Rolling vectors spill across the shimmering surface of the game grid, your vessel moves silently over the face of the waters. Lost in the slipstream of Tron1982, new wave post-disco Radio Clash bizzness mashed into Mtume's Green Light. Plant life blooms between the cracks in the bassline of Veridis Quo, prefiguring Daft Punk's return to the grid a quarter century later, once everything had changed. At the time, 12:51 seemed an anomaly; in retrospect it looks an awful lot like a warning shot from a sub-generation dwelling in the shadows.
It's a long way back to the wilderness years, sidewalking in the nineties to sounds old and new, rearranged in parallel and both imbuing each other with a layer of meaning beyond the literal. Kleeer 's neon-lit boogie, cruising like a light cycle through the corridors of your mind, while DJ Quik picks up the echo of Tonight/Tonite and the possibilities refract into endlessness. Zapp's Computer Love seems to stop time in its tracks. Squares light up and back out again on the grid of the dancefloor, shifting in time to the music, the bassbins seem to trigger their state beneath the feet of the dancing people.
Solar Sailer soars lonely into the night sky, and Carl Craig's Landcruising casts a long sprawling shadow out across its path. The Mind Of A Machine thinking a quarter century ahead in mere moments, forecasting the future like some sort of chrome-eyed oracle rattling binary figures off into the ether. The Infoworld sprawls out in every direction, vectors stretch like frail fingers to link it all up to the mainframe. You are the computer. Like DJ Rashad, Feelin' the city lights like circuitry spread out beneath a silicon sky... the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
I'm in Texas this weekend, which is strangely enough an ideal time and place to talk about the machine soul exploits of one Damon Riddick, aka Dâm-Funk. Ideal because of that Houston connection — UGK, DJ Screw, E.S.G., Fat Pat et. al. — and its strange affinity with L.A.'s sprawling funk. Those low-slung horizontal soundscapes, zero-gravity funk on an endless horizon, a sound that seemed to have a reciprocal impact on L.A.'s g-funk just as N.W.A. had earlier on the Geto Boys between the release of Making Trouble and Grip It! On That Other Level. It's just another example of your classic cross-country exchange of ideas, moods and grooves, a meeting of the minds that has the added benefit of becoming a multiplier of sorts for all parties involved.
As much as the central L.A.-Egyptian Lover/Ronnie Hudson thread of post-Zapp machine funk, Texas always seems to be lurking there just beneath the surface (see The D.O.C., Snoop Dogg, etc.), spiking the drink with a a heady dose of sun-glazed psychedelia. It's the sort of thing you wouldn't necessarily notice at first glance, but look at it long enough and eventually the pieces come together, like a magic eye painting it gradually all becomes clear. Alongside the twisted world dreamed up by George Clinton's P-Funk empire and Public Enemy's hard-edged Bomb Squad soundscapes, it's all part of the cocktail that came together to mutate L.A.'s sound toward the streamlined g-funk of The Chronic (as outlined here).
The g-funk sound reached its overcast, burnished apogee with Warren G's Regulate... G Funk Era, a record that seemed to get at the heart of g-funk's smooth flight of fancy from the grittiness of Efil4zaggin toward the sound and imagery previously essayed by jazz refugees like Roy Ayers, Norman Connors and Lenny White, delving as they did into a jazz/funk/boogie interzone that was sun-glazed and moon-lit in equal measure. See the oft-quoted (with outsized incredulity) Michael McDonald samples in Regulate, although it all becomes less improbable with context (James Ingram, Steely Dan, et. al.).
Just like I'm always talking about SA-RA before SA-RA records, I've got my mini-pantheon of proto-Dâm-Funk outings. As much as L.A.'s preceding records, I hear a lot of Bay Area rap like Too $hort, E-40, Ant Banks in his music as well. However, the big one for me is JT The Bigga Figga's awesome 1995 album Dwellin' In Tha Labb, which prefigures that same neon-lit vector geometry, its sound like a long, free-flowing superhighway stretching along the Pacific coast with the sunset looming on the horizon. It's the sound of the great Trans-Californian highway, cutting a slow-burn path through its center — between the mountains rising to the east and the ocean waves rolling in the west — palm trees and pines swaying in the breeze to the rhythm of the music.
Which brings us to the man of the hour, Dâm-Funk. I remember hearing the first rumblings of Riddick's rise about a decade ago with things like the Rhythm Trax Vol. 4 mini-album and the Burgundy City EP. It was all so casually unassuming that I never could have imagined the heights it would all lead to. These records cropped up on the newly reinvigorated Stones Throw — recently given a new lease on life thanks in large part to J Dilla's epochal swan song Donuts — just as it was branching out from underground hip hop roots and stepping into its next chapter as a multi-faceted powerhouse. Riddick himself was something of an enigma, a figure swathed in mystery in the finest Detroit tradition. When it came to facts on the ground, it was largely a matter of rumor and conjecture... word was that he'd been a behind-the-scenes figure on various g-funk records back in the day, building up a cache of his own idiosyncratic beats over the years.
This era's music later manifested in the Adolescent Funk archival collection, featuring a bunch of music dating back to the late-80s/early-90s fulcrum-between-eras, from the prime new wave pop of It's My Life! to the post-Sign "O" The Times machine funk of Sexy Lady, and even the florid proto-techno of I Love Life and When I'm With U I Think Of Her's rubberband deep house inna half-lit Nu Groove-stylee. In other words, even way back when, his sound was already fully formed, his vision laid out on a series of bedroom-taped audio cassettes.
Do U Feel Like I Feel? already sounds just like the sort of thing that would later define his 5xLP masterwork, Toeachizown. Maybe less-polished, less-widescreen, the unabashedly youthful vocals in particular betraying a winning amateurism, but all the elements are there in a gloriously lo-fi, nimble and skeletal funk (see also Raindrops and Attitude, with their Hashim/Primrose Path-esque slap bass grooves). It's so evocative of a very particular place and time — an era and locale when I first really became aware of a lot of this music (a lifelong affinity forged) — that it may as well come housed in a DeLorean.
The man made his big splash with Toeachizown right there at the end of the decade, with the awesome 5xLP extended excursion Toeachizown. The record was a well-deep rumination on everything from Mtume and Kleeer to Prince and DJ Quik to Larry Heard and Juan Atkins, enshrining the whole interzone between boogie, g-funk, r&b, deep house and techno (what I've loosely termed machine soul) into a sprawling nocturnal wonderland laid out beneath a neon glow. In many ways, it's comparable to records like The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. and Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, which — coming from the rock world — enshrined a mythic vision of roots-inflected rock 'n roll within towering slabs of gatefold glory.
Running parallel to — and likely springing from — his strange brew roots-n-future cocktail, Riddick has also had a strong propensity to work with various figures that have been influential or important to him. I believe the first instance came with his stellar production for Slave's Steve Arrington on the Goin' Hard EP, a three-song venture (with vocal versions on one side mirrored by their instrumentals on the other) that culminated in the Higher LP (jointly credited this time to Steve Arrington & Dâm-Funk. I still remember the week it came out: I was up in L.A. for the weekend on a record-buying jaunt with Pops, at the Poo-Bah record shop up in Pasadena, only to be confronted with this stunning slab of wax hanging on the wall.
On discussing it with the owner, it turned out that not only had Riddick once worked in this very shop back in the day, he'd even featured it in a cameo in the music video for Hood Pass Intact when he gives the owner handshake and a pound over the counter! A great shop, Poo-Bah, with a welcome focus on the boogie/funk/r&b side of things. There were even stacks of bargain records in the anteroom, where I came upon a cache of old Inner City 12"s! At any rate, further collaborations came with fellow travelers like Nite Jewel (as Nite-Funk) and Snoop Dogg (on the 7 Days Of Funk record) over the next few years.
I was lucky enough to catch Mr. Funklive at The Casbah on the date of release for what remains his latest LP, Invite The Light. The album followed on the heels of the Steve Arrington collaborations with further links made into the realm of classic, no-nonsense electro-funk. Featuring figures like Junie Morrison, Leon Sylvers III (and IV!) and Jody Watley, you also get MCs like Q-Tip, Snoop Dogg thrown into the bargain, not to mention frequent collaborators Nite Jewel and Computer Jay, and even fellow Angelenos like lo-fi wizard Ariel Pink and The Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist extraordinaire Flea! The record found him branching out from the atmospheric, largely instrumental debut in a brave attempt to throw the biggest intergalactic party of the year on wax in classic P-Funk tradition.
And then he came out of nowhere with an entry in Studio !K7's beloved DJ-Kicks series, immediately following the outing from anotherParallax hero, Moodymann! Not since the golden years of Terranova and Smith & Mighty has there been such a concentration of figures close to my heart to be found back to back within the halls of the series. With a vision spanning from the peak-era West Coast electro of Uncle Jamm's Army to Chicago house maven Gemini's deep house slates, it merged a whole raft of hard-to-find vintage boogie with the ambient drift of Gaussian Curve's Broken Clouds and a few modern tracks (by himself and fellow travelers) in an understated tour-de-force of back-to-the-future machine boogie.
Alongside more recent 12"s like the EKKAH collaboration and the Architecture EPs, its just another reminder that Dâm-Funk is one of modern music's most solid, indefatigable institutions. In the aftermath of SA-RA's apparent dissolution nearly ten years ago (we've all wept!), he's carried the torch for vibed-out machine soul well into this following decade with a style all his own. After all, it's a 21st century, Back To The Future, wormhole-in-time kinda thang. Detroit may have the great Kenny Dixon Jr., but on the West Coast we've got Dâm-Funk... and thank goodness for that.
That's where we left it before stopping off in the canyon for a spell, but now we're back again for the final chapter. The destination in our protracted journey — teasing out the connections between post punk and machine funk — lies in the rolling silicon hills of machine soul, music which as often as not sounds as if it were carved from slabs of onyx. The line between techno and machine soul is sometimes so subtle as to be barely detectable (see the oeuvres of Dâm-Funk, Juan Atkins, SA-RA Creative Partners and Anthony Shakir, for instance), but it's there nonetheless.
This faint delineation highlights that which is so undeniably distinctive about each form — even as they run parallel to each other as post-disco flavors of machine music — both are thrown into stark relief by their inherent proximity to one another. Like the colors red and green or orange and blue residing across one another on the same color wheel, one seems to illuminate the other, making it pop from the page. The juxtaposition of Anthony Shakir's Tracks For My Father against Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics with Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul or Missy Elliott's Da Real World with UR's Interstellar Fugitives seems to animate the sound and vision of all parties involved with an amplified clarity, serving as a decoder ring of sorts in getting to the heart of both musics.
Throw in the breakbeat science of 4 Hero, A Guy Called Gerald, Shut Up And Dance and the Kemet Crew — on one hand — and Tricky, Terranova, Massive Attack and Smith & Mighty's time-ravaged trip hop noir on the other, and you've got a stunning image of the intersecting, criss-cross paths of modern music coming into their own at virtually the exact same time. Even now, we're still riding that wave, felt beneath the surface of today's pop fabric even if a frustratingly large swathe fails to live up to the initial promise. Diminishing returns, or a momentary calm before the storm? My money's on the latter... it has to be.
In the meantime, over the course of this year it seemed to make sense to check in with this particular stretch of post-punk/post-disco road, one that seemed (in part at least) to imbue the music with tactile physicality and a sense of ATMOSPHERE. This was music that emerged from somewhere — be it Bristol, Chicago, New York or Detroit — with a singular story to tell, a story that was told as much between the lines as within them. Perhaps it's at this axis of human and machine interface — I'm talking about Mike Dean's basslines and Jimmy Douglass behind the boards, The Prodigy's on-the-fly mix-downs and Moodymann's mirage of sequencer programming and live instrumentation — where the magic happens?
At any rate, just as with all the others, the final Machine Soul chapter of Terminal Vibration will feature a handful of satellite entries (the first of which we've already seen with the Alexander O'Neal record) cleaving to its theme, which in this case will last us for the remainder of the month (and year, for that matter). Then, we'll wrap up the whole Terminal Vibration saga with a monster break out to kick off the new year. There's also one record that perhaps makes sense of the entire selection, which we're going to give the deeper look-in it deserves, along with a bit of back story that improbably crosses wires with the canyon (but then, as I often say, it's all connected... it's all of a piece).
In the annals of great soul men, Alexander O'Neal stands astride the worlds of smooth soul and modern r&b like a colossus. His incomparable croon took center stage on a prime selection of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis' finest productions, a series of machine-driven soul missives that defined the idea of the Minneapolis sound, alongside the output of figures like The S.O.S. Band, The Time and Prince himself. This was era-defining pop at the height of electro boogie's protracted reign, and a state-of-the-art retrofit of the smooth soul blueprint that went on to send reverberations throughout the remainder of the decade (and beyond — just ask The Neptunes).
O'Neal was originally a member of funky rabble-rousers The Time before being shunted aside (the reasons vary depending on who you ask), leaving Morris Day to embody the mischievous personality of the band in the public consciousness. It turned out to be an unlikely case where everyone seemed to benefit — most of all the listener — as The Time indulged its deliciously impish sense of humor across a series of wild, careening funk LPs while O'Neal's more subdued approach became the very definition of modern soul. Grown folks music, to borrow a phrase. So as much as it might be perversely enticing to imagine these very disparate approaches juxtaposed on the same slab of wax, the listener is free to enjoy twice the amount of good music than they likely otherwise would have. And that's always a good thing.
At any rate, this freed up Alexander O'Neal for to pursue a solo career in earnest, encouraged by Jam & Lewis (who themselves had been edged out of The Time shortly after). The duo crafted a lush sonic penthouse around O'Neal, which he inhabited with singularly debonair style, distinguished by an elegant, soulful voice and tailored suits to match. From the cover image on down, O'Neal's self-titled debut conjures up images of late night rendezvous, city lights, moonlight drives and panoramic, ECM-esque twilight skies. Naturally, the music itself is the perfect soundtrack to such furtive nocturnal activities, an ideal nighttime record whether you're out for a night drive or just chilling at your spot for the evening.
With his self-titled debut, Alexander's overriding preoccupation lies with matters of the heart. In fact, that might have made an accurate alternate title for this record: Matters Of The Heart. Throughout the album's 42 minutes, he chronicles various states of heartbreak and healing in a frieze of passionate emotion, putting the soul in the machine with what sounds like a well of tortured experience to draw upon. From dramatic balladry to motorik mid-tempo burners and even maddening electro boogie workouts, Alexander O'Neal offers seven varied snapshots of this crazy thing called love.
The record opens with the sultry strains of A Broken Heart Can Mend, an unhurried mid-tempo slow burner that chugs beneath Alex's smoldering vocals as they glide across it all with an effortless panache. Coming on like deep house pitched-down about 10bpms, its lush groove seems to gently unfurl on an infinite, motorik plane while Alex is enveloped in the surrounding moonlit production. In a way, it even predicts the sound of the Frankie KnucklesBig House Mix of All True Man from six years later, underlined by the way those backing vocals coax out the chorus, offering a reassuring repetition of the song's title sentiment and comforting the wounded loverman in his declared vows to press on. Brilliant!
The graceful twilight architecture of If You Were Here Tonight follows, dropping the tempos way down into prototypical slow jam territory. This kicks off a three song run of prime balladry, all produced by Monte Moir (also of The Time). Don't tune out though, all you footloose kiddies, for this is one of the true highlights of the record (and that's really saying something with a tracklist this stellar). Crystalline harp-like synths duet with a Spanish guitar over crashing drums and a sustained proto-techno bassline in this towering quiet storm epic. Needless to say, Alex's vocals soar gracefully throughout.
He imbues each and every word with the most searching tone imaginable, and when he sings if you could only know my feelings, you will know how much I do believe, it's as if time itself stands still. He's for real, man! Deep synths sweep beneath it all in the aftermath of the chorus, embodying a sense of shelter from the storm. The whole thing brilliantly capturing the seeming life-and-death struggle and intolerable gravity of a soul caught in the throes of passion and romantic love. I imagine many could relate...
It all fades to reveal a loping percussion figure, the only thing accompanying Alex's sensual ad libs in a sea of reverb. It's the first of many seemingly off-the-cuff moments that give the record its buttoned-down, almost live feel. I'd compare its strikingly evocative effect to that achieved by Moodymann — specifically on things like the Kenny Dixon, Jr. Remix of Innerzone's version People Make The World Go Round — paradoxically managing to imbue these machine music proceedings with a strong sense of human intimacy.
Note also the rather expressive music video, the mood of which captures the whole nighttime in the city vibe of this record with a perfectly 1980s (that is, early music video-era) charm. But then, I suppose I'm a sucker for such things...
After the fathoms-deep raw power of If You Were Here Tonight, you're more than ready for a bit of a breather, something a little less emotionally draining, and Alex delivers yet again in the shape of Do You Wanna Like I Do. The song lies in the middle of a three-song stretch of slow jams, building a sort of opulent momentum as the record progresses. The lovesick melody is carried by a bevy of crashing pianos, while an electro-funk bassline's pulse weaves through the gaps in the chord progression in studied slow-motion. The lustrous, shimmering atmosphere conjured up by Monte Moir offers the perfect counterpoint to Alex's pleas in a stirring fusion of hi-tech heartbreak, setting the stage for Hearsay's lush slow jams like Sunshine and Crying Overtime a couple years later.
The record's last big slow jam comes into focus with Look At Us Now, which couldn't be further from the twin desperate pleas of If You Were Here Tonight and Do You Wanna Like I Do. With its casual saxophone sway evoking shades of Sade's Diamond Life, it seems to capture the quiet glow of contentment even as it finds Alex begging his woman to stay. It's almost as if he were trying to evince a quiet confidence in their state of affairs as he goes about building a case for her to stick around.
The effect takes every mildly disparaging remark you've ever heard about the aspirational aspects of this era's soul music and simultaneously fulfills and transcends them at once in a great cresting wave of world-weary optimism. The whole tune just shimmers, hanging there in midair as if suspended on nothing but moonlight and a prayer. It closes the first side leaving you ready to take on the world, and my bet is that she does stay after all.
Conversely, the Innocent/Alex 9000/Innocent II medley opens the second side with a ten-minute strong electro boogie monster jam, still resolute but this time coming from an entirely different direction. It's the record's one true (extended) moment of uptempo funk, firmly in the tradition of marathon Minneapolis workouts like The Time's The Walk, Sheila E.'s The Glamorous Life and Prince And The Revolution's America. Featuring backing vocals from Tabu Records label-mate Cherrelle, with whom O'Neal would duet later that year on Saturday Love (from her debut LP, High Priority), the effect is not unlike that of The Glamorous Life's deadpan backing refrain.
At the four-minute mark, the tune's snaking electro boogie synths spiral into a strained solo (nascent shades of proto-techno in evidence) before the tenor begins to shade toward the intimate. Then, fellow ex-Time member Jellybean Johnson starts shredding some guitar for the protracted mid-section, which also features gang shouts a la New Order's Confusion and some Prince/Ready For The World-style whoah-oh backing chants. Brilliant stuff, yeah?
Then, with but a minute-and-a-half remaining, the tune transforms entirely amid a rush of snares into a funky coda led by Terry Lewis' slap bass and the gang shouts as they return with a vengeance. This seems to be the Alex 9000 portion of the trip. The group vamps on the theme for a spell before cresting into Revolution-style buildup for the climax. Finally, the original groove returns for a couple bars (Innocent II) before collapsing completely into a cascading synth figure and the tortured distortions of Jellybean's guitar still hanging in the air.
