Loose Ends singer Jane Eugene and producer Nick Martinelli talk about 1986’s Zagora
By the mid-’80s, Jane Eugene, Steve Nichol, and Carl McIntosh—collectively known as Loose Ends—established themselves as a formidable R&B group on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. After being discovered by Virgin Records A&R Mick Clark, the trio signed their first recording contract in 1981. Through Clark, they were paired with up-and-coming Philadelphia-based record producer Nick Martinelli. Three years later, Virgin Records released their first album, A Little Spice, in England, and the collective experienced difficulties in getting airplay. Despite this obstacle, underground radio provided an alternate route for the group to reach various music audiences. While achieving moderate success in England with their sophomore effort, So Where Are You?, they became the first Black British band to top the Billboard R&B chart with their unforgettable single “Hangin’ on a String (Contemplating).” Shortly thereafter, they joined MCA Records. This move improved their prospects to become groundbreaking artists in the American marketplace and maintain their popularity in England. On May 7, 1986, Zagora was released by MCA Records and it became their first platinum-selling smash. The album spawned five singles, including their second straight number one hit: “Slow Down,” “Stay a Little While, Child,” “Nights of Pleasure,” “Ohh, You Make Me Feel,” and “You Can’t Stop the Rain.” For the album’s thirtieth anniversary, we spoke with group member Jane Eugene and producer Nick Martinelli about crafting this timeless album.
What is the story behind the forming of the group?
Jane Eugene: Steve Nichol and I met each other in passing before we actually formed our group. Steve used to come to my college which was the London College of Fashion in London, England. He was dating his girlfriend, Joann, at the time. She was a designer. So I used to see this guy who was very well dressed coming in with a trumpet case into the college. I went to a party, and I don’t know how he ended up being there. He was chatting up one of my girlfriends named Debbie, and he said, “I’m going to put together a band.” I replied, “Well, I’ll come and sing with you.” He said, “All right then.” It was really as simple as that. That is how we started off working together. We started writing songs. We met Carl when we started rehearsing our songs live. At one stage, there were eleven people in our group. We were looking for a bass player. Steve had one of his friends playing bass, and he was a nice guy, but when Carl came in, it was just something about him. He had a great sound, and Steve had a great ear. He was trained by the Guildhall School of Music. He said to me, “I like this guy. I like how he sounds.” I replied, “Yeah. I like him, too. He has this thing that’s extra special.” We kept rehearsing every week. I think people in the group thought we were going to get a deal overnight, and they kept dropping off from the group. It ended up being the three of us.
Steve met this guy at a record shop. He used to go to the record shop and buy lots of records. He was actually talking to Mick Clark, who ended up becoming one of the biggest A&R people at Virgin Records in England. He said to Steve, “When you have a tape, bring it to me.” After he listened to our demo tape, that’s how we got our record deal. To be honest with you, we were together for only four months before we got our deal. At that time, Virgin Records had Culture Club and a lot of White pop acts on its roster. We were the first Black act signed to Virgin Records, so people took our music home because they had to, not because it was what they were into. Mick Clark was the only one into our kind of music but the rest of the company wasn’t. So we didn’t get that special kind of treatment within the company. We didn’t get that until we moved to MCA Records. The reason why we ended up at MCA Records was Virgin Records didn’t have a North American division at that time. So we were signed by Jheryl Busby. Let me tell you, to walk into that company at that time when they had everyone who was selling so many records, was incredible. It was great timing for us as well.
When your careers began, your group was originally called Loose End. Is this correct?
Jane Eugene: Yes. This guy named Mike Reid was going to sue us, so we just added an s and that was the end of that. My friend Debbie and I were walking down the street in Croydon, and we were looking for a name that wouldn’t necessarily mean we were an R&B group. It would just mean that we were something new. So we saw this hair salon and it said Loose End. I said, “That’s it!” I told the guys, and they loved it.
Before you received your record deal, your group was working on demos. Take me through your demo making process as a newly formed group.
Jane Eugene: “In the Sky” was composed by Steve. It was the first song we ever did together. I sung it in a key that I could never sing in today. [laughs] I’ll tell you why because now I can sing correctly. Back in the day, I was singing incorrectly. You do some things with your voice, if you want to maintain longevity. Another one of our first songs was “Don’t Hold Back Your Love.” I don’t have those tapes anymore. Maybe Steve has them. We were writing all the time back then. I primarily wrote the melody and lyrics on every song. We were writing these demos in a little cheap studio in London. At that point, the equipment wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today. We’d write material through the middle of the night, and we’d come back the next afternoon to start the process all over again.
