“Welcome to the ’80s, y’all!” Andre Cymone half-raps on the title track to his 1983 solo album, Survivin’ in the 80s. Behind him, synths pile up chaotically, like a malfunction on a robot assembly line; with every downbeat, the song changes shape and sound, simultaneously lush and frenetic. The world it depicts is a bleak one: If the rest of America was riding high on the first upticks of Reagan-era excess, such good fortune hadn’t extended to the projects: “Out of time, out of work/ Special thanks to the master jerk,” Cymone barks. “He’s OK on Capital Hill/ He and his friends got a birthday pill.”
In sharp contrast to that dreariness, Cymone presents himself as a kind of sci-fi character right out of a comic book. On the cover of Survivin’ in the 80s, he and his crew of synth-wielding sidekicks wear space-military garb — all white with black belts and red insignia that looks like a cross between the Enterprise logo and the Nike swoosh. Each of them holds a gas mask and wears a look of self-seriousness, as though they just stepped off their spaceship and aren’t sure if they can breathe in this atmosphere yet. When Cymone talks about “plastic cars, plastic bars and plastic people,” it’s difficult to tell if he’s bemoaning the loss of individuality in an industrialized society or if he’s celebrating the pervs, freaks, outcasts and aliens like himself.
“I used to consider myself the man of the future,” Cymone says today, from his terrestrial home in Los Angeles. “I was a spaceman. Back in those days, there was an aura of freedom to express yourself however you wanted, whether it was through fashion or music.” Even during a decade when extreme flamboyance was the pop star norm — when Madonna made underwear outerwear, when Cyndi Lauper launched her career from a WWF turnbuckle, when Prince made chaps assless by default — Cymone cut a pretty distinctive figure. His wardrobe was defined by bright colors, bold patterns, shoulder pads, eyeliner and, occasionally, skirts: anything to distinguish himself from the present and its thudding banality. Like Prince, he was post-Bowie androgynous: all the more masculine for embracing femininity.
Cymone’s music matched his look. His first three solo albums, all released by 1985, burst with chunky grooves, lewd riffs and sing-song melodies. A multi-instrumentalist who always self-produced, he crafts an unusual and unpredictable dynamic between bass thwack, synth sizzles and drum-machine belches that sounded futuristic at the time and only quaintly dated so many years later. There’s no mistaking it’s the ’80s, but neither is there any mistaking the sophistication of Cymone’s R&B glam, deep-funk disco pop, which culminated in his lone Top 10 hit, 1985′s “Dance Electric.” After that, Cymone faded into the din of the decade as though he had rocketed back to his home planet. Now, 30 years into the future, he’s back with a new record, a new rock ‘n’ roll sound and a new mission: to bring the possibilities of the past back to the future.
The spaceman known as Andre Cymone was born Andre Simon Anderson — not on Venus in 2097, but in rural Minnesota in 1962. Growing up a regular human being in Minneapolis, he discovered music early, first teaching himself to play his father’s upright bass and later watching local bands practice through window wells. His first audience was his family, specifically his older sisters. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “I was my family’s wind-up toy. My sisters would have a party and I would be the entertainment. They’d put on Jackie Wilson, and I’d do splits and crazy dances. I’d fall down on my knees and shoot back up. I got cocky even before I could play a note.”
As a teenager, Cymone met a young man who would prove to be one of his earliest and closest collaborators. After his mother got a new job and moved the family out of the projects, Cymone started a new school, which meant meeting new people and making new friends. Despite his outgoing personality, it wasn’t easy. On his first day of gym class, “the coach told me to go stand in line against the wall with the other guys. I looked at all of them and they all looked back at me like they were begging me not to stand next to them. Finally I saw this one little kid who looked pretty cool, so I stood next to him and ask what his name was. He says, ‘Prince.’ Prince? Prince what?” Cymone introduced himself to the young Mr. Rogers Nelson as a musician. “He asked me what I played, and I said I played bass, saxophone, drums, keyboard, guitar. I was bragging. I could play a little on each of them, but not very much.”
