When I was growing up the subtext had been that white people made rock and blacks made R&B. Even as a child I knew that was not completely true, after all there was Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendricks and Sly Stone – not to mention Prince. The main point being that music closely followed along racial lines, or that was how it was presented in the pre MTV days.
With that in mind, it was always interesting to hear from the rare black rock performer. Joan Armatrading was a talented bass and rhythm guitar player whose music was mostly of the jazz acoustic variety. Then around 1980 she changed her style to a pop rock format. It was at that point that she became popular in her native Britain.
A few years after the big turnaround was The Key was released in 1983. It was produced by Steve Lillywhite who infused it with a heavy synthesizer presence. In addition to the more contemporary sound, The Key offered more than a few surprises thanks to it’s all -star cast of players who for the most part enhanced Armatrading’s somewhat reserved singing style.
Stewart Copeland on drums, Tony Levin on bass and Adrian Belew on guitar were just a few of the established rock stars who participated in the making of The Key. All the great talent on the record may have contributed to the tighter less relaxed sound than on 1981’s Walk Under Ladders.
The wonderfully sadistic hit single ‘I Love it When You Call Me Names’ was Armatrading’s breakout hit in America. That song along with the second single ‘Drop the Pilot’, helped The Key crack the American Top 40 album chart. The first time she had any real impact on our side of the Atlantic.
Part of Armatrading’s charm was her unassuming looks. As an English black woman, she was something of an exotic oddity in America. Her voice may have been ordinary, but as a black woman who could not only play (not just sing and dance) she was a trendsetter.
She was a real musician in a time between the time that black post disco diva was fading out and the emerging manufactured bands were becoming increasingly popular.
A lot of what makes The Key special lie in the songs that feature contributions from members of King Crimson. Tony Levin’s muscular bass in ‘Foolish Pride’ gave it a slight prog rock edge, while Adrian Belew’s guitar playing on ‘The Key’ was equally effective if not a bit overbearing.
The albums sound in addition to being straightforward rock, was a welcome reprieve from the electro pop coming out of England.
The Key may not have been Armatrading’s best album, but as often the case it was her most popular in America. It was not too much longer that the black artist as rocker syndrome began to take off, starting in the underground with Bad Brains and later Living Color and Lenny Kravitz.
Armatrading’s career had it peaks and dips after The Key. She returned to the charts in America as a blues artist with Into The Blues in 2007. For me I will always remember her as the young black lady with the big afro wielding a guitar, just like one of the rock-n-roll (white) boys.