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  • Tony Harris

A MAN OUT OF TIME


One of my prime purposes in putting my meagre musical musings down to share with you has always been to shed light on those once-loved albums, now long forgotten and packed away in the attic.


Sometimes their moment has simply passed and they can no longer capture any kind of nostalgic mood.


Sometimes they seem outdated and out of step with prevailing taste.


Consequently, any previous love (from a time continuum far far away) is consigned to the dump and any ownership or predilection is now denied.


And there are some popular old albums whose timelessness is non-existent that despite shifting unit upon unit at the time of release are now to be found in copious amounts in car boot sales and charity shops the length and breath of the land. There is a game played by a group I follow on Twitter which offers Boot Sale Bingo which is a range of albums and more recently CDs that you should attempt to tick off on any trip around the back end of Britain's estate cars and shooting brakes. This originated around the fact that Paul Young's "No Parlez" - one of 1983's best sellers and a nonpareil of fretless bass use - was now the record most often handed in to charity shops.


More recent sightings of that particular record seem to have dried up, incidentally.


There are many such victims of 80s vinyl denial often as a result of what seems overblown production techniques but, lest we forget, somebody bought some of these and often in great numbers.


So were they really that bad?


Admittedly, I am sure that if you asked Paul Young now whether he wishes he had chosen not to cover Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" - he would definitely agree. But whatever indie kids would like to think, more people accessed this classic through his version than the original, back then.


All of which is a long way round to get to this latest vinyl voyage, 1987's "Hearsay" by Alexander O' Neal.


Now, this album became undoubtedly O' Neal's biggest success around the world. He had previously broken through with his original self-titled album with the legendary slow-jam of "If You Were Here Tonight" and his club classic duet with Cherelle on "Saturday Love" but it was "Hearsay" that really put him in the spotlight and gave him considerable recognition.


The story followed the same pattern all over the world with a couple of big and memorable hits with "Fake" and the incomparable "Criticize" and then the audience waited to see what was next.


Except in the UK.



You are probably all scratching your heads now but this LP was truly massive. It stayed in the album charts for exactly two years and despite being recorded in 1986 was still somehow shifting derivations from the album well into 1990. This isn't "Dark Side Of The Moon" or "Bat Out Of Hell" but a very pop-oriented entirely ephemeral dance production.


"Fake '88" was a remix of the original track released the year before; which makes "Hearsay '89" fairly self-explanatory. On top of these 2 remixes, there was an "Original Bootleg Hit Mix" released at Christmas '89 which mashed up several of the key songs of the album. There was also a full remix album called "All Mixed Up" that also hit the charts.


All of this despite eight of the nine tracks being released as a single in their own right. That's right, only one wasn't - the closer "When The Party's Over".


He sold out endless nights at firstly the Hammersmith Odeon and then Wembley Arena. Everybody wanted a piece of Alexander O'Neal.


Although originally from a very tough background in Mississippi, O'Neal moved to Minneapolis where he eventually ended up in a band called Flyte Time. They would eventually come to the attention of that city's most celebrated musical hero and so The Time joined Prince.


Unsurprisingly, an alpha male like O'Neal quickly fell foul of His Purple Highness - allegedly over money - and he was fired. Around five years later, the band would be given the shove too but two of its members the constantly be-sunglassed Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis set off on a fledgling career as writers and producers and called up their old bandmate. His first album "Alexander O'Neal" was released in 1985 to respectable sales and some critical acclaim.


By the time, they all trooped back into the studio for his second album, Jam & Lewis had perfected their signature sound with Janet Jackson's huge breakthrough album "Control" and they decided to extend themselves further when they went into the studio with their old friend.


When Alexander O'Neal asked to be given "some of that nasty bass", undoubtedly he got what he asked for. Nowhere is that better exemplified than on the second single "Criticize" an all-out declaration of intent with a sense of swagger that suited his strong vocal styling.



