There’s 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-1980s, 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 needed 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. It lacks the aggression, the emphasis on power and backbeat, of rock music.
Bobby Caldwell made an enduring classic of this kind of music called What You Won’t Do for Love. Of course, it’s a great song, sung brilliantly by an underrated vocal talent. But that’s not all it is. Produced and engineered by Ann Holloway Masters (rare indeed in the late 1970s for a woman to not only produce but engineer a session), it’s a wonderful sounding record, too, with a glorious low-end richness (the bass guitar is gorgeously thick, the toms have been damped and tuned low) and a beautiful sleepy horn sound. The guitar plays Curtis Mayfield-esque soul licks, and Caldwell holds the whole thing together with his electric piano. Late in the song, during the long outro, a nocturnal synth comes in of the sort that would be sampled endlessly in 1990s hip-hop. The band hangs on to the groove for a few minutes after Caldwell stops singing, and frankly, if they’d have kept going for hours I wouldn’t skip it.
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, 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 1980s (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’s Pro-Tooled world.
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
Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?