What's Missing seems to fuse all the different aspects of this record — from the atmosphere of the lush slow jams to the motorik groove of the mid-tempo burners and even a casual return of nimble digital funk — into an infectious tonic that just might be my favorite thing here. On the face of it, the tune seems understated, slight even, but when that chorus hits — with Alex's passionate we used to have good love, but now its gone a naggingly infectious hook — I'd wager its the tune you'll have the most trouble getting out of your head.
In fact, of all the tunes here, I'm absolutely certain I remember hearing it on the radio when I was a kid (back when Michael Jackson was Captain EO and the Padres still wore brown and gold). I just noticed that there's some footage on Youtube of the man's performance of What's Missing on Soul Train, looking ten times more in-his-element than in any high concept music video. I should probably apologize in advance for the difficulty you'll have in getting this song out of your head, but trust me... you'll thank me later!
The record closes with You Were Meant To Be My Lady Not My Girl, the title alone of which hints at this record's intended mature, sophisticated audience (see also Stephanie Mills' If I Were Your Woman). Alex ain't messing around here, he's down for commitment! The tune's slow-burning mid-tempo groove mirrors the opening moves of A Broken Heart Can Mend (shades too of The Gap Band's carefree Outstanding), this time offering the sweet catharsis of renewal.
In certain ways, the tune's elegant synth flourishes make me flash on the cascades of atmosphere in certain dreamy China Crisis moments (on one hand) and Larry Heard's mid-period, jazz-inflected soul man forays on the other. There's a definite sense of winding-down as the tune casually unfolds — even finding the band messing around and then collapsing into laughter over its extended coda of percussion — in contrast to the preceding songs' dramatic catharsis.
This is the sound of hard-won contentment, made all the more poignant in light of all the emotional turmoil that came before. It's the perfect way to end the record... the culminating moment in a survey of assorted conditions of the heart.
When all is said and done, this is simply a superb album. The midpoint between Marvin Gaye's I Want You and Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, it's a crucial outpost connecting two very distinct eras of music. Alex's soulful delivery exists in the tradition of everything from Solomon Burke to Teddy Pendergrass, while its carefully-crafted song cycle evokes memories of classic records by the likes of Eddie Kendricks, Leroy Hutson and Isaac Hayes.
Meanwhile, its steel-rimmed dreamtime loverman moves seem to sow the seeds for everything from Chez Damier's lush deep house slates and Larry Heard's post-Mr. Fingers output to Janet Jackson's Jam & Lewis-fueled trajectory into the 90s and even Timbaland's post-disco r&b moves as laid out on records like Aaliyah's One In A Million, Ginuwine's The Bachelor and Playa's Cheers 2 U. It's a roots 'n future mash-up in an entirely different fashion than you'd usually expect.
Moving into more recent, esoteric terrain, Spacek's acid jazz-limned techno forays (especially the first album) seem to be the logical descendant of the record's most motorik mid-tempo moments, while even SA-RA's remarkably physical manifestations of machine soul seem to fulfill the promises made in Alexander O'Neal's electric blue twilight moves. In that sense, it's future music, pure and simple, in which entire futures are augured within its neon-lit blueprints.
As such, it's one of the decade's greatest, most important records, lodged in at the axis of the decade alongside other crucial incursions like Jamie Principle's Waiting On An Angel, Model 500's Night Drive, Wally Badarou's Chief InspectorTenor Saw's Fever and Mantronix's debut album, sharing with all those records a set of undoubtedly far-reaching implications. This lays out the foundations for a future music in the same way Fingers Inc.'s Another Side, Smith & Mighty's production for Fresh 4's Wishing On A Star and Guy's self-titled debut all would a few years later. Taken together, those four records are something like a compass rose for everything would come to be called machine soul.
As such, it makes this the perfect antidote to your typical 1980s decade overviews that tend to neglect the music from these shadowy corners of the soundscape for the more straightforward rock/new wave/synth pop/alternative-derived canon (plus rap — if you're lucky). There's a whole world out there! In a sense, that's what this whole Terminal Vibration saga is about, breaking open the more typical view of the decade to tease out some of its most innovative sounds, hidden in plain sight.
Alexander O'Neal is certainly definitive within the context of this trip's long-delayed machine soul-shaped denouement, setting us up perfectly for the final chapter. As such, for curious souls looking to unearth the shadowy origins of machine soul magic scrawled between the lines in this most misunderstood of decades, Alexander O'Neal is the perfect place to start. It's a key record or the eighties packed with great music... you can't go wrong.
This latest Motion playlist dates back to late summer, with the tempo dropping accordingly. Still, the mix managed to hang around as the days grew shorter, its machine soul/trip hop/techno mash-up the perfect soundtrack to running at dusk as the city lights begin to switch on. As me move back into Terminal Vibration territory — particularly its final Machine Soul chapter — it seemed as good a time as any to blog it on up here...
Motion 002: Trip Into The Groove
The HerbaliserWhat WhatBring ItNinja Tune
Tripping back into action with a bit of downbeat hip hop from Ninja Tune stalwarts The Herbaliser, we start out our trip on the downbeat tip (that way it's harder to fall behind the pace!). One of three tracks from their sophomore set Blow Your Headphones to feature the great Jean Grae (back when she was still known as What What), this is firmly in the vein of stoned mid-period hip hop like Bahamadia, The Pharcyde and Guru's Jazzmatazz series.
PlayaDon't Stop The MusicDef Jam
Peak-era Timbaland, featuring his chrome-plated r&b vision writ large on this production for the trio of Smokey, Black and Static. Static (aka Stephen Garrett was one of the songwriters in Timbaland's Bassment crew, responsible for tunes like Aaliyah's Are You That Somebody? and Try Again.
This quasi-cover version of the classic Yarbrough & Peoples boogie chestnut is prototypical machine soul, picking up where Juan Atkins left off three years earlier with The Flow G-Funk Mix. Dig those deft harmonies weaving in and out of that trademark digi-funk riddim, the pulsing synth bassline shadowboxing Tim's clipped drum machine shuffle.
The line between the finest trip hop (in the Smith & Mighty tradition) and this sort of pre-millennial tension is a thin one indeed.
MélaazNon, Non, NonBMG
Smoked-out French rap, this was picked up by Ultimate Dilemma for the Musical Dilemmas compilation and thus became something of an trip hop stone tablet by default, even showing up a decade later on Daddy G's stellar DJ-Kicks outing. Hardly surprising, given that it fits Massive Attack's remit perfectly (in fact, it would slot right in on Protection's cinematic second side).
Having picked this up back in the day, I was pleased to get a little more context on the record in Kevin Pearce's excellent nineties dance tome A Cracked Jewel Case.
Timbaland And MagooClock StrikesBlackground
More Timbaland, this time from his own record with Magoo. Effortlessly funky machine music. His beats from this era are perfect for all your running needs. I know a lot of people don't dig it, but I'm actually a huge fan of Timbaland's style on the mic, midway between low-rocking trip hop mumble and Jamaican producer behind the boards, punching in on the mix.
I used to listen to this album on continuous loop with Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above, Reprazent's New Forms and the East Flatbush Project record, which along with Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix was my early '98 in a nutshell.
Tricky DJ Milo & Luke HarrisHow's Your LifeStudio !K7
Recentish Tricky with fellow Bristol luminary DJ Milo. I was crushed that I missed the tour behind this album, which stopped in Linda Vista's Belly Up Tavern. This decade's found Tricky back in the groove in a big way, indeed recent records like False Idols rival his nineties output.
Case in point How's Your Life. This is so subtle, so smooth even, and yet it's totally savage. I love the almost subconscious inevitability of that quiet storm loop, apparently from a mid-eighties Larry Carlton record. It just draws you into concentric orbit, Tricky running tings below the radar.
SadeSurrender Your Love Kenny Larkin RemixIllegal Detroit
Slowly swinging up to a house tempo with this killer Sade bootleg from Detroit. Not much to add to what I said here, but at this point in the run things really slide into the groove. Machine soul keeps you running like a machine, and for this tune's eleven minutes, you feel like you could keep on running forever.
YageCoda ComaJumpin' & Pumpin'
Some tasty Jumpin' & Pumpin' action, taken from Yage's Fuzzy Logic EP. This is up there in the upper echelon of post-Detroit work by the likes of 4 Hero, Basic Channel and The Black Dog. Killer breakbeat techno, its soaring synth choirs chopped with soundtrack strings and funereal organs that all recede gracefully into the overcast horizon. A snatch of dance vocal slides in over its rugged analogue bassline before the breaks kick back into gear.
Another under-acknowledged masterpiece from the pre-FSOLDougans and Cobain (and believe me, there's more where that came from), this is the equal of anything on Accelerator.
Chaka KhanI Know You, I Live YouWarner Bros.
Sublime post-disco almost-boogie from the great Chaka Khan. All would-be divas take note of that soaring chorus, it's like sunlight reflecting off the surface of parting storm clouds. Later the basis for Agent-X's awesome Detroit house slate In The Morning, warped post-Kenny Dixon Jr./Moodymann filter-disco of the highest caliber. Hearing Chaka's original for the first time is such a joy.
Throbbing GristleHot On The Heels Of Love Ratcliffe RemixNovaMute
Impossibly lush take on this O.G. industrial crew's creepy slab of claustrophobic proto-techno. This remix by one half of Basement Jaxx takes it into big room, widescreen territory. Shimmering multi-layered synths shift and glide over a heavy Reese bassline and shuffling percussion. There's even an exotic vocal snatch chucked into the bargain.
First heard this in a Luke Slater mix where it rubbed shoulders with Isolée and Dopplereffekt, this is originally from a compilation of remixes of Throbbing Gristle tunes by contemporary dance artists. Carl Craig even provides another, more faithful mix of Heels Of Love, but make no mistake: this Jaxx version is where its at. Visionary stuff.
Alec EmpireSuEcideForce Inc.
Closing out the mix, and giving you that last little boost, is a pure adrenaline rush of rave techno from the pre-Atari Teenage Riot/Mille PlateauxAlec Empire. This would be a stone cold killer if it were just the sub-bass locking with the stop-start funk sample, but then that proto-trance lead drops into the mix and sends it all over the edge to the sublime. It just glides over the whole of it.
The effect is breathtakingly cinematic, indeed this sort of thing belongs not in a museum but in a movie (preferably something based on a William Gibson novel). I've often thought that this track is a kindred spirit with Carl Craig's 69 output.
And that's it, you're back through the front door. Repeat as necessary. From downbeat to uptempo, once you dip into the second half of the mix you'll be impossible to stop. You are the machine.
This time of year — when late autumn begins giving way to the dawning chill of winter — often takes me back to the year 2001, when I spent my days going to community college out in Grossmont and shelving books at the Clairemont Library to make a little money. Then, I'd spend my nights making beats and spinning out mix after mix down in the lab (this the era of Futureform, Percussitron and Mettrex Recordings), bouncing tracks and ideas back and forth with Snakes three blocks over across the web. Good times. It was in this climate that — after a few years of hardcore focus on my twin loves of trip hop and techno — I'd begun to branch out into the wider world a little.
Primary lines of flight included the music that the Detroit gang came up on during the progressive era — loosely put the records The Electrifying Mojo played in the early eighties — alongside the dub/reggae/post punk/hip hop cocktail that the Bristol scene emerged from. I'm talking about Smith & Mighty, The Wild Bunch, Tricky, and so on. I'm going to set aside the Bristol contingent for the moment, since that's a story of it's own (that I'll return to next year). I was also feeling gravity's pull from the jazzier end of electronic music (those crazed skyscrapers-on-the-moon tonalities) and the throbbing discoid vibes of house music, both of which urged me to dig deeper into the dusty past. Like Lamont Dozier, I was Going Back To My Roots.
It all started when I picked up the first B-52's record, a tile I'd borrowed extensively from my uncle back in the day but never actually owned for myself. I suppose it was only natural that it'd all start here, since new wave was my first musical love, a sound that stayed with me through the nineties (which didn't always go over well at school, let me tell you!).
Coincidentally, the Detroit cats were mad for it back in the day, folding it into a selection of post-disco music on the slipstream of the era's more adventurous dancefloors. For me, Dan Sicko's coverage of this pre-history was one of the highlights of Techno Rebels, which I'd have been reading right around then (2000-2001).1 In the context of the moment, it made an ideal wormhole in time through which to go back and explore a little further.
That was what progressive-era Detroit was all about, club kids getting down to exotic European sounds alongside a bedrock of post-disco/post-Parliament funk. You'd hear guys like Kevin Saunderson repping New Order, Prince and The B-52's in interviews. They were speaking my language! Carl Craig even put out a compilation of material from that era featuring the killer B-52's cut Mesopotamia (Hey, there's the vocal loop from that one Shake record!) alongside George Clinton's Atomic Dog and Cybotron's Alleys Of Your Mind. I never actually owned the disc itself (called Abstract Funk Theory), but I used its tracklist like a roadmap, checking out all the tunes that I hadn't heard before and digging up all the ones I had, throwing them on and hearing them anew.
With Derrick May's oft-quoted Kraftwerk/George Clinton roots-of-techno equation, those twin dynasties were the next port of call. I started with a Parliament compilation and the Chocolate City LP, before happening upon a late-period Funkadelic round up. That led me to grab Uncle Jam Wants You, bought primarily for the full-length version of Not Just Knee Deep (clocking in at 15 minutes of electro-tinged madness, it's one of the great extended night drive grooves). At first I dug p-funk at its most electronic (the 12" version of Atomic Dog a particular revelation), but gradually worked my way back to the acid-fried climes of Maggot Brain and Free Your Mind And Your Ass Will Follow.
I'd already dove into Sly Stone's oeuvre earlier that summer. I remember buying the O.G. Greatest Hits — along with Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed, Horace Andy's Living In The Flood and the Skylarking compilation — after an ill-fated beach party that never really came off. At first it sounded ancient. Drum breaks recorded from beyond the dawn of time. That was the thing that used to always jump out at me with sixties music back then, for whatever reason: the drums sounded old.2 I didn't really grow up around much sixties music; Pops was a 70s/80s kind of guy. He was the next generation.
There's A Riot Goin' On is what I was really after (I'd heard rumors of drum machines), but for whatever reason it was impossible to find at the time. NONE of the music on the Greatest Hits was from the 70s! However, it gradually grew on me to the point that I bought all the albums (Riot was actually the last one I managed to get ahold of), and to this day they're one of my favorite bands of all time. It's funny, I hadn't thought about it until just now but that Greatest Hits must have been the first sixties record I ever owned. Although that MelankolicSkylarking compilation did have some tracks from the sixties on it too, so consider it a tie...
Of Sly's seventies albums, Fresh was much easier to get ahold of. Fresh is great, a more streamlined follow up to Riot. Claustrophobic, almost desiccated production. Rhythm boxes all over the shop! Everyone wants to hear If You Want Me To Stay at a party when they find out you have this. Not that I blame them... that's a bad jam right there. What really gets me with this record is the atmosphere. From the opening machine rhythm pulse of In Time, it's as if you've been hooked by a cosmic lasso that's just drawing you in. Seven-hundred overdubs interlocking over the great black hole hum of tape hiss. This is the template for all the Moodymann records. Bedroom disco vibes spooling out into the studio, the lonely auteur hunched over the mixing board, moving sounds across the field of vision and playing around with time.
My other big proto-Moodymann record in this little makeshift theory is C'est Chic. More tenuous, perhaps, but also with more literal connections. You've got the opening (sampled) crowd noise setting the stage, for one. Obviously the I can't kick this feeling when it hits sample (what am I gonna do?). But also the slightly askew, sun-glazed production touches. Casually psychedelic. Happy Man seems to glide by in slow-motion, synths and strings melting all around you in a strange brew warped concoction. Just like on Silentintroduction. Those same unhurried, mid-tempo grooves burning away in the shadows. Savoir Faire feels like a slowjam, but then maybe it's not much slower than anything else here. You lose track of time. These tunes could go on forever. Once again, a case where it's all in the atmosphere. I picked this up around the same time as all these others... in fact, I think it was my first real disco record (the lines do get blurry).
The Chic Organization is something like the missing link between Parliament and the other side of the Detroit equation, Kraftwerk. Moroder too. Snakes bought Computer World first. We used to zone out to it after a marathon studio session. Marvel at the synths. I got it a little bit later, in a cache of cutout Kraftwerk CDs at the Point LomaMusic Trader. Everything after Autobahn in one fell swoop... what was the deal? I don't think the remasters came out until a decade later. A lucky break, then. Nights spent getting lost in the computer rhythms of The Man-Machine followed, the Moroder-esque discoid grooves of Spacelab and Metropolis spiraling off into the distance.
There's a million things you could say about Kraftwerk, and by now most of them have already been said. They're like The Beatles that way. To single out just one personal note, the first time I heard Metropolis I remember thinking that it sounded like the secret blueprint for The Metro by Berlin. That was a crucial song for me growing up — it's probably the closest thing I had to techno up to that point in my life — and it remains one of the great electronic pop songs ever. Up there with The Model, which might be thee greatest.
All of which is to say that this music keys back into new wave, but this time from another angle. Figures like Yellow Magic Orchestra, Telex, Alexander Robotnick, My Mine and Yello operated at the axis of the dancefloor, and all of them were big in Detroit. Which is how I found out about them in the first place. Aside from Yello, who an uncle had tuned me into a good deal earlier (he also told me to check out Devo and Public Image Ltd.). He fixed me up with their Zebra album (at that point their latest release), which I dubbed to one side of a cassette. At the time, it made perfect sense alongside records like Underworld's Dubnobasswithmyheadman, and I worked my way back from there. I snagged the 12" for Oh Yeah a bit later, from a thrift store in Santee of all places.
Alongside Yello, the other big one was YMO. These groups were like Led Zeppelin to me! The rubberband synth-basslines of Solid State Survivor pick up where The Model left off, retooling the Germans' stately chanson with amped-up bullet train velocity, ready for the nascent world of fast-forward anime imagery (it's but a small leap to Ken Ishii's Echo Exit from here). All of these groups offering up an alternate view of the 1980s, in retrospect straining in the wake of disco to invent modern dance culture. It's all very — dare I say it — Terminal Vibration! It just needed to one more round of the old trans-Atlantic ping-pong effect to really come into its own...
Illustrated by something like 808 State's Newbuild, which must be the first LP to come out of UK's rave culture. Made when A Guy Called Gerald Simpson was still in the crew. This stone tablet got a timely reissue on Richard D. James' Rephlex imprint in 1999, and I picked it up not long after. It sounded ancient, evoking a grimy, less-polished eighties spanning from Spoonie Gee to Hashim and Bobby Konders. Terminal Vibrations to a man.
This is truly evocative stuff. A track like Narcossa is just dripping with atmosphere. Compulsion, with its recurring incantation of R-E-L-E-A-S-E-Y-O-U-R-B-O-D-Y. Shades of the Suburban Knight in its loping bassline. This is an electronic music with real physical heft to it; you can just feel the back story lurking in its grooves. Images of grimy basement studios and clandestine backroom dancefloors, punters getting down to the music as bassbins pump the rugged sonic geometry into the night.
All of which is summed up in Juan Atkins' Wax Trax! MasterMix Volume 1, a CD I played endlessly that winter. Atkins links up the minimalist strains of contemporary techno like Maurizio, Convextion and Black Noise's Nature Of The Beast with deep garage-inflected cuts from Blaze, Rick Wade and Streetlife Originals (he even managed to split the difference by including his own Infiniti track, the sublimely ethereal Skyway).
The real kicker is a handful of vintage cuts like A Number Of Names' impossibly rare Sharevari (year one techno, 1981 don't you know... that's a mighty good vintage too, if I do say so myself!) and Martin Circus' Disco Circus (my favorite disco record ever). You even get an awesome slab of nagging post-Erotic City machine soul thrown into the bargain, in the shape of DJ Assault's Sex On The Beach. Yeah, try and get that one out of your head!
