The Clash - This Is Radio Clash
This 12" came up in the most recent episode of Terminal Vibration, but it's such a uniquely strange record that I thought I'd spend a little more time with it. What marks it out as curious is its structure: each of the track's four versions get more warped and dubbed out than the one before, literally descending into madness by the end of side two. I can't think of an earlier record that shares the same sustained concept - although I wouldn't be surprised if reggae beat them to it - which works like a charm.
Coming on the heels of the dubbed out triple-LP madness of Sandinista!, Radio Clash updates the blueprint of songs like Ivan Meets G.I. Joe and The Magnificent Seven with skittering, dexterous rhythms - even verging on electro, at times - to arrive at a twisting, wiry vision of swashbuckling post-disco boogie. Those electroid drums and infectious rhythms point the way forward to not only Combat Rock's massive Rock The Casbah - where they were distilled into a potent formula that stormed the charts - but also the strikingly peculiar Cool Confusion.1 As such, it remains a key stepping stone between the sensibilities of Sandinista! and Combat Rock.
This Is Radio Clash introduces itself with Joe Strummer's maniacal laughter before dropping into a punk-boogie rhythm shot through with dubdisco stylings shimmering across its surface. The track moves like a nomad running parkour through the city, bouncing off walls, leaping rooftops and sliding down rails in mad pursuit of... something. Paul Simonon's bass adopts a nimble, moonwalking quality that picks up where Sandinista!'s Version City left off, while Topper Headon's chattering drums are treated with all manner of electronic modification. Joe Strummer rides the groove, chanting the track's title over a haunting sax tattoo from guest star Gary Barnacle in between another one of his mini-raps. Like Parliament's Flashlight, it's not so much verse/chorus as both happening simultaneously. Of course Mtume and Kleeer ain't far off either, come to think of it...
The second version, simply titled Radio Clash, is a disco dub of the original track, with the effects cranked up to a respectable level and electronic sparks spraying every which way from its central groove. It's so subtly different from the original that one could conceivably not even notice the difference, even if Strummer leads off with a different couplet at the song's launch. If you weren't paying attention, it would almost be subconscious. Its relationship to the original always reminds me of D-Train's You're The One For Me to its instrumental version.
Kicking off the second side, the seven-and-a-half minute Outside Broadcast strips the track down to its core framework, riding its rubberband rhythm like a loose caboose in freefall. An uncredited vocalist - I'd guess Paul Simonon - does some low key toasting over the top while half-life diva backing vocals bounce around the track in unison. Long stretches of the track are purely instrumental, while others bring in snatches of Strummer's original vocals - dubbed to pieces King Tubby-style. As I said before, it's one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalogue, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight. The taxi cab stylings in evidence throughout bring to mind Prince's Lady Cab Driver: beyond the fact that they share the same street corner atmosphere, their respective grooves are so similarly sure-footed and nimble that they always go down a treat together in the mix. Definitely a hidden gem in the band's catalog, this is what the 12" single is all about.
Radio Five is the fourth and final version, where madness sets in for good. It kicks off with a muted playback of Strummer's opening scream before a conga rolls into increasingly dubbed-out beats echo-chambered into infinity. Then the groove comes in, clippity-clopping all over itself in what's revealed to be the dub version of Outside Broadcast. That's right: a dub of a dub of a dub. As if that weren't enough, the whole thing is wildly scratched to confusion by some uncredited turntablist - this time I can't even guess - as phantom bleeps weave in and out of the mix. The whole track just tumbles over and over itself before collapsing into an anarchic mess. It's great!
One of the many reasons this record means so much to me - aside from the fact that it's a killer track and the obvious conceptual flourishes - is that it remains an excellent showcase of the excitement during the new wave/post-disco era, when you'd get all manner of music rubbing shoulders in the mix - say at the Paradise Garage - regardless of their origin, so long as it moved the dancefloor. In a sense, it was the mightiest détente between rock and soul since the heady days of the 1960s.
One reason the seventies remain so impressive is the sheer amount of scenes and sounds that managed to reach their apex during its duration, be it funk, soul, reggae, krautrock, punk, cosmic jazz, hard rock or disco. The eighties, by contrast, were an era where all these disparate sounds seemed to intertwine for a shining moment, pulling together the various strands of dub/reggae, hip hop, post punk/new wave, soul/boogie and rock into a shimmering flow of post-disco rhythm. Of course it couldn't last forever, and by the decade's end it had all shattered into a million pieces (that have only diverged further since).2 And yet for a spell, it all sure did burn brightly.
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...
Big Audio Dynamite - Megatop Phoenix
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 Loma Music 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 Cacophany), 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, seems to betray the fact that 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 swansong 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 signalled 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 (particularily 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-travelling 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 raggabeat 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 raggabeat 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 funhouse 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.6
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.6 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 Strings Of Life 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.6 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. Todd Terry just might be the single most appropos 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
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, reggae 13 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'14 Pills '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?
- All Mink & No Manners
- Union, Jack
- Dragon Town
- Baby, Don't Apologise
- Is Yours Working Yet?
- Around The Girl In 80 Ways
- James Brown
- Everybody Needs A Holiday
- Mick's A Hippie Burning
- House Arrest
- The Green Lady
- London Bridge
- Stalag 123
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):
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.
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.
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:
'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 seems to brilliantly conjure 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:
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 seems to predict 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 song18, 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 cryo-sleep (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 listen 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.
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...
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 vocoderized 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.
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 the chorus seems to appear 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 Fraid - 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, dialling 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 video 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!20 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
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 bassdrum/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!
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.
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 - thise 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 spiralling 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...
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 charts21 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 idiosynchratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.23
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!
Nightmares On Wax - A Word Of Science: The 1st & Final Chapter
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-makers2... 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 City3, laying the blueprint for a decade of languid downbeat splendor in the process (and also commencing NOW's own series of Nights excursions). 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 labelled 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. (particularily 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 - particularily 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.7 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 hihats, 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-nineties (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 day. 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!
