It's 1984, you're at a dinner party, no doubt eating Chicken Kiev, when the hostess puts on some background music. You hear a funky, jazzy beat and some smooth sax and then the smokiest, most sultry voice you have ever heard emanates from the speakers. If you immediately thought of Sade's megalithic debut album Diamond Life, then you must be at least as old as I am. This hoary cliché used to describe and dismiss Sade's music as little more than the soundtrack to the heights of yuppiedom and Thatcher's Britain completely misses the truth of what should be hailed as one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music. It may surprise you to know that Sade is often described as the most successful British female artist, with worldwide album sales of over 50 million. As someone who has always preferred to let her music speak for itself, it can be difficult to pin down who Sade is behind her cool, detached image. So let us return to the real 1984 and reveal the truth behind the arrival of Miss Sade Adu.
If it was not for a fortuitous request from friends, we might know Sade from a different career. In the early 1980s she was a fashion student at the renowned St Martin's School of Art, when fellow students who had formed a band asked her to help them out on vocals. With her model looks, it's not hard to see an alternate path when Sade gave Naomi Campbell a run for her money. Instead she discovered she enjoyed writing songs and although a nervous performer, she eventually hooked up with a Latin funk band called Pride (no, I don't know what Latin funk is either). Sade bonded with a few of the band's other members and together they began to perform as a quartet during Pride's shows, playing their own jazz pop compositions. One of these songs, Smooth Operator, caught the attention of a record company scout who tried to persuade Sade to sign a solo deal. However, she stayed true to her friends and eventually Portrait Records signed all four; the band Sade still has this same line-up in place today.
The band hit it big with their first single, Your Love Is King, a staggeringly mature sounding song from such a new band. Released in February 1984, it sounded like nothing else in the charts, eschewing electronic backings for real instruments and ignoring the trendy New Romantic for good old-fashioned romance. That many fail to realise that Sade is a band, not just a person, is due to the strength of voice and image from their lead singer. With her tightly pulled back hair, long ponytail and black suit and gloves, Sade Adu created an instant iconic image for herself, so timeless that she still sports it today, without apparently having aged at all. Combined with her unique singing voice, with its mellifluous rounded sounds and woody tone, Sade was impossible to ignore. She had appeared as a fully-formed modern day jazz diva as if out of nowhere and her personal reluctance to expose herself to endless interviews, read wrongly as aloofness, just fed into the mystery of her abrupt arrival.
In 1984 Britain was emerging from a recession that had decimated its industrial base and seen record unemployment of over three million for the first time. There were boom times around the corner, but not for everyone; just like now the bankers and traders made most of the money. Sade's music has become indelibly linked with that image of booming Britain in the 1980s, but that is an aberration. The reality is Sade had much more in common with the struggling working class than the cash-splashing City Barrow Boys. Despite the big hit, Sade at this point was living in a freezing converted fire station with her boyfriend, with a bath in the kitchen and a loo on the fire escape. She had been brought up by her single mother, a nurse, in Essex and so did not come from a wealthy background. To understand the real Sade in 1984 you need to listen to their second single, the surely autobiographical When Am I Going To Make A Living.
If their first single epitomised romance, Sade's second release dealt with hard reality. With touches of sixties protest songs, the song takes the tragedy of youth unemployment and calls for resilience in the face of adversity. Sade sings blue notes over the intro, plays weary frustration in the verses, before leading a chant of "we're hungry but we won't give in". It is as good a song about surviving a recession as Simply Red's cover of Money's Too Tight (To Mention) that hit a year later, but somehow Sade's single stumbled in the charts. Perhaps it was the apparent dissonance with the media image of Sade that had already begun to take root or maybe the reality was those it touched simply couldn't afford the price of a single. This song also belies another Sade myth, that their music is over-produced. Much of Diamond Life sounds raw to me and has maintained the feel of a live recording, as if the band was captured on stage at Ronnie Scott's. This single in particular feels spontaneous and full of energy and Sade infuses her vocal with a determination that lends authenticity to the subject matter.
Despite this setback, hopes were high for the release of the album and Diamond Life would go on to surpass even the band's most fervent fantasy. On its release in July 1984 it would peak at number two, but stay in the top ten for over six months, eventually going four-times platinum. It would also be a major international success, most notably in the USA. When it was released there the following year, it hit the top five of the Billboard album chart and sold over four million copies. This mega-success was no doubt due to the quality of the music. The album contained eight original songs, each a potential single in my view, and a well-chosen cover of Timmy Thomas' Why Can't We Live Together, which closed the album. Those who doubt Sade's vocal talent should be forced to hear Frankie's First Affair, a cautionary tale about a heartbreaker falling in love, where she let's rip with such raw emotion you can only wish she did it more often. Other highlights include the funkily insistent Hang On To Your Love and Sally, which sounds like a lost Cole Porter song about a tart with a heart. This is proper grown-up jazz, a style Sade would perfect with Is It A Crime? from their next album.
However, if one song can be said to have cemented the success of Sade and Diamond Life, then is it surely the most sophisticated song ever to be sung from a girl who grew up in Essex; Smooth Operator. When Sade intones over the intro of syncopated percussion and sax you instantly know this is special. She once said she sings like she talks, otherwise it would not sound authentic, and her spoken intro on this song proves that point. Sounding like a cross between a Bond theme and an eleven o'clock number this is surely Sade's finest hour. The stop-start between the verses and the chorus is pure pop genius and Red Eye, the extended jazz break on the 12" that follows the song is well worth tracking down. The song is best summed up by one of it's own lyrics, "he move in space with minumum waste and maximum joy".
Diamond Life isn't just one of the best albums of the eighties, it's one of the greatest British albums of all time. It's about time it was rediscovered, away from the baggage of the era that adhered to it, and respected for the quality of its writing and musicianship, rather than just its phenomenal sales. It's also long overdue for Sade Adu to be given proper recognition in the pantheon of great British female artists. I've always struggled to understand why she's absent from the list when compiling the greats, she has surely proven her staying power is down to her talent and not her image by now. If you think you know Diamond Life, dig it out and listen again as if it was the first time you'd heard it and wonder at the majesty of this young diva, arriving fully formed into the world once again.
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