Cameo’s UK chart success in the mid-80s started here.
Daryl Easlea 2011
It was when musical polymath Larry Blackmon moved to Atlanta from New York in the early 80s that things began to move rapidly for his group, Cameo. Inspired by the icy edge of new-wave synthesizers, he began incorporating the sound into the group’s spicy, hot-blooded funk. Centering on a working core of Blackmon, Nathan Leftenant, Gregory Johnson, Charlie Singleton and Tomi Jenkins, She’s Strange – their 10th album – was the one that broke Cameo in the UK.
It was all about the title-track, which slinked out of the speakers using a synthesiser riff evoking Ennio Morricone’s theme for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The three vocalists (Blackmon, Jenkins and Leftenant) deliver a leisurely rap fleshing out the lady of the title who "reeks distinction from head to toe". It also rhymes "facetious" with "this evening with", which is no mean feat. But it’s the low-key groove that immediately engages. Borrowing from funk, post-punk and Sly and Robbie’s work with Grace Jones, it creates an instantly recognisable sound that would serve Cameo well for their next two albums. Never hurrying any of its seven minutes, it introduced Blackmon’s spoken "Ow" – as central to 80s pop as any of Michael Jackson’s vocal tics. To complement the title-track, Talkin’ Out the Side of Your Neck, an attack on the Reagan government, found Cameo rocking a metal groove, full of sassy uptown horns with Talking Heads-style keyboard washes.
But it’s not all relentlessly modern – keyboard player Kenny Hairston’s Hangin’ Downtown is a burnished soul ballad that could have been released at any point during the preceding decade. Guitarist Singleton’s George Benson-inspired Love You Anyway is similar quiet storm soul balladry. Tribute to Bob Marley, however, is a misstep. It can be dismissed as only the sort of record that could have been made in the wake of Marley’s death, and hasn’t aged well.
The success of the album led to the modernity of Blackmon’s mid-80s Cameo, the codpiece shuffling, muscular funk that produced their all-time anthem, Word Up. She’s Strange is something of a hybrid on the way to that peak, and with a couple of notable exceptions, has worn particularly well.