“Fake”, from Alexander O’Neal’s second album, “Hearsay”, written and produced by the legendary team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, is on the shortlist for my absolute favorite songs of 1987, the ’80s as a whole, and songs in general. The relentlessly pounding dance groove and O’Neals sharp, accusatory vocals and ad-libs were a sound I heard all the time that year, on the radio, from cars, on Soul Train, and from the stereo system in my own home. Jam and Lewis were coming off the success of Janet Jacksons’ “Control” album and taking their place as the preeminent production team in the business when this song was recorded. It’s well known that O’Neal was slated to be the lead vocalist for The Time until he questioned Prince Rogers Nelson about the business side of that group’s existence. Although he lost that gig to Morris Day, Jam and Lewis never stopped believing in O’Neal, which led to them producing his albums. “Hearsay” was an absolute smash in ’87, producing big singles such as “Fake”, “Criticize”, and another in his series of duets with Cherelle, “Never Knew Love Like This.” The smoking dance songs and duets were appropriate for a singer that Jam and Lewis viewed as a throwback to the male soul singer as exemplified in the ‘690s and ’70s by artists such as Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass and many others. This was very important for the 1980s because as the decade developed, that type of gutsy soul singing took a backseat to younger artists, female diva’s, and Hip Hoppers.
“Fake” is a song that is so appropriate for its era because it deals with the type of woman you might meet in Los Angeles or any big city where people are doing a lot of social climbing. This also was a big theme for Black men and particular then and since because the ethic in the ’80s aesthetically veered long ways from Aretha Franklin’s “Natural woman” of the late ’60s. The woman Alex sings about has different aliases for her name, wears weaves, calls him by other men’s names, and has different eye colors everytime he sees her. He sings, “Whenever I go out with you/I find out something new.” When I was younger, not being of dating age at the time, I thought this was just a funny story, like the scene with Anna Marie Johnson in “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka.” But as the years passed I came to hear other subtexts of changing relationships, social climbing, vanity and even white aesthetic standards in this song.
“Fake” has an angry, strong, paranoid tone that goes very well with the other, more political songs of the era such as “Skeletons” by Stevie Wonder, “System of Survival” by Earth, Wind & Fire, and “Sign O’ The Times” by Prince, not to mention the political Hip Hop released in that and the next year. “Skeletons” in particular has a theme very close to “Fake”, both being about deceptions on one level or another. It also has much in common with Public Enemy’s “Sophisticated Bitch” from their debut album. Now of course, “Fake” wasn’t written to be political, but the seething, pounding energy of the song was perfect for its era, just as in the early ’70s there were popular songs in Black music such as “The Backstabbers”, “Smiling Faces”, and “I Heard it Through The Grapevine”, that, while being about love matters, also revealed something about the political subtext of the Nixon era.
Plus on a groove level, “Fake” is a monster, built on a punishing, pounding beat that hits you like a boxer’s body blows. On top of that, there is a growling synthesizer bass, mixed with percussive live bass. The synth claps are loud enough to warn you a hurricane is coming while the synths hit you on the “One” like a Tyson uppercut, seeming to say “FAKE” in a way that supports O’Neal’s story. Behind that Jam and Lewis layer ominous harmonies that linger and sustain and sing almost like a choir. All of this is broken up slightly by a theme song worthy synth horn break before Alex gets a chance to once again violently state, “You’re a FAKE!/Baby!!!!”
“Fake” seems to dominate my musical memories of ’87, it seems that every time I watched Soul Train, for about two or three months, this song played on either a dance segment or a Soul Train line. Alexander O’Neal delivered a fine singing performance over Jam and Lewis’s punishing Funk beat. In fact, this might be the very finest dance/funk hit by a soul singer of it’s era. The interesting thing about the ’70s was it’s musical diversity, so that a singer like Al Green who was masterful at “ballads” also could riff over barn burning Funk as well. As the music business progressed things got a bit more segregated, but on “Hearsay”, Alexander O’Neal was a real true soul man who could do it all, including the hardest of hard funk. Jam and Lewis have stated that working with him holds a special place in their oeuvre, as they see it as akin to working with the great soul singers, though he didn’t have that sustained success. “Fake” for me is one of the funkiest soul songs of it’s era and one I will forever associate with that time period!
* Bonus Material: I was delighted when one of my favorite shows, the British/Netflix show “Black Mirror” had a great episode, “San Junipero”, set in ’87 ,where “Fake” was featured, which was the first time I’ve come across it in popular culture in a very long time
Here is a scene I will always associate with this song, from Keenan Ivory Wayans “Im Gonna Git You Sucka”
Alexander O’Neal on Soul Train!