There exists a particular sound that seems to leap out the speakers in vivid colors, engulfing its surroundings and drawing you into its world. I've come to refer to this as the day-glo sound. There's a four dimensional character to it... you can hear the neon in the air around you. It's something that's captured my imagination from day one, and I've been wanting to pull these records together for some time now. They tend to spring from the intersection of new wave and the dancefloor (at least initially), but in truth you might find them just about anywhere, from rap to techno and machine soul. The reason I find this particular sound to be crucial is that it manages to spark up brilliant images in the mind's eye even as it throws spectacular shapes across the dancefloor. This is music for the mind, body and soul. It's verdant and full of life, with a four-dimensional depth that's thoroughly engrossing. Indeed, it's no surprise that some of the greatest pop music has keyed into this sound. It's particularily germane to the present moment, and I wouldn't be surprised if it pointed a way out of the quandary music currently finds itself in. Rather appropriately, we begin our survey at the dawn of the eighties. There are bits and pieces from earlier records that may hint in the general direction, but they ultimately belong to a parallel lineage (one that I plan to discuss sometime next month). It's in the eighties that the day-glo aesthetic truly catches fire, coloring each of these records from the sleeves on down to the sonics held within. In rough chronological order then...
Back to cruising into the wilderness, through Ramona where Chicago beatboxes hold sway and the sound of TR-707's chugging alongside Main St. Threading the expected strains of Larry Heard and Armando, I dreamt of playing Can's Future Days and Basic Channel in my apartment. Long hazy August afternoons and the sounds of Electric Ladyland and Cosmic Slop drift out into the the magenta haze. Just beyond the hills skirting the town lay a record shop, its wood paneled walls cut their silhouette into the looming sun on the horizon. Travel deeper into the forest, where lodges sit nestled in riverbed canyons and the sounds of dusted country sides seep out their windows and into the great plains toward Santa Ysabel and beyond, passing the Krautrock barn along the way where lines stretch north to the great cabin on the shores of Lake Henshaw and east toward Lake Cuyamaca. It makes sense that Cheyenne would hole up here. This is the land of Skip Spence's Cripple Creek, J.J. Cale's Naturally and the whole of Laurel Canyon. It's the sound of mystery dwelling deep within successful hills and Marjory Razorblade on the turntable. I do remember the sounds of jazz funk in that cabin on more than one occasion but the sound you'd come to expect was rustic folk and country. Then, at some point, country and kosmische mixed in my mind and I heard them at once as hallucination, a whole sound stretching from motorik country - it glides along the highway while the beat marks time with fenceposts passing as hills roll gently into the horizon - to a Jaki Liebezeit-fueled tumbling-cosmic-funk beat. The closest thing I've heard might be Willie Nelson's Whiskey River, while the former I've only heard in dreams. The last time was a week ago and I was in Colorado sitting outside a service station, looking up at sunlit clouds tumbling in the sky, the sound of analogue sequences and a gently brushed beat in harmony with pedal steel and the song of a world-weary troubadour played over the loudspeaker. Surely these records must exist somewhere? If not, someday I hope to put it all to tape. Wandering beyond the lake and Traction In The Rain, the odd tree punctuating the creep of increasingly dusty plains, and high desert rock comes into play: the sounds of Captain Beyond, Randy Holden and the Blue Öyster Cult trilogy. Morrison Hotel and Indian Summer in the sunset, Ship Of Fools in confusion dawning. The torch passed to Kyuss, later Queens Of The Stone Age and beyond... I always liked how Josh Homme singled out the seventies records of ZZ Top for praise, citing them a crucial piece of the rock story. Cheap Sunglasses into Don Van Vliet's Mojave-born basis for the whole endeavor, the Groundhogs taking it perhaps furthest of all. Then there's the angular badlands racket of Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox (U.S. Version) hanging over everything here like a question mark in the sky. Over the hills and past Warner Springs, through the pass until you see the vast Anza Borrego desert spread out below. See the lights of Borrego Springs down there in the valley. This was the setting of Laundromat when it all went down. Maybe someday I'll put it all into writing. It's in the twilight here that the deep pulse of techno makes perfect sense, reverberations mirrored back by the rocks and sand and sky, Transmissions From Deep Space Radio - Octave One, E-Dancer and Dobre & Jamez - twisting through all the canyons and mudcaves and beyond. High desert mystics and the sound of Bandulu pulsing in the twilight, deep roots vibrations like loa hieroglyphics projected onto the night sky, Slam's Visions shimmying out into the night and the spectral presence of one Dot Allison felt in the air. Rhythm Of Rhythim's The Icon (Montage Mix) can still be heard echoing over the sands and into the tranquillity of The Well Of 8 Echoes. And then into the city itself, where somewhere in the dusk neon begins to glow its firelight in a wavelength dawn. It glows and it grows, a grid stretching at right angles in every direction, shooting into the darkness and from somewhere the sound of bass starts to build deep within. There I stand beneath a Marquee Moon, waiting.
