A couple months ago, I noticed that The Fixx were coming to San Diego to play the Music Box. Seeing as Pops had always been a fan of the group and his birthday was right on the horizon, I bought a pair of tickets to take him to the show. Soon enough August 18th had arrived, and we shuttled down to the harbor. After grabbing a bite to eat at the Carnitas Snack Shack (an open-air restaurant right on the Embarcadero, with good vibes and a solid reggae soundtrack to match), we rolled into the venue just as the doors opened at 7pm.
Inside, local radio icon Steve West was DJing from the stage in the main room as people began to filter in. West has presided over 91x's Resurrection Sunday show for as long as I can remember, giving the local population their fix of new wave and 80s music every Sunday morning. In fact, Steve WestisResurrection Sunday, and his instantly recognizable Australian drawl seems as key to the whole experience as the music itself. The fact that he was willing to now and then go off the beaten path a little — with selections like Kraftwerk's Computer Love, M's Pop Muzik and Ministry's All Day — made it all the better.
Tonight, he was spinning a tight selection of new wave and electropop — leaning heavy on both Depeche Mode and New Order — with a lot of tasty 12" mixes in evidence throughout (like the K-Klass Remix of Ruined In A Day and Tim Simenon's Highjack Remix of Strangelove). In fact, the set was a lot more electronic than I would have expected in the warm up for a band that ostensibly lies at the more rock end of the new wave spectrum.
There was a heavy dose of dancefloor action in the shape of tunes like Trans-X's Living On Video and the Pet Shop Boys' It's A Sin. Also quite cool to hear Depeche Mode b-sides like Dangerous and their cover version of Route 66 in the mix as well. It's easy to forget how great this music sounds pumping out of a booming system, with the new-wave inflected electro boogie of Thompson Twins' Lies sounding particularly exquisite in this context.
Other surprises included Down In It by Nine Inch Nails (killer drum programming in the intro) and Neneh Cherry's awesome Buffalo Stance, both of which seemed to herald the arrival of the nineties and a whole new era. Of course, there were plenty of eighties rock sounds as well, with Siouxsie And The Banshees' Slowdive, The Smiths' There Is A Light That Never Goes Out and Echo & The Bunnymen's Lips Like Sugar rounding out the set to get the party moving. Closing out his set with Madness' Spanish version of their immortal One Step Beyond (Uno Paso Adelante), West said his farewells, and it wasn't long before The Fixx took the stage.
Without warning, the band launched into a terse version of Calm Animals, coming on like a bolt of electricity. Pure white heat delivered at a breakneck pace, it was over in a flash, leading straight into the more familiar strains of Lost Planes. For whatever reason, it was almost surreal hearing some of their best known songs live and in person. Anthemic numbers like Red Skies At Night and Saved By Zero really came to life on the stage, with the atmospheric synth work of Rupert Greenall hanging all around the band's crisp, taut sound like a mist.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the setlist leaned most heavily on the band's 1989Calm Animals album, a yet-more rock-oriented record that seems to stand as their most controversial release. Apparently, it alienated many fans of their earlier, more typically new wave sound and in everything I've read about the album, it always seems to be dismissed out of hand. Reading between the lines now, one suspects that it holds a special place in the heart of the die hards. I knowPops loved it, because I recognized everything they played from the record (which wound up being about half the album) despite not hearing it for ages (all I've owned is the Reach The Beach album... but more on this later).
Precious Stone and Cause To Be Alarmed both made welcome appearances, along with I'm Life and Gypsy Feet. My absolute favorite moment of the night was their blistering run through Driven Out, a bracing slab of anthemic power pop that strangely seems to predict aspects of the more radio-friendly end of 90s alternative. Hearing it live was a rush, and it's been stuck in my head ever since. Funny to reflect that out of all their albums, this is the one I remember the best (of course it does have a quite striking sleeve).
After all, I'd grown up on this music through the eighties and beyond. Their records were a steady part of Pops' soundtrack through the years, and accordingly my own. If forced to place their sound in the continuum of the era's music, I'd say it hovered somewhere between Drums And Wires-era XTC's clipped new wave jolt and the spacious atmospheric rock of U2 circa The Unforgettable Fire. The guitars shimmer like a hall of mirrors while the steady undercurrent of atmospheric synth work often throw up proggy shapes that bring to mind The Alan Parsons Project circa Eye In The Sky or even late-period Pink Floyd.
There's a sometimes compulsive funkiness in there too, occasionally bringing to mind INXS and ABC circa Beauty Stab. New Gold Dream-era Simple Minds would be another strong comparison, sharing that same stadium-filling sense of spaciousness and grandeur. Cy Curnin's vocals echo the suave, subdued side of Bowie (in sharp contrast to Billie MacKenzie's amplification of the dramatic), with shades too of Bryan Ferry at his most poised and windswept. Taken altogether, it's a sound apart. This shimmering, widescreen quality is quite evocative in and of itself, and when employed in the service of songs like Stand Or Fall and The Sign Of Fire, it simply sounds unlike anything else in I can think of.
It's a quintessentially modern rock sound, a sound that's easy to take for granted. I even remember Simon Reynolds dismissing the band as boring college rock in Rip It Up And Start Again! That's typically unkind of hipster Reynolds,
although perhaps expected when put in the context of his first musical love, post punk. In fact, I suspect his position has softened somewhat in the intervening years, as it has seemed to have with so many of the more mainstream post punk bands of the era.
To my thinking, the band fills an important place in the fabric of eighties pop/rock, almost existing as a sort of glue band tying all the various strands together. They're really only one degree of separation from away from everything from synth pop to alternative, new wave to widescreen stadium rock, power pop and even punk funk gone to the disco. A song like One Thing Leads To Another bears this out: one could see how this appealed to people all across the spectrum, from new wavers to the rockers to the club kids.
At any rate, it was quite heartening to see the group in such good shape and in good sound, doing their thing in such a sympathetic setting. The venue was a perfect environment for their taut, shimmering sound, and they were in fine form throughout. After all, the band's current line up is the same one that played on all their classic albums, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
Curnin fronted the band perfectly, playing off the crowd and guitarist Jamie West-Oram, who deserves special commendation as the star of the evening, building up waves upon waves of atmosphere for the singer to surf on. Their interplay seemed firmly in the tradition of Morrissey/Johnny Marr, Ian Brown/John Squire and Damon Albarn/Graham Coxon, with the lead singer playing the role of extrovert showman as the silent guitarist simply speaks with his hands.
Climaxing with Red Skies At Night, the band shuttled offstage while the road crew setup a second keyboard in the center of the stage. Return to the stage for the encore, Curnin sat at the keyboard as the group ran through an intimate version of I Will. Then, they launched into Secret Separation, their true signing off moment for the evening. With the sound still ringing in our ears, the crowd filtered down the stairs and into the cool of the summer night...
Tangentially, the merchandise table at the door was selling CDs of their Shuttered Room and Calm Animals albums, which was a rather pleasant surprise. Naturally, I snapped them both up at the beginning of the night,along with a t-shirt for Pops. Like I said before, Reach The Beach is the only album I own. For whatever reason, I don't remember seeing their albums on CD in the field (they appear to be relatively rare). Besides, I'll always jump at the chance to fill some gaps in the old collection! Over the course of the reason, when I realized how many songs they were playing off Calm Animals, it became clear I made the right decision. The Fixx are cool.
After a couple months of playing catch up, we're finally right at home again in the present here at Parallax Moves. Hopefully we can Get The Balance Right, what with all the various facets of the Heights that'll be coming together over the course of the remaining year and keep this space rolling with more of the good good coming at you in the months to come. There's a handful of updates waiting in the wings, posts that'll hit the page in quick succession later this week, so you've got that to look forward to, at least! In the meantime, here's a little palette cleanser for you: some random thoughts and updates that I happened to scribble down over the past week or so...
Fly On The Windscreen is a bad jam. I mean, it almost goes with out saying... almost. I've had the Final version of the track on the Black Celebration LP for ages, but I always wanted to get ahold of the original stripped-down electro-shock cut from the Catching Up With Depeche Mode compilation (released way back in 1985). As far as I know, the original version of this track is exclusive to this early career round-up (it was somehow lost in the shuffle between both Singles volumes released in the late nineties). Pops had it on wax at the time, but I've never gotten around to actually picking up for myself. After all, it's hard to work up the enthusiasm to buy a record for just one track that you already own in only slightly different form. I mean, there's a lot of music out there.
In a stroke of good fortune, I recently wound up with a cache of CDs that a friend was unloading in the move to digital and more space space space (what's that?). Suddenly, there it was, a five-inch snow white piece of plastic, just waiting to be played. I put it on, and — since I've already got all the albums — skipped immediately to the final track:
That ultra-crisp rhythm matrix kicks in right off the bat — no Gothic atmosphere or extended introduction to be found here — just the razor sharp drum sounds punching through the speakers like slow-motion electro. Magic. This is the very first glimpse of what Depeche Mode would sound like in the 90s, when records like Ultra and Songs Of Faith And Devotion would ride stealth hip hop beats in the protracted flame out from the group's prototypical electropop pulse.
The whole effect here absolutely perfect, and it blew my mind when I really heard it for the first time back in high school, fitting in perfectly within the context of Timbaland, DMX and Model 500. In 2019, it sounds better than ever...
And it wouldn't be 2019 without a little more of that petty Twitter beef. Apropos of nothing, that Carl Craig/Taylor Swift (by proxy) dust up on Twitter was hilarious. Pitching the Detroit techno icon against hordes of Swift devotees reacting to a (to be fair, exceptionally rude) offhand comment made by Craig — which essentially boiled down to no one had better have my songs in the same playlist as Swift's — it wound up becoming a surreal brush with the relative inanity of social media culture. Good times.
Perhaps surprisingly, a mob of hundreds (thousands?) descended on poor old Carl. Old faithful quips like no one's ever heard of you and Taylor is a legend! Who are you, loser? were in strong supply, bringing to mind that old chestnut if I haven't heard of it, then it must not be worthwhile that's been around since time immemorial. Folks who wouldn't have come anywhere near chancing upon a copy of a 69 record... just spread out as far as the eye could see. Quite heartening to hear it all again — like Eminem's nobody listens to techno redux — although I'd feel a whole lot better if I got a ten-cent direct deposit every time I had to!
Things took a turn for the bizarre with the implication that Craig was trying to somehow ride Swift's coattails. Get noticed. Gain Twitter followers! At this point I must admit that I was rolling at the absurdity of it all, the whole situation veering as it was into something out the fertile imagination of anotherSwift... after all, I suspect good old Jonathan might seen the humor in it all too.
Setting aside the shocking fact that a black man making instrumental music in America has a lower profile than a pop singer who's been essentially groomed from birth to be a star, one wonders what other foundational artists would garner a similar reaction from these erstwhile musical connoisseurs. Larry Heard? John Coltrane!? Kraftwerk!?! A Guy Called Gerald!?!? Marvin Gaye!?!?! Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised!
Now don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against Taylor Swift herself, of course. She's harmless enough, indeed, one's glad she's out there doing her thing. It's important even, to have current songs like hers to map one's emotions to (joy, heartbreak, etc.), particularly when one's young and still figuring all this stuff out. Sure, it's not the best pop music ever made, but it's certainly not the worst. It's what we've got.
Tangentially, I remember checking out that 1989 album with high hopes (such a great sleeve!), but was struck immediately by the lack of... well... anything to connect with (an honest-to-goodness hook would've been a great place to start — and sorry, jingles don't count). Granted, it's not for me. I'm not a teenager. But then, I wouldn't even have given it the time of day back when I was one. Still, it's always a shame when you check something out and it falls so short of expectations.
See, it's one thing for a singer/songwriter to ride a giant wave of monetary investment and publicity that all but ensures their place in the charts (and by extension, the firmament). Great work if you can get it! On the other hand, building yourself from the ground up, recording music that drew up the blueprints for whole genres, starting up a label and putting out some of the greatest music of your era and creating avenues that wind up stretching decades into the future in the process... well, that's something else altogether. Far more impressive, to be honest. And I don't need sales figures and a chorus of grinning yes men to tell me so.
At any rate, s'funny to imagine a world where what amounts to (let's be honest here) a rather minor talent on all fronts is vaunted to the status of legend, while an honest-to-goodness trailblazer is slighted as a pathetic nobody. I suppose that's what happens when people don't read (or even listen?)... just living out their lives, oblivious, trapped in a sterile suburbia of the mind. Back to the drawing board, I'm afraid.
Still... be honest: the whole thing was pretty amusing!
On the subject of once-country stars, however, I do have a little something to add. Now we're gonna go back. Way back... back into time! I hadn't even realized this box set existed until a couple weeks ago (apparently, it came out last year). Bobbie Gentry was an extraordinary country singer/songwriter from Mississippi who blazed her own idiosyncratic path through the Nashville establishment, drawing elements of rock, blues, soul, jazz and baroque pop into an infectiously laidback country stew. This sound would appeal to fans of Clarence Carter's slow-burning southern soul-blues, the sun-glazed canyon folk of Carole King, Dusty Springfield's swinging blue-eyed soul and the lush baroque pop mirages of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
The Girl From Chickasaw County: The Complete Capitol Masters does what it says on the tin, collecting the six albums she cut for Capitol Records together in one place, along with the collaboration LP she cut with Glen Campbell and a whole other disc of live BBC sessions into one essential package. Just taken at face value, it's a gorgeous artifact. When you factor in the music, all gathered together in one place for the first time, it's certainly something quite special indeed.
The impetus for me was researching the Sneaker Pimps' Becoming X article, and in particular the Flight From Nashville mix of Post-Modern Sleaze, which I compared to Lee Hazlewood and Bobbie Gentry (spot on, way to go man, pats self on back). When all was said and done, I found myself wishing I had more than just the Ode To Billie Joe LP in the stacks. Well, now I'm sorted, with eight discs of lushly-arranged baroque country bliss to dive into.
The other comparison I might have made with regard to Flight From Nashville is Alpha's Come From Heaven. Alpha were a Bristol blues outfit so in thrall to the Bacharach/David vision that they practically passed through the tesseract to become the real thing. The sound here so sumptuous, the beats so subdued, that this winds up playing like a long lost gem rescued from obscurity. I've had this one since way back, when I was snapping up anything that came out on Massive Attack's Melankolic imprint.
Which turned out to be a pretty good call in retrospect, since the label put out a whole brace of amazing records by the likes of Horace Andy, Lewis Parker, Craig Armstrong, and so on. I think I may have all the full-length albums they put out, in fact. I'd always dug this album but recently it's really clicked. This set of dreamy, Gaussian blurred chansons and instrumentals is utterly brilliant in the most low key way imaginable: Bristol blues slipping like a daydream into the flowing baroque pop trip stretching back into the tranquil waters of exotica.
And speaking of Bristol, speaking of Massive... their September 1st show at the Open Air Theater is by now rapidly approaching. They were initially slated to come to town back in spring, but a crucial member of the touring group (was it Liz Fraser??) fell ill and the tour was postponed until later in the year. So here we are. I'm stoked as can be to finally get a chance to see them on this the Mezzanine anniversary tour, since I couldn't at the time (I was too young... but only just!). I missed catching Juan Atkins live in the mix under similarly tragic circumstances...
In other news, I've heard rumblings that Mad Professor's dub version of the Mezzanine LP will be getting a release in the near future. The Mad Professor Remix of Group Four and Teardrop Mad Professor Mazaruni Vocal Mix — both of which surfaced on contemporary singles — were accompanied at the time by hushed rumors that he'd done up the whole LP inna rub-a-dub-style. The Professor's reworking of the group's previous album into the dub-chamber hall of mirrors that is No Protection got a lot of play at the time, during what seemed like an interminable four-year gap between Protection and Mezzanine. Dubbed-out bliss for days...
While we're on the dub tip, lately I've been diving headfirst back into the Ariwa and On-U Sound back catalogs. Breaking out all the records I have in the stacks and digging a little bit deeper for some of the ones I don't. That's a long list right there! After all, both labels contain entire worlds unto themselves, worlds that I'd always wanted to explore more thoroughly, both existing as twin signposts to the sprawling digidub landscape. Over the course of these endeavors, I've also become more familiar with the great Jah Shaka's recorded output and the adventures of the Twinkle Brothers, both of which I'd previously only had a passing acquaintance with.
There's a feature in there somewhere no doubt, but I'm still far too immersed in this deep water expedition to come up for air.
One thing I can say is that I'm starting to think the stacks ought to have a whole section devoted to digidub, sandwiched conveniently between trip hop and reggae (much like dancehall is between reggae and jungle). Right now it's all sort of spread throughout the collection: Manasseh Meets The Equaliser's Dub The Millennium in trip hop, Prince Jammy's Computerised Dub in dancehall, Creation Rebel's Starship Africa in reggae, African Head Charge's Off The Beaten Track in post punk, and Mark Stewart + Maffia's Learning To Cope With Cowardice in industrial. Bringing it all together under one umbrella is certainly an exciting thought... maybe dubstep gets drawn in too (particularly for the Bristol stuff). What would you do?
This deep dive into digidub has overlapped with a serious Thin Lizzy kick I've been on lately. What with trying to stay awake for the early morning drive to work at my new job, it's been the perfect music to gear up for the long day ahead (not to mention hunt down that second wind later in the afternoon for the drive home). I've always dug their sound — which is perched midway between soulful heartland rock and razor sharp metal, attacking with the unmistakable energy of garage punk throughout — but it's really clicked for me over the last month or so. Songs like Emerald, The Rocker, also the Vagabonds Of The Western World and the Live And Dangerous LPs, are utterly essential slabs of taut, heartfelt rock 'n roll noise.
All of those have been with me for a long time now, but there's also some glaring gaps that I've recently made it a mission to fill. Chief among them is the Chinatown LP, from 1980, which I've only just got in last weekend (for some reason, I never happened to run across it in the field, either on vinyl or CD). I've been mainlining on it ever since and man, what a great record it is. From the opening rush of We Will Be Strong to the moody rock 'n roll of closer Hey You, it's a bloody masterpiece.
