Slept on Soul/André Cymone – Survivin’ In The 80’s (Columbia Records)
By Michael A. Gonzales
In his personal and professional life, singer/songwriter and former Prince bassist André Cymone has always been divided between the hard realities of the present world and romantic notions of the future. As a kid growing-up in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the height of the ‘60s civil rights movement, his parents and siblings made sure André was politically aware of the world of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and local politics. “Minneapolis was only 2% Black at the time, so there was very few of us,” Cymone says from his home in Los Angeles, “so, I was very aware of what was going on. A man like Martin Luther King represented change and hope as well as making people aware on an international scale what was going on in our country.”
However, for all the strides “colored” folks made politically and personally in the ‘60s, not much has changed in this crazy world where every day there is yet another report of cop killings, injustices and blatant racism. Of course, when enough becomes enough and people (read: Black people) get angry (and Black people have the right to get mad), then the truth becomes twisted to depict us as the angry ones, the prejudice ones, the violent ones. In addition, the present presidential election season features Donald Trump, whose evil personality comes across like a mad villain created by Alan Moore, Stephen King or The Twilight Zone.
While Cymone has been in the lab recording his forthcoming album 1969 for the past two years, the entire country has been living through so many changes, it might be impossible to change back. Coming home on August 9, 2014, André switched on the television where the newscaster was reporting on yet another young Black death when the shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “That was the night that I wrote ‘Hot Night in the Neighbrohood,” Cymone recalls. “I was watching the reports and, by the end of the night, I sat down with my guitar and just started playing. Before I knew it, the song was done.”
Hot Night in the Neighbrohood:
Having grown-up listening to protest song heroes James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan, the spirits that are darker than blue flowed through Cymone and soon he was sidetracked from the album project for a moment to concentrate on creating the four-song EP Black Man in America. Released in September, the disc harks back to that ‘60s soundtrack, with the title track and “Hot Nights” roaring through the speakers frantically. “History, Hollywood, image of the Black man ain’t no good…that’s how they saw you,” Cymone sings powerfully on the dope title track, a heavy funk rocker constructed as a sepia wall of sound. With the chorus, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a Black man in America,” the track climaxes into a steaming stew of electric guitars that would’ve made Hendrix proud. “The irony of it all is that these kinds of songs are still needed in the first place,” Cymone says, sighing. “But, if an artist has his ear to the ground and is really tuned in, he shouldn’t be afraid to step-up and make a statement. It was a crazy time then and it’s a crazy time now.”
The third track, an acoustic guitar Dylan tribute named “Black Lives Matter,” is my least favorite track on the EP more, because, more than any fault of Cymone’s, I’ve never been much of a fan of the recent Nobel Prize Winner. Granted, dude is a great lyricist, but his voice (which Cymone imitates perfectly on various lines throughout the song) has always been fingernails on the blackboard of my brain. “Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was a beautiful thing, because those songs that he wrote in the ‘60s are still so appropriate for what’s going on in the world today.”
Black Lives Matter:
As a fan of André’s since the days of seeing him jamming beside his play brother Prince on Saturday Night Live in 1981, where their performance of “Party Up” was considered seminal; while Prince’s guitar wailing and André’s bass bottom was tight, behind the scenes their friendship had already unraveled. In fact, it was after that show that André left Prince’s camp and the two wouldn’t work together again until they collaborated on “Dance Electric” for Dre’s third solo album A.C. in 1985.
Signed by legendary music man Larkin Arnold to CBS Records, who that same year was responsible for Marvin Gaye’s comeback album Midnight Love, the label, wanted Cymone to make R&B songs, but the brother had other plans. “My concept was to be as futuristic as possible,” Cymone says. “From the time I was a teenager, I was listening to David Bowie, Devo, Brain Eno and Kraftwerk. I wanted to experiment with different sounds, but the label told me, ‘We hired you to be an R&B artist.’ They cut out the top ten R&B tracks in the country and said, ‘Why don’t you do something like this?’”
Instead, he delivered Livin’ in the New Wave, a disc that merged soul with electro synthesizer pop in a style that would become known as the cyberfunky Minneapolis Sound. According to All-Music.com, apart from synthesizer assistance from Roger Dumas (Lipps, Inc.), Cymone played everything as well.” Dumas also owned the company Roger Doger where André and Prince bought their first synths in the days of their first group Grand Central. “Roger Doger was where we got our drum machines and all that kind of stuff,” Cymone says. “He was the guy.”
