ophisti-pop is just what its name implies: sophisticated pop. A sub-genre of pop concerned as much with fashion and the slightest touch of jazzbo tendencies as with lyrics and music could only have come from the UK, really—and could only have happened in the 1980s. Intentionally or not, its makers saw themselves on a higher level, making pop that wasn’t just “pop,” that wasn’t of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman school but schooled by Avalon-era Roxy Music (we’ll get to Bryan Ferry, fear not) and the Spandau Ballet of “True” (and little else). Much of this was snotty, all of it was made by performers wearing Armani (or hoping to). Horns were important (even if actually synthesized), smart haircuts moreso, and a certain attitude the most. This was absolutely ebullient stuff with plenty of soaring choruses, even while often taking on depressing lyrical themes (see: Johnny Hates Jazz). Most every major sophisti-popster had one US hit, at most a handful, then no more, while often crafting lengthy careers across the pond; that’s because the Brits appreciate pretty things more than Yanks do. If only we all understood such things. Here are some of the prettiest examples.
ABC – Alphabet City (1987)
As ABC’s domestic fortunes started to wane, leader Martin Fry realized something: he was scoring hit after hit on the American dance charts and Top 40 radio. Now a band in name only, Fry and guitarist/keyboardist Mark White recorded Alphabet City, a depressing example of retrenchment. Fry must have left the parcel of fantastic lyrics in his other suit, or auctioned them to Neil Tennant and Morrissey. “When Smokey Sings,” which makes the terrible mistake of almost defiantly avoiding the wit and grace of its namesake, reached the Billboard Top Five, but Alphabet City includes other non-entities that wouldn’t have shattered any of Johnny Hates Jazz’s dreams. Two exceptions: the desiccated splendor of “King Without a Crown” makes a poignant sequel to The Lexicon of Love’s “All of My Heart”; and the Bernard Edwards-anchored “Rage and Then Regret” shows heart beneath the tinsel that even synth sparkles can’t hide.
Aztec Camera – “Somewhere in My Heart” (1987)
In 1983 Roddy Frame’s would-be erudition, dexterous guitar picking, and doleful mien toughened an album’s worth of songs whose florid romanticism suited a guy barely past his teens and experienced with love songs rather than love. In 1987 Frame—now sporting gelled hair, leather jacket, and George Michael-yummy stubble—hired a fleet of L.A. stalwarts like Marcus Miller and Pino Palladino to play the sexiest songs he’d ever written. The #3 British hit “Somewhere in My Heart” soars on the conversational cadence that earlier work like “Pillar & Post” approximated, with Frame ignoring the gross drum programming to focus on a romantic vision so earthbound that it inspires him to unleash the dirtiest solo of his young life; if he’d played it on his morose cover of “Jump,” even Eddie Van Halen would have noticed.
The Blow Monkeys – “Diggin’ Your Scene” (1986)
Allmusic.com’s William Cooper says of the Monkeys that they “possessed a quirkiness that set it [sic] apart from other bands of its ilk.” Well, yes and no. They certainly possessed a lead singer (the occasionally-scatting Dr. Robert) who “possessed a quirkiness” et cetera. Much else about them, however, was total template sophisti-pop, down to this single’s sax solo and swirling strings (in this world, strings = class). “Diggin’ Your Scene” is actually more soulful than most of its genre-mates, thanks to perfect backing vocals, both male and female, and frankly, that sax, also perfect. The far-too-upfront-in-the-mix snare simultaneously detracts and, conversely, kind of helps make the song. Sophisti-pop was contrary like that, even with itself.
Curiosity Killed the Cat - Keep Your Distance (1987)
This quartet of fashion plates—the latest fashion was an integral part of sophisti-pop, you know—made some of the glossiest, would-be-jazziest (Sax solos: check! Trumpet solos: check!) pop of ’87, and the little girls understood. They were Smash Hits stars, but after their debut spun off a trio of singles to hit the top 11 of the UK singles chart, they only charted twice more—they were Smash Hits stars, after all. Keep Your Distance is one of the sturdiest albums in all of sophisti-pop, however, thanks to its solid songwriting, and charismatic vocals from the beret-prone Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot. Andy Warhol loved them so much he directed their “Misfit” video, which should tell you plenty.
Danny Wilson – “Mary’s Prayer” (1987)
Two of ��em wore hats. Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy is all over their debut album. And “Mary’s Prayer” was one of the loveliest, most precious-in-a-good-way-no-really singles to come from Britain in the late ��80s. Built on a gorgeous piano riff and made sturdier thanks to sweet lyrics (my favorite: “I used to be so careless / As if I couldn’t care less” —so clever-clever, so British, and so I love it) and Gary Clark’s passionate, breathy singing, this “Prayer” was a proverbial breath of fresh air on the radio in ’87. It’s just as much a breath of fresh air today, as it sounds quite like nothing else.
