And so we cross the threshold into the 90s, where the aftershocks of dubbed out post punk were continuing to live large. This was the context through which I linked up with the music in the first place, working my way back from the nascent sounds of trip hop's bricolage and the heavy atmospheric techno seeping in from all corners of the globe. In what must be a rather atypical entry into the music, I'd initially become aware of various post punk figures by way of their dalliance with nineties dance and accordingly began exploring their own music in earnest.
Right off the bat, Mark Stewart was the strange attractor of the Bristol scene, rubbing shoulders with the trip hop trinity of The Wild Bunch/Massive Attack crew, giving Tricky the impetus to strike out solo (with the epochal Aftermath, which Stewart co-produced) and Smith & Mighty, who turned in their first remix for Stewart's Stranger Than Love. That's quite clearly a profound influence on the Bristol blues and accordingly sent me both back in time, to Stewart's 1987 self-titled LP, and latterly to his 90s records Metatron and Control Data which were of a piece with contemporary outfits like Meat Beat Manifesto and Renegade Soundwave.
Meat Beat Manifesto split the difference between post-industrial noise and post-Bomb Squad hard-edged hip hop, shot through with a healthy dose of dub's bottom end, the combination of which found Jack Dangers' crew essentially creating the template for the big beat of The Chemical Brothers. They're actually poised right at the edge of this chapter and the next (which will trace the contours of hip hop beats as the decade turns), so they will be covered further next time out, but it's important to note the bass-heavy vibes of Radio Babylon within the context of dub and related capers taking center stage today.
Similarly, Renegade Soundwave slotted in quite naturally to the post punk drift, where they rode that third rail between dub, hip hop and a skeletal, stripped-down take on cut-and-paste indie dance. After taking Britain's dancefloors by storm with rude 12"s like The Phantom and Ozone Breakdown, largely defining the interzone between electro's rhythm matrix and big beat's rolling breaks. RSW's debut album, Soundclash, rocked the dancehall with heavy beats and dub's bottom end backing Gary Asquith's wiseguy microphone antics, while In Dub largely eschewed vocals altogether in favor of atmosphere. A couple years later, Leftfield remixed the crew's eponymous Renegade Soundwave 12" into a 4/4 slab of stomping tronik house magic.
Leftfield themselves offered another conduit back into post punk with John Lydon's vocal spot on Open Up, which sent me back to Metal Box and sideways to Lydon's contemporary solo bid Psycho's Path (which happened to feature remixes from Leftfield and The Chemical Brothers). Leftfield's two 90s LPs boasted their own moments of dubbed out magic: Leftism boasted a cinematic, widescreen sound that touched down with shimmering techno, pounding house missives and occasionally ducked into trip hop, while Rhythm And Stealth stripped it all back to hard-edged electroid grooves and smoked-out isolationism. The latter especially works remarkably well alongside the likes of Bandulu (on one hand) and 23 Skidoo (on the other).
23 Skidoo took an interesting turn themselves in the 90s, opening up their Ronin imprint and putting out UK rap records by Roots Manuva, Deckwrecka and Rodney P. even as they amassed a huge back catalogue of unreleased material (which was eventually collected on the deluxe edition of the Just Like Everybody compilation). The group's self-titled LP released at the turn of the century was a mini-paradise of rolling breakbeats and moody downbeat that seemed to square the circle between their brand of atmospheric post punk and trip hop.
And yet if there was one group that seemed to hallucinate trip hop years before it seeped out of Bristol, it was Colourbox, whose Baby I Love You So took Jacob Miller's lovers rock staple and twisted it into a steely-edged, Escape From New York-sampling dread torch song that came on like something from Tricky 's Pre-Millenium Tension. However, the flipside was another matter altogether, with Morricone's spaghetti western vibes writ large on Looks Like We're Shy One Horse/Shoot Out's discomix showcase which glided on a motorik 4/4 pulse before collapsing into a downbeat-the-dub-ruler conclusion.
Incidentally, I discovered a lot of this music through The Future Sound Of London's Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 (from 6/3/95), which seemed to source ISDN's weird, twisted trip hop in the dread post punk of 400 Blows, Fats Comet, 23 Skidoo, Cabaret Voltaire and A Certain Ratio. That mix really opened up a whole world of music beyond what I'd previously been exposed to, even betraying the first rumblings of the duo's fascination with sixties psychedelia. Their Dead Cities swan-song - along with its surrounding singles - was also very much of a piece with this post punk terrain as well, continuing where the likes of 23 Skidoo and Cabaret Voltaire left off.
On a similar note, Andrew Weatherall offered up another crucial incursion a couple years later with his Nine O'Clock Drop compilation, which happened to overlap with FSOL's Essential Mix in spirit, with the added bonus of the aforementioned Colourbox b-side. That compilation managed to beat the post punk gold rush to the punch by a few years, enshrining a whole brace of great late-period avant funk shearing into electro in one essential package (for the uninitiated, at least). Weatherall's own music always had a bit of post punk flavor just beneath the surface, especially on The Sabres Of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall and much of Two Lone Swordsmen's output. With the Swordsmen ultimately morphing into a full-fledged post punk band with 2004's From The Double Gone Chapel, well, it certainly stacks up.
Another group that made a similar transition into full-fledged songforms was Bandulu, who started out dealing in tough, cinematic techno missives before gradually stripping layer after layer away to reveal a skeletal, metallic, dubbed out blueprint of street-level techno before ultimately winding up with their masterstroke Redemption (which featured honest-to-goodness reggae cuts like Detention and Jahquarius). There was also that whole side of the group's output that delved into downbeat electro-dub like Deep Sea Angler, Agent Jah and Chapter 6, very much of a piece with contemporary digidub. Chapter 6 in particular finds the group shearing insouciantly into proto-dubstep territory.
Many miles away Basic Channel synthesized an elegant, spacious systems music that was something like the kosmische flipside to Bandulu's tuff minimal techno. Basic Channel's run of 12"s seemed to seep into dance music's consciousness quite gradually as the nineties progressed, before ultimately reshaping whole swathes of the scene in its image by the time the decade was over. Like The Velvet Underground, they almost seemed to make more sense in the following decades than they ever did in their own time. The duo even delved into straight-up dub with their Rhythm & Sound records, which - similar to Bandulu's contemporary evolution - found the duo dealing in spacious, stripped-to-the-bones reggae that came on like Kraftwerk gone dub.
Now, if there's one thread to connect all of this firmly back into the 80s then it is surely digidub, that faithful post-dancehall music that was trip hop's shadowy fellow traveller throughout the decade. Smith & Mighty even put out Henry & Louis' Rudiments on their own More Rockers imprint, while their Steppers Delight EP (from 1992) seemed heavily influenced by digidub in its twisted proto-jungle shapes. The Dubhead and Dub Out West series of compilations chronicled first rate digidub springing from this nexus, with Smith & Mighty even turning in some digidub sides under the Blue & Red banner (which ultimately culminated in the Time Will Tell collaboration with Henry & Louis).
Coming in from the arena of real-deal reggae, the Mad Professor's Ariwa setup was a steady hand on the scene, running from the eighties firmly into the nineties, releasing atmospheric records like Aisha's High Priestess, Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton and the almost ambient-reggae of Bim Sherman's Miracle. Famously, the Mad Professor even reworked Massive Attack's Protection LP into the No Protection set, which was claimed to have surpassed the original in some quarters.
Similarily, Adrian Sherwood reworked Primal Scream's Vanishing Point into the excellent Echo Dek after cutting a parallel path through the same period. Sherwood's On-U Sound outfit put out records - significantly harder-edged - like the aforementioned Mark Stewart material, along with Tackhead's own output and leftfield dub experiments like African Head Charge and Creation Rebel. Like Ariwa, On-U Sound seems to offer a seemingly bottomless well of first rate dub (of which, if I'm honest, I remain woefully under-educated on!).
And then there's Jah Wobble, whose looming presence throughout the nineties found him appearing on scores of key recordings as the decade progressed. The man was everywhere! Dropping the throbbing bassline for The Orb's Blue Room and Primal Scream's Higher Than The Sun (A Dub Symphony In Two Parts), collaborating with Brian Eno on the Spinner LP and taking part in various trip hop excursions with the likes of Bomb The Bass, Ramshackle and Shara Nelson, you couldn't turn around without hearing his full-bodied basslines pulsing from the speakers. Throughout the decade, his own records with The Invaders Of The Heart were excellent excursions into post-fourth world soundscapes, often featuring techno figures like Andrew Weatherall behind the boards (as on the awesome Bomba).
