Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Disturbing the Groove

Every once in a while a song graces my Jetta that I’ve heard a thousand times, but inexplicably resonates with me on that 1,001st play. Recently, it was Don’t Disturb This Groove by The System. I remember when this song dominated the airwaves and had long dismissed the track until a few days ago, when it arrived unannounced on a random iPod mix. (I’m a huge ‘old school’ R&B fan and have one of those ‘ancient’ 20-giggers packed to the gills with various styles of music, so the chances of a previously unplayed track popping up in a mix are quite good.) I proceeded to set the iPod to ‘Repeat’ and systematically dissect the workings of the song during my long commute from work. Once home, I did a 'net search on The System, a band I knew nothing about. According to and, The System was singer Mic Murphy and keyboardist David Frank. A proficient pianist, Frank’s creative seeds were sewn at an early age and cultivated through gigs as a touring musician, eventually dovetailing into progressively substantial endeavors that not only forged his immense talents but financed his penchant for the most cutting-edge synths. Frank’s career began to take flight when Atlantic Records soul/funk band Kleeer enlisted him as their tour keyboardist. The band's road manager, Mic Murphy, asked Frank to sit in on some informal recording sessions, and at the time, Frank was unaware that Murphy could sing. The sessions afforded Frank the opportunity to record some of his own material, including a track called It's Passion. The song was presented to a pre-stardom Madonna who eventually passed on vocal duties due to creative differences. Recalling Murphy, Frank invited him to his loft to work on the track, where Murphy reworked the lyrics and melody. The two then entered the studio, recorded the song in one day, and spent the night mixing the recording. After their overnight session, Murphy delivered the master tape to an engineer friend who transferred the tape onto a 12" acetate record and suggested he present it to Mirage Records, a subsidiary of Atlantic. The next day, Murphy called to inform Frank that the duo had a record deal. Two days later, Murphy created the name The System, and within three weeks, It's Passion was receiving massive radio airplay in New York. (If only it were still that easy).

The follow-up single, You Are in My System (November 1982), took the same magic path, spreading to key markets around the country, and early 1983 saw the release of their debut album Sweat. They went on to release X-Periment in 1984 and The Pleasure Seekers in 1986, to increasing acclaim, leading to soundtrack appearances on Miami Vice, Coming To America, and Beverly Hills Cop. But it wasn’t until 1987, upon the release of the title track for the album Don’t Disturb This Groove, did The System’s profile begin to skyrocket. The track went to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts and #3 on the Hot 100. The duo followed the hit with several more singles and two albums, including 1989’s Rhythm and Romance and the 1990 reunion album ESP, although none of the ensuing releases would achieve the blistering success of Don't Disturb This Groove. However, their fresh approach put The System in high demand as producers/songwriters and musicians. The deft imprint of The System can be heard on Chaka Khan's I Feel For You, Mtume's Juicy Fruit (both certified Gold), and Phil Collins' Sussudio, where Frank’s trademark sporadic synth bassline permeates this substantial hit by the Genesis frontman. Frank’s production sensibilities eventually led him to much greater heights, producing Christina Aguilera’s Genie in a Bottle and other releases by a bevy of A-line acts.

The System - Don't Disturb This Groove (1987)

The System followed a path shared by many electronic acts of the eighties, but their meteoric rise laid claim to unique attributes absent from the sounds pushed by other artists in the scene. The System's design was no fluke, rather it represented the ultimate interracial cooperative, advancing a divine essence derived from the blend of cultural backgrounds that cannot be matched by imitation alone. It must have been plainly evident to Murphy and Frank that this synergy would quickly dissolve if one of the components were to be removed. In 1987, the ingredients forging the chemistry between them could not have been more precisely measured, culminating in the choral refrains of Don’t Disturb This Groove. The structure of the song was meticulously manicured, joyfully bouncing between major to minor within a single phrase. Murphy’s vox were spot on pitch, with no ulterior weaknesses commonly disguised by current softcopy wizardry. Sure, the production in itself is a bit dated for today’s tastes. That slamming snare has been mercifully absent from recordings for years. But Frank was employing progressive technology at the time, including the Fairlight and what sounds like a Yamaha DX-7. These boards lent The System’s sound a somewhat freeze-dried flavor. But it was Frank’s use of synth fragments is what carried the track into such an ethereal bent, as the song is built upon dozens of solo parts, each having its turn in the spotlight, while sprinkled onto the body of the mix like a fragrant powder. On the surface, the bassline appears to run random, with no detectable purpose other than to fill the spaces within. But upon subsequent spins I recognized a very intricate pattern not unlike the typical bassline by another one of my favorite eighties bands, Scritti Politti. Only upon further research did I discover that the basslines from Scritti’s critically acclaimed Cupid and Psyche ’85 were Frank’s (he was hired as a session musician for the recording of the album). I also dialed in some uncanny arrangement similarities between Don’t Disturb This Groove and Scritti’s Perfect Way, or for that matter, any track on Cupid and Psyche. I wonder about the degree of Frank’s influence on this recording (or vice versa), since his involvement remains poorly documented on the web. What speaks for itself, however, is the enduring quality of this truly timeless tune. I just wish I had caught this groove the first time around.


david frank said...

Wow, Thankyou so much...."A man can but do his best" David

Lisa-Ann said...

I danced through the 80's to the most incredible written music of it's time.
...this coming from David's baby sister...I love you :-)

funkylegs said...

David and Lisa-Ann,

Great to hear from you! Thanks for your comments.

To paraphrase Pet Shop Boys' Chris Lowe on his tastes in music: 'I don't really like much, but what I do like, I love passionately'.