Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross, and the long road to success [August 9, 1992]
Plus: The Smiths, The Wedding Present, Faith No More, and INXS
Greetings, Time Travellers! 👋
Welcome back to the week of August 9, 1992.
📰 In the news this week: Sky Sports invents a new sport called “football”, as the brand new FA Carling Premiership kicks off. First-ever Premiership goal? Brian Deane’s header for Sheffield United against Man U.
📽️Big new film in UK cinemas is Lethal Weapon 3. In this one, Murtagh is only six days from retirement—what can possibly go wrong?
📺On TV, Garry Shandling transforms sitcoms forever with the single-cam, laugh-track-free The Larry Sanders Show, which debuts on HBO.
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🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is still ‘Rhythm Is A Dancer’ by Snap! But let’s listen to…
This week’s Number 7: ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’ — Janet Jackson & Luther Vandross
If you’re successful at something you don’t want to do, are you really a success?
For example, imagine a guy who always wanted to be a painter, but ended up an accountant. He’s a great accountant, making loads of money and helping his clients. But he never got to live his dream.
Some might call him a failure on some level. Maybe he sees a failure when he looks in the mirror each morning.
Okay, now what about someone who is successful in a job adjacent to their dream? The painter who runs a gallery owner. The writer who becomes a literary agent. The footballer who ends up a sports journalist.
Are these people successful? Or is it somehow worse to miss out on your dream by a whisker?
The documentary 20 Feet From Stardom does a great job of exploring this dilemma. If you haven’t seen it (you should, it’s great), it’s about the world’s greatest backing singers, people like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. They all wanted to be famous singers in their own right, but they spent their careers standing behind the real stars.
The people featured in 20 Feet From Stardom all had incredible careers. They talk nostalgically about the times they had and the things they did, and how it was almost enough.
Okay, time travellers, today we need to go back beyond the 90s.
Back to 1981. We’re in Minneapolis. Everyone is shivering their asses off in another Minnesota winter, but there’s an excitement on the local music scene. Something incredible is happening. Prince is putting a new band together.
Prince is only 22, but he’s already working on his fifth album, the mighty Controversy. Songs are pouring out of him. One album per year is too slow a pace for his creative output
But his record contract allows him to sign and produce new artists for the record label. So, Prince puts on his Simon Cowell trousers and decides he’s going to manufacture a band.
First, he gets renowned local singer Maurice Day. Then he poaches some members of a local group called Flyte Time, which was a proper band that had previously included Cynthia Johnson (who sang ‘Funkytown’) and Alexander O’Neal.
All of which is to say: these guys are no slouches. This new band, called The Time, contains some of Minneapolis’s finest talent.
But if you listen to The Time’s debut album, you won’t hear them play a single note.
Prince was using The Time as a front to release more of his own music. He played every note on every instrument on their record. Maurice Day did sing the vocals, but he had to accord with Prince’s very detailed notes.
It was a Milli Vanilli situation, but if the Milli Vanilli guys had been talented musicians.
The Time did play as a live band. They supported the Controversy tour and focused all of their energy on blowing him Prince & The Revolution off the stage.
At one point, the tense atmosphere descended into a food fight, which began when Prince threw eggs at them while they were onstage. (Prince would later cast Maurice Day and The Time as the bad guys in Purple Rain.)
Two members of The Time were fed up with the situation. Keyboardist James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and bass player Terry Lewis had both been in Flyte Time days, and now they wanted to start their own band.
The pair started writing songs together while doing a little production work on the side. During a Prince tour, they got a call to come to help the S.O.S. band mix some new tracks.
Jam & Lewis planned to do the studio work and then immediately jump on a plane to join The Time in San Antonio, but a sudden blizzard left them stranded in Atlanta. Prince, furious at their insubordination, sacked them.
Prince basically fired us the night we mixed that record. When he called and wanted Terry back — he didn't want me back — that record came out and was a smash. At that point we were producers.