Similarly, Bill Laswell's Material project returned after a five year hiatus with 1989's Seven Souls, a record whose own fourth world shapes seemed to ring in the decade with spoken word narration provided by William Burroughs. The record was effectively reworked ten years later on The Road To The Western Lands, which featured trip hop figures like Tim Simenon, Talvin Singh and DJ Soul Slinger. Hallucination Engine refined this formula and featured the awesome Mantra, which was reworked by The Orb and later kicked off their Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty collection of remixes for other artists.
This compilation was yet another key gateway into post punk back in the day, featuring reworks of songs by Killing Joke and Wire alongside the Material entry. Also noteworthy is the presence of frequent Orb collaborator Thomas Fehlmann and Basic Channel's Moritz Von Oswald in the German post punk group Palais Schaumburg. One thing that makes The Orb fascinating is how they happen to spring from this post punk diaspora only to make a splash in the Second Summer Of Love with records like Little Fluffy Clouds and A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld (see also The KLF). You can just feel the implied presence of post punk in the surfaces of their music and in the pulsing dub engine within.
Check out this fascinating interview1 with The Orb's Dr. Alex Paterson where he gives something of a musical history of a life lived within music.
Consequently, Bill Laswell ended the decade with the awesome Dub Chamber 3 and Material's Intonarumori, a deeply warped hip hop record in the spirit of The Ghettovetts and Death Comet Crew, which leads snugly into the next week's episode. To be continued...
...and on and on and on. And so we've reached the halfway point in the Terminal Vibration saga, concluding the core eighties segment of the trip. The second half will trace these many pathways into the nineties and beyond, through electronic music, hip hop and finally through the machine soul of Timbaland, The Neptunes and SA-RA right up to the present day. It all leads back to the question I (off-handedly) laid out two years ago: Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? The story of which can start nowhere but the eighties.
Usually when discussing the eighties, one will descend immediately on what might be termed new romantic music: dawn-of-MTV groups in eyeliner, synths front and center, the second British invasion. I remember this all being a punchline all through the grungey nineties - even as I still carried a torch for the music, tee hee (I've no shame!) - it was supposedly anathema to the era. Nevermind that beneath the surface image of the decade lodged in the public imagination there was a whole other eighties, the eighties of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Metal Box, Critical Beatdown and Ammnesia, traces of whose DNA ran through the very fabric of nineties music. No! All of that was old music.
Of course now we all know how this ends, with the 21st century, the post punk revival and suddenly the eighties were cool again. And yet I think the caricature that was erected as a result missed large swathes of what the era was all about. Only natural, I suppose. Still, the case could be made that what you had in the eighties with records like My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Learning To Cope With Cowardice and Dance Hall Style - incidentally some of my favorite records ever - was essentially a dry run for the whole nineties m.o. In short, they play like a hallucination of the future.
I'm talking about the relationship between Tricky and Mark Stewart, Timbaland and Mtume, Goldie and David Sylvian, The Chemical Brothers and The Bomb Squad, Carl Craig and Kraftwerk, The Neptunes and Prince, Andrew Weatherall and The Clash, Terranova and Manuel Göttsching, Daft Punk and Lil' Louis, Bandulu and Creation Rebel, Drexciya and Hashim, Underworld and... Underworld: it was all hovering there, just below the surface, quietly defining the decade.
Terranova's DJ-Kicks and The Prodigy's Dirtchamber Sessions make this point brilliantly. Alternative rock? Everything laid out by December 31st, 1989. Hip Hop? Logical progression from Straight Outta Compton, Strictly Business and Straight Out The Jungle. Techno and house? Well defined eighties roots. Jungle? Well, you might have me there...
None of this is to take away from the nineties own innovations, which were of course considerable, but to bring them into relief within the context of the surrounding era(s). Much of the music from the eighties that fascinates us in this whole Terminal Vibration saga plays like attempts to work out music from the next decade before the groundwork had even been laid (oftentimes laying the groundwork by default in the process).
This experimentation took place in the wide-open terrain left in the wake of disco's dominance, more often than not at the interface between post punk and machine funk, which in roundabout fashion answers my initial question: Where does machine funk intersect with post punk? They intersected on the post-disco dancefloor, that wide-open space where anything was possible, where they linked up and rode the wave right up to the present day. Truth be told, we're all still riding it now.
Starting next week, we'll take a look at how it all happened.
A slight diversion into dub presented by DJ Slye and starring a cast of thousands.
Now that we've reached this point in the whole Terminal Vibration trip - the mid-point to be exact - and what with all the talk of Jah Wobble and bass pressure and dread, well, it got me thinking about the original dubmasters and pulling out a bunch of my old dub records and messing around a bit on the turntables. The result was this rough little mix, which was largely inspired by a bunch of my old dub cassettes that used to get a lot of play back in the Colt days. My love affair with dub started in earnest way back in the late 90s with a King Tubby comp - the impetus for my exploration was trip hop, specifically Smith & Mighty's oeuvre - and since then I've never looked back.
Put crudely, dub was born on the b-side of the reggae 7" single, where the instrumental version of the a-side would be pressed so that deejays could chat over the top at the soundsystem Saturday night. Eventually, certain producers - producers like King Tubby, Herman Chin-Loy and Lee "Scratch" Perry - started messing around with the master tapes, accentuating particular aspects of the record, beefing up the bottom-end, dropping in snatches of the original vocal and running it all through the effects units, in the process fomenting a musical revolution. This was head music with a heavy beat, and things would never be the same.
Full-on dub LPs weren't long after, and dub's methodology (and arsenal of production techniques) even started to creep onto the a-side in more spacious, and spaced out, mixes. Eventually these techniques filtered out into pop music via post punk and disco - thanks to producers like Dennis Bovell, Adrian Sherwood, Walter Gibbons and François Kevorkian - and the rest was history: suddenly the combination of a mixing board and an effects unit became a musical instrument in its own right, and the virtuosos came fast and thick to work their magic in the ensuing years. It's hard to imagine the sound of the 21st century's crop of alternative r&b artists without dub's O.G. mad scientist innovations.
The idea with this particular mix was to trace the dub contagion from its peak-period mid-seventies development alongside contemporary Jamaican roots music through the digital (dancehall) eighties and the big beat nineties on through the next century, stopping off at outposts in dancehall, post punk, techno, trip hop and even grunge(!) before winding up at the lonely, desolate tundras of Rhythm & Sound. The cutoff point was dubstep, which will clearly merit a mix of its own. In truth, I envisioned Dubstyle! as a Star Wars-esque trilogy, with this mix standing as the A New Hope/Downbeat The Dub Ruler entry, to be followed this summer by a post-disco dancefloor extravaganza and wrappping up with an electro-dub/step-r&b apocalypse later this fall. And so... that should give you some idea as to what to expect. Or not?
This is by no means a primer (it actually departs from straight-up dub fairly quickly); think of it instead as a little tribute to a sound that has been very good to me (dub be good to me) over the years, a sound that wouldn't have been possible without a handful of mad producers who pushed their machines to the absolute limit, writing their dreams onto magnetic tape nearly fifty years ago and ushering in the future in the process...
Keith HudsonHunting (Mamba)
Pushing off into Keith Hudson's mystical swamp of dub. The atmosphere comes on thick and heavy from the jump, with a trilling flute, jungle atmospherics, rolling percussion and a jagged guitar cutting its way into the darkness before that bass comes in and washes over EVERYTHING. This is 1974, son.
Augustus PabloKing Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown (Clocktower)
Maybe the most famous dub record ever? Augustus Pablo runs Jacob Miller's Baby I Love You So through King Tubby's illogical deep space machinery and turns in a total killer. With Pablo's melodica stylings in full effect, this righteous slab of Morricone-inflected dub was only just edged out by the ramshackle caravan vibes of East Of The River Nile when I compiled the Parallax 200. Futuristic like Kraftwerk, yet ancient as the Ziggurat of Ur.
King TubbyDub Fi Gwan (Blood & Fire)
As far as I know, this absolute gem only saw the light of day when Blood & Fire put out their Dub Gone Crazy: The Evolution Of Dub At King Tubby's 1975-1979 compilation. Unbelievable! It's a low key masterstroke, replete with moody organ, bottomless bass and exquisitely four-dimensional sound over a slow-motion 4/4 rhythm. The highlight for me is the disembodied clavinet that materializes in the drop out.
Joe Gibbs & The ProfessionalsGates Of Zion (Joe Gibbs)
This from the flipside of my 7" reissue of Chalice's Good To Be There, although I'm somewhat certain that it isn't actually called Gates Of Zion; it actually sounds like a dub version of Dennis Brown's Whip Them Jah Hah. I only know this because the actual Gates Of Zion appears on the 12" version of this single, which I tracked down on the strength of this very dub (only to be disappointed!). Confused yet? That's par for the course with reggae... versions all over the shop! Anyway, this is another excellent slab of organ-led discomix reggae - this time in quintessential Joe Gibbs stylee - anchored by a ten ton bassline and haunted by disembodied voices in the ether.
