I've always loved this quote from Derrick May, which is quite crisply evocative of the rich undercurrents of depth and mystery running through techno music. Actually, I'm worried I might be paraphrasing somewhat (in fact, it's rather likely, since I can't seem to find the interview I heard it in anywhere). But what the hell, it's a great quote and really ought to be in wide circulation. I'm willing to risk it... so there you go. Needless to say, if anyone can point me in the right direction for the original interview, I'd be most grateful...
Anyway... Techno. Born in the shadows of Detroit's 1980s progressive scene and forged in the unforgiving crucible of the global stage, it's truly one of the key building blocks of modern music — alongside house and hip hop — in the post-disco diaspora. One could trace a thin line leading back to 1970s Düsseldorf, all the way back to the Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, when excavating its prehistory.
As Kodwo Eshun brilliantly put it, Düsseldorf is the Mississippi Delta, and expanding on that idea, Kraftwerk are to Techno as Muddy Waters is to The Rolling Stones.1Detroit is where the sleek German engineering of Computer World got rebuilt like an American muscle car, souped up for its joyride across dancefloors the world over. Juan Atkins just plugged it all in.
To further extend the metaphor, Atkins' Metroplex was to Sun Records as Derrick May's Transmat was to Chess (with Fragile standing in for Cadet), with Kevin Saunderson's KMS corresponding to Atlantic Records. Ok, ok, I realize that the timeline is inverted, but please believe the comparisons are airtight! You've got the laboratory on one hand and the conservatory on the other, with the proto-Motown assembly line of KMS/Atlantic waiting in the wings. And at that point, it's time to play domination.
Very quickly, it becomes a global affair. You've got vibrant forms springing up all over the place, from Sheffield bleep 'n bass to Belgian new beat and elegant Dutch techno to London ardkore. Auteurs start springing up everywhere, untethered to any sort of centralized scene (albeit often in orbit of crucial outposts like Warp, Sublime and R&S). The meme spreads and mutates and spreads and mutates and spreads... it's a beautiful thing.
The interesting thing to note with techno is how nearly everyone knows the term but so often they haven't actually heard any. Has there ever been a genre so misunderstood? Images of 2 Unlimited and Dance Dance Revolution hang in the public consciousness, even if neither have nothing much to do with techno qua techno. If you tell someone you listen to techno, chances are what they're hearing in their head isn't techno at all but some caricature drawn in broad strokes (the phrase boom boom boom springs to mind).
So at some point I just started saying Detroit Techno when the subject comes up. Not because I'm some sort of purist (I've actually got no time whatsoever for the impulse), but because it short circuits all the pitfalls that might wrong-foot whoever I'm talking with. Suddenly, you're starting from scratch rather than working against a bunch of assumptions. And you've reimbued the term with a sense of mystery which was its birthright all along...
I'd dug dance music in it's various forms going back to Janet Jackson circa Control (hell, Michael Jackson circa Thriller), running alongside the new wave of Depeche Mode and the Talking Heads on through what you'd call early indie dance (New Order and Big Audio Dynamite). Plus the obligatory swingbeat and hip hop, things like Tony! Toni! Toné!'s Sons Of Soul, Wreckx-N-Effect's Rump Shaker and the Jungle Brothers. All of which seemed to flow naturally into things like Massive Attack, Underworld and The Prodigy.
Still... I can remember like it was yesterday when I got hit by the straight stuff.
It came in the form of Kevin Saunderson's X-Mix: Transmission From Deep Space Radio, and it quite simply blew my mind wide open. This was like everything I'd ever loved in music, only more so. Pure, uncut. I remember wondering about all the names on there: Who is this mysterious Outlander (R&S sorted me out right quick)? What sort of crew is Octave One (for whatever reason, I imagined them as a gang of Germans)? Why are half of these tracks credited to Dobre & Jamez (because they're awesome)?!
From there it was a short step to discovering techno strongholds like Submerge, R&S and Studio !K7 (surfing a rather hardcore crest at the time). I was set for life. I still remembering placing my first mail order, getting things like Kevin Saunderson's Faces & Phases compilation, Octave One's The Living Key (To Images From Above) and Drexciya's The Quest on a hot summer afternoon. Give all those to a high school kid in the late 90s and see what happens!
As a kid, I grew up in various apartments with my parents — who were actually quite young in retrospect (usually around a decade younger than the parents of my peers) — and later my brother Brian once he came along. We moved once a year for the first five years of my life before sneaking into the suburbs once school started. I remember nothing quite made sense again. The kids were different (some awful kids, truth be told! But some cool ones too... it all evens out), etc. Whatever. I suppose I should have adapted, and I suppose that in my own way I did, but then I always was a dreamer...
I used to dream to books, movies, video games... whatever I could get my hands on. I remember just laying on my back looking up at the sky, imagining other worlds. Then, around junior high music hit me full force. Before that I'd been into music at the level of osmosis, the ambient sounds around when you're young, but suddenly it was everywhere! I was feelin' it MAN!!
Like I said, stuff like new wave, hip hop, r&b, certain alternative records. I suppose deep, rhythmic music always appealed to me at the most basic level. Intercut it with a heavy sense of harmonic mystery, and I'm sold.
So when I came across techno it was a match made in heaven.
Walking around town, it wasn't the sound of Nas or Nirvana that would swirl in my mind, but things like 69's Ladies & Gentlemen, Mental Cube's Q and Jark Prongo's Spadet (that and Tricky's Aftermath, Primal Scream's Trainspotting and Bomb The Bass's One To One Religion Skankapella Mix on the downbeat flipside). It all seemed to move at the speed of life. At the end of the day, the vibes just synced up with my frequency I suppose...
So what do I like about techno? For one, it's the frequency, the vibe. Amiri Baraka's changing same. That low-slung groove, the scratchy high-end funk chopping between the beats, the compression of ideas. It's the Bug In The Bass Bin, the ever present spectre malfunktion that nevertheless pulses faithfully on. It's the ghosts of jazz and funk and kosmische and disco and industrial and juju lying just beneath the surface.
Not to mention the sense of longing, the alien wonder running through its core. It's Stranger In A Strange Land music, so naturally it made sense to me. Connected to the earth, the stones beneath my feet, but always surrounded by strangers. Something like Theme From It's All Gone Pear Shaped by Digital Justice makes the point better than I ever could... I mean where the hell else are you gonna find something like that but in techno?
It all routes back to a time when I used to dream about living alone on Mars (ha, used to he says!), riding some ancient starship with vast corridors and digital readouts in vivid crimson, three-year-old dreams back on Mollison in the hazy afternoons of late summer. Come to think of it, that was the last time I had a room of my own until college!
Space in both sense of the words. Room to think, room to breathe! That's what I found in techno. No matter what was going on, I could put on some headphones and play Dark Energy's Midnite Sunshine and everything would come into focus (or drift out of focus, if need be).
Put simply, it was an escape route into the rest of my life, when things would begin to make just a little bit more sense. Future music that gave me the gift of a future. Its beat pulsed faithfully like lights along a runway, guiding that starship into the pitch black darkness of the midnight sky. And all along, without a doubt, it helped a young brother find his way...
A couple thoughts occurred to me over the course of last week's endeavors, including the whole Island Disco post and the trio of concerts (especially the Jarre show) that I was lucky enough to attend. These were thoughts that I didn't get a chance to work into the other pieces, even if they may have been tangentially relevant, so I figured that I'd collect them all here. Well, here goes...
A couple dear cousins of mine, both a good deal younger than I, sometimes ask me to paint a picture of the nineties. Break it down, so to speak. Drop some science. I'm always more than happy to do so, as I have a fundamental fondness for the era. Not even so much fond memories of particular events or happenings, but an affinity with the general vibe of the era.
Anything was possible. The future was up for grabs! Dance music was on the ascendant, reaching ever new heights of innovation by the week, it seemed. It was like rock's sixties and seventies all rolled into one. There were hard times to be sure — that's just something you can't escape, no matter the era — but the general tenor was one that kept you hopeful that tomorrow was gonna be a brighter day.
I'm well on record as an aficionado of the nineties, and yet the 80s might have had an even greater impact on me. First off, I was younger. Secondly, I hadn't yet experience the symptoms of depression that would rear their ugly head increasingly as the decade wore on. But really, and I remember this vividly, circa 1989 there was this sense that the table had already been set for the decade to come.
Something like Big Audio Dynamite's Free and the film Flashback make the point I'm trying to here. I can think of no greater evidence of this than the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the elation that resulted (with dance music providing a suitable backdrop for the era, Love Parade, etc.).
This is the era that most of these thoughts I've collated spring from, loosely put the years 1986-1992. Period markers include hip hop's rise to dominance as a genre, house and techno on the ascendant as well, ragga in the charts, sampladelia coming into its own as the art form of the era, the Second Summer Of Love, big shades, t-shirts and day-glo colors everywhere, all with the darkness of Seattle grunge and the Wu-Tang Clan still a ways away from cracking the mainstream. If forced to narrow it down to a distinct season, I'd peg it for me at summer vacation following second grade. That is, summer 1989.
Still a kid at the time, I remember this era through the lens of phenomena like Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton's PBS television show where he'd delve into some topic — oftentimes in some far off corner of the world (one episode on Japan stands out distinctly in my memory) — all while encouraging reading among the youth. This of course overlapping with his time on the USS Enterprise D as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yes, the man was on a roll.
I remember a distinct trend in music of the era — not only on the radio but also in movies and television shows — taking on a decidedly tropical flavor. Suddenly it seemed as if marimbas were everywhere! Even Quentin Tarantino/Tony Scott's True Romance featured them front-and-center during the more lighthearted scenes. I've been at great pains to point out the ways it colored the dancefloors of the era, but its presence could definitely be felt in the wider culture. I'm talking about Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy, Jimmy Cliff's cover version of I Can See Clearly Now and of course Inner Circle's Bad Boys (AKA the theme from COPS!). It doesn't get much more central than that, does it?
This when the likes of Shabba Ranks and Maxi Priest were tearing up the charts, also figures like UB40 and Snow giving it all a pop spin. This might be the strongest direct presence Jamaica has ever had in pop culture, more so even than the new wave era during Bob Marley's reign. Of course it was all hoovered up by rap and rave culture, popping up in all sorts of places from Dr. Dre's West Coast hip hop to The Prodigy's dazzling, candy-coated ardkore. Even rock had its dalliance with the stuff in the form of 311, Sublime and a thousand third-wave ska bands! And who could forget Common Sense's Never Give Up?
For our purposes, this manifests itself most particularly in the whole Nu Groove aesthetic, especially in the output of one Bobby Konders. Records like She Say Kuff, Ruff & Massive and House Rhythms offer up a near-perfect fusion of deep house and digital reggae, sometimes even featuring dancehall figures like Mikey Jarrett and Maxi Culture on the mic. And look no further than the sleeves to Bobby Konders & Massive Sounds and "All The Massive Hits" In A Rub A Dub Stylee for a perfect visual image of this whole trip.
There was a greater awareness of the environment at the time, which ties in with Jarre's Oxygene in ways that I'd forgotten. Did you know that it was originally an opus dedicated to the sanctity of planet Earth and a paean to its preservation? That was a thread running through the era, a notion that had become important in the aftermath of the 1960s but in truth dates back to grizzled adventurers like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt realizing that America's wilderness was something quite special and undoubtedly worth preserving.
Famously, Richard Nixon established the EPA during his administration. This when films like Silent Running and Soylent Green hammered the point home in celluloid, films that would have a profound impact on the era's psyche. By the dawn of the compact disc era, environmental recordings, sounds of the rainforest, ocean waves, sounds of the bayou were everywhere: suddenly you could set up a whole sonic environment in your living room. Get carried away on rainclouds (or ocean waves!). You can hear this all over peak-era electronic music like FSOL's Lifeforms, The KLF's Chill Out and countless Orb remixes (Auntie Aubrey's Excursions Beyond The Call Of Duty is full of found environmental sounds).
This all dovetails with the sheer wonder I can still recall as a youth of having a yearly pass to the San Diego Zoo, seeing animals from across the globe and placing them within the context of the world's geography that I was picking up along the way (with the attendant flags and capitals, naturally!). It seemed that these formerly exotic realms were very much front and center at this point, places like the Serengeti, the Amazon and most of all Australia's outback were the focus of documentaries and more. The Discovery Channel really started to make itself felt as a presence around this time, and I remember spending hours watching coverage of these far flung locales.
I've often wondered why Australia in particular managed to so thoroughly capture the world's imagination at this point. It seemed to have this cachet of the exotic, romantic and futuristic. The sound of didgeridoo was everywhere. Was it the vanguard cinema of Peter Weir (Picnic At Hanging Rock, The Big Wave... Gallipoli even featured some Jarre in it's soundtrack) and George Miller (Mad Max, The Road Warrior, et. al.) making a splash, or impressive feats of architecture like the Sydney Opera House becoming lodged in the international consciousness as a modern wonder of the world? My brother lays it all at the feet of Paul Hogan. And yes, the Crocodile Dundee films were a bona fide phenomenon at the time, and they did spend a satisfying amount of time in the outback. At any rate, I remember that featuring a narrator with an Australian accent in your documentary was the golden touch at the time, signaling that elusive combination of frontiersman and futurist.
I defer to the films that Disney put out around this time: The Rescuers Down Under, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Cool Runnings and Aladdin. Also globe-trotting films like Club Paradise, Romancing The Stone and Jewel Of The Nile and the Indiana Jones trilogy. O.C. And Stiggs with their King Sunny Adé obsessions and inner tube pilgrimage down to Mexico, not to mention their high-rolling, exotica-crazed pal Coletti (Martin Mull in a brilliant cameo turn) took this spirit into the mundane suburbs of Arizona (often reminding me of a certain crew in the greater San Diego area circa 1997). Look no further than the soundtrack to Disney's The Little Mermaid (along with Cool Runnings, the storied film about Jamaica's first bobsled team) for evidence of the level to which it all penetrated the mainstream.
Think also of Peter Gabriel's records around this time, things like Security up to and including Us, and the whole Real World set up, bringing music from around the world to the Western stereo (usually glossed up with some period production flourishes). Speaking of the big time, you also had Paul Simon's Graceland, recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Los Lobos, a righteous flirtation with African music and zydeco (in the comics, O.C. And Stiggs were obsessed with Clifton Chenier). Vampire Weekend are still riding that wave. Then there's that one song (Help Me Somebody) on My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts that I could swear has a distinct zydeco flavor.
The Talking Heads went down this path after their whole Compass Point era had run its course, with David Byrne even directing a film (True Stories) about small town life. See also Paris, Texas and Ry Cooder's gorgeous slide guitar soundtrack to that film. This sound was sort of the era's go-to for signifying rootsiness at the time, shades of which filtered into Angelo Badalamenti's soundtracks to David Lynch' films (especially Twin Peaks). Think of all that heavily reverbed, languidly played rockabilly (Chris Isaak's Wicked Game) that fit Lynch's distinctly American Gothic, neo-noir moves like a glove.