This is definitely one of those records I wish I'd owned as early as possible — let's say as a 14-year-old for argument's sake — since I absolutely know I would have loved it big time. In fact, it hits me the same way all the early Adam And The Ants records did, with their raw (and often under-acknowledged) emotional core burning brightly as it does. At the very least, I absolutely adore it now, and I can promise you I'll have listened to it a few more times by the next time you hear from me.
Until next time... Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.
The man, the myth, the legend: Adam Ant was the reason I got into music in the first place. You've heard that one before? Well, hear it again. His brand of inspired glam pop appealed to my youthful sensibilities from day one, and imbued as it was with an undeniable staying power, it's stayed with me ever since. Endlessly vibrant and evocative, his music just refuses to grow old. Much like The B-52's freewheeling rave-ups like Rock Lobster and Private Idaho, Adam's music transcends its chart-bothering new wave origins to reach upward and grasp at something truly primal. In fact, it's this quality that defines his music, in the end.
The key thing to remember with Adam Ant is that he's an apparently endless font of pop songcraft, hurling hooks all around the shop like they were going out of style. With partner-in-crime Marco Pirroni on guitar, he blazed an unconventional path through the 1980s (a story told on the radio waves as much as anyone this side of Prince and Michael Jackson). Yet even on his earliest punk-era sides — recorded with his original Ants in a totally different configuration — his songs seemed to be happening on any number of planes, shifting and gliding piece by piece with deft precision and a phenomenal play of tension. Rhythmic inventiveness played a crucial role in his music from the word go, with the various components of those rhythms interlocking and turning like gears in this dynamic sonic machine.
The first recorded evidence of the man's vision was the Young Parisians, released in 1978 in the interim between punk's initial reign and its protracted flame out into post punk's wild kaleidoscope in shades of grey. The a-side is a strung out music hall number, sounding almost like The Kinks circa Muswell Hillbillies, even going so far as to weave a subtle jazz café saxophone into the proceedings. From the lyrics on down to the sound itself, the trademark offbeat sense of humor was already firmly in place. Sonically speaking, however, the b-side proved to be far more representative of things to come.
On the face of it, Lady is a prototypical punk tune, but its composite rhythm and start-stop dynamics almost give it a sense of running to stand still. The closest comparison here would be Wire circa Pink Flag, with their deconstructed brand of arty punk minimalism, while Elastica certainly took a page or two out of the Ants' playbook years later. Adam himself already a maddeningly charismatic frontman, strutting and pouting like Ziggy Stardust's long lost nephew. An auspicious debut to be sure: it was already strikingly apparent that great things were in store for Adam And the Ants...
However, it's on the follow up single Zerox/Whip In My Valise that things really begin to take flight. Pay attention now: this is probably my favorite 7" single ever recorded. With its dusty highway motorik beat and chiming corridors of guitar, Zerox offers up a crystal clear vision of post-Television rock that nevertheless manages to sneak trace amounts of Chuck Berry contraband in through the back door (Can't Catch Me and a battered copy of The Great Twenty-Eight stashed inside the sleeve for Never Mind The Bollocks). With guitars and even what sounds like vibraphones ringing out into the horizon, spilling over the record's grooves as Adam's spiky falsetto soars across the top (vocals ravishing on multiple planes), it's like Neu! playing Top Of The Pops decked out in biker leather.
Whip In My Valise is even better, starting at a dirge-like rock-hard pace, it nevertheless retains the Ants' trademark turn-on-a-dime rhythmic panache with monster beats and no-nonsense drum fills beneath a monster pile up of overloaded guitars. Then, as if that weren't enough already, it kicks into overdrive with a punk rock rave up, careening off the rails with the pedal to the metal before it all winds down again (relatively speaking) for the final curtain call in stark black-and-white newsprint savagery. The lyrics home in on a number of Adam's favorite themes early on: bondage, sado-masochism and leather. The music itself is just as savage, if not more so. One of the great hard rock slabs of the era, I can't think of anything else remotely like it.
This undeniably unique sonic vision is writ large on Adam And The Ants' debut album, Dirk Wears White Sox. Tracing a jagged line from the art-damaged punk minimalism of the early 7" singes through a sort of candy-coated post punk, it straddles the line between an almost classic rock iconography and the tautness of the new wave vanguard more closely than anything else from its era. Cartrouble Parts 1 & 2 embodies this sentiment, with the lockstep punk funk groove of the first part ultimately giving way to Part 2's no-nonsense power pop joyride. Whatever they tried their hand at, the Mk. I Ants could do no wrong.
Family Of Noise and Digital Tenderness ride clockwork rhythms with almost ludicrous precision, red hot strings and beats turning on a dime as Adam weaves those inimitable vocals through the fray with singular panache (at one point he even quotes The Beatles' She Loves You with a wink and a grin). Shards of brittle punk rock like Day I Met God and Kick draw up a template that bands like Elastica and Franz Ferdinand would later live to emulate, while Nine Plan Failed operates at a much slower pace, veering from a sort of broken-glass minimalism into psych-damaged, almost British Invasion-style harmonies in the chorus before diving into a bracing proto-industrial coda.
I've often wondered at this coda's similarities with Nine Inch Nails' epochal Closer, and what with Trent Reznor's well-documented habit of covering Physical You're So, consider me intrigued. Adam even joined him onstage on one occasion, during a period in the mid-nineties when Reznor was rumored to be a possible producer for the ill-fated follow up to Wonderful. That's one of the great lost opportunities right there, especially when one considers David Bowie's contemporary dalliance with industrial on 1.Outside and I'm Afraid Of Americans (Reznor behind the boards for the radio mix of the latter and chasing the Thin White Duke through New York City in the video). Anyway, Nine Inch Nails/Nine Plan Failed... is there a little similarity here? Whoah... I think there is!
Dirk Wears White Sox was later repackaged for the American market by Epic records. This is where I came in, so perhaps I'm biased, but for my money this is very much the stronger record. A little more schizophrenic, perhaps, but all the more interesting for it. Bookended by the excellent Zerox/Whip In My Valise single (neither side of which was included on the original album), the album adds pounding re-recordings of Cartrouble (Part 2 only, though!) and Kick! (both taken from the Cartrouble EP), which introduce a glittering new wave sheen and Burundi rhythms (added at the behest of Malcolm McLaren, who was the band's manager for a minute before stealing Adam's backing band and forming Bow Wow Wow).
Of course, Adam would have the last laugh in the end...
The swashbuckling Kings Of The Wild Frontier heralded the triumphant return of Adam with a whole new cast of Ants, rounded out by Chris Hughes, Terry Lee Miall, Kevin Mooney and the great Marco Pirroni. This is where the classic Antmusic sound is born, delivering a glam pop smash in the right place at the right time, just as the MTV era was dawning. With his strange charisma and deft eye for striking fashion, Adam was a natural star, a perfect fit for the era. The fact that he was a brilliant songwriter with a voice unlike any other — alternately searing, plummy and soaring — was practically snuck in subliminally within the Trojan Horse of pageantry and style.
As if to prove the point, the title track and Dog Eat Dog perfect the mad Burundi rhythm/new wave mash up from the Cartrouble/Kick reworks. With monstrous slabs of guitar and a towering chanted chorus, they took it to another level altogether, with a sound that remains as potent as ever. It's easy to take it for granted with the benefit of hindsight, but what a curiously brilliant racket they work up here! This is truly sublime stuff, on the level of When The Levee Breaks or Voodoo Chile Slight Return. Imagine being 14 and mainlining on this stuff... well, I was a lucky kid in that respect (and best believe I count my blessings every day!).
However, it's worth noting that the record is far more varied than its relatively straightforward neo-glam-pop reputation might have you believe. I mean, Jolly Roger is an honest to goodness sea shanty! 'Antmusic' plays it relatively straight, with a pristine pop bounce to its strange new wave rockabilly, while the minimalistic Don't Be Square Be There keys into the arty punk funk of Cartrouble Part 1 (Adam never really left his post/punk roots behind, and they always seem to crop up in the most unlikely places). In passing, I wonder whether the subtle rockabilly undercurrent running right through his discography (manifesting most noticeably in Vive Le Rock) is more crucial to the sound than previously understood?
Just take a look at The Magnificent Five, which hovers somewhere between Antmusic and Dog Eat Dog, its heavy rhythm undercut by yet more sparkling guitar and a playful bridge/chorus contrast that simply no one else would have thought of. For some reason, the song's gleeful bounce always makes me think of The Beatles' cover version of The Shirelles' Boys (from the lad's debut album, Please Please Me), and yet the primal chest-thumping undercurrents are pure Adam Ant. With this sort of casual brilliance in such strong supply, one almost gets the impression he could toss this sort of thing off in his sleep.
Two of the record's most atypical tunes are also among my favorite. Apparently, both were inspired by none other than Parallax hero Clint Eastwood. Taking a page out of the 1970s Dirty Harry/Parallax View playbook, Killer In The Home taps into the same claustrophobic dread as post punk visionaries like PIL and The Pop Group (see also Peter Gabriel's Intruder), its tempo ground down into pools of dejected guitar and blank-eyed paranoia in the verses before exploding into mad Burundi pummeling like a slow-motion Kings Of The Wild Frontier descending into a blood-soaked shootout.
In contrast, the equally filmic Los Rancheros trades out the bleak cityscape of the crumbling 1970s for the wide-open sunset vistas of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, its drifting Morricone breeze riding a shuffling backbeat and gorgeous guitar from Marco Pirroni backing a rare baritone vocal from Adam — all cowboy song, home on the range and westward bound on horseback — before slipping instantly into that trademark rockabilly help. Plus, you get the amusing thrill of ricocheting six-gun shots in the chorus and the realization that the backing vocals are simply repeating Clint... Eastwood! I still remember his performance at The Observatory for the Kings Of The Wild Frontier anniversary show, when he'd dart around the stage, reacting all theatrical to the recurring gunshots!
After the massive, panoramic sound and impact of Kings Of The Wild Frontier, Prince Charming couldn't help but be a slight let down. Largely picking up the thread of its successor, only with a slightly more inconsistent set of tunes (with a few glowing exceptions), it could almost be read as a straight sequel to Kings. However, dig a little deeper and you'll find significant strides made in the arrangement department, with tunes that swoop into unexpected bridges and soar across indelible choruses. Introducing an almost power pop sensibility lurking just below the surface, it offers up enticing hints of things to come. Indeed, a few of these songs sit firmly in the absolute upper echelon of Antmusic classics.
The opening Scorpios is pure magic, cutting a rakish path through The Mambo Kings and West Side Story-by-way-of-Alice Cooper Sharks vs. Jets musical flash to arrive at a soaring chorus. For whatever reason, it's always made me think of Curtis Mayfield percussion-heavy Superfly soundtrack more than anything else (we don't need no music, we got conga!). When Adam sings Hold up your head, you know I'm right, the street's the place, tonight's the night and then — just to hammer home the point — keeps belting out the niiiiiiiiight!, you damn sure know he means it. A skewed highlight of the record, it starts Prince Charming off as well as Dog Eat Dog had Kings Of The Wild Frontier, and perfectly sets the tone for everything to follow.
Less unrelenting than Kings' pummeling attack, the sound here has a lightness of touch, an offbeat rhythmic panache to match Adam's dandy image on the sleeve. Picasso Visita El Planeta De Los Simios echoes the strange pop stylings of Ants Invasion, but with a brilliant, almost tossed-off, jangling power pop hook conquering all in the chorus. Once again, no one else could have come up with that one! S.E.X. and That Voodoo! are cut from the same cloth — albeit slightly less transcendent — while Five Guns West is something of a Spaghetti Western sequel to Los Rancheros, this time with a set of lyrics that are subtly hilarious (I'm a big tough man with a big tough plan, gonna spend my life with a big tough wife)!
The title track starts with stylized mockery from the peanut gallery (ahaaa, eh-haaa!) set to a minimalist beat before Adam swoops in on rolling waves of strummed guitar bolero, giving the titular Prince Charming (in the music video, Adam as a Cinderella-type character) words of encouragement (ridicule is nothing to be scared of). Ultimately, baritone Morricone choirs enter the fray, and in the end even the peanut gallery are incorporated into the chorus itself, as if to say even the haters will only make you stronger. A solid moment — and a stranger one than one might initially realize — it managed to place #1 in the U.K. and even #38 in the U.S. dance charts.
However, the greatest track here — indeed, one of Adam's mightiest moments — is undoubtedly Stand And Deliver. It expands on the pounding pop of the big Kings tracks like Dog Eat Dog and its title track, indulging with ever more tricky movements and construction in the process, with yet more evidence of those deep Morricone chants backing Adam's soaring lead. In the era of new pop's triumphant ascent, where all sorts of strange sounds and imagery were storming the charts, it's without a doubt one of the crown jewels of the era. With the sun glowing deep red on the horizon, the Mk. II Ants ride off into the sunset one last time, before Adam and Marco split off on their own into uncharted territory...
Tangentially, it's impossible to talk about Stand And Deliver without mentioning its b-side, Beat My Guest, a phenomenal slab of punk noise resurrected from the Mk. I Ants era. With chainsaw guitars and an unhinged vocal performance from Adam, it would've fit in perfectly on Dirk Wears White Sox. That's actually not uncommon for his b-sides from this era: no matter how radio-friendly the single was, there was just no telling how raw the flipside would be. Oftentimes, these b-sides were punk-era tunes given a new lease on life, like Friends (b-side to Ant Rap) and Physical You're So (b-side to Dog Eat Dog), which — along with Beat My Guest — all dated back to the band's earliest Decca demos.
Similarly punk-edged capers ensue with Fall-In (b-side to 'Antmusic'), while Physical and Red Scab (b-side to Goody Two Shoes) are ultra-heavy dirges that seem to draw up the blueprints for both grunge and industrial rock without a second thought. Like Whip In My Valise, I can't think of anything else remotely like them that had emerged by that point in time. The only possible exception would be something like Chrome — if you subtracted all the delicious space rock psychedelia — but this is straight up bass/guitar pressure driven by a heavy downbeat glam stomp: the sound that drove scores of bands a decade-plus later. Indeed, within this context Trent Reznor's patronage makes perfect sense.
Rather helpfully, Epic's 1994 compilation B-Side Babies mops up most everything that appeared on every Adam Ant b-side for the label (spanning from Kings Of The Wild Frontier to Vive Le Rock). Most of this material was actually not included on either the Antbox or Adam Ant Remastered box sets, rendering it absolutely invaluable for any and all Adam Ant fanatics looking for some of that Digital Tenderness. Since Adam was as consistently great with his b-sides as he was with his album cuts, this compilation is a fabulous listen in its own right.
Nowhere is this consistency more apparent than Friend Or Foe, an absolute romp of an album. It's my second-favorite Ant album, in fact, after the peerless Dirk Wears White Sox (which is a whole other kettle of fish anyway). This is the first one billed to Adam Ant alone, although Marco has been retained on guitar, with a new group of Ants formed around him. Continuing the high-conceptual arc of the previous two records, Adam's idea here is a New Orleans-inspired fusion of horn-driven Mardi Gras atmosphere and his by-now-trademark Burundi beats (you've gotta hand it to him... the man habitually dreams up these strange scenarios no one else would even dream of!). It wound up being another stroke of genius, of course, with another set of songs that sound like little else around.
The title track and Desperate But Not Serious both extend logically from pounding earlier singles like Dog Eat Dog and Kings, even as they veer into fresh territory with a juke joint swing and eerie dread splendor. Best believe, this music is tight! Not one note out of place, the horn charts throughout are razor sharp, sparring as they do with those stomping rhythms to build up a great towering wall of sound. Goody Two Shoes and Place In The Country take this new sound in a rootsy, down-home direction, all bouncy rhythms, banjo and a sing-a-long chorus. As one might expect, this all makes for a great party album.
And that's just the singles... nearly everything else here is their equal. Made Of Money just might be my favorite thing here, with another incursion of pure power pop magic over thunderous Burundi, while Try This On For Sighs ain't too far behind with its lingering shades of Pirroni/Morricone in full effect for the chorus. Here Comes The Grump is the record's straight-up new wave number, all jangling guitars and deep blue atmosphere, while Cajun Twisters is a dubbed-to-oblivion slow-motion discomix groove driven by a pounding backbeat and weary moonlight horns. A minor highlight that I never tire of, this track is firmly in Parallax Pier territory, no question.
I've often thought Cajun Twisters should have served as the blueprint for Friend Or Foe's follow up LP. Notionally, at least, Strip does seems to follow its lead, but unfortunately comes up mostly missing the indelible hooks and dubbed-out splendor. Obviously, the album is devoted to one of Adam's favorite subjects (three guesses what that is), with the man playing the part of the sophisticated lover straight off the pages of an Alexandre Dumas novel. The title track is a charming enough bit of new romanticism, particularly its soaring rejoinder (Don't freeze up girl, you're looking quite a sight) and baroque/Philly soul strings, but I've never much cared for Puss'n Boots, the album's other big single. We're not in The Wild Frontier anymore, that much is certain.
The album was produced by none other than Phil Collins, and the sound here is thoroughly standard 1980s dance pop, slotting in comfortably with late-period purveyors of new pop like Kajagoogoo and the Culture Club. The trouble is, Adam's always been at his best when seducing the freaks, but here he seems to be serenading the good girls. As a result, the sound here is rather ordinary — with all the strangeness beveled away — and with Adam Ant, that's nothing short of a tragedy.
However, the real problem here is a mysterious absence of the sort of peerless hooks Adam had previously tossed off in his sleep. Songs like Baby, Let Me Scream At You and Playboy just don't grab me like the monster tunes in seemingly endless supply on Friend Or Foe. The filmic sweep of a tune like Spanish Games — with its soaring brass and strings evoking images of Don Juan and Joaquín Rodrigo's widescreen epics — is quite striking, actually, but it still misses that trademark watertight Antmusic punch. Similarly, Libertine works up a rather cool Walking On The Moon-esque sound, but once again the song itself suffers by comparison to everything that's come before.