In retrospect, it's not much of a surprise that the Detroit guys were so open and enthusiastic about their roots. It seems there's always been this yin-yang push and pull going on between the break-with-the-past/innovate-at-all-costs push of Toffler's Future Shock-of-the-new and the centripetal pull of the Motor City's rich musical heritage, stashed away in the vaults of labels like Westbound, Motown and beyond. You can hear it all over the place to varying degrees, but perhaps most clearly in the music of figures like Anthony Shakir, Terrence Parker and Kenny Dixon Jr. (aka Moodymann).
Hearing records like Tracks For My Father, Detroit After Dark and Silentintroduction for the first time felt like doorways opening into whole worlds of sound, worlds that I'd only been vaguely aware of till then. It was an open invitation to dig a little bit deeper into the names behind the names. The soul man interludes and broken beats of Roaming beckoned from the mysterious corridors of jazz, while something 3 Minute Blunts hinted that hip hop's thriving underworld stretched even deeper into the past than I'd ever imagined, and the twisted filter-groove of I Can't Kick This Feeling When It Hits whet the appetite for the sounds of peak-era disco.
This happened to coincide with the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival, which featured a memorable, supremely buttoned-down set from Kenny Dixon Jr. himself. He opened with Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson's We Almost Lost Detroit, a dreamy slab of deep soul that was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard. Give or take. It took awhile to track it down (by that point it hadn't even made it to CD yet), but I eventually scored an old radio station copy from WHMC in Massachusetts. That was pretty cool.
Bridges itself is an incredible record, and one that (despite being over twenty years old) felt firmly in step with the times. I was never a new music whore (coining term for later use!), but this was one of many instances that opened me up to the idea that time wasn't a straight line. It twists back on itself and runs in parallel, lean times and golden ages twist in a double helix with future music scatted throughout. The way you can dig into the past and soak it all in, mess around with the results and wind up with the Renaissance. And this was just the first song in the set...
Dixon's set picked up to a dancefloor pace immediately after the Gil Scott-Heron, with cuts from Theo Parrish and his own Moodymann cut Shades Of Jae rubbing shoulders with Curtis Mayfield's Love Me, Love Me Now and the 1978 version of William DeVaughn's Be Thankful For What You've Got. It was all of a seamless piece, with the fresh house cuts and the vintage disco-era soul sounding perfectly at home together. He even got Jalal Nuriddin of The Last Poets out there to MC over the booming disco of Larry Page Orchestra's Erotic Soul! Interestingly, the set seemed to hinge at the axis of Kool & The Gang's Take My Heart If You Want It (a secret cousin to both Donald Fagen's I.G.Y and Cheri's Murphy's Law), where it took an unexpected turn into the fertile terrain of electro boogie.
André Cymone's The Dance Electric was the highlight of this long stretch of boogie, the point where Moodymann and Dâm-Funk meet, conjuring up the same vectors-sweeping-over-city-lights imagery that I used to daydream about in my youth.3 We're talking about things like Tron, Captain EO and... the Star Wars arcade game! This stretch of the mix was rounded out by things like the Prelude post-disco of The Strikers' Body Music and The Brides Of Funkenstein's Never Buy Texas From A Cowboy. It was the perfect long sunset to what had been a stunning Motor City excursion... you just put on your shades and recede onto the horizon.
Manuel GöttschingE2-E4Inteam GmbH
Like KRS-One, I'd love to say that I was there for the first DEMF, but that's not the case. There was this ill-fated plan to actually Move To Detroit (circa 2000), but it wasn't meant to be (too many responsibilities in the local). However, the good folks at Groovetech made loads of footage from the event available on their website. Groovetech was an online record shop that specialized in dance music, yet they had a pretty wide brief beyond that (por ejemplo, they fixed me up with a copy of Manuel Göttsching's E2-E4). Both the shop itself and their online content proved to be an invaluable resource in moving from node to node across the musical landscape in my ongoing exploration.
Soul DesignerEP 1F Communications
In addition to the DEMF content (which included — off the top of the dome — live performances from Kenny Larkin and Sean Deason, along with DJ sets from DJ Spooky and Dego MacFarlane of 4 Hero), Groovetech would also invite DJs into their studio to spin live sets and then post the videos online (comparable to what the Boiler Room does today). Long before the advent of Youtube, you could check out figures like James Pennington (aka the Suburban Knight), Ken Ishii and Ian O'Brien in the mix. That James Pennington set was a particular highlight, featuring the skewed electronic boogie of Soul Designer and the Purveyors Of Fine Funk. There's still some of these videos floating around on Youtube, I believe...
Ian O'Brien's sets at Groovetech — and this is what initially brought all of this to mind, as autumn's canyon escapades sheared into Steely Dan — were also pretty eye-opening. New 12"s from Moodymann, Drexciya and 4 Hero rubbed shoulders with vintage slates from Lonnie Liston Smith, David Axelrod and Chaka Khan. He closed out a set with Joni Mitchell's Free Man In Paris! All of which sent you back scouring the used bins for dusty records from the past.
This spirit was writ large on The Soul Of Science compilation series that he and Kirk Degiorgio curated, its three volumes juxtaposing new jazz-inflected techno and broken beat with vintage electro-damaged material from figures like Graham Central Station ('Tis Your Kind Of Music indeed... this insanely ahead-of-its-time sun-glazed machine soul is my kind of music), George Duke (with the skittering tech jazz instrumental North Beach) and The Pointer Sisters' Chainey Do (taken from their Steppin' LP, which was produced by Herbie Hancock).
Similarly, Kirk Degiorgio's Checkone and Synthesis mixes blurred the lines between the past, present and future. I didn't track down the former until a little bit later, but Synthesis was a crucial find at the time. This was the conduit that sent me back to things like Sun Ra's Lanquidity and Herbie Hancock's Sextant, much as other contemporary records like Roni Size's It's A Jazz Thing had sent me back to Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes' Expansions. Degiorgio also curated the Op-ART Hall Of Fame, which was an untold treasure trove of prime jazz and soul-related recordings. A real resource, that. I could spin off a whole other feature just on the records that list tuned me into.
For now, let's focus on Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, after all this is where I started with jazz in the first place. This record's technicolor grooves exist in a continuum of electronic jazz stretching all the way up to the present day, within which it remains a foundational cornerstone. From here, I checked out Miles Davis' On The Corner and Sun Ra's Lanquidity (I can't recall which came first), and then worked my way backward to Coltrane's Impulse! recordings and Charles Mingus' Mingus! Mingus! Mingus! Mingus! Mingus! Perhaps a roundabout way of getting into jazz, but I suspect not altogether uncommon for people coming at it from electronic music. After all, Head Hunters isn't that far removed from techno, is it?
The lines between the two were getting especially blurry at the turn of the century. Look no further than As One's 21st Century Soul, which seemed to spring from the same rich, jazz-inflected furrow as The Soul Of Science compilations. As One was Kirk Degiorgio's main outlet for his own recordings. The song Problems, featuring vocals from Jinadu in what would be the first of many collaborations, felt like an instant classic. A song that had been around for years. Two parts Fresh and one part I'm Still In Love With You, it was a perfect slab of deep-grooving soul.
However, the lion's share of the album consisted of tumbling tech jazz instrumentals hovering in the interzone between Stacey Pullen's Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday and Les McCann's Layers, Recloose's Spelunking and Johnny Hammond's Gears, and Fretless AZM's Astral Cinema and Eddie Russ' See The Light. This was man-made jazz at the interface of electronics, each pushing the bounds of the other in some strange sonic communion. Not a bad blueprint for future music, when you think about it...
My introduction to the music of As One came not with this record but with an earlier one, 1997's The Art Of Prophecy. I stumbled upon it completely out of the blue down at the El CajonMusic Trader (of all places), in an unlikely cache of prime electronica. Along with the As One, there was The Black Dog's Spanners, Max 404's Love & Mathematics, Drax's Tales From The Mental Plane, the Source RecordsHeadshop compilation... and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Records that I'd only read about. I'd even found my copy of Moodymann's Silentintroduction there, filed in the rock section and marked down to $5! Even now, I have to shake my head at the sheer unlikeliness of it all.
Warp's contemporaneous issue of Trainer, an anthology of Black Dog-offshoot Plaid's early recordings, chimed in perfectly with this era. I'd been getting deeper into what you might call living room techno. That is, electronic music aimed not at the dancefloor but home listening. It made a perfect complement to the motorik pulse of techno, jungle's rugged breakbeats and house's discoid grooves that had been my lifeblood for years now. Plaid's Not For Threes was a firm favorite, and this compilation — filled with tracks from alter egos like Balil (heard first on the Intergalactic Beats compilation), Atypic and Tura — was an invaluable snapshot of Plaid's colorful back story.
Trainer even included the duo's first album Mbuki Mvuki in its entirety, which was impossible to find at the time! Also present was the awesome Angry Dolphin, which I'd first heard on Nicolette's DJ-Kicks (picked up the same day as Andrea Parker's DJ-Kicks outing and the Blade Runner soundtrack, come to think of it). Andrea Parker's debut album Kiss My Arp was another one that hovered around this general terrain, somewhere between mutant electro and abstract trip hop. All of which is ideal music for the winter months. I suppose that at this point Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works 85-92 almost goes without saying.
Of course, Detroit was no stranger to electronic music that leaned toward the abstract, the impressionistic. Think of Tony Drake's ethereal instrumentals like Muse & Twilight, Diana or the Texture LP (swimming in the same crystal waters as Larry Heard's Sceneries Not Songs records), or the great The Detroit Escalator Co. The Black Buildings LP was full of blissfully ambient machine soul, its drum machines pattering through hall-of-mirrors production as synths drift in a spectral haze, the occasional errant sequence emerging from the fog. A definite sense of dread and mystery hangs over the proceedings. Picking up where Urban Tribe's stone tablet The Collapse Of Modern Culture left off, it's like the x-ray of both Motor City techno and chrome-plated r&b, presaging the likes of Spacek, Dâm-Funk and SA-RA. Deep space bizzness, seen.
I mentioned this record in passing earlier, but still need to give it a prolonged shout. Stacey Pullen's Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday is one of the great mergers of techno and jazz, it's visionary retro/future mash-up picking up the latent shades of paradoxical 1970s digitalism in his nine-minute DJ-Kicks The Track and stretching that vibe across an entire LP. It's rugged breaks and prismatic sheen made the perfect soundtrack to walking through bustling city streets under overcast skies, dodging traffic, or even shambling down University St. after dark in the Colt on my way home from work.
Similarly, Recloose's Spelunking was another critically early incursion of electronic jazz into my psyche. This actually came a couple years earlier, so naturally I heard it earlier. In fact, I'm fairly certain I bought it the week it came out. It seemed to take a whole brace of sounds that made an impact on me growing up and shuffle them through the illogical machinery of hip hop. There was the skewed fractal boogie of Get There Tonight and Landscaping's juke joint stomp taking center stage, but tucked away on the second side was the x-ray downbeat of Insomnia In Dub. Like wandering a deserted shopping mall long after closing time, it was a spectral image of jazz radio fed through the haunted corridors of the echo chamber.
With 1997's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, Carl Craig seemed to gesture in both the direction of living room techno and electronic jazz all at once, highlighted by songs like Televised Green Smoke and At Les. Pulling in roughly five years worth of carefully crafted material, its fizzing electronics sparred with almost live-sounding drums to stunning effect. Two years later, Craig delved into jazz wholeheartedly with Innerzone Orchestra's Programmed, featuring a loose coterie of musicians centered around the core trio of Carl Craig, Francisco Mora Catlett and Craig Taborn.
The record merged MPC-powered flight of fancy through hip hop (The Beginning Of The End), mercurial tech jazz (Eruption) and unsettling ambience (Blakula) with a set of seemingly improvised jams, some of which even centered on earlier Craig material like At Les and Bug In The Bassbin. It was a tour de force, and with the ensuing issue of a pair of 12" singles centered around the group's cover version of The Stylistics' People Make The World Go Round, a truly unmissable event. Featuring a jazzed-out house version from Kenny Dixon Jr.4and a boom bap rap hip hop re-rub by J Dilla, it's scope reached out in myriad directions at once.
I'd already known Kenny Dixon Jr.'s music for some time, but the two J88 mixes on the Innerzone 12" were my introduction to the work of J Dilla (or Jay Dee as he was then known). I hadn't yet heard the late-period Tribe and Pharcyde albums he was involved with, his years in the production unit The Ummah, so my intro came a bit later with the Welcome 2 Detroit LP (along with Slum Village's Fantastic Vols. 1 & 2). As usual, I worked my way back. The moody beats of Think Twice — based on an old Donald Byrd tune — were revelatory, casting electronic jazz as the hidden stepping stone between the worlds of dance music, hip hop and r&b, hinting that they weren't so far apart at all.
In a strange way, this parallels the early years of rave, when everything from hip hop to house, techno and rare groove would all rub shoulders on the dancefloor (more of that please!). Just substitute E's are good with Hennessey and smoked-out flavor. At the time, Jay Dee was at the epicenter of the Soulquarian collective, alongside figures like D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, and The Roots' Questlove and James Poyser. Records like D'Angelo's Voodoo and Badu's Mama's Gun were loose-limbed slabs of mahogany soul, their off-kilter relationship to straight r&b comparable to Moodymann's with house music on records like Mahogany Brown and Forevernevermore.
Like I said, it's all of a piece with the jazzed-out corridors of electronic music. You can't quite slap a label on it, but you can feel the lattice of connections running beneath it all. 4 Hero's astral jazz flight from Parallel Universe to Creating Patterns found them working with neo soul chanteuse Jill Scott and spoken word poet Ursula Rucker, both of whom were in the Soulquarians' orbit. Dego and Marc Mac even rope in Cadet folksman Terry Callier (whose powerful What Color Is Love was featured prominently in the Op-ART Hall Of Fame) on The Day Of The Greys. Indeed, echoes Charles Stepney's lush, intricate orchestral arrangements on classic Cadet sides like Rotary Connection's Songs and Marlena Shaw's The Spice Of Life could be heard throughout 4 Hero's contemporary output.
Similarly, Jazzanova featured Vikter Duplaix on their long-awaited debut album In Between, although nothing could match the soaring bebop shuffle of Fedime's Flight (from their debut EP). Their two-disc remix anthology — released in the interim between those EPs and the album — was also superior, featuring prime jazz-inflected cuts like Marschmellows' Soulpower Jazzanova's Straight Dub Mix, along with remixes of 4 Hero's We Who Are Not As Others, Roy Davis Jr.'s Watch Them Come!!! and Ursula Rucker's Circe. The latter even showed up on a Groovetech set from Detroit's DJ Genesis that opened with the sultry downbeat of Abstract Truth's We Had A Thing before mixing into Circe's hypnotic, jazz-infused sway.
In the midst of all this jazz maneuvering, Dego and Marc Mac set up the 2000 Black label, which quickly became synonymous with the West London sound that came to be known as broken beat. This compilation — which was issued in the States by Carl Craig's Planet E imprint — pulled together twelve tracks on the label from artists like Titonton Duvanté, Nubian Minds and even Marc Mac's Nu Era project (previously associated with The Deepest Shade Of Techno). There was even a cameo from O.G. vibes man Roy Ayers, who reprised his 1980 monster-jam-with-Fela Kuti2,000 Blacks Got To Be Free in MMBlack's titular 2000 Black.
Broken beat was a tech jazz form that had spun out of jungle in its painful transformation into drum 'n bass, much like its more glamorous twin, UK garage. UK garage was to broken beat as platinum r&b was to neo soul, and I dug all of it about equally. Except for drum 'n bass, the new records of which I wasn't really feeling. I tried so hard with that second Reprazent album, but wound up hating it. They were still cool at 2001's Coachella though, even if the afternoon set by fellow Bristolians Smith & Mighty's was probably the highlight of the whole event for me.
Whereas Dieselboy's set was the worst! It was everything I hated about contemporary drum 'n bass boiled down into a rigid, linear, tinnitus-inducing treble-fest. I couldn't get down to it, had to make an excuse to go buy some (overpriced) water to recuperate. When I returned to the tent, a gust of wind blew the doorway flap open and the razor-blade hi-hats that poured out sent me reeling. I had to wait for the set to end before I could re-enter. Poor Snakes had been inside all along, still waiting for the water!
It kills me to be so negative about In The Mode, but that's only because Reprazent's first album is a stone cold classic, an album near and dear to my heart that I played to death at the time. I remember freezing in my room (which at this point time had no insulation or roof!) in the dead of winter,5 munching on Ramen and listening to Brown Paper Bag! New Forms is a sprawling double-album with a singular take on electronic jazz, all shot through a silicon-inflected, junglistic lens. A case where the record is housed in the perfect sleeve, this is 21st century music ahead of schedule.
Highlights are almost too numerous to count, but I'll try anyway. The rolling street-corner jazz joint Share The Fall (featured in two versions) and its bass-driven instrumental counterparts Hi-Potent and Brown Paper Bag, for one. The title track's twilight junglism sparring with Bahamadia's raps in a parallel dimension take on Supa Dupa Fly (which came out only a month later), mirrored by the ragged r&b of Watching Windows' block rockin' boom box beats. Share My Life's fragile atmosphere and nimble percussion moves, that arresting twang of the guitar seeming to stop time, and the plangent 21st century torch song that is Heroes.
Digital's bleep-tastic noir seems to open a Pi-shaped wormhole into the 1920s, where even the juke joint drum solo interlude (The Sounds Of Now) is a standout, coming on like a Bristol take on Silentintroduction. Yeah, yeah, I know this album has it's detractors. I hear the voices saying things like But it won the Mercury Prize!It's so jazzy/worthy/polite/aspirational!Give me some REAL jungle any day!I'm hard, no really! What can I say, they're all wrong. New Forms still slays with no apology whatsoever. There's whole worlds tucked away in these grooves, and I love all of them.
My biggest jungle record of the year, however, was even older! I'd finally managed to track down a copy of 4 Hero's Parallel Universe, and from then on it was never far from the soundsystem. On my lunch break I used to walk over to the Clairemont Bowl to grab a bite to eat, soak up the atmosphere, play some video games and map out the future. This was the soundtrack running through my mind during those sessions. Like UR once said, Something Happened On Dollis Hill. Despite being seven years old at the time, it seemed oddly in step with everything that was going on around me.
You could even make the case that it was some sort of foundational text in the whole endeavor, breaking away from rave and blurring the lines between everything that was then called urban music. Even in 2001, Dego and Marc Mac were still on fire. There was not only the Creating Patterns LP and the 2000 Black compilation, but the brilliant skewed electronica of Nu Era's Broken Techno EP. All of which were equally marked by their distance from the bygone days of jungle's reign. By this point, 4 Hero had long since left jungle behind.
Around the same time, Photek also departed from the drum 'n bass noir of of his previous records, heading into the deep blue waters of Solaris. Snakes and I were huge fans of the man's music. He'd tuned me into Modus Operandi years earlier, a record that we continued playing incessantly through the new millennium. Its claustrophobic, paranoid soundscapes split the difference between Pi and The Parallax View, twisting strange shapes and textures into a spectral work of foreboding. Far out!
