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Music

Hangin' Loose: Exploring British Soul in the Music of Loose Ends

Loose Ends cultivated an art in supreme sophistication with their groundbreaking experiments in British soul and R&B during the '80s. Decades later, their music remains as potent as it was when it first graced the airwaves and clubs of both the UK and US.

The Art of Chill

Their humble beginnings are the stuff of most successful bands. It starts with little means – just enough to get by on the fuel of an inspired idea. The rest, they say, is history. It was probably a little more complicated than that but England’s Loose Ends made life seem so easy, their lush pop-funk as inviting as a warm midnight bath. It probably wasn’t as innocuous as that either; this is a band that penned a song called “If My Lovin’ Makes You Hot”, after all (a wink of humour there, to be sure). But the band turned their practice of musical convalescence into more than just a novel idea.

By the time Loose Ends were four albums into their career, they had appropriated their initial designs into an artform that defined chilling out. There had been many R&B acts that came before them, each with some angle on the market that would hopefully set them apart from the rest. Yet Loose Ends easily made an impression upon listeners. They were doing something that had already been done before a hundred times over since the start of the ‘80s. But they were doing it in such a way that seemed to breach old patterns and rewrite the marketing plan on radio-ready R&B. And they always did it with the cool and easy release of supreme sophistication.

Comprised of keyboardist Steve Nichol (a one-time model), singer and bassist/guitarist Carl McIntosh and singer Jane Eugene, Loose Ends’ germinating seed was classically-trained musician Nichol, who would also play with bands like the Jam and write for artists like Phyllis Hyman. After trying out a number of musicians for a potential act, Nichol discovered McIntosh; Eugene reportedly met Nichol earlier at a party in London. Once the band had been firmly established (with Nick Martinelli as producer), work was cut for their first set of material, which would become 1984’s A Little Spice, an album that not only bridged the gap between American and British pop influences, but also set the precedent for British contemporary R&B.

A Little Spice’s velvet-ensconced sophisti-pop is an entire world within the world of R&B, hovering just beneath the twilit atmospheres of smooth jazz. It retains a remarkable edge because it borrows heavily from funk as it does hook-laden pop. It shouldn’t have budged from the quiet storm stations it was expected to be consigned to. But the album’s revisionist nature helped to ensure that it would find a niche in a market that had pegged new wave as the hub of pop radio in the 1980’s. A sultry mix of champagne-pop, new wave accents and the grooves of a richly delectable brand of R&B, A Little Spice captured listeners’ imaginations in a big way. Selling club-goers on dreams of penthouse decadence and refined living, Loose Ends’ debut signaled a new understanding and respect for British R&B that had not been previously established in such a manner by the band’s preceding contemporaries.

Rife with suggestive lyrics and a pervading atmosphere of midnight, A Little Spice demonstrates pop smarts in McIntosh’s humanized basslines, Eugene’s sensuous delivery and Nichol’s satin-sheeted melodies of which he dispenses with sumptuous release on either keyboards or synthesizer. Opening with the spirited “Tell Me What You Want”, Loose Ends introduces listeners to a brand of R&B that suggests a cushy lounge-in at a jazzercize studio (think sipping Burgundy in legwarmers). If it sounds silly by today’s digitally immaculate standards, it should be noted that there is a certain charm in the artless pursuit of crudely improvised luxuries. A certain charm which, by the way, powers each band member’s songwriting prowess; all arrangements hinge on the crux of ingenuity. Loose Ends make things seem as simple and easy as flowing water, but behind the veneer of gloss there is an almost punkish aesthetic at work. In the sing-song rush of “Choose Me (Rescue Me)”, the band appropriates a conga-rippled groove to the tune of a playground chant which sounds so innocuous and smooth, you barely even notice. On “Dial 999”, the remnants of disco culture bleed into the throb of ‘80s new wave pop while Eugene upholds the R&B quotient with an understated but soulful vocal.

Released a year later in the US, A Little Spice’s American edition replaced a track originally available on the UK version with a number that would prove to be the band’s signature tune and biggest hit. Also made available on both the UK and US edition of Loose Ends’ sophomore release, So Where Are You?, the signature tune in question, “Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)”, was one of the most definitive British R&B singles of the decade. Crossing over into the US and doing massive damage on the charts in their homeland, the song achieved a poised and seamless balance of two respective musical cultures, straddling the line that lay between America’s street-smart urban funk born out of New York hip-hop and the smooth, refined gloss of British soul. Over a warm, glowing, synthetic bounce and slices of organ-grinding funk, the band members each lay down a vocal of impossible delectation, heralding a wave of British R&B talent that would soon flourish in the wake of the song. A moment of sheer resplendence, “Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)” has been a go-to sample favourite of hip-hop artists everywhere 30 years on after its initial release; it’s a goldmine of sonic resources that is never exhausted. Furthermore, the song epitomizes supreme urbanity and demonstrates an interminable freshness rarely achieved in dance music.