Still, there's a handful of minor pleasures to be found here. Vanity (apparently about the titular front-woman of the Prince-produced Minneapolis dance sensation Vanity 6) is an understated dance pop number that works its way under your skin ever so subtly, sounding like a minor ABC tune (or even something off Gang Of Four's Hard), while Montreal's falsetto chorus is utterly absorbing. I could listen to Montreal for hours. In some way that I can't quite articulate, it almost sounds like a precursor to Big Audio Dynamite circa Tighten Up Vol. '88 (in fact, hearing it again just now it does sound fairly Pier itself).
And despite its place in the boneyard, Navel To Neck is one of the most engaging moments here, full of just the sort of tightly-wound hooks that seem to be missing elsewhere on the album... it even sneaks in a bit of understated Burundi drumming for old time's sake! It's the one moment on the record to indulge in that brilliant play of tension that one expects from an Adam Ant record. Even so, for me Strip is the first real disappointment in the man's discography, and — if I'm being honest — doesn't hit the decks all that often.
Fortunately, the man returned to form two years later with Vive Le Rock. Now this is more like it. Produced by great Tony Visconti (the man behind the boards for the lion's share of David Bowie and T. Rex's seventies records), this gathers up all the latent power pop strands running through Adam's back catalog and goes right for the jugular. The verses of the title track seem to take their lead from ZZ Top's contemporary string of sleek MTV blues singles, but then the soaring chorus hits and you're flying the friendly skies with Adam Ant on wave after wave of glittering glam energy (Bang bang you're dead, did not did too... Look out! Rockers going Star Wars!).
Adam's vision this time out was a sort of space age rock 'n roll, with the thunderous Apollo 9 setting the tone for Adam's wild-eyed retro/future visions (apparently coinciding with what this helpful Pinterest chart dubs Atompunk). Released a year prior, Apollo 9 had originally come in three flavors spread across various singles: the Blast Off Mix, Orbit Mix and François Kevorkian's Splashdown Re-Mix (see also his contemporary remix of Kraftwerk's The Telephone Call). On Vive Le Rock, you get the Blast Off Mix. Adam's idea here is a fascinating mash up of fifties rockabilly (No Zap), biker rock-by-way-of-Devo (Hell's Eight Acres) and chugging new wave (Razor Keen), all given a BIG mid-eighties sound with a glistening sheen, as if a classic muscle car had been outfit with jet rocket propulsion.
In a brilliant twist, period anachronisms abound, from the Dr. Strangelove reference in Human Bondage Den (Can't fight here, this is the war room) to P.O.E. name-checking Nikita Khrushchev for the album's priceless cold war-inspired hoedown finale. And dig that Carl Perkins guitar quote in the intro to Hell's Eight Acres! It's as if the record was recorded in some cold war nexus where the Apollo program happened ten years earlier and Buddy Holly got to watch the moon landing on live TV. Really, what'd be so bad about that? When all is said and done, this might just be Adam's most high-concept record of all, bringing to mind the original space rockers like The Tornadoes and The Ventures.
Fortunately, the songs themselves are just as good as the concept. In fact, the two singles might be the weakest tunes here! Dig a little deeper and the ebullient Miss Thing has the most shameless hooks this side of The Libertines' Up The Bracket, while the bouncing rockabilly of Mohair Lockeroom Pin-Up Boys sounds like Kings Of The Wild Frontier if it had come out on Sun Records circa 1956 (albeit with booming mid-eighties production).
My absolute favorite moment here is Rip Down, which I've always thought was among Adam's greatest songs ever, capturing the glimmer of pure joy in its chorus (I was wounded, she was beautiful) and even sneaking in those Burundi drums one last time for good measure. That it wasn't released as a single is an absolute shame... it's far too catchy to have not made a splash, even in the high tech flash 'n glare of 1985.
The cherry on the top of this whole 1950s extravaganza is that there's just a hint of Adam's penchant for offbeat debauchery sprinkled into the proceedings. Vive Le Rock name-checks Tom Of Finland, the fifties-era artist known for homo-erotic drawings (typically of musclebound bikers), while Scorpio Rising references Kenneth Anger's short film of the same name (about — once again — bikers). The awesome Human Bondage Den (included only on CD and cassette versions of the album), speaks for itself, rounding out another one of Adam's utterly unique sonic visions. Sadly, the record flopped and Adam took a protracted break from music to try his hand at acting.
Fortunately for us, the world hadn't yet heard the last of Adam Ant...
After a five year stint in front of the camera, appearing in movies like Spellcaster and Nomads (the latter alongside future Bond man Pierce Brosnan!), Adam Ant began to map out his return to the world of pop music. In the intervening years between 1985 and 1990, the pop music landscape had changed considerably. The booming drums and chugging post-new wave groove of the mid-eighties had given way to hip hop beats, Teddy Riley's crisp swingbeat rhythms, club music and even the relatively organic sounds of alternative creeping into the mainstream.
Never one to shy away from change, Adam drafted in Prince's right hand man André Cymone behind the boards for an in-depth exploration of the dance electric. Much has been made of the record's shift in sound, as if Adam's sound were lost in the machinery. Indeed, folks allergic to the glossy production values of the pre-Nevermind era's will no doubt balk at its drum machine-driven sound. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and you'll find that a solid third of the album keys into Adam's latent power pop tendencies. The truth of the matter is that Manners & Physique is, in its way, as strange and multifaceted as any other Ant LP you'd care to mention.
Besides, the dance stuff is great in its own right. I'll admit that I'm biased — this was the second Adam Ant album I bought (after Wonderful but before Dirk Wears White Sox) — and the record's early-nineties sound never bothered me. Still, I think an honest listen to the songs themselves would tease out loads of things to love. Room At The Top was the big hit here, complete with another one of Adam's high-concept videos, keying into of-the-moment sonics with its swingbeat rhythm, Bell Biv DeVoe bassline, synth brass and ultra-compressed guitars. Along with Rough Stuff and the title track, it represents the album's dalliance with the era's dance pop forms, and with Cymone behind the boards, you know you're in good hands.
In a fascinating twist, a couple dancefloor moments set their sights past the dance pop highlife and onto the seedy underbelly of eurodance and industrial. U.S.S.A. is a stomping slab of pop industrial, sounding like some catwalk take on Pretty Hate Machine, with sampled group chants and strange echoes of Bowie's Fame resounding in its DNA. Even better is Bright Lights Black Leather, a brilliant mirage of dirty shadows and cold neon, this peak-era eurodance picks up where the Eurythmics left off. It's as if the mask slips and Adam reveals his inner freak: it's dominatrix time again.
This is your every lurid fantasy of sleazy Berlin clubland brought to life (definite shades of cyberpunk too, bringing to mind's Adam's chance appearance in Blade Runner). Marco Pirroni even manages to steal the show, pushing the whole thing into the sublime with moody interpolations of his trademark Morricone guitarwork. This absolutely should have been a single, with the full 12" treatment and a bevy of remixes. I can only imagine what sort of madness Kevin Saunderson, Mescalinum United or The Future Sound Of London would've wrought with it... the thought of what could have been is almost too much to bear!
As I mentioned earlier, a sizable chunk of the album is given over to pure power pop. In fact, I'd make the case that a couple of these songs find Adam predicting the sound of nineties britpop alongside The La's and The Stone Roses. Look past the glossy production and a tune like If You Keep On sounds like the blueprint for the classic Blur sound (there's even a hint of Damon Albarn's pathos and sneer). It's essentially a perfect pop song, with Adam putting his peerless melodic gift in the service of a tune that could've been played anywhere. This is another one that should've been a single.
The dreamlike ballad Can't Set Rules About Lovewas a single however, and the minor hit finds Adam the sophisticated loverman successfully emerging once and for all. I don't know if it ever cropped up in a movie, but it's lush, cinematic splendor would have been perfect for any number of romantic interludes on the silver screen. However, its the closing song Anger Inc. that is the real kicker, with a moody, portentous stomp and an excellent set of lyrics that culminate in the brilliant chorus:
Poor Jack Kerouac, riding with his paperback
Camus n the pocket of his army fatigues
It's kind of hard to spend your time keeping cans of soup in line
When you've been the waist gunner on a B-17
Beneath the glossy sheen of its (great) early-nineties production, it's this half of the album that laid the blueprint for where he'd go next.
After another five years (punctuated by the unreleased Persuasion album), Adam returned once again with the aptly-titled Wonderful. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, it took the britpop thread of Manners & Physique back to basics, connecting with a certain band that also happened to record at Abbey Road and chiming in with the prevailing overcast sounds of alternative on rock radio. In a mirror image of its predecessor, Wonderful has all sorts of strange flourishes and a subtle psychedelia lurking just beneath its shimmering surface, giving the whole thing a subdued, dreamlike quality. It really is Wonderful...
As I said earlier, this is where I came in. After years of digging the man's excellent Antics In The Forbidden Zone compilation, I finally took the plunge. This was actually the very first album I ever bought, truth be told... the beginning of the whole Parallax collection! I can remember it like it was yesterday: stopping off at the Tower Records by the Sports Arena — on the way home from Mission Beach — at the very beginning of the summer after the 8th grade. It wound up being the soundtrack to that whole summer, and it's stayed with me ever since. Honestly, in 2019 it sounds better than ever.
The thing that hits you immediately are a pair of spare, hard-hitting love songs, Won't Take That Talk and Wonderful. With the possible exception of Can't Set Rules About Love, this is miles away from anything we've ever heard from Adam, heartfelt, vulnerable and raw. Wonderful was the big hit this time out, with its almost folkish shades of alternative breaking into an unlikely understated dance beat, but Won't Take That Talk gives it a run for its money, with a strong sense of raw emotion shining from its every pore. What's particularly striking is the intimate, personal nature of these songs. We're certainly a long way off from the pageantry of Prince Charming, and this is one of those rare cases where that winds up being a very good thing.
The snappy britpop of Alien and 1969 Again pick up where Manners & Physique songs like Young Dumb And Full Of It and Piccadilly left off, this time running in direct parallel with things like Blur's Parklife and Oasis' Definitely Maybe. Conversely, Beautiful Dream is a strange dance pop daydream that sounds unlike anything else I can think of, rocking the same eerie Weather Report sample that opened Portishead's Strangers just six months prior. It even slips into a bizarre breakbeat-driven calypso mid-section! Originally slated to be released as a single before being pulled at the last minute, Capitol should have pulled the trigger: this sort of skewed dancefloor magic would have fit right in with the year of Maxinquaye.
Of course, there's eleven songs on this album, and something like eight of them could have been killer singles. Image Of Yourself is a soaring bit of alternative pop that finds Adam harmonizing with ghostly echoes and Marco bending guitar across it all in great arcing waves. Yin & Yang is even better, its spare desert folk exploding into a gorgeous cathedral of downbeat psychedelia around Adam's longing coo into the endless deep. It's all so moving and perfectly conceived, walking that zen tightrope between sadness and joy, it winds up sounding like some hymn eternal. It's probably the greatest moment here, and stands among Adam's finest songs from ANY era. Think The White Album meets The Bends meets The Joshua Tree meets New Adventures In Hi-Fi, and you'd still only be half the way there...
Things get even more interesting on the album's second half. Vampires is a strange bit of skewed balladry, its verses unfolding in a lovely domino effect before crashing like a wave into the soaring chorus. I can't quite put my finger on what it reminds me of (Pulp? Nick Cave??), but Adam's crooning here is among his great vocal performances and proof-positive that he had one of the most distinctive pipes of the era. It's almost a relief that none of the trendy vampire shows/movies used it for their theme song (shh... it'd be perfect). The flipside to this underworld ballad is the heavenly sweep of Angel, which starts out as an almost ambient ballad before exploding into a flurry of percussion that carries it to a fabulous, soaring crescendo:
For there are moments upon moments upon moments...
When you hardly seem to walk the earth.
The rollicking Gotta Be A Sin was the albums other single, and its moving enough in its album form, but what you really want is the acoustic version Adam cut live at the BBC (check Fuel 2000's Live At The BBC compilation). Like Lou Reed's Acoustic Demo of Hangin' 'Round, it takes the whole thing to a higher plane altogether. Perhaps most surprising of all, Very Long Ride closes the album with a huge question mark, featuring Adam's long-awaited return to the rap arena after the infamous Ant Rap (his worst song ever?). Shot through to its core with an abiding strangeness, it turned out to be a perfect signing off moment for Adam... a stretch of silence that would last nearly twenty years.
The following decade was plagued by multiple false starts and ill-fated attempts at a new album (like the rumored Trent Reznor collaboration). There was also the notorious incident involving pub hecklers and a starter pistol (I'll leave it to you to look that one up!). However, there was a bevy of archival material released during this period that proved invaluable to longtime fans (not to mention the new ones). In the year 2000, Adam oversaw the compilation of the gorgeous Antbox box set, a three-disc overview of his back catalog complete with sought-after demo sessions and unreleased material. A lengthy book was included with invaluable history and session information — along with loads of memorabilia captured within its pages — which gave more in-depth context than ever to the whole Ant saga.
Five years later, Adam and Marco put together the Adam Ant Remastered box set, which featured lovingly restored CD versions of the first six albums augmented by a seventh disc of rarities and demos. This was actually how I finally got to hear the original British version of Dirk for the first time! I remember picking it up as soon as it showed up on the shelves, back when I was living at the 1808 (over by Balboa Park). It was a total revelation, and a crucial part of the soundtrack to that year. Then, a few years later, he started playing live again. I caught him live for the first time in 2011, on The Good, The Mad And The Lovely Tour tour (his first large scale tour since Wonderful in 1995), which was an absolute romp. Much to my delight, there was an abundance of Dirk-era material, and Adam seemed totally reinvigorated and in his element.
It proved to be more than a temporary revival, and Adam has spent the decade touring around all manner of concepts. There was even a new record, his first in nearly twenty years, the sprawling Adam Ant Is The BlueBlack Hussar In Marrying The Gunner's Daughter. A stunning return to his conceptual excursions of yore, it was full of moments like Cool Zombie, Stay In The Game, Shrink and Bullshit, which seemed to tie all of the man's faces and phases into one triumphant arc. Incredibly raw in places, with Adam's voice ragged from time to time, it nevertheless proved to be a triumphant return for glam punk's once and future king. The whole affair was emblematic of Adam's casual brilliance and never say die spirit. It's certainly been great to have him back.
Which brings us up to the present day. Adam's currently touring around the Friend Or Foe album, a revue that I desperately hope makes it to the West Coast (I absolutely must hear Cajun Twisters live). I managed to catch him on the Kings Of The Wild Frontier tour, and it was another great show. There was definitely something special to the whole affair, with the music retaining its strange, vital edge, and Adam himself in fine offbeat form. It's a testament to his original vision(s) that all of this works so well in the here-and-now, his music and stage presence still burning with a primal brilliance after all these years.
So here I am at the end of this whole extended tribute to Adam Ant, and I still don't feel like I've done the man justice. Perhaps it's all just to personal, hitting too close to home for me to even articulate everything this music meant to me (and means to me still). I think this is some of the best pop music ever laid down, in its own era or any other, shot through as it is with a stylized drama running right through its core.
And then there's Adam Ant, at the eye of the storm, doing his inimitable thing. Whether you're talking about the early punk angular madness or the classic-era Antmusic glam theater — or even those years in the nineties when he was trying to sound ordinary — there was never any danger of mistaking him for anyone else. He was far too good for that.
The Sneaker PimpsBecoming X was the very last record to be cut from the British Invasion 25, and it was a painful cut to be sure. I still remember the day I picked it up in the first place, right in the middle of the long summer of '97,1 and it made a huge impact on me right away (this when I was immersed in all things trip hop and techno). Everyone knows the dreamlike hit single 6 Underground, a deserved favorite of the era no doubt, but I wonder how many people have heard the album it comes from? Becoming X is a very special record, poised at the nexus between alternative, dance and trip hop, sounding quite unlike anything else around.
In fact, it's long been my contention that this LP is the Revolver of the 90s. A bold pronouncement, perhaps, but one that a dive into the record ultimately bears out. The other obvious contender that springs to mind immediately is Smith & Mighty's Bass Is Maternal, another great mid-decade trip hop LP. Both records play with cresting mid-nineties dance forms at the axis of synths, breakbeats and dub the same way The Beatles grappled with psychedelia in the heady daze of 1966.
Working up a rather disparate selection of adventurous material — almost as an exercise in musical r&d — each of these artists teased open myriad possibilities inherent to their respective forms. The fact that the songs themselves are so strong, indelible even, elevates all three albums to classic status. As much as anything else out there, these records seem to capture the spirit of their respective eras perfectly.
The roots of the Sneaker Pimps lie in the duo of Chris Corner and Liam Howe, who started out recording early trip hop instrumentals under names like F.R.I.S.K. and Line Of Flight,2 with a version of their tune Take The Sun Away even showing up on the first volume of Wall Of Sound's genre-defining downbeat compilation Give 'Em Enough Dope. After putting out a couple records on the Clean Up imprint, the duo began to move in a more song-based direction, drafting in their mate Ian Pickering to pen some lyrics for the new compositions.
With a twisted glamor and naturally dramatic flair, Chris Corner was the obvious frontman, even recording vocals for some of the group's earliest demos.3 However, the group ultimately decided that these songs lent themselves to a female vocalist. One suspects this was at least partially down to the prevailing climate of the time, with groups like Portishead, Moloko and Morcheeba all fronted by torch song chanteuses (Beth Gibbons, Róisín Murphy and Skye Edwards, respectively).
Suitably impressed after catching a performance of singer Kelli Dayton at a local pub, they invited her to join their fledgling group. Pulling in two more mates — Joe Wilson and David Westlake on drums and percussion — the group became the quintet that would give us Becoming X.
And just like that, the Sneaker Pimps were born...
Dayton's arrival proved fortunate, as her girlish, sardonic vocals and striking image were the perfect foil for the sound and songs laid down during the Becoming X sessions. Springing from a lineage stretching back through Madonna and the freestyle vocalists all the way to The Slits and ESG, there was something both strangely timeless and utterly of-the-moment about Kelli Dayton's microphone presence. Alternately playful, soaring, sneering, melancholy and detached — oftentimes within the space of a single song — hers was a vocal presence quite unlike anyone else in trip hop.
