Tag Archives: Synth bass

The ’87 Sound: “Happy” by Surface

“Happy” by Surface is one of those funky songs that will forever be associated with 1987 in my mind. At the young age I was then, its combination of killer synth bass, 808 drums, atmospheric synth pads, and synthesized flute tone, in connection with bassist/vocalists Bernard Jacksons fragile, youthful sounding tenor was something that never failed to captivate me. The song brought a mid-’80s electro vibe into the world of late night Quiet Storm love jams. But make no mistake, much like Rene & Angela’s “Your Smile”, this was a tune that had an enormous amount of hump factor for the car speaker systems.

It was only in researching this piece that I found out more about the band Surface. I was not even aware that they had a big single, “The First Time”, that actually hit #1 pop in ’90. Surface was a trio from New Jersey consisting of Bernard Jackson, David Conley and David Townsend. David Townsend had been a guitarist from that other famous New Jersey Funk and everything else band, The Isley Brothers. He also was the son of Ed Townsend, songwriter for Marvin Gaye’s essential seduction song “Let’s Get It On”, and its teetotaling twin, The Impressions, “Finally Got Myself Together.” Surface also had an unusual lineup of a bassist/vocalist, and two other musicians who were primarily keyboard players, which made them a group well capable of handling the synth-based sounds of the ’80s. They wrote songs for New Edition and Sister Sledge and had their own successful singles, such as “Falling in Love” in 1983 and “When Your Ex Wants You Back” in 1984.

“Happy” is a song the trio wrote and produced on the British funk band Hi Tension in 1984 as “You Make Me Happy.” If you listen to Hi Tensions version, which is very good, the main thing that stands out is that when they produced it for themselves a couple of years later, the arrangement was sparser, focusing on the wicked synthesizer bassline, atmospheric synth tones, and the still futuristic sound of the 808 drum machine. It all added up to major success for Surface as this song went all the way up to #2 R&B, #20 pop and #36 on the dance charts.

The song begins with a synthesized flute, after which Bernard Jackson states the very direct theme of the song, “Only You can Make me Happy.” The drumbeat is very interesting, an 808 kick with claps on the 2 and 4 and stuttering hi-hats. On top of all this rhythm, keyboard chords hold the harmony steady. The keyboards have that mixed “string/vocal choir” sound so prominent during the ’80s. The killer synth bass comes in with the verse, as well as the drum machine snare drums. The bass is very funky and makes the most out of an economical number of notes. When I first heard it, it brought The Average White Band’s classic, “Pick Up the Pieces” to mind. All of this is a funky setting for Jackson to sing his devotional, “I never thought that I’d find someone like you/I feel hypnotized/with the things you do.” Which is fitting because if he’s hypnotized by his love, the listener is hypnotized at the same time by the groove! At the same time the piano plays little comping parts behind the vocals in support.

When the chorus comes in, so does a subtle quarter note synthesized string stab. But for the most part, the groove continues funking in the same vein. Which is probably what made it so unusual to my ears in ’87. “Happy” is a relatively slow song, with a romantic lyric, but the groove, it’s construction, and purpose, are straight up funk, using the digital tools of the day.

One of my favorite moments of the song is the telephone call breakdown, “Hello? How you doing baby? I’m glad you called. Oh you’re coming over? Beautiful baby!” Which has probably inspired a lot of Black love man shtick on my part!!!

“Happy” is a song from my youth that makes me just that when I hear it today. Occasionally when I go shopping I hear this cut and its a great thing for me because it is one of those songs people remember but don’t mention much when they speak of tunes they enjoyed from the era. But for me, it had a unique combination of funk, electronic beats, and an earnest, youthful, heartfelt love vocal, which mark it as a unique song of its era!

As a bonus, here is the Hi Tension version of this song written and produced by Surface in 1984.


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Filed under The '87 Sound

Music for the Next ONE 10/2/15 : “Work It To The Top” by The Foreign Exchange

Without question, The Foreign Exhange has been one of my favorite groups since it’s inception. Producer/Musician Nicolay, Writer/Vocalist/M.C Phonte, along with musician Zo!, and the fabulous female vocalists who contribute so much to the groups sound, make up one of the most deeply rooted, forward looking, progressively funky musical outfits on the scene today. Their last album, 2013’s “Love in Flying Colors” was an outright masterpiece that perfectly captured mid ’70s Stevie Wonderesque synthesizer led song writing. Zo!’s album “Man Made” along with his fantastic single “We’re on The Move” upped the stakes for producer/vocalist albums last year. The group returns this year with a new album, “Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey.” Today’s funk bomb, “Work it to the Top”, ups the ante in the early ’80s funk vein mined recently by Dam-Funk’s catalog, and the smash “Uptown Funk”, among other recent jams. It’s a record built on Phonte and company’s unique ability to deliver old school sounds with tounge in cheek humor as well as trying on dad’s coat respect, exemplified by their hilarious Whispers inspired video for Zo!’s “We’re on the Move.”

“Work it to the Top” begins with the drums pounding out a steady beat, kick drums thudding in a lock step on all four beats. Synth bass is also present, a variation of the bass line on The Fatback Bands classic, “Backstrokin’. “Backstrokin” is one of the true classics of ’80s funk, and it’s influence has been fossilized into modern music through the work of Dr. Dre, who has interlaced it in many of his G Funk arrangements, from Snoop Doggs “Ain’t No Fun”, to his own “Let’s Get High.” As the funk cycles back around through the influence of the 1990s, “Backstrokin” pops up again through Mark Ronson and Tuxedo’s interpolations of “Ain’t No Fun.” The bass line includes a pentatonic flurry similar to Carl Carlton’s “She’s a Bad Mamajama”, that leads u back to the top of the line, making the song a true compilation of early ’80s funk. A high pitched sawtooth synth tone plays a single note line on top of that, with juicy synth chords chiming in. Phonte takes on the lead rapper, M.C role so common to Funk through the work of a James Brown, and especially Dr. Funkenstein George Clinton, emulated in many other funk records. This was a style funk had in common with the early hip hop, as Phonte brings us “Tales from the land of Milk and Honey”.

The song begins in classic funk style, with the chorus on top, a unified choir of male and female voices, sing, “When you think you’re gonna stop/shake your thing/and work it to the top!” To which is added the hearty male exclamation of “Huh!” Found on records such as War’s “All Day Music”, and many a Brass Construction jam. A high pitched synth note holds a drone like figure up top as synth parts sneak around the vocals and comment on the grooves open spaces.

Phonte begins to sing in a nasally, high pitched soul whine that’s an obvious homage to Steve Arrington, drummer and lead vocalist for the group Slave. The lyrical text recalls “Watching You” as well, as Phonte croons, “Pretty girl/looking fine/walking down the street.” A Fender Rhodes part begins to play lush tones that help distinguish the verse from the chorus as Phonte kills it with the Arrington influenced idiosyncrasies. Female voices answer him, and he promises to “take her to the top.”

The Foreign Exchange continues to bring the Funk with this song, capturing so many elements of early ’80s funk as embodied by groups such as Slave, Skyy, Fatback, Cameo, Lakeside, Con Funk Shun and many others. They mix up a phat synth bass, single note synth leads in place of guitars, group chorus singing, the mixture of male and female voices, steady drums, and girl watching lyrics to create the ultimate age convertible, top down, city so bright I gotta wear shades Backstrokin’ joint. Score up another win for the soul brothers from different mothers!

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Filed under A little Hip in your HOP, FUNK, Music for the Next ONE, Music Matters