Démis Roussos - Souvenirs
When confronted with its sleeve, my initial impression was that this must be a Nashville country record - either that or a Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter elpee - or perhaps some combination of the two. The cowboy hat, the beard, the seemingly airbrushed sleeve all seem to point to some confessional rootsy endeavor. Upon closer inspection, however, a few things begin to stand out. For one, the sequins on his jacket in the lower-left hand corner. For another, that cowboy hat actually seems to be made of black leather. And the typeface is wholly un-canyon and un-country, clearly pointing to seventies Europe.
Upon reading what the text actually said, I realized that this was in fact a solo record by Démis Roussos, the man who started out in the Greek prog band Aphrodite's Child (along with Vangelis), a group who were responsible for lush, symphonic rock records like 666 and It's Five O'Clock, straddling the line between The Moody Blues and Amon Düül II. Indeed, this record is forever paired with Vangelis' Earth in my mind: both feature wistful, bearded Greeks on the sleeve, both contain a masterpiece of sun-glazed soul (Midnight Is The Time I Need You and Let It Happen, respectively) and - sealing the deal - I happened to acquire both records at the same time.
Souvenirs is Roussos' fifth album, well into a solo career which had become hot property on the European stage, and finds the man tackling not only his trademark mammoth ballads but also the flaming embers of disco and even - would you believe it - the odd bit of country tucked away on the second side. It's not a perfect record by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly a special one with some truly interesting detours tucked away in its corners. This is the sort of record that only could have happened in the seventies. It's remained pretty close to my heart in spite of the fact that I'm not crazy about roughly a third of it, because the next third is truly indispensable (and the remainder is pretty solid as well), and it all hangs together in such a way that even the weaker moments soak up some of the magic of their surroundings.
Now the opening track, Sing An Ode To Love, is pretty clearly the worst thing here. It's a portentous ballad that gradually develops into a martial rhythm, before massed choirs swell into a melodramatic climax that never really goes anywhere. But you've got to stick with it, because just after this inauspicious beginning, the record's greatest track follows: Midnight Is The Time I Need You is a deep disco staple, at the time even reaching #12 in the US Disco chart.
Roussos weaves through its insouciant groove like a boxer, his voice gruff with desire, backing vocals spiralling around him in feminine ecstasy. Its rolling bassline seems to glide across the soundscape while liquid Rhodes pulse from deep within. A razor sharp string section cuts through the mix, making all the right moves at all the right moments. When the organ solo hits, those keys seem imbued with an eerie glow, slipping in and out of the mix like a ghostly mirage. Midnight was written by by eurodisco prince Alec Constandinos, who also wrote material for Cerrone, Kongas and Paris Connection, along with all but two of the tracks on this LP.
Action Lady continues on a similar tip - right down to its string section and Roussos' vocal stylings - with further disco endeavors, riding an uptempo breakbeat and sounding like chase music from some contemporary globetrotting espionage movie. It may not quite as indelible as Midnight Is The Time I Need You, but it's a welcome continuation down the same lush disco path. It's worth noting that a large part of this record's appeal springs from Roussos' own production, along with the arrangements of Harris Chalkitis, Klaus Munro and Stelios Vlavianos, which blends all manner of lush sonics - those lilting flutes, the muted horn section, soaring backup vocals - into a rich sonic tapestry. Roussos actually had a number of great disco moments throughout his career, including 1978's L.O.V.E. Got A Hold On Me, which earned the distinction of appearing in David Mancuso' Loft Top 100.1
There's a number of tracks that fit directly with the man's burgeoning reputation as a balladeer, a crooner of dramatic proportions. From Souvenirs To Souvenirs is a gently-swaying yacht ballad, jazz-tinged with its liquid Rhodes dancing across Roussos' soaring vocals in the chorus. Strangely enough, it's always reminded me of Elton John's Feed Me from the same year. Names hinges on the same dramatic axis, only this time the backing is unmistakably exotica-tinged, with sumptuous strings draping the track like gossamer. It's the sort of song you'd expect to hear in the blurred frames of a memory montage during some seventies film, where the ill-fated couple walks, laughing sweetly down Paris streets before the camera returns to the present day and the love interest has been gone five years now.
Perdoname is similarly cinematic, this time conjuring up images of a cantina scene south of the border with its flaring Mariachi horns and slide guitar that emerge from the record out of nowhere, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Like, obviously! That's another part of what makes this record so fascinating... the stylistic diversity in evidence throughout - you've got Perdoname, Midnight's rolling disco grooves, the quasi-Italian balladry of I'll Be Your Friend (Schöen Wie Mona Lisa) (which always reminds me of Abba) and quasi-country-western moves all rubbing shoulders - it all seems of a piece, flowing naturally as a set of gently glazed soundscapes.
The piano-led symphonic majesty of Winter Rains seems to recall certain sixties Scott Walker songs in what turns out to be a truly epic chanson. The string arrangements are very reminiscent of The Seventh Seal, with Roussos alternating between subdued verses and a massive, operatic chorus. The backing vocals explode in its climax, Let me love you more, before it's all over in the blink of an eye. Trying To Catch The Wind is cut from a similar cloth, but this time seems to draw on The Band (or even The Eagles), with some of the most bombastic backing vocals this side of Joe Cocker's version With A Little Help From My Friends. But doesn't it sound just a bit like something from Ween's The Mollusk? The near-hard rock production - with those soaring guitars and block rockin' beats - really make me flash on the brothers' nineties prog opus. I wonder of they ever heard it? I wouldn't be surprised...
It's in the final stretch of the record where Roussos finally delves into those strange country-western shapes. White Wings "Asa Branca" starts out amidst icy synths - almost Gothic in execution - before dropping into an uptempo country-tinged excursion that rolls on gently strummed acoustic guitars and a rolling conga rhythm. The curious thing here is Roussos' operatic vocals, soaring over something that recalls a contemporary Glen Campbell ditty. Actually, I can't help but think of America, especially when those backing vocals sneak in. Not bad at all...
Even better, and rolling down the same dusty country road, is Tell Me Now. This little tune rides another shuffling conga rhythm festooned with tender acoustic guitar, harmonica and sun-glazed synths gliding throughout, while Roussos soars above it all with backing vocals sliding deftly all around. It rivals Midnight Is The Time I Need You as the record's finest moment, tripping along some country highway into sun-kissed horizons, and is just the sort of improbable confection that you hope to find when taking a chance on a record. Strangely enough, it actually proves my initial instinct correct: this record does contain a fine bit of off-kilter country after all... and a lot more besides!