Livin’ in the New Wave featured a few stand-out tracks including the lover-man single “Kelly’s Eyes” and poppy “All I Need Is You;” Cymone closed the album with “The Ritz Club,” a punked-out tribute to my favorite NYC club in the ‘80s where I saw various groups including Fishbone, Level 42, Tackhead, Stetasonic, Kid Creole and the Coconuts and The System. Somehow, I missed the Prince playing there in 1981, but that was the gig where André first fell for the joint. “I just thought it was such a cool club,” he says. “Prince and I went everywhere together, and we were going to the Mudd Club, CBGB’s and the Ritz, and those places started making me aware of what the underground was all about; those places were very impactful on my music.”
The next year when André began working on his follow-up disc Survivin’ in the 80’s, while also producing demos for The Girls debut and working on tracks for Evelyn “Champagne” King’s disc Face to Face, he recruited a band that included drummer John “Bam Bam” Morgan, guitarist Bobby Dean and keyboardists Linda Renee Anderson (his sister) and keyboardist Craig Thomas, who was also a synth programmer. “I was originally from Illinois, but moved to Minneapolis to work with a band that was also cool with Dez Dickerson and that was how I met André,” Craig Thomas says from his home on the West Coast. If one looks at the Survivin’ in the 80’s album cover, Thomas was the blond with the Flock of Seagulls hair.
“I had an Oberheim OB-Xa as well as an Oberheim sequencer and drum machine. André and I just started jamming, and we worked well together. I learned a lot working on that project with André. He was cool and easy to get along with, but also had high standards in terms of getting things right and making it happen.”
While they recorded a few tracks at André’s home studio, most of Survivin’ in the 80’s was made at American Artist Studio, a 24-track spot owned by Dre’s then-manager Owen Husney. “I loved that studio. I recorded a lot of stuff there,” Cymone says. “There was this jazzy bootleg thing that me, Prince and Bobby Z recorded there.” Although American Artist became his other home, the studio lacked the sonic impact that Cymone could’ve gotten from a more state-of-the-art facility. “Sometimes I would hear those early songs on the radio or in a club, and they didn’t really hold up sonically. They don’t have the punch or bottom that other records of that era had.”
Of course, as a young fan blasting this album in my room, I didn’t notice any of those flaws, but I could easily hear that André Cymone was torn as an artist that needed to make tracks that might got played on the radio or MTV, including the title track first single, second single “Make Me Wanna Dance,” which had a Zapp feel to it along with vocoder vocals, and more daring avant-pop musical experimentation of “M.O.T.F.” (Man of the Future, in case you’re wondering), “Stay” and “Don’t Let the Future (Come Down on You).”
Truthfully, I’ve always felt that if “Stay” would’ve been released as the debut single with a well produced video, Survivin’ in the 80’s would’ve been more commercially successful. All these years later, the track has aged well with its soulful ambient sound that was as texturally exquisite as anything Stevie Wonder or Ryuichi Sakamoto might’ve composed. “I wrote ‘Stay’ at my mom’s house. I remember that,” Cymone says. “I had this little keyboard that might’ve belonged to Prince; one of those small things you can hang around your neck. I was able to manipulate it, that’s how I got the drum sounds. I think I used some of the same programming on ‘Don’t Let the Future.’ Craig was working with me, but I was also discovering these different types of drum machines and sequencers.”
Although keyboard player Craig Thomas feels that CBS didn’t promote the album well enough for it to be a hit, the folks inside the Black Rock building did invest in a video for “What Are We Doing Here” as well as a picture disc version of the album that featured André wearing some kind of one piece bathing suit and futuristic wraparound shades. “I had gone to Cancun, that’s where I got the suit,” Cymone says, laughing hard. “I had a picture in my apartment of a duck that was dressed in that same swimsuit sipping on a cocktail. So, somebody took a photo of me looking like that.”
The video for “What Are We Doing Here” was like urban Metropolis/Fritz Lang tribute. “The director was this cool Brit dude named Simon Fields, who would go on to do great things. Originally they wanted me to dress like a harlequin, but I refused,” Cymone remembers. “”I was all like, ‘I’m not dressing like some kind of clown.’ So, I went with the suit I had on, which really wasn’t much better.”
What Are We Doing Here:
In retrospect, at least half of album would have been a “Top of the Pops” hit if recorded by white Brits (New Order, Ultravox). However, in Cymone’s case, the music never seemed to move beyond cult status. Much to my delight, a few months after the release of Survivin’ in the 80’s and the LP became part of the top five records blaring from my stereo with the glass case, André Cymone brought the band to the New York City to perform at the Ritz (club), a show that was, like the album, exciting, expressive and extremely electric.
New Order/Blue Monday:
Listen to Survivin in the 80’s below:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.