This wasn't Beth Gibbons' endless pool of torch song sorrow or Shara Nelson's gritty soundsystem soulfulness, nor was it Martina's crumbling bluesy wail or even Nicolette's gloriously demented fairytale sing-song, but something else entirely. Paired with these low-slung breakbeat chansons, it was a match made in heaven. Even the group's attendant imagery and aesthetic was something special, spread out as it was across an outsized series of contemporary singles and dubplates. In both sound and image, the Sneaker Pimps were a possessed of a scrappy glamor, borne out not only in their contemporary music videos but the grooves of their records... and it's Becoming X that lies at the epicenter of this world.
Right from the start, you can tell you're in for a treat. The album opens with electronic textures glowing in mutant half-life — like recharging uranium or some dying signal from a distant star — before Low Place Like Home kicks into a heavyset, slow-motion beat to propel these drifting textures into something approaching a song. Mention must be made right away of the beats, which are uniformly great throughout the record, here sounding like tin cans banged in submerged slow-motion. Like a downcast cousin to The Chemical Brothers' Leave Home, the tune — and the album — seemingly take shape out of nowhere.
Suddenly, rock guitars enter the fray almost unexpectedly and Kelli Dayton makes her auspicious entrance into the limelight:
You walked all over,
In your blunder stones.
In your own road movie,
With your one armed man.
Gonna make it to the problem page,
Troubleshoot your life.
Gonna make it to the problem page.
Need some time and space just to find yourself.
The song goes into overdrive with the chorus, existing somewhere in the interzone between Portishead and Alice In Chains, as Dayton wails Crucify yourself, I hope you find yourself... in a low place like home. It's an icy, bold opening to the record, a gritty glimpse of the nexus between trip hop, alternative and dance: the world Becoming X inhabits. The feedback here harder-edged than just about anywhere else in trip hop, in some sense presaging Angelo Bruschini's dread-soaked guitar sound on Massive Attack's Mezzanine two years later.
Similarly feedback-drenched capers emerge in Tesko Suicide, starting simply enough with a plucked string before phenomenal rolling breakbeats tumble into action. Flutes float in on an eerie calm not unlike The Saint's theme song, drifting across the rhythm as Dayton sings of being Sick and tired of being bubblegum chewed up. In a surprisingly literal sense, it all bears striking resemblance to something that might have been on Revolver, albeit with the increasingly savage bite that thirty years of devolution might entail.
Suddenly, it shifts into overdrive for the chorus, guitars buzzing against the beat as the band drills through a frantic attack with Channel Z/new wave overtones. Go on girls, take a chance, sings Dayton in such an infectious way that it's hard to believe this wasn't a huge hit at the time. It was the group's first single, released a few months before the album itself, but it didn't manage to chart on either side of the pond (although I do remember it showing up during an action sequence on the ill-fated/forgotten TV show Three, which I happened to watch).5
A strong candidate for psychosis captured on wax, Tesko Suicide concludes with Dayton's closing remark:
You've got nothing to shout about, you're over... and out.
Of course the record's biggest single was 6 Underground, which was a monster hit just about everywhere (even reaching #7 on the U.S. alternative charts). Most will be familiar with the excellent Nellee Hooper Edit, which gave the tune that memorable snap, crackle and pop, pushing it over the edge into radio heaven with rolling breakbeat propulsion and a memorable De La Soul sample (A one two, a one two...). Teasing the song's RnB quotient to the fore, Hooper injects it with some of that trademark Bristol flavor, bringing to mind everything from The Wild Bunch to Maximum Joy (shades too of the shimmering brilliance of Soul II Soul).
However, the album version is subtly — but significantly — a rather different animal. Starting with the same surreal snatch of tone poem magic (midway between plucked string and struck bell) from John Barry's 1964Goldfinger soundtrack,7 here without any beats at all, it gradually unfolds into a sparser rhythm and then — whoah! — the bassline rises from within the track with an acidic punch not heard in the radio version at all (where it's deeper, and more subtle). Kelli enters the fray:
Take me down, six underground
The ground beneath your feet.
Laid out low, nothing to go
Nowhere a way to meet.
An ambient orchestra washes over the track, giving it a strikingly majestic sense of atmosphere and space, sounding something like a hip hop remix of Gavin Bryars' minimalist classic The Sinking Of The Titanic. This slow-motion state of suspended animation is undercut by at first almost subliminal guitar strumming that gradually comes to the fore, giving the track its levity and propulsion (it's also the first hint of a subtle folk undercurrent running through the record). Dayton sums it all up perfectly with a silky coo:
Overground... watch this space.
I'm open to falling from grace.
The whole thing captures a woozy, unbearable lightness of being, like waking up in the afternoon after sleeping for half a day and night. If you're looking for a snapshot of what '97 was like in four minutes or less, well... they captured it perfectly with this one.
Without warning, the closing bars of 6 Underground morph directly into the next song. If Nellee Hooper brought the RnB undercurrent to the surface with his take on 6 Underground, the group managed to etch it down in cold chrome and noirish neon all on their own with the haunting title track. Opening with a lascivious, squelching bassline before exploding into wide open vistas of lonely g-funk synth tones backed by a pitter-patter shuffling stutter-funk defined by slow-motion junglist beats and a depth-charging minimalist bassline, Becoming X (the track) is as close to contemporary RnB as the band would ever fly.
One can see how this sows the seeds for something like Mýa's Movin' On, coming out as it does the very same month as Aaliyah's epochal One In A Million (August 1996). I mean, what the hell!? Remember now, Timbaland was only just emerging as a mainstream force to be reckoned with at this point. The only records to come out of Da Bassment by this point — aside from Aaliyah's One In A Million — by this time were Ginuwine's The Bachelor and a couple soundtrack contributions (with Missy Elliott's Supa Dupa Fly still a year away)... so color me impressed.
Playing like a warped, paranoid cousin to One In A Million, Becoming X swaps the sentiment in Aaliyah's ode to everlasting love for a quietly articulated menace that nevertheless remains equally sensual (if not even more so, truth be told). From within the song's forlorn moonlight stroll and a slipstream of dial-tones just at the edge of vision, Dayton coos into the darkness:
You can keep breathing... I only fall when you are near me.
Incomplete... I only talk when you can hear me.
Keep dreaming... can't wake up until I'm sleeping.
Lost on me... close to something I'll never be.
It all empties out into a one-minute instrumental coda, with Dayton's wordless wailing siren song ensconced in almost ambient piano shapes like some dark-hearted cousin to Massive Attack's Protection. By far one of the album's most haunting tunes, it's also among its most undeniably sexy. Like Massive's Lately, Becoming X exists right at the edge of RnB, illustrating this often neglected but oh so crucial part of the trip hop equation. One wishes the label would have taken a chance and pitched a single toward the RnB market with this one, maybe even replete with a Daryl Pearson or Timbaland mix. Although I can't imagine what they would've even needed to change... after all, this would've fit right in and stood out in all the right places, exactly as is.
Switching gears from the moonlit shades of narcotic machine soul to a twisted vision of the post-rave dancefloor, the group unveils the album version of their club smash Spin Spin Sugar. Ravers will most likely know Armand Van Helden's Dark Garage Mix of the track, which — along with his Star Trunk Funkin' Mix of Tori Amos' Professional Widow — had a profound shaping influence on the speed garage sound to emerge from the U.K. around this time (serving as the chronological halfway point between ragga jungle and slinky 2-step garage, which ultimately led to grime, dubstep and the present day).
The album version is a different beast altogether, and another true Revolver moment for the record. Opening with eerie, ancient synth vapors — you can just sense that something's wrong — it kicks into a strange bump-and-a-snap, stop-start beat that seems to reload like the hammer cocking back on a gun. In the chorus, the synths swirl into great spires, cresting into towering cathedrals of pure, desolate sound. Dayton is in fine form here, as usual, belting out terse couplets with an abstract glee:
I'm everyone... hang your label on me.
I'm everyone... paint it black and white and easy.
I want perfection, I'm real need.
I've seen attention, see through me.
Call on me... Spin Spin Sugar.
In the album's most far out moment, the tune seems to deconstruct and rebuild itself before your eyes, at one point devolving into a snatch of a woman sobbing sampled from Luciano Berio's 1961 musique concrete work Visage that seems to twist itself into hyena-esque laughter.8 Just when you think it's about to decompose into the ether, that skull-snapping beat shakes back into full force for one last future shock round of android bump 'n grind.
The tune was given a drastically different mix for the radio, its pile up of siren synths, droning bass, dead-eyed guitar outbursts and monster beats placing it along the lines of The Chemical Brothers' contemporary Setting Sun. The connections with psychedelia again made yet more explicit, this is clearly of a piece with Revolver's most intense moments. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I dig it more than anything on The Beatles' classic album, with the possible exception of I'm Only Sleeping and Love You To. That's right, I said it! And I'm not even forgetting about She Said She Said and Tomorrow Never Knows (as he ducks to dodge the inevitable flurry of random projectiles from angry mob)! But seriously folks, it's just that good.
After the unbalanced intensity of the previous number, the opening blues-soaked, southern-fried guitar line of Post-Modern Sleaze comes as a welcome relief, trading computer world claustrophobia for a quick left turn deep into the country. With the subterranean twang of some good old-fashioned wood bass, rolling floor toms kick you in the chest to bring in yet another killer beat. With every aspect seemingly played as loose as possible, it makes the perfect setting for Kelli Dayton's soaring vocals (possibly her greatest showcase on the record, in fact):
She makes every move they make,
She takes everything they take.
She must be a Thelma or Louise,
She must be a post-modern... sleaze.
There's an undeniably cinematic quality here that rivals even 6 Underground for the album's best pure pop moment, while subtle shades of country can be felt between the rolling white lines. This is borne out in the sublime Flight From Nashville version, in which the echoes of Lee Hazlewood and Bobbie Gentry are made even more explicit in this lush orchestral paradise (there's even moments that call to mind the vast new world symphonies of Aaron Copland).
However, there's nothing quite as strange as the album version's mid-song detour into voodoo flutes and the dark jazz shapes of those rolling woodwinds, in which ghosts of southeast Asia (by way of Pharoah Sanders) seem to haunt the proceedings. See also the band's acoustic cover of The Prodigy's contemporary Firestarter, given the torch song treatment just months after the original version made its initial splash.
Without warning, the pungent, crystalline textures of Waterbaby takes us back into the city. Sounding like some strange vision of 1920's tech jazz perched midway between cyborg Gershwin and the yawning vistas of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, it's shot through with ancient electronics in the same way Reprazent's New Forms often conjured up images of some half-lit digital speakeasy. It all cuts to a ragged guitar, slashing deep into the void with an exposed-nerve agony, as Dayton swoops in with a vocal to match the pain:
Your heart is served cold.
Your sights are set in perfect stone.
And when you go, you go alone.
And when you stand, you're on your own.
Then, the fog-borne strains of David Sylvian's Waterfront drift into the frame, imbuing the tune with an aching beauty as Dayton adds, I wash the streets from your skin when you come home. It all seems to hint at some tragic tale, shades of Lou Reed's Perfect Day in an overcast haze, rain-slicked city streets and lonely shadows as subterranean electronics drift in and out of view. It's quite poignant, heartbreaking even, and if Chris Corner were singing these words, it would almost be too much to bear. One suspects that for Dayton, however, it's just another Tuesday.
As if to prove the point, Roll On follows, and the girl is clearly unshaken. With its damaged guitars seeming to warp into sitar-like shapes just as a compressed hip hop beat kicks into gear (think The Prodigy's hydraulic remix of Method Man's Release Yo' Delf), Roll On drags us helpless lot back into the strange. With its dirty, sensual piston funk, I've always thought this was the kissing cousin to Republica's Wrapp (also from 1996). Both tunes offer up a dirty little dive into those satin sheets pictured on the sleeve, and here Dayton more than holds her own:
Roll on, these doors are open.
Roll off, you can come next time.
I'm in love with your confusion, on your knees...
When you're breathing through your elbows, down on me.
This isn't the airbrushed glamor of radio RnB by any stretch of the imagination — and all the better for it — but a grinding big beat smash with stomping glam guitars crashing down in the chorus. Climaxing in the sort of snarling guitar rave up one might find on a contemporary Garbage record, it somehow finds the album simultaneously at both its most hip hop and rock 'n roll.
Wasted Early Sunday Morning opens with another radioactive half-life synth reverberating into the darkness, before rolling beats and a low-slung bassline cradle a sun-slackened slide guitar. It takes us back to the same country lane as Post-Modern Sleaze, only now the streets have all been deserted. In what must be the most hollowed-out tune on the record, all warmth has long departed and you're stranded in the Twilight Zone. Dayton's voice basks in the desolation, occasionally swelling into an impromptu choir of multi-tracked emptiness.
If the previous track just missed the boneyard by one slot, Walking Zero takes its place as the record's penultimate tune. It's also one of its finest. In fact, it's one of my favorite songs on here, and I always thought it should have been a single in its own right. Creeping in on a mist of graveyard strings before morphing into something resembling a Talk Talk cover version of some John Barry theme (from the one where James Bond loses), it takes the piston-funk angle into an entirely different direction with slow-motion almost-swingbeat rhythms and the crooked smile of a killing joke told with that final gasping breath.
Similarly, Dayton delivers the words with freestyle precision (shades even of Paula Abdul's Straight Up at times), an undeniable sass to her voice, undercutting the somber mood of the tune's chamber orchestra.
To the madness I do confess,
Forever see myself as blessed (immune, obsessed).
Like a savior I do caress
The truth is boredom, it's excess (take more, give less).
My time is only given up to you,
Too much to choose.
It's not mine to contemplate if I can lose,
With this blood on my shoes.
Interestingly, a remix of the tune does crop up on one of the many Spin Spin Sugar 12" to make the rounds, made by none other than U.K. garage innovators Tuff Jam. Appropriately enough, the Tuff & Jam Unda-Vybe Vocal is a slinky bit of android soul, with Dayton's already funky vocals chopped up inside a killer 2-step riddim replete with clickety-clack beats, neon bass, electro-boogie shapes and cascading moonlit textures. This would've still sounded futuristic ten years later (hell, twenty for that matter). Played alongside the likes of SA-RA and Burial, it makes perfect sense.
Good luck getting it out of your head once you hear it, though...
The record closes on a somber note with How Do (a cover of Willow's Song from The Wicker Man), bringing the album's subtle folk undercurrents to the fore in the finale. Opening with a bit of sampled dialog from the film, plaintive Street Spirit guitars slowly creep into the mix before unfolding into a haunting melody. Underpinned by a distant booming rhythm that gradually takes shape into a sort of skewed march — ultimately coming to dominate the track — it seems to draw from a British folk lineage stretching back to ancient times. Massive Attack's Home Of The Whale springs to mind immediately.
With Dayton's haunting vocals draped in a magical shimmer, this really captures that feeling of the first rays of spring's sunlight creeping in to melt the winter frost. But then, ancient electronics gradually creep back into view, sweeping across the horizon like a haze of lost memories. By the time the coda swings into action, it all flickers into a black hole feedback loop, breaking through the song's dreamlike idyll to pull you out of the beauty of the garden and back into the cold reality of the grid. Ultimately closing it all with a big question mark hanging in the shadows, this is a masterful way to end to the record.
In step with the times in which it was released, the greatness of Becoming X is mirrored by the remixes and b-sides tucked away on its surrounding singles. The ostensibly limited edition (although it still seems fairly available) Becoming Remixed compilation was helpfully released in 1997 to round up ten of these remixes, including all the ones discussed above (with the exception of the excellent Radio Mix of Spin Spin Sugar). The disc's running time is split just about equally between dancefloor burners and laidback downbeat extravaganzas, highlighting the already multi-faceted nature of the group: look elsewhere for one-note downtempo chill out.
The Salt City Orchestra Nightclub Mix of Post-Modern Sleaze exists alongside the cutting edge garage mixes from Tuff Jam and Armand Van Helden with a neo-disco rework of the track, illustrating house music's late-nineties popular renaissance in the hands of labels like Cajual/Relief and French house auteurs like Daft Punk and Dimitri From Paris. See also Basement Jaxx, Masters At Work, Moodymann and Roy Davis Jr. One killer dancefloor mix that sadly didn't make the compilation is the awesome 187 Lockdown mix of Spin Spin Sugar, with the speed garage dons rivaling even Armand Van Helden's epochal take and moving it all one step closer to 2-step in the process.11
And then there's the stunning Reprazent Mix of Post-Modern Sleaze, which finds Roni Size and crew building a killer drum 'n bass workout around a very subtle guitar progression from the tune's fade and its central wooden-double bassline. Taken in this context, it sounds exactly like something off of side two of New Forms. Back to the future, back to the roots. 6 Underground's The Umbrellas Of Ladywell Mix #2 even takes the tune into strung out Bacharach lounged-out splendor, a winning companion piece to the Post-Modern Sleaze Flight From Nashville version (which is present and correct, closing the Becoming Remixed compilation out with a bang).
It all captures the magic of a time when everything was up in the air, suspended at the cusp of the mid-nineties post-rave drift, when — after about five years of moving to the same frequency — everyone was beginning to flow into wildly different tributaries. Sometimes it even played out on American radio, thanks to groups like the Sneaker Pimps and brilliant tunes like 6 Underground and Spin Spin Sugar. Of course, there's far more to Becoming X than any couple of infectious singles might hint. After all... it's the Revolver of the nineties.
For what it's worth, this trip to the El Cajon Blvd.Tower Records also yielded the Staring At The Sun maxi-single (featuring the quasi-drum 'n bass Monster Truck Mix by the Sonic Morticians aka Danny Saber and Butch Vig) and Queen's Flash Gordon OST!
At the time, I remember there being some aspersions cast at the Pimps from various quarters for sampling James Bond music so soon after Portishead's Sour Times. Er... isn't that a bit like besmirching everyone in hip hop for sampling James Brown after Eric B & Rakim??
At the time, I'd assumed that the haunting synths were sampled from Berio's piece (after all, I was but a clueless lad, without any frame of reference for what early-60s electronic music even sounded like). In reality, it was the mysterious sobbing woman in the breakdown that was sampled from Visage.