As I mentioned before, the summer following second grade: that was quintessentially this. I remember taking a trip up to the Bay Area with my family for an uncle's wedding, a trip that extended to include a greater tour of Northern California. We checked out Lassen Volcanic National Park — memories of the lava tubes, hot springs and Mt. Harkness, seemingly covered entirely in grasshoppers — and Mount Shasta, the Redwood Forest and back to San Francisco and Monterey. In retrospect, there was an interesting mix going on up there, a melting pot of post-new wave gen x college kids, faded hippies, club kids, yuppies and bohemian types that was quite fascinating. To this this day it's stayed with me, a pungently evocative atmosphere. San Louis Obispo was pretty far out, anyway. We didn't get a chance to check out the aquariums in Monterey though (it was far too crowded).
Which was a shame, although I always meant to go back and check it out. A shame — not that I'm complaining — because the ocean is the final element in today's list of items. Some post-Jacques Cousteau bizzness. Whale song recordings were very hip at the time (see Sinéad O'Connor's Jerusalem, Open House' Aquatic and once again, The Orb). Then of course there was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, featuring a story involving time travel, San Francisco and humpback whales. Oceanic.
If there's one figure where I'd point and exclaim there!, then it's Arthur Russell. He makes this point quite beautifully. You can just hear it in records like Let's Go Swimming, In The Light Of The Miracle and Lola's Wax The Van. At any rate, I always thought it wax an appropriate touch making the sleeve to The World Of Arthur Russell the bottom of a swimming pool. His was a true Ocean Of Sound music.
The signifiers are almost too many to count. First of all there's the alias Indian Ocean that he used for the phenomenally abstract, fractal-winding post-disco of the School Bell/Treehouse record (bringing to mind both the aircraft carrier scenes from Top Gun — set in the Indian Ocean, remember, and tangentially Tony Humphries' Zanzibar club). The Paradise Garage too, Larry Levan's domain. Then of course there's the labels on the early Sleeping Bag releases, the era when Russell had the greatest influence, featuring a stylized Koala.
Another of Russell's aliases, used for production, was Killer Whale. Though there was never a record released under the name — such a shame! — it crops up on the Clandestine record, Loose Joints' Tell You (Today) and of course Let's Go Swimming. It's all very much emblematic of all subjects covered here today, showcasing that sense of the whole world being at your fingertips (a sense that would culminate in the world wide web). Everything suddenly felt very futuristic.
At any rate, I think the freshness of all this music — the Compass Point material, Nu Groove sides, Night Dubbin' — speaks to the era still having a quite strong charge about it. It has certainly stayed with me through the years...
So you've absorbed those death disco tapes already, and I'm back with an armful of records. Let's head over to Raven's place up there on the corner and give a few of these a spin. I've got some of the heaviest fourth world voodoo punk funk here — about half the records in the crate — brought to you by the three major dynasties of post punk coming out of London, New York and Bristol, but today we're gonna start with the heady interzone between last episode's new wave boogie and the voodoo slates to come: I'm talking about the Spartan minimalistic funk turned out by crews hailing from places like Manchester, Leeds and (especially) New York.
Interestingly, nearly all of these groups would wind up shearing into a sort of new wave boogie as the decade progressed, while others wound up providing crucial building blocks for hip hop, downbeat and even house. Yet there's one band who emerged just a little bit later, a band whose sound sprang from these same tangled corridors but then managed to spread out across the radio waves and set the charts ablaze, conquering the world in the process. I'm talking now about a band that everybody knows... a little band from L.A.
I'm talking about The Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were everywhere in the nineties, maintaining a strong presence right up to the present day, even making their way into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012. However, before breaking out as megastars in 1991 with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, they managed to put out four solid records between the years 1984 and 1989 that elaborated on the punk funk template and imbued it with a healthy dose of California sun. These records all have a chunky, spacious sound, sporting booming drums, chiming guitars and Flea's trademark slap-bass all mixed down with a crisp, vibrant production very much of a piece with everything discussed here today.1
Surprisingly, I've found that many fans of the band's later material seem to turn their nose up at the early stuff, the Hillel Slovak2 era. What gives?! Tunes like the pile-driving Jungleman (from the George Clinton-produced Freaky Styley), True Men Don't Kill Coyotes, Taste The Pain and Hollywood (Africa) (their take on The Meters' immortal New Orleans funk jam Africa) are unmissable romps across the Venice Beach pier, filled with youthful exuberance and rude spirit. Behind The Sun even takes things into Parallax Pier territory, with chiming guitars and a sing-song chorus that brings to mind the Tom Tom Club's sessions at Compass Point!
At this point, the Chili Peppers would often turn to covers of rock and soul staples like Jimi Hendrix's Fire, Sly & The Family Stone's If You Want Me To Stay, Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground (which I'd argue tops the original — blasphemous, I know... but so true!). The fascinating thing about the Hendrix and Dylan covers in particular is the way they highlight early examples of — for all intents and purposes — rapping, as if the band were reaching back and paying homage to the roots of Anthony Kiedis' trademark rapid-fire delivery.
It's also interesting to note the band's unexpected avant garde pedigree (for all the hipster haters out there): original drummer Cliff Martinez3 had previously drummed for a latter day incarnation of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, while Gang Of Four's punk funk godfather Andy Gill was drafted to produce their self-titled debut.
Gang Of Four, hailing from Leeds, were the prototypical minimalist post punk band. Indeed, one could almost have them down as a punk funk counterpart to Wire. They pared all elements deemed unnecessary from their music, leaving a sparse, wiry sound that moved like clockwork mechanisms traveling across a grid at strict right angles.
Emerging on Bob Last's Fast Product imprint — incidentally where The Human League started out as well — the band released their debut EP, Damaged Goods. The title track, Armalite Rifle and Love Like Anthrax brilliantly fleshed out the different corners of the band's stark modernist sound and they were accordingly signed by major label EMI for their debut LP.
Entertainment! is one of those quintessential post punk records,4 housing fierce, taut missives like Not Great Men, Ether and At Home He's A Tourist that have gone down as indelible post punk classics. The band famously aimed for a dry, spartan sound — free of rock's wild abandon and detached from its roots in the blues — and it's a sound they achieve to the fullest here.
However, one of my favorite moments from the band is their 1979 non-LP b-side It's Her Factory, where they make room for a bit of reverb — bathing the lead melodica in an eerie glow — giving the whole thing a sense of relatively spacious atmosphere. Solid Gold, the group's sophomore record, accordingly seemed to follow suit, allowing a little air into the production across the space of the album.
The songs themselves may not have been quite as incendiary as those on the diamond-hard debut, but tunes like He'd Send In The Army and A Hole In The Wallet are emblematic of the record's focus on tricky, twisted rhythms and an increasing focus on atmosphere and dynamics. Meanwhile, the desolate Paralysed dragged the tempos down to a staggering crawl.
It's certainly an interesting step toward the band's later period, where they morphed into a strange punk/boogie proposition that seems to be endlessly maligned by the cognoscenti but I nevertheless find oddly fascinating. 1982's Songs Of The Free is a deeply unusual LP that veers between Heaven 17-esque new pop like I Love A Man In Uniform and the atmospheric downbeat reverie of closer Of The Instant.
We Live As We Dream, Alone, which comes on like a booming dub version of one of the band's earlier punk funk excursions, just might be the best thing here. The record quite simply makes a virtue of simply sounding like nothing else around. When you factor in the remaining tracks and the album's evocative sleeve... well, it's a cool little record.
Unfortunately, the band's next album, Hard, was anything but. As such, it's even more maligned by just about everyone. And yet. And yet... there is a fair bit of solid new wave boogie to be found here, for those inclined. The opening Is It Love — which was the album's big single, even getting a 12" Extended Dance Mix — is a lush new pop number that may be a million miles away from Damaged Goods but is nonetheless an excellent slice of silky smooth dance pop. Elsewhere, the atmospheric Woman Town wouldn't sound out of place on the second side of Songs Of The Free.5
Not that I'm making a case for the album as some sort of lost classic, you understand! But it certainly has its moments. Hard turned out to be the final album of the band's original run, capping off a discography that, when taken as a whole, offers us an intriguing glimpse at the way a bunch of punks might ultimately wander from the pit into the disco, turning up some unique sounds along the way.
Another group who made a similar transition were A Certain Ratio. Yes, A Certain Ratio! They seem to perennially suffer the fate of being damned with faint praise — often getting lost in the Factory shuffle — but they get my vote over Gang Of Four any day.6 These guys are the perennial underdogs in the post punk sweepstakes.
They may have never got around to making that stone cold front-to-back classic record, but their discography offers up a wealth of the greatest punk funk you could ask for. The Early anthology put out by Soul Jazz made this point brilliantly. Take a song like Flight. This is one of the top five or so tunes in this continuum. Utterly unique, Woebot nailed it when he noted the song's gigantic ethereal sound like a yet more liquid Can. Word.
Infamously, the band were recording their debut album in Newark, New Jersey when the working mixdown was inadvertently wiped by the engineer while the band were out celebrating the final day of recording! On returning to Manchester, the band were miserably forced to work up their debut album by polishing demo takes with producer Martin Hannett.
Already feeling quite defeated, they were then slated to back Grace Jones on a song called Again before the project fizzled out unceremoniously.7 The breaks just wouldn't come! Despite the band's seemingly endless plague of bad luck, they managed to turn out a whole raft of first rate material like Do The Du, Shack Up and The Fox, all of which were prototypical post punk of the highest caliber.
From there, the band continued to change with the times and edged ever closer into new pop/jazzdance territory. Sextet and the Knife Slits Water — with the Kether Hot Knives (Mix In Special) version on the flip — is the grooviest, tightest post punk record you could ask for and the avant cousin to the whole bedroom funk concept I'm forever hinting at (there's a feature in there somewhere, believe me).
The sound leans ever-so-slightly into early Level 42 territory (nothing wrong with that), but maintaining traces of the spooky unhinged voodoo of their earliest recordings in those chanted vocals and the spaces between the spaces. Chanted vocals in this style are the prime signifier of mid-period punk funk, evoking mysterious corridors within the groove that one might get pulled into at any moment.
I'd Like To See You Again veers further yet toward a certain sleekness, even if a tune like Saturn is of a piece with the band's earlier material (in spirit at least). Elsewhere, Hot Knights is a vocal adaptation of the Kether Hot Knives version of Knife Slits Water. Still, the heart of the record lies in tunes like Touch and Axis which are veryJamaica, Queens jazz/funk/boogie, and before you know it (1984) you've got a record like Life's A Scream, killer dance pop on the order of INXS or — once again — Level 42 that takes you into the glitz of the era's overground nightclubs. Moonwalking in neon. With those triggered oof, oof vocals — straight out of the electro playbook — A Certain Ratio have wandered into the disco even more convincingly than Gang Of Four managed around the same time.
However, if there were one band that could boogie with the best of them, it was surely Ian Dury & The Blockheads. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick has that cruising city streets at night groovy thang going... in fact, the backing track could practically fit right in there on Off The Wall (with the chorus sounding not unlike Jermaine Jackson's Erucu)! Only Ian's conversational Midlands lead vocals — think Mike Skinner in The Streets — and Davey Payne's wild sax solo give this away as something other, conjuring up images of The Blockheads grooving immaculate on some cramped, smoke-bathed stage in a ramshackle seaside pub out in Essex.
Debut album New Boots And Panties!! is an absolute treasure, with the nimble bedroom funk of Wake Up And Make Love With Me setting things off on a drifting mirage of rhythm before following up with more skewed boogie in the shape of If I Was With A Woman and I'm Partial To Your Abracadabra (there are even a few undisclosed moments of straight up punk tacked onto the end to boot!).
The key to The Blockheads' seemingly natural grasp of funk dynamics — this in 1977, a full year before even Adolescent Sex — must surely be their jazz chops. Indeed, I have a Steely Dan documentary on the making of Aja that features Ian Dury as a frequent commentator, and one could almost read the band's sound as an outgrowth of the band's dancefloor sides like Peg and The Fez. Perhaps not totally accurate, but an interesting thought nonetheless.
Of course Ian Dury ended up writing himself into the Compass Point story a few years later with Lord Upminster, which was recorded in Nassau with Sly & Robbie and features the excellent Paradise Garage staple Spasticus Autisticus. Like Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, it hinges on the axis of silky smooth verse juxtaposed against abrasive chorus, 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.
The Big Apple was rather appropriately a hotbed of punk funk activity, starting with No Wave bands like DNA, Teenage Jesus And The Jerks and especially James Chance & The Contortions crawling out of the sewer at the tail end of the decade. James Chance came on like a skronky, more punk Blockheads (or Richard Hell & The Voidoids gone funk) with records like Buy and Off White (released as James White & The Blacks). The production was sparse and the rhythms stripped to their bare bones, like James Brown circa The Payback shot through with atonal, abrasive punk spirit.
However, it's the slightly later N.Y. material that concerns us today, permeated as it is with atmosphere. A 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).
While we're getting into punk funk at its most dexterous, mention must be made of Joseph Bowie's Defunkt. As mentioned before, this crew were the prime influence on The Red Hot Chili Peppers and you can certainly hear it, especially in Joseph Bowie's vocals... the only thing lacking is that Slovak/Frusciante guitar crunch.
Tunes like Illusion (from 1982's Thermonuclear Sweat) and Strangling Me With Your Love (from the 1980 self-titled debut) were far more stripped to the bone than nearly any straight-up funk band of the era, often recalling the classic one-the-one funk of James Brown circa Hell, while moments like Make Them Dance moved wild shapes at a brisk tempo that reach almost afrobeat levels of pitched insanity.
In The Good Times (yet another riff on Chic's Good Times bassline) even highlights a certain affinity between Defunkt's no-nonsense approach and the homespun funk that the Sugar Hill and Paul Winley backing bands were working up on the early rap records around the same time.
However, if there was a New York label that was the standard bearer of Downtown dancefloor-heavy punk funk, then it was Ed Bahlman's 99 Records. With the label's striking visual aesthetic, featuring vivid, colorful, of-the-moment artwork, it seemed to capture the spirit of the times at the nexus between the post punk avant garde and the post-disco dancefloors of the era (and as such places it at the forefront of today's discussion). The material released on the label was heavy on atmosphere while maintaining a distinct pop edge, and tellingly more than a few tunes made their way onto Larry Levan's turntables at the Paradise Garage.9
Liquid Liquid were one of two bands whose releases were central to the label's discography and are probably the most widely known. Plying a heavily percussive — almost tribal — sound, their music was spacious and atmospheric, with ghostly chants fading in and out of the mist as the band churned out a loose-limbed brand of dancefloor funk. The Optimo EP, with its swirling red and yellow op-art imagery, turned out to be the group's preeminent record.
The title track pummels you with a frenzy of percussion interlocking with a clockwork bass groove as scat vocals dance across its surface, while Cavern rides a loping bass groove that would ultimately get nicked by Grandmaster & Melle Mel for the epochal White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (not to mention a more oblique interpretation in Big Audio Dynamite's The Bottom Line).
The thumb-piano stylings of Scraper recall the band's earlier self-titled EP, where tunes like Groupmegroup and New Walk churned at a more laidback tempo. The band's music — encompassed on but four EPs released in the early 80s on 99 Records — is quite simply essential listening.
