The soul/dance trio Imagination was one of the most successful acts to bridge black music from the disco sounds of the late 70s to the synth-dominated punk funk that emerged in the 80s - and in the process made some memorable music. Formed by singer Leee John and singer/bassist Ashley Ingram (both of whom had worked with the Chairmen of the Board in the late 70s) along with drummer Erroll Kennedy, the group teamed with upstart writers/producers Tony Swain and Steve Jolley (who would later score big with Bananarama and Rick Astley) to become one of the most popular British groups of the early 80s, though their success in the US was generally limited to the club scene.
Imagination's 1981 debut, Body Talk, was a smash in the UK and set the scene for their half decade of prominence in that country. The album cover showed the trio wearing futuristic, almost comical outfits that looked like uniforms from the planet Zarcon (made even more comical by the pouty, serious looks on their faces), and the disc's sound seemed to match. While including a slight nod to 70s soul in John's falsetto lead, the music was icily impersonal with heavy electronics and a strong backbeat - a nearly perfect accomodation to the emerging club scene. The album clicked with European audiences, with hit singles in the title track and "Burnin Up" (each landing in the UK top 20), though barely charting in the US.
The group's follow-up disc, In the Heat of the Night, was better and placed hit singles around the world with three terrific dance cuts, "Just An Illusion" (later remade by Tavares), "Music and Lights" and "Looking at Midnight." All became club favorites in the US, though they were only middling soul charters. Heat became the high point for Imagination, going double gold in the UK and gathering for them a sizeable international audience.
1984's New Dimensions (called Scandalous in the UK) boasted perhaps Imagination's best song and performance, "This Means War (Shoo Be Da Dabba Doobee)," but was overall less memorable than the group's previous albums. After releasing a couple compilations, the group moved to RCA Records in 1987 and traveled to the US to work with Philly producer Nick Martinelli and funk pioneer Arthur Baker on Closer, a true soul album that was a departure from the synthetic dance music for which Imagination was known. The disc was quite good but failed to revive the group's popularity, though it landed a club hit with "Instinctual." Around this time, Kennedy left the group and was replaced by Peter Royer. In 1989, an album of remixes, Like It Is, became a surprise international smash and renewed interest in Imagination. But Ingram left the group in 1990, effectively ending Imagination.
Leee John established a new version of Imagination for Fascination of the Physical in 1992 and toured around the world with the group through 1995. He pursued an acting career over the next several years while also writing and recording on occasion. John scored a couple of solo club hits in the late 90s and worked with the British group Shakatak in 2003. In 2005 he signed with Candid Records and released Feel My Soul, an album of jazz standards and some original material.
By Chris Rizik
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