Yusef Lateef - Eastern Sounds
The other day (for obvious reasons) I get to thinking about Rudy Van Gelder's vast recording discography. The man practically defined what a bop-era jazz recording should sound like, even as he experimented with unorthodox methods for capturing the sounds he was after. Famously secretive about his recording techniques, Van Gelder enjoyed a reputation as the mad scientist and sonic architect of bop-era jazz.
There are so very many phenomenal records bearing the man's touch that it's tough trying to single out a favorite: Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch! and Andrew Hill's Point Of Departure spring immediately to mind as stone cold classic selections that would be hard to argue with. However, if I had to choose an absolute favorite for myself, it would have to be Yusef Lateef's Eastern Sounds.
It makes sense that Van Gelder's sensitivity to things like tonal coloring and atmosphere would be a perfect fit for Yusef Lateef, that visionary multi-instrumentalist whose affinity with music beyond the confines of the West pre-dated just about everyone else's (not only in jazz but the entire pop music sphere). Eastern Sounds is something of a showcase for Lateef's vision, extending the West Asian fascination of his 1957 offering Prayer To The East even deeper into the continent. Rudy Van Gelder's fingerprints are in evidence throughout, with the deep, rich tones of Lateef's quartet bathed in soft reverb, both spacious and crystal clear.1
The record shifts deftly between a number of modes, stretching from proto-world music excursions to lonely downbeat elegies, film music and even touching down with some straight-no-chaser bebop. Lateef's quartet embraced atypical instrumentation throughout these sessions, with Ernie Farrow switching between double bass and rabaab, while Lateef's use of flute and oboe - along with the expected tenor saxophone - add to the record's depth of texture. Every sound seems bathed in vivid shades of color, as if glowing gently in the darkness.
The opening song, Plum Blossom, features extensive use of the Chinese globular flute - or xun - by Lateef, carrying the melody before passing it off to Barry Harris' rolling piano lines and then back again. Meanwhile, Lex Humphries taps out a simple percussive figure in unbroken repetition. The track is verdant and life-affirming, full of the promise of new grass, hope and possibility. Lateef's xun offers a striking, crystalline sound - a sound that cuts through the years to feel right at home in the present (whenever that may be).
Blues For The Orient follows, shifting into a slightly more conventional jazz environment. As the title implies, the tune marries shades of Asian melody to a sort of low key blues shuffle. Ching Miau continues in this vein, speeding up the tempo considerably with a first-rate exercise in bebop alchemy. Grounding the record in jazz fundamentals, both tunes are largely straight-up jazz laced with the tones and progressions of Asian music.
Snafu is cut from similar cloth, but manages to surpass the both of them. Indeed, this is not only the record's longest track but also one its clear highlights: perhaps its finest moment of pure jazz. The rhythm section really shines here, with Ernie Farrow's double bass seeming to carry the whole track as it careens down a winding staircase into the abyss, while Humphries' rolling drum breaks unfurl into orbit all around. There's a distinct sense of depths being plumbed, portals opened and passed through. Strange as it may sound, Snafu seems to predict a sound that The Doors would come to explore extensively in a few years time.2
The record features not one but two interpretations of film music, both of them epics: Spartacus and The Robe. Even in the context of a record as singular as Eastern Sounds, these two tracks possess an atmosphere all their own, with lush textures flowing over clockwork rhythm like a brook over the smooth stones of a riverbed. Love Theme From Spartacus (taken from Alex North's score to the Stanley Kubrick film) is haunted by Lateef's searching oboe coiled at its center, while Love Theme From The Robe (by Alfred Newman) finds him trading sumptuous flute passages with Harris' keys in a beguiling seduction of the senses.
The downbeat melancholia of Don't Blame Me features sparse piano and sax interplay over a creeping, languid rhythm. Notes and timbres are allowed to drift into the ether, evoking a solitary loneliness: haunting sounds haunted by memory. Similarly, the gorgeous Purple Flower crawls along at a snail's pace - its slow-motion brushes manage to evoke both weight-of-the-world and zero-gravity simultaneously - conjuring images of deserted city streets in the dead of night. The closest comparison I could make would be Duke Ellington at his most downcast; either that or Generique from Miles Davis' soundtrack to the French film Ascenseur Pour L'échafaud.
The record closes with The Three Faces Of Balal, a tune more sparse and spacious than anything that has preceded it. The eerie melody rides another one of Humphries' circular percussive figures (this time mirrored by Farrow's bass, to fine effect), with Lateef once again blowing flute and trading lines with Harris. It's the album's most mystical moment, even as it seems to deconstruct itself before your eyes, like the final flush of a dream. You can almost feel the record winding down, as if receding back into the darkness. Landing at your final port of call, all movement ceases and only memories remain...
I recently noticed that I'd loaned out my copy of Derrick May's Innovator and thought, what a great compilation that was followed by I really hope that I get it back. The double-disc version is that rare compilation that acts as both a primer, rounding up most of the man's seminal Rhythim Is Rhythim material in one place, as well as a showcase of unreleased material from the vaults. The downside was that my copy had many of the track titles transposed so that I went through high school thinking that Nude Photo was The Beginning and so forth. It was only later, after tracking down the original 12"s that I was able to piece together the true story.
I remember rolling around town in my 1980 brown Dodge Colt, a single tape distillation of this anthology perpetually lodged in the deck, soundtracking life I made my way through the Heights. There were a steady supply of homemade cassette tapes in rotation, including E-Dancer's Heavenly (augmented with the full-length version of World Of Deep) and a Carl Craig tape with Landcruising on one side and More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art on the other. I even seem to remember one that, for whatever reason, paired C.J. Bolland with a bunch of tracks from Claude Young's Pattern Buffer series. At any rate it felt pretty good being able to bump techno in that vehicle, even if the car itself was in the unfortunate habit of stalling and/or not starting up. But I digress...