Famously, James Lavelle issued the first real compilation of the group's material on his Mo Wax imprint, rounding up the band's first three EPs into one essential package with an attractive mosaic sleeve that referenced the evocative 99 artwork of the original 12" records. Released in 1997, it's another example of dance music's dalliance with post punk — well before the retro gold rush of the early 21st century — that grew organically out of the scene's groove fascination in whatever form it came (there was certainly the clear cut abstract hip hop connection). And as I've said before, this is the context through which a certain 90s kid encountered most of this music in the first place.
The other big 99 band were ESG, a group centered around the Scroggins sisters who were merely teenagers when they started out. Famously, their mother had bought them all instruments so that they'd play music rather than get into trouble. I read somewhere that at the time the girls were described as The Supremes meet Public Image Ltd. I can't find the quote now, and I don't know who said it, but it isn't too far off.
Their self-titled debut EP is housed in another stunning example of 99 sleeve art and plays out as the quintessential essence of the label's sound, which is in this case somewhat more bare bones than Liquid Liquid's, but somehow no less atmospheric. Moody rides a killer bassline over which the girls chant Very moody, while UFO is like the shower scene from Psycho taken out for a dance.
Interestingly, both songs were crucial building blocks in multiple genres of modern music. UFO, which was sampled by Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G. — even showing up much later on J Dilla's Donuts — became something of a staple hip hop signifier (wasn't there a Gang Starr song that sampled it too?), while Moody formed the basis of Murk's Miami house chestnut Reach For Me (released under the name Funky Green Dogs From Outer Space).
The girls even titled a later EP Sample Credits Don't Pay Our Bills!, which was released around the time of their unjustly neglected 1991 comeback record. Fortunately, they managed to soak up some love during the post punk revival with two new LPs issued in 2002 and 2006,10Step Off and Keep On Moving respectively, which were solid records in their own right.
My favorite ESG record, however, is 1983's Come Away With ESG. It's an album-length statement, which means you get to experience the girls' sound in 3D stretched over a cozy 30 minutes. Kicking off with the bluesy tumble of Come Away staggering down some shadowy back alley, the record turns up plenty of uptempo punk funk like Dance, You Make No Sense and The Beat, in which loping bass grooves interlock with rather tactile drums as terse lyrics are chanted over the top.
The rushing Chistelle even brings in an eerie guitar line — which appears to get reversed every so often, Detroit techno style — as wind/synth effects creep in and out of the mix, while About You rocks a midtempo groove with the thinnest proto-g-funk synth line imaginable. Of course, there's also the matter of Moody (Spaced Out), a dancefloor version of the original (from their debut EP) which sports a tougher groove and massive synth effects simmering throughout like the soundscapes of Yar's Revenge.
Finally, there's one last New York band I'd like to touch on, and that's the Bush Tetras. While they only put out one 7" on 99 Records (their other two records came out on Fetish), they fit the label's aesthetic perfectly. Tunes like Too Many Creeps and Snakes Crawl consist of composite drum/bass/guitar parts that all interlock into ultra-tight grooves captured with vivid clarity.
Cynthia Sley's vocals often recall Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's spoken parts on the early B-52's records. The brisk turn in Cowboys In Africa (from the Rituals EP) comes on like The Cramps gone funky, while the dubbed out Rituals closes the record on a downbeat note with ragged rockabilly shapes that would fit right into the Repo Man soundtrack.
The Things That Go Boom In The Night (the group's final record) tightens up the groove again but this time with a slightly heavier guitar attack — more distortion! — while the b-side Das Ah Riot runs a mad phased guitar part through the track in such a way that seems to tie all three of the group's records together.
Jumping back across the Atlantic for a moment, it's worth noting the Bush Tetras theoretical cousins — and Gang Of Four's sister band — the Delta 5. They debuted in 1979 with the Mind Your Own Business/Now That You're Gone, a conceptual interrogation of relationship dynamics over clockwork straight jacket funk rhythms.
The band turned out a series of 7" singles that further developed their taut punk funk sound, even introducing a horn section on Colour, which ultimately culminated in the See The Whirl LP (which I haven't heard). The Singles & Sessions 1979-81 compilation, which I do have, rounds up all the group's singles and augments them with some BBC sessions for good measure.
If the Delta 5 and Gang Of Four represented punk funk at its most jittery in the UK, then the Minutemen cranked things up to a whole other amphetamine-fueled level out in L.A. The group's records are absolutely steeped in sun-baked L.A. atmosphere, in the same way that War's The World Is A Ghetto evoked 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.
Early EPs like Paranoid Time and Joy were excellent shots of pioneering hardcore, yet there was already a distinctly post punk funk flavor in tracks like More Joy and Joe McCarthy's Ghost that came on like a West Coast, more lived-in Gang Of Four. It's a muscular funk, to be sure, with turn on a dime frenetic rhythms anchored by D. Boon's combative, barked vocals. The band were one of the mainstays of L.A. institution SST (the home of Black Flag), where they put out a whole brace of records ranging from 12" EPs like Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat and Project Mersh to 7" shots like the "Tour Spiel" EP and albums like What Makes A Man Start Fires? and 3-Way Tie (For Last).
Double Nickels On The Dime — famously released within months of that other SST post-hardcore milestone double-album Zen Arcade (by Hüsker Dü) — was a tour de force that ran the full gamut of the band's stylistic reach, with hardcore, funk, rock 'n roll, acoustic numbers and even border music all rubbing shoulders over the course of the record's sprawling, monolithic expanse. Without a doubt, it's one of the top ten or so records to truly capture that hazy L.A. atmosphere, and a crucial late-period capstone on the decade's punk funk story just before in mutated into something else entirely.
As such, it brings us full circle to this chapter's beginning, back to L.A., The Red Hot Chili Peppers and where it all ends up in the 90s... with everything tied nicely into a bow. And so I'll leave you with the following playlist, until next time when we descend into the depths of voodoo funk with Material, The Pop Group, The Slits and Public Image Ltd.
Terminal Vibration 4: Rockers Revenge
A Certain RatioFlightFactory
ESGMoody Spaced Out99
VortexBlack Box DiscoNeutral
Ian Dury And The BlockheadsHit Me With Your Rhythm StickStiff
The ContortionsContort YourselfZE
MinutemenMore JoyNew Alliance
Gang Of FourReturn The GiftEMI
Delta 5Train SongKill Rock Stars
Bush TetrasSnakes Crawl99
The Red Hot Chili PeppersBlackeyed BlondeEMI
Iggy PopAfrican ManArista
Grandmaster & Melle MelWhite Lines Don't Don't Do ItSugar Hill
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.
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!
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!
Hey man, I'm back from the bodega. Nothing like a snack, deep fried, to give you a second wind. Here you go my friend. So you like new wave, right? Sure you do... after all, everybody likes new wave. For the moment, let us focus on the dubbed-out dancefloor sides perpetrated by The Clash in that period just after London Calling, which puts us at 1980 A.D.
I'm talking about the triple(!)-LP trawl of Sandinista! and its orbital 12" singles, records like The Magnificent Seven and This Is Radio Clash, the latter of which features four versions spread across its twelve inch surface, each one sequentially more twisted and dubbed to pieces than the last. Outside Broadcast (the third version), is one of the great hidden gems in the band's back catalog, conjuring up images of a careening taxi cab ride through fog-cloaked city streets deserted in the twilight.
The Magnificent Seven — which must be heard in its spacious, sprawling album version to experience its true sparkling third-eye-tactile black magic — finds, as mentioned in their last episode, this band of outlaws messing around with the Good Times bassline and twisting it to their own swashbuckling purposes. In other words, it's Disco Not Disco at its absolute finest.
Interesting to hear it as Joe Strummer's take on contemporary rap (note The Clash's turn as backing band for graffiti artist Futura 2000 on The Escapades Of Futura 2000, one of the infamous Celluloid rap records), like Blondie's Rapture but even more so. Think killer disco rap like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five's Superappin', Kurtis Blow's The Breaks and Monster Jam by Spoonie Gee meets The Sequence (not to mention The Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight if you want to get literal).
Noteworthy in the Parallax sense is also the fact that the intros to both The Magnificent Dance (the x-ray dub version of The Magnificent Seven) and Mensforth Hill form the basis of Reese's You're Mine (the b-side to Rock To The Beat), which suggests that Mr. Saunderson was working with both the album and 12" when vibing out in the studio to create that killer cut.
At moments like this, I'm reminded of Norman Cook/Fatboy Slim's review of Big Audio Dynamite's Sunday Best, in which he offhandedly placed The Clash at the genesis of indie dance. Which sounds about right to me, with New Order and Big Audio Dynamite arriving as fully formed ambassadors of the genre before it would go on to become a way of life.
Ah yes, that's right: Big Audio Dynamite! B.A.D. is, of course, a whole other can of worms. Now it's damn near painfully obvious to point out how that crew's merciless caning of the sampler and rewired approach to the dancefloor anticipated whole swathes of music in the nineties and beyond, but records like the proto-house madness of Hollywood Boulevard and Megatop Phoenix (which has nestled comfortably into Sgt. Pepper-status around these parts) serve to drive the point home and then some.
Their debut full-length This Is Big Audio Dynamite boasts not only obvious radio bounty like The Bottom Line, E=MC² and the sublime cool of Medicine Show (recently featured in Woebot's excellent 101-2001 — and for the record I agree wholeheartedly with the man's glowing assessment of the tune), but also a wealth of strange dancefloor material on its under-explored b-side (particularly Sudden Impact's phenomenal short-circuiting electroid groove and the proto-ragga dancehall of A Party).
Sudden Impact is particularly interesting in this context, with its strange spaghetti-western-by-way-of-Lee "Scratch" Perry guitar figure riding wicked rails of straight up electro, the track seeming to exist right at the very nexus of a number of contemporary sonic currents. For one, you've got electro boogie along the lines of Aleem's Get Loose, D-Train's You're The One For Me and C.O.D.'s cover of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's In The Bottle, all of which predict Sudden Impact's own nimble touch in their wiry, skeletal rhythmic structure.
But why stop there? It doesn't take much effort to draw a short line from Sudden Impact! to honest-to-goodness minimalistic electro missives like Hashim's We're Rocking The Planet, the Imperial Brothers' We Come To Rock and World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, all of which had been tearing up dancefloors for the better part of a year. Of course there's also the flipside of the coin: straight up electrofunk shearing into electro territory, records like Cameo's She's Strange (along with its proto-rap 12" club mix), Whodini's Escape and about a thousand other rap records.
Japan (the band) had their own incursions in this arena, where even amongst their most well-known new pop-era hits like the crepuscular fragile beauty of Ghosts and the supremely funky Visions Of China2 you'd find records like Gentlemen Take Polaroids and The Art Of Parties riding a malfunktioning electroid framework of their own.
Yet it's just before the group's widely-hailed peak that you'll find my favorite music they made, from that period when David Sylvian and co. were still slumming it as twilight era glam rockers operating in a weird interzone between new wave and funk that just shades this side of the (totally imaginary) post punk divide, with not only their blinding Adolescent Sex debut album (which featured in the Parallax 200 just the other day), but also the Quiet Life LP (and it's precursor, the Life In Tokyo 12" warning shot — produced by Giorgio Moroder for those keeping track).
Adolescent Sex in particular is the sleaziest rock 'n funk grind this side of The Stones' Fingerprint File, with real red light district velvet curtain bizzness in tracks like Performance (named after the Nick Roeg film, I wonder?) and the slinky cinematic slow burn of Suburban Love. This is funk the way The Isley Brothers played it. By which I mean turn on a dime rhythmic panache, smeared synth stylings — as if every texture were washed out in sun-glazed daylight somehow in the dead of night — and searing guitar lines rising from the murky depths.
There's shades too of Steely Dan at their Royal Scam grimiest — bringing to mind The Fez and The Royal Scam itself in particular — on tunes like Wish You Were Black and the marathon nine-minute album-closing Television. This sort of half-lit bedroom funk is a personal favorite sound of mine (see Prince's debut For You for another example), and should if there's any sense in the world at all spawn a feature of its own sometime in the future.
If there's a neon-tinged eighties analog to the sound I'm getting at here, then it must be Mtume circa Juicy Fruit. The album's centerpiece is the title track, no doubt, but there's a wealth of sterling rubberband funk in evidence throughout. The high top blacktop moonwalk of Green Light is emblematic of the whole affair in its casual loose-limbed bounce, with the more explicitly electronic grooves of Hips and Hip Dip Skippedabeat shearing into prime electrofunk territory. The production throughout is just perfect, with none of the overly-harmonized, booming drums that you'd often wind up with during in the era.3 It's the flipside of all the canonical new wave records here and a stone cold classic.
And while we're on the flipside, Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies is another unmissable slice of new wave electrofunk — from a crew that's arguably the progenitor of the form — and the flipside to PIL's Metal Box (the founder of this feast). The deconstructed start-stop groove of Funk Gets Stronger — featuring Sly Stone in full effect — is practically straight up new wave and never fails to make me flash on Adam And The Ants' Dirk Wears White Sox4 (particularly the distinctive guitar tone).
The whole record plays like a roadmap of eighties funk possibilities and beyond, and is absolutely essential listening. It will likely sound patchy at first, but give it time: what you're hearing is the familiar One Nation Under A Groove/Flashlight magic formula being warped and mutated beyond the point of recognition. Its strangeness is its calling card. The band even turn out the Lodger-esque freaky cod-reggae of Shockwaves, which starts out like a joke track (with fake accent to boot) before dropping out into the divine ravishment of the chorus. Definite shades of Bowie and très post punk!
On a related note, I make no apologies whatsoever for the heavy representation of Parallax 200 records here, since the sonic neighborhood on the table today couldn't help but throw up some of my favorite records almost by default. Wrapping up that list definitely put this sound firmly in mind. In truth, it likely inspired the whole trip! No doubt many of the remaining records will make the 300 when the time comes...
Now where was I... Ah yes, Japan. Coming a year after Adolescent Sex, Quiet Life and the Life In Tokyo 12" both seem to predict Duran Duran's self-titled debut in their sleek, chrome-eyed surfaces. Speaking of which, don't sleep on Duran Duran's 1981 debut, a record that is well worth checking out in its own right. The ace new wave disco of Planet Earth stands out as a particular highlight, but really the whole record is golden. Don't listen to the hipster haters — Nick Rhodes is way cooler than any of them anyway. Listened to back to back to back, these three records (Life In Tokyo, Quiet Life and Duran Duran) play like a tour of Europe by high-speed rail.
And while we're still on the continent, it's fitting to round out this strange punk funk-by-way-of-new wave triumvirate with Simple Minds, whose early records belie their Scottish origins and seem to point toward the most shadowy recesses of the Eastern Bloc. From the grimy claustrophobic corridors of Real To Real Cacophony to the sleek steel surfaces of Empires And Dance and even the Steve Hillage-produced widescreen canvases of Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, this is all prime real estate in the sprawling terrain of post punk/machine funk that just begs to be explored further. I've spent quite a bit of time here myself.