That it didn't make it past the initial 2x12" promo is simply down to the vagaries of the music industry, like so many great moments tucked away on dubplates, promos and white labels. Proving once again that chart action is never the whole story.
Despite all plans to the contrary, radio silence has been the order of the day over the last couple weeks. Just as before, this has been down to mad crazy developments in the overall Parallax Architecture, the intricate process of mountains being moved in binary form. It’s a tomorrow type thing, and as such, the writing has been getting unfairly sidelined in the interest of coding, scripting and various real-world concerns. Well, not anymore. History is about to change...
Even as we’re in the process of working up whole new systems to store and traverse the Parallax Archives, it’s important to keep the text flowing. Writing has always provided me with that one crucial function — the one disturbing element, one might say — in rearranging thoughts and teasing out possibilities, and there’s no better time for that catalyst then during the protracted process of longterm development. It’s not just the tool that matters — be it architecture or fire — but what you do with it that makes all the difference.
Like twitch muscles working in harmony with those controlling strength, the left and right brain — creative and analytical impulses — work like gears shifting in pursuit of the next stretch of road, the next vista (Bring me that horizon, Mr. Sulu). Perhaps in truth they’re both flipsides of the same coin... not so far apart from each other after all. And so for every time I’ve promised more dispatches and more short posts to break up the yawning space between monster features, this time I really mean it! As Bowie once put it, A New Career In A New Town, and the future is there for the taking.
Anyone who's heard Stacey Pullen's DJ-Kicks is already familiar with the greatness of Digital Justice. Theme From 'It's All Gone Pear Shaped' features into the climax of that mix in a crucial way, building on the cruise control digital funk of R-Tyme's R-Theme and cascading into a stunning crescendo of swirling synth architecture, before Pullen segues into the technoid jazz fusion of Gypsy's Funk De Fino and brings it all back down to earth with Sterac's Astronotes.
It's an undeniable highlight of the mix, it's very center of gravity, aligning conceptually with the soundtrack electronica of Vangelis' Blush Response theme from Blade Runner haunting the proceedings, while simultaneously making perfect sense in the company of no-nonsense house and dancefloor techno. Like Psyche's Neurotic Behavior, it seems to bridge worlds between 70s space music and of-the-moment electronic dance.
The record was famously issued on Derrick May's Fragile Records, home of shimmering techno like Bango's Mystical Adventures and Aqua Dance by A Scorpion's Dream (aka Stacey Pullen and Steve Rachmad, respectively), where it was paired with a new track entitled Alternative Reality Part 1: Shapes. The latter is a similarly careening ambient sprawl, albeit one punctuated this time by electronic rhythms (bringing it closer in fact to something like Gypsy's sprawling Funk De Fino).
Taken as a whole, the record is an absolute jewel in the crown of one of the tightest, most distinctive labels in all of techno (which I'd argue even rivals parent label Transmat). However, surprisingly enough, the Detroit label was not actually the track's original home: rather, like Bang The Party's Release Your Body and Joey Beltram's Energy Flash, it was simply scooped up by the always eagle-eared Derrick May and reissued on his own storied imprint.
I wonder how many people have heard the tune in its original context, on the six-track It's All Gone Pear Shaped EP, originally issued by Robs Records? The Rob in this case refers to one Rob Gretton, manager of both Joy Division and New Order, and key linchpin in the whole Manchester/Factory Records story. Recorded at Check Yer Head studio, the EP's sound hovers in that satisfying interzone between techno, trance and house — shot through of course with more than a little deep space ambience — where so much great mid-nineties electronica seemed to linger.
Like it says on the tin, tracks like The Till Wild Pitch key into the same mad house/wild pitch impulse as contemporary Roy Davis Jr. and Basement Jaxx, even as they spike that digital funk with fractal quasi-trance shapes. Oxygum is similarly shot through with shades of oneiric, high desert trance, even as it drifts into the sort of deep, minimalist techno that Aril Brikha would later build a career on. At this point, genres like house, trance and techno were all still within one degree from separation from, and movements would be made freely between them.
As if to prove the point, Can't U See? keys into the same unbalanced, shimmering techno impulse as early Dougans and Cobain records like Candese's You Took My Love Earth Mix and Semi Real's People Livin' Today Med Mix (it practically sounds like something off the Earthbeat compilation!), while Brainiak runs parallel to mid-period Holy Ghost Inc. records like Soul Fly and Megawatt Messiah. And of course there's Theme From 'It's All Gone Pear Shaped' in its original context, where it remains technoid space music of the absolute highest caliber. This is the stuff dreams are made of...
Digital Justice themselves remain a rather mysterious outfit, but scratching beneath the surface, one finds that they were one of those great techno groups with a handful of names involved that only put out a handful of records before disappearing from view (or into other projects), like The Imperial Brothers and Detroit's mysterious Strand. Upon closer inspection, it turns out that the individual members of DG were the quartet Simon Crompton, Martin Desai, Liam Duggan, and Louis Gordon (instead of Desai and Duggan, the original Robs Records issue credits W. Devon as well — who he?).
This lot also worked under different names — both together and individually — like Grasshopper, J-Walk, Dr. Umbardi, Loopzilla, and Programmer's Revenge, but this was the big one. Such is the singular quality of their small body of work that despite their limited output, Digital Justice earns their place in the hall of fame with ease. After all, the key measure is not longevity or even volume of output, but the transcendent brilliance of what did make it onto wax. And by that measure, Digital Justice were truly in a class of their own.
When I was putting together the British Invasion 25 feature, it quickly became apparent that there were loads of albums existing at the nexus of Terminal Vibration that never quite managed to break into the popular consciousness on this side of the pond. Post punk probably suffered the most glaring absence in the list (although new wave got a healthy look-in), with even PIL's Metal Box proving too recherché a selection for such limelit company. The oftentimes abrasive, difficult nature of the era's post punk meant that it was largely a below-the-radar proposition in the States (outside a few hubs like New York and San Francisco).
It would arguably take the great post punk revival, arising at the turn of the century roughly twenty years later, for mainstream America to come to terms with with the music through the lens of new school ambassadors like Bloc Party, Interpol, Franz Ferdinand and The Rapture. The music proved a bracing blast of excitement for rock radio after the fin de siecle doldrums of nu metal, providing a gateway to the visionary sonic world carved out of the late seventies in places like Manchester, New York and Sheffield. Defined by their tight pulse and jagged edges, records like Bloc Party's Helicopter, Franz Ferdinand's Take Me Out and The Rapture's House Of Jealous Lovers brought the post punk sound back onto the radio waves, and remain classic tunes to this day.
And yet none of that music holds a candle to the raw power wielded by the original luminaries of post punk, figures like PIL, The Slits, A Certain Ratio, ESG and The Pop Group. In fact, I'd trade everything produced in the wake of the post punk revival for The Pop Group's first single, She Is Beyond Good And Evil, a clanking, skanking slab of death disco delivered with a raw fury unmatched by any of their 21st century counterparts. A warning shot delivered across the bow of pop music, it seemed to contain the germ of everything the city of Bristol would unleash upon an unsuspecting world in the decades to come.
More immediately, it heralded the arrival of one of post punk's greatest dynasties, the tributaries of which would wind through seemingly all corners of the musical landscape in the years to come. The Pop Group emerged from Bristol in 1977, its members steeped in the raw funk and reggae bedrock of the city's storied musical landscape. Even before they'd recorded a note, by the mid-seventies the crew were already immersed in the city's bustling music scene. Mark Stewart recalls:
We were the Bristol Funk Army. We'd go to clubs and dance to heavy bassline imports from America, tracks by B.T. Express, Fatback Band, Ultrafunk. I was fourteen in 1975 but could get into clubs because I was six foot seven.
The crew were influenced by literature and theory as much as music — from the writings of beats like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg to the ideas of the situationists, Wilhelm Reich, and Antonin Artaud's theater of cruelty — and their bookshelves were notoriously as prodigious as their record collections.2 With a background and aesthetic already fully formed at such a young age (the individual members were all around 17 years old when the band first formed), all they needed was a small push to make their mark. The arrival of punk and its all-encompassing call to arms provided that catalyst, and the crew were emboldened to start making some music of their own...
She Is Beyond Good And Evil preceded The Pop Group's debut album by only a month, yet it stood in stark contrast to the freeform punk funk racked offered up on Y, with a relatively straightforward slab of tightly-focused dancefloor magic smuggling hooks to spare within its jagged corridors of sound. I suspect that even uninitiated ears — once they acclimate to its dubbed-out space and ragged edges (not to mention Mark Stewart's supremely deranged delivery) — would fall in love with its infectious, fractured groove. Any head worth their salt, of course, would love it immediately.
Jolting into focus on a mutant Chic scratching guitar figure, a throbbing 4/4 rhythm emerges beneath a walking disco bassline as if they'd just happened to align when the tapes started running. Shards of jagged sound echo in deep orbit, while guitar strings are bent into swooping shape like a fleet of dive-bombing oil tankers, their x-ray image run through dub's cold machinery and piercing the deep funk from within. Mark Stewart descends like a spectre into this dread-soaked atmosphere, chanting My little girl was born on a ray of sound into the darkness.
A master of the slogan run through a twisted prism and warped to hieroglyph abstraction, Stewarthaunts this record. His genius already fully formed by this point, he hurls couplets like Sleeps on water, walks on ice, got no father, immortal wife and Like a dancing flame on a bed of nails, she is one thing that you cannot buy into distant corners of your mind, adding Our only defense is to gather as an army... I'll hold you like a gun! Right there at the outset, the unabashed, raw fury of his protest makes Rage Against The Machine sound like Green Day!
Along with the band's debut album, She Is Beyond Good And Evil was produced by the great Dennis Bovell. A member of British reggae group Matumbi, he'd also produced a slew of 7"s ranging from roots reggae to dub and lovers rock (the latter a form Bovell hand a crucial hand in shaping). 1979 found him producing not only The Pop Group but The Slits' debut album Cut, while the following year he even worked with Ryuichi Sakamoto, engineering the impossibly futuristic B-2 Unit (which gave the world the immortal Riot In Lagos). Clearly, She Is Beyond Good And Evil was in great company.
During the sessions for the record, the band had already spent the bulk of their studio time recording the blistering a-side, and the clock was rapidly running out on their session. In an ingenious move, Bovell simply reversed the original tune and worked up a new rhythm track with Bruce Smith to give the track some propulsion.3 The resulting 3'38 was tucked away on the b-side, a psychedelic ghost-skank hovering somewhere in the interzone between Revolver and Metal Box.
Dubwise effects swirl into the track's central vortex, its backwards-sucking Radiation Ruling The Nation high-end clatter haunted by great arcing guitars (and/or quasi-synths) that shimmer around a pulse beat and throbbing bassline locked in hypnotic unity. Like DJ Screw's similar post-production trickery, there's far more going on here than simply messing around with the tapes, and 3'38 is very much a strange, singular world of its own. Of course, the madness starts to make sense when you learn that Bovell considers Jimi Hendrix's 3rd Stone From The Sun the first dub track ever!
One month later, the band's debut album dropped. Y was further fruit of the partnership between The Pop Group and Dennis Bovell, filled with the blistering punk funk of Words Disobey Me, We Are Time and Thief Of Fire (the square root of The Red Hot Chili Peppers). More atmospheric forays like Blood Money and Don't Sell Your Dreams were slipped into the program almost subliminally, betraying the band's nascent free jazz obsessions. A stone cold classic, the record rounds out an almost unspoken trilogy with PIL's Metal Box and The Slits' Cut, setting a high water mark for the deluge of post punk to follow.
For their part, The Pop Group followed up with a split single with The Slits (In The Beginning There Was Rhythm b/w Where There's A Will...) and the more direct political protest of the We Are All Prostitutes, a scathing indictment of mercenary capitalism set the tone for their sophomore album For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?. Sonically speaking, the band seemed to key into the more locked-down groove of the burgeoning post-disco electro boogie, bringing to mind the punk-funk of Rick James' Street Songs and Prince's new wave-damaged Dirty Mind caught in a particularly bad mood.
At this point, with Mark Stewart's more direct lyrical approach at odds with the rest of the band's increasingly abstract musical ambitions, the band splintered into various projects and resulting directions. Simon Underwood put together the punk funk powerhouse Pigbag with a handful of longstanding Bristol musicians, while Bruce Smith and Gareth Sager formed the more abstractly inclined Rip Rig & Panic4 with the young Neneh Cherry. Both projects lasted three albums each, accompanied by a brace of singles, released in quick succession during the early eighties. Notably, Rip Rig & Panic later morphed into Float Up CP for the Kill Me In The Morning LP in 1985.
Meanwhile, Dan Catsis and John Waddington got involved with the quirky punk funk/new pop boogie outfit Maximum Joy, who put out one great album surrounded a brace of singles.5Bruce Smith in particular seemed to crop up everywhere, starting with On-U Sound outfits like African Head Charge and New Age Steppers, as well as further dubbed-out capers in Playgroup (alongside John Waddington) and Singers & Players . He even clocked some time as a member of both The Slits and Public Image Ltd.!6
Mark Stewart also hooked up with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound setup, first contributing to the New Age Steppers and then linking up with Tackhead/Fats Comet as Mark Stewart + Maffia for a trio of great albums. He rode his solo career into the nineties with increasingly electronic outings like Metatron and Control Data, paralleling his incursions into Bristol's burgeoning trip hop scene. Playing a crucial role in getting Tricky's career off the ground via his production and ghostly vocal contributions for Aftermath, he also contributed the haunting final track (Loyalty Is Valuable) to The Hard Sell compilation.
Of course, it all makes sense when you trace it back to the beginning (after all, In The Beginning There Was Rhythm), where She Is Beyond Good And Evil heralded a whole new sonic architecture that seemed to haunt everything from the prototypical trip hop of Massive Attack and Portishead to Flying Saucer Attack's splintered post rock, and latterly the dubstep sounds of Pinch, Peverelist and RSD. It's the sort of primal, insouciantly articulated sound that could've only emerged at this particular space in time, lurking somewhere between The Sex Pistols and The Gap Band.
Even today, forty years later, it sounds as fresh and razor sharp as it was on the day it was recorded. Utterly unique and impossibly intense, it's as wild and chaotic a ride as punk funk ever produced. And that's saying something...
Ah yes, the United Kingdom. The British Invasion 25 originated from a themed event put together by Sari and Kayli, where we indulged in a smorgasbord of British cuisine and shared lists of our favorite records from the ongoing British Invasion. Rather than limiting the list to the timespan of the first British Invasion (put roughly the five years from 1964-1969), or even the second (the hordes of synth pop and new wave groups to storm MTV), we decided to include music all the way up to the present day.
As long as I can remember, I've had an affinity for loads of music from the British Isles, starting with my earliest memories of The English Beat and Billy Idol, and continuing through indie dance, britpop, trip hop, jungle and the seemingly endless litany of electronic permutations to emerge from the island over the ensuing years. Ever since the The Beatles and The Rolling Stones bounced the foundational rock 'n roll of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly back to the shores of America, the transatlantic exchange between the United States and United Kingdom has been one of the key motors driving the thrust of pop music ever forward.
Which brings us to the second criteria of this list: all artists must have invaded the United States to the level of hitting the charts and/or becoming a household name (preferably both). As such, you'll find me referencing hits and chart positions far more than I normally would... here, it's a crucial part of the whole affair! Rather than just a simple list of my favorite records to emerge from the U.K., this is a selection of my favorite music from artists that made a splash in America to the point that you could mention them to your average stranger on the street and they'd know what you were talking about. The Beatles, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin... that's the level I'm talking about.
Unfortunately, that eliminates loads of music that I absolutely adore from consideration, and the entire oeuvres of Tricky, The Black Dog, Primal Scream, Thomas Leer, Ramsey & Fen, 4 Hero, Caravan, Japan/David Sylvian, Young Disciples, Andrew Weatherall, Cabaret Voltaire, Dot Allison, Meat Beat Manifesto, Smith & Mighty, LFO, A.R. Kane, Cymande, Underworld, Brian Eno, Dizzee Rascal, Van Der Graaf Generator, Black Grape, Keni Stevens, FSOL, Sun Palace, Bandulu, John Martyn, My Bloody Valentine, Basement Jaxx, Saint Etienne, Jungle, The Orb, 808 State, The Slits, A Certain Ratio, Neuropolitique, Loose Ends, Bomb The Bass, Mark Stewart, Hijack, The Shamen, Ozric Tentacles, The Libertines, Shut Up And Dance, the Associates, So Solid Crew, and A Guy Called Gerald are all stricken from the record immediately!
Similarly, left field favorites like PIL's Metal Box, Talk Talk's Spirit Of Eden, The Human League's Travelogue and Simple Minds's Real To Real Cacophony must be set aside as well, since it's only the drastically different work from another era — often an entirely different lineup/incarnation — of these artists that's well known on this side of the pond. Entire genres like post punk, ardkore, shoegaze, grime and jungle seem to exist just below the surface of consciousness, and I've more often than not been met with blank stares when expressing my enthusiasm for these pockets of sound (the loneliness is real!).
And yet, even with all of that great music eliminated by default, there's far more music than one could possibly fit in one list of 25 records. Far more. In the end, the final selection came down to an honest assessment of my absolute favorite records and artists that managed to crack the code and storm the shores of mainstream America. This is a stack of records that have had a huge impact on me over the years, no question. So here we go... presented in chronological order, I give you the Parallax MovesBritish Invasion 25.
There's no better way to kick off a British Invasion list than with the movement's original figureheads. I mean, it almost goes without saying, right? Starting out a bit later than expected (with the more prototypical Beatlemania-era A Hard Day's Night perhaps the most logical choice), I've chosen Magical Mystery Tour since it's among their most British sounding records (it's also my favorite, after Beatles For Sale). Where early records like Please Please Me and With The Beatles followed the lead of American rock 'n roll and girl group — albeit shot through with a uniquely Merseybeat flavor and loads of charm — by this point The Beatles seemed to be operating in their own universe.