The record in question was ‘Just Be Good To Me’, which was a big hit (and an even bigger hit when Beats International reimagined it as ‘Dub Be Good To Me’.)
Jam & Lewis were suddenly in demand for their production skills, but the ultimate goal was unchanged: a Jam & Lewis solo album.
In 1985, Janet Jackson’s musical career was a disaster.
Her first two albums sank without a trace. Even her duet with Cliff Richard failed to chart.
Jam & Lewis were parachuted in to help her develop a new sound.
“Our approach to the artist had always been, ‘What do you want to sing about?’ We knew that Janet had a lot of attitude and a lot of feistiness just from watching her as a kid on the different TV stuff she did. Let's create music that has that kind of attitude and let her run with it
“For five or six days we just hung out. We went to the movies, hung out at the lake, went to some clubs. We would have conversations about different things. ‘Nasty’ was about some guys bothering her at a club and she was like, ‘I don't like nasty boys.’ She was talking about 'I'm moving out on my own. I'm getting a place.' Great, we're going to write ‘Control.’ That was the process.” — Jimmy Jam
The label loved the record that emerged from the Control sessions, but felt that she was still missing a knockout single.
One of the executives came to hang out with Jam & Lewis for a while, and the duo decided to seize the moment and talk about their plans for a solo record. They took the exec for a drive and played him some of their songs.
Jimmy Jam told the story to NPR last year:
“We hop in the car; Terry puts a cassette in and he says, ‘Listen to this. These are some things we're working on for our album.’ And about the third song, [the executive] goes, ‘Oh, that's the one I need for Janet right there!’ ... That song became ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately.’
“It was the song that launched her career basically and ended ours – at least as artists”
‘What Have You Done For Me Lately’ established Jam & Lewis as A-list producers. Their track record is mind-boggling: forty Top 10 hits; sixteen Number Ones; over 100 Gold and Platinum discs.
Here’s just a handful of the songs that they’ve produced:
‘Optimistic’—Sounds of Blackness
‘On Bended Knee’—Boyz II Men
‘Against All Odds’—Mariah Carey
‘No More Drama’—Mary J. Blige
‘U Remind Me’—Usher
Plus almost every Janet Jackson album since Control.
In 1992, they were asked to soundtrack the new Wayans Family movie, Mo’ Money. The Wayanses were the hottest property in entertainment, thanks to their very cool and funny sketch show In Living Color, so there were high hopes for the movie.
Sadly, the film turned out to be a bit of a mess, and failed to live up to its excellent soundtrack. The highlight was the smash-hit collab ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’, which combines the Luther Vandross’s old-school soul with Janet’s more contemporary R’n’B sound, and smashes it all into a feelgood pop song with a guest rap by Bell Biv DeVoe:
Last year, in 2021, the dream finally came true. Jam & Lewis finally released their debut album.
Jam & Lewis, Volume One is an absolute murderer’s row of guest collaborators, including Mariah, Mary J Blige, Usher, Toni Braxton, and their old friend Maurice Day.
While they are very gracious about their success, you have to imagine that this means a lot to Jam & Lewis. They’re not miming to Prince. They’re not helping Janet find her voice. Their names are on the cover of a record, rather than the small print on the inlay.
It took 40 years and a lot of detours, but they finally found success.
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Elsewhere in the charts
Number 10 (New Entry): ‘This Charming Man’ — The Smiths
But… listen to this. This is the standard he set for himself. This is perfection. Maybe Johnny was right when he went off and did something totally different with Electronic, because how can you top this?
Anyway, ‘This Charming Man’ was re-released to tie in with Best…1, a singles compilation that helped spark a mini-revival for The Smiths in 1992.
Number 17 (New Entry): ‘Baker Street’ — Undercover
One of the most enduring urban myths in pop music is that Bob Holness—the avuncular host of Blockbusters—played the sax solo on Gerry Rafferty’s ‘Baker Street’.