Derrick May - Innovator
Back to Innovator. This compilation features a generous selection of unreleased material, which I'd like to focus on today. Ranging from fully fleshed-out songs to interludes and even sonic squiggles that last for but a few seconds (Daymares, with its string-led drift that coalesces into a series of stabs running the scales up and down), it's an indispensable glimpse into the Transmat vaults and the mind of an innovator.
Rest acts as an introduction to the whole anthology, capturing in just one minute the whole magnetic allure of this music: the mystery, the melancholy, the soul. Resolute in the face of ruin. Another Relic (From The Relics) is perhaps the most gorgeous of the interludes, capturing that triumphant optimism that one so often finds in this music, leaning defiantly as it does toward the future. One wishes there was a full version of this track kicking around somewhere. I remember reading an interview with May some time ago where he alluded to an ill-fated Rhythim Is Rhythim album that remains unreleased to this day. Perhaps this is a glimpse at that storied record?
The pointillist digital disco of Freestyle, one of the full-length tracks that seem to be exclusive to the set, is pure night drive music (comparable to The Dance) and of a piece with the minimal side of FSOL's Accelerator. Then, there's the Juan Atkins mix of Wiggin', which seems to soundtrack the orbital skyway and is a cousin to Jazz Is The Teacher, its hollow organs dancing over shuffling rhythms of pure machine funk.
There's one sketch that features this great tattoo of stabs that sound like they're going to build into an epic along the lines of The Beginning before stopping at a mere ten seconds. I originally knew it as A Little Spaced Out, but - when confronted with the true tracklist - it turns out to be untitled. Elsewhere, there's an edit of R-Theme (by R-Tyme) that opens with a rude synth stab (which is not in the original) but unfortunately cuts out some of the 12"s most glorious moments. Indeed, the one weakness with this set is that some of the songs appear in edited form, while others are split into various interludes and alternate versions.
Various Artists - Relics: A Transmat Compilation
It's worth noting another crucial compilation, Relics: A Transmat Compilation (with it's stunning sleeve, designed by none other than Abdul Haqq), which covers not just May but many other artists on his label, including Suburban Knight (The Art Of Stalking), Model 500 (Infoworld) and BFC (Evolution and a piano-led remake of Crackdown).
The whole set is bookended by two songs titled A Relic. The opening relic (credited to Long Ago) is insouciantly captivating sci-fi music, its mad swelling synths draw you into a gentle gliding melody. It feels not unlike walking into the dome city from Logan's Run. The closing relic (credited to Longer Than Long Ago is a moody, organ-led number that later turns up on Innovator - split into two parts called Phantom and More Phantom - which this time feature toughened beats and no organ.
Relics also features a series of brilliant Intervals that are similar in spirit to the interludes on Innovator, only better. Some longer moments are spread across multiple, shorter intervals, while others are allowed to breathe a little (Interval IV even masks the same tune found in Another Relic (From The Relics)). The down and dirty final movement (Interval X) is almost like an ultra-funky slow-motion version of Fix's Flash. Once again, you long for full-length cuts of each of these tracks.
It would be wonderful if someone (perhaps even Derrick May himself) would put together the definitive compilation of this material, with all of the original 12" versions of these classics and a whole brace of tracks from the archives. What we really need is for the unreleased Rhythim Is Rhythim LP to finally see the light of day. In light of some of the excellent reissues that have surfaced in recent years (the Drexciya box set on Clone come to mind), it seems like the perfect time for a comprehensive archive of the man's epochal body of work. A long overdue return to the relics.
The Jungle record came out a year ago today. It's crept up on me in a big way over the course of that year. At first I almost heard past it - pleasant enough, I suppose - but as much as I casually dug the record, I hadn't yet totally succumbed to it's brilliance. Then Sari took me to see them live at The Belly Up last September. In the context of the live show, every corner of that venue teeming with such deeply atmospheric dance music, I was totally drawn into their trip; finally everything made sense. You could feel all manner of young people having their first rave experience to this music, eyes closed, hands in the air and dancing with wild abandon. Immersed in the vibe. It lives on even now?
I know that in my case it all took me back to a youth spent dancing in nightclubs and out in the desert to whatever strains of house and techno I could find in San Diego at the time. Cruising the city streets between work and school and the lab, bumping Stacey Pullen and making beats whenever I had the chance. Lot's of time spent digging in the trenches with my head in the clouds. Downcast but not out. The wild shapes and sonics of that music's synthesized pulse kept a young brother's head up and feet moving forward. And forward. Fast-forward to the present. Now here was a live group on stage conjuring that same atmosphere, sidestepping any familiar rock concert forms to approximate the sound of the deepest of grooves coming off a hot 12" in the club - reworked from scratch backwards in widescreen and bang up to date.
The record itself is fantastic. I was baffled by the veil of silence that seemed to cloak this album in the music press. Any coverage the group did happen to garner seemed to focus on the most superficial aspects of their profile. Much has been made of the crew's mysterious nature, for example, but growing up as I did on crews like Drexciya and UR (operating in the shadows at all times), in Jungle's case it just seemed to be some cats who wanted to let the music speak for itself. And speak for itself it certainly does. Yet when all of the 2014 end-of-year polls rolled around, I couldn't find it even mentioned in a single list that I checked! What gives?
This was without a doubt my favorite album of the year, and one of a handful of occurrences that made me want to return to writing about music. I planned to fire this site up in late October just to talk about the record, but various real world concerns pushed that plan up until January. Then, as the year wore on and I got back in groove of writing once again, it just never seemed to be the right time. I caught them live again a few weeks ago, and realized just the other day that it had been a year since Jungle first dropped... so what better time than now?
Jungle quietly inhabits a place all its own on the sonic spectrum, seemingly formed from a single slab of onyx and then submerged in quicksilver. The songs within seem constructed from pure atmosphere rather than any formal structure or notation. You want to reach out and grasp at its amorphous surfaces even as they seem to slip and slide just out of reach. Its beats threaten to crumble to the touch, often seeming to stagger sideways even as they commence to propel the grooves ever forward. The soundscape seems a blur, smeared against distant lights on the horizon, until you squint to notice the intricate details found within. Worlds within worlds, a dream within a dream.