Sun-glazed beatbox troubadour.
Démis Roussos - Souvenirs
When confronted with its sleeve, my initial impression was that this must be a Nashville country record - either that or a Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter elpee - or perhaps some combination of the two. The cowboy hat, the beard, the seemingly airbrushed sleeve all seem to point to some confessional rootsy endeavor. Upon closer inspection, however, a few things begin to stand out. For one, the sequins on his jacket in the lower-left hand corner. For another, that cowboy hat actually seems to be made of black leather. And the typeface is wholly un-canyon and un-country, clearly pointing to seventies Europe.
Upon reading what the text actually said, I realized that this was in fact a solo record by Démis Roussos, the man who started out in the Greek prog band Aphrodite's Child (along with Vangelis), a group who were responsible for lush, symphonic rock records like 666 and It's Five O'Clock, straddling the line between The Moody Blues and Amon Düül II. Indeed, this record is forever paired with Vangelis' Earth in my mind: both feature wistful, bearded Greeks on the sleeve, both contain a masterpiece of sun-glazed soul (Midnight Is The Time I Need You and Let It Happen, respectively) and - sealing the deal - I happened to acquire both records at the same time.
Souvenirs is Roussos' fifth album, well into a solo career which had become hot property on the European stage, and finds the man tackling not only his trademark mammoth ballads but also the flaming embers of disco and even - would you believe it - the odd bit of country tucked away on the second side. It's not a perfect record by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly a special one with some truly interesting detours tucked away in its corners. This is the sort of record that only could have happened in the seventies. It's remained pretty close to my heart in spite of the fact that I'm not crazy about roughly a third of it, because the next third is truly indispensable (and the remainder is pretty solid as well), and it all hangs together in such a way that even the weaker moments soak up some of the magic of their surroundings.
Now the opening track, Sing An Ode To Love, is pretty clearly the worst thing here. It's a portentous ballad that gradually develops into a martial rhythm, before massed choirs swell into a melodramatic climax that never really goes anywhere. But you've got to stick with it, because just after this inauspicious beginning, the record's greatest track follows: Midnight Is The Time I Need You is a deep disco staple, at the time even reaching #12 in the US Disco chart.
Roussos weaves through its insouciant groove like a boxer, his voice gruff with desire, backing vocals spiralling around him in feminine ecstasy. Its rolling bassline seems to glide across the soundscape while liquid Rhodes pulse from deep within. A razor sharp string section cuts through the mix, making all the right moves at all the right moments. When the organ solo hits, those keys seem imbued with an eerie glow, slipping in and out of the mix like a ghostly mirage. Midnight was written by by eurodisco prince Alec Constandinos, who also wrote material for Cerrone, Kongas and Paris Connection, along with all but two of the tracks on this LP.
Action Lady continues on a similar tip - right down to its string section and Roussos' vocal stylings - with further disco endeavors, riding an uptempo breakbeat and sounding like chase music from some contemporary globetrotting espionage movie. It may not quite as indelible as Midnight Is The Time I Need You, but it's a welcome continuation down the same lush disco path. It's worth noting that a large part of this record's appeal springs from Roussos' own production, along with the arrangements of Harris Chalkitis, Klaus Munro and Stelios Vlavianos, which blends all manner of lush sonics - those lilting flutes, the muted horn section, soaring backup vocals - into a rich sonic tapestry. Roussos actually had a number of great disco moments throughout his career, including 1978's L.O.V.E. Got A Hold On Me, which earned the distinction of appearing in David Mancuso' Loft Top 100.1
There's a number of tracks that fit directly with the man's burgeoning reputation as a balladeer, a crooner of dramatic proportions. From Souvenirs To Souvenirs is a gently-swaying yacht ballad, jazz-tinged with its liquid Rhodes dancing across Roussos' soaring vocals in the chorus. Strangely enough, it's always reminded me of Elton John's Feed Me from the same year. Names hinges on the same dramatic axis, only this time the backing is unmistakably exotica-tinged, with sumptuous strings draping the track like gossamer. It's the sort of song you'd expect to hear in the blurred frames of a memory montage during some seventies film, where the ill-fated couple walks, laughing sweetly down Paris streets before the camera returns to the present day and the love interest has been gone five years now.
