Glossary Of Terms – 2: NWOBJP (the New Wave of British Jazz Pop)

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 17The 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?

Mullets, dear god! Bonus points to Gary for being a Soul Boy to the end.

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.

In the UK where trends fly fast and furious, there was a mini-trend towards salsa/funk in ’81-’82 with bands like Blue Rondo Ala Turk and Modern Romance picking up the timbales.
By 1982, Jackson was moving in a Cole Porter direction with his Latin influenced “Night and Day” album. Meanwhile an introverted Hull duo released their debut single, which was a cover of Porter’s actual “Night & Day.” They called themselves Everything But The Girl and they seemed to point the way forward for young adults who could hardly be seen wearing black leather and safety-pinned t-shirts any more.
Meanwhile, members of Blue Rondo Ala Turk had splintered off into the “cool” Matt Bianco. When I heard their debut single, “Get Out Of Your Lazy Bed,” It seemed like the mutant offspring of The Manhattan Transfer and Yello to these ears, and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their album.
The Jam had split up in 1982 and Paul Weller, who could have done anything he wanted to at that point for a large and willing audience pointed his ship towards the Left Bank and Parisian cocktail jazz sophistication with his new combo, The Style Council.

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
  • Weekend
  • Sade
  • Matt Bianco
  • Blue Rondo Ala Turk
  • Animal Nightlife
  • Mari Wilson
  • The Style Council
  • Black/Colin Vearnecombe
  • Swing Out Sister
  • Danny Wilson
  • Joe Jackson
  • Carmel
  • Double*
  • Anna Domino*
  • Working Week

* not strictly British

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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9 Responses to Glossary Of Terms – 2: NWOBJP (the New Wave of British Jazz Pop)

  1. Brian Ware says:

    An excellent essay. While I'm at least marginally familiar with almost all of them and dearly love quite a few, tying it all together like this makes for very engaging reading. Thanks.

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  2. REVO says:

    What surprised even me was when I got into making this list, how many connections there were between a few key players.

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  3. Brian Ware says:

    Yeah, quite a bit of connected backstory that I was not familiar with.What about Curiosity Killed The Cat? I sure liked the debut LP. Their song "Free" is certainly one of the best songs Sade never did.

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  4. REVO says:

    Actually, I never heard Curiosity Killed The Cat. This was because what I heard or (saw – it was the MTV era) didn't move me. For that matter I really don't like The Style Council, in spite of being a fan of The Jam. And Sade? She just passes me by. Almost completely. The only song of hers that I ever liked was the samba "The Sweetest Taboo." I almost regret not picking up the US CD-3" of that single way back when.

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  5. Ron Kane says:

    Sade is the only artist on this list that I really tried. I am good with her first 4 / 5 albums (and most of her singles). I also have some Joe Jackson, but only the first few albums, with "Night and Day" the obvious highlight. I bought the debut Working Week 12" because Robert Wyatt was on it, and a subsequent Virgin UK CD because Etienne Daho was on it.

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  6. Brian Ware says:

    Not a Sade fan either – her songs get by on atmosphere and the tone of her voice, but just not enough melody or interesting dynamics within the songs. The CKTC song "Free" has a similar groove and it always reminded me of her. I highly recommend their debut LP.

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  7. REVO says:

    I am somewhat pre-disposed to vocal jazz-influenced music. Early exposure to The Manhattan Transfer (they had a summer replacement series in the mid-70s that I never watched for some reason) clicked with me. They were part of that retro-40s wave in the early 70s. Think early Pointer Sisters and Bette Midler as well. I always liked pre-rock music. Possibly because my parents were a generation older than most parents and I was exposed to a lot of that music on TV in variety shows and the like.Sade astounds me because I would think that I was her ideal target audience but for the fact she just doesn't reach me.

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  8. regularjoe says:

    It’s interesting reading your etiology of what constitutes your term. It shares a lot of space with what Rate Your Music calls ‘Sophisto-pop,’ a term I never heard before visiting that web-site. I’m surprised some Prefab Sprout doesn’t land in this category. You don’t have date ranges for this but they tend to fall at the latter end of the chronology and ‘Two Wheels Good’ and ‘From Langely Park to Memphis’ would not be out of place in the list.

    A good read and I found an act or two I was not familiar with before reading it.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      regularjoe – At the time that it was occurring, I simply referred to that swath of music as “jazzpop,” a colorless term. A few years ago when I was compiling thoughts in my head that would one day become this blog, the NWOBJP nomenclature sprang up as inspired by the NWOBHM [New Wave Of British Heavy Metal – see Tygers Of Pan Tang, Def Leppard, et. al.] movement of the early 80s. I found it hilarious to subvert that terminology to refer to music that was the antithesis of heavy metal. I agree regarding Prefab Sprout. I should have included them. “Swoon” in particular reeks of jazz in terms of its arrangements. Glad you found a few more groups to investigate.

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