Monday 31 December 2012

ROSE ROYCE: Rose Royce Greatest Hits

(#226: 19 April 1980, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Love Don’t Live Here Anymore/Wishing On A Star/I Wanna Get Next To You/Angel In The Sky/I’m In Love (And I Love The Feeling)/I Wonder Where You Are Tonight/You’re On My Mind/Is It Love You’re After/Car Wash/It Makes You Feel Like Dancin’/Do Your Dance/First Come, First Serve/Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is/Ooh Boy

Why, of all the disco, funk and R&B acts which could have been in this space, did Rose Royce draw the long straw? Initially, it’s hard to understand; for the previous three-and-a-quarter years they had enjoyed a run of intermittently big hit singles but they were by no means chart regulars, and by April 1980 singer Gwen Dickey had left the band, which promptly (though only temporarily) disbanded, their hits now largely past them.

But then sometimes things depend on how you present yourself, or how you are presented, and whether it’s done at just the right time; for those still underestimating the group, I have to say that their Greatest Hits collection went platinum in the UK and was outsold in 1980 by only two other albums, neither of which I have yet reached. In other words, they represented the first major single-act R&B/album chart crossover since the Stylistics. And, like the Stylistics, they were far bigger in Britain than in the States, where they had enjoyed only four Top 40 hit singles, and where a similar Greatest Hits package was released at much the same time yet peaked at only #204.

But the two records differ. Cannily, the album was divided into a side of slow jams (the “Romancing” side) and another of uptempo dance cuts (the “Dancing” side). But the sleeves were different, the sides were reversed and there were several differences in track selections and listings. Overall, despite the omission of “I’m Going Down,” later to be brilliantly covered by Mary J Blige, I think the UK edition played more to the band’s strengths; there were enough familiar songs to reassure listeners, but also a sufficient variety of approaches to satisfy doubters.

How did Rose Royce happen anyway? It came down to where Norman Whitfield found himself in the mid-seventies – what do you do after, like stout Cortez, you have glimpsed, and maybe helped create, the future of soul music with the Temptations? But then, by 1976, the days of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” were long behind him, as was his Temptations’ fairly swift descent into self-parody (by the time of 1973’s hopefully-titled Masterpiece, one commentator wrote that it was good of Whitfield to let the Temptations sing on their own record now and again). Tired of Motown and wanting to strike out on his own, he took with him a Los Angeles group – the musicians came in equal part from Inglewood and Watts – formerly known as Total Concept Unlimited. While backing Edwin Starr on tour in Europe and Japan, the singer introduced them to Whitfield, who used them as both the studio and stage band for middle-ranking Motown artists such as the Undisputed Truth and Yvonne Fair. By now they were called Magic Wand; but the Undisputed Truth’s frontman Joe Harris stumbled upon singer Gwen Dickey while in Miami. She was quickly added to the line-up and given the pseudonym Rose Norwalt.

While assembling this band’s debut album, Whitfield was approached by film director Michael Schultz, lately of Cooley High, with a view to providing the soundtrack to his next film Car Wash. Unusually, the music and the film shooting happened simultaneously, and so each element tended to comment on the other. Seeing his big chance, Whitfield changed Magic Wand’s name yet again to Rose Royce (to fit with Dickey’s “Rose” character, and also to get into line with the film’s automobile theme), and most people know what happened next.

But perhaps most people don’t know Rose Royce as well as they think, or only know parts of them. The wonder of this record – fourteen tracks, not one of which is a dud – is that it amplifies just how terrific and creative they, and their principal writer and producer, were.

