It’s time we better appreciated the pioneers of black British dance music…

March 2018

eddy maxresdefault

The death of Eddy Amoo prompts a question; maybe it’s time we better appreciated the pioneers of black British dance music…

I was seventeen, in a club called Barbarella’s in Birmingham watching Generation X. Singer Billy Idol was curling his lip, and taking up rebel poses, while his band banged out punk clichés. I gave up on his antics, and wandered down the corridor to the club’s disco room. It was empty, as it always was on the nights punk bands were playing live in the main room.

The DJ was playing ‘Can You Feel the Force?’ by the Real Thing. I’d heard the song on the radio, but here it was blasting out, a clear, clever production taking full advantage of the new 12” vinyl format, with a punching beat and a whoo-whoo-whoo chorus that drew me to the dancefloor. After suffering Generation X, my ears and heart felt refreshed. I was so happy, dancing with myself.

The death of Eddy Amoo of the Real Thing last month received some coverage in the media, but probably a lot less than his life’s work warranted. His band, the Real Thing, were hugely successful in the 1970s, made several floor-filling singles and a very ambitious album 4 From 8 which included a song ‘Children of the Ghetto’ later covered by various artists including Mary J Blige.

With Stormzy recently making a huge impact at the Brits, maybe it’s time we better appreciated some of the pioneers of black music in Britain, the trailblazers back forty years before grime, twenty years before drum & bass, fifteen years before Soul II Soul, and even before hip hop? Back to the mid-1970s, when black soul music was filling dancefloors and featuring every week on Top of the Pops.

Black soul music was going through a golden period thanks to the likes of James Brown, Barry White, Gladys Knight, and the Isley Brothers. Former Motown songwriter/producer Johnny Bristol had a hit with the irresistible ‘Hang On in There Baby’. David Bowie was listening, absorbing all these influences during the writing and recording the likes of ‘Golden Years’ and ‘Fame’.

Most of the black acts on Top of the Pops were American musicians, but the Real Thing were part of a select number of hit-making high profile black British acts in that era. From Manchester, Sweet Sensation became the first black British soul act to top the charts, in October 1974, with ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’. The Real Thing’s first hit, ‘You to Me Are Everything’ came the following year. These two acts – together with Brixton-based Hot Chocolate – clocked-up seventeen top ten singles between them in the 1970s.

Hot Chocolate had hits with singles covering subjects deeper than you’d imagine from an act often written off as incorrigibly commercial; including the early death of a girl in ‘Emma’, and, in ‘Brother Louie’, an inter-racial love affair between a black girl and a white boy opposed by their parents.

Much soul music in the 1970s was aspirational, well-dressed, empowered. Isaac Hayes was the master of this. In Britain, Hot Chocolate frontman Errol Brown – sporting a smooth-headed, very dressy look – encouraged young black men of the era to follow suit, and fill their wardrobe with fine tailoring.

In Liverpool, in the 1960s, Eddy Amoo had been in the Chants, who had played alongside the Beatles and been career guidance from Brian Epstein, before working with, and then joining his younger brother’s band, the Real Thing.

Unlike the Beatles, the Real Thing never moved from Liverpool, as I discovered when I spent an afternoon in 2002 talking to Eddy Amoo at his home (full interview). We talked about the Chants, and we discussed Merseybeat’s debt to black American music. We didn’t extend that discussion to the whole British rock music’s debt to black American music, but we could have done.

The Real Thing had super-dancey hits but they also engaged with social, even controversial contemporary issues. They were specific, writing about the streets around where they lived. Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield; the work of so many soul artists in the 1970s, encompassed love-hungry dance numbers, and social commentary. This social angle the Real Thing pushed to the fore on the 1977 album 4 From 8 (the “8” refers to Liverpool 8, the Toxteth postcode).

Pop culture in Britain in the 1970s was very tribal. Not all the music of the decade has been rediscovered since, let alone appreciated. Mention “soul” with reference to the 1970s, and you’re mostly likely to be assumed to be talking about “Northern Soul”; the sub-culture buzz of it, the scene’s all-nighters, and the veneration of the Detroit sound of the mid and late 1960s. But the Real Thing were part of something else…

When we met, Eddy explained how reggae, funk, and jazz and jazz-funk all attracted a blacker crowd. The amphetamines that helped fuel Northern Soul weren’t a drug of choice in the black community. He told me that Northern Soul was an anachronism; he was hungry for contemporary music. He was listening to the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Although it was no surprise that black British soul was unrepresented on the recent Old Grey Whistle Test look-back, but occasionally we see these acts on re-runs of Top of the Pops.

Back then, when I heard ‘Can You Feel The Force?’ in an empty back room at a punk gig, it would have been filling the dancefloor at packed high street discotheques nationwide. Those venues throbbed with a young, free and single generation eager for good sounds, good times, and escape. And in the 1970s there was a lot to escape from; systemic poverty, rising unemployment, and the kind social fracturing we seem, sadly, to have revisited in recent years. For the disco kids, they wanted a break from broken Britain, they wanted to be in Funkytown, where everyone’s a winner (baby). And that’s no lie…

Anything vaguely discotheque-related has to push its way through the prejudices of the majority of music writers and cultural commentators. There’s a sniffy thing still, that real music is live music, that the queues of people outside dance venues are victims of false consciousness or, at last some kind of music industry brainwashing. There are more books written about Bob Dylan than there are documenting the glorious decades of pre-rave dance music. Black soul music, disco. Funk…

In addition to joyous singles, and ambition, it’s also undeniable that groups like the Real Thing provided positive role models of black aspiration and achievement by pushing through racial barriers.

Disco has never (quite) been able to solve the world’s problems, but its progressive potential is huge. If wasn’t the case, why would racists and rednecks feel so threatened by it? In 1979, a writer in The Young Nationalist, a youth publication of the BNP, was incandescent;“Disco and its melting pot philosophy must be fought or Britain’s streets will be filled with black-worshipping soul boys”.

Eddy was full of enthusiasm for music, when I met him, but did express sadness that the Real Thing were often under-appreciated even in their hometown; victims of Liverpool’s uneasy relationship with the black community in the 1970s and 80s. Likewise, Sweet Sensation have too often fallen off Manchester’s music map.

Nevertheless, there were millions of us bewitched and inspired by black British soul in the 1970s. We felt the force. And still do.