Funk. The term has been rinsed thoroughly through the years — applied and mis-applied all over the shop on a seemingly loop — but at the end of the day, what is it really? The groove, hitting on the one, interlocking parts of a rhythm, all of them cycling in clockwork motion, players playing deep in the pocket all night long. Is it tight, is it loose, or somewhere in between? In attempting to answer that question, perhaps it makes sense to rewind to the man who dreamed it all up in the first place...
Smack in the middle of the 1960s, James Brown released the epochal Papa's Got A Brand New Bag, a frisky bit of proto-funk that took the nimble soul shuffle of early records like Think and Night Train to its logical conclusion. With an agile rhythm that found Melvin Parker's beats seemingly dancing three feet off the ground, while the bassline (played either by Bernard Odum or Sam Thomas, depending on who you ask) hopscotches across the spaces in between, it set the template for funk proper that would be hammered home further in records like Mother Popcorn, Give It Up Or Turnit A Loose, all the way up to Sex Machine, The Payback and beyond.
James Brown famously rehearsed his band The J.B.'s mercilessly, even going so far as to dock a musician's pay if they made a mistake live! The result was perhaps the most tightly regimented rhythmic unit ever assembled, with a style that moved so far beyond precision that they somehow wrapped around into looseness again. In essence, he constructed a a perfect machine from a group of individual human players, an innovation that set the course for large swathes of music's development in the years to come.
George Clinton's Detroit-based empire slowly developed in parallel, off-record in the shadows of Motown's artist roster before exploding with the twin debuts of Parliament's Osmium and Funkadelic's self-titled LP in 1970. Picking up where artists like James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone left off at the tail-end of the sixties, both groups spiked their funk/soul strange brew with a healthy dose of acid. Records like Maggot Brain and Cosmic Slop were shot through with post-Hendrix psychedelia, adding a dirty edge to the proceedings that was in thrall to the times.
Seemingly on the flipside of the coin lies that other institution that would prove to be so crucial in the development of Detroit's nascent progressive scene: Kraftwerk. They're often placed on opposite ends of the spectrum, Kraftwerk and Parliament, machine music and funk, but the truth — as is so often the case — is far more messy than one might expect.
There's that oft-quoted remark from Detroit club kids that Kraftwerk were so stiff, they're funky. Then, you hear something like The Model and Sex Machine back to back, and the parallels between the two become striking. Both tracks glide three feet above the ground on the horizontal tension of tautly arranged components interlocking like clockwork: rolling rhythms finding joy in repetition.
Somewhere in all of that was the sound of the future...
Whole worlds would spring from this fertile nexus — from techno and g-funk to r&b and electro — in the years to come, post-disco realms of sound stretching out in every direction, dazzling in their strange shapes and oftentimes even their distance from each other. And yet if there's one record that embodies this point of intersection — and did so before the fact, even — then it's surely Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies.
The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is the final album from P-Funk's original run, the last stop before George Clinton's Computer Games (which made the connections between funk and the machine explicit), an album that it also presages in many ways. War Babies is the illogical conclusion to everything that had come before, a record that throws everything from Flash Light and Not Just Knee Deep to Hit It And Quit It and There Is Nothing Before Me But Thang into a blender of abstraction and comes up with the adrenaline rush of pure future shock.
I often think the record works like a bizarre fusion of garage and laboratory, nestled deep in the heart of the Motor City, a place where mechanics and mad scientists disassemble vehicles and rebuild them in strange new combinations. Then, they flip the switch and machines spring to life, sputtering and scurrying like unwieldy insects across the shot room floor.
This shop operates at the interzone between post-disco, new wave and the nascent electro funk (the latter which Parliament/Funkadelic had a large part in birthing via Bernie Worrell's rubberband electronic basslines and gliding Arps). Rising stars like Prince and Zapp were soon hot at their heels, mapping both parallel and intersecting territory with their own innovations.
And yet, Funkadelic managed to up the ante one last time. Just as Kraftwerk rose to the challenge of new wave upstarts like The Human League and Gary Numan with their masterpiece, Computer World, Funkadelic went out with the left field big bang that is The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. Recorded after many key figures had left the group, including the aforementioned Worrell, the record is nevertheless the band's twilight era masterpiece.
The record opens with the title track, which kicks off with what sounds like one of Eddie Hazel's Maggot Brain guitar phantasmagorias (although it's actually played by Michael Hampton). Outer space sounds swirl as a booming voice intones the following madness:
You probably don't remember me, but...
But I remember you.
You probably won't believe this, but, uh...
I, at the early age of 72... was adopted by aliens. [bursts into laughter]
Was adopted by aliens... [bursts into laughter again]
That's right, I said aliens.
They have long since programmed me to return with this message...
Then, a bouncing groove at the intersection of new wave funk and video game music pounces into the fray for the repeated refrain, When you learn to dance, you won't forget it, before it all turns into a trademark p-funk groove in the tradition of Not Just Knee Deep and One Nation Under A Groove, only with an added sense of creeping desperation swirling in the mix. The phrase End Of The World Party springs to mind whenever I hear it, the band standing on the verge of the precipice, still getting it on. I suspect Prince was listening closely (see 1999).
The track is almost entirely built on Junie Morrison's electro funk foundation in the form of squelching neon synth architecture, throbbing basslines and a hybrid man-machine beat, while Michael Hampton shreds guitar into post-acid sparks across the track's entirety. Various members of Parlet and The Brides Of Funkenstein turn up on the chorus, giving their trademark input in the form of a gloriously sneering sing-song of the track's title, while Junie punctuates every bar with synth stabs that punch through the mix like electric-shock therapy.
Truth be told, it probably even edges out Not Just Knee Deep as my favorite P-Funk dancefloor rave-up ever...
After such a mind-bending opening, Electro-Cuties might feel just a little bit less extraordinary. A minor track, even. Nevertheless, it manages to connect the band's disco funk present with their rock hard roots, fusing a slap-bass fueled groove with a Cosmic Slop-esque riff in the bridge. Like the previous track, it has the lurching feel of disparate random parts recomposed into a brand new machine. The Brides even turn up on backing vocals again, with one even delivering a proto-rap in the track's extended second half.
Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is another matter entirely: featuring the great Sly Stone, it's the indisputable peak of the record. Opening with a talking drum figure and psychedelic voices drifting in the ether, it kicks into a whirring, stop-start beat that seems to perpetually trip forward over it's own throbbing bassline. It seems another strange machine has been conjured up from spare parts, and more than any other track here, it embodies the record's modus operandi.
Lurching in one direction before swooping and diving in the other, the rhythm seems to be powered by unstable elements, its tripping beat kicking into high-gear double-time every so often as the band struggles to catch up. You're just waiting for the tune to shift gears again, and in its Doppler rush of acceleration and deceleration on can almost feel an eerie pre-echo of jungle.
All the while, the track's held-down by Zapp mastermind Roger Troutman's new wave-tinged rhythm guitar that's always struck me as a dead ringer for the sound on Adam And The Ants awesome Dirk Wears White Sox (the American version, of course). There's strong new wave/post punk currents running through the entirety of War Babies, and nowhere is that more evident than here. Think Metal Box, but coming from the opposite direction. Mike Hampton's incredibly pretty lead guitar threads the rhythm almost subconsciously, adding another dimension of emotion to the whole affair.
Sly Stone famously in the mix here, credited as co-producer alongside George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, and combined with staccato trumpet lines provided by Sly's old band-mate Cynthia Robinson in the chorus, there's a definite Sly & The Family Stone flavor to the whole strange affair. There's even a lush organ passage in the breakdown in the breakdown that would have fit right in on There's A Riot Going On! I'd swear it was laid down by Sly Stone himself, but the only keyboards on the track are credited to Roger Troutman, who works the Moog synthesizers. However, as with Riot's famously hard to navigate album credits (see also the Talking HeadsRemain In Light), I suspect that it's not the whole story. It's a late-era, extended band kinda thing...
The tune gets reprised a couple tracks later in the Killer Millimeter Longer Version, which finds the machine being started back up, its heartbeat pulsing quickly before tugging into shape. With its slightly more languid, open-ended arrangement, this version sounds even more like something from Riot. What's more, Sly Stone is credited on drums and keyboards, and late-period Family Stone member Pat Rizzo is present on saxophone. According to the album credits, it also features the lone contribution from original Funkadelic guitarist Eddie Hazel, who had already released his solo album Game, Dames And Guitar Thangs back in 1977.
There's an errant quote from The Beatles' All You Need Is Love before it all fades out and then back into place, with a thirty-second reprise-within-a-reprise cover version of She Loves You over the same rhythm. A drunken group chant, to be sure, and the perfect way to wrap up the Funk Gets Stronger saga.
Running parallel to these new wave/post punk moves, the record also spends a satisfying amount of time messing around with fourth world rhythms, with the extended rhythm sequence Brettino's Bounce nestled between both versions of Funk Gets Stronger. It's the sort of Caribbean-inflected groove that a post punk band like A Certain Ratio would kill for, with the band seemingly effortlessly unfurling a rolling percussion frenzy that lasts the better part of four minutes. A gong brings it all into focus, chattering polyrhythms and talking drums careening across the sound stage, before another gong sounds to conclude the jam session. Some might call it filler, but I think it's great!
The other big fourth world moment is Shockwaves, a cod reggae number that rocks a malfunktioning skank across the showroom floor. Once again, strange machines are afoot in the sound lab, this time with parts imported from Jamaica... Crazy!
At first it almost seems like a joke song, complete with ridiculous fake island accent in the verses, but like Chuck Berry's Havana Moon it quickly bolts toward the sublime. The sprightly rhythm slowly goes overcast with the descent of soaring backing vocals and its incredible chorus:
I'm from the first world,
I like to groove.
Don't want no problems,
Set up that groove.