You've got the dead-eyed disco of Premonition, yawning gleefully with cavernous jaws and drip-dropping percussion, the slow-motion punk funk dirge of This Fear Of Gods and Today I Died Again's exquisitely swirling dread on one hand and the Kling Klang clanking funk of Sweat In Bullet (pointing the way to New Gold Dream) and the clockwork, backwards-crab-walking rhythm box black hole League Of Nations on the other. Taken as a whole, the four record run5 is a stellar excursion into post-Bowie In Berlin sonics.
So check them all out, the Simple Minds records and everything else here too. They won't do you wrong. I hear that the vendor across the street — yes, that gaunt gentleman in the robe — has them all on cassette, so don't sleep. Trust me... you need these records in your life. So fix up real quick. I'll be in the basement down the way grabbing some records from my homeboy Cornelius for the next chapter...
Actually, Prince's phenomenal Lady Cab Driver — from the glitzy 1999 double-LP — mines a very similar terrain. It's also got some crossover potential with The Clash's Outside Broadcast, come to think of it...
None can test. I'm on record as preferring the U.S. Version for its inclusion of the Zerox/Whip In My Valise, but only grudgingly so: I hate to give up the killer punk funk mekanik rush of not only Cartrouble Part 1 (which is doubly salient in the current context) but also Day I Met God and Catholic Day. Life's full of tough choices...
Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance, Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call are actually preceded by Life In A Day, a solid new wave record in its own right that's well worth checking out too (especially for fans of early Ultravox and XTC. The ingredients just needed to marinate a little longer before morphing into the fractured splendor of Real To Real and beyond.
I once said that I could write a whole book about this record, so how about a (rather lengthy) post to start the ball rolling? It's often daunting to write about a record so close to one's heart, so personally significant is it that one fears they won't do it justice or the words won't come. However, lately I've found that you've just got to jump in there and get on with it, that once the work is done you have something to show for it (rather than a dream deferred indefinitely) and chances are it'll suit the subject just fine. So here goes...
If ever I wrote one of those 33 1/3 books, the series that chronicles classic albums from There's A Riot Goin' On to Another Green World, then Megatop Phoenix would surely be the subject of mine. I remember nearly twenty years ago, after growing up with the Planet BAD compilation (an anthology of the band's music, spanning ten years of recorded output), tracking down the album based on an intense fascination with Contact and the wild acid breakbeat jam that closed out the track.
The compilation's lone selection from Megatop Phoenix — the other albums contributed at least two or three songs each — Contact marked it out in my mind as the group's weird record, and being the sort of kid perennially drawn to the strange, it seemed right up my alley. Somewhat harder to find than the other albums (the shops never seemed to have it in stock, for whatever reason), it wasn't until a bit later that it turned up at the Point LomaMusic Trader. My chance had come, so I snapped it up with haste. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
As much as its bound to come off as hyperbole, I reckon that this is the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of the eighties. It may not have the reputation or sheer pop culture impact of The Beatles storied song-cycle, but it certainly ticks every other box available: here's a set of great songs recorded with cutting-edge studio-as-instrument techniques, dubbed full of effects and sequenced perfectly — almost symmetrically so — into one killer extended suite, recreating the feel of a multifaceted live performance. Plus, both records have breaks!
The fourth and final full-length of the original B.A.D. lineup, Megatop finds the group five years deep into their career and truly firing on all cylinders. Here is a band who knew exactly what they were doing and precisely how to do it. With a story stretching back to 1985 — and even further, truth be told, into the heady days of first-wave punk and The Clash — perhaps it might be worthwhile to rewind a bit and start at the beginning...
The Story Of The Clash
The story of B.A.D. begins with Mick Jones, the lead guitarist for The Clash. As everyone undoubtedly knows, The Clash (along with bands like The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and The Damned) were the standard-bearers for the rise of punk in the media glare of 1977. Singles like White Riot, London's Burning and Complete Control were crucial cuts in punk's early arsenal, while their self-titled debut was — along with the Ramones debut, Nevermind The Bollocks and Damned Damned Damned1 — one of the first punk full-lengths to hit the shops.
The band quickly began expanding beyond the constraints of straight up punk rock, exploring reggae, rockabilly, New Orleans r&b and eventually mixing dub, disco and hip hop into their dense sonic stew. The group seemed to straddle the dividing line between new wave and post punk (much like Simple Minds' contemporary records, Empires And Dance and Real To Real Cacophony), but with a curious Sergio Leone-influenced image as outlaws of the American West, often trading in western imagery and bedecked in cowboy attire. This, of course, earned the band their detractors, but I find the whole trip quite evocative and endlessly fascinating.
In fact, this phase of the group remains my absolute favorite, as attested to by something like The Clash At The Edge Of Forever.2 Hooking up with figures as disparate as rebel country singer Joe Ely (Lubbock, Texas), dub scientist Mikey Dread (Port Antonio, Jamaica) and graffiti artist/part-time hip hop MC Futura 2000 (New York, New York), they ran the gamut of post-disco dance music practically at the dawn of the form's existence (see 1980's triple-LP Sandinista!).
Tracks like The Magnificent Seven, This Is Radio Clash, Straight To Hell and Guns Of Brixton remain utterly unique dubbed-out post punk missives (all of which, on a personal note, were absolutely crucial records for me back in the day). Their presence on many of the era's key dancefloors — stretching from the Roxy to the Paradise Garage — attests to the music's strange brilliance, as does their latter day status as Balearic3 staples.
After their extraordinary fifth album — Combat Rock — the band were at a crossroads. Lore has it that Joe Strummer wanted to delve deeper into dub and dance music, while Mick Jones wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Who, basking in the band's status as stadium rock stars. What happened next, however, betrays the fact that the reality was less cut-and-dried. Jones was unceremoniously fired from the band while Strummer recruited a group of young mohawked punks to take his place, steering the band toward a back to basics direction with their swan song Cut The Crap. Jones, meanwhile, struck out in another direction entirely...
This Time I Bet You It's BAD
Interestingly enough, Jones was initially slated to be in General Public, laying down guitar on the entirety of their debut record before leaving to pursue his own vision. Linking up first with post-punk audiovisual man Don Letts, he began delving deeper still into hip hop and dance music. Rounded out by bassist Leo "E-Zee Kill" Williams (who would go on to record as Screaming Target and Dreadzone in the nineties), drummer Greg Roberts and keyboardist Dan Donovan, Big Audio Dynamite sprung into being as one of the original (alongside New Order) indie dance propositions.
Their debut LP, This Is Big Audio Dynamite, was a stunning mash up of stutter-funk sampladelia, machine rhythms and mid-period new wave songcraft. Immersed in contemporary dance culture, the sounds of New York club music, early hip hop and the nascent digital dancehall all informed the group's striking new sound. The iconic sleeve itself — capturing the crew (minus Donovan) in stark black and white — perfectly signaled the bold, deeply unconventional music contained within.
The first side of the record is dominated by radio hits like Medicine Show, E=MC² and The Bottom Line (the 12" single of which actually came out on Def Jam in the states, where the track was remixed by Rick Rubin), all of which are lush, multi-layered indie dance excursions, replete with film samples (particularly of the Sergio Leone and Nicolas Roeg variety) and chiming pop inflections. Their accompanying music videos featured Don Letts' striking visual sensibilities, ranging from a time-traveling DeLorean in the wild west4 to the band playing underground, decked out like nuclear power plant operators.
It's worth noting that the second side of the record takes a sharp left turn, given over to skeletal dance workouts like the dancehall-inflected A Party and Sudden Impact!'s third-rail electrofunk workout, both of which might just be my favorite things on the record. You also get the peculiar electro-hoedown of Stone Thames and closing track BAD's big beats thrown into the bargain, rounding out a solid set of state-of-the-art dance pop. All in all, the group were off to a strong start with an auspicious debut that plotted an utterly original vision.
Their sophomore record, No. 10, Upping St., finds Strummer temporarily back in the fold and manning the producer's chair. The drum machine breaks are even heavier this time out, in truth not a million miles removed from what you might expect on a contemporary Mantronix or Run-D.M.C. record. The LP finds the group descending even further into dance territory, and rather appropriately the video for the block-rocking C'mon Every Beatbox features the band performing in a basement dive5 while a group of b-boys-and-b-girls (including a young Neneh Cherry) dance their hearts out.
Conversely, V. Thirteen is firmly in the chiming pop vein established on side one of the band's debut, sounding for all the world like something from Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish. Switching gears yet again, the apocalyptic, album-closing Sightsee M.C.! rocks a titanic ragga beat over which Mick Jones and Don Letts trade verses, taking the group's side two sensibility into the lower reaches of the charts. Hollywood Boulevard, perhaps the best track here, finds Jones unleashing a rapid-fire series of images — with the same compression of language you'd find in both contemporary hip hop and amphetamine-era Dylan — over an early house beat complete with Derrick May-esque strings! Stunning.
Tighten Up Vol. '88, the third record, finds the group splicing their pop sensibilities seamlessly into contemporary dance rhythms. With the dividing line (nearly) effaced altogether, both sides of the coin bend to meet in the middle. The gorgeously evocative cover art, painted by ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, is emblematic of the whole affair, depicting a buzzing soundsystem party beneath a freeway overpass.
The rolling machine rhythms of Just Play Music!, casually unfurling like a lazy day at the beach in mid-summer, seem to betray an affinity with Paisley Park. In fact, whole swathes of the record feel thoroughly indebted to Prince circa Around The World In A Day (note that the group would later cover 1999 during live shows). The contemporary Lovesensi 12" — which features a mash up of the entire Tighten Up album in the space of five minutes — even features a nude Leo Williams sprawled out on a beach recliner in what must be a nod to Prince's contemporaneous album Lovesexy!
Indeed, there's a laidback, anything-goes spirit to the entire affair that's quite appealing. The Battle Of All Saints Road melds hoedown fiddle and banjo with extraterrestrial ragga beat sensibilities, while Funny Names and the nebulous title track seem to drift by coolly on an atmospheric plane, receding gradually into the horizon in Atari-esque gradient colors. Other 99 and Applecart, meanwhile, mark a winning return of the group's britpop sensibilities in a pair of soaring refrains that benefit from the record's rich production flourishes.
And yet, despite the marked development of B.A.D.'s sound, there's not yet evidence of rave's kaleidoscopic fun house psychedelia at this point. Therefore, it's tempting shorthand to call Tighten Up Vol. '88 something like the group's Rubber Soul: a casually brilliant full-length statement wrapping up everything that's come before and setting the table for what's just around the bend. This is the final trading post on the road to this trip's ultimate destination.
On Death's Doorstep Born Again
But the road had a few bumps yet to come. When Mick Jones' daughter Lauren came down with chickenpox, he caught it as well. While Lauren recovered quickly, Jones — who had never had chickenpox as a youth — took a serious turn for the worse and before long had fallen ill with pneumonia. Suffering severe infection of the mouth, throat and lungs, Jones checked into the intensive care unit of St. Mary's Hospital — where he was promptly hooked up to respirators — and found himself in critical condition. For eight hours he battled for his life, and remained unconscious for weeks after. In the process Jones sustained considerable nerve damage, which seriously affected his throat and vocal chords.6a
Recovery took nine months, as Jones underwent protracted therapy to rebuild himself from the ground up.7 The whole ordeal seemed to bring everything into focus. In the hospital I could see things clearly, says Jones. Serious illness gives you time to reassess things. I saw that B.A.D. was going on to something new.6b Parallels could be drawn with Brian Eno's time spent in the hospital after being hit by a car, during which he conceived ambient music, or even Bob Dylan's fabled motorcycle crash and The Basement Tapes — recorded with what would become The Band8 — that followed in its wake. In any case, the revelation that presented itself to Jones was found in the buzzing sounds of the nascent rave culture that had begun to take Britain by storm.
A bit of context might be in order: the Second Summer Of Love was in full bloom by 1988, with raves springing up all over the UK and clubs like London's Shoom and Manchester's Haçienda9 fully indulging post-acid house tastes. Built on a foundation of import 12"s from cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago, the sound was a pile up of house, techno, hip hop and Balearic beats from around the world.
House records like Mr. Fingers' Can You Feel It, Black Riot's A Day In The Life and Rhythim Is Rhythim's techno rhapsody Beyond The Dance would rub shoulders with hip hop like Mantronix's King Of The Beats and Eric B. & Rakim's Follow The Leader, along with the industrial EBM of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and Cabaret Voltaire, all spliced soundly with the requisite disco/post-disco sounds that lie at the root of the whole endeavor. Spike it all with choice Balearic records like New Order's True Faith, The Woodentops' Why Why Why and of course The Clash's own The Magnificent Dance, and you had the soundtrack for a musical revolution.
Almost immediately, homegrown acts began springing up everywhere, from the techno exploits of Manchester's 808 State and A Guy Called Gerald to the moody house music of London's Bang The Party and Bomb The Bass' block-rockin' beats. Over in West Yorkshire, the Unique 3 were making low-end rumblings of their own, resulting in a sound that would ultimately feed into the the proto-junglist innovations of Shut Up And Dance and 4 Hero about a year later.
Even erstwhile indie rockers like The Shamen, Happy Mondays and A.R. Kane were getting into the groove, following the footsteps of New Order (who had themselves begun to tune into the sounds of rave culture around this time) down the slippery path of indie dance. It seemed like everyone — from soul boys to b-boys to rude boys and indie rockers — were all tuned into the same frequency.
With 1989 in full swing, this is the environment that B.A.D. found themselves in when they entered The Kinks' Konk Studios to record their fourth album. After operating for years at the intersection of new wave, hip hop and club music — in their own way already working out the same internal logic that would play out full scale on the ravefloor — it would seem that the band were more than ready for the challenge. Connecting with the energy around the movement, Jones exclaimed:
We're talking thousands of kids getting together and dancing. It’s all about freeing up yourself and dancing and getting loose. Through this escapism you free yourself. The authorities don’t know what’s going on. They have no control. It’s just like punk was.
Steve Dougherty and Linda Russell (Back from the Brink of Death)6c
With Mick Jones' near-miraculous recovery behind him, he and the band seemed to surf the waves of Second Summer Of Love dancefloor ecstasy with the palpable born-again passion of the moment. In truth, there was something in the air. B.A.D. seemed to have a new lease on life, a new mission to live down. So they pulled out all the stops, and dove headfirst into the rave...
A Phoenix Rises
Take a moment to gaze upon that sleeve. Depicting a stylized phoenix literally rising from the flames (surely a metaphor for Jones' own recent experiences?), it features a pixelated, halftone fractal looming large in the distance.10 Superimposed over the titular phoenix, the group's name appears in boldfaced type (while both the promotional poster and sleeve reverse feature the album's title), beneath which stretches a photo-strip of the band posing for a promo shot. Taken in its entirety its a bold, confident image, its brash juxtapositions and no-nonsense design offering a perfect hint at the sounds contained within.