Then out of nowhere Photek's making house music, still steeped in dread, but light years away from anything he'd previously done. Two unclassifiable breakbeat jams — Terminus and Junk — opened Solaris, hovering in darkness somewhere between jungle and trip hop with drums sounding like shearing metal, they plied a similar rough-edged b-boy vision as contemporary Terranova. It's all very Terminal Vibration. Paired with the pristine, ice cold synths of the record's denouement — the stretch of bleak trip hop in Halogen and Lost Blue Heaven through the stark isolationism of Under The Palms — it came on like an alternate soundtrack to Heat (shades of ECM in the wings). So lonely, but among palm trees.
The record's big surprise was it's dark heart of moody house music, beating in 4/4 time. Glamourama and Solaris molded the paranoid atmosphere of Modus Operandi to a pumping 4/4 beat, while Mine To Give and Can't Come Down both featured the vocals of Chicago house don Robert Owens. Reese basslines all over the shop. I'd been a big fan of Robert Owens through Tears and I'll Be Your Friend, in particular. For some reason, I was under the (mistaken) impression that Bobby Konders had produced the latter, probably due to some mix up in my mind with Jus' Friends' As One (the record Konders and Owens actually made together). Then there was that excellent Love Will Find Its Way box set that came out soon after, pulling his whole career into focus. That's an invaluable cache of modern soul right there.
All of this activity dovetailed beautifully with the night I picked up Roy Davis Jr.'s brilliant Traxx From The Nile album, which is the most lush, spiritual garage record you could ever hope for. Imagine a disco record that exists in the continuum of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Stevie WonderTalking Book and Curtis Mayfield's Roots, and you're still only halfway there. I remember like it was yesterday: I was staying on Mohawk for the week, where I'd lugged my system over to make beats, bombing back and forth between school, work and the record store in my uncle's truck. I walked out of the record store and into the night and put Traxx From The Nile into the player and just cruised around town, tunes like Remember The Day, About Love and even a live version of Rock Shock enveloping me in the vehicle's womb-like interior.
Ah yes, it's all coming back to me now! A flurry of records at the deep end: Glenn Underground's The Jerusalem EP's (jazz funk gets down at the disco). Marshall Jefferson's The Horse Is Coming (I used to zone out to its trancelike shapes, even if its rapid-fire/fast-forward electronic soul made it hard not to speed behind the wheel). Lil' Louis' From The Mind Of Lil' Louis and Journey With The Lonely, along with the French Kiss 12" with all the remixes (visionary, half-lit post-Prince/Jamie Principle odyshape house music... that's a story in it's own right). ALL the Paperclip People records (punk-disco to a man). Theo Parrish's First Floor (faded, low-slung deep house with all the rough edges still intact). Dubtribe Sound System's Bryant Street (which is 84% stunningLarry Levan-would-have-played-this-at-the-Paradise Garage Latin-tinged disco magic, 16% you wish dude wouldn't try rapping over some of the beats). Jungle Wonz's The Jungle (the missing link between Jamie Principle and The Last Poets). Larry Heard's all-instrumental classic Ammnesia.
That last one, the Mr. Fingers record, I couldn't even find at the time. I'd downloaded it and burned to disc, and then a little later only had a vinyl bootleg. It wasn't until Japan's P-Vine imprint6 reissued it a few years back that I finally had the real thing. You've got stone cold classics sure 'nuff, tracks like Can You Feel It, Washing Machine and Mystery Of Love, tracks everyone knows and loves, but then there's these shimmering, shadowy gems like Bye Bye, Amnesia and Let's Dance All Night tucked away on the b-side. Not to mention Stars, which is the square root of Lil' Louis' French Kiss (which is itself the square root of trance). Thinks back to teenage me exclaiming, What am I hearing?! What is this amazing music?!? Where has this been all my life?!?!?
Those burnished machine soul shapes of the Bye Bye/Amnesia/Let's Dance All Night trilogy seemed to hint at what he'd be up to in the coming decade, first with Mr. Fingers' Introduction and then his twin Sceneries Not Songs records. All of which were deep, downbeat house slates that infused his trademark warm electronic grooves with strong jazz and even Andreas Vollenweider-esque new age shapes (I always dug the way Moodymann pulled a similar trick with Runaway!). Headphone music. This was house music that worked alongside Massive Attack's Blue Lines, a connection made literal by Heard's remix of Any Love, as included on the eponymous Massive Attack EP.
Heard's tracks would even crop up on trip hop compilations like Mo Wax's Headz and Wall Of Sound's Give 'Em Enough Dope. I always wanted a copy of the Black Oceans 12", but it's inclusion on the Deep States compilation meant I'd still get to hear it. Against all odds, I did find his mid-nineties Alien LP at the Pacific BeachMusic Trader. That's a great record right there. The Dance Of Planet X is the direct link between jazzed-out nineties Larry Heard and all those eighties Mr. Fingers records. It's a sound one wishes had a higher profile in the mainstream of its day, after all it would have perfectly complemented what was happening in the twin worlds of r&b and techno. Even the jazz stations could have given it a look-in.
Heard developed this sound further yet with turn-of-the-century records like Genesis and Love's Arrival, which are exquisite late-night-city-lights music. Vibes. You even had that great Theo Parrish dub of Missing You on the 12", all spooked electronic high-pitched organs draped over a low-slung groove, sounding like something from The Parallax View. That's the name for a whole sub-genre I've been meaning to conjure up: Parallax House. Watch that take off! Hand to the forehead, it just came to me. See also Solaris and Green Velvet. Anyway, back to Larry Heard. Larry HeardLarry HeardLarry Heard. Larry Heard is the man. I dig nearly everything he's put out, but his earliest material is what lies closest to my heart (Ammnesia at the epicenter). Strangely enough, it always pairs in my mind with the early output of a certain duo from Dollis Hill...
No, not that pair, silly! I'm talking about Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain, aka The Future Sound Of London. FSOL's early beats have the same doesn't sound quite like anything else quality that Ammnesia does. On this score, their early releases are where it's at. The Earthbeat compilation rounds up a brace of some of their best material, starting with Stakker Humanoid and culminating with the splendid Accelerator LP. This is music that Snakes and I were mainlining on at the tail end of high school, and it wound up being a huge influence on what we were trying to do with the Aztek and Mettrex setups.
The records collected on Earthbeat7 were released under names like Mental Cube, Semi Real and Yage, along with prime material spread across the four-record series of Pulse EPs. This is prime breakbeat-driven techno, all surfaces shimmering across its rugged bottom end, it seems to split the difference between Acen and The Scientist on one hand, and Mr. Fingers and Rhythim Is Rhythim on the other. Like Cabaret Voltaire, it's the perfect soundtrack to the great cyberpunk film that hasn't yet been made. The stunning, derezzed sleeve art of both artists seems to bear this out. You can't beat the glitz of a track like Candese's You Took My Love, which more than anything else here harks back to Brian Dougans' earliest club-friendly material as Humanoid.
Which if you dig vocal dance music of the Inner City variety, or even hip house and freestyle for that matter, you really shouldn't sleep on. Last I checked, the 12"s are still pretty findable. This is flashy vocal club music firmly in step with the times (the times in this case being the late eighties). Stuttering samples everywhere. Back in the day, when all our records were at The Snakepit, I had a Humanoid cassette that I'd taped from the 12" singles for Slam and The Deep (which we'd found at Frankie Bones' Sonic Groove online shop!) and the Global Humanoid album. There's an almost undisclosed cache of acidic instrumentals hidden within as well, tracks like Cry Baby and Sunshine & Brick, not to mention that the record opens with that epochal slab of British acid Stakker Humanoid (here titled simply Humanoid).
Speaking of Inner City, I've gotta throw a little love in
Kevin Saunderson and Paris Grey's direction. Back in late '99, I was in the racks at the Hazard CenterWherehouse after getting off work (delivering Chinese food), when what do I see but this CD staring back at me. Inner City... I knew Ahnongay from Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation. Also that Inner City had mainly done vocal tracks. Could it be? It certainly looked like old Master Reese staring back at me, decked out in a leather trench coat and shades (like Morpheus before his time!). After consulting the credits and finding Saunderson's name, I made the plunge. It turned out to be the U.S. issue of their debut album. As someone who'd been primed on Faces & Phases and Deep Space Radio, I must admit I was shocked! In place of the heavy sonics I was accustomed to were a set of chipper club-friendly house trax!
Like Sly & The Family Stone, the shock gradually wore off and it became another favorite. I remember doing an 80s set on Stevie G.'s Radio E show around that time, and closing out the set with the Def Radio Mix of Inner CityWatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin' (which was included on this U.S. version in place of Power Of Passion). The full Knuckles/Morales Def Mix is truly something to behold, eight minutes of languid downbeat house perfection. To this day, I swear that you can hear the germ of Massive Attack in there somewhere
(Unfinished Sympathy, Weather Storm, et. al). I think its in the pianos somewhere, the sighing string section and the slow-motion splendor.
Incidentally, Power Of Passion is also a great tune. I'd always read it was lame, the critics seemed to concur that it was the worst track on the album, so I put off getting the original version of the album (titled Paradise) for years. They're all wrong, of course. A true anomaly within the context of the original album (which is probably why they hated it), it drags the tempos way down to a casual 909 shuffle, its combination of Gaussian-blurred synths and Grey's ethereal croon sounding like some improbable precursor to Kelis' digital sun-glazed ballads on 2001's Wanderland!
Which is quite stunning in itself. If I'm not mistaken, it never had an American release, which is insane! This is the sister record to N*E*R*D's In Search Of..., both of which achieved this weird détente between platinum rap (in sound) and neo soul (in spirit) right at the turn of the century. I always thought the atmosphere here bore a strong resemblance to UR's whole Nation 2 Nation series of records. Actually, at the time I had this whole fantasy of merging the two, r&b and techno in deep space. That was the idea with the Shadez Of Colour project (what do you think the Neptune Orbit One suite was all about!?). Ah, well, SA-RA beat me to it!
In Search Of... is nearly as good. I always thought Simon Reynolds' comparing this music to seventies Isley Brothers records like Harvest Of The World was incredibly apt. An astute observation. I'll make the claim that these are the best Neptunes productions until Hell Hath No Fury (with Wanderland being their best ever). I hear you with your Drop It Like It's Hots, your Hollaback Girls and even Toxic, but trust me, The Neptunes were never this good again. These 2001-era records are like 2001: A Space Odyssey, while all those others are more like 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Speaking of Toxic, I always thought that tune was The Neptunes trying their hand at sounding like Basement Jaxx. There was this great to-ing and fro-ing between Jaxx and American r&b at the time, with Remedy's U Can't Stop Me inspired by what Timbaland had been up to and then Missy Elliott's Miss E... So Addictive seeming to take a page out of the Jaxx's handbook. That's what it's all about: exchange of ideas. Meeting of the minds!
Man, I loved Basement Jaxx. They had this beautiful punk-disco thing going on, all frenetic edits and rough edges, that I just couldn't get enough of. I mean, I love Daft Punk as much as the next man, but put them head to head and for me it's no contest. I'm weird that way. And I always wished that the 48-second Gemilude had been stretched out into a full-length track! In passing, I just realized that I forgot to mention Gemini's A Moment Of Insanity (featuring the great Crossing Mars), Le Fusion and In Neutral in that wall of house paragraph earlier, all of which were in heavy rotation as well.
Jaxx even keyed into things like eighties electro boogie and freestyle on their sophomore album Rooty, riding the first stirrings of the crest that would culminate in the full-fledged 80s revival, and putting them right up my alley. Maybe less consistent than the debut, but the peaks? Romeo, Get Me Off, Breakaway and Where's Your Head At... oh my! The continuum running from Fly Life to Yo-Yo to Get Me Off to Lucky Star (although that last one's outside today's time frame, featuring as it does the great Dizzee Rascal) is an exquisite track-by-track five-year trajectory that speaks for itself.
One of Rooty's big eighties signposts was Prince, whose direct influence rapidly began to felt once again as the millennium turned. Most notably in Outkast's Stankonia, which found the duo spiking their Atlanta rap with a healthy dose of Paisley Park. Ms. Jackson! See also the Atomic Dog stylings of I'll Call Before I Come and Humble Mumble's intricate digital boogie. Echoes of Funkadelic, Mantronix, Miami bass and Mtume, Curtis Mayfield and Cameo, Electric Ladyland and the Minneapolis sound. Spinning them all off in myriad different directions, of course.8
It's all so patently at the ground floor of whole swathes of 21st century music that it winds up being the perfect place to end this (extended) riff. A little walk down memory lane that sets us up for the next monster segment, the final stretch of Terminal Vibration: the story of Machine Soul. Wherein the chassis of funk and soul are shot through with the cold silicon implements of electronics, RoboCop-style. New Detroit. The soundtrack to the future.
I remember thinking the same thing about Chicago's 25 Or 6 To 4, off of Chicago IX: Chicago's Greatest Hits, which was the oldest sounding record Pops listened to a lot. Although that's also the record that first got me acclimated to this era back in high school (Beginnings was the jam!).
I grew up with this crew's music. Pops had all the albums, even Donald Fagen's solo record The Nightfly. Countdown To Ecstasy, The Royal Scam and Aja were in heavy rotation working on projects in the garage. I've still got distinct memories of Bodhisattva and Kid Charlemagne kicking off a hard day's work. I also remember hearing the radio announcement that they were coming to town in '94, with the duo back together for the first time in nearly 15 years. This the summer of Warren G's Regulate and its integral use the groove from frequent Dan collaborator Michael McDonald's I Keep Forgettin'. That was cool.
I was gutted to hear of Walter Becker's passing last year. Like Bowie, the duo seemed like they'd be around forever. I always thought I'd get the chance to see them play live after their triumphant comeback at the turn of the century, a time when they seemed to come to town with some regularity. Just goes to show you: don't put these things off! (Perhaps appropriately) this piece isn't terribly organized or in-depth, just a deeply personal selection of random access memories of these beatnik denizens residing comfortably at the interface of rock and jazz in singular fashion.
I really came to Steely Dan's music around the turn of the century, when my brother Brian got into them in a big way. He was the skater getting down with the Purdie shuffle, knocking out a kickflip to The Caves Of Altamira. Around that time, we seemed to watch the great Aja documentary1 once a fortnight, in between movies like Tin Men, Scarface and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, videos that I'd check out from the Clairemont Library (where I was working at the time).
That's one of the great music documentaries ever, sidestepping the often gossipy tenor of the format and getting down to the nitty gritty of the music itself (images of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker hunched over the mixing desk, isolating tracks in playback!). The other highlight being giants like Wayne Shorter and Bernie Purdie showing up like it's no big deal. It dovetailed nicely with the era's studio experimentation with Snakes, our post-Slam/Keven Saunderson beats inspiring dreams of being the Steely Dan of techno(!)2Santiago, innit.
The thing with this music is that it made perfect sense in light of what I happened to be listening to anyway, current favorites like 4 Hero, Innerzone Orchestra, Erykah Badu and As One alongside the vintage sounds of Herbie Hancock, Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield, music that I'd only recently begun to explore (now that I was finally making decent money working at the library!). Even slightly earlier, I remember hearing Karma's Look Up Dere — in the context of Kruder & Dorfmeister's DJ-Kicks — and clocking the sample from The Royal Scam. I used to listen to Jazzanova's remix anthology an awful lot too.
My brother had all the albums so, due to that brotherly policy where you don't double up on albums the other one owns (since you can just borrow them down the hall),3 I didn't pick them up until a bit later. I remember the exact occasion like it was yesterday too: a young lady canceled a date with me the hour before, and rather than get all melancholy over the fact, I made a beeline for the Sports ArenaTower Records. My thinking being, hey, why not just spend the date money on records instead? Which of course turned it into a win/win situation in an instant!
I ended up scoring the bulk of both the Steely Dan and Bryan Ferry back catalogs (on sale, no less!), and then spent the rest of the day down at Mission Beach listening to them. I used to keep a beach chair stashed in my truck for just such occasions. Memories of the summer sun setting over the Pacific Ocean to the strains of Deacon Blues. Languid and bittersweet, and so on and so forth. That turned out to be a pretty good day.
Not long after, I picked up the two new records — Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, along with Fagen's solo debut The Nightfly. The latter record's central conceit mirroring my own fantasies of somehow scoring a late night slot on some local radio station, deep in the mix after midnight playing a selection of Recloose, UR and BFC records. My other foundational memory is of those landlocked mid-summer days back in '95, my brother and I chilling out to the sun-glazed daydream slipstream of China Crisis (two albums of whose were Becker-produced), beats melting into the urban haze.
If it's difficult to separate the music from the memories in this case, such are they so closely intertwined, it's even more so trying to choose a favorite album. Theirs is a discography you almost want to take in as a whole rather than anything more piecemeal, the whole story stretching the length of its expanse, creeping into its nooks and crannies. With key tracks like Razor Boy, Any World That I'm Welcome To and Third World Man never making the compilations, the singles don't even tell half the story!
And I couldn't do without the (totally atypical) Byrds-reminiscent hoedown With A Gun, even if the band themselves seem rater unimpressed by the track.
As such, it's difficult to land on a favorite album. At various times it's been the relatively rugged Countdown To Ecstasy, The Royal Scam's overcast dread, Katy Lied's perfect fusion of both sides of the coin and (more recently) the sleek shapes of Gaucho. I still go back and forth. Sometimes I think that against all odds Can't Buy A Thrill is the one, with all the rough edges the debut outing entails. After all, Do It Again still sounds like the blueprint for the whole nineties Dust Brothers aesthetic. 'Nuff flavor!
Complicating matters further is that the original 1970s Greatest Hits has what might be their greatest sleeve of all,4 while FM (recorded for the soundtrack to the film of the same name)5 came out a year later, thus missing the cut. Aja is a near perfect record (the volcanic build up to Wayne Shorter's solo in the title track, swoon!), but I always thought I Got The News let down the side a little bit. Maybe I should cook up a little playlist?
At the end of the day, Steely Dan, with their beatnik vibes and smart-ass sensibility, coupled with a supreme knack for penning a killer tune, often came out head and shoulders above many of their more serious peers.6 As such, it seemed like checking in with these cats was the perfect way to sign off with the canyon, for instance, seeing as these eternal outsiders technically weren't even canyon figures at all!
The duo's search for studio perfection found them staring the machine squarely in the eye (see Gaucho's state-of-the-art production techniques, sequenced rhythms, etc.), standing in stark contrast to the longhair, loose-fitting spirit of the times (the be-suited jazz interface meets Kraftwerk?). That's a pretty far-sighted move, in retrospect. It's the perfect rejoinder to bring us back to the Room's normal mode of operation and into the realm of Terminal Vibration's final chapter: 1980 and the interface of machine soul.
Knee deep in the canyon, we pick up where we left off four years ago with the Autumn 2018 episode of Radio AG for your listening pleasure. Kicking off with a slew of rock hard canyon breaks, we shift gears from country rock into baroque pop and then bluesy rock 'n roll, ultimately hitting the homestretch checking into the marina for departure... strap yourselves in for an excursion into L.A.'s desert origins.
The Parallax Sound LabRadio AG Intro
Greetings from San Diego...
From the bad Brother's solo debut, Pacific Ocean Blue, which negotiates The Beach Boys' sunshine pop in the overcast haze of late 1970s malaise. Dig the no-nonsense wall of pressure in that downbeat riverboat groove, not to mention the mile-high horn section in the towering chorus.
Little FeatStrawberry FlatsWarner Bros.
Raw roots rock from Lowell George's band of L.A. outlaws, Little Feat's debut is completely indispensable, packed with indelible tune after tune in a stunning eleven song sequence. Like much of the record, this is driven by the heavy, low-slung breakbeats of Richie Hayward, complemented here by the brilliant piano lines of Bill Payne. The Clash in denim.
