A tale of a British band who forged their own sound in the genre blending era of the early 1980s.
British culture has always had a habit of consuming various international genres and spitting it out and creating something fresh and invigorating. From heavy metal to Britfunk, acid house and rave, through to IDM, grime, dubstep, garage and beyond, genres have been forged from the minds of others and rubber stamped with the British mark. It is perhaps the melting pot of ideas, cultures and nationalities that have created such a slew of ideas and concepts, all helped out by like minds who brought new approaches to initially album writing, then through to club and dance music culture. These individuals have propelled forward the UK scene as one that has always wanted to be listened to, heard about, and enjoyed.
The post-disco era threw up some interesting sub genres, and many did not quite imagine what would precede it. Djs began to rule the roost, and threw into the mix 12 inch singles; electronic elements emerged, and dominated the vibe of things to come; and the liberation of the underground permeated through, touching on many artists who were drawn to the concept of acceptance, of music that made people feel good, dance and smile at one another. Whilst much of this developed in the United States, where under the watchful eyes of Mr Knuckles and Mr Hardy in Chicago, Mr Mancuso then Mr Levan and Mr Siano in New York, new breeds of dance music were being generated, through delicate touches to the experience, mood and beat tempo. This would be the beginning of house music, and its early years, soundtracked by the likes of Larry Heard, Jesse Saunders, Marshall Jefferson and JM Silk, was dominated by emotion and groove. Music directed at a continually evolving and liberated crowd that had grown from a few nightclubs before in New York, Chicago and other places to being a fully fledged movement.
Yet, despite all these wonderful developments, one band, from the UK, stood out as an anomaly to this. Imagination. A group that produced such vibrant energetic sex driving tunes throughout their early years, via the use of synthesisers and electronic focused music. It bled emotion, energy, and sex appeal, at a time where the musical landscape in the United Kingdom was still reeling from the punk era. Nothing from the post-punk, post-disco era, from a British point view, sounds quite like their first two albums, both such expressive and ahead of their time, that prompted their music to make it back across the pond and play a pivotal role in the night club culture there. This was to be one of Britain’s many answers to the new forms of dance music coming out the United States.
‘Body Talk’, released in 1981, and ‘In the Heat of the Night’, released in 1982, represent the very best of their musical outputs. Two albums simmering with erotic endeavours, colourful melodies, and a variety of beats, moods and contexts. The heat and fever that reverberate off these two records is ridiculous, sex appeal to the max, and catchy harmonies that do nothing but entice the listener to close their eyes and feel the groove. Primarily recorded with electronic instruments, both records were significant in their sound, a male trio with angelic pipes over the top of driving beautiful r’n.b music. Their image, inspired by the looks of Bowie, Boney M and the Richie Family, only added to the mystique and intrigue of the group. Here was a group that added to the rich musical vibes of the Britfunk movement, that fused all manner of styles under one banner. A genre that will be touched on in more detail in another essay.
I’m Burnin’ Up
‘Body Talk’ came out in 1981, and is considered memorable in many ways, primarily through its original and authentic British sound, with the vocals very much a British thing; and its usage of electronic instruments to create an emotive and evocative sound, sexy, seductive yet such an underlying groove it cannot be denied (it almost jumps out the speakers). ‘Body Talk’, the title track and first single, jumps right into it, the classic Imagination sound. Delightful keys jump around a ever changing lead rhythm and chord structure, before a piano solo drives the song forward. It is the composition of various elements that really set the tone, before the lead vocals of Leee John come in. Supported brillantly by Ashley Igram, who performs a deep baritone style, the singers join forces so strongly, over the evolving passion underneath. Its sheer magnitude and its complexity are on show here, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. The piano solos glide around constantly, keeping interest and the tenderness going. Whoever is experiencing the body talk is one lucky person…..The next track, ‘So good, so right’, is perhaps the highlight of both records. A kick drum, light hi hats, drive forward with delicate synths over the top. Then, such a delightful chord progression kicks in, like the sun coming up (big time). If ‘Body talk’ was the erotic opener, on the dance floor, this is where the passion comes to life. Private, intimate, graceful. Building from something, to becoming something, the intro just keeps going on and go, leaving the listener locked into its epic soundscape. How so much can be made with so few instruments, god only knows. Its the intelligent songwriting, the build up, that makes this track. Establishing something so strong, that it could go anywhere and still be considered brilliant. Here, the house vibes kick in, displaying the kind of evolution that would become a stable for artists like Larry Heard, Glenn Underground and Fred P. To finish off a side like that, you need some kind of slamming and poetically energetic tune; ‘Burnin’ up’ is just that, piano chords stab, drums kick hard, solos burn, vocals kept to the bare minimum. It is the house blueprint all over. Frankie Knuckles said that this was a significant influencer on the then blossoming Chicago scene, and it is so very clear here where he was coming from. A tune that is impossible not to dance to, a track stuffed to the brim of energy and delight. A perfect ender to a perfect A side of a true British original.
