FSOL – ISDN

The Future Sound Of London ISDN Limited Edition

Electronic Brain Violence 1994

Ever since first launching into this whole Terminal Vibration trip, I've wanted to touch down with ISDN. It's a strange, twisted record that seems to criss-cross the TV saga at so many points of intersection, with its off-kilter grooves clearly sourced in the warped avant funk of Episode V (What Time Is It?), the heavy atmospherics running parallel to the dubbed-out madness of Episode VI (Imperial Slates) and even its twisted beat matrix at a jagged interchange with the latest episode's (Edge Of No Control) descent into ragged abstract hip hop's shadowy precincts. Against all odds, at the midpoint of the 90s The Future Sound Of London — Brian Dougans and Gary Cobain — seemed to be channeling the ghosts of post punk past to augur bold new visions of the future.

In truth, it's not just ISDN that merits discussion within the context of Terminal Vibration. I could talk about everything that led up to it's protracted gestation, from the duo's earliest pre-FSOL releases at the cusp of the 80s and 90s — records like Stakker Humanoid, Chile Of The Bass Generation and The Pulse EPs — to their to their debut album as The Future Sound Of London — 1991's Accelerator — a post-rave paradise of shimmering breakbeat techno that culminated in increasingly abstract records like Amorphous Androgynous's Tales Of Ephidrina and the sweeping sonic vistas of 1994's Lifeforms.

Dougans and Cobain by the seaside
The Future Sound Of London

I could also talk about everything that came in ISDN's wake, from the dystopian sonic environments of Dead Cities, My Kingdom and the electroid, post-hip hop sonix of the We Have Explosive EP (featuring appearances from Leon Mar and Kurtis Mantronik) to their cosmic swan song with Papua New Guinea Translations and The Mello Hippo Disco Show, after which they shifted gears into prog-inflected psychedelia (a path they've continued to walk for nearly twenty years now).

However, this is the point of inflection upon which everything else hinges: ISDN is the moment when The Future Sound Of London turned their attention away from the lustrous sonic utopias of Cascade and Lifeforms to focus on the seedy underbelly of their self-authored world, apparently lurking beneath the surface all along, in the grimy back streets and dingy dives deep within the city. If Accelerator and the Earthbeat compilation might have soundtracked some prequel to William Gibson's Neuromancer, back when Case was still living large and his skills in high demand, then ISDN is the sound of the console cowboy down and out in Chiba City. This is where the cold machinery creeps in to inject its steely ugliness into the duo's sound, and things would never be the same...

Vector diagram from ISDN sleeve insert
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.1

The year was 1994 and The Future Sound Of London were on top of the world. Flush from their contract with Virgin Records, who leapt to sign them in light of their ubiquitous dancefloor anthem Papua New Guinea, they'd managed to upgrade their studio from the lean-and-mean outpost where they cut their swathe of uncompromising 8-bit cyberpunk missives — released under names like Mental Cube, Smart Systems and Indo Tribe — to a state-of-the-art multimedia laboratory, decked out with video-editing capabilities featured prominently alongside the synths and sequencers.

They'd just unveiled their second FSOL full-length, Lifeforms, a sprawling double-album to critical acclaim and impressive sales. The remaining question (from the label and the public both) was, When is the tour? To which the duo replied Never! with glee. Rather, their plan was to document a series of performances in the studio, transmitting live to various radio stations and venues via the recently implemented ISDN protocol across high speed lines with a combination of sonic and visual imagery.

Blurry image of lights in motion, leaving trails in the night
Radio quickly evolved as an area where people were inclined to use their ears.2

These performances culminated in today's album (or albums, as ISDN came in two editions, released in quick succession). The first was the limited edition, enclosed in a jet-black gatefold sleeve with a Velcro clasp(!), while the second was the wide release version housed in a simple white sleeve. For the first 2/3 of their running time, both versions are largely similar, but they diverge significantly in the final stretch, featuring three tracks completely unique to each release. For today's purposes, I've chosen to focus on ISDN Black, since it's the version more explicitly tied to the Terminal Vibration phenomenon (although I'll touch on the White tracks along the way as well). And so it begins...