So what does it sound like? Well, let me tell you... The key to this record is those beats, that rhythm. The drums hover somewhere between the Gaussian-blurred, blunted beats of De La Soul's 3 Feet High And Rising and the delicately crisp machine rhythms of Prince's Lovesexy.11 Balanced atop the beat is everything but the kitchen sink: you've got guttertronic synths, rolling breakbeats, rave piano, squelching acid basslines, ethereal backing vocals, malfunctioning drum machines, hallucinatory guitar, gang chants and dancehall bottom-end, all blended into an absolutely superb palette of sound and threaded together in (im)perfect harmony.
Not to mention... samples, samples and more samples! Think 3 Feet High And Rising (yet again!), Paul's Boutique and It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back: there's film samples, sure enough, but also snatches of sixties garage punk, British music hall, Rule, Britannia!, soundtrack music, Broadway musicals, digital dancehall, comedy records, funk loops and the Godfather Of Soul himself. The production — handled by Mick Jones and Bill Price — is gloriously supple, and with each texture seeming to push and pull against the other in a brilliantly unstable framework, everything up for grabs.
Whereas it might have sounded dated to late-nineties ears — attuned to the self-consciously fat sounds of tech-house, gatecrasher trance and big room techno that held sway at the time — with the benefit of greater hindsight it all sounds righteously at home in the company of the rude, rough-edged, and absolutely timeless sounds of its era: Todd Terry, the Jungle Brothers, Tiger, Trax Records, A Guy Called Gerald and Shut Up And Dance. You can hear echoes of Gerald Simpson's acid-era recordings like Voodoo Ray, Hot Lemonade and Automanikk in Megatop's loose-fitting, ramshackle riddims.
Todd Terry just might be the single most apropos comparison: imagine a pop album with the same spirit as Royal House's Can You Party? and The Todd Terry Project's To The Batmobile Let's Go, and you wouldn't be too far off.12 Don't forget that Todd's rough-edged sampladelia — perched midway between house and hip hop — ran in parallel with what B.A.D. had been up to in the late eighties. With Megatop, the band embraced Terry's cut-and-paste aesthetic wholeheartedly as the charged headlong into the rave.
I'd venture that what gave B.A.D. such a strong grasp on rave's dynamics was their extensive experience with pre-acid dance music, tracing electro-funk, hip hop, soul, reggae13 back into post punk and The Clash's own dancefloor endeavors at the dawn of the decade. This is pure, unadulterated indie dance, in the classic tradition of ex-punks messing around with club music and coming up with a gloriously ramshackle vision of the dancefloor. Think of contemporary records like the Happy Mondays'14Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches, Primal Scream's Screamadelica, The Stone Roses self-titled debut and In Gorbachev We Trust by The Shamen, along with New Order's foray into similar territory with Technique, for example.
The surprising realization I arrived at years ago is that none of those records come close to the level of total immersion in dance culture that Megatop represents. The closest would be Screamadelica (which came out over two years later, an eternity in the blazing pace dance culture kept to at the time), but Bobby Gillespie and co. had the help of outside producers like The Orb, Hypnotone and Andrew Weatherall (even roping in Jah Wobble for a killer bassline). Even so, there's a handful of diversions into the band's southern rock tendencies — which they'd fully explore on 1994's Give Out But Don't Give Up — from the pentecostal rock 'n soul of Movin' On Up and the weepy country ballad Damaged.
Pills 'N' Thrills And Bellyaches on the other hand largely captures a band jamming live in the studio, with production duties handled by Paul Oakenfold, another dance music heavyweight. Surely New Order's Haçienda classic Technique would qualify, but aside from a couple tracks, it's largely dominated by straight-up indie rock in the same vein as that on 1986's Brotherhood (not to mention the fact that the 12" mixes are where the club cuts really catch fire). Now don't get me wrong, each of these records are stone cold classics in their own right. I'm only attempting to measure the level to which dance culture runs through these records' veins15 in the cold light of day.
In contrast, Megatop is absolutely dominated by sampladelia and ravefloor sonix, and without the help of any club culture insiders, its success rests solely on the core unit of the band itself. It's an ecstasy record through and through, managing to dovetail Jones' love of life (in the face of near-death) with the loved-up spirit of the times. The entire album runs together in the mix in a nearly non-stop flow of crazy rhythm and melody, threading the pulsing beats of club culture with snatches of overheard conversation and Swinging London songcraft, taking in everything from Ibiza to Chicago and Madchester to Paisley Park, and weaving them all into a stunning sonic tapestry that seems to soundtrack the ultimate party.
Now, it's not often at all that I'm led to break out into a track-by-track analysis of an album, but this is one of those rare cases where it not only seems warranted but absolutely necessary. The song-cycle structure of the LP, paired with the fact that its my absolute favorite record of all time, both lend themselves to such an approach. Each and every track (even the interludes) are their own distinctly individual creations — filled to the brim with ideas — even as they remain perfectly intertwined with the greater whole. It's as if a verdant terrain stretched out before us as far as the eye can see, inviting further exploration. So, then, why not dive headfirst into the sonic banquet and see what we might find?
Megatop Phoenix: The Tracks
This is the universe... big isn't it?. Kicking off with a sample from Powell/Pressburger's 1946 film Stairway To Heaven (starring one David Niven), the mood is set by bit of lovers rock declaring ain't nothing going on but- before being interrupted by an MC shouting The best band in West London, B.A.D.! before a live crowd.
Oh yeah, it should be kicking in by now...
The opening salvo drops immediately, with a fractal fast-forward acid sequence spooling out crimson in the thick, humid night air as the group chant (all together now):
The troop was weak and weary,
Rations running low.
Mission seemed impossible,
We had to save the show.
Then, the beat drops in at a steady-rocking half-time downbeat, a heavy dub bassline pulsing beneath it all.
Rewind, operator gonna kill em with sound,
Bawling out murder and selector come down.
The song seems to tell the story of B.A.D. rallying in the wake of Jones' protracted recovery, banding together again and getting down to business to run tings in the dancehall. It's all tied together with the same Western imagery that The Clash drew on back in the day, conjuring up the image of a band of sonic outlaws and all around badmen riding off into the sunset, pinned down by Jones' power chords in such a way as to recall the great Link Wray.
Suddenly, at the tune's midpoint, Don Letts quotes Tenor Saw's Ring The Alarm and the drums break into a canter. Tapes spool in and out before an interview snippet with Mick Jones plays out, distilling the influence of thirty years of Jamaican music spanning from Prince Buster to Prince Jammy down to only a little, only the bass. Sure enough, that sub-bass continues to pulse beneath it all as rapid-fire breakbeats begin snaking their way through the mix and, for the last minute or so, you're listening to straight up proto-junglist bizzness.
This in 1989, when even the likes of 4 Hero and Shut Up And Dance were still working out their equations... well, it's pretty startling to come across, no question. The addition of Jones' guitar psychedelia equally stunning in this context, forging a link between the retro shades of the sixties revival (by then in full swing) and the technicolor possibilities of rave.
All Mink & No Manners
The first of the interludes, kicking off with a breakbeat nicked from Schoolly D before a squelching synth wobble unceremoniously slips into the mix and another of Jones' olde English samples16 declares I don't know what this world's coming to, everyone trying to be better than their betters... mink coats and no manners!
After a brief snatch of Rule, Britannia!, Union, Jack kicks off with the break from The Rolling Stones' Honky Tonk Women. Way back when, Union, Jack was my least favorite song on the album. Strangely enough, everyone I show the album to seems to single it out as a highlight, and over the years I've grown to love it. It's in essence a football-themed britpop number with a rolling, filmic sweep. The chorus backing sports an almost symphonic quality. Still, there's no getting around that beat when it drops, bass kicking you squarely in the chest. It certainly would have made a good live opener.
Two thirds into the song, crowd noise — no doubt from some soccer arena — rises from the mix as Jones contributes his second bit of sixties-esque guitar, eerily recalling George Harrison's reversed guitar parts on The Beatles' Revolver.. A memorable sample from Britannia Hospital slips into the mix behind the guitar jamming, before everything drops into a rolling snare rush and a certain synth squiggle struggles to escape from the dense sonic tangle of the mix...
Descending on a dread shadow, slow-motion guitar stabs unwind into a dubbed-out intro (bassline and all), replete with textures that wouldn't sound out of place on a Pram record. A voice intones the memorable incantation, groovy, dynamite, heavy... wow, as ghostly chuckling — seemingly on loop — emanates from the ether. Then, that screeching guitar stab returns — playing at the correct speed this time — ushering in a liquid breakbeat that rolls out for a single bar as that trademark synth-squiggle returns with a vengeance.
Suddenly, you're in an epic. The mix here so very lush, with treated power chords locked into the rhythm as a disembodied fiddle scrapes dexterous between the beats. Jones coos Ooh, ooh!, on the one followed swiftly by a snatch of vocalise (it sounds something like ooh-wah) recalling the sort of wordless vocal you'd find in an Ennio Morricone film score. Jones sings:
Feeling flying round,
'Round up in the air,
Bouncing off the walls,
Getting under my hair.
On the carpet, in the weave,
Up in trees on the leaves,
Feelings flying everywhere.
Which brilliantly conjures up images of a rave when the party's really going off, the DJ's on fire and everybody's locked onto the pulse of the rhythm, lights and colors flashing off the walls as everyone dances together in ecstasy. Taking matters to another level altogether, he adds:
I'm on the right track
For what I want to say.
I got to get it out
There ain't no other way.
To make contact.
There ain't no getting away
From how I feel today.
Which is about as perfect an expression you could ask for of everything Jones alluded to when expressing his enthusiasm for rave's social energy, and that need to interface with it on its own terms. To make contact, in other words. Variations on these words make up the entirety of the lyrical content, and really, what more do you need?
Looping on and on, rave pianos drift in and out of the mix with Jones occasionally tossing off another one of his guitar asides, before — at the three-minute mark — a snatch of The Who's I Can't Explain drops into the mix (out of nowhere) in such a way that predicts Fatboy Slim's Going Out Of My Head seven years early.17
Suddenly, the tune's gone acid on you, with a squelching bassline threading its way through that same fluid breakbeat, punctuated occasionally by what sounds like a power drill(!) as the beat drops in and out of the mix. Then, an into the abyss sort of slowdown sample plays, and the feeling is as if you've been sucked into a vortex, tripping out on the dancefloor as the beat plays on and on. It's at this point that those knobs really starts turning, and we're all in for some serious acid breakbeat magic.
It should be categorically stated that this song is perfect. Just perfect! Its groove is improbably sublime, and even if unfurled into perpetuity it would scarcely get old. The three-minute pop song comprising its first half is on the order of something like the Talking Heads' Once In A Lifetime, sharing a similarly strange haunting brilliance paired with the sense that its rhythm is advanced technology, something that shouldn't even exist yet. Add in the acid breakbeat coda, and its all almost too good to be true.
I'd like to take a moment to note the video for this song,18 which in direct opposition to the sumptuous, almost cinematic quality of B.A.D.'s other videos, boasts thoroughly bargain-basement production values and yet possesses loads of charm. Think of the video for The Prodigy's Out Of Space or Pump Up The Volume by M|A|R|R|S:
You've got floating technicolor ravers dancing against a jet black backdrop as the band — in stark black and white — seems to play in cryosleep (so cool they've got panache to spare). Each player's head rotates across the screen in slow-motion, interrupted by the vivid hues of graphic psychedelia. Mick, looking like he's ready for a game of tennis, does his guitar thing before turning about face and miming the guitar riff from The Who's I Can't Explain.
The DJ (one Greg Roberts) cues up the next record and shouts Go!, before the graphics and the dancers merge into one, with the puzzled bandmates — now in full color — wandering around the landscape with priceless WTF?!? looks on their faces as this acid jam unfolds.
Without a doubt, it's something special.
Out of nowhere, a loping big beat rides roughshod over Contact's acid coda, bringing in a surf rock flavor (shades off Rockafeller Skank) at odds with the Chinatown stylings playing out in the foreground. After a brief snatch of George Formby's Mr. Wu's a Window Cleaner Now, the brittle house rhythms of Dragon Town cruise into the mix on a razor-thin 909 beat pushed along by a pulsing synth bassline. The effect is not a million miles removed from the contemporary bleep 'n bass records of Nightmares On Wax, with that same sense of homespun futurism suffused with the unmistakable whiff of sensi.
I've listened to this album so many times that I sometimes forget how strange Dragon Town sounds on first listen. It's a sublime tune, swirling and carnivalesque as Jones unfurls a string of off-the-wall couplets in another one of his occasional detours into Asia (see also Sony and The Green Lady). Gorgeous choirs — most likely sampled from somewhere or another — trill in the background throughout, as a 303 acid line rises stealth-like from the mix. When the sampled Chinatown, my Chinatown vocals drop, in tune and on beat, hovering three feet over those knobs turning on that tiny silver box, the effect is ecstatic.
Baby, Don't Apologise
The house moves continue with Baby, Don't Apologise, an unapologetic club track, one built for the dancefloor. Caning those reverse strings and detuned chorus loops over a lonely rave piano, the groove drops without warning into a piercing baroque string section on the order of not only Marshall Jefferson's Move Your Body The House Music Anthem but also Derrick May's contemporary sides. Think of it as a homespun indie take on one of Ten City's Windy City epics burning up the dancefloors of the day.19
The tune's another absolute corker, hitting you with a soaring chorus (built upon the song's title) that's ensconced within a fully electronic orchestral arrangement — complete with a French horn simulation — before dropping into a bridge where synth brass (sounding like pure electric current rather than any actual horns I've ever heard) pulses over a looping Whoa-o-a-oh! bit of vocalise. It all grinds to a halt with a dangling rejoinder — another one of those slowdown sound effects — with the exception of the pulsing rhythm which persists undaunted, as the tune resets itself before wheeling back for another verse as the carousel spins just once more.
On reflection, I reckon this tune should have been a 12" single. It's the most straight up, no-nonsense club track on the album, and could have done serious damage on the era's dancefloors. With Judge Jules turning out the club mix to Contact, perhaps they could have roped in a Todd Terry or a Kevin Saunderson to give it the 12" treatment? I'd love to hear what a Reese remix would have sounded like. Well, a girl can dream...
Is Yours Working Yet?
With the closing beatless bars of Baby's symphonic outro, a looping aquatic sound (that brings to mind The Orb, for whatever reason) accompanies the question How do you do ladies and gentlemen? before volunteering I trust that everyone is enjoying the music. Well, no complaints here, mate... A vocodered sing-song — which seems to represent the audience — replies, and another single-minded beatbox begins working out its own internal logic while MGM soundtrack strings cascade asymmetrically in the background.
It would all be ridiculous if it weren't so much fun.
Around The Girl In 80 Ways
Closing out side one on a distinctly breezy note, Around The Girl In 80 Ways sounds remarkably like something that could have been cooked up at Paisley Park (think Sheila E. or André Cymone) but with the same homespun charm we've come to expect from planet Megatop (remember Lovesensi?).
The verses are faintly subdued with a muted electric piano carrying the melody as a reggaematic organ chops out a slight skank against the blunted machine rhythm. Jones' vocals are intimate within such uncomplicated production, and even the chorus appears with little fanfare as well — over more or less the same backing of unadorned piano — before dropping into a second-level chorus where he sings:
Around the girl in 80 ways,
Most of them I know.