I'm probably out on a limb here, but it always makes be flash on Bowie. Particularly contemporary things like the proto-Remain In Light fourth world stylings of Lodger
(the most obvious example being Yassassin), Up The Hill Backwards and even twenty later with Earthling's Looking For Satellites. It certainly fits right in with the wider My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts drift of the times. Interestingly, aside from the title track, it was chosen as the only other single from War Babies, coming out on 7" wax. Shades of new wave's détente with reggae (see also The Police, Jah Wobble, The Clash, et al.).
The following Oh, I almost feels like a breather after the breathless experimentation of the record's mid-section. It's the most straight-up p-funk number here, relaxing in a gently mid-tempo manner the way that Mothership Connection and Aquaboogie were. Adding to its sun-glazed aura is the acid-tinged, Ernie Isley-esque guitarwork of Michael Hampton and Jerome Ali. Interestingly, an unreleased 12" version of the tune later washed up on Parliament's The 12" Collection And More.
The record closes with the rubberband electro funk jam Icka Prick, the key final track in this song cycle. With its machine box rhythms rolling along at a hip hop pace, it's practically a g-funk track. David Lee Chong holds down synthesizer duties here, injecting the track with squiggly day-glo boogie shapes, while Michael Hampton returns (yet again) for some crunchy lead guitar work. One's immediately reminded of Zapp, but this is much looser, and less locked down, coming on like an amorphous, jell-o take on the electro funk sound.
As the song opens, Michael Hampton ad-libs Oh, you ain't seen obscene yet, We gonna be nasty this here time, and he ain't lying. Icka prick and iron pussy, yucka fuck and muscle cunt,while we servin' pussy from the shoulder, she servin' dick from the head, and Elmo MacNasty, mental masturbation, psychological perversion (hey, hey), are just some of the couplets you're treated to after he warns you to Put on some protection for your ears.Ain't no decent dick in Detroit! The Brides' backing vocals retort That's disgusting!
Without warning, it all goes supernova in the track's denouement, with soaring Hit It And Quit It vocals, whining Drexciyan synths and metallic guitars elevating the track toward its epic conclusion before it all fades without warning...
Over the years, The Electric Spanking Of War Babies has crept up on me to become my favorite piece of the P-Funk story. I've never seen it singled out for praise as such, but for me it distills nearly everything great about Parliament/Funkadelic into a sleek capsule aimed toward the future. Its man-machine hybrid draws together disparate contemporary strands — the post-disco funk of Zapp and Funkadelic themselves, the new wave shapes of Prince and the Minneapolis sound, and fourth world sonics straight out of the My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts playbook — all while pointing the way toward Cybotron, Model 500, Kosmic Messenger and beyond.
And as such, it's myriad routes stretch right up through the present day... not to mention the fact that it's a killer party record.
I remember first getting into Sade's music about twenty years ago (around the time of her fin de siecle masterpiece Lovers Rock), an era when it slotted in quite nicely among the 4 Hero, Recloose and Innerzone Orchestra records I'd been soaking up (not to mention the vintage jazz and soul sides I'd begun investigating now that I'd started to earn a bit of money). All of which itself sprung naturally from my musical bedrock of techno, trip hop and r&b.
So anyway, Sade. Sade is one of those strange attractors in music, a figure who seems to almost effortlessly command total respect from the cognoscenti. She takes her time between releases, waiting until she feels that she has something new to say before deliberately crafting her new record. This fact, paired with her opaque private life and distrust of media attention, make her an illusive, enigmatic figure whose every release becomes an event in its own right. Look at the rapt response to her latest full-length, Soldier Of Love (nearly ten years ago!), for all the evidence you need.
I remember one time there was a thread dedicated to her on the Submerge message board — which naturally was chock full of techno and house heads — where everyone was lavishing her music with praise (you quickly find that this is not an uncommon response). It was within this context that I heard whispers of a 12" bootleg of Sade remixes by second wave Detroit auteurs Stacey Pullen and Kenny Larkin. Eventually (much later, actually), I managed to track down a copy. As far as I know, this is the original underground Sade remix slate, predating the scores of house bootlegs that surfaced at the dawn of the 21st century.
In fact, before I'd known about the Illegal Detroit record, I happened to pick up the Secretsoul 12" at California Sound & Lighting along with a bundle of techno records like Millsart's Every Dog Has Its Day and DJ ValiumIII. It was a solid bit of deep house maneuvering (especially the second side, featuring a lush remix of Kiss Of Life) that managed to tide me over during the intervening years, but these Illegal Detroit remixes are happening on a whole other plane...
At its root, Surrender Your Love is a dancefloor re-imagining of Sade's minimalistic, sultry moonlight burner Give It Up. Originally tucked away at the tail end of her third album, Stronger Than Pride1988, it was ensconced within a rich, flowing record of torch-lit vocal jazz. The record's spacious sonic environment was full of flowing FenderRhodes, echoic Blue Note instrumentation and Sade's peerless vocals front-and-center.1
The album has an almost (dare I say) Balearic focus on rhythm, replete with subtle island flourishes, heavy bass and sparse production that really lends itself to a sort of insouciantly jazz-inflected dancefloor vision. Paradise was the big hit of the record, reaching #1 in the US Billboard Hot R&B chart (and deservedly so), but — if anything — Give It Up is even better: its gently unfolding Rhodes progression, chugging bassline, rolling percussion and disembodied trumpets are the perfect foundation for Sade's singular vocals to wander like an empress through her gardens.
It's this set of base materials that the Detroit cats descend upon. The first side is devoted to Kenny Larkin's remix, which is a gently flowing eleven-minute excursion into the dreamy climes of jazz-tinged deep house. The rolling conga rhythm from the original version is augmented here by some substantial percussive programming from Lark Daddy himself, with the tempo itself slightly quickened in the process.
The fascinating thing about both remixes is that — to the best of my knowledge — they weren't made from source tapes. Both versions are essentially edits of the original tune's spartan jazz figures, fleshed out with their own arrangements brought to bear on the material. Thus, that same clipped hi-hat figure and throbbing bassline get incorporated into a pulsing 4/4 groove, while those trademark disembodied trumpets flutter through the mix. Throughout it all, Sade's vocals surf the rhythm in such a way that you'd swear she felt it there all along.
The melodic crux of Larkin's mix lies in the gentle DX-100 pattern — in the mold of that synths classic bass organ sound — and an occasional synth flourish that sounds a distant cousin to the HohnerClavinet. It seems to spike the unfolding tune with an aberrant tattoo of improvisational unpredictability, connecting with the abstract jazz inflections of Larkin's own recordings.
Case in point is Metaphor, Larkin's contemporary LP (and his sophomore set). The lush synth textures of tunes like Java and Soul Man run parallel to Surrender Your Love's tidal chord progressions, while the record's final three-track run (spanning Sympathy, Butterflies and Amethyst) sounds like nothing so much as sparkling jazz fusion redrawn on the game grid of 90s digital dance. The KurzweilK2000 was one of Larkin's key synths at this point, and it's distinctively delicate textures are painted all across the record.2a
Interestingly, this delicate, nimble touch is something held in common between significant expanses of the music made by the three prime figures of Detroit's second wave: Carl Craig, Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen.
And it's Stacey Pullen who turns in the flipside's rework of Give It Up. Between the two versions, his is the more radical reconstruction, full of the crazily inventive percussion figures you'd expect from the man (with his roots as a drummer in high school marching band).2b The beats have a rough-and-ready, almost garage-like swing to them, even predicting certain corners of broken beat in their tumbling cascade. Like Larkin, he also adds in his own keyboard tattoo to adorn the groove periodically, like an illusory piece of a dream.
Pullen's contemporary The Theory Of Silent Phase album was actually recorded around the same time in Kenny Larkin's studio.2a One suspects that these remixes must have been born from those sessions. The Silent Phase record is a tour de force of digital techno soul, defined by its brittle drum programming and lush aquatic synths. Tunes like Air Puzzle and Forbidden Dance clearly mirror what Pullen was up to on his remix of Surrender Your Love, drawing up blueprints for new approaches to machine rhythm.
Of course, he'd take all this to its logical conclusion with Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday2001, an electronic jazz masterstroke of superfly techno soul that was the culmination of everything he'd been up to since his early Bango records. That it happened to coincide with The Neptunes surfing their own peak (circa Wanderland/In Search Of...)3 was poetic justice, as the very sound of The Theory Of Silent Phase often strikes me as a precursor to The Neptunes own escapades on those records. 2001 simply found them cresting in parallel.
All of which brings us to a large part of the reason I think this record is so crucial, despite its inherent obscurity (bootlegs tend to be that way),4 which is that it so perfectly articulates a future vision of the intersection of house, jazz and r&b (with a dash of techno thrown in for good measure) that would come to be oddly prescient in the following years. Coming out in 1995 — smack in the middle of the 90s — Surrender Your Love was oceans ahead of its time, sharing a unique sonic space alongside Model 500's Deep Space in laying out the blueprint for the future.
One can hear not only pre-echoes of Timbaland's machine soul excursions during the latter half of the decade but also things like Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun2000 and Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope1998, not to mention Moodymann, Theo Parrish and The Lords Of Svek (one can almost read it as the midpoint between Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul and all of these records).5 As such, it's a stunning tile to encounter mid-decade and below the radar: it's that rare record that contains multitudes within its unexplored grooves.
It's time to talk about Deep Space. An album dropped by Juan Atkins amidst a flurry of activity in 1995, it was released smack in the middle of the nineties and bisecting the decade both literally and metaphorically. Slotting in quite comfortably within the currents of outer space imagery running through techno at the time, from Galaxy 2 Galaxy to 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and the Red Planet EPs, it also predicted the tronik r&b moves and minimalist grooves of the late 90s, sounds that take us right up to the present day. Deep Space remains a fascinating record for the way it blends techno, machine soul, micro-house and jazz inflections into a swirling nebula of sonic possibility.
With Atkins tugging the curtain that conceals tomorrow from all of us, he's invited you to catch a glimpse of tomorrow's music looming just around the bend. This is a 21st century soul record, playing like a star map to the future. To this day, it remains one of those records so singular, so forward-thinking, that it's difficult to assess just where exactly it came from. How did Deep Space happen? To answer that question, where the future came from, one must take a look into the past. A decade in the past, to be precise. So let's set our time circuits back to good old 1985...
