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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Genres are a funny thing in music...

When they are kept at the very broad level, I'm fine - Soul, Rock, Pop, Jazz etc etc. I can even understand the key differences between say, Reggae and Ska but just a trawl through Discogs (a record buying site) and its associated categories will show you just how fragmented our listening and its audiences have become.

Rock can be split between Classic Rock , Psychedelic Rock and Folk Rock for instance. There's also Indie Rock but how does that separate itself from Indie Pop and is it still Alternative. I used to understand Metal but now there are varieties such as Death, Speed, Nu or Viking and I'm pretty sure it's going to be the narrowest of distinguishing margins between them.

By the time you get to dance music all bets are off.

New Jack Swing? I never realised there was an older version.

Deep House indicates there is a shallower version.

And as for Rare Groove... I am assuming that we should be turning our noses up at the common or garden variety.

I may find that all of these assumptions are true but suffice to say, it does get complicated.

However, despite all of this there is a genre of music that I really supported, for which I have never found a descriptor. It is sometimes bundled under the horrific "Sophisti-Pop" but this seems to have been a catch-all for the shiniest of pop singles from around the mid 80s and so could cover a church broad enough to include Heaven 17, Level 42 and Bryan Ferry on its pews, with Simply Red and ABC doubtless helping out the choir, for instance.

I like many of these records still but it really is a very wide range of musical influences. Tucked away in Sophisti-Pop Spotify Playlists (an abomination in so many different ways) is a style of music for which I could probably just about eke out a creditable C-90 which shall be the subject of this latest Fab Five.

Perhaps the best place to start is the always controversial Style Council. I say controversial because every time I decide to write about them, there are always some Jam fans who have never forgiven Weller for breaking up that band at the height of their powers in 1982 and forming this Jazz-Pop combo with all its arch idiosyncrasies that deliberately ditched the straight-forwardness of his previous collaborators. They get very heated on the subject.

But it is this archness, best demonstrated in any of the Style Council liner notes penned by The Cappuccino Kid (actually Weller's Boswell - Paolo Hewitt) which tried to play up the "beat" intentions of the music and its architects, aping the jazz cats of the late fifties. Lyrically, of course, the band became increasingly more 80s as it took on a more political stridency.

The title of this article - "The Big Boss Groove" - is of course shared with one of the Style Council's best tunes - the (mainly unplayed) double A side to "You're The Best Thing".

There was, certainly in London's club scene, a burgeoning appreciation of jazz that had started to develop out of a part of the New Romantic movement. They had embraced the early works of Ze Records including pre-hit Kid Creole and other soul-jazz influences. Much of this had centred on the Wag Club, which had been founded by one of the key shakers of the time, Chris Sullivan.

Despite little musical training, he formed the coolest band around, Blue Rondo A La Turk, who took up this Latin jazz-pop style and were tipped to be the next big thing. The fates sadly conspired against them (of which more later) but their whole style and presentation seems to be the kicking-off point for this un-named genre.

Full disclosure, I have always loved Blue Rondo and despite their lack of comparative success even launched a Facebook campaign to lobby for the reissue of their back-catalogue. You couldn't find it for love nor money at the time and I am delighted to say it worked, though I think as my group had only about two dozen members, it was mere coincidence.

They were slick; they were polished and they should have been massive even for the short time this nameless genre was in vogue. They were due to feature on" Top Of The Pops" for their then rising single "Klactoveesedsteen" which would have assured them of their chart ascent but were bumped at the last minute for Ken Dodd.

They were sadly not invited back, but as a result Sullivan launched The Wag Club and the genre with no name found a spiritual home, with the coolest soundtrack of soul, salsa, bossa nova and disco. He himself went on to be an editor and journalist whose book "Rebel Rebel" I highly recommend. Some of the other members would go on to form Matt Bianco - a band that could easily be included on the C-90 but made one or two fatal musical errors that has excluded them from the Fab Five - most notably a cover version of "What A Fool Believes" which is simply unforgivable.

Final piece of trivia - Blue Rondo A La Turk were the headliners for the first ever live performance by The Smiths.

Part of the sound seems to have taken its musical influence from the Brit-Funk of bands such as Central Line and Beggar & Co and from this world emerged another set of cool cats who did at least manage to make it on to "Top Of The Pops" in 1984 after two years as the darlings of the music press - Animal Nightlife.

Theirs was a silkier and less frenetic sound than Blue Rondo with more funk overtones than Latin ones. Singer, Andy Polaris appeared to have stepped out of the pages of then-bible "The Face" magazine. "Mr Solitaire" has a similar jazzy swagger that appears positively effortless.

