There’s a certain amount of pro wrestling self-promotion involved in pop music. We want our pop stars to have self-confidence, and in order for them to carve their own part of the pop landscape, they often need to kill idols and trash peers. Even though we’ve seen it a million times, it’s an inevitability. But 30 years ago, when the artist then known as Terence Trent D’Arby started promoting his debut LP, and started taking the name of the Beatles in vain, it felt positively shocking.
A New York City-native and former Golden Gloves boxing champion who was stationed in Europe after enlisting in the Army, the man now known as Sananda Francesco Maitreya emerged from the British pop scene with his debut album 30 years ago this July. Entitled Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby, the singer made waves right out of the gate with the claim of his LP being on par with Sgt. Pepper; and in the 20th anniversary year of the Fabs’ most iconic title, no less. It was as bold a statement as an artist could make in the summer of ’87, echoing the chutzpah of John Lennon himself when he once said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus—only in this regard Paul, George, Ringo and himself were the Christ figures whose names were taken in vain by a brash, young charlatan. It was a sense of bravado Maitreya felt compelled to explore upon arriving in the U.K. following a military stint in Germany (where he briefly sang for a group called the Touch).
“I moved to London in ’86, and I saw LL Cool J at Brixton Academy,” he revealed to veteran music journalist Miles Marshall Lewis in the Summer 2007 issue of The Believer. “Besides my Muhammad Ali shtick, which I leaned on when I first came through, actually a lot of what I was doing was LL. I took some of LL’s persona because I was so moved by the lovable arrogance of his image. I deliberately cultivated this ‘I’m arrogant,so fuckin’ what? If you were young and magnificent and gifted like me, you would be too. And still I’m a lovable rogue.’ ’Cause there was that about LL. Between having grown up with Ali as a huge influence and some other rock stars, it was when I finally saw LL that the other piece fell into place and I felt, I gotta go with this.”
However, Maitreya was right. In terms of its place within the pantheon of pop music in the late ’80s, Hardline was as genre-bending and adventurous as Pepper in terms of its creative impact on the landscape of the FM dial and MTV. Within the context of its initial release in England on July 13, 1987, it possessed a sound that existed comfortably between what was hot and happening in the worlds of both R&B and modern rock at the time. All four of the album’s singles—“If You Let Me Stay,” “Wishing Well,” “Sign Your Name” and “Dance Little Sister”—harbored the ability to segue off anything on the Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and INXS’s then-forthcoming breakthrough LP Kick as seamlessly as it could Bad by Michael Jackson and Prince’s Sign ‘O’ The Times. Each hit also had a highly stylized video to accompany it, the best of which being the one for “Dance Little Sister,” which cuts between footage of his band performing the uplifting funk track and simulated depictions of family life in a way that stood out from anything else at the time in the R&B genre. And when you combined that invincible fusion of flavor with his self-promotional antics, there was no ignoring Maitreya’s presence.
“The importance of the music was matched by the self-importance of its creator,” wrote journalist Ben Greenman in the June 4, 2013 edition of The New Yorker. “D’Arby claimed his album was the most monumental piece of pop music since *Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band *and used every interview to anoint himself as a peerless genius. Because of D’Arby’s evident talent, these assertions were both irritating and exciting.”
And those talents surely beamed throughout the entirety of Hardline. First it was the sound of his voice piercing through the speakers on the record’s opening cut “If You All Get To Heaven,” which hit closer to the higher octave poignancy of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett than any other cat in the soul game at the time. Backing up D’Arby was an intriguing crew of musicians from the worlds of prog rock and post-punk, including one-time Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith, Bob Andrews of Graham Parker & the Rumour on keyboards, King Crimson saxophonist Mel Collins and Cass Lewis, who would go on to play bass in the Afro-futurist alt-rock group Skunk Anansie. Helping Maitreya with production, meanwhile, was Martyn Ware, known for his time in such groundbreaking ‘80s acts as the Human League and Heaven 17.
“The bottom line is, that was a record a black man should not have made,” Maitreya said in that article in The Believer. “We don’t do shit like that. We stick close to the formula. ‘What are you, the Beatles? Who do you think you are, Dylan?’ The irony being, I never heard anything about any record that I turned in that the record company didn’t say about the first. Every criticism I’ve heard on every record I’ve made was the same shit said about the first. I never saw myself as an R&B singer. I always saw myself as a rock star. A rock star, to my mind, didn’t necessarily mean the limited brand of music that you were marketed under. No matter how they sold Wilson Pickett, Wilson Pickett was a rock star. ’Cause it was his whole thing.”
By 1989, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby ushered in a new era for black music on American radio and television. Since it was released 30 years ago, classic albums like Living Colour’s Vivid, Lenny Kravitz’s auspicious debut Let Love Rule, Raw Like Sushi by Neneh Cherry, Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw and the Cooked, Roachford’s eponymous debut and even Sons of Soul by Tony Toni Tone—all of which featured music inherently rooted in both R&B and rock ’n’ roll pulsing within its grooves—were unlikely hits. Maitreya himself, however, saw Columbia Records bury his otherwise excellent sophomore LP Neither Fish Nor Flesh (A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope & Destruction), barely giving the album a fraction of the support it provided to Hardline, with Maitreya himself citing the label’s “wholesale rejection” on his website as one of the catalysts for changing his name and rejecting the stardom awarded to him thanks to his classic debut after recording two more albums for them in 1993’s Symphony or Damn and 1995’s TTD’s Vibrator.
As Sananda Maitreya, D’Arby would go on to record eight more albums on his own independent imprint Treehouse Pub with strange titles like Nigor Mortis and The Rise Of The Zugebrian Time Lords, the latest being last year’s Prometheus & Pandora. Yet 30 years since its first unveiling in that magically cruel summer of ’87, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby remains to this day not only his most shining achievement, but one of the strongest debut albums in pop music lore; especially following its arrival to the shores of his homeland in October of ’87. It remains the singer’s most successful album, holding the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s R&B album chart for three weeks in 1988 peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 album charts, in addition to earning him a Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and a nomination for Best New Artist to boot. And to this day, it is a record that continues to be rediscovered by the younger generations, its feel still as fresh as it was during the days of Reagan and Thatcher, especially when you take into consideration its lingering influence in the music of such current acts as Gary Clark, Jr., Miles Mosley, Michael Kiwanuka and even Kanye West if you listen close enough to certain aspects of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and The Life of Pablo.
“He can sing sweet or gritty, write sweet, gritty, or pretentious,” legendary music critic Robert Christgau stated in his B+ review of Hardline at the time in the Village Voice. “His rhythms and arrangements show a sense of roots and a sense of style. He's got black consciousness and pop ambition. Which sums up why everybody wants this record to achieve what it promises. Summing up what it does achieve is the best cut, a Smokey Robinson song—which you'll think is his own until you check the fine print.”
From where we stand, Christgau’s words still ring truer than ever three decades later.
Ron Hart is celebrating his 20th year as a professional music journalist, and has written for such publications as Billboard, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vice and Paste Magazine among many others. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and son, and currently back in school to become an Occupational Therapy Assistant.