Let’s start with the “Romancing” side, the finest of its kind since The Best Of The Stylistics, and two songs – their two biggest British hits – which still stagger with their patient invention and persevering power. With “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” it is as if Whitfield took his Ball of Confusion and ran with it into the 21st century; the opening electronic pulse gradually pulls back its curtain to reveal a singer more bewildered than bereft – how strange a phrase “through the windows of my eyes” is, when you think about it – with regular laps by Paul Riser’s racing strings and an obstinately creative syndrum (this record probably represents the best extended use of the syndrum in pop). The loss is vast, our understanding of it becoming gradually less minute; I remember in the late summer of 1978, when this was climbing the charts, listening to Peter Clayton’s Sunday night Sounds of Jazz show on Radio 2, and in particular to a live session by the Mike Westbrook Brass Band – I think they were playing “Holy Thursday.” Anyway, the music was slow and mournful, and Paul Rutherford was the featured soloist on trombone; but his solo was in two parts. The first was straight balladry, but then halfway through, the trapdoor is suddenly pulled open from beneath and the whole group, led by Rutherford, retreat into grumbling free jazz atonality. It seemed fairly evident to me that this and “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” were coming from the same Sargasso sea of tonality.

A few months earlier there had been “Wishing On A Star,” with oboe and strings doing their best to hold Dickey back from collapse, although the song seems more of a lament for times gone than a love forlorn – “I wish on all the people we might have been,” Dickey sings near the beginning, later on amending it to the more sinisterly poignant “…all the people we’ll never be.” At another point – it’s part of what is not quite a chorus – she sings, virtually in one breath, “Make the best of things oh baby when we’re together/Whether or never.” In other words, even if she got back what she was wishing for, it still wouldn’t be great. And whether or never what, exactly? The song’s arrangement emphasises the near-schizophrenic indecision at work here, seesawing between ascending Moog bubbles and put-back-in-their-place string balladry, never to be resolved, not even in the long fade, when Dickey quietly explodes. With both of these songs – the 1989 Fresh 4 cover of “Wishing” especially on my mind – there is a certain determined stealthiness which puts me in mind of Massive Attack; the very pronounced basslines, the crepuscular creeps.

Elsewhere Whitfield appears to have wondered what the Temptations might have been; “I Wanna Get Next To You,” sung by the very Eddie Kendricks-ish falsetto of guitarist Kenji Brown, is exactly the type of old school ballad for which the Temps may have yearned, but in fact it is a sequel to the not very reassuring “Just My Imagination” in that the singer has now summoned up enough nerve to at least try and speak to the girl. His patter, however, is not exactly persuasive; “Talkin’ ‘til I’m black and blue,” “You and I go sailin’ by,” “And girl, you make me feel so insecure”…who’s going to be captivated by this kind of paranoia? Certainly not the decidedly unimpressed girl to whom the song is sung (and danced!) in the film.

“Angel In The Sky,” however, is a glorious ballad worthy of Thom Bell, which seems to rotate around Dickey’s axis of simple faith; “You were so untrue…but now you’re true,” initially accompanied by only brushes and piano before the song opens out like so many February petals. “I’m In Love,” again sung by Brown, dazzles with displacement; his ecstatic, descending “Your ecstasy-y-y-y-y-y-y,” met by high strings swooping down, his bemused but elated rejoicing (“Wonderful! Marvellous!,” “I feel like a child on Christmas morning”). You may notice that there’s a little fill towards the end which later in the decade will form the basis of “I Wonder If I Take You Home” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam.

In “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight,” Dickey grieves eloquently; she is in a ‘plane (“Lookin’ down from Heavensville” as she puts it) searching for the guy (“And hope is my friend,” the obverse of “Goodbye To Love”) who years, or was it days, ago “jumped into your car/With your guitar”; she hears his songs on the radio but cannot find him. Midsong there is a vertiginous breakdown, with disturbing clashing cymbals and adder-like strings, but the overall feeling is that of “Wichita Lineman” crossed with “Country Boy” and exiled into seventies urbanism; at one point I imagine I hear Dickey crossly singing, “I wish you never saw a guitar!”

“You’re On My Mind,” once more I think lead-sung by Jones, is a satisfying side-closer. We are presented with brash Pearl and Dean brass and string fanfares which are silenced by the rattle of a conga. The singer is beyond himself with joy – at one point he exclaims, “I’d marry you NOW!” – and then the song moves suddenly but naturally into a Gaye-esque 3/4 with Fifth Dimension harmonies, before settling on a steadier 6/8 tempo with harp glissandi falling like showers of silver.