Perdoname is similarly cinematic, this time conjuring up images of a cantina scene south of the border with its flaring Mariachi horns and slide guitar that emerge from the record out of nowhere, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Like, obviously! That's another part of what makes this record so fascinating... the stylistic diversity in evidence throughout - you've got Perdoname, Midnight's rolling disco grooves, the quasi-Italian balladry of I'll Be Your Friend (Schöen Wie Mona Lisa) (which always reminds me of Abba) and quasi-country-western moves all rubbing shoulders - it all seems of a piece, flowing naturally as a set of gently glazed soundscapes.
The piano-led symphonic majesty of Winter Rains seems to recall certain sixties Scott Walker songs in what turns out to be a truly epic chanson. The string arrangements are very reminiscent of The Seventh Seal, with Roussos alternating between subdued verses and a massive, operatic chorus. The backing vocals explode in its climax, Let me love you more, before it's all over in the blink of an eye. Trying To Catch The Wind is cut from a similar cloth, but this time seems to draw on The Band (or even The Eagles), with some of the most bombastic backing vocals this side of Joe Cocker's version With A Little Help From My Friends. But doesn't it sound just a bit like something from Ween's The Mollusk? The near-hard rock production - with those soaring guitars and block rockin' beats - really make me flash on the brothers' nineties prog opus. I wonder of they ever heard it? I wouldn't be surprised...
It's in the final stretch of the record where Roussos finally delves into those strange country-western shapes. White Wings "Asa Branca" starts out amidst icy synths - almost Gothic in execution - before dropping into an uptempo country-tinged excursion that rolls on gently strummed acoustic guitars and a rolling conga rhythm. The curious thing here is Roussos' operatic vocals, soaring over something that recalls a contemporary Glen Campbell ditty. Actually, I can't help but think of America, especially when those backing vocals sneak in. Not bad at all...
Even better, and rolling down the same dusty country road, is Tell Me Now. This little tune rides another shuffling conga rhythm festooned with tender acoustic guitar, harmonica and sun-glazed synths gliding throughout, while Roussos soars above it all with backing vocals sliding deftly all around. It rivals Midnight Is The Time I Need You as the record's finest moment, tripping along some country highway into sun-kissed horizons, and is just the sort of improbable confection that you hope to find when taking a chance on a record. Strangely enough, it actually proves my initial instinct correct: this record does contain a fine bit of off-kilter country after all... and a lot more besides!
1. Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, Last Night A DJ Saved My Life (Grove Press, 1999), 418.
Been out all night, I needed a bite, I thought I'd put a record on I reached for the one with the ultra-modern label, And wondered where the light had gone It had a futuristic cover, lifted straight from Buck Rogers The record was so black it had to be a con The autochanger switched as I filled my sandwich, And futuristic sounds warbled off and on The black hit of space It's the one without a face It's the one that doesn't fit You can only see the flip The black hit of space Sucking in the human race How can it stay at the top When it's swallowed all the shops As the song climbed the charts, the others disappeared Til there was nothing but it left to buy It got to number one, then into minus figures Though nobody could understand why The black hit of space It's the one without a face It's the one that doesn't fit You can only see the flip The black hit of space Sucking in the human race How can it stay at the top When it's swallowed all the shops I couldn't stand this bland sound anymore so I walked towards my deck to turn it off All I could see was the b-side of the disc Which had assumed a doughnut shape with the label on the outside rim I reached for the arm which was less than one micron long But weighed more than Saturn and time stood still I knew I had to escape but every time I tried to flee, the record was in front of me The black hit of space Get James Burke on the case It's the hit that's never gone Time stops when you put it...The Human League (The Black Hit Of Space, Travelogue)
Picking up where we last left off, it was January of 2006. I found myself back in the Heights - living with my brother in a spot off El Cajon Blvd. - after a year spent living between Hillcrest and Balboa Park. The neighborhood was my kind of place, with a varied working class population crammed into a timeworn infrastructure that pre-dates the second world war. There was a public library a few blocks away and an excellent bar down the street called Shamrock's that played a selection of vintage rock (of the San Francisco variety) or block rocking hip hop and r&b, depending on the night.1 As Lamont Dozier might say, I was going back to my roots. A couple of synchronous events had occurred just before the move that colored the next year or so. For one, I discovered Woebot's blog by way of his epochal list of The 100 Greatest Records Ever (via a timely link from Blissblog), which - more than any list I've ever found - seemed to align with my own musical priorities.2 It was uncanny! In truth, I'd only heard about half the records in the list, many of which were among my own favorites, and I'd heard of maybe another 30%; the rest represented a new frontier. It was clear that most of them would be right up my alley, and it was