There exists a strain of music that came into existence around 1975 and began to disappear in around 1985. It sits on the opposite end of the fidelity spectrum to the messy lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff that entranced me as a teenager. Not a genre so much as a sensibility, it’s principally American (although copied all over the world) and could only exist in a booming industry. Its creation required the spending of a great deal of money, both on studio time and top-flight musicians; pillow-soft but steady as machine, it is, crucially, not machine-made. When hardware sequencing became a dominant studio resource in the mid-eighties, this music was finished commercially within a year or so and done altogether by the mid-nineties. Not black or white, not rock or pop, not funk or soul, it was instead all of these and none of these. To make it you need electric pianos, jazz chords, dampened drums and vocals mixed dry and close. It was made by adults, for adults. To this day, it doesn’t have a satisfactory name. Some call it yacht rock, which speaks to its opulence but says nothing about the music itself, relatively little of which was rock.
Bobby Caldwell made an enduring classic of this kind of music called What You Won’t Do for Love. Caldwell is not a major figure in the recording industry’s history; he’s a Michael McDonald or Boz Scaggs but without the deep songbook, a white singer of black music (convincing enough that his label marketed him to a black audience and put a silhouette painting of him on the cover so they wouldn’t twig that he was white). Yet minor figures can make major records; any major dude will tell you that much.
Many of the qualities we perceive in music have obverse and reverse sides: ‘sensitive’ can easily flip over into ‘drippy’. ‘Soulful’ can become ‘histrionic’. ‘Refined’ can become ‘boring’. ‘Stylish’ can become ‘vapid’. This happens with wearying regularity. Sometimes telling one from the other is just a matter of perception; an artist’s subtlety can come to seem timid over the course of a whole record. With this song, though, Caldwell managed to pull off that rare trick: everything good about Bobby Caldwell as singer, writer and record-maker is in this cut, and none of the weaknesses are present. The result is a record that’s damn near perfect.
What You Won’t Do For Love hit big, deservedly, on the pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It’s been covered by Boyz II Men, Roy Ayers, Goldie and Go West and sampled by 2Pac (three times!), Biggie Smalls, Aaliyah, Kool G Rap and the Luniz. Caldwell will have a comfortable retirement off that little lot. Good on him.
But the style he worked in is a thing of the past now. As the record-making process became more computerised, the precision of the drum machine became more highly valued than the feel of a steady human drummer. Yet the feel of this style of music was the result of asking gifted musicians to play understatedly – steadily – without obvious shows of virtuosity, in service of the song. While the programmed rhythm and the MIDI keyboard might have seemed like shortcuts to a professional-sounding sheen, they led instead to the brashness and gigantism that we now associate with the eighties (but which didn’t begin at the start of the decade – it crept in instead, becoming the dominant aesthetic around 1984 and 1985) and the rigidity and uniformity of today. Once-mighty kings of this smooth, soul-inflected pop music – Steely Dan, McDonald, Scaggs – now huddle together for warmth like disaster survivors, touring together as the Dukes of September Rhythm Revue. Ticket prices are astronomical: then as now, great players, horn sections and orchestras cost money. Then as now, this shit is expensive
Just to clear things up…
This is Bobby Caldwell, funky white guy.
This is Bobby Caldwell, drummer
This is Dr Bobby Caldwell, plastic surgeon on St Elsewhere
For anyone who’s interested, here’s a link to some of my music: