100 Essential CDs – Number 56 –The Very Best Of – Imagination

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The Very Best Of – Imagination (Music Club 2000)

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For a while it felt like I was stalking Imagination.  It was the early 80’s and I was a student with not much money but I still managed to find funds to go and see this group live three times in three very different venues.  At the very start of their career I was trying to keep my balance at the front of the stage at Exeter University, not much later on it was at the Hammersmith Odeon where they turned in a great performance and not too much longer after that it was at the Royal Albert Hall where they proved they could fill a venue and turn out a show which managed to be of a great standard, classy and yet a little cheesy.  That was what Imagination were really about.

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I still remember seeing them for the first time on “Top Of The Pops” performing their debut hit “Body Talk” wearing very little and delivering this slow, sinuous, relentless slab of Brit-funk which sounded like nothing else in the charts.  They very quickly established an identifiable sound of keyboard based jazz-funk, dance and commercial pop blend topped off with the excellent falsetto of Leee John (extra “e” intended),the very likeable tenor of Ashley Ingram and the hard-hitting drumming of Errol Kennedy.  Like a number of acts who had a very identifiable sound the record-buying public tired too soon and really after just two album releases there was evidence that Imagination had passed their peak sales-wise  but for those two albums and a handful of later tracks Imagination were a great British band.  It is these two albums – “Body Talk” from 1981 and “In The Heat Of The Night” from 1982 where the majority of tracks on this 2000 compilation come from.

This London –based trio could trace a heritage back to the great sweet soul acts of the 70’s as Leee and Ashley first met in America where they were working for two soul acts much loved in the UK – The Chairmen Of The Board and The Delfonics.  Meeting up again in London and adding drummer Kennedy to their ranks this three piece were signed to the R&B label and produced by Tony Swain and Steve Jolley who were influential in creating “The Imagination Sound”.  In fact, this CD contains two instrumental tracks which were off the duo’s 1985 album “Backtrackin’” strangely included here because they are “the sound of Imagination”.  These tracks are not essential by any means and are just largely throwaway examples of British jazz-funk a la Shakatak.  It is the vocals together with the instrumentation which creates the Imagination sound.

But there are enough examples of the vocals getting together with the music to create an important CD release.  I did own an earlier budget hits release on which I sense re-recording and others have edited down tracks or have been remixed to lesser effect.  I’ve looked at the track-listing of both 2013’s “Flashback – The Very Best Of Imagination” and 1995’s “The Singles – The Very Best Of” and this is definitely the one I would recommend, despite the non-Imagination tracks.  It contains the entire now quite hard to get debut album in full length versions and five of the eight tracks off the second album plus perhaps their two best single releases outside of these albums.

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Things kick off with “Flashback” which was the third single of the debut album and reached #16 in the UK charts in 1981.  Time has been quite good to this track but I remember at the time of its original release thinking it was perhaps the weakest track off the album.  It feels a little stop-start and never quite gets into top gear but all the elements of the Imagination sound are there and it is a good album opener.  This is followed up with their biggest UK hit off the second album.  “Just An Illusion” was denied the top spot in the charts in April 1982 by the monstrosity that was “Seven Tears” by the Goombay Dance Band (the unpredictability of the UK charts in the early 80’s is still a joy, most famously emphasised by Ultravox’s “Vienna” losing out to Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup Your Face”) but Imagination were equally deprived of their chart-topping moment with this swirling, slow-starting track with its handclaps and Leee’s lovely floating vocal.  All of the songs were written by Swain and Jolley together with at least John and Ingram and in the case of those from the first album alongside Errol Kennedy.  “Illusion” features a great keyboard solo and is one of those cool and classy dance tracks which replaced the fervour of late 70’s disco with a more insidious sound.

It’s back to the debut album for “So Good So Right” which is here included in its full length 7 minute version.  This track certainly sets a groove with stuttering synth lines then into handclaps before the melody begins to establish itself.  We were used to this kind of percussion breakdown in the middle of a track but it was unusual to have it at the beginning.  It’s two and a half minutes in before the vocals ease in with the repetitive yet charming song.  It does have the feel of “Body Talk” the track it followed on the debut but has its own identity and can be seen as an extension of that song.  It definitely has that jazz-funk feel which become a minor British musical phenomenon in the early 80’s added by some stabbing keyboard work.  It’s back to the hits from the second album with another of their career highspots “Music And Lights” which reached number 5 in 1982.  This has a stronger song structure than some  and certainly creeps into the mind with its “dud-dud-da’s” and “sequins and pearls”.  This one never grows old on me.  “Changes” was the fourth single release from the second album and faltered at number 31 at the end of 1982 (the album itself had reached number 7 and spent 29 weeks on the chart).  The last great track of the second album is up next “In The Heat Of The Night” (#22- 1982) is a track which certainly smoulders – slower paced then you might expect with the handclaps, jazzy feel and great vocals all once again in evidence.