Carole KingSweet SweetheartOde
From King's oft-overlooked debut album, which exists in the shadow of her sophomore smash Tapestry. Lacking the trademark lush production that Lou Adler would later lend to that record (along which most of those on his Ode imprint), this was produced instead John Fischbach, with rougher edges than elsewhere but the added bonus of rock hard beats in the driver's seat. Shades of Stax/Volt may be felt between the lines.
Stephen StillsRock & Roll Crazies/Cuban BluegrassAtlantic
More hip hop-ready canyon breaks, this time from Dallas Taylor on the Stephen Stills-helmed Manassas project, a canyon supergroup of sorts also including bassist extraordinaire Chris Hillman. Casually funky inna Wooden Ships/Cowboy Movie stylee, there's definite traces of Stills' love for Caribbean music in the extended bridge. A great record, Manassas.
I'd always figured Mohawk's loosely funky 1975 self-titled album was my pick, but the multifaceted vision of Primordial Lovers crept up on me in a big way over the last year, plowing as it does a deeper furrow. The almost ESP Disk-style ramshackle folk/funk pile up of Spiral even presages the later album, while also harking back to Erica Pomerance's mind-blowing You Used To Think.
Bob DylanQuinn The Eskimo The Mighty QuinnColumbia
More funky canyon breaks, from Dylan himself this time, while in the thick of his country rock phase. Taken from the oft-maligned Self Portrait, which is actually a true grab bag of delights in the tradition of The Basement Tapes. The Mighty Quinn was later covered by Manfred Mann to great effect, however its the ridiculous, ramshackle charm of Dylan's original that remains closest to my heart.
This genial country rock tune, with its casually funky groove and rolling percussion breakdown, spun me 'round the first time I heard it. I just wasn't expecting this sort of magic in the band's late period albums — but like The Beach Boys' contemporary records — they're littered with them (see also Bad Night At The Whiskey and Lover Of The Bayou)! Taken from Ballad Of Easy Rider, the second album by The Mk. II Byrds, this features the lead vocals of John York (who also wrote the tune). One for the dog lovers out there.
The Flying Burrito BrosHot Burrito #2A&M
Peerless country rock from Gram's gang. Always loved this one's melding of sweet piano-led sentiment and fuzzed up frenzy, culminating in heavy organ and Parsons' exasperated cry of Jesus Christ! in the chorus. The chord progression that accompanies the So it goes bridge is simply magical. This tune exemplary of The Bros visionary fusion of soul and country, also seen in the band's choice of covers (Do Right Woman and Dark End Of The Street).
Sublime acid-fried country from the second incarnation of Arthur Lee's Love, also known as garage era-Love (so named by me — just now — for the fact that the sessions were recorded in an abandoned warehouse). Dig the track's galloping (there's no other way to put it) cinematic thrust, riding roughshod over its rambling verse with a churning chorus and quintessentially Love-style bridge. Exiting just before the extended coda, and fading into...
Crazy HorseBeggars DayReprise
'Nuff dread, Beggars Day seems to exist as pure pressure, bearing down on the listener with its diamond-hard attack. When that savage organs enters the fray in the chorus, the effect is massive. Like Little Feat, Crazy Horse's debut is indispensable, dragging country rock down into the depths of the subconscious with the ragged glory that one would expect from the crew that Neil Young turned to whenever he really wanted to rock out.
EaglesToo Many HandsAsylum
Rolling, filmic country rock — with killer apocalyptic harmonies in the climax — from this band of canyon desperadoes, and one of the biggest bands of the era. That this song is almost obscure (or as obscure as an Eagles song can be, not making either of the band's Greatest Hits) is surprising. I'd never heard this song before picking up the album, and it just might be my favorite thing by the band. Why isn't this on classic rock radio?! Certainly beats that Life In The Fast Lane nonsense!!
David AxelrodThe SmileCapitol
Impossibly lush baroque-jazz-psychedelic magic from David Axelrod's debut, with its towering chamber orchestra stylings balanced atop the funky framework of Carol Kaye's basslines and Earl Palmer's breakbeats. The original soundtrack in search of a film, this almost seems made with the nineties in mind (see also Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST). That the Rolling Stone hated it is an added bonus!
Shawn PhillipsLookin' Up Lookin' DownA&M
Mini-epic movement from right smack in the middle of Shawn Phillips' Second Contribution, a flowing suite of orchestral progressive folk. Lookin' Up Lookin' Down echoes the record's central melodic motif, outlined from the beginning, in a subdued, downbeat setting that gradually builds to a slow-motion crescendo adorned by Phillips' arcing falsetto to breathtaking effect. I'd venture that fans of Scott Walker would dig this.
Captain BeyondRaging River Of FearCapricorn
West Coast metal in full effect! Shades of space rock too, in a high desert stylee. That crunchy riff, rock-hard beats and rolling bassline hit you like a kick in the chest, nimble to a level you'd hardly expect from such hard rocking music.
Iron ButterflyIron Butterfly ThemeATCO
The flipside of the coin, Iron Butterfly's sludgy dirge Iron Butterfly Theme drags its tail across the desert sand like a dejected brontosaurus. This is stoner metal avant la lettre, its searing guitars crying to the heavens as sub-Doors organ runs and a throbbing bassline barely propels it all forward. You wouldn't like it...
L.A.'s other great folk rock institution gets down with some tasty lounge lizard action on their sophomore album, Buffalo Springfield Again. In many ways Neil Young's album (as George Harrison is to Revolver), featuring songs like Expecting To Fly and Broken Arrow, Everydays — a quintessential Stephen Stills moment — is nevertheless a highlight of the record.
The Mamas & The PapasGot A Feelin'Dunhill
Sublimely baroque folk pop from the canyon's first family, this ethereal ballad off the debut presages the lush turn the band later would take on Deliver. Gorgeously understated, with a languid, hypnotic sway, this is every bit the equal of the record's more famous moments like Monday Monday and California Dreamin'.
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana BrassThe Lonely Bull El Solo ToroA&M
Driving the point home with my whole Mamas/Tijuana Brass equations (illustrated most explicitly on Boys & Girls Together) with this laidback instrumental from Herb Alpert's debut LP. Self-released on his own A&M imprint, The Lonely Bull was the record that launched his empire in the first place. Squint and you'll find shades of Morricone tucked away in there...
The ZodiacTaurus - The VoluptuaryElektra
I've already gone on about this record in detail, and now you get to hear a little bit of it. Taurus - The Voluptuary represents the record at its most dreamlike and mellow. I'm only sorry that I couldn't include more of the track, with its eerie mood and spectral textures. Still, it's more than enough to set up Spirit for the lay up.
After all, there's only one Spirit. This is choice material from their debut, its verses the very definition of languid even as they build to the exquisitely britpoppy chorus (see also Uncle Jack). Later sampled by Peanut Butter Wolf to great effect on My Vinyl Weighs A Ton, one of those great moments of trans-Californian continuity.
Captain Beefheart & His Magic BandWhere There's WomanBuddah
Beefheart's debut album at its most overcast and foreboding (alongside Autumn's Child), I often think this bears more than a passing resemblance to the doom-laden atmosphere often conjured by Jefferson Airplane. Of course the track's rolling tom tom chorus is pure abstract blues, and just the sort of thing you'd expect from the good Captain.
The DoorsShip Of FoolsElektra
This has long been one of my favorite Doors moments, sounding like little else around. Superb contrast between the bouncy verses and the moody modal jazz shapes of the bridge, linking the band's dusty late-period blues material to their earlier Gothic psychedelia. It's also an invaluable conduit between peak-era psychedelia and 70s jazz fission as exemplified by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, which brings us to...
Gabor SzaboAmazonBlue Thumb
Signaling our arrival into marina territory, Gabor Szabo and Bobby Womack play dueling guitars over a sensually smooth proto-jazz funk rhythm. This is the greatest exotica track that never gets mentioned when discussing exotica (images of James Bond poolside spring to mind). You can't knock the effortless panache on display here.
Crosby, Stills & NashDark StarAtlantic
Overcast yacht disco from the canyon's golden trio (after all, they're actually on a yacht on the record's sleeve). I've always noted (perhaps hallucinated) virtual links with Bowie's The Secret Life Of Arabia and Franz Ferdinand's Outsiders, that same sense of ghost ships running down the horizon. That there are great, compact harmonies almost goes without saying...
Warren ZevonJoin Me In L.A.Asylum
Understated monster groove from Zevon's debut, this is the square root of Nighttime In The Switching Yard (not to mention Ian Dury, Chris Rea and Sandinista!. Night drive music. The half-lit, neon-tinged mood here remarkably evocative, shearing as it does into weary-eyed 3 a.m. disco in the coda.
Tim BuckleySweet SurrenderWarner Bros.
The track John Lydon played on Capitol Radio back in 1977 on Tommy Vance's show. Its leisurely, snaking rhythm perfectly continuing the mood of the Zevon track, this song's erotic canyon sway lies directly in the kosmische drift of Buckley's Gypsy Woman, to which it's a more than worthy follow up. The spectral strings a particularly winning touch.
Joni MitchellEdith And The KingpinAsylum
From The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell's 1975 jazz-tinged paradise. I'm a huge fan of this era of the woman's music, there's so much to explore and get lost in. As I've said before, this goes down a treat with turn-of-the-century tech jazz and r&b (errant glimpses too of Stereolab). Edith And The Kingpin strangely (and effortlessly) moving.
Beaver & KrausePeace Three RecapNonesuch
I was originally planning to sign off with Gandharva's Good Places, but switched to this blissful fragment of 1968 electronica at the last minute. Part of the reason I was initially disappointed with this duo's later work is that this sounds exactly like Boards Of Canada's Music Has The Right To Children about thirty years ahead of schedule.
Fragile and divine, it's a fitting end to our little desert journey...
RAG018: The Records
Time stretching: Slye and Nautilus Jones.
Vibes: Boz Scaggs, Greetings From L.A., Canned Heat, Fifth Dimension, Don Van Vliet, Palm Desert, Merle Haggard, The Omega Man, Kirk Degiorgio, The Soft Parade, Steely Dan, Fiona Apple, Whatever Happened To Benny Santini?, Assault On Precinct 13, The Electric Prunes, MoWest, Jimi Tenor, The Island At The Top Of The World, Ian O'Brien, River Blindness, Janet Jackson, Wavelength, Public Image Ltd.
Note: Radio AG interstitials accompanied by recurring samples from Beaver & Krause's The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music.
Once I posted the final cut of the Geology 35 last week, I began to have a nagging suspicion that I'd forgotten something. An unintentional omission, perhaps. It was there hanging in the back of my mind, gradually coalescing into a vague outline, seeming to be something at the David Axelrod/Fifty Foot Hose end of the spectrum. And then it hits me, Monday afternoon: I hadn't made an omission... I made the omission.
The omission was this little record, Cosmic Sounds, credited to a group called The Zodiac. Standing at the axis of The Byrds' Fifth Dimension, David Axelrod's Song Of Innocence and The Doors' self-titled debut, its emblematic of the entire L.A. beatnik trip melting into the long tail of psychedelia. It's the post-jazz slipstream of folk art's molten ore and studio-brewed sonic honey seeping down the cracks in the canyon, animating pictographs on the sandstone walls as they spring to life, dancing to the rhythms in stark relief against the night sky. Just check that sleeve art!
Fortunately, it's not too late to slip it in as November's Tile Of The Month, an appropriate climax
to a simple two weeks in the canyon that transformed into an extended expedition downwards into canyongeology. So consider this an ornate and baroquely executed exclamation point to the whole affair, a Coda in the true Led Zeppelin sense of the word, illustrating the sacred geometry of this sprawling landscape and driving the point home.
Cosmic Sounds was initially envisioned by none other than Elektra head honcho Jac Holzman, inspired by the possibilities opened up by The Doors' self-titled debut. Songs like Light My Fire, The Crystal Ship and The End were a heady brew of visionary composition (at the nexus of post-jazz, rock and moody pop), extended (but tightly-reigned) jamming, smoldering atmosphere (props to Paul Rothchild) and Jim Morrison's portentous beatnik delivery. The band seemed to conjure up these great, writhing grooves that would twist and turn like moonlit shadows in the darkness, sounding utterly unique in the process — like nothing else before or since.
Holzman envisioned an experimental rock record that dove headfirst into the cresting sound of psychedelia, feathering in spoken word poetry and the newly unveiled sounds of the Moog synthesizer. On one hand, this could be flagged by more cynical minds as an attempt to cash in on a craze, particularly in light of Holzman's subsequent signing of bands like Clear Light, with their unavoidable similarities to the sound of Mr. Morrison's gang.
However, I'd argue that in addition to being a savvy businessman, Holzman was also a dreamer. One need look no further than projects like the Paxton Ranch endeavor, with Holzman willing to shell out $50,000 for a songwriter's retreat in hopes of conjuring up a rootsy Band-like atmosphere,1 or his taking a chance on synthesizers before there was even a market with records like Beaver & Krause's The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music.
Or for that matter, setting up Nonesuch Records in the first place, first as an outlet for budget classical releases aimed at the youth market, and then a home for experimental (and often synth-fueled) works to make inroads with the public. There was even the NonesuchExplorer Series, devoted to bringing recordings of music from around the world to ears that otherwise wouldn't encounter them. Passion projects the lot of them, these were all chances taken in the name of adventure.
Holzman approached producer Alex Hassilev (who also played with folk trio The Limeliters) with the initial idea for the project, who began to assemble a crew to make Jac Holzman's vision a reality. His first recruit was songwriter and arranger Mort Garson, who'd written Our Day Will Come for Ruby & The Romantics2 and handled arrangements for some mid-sixties Esther Phillips sessions. The two began rooting around for a concept and eventually settled on a song cycle inspired by the twelve signs of the zodiac. Garson penned a suite of material that would turn out to be the perfect vehicle for Holzman's grand visions, and then set about gathering a motley crew of musicians to realize them.
The nucleus of the group would be three musicians from The Wrecking Crew: pianist Mike Melvoin (father of Wendy Melvoin of Wendy & Lisa fame) and the crack rhythm section of bassist Carol Kaye and drummer Hal Blaine. The Wrecking Crew were an extended group of studio musicians who had played on scores of L.A. recordings sessions, including The Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man and The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (you know, minor records like that). Vibes man Emil Richards would handle percussion, while Bud Shank — who'd played the famous flute solo in California Dreamin' — would provide his trademark flourishes to the proceedings.
The hidden x-factor of The Zodiac was to be Paul Beaver, who was still in the process of hooking up with partner in crime Bernie Krause (the synth duo met during this record's gestation). An early adopter of the Moog synthesizer (perhaps the early adopter), he was to provide synths and electronic treatments in post-production, further bolstering the otherworldly atmosphere of the proceedings. Consequently, Cosmic Sounds is the first appearance of the Moog synthesizer on a rock record.
Rounding out this ad hoc psychedelic proposition was the Persian minstrel of Barham Boulevard,3Cyrus Faryar. He'd serve as narrator, tour guide for the group's extended voyages, reciting the accompanying poetry (written by Jacques Wilson) in beatnik spoken-word style. Sounding something like a distant relative to both Jim Morrison and Eden Ahbez (the original don), he'd anchor the band's psychedelic meanderings to the hard concept outlined by Mort Garson.
As mentioned before, The Zodiac's Cosmic Sounds was — appropriately enough — inspired by the zodiac itself. Garson's song cycle comprises twelve individual songs, each one devoted to one of the twelve signs of the zodiac, each one inspired and colored by the mythological traits associated with its respective sign. Its sleeve emblazoned with the legend MUST BE PLAYED IN THE DARK, this is a head elpee in the truest sense of the word, a prog rock trip before The Nice had even got around to inventing prog in the first place.
It's also an acid rock freakout to match the frenzy going on in contemporary San Francisco, albeit one with a candy-coated Technicolor sheen (like all those moments when old Disney films would suddenly jackknife into the psychedelic, this long before the dawn of psychedelia entered the popular imagination). Like the sleeve art (by Abe Gurvin and William S. Harvey), it's a tightly-executed foray into the wonderful world of the florid and surreal. It's an ornate soundtrack to the movie of your mind, and it all begins when you put the needle 'pon the record...
It all opens with Paul Beaver coaxing a siren song from his Moog, and Aries - The Fire Fighter launches into a cosmic rave up of sorts, beat set to overdrive and replete with spooked glass keyboards that echo 'round the soundscape and blend in terror with the synthetics in an alchemized information overload of Future Shock proportions. Then the beat drops out into a web of sitars descending from the ether. Cyrus intones, Mars, the master matchmaker, sulphurizes the sky... incendiary diamonds scorched the earth!
And the rush continues, beats banging once again, organs set to attack this time. Carol Kaye's phenomenal low-slung bassline propels it all forward with the selfsame shades that she'd later bring to David Axelrod's Song Of Innocence, yet the beats aren't Earl Palmer's hip hop be bop breaks but Hal Blaine's inna full-on Scooby Doo chase scene rave up stylee (who's driving this flyin' umbrella?)! And leave it to Beaver, there's those intergalactic sound effects tumbling into the mix again, before the band smash into one last rave up for the road.
Shading into the pastoral after that opening onslaught, Taurus - The Voluptuary opens on a gently grinding bass figure before the flutes of Bud Shank enter the fray. His flutes a constant, haunting presence running right through the record from here on out. Spooked organs crash the party for but a moment, and Cyrus announces Taurus: broad-shouldered bearer of hope! At this point, we're comfortably in downbeat mode and a damn sight closer to David Axelrod territory, albeit with a handful of freaky touches thrown in for good measure. That spooked organ refrain is still hanging around there, dropping in and out of the mix like an errant thought you just can't seem to shake.
Treated harpsichords and a drone herald another razor-thin chase beat, and Gemini - The Cool Eye leaps into a gently soaring chord progression (one that seems to contain the germ of the theme from the great Island At The Top Of The World, if you can believe that!). Shades of mystery and some sword-and-sandal epic linger, before that haunting flute refrain returns on balance, leading into the breakdown whence Faryar intones, Five keen senses, five versatile fingers. Gemini! Adding up the day impatient to be done.4
Eerie strings hang on the horizon in the unfolding of Cancer - The Moon Child's spooked intro, spaced-out treatments from Paul Beaver hover in among the tree tops. Carol Kaye's churning bassline presages another rave up, this time somewhat subdued in tempo. On one hand the most acid rock of the tracks on the record, with some tasty (uncredited) guitar licks in evidence, but on the other it veers the closest to soundtrack music (think Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory!) when it all explodes into a fluttering flute passage — replete withs bells! — even if it does recede back into Beaver's spooked-out atmospherics. It seems we're back where we started, tangled in a frieze of spooked strings, before a harpsichord-driven section pilots us toward the extended outro, synth baubles spilling over its entirety.
A Byrds-esque folk rock guitar figure kicks off Leo - The Lord Of Lights, before more of those mystical soundtrack progressions soar into view. Strangely enough, there's an almost proto-Numan quality to the synths, perhaps shades too of Neu! and Harmonia? Then again, maybe it's just my imagination running away with me! The rock beat kicks into a boom, boom, boom... boom, boom, boom tattoo before breaking off again. Medieval organs creep into view. It's like some mutant relative of both Fifth Dimension and Rubber Soul, that mysterious second cousin who never goes out and turns out to have been painting the Sistine Chapel on his living room ceiling all along.