All of them are substitutes
For feelings I don't show.
It's a truly excellent refrain, spooling out carefree and easy while a subdued string section and what sounds like ladies cooing envelope the song. And then, of course, there's that delightful synth squiggle straight out the boogie playbook punctuating each bar. Think freestyle, think Madonna's Holiday... the whole effect is just gorgeous.
The song continues for a spell before dropping into another one of Jones' mini-hoedowns — in the tradition of Stone Thames and The Battle Of All Saints Road — which eventually assume control of the song about 2/3 of the way through. After the third run of this impromptu hootenanny, soundtrack strings enter the fray and descend into the song's conclusion, punctuated by a final stroke of organ that puts an exclamation point on the whole affair.
It's a perfect conclusion to the first side of a record that's brought us track after track of brilliantly crafted pop music imbued with the rude edge of the late-eighties dancefloor. With a slowed down reggae record and then a snatch of Bernard Cribbins' Right Said Fred — which offers the rejoinder and so we... had a cup of tea — side one ends in such a way that sets up the second, where the Godfather himself enters the equation...
Side two of Megatop begins with words from James Brown himself:
Now I can't say exactly what did happen...
You just don't understand unless you've been through it.
Back-masked saxophone and choir spool out steadfast in the background, dialing up the tension before dropping into the speed-demon house of James Brown (the track). Clocking in at nearly 140bpm, it outpaces the rest of the album soundly, operating at speeds the likes of CJ Bolland and Robert Leiner — with their sleek, muscular European techno — would soon call home in the early nineties. In 1989, when even proto-jungle was still working at sub-130 tempos, it's extraordinary!
If memory serves, at the time only Hi-NRG was this fast, and damned if that rapid-fire bassline — cycling up and down the keyboard — doesn't sound like something Patrick Cowley might have approved of. Mix in a bit of rave piano pounding along to the beat, a dash of detuned house sonix, a helping of warped synth brass and spike it all with some racetrack orchestra stabs — bringing to mind The Prodigy's Speedway Theme From Fastlane — and what you've got is a shot of pure adrenaline.
The lyrics seem to offer up a first-person account of James Brown's high speed chase and subsequent arrest the previous year, while the chorus quotes freely from the man's music: Hot pants, she look fine,It's a man's man's world,Please, please, please. There's even an offhand reference to The Bottom Line! After a soaring guitar solo from Mick, as the song barrels toward its conclusion, you get a proto-rap stringing together a bunch of JB song titles.
There's this interesting bit of social commentary to the lyric, especially in the chorus:
It's a man's man's world in America,
Jump back in my cell.
Please please please in America,
Slipping into hell.
Not to mention the portion of the song America (from West Side Story) that thrown into the blender at the songs midpoint:
Life can be bright in America.
(If you can fight in America).
Life is alright in America.
(If you're all-white in America).
Well, it's certainly Food For Thought!
James Brown was actually the first single issued from the album, although — as far as I know — only ever got a promo release. As such, there's a music video20 and this time it's much more in the B.A.D. tradition of colorful, extravagant visuals in Don Letts' usual striking style:
The band's rocking out beneath a graffiti-daubed parking garage through which a James Brown lookalike leads police on a high speed chase in his camouflage jeep. He shows off his dance moves in front of some cheerleaders as B.A.D. plays, with Don Letts and Mick Jones even recreating the bring the poor man his cape routine from Brown's live performances!21 While perhaps not quite as much of an unexpected delight as the rave-fueled Contact promo, it's still a great music video.
Everybody Needs A Holiday
Commencing with another one of these improbable bass/beatbox interludes — this time riding a midi bassline and piano combination that cut in out of nowhere — we get a bit of computer sing-song as Jones repeats the song's title over a jaunty tune that wouldn't sound out of place on PBS programming. Within half a minute it's gone, and a disembodied voice frets I don't want a vacation. I just want to get away... for good! He's answered swiftly with a whistling-led exotica shuffle that plays for a couple bars, which then gives way to a laidback quasi-digital reggae beat.
A distorted bass synth matches the bass drum in a 4/4 pulse as a slow-motion rhythm unfolds beneath, punctuated by periodic hand claps marking the half-time beat. Gentle, cheerful organs hold down the verses while Jones offers up the first verse, and then the chorus hits:
Earned a rest,
I know you worked all day
And everybody needs a holiday.
I'll stand guard,
And keep the wolves at bay.
Watch the fire,
While you dream away.
During which Mick is joined by the rest of the group — and a return of the sampled whistling — for what is surely one of the band's great gang chants, in this context getting into a real sea shanty vibe. Jones strangles his guitar into wonderfully strange shapes that recall sliding Hawaiian slack key guitar while the occasional melodica trills on the horizon. Definite Club Paradise vibes in evidence throughout.
Every so often, the tune seems to break almost subconsciously into dancehall double-time on the back of pepperseed snares that shift the focus from the half-time hand claps to the bass drum/distorted bass axis of the song. Jones guitar ultimately works its way to the sixties-inflected shades of psychedelia essayed earlier on the record (which makes this song something a laidback riposte to side one's Rewind).
I just want to get away... for good!
Mick's A Hippie Burning
The album's longest interlude by some distance, this is more a sound collage in the vein of Revolution 9 than anything else. Starting with a snippet of Bernard Cribbins' The Hole In The Ground before dropping into another one of these convulsing drum machine rhythms — this time on the electrofunk tip — it's loathe to stay in one place for very long. Which brings to mind not only big beat's perversely omnivorous sampladelia, but also latterly the The Avalanches' oeuvre.
The most extended port of call is a folk guitar mid-section that backs a spoken word sample before dropping a comedic sing-song on beat, but even that quickly fades into a bit of sixties rock (which then disintegrates into reversed crooning!). The whole thing concludes on another great slice of sequencer rock, riding a descending bassline and digital percussion loop into the sunset before being rudely interrupted by...
In which acid house paranoia enters full force with the dread vibes of Joey Beltram and Frankie Bones. Over Megatop's heaviest beat, Don Letts takes the mic to set the scene for another wild night out in raveland:
Park Lane Green, it's Saturday night.
West End Central, flashing lights.
We've come to dance the night away
UV, dry ice and DJ.
The stomping 4/4 beat is held down by a dread bassline punctuated by the occasional orchestra hit/rave stab, before jumping off into the sparkling chorus:
Speaker pump that devil sound.
Everybody's getting down.
Moonwalk over to the gents.
Exit Zombie money spent.
Then a quote from Strawberry Fields Forever (Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to...") by Letts slips into the mix as a looped sample of the Ooh, ah, ooh ooh ah! vocals from B.A.D.'s first hit The Bottom Line plays out in the background. It's at this point that these relentless bleeps start phasing in and out of the mix as the chorus repeats once again. The second verse is no less evocative:
Turnstile toilets, I joined the queue.
Drinks at the bar, drugs in the loo.
I entered Jekyll, came out Hyde.
Mister Chevignon's inside.
Which is rather appropriately accompanied by a maniacal cackling and yet more guitar psychedelia from Mick Jones. The chorus repeats once again, before Letts sneaks another quote — this time from Prince's I Wish U Heaven — into the mix.
Bouncers, bimbos, lager louts.
Zombie dancefloor bugging out.
Black outside, the night is still.
Smiley moves in for the kill...
Which of course references the unofficial mascot of acid house culture in the UK:
Cops and dogs in transit vans.
At 4 o'clock we raid clubland.
T for Tango through the door.
First us two and then you four.
Rather brilliantly, a police whistle blows twice just after the Cops and dogs in transit vans. line! We get another round of the first verse (scrambled this time), chorus and Strawberry Fields quotation (this time from Jones) before the song goes completely instrumental. Reversed, distorted vocals enter the mix and then everything else cuts out for a moment before coming back with a vengeance: the engineer starts turning the knobs on the bleep sequence and a squelching 303 rises from within the tune. The whole thing perfectly captures the rushing sensation of music hounding you while you're tripping out on the dancefloor.
While we're on the subject of House Attack and Megatop at its most acid, it's as good a time as any to note the two b-sides to Contact and James Brown: In Full Effect and If I Were John Carpenter, respectively. Both of which are basically acid house instrumentals. In Full Effect — with its loping bassline (seemingly built on House Arrest's foundation), diva/hip house vocal snatches and cycling percussion loops — brings to mind Bang The Party, while If I Were John Carpenter rides a rapid-fire bassline and occasional string section in such a way that recalls The KLF. Samples from the LP are scattered throughout the tune in a different context, along with the requisite film samples. Significantly, both songs sample guru/new age/meditation tapes in the same way that a thousand trance producers would in the next decade.
Now back to Megatop proper: House Arrest. When we checked out, we were still tripping out on the dancefloor as the tune rushed to its conclusion. Suddenly, everything but the bassline cuts out and we're left with these spiraling rave sonix that trade verses with a wordless vocal loop. The beat drops back in and then out again, looping again and again, before the wave crashes into...
The Green Lady
Suddenly, we're in The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow Is Born but this time with a crashing electro beat laid out beneath. Shimmering sonix twinkle on the horizon and a crystalline synth tone carries the melody, while synthetic slap bass integrates itself into the beat. This is Megatop's unabashed britpop masterpiece, with a melody that grabs your ear from the word go and never lets up.
I've always thought that this should have been a single. Next to Contact, it's my favorite thing here. In fact, I envision the trio Contact, Baby, Don't Apologize and The Green Lady setting up the perfect sequence of singles from the album: one for the heads, one for the clubs and one for the radio. I have no doubt that The Green Lady would have been a hit on the order of V. Thirteen and Other 99, taking its place on the Planet BAD compilation alongside Contact in the all-star draft pick.
Unexpectedly, London Bridge starts with a spasmodic percussion loop — lasting about thirty seconds — that wouldn't sound out of place on Warp or Mille Plateaux about a decade later. It gradually fades into an ethereal operatic vocal and old-time soundtrack fragment (doing nothing to dissuade the Warp comparisons!) before the song proper commences.
It's another Paisley Park-tinged excursion, with Jones indulging in a bit London love (in fact, it's something of a laidback answer to side one's Union, Jack, bringing it all back home again). Like The Green Lady, it has some rather pretty guitar work from Mick Jones. Stately string samples carry the beat for a chorus where the subdued pop melody really takes flight:
London Bridge is falling down.
They're taking bids from all around
(Give me dollars I don't want pounds).
London Bridge is falling down,
But I still love this town
From the Tower to the Underground.
After coasting on a cool breeze for just over three minutes, the song crumbles into old-time soundtrack strings once again.
Shades of another soundtrack open Stalag 123, namely those of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape, which mix into an jazzed-out organ progression colored by gentle synth brass. The whole thing screams languid, as Mick Jones offers the opening lines:
I'm fixing on a jail break,
But the door is open wide.
Stuck in Stalag 123,
And there ain't no one to bribe.
Taking the Paisley Park-inflected dance pop aspect of Megatop to its logical conclusion, a rolling machine rhythm enters the fray to carry the song while a pulsing bassline bounces casually across its sleek surface. Alongside Everybody Needs A Holiday, this is clearly the most laidback material on the album. It's certainly the smoothest (no contest!) and provides the perfect leisurely conclusion to Megatop Phoenix:
I've got the studio blues and some other bad news.
(The basements been swamped by a flood).
I've got the studio blues and it's ruined my shoes.
(My boogie's all covered in mud).
With dialogue samples from The Great Escape scattered throughout, the song seems like it could stretch on dreamily into perpetuity. And yet, at three minutes, eleven seconds it cuts out abruptly...
The coda End interrupts Stalag 123 with an incongruous bit of bluesy guitar heroics from Mick Jones. A sad, muffled bit of piano creeps in as a woman's voice bids Goodbye. Suddenly, it seems, the trip is over.
The Nineties Are Gonna Make The Sixties Look Like The Fifties
Megatop Phoenix turned out to be the last full-length album by the original lineup of Big Audio Dynamite. The group lasted for one more single, the excellent Free (a sister record of sorts to Contact). It was recorded for the movie Flashback (starring Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland), which makes the connection between the two summers of love explicit.
At the dawn of nineties, a decade during which the eighties innovations of dance music, hip hop and alternative rock would reign supreme, it struck a note of precarious optimism with a memorable line from faded sixties activist Huey Walker (played by Dennis Hopper) that was sampled prominently by the band:
Once we get out of the eighties,
The nineties are gonna make the sixties look like the fifties.
The Big Audio Dynamite II lineup followed swiftly in its wake with further escapades into indie dance in the form of the albums Kool-Aid and The Globe (along with the attendant singles). Further records like Higher Power and F-Punk followed different incarnations of the band through the decade, culminating in the excellent — but alas, unreleased — Entering A New Ride22 in that storied year, 1997.
Tracks like the Kraftwerk-inflected Kool-Aid and The Globe's proto-dusted beats were first-rate dancefloor burners, while Rush conquered up the pop charts23 with yet another of Mick's britpop gems. From the junglist bass of dread house groove I Don't Know all the way over to the honest-to-goodness drum 'n bass of 1995's It's A Jungle Out There, the group kept its finger to the pulse of dance music, turning in idiosyncratic fusions like Melancholy Maybe's 4/4 garage pulse and the big beat fury of Sunday Best.24
Eventually — around the turn of the century — the group morphed into The Big Audio Dynamite Soundsystem, touring the UK with a rotating crew of DJs, MCs and musicians. A mainstay at festivals and nightclubs alike, the crew pressed on faithfully through the intervening years. Mick Jones dabbled in various projects throughout the 21st century, including Carbon/Silicon, production of the first two Libertines albums and time spent with the Gorillaz (including their performance at Coachella). Then, in 2011, the unthinkable happened: the original B.A.D. lineup re-formed.
Twenty-one years after their parting shot — an era during which dance, rap and indie have only grown in stature and all-encompassing grip on pop culture — Mick Jones, Don Letts, Leo Williams, Greg Roberts and Dan Donovan emerged — as if from their DeLorean in the Medicine Show music video — in the 21st century. It would seem that everything's changed, but then it's always been the same song playing anyway (you've just got to know the tune). With the five minds that brought us the all-conquering brilliance of Megatop Phoenix back together in the same outfit, touring once again and doing their funky thang, perhaps the gang have a couple more tricks up their sleeve after all... only time will tell!
There are of course, many other records in this story: The Saints' (I'm) Stranded, Wire's Pink Flag, along with the O.G. New York stuff like The Dead Boys' Young Loud And Snotty, The Dictators' Go Girl Crazy!, The HeartbreakersL.A.M.F. all the way back to The Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls (Jon Savage's ground zero apparent for punk in England's Dreaming). There's an ocean of stuff out there, to be sure, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Named for the Balearic islands off the south-east coast of Spain (including Majorca, Formentera, Minorca and Ibiza), which featured sensational nightclubs soundtracked by all manner of music — spanning myriad genres and points of origin — mixed together into an electrifying non-stop stream of rhythm. British DJs on holiday in Ibiza brought this open-minded anything goes spirit back with them to the UK. If the record had a killer groove, they'd play it, regardless of where it came from. Records as disparate as Fleetwood Mac's Big Love, Richie Havens' Going Back To My Roots and The Residents' Kaw Liga were all Balearic staples.