Finding the band at the peak of their studio-as-instrument powers (props to George Martin in effect), plying a psychedelic pop-cum-music hall vision right as the technicolor 1960s were cresting in the wake of the Summer Of Love. Magical Mystery Tour is Sgt. Pepper's mischievous kid brother, going so far as to pilfer Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever from his older brother's stash. Boasting even more lavishly skewed production (check out Blue Jay Way and the instrumental Flying) and bigger beats than ever before (see I Am The Walrus and the title track), the record's only weakness is its comparatively lackluster cover sleeve!
The Kinks captured the idea of Old England in the public imagination more perfectly than just about anyone else around. Even if their biggest U.S. hits came both before and after (You Really Got Me Now and All Day And All Of The Night on one hand, Lola and Come Dancing on the other), there's no getting around the band's late-sixties peak, which found them dreaming up the whole idea of britpop in the wake of the The Kink Kontroversy's transitional elaboration on their earlier rock 'n roll sound.
As much as I love that record, along with Arthur, Face To Face and Muswell Hillbillies (it's very hard to single out one Kinks record for praise), there's just no getting around this sterling 1968 offering. From the perfect power pop of Picture Book to
Village Green's overcast baroque inflections and the pastoral sweep of Johnny Thunder, it's a veritable treasure trove of unforgettably melodic moments caught in time. Without a doubt the band's quintessential LP, The Village Green Preservation Society is a miniature world unto itself. Once you make your first visit, you'll want to come back every chance you get.
The Who started out life as the U.K.'s original punks, unleashing unbridled blasts of rock 'n roll energy like My Generation and I Can't Explain upon the world, before Pete Townshend's vision gradually grew more arty and ambitious with thematically-linked concept albums like The Who Sell Out and Tommy (the latter of which is generally credited with popularizing the idea of the rock opera). Despite their (by then) more measured approach in the studio, the band remained a furious live proposition, and 1970's Live At Leeds captures them at their monolithic peak.
Trademark garage punk blasts like My Generation and I Can't Explain are given a hard rock overhaul for the coming decade, while arty suites like Amazing Journey/Sparks and A Quick One, While He's Away are delivered with a muscular force that transcends the intricate arrangements and brittle surfaces of their studio originals. The opening blast of Heaven And Hell seems to combine both sides of the coin, with the grandiose scale of John Entwistle's songwriting (mirroring Townshend's contemporary ambitions) driven to a rock hard extreme by the furious interplay between Entwistle's molten bass and Keith Moon's machine gun drumming, over which Roger Daltrey's bare-chested roar and Townshend's arcing guitar feedback soar freely.
The band also runs through blazing covers of Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues, Johnny Kidd's Shakin' All Over and Mose Allison's Young Man Blues, imbuing them with a raw power that lays the blueprint for all manner of seventies slabs of molten noise ranging from Deep Purple's Made In Japan to Grand Funk Railroad's Live Album, setting a high bar for the coming decade's double-live stone tablets. As one might expect, The WHo's Live At Leeds has gone down in the history books as one of the greatest live albums of all time.1
Here's another one that goes without saying, even if I'm going to go ahead and say it anyway. Alongside Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin cemented the idea of heavy metal in the popular consciousness and accordingly had a seismic impact on rock music's subsequent trajectory. I'd be hard-pressed to name a band that epitomizes the idea of seventies rock more so than Led Zeppelin. This slot could have rightly been taken by any of their first five or six albums, but Led Zeppelin III remains my favorite thing they've ever done.
With its medieval inflections soaking up influences from all the British folkies who never had a chance to breach American shores (Roy Harper, Sandy Denny, Bert Jansch, et. al.) Led Zeppelin III adds that crucial mystical element to the band's heavy blues foundation, recasting it all as a widescreen epic and sounding utterly singular in the process. The album-opening Immigrant Song is the inescapable soundtrack to invasion, and as far as invaders go, they don't come much more all-encompassing than these four British lords.
Moving confidently into the rootsy early seventies, Tumbleweed Connection finds Elton John and Bernie Taupin basking in the laidback country-fried vibes of Laurel Canyon and turning out their own loose-limbed take on the sound. I tend to prefer Elton at his most dusty, humble and down-to-earth — before the larger-than-life image takes over — which is captured most perfectly on Tumbleweed (particularly in songs like Come Down In Time, Amoreena and Burn Down The Mission).
Perhaps more than with anyone else in this list, it was difficult to choose the album — Empty Sky, Honky Château and dark horse Rock Of The Westies were all in the running — but you know what they say: when in doubt, go with your favorite. For me, a big part of this record's appeal for me is its inspiring portrait of a pair of avowed outsiders utterly in thrall to American music, who refract it through their own idiosyncratic vision and somehow manage to top their inspirations. Indeed, I can't think of a contemporary L.A. album that beats it.
This is a similar case of an artist tackling American music head on and managing to come out on top. Indeed, The Rolling Stones are arguably the embodiment of rock 'n roll in the public imagination. Starting with Jumpin' Jack Flash and Beggars Banquet, The Stones managed to capture the essence of rock 'n roll, country, blues and other American roots music so thoroughly that I often forget I'm listening to a band of unruly Brits. On Exile On Main St., one could imagine them emerging fully-formed out of anywhere from New Orleans to Tallahassee, Memphis or El Paso.
Running the gamut from no-nonsense rockers like Rocks Off and Rip This Joint to the weepy country rock of Sweet Virginia and Torn And Frayed, raw blues like Shake Your Hips and Ventilator Blues and even gospel-tinged numbers like I Just Want To See His Face and Shine A Light, Exile offers up a stunning breadth of vision that Stateside contenders like Aerosmith, The J. Geils Band and ZZ Top never really strove for.2 Articulating it all with a careening, ramshackle charm, The Rolling Stones managed to record the great American rock 'n roll double-album.
Ah yes, now Roxy Music capture nearly everything that makes me such an Anglophile. The clash of Bryan Ferry's urbane — and occasionally manic — vocals and Brian Eno's experimental urges wreak magic on this their second album. Sure, later efforts like Siren and the sweeping Avalon made a bigger splash on this side of the pond, but For Your Pleasure was their first album to scrape the lower reaches of the charts in America and went on to be massively influential (not to mention that it's also one of my favorite albums ever).
Straddling the worlds of art pop, glam rock and a sort of post-kosmische psychedelia, Pleasure predicts the sound of everything from punk, post punk and new wave to hazy dream pop, goth and all manner of electronics-damaged psychedelia. The dejected splendor of ballads like Beauty Queen and Strictly Confidential define Ferry's stately, aristocratic vision, while the twin punk-preempting blasts of energy Editions Of You and Do The Strand epitomize what Eno called the idiot energy of early Roxy.
The record's real bolt for the blue comes on the second side, starting with the crawling death dirge In Every Dream Home A Heartache, a Gothic paean to an inflatable doll(!) — and one of the great articulations of alien longing and dislocation ever — that culminates in a blazing post-Hendrix guitar phantasmagoria from axe-man Phil Manzanera. The marathon slow burn of The Bogus Man starts out as a sort of motorik cabaret revue before spiraling into an extended jam on the initial theme that lasts well over nine minutes, shot through with Eno's ideas about process music and atmosphere.
However, For Your Pleasure (the song) is the album's greatest achievement. Starting out as another one of Ferry's ceremonial ballads, driven by rolling, martial rhythms and a sort of Cluster-esque kosmische sense of sparkling atmosphere — not to mention a haunting post-Ennio Morricone guitar line from Manzanera (Marco Pirroni was certainly paying attention) — it gradually builds into a cascade of shimmering atmospherics, with all the band's playing run through the machines by Eno and launched into the horizon. I only just now discovered that the closing bit of dialogue (You don't ask... you don't ask why.) is spoken by none other than Dame Judi Dench!
Further adventures at the interface of krautrock with it's eye set firmly on the future, Bowie's Station To Station captures the Thin White Duke's transition from the Philly soul inflections of David Live and Young Americans to his Berlin trilogy with Brian Eno in 1977 (where the eighties begin). Enamored with the Europe-endlessness of bands like Kraftwerk and Neu!, Bowie splices a sense of kosmische atmosphere into his (by now) heavily groove-based pop, setting the stage for the music's next big sea change in the wake of punk and disco.
The title track is a marathon ten-minute workout that kicks off the record with a killer downbeat stomp before accelerating into a stirring discoid call to the future (It's too late to be late again, the European canon is here.), while Stay and the ubiquitous Golden Years perfect the golden Philly grooves he first explored on Young Americans. And then there's TVC 15, a killer slice of robotic pop that invents the sound of his Berlin-era vocal outings in one fell swoop. Both sides of the record conclude with sweeping balladry (Word On A Wing and Wild Is The Wind, respectively), rounding out the record that proved that there was life after glam after all and David Bowie was here to stay.
PIL's Metal Box may still be somewhat below the radar to the American public (hits like Rise and Warrior came later), but John Lydon's first band remains a household name. Within a couple years of the band's emergence, everyone was trying to sound like The Sex Pistols. Alongside the Ramones' Blitzkrieg Bop, The Pistols' God Save The Queen and Anarchy In The U.K. cemented the sound of punk in the collective unconscious, a sound that's been picked up by generation after generation of snotty teenagers ever since!
My absolute favorite moment on the album is New York, with Steve Jones' crunching guitar and the rolling bass of Glen Matlock3 dueling over killer breakbeats from Paul Cook as Johnny Rotten spits acidic couplets dripping with disdain. This is the blueprint for The Prodigy circa The Fat Of The Land, which is borne out by the song's memorable appearance on The Dirtchamber Sessions, sandwiched right there between Fatboy Slim and the Beastie Boys like it was the most natural thing in the world! Arriving just it time to clean the slate for the coming decade, this is the tipping point between KGB to 91x, where old the guard gives way to the new.
Speaking of which, the perfect ska pop of Mirror In The Bathroom and Hands Off... She's Mine never really went out of rotation on 91x — a testament to this record's truly timeless nature. As much as I love the Specials (particularly their late-period In The Studio LP), The Beat will always get my vote in the end, and this flawless album is a major part of that equation. Oh yeah, and in this case, it's actually the U.S. version of the album that you want, since it includes two extra tracks: the infectious Ranking Full Stop and a manic cover of Smokey Robinson & The MiraclesTears Of A Clown. Packed with front to back brilliance, this is new wave at its absolute finest, practically radiating day-glo sunlight.
In passing, I was quite saddened to hear about Ranking Roger's death earlier this year. His voice was such a crucial part of my musical upbringing, from his initial emergence with The English Beat to the General Public years and his solo material, and it seemed like he'd always be around. His memorable toasting and singjay tones were the perfect foil to Dave Wakeling's sunny vocals, driving the music as much as the instrumentation itself. Always the epitome of cool, Roger even memorably reprised I Just Can't Stop It's Twist & Crawl seventeen years later with big beat merchants Death In Vegas! Play both versions back to back for an instant party (just add water).
More dread-soaked new wave, in which erstwhile punks get lost in the studio with the great Mikey Dread and dive deeper into pure sound than ever before. This is evocative stuff, conjuring up imagery of the band jamming out in some secluded studio at the edge of the world, capturing it all on sprawling tapes that are cut, spliced and remixed through the wild machinery of dub. Despite its relative inconsistency when compared to the more widely feted London Calling, for me this is by far the more captivating record, immersing their sound in a brilliantly murky stew of rockabilly, new wave, reggae, dub and disco that could have only happened in a town like London.
This is something like the Rosetta Stone of the whole Terminal Vibration concept I've been pushing around here lately, wrapping up whole swathes of post punk experimentation into a candy-coated pop package that makes perfect sense alongside dance music's post-disco drift and the burgeoning sounds of hip hop at the dawn of the decade, with songs like The Magnificent Seven and The Call Up burning through dancefloors across the nation (see Levan, Larry and the Paradise Garage).4 Apparently, this album charted even higher than London Calling in the States (no mean feat for a triple album!), setting the stage for the band's later world domination with the blockbuster Combat Rock.
Hounds Of Love may have been the bigger record in terms of chart impact, but Kate Bush's preceding album The Dreaming was actually her first to breach the lower reaches of the charts in America. And, since it's my favorite of her records — indeed, its among my favorite albums ever — it gets in with a silver bullet. This is another instance of a record that really captures the sort of aura and approach that made me such an Anglophile growing up, with its innovative use of the Fairlight sampler and arty strains of disjointed songcraft coming off as utterly singular and otherworldly.
I mean, I love Peter Gabriel, but this is on a whole other plane. Songs like Get Out Of My House and the title track build up layers of atmosphere into towering crescendos, while Night Of The Swallow (which rides on the back of a stirring folk jig to devastating effect) and All The Love ply a swirling strain of balladry that would go on to be hugely influential. You can't hear a song like Pull Out The Pin, with its potent, moody atmosphere and dancing tapestry of voices, without suspecting that it must have inspired Depeche Mode's drastic reinvention and descent into darkness circa Some Great Reward and Black Celebration. Unflinchingly brilliant.
As I've said time and time again, Adam Ant is the reason I got into music in the first place. His brand of larger-than-life, heavily rhythmic, almost offensively tuneful pop swept me up and set me on a path of deep appreciation for the music of the British Isles. After his debut (which is all but unknown on this side of the pond — I must have been the only kid at my school rocking out to Zerox and Whip In My Valise back in the day!), Friend Or Foe is my favorite Adam Ant album, offering up his most consistent set of songs that you can show any of your friends.
This is technically his first solo album without The Ants, although he retains linchpin guitarist Marco Pirroni as his musical foil (a role he'd continue to fill into the 21st century). It's got his biggest Stateside hit Goody Two Shoes, which marries his trademark Burundi rhythms and Pirroni's awesome Morricone inflections with a New Orleans-style horn section, offering a decent glimpse of what to expect throughout the rest of the album.
Further singles like Place In The Country, Desperate But Not Serious and the title track are even better, while the remainder of the record is just as good. The bouncy power pop cuts Made Of Money and Try This On For Sighs should have been singles in their right, while the dubbed-to-pieces Cajun Twisters would sit right at home on Parallax Pier. The closing instrumental Man Called Marco even gives center stage to the guitarist, showcasing a crucial element of what made Adam Ant's sound so uniquely unforgettable.
Mick Jones makes the list again (naturally)! After leaving The Clash and messing around with samplers — chasing his fascination with dance music and hip hop — he formed B.A.D. with Don Letts, Dan Donovan, Leo Williams and Greg Roberts, essentially inventing the whole idea of indie dance alongside New Order. This the group's debut album features an infectious pile up of anthemic rock, hip hop beats and electroid rhythms, all shot through with snatches of sound and dialogue from Jones' sampler.
Containing smash hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line — songs I grew up with in constant repetition — it's A Party's low slung digital dancehall and the electroid shapes of Sudden Impact! that really push the record over the edge into quintessential Terminal Vibration territory. The U.S. 12" single for The Bottom Line even came out on Def Jam — complete with a remix from Rick Rubin during his early LL Cool J-affiliated peak — making B.A.D. that rare British band to get a record to come out on the home of hip hop.
Another indie dance stone tablet, Substance 1987 rounds up a dozen tracks from about five years into one essential package. Perhaps I'm pushing my luck a little by including a compilation in lieu of albums like Low-Life and Power, Corruption & Lies, but this sterling collection of 12" dancefloor versions captures the group's status as indie dance pioneers best of all. Besides, it's the only place you can find both True Faith and the tuff 1987 remix of Confusion — two of my absolute favorite moments from the band — in one place. Shoot me down, but I think it squeezes in on the Psyche/BFC/Elements rule.
Everyone knows the robotic dancefloor filler Blue Monday — included here in it's full seven-minute-plus 12" glory — which is further developed across tracks like The Perfect Kiss and Sub-Culture, while tunes like Confusion and Shellshock (as heard in the John Hughes movie Pretty In Pink) interface with Bronx freestyle to stunning effect. With its inclusion of True Faith (peerless Balearic brilliance riding the thin line between melancholy and joy), Substance 1987 captures the band riding a wave that would culminate a year later in acid house's invasion of British shores and the Second Summer Of Love.
The Lion And The Cobra distills everything great about fellow Irishmen U2's October and War into one diamond-hard record, spiking the results with heavy shades of 4AD atmosphere and rugged, dancefloor-ready grooves. At the center of the record is the 21-year-old Sinéad O'Connor, possessed of a singular, uncompromising vision and a voice that could pierce the heavens. The sound here so utterly original, O'Connor is practically a genre unto herself. A crucial stepping stone between 1985 and 1990, this is where the circle is squared between Kate Bush, Janet Jackson, the Cocteau Twins and Neneh Cherry.
The towering Jerusalem rides into town on sparkling electronics, rock hard rhythms and ten-ton guitar, while Mandinka is an awesome power pop blast featuring the guitar sound of the great Marco Pirroni.5 One can even hear the ghost of Irish folk lingering in the shadows of Jackie and Just Like U Said It Would B. Further complicating matters, Just Call Me Joe sounds like it could a Breeders song from 1993. The single version of I Want Your Hands On Me even features a rap from MC Lyte! Taken as a whole, its a brilliant set of songs showcasing a stunning breadth of vision. The world wasn't ready...
Here's where the nineties begin in earnest, one year ahead of schedule. With all due respect to Teddy Riley and Guy, it took a bunch of stylish Brits under the auspices of Jazzie B and Nellee Hooper (with due props to Smith & Mighty and Massive Attack as well) to truly mix hip hop and soul into the form known as modern RnB. Everything from Mary J. Blige's What's The 411? and Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul to TLC's CrazySexyCool and Aaliyah's One In A Million owes a little something to this record. Add the crucial element of Caron Wheeler's powerful voice, and you're bound to wind up with something truly sensational.
Everyone knows that trademark Soul II Soul beat — see Keep On Movin' and Back To Life — getting the nineties off on the right foot, with everyone from Primal Scream to Janet Jackson swaying the same rhythm. Further dimensions unfold in the form of deep house missives like Holdin' On Bambelala and Happiness Dub rubbing shoulders with the proto-trip hop of Feel Free, while the crew's Afrocentric sensibilities and jazz-inflected cool prefigure the likes of Erykah Badu and D'Angelo by half a decade. Caron Wheeler's subsequent solo career even plays like a preview of Badu's!