The UpsettersReturn Of The Super Ape (Island)
Weird dub from the excellent Scratch-helmed Upsetters LP of the same title, which features striking sleeve art from Tony Wright of a rampaging giant ape holding a tree in one hand and a spliff in the other (surely one of the top five sleeves ever?)! This is peak-period Lee Perry, the mad scientist operating deep within his Black Ark studio and turning out a swampy, sun-glazed groove unlike anything else around. Watch in awe as that sleepwalking, low slung skank gives way to a heavy downbeat in the climax climax... French, you're one of a kind!
AswadA New Chapter Of Dub (Mango)
Wicked electronic reggae creeping - like the contemporary work of Prince Jammy - ever so slightly into digidub territory. Got this on the back of a recommendation from the cat behind the counter at the shop where I picked up Return Of The Super Ape... damn, nearly 20 years ago. The star of the show is undoubtedly that fat, wandering electronic bassline, which pair with a rock hard drum beat to drive the group's signature drifting horns along with a mad haunted house grand piano!
Mark Stewart + MaffiaLiberty City (On-U Sound)
Taking an abrupt left turn into abrasive post punk, we've got this killer cut from Stewart's Jerusalem EP, which also features the rock hard High Ideals And Crazy Dreams. Liberty City has that massive Adrian Sherwood-engineered Maffia bottom-end in full effect, joined here by a nagging sax refrain and sublimely spectral backing vocals rising from the ether. These Mark Stewart records are essentially the square root of trip hop. What with the Bristol connection, well, it stacks up. I've often wondered if the sound on these early Maffia records were inspired by the clipped, heavy duty basslines of the early Studio One material (see Burning Spear's debut). And are those discordant cuckoo clock sounds sampled from Fellini's Satyricon? I wonder...
Derrick HarriottDub Whip (Hawkeye)
For me, this dub version of the Dazz Band's Let It Whip is one of thee key records of the eighties, existing as it does at the cusp of the discomix reggae and digital dancehall eras, its heady dubwise flavors are shot through with the neon glow of contemporary electroboogie. Running parallel to things like Grace Jones' Compass Point records, it also seems to contain the germ of Mtume's Juicy Fruit, Massive Attack's Protection and even SA-RA's The Second Time Around.
Prince JammyMegabyte (Greensleeves)
The second record in this mix - in a row! - to feature in the recent Parallax 200 extravaganza. This from Jammy's wicked Computerised Dub set. All crisp drums and brittle textures, it's something like contemporary arcade music run through dub's hall of mirrors. Yet another one of these eighties records that mean the world to me, I'd single out it's Kraftwerk-gone-dancehall re-envisioning of Jammy's contemporary digital productions as particularly crucial. I wish I'd picked this up when it came out... five year old me would have loved it.
SoundgardenFopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Remix) (Sub Pop)
AKA Last Action Hero Dub. The second bolt for the blue here, and probably the biggest surprise... bear with me though. This grunge-tastic cover version of the Ohio Players' Fopp (strangely enough, if you listen to the Players' original, the first minute seems to predict the whole grunge sound, vocal style and all!), taken from Soundgarden's second EP, lays the blueprint for the band's whole warrior chief sound (as heard in Spoonman, et al.). However, the dub version - perpetrated by grunge super-producer Steve Fisk - takes the track to a whole other level, showcasing the possibilities of dub within the context of rock 'n roll fury. With hollowed-out beats and a vastly more spacious mix, the guitar pyrotechnics of the original track compete with snatches of synth, film dialogue and spectral hints of brass and the blues as Chris Cornell's multi-tracked banshee wail pours down over the track like molten silver.
The Future Sound Of LondonPapua New Guinea (Dub Mix) (Jumpin' & Pumpin' )
I've always loved this short little dub version from the Papua New Guinea 12", which says everything it has to in just over a minute. It also makes the dub flavor of the original track - by virtue of its bassline nicked from Radio Babylon - literal, with rock hard drums tumbling down upside your head and down into the echo chamber.
BanduluRun Run (Blanco Y Negro)
Sprawling deep space reggae from London's premiere electro-dub outfit. Positively holy music, as far as I'm concerned. I used to listen to this over and over back when I first got a hold of it, mind properly blown on the track's fathoms deep bassline and gloriously filmic sweep. Like reggae slowed down and stretched out across glistening infinity's plane. Records like Cornerstone, Guidance and Redemption came on like the ruff, rugged and raw street-level flipside to Basic Channel's elegant dub symphonies. Back in the day, Bandulu were basically my Led Zeppelin.
Peter D.Jah Pure & Clean (Nubian)
Majestic digidub from erstwhile Smith & Mighty secret weapon Peter D. Rose. With sweeping string vistas, synths and an ethereal vocal chorus all flowing into the mix, that tricky riddim still manages to take center stage. Originally from the Dub Out West Volume 1 compilation, I first heard it on Smith & Mighty's DJ-Kicks mix in the late nineties. It took me forever for me to track down its original source in the pre-Discogs era! Incidentally, the windswept drift of this track always makes me think of looking down at the beach from Mayagüez in the late afternoon under overcast skies, rain pouring down on the waves crashing on the horizon.
Terminalhead & Mr. SpeeTwisted System (Ruts DC Dub) (Push)
The Ruts DC rework is where its at, with that gently gliding rhythm and haunting vocals in the mist taking the track to another plane altogether. I love the way those warped horns elbow their way into the mix from time to time, seemingly trying to wrest control of the track. Percussion like sheet metal phases in and out of the mix. The whole effect is quite uplifting, actually. Ruts DC were a punk band gone dub from the O.G. punk era, who happened to provide dubs to a couple of the Terminalhead records. You sort of wonder about how these things come about. One of the great things about the 90s was the way they were absolutely littered with unlikely little one-offs like this. Corny as it probably sounds, it's a big part of what made growing up in the era so special. I remember thinking at the time that this could have been a huge crossover hit... well it was in my neighborhood anyway.
The Sabres Of ParadiseWilmot (Warp)
This is essentially a dub version of Black But Sweet by Wilmoth Houdini & The Night Owls, perpetrated by Andrew Weatherall's Sabres Of Paradise. This the single version: the LP version from Haunted Dancehall rides a righteous skank, but strangely enough the block rockin' beats of the single version seemed to make the most sense in this context. That and the deadly Link Wray-esque guitar lines of Tom Baeppler and those maniacal, uncredited female vocals. You want to play this very loud. I've actually got an epic Weatherall feature in the works... so stay tuned.
Primal ScreamDuffed Up (Creation)
More Adrian Sherwood, this time from much later, dubbing Primal Scream's 1997 LP Vanishing Point to abstraction (in much the same way that the Mad Professor had with Massive Attack's No Protection around the same time) on the Echo Dek mini-album (my version actually came as a box set of 7" singles). This tune is truly unlike anything else: brittle 808 electro drums, dubwise percussion, harpsichord and a warped horn section collide into a dread hallucination of what jazz might have mutated into in an alternate dimension. Someone really ought to put together an edit of the 1973 film starring Barry Newman with both Scream albums providing the soundtrack...
Bill LaswellCybotron (ROIR)
Majestic dubbed-out slow-motion rotating phone booth music from Bill Laswell, Jah Wobble and Nicky Skopelitis in this post-Material project from the year 2000. This from volume three in the Dub Chamber series, so it's in good company. With a bassline as big as the ocean, this rolls on metronomic breakbeats and sheets of valve-soaked sound sweeping in and out view, receding onto the horizon. It's all rather cinematic. File under Neuromancer: possible soundtrack music, Vol. 127.
Rhythm & SoundKing In My Empire (featuring Cornell Campbell) (Rhythm & Sound)
Basic Channel in straight up dub reggae mode, with the great Cornell Campbell on the mic. I remember back when these Rhythm & Sound records came out, it took awhile for me to work out it was the Basic Channel guys opening up a new chapter (of dub). These records were so empty, so pristine, so perfect, inhabited by that brilliant, lonely Chain Reaction sound. The other record from that era that I think of in the same breath was Plastikman's Consumed. This actually from a bit later, 2004. Dubstep waiting in the wings...