The hit single’s parent album featured a set of even groovier exploits, paring back much of the lush sonics of the debut for a stronger emphasis on dance club rhythms. In addition to their smash hit single, Loose Ends explore the darker neon hues of nightlife on 1985’s So Where Are You?, discovering a playful sense of mystery on colourfully textured numbers like “Magic Touch” and “New Horizon”. Aiming for a more nocturnal vibe of love and excitement on their sophomore effort, Loose Ends rev up the synthesizers, capitalizing on the ever-expanding technology of electronic dance music culture. If Kraftwerk humanized the synthesizer, then Loose Ends sensualised it, injecting blue-mood soul into their mechanized grooves like a ghost in the machine. “Give It All You Got” translates heat and energy with an electronic beat in which its crevices are filled in with the quick rush of drum fills; it’s uplifting and joyous, pushing for only the most innocent of thrills. On the David Bowie cover “Golden Years”, the band reworks the original’s funked-out glam rock into a sonic fabric of smooth, iridescent soul-pop. Even the album’s ballads betray a quiet sense of delight, escaping a common R&B ballad pitfall of maudlin emoting. Bathed in the dusky glow of an indigo night, the title-track offers soft accents of guitars and the trills of keyboards that forever float in the violet airs of an urban cityscape.

The exotic flavouring of their third LP, Zagora (1986), had the band exploring an African consciousness that found them interpolating rhythms and instruments from places like Morocco into their music. An album rich with the heat and dusty airs of North Africa, Zagora reinvented R&B as a musical construct that would house various global influences. Highly evocative of the sensuously warm sands of Morocco’s brilliant red deserts, Zagora equates a certain sophistication inherent in soul and R&B music with a beauty both ancient and eternal running deep in African lands. Producer Martinelli was on board (as he had been for the first two releases) and integrated these new influences into the band’s songwriting with aplomb and ease. The coalescence of all these elements on the album is so smooth, you may miss Zagora’s global influences if you don’t pay close attention.

The album’s first single, “Stay a Little While, Child” opens with a North African tabla and a synthesized keyboard riff of a Moroccan-influenced melody. Those elements soon melt into the production of the electronicized soul-groove with a coordination so seamless, you can no longer tell the Western influences from the African ones. As always, rhythm is of the essence and a full dancefloor is guaranteed. On the slow-burning funk of “I Can’t Wait”, the North African elements are once again amalgamated into the mid-tempo sway with smooth dexterity; you’ll only hear the African percussion if you train your ears carefully on the sound. On the breathless “Gonna Make You Mine”, there is a playful hint of Afro-pop infusing the number with a shimmering palette of sun-baked colours. If Loose Ends’ first two albums explored British soul through an American refraction of urban musical influences, Zagora found the band expanding in other ways that saw their R&B taking root just as easily in an entirely separate musical culture altogether.

1988 saw the band reframe their sound yet again as technology moved upwards in the world of sound production. Employing once again the efforts of Martinelli, they recorded The Real Chuckeeboo, an album that pulled from the shiny urbane pop of the burgeoning new jack swing movement while retaining the influences of smooth sophisti-pop soul. Far more jubilant with an urgent sense of fun, The Real Chuckeeboo is a stylish exercise in crossover soul-pop that stretched each of the band members’ talents to remarkable extremes. The album follows its own internal logic (seemingly, at times, it is something of a concept album) and implores listeners to accept the band’s curious transformation in sound from chic, languid soul to a bracing strut of edgy, club-oriented R&B. First single “Watching You” reveals a sound edging closer to the chrome-tipped funk that was currently being explored by the top US producers at the time. A following single, “Mr. Bachelor”, was the lustrous pinnacle of their newfound sound. A voluptuous and succulent groove weighted by a heavy, swaying bassline, “Mr. Bachelor” marvellously charms with a highly infectious call-and-response refrain. It is another splendid jewel in a crown decorated with the many gems that the band had produced in a short but already influential career.

If Loose Ends epitomized a certain sound that defined British soul, they also had a congruous image that ceremoniously presented them as the face of UK’s contemporary R&B scene at the time. Their album covers were seemingly modeled after paintings by African-American artists like Keith Mallett, Jacob Lawrence and Hughie Lee Smith, which evoked the dignified airs of young, black artists making resolute and significant strides within London’s then evolving and visionary art scene. A Little Spice sees the band throwing voguish new wave shapes on an album cover that boldly pronounces their arrival in smart, tight-fitting neon red sweaters, each band member strategically positioned around pieces of geometric modern art. The album jacket for So Where Are You? features the band dressed to the nines and lounging in a hopelessly stylish penthouse suite where they sit bathed in moonlit shadows, looking relaxed, bored and impossibly chic. The music housed within the jacket does what the album cover photo suggests: it creates a sonic world to present a lifestyle of supreme elegance that the band’s image obliquely promises.

Their music videos are even more of a revelation. “Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating)” has the band artfully displaced in a modernist-pop netherworld in which they navigate their way through a backlit forest of tethered rope. In “Mr. Bachelor”, the world turns Day-Glo; playfully mugging for the camera and executing a few nifty dance moves, the band laughs it up in a swirling collage of superimposed images. They are singing about heartache and betrayal, harmonizing their lovelorn affectations. But the entire affair is shot through with pure joy, a true spark of imagination. Here, in the chaotic, good-natured fuss in the video, the band demonstrates a prescient moment of inspiration: the sound of fun being had, of style and substance formalizing, of a history being written in song...

* * *

The first two releases, A Little Spice and So Where Are You? by Loose Ends have been reissued by Cherry Red Records.

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