Dance Music Acts Sample This 80s Piano Line So Much for a Reason
From M People and Liquid to Bulgarian DJ KiNK, Marshall Jefferson's bittersweet chords on Cece Rogers’ “Someday” still stand the test of time.
Lead illustration by Esme Blegvad
Hi. This is a monthly column where I'll be writing about something I've been unhealthily obsessed with. It is basically a written accompaniment to this meme. But with more music. Thanks.
Last summer, somebody took a picture of me and my best mate at a house party on a disposable camera. I was balancing precariously on her lap in a Damned T-shirt, and she was looking calmly into the lens, throwing up a half-hearted peace sign in that way you do when someone puts a camera in your face without warning. When the photo finally came through, I felt a wave of emotion that was hard to pinpoint. It wasn’t nostalgia, necessarily, but more like nostalgia for something that wasn’t even gone yet. We look so young in the pic. We are tipsy and happy. It captures the middle of July. Looking at it makes me feel alive and aware of my own death at the same time. I want to climb inside, and stay there a bit longer.
Maybe you’ve experienced a similar feeling before, too. When I looked it up, the closest phrase I could find to describe it is ‘anticipatory nostalgia,’ which doesn’t fully articulate the bittersweet, pink and blue quality of emotions. Then again, maybe these sorts of things can’t be explained with words anyway. Instead, we look towards other outlets, like sound and image or ~movement~. More specifically: there’s this one piano line that you might have heard before. Originally produced by Marshall Jefferson for Cece Rogers in 1987, and then repurposed for Liquid’s better known remix “Sweet Harmony” five years later, and then warped for Cece Peniston’s “Finally” after that, here is a group of piano chords that – in my mind, at least – say a million things at once, like warmth and loss and longing. It clocks in at around the 1:20 mark below.
According to Jefferson, this piano line existed for a long time before it landed beneath Rogers' vocals. In an interview with Test Pressing, the influential Chicago producer explains how he had “it lying around” and then at some point pulled Rogers into the studio to perform vocals in one “phenomenal” take. Once it was recorded, Marshall showed it to Atlantic Records, who signed Rogers immediately, making “Someday” the first house track released by a major label, going on to sell millions. Liquid’s version (below) came not long after, relying heavily on that one piano line and pitching up Roger’s vocals so that the words “sweet harmony” repeat and glisten over the whole thing like condensed milk on apple pie. I know you’re supposed to prefer the original, but “Sweet Harmony” is something else: it is cold and sweet and euphoric at the same time, and it takes that blue/pink piano line and pushes it front and centre.
Obviously this isn’t the only piano line to take those swirling, complex feelings and translate them into something sparse and immediate. Far from it: One of the main characteristics of acid house piano, in general, is to merge jazz-influenced minor and major 7 chords to create this warm and cold affect. Take Baby D’s well known 1992 hit “Let Me Be Your Fantasy,” for instance, and you can feel your stomach drop when those piano plonks come in (duuuh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duhduhduh), as if all your loves and losses are being distilled and expelled in one go. This isn’t a lesson on the history of house piano, though – I’m not even slightly qualified to give that, plus there are docs that tell a story much bigger than one article, and sew a line that travels between the queer black Chicago dancefloors to the icy streets of Detroit and beyond. But what I mean to say, is that the “Someday” piano line is not an anomaly, but the perfect essence of what makes the genre from which it comes from so affecting sometimes.
The piano line would go on to be used elsewhere. Everyone knows the 1992 Cece Peniston song “Finally”, and if you lean in and listen closely to the often-played mix from David Morales, you can hear a warped, approximate version of the piano and bass line from “Someday.” That Cece Pinston track clearly slaps, but it can’t be compared to these earlier incarnations imo – it’s something different, something more upbeat and straight-forward, without any of the cold blue elements of the original. And then there was Danny Byrd’s drum ‘n’ bass version of “Sweet Harmony” which came out in 2010 on Hospital Records, peaking at number 6 on the UK dance charts. I’m sure there are people out there who love that version, but to me it sounds a bit like someone’s taken that piano line and repeatedly thwacked it over the head with a concrete slab until the colour drains.
In general, though, it’s always hard to articulate those feelings that transcend explanation, isn't it? As Ryan Bassil wrote when dissecting an 80s Japanese pop song, Plastic Love,” by Mariya Takeuchi, "words can be entirely useless, unnecessary; or, when it comes to music, a kind of shield in which an otherwise empty song is rendered meaningful for detailing an emotion.”
When I looked at that photo of me and my mate, for example, I saw a few things: the passing of time, the spectre of death, the gratefulness attached to being alive, the fun that could be had while still here physically, the sadness that it wouldn't last forever, and whatever happens when all those things merge together, glued with some more indefinable things that we can't quite reach enough to recognise, but can still be heard and felt in one piano line.