Hazy city skyline against an orange night sky
People hadn't lost the ability to conjure atmospheres...

You're immediately dropped into the chaotic atmosphere of some crowded club, faceless and nameless, synths drifting aimlessly like a memory of the 1980s. Could you leave the lights alone please, exclaims an agitated voice, Stop flashing the fucking lights! Just A Fuckin' Idiot kicks into gear with a beat like puffs of dirty smoke and a release of hazy atmosphere into the room like something's just crept up behind you. Bleeps chirp on the beat as the sound of a whirring machine seems to rewind the beat every couple bars.

Along with a pervasive sense of claustrophobia, the sound of machinery and buzzing electronics is the great constant running through the heart of ISDN, giving it definite industrial vibes a million miles away from the bucolic, wide open spaces of Lifeforms. To top it all off, halfway into Idiot a spooked atmosphere overwhelms the room with an eerie synthetic choir crying out in a spectral falsetto somewhere between Morricone's OST vocals and the sound of a theremin.

Paint peeling from a concrete wall
It was 3 in the morning we were knackered, the last of the shops had closed hours ago.

Then a phone rings, with a shout (and without warning) and a boom sounding the sort of siren synth Vangelis unveiled on the Blade Runner OST, smearing across the soundscape in a great descending arc. A snatch of dialogue from Aliens intones, Alright, let's see what we can see. Everybody on-line, looking good. The heavy, unfunky beat of The Far Out Son Of Lung And The Ramblings Of A Madman drops in on a rolling, clipped loop (seemingly reloading from scratch every bar) while fake-sounding, detuned guitar stabs (sounding like something from a cheap, sample-playing keyboard circa 1990) punch into the mix at irregular intervals. Electric Miles Davis trumpets weave through the track like a serpent while outer/inner space effects creep into every corner of the soundscape. It's a searing bad dream of a track, which was (perversely) the album's lone single.

Inevitably, it all dissolves into deep space sonix and the sounds of grinding machinery before releasing into the peaceful, gently rewinding atmosphere of Appendage. With synths pulsing beneath a gliding flute line and (what sound like) alien bird calls, it's a brief but welcome ambient respite after the intense opening gambit of Idiot and Madman. It lasts but for a moment, offering up a brief, lingering memory of Amorphous Androgynous' underwater calm before the tension comes back with a vengeance.

Close up of a metal nozzle
Then we submerged into 40 minutes of noizic — 50% Control 50% Chaos.

Slider cuts in without warning on a heavy slow-motion sci-fi big beat, rolling parallel to a flimsy metallic texture that echoes across the track, seeming to warp and bend in time to the rhythm. A grinding electronic loop sweeps in to take center stage, sounding like something wrenched from an old industrial record, before everything drops out to a wailing siren song and outer space noises soaring above it all like a drifting mirage. It's tracks like this that at the time had me thinking this was FSOL's trip hop album, with a warped vision of sleazy downbeat hip hop not so far removed from Depth Charge's contemporary output.

The beat changes up about 2/3 of the way through the track, slipping into an almost new jack swing robotic rhythm (albeit still played on that same ten ton drum kit), while sordid electronic squelches pulse into the darkness. This play of textures is even more so drawn from the trip hop playbook, leaving you wandering these sprawling catacombs in desperate search of a way out. At the last minute, it all drops out and you're unceremoniously jettisoned into a back alley interlude where a lonesome whistle duets with chirping cybernetic insects.

Vit (solarized and with a lens flare) seems to beckon
Millions of people being touched as remote units dotted and uncountable.

Then, the spaced-out sonix return once again, this time on a high tide on the sea of flesh, rolling in to bring you Smokin' Japanese Babe. A sultry slice of red light district downbeat jazz, it rides a languid rhythm carved out on shuffling brushed drums and woozy double bass, sounding very much like something from Maxinquaye's second side. Gently muted trumpets cry out lonesome in the night as a warped boogie synth puts in an unlikely spastik appearance toward the end.

