My friends, this is truly the summer of Ned. Ha, who the hell is Ned Doheny and why am I making this proclamation? Well, because I’m going to clue you guys in on my favorite and perhaps the best west-coast rock/R&B artist ever…that hardly anyone has ever heard. Before that, can I just expound a little bit on May? This month is so pleasantly unsteady in many ways, half of your mind is still stuck on the cool breeze and allure emanating from Spring and the other half is sorta weary about the upcoming hot as hell environs sneaking around the corner. I’ve felt more prone to do, or be more laissez-faire with risk and reward than I normally would around this month because of this feeling. May is just a bucket-list of a month for some reason. Who the hells knows when the circumstances will be as inviting to do such things? Now what, the heck does this have to do with Ned? Well, if any time, is the right time to indulge in such things as blue-eyed soul, marina rock, take-it easy country-rock, and soft-disco this is the right time…and dear Lord, does Ned know how to tackle and inject a lot of humanity and pathos into this kind of music.
Ned, for all intents and purposes, is not a person I would normally root for. Here was a guy born in Malibu to a family swimming in cash. He already had the connections/friends in Jackson Browne and the Eagles to procure his first record deal with David Geffen’s Asylum label at a very tender, young age with very little of a track record in doing so. Dude was living in Laurel Canyon like a trust fund baby soaking up the ladies and cash. However, something in this man was different. While many of his friends/musicians doing that kind of soft rock, Laurel Canyon sound were into country and blues very few did it well or went beyond pastiche. Ned was different, and this is what endears him to me, here was an artist deeply into soul and R&B music…to the point that he was willing to forsake an unearned fame to pursue his passion.
Much to the chagrin of David Geffen, rather than release albums of easy, peaceful-feeling music here was Ned putting out these albums full of decidedly funky and soulful west-coast R&B fused with Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter sounds. His first self-titled album, released in 1973, signaled off his great talent, to the point that Rolling Stone tapped it as a Southern Californian “Astral Weeks”. However, only he knew where he was going to next. On his next releases, Ned tapped into his complete guitar playing repertoire and influences like never before. He amped up his rhythm guitar playing to an amazing level in his next album “Hard Candy” to the point that people were questioning that he actually was playing on his own albums. His arrangements now had more in common with urban R&B music than whatever was going on at Santa Barbara. This was a guy completely over Laurel Canyon’s fakery and would only use sparingly what was good of it as one ingredient in his new brew. A double-edged sword was introduced, during the ascend to the peak of his artistry…he was in a trough of popularity. No one knew how to sell or promote this guy or type of music. While other blue-eyed soul artists, of lesser pedigree, like Hall and Oates or Boz Scaggs were making it big, Ned’s music was not quite as easy to pigeonhole or exploit.
“Hard Candy” is a brilliant album. Probably one of the best, if not the best straight-up west coast R&B albums ever made. Everything on this album was tastefully sun-kissed and refined. On this album he successfully runs the gamut of fitting anything, from hard-nosed funk, salsa, samba, and nearly any great groove based genre he could, into his vision of soul music. “Get it Up For Love” for example, was banned because it was deemed to explicit for radio. Somehow, he found a way to make a cast of Laurel Canyon all-stars backing him up sound sexy as hell throughout this release. Check out a track like “Each Time You Pray”, with the grooving samba-funk rhythm laid down by Ned…seriously, outside of Jorge Ben no one could even come close to touching that kind of rhythm. Deeply, authentically, sultry soul songs like “I Got Your Number” and “A Love of Your Own” sit alongside pristine west-coast rock songs like “If You Should Fall” and great hybrids like “On the Swingshift”. All of these were truly should-a-been hits. But, again this variety was a huge impediment to any type of success.
For “Prone”, released in 1979, he went further out stylistically. This is the album where he polished all his remaining rough edges to one smooth pearl. The first track “Prove Your Love” became a surprising club hit. It was nu disco before the genre even existed, all full of wonderful humanly played post-disco rhythms. The rest of the tracks are full of styles surprisingly cast off by the conservatism of a lot of the punk/classic rock movement. At the time when music was becoming more and more segregated and segmented, Ned was successfully plundering its catacombs and pathways.
Check out a gorgeous torch ballad like “The Devil in You” where he touches on the progressive soul of the Temptations and Curtis Mayfield by marrying his melancholic sunswept dream pop vocals with that sound. Tracks like these were seriously new styles never being created before.”Funky Love” is just so effortlessly ebulliently, yet has an undercurrent of introspection that makes it dig that much deeper in your mind. This is an album that the more you listen to, the more you notice the artistry in Ned’s west coast sound. You can tell that for him getting to match or beat his influences was the goal of his musical career, be it hell or high water. It was a real shame that this album was deemed so undecidedly “white” enough that it only was worthy to be released in Japan.
I hate to recommend compilation albums, in a perfect world “Hard Candy” and “Prone” would sit alongside “Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue”, Bobby Caldwell’s ” Cat in the Hat” or even Van’s “Astralweeks” as classic R&B albums, but for once I think someone did Ned a solid since we don’t live in one. The Numero Group, proud distributors of some truly great metal, soul, alternative, power pop and Americana reissues has culled some of the best tracks from Ned’s forgotten discography into one extremely important recently released compilation. Maybe, they like myself, had this a-ha moment that May seems like the best time to recognize the beauty in purposely forgotten or discarded feelings and sounds. If I didn’t do a good job stressing the greatness of this man’s discography definitely check out their site for more info.
Ned truly captures my sincere belief that toiling in the light (whatever that might be) rather than basking in the easy darkness in life is both that much harder, and rewarding an endeavor. May itself is proof positive of the need to give in a bit to different indulgences, rather than think of where your future or past should slot you in. Ned himself, in my opinion, perfectly captured this feeling in “Hard Candy” and “Prone”.