Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ain't Nobody: The Case for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan

Tell Me That You Like Me On his 1986 single “Higher Love,” Steve Winwood enlisted Chaka Khan to repeat the song's chorus on an extended coda. Winwood was generally considered one of the best of the British white blues singers, but asking Chaka to follow him was a terrible idea: She cleaned his clock, making him sound reedy and shallow with her effortless power. I used to sit through that whole song just waiting for Chaka to blow that skinny white boy away. Nobody upstages Chaka Khan.

Chaka Khan was just 33 at that point, but she was a veteran of the R&B wars, having assumed the lead vocalist spot with Rufus in 1972 at the tender age of 18. (She had already been in the Black Panthers by that point, and gotten married.) Her first chart success with the band was the classic “Tell Me Something Good,” written and produced by Stevie Wonder, from 1973, and almost from that moment on, there was talk of Chaka going solo. The nomination under consideration today is for “Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan,” but clearly we are intended to include her own body of work as well as Rufus (or Ask Rufus, as they were initially known, after the advice column in Mechanics Illustrated).

Khan held on with Rufus through nine albums and 13 Top Forty hits (there were also three non-Khan Rufus albums, all of which stiffed), culminating in the dazzling farewell single “Ain’t Nobody,” from 1983, which set the template for ‘80s dance records. She then immediately hit big with “I Feel for You,” written and produced by Prince, with a harmonica solo from her old benefactor Stevie Wonder and an introductory rap from Melle Mel. The personnel listing alone confirms Chaka Khan as R&B royalty.

Chaka wrote Rufus’ “Sweet Thing” with guitarist Tony Maiden, taking it to the Top Five in 1975, then sang on Quincy Jones' "I'll Be Good to You," in 1989. All in all, her hitmaking career spanned nearly 25 years, and all the hits are indelible, holding up very well.  

Let Me Rock You, That's All I Want to Do When I was compiling my framework for how to think about each vote, I realized that in a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, coolness is the paramount virtue. Nobody was cooler than Chaka Khan. Just think about that name, one of the great names in rock & roll: distinctive but not jokey, heavily rhythmic, exotic without being entirely foreign. These things matter. It’s not even completely made up, since the former Yvette Stevens adopted it upon marrying her first husband, bassist Hassan Khan.

Chaka Khan and Rufus have been on the ballot before, and fallen short; I don’t know if there will be another go-round for either. The time to vote for her is now. I vote yes for Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Sensual World: The Case of Kate Bush

Running Up That Hill Kate Bush is hugely respected by a lot of people I respect. Not only is her music sui generis, instantly identifiable as her own indefinable product, but from the beginning of her career, she was a one-woman gang, writing and producing (and playing piano on) her own material. She was the first woman ever to have a Number One hit in Britain with a song she wrote herself, with 1978's "Wuthering Heights," when she was just 19.

For a while it looked like she might be a star here in the U.S. of A., too. She was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on December 9, 1978 (Eric Idle was the host), and though it took a while, she even had a Top Forty hit here, with "Running Up That Hill" in 1985.

But it wasn't to happen. Her second-highest charting single was the execrable "Don't Give Up," with Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush's impact on the U.S. record-buying public has been virtually nil.

That doesn't have to be a disqualifier, though. Leonard Cohen sold fewer records than Frankie Yankovic, but I still cheerfully voted for him, because of his influence on the larger music world and because his records are just so ridiculously good. I'm having a hard time seeing Kate Bush as qualifying on either accord.

I'd Make a Deal With God I think her records are well-written but overproduced, and her voice is kind of silly. She skirts the line between dramatic and pretentious, and it can be really tough to stay on the right side of that boundary. (In the video for "Wuthering Heights," at one point, she looks like she's speed-skating in a formal gown.) You can see why some people worship her, but I'm never gonna be one of those people.

I don't mean to be negative about her work, which can be very striking, and which never sounds like anyone other than Kate Bush. That's a very good thing. And when she lands just right, her music is quite beautiful.

But I just don't see her having a huge enough impact on the world of rock & roll, or even of American pop music (I'm not qualified to comment on British pop) to extend her a vote. In the end, I think Kate Bush is an easier artist to admire than to listen to. I vote no on Kate Bush.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Living in Synth: The Case of Depeche Mode

All I Ever Wanted Depeche Mode seems like they ought to be the epitome of something, being one of the most popular and certainly the most long-lived of the British synth-pop groups that emerged in the early 1980s. They were stars in England almost from their first release in 1980, although they didn’t break through in the U.S. until “People Are People” went to Number 13 in 1985. But “Just Can’t Get Enough” – which, let’s face it, is a much better song – had crashed the dance charts in 1981, off the band’s first album, Speak & Spell.

The primary songwriter on Speak & Spell was Vince Clarke, who wrote nine of its 11 songs, including “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but he left the band after that first record came out. “We basically just weren't getting on,” Clarke said later. "We were really young, and we did quite well very quickly, and it all became too much.” Starting with their second album, Martin Gore took over the songwriting, and he proved to be almost as good at it as Clarke. (Clarke, by the way, was born Vincent Martin, but changed his name because he was on the dole and would lose his benefits if the government knew he was making money via his band.)

Changing chief songwriters is as fraught a move as changing frontmen, and even moreso for a synth-pop group, where the material is pretty much the entire band. Pink Floyd changed primary songwriters and thrived, as did the Doobie Brothers, but it’s pretty rare for a band to succeed that way.

Depeche Mode only got bigger with Gore as its composer, although I don't think they ever got better. The band’s 1990 album Violator spawned three hit singles in the U.S., including “Enjoy the Silence,” their only Top Ten hit, and “Personal Jesus,” arguably their best post-Clarke song. They had Top Forty hits as late as 1997, and had a Number One hit on the U.S. dance charts as late as 2013 with “Heaven.”

That should have made them some kind of grizzled legend in the electronic-dance music world, but they never quite seemed to attain that status. Daft Punk has saluted artists ranging from Philip Glass to the Eagles as influences, but never, to my knowledge, Depeche Mode. Depeche were never as good as other 1980s dance titans like New Order or Pet Shop Boys, even though they outlasted those groups as hitmakers. 

Let’s Play Master and Servant Vince Clarke seems to be the sticking point here. It’s hard for me to support a band that lost its key member after one album, and was never as good again. After Clarke left Depeche Mode, he formed Yaz with Alison Moyet and released “Don’t Go” and “Situation,” both of which are better than anything in the Depeche catalog. Then he went on to form Erasure, which was a lot more fun than Depeche, especially with “A Little Respect.” And none of those groups was the best British dance-pop group of the 1980s; New Order was.

Depeche Mode blazed trails in EDM, arguably laying the groundwork for a genre that continues to be vital today. “Personal Jesus” is 26 years old and still sounds pretty fresh. They even established themselves as a must-see live act, which you wouldn’t expect from a synth-pop band. I like Depeche Mode; honestly, I do. I just don’t see what they’ve done to differentiate themselves from other bands of their ilk. New Order hasn’t even ever been nominated, for pity’s sake. I vote no on Depeche Mode.