In a sense, its methodology reminds me of Dâm-Funk's Toeachizown in the way they both seems to spool out widescreen sonic vistas sourced in some half-remembered dream. Drawing both on years of his own g-funk sorcery and the atmospheric boogie of his youth (things like Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Kleeer's Tonight), Dâm-Funk wove moods and grooves from the deepest recesses of machine funk and stretched them across five LPs - a sprawling canvas of two hours and twenty minutes - to create a monument to these dreamtime soundscapes, previously essayed only in fleeting glimpses on b-sides and the odd album cut, resulting in a stone cold slab of perfection.
Jungle's sound itself is different, and the record's length far shorter, but it seems to spring from the same drive to build a world of its own from some dream half-remembered. The experience of listening to this record is like nothing so much as that moment when you absorb your surroundings for the first time in a strange new city: it seems wholly distinct and yet there's nearly always something that will make you say deja vu. A cul de sac or stretch of road, a building or bit of hillside that almost feels like some mirror image of home. This record embodies that feeling, coming on like some solarized vision of the world you've known.
On one hand, its tempting to compare Jungle to groups like Hot Chip and The Junior Boys - and maybe that's not a bad thumbnail on the face of it - but those groups always seemed to be coming at dance music from an indie mindset, much like Scritti Politti or Orange Juice did in their day. Neither does Jungle's music truly sound like any of those groups. You'll also often hear allusions to neo soul when describing the group's sound, but that's a red herring as well. This music is soulful, no doubt, but its sound seems to spring from somewhere else entirely. Like Escort and The Sunburst Band, this is post-disco dance music through and through. The only trouble is, Jungle don't really sound like those groups either.
What the record immediately made me flash on were the spaciest passages of the Metro Area LP, especially its lush second side (Soft Hoop and Caught Up, in particular). Those tactile, spongy basslines, the sense of longing stitched between the glistening lines, and that same overwhelming sense of four-dimensional ATMOSPHERE. Loping grooves half-lit in neon, a lone streetlamp and the moonlight. Jungle operate in a similar dubbed out terrain, even as they extrapolate it out into a cinematic scope that makes the most sense in big rooms or under the open night sky. It's perfect that this came out on an imprint like XL, with its well-documented roots in rave culture.
The other comparison that I would make, appropriately enough, is Chicago's Jungle Wonz. A collaboration between Marshall Jefferson and Harry Dennis (also of The It), Jungle Wonz dealt in ambient house before the phrase had even been coined. Records like The Jungle, Time Marches On and Bird In A Gilded Cage fused three-dimensional bass pulses, lush cascading synthesizers, environmental sounds and dreamlike vocals to establish a mood of endless longing. Where Harry Dennis was a street poet, expressing his ideas in spoken word, Jungle trade in fragile falsetto (I'm occasionally reminded of the Fine Young Cannibals' Roland Gift).
Marvin Gaye's Trouble Man OST, a recurring Parallax favorite, is the third and final comparison I could make. That may seem to contradict my earlier dismissal of the neo soul tag, but bear with me. What I hear in Jungle is a similarity in atmosphere to instrumentals like "T" Plays It Cool and "T" Stands For Trouble; an atmosphere that threatens to overwhelm the songs themselves even as it's kept in check by beats and synthesizers tapping out a steady pulse. Chords press on in the face of a hard life, the odds stacked against at all times. One is reminded of Bobby Bland's immortal words: Ain't no love when you're living in the city.
Album opener The Heat, with environmental sounds of the street bleeding into the mix, illustrates this point perfectly. Right on time, backed by the beach... still gon' bring the heat. An organ runs resolute beneath the beat, pressing forward as a falsetto intones pure longing. Distant sirens run throughout. Something strummed, not an instrument but pure atmosphere strummed from some combination of sources. Or formed, perhaps, from the depths of some machine? Conjured from thin air, even. That amorphous sense of sound permeates the whole of this record, cloaking its every corner in a veil of illusion.
The pacing throughout is perfect. Absolutely perfect! Accelerate comes on like some downcast permutation of The Heat. Can I get the car to jump start, please?, intoned in desperation. Everything just seemed to happen at once. Sentiments that I've understood well, and I suspect you have too. I just can't push on any further, won't you cut me a break just this once? Sari told me that it always makes her think of me. That woman knows me too well!
Those guitars that creep in during the tune's second half seem to recall the mood of Roxy Music's Avalon, only heard from within a dream. The masterful Crumbler seems to channel that same vibe through the prism of Love Inc.'s Life's A Gas - shot through with that same sense of ambient bliss - even as those great churning synth figures rev like an engine beneath the whole thing, rushing and overflowing before sinking into the ether again.
This record is above all a mood piece, but there's a couple relentless club burners hiding in its depths. Julia builds up from skeletal verses into the all-out assault of its chorus, tension ever escalating. Busy Earnin', which seems to be the biggest single so far, for some reason always makes me think of the opening sequence in Rocky II, in which Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed are rushed to the hospital after the big fight. Its sentiments do seem to capture the prevailing mood of today. Feeling like nothing so much climbing out from some abyss, every beat - every step - taking you closer to the surface, those horns (not horns) climax in a fury.
Platoon follows, once again illustrating the absolutely perfect sense of flow and pacing in this record. A downcast mirror image of Busy Earnin', it pushes forward on a low key Reese bassline and some siren song that could be vocal or synthetic in origin... or perhaps something else entirely. The driving pulse of its buildup ever unfurling into gentle pools of texture before eddying into another glimpse of the divine. That's the secret of this record: even as it reaches for the epic, it manages to never come off as forced or bombastic, everything remains undercut by a sense of longing. Dread even. Each step may take you closer to where you're going but then the destination seems to be moving too.
There's this whole other aspect to this record that seems to key into that same headspace that much of the greatest trip hop did. Drops' crawling beat staggers along, barely keeping together. Textures unfurl gently, the creaking of a door somehow worked into the rhythm. Barely keeping on. Indeed, as the record staggers toward its denouement, this spirit really does seem to tip over into dread. Son Of A Gun seems to struggle to press on, threatening to collapse at any moment, often cutting the beat to retreat into its gloomy refrain.
