Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Imagination: Flash forward

Leee John (Imagination)
Leee John (Imagination) Imagination Imagination Imagination

Having scored chart hits in no less than 28 countries in addition to earning four Platinum discs, nine Gold discs and more than a dozen Silver discs around the world between 1981 and 1983, UK soul/dance/pop trio Imagination are without question one of the biggest-selling British black recording acts of all time. Groundbreaking success which is this month being celebrated with the release through Sony Music of “Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination”, whose 15 tracks comprise the cream of the threesome’s anthemic hits in addition to two new songs billed as “Imagination Featuring Leee John” - the romantic, gospel-inflected ballad “The Truth” plus the uptempo “Krash (All Nite Long)” whose pounding groove in turn echoes the vibe of the group’s hedonistic heyday.

Formed in London in 1981 and comprising North London singer/songwriter/dancer Leee John, Northampton-raised guitarist/bassist/singer/writer Ashley Ingram and Jamaica-born dancer/drummer Errol Kennedy, Imagination would indeed kick off their career in style with two UK-Gold-Certified albums - 1981’s “Body Talk” and 1982’s “In The Heat Of The Night” - which between them spawned a consecutive seven Top 40 singles, peaking with the Top Five smashes “Body Talk” (1981), “Just An Illusion” (1982) and “Music And Lights” (1982).

Indeed, with their instantly-recognisable musical blend of bass-and-keyboard-driven Brit-soul production (courtesy of Steve Jolley and Tony Swain) and Leee’s flawless falsetto vocals combined with their equally-distinctive exotic visual style (often reminiscent of Roman senators and harem orderlies), Imagination would go on to score significant international success - most notably across mainland Europe plus the US dance and R&B charts - throughout the early/mid-Eighties. Following which, with their British popularity waning from 1984 on, the uniquely-flamboyant trio’s chart presence would nevertheless continue abroad, with the latter half of the decade finding them recording Stateside with “name” R&B producers of the day like Nick Martinelli and Preston Glass in addition to collaborating with such underground dance music icons as David Morales, who in 1988 provided the threesome with a prestigious US Dance Number One via his remix of “Instinctual”.

Nevertheless, following Errol’s departure from the group in 1987, 1992 (following the lack of success of their fifth studio album “The Fascination Of The Physical”) would find remaining Imagination members Leee and Ashley deciding to call it a day. Since which time, with Ashley having gone on to write for globally-successful Brit-soul songstress Des’ree, Leee has continued to keep the group’s legacy of hits alive by regularly touring both domestically and internationally under the “Imagination Featuring Leee John” banner while also earning credibility as a solo artist - most notably via a string of late-Nineties/early-Noughties underground dance hits plus his own 2005-released jazz/soul album “Feel My Soul”, whose critical acclaim has since enabled him to tour both the UK and Europe with his own jazz quartet.

Meanwhile, the enduring appeal of Imagination’s Eighties music itself has constantly remained evident in today’s marketplace via regular samples and adaptations by major contemporary artists from the fields of hip hop, R&B and dance - including such multi-Platinum superstars as Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey, with the latter’s 2005 international Top 10 smash “Get Your Number” being built entirely around a sample of Imagination’s biggest hit, 1982’s “Just An Illusion”..

… All of which conveniently brings us back to today. As Imagination’s ever-personable, flamboyant frontman Leee John reacquaints himself with “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis over late-afternoon drinks at Sony Music UK’s bustling Kensington HQ to discuss this month’s release of the aforementioned “Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination” while fondly reminiscing on the group’s trailblazing Eighties heyday.

The thinking behind this month’s release of “Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination”

“Well, we now have 30 years-plus of Imagination and because people had been writing and e-mailing for the old albums, we figured it would be good to get some of the best-known tracks together for the first time under one ROOF - which wasn’t easy because some of the records are on different LABELS. Plus I’ve also recorded two NEW songs for this project - one called “The Truth” and another called “Krash” - which, by being completely opposite stylistically while still having my sound, will enable people to see my vocal and lyrical growth over the years in two different MEDIUMS... So yeah, overall I think with “The Very Best Of Imagination” we are giving people an opportunity to go back in time while also bringing them up to the present DAY. And then bringing “Flashback” into the title also ties in timing-wise with the fact that I’m currently involved in the writing, direction and production of a FILM called “Flashback” which covers the history of UK black music.”