The whole thing plays like a dress rehearsal for the turn of the century, when neo soul, broken beat, house, hip hop and electronic jazz would all coalesce in a glorious bit of synchronicity wherein the likes of 4 Hero, Moodymann, Innerzone Orchestra and The Soulquarians all seemed in thrall to more or less the same vision. To find that vision laid out in one place — a whole decade before the fact — is quite striking, and to this day never fails to amaze me.
I was originally going to include the awesome follow-up Homebrew, with its more fully-developed trip hop vibes and lusher sound, but this made the bigger splash and put Neneh Cherry on the map in the first place. And if pressed, I'd have to admit that it's probably the better record (but best believe it's close!). Ms. Cherry cut an inspired path through the 1980s, first as a short-lived member of The Slits and the New Age Steppers, and then as core member of the post punk group Rip Rig & Panic, before memorably cropping up as a dancer in some of Big Audio Dynamite's early music videos and falling in with the Buffalo Collective, becoming intertwined with the first rumblings of what would become trip hop as the eighties drew to a close.
Raw Like Sushi's Buffalo Stance is an epic, widescreen tribute to that crew, a moving snapshot of camaraderie just as their subtle influence was cresting into the wider world. Mixing brazen hip hop attitude with torch song passion and a sonic attack running parallel to both indie dance and contemporary freestyle, it's emblematic of an album that sets the stage for nineties triumphs ranging from Massive Attack's Blue Lines and Björk's Debut to Janet Jackson's Janet. and Seal's 1991 debut. Bobbing and weaving with ease through the rolling golden age hip hop of So Here I Come, freestyle-esque dancefloor-fillers like Kisses On The Wind, Inna City Mamma's superfly soul and the proto-trip hop of Manchild and Love Ghetto, Neneh Cherry is almost too good to be true.
Improbably managing to crack the mainstream with late-period synth pop records like Black Celebration and Music For The Masses, Depeche Mode toured American stadiums and broke through at the very highest level, coming on like some combination of Kraftwerk and Led Zeppelin for lonely souls and introverts. 1990's Violator is the point where they really solidified their place in the firmament, consolidating their runaway success with an album that squared the Gothic dread of their most recent records with the electroid pop of their earliest material, mutating the whole thing into a high tech form of the blues.
Surely everybody knows Enjoy The Silence and Personal Jesus, which by this point have become timeless standards (the latter even memorably covered by the original man in black himself, Johnny Cash). The runaway success of those cuts was augmented by Policy Of Truth and World In My Eyes, twin singles that streamlined the Depeche Mode sound down to its singular essence, along with trademark slabs of stylized dread like Sweetest Perfection, Blue Dress and Clean.
It's all articulated with brilliant, uncluttered production by Flood,6 showcasing the group's quintessential sound with stunning clarity, making this the ideal introduction into the wonderful world of Depeche Mode. File next to Kraftwerk and Muddy Waters.
From day one I've loved Seal's debut album, and the passage of nearly thirty years hasn't diminished the power of this sterling set of songs. Back when the man still had his dreads, he could not be beat! Standing at the axis of dance music, modern soul, dream pop and still-cutting edge ZTT studio-craft, his remains an utterly unique sound, with every corner of the soundscape haunted by that voice. The results were so potent that he couldn't help but become a star, and the rest was history. With the passage of time, it's become easy to take the man's music for granted, but I don't even care if you're all too cool for it... this is my jam!
In fact, it's my favorite record to emerge from the whole Trevor Horn/Art Of Noise axis. Anchored by dancefloor smashes like Crazy, Killer, The Beginning7 and Future Love Paradise, it's actually the record's quieter moments that have grown to become my favorites. Whirlpool is a gorgeous slice of acoustic balladry, while Deep Water unfolds anthemic, multi-tracked harmonies over sparse percussion and acoustic guitars before building into a stunning crescendo that sways to cinematic strings and a rolling rhythm.
Best of all is the brilliant closing three-song stretch, which swoops and dives confidently into modern soul/RnB territory. Wild features the most gorgeously unforgettable chorus on the record, its incessant, tumbling rhythm melting into a whirlpool of strings, synths and cooing backup vocals. Show Me is even more atmospheric, reimagining A.R. Kane's hazy dream pop blueprint as an understated power ballad, its dub-chamber beats and lavish bassline providing the perfect launchpad for chiming guitars, swirling strings and Seal's falsetto to ascend into the record's most breathtaking crescendo.
And then there's Violet, a practically ambient pop song, in which the rolling machine rhythms melt into a blur of fretless bass, oceanic synths and subtle sampling, with Seal casually unfurling couplets like raindrops into the night sky. The perfect conclusion to such an understated, brilliant album, the whole thing plays like the best dream you've ever had...
Skipping ahead a bit now because most of my favorite mid-nineties music from Britain didn't manage to crash the charts over here, and (if I'm not mistaken) there's not one straight up rave or jungle album that charted in the States. That'll become more of a running theme as we continue, unfortunately. Still, this oughta do. From the beginning, The Prodigy were something special. Emerging from the heart of the rave scene with candy-coated ardkore classics like Charly, Your Love and debut LP The Prodigy Experience, before their music and sense of style gradually grew darker. By the time of their stunning second album Music For The Jilted Generation, they seemed to be soundtracking a dystopian future made manifest in the present.
By the time they unleashed Firestarter and Breathe on an unsuspecting public, the stage was set for third album The Fat Of The Land, which turned out to be the perfect prescription for an invasion of mainstream America. With an image ripped from the pages of some parent's nightmare — perched midway between gutter punk and Gothic hip hop — the group drafted in guitarist Gizz Butt to give their breakbeat voodoo and added rock edge. It was like The Sex Pistols all over again! Tunes like Firestarter, Fuel My Fire and Serial Thrilla offered up a stunning collision of rock, rave and big beat for the rockers, while Diesel Power consorted directly with New York rap legend Kool Keith.
Breathe came on like an unholy fusion of the two, sounding like some future vision of teenage rebellion that has yet to happen (and the music video remains a masterpiece of sonic imagery brought to life). Still, there's plenty here that would appeal to all the longtime fans and ravers, and tunes like Climbatize, Mind Fields and Smack My Bitch Up were the culmination of everything they'd been up to since the days of What Evil Lurks (albeit delivered with a harder edge than ever). The awesomely cinematic sweep of Narayan sounds like a 21st century premonition, a wild clash between Kashmir and Immigrant Song over splashing breakbeats and the spooked dancefloor stylings they'd spent the decade perfecting.
It took just the right angle for the ardkore continuum to break into America's seething subconscious, and The Prodigy were the ones to crack the code in the end. And to think they started out as such fine, upstanding lads...
This could have been any of the first three albums, but Mezzanine turned out to make the biggest splash, cementing the group's presence in the popular consciousness. After this, if you brought up Massive Attack and trip hop in casual conversation, people knew what you were talking about. Much like The Fat Of The Land, Mezzanine found the group incorporating the sound of heavy guitars (played by Angelo Bruschini of The Blue Aeroplanes) into their heady sonic stew, translating the somnambulant dread of trip hop into a towering wall of cinematic pressure.
This is the conduit through which the Bristol blues sensibility — embodied by Smith & Mighty, Tricky, Portishead and Massive Attack themselves — seeped into mainstream America, making the group trip hop's indisputable ambassadors. In the ensuing years, the Mezzanine sound proved to be remarkably influential, with countless soundtracks and film scores imitating its contours and even lifting its songs directly. Even now, decades years later, the group are in the midst of a U.S. tour celebrating this record's 21st anniversary (best believe I'll be there!).
Aside from the overall heaviness, the other crucial development here is the appearance of the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser throughout the record, lending her otherworldly vocals to Black Milk, Group Four and Teardrop (I'd wager that nearly everyone has heard the latter). Paired with the rootsical voodoo vibes of Risingson, Inertia Creeps and the title track — which feature the group's trademark microphone interplay between 3D and Daddy G — along with two showcases for main main Horace Andy (Angel and Man Next Door), the whole experience gives Mezzanine the aura of something like trip hop's Metal Box... after this, there almost wasn't any point in even trying!
In which britpop's strangest band bring the sound of abstract electronica crashing into the mainstream. I'd been into this lot ever since The Bends came out, and even then I remember thinking there was something different about the band. This was borne out on the supremely dusted Talk Show Host (as heard on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack)8 and the even stranger OK Computer album (where their legend truly took flight), before the band finally took a dive off the deep end with Kid A.
In retrospect, the extent to which the band delved into contemporary electronica here wound up delivering everything I'd been hoping for way back in 1997, but I suspect Kid A wouldn't have made the impact it did without the passage of time and the groundwork laid by OK Computer and the ensuing years. The band famously devoured the (by then) extensive back catalog of Warp Records, filtering their art-damaged rock sound through the cold machinery of LFO, The Black Dog and Boards Of Canada, in the process winding up with an of-the-moment art rock masterpiece.
Crystalline tunes like Everything In Its Right Place, Morning Bell and Kid A lose themselves in freeform hall of mirrors abstraction, while Idioteque managed to ride a mutant electroid rhythm onto the radio waves with the closest the band ever came to a dance track. The National Anthem even betrays the band's burgeoning fascination with the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra, exploding into a massive pile up of droning post rock and blaring horns in its climax. Representing the album at its most pastoral, Treefingers — tucked away at the end of side one — is an almost unexpected ambient treasure.
Still, there's a thread of continuity running all the way back to The Bends in the drifting cinematic acoustica of How To Disappear Completely, while In Limbo connects with the angelic crystal palace shapes of OK Computer. At the center of it all lies the towering Optimistic, which blends the band's trademark empty graveyard misery with a paradoxically triumphant chorus, resulting in a winningly anthemic slab of alternative rock that managed to reach #10 in America despite the fact that it never even came out as a single!
Franz Ferdinand embody an era when a wing of rock music went back to basics, stripping the sound down to its taut essentials, much like The Stones and Faces had as the sixties turned to seventies. However, this time the reference points were completely different, with the rootsy blues and country rock signposts of The Stones replaced by the post punk/new wave/power pop resurrected by the likes of The Strokes, Bloc Party and the Arctic Monkeys.9 However, rather than winding up a mere carbon copy, the best of these bands managed to synthesize a sound that stood as a sound in its own right (much like The Stones, et. al. had done back in their day).
Enter Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, who skated the fine line between post punk, new wave and indie dance, winding up with one of the great pop records of the era. Smash hits like Take Me Out, The Dark Of The Matinée and Jacqueline play with tension and release as well as anyone since The Doors, while the pungent European flavor of Auf Achse and 40's clockwork dub sonics — striking dream mirages evoking everything from Kraftwerk to The Sabres Of Paradise — were almost too good to be true for someone who grew up on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox. Indeed, the brilliantly succinct Tell Her Tonight — this record's shortest track — is by far the best stab I've heard anyone make at conjuring up the same magic as Adam Ant's original band.
It wouldn't be a British Invasion list without Damon Albarn. As much as I love his britpop output with Blur over the course of the nineties, it's his work from this century that means the most to me. I originally included The Good, The Bad & The Queen record instead — since it tied the whole list up neatly into a bow conceptually as the list's final entry — but it wasn't that big a sensation over here (even if it's my favorite thing he's done). Gorillaz, on the other hand, were ubiquitous. Emerging in 2001 with Clint Eastwood and their self-titled debut, they took the concept of an animated band to its absolute apex, complete with an intricate back story and longform video features.
Of course, all of that wouldn't mean much if the music weren't this good. On Demon Days, the Gorillaz offer up a killer selection of tunes that fit the zeitgeist like a glove, trading the abstract hip hop and dub machinery of the debut for electro boogie sonics and day-glo new wave sheen (with an unexpected snatch from the Brian Wilson playbook) in this splendid sophomore set. I spun around when I first heard lead single Feel Good Inc. on the radio, splashed as it was with surprise Mtume/D-Train afterglow and a maniacal rap from De La Soul, returning cherished sounds of my youth to the airwaves outside the old school confines of Magic 92.5.
When it arrived, the album more than delivered on the promise of Feel Good Inc. The highlights come fast and thick, from the spooked dance track Dare (featuring Shaun Ryder)10 going toe to toe with Feel Good Inc. in terms of pure pop magic to the sparkling fourth world hip hop of Dirty Harry (featuring The Pharcyde's Bootie Brown) updating Clint Eastwood's sound and bringing it all back to the Terminal Vibration. Happening as it was in parallel to the rise of the SA-RA Creative Partners empire and all surrounding endeavors, there was definitely something in the air.
Featuring cameos from national treasures like Neneh Cherry, Roots Manuva and Martina Topley-Bird, this record also goes some way toward redressing the preceding four year gap in this list (between Kid A and Franz Ferdinand). This stretch was filled with brilliant music from both Roots Manuva and Martina — along with the likes of The Streets, Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and So Solid Crew — but tragically, none of it could storm the blockades of America's popular consciousness. Such a shame!
Similarly, I'd have loved to wind up this list with a selection from Burial — the ghostly shades of dubstep making a perfect elegy and conclusion to the list, and along with The Good, The Bad & The Queen offering the perfect one-two punch of overcast gloom — but even Untrue doesn't seem to have made the pop impact I thought it had at the time (I could've sworn Raver was a hit here, but my research leads me to believe that hunch was unfounded). Even Hot Chip and Jungle didn't break through to the level where people you meet on the street will have heard of them. In fact, I can't think of much after this point that made a big impact here and matches the preceding records for brilliance (although I suspect I must be forgetting something).
At any rate, take this list as a heartfelt selection from an avowed Anglophile, filled to the brim with great music. Each of these records mean the world to me, and are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the great music that's sprung from the British Isles over the years. Coming from the other side of the pond, we thank you!
Note that it's the 1995 expanded CD reissue that you want, which doubles the length of the album and contains unmissable romps like Heaven And Hell, I Can't Explain, Fortune Teller and the definitive version of A Quick One, While He's Away.
See also Reese's awesome You're Mine, a killer Detroit techno workout from the great Kevin Saunderson that pulls a handful of samples from Sandinista!-era tunes like The Magnificent Dance and Mensforth Hill.
The credits have him down as playing on this song alone, but his fingerprints appear to be all over Jerusalem as well. I suspect the credits might be leaving something out... there's something they're not telling us!
Master-producer Flood already had an impressive resume by this point, helming sessions for everyone from industrial outfits like Cabaret Voltaire and Nitzer Ebb to arty post punks like the Associates and Marc And The Mambas, and even proto-big beat thugs Renegade Soundwave, before engineering U2's nineties dancefloor reinvention on records like Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop alongside Brian Eno and Howie B.
I'd originally included both The Libertines and the Arctic Monkeys in this list, but later discovered they weren't quite BIG enough to invade (I should have known better, having caught The Libertines at the tiny venue The Epicenter back in 2004!). With Franz Ferdinand, however, there's no question at all that they made a huge splash.
At the surface level, Parallax Moves has been inna dormant state for the last couple of weeks. Below the surface, however, it’s been a different story. Alongside a number of cooler heads (prevailing), I’ve been slinging code toward a fresh wing of this whole Parallax thing, a set of innovations that’ll serve to revamp the whole situation.
The plan is to roll out the big change in early August, assuming everything goes according to plan (when does it ever?), with the long-anticipated conclusion to the Terminal Vibration saga: the Terminal Vibration 100. It’s been a long time coming, but I can assure you it’ll be worth the wait... the perfect message for the brand new medium (upgraded and updated).
In the meantime, we’ve got a new top 25 feature coming up based on the latest music lover event with Sari and Kayli, along with the requisite Tile of the Month and Hall of Fame entries for June. After what have been a relatively lean couple of months, tings should return to business like usual next month — just in time for August to rewrite the rulebook once and for all.
Amid a rash of recent untimely deaths to hit the music world, the passing of the great Keith Flint was perhaps the most unexpected. For one, he was a generation younger than figures like Scott Walker, Ranking Roger and Mark Hollis, coming up in the era of hip hop and rave. After all, the landing of The Prodigy's The Fat Of The Land on American still shores seems like it was only yesterday (even if it was by now over twenty years ago!).
Perhaps it was no coincidence that the crew's big splash in the States came with Flint taking his place as the public face and de facto frontman of the group (after five years spent as one of two dancers in the crew alongside Leeroy Thornhill). Storming American shores alongside the likes of The Chemical Brothers and Fatboy Slim, it was like the British Invasion all over again... only this time with breakbeats and loops of fury.
In the end, The Prodigy wound up getting so big that it became easy to take them for granted. With the classically-trained Liam Howlett's intricate productions talking the tightrope between precision and raw power, the crew emerged from the rave underground as a live force to match anything happening in contemporary rock, with Maxim and Keith Flint stalking the stage and trading barks for sneers as Leroy Thornhill exploded into high octane dancing and Liam Howlett furiously worked the machines into a glorious sonic frenzy.
Just a taste of that ill '97 sound...
During what was a high water mark for dance music, they truly captured the energy and excitement of an era when everything was more or less still running on the same page. There wasn't that much space between The Chemical Brothers' Block Rockin' Beats, Massive Attack's Angel, Daft Punk's Da Funk, E-Dancer's Velocity Funk, Reprazent's Brown Paper Bag and FSOL's We Have Explosive, while labels like Astralwerks managed to provide a decent snapshot of the wider scene in motion. And then there was The Prodigy, the original techno punks, living large in the midst of it all and storming the mainstream with a vengeance...
Profile insert from The Prodigy Experience
It all started with Liam Howlett, a DJ refugee from the U.K. hip hop scene who'd recently been turned on to rave. Working up a demo tape inspired by the nascent sounds of ardkore, he managed to impress a pair of dancers (Flint and Thornhill) to the degree that they insisted on forming a live unit with him, wherein Howlett worked the machines while the other two cut wild shapes across the stage. Enter Maxim on the mic, demented master of ceremonies, and the rest was history.
Debuting on wax with the four track EP What Evil Lurks, The Prodigy burst onto the scene with a skeletal selection of tunes like Android and Everybody In The Place, straddling the thin line between ardkore and bleep 'n bass just as everything was about to change. However, they made their first true splash with the epochal Charly. A clash of incongruent samples, accelerated breakbeats and twisted hoover synth noise, it ran parallel to the likes of Shut Up And Dance, 4 Hero and Sonz Of A Loop Da Loop Era, all of which defined the distinctly British sound of breakbeat ardkore.
