cover was important because it was a statement and you have to understand that it was like John wanted you guys to see those glasses.’

Yoko Ono, 1989

 

‘I’ll f*cking… I’ll go and take on anyone, any white singer who wants to give me a go.’

Matt Goss of Bros, 1989

 

‘I’ve never said this before but my drums is so professional, man, know what I mean?’

Luke Goss of Bros, 1989

 

‘I hate parts of my own albums because I know I’m hearing something that doesn’t translate to piano. In fact, I’m being dishonest by playing piano at all.’

Keith Jarrett, 1987

 

‘When I began to see how Elvis lived, I got such a strong take off of it. It was all so revolting!’

Albert Goldman, 1989

 

‘The best way to make great art is to have it trivialised by other people as much as possible. That way, you fight and fight and fight.’

Julian Cope, 1989

 

‘Whatever you’re tops in, people is trying to bring you down, and that’s my philosophy.’

Samantha Fox, 1987

 

‘Call me fat and I’ll rip your spine out.’

Ian Gillan, 1983

 

‘Sure I care about my fans. Because fans is money, hahaha. Muh-neee! And who does not care about money? Me, I like muh-neee, haha.’

Chuck Berry, 1988

 

‘I have this long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me.’

David Bowie, 1980

 

‘People who say, Oh, I don’t know anything about music – they’re the people who really do know about music because it’s only really what it does to you.’

Steve Winwood, 1988

 

‘I notice that critics and others don’t credit black people with the ability to write ingenious, creative lyrics.’

Nile Rodgers, 1981

 

‘I’m below the poverty line – I’m on £16 a week. We needed some clothes and our manager said, “I don’t know what you do with your money. I mean, 16 quid!”’

Gary Daly of China Crisis, 1984

 

‘You take four or five of those rattlesnakes, dry ’em out and put them inside your hollow-box guitar. Lightnin’ Hopkins taught me that trick.’

Albert Collins on his guitar tone, 1988

 

‘People are bored with Lionel Richie going “I love everybody, peace on earth, we are the world…” F*ck that! People love bastards.’

Terence Trent D’Arby, 1987

 

‘Epstein dressed The Beatles up as much as he could but you couldn’t take away the fact that they were working-class guys. And they were smart-arses. You took one look at Lennon and you knew he thought the whole thing was a joke.’

Billy Joel, 1987

 

‘I remember when the guy from Echo & The Bunnymen said I should be given National Service. F*** him...’

Boy George, 1987

 

‘The industry is just rife with with jealousy and hatred. Everybody in it is a failed bassist.’

Morrissey, 1985

 

I couldn’t stand it – all that exploitation and posturing, the gasping at the mention of your name, the pursuit by photographers and phenomenon-seekers. You get that shot of adrenalin and it’s fight or flight. I chose flight many a time.’

Joni Mitchell, 1988