In a way, it was destined that the two kids would become fast friends: When Prince invited Cymone over to jam, they discovered that their fathers had played in local bands together more than a decade before. The pair formed their own group, which they dubbed Grand Central. “We played anywhere and everywhere somebody would let us play,” says Cymone. “We’d play the Elks Club, the VFW Club, the Acirema — which is America spelled backwards. We’d play a club called the Bucket of Blood. We’d played strip clubs and backyard barbecues. No gig was too small and no gig was too big.”
Playing everywhere, Grand Central also played everything: funk, soul, R&B, rock, pop, jazz. Their sets would range from Grand Funk Railroad to Chicago to Seals & Crofts, with numerous originals mixed in. It was a competitive scene, as documented on Numero Group’s 2013 compilation Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound, which includes one song by Cymone. The other musicians on the comp, formidable rivals for gigs, showed the young musician the importance of chops and personality. “Those guys were doing some really cool stuff that influenced me and influenced our band. They were doing stuff that was way outside of what nationally-known bands were doing at the time. As a young musician, you take everything going on around you, you go away, you do your own interpretation, and you come up with something that’s your own.”
Already, the Future Man was experimenting with new technology. He and Prince traded home recordings (including the Purple Snow track “Somebody Said”), each contributing to Grand Central’s set list so they wouldn’t be restricted to covers only. “We were adamant about recording our own songs,” Cymone says, adding that it was just another way to distinguish their band from other local acts in an extremely competitive scene.
Recording at his mother’s house, Cymone recalls using a Roland keytar to create slinky beats and succinct keyboard riffs, and he would use similar, increasingly state-of-the-art synthesizers in Grand Central and his own solo albums. “The reason I leaned so heavily toward keyboards was because we would be in battles of the bands with a lot of groups that had horns. We weren’t interested in having a horn section, because we looked at ourselves as a rock band. So we would have someone to play keyboards — we had a farfisa that had a cheesy horn-ish sound. Eventually synthesizers became more sophisticated and had different pitches, so it became easier and easier to use them to play horn patterns.”
When Grand Central broke up and Prince signed with Warner Brothers, Cymone joined his friend’s backing band, touring the world and playing on 1979′s Prince (which also credits him with “help”). Creative and personal tensions between the two friends grew, and Cymone embarked on his own solo career, eventually signing with Columbia Records. His debut, 1982′s Livin’ in the New Wave, is a buzzy collection of neon-lit pop tunes, most of which tackle no subject heavier than love and lust. Nevertheless, as playfully risqué expressions of radio-friendly desire go, few songs from the era of Thriller jackets and parachute pants can match the slinky fun of “Kelly’s Eyes.”
On his follow-up, Survivin’ in the 80s, Cymone managed to find both his voice and his style, mixing pop symbols (gas masks, wrap-around shades, guitars) and conflating social issues with sexual drive. “What Are We Doing Here” may be his catchiest hook, “M.O.T.F.” his plushest arrangement, but it’s the final track, “Don’t Let the Future (Come Down on You),” that signals the arrival of the pop star as spaceman. On 1985′s AC, he downplays the uniforms for a slightly more androgynous look, but the undercurrent of social outrage remains as a motivating factor. “Good morning, children/ Take a look out your window,” Cymone sings on the Prince-penned “Dance Electric.” “Our world is falling/ it’s almost time 2 go.”
Even with “Dance Electric” breaking the Top 10 and AC selling better than its predecessors, Cymone felt stifled by the strictures of charts and markets. “I went real heavy into checking out Kraftwerk, Devo, David Sylvian and Yellow Magic Orchestra — groups that were doing some deeper electronic stuff. I wanted to go in that direction, but I was signed to the R&B division of Columbia, and they just couldn’t relate. They wanted stuff that was already at the top of the charts, but I could do that kind of thing in my sleep.” Itching for a musical challenge, yet finding his label unwilling to indulge him or cut him loose, Cymone simply quit. “They weren’t feeling where I was coming from, I wasn’t feeling where they were coming from. They would let me off the label, so I said I wouldn’t record any more records.”
