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Nu Shooz on Bringing the '80s Back for COVID-19 Relief and the Enduring Appeal of "I Can't Wait"

Photo: Hiroshi Iwaya / Courtesy of the artrist

Nu Shooz, the duo of Valerie Day and John Smith, discuss participating in the '80s virtual concert Back to the Basement, airing this Saturday.

Thirty-five years ago, the Portland, Oregon-based group Nu Shooz — led by the husband-and-wife duo of guitarist John Smith and singer Valerie Day—independently put out an EP called Tha's Right. While that record didn't set the pop charts on fire upon its original release, it did contain a song called "I Can't Wait", an infectious funk and soul number that would eventually transform Nu Shooz's fortunes forever. But even then, the duo had no idea of the song's viability as a hit when they re-recorded it for 1986's Poolside album, their major-label debut for Atlantic Records.

"Our manager called me up and said, 'We need to make a record,'" recalls Smith, "because he didn't like our previous record before he came on board. He asked, 'What songs would you record if you could?' I said, 'There's this one song called "I Can't Wait", and I think it sounds real.' Valerie sounds real on it. Of all the stuff we have, it's the one that sounds most like a record. We didn't know what Top 40 radio was. Nobody knows in the world knows what's going to be a hit."

Decades later, "I Can't Wait" remains Nu Shooz's signature song, which the duo still perform at their shows, most recently as part of the Lost 80s Live tour that features artists such as A Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, and Naked Eyes. Those acts from the 1980s along with Cutting Crew, Animotion, the Escape Club and others are going to be taking part in a virtual benefit concert, Back to the Basement, this coming Saturday. Money raised from T-shirt sales from the event—which is a celebration of the doctors, nurses, first responders, and health care workers on the front-lines during the coronavirus pandemic—will go to the nonprofit organization Direct Relief.

Nu Shooz's involvement in the Back to the Basement virtual concert stems from their experiences with Lost 80s Live. "We met Greg Ross, who is a dynamo," says Day. "Greg is one of the coolest humans. He was doing the T-shirts for the tour. We talked a lot backstage and got to be friends. He loves music. When the COVID stuff was happening, he was like, 'Hey, I have an idea. Let's do a show!' He reached out to a bunch of the artists who we've been on tour with, and they said yes. He found a great organization to donate the proceeds to, and we were off and running."

In previewing the event, Day describes Nu Shooz's upcoming performance from their home studio as a "jacked-up" home movie. As far as their expectations from the show, she says, "I hope it gives them a little bit of a break from the stress of this moment, that they find a little joy in watching these bands perform these songs from their living rooms to the audience's living rooms. I also hope there's some money raised for this organization. Obviously, there are people out there who didn't sign up to be on the front-lines who are still there, making it possible for the rest of us to go on living."

Also related to the cause, Day appears as a guest backing vocalist on Wang Chung's new version of "Everybody Have Fun Tonight", this time reworked as "Everybody Stay Safe Tonight" as a response to the pandemic. "That was so fun to do," she says. "They're one of our favorite bands from these '80s tours. When this idea was floated of having me sing on it, I was like. 'Of course, that would be a blast!' I ended up appreciating the song even more. Beautifully crafted, and the lyrics are fun. Just a great experience."

While Nu Shooz are mostly associated with the dance and freestyle genres from the MTV era, the group had been in existence for several years before "I Can't Wait" became a huge hit — formed in 1979 in Portland as a jazz-pop and soul collective. "It was the golden age of live music in Portland," Smith remembers. "We played in town for seven years, and we worked every weekend, four to five nights a week, four hours a night. By the time we got a record deal, we could really get up and play. Portland was an amazing place to have a band. We had a nine-piece band, 10 with a sound man."

With Day on board as the singer, the group's sound eventually evolved from jazz-pop to electronic dance music in line with the developing technology at the time. "We started out with a big Tower of Power type of horn section, and then we stripped down to two horns," says Smith. "'I Can't Wait' was on a cassette release before we got signed. In the studio where we made that, we used one of the first commercial MIDI synthesizers. So the transition was kind of organic."

"The great thing about Nu Shooz is that we got a modicum of fame by being ourselves," he continues. "It still sounds like Nu Shooz. Valerie emerged as the lead vocalist, so that's the continuity there. I see continuity than a huge shift. In reality, we were never a synthpop duo—we were a nine-piece horn band that evolved into this thing, and the record company put Valerie and I more out front."

"We got started in Atlantic in the dance department," Day adds. "That's also probably why a lot of people didn't know who we were before that moment, because when we started coming out to New York to do shows. It was just me playing in the dance clubs with all my percussion gear. Atlantic didn't really know who we were, so we were packaged as a duo when we really weren't."

The belief that "I Can't Wait" from the Tha's Right EP had potential was validated when Portland radio station Z100 started playing the song after a local writer said Nu Shooz's EP was great. "The phones lit up and boom!" recalls Smith. "It became an instant regional hit."

While "I Can't Wait" became popular on Pacific Northwest radio during the spring of 1985, it didn't immediately land Nu Shooz a record deal. Says Day, "It wasn't until 'I Can't Wait' was put on a DJ subscription album, which made it over to Holland as an import and was later remixed by Peter Slaghuis—and then came back to New York City as an import. Atlantic discovered it and decided to sign us to a singles deal that later turned into an album deal. When we finally made it out to New York, the people at Atlantic were like, 'Do you speak English?' Because they thought we were Dutch. And when they found out we were from Portland, they were like, 'Hey, do you guys still have covered wagons out there?'"

The rest became history for Nu Shooz. The re-recorded version of "I Can't Wait" from the Poolside album peaked at number three on the Billboard album charts. Nu Shooz made appearances on Top of the Pops and American Bandstand, and earned a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist. The success of "I Can't Wait" was followed by more hits in "Point of No Return" and "Should I Say Yes". Day acknowledges how much the couple's lives changed following that flush of success. "The great thing about it was after toiling in clubs for seven years before people knew our music for the first time," she says. "That was really wonderful. So that changed our lives in a big way. The shock was that we weren't prepared for the music business part of things. That was hard. It changed our lives in many ways, but mostly positive."

Years after their heady period of the mid to late 1980s, Nu Shooz's music has branched out stylistically. In the late 2000s, the group reinvented themselves as the Nu Shooz Orchestra, a jazzy, orchestral lounge pop project that led to the album Pandora's Box, which included a new stripped-down version of "I Can't Wait". A few years ago, the group put out Bagtown, a return to their early '80s roots pre-Poolside. "So we put the seventh incarnation of the Nu Shooz band and it was a great band," says Smith. "We went into the studio and made Bagtown with the directive that we needed stuff that was fun to play live. There's not a synthesizer on that record."

In addition to touring, Day and Smith's creative interests have also spread out: Smith has been working on a number of graphic novels in collaboration with the couple's son, and Day hosts a podcast, Living a Vocal Life, in which she interviews singers about their lives and careers. Meanwhile "I Can't Wait's" shelf life has not diminished in the 35 years since its original release, having been remade by Icona Pop and Questlove and featured in Hot Tub Time Machine, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and most recently the Netflix series Space Force.

"It enabled us to do other things, other kinds of music," Day says about that successful '80s period. "I did jazz for about 20 years after the record deal ended. John has done a lot of different kinds of music from country and western to classical. It's been a very good life. We have so much to be grateful for, including that the music is still listened to today, and even has a new audience as younger people discovered it."

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