Significantly, this is exactly the sort of visual one could expect at a contemporary party. The rave scene ascended just as computer graphics were maturing into a form that would also turn out to have a profound impact on pop culture. They developed alongside one another, often informing each other in the process. Indeed, from the stark cyberpunk computer graphics Buggy G. Riphead produced for Jumpin' & Pumpin' at the turn of the decade to the colorful 3d renderings of films like Lawnmower Man, Warp's Artificial Intelligence series and Studio !K7's X-Mix videos (not to mention countless rave fliers and projection visuals) throughout the nineties, extending late into the decade with the dystopian visions of darkside jungle (see the sleeve for No U-Turn's Torque compilation) and The Matrix, computer graphics and electronic music have been steadfast fellow travelers throughout their long and winding existence.
Who Beats, a b-side from the Contact, even features that same loop from I Can't Explain bolstered by heavier breakbeats and a stuttering sample of Mick Jones singing contact. The effect is tres big beat '96/'97!
Two years ago, when Kayli was staying at the Parallax Room, I put together this little mix in the spirit of the moment. Summer was dawning, the heat was rising and the palms was swaying, so the time seemed right for a little Compass Point action. Parallax Pier was born, and it became the seventh Cheap Hotel release, seeming as it did to flow naturally from The Clash At The Edge Of Forever compilation.1
I was all set to upload this mix way back in December but there seemed to be something wrong with the idea of putting such sunny music out there in the dead of winter! This is summertime music, pure and simple, post-disco music with gulf stream tendencies (linking New York to the Caribbean and the Black Ark to the Paradise Garage). This is music born from the place where the ocean meets the shore, hence the compilation's central theme.
Over the last decade or so, there's been lots of ink spilled on the yacht phenomenon — put crudely, canyon folk and jazz artists getting down with a light disco groove in the mid-seventies onward (see Crosby, Stills & Nash's Dark Star, Pablo Cruise's Love Will Find A Way, Steely Dan's Hey Nineteen, etc.). There's even a yacht cover band making the rounds locally! Of course there's loads of great music that's been mined from this seam, but the sound I'm discussing at the moment is a very different phenomenon.
If yacht is muted pastel shades, sports jackets and boat shoes (think Carly Simon at Martha's Vineyard), this music is all vibrant colors, Hawaiian shirts and worn sneakers (inna Club Paradise stylee). This is the sound of post punk new wave going to the beach, the vibes and production techniques of Jamaican dub and Afrobeat creeping their way into the pop charts, the post-disco wave breaking on the shore and pulling back into the sunset to reveal all manner of ocean life dancing in the sand.
This compilation captures this very select strain of tropical boogie that just so happens to encompass some of the greatest music of its era. Its spiritual home was Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas and on the dancefloor at the Paradise Garage, and its spectre lived on in the output of left field house labels like Nu Groove, Warriors Dance and Jumpin' & Pumpin'.
Slye and I have mixed the original compilation into a non-stop excursion through the coastal vibrations of the Parallax Pier.2 Apologies for a few of the more ramshackle transitions... please bear in mind that the original compilation's sequencing was planned without the mix in mind! Simply click the play button below to listen...
... and we're off!
Burning SensationsBelly Of The WhaleCapitol
Pushing off with this slab of calypso-inflected new wave from LA, we find that the Parallax Pier is not a million miles removed from Club Paradise. Discovered this only recently thanks to a Pops-initiated endeavor in which we were scouring the 91xTop 91 songs by year, looking for forgotten gems that he'd dug back in the day. At first you think it's just another zany new wave trifle but then that gorgeous climax hits you like a wave crashing on the shore. Apparently lead singer Tim McGovern re-recorded the song very recently, which is available for download...
Eddy GrantElectric AvenueICE
Surely everyone knows Eddy Grant's electro-tinged post-disco evergreen? Gloriously warped sonix prevail and yet that beat is locked down inna grid Devo-stylee. I've long had a fascination with Grant and his whole ICE setup, the Coach House Rhythm Section, Time Warp and so on. His records predict the spirit of Compass Point more explicitly than just about anything else I can think of (with certain exceptions to follow!).
The original plan was to include Walking On Sunshine — the opening track to his 1978 album of the same name (which also features the excellent Living On The Frontline/The Frontline Symphony suite) — instead, but ultimately figured that Electric Avenue's production was a tighter fit with the rest of the music here. Still, it's something to consider for the inevitable second volume...
Cloud OneFlying HighHeavenly Star
Crisp, immaculately arranged electronic post-disco action from the great Patrick Adams and Peter Brown. Five years on from Atmosphere Strut, this takes that record's Gaussian-blurred psychedelia into the eighties with those same trademark synths writhing against an electroid bassline and geometric percussion patterns while an uncredited vocalist intones the title over and over and over. I've always wanted a copy of Don't Let This Rainbow Pass Me By — the midpoint between both records — but have yet to come across it in the field.
I'm often intrigued by Brown's Heavenly Star imprint, which dealt not only in excellent post-disco boogie but also the sounds of early hip hop. Catching my eye as I was thumbing through Freddy Fresh's The Rap Records some time ago, I only recently noticed that the label put out a remix 12" of Spoonie Gee's Spoonin' Rap,3 my absolute favorite first-wave seventies rap record.
The PoliceVoices Inside My HeadA&M
Big chant! Sting echoes the track's title (and not much more) over his own twisting bassline while Andy Sumners cloaks everything in chiming guitars, Stewart Copeland holding everything down with his inimitable presence behind the drum kit. This was big on dancefloors of the era (along with the Common Sense cover version), indeed its gulf stream vibes seem to epitomize the sort of freewheeling exotic moods and grooves you might find at the Paradise Garage at the time. The track's durable rhythm managed to weave itself into the very fabric of post-disco music in the ensuing years, from hip hop (Chill Rob G) to house (KC Flightt) and even r&b (702 featuring Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott).
Grace JonesPull Up To The BumperIsland
The Compass Point All Stars are all over Grace Jones' Island trilogy. This peerlessly engineered rubberband post-punk disco is from Nightclubbing, the second record in the trilogy and a documented Parallax favorite. I've gone on at great length about the Compass Point All Stars before — what I really ought to do is gather all of this content into a feature — but suffice it to say that they are the The Funk Brothers of this whole sound (that is, the key element in this story).
Only recently discovered the ultra-vibey music video,4 featuring a be-suited Jones doing her thing as Blade Runner-esque cityscapes cycle past in the background. Needless to say, Ms. Jones is a thoroughly fascinating character. I've been looking forward to reading her recently-published autobiography, I'll Never Write My Memoirs, as soon as I get my hands on it.
MadonnaLa Isla BonitaSire
Along with the Jellybean Benitez-helmed Holiday and Into The Groove, my favorite Madonna tune. Maybe the first hint of her later direction, heralded by the conceptual Like A Prayer LP, which marked her out as a permanent institution in the pop marketplace. The production maybe not quite as fabulous as its surroundings here, it's nevertheless a sumptuous, wistful reverie.
Nu ShoozI Can't WaitAtlantic
Killer electro pop. I remember loving this one at the time — it dropped not long before my second trip to Puerto Rico as a kid — and I'll forever associate it with what was a very special time in my life. Nu Shooz were a husband/wife duo from Portland, Oregon. Nevertheless, they managed to capture perfectly the hot fun in the summertime atmosphere: palm trees swaying in the breeze as seagulls circle above, swimming pool reflections dancing off every surface (appropriately, the album is titled Poolside) as the sun settles on the horizon.
Big Audio DynamiteA PartyColumbia
More dawn of sampling bizzness from Mick Jones and co. Curiously in thrall to the nascent digital dancehall. I've always loved the drum sound throughout this album, but especially in both the electroid Sudden Impact! and this track, which are from it's under-explored second side (all the hits are from the first). Especially cool how Jones chants the lyrics for the first 3/4 of the song's running time before Don Letts drops in to reiterate the selfsame story in rapid-fire ragga chat, squeezing it all into the last fourth before Leo Williams emerges with the baritone response.
Note the presence of Paul "Groucho" Smykle behind the boards, in the midst of his excellent eighties run engineering everything from reggae slates like Gregory Isaacs' Night Nurse (Discomix) and Derrick Harriott's Dub Whip to the post punk disco three-way of Jah Wobble/The Edge/Holger Czukay's Snake Charmer 12", a killer remix of Ja Funmi by juju icon King Sunny Adé and Wally Badarou's sterling mid-eighties work.
Wally BadarouChief Inspector4th & Broadway
Case in point this sublime bit of low key, rolling synth-boogie. Just casually brilliant post-disco magic brought to you by Compass Point's key(board) man, taken from his excellent Echoes LP (which also features Mambo, the basis for Massive Attack's Daydreaming. The 12" version — which I reckon is one of the key records of the decade — is even better (but runs just a bit too long for the purposes of this compilation), featuring Groucho himself behind the boards yet again.
More Compass Point magic from post-disco chanteuse Gwen Guthrie, this EP of the same name came out on Garage Records (Larry Levan's label associated with the Paradise Garage) alongside N.Y.C. Peech Boys and the Black Mamba record. Levan stretches out five of Guthrie's tracks and dubs them to abstraction, Gwen's voice resplendent throughout, inhabiting her environment like a queen in a crystal palace. One of the great kiss-off tracks, I always love it when Gwen sings You blew it, you blew it, you blew it! just before the chorus hits.
Tom Tom ClubUnder The BoardwalkIsland
With Tina on holiday from the Talking Heads, the Weymouth sisters — with Chris Frantz in tow — get down at Compass Point with the All Stars and turn out one of the great girl group records of the era5 (the self-titled debut). This single, a cover of The Drifters' perennial favorite, followed hot on its heels and wrought the same magic from all parties involved.
Billy IdolCongo ManChrysalis
Offbeat coda to the original version of Billy Idol's solo debut, which was replaced by Generation X's Dancing With Myself for the US release. Maybe not as earth-shattering as that hit new wave record, but with Idol chanting nonsense over a dubbed-out conga rhythm for about a minute — bringing to mind Iggy Pop's awesome Jungle Man — it's certainly a strange bit of something special.
The English BeatAckee 1 2 3Go-Feet
The group's debut, I Just Can't Stop It, was so exceedingly brilliant that their follow up albums couldn't help but pale in comparison. This track, however — from their swan song Special Beat Service — is the equal of anything on the debut, seemingly drawing from soca, highlife and South African jive to work up an utterly infectious slice of new wave dance pop. A great song to dance to.
Orchestra MakassyMambo BadoVirgin
Sparkling soukous from Tanzania. From their excellent Agwaya LP, which was among the first African records that I ever owned. The band shifts and turns like clockwork over a wonderful 4/4 pulse, liquid bass propelling from within and driving the whole thing relentlessly forward. Apparently this track also had a 12" release at the time. Band leader Remmy Ongala went on to have a solo career later in the decade, hooking up with Real World for a couple albums.
Haircut One HundredFavourite Shirts Boy Meets GirlArista
This was another one that came to light in the Pops-helmed excavation of 91x's old yearly charts. I'd always heard the name and assumed they were synth pop in the vein of Heaven 17, rather than the glittering indie-pop contemporaries of Aztec Camera and Orange Juice that they turned out to be. I djed and my old room mate's wedding a few years back and when my set was over I threw this album on and everyone jumped into the hotel pool, still dressed to the nines. It's A Wonderful Life at The Pearl!
Third WorldNow That We Found LoveIsland
Incredibly lush and verdant disco-inflected reggae. Like much of Eddy Grant's seventies output, this sounds just preposterously, stupidly ahead of its time. If you played this for me in the late-nineties, I would have guessed it had come out something like five years earlier in the decade. Of course, it's from 1978. A shimmering reggae cover version of The O'Jays' standard, stretched out to nearly eight minutes, its pulsing 4/4 beat and liquid organ-tinged groove is effortlessly propulsive.
CrashersFlight To Jamaica Cool RuningsCapo Disco
Bringing it all back home is Crashers' island-tinged post-disco chestnut Flight To Jamaica (Cool Runings). Like nearly everything else here, that central groove is just exquisite, rolling along at a lazy mid-tempo as the uncredited vocalists moonwalk across its surface with their soaring refrain. Those sun-glazed ARP strings and shimmering melodica stylings are just the icing on the cake. Features the immortal line, I'm so cool, I'm about to... freeze! Which, come to think of it, just about sums up this whole affair to a T...
Parallax Pier: The Records
With all apologies to the following artists that were ultimately excluded, not due to quality but CD running time constraints and the very particular vibe that happened to coalesce around this selection: Thomas Leer, Dinosaur L, Billy Ocean, Sheila E., Rockers Revenge, Affinity, Ian Dury, Talking Heads, Liquid Liquid, FSOL, Sam Mangwana, Happy Mondays, King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Open House, Joe Gibbs, Men At Work, Bobby Konders, Ashford & Simpson, Bang The Party, Lola, The Clash, Central Line, No Smoke & The Mali Singers, Carlton, Arthur Russell, Marianne Faithfull, Robert Palmer, Lizzy Mercier Descloux and The Teardrop Explodes. Some of which will likely be making an appearance when the inevitable Volume Two rolls around...
No mean feat, considering the likes of the Bangles, the Go-Go's, Klymaxx, The Pointer Sisters, Bananarama, the Mary Jane Girls, Vanity 6, ESG and The Slits were all plying their trade around the same time.
Picking up from last time (nearly a year ago!), here's another Garden Grooves session coming at your from the Heights. This outing was strictly in the roots 'n future neighborhood, where dub, house and trip hop all shuffle in the shadows, matching the mood as we cultivated the fern gardens in the shady glen of The Southwest Terrace. Spanning a weekend of work, here's the selection as it played out:
Jumping off into our horticultural escapades with Rodriguez's debut, an unqualified masterpiece. Peerless folk coming from Detroit, masterfully produced and arranged by Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, Rodriguez himself is never less than compelling. One of those records packed with potential hit singles (Hate Street Dialogue, Sugar Man, Jane S. Piddy, etc.) that the label nonetheless fumbled, not knowing how to market. Such a shame!
Phenomenally lush chamber jazz on the BYG/Actuel imprint, rendered doubly fascinating in the context of that label's illustrious free jazz pedigree. I reckon this even tops New Africa, Moncur's free outing of the previous year on the same label. Utterly unique, this is one of my key Jazz Mosaic records. It always makes me think of walking around Balboa Park in the late afternoon, the Timkin, the Botanical Gardens, etc.
Supreme Latin funk masterminded by the late, great Eddie Palmieri and his brother Charlie. I've gone on record about Palmieri before, suffice it to say I think he's one of the great visionaries of salsa music, stretching it out in the same way Miles did jazz around the same time. You might call this dread, moody funk tile something of a sister record to The World Is A Ghetto. Carmello requested this and the next one when he rolled up for some digging time.
Awesome discomix version of the Dazz Band's immortal Let It Whip, a key Blacklight Affair track that also gets regular play on Magic 92.5. The Dub Whip version on the flipside is utterly essential, drenching the track in reverb as every aspect trails off into deep space.