It all goes spaced-out yet again, this time with the spooked sonix once more in full effect, before a loose electro rhythm shades into the mix alongside its requisite counterpart of whirring industrial machinery. You're Creeping Me Out conjures up images of claustrophobic films like Pi and Parallax View — films where paranoia practically takes the lead role — much like Photek's contemporary output circa Modus Operandi and The Hidden Camera EP. Eerie sounds seem to splash and echo in the darkness, while FSOL unfurl the sort of eldritch analogue synth figure that Boards Of Canada would later turn into a lifestyle.

It disintegrates into tones trailing off into the distance, birds seeming to return their electronic call, and suddenly you find yourself in an environment that wouldn't sound out of place on Lifeforms. However, you blink and it's but a fleeting memory echoing through the corridors of the city, and Eyes Pop - Skin Explodes - Everybody Dead soundtracks your current scenario. Ancient clockwork electronics fade in gently, sounding like harpsichords plucking out an elegy for the distant green worlds of Lifeforms, lost now for all time. A cascade of bleeps spill across the track and (what sounds like) uilleann pipes relay the melody one last time as it all sinks into the quicksand.

Brian Dougans sits in a Roman temple, yelling at the sky
You know the way everyone's into weirdness right now?

It's My Mind That Works opens with a warped sample from the movie Repo Man (echoing the source of the previous track's title), before developing into a mournful piano piece foregrounded by industrial machinery and urban atmosphere. Suddenly, driving percussion creeps into the fray and a rude electronic synth arc blares into the darkness like one of those great MBV-esque synth flameouts from Hans Zimmer's score to Blade Runner 2049. It's so similar, in fact, that one wonders if Dougans and Cobain traveled to the present day and brought it back in time with them. After all, there's a reason they're called The Future Sound Of London.

Ancient glyphs of a man and a woman on a copper surface
Out of reverb into this lonely landscape of our own creation.

The piercing sounds of glass, as if played along the rim, announces Dirty Shadows (the title a great summation of this album's prevailing mood). Then, a creepy voice — first pitched up, then pitched down —  repeats, come, fly the teeth of the wind... share my wings. Apparently, it's sampled from the sequel to The Exorcist. As if this album weren't spooky enough already! Thankfully, a gently shuffling rhythm breaks the silence and forms itself into another piece of swirling electronic jazz, this time recalling the drifting atmosphere of the sort of abstract jazz one might find on the ECM imprint. It's cinematic, like the Heat soundtrack, with plaintive pianos, Get Carter harpsichords and more of that ice cold machinery operating in the night.

Upon reflection, this seems like as good a prediction as any for the cosmic jazz stylings that seemed to emerge out of nowhere during the Papua New Guinea Translations project. All those allusions to Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane make perfect sense in light of tunes like Dirty Shadows and Smokin' Japanese Babe. This is a story that's told in even greater detail across the From The Archives series, which filled in the bits between the bits in what must be one of the more extensive bodies of unreleased work from the era (alongside the seemingly countless DATs left behind by Tupac Shakur).

Tired starts with more of that harpsichord — or is it mandolin? — before an industrial percussion loop tumbles into view. It all collapses into atmosphere, computer sounds and gentle waves of synth pulsing on the horizon. Against all odds, about halfway through it morphs into an idyllic piece of synth music, with rippling aquatic synths and the sort of pretty strings one might find in a Vangelis or mid-period Tangerine Dream OST. Finally, a flanged martial beat — like the one from Lifeforms' Vertical Pig — fades into view momentarily before being carried away on a solar wind.

Clouds at sunset in deep hues of orange and violet
Tracks fusing with vomiting samplers all held together by a stoical Yage.

Cryptic voices and a lone exotic flute herald the arrival of Egypt, a singular bit of odyshape electro built on ancient reconstructed rhythm boxes, drums that sound hollow and a pinched reed sound mirroring the cracking snare. Synths bathe the tune in drifting serenity while ethereal, distant voices chant toward the sky. You can just picture rolling vistas stretching out beneath a sun-drenched horizon, drunk with the deep reds and violets of twilight. Hieroglyphs reanimate themselves and begin moving through the city, picking up from where they left off as if the passing centuries had only been but a fleeting pause. A magical moment, and surely one of this record's finest.