Fortunately, while making the video for “Dance Electric,” Cymone had met a singer named Jody Watley, who was breaking free of the Chicago R&B act Shalamar in order to launch a solo career. Eventually, the spaceman would marry the diva, but not before they worked together in the studio. Cymone produced her self-titled debut album, which sent a series of hit singles up the charts (including “Looking for a New Love”) and won her a Grammy for Best New Artist. Suddenly, Cymone had found a new career path, which led him to work with Pebbles, Adam Ant, Tom Jones, Jermaine Stewart and Pretty Poison, among others.
At the peak of his popularity in the 1980s, Cymone admits he didn’t care much about pop history because he was preoccupied with pop future. “I used to never listen to old records. I wouldn’t listen to anything dated or anything earlier than the years I started working.” Now, as he enters his 50s and jumpstarts his solo career, he’s obsessed with the past and all of its possibilities. “I realize now that there were a lot of really amazing things that I was missing out on, so I went back and reconnected with some of that stuff. It’s had a lot to do with me being enthusiastic about recording again.”
Nearly 30 years after he quit his solo career, Cymone is finally releasing a follow-up to AC, a buzzy guitar record called The Stone. He spent years working these songs out on acoustic guitar, then teasing them out with his band. To capture all the energy and electricity of a sweaty rock show, they recorded live in the studio with a small crew and a purposefully tight schedule. For Cymone, the process was revelatory: “I get the beauty of how a lot of guys used to do it back in the day — the Beatles, Chuck Berry, whoever. Get the band together, set up the microphones, call the engineer, hit RECORD. It was fun. It was beautiful.”
The Stone is an old-school rock ‘n’ roll record. Gone are the keytars and drum machines of yore; in their places are guitars and live drums. Instead of Doppler squiggles and pop-industrial beats, there are crosscut riffs and a tight rhythm section (with Cymone once again on bass). Such a throwback is surprising for Cymone, yet it points to a unique dilemma: What does the man of the future do when the future actually arrives? In this case, he looks to the past.
For Cymone, rock ‘n’ roll still has the capacity to shock, excite, energize and incite. The Stone is informed by the same impulse — the same sense of artistic responsibility — that fueled his solo albums in the ’80s. These are songs driven by a need to comment on society, to gently prod it in a new direction; the message remains intact (albeit marginally more hopeful than “Survivin’ in the 80s”), yet the medium has necessarily changed with the times. “American dream… is alive and well, my brother, alive in living color,” he sings on “American Dream,” one of two tracks Cymone released in 2012 as a fund-raiser for President Obama’s re-election. Rather than illustrate his point with futuristic drum machines and synths, he soundtracks that sense of guarded optimism with an ominous psychedelic guitar theme and his rhythm-section restrained groove.
If that reads like a nostalgic move, it doesn’t sound like one. Cymone isn’t trying to “save rock ‘n’ roll,” primarily because he believes it remains healthy. Instead, The Stone argues that rock ‘n’ roll can save us. “It’s gotten to a point where music has gotten so stagnant and marginalized,” he explains. “Nobody is trying to break out of anything. Everybody wants to do the same thing everybody else is doing. We’re at a time now when I think people need to step up and do something new — not just musically, but socially. I come from an era when artists tried to stand for something. They had a platform and they used it for more than just singing dancing and jumping around on stage.”
As it turns out, singing and dancing and jumping around on stage are the ideal vehicles for the socially progressive songs on The Stone. “Rock ‘n’ roll suits my personality,” Cymone says. “You can say anything in a rock song. It’s the wild frontier.”