Looking through my itunes collection sorted by purchase date, it is moderately obvious that I don’t buy a lot of music by contemporary ’new’ artists. There is Metronomy, Daft Punk, Bluey, Wickford’s own ‘The Milk’, The Submotion Orchestra and a few other stragglers, but the vast majority of new music is by old favourites such as Donald Fagen, Matt Bianco, Swing Out Sister, Prefab Sprout or Incognito. All gracefully ageing survivors of the seventies or eighties, they fill my ipod with comfort music – the equivalent of Friday’s SpagBol. So it comes with moderate surprise that for the last few days I have been listening constantly to Mark Ronson’s ‘Uptown Special’. Actually, this is no surprise, as it pretty much sounds like a pastiche of some of the most successful seventies and eighties styles. I have no idea how he came up with up the idea of making a seventies/eighties homage album, but it’s all there: James Brown’s rare grooves mixed with old school rap, Alan Parson’s soft rock, Steely Dan chords, Moogish bass lines with synth licks that sound like they come straight out a Juno and there’s even the real Steve Wonder making an appearance. This oevre was bought on the reputation of ‘Uptown Funk’ which must have been the first single that excited me since – wait a minute, I’ll get there in a minute – sorry can’t remember. This bastard child (the single, not Mark Ronson) of Cool and the Gang, Prince and Bootsy Collins is such a joy to listen to that even on the way to work one does a bit whistling (or even throwing in the odd dance step on arrival, severely upsetting the staff). Apparently Ronson is the stepson of Foreigner’s Mick Jones – a man with a knack for the odd million seller – who made Ronson listen to his newest records in the middle of the night, so maybe this is some sort of psychological workup of his involuntary exposure to eighties pop in the middle of the night, but It’s a long time since I had so much fun listen to new music, so I couldn’t care less: I am happy to have paid my dues to support Ronson’s apparently fabulous lifestyle a bit longer, and long may he exploit the previous decades a bit further.
There was a time in the eighties when suddenly having a jazzy, retro feel to the records was perfectly fine. Sade was channeling Astrud Gilberto, both The Style Council and Matt Bianco had a go at Samba and Working Week sounded like they could be from Rio (even though they were Londoners). The over all term was ‘SophistiPop’, and Swing out Sister (SoS) with their Bacharach/seventies big string sound fitted right in there. Their first album ‘It’s Better To Travel‘ sold reasonably well on the back of “Breakout’ but the SophistiPop thing was over after a year or two, and the representatives of the genre soon decamped to Japan where they like that sort of thing (many a SophistiPop band that you thought hadn’t existed for thirty years is still around making new albums on the back of their popularity in Indonesia. No, really).
So in 1992, with 3 albums under their belt, SoS decided to release a live album for the Japanese market, recorded at the Jazz Cafe in Camden (ironically still Matt Bianco’s London live home in 2014) with a ten piece band. With their original arrangements being rather string heavy this feels quite stripped back (although there’s still quite a bit of midi background synth fill: the keyboarder has after all only 2 hands), but the vocal arrangements are spot on, the brass sounds crisp and the rhythm section is excellent.
So, these guys are obviously good musicians, but what about the music? Well, there’s the rub. In the humble opinion of this crtitic, their material doesn’t really lend itself to live performances: most of their material is midtempo and really benefits from large orchestration and elaborate arrangements. On this album they even reduce the tempo on some of their normally livelier songs even more, so the whole thing sounds rather treacleish (technical term). I don’t think much dancing was going on at the Jazz Cafe during the recording. Probably more gentle nodding of heads.
Which really defeats the purpose of a live album. You really want to hear your favourite songs in a feverish, exciting atmosphere, but this sounds more like the recital of Virginia Woolf at the Women’s Institute in Torquay.
Which probably explains why I hadn’t listened to it for 20 years.