When rock 'n' roll started out, it was almost musically colorblind. White kids and black kids went wild over many of the same records, whether by the likes of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis. But as the major record labels moved into the business, it was decided that the music would sell better if rock was declared to be "white," so black performers were frequently shunted off to the realm of R & B. That didn't stop records by black artists from becoming hits with white listeners or vice versa, but splitting the pop market along racial lines effectively segregated the pop audience.
Fortunately, that division is eroding. Not only have rockers been folding more funk into their music, but R & B acts have been spiking their sound with increasing doses of heavy guitar. As a result, a sizable chunk of the pop charts has been given over to artists whose sound is neither white nor black, neither rock nor R & B, but a sturdy hybrid of the two.
To an extent, the dynamics of this hybrid closely resemble those of late '60s R & B. Back then, Kool & the Gang were famous for the pure functionalism of their funk, which reduced dance music to an insistent beat punctuated by a powerful horn section. Aside from a pair of solos by tenor saxophonist Ronald "Khalis" Bell, those horns are absent from "Emergency" (De-lite 822-943-1), the band's newest album. Still, the basic approach remains in place, only with synthesizers and electric guitar taking up the horn line.
It seems like an odd substitution, but rhythmically it works out much the same. The main advantage is sonic, for where the horns merely added punch, the guitar and synthesizers contribute crunch, and that lends more of a hard rock edge to the music. Consequently, both the title tune and "Misled," the current single, possess a sense of urgency that gives greater impact to the vocals and more drama to the songs as a whole without detracting from the beat. The album sounds tougher and more aggressive than other recent Kool & the Gang efforts, while retaining the same pop appeal. Even the ballads, "Fresh" and "Cherish," seem infused with a new vitality.
A more direct fusion can be heard on "Chinese Wall" (Columbia (BFC 39542), the second solo album by Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey. As you'd expect, the album has elements of the EWF sound but because it was produced by Phil Collins, who sings and drums with the British art rock band Genesis, there is also a good bit of that band's ethos in the music as well.
Some of the album's success doubtless springs from the fact that Collins has long been a fan of EWF and has already appropriated some aspects of its sound for his own projects. Yet the real magic seems to lie with the way Collins' arrangements follow Bailey's ability to color his voice so that it fits nearly any emotional context. Thus, both "Photogenic Memory" and a duet with Collins called "Easy Lover" convey the attraction of bad love while warning against its consequences, as the backing tracks use menacing guitars and a strikingly simple pulse to underscore the vocal points. The album's best moments are clearly those in which the energies of band and singer coincide, and there are times toward the end of the title track when you can almost hear the electricity between the two.
Ray Parker Jr. got into electricity in a different way, when he turned up his amps to go along with the tuneful dance-pop formula he worked out with his group Raydio in the early '80s. The result was "The Other Woman," Parker's biggest pop hit until this summer, when he unleashed a new twist on the trick with his movie theme, "Ghostbusters." (His debt to rock may have been a little too obvious there, though, because Huey Lewis has filed suit against Parker for allegedly building "Ghostbusters" from Lewis' "I Want a New Drug.") Both "Ghostbusters" and "The Other Woman" are included on "Chartbusters" (Arista AL8-8266).
With his comfortable croon and infallible melodic sense, Parker seems a perfect pop smoothie on the radio. On "Chartbusters," sad to say, he's somewhat less likable, in part thanks to the flimsiness of this package. Released both to slip "Ghostbusters" into his solo catalogue as well as to fulfill his obligation to Arista, the album repeats two songs from Parker's last album, "Woman Out of Control," and yet another two from his 1982 "Greatest Hits." Adding insult to redundancy, most of the new songs are utter throwaways. "Jamie," the current single, is a pleasant restatement of the used-to-be-my-girl motif, but "Christmas Time Is Here" is a cheesily obvious attempt to hustle up some seasonal air play, and both "I've Been Diggin' You" and "Invasion" would barely cut it as B-sides.