The flipside of the coin: no matter how bleak this record may turn on you, there's always a glimmer of hope hiding somewhere between the lines. Lucky I Got What I Want seems to have an almost zen-like acceptance of the passing of time, submitting to the way of the world. It's elegaic refrain simply asks Don't you forget about me, before ultimately drifting into the ether. Lemonade Lake slips quietly into view like something from Warp's Artificial Intelligence series, unassuming keys playing out right there in plainsight, before exploding into lustrous moonlight. Sequences run up and down the spectrum as this river of pure sound, lush as you could possibly imagine, flows steady beneath. This is the sound of the night's own internal logic working itself out, however it may transpire. The record ends on an electronic hymn, and then silence.
One day, out of the blue Sari noticed that a group called Jungle were playing at the North Park Observatory. But was it the same group? It seemed unclear. Being such a die-hard fan, she sprung for the tickets anyway. It turned out to be the same Jungle after all, and we would get to see them once more. Before the show, a DJ warmed up the crowd. I heard him spin The Bottle from outside the club. We made our way inside. Without the presence of an opening act, Jungle took the stage.
The group began to fill the venue with the Morricone-meets-Get Carter-meets-Moroder inflections of Smoking Pixels, the record's lone instrumental. With the group's casual, eerie whistling, the room filled with anticipation. Massive lamps cast their figures as stark silhouettes against dazzling colors shining down from the rafters. I was reminded of the time I saw The Secret Machines perform at Soma back in the day (Fall 2004, if memory serves), where they had these massive lamps blasting white light into the crowd from behind the band. The effect made it feel as if you were in the closing scene of Heat. Jungle's seemed to recall American Gigolo, or even Drive, cloaking the room in that same sumptuous palette.
The Observatory show was, if anything, even better than the one at The Belly Up. Their stage show had graduated in scale without sacrificing any of its intimacy. Passages in the songs opened up into new avenues. There was a point, in Drops I believe, when the sequencers took over and began spinning fractals out into space. Sari had it pegged as sounding like Tangerine Dream circa Thief. The group encored with Time, the record's latest single, its endless cascading waves of sound - bass resonating on three separate planes, each morphing into the other - a perfect note to close on. It turned out that this was the final date of their North American tour.
I can't think of a moment in my life in which, had this music existed at the time, I wouldn't have been blown away. It seems to exist in a space all its own, hovering just out of reach between any number of sonic possibilities that I've called home. Indeed, as we started to file out of the Observatory, a thought that had been materializing in the back of my mind for months finally came into focus: this is exactly the sort of record that Larry Levan would have caned at The Paradise Garage.
The DJ played Water Get No Enemy as we walked out into the streets.
Hashim - Primrose Path
Here's a space jam that's always stayed with me. I wish I could say that I was rocking it back in the eighties, but I first heard this on Dave Clarke's X-Mix: Electro Boogie (like why even front?), where it slipped into the mix to close out a tight running selection of digital beats on a deeply psychedelic note. I remember cruising through the back streets of Grantville, then back and forth across Mission Gorge at night, to these booming electro rhythms.
This mix opened up a whole world of machine music that I'd been unaware of before then, an alternate continuum stretching back in time to the early eighties and forward into the future. I pored over the liner notes, studying the label information and started trying to track the records down. I noted in the acknowledgements that Clarke regretted being unable to license any music from The Egyptian Lover. That name stood out to me, evocative and shrouded in mystery. Fate would have it that I'd shortly find a pristine copy of Egypt, Egypt at a rummage sale a couple blocks from my house, and my descent into electro at the twelve inch level had begun. Then, some time later, I tracked down a copy of Primrose Path...
Hashim was one Gerald Calliste Jr., a producer intrinsically associated with Cutting Records, that crucial imprint behind a sequence of killer, genre-defining electro records unleashed in the mid-eighties. His first 12", Al-Naafiysh (The Soul), released in 1983, was a b-boy phenomenon, one of the stone cold classics of electro and a crucial building block in the forward trajectory electronic dance music. The record cemented a working partnership with label boss Aldo Marin behind the mixing desk that would continue throughout Calliste's stint at the label.
Further exploits included a second Hashim 12" and records with the Imperial Brothers and High Fidelity Three, all powerful electro numbers that served to further establish Cutting Records as an institution through the mid-eighties. These records featured further collaborations with Marin, peppered with appearances by luminaries such as Benji Candelario, Whiz Kid and The Latin Rascals. Primrose Path, the third Hashim record - and Calliste's final release for the label - surfaced in 1986.
Dropping the needle on the record, a voice intones Only the truly wise ones will conquer the power of darkness (shades of Star Wars) before tom toms roll out into a fathoms-deep abyss as a shuddering electro rhythm begins to take shape. Synthesizers straight out of the Al-Naafiysh playbook sweep across the soundscape, cloaking everything in dread, as distant guitars chop out atmospheric shapes in the ether. Textures are swathed in reverb, drums booming through the soundscape: you can feel the space in this world. The city never sleeps.
It's a slap bass (of all things) that holds down the groove behind this rolling electro monster, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The whole approach seems closer to terrain covered by late-period post punk artists like 400 Blows1 and 23 Skidoo, in which brutal live musicianship fused with industrial/EBM sonics to map out an interzone where the ghost, the possibility, of techno is felt (you can hear the block rockin' beats of The Chemical Brothers prefigured within these deep-hewn grooves). This is a music that could soundtrack William Gibson's Count Zero, true cyberpunk sound, managing the improbable feat of sounding firmly of its era yet at the same time feeling like the future now.
Descending even deeper beneath the sonic fabric, the flipside houses a dub version that is everything you'd hope it would be, deconstructing the already spacious original into an unfettered excursion of vast, cavernous spaces. The beat drops out occasionally (something that doesn't happen on the a-side), revealing bits of texture through the cracks, seeming to magnify and stretch time/space in the process. You can hear King Tubby's dub innovations, filtered through the work of disco technicians like François Kevorkian and Walter Gibbons, writ large throughout; there's even a chirping electronic sequence running through both versions that wouldn't sound out of place on a Lee "Scratch" Perry production.
