Listen to this track by dual-frontman outfit and pop-music-with-a-head-for-wordplay purveyors General Public. It’s “Tenderness”, their biggest hit as taken from the debut record in 1984, All The Rage. The song would make them more of a chart draw in North American showings than in their native UK, with top forty play and heavy video rotation too.
General Public was something of a Two Tone and British second wave ska survivor band, featuring members of The Beat and The Specials. This new band also included members of Dexy’s Midnight Runners and even, briefly, Mick Jones of the Clash before the record was released. The two primaries would be Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling who had been the lead vocalists for the aforementioned Beat, a band that had made a lot of headway in North America through college radio before fragmenting by 1983.
This song was the second single from their debut album, with the self-referential “General Public” being the first. And it made a cultural impact in a hurry, being a part of soundtrack albums (Weird Science), and on MTV that got the song heard by new audiences.
And speaking of audiences, what did the success of this song mean where the cultural landscape in North America was concerned?
First off, despite the connection to the British ska scene, this song hooks into a strain of music that even that earlier scene hooked into; Motown soul-pop. Even if this song is very much attached to the 1980s, it’s really a kind of a subtle throwback to the American pop music of the ’60s, with twangy guitar, a “You Can’t Hurry Love” bassline, and an unexpected bassoon line that really feels like something of a Smokey Robinson-like flourish.
But, all of that makes sense, considering that Roger and Wakeling had always thrown Motown-inspired textures into the mix. When they were a part of the Beat, their first single was a cover version of “Tears Of A Clown”. Here, those influences are matched with lyrics riddled with wordplay (“words like ‘conviction’ can turn into a sentence”, “my head feels light, but I’m still in the dark”), which puts an edge onto the accessibility of the musical ingredients drawn from established pop traditions of the past.
But this song never seemed retro. It always seemed new, like nothing else on the radio, and certainly like nothing else on video music television with two frontmen that seemed to visually represent all of these musical traditions found in their work; British guitar rock, and American soul. More overtly speaking, a black singer and a white singer sharing the duties of frontman were all the more rare by 1984.
And there’s another thing. By the early to mid ’80s, and through out the rest of the decade, music on television and on the radio was becoming more culturally and racially polarized. With only a few exceptions by 1984 (Culture Club, and Thompson Twins being the most high-profile), interracial musical acts were becoming rare on North American charts. But, this is where General Public had come from in Britain, out of scenes that made a point of mixing cultures and sounds into something new. It’s a curious thing that despite this influence coming from Britain, black artists seen on MTV in the 1980s were rare in general, outside of Michael Jackson and Prince.
But, despite the fact that General Public stayed their course in this regard,what really counts is that this tune is full of jubilant melody and varied texture, contrasted with a troubled tale of isolation and disconnection. It resonated beyond any cultural undercurrents or musical categories defined by race. And as for it’s ubiquity in the mid-80s, “Tenderness”, would eventually appear on the Clueless movie soundtrack in 1995, introducing it to a new crop of listeners, and proving that it still had legs beyond any one era. I think it also made the ideas of music that is defined by who is making it into absurdities as well, and that organizing music that way is to miss the point.
Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling would dissolve their partnership in General Public in the mid-90s, after they put out a successful cover version of The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”, along with a third album. Today, they head up different versions of the Beat in the UK and in North America respectively.
For more on General Public and the Beat, here’s an extensive interview with Dave Wakeling about his days in both bands.