Five o'clock doesn't end the work day. Virgo's nimble watchmaker mind ticks on... Clocks tick and a cyclical guitar riff shuffles beneath another prime flute foray from Bud Shank. Then, Virgo - The Perpetual Perfectionist swoops into an ethereal string breakdown. Sitars and harpsichords duel with Beaver's treated percussion — either Buchla-derived sonix or sourced from Richards himself — and then bleeps ahoy! A circle is perfect, but the world isn't round... Virgo can prove it!5
Needless to say the complexity of Garson's score is a constant treat throughout, with these idiosyncratic tunes sweeping and swerving with frequent surprises and left turns. Notably, Garson would go on to blaze a trail in early electronica alongside Beaver & Krause, with records like Lucifer's Black Mass and The Wozard Of Iz: An Electronic Odyssey.6 He even later masterminded a series of albums as Signs Of The Zodiac for A&M, comprised twelve records — each devoted to a different astrological sign — all released within the span of the year 1969!
Side two opens with Libra - The Flower Child, at which point things begin to get real. Emil Richards is in the driver's seat now, coaxing the track along with what sounds like a talking drum (in the liners he's credited only with exotic percussion). Sitars pulse and bend through the track, and the patter of tablas snake in and out of earshot. By far the most serene of the tracks yet, its sound evidence of the possibilities inherent in the combination of post-war 1950s open-minded exploration of globe-spanning music with the implied mind-expansion of the nascent counterculture (by now in full swing).
This is just the sort of thing that we have to look forward to in krautrock, and sure enough this record could be read as a blueprint (alongside Jefferson Airplane) for large swathes of the Amon Düül II discography. You can just picture the searing vocals of Renate Knaup over the top! Shades too perhaps of Nino Rota's haunting score to Fellini Satyricon, that same nagging sense of wistful melancholy one finds in its recurring five note refrain.
A martial rhythm and synth sonix straight off a Future Sound Of London record open Scorpio - The Passionate Hero, before descending into a tailspin of a staccato rhythm infested with the repetition of a dissonant organ tattoo boring into your skull. Passion is the true aphrodisiac, need is a burning journey. Bleeps scatter off into the horizon, soaring over a rolling percussive figure, the acid lines of a fuzz guitar railing against its surface. That beat returns alone in the last thirty seconds, tumbling and sounding super tricky this time, and you note the sheer Jaki Liebezeit-ness of it all.
Bells ring in the the technicolor dreamtime circus of Sagittarius - The Versatile Daredevil. Like the previous track, this is an expressionistic outing that seems intent on a literal recreation of its title (as opposed to the other songs' more impressionistic modes). Above the cacophony, bleeps spiral through the echo-chamber in a Fifty Foot Hose stylee.7 Interesting to note that Cosmic Sounds came out the day beforeThe Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, both records linking the lysergic dislocation of psychedelia with the chaos of the circus.
Now this is more like it! Capricorn - The Uncapricious Climber begins with Mike Melvoin working the scales on electric piano, to which Cyrus replies Eight notes scale an octave, master the scale and you master the score, in a gloriously dead-eyed intro. Stumbling into a dragging dirge with bleeps in the ether, this protracted organ and sitar journey is haunted by Shank's bass flute and savage, low-slung guitars tweaked and shredded against the deep black of night. We're talking Funkadelic's March To The Witch's Castle territory here, no joke. Cyrus concludes, Saturn's musician plays as written, and in the end, people listen.
Crystal notes hang high, haunting in the heavens, before the comforting sounds of an electric organ (shades of Duck, You Sucker) ring in Aquarius - The Lover Of Life. Watery organs flow throughout, and Emil Richards tickles the vibes inna spaced-out lacuna, sitars plucked in time to the shuffling rhythm. Lost in contemplation, sand dunes of the mind, and an aside from Cyrus that four-thousand dreams may decay into indigo dust.
It's stately, an understated epic: this doesn't have the stark modernism of David Axelrod's tight arrangements, but instead hinges on an axis of baroque counterpoint shot through with the florid colors of contemporary psychedelia. Part of this record's appeal lies in its mastery of vivid tonal coloring and texture. Indeed, there's not a bland note in sight, not a moment run of the mill. It's everything you'd hope possible in the year 1967: this record's a time capsule in the very best sense of the word, in that once you crack it open you're transported back there again. Timeless, in other words.
Pisces - The Peace Piper is the final movement of this record's astrological suite, opening with a plaintive harpsichord motif punctuated by the eerie sound of a struck bell, its resonance detuned in the decay to disconcerting effect. This sounds exactly like moments in Ron Grainer's splendid score to The Omega Man (I wonder if he had a copy of Cosmic Sounds lying around). My shorthand always placed that soundtrack as Axelrod-inspired, but this bears an even greater resemblance to that score's general atmosphere.8
In another eerie sonic prediction, there's some strange collision of Bud Shank's flutes and Paul Beaver's synths that sounds just like those piercingly sweet synths from Ashra's New Age Of Earth (particularly on Deep Distance). Emil Richards vibes — this time ever-so-slightly dissonant — truss up the bridge to the song's second phase, in which rolling tablas spar with a bass flute looming in the mist. Then, it cuts into a plaintive harpsichord solo and then pastoral atmosphere, before being undercut by droning bass notes seemingly imbued with great import. It's a supreme winding-down of these proceedings before a final showing of the struck bells in sequence (once again, très Omega Man!), and then it ends on a hanging note struck into the darkness...
In a sense, I'm glad that I forgot to include record in the far-reaching Geology 35, because it afforded a larger canvas to devote firstly to its many facets. It connects with so many of the threads tracing their way through the canyon, from the acid psychedelia of The Byrds' Fifth Dimension and The Electric Prunes to the baroque arrangements of David Axelrod and The Mamas & The Papas and the beatnik vibes of Eden Ahbez (and the collision of all three in the works of The Doors, Love and Spirit).
Secondly, this record had a rather outsized influence beyond what its no-show status in the rock lists might suggest. Por ejemplo, Roger Waters credited this record as a prime inspiration for some of Pink Floyd's wilder freakouts on Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, its scattered rave ups prefiguring as they do classic astral rock like Astronomy Domine and Interstellar Overdrive. Floyd keyed into the record's most chaotic corners, amplifying them in their wildly phased forays into inner-space (with Syd Barrett the crazy diamond star around which it all orbits).
Conversely, The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward admitted that the record had a profound shaping influence on his group's impossibly lush The Days Of Future Passed, and you can see it all laid out in Technicolor: the ambitious, baroque arrangements, the spoken word interludes and the general conceptual thrust. The record takes on the mantle of Cosmic Sounds' ornate arrangements at their most colorful, fleshing them out with a full orchestra in tow and leaving the freakouts to the acid rockers.
I'd even hazard a guess as to some other possible points of influence. I can hear its eerie, baroque arrangements in Genesis' From Genesis To Revelation and it's overcast filmic sweep in Barış Manço's peak-era psychedelic funk. This record exudes the sixties in a way that I envisioned them as a youth, before you begin to discover all the various currents that make up an era in all its complexity (folk, blues rock, sunshine pop, free jazz, etc.). This is pure atmospheric psychedelia, arranged to perfection.
Special note should be made of Carol Kaye's stellar basswork throughout. After all, her basslines — coupled with Earl Palmer's breakbeat drumming — are the peerless rhythm section upon which David Axelrod would later balance his orchestra. The record is very much cut from a similar cloth, albeit one aligned more in line the freakout spirit of the day (as opposed to that record's stately orchestral splendor). I tend to hear Axelrod's records — particularly Earth Rot — as a continuation of this same visionary impulse.
In the same way that Axelrod's Song Of Innocence was rumored to have inspired Miles Davis protracted exploration of psychedelic rock figures with Bitches Brew (along with the records to come in its wake), I wonder how much The Zodiac's own experiments played into David Axelrod's grand visions to come. Even his Soul Zodiac record — produced with Cannonball Adderley and The Nat Adderley Sextet — seems an attempt to recreate this record's dynamic in a freaked-out, psychedelic jazz funk context: from the wild slabs of acid rock noise over ten-story tall breakbeats, right down to Rick Holmes spoken word narration.
It's a testament of the fortuitous confluence of ideas — between Jac Holzman, Alex Hassilev and Mort Garson (not to mention all musicians involved) — that its implications turned out to be so broad and far-reaching beyond the elusive promise of a one off-experiment.
However, it's worth noting in passing that Cosmic Sounds actually exists as part of a loose trilogy, one which was recorded in a flurry during the first half of 1967. The first sessions were for the New Sound Elements "Stones" LP, a jazz date credited to vibes man Emil Richards. It features largely the same personnel (with the minor substitution of Joe Porcaro for Hal Blaine behind the kit). Notably Richards would go on to record the dawn-of-Indo jazz record Journey To Bliss as Emil Richards & The Microtonal Blues Band.
The other album rounding out this trilogy is Hall Blaine's Psychedelic Percussion, which followed up his relatively straightforward surf rock debut Drums! Drums! À Go Go with a deeply strange slab of skittering psychedelia. It's thoroughly of a piece with the Cosmic Sounds and Stones outings, albeit one with a heavier emphasis — as one might expect — placed of killer breakbeats and tricky percussion. Taken together, the three records stand astride 1967 at a particularly unique angle, quite unlike anything else recorded in what turned out to be a banner year for pop music... one for the record books.
Truth be told, The Zodiac feels like the conceptual centerpiece around which those other records orbit, a kind of freaked out sequel to The Byrds' Fifth Dimension and unruly precursor to David Axelrod's trilogy of sixties records (in true Station To Station fashion). It's a crucial record lodged right in there, hovering in the background of the L.A. mystic like a spectral reminder of possibilities unleashed in broad strokes and big ideas (not to mention a healthy dose of studio magic).
Haunting the cosmic canyons, its reverberations are felt throughout the surrounding terrain until you return to it once again, those sounds ensconced within that faded time capsule, and you're transported back to the heady realm of Cosmic Sounds.
Indeed, Ron Grainer's soundtrack to The Omega Man is another one that I could have included in the Golden 35, documenting as it does that film's evocation of the sprawling desolation and loneliness of a deserted, post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
Now we go Into The Mystic as Van Morrison might say, venturing beyond the cozy climes of Laurel Canyon and assorted outposts into the realm of the metaphysical(!). That's right, now it's time for a little (psycho)geography lesson delving into the sounds beneath the sound. This is the music that lies at the fringes of canyon proper, framing the era and and putting its context in stark relief within the history books. Be it psychedelia, garage punk, yacht disco or the avant garde, this is all music that touches the records found in The Canyon 25 in some way, either in the form of trace deposits found within the music itself or as an edifice that the canyon defined itself against.
Nearly all of these records originate from L.A. (or at least Southern California), and the rare exceptions are nonetheless inexorably linked to the discussion. Many of these records represent a music and culture that the canyon scene saw itself as a respite from (psychedelia, garage punk), while others were freely acknowledged antecedents in the logical progression (folk rock, jazz, baroque pop). Some plainly represent what the canyon sound ultimately mutated into as the decade wore on (yacht) and the sounds that came in its wake (rootsy punk and alternative). Some figures from the canyon do manage to crop up in both lists, but only the ones who managed to somehow transcend the era with a combination of stylistic breadth and all-encompassing vision.
So what's the story then? As much as Tim Buckley's Happy Sad or Spirit's self-titled debut, this is all music that I can hear when I step outside every day to greet the California dawn. You can practically feel it emanating from the cracks in the pavement, embedded in the geology itself and running beneath your feet like an electric charge, through the canyons, ravines and riverbeds, stretching out in every direction: north toward the Sierra Nevada mountains and down south into Baja California, stretching east toward the vast deserts of Anza Borrego and the Mojave, and west into the Pacific Ocean. It practically haunts every corner of the landscape, a spectral reminder of days of future passed.
So let's take a look into these secret sounds, hidden like whispers beneath the rocks and soil, a chronology measured not in strata and sediment but in records and songs. Like minerals locked into the sand and stones, it all lies dormant, waiting: a spectral reminder of sound and visions sprung from the corridors of this Golden State and the lives lived within it, all through the long drawn passage of time. In the spirit of geology, we'll do this thing chronologically, starting us out at the dawn of the sixties. Yeah, I thought about beginning with cool jazz and figures like Chet Baker and Stan Getz, but that's all shadowy pre-history, and a whole other tale of its own.
When it comes to today's story, it all starts with Eden Ahbez...
A man ahead of his time, living free up in the hills above L.A. — long before the word hippie had entered common parlance (let alone become a lifestyle choice) — with his wife and son, Eden Ahbez offered up a glimpse of the coming counterculture decades before the fact. Here was a man who lived as a vegetarian, studied Eastern mysticism, communed with nature and claimed to live on only three dollars a day. Ahbez famously wrote the song Nature Boy on a scrap of paper that found its way into the hands of Nat "King" Cole, who turned it into a standard that lives on to this day.
The stunning Eden's Island is largely cut from the same cloth, giving Ahbez a whole LP as his canvas. In that sense, it's the original singer-songwriter record. The sound perched midway between exotica and a jazz-tinged precursor to The Doors' sprawling beat visions (at times Ahbez even sounds like Jim Morrison), its drifting tone poems accompany Eden's tales — told in the first person as The Wanderer — chronicling a wayward journey to the shores of an enchanted isle. The whole trip flows together brilliantly, like a head elpee before its time.
Herb Alpert's lush, Mariachi-tinged sound was defined at the outset by his immortal instrumental The Lonely Bull. Inspired by a bullfight that Alpert attended in Mexico, the song was a winning attempt to capture the atmosphere of the arena: the palpable excitement, the banda playing from the balcony and teeming crowd chants of Olé! I've always loved languid moments like Never On Sunday and A Quiet Tear, hidden delights to be found here as well. This is the sound of old California, the forests, deserts and beaches, the muted glamour and Spanish architecture captured in films like Vertigo and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad World. Accordingly, songs like The Lonely Bull and (later on) Love Potion #9 were massively successful, era-defining instrumental pop.
Perhaps the sound was too successful? For whatever reason, The Tijuana Brass never seemed to get the same critical reappraisal that other easy listening/exotica purveyors like Esquivel and Martin Denny experienced in the 90s. Critics seem to write them off somewhat, don't they? Pay no mind to the haters, I see this as an integral, instrumental antecedent to the likes of The Mamas & The Papas, Brian Wilson and The Free Design, and it gets filed as such in the Parallax Collection. Don't forget that it was Herb Alpert's trumpet sound and sumptuous production techniques that influenced Arthur Lee in crafting the windswept vistas of Love's Forever Changes.
If there was a sound that defined L.A. before The Byrds, then surely it was surf rock. Dick Dale was one of the prime auteurs of the form, splitting his time between riding waves and capturing said experience in musical form, working with Leo Fender to perfect the sound of his Stratocaster guitar. Dale's Let's Go Trippin' which is often considered the first surf rock song, closes out this solid LP of early rock 'n roll, released on Dale's own Deltone imprint. There's nothing quite as savage as contemporary single Misirlou (although Dale reprises it here as Misirlou Twist!), but songs like Surf Beat and Shake N' Stomp certainly do the trick.
Surf rock was quickly brushed aside as yesterday's news in light of the British Invasion, but one need only look at its rediscovery at the hands of cultural institutions like The Cramps and Quentin Tarantino to see that history always has the last laugh. In fact, adjacent figures like Link Wray and later Randy Holden often make me wonder what this sound might have grown into if the British Invasion had never happened1 and it were given a few more years free reign to mutate and develop in the limelight. The result? Rock is less vocal, more instrumental? Less lyrical, more grooved-out?? Less ego, more id??? Well... that or the record companies mess it all up anyway!
It may have been recorded in New York and Jersey, but this record's sprawling orchestral jazz is definitive West Coast splendor. Gil Evans arranged classic Miles Davis records like Miles Ahead and Sketches Of Spain in the wake of the L.A.-based cool jazz sound, and here he uses the big band to his full advantage in the middle of the hard bop era (with the nascent free jazz waiting in the wings). Tracks like El Toreador and The Barbara Song perfectly capture the lazy feeling of long afternoons in the summer, just as the first hints of dusk begin to creep in.
This is perhaps the key record in my running Jazz Mosaic concept, which I think I mentioned last time, its rich tapestries of sound bringing to mind the sweeping vistas and mid-century architecture stretching along the Pacific. This is the sound of strolling around the back roads of Del Mar or old La Jolla, of traversing the length of Balboa Park and stealing a moment in the shade of the Botanical Gardens. Real Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo vibes, shades too of Chinatown and The Parallax View. Records like these, once you hear them... well, you can still feel their presence in the surrounding world as you simply go about town.
When discussing L.A., there's no getting around The Beach Boys. Today! captures the band in the process of leaving the surf rock sound in earnest to focus on Brian Wilson's lonely teenage symphonies, resplendent with the very finest harmonies of the era. Arranged in classic Bowie in Berlin fashion, side one features upbeat pop magic like Do You Wanna Dance? and Help Me, Rhonda, while the entirety of side two is given over to Brian Wilson's gentle, contemplative numbers like Please Let Me Wonder and In The Back Of My Mind. So in a sense, a glimpse of Pet Sounds just around the corner.
I'm a huge fan of the atmosphere found in The Beach Boys' post-Pet Sounds records, the homespun proto-Beta Band sound of brilliantly sun-glazed records like Friends, Sunflower and Surf's Up. This the era when Dennis Wilson emerges as a key songwriter (see Pacific Ocean Blue), these often uneven records nevertheless contain a wealth of utterly unique music. Where else would you find songs like the skewed ambient pop of Feel Flows (shades of Brian Eno's vocal records), Diamond Head's low-slung stoned exotica and the clockwork r&b panache of Slip On Through all rubbing shoulders?
In fact, I was originally planning to include Sunflower (which you'll recall is actually my favoriteBeach Boys moment), but ultimately decided to defer to chronology: after all, Today! is the original well that all those glorious sounds spring from.
Dylan the benchmark for singer-songwriters to this day. Inescapable. It was a toss up really between this, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde On Blonde, but Highway 61 wins because it captures him mid-stride, approaching folk rock from the opposite direction as The Byrds' shimmering sound, with a rude, shambling garage-inflected attack defining the whole affair. As far from down-home roots music as can be, this is future shock music firmly in step with the zeitgeist.
You can't knock the raw power of Like A Rolling Stone, carried on a cloud of Al Kooper's brilliant HammondB3 organ licks, while Tombstone Blues and the title track continue to develop the rowdy garage rock sound first essayed on Subterranean Homesick Blues. Standing in stark contrast is the closing Desolation Row, a sparse and elegant eleven minute ballad that plays like the blueprint for the sensibilities (and in some cases, the entire careers) of many key canyon players.
The first and the best. The lush arrangements and dreamy atmosphere of Deliver assured its place in The Canyon 25, but it can't match the pure pop blast of this record. The epochal Monday, Monday and California Dreamin' are masterpieces of sunshine pop, capturing the phantom Autumn atmosphere of Southern California better than anything else I can think of, while the remainder of the record is no slouch either, with traces of folk rock and Merseybeat feathered into John Phillips' baroque arrangements. Note Spanish Harlem, with its unmistakable echoes of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.
One could make the case that If You Can Believe Your Eyes And Ears is as much a response to Rubber Soul as Pet Sounds was, with the kinetic Somebody Groovy and Straight Shooter mirroring that record's proto-breakbeat pop rock rollers. Believe it or not, there was a time when I liked this lot even more than The Beach Boys (a time before I owned any of the lads' later records, in fact). Even now I suspect it's a closer call than you might think, especially if you factor in John, The Wolfking Of L.A. and Cass Elliot's solo records!
