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Imagination feat. Leee John

The Fascination of the Physical
The Fascination of the Physical

There was always something a bit addictive about Imagination.  Their appearance on the pop/soul scene of The Eighties meant that just sometimes on mainstream radio you could hear something altogether more slinky and bassified than the hollow slick uptempo pop music hits of the time, with their grating gated snare sound and pouting lead singers. When the Imagination track faded , however, you would be back to the horrific amateurism of Bananarama, or ( as an acquaintance dubbed them ) The Complete Lack of Style Council OR even worse, the rictus-grin forced jollity of Madness.

Yes, the Imagination songs were produced, but Jolly Swain and co had a grasp of dynamics without succumbing to the temptation of overstuffing the sound. With a clear semi-falsetto lead singer like Leee John, why would you want to do that ?? That voice could cruise over a grinding tempo as used on ‘Body Talk’ or channel the driven plea that was ‘Changes’ in fine style. It’s hard to reflect on Imagination without using the word ’style’ as even in their campest toga-bedecked moments, the grip on the groove never faltered. Better still, that singles each had something distinctive about them – the harvest of that feature being the fact that some thirty years later, a live set by the current touring edition of the group has endless highs and sultry reflective moments. Great songs sung brilliantly and plenty of tinkling keys, tough and pumping drumwork, snaking and deep basslines and spicy, driven guitar.

The act put out some fine albums, threaded together by contemporary hit singles and dance smashes, however this writer was overwhelmed (and still is ) by the dub mix album  the band released called ‘NightDubbing’. Familiar tunes are stretched, fattened, flanged, cut up, staggered, reverbed and delayed to hell and back….tempos thump then speed up, vocals echo and spin around into sound funnels….if it’s not one of the sexiest albums ever released, I’m a Westlife fan…

And yet…there was always rumoured to be an album or more of Imagination material that never came out, or came out in fragments.  As Byrds fans know well, these elusive tracks of whispered legend become an obsession and you don’t want to leave the planet without savouring them.  Here now is that very album, plus a bonus disc of unusual mixes. Christmas has come early for the Imagination fan, faith kept now handsomely rewarded. How these tracks came into being and how they didn’t get released is a complex and at times bewildering tale. Leee John attempts to explain all in his cool sleevenotes. You can sense his mixture of frustration, divided loyalties and  ( I sense ) sanity-preserving Que Sera as he explains what went down. When Art takes on Commerce, Art will always be the loser.  Whilst it is regrettable for followers that these cuts stayed in the vaults for too long, we can enjoy them all now. The notes display a uniform respect for the players in the drama ( well, most of them ) and a pride in these song creations standing up well.

John’s friends Dee Vaz and Paul Armstrong contributed greatly to the muscle that the compositions cried out for, however the deadening pulse of the House music fad prevalent at the time ( late Eighties / early Nineties ) is avoided in favour of tune construction that conveys some, well Heart & Soul to nick an early Imagination title. Rhythmic cove that he is, Leee is never robotic in his delivery. Which is why he can turn his hand to jazz, but that’s another musical story altogether….

Opener ‘Work’ has an ethereal keys backdrop and jackswing beat, kind of a London nod to the Chicago sound of the era. John still sound like John, using a conspiratorial tone here as the tune builds and rolling piano cuts through.  ‘I Like It’ has a tropical rhythm over shifting chords. The choppy ‘Best of My Life’ has deep bass and fusion piano – John, this needs to be played to Alexander O’Neal !

‘Loving Tight’ is a total winner and reminds me of Minneapolis act The Time with its busy pattering beat and stark keyboard stabs but over anything else a fabulous vocal performance by John, should have been a massive radio hit.   Title track ‘Fascination of the Physical’ is built on a sinister bass figure and those syncopated 90’s drum patterns. It’s a bit like Norman Whitfield ( Temptations producer ) gone House. Again a sure hit, in a just world.

‘The Night We Loved’ is an out&out tribute to the Isley Brothers in their ‘Between The Sheets’ mode. Various guitar players were on the session but here in the final edit is Protect The Beat axeman Tim Canfield, a player who has contributed to many soul/ dance outings, not least with the Brothers Gibb. The keyboard cadence here is truly beautiful.

The moody ‘Call On Me’ is another ace in this pack, its edgy pace emphasised by piano figures playing across time ( the ultimate House trick ) and maybe the best singing on the record. The deepsea electric bass stalks the busy beat, going at its own rate with just enough notes.  The cuts show how Imagination could adapt to fashionable strands of dance music without losing their core soulful feel, reason enough to get this release.

‘Alone Again’ is a soft ballad with a poetic lyric, there’s a case for this in the current show setlist, Leee ! And is this where your Anita Baker influence comes to the fore ? I think so…

Tuneful and interesting, this set finally sees the light of day and very welcome it is too. When I have soaked up the second disc of versions, I will add to this review

Pete Sargeant

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