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Sunday, January 20, 2008

The album that defined "cool" in the 1980s

I was fooling around the net searching for retro sounds when I stumbled onto Cameo’s Word Up. Oh My God! Did the memories come flooding back A quick detour to Youtube had me laughing uproariously as I recalled lead vocalist Larry Blackmon’s hideous red codpiece.

"Word Up!" hit radio airwaves in mid-1986 and instantly became one of the biggest pop songs of the year. Critically acclaimed with large amounts of club and radio airtime, the resulting album Word Up! turned Cameo into superstars. The follow-up tracks "Candy" and "Back and Forth" were also huge hits for the funk trio.

By the end of 1986, Word Up! seemed to be everywhere: radio, clubs, MTV, Coca-Cola commercials and even in people's conversations as it became a national catch phrase. Larry explained in his interviews that the inspiration for the title came from a fan who shouted "Word Up!" after a UK-show. Some music critics have hailed "Word Up!" as the defining song of the 1980s.

A young LeVar Burton played the detective in the video, complete with swaggering “suspect walk” dance. An accomplished actor, LeVar is best known for his roles as Kunta Kinte in Alex Haley’s series Roots and In Star Trek: The Next Generation series as the blind Lieutenant Geordi La Forge. For Non-Trekkies, that’s the guy with a car air filter around his eyes.

1986 was quite a year. I was busy perfecting an advanced level of drummer nerdiness that future generations would never be able to equal, and Cameo was releasing what was, to me, the coolest song I had ever heard in my life. Word Up was huge; not since the heyday of Fonzie had I encountered such a concentration of coolness in anything.

Everybody loved this song, everybody played this song, and everybody inevitably introduced the word Owwwww into his/her vocabulary. Then the song Candy was released, another great song that increased the shelf life of Larry Blackmon's campy over the top style and trademark Owwwww for several more months. The way I saw it, you couldn't even pretend to be cool without owning this album.

At first glance, you look and see only seven songs and wonder what the deal is here, but let me rationalize this seeming weakness of the CD by explaining that the album is 35 minutes long, with two songs over five minutes long and one spanning an excess of six minutes; thus, while it's still a relatively short album, it is not "too short" by any means

While none of the other tracks comes close to equaling the power of Word Up, this is still a great album all the way around. The only thing I knew about funk at this time was that Rick James' Superfreak was the funkiest funk around. I knew nothing about Cameo's emergence in the late 70s and their successful adaptation to the musical changes of the 80s, not only surviving where other funk bands fell by the wayside but prospering like nobody's business.

I guess this can be called hip-hop music; all I know is that this was bold, cutting edge stuff to my relatively young little mind. Now, I can appreciate this album in altogether new ways, and I must say it's still all kinds of cool. She's Mine is a great song, with Blackmon telling some unwelcome stranger that he doesn't appreciate him making moves on his special lady. Featuring a rap-like section and hard-driving beat, it's vintage Cameo.

Back and Forth is another beat-rich track with an infectious groove sound. Don't Be Lonely is something of a slower yet still quite funky little track. Fast, Fierce, and Funny has a cool bass bridge voiceover and a steady beat that you may struggle to get out of your head as it explains to you that money isn't everything in this world.

Somewhat ironically, the final track You Can Have the World is an empowering song communicating the fact that you can have whatever you want in life, including wealth, if you just get up off your ass and work for it.

Although Gun, Korn and Spice girl Mel B have done their cover versions, for me, Cameo's original Word Up! is an indelible part of the 1980s and my coming of age, but this music is by no means old and out-of-date in the twenty-first century.

Something this cool never really goes out of style.

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