Leee John of Imagination talks about bingo, platinum discs and having children named after him.
Imagination led the way for British jazz funk/soul bands while releasing a host of nostalgia-inducing anthems. They’re playing the first day of the Solihull Festival at Tudor Grange Park on 27th July and we managed to catch up with frontman Lee John.
You seem to have a lot of work on at the moment.
“Totally. We just did the Love Supreme festival, I was in Italy, France, Spain, there’s loads going on. I’m recording, trying to finish off the Flashback film which we’ve been doing for seven or eight years. I’m working in so many different territories so all in it’s going really well.”
You were typical of that early eighties era, yet your music has endured for much longer.
“A lot of artists have used Imagination music so it did have an effect. Mariah Carey sampled Illusion, Beyonce has done it with Destiny’s Child, Taylor Swift has used it. Our songs seem to have outlasted a lot of other people.”
Are the royalties sorted?
“That’s my pension money.”
At the time you were releasing these songs you’d be on Top of the Pops doing some very slick funk song, then the Jam or the Specials would be on next with a tune about nuclear war or unemployment.
“And then they’d go home dancing to my records. That was the funniest things, I did a show in Manchester and all these guys were into heavy metal. They were dancing to Music & Lights and Flashback. Oasis as well, one of the brothers was telling me what a great band Imagination were.
“We do forget music’s accessible. Everybody can’t be the same, and we all have to have our own genre. Sometimes in the UK they have to isolate you and you can only do one sort of thing yet the whole scope of being an artist is to be able to create any kind of colour on a blank canvas.
“In the eighties there were a lot of black British bands doing a lot of different sounds. Lynx, Junior, Jakki Grahame, Hi Tension before that, then Five Star, there were tons of acts and record companies were really putting in some investment after we were doing it.”
You had five gold albums in the UK alone. As the phrase goes, you shifted some product.
“I lost count. Around the world we had platinum, gold, silver. I’ve got them on the wall, given some of them to my mum and my family, some went to charity. It all came after I really learned my craft playing in places like bingo clubs where there were maybe two thousand people who weren’t there to watch me but they were still there. I’ve always had that desire to work, to achieve and to sustain. I’ve always loved playing live and I’ve always loved to record, even way before Imagination. Then Body Talk made it big and we were having to work harder on the next album, the next single.”
Your music is very much of the late night in a disco feel. Howe does that translate to a sunny afternoon at a festival?
“Most festivals love it. I’ve never had a problem with it. We weren’t really a disco act; we were soul, funk. The disco thing was more seventies, four on the floor Donna Summer, that sort of thing. Bodytalk had a bpm of 110, it had more of a Herb Alpert feeling with maybe reggae overtones to it.
“We show the all-roundness of music. If you think you’re going to get one a particular style you’d be wrong. My drummer has been with Simple Minds, my bass player has been with every major act, my keyboard player was with Hugh Masakela and Massive Attack, my guitar player has worked with loads, even with the Smiths and the Cure. They’re very good musicians, everyone’s very crafted. And when I go on stage I performs to how the audience is responding that day so you never get the same show you got the week before. It puts everyone on their toes but it’s fun.”
You’re doing these sort of shows with people you’ve know for over thirty years. There must surely be some long-running feuds there.
“No, everyone in those days had a very good work ethic. Some people loved to party but in those days everyone was supporting everyone else. It was competitive, whether it was on stage or on TV, even things like Des O’Connor or Good Morning Britain but we worked. ”
You must be introduced to lads in their mid-thirties named Leee who tell you their parents met dancing to an Imagination record and think ‘That’s one influence I’ve had.’ You’re responsible for a small population explosion – that’s not a bad legacy.
“I do get people saying they’ve named their kids after me, or they first had their sevxual expeeicne to an Imagination track. Bodytalk, that was the album for that. People do see it as important to let you know but we do also have a lot of young musicians telling us how they were influenced by us and asking how we got that sound. It happens a lot that younger people listen to our music and like it, so they investigate and they tap into our influences. And so it goes on”
Imagination play Solihull Festival oN Saturday 27th July. Tickets