My Pop Life #50 : Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) – Julia & Company

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Breakin’ Down  (Sugar Samba)   –   Julia & Company

…I’m telling you this, you can’t resist you gotta get up and dance, breakin’ it down…

It’s hard to remember just how dominant dance music was in 1984 – punk and new wave had been and gone, leaving Elvis Costello and Paul Weller to re-invent themselves with each LP (they both did dance LPs around this time) 2-tone had sealed the deal, and the disco underground of the 1970s was now mainstream chart music.  Bestriding the world like a colossus was Michael Jackson, who was burned filming a Pepsi Commercial in January just before the release of his ground-breaking and game-changing video film for Thriller, the final single from that record-breaking album.   Number one in Britain for weeks were Frankie Goes To Hollywood with “Relax“, a genuine british dance hit record which the BBC refused to play presumably because it references orgasm.   Their 2nd single Two Tribes would also reach number 1 in April.  In the previous year, when I’d been at the Donmar Warehouse for five months (!) in Steven Berkoff’s WEST, even David Bowie had gone disco with Nile Rogers and Let’s Dance.

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And this surge of popularity gave many smaller acts their chance in the spotlight: Sharon Redd, The Pointer Sisters, and Washington D.C. resident Julia Nixon who produced a stunning 45rpm 7-inch single called Breakin’ Down (Sugar Samba) first on a local label District of Columbia then later on London Records – the one which I bought in a picture sleeve.  It is a major groove and will, under almost any conditions, make people dance…

  Featured image  Knowing nothing about this group until recently when I learned that Julia Nixon had replaced Jennifer Holiday in Dreamgirls on Broadway, and that after this cracking single in 1984 and the follow-up I’m So Happy, she finally released her first solo LP in 2007 some 23 years later.

Now, I’ve been an actor for some 33 years myself, and I consider myself lucky to have lived for the bulk of my working life doing what I am capable of, and what I enjoy.  To be precise : what I enjoy is the actual act of acting.  The business of show less so, because of revelations like this : a clearly great singer (listen to the song) with a hit single who has had to wait for over 30 years to get one miserable solo LP released.  She is clearly a better singer than the majority of chart acts, but pop music is merciless with talent, as is the TV and Film industry.  I’ve thought about this many times, why does person a) get work and person b) doesn’t ?

I’m not pretending to know the answers to this but certain things are clear.  Talent isn’t enough to succeed.  There are other elements at work :  luck, connections, and the greasing of the wheels.  Whether someone wants to have sex with you or not.  Whether they think that you’ll make them some money.   In the acting industry the disappointment of rejection becomes your regular companion;  if you took every defeat on the chin you’d never get up.  Some don’t.  In the music industry again the rejections may or may not fuel the fires of creativity, or someone younger and sexier might just jump into the gap.  Good actors often decide that the lack of control they feel doing screen work can only be balanced by regular stage work, where the actor is king.  Screen work generally is paid 10 times stage work.  Good musicians will often be happier with regular paid session work, playing on other people’s hit songs, or writing other people’s hit songs (secret corn!) than sitting at home trying to plot an assault on the charts under their own name.   And in both industries there are filters at work;  gatekeepers, paid to streamline the flow of artists into the hallowed name positions.

Julia Nixon has carried on acting and singing, and still earns her living from doing it.  She was recently nominated for a Helen Hayes Award in ‘Caroline, or Change’ in Washington D.C.

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I was at the beginning of my working life when I heard this song, which I still love today, if I ever DJ for a brief nostalgic hour at a party or some such this record is Always In The Box along with Kid Creole & The Coconuts and TLC.   I didn’t really have a plan in 1984, no strategy, no idea what I was doing frankly.   Following my nose.  No one ever sat me down and explained the industry to me.   People just don’t do that.   I wouldn’t have listened anyway.   Young people don’t listen – they surge, they feel, they deal with it.   The endless thought process dealing with “how it all works” is like trying to understand the dawn of time, or how dogs can smell cancer, or the endless mystery of why people are racist.   Why does the river flow into the sea?  Why is the sky blue ? (oxygen molecules)  Why can’t I bend my left leg in the same way as my right?  Does it matter?

We all get our moment in the sun.  This is a superb song.  Smooth, funky, sexy.  I give you the seven-inch :

London Records re-mixed the 12-inch version :

the original District Of Columbia 12-inch single :

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My Pop Life #7 : Do The Right Thing – Redhead Kingpin & The FBI

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Do The Right Thing  –  Redhead Kingpin & the FBI

…brothers are stealing & dealing & big wheeling, and to a younger mind that stuff is appealing – so

what do they do? they gather up a crew, go out & steal or rob instead of gettin’ a job…

Summer of ’89 I was living in Archway Road N6 and directing a summer school at the National Youth Theatre in Holloway – a 3 week workshop with a mixed gang of wannabe hopefuls from all over the UK.  We had a presentation to make at the end of the fun. So we started to build a show – based on an eco-disaster idea I’d had called Zone. We met each morning in Parliament Hill School gym and did warm-ups, games and hot-seating. They were a talented gang – one of them (Frank) became a writer, another (Kerry) became Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Stratford East and another (David) became David Walliams.  My assistant director was David Steinberg from Tel Aviv, who is still a close friend  (I travelled to see him during the 2nd intifada).  The local estate kids used to “invade” the school every day and run amok, the caretaker did nothing of course – we were the ‘incomers’.  I challenged them one morning with the phrase “off you go”, which the leading kid echoed back incredulously “off you go?”, then off he went.  But that lunch hour my leading actor Rob was slashed with a knife outside the sandwich shop on Highgate Road and was rushed to hospital with a cut cheek. Disaster. Police were called, nothing happened, we finished the last few days of the workshop in Holloway Road at basecamp.  In the final show I used two pieces of music – one was a choreographed dance routine to a hip hop song which had stormed my ears that summer.  I brought in two hip-hop choreographers whose names escape me now, they used to do all the videos from that era – the Cookie Crew, London Possee, Gee St Records kinda thing, and they took this disparate group through their B-Boy paces.  Good dancers stood at the front, less good ones at the back, but NO ONE was exempted, despite protestations.  Walliams in particular, despite doing an impeccable and hilarious Kenneth Williams impersonation on a regular basis, really wasn’t a natural dancer, but I never treated him any different to the rest of them despite evidence to the contrary, and to his credit he gamely danced on.  It really was the highlight of the “show” when we presented it to parents and the NYT.  It’s got great lyrics and a real new-jack swing bounce to it.  Despite the title (which you cannot copyright thank god) the song has nothing to with the Spike Lee film of the same name which also came out in 1989, and was also in the form of a cautionary tale of hard-won wisdom.

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Many years later Jenny was working with Sharon Osbourne in The Vagina Monologues and we were invited to the Osbournes Christmas Party just behind Harrods.  Elton was there, I ignored him out of nerves (regret) and David Walliams, now star of hit show Little Britain was also there.  He took my elbow : “Ralph I need to thank you for the National Youth Theatre workshop – you didn’t treat me differently to the others, and I had such a good time I went back the following summer, and met Matt Lucas.”  That was nice.  David also devoted part of a chapter in his autobiography to the experience which he then sent to me, and we’re now back in touch.  Life is long.

Later in 1989 I went to a live hip hop concert in London with KRS-One headlining, EPMD (?) and Redhead Kingpin performing this song.  It’s still a classic.