It's 1985. Juan Atkins had been a member of Cybotron (alongside Richard Davis aka 3070) for a few years by this point. Cybotron were seminal purveyors of electro operating concurrently with Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force, who released Planet Rock just as Cybotron began unleashing records like Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear upon an unsuspecting public.
Cybotron's sound was a rude, street-level update of Kraftwerk's man-machine music, shot through with dark, psychedelic inflections that felt like a hangover from Funkadelic's early acid-tinged LPs (especially Cosmic Slop). The combination of Planet Rock and Clear (in particular) laid the foundation for the whole electro craze (see also Hashim, Planet Patrol and The Egyptian Lover), a sound that would go on to rule the first half of the 1980s.
The group added guitarist John Housey (aka Jon-5) for the album Enter, which expanded their sound to include a derezzed acid rock dynamic sprawling out in songs like Industrial Lies and the title track. Cosmic Cars rocked a 4/4 rhythm in a way that predicted the rugged, ramshackle techno traxx of 1987, while the digital funk of The Line and El Salvador split the difference between the black new wave of Alleys Of Your Mind and Clear's stripped-down electro punch.
The record also featured the awesome Cosmic Raindance, a skeletal tune built on a nimble rhythm matrix of crisp drum machines and a descending funk bassline, all of which propelled these great spiraling clouds of whining synthesized sound across a stormy digital sky. Ending in a crash of computerized thunder, it set a thrilling template for the elegant, minimalist electro of Drexciya and Elecktroids that would surface about a decade later. Cybotron swiftly followed Enter with the Techno City, at which point Atkins decided to strike out on his own.
This is where we came in. That is, 1985, when Atkins started his own label, Metroplex Records, and released his first solo record: Model 500's No UFO's. The record was a perfect fusion of tightly regimented electronic sequences and raging percussive chaos, boasting a richer, even-more-psychedelic sound than Cybotron. I'll put it this way: if Kraftwerk were James Brown circa Sex Machine and Cybotron were Sly & The Family Stone circa Stand!, then Model 500's No UFO's was Funkadelic circa Maggot Brain. Can you get to that?
The flipside was dominated by the slithering rhythm of Future, which found Atkins pumping electro moves the same way Hendrix played Killing Floor (see also Channel One's Technicolor), which is to say faster, more fluid and with more authority than anyone else around. This is ground zero for that 90s electro sound we all love so much, what with the tighter sound and sharper edges, it laid the blueprint for whole swathes of the scene. Aux 88 were certainly paying attention.
Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) followed, and somehow it managed to be even better. A masterpiece of neon vectors colliding in a phantasmagoria of motorik digital funk, it pierces your consciousness with tumbling bleeps and then just rolls for six minutes. Atkins narrates the nocturnal journey over eerie computer blue sonics, adding claustrophobic Jamie Principle-esque vocal stylings that give the whole trip a shadowy, spectral effect.
This is the first glimmer of what would come to define the Deep Space sound, and as such it kicks off a little potted history we're about to indulge in: a history of Atkins' music within this rarefied terrain. The following four records each outline key developments that would culminate in the Deep Space sessions. Context is key. After all, an investigation into this impulse within Atkins' discography plugs you directly into what is — by my estimation — the purest manifestation of machine soul.
After blazing a singular path through the remainder of the decade with records like Off To Battle, Interference and Other Side Of Life, Atkins rang in the 90s with the Ocean To Ocean EP. Kicking off with two versions of Ocean To Ocean, which played like a smooth-groove summation of everything he'd been up to in the intervening years, it was the flipside that offered a stunning preview of things to come.
Rocking a 4/4 pulse threaded by a resolute string/bass melody inna Off To Battle-stylee, Wanderer played like a stop off at the connecting station for the bullet train trip from 1985 to 2001. I've noted before how this EP was something of a blueprint for the more reflective side of UR's endeavors, and nowhere is that more evident than in Wanderer. It also neatly sets the stage for the final song of the record, its undeniable highlight.
Infoworld starts with a memorable bleep refrain before revving up the 4/4 engine once again. A geometric bass pulse threads the beat matrix while electronic string staccatos seems to fuel the track's propulsion. The sound here defined by a sleek, aerodynamic quality, with a greater emphasis placed on nimble grooves and lush synth atmospherics. Ah yes... those synths! Like Larry Heard and Carl Craig, there's just no mistaking Juan Atkins' synths for anyone else's. As clear an oracle as one could ask for, Infoworld lays out the foundation for the next decade plus of Atkins' journey.
Case in point being this three track EP, Atkins' first engagement with R&S Records — via their ambient subsidiary Apollo — which finds him expanding the sound of Infoworld into sprawling intergalactic shapes. The motorik techno soul of Vessels In Distress finds Atkins in collaboration with Martin Bonds (aka Reel By Real), offering up a Moroder-inflected take on the Motor City sound shot through with shimmering shapes and textures.
Mind Changes features Atkins' dreamy vocals in duet with android intonations over a bouncing, compact house rhythm. With the track's austere 4/4 pulse defined by a sort of ethereal synth architecture, it's of a piece with the proto-micro-house sides that he'd begun circulating under the name Infiniti, records like Flash Flood and Think Quick. All of which would ultimately lead to his collaboration with German duo 3MB (Moritz von Oswald and Thomas Fehlmann) on the awesome Jazz Is The Teacher EP (more on this later).
The title track finds Atkins incorporating crashing breakbeats into his sound, the breaks sparring with his usual 808 dynamics and a chiming bleep matrix in a flowing tide pool of ethereal synth and atmosphere. Apparently the tune got some action at contemporary drum 'n bass sound systems, where it'd be pitched up at a sped-up '45rpm (proto-ambient jungle!). I suppose that does make sense. Above all else, its mode is pure machine soul and a clear indication of the shape of things to come...
Tucked away on Atkins' own Metroplex imprint is this nearly forgotten 12". Whereas much of the Metroplex catalog has been serviced quite well, to the best of my knowledge this has never been reissued. Which is a shame, because this is one of Magic Juan's absolute greatest records. I See The Light is a spectral electro symphony built on a cycling 808 chassis with a staircase bleep pattern and wispy synth figures swaying across its ocean-like refrain. Atkins intones the title's lyrics in a deadpan whisper. It's all veryAux 88.
Of course, the b-side is even better! Pick Up The Flow commences with one of Atkins' trademark sci-fi synth progressions, computer sounds fading into view on a tumbling drum machine rhythm as a rolling bassline unfurls across the length of the track. The whole thing seems to drift by on a cosmic wind, bleeps intoning between the verses as Atkins'
gentle raps ride the rhythm in this gently pulsing astral hymn. Deep Space music, to coin a royal phrase. Stunningly beautiful, it flows quite naturally into our next record, which is the final way station before we reach our destination.
Back on R&S — this time with Basic Channel's Mortiz von Oswald in the engineering booth — Atkins delivers Sonic Sunset, his first extended sequence of solo material. Nominally an EP, with three versions of the title track, it clocks in at nearly an hour. Built on a rapid-fire synth sequence that seems to bounce across the rhythm's surface, Sonic Sunset spans the beatless freeform of the Calm Mix to the Cave Mix's dubbed-out reverb architecture (shades of Basic Channel). The Third Wave Mix, which I suspect to be the original version, is of a piece with Jazz Is The Teacher (those unpredictable rhythms a signpost for tech jazz).
Neptune's iridescent, hall-of-mirrors trip stretches out horizontally across its sprawling twelve minutes, sounding like trance music played at a disco pace. Also comparable to the ambient house moves of The Orb and Sun Electric, it affirms the implicit connection between Detroit, Berlin and London (a figure like Thomas Fehlmann moving freely between the three). The machines here left to spool out into infinity on a vector-plotted course, sounding like nothing so much as a deep space probe gliding through the deep black of space.
Rather appropriately for this deep space journey of a record, Sonic Sunset's longest track also happens to be its greatest treasure: I Wanna Be There, a skittering slab of motorik techno soul, lasts the better part of twenty minutes. Dig that nagging shuffle of a rhythm and the bassline bounce, parallaxing against those great twisting atmospheric synths in the background.
More than anything else here, it runs parallel to the proto-micro-house of Infiniti, albeit shot through with jazz-inflected shapes and a set of tender vocals from Atkins.
His delivery strikingly different here in comparison to his earlier man-machine moves, revealing Magic Juan the introspective soul man. Alongside those jazzed-out keys that dance across the surface, punctuating the groove even as as they spar with ethereal, flute-like sonics, it brings to mind the disco-era cosmic jazz moves of figures like Norman Connors and Idris Muhammad, rebuilt and rewired for the 21st century. Kompakt funk, to a man. The whole trip takes us through the final stretch of our journey, setting the stage perfectly as we arrive at our destination....
This is Juan Atkins' debut album... now you're in Deep Space.
You switch on the music. Surfing in on a great wash of synthesized stardust, the ethereal chords of Milky Way drift across the soundscape before a gently shuffling drum machine rhythm comes into focus. This is liquid techno soul, soaring upon Atkins' trademark synth architecture and drums a tad tougher than you might expect. Computer sonics thread the groove within the groove, and post-Herbie Hancock sequences hop across the spaces between the spaces. It all fits in perfectly with what Carl Craig was up to circa Landcruising and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art, particularly songs like At Les and Science Fiction.
Notably, the track was co-written with fellow Detroit icon Kevin Saunderson. This at the height of Deep Space Radio, a recurring show that found the Deep Space Crew (rounded out by Atkins, Saunderson and Derrick May) bringing techno music to terrestrial airwaves. Undoubtedly, those heady vibes can be felt in this record as strongly as they could Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio (a mix album dedicated to enshrining the show's vision on disc for posterity) a couple years later.
As if that weren't enough, Milky Way was mixed by the great François Kevorkian. It certainly does have a touch of the cosmic about it. Cosmic jazz? Cosmic disco? You got it. Above all else, this gently unfolding deep space psychedelia often reminds me of peak-era Neptunes (during the whole Star Track trip they'd kick off a few years later) at their most blissed out. Needless to say, very strong SA-RA vibes are in evidence throughout as well.
