Surface was an R&B group, as far as anyone cares today, with a silky smooth sound and a look to match. Surface even had a #1 song – “The First Time,” which ruled Billboard’s top 100 for two weeks in the era before a harder, more aggressive sound began to challenge the status quo in what executives had come to call “urban music.”
But before it was an R&B group, Surface was a dance band. They released three records with a hybrid sound often tossed in the bin marked “post-Disco” and with a female vocalist whose emotive and charismatic voice brought to mind a more soulful shade of Sheila E.
In the music industry of the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was really nothing worse for a pop band than for it to be known that you used to play Disco. Dan Hartman tried his damnedest to pretend it never happened, because nobody would otherwise take records released under his own name very seriously. Donna Summer and Loleatta Holloway were nomads wandering the musical landscape, prejudged and frequently shunned or ridiculed for just this reason.
So it’s remarkable that Surface had a career at all, given that they refused to wipe the stain of Disco away. Granted, of course, the group sounded so dramatically different that few were able to squint hard enough to make out the resemblance. For in moving on from Salsoul and records rubbed up by Shep Pettibone and Tom Moulton, Surface had become a very conventional R&B group, with a male frontman replacing that bewitching chanteuse behind the microphone and the era’s hyper-polished production style and radio’s demand for tracks fitting the “Quiet Storm” format giving the music of the group that once made underground Disco jams a featureless, almost Muzak-like texture.
SURFACE WAS FORMED in 1983 with veteran musician David Conley, David Townsend and Everett Collins at its nucleus and Conley’s girlfriend on vocals. Her name was Karen Copeland.
With this classic line-up, Surface recorded three songs. Two of them have often been (mistakenly, in my opinion) considered so similar that they’re virtual the same. The third was almost forgotten in the transition to come, and most people today are still unclear where it came from.
Falling In Love
Mixed by Shep Pettibone and released under the imprimatur of Salsoul, “Falling In Love” was Surface’s most popular single in their post-Disco incarnation. It still is, and Copeland’s absolutely angelic voice sets the table from the opening notes.
With its thick synth bass and sparse, spacious production, it’s no wonder these early records are so closely identified with Copeland: the song is a virtual playground for her voice, the tempo and direction dependent entirely on where she drives it. Behind the scenes it may have been a different story who was behind the wheel, but the finished product is a testament to Copeland’s phenomenal talent.
When Your X Wants You Back
“Falling In Love” was a cult hit, at best; the follow up, “When Your X Wants You Back” failed to reach even that modest goal from a commercial standpoint. The production on “X” was far more dense and Copeland’s voice is submerged in the mix compared to the wide open production of “Falling In Love.” Julian Robertson took over mixing and engineering and the sound is far more electronic than “Falling” had been.
For years “When Your X Wants You Back” was ascribed an inferior position to “Falling In Love” – unfairly, I think. The hook isn’t nearly as catchy (“Falling In Love” it has to be said contains one of the most addictive melodies Conley ever penned), but “X” more than makes up for it with its strange arrangement and unique sound. The synths and that peculiar flute (I believe it was played by Conley) that keep popping up in the oddest and most curious places give this a very different feel than most tracks that were appearing around that time. It’s almost as if Surface wanted to copy something like Cameo but it came out sounding like Surface anyway.
Stop Holding Back
This was Surface’s “lost” track and the third featuring Copeland. It is, in a manner of speaking, also the last great American Italo song before Italo Disco faded away: the stuttering bassline, chords like solar flares and lyrics that seem based entirely on how words sound rather than what they mean place it squarely among tracks that BWH, New Sin, Kano and other producers and studio projects working with vocalists in Italy at the time.
“Stop Holding Back” would only be released in 1999 when Salsoul was opening up their vaults, as part of a special vinyl release with the other two, better known Copeland recordings. (It had been recorded earlier by Gwen Guthrie.)
AND THAT WAS IT: three records and it was over. This era of Surface ended when Karen Copeland and Conley’s personal relationship ended. After trying and failing to find a replacement for Copeland, Conley, David Townsend and Bernard Jackson became songwriters for EMI and received some attention from studio executives who wanted to see what else they had. Surface “reformed” with Jackson taking over as frontman for the band’s rejuvenation as an R&B radio force.
For Copeland, the story is much darker.
Years ago, when I first heard Surface’s early recordings, I was determined to find out what had happened to her. I contacted everyone in the industry that I knew who lived in New Jersey, who in turn put me in touch with other people, and so on. It wasn’t exactly an obsession as much as a fixation: when I would hear “When Your X Wants You Back” (which is more often these days. Daft Punk may have been the first, but the Copeland-era Surface records have been often sampled in recent years.), I would think about her again and wonder what happened to silence that voice.
Rumors online mentioned a very young death, at age 30, and, it was frequently claimed, from AIDS. I was wary, because pretty much every young celebrity death in the 1980s was “rumored” to be caused by AIDS.
“Now, I can’t get her out of my head, and I wish I had more of her.”
I found out a lot of interesting information about Karen Copeland – that she was a teacher at Our Lady Help of Christians, a Catholic school in East Orange, New Jersey, for instance – but every lead turned cold when I asked too many questions. Eventually I realized that it was fine: the world isn’t required to reveal its secrets to us just because we are curious.
The postscript belongs to the person in the industry who must have known her best. In 2015, David Conley launched “Resurface,” a new project built on Surface’s R&B work more than their earlier jams. In an interview with Cryptic Rock (a horror website, of all places) he spoke about going to France for the first time and being asked to perform “Falling in Love”:
“People came up to me saying, ‘You don’t understand. This voice, I had to hear it everyday. I never heard a voice so beautiful.’ All of a sudden, I get back into Karen. Unfortunately for her, she passed away very young. She was only in her thirties when she passed away. We made up with one another, but it was too late. She did it so well and now that I am seeing people talking about her, it made me think things differently. I went back and I was like, ‘Wow, she really does have that thing.’
“Now, I can’t get her out of my head, and I wish I had more of her.”
Originally published first in 5 Magazine Issue 139, featuring Jerome Baker, Hanna Hais, David Mancuso, Surface and Karen Copeland & more. Become a member of 5 Magazine for First & Full Access to Real House Music.