One thing that's always fascinated me about this record is how seamlessly it merges live playing with the sequencer. Was that bassline played live or was it sampled, cut up and sequenced later? Was it some combination of both? What's generating those enigmatic guitar sonics? Physical instrument or simulation? It's difficult to tell where the machines end and the human begins. Like Moodymann's similarly spectral excursions into house music, it seems to make a mockery of the distinction. This is cyborg music, pure and simple: it's the sound of the 21st century arriving ahead of schedule.
Was it last year that Studio !K7 held that poll in which people were asked to choose their top five DJ-Kicks mixes?1 This one was without a doubt my #1 pick2, and it remains my second favorite mix CD of all time (hint: the first is from a different series on the same label).
For those who might not know, DJ-Kicks is a DJ mix series curated by Studio !K7 that gives marquee producers the opportunity to represent another side of their personality outside the studio and in the mix. Starting with an entry from C.J. Bolland in 1995 and continuing up to the present day with last week's Nina Kraviz excursion, it must be the longest running mix series ever. A unique feature of DJ-Kicks is the fact that (nearly) every mix features an exclusive track worked up by the presenting DJ for inclusion in their mix (and concurrently released as a 12" single). Early on in the series, this track was constructed entirely from samples taken from the mix itself (a short-lived tradition, truth be told, lasting only for the three Detroit-themed mixes that rounded out the series' first phase of deep techno entries), but as the series continued the track would generally be an original work that seemed to spring from the spirit of the mix it was created for.
The Terranova entry emerged from the heart of the series' second phase, an excellent run of trip hop-flavoured mixes, nestled between the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister and Smith & Mighty. At the time, trip hop was a music I lived and breathed (a close second only to techno in my personal sonic pantheon), immersed as I was in records by Massive Attack, Bomb The Bass and Tricky. Then, one day in early 1998, this mix cropped up on display at the old Tower Records on El Cajon Blvd. I snapped it up immediately, purchased more or less blind on the basis of the Studio !K7 brand and a handful of names in the tracklist that I recognized.
I remember Woebot once describing the way a listener will often move from node to node when exploring music, further avenues opened with every path explored. Back in the day, mixes were like pressing the fast-forward button on that process: if you knew that you liked a handful of artists/tracks featured on a mix, then chances are you would discover at least as many more that you'd end up digging too. This particular mix is a double fantasy of sorts: not only is every track phenomenal, but all avenues presented here intersect at steep tangents before veering off in nearly every direction. It opens with a seven song stretch of both styles of hop (from hip to the trip), veering left into a sequence of skewed techno and house, before finally returning home to the breaks to close out the set.
The spectre of post punk abstraction hangs heavy over everything here, gesturing back toward an era when Mark Stewart hooked up with Tackhead and the Death Comet Crew were in full swing: abstract sonic technicians putting the jagged edges of the city to wax. Tricky - trip hop's greatest auteur - had a similar affinity with post punk (from the well documented Mark Stewart connection on down). This is the world of David Toop's Rap Attack, hard electro beats and concrete. Terranova inhabit this realm - they populate this mix with it, floor to ceiling - actually augmenting the base records with additional treatments and textures, stretching the sonic spectrum into every corner of the soundscape. Standing in stark contrast to the pleasant lifestyle music that downtempo often devolved into when it would get lost in a sort of vaguely cool, chill out impulse, the dubchamber murk and grimy textures in evidence throughout this record operate on an alternate principle: once agan, putting the jagged edges of the city to wax. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do trip hop.
The mix opens with one of the great Intro tracks of all time, a rumble of pure atmosphere as the sound of the city streets comes flooding in, a gentle conga rhythm tumbling out across the soundscape. Terranova, Terranova... doesn't that mean new land, right? Wow, that's beautiful. Dropping into Howie B.'s Five Days, a droning slab of mutant tech jazz from the Freezone 3 compilation. It chugs along like some clockwork reconstruction of bebop, the beat marked by muted drums and a horn tattoo jutting out from each measure. Distant tones sound off from beyond the droning soundscape, grinding synths rise like magma within the mix.
As if waking from a dream, it all collapses into reverb as a skeletal hip hop beat begins to take shape. Priest's Disorientation certainly lives up to its title, sounding as if it were constructed from a jumble of unstable elements: its wavering bassline and skittering beat come on like some ramshackle vision of Timbaland and SA-RA meeting for tea in Central Park. Apani B. Fly, Beans and Priest rhyme abstract to the max before everything collapses once again into a pool of pure echo. A pounding slab of trip hop from Depth Charge, one of the grand architects of the form (and probably the most obvious influence on Terranova's own m.o.), starts to throb into view like an open wound. Sex, Sluts & Heaven (Bordello Mix) is the track, from the Legend Of The Golden Snake3, bleeding wave upon wave of pressure into a cauldron of raw intensity.
The machine beats of DJ Spooky's Galactic Funk release the tension with an almost compulsive ramshackle funkiness. Spooky always seemed to catch a lot of flack for his endless theorizing and sometimes rambling approach to beat construction, but when the man was on, he was really on. Everyone knows the Sun Goddess sample, but it's the mind-blowing twisted clavinet jam from The Politicians - a mere moment on in time on the original record, sampled and stretched to infinity here - that kicks this track into the fourth dimension. That's the good good, right there. Deep space sonics creep in and out of the funk from every which angle, before they ultimately overwhelm the beat and drag you into the deep black of space, distant sounds from the East creeping upon you.
It's East Flatbush Project's Tried By 12, that omnipresent underground hip hop record of the day, rocking an ill koto loop over the same Al Green break that fueled Timbaland's sampler around the same time. I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six. This record's instrumental was everywhere at the time (I even remember hearing it at a high school party the following summer). Sparse and clean, it drops in and out before you notice that the sun-glazed pulse of Peanut Butter Wolf's Run The Line has slipped upon you. Rasco spits nasty rhymes over the smoothest of beats, sounding like he'll knock your block off with or without the slightest provocation. Swap the cut out for the first of the breakbeat tracks from the Stereo MC's' Ultimatum project, The New Birth sampling Devil's Claw. A sonic tundra built around the opening break from Patiently, this track serves as a bridge into the uptempo stretch of this mix, the stately strings from BFC's Please Stand By rising from the glacier's surface. The first of the early Carl Craig tracks here - both of which ride improbable breakbeats - this one shrouded in waves of mystical Prophet 600 synthesizer, timbre hovering somewhere between strings and organ.
