t was early summer, 1983; I was in Glasgow on a family visit during my student vacation, and specifically I was browsing through new 12-inch dance imports in that city’s 23rd Precinct record shop when I first heard it. From the opening upward squelch of bass, blurting all over the rhythm track like indeterminate spunk, it felt like a billionfold supercharged variant on the Lonnie Simmons/Gap Band template, suddenly thrust into 3D. Over the track a bold female sang about what wasn’t quite a surrender to polygamous subservience; she knew her man was a philandering shit but damn it he turned her on—still she puts her foot down that he must make a special effort for her, on the inner assurance that she will eventually have him all to herself. Halfway through the song a riotous rock guitar materialises, working in ascending tandem with both bass and vocal, and then a mesmerising, seemingly endless chant takes hold of the song and lifts it further into the realms of the divine unreal. It felt like the black ��80s “Hey Jude.” I had to sit down at the counter in shock and listen to it over and over, as indeed I did back at home for the rest of that day; I didn’t want it to end.
It was the full-length (8:55) 12-inch version of “Just Be Good to Me” by the SOS Band, and it took nearly another year for the record to break the UK Top 20, but it seemed to have streaked out of nowhere. The writers and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis I recognised as members of the funk band The Time, whose album What Time Is It? I had purchased the previous summer. I knew they were something to do with Prince but in those pre-Purple Rain days they seemed continents ahead of him, and, sadly though I say it in hindsight, universes ahead of cheery Brits trying to mix punk with funk—that cry of “We don’t like New Wave!” which abruptly turns up halfway through the album could only have derived its passion from someone who loved it deeply and madly. In retrospect, however, one sees all the necessary elements being formed; on the album’s centrepiece “The Walk” there is a moment (5:37) where you clearly hear the Jam and Lewis embryo forming; hallucinatory half-tempo harmonies over frantic, active rhythm.
With the SOS Band they took this basic miscegenation of New Wave, post-Chic mainstream dance and post-Clinton spermatic funk and applied to it the shiny yellow gloss of those Linn drum machines and Oberheim synthesisers they’d heard on all those strange English pop records of the period. Their schematic structures were generally arch-like in appearance; note how every element in “Tell Me If You Still Care” climaxes at 3:48 before carefully descending again, like a hopped-up Gorecki.
These elements were refined when they recalled the original lead singer of The Time, Alexander O’Neal, to get his solo career moving. The brain-burning ten-minute epic “Innocent/Alex 3000/Innocent II” from his eponymous debut album betrays what an O’Neal-fronted Time would have sounded like; explosions of righteous soul anger ensconced in atonal guitar flourishes, organs sliding up and down like an impatient zip, Otis Redding trapped in Blade Runner. On that track, his female alter ego Cherrelle appears as a VDU phantom, but by the time of 1985’s immaculate “Saturday Love,” Jam and Lewis had introduced space and breath into their temple; and on 1987’s “Never Knew Love Like This” duet, both Cherrelle and O’Neal were bleeding immunoglobulins of deep soul, threading through the stern pylons of nowness.
Then, of course, came Janet, 1986’s missing link between all other 1986 music—The Anita Baker through Tackhead, The Real Roxanne via Test Dept. “Nasty” was a better Art of Noise advance than anything the Art of Noise did in 1986 (and helped invent Neneh Cherry, and hence nearly all worthwhile 21st century pop; and moreover made Madonna appear instantaneously sluggish—even if its producers had already road tested most of its templates on Cherrelle’s eponymous 1985 album). But O’Neal’s 1987 epic Hearsay—a record noticeably bigger in Britain than in America—is Jam and Lewis’ absolute masterpiece; sexual but nasty tirades blasting out over uncompromising avalanches of the unreal. Gasp as the first 14 seconds of “(What Can I Say) To Make You Love Me?” invent Boards of Canada! Be amazed as they obliterate Terence Trent D’Arby with the gargantuan futurist fury of “Fake” and “Criticize”! For a seamless marriage between old school and cold rationalist new, Hearsay is equalled only by the Son of Bazerk album a few years thereafter—and could Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad have sounded so defiantly futuristic in their hot-blooded minimalism without the Jam and Lewis precedent?
For all the scarlet swimming seascapes of mid-period tracks such as the SOS Band’s “The Finest,” however, Jam and Lewis’ palette was necessarily limited even by its own sizeable boundaries. The Human League collaboration, Crash, was an unfortunate mismatch of two sets of protagonists speaking entirely different languages which only wrought magic in the album’s lead single “Human”—originally intended for O’Neal but given infinite and patient pathos by Oakey and Sulley’s unstinting Sheffield accents. And from the late ��80s onwards, Jam and Lewis more or less became synonymous—and in my view, considerably more dour and pompous—with Janet. By then the SOS Band and Alexander O’Neal had long since peaked and were delicately drifting out of central orbit—and Rhythm Nation 1814, from its preposterous title outwards, still seems to me the epitome of hubris winning out and paving the way for eventual nemesis; the concept and beats seem forced—as if it were all meant to Mean Something—and the metal guitar on “Black Cat” in particular sounds tacked on, whereas on productions even as recent as the Time’s one-off 1987 reunion record Pandemonium, it arises (via Jesse Johnson) perfectly and organically.
But surf again those amelodic organ runs on the SOS Band’s “Weekend Girl” which could have come straight from a Sun Ra recital, the thunderclap which makes a new woman out of Janet at the cynosure of the “Tighten Up” update that is “When I Think of You,” or even that early example of aquiline stillness, the Time’s “Gigolos Get Lonely Too”—and its later cousin, the Force MDs’ “Tender Love”—and the accumulated punctum of Jam and Lewis stands stalwart in an otherwise crumbling 80s cityscape. It would be misleading to claim that, in Britain, they became “name” producers in the Trevor Horn, or even the Steve Lillywhite, sense; but listen to the sneakily familiar rubbery bounce of the Neptunes at their most mischievous, or indeed the vast, uninhabited pop citadels of later Xenomania—Jam and Lewis are all around us, watching; and making a considerably better job of it than the proprietor of their erstwhile employer, the Starr Company, has done for the worst part of the last two decades.
By: Marcello Carlin
Published on: 2006-04-21