Interestingly, "Hearsay" is something of a concept album with the idea being that it is based around a party - perhaps borrowing from Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On". Each of the tracks were separated with either a little musical interlude or some dialogue as a precursor to the character portrayed in the song to follow - each being a guest at the party.


The album is book-ended by the singer's meeting of a new girl at the party with the bouncy "What Can I Do To Make You Love Me" and has them hooking up with "The Lovers" via the excitement of "Never Knew Love Like This". In the latter, he duets again with Tabu label-mate Cherelle and their vocal chemistry is very obvious once more - they both compared themselves to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. They were most certainly not an item as they could not have been more different with the rough man's man from Natchez providing a stark contrast to the educated Valley Girl.


However, along this journey we come across a couple of other characters at the soiree. "Criticize" is the tale of O'Neal's encounter with an ex-girlfriend which even had a version called "The Nag Mix" to emphasise its lyrical intention.


"Hearsay" is prefaced by a piece of girl gossip that leads into an accusation from another of his lady friends. Whilst the hook-laden "Fake" is a super-powerful aggressive belter aimed squarely at a groupie girl who has bisected his path.



It all probably comes across as a bit inappropriate these days and his persona borders on misogynistic when you listen closely. However, his reputation as a 'ladies man' was the entire schtick on which his career to that point was built and the culmination of the album in "When The Party's Over" serves only to emphasise that there were two very distinct sides to his performance - sturdy machismo for dominating the dance floor and silky slow soul for when the lights were turned down low.


Indeed, this creates a record of two distinct halves.


The first side is what you would call (at least in those days) a perfect 'getting ready to go out' soundtrack - in previous times, this had been classics of the the such as "Youthquake" by Dead Or Alive. These were albums that were filled with thrilling tempos and thumping rhythms. They were portents of a night filled with excitement and possibilities...


The advantage of "Hearsay" is that if you had a night that delivered all that the first side promised, when you returned home you could flip it over to the satin sheen of the slow jam second side. You will be largely unsurprised that despite all of my best efforts, even then I never created opportunities to call on his more subdued musical mood enhancements.


I would be very surprised if anybody had had much call to play this album in decades. Less so the particularly unsettling Christmas album he released in the middle of all this.



I don't know if his persona now in a #metoo world seems to sit too uncomfortably; he did after all perform live with a bed on stage to which he would invite female audience members to join him while he serenaded them. His styling too - all sharp double breasted suits and ties - perhaps seems to come across now as decidedly naff. The Jam/Lewis production with synthesised rhythms agogo also date the album quite significantly.


His success would quickly diminish- largely in a blizzard of cocaine - as his pioneering producers lost patience (concentrating ever more on Janet Jackson) and his next album 1991's "All True Man" would only really yield the title track as a hit. He seemed very quickly to have become a man out of time.


Eventually he moved to live in the UK, which always seemed to carry great affection for him, for over a decade before moving back to Minneapolis. Interestingly, another big soul man, Motown's Edwin Starr had trodden a similar path, living in Tamworth of all places.


O'Neal appeared to be a throwback even then despite the sheen of Jam & Lewis's production and by the time he returned we had Hip Hop, Daisy Rap and Electro in full force so even the dance floor devotees had moved on. Admittedly, you would not make an album like this today but time perhaps should be a little kinder especially when you listen to the all-action Dance side.


"Hearsay" is a brave and innovative album. It has dated and in places quite significantly but there is no denying the power of his voice and in the UK at the time there was a very popular soul scene - remember there was even a British version of 'Soul Train', such was the interest in the genre. He looked like a soul man, he sang like a soul man and he behaved like a soul man - at a time when there were not too many genuine ones.


If his former bandmate Prince had performed "Hearsay", we would not dismiss it so lightly. So if you are browsing through the record bins you could do worse than pay the doubtless paltry fee asked and take it home for a nostalgic pre-party spin.


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