The Prodigy's debut album consolidated the success of singles like Charly and Everybody In The Place with a stunning soundclash of fast-forward hip hop and pure rave energy. Candy-coated rave confections like Wind It Up, Your Love and Fire crossed Italo-style piano vamps and gushing divas with rushing breakbeats (this at the height of ardkore's pop ascendancy), while Jericho and Death Of The Prodigy Dancers caned the manic sense of dread that was beginning to emerge in the mutant strains of darkcore.
The striking variation and depth to what is essentially a killer selection of proto-jungle madness marks The Prodigy Experience out alongside 4 Hero's In Rough Territory and A Guy Called Gerald's 28 Gun Bad Boy as one of the great album-length statements to emerge from ardkore. You even get proggy, multi-part suites like Hyperspeed G-Force Part 2 and Weather Experience, which hint at a certain cinematic, widescreen quality that would continue to inform the group's increasingly hard-edged sound.
The latter comes on like a digital symphony vaguely reminiscent of Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene, starting out as a bucolic ambient tone poem — all deep blue skies and emerald green fields — before introducing a slow-motion breakbeat rolling beneath it all at a trip hop pace. Then, it all cuts out to the solitary sound of a heartbeat — as howling wind and thunderclaps enter the fray — before exploding into a great rush of junglist darkness as the storm clouds and lightning descend upon the valley below.
However, my absolute favorite track is Out Of Space, which manages to perfect the group's early sound in a stunning five minutes, riding a memorable snatch of Max Romeo's I Chase The Devil and a brace of triumphant sequences in a stirring rush of rave optimism. Featuring a sped-up sample of the Ultramagnetic MC'sCritical Beatdown, it also signals an ongoing penchant for the singular rap cadences of the great Kool Keith.
The music video for Out Of Space is easily one of my all time favorites of the form, transcending its obvious low budget with loads of flavor and charisma. With everything from Keith car-surfing to Leeroy's killer dance moves, a flock of ostriches and an Altern 8-style mad-scientist figure (actually Keith Flint in disguise), it offers a glimpse of beautiful glimpse of the era's seemingly unbounded excitement and optimism.
Naturally, the government decided to crack down on the whole damn scene. In the wake of 1992's Castlemorton Common Festival, which was one of the largest outdoor raves to happen up to that point in time, the government passed the Criminal Justice Bill. A heavy-handed attempt to prevent anything like Castlemorton from happening again (even explicitly mentioning repetitive beats in its text), it was clearly aimed squarely at the burgeoning rave culture.
The dystopian connotations of police state overreach had an immediate effect on the music, looming large as the sound grew darker and leaner, from trip hop's emergence out of the shadows to ardkore's mutation into jungle and techno's increasingly cold, spartan shapes. Figures like Orbital and Autechre even released records in explicit protest of the CJB (Are We Here? and Anti EP, respectively). However, it was The Prodigy's second album that captured the most uncompromising, definitive snapshot of the moment.
Although there had been hints of darkness on the first album like Jericho and Death Of The Prodigy Dancers, Music For The Jilted Generation introduced a distinct sense of paranoia into the mix. Guitars also make their first appearance on a Prodigy record, in the form of both samples (Nirvana's Very Ape) and live cameos (featuring Pop Will Eat Itself), giving the record a harder punk edge (cyberpunk, even). In fact, one could draw a direct line back to Terminal Vibration, particularly things like Meat Beat Manifesto and Cabaret Voltaire, Public Enemy and Death Comet Crew.
This was the first Prodigy record I ever bought. I can still remember picking it up at the Tower Records on El Cajon Blvd. on a rainy day in November (the perfect setting for this music). I'd already heard singles like Voodoo People and One Love (both on the Hackers soundtrack!), and was ready to take a deeper dive. Of course those two tracks were obvious standouts, but I was immediately struck by tunes like Break & Enter (with its soaring vocal sample from Baby D's Casanova) and 3 Kilos (apparently a riff on the brilliant gutter funk of S.O.U.L.'s awesome Burning Spear).
Both tracks seemed to connect with a sort of urban corridor vision of futurist dance music, lying somewhere between the rhythmic Detroit techno of E-Dancer, Goldie's Inner City Life and the dark hip hop of the Wu-Tang Clan. This music seemed to hint at previously hidden corridors and sonic possibilities, bringing to mind images of subsonic frequencies echoing through city streets as high-rises loom and cast shadows from above, subways racing back and forth like circuitry beneath a lattice of power lines in the cold machinery of the night.
This is the point where The Prodigyreally carve out their singular niche in the post-rave musical landscape. Even if Experience were arguably their greatest album (and it's certainly in the running), it's still not that far removed from contemporary ardkore records like Acen's Trip II The Moon and Jonny L's Hurt You So. One could even imagine it coming out on Suburban Base! The point being that the crew's early sound was still of a piece with that of their surrounding peers, slotting in comfortably alongside the steady stream of 12"s and white labels passing through the hands of DJs across the scene in rapid succession.
In contrast, little else sounds quite like Music For The Jilted Generation. What hits you immediately is the shift from the starry-eyed soundclash of the debut to a grimy, steel-plated aesthetic that seems to rope in all manner of post-rave currents into a vortex of swirling cyberpunk cosmic slop. The punk-edged hip hop of Poison and Their Law — all hydraulic rhythm and barely-contained fury — connect with the nascent big beat of The Chemical Brothers and Meat Beat Manifesto,2 while the manic fast-forward sonics of One Love and No Good Start The Dance conjure up visions of speed/happy hardcore/hi-NRG warping into a mutant strain.
There's even an increasingly prog-tinged scope to tracks like The Heat The Energy and Speedway Theme From Fastlane (which even goes so far as to sample the Blade Runner soundtrack!) picking up where Weather Experience left off (albeit with a definite shift toward rushing cyberpunk vibes). Tellingly, the record ends with a three-track movement called The Narcotic Suite, kicking off with 3 Kilos's rolling cinematic hip hop before shifting gears into the mechanical techno rush of Skylined, ultimately climaxing with the speedfreak nightmare vision of Claustrophobic Sting.
The tune that connects most logically with the debut is Full Throttle, sounding like a larger-than-life sequel with its collision of angelic piano, rave noise and rushing breakbeats. Similarly, Break & Enter seems to pick up where songs like Hyperspeed and Pandemonium (from the Charly 12") left off. And yet if there's one tune that manages to connect all eras of the band into one shimmering circuit, from the breakbeat ardkore of their earliest records to the rock-inflected attack of their mainstream peak, it's Voodoo People.
Sampling Nirvana's Very Ape over fast-forward beats and a thicket of racing electronic sequences, The tune also happens to feature the record's greatest music video, which finds the members of The Prodigy running through the jungle, trying to escape the presence of an ominous bokor (shades of The Serpent And The Rainbow) that always seems to be one step ahead! As evocative of the era's general tenor as Experience was to its own, it also points the way forward to where the crew would go next.
When the Firestarter single hit the public in 1996, it came as a (future) shock: an unmistakable warning that the band's sound had mutated significantly. With familiar — albeit harder-edged — breakbeats and twisted guitars sounding as if they were being sucked backwards and circling the drain, the tune also featured Keith Flint's timely emergence as front man, spitting lyrics like I'm the trouble starter, punkin' instigator, I'm the fear addicted, a danger illustrated across the foreground. The result was something like The Sex Pistols if they'd emerged from the belly of rave culture rather than a back-to-basics riposte to mid-seventies stagnation,5 pointing the way toward the group's next quantum leap on their third album...
The Fat Of The Land is built on a foundation of muscular breakbeats — now operating at a dusted, big beat pace — threaded by interlocking, razor-edged sonix and an ever-present industrial hum that seems to run through every track on the record. Tunes like Serial Thrilla and Firestarter seem to descend directly from the guitar/breakbeat equations of Jilted Generation's Their Law, with their fusion of live and sampled guitars bringing a rock 'n roll edge to the sound to a greater degree than ever before.
The bracing punk blast of Fuel My Fire — featuring the crunchy guitarwork of Gizz Butt and backing vocals from Saffron (of indie dance superstars Republica) — even finds the group burning through a straight up cover version of the L7 punk classic, with more great, sneering vocals from Keith Flint. It's quite a change from the sample-based vocal snatches of the group's earlier recordings... this is certainly the first Prodigy record that would warrant a lyric sheet!
However, upon closer inspection, the record is less of a departure than it initially might appear to be, offering up a heavier, mid-tempo elaboration on the Jilted Generation sound that remains pure Prodigy. The rolling breakbeat epic Smack My Bitch Up is something like the criminally-minded cousin to Break & Enter and The Heat The Energy, while Funky Shit and Mind Fields get down with an electroid hip hop sound that envisions a winning combination of both Poison and 3 Kilos. The sweeping Climbatize even slips into cinematic side of the group's sound, tracing all the way back to Weather Experience in its bracing widescreen splendor. It even samples the voodoo horns from Egyptian Empire's ardkore-era classic The Horn Track!
Narayan betrays a similarly cinematic vision, with rolling breakbeats cascading beneath a synth progression that splits the difference between spectral piano and ghostly, moonlit strings. It's all remarkably linear, with the subtle shades of Eastern modes and minimalism about it. The gloriously doom-laden vocals come courtesy of Crispian Mills — of Indo-britpop sensation Kula Shaker — gleefully hurling portentous couplets like:
If you believe the Western Sun is falling down on everyone.
And you feel it burn... don't try to run.
If you would know your time has come.
Strangely enough — at the time — the resultant sound gave me the impression that Kula Shaker must have been sort of hybrid dance/RnB group, before I got around to checking them out! Even hearing it now, I can sorta see where I was coming from. It's probably my favorite song on the album, and clocking in at nine minutes, it's easily the longest. I've always thought that it would've worked brilliantly as a single in mid-1997 (released somewhere between Breathe and Smack My Bitch Up). At any rate, I wish there had been a whole scene that sounded like this.
The record's other big guest vocal spot is Diesel Power, featuring Kool Keith himself on the mic. Catching the man in the midst of his Dr. Octagon reinvention at the vanguard of underground rap, this is the hip hop hybrid that you always wished more big beat would have aspired to, with submarine sonix and heavy breaks pulsing beneath a first rate MC just doing his thing. One imagines Howlett reaching back to his earliest hip hop recordings — along with formative British rap like Hijack, London Posse and Ruthless Rap Assassins — even as it parallels contemporary trip hop's interface with New York rap like Tricky's Grassroots and Genaside II's New Life 4 The Hunted.
The awesome radio smash Breathe ties all aspects of the record into one demented package, with brilliantly dark production (those horns!) and a pervasive atmosphere of dreadful paranoia. The tune's bassline is essentially just a sub-bass industrial hum, while the melody is carried by an uncomplicated fragment of plucked guitar voodoo. The punky sonix swoop in to dominate the chorus, with Maxim and Keith sparring over baleful feedback, before doom-laden strummed Led Zeppelin-style guitars creep in for the breakdown.
Pure atmosphere and dread by virtue of sonix alone, Breathe's music video is the group's visual masterpiece of whole Fat Of The Land era, in which they find themselves in a crumbling, decrepit tenement building with all manner of insects and reptile crawling out of every drain and crack in the wall. Maxim and Flint are locked in adjoining rooms, seeming to mentally torment one another through a hole in the wall, while the other two lay low and witness various sequences of bizarre phenomena. It's the most fun nightmare you've never had, and the first time you see it, well, it'll stick with you for good!
On the heels of The Fat Of The Land's blockbuster impact (and attendant tour), the group seemed to take a breather for a spell, with Maxim and Leeroy even recording solo albums of their own. Liam took the opportunity to dig deep into a pile of records and turn out a killer DJ mix,7The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One. From the first bars of Intro Beats — with its razor-edged breakbeat attack built on Billy Squier's The Big Beat — you can tell you're in for a treat. Running the gamut from punk, hip hop and big beat to techno, indie dance and funk, it's a true tour de force of 21st century b-boy music.
The gatefold inner sleeve, featuring Howlett hovering over a drum machine and surrounded by stacks of gear and records, perfectly captures the spirit of the whole affair. Bomb The Bass and The Chemical Brothers rub shoulders with Renegade Soundwave and Meat Beat Manifesto, spiked with a healthy dose of old school hip hop from Ultramagnetic MC's, Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys. Tying it all together with original beat junkies like DJ Mink, West Street Mob and The 45 King, Liam highlights the breakbeat continuity stretching from Sugar Hill to Skint. Once again, you wish more of the contemporary big beat had this strong a spirit and sense of danger.
As if that weren't enough, Howlett feathers in a brace of vintage funk gems like The J.B.'sBlow Your Head, The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau, The Jimmy Castor Bunch's It's Just Begun, and then spikes it with the killer rock 'n roll of Babe Ruth's proto-disco (by way of prog rock) classic The Mexican, Primal Scream's Kowalski and The Sex PistolsNew York (Johnny Rotten's snarl clearly the blueprint for Keith Flint's trademark sneer). In a sense, one could even take The Dirtchamber Sessions as a late-nineties analogue of sorts to Johnny Rotten's storied appearance on Capitol Radio back in the day.
Appearing concurrently with similarly revelatory discs like Terranova's DJ-Kicks and Andrew Weatherall's Nine O'Clock Drop, The Dirtchamber Sessions got me to reconnect with my musical roots and reroute it all back through the eighties and beyond, filling in the blanks in the process. As such, it remains an inescapably formative piece of the puzzle in the whole Terminal Vibration concept, sowing the seeds for its germination nearly twenty years before I even got around to articulating it. Even now, listening to it is as much a rush as ever.
Sadly, Thornhill left The Prodigy in the year 2000, whittling the group down to a technoid power trio. The next Prodigy full-length wouldn't come out until 2004, but the group did put out this solitary 12" in 2002. Baby's Got A Temper manages to distill the whole punk/hip hop axis of The Fat Of The Land into four-and-a-half minutes of feedback-drenched madness. By now seemingly airbrushed out of history — a lot of people seem/ed to hate it — it's nevertheless a key part of the Prodigy story.
I'll admit that it took me a second to warm to it at first (I just about choked on the twisted fairground loop), but the undeniable charms of its ultra-funky chorus quickly won me over. If memory serves, I think the complaint was that the band's sound hadn't moved on sufficiently, but with the benefit of hindsight, it's a glorious bit of 21st century cyberpunk fury. Just imagine if they'd put it out a few couple earlier... in 1999 I suspect it would've set the charts ablaze.
The tune's demented music video is something of a mini-masterpiece of the form, featuring Maxim and Keith bouncing around the stage like peak-era Onyx while Howlett pumps the MoogProdigy (what else!?) and a dummy drums, the band playing for a room full of cattle. I don't want to give anything else away, but that's probably the least crazy thing about the whole affair. If it came out nowadays it'd be dismissed as offensive, but a closer inspection reveals it to be a striking commentary on the artifice of celebrity culture and the mechanical vapidity of mindless consumerism. Brilliant!
Fans had to wait another two years for the next album, and when it finally arrived, the sound had mutated wildly. The trio had been whittled further to just Liam (although the group hadn't broken up — it was simply a stripped-to-basics effort), and the sound was a wild mash up of electroclash shapes and breakbeat fury. Perhaps I could have let it lie with Baby's Got A Temper for today's discussion: a clear and concise ten-year arc stretching from the lean years of boy bands and nu-metal back to the glory days of marathon raves and pirate radio. I can't help it... I've always had a soft spot for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.9
Make no mistake, this is exactly what The Prodigy should have been doing in 2004. Dovetailing brilliantly with the whole post punk redux (now in full steam by this point), it also managed to run parallel to the contemporary rude movements of Basement Jaxx's Kish Kash, Audio Bullys' Ego War and Roni Size's Return To V, not to mention the rise of the grime zeitgeist in the wake of Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner crashed the party. All of which did a great deal to form my idea of what the pop music of the future would sound like.10
The D-Train-sampling electroid groove of Girls and the sleazy gutter disco That's Just The Way it Is (which might be my favorite thing here) sync perfectly with what DFA were up to around this point in time, while noise workouts like Get Up Get Off, Wake Up Call and Memphis Bells seem to trade the kinetic roll of classic Prodigy for a maddening start-stop take on the dirty south rhythm matrix. In a sense, the sound in these tunes might be the most strikingly different from the prototypical Prodigy template as things would ever get.
Further new forms take shape with the fiery electro-punk of Spitfire, Hotride and Action Radar (another favorite), which in retrospect seem to pick up where Fuel My Fire left off. The other big highlights (for me, at least) are the two hip hop instrumentals (You'll Be Under My Wheels11 and Medusa's Path), which bring it all full circle back to the hip hop sounds where Howlett started out in the first place. In the words of Liam himself, This album is about reminding people what The Prodigy was always about — the beats and the music.
After an extended hiatus, the crew went on to record further albums like Invaders Must Die and No Tourists. However, it's this initial run — spanning from What Evil Lurks to Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned — that forms the perfect conceptual arc, and a sound illustration of everything great about The Prodigy. Raw power and pure excitement rolled up inna virtuoso soundclash right there on the edge of madness, they were the original techno punks.
See also The Prodigy's awesome remix of Method Man's Release Yo' Delf, which was roughly five years ahead of its time. Just listen to Lil Wayne's Tha Block Is Hot... or even Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury in 2006! I've often thought that Chinese New Year and Trill sounded like The Neptunes had been mainlining on Music For The Jilted Generation right before the sessions.
I think both The Prodigy's Action Radar and Lucky Star by Basement Jaxx (featuring Dizzee Rascal) illustrate what I was envisioning: gloriously sleazy and exotic future shock music. Imagine my disappointment when future pop turned out to be Kesha and Ariana Grande instead!12
That bootleg was titled Techno Punks, which inspired the title and general thrust of this entire post. It's well worth checking out, offering a killer snapshot of the crew running through their rave-era repertoire, just before they unleashed Firestarter on an unsuspecting public.