Kelis, Al Jarreau And ‘Blurred Lines’: Does Pharrell Have Form?

KelisSo it’s official – Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke ripped off Marvellous Marvin’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ when they wrote ‘Blurred Lines’ in just one hour (though Thicke denies having any input into the writing of the song).

And The Guardian reports that Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ may now be in the Gaye family’s sights too due to its alleged similarity to ‘Ain’t That Peculiar’.

Trumpet player, composer and blogger Nicholas Payton has written eloquently and passionately about the whys and wherefores of the ‘Blurred Lines’ case here. I won’t go into whether I think that verdict is just; suffice it to say that I dig what Mr Payton says, right down the line.

But what’s interesting is that Pharrell seems to have previous. Let’s investigate the track ‘Roller Rink’ from Kelis’s great 1999 album Kaleidoscope which, according to the credits, Pharrell co-wrote with Chad Hugo and Kelis.

Now compare that with ‘No Ordinary Love’, credited to Michael Gregory Jackson, which features on Gregory Jackson’s 1983 album Situation X and also Al Jarreau’s L Is For Lover from 1986, both produced by Nile Rodgers:

Weird. Kelis/Pharrell/Chad haven’t even bothered to change key. They’ve just ‘replayed’ Gregory Jackson’s original with a slightly different arrangement. Their version comes up with a better melody in the verses though the chorus melody just uses the catchy little synth motif from both Gregory Jackson and Jarreau versions.

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Michael Gregory Jackson circa 1983

Michael Gregory Jackson started out as a first-call guitarist in the New York avant-garde jazz scene in the mid-’70s. Later in the decade, he reinvented himself as a singer-songwriter and did a pretty job of it, his 1987 solo album What To Where getting rave reviews in Q Magazine and a few other influential rags at the time. But commercial success eluded him.

Regarding ‘Roller Rink’/’No Ordinary Love’, maybe Gregory Jackson was just easy to push over. After all, he’s jazz. Maybe they did settle out of court. But you’d think at least a songwriting credit might be in order. I wonder how much income Gregory Jackson has lost out on, even though Kaleidoscope wasn’t a huge hit album and ‘Roller Rink’ wasn’t a single.

I haven’t checked to see if subsequent versions of the CD have different credits but my 1999 Kaleidoscope CD credits state that the track was ‘written by K Rogers/P Williams/C Hugo’ with no mention of sample permissions etc. The album’s Wikipedia page says the same thing.

About eight years ago, I made some routine enquiries to Virgin Publishing but didn’t get anywhere. Anyway, it’s only music, there are only 12 notes, etc etc. But who knows what other examples are out there? I’ll be listening closely in the future to Neptunes tracks and Pharrell solo tracks, co-productions and co-writes, many of which I’m unfamiliar with at this point.

NYC Odyssey: Nile Rodgers’ Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove

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Mirage/Atlantic Records, released March 1983

9/10

New York City, autumn 1982. The Big Apple music scene is in a period of transition. New Wave and No Wave have been replaced by Mutant Disco and Punk/Funk, Madonna is planning her assault on the charts in dance studios and rehearsal rooms around Manhattan, major record labels are flirting with the harmolodic jazz/rock/funk of James Blood Ulmer, Miles Davis’s comeback is getting into its stride despite his continuing ill health and Hip-Hop is flourishing into a fully-fledged movement.

Meanwhile, Nile Rodgers is reaching a crossroads. Confidence is low; his band Chic have seemingly become passé (a very Chic word) with recent albums Tongue In Chic and Take It Off failing to set the charts alight. They are still seen as a disco act even though their music increasingly embraces jazz, funk, R’n’B and even early hip-hop.

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The good news is that Rodgers has been given the green light to make his first solo album. But Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove is not the record Chic fans are expecting from him. No female singers are featured (apart from a brief appearance by ex-Supremes/Labelle vocalist Sarah Dash) and the Chic rhythm section Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson only appear on three tracks out of eight.

The album sounds far more stripped down than Chic, relying heavily on early drum machines, Rodgers’ guitar playing and his surprisingly effective, relatively downbeat vocals. Lyrically, the album focuses on debauched NYC nightlife rather than the faded glamour of the Chic aesthetic.

But there are many treats inside. I loved this album from the day my dad played it to me in the mid-’80s. I came to it completely fresh; I’d never heard Chic before. But I possibly recognised something of Nile’s soundworld from Bowie’s Let’s Dance album which everyone dug.

I think of Rodgers as something akin to the Thelonious Monk of funk – he’s almost gregarious in his desire to entertain (to paraphrase Gary Giddins). He took the James Brown rhythm method and added jazz harmony and contemporary technology to create some of the great music of the ’80s.

‘Rock Bottom’ puts dark lyrics to a burning funk/rock groove complete with one of Edwards’ finest basslines and a raucous Rodgers guitar solo that gives Stevie Ray Vaughan a run for his money (and pre-empts Vaughan’s playing on Let’s Dance).

‘My Love Song For You’ is the aforementioned duet with Sarah Dash, a classic Rodgers slow-burn ballad with jazzy chord changes, some almost Ellingtonian piano by Raymond Jones and a tantalising middle eight. The title track, ‘Yum Yum’, ‘Most Down’ and ‘Get Her Crazy’ are glorious Afro-funk chants with inventive back-up vocals by the Simms brothers and some typically slamming Rodgers guitar.

Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove is a fascinating companion piece to Let’s Dance, though Rodgers claims in his book ‘Le Freak’ that on completion he immediately knew it was a ‘flop’, neither commercial nor innovative enough to make an impact. Bowie disagreed. Smash Hits magazine did too; they gave it a 10/10 review!

Certainly it may seem uncommercial compared to Chic smashes like ‘Good Times’ and ‘Le Freak’ but tracks like ‘Yum Yum’ and ‘Most Down’ surely wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Black stations of the early ’80s that were playing Prince, The Time or Zapp.

Nile released one more solo album in the ’80s, the intermittently effective B-Movie Matinee, but it lacked the minimalist power of the underrated AITLOTGG. It’s long overdue a reassessment.