I alluded to this record earlier, but seeing as it's turned into Jah Wobble week I figured it was worth delving into it in greater detail. As I was saying, the Snake Charmer mini-LP is a great little record that straddles the nexus between post-Eno/ByrneMy Life In The Bush Of Ghosts/Talking HeadsRemain In Light fourth world rhythmic madness and the sumptuous post-disco electro boogie of contemporary early 80s dancefloors. As one might expect, the sound here is often adjacent to that of the Compass Point All Stars, with Ollie Marland's keyboards often recalling the synth stylings of the great Wally Badarou.
Operating at the interzone between these two of-the-moment sonic permutations, the emphasis is often on atmosphere and texture which is in part down to the presence of The Edge (on loan from U2) and the spiralling guitar architecture that he weaves around the tracks he happens to appear on. Those great arcs of slide-guitar feedback in the title track seems to predict what he'd be up to about eight years later on Achtung Baby, while his crystalline pools of six-string ambience add whole layers of depth and splendor to Hold On To Your Dreams. Coming as it does between U2's War and The Unforgettable Fire LPs, one wonders how much his involvement in this project played into his band's radical shift into more atmospheric territory the following year. Obviously Brian Eno played a crucial role, but - like Bowie with Station To Station - I suspect The Edge was already harboring some ideas of his own.
More than anything else, however, the vectors of Jah Wobble and Holger Czukay are what place this record at its unique fourth world vantage point. Interestingly, Wobble's bass seems to be operating at an octave higher than usual, indulging in some slap bass action along the lines of Jeremy Kerr's work in A Certain Ratio rather than his usual dub-heavy bottom-end. Also, while most of the record is given over to instrumentals, Wobble provides vocals to the opening Snake Charmer.
Czukay reprises his role from their previous collaboration Full Circle as the master of atmosphere, contributing blasts of French horn and more of that spooky grand piano sound from How Much Are They? to Snake Charmer, along with guitars and his trademark dictaphone inserts throughout. Everything here very much informed by Czukay's peerless soundscapes achieved on his 1981 solo turn On The Way To The Peak Of Normal (even if nothing here quite reaches the heights of Ode To Perfume).
As if the three principals weren't enough, disco heavyweight François Kevorkian takes his place behind the mixing desk alongside the inimitable Paul "Groucho" Smykle, fresh from his sessions remixing King Sunny Adé's Ja Funmi. You're starting to get the picture now, aren't you? It's 1983, and this is shaping up to be an exceptional slab of post-disco magic. Let's put the needle 'pon the record...
Snake Charmer provides the opening gambit with a rolling syn drum fanfare before launching into its left-footed digi-funk groove, setting the stage for this record's excursion through the shifting sands of the Moroccan outback. Synth flourishes begin to splash into view at the start of every bar, while Jah Wobble goes to work on the bass. A blast of Holger Czukay's French horn splits into the scene front-end-center, making room for his guitar atmospherics and haunted dancehall grand piano to enter the mix. Then, the synths seem to cruise into strangled arabesques as Jah Wobble contributes his maniacal vocals:
Messages beamed from Mars
Straight in my mind.
Try to get in my mind...
They made me do it! They made me do it!
All the while, Czukay's scrambled dictaphone ramblings spool out in the background. Then, the bottom drops out into a snatch of on-the-one funk guitar from Animal for but a moment, before returning to the groove and that central piano motif. Moments pass and then The Edge starts to strangle great arcing shapes from his guitar as Wobble continues:
My dream orders on my mind's TV camera
I think I'm Bogey living in Casablanca.
Scattered newspapers drift across derelict land,
spreading spurious lies and sordid details of my private life.
An angel swope to my chest swooping all it’s glory!
The Edge cools out the groove with his graceful arcs of guitar in slow-motion and Holger returns with his soaring French horn figures. Then, the beat trips into electro funk territory, rolling off into the horizon as Wobble adds:
Yes, but you don’t understand
I was the man hanging from the noose.
And you don’t understand
I was the world leader, the world dominator.
And the beat goes on. You're cruising across the Sahara, sun setting in the distance. This is all so clearly of a piece with My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts that I feel corny even mentioning it. Also Thomas Leer's 4 Movements. If you love those records, then you owe it to yourself to hear this tune. Trust me. You could build a club night around these three records. Please do that and invite me! Please... please? Anyway, we'll give Wobble the final words to close this thing out:
Many voices going through my head
Voices of the living and the voices of the dead.
Journeys through history, journeys sublime
And even, journeys to the end of time.
And then a flourish of twinkling piano takes us directly into the achingly gorgeous Hold On To Your Dreams. A gentle synth pulses while shades of The Edge's guitar sparkle all around. Wobble enters the fray to push this groove along with a gliding bass figure, and then then a synth slips into a progression to herald the entrance of the beat. Czukay's pal-from-the-Can-days Jaki Liebezeit starts to do his thing behind the drumkit, holding down that slow-motion disco rhythm. Somehow you're now in the best nightclub in town, bathed in blacklight and shards of white light scattering off the disco ball onto the dancefloor below and damn your girl's looking good.
As I've mentioned before, this is pure post-disco boogie, along the lines of the Compass Point records and Ashford & Simpson's Babies (Dub Version), which François Kevorkian himself would produce a year later. I wonder if Hold On To Your Dreams was still running through his mind when he was mixing that record down, as the resemblance is uncanny. Uncanny! Similarly, Wide Awake In America's Love Comes Tumbling almost seems like an attempt by U2 to resurrect the dynamic of Hold Onto Your Dreams and The Edge's crystalline lattice of guitar unfurled here. It's all very much in the vein of a chugging mid-tempo boogie, which places it at the lower-right corner of the Parallax Pyramid's foundation.
As if to make it official, High Fashion's Marcella Allen1 takes the mic for lead vocals, giving us a glimpse at what High Fashion tunes like I Want To Be Your Everything and A Little More Time might have sounded like with her singing lead. The whole effect is quite atmospheric, indeed this is the tune where the presence François Kevorkian and Paul "Groucho" Smykle is felt most dramatically, with layers of guitar swathed in blankets of echo and dubdisco bleeps reverberating through the mix almost subliminally. It pulses on for nearly nine minutes before disappearing into the stars.
And so closeth side one. You flip the record over and we're back in the fourth world, with It Was A Camel. Blah blah My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts blah blah. You must be so sick of hearing about this by now. But remember Moonlight In Glory? Well, you could certainly spin this and that one back to back. It's got that same loping groove and low key pumping quasi-brass synth creeping in and out of the rhythm - with Jaki Liebezeit doing his thing behind the drumkit yet again - while Holger Czukay's grand piano takes center stage and his dictaphone rambles out beneath it all. Then, a highlife-esque guitar appear out of nowhere like it's the most natural thing in the world. It's all so improbable, but one could imagine a whole scene in the penumbra of these records. Jon Hassell's Power Spot worth a mention here as well. The rhythm just fades out into the dunes...
With no warning, Sleazy cuts in out of nowhere at a breakneck pace about 20 BPM faster than anything else here. Jim Walker's furious, crashing drums and Jah Wobble's frenetic basslines lay down a frenzied rhythmic bedrock for Animal to spray his wailing guitar feedback over. Old Ollie Marland contributes a bit of keyboards too. I should mention that Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart band is credited on the record's sleeve after all the other luminaries listed, with Neville Murray providing percussion throughout the record. It's interesting to note the Invaders Of The Heart debut 12" from the same year (I'm pretty sure it preceded Snake Charmer, but I'll have to speak with Dignam to confirm), with its similarly pungent fourth world stylings. Today's tile of the day was actually a toss up between the two records.2
The mini-LP closes with an instrumental reprise of Snake Charmer which is actually longer than the original. It plays like a dub version, with added emphasis on the track's electro aspects, and you can hear Groucho's trademark tricks in evidence throughout. It's a fitting close to this record's circular story, which plays like a possible soundtrack to one of William BurroughsTangiers hallucinations. Definitive interzone music. Strangely, it's still not available digitally or on CD... so it's a good thing y'all have a record player.
1. Interesting to note that Marcella Allen also sang with Norman Connors' Aquarian Dream and on Lonnie Liston Smith's Love Is The Answer. It's a post-jazz funk boogie, proto-SA-RA type thang... I feel it!
2.Snake Charmer won because it's got more angles to it, but check out the Invaders Of The Heart 12" sleeve, as its brilliantly evocative of Wobble's windswept desert music of this era.
Shaman of the bass. From PIL to Primal Scream. The Legend Lives On... Jah Wobble In "Betrayal". Do you remember last night I sat down and you got up? I do. Sessions with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, some fraction of Can lose themselves inna haunted dancehall. I feel just like Bogey... in Casablanca! Fly the Bomba (Nonsonicus Maximus), sailing Higher Than The Sun (A Sub Symphony In Two Parts)... Weatherall and The Invaders Of The Heart grooving in the Blue Room with The Orb and Aisha as starships creep across the desert sky... 40 years pass by slowly, that bass still pulsing on & on & on.