It’s back to the disco for the “Dancing” side, and “Is It Love You’re After,” their last significant UK hit, is the best of starts, with its insolently confident synth sequencing, its hyperactive brass, strings and percussion, all working against Dickey’s rather fear-filled vocal (“Do I, bay-bee?” she warily spells out) because she doesn’t know whether she’s going to be properly loved or whether this is just another one-hit wonder…

“Car Wash” itself is pretty much unassailable, I think, with its gradual build-up of handclaps, lead guitar, murmuring bass, etc., into Riser’s courtly Radio Clyde jingle strings, but it also lends clues as to how the film isn’t quite the carefree, laugh-a-minute experience you might imagine; yes, the boss doesn’t mind sometimes if you act the fool, but you don’t get rich (although it’s better than digging a ditch) and the assembly line chant of “WORK! And WORK!” suggests that it’s not a happy-go-lucky free-for-all, like Barney Miller but with cars (that show always reassured me in my younger days, going out as it did Thursday nights on STV, after News At Ten; no shoot-up epics or crises of faith going on, mostly humdrum but congenial day-to-day hustling along in the office). Similarly, the film climaxes with a sacked worker contemplating a robbery and only being talked out of it at the last moment; already everyone in the film knows that they’re going to keep clocking in, washing cars and clocking out for perhaps ever.

The rest of the side you probably won’t know so well, so “It Makes You Feel Like Dancin’,” with its gruffly confident spoken MC introduction – it is like David Ruffin doing Disco Tex – settles very nicely into a squishy Clinton-ish groove. “Do Your Dance,” with yet more booming syndrum, has its highlight when the band, a third of the way through the song, sing “Let’s get it on” and abruptly coalesce in a perfect Heatwave harmony. Dickey has great fun with “First Come, First Serve” – a faster “I Will Survive” with far more fuck-you-Jack content than melodrama – with its plump and funky bass, brass and percussion (“And I’m in desperate need YELP!!” – she does this a couple more times throughout the song, as though having just sat on an electric pin cushion) and insane random synth blasts.

“Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” sounds as though it stemmed from a jam; if that trumpet fanfare and the subsequent boom of “Talk is CHEAP!” (“That’s RIGHT, honey!,” Dickey replies immediately) sound familiar, it is because Starlight sampled both for their great 1989 dance hit “Numero Uno.” The number sounds like the Ohio Players during a round of poker (“25! 25? Nah, FIFTY!!”) with pronouncements of equal absurdity (“Right on!” “Put up or shut up!,” “Rock steady!”).

Finally, both romance and dance are united in 1978’s very fine “Ooh Boy” with more salty lashings of harp, although the lyric plays like the girl’s response to the protagonist of “I Wanna Get Next To You” (“I want to see you walking past my window/And I don’t even know your name” – plotwise, this is getting like Danny Wallace’s best-selling novel Charlotte Street).

What to make of it all, then? Side one is what might have happened had Whitfield been put in charge of operations at MoWest, with all that strange offshoot’s nocturnal rumblings. But side two makes me think of everyone who would have been listening to and absorbing this record, whether in its British or American form – not just the contemporaneous Solar music from LA (Shalamar, the Whispers), but the young Snoop Dogg and Warren G, and, over here, Martin Fry, George Michael, Mick Hucknall and Trevor Horn, among very many others, learning its lessons (so much of it, not least "Is It Love You're After," would reappear in altered format towards the end of this decade). The record is always approachable – Dickey pulls off the trick of sounding sweet, or hurt, without becoming cloying; her voice is masterfully understated, yet the approach as a whole works magnificently. Another bridge between one version of the seventies and another of the eighties; another building block for what will eventually happen. No wonder so many people loved the record; someone at Universal should think about reissuing this on CD.