hen a friend once remarked about Spandau Ballet’s “True” that it was “Bryan Ferry in blackface,” I said it was inaccurate, while still insisting that he find a drawing pad and colored pencils. This deserved immortalizing (as every writer knows full well, we’re suckers for monikers, however terrible).
As the commercial clout and aesthetic achievements of U.K. New Pop waned (when, according to a gloating Robert Christgau, it “conquered the world and then went phfft”), a subgenre competed for the attention of a youth culture raised on a music television channel that was exchanging shoulder pads and magenta octagonal drums for other gauche methods of representation. The march of Thatcherism and a White House-crafted myth of renascent America—a development confirmed by the massive electoral triumph of Ronald Reagan in 1984 and, in popular culture, the pectoral triumph of John Rambo—instilled a craving for genres whose intimations of glamour and leisure seduced consumers already besotted with the Colbys and the purported superiority of compact disc technology. There’s a sense in which the laxative smoothness of the CD, its packaging, and cost, reified bossa nova, reggae, ska, and synth-pop; when scrubbed of their unsettling subtleties they play so much better at home.
I first heard the term “sophisti-pop” on this ILM thread. This subgenre, birthed in the mid ‘80s, included a group of British acts like Paul Young, Prefab Sprout, Everything But The Girl, Swing Out Sister, Johnny Hates Jazz, and Simply Red. ABC and Aztec Camera don’t count, necessarily, but each recorded one sophisti-pop album. They employed brass sections from time to time (when they couldn’t they simulated one; hello, Fairlight!), fetishized American R&B, and paid a lot of money for immaculate tailoring. Although the divide between chart success and indie stardom wasn’t as stark in the U.K. as it was in America (The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder hit #1 in Britain, while, say, R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction never rose above #28 here), I’m willing to bet that few fans of Level 42’s “Running in the Family” owned copies of a Dome album (then, that is; I’m sure everyone does now). But English fans were listening to Bon Jovi. English bands too—even if poor Spandau Ballet discovered that a Bon Jovi simulation like “Fight For Ourselves” was laughed out of the room while Mick Hucknall’s soul exertions fooled everyone into overlooking his hair.
Paul Weller and Scritti Politti are trickier cases. As punk and post-punk acts respectively, they were shrewd enough to note the limitation of the genres into which they were slotted and, in the case of Scritti’s Green Gartside, recognize the subversive possibilities of accessibility. But there’s simply too much going on—lyrically, musically—in “Wood Beez” and “Perfect Way,” especially when set beside, say, the Style Council’s “Long Summer Days” or “My Ever Changing Moods,” both of which bestir to hysteria the Merrie-Ole-England sentimentality to which Weller often succumbed in the Jam; and without sentimentality sophisti-pop wouldn’t exist (sophisti-pop needed sentimentality as much as punk needed boredom). Also a rather bizarre snobbery: its music was too pristine to sully with polyrhythmic experiments or harmonic complexity (Johnny Hates Jazz: study that name); in this context “sophistication” and “classy” are interchangeable. Although warmer and yummier, sophisti-pop augured the chart imperium of Stock-Aitken-Waterman, through which a half dozen cheerful, sinister Caucasian boys and girls flattered the idea of Thatcherite self-empowerment: if we can become stars, Jason Donovan and Sonia’s chart success implied, anybody can!
As I suggested, the crucial influence on sophisti-pop was Roxy Music. From his extraordinary hair (post-1973 the best coif in rock history) to his ability to project narcissism-as-eros, Bryan Ferry’s hold on British rock culture is second only to Bowie’s. If so much British punk and New Romanticism borrowed the glam and faintly scary vibe of Eno-era Roxy, sophisti-pop preferred the buttery disco of the Manifesto-Flesh + Blood-Avalon era, the band’s most lucrative in the U.K. and America (the tentative skank of Avalon’s title track echoed in many a sophisti-pop hit a few years later). With Ferry distancing himself from distance—and his bandmates more uncomfortable with his discomfort—this trilogy of albums evinced a kind of romanticism that flirted with desperation. The debut of higher, more tremulous vocals gave the game away. Exposed on songs whose lyrics celebrated the hearth rather than the foolish things encountered in the street life, Ferry seemed to be willing himself to become the tuxedo-clad host seen on the cover of 1974’s Another Time, Another Place. As the sheepish ardor underpinning a track like “Take a Chance With Me” made clear, the looking glass had turned into a Dorian Grey canvas, in which the cost of playing at love was captured for all time.
What makes Ferry’s case so fascinating is how he became one of his own acolytes upon going solo. 1985’s Boys & Girls and 1987’s Bete Noire seem on first listen to be sequels to Avalon—until you notice Ferry’s reluctance to enunciate syllables; the devolution of lyrics into Chanel ad copy; the roll call of honored guests playing a snazzy lick here, bellowing a chorus there, their salaries generous enough to buy their ignorance as to the lack of tunes. This isn’t continuation; it’s attenuation. Listen to these two albums and you know why sophisti-pop doesn’t get respect, why “Slave to Love” is all Mickey Rourke wants to know about Bryan Ferry. Still, with the exception of some clattery Madonna-esque arrangements on Bete Noire (courtesy of producer Patrick Leonard), Ferry cared too much about his brand name to keep up with the times, as if he ever did anyway (even in the early Roxy days his public comments are the dullest ever uttered by a rock scion). These albums raise the idea of Bryan Ferry into an abstraction too remote to quantify, removed from mortal thought—our own Holy Spirit of Sophisticate Melancholy. It’s as Ferry thought it would be unseemly to sing and play on his own albums. Something similar happened to ABC when they recorded 1987’s Alphabet City. The difference between “When Smokey Sings” and, say, Johnny Hates Jazz’s “Shattered Dreams” is Martin Fry’s honesty in acknowledging not an influence, but a signifier of complexity; Fry props up Smokey to, wistfully, remind himself (and us) of the polysyllabic mettle that was once at his command.
Despite its repellent insularity, reactionary tendencies, and for inspiring your parents to love Paul Young because he covered “real” singers like Marvin Gaye, sophisti-pop birthed a few of the era’s loveliest moments. I never tire of Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout,” a song ebullient enough to refute my contention that this subgenre lacked compelling dynamics. Of recent bands only Panic at the Disco! have approximated the nonsense of Living in a Box’s self-titled hit. Danny Wilson’s “Mary’s Prayer” is a too-brief French kiss; I certainly prefer it to any number of the Van Morrison near-hits it resembles.
And let’s not ignore the last band standing. The Sade Corporation, whose bi-decade income statements to stockholders record worldwide sales in the hundreds of billions. To claim that Sade Adu is a more important figure in the rock canon than Bryan Ferry would be to indulge in churlish revisionism, but her reserve and tonal control on hits like “The Sweetest Taboo” and “Paradise” make Bete Noire-era Ferry look like Angus Young; and she’s no slouch in the hair department. Having outlasted Margaret Thatcher, Caspar Weinberger, the Brothers Gallagher, and John Major’s glasses without losing a whit of your cool doesn’t just guarantee immortality; it validates a subgenre whose ambitions were simultaneously as modest and steely-eyed as your own. I’m nearing the age at which a young professional would have purchased Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms on CD in 1985, and old enough to accept that the truth of Sade’s promises in “Your Love Is King” does not invalidate Morrissey’s confessions in the concluding moments of “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” At present adulthood and adolescence have never seemed so inextricable.
For more on sophisti-pop, check out Alfred Soto and Thomas Inskeep's Bluffer's Guide.