Michael Franks: When Sly calls (Don’t touch that phone) (1983)

Michael FranksAmerican singer and songriter Michael Franks is for some, but not for all. His music is sophisticated, somewhat odd and unique. His songs have been sung by a bizarre variety of performers, from Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee to Lyle Lovett and Ringo Starr. His albums always feature top notch session players (like members of the Crusaders, or the Brecker bros – who could to this♾), the production is slick, the feel is fusionish-pop-jazzy. The singing is unusual too: Franks has a tiny yet effective voice, very apt to sing his quirky lyrics: his highly personal style managed to find him a small but affectionate audience, way before the Internet. His first album came out in 1973, he’s still recording and has a website.

When Sly calls (Don’t touch that phone), off his Passionfruit album, is his only hit – not really a huge one. The song came out in ’83, before mobile phones and caller ID. Back then, the only way to protect yourself from your personal Sly (we all seem to have had one) was voicemail, in the form of an answering machine. And, of course, you only answered after the beep – to make sure it wasn’t Sly. This song is really well crafted, a minutely engraved portrait of life in the 80s (where else can you find a verse like: “To insulate me from the icy aftershock I feel each time that Sly calls”? Complete lyrics here). The Rob Mounsey production is sharp (but a bit fusioney for my taste) and the arrangement is clockwork. The backing vocalists, repeating the (rather funky) phrase “Don’t touch that phone” almost throughout the song, create a fantastic rhythmic tension. Also, Steve Gadd (one of the inventors of modern drumming) is in the house, and when he grooves as tight as he’s doing here, there’s no match – anywhere.

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The Time: 777-9311 (1982)

The TimeI’ve been a fan of The Time (which, for some reason*, now call themselves The Original 7ven) ever since I’ve hear their first hit, Cool♾, in ’81. I mean: funk plus humor? Fabulous, and very hard to come by. Plus, The Time was produced by Prince, most songs were written by him and it’s rumored that he also sang a few. My impression is that The Time represented the fun side of Prince’s music, one that he couldn’t impersonate himself (being busy crafting his own rather serious image). The Time is “arguably the most successful artists who have worked with Prince” (from Wikipedia). The song Cool also introduces this person/persona, singer Morris Day (four solo albums): a rich, cocky, outrageous kind of playboy (watch him lipsync Chocholate, from Pandemonium, on Soul Train, with the coolest coreography, and Jerome Benton doing his mirror routine). The formula worked, and between 1981 and 1990 they produce four fine albums: The Time (’81), What time is it? (’82), Ice cream castle (’84), with songs featured in Prince’s movie Purple Rain, and Pandemonium (’90). Moreover, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis played (respectively) keyboards and bass. Jam and Lewis are the producers of what is considered by many to be Janet Jackson’s best work, Control (1986), and have just produced her next album, Unbreakable (out in october). The Time also appear in Prince’s movies Purple Rain (’84) and Graffiti Bridge (’90), playing the same role years apart.

777-9311, off their What time is it? album, is not The Time’s greatest track (although it was a hit). From Wikipedia: “The bass is truly the ‘star’ of this song, and Prince has remarked that this is one of his signature basslines, remarking no one can play the line like himself.” 777-9311 it’s not just named after a phone number: it’s actually about a manic guy (Day) who keeps asking “Baby, what’s your number?” and then repeats obsessively his own. Or more exactly: “The song’s title was Dez Dickerson‘s actual telephone number at the time the song was written, causing his phone to ring off the hook until he had his number changed.”

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* Search engines, I believe. If you google The Time, the very first result you get is the time in your area.

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Name and number (1989)
De La Soul: Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey) (1991)

There was a bizarre (and unexpected) streak of modern funk/soul that came out of the UK in the late 80s, and still somewhat existent today: bands like The Brand New Heavies, Simply Red, Style Council or Curiosity Killed The Cat. Their biggest single, Misfits☊ (from their 1987 first album, Keep your distance), is a forgettable poppy thing. But their second hit (from their album Getahead) is different. Name and number is set to a bouncy funky, almost Go go beat, and it features a very modern arrangement, with effective horn section and backup vocals. The singer delivers, and the chorus works well. In fact, I think the chorus is all they had when they started, and they made up a track around it. The verse seems to go nowhere, stuck to a (pretty neat) bridge that brings us back to the meat: the hook. The theme is, again, voicemail. This is the official videoclip, yet more visual evidence of how ugly the 80s really were.

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De La SoulBut of course Mtv wasn’t the only source of music, even back then. In fact, the best music wasn’t on Tv (pretty much like today). Hip hop was still somewhat underground then, and bands like De La Soul were a breath of fresh air, after a decade of mercilessly ugly music and hairdos. Their second album, De La Soul is dead (1991) is full of samples from old records (as it was de rigueur back then). For the album’s second single, Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey), the website lists five samples, that are actually four, plus a Replayed Sample (or Interpolation) – that is Name and number (the beginning and middle bars of its chorus are De La Soul’s chorus).

This is a very special Hip hop band, at a very special time in its career, and you can hear it: marvelous flow, great nose for pop, yet 100% true to the style. In the album version, the song begins with a recording from the band’s answering machine (missing from the video, I guess for legal reasons): “Yes, this is Miss Renee King from Philadelphia. I want you to please give me a call on area code 215-222-4209 and I’m calling in reference to the music business. Thank you.”

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