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Sandwiched between Swain and Jolley’s “Soul Street” are two highspots from the first album.  The second single “In and Out Of Love” and “Burning Up”.  The debut album was definitely a slow burner, reaching number 20 on the charts but hanging around for over a year. “In and Out Of Love” reached #16 when it was released as a single- a tale of fickleness and indecision over a thudding dance beat.  “Burning Up” is an exceptional slab of funk, which reminds me of Peter Brown’s TK disco classic of three years before “Do You Wanna Get Funky With Me?”  This track was apparently a huge favourite of superstar DJ Frankie Knuckles and is often cited as a cornerstone of the Chicago House movement whereas it’s from three guys recording in the early 80’s in London.  It is more of a chant than a song, there’s little for the guys to do vocally then to claim “I’m burnin’ up” in the chorus and throw in a few “yeahs” and “woohs”.  Great keyboard and whooshing synthesizer work help raise up the temperature.  “Tell Me Do You Want My Love” wouldn’t sound out of place on Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” album- a charming mid-tempo track with a Quincy Jones-ish warmth.

Imagination were known as a dance act but in the ballad tracks they illustrated a versatility that showed this was a tip of the iceberg.  There are two excellent examples of this on the CD- “I’ll Always Love (Don’t Look Back)” was always, I remember, a highspot in the live shows as it really gives the chance for Leee to shine vocally as a great sweet soul performer with a magnificent falsetto.  It’s a dramatic, Orphic tale which if released as a single (perhaps the third single in place of “Flashback”) could have established a whole new dimension for the group which could have given them a longer lease of life.  By 1984 ballad tracks were being chosen as singles – “Thank You My Love” was very much a swan-song for the group and got them back into the Top 40 after an absence of nearly 18 months when it reached #22 in 1984.  This is a track where the cheesiness balance might just be slightly tilted but it saved by the warmth of John’s vocal and sheer earnestness that the whole things becomes something of a guilty pleasure.

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This CD certainly saves the best until last and the best is the debut hit – “Body Talk” which reached #4 in 1981.  The beat is almost lumbering and this is counterpointed with Leee’s light falsetto and Ashley’s romantic tenor.  It’s a track which felt both modern and yet almost a throwback to the previous decades soul gems such as The Stylistics who used the voices of Russell Thompkins Jnr and Airrion Love to similar effect but with one big difference, the Stylistics were not sexy.  This is one pelvis grinding, leg-humping beast of a track and when the group decided not to wear too much for their television appearances they certainly knew what they were doing.  The costumes were always part of the fun of Imagination – roman type togas, harem wear and things that resembled giant nappies were given a good go and worn, particularly by Leee John with flamboyance and aplomb.

In just two years Imagination had scored chart hits in nearly 30 countries, had won four platinum, nine gold and twelve plus silver discs. Following the run of hits the group continued for some time and there was the odd good moment in 1983’s “Scandalous” (“State Of Love”, “Point Of No Return” “When I See The Fire”and “New Dimension – the last of these appearing on this greatest hits CD) and 1986’s “Trilogy” (try “One Heart” and the title track) but they were no longer the potent force they should have been.  In America they scored respectable placings on the R&B charts but pop commercial success eluded them and they were not part of the 80’s British invasion which swept through the American pop charts.  Producers Swain and Jolley, however, were, with their work with Bananarama (eg: “Cruel Summer” US#9, UK#8 in 1984 and Spandau Ballet (eg: “True” US#3,UK#1 -1984) which took the Swain and Jolley sound to a worldwide audience.  Ultimately, Steve Jolley went on to have a much darker time which I’m not going to go into here, lest it diminish the quality of the team effort of Imagination’s music whereas Swain moved into consultancy for Universal records.  Ashley Ingram did not give up songwriting and worked scoring hits with Des’Ree (including “You Gotta Be” US#5, UK#20 in 1994).  Leee John with his charismatic personality got jobs in TV presenting and still making music including a very likeable Jazz influenced album in 2005 “Feel My Soul” where he wrapped that delectable voice around standards such as “Embraceable You”, “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “Strange Fruit”.

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For me Imagination livened up the early 80’s and were always a joy to listen to and watch perform.  Their music has stood the test of time and that is why I am recommending this greatest hits compilation as an essential purchase.

When it came to choosing accompanying video clips I just couldn’t make up my mind.  In the UK we were not used to so much naked male flesh on our TV screens.  A Chippendale was still a piece of furniture then!  Song- 10, Performing Skills- 10

With not much money available for their debut video Imagination go for cheesiness over art with Ashley and Errol invoking the spirit of Wilson, Keppel and Betty (ask your grandparents!)

And as an extra because there’s still hope that the one-legged sparkly trouser might catch on and to illustrate how European music shows were still a hot-bed of mis-synching- but that somehow still does not diminish the experience.

The Very Best Of Imagination is is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £11.56 and used from £6.54. In the US it can be purchased used from $5.64

 

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