time to get hunting. There were loads of cool revelations, like how often our favorite records by key artists overlapped: Kraftwerk's Computer World, Herbie Hancock's Sextant, The Velvet Underground's self-titled record, Neu! '75, Rhythim Is Rhythim's The Beginning and Captain Beefheart's Safe As Milk.3 His list also tuned me into the music of Scott Walker, Virgo, Edu Lobo, Brigitte Fontaine and Allen Toussaint, sounds that would come to mean the world to me. This isn't even taking into account the writing itself, which always came off witty and warm, coloring even his most esoteric excursions into the avant garde with a down-to-earth flavor. Without a doubt, discovering Woebot's scurrilous activities in sound remains one of the key moments in my musical life. The other event that went down toward the end of my time at the 1808 was the near-simultaneous appearance of SA-RA and Hot Chip on the pop music landscape: two crews that were so very tailored to my tastes that it was almost comical. There's a piece I've been working up centered around their appearance (in light of the recent Hot Chip show), but for now suffice it to say came along at just the right time for where I was at in 2005. Moodymann's recent Black Mahogani LP was fast overtaking Silentintroduction as my favorite record of his, and I'd been diving deeper into disco and garage than I'd ever been able to before. The output of labels like West End and Easy Street were in constant rotation, along with some other things that I'd been turned onto by one Kenny Dixon Jr.4 There were loads of greet electro-boogie records to be found for pennies (an ongoing obsession), things like Ray Parker Jr.'s Woman Out Of Control and One Way's Who's Foolin' Who.5 SA-RA dropping at this point only served to bring my various obsessions into focus. Shamrock's had tuned me into a whole bunch of hip hop and r&b around this time, along with a number or choice rock selections. This the era when Comets On Fire dropped their masterstroke, Avatar, sending me into the past digging up a bunch of storied Head Heritage material like Pentagram, the first three Blue Öyster Cult LPs and early Grand Funk Railroad.6 Augmenting old favorites like the Groundhogs, MC5 and Blue Cheer (not to mention Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen, of which my brother was a huge fan), it provided the soundtrack to that summer. Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California had just come out around this time, illuminating the context around the Laurel Canyon scene in L.A. (something I was a bit thin on). Nearly everything I already knew I'd found out by simply following the various lines of flight from The Byrds' orbit. Things like Gene Clark's solo records, The Flying Burrito Bros and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Which then connects to Buffalo Springfield and Neil Young/Crazy Horse, not to mention of the early solo albums by David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. That's how it works, this music thing, you go from node to node. Hotel California fleshed it all out, and provided the impetus to dig a little deeper. All of which sets the stage for the second era of Radio AG, a period stretching from the dawn of 2006 to the close of 2007. I finally had a proper setup for my decks again (I'd had them laid out on the floor at the 1808). The mixes from 2006 were all coming to terms with the above tributaries, threading them into a matrix of groove-based music and taking the intended audience just a little deeper into the realm. There's that one mix where I played out the entirety of Halleluwah because it seemed like the right thing to do. The lions share of the year's mixes were from the summertime, and it shows. Lot's of high desert action, dry and dusty. 2007 was really the sea change. The winter mix was the first where I was really able to run wild with a consistent atmosphere, opening with Asmus Tietchens and closing with When The Levee Breaks. Everything had an glacial cast to it, from an unreleased Kelis tune to late-period Gentle Giant and early Simple Minds (a perennial favorite), it came on like an icy gust of wind. The next few mixes got deeper and deeper into beats, which is something I'd always meant to do. Drexciya, Scan 7 and Theo Parrish. The table was finally set. At the end of the year, G.B. loaned me a stack of records with the stated mission to make a mix out of them. The result was Episode 012. It was a great experience, working with a bunch of records I'd never heard before (I was only familiar with something like five of them), and on the whole pleasantly disorienting (like one imagines deep sea diving to be). Especially eye-opening were the Sneakmove Minicomps and the records on Bully, which were great breakbeat-driven slabs of noise seemingly built atop live drums.7 The uniting thread throughout was a sort of post-rock, post-everything even, selection of sounds. There were beats that seemed to blur the lines between IDM and abstract hip hop, like the remix of Boom Bip by Boards Of Canada. There was James Figurine's cover of Other 99 (an old Big Audio Dynamite song that became the name of my original blog back in 2003) along with a G.B. original. It was a fascinating realm to spend some time in, resulting in the second true winter mix. Coming at the close of 2007, it's also the perfect way to close out the second chapter of the Radio AG saga. And then, a long break...
1. Sadly, the place closed down about seven years ago, ultimately being replaced by a hookah lounge.
2. At the time, your typical list seemed to take in 90% classic rock with token soul, jazz, hip hop and - if you're really lucky - electronic entries.
