It's understandable that fans of Kool & the Gang's '70s funk era have never been fond of the group's '80s pop direction, but mainstream fans embraced the band's efforts for much of the decade for good reason. The ensemble's best work from that era has definitely found its place among the most memorable of '80s classics. Here's a chronological look at this seminal group's best tunes, culled mostly from the first half of the decade before overproduction became dominant and the pop metamorphosis was complete.
1. "Too Hot"
As a follow-up to the funky 1979 disco hit "Ladies' Night," which launched Kool & the Gang's reinvention phase with a vengeance, this No. 5 pop hit from the smash hit Ladies' Night LP made no bones about its status as a smooth R&B ballad. Nonetheless, the lead guitar of Charles Smith and bass playing of "Kool" himself help make certain that the band's skilled ensemble past remains apparent. Meanwhile, lead singer JT Taylor croons with the best of them in his romantic baritone, laying down a tale of lost love. It was a great start to the decade for Kool & the Gang, but who could have predicted the magnitude of what came next for the group?
Yes, we've all heard this classic late-1980 song far more times than humanly (or otherwise) necessary. Yes, its omipresence at sporting events, weddings and other events that favor overplayed music can be profoundly irritating. Nevertheless, this party anthem, the lone No. 1 pop hit in the long career of Kool & the Gang, undeniably spreads joy and positivity in more universal ways than perhaps any thread of the musical zeitgeist in the last quarter-century. The tune's fantastic bridge ("It's time to come together, it's up to you, what's your pleasure?") continues to transcend still today, blossoming like a sunflower with every listen.
Believe me when I say that it normally takes a whole lot more than the exhortations of this song - from 1981's Something Special - to make me even consider dancing, but this track is inspirational in that way. As a friend of mine might say, it's the kind of song that makes you want to wiggle, pure and simple. Musically, this tune plays like a sweeping, epic ensemble piece that literally vibrates with joyful energy. Supported ably by the group's shouted backing vocals, Taylor delivers a nimble lead vocal performance that helped take the song to another impressive pop chart performance, a peak at No. 10 in 1982.
This tender track from Kool & the Gang's pop-friendly 1983 release, In the Heart, employs doo-wop rhythms and vocals to deepen Kool & the Gang's transformation into an all-out pop band, but this is still pretty enjoyable stuff. Taylor is a hell of a singer, supremely soulful and highly accessible to pop audiences. But what's really surprising about the band's evolution here is that even though its direction had made a sharp turn away from funk, the group's horn section and individual players still shine through with crackling individuality, a rare feat indeed for heavily produced, pure pop music. This ballad reached No. 2 on the pop charts in 1983 and kept the band's streak intact.
Though I'm increasingly enthusiastic about the previous four tunes even as I write this, I have only positive superlatives to level at this underrated, underplayed '80s soul classic. Around this period of its '80s evolution, Kool & the Gang began to raise the audibility of guitar parts on its songs, and more often than not this injection of electric guitar power chords is convincing and successful. Listen closely to this 1984 release and you'll hear Smith and bassist Bell lay on the funk as well, which should have silenced many of the band's critics who charged that the group had abandoned its roots entirely. This should have been a bigger hit than its decent No. 13 peak produced.
By this track's Top 10 showing in 1984, it was difficult to deny that some of the watered-down, mechanical production tendencies of the '80s had begun to creep into Kool & the Gang's music. And while some of those elements somewhat mar this effort and Emergency, the album on which it appears, the song still comes off as a distinctive, guitar-driven classic of the era. Ultimately, it even stands out as perhaps Kool & the Gang's only successful genuine rock song, and that would be just fine if not for the way the production sweeps aside most of the distinctive elements of the band's brilliant ensemble. Still, overproduction would get worse from here, so it's best to cut our losses now.