Prior to going into the studio to work with Nick Martinelli on this album, what was the group’s overall approach and collaboration process in coming up with material for it?
Jane Eugene: In the beginning, Carl was the bass player and Steve was the keyboard and trumpet player. Steve had just left Guildhall School of Music and I had just left the London College of Fashion. Carl was already a musician doing gigs around London at a young age. During the recording process, we would say to Steve, because he was classically trained, “Make this chord go after this chord.” He’d reply, “No. That is not correct.” We’d say, “Just play it.” It was funny, the mixture. He was very quick at transposing music. Carl was just a little genius. He loved Marcus Miller. Steve loved Joe Sample. I had popular melodies. If you listened to my melodies, I wasn’t riffing. I had a tone of voice and melodies that I could sing. Our sound was a combination of Joe Sample chords, ragamuffin bass underneath, and a popular melody over the top. That’s Loose Ends, really. We had a pseudo reggae, hip hoppy bass line over those smooth chords. An example of this would be “Slow Down.” How did we write it? I don’t know how you can explain magic in the room. [laughs] That’s what it was. Steve and Carl would handle the music, and I’d handle the melodies for the songs. This is how it all came together.
How did you begin working with producer Nick Martinelli?
Jane Eugene: Nicky was doing remixes for Mick Clark. We were signed to a three single deal and then an album deal. By the way, we signed our record deal for 500 pounds. We had to split 500 pounds between the three of us. At that time, 500 pounds was equivalent to $750. But we were happy to have a record deal because we knew we were legit. We had a couple producers that were White rock producers. Our first single was “In the Sky” and the next one was “Don’t Hold Back Your Love.” They were done by pop producers. We kept hearing music coming from America, and we felt like we needed an American producer. So we said to Mick Clark, “We need an American producer to give us the sound we want.” To his credit, Mick Clark was open to the idea, and he put us together with Nick Martinelli. When we got to Philadelphia and began working with Nick Martinelli, it was like going to college. He literally taught us the composition of a good song, and he taught us how to put songs together. Until that point, we didn’t have that kind of professionalism. Secondly, he would call people and there were a lot of people who played on our records that were American musicians: Doug Grigsby was Teena Marie’s musical director. He used to come and play bass with us. Donald Robinson played on our stuff. He was a flute player. Daryl Burgee used to come in and play drums. Sam Peaks did that wonderful sax solo on “Slow Down.” He was playing with Patti Labelle at the time. There were a bunch of guys who played on our stuff. We wrote the music in England, but they came in and put the polish on it. Carl and Steve were playing on those albums also, but there were a lot of guys that were playing on our songs.
When and where did you first meet the group Loose Ends?
Nick Martinelli: Well, I first met them in London. Virgin Records flew me over to meet them. The person from Virgin Records that flew me over there was an A&R guy named Mick Clark. He flew me over there because of the remixes I did. When I met the band, we hit it off. Then, they came to America to work on their first album. All their albums were done in Philadelphia. What happened with their first album, A Little Spice, the American version of the album didn’t have “Hangin’ on a String” on it. It was on their second album, So Where Are You?, which was the English version, and it never came out in America. We had just finished the second album when they were planning to put out the first album in America. John Brown was the A&R guy and he heard “Hangin’ on a String” and he went crazy. That’s when they decided to put it on that album. So as the first album was coming out here in America, they were releasing the second one in the U.K. “Hangin’ on a String” came out as a single in America and the U.K. at the same time.
You mentioned that you guys hit it off during your first meeting. What made you connect with the group so well?
Nick Martinelli: Mick Clark submitted a tape with a lot of their songs on it. I liked the way they wrote. I thought the ideas were there, but they weren’t artfully developed yet. This is how I really connected with them, plus we started talking about different music and we liked a lot of the same music. We were into the jazzy kind of music that was around back then. We liked Donald Byrd and many other jazz artists. I didn’t realize until the other day, when I started looking at the different versions of the albums, that “Sweetest Pain” and “You Can’t Stop the Rain” are on Zagora, and they were from earlier albums released in the U.K.
What was it like being a Black R&B act from England coming to the United States to work with MCA Records versus your experiences working with Virgin Records in England?