A bubbling synth rises from the silence, heralding the arrival of the next track. With a pulsing 4/4 groove punctuated by a clanking sound one might encounter on a Rob Hood record, Orbit is on a slightly minimalist trip. One might even notice shades of Basic Channel in there somewhere. However, the strongest signal I'm getting here is from Jazz Is The Teacher. Despite it's minimalist intent, Orbit's got that unpredictable, anything-can-happen feel of the 3MB record. Maybe it's the splashing hi-hats, maybe those synths bubbling under, maybe even the crystalline synths that drift into the mind's eye every so often, but it's unmistakably there.
Until it isn't, of course, as Orbit collapses into a bubbling pool of synth and texture receding into the horizon. A menacing acid line rises from the chaos, announcing the arrival of The Flow.
Which is quite simply incredible. A perfect fusion of Kraftwerk and Janet Jackson, this is the Ur-text of machine soul. A shading of struck bells and that menacing electronic sequence drive crisp 808 beats that couldn't sound any more different from 1995 r&b if they were produced by Steve Reich. Of course a year later, Timbaland would single-handedly make it the sound of cutting edge r&b, bringing the form into the 21st century a few years early.
Aisha Jamiel's vocals alternate between spoken word and songbird (which becomes doubly haunting for the ethereal chorus) just like Missy Elliott would on Supa Dupa Fly two years later. The sonic similarities to Night Drive (Thru-Babylon) are undeniable as well, with The Flow recalling Atkins earlier opus only s-l-o-w-e-d d-o-w-n considerably, making it the definitive link between Metroplex and One In A Million, and as such the cornerstone of machine soul.
Notably, The Flow spawned three separate 12" singles, featuring a bevy of remixes spread across them. You get a deliciously retro electro workout from the Jedi Knights, a jazzy drum 'n bass reading from Alex Reece, Frank De Wulf's proto-speed garage mix, a Howie B. machine funk take and two hard-edged speedfreak mixes from Underworld. However, the best remix is by Magic Juan himself.
The G-Funk Mix a wall-shaking house party monster jam, featuring a lascivious bass groove yoked to a Zapp-inflected robot voice. Aisha Jamiel's vocals duel with a jazzy Rhodes up and down the groove. Atkins grasp of the dynamics here quite simply impeccable, this ought to have gotten serious radio play. Shame, really. Along with J Dilla, who had a shaping influence on both Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope and D'Angelo's Voodoo, their impact didn't break through to the popular consciousness. Like krautrock, innit?
Still, it makes perfect sense that the era's r&b would have some serious Motor City vibes lurking just below the surface. Shades of The Velvet Underground & Nico... peel slowly and see.
Warning follows with a similar spirit to Orbit's, The Flow bookended by two erratic slabs of minimalist jazz electronica. Another high-pitched sliver of Rob Hood-recalling noise taps out a rhythm across a bouncing pendulum of clockwork synthesizer. These great detuned synths seem to squeeze up from beneath the cracks in the rhythm like iridescent magma. Still jazzed-out, but tweaked to abstraction. Playing like a tone poem, there's shades of onomatopoeia to the whole affair. Think Drexciya's Draining Of The Tanks or X-103's Eruption: this is a synthetic recreation of the events depicted in its title. You're on red alert.
At the last moment, you're carried away on the sweet sway of Astralwerks, a nebula of a track, an enigma, with rolling rhythms that seem to split the difference between downbeat and junglist double-time the way a certain Tim Mosley would a year later. The synths seem to speed up and slow down with the rhythm, the whole effect pleasantly disorienting. It's of a piece with the ambient jungle of A Guy Called Gerald circa Black Secret Technology, 4 Hero circa Parallel Universe and Jacob's Optical Stairway (a 4 Hero one-off that featured Atkins on The Fusion Formula).
The spectre of drum 'n bass hangs over the entirety of this record, in fact. I suspect that the unpredictable rhythmic danger felt throughout is sourced in jungle as much as it is in jazz. There's almost a sense of Atkins raising his game to match the innovations of the U.K.'s junglist auteurs. Noteworthy also the explicit drum 'n bass connections in the shape of 12" remixes by Wax Doctor and Alex Reece.
Starlight is similarly forward-thinking work, this time in a thoroughly Basic Channel mode. Built on a gently chugging rhythmic figure, the melody is carried by a single synth pulsing at regular intervals as its run through the filters. Sailing on a solar wind in perpetual motion, the whole thing so slight but profound. It's worth noting that from the prior tune onward, the remaining tracks on this album are engineered by Moritz von Oswald. Nowhere is that more evident than on Starlight, which even got a 12" release on Metroplex with a remix from Oswald.
One thing that's always intrigued me about Starlight is how much it sounds like an Infiniti record. There's that same sense of linear expanse stretching across a great horizontal plane that one finds in tunes like Moon Beam or Think Quick. In fact, it's an even more skeletal outing than even most of the Infiniti output, with the same x-ray architecture that Oswald and Mark Ernestus had essayed in Basic Channel. As one might expect, this sense is amplified in the Moritz Mix on the 12", with its striking tonal shifts and great caverns of reverb.
Fans of Isolée, Luomo and Villalobos would love both versions of Starlight, which have the same shimmering, tactile quality one finds in Beau Mot Plage, Tessio and Dexter. Like I was saying before, Kompakt funk. Fascinating the way this record weaves its micro-house and machine r&b shapes together, envisioning an unlikely sonic pact between the two forms before they'd even fully come into their own. The juxtaposition certainly makes far more sense in 2018 than it would have at the time. But then, they don't call Juan AtkinsThe Originator for nothing...
Last Transport To Alpha Centauri, which plays like a downbeat, deconstructed take on the earliest Metroplex releases, is to No UFO's as Funk Gets Stronger Part 1 is to Flash Light. It's a great little piece of electronic funk that very strongly recalls Kraftwerk circa Computer World, but with a glitch in the machine. There certainly seems to be a fair bit of mischief about it, the delivery executed with a wink and a nod.
The record's penultimate track is a tight edit of I Wanna Be There, which you'll remember originally appeared on Sonic Sunset. Within the context of the record, it's the mirror image of The Flow, an r&b-inflected pop song at sea in abstraction. The third of the singles from this record (after Starlight and The Flow), the I Wanna Be There features an aqua tint drum 'n bass mix from Wax Doctor and a lush tech jazz rework from Dave Angel. Once again, however, the kicker is the remix by the man himself. Stripping the track down to a sleek spacecraft simplicity, Atkins aligns it even more closely with Infiniti's digital micro-funk moves.
Which are also writ large on Lightspeed, the closing track to the Deep Space saga. Fusing the celestial atmospherics of Starlight with the shuffling catch-up groove Milky Way, it's as if the scrambled memories of the record are being rearranged in the slipstream across the dark side of Jupiter. Beyond the infinite. With just a snatch of almost subliminally funky bass and the occasional synth shimmer, it's the perfect ending to this intergalactic voyage.
As I said before, Deep Space feels more futuristic with every passing year. At the time, one might not have noted the implicit connections made between Pony, Beau Mot Plage and Finley's Rainbow, but with the benefit of hindsight, they're all here clear as crystal. Somewhere in the record's DNA lie the whisper of future figures like SA-RA, Dâm-Funk, Spacek and the music they would bring. Juan Atkins mapped out this strange point of intersection where cosmic r&b, shimmering micro-house, electronic jazz and straight up techno all collide to form the basis of machine soul: the art form of the 21st century. You're in deep space.
Ever since first launching into this whole Terminal Vibration trip, I've wanted to touch down with ISDN. It's a strange, twisted record that seems to criss-cross the TV saga at so many points of intersection, with its off-kilter grooves clearly sourced in the warped avant funk of Episode V (What Time Is It?), the heavy atmospherics running parallel to the dubbed-out madness of Episode VI (Imperial Slates) and even its twisted beat matrix at a jagged interchange with the latest episode's (Edge Of No Control) descent into ragged abstract hip hop's shadowy precincts. Against all odds, at the midpoint of the 90s The Future Sound Of London — Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain — seemed to be channeling the ghosts of post punk past to augur bold new visions of the future.
In truth, it's not justISDN that merits discussion within the context of Terminal Vibration. I could talk about everything that led up to it's protracted gestation, from the duo's earliest pre-FSOL releases at the cusp of the 80s and 90s — records like Stakker Humanoid, Chile Of The Bass Generation and The Pulse EPs — to their to their debut album as The Future Sound Of London — 1991's Accelerator — a post-rave paradise of shimmering breakbeat techno that culminated in increasingly abstract records like Amorphous Androgynous's Tales Of Ephidrina and the sweeping sonic vistas of 1994's Lifeforms.
I could also talk about everything that came in ISDN's wake, from the dystopian sonic environments of Dead Cities, My Kingdom and the electroid, post-hip hop sonix of the We Have Explosive EP (featuring appearances from Leon Mar and Kurtis Mantronik) to their cosmic swan song with Papua New Guinea Translations and The Mello Hippo Disco Show, after which they shifted gears into prog-inflected psychedelia (a path they've continued to walk for nearly twenty years now).
However, this is the point of inflection upon which everything else hinges: ISDN is the moment when The Future Sound Of London turned their attention away from the lustrous sonic utopias of Cascade and Lifeforms to focus on the seedy underbelly of their self-authored world, apparently lurking beneath the surface all along, in the grimy back streets and dingy dives deep within the city. If Accelerator and the Earthbeat compilation might have soundtracked some prequel to William Gibson's Neuromancer, back when Case was still living large and his skills in high demand, then ISDN is the sound of the console cowboy down and out in Chiba City. This is where the cold machinery creeps in to inject its steely ugliness into the duo's sound, and things would never be the same...