It’s not true, of course. It probably started as a joke, or as a mutated version of the very true fact that John Peel played mandolin for Rod Stewart when he did ‘Maggie May’ on Top Of The Pops. Whatever the origin, this rumour has persisted down through the years.
I think people believe it because it makes the world a slightly more magical place. Imagine walking into a jazz club, sitting in a booth with a whiskey, being enchanted by this guy in shades and a pork pie hat who is weaving a magical spell with his saxophone, when your partner nudges you and whispers, “isn’t that the guy from Blockbusters?”
Anyway, thanks to none other than John Matthews from Undercover for confirming who was on the sax in this version:
Number 19 (New Entry): ‘Boing!’ — The Wedding Present
I really like this one. It’s lots of fun. Or maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome after listening to so many Wedding Present singles this year. This is the 8th single, which means there’s only four to go.
Number 24 (New Entry): ‘Uh Huh Oh Yeah’ — Paul Weller
To be honest, it sounds like Paul is killing time here, just waiting for Britpop to be invented so he can be elevated to the status of Revered Uncle.
It sounds like a pub band. A really good pub band, but a pub band nonetheless.
Number 34 (New Entry): ‘A Small Victory’ — Faith No More
Not as audacious as ‘Mid-Life Crisis’, but definitely one of the standout tracks on Angel Dust. Deserves more love.
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Album of the Week
Welcome to Wherever You Are — INXS
The media spent years trying to manufacture a rivalry between INXS and U2, merely on the grounds that both bands occupied a similar cultural space.
Both bands came from countries that were relative backwaters in the 80s. Both bands pioneered a rock sound that made arenas tremble. And both bands were fronted by outrageously charismatic lead singers.
In truth, there never was a serious rivalry, and Bono and Michael Hutchence were quite good friends. Hutchence wrote the song ‘Elegantly Wasted’ about going on the piss with Bono, and Bono gets emotional these days when talking about his dead friend.
But if there had ever been a rivalry, it finished in 1992. U2’s Achtung Baby was a gauntlet thrown down to all those 80s stadium bands, challenging them to evolve or die.Welcome To Wherever You Are, despite it’s many merits, showed that the Australian band weren’t able to level up like that.
The influence of Achtung Baby is immediately obvious on the opening track. Supported by some experimental eastern rhythms, Michael Hutchence essentially sings the vocal from ‘The Fly’:
This kind of sets the tone for the record: lots of very interesting experimentation, but they can’t quite find a new sound to define the next phase of INXS.
Which is not a disaster because INXS were always fun to listen to, and they always reliably delivered two things: catchy grooves, and Michael Hutchence being extremely horny. The two collide on one of the album’s standout tracks, the lovely ‘Not Enough Time’, on which Hutchence sings: “Not enough time for every kiss/And every touch and all the nights/I want to be inside you”:
The centrepiece of the album is ‘Beautiful Girl’, which deserves its own essay. We might discuss it later, when it appears as a single. For now, let’s just say: great melody, but not sure about those lyrics.
The real standout single here is ‘Baby Don’t Cry’, a very fun Beatles-ey romp with a massive orchestral arrangement in the background:
Oasis ended up ripping off* ‘Baby Don’t Cry’ for their own bloated Beatles tribute ‘All Around The World’. This is ironic, because INXS had a genuine beef with the Gallaghers after Michael Hutchence presented them with a Brit award, and Noel graciously said “has-beens shouldn’t give awards to gonna-bes”.
IsWelcome To Wherever You Are the work of has-beens? Again, it really comes back to the Achtung Baby thing. This jump from the 80s to the 90s was hard on a lot of bands. U2 figured out that they would only survive if they shook things up. I think that INXS recognised this too, and that Welcome To Wherever You Are was their attempt to leap the chasm, but they just couldn’t quite reach the other side. Still, a decent record.
(*allegedly, in my opinion, please don’t sue)
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One of pop’s founding visionaries passes the torch to a new generation.