Friday, September 19, 2014

Celebrating 25 years of Rhythm Nation

Like A Prayer, Raw Like Sushi, 3 Feet High and Rising: 1989 produced a lot of albums that have stayed with me well into adulthood. But none had a bigger impact than Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814.

I listened to my vinyl copy every day for an entire year. I taught myself to replicate the syncopated, computerised drum patterns. I even wrote an hilariously bad musical based on the songs (the villain was called Black Cat). Wisely, my drama teacher resisted my suggestion to stage it as that year's school production.

Rhythm Nation turns 25 today but it's an album that can still surprise me. Jackson and her co-conspirators Jam and Lewis crammed the album full of Easter Eggs - percussion that darts across the stereo field, virtuoso flourishes hidden deep under the mix and, in Love Will Never Do (Without You), my all-time favourite musical moment.

Listen to the final chorus (about 4'25" into the song). Janet starts to ad lib, rising higher and higher through her vocal register. Suddenly, somehow, her voice is replaced by a muted trumpet, which continues the riff up into the ozone layer. The transition is seamless. To this day, I can't work out where she ends and he begins. It is simply magic.

I was an idealistic 14-year-old (is there any other sort?) when Rhythm Nation was released, and I absorbed the record's socially concious lyrics like a particularly thirsty sponge.

"Prejudice? No! Bigotry? No! Ignorance? No! Illiteracy No!" Janet cries on The Knowledge. And, although it looks naive in print, her message was resoundingly powerful on record, thanks to Jam & Lewis's thunderous, bass-heavy production.

The title track, powered by a monumental sample from Sly & The Family Stone's Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again), actually makes the idea of a utopian nation united by dance seem like a practical and achievable solution to poverty, bigotry, racism and war. It is that good.

It's worth noting that Janet was only 22 when she wrote these songs. What's more, she was realistic about what they could achieve. "I know I can't change the world single-handedly, but for those who are on the fence, maybe I can lead them in a positive direction," she told US magazine in 1990.

"We have so little time to solve these problems,” she added in an interview with Rolling Stone. "I want people to realize the urgency. I want to grab their attention. Music is my way of doing that."

The lyrics were inspired by a constant diet of CNN, fed into the studio as Janet tried to follow up her breakthrough album, Control. Predictably, the label had demanded more of that record's defiant coming-of-age anthems. They went so far as to propose a title, Scandal, and a subject matter - dishing the dirt on the Jackson's family feuds. What's surprising is that Janet initially ran with the idea.

You Need Me, which became the b-side to Miss You Much, is an angry riposte to her dad: "Daddy he was distant. never there to hold my hand... Mother made up for him, always watching over me".

None of that material made its way onto Rhythm Nation - but Livin' In A World (They Didn't Make) contains the line: "We teach our kids rules that we don't adhere to ourselves". I wonder what serial adulterer Joseph Jackson made of that one?

In the end, though, no-one loved this album for its message. Even Janet abandons up her social studies dissertation after the first three tracks. "Get the point?" she drawls. "Good. Let's dance".

And then we're off: Miss You Much, Love Will Never Do, Alright, Escapade, Black Cat. Those songs allowed Janet to shatter her brother's seemingly unassailable chart record, scoring seven top five singles from one album. Rhythm Nation even produced number ones in three consecutive years (1989, 1990 and 1991) - a feat still unmatched in the Billboard charts.

Why? It's simple. Those singles are playful, succulent, life-affirming, genre-defining firecrackers. Escapade, which is Janet at her poppiest, is an effortless blend of good time Motown sentiment and the juddering Minneapolis funk. Not by coincidence, the video is set at a carnival.

The success of Rhythm Nation paved the way for Janet's multi-million pound deal with Virgin, which in turn produced the lush, sexy double album, Janet. That record may have sold more - especially in the UK, where Rhythm Nation is largely a footnote - but to my ears it was messy and unfocused. What's more, it marked the beginning of Janet's descent into R&B soft porn (one of her later albums contains a song called Moist, which says it all, really).

Rhythm Nation only gets steamy once, on the closing track Someday Is Tonight. A sequel to the chastity ballad Let's Wait Awhile, the song coos and teases over a sultry, candlelit bedroom groove. "No more fantasizing of how it would be," Janet sing-whispers, "Cause tonight all your dreams come true".

The last two minutes of the song are given over to a deliciously suggestive trumpet solo, courtesy of Herb Alpert, while Janet sighs and moans into your headphones. If the 14-year-old me fell in love with the dance anthems, the 15-year-old me wore a hole in my... er, vinyl listening to that track.

That's not a throwaway comment, by the way. My first copy of the album is virtually unplayable. And when I upgraded to the CD, I was stunned to find that it was very different.

Several of Rhythm Nation's songs, including the title track, had been edited to make the album fit the confines of vinyl. So suddenly, there were dozens of new hooks and musical motifs to learn. It gave the album another six months' life - presumably to the horror of my parents.

And let's not forget the album came with a superlative package of remixes, teasing the material out and revealing hidden moments. There's an infectious keyboard solo in Alright, for example, which barely registers under the clattering beats of the original, but gets promoted to centre stage in CJ Macintosh's sublime Ambient House mix.

I collected those imports and white labels religiously, and it's those versions I turn to when I grow tired of the album itself.

Sadly, most of the remixes are long out of print. A&M Records, timid about Janet's marketability after the idiotic Super Bowl furore, has been reluctant to honour the star with expanded anniversary editions of her career-defining albums.

The mixes aren't even on iTunes or Spotify but, luckily, a few kind souls have posted them on YouTube. So, in honour of Rhythm Nation's silver celebration, I've compiled a playlist of my favourites.

Impressive work, and one that's rarely given credit (in the UK, at least).

I owe my understanding of songwriting, and ultimately my career, to my teenage immersion in those songs and remixes - and I've been lucky enough to thank both Janet and Jimmy Jam personally. I know most people have a similar experience with an album, or even a single, at some point in their lives. I'd be interested to hear about yours in the comments.

Get the point? Good. Let's Dance.

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