The year was 1994 and The Future Sound Of London were on top of the world. Flush from their contract with Virgin Records, who leapt to sign them in light of their ubiquitous dancefloor anthem Papua New Guinea, they'd managed to upgrade their studio from the lean-and-mean outpost where they cut their swathe of uncompromising 8-bit cyberpunk missives — released under names like Mental Cube, Smart Systems and Indo Tribe — to a state-of-the-art multimedia laboratory, decked out with video-editing capabilities featured prominently alongside the synths and sequencers.
They'd just unveiled their second FSOL full-length, Lifeforms, a sprawling double-album to critical acclaim and impressive sales. The remaining question (from the label and the public both) was, When is the tour? To which the duo replied Never! with glee. Rather, their plan was to document a series of performances in the studio, transmitting live to various radio stations and venues via the recently implemented ISDN protocol across high speed lines with a combination of sonic and visual imagery.
These performances culminated in today's album (or albums, as ISDN came in two editions, released in quick succession). The first was the limited edition, enclosed in a jet-black gatefold sleeve with a Velcro clasp(!), while the second was the wide release version housed in a simple white sleeve. For the first 2/3 of their running time, both versions are largely similar, but they diverge significantly in the final stretch, featuring three tracks completely unique to each release. For today's purposes, I've chosen to focus on ISDN Black, since it's the version more explicitly tied to the Terminal Vibration phenomenon (although I'll touch on the White tracks along the way as well). And so it begins...
You're immediately dropped into the chaotic atmosphere of some crowded club, faceless and nameless, synths drifting aimlessly like a memory of the 1980s. Could you leave the lights alone please, exclaims an agitated voice, Stop flashing the fucking lights!Just A Fuckin' Idiot kicks into gear with a beat like puffs of dirty smoke and a release of hazy atmosphere into the room like something's just crept up behind you. Bleeps chirp on the beat as the sound of a whirring machine seems to rewind the beat every couple bars.
Along with a pervasive sense of claustrophobia, the sound of machinery and buzzing electronics is the great constant running through the heart of ISDN, giving it definite industrial vibes a million miles away from the bucolic, wide open spaces of Lifeforms. To top it all off, halfway into Idiot a spooked atmosphere overwhelms the room with an eerie synthetic choir crying out in a spectral falsetto somewhere between Morricone's OST vocals and the sound of a theremin.
Then a phone rings, with a shout (and without warning) and a boom sounding the sort of siren synth Vangelis unveiled on the Blade Runner OST, smearing across the soundscape in a great descending arc. A snatch of dialogue from Aliens intones, Alright, let's see what we can see. Everybody on-line, looking good. The heavy, unfunky beat of The Far Out Son Of Lung And The Ramblings Of A Madman drops in on a rolling, clipped loop (seemingly reloading from scratch every bar) while fake-sounding, detuned guitar stabs (sounding like something from a cheap, sample-playing keyboard circa 1990) punch into the mix at irregular intervals. Electric Miles Davis trumpets weave through the track like a serpent while outer/inner space effects creep into every corner of the soundscape. It's a searing bad dream of a track, which was (perversely) the album's lone single.
Inevitably, it all dissolves into deep space sonix and the sounds of grinding machinery before releasing into the peaceful, gently rewinding atmosphere of Appendage. With synths pulsing beneath a gliding flute line and (what sound like) alien bird calls, it's a brief but welcome ambient respite after the intense opening gambit of Idiot and Madman. It lasts but for a moment, offering up a brief, lingering memory of Amorphous Androgynous' underwater calm before the tension comes back with a vengeance.
Slider cuts in without warning on a heavy slow-motion sci-fi big beat, rolling parallel to a flimsy metallic texture that echoes across the track, seeming to warp and bend in time to the rhythm. A grinding electronic loop sweeps in to take center stage, sounding like something wrenched from an old industrial record, before everything drops out to a wailing siren song and outer space noises soaring above it all like a drifting mirage. It's tracks like this that at the time had me thinking this was FSOL's trip hop album, with a warped vision of sleazy downbeat hip hop not so far removed from Depth Charge's contemporary output.
The beat changes up about 2/3 of the way through the track, slipping into an almost new jack swing robotic rhythm (albeit still played on that same ten ton drum kit), while sordid electronic squelches pulse into the darkness. This play of textures is even more so drawn from the trip hop playbook, leaving you wandering these sprawling catacombs in desperate search of a way out. At the last minute, it all drops out and you're unceremoniously jettisoned into a back alley interlude where a lonesome whistle duets with chirping cybernetic insects.
Then, the spaced-out sonix return once again, this time on a high tide on the sea of flesh, rolling in to bring you Smokin' Japanese Babe. A sultry slice of red light district downbeat jazz, it rides a languid rhythm carved out on shuffling brushed drums and woozy double bass, sounding very much like something from Maxinquaye's second side. Gently muted trumpets cry out lonesome in the night as a warped boogie synth puts in an unlikely spastik appearance toward the end.
It all goes spaced-out yet again, this time with the spooked sonix once more in full effect, before a loose electro rhythm shades into the mix alongside its requisite counterpart of whirring industrial machinery. You're Creeping Me Out conjures up images of claustrophobic films like Pi and Parallax View — films where paranoia practically takes the lead role — much like Photek's contemporary output circa Modus Operandi and The Hidden Camera EP. Eerie sounds seem to splash and echo in the darkness, while FSOL unfurl the sort of eldritch analogue synth figure that Boards Of Canada would later turn into a lifestyle.
It disintegrates into tones trailing off into the distance, birds seeming to return their electronic call, and suddenly you find yourself in an environment that wouldn't sound out of place on Lifeforms. However, you blink and it's but a fleeting memory echoing through the corridors of the city, and Eyes Pop - Skin Explodes - Everybody Dead soundtracks your current scenario. Ancient clockwork electronics fade in gently, sounding like harpsichords plucking out an elegy for the distant green worlds of Lifeforms, lost now for all time. A cascade of bleeps spill across the track and (what sounds like) uilleann pipes relay the melody one last time as it all sinks into the quicksand.
It's My Mind That Works opens with a warped sample from the movie Repo Man (echoing the source of the previous track's title), before developing into a mournful piano piece foregrounded by industrial machinery and urban atmosphere. Suddenly, driving percussion creeps into the fray and a rude electronic synth arc blares into the darkness like one of those great MBV-esque synth flameouts from Hans Zimmer's score to Blade Runner 2049. It's so similar, in fact, that one wonders if Dougans and Cobain traveled to the present day and brought it back in time with them. After all, there's a reason they're called The Future Sound Of London.
The piercing sounds of glass, as if played along the rim, announces Dirty Shadows (the title a great summation of this album's prevailing mood). Then, a creepy voice — first pitched up, then pitched down — repeats, come, fly the teeth of the wind... share my wings. Apparently, it's sampled from the sequel to The Exorcist. As if this album weren't spooky enough already! Thankfully, a gently shuffling rhythm breaks the silence and forms itself into another piece of swirling electronic jazz, this time recalling the drifting atmosphere of the sort of abstract jazz one might find on the ECM imprint. It's cinematic, like the Heat soundtrack, with plaintive pianos, Get Carter harpsichords and more of that ice cold machinery operating in the night.
Upon reflection, this seems like as good a prediction as any for the cosmic jazz stylings that seemed to emerge out of nowhere during the Papua New Guinea Translations project. All those allusions to Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane make perfect sense in light of tunes like Dirty Shadows and Smokin' Japanese Babe. This is a story that's told in even greater detail across the From The Archives series, which filled in the bits between the bits in what must be one of the more extensive bodies of unreleased work from the era (alongside the seemingly countless DATs left behind by Tupac Shakur).
Tired starts with more of that harpsichord — or is it mandolin? — before an industrial percussion loop tumbles into view. It all collapses into atmosphere, computer sounds and gentle waves of synth pulsing on the horizon. Against all odds, about halfway through it morphs into an idyllic piece of synth music, with rippling aquatic synths and the sort of pretty strings one might find in a Vangelis or mid-period Tangerine Dream OST. Finally, a flanged martial beat — like the one from Lifeforms' Vertical Pig — fades into view momentarily before being carried away on a solar wind.
Cryptic voices and a lone exotic flute herald the arrival of Egypt, a singular bit of odyshape electro built on ancient reconstructed rhythm boxes, drums that sound hollow and a pinched reed sound mirroring the cracking snare. Synths bathe the tune in drifting serenity while ethereal, distant voices chant toward the sky. You can just picture rolling vistas stretching out beneath a sun-drenched horizon, drunk with the deep reds and violets of twilight. Hieroglyphs reanimate themselves and begin moving through the city, picking up from where they left off as if the passing centuries had only been but a fleeting pause. A magical moment, and surely one of this record's finest.
With Egypt's reeds detuned and descending in rapid-fire as they recede into the distance, we reach the point at which the two editions of ISDN diverge. Are They Fightin' Us creeps in on another riverbed of tranquility, flutes and water sounds presaging a tentative rhythm built on wood bass and gentle percussion as a lone voice cries out in a distant scream. Like Dirty Shadows, it all seems to predict the cosmic jazz psychedelia of Translations (or even certain moments of The Isness). A more mechanical, industrialized beat takes the reigns for a spell before cycling onto a rolling breakbeat to carry the rhythm forward with even greater focus than before. Ultimately, the zero-gravity percussion returns to the fore on the returning high tide, wind chimes twinkling gently in the distance.
A subtle bit of random electronic melody sneaks into the mix, the bug in the bassbin, and suddenly the warped post punk incantation of Hot Knives take us deep into left field. Riding chopped breaks and a clipped pan pipe figure — quite possibly the very same kit from Mental Cube's Chile Of The Bass Generation — it's an unexpected moment of skewed pop within this sea of atmosphere. There's even a heavily treated robotic vocal courtesy of Gary Cobain (if I'm not mistaken), marking it out as particularly unique in the FSOL canon (at least before the turn of the century rolls around). With muted horns and a warped chanting — drenched in atmosphere — contributing to its dense, murky mood, this is very much in the spirit of 23 Skidoo.
