While it’s the ’78-’82 period that’s nearest to my heart, one has to face facts and admit that by 1985 the Post-Punk train was clearly running out of steam. Most of my “core collection” groups had run adrift by the mid 80s. Caught in a maelstrom of digital synthesizers, mullet haircuts, fraudulent guitars and MOR slush, it was frankly horrifying to see so many titans fall. And fall they did. Duran Duran may have beaten them to the punch, but the likes of Ultravox, OMD, Simple Minds, Heaven 17, The Human League, Talking Heads and even Peter Gabriel all succumbed by this time. Hell, even John Foxx released a Van Morrison record! Clearly, some new direction was necessary, but what form would it take?
The expansive musical values that fueled the New Wave explosion had by now dissipated to the four winds and while there were new interesting bands coming online (Pet Shop Boys, Propaganda) the energies of the scene which had coalesced for so long were now evaporating. What would take the place of the skinny tie generation? The answer seemed to point to jazz. The biggest jazz/new wave crossover was probably Joe Jackson’s “Jumpin’ Jive” album where he covered the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan in 1981 to some acclaim.
Scunthorpe blues belter Carmel McCourt and her eponymous combo by 1982 had developed an intriguing “punk-jazz” style with their trio of voice, bass and drums abetted by the occasional horn section and organ. Their debut album, “The Drum Is Everything” is filled with either abrupt 2 minute speed-jazz songs with no solos whatsoever or else the program is comprised of expansive 6 minute jams. They do a cover of “Tracks Of My Tears” that is jazz in the pure sense of taking a standard and making a completely new song out of it.
Animal Nightlife are all but forgotten now, but their debut single “Love Is Just The Great Pretender” caught my ear in 1983 with its camp approach to sophisticated jazz being not a million miles away from the approach pioneered by the Neasden Queen of the Beehive herself, Mari Wilson.
Mari had first appeared in 1980 with a pair of singles dealing in irony-free pre-Beatles pop that sounded like lost 1962 sides but by the time of her first album, “Showpeople,” she had begun trading in kitschy jazz-pop that was sometimes “authentic” (on the B-sides produced by writer Tot Taylor) or else an up to date pastiche of that bygone era re-created with synthesizers and drum machines (the album as produced by Tony Mansfield). Mari disappeared for many years but when she re-surfaced in 1991, she fit right in with the less campy approach of Matt Bianco.
Speaking of Matt Bianco, 2/3 of that combo splintered off on their own following their debut album and resurfaced two years later under the name of singer Basia. By 1985, they had hits all over the world and even managed to attain popularity in America with their post-New-Wave take of jazzy soul-pop with production by Phil Harding, who had made a name for himself with his hi-nrg disco productions for PWL; making for a very successful hybrid sound. With each successive album, Basia’s music became more traditionally jazz-pop oriented, where the synthesizers and drum machines were replaced with traditional instruments as her budget increased with her success.
Meanwhile, the 800 lb. gorilla (figuratively speaking) of the NWOBJP was ready to make her move. I remember seeing the name Sade on the UK charts back in 1984 and wondering what it meant. By the next year, when it was released in America, her debut album, “Diamond Life,” was a bona-fide smash and she became a superstar. Even so, she made sure to secure the producer at the epicenter of this phenomenon for her debut album.
Robin Millar was the first producer for Everything But The Girl, and he’d made a name for himself with both EBTG’s early recordings as well as the similar stylings of the band Weekend.
Weekend also surfaced in 1982 with a beat-jazz approach to pop before mutating into the more trad-jazz Working Week a few years later.
Millar surfaced yet again when Liverpool’s Black made the switch from a handful of flop singles on WEA to superstardom on A&M in 1987 with their debut full-length album, “Wonderful Life.” Singer Colin Vearncombe had more than a touch of Scott Walker in his adult approach to pop music.
Elsewhere, in the north of England, a supergroup of sorts coalesced in Manchester made from ex-members of Magazine, A Certain Ratio and (yet again) Working Week. They were known as Swing Out Sister and the proffered a modern update on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Jimmy Webb sound of late 60s jazz-pop. Their debut album managed to hit on both sides of the Atlantic since they most dazzlingly embodied the NWOBJP ethos, which were finally making inroads even in The States by 1987. Like Basia, their debut album had electro influences, that time (and the money of success) managed to erase and replace with traditional instruments as their career progressed. By the time of their second album, they were hiring Jimmy Webb for some of the arrangements!
Moving further north from Manchester, we enter Scotland and yet another band moving from the rabble of adolescent rock to something more jazzy and adult. Danny Wilson proffered a Steely-Dan like take on pop that was more traditional than the reefer-tinged fusion of Becker and Fagen. Their debut album, “Meet Danny Wilson,” not only name-checked Sinatra, but featured numbers like “Ruby’s Golden Wedding” that would have sat comfortably in turn of the century New Orleans. “Nothing Ever Goes To Plan” was a samba and Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy guested on the record for real jazz crossover potential.
There were more bands outside of the UK that would fit right in this wave of music. The Belgian label Les Disques Du Crepuscule had a roster of fascinating performers including Anna Domino and Isabelle Antena.
Anna Domino favored jazz oriented pop while Isabelle Antena began with jazz and added pop/dance elements. Electronic pop icon John Foxx produced Antena’s debut single, “The Boy From Ipanema,” with the gender switched on the bossa nova classic.
Their debut album “Camino Del Sol” recently got a deluxe reissue with a new audience receptive to its low-key, introverted charms that are not a million miles away from the early EBTG sound, albeit from a European perspective. Isabelle Antena’s many later works included acid jazz albums while Anna Domino eventually moved to dustbowl murder ballads before disappearing altogether.
Moving further afield, the Swiss duo Double garnered a worldwide hit with “The Captain Of Her Heart,” a sumptuous ballad abetted by singer Kurt Maloo’s relaxed phrasing. The rest of their hit album “Blue” featured jazzier material, sometimes touched with a taut funk edge.
From the dawn of the eighties to its end, the arc of this New Wave Of British Jazz Pop managed to offer a way out of the punk-to-new-wave cul-de-sac that allowed for the performers (as well as audience) to mature and get on with their adult lives while retaining some of the values learned by the punk upheaval. But by the dawn of the 90s it seemed to wither and fade under the brutal onslaught of rave music and grunge rock on one hand, and manufactured teenybop bands on the other. After Grunge petered out it seemed like the labels were chomping at the bit to appeal to an ever younger customer demographic with the renewed focus of manufactured teenybop bands that ensured that the label would hold every single marble in the game. But for the bulk of the 80s, the influence of jazz was accessible as a valuable resource, making for a plethora of pop music that adults could listen to without shame.
New Wave Of British Jazz Pop list:
- Isabelle Antena*
- Everything But The Girl
- Matt Bianco
- Blue Rondo Ala Turk
- Animal Nightlife
- Mari Wilson
- The Style Council
- Black/Colin Vearnecombe
- Swing Out Sister
- Danny Wilson
- Joe Jackson
- Anna Domino*
- Working Week
* not strictly British