Bryan Ferry – “Kiss and Tell” (1987)
Yes, Ferry’s in many ways the father of sophisti-pop, but he was only really of it twice: on 1985’s “Don’t Stop the Dance,” from his Cocteau Twins album Boys and Girls (listen to the way he refuses to enunciate much at all!), and this delirious single from 1987’s Bête Noire. Delirious because it’s all sleeky streamlined, so much more so than he usually was (which was, of course, quite a bit)—like Ferry on “frappé.” Because as smooth as he sounds here, he also sounds a bit off his game, like he’s been forced into an oddly fitting yet flattering jacket with a back vent. This might be the most ��70s-era-Roxy thing he’s done solo since, well, the ��70s. Can you hear his flair, the bite in his singing? It’s the song’s machinations that make it sophisti-pop, but fittingly, it’s Ferry himself (and only him) who takes it over the edge.
Johnny Hates Jazz – Turn Back the Clock (1988)
About the last hitmakers admitted to the sophisti-pop party, JHJ’s album is absurdly sturdy, holding up better than you’d have any reason to expect. It’s simple, really: Clark Datchler and company wrote some pretty ace, very catchy pop, nothing particularly bold or shocking, but then, that was never the modus operandi of sophisti-pop, was it? They were deeper than “Shattered Dreams,” too, doing message songs (not something most sophisti-pop was known for, but something Brit poppers are known for) regarding prostitution (the oddly buoyant “Heart of Gold”) and war (the keening “I Don’t Want to Be a Hero”). A bit slicker than most of their brethren, perhaps, and gone too soon, but that just leaves the fading memory that much sweeter.
Level 42 – “To Be With You Again” (1987)
Check the way Mark King’s cod-soul bassline climbs the walls during the chorus, ignore the guitar solo (!), and you’re halfway there. Level 42 started out as white jazz-funksters and became increasingly adult contemporary in their popisms, but every so often they still caught a bit of their old spark, such as on this ’87 (UK) hit. The sophisti-pop comes from not only its bassline, but its keening, crying nature, and its occasionally tricky rhythm section. You can, frankly, blame Level 42 for a lot of what you’re reading here, even if most of its practitioners didn’t know it at the time.
Living in a Box – “Living in a Box” (1987)
You know a song is something special when it bears the same name as its creators. This trio scored its only U.S. Top Twenty hit with an ode to homelessness that puts Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” to shame. There’s no lugubriousness here: the thumpety beat, synth-horn motif, and Richard Darbyshire’s barking lower register make an unassailable case for the refuge of the road. Well, not really—Darbyshire reminds us rather too strenuously about where he’s living, like that friend of yours who’s quit or been laid off his last couple of jobs but tells you, sniffily, that he’s happy eating Cup-a-Noodles.
Sade – “Smooth Operator” (1984)
Before their music took a vaguely trip-hop bent in the early ��90s (trip-hop for the Herrod’s crowd, that is), these committed capitalists recorded odes to jetsetting, in which love is an irritant much like getting served warm Bartles & James and pleasure consists of smiling coolly across the London Exchange. What’s truly baffling is how long these people have had albums selling in the millions worldwide. The first and best of their early hits, “Smooth Operator” shuffles on clickety high-heeled shoes. Its saxophone hook doesn’t embarrass; for Sade, vulgarity rhymes with “music hall.” Sade Adu’s velvet-plush vocals were made to sing lyrics like “Diamond life / Loverboy” and to thank the RIAA for awarding her another platinum album.
The Style Council – “My Ever Changing Moods” (1984)
An inexplicable #29 hit in the US (Paul Weller’s first-ever taste of American chart glory—and his last), the Style Council’s definitive moment may be sophisti-pop’s, as well. Cool keyboards, strummy guitars (including an acoustic atop everything), a general jazz-club vibe (organ doesn’t hurt), extra percussion (are those wood blocks being hit together?), and lyrics from a certain point of reserve—oh, did I neglect to mention the brass section, an utter must? Weller almost looked pretty around this time to boot (nothing, sadly, could help his partner Mick Talbot). This got it all down, and in many ways laid the blueprint for what was to come.
Swing Out Sister – “Breakout” (1987)
Quite simply the loveliest, most infectious tune of the sophisti-pop era, “Breakout” still sounds fresh. At the time it managed to be “retro” in the best way: stealing from the past to create a resonant present. Note how the first twenty seconds—in which a synth bass alludes to “West End Girls” while another synth plays an ominous theme—summon six years of British pop before the song’s brass section dismisses them with well-timed blasts of optimism. Breaking into the Billboard Top Ten during the same season in which the Pet Shop Boys’ Actually was fascinating us with its precisely worded and programmed tales of gleeful Thatcherite excess, it’s remarkable that “Breakout” (that title!) betrays no careerist ambitions. Corinne Drewery’s clipped, dry, confident vocals hint at pleasures which have nothing to do with buying Issao Miyake on credit.
For more on sophisti-pop, check out Alfred Soto's essay, Debonair Lullabies.
By: Thomas Inskeep and Alfred Soto
Published on: 2007-02-22