As the hours keep turning and the moon hangs deep in the sky, we move toward the back of the crate toward the voodoo records. Here's where we get into the heaviest, most atmospheric music that could loosely be termed punk funk without shimmying into krautrock territory. Word of warning: things are gonna get weird. Escape routes take you everywhere from West Africa to the Caribbean, from Brazil to Indonesia and from Bristol to The Bronx. Far and wide. Today's chapter essentially boils down to three post punk dynasties: The Pop Group/Slits continuum, Material/Bill Laswell and the mighty Public Image Ltd. (and related solo endeavors). All of which - critically - take you well into the nineties and beyond, tributaries cutting a jagged path across the landscape to feed into pockets of industrial, hip hop and technoid innovation leading right up to the present day. But first, let's start at the beginning...
Public Image Ltd.'s Metal Box is in essence the the Rosetta Stone of the whole endeavor, a decoder ring of sorts. When you come to terms with the record, suddenly everything else makes sense. Albatross sets the tone with a twenty ton bassline snaking its way through ten minutes of grinding, cavernous funk, followed swiftly by the spidery guitar of the filmic Memories and the return of Death Disco - the group's 12" tour de force - which gets transmuted here into Swan Lake (the guitar at one point mirrors Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same title). In all three Lydon wails like a banshee, Levene splinters his guitar into jagged arcing feedback and Wobble walks his bass across the track like a brontosaurus. The story goes that the trio had been been mainlining on krautrock and Jamaican dub, and it's all in full effect here: the bass towers menacingly at center stage while the guitars often recall Michael Karoli's spidery fretwork on Tago Mago.
Like Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies, Metal Box appears to deconstruct itself before your eyes over the course of its hour-long running time. Tunes like Careering and The Suit are the jaded, staggering flipside to Swan Lake, while Graveyard eschews vocals altogether, staggering zombie-like through the Gothic crypt. Socialist - another instrumental - comes on like the dub version of a straight up punk song circa 1977. Similarily, Chant is another x-ray punk endeavor - maddening in its atonal repetition and refusal to release - while No Birds is the closest thing here to PIL's First Issue and Public Image. The closing1Radio 4 is a drifting synth instrumental anchored only by Wobble's bassline, who also dominates the heavy dub stomp of Poptones.
Out of the three principal malcontents in PIL, Jah Wobble spent the most sustained time in this fertile territory at the intersection of funk and dub. His solo debut Betrayal even used some backing tapes from the PIL sessions (which accordingly got him kicked out of the band) and turned in a worthy successor to Metal Box, with synths and atmospherics taking on an even wider role in the sound this time out (not to mention looser, more nimble rhythms). Blink and you'd swear the vocals in Betrayal - the track - came courtesy of Shaun Ryder! It's a promising beginning to what turned out to be a long and fruitful discography at the nexus of funk and dub.
Two of Wobble's subsequent records were collaborations with Can bassist Holger Czukay that perpetrated further capers in this arena, with Full Circle (also featuring Can's Jaki Liebezeit on drums) boasting the post punk dancefloor classic How Much Are They? (which eerily seems to predict the atmosphere of The Good, The Bad & The Queen record) and Snake Charmer (featuring atmospheric guitar by The Edge of U2 fame!), the latter of which takes matters strikingly close to contemporary electro boogie. And I mean running in parallel, two steps away, too close for comfort. Glenn Close, even. Hold On To Your Dreams, in particular, which features High Fashion's Marcella Allen on vocals, could slot rather comfortably into a set alongside contemporary Ashford & Simpson, Gwen Guthrie and the S.O.S. Band. Conversely, the title track's atmosphere bears an uncanny resemblance to My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, which is no small praise indeed.
These fourth world vibes turned out to be the lifeblood of the man's output for the next decade plus, where he drew influence from Jamaica, North Africa and even the Celtic music of his own British isles for a series of albums with his new band Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart. This phase of his career will be covered further in the next chapter of Terminal Vibration (where we trace all these threads through the latter half of the decade into the nineties), but Wobble actually got around to issuing the Invaders Of The Heart self-titled debut 12" as early as 1983 (the year of Snakecharmer, in fact). It's an utterly beguiling record - spread across three separate mixes - with Wobble's trademark wall of bass riding a motorik post-disco groove across the Sahara, as trumpet arabesques and sampled wailing vocals weave across its surface. I always loved the way that synth bass comes in at times to echo Wobble's pulsing b-line ever so often. It's all very much in keeping with the Byrne/Eno experiment, especially, but also things like Thomas Leer's 4 Movements and Tony Allen's N.E.P.A. LP. Future music, in other words. With the icon Wobble clearly having a hand on the pulse.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, another bass player was embarking on his own excursion that would carve a similar trail across the post punk landscape. I speak now of Bill Laswell. Laswell was a journeyman bassist who'd cut his teeth in various funk bands around Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to New York before hooking up with Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher to form the initial incarnation of Material. The trio got their unlikely start as the backing band for Daevid Allen's twilight-era New York Gong before cutting a trio of EPs for Red Records.2 The band debuted in 1979 with Temporary Music 1, a dense, lo-fi slab of prog-inflected post punk that ran the gamut from On Sadism's mid-tempo punk funk to the Canterbury-esque prog moves of Process/Motion. Temporary Music 2 followed a couple years later with cleaner production and a more spacious mix, boasting the motorik dancefloor moves of Secret Life and Dark Things' foggy post-Bitches Brew atmosphere. American Songs rounded out the trilogy the very same year, with tracks Ciquri - the next in their line of mid-tempo funk tracks - and Discourse, which illustrate the band's comfort with the form (which I suspect - once again - is down to the band's jazz roots). Still, the rockier Slow Murder is almost-new wave in the same way Public Image was. One suspects that they're feeling the spectre of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads throughout.
The band followed these EPs with two albums in quick succession: Memory Serves (1981) and One Down (1982). Memory Serves picks up the thread of rough-and-tumble post punk from the EPs, even bringing back some of the proggy/fusion-tinged flavors of Temporary Music 1. Rollicking punk funk tunes like Memory Serves and Conform To The Rhythm are accompanied by appropriately doomy vocals from Michael Beinhorn (in the former, he almost sounds like an off-the-rails Oingo Boingo-era Danny Elfman), while the abrasive Square Dance manages to surpass the atonality of even Temporary Music 1. Conversely, One Down makes an unanticipated swerve into nearly straight up electroboogie territory. Featuring vocals from the likes of Nona Hendryx (who also worked with the expanded Talking Heads during the same time period), Bernard Fowler (of the N.Y.C. Peech Boys and later Tackhead) and a pre-fame Whitney Houston (on the stately ballad Memories, also featuring Archie Shepp in an uncharacteristically gentle mood), this is very much of-the-moment, state-of-the-art boogie a la Hold On To You Dreams. With Roger Troutman-esque talkboxes dominating the Beinhorn-voiced tracks, the transition is complete. The band even turns in an excellent cover of Sly Stone's Let Me Have It All! Everything here fits squarely alongside the likes of Mtume, Kleeer and the Compass Point records.
Sandwiched between both albums is the Bustin' Out, which found the band moonlighting on ZE Records and makes sense of the band's sudden shift in direction between the two LPs as they thoroughly absorb the label's mutant disco aesthetic3 for some tasty rubberband funk action. At this point, activity from Material essentially halted until the end of the decade while Laswell devoted serious time to his Orange Music studio, working on various projects for Celluloid Records like mid-eighties albums from The Last Poets and Fela Kuti (which sadly don't rival their legendary 70s output), along with the storied five rap records (to be continued).
Like Jah Wobble, Laswell's increasingly global vision continued to expand throughout the the decade, and by the nineties he was mixing up hip hop, funk, dub and African rhythms into a heady stew that were very much apace with post-EnoOcean Of Sound vanguard. Interesting to note Laswell's presence on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts way back in 1981, playing bass on America Is Waiting. Also interesting to note that Brian Eno returned the favor the following year, contributing to One Down's Holding On. Once again, all these seemingly disparate figures rubbing shoulders around this time (roughly 1979-1983), figures like Brian Eno, Fela Kuti, David Byrne, The Last Poets, Afrika Bambaataa and Laswell himself, speak to not only the catholic elasticity of Celluloid's broad-minded setup but also the intoxicating spirit of cross-pollination that hangs over this era like a magenta haze.