With Egypt's reeds detuned and descending in rapid-fire as they recede into the distance, we reach the point at which the two editions of ISDN diverge. Are They Fightin' Us creeps in on another riverbed of tranquility, flutes and water sounds presaging a tentative rhythm built on wood bass and gentle percussion as a lone voice cries out in a distant scream. Like Dirty Shadows, it all seems to predict the cosmic jazz psychedelia of Translations (or even certain moments of The Isness). A more mechanical, industrialized beat takes the reigns for a spell before cycling onto a rolling breakbeat to carry the rhythm forward with even greater focus than before. Ultimately, the zero-gravity percussion returns to the fore on the returning high tide, wind chimes twinkling gently in the distance.

Gary Cobain in fur coat and shades, like something from Neuromancer
Everyone in the world is doing something without me.

A subtle bit of random electronic melody sneaks into the mix, the bug in the bassbin, and suddenly the warped post punk incantation of Hot Knives take us deep into left field. Riding chopped breaks and a clipped pan pipe figure — quite possibly the very same kit from Mental Cube's Chile Of The Bass Generation — it's an unexpected moment of skewed pop within this sea of atmosphere. There's even a heavily treated robotic vocal courtesy of Gary Cobain (if I'm not mistaken), marking it out as particularly unique in the FSOL canon (at least before the turn of the century rolls around). With muted horns and a warped chanting — drenched in atmosphere — contributing to its dense, murky mood, this is very much in the spirit of 23 Skidoo.

Indeed, more than any other, this tune really captures the mood of FSOL's BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 (aka Fuct Up Soup), which featured 23 Skidoo alongside post punk stalwarts like A Certain Ratio, 400 Blows and the Cocteau Twins. Indeed, this is very reminiscent of A Certain Ratio's Kether Hot Knives Mix In Special (which featured prominently in the first leg of Fuct Up Soup). This tune is quintessential Terminal Vibration.

Coming on like a fusion of 23 Skidoo's heavy atmospheric hijinks and Thomas Leer's Gaussian blurred new wave pop (with maybe even a dash of the Thompson Twins thrown in for good measure!), this is incredibly reminiscent of the 80s without being retro in the slightest. Rather, it seems haunted by the era. At times like this I'm reminded of Simple Minds' Veldt, which I've always sworn sounds just like ISDN-era FSOL. Without a doubt, Hot Knives is unquestionably a highlight of ISDN Black, re-framing it squarely as a post-post punk record.

A lone tree sits in an emerald green meadow, beneath magenta skies, as hills rise in the distance
Calls back a time when there were meadows as far as the eye could see.

After fading out into some outer space sonix zapping through the machines, you get a solid minute plus of pure underwater atmosphere. Then, the treated guitars of guest auteur Robert Fripp (he of King Crimson, whose 80s records like Discipline and Beat I should have mentioned during the bonus round) enter the picture in the pastoral sound painting of the countryside that is A Study Of Six Guitars. Idyllic and blissful, with just a hint of ECM jazz (think Pat Metheny's New Chautauqua). It makes you wonder if the lads were well into ECM at the time, which would have put them way ahead of the pack (recall that point about ten years ago when everyone was checking the label). This is actually the one song from the tail end of the album that makes it to both editions of ISDN.

The closing track, An End Of Sorts, wires a pounding electric rhythm to another of the album's rare bucolic impulses, bringing it all back home with a strong sense of anxiety. It actually reminds me of Tournesol's Draagmad Ultramarine, that same sense of illogical juxtaposition, a fusion of ethereal synths and aggressive slow-motion rhythm in a swirling portrait of unease. Like a giant question mark hanging over the proceedings, it's a fitting end to this enigmatic album that lies at the crossroads of the FSOL story.

...or, it could have happened this way (inverted)...