3. Whereas the canonical picks at the time would have looked something like this: Kraftwerk - Trans-Europe Express, Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage or Head Hunters, The Velvet Underground & Nico, Neu!'s debut, Rhythim Is Rhythim - Nude Photo and Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica.
4. Take for instance his DEMF set (available on Groovetech), where he opened with Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson's We Almost Lost Detroit before running through Curtis Mayfield and William DeVaughn chestnuts, ultimately settling into a boogie groove with The Brides Of Funkenstein and André Cymone.
5. I'd been seeking out this one for ages. It turned up on the floor of some indie rock shop for 50 cents and was the only record I bought that day. Cutie Pie was one of my key jams circa '93 that for whatever reason was in heavy rotation along with The Isley Brothers' Between The Sheets and Kleeer's Tonight on Jammin' Z90. I'd taped them all off the radio, along with Ice Cube's It Was A Good Day, Duice's Dazzey Duks and The Geto Boys' Six Feet Deep, on what was the first tape I ever made.
6. I'd actually bought a couple of their later records way back in the day based on their name alone, and Snakes and I had sampled some material for some of our earlier beats (see G-Street, for one).
7. It makes perfect sense that they reissued the Silver Apples compilation, as that duo seem like the logical ancestor to their sound.
It was in that moment that she could see the connections, like a lattice of accord stretching over what once seemed like a tangle of happenstance. Red Money flowing through back channels, black plastic in Mass Production on factory floors; gravity's pull drawing notes ringing from the desert sands. Hada Raykoum and rhythm boxes coiling through sheets of synths, sun-glazed in the heat and slipping elemental toward Sahara skies (Moroccan Roll). Artifacts flown up from the Yucatán on biplane, over the gulf and into the Florida Keys. Stone sculpture submerged in the deep... rise against the tide, slowly. Hector Lavoe and Willie Colón on tape with Augustus Pablo at the controls in El Yunque. Bass pressure rises from the deep, ghost drums and duppy dunza echoes haunting through Carolina streets. Transatlantic shadows drift from gold coast to gold coast and back again, from one summer to another. Cheikh Lô treads softly in 2006, one year later but none too soon. A snatch of graffiti cries out Lily Was Here and the saxophone breeze carries faintly on salty ocean air. Gulf stream laps at the beachhead, where sea turtles crawl to shore on black sodden sand and the promise of tomorrow. Excerpt from The Coqui Papers
Halloween. A day with a lot of memories through the years, but when it comes to music I think back to one in particular. It was about fifteen years ago. Futureform had recently parted ways near the end of summer, with Snakes doing his high desert thang with the Blinka project, while I'd been making moves with Shadez Of Colour. In the lab, crossing the machine soul of Timbaland and The Neptunes with the hi-tech funk of Underground Resistance. Putting together the Allied Heights mix and the New Reality EP (which was about to be pressed up at NSC). This the era when Groovetech was still in full swing and you could catch live sets from the likes of Suburban Knight and Ian O'Brien via real video recorded at their premises, along with tons of footage from the DEMF (including Kenny Dixon Jr.'s amazing set - featuring an appearance by Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets on the mic - and Kenny Larkin's mind-blowing blues-inflected live performance). I'd been checking Kirk Degiorgio's Op-Art Hall Of Fame and keying into loads of great records from the past - things like Herbie Hancock's Headhunters material and Sun Ra's Lanquidity - augmenting the Curtis Mayfield, Parliament and Sly Stone records that I'd already had in constant rotation at the time. All of this of course lined up perfectly with the shades of computer soul that I'd been soaking up all the while, from the likes of Carl Craig's Innerzone Orchestra and 4 Hero's astral breakbeat jazz to those amazing Recloose EPs and even Drexciya's stark machine funk. All of which sets the scene for this particular Halloween back in 2002. Two records happened to arrive by mail that day: Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Lil' Louis' French Kiss. These two tracks had a huge impact on me (and both of them were considerable hits in their day), the former a sparkling slab of atmospheric modern soul while the the latter was a trance dance masterpiece (and a key record in house music's development). I'd only had the both of them on different compilations up until that point, but a new job meant that I finally had the money to track them down on wax. I sometimes wonder if this was the very moment that crystallized the concept of machine soul in my mind? I was in my room giving them a spin on my Gemini XL-500 II's - possibly even recording them to MP3 in the process - and soaking up their deep, nocturnal sounds (this back when the time change would occur before Halloween, rather than after... so it would have already grown dark outside) just before taking my cousins out in the neighborhood for a night of trick-or-treating.