This was my original Byrds pick for The Canyon 25, but then it would have been lodged in at #1 (after all, it's only one of my favorite records of all time). Fifth Dimension is the point where — with no warning — The Byrds transform folk rock into acid-drenched West Coast psychedelia once and for all. And topping off the canyon list with the cornerstone of acid rock would have been missing the point a bit, don't you think?! However, in the context of the outsider's Geology 35, its quite simply definitive: the skeleton key in making sense of today's entire musical selection.
Everyone knows Eight Miles High (Gene Clark's parting gift to the band), the grooved-out psychedelic rocker that rides Chris Hillman's bassline like a jet engine into the abyss, but the journey continues with further acid excursions like I See You and David Crosby's What's Happening?!?! All of which betray the band's fascination with the music of both John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, particularly felt in Roger McGuinn's stunning quicksilver solos.
Conversely, the band still finds plenty of time to perfect the folk music wherein their roots lie. The gentle pastoral drift of Wild Mountain Thyme is perhaps their finest folk ballad, rendered even more majestic by the wistful frontier orchestra that accompanies it, while the subdued folk rocker John Riley is haunted by ghostly chamber strings of its own. Meanwhile, Mr. Spaceman delves into country rock (albeit of the space cowboy variety) before just about anyone else managed to get around to it.
In passing, I can't help but note that the CD reissue of this album has maybe the finest bounty of bonus tracks I've ever had the pleasure to find tucked away at the end of a disc. The contemporary, non-album single Why — which essays similar precincts to I See You and What's Happening?!?! — fits in with the preeding record perfectly, while I Know My Rider is a sparkling bit of country rock that makes a perfect counterpoint to Mr. Spaceman. And I've always felt that above all else the grooved-out Psychodrama City, along with the instrumental John Riley I, should have made the final cut of the original album. Come on guys!
At any rate, taken as a whole its a stunning package, and one of the best rock CDs you could ask for.
Acid-psych garage punk, picking up where Fifth Dimension left off. I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night, which famously kicked off the Nuggets compilation, is the very definition of the form. Get Me To The World On Time, which was also included later on in the expanded four disc Nuggets box set, is similarly definitive. Both tracks representing the cresting of psychedelia 's reign in the wake of Eight Miles High and Tomorrow Never Knows, the record nevertheless does falter a little with a few missteps like the tepid ballad Onie (which, to be fair were foisted upon them by the record company).
Indeed, the Prunes seemed doomed from the start, plagued first with record company meddling on their debut, and then only getting to do their own thing on the sophomore Underground. It was a superior album experience, albeit one without a hit single, and the public had long since moved on anyway. Discontent, they hooked up with visionary L.A. producer David Axelrod, who had grand visions of merging psychedelic rock and Gregorian chant with a full orchestra in tow.
Alas, the original band members were gradually replaced by session men when they were unable to keep up with the demands of the material, and records like Mass In F. Minor and Release Of An Oath ultimately featured next to no involvement by the original band! And that as they say, was that. The music industry is a cruel mistress indeed... although we'll be returning to Axelrod shortly.
If The Electric Prunes couldn't quite make it happen, The Doors were the quintessential self-contained band in possession of a singular vision all its own. With a visionary frontman in Jim Morrison, they cut an unparalleled path through the seedy back end of the sixties, sowing the seeds for the bad vibes of the coming decade over the course of six stellar records running the gamut of moody psychedelia, dark cabaret and hard blues (often within the space of the same record) like no one before or since.
Strange Days — the second album — is their masterpiece, kicking off with the organ-smeared apocalyptic visions of the title track and not letting up until the epic eleven minute closer When The Music's Over comes crashing to an end. Jim Morrison at his Gothic peak here, although its the spectral gravity of Ray Manzarek's organ (wielded like a proto-synth) and Robbie Krieger's lunar guitars twisting and bending around John Densmore's nimble rhythms that give the Lizard King a crystal palace to haunt in the first place.
Songs like Moonlight Drive and I Can't See Your Face In My Mind embody the otherworldly atmosphere the band achieve here, which always reminds me of cruising around the deserted hills of the Heights after dark, the city spread out like a matrix of lights beneath.
Sublime orchestral pop from Arthur Lee's original crew, shot through with tinges of florid psychedelia and acid rock. In terms of the core group, Johnny Echols' guitar — as showcased in songs like A House Is Not A Motel is the crucial factor here, but part of the record's appeal is how it transcends the parameters of the typical rock band. That the complex string arrangements and distinctive Herb Alpert-flavored trumpet lines are integrated so thoroughly into the band's sound is particularly ahead-of-its-time.
I'm not sure whether I'm alone in thinking this, but Forever Changes has always struck me as a hazy, overcast record, like one of those summer days in early August where the fog never lifts. Bringing to mind a day at the windswept cliffs of Torrey Pines, scaling the rocks down to the crashing waves below. I actually touched on this record for a moment here, in my record of the month write up on Four Sail. Indeed, I do slightly (and perhaps heretically) prefer the ragged acid country sound of the mighty Four Sail, but only by a whisker.
Still, a song a song like Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale — with its dueling horns and deft rhythmic flourishes, not to mention that soaring trumpet solo — is untouchable, sounding like a ray of sunlight scattered through the marine layer into a million shimmering diamonds on the surface of the ocean.
One of the figures that seemed to keep cropping up in The Canyon 25 was Ry Cooder. A strange attractor of sorts, he played on the Crazy Horse, Little Feat and Randy Newman records. Well, here's another one: he was actually inThe Magic Band early on, and his signature slide guitar work is all over this tasty record, which in my humble is the greatest blues rock album of them all. This plays like a high speed chase through the Mojave desert, where incidentally the good Captain (aka Don Van Vliet) would later retreat with The Magic Band to work out the tricky compositions for their fabled Trout Mask Replica double-album (the quintessential difficult album).
This record however — while still plying an abstract form of the blues — is far more approachable, radio-ready even. With prime garage punk like Zig Zag Wanderer and Abba Zaba, the twisted blues nightmares of Electricity and Plastic Factory and even shades of San Francisco (particularly The Airplane) in Where There's Woman, this record never tires for me. I mean, even Grown So Ugly — technically the boneyard track — plays like the birth of abstract blues and the blueprint for the entire oeuvre of The Mighty Groundhogs! Beefheart's one of those figures — up there with Can, James Brown and The Beatles — that's just impossible to critique, unparalleled, leaving behind an extensive, deeply unique body of work in their wake.
Incidentally, Ry Cooder left the band shortly after this record, due to a disastrous performance at the Mt. Tamalpais Festival. Apparently, as the band began to tear into Electricity, Van Vlietfroze, straightened his tie, then abruptly walked off the 10ft stage and landed on manager Bob Krasnow (later claiming to have seen a girl in the audience turn into a fish, with bubbles coming from her mouth),2 effectively blowing any chance for the band to perform at the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. Now that's style!
One of the great bands to emerge from San Diego, Iron Butterfly upped the ante on hard rock with a gloomy organ-drenched sound that split the difference between Cream and Jefferson Airplane. Everyone knows their marathon In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which in edited-down form became a smash radio hit and propelled the record to the platinum status in the U.S. (the first record to do so, in fact). Perhaps I should have included that record instead, but I've always had a soft spot for the debut (particularly the closing instrumental Iron Butterfly Theme). Heavy indeed!
My earlier comments regarding surf rock apply here in full, with its doom-laden hard rock wailing to the heavens sounding like something from Can's Soundtracks, it's a sound almost completely devoid of ego. The stunning sleeve does seem to cement the band's image as the grandfathers of doom metal (shades of Sleep and Monster Magnet ahoy!). In the cold light of day, perhaps its not as hard-hitting as San Francisco's Blue Cheer, but a great blast of proto-metal nonetheless. I did want to include Blue Cheer as well, but only just now discovered that they were not in fact from L.A. (a misconception I've labored under for well over a decade) but were instead ragged outsiders terrorizing the Bay Area scene.
I'll always have a lot of love for much of the American hard rock and proto-metal — as forged by Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer, along with things like early Blue Öyster Cult, Pentagram and Grand Funk Railroad — seemingly terminal underdogs to the big guns in the British Isles like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple (although Grand Funk were a hugely successful proposition in their own time). There's an inherent dusty, sun-baked quality to these band's high desert sound that's turned out to be remarkably prescient in light of later stoner metal bands like Queens Of The Stone Age, Earth and The Melvins.
Ah yes, David Axelrod's triumphant return. Inspired by proto-psychedelic visionary William Blake's collection of poems and illustrations Songs Of Innocence And Experience, this LP in widescreen features a crack studio band jamming out a kaleidoscopic soundtrack to an invisible film of the mind. This is one of those records that you'd swear someone traveled back in time to make, just to impress his buddies back home in the nineties: an entire orchestra balances atop hip hop-friendly breakbeats and Carol Kaye's well-deep basslines, while guitar hero Al Kasey pumps out acid-tinged guitar solos in the foreground. The whole thing executed with a jazz-informed turn on a dime precision, it's almost too good to be true.
Axelrod followed up with two similar records (the accompanying Songs Of Experience — yeah, U2 stole that idea too a few years back! — and Earth Rot) before delivering deep jazz funk slates like The Auction and Heavy Axe in the seventies. All of this prime material for roaming around the rolling hills, canyons and Spanish architecture of Balboa Park, its sweeping sonic vistas the perfect accompaniment for stops at the Museum Of Man, Botanical Gardens and the Timkin. Just ride the skyway over the San Diego Zoo as the bell tower tolls and you'll see what I mean.
David Axelrod's main gig was as an a&r man, arranger and super producer, working with artists like Lou Rawls, David McCallum and Cannonball Adderley, with whom he had the most long-lasting relationship over the course of something like 18 albums. Records like Accent On Africa and Soul Zodiac were ambitious outings that melded soul jazz with cutting edge production techniques, more often than not with a heavily conceptual drive. I almost included the latter — with its timely collision of hard funk and flower power psychedelia — but couldn't resist the temptation to include this stellar compilation, which is a fascinating object in its own right.
This double-disc anthology provides an invaluable snapshot of the decade-long Axelrod/Adderley partnership, pulling first rate material like Taurus, Khutsana and Tensity together into one essential package. I've always thought that Tensity predicts the mood of something like Can's Halleluwah, albeit rendered with straight jazz stylings. I'm also reminded of Adderley's contemporaneous appearance in Clint Eastwood's great slacker-thriller film Play Misty For Me, when the gang go catch Cannonball's band performing live at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
That movie — with the windswept cliffs and rustic charm of Carmel (aka KaR-a-MeL) as its background — is another prime example of today's vibe de jour captured in film. Maybe I should put together a companion movie list or something... wrap it all up into a tidy trilogy?
Los Angeles native Morton Subotnick was the crucial purveyor of West Coast electronica, turning out records like Silver Apples Of The Moon (which you might remember was featured in the Deep Space 100... although I'll forgive you if you don't) in 1967. That the year of the Summer Of Love and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, so well before such a thing was to be expected. The Wild Bull was his follow up, featuring another pair of sidelong inner-space excursions. What sets this record apart from preceding electronic music is its almost rhythmic propulsion, in which his sequenced machines unfurl these great chirping, clanking mechanical grooves beneath long, arcing synth drones. That's bleep-tastic!
It's worth noting that this came out on the Nonesuch imprint, a sub-label of Jac Holzman's Elektra Records, the spiritual home of folk in the fifties, and later The Doors, Love and Tim Buckley. Nonesuch was originally envisioned as an outlet for budget-line classical records oriented toward the youth market, but it gradually expanded into all sorts of strange arenas including electronic music, out psychedelia and even the NonesuchExplorer Series, featuring music recorded around the world on records like Ram Narayan's Sarangi/The Voice Of A Hundred Colors, Los Chiriguanos Of Paraguay's Guaraní Songs & Dances, and David Lewiston's Tibetan Buddhism - Tantras Of Gyütö: Mahakala.
Sublime incursion of shimmering country music from this dynamic duo of hard-partying folkies, a true meeting of the minds between Gene Clark (formerly of The Byrds) and Doug Dillard (formerly of, well, The Dillards). Another one that I very nearly included in The Canyon 25, but Sari reckoned that it crossed that invisible line into real-deal country. I suspect it hinges on Doug Dillard's bluegrass-informed mandolin picking, faithful as it is to the legacy of old-time stalwarts like Lester Flatt And Earl Scruggs, although the Eagles did later cover Train Leaves Here This Mornin' on their self-titled debut. In the context of today's rag tag crew of outsiders and iconoclasts, it fits in rather nicely.
This also standing in for the whole Bakersfield gang. I almost included Merle Haggard's I'm A Lonesome Fugitive but couldn't fit it into the schema. After all, Bakersfield is but a couple hours up the Interstate 5 from Laurel Canyon and yet worlds away. I quite like the early part of Barney Hoskyns' Hotel California, where he describes the rootsy scene surrounding the Troubadour (where Dillard & Clark held court).3Doug Dillard started out in bluegrass group The Dillards, who I've always wanted to check out. In fact, I don't know half of what I should about this era's shadowy pre-history. Another one I want to hear is Chris Hillman's pre-Byrds bluegrass crew, The Hillmen. Maybe now is as good a time as any?
Spirit's debut was the closest any record came to making both lists, but its trace country inflections marked it out for the canyon list alongside records like The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Nashville Skyline. Still, the band made a whole brace of records that further codified their unique sound, culminating in Twelve Dreams Of Dr. Sardonicus, which is often usually the band's classic recording. However, their third album, Clear, is probably my favorite of the records to come in the wake of their debut. What's more, I remember hearing the record feted by none other than Kirk Degiorgio back in the day (this around the time of his canyon-friendly project The Beauty Room with frequent collaborator Jinadu)!
Spirit's sound is a jazz-inflected tonic that exists in that same heady slipstream as The Doors, Love and David Axelrod, all of which create these great nebulous sonic paintings that seem to reflect their Sunset Boulevard surroundings back at you through a dreamlike, kaleidoscopic lens. Do you remember those old Disney movies that merged reality with animation to surreal effect (movies like The Three Caballeros), when the artist's brush would paint a scene and then it would come to life as in the real world? Well, that's a lot like the effect these records tend to have.
Ah yes, Frank Zappa. You didn't think I'd forget old Frank, did you? Zappa's an inescapable figure when discussing L.A. scene of the era. He actually lived in Laurel Canyon and was a mover and shaker on the L.A. scene, releasing records by Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, Alice Cooper and Wild Man Fischer on his twin imprints, Straight and Bizarre. Still, his own music had little to do with the canyon, in fact his flowing avant garde suites seem to exist in intentionally stark opposition to the mellow drift of the times.
I've never been a huge fan of the man's music, although he does give a great interview, and I do have a handful of his records. This one's pretty cool, offering up a knotty, West Coast vision of prog rock that's the maximalist cousin to Beefheart's Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Note the presence of future Little Feat ringleader Lowell George on guitar throughout. The Little House I Used To Live In is an extended twenty-minute suite that drifts through a piano sonata, fast-forward marching band, acid rock solo, jazz fusion stomp and harpsichord breakdown over the course of its long and winding trip.
I was this close to trying squeeze this one into The Canyon 25, but it would have been pushing it, B.B. It really would have. At least that what Sari tells me, and she's usually right about these things. Still, these gently flowing bucolic jazz landscapes make a perfect counterpart to the groovier currents of the canyon. Recorded in L.A. with Bobby Womack, it is — like the great Gil e Jorge record — an excellent head-to-head guitar duel between two masters in a sympathetic setting. Like the Axelrod/Adderley link up, this is emblematic of the L.A. interchange happening between jazz, soul and rock at the time, a trend that against all odds slowly begins to be felt in the canyon itself.
The opening Breezin' was later taken into the charts by George Benson (who had a Weekend In L.A. of his own), but hearing the original for the first time is a real treat. A wistful daydream in musical form, it manages to strike the unlikely balance between the earthy and ethereal over a gently rolling soul jazz beat. The sultry Amazon follows, a shaken-not-stirred bit of sensual exotica, a soundtrack in search of a film in true Axelrod/trip hop style. Similarly, Azure Blue seems to conjure equally cinematic vibes, recalling the softest moments of soundtracks to films like Trouble Man, Superfly and The Mack about a year early.
In a particularly canyon-esque twist, the record even closes with I Remember When, a wistful country-western styled rumination that gradually builds into a subdued rave up of a sort, bringing the record's trans-continental journey all back home in an unexpectedly rootsy conclusion. Taken in its entirety, High Contrast is something like an instrumental counterpart to David Crosby's If Only I Could Remember My Name, and remains one of my favorite records to chill out to.
Beaver & Krause were synth pioneers on the L.A. circuit, turning a whole lot of people in the rock world onto synths for the first time in the mid-sixties. George Harrison recorded his Electronic Sound LP on their kit, while Roger McGuinn famously bought a Moog after witnessing the duo's demo of the instrument's potential at the Monterey Pop Festival. Krause even played it on The Byrds' awesome Natural Harmony, which is easily one of my favorite songs ever. The duo debuted on record with The Nonesuch Guide To Electronic Music, a demonstration of the possibilities of the Moog synthesizer.
I always wanted to be blown away by their subsequent records but came away somewhat disappointed once I finally tracked them down. Not as savage as Silver Apples or as otherworldly as Fifty Foot Hose, nor as radical as Morton Subotnick or as fully realized as Tonto's Expanding Head Band, their records play more like a collection of minor experiments rather than any sort of sustained experience. Still, there's interest to be found in scattered moments like the sustained drone of Nine Moons In Alaska or Walkin's lonesome ambient gospel.
However, it's the on disc's second side — which was recorded at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco — where things really click. The sleeve of the record is emblazoned with the declaration A MUSICAL SOUNDTRACK FOR A NON-EXISTENT FILM, and melancholy tone poems like By Your Grace and Good Places certainly fit the bill. Their eerie reverb-drenched organ/saxophone duets are even somewhat redolent of later practitioners like Heldon and Lard Free at their most delicate, or even Bowie's Neuköln and Vangelis' Blade Runner Blues! Shades too of ECM. In passing, I've never understood why their Ragnarök album never made it to CD...
The Scott Walker of the canyon, Shawn Phillips employs his soaring pipes over a backing of funky beats and lush chamber orchestra. Blink and you'd swear it was one of David Axelrod's chamber phantasmagorias, but is none other than Elton John's main man Paul Buckmaster conducting the orchestral arrangements. That's rad. Songs like She Was Waiting For Her Mother At The Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It's Getting Too Heavy To Laugh — in addition to beating Love out for today's longest song title by some distance — are quite powerful, their vast soundscapes gliding over furious rhythms in a striking tapestry of motion. I'm reminded of the gravity in Scott Walker's The Seventh Seal and (perhaps more abstractly) Carl Craig's Neurotic Behavior.
This is actually another one that I really wanted to include in The Canyon 25. Another one that nearly made it, but on reflection it was almost too much on the proper folk tip, staying true to the original spirit of the music Phillips often seems to intone like a herald rather than indulge in the more confessional nature of the canyon singer-songwriters. There's a strikingly ancient quality to his music as well that seems to key into the same eldritch medieval vibes that British folk groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were exploring around the same time.
Indeed, Texan Phillips never seemed to totally fit in with the canyon crowd, splitting his time in the sixties between Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York's Greenwich Village. That in 1967 he finally up and moved to the coastal village of Positano in Campania, Italy — where he stayed through most of the seventies — seems to bear this out. Thankfully, he didn't stop recording and albums like Second Contribution and later Rumplestiltskin's Resolve were the triumphant result.