Ancient statues recline in a granite canyon
We knew they were lurking out there in ways too complex for stalwarts to imagine.

Egypt's reeds detuned and in rapid-fire, recede into the distance as a looping bassline — sounding like high tension power lines and seemingly built from a distorted kick drum — heralds the arrival of Kai. With its gravity-boot drums and soaring flutes competing in the mix with spaced-out atmospherics, its a big part of the reason why ISDN White feels like such a trip hop record. It's yet another track that seems to share common ground with Depth Charge, especially records like Sex, Sluts & Heaven (Bordello Mix) and Daughters Of Darkness.

Amoeba flows directly from the tail end of Kai, borrowing the the atmospheric drift of The Alan Parsons Project's Nucleus and pairing it with some Hawaiian slide guitar. Heavy brakes sounding as if they were recorded in a garage two blocks away roll into view, propelling the track through its surreal journey with no destination. A fascinating détente between Lifeforms and The Isness, it nevertheless manages to be quintessentially ISDN. It flows on a warm bed of sound into A Study Of Six Guitars, a tune which is more or less identical to its counterpart on ISDN Black, at least until it reaches its protracted conclusion and spills into a solid minute of space music (in the spirit of Steve Hillage's seminal Rainbow Dome Musick) before vanishing into another gentle spell of outer space sonix.

Half of Dougans' face in deep crimson; Cobain looks on in the background
Something happened on Dollis Hill.

The loose downtempo breakbeat of Snake Hips kicks into the record's home stretch, introducing a smoker's favorite to wind up the proceedings. Tensile, plucked strings move up and down the scales precariously as a mutant bassline spars with the drums. Warped horns stab through the track like the guitars did in Son Of Lung — and sounding just as fake! — while the deep space effects return in full force. The downbeat swaps out for a tricky rhythm matrix nearly identical to the one Timbaland would unveil on Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott's The Rain Supa Dupa Fly a few years later, and suddenly the track explodes into widescreen, going cinematic in a stunning crescendo that sounds like pure science-fiction. Like some dream studio session with SA-RA and Kevin Saunderson working up a vibe, it's pure machine soul. Only lasting a handful of bars, it rides out on a splash of cymbals and the sound of skyscraper guitars trilling majestic toward the heavens.

Psychedelically textured rectangle and sphere rising from a computer-rendered pool
He was gone and the transmission went on without him.

And then it's all over, you're dropped back to wherever you started. Back to the world. ISDN — whatever the version — is a true head trip of a record, and it's impossible to hear it without vivid imagery swirling through the mind in time to the music. Dougans and Cobain turned out to be right after all when they ventured in the liner notes that people hadn't lost the ability to conjure atmospheres. Without a doubt, it's definitely a record worth spending some serious time with.

Which version is better, you ask? That's a tough one. If you really pressed me to choose, I'd go with the easier-to-find ISDN White, for one because its the version I grew up with and therefore sounds more natural to my ears. Also, as a gentleman who walks the downbeat path, I'll always dig it the most as a trip hop record. Tunes like Kai and Snake Hips are absolutely killer slabs of abstract hip hop par excellence, bringing that unmistakable sense of warped FSOL magic to the form.

And yet I couldn't do without Hot Knives, which alongside Egypt and Snake Hips round out my trio of favorite tracks on the album. So I need them both, gravitating toward one or the other depending on where my headspace is at the time. When all is said and done, it's the unmistakable post punk flavor of ISDN Black that tips it into Terminal Vibrationterritory (and accordingly makes it the record of the month), and marks it out as a triumphant culmination of post punk's dancefloor diaspora. It's as if the experiments of 23 Skidoo, Material and The Pop Group were finally being picked up again, warped and twisted into strange new shapes, and projected deep into the heart of the future. After all, there's a reason they're called The Future Sound Of London.

Footnotes

1.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. 3. Print.

2.

Unknown Author. Liner notes. ISDN. The Future Sound Of London. Electronic Brain Violence, 1994. CD.