As if to prove the point, the Tackhead/Fats Comet organization were beginning to gather steam just as Material went on indefinite hiatus and PIL splintered into a thousand pieces. Interesting that core members of the crew started out in the backing band for Sugar Hill Records, laying the backbone for the early rap classics that surfaced on the label during its heyday before striking out on their own as a 21st century avant funk crew upon meeting On-U Sound-man Adrian Sherwood. One can certainly hear traces of records like New York New York, Scorpio and Message II (Survival) in the DNA of the crew's twisted cyberpunk grooves. Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat is a slap-bass fueled, funk-tinged electro workout akin to Hashim's Primrose Path - released the following year - albeit with a groove that rolls at a breakneck pace punctuated by machine gun beatboxes and freewheeling Art Of Noise-esque orchestra stabs. Conversely, Stormy Weather rocks a dynamite go-go beat while an almost-prog/fusion guitar shreds through the groove (and your eardrums), pointing the way forward to the group's next phase as Tackhead.
Tackhead found the crew on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound and the BPMs were accordingly dialed down to an herbalist's pace, matching the post punk stomp of the Mark Stewart records they played on as The Maffia. Hard-edged downbeat slates like High Ideals And Crazy Dreams and Liberty City (both from Stewart's Jerusalem EP) glimpse a nightmarish vision of dub that prefigured what much of the best trip hop would become.4 It all came to a head on Stewart's third, self-titled LP. Leading with the metallic Survival - where the Maffia gets to revisit their very own Rapper's Delight bassline! - a master class in pulverizing machine riddims and the inimitable wail of Mr. Stewart, it makes the flashes of cyberpunk dread hanging around this crew explicit. In fact, much of the record is built around samples and quotes from other songs - a Trouble Funk breakbeart here, some Billy Idol guitar there, and a Moroder bassline capping it all off - which puts it at the bleeding edge of sound collage right along with hip hop's burgeoning sampladelia. It's nearly as patchwork an affair as something like Tricky's Maxinquaye (which Stewart had a crucial influence on, even producing Aftermath while mentoring young Adrian Thaws). Trip hop dress rehearsals like Forbidden Colour offer up a downbeat cover version of David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Forbidden Colours, while Hell Is Empty sounds like the most twisted Close The Door-era Terranova track imaginable. Stranger Than Love even put Smith & Mighty on wax for the first time when they contributed the dub version to its 12" single, making the link between post punk and trip hop Bristol explicit. In retrospect, it's rather fitting that a figure like Stewart would stand at the intersection of both eras, both scenes.
Mark Stewart started out in a little crew that grew up frequenting funk nights together as youngsters - where they'd get down to the sounds of BT Express and The Fatback Band - and reggae at venues like the Bamboo Club.6 It only makes sense that such heady origins would be felt considerably in the band's subsequent recordings as The Pop Group. Their hard funk roots can be heard in deeply warped fashion on The Pop Group's debut LP Y (which actually pre-empted Metal Box by a few months) and the She Is Beyond Good And Evil, which pulses almost subconsciously on a walking bassline while the remainder of the track - especially Stewart's throat-shredding wail - seems to dissolve all around it. Produced by Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell, it sets into motion a particular sensibility that would become the basis for the Y Records7 sound: sparse instrumentation played loose in an aggressively atmospheric soundscape, captured brilliantly with Bovell spacious, three-dimensional, clear as a bell production. Bovell's skill behind the mixing desk pays immediate dividends when the band hangs a left turn into some of their more outre passages (like a vivid snapshot of chaos, where you can nevertheless clearly discern every element in the image). Indeed, there's a considerable free jazz presence in the group's wilder, more abstract passages, which puts them to the left of even PIL. Put simply, one cannot overestimate the centrality of The Pop Group. Along with PIL's music, this is ground zero for post punk's twisted take on funk, a sound that takes you into the nineties and beyond via funk metal and myriad other sounds. In fact, Y's opening track - Thief Of Fire - even sounds like an apocalyptic precursor to The Red Hot Chili Peppers!
The Pop Group followed Y with the We Are All Prostitutes, where Mark Stewart's lyrics grow yet more didactic and political even as the band's groove settles deeper in the pocket. The group's final record, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, was - at the album level - actually more straightforwardly funky than anything that had come before, settling into a watertight post punk boogie that nevertheless retained a healthy dose of chaos in the mix (much of it provided by the ever dependable Stewart, who - much like Iggy Pop during The Stooges era - simply won't be reigned in). It was along these lines that the band ultimately split, with the rest of the group shearing off to form bands like Rip Rig & Panic, Pigbag, Glaxo Babies, Shriekback and Maximum Joy, while Stewart - as discussed earlier - hooked up with Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound setup for that blistering series of records in the mid-eighties.
On the flipside to The Pop Group coin is a band equally central to the post punk story. In many ways, The Slits were something of a sister group to The Pop Group, as both bands dropped similarly unruly, junglistic debut albums within months of each other in 1979 (both of which were produced by Dennis Bovell). Both groups shared a sense of shedding the constraints of civilization and starting from scratch - Back To Nature as Fad Gadget once opined - and in many ways their debut albums came on like field recordings of some as yet undiscovered tribe, in the way that My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and Can's Ethological Forgery Series seemed to conjure up similar images. And just as The Pop Group washed up on Y Records upon departure from Radar, The Slits put out a record on Y after leaving CBS. Appropriately enough, it was the split 7" single In The Beginning There Was Rhythm/Where There's A Will There's A Way: a head to head duel with The Pop Group.
The Slits' debut album Cut was an instant classic, with (once again) perfect production from Dennis Bovell. There was a heavy dub/reggae presence to the record - perhaps moreso than anything else discussed today - with atmospheric reverb wrapped around the band's skeletal, turn on a dime playing. The rhythm of tunes like So Tough and Instant Hit seem to be happening on multiple plains, every note played like a phrase imbued with myriad layers of meaning. The extraordinary thing about The Slits is that even at their most shambolic, they manage to maintain a strong pop sensibility. I'd wager that you could give this album to any fourteen year old and chances are they'd fall in love with it. This strength was explored further on the band's excellent cover version of Motown standard I Heard It Through The Grapevine (on the b-side of the Typical Girls), which remains my absolute favorite version of the tune (just beating out the Gladys Knight & The Pips original). Built on an unlikely bed of vocal humming, it rides the trademark group's skeletal rhythms with a chanted lyric from Ari Up in one of the great not-Disco Not Disco-but-could-have-been moments in post punk.
Return Of The Giant Slits, the group's second and final album found Dennis Bovell behind the boards once again, this time cranking up the atmosphere to distinctly oppressive levels. Now there was a heavier worldbeat presence in evidence throughout, which found the group looking to Africa for inspiration around the same time the likes of Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno were making their own forays into the same territory. The opening song Earthbeat rides furious tribal drumming while the ladies' voices hover disembodied above the whole affair. The remainder of the album shares more of a similarity to the debut, albeit viewed through a murky prism with heavier emphasis on sounds and textures beyond the relatively straightforward bass/guitar/drum setup of the debut. Interesting to note the presence of Neneh Cherry in the group at this point, that strange attractor of British beat music throughout much of the decade, who would go on to have a profound influence on British club music and the sound that would come to be called trip hop.
Once The Pop Group and The Slits had both disbanded, the Y Records aesthetic really begins to be forged in earnest, establishing a loosely played post punk boogie8 seemingly sourced in The Pop Group's tendency to operate at that thin jagged line between order and chaos. In truth, that's the only place to be, where the tension between the two is at its absolute tautest. Depending on which of the label's groups we're talking about, the emphasis falls on one side or the other. To illustrate the point, let's dive into a three-band post-Pop Group sub-section...
Maximum Joy hold court at the less chaotic end of the spectrum, rivalling even The Slits' pop brilliance with their solitary album Station M.X.J.Y.. The crew operated very much at the axis of boogie - in the tradition of ex-punks getting down at the disco - but they managed to do it more convincingly than just about anyone else in the scene. Typically led by the sing song vocals of Janine Rainforth, the tunes would skate nimbly along loose rhythms with an abundance of bright flourishes slipping into the mix. It's a sound that's also evidenced in 12" singles like Stretch and In The Air, records that were practically new pop even as they maintained the rude, shambolic spirit so crucial to post punk's edge. One would expect nothing less from a Y Records outfit.
Interestingly, Bristol mover and shaker Nellee Hooper started out in this crew before blazing a path through the island's hip hop scene to help define the burgeoning UKurban sound that would culminate in trip hop. At this point it makes sense to highlight the considerable lattice of connection going on here today, with the presence of Mark Stewart (as already mentioned) tied into not only Tricky but also Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch that would spawn Massive Attack. You can clearly trace a straight line between late seventies Bristol and the nineties Bristol surveyed in Smith & Mighty's Bass Is Maternal, Tricky's Maxinquae and Portishead's Dummy. Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself again; suffice it to say Station M.X.J.Y. just might be the greatest pop record on the Y imprint.