Side B starts off with the delightful ‘Tell me do you want my love’. More straight up and less of a build up than the first side, it still delves into that evocative journey the band want the listener to go on. Leee John describes summer nights, feverish attraction and sexual energies that vibe along to a dense and melodic groove. The vocals on this number really shine through, and showcase John’s beautiful vocal range. Going from the almost talk-singing to soaring highs, this performance reminds one of Robert Owens and his work with Fingers Inc. The use of the vocalist as a instrument, as a soloist almost. The song finally climaxes with a wonderful synth solo, that stabs around perfectly to the ever evolving flavours underneath. ‘Flashback’ comes next, and is one of Imagination’s most well tunes. Instantly catchy, intensely groovy, it is perhaps the most 80s feeling of all the tunes (if that is a thing?), but holds its own, and is very reflective of Imagination’s distinctive sound. The synth solo, a key asset that appears on many of their songs, is perhaps the highlight of the whole tune, coming in and providing a great foil to John’s singing. The final two tunes, ‘I’ll always love you’ and ‘in and out of love’ are both lovely slow burners, and its interesting to see their place at the end of the album. This whole album just flows effortlessly together, from the straight up to the all the way down, it has it all. These two final pieces also sound like a regret, like the energies of the rest of the record have lead to this moment. A moment of reflection, a moment of sorrow on an other wise extremely upbeat and sex driven record, that comes to the boil on so many occasions. On a warm summer night, this album remains a perfect companion.
Heart ‘N’ Soul
The follow up, ‘Heat of the Night’, continues on the simmering erotism to a T. A wonderful continuation of the first record, at times more dancy, at times more dense, it represents a evolution yet a familiarity remains that keeps the music alive and kicking. The album brought more attention to the band, with singles that propelled the group to the forefront of the burgeoning dance music scene within the United Kingdom and across the pond. The first track, the title track, is a delicate synth lead warm dip into a summer night, with a delicate blend of drums and keys that grooves along nicely. The signature piano solo comes in and adds so much to the track, and keeps bobbing away, eyes closed and full of dreamy escapes. Next comes the pure energetic work out, ‘Heart N Soul’, a deep exercusion into the realms of house and synth pop that contributes enormously to the house blueprint. The synth lines dip and move around, driving forward incessantly, with fast and powerful vocals that never refrain from the beat, just moving it forward. Then, out of no where, comes the the key solo to end all key solos. Delightful, powerful, grooving, the vocals come in and out as solos keep bringing back in and out. Wonderful, energetic, graceful, all the kicks, all the melody. It is perhaps Imagination’s best tune, and stands out amongst these two albums as a song that reflects what is to come.
Up next, ‘Music and Lights’, shifts the focus away from erotic passions within long summer nights to more general fun, a vibe thats playful and groovy rather than steamy and dripping with sweat. ‘All night lovin’ brings the vibe way back down, and would have fitted quite nicely on the first record. Dreamy chords float in and around, with a lovely synth line that compliments John’s voice perfectly, it is a slow burner that was demanded after two energetic work outs. The final side features three tunes that work alongside each other really well; ‘Just an illusion’, ‘All I want to Know’, and ‘One More love’, a trio of tunes that happily go through the notions of dancing the night away to emotional fine tuning, to getting into a groove through to setting your heart on fire. To end the album, the anthem, ‘Changes’. An absolute belter of a tune, and a fitting end to a brilliant album, this tune represents yet again Imagination’s forward thinking vision and outlook regarding music. A steady and deep dance tune, it incorporates dub keys, beautiful hooks and strong vocal lines. It has all the ingredients of a classic dance anthem, so much so that Larry Levan led his hand to a brilliant Paradise edit that rocked the club throughout the 1980s.
Imagination represented many things during their early career, but one word springs to mind, in regards to the British musical landscape at the time; originality. Within the sea of brit funk experimentation, that yielded brilliant results, from space jazz to high tempo disco, they stood out as pioneering the notion of an electronic band with melodic singing and a high level of musicality. In short, they stood out like Giogio Moroder and Donna Summer did during the height of disco, representing another step forward within dance musics developing soundscape. A trio expanding their minds through soaking up the genres swimming around them, accumulating in two albums that represent the very best of their discography. This is reflected in the best tunes from this record being reworked for the 1983 album ‘Night Dubbing’, that included Larry Levon remixes. Contextualising their music, in this sense, means that Imagination will always be that band that injected an important and necessary musical influence into dance music, the step forward, the sign of things to come. It is hard to think of a group that better mixed eroticism with danceability, class with grace, during this time period. Their music will forever groove into the night, inspiring lovers, and grooving out dark sweaty nightclubs.
Imagination. A true British Original.