Terminal Vibration IV (Rockers Revenge)

The creature from Yar's Revenge is flying at you while various post punk records shoot across a vibrant dancefloor
Punk funk on the day-glo dancefloor

So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here — about half the records in the crate — brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.

Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.

I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Respectable young lads
The Red Hot Chili Peppers (Circa 1985)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1

The Red Hot Chili Peppers Freaky Styley EMI

Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!

The Red Hot Chili Peppers The Uplift Mofo Party Plan EMI

At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original — blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of — for all intents and purposes — rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery.

It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.

Gang Of Four performing on stage
Gang Of Four

Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms traveling across a grid at strict right angles.

Gang Of Four Damaged Goods Fast Product

Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint — incidentally where The Human League started out as well — the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP.

Gang Of Four Entertainment! EMI

Entertainment! is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound — free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues — and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.

However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb — bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow — giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album.

Gang Of Four Solid Gold EMI

The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.

Gang Of Four Songs Of The Free EMI

It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant.

We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.

Gang Of Four Hard EMI

Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love — which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix — is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5

Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.

A Certain Ratio waiting in the lounge
A Certain Ratio

Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise — often getting lost in the Factory shuffle — but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes.

They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.

A Certain Ratio To Each... Factory

Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett.

Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.

A Certain Ratio Sextet Factory

From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water — with the Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip — is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me).

The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.

A Certain Ratio I'd Like To See you Again Factory

I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are very Jamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or — once again — Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals — straight out of the electro playbook — A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.

Ian Dury & The Blockheads

However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals — think Mike Skinner in The Streets — and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.

Ian Dury New Boots And Panties!! Stiff

Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!).

The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics — this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex — must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.

Ian Dury Lord Upminster Polydor

Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus Autisticus. Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, reveling in Dury's clever wordplay.

While I could dive further into the Compass Point All Stars at this point, along with figures like Grace Jones and Lizzy Mercier Descloux, in truth they will all warrant their own chapter in the Terminal Vibration saga (forthcoming in a month or so) and ultimately a full feature in their own right (as Summer arrives, most likely). So with whispers of the Paradise Garage still hanging in the air, let's take a left turn into the streets of New York.

Various Artists No New York Antilles

The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.

Various Artists Vortex: The Motion Picture Soundtrack Neutral

However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A particularly good example of this transition would be Black Box Disco (from the Vortex OST), featuring Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, which is the most sure-footed nimble punk funk imaginable, cooked up by the Vortex house band as film dialogue — of what sounds like a torture scene — floats over the top.

It's terrifically magical track that works on most dancefloors in a way that the earlier No New York bands would not.8 The remainder of the soundtrack is quite atmospheric, with almost no beats at all (the one exception being The Chase, which is the cousin of mid-period A Certain Ratio).

Defunkt

While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch.

Defunkt Thermonuclear Sweat Hannibal

Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity.

In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.

99 Records

However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9

Liquid Liquid

Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive — almost tribal — sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record.

Liquid Liquid Optimo 99

The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).

The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music — encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records — is quite simply essential listening.

Liquid Liquid Liquid Liquid Compilation Mo Wax

Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk — well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century — that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.

ESG

The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off.

ESG ESG 99

Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.

Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. — even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts — became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space).

ESG Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills! Nega Fulô

The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10 Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.

ESG Come Away With ESG 99

My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top.

The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line — which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style — as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.

Bush Tetras

Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity.

Bush Tetras Too Many Creeps 99

Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack.

Bush Tetras Things That Go Boom In The Night Fetish

The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack — more distortion! — while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.

Delta 5

Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins — and Gang Of Four's sister band — the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms.

Delta 5 Mind Your Own Business Rough Trade

The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.

Minutemen

If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked heat waves rising from the city's asphalt. In many ways they represented for the gritty underbelly of the city while the Red Hot Chili Peppers were strutting down the boardwalk... some might say that both bands represented two sides of the same coin.

Minutemen Paranoid Time SST

Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals. The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last).

Minutemen Double Nickels On The Dime SST

Double Nickels On The Dime — famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) — was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.


As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.