Jane Eugene: The good thing about Virgin Records was, because they didn’t have a Black division, unlike America at that time, we could do what we wanted. Between Nick [Martinelli] and Mick Clark, they would pick the songs we would record and put them on the album. If we were a group that emerged in America, we would’ve had a producer that would’ve taken over, and we wouldn’t have been able to produce our own songs. This is why our albums were consistent because we wrote them, and as we grew, our audience grew with us. I think we were very lucky and fortunate. We were overwhelmed when we came to MCA from Virgin. When we walked in, we saw a bunch of Black faces and they were telling us how much they loved our songs. They were taking on our music because they loved it, not because they had to work our record. Then, we had access to radio. Jheryl Busby believed in taking his artists to the people, so we would go to the mom and pop stores and other places. We would go from place to place. I never knew Miami looked like the West Indies. It was an amazing time because we were really living our dreams.
Being in the studio with Nicky was amazing but it was hard work. When we were in the studio, he wouldn’t let us sing bad notes or any out of tune shit. If we did, we’d hear the tape rewinding back, and we knew we needed to sing it again. Nick Martinelli was really the fourth member of Loose Ends. He was an old fashioned producer but without smothering us. In America, we had to do press with radio and magazines like the Village Voice, and we were groomed by the time we came to America. America loved us. The record company came together and really worked with us. I’d go to radio stations and see Black women in positions of power that Black men didn’t have in England. Can you imagine that? It was mind blowing but also it was encouraging. We had all the power players in place at MCA Records when we were there. Then, the record company had material that was selling itself. So you can imagine that was so much fun, too. I was hardly at home in England because we were always in America promoting this record. In America, there was a Black economy that had Black radio stations. We were in England trying to sell our music to pop radio, so you can imagine how that went over. We were an R&B act and we weren’t creating what was considered pop music at that time.
You have to remember Human League and Boy George were hitting back then. That wasn’t our kind of sound. The underground people that loved R&B music like Robbie Vincent and Greg Edwards played our music on pirate radio. It was enough to make Radio One play our music. We were more accepted in America than we were at home in England. Zagora was our first platinum selling album. We went to Morocco to shoot the album cover. Zagora was the town where we shot our pictures. This is how we came up with the title for this album. By the time we got to America, they took so long to do the contract that they took the best songs from So Where Are You? and A Little Spice and put it together to create the U.S. version of A Little Spice. When we got to America, we started making a living for ourselves.
When the group came to Philadelphia for the first time, did they experience a bit of a culture shock or did you guys just get on with the process of making music?
Nick Martinelli: We got on with it. They really liked it here. I don’t think it was a culture shock for them. I think they found more freedom and musical talent that they were interested in. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of Black musicians in the U.K. Philadelphia was known for Black music back then, and there was just more going on over here than in the U.K.
Which studios did you record this album in?
Nick Martinelli: The first two albums were recorded at Alpha Sound Studios. Zagora was done at Sigma Sound Studios. Sigma was a really interesting place because there was nothing but Philly people recording in there like Philadelphia International artists and LeVert was recording there. Bunny Sigler was always recording there. Many of the arrangers I used came from that studio. Some of the background vocalists like Cynthia Biggs came from there and Joanne Gardner. I became very good friends with them. In fact, the group met her at a jewelry store in the city and brought her to me for me to hear her sing in the studio. Cynthia was from the whole Philadelphia International camp. She did backgrounds on this album as well as Terri Wells. Zagora was an interesting concept because I decided that I wanted to use different, international types of percussion instruments. For example, on “Stay a Little While, Child,” I used an Indian percussion sound. There was a lot of programming done. On this album, the percussion was done live versus on the first two albums there was more live band stuff. We did some horn arrangements on it, and they were done by Bobby Malach. Sam Peaks played the saxophone on it too. There were some outside guitar players playing on the album. Most of the rhythm stuff was programmed by Jim Salamone and Randy Cantor. We used to work with an engineer named Bruce Weeden, and the group really liked working with him, so we brought him back in to do some of the mixing on “Slow Down.”
Can you describe the interior of Sigma Sound Studios while you were recording this album?
Nick Martinelli: Well, we were in Studio A which was located upstairs in Sigma Sound. It was a very big room. You could fit a whole orchestra in there. There was a little vocal booth on the side. Most of the singers always sang in the main room. For some reason, they were comfortable being right in front of me. It was a cool room. I always sat behind the board. I remember they just put in a George Massenburg automated system in the board. It was a Neve board that had this automated system built into it. It wasn’t the board that was the standard for that time, though. Studio B was smaller and it was downstairs. There was an even smaller studio in the back. I spent most of my time in Studio A and some time in Studio B. Studio A was a well-built room. There were so many hits that came out of that room. All the Gamble & Huff hits came out of there. It had a very good sound to it. The room itself had some really nice wood, so it created this great warmth with the sounds. Most of the time we worked with small speakers. We got some really good clarity and bass sounds out of there.