Indeed, more than any other, this tune really captures the mood of FSOL's BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 (aka Fuct Up Soup), which featured 23 Skidoo alongside post punk stalwarts like A Certain Ratio, 400 Blows and the Cocteau Twins. Indeed, this is very reminiscent of A Certain Ratio's Kether Hot Knives Mix In Special (which featured prominently in the first leg of Fuct Up Soup). This tune is quintessentialTerminal Vibration.
Coming on like a fusion of 23 Skidoo's heavy atmospheric hijinks and Thomas Leer's Gaussian blurred new wave pop (with maybe even a dash of the Thompson Twins thrown in for good measure!), this is incredibly reminiscent of the 80s without being retro in the slightest. Rather, it seems haunted by the era. At times like this I'm reminded of Simple Minds' Veldt, which I've always sworn sounds just like ISDN-era FSOL. Without a doubt, Hot Knives is unquestionably a highlight of ISDN Black, re-framing it squarely as a post-post punk record.
After fading out into some outer space sonix zapping through the machines, you get a solid minute plus of pure underwater atmosphere. Then, the treated guitars of guest auteur Robert Fripp (he of King Crimson, whose 80s records like Discipline and Beat I should have mentioned during the bonus round) enter the picture in the pastoral sound painting of the countryside that is A Study Of Six Guitars. Idyllic and blissful, with just a hint of ECM jazz (think Pat Metheny's New Chautauqua). It makes you wonder if the lads were well into ECM at the time, which would have put them way ahead of the pack (recall that point about ten years ago when everyone was checking the label). This is actually the one song from the tail end of the album that makes it to both editions of ISDN.
The closing track, An End Of Sorts, wires a pounding electric rhythm to another of the album's rare bucolic impulses, bringing it all back home with a strong sense of anxiety. It actually reminds me of Tournesol's Draagmad Ultramarine, that same sense of illogical juxtaposition, a fusion of ethereal synths and aggressive slow-motion rhythm in a swirling portrait of unease. Like a giant question mark hanging over the proceedings, it's a fitting end to this enigmatic album that lies at the crossroads of the FSOL story.
...or, it could have happened this way (inverted)...
Egypt's reeds detuned and in rapid-fire, recede into the distance as a looping bassline — sounding like high tension power lines and seemingly built from a distorted kick drum — heralds the arrival of Kai. With its gravity-boot drums and soaring flutes competing in the mix with spaced-out atmospherics, its a big part of the reason why ISDN White feels like such a trip hop record. It's yet another track that seems to share common ground with Depth Charge, especially records like Sex, Sluts & Heaven (Bordello Mix) and Daughters Of Darkness.
Amoeba flows directly from the tail end of Kai, borrowing the the atmospheric drift of The Alan Parsons Project's Nucleus and pairing it with some Hawaiian slide guitar. Heavy brakes sounding as if they were recorded in a garage two blocks away roll into view, propelling the track through its surreal journey with no destination. A fascinating détente between Lifeforms and The Isness, it nevertheless manages to be quintessentially ISDN. It flows on a warm bed of sound into A Study Of Six Guitars, a tune which is more or less identical to its counterpart on ISDN Black, at least until it reaches its protracted conclusion and spills into a solid minute of space music (in the spirit of Steve Hillage's seminal Rainbow Dome Musick) before vanishing into another gentle spell of outer space sonix.
The loose downtempo breakbeat of Snake Hips kicks into the record's home stretch, introducing a smoker's favorite to wind up the proceedings. Tensile, plucked strings move up and down the scales precariously as a mutant bassline spars with the drums. Warped horns stab through the track like the guitars did in Son Of Lung — and sounding just as fake! — while the deep space effects return in full force. The downbeat swaps out for a tricky rhythm matrix nearly identical to the one Timbaland would unveil on Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's The Rain Supa Dupa Fly a few years later, and suddenly the track explodes into widescreen, going cinematic in a stunning crescendo that sounds like pure science-fiction. Like some dream studio session with SA-RA and Kevin Saunderson working up a vibe, it's pure machine soul. Only lasting a handful of bars, it rides out on a splash of cymbals and the sound of skyscraper guitars trilling majestic toward the heavens.
And then it's all over, you're dropped back to wherever you started. Back to the world. ISDN — whatever the version — is a true head trip of a record, and it's impossible to hear it without vivid imagery swirling through the mind in time to the music. Dougans and Cobain turned out to be right after all when they ventured in the liner notes that people hadn't lost the ability to conjure atmospheres. Without a doubt, it's definitely a record worth spending some serious time with.
Which version is better, you ask? That's a tough one. If you really pressed me to choose, I'd go with the easier-to-find ISDN White, for one because its the version I grew up with and therefore sounds more natural to my ears. Also, as a gentleman who walks the downbeat path, I'll always dig it the most as a trip hop record. Tunes like Kai and Snake Hips are absolutely killer slabs of abstract hip hop par excellence, bringing that unmistakable sense of warped FSOL magic to the form.
And yet I couldn't do without Hot Knives, which alongside Egypt and Snake Hips round out my trio of favorite tracks on the album. So I need them both, gravitating toward one or the other depending on where my headspace is at the time. When all is said and done, it's the unmistakable post punk flavor of ISDN Black that tips it into Terminal Vibrationterritory (and accordingly makes it the record of the month), and marks it out as a triumphant culmination of post punk's dancefloor diaspora. It's as if the experiments of 23 Skidoo, Material and The Pop Group were finally being picked up again, warped and twisted into strange new shapes, and projected deep into the heart of the future. After all, there's a reason they're called The Future Sound Of London.
Nearly ten(!) years ago this little package came tumbling out into the shops with little fanfare, brought to you by the good folks at BBE. It's a sprawling selection of 21 shimmering dancefloor dubs from the first half of the 1980s, brilliantly compiled by Dimitri From Paris across two discs in original unmixed form, while The Idjut Boys mix the third (playing the soundboy to Dimitri's selector), all lovingly presented in an indispensable 3½ hour anthology (recalling Dimitri's Disco Forever triple-disc extravaganza).
Whereas that set chronicled peak-era disco by the likes of Charanga 76 and D.C. LaRue, Night Dubbin' shines the limelight on the time period just after. Post-disco and pre-house, the music captured here is a spectral, electro-tinged dance music imbued with half-lit neon glow. This is the sort of thing one might have heard at Tony Humphries' Zanzibar and Larry Levan's Paradise Garage (indeed, this is the genesis of the sound that would come to be called garage), where the sounds of disco mutated into the forms that would light the fuse on the Second Summer Of Love.
Touching down with the reverb-soaked acappella vocals of Aurra's Such A Feeling Part 2, you're hit immediately with the sort of organ line that would come to define large the garage sound in years to come. However, a delicious electro boogie squiggle enters the fray to complicate matters with spiral synths twisting and turning in orbit around the track's crisp percussion. That right there gives you a great thumbnail of what to expect here, so if that sounds like a good time to you, then feel free to proceed with the knowledge that you're in for a treat.
With The Idjuts segueing smoothly into Thug Rock Chimental Mix by Sandy Kerr, the final crucial ingredient of today's journey takes center stage: I'm talking about low-slung, deep-grooving slap bass magic. Together with the dubbed-out vocals, garage-inflected keyboards, wasp-leg synths and that rolling 1980s drum matrix, all the elements are present and correct.
There's even this whistling, high-pitched synth that prefigures the sound of mid-nineties digital-era Detroit techno figures like Kenny Larkin and Stacey Pullen (particularly the Silent Phase record). That's actually not uncommon in this mix, where one will often do a double-take on some fragment of a track (or idea within it) that sounds utterly ahead-of-its-time.
Suddenly, incandescent synths drift into view with an almost steel drum, calypso flavor. Island disco vibes to a man. This is the Limited Edition Special Remix of Serious Intention's You Don't Know. I have the original version on 12", but this remix takes the track in a radical new direction.
What were once relatively straightforward soul vocals in the original version are now fed through what sounds like a harmonizer, pitched-up and mutated into Smurf territory. This is the sort of dancefloor psychedelia that Prince was perfecting around this time, going to show the continued usefulness of Eno's concept of scenius. Something In The Water Does Not Compute.
It's worth pointing out that You Don't Know was one of the foundational building blocks of garage, which when you connect the dots forward fifteen years to the So Solid Crew's They Don't Know becomes all the more fascinating. It's a continuum, folks! And as in The Matrix, once you see the connections they're with you to stay.
Collapsing into the hall of mirrors intro from Michael Wilson's Groove It To Your Body Instrumental Mix, it's not long before you're flooded with rolling waves of Clavinet funk like a fast-forward Stevie Wonder (one pictures the cyborg keyboardist from Vibrations in action). The only respite is a cool breeze of cascading chimes, still rapid-fire but serenely so, before the bridge hits with a snatch of breezy acappella and then you're back in the thick of the Clavinet jungle.
Shades of Nu Groove-esque moody atmosphere announce Lenny White's My Turn To Love You Dub Version, a streetlight moonlight foray into post-jazz funk boogie. Yet another track fueled by clockwork slap bass, the tune's moody rumblings ultimately get subsumed into the track's metronomic forward motion. Shards of synth creep through the tune's murky aura, giving the track that extra punch as outer space effects unfurl at the edge of the soundscape, looped sax trilling off onto the horizon.
This from Lenny White's 1983 LP Attitude, which also has the twilight burner Didn't Know About Love Til I Found You, finding the erstwhile fusioneer (and member of Return To Forever) keeping up with the times and rolling deep with the Jamaica, Queens crew (see also Don Blackman, Bernard Wright, Tom Browne and of course Lenny White's own Twennynine project).
Aside from Easy Street, if there's one label that fits the remit of this mix then it's Prelude. And who better to represent the label's trademark post-disco machine boogie than James "D-Train" Williams, whose You're The One For Me defined the sound of the era's machine funk (even as Jam & Lewis picked up the baton and ran with it)?
In this case, you've got the stellar dub of the "D" Train Theme, also from the You're The One For Me LP, which picks up where that record's genre-defining title track left off (albeit with a greater presence of funk guitar and even a little proto-rap worked in for good measure). If there's one figure here that you could claim to be the founder of this feast, than it would be old D-Train.
