Common Thread: The Producers Come Out to Play (Part 5)

by Jeff Fiedler

Common Thread is a regular feature on in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column. 

What Up Dog?, Was (Not Was) (1988, Chrysalis)

Long before he ever became a Grammy darling for his work producing Bonnie Raitt’s career-reviving albums Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw and became a wildly-in-demand producer for everyone from the B-52’s, Iggy Pop, and Paul Westerberg to Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, and even The Rolling Stones, Don Was served as one of the two leaders (David Was being the other) of this eclectic pop outfit, which, much like the Alan Parsons Project, regularly made use of guest vocalists. Both of the band’s only two Top 40 hits – the soulful dance-pop of “Walk the Dinosaur” (a Top Ten hit) and “Spy in the House of Love” – hail from this disc, which also features songs co-written by Elvis Costello and Marshall Crenshaw and one track (“Wedding Vows in Vegas”) sung by Frank Sinatra, Jr.. Perhaps the most overlooked gem here is the absolutely gorgeous “Anything Can Happen,” which only peaked at #75 but is arguably more infectious than either of the album’s higher-charting singles. 

Cloudcuckooland, Lightning Seeds (1989, MCA)

Ian Broudie had been in the band Big in Japan in the late ‘70s but had made a much bigger name for himself in the ‘80s as the producer for such highly-revered new-wave bands as Echo and the Bunnymen. Broudie returned to performing in the late ‘80s as the leader of this outfit, which made a minor splash in the U.S. with such delightful singles as the wistful synth-folk of “Pure” (a Top 40 hit reminiscent of a fusion of Chad & Jeremy’s folk-pop classic “A Summer Song” and Alphaville’s “Forever Young”) and the bubbly “All I Want,” later covered by the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs on her second solo album. The band would only ever have one more Hot 100 entry on these shores (1992’s “The Life of Riley,” which just barely squeaked onto the charts at #98) but would continue to rack up Top 40 hits in the U.K. for the entirety of the ‘90s, even reaching the top of the charts there with their World Cup anthem “Three Lions.”

Wrong Way Up, Eno/Cale (1990, Opal/Warner Bros.)

Though neither man has ever reached the Top 40 either as a solo artist or as a member of a band, Roxy Music alumnus Brian Eno and Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale have both made names for themselves in later years as producers, Eno helming a string of hit albums for U2 and Cale producing debut albums for such vital artists as Patti Smith, The Stooges, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and Squeeze. Sadly, this disc marks the only full-length collaboration between the two men, but it’s a great one and is ironically and surprisingly more commercially accessible than you might expect it to be for a collaboration between such notoriously experimental artists, the legends even garnering a fair bit of radio play with the excellent – and wildly catchy – single “Been There, Done That,” which remains Eno’s lone recording as a performer to reach any of the Billboard singles charts.

Pandemonium, The Time (1990, Paisley Park/Reprise)

Of course, no article on producers who’ve moonlighted as recording artists would be complete without mentioning one of the most commercially successful production duos of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Jimmy Jam (aka James Harris III) and Terry Lewis. Together, the two men have written and/or produced Number One and Top Ten hits for artists ranging from everyone from New Edition (“If It Isn’t Love,” “I’m Still in Love with You”), Boyz II Men (“On Bended Knee,” “4 Seasons of Loneliness”), Karyn White (“Romantic”), Mariah Carey (“Thank God I Found You”), Michael Jackson (“Scream”) and Usher (“U Remind Me”) to Herb Alpert (“Diamonds”), George Michael (“Monkey”), Robert Palmer (“I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On”) and The Human League (“Human,”) in addition to co-authoring and producing the overwhelming majority of Janet Jackson’s Top 40 hits to date and all of the Top Ten R&B hits that Alexander O’Neal and Cherrelle racked up between 1984 and 1991, including the criminally-underrated pop crossover hits “Saturday Love,” “Fake,” and “Never Knew Love Like This.” But the pair took a brief break from their production duties shortly after scoring another multi-platinum success with Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 album to reunite with the band where they got their start (with Terry on bass and Jimmy on keyboards), the Minneapolis funk outfit The Time, led by the ever-charismatic and scene-stealing Morris Day. Technically speaking, the duo actually makes its on-disc debut with the band here – none of the band members save for Day actually played on the band’s first two albums, the instrumentation on which was reportedly handled entirely by Prince, and the pair was fired before the recording of 1984’s Ice Cream Castle – and that helps to make this all the more fun a reunion album, one highlighted by the irresistible grooves of the Top Ten hit “Jerk-Out,” co-written with Prince and featuring a bass solo from Lewis.

Rythm Syndicate, Rythm Syndicate (1991, Impact/MCA)

Yes, that’s how the group actually spells their name – that’s not a typo. (They’d wisely correct the spelling for their second and last album, though it did nothing to improve the band’s fortunes.) This R&B band was led by Carl Sturken and Evan Rogers, who had already made names for themselves as the songwriters and producers behind Gavin Christopher’s “One Step Closer to You” and Donny Osmond’s unlikely surprise comeback in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with such Top 40 hits as “Soldier of Love,” “Sacred Emotion,” and “My Love Is a Fire.” The pair took a break from producing to turn the spotlight on themselves, and this album would give them two big hits in “P.A.S.S.I.O.N.” (which barely missed the top of the charts, peaking at #2) and “Hey Donna” (which peaked at #13.) After the band’s second album stiffed, the pair would return to writing and producing, picking up much work in the teen-pop arena, penning cuts for the likes of Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Mandy Moore, Jessica Simpson and most notably writing and producing ‘NSync’s “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You.” The pair had still greater success in the ‘00s by discovering a young artist by the name of Rihanna and signing her to their production company, co-producing her first three albums, including the hit singles “S.O.S.,” “Pon de Replay” and “Shut Up and Drive” (the latter two of which they also co-wrote.)