How Imagination was originally formed

“Well, the real reason it all happened was because I’d done this track called “Gotta Be Good” which I took to R&B Records, which was run at the time by Morgan Khan of “Street Sounds” fame who straightway loved the track and signed it... But then because I wasn’t really confident about being solo artist - I’d seen so many of them come and go - I basically said to myself ‘Well, maybe I’ll form a GROUP’. And because at the time I was sessioning and one of the people I was working with was Ashley (Ingram), I asked him to come in and play BASS on the track. So he did, they sent it to America... But then what happened was the people in America lost the MASTER, which meant somebody had to step in and save the DAY. So one of the directors of the label basically just said ‘Well, Leee’s a great writer - we want to really PUSH him’... So they gave me a cassette tape of a track I think they were calling “Piano Thing” at the time , introduced me to Tony Swain - who later became our producer - and said ‘Look, we think you could really DO something with this!’. So I took it home that night - and ended up writing “BODY Talk” to it! Then from there I called Ashley up, we went in the studio together with Tony - and then, once everything had been recorded, Morgan pressed out the acetates and took it to places like Le Beat Route as well as to DJs like Steve Walsh, Robbie Vincent and Greg Edwards who straightaway were all really supportive… But then when Ashley and I started to do promotion I decided we really needed a THIRD member - which is when I brought in ERROL (Kennedy), who I already knew from sessions I’d done with a group called Midnight Express who were like the forerunners to Light Of The WORLD… So yeah, that in a nutshell is how Imagination first came TOGETHER!”

Leee’s recollections of Imagination’s groundbreaking-for-the-time flamboyant visual image and why he feels it was so quickly embraced by the public

“The visual side to it all basically came about because Morgan wanted us to be very much like groups such as George Clinton & Funkadelic and Sly & The Family STONE - where you had your own sound but at the same time visually you also had this really massive, THEATRICAL thing happening. Which is why, rather than basing ourselves on groups like Earth, Wind & Fire, we always kinda thought BIGGER. And I guess the moment we first really pushed the visual side was when we did our first “Top Of The POPS” appearance - which was nerve-wracking at the time because it was bringing something completely new to the general PUBLIC! And then after that, once we went on the road we just took it all to a whole ‘nother LEVEL - where we were basically saying ‘Right, not only are we gonna play you some strong music but visually we’re gonna knock you out TOO - we’re gonna give you something like you’d get in America but very much from a UK perspective!’… You know, we really wanted to be cutting-edge with the costume changes and things and just take everything to the next STAGE. Which is why I think the visual side just got taken further every TIME - to where the whole machine basically became bigger than US! You know, after a while all everybody was asking was ‘So what are you gonna WEAR?’!... And I think a lot of that was down to the public wanting to escape because of the political situation that was going on at the TIME. I mean, people forget that in the early-Eighties there was this whole political thing happening where you had the riots, the P45 situation, the SUS laws, Thatcherism... And I do think that flamboyant side of Imagination did help provide a kinda ESCAPISM from all that.”

