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)