With the Theme shimmering out across a pulsing electro-bass riff, the Paul Simpson Connection is in full force with Treat Me Dubmental Mix. Like the Aurra track, this is very much a proto-garage moment, with that skipping hi-hat rhythm underpinning club pianos and soulful keyboards. Gradually building before it all explodes in a crescendo of intricate synth filigree and dubbed-out, churchy vocals, it maintains a vibrant elasticity throughout. That rubberband synth bassline practically glows in the dark.
Ever so subtly swinging one bassline to another, The Boys drop into Wuf Ticket's The Key Dub Version, an electro boogie masterpiece driven as much by a rhythmic vocoder loop as much as the beat itself. There's vocals happening on something like three or four planes, with a baritone voice rising from the cracks in the beat as synths shimmer above it all, falsettos rising from within. Interesting to note the appearance of another jazz funk luminary, with James Mason (the man responsible for the sought after Rhythm Of Life LP) making his presence felt in this shadowy electro crew.
Like a line drawn in the sand, Radiance's You're My Number 1 Dub announces its presence in the mix with a soulful keyboard line before dropping into a mass of descending chorused guitar, and suddenly you can just feel that you're about to be hit by something drastically different. That guitar — sounding not unlike one of Jungle's luminescent six-string figures — cuts a rakish angle across the track's electroid bass 'n boogie, while Andrea Stone's vocals echo ethereal in the distance.
When it all drops into that unadorned mid-section, grooving on a simple organ refrain, it's as if the 90s have come seven years too soon and you're soaking up the purest uncut garage down in Jersey. Either that or a Moodymann record. Which hooks up brilliantly with the next record...
Raw Silk were best known for Do It To The Music (with its immortal music's hypnotizing refrain sampled seemingly hundreds of times over the years), but instead are showcased here for their other record on West End, Just In Time & Space Dub. Like it says on the tin, this is spaced-out dub disco shot through with swirling interplanetary sonix and disembodied girl group vocals, sporting an electronic sequence that predicts techno's minimalist streak before exploding into an absorbing chorus starring verdant synths and the funkiest of piano rolls.
All things considered, this might very well be the superior record to Do It To The Music and in it's . Like Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST, it's a record seemingly made with another era in mind (an era whose time had yet to come). It very well could be the most forward-looking song here, it's vast, hollowed-out stretches of atmosphere predicting techno's trajectory as the 90s progressed.
With the outer space sonix disintegrating into a cloud of stardust, Mikki's Dance Lover Dub Mix slips onto the scene with the sort of bassline that Metro Area would kill for. Indeed, this whole mix gives a bit of context to the uninitiated for all those Metro Area records: this is the sound that Morgan Geist was pining for (also check the excellent Moves EP, a personal favorite of mine from the man's oeuvre). The track is pure skeletal perfection, like Kraftwerk or Isolée... just perfect. When those electro boogie synths creep into the mix — disembodied vocals drifting out into the ether — the whole thing crashes through the heavens and sails across the stars.
Well... something has to follow what might be the most sublime moment here, and that tune is the instrumental of Electrik Dred's Butter Up Gimmie Some Bread. Another vocoder-fueled electro-bass odyssey, it rides a loose rhythm matrix into the island boogie of Cloud's Steppin' Out Jam Special Instrumental Dub Version, with its flanged guitars feeding into the track's motorik propulsion this is the most four-to-the-floor moment here.
In fact, its most minimal moments sound just like something out of an acid techno mix circa '95 (Plastikman's Mixmag Live!, for instance). Both these tunes serve to offer something of a breather before the last two tracks kick into high gear and all the rules get broken accordingly.
Surfing in on the derezzed collapse of Cloud, the RAH Band's offbeat European boogie comes crashing in at a lackadaisical pace, seemingly fifteen BPM slower than anything else here. Clouds Across The Moon strolls along with that moon bounce beat, bassline pulsing in tiny low-gravity arcs as sunshine guitars wander lonesome up and down the soundscape. As if beamed in across interplanetary transmitter, the wistful strings of some old-time orchestra drift across the stars as Nelson Riddle were conducting from orbit.
When it all reaches its crescendo, with those trilling hi-pitched synths almost sounding like something from Super Mario World, it's as if your locked in some yearning romance transpiring within the reality of some deserted arcade machine. The Super Nova Mix is a dubbed-to-pieces rendition of the original 12" version, which was a paean to a lover stranded on Mars (or is he?).
The biggest surprise here is saved for last, with a track originally from Wham's first album closing out the set. Enjoy What You Do Wham RapVocal finds George Michael rapping over a sunny bit of island funk that builds into frenzy of slap bass, chicken-scratch guitars and soaring brass, electroid synths weaving through it all as drums crash with wild abandon.
You could just picture this in the final scene of some contemporaneous movie — say a comedy with John Candy, Shelley Long, Robin Williams and/or Bill Murray — and everyone's getting down at the big party before the end credits roll. If pressed, I'd volunteer that it rivals Everything She Wants, although I haven't been able to find this particular version anywhere (none of the others are nearly as good this one).
A left-footed swerve from the seemingly kitsch to the sublime, it's a rather fitting end to a visionary mix that reclaims an era's music that people would have scoffed at as tacky and/or dated twenty years ago. Maybe they still do? Well, at least you know better...
What I'm really getting at is that this whole package, from the presentation on down to the extensive liner notes and of course the music within, is that it really hammers home the idea that the wildest strains of 80s dance — post-disco and pre-rave — were the era's head music par excellence.
It's something that dawned on me years ago when first confronted by the music of Kleeer and Mtume (to say nothing of Hashim's Primrose Path, Model 500's Night Drive, Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It and Reese's Just Another Chance). It's a terribly evocative music, stripped to it's essence, yet possessed of visions of the stars. It's music to dream to and music to dance to... but most of all it's music to live to.
When I think of records that came out of nowhere as a complete bolt for the blue, any number of iconoclastic tiles spring to mind; records like Model 500's NIght Drive, 4 Hero's Combat Dancin', Tricky's Aftermath, and so on and so on. Yet if there's one (largely unsung) record that belongs in the same league as those future-preempting classics, then it's this bad slab of wax from Colourbox.
Lodged in between the burnout end of post punk and the dawn of Britain's post-hip hop blues in the shape of Soul II Soul, Neneh Cherry, Bomb The Bass, The Wild Bunch and Smith & Mighty (the sound that would come to be called trip hop), this 12" seems to presage Bristol's sound of the nineties in its dub-wise, post-disco grooves.
On the face of it, Colourbox were an unlikely proposition: brothers Martin and Steven Young set out in 1982 with a dark, claustrophobic sound reminiscent of the less skronky side of Rip Rig & Panic (just as that crew were winding down with their Attitude LP, in fact). The new pop sounds of ABC and The Human League had swooped in to become the sound of the moment, and the glitz and glamour of MTV and Nick Rhodes were in full swing. Shiny was in, darkness was out, and many of the latter day post punk bands suddenly seemed to be out of step with the zeitgeist. Even in Simon Reynold's epic Rip It Up And Start Again, many of groups of this era merit only footnote status...
And yet... and yet, this Indian Summer of post punk features considerable treasures hidden in its shadows. Much like the contemporary output of Compass Point Studios, these records as often as not served to provide a metaphorical link between Metal Box and Newbuild, that is the post punk past and the electronic future.
I'm talking about records like 23 Skidoo's The Gospel Comes To New Guinea, 400 Blows' Declaration Of Intent, Mark Stewart's Learning To Cope With Cowardice, Fats Comet's Don't Forget That Beat, Section 23's From The Hip, but above all Colourbox's Baby I Love You So - the March 2018 record of the month and a dubbed-out post-disco, proto-trip hop 12" masterpiece.
Cloaked in evocative crimson artwork (provided by 23 Envelope) that springs from the clearly-defined 4AD design aesthetic, it nevertheless maintains a rude, street-level edge that seems to whisper nineties. From the sleeve on downward, this record screams trip hop so clearly that if it were strewn out alongside Maxinquaye, Dummy and Blue Lines one might assume they were all from the moment. After putting the record on the turntable and starting it a spinning, you quickly find out that the sonics are just as forward-thinking.
The record's a-side is a Baby I Love You So, a cover version of Jacob Miller's epochal reggae classic, famously produced by Augustus Pablo (who in turn dubbed it out into King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown, easily one of the top five dub traxx of all time). On the face of it, one might think it folly to attempt to version one of the great front-to-back 7" singles on wax, but from the opening bars it quickly becomes clear that you're dealing with something special.
With metallic percussion along the lines of Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound productions, the beat tumbles forward at a downbeat pace as the bassline throbs with metronomic precision. Then, a searing guitar figure cuts through the track like a knife, following Augustus Pablo's melodica line from the Jacob Miller original note for note. Lorita Grahame bluesy vocals anchor the track in the soil, while her cooing backup vocals seem to drift gently toward the clouds.
Grahame's whole approach is actually the linchpin here, betraying the track's entire m.o.: this is lover's rock rendered as a torch song (sound familiar?). The whole thing simply had the misfortune of coming out about a decade before it's time... in 1995 this record would have fit right in. 1986? Forget about it! It couldn't have been more anachronistic if it featured a Neptunes remix...
Like Mark Stewart's self-titled 1987 LP, the hard edges of this record's digidub percussion and spectral atmosphere seem to outline what would become the roots-n-future mash up of the Bristol sound. With the Burt Bacharach covers of Smith & Mighty and The Wild Bunch and Massive Attack's moody cover of Chaka Khan's Any Love waiting in the wings, the whole thing comes on like an unlikely blueprint for the Bristol blues. Augmenting the record's almost cyberpunk-by-default tone are film samples from John Carpenter's Escape From New York sprinkled liberally throughout the track. If it all sounds too good to be true, then yeah... we're on the same page.
Of course, the b-side's even better. Looks Like We're Shy One Horse/Shootout makes literal the connection between Augustus Pablo's man-from-the-East melodica stylings and Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western OSTs with what amounts to a dubbed-out discomix cover of the theme to One Upon A Time In The West (with samples from the film - along with Duck, You Sucker - once again sprinkled liberally throughout).