BFC's widescreen techno drifts off into the horizon as the break drops out, voices intoning astrological signs into the great beyond. Patrick Pulsinger's Citylights Pt. II (City Of Starsigns), a scattershot astral jazz shuffle, shambles into view as if powered by some mutant machine's makeshift propulsion. Like Ian Simmonds' Man With No Thumbs, it staggers on an irregular fusion rhythm (quintessential tech jazz straining against the machines), before ultimately collapsing into the void. Ladies & Gentlemen, one of 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics4 (and the second of the Craig tracks here), picks up the thread with great churning strands of sequenced bass and a fast-forward Curtis Mayfield loop from the Super Fly soundtrack. Terranova give you all eleven minutes of the track here, a generous move as it's one of the most sublime techno songs ever put to tape (on what was, at the time, an extremely hard to find record). Structured as a multi-part modular groove whose main section drops out into a stone cold breakbeat breakdown - forlorn tones cry out ever gently - before those rolling bass sequences return stronger than ever, unfurling in great arcs toward the sky. Terranova close it out in striking fashion, with what must be a custom bit of nearly g-funk keyboard filigree twirling on and on into the sunset.
Backroom Productions steps in to give The Definition Of A Track. At the very least, this is definitive New York house, surely: Groovin' Without Doubt. The whole thing rides atop this massive bassline that seems to meander its way up and down the beat matrix, freewheeling and utterly unresolved. This groove segues into a passage in which the synth line from Silicon Soul's Who Needs Sleep Tonight is warped and threaded through The Octagon Man's Modern Funk Beats; both tunes seem made for each other once you hear them in this context. It lasts but a moment before the distant growling bass of Avenue A's ace remix of Terranova's epochal Tokyo Tower pulses into view. This version has nothing whatsoever to do with the sublime original (that heavenly jam with one Manuel Göttsching, a tune which I've already mentioned here, and must return to again sometime for further discussion). It's the great lost big beat tune, tucked away on this mix as an exclusive (you can hear it unmixed on the double-vinyl companion to this CD). Industrial breaks klang, run at a half-speed, then shift gears into a beat of block-rocking proportions and back again, bridging the gap back into downbeat territory as I L.O.V.E. You drops the tempo down to a crawl with bass you feel in your chest.
DJ DSL's warped take on lovers rock finds him twisting a bit of Yellowman's Lost Mi Love to abstraction, all effects on overdrive. With a deformed roar, the dope downbeat of Ultimatum's second contribution Stop It! Stop It! Stop It! stalks its way across the soundscape, perhaps marred slightly by some creepy dude that's trying to push his luck with a lady. What's the deal? Still, it's but a moment before Terranova's masterful remix of the Jungle Brothers' Jungle Brother oozes into every corner of the soundscape on a massive Reese bassline and slow motion breakbeats. If there's been anything that's elaborated on the sound that the Brothers themselves laid down on J. Beez Wit The Remedy, it's this remix, which leaves you wishing Terranova had been allowed to produce the entirety of Raw Deluxe. These mutant beats live up to that title and then some, in what must be one of the most uplifting slabs of hip hop ever put to wax. Those rude voodoo flutes swarm over everything!
The whole soundscape just hangs there, suspended, before being sucked to a pinpoint and morphing to the drop of buzzing bass from The Junkyard Band's The Word. Taking a stab at Reagan-era economic policy over a monster groove, this record just rolls out the speakers in an avalanche of percussion, bass locked in a furious dance with the MCs. This record, one of Def Jam's incursions into the D.C. go-go scene, boasts a compulsively three-dimensional soundscape, one that is continued in the Atmospheric Version of Spoonie Gee's Spoonie Rap, slipping into the mix transition practically unnoticed. The bedrock rhythm, knocked out by a live band, sounds like a yet-even-more-fluid Remain In Light-era Talking Heads, while the party atmosphere, scratches, warped tones and effects come courtesy of its remix on Harlem Place, sounding like nothing so much as the tracking shot from Mean Streets where Harvey Keitel stumbles through the party and down the hall before collapsing on a cot in the back room, only here it all devolves into a deluge of sirens announcing the nightmare that is Terranova's DJ-Kicks/Contact - the track.
Contact is a warped, druggy take on 70's soundtrack music as seen through the cracked funhouse mirror of hindsight: paranoia, conspiracy and malaise caught on celluloid, camera cutting a rakish angle through a deserted alley. I used to imagine some bleak Scorcese-esque movie (before I'd seen any, of course) or cop thriller playing out to the music. It certainly matches the visuals in films like The French Connection (parts I and II), Night Moves and The Parallax View, harboring a raw, churning intensity that puts an awful lot of imaginary soundtrack music to shame. If you come across the 12" single, don't hesitate, as it also offers up an alternate version on the flipside5 called Contact (Lezlie), a further dive into the dirty shadows.
It's worth reflecting that the prevailing mood of this mix is probably meant to evoke Berlin or even New York, vast metropoli defined by their towering architecture, but for some reason I've always associated it with San Juan and the outlying Carolina district in Puerto Rico. Listening for the first time brought back memories of cloudy days that would result in the inevitable torrential downpour, tropical colours overcast in grey.
Predictably, the last time I was on the island, I played it out nearly every day - further cementing the association.
Aside from its towering greatness, I often return to this mix because there's an elemental sound here, thick with all-encompassing atmosphere, that I have yet to hear anywhere else in so potent a form. Drawing on routes flaring out from primal musics - hip hop, techno and dub - and feeding them through a prism of post-punk abstraction, they seem to map out a vision of ancient future music that remains vital to this day.
Through the murk and the grime, or because of it perhaps, resolve endures in the gutter: green grows through cracks in the pavement, ribbons of light slip through a crumbling edifice at dawn. City lights smear across a car window in the night, Cosmo Vitelli trying to realize a vision. Dread becomes determination, and Terranova puts all of it to wax.