Rip, Rig & Panic, by contrast, dwell at the most chaotic end of the spectrum, conjuring a defiantly post-Miles' On The Corner racket as they worked their way through three albums in as many years (starting in 1981). The band named themselves after a Roland Kirk album from 1965, so you'd be right in expecting the heavy hand of free jazz to hang over the proceedings. Rather fittingly, Neneh Cherry was a key member of this crew upon the disintegration of The Slits. Fittingly because her step-father was the great Don Cherry, whose fourth world-preempting recordings from the Brown Rice era are very much of a piece with what her band were up to here. In fact, if you imagined a more abrasive, atonal version of Don's Hear & Now, then you wouldn't be too far off. Fascinating the way the free wing of jazz often seems to overlap with post punk sonically. Of course, the group did have the occasional almost-pop moment - tunes like Bob Hope Takes Risks and Constant Drudgery Is Harmful To Soul, Spirit & Health that seem to arrive at a post-disco boogie seemingly by accident - but their hearts quite clearly lie in the abstract. This is a tangled, untamed music that strains at the label post punk, threatening to double back and break into the seventies for proper account alongside the likes of Miles Davis, Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.
Lying somewhere between the chaos of Rip Rig & Panic and Maximum Joy's glossy sheen is the beloved Pigbag, a band that managed to blend the searing post-Miles brass of the latter with the dancefloor dexterity of the former. The band's debut single, Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, even climbed to #3 in the UK! Rocking a frenetic post-disco rhythm replete with furious percussion and a looming bassline, the band seem to offer up a nightmare version of Madness' ska with tight-as-a-drum horn charts ruling the tune even as spectral brass creeps in and out of the mix. Throughout the band's three year tenure - overlapping perfectly with that of Rip Rig & Panic - Pigbag managed to consistently run down some spooky voodoo on wax. Dr. Heckle And Mr. Jive - from the debut album of the same name - launched drowning arcs of eerie brass across a nagging bassline and rolling percussion, while the uptempo Getting Up placed the band's horn charts front and center over furious percussion and chicken-scratch guitar while holding down a pulsing 4/4 rhythm. Like Maximum Joy, the band can play it remarkably straight and go for the dancefloor jugular, yet at a moment's notice they can veer off into leftfield with dense, oppressive atmospherics that rival that of Rip Rig & Panic.
The final crew in the mix today is 23 Skidoo, which I've appropriately only revealed just now. While not a Y Records band, they were fellow travellers exploring a densely atmospheric fourth world vision. The band came crashing into the public consciousness with The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, a ten-minute slab of churning, murky post punk funk. Group chants and strange woodwinds fade in and out of the fog as the band seem to pound out their beat at the other end of the cave. This is 23 Skidoo clearly taking the field recording ethos of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts to its logical conclusion. The band's debut LP Seven Songs found them alternating between the droning atmospherics of New Testament and the relatively straight up funk of Vegas El Bandito, but it was the closing Quiet Pillage9 that pointed the way forward to the band's next obsession: Indonesian gamelan music.10
The Culling Is Coming was the band's second LP, and the debut's occasional funk had given way to pure, shadowy atmosphere. The opening G-2 Contemplation launched straight into the first of the band's explorations into gamelan music, a sound they interpret as deeply in thrall to the strange. At times reminiscent of the more nebulous portions of the Third Ear Band's Music For Macbeth, it could just as easily score the eeriest moments of Fellini's Satyricon. Tone poems like Shrine and Mahakala are like being lost in the fog of a deserted temple, while the closing Healing (For The Strong) reveals that the temple wasn't deserted after all! In essence, the record prefigures what would come to be called dark ambient years later, about as far from the dancefloor as could be.
Which makes the about face of Coup all the more astonishing. Turning up on a non-LP 12" later that year, it was the band's greatest pop moment. After two bars of the band's crispest drum beat yet, Sketch Martin drops that bassline into the mix before horn charts sweep in to carry the melody. I say that bassline because it was later resurrected by The Chemical Brothers fifteen years later for their epochal big beat classic, Block Rockin' Beats, which came crashing into the charts in 1997. Meanwhile, the flipside's Version (In The Palace) feeds Coup through the cold machinery of dub.
The band's final album - Urban Gamelan - featured a new version of Coup titled F.U.G.I. and a couple more moments of low slung funk, but it was mostly devoted to the band's atonal gamelan symphonies. Like I said, the exit routes from today's music shoots you out all over the globe, and that pan-global vision was one of its greatest strengths. In the decades to come, 23 Skidoo's music was actually rather well curated. At the turn of the century, their album were reissued on the heels of the band's self-titled reunion album just as the post punk revival was starting to gather steam. On second thought, reunion might be a bit of a misnomer. As the Just Like Everybody compilation proved, the band had been far from dormant. Rounding up two discs worth of unreleased nineties material, it showcased some of what the band had generated while loitering in dance music's shadowy back alley... the same back alley where all manner of post punk figures were lurking throughout the decade.
You see, the band played on...
1. Note that the original triple 12" record was designed to be played in any order, so the tracklist I'm using is the one delineated by the Second Edition reissue (after all, that's how I encountered this record in the first place, stateside brother that I am).
2. These three EPs are handily compiled on the relatively easy to find Secret Life anthology.
3. In fact, the band managed to contribute a song to all three volumes of the Disco Not Disco series, which essentially enshrined the mutant disco sound. If I'm memory serves, they were the only artist to do so.
4. Put simply, twisted hip hop staggering down the back alley in a desperate state, its mind warped on unkind substances and unhealthy emotion. But that's another story for another series, which I'll delve into further at a later date.
In the midst of all this excitement - post punk and what not from the midst of the Gibson era - it makes sense for a slight return to Neuromancer and Chiba City. The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, with the binary skyline of Chicago sprawled like '98 and the view from the Sears Tower stretching out into the cornfields of Iowa, Missouri and beyond (the city of Detroit 280 miles in the other direction). Arthur Russell sings Let's Go Swimming across the Great Lakes and life In The Corn Belt
The sounds of this music - post-disco sounds, Compass Point, post punk noise - make perfect sense in the world of The Sprawl and the L5... Tackhead and Fat's Comet, 23 Skidoo and 400 Blows - like Cabaret Voltaire - all make sense in this world as much as Scientist and Blackbeard's dub in the chambers of Zion. King Tubby, Prince Jammy, Bunny "Striker" Lee and all the others blend in the heavy vibes of the anteroom, with the great expanse of the capsule drawing deep into the murky depths below. You are in The Deep now... Captain Nemo plays the pipe organ within the iron walls of the Nautilus.
Sketch an emerald vector from all of this to The Sabres Of Paradise and Two Lone Swordsmen and keep tracing it right up to the this moment, the Glenn Street Assault Squad holding court in the corner booth at the Air Conditioned Lounge, the sound of deep house - Rick Wade, Solaris, Stockholm Sessions - in full effect. The Rooms In My House Have Many Parties, tactile, three-dimensional sounds... rhythms you could reach out and touch, if your ears could only reach just a little bit further. How disco's rhythms sometimes seem as if they were sequenced by machine, the way electronic music often seems to live and breathe.
Prelude and West End, dubbed out sides of the Burnt Sienna series, capturing the sounds of Grantville on wax for posterity. On the Voyager tip. ISDN, Vit Drowning, Earthbeat: great expanses of warped sound twisting in the darkness. Señor Olmos in an overcoat. Curbside sushi and club tools for visitors. Situation 12. Claude Young and The Skinless Brothers; Dirty House Crew/Acid Wash Conflict. Surgeon > Scorn > Faust > The Velvet Underground. The underground lives on, whatever the case may be...
Promotional sticker for the New Boots And Panties!! LP release (1977).1
My birthday was last Friday and my wonderful sister-in-law Leah happened to be in town for the festivities. She gave me this excellent anthology of punk-era communiqué from various broadsheet publications, promotional materials, posters and the like. The above image is taken from a two-page spread near the middle of the book, which in a timely bit of synchronicity links up with the other day's post per its coverage of the late great Ian Dury. This reproduction of a 1977 promo sticker spun me around as I was flipping through the book and - since I couldn't find anything about it online - I figured I'd scan it up here (with just a splash of color) for your viewing pleasure.