Captain Beyond were a supergroup back when that sort of thing was still a hot proposition, featuring lead singer Rod Evans (of Deep Purple), drummer Bobby Caldwell (who played with Johnny Winter's band), guitarist Larry Reinhardt (aka Rhino) and bassist Lee Dorman (both of Iron Butterfly). The sound they strike up epitomizes everything I said earlier regarding the dusty, high desert sound of American proto-metal, in this case delivered with rugged hard rock shapes and turn-on-a-dime rhythmic precision. The drum sound alone is worth the price of admission on this incredibly breakbeat-laden LP, which features some of my favorite rock-hard beats of all time. Really, the drums sound just exquisite!
I especially dig Rod Evans' vocal attack, chest-beating and macho inna working class Mark Farner stylee, yet never descending into cock rock leering, he seems to have his eyes set firmly on the stars (even delivering spoken word interludes from time to time). Indeed, as hinted by the cosmic sleeve art there's a satisfying amount of space rock feathered into the proceedings, as heard in As The Moon Speaks To The Waves Of The Sea (two steps from Hawkwind) and the interstellar bolero of Myopic Void. As The Moon Speaks Return even recalls the orbital heartache of Space Oddity, and for a moment you'd swear it was Bowie himself singing lead!
Dig that sleeve! Shades of Soylent Green, Omega Man and Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes. I bought this record for my brother when he moved to Los Angeles! Tim Buckley, like Don Van Vliet, was a visionary iconoclast that managed to transcend his L.A. surroundings and blaze a singular path through the musical landscape as the sixties bled into the 1970s. Shifting and morphing through myriad phases, first by bending the rules of their chosen form (folk in Buckley's case, blues in Beefheart's) and then breaking them completely with increasingly abstract records like Starsailor and Lorca (or the Captain's Trout Mask Replica and Decals) before swerving back into the mainstream with increasingly r&b-soaked sides, their careers almost seemed in step to an eerie degree.
Greetings From L.A. picks up where the awesome proto-kosmische monster jam Gypsy Woman left off, with tunes like Get On Top, Devil Eyes and Sweet Surrender snaking on exceptionally carnal, loose-limbed rhythms. Notably, this record came up when John Lydon — then at height of his Sex Pistols notoriety — guested on Tommy Vance's Capitol Radio show, which found the punk playing Buckley's Sweet Surrender alongside selections from Can, Peter Hammill, Nico, Bobby Byrd, Captain Beefheart and Augustus Pablo, not to mention fellow canyon dweller Neil Young's Revolution Blues. Goodbye Johnny Rotten, hello Public Image! And the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1972, Berry Gordy moved the focal point of his Motown empire from Detroit to L.A., where he hoped to break into the film industry (ultimately doing so with films like Lady Sings The Blues, Mahogany and The Wiz). Soul purists often mark this as the beginning of the end, but here at The Parallax Room we know things were just getting started. Marvin Gaye's string of lush, dreamy records like Let's Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear begin with this record, the soundtrack to the movie of the same name and follow up to his epochal stone tablet What's Going On.
Tellingly, the film's action takes place not in the towering vertical metropolises of Detroit, Chicago or New York, but the horizontal urban sprawl of Los Angeles. And as I'm sure Dr. Robert Neville would tell you, it makes all the difference. Gaye's utterly absorbing soundtrack offers the perfect sonic counterpoint to that film's imagery, offering lush, sprawling instrumentals drenched in synthesizers and dreamy production techniques. Sun-glazed and moonlit in all the right places, it's all of a piece.
Indeed, the record gets so atmospherically heavy that I tend to place it in the same ballpark as Brian Eno's Another Green World and Les McCann's Layers, capturing the feel of the city with the same visionary sonic touch that those records essayed the pastoral and bucolic. Appropriately enough, along with Buckley's Greetings From L.A. it's also the axis on which this list hinges, setting us up for the home stretch and the next great geological phase of the 35...
Ned Doheny seems to constantly hover in the background of Hotel California, rubbing shoulders with figures like Jackson Browne and Frazier Mohawk. He even shows up at the ill-fated Paxton Ranch endeavor, giving the clearest recollection of what was Elektra's attempt to mirror the communal spirit of The Band's fabled sessions at Big Pink. Like Gram Parsons, he was a rich kid, albeit one that seemed to treat his peers a good deal better! His own recordings wallowed somewhat in obscurity until the trusty Numero Group unexpectedly issued a compilation of his work augmented by rarities and demo versions.
If there's a figure that lies at crux upon which yacht begins to be felt in the canyon scene than it must be old Ned. His sound is a luxurious blend of gentle acoustic strumming, elegant FenderRhodes jazz licks and nimble, funky rhythms. It's the casual sound of muted prosperity, of cruising the shoreline in a sports car, decked out in white suit and loafers, city lights hanging in the distance. A song like I Know Sorrow ought to be super well known, after all it's just like the sort of thing Christopher Cross would crash the charts with at the end of the decade. Fittingly, it's at this point that we say goodbye to the rustic climes of the canyon and venture confidently into yacht land. Goodbye canyon. Goodnight Ned!
This is another one that Kirk Degiorgio indirectly hipped me to, which I was lucky enough to find on wax up at Lou's Records back in the day. Now it even has a CD release! In the sixties, Paul Horn was responsible for the solo flute album Inside, which was actually recorded inside the Taj Mahal. Notionally, it was a jazz album, but also something of an ambient record before the fact (shades of new age waiting in the wings). Visions is more on the straight jazz funk tip, albeit inflected by the blunted stylings of Stevie Wonder's contemporary records, it has definite strains of progressive soul. In fact, the record features Horn covering Too High, Visions and Living For The City... that's a third of Innervisions right there!
More pointedly, there are loads of canyon covers in here: Crosby, Stills & Nash's Guinnevere and Long Time Gone, David Crosby's Song With No Words and Joni Mitchell's Blue and Chelsea Morning. Shearing into florid strains of exotica, it all blends brilliantly in a record that pulls together disparate strands from canyon, jazz and soul in a quintessential L.A. sun-baked geological fusion. A Jazz Mosaic record through and through, this would appeal to fans of Les McCann's Layers and Gabor Szabo's High Contrast. Also, hip hop heads take note of High Tide, which served as the basis for the track Underwater on Ghostface Killah's Fishscale!
Everyone's heard Joni Mitchell's confessional stone tablet Blue, without question one of the key canyon records, but did you know she swayed into such heavily jazz-inflected soundscapes soon afterward? Starting with Court And Spark and continuing with The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, Hejira and Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, she delved ever deeper into the form, even collaborating with Charles Mingus on her tenth album Mingus (which turned out to be his final musical project) and touring with Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker and Jaco Pastorious (captured on the live double-album Shadows And Light).
This record, which I once heard tell was Prince's favorite album of all time, is splendid. Its a deeply engrossing sound that she achieves here, her soaring voice and acoustic strums melting into pools of Rhodes and rippling piano over exquisite bass-driven rhythms, it's casually brilliant like an elegant sashay across the room. Its sound is also oddly prescient, borne out by the fact that electronic jazz figureheads like Kirk Degiorgio and Ian O'Brien were still featuring songs from these records in the mix 25 years later alongside the likes of The Black Dog, 4 Hero and Anthony Shakir and it still managed to fit right in.4
The album is by turns moving (Edith And The Kingpin and The Boho Dance), casually funky (In France They Kiss On Main Street and the title track) and, in The Jungle Line, searingly innovative. Featuring Joni singing freewheeling lines over a snatch of Burundi drumming from the Ocora field recording Musique Du Burundi and a burning synthesizer refrain, if you heard it now you'd swear it came out yesterday. Notably, that same Ocora record also turns up in Peter Weir's film The Plumber and a few years later ostensibly even inspired Adam And The Ants' monumental Kings Of The Wild Frontier!
Good old Warrenhe shall beZevon, a cool dude if there ever was one. I'm not ashamed to admit that I first bought his Excitable Boy LP for the song Werewolves Of London. That's one of the great jukebox tunes ever, up there with Golden Years and Evil Ways. What really blew me away though was the proto-new wave avant funk workout Nighttime In The Switching Yard — a not-too-distant cousin to Ian Dury & The Blockheads' contemporary Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick — which prefigured all of The Clash's Sandinista!-era punk-disco moves by a solid couple years. I recently discovered there's even an appropriately moody music video5 to go along with it!
However, the bulk of Excitable Boy consisted of gutsy songs delivered from the heart, songs like Veracruz and Accidentally Like A Martyr. All of which naturally sent me digging back in time two years for his debut. This is a great record, indeed it made both Sari's and Leah's lists. I sort of regret not including it, although I had Zevon down as an outsider, too ruff, rugged and raw for the canyon, he's almost an L.A. counterpart to the heartland rock of figures like Detroit's Bob Seger or Jersey's Bruce Springsteen. He has them all beat, of course, with indelible songs like Desperados Under The Eaves, Join Me In L.A. and I'll Sleep When I'm Dead.
I always liked the bit in the Aja film where Walter Becker talks about the band's extended stay in Los Angeles, during which he and partner in crime Donald Fagen pined for their old stomping grounds in New York and wrote exclusively about New York characters... that is, until they finally got back to New York, where they immediately started writing songs about California!6 That's Gaucho, the duo's final record until they reformed twenty years later. Steely Dan are hard for me to narrow down to one favorite record, in the past I've thought Countdown To Ecstasy, Katy Lied and this record were the one. It's a tough call.
This has the benefit of their most streamlined, yacht-ready production. Hey Nineteen is just perfect, a real mainstay of 98.1 The Breeze back in the day, flawlessly capturing that feeling of warm, breezy summer nights in Southern California, populated with images of Piña coladas, fine Columbian and fetching young ladies who've never heard of Aretha Franklin. Glamour Profession is a definitive slice of slinky yacht disco (later reworked in the nineties on dubplate by — if memory serves — Chicago house stalwart Gemini), while you couldn't ask for a better signing off moment than Third World Man, a perfect send off for the duo, like The Doors riding into the sunset with Riders On The Storm.
The beat-damaged Rickie Lee Jones was widely hailed as the next Joni Mitchell, jumping in directly at the jazz end where Joni left off. Her 1979 debut was a genuine sensation, with the hit single Chuck E.'s In Love everywhere that year and Jones taking home the Grammy for best new artist. Pirates is her difficult second album, an avant yacht masterpiece made in the wake of her break up with former flame Tom Waits (the bars those two must have closed down!). It's a true embarrassment of riches, featuring a long list of jazz luminaries — figures like David Sanborn, Steve Gadd and Chuck Rainey, not to mention Steely Dan's Donald Fagen on synthesizer — in evidence throughout.
The record is defined by the arcing balladry of We Belong Together and Living It Up, along with a fragility best exemplified in Skeletons and The Returns (not to mention in Jones' often delicate voice), although she does find time to run the jazz down once again in Woody And Dutch On The Slow Train To Peking. Still, the record's undeniable centerpiece is Traces Of The Western Slopes, eight minutes of eerie, sweeping grandeur that seem to swoop and dive through the entire range of human emotion. It's genuinely heartening to reflect that only a decade later — and there's no way she could have expected this — a sample of Jones' spoken word recollection of what the skies looked like when she was young would kick off The Orb's epochal ambient house touchstone Little Fluffy Clouds!
Smooth soul slate featuring lush backing from the cream of L.A. session players, including cameos from Rita Coolidge, Bonnie Bramlett and Bill Champlin.7Ware was a crucial force in establishing the sumptuous MoWest sound, not least through his substantial songwriting contributions to Marvin Gaye's I Want You in 1976 (when Gaye was suffering from a severe case of writer's block). Indeed, his own Musical Massage LP (released later that year), played like a continuation of I Want You's themes and obsessions, speaking to the deep well of material he'd dreamt up by that point.
This 1982 outing is indubitably his yacht record, featuring slick, smoldering post-disco workouts like Lost In Love With You and Can I Touch You There alongside trademark slow jams like Shelter and Deeper Than Love. The inescapable highlight, however, is Why I Came To California, an unassuming bit of burning mid-tempo gossamer disco that seems to glide by on a cushion of ocean mist. A flawless portrait of Southern California at its most mellow and carefree, it never fails to blow away everyone I play it for.
X were L.A. punks who in a strange twist of fate wound up having their first trio of records produced by Doors keyboard maestro Ray Manzarek. Sure enough, the shadowy vibes of his old band's work are increasingly felt over the course of the trilogy, starting with Los Angeles — a more or less straight punk blast — and culminating in the grand finale of dark Americana that is Under The Big Black Sun. In this respect, X were similar to other rootsy punks like The Gun Club in digging beyond punk's original calls for tabula rasa into the seedy prehistoric world of rockabilly, country and down and dirty blues.
Like The Cramps, this all keys directly back into surf rock and forward to Tarantino, in a sense signaling the spiritual birth of the nineties — all about excavation transmuted into innovation — alongside the works of Cybotron, Larry Heard and Grandmaster Flash. There's loads of L.A. punk that I could have included here as well — things like the Germs, Black Flag and even the Repo Man soundtrack — but this one has by far the strongest links with today's discussion, stretching all the way back to Dick Dale, Morrison Hotel and The Electric Prunes. Plus, it's a killer record!
Tom Waits was something like the gutter poet laureate of the canyon scene, busking his songs and prefiguring the sort of cloaked, rumpled anti-glamour that the great Mickey Rourke turned into an art form in the 1980s. He put out a sequence of great booze-soaked, beatnik crooner records over the course of the seventies — albums like Closing Time, Small Change and The Heart Of Saturday Night — and the Eagles even covered Ol' 55 (taken from his debut) on their On The Border LP.
The eighties saw Waits experience a drastic reinvention on par with David Bowie's in Berlin or Sly Stone's in the early 1970s, ditching his dive bar piano man aura for the seedy back alleys of the underworld, first with Heartattack And Vine and then perfecting it with his underground trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs and Frank's Wild Years. They're all about equally great, but Swordfishtrombones was the great unveiling and therefore the logical choice for this chronology. Waits' clanking, mechanical sound hits you headfirst with the opening, scene-setting Underground and continues in 16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six, both of which feature Waits sounding like a wolf-man barking at the moon.
Songs like Shore Leave are shot through with a strange sort of bleached-bone hoodoo, its eerie marimbas and dive-bombing horns haunting the shadows around Waits' spoken asides and hoarse vagabond croon. Interesting to note that it was one of the few sounds critics could reach back to compare Tricky's music to when he emerged with records like Maxinquaye, Nearly God and Angels With Dirty Faces! Still, Waits manages to revisit the spirit of his trademark weepy ballads of old with Johnsburg, Illinois and the Salvation Army blues of In The Neighborhood, tugging at your heartstrings even as he dragged you back into his nightmare.
Tangentially, I've always thought you could make a strong case for Waits' underground trilogy as the L.A. analog to Bowie's legendary Berlin trilogy and Peter Gabriel's first three records. All three instances featuring drastic reinventions of idiosyncratic artists in the wake of prior success (Bowie's Ziggy Stardust years and Gabriel's tenure with Genesis), featuring experimentation with sound itself to a greater degree than anything they'd previously been associated. Also bringing to mind Scott Weiland's superb solo debut 12 Bar Blues, the restless experiments of which I've often thought are often cut from a similar cloth.
Hitting hard on SST and standing in for the rest of the alternative brigades8 are the Meat Puppets with their second album and its genre-warping collision of hardcore punk and country-western. Endlessly feted by Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged In New York even featured two songs from this record Plateau and Lake Of Fire, cementing its place as an alternative touchstone even in the wider world beyond indie rock. I hear it as an unspoken renegotiation of the twin debuts of Crazy Horse and Little Feat, its ragged shapes executed with near-telepathic interplay.
The Puppets originally hailed from Phoenix, Arizona, ultimately signing with Black Flag ringleader Greg Ginn's independent bastion SST at the behest of Joe Carducci. Their freewheeling, rambling sound reflects the sprawling, wide-open spaces of their high desert origins, with We're Here, Aurora Borealis and I'm A Mindless Idiot swerving almost unexpectedly into a a shimmering cascade of guitar arpeggios and approaching my oft-stated daydream of a Can-like, kosmische sound borne from the deserts of the southwest.
Ry Cooder's crystalline ambient blues. I always hoped to find a similar atmosphere in his seventies records, but from what I've heard so far they tend to be more on the traditionalist tip (not that there's anything wrong with that!). This from the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film, starring Harry Dean Stanton and the relatively attractive Nastassja Kinski,9 its sprawling atmospheric shapes the perfect counterpart to the film's rambling desert travelogue. I just recently watched another movie from this era that Ry Cooder also scored, Johnny Handsome (starring Mickey Rourke and Morgan Freeman), and it's similarly evocative stuff, though nowhere near as affecting.
The opening theme bears a strong sense of portent, with Cooder bending notes out toward the horizon, lost in a sea of reverb reflecting the lonesome sprawl of the desert. The lone track to feature singing is the Mexican folk song Canción Mixteca, sung by none other than Harry Dean Stanton. His memorable extended monologue from the film is also included in I Knew These People, which features one of my favorite offhand bits of dialogue from any movie: when Nastassja Kinski's Jane says matter-of-factly Yep, I know that feelin'.10 The remainder of the record is purely instrumental, Ry Cooder's lonely six-string elegies tuned to the winds of the desert itself.11
This soundtrack plays like a fitting elegy to the canyon sound and the roots it harked back to, right there in the digital glare of 1985, arguably the year that the bottom fell out of new wave and back-to-the-roots music started to come back into favor in a big way. I'm talking about the rise of alternative in the popular consciousness, figures like R.E.M. and The Smiths (prefiguring Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden's eventual crashing of the mainstream party), not to mention U2's sudden fascination with Americana on The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum.12Minneapolis' Replacements could even be read as a ramshackle, underground analog to heartland rockers like Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen.
It's at this point that the next wave of artists begin to rise, figures who actually made the original canyon lists the first time around like The Cowboy Junkies, Mazzy Star and Tracy Chapman. This music, increasingly felt as a presence as you move into the nineties, sits quite comfortably in the mix beside things like Homecoming, Nashville Skyline and If Only I Could Remember My Name. Alternative rockers like Dinosaur Jr. and The Jesus & Mary Chain even mellowed out into canyoneqsque territory as the decade progresses, paving the way for groups like Wilco and Built To Spill alongside a whole new generation of singer-songwriters.
Even certain quarters of electronic music took a left turn into the canyon, with the folktronica of Beth Orton, Dot Allison and Badly Drawn Boy conjuring up Memories Of Green in the wake of rave's long hangover, squaring the circle between Carole King and Morton Subotnick. Big beat block-rockers like The Chemical Brothers keyed into similar terrain with songs like Where Do I Begin and Asleep From Day (featuring vocals from Beth Orton and Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval, respectively), while Death In Vegas even transformed into a canyonesque proposition with Scorpio Rising (there's Hope Sandoval again, Dot Allison too).13 And with present day figures like Joanna Newsom, Dawes and Michael Nau all mining seams stretching outward from the canyon to varying degrees, its safe to say the Laurel Canyon vibes might well be here to stay.
It's a testament to the way these sounds live on in the rocks, rivers and trees, spreading out far and wide across the mountains, forests, beaches and desert plains of California and beyond, haunting the imagination long since the Geist has seemingly passed them by. And so if you step out your front door and into the bosom of the night, you can still feel their whispers around you on the cool of the evening breeze...
Along with the old Op-ART Hall Of Fame list, I used to study those sets. STUDY them! It was my introduction to the notion that the right records from the past could sound more futuristic than swathes of brand new music on the radio. Even when I was young though, something's newness never meant much to me vs. its freshness, if you get my meaning. Some music is already stale the day it first drops!
I could have included the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime, a quintessential L.A. record if there ever was one, but their diamond-edged post punk attack seemed to stray a bit too far from the brief... after all Van Halen and War didn't make it in here either!!