Did you record all the songs for the album in the studio or did the group come the studio with songs already completed?
Nick Martinelli: The songs were always already written. The only songs that weren’t written before they came to the studio were “Slow Down” and “Nights of Pleasure.” I co-wrote “Nights of Pleasure” with them. The rest of the songs were done as demos when they were in England. When they came to me with the songs, we re-recorded them. If you would’ve heard the “Hangin’on a String” demo, you’d never believe it was the same thing in the end. Things always went through transitions.
Give us a glimpse of the collaboration process between everyone in the studio for this album?
Nick Martinelli: Normally, I worked with the programmer and sometimes they would, too. By this album, we started having more collaboration together. The first two albums not as much. The process was always different. It just depended on the song. I don’t remember if it was Jheryl Busby or Louil Silas, Jr., but everybody wanted to have another single like “Hangin’ on a String,” which we did not have at that time. That is how “Slow Down” came about. My usual process was I’d work with a programmer on drums. Sometimes, Steve [Nichol] or Carl [McIntosh] would be the programmer. They either had something I liked or I’d take their sound in a different direction, or they had something I liked and they expanded on it. The process was always different. Steve was the keyboard guy, Carl played the bass and guitar, and Jane did the majority of the melodies and lyrics. I’m sure Carl had a little bit to do with the melodies and lyrics, too. Steve was more into the chords and that kind of thing. They were all very talented.
Usually, we’d have eight hour recording sessions, and they were five days a week. We took the weekends off. The only time the sessions were longer was when we were doing the mixing of the songs. We mixed one song at a time. It was one song per day. I used to do a lot of remixing as well in the beginning. Sometimes it could’ve taken twelve hours, and on some mixes, it took me twenty hours. For this album, it took me between eight and twelve hours to mix songs, but I’m not going to rule out that it may have taken me longer than that because of the Massenburg automation we had. Sometimes, we would leave it there and come back to it the next day. We’d look at it again before we finalized it. The album was recorded digitally.
Jane Eugene: When we began working with Nicky, Nicky had us on a regiment from Monday to Friday. We’d have the weekends off, so we could listen to the music. If there was anything wrong with it or anything he felt was off, we’d go back in and fix it. When we were in the studio, he would have us out of there by seven or eight o’clock at night. Sometimes, the guys would get to the studio at ten o’clock in the morning, and I would get there between eleven or twelve o’clock because Nicky felt like my voice would be awake by that time. Nicky was an amazing teacher. He didn’t just produce us; he taught us. I don’t know if the guys would admit to this, but when we got to Nicky, we didn’t have song structure down. So Nicky would say, “This is where the verse goes, the chorus, next verse, bridge, and chorus out.” We had good grooves and good melodies. A lot of the stuff we wrote, we would write it from conception together. Steve or Carl would start playing something and we’d start laying it down from there. Many Loose Ends songs can be done acoustically. It is a good thing, actually.
We were excited to be in the studio. Can you imagine living out your dream? Feeling in secure hands and putting out music that everybody liked? It was a great feeling. You know, what was interesting was we had almost finished the album and Nicky said, “We don’t have a song like “Hangin’ on a String” on here.” He said, “Go write me a song like “Hangin’ on a String.” That’s how we came up with “Slow Down.” This was the last song we wrote for the album here in America. This was only song we wrote together in America. The other ones we wrote in the Barbican in England. It was this place where we used to write at. It was a little writing studio in London. We used to be stuck in there for two months. Once we were finished, we’d come out and send the songs to Nicky and Mick Clark, then they’d choose which songs we were going to do. When we released our songs in England, they would tell us we were ahead of our time. Back then, we never understood that, but we understand it now 30 years later because people can play our stuff and it doesn’t sound dated. When they were saying it, we thought it was an excuse not to play our stuff on BBC Radio One. This was the radio station we had to get on. The pirate radio station is what really broke Loose Ends in England. Pirate radio was illegal radio. Robbie Vincent played us. We couldn’t get on Radio One. They didn’t want to play our music. They would play us at the last minute when they really had a big push. In America, it was different because there were Black radio stations. We didn’t have that in England. Every song on this album was recorded in Philadelphia.
How hard did your group have to fight to get your music played on British radio?