Which takes us into Señor Konders rootsical deep house vibes. This indispensable compilation (assembled by none other than Frankie Bones) was my introduction to the man's work after hearing the immortal Let There Be House in the mix. This pre-dates the (also excellent) A Lost Era In NYC 1987-1992 compilation on International Deejay Gigolo by a good seven years; I dig the focus on the early Massive Sounds sides during the latter half of this compilation, prefiguring as they do Konders' latter ragga-infused direction while remaining firmly grounded in New York house.
The lone LP to result from Smith & Mighty's signing with FFRR, an ill-fated deal that promised to deliver a flurry of records before becoming bogged down in label politics. Paired with the Steppers Delight EP, it makes as excellent case for the duo's status as the godfathers of Bristol blues. Carlton himself is a revelation. It's a shame he didn't get to do more vocal work as the decade progressed... one could see him linking up with a UK garage crew and doing serious damage later in the decade.
Roots reggae stalwart and frequent Massive Attack collaborator Horace Andy's LP on Massive's Melankolic setup. Just a great modern reggae record, with tracks like After All and Juggling offering up a shimmering take on roots music. Still, there's a definite modernist tilt to songs like the Johnny Too Bad cover and the awesome Doldrums (produced by 3D). A careening ragga track riding a beatbox rhythm, it's one of those tracks that remain impossible to date: it could have come out in 1989, 1999, 2009 or even two years from now.
Neuromancer post-disco blues. Makes an excellent case for giving supermodels record contracts. Jones cut through the decade like a bejeweled dagger, unfurling a swathe of superb records like Warm Leatherette, Slave To The Rhythm and this record, a Parallax favorite. I've gone on about this one many times before (and many times to come, no doubt), but today I'd like to single out I've Done It Again for praise, a lazy windswept chanson, gently swaying like Luquillo palms at sunset.
Excellent soukous from The Congo. There's not a great deal written about this record, although it does make Muzikifan's illustrious African Top 50.1 The title track is simply exquisite, those lilting guitars do their thing over a pulsing 4/4 beat as an ebullient Mangwana dances atop the whole thing like Fred Astaire. One of my favorite sleeves as well, evocative as it is of a particular time and place.
Peak-era Thomas Leer, on the heels of his 4 Movements EP and basking in the same gulf stream vibes. Leer's bedroom sonics somehow manage to make the whole thing sound anachronistic by about fifteen years — pre-dating the likes of Jimi Tenor and Uwe Schmidt — and betraying unlikely similarities with prime Compass Point material like Wally Badarou's Chief Inspector.
This was a huge record for me at the time. Indeed 2006 (over ten years ago!) was the last time I remember feeling overwhelmed by a surplus of great records (it's been diminishing returns since!). Cheikh Lô's third album finds him truly mastering his writing, with a rich, full bodied production (think Ali Farka Touré). World Circuit were tearing it up at this point, with the aforementioned Touré, Oumou Sangare and Orchestra Baobab releases all surfacing within months of each other. The awesome Kelle Magni Encore is an unacknowledged Balearic chestnut, just waiting for someone to pick up on it in the club. I remember hoping for a 12" release at the time.
Quintessential Warriors Dance magic, this mutant house tile — like Bang The Party's Back To Prison — is utterly essential listening. Unlike the BTP record, this one never saw release on CD. Don't believe people who tell you there aren't great house albums! This is the next step down the road from Bobby Konders' Massai Women, creeping further yet into fourth world territory and all the better for it.
I've always been a huge Bandulu fan. This was the first thing of theirs I scooped up back in the day (oddly enough, it was the easiest to find, despite Cornerstone being a new release at the time). This is a dubbed-out, Detroit-inflected high desert head trip unlike anything else I've heard. There's plenty of widescreen epics like Earth 6 and Invaders, but a song like Gravity Pull — with its clanking percussion and droning sonics — is a surreal atmospheric missive not entirely removed from Basic Channel/Chain Reaction. I've always adored the bassline in Messenger (a distant cousin to Carl Craig's Psyche/BFC output), and speaking of Craig, the man surfaces here with the Innerzone Mix of Better Nation is, a spiky slab of street-level techno on the 21st century b-boy tip.
Similarly, I've always adored Andrew Weatherall's output, especially from this point up to just before Two Lone Swordsmen went post punk. Weatherall was a huge fan of The Clash, and damn if he didn't create a body of work that approximated what Joe Strummer and co. might have sounded like if they'd caught the vibes at Shoom and descended deeper into electronics. A superb album, hovering at the nexus between dub, breakbeat and techno, where the spirits dwell.
The Revolver of the nineties. The culmination of everything the duo-turned-trio had been up to in their wilderness years, this is strictly rough cut bizzness. I liked the way Kevin Pearce invoked Sandinista! when discussing this album in A Cracked Jewel Case. It's a mess, but beautifully so. With vocal showcases like Drowning, Down In Rwanda and Higher Dub continuing the crew's tradition of first-rate vocal showcases, its the instrumentals like Yow He Koh, Maybe For Dub and Jungle Man Corner that manage to get to the heart of the matter and steal the show.
Awesome digidub compilation on the Nubian setup, which I know next to nothing about. Featuring mostly (but not just) Bristol artists, this features the mind-blowing Peter D. showcase Jah Pure & Clean, which I first heard on Smith & Mighty's fiery DJ-Kicks outing back in 1998. The liner notes rather helpfully have bios on the crews involved, along with label contacts and other background information.
The midpoint between the breakout proto-big beat of Into The Dragon and Beat Dis-era and the breathtaking hip hop blues of Clear. You hear very little about this record but trust me, you want to check it out. Like John Saul Kane's Depth Charge output, it splits the difference between big beat and trip hop while submerging the results in murky waters. Unlike Kane, Tim Simenon works with vocalists like Loretta Heywood and carves out a peerless raw-edged sound (this the same year as Blue Lines!). The Air You Breathe, with its spine-tingling Tell me you were never one of them sample, is quite simply sublime.
Post punk Jacob Miller cover version that predicts trip hop a whole year before Mark Stewart got around to it? Apocalyptic spaghetti western discomix showcase built around dialogue samples from Duck, You Sucker and Once Upon A Time In The West?? Cinematic fourth world dub breakdown straight out of William Gibson's Zion??? It's all here, baby.
Spiraling breakbeat magic on Leftfield's Hard Hands imprint. Bought on sight from the cheap bin (along with Anthony Shakir's Tracks For My Father, if memory serves) at the record store next to Club Elements back in the day, Snakes and I had no idea what was in store. Two sides of marathon wildstyle percussion freakouts, loping basslines and not much else — like Niagara getting down with an AKAI — it turns out. Moog In and Moog Out.
People can get pretty sniffy about this duo, and I've never understood it. This cinematic club music splits the difference between house and trip hop, the results shot through with both dub and techno vibes throughout. Songs like Afro-Left, Space Shanty and Black Flute sound like the lush, organic flipside to Bandulu's electronic dub equations, picking up the same thread laid out by Bobby Konders and Warriors Dance. Who could argue with gentle moments like the widescreen ambient of Melt and Original's downbeat splendor. Perhaps people disliked the Lydon guest spot, Open Up? Snobs! That track is phenomenal. At any rate, even the most hardened purist couldn't knock the wild breakbeat moves of Storm 3000.
Awesome dub platter. I always think of this as the sister record to King Tubby's Dub From The Roots. Houses the epochal dub version of Jacob Miller's Baby I Love You So — in the form of the title track — which should be your first port of call if you've never heard a dub track.
Bonkers dubbed-out roots reggae from the great Keith Hudson, whose sound isn't remotely like anyone else's. This LP quite simply is the sound of the jungle: lush, all-conquering vegetation creeping over everything in sight, from roads and buildings to stone heads and pyramids. There's also a sweet, lovers rock aspect to the record that seems to phase in and out of view before Hunting, Stabiliser and My Nocturne roll back in from the darkness.
And with twilight descending, that the next phase of the project was completed...
Prehistoric plant life in full effect: the verdant architecture of a tree fern, nestled in The Southwest Terrace of the Parallax Gardens.
I recall wandering the vast corridors on an indoor mall only to find a record shop nestled in one of its murky corners. Two separate instances swell from the ocean of memory to overlap: the first was some time ago in the tropics of Camuy on the north side of Puerto Rico, while the second came more recently in the sun-baked heat of Palm Desert.
12" disco dubs in the mall's casual spaces, Jark Prongo records and Dimitri From Paris way back when and Ronnie Laws and Bowie's David Live nestled in the stacks. It brings to mind summer of '98 up in the Bay Area, nights at Mushroom Jazz and long afternoons on the pier. Beginnings at an errant house party, Chicago and The BucketheadsStreet sounds swirling though my mind — with the steaming percussion of Fela Kuti in the mix.
Cut adrift in the dog days after disco had died, in retrospect a golden age when the dancefloor was suffused with the deep dubbed-out flavor of island sounds. It turned out that you couldn't kill it after all, no matter how hard you tried, it lived on in the electroid boogie of D-Train's You're The One For Me and the tropical slow-burning post-disco mirage that had begun to take shape.
Wild shapes permeated Larry Levan's lush sonics at The Paradise Garage, the gulf stream drift of Eddy Grant and Grace Jones setting the stage, with Compass Point and the All Stars fleshing it out into four dimensions. The masterful fourth world Juju Music of King Sunny Adé & His African Beats and Tony Allen's Afrobeat 2000 excursion rubbing shoulders with Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts launched it all into the outer rim.
Wally Badarou's shimmering synths flow through it all at low tide, from Echoes in 1985 through Jamie Principle and Larry Heard's early sides on into Bobby Konders' House Rhythms and beyond — the Nu Groove flavor (Here Comes That Sound Again). Scores of moody 12" records blur the lines between deep house, downbeat hip hop, rave and dub reggae, while a secluded path drops out into Bristol, stretching from Carlton to Massive Attack and a whole new decade on the rise.
The low-slung flavor of The Brothers Palmieri and Harlem River Drive flows just below the surface all along, and the sampladelia laid out by Marley Marl, Prince Paul and The Dust Brothers brings it back into the foreground, mirroring those earlier incursions of low-slung, sun-baked riddims in the era of the breakbeat.
Countless groups and their records heed the call, filling out the shoes of Nuggets for the nineties. Perhaps the likes of B.A.D. and Neneh Cherry were the bridge between the twin poles, along with myriad other elements thrown into the blend (as is so often the case). Just check The Globe, Kool-Aid and In My Dreams right alongside Paul's Boutique for a crash course in dusted breakbeat architecture, while Neneh was drawing up her own blueprint for the future with tunes like Buffalo Stance, Buddy X and Trout (featuring one Michael Stipe; see also R.E.M.'s Monster, attn. I Don't Sleep, I Dream).
At any rate it's been there all the time, surfing below the surface like the Vertigo Steel out in Lakeside, representing all the discos that might have been. Multi-colored lights flash against mahogany brown, mirrorball spins in slow-motion to the throbbing pulse of Moroder's tronik disco. The skeletal strains of Morgan Geist's Moves EP and the psychedelic filter disco of Kenny Dixon Jr.'s Silentintroduction bridge the gulf of twenty-odd years.
Meanwhile Back At Home, the raw Chicago sonix of Steve Poindexter and DJ Skull get down and dirty with a hard-edged magic all their own. Old Reese records like The Sound and Just Want Another Chance lay the bedrock, Tronik House's Smooth Groove and E-Dancer's The Human Bond too, while Todd Terry's blinding 12" slabs of noise are never far from the turntables.
On the road again in the space between dances, rolling low to the pavement in a little brown DodgeColt and bumping the sounds of Beck's Deadweight, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator and The Egyptian Lover's My Beat Goes Boom808 beats banging through the vehicle walls down into the steaming asphalt of Mission Gorge Rd. in the blazing heat. Modern Funk Beats soundclash featuring the blurred edges of If Mojo Was A.M. and Carl Craig's skewed take on hip hop. People Make The World Go Round. Nothing wrong with a little history in those grooves, passed down through the years and picking up 'nuff flavor along the way.
Between the proto-hip hop beats of The Meters and Chic's lush disco grooves lies a galaxy of sound; betwixt Gwen Guthrie's neon-spangled shapes and the dusted beats of Cypress Hill lies a lifetime. The blunted corners of those Soul Machine EPs seem to split the difference between the two, spooling out their various strands into a fatback beat before unfurling back again, out into the Möbius of time... there's more to come when they inevitably return.
It's 4/5. '45. Little slabs of sunlight cut on seven inches of wax. From rock 'n roll to roots reggae and post punk to soul, it was the great equalizer: the domain where the upstart musician could go toe to to with the stars. Of course some of the biggest names were masters of the form — look no further than The Beatles' and The Stones' killer run of singles through the sixties for just one example — tucking away stellar tracks on the flip that wouldn't show up anywhere else for years.
Figures like The International Submarine Band and The Del-Vetts would come out of nowhere with records like Sum Up Broke and Last Time Around and drop heat of their own. The Standells' Dirty Water — backed by the killer raga-rock of Rari — is one such key example, continuing the spirit of Chuck Berry and Link Wray's early sides. Although it would increasingly lean on the LP format in years to come, rock 'n roll was born on the 7" single.
If there was one genre that dominated the form, then surely it must have been reggae. From the Wailing Souls' Without You to Augustus Pablo's East Of The River Nile and Zap Pow's River Stone, there was a practically endless stream of brilliant 7" singles flowing from Jamaica for decades on end.
The other obvious contender is the soul/funk continuum, boasting James Brown's run of People Records (not to mention his own records!) and Sly & The Family Stone's genre-defining sides rubbing shoulders with The Beginning Of The End's Funky Nassau and Dark Skin Woman by Sir Mack Rice. This isn't even taking into account the long and winding back catalogs of Stax, Motown and Philadelphia International.
Post punk had it's own horde of stone tablets like the five-pronged attack of electronic records coming from the likes of The Human League, Throbbing Gristle, Thomas Leer, The Normal and Cabaret Voltaire. The flipside was twisted punk funk records like The Pop Group's She Is Beyond Good And Evil, PIL's Public Image and the Minutemen's Paranoid Time (indeed, this the era that you'd get loads of 7" records that were essentially micro-LPs, records like Minor Threat and the Meat Puppets' In A Car).
In the nineties you had things like Beck's Deadweight come out on 7" (and why couldn't White Gold have been the b-side to The Dandy Warhols' Get Off like it was on the CD?). There were loads of records that would have lent themselves to the format, even if they never did surface. Records like Roller Rinks & Chicks by Freddy Fresh, Scott Weiland's Jimmy Was A Stimulator, The Orb's 7" Edit of Toxygene... practically any of the dusted records of the era would have lent themselves to the form.
In the digital era, a lot of exclusively 7" music finally found its way onto other formats, via expanded reissues or compilations like the Nuggets box sets. Labels like Strut and Soul Jazz chronicled entire genres/scenes around the 7" single, breathing new life into the form. And there's still nothing quite like a good b-sides collection...