Sadly, their fire also burned briefly.

Around this period, Weller was regularly referring to Colin MacInnes' 1950s novel "Absolute Beginners" as the genesis of all that was cool in London and of course, inevitably, such was the noise around it that it became an ill-fated and much-derided movie, although with one or two glaring issues admittedly, I still feel it stands up much better than I remember. However, it's cool world of hep cats and cool chicks was very much the blueprint for this new scene.

Whilst it would take more than a duff movie appearance to derail someone such as David Bowie's career, also emerging completely unsullied by the critical furore around the film was probably the most successful and enduring of all the artists that came out of this London scene. That was of course, the impeccable Sade.

Their 1984 album "Diamond Life" is one of the best-selling (and best sounding) British debut albums ever with over 10 million copies worldwide. But it is no flash in the pan because they set out a style of soul and jazz that was languid and beguiling. The formula has only been tinkered with slightly over the following years and yet always manages to sound fresh and alluring.

There is a smoky quality to Sade's vocal - whether it is on the familiar hits of "Smooth Operator" or "Your Love Is King" to the more up-tempo (and personal favourite) "Hang On To Your Love" - that gives an element of sophistication which the band's relative inexperience at the time and the rudimentary production technique would not indicate possible.

Sade, like Kate Bush, is something of an enigmatic national treasure. Nobody sounds like her or writes like her and she is sufficiently sparing with her output to make each appearance a real treat.

There was a real sense that something was coming from the world of jazz in London at the time with Ronnie Scotts nightclub finding a new lease of life not leat through true authentic jazz breakthrough artists like Courtney PineThough this genre was gently nosing its way into the charts, there was still a feeling that jazz needed to keep to its authentic underground roots which played to its alternative appeal. Unsurprisingly, there were points where the indie attitude found a home here too.

Nowhere better than with Working Week, founded by Simon Booth and Larry Stabbins in 1983 and later joined by Juliet Roberts. They were always prepared to show their political leanings and were regular supporters of of the multifarious causes with which the fringes of the music industry at the time were prepared to be involved.

Their debut single "Venceremos" is still the perfect encapsulation of their ethos featuring as it did the very indie call and response voices voices of Robert Wyatt and Tracey Thorn backed by an authentic pulsating Latin rhythm, on a song in support of Chilean protest poet, Victor Jara.

It could not be any more right-on if it tried but it is a great great record.

It also allows me, by including Tracy Thorn, to sneak a reference to the consistently delightful Everything But The Girl in here because they really are part of this movement too albeit a more delicate flavour of Bossa nova styling - particularly on their debut album "Eden".

However, as I am sticking to Five as per my own rules, although you are probably counting the Style Council, which for the purposes of this piece I am not, I have not included EBTG though I easily could have done. Instead, as a final choice, I have alighted on probably one of the very last bands that exhibited any of these jazz-pop tendencies, Swing Out Sister.

Most will remember them for their break-out single "Breakout" (see what I did there) which is probably more from the sophisti-pop school but their 1987 album the excellent but long forgotten "It's Better To Travel" was full of jazz flavour, particularly in tracks such as "Twilight World". Corrine Drewery had a particularly authentic voice for material such as this.

Whilst their success brought them into contact with many jazz legends such as percussionist Luis Jardim, they did begin to stray more into the lounge and easy listening world of Jazz initially and so lost their UK following. However, they have kept recording and experimenting with many jazz styles and so, as the cliche goes, remain 'big in Japan' still selling out there to this day.

Sadly, this was a very short-lived period in pop history and with not that many flag-bearers but it clearly had an influence. The renewed interest in jazz certainly saw the 90s movement for Acid Jazz take shape where artists such as The Brand New Heavies and even Jamiroquai, adding perhaps a touch more soul, found their success. Even Sting very publicly embraced his jazz influences when he released his "Dream Of The Blue Turtles" in 1985 using many New York jazz veterans in hi band at the time.

So you have all the ingredients (especially of you add the excellent and long forgotten Carmel) to make your own C-90 now if you wanted because it is pop with a definite authentic jazz flavour - infectious basslines, stinging brass and smoky vocals. There's some samba, some salsa, some bossa nova, some be bop and some swing - but with a gloss that makes it feel more accessible and yet slightly removed from the mainstream. No wonder it's difficult to describe.

"Jazz-Pop" seems a bit lame - I'm going to call it "Big Boss Groove" and I'm getting my stencil ready for the cassette spine already.

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Mar 02, 2021

On the fringes of my zone but a great read all the same, Tony. Keep up the good work

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