LISTEN NOW

    Terminal Vibration 4: Rockers Revenge

  1. A Certain Ratio Flight Factory
  2. ESG Moody Spaced Out 99
  3. Vortex Black Box Disco Neutral
  4. Ian Dury And The Blockheads Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick Stiff
  5. The Contortions Contort Yourself ZE
  6. Minutemen More Joy New Alliance
  7. Gang Of Four Return The Gift EMI
  8. Delta 5 Train Song Kill Rock Stars
  9. Bush Tetras Snakes Crawl 99
  10. The Red Hot Chili Peppers Blackeyed Blonde EMI
  11. Iggy Pop African Man Arista
  12. Liquid Liquid Cavern 99
  13. Grandmaster & Melle Mel White Lines Don't Don't Do It Sugar Hill
  14. Bernard Wright Spinnin' Arista
  15. A Certain Ratio Touch Factory
  16. Level 42 Starchild Polydor
  17. Tom Browne Funkin' For Jamaica N.Y. Arista
  18. Ian Dury If I Was With A Woman Stiff
  19. Liquid Liquid New Walk 99
  20. Gang Of Four Womantown EMI
  21. Defunkt Strangling Me With Your Love Hannibal
  22. The Red Hot Chili Peppers Taste The Pain EMI
A Certain Ratio - Flight ESG - Come Away With ESG Vortex OST Ian Dury & The Blockheads - Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick Various Artists - Mutant disco The Minutemen - Joy
Gang Of Four - Entertainment! Delta 5 - Singles & Sessions 1979-81 Bush Tetras - Too Many Creeps The Red Hot Chili Peppers - Freaky Styley Iggy Pop - New Values Liquid Liquid - Optimo
Grandmaster & Melle Mel - White Lines Bernard Wright - 'Nard A Certain Ratio - I'd Like To See You Again Level 42 - Level 42 Tom Browne - Love Approach Ian Dury - New Boots And Panties!!
Liquid Liquid - Liquid Liquid Gang Of Four - Hard Defunkt - Defunkt The Red Hot Chili Peppers - Mother's Milk
Terminal Vibration 4: The Records

Footnotes

1.

In fact, the band were initially inspired to form by New York band Defunkt, who we will return to shortly...

2.

A cornerstone of the band's early sound, Slovak was the Chili Peppers' original guitarist until 1988, when he died of a heroin overdose. He was replaced by the beloved John Frusciante on the Mother's Milk album.

3.

Cliff Martinez was later replaced by Will Ferrell lookalike Chad Smith on the band's fourth album, Mother's Milk.

4.

Indeed, during the post punk revival gold rush, it seemed like every band and their dog was claiming influence from the record!

5.

Unsurprisingly, these two tracks were Hard's contributions to their best of round up, A Brief History Of The 20th Century.

6.

I remember being quite impressed when Woebot included them in his The 100 Greatest Records Ever list, which was actually my introduction to his writing in the first place (thanks to a timely link from Simon Reynolds). I distinctly remember being ensconced in the heady atmosphere of the 1808 in the dead of Winter and reading down the list with delight: first Ryuichi Sakamoto, A.R. Kane and then A Certain Ratio and Mark Stewart + Maffia and thinking this is the best list ever!

7.

Middles, Mick. From Joy Division To New Order. London: Virgin Books, 1996. 128-129. Print.

8.

In fact, I once mixed Black Box Disco into a Moodymann track and it came off like the most natural thing in the world.

9.

Check out the charts at the end of Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster, where one finds tunes like Liquid Liquid's Cavern and ESG's Moody tucked comfortably in the lists for not only Larry Levan's Paradise Garage, but also Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse, Ron Hardy's Music Box and The Roxy. It's a testament to not only these records' utility on the dancefloor, or even the open-minded turntable policy of the clubs themselves, but the fluidity of the era's music across the dancefloors of the day. It all sounded good together in the mix and thus shared the same space in time. And what a time it was!

10.

There was also a great compilation of the band's original material (A South Bronx Story) released at the dawn of the 21st century.