Is Colonel Abrams trapped in the black ghetto of religion and air conditioned fame or is he a genuine soul crusader? Paolo Hewitt meets the man who once played with Prince but wants ‘dirty’ talk banned.
PERFECT, JUST perfect. In the corner of the hotel room that Colonel Abrams is sharing with his brother Maurice, the TV is switched on but the sound is turned right down. The programme being shown is a discussion about the effect that the media may or may not have on people in terms of their broadcasting various scenes of those two completely unrelated subjects: sex and violence.
As far as I can see, it’s the usual format for such a programme. A variety of known names and faces, representing both sides of the argument, sprinkled amongst an invited audience.
In front of the television, sprawled across the bed, Maurice has just been asked by the Colonel to give their views on the censorship lobby in America who are campaigning against ‘explicit lyrics’ in the wonderful world of pop music.
Maurice laughs. “Everybody’s concerned about that,” he says. “All the interviewers have been asking us about it. I think it’s a really good thing. The reason I say this is because there’s a demand for that right now and something has to be done about it, because it’s really getting phenomenal.
“You got kids growing up,” he says really starting to get into his stride, “two, three years old, all the way to manhood, and you got enough of it on TV, and you got enough of it in magazines, and you can buy all kinds of stuff.
“And it’s when you get kids watching TV and listening to the radio, and it’s talking sex all the time, they’re growing up thinking, this is alright, this is the way of the world. Everyone’s doing it, so why can’t I? It’s no good.”
All the time he’d been speaking, Mary Whitehouse’s silent image was being televised behind him, creating an image that if you’d seen it in a film, such as Letter To Brezhnev with its obvious and contrived dialogue about being young and unemployed, you would have laughed yourself silly at it.
But this was real and like I said, perfect, just perfect.
THERE IS a notion amongst most writers within the music press that runs along the following lines: black American artists make great records and lousy interviews.
It is, of course, bullshit. Gil Scot Heron writes lyrics which are as potent as Bragg’s, if not more so. James Brown is as deluded and reactionary as Miles Copeland. Eddie Murphy is as sexist as David Coverdale. And so it goes.
When it comes to religion, it’s also funny to note how many go into raptures about old gospel records, their potency! their power! and yet giggle like little schoolboys when a musician admits to religious leanings.
The Colonel, and his brother Maurice, are religious, thus explaining their slightly hysterical thinking about censorship. But the reason I liked them was because of this following snippet of conversation.
Talking about censorship, I put it to them that such actions put sex back in the closet, so to speak, that instead of thinking about it in natural everyday terms, it was effectively making it unnecessarily sinful.
“Well,” said Maurice, “the sticker is good for a number of reasons, but one small reason is that you’re not supposed to go off the street and fornicate. It’s not how it’s supposed to be. If you’re going to have sex, you’re supposed to be married to a wife, and two people are supposed to become as one person.”
Where do you get these ideas from, I ask somewhat bewildered.
“Well, that’s the scripture speaking,” said The Colonel. “But that’s enough, that’s enough,” he added, obviously unwilling to divulge anything further.
So do you both live up to this code of morality?
Maurice laughed at me. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Why are we talking about it? Why proclaim to be one person and sing one way, when you’re not doing it? He can’t go out and sing one thing and do something totally different.”
I’m sorry, I tell them, I can give you a long list of people who do.
“That’s just the thing,” said Maurice. “So what are you supposed to do? Join the bandwagon? Join in on it?”
Not at all, I say.
“They’re only thinking in terms of making money,” The Colonel pointed out with admirable clarity. “That’s the only reason why. And that’s why they’re going to be putting stickers on the album.”
ONE MINUTE later, the Colonel and his brother will reveal, inadvertently, what religion they are and plead for it not to be revealed. They cite the case of Michael Jackson and the effect it has had not only on his career, but the organisation involved.
Their plea seems genuine but it also points to the smart business sense behind their thinking. By now, over 600,000 copies of Colonel Abram’s ‘Trapped’ will have been sold around the world. Hot on its heels is a new single and album, produced by Richard Burgess and Cerrone no less. This is business and nothing must interfere with the masterplan. But in comparison to the well crafted ‘Trapped’, both the single, ‘The Truth’ and the album, fail to raise any expectations or place The Colonel in a spectacular light.
As it transpires, they seem to have had, bar writing the music, little involvement in their careers so far. For example, the choice of song to follow up the wide success of ‘Trapped’ is basically misguided, especially when you consider that the album contains a far better song in ‘I’m Not Gonna Let’.
Surprisingly, The Colonel is quick to agree.
“Well, we thought ‘I’m Not Gonna Let’,” he says, “and that’s being honest with you. Because ‘The Truth’ we felt was a good song but after a big production got into it, it dimmed, it dimmed down to the point where it was just an album cut.”
Similarly, the choice of producers came from either The Colonel’s management or record company, as did everything, down to the sleeve design. The Colonel doesn’t seem perturbed by his career being managed and pulled about by other interested parties.
“Well, the record company may say we need this from you now, the manager might say we need this from you, so we have to listen to what the options are and what we think is needed, because they don’t know what’s going on in the clubs. We know, so we can put it down and say, well okay, to round it all up, this is what we’re going to do.”
Doesn’t this annoy you, having your career determined by others?
“It annoys to the point of wow, why can’t they let me do this, this way. But then maybe they’re in touch with things we don’t know about.”
Perhaps the giant success of ‘Trapped’ has led to The Colonel sinking into a false sense of security, but if that’s true then it’s a strange aberration considering the time he has spent writing and recording.
Contrary to public opinion, he is not an overnight success. Back in the ’70s he and his brother were busy making their names in the clubs on the East Coast. The Colonel had already spent a short time in a band called 94 East (whose guitarist was Prince and whose records various companies are now busily scouring catalogues for re-release) before he got his breakthrough on the club circuit by circulating tapes of his songs.
Even here, Abrams was watching carefully how to go about things.
“The thing is,” he says, “we watched and we saw people who had control over the clubs, who knew how to get into the clubs, who knew how to get the music across. So from what they did, we eliminated the wrong things we were doing.”
Such calculation led to The Colonel specifically writing a ballad, as opposed to a dance number, to hawk around the companies.
This achieved, he now seems content to sit back and let others make the decisions as to how he’s presented, whilst he takes the rap.
“All the people are flaking off,” he says, “but when you get into the underground there’s no-one doing it like we’re doing it. Now, quite naturally, when I stop that and I start concentrating on what other people are saying, like do pop and do this and do that, I’ll let the record company worry about that because I know the deal already.
“That’s definitely going to happen, because it’s so different what’s happening with the music we’re doing. And out there somebody is just itching, saying if those guys ever drop it, I’m going to get right on in there.”
The Moral Majority notwithstanding, if I was the Colonel, I’d start looking over my shoulder, right now.
© Paolo Hewitt, New Musical Express, 4 January 1986