How he now looks back on Imagination’s enduring biggest international hit - 1982’s “Just An Illusion”, which in more recent years has been referenced/sampled on recordings by such multi-Platinum superstars as Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey

“Amazingly, when I first wrote “Just An Illusion” I wasn’t IMPRESSED by it! You know, because of the uptempo thing to me it was like “son of (previous single) “FLASHBACK””! But then having said that, I think that’s just something that happens with EVERY artist - there’s always that one song you’re not certain about but everybody else GRAVITATES to it! I mean, it’s simple, it’s effective, and it does the JOB! Like you had the bass - which was the old Moog synthesizer - and all the phaser effects and all the different sonic bits-and-pieces going on, then you obviously had the video set in the castle and stuff like that… You know, everything just fell into place and it was just the right TIME… I mean, one great memory I have is of being in New York promoting the “Body Talk” album when “Illusion” had just come out in England and Frankie Crocker from WBLS was playing album tracks like “So Good So Right” and “Body Talk”, and then all of a sudden - and at this moment we were in a limousine going from one club to the next - he goes ‘I know Imagination are over here right now doing a show for Larry Levan at Paradise Garage and I’ve got this exclusive new track from them called “Just An ILLUSION”!’! ... And that was actually the very first time we heard the finished track OURSELVES!”

Leee’s memories of Imagination’s global success during the early/mid-Eighties

“By the time we go to the “In The Heat Of The Night” album we were doing some pretty major performances. Like in London we did eight shows in seven days at The Dominion, which was AMAZING and we actually got a RECORD for it!... So yeah, we had such great TIMES! I mean, Mike Mansfield filmed us live The Dominion, he also filmed the “Changes” video… You know, it was like all of a sudden we became this soul/funk supergroup that were the biggest black group in the UK! But then though we were at that level, at the same time it was like the record-company here was always keeping you COMPRESSED. You know, we were constantly being given the feeling that we were still the same people we were from the “BODY Talk” days. Whereas when we went to The States they were REALLY bigging us up! Like we were managed by the same people as The Crusaders at the time. So we did some stuff with THEM - like Joe Sample played on a B-side of ours called “I Gave It All”, we also did a track on (chart-topping Scottish pop/dance songstress) Kelly Marie with them called “Don’t Take Your Love To Hollywood”… I mean, there were just so many people along the way that we actually got to work with… Then when we did our debut performance on “Soul Train” in the US in ’83 it was actually a kind of tribute programme to Marvin Gaye, who had “Sexual Healing” out at the time. And I remember Don Cornelius announcing us as ‘This is the group that has the endorsement of Marvin GAYE’! Like we did “Changes” and “Just An Illusion” - and I was watching my imagery recently and thinking ‘Boy, you were REALLY going for it!’ - because I knew I was in America and I knew I had to WORK it! You know, by the time we got to The States I was really FOCUSED - having to DANCE, having to SING, having to WRITE, having to be the all-round ENTERTAINER… Because the industry at that time was very, very raw and so you really had to be EVERYTHING and really SELL it. You know, I realised that we were competing with our American counterparts and I knew that for us to get to that level of say The Commodores or Earth, Wind & Fire we did need to really push it to that level on ALL ASPECTS!”

Whether Leee recording two brand-new songs for “Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination” (the first tracks recorded as Imagination in over 25 years) might lead to further new “Imagination Featuring Leee John” releases

“Well, we’ll SEE - there is definitely a possibility. I mean, Imagination will never die - because with the fan-base wanting to keep that flame alive, with me having started out in this business as a music fan myself I’ll always feel the need to give something TO that fan-base. So what I think will happen is that I’ll be doing things as ‘Imagination featuring Leee John” ALONGSIDE doing things that are definitely different from that as Leee John SOLO projects. I mean, it is actually quite exciting right now because we are about to start our Imagination “FLASHBACK” tour where we begin in Ireland - Dublin - on the 20th of October before going all over the UK and then from there hopefully into OTHER territories... So yeah, for me the immediate future is definitely gonna be about meeting, and reuniting my relationship with, the PEOPLE! Which is something I haven’t done a lot of for a long TIME and that should be a lot of FUN!”

“FLASHBACK: The Imagination UK Tour” runs from October 22 to October 30 inclusive, taking in the following venues - Band On The Wall, Manchester (22); Under The Bridge, London (23); The Stables, Milton Keynes (24); Thekla, Bristol (28); and Jamhouse Birmingham (30)

The album “Flashback: The Very Best Of Imagination” is out now through Sony Music.

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