That same searing guitar is back, this time sawing out the theme's refrain as whistling synths soar through the ether, horns punching in ever so often. Picture the midpoint between Joe Gibbs & The Professionals' African Dub All-Mighty records and Bandulu's Antimatters/Cornerstone/Redemption trilogy and you wouldn't be too far off. Once again, simply stunning.
At about five minutes in, the groove cuts out and you're left with droning atmosphere for a spell before the whistling synths return - this time pitched down a couple octaves - in such a way that wouldn't sound out of place scoring Ridley Scott's Black Rain. This is billed as the Shootout portion of the track. Then, a downbeat-the-dub-ruler beat kicks in and Repo Man-esque choirs fill the sky, as the track creeps toward its denouement with clockwork inevitability. This is Deckard in a trench coat, staggering through rain-soaked streets music. Cyberpunk, once again, on both sides.1
I can't imagine what it must have been like, hearing this back when it first came out...
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 spiraling 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 that The Edge — being the atmospheric gent that he is — 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 digifunk 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 drum kit, 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 dub disco 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 drum kit 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 BurroughsTangier 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.
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!
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 — verging on electro, at times — to arrive at a twisting, wiry vision of swashbuckling post-disco. 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 dub disco 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 free fall. 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 catalog, 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.
A large part of the 70s' appeal (and why it remain such an impressive era) 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.
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 bass drum 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.
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix — the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each — Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly — almost symmetrically so — into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 — and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash — perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was — along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 — one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophony), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!).
Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors — stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage — attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album — Combat Rock — the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, betrays the fact that the reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself — capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white — perfectly signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularly of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic ragga beat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images — with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan — over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" — which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes — even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial ragga beat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones — who had never had chickenpox as a youth — took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital — where he was promptly hooked up to respirators — and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6a
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6b Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes — recorded with what would become The Band8 — that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world.
House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later.
Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone — from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers — were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music — in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor — it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed:
We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.
Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c
With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the Gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony.
Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself. The production — handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price — is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs.
Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears — attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time — with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.
Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies — which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up — from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged.
Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations — filled to the brim with ideas — even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness.
This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise — no doubt from some soccer arena — rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling — seemingly on loop — emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns — playing at the correct speed this time — ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which brilliantly conjures up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need?
Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before — at the three-minute mark — a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song,18 which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band — in stark black and white — seems to play in cryosleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain.
The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates — now in full color — wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listened to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs — most likely sampled from somewhere or another — trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body The House Music Anthem but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement — complete with a French horn simulation — before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder — another one of those slowdown sound effects — with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocodered sing-song — which seems to represent the audience — replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?).
The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and even the chorus appears with little fanfare as well — over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano — before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns — in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road — which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred — which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea — side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialing up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner — with their sleek, muscular European techno — would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only Hi-NRG was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline — cycling up and down the keyboard — doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs — bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway Theme From Fastlane — and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although — as far as I know — only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video20 and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes — this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere — we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group — and a return of the sampled whistling — for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bass drum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms — this time on the electrofunk tip — it's loathe to stay in one place for very long. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote — this time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven — into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect — with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops — brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiraling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop — lasting about thirty seconds — that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit.
At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent — but alas, unreleased — Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts23 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24
Eventually — around the turn of the century — the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot — an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture — Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged — as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video — in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music — spanning myriad genres and points of origin — mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopian visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travelers throughout their long and winding existence.
Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
Tucked away in the shadowy early years of Warp Records' long and winding history, you'll find the debut album by trip hop stalwarts Nightmares On Wax. Originally a duo of George Evelyn and Kevin Harper (aka EASE and Boy Wonder), NOW emerged from the rough-n-ready world of the late-eighties U.K. rave scene, where they made waves spinning at Leeds venues like the Warehouse and Downbeat (the latter of which the duo actually ran themselves). They played a mix of dance music, jazz, soul, hip hop and electro, in keeping with the gloriously omnivorous spirit of the times. EASE quips No segregation in music back then, anything goes!1
A Word Of Science is suffused with that same anything goes spirit. It's an utterly original record that blends the post-disco sounds of electro, house and hip hop into the sonic equivalent of wildstyle graffiti, its fifteen skeletal tunes belie their spartan nature as they deliriously careen through dazzling, kaleidoscopic terrain. In his breakbeat primer Drum 'n Bass: The Rough Guide, Peter Shapiro rightly singles this record out for praise, calling it the kind of album we'll probably never hear again as it's so full of the innocent joy everyone's scared to show in this age of ludicrous image-consciousness and po-faced taste-makers...2a and that was written nearly twenty years ago.
Certainly straight hip hop tracks like Mega Donutz and How Ya Doin' stand out as hopelessly charming romps, overflowing with a youthful enthusiasm and the optimistic spirit of the times. The rolling Mega Donutz finds MC Tozz 180 recounting the group's history, while How Ya Doin' is essentially a signing-off track, its loping jazz funk beats filled with shout outs to the likes of LFO and Zulu Nation. Both tunes are quintessential U.K. hip hop — coming on like a blunted Shut Up And Dance in rap mode — offering an open-hearted counterpoint to the remainder of the record, which is an unabashedly minimal and moody affair.
The thoroughly smoked-out vibes of Nights Interlude kick the record off with a laidback downbeat rumination sourced in Quincy Jones' Summer In The City,3 laying the blueprint for a decade of languid downbeat splendor in the process. It also commenced NOW's series of Nights excursions that would pepper albums to come (see Night's Introlude, Les Nuits, etc.).
A significant portion of the album trades in downtempo beat collage just as Massive Attack were laying down the gauntlet with their epoch-defining Blue Lines, with the x-ray hip hop of Back Into Time and Playtime sounding like New York beats stretched out in skeletal slow motion.
Elsewhere, E.A.S.E. rides a baroque keyboard arrangement over click-clacking typewriter beats. These tracks are crucial early incursions of what would come to be labeled trip hop, even if they would be improved on sharply by NOW with later records like Smoker's Delight and Carboot Soul.
However, A Word Of Science has something those later albums do not: the maddening electronic grooves of its remaining nine tracks, which stretch the pulse of contemporary bleep 'n bass into unexpected shapes and curious rhythms. Crudely put, bleep 'n bass was the British rave sound that immediately preceded ardkore: sourced in U.S. (particularly New York) house and techno, but with an added bass pressure informed by U.K. soundsystem culture. You'd typically get these great brittle, treble-tweaking shards of sound cutting across a booming bottom end, these blank-eyed droning rhythms dished out by crews like Unique 3, Ital Rockers and the Forgemasters.
Warp Records, now a giant in the world of electronic music — particularly of the ambient, experimental variety — got its start caning this sound, with records like Sweet Exorcist's Testone, the Forgemasters' Track With No Name and LFO's LFO. Warp released the epoch-defining debut album by bleep 'n bass luminaries LFO — who enjoy a reputation as something like the Kraftwerk of British techno — in the summer of 1991, with NOW's debut hot on its heels a couple months later.4 Interestingly, these two LPs were the first single-artist, full-length albums to come out on Warp.5,6
In the austere company of the rest of the early Warp stable, A Word Of Science stands out by virtue of its blunted, hip hop-inflected edges shot through with a rough-hewn, homespun charm. Once again, Peter Shapiro nails it when he says Nightmares On Wax saw Techno as an outgrowth of the funk and hip-hop scenes and approached it with a herbalist's mindset.2b
The rolling discoid groove of A Case Of Funk, with that massive geometric bassline riding up against the sides of its percussion loops like a tire on the curb, betrays the duos love of vintage funk with its strikingly organic take on New York house music. In soon-to-be familiar British twist, you can hear the x-factor of that implied breakbeat snaking its way through the rhythm.
Aftermath, a 12" smash from the year prior, famously set this equation in stone, looping a sample of Cuba Gooding Sr. to maddening heights against a backdrop of droning vocals, speaker-shredding hi-hats, rolling percussion, the occasional electronic flourish and a bassline rising up deep from within. Similar magic is wrought from Biofeedback, with the N.Y.C. Peech Boys sample intoning the track's title over a loping bassline, stop-start percussion loops and a nagging refrain seemingly played on an out-of-tune keyboard.
Dextrous — taken from a 12" released way back in 1989 — represents this sound at its most minimal, riding some detuned synth tones over a spartan rhythm matrix as eerie chords loom on the horizon. It's all so artlessly constructed, yet it truly gets to the heart of the whole machine music enterprise, as if Kraftwerk had surfaced, delirious, at a Leeds warehouse party.
The brittle textures of Fun are cut from the same cloth, recalling eighties electro at its most dessicated, while Coming Down (a personal favorite) rides an ultra-repetitive, stop-start and rewind groove that captures the feeling of a helicopter hovering on the horizon as it rises and falls on currents of air. Sal Batardes is yet another crisp, electro-inflected endeavor, with ringing percussion figures that seem to recall the atmosphere of The Imperial Brothers' We Come To Dub. The two-minute sketch B.W.T.M. splits the difference between both sides of the record, running its trilling electro percussion and looped vocal snatches at a downtempo pace.
This is just the sort of record that would have been described as dated in the trend-conscious climate of the late 90s (when I first heard it), but — like much of my favorite slightly-older music that I scooped up at the time (think Bobby Konders and Todd Terry) — it sounds fresher than ever in the present. Where most of the big room anthems of that era have by now lost their luster — the overblown sheen rendered absurd by the passage of time — this tough little record really gets down to the heart of the matter, its skeletal rhythm matrix haunted by hieroglyphic ghosts of Sheffield, Detroit and The Bronx, drifting in and out of focus all the time. To borrow the title of their next album, it's a true Smoker's Delight!
Bringing to mind SST issuing two stone-tablet double albums, Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mere months from one another in a blitzkrieg of overwhelming talent and ambition, two massively talented groups egging each other on.