Jane Eugene: It was a war. It was extremely hard. Mick Clark and Virgin Records had to really push to get our music on the radio. There was this guy named Erskine Thompson who was the marketing guy for the label. He had go up and down the country to push our records. It was crazy. In America, not so much. For some reason, we sounded different at the time we came to radio.
Coming off the success of the group’s first two albums A Little Spice and So Where Are You?, what direction did you want to take their sound in?
Nick Martinelli: Well, I decided that I really wanted to go in a different direction with this album. I wanted to have more instruments from around the world featured on it. I wanted a different vibe for each song. We played around with various sounds, and at the same time, we did some of the standard stuff too. The group was open to my suggestions because they loved anything innovative. I do have to say that Carl and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. He never thought I was the right fit from the get go. We had some friction. [laughs] It wasn’t until last year, when I received a long letter from him, thanking me for everything I did for the group. Listen, it was part of the growing process for all of us. He learned from it, and I learned from it, too. Ironically, Jheryl Busby took a real liking to me. “Hangin’ on a String” was his first number one record.
What was some of the equipment you used to create the sounds for the songs on this album?
Nick Martinelli: I used 808 drums a lot. We used the Moog synthesizer for the bass all the time. A lot of the drum and keyboard programming that was done on that album was done by the Fairlight computer. We used a Yamaha DX7, Mirage, and Jupiter 6. The Fairlight computer was a very expensive machine back then. It was a $100,000 programming machine that was replaced five years later by a $2000 machine. [laughs]
Let’s delve into the making of some of the singles released from this album.
Nick Martinelli: On “Stay a Little While, Child,” I brought in an Indian percussionist named Lenny Siedman. He did all that strange percussion on this song. The drums were programmed by Jim Salamone. It turned out to be a very interesting record. On “You Can’t Stop the Rain,” it had my 808 signature shit on it. [laughs] It was a really beautiful song. With “Nights of Pleasure,” it was in the same ballpark as “Slow Down” but with a different type of vibe on it. There was extensive Fairlight programming on “Ohh, You Make Me Feel.” It had a multitude of weird sounds on it. When there was a keyboard bass, it was usually Steve doing the keyboard basses. He always did them.
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Are there any interesting behind the scenes stories that occurred during the making of this album?
Jane Eugene: I forgot to mention Bruce Weeden and how he and Nicky spent a whole day looking to get the right microphone for my voice. [laughs] Bruce was a great engineer! These were the types of hands we were in. How could anyone fail with that kind of support? I remember the time the guys met Phyllis Hyman, and it looked like their tongues were going to fall out of their heads. [laughs] It was like she floated into our apartment. We had Patti Labelle in the studio when we were recording this album. Phyllis Hyman and Patti Labelle were in the studio recording with Nicky. Patti was downstairs recording with Gamble & Huff. So you can imagine when we met Kenny Gamble, we were meeting an icon. He was really low key and down to earth. Patti Labelle was a very lovely individual, and she has remained that way. Phyllis Hyman came over to our apartment because we wrote a song for her called “Ain’t You Had Enough Love?” She was gorgeous. She was 6 ft. tall, and the guys were happy. [laughs]
As you look back on the impact that the record has made on popular culture, what are your feelings about being a part of its creation?
Jane Eugene: At first, it used to scare me when I was younger because people used to tell me they had babies to our music or how they got through prison by listening to our songs. As I grew older, I realized that, as musicians, we are sent here to be of service. We’re an extension of the most high. There is no other way to explain it. When I’m standing on stage, I still see so many people reach this elevation of joy. It’s just amazing. When something lasts for thirty years, there is something in it. When we wrote these songs, we were just trying to make a hit and be on the radio. We were kids back then. When we first heard our songs on the radio, we used to call each other. The first time we got a royalty check, we said, “So this is what real money looks like!” [laughs] We made music because we loved it, then you get the realization that it means so much to other people. Our music helped them through something or it made them happy. It’s just an amazing thing to behold.
Nick Martinelli: I’m happy that the record got the exposure it did and achieved the success it did. I was a little annoyed that it never made it to the pop charts. I think they were ahead of their time. At that point, I don’t think there was much Black music crossing over anyway. You know, I didn’t really give a fuck. I always saw myself as an R&B producer. It was never my goal to be a pop producer. I liked Black music, and that’s where I wanted to be. You can’t imagine how many times over the years I’ve heard, “You’re Nick Martinelli? I didn’t know you were White. I thought you were Black.” [laughs] I always say, “I don’t know too many Black people with the last name Martinelli.” [laughs]
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