Here is the book in question, Punk Press: Rebel Rock In The Underground Press 1968-1980:
Which is a veritable treasure trove of proto-punk/punk/post-punk text and imagery - vibes for days - featuring figures ranging from The Knickerbockers and William Burroughs to The Clash and Iggy Pop to Suicide and Clock DVA, while publications like In The City, Zigzag, Sniffin' Glue, NME and Metal Hurlant. Like a said, a real treasure trove! Thanks again to Leah who - despite being tempted to keep the book for herself(!) - was kind enough to contribute it to the Parallax Library for posterity. Images from within will no doubt surface here from time to time as we continue this little post punk excursion in the months to come. In the meantime, Hit me with your rhythm stick and groove to some Ian Dury & The Blockheads.2
Right now, this old man's gotta take a breather...
1. Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois, Punk Press: Rebel Rock In The Underground Press 1968-1980 (Abrams, 2012), 70-71.
So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here - about half the records in the crate - brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original - blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of - for all intents and purposes - rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery. It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms travelling across a grid at strict right angles. Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint - incidentally where The Human League started out as well - the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP. Entertainment is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound - free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues - and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb - bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow - giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album. The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant. We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love - which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix - is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5 Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise - often getting lost in the Factory shuffle - but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes. They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett. Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water - with the Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip - is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me). The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are veryJamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or - once again - Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals - straight out of the electro playbook - A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals - think Mike Skinner in The Streets - and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!). The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics - this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex - must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus (Autisticus). Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, revelling in Dury's clever wordplay. While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularily good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue - of what sounds like a torture scene - floats over the top. It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch. Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity. In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive - almost tribal - sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record. The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music - encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records - is quite simply essential listening. Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk - well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century - that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off. Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. - even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts - became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space). The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top. The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line - which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style - as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity. Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack. The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack - more distortion! - while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins - and Gang Of Four's sister band - the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms. The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heatwaves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals.
The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last). Double Nickels On The Dime - famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) - was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
1. In fact, the band were initially inspired to form by New York band Defunkt, who we will return to shortly...
2. A cornerstone of the band's early sound, Slovak was the Chili Peppers' original guitarist until 1988, when he died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by the beloved John Frusciante on the Mother's Milk album.
3.Cliff Martinez was later replaced by Will Ferrell lookalike Chad Smith on the band's fourth album, Mother's Milk.
4. Indeed, during the post punk revival gold rush, it seemed like every band and their dog was claiming influence from the record!
5. Unsurprisingly, these two tracks were Hard's contributions to their best of round up, A Brief History Of The 20th Century.
6. I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his Top 100, which was actually my introduction to his writing in the first place (thanks to a timely link from Simon Reynolds). I distinctly remember being ensconced in the heady atmosphere of the 1808 in the dead of Winter and reading down the list with delight: first Ryuichi Sakamoto, A.R. Kane and then A Certain Ratio and Mark Stewart + Maffia and thinking this is the best list ever!
7.Mick Middles, From Joy Division To New Order (Virgin Books, 1996), 128-129.
8. In fact, I once mixed Black Box Disco into a Moodymann track and it came off like the most natural thing in the world.
9. Check out the charts at the end of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, where one finds tunes like Liquid Liquid's Cavern and ESG's Moody tucked comfortably in the lists for not only Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, but also Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, Ron Hardy's Music Box and The Roxy. It's a testament to not only these records' utility on the dancefloor, or even the open-minded turntable policy of the clubs themselves, but the fluidity of the era's music across the dancefloors of the day. It all sounded good together in the mix and thus shared the same space in time. And what a time it was!
10. There was also a great compilation of the band's original material (A South Bronx Story) released at the dawn of the 21st century.
TV4 Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlight (Factory)
ESGMoody (Spaced Out) (99)
VortexBlack Box Disco (Neutral)
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (Stiff)
This 12" came up in the most recent episode of Terminal Vibration, but it's such a uniquely strange record that I thought I'd spend a little more time with it. What marks it out as curious is its structure: each of the track's four versions get more warped and dubbed out than the one before, literally descending into madness by the end of side two. I can't think of an earlier record that shares the same sustained concept - although I wouldn't be surprised if reggae beat them to it - which works like a charm.
Coming on the heels of the dubbed out triple-LP madness of Sandinista!, Radio Clash updates the blueprint of songs like Ivan Meets G.I. Joe and The Magnificent Seven with skittering, dexterous rhythms - even verging on electro, at times - to arrive at a twisting, wiry vision of swashbuckling post-disco boogie. Those electroid drums and infectious rhythms point the way forward to not only Combat Rock's massive Rock The Casbah - where they were distilled into a potent formula that stormed the charts - but also the strikingly peculiar Cool Confusion.1 As such, it remains a key stepping stone between the sensibilities of Sandinista! and Combat Rock.
This Is Radio Clash introduces itself with Joe Strummer's maniacal laughter before dropping into a punk-boogie rhythm shot through with dubdisco stylings shimmering across its surface. The track moves like a nomad running parkour through the city, bouncing off walls, leaping rooftops and sliding down rails in mad pursuit of... something. Paul Simonon's bass adopts a nimble, moonwalking quality that picks up where Sandinista!'s Version City left off, while Topper Headon's chattering drums are treated with all manner of electronic modification. Joe Strummer rides the groove, chanting the track's title over a haunting sax tattoo from guest star Gary Barnacle in between another one of his mini-raps. Like Parliament's Flashlight, it's not so much verse/chorus as both happening simultaneously. Of course Mtume and Kleeer ain't far off either, come to think of it...
The second version, simply titled Radio Clash, is a disco dub of the original track, with the effects cranked up to a respectable level and electronic sparks spraying every which way from its central groove. It's so subtly different from the original that one could conceivably not even notice the difference, even if Strummer leads off with a different couplet at the song's launch. If you weren't paying attention, it would almost be subconscious. Its relationship to the original always reminds me of D-Train's You're The One For Me to its instrumental version.
Kicking off the second side, the seven-and-a-half minute Outside Broadcast strips the track down to its core framework, riding its rubberband rhythm like a loose caboose in freefall. An uncredited vocalist - I'd guess Paul Simonon - does some low key toasting over the top while half-life diva backing vocals bounce around the track in unison. Long stretches of the track are purely instrumental, while others bring in snatches of Strummer's original vocals - dubbed to pieces King Tubby-style. As I said before, it's one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalogue, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight. The taxi cab stylings in evidence throughout bring to mind Prince's Lady Cab Driver: beyond the fact that they share the same street corner atmosphere, their respective grooves are so similarly sure-footed and nimble that they always go down a treat together in the mix. Definitely a hidden gem in the band's catalog, this is what the 12" single is all about.
Radio Five is the fourth and final version, where madness sets in for good. It kicks off with a muted playback of Strummer's opening scream before a conga rolls into increasingly dubbed-out beats echo-chambered into infinity. Then the groove comes in, clippity-clopping all over itself in what's revealed to be the dub version of Outside Broadcast. That's right: a dub of a dub of a dub. As if that weren't enough, the whole thing is wildly scratched to confusion by some uncredited turntablist - this time I can't even guess - as phantom bleeps weave in and out of the mix. The whole track just tumbles over and over itself before collapsing into an anarchic mess. It's great!
One of the many reasons this record means so much to me - aside from the fact that it's a killer track and the obvious conceptual flourishes - is that it remains an excellent showcase of the excitement during the new wave/post-disco era, when you'd get all manner of music rubbing shoulders in the mix - say at the Paradise Garage - regardless of their origin, so long as it moved the dancefloor. In a sense, it was the mightiest détente between rock and soul since the heady days of the 1960s.
One reason the seventies remain so impressive is the sheer amount of scenes and sounds that managed to reach their apex during its duration, be it funk, soul, reggae, krautrock, punk, cosmic jazz, hard rock or disco. The eighties, by contrast, were an era where all these disparate sounds seemed to intertwine for a shining moment, pulling together the various strands of dub/reggae, hip hop, post punk/new wave, soul/boogie and rock into a shimmering flow of post-disco rhythm. Of course it couldn't last forever, and by the decade's end it had all shattered into a million pieces (that have only diverged further since).2 And yet for a spell, it all sure did burn brightly.
1. The b-side to Should I Stay Or Should I Go?, Cool Confusion is surely one of the strangest songs in The Clash's discography. With a quasi-reggae rhythm riding a single bassdrum beat punctuated by bleeps, Strummer unfurls heavy lyrics as spectral guitar occasionally flutters in the background with the odd synth flourish. It's utterly unique for 1982 and the sort of thing that wouldn't sound out of place on a Gorillaz record.
2. With a slight return circa 2001-2005ish, when - not entirely coincidentally - r&b, rock, dance and even indie were all mining the eighties for inspiration.