Bryget Chrisfield explores a favourite record which spelled the lift-off to cultural stardom for an important act. This month: Jamiroquai’s Emergency On Planet Earth (1993).
“The thing that seemed to cause the most interest was who the amazing black girl singer was,” Jay Kay (born Jason Luis Cheetham) recalls of a recurring question that tended to crop up during early Jamiroquai promo appearances. “I did one of my first interviews at a radio station in Birmingham, and the DJ kept asking who the girl singer was. I kept telling him it was me, but he wouldn’t have it, he kept saying: ‘I know you do the music, but who’s that amazing black girl you’ve got singing on it?’ And I kept saying: ‘No, that’s me! I am the singer’.”
Jamiroquai initially copped flack for ripping off R&B and soul music, and/or its Bee Gees vibe; Kay was also criticised for sounding too much like Stevie Wonder. So when Kay met Wonder and was on the receiving end of The Motown legend’s verbal praise, The Cat In The Hat was obviously super-keen to spread the word. “I said to him, ‘I’m that guy you must keep hearing about; the little white guy who’s copying your stuff,’” Kay recounted. “He [Wonder] started humming Virtual Insanity and said, ‘No, man, you’re doin’ it’… I ran outside and punched the air like 50 times and then sat in the corner in tears.”
The moniker ‘Jamiroquai’ combines the word jam (as in jam session) with a creative spelling of Iroquois (a historically powerful Native American confederacy in North America). Kay also drew inspiration from Native American culture to create Jamiroquai’s cool AF silhouette logo ‘The Buffalo Man’, which was based on a sketch by the musician himself. “The fur hat, the coat made out of an old Pendleton blanket, the logo with the buffalo horns, were all inspired by Native American culture,” he admits.
As a non-Indian wearing American Indian regalia, Kay showed a bewildering lack of knowledge about – and respect for – this ceremonial attire, for which he has since been widely criticised.
Sporting hats since he was a young skater boy, Kay’s penchant for headwear cemented further once he started performing. “I could get into a completely different alter ego on stage with a hat on my head,” he shared. “In some ways, I become a different person – I become Jamiroquai, not Jay – so it’s an intrinsic part of what I do.”
Often referred to as ‘The Mad Hatter’ or ‘The Cat/Prat In A Hat’ in the press, Kay threw down during an interview with Lisa Markwell: “I may be The Prat In The Hat, that’s cool, but I drive an Aston Martin DB5. Prat I may be, but a prat with an incredibly large amount of style.”
Kay – a self-described “funk kid” – grew up on an eclectic diet of Dexter Wansel, Parliament-Funkadelic, Roy Ayers and Earth, Wind & Fire. “I wanted a proper live band with a proper live sound,” he stressed.
Jamiroquai debuted with When You Gonna Learn?, which kicks off with didgeridoo over jazzy, cymbal-heavy drum patterns before incorporating strings, saxophone, flute, bass, guitar and backing vocals, all of which swirl into the perfect vortex from which Kay’s God-given chops pop as if launched from a toaster. This song was originally released on Acid Jazz Records in 1992 before being re-released by Sony as Emergency On Planet Earth’s lead single.
“When You Gonna Learn? kicked the whole thing off – the sound, the flavour, the concept,” Kay has acknowledged. “Emergency On Planet Earth defined it.”
The original version of this song’s music video interspersed footage of the band with graphic animal-cruelty scenes and Nazi imagery. It was banned by MTV, which Kay deemed “a shame, ‘cause the track was trying to say something and I think it’s important that the visuals are that strong that they disturb you”.
On writing When You Gonna Learn?, Kay shared, “At one point the guy I was working with popped out for lunch and I got on the keyboard. I plonked out these chords and started writing this tune, and almost immediately the lyrics came out: ‘Yeah yeah, have you heard the news today?/ Money’s on the menu in my favourite restaurant/ Well don’t talk about quantity/ ‘Cause there’s no fish left in the sea/ Greedy men been killing all the life there ever was…’ It must have taken 30 or 40 minutes beginning to end, to write. By the time the guy I was meant to be writing with came back from lunch I’d already put the whole thing together… Then we got Wallis, who I knew when we used to skate together, to play didgeridoo at the beginning… and next thing I know I’ve signed to Acid Jazz and Trevor Nelson’s playing When You Gonna Learn? on Kiss FM.”
The first song Kay co-wrote with keyboardist Toby Smith (who sadly passed in 2017 from cancer) was Too Young To Die. Having just signed an eight-album deal with Sony, the pressure was on to write a second single that would achieve a high chart position.
“We were in this studio in East London trying to come up with a second single,” Kay details in the 20th Anniversary reissue of Emergency On Planet Earth’s liner notes, “and I started singing this bassline. I have very limited musical ability in terms of playing, so when I’m writing I sing everything, all the parts: bass, drums, percussion, piano, guitar, horns, strings. I’m singing the bassline and the drums, Toby’s working out what the chords are and where they go, and bang! We’ve got this great groove going. It was all about the kick of it, and the rhythm and the movement. Then I’m coming up with lyrics. I was quite an angry young man at the time. I didn’t like what I was seeing on the television – wars raging all over the place – and that all started coming out. But when we hit the chorus I couldn’t think of anything to sing over it. So I started scatting: ‘do do do do, da da doh, da da doh’. And it just sang out like a bird. By the time we’d added the horns and the strings we knew we had the perfect second single.”
And Kay’s singsong scatting atop wicka-wicka guitar and chin-strokerish compositions certainly stood out like fluorescent psychedelic when compared to other chart successes of the time such as Nirvana, Lenny Kravitz, Farnsey and The Twelfth Man.
Blow Your Mind came together during a rehearsal while the band, which included core collaborator/bass virtuoso Stuart Zender at the time, were on stage. “Toby was noodling some lovely chords and I started singing, ‘Love ya, I need ya,’ over the top,” Kay remembers. “We recorded that in one take, and the brass was feeling so nice that when we got to the end I didn’t want it to stop, so I motioned to the guys to go again, which is why there’s the reprise.” Blow Your Mind clocks in at eight-and-a-half minutes while Revolution, the longest wig-out on this album, runs for ten minutes and 17 seconds.
Kay describes Emergency On Planet Earth as “the real triumph track” that “linked Too Young To Die and When You Gonna Learn?”: “Once we had it, the whole concept of the album came to life.”
Although Kay admits he felt nervous when Jamiroquai’s debut album dropped, he was also quietly confident. “After three weeks at #1 I thought, ‘Right, that’s it! I’m in the game’,” he recounts.
Seeing Kay living it up at one of his own afterparties, which was held at an exclusive Melbourne “gentleman’s restaurant” in 2002, remains one of my favourite stored memory-bank visuals. In his ‘natural habitat’, Kay danced on the bar – elegantly wasted in full Space Cowboy regalia and nimble on his feet like a street urchin Dean Martin – before literally swinging from the rafters.